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TCM Classic Film Festival Day 3

Day 3 of the festival was predominantly a pre-Code day for me. Pre-Codes are famously popular at the TCM Festival, but they’re almost always screened in the smallest theaters. The question of why is a point of contention among attendees–some think the organizers simply haven’t learned the audience’s trends, and others think that it’s a strategic marketing decision. Whatever the reason is, seeing a pre-Code at the TCM Festival requires a great deal of planning. To that end, I decided to skip the first block of movies to get in line for Three on a Match at noon. I haven’t seen Three on a Match much since I saw it on the big screen nearly 10 years ago. A rather bizarre movie, in my opinion, and immensely disturbing, but a fascinating pre-Code. It tells the story of three school friends whose lives take them in unexpected directions, and without giving away too much of the plot, the title Three on a Match comes from an old saying: “Three on a match means one will die soon.” The three women as adults are played by Ann Dvorak, Bette Davis, and Joan Blondell, and the young Ann Dvorak is played by a child actress named Dawn O’Day, later known as Anne Shirley. The screening sold out completely, and enough people were turned away that the movie was shown again on Sunday afternoon in one of the TBA slots. This is a recurring theme at every TCM Festival, so it’s difficult for me to believe that there’s not some strategy behind this.

Following Three on a Match, I took the shuttle to the Hollywood Legion to get in line for Baby Face. The movie started at 3–I was in line at 1:45. It is, after all, a pre-Code. And is it ever.

Often hailed as the film that singlehandedly overhauled the Production Code, Baby Face is one of the movies that I tend to show people who are unfamiliar with classic film, or under the impression that old movies are prudish or misogynistic. In Baby Face, Barbara Stanwyck as Lily Powers lives in a saloon in Erie, PA with her father who sells her to customers for sex. When he dies in a gas explosion, she leaves her home with her best friend Chico (Theresa Harris) to start a new life in New York. She is unapologetic about using her body to rise to the top of the business world, regrets nothing, and faces the world with a cold, ruthless ambition.

Baby Face required extensive editing and reshoots to comply with the Code as it existed in 1933, and even after those extensive edits, it pushed the limit of what was acceptable to the censor boards. Following its release, the Production Code was strengthened to include more oversight so that a film like Baby Face wouldn’t be seen as long as the Code was in effect. The original, uncensored film was lost for decades, until it was finally unearthed several years ago and restored.

My favorite moment.

I’ve seen Baby Face more times than I can count, but I never miss it when it’s playing on TCM or at a theater nearby. Barbara Stanwyck is a personal favorite of mine in anything, but this role seemed written for her talents. Bruce Goldstein introduced the movie at the Hollywood Legion, and he presented a revelatory program that included notes from the production office on what was ordered to be changed. After the movie, he showed a 5 minute reel comparing the censored and uncensored versions, including an alternate ending that punished Lily Powers for her actions in compliance with the Code.

I got back in line after that, for another pre-Code called Counsellor at Law, the personal pick of Leonard Maltin, who was receiving the Robert Osborne Award beforehand. The presentation of the award was a wonderful and loving ceremony to one of the most respected critics of all time. Maltin accepted his award with a genuine, sincere speech delivered without the use of notes. After the ceremony, Maltin went right into his introduction of Counsellor at Law, a rarely seen pre-Code from 1932. It is an unusual movie, in which John Barrymore plays an emotionally unstable lawyer who swings between extreme highs and devastating lows. The plot, deceptively thin on the surface, is the gateway into a character’s disturbed mind. If the film were made today, there would inevitably be discussions of bipolar disorder or borderline personality disorder, and mental health triggers in a high stress workplace. John Barrymore plays the character to perfection, showing on his face the character’s joy in one moment, utter despair in the next.

I had originally planned to go back to the room and go to bed after Counsellor at Law, but at the last minute I decided to join my friends for the evening show of Singin’ In the Rain at Grauman’s (officially TCL) Chinese Theatre. Singin’ In the Rain was one of the very first movies I ever saw on the big screen, at the Paramount Theatre in Oakland. I nearly wore out my VHS copy as a child, and learned who Calvin Coolidge was from Lina Lamont at the age of 7.

As many times as I’ve seen this movie, there are often new things that I notice. The character of Lina Lamont was originally written for the talents and persona of Judy Holliday (Betty Comden and Adolph Green were good friends and longtime collaborators), and I can see so much of her in Jean Hagen’s performance. I’ve written about how their careers operated in tandem with one another–in addition to the Singin’ in the Rain connection, Jean Hagen was the understudy in Born Yesterday on Broadway, and the two were in Adam’s Rib together. I can’t help but imagine what Lina Lamont would have been if Judy Holliday had played her.

