Tag Archives: turner classic movies

LABOR DAY 2019: Norma Rae (1979)

MSDNORA EC002

In 1973, labor organizer Crystal Lee Sutton was fired from the J.P. Stevens textile plant in Roanoke Rapids, NC. Her crime was “insubordination,” after her boss took issue with Sutton copying an anti-union letter on the bulletin board. Sutton had been organizing the workers in the plant to form a defense against unsafe working conditions and harassment from the bosses. Shortly after being fired, Sutton stood on a table with a hand-written sign reading “UNION,” workers turned off their machines, and all attention focused on her.

While Sutton was fired, her efforts worked–the textile workers voted to unionize the following year, and Sutton quickly landed a replacement job–working for the AFL-CIO as a labor organizer.

popup

Her story gripped the nation, and the year after the workers at the plant voted to unionize, her story became Norma Rae–a low-budget movie that rose to the ranks of serious contender for the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival. It was nominated for 4 Academy Awards, including Best Picture, of which it earned 2–one for Sally Field in her first Academy Award win for Best Actress, and one for its theme song, “It Goes Like it Goes.” The film was a huge success upon its release, grossing $22 million–$17 million more than it took to make.

In the years since its release, Norma Rae has become synonymous with the labor movement, and with Sally Field. Up to this point, Field had been best known for her roles in The Flying Nun and Gidget. Her reputation made her an unlikely choice for Norma Rae. But following her knockout performance in Sybil two years earlier, her potential as a serious actress was the buzz of the industry. After Jane Fonda turned down the role of Norma Rae, the assistant of director Martin Ritt recommended Field. Ritt took to her immediately, but he had to fight with studio executives to allow her to be cast. Fields writes in her memoir, In Pieces:

“Marty Ritt asked me to come in… He said, ‘Look, the studio doesn’t want you… and they offered it to everyone else, and luckily they turned it down, because I want you, and I will fight for you, and I will win.”

Ritt was right in his instincts. As production continued, it became clear that Sally Field’s performance was going to change her career. Far from her girl-next-door portrayals of Gidget and The Flying Nun, Field played Norma Rae as a fierce, determined fighter with a backbone of steel.

The details of production demonstrate the wide-ranging impact that Sutton’s activities had on J.P. Stevens and other textile mills. Martin Ritt had wanted to shoot on location at a J.P. Stevens plant, but due to the vociferous objections of the bosses, they had to find another, friendlier mill. They ultimately opted for Opelika Manufacturing Corp. in Opelika, AL, where the workers had voted in a strong union, much like the one at J.P. Stevens. During the scenes at the mill, the real-life workers played extras.

norma-rae_668_330_80_int_s_c1

Norma Rae‘s production generated great excitement among the residents in small-town Opelika. At the time, Field was the girlfriend of Burt Reynolds, whose star dwarfed hers. Residents of Opelika frequently came out to watch the shoots, hoping that Reynolds would visit Field on the set. He did several times. Guy Rhodes, associate editor of the Tuskegee News in Tuskegee, AL, wrote about the film’s effect on citizens of Opelika. “To say there was excitement in the air would be an understatement. Not only were the stars in town, numerous local residents were selected to play extra roles in the movie.”

burt-reynolds-sally-fields

Reynolds and Field.

When production wrapped and the film was submitted to Cannes, it was immediately swept up in talk of the Palme d’Or and for the Best Female Performance Prize, which Field won. In subsequent ceremonies, she also won Best Actress at the Los Angeles Film Critics Association Awards, the National Board of Review, New York Film Critics Circle Awards, the Golden Globes, and the National Society of Film Critics Awards, before winning the Oscar.

The film did indeed change Sally Field’s career and reputation forever. In addition to the transformation in her professional life, she also credits Norma Rae with a personal wake-up call. “It so changed me on so many levels,” she told Oprah Winfrey. “It changed me politically, I don’t think I was ever aware politically, at all. It started me into looking at other people and how they lived, and I don’t think I had ever done that before.”

