This week, we continue a series of posts devoted to summertime entertainment, including delightful beach-reads, road-trip-friendly podcasts, splashy summer movies, and oh-so-binge-able tv, as Emily recommends the podcast You Must Remember This.
Holy Marlene Dietrich.
Can we please talk about Theda Bara, the Hollywood silent-era sex symbol (and off-screen bookworm), who allegedly inspired the idea of “The Vamp”?
And the shoot of To Have Or Have Not when Bogart and Bacall first met?
(Seriously. Has anything ever been sexier than Bacall’s Slim reminding Bogie how to whistle?)
And Audrey Hepburn’s role in constructing a new ideal of femininity? And the time that Cary Grant set up the other iconic Hepburn lady on her first date with Howard Hughes?
And Lena Horne? And her friendship with Billie Holiday? And also her gorgeous voice?
In the last couple of weeks, I’ve been listening through the archives of Karina Longworth’s show You Must Remember This, “the podcast dedicated to exploring the secret and/or forgotten histories of Hollywood’s first century,” and I. am. hooked.
Oh I know. I’m verging on self-parody with the sheer number of podcasts that I’ve been recommending — and announcing that I’ve fallen madly in love with. But podcasts are really a perfect way to enjoy your summer, whether you’re whiling away the hours of a long road-trip or amusing yourself when you’re taking a long amble around town on a summer evening — and this one is particularly lovely.
In essence, You Must Remember This is a podcast about Hollywood’s history and its stars. But it’s not a voyeuristic gawk at the sordid scandals of studio-era actors and actresses, nor does it repeat by rote the reports you read in your undergrad film studies textbook. Rather, it’s a glorious example of non-fiction storytelling, which merges responsible treatment of source material, delight in the subject matter, careful attention to narrative arcs and stylized language, and a truly moving emotional attachment to the stories told.
On Audrey Hepburn in Sabrina. “And her vulnerability is heightened by the garment, which gives us the impression that she’s dangerously exposed, without showing anything like traditional sexualized skin. She’s stripped of her armor, while still getting to wear actual, French-couture-inspired armor. And then, there’s the Givenchy cocktail dress, with its high, straight neckline grazing her shoulder blades, and its slashed back, plunging into a lace-up waistline. This dress is an embodiment — even an exaggeration — of the complicated duality of Hepburn’s appeal, wrapped up in one garment. She’s a nun in the front and a dominatrix in the back.”
In any given episode, Longworth, an LA-based writer and film critic, focuses on a major event in the life of one or more of the iconic ladies and gents of classic Hollywood. Sometimes she tackles the entire life of a star (an early episode traces Judy Garland from her emergence as a child star through to her funeral and its arguable connection to the Stonewall Uprising) while other times she really focuses in on one particular moment in time (a more recent episode focused on Charlie Chaplin’s filming of The Great Dictator in the midst of WWII). It’s super informative, and the history is fascinating. After all, who doesn’t want to know more about these screen presences who defined much of twentieth-century American popular culture and the way we understand mass media, celebrity, and America itself??
But what makes the show so compelling isn’t the specters of Audrey Hepburn or Jimmy Stewart (as utterly entrancing as their memories might be), but Longworth herself. She’s a fantastic storyteller, with a strong commitment to untangling the complex history of institutional oppression, sexism, and racism in Hollywood — and she’s got a wicked sense of humor. In one moment, she’ll be sardonically commenting on the oddity of Barbra Streisand’s A Star Is Born, and in the next, she inserts a very self-aware record scratch before doing her best impressions of Bette Davis or Lauren Bacall. (Okay: I’m pretty sure she doesn’t actually imitate Bacall in the Streisand episode itself, but you get the idea. And her Bacall impression is miles better than it has any right to be.)
The stories are utterly fascinating, Longworth’s narration is extraordinarily compelling, and anyway, who doesn’t want another excuse to have lots of feelings about Orson Welles and Rita Hayworth?
“This is episode five of our series about stars during war time, or Star Wars. If you’re familiar with that other Star Wars series, then I suppose this would be The Empire Strikes Back of the piece. Instead of brash, arrogant-but-talented pilot Han Solo, we have brash, arrogant-but-talented, multi-hyphenate-genius Orson Welles. And, instead of headstrong, love-struck, iconically coiffed Princess Leia, we have Rita Hayworth.”
Longworth organizes her podcast into seasons. The first is pretty eclectic, but generally wonderful (although you can certainly hear that she’s figuring out her style and voice if you listen to the very earliest episodes). The second focuses on Hollywood stars during war time, or Star Wars (ba-dum-ching). Whether you’re curious about Hedy Lamarr’s work as an inventor, want to know how Bing Crosby’s “White Christmas” became one of the most popular singles of all time, or are wondering if Errol Flynn and Walt Disney really were Nazi-sympathizers, it’s an awesome series of episodes. Her most recent season, focusing on Hollywood in the ‘60s and the “life, crimes, and reverberations” of the Manson Family, is also extremely well done — although your mileage will vary with this season, depending on your interest in examining the (decidedly not upbeat) story of LA in the summer of ’69.
You Must Remember This is brilliant because of its earnest commitment to telling the actual stories behind the lives of the Hollywood legends, all the while reflecting upon both the Hollywood machine that turned these men and women into legends and the honest humanity that has preserved these legends in our hearts and minds for the past century. When Longworth’s voice breaks as she describes the tragic denouement of Clark Gable’s love affair with Carole Lombard, when you can hear her genuine excitement as she describes the WEIRDNESS of Frank Sinatra’s The Future, when she samples Madonna’s “Vogue” and discusses the pop goddess’s debt to the screen queens of the previous generation, she brings these stories alive — whether or not you already knew the Wikipedia-article versions of the events.
“Also making news that summer was the newfound success of contrivedly spooky rock lounge lizards The Doors, a band no one wanted to sign, who got uncool pretty much as soon as they got famous. The Doors lacked credibility with the cool kids in part because they were so pretentious. They did things like appropriate a Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill composition as an anthem for sunset strip decadence… Which seems much cooler in retrospect.”
I recommend starting out with the Bogart and Bacall episodes (“Bogart, Before Bacall” and “Bacall, After Bogart”) or the Audrey Hepburn installment (“Audrey Hepburn: Sex, Style, and Sabrina”) if you want to get a taste of the style of You Must Remember This. Or just dive right in on a road-trip-long binge of the podcast, picking episodes focusing on the film icons who catch your fancy!