Readers, it’s been a long time since I’ve posted on Backlots! I’ve been very busy with activities related to Captain of Her Soul, which is now out as of September 27. I wanted to share a few things I’ve been up to, and some upcoming events, so you might have some context as to why Backlots has been inactive for a while.
-Mrs. Dalloway’s and Larry Edmunds, two premier bookshops in Berkeley and Los Angeles, CA respectively, have had me in for presentations on Marion Davies. You can order signed copies of the books from them!
-I presented at the Annenberg Community Beach House on the book
-I traveled to Silver Spring, MD to present Show People and The Cardboard Lover at the AFI Silver
-The book was featured at the Mechanic’s Institute CinemaLit series in San Francisco, where I presented on Show People, The Red Mill, and even The Cat’s Meow, where we discussed what really happened to Thomas Ince.
-There have been lots of podcasts and virtual events that I have enjoyed immensely. Here is one, with Kendahl Cruhver of Watching Classic Films
Here are some upcoming events:
-Marion Davies will be the Star of the Month on TCM in January. Stay tuned here for some fun things I have planned!
-January 13: I’m going back to Washington, DC to present at Lost City Books.
January 19: Presentation at the Hollywood Heritage Museum.
-February 4-12: I will be presenting at UCLA’s Billy Wilder Theater for a Marion Davies retrospective. Check the calendar here.
-February 25-26: The Kansas Silent Film Festival! I will present on Marion Davies at the cinema dinner and introduce Little Old New York.
So there you see why I’ve been inactive here for so long! If you haven’t gotten the book yet, you can order from the links above, or here. It makes a great holiday gift.
I’ll be back with more updates soon. See you then!
If you are a longtime reader of Backlots, you have read of my connection to Olivia de Havilland. From the evening I spent with her at the American Library in Paris, to Backlots’ coverage of her court case against FX, Olivia de Havilland has been close to my heart for many years. Her career and her impact on the film industry have been well covered here and elsewhere. But not as well documented is the effect she had on the American University of Paris, during the era of the Vietnam War and beyond.
Olivia had a strong moral backbone and an instinct to fight for change. As an actress, she made waves in the industry as an advocate for labor rights. Faced with the possibility of an interminable contract at Warner Bros. due to the practice of adding suspension time to the end of seven-year agreements, Olivia successfully sued the studio and established the De Havilland Law, holding the industry to contracts of no longer than seven calendar years. The De Havilland Law has been used to assert labor rights in the entertainment industry for writers, actors, and musical performers, and is considered among the most important factors in the eventual fall of the studio system.
In 1953, Olivia moved to Paris with her son, Benjamin. When it came time for Benjamin to attend college, he chose the American University of Paris (known familiarly as AUP), a relatively recent Paris institution founded in 1962. Olivia had never gone to college, despite a deep desire to do so. A straight-A student at Los Gatos High School, Olivia had received a full scholarship to Mills College, hoping to become a teacher. Teachers saved her life during a very dark period in high school, she recalled, and she wanted to give back. But her career skyrocketed faster than she expected, and she was never able to go to Mills. Upon Benjamin’s enrollment at AUP, Olivia realized that she now had an opportunity to do what she had always wanted to do, use her influence to speak up for students the way her teachers had done for her. She established herself as an active AUP parent, and in the mid-1960s she was elected trustee, the first female trustee ever at the university. In 1970, she became a board member.
Olivia served the university during an unprecedented, tumultuous time for students in Paris and all over the world. The student protests in 1968 brought brutal police attacks against students occupying Paris universities in protest of Vietnam War policy and strict student codes of conduct. In response, students took to the streets, tearing up cobblestones and hurling them at the police. Workers at several French companies participated in sympathy strikes in solidarity. Students and their allies built barricades in the Latin Quarter and overturned cars, demanding change in university policy and France’s social structure. The situation got to the point where President de Gaulle secretly fled to Germany, fearing civil war or a revolution. The protests are credited with bringing a wave of social revolution in France, and for normalizing women’s rights and LGBTQ+ rights in French society.
Two years later, in May 1970, protests at Kent State University turned bloody. Kent State had been a center of anti-Vietnam protests, and at the time of the shootings, the students had been protesting Nixon’s Cambodia Campaign when the Ohio National Guard was called in. Following a standoff on May 4, after deploying tear gas and threatening the students with bayonets, the National Guard fired their weapons through the crowd, killing four students.
Olivia watched these events closely, and listened directly to student concerns. She viewed her position as one of student liaison to the university, and put students at the forefront of everything she did. During this tense time, Olivia brought what was going on in the streets directly to the upper echelons of the university. Fighting for the social change the student body demanded, she provided them with an advocate and supporter at the highest level of university administration.