This viewing, I honed in on the brilliant character development that takes place in the opening sequence. Through Dora Bailey’s radio broadcast, the audience learns the backstory of nearly every important character in the movie in the first 10 minutes. Kathy Selden, of course, enters later. When Don tries to seduce her in the car and she pushes him off yelling “Don’t you touch me!” everyone in the audience of Grauman’s Chinese Theatre applauded. A relevant moment indeed.

Stay tuned for day 4!

TCM Classic Film Festival Day 2

Day 2 of the TCM Classic Film Festival was one filled with laughter. From the first moment the schedule came out, I knew it would be–with The Sunshine Boys and Tootsie on the agenda, there is no other possible outcome. I started the day with The Sunshine Boys, a wonderful screening introduced by Randy Haberkamp of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, with Richard Benjamin as a featured guest afterward. Richard Benjamin plays Walter Matthau’s nephew in the film, an talent agent who represents (and barely tolerates) his ex-vaudeville comic uncle. He tries to reunite his uncle with his old comedy partner, played by George Burns, but there’s one problem…they hate each other.

Randy Haberkamp indicated in his introduction that Richard Benjamin’s performance is often overlooked in favor of the two stars. I find that to be very easy on the small screen, but viewing a film on the big screen can make all the difference. Richard Benjamin’s performance lit up the screen, as did his charisma with Walter Matthau. In his interview afterward, Richard Benjamin discussed how close he came with Walter Matthau in real life, which was very touching to hear.

The George Burns role was originally supposed to go to Jack Benny. Jack, however, had recently been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and was too sick to take on the strain of a new film. To replace him, he recommended his longtime best friend George Burns, who had not been in films since 1939. Jack died in late 1974, and George played the role to perfection, earning an Academy Award for his performance and revitalizing his career. A beautiful end to one of show business’ great friendships.

A wonderful crowd showed up for Tootsie, which is always an exceptionally fun movie to see on the big screen. I have always adored Tootsie, finding it to be unexpectedly deep in its social commentary and the acting is superb. There is hardly a single line that isn’t laugh-out-loud funny. Elaine May was an uncredited screenwriter on the film, and I can hear her influence clearly throughout the script.

It was especially fun for me to watch Tootsie with my friend Sara, a Jessica Lange superfan who was seeing it on the big screen for the first time. Jessica Lange won a much-deserved Oscar for her performance, which is so beautifully nuanced. She conveys complex emotions so clearly in her face–in the scene where she tells Dorothy she can’t see her anymore, you feel her pain viscerally.

Following Tootsie, I had an appointment with my friend Priscilla. Months before the fest began, we had discussed getting together to watch The Jack Benny Show sometime during the festival. We’re both ardent fans of Jack and we had bonded over that over Twitter. So we met poolside at the Roosevelt and watched the Peter, Paul, and Mary episode, laughing until our sides hurt. We then proceeded to watch Jack Benny for a good hour and a half together, and Priscilla showed me this sketch, which sent us into even more hysterical fits of laughter:

While some people come to the festival for the movies, many of us consider these kinds of moments an integral part of the experience. There certainly isn’t anyone in my non-classic film life with whom I can watch Jack Benny for hours on end, and I’m grateful to the festival for providing a place where we can be ourselves with like-minded people. It’s hard to overstate how much this part of the festival means to me, and to all of us who often feel that our interests don’t align with our peers in everyday life.

After our Jack Benny marathon, I went to the Doris Day centennial celebration panel at Club TCM. It was a lovely and loving discussion with several of Doris Day’s friends, discussing their personal histories with Doris Day and what she was like offscreen. In my view, Doris Day is one of the most misinterpreted personalities of classic Hollywood. When people think of her, they often think of a virginal girl-next-door, representative of a wholesome mirage of 1950s culture. In contrast, the real Doris Day was a passionate and vibrant woman who devoted her life to the wellbeing of animals. She had a frequently difficult life, surviving an abusive marriage, the death of a child, and a second husband who squandered all her earnings. In regard to her music, people know “Que Sera Sera” and other light songs (though I could write a treatise on why “Que Sera Sera” is not at all the light song it seems), but her career with Les Brown in the early 1940s established her as one of the top female vocalists of her era, a fact that is often overlooked when we remember Doris Day today. Her friends on the panel described a down-to-earth, loving, and generous woman who lived for animals and adored her fans. It was a moving and gentle tribute.

