Box Office Poison: Edward Arnold

Out of all the stars dubbed Box Office Poison by the Independent Theater Owners Association in 1938, Edward Arnold probably has the least name recognition among people who aren’t well-versed in classic Hollywood films. But his career was remarkably prolific, spanning nearly 50 years and included work in film, live theater, television, and radio.

After starting his career on the stage in 1907, he spent some time doing films at Essanay Studios for a few years, but returned to the stage and didn’t start focusing on films again until 1932. In the September 1935 issue of Screenland magazine, Arnold says of his early film career, “Pictures intrigued me several years ago, but when I found I’d have to come to Hollywood to show producers I was an actor, I decided to continue on the stage…Then along came my role of the polite murderer with Ernest Truex in ‘Whistling in the Dark,’ which eventually brought us to the Los Angeles Belasco Theater. The morning after the opening, the phones began ringing with screen offers — and I’ve been here ever since.”

That production of Whistling in the Dark opened on January 19, 1932 at the Ethel Barrymore Theater in New York and also featured a then up-and-coming Claire Trevor. After getting back into films, Arnold appeared in several classics of the pre-Code era, including Three On a Match, Hide-Out, Sadie McKee, and I’m No Angel. In I’m No Angel, he starred alongside Mae West, who would later join him on the Box Office Poison list in 1938. Of course, there was also a film adaptation of Whistling in the Dark, which gave him a chance to reprise his role from the stage version.

Even though he’d had a successful stage career, he didn’t immediately become a top-tier movie star. Throughout the early 1930s, if his name made it onto the poster at all, he was often billed below actors like Franchot Tone, Robert Montgomery, and Cary Grant, but he built a good reputation as a character actor. It wasn’t until about 1935 that he started consistently getting top billing. Once he did become a top-billed star, it was sometimes in movies that have since become better remembered for starring other people. 1936’s Come and Get It, for example, is now usually talked about in relation to Frances Farmer. Or in the case of 1937’s Easy Living, he shared top billing with Jean Arthur. But whenever I hear people talk about that movie, it’s usually about Jean Arthur. So was he really that unsuccessful as a leading man?

Lobby card for Diamond Jim (1935).

1935’s Diamond Jim was a big opportunity for Edward Arnold to go from character actor to main star. Diamond Jim was released by Universal, who was fighting hard to compete with bigger studios like MGM and Warner Brothers at the time. They had hoped that this tale of the famed businessman would bring them the recognition they wanted. I was not able to find an exact figure for how much money Diamond Jim earned at the box office, but it didn’t earn any award nominations at least. But regardless of whether or not it was a box office smash, it wasn’t necessarily a failure for Edward Arnold. He was memorable enough in the movie to later play Diamond Jim Brady again in 1940’s Lillian Russell and The Motion Picture Herald published comments from theater owners who reported that Diamond Jim did well at their theaters.

Lobby Card for Sutter's Gold (1936).

1936’s Sutter’s Gold had a lot of potential, both for Edward Arnold and for Universal Studios, but production was rather difficult. Universal had initially wanted to make Sutter’s Gold in 1928, but the project ended up being shelved for various reasons. Once they were able to move forward with it, it ended up being very costly. City of Dreams: The Making and Remaking of Universal Pictures by Bernard F. Dick described it as a “financial nightmare” for the studio. In addition to the salary for Edward Arnold, which was three times more than he was paid for Diamond Jim, the studio spent a substantial amount of money on having Howard Hawks, William Faulkner, and Gene Fowler work on the screenplay, even though none of them received screen credit. In addition to James Cruze as director, Howard Hawks was also involved with direction in a limited capacity.

Once again, I was unable to find specific figures for Sutter’s Gold‘s box office performance from a reliable source, but many critics and theater owners were not impressed with it. One of the kinder reviews I found was in the April 1936 issue of the National Board of Review Magazine, which said, “Though the story is thrilling and exciting in parts, it is on the whole confusing.” Some comments from theater owners published in issues of the Motion Picture Herald had kind things to say about performances in the movie, but noted that their customers just weren’t interested. The September 12, 1936 issue included a quote from a theater owner in Ipswitch, South Dakota who simply said, “We wasted a good playdate when we booked this one.” A review in the Independent Exhibitor Film Bulletin from April 1, 1936 was positively scathing and basically called it Box Office Poison.

Edward Arnold’s next movie after Sutter’s Gold was 1936’s Meet Nero Wolf. Meet Nero Wolf wasn’t a runaway success, but at least the critical reception was more of a mixed bag than Sutter’s Gold. A selection of reviews published in Motion Picture Review Digest include a good amount of positive notes, several that were middling, and only one that was outright negative. Overall, many noted that it wasn’t as strong as other detective movies like the Philo Vance movies, but was still enjoyable enough for light summer entertainment. Edward Arnold’s performance was well received and even the lone negative review even noted that he deserved better material. (“The first and we hope last in a projected series…We hope that Mr. Arnold, Stander and Herbert Biberman [the latter directed the film] will be spared connection with the next in the series.” -Robert Stebbins, New Theater)

Lobby card for Come and Get It 1936.

1936’s Come and get It was unquestionably a critical darling. Motion Picture Review Digest published nearly two pages of reviews that were overwhelmingly positive, with many that could safely be described as “raves,” from both mainstream magazines/newspapers and trade publications. There were lots of good reviews for its direction and photography. Since Come and Get It was produced by Samuel Goldwyn, many kind things were said about his taste in projects and called it a worthy follow-up to Dodsworth. Frances Farmer and Walter Brennan received good notes (Come and Get It was a major breakout movie for Farmer) and many praised Edward Arnold for giving one of the best performances of his career. But despite all the acclaim, the only person to win an Oscar for Come and Get It was Walter Brennan, who has the distinction of winning the first Best Supporting Actor Academy Award for his performance. It’s also difficult to tell how successful it was financially. I was unable to find any specific figures, but “William Wyler: The Life and Films of Hollywood’s Most Celebrated Director” by Gabriel Miller notes that Come and Get It outperformed Dodsworth at the box office.

1937 was an interesting year for Edward Arnold’s career because he had two major movies released within the same month: Easy Living with Jean Arthur and Ray Milland and The Toast of New York with Cary Grant and Frances Farmer.

Of the two movies, Easy Living was the first one released. Initial reviews for Easy Living weren’t quite raves, but still positive overall. Generally, a lot of critics thought it was nonsense, but fun and entertaining nonsense. Variety‘s review was the most critical of the ones I found:

“This one is a poor imitation lacking the spontaneity and cleverness of My Man Godfrey…It is likely to open big and then fall off when customers are asked what they think about it. Disconcerting is the fact that the studio spared neither expense nor talent in its efforts to make something good out of something that was middle-class when it started.”

While I’m (once again) unable to find any actual figures to prove whether or not Variety was accurate in its predictions for Easy Living‘s box office performance, Paramount ran an ad in the Motion Picture Herald touting its successful run in New York during a heat wave.

It’s also worth noting that Edward Arnold’s performances were often singled out in reviews up until this point, even when the movie itself was otherwise panned. But Jean Arthur got a lot more of the attention for Easy Living. In the Independent Exhibitors Film Bulletin, theater owners were even specifically advised to feature Jean Arthur when promoting the movie, even though they called Edward Arnold’s performance “delightful.”

The fact that Easy Living and The Toast of New York were released in the same month means I was able to find reviews of The Toast of the Town right alongside reviews of Easy Living. It’s interesting to see these initial reviews juxtaposed knowing the respective reputations the movies have over 80 years later. It’s a great example of how, sometimes, early critical opinions aren’t a reliable way to tell whether or not a movie will be successful with audiences, either in the short term or years down the line. In the case of Easy Living, it’s now regarded as a screwball comedy classic, so perhaps some of the initial reviews underestimated it just slightly. The exact opposite ended up happening with The Toast of New York.

“One of the most entertaining wonderworks of the year, without a dull spot in its several thousand feet of film.” “It is screen entertainment of the highest order.” “Contains more than the usual quota of of entertainment for the classes.” “This is an important comedy drama of an important period in American history. It has been brilliantly acted and directed, and with the names of Edward Arnold, Cary Grant, Jack Oakie, and Frances Farmer decorating the marquee, it should play to heavy box office returns.” These are all excerpts from initial reviews of The Toast of New York, mostly from trade publications, which set the bar too high. The Toast of New York was reportedly RKO’s biggest financial loss of the year, losing a total of $530,000. It doesn’t seem that The Toast of New York had the benefit of a big critical re-evaluation over the years, either. As of December 2021, it only has 6.3 stars on IMDB and is most likely to be sought out by people trying to see every Cary Grant movie.

