Tag Archives: politics

Models of Resistance and Bravery in Classic Hollywood

With the horrific recent events in Charlottesville and further rallies planned for the San Francisco Bay Area later this month, I have been feeling terrified beyond measure. The fear that I feel is a personal one, due to the fact that I live in the San Francisco Bay Area and am a member of a minority group specifically targeted by the white supremacists, but it goes beyond that. Racism, bigotry, and intolerance are now condoned in the highest offices of the United States of America, and I fear that things are going to get worse before they get better.

In this time of immense fear, sorrow, and trauma, I recall the words of the great Fred Rogers, “Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.” In this post, I would like to highlight some of the great classic Hollywood “helpers,” those who spoke out, who didn’t allow themselves to be stepped on–those who saw societal ills and made conscious efforts to fix them. I hope this can encourage us to turn our minds toward helping, whatever that may mean to us as individuals. I would also like to show some instances of resilience in classic movies, to give us a boost in how we, as a country, deal with this national tragedy.

The Bomb Shelter Scene, Mrs. Miniver (1942)

In this scene, the Miniver family hides out in their makeshift bomb shelter during an air raid. To comfort the children as the bombs drop around their shelter, Mrs. Miniver calmly reads Alice in Wonderland aloud.

Each time I recall this scene, I get chills. The intense meaning behind reading a classic English children’s story about retreating into a magical fantasy land, as bombs drop on England, cannot be overstated. If you haven’t seen Mrs. Miniver, do yourself a favor and rent it. It is a masterpiece of wartime cinema.

The one we all know. Rick Blaine, the man who “sticks his neck out for nobody,” ultimately sacrifices his own happiness for the greater good. “It doesn’t take much to see that the problems of three little people don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world.” Rick sees what’s really important, then sees that Ilsa gets on the plane so that Victor Laszlo can continue his resistance work.

BETTE DAVIS AND JOHN GARFIELD–The Hollywood Canteen

Rejected from the service during World War II due to a heart condition, John Garfield wanted to do something to help the war effort nonetheless. He partnered with Bette Davis to create the Hollywood Canteen, a place that served food, drink, and entertainment to active-duty service members on leave. It was staffed completely by volunteers from the movie industry, and as such was a mutually beneficial enterprise–the service members (it was open to both men and women, and was unsegregated) got top notch entertainment from Hollywood A-listers, and the Hollywood community, many of whom had been told that their services were better used in the movies, got a chance to feel like they were helping out in a meaningful way. Nearly everyone active in movies during World War II worked at the Hollywood Canteen, and while the desegregation that occurred inside the Canteen was usually not a problem, whenever there was a complaint, Bette Davis took to the microphone to defend the policy. “The blacks got the same bullets as the whites did, and should have the same treatment,” she later said.

MARION DAVIES–The Marion Davies Children’s Clinic

My manuscript on Marion Davies, a book to be published in the next few years, deals heavily on the subject of the Marion Davies Children’s Clinic. There is a lot to say, but for the purposes of this post I will stick to the relevant details. Marion believed strongly in quality health care for everyone. When she saw that it was nearly impossible for children in lower income brackets in West Los Angeles to get care, she created a children’s clinic bounded by Olympic, Mississippi, Barry, and Barrington Avenues in the city, treating low-income children completely free of charge. Doctors from elite hospitals around Los Angeles volunteered their time, and every Christmas there would be an elaborate party with toys for the children and groceries for every family. Parents who later wrote in to thank the clinic often expressly credited their children’s lives with the care they received at the Marion Davies Children’s Clinic.

MYRNA LOY

Much more than “the perfect wife” onscreen, Myrna Loy was vocal and passionate about human rights and welfare. One of those on the front lines of the Red Cross during World War II, she served as the assistant to the director of military and naval welfare. Later on in life, she was a member-at-large of UNESCO and the co-chairman of the Advisory Council of the National Committee Against Discrimination in Housing. She spoke out fiercely against discrimination in Hollywood, decrying the practice of casting black actors as only maids or servants, once asking her MGM bosses “How about just a black person walking up the steps of a courthouse with a briefcase?”

ANNA MAY WONG

Hollywood’s anti-miscegenation laws, prohibiting onscreen romances between people of different races, damaged the career of the gifted Anna May Wong who, under these laws, could essentially only play opposite Sessue Hayakawa, the only other Asian lead actor in Hollywood. She was relegated to “exotic” roles, of which she quickly grew tired and bored. Wong decided to try her luck in Europe, as Josephine Baker had done, and like Baker, she was an instant success, starring in films like Piccadilly, Song and Show Life, and Pavement Butterfly. Upon her return to the United States, she was quick to speak out against the injustices done upon her and other Asian and Asian-American actors. “Why is it that the screen Chinese is always the villain? And so crude a villain – murderous, treacherous, a snake in the grass! We are not like that. How could we be, with a civilization that is so many times older than the West?”

