Tag Archives: MGM

Remembering Mary Carlisle, 1914-2018


This morning while checking in with mutual friends, I was sad to hear that Mary Carlisle, one of the last remaining stars of the 1930s, died today at the age of 104. She lived at the Motion Picture & Television Fund home in Woodland Hills, and to her very last days loved receiving guests of every stripe in her modest living room, decorated wall-to-wall with posters of her movies. I was lucky to be one of those guests 4 years ago, as I was just beginning work on my Marion Davies book. I met her for lunch at her home to interview her.

Mary was in a unique position to tell me about Marion Davies. Having begun her career in 1930 at MGM, Mary was frequently on the lot with Marion and Hearst, befriending both immediately. Soon, she was an inextricable part of the Hearst-Davies circle. Mary attended parties at Marion’s Beach House, struck up a quasi-romance with Hearst’s son David (at Hearst’s encouragement), and, most notably, ventured across Europe with the Hearst-Davies party in 1936. By the time I met her, Mary was the sole remaining person who knew Marion Davies while she was still working.

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Mary Carlisle (right) and Marion Davies sing together on the trip to Europe, 1936.

As I walked into her home and was introduced to Mary, I was struck by a presence that dominated the room. She was a small woman, but had a countenance about her that was larger than life. She warmed to me quickly, taking my arm in hers and sitting me down on the couch. She still walked very well, and spoke with the articulated, elegant diction of classic Hollywood. “Now, I’m 100 years old,” she told me in an authoritative voice, “but I’m not sick. I can shimmy…” (here she demonstrates a shimmy) “…and I can kick!” (she kicks her leg up in the air) She told me that she liked the sound of my voice, and her charm was palpable.

We sat down for lunch and continued talking about life. Mary asked me about my family and expressed sadness that I didn’t live with my parents. She was worried that I didn’t have a boyfriend and lived by myself, thinking that I must have been lonely. Quite the opposite, I assured her, I like living this way. She recounted that she always lived with her mother and encouraged me to spend more time with my family. It was a lovely conversation and it was a good hour before we got onto the subject of Marion Davies. When we did, she told me some wonderful stories.

Mary knew the truth about classic Hollywood and stood up for it. At one point, I said something that made her think my opinion was that Hearst didn’t love Marion. “Oh, that is asinine,” she exclaimed. “Saying that Mr. Hearst didn’t love Marion?” I quickly clarified my position and was back in her good graces, but I learned in that moment that one does not cross Mary Carlisle. She knew what she knew, and erroneous statements about her era were to be brutally obliterated. This firmness, I believe, is part of what it took to survive as a woman in classic Hollywood. Other long-lived women from the Golden Age of Hollywood–Olivia de Havilland and Maureen O’Hara, to name two–have demonstrated the same strength of character and what de Havilland calls “passion for accuracy.” It’s difficult to say whether their experiences in Hollywood fostered this quality or whether they were wired that way to begin with (probably a combination of the two), but it’s a trait that seems to be shared among female stars who live into their 90’s and 100’s.


After lunch, Mary showed me her scrapbooks. She had been in Grand Hotel in 1932, the same year she was selected as a WAMPAS Baby Star, and eventually starred in three movies with Bing Crosby–College Humor (1933), Double or Nothing (1937), and Doctor Rhythm (1938). She retired in 1943, having appeared in over 60 movies. In the 1950s and for many decades thereafter, Mary ran the Elizabeth Arden Salon in Beverly Hills. Talking about her time at the salon, her eyes brightened and she talked proudly about what she was able to do there. It was clear to me that she considered this one of her crowning achievements.

My time with Mary lasted about 3 hours, and before I left, Mary gave me this picture. I keep it among my treasured photos. In 104 long years, Mary lived several lives in one and impacted many people. I think of her often, and the fact that she’s no longer with us will take some getting used to. She will be dearly missed.



