“The idea of Hollywood is the most original idea Hollywood ever had– the only one that it ever made up by itself… In its impact on the world, it’s the most powerful idea it ever had.” ~Richard Schickel, Hollywood on Hollywood, 1993
Movies About Movies: Hollywood Projects Itself is the 2017 spring film festival at the Park Ridge Public Library. The series examines Hollywood’s image of itself. The films that will be screened present a revealing look at the craft of making movies while also showing a keen self-awareness. Once upon a time, the movie industry was concerned about how it was perceived by the rest of the country. These were the days of the Production Code when restraints were placed on the content of what was produced. The movie capital of the world did not wish to be viewed as the sin capital, and so various subject matters were forbidden on-screen. Life was in some ways sanitized. Ironically, within this framework of censorship, movie studios nevertheless presented unflattering portraits of themselves. In many of the films of the era, we find a decidedly unglamorous view of Hollywood which is more true to life. In several of these movies, we see washed-up actors, actresses, writers and directors. Tragic figures like “Norman Maine” were looking for a comeback– the role that would make them a star once more. Our view of them is not always bright, and sometimes it’s just downright bleak as with “Norma Desmond” in Sunset Blvd. One of the more hard-edged films in the series is The Bad and the Beautiful with its scathing image of Tinseltown.
Though many of the films display a cynical depiction of HollywoodLand, there are films that reflect the optimism and hopes of small-town girls who dream of being a star. It’s a recurring theme that is seen time and again. In fact, our first four films at the Library all contain a version of the “aspiring ingénue” plotline. The characters in these films are played by Marion Davies in Show People, Anita Page in Free and Easy, Constance Bennett in What Price Hollywood? and Janet Gaynor in A Star is Born. Though these films are escapist fantasies, there is a surprising self-awareness to the proceedings, particularly in What Price Hollywood? In this film, Lowell Sherman plays a movie director (and was, in fact, one in real-life). And it’s been suggested that the premise of A Star is Born was inspired by the marriage of actress Barbara Stanwyck to entertainer Frank Fay. Some of these films are partially grounded in reality and hit home for those who know the industry.
Movies About Movies concentrates on a specific era of filmmaking, from the late 1920s until the early 1950s. We limited ourselves so that we could work in some rare titles like It Happened in Hollywood and Boy Meets Girl. The theme itself could easily span the decades and include movies like 8 1/2 (1962), The Big Picture (1989), Ed Wood (1994), and Hugo (2011). [We’ll take Scorsese’s loving tribute to the early days of motion pictures over The Artist any day.] Hollywood has always shown a great interest in itself as evidence by the recent popularity of La La Land (2016). Countless films have been made on the subject. However, with so few slots to fill in our schedule, we would’ve been forced to erase lesser-known films like Free and Easy had we expanded the timeline. Certainly, some will feel that Free and Easy should’ve been erased. Sadly, the film reveals how poorly Buster Keaton was used by MGM in the early sound era. The studio simply didn’t know what to do with him despite his earlier success in The Cameraman (1928). However, we feel that even in a lesser Buster Keaton film there is value to be found, and for those who arrive early that night, we will also be screening one of Buster’s best films as compensation. It’s one of the all-time great “movies about movies.” Some of our fans will figure out the title of the bonus film. (We could not do a series like this without presenting it!)
The origin of Movies About Movies goes back to 1999. At the time, I was taking over the LaSalle Bank revival theatre in Chicago. One of the first films I remember seeing from the projection booth was Jean Luc Godard’s Contempt (1963). This was part of “Movies About Movies: A Look Back in Angles.” The series had been organized by Scott Marks, who was my History of Cinema teacher at Columbia College Chicago. I was replacing Scott, who was leaving the theatre for San Diego. He was in the process of training me as a projectionist. His theme was a terrific idea for a series, but over the years, I began to think of other movies Scott could’ve shown. As these titles gradually became available on dvd, I knew I would be able to do a library program. Some of them I’ve worked into the current lineup. But there were many others I had to cut out. For instance, one of the initial films on my list was Stand-In (1937) with Leslie Howard, Joan Blondell, and Humphrey Bogart. I also thought of some “B” movies I would’ve liked to have shown: The Death Kiss (1932) with Bela Lugosi or The Falcon in Hollywood (1944). For those interested in the theme, I will be providing a list of recommended titles. Included will be films we’ve screened in earlier library programs, such as The Cameraman and Movie Crazy. (The handout will be available at the Library on Thursday nights.)
