This is gonna sound sorta weird, but while I’m not a fan of classic Hollywood, I’m a fan of fans of classic Hollywood.
What I mean is: The time period rivets me. But when I watch films from the black-and-white era, well, I sorta kinda fall asleep. I just don’t find the acting particularly convincing, the storylines particularly intriguing, the conflicts particularly realistic. Women are objects, men are dashing, villains are lame and over the top.
With this, Lara Fowler would certainly disagree.
A past winner of the CiMBA Award for Best Classic Movie Discussion, Lara is an expert on classic cinema, and as we speak she’s completing a biography of Marion Davies, the legendary actress who, ahem, I’d never heard of. She’s a film historian and author, and would gladly change her name to Happy McGill for $5 million of Celine Dion’s dollars.
Lara Fowler, you’ve been Quazed …
JEFF PEARLMAN: OK, so Lara, you’re currently working on a biography of Marion Davies, the actress and producer who died 57 years ago. And, if I’m being honest, I’d never heard of Davies before. Which leads me to think most people haven’t heard of Davis before. Which leads me to think, for you, this is first and foremost a labor of love. So … why a book on Marion Davies? And what’s the goal?
LARA FOWLER: You’re certainly not alone in not having heard of her. Nowadays, if people know her at all, they know her as the mistress of William Randolph Hearst or “the woman from Citizen Kane.” If you’ve ever seen Citizen Kane, there’s a perception that Kane’s wife, Susan Alexander, is based on Marion Davies. It’s far more complicated than that–the character is a composite–but the perception has ruined Marion’s reputation in the general public. Susan Alexander is a no-talent hack opera singer whose career is pushed along by Kane, and she really has nothing to go on. That couldn’t be further from the truth about Marion Davies. Marion was a silent film actress (she also made it in sound films, but her peak was in the silent era) who was under contract to Cosmopolitan Studios, run by Hearst, who was also her real life romantic companion. She spent most of her early career weighed down in very heavy costume dramas, because Hearst wanted the public to see her as he saw her–as a saintly, otherworldly angel. She was good in these dramas, but the truth was that she was a phenomenally gifted comedienne. Everyone saw it, including Hearst, but he couldn’t bring himself to cast her in comedies.
Finally, in the late 1920s, he did–and the results were spectacular. She was doing screwball comedy before anyone else was, and when you watch her comedy work, she’s clearly the comedic predecessor to people like Carole Lombard, Lucille Ball, and Carol Burnett. It’s fascinating to watch. I want to bring her back into the public consciousness, because in addition to her comedic significance, she was a woman who charted her own path and lived her life her way. She was a modern, progressive woman.
I began the process of writing the book in 2013, when I realized how much I loved the research and writing process that went into my blog. An interview with Barbara Stanwyck biographer Victoria Wilson about her research spurred me to begin, and when I began thinking about subjects…Marion Davies kept coming up. She had been on my mind since I was 13 years old and first learned about her, I always found her fascinating. I would try to expand my list of potential subjects, but I just couldn’t think of anyone as fascinating as Marion Davies. I took it as a sign, started my research, and the puzzle pieces started to come together very quickly. It’s been 5 years now.
The goal is to restore Marion Davies’ reputation from the Citizen Kane realm and back to her rightful place in film history. I’ve been lucky to be able to talk to many important people in Marion’s life–people tell me you make your own luck, but the fact that multiple important people are still alive, some pushing 100 years old, really is pure chance. I’ve been able to talk about Marion at Hearst Castle, the Annenberg Community Beach House, UCLA, and at the TCM Classic Film Festival, and my research has taken me all over the world. It’s a wild adventure and she’s brought me so much joy. I couldn’t have chosen a better subject, and she’s such a pleasant person to write about. Everyone loved her. Biographers have to live with their subjects 24/7, and she’s just such a positive “presence.”
J.P.: So you’ve written a ton about classic Hollywood, which makes me wonder—how do you feel about modern Hollywood? About the 785th superhero movie? About the 300th film staring an animated dog of some sort? Where are we, quality-wise, in 2018 cinema?
