Book Vs. Movie: A Place in the Sun (1951) & An American Tragedy (1931)

Elizabeth Taylor and Montgomery Clift in A Place in the Sun.

On March 30, 1908, Chester Gillette was executed after being convicted of the murder of Grace Brown. Gillette was the son of religious parents who were members of The Salvation Army and he later moved to New York to work in a skirt factory owned by his uncle. While working there, he began having an affair with fellow Grace, a fellow factory employee. When she became pregnant, she pressured him to marry her, but he kept stringing her along. Reportedly, he was also involved with a young socialite in town. Eventually, Chester agreed to take a trip with Grace to the Adirondack Mountains, presumably to get married. Instead, Chester convinced her to get into a rowboat with him where he hit her over the head and left her to drown.

The court case garnered significant media attention throughout the country and was the inspiration for Theodore Dreiser’s 1925 novel An American Tragedy. An American Tragedy went on to be adapted for the screen twice, first as 1931’s An American Tragedy and again in 1951 as A Place in the Sun.

Book & Movie Differences

The novel An American Tragedy is an extremely lengthy read. (The edition I read was 874 pages.) But neither the 1931 film or A Place in the Sun match the book’s epic length, clocking in at 96 minutes and 122 minutes respectively. Given that discrepancy, there’s naturally much from the book that was lost in translation from book to screen.

The novel is divided into three separate parts. Book 1 covers Clyde Griffiths’ youth in Kansas City as the child of poor street preachers. He’s never spiritually moved by his parents’ work and dreams of having something more in life, envying the people in town who have nicer things. As a teenager, he becomes a bellboy in a luxury hotel, starts making friends with his coworkers, and enjoys the thrill of making good money, choosing to lie to his mother about how much he earns so that he can spend more on himself than on his family. He also starts breaking away from his strict upbringing while going out with his hedonistic new friends and develops a serious weakness for women. One day, as Clyde is returning to town with his friends and some women, the person driving the car (borrowed without permission) fatally hits a young girl. Clyde and most of the others flee the accident scene and leave town. This whole section is largely omitted in A Place in the Sun, aside from Clyde’s mother working in a mission and fact that he didn’t grow up with much money. The 1931 film does include the car accident as well. Book 2 is focused on the main events depicted in both movies, from Clyde meeting his uncle while working as a bellboy and going to work in his uncle’s factory up until Roberta drowns. Book 3 covers the investigation into Roberta’s death, the search leading up to Clyde’s arrest, the trial, and Clyde’s time in prison afterward. It gets into a lot of procedural details of the case, like the political aspirations of the district attorney involved, Clyde’s legal team grasping at straws to build a defense, and the things that happen when a trial turns into a media circus.

(Note: A Place in the Sun changes all the characters’ original names. Clyde Griffiths became George Eastman, Roberta Alden became Alice Tripp, and Sondra Finchley became Angela Vickers. In this article, I use the original names when referencing the novel or the 1931 film and the other names when referencing A Place in the Sun.)

Lobby card for 1931's An American Tragedy featuring Sylvia Sidney and Phillips Holmes.

Over the years, there have been many cases of books/plays being adapted into movies that are highly criticized by their original authors. An American Tragedy (1931) is one of them. In this case, Dreiser and director Josef Von Sternberg and screenwriter Samuel Hoffenstein had differing views on what motivates Clyde Griffiths. Dreiser’s novel has a very heavy sociological perspective and shows Clyde as being highly driven by an obsession with wealth, luxury, and social status stemming from his destitute youth, often being looked at as an object of pity by people who were better off than his family. But Von Sternberg and Hoffenstein didn’t believe this was relevant and in cutting out so much of Book 1 in the film, this whole concept is lost. Dreiser so strongly disagreed with the direction of this adaptation that he (unsuccessfully) sued Paramount to prevent it from being released.

Dreiser passed away in 1945, so he didn’t live to see A Place in the Sun, but it’s likely he would have been critical of that as well since it heavily whitewashes the less palatable aspects of Clyde’s character, including that all-consuming drive for wealth and status. When we first see George in A Place in the Sun, we see he’s simply trying to make his way to a new job opportunity rather than trying to distance himself from a fatal car crash. He’s a handsome young man, the leather jacket he wears gives him a bit of a cool guy vibe, and the beginning largely has an optimistic tone to it. As for his infatuation with Angela, A Place in the Sun makes it seem like that is more about Angela herself than it is about Angela plus everything her upper-class lifestyle represents to him. In the book, it’s very clear that it’s Sondra’s combination of beauty and wealth that makes her the ultimate dream to him.

Despite Dreiser’s objections to the 1931 adaptation, there is quite a bit in it that stays closer to the source material than A Place in the Sun. It follows the text of the book more than the spirit of the book. For one, A Place in the Sun shows Clyde’s wealthy relatives as being warmer to him than they were in the book. Clyde’s cousin Gilbert in particular is highly skeptical of Clyde’s presence, which is reflected a little bit in the 1931 version. It also accurately shows Clyde as being Roberta’s superior when she starts working at the factory. In A Place in the Sun, George and Alice both have menial jobs in the same department, but in the book and the 1931 movie, he had recently been moved over to a supervisory position in the stamping department when Roberta starts working at the factory, which changes the power dynamics of their relationship. It also shows Clyde pressuring Roberta to let him into her room at night. She later relents after he gets angry with her for initially refusing. A Place in the Sun makes this all seem more consensual.

Montgomery Clift and Elizabeth Taylor seated in a car in A Place in the Sun.

A Place in the Sun also makes Angela seem like more of a more sincere and viable long-term romantic partner for George. In the book, Sondra’s relationship with Clyde begins as something of a joke to get under the skin of Clyde’s cousin Gilbert, who hadn’t shown any interest in her. But while he does find a place in her social circle, the general consensus among the town’s social elite is that Clyde going to parties with this crowd is one thing. But with little money of his own and a rather vague background, he’s not seen as a suitable potential husband for anyone in that set. Mrs. Finchley tells Sondra that she sees no harm in her spending time with Clyde, but specifically warns her against getting too friendly and Sondra understands that her mother is right. There certainly wasn’t anything like the scene where her father gives his blessing for George to marry her like we see in A Place in the Sun. The book shows that Clyde wants to marry Sondra and tries to convince her to elope, but it’s also clear to readers that any ideas he has about actually making it to the altar are a pipe dream. There also weren’t any dramatic visits from Sondra before Clyde’s execution. The most Clyde got was a brief letter, which was unsigned but clearly from her.

One surprising way A Place in the Sun is actually more accurate to the book than its pre-Code era counterpart is the way it handles the efforts made to get an abortion for Roberta. The novel goes into extensive detail about this, starting with Clyde finding a pharmacist who provides something for Roberta to take, which only succeeds in making her ill. He later gets a tip about a doctor and takes Roberta to see him, but encourages her to go in by herself to seem more sympathetic. The scene with the doctor plays out much as it did in A Place in the Sun. The 1931 version, on the other hand, mostly shows Roberta pressuring Clyde to marry her, but a brief reference to the pharmacist and the doctor comes up during Clyde’s trial.

Montgomery Clift and Shelley Winters in A Place in the Sun.

By far, one of the key things missing in both film adaptations is detail about the character of Roberta/Alice and what, exactly, Clyde/George saw in her. As I was reading the book, I couldn’t help but feel my heart sink as she was introduced because she was described as being such a lovely woman and I knew that things weren’t going to end well for her. Clyde had been warned to not get involved with the women who work at the factory, and until Roberta came along, he wasn’t really tempted to. Just like Clyde, Roberta came from a poor family and had a religious upbringing. She was a farm girl, like his mother. She’s pretty and when Clyde first meets her, he’s immediately taken with how bright and charming she is. She tries to be a moral and ethical person, but she’s not as uptight as other women with similar backgrounds that Clyde has met. She has a lot of agency over her own life. Also like Clyde, she dreams for something more in life than her destitute background has to offer, but her expectations are more grounded than Clyde’s. While Clyde’s family connections do appeal to her, it’s very clear that she was not actively trying to trap him by having a baby, like some might accuse her of.

The fact that the business owned by Clyde’s/George’s uncle is changed from a collar company in the book and 1931 movie to a bathing suit company in A Place in the Sun doesn’t materially change anything about the overall story, but it does change some of Dreiser’s original symbolism. In the book, it’s said that even cheap collars can add polish and manner to people who wouldn’t have them otherwise, so the collars serve as a metaphor for Clyde’s experience of coming to town to work for his uncle. When he was living with his family in Kansas City, his name made him someone that others looked down upon. But now that he’s in a town where his name is associated with a successful business owner, even being a lesser known member of the family is enough for people to take more interest in him than they would otherwise.

Is the Book Worth Reading?

Theodore Dreiser's An American Tragedy book cover.

If you’re looking for a light, breezy read, An American Tragedy is definitely not what you want. But if you’re more in the mood for a in-depth character study about ambition, class, and the American dream, An American Tragedy holds up very well. There’s much in it that remains very relevant nearly a century after it was originally published. As long as the book is, I was surprised by how consistently engaging I found it. The only time I really started losing interest was during the some of the stuff about Clyde’s early time in Lycurgus after he moves to work for his uncle. If you’re into crime novels, you may like the third section of the book in particular.

I only began to scratch the surface of everything that is different between the book and its two film adaptations. There’s so much in the book that didn’t make it into either film version, like nearly everything in the first section, why Clyde’s uncle is so eager to help him out, and the efforts of Clyde’s mother to fund an appeal for him, just to name a few. You’ll definitely get a lot of new insights to the characters you know from the movie versions. This is the kind of story that absolutely could be adapted again as a miniseries. That kind of format would allow for more a more faithful adaptation and would be different enough from 1931’s An American Tragedy and A Place in the Sun that it would easily stand as its own work rather than as a movie remake.

Speaking of A Place in the Sun, this article might seem like I’m being hard on the movie. I would just like to note that I’m actually a big fan of the movie. While the 1931 version has more in common with the book, A Place in the Sun is the version I personally prefer. Hands down, A Place in the Sun has the better cast, although I liked Syliva Sidney as Roberta in the 1931 version. Many of the differences between the book and A Place in the Sun can be attributed to the fact that it was made during the production code era and there’s much in the book that is simply not production code friendly.

This review is part of the 2022 Classic Film Summer Reading Challenge hosted by Out of the PastFor more reviews on books related to classic film, be sure to follow the #ClassicFilmReading hashtag on social media.

Book vs. Movie: The Night of the Hunter

While Charles Laughton only directed one movie in his career, The Night of the Hunter, he certainly made it a good one. No list of great movie villains would be complete without Robert Mitchum’s thoroughly menacing performance as Harry Powell. Simply thinking about the way he says the word “children” in that movie is enough to send a chill down the spine. When you add in all that striking cinematography, heavily influenced by German expressionism, the movie becomes a visual masterpiece.

The Night of the Hunter was based on a book by Davis Grubb, first published in 1953. But does the story still hold up without the tour de force that is Robert Mitchum’s performance and the striking cinematography?

Book & Movie Differences

Night of the Hunter was a movie that stayed very close to its source material. It doesn’t follow the book right down to the letter, but the core of the story is there. Most of what was cut were details that flesh out the characters a bit more. For example, the movie makes references to Rachel Cooper having a strained relationship with her son, but the book gives a deeper backstory about how Rachel struggles to relate to her son now that he’s become rather financially successful and leads a lifestyle she can’t fit in with. We also learn more about other crimes Harry Powell had committed before landing in jail with Ben Harper and why Ben Harper had flatly refused to tell anyone, even Willa, about where the money he stole was.

