Tag Archives: turner classic movies

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

dbdfd810439e4af85f2620b348e68b23

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.

1798449_581599478624_824620906_n-1

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.

Screen Shot 2019-10-21 at 11.24.02 PM.png

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.

d7ae99ca24972d32abe9864860f21f09

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.

DhS3ehJX4AA2ydL

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)

MSDNORA EC002

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

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

popup

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

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

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

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

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

norma-rae_668_330_80_int_s_c1

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

burt-reynolds-sally-fields

Reynolds and Field.

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

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

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

1979-Norma-Rae-06

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

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

The Activism of Myrna Loy

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

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

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

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

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

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

f336e151ce57fcdf29722e73b129ceb6

An early portrait of Myrna Loy.

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

26c58b1119abe83ece79e57bb2344dbe

Later in life, with Eleanor Roosevelt.

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

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

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

193679

Being interviewed at the UN, 1950.

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

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

Screen Shot 2019-08-02 at 10.10.19 PM

With Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis.

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

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

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

Screen Shot 2019-08-02 at 10.12.44 PM

At a UNESCO conference in Florence, Italy.

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

Olivia de Havilland

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

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

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

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

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

See you on the other side of the Atlantic!

bac732d4b4256e0342c194818a29748b

Noir City 17: BREATHLESS (1960)

MV5BMzQ1NDAzNjM3MF5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwOTAxNDU5MTE@._V1_

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

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

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

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

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

Снимок экрана 2019-02-14 в 11.54.28 AM

Jean-Luc Godard, director of Breathless.

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

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

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

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

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

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

fanchon-02

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

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

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

dc2224ru8aaoh4q

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

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

pickford_ccp_figx_wfp-mar051

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

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

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

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