That devotion and genuine care for the students of AUP continued for the rest of her life. She frequently used her name and position to help raise money for student causes, and her personal assistants were hired from the AUP student body. In recent years, AUP served as a way for Olivia to remember her son Benjamin, who died of Hodgkin’s lymphoma complications in 1991. She was well known for welcoming AUP friends, students, and fellow trustees into her home for support and advice, remaining the university’s unfailing champion. In 1994, Olivia was awarded an honorary degree from AUP. In 2015, she was awarded the AUP Presidential Medal of Distinguished Achievement.
After her death in July 2020, AUP began plans for a new auditorium in Olivia’s name, to honor the extraordinary place she held at the university. The Olivia de Havilland Auditorium will be the first ever at the university. As AUP envisions it, the Olivia de Havilland Auditorium will be the centerpiece for the new Monttessuy Center for the Arts which will serve the growing liberal arts department at the site of the former library, now relocated to the Quai d’Orsay. The auditorium will host film festivals, art galleries, panels, and classes, to an arts department that has grown 270% in the past 5 years. In October 2021, there will be a weekend devoted to Olivia’s memory at AUP, which will culminate in a ribbon-cutting ceremony for the new auditorium. It will cement Olivia’s legacy at AUP, for the students she loved and cared for so deeply.
If you would like to learn more about the new arts center, honoring Olivia and the students of AUP, here is the website for the Monttessuy Center for the Arts. You can also click here if you would like to donate directly to the effort. There is an option to specifically support the auditorium, or give to general programs that will serve AUP liberal arts students. Toward the bottom of the page, you will see “If you have a special purpose for your donation, please let us know,” and you can select whichever menu option you choose.
Thank you for reading and may the legacy of Olivia de Havilland live on in the students of AUP and universities throughout the world.
Along with the rest of the country, I have been struggling to adjust to our current world situation. I am fortunate in many ways–with the ability to work my day job as a teacher from home, I have no lost income, and I am young and healthy. My heart goes out to anyone suffering illness or caring for someone who is. This is an uncharted road, and it’s frightening not to know what’s coming next or when this will end.
A few days ago, a family friend asked for a list of classic movies to watch during COVID-19 isolation and I wanted to share it with my readers. Throughout this post, I have bolded the films that appear on my list, and I would encourage anyone who hasn’t seen them to check them out while quarantined.
I have written on this subject before, but I want to reiterate just how beneficial classic film can be in difficult times like these. Much of cinema in what we consider the Golden Age of Hollywood was made specifically for people living through trying times. In the 1930s, as the country suffered through the Great Depression, not knowing where meals would come from or how long it would last, movies like Swing Time (1936) allowed the public to escape their troubles into a world of almost dreamlike fantasy, as Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers sang in their gentle tones of happiness and calm.
Much of the public clung to the movies, and their stars, to help them stay stabilized during the Depression and the ensuing years of World War II. In the 1930s, the success of The Thin Man (1934) relied not only on the public’s desire to see beautiful costumes and lavish living, but also on the star power of William Powell and Myrna Loy, who had become faces of comfort. Star-studded musicals like Meet Me in St. Louis (1944) followed, showing the country the nostalgia of the past and also giving them familiar faces that brought a sense of stability to a tumultuous era.
It is also necessary for people who may be feeling alone or isolated to be able to see their experiences reflected on film. After World War II ended, The Best Years of Our Lives (1946) came out, which reflected in beautiful nuance the complex emotions of soldiers coming home from war. Movies like Stella Dallas (1937) deal very frankly with feelings of loneliness, allowing us to identify with Stella when we feel apart from the world and it feels like there’s no one to turn to.
At the same time, laughter is, and always has been, the best medicine in many troubling times. The fact that screwball comedy emerged in the 1930s is, in my estimation, no accident. People needed something to laugh at, funny dialogue to listen to, and carefree characters to identify with. My Man Godfrey (1936) and The Awful Truth (1937) both take viewers to a space where they can laugh at the idle rich, while at the same time identifying with some of their universal struggles. The fast-paced dialogue forces the audience to pay attention and forget whatever is going on outside.
One of the most important things, though, especially in times of isolation like the ones we’re finding ourselves in now, seems to be allowing yourself to make a connection. In the Golden Age of Hollywood, audiences developed deep connections with certain stars, and the routine of going to the movies to see the latest Barbara Stanwyck or Claudette Colbert picture helped many people get through their difficulties. The connection we have today with film stars is not the same as it was in the 1930s. The star system, in which the moviegoer’s connection with a star was barely below that of a god, has long gone. Today, in order to make that same connection, identify a film that makes you feel good, and allow yourself to watch it as many times as you desire. For me personally, that movie is The Thin Man. I can’t identify precisely why it is that The Thin Man is so comforting to me, but whenever I’m feeling sad, upset, or anxious, it picks me right up again.