Despite all the accolades that it received, and despite its place in the career of one of our most respected modern actresses, Norma Rae is not widely accessible today. It is not streaming on Netflix, YouTube, Hulu, Google Play, Amazon Prime Video, or any of the platforms on which most people access their movies nowadays. As I search the internet, I can find it in two places accessible to me–on DVD from Amazon, and at a branch of my local library. This puzzling circumstance is perhaps explained by the content of the film, and its effect on its audience.

1979-Norma-Rae-06

Norma Rae is unapologetically pro-labor. It shows its viewers exactly how to form a union in the workplace, from handing out fliers to be read “on your break” to dealing with opposition from bosses and coworkers. The movie shows in meticulous and exacting detail how to work around common obstacles and have a successful union vote. Certain interactions are dramatized and exaggerated for effect, but the situations are very real. Simply by watching Norma Rae, a viewer can learn a great deal about workplace organizing. And above all, it shows that courage and standing up for what’s right pays off in the end.

Happy Labor Day, readers. I hope this long weekend finds you organizing for a better world, whatever that means to you.

Advertisements

The Activism of Myrna Loy

1-man-proof-myrna-loy-mgm-portrait-everett

In 1947, Myrna Loy sued the Hollywood Reporter for $1 million.

The charge was an accusation printed in the then right-wing paper that Loy was a Communist, an accusation fueled in part by the actress having been vocal and active in left-wing politics since the 1930s. In addition, Loy’s role in William Wyler’s 1946 film The Best Years of Our Lives had implicated her in the United States’ growing anti-Communist fervor that was threatening livelihoods in Hollywood and beyond.

After Loy brought suit against the Hollywood Reporter, the paper was forced to print a retraction, but Loy didn’t stop there. She sent off a missive to the House Un-American Activities Committee, the governmental body investigating alleged Communist infiltration into the United States, that had subpoenaed many of her colleagues in the entertainment industry. The message read simply “I DARE YOU TO CALL ME TO TESTIFY.”

They didn’t dare, and Loy was left alone from then on.

Such was the dynamism of Myrna Loy. Born on August 2, 1905, from her earliest days in Radersburg, Montana where she was born Myrna Williams, she was surrounded by passionate left-wing personalities and progressive politics. After her mother moved the family to Los Angeles following the death of Myrna’s father, the young girl became involved in the film industry when Cecil B. DeMille found her dancing at Grauman’s Chinese Theatre and cast her in a small role in The Ten Commandments. Her career was rocky at first, but by the late 1920s and with the help of a name change, Myrna Loy became an established star. As she became familiar with the Hollywood landscape, she noticed the inequality afforded to black actors in Hollywood, and began to advocate for their rights within the industry. At one point, she approached her bosses at MGM with the issue. “Why does every Negro in a film have to play a servant?” she asked. “How about just a black person walking up the steps of a courthouse with a briefcase?”

f336e151ce57fcdf29722e73b129ceb6

An early portrait of Myrna Loy.

In 1932, Loy was active in the election campaign of Franklin D. Roosevelt, and remained a champion of his ABC programs throughout his presidency. Onscreen, she became known as the witty and intelligent Nora Charles in The Thin Man series and her screen image quickly became that of the “perfect wife.” But Loy never identified with that characterization and spent her time offscreen tirelessly advocating for the New Deal. She never personally met Roosevelt, something she deeply regretted, though she made many trips to the White House and developed a close and lasting friendship with Eleanor Roosevelt. In later life, faced with Reagan’s election and the undoing of much of Roosevelt’s legacy, she wrote in her autobiography, Being and Becoming: “Can you imagine how all of us who worked for years with Mrs. Roosevelt and her socialist programs feel now, to see them wiped off the map?”

26c58b1119abe83ece79e57bb2344dbe

Later in life, with Eleanor Roosevelt.

