More Than Brando’s Mouthpiece: Sacheen Littlefeather

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This month is American Indian Heritage Month so I wanted to celebrate a classic Indian American actress. I came across this article from the Vintage News website in my Facebook feed last month about Sacheen Littlefeather who passed away on October 2. However, Littlefeather was known as an activist for American Indian rights more than for her acting. But what fascinated me about her story was how in 1973 she made headlines when, in Marlon Brando’s name, she went onstage to decline the Oscar he won for his role in The Godfather.

Photo Credit: Sacheen Littlefeather standing in front of the Oscar statue holding Marlon Brando’s statement declining the Oscar for The Godfather, 45th Annual Academy Awards ceremony, 27 March 1973, UCLA Library Special Collections: TarkusAB/Wikimedia Commons/CC BY 2.0

The story behind her appearance at the Oscars has now become legendary. Before the 1973 Oscars, an incident occurred at Wounded Knee where Oglala Dakota and the American Indian Movement entered the town and took over in protest of Native American inequality and were eventually driven out by law enforcement. This incident sparked Marlon Brando’s rage and prompted him to declare that if he won the Oscar for The Godfather, he would decline it in protest of how American Indians were portrayed in films and television and treated by the film industry.

When the announcement that Brando had won came, people were surprised to see a young woman appear on the stage in traditional Apache dress, holding up her hand to decline the Oscar statuette. The story goes that Brando prepared a long speech for Littlefeather to deliver but the producers of the show threatened to have her forcefully removed from the stage if she didn’t keep it to thirty seconds. Put in a difficult position, Littlefeather handled it with dignity and grace. She condensed Brando’s wordy speech to a few eloquent and respectful words as to why he was declining the Oscar (you can watch that here). She endured booing and racial slurs from the audience, and John Wayne had to be restrained from attacking her onstage. The incident got her blacklisted from Hollywood and she never worked as an actress again.

Many have criticized Brando, accusing him of being a coward and sending a young woman to do his dirty work. There’s no doubt Littlefeather showed more courage and grace than Brando in facing the hostile Oscar crowd and backstage reporters. But Littlefeather maintained it was her idea to go in place of Brando and she did it to put across her message of inequality and prejudice that many American Indians working in Hollywood had to endure at the time and she never regretted what she did. 

Let’s celebrate the courage and dignity of American Indians like Sacheen Littlefeather to stand up for their equality and heritage this month!

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Creative License: Sherlock Holmes During World War II

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May is National Mystery Month, so what better way for us mystery lovers to celebrate than to take a look at one of the most, perhaps the most, famous sleuths in history: Sherlock Holmes?

I have to be honest here. I am not a great lover of the Holmes character. I find him too egotistical and woman-hating for my taste. However, there’s no denying Conan Doyle had something when he created this sleuth whose deductive reasoning and attention to detail wove intricate (and sometimes hard to believe) plots. I personally prefer sleuths who appreciate the value of intuition and psychology along with reasoning, such as Hercule Poirot, Lord Peter Wimsey, and, of course, the protagonist of my Adele Gossling Mysteries. 

Last month, I binge-watched the Sherlock Holmes films, but not the contemporary ones. I binge-watched the twelve Universal films and the two 20th Century Fox films. All were made in the late 1930s and 1940s and feature Basil Rathbone as Holmes and Nigel Bruce as Watson. 

The series is pretty distinctive in several ways. Classic crime buffs are familiar with Rathbone playing many villainous characters so the series gave him a chance to play a good guy. Bruce, whose name might not be familiar to you, created the Watson character as the lovable but somewhat bumbling sidekick which set a precedence for the Watson character (and many sleuth sidekicks) for books, TV, and film after that. 

Photo Credit: Basil Rathbone as Sherlock Holmes, and Nigel Bruce as Dr. Watson, cropped screenshot from Sherlock Holmes and the Secret Weapon, 1943, Universal Pictures: Patrick CecilF/Wikimedia Commons/PD US not renewed

But the most distinctive feature of the series is that most of them are not set in the late 19th or early 20th century when Conan Doyle wrote the Holmes books. They are set in the late 1930s and 1940s (that is, in times contemporary to when they were made). The series has an interesting history. Fox made the first 2 films which were actually set in the 19th century like the original books. These films weren’t very successful so Fox dropped the series. Universal picked it up and decided to change the setting to contemporary times. It was then the series became a huge hit and went on for twelve more films. 

