A convergence of world phenomena hit director Costa-Gavras when he harnessed their energies to create his political masterpiece Z in 1969. In Paris and France, students and workers went on general strike and caused civil disorder in 1968. In the U.S. President Kennedy, Martin Luther King, and Robert F. Kennedy were all assassinated. The Vietnam war caused national protests. But the model for the film was the assassination in Costa-Gavras’ (Constantinos Gavras) native Greece of the social democrat, pacifist legislator, and left-wing activist Grigoris Lambrakis in 1963. And because of the WW II anti-Nazi, anti-fascist, resistance work and Communist membership of his father, Gavras junior was also branded as second class in the new right-wing Greece. So Gavras went to law school and then attended the national film school in Paris, where he was exposed to the New-Wave of French cinema. He began working as an assistant to several directors and made his own first movie, The Sleeping Car Murders (Compartement Tuers) , in 1965. The cast included Jean-Louis Trintignant, Yves Montand, and Montand’s wife, Simone Signoret.
(This Post is part of the Vive la France Blogathon hosted by the Lady Eve’s Reel Life and Silverscreenmodes. See other entries here.)
What Gavras noticed in the film-making of the day, whether traditional or New Wave, was a lack of movies with any political plotting. A new book became his inspiration, Z by Vasilis Vasilikos, a fictional account of the murder of Grigoris Lambrakis. His brother, still living in Greece, had sent it to him. The Z in the title came from the ancient Greek verb zei, meaning “he lives.” Gavras teamed with screenwriter Jorge Semprun for the story, along with his producers including Jacques Perrin. Perrin would play the persistent photo-journalist in the film. There was very little financing for the film, and they would certainly not be able to film in Greece. Shooting in France could provide similar geography but was too expensive. Algeria was approached for funding, but could only provide facilities and location. The politically charged The Battle of Algiers had already been filmed there. Costa-Gavras then employed Greece’s best musical composer, Mikis Theodorakis, composer of Zorba the Greek, to write Z‘s driving score. This was just before he was imprisoned by the right-wing junta as a communist. Gavras also got the Greek actress Irene Papas to play Montand’s wife in Z .
Z starts off running, its music pulsating as scenes change with the beat. The backdrop could be in any country, although the film is in spoken French. A group of military officers and civilians are explaining the need to eliminate a disease of grape vines in a veiled analogy to the elimination of certain unwanted people. In the next scene a politician and member of the opposition played by Yves Montand arrives in the city to give a speech. Almost immediately he receives a death threat. His inner circle, his apostles, are divided and begin arguing whether to continue or abandon in the face of visible hostility. The police, under the control of the military, are there to “protect” the politician from harm. A rally and speech that were supposed to be in a large venue have now been forced into a 200 seat hall – all over “bureaucratic” reasons. The politician’s (Z) anti-government supporters are in the streets as are the anti-protesters and the hired thugs. Filmed in cinéma vérité style by cinematographer Raoul Coutard, the fights that break-out have your heart racing from the first scene. The Algerian extras that were hired, either as police or protesters, already knew their sympathies from years of national strife, and got into their roles with vigor. Montand’s character “Z” arrives and decides to press on, walking through crowds as he’s harassed and struck. He enters his hotel. The police did nothing.
The main characters are quickly delineated. The colonels who control the police, the thugs planning chaos and worse, Z’s increasingly powerless inner circle. And there is a photojournalist who is documenting every action, on who’s side we are unsure. Within minutes of the movie’s start Z makes the decision to carry out his plan – his rendez-vous with fate. He and his group walk from their hotel to the hall, but before they get there he is struck on the head. Woozy but determined, he continues and gives a speech in the hall. After this he will speak to his followers outside that couldn’t fit in the Hall. But agitators are filling the square. His group enters the breech of chaos. The police are passive.
Complaining members of Z’s inner circles are attacked themselves.
After all the stunning events of the night. A magistrate of the Department of Justice must determine what happened and if anyone is guilty. Jean Louis Trintignant plays the magistrate. His disposition presents a mystery. He wears tinted glasses, giving him an elusive air reinforced by his poker-faced demeanor. As thugs and colonels go about their self-satisfied ways, he soon begins his investigation. He is methodical and his questions have one of the thugs admitting to belonging to CROC, the Christian Royalist Organization against Communism. And Yago the thug admits that the cops use the organization to “keep order” during events such as Z’s visit. Soon the accidents begin to look predetermined. Here Costa-Gavras’ film’s editing moves in rapid fire. The magistrate interviews various witnesses. No time elapses between these scenes, as we are shocked seeing a case build against the guilty. The wall of defense of the thugs, colonels and elites crumbles. The hooded schemes of the powerful seemingly undone by the straight-forward questioning of the magistrate: your name and profession? Then the charges brought against them., with a deconstruction of their defense. All of this proceeded by the indignity of being photographed by the press as they enter the magistrate’s office, with some colonels chasing the photographers around the hall.
Yet absolute power corrupts absolutely. And the real end of the story needs a long view of progress. When released in the U.S., Z was like a shock for its viewers. Political thrillers were virtually unknown here in 1969. Critic Roger Ebert called it the best film of 1969. At a time when assassinations had taken place in the U.S. – with no satisfactory answers for many – here was a film with a plot that seemed shockingly real. I remember attending Z’s opening with a couple of friends. One of them didn’t attend college and rarely had any political thoughts. He left the theater shaken and for long after became distrustful of government and authority. Movie audiences were struck by its audacious film-making techniques coupled with the film’s political message. It won an Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film, and for Best Film Editing. Costa-Gavras was also nominated for Best Director.
Fifty years after its creation, Z still stuns the viewer. It has influenced political thrillers ever since, from Parallax View (1974) to Enemy of the State (1998) to State of Play (2008). Riots and large protests have grown around the world and in the U.S. – with increasing size offering some measure of protection to its participants. For filmmakers this has enhanced the need for even more realistic filming techniques. The riots in Greece in 2008 begun over the police killing of a young student and the state of the economy provided realistic film footage for the movie Jason Bourne (2016). The rise of protests themselves over the fight for liberties continue in the face of harsh crack-downs, as we have seen in Hong-Kong. The outline provided here for Z give’s only a hint of its power. Even in translation it is a remarkable and one-of-kind film. It is both a film of the 1960s – and a film for today.
Universal Studios has the longest history of the Hollywood studios. It was founded in 1912 in New York by Carl Laemmle and other partners. Like many other film companies, it moved west. By the end of 1912 Universal was in Hollywood and by 1915 it opened its 230 acre Universal City Studio, the largest film production studio in the world. It was actually a movie “theme park” in 1915 through the silent era when it had public seating for viewing of films being made. Since the movies were silent, any cheering for favorite stars (or booing for villains) did not matter since none of this interfered with the filming (or apparently the actors).
Vera West is recorded as one of the first Universal costume designers in 1926. At that time the old 1915 studio buildings made way for some new buildings including a new Wardrobe building in 1926. in these early years Universal made its biggest hits with off-beat characters. In 1923 came The Hunchback of Notre Damestarring Lon Chaney, Then it was Phantom of the Opera in 1925, again with Lon Chaney starring. The box-office success of these two films led to even bigger hits with Universal’s famed monster classics: Dracula, with Bela Lugosi, and Frankenstein with Boris Karloff, both 1931. Costume designer Vera West designed the costumes for Dracula,The Mummy, and then for The Bride of Frankenstein in 1935, She also designed for some “normal” films such as Back Street in 1932 starring Irene Dunne, Great Expectations 1934, starring Jane Wyatt and Florence Reed, Irene Dunne’s costumes in Showboat, 1936, Destry Rides Again1939, starring Marlene Dietrich. and The Killers starring Ava Gardner and Burt Lancaster, 1946. Vera West also designed for several of Deanna Durbin’s popular films at Universal, including It Started with Eve, 1941. After a waning popularity of the monster movies what with real monsters in WW II in Europe, Deanna Durbin’s movies single-handedly saved Universal. But Vera West had had enough when the cycle came back around, and she decided to launch her own fashion line in 1947. A few months later in June 1947 she took her own life by drinking alcohol and drowning in her pool. She left a mysterious note stating that she was tired of the blackmail and this was the only way. Her husband was away at the time. A police investigation never resolved if this was a suicide or a murder.
The fashion designer Muriel King came in to design Margaret Sullavan’s costumes for the remake of Back Street in 1941 which co-starred Charles Boyer. Ms King stayed to design Appointment for Love for Margaret Sullavan and then returned to design Christmas Holiday for Deanna Durbin in 1944. Ms. King regularly designed for Lord & Taylor and B. Altman as well as for Katharine Hepburn’s personal wardrobe.
Prior to Vera West’s death, Travis Banton had been hired by producer Walter Wanger in 1945 to design the big production of Night in Paradise with Merle Oberon. But his first designs for her came out in This Love of Ours instead. Banton designed for Universal’s top female stars from 1945 through 1947. Banton’s motto had always been, “When in doubt, trim in fur.” Even in the more frugal post-war era, he kept to his ways, cost be damned. His contract was not extended. But in 1948 Rosalind Russell said she wouldn’t wear another designer’s clothing. In his place, Orry-Kelly joined Universal.
Orry-Kelly would also have a short stay at Universal, lasting from 1948 through 1950. He designed for some notable stars, including for Ava Gardner in One Touch of Venus in 1948; for Claudette Colbert with Fred MacMurray in Family Honeymoon, 1948; for Barbara Stanwyck in The Lady Gambles in 1949; and for Ida Lupino in Woman in Hiding, 1950. He also designed for two Shelley Winters movies, for whom he had taken a strong dislike. As with Travis Banton, Orry-Kelly drank heavily, only he was more temperamental.
During the time Orry-Kelly was at Universal, designer Yvonne Wood had also been hired, starting in 1946. She designed for Universal’s active slate of adventure movies, westerns, and some films noir. She designed for many of Yvonne de Carlo’s movies, which were released regularly in the late 1940s. This included the classic Criss Cross, 1949, with de Carlo and Burt Lancaster. She also designed for Ella Raines in White Tie and Tails in 1946 and for The Web in 1947 and for Shelley Winters in the classic western Winchester 73 with Jimmy Stewart in 1950. She designed through 1950, her final year at Universal although one of her films was released in 1951.
Costume designer Rosemary Odell had also been hired in 1945 and worked almost all of her career at Universal until 1967. She designed mostly for the B pictures. She also designed for Yvonne de Carlo (who didn’t at Universal?). Ms. Odell did design for some significant films including: Has Anybody Seen My Gal, 1952; Creature from the Black Lagoon, 1954; and To Kill a Mockingbird,1962.
Bill Thomas was hired to replace Yvonne Wood after she left in 1950. Thomas had attended Chouinard Art Institute in Los Angeles and then served in World War II. After the war he became a sketch artist at MGM for Irene and Walter Plunkett. At Universal he soon became very busy, designing fourteen movies a year by 1951. Thomas also became a very successful designer, both at Universal and later at the Walt Disney Company. With the new ambitious producer Ross Hunter at Universal, Bill Thomas designed some of his best movies at Universal, starting with Magnificent Obsession with Jane Wyman and Rock Hudson, 1954. Thomas also designed Touch of Evil, 1958 with Janet Leigh and Marlene Dietrich; and Imitation of Life, 1959, with Lana Turner.
Producer Ross Hunter also launched a very successful series of films starring Doris Day, starting with Pillow Talk in 1959 co-starring Rock Hudson and Tony Randall. And since Doris Day was very discriminating in her on-screen fashions, Irene (Lentz Gibbons) was called in to create the costumes for her next two movies (Jean Louis had designed Ms. Day’s gowns in Pillow Talk). Midnight Lace, 1960, was Irene’s return to designing movies. Tragically, Lover Come Back, 1962 with Doris Day and Rock Hudson and A Gathering of Eagles, 1963 with Rock Hudson and Mary Peach were Irene’s last two movies before she killed herself by jumping out of the Knickerbocker Hotel window in Los Angeles. She had a long history of depression and alcoholism that finally overcame her. These problems exacerbated by the recent death of Gary Cooper who she had long loved.
Ross Hunter also brought in the talented designer Jean Louis, starting with his designs for Susan Hayward in another remake of Back Street in 1961. Jean Louis had previously been at Columbia where he designed Rita Hayworth’s gowns. Now he took over designing for Lana Turner and Doris Day. Jean Louis designed the costumes for several notable films, including: The Thrill of it All with Doris Day and Rock Hudson, 1963; Send Me No Flowers, again with Doris Day and Rock Hudson, 1964; Madame X, with Lana Turner and Constance Bennett, 1966; and Thoroughly Modern Millie, 1967 with Julie Andrews, Mary Tyler Moore, and Carol Channing. Jean Louis left in 1968 to open his own fashion line, and famously, designed Marlene Dietrich’s casino and stage gowns.
When Edith Head’s contract was not renewed at Paramount in 1967, after 44 years with the studio, she was offered a job at Universal. She had worked well with Alfred Hitchcock who was now a producer at Universal. She was given her own design studio. The only problem was a shortage of movies for her to design for. Studio movie production was on the decline, and sound stages were busy shooting television shows. In her first year at Universal (1968), she only worked on six movies, all unassuming ones at that. But Ms. Head hadn’t been a 44 year Hollywood pro for nothing. She started networking with the stars and directors she had worked with and promoted herself as the potential designer for upcoming Universal movies.
The next year 1969 got better with Edith Head designing for Shirley MacLaine and Chita Rivera in Sweet Charity, directed by Bob Fosse, as well as Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid with Redford and Newman along with Katharine Ross. And she designed for her first Universal film for Hitchcock, Topaz, although it was no North by Northwest. As the decade of the 1970s hit the studio, feature films requiring original costume designs ebbed to an historic low. Edith Head was now designing a handful of movies per year. Ross Hunter began producing disaster films in order to compete with television, and thus the first of the Airportmovies came out in 1970, with a second in 1974, along with Earthquake, all designed by Edith Head.
Universal had opened its theme park in 1964, and Edith Head’s bungalow studio was one of the highlights of the bus tour. With more time on her hands, Ms. Head began giving fashion shows as charity events, featuring her past creations. Knowing of their popularity in the Los Angeles area, she took these on the road. She did this with the help of June Van Dyke, who produced the shows and employed the models. Both the costumes and costume sketches had to be re-created since Ms. Head did not own these.
Edith Head spent the rest of her life at Universal. By the late 1970s, she was also designing television movies, where she made friends with costume designer Jean-Pierre Dorleac. Mr. Dorleac was the costume designer for Battlestar Galactica for Universal Television and other shows and movies. Ms. Head designed again for Katharine Hepburn for Rooster Cogburn, and for Sean Connery and Michael Caine in The Man Who Would be King, as well as The Great Waldo Pepper starring Robert Redford and Susan Sarandon, all in 1975. And returning to her youth in film, she designed Lombard and Gable with Jill Clayburgh and Josh Brolin, and W.C. Fields and Me with Valerie Perrine and Rod Steiger, both in 1976. She very much disliked the depiction of both Clark Gable and Carol Lombard in Lombard and Me, however. Ms. Head received her 35th and final Best Costume Academy Award nomination for Airport 1977, with an all-star cast. Edith Head’s final movie designs were for Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid, 1982, directed by Carl Reiner and starring Steve Martin and Rachel Ward. She died on October 24, 1981, shortly after completing her designs.
Today the Prop and Costume Building at Universal Studios is named in her honor. That’s more respect than she received in her final years at the studio. She would probably be surprised. But then again she always had her multiple Academy Award statuettes on display in her salon to impress any uppity starlets that might want to argue with her.
Universal has an active Wardrobe Department and Archive, managed by Poppy Cannon-Reese. The department supplies Universal’s costume designers and costumers with costumes and fashions as well as renting costumes for filmmakers. Shown below is one section of the extensive inventory.
Classic films made in France, classic films made in Hollywood (or elsewhere, if you like) that are set in France (fully or partially).
Profiles of the stars of French films (like Jean Gabin, Catherine Deneuve, etc.) and profiles of French-born stars who had significant Hollywood careers (like Charles Boyer, etc.).
Films on significant French writers, directors, producers, and the same for French-born Hollywood behind-the-camera folks.
American films set in France
Basically, the focus is France and French, with broad application including animation.
French movies are very diverse and have a long history. You may already have a favorite film, star, or director that you may want to enter into the blogathon. If not, there are many possibilities. French filmmaking has a rich tradition that has also included American and other “expats” into the fold. The American director Jules Dassin left when blackballed and directed some of his greatest films in France. American actor Eddie Constantine made a career playing a hard-boiled detective in France. Or other nationalities like the English actress/singer Jane Birkin or the Belgian singer/actor Jacques Brel. Popular French actors are legion, a few among the women include:
Jeanne Moreau; Simone Signoret; Brigitte Bardot; Anouk Aimee; Emmanuelle Riva, or Catherine Deneuve. Among the men are: Jean-Paul Belmondo; Alain Delon; Jean Gabin; Yves Montand; and Jean-Louis Trintignant. Some popular genres have existed
in France in their classic films. Although Westerns are popular in the imagination, they never got a footing in filmmaking. Film noir however, generated some excellent material, including: Elevator to the Gallows; Purple Noon; Rififi; Le Jour Se Leve; Touchez Pas
au Grisbi; Bob le Flambeur; and Le Samourai, among many others. Musicals, although disjointed due to WWII, had some great material in such modern and old classics as: The Umbrellas of Cherbourg; The Young Girls of Rochefort; Under the Roofs of Paris (1930) and A Nous la Liberté (1931). Comedy has been a French staple but is not well known here as one usually needs to understand French to catch the humor. Still, Jacques Tati as a “mime” has caught on and some individual movies like Le grand Blond avec Une Chaussure Noire (1972) and La Cage aux Folles were hits and were remade in American versions. And there’s my favorite L’Emmerdeur (Pain in the Ass, 1973) with Jacques Brel and Lino Ventura.