Willa Harper’s courtship with Harry is more drawn out than it is in the movie. Before Harry arrives in town, there’s a scene where Willa and Icey Spoon use a Ouija board to ask about Willa’s next husband, resulting in the board spelling out “cloth.” (The idea that a Ouija board would suggest a man of a cloth as anyone’s future husband, only for that man of the cloth to end up being Harry Powell is a great argument against the use of Ouija boards.) At some point, Willa gives Harry a pocket watch that had belonged to her late husband, which is upsetting to John. On the day of the picnic, the book mentions the children visiting their father’s grave for the first time and a storm occurring later in the day, and Willa misinterprets John’s unusual behavior as being due to those things rather than him not trusting Harry. Willa is shown to have several reservations about her relationship with Harry since she was still mourning her first husband.

After Willa and John do get married, the book has this rather devastating scene where Willa thinks about how even her best nightgown and slippers look worn and that her nice figure is the only nice thing she has to offer her new husband. When she returns to their room, Harry forces her to take off her nightgown, look at herself in the mirror, and viciously verbally degrades her body to her. The movie version of that scene is still brutal, but Willa is at least given a little more dignity.

The book also has a somewhat different ending from the movie. Near the end of the movie, we see a mob descending on the police station where Harry Powell is being held, but officers usher him away to safety just in the nick of time. In the book, Harry isn’t so lucky.

Is the Book Worth Reading?

I’m a big fan of Night of the Hunter, both as a book and a movie. The extra details we get in the book make John Harper a truly fascinating and compelling character. Even though he’s very young, there’s a lot of depth and dimension to him. We get to see how it takes time for him to come around to trusting Rachel Cooper after the trauma of everything he had been through. The book really explores John’s fear and inability to trust the police after they took his father away from him. It’s easy to sense his pure exasperation at feeling like the only one in town to see through Harry Powell and feeling obligated to protect his sister at all costs, even though she often makes it difficult for him to do so purely because she’s simply too young to understand the danger they’re in. Even the one adult in Cresap’s Landing that he does trust, Birdie, ends up being unable to help him just when he needs it most. It was also great getting to explore the character of Willa a bit more.

If you’re a big fan of the movie, you’ll very likely be a big fan of the book. Even if you’re unfamiliar with the movie, the book is still very much worth reading.

This review is part of the 2022 Classic Film Summer Reading Challenge hosted by Out of the PastFor more reviews on books related to classic film, be sure to follow the #ClassicFilmReading hashtag on social media.

Book vs. Movie: The Graduate

As far as film adaptations of books go, The Graduate is something of an unlikely candidate. Generally, books get turned into movies because they were best sellers or were otherwise popular with the general public. The first printing of The Graduate only sold a couple of thousand copies and when one of those copies ended up in the hands of Mike Nichols, he’d never heard of it before. It was sent to him by producer Lawrence Turman and at the time, Mike Nichols hadn’t heard of him, either. But Turman had seen Nichols’s production of Barefoot of the Park and thought he had the right sensibility to direct a movie based on The Graduate. At the time, Nichols hadn’t directed a movie before and while he didn’t think the story was very original, he still wanted to turn it into a movie. Getting The Graduate to the screen was a long process, but once it was finally released, this story from a fairly obscure book suddenly became a cultural phenomenon.

Book & Movie Differences

For the most part, the movie stays pretty close to the original book. Of the most notable differences, there’s a section early on in the book where, after Mrs. Robinson initially propositions him, Benjamin decides to leave town for a bit and ends up traveling further north in the state, where he helps fight a wildfire. After he comes back home, he begins his affair with Mrs. Robinson.

There are several smaller events which happen in the book that don’t occur in the movie, which add some interesting details. Mrs. Robinson seems to be an enigma even to people who know her well. In one scene, Benjamin has a conversation with his father, who says that for as long as he’s known the Robinsons, he’s never been able to fully figure out Mrs. Robinson or trust her. When Benjamin comes to pick Elaine up for their first date, she apologizes for her mother’s strange mood, noting that it was like she had been in a trance that day. In the movie, it’s very clear that Mrs. Robinson is stuck in a loveless marriage, but the book mentions they’re estranged to the point of living on separate sides of the house.

As the story goes on, more differences start coming up, particularly around the point Benjamin decides to go up to find Elaine at school. The book shows him doing things like hemming and hawing over how to approach her. He does things like make a restaurant reservation with the intention of taking Elaine out, but doesn’t follow through. He later ends up at the front desk of her dorm, but stops short of having her called down. At one point, Mrs. Robinson does contact him while he’s in Berkeley. There’s a scene where Benjamin searches a campus cafeteria looking for Elaine and another where Benjamin’s father comes up to see him. After Elaine leaves school to get married, the movie makes references to Elaine expecting a baby, but there isn’t any mention of that in the book. Benjamin also doesn’t have to make that famous dash to find the church where Elaine and Carl are getting married — he manages to find Carl’s apartment and Carl had conveniently left a note on the door for his roommate letting him know exactly where the church is.

Is the Book Worth Reading?

On the whole, I liked the book. However, if I were to choose between the book and the movie, I’d say the movie is my favorite version of the story.

In addition to the fact that the book version of The Graduate wasn’t a commercial success, the style of writing makes it something of an odd choice for a film adaptation. It’s not exactly the most evocative book I’ve ever read. In books like What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? or Now, Voyager, their writers did a great job of creating atmosphere and exploring the inner workings of the characters. The Graduate, on the other hand, is very sparse in those types of details. Instead, it’s largely focused on dialogue. However, I think this style of writing works in this case since it plays into the vibe of someone who is just going through the motions and not finding much meaning in life.

It also helps that the dialogue in the book is excellent. As you read it, it’s so easy to mentally hear those lines in the voices of Dustin Hoffman, Anne Bancroft, Katharine Ross, and William Daniels. At points, I could practically hear the Simon & Garfunkel soundtrack in my mind as I read. Keeping most of those lines from the book was a very good call. The movie take everything that’s good about the book, but introduces some other classic moments, such as the “plastics” line, which wasn’t in the book.

If you’re a big fan of The Graduate, the book is worth checking out, if only for those smaller but interesting differences that come up throughout the book. It’s a fast but enjoyable read.

This review is part of the 2022 Classic Film Summer Reading Challenge hosted by Out of the PastFor more reviews on books related to classic film, be sure to follow the #ClassicFilmReading hashtag on social media.

Raiders of the Lost Films: Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1928)

Ruth Taylor and Alice White in an ad promoting Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1928).

If you mention Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, the first name people will think of is Marilyn Monroe. Or, for musical theater fans, perhaps it’s Carol Channing. But before either of them came to be known as Lorelei Lee, Anita Loos was the name everyone associated with the story.

Anita Loos was inspired to write Gentlemen Prefer Blondes after observing a beautiful blonde woman on a train who had no trouble getting the attention of the men on the train when she dropped her book, while Loos was left to struggle with heavy suitcases on her own. She took this idea and wrote some scenarios about a gold digging blonde named Lorelei Lee, adding in some satire based on how she’d seen magazine editor H.L. Mencken fall all over himself fawning over some Ziegfeld showgirls. Thinking he’d get a kick out of the stories, Loos sent them to Mencken, who took the joke well and forwarded them the editor of Harper’s Bazaar. Harper’s Bazaar liked the stories so much, Loos was asked to write more stories based on this character.

Starting in the spring of 1925, stories of Lorelei Lee started appearing in Harper’s Bazaar and a sensation was born. The stories were turned into a book published later that year, which went on to become the second best selling novel of 1926. The antics of Lorelei Lee were also quickly turned into a comic strip and a stage play. Naturally, it was only a matter of time before a film adaptation would be in the works.

Finding Lorelei Lee

Given how massively successful Gentlemen Prefer Blondes was in print and on the stage, a film adaptation was destined to get a lot of buzz, especially around who would play Lorelei. Since the role would go on to be played by major icons like Carol Channing and Marilyn Monroe, you might expect that the 1928 version would have starred a major icon of the silent screen. Perhaps Clara Bow gone blonde. Instead, the role went to someone who would have little name recognition just a few years later.

The casting process for Gentlemen Prefer Blondes was not unlike what would infamously happen a decade later while casting the role of Scarlett O’Hara in Gone With the Wind. Much of the press surrounding the movie referenced Paramount’s extensive search for the perfect Lorelei Lee. Many big names were considered for the part, including Marion Davies, Constance Talmadge, Dorothy Mackaill, and Phyllis Haver. Fans and publications alike had their opinions about who should land the coveted role. In June 1926, Screenland magazine recommended Esther Ralston as their top choice for Lorelei, but also stated that Laura La Plante, Clara Bow, and Louise Brooks could also be good. In October 1926, Motion Picture Magazine ran an item reporting on rumors that Lillian Gish had landed the part, to which an unnamed hotel clerk is quoted as saying, “If Lillian Gish is to have the lead in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, I cease to be a gentleman.”

Ruth Taylor photo from a magazine announcing she had been cast in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1928).

In the end, Lorelei Lee was first played on screen by an actress named Ruth Taylor. As was the case for Gone With the Wind, the highly sought-after leading role ended up going to an actress who was fairly unknown to the American public. Ruth Taylor was born on January 13, 1905 in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Eventually, her family moved to Portland and, eager to start working in films, she later made her way to Hollywood. Once in Hollywood, she got her start working for Mack Sennett, appearing in a series of short films. The films she made for Mack Sennett were often uncredited, but she did get to appear in shorts with Harry Langdon and Billy Bevan.

By the time Gentlemen Prefer Blondes was released in 1928, Ruth Taylor hadn’t appeared in a feature length film before. Anita Loos and husband John Emerson were involved in the casting process and had just about exhausted the casting directories. In an article titled The Search for Lorelei Lee, published in Photoplay‘s November 1927 issue, it’s said that by the time Loos and Emerson met Ruth Taylor, Paramount was threatening to put in one of their own contract players and Loos and Emerson were threatening to tear up their contracts if that happened. (This article also states that one of the top three contenders for the part of Lorelei was future burlesque queen Sally Rand.) Emerson is quoted as saying, “The trouble was that Lorelei requires brains. Lorelei is just as dumb as John D. Rockefeller in an oil field.” But when they finally saw Ruth Taylor, they immediately knew she was exactly what they were looking for — she had the right look and was able to bring the right characterization to the part.

Actress Ruth Taylor with a wagon full of fan mail before the release of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1928).

When Ruth Taylor’s casting was announced, the media machine ran with the whole Cinderella story angle. Pictureplay magazine called it “the break of the year” while many other publications played up how this virtually unknown actress had beaten out hundreds of others for one of the biggest roles in Hollywood. In the aforementioned Search for Lorelei Lee article, Photoplay magazine introduces her to their readers by describing her as, “…the kind of girl modern girls will like tremendously. She is chic, charming, sophisticated, and capable.” The fact that she also landed a five-year contract with Paramount along with the role of Lorelei Lee was another frequent talking point in press for the movie. Shortly after Gentlemen Prefer Blondes was released, Taylor was part of the group of up-and-coming stars named WAMPAS Baby Stars, a group which notably included Lupe Velez, Lina Basquette, and Sally Eilers that same year.