L.F.: That’s a fascinating question with many facets to it. Hollywood has never existed in a vacuum, it has always reflected the trends and social issues of the outside world.The popularization of television in the 1950s led movie studios and theaters to experiment with new techniques to get people into the seats, and that’s how 3-D movies came into the mainstream. The fall of the Motion Picture Production Code in 1968 allowed studios to really make the kinds of movies that reflected the social movements of the 1960s, which got people into the theaters. Now, with the internet and the fact that people can stream movies at home for free, Hollywood has to come up with new and exciting things that will get people out of the house. The thought process really hasn’t changed that much. I see Hollywood today as reflective of our time. They recycle what clearly works, financially and otherwise, just like they always have. Think of all the Andy Hardy movies that were made during WWII. All the Lassie movies, the Rin Tin Tin movies…the list goes on. We’re creatures of habit.
In terms of quality, I think there was a loss in creativity that came with the fall of the Motion Picture Production Code. The MPPC, while it was basically censorship (it dictated what could be shown in movies coming out of Hollywood) and censorship is never a positive thing for a society, it brought the most talented and creative writers and production people to the industry. The studios were going to make the movies that they wanted–they just had to make sure that these innuendos and suggestive references flew under the radar of the censors. So that necessitated the best of the best–and from those creatives, we got brilliantly suggestive movies that said everything they needed to say…without saying much at all. Now, everything is shown to us and there’s very little left to the imagination.
J.P.: What’s your all-time favorite film? And, specifically, why? What takes it from here all the way to up there for you?
L.F.: Ah, the dreaded “favorite movie” question! When people ask me this, I usually say It Happened One Night. To me, it’s the perfect movie. It’s got it all–humor, drama, great acting, a phenomenal script, top-notch directing–it really doesn’t get much better than that. And I’m not alone, I’m happy to say–it was the first movie to win the Big Five at the Oscars (Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, Best Actress, Best Screenplay). That feat has only been matched two other times in history–with One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and Silence of the Lambs.
Also, The Thin Man always makes me happy. No matter what is happening in life, I can turn on The Thin Man and I feel instantly better, it’s the best medicine. The dialogue is so modern, and the relationship between Nick and Nora shows us that a husband and wife can be friends and equals
J.P.: So I’m reading your blog, and all about Olivia de Havilland. And you have these two side-by-side photos—one of Olivia when she was young, and one of her as a senior. And maybe this sounds dumb, but is it ever jarring or sad or … whatever to write about bygone film eras, and now see the people as old or, oftentimes, dead? Do you know what I mean? You live the films and the contained emotions. Then—they’re old and crusty and … yeah.
L.F.: That doesn’t sound dumb at all. It’s a great question. I think I’m used to it–sometimes it’s jarring to think just how long ago all this was, because you essentially live in that world and it’s real to you. But to me, it’s just as real to think that in many cases, most if not all of the people in that world are dead. I enjoy learning about their lives, from the beginning to the end. The sad thing is when a member of the Hollywood “old guard” dies, which is happening more and more frequently. There are very few left now. I interviewed Joan Fontaine for the blog just a few months before she died, and her death hit me very hard. For me, Joan Fontaine as a 96-year-old woman was the same Joan Fontaine as I saw on the screen. It was just a different stage of her life. I met Olivia de Havilland in Paris at the age of 94, and had the same feeling. She was the same person–just older. I was happy to meet them both, and had no feeling of sadness at their age, just joy.
J.P.: How did this happen for you? The interest in film? The interest in classic film? Was it a childhood passion? Did a certain movie flip the switch? When did the lightbulb go off?
L.F.: My grandmother was a lifelong film aficionado. She wanted to be a film critic when she was a child, but that path was not an easy one and she ended up going to nursing school instead–but her first job out of nursing school was at Cedars of Lebanon Hospital (now Cedars Sinai) in Los Angeles, where all the movie stars went for treatment. She took care of Betty Grable, Judy Garland, Farley Granger…and she would tell me stories about what they were like. Concurrently, she would show me movies from that era that she thought I would like, starting with Lili, starring Leslie Caron. I became obsessed with Lili, wanting to rent it every time we went to the movie store–to the point where my grandmother finally said “Let’s find something else.” I’ve always felt that my grandmother would have made a great film programmer, because her next movie for me was Meet Me In St. Louis. I’ve programmed film festivals before and if I were organizing a classic movie lineup for children, I would absolutely choose Meet Me In St. Louisto follow Lili. Beautiful Technicolor, simple yet meaningful storylines, an ensemble cast. I fell in love with that one, too, and then fell in love with Judy Garland. I saw every movie she ever made by the time I was 11, and started branching out to the movies her co-stars made. It grew exponentially from there.
