If you’re a fan of the podcast You Must Remember This, then you awoke to the sad news that the “Internet’s best film podcast” is going to stop for a bit: Its creator, award-winning film historian Karina Longworth, is taking a long hiatus so she can finish a book about the Hollywood starlets who dated Howard Hughes (because of course she is).
If you’re unfamiliar with the podcast, then this is the perfect time to start listening to the archives. There are only 92 episodes, but the stories that Longworth digs up from the “secret and/or forgotten histories of Hollywood’s first century” are like the movies her subjects starred in — full of passion, heartbreak, tragedy, and unforgettable characters. The tales of Rita Hayworth, Joan Crawford and Spencer Tracy are known to many, but when told with Longworth’s snarky-yet-empathetic spin, they are given new life, and are more palatable to someone with today’s social sensibilities. And if the subject seems unappealing, know that one doesn’t have to be a fan of black-and-white movies from the ’40s and ’50s to enjoy Longworth’s detailing of the career-destroying Hollywood Blacklist or the brutal Manson Family murders.
I spoke with Longworth last week so I could have her answer the dozens of questions burning a hole in my brain since I began listening to her show, knowing that she was going to be holed away working on a book for the next several months. Longworth proved to be a fun and patient subject — she obviously understands that few people know as much about classical Hollywood as her — and it was hard to stop asking questions.
Interview edited for clarity and length.
Were you always a fan of classical Hollywood?
I don’t remember a time when I wasn’t into old movies. They were primarily what I watched as a kid because my parents weren’t really interested in new movies and didn’t take me to see them and were pretty strict about what I was allowed to see in terms of new movies. There were a couple of new movies that filtered into me, like I saw Ghostbusters and Back to the Future, but that’s kind of it. It was pretty much just old Disney movies; we had the Disney channel and the thing about the Disney channel is that they would show old animated movies and old live action movies but then at night they would have — I’m sure it wasn’t called “Disney Channel after dark” but that’s my memory of it — and they’d show Cary Grant movies and Jimmy Stewart movies, and it was supposed to be for adults, but I would watch.
You’ve said you heard the podcast in your head before you made it. Did any other shows inspire you to make a podcast?
I was listening to a lot of podcasts but there wasn’t anything that I heard that sounded like what I had in my head. In fact, I wasn’t sure anybody would want to listen to what I had in my head, but I knew that in order to explain to people what it was in my head, I would have to make it, because there wasn’t anything I could point to as an example.
How did you come up with your introduction phrase, “Join us, won’t you?”
It’s just one of those things I heard in my head. It was actually one of the important aspects of the show I heard in my head. I wanted the show to feel like something spooky that you would hear late at night on a drive through the middle of nowhere.
Are there subjects you enjoy more than others?
Because it’s a lot of work to make the podcast, I try not to even choose to make an episode about a topic I’m not interested in. But within that, certainly there are movies I enjoy watching more than other movies. I think you can tell by the topics I’ve worked on; I’ve definitely talked about more women than men, and there are certain genres that I haven’t gotten into that much. Some of that is just that there’s a lot to do and I haven’t done it all yet. I don’t talk about Westerns all that often because I’m not that knowledgeable about them.
On some level the show is about having an excuse to learn about things that I’ve always wanted to learn about but haven’t yet. But on another level, I have to know a little bit about a subject to even go into making a podcast episode about it because if I start from scratch, it’s just too hard.
The subjects you cover on the podcast were reported on by both serious journalists and tabloid reporters. How do you balance all the information you come across and make sure it’s factual?
I don’t believe anything I read, really. History is all written from a point of view and I see it all as just stories, whether it’s proven to be true or not; it’s all just a tapestry of public ideas. I take everything with a grain of salt, but there are certain stories that get repeated many, many times and the original source is the New York Times — those events certainly happened. Then there are other events that are only one or two sources and their reports about it conflict, and those are more interesting to me; a lot of the show is about conflicting details and why somebody would’ve said that something happened this way while someone else said it happened another way. On one level the show is less a work of history and more of a work of historiography because it’s about the way stories are told than the stories themselves.
Do you ever feel the need to use your podcast to correct history?
I wouldn’t say “correct” because I don’t know what really happened in any of these cases. The tagline for the show is that it is about the secret and forgotten histories, and for me a lot of the secret history stuff is about looking at these events from the perspective of today, from a female perspective — especially on stories from the 1940s and ’50s. The default voice of American popular culture was from powerful white males. So if you were living a life that didn’t necessarily fit perfectly with the expectations of that default voice, then your story was either skewed or wasn’t told completely. I think coming at it from my perspective, that of a woman who was born near the end of the 20th century and living in the time that we’re in now, I’m able to see things from a different angle and tell a different version of the history.
Do you ever feel like you would fit better in the times that you cover, the ’40s or ’50s? Like you were meant to live in the past?
No, I don’t want to time travel or feel like I was born in the wrong time or anything. I would say that I grew up during a time in which it was so much more normal to be interested in movies than it is now. Now it’s almost a specialty to follow anything but Marvel movies, but that’s just times changing and me getting older. I’m never going to watch YouTube content — that’s just not something I’m going to be into — but that doesn’t necessarily mean I’m going to be cosplaying the ’60s or whatever.
So if I met you in person, you wouldn’t be rocking a bee hive and wearing knee-high white leather boots?
No, but I did just buy a car from 1987. That’s a real thing that just happened. [Laughs]
Was it because it was affordable?
It was, but it was because I had a newish car and then the three-year lease ended, and I’ve always loved these Mercedes SLs from the ’80s. I realized that I could get one for less than what I spent on my car lease, so if it lasted these three years, then I’d break even. But then it turned out to be really hard to find one that was in good shape. It was a two-month search and I finally found one; it’s having its air conditioning fixed and I’m going to pick it up tomorrow. So, I guess I will be cosplaying 1987. [Laughs]