Section of a magazine spread featuring stars from Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1928).

The Movie

In addition to Ruth Taylor, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes also starred Alice White as Dorothy Shaw, Ford Sterling as Gus Eisman, Holmes Herbert as Henry Spoffard, and Mack Swain as Sir Francis Beekman. Plus Anita Loos was not only involved with casting the movie, she and her husband wrote the story and its intertitles. The movie was released on January 18, 1928 and in the time leading up to its release, Paramount promoted it to theater owners as being one of their big special movies of the year, listing it alongside movies like Harold Lloyd’s Speedy, The Last Command with Emil Jannings, Tillie’s Punctured Romance with W.C. Fields, and Beau Sabreur with Gary Cooper.

Trade ad for the movie Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1928).

Despite the fact that the movie is now considered to be a lost film, there are some details out there which give clues about how it compared to the source material. One review in the December 10, 1927 issue of The Film Spectator said, “The picture followed the book faithfully, but it didn’t follow it far enough. It stopped just where the book was getting interesting.” In a 1930 publication titled Censored: The Private Life of the Movie, one passage says of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, “Fortunately for the movie public, the censors cut any suggestions of immorality from it, as you have seen.” In my article comparing the 1953 version of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes to the book, I noted that the tiara Lorelei longs for never belonged to Lady Beekman in the book, but did in both the movie and the stage musical version. Screenland’s review for the 1928 film mentioned Francis Beekman crowning Lorelei with his wife’s tiara, so that’s a change from the source material which pre-dates both the Marilyn Monroe and Carol Channing versions. The movie also includes credits for Lorelei’s mother and grandmother, but the book mentions Lorelei’s mother had died and a grandmother is never mentioned.

Looking back on the original media coverage for Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, you’ll find some respectable reviews, but the movie seems to have missed the mark on some level. Screenland magazine’s review said of it, it “isn’t the satire some hoped it might be, but it is good entertainment.” One review published in the December 10, 1927 issue of The Film Spectator stated, “There is one thing which can be said of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes: there were very few, if any, mistakes which were due to carelessness. The picture ran pretty smoothly. As a matter of fact, that was in a way what was the matter with it; it ran too smoothly. There were no outstandingly funny scenes and there were no outstandingly good ones. By the same token, there were no outstandingly bad scenes.”

Alice White and Ruth Taylor is a photo from Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1928).

It didn’t take long for the media to start discussing Gentlemen Prefer Blondes in ways that suggests it was something of a then well-known example of a hyped-up movie that fell short. In the September 1929 issue of Picture Play Magazine, a brief mention is made of Ruth Taylor appearing in a play called “Little Orchid Annie” and the writer remarks that based on her performance, she probably would have been a great Lorelei on stage or in a talkie version of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, ending with the note, “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, as you know, didn’t register as a silent film.” In August 1930, Photoplay magazine published an article titled Flashing in the Pan, which stated Gentlemen Prefer Blondes didn’t work for multiple reasons, chief among them was that the story was too well known and there had already been many trite imitations of Lorelei Lee. The author also notes that Ruth Taylor unfairly got a lot of blame for movie not being as successful as hoped.

Going through those original reviews, Ruth Taylor’s performance does get a lot of good notes. Generally, she was praised for being an excellent Lorelei, but some critics had reservations about her long-term prospects as a leading lady. The December 10, 1927 issue of The Film Spectator features a rather lengthy review of the movie in which the author cites weak direction from Malcolm St. Clair and writing that lacked the nuance of the original book, but lauds Ruth Taylor for carrying the movie. This author calls her the perfect Lorelei Lee, but also states they would be surprised if she were to develop the range of Janet Gaynor or Dolores del Rio. In the February 18, 1928 issue of Exhibitors Herald and Moving Picture World, the following is written about Ruth Taylor’s performance in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes:

“The publicity about the new young lady who gets the big break in the thing may or may not have good foundation, but the kid has the stuff for this thing at least…If I had to make books on her I’d say the role would kill her in other things (like Peter Pan all but killed Betty Bronson), but I don’t have to make books. I simply raise the point in order to to suggest that Miss Loos use her influence to keep the girl in Anita Loos projects, even if it means dashing off a series of them.”

Even if the movie didn’t meet initial expectations, it would still be very exciting news if a print were to be discovered. Given how actively involved Anita Loos was with its production, it would be a very significant find. As beloved as the Marilyn Monroe version of the movie is, it’s hard not to be intrigued by what Ruth Taylor’s performance as Lorelei Lee was like, given all those remarks about her being perfect for the part. It would also be the only film version of the story (thus far) which seems to have stayed faithful to its wildly popular source material.

What Ever Happened to Ruth Taylor?

Magazine article featuring actress Ruth Taylor and a contest to win her dress.

Despite all the buzz around the five-year contract Ruth Taylor signed after being cast as Lorelei Lee, her Hollywood career would be over in less than five years. The May 5, 1928 issue of Exhibitors Herald and Moving Picture World contained an announcement that Ruth Taylor would be appearing with James Hall, who’d had his breakout moment a few years earlier in The Campus Flirt with Bebe Daniels, in a series of three comedy melodramas. Taylor and Hall would end up making just one movie together, 1928’s Just Married. Taylor also starred in 1929’s The College Coquette, but that is the last feature she made where she was the top-billed star. That same year, she also appeared in This Thing Called Love, which had Constance Bennett and Edmund Lowe as the top stars. She also appeared in two short films, 1929’s A Hint for Brides and 1930’s Scrappily Married.

By 1929, Ruth Taylor’s sudden rise to stardom was already being used as a cautionary tale of how damaging too much hype too soon can be. The April 1929 issue of Photoplay featured an article titled Don’t Be Discovered, which notes, “Her failure to live up to predictions in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes is perhaps the obstacle that blocked her road to fame. A case, no doubt, of too much publicity, too much ballyhoo. Only the miracle of a phenomenal performance can raise her now from the leading lady ruck, a position from which there is, for many, no direction to bow but out.”

Newspaper wedding announcement for Ruth Taylor and Paul S. Zuckerman.

At some point, Ruth Taylor went to New York to work on the stage and while she was there, she met Paul Zuckerman, a stockbroker and former aviator, at a party. It turned into a whirlwind romance and they were engaged weeks later, marrying on March 17, 1930. News of her marriage resulted in the press making many jokes along the lines of, “here’s one gentlemen who clearly prefers blondes,” with a few jokes in the mix about art imitating life since the actress famous for playing a gold digger ended up marrying a stockbroker.

Ruth Taylor’s career as an actress essentially came to an end after her wedding. Her last credited role after that was in a single episode of the TV series Trapped in 1950. While her career in Hollywood was short-lived, she created a legacy that would be very influential in Hollywood decades later. Her son, Buck Henry, had a notable acting career of his own, ranging from The Graduate and Heaven Can Wait to 30 Rock and Hot in Cleveland, as well as earning writing credits for The Graduate and What’s Up Doc?

Book vs. Movie: Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953)

Marilyn Monroe and Jane Russell in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes.

Even if someone has never seen a Marilyn Monroe movie, they’re likely familiar with one of two images of her: the white subway dress scene from The Seven Year Itch or wearing the pink dress from the “Diamonds are a Girl’s Best Friend” scene from Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. Gentlemen Prefer Blondes is certainly one of the first Marilyn Monroe movies I ever remember seeing and it remains one of my all-time favorite movies.

I first saw the movie pretty early on in my process of discovering classic Hollywood and instantly loved it for Marilyn and Jane Russell. But over the years, I also grew to appreciate the work of Anita Loos, who wrote the original story Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, first published in 1925. So, naturally, the book version had been on my to-read list for a very long time.

Book & Movie Differences

The 1953 film version of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes is a very loose adaptation of the original story. The movie is closer to the stage musical adaptation, which debuted in 1949, but there are still plenty of differences between the stage musical and the film version. (It’s worth noting that neither the 1953 film or the 1949 stage musical were the first times the story had been adapted for either medium. Gentlemen Prefer Blondes had previously been adapted into a movie released in 1928, which is now considered a lost film. It had also been previously been adapted for the stage as a straight comedy, which premiered in 1926.) But this is the kind of book that makes it easy to take liberties with the material.

First of all, the book is not structured like a traditional narrative novel. Instead, it’s a series of fictional diary entries by Lorelei Lee. Several side characters and events in the book are completely cut for the movie to make it a more focused story. One of the cut events includes Lorelei and Dorothy stopping in England on their way to France and meeting the Prince of Wales, only for Lorelei to be horrified by Dorothy using slang around the Prince. There’s also one story about Lorelei meeting Sigmund Freud, who is unable to analyze her because of her lack of inhibitions, and another story about Lorelei throwing her own belated debutante debut party.

Marilyn Monroe tries on a tiara in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes.

In all versions of the story, Lorelei’s desire to own a diamond tiara is a significant source of drama. In both the movie and the stage musical, it’s because the tiara belonged to Lady Beekman. But in the book, that tiara never belonged to Lady Beekman. It originally belonged to an unrelated person who was looking to sell it. Since Lorelei couldn’t afford it herself or get Gus to pay for it, she gets Francis Beekman to buy it for her instead. But when Lady Beekman found out her husband had paid for a tiara and knew perfectly well he hadn’t bought any jewelry for her since her wedding ring, she sent some lawyers after Lorelei to get the tiara. But when the lawyers meet up with Lorelei and Dorothy, they let the lawyers have the fun of taking them out on the town since they’d be billing Mrs. Beekman for it anyway as part of their job and Lorelei makes sure they take a replica tiara back instead.

Lorelei’s background is a bit different in the movie than we see in the book. The movie version of Lorelei Lee is a working showgirl, but in the book, she had worked in films before being “educated” by Gus Eisman, who had asked her to give up her film career. The movie also makes absolutely no mention of an incident described in the book where Lorelei attempted to shoot her boss after he tried to assault her, but since it was an act of self-defense, she was free to go.

One change for the movie that I’d really love to hear the reasoning for is the decision to make Mr. Spoffard into a child. In both the book and the stage musical version, Mr. Spoffard is, indeed, an actual adult. The book version of Mr. Spoffard is part of a wealthy, conservative family and is a member of a censorship board that goes through movies and cuts out anything they deem morally objectionable.

Is the Book Worth Reading?

1925 book cover for Gentlemen Prefer Blondes.

I was quite impressed by how well the book version of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes holds up today. Nearly a century after its initial publication, the smart writing by Anita Loos remains a real pleasure to read. On the whole, the book — like the movie — is light and pure fun; often laugh-out-loud funny. If you’re looking for a good beach read, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes is perfect.

Even though the book has very deep roots in the 1920s, complete with references to people like D.W. Griffith, Rudolph Valentino, and Peggy Hopkins Joyce, much of the humor and character tropes are timeless. For example, Lorelei often thinks she’s classier and more refined than Dorothy so it’s always going to be funny to see Lorelei repeatedly be mortified by Dorothy’s sassy, wisecracking nature. (It’s very easy to see why Jane Russell was cast as Dorothy in the movie.) The book also makes fun of people who scour popular media just looking for things to get into a moral outrage about, and there are certainly still plenty of those around today. The fact that the 1953 version of the movie is fully separated from the original 1920s setting and still works very well is a great reflection of how much of it is timeless.

