Cinema Under the Stars

It’s been just about nine months since I moved from Los Angeles out to Tucson, AZ, and I’ve slowly but surely been getting to know my new hometown. Although Tucson is the second-largest city in Arizona, when your point of reference is LA, it definitely has a small-town feel. For example, since it gets so damn hot out here in the summer, most of the structures are built close to the ground, so it’s rare to even see a two-story home. There’s only one freeway in the whole city, and you only use it when you’re headed out to California or (heaven forbid!) Phoenix. Given that the last place I lived was at the intersection of two of the busiest freeways in Southern California — the I-10 and the I-405 — that is definitely a big (and enthusiastically welcome!) change.

Despite being a smaller city with way fewer connections to Old Hollywood than, well, Hollywood, I’ve found Tucson to have an absolute bevy of events, resources and opportunities for classic film fans. This past Thursday, I attended my first-ever event at Cinema La Placita, which has been showing classic films outdoors in downtown Tucson for the past twelve summers. Every Thursday night at 7:30, May through October, you can join your fellow Tucsonans under the stars in the plaza of La Placita Village for a measly donation of $3 per person, which includes all the popcorn you can eat. I have been aware of Cinema La Placita for a few months, and it has actually made me look forward to the start of our impending 115° summer.

The film on May 10 was George Cukor’s 1939 masterpiece The Women, a classic which never gets old no matter how many times you see it. However, by the time 7PM rolled around on the day of the event, I was not in a particularly good mood. The fact that it took us twenty minutes of aimless wandering to find Cinema La Placita certainly didn’t help matters much. Once I’d paid my $3 and found my seat, I just wanted to get it all over with and go home. However, by the time the color sequence featuring Adrian’s stunning fashion show rolled around, my mood had done a complete 180° turn. There’s nothing like a classic to cheer you up.

Watching this fantastic film on a big screen with an appreciative audience, cool and comfortable under the twinkling summer stars, was a truly wonderful experience. There were a few children in attendance who made me a bit nervous before the show started, but quieted down promptly when the opening credits rolled. Well-behaved dogs are also allowed at Cinema La Placita, and the one canine present was very well-behaved and only barked once in the beginning. (Alright, alright, I confess! It was my dog! But he really was [mostly] good.) I also appreciated the two five-minute intermissions, which allowed us to purchase some very reasonably-priced beverages and desserts at the nearby open restaurants in the plaza, and of course to restock our complementary popcorn.

The Cinema La Placita schedule for the rest of the month looks amazing, and at $3 a pop you really can’t find a better value in town. This is definitely my new regular Thursday-night thing.

May 17 — Shadow of a Doubt (1943)
May 24 — A Streetcar Named Desire (1951)
May 31 — 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1954)

I haven’t yet found any fellow Tucsonan classic film aficionados online or in “real” life, but I’m hoping that by writing more about local classics-related events I can make some connections. Plus I want to show all of my friends back in the Big City that Tucson may be a desert, but in no way is it devoid of life-giving movie opportunities for Golden Age groupies.

Gaslight (1944)

Image Source: Listal

Synopsis: Following in the footsteps of her murdered aunt, Paula Alquist (Ingrid Bergman) sets off to become a great opera singer — but falls in love with her accompanist along the way. Gregory Anton (Charles Boyer) promises to whisk Paula away from her troubled past and show her true love and happiness. But right away, Paula’s nerves are tested when the couple moves into her aunt’s house and scene of her murder. Losing and misplacing things without remembering ever touching them, hearing strange noises in the house at night, and feeling seething resentment from their maid Nancy (Angela Lansbury), Paula’s life becomes dismal, and Gregory insists that her health is at stake. But is Paula really going crazy — or is that just what Gregory wants her to believe? Soon, a curious stranger (Joseph Cotten) pays Paula a visit and reveals that all may not be what it seems.

Well, it’s sure taken me long enough to get around to watching this one, especially given the fact that I own it. Directed by George Cukor for MGM in 1944, Gaslight is a remake of a British film of the same name released only four years prior, which itself is an adaptation of “Angel Street,” a 1938 play by Patrick Hamilton. It was nominated in seven categories at that year’s Academy Awards, winning Ingrid Bergman her first Best Actress Oscar as well as taking home the award for Best Art Direction (Black and White). The term “gaslighting,” which means to abusively manipulate a victim into doubting her or his own sense of reality using emotional and physical tactics, originated with what Charles Boyer’s character does to his wife Bergman in this film. It has become a part of culture and a major part of feminist theory.

While I knew from feminist theory that this was an important film with an all-too-relevant story to tell, I have to admit that I started off disappointed. There isn’t much mystery here, unlike in 1955’s Diabolique which uses superficially-similar themes, as to what Gregory is doing to Paula. We get the sense very early on in their relationship that he is slimy, untrustworthy, manipulative and abusive. We can see it, so why can’t Paula? Albeit, she is young and recovering from major emotional trauma, looking to her new husband to distract her and spirit her away from her turbulent past; but one doesn’t want to see a “weak” female lead character when dissecting a film for its feminist leanings. At some point it just becomes a waiting game for when Joseph Cotten’s character will nonchalantly decide to probe deeper into what’s going on and save Paula from the terrifying prison her husband has created for her.