The French “New Wave” offers an abundance of films such as Breathless, 400 Blows, Jules et Jim, Alphaville, and Hiroshima Mon Amour, among many others. The New Wave’s directors also offer a plethora of opportunities with such important figures as
Jean-Luc Goddard, Francois Truffaut, Agnes Varda, Eric Rohmer, Claude Chabrol, Louis Malle, and others. And then there are French actors who worked, or are working, in the USA. There are famous examples including Maurice Chevalier, Claudette Colbert,
Simone Simon, Charles Boyer, Leslie Caron, Louis Jourdan, and others. These are just a few examples of what French Cinema and French actors have to offer for the Vive la France Blogathon on August 25 and 26, 2019.
This blog post looks back at the history of Paramount Pictures’ Wardrobe Department, its Golden Age costume designers, and its current Archives. An interview with Randall Thropp, the Manager of the Costumes and Prop Archives at Paramount is also included.
Movie history permeates the air at the Paramount Pictures Studio Archives. It might be difficult to realize these days, but Paramount was not born in Hollywood, California, but rather in New York, where in 1912 Adolph Zukor released the first full-length drama shown in the U.S; the French-made Queen Elizabeth, starring Sarah Bernhardt. At the time Adolph Zukor’s company was called Famous Players Film Company, which merged with the Jesse Lasky Company in 1916, and thus became Famous Players – Lasky. It soon took on the name of Paramount Pictures when it merged with Paramount Pictures film distributors. Lasky was making movies in Hollywood, having produced the first feature-length Hollywood movie in 1914, Cecil B. De Mille’s The Squaw Man. The latter was the first movie made in Hollywood, shot in and around a barn on Vine St. (now moved to Highland Avenue as the Hollywood Heritage Museum). Famous Players made its movies in Fort Lee, New Jersey, a thriving hub of studios in the early silent era, and in Astoria, New York. The new combined company took the name and logo of Paramount Pictures. Zukor followed Queen Elizabeth by hiring John Barrymore and Mary Pickford.
In 1926, Jesse Lasky built the Hollywood Paramount Pictures lot in the location where it still stands today, on Marathon Street at Bronson, adjacent to Melrose Boulevard. It comprised about 26 acres, with the usual admin building, several sound stages, outdoor standing sets, prop and costume departments, film-developing labs, and the rest.
The first credited costume designer for Paramount was Clare West. Ms. West had begun working for C.B De Mille. De Mille believed in the importance of costume in attracting the attention of viewers and helping “sell” his films. De Mille’s motto was “…don’t design anything anybody could possibly find in a store,” which he emphasized to his costume designers. Very soon his movies were known for the lavishness and excess of its costumes. As film production increased in the late teens and early 1920s, Clare West became the Wardrobe supervisor. She was there when Mitchell Leisen, an architect/set designer, came on as a costume designer. Another addition to De Mille’s costume designers was the flamboyant dancer Natasha Rambova, soon to become Rudolph Valentino’s wife. The multi-talented Rambova was also a set designer. She joined De Mille in company with Theodore Kosloff, the former Ballets Russe dancer, both as costume designers. They came to work on The Woman God Forgot in 1917. When De Mille found out it was Rambova that actually designed all the costumes, he kept her as a costume designer. She next designed the costumes for Why Change Your Wife in 1920 with Clare West, Forbidden Fruit 1921, with West and Leisen, and Monsieur Beaucaire 1924, starring her husband Valentino, where she also served as art director.
The wild 1919-1923 era of Hollywood costume design flowered when stars Leatrice Joy, Glora Swanson and Pola Negri joined Paramount. The most lavish of costumes were invariably used in the De Mille spectaculars. Mitchell Leisen designed the Babylonian costumes for Gloria Swanson in Male and Female. Clare West and Howard Greer designed De Mille’s The Ten Commandments (1923). Greer had been a Chicago and New York designer of Broadway shows and had designed for the famous Lady Duff Gordon, aka, Lucille couture. Leisen started working as an assistant director for De Mille, so Greer took over as head designer when Clare West left in 1923. Although Greer could illustrate his own costume designs, he advertised for a sketch artist/assistant in 1923 because he was too busy. A young woman came in with “a carpetbag full of sketches.” Greer was very impressed by their diversity: architectural drawings, interior decoration, fashion design. etc. He hired her on the spot. When a very nervous Edith Head came in the next day she confessed and told him that she had borrowed the works from several of her fellow art students. Greer kept her anyway, no doubt remembering his own nervous first sketches for Lady Duff Gordon. Greer taught her how to illustrate fashion sketches – a necessity in showing the stars, directors, and producers, what the wardrobe would look like. And importantly, what the costume makers were going to be fabricating.
Not long after Edith Head joined Paramount, Travis Banton was hired to design the wardrobe for Leatrice Joy in The Dressmaker from Paris in 1925. The film’s tag line was having, for the first time anywhere, “the 1926 Paris fashions.” Such was the importance movie marketing now placed on film fashion, and the influence of the studio costume designer. Interestingly, Dressmakerwas based on a scenario by Howard Hawks. It’s a curiosity that the director of such “manly” films as Scarface(the original version), The Big Sleep, and Rio Bravo wrote this script as well as Fig Leaves, (1926) which featured a fashion show designed by Adrian. One might expect that Howard Greer would become jealous of a new designer – also coming from New York and with experience with Madame Frances couture, where he had designed Mary Pickford’s wedding dress. But Greer and Banton got along famously. Paramount was doing well too, with its new star, the “It” girl Clara Bow and her jazz age movies. It helped that both designers were paid handsomely.
Travis Banton had just settled in when Howard Greer decided to open his own couture business in Beverly Hills. Greer left in 1927 and had an instant clientele of Hollywood movie stars. Travis Banton now became the Head Designer and Edith Head began designing the B pictures and “Horse Operas,” as she called the western movies. And as the roaring 1920s turned into the 1930s, new fashions developed and a new bevy of movie stars crashed through the Paramount gates.
As big as the 1920s movie divas were at Paramount, the new stars of the 1930s proved just as bright and glamorous (and demanding). At the end of the 1920s the flapper look suddenly became passé . Even the popular uneven hemline (or handkerchief hemline as it was often called) became immediately out of fashion when Jean Patou in Paris came out with his long gowns and dresses in 1929. Banton’s design above for Lilyan Tashman in The Marriage Playground, 1929, was only shot from the hips up as a consequence. The new Parisian style affected all the Hollywood designers, and the studio moguls were not happy. From then on, Hollywood costume designers developed a “timeless” style of glamour and chic based on a look born in Hollywood movies.
Travis Banton’s special gift was to transform the excess of the 1920s into the fashionable glamour that became Hollywood’s hallmark. And with the new stars of Paramount, he had the models that would become famous around the world. The Depression audience needed a diversion – featuring exotic settings and stories of rags to riches. This became the new entertainment. And a new star came to Paramount in 1930 who became its answer to Garbo: Marlene Dietrich from Germany. She came via a film about the French Foreign Legion and a handsome legionnaire played by Gary Cooper. The film was Morocco. Period films had not gone away, however. In 1934 C.B. De Mille made a lavish Cleopatra with unforgettable costumes by Travis Banton, worn by Claudette Colbert. Their overt sexiness must not have pleased Ms. Colbert, however, who probably blamed Banton rather than De Mille for their key presence in the film.
The exoticism of the 1920s was replaced by the glamour of the 1930s. This glamour became the specialty of Hollywood, and Banton, Designers Adrian at MGM, Irene at Bullock’s Wilshire and free-lancing, and Orry-Kelly at Warner Brothers were exporting the look around the world. Soon Claudette Colbert and Carole Lombard joined Paramount and Banton was dressing the A list of Hollywood. But not all was rosy. The demand to design newsworthy and glamorous fashions for demanding divas in their film roles on tight schedules was stressful. Banton’s relationship with Claudette Colbert deteriorated as she became very demanding about the look of her costumes. One day Ms. Colbert tore up his costume sketches because she didn’t like his designs. Banton was furious and disappeared for a week, drinking heavily the whole time. He was finally convinced to come back, but his days were numbered at Paramount. Edith Head took his place as Head Designer in 1938, but Ms. Colbert didn’t like her designs either. Ms. Colbert would use Irene to design her costumes after Edith Head’s Zaza (1938). But before Banton left, he had taught Edith Head to imitate his style of costume sketch illustration. It got so you couldn’t tell the sketches apart.
But just as Edith Head had taken over at Paramount, war had started in Europe. Foreign revenues for American movies was throttled and the importation of fine European fabrics came to a halt. Then, as the U.S entered WW II, fabrics were rationed. The days of glamour and lavish costumes were coming to an end. Edith Head believed that more realism was needed in her costume designs. Glamour and sexiness may still be needed for certain roles at certain times, but sparingly. She was probably as surprised as anybody, however, that her first big fashion trend was based on a costume for Dorothy Lamour based on an Indonesian sarong. Jungle Love from 1938, was so popular that several sequels followed over the next several years, all with Ms. Lamour in sarongs – or what passed as a sarong in Hollywood costume.
When the popular floral-pattern, printed fabrics were no longer available during the war, the fabrics were hand-painted at Paramount’s wardrobe department. Edith’s assistant hand-painted these floral prints and other fabrics as needed.
Except for Claudette Colbert, Edith Head was now designing the wardrobes for Paramount’s leading ladies: Betty Hutton; Veronica Lake; Barbara Stanwyck, and a mature Marlene Dietrich. As the 1950’s rolled in, she began designing for Gloria Swanson in Sunset Blvd., a legend from her very beginning days at Paramount. And then she designed for Elizabeth Taylor in A Place in the Sunreleased in 1951. Although she had illustrated her own costume sketches in the 1930s and early 1940s, she now needed a sketch artist in order to keep up. In her long career she would use several, including Adele Balkin, Rudi Gernreich, Waldo Angelo, Willa Kim, Pat Barto, Bob Mackie, Grace Sprague, and Richard Hopper. It was often through her sketch artists that Edith Head’s style became known visually in many magazine and newspaper articles and advertisements, and also through her costume sketches. Grace Sprague came along at the height of Ms. Head’s popularity in the mid 1950s – early 1960s. Ms. Sprague was so proficient and quick at illustration that she would turn out several variant sketches for the same costume based on Ms. Head’s idea.
Edith Head would occasionally have other costume designers work with her as well. Most of these designers worked on the C.B. De Mille films where he often used teams of designers. Natalie Visart was a regular designer working on the De Mille films, along with long-time De Mille designer Gwen Wakeling, Dorothy Jeakins, Elois Jennsen, John Jensen and Ralph Jester. Mme Karinska, the Broadway costume designer and Raoul Pene du Bois also from New York joined the design staff in 1944 to work with director Mitchell Leisen on Lady in the Dark. Pene du Bois worked on six films until 1946.
Mary Kay Dodson a former model for Irene (of Bullock’s Wilshire) was also added to the design staff in 1943. Ms. Dodson was brought on to work with Mitchel Leisen. She was not only glamorous herself, but she proved to be an excellent designer. This caused Edith Head to grow jealous of the newcomer, who came to the studio dressed like a star and was given choice assignments. It didn’t help that while on location with Leisen making Golden Earings she doubled for Marlene Dietrich before Marlene could arrive. Apparently she was also dating a Paramount executive. She was given a five-year contract in 1942. Edith Head also became nervous when Mary Kay Dodson started getting good press in the Los Angeles newspapers and Hollywood columns. She must have been relieved when, at one of Lucille Ball’s parties, Miss Dodson met the New York playwright Jody Hutchinson. They eloped two weeks later on October 4, 1949 and they soon moved to New York where Ms. Dodson started her own line.
Edith Head did not need to worry about her longevity as a costume designer. She went on to win eight Oscars for Best Costume, a category which was finally instituted by the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts & Sciences in 1948. And she was nominated thirty five times. In all she worked on designing costumes for some one thousand films. Ms. Head dressed virtually all the great actresses of the era. She not only had great skills and talent, but she knew how to work with her movie stars to adapt her designs to their personalities and desires as well as the roles they were playing. Ms. Head was still the Head Designer at Paramount when Gulf & Western bought Paramount in 1966. In 1967 she turned 70 and feared that her contract would not be renewed. She took the opportunity to move to Universal Studios where Alfred Hitchcock was now directing films, with whom she had worked on several films. She remained at Universal until her death in 1981.
The studio system in Hollywood came to an end at the time Edith Head left Paramount. Costume designers were put on short term contracts and soon were free-lancing. The vast wardrobes of costumes and warehouses of props were often auctioned off in part or in whole. Studio ownership itself changed hands from corporation to corporation. The costumes and props that had been used as tools in the dream factories for decades, often discarded, suddenly became valuable memorabilia in the late 20th Century. Paramount, like some other studios, began to organize and archive its remaining artifacts and in 2007 launched its costume and prop archive. Archives manager Randall Thropp was able to answer questions about the archives for Silver Screen Modes.
When were the Paramount Pictures Archives first established?
Paramount has always maintained some sort of film collection dating back many years. However, by the mid 1980’s the archival process fell into place. The current building was opened in 1990 and now houses every aspect of the Archives. The Costume/Prop Archive was started in 2007, but became official in 2009.
When did you first become involved and what is your current role?
I started working at Paramount in the costume department in 2003. By the end of 2004 I was managing the rental floor. Whenever I had to re-stock or write up costumes, I looked for names inside the garments and set them aside – thus laying the groundwork for archiving key pieces. When the costume department was closed in late 2007, I was allowed to pull together anything that I thought was “historical” and to set it aside. Currently I am the manager of the Costume/Prop Archive.
Do the Archives contain all types of materials such as objects, graphic materials, documents, as well as costumes?
The Paramount Archive is unique in that it covers many different areas under the direction of Andrea Kalas (SVP Archives). We have a team of people who oversee film preservation, restoration, stills, music, costumes, props and jewelry. Within the costume collection I also have 350 sketches and a collection of stills related to costume continuity. We are the only studio archive that has a jewelry collection. There are approximately 12,000 pieces dating back to 1923.
Most studios have seen the loss of their material heritage through gifts, auctions or other means. What vintage do the various Archive materials represent?
There are 3500 vintage costumes dating back to 1914. The contemporary collection has over 29,000 individual pieces dating back to 1987. Sadly, there is a big gap in our collection for films between 1967 and 1986. Paramount is also the owner of the Republic Pictures catalog and a significant amount of work has been done to preserve and restore those titles. Our music and stills collection are quite extensive dating back to the silent era.
Was going through the existing collection difficult and was it well supported by the Corporate HQ?
Our current management team could not be more supportive. They understand the historical value these elements represent. The Archive is also a very important stop on the V.I.P. Studio Tour. We have film fans from all over the world passing through and viewing the assets we have on display.
Are the Archives in a separate facility or at the Melrose main lot?
The Archive is located on the lot – however we have several storage facilities off lot.
Are the Archives accessible to researchers or the public?
The Archives is not publicly open generally to researchers like a library would be – our clients are the many departments of the studio officially. Research for example that is done by production is very welcome, but as I mentioned, the V.I.P. tours give the public a chance to see the artifacts.
Costumes and textiles are fragile. Are they stored in boxes or through some other method?
The costumes are stored in various ways. Some in muslin bags, some in archival boxes – but many are in clear garment bags with archival tissue.
Are there records still extent from the Paramount costume designers such as costume plots, production/star/costume cards, costume sketches, wardrobe test photos, etc.?
As I mentioned earlier – we have approximately 350 sketches dating back to the late 1940’s. The bulk of the sketch collection is from the 1950’s and early 1960’s. There are only a handful of continuity books from the older titles, but we do keep all the continuity books from our contemporary productions.
What is the date range of the items in the Archives? Is there a cut-off date or are efforts made to archive new or newer materials?
The oldest piece in the collection is dated 1914 and was owned by the director, William Desmond Taylor. Many of our 1920’s costumes were lost to neglect. (Silk chiffon and heavy beading do not like wire hangers and heat.) Also, as you know, many costumes that were considered “dated” were sold off by the studio as far back as the 1940’s. Today I work in tandem with Feature Production and go through all the assets from current productions. I determine what we put into the archive and what can be recycled into future productions. We also service Marketing and Publicity requests as well as museums all over the world.
I would imagine Edith Head is well represented by costumes in the collection. Are there costumes you don’t have by some of the Paramount designers?
Edith Head is attributed to at least 75% of the vintage collection. We also have pieces designed by Travis Banton, Howard Greer, Mary Kay Dodson, Irene, Mitchell Leisen, Oleg Cassini and Raoul Pene Du Bois.
Yes, there are many costumes from the classic years that we are missing. I wish we had more Banton pieces, but I’m happy to have the few that we do.
