3 years ago today, on St. Patrick’s Day of 2011, I decided to create a film blog. I was studying in Paris, and in need of a creative outlet in English that related to my love of classic film. I had no idea what it took to maintain a blog, and no idea how long it would last. But 3 years later, here we are.
What has happened in these past 3 years has been nothing short of remarkable. Backlots has won the CMBA Award, has been profiled in Slate Magazine, and has been honored to receive press credentials to some of the pre-eminent classic film festivals in the world. The blog has featured interviews with some of the key figures in the classic film world today, such as actress Joan Fontaine and authors Victoria Wilson and Kendra Bean.
Maintaining a blog for 3 years takes perseverance, stamina, and an abiding passion for what you do. I love writing this blog, and I have been blessed with the most supportive, intelligent, interactive audience I could ever have hoped for. Some of you I have had the pleasure to meet in person, and some of you I have spoken to only through comments–but my appreciation for each and every one of you is boundless, and I am proud to have you as readers. It is thanks to you that Backlots has become the site it has.
So here’s to you, dear readers, and I can’t wait to see what the next 3 years have in store!
P.S. A bit of housekeeping–stay tuned in the next couple of days for a post about the TCM Classic Film Festival in April. News is coming fast, and we’re expecting the full schedule any day now!
A big thank you to my readers for making 2013 a true banner year for Backlots. Here are some of the things that happened on the blog this year:
My attendance at the 2013 TCM Classic Film Festival was far and away one of the highlights of the year. A true movie lover’s paradise, the TCM Festival attracts classic film aficionados from the world over, and TCM certainly delivers the goods. It was great fun interacting in person with my fellow bloggers, whose work I know so well online, and making new classic film friends. A wonderful experience!
For the second year in a row, Backlots covered the San Francisco Silent Film Festival this past summer. As usual, it was a fantastic event with presentations unparalleled in their quality. Highlights for me included a screening of the hilarious Marion Davies movie The Patsy, an interactive talk with Winsor McKay expert John Canemaker, and the breathtaking gamelan accompaniment set to the Balinese silent film Legong: Dance of the Virgins by the Sekar Jaya Gamelan Ensemble. The San Francisco Silent Film Festival never disappoints. Stay tuned next year’s festival which will be held over Memorial Day Weekend, and on January 11 for their special celebration of The Little Tramp at 100–celebrating the 100th anniversary of the first appearance of Chaplin’s The Little Tramp. I will be at both events!
Last month, I was honored to be invited to blog for the Warner Bros. 90th Anniversary Tour. We bloggers were treated to a day of exploration at the studio, led by a professional guide, and topped off with lunch at the commissary. We had special access to the costume department and several areas off limits for regular tour members, and it was indeed a special day. Again, I met so many fellow bloggers and had such a good time. Thank you, Warner Bros., for organizing this wonderful day for us!
The classic film community was graced with several magnificent new books this year. I had the pleasure of conducting interviews with Victoria Wilson, author of A Life of Barbara Stanwyck: Steel True 1907-1940, and Kendra Bean, who is the author of Vivien Leigh: An Intimate Portrait and a personal friend of mine. Both of these works are great monuments in and of themselves. A Life of Barbara Stanwyck is a gargantuan book that features 860 full pages of text and another 200 for source notes, and has proven to be the quintessential, definitive book on the actress. My reading of this book, though it took me less than 2 days, is one of the highlights of my year. Vivien Leigh: An Intimate Portrait is so chock full of previously unseen photos of this staggering beauty that the reader simply cannot put it down. It is displayed prominently, face forward, on my shelf so as not to obscure its beauty. I am so lucky to have had the opportunity to interview these two gifted writers, and I thank them for their interviews with me. Read Victoria Wilson’s interview here, and Kendra Bean’s here.
In what was perhaps my most meaningful personal success of 2013, I had the great privilege to interview Joan Fontaine in honor of her birthday. This was her last birthday, and her last interview. Joan was frail and her health declining, so she kept her answers short. The length of her answers does not matter to me. My interview with Joan Fontaine remains the single greatest privilege Backlots has ever had. Click here to read it. Rest in peace, dear Joan.