The next movie on the agenda was The Gay Divorcee, the first star pairing of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. The movie also features a 17-year-old Betty Grable, who performs a delightful number called “Let’s K-nock K-nees” with Edward Everett Horton, which nearly steals the film out from under Fred and Ginger. It’s been stuck in my head for a full day and I don’t have any particular interest in getting it out.

As I mentioned in a previous post, watching Fred and Ginger on the big screen is one of life’s great treats. One of the interstitials playing before movies throughout the festival this year is a clip of Fred Astaire preparing to jump on a couch in a scene from The Gay Divorcee. It fascinates me, and over the course of the festival I’ve been watching it closely to see what it is that he’s doing that I find so interesting. I think it’s the combination of grace and intense strength, especially in his upper body, a seemingly incongruous combination that Fred has in perfect proportion.

While watching The Gay Divorcee, I paid special attention to how Fred and Ginger moved, together and separately. One thing I noticed is that both “Night and Day” and “The Continental” are danced on a floor with white lines running down it. When Fred and Ginger dance together, their feet never land on lines. They dance over them, jump over them, but their dance routines are orchestrated around those lines and it’s a beautiful detail to watch.

I’ll be back tomorrow with more details from day 3!

TCM Classic Film Festival Day 1

“This California dew is a little heavier than usual tonight,” as Debbie Reynolds said in Singin’ in the Rain, and she might have been talking about this evening in Hollywood, where an unexpected downpour punctuates a full first festival day.

The fun kicked off this afternoon with “So You Think You Know Movies?” Bruce Goldstein’s exceptionally difficult TCM trivia game hosted in the Blossom Room of the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel. It was a crowded and excited audience, filled with many veteran festival attendees. I ran into my friend Karen Hannsberry of The Dark Pages, and we formed a trivia team that consisted of several very knowledgeable people. Thanks to some great deduction skills on the part of Stephan Reginald in particular…we won the game! It was the first time I’ve ever come close to winning “So You Think You Know Movies?” We each received a nice TCM tote bag with a book, a DVD, and some magnets, and the thrill of having succeeded in some of the hardest movie trivia there is.

Following the trivia, several friends and I went to dinner at California Pizza Kitchen. Passover is still observed until Saturday evening and I’ve had a bit of a hard time finding good food options. Fortunately, California Pizza Kitchen had a few Passover-friendly options and my friends and I had a delicious meal as we caught up after many long years apart. It is an interesting phenomenon to be back at a festival like this, after 3 years where we’ve lacked mass socialization. I am very conscious of being “out of practice” with socializing, and it’s a strange feeling to want to talk to people without really being sure of what to say. I’ve expressed this to some of my friends, who admit to the same feelings. I’m glad I’m not alone.

My friends from dinner were all going to Jewel Robbery, so we got in line together and sat together in Multiplex 4. The introduction was by Cari Beauchamp, always one of the most popular presenters of the festival. She gave a detailed and engaging talk about the pre-Code era, and its implications for portrayals of women and their sexual freedom. At several points during the introduction, audience members clapped and cheered for her statements about women’s rights, and reacted with enthusiastic laughter at some of the letters from the Hays Office. It was a marvelous introduction fit for an audience that knows movies. A friend who was sitting near me remarked: “Every presenter at the festival should learn from Cari Beauchamp. Her introductions should be the high standard everyone tries to reach.”

The movie itself is pure joy. It tells the story of a woman who falls for a jewel thief after witnessing a robbery, and it is full of double entendre, innuendo, and all the glorious dialogue we expect from pre-Codes. In addition, there are several scenes featuring “drugged cigarettes,” clearly marijuana. In true pre-Code fashion, it’s not at all discreet–characters who smoke these cigarettes are seen laughing at nothing, on a ridiculous high that William Powell says will culminate in “a good appetite.” Something not able to be seen just a few years later, and rare even for this time period.