What are a couple of your favorite items in the collection?
I have many favorites including, Barbara Stanwyck from THE LADY EVE, Carole Lombard from TRUE CONFESSION, Barbara Stanwyck from DOUBLE INDEMNITY and Roy Rogers from SON OF PALEFACE. (all Edith Head)
As far as costumes from our contemporary collection I must single out LEMONY SNICKET (Colleen Atwood), BLADES OF GLORY (Julie Weiss), ALLIED (Joanna Johnston) and ROCKETMAN (Julian Day).
Thank you Randall Thropp and Andrea Kalas, Senior Vice President, Archives at Paramount Pictures.
Costuming the HBO series The Game of Thrones is as near a Herculean job as you’ll find in television costume design work. When HBO started production of the series in 2007, there existed a legion of fans that had been reading the book series: George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire, since 1996. Four books in the series had already been published and a cult was firmly established around the fantasy series.
British costume designer Michele Clapton has designed all eight seasons of TheGame of Thrones(GOT) except for Season Six while she designed the series The Crown. This means that she oversaw a crew of about 70 to 100 people that worked with her at any one time. With the diversity of costumes in the Seven Kingdoms, various specialists were involved including embroiderers, dyers, leather workers, printers, fitters, cutters, sewers, armorers, metal workers, and jewelers. Any given show needed about 700 costumes, although the speaking roles got most of the attention. Along the way she has won Emmy Awards for Outstanding Costumes for Season 2, Season 4, Season 6, and Season 7. She also won an Emmy for The Crown that ran in 2017.
Almost all of the costumes were made in Belfast, close to where most of the filming was shot. Some of the arms were made in India. Much of the work was also done in Ireland. Michele Clapton told the Los Angeles Times. “We have everything on site: our armorers, our weavers, and our embroiderers. We weave our own fabric with our loom—many of the fabrics are literally made from scratch.” All types of materials are used besides fabric (and jewelry) to make up a costume. The exotic peoples and the locales they live in in the lands of Ice and Fire means that indigenous materials are used in their costumes. Items such as beads, shells, stones, crystals, and feathers are woven or sewn into the costumes. Ms. Clapton usually has a supply of such items that she has been collecting over the years, She was stumped, however, when she needed a variety of bones to accessorize the costumes of the Wildlings, especially the Lord of Bones. But she sourced the bones on eBay. Her team then molded these for reproduction and attached them using string and latex. The Wildling costumes were fabricated using hides, the parts of which were “sewn” together using latex thongs lashing the pieces together. The fur capes of Samwell Tarly and several of the Night Watch (not Jon Snow) were actually made from IKEA Skold sheepskin wool rugs.
Arms and armor are their own specialty and the costume designer must work with their makers in coming up with the total look – even for the women. And since both arms and armor become part of the most active scenes, the costume designer must work in collaboration with the stunt coordinators and sword-fight masters. Although The Game of Thrones (GOT) is a fantasy, the purpose of its costume design is the same in this as in all movies or other television dramas: the costumes are there to delineate the characters in the story, to advance the plot by setting the scene, and to help the actor feel the role they are portraying. Since GOTdeveloped over eight seasons, the actors had plenty of time to change over the course of the story, and for some of them, to actually grow-up. The actors’ aging actually helped both the story-telling and the costume designer’s ability to help develop and portray character.
Good examples of the change of character as emphasized by costume has been seen in the leading female stars of the show. The beautiful and even sexy gowns of both Cersei and Daenerys, from the early seasons, exposed skin and shape. After the death of Drogo, Daenarys wore costumes with deep V necklines, yet she still mostly wore loose pants and boots, a sexy yet commanding figure. The boots and pants still necessary for riding horses. After her conquest of Meereen she began wearing outfits more in the style of a classical queen. In Winterfell she was obliged to wear warmer clothing, and her wardrobe changed to shades of snow and red. But as things deteriorated in the war with Cersei and King’s Landing, the Breaker of Chains turned to the Dispenser of Death, and her costume turned black.
Cersei’s form-fitting gowns in Lannister red or mauve color sets off her figure and makes her the center of attention in most every scene. But Cersei changes from King Robert Baratheon’s vindictive but unimportant Queen to a major plotter in the game of thrones. And as time marches on, her enemies grow as her victims mount up. She thus takes on a more war-like and self-protective persona. Her costumes perfectly displays this transition. But as the final season nears its end her confidence has grown to match her ego. She wears no armor or protective costume devices save her long necklace and the medallion that had been her daughter Myrcella’s. She wears it no doubt as a reminder of her need for revenge.
Sansa has made a remarkable transition, one that has been filled with sorrow and abuse. Her costumes show how she has grown and changed, from an innocent teenager to a self-assured and self-protective survivor – a learner of life’s skills and of men’s treachery. She too has learned about the game of thrones, becoming a judge of character and a leader of men. Returning as an heir of the House of Stark and as Lady of Winterfell, she is in a position of command, vying with Daenerys for control of the North. Her costume reflects both the tradition of the Starks with the ample use of fur capes (the Dire Wolf is the house sigil) and the obvious need for warm outfits. Her costumes in the final three seasons are accessorized by a necklace composed of a large ring and chain, forming an aiguillette. The ring represents her wholeness forged out of her former enchainment.
The fur cape style is shared by Jon Snow (though now becoming Aegon Targaryen). His costumes have been shaped by his days at the Wall – amidst all black-clad men nicknamed the crows, with heavy fur collars and capes. This last feature had become almost a standing joke on the set. Whereas several cast members really liked their costumes and some wanted to keep them. Kit Harrington as Jon stated he never wanted to see his furs again.
Arya, the younger Stark girl, was always the tom-boy. Her survival skills were a strong instinct that led her from one life-learning skill to another as she escaped from danger to danger. She first escaped the tragedies at King’s Landing and then assumed a boy’s urchin costume for disguise. She wore the costume through several seasons. Her one steady accessory was her short sword Needle. She learned to fight in her early fencing lessons and her lessons in death learned from Jagen H’gar at the House of Black and White, the home of faceless men. Maisie Williams as Arya was thrilled to be finally out of her tom-boy costume and into different costumes. And once back to Winterfell, she had a proper costume befitting her stature, now not only accessorized with Needle but with a dagger made of deadly valyrean steel. But wherever she goes she never seems to get far from Sandor Clegane, alias the Hound. sometimes her tormentor, sometimes her protector, Arya has not grown large but with acquired skills she has dispensed “frontier” justice. Together they make a perfect odd travelling couple, only separated near the very end. Yet she is the ultimate avenger, and the woman of many faces.
The men of GOTare almost all a lusty and warlike bunch. Their costumes reflect their station, place of origin, and their combat readiness at any given time. As in the real armies of the ancient world, they are meant to look terrifying. In those days when combat was almost always hand-to-hand, you often stared at your enemy up-close and had time to become afraid – or confident. Your military costume helped you become more confident. Padding and armor protected you and made you look bigger. Heavy boots not only protected their feet but planted them solidly on the territory they defended or conquered. Shoulder armor made you look stronger. Swords, axes, bows, spears, and spikes showed the opposing side how they would be wounded or killed. Colorful banners with household sigils served as rallying points and showed the other side the powerful enemies they were dealing with. Even outside of combat, the men of rank wore their swords. Their costumes were festooned with leather straps and belts, with exaggerated V-lines in the angle of their torsos. Such a silhouette has been used down to the comic superheroes of today.
Today’s costume designers not only have to design and produce appropriate, character-building costumes for the cast, once they’re made they have to beat them up. Any male costume (with few exceptions) has to look like its been worn in the field for some time. So the costuming staff has to abrade, cut, tear, and even make visually noticeable repairs. Painters also add fading and wear marks to textiles to make them appear old.
The men of mystery, such as Varys, Peter Baelish and the Maesters wear different costumes than men of arms. Varys the spymaster or Master of Whisperers, served whomever was in power (but always for the greater good of the realm) often vying for influence with Peter Baelish, which he eventually won. He sided with Daenerys along with Tyrion. His costumes reflect a somewhat exotic but simple look, having been born across the Narrow Sea in Lys. His posture was usually to place his hands in his long wide sleeves, traditional Chinese style. This denotes that he not only doesn’t need his hands for work or for combat, but that his doings are mysterious as well. One never knows what he has up his sleeve, or what ring he wears on his finger. Peter Baelish considers himself important with no office high enough for his ambitions. He usually wears a dark belted tunic. The tunic is invariably high-necked, symbolically protecting his throat. The Maesters are scholars and men of learning. They wear heavy monk-like cloaks with heavy metal chains around their necks, each of the metals is different indicating their particular scholarly expertise. There is also a woman of mystery, Melisandre, the Red Priestess. Her costume is invariably a red gown that she once wore with deep decollete, or a long red robe to match her red hair. She is the priestess to the Lord of Light.
The Game of Thrones has been so very complex and so very rich in so many ways. Set aside that as George Martin stated, it really would have taken several more seasons to properly finish the story. The costume designer and staff accomplished their job with high skill and flair. They took us on a journey around the world of the Seven Kingdoms and beyond, having us believe in the peoples that inhabited those worlds, and no doubt had the actors believing in them too as they dressed the part – the true role of the costume designer. And as the costumes served their purpose we are lucky that they were not discarded as in the studio days of old. But instead they have been kept for the archives and have been exhibited as they will continue to be. So we can have the chance perhaps to admire up close the art and craft that fueled our fantasy for so many years.
The film noir classic The Killers, like the Ernest Hemingway short story it was based on, got right to the point. Two men get out of a car at a gas station and enter Henry’s lunchroom. They take a seat. “What’s yours,” George the waiter asks, in the clipped diner-speak of the day. So began a bad night for George, the cook, and Nick Adams, the Hemingway “stand in” for his stories. We could tell things would go badly by the mugs of the two men: actor Charles McGraw, the Dick Tracy-faced heavy who plays either cops or criminals, and William Conrad, who later played TV’s detective Cannon, in his film debut. In true film noir style, the two had emerged from their car in near total darkness, walking into a pool of light at the gas station. They made no pretense of their visit to the lunchroom as they harass the staff and the guest. They were there to kill the “Swede.”
This post is is part of the Classic Movie Blog Association Femme/Homme Fatale of Film Noir Blogathon. See here for more entries.
Nick Adams worked with Ole “Swede” Anderson, played by Burt Lancaster in his first film. Freeing himself from the lunchroom, Nick dashed to Swede’s lodging room to tell him two killers were after him. Swede was in bed. He didn’t feel well. He wasn’t going to run – he was tired of running. “Why do they want to kill you,” Nick Adams asked? ” I did something wrong once.” he says matter of factly. In true noir style, the end comes at the beginning of the film. Footsteps are heard on the steps (SPOILER). The men come in the room. All you see are their faces and torsos as they blast away, two pistols flashing in the darkness.
This classic is a study in film noir techniques. Ole Anderson aka Pete Lund the Swede’s life is retold in a series of flashbacks. Indeed, Hemingway’s short story went no further than the killers episode at the lunchroom. That was powerful enough that Russian filmmaker Andrei Tarkovky made Hemingway’s The Killers as a student film. Our 1946 version was produced by Mark Hellinger and directed by Robert Siodmak at Universal. Anthony Veillor wrote the script, with the uncredited assists by Richard Brooks and John Huston. Elwood “Woody” Bredell was the cinematographer. Vera West designed the beautiful women’s wardrobe and the powerful score was composed by Miklos Rozsa. The score opens the dramatic arrival of the killers, one of the most effective in film noir. Many may recognize it as the theme music of the old TV series, Dragnet.
We the audience are left to discover what the “the bad thing” that Swede had once done . This is accomplished in a series of flashbacks, viewed as his story is investigated by Insurance man James “Jim” Riordan – played by Edmond O’Brien. He starts interviewing Swede’s beneficiary, “Queenie” Doherty. Queenie had kept Swede from jumping out of a hotel window when he got out of prison. “She’s gone,” he screamed in the flashback. Jim then interviews Swede’s arresting officer, Swede’s old school friend, Sam, a retired cop played by Sam Levene. Swede had been a boxer, a good one, until he broke his hand. He was used to the high life, and with his career over, he needed another source of cash. Turns out Sam’s wife was Swede’s old girlfriend, Lilly. It was on their final date at a party given by Jake “the Rake” that Swede met Kitty Collins (Ava Gardner) and from then it was curtains for Swede. Kitty Collins – dark hair in a liquid black gown. They were introduced and she only had to say a few words to him. He was speechless and spellbound. Then she sang at a piano (Ava’s own voice). Her siren’s song completed his bewitching. The problem was, she was “Big Jim” Colfax’ girlfriend, the big-time crook.
The Killers has all the hallmarks of the American film noir: the protagonist doomed by his past; a life re-told in flashback; a crime caper turned bad; jealousy and double-crossing; an insurance man and a former cop investigating the case; the film shot in dramatic black & white cinematography, scored with pulsating music. And there’s the femme fatale. Ava Gardner joined the best of the 1940s femmes in her role as Kitty Collins. One never knows whose side she’s on, who her true love is, or whether she ever loved anybody. The Alpha males will fight over her, or try to beat her. “You touch me and you won’t live till morning,” she tells Big Bill Colfax. And you know she means it, if the Swede doesn’t kill him first. Her motives are shrouded, her eyes always veiled or looking somewhere else. While the Swede can only look at her.
Swede was the one that took the wrap for her when his old friend Sam the cop wants to bust her for stolen jewelry. And it’s when he gets out of prison that Kitty has vanished on him, and left him holding the bag. Ready to jump out a window.
A big caper will give them all something to settle down with, with Big Jim planning the heist. And with a crew of guys like Dum-Dum and Blinky, it can’t go wrong. Swede should have pulled out when his old cell-mate Charleston pulled out. But Kitty was still in. That was an explosive mix.
There are few heroes in film noir. Its characters largely lived with the deep wounds of World War II and its aftermath. The heroes were left on the battlefield. And no one at home knew what returning GIs were talking about. Many of the women had been living on their own. Everybody seemed to have an angle. Like the returning vets, the Swede was stoic, he had failed as a boxer, though his manager and trainer did nothing for him when he was injured, he tried making money as a robber but Kitty double-crossed him and broke his heart. So when the killers came he had nothing to lose – he was already half-dead. But all the others involved in the caper had something to lose. When insurance man Jim Riordan catches up with Kitty near the end of the film, she says, “I’d like you to believe something; I hated my life, only I wasn’t strong enough to get away from it. All I could do is dream of some big payoff that would let me quit the whole racket.”
The Killers was a hit when it opened at the Winter Garden Theatre in New York. The theater took in $300 more than it ever had previously for this 1946 opening. The movie made an instant star out of Burt Lancaster, who previously had been a circus acrobat. Ava Gardner would from now on appear in A movies with important roles. The Killers received four Academy Award nominations and is #11 on Edie Muller’s Top 25 Noir Films. The Killers was remade in 1963-64 as a TV movie that was instead released in 1964 theatrically because of its “sex and violence”. It was directed by Don Siegel and starred Lee Marvin, John Cassavetes, Angie Dickinson, and Ronald Reagan in his last film role. Reagan played the Big Jim character and John Cassavetes played the Swede although their names were different in this version, as were their role backgrounds. Lee Marvin and Clu Gulager played the “killers. ” Both versions of The Killers are available on the DVD set. The 1964 version of The Killers was screened at the 2019 Turner Classic Movies Film Festival on April 14, 2019, with Angie Dickinson being interviewed by Ben Mankiewicz.
Collecting and preserving movie memorabilia is like bottling the river of time. Even the best efforts are fragmentary while the flows continue by. The movie studios themselves made little or no effort in the first decades of movie-making, considering its material objects worthless unless they could be re-used for another production or rented out. To that end “Prop” warehouses on the studio lots began filling up with the furniture and decorative objects needed to decorate a set. This would even extend to horse carriages, wagons, and stage coaches, and the antiques needed for period movies. And weapons too. Costumes would also be stockpiled in the wardrobe department. There was no regard for saving items like scene or set designs, blueprints, costume sketches, or costumes. The paper items were of no value once the film was made and distributed. The wild Jazz-Age costumes of the 1920s would serve no purpose in the 1930s or 1940s and were just tossed. This cycle was repeated periodically as the costume warehouse became overcrowded. In the MGM Animation Department, as was the case at Warner Bros, cartoon cels once used were scraped clean of ink and paint and re-used. There were also stories of mounds of WB cartoons buried in a land-fill – cheaper than marketing them for sale, it was determined at the time.
One person with foresight was Earl Theisen, the Honorary Curator of Theatrical Arts at the Los Angeles County Museum of History., Science and Art, as it was then known. Theisen began asking the movie studios to donate items of historical value to the Museum of Natural History beginning in 1931. This apparently unique idea brought in some great and very rare objects to the Museum, including: Charlie Chaplin’s “Little Tramp” costume; the original King Kong miniature model; a set design for Citizen Kane; Fred Astaire’s Top Hat dance shoes; Lon Chaney’s make-up kit and wax-cast head; an architectural plan for Mack Sennett’s 1917 studio; and Walt Disney’s 1923 animation stand where he created Mickey Mouse. There is much more. Theisen left in 1939, and moved on to become a photographer for Look magazine, and eventually Hollywood memorabilia would no longer be a collecting focus for the Natural History Museum. Today the Hollywood Collection is overseen by Curator Beth Werling.