This is the video I made in memory of Joan Fontaine. I hope you enjoy it.
Wow, readers. What a year. 2014 is already shaping up to be an equally marvelous year! Here’s to what’s to come, and to you, loyal readers, for helping to make this blog what it has become.
Hello there readers, Lara here to thank you for all your fantastic submissions yesterday for Hitchcock Halloween. It was a really fun event and I think Hitch would have been proud! I hope you will join us next Halloween for another installment of what proved to be a very popular tribute to Alfred Hitchcock!
This post also closes out the month of October, which was a very fruitful one for Backlots. As a refresher, here are the things that happened this past month on the blog:
Backlots interviewed Joan Fontaine in honor of her 96th birthday.
Backlots interviewed Victoria Wilson, author of A LIFE OF BARBARA STANWYCK: STEEL-TRUE 1907-1940.
Backlots interviewed Kendra Bean, author of VIVIEN LEIGH: AN INTIMATE PORTRAIT.
The Hitchcock Halloween Blogathon.
Thank you to all my readers for making this such a memorable month at Backlots, and here’s to many more equally memorable months to come!
In about 2 weeks, Backlots will go down to Burbank to blog for the Warner Brothers’ 90th Anniversary VIP Tour, so stay tuned on November 13 for some very special coverage. More details to come!
The life of Barbara Stanwyck has fascinated film lovers for decades. Her particular combination of sex appeal, toughness, and grit makes for an intriguing character and was doubtless informed by a private life about which she was extremely reticent. This, along with innate intelligence and a seemingly natural instinct for acting, has made her one of the most enigmatic personalities of classic Hollywood.
Though it seems impossible to fathom, there has never been a major biography of Barbara Stanwyck.
On November 12, Simon & Schuster will publish A Life of Barbara Stanwyck: Steel-True (1907-1940), volume 1 of the long-awaited first complete biography of Barbara Stanwyck. 15 years in the making and running a whopping 1,056 pages in length, author Victoria Wilson has created a colossal piece of literature covering the first 33 years of Barbara Stanwyck’s life. Comprised of tireless research and interviews with the star’s family, friends, and acquaintances, the work promises to become one of the most complete and enduring biographies ever written about a motion picture star.
I conducted an interview with Victoria Wilson a few weeks ago, and her answers appear here.Thank you to Vicky Wilson for this interview, and please be sure to pre-order your copy of the book by clicking here.
AN INTERVIEW WITH VICTORIA WILSON
Q This is a biography that has been in the works for 15 years, and has been very highly anticipated in the classic film community for a long time. What was your research process like in writing a book of this caliber and magnitude?
A The answer to the question of research is a huge one . . .to begin with it was definitely a process of starting on the outside and working one’s way deeper and deeper into a subject, a world, and then worlds within worlds. I began with making lists – of films, directors she worked with, living people to interview, archives. . .gathering information and creating a detailed chronology and constantly filling it in (it is now almost 400 pages long); collecting fan magazines. The earlier the fan magazine, the more authentic the interview, the information in the articles; there were no funnels, no press agents, no studio filters; fewer inventions of facts; less distortions. There was the process of interviewing people, once, twice, three times, sometimes over months, sometimes over years (as with Barbara’s friends, family, her son, etc). There was the process of collecting materials – press books, articles, objects, photographs, letters, scrapbooks, reading them, taking the information I needed, thinking about it, having it lead me to other people, ideas, and so on. I went through every file of every picture she made, or almost made. I read the novels of pictures she made, or almost made. I wrote about the novelists whose novels she read; the playwrights whose plays she acted in, or almost acted in; the directors with whom she worked. I hired researchers to go through and copy scrapbooks of her friends; to go through court records; to go through Variety from 1927 onwards and copy every article on Stanwyck, Frank Fay, Robert Taylor, etc. Each was put in chronological order in large 3-ring notebooks I amassed. I could go on and write a book about the research for the book; of the stories of finding people; of being lead to others, of leads that appeared one day and didn’t make sense or were answered until months or years later . . .And this only begins to give you an idea of what was involved.
