Tag Archives: turner classic movies

Backlots at the TCM Classic Film Festival–And Lara in Attendance for SHOW PEOPLE (1928)

Dear readers, I have been keeping mum on news about the TCM Classic Film Festival until I got confirmation of some news of my own. That confirmation arrived in my inbox two days ago and was made public today…so here I am to let you know that Backlots has press credentials for the TCM Classic Film Festival, and (my own news) that I will be in attendance to introduce the Saturday night screening of Marion Davies’ Show People (1928).

Снимок экрана 2018-04-11 в 11.51.34 AM

Each year, the TCM Classic Film Festival brings together classic film fans from around the world, many of whom know each other already, due to the powers of the internet. It often feels like one big family reunion, where everyone speaks the language of classic film–complete with in-depth references to Barbara Stanwyck’s pre-codes, Ann Miller’s hair, and who should have played Ashley in Gone With the Wind. Nowhere else on earth could these conversations occur at the depth at which they do at the TCM Classic Film Festival, and for many attendees, meeting others with similar interests is a rare and welcome occasion.

This is Backlots’ 6th year covering the festival. This year will be different, as my appearance at Show People means that I will be a very busy person during TCM Festival week. But I will do my utmost to bring you coverage as I have in all previous years–with a live Twitter feed and a blog post every night as I’m able.

Please stay tuned for more updates as I have them!

Screen Shot 2018-04-03 at 10.17.13 AM

 

 

Advertisements

Decision in Olivia de Havilland vs. FX

dehavilland0

This afternoon, a decision came in for the case of Olivia de Havilland vs. FX, which I have been following closely here. The appeals court has decided to “reverse and remand” the case to lower court, overturning the decision of lower court judge Holly Kendig and giving the case to Feud.

A statement by Ryan Murphy says “The reversal is a victory for the creative community, and the First Amendment. Today’s victory gives all creators the breathing room necessary to continue to tell important historical stories inspired by true events. Most of all, it’s a great day for artistic expression and a reminder of how precious our freedom remains.”

As I have made clear in other posts, the day is great only for docudramas that want to tell half-truths and outright lies, planting seeds of gossip and rumor in viewers’ minds that grow to create a warped lens through which they view history. Ryan Murphy doesn’t have a particular interest in keeping those seeds of gossip and rumor at bay–he profits from this era where no one really knows where the truth lies. Not only do these half-truths and outright lies make Olivia de Havilland’s life difficult, but also mine. As a film writer and historian, I and others like me have to be the ones to untie all the knots that Feud has created.

Screen Shot 2018-03-26 at 6.44.05 PM

After the decision was released, I told myself that I would read the opinion with an open mind. Perhaps the justices would say something that I hadn’t thought of. But as soon as I opened and read it, it was clear to me that this case had been decided on erroneous legal precedent. The Guglielmi case, to which the author of the opinion, Justice Anne Egerton, refers frequently, is only applicable to dead people. California Civil Code 3344.1 exempts docudramas and dramatic interpretations from right of publicity claims if the person is dead, but the statute from which it branches, California Civil Code 3344, does not exempt them from right of publicity claims if the person is alive. If they had used a deceased celebrity, they would be protected under the Guglielmi decision. Not so with a living person.

Screen Shot 2018-03-26 at 5.28.03 PM

From the decision. This is not correct. De Havilland was within her legal right to challenge a historically inaccurate portrayal. If it had been accurate, she wouldn’t have been able to touch it. But it wasn’t, so she can and she did.

The decision also references Sarver vs. Chartier, also known as the “Hurt Locker” case. But once again, this doesn’t have anything to do with the de Havilland case at hand. In this particular instance, Sarver agreed to let people film him and the resulting character in the movie was a composite, so he had no case and it was thrown out of court. De Havilland did not agree, and the character was not a composite. I believe that the appeals court may be misconstruing “raw materials of life” in Sarver to mean something that it doesn’t.