Loy invoked the ire of Adolf Hitler by speaking out publicly against him in 1938, to the point that Hitler banned all her movies in Germany. Between 1941 and 1945, she worked full time for the Red Cross, entertained the troops, appeared at war bond rallies, and essentially retired from Hollywood. Loy only made one movie during the war period–The Thin Man Goes Home. She continued to work with the Roosevelts on reforms, and in 1945 Loy was invited to the meeting to ratify the United Nations Charter in San Francisco.

The following year was an important one for her–she went back to working regularly after her wartime hiatus and made The Best Years of Our Lives, considered to be one of the greatest films of the 1940s and also the impetus for the Hollywood Reporter to accuse her of communism. Managing to stave off those accusations, that same year, she was appointed to UNESCO, the United Nations department of culture, as the US ambassador. Over the next few years she became increasingly involved, attending conferences all over the world and representing UNESCO on official radio programs, then also signing on with the American Association for the United Nations where she spoke at conferences on behalf of women’s rights.

By the time the 1960s rolled around, Loy had been working with UNESCO for more than a decade. She had managed to balance her career in Hollywood with her political work, and begin a new chapter of her career on the stage while at the same time throwing her support behind Adlai Stevenson in his presidential campaigns. When Stevenson didn’t run in 1960, Loy worked hard to stump for Kennedy. During the Kennedy campaign, he invited her to be part of his Conference on Constitutional Rights and American Freedom, where she met Hubert Humphrey and immediately befriended him. After Kennedy’s election, her closeness with Humphrey led to Loy’s involvement with the National Council Against Discrimination in Housing, where she worked throughout the Civil Rights Movement.

193679

Being interviewed at the UN, 1950.

Loy made huge strides in the organization. She found that though President Kennedy had signed the Housing Act of 1961, “we had uncovered massive evidence that eighty percent of federally sponsored housing was operated on a segregated basis.” Though Kennedy was never able to fulfill the promises of the Housing Act, Loy’s work led directly to Lyndon B. Johnson addressing the matter in the Civil Rights Act of 1968.

Having finally seen some measure of success in the fight against housing discrimination, 1968 saw Loy back in Hollywood to make April Fools, and also to fight for Eugene McCarthy’s campaign. She was unable to make the Democratic National Convention because of work, but she had fought hard for his nomination, especially in Oregon. She wrote: “I flew into every nook and cranny of Oregon…I shared so many meals with so many civic groups and political organizations that Eleanor Roosevelt’s wistful complaint haunted me: ‘I get so tired of all those chicken dinners.’” When Humphrey, her old friend who had gotten her involved in the NCDH, got the nomination, she found herself campaigning for him too. Not only because she liked him as a person, but also because she was worried about “the attack by Nixon and the Republicans on the judiciary.”

Screen Shot 2019-08-02 at 10.10.19 PM

With Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis.

On the subject of the Vietnam War, Loy identified with the college students who protested against the war and considered herself to be getting “more radical” as she aged. She said that if work commitments with April Fools hadn’t prevented her from going to the 1968 Chicago Democratic National Convention, she surely would have been arrested along with the antiwar protesters outside.

As Loy reached her upper 70’s, she started to receive honors for her tremendous career onscreen. From time to time, reporters would also ask her about her political activities, and one such response from Loy in 1980 simply sums up Loy’s political philosophy: “Politics is part of my life…It’s everybody’s privilege to choose party, to be a part of government…and I’m seriously interested in solving our problems. Also, I believe in the U.N. It has seen some rough times, but it’s still surviving.”

Myrna Loy died at the age of 88 in 1993, but she was a political fighter to the end. As we live in these political tumultuous times, it is tempting to think what she would be doing today. We can be sure that she would be campaigning for the Democratic nominees, and vocally denouncing current White House policies on immigration and human rights. As an actress, she was among the best there was. But it was as an activist that Myrna Loy had her most lasting impact on the world, and I believe that it is as an activist she would like to be best remembered.

Screen Shot 2019-08-02 at 10.12.44 PM

At a UNESCO conference in Florence, Italy.