The “Silent Era” strength of many of the Natural History Museum’s Hollywood collection is fortunate, as these are very rare materials. Only 25% of the silent films made are estimated to have survived. This is largely due to their nitrate-based combustibility. In 1937, a Film Vault fire at the 20th Century-Fox facility in Little Ferry New Jersey resulting in the loss of most pre-1932 Fox films. A vault fire at the MGM studio in Culver City in 1965 destroyed all of the Metro and Mayer silent films, as well as some notables such as Garbo’s The Divine Woman and London After Midnight.
After this grand but all too brief beginning in collecting movie memorabilia, WW II and the 1940s brought a new era to Hollywood. Just as the economy started rolling again television began competing for the movie audience. The effects were compounded by an anti-trust consent decree that forced studios to divest their theater holdings. The Golden Age of the Hollywood studio system lasted through the 1950s but was on the decline through the 1960s. The old studio moguls were mostly gone as corporations took control. And with a decline in revenues, the precious commodities of movie-making went up for sale. An early indicator was when 20th Century-Fox sold 180 acres of its back lot and standing sets in 1961 – this for the development now known as Century City.
The birth of the individual movie memorabilia collector began with the MGM auction in 1970. This was really eight days of auctions of the crown jewels of MGM props and wardrobe – items as big as the Cotton Blossom steam boat from Show Boat, to as small as the Ruby Slippers from The Wizard of Oz. One notable collector began her obsession that May, 1970 – Debbie Reynolds – who not only bought scores of costumes but the props associated with the background scenes. In fact she tried to buy the entire back lot when those came up for sale later, an unsuccessful effort. She was not the highest bidder at the auctions. One bidder paid $15,000 for the Ruby Slippers. But little did he know at the time that there were several pairs of Ruby Slippers. One of the paid staffers for the auction (held by the David Weisz Co.) had been scouting the MGM Wardrobe Dept. beforehand, and had stolen other pairs. Duplicates or even more copies of a wardrobe item are common as they are made for stand-ins as well as for use in case of rips or tears during a scene. For the Ruby Slippers, variant designs were also made. Pairs occasionally show up at auction where they now fetch over a millions dollars.
Other studios were soon holding their own auctions, including 20th Century-Fox and Paramount. Besides the auctions, items were being tossed out by the studios, which encouraged passionate insiders like the “liberator” of the Ruby Slippers from MGM to take liberties by taking items out the back door. Encouragement came at the MGM auction itself as stock wardrobe costumes were sold for $2.00 a piece or by the truck-load for rental houses as Halloween costumes. After 1969 when Kirk Kerkorian bought controlling interest in MGM, the grand old studio would sink to new lows. In addition to the props and wardrobe auctions, several back lots with their standing sets where countless classic movies were filmed were sold for housing developments. Over the following years memorabilia such as music scores, screen tests, and architectural plans were tossed. Kerkorian was more interested in MGM for its name, which he used for his new hotel in Las Vegas. Apparently “truckloads” of MGM memorabilia such as costume sketches, movie photos, and other items were put up for sale at the MGM Grand’s gift shop, or used to decorate the hotel. Debbie Reynolds’ futile effort to save MGM’s legacy went for naught. All that she bought and saved, hoping to either establish her own museum or have one launched in Hollywood, never happened in her lifetime. Most of her outstanding collection – never to be duplicated – was scattered to the winds in a series of auctions starting in 2011.
Today things have changed. Beginning with the MGM auction in 1970 and with the Debbie Reynolds auction of 2011, Hollywood movie memorabilia has become vary valuable. This has gotten the attention of the studios, who have now launched their own archives and museums. The Walt Disney and Warner Bros. companies were in the vanguard on this. Disney because they were lucky in having librarian Dave Smith hired to organize Walt Disney’s office in 1970 four years after Disney’s death. Smith would become the company archivist over the next 40 years. Warner Bros. donated their archives to USC in 1977, under the management of the School of Cinematic Arts. They also launched a museum in 1996. They got serious about preserving and organizing their costume collection and memorabilia collection when in 2000 they lost a lawsuit against John LeBold. He was a Hollywood memorabilia collector and “curator” for Debbie Reynolds who was stealing costumes from Warner Brothers’ wardrobe and selling them. WB did not prevail in their law suit because, among other things, WB’s record-keeping on their ownership of the costumes was “sloppy or non-existent.” The charges were dropped after LeBold returned most of the costumes, including some he had taken from Debbie Reynolds.
Several auction houses have become specialists in “Entertainment” memorabilia. Christie’s and Sotheby handled movie memorabilia among their myriad other objects, but it was Julien’s, Heritage, Bonham’s, and Profiles in History that made a specialty of the field. Julien’s and Profiles in History have in particular staked out movie memorabilia. The early Profiles Hollywood catalogs from the late 1990s/2000 were about 100 plus pages long. Catalog 96 from December 2018 had 600 pages. Needless to say, those early catalogs also had very low prices. But there’s nothing like today’s high prices to shake out more collectibles from the tree.
High movie memorabilia prices has caused several outcomes – not just thick auction catalogs. For one, the studios are saving the best of the classic materials as well as much that’s coming from the new productions. The other is that independent productions are selling off their props and costumes as soon as a movie wraps – another source of revenue for some of the more popular movies. But another outcome is that some of the props, especially for the popular super-hero, science-fiction, fantasy or horror genres are being made in quantity so that more can be sold as the “original” item, usually unknown to the movie’s producer or prop-shop’s owner. Such “fakes” are not just made for new movies. The high prices set for Golden Age movie star costumes and costume sketches has encouraged these pieces of Hollywood memorabilia to be faked and forged as well. As always, let the buyer beware.*
Notwithstanding that comment, memorabilia collectors were in the forefront of gathering and preserving rare artifacts of Hollywood’s past. In addition to them and the studios, one of the museums in Hollywood has set out to preserve an important part of Hollywood history: the original Lasky-DeMille Barn. It was leased by these fathers of Hollywood film making for their production of The Squaw Man which was was made there in 1914. Hollywood Heritage manages the museum where other memorabilia can be viewed by the public. The Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences established a library in 1928, now the Margaret Herrick Library in Beverly Hills which contains research books, scripts, letters, scrapbooks, set designs, costume sketches, and production files and other items. Located within the Fairbanks Center for Motion Picture Study, tens of thousands of photos and posters can also be found there. But the big news is the forthcoming Academy Museum of Motion Pictures, set to open in late 2019. This is the museum that has been planned by the Academy for many years. It is located on the intersection of Wilshire Blvd. and Fairfax in Los Angeles, in the Los Angeles County Museum of Art campus. It will have Hollywood movie memorabilia in its collections, but these have largely been developed over the last few years (except for items already at the Herrick). The plan for “Opening Day” is to have a two-floor “permanent” exhibit tentatively titled, “Where Dreams Are Made: A Journey Inside the Movies.” Other temporary exhibits will celebrate filmmakers and films and the Oscar experience.
Hollywood memorabilia has come a long way since it was just dumped as useless baggage or sold at garage sale prices (but don’t give up on the latter). If only Debbie Reynolds could have gotten her wish years ago.
*I have found Profiles in History to be very responsive when I have had the occasion to notify them that a costume sketch did not look genuine. I can’t say the same for Christie’s in London.
Every year brings us five nominations for the Best Costume Design Academy Award. In 2019 the field had great candidates from the 2018 movies vying for the Oscar, with several multi Oscar winners among the contenders. As is customary, the nominations were made by the Costume Designers branch of the Academy, but all members voted on the winner. This can often result in a bit of a popularity contest among the movies, which influences the Costume Design voting. In any event, the historical (period) and fantasy movies almost always prevail over contemporary costume design. This year, all five nominees are ALL either historical or fantasy based. Besides that consideration, this year is one of the strongest of the last few years.
The recipient of BEST ACHIEVEMENT IN COSTUME DESIGN was Ruth E. Carter for THE BLACK PANTHER.
THE BLACK PANTHER – RUTH CARTER DESIGNER. Ruth E. Carter has been nominated twice before for Best Costume Design Oscar: for Malcom X, and for Amistad. Ms. Carter was born in Springfield Massachusetts. She attended Hampton University intent on becoming a teacher, with a special education major. But she changed her major to theater arts, where her artistic and performing arts side took over. When an audition led instead to being asked to do the costumes, she took another path altogether. In preparation she studied at the library and went to the local Joann’s for fabrics. By her senior year in college she was the costume designer on campus. Ms. Carter then interned at a local theater company, and subsequently worked for the Santa Fe Opera. She then moved to L.A. at the suggestion of a relative, working at the Los Angeles Theater Company. It was there that she met a young Spike Lee, who tried to get her to transition to working in movies. She stayed in theater – until later when Spike Lee called on her to design for his movie School Daze in 1988. She worked on his next twelve movies.
Director Ryan Coogler picked Ms. Carter to design Black Panther, based on the Marvel Comics character. Coogler wanted the costumes to be true to Africa as possible, but also reflecting the technological advancement of Wakanda. In the story Prince T’Challa takes on the Black Panther suit after his father the King of Wakanda, is assassinated along with many of his tribe. Wakanda is a technologically advanced African tribal homeland. After the death of his father, Prince T’Challa returns to take up the throne. He must also protect the hidden wealth and advanced technology of Wakanda from its enemies, who are intent on stealing it.
The Dora Milaje (“The Adored Ones”) are key to Wakanda’s history and culture.The Dora are the representatives of various tribes and must protect the T’Challa. They are selected from all over Wakanda. Ruth Carter did deep research into the tribes of Africa and their warrior culture and dress. “I looked at all kinds of armor, from indigenous African tribal armor to Japanese armor,” Ms. Carter says. “One of the most important things for me was to make sure their armor pieces look handcrafted, something from African tribes. Handcrafted elements looks a lot stronger and more personal,” she said. This went further than just the research, “…we had gone to South Africa and had these leather elements done by their traditional craftspeople,” she says. “They made hand tooled leather with beads and amber, and I took these leather straps to the craftsperson who was making the strapping on the Dora and said, ‘The leather on the Dora needs to look like this.’”
The Tabard is a very visible and key element of the Dora’s costumes. It runs from their waist down between their legs and is an element of protection as well as decoration. Ms. Carter placed much importance on the piece, “I thought if they’re going to wear something down the front of their costume, it should signify something significant,” she said. “The bead work across Africa, including within the Maasai tribe and their colors, with the Ethiopian Suri tribes, they all have this beautiful beadwork, so I thought we should bead the front of the Dora’s tabards, in the African tradition, and we’ll put some little areas of protection for each character.”
Angela Basset is shown above as Queen Ramonda. The Zulu headpiece is known as the Isicholo, which connects here to the lace-like collar. In order to get the perfect cylindrical shape for the hat, as well as the collar, it was fabricated out of a polyamide material by a special 3-D printer in Belgium.
Lupita Nyongo is shown above in a green gown designed by Ruth Carter. The gown has side splits and she wears it as a spy on a mission. The material was custom-dyed and printed with raised pattern to make it look like kente cloth. It was then over-painted to give it an ombre effect.
Angela Bassett, who plays Queen Ramonda, called Ruth Carter a “costume ninja.” Reflecting on her success, Ms. Carter wonders why there is still so few costume designers of color. “Look at me,” she says. “I’m a costume designer, and you can be that too.”
Ruth Carter became the first black costume designer to win an Oscar. “Wow. I got it. This has been a long time coming. Spike Lee thank you for my start. I hope this makes you proud (Spike Lee was in the audience).” She also added, “Thank you to my crews around the world who helped bring Wakanda to life.”
After receiving the Oscar, Ms. Carter said, laughing, “All the of the nominees had brilliant costumes, but I had 3-D printing, that might have done it.”
The other nominees were:
THE BALLAD OF BUSTER SCRUGGS – MARY ZOPHRES DESIGNER. Mary Zophres has been nominated twice previously for a Best Costume Design Oscar; for La La Land and True Grit. She grew up in Florida, where her parents ran a clothing store. She graduated from Vassar College with degrees in both art history and studio art. Her first job in the industry was as a Production Assistant in the costume department. Ms. Zophres worked on Oliver Stone’s Born on the 4th of July. One of her tasks as a PA was sorting thrift store clothes into the decades they were made: 1950s; 60s; 70s, etc. She had no problems with this task and quickly worked her way up to being a designer. Her mother had regularly taken her to the movies, and always told her, “You can do anything you want to do.”
Mary Zophres has worked with the Coen Brothers on 14 previous films, as well as The Ballad of Buster Scruggs. She has designed such iconic costumes as the puffy jackets ofFargo(1996), the Dude’s sweater and bathrobe in The Big Lebowski(1997), and the traditional but still iconic prison outfits ofO Brother, Where Art Thou?(2000), among others. Christopher Nolan, once told her, “You’ve done a lot of movies and a lot of times your costumes are very iconic. Do you do that on purpose?” “No, no”, she replied, ”I’m designing something that’s true for the character.” The setting for The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is a Western, only it’s six different stories. Ms. Zophres explained for an interview in Filmmaker Magazine, “The Coens were taking the approach of having six separate but equal stories. I knew early on that we were not necessarily going to change cinematic styles, but the stories that they’re telling are very separate, so it was a challenge. Usually you design your film doing your leads first, then you pull stuff for the background, but this was like designing for six different leads and six different backgrounds.” She is very methodical in her designing method, starting with research in books and using illustrations and paintings of historical characters and backgrounds, often using the resources of the Western Costume Co
“The period for this film has a very specific fabric pattern and silhouette,” Ms. Zophres stated. “I start with research and then kind of realize through the script who the characters are and then dress the characters according to what is written on the page,” Besides the stylish Western outfit of Tim Blake Nelson as Buster Scruggs, Liam Neeson as the Impresario wears a full “Bear-hide” coat. Ethan Coen had told Ms. Zophres that they were thinking of [Robert Altman’s] ‘McCabe & Mrs. Miller‘ floppy bear coat,” explained Ms. Zophres. As was the case with fabricating the bear coat for The Revenant, she couldn’t source enough of the material to fit Liam Neeson. So Ms. Zophres improvised and aged, custom-dyed and stitched many small pieces together to make one coat. The material used was actually shearling IKEA bath rugs – cut and resewn.
2) THE FAVOURITE – SANDY POWELL DESIGNER. Sandy Powell has won three Best Costume Design Oscars: for for Shakespeare in Love, Young Victoria, and The Aviator. For the Yorgos Lanthimos directed The Favourite, the setting is early 1700s England during the reign of Queen Anne. In the story the Queen is sickly, depressed from the loss of 17 children in childhood or in stillbirth, and prone to fits of madness. Queen Anne’s friend and adviser (and lover) is Sarah Churchill, Duchess of Marlborough, played by Rachel Weisz. Lady Sarah’s cousin Abigail Hill joins the household as Lady-in-Waiting,, She is played by Emma Stone. Abigail has fallen on hard times, but is soon rivaling Lady Churchill for Queen Anne’s attention (and affections).
Designer Sandy Powell chose a monochromatic palette for the costumes. This allowed for a “graphic, clear and clean” imagery. As is typical for almost all costume design and production, the budget is inadequate and the time allowed for fabrication is too short. As Ms. Powell stated about the movie, “… we had very, very limited funds and time. So there wouldn’t have been time to have done court costumes as they would have been.” Yet she still managed to produce 150 costumes in the 5 weeks she had before filming began.
The photo above shows Queen Anne in her court dress trimmed in ermine. Due to her gout, she had problems walking and was largely confined to her rooms. As a result, her normal dress had devolved to a comfortable bed robe. As Ms. Powell described how she designed it for an interview in Vulture.com “I just wanted it to be one of those things, like your favorite cardigan or your favorite robe. It’s reversible. It’s velvet on one side, and on the inside I actually made it from a bed cover that I found. In England they’re called candlewick, but I think it might be called chenille here, those wavy lines and little tufts of cotton — which I bought on eBay. So the queen’s wearing an eBay bed cover.”
3) MARY POPPINS RETURNS – SANDY POWELL DESIGNER. Sandy Powell received a second Best Costume nomination this year for the Rob Marshall directed Disney sequel to Mary Poppins. In this story the Banks children are grown up and Ben Wishaw plays the widowed Michael Banks with three children, His sister Jane, played by Emily Mortimer, tries to help him out as he is in debt and about to lose their family home. Mary Poppins, Played by Emily Blunt, magical and striking as ever, returns to put order in the household. The bank where Michael works seems to be the source of most of his problems. But Mary Poppins and Lin-Manuel Miranda playing Jack the Lamplighter, help the family through their struggles.
Mary Poppins was the first movie Sandy Powell ever saw. Its imagery and songs still leave an impression on her. But she had to design a new Mary Poppins outfit – the story was now taking place in 1934, not in 1910 as in the original. As she stated for an in article in Fashionista, “I designed a 1930s version of the belle-tiered, elegant longline coat, with the addition of a double-cape at shoulders,” Ms. Powell added. “Just to make it more modern and fashionable for the 1930s and also to create a bit of movement.” Her coat was a striking cobalt blue, making a great contrast for Mary Poppins’ red feather-topped hat. She also designed a wild Bohemian outfit for the porcelain restorer, Topsy, played Meryl Streep. The Gypsy-style costume is made distinctive by its accessories of pencils and paint-brushes. Meryl Streep was also taken by Sandy Powell’s distinctive orange-colored hair, and asked to have her own hair be colored to match. Sandy Powell designed and produced 448 costumes for the movie.