It also helps that Lorelei isn’t actually a dumb blonde, as people may be quick to dismiss her as. While the book makes fun of her self-perception of being a bit more sophisticated than she really is, she’s often shown as being clever and astute in her own distinctive manner.

This review is part of the 2022 Classic Film Summer Reading Challenge hosted by Out of the PastFor more reviews on books related to classic film, be sure to follow the #ClassicFilmReading hashtag on social media.

Book vs. Movie: Now, Voyager

Lobby card featuring Bette Davis and Paul Henreid in Now, Voyager.

The word “iconic” gets thrown around a lot these days, but it’s a word well deserved when you’re talking about someone like Bette Davis. Over the course of her career, she delivered many legendary performances and her sensitive, vulnerable performance as Charlotte Vale in 1942’s Now, Voyager is easily among her best, with Gladys Cooper also turning in one of the all-time great villain performances as Charlotte’s overbearing mother. Now, Voyager has remained popular over the years with good reason, but before it was a successful movie, it was a novel by Olive Higgins Prouty.

Book & Movie Differences

For the most part, the film version of Now, Voyager is a pretty faithful adaptation of the book. It doesn’t follow the book right down to the letter, but most of the key events are covered, just in a more condensed way.

One of the most significant differences between the book and the movie is evident right off the bat. Rather than opening with Dr. Jaquith coming out to the Vale family home to meet with Charlotte before going off to Cascade, the book opens with Charlotte already on the cruise and the events leading up to her time at Cascade are told through flashbacks. Dr. Jaquith is frequently mentioned throughout the book, but we don’t see Charlotte directly interact with him until near the end of the book, after the death of her mother. While the first 20 minutes of the movie is largely the creation of screenwriters, it does establish some key things about Charlotte and her personal history which are covered in the book, like how she needs to hide things from her mother in her room and the romance she had with a ship employee on a past vacation which her mother actively destroyed.

Bette Davis and Paul Henreid stand together on a ship in Now, Voyager.

As for Jerry, the book gets into more depth about his personal life and the state of his marriage. The movie leaves out a scene where he writes a message to his wife from his cabin on the ship which details how very careful he is about choosing his words to avoid upsetting her. It’s also made clear that Jerry has never been able to provide the type of lifestyle his wife desires, which has long been a significant source of stress in his life. Jerry, like Charlotte, has experienced a nervous breakdown in the past, but he was unable to afford to see Dr. Jaquith. The movie really doesn’t touch on Jerry’s economic situation.

The character of Lisa is more substantial in the book as well. In both versions, Lisa is, by far, Charlotte’s biggest supporter in the family. But in the book, she has a larger story arc that makes her something of an aspirational figure to Charlotte, showing her that it’s still possible for her to have the kind of life that she wants for herself. In the beginning of the book, Lisa is recently widowed and had decided to get remarried. During the cruise, Charlotte wears many of Lisa’s clothes, which Lisa lets her keep afterward so that she can start completely fresh with her new husband. After meeting Charlotte upon returning from the cruise, Lisa stays in New York to get married while Charlotte continues on home to prevent Charlotte’s mother from getting too much shocking news at once. By the end of the book, Lisa is expecting another child. While her new baby will be a later in life child much younger than its siblings, just as Charlotte was, Lisa’s baby is very wanted.

The movie mentions that Elliot Livingston is a widower, one thing that isn’t mentioned is that he had seemingly been depressed in the four years since his wife’s death. In the early stages of his relationship with Charlotte, it’s noted that his maids are excited that he’s starting to host casual events at his home again because that’s something that hadn’t been happening in the time since his wife passed away. Between these types of insights about Elliott, Lisa, and Jerry, the book version of Now, Voyager becomes a larger story about people who have experienced hardships in their life helping each other. The recently widowed Lisa helps Charlotte improve her life by getting her to Dr. Jaquith. Jerry’s interest in Charlotte is like a suit of armor that helps her embrace her new life. Charlotte inspires Jerry to make more of an effort in his marriage after the cruise. Charlotte’s relationship with Elliott helps him move on from his late wife. And, of course, Charlotte is able to help Jerry’s daughter, Tina.

Bette Davis and Gladys Cooper in Now, Voyager.

As for Charlotte, what you see in the movie is pretty much what you get in the book. You just get more insights to her feelings and personal history, such as how thrilling it is for her to make an impression on people she meets on the cruise without the influence of the Vale name. Or the fact that when she was younger, her older brothers would refuse to pick her up from activities after one of them was mistaken for her father because of the age difference. However, the movie makes some bigger diversions from the source material near the end of the movie. The movie makes it seem like Charlotte’s return to Cascade is purely a result of blaming herself for the death of her mother. But in the book, Charlotte also loses her entire support system shortly after her mother passes away and becomes very lonely. She hit a stretch of time when virtually her entire newly expanded social circle simply wasn’t around. Even many of the servants from the family home had moved on. When she goes to New York to see Dr. Jaquith, she tries to contact her friends there to no avail. As a last resort, she tries to contact Jerry and does see him at a train station, but she stays hidden when she realizes that he is with his family. She can tell that Jerry is also feeling lonely, and while she can’t speak to him, she finds some comfort in the idea that they’re essentially lonely together.

Claude Rains and Bette Davis in Now, Voyager.

Just as the book begins with some big differences with Dr. Jaquith, we also get some more differences with him near the end of the book. One scene I wish had been included in the movie is a scene where Charlotte sees Dr. Jaquith before her second trip to Cascade, where she laments not having any direction in her life and that the end of her engagement to Elliot means she will never have a home or family of her own. Dr. Jaquith has a very modern perspective and tells her that having a home of her own doesn’t necessarily require a husband and that there are other ways to fulfill her maternal desire without biological children. So when Charlotte meets Tina and wants to work with her, Dr. Jaquith is more receptive to the idea than he is in the movie because he sees that it could be good for her and for Tina, but still has reservations given Charlotte’s relationship with Jerry. (He also plans to start a program for children at Cascade, which he hopes Charlotte will donate to. There’s a brief reference in the movie to a new wing at Cascade that Charlotte is involved with, but it’s never stated that it’s for children.) This scene also gives some extra weight to the ending where we see Charlotte back at the home where her mother lived. While her mother was alive, the home was described as being dark and imposing. But Charlotte has listened to Dr. Jaquith and made it her own — vibrant and full of life, with Lisa’s daughter June often staying with her in addition to Tina. The bustling activity we see at the home at the end of the movie is the norm, not Charlotte simply putting on a show for Dr. Jaquith and Jerry when they visit. The scene with Dr. Jaquith’s advice drives home the idea that Charlotte is now truly leading a rich, fulfilling, well-rounded life, husband or no husband.

Is the Book Worth Reading?

Now, Voyager is the kind of book I didn’t want to finish reading. The movie has long been one of my all-time favorites and I loved the book every bit as much. I’d been wanting to read the novel version of Now, Voyager for a long time and I couldn’t be happier that I finally did so. It’s been a real pleasure to spend so much time with such a thoughtful, beautifully told story. Even though I already knew the basic story from the movie, I loved getting all the additional insights and details the book provides.

The novel Now, Voyager was first published in 1941 as part of Olive Higgins Prouty’s series of books about the Vale family of Boston. Reading Now, Voyager has gotten me interested in finding copies of the other books in the series, particularly 1938’s Lisa Vale. I already liked the character of Lisa since she seemed to be such an ally to Charlotte in the movie, but the extra detail we get about her in the book made me want to explore that character some more.

When I read books that were adapted into films, I often have an easy time seeing why certain people are cast in certain roles. When I read Wife vs. Secretary last summer, I could absolutely picture someone at MGM reading it and insisting that they get the film rights because it would be a perfect vehicle for Myrna Loy. With Now, Voyager, I felt like the part of Dora Pickford, Mrs. Vale’s nurse, was practically written with Mary Wickes in mind. As iconic as both Bette Davis and Gladys Cooper are as Charlotte and her mother, Mary Wickes is always a delight and it’s really easy to read her part in the book and think, “This is pure Mary Wickes gold.”

This review is part of the 2022 Classic Film Summer Reading Challenge hosted by Out of the PastFor more reviews on books related to classic film, be sure to follow the #ClassicFilmReading hashtag on social media.

Book Vs. Movie: What Ever Happened to Baby Jane

Bette Davis and Joan Crawford in What Ever Happened to Baby Jane.

If you mention either Bette Davis or Joan Crawford, What Ever Happened to Baby Jane is bound to be one of the first movies people think of. Beyond its initial success after its release in 1962, its following of loyal fans has steadily grown over the decades thanks to the enduring appeal of Davis and Crawford together (and their oft-debated rivalry). In 2017, the FX series Feud: Bette and Joan once again renewed interest in the movie. But before it was a successful movie, it was a novel by Henry Farrell.

Book & Movie Differences

For the most part, the film version of What Ever Happened to Baby Jane stays pretty faithful to the book. Most of the differences are small, but often very interesting. For example, the timeline in the book is a little different than what we see in the movie. In the first scene of the movie where young Jane Hudson misbehaves after one of her performances, Blanche seems to be fairly close in age to Jane. But in the book, Blanche is just a baby when that incident occurs. The movie version of that scene combines two different events from the book — the misbehavior in front of the crowd and a later incident when young Blanche interrupts one of Jane’s rehearsals on the beach by trying to dance like Jane, which their father yells at Blanche for and their mother consoles her afterward.

Young Jane Hudson poses next to a doll designed after her.

Other details from the book add a little more insight to the history between Jane and Blanche. We find out that their parents had died during the 1918 flu pandemic. After the death of their parents, they went to live with an aunt who adored Blanche and was focused on helping her become a star in the movies. Once Blanche becomes a big star, it’s said that Jane only has parts in Blanche’s films rather than getting to star in her own movies as seen in the movie. There’s also less debate over whether it’s Blanche or Jane who paid for the house. It’s made very clear that Blanche had bought the house, but Jane does slip at one point and call it her house while talking to Elvira, who is quick to correct her.

We also get some great details for the present day side of the story that we don’t get in the movie. At times, Jane seems even more menacing than she does in the movie. There’s no doubt about whether Jane had been aware of Blanche’s plan to sell the house — Blanche had the chilling realization that Jane was listening in on the extension during her call to discuss it with their business manager as it happened. The whole concept of old stars finding new fame through television has a slightly more important role in the book. Not only does it bring attention back to Blanche, it’s ultimately what inspires Jane to try and revive her old act because she had seen that other former vaudevillians like Jimmy Durante and Buster Keaton were finding success on television.

One of the most significant differences is that the book gives Blanche quite a bit more attention than she gets in the movie. The version of Blanche that we see in the book is more inwardly complex. It focuses a lot on her inner thoughts, her frustrations with her physical condition, and her conflicted feelings about seeing her old movies on TV. While she is touched to (eventually) realize that she was getting fan mail because of it — which included one letter from an actor she had once been in a studio-arranged relationship with — she also worries that the renewed interest in her career would also lead to renewed interest in the accident and that people might dig up some details that had been covered up by the studio back in the day. A big motivation for deciding to sell the house is that she feels like staying there is a way of clinging to the past.