For the Love of Old Films: Bill and Home Sweet Country Home

This Memorial Day afternoon, I took a walk in Mountain View Cemetery in Oakland and on my way back along Piedmont Ave, I noticed to my dismay that the shop of my favorite antique dealer had closed. This was a shop that I used to frequent in the days before I worked 9-5, and I had developed a close rapport with the owner, a man named Bill. I wanted to tell his story here.

Bill (I never knew his last name) had owned Home Sweet Country Home for at least 2 decades. He was a 90+-year-old eccentric who smoked like a chimney, had about 5 teeth, and though I used to come in almost every day, he never remembered me from one day to the next.  He originally hailed from Texas, and was proud of it. In the 1940s, he had owned stock in Warner Bros, so he knew all the movie stars and had stories about everyone. Not all his stories were entirely reliable, but I loved listening to him and always came away with brilliant quotes. One of his stories had to do with Leo the Lion escaping MGM wearing dentures, and sitting at the front door of Sears to roar at customers. Another was about how he saw Charles Laughton mowing the lawn with an old lawnmower, and how he ran into Bette Davis on the street smoking a cigarette. When I mentioned Jennifer Jones and what a hard life she had, he memorably answered “Well, she was from Tulsa…”


The shop itself reflected Bill’s eccentricity. It always smelled like cigarette smoke. Books about Carole Lombard and Jane Fonda were interspersed with southern cooking manuals, presidential biographies, and board games from the 1950s. It was only open from 11 AM to 3 PM. Since he never remembered me, every day I would patiently introduce myself, who I was, what my favorite movies were, and relate some stories so that he would know that I was here to talk about the movies with him. We would frequently spend 3 or more hours chatting about movie trivia, movie songs, and exchanging tidbits about our favorite actors.

Bill didn’t know how to use the internet, so although I told him about Backlots, I’m sure he never visited. Home Sweet Country Home is nowhere to be found on Yelp or any major website, and I was usually his only customer for the day. Sometimes someone would wander in, look around, and then wander out. I never saw anyone else buy anything. I really went in just to talk to him, but I was always sure to buy something when I was in there. He usually had a few magazines, and that’s usually what I got. It makes me sad, but I doubt that many people notice that the store is now gone.

One of my favorite magazines, a 1941 Life Magazine with Gene Tierney on the cover, is from Home Sweet Country Home.

Though I don’t know for sure, my guess is that Bill is now gone, too. He was never in good health, but he kept his shop open anyway–in spite of his ill health, in spite of his lack of customers. He must have bought the building outright ages ago, as he was able to keep Home Sweet Country Home open through the meteoric rise of the Bay Area rental market. It was for the love of movies and antiques that he ran his shop, and I wanted to write this piece to toast to him and to everyone who dedicates themselves to the love of movies–when there are no customers, when there is nothing to gain–the “Bills” of the world persist out of sheer enthusiasm.

After every story, Bill used to brighten and tell me “I just love all those old films!” I was glad to be witness to it, and I will keep the memory of Bill and his shop in my mind always, as evidence of one person’s devotion to what he loves.



Readers, it has been an unusually busy month! I apologize profusely for my lack of posts over the past 2 weeks, but between various film-related projects and trying to work to fund them, I have been lax with my blogging. But I am back, and ready to dive back in with another installment of Treasures From the Warner Archive!

This week’s selection is one of Marion Davies’ (and Bing Crosby’s, for that matter) more bizarre films. With a subtly creepy plot and a completely haywire and inexplicable dream sequence in the middle of the film, Going Hollywood is a movie that confuses, amuses, and drives the audience to want to watch it again and again.

Marion Davies plays Sylvia Bruce, a French teacher who, fed up with the teaching life, decides to follow her singing idol (Bing Crosby) across the country in an attempt to get him to notice her. The problem is, he is involved with a rather frenetic French actress named Lily Yvonne (Fifi d’Orsay), who is jealous of Sylvia and feels threatened by her. Much of the movie revolves around Sylvia and Lily going at each other, and Bing Crosby plays the oblivious and helpless man in the middle.