4) MARY QUEEN OF SCOTS – ALEXANDRA BYRNE This is a 1569 true life version of the game of thrones. The Catholic Mary Stuart, just widowed, returns to Scotland from France to assume the crown as Queen of Scotland. Her childless cousin Queen Elizabeth of England is a Protestant. The two religious factions vie for power and entangle the cousins in what will become a struggle for the crown of England and ultimately – a death struggle. Josie Rourke directed with Margot Robbie as Queen Elizabeth and Saoirse Ronan as Queen Mary.
Alexandra Byrne has previously won a Best Costume Oscar for Elizabeth: the Golden Age starring Cate Blanchett. She was raised in Stratford -upon-Avon in England’s Shakespeare country. In spite of her familiarity with historical costume, she wanted to simplify and give a contemporary touch to the costumes of Mary Queen of Scots. For this she decided to use the ubiquitous denim fabric. This along with other fabrics and tailoring made the men’s costumes look much more flattering to the contemporary taste.
Mary was dressed more simply and even with a masculine flair in certain scenes. Costume design is there to delineate character, and in this movie in particular, to show the contrast between Mary and Elizabeth.
We know from the many movies about Elizabeth and from her portraits the basic look: red hair (a wig), white face surrounded by a big ruff; jewel-encrusted gown; and stiff puffy sleeves. But as Ms. Byrne said in an interview for Hollywood Reporter, ” I knew from doing Elizabeth in the Golden Age that to do a figure-eight ruff, it takes at least eight inches of lace. Well, 11 or 12 years ago you could get the quantity of old lace, but now you’re so limited. I knew we had to find a new way of doing a ruff, so there was a lot of experimentation, using nylon and other materials.” Alas that is true for most all vintage and high quality fabrics. The limitation is not just quantity available but the budget allocated for costuming to afford them. For Elizabeth in particular, she had to wow her courtiers and anyone that came in her presence. “Elizabeth’s dressing was more strategic. She was so in control of the power of her appearance, and used her appearance to replace the iconography of the Virgin Mary in Protestant England. I wanted to give her specific outfits for specific occasions,” Ms. Byrne stated.
In the movie the two queens meet, which never actually happened historically. Ms. Byrne wanted to simplify the costumes in the scene to highlight the faces of the actresses. This technique has been used by designers since the 1930s, and is very effective for key dramatic scenes in movies.
The Black Panther was a clear favorite this year and well deserved an Oscar for Ruth E. Carter.
The era of classic men’s fashion heard a notable crack to its foundation with the announcement that Carroll &Co., Beverly Hills, clothiers to Hollywood stars and professionals for 70 years was closing by the end of January 2019. Carroll and Co., was the last of the quality men’s stores in Beverly Hills, squeezed out by a variety of economic factors. Company President John Carroll’s father opened the store after World War II because he loved fine clothes and there was no availability on the West Side of L.A. He was a Publicist for Warner Brothers, and it wan’t long before movie stars that liked dressing well became regular customers: Fred Astaire; Cary Grant; Gary Cooper; Clark Gable; Gregory Peck; and Frank Sinatra, among others.
Store founder Richard Carroll made buying trips to England for fabrics and collections. He preferred the English gentleman’s look, a style he wore himself. This was a connection with Gary Cooper, Fred Astaire, and Cary Grant: three style setters among American actors of the 1930s, 40s, and beyond.
Gary Cooper was one of the most contradictory figures in Hollywood. His childhood was split between a cattle ranch in Montana and “proper” schooling in England where his parents were from. He broke into film as an extra and stunt horseback rider. Better looking than the lead actors, it didn’t take long for him to get good roles in the late 1920s. His first major role was starring in The Virginian in 1929. His stardom was cemented the following year, 1930, in Morocco opposite Marlene Dietrich. With Valentino’s passing some years earlier, Gary Cooper was now the major heartthrob in Hollywood.
Cary Grant was another dapper Englishman and customer of Carroll & Co. He learned by aspiration how to dress as a gentleman. He was born in Bristol England to poor working class parents and was in Vaudeville at an early age. He re-made himself in America and his good-looks and put-on charm moved him quickly from New York to Hollywood.
Cary Grant always had a keen sense of his own style, both in clothing and in his film roles. He rarely swerved from either romantic or humorous leading man. His few exceptions in character still had him looking good ( I Was a Male War Bride’s gag scenes an exception). He paired well with Katharine Hepburn, Ingrid Bergman, and Sophia Loren (to whom he fell in love with).
In addition to his custom suits from Carroll & Co., Cary Grant had his suits made at Dunhill in London, and his sporting and leisure clothes from Abercrombie & Fitch. In spite of his solid blue gray suit from North by Northwest, most of his suits were of a plaid woolen.
The actors mentioned in this blog, especially the first three, were all equally talented at dressing well in leisure as in formal clothing. This is a style that has virtually disappeared, regrettably. Cary Grant below shows one example. Carroll & Co., supplied handsome casual attire to these customers.
Fred Astaire was an early example of an American gentleman always well-attired. Despite his frequent “black-tie and tails” look in the movie musicals, he never enjoyed wearing tuxedos. He grew up on the stage in vaudeville, in an act with his older sister. She retired from the stage when she married Lord Charles Cavendish, Duke of Devonshire. Fred traveled frequently to England and learned the dress and manners of the English upper class. He still maintained contacts with the diverse world of dancers and musicians of Vaudeville, Broadway and Hollywood.
Fred Astaire had his own style of dress based on fine tailoring and quality clothes. On film he liked colored socks that drew attention to his feet in dance. Always slim, he used ties as belts.
Fred liked three-piece suits, and was bold enough to wear both a pocket handkerchief and a boutonniere.
Gregory Peck came up from the stage, in New York and in his native La Jolla California. His career developed slowly in the 1940s, despite his obvious good looks. He had a string of hits with Spellbound in 1945, The Yearling in 1946, and Gentleman’s Agreement in 1947. Peck was of the post-war generation of actors that had a more relaxed style of dressing, yet still looked smart. Below Gregory peck wears a tattersall shirt with chino pants.
Paul Newman could also looks great in relaxed yet stylish casual outfits. Here he wears a Navy blue cardigan over a t-shirt, with chinos. The photo cuts off the shoes, which were blue Converse sneakers. Suede loafers would also be stylish. The I.D. bracelet or “slave bracelet” that Newman wears was always a stylish man’s accessory. It’s too bad they went out of fashion.
I keep hearing that men’s style is coming back (as in more stylish). Granted I live in Southern California where dressing has been very relaxed for a long time. I’ll keep looking, and hoping, that the perennial popularity of these actors’ films will have an influence.
The low-budget , unsentimental yet nostalgic movie, A Christmas Storyis now 35 years old. And it is, in spite of the low expectations of the studio that produced it, a classic. But as the great and recently departed screenwriter William Goldman said about what will succeed in the movie business, “nobody knows anything.” A movie set in the early 1940s about a kid wanting a BB gun for Christmas? It seemed the only two people who believed in it were the director Bob Clark, fresh off a hit with Porky’s in 1982 who threw in some of his own money in the production. And Jean Shepherd, the writer of the short stories the movie was based on: Duel in the Snow, or Red Ryder Nails the Cleveland Street Kid; and others from his book, In God We Trust: All Others Pay Cash. The two argued constantly until Clark had to eject Shepherd from the set.
Bob Clark had first heard Jean Shepherd on the radio, where he was already a legend among many comics and spoken word /late night radio fans in the 1950s,1960s and 70s, me among them. Shepherd spun tales of childhood life set in fictional Hohman Indiana. His stories were never written until Shel Silverstein began taping and transcribing his radio shows. Shepherd shortly thereafter began writing his own stories. By then Shepherd’s stories were being published in Playboy magazine, where Hugh Hefner was a big fan. So Bob Clark knew he had to make a movie – a Christmas movie – based on Jean Shepherd’s stories. But it took over 10 years to happen.
Bob Clark began working on a script for A Christmas Story with Jean Shepherd along with Jean’s wife Leigh Brown. She was another believer, having worked with Shepherd at WOR Radio and together they had traveled the New York Beat scene years before they maried. With Shepherd’s distinctive voice, it was decided that he would narrate the movie as an older and more jaded Ralphie. He was perfect for this, having perfected his style on the radio. At times he sounded dramatic, at times sounding conspiratorial or world-weary, but always speaking directly to the listener – as the smart aleck kid in an adult’s body.
Finding the actor for the role of Ralphie was critical. Thousands of kid actors were considered and auditioned. Peter Billingsley, who got the part, was already a regular at making commercials in New York. He was considered almost too perfect, even though approaching 12, he was playing the 9 year old Ralphie. As it turned out Billingsley needed a dialogue coach during production to say the name “Red Ryder 200-shot Carbine Action Range Model Air Rifle” that he wanted for Christmas. His angelic face was the perfect contrast to his scheming nature. It’s hard to imagine anyone but Darren McGavin playing the Old Man, but Jack Nicholson was also considered for the role. Melinda Dillon as the mother got the part based on her strong role as the mom in Close Encounters of the Third Kind.
Ralphie is obsessed, as only a 9 year kid can be, with having a Red Ryder 200-shot Carbine Action Range Model Air Rifle. With Christmas around the corner he plants hints around the house to his indifferent parents. A trip to downtown “Hammond” with his buddies Flick and Schwartz and kid brother Randy also serves as occasion to gawk at the Higbees Department Store Window where the Christmas Baccanalia of toys and trains also diplays the “Holy Grail of christmas presents,” the Red Ryder 200 shot BB gun rifle. Ralphie fixates on the window. He lets out to his mother that night that this is what he wants for Christmas, only to be told, “You’ll shoot your eye out.” But he fantasizes about warding off and shooting bandits with his Red Ryder, with Ralphie the hero to his parents and kid brother. But Ralphie must live in the real kid world, a world Jean Shepherd never lets us forget.
Going to school is one of the daily humiliations in Ralphie’s world. He has to wait for his kid brother to be dressed up for snow – in so much clothing he can barely move. A recess gives Ralphie’s buddies the chance to try out Schwartz’s saying that if you stick your tongue to a flag pole (in freezing weather) it will stick there. Only the triple dog dare convinces Flick to try it, and sure enough his tongue sticks to the pole. It stays stuck as all the kids go back after the recess bell sounds. Only the teacher Miss Shields seems to notice Flick’s absence, the class mates feigning ignorance. Soon she calls the police and fire department to pry him loose, where he barely gets out a whine with his bandaged tongue.
The whole experience results in the need for a class excercise in writing an essy on “What I want for Christmas” – the perfect segue for Ralphie writing a winning essay on the importance of the Red Ryder BB gun for a present. This reverie lasts as long as it takes for the neighborhood bully Scut Farkus and his side-kick to have Ralphie, Flick and Schwartz running home for safety. Little brother Randy, still wrapped like a pig in a blanket, plays possum in the snow. Ralphie’s daily life always seems to sink into a contrast to his daydream reveries. Just as he saw his A+++ essay becoming a stepping-stone to getting a Red Ryder BB gun for Christmas, he gets his essay back from Miss Shields. Not only did it just get a C+, but she wrote in red “You’ll shoot your eye out!” Hope dashed again.
Ralphie’s home life is a constant battle of trying to get his wish for the Red Ryder noticed, His mother dotes on Randy and his lack of interest in food. Mother and child play games of “pigs in a trough” with his mom laughing as Randy buries his face in the mashed potatoes. His father is either buried in the newspaper or cussing as he tries to fix the furnace in the basement. The Old Man’s one happy moment is when he won a prize of a leg lamp, “electric sex” as Ralphie calls it, which the Old Man proudly displayed in the window to his wife’s mortification.
These unique scenes from A Christmas Story and several more that follow mostly came from separate stories in Jean Shepherd’s books. They form a remarkable whole because they sprang from one mind, Yet they took form as a film with Bob Clark’s expert and remarkable direction. Each scene builds on another leading to a climax that is perfect. The viewpoint always from that of Ralphie and a kid’s world. This is maximized by the low-angle cinematography, borrowing a technique from film noir: cutting a hole in the floor to sink the cameras for a low angle shot. These are the reasons the audience has continued to build for the movie year after year. As with many classic movies, the end result masks the friction that produced it. With Shepherd and Clark, it was Jean’s continual interference with the actors. Shepherd was always trying to have the scene come out according to his original vision. Clark finally had to have Shepherd removed from the set in order to have this stopped. Still, we can see Jean Shepherd in cameo in the movie, he playing the man in the Santa Claus line at Higbee’s – telling Ralphie when he and Randy get ready to go up to see Santa, “The line ENDS here. It begins THERE.” pointing far away. Shepherd narrates in the movie “The line stretched all the way back to Terre Haute.”
On Christmas day the surprises go all around. But being a Jean Shepherd story, surprises are good and bad. As he narrates in the story, “Life is like that. Sometimes at the heart of our revelries, when our joy is at its zenith, and all is right with the world, the most unbelievable of disasters descend upon us.”
For a low budget movie, production designer Reuben Freed and Art Director Gavin Mitchell still had to look at 20 cities for locales and sets. Toronto served for some outdoor scenes and Cleveland served for others. Higbee’s Store was in Cleveland (and the building is still there). Ralphie’s home, the Parker house exterior, is in Cleveland. In winter 1982-1983 when the movie was filmed, it was a very warm winter and no snow had fallen. The special effects supervisor Martin Malivoire and assistant Neil Trifunovich had to truck in snow, and resorted to using potato flakes for falling snow. Shredded vinyl was also used on set as well as firefighter’s foam for exterior sets.
A Christmas Story was a not a big hit when it opened, although it did make money for MGM when it was re-released. In 1985 it was released on video and word of mouth began to grow. Its unique take on Christmas made it a favorite for many. In 1997, it had reached more than cult-status when TNT began running A Christmas Storymarathons. And since 2006, San Diego resident Brian Jones has opened the A Christmas Story Museum at the house in Cleveland that served as the exterior of the Parker house. Nearby properties have also been added as to the compound.
Jean Shepherd died October 16, 1999 at age 78. Bob Clark died tragically on April 4, 2007, age 67 with his son Ariel in a car crash caused by a drunk driver.
The Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences is commemorating the 35th anniversary on December 10 of A Christmas Story with a special invitation-only screening of the movie along with hosting members of the cast and crew. Peter Billingsley will be there along with Production Designer Reuben Freed, Set Director Mark Freeborn, and Costume Designer Mary E. McLeod.
TNT is already playing A Christmas Story. So let us enjoy this unsentimental but kid-in-the-adult movie. The movie that screenwriter Robert McKee considered a new genre in the modern era: A Christmas Story.
Walter Plunkett was there at the very beginning of Golden Age Hollywood. He launched the wardrobe department at RKO in 1927, designing everything from flapper outfits to western costumes. And when he designed the costumes for Singing in the Rain, he was recreating some of the looks he had designed 25 years earlier. Yet he was best known for his period costumes, especially for the classic Gone With the Wind, one of many films featuring his historic costume designs. Walter Plunkett could do it all in the field of costume design, from thrillers like King Kong, to Art Deco musicals like Gay Divorcee, to period pieces like The Hunchback of Notre Dame and How the West Was Won. And he could design for both men and for women.
Plunkett’s first big hit at RKO was Rio Rita in 1929, starring Bebe Daniels. Although she played a Mexican senorita in a western film, he designed a striking gold lamé costume for her. Although he was not yet the accomplished period designer – the costume got everybody’s attention. By 1930 he had designed a string of movies for RKO and had organized their wardrobe department. But he now felt his pay had not kept up. He left RKO and started designing for Western Costume. RKO soon lured him back with better pay and started him designing for two giants of the screen – King Kong , Katharine Hepburn. Or at least designing for King Kong’s heart-throb , Fay Wray. And for Katharine Hepburn, he designed the stunning, skin-tight, gold lamé gown complete with skull-cap and moth-like antennae in Christopher Strong. This was Hepburn’s second movie for RKO, which was otherwise costumed by a free-lancing Howard Greer. Hepburn was having a rough adjustment to Hollywood, and was known as having a sharp tongue. When Plunkett was having a fitting with her he came right out and told her, “At this rate you’ll become a worse bitch than Constance Bennett.” Hepburn laughed, and they became friends and worked together throughout his career. He designed the rest of her film costumes while he remained at RKO, including for such classic period films as Little Women, Mary of Scotland, and A Woman Rebels.
While at RKO Plunkett also designed the costumes for the start of Ginger Rogers’ career with Fred Astaire as her dance partner in Flying Down to Rio. She had previously played in some Warner Bros. musical. He had started as a youth in Vaudeville where he danced with his sister. Although they had second billing in this film, that changed after people saw them dance together. They were the stars in their next movie The Gay Divorcee. Plunkett created what would become the classic silhouette for Ginger Rogers’ dance gowns: a form-fitting bodice, tight at at the hips, flowing into a swirling skirt that accentuated all her dance moves with Fred Astaire.