Why did Universal decide to change the time period? When the third film in the series (and Universal’s first), Sherlock Holmes and the Voice of Terror, came out, it was 1942 and World War II was raging. They thought the audience would identify more with a contemporary Holmes than a Holmes far removed from the war’s troubling times by fifty years. Audiences identified with the scenery of London and Europe featuring bombed-out buildings, air raids, and blackouts.

Universal took it a step further. The screenwriters revamped many of Conan Doyle’s plots to make them fit with the war. Instead of London underworld criminals. Holmes was fighting Nazi spies. For example, the fourth film in the series, Sherlock Holmes and the Secret Weapon is based on a Conan Doyle short story but features a secret code Holmes is trying to keep from falling into German hands. 

Universal’s creative license was very effective not only in making the series more successful than Fox’s version but also in inserting messages to boost the morale of British and American audiences. Many of the films end with Holmes imparting philosophical messages to Watson that are essentially telling audiences not to lose faith and good will triumph over evil in the end. 

I’ll admit I’m a purist when it comes to films based on literature. I initially resisted seeing the series because so many of the films were set in contemporary (relative) times instead of when the books take place. But once I started to watch them, I got hooked on how the films show the life and struggle of citizens living during World War II. I highly recommend giving them a chance. You can find most of them on YouTube here

And if you want more mystery, check out my Adele Gossling Mysteries here. The first book in the series, The Carnation Murder, is out! You can find out all about it and pick up your copy here

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The East West Players and Confessions of an Opium Eater (1965)

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This month is Asian Pacific American Heritage Month, so I’m paying tribute to Asian Pacific Americans who fight for visibility, respect, and honor for their culture. 

As you know, I’m a huge classic film fan, and I was fascinated by a bit of trivia I read on the Internet Movie Database when I stumbled upon the film Confessions of an Opium Eater (1965) on YouTube. According to the trivia, this film was partly responsible for the formation of a theater group in Los Angeles dedicated to Asian Pacific American actors.

If the title of the film itself sounds pretty tawdry, its roots are historical. The movie is loosely based on an autobiography written in 1821 by Thomas DeQuincy called Confessions of an English Opium-Eater. The book is essentially the granddaddy of the drug memoir, giving accounts of DeQuincy’s addiction to laudanum (a tincture of opium widely available and unregulated in the 19th century) and its consequences. The book was meant as a warning against laudanum addiction, a big problem at the time, though critics claim DeQuincy’s book is rather more about the pleasures of opium addiction than its pains.

But the film is only loosely based on the book. The main character (played by Vincent Price, who steps out of his horror film persona to play a rather dubious hero) is supposedly an American descendent of DeQuincy. Like my Adele Gossling Mysteries, the movie is set in San Francisco and involves crime. Price arrives in Chinatown, looking for the pleasures of opium, and ends up unraveling a mystery that includes prostitution, white slavery, and, of course, opium.

The film, unlike many before it, has a very large cast made up of Asian and Pacific Americans, many of whom would be familiar to fans of classic films, including Richard Loo, Phillip Ahn, John, Fujioka, and Victor Sen Yung (who played in many of the Charlie Chan films in the 1940s as one of Chan’s many sons). These and other actors complained to the producer about how their Asian Pacific American roles perpetuated Hollywood stereotypes of sinister men and loose women, drug addicts and prostitutes. Producer Albert Zugsmith took no notice of their complaints. So this film was one of many that, as they say, became the hump that broke the camel’s back.

Photo Credit: Logo for the East West Players, 2013, East West Players: Yeeno/Wikimedia Commons/PD textlogo 

No surprise, nine Asian Pacific American actors, including Mako (Conan the Barbarian, Pearl Harbor), Soon-Tek Oh (Mulan), and James Hong (Blade Runner, Kung-Fu Panda) formed the East West Players that same year. They were tired of Asian Pacific Americans being typecast in sinister roles and seeing Asian Pacific American main characters played by Caucasians (I always found it absurd that Charlie Chan’s sons were played by Asian Pacific Americans in the 1940s but Chan himself was played by Swedish actor Warner Oland.). Their mission was to create a space where Asian Pacific American actors would have better roles and a chance to show their culture and people were anything but the Hollywood stereotypes. The theater puts on performances with Asian Pacific American actors, directors, choreographers, playwrights, and others behind the scenes.