A 1932 fan magazine with Stanwyck on the cover.
How did your interest in Barbara Stanwyck as a subject come to be?
I had always been aware of Barbara Stanwyck as an interesting actress. Someone slightly odd, compelling, not beautiful but sexy, intelligent, sometimes off-putting in her off-centeredness – but always interesting on screen.
It was really John Kobal, who I published and who became a great friend, who would tell me stories about the actors he had interviewed over the years (eventually we put together the interviews in a book called PEOPLE WILL TALK and I had John write up the stories he’d told me about them as introductory pieces to each interview) who talked to me several times about Stanwyck that made me see her in a new way, a way that stayed with me.
Years passed. I published as an editor at Knopf many biographies. I enjoyed the process of working with biographers as they did their research; helping them to think about their subject and what they were discovering about him or her and I decided one day to think of writing one myself.
I made a list of various subjects and Barbara’s name was on the list. I didn’t know much about her and did some preliminary research and realized that there hadn’t been a serious book on her; that her career spanned the history of Hollywood in its second stage and onward through television; that she’d worked with almost every major director; that she as an actress who could do almost anything onscreen; and there was the question of what she projected on the screen and where did that come from and what did it come out of . . .
On the set of LADIES OF LEISURE (1930), her breakout role and her first film with director Frank Capra.
Barbara Stanwyck had a reputation for being an intensely private person, refusing to talk about her difficult childhood or go into detail about her romantic relationships. How did you go about uncovering some of the aspects of Barbara Stanwyck’s life about which she was so reticent?
Hardcore research, pulling together bits and pieces . . .I went to Lanesville, Mass where her family came from and figured out just how – and why – her father became a mason . . .I went to Chelsea, Mass and found in the records where her family moved and moved again and again, up in stature and closer to the center of town away from the rough edges of the city on the river. I pieced together her upbringing in Brooklyn, bit by bit. But it is what one brings to the bits and pieces that makes the narrative and makes it make sense. That’s instinct, and grasp and understanding of character and human beings and coming to know one’s subject through the choices she made; the things she said; her desires and dreams and ambitions etc. Stanwyck was private but she did talk about her childhood. If anything, she played up what was difficult about it and glossed over what was normal about it. Why? Because the experience of it to her was so lonely and tough and relentless and wouldn’t it be for all of us if by the time we were four we were without a mommy and daddy and had a brother who was two years older and just as lost as we were and had three much older sisters who did the best they could to take care of us but were essentially making their way in their own lives and new families.
Stanwyck was born Ruby Catherine Stevens in Brooklyn, and was orphaned at the age of 4 when her mother was killed and her father abandoned the family.
One of the most fascinating things about Barbara Stanwyck, to me, is how much her rocky childhood influenced who she became as an actress and a person, yet she still refused to let that childhood define her. What was the most important aspect of Barbara Stanwyck’s childhood that you uncovered for this book, in terms of how it helped shape her character?
Her childhood totally made who she was, just as our childhoods make or have made who we are. Her childhood was about taking care of herself and getting through and being on her own – and apart. Her childhood of being taken to New York from Brooklyn by her sister who was a dancer and actress and being able to watch the performances in the wings and feeling close to her sister, all of which became a family to her, home to her. It gave her the sense of belonging which is what work did for her and did for her throughout her life. . .but that particular childhood also prepared her to make her way in Hollywood. She never was part of any studio family; was under contract to more than one studio when that was unheard of beginning in the early 1930’s whereas Robert Taylor, who grew up in a real family of loving parents who adored him, stayed within his Metro family for decades, longer than any other contract actor at MGM. Finally, all of the hurt and abandonment and anger and terror that she experienced as a child, and the will to survive and make something of herself, and also the love of her own sisters and brother and nephews informed the complex range of feeling and intelligence and humor and spirit and sense of fun that comes through on the screen. It was all of a piece and came right out of her childhood.
Circa 1924. Stanwyck’s sister Mildred was a chorus girl, and she soon followed suit.