With how little specific information I was able to find about the box office performance of Edward Arnold’s movies, it’s difficult for me to tell whether or not his box office appeal was really dwindling by the time the Box Office Poison ad was published in 1938. It certainly seems that he had his ups and downs, like many performers do. In any case, it seems that Blossoms on Broadway, also released in 1937, it was a something of a breaking point. Issues of the Motion Picture Herald published in January 1938 feature some comments from theater owners who seemed positively exasperated by the movie:

“After 25 years, Adolph Zukor still makes 85 percent of his product B-C and D pictures. Will he ever find out that exhibitors want good pictures and not stuff like this one. His 1937-38 product, outside of 2 pictures up to this time, has been terrible. They drive business away. Make good ones or none at all.”

“Poorest Paramount we have taken from a can in three years. Shame to use such stars in so worthless and crude a thing as this.”

“A million dollars worth of talent wasted on this bit of disconnected and poorly constructed story. Don’t play it.”

“Good cast but plot unworthy. Very poor entertainment.”

Edward Arnold’s first movie released after the Box Office Poison ad was published in 1938 was The Crowd Roars. But this time around, he was playing a supporting role with Robert Taylor as the top-billed lead. From then on, he’d remain a supporting actor, gladly embracing smaller, richer character parts rather than main leads. The transition proved to be a good move and he finished out the 1930s with supporting roles in two of the most beloved movies of the decade: You Can’t Take it With You and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.

Edward Arnold in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.

In many cases, the idea of losing that coveted “leading man/leading lady” status would be enough to make a movie star panic, unless they were already looking to retire. But out of all the stars named Box Office Poison, Edward Arnold was perhaps the one least attached to the idea being a lead and always viewed character roles as having more to offer.

Looking back at articles about him which were published in the time leading up to the release of Diamond Jim, it’s interesting to note that he liked to sing the praises of being a character actor rather than talk about his new status as leading man like you’d expect many stars would want to. In the September 1935 issue of Screenland, he talks about himself in terms of being a character actor rather than a leading man.

“Of course, a character actor has much more liberty than a romantic leading man, for we don’t have to bother with camera angles or worry about the curl of our hair or which side of our face looks the best. All we have to do is cut loose and visualize our characters into being.”

In Photoplay magazine’s July 1935 issue, an article about him starring in Diamond Jim gave him a chance to talk about his desire to play a wide range of roles and how not being the lead can help in that respect.

“Coming to Hollywood three and a half years ago, I was darn near typed in pictures after playing gangsters in Okay, America and Whistling in the Dark. I got away from parts of that kind just in time. There’s a wide variety in other character roles. What’s more, movie audiences help you. People always know what’s going to happen to the lead — that no matter what he goes through he will in the end get the girl — but they never know what will happen to the character man — whether he’ll turn out to be a drunk, kill himself, or be hanged.”

The author of that article notes that, “these possibilities seemed to fill Mr. Arnold with a deep contentment as he leaned back and sighed restfully.” The article ends with Edward Arnold being quoted as saying, “And I thank God I’m a character actor!”

With an outlook like that, it’s no wonder he remained in high demand as a character actor for decades afterward, appearing in classics like Meet John Doe, Idiot’s Delight with Norma Shearer, The Devil and Daniel Webster, and Annie Get Your Gun. In addition to his film career, he was active in radio and television before his death in 1956.

Christmas in Connecticut & Bringing Up Baby: Same Set?

Like many people, Christmas in Connecticut (1945) is one movie I always make a point to watch at least once every holiday season. I love how charming and funny it is — and with a cast that includes Barbara Stanwyck, Dennis Morgan, Sydney Greenstreet, and S.Z. Sakall, how could I resist? But as remarkable as that cast is, the set for Elizabeth Lane’s picture-perfect Connecticut home is certainly a star unto itself.

After I watch movies, I often check out their IMDB entries to take a look at the Trivia section. In the case of Christmas in Connecticut, this entry caught my eye:

Since I’m a fan of both Christmas in Connecticut and Bringing Up Baby, I was curious to see if the country homes in both movies were, indeed, filmed on the same set. And since I’ve already compared the sets of White Christmas and Holiday Inn, I’d love it if a reused set appeared in another Christmas classic. So, are they the same set?

The Connecticut homes seen in both Bringing Up Baby and Christmas in Connecticut definitely have a very similar aesthetic with lots of stone and wood design elements. And they both look like homes that would be very nice to visit or live in if they were real homes. But when you really look at the two sets, it’s clear that they are very distinctly different. The layouts are quite different and the home in Bringing Up Baby has lots of stone walls and the one in Christmas in Connecticut has more wood paneling and wallpaper.

When I think about Christmas in Connecticut, one of the first things I think of is the shot of Barbara Stanwyck decorating the tree while Dennis Morgan plays the piano and they’re both next to the big windows in the living room area of the house. These windows get a lot of screen time in Christmas in Connecticut, but nothing comparable exists in the Bringing Up Baby house.

Aside from those windows, the staircase is easily one of the most prominent features of the house in Christmas in Connecticut. It’s clearly seen in several shots throughout the movie. The house in Bringing Up Baby does have a staircase as well, but it’s more of a curved staircase while the one in Christmas in Connecticut has very defined angles.

In both Bringing Up Baby and Christmas in Connecticut, split doors end up being a source of comedy. But in Elizabeth Lane’s country estate, the only split door we see is back in the kitchen when Sydney Greenstreet is greeted by the cow. In Bringing Up Baby, they’re much more prominent, featured in main, front areas of the house.

Bars are another feature that can be seen in both homes. In Bringing Up Baby, the bar is part of the front area of the house. In Christmas in Connecticut, it’s shown in a den just off of the main entry area of the house.

The fireplace in Christmas in Connecticut turns up in several shots. And, really, how can you miss it? It’s huge. While the fireplace in Christmas in Connecticut takes up lots of space, the one in the house in Bringing Up Baby looks very different from the one in Christmas in Connecticut and is more subtle in comparison.

In Christmas in Connecticut, there are a few scenes which take place in the kitchen and give us a clear look at the space. The kitchen is briefly seen in Bringing Up Baby, and while we don’t see a lot of it, we see enough to tell that it’s definitely not the same space. Most notably, there is a staircase that can be seen in the Bringing Up Baby kitchen which the Christmas in Connecticut house doesn’t have.

While it’s safe to say that these movies did not use the same set, they’re each very nicely designed sets in their own right.

Book vs. Movie: The Divorcee

The Divorcee Movie Poster.

When you’re talking about essential films from the pre-Code era, 1930’s The Divorcee easily ranks near the top of the list, along with movies like Red-Headed Woman, Baby Face, and The Story of Temple Drake. But by the time the movie was released, it wasn’t the first time the story had made an impact on pop culture. The Divorcee is based on the 1929 novel Ex-Wife by Ursula Parrot. Her story about a woman who engages in a series of affairs after her marriage ends was so scandalous at the time that it was initially published anonymously and ultimately helped set the stage for many other stories about single women that would come in later years. So how do the book and the movie compare?

Book vs. Movie Differences

As was the case for A Free Soul, The Divorcee is a pretty loose adaptation of its source material. They’re both about a woman who sees several different men after her marriage ends, which is caused by her having an affair with her husband’s best friend. Eventually, she falls in love with a man who is married to a woman he feels obligated to stay married to after she is disfigured in a car accident he caused. She decides that partying and seeing many different men isn’t right for her and later decides to settle down. That’s about as far as the similarities go.

Chester Morris and Norma Shearer in The Divorcee.

If you watched The Divorcee and thought the character of Ted (played by Chester Morris, named Peter in the book) was a real piece of work, the movie version of the character is actually the significantly more likeable version of the character. I didn’t even get 20 pages into the book before I was rooting for Pat (named Jerry in the movie, played by Norma Shearer) to have no regrets about this marriage ending because he is so jaw-droppingly awful. While Jerry and Ted are childless in the movie, Pat and Peter do have a baby in the book. However, Peter wasn’t exactly thrilled about parenthood and when their infant son dies unexpectedly, Peter is unbothered and can’t understand why Pat struggles with the loss. He’s just happy to have a thin wife again. When Pat and Peter spend an evening together years later, the subject of their deceased child comes up and his response is basically, “You’re still going on about that?” The book also details some domestic violence from Peter, most notably an incident when Peter threw Pat through a glass door, causing injuries serious enough to require stitches. (Don’t worry — even though Jerry and Ted get back together at the end of movie, Pat does not get back together with Peter at the end of the book.)