It’s no wonder this amazing group has many Tony award-winning plays under their belt, including A Little Night Music (1973), M. Butterfly (1988), and The Who’s Tommy (1993). You can find out more about the East West Players here

If you love fun, engaging mysteries set in the past, sign up for my newsletter to receive a free book, plus news about upcoming releases, fun facts about women’s history and mystery, and more freebies! You can sign up here

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All This, and Heaven Too (1940): A Classic True Crime Murder

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Warning: Some spoilers

I’ve always been fascinated by classic true crime. Let’s face it, in the 21st century, we’re used to hearing about murder, rape, and theft in the news so there’s a “been there, done that” kind of feeling to them. But past crimes happened at a time when people just didn’t fathom such horrific things could ever happen. When I first read about the Leopold and Loeb trial in the 1920s (which I’ll blog about at some point), what struck me the most was not that two prominent young men killed an innocent boy but that they did it without a motive. This is something we’re familiar with today from the news, TV, and movies. But in the early 20th century, people just couldn’t understand how someone could kill another person without a motive. 

Films based on true crimes are common these days, but during the Golden Age of Hollywood, they were rare. The 1940 film All This, and Heaven Too sounds like it should be a romance, and, in fact, it is. But it’s also based on a true crime. It has all the salacious details many of us love in a crime story: a beautiful but difficult noblewoman, an accomplished and morally questionable duke, an illicit romance, and murder.

The film has some heavy hitters in terms of stars from the 1940s. None other than Bette Davis stars as the governess Henriette Deluzy and leading man Charles Boyer as the Duke de Praslin. I must confess, these are not my favorite characters in this film. Though I love Davis, her Henriette is a watered-down version of some of her juicier roles from around that time (think: Jezebel and The Little Foxes). Her character is a little too sacrificial for my taste. Boyer, though charming, has, in my opinion, one of the least sexy voices in the world. His role is a little too much the “she doesn’t understand me” type of adultor.

Photo Credit: Cropped screenshot of Barbara O’Neil from All This, And Heaven Too, 1940: Wedg/Wikimedia Commons/PD US no notice

The stand-out for me in this film is Barbara O’Neil. If you’re not familiar with her name, you’ll doubtless know who she is when I tell you she was Scarlett’s mother. The year before this film, O’Neil played her best-known role, that of Ellen O’Hara in 1939’s Gone With The Wind. If you recall, her character is a martyr who loses her life helping the poor. 

But O’Neil’s role in this film is entirely different and much more intricate. She plays the Duchess de Praslin and is, frankly, not the most pleasant of women. On the face of it, she resembles the stereotypical noblewoman of the separate spheres: fragile, always crying, and easily flying into hysterical fits. But she is tougher and sharper than everyone thinks. She notices immediately her husband’s growing affection for their children’s governess and isn’t afraid to confront both the Duke and Henriette about her suspicions. And she’s not afraid to take action about them either. 

At the same time, we get insights into the miserable life she’s living. She’s terribly in love with her husband and only wants to share her life with him. But he rebuffs her again and again. He doesn’t hide the fact that he’s clearly bored with her and doesn’t love her. It also becomes clear no one in the house, including the children, has much respect for the duchess because they’re following the Duke’s lead. The Duchess’s attempts to reconcile with her husband fall by the wayside.

O’Neil plays the role to show us the duchess is both a victim and perpetrator. We can see how she drives her husband away with her suspicions and hysterics, but at the same time, we can also see how she wants to be a good wife to him and a good mother to her children if only he and others will let her.

Is the Duchess de Praslin a shrew or a woman scorned? You be the judge! On Friday, I’ll be starting a month-long series in my newsletter talking about the crime upon which All This and Heaven Too was based. To sign up, you can go to this link.