J.P.: So I used to work at Sports Illustrated, and readers would often long for the 1970s, and all these bygone writers. But when, while writing for the magazine, I started thinking the modern writing was actually better. More colorful. More intellectual. Just … better. And you might hate this, but I think film is far better now than the material I’ve seen from the 1940s and 50s. It just strikes me—at its best—as more sophisticated and developed. Tell me why I’m on crack.
L.F.: Modern writers, actors, and directors stand on the shoulders of the people who came before them. There would be something wrong if the people in the 40’s and 50’s didn’t help further the craft. Remember that in the 1940s, movies were only about 50 years old and the industry was still growing and changing. What you see as sophistication and nuance is actually a shift in the language of cinema as it has aged. The other day, a colleague brought up a fascinating idea to me–the fact that in the language of silent film, there’s something of a “rule” that if the characters don’t indicate that they hear something, that thing doesn’t make a sound. It’s the perfect setup for physical and situational comedy–but that rule faded out of the cinematic lexicon once sound came in, and now people who aren’t familiar with silent film often ask “Why didn’t the character hear that train?” Audiences have become more sophisticated as the movies have aged.
I run a classic film Meetup group, and even among my attendees, from time to time someone will start laughing at a line they consider trite. That, then, leads to a conversation about how these movies were fundamental in shaping the nuance and sophistication that we see in filmmaking today, just like the English language of the 1500s shaped the language that we use today.
But…if you want recommendations for some absolutely powerhouse movies from classic Hollywood, I would be eager to give them to you. You’d be blown away by some of the movies that were made in the pre-Code era.
J.P.: How do you research? I mean—let’s talk Davies. What’s your process? Where are you finding most of your info? How much of it is interviews vs. archives? Where do you do most of your work?
L.F.: There are several people left alive who knew Marion well, and even one who knew her when she was still working (Marion retired in 1937), so I’m extremely lucky there. I’d say about 50% of it comes from archival and scholarly research, 40% from in-person or recorded interviews, and then the remaining 10% from miscellaneous other sources. I unearthed a set of interview tapes that Marion’s previous biographer conducted in the late 1960s with many, many people who have long since died. Those tapes are extraordinary, and have given me information that I couldn’t hope to find anywhere else.
I am able to travel, which is another benefit that I have in writing this book–so I’ve been to archives all over the United States, the UK, and France. Depending on the nature of the information, I will take notes or make copies, then save them in my files. When I get home, I will review and organize them into physical or digital file folders, and begin to put the puzzle pieces together. I did solid research (no writing) for the first 2 years. Then I started the writing process from the middle out. I wrote the most compelling part of the story first, then branched out from there. Now, my manuscript is essentially complete and I’m organizing and editing to make sure everything flows properly.
J.P.: What separates a great movie from a good one? Seriously–what are the factors? The elements? And are some films factually great? Or is it all, come day’s end, opinion?
L.F.: Good question! Some movies that are considered “great films” are just not everyone’s cup of tea. To return to Citizen Kane, for example–there’s a huge segment of the population that just doesn’t like it. That’s personal taste–even though it consistently ranks as the #1 “greatest movie” of all time. I do think much of the notion of “greatest” is based on opinion, but there are certain movies that just come together so perfectly that their greatness can’t easily be argued. Casablanca, I think is one of those. The acting, the writing, the directing, the cast, and the forward-thinking nature of the movie come together for a movie that is objectively great. If I can love on Casablanca for a second…here we are in the middle of WWII, no one actually knows whether or not the Allies will win or lose the war, and yet when the French and the Germans both sing their national anthems at Rick’s cafe and try to out-sing each other…the French win. It’s not left vague, the movie takes a bold and potentially dangerous step and essentially declares that the Allies will win the war. It’s remarkable, and gives me chills even as I write this.
J.P.: You’re a freelance script writer. Which means … what exactly? How does that work?
L.F.: I write scripts (and do research and editing) for Turner Classic Movies. Essentially, I research a movie, then put together a script that serves as a blueprint for the host when the host goes on TV to introduce it. It’s a lot of fun, and exactly what I love to do! My passion is for working in the trenches with research and analysis of the film industry. I was asked recently if I would ever like to become a screenwriter–I don’t think so. That’s a whole different skill set that involves more creative writing than I’m doing right now–and there are people who are far more gifted with those skills than I could ever hope be.
