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Olivia de Havilland: A Celebration

Olivia de Havilland with her pug, Oscar.

Olivia de Havilland died peacefully in Paris on Saturday.

She went the way we all strive to go–in her sleep, having recently celebrated her 104th birthday. Her daughter Gisèle had just been over for a visit. She was loved and adored not only by a wide circle of friends and family, but by fans all over the world. She knew it, and she felt it always. In short, she left this world a happy, fulfilled woman surrounded by love. The fact that this is how it happened for her fills my heart.

With that said, yesterday was a very strange day for me. Olivia de Havilland has been a bedrock of my life for many years. From Backlots’ earliest days, Olivia de Havilland’s life and career has been a source of fascination, inspiration, and admiration. She lived a life filled to the brim with experiences most of us can only dream of, and I viscerally feel her loss–as though there is something missing in the world now.

Her accolades are well-documented. Five Oscar nominations and two wins, the first female president of the Cannes Film Festival jury, and a woman of strength and backbone unafraid to stand up for what was right. She was a recipient of the Legion d’Honneur, and received damehood in 2017. She earned vast respect, gratitude, and admiration from legions of fans and members of the entertainment industry. “We all owe Olivia a great deal,” said her sister, Joan Fontaine, in an interview in the 1970s. Indeed, Olivia changed the industry forever with her landmark suit against Warner Bros., singlehandedly striking down a longstanding contractual practice that amounted to involuntary servitude.

With her two Oscars, the first for To Each His Own (1946) and the second for The Heiress (1949).

Her triumphs are in spite of, or perhaps because of, a life that was not always smooth sailing. From the very beginning, there were bumps in the road that she had to navigate, and challenges that seemed insurmountable. The pressures of early fame and her problems with Warner Bros. affected her psychologically–she developed anorexia and struggled with food for many long years afterward. Her first marriage, to writer Marcus Goodrich, was unhappy and violent. She lost her son, Benjamin, to the effects of Hodgkin’s Lymphoma treatment in 1991.

In many cases, the clarity and levelheadedness with which Olivia met these challenges paved her path to better days. Her landmark suit against Warner Bros. took on the practice of adding suspension time onto a 7-year contract, hinging on a then-obscure California law interpreted to mean that an employer could not hold an employee for more than 7 calendar years. She won, and the case is now a hallmark of entertainment law. It has been cited in such varied industries as sports, music, and writing, and by personalities such as Jared Leto and Johnny Carson.

Following her divorce from Marcus Goodrich, in which she was granted sole custody of Benjamin, Olivia took him to live with her in France, turning over a new leaf far from the stresses that she faced in Hollywood. She bought a house at 3 Rue Bénouville in the 16th arrondissement of Paris, which remained her home until her death. She married a Frenchman, Pierre Galante, with whom she had her daughter Gisèle. Though they amicably divorced in the 1960s, Olivia and Pierre remained great friends. While Gisèle was growing up, they remained in the same home to provide Gisèle stability, and Olivia cared for him on his deathbed in 1998.

With her children, Benjamin and Gisèle.

Her move to France allowed Olivia to explore her other interests (which were many), free from the scrutiny of gossip columnists and other Hollywood onlookers. She was able to work when she wanted to, and stay home when she wanted to. This contributed to her happiness, sense of normalcy, and, I believe, her longevity. When Benjamin died, Olivia turned in her grief to the American Cathedral in Paris, a “radically inclusive” Anglican community not far from her home. The Cathedral became a mainstay in Olivia’s life as she came to terms with the death of her child, and she became an active part of the community, often taking on “lay-reading” responsibilities at holidays.

Upon arrival in France, holding Benjamin.

She spent her last years in remarkably good health for a centenarian, and celebrated her 101st birthday by filing a lawsuit against Ryan Murphy for her portrayal in the docudrama Feud. The case, about which I wrote extensively, was based on fictitious elements that were written into Olivia’s character that were misleading to the public. The suit went through the legal system all the way up to the Supreme Court, where it was ultimately declined.

I was fascinated by the trial, and as longtime readers know, Backlots covered it meticulously. This site frequently broke news on the case, and I was present in the courtroom as the case was argued on appeal. Last summer I went to Oxford with the legal team (and Olivia’s family) to attend their lecture on the intricacies of the case.

While the Supreme Court’s decision not to take the case was disappointing, Olivia had made her point–that truth and respect should always prevail where real people are involved.

