If you've finished Hollywood on Netflix and you're hankering for more Golden Age goodness, we have some ideas.
The new Ryan Murphy limited series offers audiences a revisionist version of the 1940s studio system, but it also is bursting with real faces from the era. Anna May Wong, Rock Hudson, and Hattie McDaniel all play major roles, while other legends float through the scenes like the most glamorous window dressing ever devised.
Whether you're aching to see the real Rock Hudson or Anna May Wong in action, or you just want to spend some more time with the Tinseltown product of this era, we've got some ideas.
Magnificent Obsession (1954) and All That Heaven Allows (1955)
In Hollywood, we meet Rock Hudson when he's still Roy Fitzgerald, an aspiring actor from Illinois. The real Hudson labored in B-movie adventure films throughout the late 1940s and early 1950s, but it's these two Douglas Sirk melodramas that made him a bonafide star. Jake Picking, who plays Hudson, cites them both as essential to his research. In both, Hudson stars opposite Jane Wyman in romantic tales designed to pull at the heartstrings. Magnificent Obsession finds him playing playboy Bob Merrick, who falls in love with Wyman's Helen Phillips when trying to undo the tragedy he's caused in her life. In All That Heaven Allows, he's arborist Ron Kirby who falls for Wyman's older widow, Cary Scott. The two fight to stay together in spite of society deeming their relationship unacceptable. Sirk is well-known for his lush Technicolor weepies, which helped catapult Hudson's matinee idol looks to romantic hero status. The director even makes winking nods at the Hollywood secret of Hudson's sexuality, making this the ideal follow-up to the happier ending Hudson receives in Hollywood.
In the case of Hattie McDaniel, played by Queen Latifah in Hollywood, there's always Gone With the Wind, which won McDaniel her history-making Oscar. But Ryan Murphy actually recommends audiences take a look at McDaniel's radio work, given that her film career was often restricted to playing domestic roles. "She got to be a little bit more authentic and didn't kind of have to play that certain thing," he says. We'd recommend Beulah, which ran on CBS Radio from 1945 to 1954 before becoming an ABC TV series from 1950-53 (though McDaniel only played the role there for six episodes). Beulah is another housekeeper role, but it's one that allowed McDaniel to showcase her comedic chops. The character is constantly solving problems her employers just can't seem to figure out. McDaniel became the first black star of a network radio show in the role.
Shanghai Express (1932)
Murphy also recommends this Josef von Sternberg film starring Marlene Dietrich for those looking to discover the filmography of Anna May Wong. In Hollywood, Wong gets a second chance at stardom after retreating from Hollywood when she lost the lead role in The Good Earth. Wong's career was littered with spirit-crushing roles that fell into both the "Dragon Lady" and "Butterfly" stereotypes, but she did occasionally get to rise above the material she was given. Shanghai Express is perhaps her best work. She plays Hui Fei, a companion to Dietrich's courtesan Shanghai Lily, and was given the chance to delve into more nuanced representations of Asian identity than the was typically offered.
The Farmer's Daughter (1947)
In Hollywood, Loretta Young does not win the 1948 Best Actress Oscar. But in real life, she did, marking one of the biggest upsets in Oscar history when she beat out Rosalind Russell in Mourning Becomes Electra. This delightful comedy stars Young as Katie Holstrom, a young woman who goes to work as a maid in a Congressman's house and ends up running for office herself. Young is best-known to audiences today for her role in another 1947 film, Christmas classic The Bishop's Wife.
The Best Years of Our Lives (1946)
Murphy cites this film as a personal favorite growing up, and it's perfectly indicative of the type of nuanced, resonant content Hollywood studios were generating in this era. Starring Myrna Loy, Fredric March, Dana Andrews, Teresa Wright, Virginia Mayo, and Harold Russell, the film tells the story of three U.S. servicemen readjusting to civilian life after World War II. But this is no ra-ra celebration of patriotism, it's a raw, emotional look at the challenges veterans face at reintegrating into society after war, addressing everything from PTSD to the strain such situations place on a marriage. Russell was not a professional actor, but rather a real veteran who brought his experiences to the character he portrayed. The film won seven Oscars, including Best Picture.
Carmen Jones (1954)
Murphy and Laura Harrier drew heavy inspiration from Dorothy Dandridge to create the character of Camille Washington. Dandridge was one of the few black actresses to achieve star status in the studio era, and this re-telling of Bizet's Carmen is her most famous role. She stars opposite Harry Belafonte as the fateful temptress who lures him to his doom. Dandridge fought hard for the role, determined to prove her sex appeal after rising to stardom in more demure roles. The film earned her an Oscar nomination and remains one of the finest examples of her extraordinary talents as an actress.
The Women (1939)
George Cukor plays a minor role in Hollywood, his notorious pool parties serving as the setting for one of the episodes. The famed director's sexuality was an open secret in Hollywood, and his home and extravagant parties were known as a place where people could go to be their true selves. Cukor made countless memorable pictures, but we'll suggest this all-women vehicle that is reflective of Cukor's gifts for telling female-centric stories. Norma Shearer stars as Mary Haines, a society wife who discovers her husband is having an affair with a shop-girl (played by a delicious Joan Crawford). The film is famous for not featuring a single male actor in the cast, and it's a dizzy comedy packed with biting one-liners.
A Star Is Born (1937)
Hollywood delves into the costs and consequences of chasing a Tinseltown dream, even if it does ultimately offer a more optimistic view of the industry. But there's perhaps no more emotionally resonant tale that captures the rising and falling fortunes of stardom than A Star Is Born. It's proved so potent, it's been remade three times, most recently with Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper. We'd recommend the very first one (if you don't count What Price Hollywood?), which stars Janet Gaynor as the titular star on the rise, and Fredric March, as the fading alcoholic movie star who descends further into self-destruction just as he falls in love with her. Just in case you're looking for a more sobering vision of stardom after all that earnestness.