Tag Archives: tcm

Movies and an Unmanageable World

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. Those of us who are empathic individuals 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.”

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@Shannon_Of_Oz says:

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.

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@celluloidsoul says:

The Prisoner of Zenda (1937) Anxiety, stress, pain, (multiple viewings while recovering from surgery)… there’s no balm more calming than ’s voice in this performance. The entire cast is perfect. It just takes me somewhere else whenever I feel lost or distressed.

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@Scifilia says:

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.

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@earnehaffey says:

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 😁

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@NancyEB says:

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.

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@scarlettboulev2 says:

Bringing Up Baby. Can’t watch that without laughing!

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@awellreadsnark says:

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?

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@claresmith1888 says:

His Girl Friday. Funny, smart, poignant and the gorgeous Rosalind Russell and Cary Grant. Makes everything better.

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@EmilyJS7 says:

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.

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@Decervelage says:

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.

 

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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!

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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…”

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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.

Olivia de Havilland Update, Part II–How to Get Involved

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Dear readers, over the past months, I have gotten several comments and emails from people asking what they can do to help the Olivia de Havilland case. I just received some correspondence from de Havilland’s legal counsel, outlining exactly how to get involved in the petition to review the appellate court’s decision. I had known this was coming for some time, but wanted to wait to update you until I had all the information. Now I can tell you all the details of exactly what we can do.

We are to write amici curiae letters to the California Supreme Court in support of the petition to review. For those up to the task–doing this correctly requires careful following of several steps, so I’m going to streamline it as much as possible based on what I’ve done, so that this process can take as little of your time as possible.

Here is what your letterhead should look like, and how you should address and start the letter:

Your name

Your address

Your phone number

 

 

Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye

and the Associate Justices

Supreme Court of California

350 McAllister st.

San Francisco, CA 94102
Re: de Havilland v. FX Networks, LLC, et al., Court of Appeal Case No. B285629 and California Supreme Court Case No. S248614

Dear Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye and the Associate Justices of the California Supreme Court,

Pursuant to California Rule of Court 8.500(g), I am writing in support of the Petition for Review of Olivia de Havilland, de Havilland v. FX Networks, LLC, et al., Court of Appeal Case Number B285629 and California Supreme Court Case Number S248614.

Here is what you should put in the letter:

  • Who you are, your profession, your interest in the issues of the case (right to protect name and identity from knowingly false statements, right to a trial by jury, etc)
  • Why these issues are important to be considered by the California Supreme Court
  • Why trial by jury is important for everyone, not just Dame Olivia
  • State that you have no personal financial interest in the case

Speak in your own voice, and explain (for example) why truth in media is important, and that falsehoods have no value. Most of all, make it your own and explain why this is important to you.

THEN:

Fill out the Proof of Service document. It’s pretty self-explanatory. Feel free to just download the photo, print it, and fill it out.

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Now comes the rather daunting part (in case you forgot that this is a legal case).

  • Make TWO copies of the letter and send them to the attorneys on both sides of the case. Their names and addresses are in the Proof of Service document, but to make everything totally accessible, here they are again:

Suzelle M. Smith, Esq.                                             Kelly M. Klaus, Esq.

Howarth & Smith                                                     Munger Tolles & Olson LLP

523 W. 6th Street                                                      350 South Grand Avenue

Suite 728                                                                   50th Floor

Los Angeles, CA 90014                                            Los Angeles, CA 90071

  • Then you must make EIGHT copies of the letter you wrote, and mail the copies, along with the original letter you wrote and the Proof of Service to the Clerk of the Court:

Mr. Jorge E. Navarrete

Clerk of the Court

Supreme Court of California

350 McAllister Street

San Francisco, CA 94102-4797

  • And that’s it!

We are to get our letters mailed by June 1, 2018. Suzelle Smith’s office wants us to know that she’s aware of how much effort this is, but she assures us that it will be well worth it. These letters might make the difference.

Any questions? Comments? Feel free to leave anything in the comments section or email me. Thank you so much for supporting this important cause. Suzelle Smith closed her correspondence with:

“Thank you very much for your interest in Miss de Havilland’s case and your willingness to be a part of the process for justice.  If the California Supreme Court does take the case, we hope you will be at the oral argument.”

Happy letter writing!

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Olivia de Havilland Update

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Dear readers, just as I was preparing to update you on the remaining days of the TCM Classic Film Festival (and my Show People intro), some pressing news found its way into my inbox. I have prided myself on bringing news on the Olivia de Havilland case to Backlots’ readers before the mainstream news outlets get it, but it looks like I’m going to have to up my game–Variety broke this before I did (though I did tweet about it first. I have a vicious competitive streak when I get going!) Regardless, here is the latest news on the Olivia de Havilland case.

This afternoon, Olivia de Havilland’s lawyers filed a petition with the California Supreme Court to review the decision of the appellate court, that upheld the anti-SLAPP motion filed by FX in de Havilland’s case against them. De Havilland’s counsel has noted that there was perhaps conflict of interest with the three judge panel that convened to review the case at the appellate court, and they hope that the California Supreme Court will give de Havilland the jury trial that she desires.

Shortly after the appellate court decision, de Havilland wrote from her home in Paris that “it is important that cases with merit be allowed to proceed to a jury trial. My case is about FX publishing false statements about me and using my name without consent. I, and other individuals in like circumstances, should not be denied our Constitutional right to trial by jury, as the trial judge ruled.”

I will be posting information soon regarding how Backlots readers can get involved, asking the court to accept the petition for review. Please stay tuned, and I’ll continue to bring you all the newest information as I learn it.