Perhaps the most famous scene from The Divorcee is the one where Jerry tells Ted off for his double standards and tells him that from then on, he is the only man her door is closed to. That does not happen in the book. While The Divorcee very explicitly calls out double standards regarding infidelity, Ex-Wife doesn’t quite take the same angle. Instead, it depicts Pat and Peter as being a couple who got married young, didn’t really know what they were doing, and weren’t really ready to settle down.

In the book, it’s said that Pat and Peter were frequently out on the town and both engaged in behavior that made the other jealous. The book doesn’t even specifically say that Ted had been cheating on Pat. Instead, it talks about him acquiring “two or three slightly misunderstood pretty wives” who would often invite him to spend time with them and mentions that he’d often be flirty with other women at parties, which made Pat jealous, but she never called him out on it. When she has her affair with her husband’s best friend, it’s not specifically in retaliation for him cheating on her.

Chester Morris and Norma Shearer in The Divorcee.

While their marriage promptly ends afterwards in the movie, there’s a much longer gap between the time Peter leaves Pat and the official divorce. After Pat owns up to her affair, there’s a time when they try to work through it but it all falls apart after someone Pat knows comes to visit, tells Peter some lies about Pat’s past, and Peter decides he wants out because he thinks he’s in love with Pat’s (former) friend.

There is quite a bit of content in the book that never made it into the movie. In the book, Pat moves in with her friend Lucia (and subsequently with another friend, Helena) and the two of them often go out to parties together. Lucia had been through a divorce herself, so she frequently gives advice to Pat, but all of this is cut from the movie. And, for obvious reasons, a storyline about Pat needing to get an illegal abortion, resulting in her being asked out by the physician she trusted to escort her to the appointment, wasn’t even alluded to the movie.

In the book, we also see more of Pat’s day-to-day life, like her career as a fashion copywriter. Unlike Helen from Wife vs. Secretary, Pat views her job as something of a necessity, not something she does because she genuinely loves it. She also becomes something of a mentor to a younger writer who she works with for a while and Pat helps her both with her career and her personal life. And when Pat meets with the wife of the man she had been seeing who had been disfigured in a car accident, Pat ends up becoming a good friend of hers. Pat not only makes it possible for her to start over with her husband, Pat helps her get new clothing and face masks, giving her the confidence she needs to fully embrace this new start in her life.

Is the Book Worth Reading?

Ursula Parrot Ex-Wife Book Cover.

With The Divorcee being one of the most essential of all pre-Codes, I thought this was going to be a situation where the book was even more scandalous than the movie. And in many ways, it is. But in the end, I feel like this is a rare case where the 1930s Hollywood version of the story actually feels more modern by todays standards.

Ex-Wife is a rather fascinating product of its time. It feels quite modern in some respects. Like the part where Pat and Lucia talk about what it means to be an ex-wife and Lucia assures her that not all divorced women are necessarily ex-wives; that you’re not really an ex-wife as long as you don’t let it become a defining trait. I could absolutely picture a similar scene in a more modern movie. But while a sentiment like that may seem refreshing on the surface for a book first published in 1929, there are plenty of more old fashioned attitudes mixed in. The real reason Lucia doesn’t want Pat to wallow in being ex-wife is because she insists that getting back out there and trying to find a new husband is the best thing to do, even though Pat isn’t really in a hurry to remarry. She tells Pat platitudes like how all attractive women are given a certain number of pieces of gold and that it’s no big deal to squander a few of them, but after a certain point, you better start saving for old age. (Pat wasn’t even 30 years old by the end of the book.)

What I most sorely missed in the book was the condemnation of double standards and Pat getting the chance to really tell off her husband. Those parts specifically are what make the movie resonate strongly with many viewers over 90 years later. Without that aspect, it feels like the book just doesn’t pack the same punch that the movie does.

It’s very easy to understand why Ex-Wife caused quite the scandal when it was first published. It does, indeed, still hold the power to shock, but likely for different reasons. Pat’s string of affairs after the end of her marriage seems far less shocking today than than how generally horrible some of the men in Pat’s life are — specifically Peter.

Overall, I liked the book and Ursula Parrot’s writing style. The way it’s written, it reads like the inner thoughts of someone who has been through an difficult event and is trying to process everything that came along with it. It’s not always polished, but it’s absolutely perfect for this type of story. And if you’re interested in stories about life in New York City during the 1920s, there’s a whole lot to like about this book.

This review is part of the 2021 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: A Free Soul

A Free Soul Lobby Card Clark Gable and Norma Shearer.

Without a doubt, 1931’s A Free Soul is a pre-Code essential. The story about a woman romantically torn between her conventionally respectable boyfriend and a known underworld figure is perfect pre-Code material all by itself, but when you add in the smarmy charm of a young Clark Gable and Norma Shearer wearing some very slinky evening gowns and robes, it’s pure gold. Lionel Barrymore also took home a Best Actor Academy Award for his performance and the movie proved to be a big hit for MGM. But before A Free Soul was a hit movie, it was a book by Adela Rogers St. Johns first published in 1927. So how do they compare?

Book & Movie Differences

To call the film version of A Free Soul a loose adaptation of the book is putting it mildly. They both feature a criminal defense lawyer and his daughter, whom he is very close with. The father, Stephen (played by Lionel Barrymore), struggles with alcoholism while his daughter, Jan (played by Norma Shearer), falls in love with a notorious gambler. They agree to a wager where they each give up what they love and take a trip to put things behind them, but the father struggles to give up drinking and later disappears for a while. Eventually, the father comes back to take care of a big trial because of a murder involving someone the daughter had been seeing. That’s about where the similarities end.

Clark Gable and Norma Shearer in A Free Soul.

Perhaps the most significant difference between the book and the movie is the fact that the roles of Ace Wilfong (played by Clark Gable) and Dwight Sutro (played by Leslie Howard) are essentially switched. In the movie, Jan and Dwight are happy together until Ace comes along and Jan can’t resist his more dangerous allure. But in the book, Dwight had been out of the country for a few years and when he comes back to San Francisco and finds out Jan had gotten married, that doesn’t stop him from trying to see if he can start something up with her again. And since Jan is a bit lonely because of the hours Ace keeps, it’s easy for her to go along with it. When Ace finds out about it, he shoots Dwight in his home.

In the movie, we only see Jan as an adult, but the book paints a much larger picture of her life and her relationship with her father. The book tells stories about Jan’s childhood and teenage years. We find out that Jan has been dealing with Stephen’s alcoholism much longer than the movie suggests. For example, the book details an incident when 13-year-old Jan comes home in a cab in the early morning hours because Stephen had brought her to a gambling house, then got drunk and forgot about her, forcing her to find her own way home. We also learn why Jan’s mother wasn’t in the picture and why Stephen was determined to raise her in the unconventional manner that he had.

The book also gives us a more of a look at Ace Wilfong’s life, going back to the first time he crossed paths with Stephen and Jan Ashe when Ace was just a kid selling violets on the street and looked up to Stephen as a personal hero. We also learn more about Ace’s family, particularly his sister who has a rather rocky relationship with Jan because of jealousy over her marriage to Ace.

The character of Ace Wilfong is a great example of how, even in the pre-Code era, characters like gangsters, gamblers, and criminals needed to be written in certain ways in movies to avoid glorifying them. In the book, Ace doesn’t seem like that bad of a guy — aside from the part where he shoots Dwight, of course. Yes, Ace is a gambler, but he’s described as something of a respectable gambler. He seems to genuinely adore Jan and mentions wanting to eventually get out of gambling and into something more legitimate. Even when facing the death penalty, Ace remains loyal to Stephen when all logic and reason would tell him to work with a lawyer who isn’t just coming off of a long drinking binge. The movie version of Ace is rougher and more aggressive.

Is the Book Worth Reading?

Out of all the books I’ve read as part of the summer reading challenge, A Free Soul is the one where I most strongly prefer the movie over the book. The film version of A Free Soul is a strong, well-paced drama with some great performances. The book has a much slower pace and it takes a long time before you get to the parts that are most related to what happens in the movie. It’s a very slow burn, reaching its most exciting point with the events leading up to Ace shooting Dwight. I usually don’t mind a book that takes time to build to something and the parts that were good were enjoyable, but you have to get through a lot of other material to get to that point.

