After a running start to the festival by seeing two delightful films with an engaged audience, I was ready to add some Pre-Code to my time at TCM Film Festival. Thankfully, there were plenty of opportunities to indulge in some enticing Pre-Code films, in addition to a variety of panel discussions at Club TCM and options to viewing other films. My morning began with a walk to the Chinese Theater multiplex for my first Pre-Code film of the festival.
Merrily We Go to Hell (1932):
The first Pre-Code film that I enjoyed was Merrily We Go to Hell. The film was introduced by Cari Beauchamp, who is an author, film historian, and documentarian. Beauchamp introduced the film by discussing the background of its director, Dorothy Arzner.
“She was one of those rare creatures who was comfortable in her own skin and knew who she was from a very early age,” said Beauchamp.
Born in Los Angeles, her father ran the downtown Hoffman Cafe. Stars like Mary Pickford and her friends would frequent the cafe. Knowing that Arzner’s father would let them run a tab, it was a popular place.
Nonetheless, pre-teen Arzner was unimpressed by the actors. she intended to become a doctor and took courses that she felt would challenge her, such as Latin, math, zoology, biology, and art history. She attended the University of Southern California when the United States entered the war, at which point she lied about her age, hoping to become an ambulance driver in France. While she never left Los Angeles, she had a uniform “that impressed the Hell out of her.”
When the war ended, she realized she loved the “real world” so much that she did not want to return to college. Her commanding officer’s wife introduced her to William DeMille.
“He invited her to come to the studio and look around to see if anything intrigued her. Can you imagine?” said Beauchamp.
While there, she saw Cecil B. DeMille at work, noticing that someone handed him a megaphone and another person followed him with a chair. She told herself, “If you’re going to be in this business, the thing to be is a director. He is the fellow who tells everyone else what to do.”
Arzner also listened to DeMille’s secretary, who said, “The blueprint of the picture is always the script. That’s where you start.” To do that, she had to type. Of all the classes she had taken, typing had not been one of them and all of the pages had to be perfect. She would not have lasted a week if it had not been for one of the seasoned secretaries who took half of her stack and typed on her behalf, signing off with the initials “D.A.”
“If it hadn’t been for another woman, we never would have heard her name,” said Beauchamp.
Soon after, an editor took her under her wing. Knowing that Arzner was ready to work seven days a week, the studio executives began to have confidence in her and Arzner found herself enjoying the editing process. Arzner once said, “I loved editing. I just loved it. Nobody bothered you. You could do things with [the] actors. You could cut them off when they were no good. You could cut their dragging exits.” Arzner edited 32 films in one year. By day, she kept script or continuity; by night, she edited.
Arzner threatened to leave Paramount to be given a chance to be a director. They gave in during 1927, giving her a script for Fashions for Women. While Arzner did not care for fashion, the film launched her career and led her to meet her life partner, choreographer Marion Morgan.
“Dorothy put her blinders on and did her work,” said Beauchamp. “She was an innovator and practical to the core. Her small megaphone was also a viewfinder. And when Clara Bow was given only a few weeks to adjust to making a sound feature, while over at MGM, [Greta] Garbo had over a year, Dorothy saw Clara struggling with microphones being placed intermittently around the set. Think Singin’ in the Rain (1952)–it wasn’t really an exaggeration. So, Dorothy asked one of her male crew members for a fishing pole. He brought it in the next day, she put a microphone at the end, the pole followed Clara around (freeing her to perform without worry), and the boom mic was born.”
When she was asked if she was ever given an assistant director for talkies, Arzner said, “Oh, God, no. They would have given me a man.”
I’m often asked why there were no women cinematographers in early Hollywood, and thanks to Dorothy, I have a pithy answer,” said Beauchamp. “She [Arzner] said, ‘Well, enough men wanted the job.'” Beauchamp shared that her quotes from Arzner came from the research of film historian Kevin Brownlow, who shared his transcriptions from interviews with Arzner.
Beauchamp also shared some of the ads for this film, including descriptors such as, “She marries a playboy. Can she make a man out of him?” Another included, “You may know these people. They may live on your block. They may be among your friends NOW.”
“They knew the Code was coming and they pulled all the stops,” said Beauchamp.
This is the fourth film that Fredric March made with Arzner. It also co-starred Sylvia Sidney, who was among the hundreds of stage actresses given a one-way ticket to Hollywood as the industry transitioned to talkies. By the time, this was filmed, she was in a long-term affair with Paramount’s production chief. Cary Grant also appears in the film in an early role but already stands out as an on-screen presence.