Screen Shot 2018-03-26 at 6.32.47 PM

In reference to this part of the decision, in addition to the comments about Sinatra’s drinking not being defamatory or offensive, I think the court is giving too much credit to the average, reasonable viewer of Feud. In a previous post, I discussed my talks on Marion Davies, and how I frequently have to spend far more time debunking myths propagated by The Cat’s Meow than those myths are worth. Far too many people watch docudramas and believe they’re telling the truth–then, no matter how many facts are provided to disprove them, they keep believing the more exciting story. This ruling allows producers of docudramas to exploit that tendency, rewrite history, and put the onus on the historians to correct it.

We do know that there had been a draft opinion before the oral arguments, and it looks as though the case will proceed to a higher court. A statement from Suzelle Smith, de Havilland’s attorney, reads in part: “Miss de Havilland, her many fans all over the world, and actors in similar situations are rightly disappointed in this Opinion.  The Opinion does not properly balance the First Amendment with other important rights.  This case appears to be destined for a higher court, and we will be preparing the appropriate petition for such review.”

#odehvfx

Olivia de Havilland vs. FX: On Opinions, Arguments, and Accuracy

la-et-mn-olivia-de-havilland-101-birthday-20170701

In the aftermath of the Olivia de Havilland oral arguments yesterday, I have seen many reports about what happened during the hearing, and opinions about the case from varied sources. As one who was in the courtroom as it happened, I would like to address a few things that I’ve been seeing frequently over the past 24 hours.

The case is ultimately about holding the powerful accountable to the truth. FX, a big and powerful corporation, took immense liberties with de Havilland’s characterization in Feud, putting vulgar words in her mouth and attributing lines to her that she would not have said, nor signed off on, should she have had the privilege of seeing a script first.  It is true that if the characterization were truthful and accurate, by the standard that we use to judge credible news stories, FX would be well within its legal rights to use her image and likeness. But the false or misleading statements attributed to de Havilland in the series are a disservice not only to de Havilland, but also to the viewers of Feud. No one likes to be lied to or misled, and as I have mentioned before, I myself was misled by the interview that framed the series. I thought it was a real interview that I had missed–I went looking for it, and only when I couldn’t find it did I realize that it was created by the series. I’ve seen just about everything she’s ever done. Can we imagine a passive viewer, who had never heard of de Havilland before, watching Feud? I shudder to think how many passive viewers of Feud are out there who now think that de Havilland gave that interview, and called Joan Fontaine a “bitch” to industry professionals.

This morning, a piece appeared in Vanity Fair whose headline ran “Olivia de Havilland Tries to Prove in Court That She’s Never Used the Word ‘Bitch.'” The first line ran: “You’ll never hear a recording of Olivia de Havilland using the word ‘bitch.’ At least, that’s what her lawyers are arguing now in their ongoing case against FX and its portrayal of the Oscar-winning actress in the series Feud.” This upset me on two levels–first, the gross misrepresentation of the argument (the argument is not that de Havilland has never used the term, but rather she never used it to refer to her sister to industry professionals, the way Feud depicts), and second, the way the article uses shock value and half truths in a similar way to Feud. I did write to Vanity Fair about this, and whether it was due to my input or an independent decision, the article has since been clarified.

But this is what we have come to expect of news and informational sources, of which Feud is one. Another argument I have seen frequently over the past day is one that says “Feud is entertainment, I don’t watch it for historical accuracy.” Entertainment that depicts real people, especially living people, has a responsibility to historical accuracy. Those of us who write about film are inundated regularly with people who believe fictionalizations of real people are rooted in fact. As I work on my biography of Marion Davies, The Cat’s Meow (a fantasy piece about what happened to Thomas Ince on William Randolph Hearst’s yacht) has been a fire that I’ve had to put out every time I give a talk. People love scandal, and if there’s a scandal, they tend to believe rumor above and beyond the facts that disprove it. In addition to the right of publicity claims that de Havilland is fighting for, shows like Feud that add artistic license to real personalities make our lives as film writers that much harder.

In terms of de Havilland and Fontaine, I frequently find myself correcting or defending. One of the things that irked me the most in the courtroom yesterday was the opposing counsel repeatedly referring to the relationship between de Havilland and Fontaine as a “feud.” I highly dislike that term to describe them. They were sisters, who had their ups and downs and good times and hard times. Theirs was a very complex relationship, one that no one understood but them. I make it a point never to judge one sister for her actions regarding the other. Because all we know is the tip of the iceberg of what drove their relationship to be what it was–and it’s truly none of our business anyway. For Feud to touch on that relationship at all, much less without talking to de Havilland first, was inappropriate.