On the whole, it wasn’t my favorite book by any means, but I’m glad I was at least able to check it out for the sake of my own curiosity. Perhaps if you’re A Free Soul superfan and love the characters so much that you want to spend more time with them and get to know them more in depth, then it may be worth tracking down a copy of the book. But while the same thing can be said of Fast Times at Ridgemont High, I don’t know that anyone has the same level of affection for characters like Jan Ashe and Ace Wilfong that they have for Jeff Spicoli.

This review is part of the 2021 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: Grand Hotel

Grand Hotel 1932 movie poster.

Grand Hotel holds a very unique place in film history. It’s credited with popularizing the concept of the all-star ensemble cast. It has the distinction of being the only movie to ever win the Best Picture Academy Award without being nominated in any other category. It was the first time Lionel and John Barrymore appeared in a movie together. And it’s the movie where Greta Garbo delivered the infamous line, “I want to be alone,” which remains one of the most famous movie quotes of all time.

In addition to all of that, Grand Hotel has also been a successful stage play. Both the movie and the play were based on Vicki Baum’s 1929 hit novel Menschen im Hotel. So how does the book compare to the movie?

Book & Movie Differences

On the whole, the film version of Grand Hotel isn’t hugely different from the book. There are differences to be found, but a lot of them are pretty minor. Some of the more significant changes involve the timeline of events. For example, Garbo’s Grusinskaya checks out of the hotel at the very end of the film, but she leaves about a third of the way into the book. And Flaemmchen, played by Joan Crawford, is introduced very early in the movie, but she doesn’t come into the book until quite a bit later. In the book, Preysing (played by Wallace Beery in the film) doesn’t even actually need to have Flaemmchen working for him at all because he finds out that the business talks in Manchester had broken off before she was brought on to help; he just kept moving forward in an attempt to save face. The same thing happens in the movie, but Preysing gets the news after Flaemmchen has already started working for him.

Lionel Barrymore, Joan Crawford, and John Barrymore in Grand Hotel.

In the movie, all of the action happens either within the hotel or in the area immediately outside of the hotel, but the book gives some of the characters a chance to get out and explore a bit more. A good part of the book covers Kringelein (Lionel Barrymore in the film) and Gaigern (John Barrymore in the movie) going out on the town doing things like getting a new suit for Kringelein, driving fast in a car, going up in an airplane, watching a boxing match, and going to a gambling house. Even though this is a notable part of the book, a lot of that is reduced to one sentence in the movie. The book also spends more time with Gusinskaya at her ballet performances and covers Gaigern going to one of her shows to learn more about her routine. It also covers Kringelein and Dr. Otternschlag (Lewis Stone in the film) attending one of her sparsely-attended performances.

The book also gives you the chance to spend some time with some of the characters in ways you don’t get to in the movie, which helps you understand them better. We learn more about why, exactly, Kringelein was so determined to spend his remaining days living in luxury. Preysing is painted more clearly as being a respected family man going off the rails. In the case of Grusinskaya, it describes her sitting in her dressing room after a performance like a boxer after a fight, follows her as she roams through the streets of Berlin after walking out of a performance, and details the relationship she has with her body.

Greta Garbo in Grand Hotel.

It’s been said that Greta Garbo was reluctant to play Grusinskaya in the film version of Grand Hotel because she thought she was too old for the part. But when you read the book, you realize that Garbo was actually much too young. In the book, we learn that Grusinskaya has an eight-year-old grandchild. Many mentions are made about the signs of aging on her skin and Gaigern notes that she has scars from a facelift. On a related note, Gaigern is described is being younger than John Barrymore was when he made the film.

Is the Book Worth Reading?

Book cover of Grand Hotel by Vicki Baum.

For the most part, I enjoyed the book. As I said, the movie follows the book pretty well, but the book is just different enough to make it feel like you’re getting something new from it. But with that said, I know the movie version of Grand Hotel isn’t everyone’s cup of tea and even if you do like the movie, the book can drag at times.

The fact that we get to spend more time with individual characters works well at times and not so well at others. I loved the parts about Grusinskaya and the part when Gaigern is trying to sneak into her hotel room was very engaging. But then there were times when I was really struggling to keep my interest up. For example, I never once watched Grand Hotel and found myself wishing I could learn about Preysing’s business dealings in more detail, but that’s something the book gave me whether I wanted it or not. And I’m not exactly disappointed that most of the information about Kringelein’s big day out on the town with Gaigern was summed up more succinctly in the movie version.

The changes in pacing for the movie make the movie version my preferred version of the story, but when the book is at its best, it’s excellent and it’s easy to understand why it remains such an influential story several decades after its initial publication.

This review is part of the 2021 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: Wife vs. Secretary

Wife vs. Secretary Movie Poster

When the movie Wife vs. Secretary was released in 1936, it represented a big turning point in the career of Jean Harlow. In the early 1930s, she was famous for her bombshell image, exemplified by her performances as characters like Vantine in Red Dust, Kitty Packard in Dinner at Eight, and Lil in Red-Headed Woman. But by the mid-1930s, it was time for a change and her on-screen image began to soften. In Red-Headed Woman, she played a secretary who relentlessly pursued her married boss and broke up his marriage. But Helen, her character in Wife vs. Secretary, was the complete antithesis of Lil from Red-Headed Woman.

In Wife vs. Secretary, Jean Harlow plays Helen, the faithful secretary to Van Stanhophe, played by Clark Gable. Despite rumors and speculation about Helen’s relationship with her boss, Van is very happily married and is faithful to his wife Linda, played by Myrna Loy. Linda has no reason not to believe that Van and Helen’s relationship is strictly business, but over time, comments made by other people begin to erode her confidence and it eventually takes a toll on their marriage.

Before Wife vs. Secretary was a hit movie, it was a popular story by Faith Baldwin, originally published in Cosmopolitan magazine in 1935. So, how do the book and the movie compare?

Book & Movie Differences

Overall, Wife vs. Secretary pretty closely follows the core story laid out in the book. It doesn’t follow the book to the letter, but most of the main plot points are there. However, there are some very significant changes, particularly involving the character of Helen’s boyfriend, Dave, played by James Stewart in the movie.

Jean Harlow and Jimmy Stewart in Wife vs. Secretary.

In the movie, we see that Dave is extremely insecure about Helen’s career and her relationship with Van. When Dave gets a raise at work, the first thing he does after telling her the news is ask her to quit her job so that they can get married. Despite the tension this causes between Helen and Dave, they are able to reconcile their differences. In the book, this story arc is completely different. The book version of Dave feels so insecure about Helen’s relationship with Van that he steals money from the company he works for so that he can buy a new car and seem more impressive to Helen. Of course, Dave gets caught and ends up in a legal mess, which results in Helen getting hit by a car while walking to meet a lawyer because she was so distracted by the situation. When Van finds out, he uses his connections to get the charges against Dave dropped and makes arrangements for him to get a new job in South America so that he can start over, which Dave goes through with.

Clark Gable and Jean Harlow in Wife vs. Secretary.

When we see Helen and Van together in the movie, it’s more clear to viewers that their relationship is strictly business. In the book, more details are included that make the reader question if perhaps there really are deeper feelings between them. For example, early in the story, it’s mentioned that Helen kept newspaper clippings about her boss in a scrapbook. And when Helen is in the hospital, Van goes to visit her and gives her a kiss at one point, which Linda witnesses.

Even though both the book and the movie end in the same general way, with Van and Linda reconciling, how they reach that point differs. In the movie, Helen visits Linda right before Linda is set to leave for a trip and admits that she loves Van but warns Linda that if she leaves now, it’s inevitable that he’s going to rebound with her and he’d never love her as much as he loves Linda. This allows Linda and Van to get back together and sets things up for Helen and Dave to get back together. In the book, Linda shows up at the office and while she’s there, she has a chance to get a glimpse at what Van is like when he’s at work and realizes that who he is at work and who he is when he’s with her are like two different people. Helen admits that she does love Van, but strictly for who he is when he’s at work and she values her job too much to let that change. In the end, Helen and Linda agree that it’s possible for the two of them to love the different sides of the same man while coexisting peacefully. But since Dave went off to South America in the book, Helen doesn’t reconcile with him and instead continues to find more satisfaction in her career than her romantic life.

Is the Book Worth Reading?

Wife vs. Secretary pulp book cover.