Then in 1937 Katharine Hepburn gave Walter Plunkett a tip about a production coming up that he would be great for, one that she herself was seeking the lead role: David Selznick’s Gone with the Wind. Both of them had already worked with Selznick at RKO, where he had been Head of Production before launching Selznick International Pictures in 1935. Plunkett contacted him and was hired, but on a non-exclusive basis, for GWTW. At this point, it was only to do studies for the movie, and thus at a lower pay. Plunkett signed on anyway, and thus found himself working on the biggest movie to hit Hollywood. Little did he know that it would take over a year before he actually began working on the costumes. With the extra time he visited Atlanta, New Orleans, and examined antique Southern fabrics. He even had time to design costumes for other Selznick films like The Adventures of Huckleberry Flynn. But when he had finished his GWTW costumes, they were magnificent. Katharine Hepburn never did get the part of Scarlett, but she too left RKO later in 1938.
Plunkett’s great success with Gone with the Wind only made it harder for him to find another job afterwards. Studios thought he would be too expensive, or that he would only do big historical movies, and most had their own period costume specialists. After returning to RKO to do one more film, the great Hunchback of Notre Dame (1939). Plunkett became a free-lancer. Things got worse as Europe plunged into WW II and film distribution to the lucrative European market plunged. Plunkett was now designing for the poverty row studios of Columbia and Republic.
Katharine Hepburn had returned to Broadway after Hollywood, and found success with the play “Philadelphia Story.” Her lover at the time, Howard Hughes, bought the film rights for her, and with that she went to MGM to make the film version. MGM made the movie in 1940, with Hepburn picking George Cuckor as director, Cary Grant, who she had worked with at RKO, and Jimmy Stewart as co-stars. It was a big hit. Hepburn also got a long term contract. When she was about to make her first historical film, Sea of Grass with Spencer Tracy, she asked that her friend “Plunky” be brought in to design the costumes. So Walter Plunkett started at MGM in September 1945. MGM already had a wardrobe department full of talented designers, with Irene (Lentz Gibbons) as the head (she had replaced Adrian), Helen Rose, Irene Sharaff, Karinska, and men’s designers Valles and Gile Steele.
Plunkett found his home at MGM. Although the 1930s are when MGM ruled supreme, it had many great musicals and period films ahead. And Walter Plunkett would be involved in most of them.
By 1948, Walter Plunkett had been in the movie business for so long that he was now designing costumes for re-makes of his own previously designed films. The first such film was The Three Musketeers. Plunkett had designed the previous one at RKO in 1935. Now he was designing MGM’s version in 1948 for Lana Turner, Gene Kelly, June Allyson, and Angela Lansbury. But it was the same swashbuckling story on bigger sets and scenery. One of his early period films that set a fashion trend was now also being remade at MGM. Little Women. His first version in 1933 starred Katharine Hepburn, was produced by David O. Selznick and directed by George Cukor. Now in 1949 Plunkett was dressing June Allyson, Elizabeth Taylor, Janet Leigh, Margaret O’Brien, and Mary Astor. Plunkett also got to work for the first time with the red-headed beauty Greer Garson in 1949. That Forsyte Woman, based on the John Galsworthy saga. The movie starred Greer Garson, Errol Flynn, Janet Leigh and Walter Pidgeon. The Victorian style costumes he designed were full-skirted, with bustles and tight bodices. Another grea hstorical film that Plunkett designed in 1949 was the classic story of Madame Bovary, this version starring Jennifer Jones with co-stars Van Heflin and Louis Jourdan. Plunkett designed several beautiful gowns for Jones. One of his costume sketches is shown below.
With the start of the 1950s, Walter Plunket would again find himself designing musicals. It was for Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein’s Showboat starring Ava Gardner as Julie with the role of Magnolia going to the singing actress Kathryn Grayson and that of Gaylord to Howard Keel. For the story taking place on a Mississippi riverboat, Plunkett designed both the men’s and women’s late 19th century costumes. As a set for the movie, the floating showboat Cotton Blossom was built on the MGM backlot pond. The set for the town of Natchez was also built on the MGM backlot.
In 1951 Plunkett also worked on An American in Paris.The movie had so many costumes that the design job was split between Irene Sharaff, and Orry-Kelly who was free-lancing. Walter Plunkett only designed the costumes for the wild Black and White Beaux Arts Ball scene. An American in Paris won Best Costume Design Oscars for all three designers. Plunkett must have found it ironic that he won an Academy Award – his only Oscar as it turned out – for a Ball scene after having designed Gone with the Wind, Little Women, Mary of Scotland, and Gay Divorcee. But Plunkett was not finished. The next year in 1952 he designed the costumes for the most popular musical ever made, Singing in the Rain. Here too he was re-living his early days at RKO, from the “plus-fours” men’s pants – to the flapper dresses – to the problems while recording sound caused by scratchy fabrics and thumping fans. His designs for Debbie Reynolds, Jean Hagen, and Cyd Charisse were magnificent. Cyd’s emerald green flapper outfit with the crystal decorated panels was as perfect for her dance number with Gene Kelly as was her transformative satin wedding outfit for the Broadway Ballet number.
Below is Plunkett’s costume sketch for Debbie Reynolds in the pink bubble-gum chorus girl outfit she wore when she jumped out of the cake at the party scene in Singing in the Rain.
Plunkett also designed the men’s costumes, including Gene Kelly’s and Donald O’Connor’s. It’s a shock today to realize he wasn’t even nominated for a Best Costume Design Oscar for Singing in the Rain.
In 1952 Plunkett designed the costumes for another musical, Cole Porter’s Kiss Me Kate. It’s best remembered for Ann Miller dancing her famous “It’s Too Darn Hot” number wearing Plunkett’s hot-pink, fringed and sequined show-girl outfit.
Plunkett got to combine music and period costume in the show-stopper Seven Brides for Seven Brothers. He used a clever scheme of bright color differentiation of the brother’s shirts to separate them. And he also used old quilts as material to make the bride’s skirts,
As the 1950s roled on television competed with movies for audience, and the studios were forced to sell off their movie theater ownership because of an anti-trust court case. Thus fewer movies were being produced. Walter Plunket still had a few good movies he worked on in the late 1950s. While it was not a hit, Raintree County with Elizabeth Taylor and Montgomery Clift had fabulous Civil War era costumes designed by Plunkett. He even said it was more challenging than designing Gone with the Wind.
As 1960 came he designed the costumes for a new face in Hollywood, Hayley Mills starring in Walt Disney’s Pollyanna.Walter Plunkett was now free lancing, long term contracts gone with the wind for costume designers, indeed for much of the studio arts and crafts personnel.
He would design one more big Hollywood movie, How the West Was Won in 1962. After that he designed a few more movies and had a long career to long back on. He especially enjoyed many celebrations of those glory days of Hollywood’s Golden Age. He even recreated his old costume sketches and he also painted flowers. His legacy today lives on through those great movies.
Movies shot on or projected from film have been declared dead or dying for years. Yet some directors and cinematographers still recognize the superiority of this almost 125 year- old technology. Stanley Kubrick’s science-fiction classic 2001: A Space Odyssey was shot on film in 1968, as were all movies back in the pre-digital days. But on May 13, 2018 it was projected in Cannes for the Film Festival from 70mm film. Christopher Nolan had worked with Warner Brothers to re-release the film on 70mm. Kenneth Turan of the Los Angeles Times called it “breathtaking.”
Why was this “film” still available? Nolan has been a persistent advocate of film. He had persuaded Warner Brothers to convert 100 theaters to allow projection of 70mm films for his Dunkirk. His cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema shares his passion, noting that a 70mm IMAX film print has resolution equivalent to 18K. When Nolan found out that there was an effort to print 2001 from the original negative, he became very excited. This effort at WB was led by Ned Price, vice president of restoration at Warner, Vince Roth, technical director at the post-production facility FotoKem, and color timer Kristen Zimmermann. Nolan remembered vividly seeing the movie as a kid. He was affected again watching the space station rotate above earth to the music of “The Blue Danube.” I must have watched that scene 20 times,” the director says when seeing the new print, clearly affected, “and every time the space station enters the shot, it moves me.” The Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences had a screening in 70mm for their members on June 11, with an introduction by Christopher Nolan, and the film began a limited release.
As Nolan stated about film, “… it’s still the best analog for the way the eye sees that has ever been produced. Except for the last 10 years, the entire history of cinema has been done exactly the same way, photochemically, and it’s a great passion of mine to maintain this knowledge and expertise…”
Cinematographer John Bailey, now President of the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences, agrees that projected 35mm “…seems to have a kind of animation and life to it — a breathing quality. It has to do a lot with the film grain; it has to do a lot with the projection shutters and the fact that every frame in a film print is completely distinct.”
At the TCM Classic Film Festival in Hollywood in April 2018, one of the panel discussions was Writing with Light, held at the American Society of Cinematographers Clubhouse. The event was moderated by director Taylor Hackford, and included veteran cinematographers Amy Vincent, John Toll, Bob Richardson, Caleb Deschanel, and Stephen Burum. Taylor Hackford asked stimulating questions that each cinematographer answered in turn. Three of the five cinematographers still use film. They recognize the advantages of digital: you need less light and you have more control. Caleb Deschanel (National Treasure, Jack Reacher, Winter’s Tale), said that “digital is a scientific representation of skin color.” Film is more natural in representing true skin, he said, which he has to color-corect when he uses digital. One of the other current problems with digital is that nothing is standardized in its use, which the American Society of Cinematographers is trying to correct. As for film, the people that have the skill to develop it are in very short supply, as are the labs that process it and the companies that manufacture it, which have closed down over the last decade. Fortunately, Kodak is still producing 35mm color and b&w film stock. Kodak also has a website and an app, Reelfilm, where movies shot on film playing in your area are listed: https://reelfilm.kodak.com
Movie theater projection has virtually all been converted to digital at this point. Instead of multiple cans of film reels, a single DCP (Digital Cinema Package) cartridge is sent to the movie theater. Another advantage here is that the DCP costs about $100. Christopher Nolan’s 70mm Dunkirk print cost over $30,000. The goal eventually will be to send the movies by satellite transmission. Theater film projectors have been surplused and most of them junked. For the few vintage theaters, its been a good opportunity to get replacement projectors and ancillary equipment or spare parts. Finding skilled operators of this equipment is another story. Many of the former projectionists have retired. And there is little incentive for learning this skill as a career path.
There are some fans of celluloid that are fortunate to get on a cinema wayback machine. The old Grauman’s Egyptian Theatre in Hollywood, now part of the American Cinematheque, had its projection room remodelled for fire safety so it could play nitrate-based film. At the 2018 TCM Classic Film Festival it screened the beautiful Leave Her to Heaven on nitrate stock, on loan from the Museum of Modern Art in New York. During that screening the film broke, and the audience waited as the projectionist spliced the film back together.
The threat of damage to film prints is constant, said Dominic Simmons, Head of Technical, at the British Film Institute. “Every time you run a film print through a projector there is some element of damage done to it. You’re running it over sprockets at loads of feet per second,” he said. Writer Daniel Curtis described the process during a screening of a documentary, at BFI, “It’s loud, quick, and, after leaning in to look more closely, it’s easy to see that it’s violent.” Simmons added, “It’s a really physical process. The film is starting and stopping 24 times a second.”
The preservation of movies on film has been going on for decades. The preservation of digital movies is still in its infancy. Many mistakingly assume that just because a movie is shot on digital “it will last forever.” The Library of Congress and the American Film Institute have been cooperating on film preservation for 50 years. The Nitrate Film Vault manager, in an oft-quoted statement, says digital preservation may be an “oxymoron.” “How do you save digital material? ‘Cause digital as a rule is very iffy. You have only a couple of different ways you can store it, you can store it magnetically or optically or on a card, but none of those are permanent. Something can disrupt them and the stuff is gone.” This also begs the question – is the preservation effort going to be made to begin with?
According to experts the answer to the problems of digital preservation is redundant storage, periodic migration to newer media, and emulation (using current software that simulates original or obsolete ones). Paramount Pictures is one of the studios that is making the effort to archivally preserve its film-based and digital library. Andrea Kalas, VP of Archives, says she makes four copies of every Paramount movie. She stores their library of films in Pro-Tek vaults on high-density mobile shelves at 29 degrees and 35% relative humidity. on that basis, they can last well over 100 years.
The British Film Institute has a new facility for the storage of the national collection. Heather Stewart is BFI’s Creative Director. While recognizing the importance of digital movies, her opinion of film was quoted recently in The New Statesman, “It’s the realism the film gives you – that organic thing, the light going through the film is not the same as the binary of 0s and 1s. It’s a different sensation. Which isn’t to say that digital is ‘lesser than’, but it’s a different effect. People know. They feel it in their bodies, the excitement becomes more real. There’s that pleasure of film, of course but I don’t want to be too geeky about it.” Once film is placed in proper storage conditions, it can be very stable. As Stewart states, “…“all archives worldwide are on the same page and the plan is to continue looking after analogue, so it ain’t going anywhere.”
Along with preserving film itself, an efort was made in the UK to preserve, at least in photograohs, the film projectionists. Prompted by the transition to digital, The Projection Project centered at the Department of Film and Television Studies at the University of Warwick sought to record and investigate the history of movie projection in Britain. In 2012, with 90% of projectionists already displaced by digital, the photographer Richard Nicholson began photographing movie theater film projectionists.
Many movie viewers don’t see any difference between digital or film, and some say digital is even superior. For now there are still the two. If you are a movie fan, go see for yourself. At least while there are still film movies being made, and at the few theaters that can still non-digitally project them.
May 16 is National Classic Movie Day and the Classic Comfort Movie Blogathon: perfect for that wonderful Capra classic Lady for a Day.If the term “The Lubitsch Touch” hadn’t already been coined it would need to have been invented for Frank Capra. Starting with this film, he directed eleven hit movies in a row. Each had a unique quality – with most featuring strong populist characters facing hard challenges ending with heartwarming results. Working at the “Poverty Row” studio of Columbia, and for a tough boss in Harry Cohn, the Depression was on and Capra was having a tough year. He had bought on the cheap the rights to a short story by Damon Runyon titled Madame La Gimp. His writing partner Robert Riskin thought they could make something out this story of an “old lady” street corner apple seller – once a stage performer now fallen on hard times. She sent her daughter for schooling in a convent in Spain, sending money she collects off the street. Only now her daughter is grown-up and making a surprise visit. For Capra, who else could play such a role other than Marie Dressler, but MGM would never loan her out. As Capra and Briskin stewed on their dilemma, Cohn kept putting on the pressure to come up with a hit. And in the meantime things got worse as Capra’s wife miscarried their first child. Then a big earthquake hit in nearby Long Beach.
When Capra and Briskin got back to finding the talent for the film, they looked for a suitable “Apple Annie.” These street corner merchants came out of a confluence of the hard times of the Depression and a glut of apples in the Pacific Northwest. The Unemployed Relief Committee of the International Apple Growers Association started an apple selling effort by distributing low-cost apples to the the so-called Apple Annies and the unemployed who sold them for a nickle apiece. Capra looked among older actors and found a Broadway veteran and Hollywood transplant for the lead, the 75 year old May Robson. She had made her first stage appearance in 1883. Her years of acting made her perfect for the role. The “Dave the Dude” character went to the handsome and debonair Warren William, with Bob Briskin’s girlfriend Glenda Farrell being perfect for the Dude’s moll. Apple Annie’s daughter is played by the beautiful Jean Parker. The Dude’s henchman “Happy” was played by Ned Sparks, who Capra described as “…he of the bleak mien, and parched voice squeezed dry of all compassion.” And then there was “The Judge” played by Guy Kibbee, pool shark and, (SPOILER) fill-in for Apple Annie’s husband, filling out the principal cast.
This is a Cinderella story for an old woman, and at the end, as Richard E. Grant said giving a movie pitch in The Player, “There’s not a dry eye in the house.” Partial SPOILER: Apple Annie has a network of friends in the neighborhood, one of which is the doorman at the Hotel Maybery. He provides her hotel stationary on which she writes her daughter under her assumed name of Mrs. E. Worthington Manville. Apple Annie’s fictions fall apart when her daughter writes back in her latest letter that she is coming for a visit, along with her fiancé Carlos, and his father, Count Romero from Spain. Since receiving this letter, Annie has not been seen. Dave the Dude, a gambling man (and racketeer), relies on her for his “lucky apples.” Soon all the neighborhood street characters ask the Dude to do something. When Dave the Dude finds Annie at her apartment drinking and bemoaning her fate, he see’s the photo of her daughter Louise and understands. Her friends now ask him to rent her rooms at the Maybery where she can receive her daughter and fiancé, they will even pay with their meager earnings. The Dude declines their money but puts her up anyway, and gets his girlfriend Missouri Martin (Glenda Farrell) to dress her up as a society matron. She’ll have to have a husband so the Dude gets the pool shark, alias Judge Henry D. Blake (Guy Kibbee). This assemblage is all lined up at the docks as Louise’s ship arrives and a tearful but happy reunion is celebrated and acquaintances made with the new prospective in-laws. A journalist happens to be there, however, and before the well-known “gangster” mug of Dave the Dude can be noted with the new arriving dignitaries, “Happy” kidnaps the reporter. And with cops around, the other street characters start a fight to divert the cops from the Dude’s presence.