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Backlots at the TCM Classic Film Festival–And Lara in Attendance for SHOW PEOPLE (1928)

Dear readers, I have been keeping mum on news about the TCM Classic Film Festival until I got confirmation of some news of my own. That confirmation arrived in my inbox two days ago and was made public today…so here I am to let you know that Backlots has press credentials for the TCM Classic Film Festival, and (my own news) that I will be in attendance to introduce the Saturday night screening of Marion Davies’ Show People (1928).

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Each year, the TCM Classic Film Festival brings together classic film fans from around the world, many of whom know each other already, due to the powers of the internet. It often feels like one big family reunion, where everyone speaks the language of classic film–complete with in-depth references to Barbara Stanwyck’s pre-codes, Ann Miller’s hair, and who should have played Ashley in Gone With the Wind. Nowhere else on earth could these conversations occur at the depth at which they do at the TCM Classic Film Festival, and for many attendees, meeting others with similar interests is a rare and welcome occasion.

This is Backlots’ 6th year covering the festival. This year will be different, as my appearance at Show People means that I will be a very busy person during TCM Festival week. But I will do my utmost to bring you coverage as I have in all previous years–with a live Twitter feed and a blog post every night as I’m able.

Please stay tuned for more updates as I have them!

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Decision in Olivia de Havilland vs. FX

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.”

Olivia de Havilland vs. FX: On Opinions, Arguments, and Accuracy

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In the aftermath of the Olivia de Havilland oral arguments yesterday, I have seen many reports about what happened during the hearing, and opinions about the case from varied sources. As one who was in the courtroom as it happened, I would like to address a few things that I’ve been seeing frequently over the past 24 hours.

The case is ultimately about holding the powerful accountable to the truth. FX, a big and powerful corporation, took immense liberties with de Havilland’s characterization in Feud, putting vulgar words in her mouth and attributing lines to her that she would not have said, nor signed off on, should she have had the privilege of seeing a script first.  It is true that if the characterization were truthful and accurate, by the standard that we use to judge credible news stories, FX would be well within its legal rights to use her image and likeness. But the false or misleading statements attributed to de Havilland in the series are a disservice not only to de Havilland, but also to the viewers of Feud. No one likes to be lied to or misled, and as I have mentioned before, I myself was misled by the interview that framed the series. I thought it was a real interview that I had missed–I went looking for it, and only when I couldn’t find it did I realize that it was created by the series. I’ve seen just about everything she’s ever done. Can we imagine a passive viewer, who had never heard of de Havilland before, watching Feud? I shudder to think how many passive viewers of Feud are out there who now think that de Havilland gave that interview, and called Joan Fontaine a “bitch” to industry professionals.

This morning, a piece appeared in Vanity Fair whose headline ran “Olivia de Havilland Tries to Prove in Court That She’s Never Used the Word ‘Bitch.'” The first line ran: “You’ll never hear a recording of Olivia de Havilland using the word ‘bitch.’ At least, that’s what her lawyers are arguing now in their ongoing case against FX and its portrayal of the Oscar-winning actress in the series Feud.” This upset me on two levels–first, the gross misrepresentation of the argument (the argument is not that de Havilland has never used the term, but rather she never used it to refer to her sister to industry professionals, the way Feud depicts), and second, the way the article uses shock value and half truths in a similar way to Feud. I did write to Vanity Fair about this, and whether it was due to my input or an independent decision, the article has since been clarified.

But this is what we have come to expect of news and informational sources, of which Feud is one. Another argument I have seen frequently over the past day is one that says “Feud is entertainment, I don’t watch it for historical accuracy.” Entertainment that depicts real people, especially living people, has a responsibility to historical accuracy. Those of us who write about film are inundated regularly with people who believe fictionalizations of real people are rooted in fact. As I work on my biography of Marion Davies, The Cat’s Meow (a fantasy piece about what happened to Thomas Ince on William Randolph Hearst’s yacht) has been a fire that I’ve had to put out every time I give a talk. People love scandal, and if there’s a scandal, they tend to believe rumor above and beyond the facts that disprove it. In addition to the right of publicity claims that de Havilland is fighting for, shows like Feud that add artistic license to real personalities make our lives as film writers that much harder.

In terms of de Havilland and Fontaine, I frequently find myself correcting or defending. One of the things that irked me the most in the courtroom yesterday was the opposing counsel repeatedly referring to the relationship between de Havilland and Fontaine as a “feud.” I highly dislike that term to describe them. They were sisters, who had their ups and downs and good times and hard times. Theirs was a very complex relationship, one that no one understood but them. I make it a point never to judge one sister for her actions regarding the other. Because all we know is the tip of the iceberg of what drove their relationship to be what it was–and it’s truly none of our business anyway. For Feud to touch on that relationship at all, much less without talking to de Havilland first, was inappropriate.

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My favorite picture of the de Havilland sisters, on the night Joan Fontaine won the Best Actress Oscar for Suspicion.

I’ve been seeing many comments expressing the viewpoint that if de Havilland wins, it’s going to change the way docudramas are made. It won’t–it will simply hold studios accountable to the truth when the docudrama involves a living person. If the studio is not willing to do accurate research using reliable sources (non-salacious biographical books with endnotes, newspapers, documentaries, interviews), perhaps that living person should not appear in the docudrama. The Divine Feud, the book by Shaun Considine that Feud references in the case as a research tool, is very salacious and I was surprised to see it in FX’s list of sources.

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California law is explicit in its different applications of the law to the living and to the deceased, and de Havilland’s right of publicity stands for fictionalized works. If she were deceased, a separate statute exists that exempts fictionalized works like movies, books, and plays from having to answer to right of publicity suits. But Olivia de Havilland is alive, and she has a right to be heard.