73f65db750c2ceabe34d6189191f7d8c

My favorite picture of the de Havilland sisters, on the night Joan Fontaine won the Best Actress Oscar for Suspicion.

I’ve been seeing many comments expressing the viewpoint that if de Havilland wins, it’s going to change the way docudramas are made. It won’t–it will simply hold studios accountable to the truth when the docudrama involves a living person. If the studio is not willing to do accurate research using reliable sources (non-salacious biographical books with endnotes, newspapers, documentaries, interviews), perhaps that living person should not appear in the docudrama. The Divine Feud, the book by Shaun Considine that Feud references in the case as a research tool, is very salacious and I was surprised to see it in FX’s list of sources.

51USyjlFtZL._SX327_BO1,204,203,200_

California law is explicit in its different applications of the law to the living and to the deceased, and de Havilland’s right of publicity stands for fictionalized works. If she were deceased, a separate statute exists that exempts fictionalized works like movies, books, and plays from having to answer to right of publicity suits. But Olivia de Havilland is alive, and she has a right to be heard.

#odehvfx

Olivia de Havilland, Allison Janney, and Right of Publicity in the California Courts

Screen Shot 2018-03-02 at 8.52.45 PM

Going about my day this afternoon, an opinion piece in the Los Angeles Times entitled “What Does Olivia de Havilland Have Against Allison Janney?” came to my attention. Following the de Havilland case closely as I have been, there are some things from the article that I would like to address and discuss.

First of all, full disclosure–I am not a lawyer. I have, however, scrutinized the ins and outs of the case, and have read the briefs in detail. I have also familiarized myself with certain precedents in the California legal system that would be either detrimental or favorable to de Havilland’s side.

The author of the piece in question is Jennifer E. Rothman, a respected law professor at the Loyola Law School in Los Angeles, who has written a book entitled The Right of Publicity: Privacy Reimagined for a Public World. The book champions rights held under the First Amendment, as well it should. In this day and age, when the First Amendment is frequently under attack from the highest officeholders in our government, recognition of our rights is more important than ever. I thank Ms. Rothman for her very timely and important work on the subject of First Amendment rights and how they relate to intellectual property law.

Constitutional rights are not absolutes, and don’t hold in every circumstance. The court has acknowledged that the Olivia de Havilland suit is indeed a First Amendment issue, but when FX filed an anti-SLAPP motion (to have the case thrown out as frivolous), the court found that de Havilland’s side had enough merit to potentially override FX’s First Amendment protections. In her article, Rothman referred to the “transformative” test in California courts, which says that a work must significantly transcend literal depictions of a person to ensure that the work is artistic and not an imitation. If they meet the transformative test, they are protected by the First Amendment. Because, to give one example, Feud copied de Havilland’s exact outfit when she presented at the Academy Awards, the lower court has ruled that the transformative test does not apply.

Rothman references Allison Janney in I, Tonya, opening the article with “If two-time Academy Award-winning actress Olivia de Havilland had her way, Allison Janney would not win an Oscar on Sunday night for her portrayal of Tonya Harding’s mother in I, Tonya.” However, I see some key differences between Janney’s portrayal and this case. I, Tonya includes a disclaimer at the beginning and makes clear that the interviews depicted are actual interviews. They are recreated throughout, word for word. It’s reality–or at least it’s someone’s interpretation of reality. It is clear where the interviews end and the dramatic interpretations begin. Feud created an interview with de Havilland that did not exist, and did not make it clear that it was not based in reality. The series does not make a distinction between what is reality and what is not. If someone were to be unfamiliar with Olivia de Havilland and watch Feud, that person might think that de Havilland actually filmed that interview, gossiped about others and called her sister a “bitch” (the vulgar way that Feud had her talk is one of the bases for the suit). I myself wondered if the interview invented by Feud was simply one I had somehow missed. I, Tonya differentiates between the dramatic and the real. Feud doesn’t.