Wife vs. Secretary is a total gem of a movie and the book is very enjoyable as well. A very quick, light read that’s perfect for when you’re trying to relax on a hot summer day. If you’re a fan of vintage career girl stories along the lines of The Best of Everything, you’d probably enjoy Wife vs. Secretary. Since I adore the cast of the movie, that remains my favorite version of the story. And when you read the book, it’s easy to see why the main characters were cast the way they were in the movie. Linda in particular was practically written with Myrna Loy in mind. I liked Faith Baldwin’s style of writing so I’m really glad that my copy of the book also included two other novels she wrote so that I can read more of her work.

What I liked most about the book is that Helen is an unapologetic career woman; highly capable at what she does, savvy at handling difficult situations, and loves being able to do it. Depictions of women who highly value their careers are commonplace today, but considering the story Wife vs. Secretary was first published in 1935, Faith Baldwin’s decision to let Helen be so willing to make her career a priority in her life without vilifying her or making her seem cold and heartless in any way was refreshing. In the end, she explains to Linda that when Van succeeds, she feels like she succeeds by extension and she’d rather have 10 years of that than 20 years of being Van’s wife.

Even though I’ve long been a fan of the movie, I always thought the title did it a disservice because a name like Wife vs. Secretary suggests something more slapstick or screwball when the story is really much smarter than that. After reading the book, my opinion of the title remains the same.

This review is part of the 2021 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: Red-Headed Woman

Movie poster for the 1932 movie Red-Headed Woman.

No conversation about pre-Code Hollywood would be complete without Red-Headed Woman. It’s easily one of the most notorious movies of the era. The tale of Lillian Andrews/Legendre, flawlessly played by Jean Harlow, and her unrelenting pursuit Bill Legendre, his money, and his social status certainly had plenty of content to scandalize audiences upon its release in 1932. But before it was a hit movie, it was a popular serialized story, written by Katharine Brush, that had appeared in the Saturday Evening Post before being released as a standalone book. But does the book live up to the reputation of the movie?

Book & Movie Differences

Given Red-Headed Woman‘s status as one of the ultimate pre-Code movies, I started the book expecting it to be full of content that would have been too much for the movie. Imagine my surprise when it turned out that the movie ended up making the story a bit more scandalous in some ways. A lot of what happens in the book does happen in the movie, but it’s reworked to make Lillian a more ruthless homewrecker and Bill more sympathetic. In the book, Lillian never says, “Do it again, I like it!” after being slapped by Bill Legendre. Lillian never puts a picture of Bill in her garter belt. The part about Lillian shooting Bill in a fit of rage? Created for the movie. And the part about Lillian ending up with a much older man, while also having an affair with her chauffeur, is only half true. She does end up with a rich man at the end of the book, just not as old. And the book version of Lillian would never deign to have an affair with a lowly chauffeur.

Overall, there’s a big difference between Lillian’s pursuit of Bill in the book compared to the movie. In the movie, Lillian is much more aggressive about it. In the first scene, she’s on her way to visit Bill at home knowing that his wife is out of town, even though she isn’t actually his secretary. She arrives at his house wearing the aforementioned garter belt with his picture in it, fully intent on seducing him. But in the book, Lillian is more about the long game.

In the book, Lillian isn’t officially Bill’s personal secretary — he doesn’t have one — but she makes a point of going above and beyond for him so that he essentially treats her as such. He thinks she’s just swell as a secretary, but Bill’s brothers, who also work for the company, think she’s lazy. Over time, she finds excuses to spend time with Bill away from the office, whether it’s visiting some of the company’s mines or getting rides home from him after work, knowing that they would be seen around town. People did, indeed, talk and Lillian loved it. Everyone assumed the affair had started earlier than it actually did. The affair didn’t actually begin until the night Lillian talked Bill into taking her out to dinner while his wife, Irene, was away.

Jean Harlow and Chester Morris in Red-Headed Woman.

The book spends a great deal of time detailing Lillian’s obsession with Irene, but that gets played down significantly in the movie. If anything, the book shows Lillian thinking about Irene more than she thinks about Bill. Ultimately, it’s Irene’s lifestyle that Lillian wants; Bill just happens to be her means to get it. She wants her wedding to Bill covered in the paper like Irene’s was. She insists on going to New York on their honeymoon because it’s where Bill and Irene spent their honeymoon. She wants to be friends with Irene’s friends and go to the same country club Irene goes to. Lillian is livid when she finds out Irene is moving into an apartment near her new house with Bill. When Lillian stops into Sally’s beauty salon, Sally thinks to herself that Lillian will be asking for Irene’s favorite nail polish for her next manicure. Even before Lillian and Bill get married, she goes into Irene’s bedroom and considers leaving something behind, like a hairpin, just to make her presence known.

The movie movie also focuses less on Lillian’s problems with being welcomed by Renwood’s social elite. You do see it in the movie, but it’s less prominent than in the book. In the book, if Lillian isn’t obsessing over Irene, she’s absolutely furious over every single social slight she receives from Bill’s family and friends — and there are a lot of them. He drags his feet over introducing her to his friends and doesn’t say anything when his siblings exclude her from social events. When she buys a gift for Bill’s sister who had recently had a baby, he talks her out of sending it. There was an incident where Bill took Lillian to the country club and an employee, who had poor eyesight and lacked awareness of town gossip, said he mistook Lillian for Mrs. Legendre. Lillian was not amused, but everyone else was when they heard about it.

An important scene in the movie involves Lillian getting angry when all of her guests go over to Irene’s house after a party at her home, which does happen in the book. Only she doesn’t throw a fit afterward. Instead, she just becomes more determined to shock the town. The reason for the party at Lillian’s is also different. In the book, the party is an excuse for Bill’s friends to see the new house Lillian decorated. In the movie, the party is in honor of C.B. Gaerste, a very important business associate of the Legendre family. Lillian seduced Gaerste and talked him into to the party at her home because none of Bill’s friends would come otherwise. In the book, Gaerste has no connections to the Legendre family business, nor does he come to Renwood. He’s a magnate Lillian meets while on a trip to New York, which was paid for by Bill’s father to get rid of her for a while.

Chester Morris and Jean Harlow in Red-Headed Woman.

The book version of Bill Legendre is more passive than we see in the movie. In the movie, he tries harder to resist Lillian’s advances, does more to get her out of his life after their initial affair, and does more to end his marriage to Lil. But in the book, he’s depicted as a guy who has pretty much been handed everything in his life and just accepted it all without giving it much real thought. He works at the family business and married his high school sweetheart. So when Lillian comes along and offers something different, he mistakes attraction for love. As his marriage to Lil progresses and she’s not getting what she wants out of it, she’s the one actively trying to find a way out.

While the book version of Bill is more passive, the book version of Irene is much more proactive after learning about Bill’s affair. When she finds out, she tells him he’s made his choice and kicks him out of the house. But in the movie, it shows them making more of an effort to save their marriage. We also see Irene doing things like questioning what she had done wrong.

Is the Book Worth Reading?

Book cover art for Red-Headed Woman by Katharine Brush.

Katharine Brush is a writer I’d really like to get to know better. At the height of her career, she was known for having a witty, incisive, and modern style of writing and Red-Headed Woman holds up very well because of it. Some of the references are now a bit dated, but her style of writing makes it a book that could easily be enjoyed by readers today. It’s easy to forget that you’re reading something that was first published 90 years ago. I definitely hope to read more of her work soon. If you’re a big fan of pre-Code movies, Red-Headed Woman is worth checking out, even if only for the connection to the movie.

As a big fan of the movie, I’ve often heard the challenges that went into adapting Red-Headed Woman for the screen. I’d heard all about how F. Scott Fitzgerald had worked on the screenplay, but his version was deemed too serious. Then Anita Loos was brought in to give it a lighter tone. After reading the book, I can understand how this would have happened. The book contains many statements which make it clear that Lillian was the town joke of Renwood. Even Sally, Lillian’s only friend in town, was amused by her ridiculous behavior. (Sally, by the way, is the kind of role Una Merkel was an absolutely perfect fit for.) But it’s often written about in ways that could get lost in translation. Especially if you’re trying to make sure audiences aren’t too sympathetic to someone like Lillian.

I already loved the work Anita Loos did on the screenplay for Red-Headed Woman, but reading the book actually helped give me an even greater appreciation for it. Loos took what was good about the source material and made it work for the screen, nailing the idea that Lillian is someone to be laughed at, not with. For example, the book often talks about how Lillian liked to draw attention to herself when driving through town. But a touch Anita Loos added was the part where Lillian drives through town with marching band music playing in the background. When she parks her car and turns off the radio, we find out the music wasn’t just part of the movie’s musical score — Lillian was turning her trip to the salon into a one-car parade for herself. And, of course, Jean Harlow plays the role to absolute perfection, making the whole thing even better. This is definitely an example of how good a book-to-movie adaptation can be, even if it doesn’t follow the book to the letter.