Above all, readers, stay safe, stay healthy, and find your comfort. I leave you with one last clip, from The Purple Rose of Cairo (1985). A young woman, living through an abusive marriage during the Great Depression, finds solace in going to the movies, and her fantasy becomes a reality when one of the characters steps off the screen. The two of them have a romance that takes her away from her current circumstances, and gives her the courage to stand up for herself and face those circumstances head on. It is a love letter to the power of movies to change our outlook and ultimately bring us closer to healing.
Here is the complete list of films that I sent to my family friend.
When Bong Joon-Ho won his Golden Globe for Parasite last month, he gave a piece of advice to the audience: “Once you overcome the one-inch-tall barrier of subtitles,” he said, “you will be introduced to so many more amazing films.”
With Parasite‘s Best Picture win at the Oscars last night fresh in the public mind, I have seen several articles and commentaries criticizing the use of subtitles in movies. An article by Alissa Wilkinson of Vox wrote about Bong’s advice: “The challenge was simple: Americans just don’t like reading subtitles.” A follow-up by Mother Jones’ Kevin Drum read: “No one likes subtitles. They’re only common in markets where film revenues aren’t high enough for studios to recoup the cost of producing dubbed versions.”
Drum went on to say: “After all, they eliminate one of the key aspects of the acting craft: reading lines. It is faux sophistication of the highest order to pretend that this shouldn’t—or doesn’t—matter.”
It is with this last line especially that I would like to take exception.
Full disclosure: I am a foreign language aficionado. I love hearing and speaking foreign languages, learning grammar rules, syntax, and vocabulary. I speak 5 foreign languages in addition to my native English. By default, my view of foreign language films is filtered through that lens, but my views are grounded in respect for the art of film as well as for the languages in which it is created.
I agree with Drum that one of the key aspects of the acting craft is reading lines. When a film is dubbed, the original inflection, tone, and emotion of the actor is lost. A line reading is an integral part of a scene. Regardless of what language is spoken, the emotion in an actor’s voice is universally understood. A performer spends countless hours perfecting their lines, their pacing, their interactions with the others in the cast. All that work is for naught when a different actor dubs the film for a foreign market, and ultimately does a disservice to foreign audiences in addition to the actor’s creative process.
Last weekend I went to see the Swedish version of A Woman’s Face at the Castro Theatre as part of the Noir City festival. It was not the first time I had seen it, but I was excited to see early Ingrid Bergman on the big screen. It is a breathtaking film in many ways, and one of the things I was most looking forward to about the experience was hearing Ingrid Bergman speak Swedish. I have noticed that when playing a role in Swedish, she conveys rawer, more intense emotions and seems freer, less encumbered by the restraints of a foreign language. Ingrid Bergman is a marvel in any language, but there is a marked difference when she acts in her native tongue. If the powers that be had chosen to dub A Woman’s Face, it would have been as if they were cutting half of Ingrid Bergman out of the film entirely.
Ingrid Bergman in A Woman’s Face (1938)
In Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless, Jean Seberg’s distinct American accent is what gives the film, and her character, heart. There is no replicating Jean Seberg’s accent, and her Americanness is a large part of what drives the plot forward. A dubbed English language version of Breathless is inconceivable, it would become an uninteresting shell of its former self, as the language of Breathless is at the core of what it is.
Parasite is a phenomenal and important film. Bong Joon-Ho is doing groundbreaking work in the industry, playing with genres and labels and making bold class commentaries where no one else dares to. I know that many people have been driven away from Parasite due to its subtitles, and it not only saddens me that they’re missing this magnificent piece of filmmaking, but it makes me fear for what a vast swath of this country is not seeing.
We live in an increasingly connected world, but one fractured by nationalism and xenophobia. Film is one medium by which we can come together and share universal themes, stories, and feelings. Insistence on hearing our own language in a film from a different culture only serves to drive us apart even further, stifling the power of film to unify a world that needs it so much.
As Christmas Day comes to a close and Hanukkah enters its 4th day, I would like to take this opportunity to wish all my readers a very joyful holiday season. Hollywood has always gone all out this time of year, and I have assembled some of my favorite Hollywood moments commemorating the season. For now, I’m staying clear of It’s A Wonderful Life and other Christmas classics that get a lot of play, because there are other movies that deserve some acknowledgment, too. Enjoy!
The Hanukkah scene from The Diary of Anne Frank (1959)
There are very few classic Hollywood movies that depict Jewish life, much less a full-on Hanukkah celebration. But The Diary of Anne Frank gives it to us, thanks to Anne’s own diary entry on the holiday. It’s a shame that we have such a paucity of unapologetically Jewish scenes in Hollywood (even today, there aren’t many), but this scene is really something. Not only does it show the lighting of a chanukiah, but it also affirms the survival of the annex families up to this point, which holds great symbolism when viewed through the lens of the Hanukkah story itself (I will make a post about this on the final night of Hanukkah).