I would like to touch, also, on two cases that Rothman cites in the article–Zacchini v. Scripps-Howard Broadcasting Co. (one in which a human cannonball performer sued for his act being broadcast on TV) and Sarver v. Chartier (the “Hurt Locker” case). Zacchini won his suit in the Supreme Court, and though Rothman says that was an unusual case that lower courts have struggled with, the wording in that decision is relevant to the de Havilland case: that it upholds “the right of publicity in a variety of contexts where the defendant appropriates the economic value that the plaintiff has built in an identity or performance.” This is exactly what de Havilland alleges Feud did. From the original suit:

Screen Shot 2018-03-02 at 8.29.38 PM

Sarver v. Chartier attempted to use the Zacchini case to uphold their argument, but the court threw out the case because he did not benefit financially from his own image in the same way that Zacchini did–and in the way Olivia de Havilland does. The Sarver case shows us that the court does indeed see a difference between an image having economic value for the individual, and not. Going back to I, Tonya, Tonya Harding’s mother does not intrinsically derive economic value from her image. Olivia de Havilland, as an actress and a public figure, depends on it.

We will see what happens at the appellate court on March 20, and it will surely be fascinating to watch. Thanks for reading!

gvpucihjpwmrkbnbyugn

#odehvfx

Marion Davies’ 121st birthday

566812b362a99__davies-marion-quality-street-03.jpg

Marion Davies was born on this date in 1897. She and her nephew, the screenwriter Charles Lederer, always celebrated their birthdays together on New Year’s Day (Lederer was born on December 31), but January 3 was the actual date of her birth.

January of 1897 is one of the warmest Januarys on record for Brooklyn, where Marion was born. The fact that she was born during a warm spell is symbolic of her life–Marion became known as one of the warmest and most tenderhearted people in the entire film colony, generous to a fault, with always a nice and encouraging word to say to the underdog. She was a vivacious, bubbling personality, with a true gift for comedy and mimicry that shone through in many of her film roles.

Marion Davies has been the focus of my life for the past 4 years. In November of 2013, I began the process of writing a biography about Marion–and have traveled the world in search of people and information relating to the life of this remarkable woman. Every moment has been a joy. A biographer lives with the biographical subject all day, every day, and I can’t think of anyone in whose presence I would rather spend my days than Marion Davies. I really like her immensely, which is a true gift for a writer.

As the book enters its final stages of completion, I will keep Backlots readers posted about its progress. In the meantime, in honor of Marion’s birthday, I would highly recommend checking out a few of her movies. Here are a few of my recommendations, with clips for each:

Show People (1928)

Probably Marion’s finest film from a technical standpoint, Show People is tightly woven, funny, and self-aware. In the clip below, you can see how Marion enjoyed herself on set, and how adept she was at using her face for comedy.

The Patsy (1928)

This is where Marion really gets to show us her stuff. The Patsy is the film that demonstrates the best of what Marion was capable of doing, and it’s a knockout. Her talent for mimicry is shown in impressions of silent stars Mae Murray, Lillian Gish, and Pola Negri. If you’ve never seen a movie with any of these stars, rest assured that these impressions are spot on.

Quality Street (1927)

Though primarily known among silent film fans for her comedic work, Marion also had a significant talent for drama. In drama as well as in comedy, she uses her face in subtle and meaningful ways, unique even for a silent actress. Quality Street is not very easily found, but if you can manage to get your hands on a copy, it’s a very worthwhile movie. Here is one of the few clips available online from it–apologies for the shots of the crowd.

The Red Mill (1927)

Marion was covered in freckles from head to toe. Normally they’re covered with makeup, but in The Red Mill, one of Marion’s most whimsical movies, we see them out in full force. This is perhaps the closest we get to the way Marion was in real life–from her au naturel makeup, to her impish, prankster character.

Blondie of the Follies (1932)

I’m sorry to say that there seems to be no clip online of Blondie of the Follies, which is really too bad, as it’s one of her greatest roles. Earlier in her career, Marion had been resigned too often to two-dimensional characterizations–due to fears on the part of Cosmopolitan and her real-life romantic partner William Randolph Hearst that the public would see her as imperfect. But here, she is finally given a meaty role, and she’s marvelous in it.