J.P.: So I’ve had several of my books optioned for movies—and nothing ever gets done. Everyone talks a good game, everyone says who should play who, everyone tells you how great you are. Then—nothing. Lara, you’ve been around. Why so much bullshit in Hollywood?
L.F.: I’m sorry that’s happened to you. I know that they were sincere with you, that they loved and saw movie potential in your work, or else they wouldn’t have spent the money to option your books. Options are tricky things, because if they’re going to invest this much money in something, they want it to be as perfect as they can be. If they can’t get the exact right actor to play the lead (perhaps he’s asking too much money, perhaps he’s busy with other projects), the costumes are going to be too expensive, or the stars (so to speak) don’t align in exactly the right way at the right time, nothing happens. It all comes down to money, and it always has. But maybe you’ll get that long-awaited phone call sometime in the near future!
QUAZ EXPRESS WITH LARA FOWLER:
• Five all-time best Marion Davies films: Show People, The Patsy, Blondie of the Follies, Little Old New York, Five and Ten
• One question you would ask Marvis Frazier were he here right now: Did you feel burdened growing up in the shadow of your father?
• Rank in order (favorite to least): Raymond Hatton, Billy Waddy, palm trees, the pandas at the zoo, “China Seas,” “Deadpool,” chocolate cherry milk shakes, OutKast, Trident gum: You’re going to make me rank pandas at the zoo? Don’t make me choose between Jean Harlow and pandas! 1. I feel guilty not putting the pandas first; China Seas. Jean Harlow is a personal favorite; 3 Raymond Hatton because I really like the 1923 version of The Hunchback of Notre Dame; 4. Trident gum is good; 5. Palm trees are great but the fronds are hard to clean up; 6. Chocolate cherry milkshakes. I’d like them better without the cherries; 7. I never got into OutKast, I was the middle school weirdo listening to Billie Holiday on my walkman; 8. Deadpool, because I didn’t see it so I can’t really have a valid opinion; 9. Billy Waddy is down here because I don’t do the sports thing.
• In exactly 20 words, tell me how you feel about the film, “Titanic.”: It’s a childhood pleasure. I love Kate Winslet and she’s good in it, though I hear she doesn’t think so.
• Six greatest actors of your lifetime: Kate Winslet, Meryl Streep, Viola Davis, Daniel Day-Lewis, Jack Nicholson, Gary Oldman
• What’s the last dream you remember?: I was speaking to someone, used a word incorrectly and she laughed at me.
• Three memories from your senior prom: 1. The prom king was a kid who beatboxed in class all day, and the prom queen was a girl who wore a leather motorcycle jacket to prom; 2. I lost my glasses (yes, I was that much of a nerd even then); 3. I eventually took off my shoes.
• On a scale of 1 to 100, how afraid are you of death?: I’d probably have to give it a neutral 50. I make a reasonable effort not to die, but I don’t live my life afraid I’m going to be killed.
• You’re offered $5 million to write Celine Dion’s biography. However, you have to move to Las Vegas for two years, sleep on her floor, bark in public and permanently change your name to Happy McGill. You in?: If she’d do the same.
• What’s your all-time favorite movie line?: This requires some context for anyone who hasn’t seen Some Like It Hot. “Daphne” is actually Jerry, and has been posing as a woman throughout the whole movie. Osgood has fallen in love with “Daphne” and proposed marriage. I’ll bold the line that’s the kicker.
Osgood: I called Mama. She was so happy she cried! She wants you to have her wedding gown. It’s white lace.
Daphne: Yeah, Osgood. I can’t get married in your mother’s dress. Ha ha. That-she and I, we are not built the same way.
Osgood: We can have it altered.
Daphne: Oh no you don’t! Osgood, I’m gonna level with you. We can’t get married at all.
Osgood: Why not?
Daphne: Well, in the first place, I’m not a natural blonde.
Osgood: Doesn’t matter.
Daphne: I smoke! I smoke all the time!
Osgood: I don’t care.
Daphne: Well, I have a terrible past. For three years now, I’ve been living with a saxophone player.
Osgood: I forgive you.
Daphne: [Tragically] I can never have children!
Osgood: We can adopt some.
Daphne/Jerry: But you don’t understand, Osgood! [Whips off his wig, exasperated, and changes to a manly voice] Uhhh, I’m a man!
Osgood: Well, nobody’s perfect!