With Gisèle.

In a short interview in 2011, Olivia was asked about the most important things in life. Her response was indicative of the way she lived–the two most important things, she said, were love and laughter. “It is ‘to love,'” she clarified. “One must love.” Her smile lit up her eyes and her laugh was lilting and loud, reminiscent of her mother’s. Her sense of humor was extraordinary–intelligent, quick, and often quite bawdy.

I impart this information firsthand. I met Olivia in March of 2011 at a screening of I Remember Better When I Paint at the American Library in Paris, and she was everything I had heard she was. Dignified, classy, and articulate, a woman who loved people and valued their company. I heard that lilting laugh, as she realized with delight that my friend Sara and I both had a copy of her long out-of-print memoir, Every Frenchman Has One. As we spoke, she held my hand in hers, which felt so natural and gentle that I felt my palm melt into hers in reciprocation. It was a lovely moment that I cherish.

Olivia was not a big woman physically, but she dominated a room with her presence. Her voice, different in person than on the screen, was unlike any other that I have ever heard. When she stepped up to the podium to introduce I Remember Better When I Paint, I remember the precise moment when she began to speak. I audibly gasped at the beauty and uniqueness of that voice, which I frequently describe as “like melted chocolate.” It was perfect for the stage–deep and rich, carrying easily to the back of the room. To this day, it echoes in my ears every time I think of that evening.

Olivia signed my copy of Every Frenchman Has One.

I toasted Olivia last night with a glass of champagne and a screening of A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1935). The role of Hermia in Max Reinhardt’s production was very close to Olivia’s heart, that role having launched her career both onstage and in film. It seemed to me a fitting bookend to watch it yesterday, as I remembered all the joy and gladness she has brought to my life, and the lives of all who loved her. I bid Olivia goodbye with one of Hermia’s lines, in Act II, scene ii of A Midsummer Night’s Dream:

“Good night, sweet friend: Thy love ne’er alter till thy sweet life end!”

GONE WITH THE WIND (1939) Temporarily Pulled From HBO Max To Allow For Proper Context–A History

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When HBO Max announced that it would temporarily remove Gone With the Wind from its platform, in order to place a statement in front of it putting the film’s content into the proper context, it set off a firestorm of controversy online and in the media. Some decry the decision as censorship. Others believe that the movie speaks for itself and doesn’t need context. Still others lauded the decision, asserting that any and all attempts to educate viewers should be encouraged. Today, The Washington Post reported that the film would be back on the platform this week, with an African-American Studies scholar speaking at the front of it.

Controversy is not new to Gone With the Wind–it came under scrutiny for its depictions of slavery and race even before the film was released. Black-led organizations warned producer David O. Selznick, as early as pre-production, that he should tread carefully with his adaptation of Margaret Mitchell’s novel. It included offensive language and stereotypical depictions that would not be tolerated by the Black moviegoing public. Indeed, Selznick listened to the warnings about language (due in part to fears of protest that would certainly carry over from a planned re-release of Birth of a Nation the same year), but was walking a thin tightrope between the need for honest depictions of Black people and the financial need for the film to play in the merciless Jim Crow South. When the film was finally released, it received a storm of controversy from the Black press. Many Black critics praised Hattie McDaniel’s layered and nuanced performance as Mammy, and (somewhat surprisingly by today’s standards) praised the film’s restraint. The Crisis, the quarterly journal of the NAACP, wrote that Gone With the Wind “eliminated practically all the offensive scenes and dialogue” from the original book.

But Carlton Moss, writing for The Daily Worker, disagreed. The film was “sugar-smeared and blurred by a boresome Hollywood love story,” he stated, and he condemned Mammy’s devotion to the O’Haras, who “helped to keep her people enchained for centuries.” Black activists picketed and actively protested the film across the United States, with shouts of “Negroes were never docile slaves!” and “Gone With the Wind glorifies slavery!” Picketers carried signs outside theaters that were designed to elicit intense responses from the public.

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A protest of Gone With the Wind in Washington, D.C.

As the film has aged, and became the cultural phenomenon that it is, the scrutiny and controversy continues. Theaters have cancelled showings of the film after public outcries of protest, followed by accusations of censorship for the cancellations. This latest controversy due to the move by HBO Max is only a continuation of the trend, not something new.