This review is part of the 2021 Classic Film Summer Reading Challenge hosted by Out of the Past. For more reviews on books related to classic film, be sure to follow the #ClassicFilmReading hashtag on social media.

Book vs. Movie: 42nd Street

42nd Street 1933 movie poster.

Where would the musical be without 42nd Street? When the movie was released in March of 1933, the concept of the backstage musical had already been done several times over and was quickly becoming passé. But with Busby Berkeley’s dazzling musical numbers, sharp dialogue, and catchy songs by Al Dubin and Harry Warren, 42nd Street proved to be a total game changer for the musical genre.

In the 1980s, history repeated itself on Broadway. Stage musicals based on popular films are very commonplace today, but at that time, it was viewed as a risky idea. It hadn’t been done successfully before, but 42nd Street proved that it could work. Over 40 years later, it remains one of the most popular Broadway musicals.

Nearly 90 years after it was first introduced to the public, 42nd Street has unquestionably earned its place in pop culture history. But what’s often forgotten is that it was originally based on a novel by Bradford Ropes. I’d long been curious to see how the book compared to the movie, but it’s been out of print for several decades which made it extremely difficult to find and extremely expensive when it could be found. So when I saw that it was just brought back into print a few months ago, I ordered a copy immediately. So, how does it compare?

Book & Movie Differences

42nd Street the movie is unquestionably a classic of the pre-Code era. It’s full of content that would have been verboten just a year and a half later when the production codes were being fully enforced. But even then, the pre-Code content that made it into the movie is just a small fraction of what was in the book.

The Julian Marsh that we see in the movie, played by Warner Baxter, is an overly-stressed Broadway director who had lost his money in the stock market crash and desperately needs this production of Pretty Lady to be a big hit so that he can afford to retire for the sake of his health. All of that was invented for the movie. What the movie leaves out is that he was originally written as a gay man whose boyfriend, Billy Lawlor, is one of the featured performers in Pretty Lady.

Dick Powell and Toby Wing in the Young and Healthy number from the movie 42nd Street.

The character of Billy Lawlor, played by Dick Powell, is a little more prominent in the movie than in the book. In the book, Billy is a minor presence until the nearly the end when the production team is dealing with the crisis of Dorothy Brock’s injury. He’s the one who first suggests that Peggy could take Dorothy’s place in the show. The reason he suggests her over any of the other women in the chorus is because, in addition to seeing potential in her, she was the only one who was polite to him. Everyone else in the chorus snubbed him because of his status as Julian Marsh’s boyfriend. In the movie, Anne Lowell, played by Ginger Rogers, is the one who recommends Peggy.

Even though Billy Lawlor was originally written as a gay man, he actually does end up with Peggy Sawyer in both the book and the movie. Near the end of the book, he proposes a relationship of convenience to Peggy, which she agrees to. She’s well aware that this would strictly be a lavender relationship, but she appreciates how such a relationship would be beneficial for both of their careers.

Ginger Rogers, Ruby Keeler, and Una Merkel in a scene from 42nd Street (1933).

Generally speaking, the book spends a lot more time covering the various affairs and platonic relationships between characters than the movie does. In the book, much attention is given to Peggy Sawyer being romantically torn between Terry, another performer in the show, and Pat Denning, the man Dorothy Brock had been cheating on her boyfriend (and financer of Pretty Lady) with. Terry is in the movie, but if you blink, you’ll miss him. And not only was Pat actively seeing both Peggy and Dorothy, he was also seeing Amy, the wife of Andy Lee, the show’s dance director. Andy and Amy have an extremely bitter marriage and she is blackmailing him over an incident in which he was caught in a compromising situation with a minor. The character of Amy and that whole storyline is completely left out of the movie.

The movie also omits the characters of a young acrobatic dancer named Polly (imagine a contemporary of June Preisser) and her pushy stage mother. The stage mother encourages her daughter to tolerate the affections of men who could help advance her career, assuring her that they won’t go too far since she is still a minor. Polly’s mother also has a vested interest in seeing Dorothy Brock get taken down a peg or two since Dorothy had one of her daughter’s numbers bumped in the show. Ultimately, she plays a role in the chain of events that leads to Dorothy’s fall.

Warner Baxter, Ruby Keeler, Dick Powell, and Bebe Daniels.

Another very notable change between the book and the movie is the fact that Dorothy Brock actually does perform on opening night in the book. Her big accident occurs afterward. Instead, the last-minute emergency that threatens opening night is an older performer dropping dead on stage during dress rehearsal. This leads to people trying to have him declared dead in the ambulance instead of the theater to avoid an inquest that would delay the show’s opening.

Generally speaking, the movie is kinder to Dorothy Brock than the book is. Bebe Daniels was only 32 years old when 42nd Street was released and looked absolutely stunning. Hardly the aging, past-her-prime Broadway diva described in the book, who is tolerated more than she is respected. The book version of Dorothy is messier and more difficult to deal with, but the movie softens the character by giving her the scene where she visits Peggy to give her some words of encouragement. That scene does not happen in the book. However, there was a part of the book that mentioned how even performers who didn’t like each other were wishing each other luck on opening night, which could have inspired the scene in the movie.

Is the Book Worth Reading?

Book cover for the Photoplay edition of 42nd Street by Bradford Ropes.

Considering how incredibly influential 42nd Street has been both as a movie and a Broadway show, it’s a little surprising that the book has essentially become a footnote in its own history. But now that it’s back in print, I really hope more people will discover it. Nobody’s going to put it in the same league as The Grapes of Wrath or anything like that, but it’s still a very enjoyable book; a fun summer read for fans of classic films or Broadway musicals.

If you’re a fan of 42nd Street or any of the other Busby Berkeley backstage musicals like Gold Diggers of 1933 and Footlight Parade, the book 42nd Street is well worth your time. The movie is an extremely condensed version of the book, reduced to its most essential parts. (The differences I’ve listed here are just some of the biggest differences.) Since the movie is only about 90 minutes long and the last 20 minutes are devoted to musical numbers, everything leading up to the big finale moves at a very fast pace. But with the book, you can spend more time getting to know these characters better and taking in the atmosphere of the 1930s-era theatrical world.

42nd Street is the kind of book that’s very much a product of its time. Author Bradford Ropes had worked in vaudeville and had been in the chorus of Broadway shows, so he does a great job of capturing the essence of what this scene was like. It’s clear that this was a setting he knew extremely well. He vividly describes the social hierarchies of the theatrical world and the emotions and experiences that come along with performing in a show. He also brings in details that would likely be left out if someone today tried writing a story about 1930s Broadway. For example, the book is set when vaudeville was on its way out and Broadway was forced to compete with Hollywood for big-name talent. He seemed to really understand the dynamics of that very specific moment in time.

Beyond the details about the theatrical world, I really liked his overall style of writing. There were a lot of lines in the book that I could practically hear being delivered by people like Una Merkel and Ginger Rogers. If you enjoy the very snappy style of writing you find in a lot of 1930s-era Warner Brothers movies, you’ll probably like the book version of 42nd Street. I wasn’t surprised to learn that Warner Brothers had bought the rights to the book before it was even published; it’s very much their style.

I know people are pretty exhausted with the idea of reboots and adaptations right now, but I actually wouldn’t mind seeing a new adaptation of 42nd Street that follows the book more closely than the movie or the stage version. Similar how HBO’s 2011 version of Mildred Pierce works as its own adaptation of the book rather than a straight remake of the Joan Crawford movie.

This review is part of the 2021 Classic Film Summer Reading Challenge hosted by Out of the Past. For more reviews on books related to classic film, be sure to follow the #ClassicFilmReading hashtag on social media.

Highlights of TCMFF 2021

River Phoenix and Lili Taylor in Dogfight.

Between May 6th and 9th, I was among the many fans of Turner Classic Movies who spent their weekend glued to their television to participate in the 2021 TCM Classic Film Festival. For the second year in a row, the festival was a virtual experience, taking place on the channel, on HBO Max, and on Zoom for some virtual Club TCM events.