Paula’s lack of agency and role as a pawn for the two men in her life, while distressing, is wholeheartedly redeemed in the film’s climactic confrontation between Paula and Gregory in the attic. While the viewer is relieved that Brian Cameron has finally swooped in to rescue the damsel in distress, it is just such a wonderful breath of fresh air to see her shove him aside and confront her abuser head-on. I was definitely cheering! Indeed, in running away from her intended career to be with the man she loves, in agreeing to move into her aunt’s house despite it holding so many haunting memories for her, we see that Paula has been a strong-willed, heroic character all along – it is simply her slimeball of a husband who has broken her into this weak, scared little thing incapable of speaking up for herself. Sure, it takes another man to point it out to her, but Paula gets her comeuppance in the end, on her terms.

There are other female characters I found interesting in this film. Angela Lansbury as the petulant maid Nancy is smokin’ an interesting one to examine. Much like Bette Davis’ Mildred Rogers in Of Human Bondage, Nancy has no use for other women and only speaks to men in order to further her own prospects. It is implied from her introduction that she is in collusion with Gregory, if not actively participating in the process of gaslighting Paula. She doesn’t need to show sympathy for Paula out of any sort of “sisterly” connection, because she is only interested in getting what she wants and playing by her rules. Wouldn’t you feel the same if you’d grown up a poor working-class Cockney girl, likely having watched both your parents work themselves to the bone making the lives of rich people more comfortable? (Or am I reading way too much into this minor character?) I was also intrigued by the “comic relief” neighborhood busybody played by Dame May Whitty. I wonder about her place as an oblivious, murder-obsessed matron in an otherwise serious dramatic thriller. Is she perhaps intended as a stand-in for the audience? For, in sitting here for nearly two hours seeking to be “entertained” by watching this poor woman be tortured and imprisoned in her own home, aren’t we sort of “Bloodthirsty Bessies” ourselves?

“My husband’s going to methodically convince me that my sense of reality is incorrect when he finds out about this!”

Overall what sells this film is Cukor’s magnificent directing. The sets, the lighting, the music are all pitch-perfect and help the film to achieve the necessary Gothic, noir-ish atmosphere it needs to triumph. The scene I found most chilling is the part where Gregory and Paula go on a cheery little date to the Tower of London, and in the torture chamber (who chose this frighteningly-romantic location, anyway?!?), with the shadows of the devices intended to inflict pain and death swooping in around her, Paula discovers that the brooch Gregory has entrusted her with has gone missing. I found it a very foreboding hint of what Paula believes might happen to her when Gregory finds out about the brooch. And of course, when he does find out, he plays it off like he doesn’t care, for the sake of her feelings, because he’s just such a sweet and sympathetic guy. (Slimeball!)

Gaslight is a magnificent film by a magnificent director with a magnificent cast. You shouldn’t need me to recommend it, but I wholeheartedly do. A film with many layers and textures of meaning and symbolism, this one has major replay value and definitely lives up to its well-deserved hype.

Gaslight (1944) – 4.5/5 stars

Why Was George Cukor “Gone with the Wind?”

David O. Selznick, Vivien Leigh, Leslie Howard,
Olivia de Havilland, and George Cukor

In June of 1936, just one month after the publication of Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind, David O. Selznick of Selznick International Pictures spent a record-breaking $50,000 to purchase the film rights to the historical epic that every other major studio in Hollywood had turned down. Even before he bought the rights to make the novel into what would later become the highest-grossing film of all time, Selznick had hired director George Cukor to be the man in charge of bringing Mitchell’s vision to the screen. Cukor was well-equipped for the job of helming such an enormous picture, having previously established himself with such hits as Little Women (1933), Dinner at Eight (1933), and Camille (1936). He spent the next two years deeply immersed in the daily chores of pre-production on Wind, including supervising the rigorous screen tests of actresses vying for the role of perhaps cinema’s most influential character, Scarlett O’Hara. In the final weeks of 1938, Cukor dedicated hours of his time to coaching lead actresses Vivien Leigh and Olivia de Havilland in preparation for their roles. Filming finally began on January 26, 1939 – and three weeks later, George Cukor was unceremoniously dropped from the film, and replaced with Victor Fleming. What happened?

The truth of what occurred between Cukor, Selznick and Wind has been a subject of speculation for over seventy years. Most agree that it ultimately came down to a clash over the script: Cukor preferred the version penned by Sidney Howard, whereas Selznick (naturally) insisted on using his own screenplay which he had crafted with Oliver H.P. Garrett. According to some accounts, Cukor was simply not happy with the work he was producing, and Selznick got tired of having his judgment as a producer insulted. (Incidentally, when Fleming was brought onto the project, he also expressed frustration with the script; Selznick immediately hired “the Shakespeare of Hollywood” Ben Hecht to rewrite the entire screenplay in five days’ time.) But there are still other, slightly more salacious stories – including one rumor which makes some very controversial insinuations about classic Hollywood’s bastion of heterosexual masculinity, Clark Gable. (more…)