Afterward, I went up to the Hollywood Legion, a beautiful 1940s theater that was renovated in time for the 2019 TCM Festival. I saw Indiscreet there in 2019, and marveled at the uniqueness of this venue that radiates the 1940s. This evening, I saw A Star is Born, the original 1937 version of the story. I wondered what I would notice when I watched it on the big screen, and I found that my eyes were particularly drawn to the color blue. The 1937 A Star is Born is an early example of the 3-strip Technicolor process. Prior to the development of 3-strip technology, the 2-strip Technicolor process had a pastel quality to it, with limitations for blues and reds. Blues appeared green, reds appeared pink. In A Star is Born, we see a scene next to a sparkling clear blue swimming pool, one of the early times an audience could see a color like that on the screen. A dark blue umbrella and the dark blues of Janet Gaynor’s outfit accentuate the brightness of the pool. Putting myself in the place of a 1930s audience member, I can only begin to imagine what a thrill it must have been to see that brilliant color onscreen.

Now I’m back in the room, ready to prepare for another big festival day tomorrow. See you then!

A Decidedly Unscientific Guide to TCMFF Pass Levels

Passes for the TCM Classic Film Festival go on sale to the general public today, and I have been happy to see that so many of my friends will be returning to Hollywood this year. After two of virtual festivals, the excitement of seeing our festival friends in April is palpable.

Since its inception in 2010, the TCM Classic Film Festival has been the crown jewel of classic film festivals––a five-day, multi-venue event where the community is as important as the movies. Affectionately known as the “TCMFF” by attendees, its audience is unlike any I’ve experienced anywhere else. Once, before a showing of Double Wedding, presenter Illiana Douglas asked a trivia question: “Does anybody know how many movies William Powell and Myrna Loy made together?” The answer, immediate and enthusiastic, rang through the theater. “FOURTEEN!” shouted the entire audience together. It is a place for people with this level of enthusiasm to connect with each other and the movies they love.

Putting on a festival of this magnitude is a staggeringly expensive effort. Theater rentals, appearance and licensing fees, security, and transportation all contribute to a huge financial expenditure on the part of TCM. That cost is passed on to attendees in the price of festival passes, which has long been a sticking point for devoted fans who want to come, but have to choose between paying for a pass and paying the rent. Many fans who attend save all year for the experience, and this year prices have increased upward of 18%. The prohibitive price of the festival has been a touchy subject, and it is something I have definite opinions about, but I would like to put that discussion aside for the moment and focus on the passes that many fans are purchasing today.

In the interest of helping people get the most out of the festival as they consider a pass (or attending without a pass, an option I will address later), I thought I would do a rundown of pass levels and what they get you. Some people believe that Spotlight is the only way to get the “full” festival experience, and thus decide not to go if they can’t spend that much money. This is not the case. You can have a wonderful and fulfilling experience without the top level pass, and you should not let the price of the Spotlight pass deter you from the festival.

These are observations that I have gleaned from my eight years attending the TCMFF, and if anyone reading has advice to add, please feel free to comment below!

I will start from the lowest pass level and work my way up.

THE PALACE PASS

The Palace Pass, going for $349, is a great budget option for people looking to experience Los Angeles while in town for the festival. It gives you access to festival venues starting Friday, April 22, but it doesn’t give you access to any of the parties, the Chinese Multiplex or Club TCM (which hosts panel discussions and interviews). For people who have come into town specifically for the festival, restricted access might be a dealbreaker, but for casual festivalgoers who would like to go on day trips to explore the city while in town, and avoid being in a dark theater all day, this might be just the pass for you.

I have met many Palace Pass holders in line, and a few of them hadn’t read about the pass before they purchased it––but of those that had, and had made the informed decision to experience the festival this way, they are almost universally very satisfied with it.

THE CLASSIC PASS

The Classic Pass, going for $849 this year, gives you access to all festival venues, Thursday through Sunday. The only thing it doesn’t give you is access to the Opening Night Movie and Opening Night Party––everything else you can access. The difficult thing about the timing of pass sales is that the opening night movie has not been announced yet. This leaves fans gambling on whether or not the opening night movie will be worth the extra cost of a higher level pass. But there are other movies on opening night as well––and with a Classic Pass, you are guaranteed a movie to see on Thursday night.

Personally, I am a huge fan of the Classic Pass and recommend it to anyone looking for my suggestion. To my mind, it’s the best deal of the festival––and even though it’s still expensive by any standard, you get the core of the festival––all the movies except opening night, and everything at Club TCM.