The dream sequence of the movie is one of the strangest things I have ever seen on film, and I am so happy that it’s on YouTube. I find myself watching it constantly, because it is so delightfully nutty that I can’t get enough. Here are some things to watch for:

  • The scary dancing scarecrows
  • The words PINK PILLS written on the roof of the barn
  • The gigantic daisies moving in unison

Without further ado, I give you “We’ll Make Hay While the Sun Shines.”

Off the set, Marion Davies was known for her spot-on impersonations of Hollywood types. Her boss and companion, William Randolph Hearst, would often ask her to do these impersonations at parties to entertain guests and Marion would gladly oblige. This gift for mimicry became her signature around town, and was often worked into her movies both before and after sound came in. In Going Hollywood, she does a devilish impression of Fifi d’Orsay that is a real testament to her talent. I am sad to say that it is not online, but this is another reason to see the movie. It is brilliant.

Marion and Bing Crosby got along well, and often clowned together and pulled good-natured pranks on the set. A problem, though, was the fact that they were both predisposed to alcoholism and this took a toll on both of them during production. There is a moment during “We’ll Make Hay While the Sun Shines” (the “Farmer Doakes” bit) where I suspected for a time that they had been drinking. However, a few months ago, I was lucky enough to hear some outtakes from “We’ll Make Hay While the Sun Shines,” in which Marion flubs a line and reacts alertly, professionally, and soberly. She repeats the scene and nails the line, adding jokingly at the end “Can I go home now?” 100% Marion. I am now of the opinion that that scene was done without the influence of alcohol.

If there is one reason that this movie should be seen, it is for Bing Crosby’s beautiful, emotional, and heartfelt rendition of “Temptation.” Sung in a bar to Fifi d’Orsay, Bing gives this song meaning that I have never heard before. If you are a Bing Crosby fan, this is a must-see, and it shows without a doubt why Bing Crosby was as wildly popular as he was. The man could sing like no one else, and extract subtle meaning from the most obtuse lyrics. See this movie for this scene. You won’t regret it.

If you would like to order Going Hollywood, please do so here. Despite (or perhaps because of!) its bizarreness, it is great fun to watch.

See you next time!

The Work of Ruth Harriet Louise: Breaking Ground for Women in Photography

Ruth Harriet Louise, self portrait.

When one thinks of classic Hollywood glamour photography, there are a select few names that come to mind immediately. George Hurrell and Clarence Sinclair Bull are two of the most recognizable photographers of the era, and their work stands out as an exquisite capturing of what classic Hollywood means. But there is a name that is often egregiously overlooked, one that deserves to stand on equal footing with the immortal Hurrell and Bull–and that is Ruth Harriet Louise, MGM studio photographer from 1925-1930 and the first major female photographer in Hollywood.

Though her Hollywood career lasted only 5 years, Louise’s photographic technique set the stage for what Hurrell would make famous–and indeed, many of her photographs have the angelic, ethereal quality that is the hallmark of Hurrell. Others, however, are sweetly playful, capturing the essence of her subjects in diverse and versatile ways.

Greta Garbo, by Ruth Harriet Louise.

Joan Crawford, 1928.

Born Ruth Goldstein, a rabbi’s daughter, in 1903, she began taking photographs as a child and was soon spotted by New York photographer Nickolas Muray for whom she began an apprenticeship. At age 22, she moved to Los Angeles to live with her brother (Mark Sandrich, future director of several Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers movies) and opened up a portrait studio of her own near Hollywood and Vine. But shortly thereafter, her work was spotted by Louis B. Mayer, head of MGM Studios in Culver City, who asked her to come work as a professional portrait photographer at MGM, where she became an integral part of the photography department and one of the most sought-after photographers on the lot.

Marion Davies, 1927.

In  an era when bonds between a star and a photographer were cherished, Louise thrived as the favored photographer of many of the MGM stars. She got a great deal of work from stars who specifically requested her–stars like Joan Crawford, Marion Davies, Buster Keaton, and Greta Garbo–and her own star in the photographic world shone brightly for the 5 years she was on the MGM lot.