The book has a lot of details about the house that definitely reflect the “stuck in the past” aspect. In the movie, there’s a reference to the house once being owned by Rudolph Valentino, but the book says it’s located in a neighborhood that had once been popular among movie stars and Blanche was now the only star left. The rehearsal room we see Jane spending time in had been originally built for Blanche to give her space to prepare for her movies. We also get an explanation for why the house has those grates on the windows. Most surprisingly, the book mentions a set detail I’ve been obsessed with ever since I first noticed it — the fact that Jane has an empty picture frame on display. We don’t find out why, exactly, this empty frame is sitting out, but Edwin notices it while looking around the house and wonders what happened to the picture that was once in it, if it had been removed in a fit of anger or grief. (Speaking of Edwin, his opportunistic nature is shown a lot more in the book. He evaluates items in Blanche and Jane’s house like he’s an appraiser on Antiques Roadshow and every guest is bringing in something good.)

Throughout the book, there are several other differences from the movie, but a lot of them don’t really make a big difference in the grand scheme of things. For example, rather than Blanche and Jane living next door to a mother and daughter like we see in the movie, their neighbor in the book is a woman who recently moved to the neighborhood who watches one of Blanche’s movies on TV with a friend. (In the 1991 version with Vanessa and Lynn Redgrave, the neighbors are again changed to a married couple.) Many of the biggest differences come rather late in the book. After Edwin finds out about Blanche and flees the house, Jane realizes that he’s going to tell the police and tries to run him down with her car, attracting the attention of other people in the neighborhood. Blanche also makes some efforts to get help which end up being devastatingly futile.

During the beach scene, does it make a significant difference that police are alerted to Blanche and Jane’s presence by beachgoer annoyed by Jane’s parking job in the movie and by a couple at a nearby beach house after Jane blocks their driveway in the movie? No, but it is interesting that in the book, police approach Jane at the beach while she’s trying to call the police herself.

Is the Book Worth Reading?

Book cover for the first edition of What Ever Happened to Baby Jane.

In a word, yes. I absolutely loved this book. Whether you’ve seen the movie many times before, never seen it at all, or maybe only know of it through Feud: Bette and Joan, it’s the kind of book that anyone might enjoy. For those in the camp of having seen the movie many times, the differences between the book at the movie are enough to make things interesting without deterring too much from the core story. And for those who have either never seen the movie, it’s simply a very solid and engaging story. Henry Farrell keeps things moving along at a nice pace and with lots of great evocative writing.

It’s not a very long book, so if you’re looking for a quick summer read, What Ever Happened to Baby Jane is well worth your time. Fortunately, this one is still quite easy to find at a reasonable price.

This review is part of the 2022 Classic Film Summer Reading Challenge hosted by Out of the PastFor more reviews on books related to classic film, be sure to follow the #ClassicFilmReading hashtag on social media.

TCMFF 2022 Recap

After largely spending the past couple of years at home due to the pandemic, it’s safe to say that heading out to Los Angeles for the first in-person TCM Classic Film Festival since 2019 was a particularly special experience to me. Don’t get me wrong — between all the wonderful movies, guest appearances, and other events, going to the festival is always a really special experience. But as great as all of that is, being able to spend time with close friends of mine from all over the world and meet new people is always the key thing that keeps me coming back each year. After not being able to spend time with those friends for three years, I planned my trip to include some extra time before the festival got started to catch up with friends and have fun with them around town.

Before I get into official festival events, I’d like to take a moment to highlight the Old Hollywood Walking Tour led by April Clemmer. Over the past couple of years, I really enjoyed checking out some of her virtual events about various historic locations around Los Angeles so I wanted to make sure I went on her in-person tour before the festival got started. This tour takes you along a segment of Hollywood Boulevard between Larry Edmunds Book Shop and Cahuenga, then back to Musso and Frank. If you’ve attended the festival a few times, you might feel like you know the area pretty well. But in all the rushing around between events, it’s easy to overlook locations like the first movie theater in Hollywood, a spot where Chaplin and Marie Dressler filmed a scene, and a building where people like Joan Blondell and Mary Astor once lived. I loved being able to take the time to learn more about places I know I’d hurried past several times before. I definitely recommend it if you’ll be in town for future TCMFF events.

Thursday, April 21

The festival officially started getting underway on Thursday evening and I got started with the event I was most excited for: watching the red carpet arrivals for the opening night screening of E.T. E.T. is unquestionably my all-time favorite movie and has been ever since I was a very young kid. Although my pass didn’t get me into the movie, the idea of being able to watch people like Steven Spielberg, Dee Wallace, and Robert MacNaughton do the red carpet was just pretty much the coolest thing ever for me. Normally, there is a small section of bleachers where festival attendees who aren’t going to the opening night movie can watch the red carpet activity. They didn’t have bleachers this year, but standing across the street on the other side of Hollywood Boulevard still offered a great view. It was an interesting experience watching it from that side of the street where you had a mix of festival attendees, who were excited to see people like Pam Grier and Jane Seymor, and the general public, who seemed to recognize Kate Flannery from The Office more than anyone else — aside from Steven Spielberg, that is.

After the red carpet, I took a break to get some dinner before heading over to the TCL Multiplex for Hail the Conquering Hero. I’d never seen it before and I wouldn’t say it’s one of my favorite Preston Sturges movies, but I still enjoyed it.

Friday, April 22

For the first full day of the festival, I started off at the Hollywood Legion Theater for Dinner at Eight. The Legion theater was first used as part of the festival in 2019 and I only had the chance to get over there once that year, so I was very happy to get back there early in the festival. It’s a beautiful theater, an excellent place to see a movie like Dinner at Eight. Not only is it a fantastic venue, the crowd was great. During the festival, it’s very common for people to applaud for things like actors making their entrance or after a big musical number. In the case of Dinner at Eight, people applauded for the appearance of aspic. Definitely my kind of people.

After Dinner at Eight, I stuck around the Legion to see Bruce Dern interviewed before Coming Home. I’d never seen Coming Home before, so I was really looking forward to this one. The interview was fantastic. The conversation started with Bruce Dern coming out and explaining that he was wearing an IHOP hat because he loves their crepes, ended with him talking about seeing Alfred Lunt and Lynne Fontanne on Broadway. And, in between, we got to hear about how Hal Ashby got involved with the movie at the last minute and how Dern had a difficult time with getting acclaim for playing a veteran when he hadn’t served in the military. As for the movie, I loved it. Not an easy one to watch, but deeply affecting. I’m really glad I took the time to see it.

After a movie like Coming Home, I needed something a bit lighter, so I went over to the Chinese theater for a screening of All of Me. Originally, Lily Tomlin was supposed to be a guest at the screening, but at the last minute, it was announced she wasn’t able to be there because of a scheduling conflict. However, June Diane Raphael from Grace and Frankie filled in to talk about what Lily is like to work with and the way she approaches the characters she plays. It was great to see both June Diane and All of Me. I had only seen All of Me once many years ago and only remembered the basic premise of it. A very fun movie to see with an appreciative crowd.

I always go into the festival keeping my plans somewhat flexible. I always have a few essential events in mind, but after the full schedule is released, it’s not at all unheard of for new announcements to be made, such as new guests, so I like to keep my options open. At first, I thought for sure I’d end up at Cocktail Hour after All of Me since I like Bebe Daniels and it’s hard for me to resist a rare pre-code. But this ended up being a prime example of why I always recommend staying flexible because there ended up being a surprise announcement that was a total game changer for me — a conversation before Giant with Steven Spielberg, George Stevens Jr. and Margaret Bodde of The Film Foundation. Suddenly, Giant went from being my last choice in that time slot (due to length and general availability) to being an essential event.

While I did not stay for the movie, the pre-movie conversation was great and I had a copy of the new 4K restoration pre-ordered before I even left Los Angeles. It was wonderful to hear why Giant is a movie Steven Spielberg loves so much, why it was important for The Film Foundation to work on its most recent restoration, and the memories George Stevens Jr. has of the production of the movie. We also got to hear a written statement by Martin Scorsese about why it was important for him to see the movie restored. Spielberg was the big draw for me, but I came away from it being totally charmed by George Stevens Jr. and how sincere he was in talking about his father and his work.

After a break for dinner, I decided to go see a big movie I somehow hadn’t seen before — Fatal Attraction. While I wouldn’t say it’s one of my all-time favorites, I did enjoy it. It’s the kind of movie that is interesting to see how people interpret it. Personally, I’m of the mindset that the Michael Douglas character is the real villain of the story.

Saturday, April 23

Today started off with a lot of excellent movies all in the first time slot. As hard as it was to choose between The Third Man, Too Busy to Work, and Angels With Dirty Faces, I ended up going with Angels With Dirty Faces. Even though I already own a copy of it, Cagney on the big screen is always a treat. While I’ve seen the movie before, I came away from the screening really appreciating how good the casting was of the actor playing young Cagney. This screening was of the movie’s new restoration, just recently released on Blu-ray by Warner Archive. If you haven’t already seen this new restoration, it looks beautiful.

After Angels, I got in line for anther movie that involves actors playing younger versions of the stars: Three on a Match. This was in the notorious multiplex theater 4, famous for being small and filling up fast, especially with pre-code classics like this. I was very surprised that I actually ended up getting in, but I was one of the last. Three on a Match is one I’ve seen several times before, but this was a unique experience not just because it was a 35mm print, but because I was sitting near some people who were seeing it for the first time. It was fantastic getting to hear the reactions of shock from people seeing that ending for the first time.

I followed Three on a Match up with another pre-code classic over at the Legion theater: Baby Face. Baby Face had originally been on the schedule for 2020, so I was very excited that it made its way onto this year’s schedule instead. This screening featured a presentation from Bruce Goldstein and if you’ve ever seen one of his presentations before, you know they’re always worth your time. He spent a lot of time talking about the film’s censorship battles, complete with original documents to present and a comparison between the censored and uncensored versions of scenes. A real highlight was an ad Goldstein showed where the billing was “Barbara Stanwyck and thirteen men,” which will forever live rent free in my mind. I also couldn’t have asked for a better crowd to see it with. It’s not every day that you get to see a movie with people who are such big fans that showing the trailer is enough to get an enthusiastic response.

As tempting as it was to stay at the Legion for Counsellor at Law, I headed over to the Chinese theater for Heaven Can Wait. Warren Beatty was going to be at both events, but Heaven Can Wait won out since it was the movie I’d never seen before. It ended up being one of my favorite discoveries of the festival, but even better was the chance to see Warren Beatty after the movie. Warren Beatty is someone I’d long been hoping would be a guest at the festival. This conversation covered things like how Muhammad Ali almost ended up starring in Heaven Can Wait, whether or not he’d write a memoir, getting potato skins at restaurants, and how he’s been spending his time since COVID hit.

After Heaven Can Wait, I stuck around the Chinese theater for a screening of Singin’ in the Rain. My main draw for this one was that Paula Abdul had been announced as the special guest and I thought she’d be a fun guest. She ended up not being able to attend, but it’s hard to complain about getting to see a movie like Singin’ in the Rain at the Chinese Theater.

I didn’t have the energy to stay up for the Friday night midnight movie, but the Saturday night screening of Polyester was a must for me. Any John Waters movie is going to be gold for a midnight screening, especially with Mink Stole making an appearance. John Waters also did a taped introduction for Mink Stole before her conversation with Mario Cantone. I’ve gone to many midnight screenings at this festival over the years and Polyester was definitely one of my favorites. The movie itself was hilarious and the crowd was really into it, which is the perfect combination for these types of movies.

