Film History Comes to Life in ‘Hollywood Home Movies: Stars at Work and Play’

From all-star tennis to Alfred Hitchcock eating a banana, these Academy Film Archive home movies show a different side of Hollywood throughout history.
Hollywood Home Movies Oklahoma Tcm

Some of the most interesting stories that come out of Old Hollywood happened off the silver screen and in the everyday lives of legendary stars. Home movies provide the best visual look into stars’ lives in a less curated and controlled way than feature films and press media. The Academy Film Archive gives TCM Film Festival attendees a sneak peek into their selection of Hollywood home movies every year in person, but this year they are giving everyone a chance to see stars in their personal lives and at work with their Hollywood Home Movies: Stars at Work and Play program. From the celebrity commentary to the unique look at history, here’s why these home movies are worth the watch.

Randy Haberkamp and Lynne Kirste from The Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences host a varied collection of silent home movies, accompanied by live piano by Michael Mortilla. Haberkamp and Kirste are passionate experts on the collection of home movies. Still, they even invite audiences to let them know if they recognize any unidentified people or places in the home movies they show. The hosts also talk to Tony Nicholas, son of one of the Nicholas Brothers, and Shirley Jones, star of Oklahoma!, about their featured home movies.

Hollywood home movies give us a glimpse at stars from the past in ways biographies and other records can’t. In Hollywood Home Movies: Stars at Work and Play, we see legendary couple Lauren Bacall and Humphrey Bogart in their home and on their sailboat in Richard Brooks’ home movies. The clips span a decade, showing Bogart and Bacall at different stages of fame and their relationship. Their love for sailing and important moments in their lives, like Bacall’s pregnancy with one of their children, are just a few examples. These moments were not always included in gossip magazines or other press during the time. Couples like Bogart and Bacall were also very private about their personal lives, so with these home movies, we get to see them through the eyes of someone they love, which was Brooks. For a moment, we get to see moving images of their lives outside of their careers as actors.

The Gilbert Roland home movies included in the program show stars like Janet Gaynor, Constance Bennett, Frank Morgan, and Ben Lyon at the Beverly Hill Tennis Club joking around and playing tennis. Even producer David O. Selznick and director Frank Capra stop by in Roland’s movies. In these clips, we get to see and inside look at one of the places stars loved to have fun in throughout Hollywood history. In black and white, the first clips show an early version of the tennis club, with just courts and tables where stars would drink and smoke plenty of cigarettes. The court looks like a very exclusive spot for the famous, but these clips also show the wait staff and other workers at the club. In the last clips, we see an evolved Beverly Tennis Club in color. The club acquired a pool in the 1940s, which is packed with people, including John Garfield and director Billy Wilder. They look jovial and relaxed, which is a treasure to see captured on film. The club no longer looks like Roland’s private spot, and it has evolved far past just tennis. These home movies are the closest we can come to partying with some of our favorite studio era stars from back in the day.  

We also get a glimpse of sides of the industry not always captured on film. In one clip, we see Jean Harlow as she gets ready in an unknown dressing room. The hosts are not sure of the exact context of the film, but they estimate that it was taken during one of Harlow’s extensive publicity tours after the release of The Public Enemy. It seems that Harlow is being filmed by someone she knows, but it’s not quite clear who. Harlow toured theaters around the country from 1931-1932, drawing huge crowds of people just to see her greet them on stage. These publicity stunts were a huge part of studio-era Hollywood, but getting to see behind the scenes during them is a rarity. Interestingly, the archivists used Harlow’s artificial beauty mark on her face to help date the film. Harlow drew on her beauty mark in different spots of her face during different parts of her career. This home movie shows how helpful these films can be to recording all aspects of stars’ lives and the work archivists have to do to place these home movies within the context of history for us.

The program shows behind the scenes of the Oscar-winning musical Oklahoma! thanks to director Fred Zinnemann’s home movies taken on location in Arizona. Shirley Jones, who starred as Laurey Williams, provides commentary to these home movies, showing Jones preparing and recovering from shooting specific scenes. During the shooting of a swimming scene, Jones was freezing, and the home movies show her wrapped in a towel, drinking what ended up being whiskey to warm her up. This is a big no-no on movie sets, so it’s fascinating to see it captured on film. Zinnemann also captured stunts from atop a moving train, scenes of dancers, and the vast crews surrounding the camera as Jones performed. We can see set photos quite often, but these home movies give a wider look at what went into making a giant musical back in the 1950s.

These home movies also show larger historical moments beyond the confines of Hollywood, like World War II. Character actor Billy Gilbert’s home movie collection shows his moments performing USO tours with Fay McKenzie, her sister, and their other friends. We see Gilbert and his friends sail and have fun on the beach when they’re not performing skits and songs for large crowds of soldiers. We also get to see what a USO show was like during World War II from the performers’ perspective. These moments show what wartime was like outside of the realm of battles, which can also tell a lot about history from this time period.

Finally, Haberkamp and Kirste show one of the best treasures is the home movies of the Nicholas Brothers, Fayard, and Harold. The brothers were some of the best dancing performers of all time, on-screen and on stage. Their home movies were deemed so historically and culturally significant that they were inducted into the National Film Registry for preservation in 2011. The clips in this program show the brothers performing on stage with Carmen Miranda, who starred with the brothers in Down Argentine Way. Their son Tony provides comments and context to all of the clips as they document the dancing duo’s extraordinary lives and important aspects of African American history. Footage of the Cotton Club, Harlem, and Hollywood are important to history in general. Tony even appears in the home movies, dancing with his uncle and father, Fayard.

There are even more fascinating clips in Hollywood Home Movies: Stars at Work and Play you won’t want to miss from TCM Film Festival. Interesting filmmaking techniques within these home movies show their historical and entertainment value for everyone from hardcore film history buffs to the casual viewer.

This portion of the TCM Classic Film Festival’s lineup rounds out the final day of programming on May 9th at 7:00 PM EST. You can find more about their full schedule here

Emily Kubincanek: Emily Kubincanek is a Senior Contributor for Film School Rejects and resident classic Hollywood fan. When she's not writing about old films, she works as a librarian and film archivist. You can find her tweeting about Cary Grant and hockey here: @emilykub_