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TREASURES FROM THE WARNER ARCHIVE: Lady of the Night (1925)

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The next film in Treasures From the Warner Archive is one to which I’ve been looking forward for some time. Perhaps the most highly respected film of Norma Shearer’s silent career and featuring the screen debut of a future Hollywood legend (more on that later!), it is a hallmark of the early MGM period and a shining example of the beautiful and complex character-driven narratives that came out of the silent era. The film is Lady of the Night, and it’s a real crowd pleaser.

A father is sentenced to 20 years in prison by a judge who has a daughter around the same age. Leaving the courthouse, he sees the judge cuddling with his daughter. “Pretty soft for your kid, but what about mine?” he cries, as he is carted off to jail.

Eighteen years pass, and both daughters are graduating from school–Florence, the judge’s daughter (Norma Shearer) from a select school for young women, and the convict’s daughter Molly (also Norma Shearer) from a reform school. The stark contrast between the lives of the two girls is seen right away–Florence’s world is photographed in a red tint, and her school is surrounded by flowers and trees, her friends smiling and skipping down the path following their graduation. Molly’s world, on the other hand, is photographed in stark black and white, and her school is nothing but a block of cement. She is dressed in a drab black dress, with a simple hat and no makeup. Molly’s world is a grim one, and with nowhere to go and nothing to do, she turns to taxi dancing to earn a living. At the club where she works, Molly is assaulted by a stranger and resists with all her might–kicking, hitting, and biting him. A man by the name of David Page helps wrench the man off of Molly, and to thank him for his kindness, Molly accepts a dance with him much to the chagrin of her boyfriend, Chunky (George K. Arthur). Soon, Molly begins to fall in love with David but David doesn’t see her as a romantic partner, only a good friend. David, an inventor, has invented a device that can crack safes, and Molly advises him not to give his invention to crooks, despite the high price they might pay. “Don’t go crooked, it don’t pay,” she says, drawing on her own experience growing up fatherless. She tells him to sell his idea to a bank, who will use it to keep thieves out.

Molly.

The next day, David goes to the board of a bank to pitch his idea. The meeting was held at board member Judge Banning’s house, and on his way, he bumps into Florence. The two lock eyes, and Florence also begins to fall in love with Dave. This time, it is mutual and they begin dating. One day David takes Florence to his studio when Molly walks in, unaware that he wasn’t alone. She and Florence meet, and after Molly walks out, she says to David “She loves you, David, I can see it in her eyes.” She follows shortly after Molly and finds her sitting in Florence’s carriage. Molly implores Florence to marry David and make him happy. Florence expresses concern for Molly, and when Molly says she can be happy with her own boyfriend, Chunky, the two hug. All ends well with a tinge of bittersweetness at what could have been–with Florence marrying David and Molly marrying Chunky.

It is in the carriage scene that we see the very, very brief screen debut of an actress who would become an immortal Hollywood star. A young actress by the name of Lucille LeSueur had recently come to Hollywood and was being tested out in bit parts. In this role, she plays Norma Shearer’s double for the hugging shot. Within 2 years she would hit it big, and under the name of Joan Crawford, she would become perhaps one of the most important and influential stars of Hollywood’s Golden Age.

Norma Shearer, on the left, with Joan Crawford acting as Molly’s double on the right.

The significance of Joan Crawford’s screen debut against Norma Shearer is lost on very few fans who are familiar with the backstory of classic Hollywood. Joan Crawford’s career skyrocketed very quickly, and by the early 1930s she was one of the reigning queens of the MGM lot. Norma Shearer, always a huge star in her own right, married MGM production chief Irving Thalberg in 1927, becoming not only one of MGM’s biggest assets financially but also gaining an influence and control within the studio that was hard to shake. Joan Crawford and Norma Shearer became bitter rivals at MGM in the 1930s, with both asserting their power to its full extent. Because of her political influence within the studio, however, Norma usually won out, prompting Joan to quip “How can I compete with Norma when she’s sleeping with the boss?” They later appeared in 1939’s The Women playing competitors for a man’s affections–not far from their real life situation.

At its core, the story of Lady of the Night has a complexity that is quite thought-provoking. Much of it, in my analysis, has to do with the fact that Norma Shearer plays the dual role of a judge’s daughter and a convict’s daughter. This prompts the audience to rethink any prejudices they may have had coming in regarding “the girl from the wrong side of the tracks,” and instead judge the characters by their internal qualities. In addition, this dual role shows us the remarkable range of Norma Shearer’s acting abilities. Shearer was one of the rare performers in Hollywood who successfully made the transition from silent film to sound, and 5 years before her Oscar-winning turn in the sound film The Divorcee, Shearer was proving that she had the versatility of the best in the business. As Molly, she is hardened and rough but with a heart of gold–and as Florence, she is soft and demure. The ability to be able to switch from character to character with such aplomb and so quickly is a gift rare indeed.