Now, one small staging quibble. When Otto Frank lights the chanukiah, he lights it with the first candle at his left. This is incorrect. The first candle should be on his right, and then the candles are loaded on each subsequent night toward the left. It’s a small complaint, and I can overlook it for the larger good here.
Bing Crosby and a choir of schoolchildren sing “Adeste Fidelis” (O Come All Ye Faithful) in The Bells of St. Mary’s (1945)
Here, I must do a tiny bit of bragging. It may surprise you to learn that though Christmas is not my holiday (we’re Jewish, so we have the 4 candles lit tonight), my knowledge of Christmas carols is unparalleled even by many of my Christian friends. This is partly due to my stint in the San Francisco Girls Chorus when I was young, and my participation in their Christmas concert at Davies Symphony Hall every year. However, I can’t credit the Girls Chorus with my ability to sing “O Come All Ye Faithful” in English and Latin. That is thanks to Bing Crosby, and his performance in this beautiful scene from The Bells of St. Mary’s, in which Bing sings “Adeste Fidelis” with the children at his parochial school before they are interrupted by nun Ingrid Bergman. The film as a whole is one of my personal holiday favorites, and includes such wonderful scenes as Ingrid Bergman teaching a student to box to defend himself.
In this scene, gender stereotypes are flipped on their head and Ingrid Bergman is the one who wants Eddie to learn to fight, while Bing Crosby promotes pacifism. It’s one example of the nuances and complexity of the film that are often overlooked.
Barbara Stanwyck learns what family is in Remember the Night (1940)
Remember the Night (1940) doesn’t get the credit it deserves as a holiday film, nor as a serious examination of societal ills. Barbara Stanwyck plays a jewel thief who is befriended by the DA on her case (Fred MacMurray), and she goes home with him for a Christmas celebration with his family. On the way, we learn why she is the way she is–she has a mother who never gave her any approval nor affection from childhood, and who rejected her outright after the mother remarried. With the DA’s family, we see Stanwyck gaze around longingly at his loving relatives, realizing what could have been for her. It’s a real, raw moment that is rare in Christmas movies, and it’s made even more poignant when one knows about Stanwyck’s own troubled childhood.
The Christmas pageant in Penny Serenade (1941)
Though not technically considered a Christmas movie, this is a moving scene that speaks to parents and families at this and every season. Cary Grant and Irene Dunne, who by this time have gone through unimaginable struggle trying to uphold the adoption of their daughter, Trina, arrive at her school to watch her Christmas pageant. The looks on their faces as they hear her singing “Silent Night” from behind a cloud, are the looks of proud parents everywhere. And when Trina trips and falls backstage, Irene Dunne reflexively gets up to help her. It is a scene that captures the unconditional love of family, and how Trina is and has always been their child, despite what any court could say.
Happy holidays to all, and I hope that 2020 brings you the best of everything.
Click here to support Backlots and Lara’s classic film writing. Thank you for reading!
Apologies for the delayed post, readers. It’s been a rather busy few weeks and this is the first opportunity I’ve had for a blog post since my last one in late September. The Marion Davies book is in its final stages, so I’ve been spending a great deal of time putting together the proposal that will ultimately go to publishers. More about that as the time gets closer, but suffice it to say that writing a book takes a village, and I consider my village to be the best there is. For that I am very grateful.
Since my last post here, I have appeared on a podcast and in print, both for The San Francisco Chronicle. The topic was the new biopic Judy, starring Renée Zellweger, that has stirred up a lot of controversy within classic film and specifically Judy Garland circles. I discussed my feelings briefly with the Chronicle, as time permitted, but I’d like to expand upon my thoughts here, for the edification of Backlots readers and to express things for which there was no time or space on the podcast and in the paper. If you have seen the movie, please feel free to comment with your thoughts at the bottom of this post. I would love to hear from you.
With my sister, friends and penpals on the steps of Judy Garland’s childhood home, Grand Rapids, MN, 1998.
As I’ve mentioned here before, Judy Garland was my gateway to classic film and remains a constant part of me. As I work on Marion Davies, I am keenly aware that I would not be where I am today had I not happened to pick that Judy Garland tape from the bargain bin at Borders on New Year’s Eve, 1995. Without Judy, Backlots wouldn’t exist, and I wouldn’t have made some of my most cherished friends.
Many of the Judy Garland figures I trust had already panned the movie, and were angry that Renée Zellweger took the role at all. Others praised Zellweger’s performance, saying that she completely channeled Judy Garland in 1969 and that she nailed Judy’s mannerisms, which is no easy task. I didn’t know what to think, so I decided not to think at all. I made an active decision to go into the movie with an open mind.
The backdrop to Judy is the series of concerts that Judy Garland gave at the Talk of the Town dinner club in London shortly before she died, and the scenario is based on the off-Broadway play End of the Rainbow. It is an interesting part of Judy’s life in many ways, and the movie tells the story of her life and career through flashbacks, mostly to the set of The Wizard of Oz and events that occurred around 1939.