In this era where entertainment is literally at our fingertips, and access to Gone With the Wind is as easy as a push of a few buttons, I feel that it is dangerous and irresponsible to allow such an inherently controversial film to be viewed in such a way, without proper context. The tradeoff for such rapid-fire consumption of information is that for many people, there is no time for critical thinking, or analysis of the what, why, and how of the material they consume. In the interest of public safety in this era, I fully support HBO Max’s decision to pull Gone With the Wind until proper context can be provided.

I also urge them to add content not just by a scholar of African-American Studies, but a scholar of the African-American experience on film. A few years ago at the TCM Classic Film Festival, I attended a wonderful panel on Gone With the Wind led by Dr. Donald Bogle. Bogle is the pre-eminent historian on Black Hollywood and an instructor at New York University and UPenn. He is an impressive speaker and personally knew many of the biggest figures of African-American classic Hollywood, and his perspective would lend a personal dimension to the film. Also on the Gone With the Wind panel was Dr. Jacqueline Stewart, instructor at University of Chicago and current host of Silent Sunday Nights on TCM. Her knowledge of classic Hollywood in general, as well as her expertise on the African-American experience on film, would also be an excellent addition to HBO Max’s reinstatement of Gone With the Wind.

 

 

Donald Bogle and Jacqueline Stewart

I want to close on a positive note regarding Gone With the Wind. Yesterday was the birthday of Hattie McDaniel, “Mammy” in the film, who was an actor, a poet, a songwriter, an intellectual, and activist. She was one of the most prolific supporting players in Hollywood, though her roles rarely deviated from that of a maid. When she was selected for an Academy Award nomination, the Black sorority Sigma Gamma Rho endorsed her and wrote to David O. Selznick: “We trust that discrimination and prejudice will be wiped away in the selection of the winner of this award, for without Miss McDaniel there would be no Gone With the Wind.” McDaniel won, and became the first African-American to receive an Academy Award.

 

 

The Friendship of Ingrid Bergman and Ruth Roberts

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Ingrid Bergman with Ruth Roberts, to her left, and other crew on the set of Gaslight (1944)

During this COVID-19 crisis, I’m finding daily routine to be a key factor in maintaining some semblance of normalcy. For me, this means daily classic movies at set times of the day. Movies keep me calm, and bring comfort in a world that seems to be crumbling further every day. If you derive comfort from film the way I do, and you haven’t discovered the Criterion Collection yet, I’m finding it to be a godsend in this regard, a movie lover’s dream. Having finished the delightful Jean Arthur collection, I’m now working my way through the “Ingrid Bergman in Europe” collection, a diverse group of films from Ingrid Bergman’s pre-Hollywood days in Sweden, and her work in Europe following her troubles in Hollywood.

I have always found Ingrid Bergman a fascinating personality and from childhood, have been riveted by her comforting, Swedish-accented voice, distinctive beauty, magnificent acting and personal strength of character. Her onscreen portrayals reflect her offscreen strength, as she frequently played independent and strong women, including the likes of Joan of Arc and Golda Meir. The difficulties she faced in Hollywood (she fell in love with Roberto Rossellini and gave birth to their son, Roberto, out of wedlock in 1949) were excruciatingly painful. While she suffered immensely at having been rejected by Hollywood, she held her chin high and continued working–albeit in Europe for the next 7 years rather than in the United States where she had effectively been ostracized.

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Ingrid Bergman before coming to Hollywood.

Bergman was a gifted linguist and polyglot–brought up in Stockholm bilingual in Swedish and German, she loved language for its own sake and was able to adjust quickly to life and work in Europe. However, when she came to the United States to work on the English version of Intermezzo for David O. Selznick in 1939, it was a different story. Her knowledge of English was rudimentary at best, and Selznick was worried about how she would sound onscreen. On her first day at the studio, she was introduced to a woman named Ruth Roberts, who was to be her English language and dialogue coach.

Ruth Roberts was the sister of director George Seaton, and came from a Swedish immigrant family herself. Ruth spoke fluent Swedish due to her family background, and later served as Loretta Young’s Swedish dialect coach on The Farmer’s Daughter. But she made the decision not to divulge her bilingualism to Ingrid.