Although not “officially” part of the Park Ridge Public Library Classic Film Series, I will be screening Sunset Blvd (Mar. 16) and Singin’ in the Rain (Apr. 20) at the Pickwick Theatre. These are being presented by the Pickwick Theatre Classic Film Series. They are two of the best examples of our theme and I felt they needed to be seen theatrically– not within the smaller confines of the Library’s first floor meeting room. Sunset Blvd, a Hollywood noir, is arguably the greatest movie about movies, and Singin’ in the Rain is certainly one of the most popular. Imagine what moviegoers who loved La La Land will think when they see stars who really can sing and dance!
We’ve all got movie madness this spring. There’s so much to look forward to on Thursday nights. We even end the program with two films starring Gloria Grahame!
The Library series runs on Thursday nights from March 2 until May 25. All screenings at the Library are free. Doors open at 6:30 (sometimes earlier) and we will always screen shorts or documentaries before 7PM. I will introduce each film promptly at 7PM.
Matthew C. Hoffman
March 2: SHOW PEOPLE (1928) Dir. King Vidor/82 min.
Screen comedienne Marion Davies (in her best role) stars as a small-town girl with dreams of being a dramatic actress in this delightful behind-the-scenes look at the golden age of silent pictures. With William Haines (and several surprise cameos, including the film’s director).
March 9: FREE AND EASY (1930) Dir. Edward Sedgwick/92 min
(With bonus Keaton film starting at 6:15 PM.)
Early talkie with Buster Keaton arriving in Hollywood (with Anita Page) and getting a screen test despite his ineptness. This musical comedy also stars Robert Montgomery (and several celebrity walk-ons, including William Haines).
***March 16: SUNSET BLVD. (1950) Dir. Billy Wilder/110 min. (Pickwick Theatre, 7:30 PM with admission)
Legendary film noir with William Holden as an opportunistic writer on the run who meets fading silent star Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson). With Erich Von Stroheim and Nancy Olson. (Screened in DCP)
March 23: WHAT PRICE HOLLYWOOD? (1932) Dir. George Cukor/88 min.
The first version of what would become A Star is Born has Constance Bennett as a waitress-turned-ingenue and Lowell Sherman as her tailspinning director. With Neil Hamilton and Gregory Ratoff.
March 30: A STAR IS BORN (1937) Dir. William Wellman/111 min.
A Technicolor re-working of What Price Hollywood?—this time with Janet Gaynor as the rising star and Fredric March as her washed-up husband. Nominated for several Academy Awards including Best Actor for March– one of his finest performances.
April 6: IT HAPPENED IN HOLLYWOOD (1937) Dir. Harry Lachman/67 min.
Richard Dix portrays a silent film cowboy star who can’t adjust to the new era of “talkies.” With Fay Wray and a host of movie star “doubles.” Co-written by Samuel Fuller.
April 13: BOY MEETS GIRL (1938) Dir. Lloyd Bacon/86 min.
A screwball view of Hollywood with James Cagney and Pat O’Brien as a couple fast-talking screenwriters. This biting satire also stars Marie Wilson, Ralph Bellamy, and Ronald Reagan (in a small role as an announcer).
***April 20: SINGIN’ IN THE RAIN (1952) Dir. Stanley Donen & Gene Kelly/104 min. (Pickwick Theatre, 7:30PM with admission)
The height of the studio musical depicting Hollywood’s transition from silent to sound. One of the most entertaining films of all time. With Gene Kelly, Debbie Reynolds, and Donald O’Connor. (Screened in DCP)
April 27: SULLIVAN’S TRAVELS (1942) Dir. Preston Sturges/90 min.
Sturges’s satiric masterpiece about a director of Depression-era fluff who sets out to discover America as a hobo in the hopes of making a serious film. Joel McCrea and Veronica Lake star alongside a great cast of character actors.
May 11: IN A LONELY PLACE (1950) Dir. Nicholas Ray/91 min.
Cynical view of Hollywood with Humphrey Bogart as a self-destructive screenwriter trying to clear himself of a murder charge. One of the all-time great film noirs with Bogart giving one of his darkest portrayals. With Gloria Grahame.
May 25: THE BAD AND THE BEAUTIFUL (1952) Dir. Vincent Minnelli/118 min.
Story of a megalomaniacal producer (Kirk Douglas) told through his relationships with other characters on set, including actress Lana Turner (in one of her better performances). With Dick Powell and Gloria Grahame (Best Supporting Actress).
Special thanks to Reader Services and the staff of the Park Ridge Public Library for making this series possible. I would also like to thank film historian Scott Marks. His initial “Movies About Movies” series at the LaSalle Bank was the first film program I was involved with and it inspired this 2017 version.