Stanwyck’s two marriages, first to vaudevillian Frank Fay and next to MGM superstar Robert Taylor, both ended in divorce. Rumors circulated for years and persist today about her marriage to Robert Taylor, and that it may have been manufactured as something as a “lavender marriage” by the studio system to quell talk about the sexualities of both Stanwyck and Taylor. Clearly, it would be very difficult to say for certain whether or not this was the case, especially as so many years have passed. In addition, Stanwyck seemed to be very much in love with Taylor, never remarried, and took his 1969 death extremely hard. In your research, was there anything you found that would lead you to believe that these persistent rumors about their marriage had any truth to them?
I had one ambition for my biography of Barbara Stanwyck, and that was to write a book that reflected the truth about my subject and her world, regardless of what it was. I have written quite detailed portraits of Stanwyck’s two marriages; the first to Frank Fay; the second to Robert Taylor. Each marriage was complex and came about because of complex reasons – and stayed in tact because of equally complicated reasons; neither marriage came about because of homosexuality. I asked many people who would have a somewhat informed inkling about Robert Taylor’s sexuality, people who knew him at the time, or would have heard about the (then, of necessity) underground truth of his sexuality and nowhere did I come across any hint of his being gay, including interviewing Harry Hay, founder in 1950 of the Mattachine Society. If anyone would have known, or heard about the truth of Taylor’s sexuality over the years, it would have been Harry Hay. . .
Stanwyck and Taylor came together at opposite points in their careers, which most people don’t know. She may have been successful and by that time been around Hollywood for six or so years, but her career was in trouble when she met Taylor. He was the big big star, just exploding into real fame and overwhelmed by it all. If anything, she needed him, for lots of reasons, which I write about in the book. And he needed her – just not as his beard.
The last thing Metro wanted was for Robert Taylor to be married, until they did, and it was not as a cover up for his sexuality. When people read the book they will see in detail how Stanwyck and Taylor came together, and what it did for both people; how it helped both and changed both. Volume Two portrays the shape of the marriage and how and why it ultimately fell apart, which, as in real life, happened over time and grew out of a set of subtle and complicated circumstances – and out of two people changing and changing out of different needs at different stages of their life, and their work.
Stanwyck and Robert Taylor married in 1939 and divorced in 1951.
I was very saddened to learn of the 2006 death of Barbara Stanwyck’s only son, Dion Anthony Fay. Were you able to speak with him about this book, and what insights was he able to provide about his childhood and his intensely complex relationship with his mother?
I was able to find Tony Fay, long before the internet, through a man who was in charge of security for the Pope on his New York visits. That is a funny story – but he did find Tony and I interviewed him during the course of many years. He was extremely helpful during the writing of the book and we became quite close. Tony talked to me in great detail of his years growing up, of his nurses, his years with Fay in the house, and then after, being sent away, first to schools, then to camps, of his loneliness, of his fears of his mother, and bewilderment towards her,and his defiance; of his mother’s marriage to Bob Taylor; of the years Tony lived at home during the war when Bob was in the Navy as a training officer; of his relationship with Uncle Buck*; his years after, going to various schools; of living in Beverly Hills and much much more. I was extremely fond of Tony. Despite being put up for adoption once and then cast out by his adopted mother, Tony Fay was a loving man who managed to triumph over difficult, dark years.
Barbara Stanwyck with her son Dion Anthony Fay (called “Tony”), whom she adopted with husband Frank Fay in 1932.
Barbara Stanwyck is often described as “the best actress who never won an Oscar,” and indeed, her versatility is staggering. Her ability to play drama, film noir, and comedy with equal flair is almost unmatched. To what do you attribute her extraordinary talent?
Deep intelligence; a dark childhood; iron determination; will; large emotions – fear; anger; loss; a driving discipline; uncanny talent.
Barbara Stanwyck in “The Thorn Birds,” a TV miniseries she made in 1983 and which also won her the 1983 Emmy and Golden Globe.
How would you like Barbara Stanwyck to be remembered today?