BACKLOTS AT THE COURTHOUSE–Olivia de Havilland Lecture at Oxford Law

Olivia de Havilland

Good morning, dear readers! I wanted to update you briefly on some upcoming excitement at Backlots.

As TCM’s 24-hour Doris Day tribute plays in the background, I find myself in the midst of packing for a big trip. Due to my coverage of the Olivia de Havilland v. FX case, I received an invitation several months ago to attend a lecture on the case at Oxford Law School. I leave tomorrow, and will spend several days at Oxford with the lawyers, Don Howarth and Suzelle Smith, as well as other guests important to various aspects of Olivia de Havilland’s case.

For those new to the blog, when Olivia de Havilland brought her suit against Ryan Murphy for her portrayal on Feud, I found it particularly interesting and began to write about it. In addition to my classic film work and particular love for Olivia de Havilland, I also have a fascination with government, civics, and court cases, so this was right up my alley. I followed the case closely, analyzing prior cases that influenced it and what it meant, and didn’t mean, for the First Amendment and right of publicity. As the case went through the appeals process, Backlots emerged as the go-to site for information about Olivia de Havilland v. FX. I was in the courtroom when the case was heard at the California Court of Appeals, alongside The Los Angeles Times, Bloomberg, and The Hollywood Reporter. Backlots’ coverage also influenced a large article in the New York Times, and frequently broke news about the case before mainstream outlets. Along the way, I communicated closely with Olivia de Havilland’s lawyers and won the CiMBA Award for Backlots’ coverage.

That communication with de Havilland’s lawyers led to this invitation to Oxford, and I’m very happy to be able to go.

I will be keeping readers up to date via Twitter and a post or two here, with new insights from the lecture and any other classic film-related themes that I encounter in Europe. Following the lecture at Oxford, I will be in London for a spell, then France for a brief visit (including a few days in Paris where Backlots was “born”). I’ll keep an eye out for any interesting classic movie links during my trip.

See you on the other side of the Atlantic!

bac732d4b4256e0342c194818a29748b

Noir City 17: BREATHLESS (1960)

MV5BMzQ1NDAzNjM3MF5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwOTAxNDU5MTE@._V1_

Two weekends ago, I braved rainy San Francisco weather and a quickly dying cell phone to attend Noir City 17’s presentation of À Bout de souffle, also known by its English title as Breathless. Jean-Luc Godard’s masterpiece of New Wave cinema, it is widely credited as having invented the very movement itself. I have long been a fan of this film, and hold a deep respect for the innovations in style, both cinematic and fashion, that Godard has brought about.

I hesitate to call myself a francophile, as I feel that term cheapens the connections I have to France. But I do have deep connections there, both in my heritage and in my personal life. I used to live in Paris, and Backlots was born there. Several branches of my family tree ended up in France and I seem to have endless French cousins (one of those cousins is the operatic soprano Madeleine Grey, a fact that I used whenever I wanted to impress my professors in Paris!) I teach the language and hold near native fluency in it. I try to go back to France every year, as possible.

As such, I’ve always felt quite a connection to Jean Seberg, the American-turned-French actress who stars in Breathless and straddled the line between the two sides of the Atlantic. Despite her excellent French, she never lost her strong American accent, belying her Marshalltown, Iowa roots. That accent endears me to her just as much as her often androgynous fashion. Short hair, capris, striped shirts–combining American casual with French chic–that’s Jean Seberg. Her life was often filled with sadness, and her rocky existence and tragic end merit their own blog post. But her unique image speaks to me as an American who often operates in French spaces, and I’ve always had an intrinsic fascination with her as an actress and a person.

Breathless is a film that the French might call bouleversant, a movie that turned French cinema on its head and changed it forever. It is at once influenced by the style and nuances of American cinema and French cinema of the past decade. While in certain sections the dialogue is reminiscent of the previous year’s thoughtful and pensive Hiroshima mon amour, Breathless also very much belongs on a Noir City program–the story of Michel, a French gangster on the run and his American girlfriend struggling with her attraction to him, her own legal interests, and her own morality. This cinematic duality was intentional on the part of director Jean-Luc Godard, who had longed to make a film himself while writing for the publication Cahiers du Cinéma in Paris.