Interacting with the audience at Talk of the Town, January 14, 1969.
As soon as the movie started, I started noticing inaccuracies. The first I noticed was the depiction of Judy’s relationship with Louis B. Mayer. The movie showed Mayer as a seemingly regular part of the Wizard of Oz set, and while executives did visit sets on rare occasions, they generally dealt solely with administrative work and left their directors and producers alone in their work. While on the set, Judy tells Mayer that she wishes she could be a normal girl, going to movies just like others her age. Even at 16, Judy Garland was operating at an intellectual level beyond that of most adults. She knew how to interact with Mayer, and it was not to tell him that she wished she could go to the movies like other girls her age. It is a nuance, but an important one.
In general, Judy’s staggering intelligence is missing from the movie. Friends estimated that her IQ surpassed 160–she learned astoundingly quickly and was capable of performing complex dance routines after seeing them once. She found rehearsal dull and unnecessary, and got very impatient when she was needed to rehearse anything beyond a single take. Her dislike of rehearsal is indeed shown in the movie, which I appreciated, but the reason for it–the speed and depth of her learning–was not.
This number from Summer Stock (1950) was filmed in one take after Gene Kelly had shown Judy the steps once.
At one moment, Zellweger’s Judy says that she never had time to learn to do anything but sing. Judy was, in fact, a very accomplished pianist, having learned at a young age from her mother. She played at such a high level that pianist friends who heard her play told her that she should give professional concerts. “No,” Judy would reply, “this is just for me.” She feared that if word of her skill at the piano got out, it would be exploited like the rest of her talents. She was also deeply political with a strong moral compass, and as a young person was an enthusiastic supporter of Franklin D. Roosevelt and the New Deal. She was a member of the Committee for the First Amendment, protesting the blacklisting of the Hollywood Ten, and later became involved in the planning of the March on Washington and the election of John F. Kennedy.
The movie does depict the harrowing sexual abuse that Judy suffered at the hands of Louis B. Mayer. It is dealt with quickly, glossed over almost shamefully, and it is not accurate. This bothered me to no end. It would have been better, in my mind, not to show it at all, rather than gloss over it and put it in the wrong place at the wrong time. Judy wrote about the abuse in her unpublished autobiographical manuscript, which is readily available to the public, and inaccuracy in this domain is inexcusable. It was too important to Judy’s self-image, her psychological problems, and the course of the rest of her life to be dealt with so nonchalantly. The moment could have served as an important link for modern-day survivors, but instead they treated it lazily, as if the moment were required but not desired.
The main action takes place in 1969 and at that point, Judy’s minor children, Lorna and Joe Luft, were teenagers (Lorna was born in 1952, Joe in 1955). In the movie the children are shown far too young, which contributes to a narrative that was not the real one. In general, the timeline was way off, a jarring time bend for those of us who know it. Liza Minnelli was shown at a Los Angeles party early in the movie, but she was not in Los Angeles in 1969, having moved to New York years earlier to start her own career. Nor did she ever call her mother “Mom,” as we hear in the movie. Throughout their lives, all of Judy’s children called her “Mama,” a name by which they all still refer to their mother.
But for me, the most egregious inaccuracy had to do with the portrayal of Judy herself. The movie showed her wallowing in self-pity, going onstage drunk, and being booed offstage by the audience. Never did Judy bare her soul in interviews or feel sorry for herself, the way they showed onscreen. The closest she came was when she was interviewed by Barbara Walters in 1967, describing her difficulties with her own mother. She did have a few disastrous concerts, notably in Melbourne and Hong Kong, but the Talk of the Town concerts that provide the backdrop for the movie were nothing of the kind. Judy loved London, and London loved her.
To say Judy had an uproarious sense of humor would be an exercise in understatement. Lucille Ball, denying her own comedic gifts, once said “I was never funny. You know who was truly funny? Judy Garland. Judy Garland was funny. She made me look like a mortician.” Judy’s quickness of wit was legendary in Hollywood, and she was an unmatched storyteller. Her tall tales left audiences laughing until they cried.
None of this was shown in the movie. There were a few moments where hints of Judy’s sense of humor came through, but they were only hints. Nothing made the audience laugh out loud or applaud enthusiastically, the way they did when Judy told stories, and it was one of the aspects of the movie that I missed the most.
In regard to Zellweger’s performance, it was clear to me that she had done her research. She made an effort to channel Judy’s mannerisms, which are incredibly difficult to do, and did them to the best of her ability. In concerts and on her TV show, Judy would frequently toy with the microphone cord, tossing it over her shoulder and making it a sort of prop for her performance. Zellweger did this, but didn’t quite do it right, nor did her Garland-esque movements evoke the vibrance and life that Judy’s did. Judy moved with her soul–becoming one with the song as her spirit succumbs to the beauty and power of the music. We the audience feel this with her as she moves, an almost indescribable experience.