In order to familiarize Ingrid with English, of which she knew just a smattering (she speaks a few lines of simple, broken English in the Swedish film Dollar, which is interesting to hear), Selznick demanded that she spend day and night with Roberts. At first, Ingrid balked at this order–but ultimately accepted. After a few mere hours with Ruth Roberts, Ingrid realized that she had been wrong to resist. She had found a kindred spirit, a woman who would become her best friend and one of the great influences of her life.

The two did, indeed, spend all their time together, speaking nothing but English–and Ingrid found that despite her initial hesitancy at having her freedom curtailed, she adored Ruth and enjoyed spending time with her. In her autobiography, My Story, Ingrid recalled that one day when Ruth was coaching her on the set, there was a word whose pronunciation Ingrid was struggling with. “If only you could give me one Swedish word…” Ingrid said sadly, knowing she could get the pronunciation if she only knew how to form her mouth correctly. Ruth looked her right in the eye and gave her a Swedish word with the same sound.

“You speak Swedish?” Ingrid asked incredulously.

“I am Swedish.”

“Then why–”

“Because, Ingrid dear, if I’d told you earlier you’d be jabbering away in Swedish and my job is to get your English right.”

From the American version of Intermezzo, Ingrid Bergman’s first English language film.

The revelation of Ruth’s bilingualism deepened their friendship further, and their shared connection to Sweden helped Ingrid acclimate and learn quickly. It was thanks to her friendship with Ruth Roberts that her English improved so rapidly. Ruth remained Ingrid’s dialect coach throughout her career, even when Ingrid spoke perfect English and had established her “voice” in Hollywood. Ingrid’s autobiography is filled with correspondence with Ruth Roberts, in both English and Swedish, and stories of Ruth’s emotional support during Ingrid’s ostracization from Hollywood and her connection to Ingrid’s children. Their friendship was lifelong, and though Ruth was 16 years older, the two died only 3 months apart in 1982.

The gift that this friendship gave Ingrid is immeasurable. Though she did have a gift for languages, eventually learning 2 more in addition to English, her personal and professional connection to Ruth Roberts provided her with the foundation and confidence to not only work in a foreign language, but to win 3 Oscars in it. This was not lost on Ingrid, who treasured their friendship and remained grateful to Ruth for the rest of her life.

 

Classic Film for Trying Times

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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.

Funny:

The Thin Man (1934)

The Awful Truth (1937)

Ball of Fire (1941)

My Man Godfrey (1936)

Nostalgic/Sad:

I Remember Mama (1948)

Penny Serenade (1941)

Stella Dallas (1937)

The Best Years of Our Lives (1946)

Charming:

Indiscreet (1958)

Auntie Mame (1958)

Pillow Talk (1959)

The Philadelphia Story (1940)

Musicals:

Funny Face (1957)

Swing Time (1936)

Golddiggers of 1933 (1933)

On the Town (1949)

Meet Me in St. Louis (1944)

Pre-code:

Baby Face (1933)

Red-Headed Woman (1932)

Ladies They Talk About (1933)

The Blue Angel (1930)

Hollywood and the Office of War Information, 1942-1945

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The other day as I was eating breakfast, I began to think (as normal people do) about wartime food rationing. Today, few people blink an eye when eating an omelette or a cookie, which consist almost entirely of foods rationed during wartime, but when the United States entered World War II and began limiting the availability of many goods, the content of meals was an everyday concern.

Rationing, enacted by the United States government in response to the increased military needs of wartime, was not an easy sell to the American public. In order to convince the public to accept rationing, and other wartime necessities in the eyes of the government, the administration of Franklin D. Roosevelt had to get creative. The Office of War Information was tasked with making the American people believe that the government was doing what was best for them and for the world. To achieve that goal, they turned to Hollywood.

From the beginning of the U.S. involvement in World War II, the Office of War Information had played an integral role in maintaining American support for the war effort. Formed by executive order in June of 1942, it partnered with Hollywood almost immediately as an image liaison to the general public. As OWI director Elmer Davis said: “The easiest way to inject a propaganda idea into people’s minds is to let it go through the medium of an entertainment picture when they do not realize they are being propagandized.” Roosevelt agreed–the medium of motion pictures were a powerful tool, he felt, and the restrictions on the film industry were much lighter than other industries, allowing for maximum utility. He instructed the OWI to implement a Bureau of Motion Pictures, which would serve as a New Deal stronghold and would influence the content of nearly all of Hollywood’s output during the time of its existence. The Manual for the Motion Picture Industry, released by the BMP in June of 1942, underscored that World War II was to be seen as the common man’s war, that the Four Freedoms (freedom of speech and religion and freedom from want and fear) were at stake for the whole world, and this was to be shown in the films screened in American theaters. Soon, the Manual for the Motion Picture Industry became the go-to book for employees working in wartime Hollywood.

