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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

Fred-and-Ginger

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

Judy2019poster

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.

LABOR DAY 2019: Norma Rae (1979)

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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.

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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.

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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.”

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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.

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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.

The Activism of Myrna Loy

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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?”

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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?”

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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.

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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.”

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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.

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At a UNESCO conference in Florence, Italy.

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

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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!

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