All is going well in this underworld scheme-for-the-good. But life is full of surprises, even a movie life. When all has gone smoothly and the visitors announce they are returning to Spain, “The Judge” announces he and “Mrs. Worthington Manville” will have a party for their departing guests. He has also asked the Dude to round up guests, meaning to turn Missouri’s “gals” and the Dude’s “mugs” into society people. Meanwhile, several more reporters have been kidnapped and the Police Commissioner, under pressure from the Mayer, is cracking down on Police Captains to find the missing reporters. Just when all the mugs and gals are at Missouri’s club rehearsing before going to the party, the cops come in for a bust. It looks like no one will show for Apple Annie’s going-away party for her daughter, fiancé, and Spanish guest. She is thinking about confessing the whole charade to them. But life is full of surprises, especially movie lives.
Lady for a Day was a great success for Frank Capra and Columbia Pictures. The film received four Academy Award nominations: for Best Picture; Best Actress; Best Writing; and Best Directing, which was Frank Capra’s first nomination. The Academy Awards were held at the Biltmore Hotel that year, and Capra was all worked up, already seeing in his mind the publicity for the first movie to ever win four Oscars. His wife Lu was in her 9th month of pregnancy, so he attended with a group of Hollywood friends. Bob Briskin had his own table of guests (yes, tables with food and drink at the time). Will Rogers was the MC, and as each of the categories was announced that Lady wasnominated for – it went to another nominee. Capra’s heart sank further and further. Finally, the BEST DIRECTOR category came up and Will Rogers opened the envelope and said how great it was for this young director – how he saw him come up from the bottom, and then he said, “Come up and get it, Frank!” Capra’s table burst in applause as Capra shot up and made his way through a maze of tables towards the dais. On the other side of the room another man was also heading for the dais, Frank Lloyd, and the spotlights landed on him – he was the one winning for directing the movie Cavalcade. Capra realized to his shame that he wasn’t the winner standing out there. Walking back to his table was a humiliation he never forgot – except later that night when his guests and the Briskins all got drunk at his house. Hollywood is full of surprises.
This post is part of the National Classic Movie Day Comfort Movie Blogathon sponsored by Rick at Classic Film & TV Cafe
The 9th annual Turner Classic Movies Film Festival was a full-card of film screenings and other events that thrilled every classic movie fan in attendance. This was my ninth year attending. The first couple of years were a bit chaotic in movie-line management, but now all has been ironed out. Every staff member and usher is helpful and knowledgeable and one need only know what event one wants to attend (and that is hard enough). The one thing that remains constant is to remember to occasionally eat and sleep. If you have a smart phone, using the TCMFF app will be easier than carrying the program around, plus you get regular updates to changes and added screenings.
My 2018 TCMFF actually started early as I participated on a panel discussion at the Hollywood Heritage Museum for the program Feud: Costuming Bette Davis & Joan Crawford. This was all about the TV mini-series FEUD, and featured Jay Jorgensen and me talking about the costumes of the stars and the show moderated by Louise Coffey-Webb.
The first film screening I attended was a surprise hit at the Fesival: Finishing School. I was relaxing at the Roosevelt/TCM lounge when fellow costume historian and blogger Kimberly Truhler told me a line had already formed for the screening. I chugged my drink and dashed accross the street (the long way around the block since thr Chinese Theatre was blocked off). This film is little known and stars the beautiful Frances Dee and Ginger Rogers. This was an RKO production, where Dee met Joel McRae and the two subsequently married. The film is about a “Girls” finishing school, or boarding school, where high school aged girls learn manners and refinement. Ginger is already a student and Frances learns rebelliousness from her, but after Dee gets all the blame, she adapts some attitude of her own. Soon she meets Bruce Cabot, a medical student and intern. As she gets restricted, her ability to see him gets more and more difficult. Wanda Tuchock wrote the screenplay and co-directed this 1934 film. Great acting by Frances Dee. Her grandson Wyatt McRae, shown below at right, was on hand to talk about the film and his grandparents.
The classic Stage Door was the next film I attended Thursday night. Gregory LaCava’s adaptation of George S. Kaufman and Edna Ferber’s play, with Anthony Veillor’s script (and ad-libbing), is a gem of a movie that everyone should watch – more than once. Hold your breath at the starring roles: Katharine Hepburn; Ginger Rogers; Lucille Ball; Eve Arden; Gail Patrick, Ann Miller; Andrea Leeds (steals your heart) Constance Collier; and Adolphe Menjou (the cad Broadway producer). This was The Women before there was The Women. It played at the American Cinematques’s GRAUMAN’S EGYPTIAN Theatre. It was preceded by The Letter, One of Bill Morrison’s unque films made of edited deteriorated remnants of silent films.
The next morning I stood in line to see another favorite, the lesser known but wonderful The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek, directed by Preston Sturges. It stars that spark plug on legs Betty Hutton (as Bob Hope used to call her), with Sturges regulars Eddie Bracken, William Demarest, and Brian Donlevy. This 1944 film’s whacky but funny plot defies brief description – it just has to be seen.
How to Marry a Millionaire was a good follow-up movie, especially enjoyable on a big screen in Cinemascope. The plot of three women teaming up to catch some rich men had been done several times already by 1953, but combining Marilyn Monroe, Lauren Bacall, and Betty Grable was dynamite. Although William Powell was a catch that didn’t quite last, Rory Calhoun, Cameron Mitchell, and David Wayne survived the test. Directed by Jean Negulesco, who remade the story a year later in Rome with Three Coins in the Fountain.
A smart film was screened starring Deanna Durbin in her first big starring role: Three Smart Girls for Universal Studio, in what would be the upcoming star’s single-handed job of saving the studio from bankruptcy. This Henry Koster directed film had Deanna Durbin and her two sisters, played by Nan Grey and Barbara Read, trying to prevent her divorced father from marrying a gold-digger. This to keep their mother from having a broken heart. Their schemes are complicated and highly entertaining. Also stars Binnie Barns, Charles Winninger, Ray Milland, and Ernest Cossart. Bob Koster, pictured above, the director’s son, spoke about his father’s career and the movie.
An even longer line was formed for Leave Her to Heaven, a fabulous Technicolor film screened here at the Egyptian from a nitrate print from the Museum of Modern Art in New York. I attended with fellow blogger Patty Schneider aka The Lady Eve’s REEL LIFE. The film stars Gene Tierney, Cornel Wilde, Jeanne Crain, and Vincent Price. This John Stahl directed film is unique in depicting Tierney as a twisted personality, and is often described as a Technicolor film-noir. One is struck on first viewing it by the rich lush colors of the scenery and sets, and of Gene Tierney’s beauty and initial magnetism (this was the 2nd time I had seen it at a TCMFF). Cinematography by Leon Shamroy.
Probably the best event of the Festival was Writing with Light, a panel discussion held at the American Society of Cinematographers Clubhouse. The event was moderated by director Taylor Hackford, and included cinematographers Amy Vincent, John Toll, Bob Richardson, Caleb Deschanel, and Stephen Burum. Taylor Hackford asked stimulating questions that each cinematographer answered in turn. As a result, the audience got a lesson in what the cinematographer does, but also provided a fascinating series of anecdotes and stories about working with directors and on plethora of films, Highlights of their comnbined output includes: Braveheart; TheThin Red Line; Cloud Atlas; Hateful Eight; Hugo; The Aviator; Kill Bill; The Horse Whisperor; National Treasure; The Natural; Being There; The Black Stallion; The Right Stuff; Mission Impossible; and The Untouchables among many others.
From left to right: Taylor Hackford; Amy Vincent; John Toll; Bob Richardson; Caleb Deschanel; and Stephen Burum.
Below is one of several early cameras on display at the Clubhouse, this was was able to pick up sound.
The next film I viewed was the under-appreciated The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, a David O. Selznick production done in 1938 while he was waiting for elements of Gone With the Wind to come together. Selznick used some of the production talent he would be wotking with in GWTW: art director William Cameron Menzies and costume designer Walter Plunkett. He also had James Wong Howe as cinematographer. Filmed in Technicolor, their on-set advisors gave a taste of the problems for the cinematographer they would cause on GWTW for costume colors. The director was Norman Taurog who worked with a large child cast as well as May Robson and Walter Brennan. Cora Sue Collins who played the girl Amy Lawrence was interviewed about her role in this and many others. She had played Queen Christina as a child in the Greta Garbo film and they had remained life-long friends.
An intriguing show was Cracking Wise, an edited medley of movie wise-cracks taken from dozens of films in the Paramount Archives. Rather than being Paramount films, however, these were mainly “B” films from the Republic Pictures (Paramount no longer owns the rights to their pre-1948 films). Paramount Archivist Andrea Kalas had assembled the clips representing the lines from many of the most clever Hollywood scriptwriters.
Always an interesting part of TCMFF, the Bonham’s Hollywood Memorabilia appraisal session was held at the Roosevelt lobby. There was not much exciting this year, except for this Belgian Casablanca poster printed on fabric. Here Catherine Williamson from Bonham’s, at far left, reviews the piece.
I had to skip out of the session to get in line for Places in the Heart, a special screening with both director Robert Benton (pictured at left below) and Sally Field in attendance. Sally Field received her second Academy Award for Best Actress for her role. They gave a lively remembrance of their working together on this excellent movie. She played a recent widower in rural Texas tryng against all odds to save her house and land by farming cotton with the help of an itinerant black man (Danny Glover) and blind roomer(John Malkovich).
My last film before a long drive home to San Diego was a favorite I couldn’t miss on the big screen: Silk Stockings, starring Cyd Charisse, Fred Astaire, Janis Paige, Peter Lorre, Jules Munchin, and Joseph Buloff. This remake of Ninotcha as a musical featured the last work of Cole Porter. The fabulous costumes were designed by Helen Rose for Cyd Charisse as she is transformed from a Soviet commissar into a Parisian beauty. The other female cast also were dressed by Rose. And so I got to hum the numbers from Too Bad (We Can’t Go Back to Moscow), and Stereophonic Sound on the first part of my high traffic drive. And remembering another great TCM Classic Movie Film Festival.
Billy Wilder’s SOME LIKE IT HOT starring Marilyn Monroe is still hot, the 60th anniversary of its making. It is screened every year to a large crowd at the Coronado Island Film Festival – on the beach in front of the Hotel del Coronado where a large part of it was filmed. Like many of Hollywood’s greatest movies, it has a fascinating backstory and a yacht-full of movie making convolutions.
Director Billy Wilder had bought the rights to a German movie about a couple of Jazz musicians pretending to be women. It was the Depression and they just wanted to get into any band with an opening . Billy and his writing partner I. A. L. (Iz) Diamond spent nearly a year on the script, changing the circumstances to having an all-woman band in the 1920s. Here their two characters get mixed up in a gangland event shooting, and are now being hunted as witnesses. Tony Curtis as Joe (Josephine) and Jack Lemmon as Jerry (Daphne) dress up as women as a disguise and join the band. They now escape by train but are stuck in their female roles as musicians. For Jerry and Joe that’s all of a sudden not so bad when they discover Marilyn Monroe as band-member Sugar Kane Kowalcyzk is aboard. Suger Kane drinks, but Jerry saves her job by stating that a fallen flask of whiskey is his, thus making a good friend. Later Suger visits his sleeping compartment and a flustered Jerry is only saved by more band-women visitors. They are on their way to the fictional Ritz Seminole Hotel in Florida, the story stand-in for the Hotel del Coronado, where they will be playing. Once there, among the resort guests is the very rich Osgood Fielding III, who immediately starts flirting with Daphne (Jerry/Jack Lemmon). Jerry is ready to give up their act as he rooms with Joe (Josephine/ Tony Curtis). But Joe says that the gangster “Spats” (George Raft) will be looking for any male musicians, and besides, he has his own designs on Suger. For this, he pretends to be the Shell Oil heir, speaking with the accent of Cary Grant as he woos her on the beach.
Censorship still existed at the time, and the characters and subject matter of the film had problems. The National Catholic Legion of Decency found Some Like It Hotto contain “screen material elements that are judged to be seriously offensive to Christian and traditional standards of morality and decency. …The dialogue was not only ‘double entendre’ but outright smut. The offense in costuming was obvious.” The MPAA was more sympathetic, citing Shakespeare as a precedent in cross-dressing.
Marilyn Monroe had worked with Billy Wilder previously on the Seven Year Itch, and asked Wilder to work with him again. She consented to work on Some Like it Hot (SLIH) for 10% of the gross. When she signed, Lemmon came on board, SLIH becoming one of seven films he made with Wilder. These were difficult times for Marilyn. She was pregnant. She was taking drugs. She had her acting coach Paula Strasberg telling her what to do. She overdosed and spent several days at the hospital. So now she couldn’t remember her lines, and take after take was needed – as many as 47 for some very simple lines of dialogue. Some days she wouldn’t come out of her dressing room ( more like a motor home) until noon.
The film’s costume designer was the famed Orry-Kelly. He was the native Australian who had dressed Bette Davis and all the other Warner Brothers stars of the Golden Age of Hollywood. Orry-Kelly and Marilyn Monroe got off on the wrong foot right off the bat. Orry-Kelly was known to be as temperamental as the stars he dressed. He made the mistake of saying Tony Curtis had a better looking ass than she did. But Marilyn had a sharp retort, she unbuttoned her blouse and said, “Tony Curtis doesn’t have tits like these.”
But Orry-Kelly still managed to design some great looking outfits for her.
Tony Curtis and Marilyn had once had a brief affair. And according to Curtis in his autobiography, the affair had being rekindled on the set. Although the script has him playing an inhibited role in this scene, Marilyn seems very natural in this scene.
The stolen evening on Osgood’s yacht is followed the next day by chaos as the mob descends on the resort hotel. The two “girls” scurry for safety, although Daphne/Jack Lemmon ends up with Osgood/Joe E Brown escaping on a boat together. The final line has become a classic in comedic cinema, a sentence that was a place- holder sentence written by Iz Diamond until they came up with a better line. They never did.
Orry-Kelly won an Oscar for Best Costume design for black and white film. At the time, there were two costume design Oscars, the other was for color films. It also received nominations for Best Actor (Lemmon), Best Art Direction, Best Cinematography (again for black & white film), Best Director and Best Screenplay. The American Film Institute selected it the #1 comedy of all time. Marilyn’s black cocktail dress pictured in this blog post sold at auction for $460,000.
The role of fabric in the work of costume and fashion designers is always crucial. One textile designer was often seen but rarely heard. This post will feature the textile designer Pola Stout, and how her exquisite woolen designs were used by designers Adrian and Irene, as well as Edith Head, Pauline Trigere, Mainbocher, Bonnie Cashin, Muriel King, Valentina, and others.
Pola was born in Poland but defied her parents by going to Vienna to study art at the Kunsgewerbe Schule. She studied textile design and hand-looming under Professor Joseph Hoffman. At one period, out of money, she slept on a park bench for six-weeks. But she shortly joined the famed Wiener Werkstatte where her works were exhibited and sold. Subsequently she received a special mention for hand-looming at the 1925 Paris Exposition des Arts Decoratif (from where the term Art Deco was coined). The young Pola was well on her way to making a name for herself.
Always looking for the new frontier, Pola visited the U.S. and soon after moved here. She then began designing textiles for Dunhill in 1934. In the U.S. she also met and married the best-selling author Rex Stout, famed for his Nero Wolfe mystery stories. They had two daughters, Rebecca and Barbara.
Both Adrian and Irene (Lentz Gibbons) began using Pola Stout fabrics in the late 1930s. Irene was still designing for Bullock’s Wilshire, and Adrian was at MGM when they began using Pola’s woolens. Soon after, the two costume and fashion designers traded places. Irene took over Adrian’s job at MGM and Adrian joined the fashion industry when he opened his own fashion line. Adrian then began using Pola Stout fabrics extensively for his suits, capes, and coats. Adrian so admired Pola’s textiles that he named one of his suit designs, Woven Joy. He named the suit above, Symphonic Traveler. Adrian said of her woolens, “Often the complexity of the material is a challenge and I try to simplify my approach as well as retain as interesting a use as I can possibly make of the fabric.” Looking at some of Adrian’s suits, one isn’t sure if this is one of his facetious comments or not as far as simplifying goes. He certainly made them interesting.
Pola then began designing for Botony Mills in 1940, where she designed the “Botony Perennials” collection each season. She would also design limited edition textiles for several fashion designers, those that she worked closely with through Botany Mills. Thus, the designers could have their own custom look and color palette designed by Pola. These new textile designs were so beautiful that the upscale B. Altman’s 5th Avenue store in New York devoted all its windows to the Botany Perennials one season.
Pola would begin her design process by drawing lines on paper with color crayons. The vertical warp yarns would be in two or more colors and the horizontal weft yarns would often be woven in the same color sequence. But with all her color variations, Pola always had in mind the functionality, durability, and timeless appeal of her textile designs. She stated, “In developing Botany Perennials I visualize all kinds of American women interested in building a sound wardrobe, and I try to make that wardrobe something basic in style and wearability, something they can depend on.” And indeed the idea of the “Perennials” was that you could match skirts, jackets and coats in the same five-color harmonies, and from one season to the next.
Pola subsequently started her own company in 1946 with a mill in Philadelphia. She would design her own textiles for theselooms, where she would have multicolored wool yarns woven into “blankets” that would be sold to the various designers and exclusively to certain department stores. The textile workers were very devoted to her and her artistic vision.