And if you’re hungry for more crime, you can check out The Carnation Murder, the first book of my Adele Gossling Mysteries coming out on April 30! It’s available for preorder right now at a special price, so check it out here

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Complex Woman and Man in The Misfits (1961)

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Photo Credit: Marilyn Monroe and Clark Gable in The Misfits, May 1961, from Radio-TV Mirror, McFadden Publications: Encyclopedias/Wikimedia Commons/PD US not renewed

A few weeks ago, I had the opportunity to review a book about classic Hollywood film director Robert Wise (you can find that blog post here). Reading this book reminded me of how much I used to love blogging about classic films. I haven’t done that in the last few years because I wanted to focus more on history related to my fiction, but the Wise book got my juices flowing again, so I’m putting classic film blogging back on my agenda.

Since this is Women’s History Month, and I’m celebrating the accomplishments of women in the 1950s and 1960s, I thought it would be fitting to blog about one of the most iconic movie stars of the mid-20th century who still haunts us today — the beautiful, talented and troubled Marilyn Monroe.

Monroe is best known for comedies in the 1950s such as Gentlemen Prefer Blonds (1953) and The Seven Year Itch (1955). But she also did a fair amount of dramas and excelled in them. In 1961, when she was married to Arthur Miller, she starred in The Misfits and gave what I consider the finest performance of her career. The film is a magnificent classic written by one of America’s premier playwrights (Arthur Miller) and stars, along with Monroe, some of Hollywood’s greatest actors (Clark Gable, Eli Wallach, Montgomery Clift, and Thelma Ritter). What fascinates me the most about this film is the way both Monroe and Clark Gable edge out of the kind of roles they had been used to playing for much of their careers.

I don’t think anyone would deny that, when it comes to the feminine prototype, Marilyn Monroe’s film persona is it. From her voluptuous figure to her child-like voice to her sensual gazes, Monroe embodied a fantasy for 1950s men that differed widely from the woman of the Occupation: “Housewife” era. The sensual babydoll was no weakling, though. She was in command of the men who admired and lusted after her, aware of what she had to offer as a woman and making the most of it. Similarly, Gable was the definition of masculinity in the 1930s and 1940s. His elegant pencil mustache and gruff manner and his readiness to throw a punch at any given moment defined what it was to be a “man’s man” not only in the pre-World War II era but in the years following the war.

In “The Misfits”, Monroe is something of the innocent but voluptuous baby doll while Gable is the gruff cowboy capable of bringing women to their knees even in his 60’s. But the characters they play are much more complex and move well beyond these stereotypes. Monroe shows us the darker side of the sexy babydoll that so captured the delight of 1950s viewers in films such as those mentioned above. Miller wrote the character of Roslyn Taber with Monroe’s own past in mind, and some of the more troubling aspects of Monroe’s life emerge in that character. One is Monroe’s paradoxical relationship with her mentally ill mother. In a scene following Taber’s divorce settlement, she becomes tearful thinking about her mother. One can imagine that, during this difficult time, Taber has a sudden wish for the maternal comfort she never got, and one wonders whether Monroe herself didn’t sometimes have the same wish for her mother, who was largely absent from her life, in and out of mental institutions.

As for Gable, the character of Gay Langland is much less pugnacious than some of the characters Gable played in the 1930s and 1940s. For example, in one scene, he assures Taber she might someday think of him as something more than a friend in such a good-natured way that it’s clear Langland isn’t a man who expects every woman to fall for him, and that his ego doesn’t depend on this. The man of iron also shows himself as vulnerable as the film progresses. In one scene, his drunken devastation at being unable to find his estranged grown children at a rodeo gives us a glimpse into some of his past regrets.

The 1960s, when The Misfits was made, was a time when the rigid definitions of the post-war gender roles were beginning to break down, which, I think, partly accounts for the way Taber and Langland are portrayed in this film. If you’re interested in reading about more characters whose ideas of gender already showed signs of changing in the 1950s, check out my short story collection, Lessons From My Mother’s Life

And just for fun, here’s the trailer for The Misfits. 

Want to explore the nooks and crannies of history that aren’t in the history books? Like social and psychological history and not just historical events? Want in on exclusive sneak peeks, giveaways, and surveys? Then sign up for my newsletter! You’ll get a free short story when you do.

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