When I go to the TCM Film Festival in person, I usually watch a mix of old favorite movies and things I’ve never seen before. But with the virtual format this year, I ended up leaning very heavily toward things I had never seen before. Usually, it’s the experience factor that draws me to the old favorites during an in-person festival, whether it’s being able to see a movie in a specific theater or because of a special guest introducing it. Since that wasn’t as much of a factor this time around (any special intros I wanted to see could be watched separately from the movie), I decided to check out as many movies as I could that I had never seen before.

This approach worked out remarkably well. During the festival, I watched 16 feature-length movies that were new to me and I didn’t outright dislike any of them. Of course, I liked some more than others, but I came out of this being introduced to a lot of great movies. As far as movies go, my favorite discoveries this year (in no particular order) included: 

  • Dogfight (1991)
  • They Won’t Believe Me (1947)
  • Stranger Than Paradise (1984)
  • Diner (1982)
  • The Getaway (1972)

They really did a great job of including movies that don’t quite get the attention they deserve and I’m really glad I took the time to give them a shot. In the end, the list of movies I watched ran the gamut from Georges Melies to River Phoenix. There were also several other features that I felt added a lot to the whole experience.

Plan 9 From Outer Space Table Read from SF Sketchfest.

Plan 9 From Outer Space Table Read & Movie 

When the schedule for this year’s festival was first announced, I was immediately excited to see that we’d be getting some midnight movie style content this year. First up was a table read of the script for Plan 9 From Outer Space, which was originally produced by Dana Gould for SF Sketchfest with performers such as Bob Odenkirk, Paul F. Tompkins, Laraine Newman, Jonah Ray, and Oscar Nunez, just to name a few, bringing the script to life. I knew this was going to be a lot of fun to watch, but it far exceeded my expectations. Every performer involved brought their A game and it was an absolute riot. Laraine Newman’s deadpan narration was perfection. And being able to watch the movie version of Plan 9 immediately afterward made the whole thing even better. Definitely my favorite experience of the festival.

Scene from West Side Story showing the Sharks and the Jets.

West Side Story Cast Reunion

This year’s opening night movie was West Side Story, starting with a conversation between Ben Mankiewicz, Rita Moreno, George Chakiris, and Russ Tamblyn. I’ve watched a lot of these interviews at the festival over the years and this was one of the best. The camaraderie between the actors is still so strong and the conversation was fascinating. They took time to talk about Yvonne Othon, who is the actress who says, “I know you do!” during the America number. This was an ad-libbed line which has made such an impression that it not only stayed in the movie, it’s worked its way into theatrical productions over the years. Rita Moreno told an adorable story about Olivia de Havilland fawning over George Chakiris at the Oscars. Rita’s remarks about the movie were particularly interesting since she made it clear that the movie means the world to her, but that doesn’t stop her from criticizing it for where it falls short in terms of race.

Jet Jockeys in Love: The Making of Chain Lightning

Jet Jockeys in Love: The Making of Chain Lightning was another one of the things I was most excited to see in the lineup. This presentation by Craig Barron and Ben Burtt focused on the special effects in 1950’s Chain Lightning and was every bit as fun and informative as the presentations they do at the in-person festival each year. The movie Chain Lightning didn’t end up being one of my favorite Humphrey Bogart movies, but the presentation was top notch.

Ali MacGraw and Steve McQueen on the set of The Getaway.

Tribute Interviews

Conversations with actors are always one of the biggest draws at the festival and this year, we had excellent, brand new interviews with Ali MacGraw, Danny Glover, and Martin Short as part of the Tributes section on HBO Max. All of these were actors I was somewhat familiar with, but didn’t really know a whole lot about their lives and careers. Each of these interviews ended up making me want to see more of each actor’s work and learn more about them in general. Of the three, I was probably least familiar with Ali MacGraw, but I watched her interview after seeing The Getaway and ended up being so charmed by her that I later watched Love Story, even though it hadn’t really been on my radar going into the festival.

Scene from They Won't Believe Me.

The Restorations

New film restorations are another very consistent programming feature at the TCM Film Festival, but it seemed like this year had an exceptionally good group of restorations. A big highlight for me was They Won’t Believe Me, which featured 15 minutes of footage that had been cut from its initial release. I had never seen They Won’t Believe Me before, so I’m glad that I was able to see it for the first time as producer Joan Harrison wanted it to be seen. Picture quality was excellent as well.

Other restorations this year included Doctor X, The Whistle at Eaton Falls, Her Man, So This is Paris, and Princess Tam Tam, all of which looked spectacular. Annie Get Your Gun was another restoration, which I didn’t catch when it aired, but I’ve heard wonderful things about that restoration.

The Melies Mystery

As a silent film fan, of course I was delighted to see that HBO Max included a collection related to George Melies. The Melies shorts were great, but the real star was the new documentary The Melies Mystery. This documentary explains how original camera negatives of several of his films were found in the United States despite the fact that Melies himself had personally destroyed his original negatives. If you have any interest at all in silent film or film preservation, this documentary is a must-see. I’m always fascinated by stories about how lost films are re-located and this story has some very unexpected twists. I liked this documentary so much that I watched it twice.

Barry Levinson, Ellen Barkin, and Mickey Rourke on the set of Diner.

The Extras

During the 2020 festival, the movies shown on Turner Classic Movies were often supplemented with things like interviews from previous festivals. This year, they did the same, but it wasn’t necessarily limited to material from past festivals. Both on TCM and HBO Max, viewers could see extras ranging from brand new introductions to mini-documentaries that added to the festival vibe.

On Turner Classic Movies, Diner, Mean Streets, Fame, and The Goodbye Girl respectively had introductions/interviews with Barry Levinson, Martin Scorsese, Debbie Allen, and Richard Dreyfuss. There was also a mini-documentary about director Michael Curtiz’s work in horror films that was shown along with Doctor X and let me come in featured a documentary about the work of Bill Morrison. On HBO Max, there were things like a conversation between Alicia Malone and Danny Huston about The Maltese Falcon, a fun featurette by Bruce Goldstein about famous filming locations in New York City, and movie introductions by people like Lisa Rinna and Michael Douglas, all of which were recorded specifically for the festival. HBO Max also had lots of other extras from the TCM archive and DVD/Blu-ray releases.

Overall, I really enjoyed this year’s virtual version of the festival. Last year, they had limited time to switch to a virtual format, but the extra preparation that went into this year’s fest showed and I felt like it more effectively captured the essence of the festival. I dearly miss being able to do the festival in person and being able to spend time with my friends there, but this was an example of how good a virtual film festival can potentially be. And, as always, I’ve been spending the past few days after the festival trying to catch up on some of the things I didn’t have time to see. Whether the festival is virtual or in person, I will never have time to truly do it all.

Looking Ahead to TCMFF 2021

2021 TCMFF Logo.

Spring has arrived, which means it’s TCM Classic Film Festival season once again. As was the case in 2020, this year’s festival will be fully virtual. But while last year’s festival was fully on the Turner Classic Movies channel (with additional content posted to YouTube), this year’s festival will be a more expansive experience with additional movies available on HBO Max and Club TCM events taking place on Zoom. This approach adds to the festival vibe by giving people different venues to attend, so to speak, and lets people have the fun of choosing what they want to watch. (Visit the TCM Classic Film Festival website to see all movies playing on TCM and HBO Max during the festival.)

In some ways, planning what to watch for the virtual festival could potentially be even more challenging than planning for the in-person festival. Doing the festival in person means each day has a set start time and a set end time, so even if you go really hard and pack your days with as many events and screenings as possible, there will still be a point when there aren’t any official things to do. But with the virtual format, you can watch movies for a full 24 hours if you really want to, so it could end up feeling like an even longer marathon. And when in-person events are going on, there are only a handful of them happening at any given time. In this case, if you aren’t into what’s playing on TCM, there are over 50 other movies to choose from on HBO Max.

At the time of writing this post, the virtual Club TCM event schedule hasn’t been announced, so I haven’t figured out a real schedule for myself yet. The Club TCM events at the in-person festival are consistently excellent, so I know there will very likely be some that I’ll want to check out this year. Since those will be on a set schedule and will have limited capacity, I’m waiting on that schedule. But as it stands now, here are some of the things I’m most excited to see.

On TCM

Rita Moreno dancing in the America number from West Side Story.