Sunday, April 24

After staying up for the midnight Polyester screening, I decided to skip the first block of movies on Sunday to sleep in a bit and unwind. My first movie of the day ended up being one of my favorite discoveries of the festival, Peggy Sue Got Married with Catherine Hicks as a special guest. I’d been meaning to see that movie for a long time so when I saw it on the schedule, I wanted to make a point to finally see it. For some reason, I was thinking it was going to be a more lighthearted movie, but it ended up being much more emotionally affecting than I was expecting.

After starting the festival off with one of my big essential events — watching the E.T. red carpet — it felt appropriate to have my second big, must-see event on the last day of the festival: a live reading of the script for I Married a Monster from Outer Space. If you did the virtual festival in 2021, you might remember TCM showing a live reading of the script for Plan 9 From Outer Space, with Dana Gould, Laraine Newman, and Jonah Ray, just to name a few. It was absolutely hilarious and a big highlight of that year’s virtual festival. So when this live read event was announced, featuring many of the same people involved with the Plan 9 live read, there was no way I was going to miss it.

The live read of I Married a Monster from Outer Space was a bit like watching a live broadcast of an old time radio show. There was a bit of live music and sound effects to accompany the performers reading the lines from the movie while Dana Gould described the scenes and provided a running commentary. This was the kind of event that had me laughing so hard that it felt like I was getting a core workout. After the past couple of years, being able to spend time in a room full of people just laughing together was pure joy. I’d love to see more live read events at future festivals.

For my last movie of the festival, I had a multitude of excellent things to choose from in that final block. Jewel Robbery was getting a repeat screening over at the Legion, Pam Grier was introducing Coffy, there was a screening of Seventh Heaven with the Mont Alto Orchestra, or there was A League of their Own at the Chinese with several cast members in attendance. I easily could have gone with any of those and been happy, but I opted for A League of Their Own. While I’ve seen it many, many times over the years, I’d never had a chance to see it in a theater. And the conversation with Lori Petty, Jon Lovitz, Patti Pelton, Megan Cavanagh, and Anne Ramsay was too good to pass up. And, as a huge Madonna fan, I loved the idea of being able to end the festival with one of her songs playing over the sound system of the Chinese theater.

The pre-movie conversation with the cast was easily one of my all-time favorite festival experiences. The cast still has fantastic chemistry together and it’s clearly a movie that means a lot to all of them. Over the course of the interview, we got multiple impressions of Penny Marshall and Jon Lovitz reciting lines from a deleted scene he had filmed. I know many of the people at this screening were very dedicated, long-time fans of the movie (shout out to everyone who came dressed in Rockford Peaches uniforms) and after the movie was over, I heard more than one person say that they’d learned things about the movie that they’d never known before from this conversation, like the fact that the huge thigh bruise you see in one shot was real and was severe enough to cause long-term damage. In all, it was delightful and a perfect way to close out my festival experience.

While that covers everything I did during the festival, there’s always an unofficial TCMFF Part 2 when I get home and try to catch up on many of the movies I wasn’t able to see during the fest. While I got to see several great movies for the first time during the festival, I want to recognize my favorite post-festival discovery, The Last of Sheila. The Last of Sheila had been my backup plan if I got out of Angels With Dirty Faces and the line for Three on a Match already looked hopeless, but since Plan A worked out, I made sure to order Sheila on Blu-ray instead. Fun to watch and very stylish, this was definitely one of my favorite new-to-me movies of the year so far.

My Choices for TCMFF 2022

After two years of the TCM Classic Film Festival happening virtually, we are just weeks away from returning to an in-person festival experience. While I had fun doing the virtual versions of the festival, I’m very excited to return to Hollywood and spend a few days seeing movies with some friends I haven’t seen since (at least) since 2019. And, of course, a big part of the pre-festival excitement is the anticipation of the full schedule being released so that people can start working through the inevitable scheduling conflicts.

I’ve been going to this festival since 2014, so I’ve made a lot of hard choices when it comes to figuring out what events and screenings to go to. This year is no exception. There is a ton of excellent things on the schedule, but there are so many great things that it’s actually made me extra flexible in terms of my plans. There are several blocks on the schedule where I can’t go wrong with any possible choice I make, so while I have my initial plans, I know a lot of it will all come down to what I’m in the mood for that day. And if I end up getting shut out of something, I can easily think of some backup plans. As of right now, here’s what I’m expecting to see and do during this year’s festival.

Thursday, April 21

Every year, I try to make a point of not getting too excited about early movie announcements. A lot of great movies always get announced early, but if you get your heart set on anything too early, there’s a good chance it will end up being scheduled in a way that conflicts with something else you really want to do. But when they announced that the big opening night movie this year would be E.T., I got ridiculously excited. E.T. is my all-time favorite movie and even though I won’t be able to get into the actual screening, I can watch people walk the red carpet beforehand. That instantly became my big must-do event of the entire festival. Watching the red carpet arrivals is usually what I do on opening night, but with Steven Spielberg, Drew Barrymore, and Henry Thomas attending this event, there’s no way I’d be anywhere else. I certainly never imagined I’d have the chance to watch a red carpet event celebrating the 40th anniversary of my favorite movie.

There are a lot of great movies playing in the first block on Thursday night. If you’re not going to E.T., you have your choice of The Harvey Girls, Jewel Robbery, and The Slender Thread at the TCL Multiplex, Tender Mercies at the Hollywood Legion, and Fast Times at Ridgemont High poolside at the Roosevelt. As good as all of those are, I traditionally skip that first block of movies to go get dinner after watching the red carpet. I love Jewel Robbery, but since that’s a popular movie playing in the smallest theater, I expect people will be lining up early for it. I wouldn’t be surprised if it gets a Sunday TBA slot. I could possibly check out the poolside screening of Fast Times, but I feel like dinner will win that block for me.

The second block on Thursday night is also pretty great. A Star is Born (1937) is playing at the Legion, which I’ll probably skip since I saw that version at the festival a few years back. Right now, Hail the Conquering Hero would be my first choice, but I could see myself being swayed by either Lover Come Back or Topkapi.

Friday, April 22

Oh, boy, did it take me some time to figure out my plans for this day. There really isn’t much going on in the entire day that I’m just not into. It says a lot when The Letter, one of my favorite movies, is on the schedule and it’s actually near the bottom of my list of priorities for the day. (Purely because it’s one I’m more likely to have other opportunities to see in a theater.)

From the first block of movies, I’ll most likely be at the Legion for Dinner at Eight because it’s hard for me to resist the chance to see Jean Harlow on the big screen. However, depending on my mood that day, I might head over to the multiplex for The Gunfighter instead.

Two of the big guests making appearances this day are Lily Tomlin and Bruce Dern, so I tried to plan my schedule around getting to see both of them. After the first block, I’m planning to see Coming Home and All of Me. As much as I would love to see Lily Tomlin’s handprint ceremony in the morning, the timing would limit my ability to do other things. Going to that would mean I wouldn’t be able to go to Coming Home, which I’ve been meaning to see for a long time, and it’s been a very long time since I last saw All of Me anyway.

Going to All of Me also gives me a good amount of time before the 7:15 PM screening of Cocktail Hour to get in line and get something to eat. A rare pre-code is definitely a hard one for me to pass up. The following block of movies is a tough one for me to choose from and what I actually end up seeing that day will probably all come down to my mood that day. That block has Fatal Attraction; The Gay Divorcee; I, The Jury in 3D; and Cooley High all playing at the same time, with Giant and a poolside screening of Soylent Green overlapping between this block and the one before it. Right now, my top two choices are The Gay Divorcee and Fatal Attraction.

For the night owls, there’s a midnight screening of Miracle Mile. I’ve never seen Miracle Mile, but I always have a great time at the midnight screenings. As long as I have the energy, I’d love to check it out.

Saturday, April 23

This day starts out with yet another block where what I actually end up doing will likely depend on my mood that day. In the first block, there’s The Third Man, Angels With Dirty Faces, and 1932’s Too Busy to Work all conflicting with each other. I love both The Third Man and Angels With Dirty Faces, but The Third Man falls in the category of being a movie I’m very likely to have other chances to see in a theater. I can say the same for Angels With Dirty Faces, but the odds of being able to see other screenings are lower than Third Man. Too Busy to Work would be totally new to me and will be introduced by Michael Schlesinger, who often introduces some great, but lesser known movies at the festival. (He’s the one responsible for getting All Through the Night screened at the festival in 2019.) Right now, Too Busy to Work is my likely choice for that block, but Angels or Third Man may end up making me change my mind day of.

My first choice for the second block of the day is definitely Three on a Match. But since that’s a very popular movie playing in the smallest theater, I’m keeping my options open. If I get out of that first movie and the line for Three on a Match is already very long, I figure I’ll head over to The Last of Sheila or The Flame and the Arrow instead. The Last of Sheila was one I was really intrigued by when it was announced and The Flame and the Arrow will feature a presentation by Craig Barron and Ben Burtt, as well as an appearance by Gordon Gebert (best known as Timmy from Holiday Affair).

For the third block of the day, I’ll be heading to the Legion for a screening of Baby Face introduced by Bruce Goldstein. It’s always a treat to check out one of Bruce Goldstein’s presentations and I’m really excited to finally see one of my favorite pre-codes in a theater. However, there is some really good competition in this block. A Man Called Adam sounds interesting and I’m sure the screening of Somewhere in Time with and appearance from Jane Seymour will be a real treat. Plus, in Club TCM, there’s a conversation with Floyd Norman. It’s yet another time slot where you just really can’t go wrong.

After Baby Face, I’ll be heading over to the Chinese for a screening of Heaven Can Wait with Warren Beatty as a special guest. I’d been hoping for a long time that I’d get to see Warren Beatty at the festival so that made this one an easy choice for me. (Although I’m sure that screening of Counsellor at Law over at the Legion happening at the same time will be fantastic.)

Yet again, the last full block of the day is another one where I could easily go to any of the screenings and have a great time. I won’t be able to make the poolside screening of Blue Hawaii since it conflicts with Heaven Can Wait, but I will have my choice of Singin’ in the Rain introduced by Paula Abdul; Force of Evil; Portrait of Jennie; Drunken Master II; and Diner with Kevin Bacon, Tim Daly, Steve Guttenberg, and Paul Reiser as guests. Right now, I’m leaning toward Singin’ in the Rain, but I also really like Diner, and Drunken Master II stands out to me since I try and see foreign movies at the festival when possible.

Of the two midnight screenings at this year’s festival, tonight’s is the one I’m most excited for: Polyester with Mink Stole making an appearance. This one will definitely be a good time.

Sunday, April 24

I usually try to go into the festival keeping my plans for Sunday very flexible. This year is no exception. Several blocks in Sunday’s schedule are reserved for second screenings of movies that ended up being really popular and with so many great movies on the schedule this year, those TBAs could potentially be some real game changers. Plus, there’s usually a special event at Larry Edmunds Book Store on Sunday mornings, so depending on what that event is, I might end up over there. But the confirmed parts of the schedule are already pretty great. I could easily spend the whole day just at the Chinese theater (Paper Moon, Peggy Sue Got Married, The Sting, A League of Their Own) or at Multiplex Theater 1 (After The Thin Man, High Noon, Has Anybody Seen My Gal, 7th Heaven). There are also screenings of Waterloo Bridge, Evenings for Sale, and Coffy I’d love to go to, as well as a conversation with Piper Laurie and a conversation about separating art from the artist in Club TCM.