The reverend in the film is played by Rev. Neal Dodd, a real-life Episcopalian priest. In addition to officiating the weddings of several Hollywood stars, he also appeared in films, including It Happened One Night as the minister.
“You have to love it. A priest with a SAG card. Only in Hollywood,” said Beauchamp.
The film was a success at the box office. Critics praised its fine direction and artful direction, rather than the direction calling attention to itself.
Arzner once said, “I must say, I was never given a story of much consequence. I always had to try to make something out of nothing.”
Once the film ended, I took a walk through Babylon and did some sight-seeing until it was time for me to enjoy a panel at Club TCM, which caught my interest.
The Descendants: Growing Up in Hollywood:
It is always a delight to meet individuals who were close to some of Hollywood’s greatest stars. While professional relationships can be fascinating, the bond between child and parent can also be illuminating–especially when the parent at hand was a Hollywood star. Thanks to TCM, attendees were able to hear from three children from different Hollywood stars and hear their perspectives on growing up with a parent who was enmeshed in the film industry.
The panel included Jennifer Grant, daughter of Cary Grant; Dr. Hasna Muhammad, daughter of Ossie Davis; and Fraser Heston, son of Charleton Heston. Grant is an actress and author, Muhammad is a writer and photographer, and Heston is a director, writer, and producer.
The discussion began with a slideshow featuring the panelists alongside their parents. Afterward, Illeana Douglas, granddaughter of Melvyn Douglas, introduced the panelists and began to interview them. Each panelist shared information about their family life, their famous parents, as well as information about Hollywood at the time.
“I think I imagined my dad as a professional chariot rider,” said Heston. “He’d literally come home in his wardrobe from Ben-Hur (1959).” As a child, Heston recalled going on a trip to Rome with his family and seeing crowds gathered to see his father. Thinking the crowds were there for him, he waved back and said, “Thank you for coming!”
Heston recalled that his father loved his profession and recalled when his father said that he would have executed many of his roles for nothing. There was also a strong sense of professionalism expected of Heston and of his family. “He knew that we had to behave responsibly in public.”
Though Heston’s father was an actor, Heston did not initially intend to follow in his footsteps.
“Hollywood is sort of like the mafia, said Heston. “The only way to get out of it is to die out of it. I’m not quite there yet. I wanted to be a marine biologist but then I got into writing.
As a writer and director, Heston had the opportunity to work professionally with his father.
“He was great,” said Heston. “He was fantastic to direct. He was the same with me as he was with anyone. He was very considerate, very professional, and would show up on time. He would have creative arguments with you but never ones that would impact the schedule. He was also generous.”
Muhammad, in the meantime, gained experience in photography and writing, later expressing a desire to work in education. She worked as an English teacher and administrator in the public school setting and fondly recalled how her mother would emphasize the need to enunciate when speaking.
“I’ve embraced my visual storytelling again,” said Muhammad, who has since retired from education and now focuses on writing and working on shorts. “I believe art is a beautiful way of warming the world and expressing the humanity in all of us.”
Muhammad recalled visiting the sets on which her parents worked. “One of the things they [her parents] did as a family is–they would take us. They wouldn’t necessarily leave us. So, I’ve been on a lot of sets and in a lot of theaters. You learn how to cross the wires without being seen and so forth.”
Muhammad also shared her memories and feeling very much a part of her parents’ professional lives.
“I remember we were in Italy once and my father was playing a Catholic priest,” said Muhammad. “He would have on his wardrobe while we went out to lunch or something and we were quite a spectacle because we were calling him[, saying], ‘Hey, Daddy! Daddy!’ They took us as often as they could and it enriched our lives. It made them extraordinary.”
As a result of this involvement, Muhammad feels that her family continues to be linked to creating and engaging in more visual storytelling.
Grant, however, expressed that her parents did not want her to work as an actress.
“Both my mother and father did not want me to act,” said Grant. “They were very, very opinionated about this. “In fact, when I ended up at Stanford, I took an acting class and my teacher offered me a scholarship in Manhattan for the summer. My dad said, ‘If you take it, I will not pay for Stanford.’ I said, ‘O.K., I guess I will not do that.'”
Reflecting upon their reluctance to allowing her to work as an actress, Grant said, “As you know, it’s not an easy task. It’s beautiful, beautiful, beautiful, but it’s not for the faint of heart. […] I think they just knew it could be a tough path, as beautiful as it was and is.”
Muhammad’s parents offered a different perspective on working in the entertainment industry.
