I am unabashedly addicted to You Must Remember This, Karina Longworth’s podcast dedicated to “exploring the secret and/or forgotten histories of Hollywood’s first century.” But either you are too, or will be soon—the podcast is increasingly popular and, more and more, name-checked as one of the best out there.
In two years since the podcast launched, Longworth has covered a lot of ground, including such wide-ranging topics as Isabella Rossellini in the 1990s, silent film sex symbol Theda Bara, and how a promotional photo from One Million Years B.C. made Raquel Welch famous, but saddled her with a very specific image. The episode that initially hooked me was “Frank Sinatra in Outer Space,” about Frank Sinatra’s 1980 Trilogy album, specifically part three, “The Future,” in which he sings about the future, including outer space. Rather than treat this odd artifact as a punchline and simply laugh for 30 minutes, Longworth delves into the context of the late 1970s that produced it.
But the podcast is perhaps its most compelling when Longworth embarks on a multi-episode story arc, going deep on a broader topic. She’s done it for the glory days of MGM and the studio system, the Manson murders and the tumult of Hollywood in the late 1960s, and now the face-off between the movie business and the House Un-American Activities Committee, the Red paranoia that swept 1950s America, and the infamous industry blacklist that resulted. Each series tells big, ambitious stories about important moments in cultural history by focusing on the specific, knotty details.
Longworth combines deep research with flair for a good story, and her tales are often enlivened by guests playing the part of various characters. Dana Carvey has read for Mickey Rooney, and Jezebel’s favorite burn artist/Ted Cruz’s nemesis fuckin’ Craig Mazin was MGM studio head Louis B. Mayer for several episodes running.
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As Longworth’s series on the Blacklist draws to a close—it wraps with today’s episode, “Kirk Douglas, Dalton Trumbo, and Otto Preminger (Breaking the Blacklist, Part 2)”—we chatted via email about how she got started, how she selects her subjects, and what fans can read and watch while the podcast takes a brief hiatus before the next season.
Tell me a little bit about how you got started doing You Must Remember This. Why Hollywood history? Why as a podcast?
I went to art school for undergrad, and there most of my work consisted of personal video essays which usually used things I was watching (movies, TV) as a starting point. I would write scripts that included elements of criticism and historical research, and also first-person narrative, sometimes fictionalized and sometimes not. Then I would record myself reading the scripts, and use it as narration to a montage that would usually include some material that I shot/directed, but would be about 75 percent found footage. This was pre-YouTube, and it didn’t feel like the work I was doing really fit in either the art world or the film festival world, so I decided to drop the visual element of what I was doing and concentrate on research and writing.
I went to NYU to get an MA in Cinema Studies, and there I focused on what is called the Classical Hollywood era—basically, from the peak of the silent era until the old studio system starts to fall apart at the end of the 1950s. I had gone to grad school assuming that I was going to teach and write books, but I started getting work writing about new movies while I was still in school.
I worked as a film blogger and then critic from when I was 24 until I was 32, and then I just really burned out on new movies and what felt like the disposability of both the films and my own writing. I got commissioned to write a book about Meryl Streep, and even though it barely paid anything, I used it as an excuse to quit my job and try to steer my career back to writing about Hollywood history. Over the course of about 16 months, I worked on two books, did some freelance writing for outlets like Slate and Grantland, taught a semester of grad school, spent four months in Paris going to repertory film screenings every day, and started writing a Hollywood historical novel which went nowhere.
All that time I was trying to figure out what I wanted to do, and I finally decided that there wasn’t a job out there that I wanted, and that what I needed to do was create a lane in which I could write and research about only things I was interested in, and turn it into something homemade that wasn’t dependent on access, and wan’t beholden to any editor or corporation’s idea of what would drive web traffic or whatever. And as someone who listens to a lot of podcasts, I just started hearing in my head what a podcast version of those videos I used to make 15 years earlier would sound like. So I made one episode, just to see if I could do it, and people liked it, so I kept doing it.
How did you shape your voice and approach to the subject matter?
I know it sounds nutty, but I really heard the show in my head before I made it, and then I just had to make it. I knew exactly what it would sound like, and because I had essentially done the same thing when I was 19, I just had to try to remember how to do it technically.
In terms of the approach to the subject matter, it’s really just selfish—I tell the aspects of the stories that interest me. Often the things that I find interesting are the details of someone’s life and work that are surprising or incongruous, or that have some kind of symmetry with the ideas in their movies. The tag line of the show is the “secret and/or forgotten histories of Hollywood’s first century,” and that can mean a couple of things. Almost all of these stories have been forgotten in the sense that nobody talks about this stuff in popular culture anymore.
The “secret history” aspect has a lot to do with reading these events from a modern perspective, with an understanding of and sympathy for those at a natural disadvantage in Hollywood power struggles. When you start reading a lot of news stories that were written in the 1930s, 40s, 50s, you really become aware of the extent to which the default perspective of mainstream reporting used to be the white male perspective, even when the reporter was female—for instance, gossip columnists like Hedda Hopper routinely shamed female stars for being unable to hold a man. What’s exciting to me is to look at everything I talk about in its full context, and to pull out perspectives and emotional narratives that were not necessarily apparent when the event was happening.
You’ve been at it for just over two years. How has the show evolved in that time?