The festival officially kicks off on Thursday, May 6 at 8:00 PM with West Side Story and a virtual cast reunion of Rita Moreno, George Chakiris, and Russ Tamblyn, which is easily going to be a must-see for me. West Side Story is followed by Mean Streets, which is one I’ve been meaning to revisit for a while, but I may switch over to HBO Max depending on my mood that day. At 1:30 AM is 1932’s Doctor X, which I really hope I can stay up for because they’ll be showing a brand new restoration that I’m excited to see. If you saw the recent beautiful restoration of Mystery of the Wax Museum, you’ll understand why I’m so eager for the Doctor X restoration.

The cast of Grease 2.
GREASE 2, from left: Alison Price, Christopher McDonald, Lorna Luft, Adrian Zmed, Michelle Pfeiffer, Maxwell Caulfield, Maureen Teefy, Peter Frechette, Leif Green, 1982, © Paramount/courtesy Everett Collection

From Friday’s schedule, the big highlights for me are the Plan 9 From Outer Space table read at 8:00 PM, the screening of Plan 9 From Outer Space at 9:30 PM, and Grease 2 at 11:00 PM. Every year that I’ve done the festival in person, the midnight movies have always been a major highlight, so I’m very excited to see that those types of movies are being represented in this year’s lineup. The Plan 9 table read should be a lot of fun, and while I haven’t seen Grease 2 in its entirety, I’ve seen enough to know that it’s perfect late night movie material. Earlier in the day at 10:00 AM is Whistle at Eaton Falls, which would be a new one to me. I’ll be sure to set my DVR for the 3:15 AM showing of let me come in, which consists of footage from 1928’s Pawns of Passion, a now lost film, along with an opera score. let me come in is directed by Bill Morison, director of the Dawson City: Frozen Time documentary, which I really enjoyed.

Diana Ross in Lady Sings the Blues.
LADY SINGS THE BLUES, Diana Ross, 1972.

On Saturday, I will likely spend much of the day checking out stuff on HBO Max and switch over to TCM in prime time. At 8:00 PM is the restored version of 1947’s They Won’t Believe Me, followed by Lady Sings the Blues at 10:00 PM and Diner at 12:45 AM. I also love the whole Saturday morning cartoon concept with the documentary Tex Avery: The King of Cartoons at 6:00 AM and Tex Avery at MGM at 7:00 AM.

Lilyan Tashman and Andre Beranger in Ernst Lubitsch's So This is Paris.
So This Is Paris (1926) Directed by Ernst Lubitsch Shown from left: Lilyan Tashman, André Beranger

Sunday’s lineup has a couple of restorations I’m really looking forward to: 1930’s Her Man at 8:45 AM and 1935’s Princess Tam Tam at 12:45 PM. The two big highlights of the day for me are the Hollywood Home Movies presentation at 7:00 PM the 8:00 PM showing of Ernst Lubitsch’s silent So This is Paris, with a new musical score by Ben Model. I saw So This is Paris at the festival a few years ago and I’m very excited to be able to see it again. Hollywood Home Movies is always one of the events I most look forward to at the festival and I’m happy that a wider audience will now be able to experience it. Later, there’s The Goodbye Girl at 9:30 PM with a conversation with Richard Dreyfus, Fame at 11:45 PM with a conversation with Debbie Allen, and the French new wave classic Breathless at 2:15 AM.

On HBO Max

The movies on HBO Max are organized into various collections, like tributes to Ali McGraw, Danny Glover, and Martin Short; movies introduced by their directors; The L.A. Rebellion; Immigrants in America; Hawks & The Art of Comedy; and The Streets of New York.

The Essentials and Discoveries collections are the biggest collections in the streaming library. In the Essentials collection, there are several classic Hollywood staples like Top Hat, The Maltese Falcon, The Searchers, North by Northwest, and The Thin Man. The Discoveries collection includes lots of great movies which might be new to people, like So This is Paris, Chain Lightning, The Mortal Storm, Victim, Cleo from 5 to 7, and The Decline of Western Civilization.

All of the movies available through HBO Max include bonus materials, ranging from actor/director introductions to introductions by Robert Osborne, discussions between Ben Mankiewicz and various guests, and other supporting content from TCM. Some of these extra features are brand new, others have aired on TCM in the past.

Humphrey Bogart in Chain Lightning.

Out of everything on HBO Max, I was most excited to see 1950’s Chain Lightning in the lineup, a Humphrey Bogart movie I’ve never seen before. Best of all, the bonus feature for it is a presentation by Craig Barron and Ben Burtt about the production of the movie. Barron and Burtt presentations are a regular feature at the in-person festival and are a must-see for many of the people who attend. Their presentation on the effects in Raiders of the Lost Ark in 2019 was excellent and I can’t wait to see what they have to say about Chain Lightning.

Another huge highlight of the streaming library for me is 1981’s The Decline of Western Civilization. This was on TCM during Labor Day weekend 2020 as part of their End of Summer Tour programming, but I wasn’t able to catch the whole thing so I’m glad to have another chance to see it. This one also features a conversation between Jacqueline Stewart and director Penelope Spheeris, which I definitely want to see. I may end up diverting a little bit from the official programming by following it up with my Blu-ray of 1982’s Smithereens just because I like the idea of doing a west coast/east coast punk block.

The moon as shown in A Trip to the Moon by George Melies.

As a big silent film fan, I was very excited to see that one of the collections is The Melies Mystery, which consists of 5 short films (A Trip to the Moon, The Impossible Voyage, Four Troublesome Heads, The Infernal Cauldron, and The Old Hag) and the new documentary, The Melies Mystery. This will be an absolute must-see for me.

Some other standouts for me include The Color Purple, The Getaway, Misery, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Dogfight, The Black Legion, Stranger Than Paradise, T-Men, Harlan County USA, and Speedy. Those are a mix of things that would be new to me and things I’m way overdue to revisit. I may also be tempted to check out the MGM Musicals and Outtakes collection to see some outtakes from It’s Always Fair Weather, Singin’ in the Rain, or Take Me Out to the Ball Game, as well as the collection of Powell & Pressburger movies. Those are all just awfully hard for me to resist.

More Ways to Bring the Festival Experience Home

Interested in having even more ways to get the full TCMFF experience from the comfort of home? There are lots of options!

If you’ve been missing being able to visit some of the locations you normally would during the festival, like the Hollywood Roosevelt, the Chinese Theater, and the Egyptian Theater, April Clemmer will be hosting a virtual presentation about these historic locations and more. The presentation starts at 1:30 PM Eastern, but if you aren’t able to watch the presentation live, you’ll receive a link afterward to watch it when you have a chance. Tickets are available on Eventbrite.

At 7:00 PM Eastern on Wednesday, May 5, Kimberly Truhler will be doing her annual Fashion in Film of TCMFF presentation over Zoom. This year, she’ll be discussing The Thin Man, Top Hat, His Girl Friday, North by Northwest, Breathless, Bullitt, and Love Story. If you’d like to attend, visit glamamor.com to sign up.

For a lot of people, no TCMFF is complete without a trip to Larry Edmunds Bookshop. They just recently launched a new online store, but if there are any other film-related books or movie posters you’re looking for that you don’t see on the website, give the store a call. Every year, during the regular festival, the store traditionally hosts an event at the store with a special guest where attendees have an opportunity to get signed copies of books. In the past, I’ve gone to these events for people like Marsha Hunt and Kevin Brownlow and they were truly excellent. This year, they’re doing a virtual Sunday (May 9) event, which is a conversation with Peter Bogdanovich at 3:30 PM Eastern. Tickets to the event are just $5 and autographed copies of some of Peter’s books are also for sale as a fundraiser for the store since they’ve been hit hard by COVID-19 closures. Visit their website if you’d like to buy a ticket to the event, order a book, or both!

Another great place to support is the Hollywood Heritage Museum. Since they are not currently open, sales through their online store help keep the museum going and they have a large selection of books, DVDs, notecards, posters, and more to choose from.

Another big TCMFF tradition is decorating pass lanyards with lots of pins, which are very often designed by Kate Garbielle. Every year, she makes a special TCMFF-themed pack of buttons and this year is no exception. This year’s pins are really cute, reflecting the different approach to this year’s festival.

On Monday, May 10, you can end your festival experience by checking out a virtual tour of Hollywood Forever Cemetery hosted by their in-house tour guide, Karie Bible. Lots of Hollywood legends are laid to rest there, including Rudolph Valentino, Judy Garland, Douglas Fairbanks Sr. and Jr., Janet Gaynor, Adrian, Peter Lorre, Mickey Rooney, Tyrone Power, Marion Davies, and Cecil B. DeMille, just to name a very few. The event starts at 9:00 PM Eastern and tickets are available through Eventbrite.