FREDI WASHINGTON

Best known for her role as Peola in Imitation of Life (1934), the beautiful and talented Fredi Washington was in a quandary in Hollywood. As a light-skinned African-American, Washington was bound by the anti-miscegenation laws that governed Hollywood (meaning she was to receive no romantic leads), but was light enough to pass for white, making it difficult for studio higher ups to cast her in maid and servant roles. Intensely proud of being a black woman, Washington was tired of playing parts where she “passed,” and instead left Hollywood to do theatre and join the budding civil rights movement, working with the president of the NAACP and with the Negro Actor’s Guild of America, which she helped to found. She spoke of her Hollywood past in these words:

“I have never tried to pass for white and never had any desire, I am proud of my race. In ‘Imitation of Life’, I was showing how a girl might feel under the circumstances but I am not showing how I felt.”

“I am an American citizen and by God, we all have inalienable rights and wherever those rights are tampered with, there is nothing left to do but fight…and I fight. How many people do you think there are in this country who do not have mixed blood, there’s very few if any, what makes us who we are, are our culture and experience. No matter how white I look, on the inside I feel black. There are many whites who are mixed blood, but still go by white, why such a big deal if I go as Negro, because people can’t believe that I am proud to be a Negro and not white. To prove I don’t buy white superiority I chose to be a Negro.”

May we take the words and actions of classic Hollywood to heart as we face the days, weeks, and months ahead.

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The Nostalgia Myth and Classic Movies in 2017 America

Earlier this morning on Twitter, I saw a tweet directed at TCM’s Ben Mankiewicz, accusing him of being “SJW” (the abbreviation for Social Justice Warrior, a derogatory term for a person who engages in left-wing ideology for personal gains) because he condemned the Hollywood blacklist on air. The response was immediate and mostly indignant, defending Mankiewicz and TCM against accusations of a political agenda. But this is not an isolated incident–for the past 6 months or so, the Turner Classic Movies social media accounts have been inundated with viewers telling the channel to “stick to the movies,” that TCM is a place where people come to escape from politics, and that TCM is trying to brainwash its viewers into a left-wing political agenda.

It is a disturbing trend. Given our current political climate and efforts to restrict public access to information, television viewers have fallen down a rabbit hole of misinformation. We have found ourselves in a dystopian world where we don’t know what is true and what is not, and historical context seems to matter little. Perhaps most disturbing, we have begun to see it reflected back in the anti-intellectualism that has become part of the American landscape. We are a country that is scared, wanting to retreat somewhere. History has not changed–but our collective reaction to hearing it has.

Dalton Trumbo gives his testimony in front of the House Un-American Activities Committee.

2017 is the 70th anniversary of the Hollywood blacklist. Due to fear of communist infiltration from Russia seeping into American life, in 1947 the House Un-American Activities Committee targeted members of the film industry for alleged communist activities, asking them not only to divulge their own political allegiances, but also to name others. Prison sentences, ruined careers, and suicides were commonplace as the government manipulated public fear to destroy lives…and secure their own re-elections.

The actions of the HUAC (and its counterpart in the Senate, the Senate Internal Security Subcommittee) cost lives and careers, during a time of paralyzing fear. For TCM to ignore those actions in the name of “sticking to the movies” would be misguided at best, and promoting ignorance at worst, especially in our current era.

Choreographer Jack Cole, spotlighted last month on TCM’s tribute to gay Hollywood, works with Marilyn Monroe on the set of Let’s Make Love, 1960.

Fortunately, TCM holds itself above that. As the only channel on national television to provide historical context to classic movies, it does important work in tearing down the myth of blind classic movie nostalgia, and as such, it has received its share of ignorant commentary from those who don’t want to hear it, preferring to live in a world where the whole story is not told. Last month, the channel did a month-long spotlight on LGBT figures in Hollywood, and how they shaped the industry as a whole. As I followed their posts on the Facebook page, I saw comments coming in that followed a few standard blueprints:

“I don’t pay extra for cable to have TCM brainwash me into a political agenda.”

“When are they going to have Straight Hollywood Month?”

“Look at the guests they have on–TCM has become a bunch of lefties.”

“Why don’t they just stick to the movies? I come to TCM to escape from politics.”

Each of these statements merits its own lengthy blog post, but in regard to the final one, I fear that people are watching TCM with a warped and shallow view of classic movies.  Classic Hollywood was not created in a vacuum. Far from the ideal utopian world that many seem to think they’re retreating into, classic movies were affected by a world outside that was often in chaos. Hollywood was built by strong, talented, and assertive women and minorities, fighting to get the representation they deserved in a society that shunned them. Far too often, in the name of nostalgia (a concept that I find dangerous), the true history of Hollywood gets lost. TCM brings it back, and I am so grateful that they do.