The suit shown above was designed by Adrian and made from a Pola Stout striped woolen. Both Adrian and Irene loved to use stripes in various patterns in their suits. Adrian needed his stripes to be unique in order to avoid looking common. They both insisted on impeccable matching of lines in their creations. Adrian liked to cut the Pola Stout blankets into mitered patterns that would then be re-assembled into right-angles and other patterns in his suits. He also liked to use large color-blocking elements from those bolder sections of Pola’s blankets in his suits.
The innovative use of stripes in women’s suits by both Adrian and Irene using Pola Stout woolens has not been matched in the sixty plus years since their last design collections.
The Adrian suit below of Pola Stout woolen is a marvel of checks, with four different sizes. The jacket has an asymmetrical “slashing” of checks, increasing slightly in size as they go right to left and cross to the sleeve. They also go around to the back of the jacket. The skirt is also checkered.
The image below shows an Adrian design for a hooded cape in the Grand Canyon colors of a Pola Stout woolen. In addition to the bold stripes are small polka dots in complimentary colors.
Pola generally believed in using five basic colors in her designs: blue; green; brown; black; and red. Combining these colored yarns, however, could create multiple effects. She would also add white yarns to these basic colors to produce her varying shades. Adrian stated about one of his capes made from Pola’s blankets in his 1950 collection, “In the case of a dramatic cape in my present collection…I did use the blanket – 54 inches wide by 3 yards in length, in its entirety.” Adrian’s cape matched the colors and stripes of the suit underneath it, all from Pola’s woolens.
In addition to suits, Adrian also used Pola’s woolens to make dresses. Above is one example made entirely of Pola’s fabric, with various horizontal striping and blocking elements to create a unique design.
Pola Stout fabric swatches above are shown from Irene’s fall collection, 1948. Irene designed fabulous suits and also used the mitering technique to form interesting geometric patterns.
Below are several photos of sections from Pola Stout woolen designs. The variety in her designs was fascinating and endless. It should also be recognized that these are fine woolens, though they may appear as shear cottons or flannels and each photograph represents approximately 30-36 inches across.
Pola Stout continued her life-long commitment to the design of high quality textiles. She was also devoted to the promotion of the textile industry in America. She would no doubt be saddened by the fate of that industry in recent times, although hand-weaving on looms is currently a thriving art and craft. Pola was recognized by an exhibition of her work at the Bennington College of Vermont in 1957. She gave numerous lectures at industry groups and at colleges and museums. She also became a lecturer and consultant at the Fashion Institute of Technology.
Growing up with their illustrious parents, Rebecca and Barbara knew they lived in somewhat unique circumstances. As school girls, Rebecca recalls that their mother made the clothes that she and her sister wore. They were no doubt the best-dressed girls in school, but Rebecca now recalls that at the time they wished they could just be dressed just like all the other girls. The sisters are now very proud of their mother’s artistic contribution to their lives and to that of her adopted country .
My thanks to Rebecca Stout Bradbury for sharing these amazing woolens with me and allowing me to photograph some of them shown here. The legacy of Pola Stout has uniquely enriched the heritage of fashion design and textiles in the United States.
The grand 20th Century-Fox studio has a long history of producing notable films supported by great costume design. The 20th Century Fox studio has been part of 21st Century Fox Corp, but has now become part of the Walt Disney Company since the buy-out of most of that corporation’s assets in December 2017. The studio had its roots as the Fox Film Corporation, started by William Fox in Fort Lee New Jersey, then the film capital of the U.S. Fox sent his rep Sol Wurtzel to Hollywood to set-up a west coast studio in 1917. With the advent of sound pictures, Fox bought the Movietone system of sound on film. Later when the studio expanded to some 300 acres west of Beverly Hills between Pico and Santa Monica Boulevards in 1928, it was named Movitone City. But William Fox lost control of Fox after the crash of 1929, and the studio ultimately merged with 20th Century Pictures in 1935. 20th Century Pictures had been formed in 1933 as a production company by Joseph Schenck and Daryl Zanuck. They were leasing studio space at Samuel Goldwyn’s studio until the merger when they took over the Fox lot and Daryl Zanuck became head of production.
Whether as Fox or 20th Century-Fox, a variety of costume designers worked at the studio, and usually left before creating a distinctive studio style. There was no Adrian/MGM, Orry-Kelly/Warner Bros., or Travis Banton or Edith Head/Paramount, combinations here. Fox started with Sophie Wachner, a former teacher turned Broadway costumer. The noted English designer Dolly Tree came in to design films for Greta Nissen and Conchita Montenegro, then David Cox joined her from MGM in 1932. Earl Luick , an accomplished designer followed. Adrian gave him his first job as an assistant designer on C.B. DeMille’s King of Kings. He designed many of Fox’s notable films, including Cavalcade, Black Swan, Springtime in the Rockies,and The Oxbow Incident. He stayed through the merger and for 10 years in all. Costume designer Royer (Lewis Royer Hastings) also came to Fox in 1933 . At about the same time, Gloria Swanson made a movie for Fox: Music in the Air (1934). She brought in her own costume designer that she met in Paris: Rene Hubert. He ended up staying for several years.Meanwhile, Rita Kaufman became “fashion creator.” She mostly had her sketch artists or young designers do the designing while she selected gowns and dresses from Hattie Carnegie. A talented newcomer also joined the ranks in 1936, Helen Rose, future head designer of MGM. She wasn’t there long as Kaufman and most of her staff were swept away along with Fox production chief Winnie Sheehan with the merger, but she did get to work on some notable films.
With the merger of Fox with 20th Century, Daryl Zanuck put Arthur Levy in charge as general manager of the wardrobe department. The manager was not a designer but ran the department: its finances; hiring personnel; purchasing supplies; workflow, etc. Costume designer Royer had came to Fox in 1933 and stayed until 1939. He designed for Loretta Young who had come along with Daryl Zanuck. Royer’s beautiful costumes for her appeared in Love is News, Cafe Metropole, Suez, and Wife, Husband and Friend. He was now doing most of the designing with newcomer Gwen Wakeling, whom Zanuck hired.. They both designed the costumes for the biggest star on the lot – Shirley Temple. Costume designer Gwen Wakeling, had started in the mid-1920s with C.B. DeMille, and had become one of 20th Century’s key designers. The two designers got along well, especially in their complaints about Zanuck’s wardrobe budget and having to remake old clothes rather than making new. It seems the merger had put the studio in debt and the Depression hadn’t helped. In 1939 both designers left. A replacement was found in Travis Banton, the brilliant but alcoholic former designer at Paramount. He designed some notable films during his tenure in 1940-1941:The Mark of Zorro (with Tyrone Power and Linda Darnell); Tin Pan Alley(with Betty Grable & Alice Faye); That Night in Rio! (with Alice Faye, Don Ameche & Carmen Miranda); Blood and Sand(Tyrone Power, Linda Darnell & Rita Hayworth); and Moon Over Miami ( Betty Grable & Don Ameche). One designer that stayed was Herschel ( Herschel McCoy). He was at Fox from 1935 until 1943. He designed mostly B pictures early in his career but got better assignments in later years. A costume sketch by Herschel for Carole Landis in Cadet Girl (1941) is shown below.
Men’s costume design for period or genre films also had a nebulous history at Fox. The Samuel Goldwyn studio had designed costumes for the 20th Century studio, and Omar Kiam had done a couple of their big productions including male costumes. After the merger Sam Benson, a costumer, handled most of the men’s costumes. Fox had hits with two movies in 1939, The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes and The Hound of the Baskervilles. The films starred Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce, and their distinctive costumes, especially Sherlock’s “deerstalker’ hat and Inverness cape, were designed by Marjorie Best. A costume sketch for Basil Rathbone as Sherlock Holmes is below.
A new era began at 20th Century -Fox when Charles LeMaire took over as general manager of the wardrobe department. LeMaire had been designing costumes on Broadway since the 1920s. He had even turned down Adrian for a job on Broadway. When he took over in 1943, Fox (hereafter the shortened term for 20th Century-Fox in this post), was down to one designer. As head of the department, Le Maire brought in several designers. One was the versatile Yvonne Wood who could do men’s costumes, musicals, or Carmen Miranda’s silly hats. Kay Nelson designed the beautiful and symbolicLeave Her to Heavenwith Gene Tierney. William “Billy” Travilla would design Marilyn Monroe’s sexy outfits. Mary Wills, previously at Goldwyn, would design a variety of films, and Emile Santiago would do biblical films like The Robe.
A rising star named Lena Horne was loaned to Fox from MGM to make Stormy Weather(1943), one of the first films with an all black cast: including Bill Robinson; Fats Waller; Cab Calloway; Dooley Wilson; Ada Brown, and the NIcholas Brothers. Helen Rose designed knock-out gowns for Lena Horne and the film had great musical numbers by Cab Calloway and the Nicholas Brothers. Lena returned to MGM and Helen would soon join her there.
After Shirley Temple’s heyday, Alice Faye made consistent hits for the studio. She started her career there in 1934 and both sang and starred in her films through the early 1940s. She was often paired with either Don Ameche or Tyrone Power and with the latter made musical romantic comedies. She starred in several hits including; You Can’t Have Everything; In old Chicago; Alexander’s Ragtime Band; Hello Frisco, Hello; and Lillian Russell. Alice Faye had a figure more typical of the (or more popular) 1950s. Still, she was well served by The designers that dressed her in most of her films: Royer, Gwen Wakeling, Travis Banton. and Helen Rose.
Betty Grable came to Fox in the 1940s. She had a number of hits including:Tin Pan Alley (1940); Moon Over Miami (1940); Coney Island (1943); Pin-Up Girl (1944); andThe Dolly Sisters(1945). She ran the gamut of Fox designers, using, in the same order as the listing above: Travis Banton, Travis Banton, Helen Rose, Rene Hubert, Orry-Kelly, and Orry-Kelly. She would also use Rene Hubert forWhen My Baby Smiles at Me,andTheBeautiful Blond from Bashful Bend(both 1948).
Bonnie Cashin was one of the costume designers that worked a few years at Fox. She had a different aesthetic that most, and her style would make a fashion trend starting with Laura (1944), starring Gene Tierney. She created a relaxed, sporty style of dress, and Gene Tierney’s cloche-like rain hat started a fashion trend. The costume sketch above is for Gene Tierney in Laura. Bonnie Cashin went to New York in 1949 to design sports clothes, starting her own line in 1952.
Charles LeMaire is shown with costume designer Emile Santiago at his left above after both won Best Costume Design (Color) for The Robe. Gene Tierney is at right, and a model at left wears a classically draped gown inspired by the costume designs for The Robe.
Charles LeMaire at right confers with Dorothea Hulse about the right yarns to use for costumes in The Robe. Below is a costume sketch by Emile Santiago for a character in the movie.
Costume designer Mary Wills was another very talented designer who could work in historical periods as well as contemporary. She had a Master’s Degree in Art and Drama from Yale. Below is one of her costume sketches for Bette Davis in the role of Queen Elizabeth in The Virgin Queen (1955).
Costume Designer Dorothy Jeakins also joined the designer staff at Fox in 1952, during the seemingly bulging staff period of the 1950s. She had been the first designer to win a Best Costume Oscar when that category was first launched in 1948, this for Joan of Arc (for Walter Wanger Productions). She shared the award with Barbara Karinska. At Fox Ms. Jeakins designed several notable films, including: My Cousin Rachel; Niagra (with Marilyn Monroe); Titanic; Three Coins in the Fountain; and South Pacific. Ms. Jeakins later received the Women in Film Crystal award in 1987.
Marilyn Monroe’s The Seven Year Itch (1955) “Subway” rayon crepe halter top dress with pleated skirt designed by Travilla sold at the famous Debbie Reynolds-Profiles in History auction in 2011 for $5.5 million. Travilla could not only design sexy dresses and gowns for Marilyn, but also wild stage costumes like the costume in the Tropical Heatwave number from There’s No Business Like Show Business, shown below.
Fox continued producing musicals, after early hits with the Betty Grable films. In1956, Fox produced Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Carousel,starring Shirley Jones and Gordan MacRae. The costumes were designed by Mary Wills, depicting the characters of a 19th century New England fishing village. Below is a Mary Wills costume sketch for Shirley Jones for the scene where they sing “If I Loved You.”
The serious theme of Carousel hindered its popularity at the box office, but Fox’s next musical proved to be a hit. The King and I, based on Rodgers and Hammerstein’s musical play, starred Yul Brenner and Deborah Kerr. Irene Sharaff had designed the Broadway stage production’s costumes, and she was brought in to design those for the movie. This included the Siamese (Thai) costumes and the mid 19th century outfits for Deborah Kerr. Miss Kerr’s skirts were filled out with real iron hoops, held in place by fabric stringers.
Fox films were not all musicals. In 1959 they made a very serious movie directed by George Stevens – The Diary of Anne Frank. The role of Anne was played by Millie Perkins, with a cast including Shelly Winters, Ed Wynn, and Joseph Schildkraut. Mary Wills designed the costumes. She was nominated for a Best Costume Oscar.
As television started eroding movie attendance, the studios started experimenting with various methods of attracting an audience with which TVs could not compete. In the 1960s, such means included increasing use of 70mm film, Panavision, and the Cinerama theater. Another method was to produce lavish spectacles. Thus Fox embarked on the huge undertaking of producing Cleopatra. Producer Walter Wanger began the project in 1958, with some footage started in England with Rouben Mamoulian directing and starring Elizabeth Taylor as Cleopatra, but with no male lead determined. Elizabeth Taylor fell ill and and this footage was scrapped with production moving to Italy in 1961. A new director was hired in Herbert Mankiewicz, and two new male leads: Richard Burton as Mark Antony and Rex Harrison as Julius Caesar. Shooting began in the spring of 1961, with the budget now at $12 million. Filming was done on sets constructed at Cinecittà studio in Rome, sprawled over eleven acres of the back lot, and shot on seven soundstages. Villages up and down the coast of Italy would also be used for location shooting. The total cost of production when finished was said to be $32 million, the most expensive movie ever made. Marketing costs would be extra. Elizabeth Taylor had 62 costume changes, a record, with her winged gold ceremonial entrance costume costing some $4,700 (worth $37,800 today).
Costume designers Irene Sharaff, Renie, and Vitorio Nino Novarese won Oscars for Best Costume design for Cleopatra. As was common for the period (then and now?) producers insisted that female costumes be made sexy, even if dubiuosly accurate for the period.
Although Cleopatra did pretty well at the box office, it was far from making back its costs. The result in fact was that it practically bankrupted Fox, and production of several films was halted at the studio.
Fox had another conventional musical hit with The Sound of Music in 1965, but the times were changing for the studios, for audience expectations, and in moviemaking. Travilla was one of those designers that moved easily into the 1960s fashion scene. Fox was looking for a best-selling book to produce as a movie and landed on the lusty, pop-culture hit Valley of the Dolls,Jacqueline Susann’s first book about three brassy and ambitious young women on the make in Hollywood, fuelled by pills and dreams.
Travilla is shown below amidst his costume sketches for Valley of the Dolls (1967) a cult favorite starring Sharon Tate and Barbara Parkins. Judy Garland was slated for the role of Helen Lawson, but was replaced when she showed up drunk on set.
One of Travilla’s costume sketches, below, is for Sharon Tate at a scene at the once famous but now gone Chassen’s restaurant. It is also shown at bottom left in the photo (with hair later modified). Travilla started a line of clothing based on Valley of the Dolls that were merchandized in several department stores.
The following year, Fox went out on a limb making a movie based on a story by Pierre Boule called Planet of the Apes, the movie becamea surprise hit. Another movie where Fox went out on a limb was Myra Breckinridge (1970), starring Mae West and Raquel Welsh. This notoriously camp movie involves the sex change operation of the film critic Myron Breckinridge (played by real critic Rex Reed), into the post-op Myra, played by the sexy Raquel Welsh. Nobody on set seemed to get along, especially with the director Michael Sarne, and even less between Mae West and Raquel Welsh. West had costume approval for her own costumes, designed by Edith Head, but also those of Raquel Welsh, which irked Welsh considerably. Raquel’s costumes were designed by Theadora Van Runkle. The costume sketch below is a costume sketch for Raquel Welsh from the movie.
On its release the reviews stated it was one of the worst movies ever made and it was a complete flop.
20th Century-Fox had lost money from 1969 through 1971. Years earlier in 1961, under then head Spyros Skouros, Fox sold their 260 acre L.A. westside backlot (the old Movietone lot) for $43 miliion. The area is now known as Century City, a commercial property-rich environment worth tens of billions today.
Like MGM did in 1970, Fox would also hold a big auction of their costumes, props, art, and vehicles in 1971. The costumes included many of Marilyn Monroe’s, which were bought by Debbie Reynolds. These and other costumes from the auction have since been sold and resold, and we hope are being well cared for.
20th Century-Fox went on to profitability in 1974 with Towering Inferno (which it co-produced with Warner Bros.) and then with a block-buster called Star Wars in 1977. By then, the studio system had disappeared, and costume design and fabrication was done outside of the studios. Costume designers and their talent persevere, but the collaboration of studio designer and star is long gone.
A blog about classic movie costume design and fashion