THE ESSENTIAL PASS

Going for $1,099 this year, this is the perfect pass for those who were thinking of going the Classic route, but know they want to see the opening night movie. To justify the extra expense, there are a few ways to figure out what the opening night movie might be––it is usually an anniversary restoration of a classic musical, so that leaves the likely years of 1942, 1952, 1962, 1972, or 1982 (TCM usually doesn’t go beyond the 1980s for opening night movies). If there’s a movie from any of those years that you know will be getting a restoration, and you desperately want to see it, the Essential Pass might be worth your gamble for that alone. The Essential Pass also gets you a gift bag of TCM collectibles, which in past years has included mugs, journals, and collectible programs.

For festivalgoers trying to decide between the Essential and Spotlight Pass, keep in mind that the Essential Pass doesn’t give you priority entry the way the Spotlight Pass does. You’ll be waiting in the general line alongside the Classic and Palace Pass-level attendees. If priority entry and seating is important to you, you might want to consider going up to the top level.

THE SPOTLIGHT PASS

The highest level pass is the Spotlight Pass, which for $2,549 gives you access to everything the festival has to offer. You will attend the opening night movie and go to the party afterward, also attended by VIPs and TCM hosts. People holding the Spotlight Pass get priority entry into all screenings, and opportunities to socialize with the festival’s special guests. In prior years, Spotlight holders also got breakfast at the Roosevelt Hotel, though I’m not sure if that will be happening again this year.

The Spotlight Pass is a good choice for people who want to experience the TCMFF in “first class.” Some Spotlight passholders I’ve talked to see the festival as a kind of vacation––the same way people might look at a luxury all-inclusive package. But I know many diehard fans who buy a Spotlight Pass every year, and see it as a unique opportunity to meet their favorite stars and talk to TCM hosts. The Spotlight Pass is really what you make it.

There is also an option that doesn’t require a pass, the STANDBY alternative. Let’s take the photo above as an example: if you know that you want to see My Darling Clementine on Friday at 9:30, you would go early and get in a standby line. Passholders go to a separate section––Spotlight and VIPs in one line, Classic, Essential, and members of the press in another––and they are let in first. If the theater doesn’t fill up with passholders, the theater opens to standby attendees, and you purchase your individual ticket for $20.

I know a few people who are doing standby this year, due to the significant increase in pass prices. It is rare that a screening completely fills up, but for very popular films and those in small theaters, you might face a bit of a letdown. But truthfully, sometimes Classic and Essential passholders face the same letdown when demand exceeds expectation, and in that case, the film in question is often shown again. Just like a regular passholder, you can try again when the film is re-screened.

Since 2013, I have attended as a member of the media, which essentially provides the same benefits as a Classic Pass. I did purchase an actual Classic Pass in 2012 when Backlots was in its infancy, and I was very pleased with it. I didn’t feel like I was missing out on anything––I had little interest in the parties and had other movies on opening night that I wanted to see. But my preferences are not everyone’s, so I hope this guide has been helpful as you consider a pass, or going without one, today.

Hope to see you at the TCMFF!

TCM Classic Film Festival Returns in 2022

Classic film fans on social media were abuzz this morning as news emerged that the TCM Classic Film Festival will return in person in 2022.

After two years of virtual programming, this announcement was met with palpable joy among long-time festival attendees. Since this morning, I have seen friends making plans about where they’ll meet for meals, and some have already booked their rooms at the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel, the headquarters of the “TCMFF.”

It will not be a complete return to normal, as COVID-19 protocols will be in place to protect festivalgoers. According to the website, this means that among other precautions, the festival will require “mandatory masking, social distancing, capacity limits, negative test results verification, and/or proof of vaccination.” There will be more detailed updates to come, and the festival will be following Los Angeles County guidelines and best practices.

There are still a lot of updates to come, and I will do my best to bring them to you as I learn them. Backlots has attended the festival since 2013, and I am so happy that this year, we finally have a return to the glorious in-person experience of the TCMFF. There is nothing else like it in the world.

More to come!

Olivia de Havilland and the American University of Paris

Olivia de Havilland at home in Paris.

If you are a longtime reader of Backlots, you have read of my connection to Olivia de Havilland. From the evening I spent with her at the American Library in Paris, to Backlots’ coverage of her court case against FX, Olivia de Havilland has been close to my heart for many years. Her career and her impact on the film industry have been well covered here and elsewhere. But not as well documented is the effect she had on the American University of Paris, during the era of the Vietnam War and beyond.