If you would like to watch Lady of the Night, click here. It is worth watching for the tremendous performance of Norma Shearer, and for the place it has in the silent film pantheon.

See you next time!

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New Feature Coming to Backlots!

Backlots will be watching and reviewing titles from the Warner Archive Collection as part of a regular feature on the site.

Readers, I am proud to announce some good news regarding the site. Beginning next month, I will  be adding a new and exciting feature to Backlots, one that I hope will prove informative, entertaining, and that will keep Backlots firmly rooted on the pulse of what is new and exciting in classic cinema.

As part of a new collaboration with the Warner Archive, I will be watching and reviewing several titles from the collection each month for a feature entitled “Treasures From the Warner Archive.” I will provide backstories on the films, explore trivia bits, and perhaps host a few quizzes, polls, and competitions related to the Warner Archive titles over at the Backlot Commissary. I do hope that you, the reader, will participate in discussions in the comments section or at the Commissary, because I would love to hear from you! I will also be taking requests as to which films my readers would like to see reviewed, so please be sure to stay in touch if you have a specific Warner Archive title you would like to see reviewed.

The first two films are on their way, and I am pleased to announce that the first entry in this feature will be analysis of Polly of the Circus (1932), starring Marion Davies and Clark Gable, followed shortly thereafter by a post on The Woman in Red (1935), an oft-cited but rarely seen Barbara Stanwyck film.

Polly of the Circus.

The trailer for The Woman in Red.

The Warner Archive Collection is a real treasure for classic film fans. Established in 2009, it aims to manufacture classic titles on demand for consumers, focusing on films that have never before had a DVD release. Its library has been growing exponentially as it acquires the rights to release films from other collections, and its Netflix-type streaming system, Warner Archive Instant, is bringing classic films to a demographic that is accustomed to watching movies on the computer. It is a true honor to collaborate with such an innovative and forward-thinking company.

Keep your eyes peeled for the first installment of Treasures From the Warner Archive!

2013 at Backlots–A Year in Review

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!

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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.

The Warner Bros. VIP Tour

By Lara Gabrielle Fowler

Well, readers, today was an exciting and exhausting day to say the least. It began around 9:45 in the morning when, running on adrenaline and caffeine only (I didn’t get very much sleep), I arrived at the Warner lot for the VIP tour. After getting formally acquainted with several classic film bloggers whose names I knew well, we were led into a special screening room where we watched a short video of the history of Warner Bros. and then headed out on the tour itself with our friendly guide, John.

We bloggers got some very special treatment–our first stop was the costume department, which is not normally part of the tour. There, a woman by the name of Elaine showed us stock costumes while explaining to us how the costume system works at Warner Bros. It turns out that costumes are owned by Warner Bros. but can be rented by other studios–there is a bit of a kinship there that allows costumes to be shared. Upon questioning her about a sign on one of the door that said “Trades not allowed,” Elaine also informed me that there is a trade system in place for some of the costumes. If a costume from the collection is lost or damaged, often the person who lost or damaged it can replace it with another costume of the same value. However, in that particular department, trades are not allowed if the costume is lost or damaged. The person must pay, out of pocket, the value of the costume. Very interesting stuff, and really gives you an insight into some of the politics of the inner departments of the studio.

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Some hats from 1920-1960.

As many of my readers know, I am a big fan of Barbara Stanwyck and was keen to know where Stanwyck’s pre-Code Warner Bros. films were shot. I posed my question to John, who was wonderful in getting the answer to me. He handed the question off to several people until I finally got an answer, and the answer was that most of the Barbara Stanwyck pre-Codes were filmed in Studio 14. When we passed Studio 14 later, John incorporated this new information into the tour. The Warner Bros. tour guides clearly respect and value new information, and I appreciated his diligence in answering my question and imparting it onto the whole group.

A scene from BABY FACE, shot on Warner Bros. Stage 14.

One of my favorite aspects of the tour was the prominent inclusion of A Star is Born. Having seen the movie at least two dozen times, I recognized the set where the opening shot was filmed, and we also passed Stage 7 where many prominent films were shot including A Star is Born, 42nd Street, and Casablanca. Though there were ladders blocking the bottom part of the plaque, I was able to get a bit of it in a picture. I hope you can read the text!

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From the opening shot of A Star is Born.

From the opening shot of A Star is Born.

Halfway through the tour, we got a taste of the more modern Warner Bros. with a visit to the set of Friends. As this was a tour specifically geared toward bloggers, several of us classic film bloggers, John was kind enough to also include a lamp from The Maltese Falcon that appears alongside the Friends set. It was fascinating for me to experience the gamut of Warner Bros. through my lens of a classic film fan. It truly gives the visitor a holistic view of the company, and how its history (with which I am mostly familiar) has shaped its present.