Hollywood at this time was very much controlled by male talent behind the scenes. Excepting a handful of extremely talented women–such as Louise and directors Dorothy Arzner and Lois Weber–Hollywood history in the 1920s was dominated by men. In an industry that valued women primarily as objects, working in what was considered a “man’s role” was fickle. It was in this vein that in 1930, when Ruth Harriet Louise’s contract at MGM expired, it was not renewed. Louis B. Mayer cited the fact that Norma Shearer, the top star at the time, preferred the work of George Hurrell, who had also been hired at MGM and subsequently became the head of the department.

Retirement was, however, already on the horizon for Louise. She married director Leigh Jason shortly thereafter, and the couple had two children. When they tried for a third in 1940, it was disastrous–the labor came too fast and too soon, and the hospital was helpless. The baby died…and Louise died of complications. A sad and sudden end to a remarkable short life.

Ruth Harriet Louise’s photographic legacy lives on in her magnificent portraits of some of the most iconic early MGM stars. Here are a few of my favorite portraits of hers.

See you next time!

Buster Keaton, 1929.

Joan Crawford, 1928.

Greta Garbo, 1929.

The Cultural Influence of Kay Thompson

By Lara Gabrielle Fowler

Kay Thompson is a name with which most people outside of the classic film world are unfamiliar. If she is known at all, it is often through the lens of Eloise, the immortal children’s book character she created in the 1950s. In classic film, she is primarily remembered by the legions of Audrey Hepburn fans, who know Kay Thompson for her work with Audrey Hepburn in Funny Face. Most people I’ve come across fail to realize that the the author of Eloise and the woman in Funny Face were the same person. While Kay Thompson was indeed a wonderful author and brilliant in Funny Face, these endeavors showcased only the tip of the iceberg when it came to the extraordinarily widespread talents of this gifted woman.

I am entirely confident in saying that Kay Thompson may have been the single most versatile personality ever to come out of classic Hollywood. Actress, singer, dancer, vocal coach, vocal arranger, cabaret performer and author, Kay Thompson ranked among the very best in every medium of the entertainment world she tackled. Associated with MGM for many years, she worked on some of the most celebrated films of the era, and served as vocal coach to the likes of Judy Garland, Lena Horne, and June Allyson. She became especially close to Judy Garland, developing a devoted relationship of best friend and confidante. She is the godmother of Judy’s daughter Liza Minnelli.

Judy Garland and Kay Thompson.

Born Catherine Louise Fink in St. Louis, MO, she signed a contract with MGM in 1943 after a stint as a singer and chorus director in radio. Her position as the head of the vocal unit, which included responsibilities such as arranging and directing the vocals in productions under Arthur Freed, enabled her to work on such films as Ziegfeld Follies of 1946 and Good News (1947) and helped hone her distinctive style of vocal arrangement.

Judy Garland in a segment of Ziegfeld Follies of 1946, which Kay Thompson co-wrote with Roger Edens.

“The Varsity Drag” from Good News.

In 1948 Thompson left MGM to pursue a nightclub act at Ciro’s, in a group she called “Kay Thompson and the Williams Brothers,” an act which included the young Andy Williams in one of his first appearances. The act was a smash hit, with Kay Thompson writing all the songs for the group’s nightly productions.

When her goddaughter Liza Minnelli was born in 1946, Thompson immediately took to her. The two became very close and their friendship lasted until the day she died. Thompson witnessed all of Liza’s mischievous antics, and in 1955, while living in New York, decided to write a book about a young, mischievous girl who lived at the Plaza Hotel. It is said that this character was based on Liza herself.

The book was Eloise, a book that remains popular today and that heralded several subsequent books by Thompson. Eloise is a character that has proven to be a timeless symbol of childhood, and in 2006 prompted a cartoon series for children on Starz.