Some of the biggest conflicts for me of the entire festival fall during the last block on Sunday. During that time, there’s A League of Their Own (with appearances by Lori Petty, Anne Ramsay, Megan Cavanagh, Ann Cusack, and Jon Lovitz), Coffy (with Pam Grier as a guest), and 7th Heaven (with accompaniment from the Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra) all up against each other. And that’s not even counting two TBA possibilities. If I were making the decision today, A League of Their Own would win, but it’s extremely hard for me to resist the only silent movie playing at the festival and it’s always amazing to see Pam Grier in person. Regardless of which one I choose, I’ll definitely be ending the festival on a high note.

Box Office Poison: Kay Francis

Kay Francis.

When you hear the words “the queen of Warner Brothers,” who is the first person you think of? For many people, the answer is probably going to be Bette Davis. After all, she starred in several of the studio’s most prestigious films, like Dark Victory; Now, Voyager; and The Letter, just to name a few, so it certainly wouldn’t be an undeserved title. Over time, she became so closely associated with Warners that she was nicknamed “the fifth Warner brother.” But before Bette Davis, there was Kay Francis.

While Bette Davis was trying to make a name for herself in movies like Parachute Jumper and Fashions of 1934, Kay Francis had been starring in pre-Code classics like Jewel Robbery, Man Wanted, and One Way Passage for Warners, as well as Trouble and Paradise and Girls About Town at Paramount. She signed her first contract with Warner Brothers in 1932 when they offered her a better deal than Paramount was offering her.

By 1935, Kay Francis had reached the peak of her career at Warners when she officially became the highest paid star at the studio, receiving a salary of $4,000 per week and a lavish new dressing room. Following the success of I Found Stella Parish, she was given a new three-year contract with Warner Brothers even though her contract wasn’t up yet. Louella Parsons reported that this new contract was Jack Warner’s way of rewarding her for her cooperative nature and for never turning down a script offered to her. This new contract bumped her salary up to $5,250 per week.

Even though things were going extremely well for Kay at Warner Brothers at this point, she had lofty ambitions for where she wanted her career to go next. She aspired to work with Charles Laughton. Notably, she was interested in playing Edith Cortright in Dodsworth, but the part went to Mary Astor instead when Warners refused to loan her out. She was also interested in starring in adaptations of Tristan and Isolde and of Mildred Cram’s novel Forever, the latter of which fell through when it was discovered that Norma Shearer already owned the rights to it. Kay was even involved in the early stages of forming a studio similar to United Artists along with Richard Barthelmess, Clive Brook, and Ronald Colman, which also never came to fruition.

Lobby card for The White Angel with Kay Francis.

All was seemingly going well for Kay Francis — and then The White Angel came along. The Story of Louis Pasteur had been a big hit for Warner Brothers, so they decided to ride their own success by producing The White Angel with Kay Francis starring as Florence Nightingale. Not only was there pressure to live up to the success of The Story of Louis Pasteur, being given the chance to play a historical figure was an opportunity for Kay to move past her image as a fashionable glamour queen. But while Kay’s performance received many good notes, and a compilation of reviews featured in the Motion Picture Review Digest largely ranged from very positive to average-but-not bad, the movie as a whole didn’t make the impression Warner Brothers was hoping for. While The Story of Louis Pasteur earned two Academy Award wins for its writing (Best Writing – Original Story and Best Writing – Screenplay), The White Angel didn’t have the strong foundation that Pasteur‘s screenplay offered.

When Kay first read the script for The White Angel, she recorded her reaction in her diary: “Read my new script — dear God!” You might not expect that a biopic of Florence Nightingale would be particularly controversial, but getting approval from all the necessary parties proved to be surprisingly difficult. First of all, a key part of the movie was supposed to feature Florence Nightingale being presented to Queen Victoria. But when the production was denied permission to depict Queen Victoria in the movie, the reworked scene lacked the same dramatic punch as the original version would have had. The Breen office also took issue with scenes depicting brutality, which is highly restrictive when trying to tell the story of a woman providing care to soldiers wounded in a brutal war. One scene involving an amputation had to be cut.

The timing of the release of The White Angel also didn’t work to the movie’s advantage. A movie like The White Angel could have potentially benefitted from people seeing it for school assignments, as was the case for Romeo and Juliet with Norma Shearer and Leslie Howard. Unfortunately, The White Angel was released in late June 1936, after the school year had ended. Kay later said she regretted making The White Angel and producer Hal Wallis noted it was a box office disappointment.

Kay Francis and Errol Flynn in Another Dawn.

The White Angel was followed by 1936’s Give Me Your Heart, which was a more typical Kay Francis movie and was more successful financially than The White Angel. Of course, Jack Warner decided this meant that Kay should stick to her usual fare: movies full of glamour and melodrama. Give Me Your Heart was followed by 1937’s Stolen Holiday and Another Dawn. In her diary, she said of Stolen Holiday, “Script from studio — BAD! Too sweet — old hat.” Considering all the ideas Kay had for her career, getting stuck in the same old types of roles over and over was very disappointing.

Another Dawn is an interesting movie in the sense that a lot of key people involved with it didn’t particularly want to be involved. Warners had originally planned the movie for Bette Davis, who got placed on suspension after refusing to do it, which is how it ended up going to Kay Francis. Kay seemed utterly bored by her role and said of it, “I don’t do much in it. Things just happen to me. I am just a wife who has been unfortunate in love, as usual.” Errol Flynn didn’t really want to do the movie, either. Director William Dieterle only did the movie as a favor to Hal Wallis.

Reviews for Another Dawn were, at best, mediocre. Generally, critics thought the writing was weak and the premise was trite. A critic for the New York Times said of it:

“Not since the fabled phoenix has the Arabian desert blossomed into anything quite so stunning as Kay Francis and her extensive wardrobe in ‘Another Dawn.’ Too often, however, has it, or its romantic Hollywood substitute, beheld the the familiar triangular plot…The picture is not entirely without merit, of course. Herbert Mundin is in it, and the California sand dunes have rarely, if ever, been photographed more beautifully.”

Warner Brothers had wanted Another Dawn to be a special production, so “nice sand dunes” was hardly the reaction the studio was hoping for.

Costume test with Kay Francis for Confession.

1937’s Confession has undergone a critical re-evaluation over the years and has become popular among Kay’s modern day fans, but its initial reviews were somewhat mixed. Many critics thought it was Kay’s best movie in a while, but also thought the plot was a rehash of other Hollywood melodramas. By now, Kay was fed up with all the melodramatic roles and welcomed the comedic change of pace that First Lady (1937) offered. Unfortunately, First Lady was mostly well regarded for its writing and for Verree Teasdale, but Kay’s performance got some good notes from Variety and Hedda Hopper.

However, before audiences even had a chance to see First Lady, a career-altering event for Kay was happening behind the scenes. During her most recent round of contract negotiations, she had a very specific project in mind: starring in Tovarich alongside Charles Boyer and with Anatole Litvak directing. She felt strongly enough about it that she considered being able to do Tovarich a key condition of accepting this contract. Given the quality of material she had been recently been given to work with, she felt that Tovarich would be a surefire way to give her career a shot in the arm. When Warners announced that Claudette Colbert, on loan from Paramount, would be starring in Tovarich instead, Kay was angry enough to file a lawsuit to get out of her contract.

News of Kay’s lawsuit may have been surprising to many because, while some people found her cold and aloof, she wasn’t exactly known for being a diva, either. Remember how Jack Warner voluntarily gave her a new contract in 1935 as a reward for always accepting projects offered to her? The House on 56th Street and Mandalay were both rejected by Ruth Chatterton before Kay took them on without objection. When it came to work, she was extremely professional. She was punctual and always tried to keep her personal and professional lives separate. She was very reliable and had a nine-year streak of not calling out for even a single day off, which lasted until the production of Confession. There are many stories about her being generous and kind to others at the studio, at times rejecting special treatment on the set if it wasn’t also being given to extras. Of course, there were some disputes during productions, but Kay would often come back to smooth things over after calming down. In her personal life, she was known for leading a surprisingly modest lifestyle for a big movie star and didn’t even get a nice car for herself until 1937 — and even then, she preferred driving herself to hiring a chauffeur.

Filing a lawsuit wasn’t even Kay’s first line of action. She tried resolving the problem out of court, but was forced to go to court on September 3, 1937 when Warners refused to budge. In her suit, she accused Warner Brothers of putting her, “in pictures of inferior quality and putting her name in a special interstudio register which kept other studios from bidding for her services.” So not only was she prevented from doing Tovarich, she clearly hadn’t forgotten her disappointment of not being loaned out for Dodsworth.

Bette Davis before her court hearing.

Her case had some common ground with other lawsuits that had already been filed against Warner Brothers by James Cagney and Bette Davis. In all cases, pursuing those legal disputes was very risky for the stars involved. Bette Davis didn’t win her case, but she still got the better roles she wanted. On the other hand, James Cagney did win his case and his contract with Warner Brothers was nullified in 1936. However, other major studios weren’t willing to work with him because they’d be in a tough spot if Warner Brothers succeeded in getting the ruling overturned. This led to Cagney making two movies for the independent studio Grand National, both of which lost money. Cagney later returned to Warner Brothers in 1938 with better contract terms.

These types of legal disputes also had the potential for damaging the star’s reputation with the public. Both Cagney and Davis faced their share of slings from the media during their disputes. In Bette’s case, some tried to paint her as ungrateful and money hungry. But in a letter to Jack Warner written by Bette on June 21, 1936, months before her day in court, she talks about wanting a loan out clause in her contract and vacation time, and even offers to accept less pay if her terms were agreed to. (This letter is available to read on Stars and Letters, but doesn’t talk about her wanting better roles at Warner Brothers, which was another big part of her case.)

With Kay’s status as being a top-paid star, she certainly faced the risk of also being labeled money hungry. But similar to Greta Garbo, Kay Francis wasn’t a big fan of dealing with the media. Kay tolerated it more than Garbo, but she had her limits and valued her privacy. Unfortunately, this meant that some publications seemed to already be losing their patience with Kay even before her trial and were eager to cite specific examples of what they deemed bad behavior. In the July 3, 1937 issue of Picturegoer, there is a letter from the editor dedicated to Kay Francis, chiding her over reports of becoming too temperamental. These issues include a vague mention of trouble while filming 1934’s Wonder Bar, having a reporter thrown out of a party she hosted at a restaurant, not being attentive enough to British press on a trip to England, and arguing with director Joe May about dialogue in Confession. The letter also essentially blames her for the state of her career at that point, as if she controlled the projects she was given:

It seems very likely that nobody wanted to see a revival of the charming and sophisticated Kay Francis of One Way Passage and Trouble in Paradise more than Kay Francis.

Picturegoer ran another article about Kay Francis in their October 2, 1937 issue which opens under the pretense of being sympathetic, reminding people of her reputation for being highly cooperative with Warner Brothers, before citing some brief examples of “artistic temperament” during the productions of The White Angel (which they erroneously call The White Sister) and Confession before airing some grievances about Kay’s relationship with the press:

“It is particularly unfortunate that, amid her other troubles, Kay is not on the best terms with the Hollywood writers and is not getting a sympathetic press at a time that she needs it. She has never liked being interviewed, but until recently managed to maintain particularly friendly relations with the reporters.