Zellweger, by contrast, seems to be going through the motions. She knows the Judy Garland signature moves–the arm over the head, the position of the hand as she holds the microphone–but the life in it is missing.
This is perhaps the best way I can sum up Judy–the life in it is missing. Instead of painting a three-dimensional portrait of a complex woman, it chooses to rely on cursory, surface level research and tells incomplete stories or complete untruths. Renée Zellweger did the best she could, but I couldn’t help but mourn for what could have been.
Apologies for the delayed post, readers. Holidays and other necessities of living have gotten in the way of a timely posting since the California wildfires of early November. We’re still recovering as a state but the good news is that we’ve had some rain, the smoke has cleared, and the fires have been put out. Thanks to everyone for your beautiful comments and concern.
In other news, I went to see Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma this evening at the lovely Landmark Shattuck in Berkeley (if you haven’t seen Roma, please rush out. It’s a breathtaking achievement, and takes much influence from prior cinematic movements–I may make a post about this later.) As I waited for the film to start, my mind wandered as I ate my box of popcorn. I ruminated on the origins of popcorn as a movie theater snack, and how it came to be. The story is actually quite an interesting one, with roots in the political and social history of the United States.
Popcorn was a popular street food at fairs and carnivals going back to the 1800s. It was a cheap, tasty treat, a luxury that people from any social class could afford. This, along with its messiness and noise, made it particularly loathsome to those in the burgeoning movie theater business. When the first movie theaters were built, the managers directed their advertising and aesthetic to the highbrow, theatergoing clientele. As the movies were silent and intertitles were used to convey speech, audience members had to be literate, which made movies most accessible to members of the educated upper classes. Patrons dressed in their best clothes, carpets were rolled out in the theater foyer and the audience was expected to be on its best behavior, just as they would be at any other theater. Any distraction such as munching or snacks spilled on the floor was unacceptable, and as such, there was no popcorn or any other food sold in the theater, nor was anything allowed in.
The Embassy Theatre in Seattle, WA shows Greta Garbo’s first talkie, Anna Christie, 1930
Then sound came to the movies. In the years between 1927 and 1929, between the release of The Jazz Singer and the time when sound became industry standard, the movie business went through upheavals in just about every department. Hand cranked cameras had to be replaced with synchronized sound devices. Actors with vocal problems lost their careers. Theaters had to convert their auditoriums to be conducive to sound. And because the need for intertitles disappeared, the movies began to attract a different, less literate, more common crowd. That crowd would frequently show up at the door with a bag of popcorn, which had to be checked along with coats and hats.
The coming of sound happened to coincide with the first signs of the Great Depression. The combination of rising costs due to theater renovations for sound, and a stock market that was starting to spin out of control, was a death knell for many small town theaters. All over the country, theaters closed their doors due to their financial inability to make the changes needed to stay in business.
The Cabrillo Theatre in San Diego, CA
However, people still flocked to the movies. The common man needed to escape from the world of breadlines and unemployment, and for a few cents he could do just that at a movie theater. Some particularly clever theater owners saw a way to keep the doors open for those needing entertainment. They tossed aside their hesitancy to allow snacks, and began to allow outdoor popcorn vendors to pay for space inside the theater, getting customers in the door to see a movie and bringing in the extra fees brought by the vendors. Eventually, theaters began to sell popcorn themselves. Using the extra money from popcorn sales, theaters were able to satisfy their clientele and survive the Depression. Other theaters caught on and began selling popcorn, saving themselves from the brink of closure. Eventually they added concession stands that included candy and drinks, and their profits skyrocketed.
The 1940s confirmed popcorn as the ultimate movie snack. World War II saw a decrease in the amount of candy and drinks that could be sold, due to the strict war era rationing requirements on sugar. Because of this, theaters heavily pushed popcorn as the snack to buy, and it has stuck ever since. Now, it is an absolute necessity. Due to the complex web of distributors and studios that go into bringing a film to your local theater, none of the money from ticket sales actually goes to your theater. The theater only earns money through the sale of concessions, of which popcorn is still the biggest sell.
So next time you go to the movies, be sure to get a bag of popcorn, support your theater, and remember this history as you eat!
Dear readers, if you’re at all like me, you’ve been having a hard time with the news lately. Unimaginable things are happening in this country and the world, and in our current digital landscape, there seems to be no escape. Each day we’re bombarded with images, sounds, and feelings of helplessness, as we come to terms with a world over which we have little control.
In previous posts, I have discussed the power of movies to heal and to transport. Many of us have been feeling the past few weeks very strongly, and protests, marches, and demonstrations are frequently followed by desolation and depression when nothing happens. In view of this, I polled “classic film Twitter” to learn people’s comfort movies, to help with feelings brought on by the powerlessness we have in our world today. Here are some suggestions from the classic film Twittersphere.