BoF1

Marion was never terribly comfortable in talkies, and as a result her screen presence in talkies sometimes reflected her discomfort. She had a significant stutter from early childhood, and speaking made her self-conscious onscreen. But a common characteristic among people who stutter is the ability to speak fluently when reciting memorized dialogue…and this was the case with Marion. She never stuttered onscreen, and had a beautiful deep alto speaking voice. So that you may hear Marion speak, I am including an amalgam of clips from her final film, Ever Since Eve (1937).

If you’d like to learn more about my project and about Marion Davies before my book comes out, visit my book’s website/my author page at http://www.laragfowler.com. Thank you for reading!

The Motion Picture & Television Fund: Looking Out for the Film Industry

Screen Shot 2017-09-07 at 4.00.40 PM

Mary Pickford breaks ground on the new Motion Picture & Television Country House and Hospital, 1941.

Every Wednesday this month, Turner Classic Movies dedicates its programming to highlighting the Motion Picture & Television Fund, one of the great treasures of the film industry. Securing the livelihoods of countless people who work or have worked in motion pictures, the MPTF operates a hospital, a senior home for those who need those services, and a general fund to help elderly people remain in their homes or to provide a safety net for former film workers who have fallen on hard times.

The programming consists of movies introduced by the people who were a part of them, now residents of the Motion Picture Country House. I was thrilled to hear about this tribute, as I find that few people outside of the world of film and television know much about the MPTF, truly a labor of love and dedication to, as the slogan says, “Taking Care of Our Own.”

 

98985063

The history of the MPTF is a storied one. Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks, D.W. Griffith, and Charlie Chaplin (the same group that created United Artists) saw a need to provide a fund for those working in movies who were down on their luck. To start it, they created a simple coin box system, in which people could donate their spare change to help their fellow Hollywood folk. In 1921, the fund was incorporated as the Motion Picture Relief Fund, with Joe Schenck serving as its first president, and Pickford serving as vice-president. No one served in an advisory capacity for very long–as an egalitarian organization, and one by the film industry and for the film industry, presidents served on a rotating basis and came from varying Hollywood backgrounds, including Harold Lloyd, Jesse Lasky, and Marion Davies.

Pickford campaigned tirelessly for the fund, gathering donations and organizing events and programs that would serve as benefits. The 1929 stock market crash combined with the coming of talkies to Hollywood had left many of the film colony without work, and the fund was needed now more than ever. She noted, to her frustration, that there were 20,000 people working in films, but only 400 people were signed up as contributors to the Motion Picture Relief Fund. In order to streamline her campaigning, she instituted the Payroll Pledge Program in 1932, in which a very small portion of an person’s paycheck from working in the movies went to the fund–much like a social security program or insurance policy for Hollywood workers. In the midst of the Depression, the Motion Picture Relief Fund saved 75 people from being evicted and purchased groceries for 2,500.

224_045476

Even as early as 1924, the need for a specialized senior care facility was on the minds of Pickford and those invested in the Motion Picture Relief Fund. In order to raise money for the construction, in 1939 Jean Hersholt (president of the fund at the time) came up with the idea of having a radio show in which many big name celebrities would appear, who would all donate their salaries to the Motion Picture Relief Fund. The plan worked, the radio show was a smash hit, and construction on the Motion Picture Country House (“house” instead of “home” because, as Pickford said, Hollywood people always consider themselves “between engagements”) began in 1941. Operations started in 1948, and among its more prominent residents over the years have been Norma Shearer, Bud Abbott, Mary Astor, Mack Sennett, Donald O’Connor, Joel McCrea, Edna Purviance, and countless others. Today, it is home to more than 100 long-term residents, and operates 6 outpatient facilities across Los Angeles.

article-doc-bf2j1-2x2xGTOt4G9a6dece395114e74f3-542_634x421

The dining room at the Motion Picture Country House today.