The tour ended with a bang, as we were given special access to take pictures in the museum, something not generally allowed on tours. I have a real soft spot for costumes, so I was thrilled to be able to take photos of such costumes as the three dresses shown below.

Three Elizabeth Taylor costumes from GIANT, WHO'S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF? and FATHER OF THE BRIDE.

Costumes worn by Joan Crawford (left) and Elizabeth Taylor.

Harry Warner’s granddaughter, Cass Warner, happened to be on the lot that day and visited with our group, which was a wonderful moment. She is part of Warner Bros. 90th anniversary speaker series, “Meet the Family,” telling the story of the Warner family through the eyes of its members. Cass has her own production company, the Warner Sisters, that is doing very prominent work in the industry right now. She also shared stories of the family, how she wanted the Warner record set straight. People often think of the movie moguls of classic Hollywood as being tyrannical and controlling–and Cass Warner wanted to reiterate that her grandfather was a loving man with whom she was close. She has also devoted much of her life to learning more about her family history. “I’m sort of the family detective!” she joked. She was very interested in the work we classic film bloggers were doing, and I was lucky enough to get a picture with her.

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The tour ended at the commissary, where we were given a very delicious lunch. My blogging friends Kimberly Truhler, Kristen Lopez, Elise Crane Derby and I had exciting and lively discussions about our favorite classic film stars, little-known old Hollywood gossip, and our modest but vibrant online classic film community. We are indeed a rather small, devoted, and tight-knit bunch.

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I got an added bonus after the tour–my friend Marya, who works at the Warner Archives, brought me up to see the closet where they keep all the Warner Archive DVD releases. Needless to say, I was like a kid in a candy shop. Marya and I talked about all the movies, I got to see where she works, and of course I got a picture with Robbie the Robot.

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I can’t imagine a more fun-filled day for a classic movie fan. I departed Warner Bros. an exhausted, but very happy blogger.

Now for the good stuff!

If you would like to go on a Warner Bros. tour, I would highly recommend it. It was a lot of fun, and if you’re a film fan in L.A. it’s a great thing to check out. The VIP tour package looks like this:

Departs: Mon-Sat 8:15am-4pm  and Sundays (limited availability)
Duration: 2hrs 15 min
Cost: $52.00/person
Children 8yrs + are welcome

We technically went on a VIP tour, but with the added special access it was actually more like a Deluxe tour in many ways. This is what the Deluxe tour looks like:

Departs Mon-Fri 10:15 am
Duration: 5 hrs.
Cost: $250.00/person

As I mentioned before, Cass Warner is speaking on tours through the end of the year, so if you would like to see her then this is the time to go. Also, apparently there is a tour in French, if you (like your author here!) speak French. However, act fast for that one because it’s only going on through November.

If you’re in Los Angeles and have a school or club who would like to see Warner Bros., give them a call because hey have special discounts for groups larger than 24. More information can be found on their website.

Thank you, Warner Bros., for this wonderful opportunity!

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Backlots to Cover Warner Bros. VIP Studio Tour

As I write to you, dear readers, I am on Highway 5 heading from my home in Oakland down to Los Angeles. The purpose of my visit, this time, is to blog for the Warner Bros. 90th Anniversary VIP tour which is happening tomorrow. I was invited along with several other classic film bloggers to be among 10 featured writers on the tour.

A brief history of the company: Warner Bros. was founded by four brothers, Albert, Sam, Harry and Jack Warner who had been collecting and distributing films for many years, in 1923. It remained a fledgling studio until Warner Bros. had the foresight to see that the future of movies was based in sound. In 1927, the studio released The Jazz Singer and Warner Bros. became a household name.

In the 1930s and 1940s, Warner Bros. had under contract some of the most gifted and eminent stars in the business. Bette Davis, Olivia de Havilland, Errol Flynn, Edward G. Robinson, Humphrey Bogart, and directors such as Michael Curtiz, Busby Berkeley, Mervyn LeRoy and William Wellman all called Warner Bros. home at seminal points in their careers. Such diverse films as The Maltese Falcon, Casablanca, A Star is Born, My Fair Lady, Cool Hand Luke, and The Exorcist were all shot at Warner Bros., securing the studio a reputation for staggering versatility.

Today, Warner Bros. is known and appreciated by classic film fans for the incredibly vast library of films available in the Warner Archive. Previously unreleased or rare films get a new audience with the Warner Archive Collection, and it has proven to be a very valuable resource to those researching classic film. It recently procured a license to release Paramount pictures under the Warner name, so the releases from the Warner Archive will continue to grow exponentially as time goes on.

The Warner Archive release of Thirteen Women.

In recent times, many high profile television shows have been shot at the studio, and on the tour I expect to see the sets of modern television shows like ER and Friends, both shot at Warner Bros. in the 1990s. I will be taking pictures and live-tweeting, and at the end of the day I will make a blog post here about my experience and some information about the Warner Bros. tours themselves, should you want to go on one.

See you soon!