My question: “Classic film fans–what are the movies that you watch to cheer up, and why? Mine is THE THIN MAN. No matter what’s going on, it always makes me happy.”
The Wizard of Oz. Always. It meant so much to me growing up. And at 32 it still does. Heroes can wear ruby red slippers and you can always go home again. Everything about it is absolutely superb, even the mistakes. I could go on and on about Judy Garland too.
The Prisoner of Zenda (1937) Anxiety, stress, pain, (multiple viewings while recovering from surgery)… there’s no balm more calming than #RonaldColman ’s voice in this performance. The entire cast is perfect. It just takes me somewhere else whenever I feel lost or distressed.
Thin Man as well. It Happened One Night, Bringing Up Baby, Philadelphia Story, My Man Godfrey, Arsenic and Old Lace. So I guess movies where clever people say clever things, wear fabulous clothes, perform some physical comedy, and live happily ever after. It’s like comfort food.
The Gay Divorcee leaves me with that wonderful carefree feeling of being on vacation. And just once I want to go to a gala night on the esplanade
I go for the comedies: the Marx Brothers, W.C. Fields, the Road pictures with Hope and Crosby. My dad, who has since passed, introduced me to the classic comedians and I feel like he is still with me when I watch these movies.
Bringing Up Baby. Can’t watch that without laughing!
Princess Bride because it’s hilariously funny, sweet, has amazing sword fights, and in the end good triumphs over evil and true love wins. What could be more delightful?
His Girl Friday. Funny, smart, poignant and the gorgeous Rosalind Russell and Cary Grant. Makes everything better.
When Christmas stress is getting to me, I watch The Bishop’s Wife with David Niven, Loretta Young, and Cary Grant. The overall message is so important but there are so many little things to make you smile like the refilling bottle, decorating the tree, and skating in the park.
I grew up in an era where WPIX in NYC’s Sunday line-up was Sherlock Holmes, Laurel & Hardy, Charlie Chan, Abbott & Costello, the Bowery Boys, Universal or Hammer horror films, and then Kung Fu Theater at noon. Glorious times for a young film nerd.
In polling Twitter, I was fascinated by the repeat film suggestions. The two most suggested movies for when you need a boost of spirit, given no parameters by decade or genre, were The Thin Man and Bringing Up Baby, two screwball comedies from the 1930s. This is, perhaps, not surprising. In the midst of the Depression, movies aimed to do exactly that–provide a means of escape from a reality that was grim, and a future that was uncertain.
I don’t know how to fix what’s happening, but let’s start by caring for ourselves and each other, with the help of the movies. I hope that your favorite movie will inspire you to take action against what is going on–you can start here.
Now I open it up to you, readers–what are your favorite movies to watch when you need to remove yourself from the chaos of the world? I look forward to hearing from you!
This afternoon, a decision came in for the case of Olivia de Havilland vs. FX, which I have been following closely here. The appeals court has decided to “reverse and remand” the case to lower court, overturning the decision of lower court judge Holly Kendig and giving the case to Feud.
A statement by Ryan Murphy says “The reversal is a victory for the creative community, and the First Amendment. Today’s victory gives all creators the breathing room necessary to continue to tell important historical stories inspired by true events. Most of all, it’s a great day for artistic expression and a reminder of how precious our freedom remains.”
As I have made clear in other posts, the day is great only for docudramas that want to tell half-truths and outright lies, planting seeds of gossip and rumor in viewers’ minds that grow to create a warped lens through which they view history. Ryan Murphy doesn’t have a particular interest in keeping those seeds of gossip and rumor at bay–he profits from this era where no one really knows where the truth lies. Not only do these half-truths and outright lies make Olivia de Havilland’s life difficult, but also mine. As a film writer and historian, I and others like me have to be the ones to untie all the knots that Feud has created.
After the decision was released, I told myself that I would read the opinion with an open mind. Perhaps the justices would say something that I hadn’t thought of. But as soon as I opened and read it, it was clear to me that this case had been decided on erroneous legal precedent. The Guglielmi case, to which the author of the opinion, Justice Anne Egerton, refers frequently, is only applicable to dead people. California Civil Code 3344.1 exempts docudramas and dramatic interpretations from right of publicity claims if the person is dead, but the statute from which it branches, California Civil Code 3344, does not exempt them from right of publicity claims if the person is alive. If they had used a deceased celebrity, they would be protected under the Guglielmi decision. Not so with a living person.
From the decision. This is not correct. De Havilland was within her legal right to challenge a historically inaccurate portrayal. If it had been accurate, she wouldn’t have been able to touch it. But it wasn’t, so she can and she did.