You’d have to ask that of Stanwyck herself. And chances are her answer would be not at all, that she was here for a time, did an honest day’s work for an honest day’s pay, and when it was over, it was over.
*Uncle Buck was the boyfriend of Stanwyck’s sister Millie, who was one of Stanwyck’s closest friends and biggest supporters. He ran her house for years and for a time, he looked after her son, Tony.
Hello dear readers, Lara here to update you on what is coming in the month of October on the blog. There are a few very exciting things on the horizon, and here is what you may expect to see this month.
In my last blog update, I spoke of a special surprise to appear on the blog this month. On October 22, in celebration of Joan Fontaine’s 96th birthday, I will present a Q&A that I conducted with the legendary actress a few months ago. This is a huge honor–Miss Fontaine very rarely does interviews, and she was incredibly kind and generous to grant one to me. You will see her answers in response to questions about her childhood, her career, her life now, and her perceptions of herself as an actress and a human being.
I waited until now to let my readers know, because I want to keep the hype to a minimum and emphasize that this Q&A was conducted in honor of a very great actress’s birthday. My motive is very simply to present the reader with this wonderful gesture on the part of Miss Fontaine, and to share with you what she so graciously shared with me. So be sure to tune in on October 22 to honor, with me, the birthday of a great lady.
I am a very proud friend, because a personal friend of mine, Kendra Bean, is a first-time author and her book about Vivien Leigh, entitled Vivien Leigh: An Intimate Portrait, has already received accolades as one of the top film biographies of Fall 2013.
Kendra has agreed to a formal interview with Backlots, and I am very much looking forward to talking with Kendra about the book, the process of which I have watched, as a friend of Kendra’s, since its inception. Stay tuned for what promises to be a very insightful interview with Kendra about Vivien Leigh: An Intimate Portrait.
Victoria Wilson, the author of the new Barbara Stanwyck biography A Life of Barbara Stanwyck, Steel-True 1907-1940 (known in classic film circles lately as simply Steel-True),has also graciously agreed to an interview. Classic film aficionados have been anxiously awaiting this book for over a decade–15 years in the making, Steel-True covers the first 33 years of Barbara Stanwyck’s life, and consists of a whopping 1056 pages. We are in for the biography of the century.
The interview will be conducted toward the end of the month, and will appear on the blog a few weeks before the book’s release on November 12.
Watch your showers and stay away from those birds, everyone, because Hitchcock Halloween is fast approaching! If you haven’t yet signed up, please do so and I will add you to the list. You can write about anything you like related to Hitchcock–his life, movies, technique–and I am quick to welcome submissions about the Alfred Hitchcock Hour as well. It will take place on October 31, for one day only, so let me know what you would like to write about and get those submissions in by the 31st!
Backlots is devoted to honoring and celebrating all aspects of classic film and is written by Lara Gabrielle, a California-based classic film writer and historian. Lara is the author of CAPTAIN OF HER SOUL: The Life of Marion Davies (UC Press, 2022).
Here you will find pieces on frequently seen classics and some lesser-known gems, as well as book reviews, festival coverage, and pieces on the history, theory and culture of film as it relates to the study of classic cinema.
Enjoy the site, and thanks for reading!
AFFILIATIONS & AWARDS
2019 CMBA Award for Best Profile of Classic Movie Performer or Filmmaker--"The Activism of Myrna Loy"
Winner of the 2018 CiMBA Award for Best Classic Movie Series, BACKLOTS AT THE COURTHOUSE: OLIVIA DE HAVILLAND VS. FX
Winner of the 2014 CiMBA Award for Best Profile of a Classic Movie Performer or Filmmaker: A Q&A WITH JOAN FONTAINE IN HONOR OF HER 96TH BIRTHDAY
Winner of the 2011 CiMBA Award for Best Classic Movie Discussion, THE FINAL SCENE OF THE HEIRESS
I am honored to be a judge of the Animal Film Festival in Grass Valley, CA.
BACKLOTS ON THE WEB
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Walter Pidgeon and Greer Garson in "Mrs. Miniver."