From banning re-releases of Gunga Din and Kim due to the government’s anti-imperial stance, to forbidding the international release of The Palm Beach Story (Americans would be viewed as too silly, they said), the OWI’s influence on the industry was far-reaching. By the end of 1942, nearly all major studios were allowing the OWI to examine their scripts and story treatments, toward the end goal of “Will This Picture Help Win the War?” Short films began to appear touting the war effort, often featuring major stars. Here is a Warner Bros short film featuring Bette Davis encouraging Americans to buy war bonds instead of Christmas presents.

Chuck Jones and the Leon Schlesinger Unit at Warner Bros produced “The Point Rationing of Foods” for the Office of War Information, to sell the concept of rationing to the American people. The United States had begun rationing almost immediately following the attack on Pearl Harbor. The change was introduced gradually, with the government rationing one item at a time, but by the end of 1943, most everyday items were rationed.

In order to prevent hoarding and people selling goods on the black market for a higher price, the government instituted price ceilings for rationed items, as seen in “Prices Unlimited.” Here, we also see how ration boards worked, and the government’s idea of what would have happened if rationing were not implemented.

After Republicans made major gains in Congress in the 1942 congressional election, the House of Representatives voted to defund the entire Domestic Branch of the OWI for 1944, seeing it as just a mouthpiece for Roosevelt’s policies. Funding was ultimately restored, but with severe restrictions, and the office was officially closed with the end of the war in 1945. With the rise of the Red Scare coinciding with the end of the war, many of those involved with the BMP and the OWI in Hollywood were targeted for being communists, and several employees admitted to having belonged to communist front organizations. Elmer Davis, who became a journalist after the war, was vocal in his defense of his colleagues in the wake of invasive investigations by Senator Joseph McCarthy and HUAC. In his book, But We Were Born Free, he blasts McCarthy and the HUAC hearings as “a master class of obscene innuendo.”

In signing the Executive Order ending the OWI, President Harry S. Truman credited the OWI with an “outstanding contribution to victory,” and while its underlying morals of propaganda are controversial today, the OWI’s work is considered to be an important part of American mobilization on the home front.

The Case for Subtitles

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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.

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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.

Legality and Morality Surrounding CGI James Dean

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Since my coverage of the Olivia de Havilland case against FX, I’ve become quite interested in intellectual property law and its modern and historical applications in the film industry. So I found it fascinating when, a few weeks ago, the trade papers announced that a newly-formed movie studio, Magic City Studios, would cast a CGI version of James Dean in an upcoming film about the Vietnam War. It prompted a backlash online, which only seemed to embolden the filmmakers. Worldwide XR, which holds the rights to 400 celebrities, came out with a list of the next classic Hollywood stars who could be “reincarnated” via CGI technology, a list that included Bette Davis and Ingrid Bergman.

The inclusion of Bette Davis in such a list got me thinking about the ethics and repercussions of this technology for actors. Bette Davis was among the most vocal advocates for actors’ rights in Hollywood. In 1937, she sued Warner Bros to get out of her contract, claiming that their contract system was an abuse of studio power over actors’ careers. She ultimately lost the case, but Olivia de Havilland picked up the torch and brought almost the same suit in 1943. De Havilland won, and it changed the industry forever, giving actors more agency over their careers.

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Bette Davis leaving for a London court in 1937, where she sued Warner Bros in a contract dispute.

Most of the attention surrounding James Dean’s CGI recreation has been around the legality of using his image, rather than the legality of resurrecting a deceased actor for a part that could be played by a living, paid one. Right of publicity and intellectual property have been argued over in California courts for decades–when Bela Lugosi’s heirs sued Universal Pictures for using images of Lugosi without their permission, an appeals court ruled that heirs have no right to a deceased relatives’ likeness, and that their image is fair use. However, in 1985, California passed the California Celebrities Rights Act, which created an inheritable right to publicity, valid for 50 years following a person’s death (it has subsequently been extended to 70). Due to this ruling, James Dean’s family owns the right to his likeness. The filmmakers have been granted permission from the family to use it, and they are within their full legal right to do so now.