New Prompt on Backlots, and Why.

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.

KNOWLEDGE IS POWER: The Subtle Messages of BORN YESTERDAY (1950)

Annex - Holliday, Judy (Born Yesterday)_01

A few days ago, as I spent a sick afternoon at home, I was pleased to discover the delightful Born Yesterday (1950) playing on TCM. This is a movie that has always fascinated me–Judy Holliday’s performance as the dim-witted Billie Dawn won her an Oscar for the Best Actress of 1950, in the face of Bette Davis and Gloria Swanson, both nominated for the roles of their careers. Holliday’s win has always been a bit of an enigma, so much so that in the process of trying to “figure her out,” I’ve developed a real fondness for Judy Holliday and her all-too-brief career. To me, she’s one of the most underappreciated and underutilized comediennes of the era, and her early death was a huge loss to the industry.

Holliday’s Billie Dawn in Born Yesterday stands out as her best-known role, a part she originated on the Broadway stage before signing on to reprise the role in the movie. On the surface, the movie is a fluffy comedy about a rather intellectually dull woman who studies with a tutor to expand her mind. It seems to be standard code-era fare. But upon a deeper examination of the plot, and of the character of Billie Dawn, one is hit with some powerful messages about women’s rights, and the political climate in which the movie was made.

Billie Dawn is a poorly-educated New Yorker, living with her gangster fiancé on a long-term business venture in Washington, D.C. Billie often embarrasses Harry with her ignorance, and in order to make a better impression on his business contacts, Harry engages a tutor, Paul (William Holden), to teach Billie the ways of the world. The two get on swimmingly. Billie loves learning, and Paul respects her mind and her autonomy in a way that Harry doesn’t. In interacting with Paul, and in learning more about the way the world works, Billie comes to the realization that Harry abuses and takes advantage of her, and she must leave him.

Advocating for a woman’s right to educate herself, and for her right to leave an abusive relationship, was forward-thinking in 1950. Despite women taking the jobs of overseas men during WWII and the resulting spike in women’s employment in the postwar years, the prevailing thought in 1940s and early 1950s American media continued to be that women should be subservient to their husbands, and that education for women was futile. Few movies challenged this view, with the perhaps singular exception of the Katharine Hepburn/Spencer Tracy comedy Woman of the Year, released 8 years prior. In Woman of the Year, we are presented with a mirror image of Billie Dawn, in Katharine Hepburn’s portrayal of the very educated, self-reliant Tess Harding, who becomes involved with Spencer Tracy’s meat-and-potatoes, sports-enthusiast Sam Craig. They fall in love, and at the end of the movie (spoiler alert), we see Tess trying to eschew her intellectual gifts for domestic life with Sam, trying (and failing) to make him breakfast in the final scene. Sam encourages her to simply be herself, and not change for him. Tess had fallen victim to the same views that plagued the majority of women of that era, and many were not as lucky as she was.

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Here, with Born Yesterday, we see a shift in the narrative. “It’s a new world, Harry,” says a business associate of Harry’s, late in the movie. “Force and reason are changing places. Knowledge is power.” When Billie returns to Harry, newly educated, she encounters his brute force as he beats and yells at her. With her newfound sense of confidence and power from her education, she sees him for what he is and leaves him for Paul. An empowering message for women of the early 1950s, often trapped in abusive or unfulfilling marriages.

The “knowledge is power” theme of Born Yesterday is especially meaningful when viewed through the political lens of the late 1940s and early 1950s. McCarthyism was at its peak, with many in Hollywood as its targets. Senator Joseph McCarthy took advantage of the raw, ignorant fears of the American populace regarding communism, while the defenders of the Hollywood Ten and other blacklisted individuals fought against the base ignorance of McCarthy’s followers. In its own subtle way, Born Yesterday takes sides, and fights against the core ideology of McCarthyism by asserting that “knowledge is power,” and that brute ignorance is destructive and harmful.

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Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall lead the Committee for the First Amendment, organized to support the Hollywood Ten.

In a side note, Judy Holliday was blacklisted herself in 1952. When testifying before the subcommittee, she took on the distinctive voice and persona of Billie Dawn, confounding those asking her questions and, possibly, saving her career. Despite being blacklisted from certain media for 10 years, she ultimately returned and everything got back to normal–she worked in films and on the stage until shortly before her death in 1965.

While today’s world has changed in its attitudes toward women and education, we are currently faced with an epidemic of anti-intellectualism in our politics, reminiscent of the McCarthy years in its prideful ignorance. It is significant that the movie takes place in Washington, D.C., and extols the virtues of knowledge and education in the very location where our government is centered. We might do well to remember the message of this movie in this day and age, when knowledge and expertise are all too disposable in our political system.

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