The story itself was based on a newspaper article that François Truffaut had read about the real-life criminal Michel Portail and his American girlfriend Beverly Lynette. Truffaut and Claude Chabrol collaborated on an early versions of the story, and gave Godard their treatment, acting as advisors on the film and using their clout to help push the movie to distributors with the unknown Godard as the director. Godard, while writing for Cahiers du Cinéma, had come to the conclusion that American directors were the only the ones who really understood how to make important and interesting films, and the French could learn from the way they used the camera and the scenery. Hence, he shot Breathless in a noir style, and the final film really may be considered an American noir set in Paris, in French, with a French director.

Снимок экрана 2019-02-14 в 11.54.28 AM

Jean-Luc Godard, director of Breathless.

Eddie Muller discussed these nuances before the film at the Castro, and finished by asking the audience to raise their hand if they’ve never seen the movie before. I was at once surprised and excited to see how many in the audience raised their hands–at least 3/4 of the audience was watching Breathless for the first time. Seeing a movie on the big screen with an audience watching it for the first time is an inexplicably joyful experience for a movie fan, and during the film, I was not disappointed. The audience seemed to be collectively holding its breath throughout the whole movie, as the pursuit of Michel unraveled and the film came to its inevitably dramatic and somewhat eerie conclusion.

Noir City is a carefully curated and lovingly crafted San Francisco gem. We are lucky to have it every year at the Castro, and the passion of Eddie Muller is palpable throughout the entire program. I’m happy to be able to attend every year and I thank Eddie Muller, the Noir City staff, and the Castro Theatre for putting on such a magnificent presentation year after year.

The program is traveling around the country, and here are the upcoming dates and cities:

NOIR CITY Seattle: Feb 15-21, 2019
NOIR CITY Hollywood: Mar 29-Apr 7, 2019
NOIR CITY Austin: May 17-19, 2019
NOIR CITY Boston: June 7-9, 2019
NOIR CITY Chicago: Sep 6-12, 2019

Thanks for reading, and be sure to attend Noir City in one of the upcoming cities if you’re nearby!

FANCHON THE CRICKET (1915)–Restoration by the Mary Pickford Foundation and the Cinémathèque Française

fanchon-02

When we speak of “lost films,” we never mean really lost. The significance of that phrase is to say that no copies are known to have been preserved in any archive , museum, or collection–and thus, the film in question hasn’t been seen publicly since around the time of its release. Lost films have been known to turn up in garage sales, warehouses, and even underground on construction sites.

Every now and then, a researcher or a museum curator gets the call of a lifetime, from an everyday citizen who, for example, might have been cleaning out his attic when he found a film reel that he thought might be worth something and upon inspection, the curator discovers that it’s a lost Buster Keaton film. Or a scene that was cut from the known version of an existing movie. This is an archivist’s dream, and news of the discovery frequently spreads like wildfire through the film world.

The Mary Pickford Foundation came across such a dream discovery in 2012, when they learned that a copy of Fanchon the Cricket, which Mary Pickford herself always thought was lost, actually existed at the Cinémathèque Française. Collaborating over the course of 6 years with the Cinémathèque, the British Film Institute (which held an incomplete nitrate print) and the Immagine Ritrovata in Bologna, Italy, the MPF has brought the 1915 film back to the public.

dc2224ru8aaoh4q

And what a beautiful restoration it is. The Immagine Ritrovata was responsible for the physical portions of the restoration, photochemically bringing the film up to standard, then scanning it onto 4K high definition. The painstaking work that went into Fanchon the Cricket at the Immagine Ritrovata is visible–it’s one of the most beautifully restored versions of a 1910s-era movie that I’ve ever seen. The print is clear, devoid of distracting cuts or water damage, and it has a “nitrate look” to it–with the shine and confidence that a nitrate print projects.