However, to my mind, the larger issue is what this means for working actors. Resurrecting dead actors, regardless of technical legality, could turn into a problematic and even destructive situation for Hollywood, as it would open the door to CGI interpretations by deceased celebrities when filmmakers don’t want to pay someone for his or her work. In this particular case, the filmmakers might be getting around this sticking point by paying an actor to voice James Dean. But voice actors are generally paid per job, and it is significantly less than an onscreen actor’s salary. They can be union or non-union, allowing the filmmakers to take advantage of a non-union voice actor’s work, paying far less than they would to hire an onscreen actor affiliated with SAG-AFTRA.

In addition, the filmmakers run into problems with SAG-AFTRA regulations when choosing to use this technology. Union rules require that every effort must be made to employ a union member before extending a hiring search to non-union members (which, presumably, would include the dead). The Taft-Hartley Act, passed in 1947, allows filmmakers to hire non-union members for roles that cannot be filled by an enrolled union member. The CGI image of Peter Cushing in Rogue One: A Star Wars Story is an example of this rule in practice. The character has been so indelibly linked with Cushing over the decades that a CGI recreation seems almost a requirement. Also, actor Guy Henry provided the character’s body with Cushing’s head superimposed, perhaps allowing George Lucas some extra legal protection. There hasn’t been any indication thus far that the same will happen with James Dean.

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Peter Cushing in CGI.

But there are strict rules for hiring non-union actors for a role that could be filled by a dues-paying member, per the Taft-Hartley Act. From the SAG-AFTRA website: “Taft-Hartley reports must be completed and submitted directly to SAG-AFTRA by the signatory producer or casting director within 15 days from the performer’s work date.” Following those rules, as James Dean is not a union member (having been dead since 1955), he would have to be cleared for hire via a Taft-Hartley report.

It all sounds rather ridiculous. Industry law has not yet caught up with CGI recreation, which would have been considered impossible just a few short years ago.

SAG-AFTRA president Gabrielle Carteris gave her opinion in an interview with Variety:  “From the perspective of the actor, it subverts the creative process, reduces opportunities to work and is an attack on creativity. I also challenge those who say this is the only way the creator’s vision can be realized.”

It will be interesting to see what comes of this film, and whether or not my fears about abuse of CGI technology will come to pass. Technological advances in the film industry have always stoked lots of worry on the part of the public and the industry alike. But this particular advance doesn’t just feel new and revolutionary, it feels dangerous.

MR. SMITH GOES TO WASHINGTON (1939) on Women in Political Life

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Last night, I was pleased to see that KQED, my local PBS affiliate, was showing Mr. Smith Goes to Washington for their weekly Saturday night movie program. I have always loved this film, and deeply respect the emotional integrity and intelligence it brings to the screen.

It’s hard to imagine that at one time, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington was very subversive and controversial. Today, its message of resilience is so universal that any overt political message is overshadowed to the modern eye. But when Mr. Smith Goes to Washington premiered at the National Press Club in Washington, many senators were present and a large group of them walked out, offended at the governmental corruption the film depicted. Joseph P. Kennedy tried to prevent the film’s release in Europe, as he felt it would encourage the Axis powers. At the time of the film’s release, government had not yet acquired the reputation of corruption that we now take so for granted. Mr. Smith Goes to Washington changed that to a large extent.

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The film’s influence on the decline of the studio system is well-documented. United States v. Paramount Pictures et al struck down the studios’ practice of block booking (wherein a theater had to purchase 5 films to show 1), because so many theaters opposed to purchasing Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. Its foreshadowing of the McCarthy era, and the political control of media outlets and the information they disseminate to the public, has, deservedly, been analyzed many times. This is part of Mr. Smith Goes to Washington‘s lasting legacy. What I want to talk about is something that is not often discussed–the complex and subtle commentaries on women in politics that exist within the film.

In the Roosevelt era, women were just beginning to gain a foothold in American political life. The film’s references to “96 men” when referring to the makeup of the Senate (Hawaii and Alaska were not yet states), is not an accurate picture of the Senate in 1939. Mr. Smith Goes to Washington was conceived in an election year where a number of high profile races were taking place, one of which was an Arkansas race between Republican C.D. Atkinson and Democrat Hattie Caraway. Caraway, the incumbent, had been the first woman ever elected to the Senate. Much like the fictional Jefferson Smith, she had been appointed to the Senate (following her husband’s death), then was reelected in her own right the next year. In spite of tough opposition in 1938, she won another reelection with a landslide 89.6% victory over Atkinson.