Thompson made the first of only two movie appearances in 1957, in the Audrey Hepburn/Fred Astaire vehicle Funny Face. Though the part was essentially a secondary role to Astaire and Hepburn, it is Kay Thompson who steals the show with several show-stopping numbers that prove her abilities as a dancer as well as a singer. Despite Audrey Hepburn’s obvious charm, it is Kay Thompson who is the larger-than-life character in the movie, and hence it is her character that makes an impression and whom you remember after the movie is over. In addition, in this number in particular, her influence on Judy Garland’s performance style in her later career is very visible.

“Clap Yo Hands” from Funny Face.

Judy Garland in her last film, I Could Go On Singing, 1963.

Kay Thompson only made one more movie appearance in her life, and that was with Liza Minnelli in Tell Me That You Love Me, Junie Moon in 1970. She moved back to New York from Hollywood in 1969, and in 1974 directed a fashion show at the Palace of Versailles. She moved in with Liza in the late 1980s, and lived there until she died, at the age of 88, in 1998.

Liza created a tribute show to Kay Thompson in 2008, based upon Thompson’s nightclub act at Ciro’s. The show was called Liza’s At the Palace, and it won several Tony Awards in 2009. During her Tony acceptance speech, Liza thanked her parents for “the greatest gift they ever gave me, Kay Thompson.”

I think the reason Kay Thompson is not widely acknowledged today may be the fact that she was so talented and did so many things so well. The fact that she nurtured all of her talents, without focusing on one specific area, spread her too thin. Had she been able to concentrate her energy on one of her many talents, I think she would have been one of the biggest stars of her day. Yet if she had done that, we may not have had Eloise, we may not have had the magnificent vocal arrangements we have come to associate with MGM, and we may not have seen the talents of so many stars she nurtured. Kay Thompson was indeed an integral part of the entertainment world, and her influence lives on through her work.

See you next time!

Deanna Durbin, 1921-2013

By Lara Gabrielle Fowler

We have lost another legend. Deanna Durbin died a few days ago, in her Paris home at the age of 91.

If I were to characterize Deanna Durbin in any way, I would say that she was like a bright comet streaking through Hollywood. She did not stay long–she left Hollywood for married life in France before her 30th birthday–but her presence is still talked about with wonder. She was a child prodigy and a genius, it is said that her young operatic voice has influenced such musical luminaries as Kiri Te Kanawa and cellist Mstislav Rostropovich.

She was born Edna Mae Durbin, and came to Hollywood from her native Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada, as a baby. She began singing lessons at the age of 10 and by the time she was 14 she was considered a prodigy, securing a contract with MGM Studios. Her first film appearance was in a 10-minute short called Every Sunday, opposite another unknown by the name of Judy Garland.

She was soon transferred to Universal where she established herself as the darling of the lot and a musical force to be reckoned with. In late 1936, taken with Durbin’s talent, the artistic director of the Metropolitan Opera offered her a position with the company. Durbin did not take it, humbly asserting that she needed more singing lessons. But upon viewing her operatic performances on film, one certainly sees a seasoned singer of enormous capabilities.

Her first two marriages ended in divorce, but upon marrying producer Charles David, and after only 26 movies, she left Hollywood abruptly and moved to Paris. She had always disliked the studio system and fiercely defended her privacy through the years, maintaining almost complete anonymity after her marriage to David. Few knew her whereabouts, and only a select few people would receive answers to fan mail.

I often considered writing Deanna, as I have a bit of a connection to her. My paternal grandmother, who died before I was born, was married to a record producing agent in the 1930’s and, for a time, lived across the street from Deanna Durbin. They considered each other close friends and confidantes, and often spent time together when Deanna was not at the studio. Though I don’t think they kept in close touch after my grandmother moved away, due to Deanna’s busy schedule, I often thought of writing to remind her of her friendship with my grandmother. I deeply regret not doing it now.

I am glad that Deanna went her way, on her own terms, and without the hoopla that often accompanies celebrity deaths nowadays. It was quiet, personal, and befitting a woman who deserved our utmost respect.

The most recent picture I have seen of Deanna, beautiful at any age.