“There were a lot of Hollywood parents who didn’t want their children to go through what they did–especially African American actors,” said Muhammad. “What my parents instilled in us was having more African Americans behind the scenes. It’s easier to find folks on the stage and on the screen but it’s much less easy to find them as the directors, producers, writers, the grips, and so forth. We didn’t get a television until there were enough African-American people on there to watch. My father a few colleagues started the Institute of New Cinema Artists and it was a training ground for African-American artists.
As the children of these stars shared stories of their parents, it was easy to feel a sense of pride and connection to these storied individuals. In addition to their children remarking about their legacies, Grant also sported some tangible tributes to her father, which included a watch that he wore very often–now situated on her wrist. Grant also wore her father’s frames from North by Northwest (1959). She also mentioned that the style would be available to the public through Oliver Peoples.
As the years go on with these legends no longer with us, it is heartening to see their children still honoring their legacies with genuine devotion and love.
Vanity Street (1932):
I enjoyed Vanity Street with my friends Beth Ann Gallagher from Spellbound by Movies and Karie Bible from Hollywood Forever Cemetery Tours. During this screening, I encountered Cari Beauchamp a second time, as she was slated to introduce this film, as well.
Beauchamp discussed the work of Joseph Breen and the Code in order to offer context for this particular film and offered some examples of how the work of different artists and writers were altered because of him. In one example, she mentioned Frances Marion writing The Secret Six (1931) and her being happy with the overall arc of the story.
“The film opened with Wallace Beery as a lowly worker in the Chicago stockyards using a mallet to kill cattle, one by one,” said Beauchamp. “After he rises to be a big mob boss, he is killed in that same stockyard by a stampede of cattle. You know, cosmic justice.”
Breen thought that being killed by cattle was insufficient. As a result, Marion had to rewrite the ending to show him getting tried and sent to his execution.
“She resented it, needless to say, but I laughed out loud when I read her handwritten note on the bottom of the page,” said Beauchamp. “She said, ‘Here’s your ‘happy ending’.'”
Beauchamp compared Breen to Hays and cited a key difference between them.
“The Code loused up a lot of films and it prevented a lot from being made,” said Beauchamp. “And, you know, we are so derogatory about WIll Hays for many reasons. But, in truth, when you look back, he promoted movies and Joe Breen undermined them. The Code was enforced at a time when the Depression had circled the globe and landed with a thud on Hollywood. Unions were coming to, but in the meantime, they were flooding the market with the sexiest titles they could come up with.”
Vanity Street, a product of then-poverty row’s Columbia Pictures, was no exception and constantly teeters between suggestions of morality and scandal.
Among the different stars in this film is Helen Chandler, who appeared in Dracula (1931) alongside Bela Lugosi.
“After a rollercoaster ride of a screen career, Chandler tried to return to the stage but booze and sleeping pills took their toll and he spent several years committed to a sanitarium,” said Beauchamp. “When she died in 1965, she was cremated but her ashes remain unclaimed to this day.”
Chandler offers a believable performance of a woman in desperation who is trying to survive the Depression against the backdrop of the film’s fascinating B-roll footage of 1930s New York.
The Opposite Sex (1956):
I decided to close my evening by attending my first poolside screening event. As I sampled my complimentary TCM Marx Brothers wine, courtesy of TCM Backlot, I had one of those “small world” encounters. Previously, I had presented at a local library back home and one of the attendees told me that her friend would be at the festival. As I got to chatting with my neighbors for the screening, they mentioned to me that one of their friends attended my presentation at the library. Of all the poolside screenings in all the world, they came to TCM’s…and encountered me!
As the sun began to set, comedian Dennis Miller and Ileana Douglas both introduced The Opposite Sex after Alicia Malone advertised the TCM Wine Club.
The film is based upon a play that had previously been brought to the screen in 1939. This rendition of the story is a musical version but unlike its all-female cast predecessor, the film includes males among its cast. Miller and Douglas shared some fun quips regarding the different characters appearing in the film and commented upon some of the dated dance moves. Nevertheless, they emphasized that this is a campy film in hindsight.
As I viewed the film, it became clear to me that this was not going to be a top-notch production but I think it was very appropriate to see this film in a poolside setting. The story seemed to lend itself well to a casual and more social setting and it was very nice to be able to enjoy this film in a more informal atmosphere. I appreciated getting to know my seatmates and overhearing some humorous commentary among attendees. Had I viewed this film in a dark quiet theater, I feel that my experience would not have been as pleasant as it was.
After a wonderful day of films, an interesting discussion panel, and enjoyable time touring Los Angeles, I looked forward to Day 3 of the festival.