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Senator Hattie Caraway in her office.

Senator Caraway’s presence is ignored in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, perhaps for several reasons. While the movie was filmed in early 1939 after Caraway’s victory, the script was written prior to the election. The screenwriters, Sidney Buchman and Myles Connolly, likely did not want to predict the outcome. And even after her victory, pointing out a woman in the Senate may have felt too political, regardless of the fact that Caraway was indeed in the Senate. Or, perhaps, they were trying to create a completely unrecognizable governmental body.

Whatever the reason for leaving Senator Caraway out of the picture, a true female political force is indeed revealed in the movie, through the character of Saunders, played to perfection by Jean Arthur.

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Saunders, whose first name we learn is Clarissa, is Jefferson Smith’s fast-talking legal secretary. She is a bit cynical and jaded, a true Washington insider, but maintains a sense of humor. Whip-smart and experienced, she scoffs at the newbie Jefferson Smith, who has been appointed from some unnamed western state when the previous senator died, and she lectures him on congressional procedure when he gets too optimistic about his bill to open a boys camp at Willet Creek. Saunders is respected by men, and is considered their equal. At one point, Smith pries her first name out of her and he lets it sit for a moment, repeats it, then goes back to calling her Saunders. When he mounts his famous filibuster against the Willet Creek Dam Project at the end, she coaches him from the gallery, walking him through the entire process. She is smarter than anyone else in the room, and more strategic. It is clear that in a just world, she would have been the one named replacement senator.

In Jean Arthur’s gutsy characterization of Saunders, we see a strong, intelligent woman whose gender relegates her to work as a political secretary rather than a politician, and who directs a marathon filibuster from the balcony to which she is relegated as a bystander. The characterization can be read not only as a commentary on the general situation of women in the United States, but also as a call for women to be accepted as full and participating members of public life.

The film ends ambiguously, with Jefferson Smith taken out of the Senate chamber after fainting, and the corrupt Senator Paine confessing to his crimes. I like to think that perhaps following this ambiguous ending, for Saunders too, there is a political future.

This last midterm election, the United States elected a congressional body with the highest percentage of women in history. Somewhere, Hattie Caraway is cheering, and Saunders is finally no longer on the sidelines.

 

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STRONG AND TENDER: The Story of Carole Lombard and Bess Peters

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When Carole Lombard received an Oscar nomination for My Man Godfrey, she was asked where her talent for screwball comedy came from. On the surface, Carole’s own early life had been much like the one her character Irene Bullock lived. She was likely expected to answer that the role came naturally to her because of her youth. But instead she replied with a surprising answer–the character of Irene Bullock, she felt, had a sense of tragedy about her. She never specified what that tragedy was that she saw in Irene Bullock, in much the same way that Carole rarely spoke about the complexities of her childhood experiences in Fort Wayne, Indiana. Those childhood experiences, the good and the bad, served as the underlying inspiration for her portrayal of Irene Bullock and also formed the foundation of her bond with her mother, Bess Peters.

This past weekend, I attended Kimberly Truhler’s pre-code Style and Sin lecture at the Egyptian Theatre in Hollywood. These presentations are extremely popular, drawing crowds from the classic film world and the style world alike, as Kimberly delivers talks on the fashion of pre-code Hollywood and how it has influenced the styles of today. This past weekend focused on the fashion and films of Carole Lombard, with a double feature following of Virtue and Twentieth Century. I knew that I couldn’t miss it, so I came down to Los Angeles for the event.

As Kimberly spoke about Carole Lombard’s childhood, it dawned on me that very little has been written about the strong bond that existed between Carole Lombard and her mother. It was a bond that grew out of a hardship barely visible to outsiders, but that marked Carole in ways that she rarely let show.

Bess Peters gave birth to her daughter, born Jane Alice Peters, in Fort Wayne, Indiana on October 6, 1908. She was the third and youngest child of Bess and her husband, Frederic “Fred” Peters, whose family had become wealthy selling hardware. Bess was from a prominent Fort Wayne family herself, with old money that merged with Fred’s new to provide a very comfortable home for Jane and her two older brothers, Frederick Jr. and Stuart. The three grew up climbing trees and playing sports, with Jane right alongside her older brothers and showing great promise as an athlete.