Upon a visit to the Motion Picture Country House a number of years ago to see a friend, it was clear what remarkable and important work the MPTF does. My friend is valued and respected, getting care that goes above and beyond the call of duty. I came away from the visit with a deep sense of appreciation for the MPTF and everything the organization does for the industry. I’m happy to see that TCM is helping to shine a light on their work.

Be sure to see residents of the Motion Picture Country House every Wednesday in September on TCM, introducing movies they had a part in. For more information on the activities of Mary Pickford surrounding the Motion Picture Relief Fund, please see Cari Beauchamp’s article for the Mary Pickford Foundation, from which much of this piece was drawn, by clicking here.

If you would like to donate to the current Motion Picture & Television Fund, you can do so online at http://mptf.com/donate or by mail:

MPTF Foundation
PO Box 51151
Los Angeles, CA 90051-9727

Thanks for reading!

The Nostalgia Myth and Classic Movies in 2017 America

Earlier this morning on Twitter, I saw a tweet directed at TCM’s Ben Mankiewicz, accusing him of being “SJW” (the abbreviation for Social Justice Warrior, a derogatory term for a person who engages in left-wing ideology for personal gains) because he condemned the Hollywood blacklist on air. The response was immediate and mostly indignant, defending Mankiewicz and TCM against accusations of a political agenda. But this is not an isolated incident–for the past 6 months or so, the Turner Classic Movies social media accounts have been inundated with viewers telling the channel to “stick to the movies,” that TCM is a place where people come to escape from politics, and that TCM is trying to brainwash its viewers into a left-wing political agenda.

It is a disturbing trend. Given our current political climate and efforts to restrict public access to information, television viewers have fallen down a rabbit hole of misinformation. We have found ourselves in a dystopian world where we don’t know what is true and what is not, and historical context seems to matter little. Perhaps most disturbing, we have begun to see it reflected back in the anti-intellectualism that has become part of the American landscape. We are a country that is scared, wanting to retreat somewhere. History has not changed–but our collective reaction to hearing it has.

Dalton Trumbo gives his testimony in front of the House Un-American Activities Committee.

2017 is the 70th anniversary of the Hollywood blacklist. Due to fear of communist infiltration from Russia seeping into American life, in 1947 the House Un-American Activities Committee targeted members of the film industry for alleged communist activities, asking them not only to divulge their own political allegiances, but also to name others. Prison sentences, ruined careers, and suicides were commonplace as the government manipulated public fear to destroy lives…and secure their own re-elections.

The actions of the HUAC (and its counterpart in the Senate, the Senate Internal Security Subcommittee) cost lives and careers, during a time of paralyzing fear. For TCM to ignore those actions in the name of “sticking to the movies” would be misguided at best, and promoting ignorance at worst, especially in our current era.

Choreographer Jack Cole, spotlighted last month on TCM’s tribute to gay Hollywood, works with Marilyn Monroe on the set of Let’s Make Love, 1960.

Fortunately, TCM holds itself above that. As the only channel on national television to provide historical context to classic movies, it does important work in tearing down the myth of blind classic movie nostalgia, and as such, it has received its share of ignorant commentary from those who don’t want to hear it, preferring to live in a world where the whole story is not told. Last month, the channel did a month-long spotlight on LGBT figures in Hollywood, and how they shaped the industry as a whole. As I followed their posts on the Facebook page, I saw comments coming in that followed a few standard blueprints:

“I don’t pay extra for cable to have TCM brainwash me into a political agenda.”

“When are they going to have Straight Hollywood Month?”

“Look at the guests they have on–TCM has become a bunch of lefties.”

“Why don’t they just stick to the movies? I come to TCM to escape from politics.”

Each of these statements merits its own lengthy blog post, but in regard to the final one, I fear that people are watching TCM with a warped and shallow view of classic movies.  Classic Hollywood was not created in a vacuum. Far from the ideal utopian world that many seem to think they’re retreating into, classic movies were affected by a world outside that was often in chaos. Hollywood was built by strong, talented, and assertive women and minorities, fighting to get the representation they deserved in a society that shunned them. Far too often, in the name of nostalgia (a concept that I find dangerous), the true history of Hollywood gets lost. TCM brings it back, and I am so grateful that they do.