The trouble all started when Kay gave a party some time ago. She lives in an extremely modest little house, and when she entertains on on any scale she does so in one of the larger Hollywood restaurants. On this occasion, a reporter gate-crashed.

No one likes to have her party gate-crashed, but Kay might have handled the situation more tactfully. She had the intruder ejected.

Her press vendetta has moreover been intensified by her friendship with Delmar Daves, a screenwriter she met during the making of The White Sister, and with whom her name has been linked in the romance rumors.

Kay has always felt that her marriage to Kenneth McKenna might have stood a better chance if it had not been for all the publicity that surrounded it from the outset, and she has openly resented press interest in her new romance.”

(One can’t help but wonder if the reporter who crashed Kay’s party worked for Picturegoer since they sure seemed salty about that incident.)

Not much is known about what, exactly, went on during Kay’s trial. What we do know is that, rather than having her contract nullified as Kay initially wanted, it was decided that Kay would finish out her contract at Warner Brothers. The official explanation was simply that Kay and Warner Brothers had reached an amicable agreement. Even other people who worked at Warner Brothers were rather baffled by the outcome and weren’t quite clear about what happened. Decades later, Bette Davis said of it:

“Out of the blue, it was announced she would complete her contract by starring in B-pictures! It was simply unprecedented and no reason was ever given. A huge embarrassment for such a star — she had many, many fans…Jack Warner was despicable to Miss Francis. I felt awfully sorry for her, and it certainly scared every actress in town. She said what she had to: that she was looking forward to retiring. Or, at least, taking some time off after working so hard. No one dared question her explanation, but it was known.”

Regardless of what exactly went on in the courtroom during Kay’s trial, her relationship with Warner Brothers was irreparably damaged and the agreement seems to have been anything but amicable. Jack Warner set out on a mission to make Kay miserable enough to break her contract so that the studio could sever their ties with her. But Kay refused to take the bait and continued to collect her big paychecks until her contract ended in September 1938.

Kay Francis in Women Are Like That.

Despite the quality of her recent movies, Kay was still considered a popular star among moviegoers. But despite her lasting popularity, Jack Warner insisted on putting her in what he considered the worst, most demeaning projects possible. First up was 1938’s Women are Like That, which was not particularly well received.

“The plot lacks both dramatic continuity and point. The mood wavers between connubial romance and connubial ruckus, without ever becoming persuasive.” – New York Herald Tribune

“It represents a courageous attempt to explain in the protracted seventy-very-odd minutes at its disposal certain aspects of a human problem which has baffled philosophers through the ages…There is only one question I must ask the authors of Women are Like That. It is, “Like what?” – New York Times

“Women are like that; so probably a good proportion of upper middle class women will like the extremely dull story, pseudo-intelligent dialogue, the romance between middle aged Francis, middle aged O’Brien. It is a woman’s picture for a comparatively small proportion of women at that. Estimate: weak programmer.” – Philadelphia Exhibitor

Some media outlets were also still taking jabs at Kay’s behavior. In an article titled “Kay and Pat are Like That!”, which ran in the January 1938 issue of Screenland, the writer does talk about the warm, friendly side to Kay, but it comes after the writer spends a considerable amount of time making heavy-handed efforts to paint Kay in a bad light while building up Pat O’Brien as the nice, easygoing good guy. After talking about how Kay filed her lawsuit after not getting to do Tovarich, they talked about how Pat O’Brien ended up doing Women Are Like That after rejecting another project:

“And it seems that Pat O’Brien was scheduled to go into Swing Your Lady but he didn’t like the script (neither did Joan Blondell who walked right off the set and took a course in hula dancing), and Pat didn’t want to pile up another suspension so he said holy mackerel and jumping catfish, haven’t you got something else around here I can do?”

Other highlights from that article include:

“A suing actress isn’t the most sociable person in the world — instead of the customary one chip she has the whole block on her shoulder — she is utterly convinced that the studio is trying to ruin her, so why should she be pleasant to anyone? The boys and girls from the publicity department hang an imaginary ‘Small-pox’ sign over the door of the stage and keep as far away as possible. Little people like you and me run like mad in the opposite direction. A suing star, it seems, has all the delightful charm of a coiled cobra.”

“On the set, she is slightly aloof, even when not suing, and doesn’t like to have crowds of tourists gaping at her when she is doing her scenes, or interviewers hanging around waiting to ask if she is going to marry Delmar Daves. On the other hand, Pat O’Brien, a cordial good-natured Irishman, and as natural as the day is long, likes nothing better than having mobs of people watching him act — in fact he and Humphrey Bogart even act better, if that is possible, when they have an admiring audience — and he doesn’t care what an interviewer asks him because his life is an open book. When Pat first started working at Warners, a guy asked him, ‘Mr. O’Brien, do you want your sets closed or not?’ To which our Mr. O’Brien replied, ‘If you want to tear down the sides of the stage and put in grandstands it’s all right with me.'”

Kay Francis in Comet Over Broadway.

Warners hit the mark in demeaning Kay by making her do Women Are Like That, but following it up with 1938’s My Bill ended up backfiring by being more successful than expected. Secrets of an Actress and Comet Over Broadway, also released in 1938, both failed to make an impression with critics and audiences. Comet Over Broadway is notable for being another movie that Kay Francis starred in after Bette Davis refused to do it. Bette called it, “the first nothing script I was given since my court battle in England,” and claimed that she was sick but would have made an effort for better material.

Comet Over Broadway wasn’t the last time the careers of Kay Francis and Bette Davis would overlap. After Bette was put on suspension for refusing to do Comet Over Broadway, she was assigned 1938’s The Sisters, a movie that had been planned for Kay. Kay had expressed an interest in doing 1939’s Juarez, but it ended up going to — who else — Bette Davis. Prior to her lawsuit, Kay had been considered for Dark Victory, and she was interested in the doing the movie, but Jack Warner made sure the part went to Bette.

When Kay Francis was included in the Box Office Poison ad published in 1938, nobody was probably less surprised than Kay. This was exactly the sort of thing Jack Warner had been hoping for post-lawsuit and even in the few years leading up to the ad’s publication, she had no delusions about the quality of scripts she had been receiving.

In addition to assigning her the worst projects possible, Warners continued punishing Kay Francis behind the scenes. Her nice, big dressing room had been reassigned to John Garfield and, subsequently, to Bette Davis. When she wasn’t busy working on set, the studio had her do screen tests with young actors the studio was considering working with. Not only was this the kind of thing that would’ve been considered way beneath the pay grade of someone like Kay Francis, a lot of stars of her stature would consider it an insult to be asked to do it. But Kay still showed up every time and did those screen tests without complaint. Warners even resorted to doing completely petty things just to make her more miserable, like giving her call times that were several hours earlier than when she was actually needed on set and denying her lunch pass requests so that she couldn’t eat with friends in the studio commissary. But she was determined to ride her contract out to the very bitter end, as she said, “even if they put me in a bathing suit and have me walk up and down Hollywood Boulevard!”

Many other Warner Brothers employees were quietly sympathetic to Kay’s situation. The two who had the most influence and best understood what she was going through, Bette Davis and James Cagney, arranged a meeting with Harry Warner to advocate for better treatment for Kay since Harry had the power to overrule Jack Warner’s decisions. However, they weren’t able to get anywhere. There is some speculation that Harry Warner was actually the one behind the studio’s campaign of humiliation for Kay Francis, not Jack Warner, and it was blackmail for some incriminating information they had about Kay, possibly an affair involving another woman. However, I did not come across any meaningful evidence supporting this claim.

By the time she did King of the Underworld, released in 1939, she was still a bigger name than Humphrey Bogart. The script for King of the Underworld was reworked to enhance Bogart’s role, but much of the film still focuses on Kay’s character. Despite this, Warner Brothers decided to give Humphrey Bogart top billing in this movie; his first time getting top billing in a movie. Knocking Kay down in the billing order was such a blatant power move on the studio’s part that critics understood exactly what was going on and couldn’t help but comment on it. Bosley Crowther wrote in the New York Times, “We simply want to go gallantly on the record against what seems to be an act of corporate impoliteness.” Bogart also felt bad about the way Warner Brothers was treating Kay. Even the movie’s original title — Lady Doctor — feels like an insult with its laziness.

Kay’s last movie for Warner Brothers was Women in the Wind, released in April 1939, which some noted had an aura of people just being eager to get the movie done and over with as quickly as possible. Perhaps the most notable thing about the production of Women in the Wind is that it’s when Kay gave a widely-quoted interview that was the basis for an article in the March 1939 issue of Photoplay magazine. This is where the famous quote, “I can’t wait to be forgotten,” came from. That line was said when she was about to film the last scene of her last Warner Brothers movie.

This article includes many candid quotes that show someone at a real crossroads in their life. She talks about wanting to take time to relax, enjoy life, and enjoy the freedom of not being under contract. She talked about wanting to retire, but didn’t completely rule out the idea of doing more movies.

“I don’t say I’ll never make another picture because if I should happen to be in Hollywood and some producer offered me a good part, I’d jump at it. But as far as another contract, or making a career of pictures is concerned, I’m through!…The parade is passing me by and I don’t care.”

Looking back at her career and the way she handled things, she was remarkably honest in her thoughts:

“Perhaps I’d have been better off if I had fought for better stories, but the end didn’t justify the means. I’d have been suspended and the time I was under suspension would have been added to the end of my contract. So, instead of being free now, I would probably have had another year to go. And, even then, I’d have had no guarantee the stories I picked would have been any better. Even if they had been, the only difference would have been that I would be retiring in a blaze of glory instead of more or less inconspicuously — and this is the way I want it. I’ll be forgotten quicker this way.”

Despite her difficulties with the studio, it’s still clearly a bittersweet ending for her. Kay still had great relationships with many crew members at the studio and got a bit misty eyed over the fact that this was the first time she wasn’t hosting a wrap party for the cast and crew.

“I knew I’d start crying and so would some of the others. I didn’t want to become maudlin or sentimental. I didn’t want to say my goodbye that way. I want to remember all these people as friends with whom I used to kid — with whom I had swell times. I don’t want to remember them — or have them remember me — with long faces and red eyes. I want to saunter off the lot and out of their lives as casually as though the picture weren’t finished and we’d be meeting again in the morning.”

As Kay Francis left the Warner Brothers studio lot for the final time, she was saluted by the attendant at the gate. Her dispute with the studio took so much out of her that she never wanted to speak of it again, simply referring to it as “her great struggle.”

Kay Francis, Cary Grant and Carole Lombard in In Name Only.

After leaving Warner Brothers, she stayed active films for several years, mostly in movies for RKO and Universal but with a few for 20th Century Fox and Monogram also in the mix. Of her post-Warner Brothers movies, the best remembered is 1939’s In Name Only with Carole Lombard and Cary Grant. She also had the opportunity to appear in movies alongside people like Deanna Durbin and Rosalind Russell. 1944’s Four Jills in a Jeep is also notable for being inspired by a USO tour she did with Martha Raye, Carole Landis, and Mitzi Mayfair during World War II. After making her final film in 1946, Kay moved onto the stage and did touring productions of plays like State of the Union, Let Us Be Gay, The Last of Mrs. Cheyney, and Goodbye My Fancy. However, health issues began to take a toll on her life and she gave her final stage performance on August 5, 1954. After her shoulder was fractured during a fall, she retired from acting.