The decision also references Sarver vs. Chartier, also known as the “Hurt Locker” case. But once again, this doesn’t have anything to do with the de Havilland case at hand. In this particular instance, Sarver agreed to let people film him and the resulting character in the movie was a composite, so he had no case and it was thrown out of court. De Havilland did not agree, and the character was not a composite. I believe that the appeals court may be misconstruing “raw materials of life” in Sarver to mean something that it doesn’t.
In reference to this part of the decision, in addition to the comments about Sinatra’s drinking not being defamatory or offensive, I think the court is giving too much credit to the average, reasonable viewer of Feud. In a previous post, I discussed my talks on Marion Davies, and how I frequently have to spend far more time debunking myths propagated by The Cat’s Meow than those myths are worth. Far too many people watch docudramas and believe they’re telling the truth–then, no matter how many facts are provided to disprove them, they keep believing the more exciting story. This ruling allows producers of docudramas to exploit that tendency, rewrite history, and put the onus on the historians to correct it.
We do know that there had been a draft opinion before the oral arguments, and it looks as though the case will proceed to a higher court. A statement from Suzelle Smith, de Havilland’s attorney, reads in part: “Miss de Havilland, her many fans all over the world, and actors in similar situations are rightly disappointed in this Opinion. The Opinion does not properly balance the First Amendment with other important rights. This case appears to be destined for a higher court, and we will be preparing the appropriate petition for such review.”
As a site focusing on classic movies, I have largely tried to keep Backlots away from political matters. When I felt it necessary, I have made commentary on events that have affected us all, linking those events to classic movies and how movies are a panacea to help us get through our hard times. But up to now, that commentary has been unifying and apolitical, despite my own passion for current events.
But this morning, I would like to make a brief political note regarding a button you may have noticed at the bottom of the site.
The other day, a good friend of mine and fellow classic movie aficionado posted an astute observation to Facebook. She had noticed that the vast majority of her classic movie-loving friends, regardless of political affiliation, were vehemently opposed to the current Republican nominee for president. Not just casually brushing him off–but persistently rejecting the notion that he should ever come within 10 feet of the White House. The general nature of her feed seemed to reflect the current trends of the country, but those who knew classic movies were especially passionate. As classic movie fans come from all parts of the country, from all political, social, economic, and cultural stripes, she wondered why that phenomenon might be.
As it turns out, I have noticed the same. And many people who made comments on my friend’s post seem to have noticed the same. Thinking about why people who know classic movies might think this way, I came to the conclusion that there are indeed explanations. In addition to an awareness of historical precedents, knowing how political figures rise based on behind-the-scenes research on the movies we love, I think there is another, more chilling reason.
We’ve seen this movie before.
What were once surrealist, dystopian fantasies have become our reality. 24-hour news networks have created a modern day Howard Beale, and “Lonesome Rhodes” is now one step away from the White House. These stories were deemed unrealistic and even offensive at the time of their inception, but they now seem eerily prescient. Both of these fictional characters ended in disgrace, and given the events of the past day, it even looks as though this election cycle might end in much the same way “Lonesome Rhodes'” did. But that doesn’t mean that those of us who know these stories should sit back and relax.
I know that much of my readership is comprised of people who are familiar with classic film, history, and culture. The satirical stories of Budd Schulberg and Paddy Chayefsky have come true in a much starker way than either of them could likely have imagined, and many of us who have seen this on film have had chills running up our spines for some time.
And so I have attached a button to the bottom of the site, urging my readers to register to vote, and to actually go do it. There is far too much at stake here.
Thank you, and may we soon get back to the more pleasant side of classic movies.
Backlots is devoted to honoring and celebrating all aspects of classic film and is written by Lara Gabrielle, a California-based classic film writer and historian. Lara is the author of CAPTAIN OF HER SOUL: The Life of Marion Davies (UC Press, 2022).
Here you will find pieces on frequently seen classics and some lesser-known gems, as well as book reviews, festival coverage, and pieces on the history, theory and culture of film as it relates to the study of classic cinema.
Enjoy the site, and thanks for reading!
AFFILIATIONS & AWARDS
2019 CMBA Award for Best Profile of Classic Movie Performer or Filmmaker--"The Activism of Myrna Loy"
Winner of the 2018 CiMBA Award for Best Classic Movie Series, BACKLOTS AT THE COURTHOUSE: OLIVIA DE HAVILLAND VS. FX
Winner of the 2014 CiMBA Award for Best Profile of a Classic Movie Performer or Filmmaker: A Q&A WITH JOAN FONTAINE IN HONOR OF HER 96TH BIRTHDAY
Winner of the 2011 CiMBA Award for Best Classic Movie Discussion, THE FINAL SCENE OF THE HEIRESS
I am honored to be a judge of the Animal Film Festival in Grass Valley, CA.
BACKLOTS ON THE WEB
Join us at the Backlot Commissary, the place for Backlots' readers to share content and discuss movies!
Walter Pidgeon and Greer Garson in "Mrs. Miniver."