The elder Frederic Peters had suffered an elevator accident before he married Bess, and it left him with a permanent leg injury and horrendous headaches that affected him so much that his moods changed and he turned violent. While it is not known what happened inside the home, the family was terrified of his headaches. It is thought that Fred was abusive to Bess, and the children witnessed it. “Contrary to the general notion,” Carole said in an interview with Sonia Lee in 1934, “I haven’t had an easy time. I had a horrible childhood because my parents were dreadfully unhappy in their marriage. It left scars on my mind and on my heart.”

Eventually, Bess left with the children. Their trip to California in October of 1915 was discussed in the Fort Wayne press as an extended holiday that included the whole family, but Fred Peters ultimately stayed in Indiana. Carole said in 1932 that her mother needed the rest. They planned to stay in Los Angeles for 6 months, but they found that with the combination of the favorable climate and Fred’s headaches back in Indiana getting worse and worse, they seemed destined to stay.

Jane thrived in California, her tomboyish energy and skill in sports earning her the respect of the neighborhood boys. Her tree-climbing and fence-scaling ruined her clothes, but Bess never discouraged her from it. In a Screenland profile, Bess’ parenting style was described as “100 years ahead of her time.” She cheered her daughter on in anything she tried, and encouraged her to find her own path, wherever that might lead her. Bess’ children were the only connections she had in California, and she needed them as much as they needed her.

Jane was particularly close to her mother, and that closeness remained all their lives. Even when Jane grew up and became Carole Lombard, she clung to Bess and missed her terribly when they weren’t together. When she was with friends, Carole would often think of her mother out of the blue. “That Bessie,” she would announce, “Is she terrific! Do you adore her? Let’s call her up.” And she would telephone her mother, including all her friends in the call. Carole and Bess saw each other nearly every day. Adela Rogers St. Johns noted that theirs was an unusually close bond, even as far as mothers and daughters went.

After Bess and the children left Fort Wayne, Carole rarely if ever saw her father again. Her parents had gone through what Carole referred to as a “Victorian divorce,” never officially divorcing but never again considering themselves husband and wife. She regarded herself as Bess Peters’ child and never thought much about her father. When he died in 1935, she did not attend the funeral.

Bess was an unusual woman, exceedingly tolerant and non-judgmental of her daughter or anyone. Her family had been a bit aristocratic and stuffy, while she was always sophisticated and adventurous. She was proud of Carole’s career and what she had done for herself, having once been an aspiring actress herself. She watched her daughter rise to comedic excellence and international fame, watched her receive an Oscar nomination and become one of the most respected actresses in Hollywood–not only for her work, but also for her vivacious and loving personality. “She is satisfied with the sincere friendship and love that her children offer her,” wrote Screenland magazine about Bess, “and she refuses to block with advice, tears or commands any course they wish to follow.”

Bess Peters with Carole and Clark Gable at their wedding, 1939.

When the United States became involved in World War II, Carole immediately wanted to help. For most film stars, the way to help with the war effort was to entertain the troops and raise money, by traveling to bond rallies in various American cities. Being a native daughter of Indiana, the natural place for Carole to go was Indianapolis, and there she went in mid-January of 1942, raising over $1 million in bonds during her time there. Bess was there with her, lending her daughter support and cheering her on as always.

To get back to Los Angeles on January 16, 1942, Carole and Bess boarded TWA Flight 3 which would leave from Indianapolis and refuel in Nevada before heading to its final destination. The details of what happened that night are well known. If you are curious, I would recommend reading Robert Matzen’s excellent book Fireball, but what is relevant here is that due to blackouts and severe lack of visibility, TWA Flight 33 crashed violently into Mount Potosi in the Sierra Nevadas, killing everyone onboard. The crash site where Carole and Bess died together is now a de facto cemetery, virtually untouched since the night of the crash 77 years ago.

In her memorial of Carole Lombard, Adela Rogers St. Johns  wrote of the “strong and tender” Carole, remarking on her close relationship with Bess as evidence of who she was as a person. At the close of her section about Bess, she writes: “Someone said to me this morning that it seemed so awful that her mother should have been killed, too. I can’t feel that, knowing them. It would have been so awful for the one that was left.”

JUDY and Lara in the News

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.