The film itself is quite interesting to watch, an adaptation of the novel by George Sand, with the scenario written by Frances Marion and director James Kirkwood. Mary Pickford shows her true versatility as an actress in the role of Fanchon, a wild child who later grows up and proves herself to be a strong woman with a conscience, refusing to marry a boy unless his father asks her and showing the town what it means to love. It’s pretty standard fare, plot-wise, for 1915, but Pickford plays both sides of Fanchon with great skill and nuance, with subtle facial expressions that show her to be an immensely gifted actress. The movie is notable for being the only one to feature all three Pickford siblings–Mary’s sister, Lottie, plays Madelon, the lover of the lead male character, and her brother Jack appears as a bully.

pickford_ccp_figx_wfp-mar051

Mary Pickford with her best friend, co-writer of Fanchon the Cricket Frances Marion.

The Mary Pickford Foundation commissioned a new score for the movie by Julian Ducatenzeiler and Adam Gladbach, and the foundation’s resident scholar, Cari Beauchamp, wrote the liner notes for the release. The notes provide fascinating backstories on Pickford as well as the personalities behind the camera. Beauchamp is the pre-eminent expert on Frances Marion, who was also Mary Pickford’s best friend, and wrote Without Lying Down: Frances Marion and the Powerful Women of Early Hollywood, a book that has become required reading for anyone learning about this era of filmmaking. The liner notes are exquisitely accompanied by behind-the-scenes photos provided by the Mary Pickford Foundation and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.

It is a stunning achievement, and I highly recommend this release to anyone interested in Mary Pickford, early Hollywood, or the process of restoring a film made more than 100 years ago. The DVD and BluRay combination can be purchased here at Flicker Alley, or here on Amazon.

Thank you to the Mary Pickford Foundation, the BFI, the Cinémathèque Française, and l’Immagine Ritrovata for making this film possible.

Supreme Court Declines to Take Up Olivia de Havilland Case

Screen Shot 2018-03-26 at 6.44.05 PM

I received confirmation this morning from Olivia de Havilland’s counsel, Suzelle Smith, that the Supreme Court has declined to hear the case of Havilland v FX, Olivia de Havilland’s petition to the court to allow her case against FX to go to trial.

It is a disappointing decision, but de Havilland has fought an enormous battle, persevering until the very last recourse. That type of persistence is a quality that she has always had–and clearly continues to have at the age of 102. May we all learn from her, and may we all be so fortunate as to live to see the day when we can act on her example.

From the email this morning: “One day someone else who is wronged for the sake of Hollywood profits will have the courage to stand on the shoulders of Miss de Havilland and fight for the right to defend a good name and legacy against intentional, unconsented exploitation and falsehoods. Miss de Havilland hopes she will live to see the day when such justice is done.”

I want to thank all of you for following this case, and my coverage of it. It has been a true learning experience to do this kind of work, and to examine meticulously the inner workings of a lawsuit of this caliber has been an enormous privilege. While this outcome isn’t what we had hoped, the response to this case in the record number of letters sent to the courtrooms has proven that Olivia de Havilland continues to be loved and supported by people all over the world.

On behalf of myself, everyone involved in the case, all the newspaper and magazine outlets devotedly following the case since the beginning, Olivia de Havilland’s counsel, and everyone who has rooted for truth in media–thank you.

Screen Shot 2018-03-20 at 9.13.44 PM

Supreme Court to Decide Whether to Take Up Olivia de Havilland Case Today

pubphoto1

Hello readers, just a very quick update for those following the Olivia de Havilland case. Today, the Supreme Court is expected to decide whether or not they will take up her petition. If you would like to follow the case on the SCOTUS blog, here is the link to the petition page. I will update as more information becomes available.

For more information on what this petition is about, to fill in those new to the blog, here is a list of my full coverage on the case.

I will be following the page throughout the day to provide updates as they come in.

Thanks for reading, and for following this fascinating piece of legislation.

UPDATE: No order was released today on the Olivia de Havilland case–there will be additional orders released on Monday, January 7 and perhaps some on Tuesday.