Olivia had a strong moral backbone and an instinct to fight for change. As an actress, she made waves in the industry as an advocate for labor rights. Faced with the possibility of an interminable contract at Warner Bros. due to the practice of adding suspension time to the end of seven-year agreements, Olivia successfully sued the studio and established the De Havilland Law, holding the industry to contracts of no longer than seven calendar years. The De Havilland Law has been used to assert labor rights in the entertainment industry for writers, actors, and musical performers, and is considered among the most important factors in the eventual fall of the studio system.

At the Hollywood Canteen, around the time of her Warner Bros. lawsuit, 1943.

In 1953, Olivia moved to Paris with her son, Benjamin. When it came time for Benjamin to attend college, he chose the American University of Paris (known familiarly as AUP), a relatively recent Paris institution founded in 1962. Olivia had never gone to college, despite a deep desire to do so. A straight-A student at Los Gatos High School, Olivia had received a full scholarship to Mills College, hoping to become a teacher. Teachers saved her life during a very dark period in high school, she recalled, and she wanted to give back. But her career skyrocketed faster than she expected, and she was never able to go to Mills. Upon Benjamin’s enrollment at AUP, Olivia realized that she now had an opportunity to do what she had always wanted to do, use her influence to speak up for students the way her teachers had done for her. She established herself as an active AUP parent, and in the mid-1960s she was elected trustee, the first female trustee ever at the university. In 1970, she became a board member.

With son Benjamin Briggs Goodrich.

Olivia served the university during an unprecedented, tumultuous time for students in Paris and all over the world. The student protests in 1968 brought brutal police attacks against students occupying Paris universities in protest of Vietnam War policy and strict student codes of conduct. In response, students took to the streets, tearing up cobblestones and hurling them at the police. Workers at several French companies participated in sympathy strikes in solidarity. Students and their allies built barricades in the Latin Quarter and overturned cars, demanding change in university policy and France’s social structure. The situation got to the point where President de Gaulle secretly fled to Germany, fearing civil war or a revolution. The protests are credited with bringing a wave of social revolution in France, and for normalizing women’s rights and LGBTQ+ rights in French society.

Two years later, in May 1970, protests at Kent State University turned bloody. Kent State had been a center of anti-Vietnam protests, and at the time of the shootings, the students had been protesting Nixon’s Cambodia Campaign when the Ohio National Guard was called in. Following a standoff on May 4, after deploying tear gas and threatening the students with bayonets, the National Guard fired their weapons through the crowd, killing four students.

A student hurls a brick during the May 1968 protests in Paris.

Olivia watched these events closely, and listened directly to student concerns. She viewed her position as one of student liaison to the university, and put students at the forefront of everything she did. During this tense time, Olivia brought what was going on in the streets directly to the upper echelons of the university. Fighting for the social change the student body demanded, she provided them with an advocate and supporter at the highest level of university administration.

That devotion and genuine care for the students of AUP continued for the rest of her life. She frequently used her name and position to help raise money for student causes, and her personal assistants were hired from the AUP student body. In recent years, AUP served as a way for Olivia to remember her son Benjamin, who died of Hodgkin’s lymphoma complications in 1991. She was well known for welcoming AUP friends, students, and fellow trustees into her home for support and advice, remaining the university’s unfailing champion. In 1994, Olivia was awarded an honorary degree from AUP. In 2015, she was awarded the AUP Presidential Medal of Distinguished Achievement.

A student studies at AUP.

After her death in July 2020, AUP began plans for a new auditorium in Olivia’s name, to honor the extraordinary place she held at the university. The Olivia de Havilland Auditorium will be the first ever at the university. As AUP envisions it, the Olivia de Havilland Auditorium will be the centerpiece for the new Monttessuy Center for the Arts which will serve the growing liberal arts department at the site of the former library, now relocated to the Quai d’Orsay. The auditorium will host film festivals, art galleries, panels, and classes, to an arts department that has grown 270% in the past 5 years. In October 2021, there will be a weekend devoted to Olivia’s memory at AUP, which will culminate in a ribbon-cutting ceremony for the new auditorium. It will cement Olivia’s legacy at AUP, for the students she loved and cared for so deeply.

If you would like to learn more about the new arts center, honoring Olivia and the students of AUP, here is the website for the Monttessuy Center for the Arts. You can also click here if you would like to donate directly to the effort. There is an option to specifically support the auditorium, or give to general programs that will serve AUP liberal arts students. Toward the bottom of the page, you will see “If you have a special purpose for your donation, please let us know,” and you can select whichever menu option you choose.

Thank you for reading and may the legacy of Olivia de Havilland live on in the students of AUP and universities throughout the world.

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

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)

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.