When I first started the show, I did everything myself- writing, recording, editing. I produced episodes when I could in my free time. At the time I had a very stressful teaching job, so I was happy to use my nights and weekends working on something that felt like an outlet, but I found it really difficult to work fast enough to stick to a release schedule. Then when that teaching job ended, I decided to commit myself to trying to produce episodes weekly, and to try to grow the audience to the point where it would make sense to look for advertiser or try to otherwise monetize it. But before I even got to that point, I was approached by some public radio people who were starting a podcast network. I joined that network under the understanding that they would sell ads for the show. That didn’t exactly work out as planned; at the end of a year with that network the show was nowhere near being able to pay for itself, and I was working so many hours a week on it that I couldn’t really do any other work. So I went looking for other options, and I ended up moving the show to Panoply. They have a really robust ad sales system, so now the show turns a profit, and I’m able to pay people to help me with the research. Panoply also provides an audio editor for the show, which is great because audio editing is my most hated part of the process, so it’s very nice to not have to do that myself.
What do you think accounts for the enduring fascination with “Old Hollywood”? It’s not just TCM addicts familiar with Bette Davis’s deep cuts who find the history of the entertainment business incredibly compelling. Why do we keep coming back to it?
Are people fascinated by it? I honestly don’t think I have a good perspective on this. I live in a bubble—almost everyone I spend time with is a “TCM addict,” and/or makes movies for a living, so I can’t really say why anyone else would be interested. I’ve also spent my entire life living in cities that have interesting repertory film scenes, so since I was a preteen it was part of my social life to go see old movies. Knowing that this is an unusual thing, I am still very surprised that large numbers of people seem to be interested in my podcast. I really thought it was a niche thing.
You’d been working as a film critic, seeing every film that came out, and that’s actually a great way to watch an exhausting number of bad movies. One of the things I find fascinating about film history is that for every classic and forgotten delight, there are plenty that are forgotten for a reason. Where do those movies fit into the history of Hollywood, and into the way you think while writing a You Must Remember This episode?
Bad and mediocre movies have always been part of the overall economy of Hollywood. Studios used to make movies for a lot of reasons. Most of them were to make money, but there were also times when a studio would make a film to make a star happy, or to punish an unruly star that was under their control. I’m interested in the whole ecosystem. I often enjoy watching films that are or were perceived as “failures,” in order to figure out what didn’t work and why. Again, if I choose to do a podcast episode about someone or something, it’s only because I’m interested in it, so I am happy to watch movies that are considered “bad” as part of that.
This is totally different from the treadmill that movie critics are forced to be on, where you have to keep running as films of seemingly decreasing quality are thrown at you. But that’s not even the real problem. It’s not even that all or most of the movies are “bad,” it’s that in a given year I’m probably interested in 20-30 movies that are released, and as a critic I was expected to see five to 10 movies a week, have opinions about all of them and write about three to four of them. I was starting to hate movies, so I had to get off that treadmill. If I ever went back to writing about new movies, I would only do it if I could pick what I saw and wrote about, and I don’t know anybody who makes a living doing it who gets to do that.
How do you approach the research for your episodes? How do you go about uncovering the true story?
I read everything I can get access to in the time I have to do the research. This usually involves commercially available books, books available only at research libraries, newspaper and magazine clippings, and various other archival documents (for instance, I decided to do the Blacklist series after coming across a thoroughly reported graduate school thesis and accompanying research documents in the archives at the Writers Guild West). I wouldn’t say it’s necessarily my goal to “uncover the true story” so much as to compare and contrast the information that’s available. The fact is that on most of this stuff, no one has ever printed the full true story, and never will. I’m interested in how mythology gets made.
You’re working on a book, right?
Yup! It’s about Howard Hughes’ time in Hollywood (which coincides almost exactly with the Classical Hollywood era), the women in his professional and personal lives and, generally, what it was like to be a woman in Hollywood and how that changed from 1925 to 1957-ish.
Your series on the Blacklist is wrapping up. Do you know what you’ll do next?
I do. There will be a six-episode mini-season beginning the final Tuesday on July.
What are we supposed to do when this season wraps?! What should we read/watch/listen to in the meantime to get that Hollywood fix?
Our upcoming hiatus is only 4 weeks long, and there are 90 episodes in our archive, so there’s a lot to listen to! But there’s plenty of non-YMRT stuff I can recommend.
There’s a great book that came out while I was working on the Blacklist series, which I used as one of the sources, called West of Eden. It’s basically an oral history of a number of different Hollywood/Los Angeles families, compiled by Jean Stein, whose father Jules Stein founded the talent agency MCA, which eventually took over Universal Studios.
I’d also recommend two things you can watch/listen to on YouTube. One is “Hollywood,” a multipart documentary produced in the early 1980s by the great silent film historian Kevin Brownlow. Brownlow was able to interview dozens of silent film stars, directors, stuntmen etc before they died, and it’s the best and most digestible resource on early Hollywood that I know of. It can’t be commercially released because there are rights issues, but the amount and quality of film clips are what part of what make it so great—it really makes you understand how vital and artistically exciting the great silent films could be.
The other thing I’ll suggest is way more lowbrow. When I was in college, the E! Network had two shows about old Hollywood: E! True Hollywood Stories, and Mysteries and Scandals. I preferred the latter because it was campier and less morose. I’ve revisited a lot of the episodes recently on YouTube, and though they’re pretty cheeseball, they’re really not badly researched, and some of them have some really good interview clips. I remember reading a quote from Kurt Cobain where he was like, “The dirty secret of Nirvana is that we’re basically just a Cheap Trick cover band.” I feel sort of like the dirty secret of You Must Remember This is that we’re a Mysteries and Scandals cover band, with the masculine vibe of that show and its host replaced by me, a Valley girl with a graduate degree.
Lead images courtesy Karina Longworth.