I remember him as if it were yesterday, as he came plodding to the inn door, his sea-chest following behind him in a hand-barrow–a tall, strong, heavy, nut-brown man, his tarry pigtail falling over the shoulder of his soiled blue coat, his hands ragged and scarred, with black, broken nails, and the sabre cut across one cheek, a dirty, livid white. I remember him looking round the cove and whistling to himself as he did so, and then breaking out in that old sea-song that he sang so often afterwards:
“Fifteen men on the dead man’s chest– Yo-ho-ho, and a bottle of rum!”
Thus begins the second paragraph of Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island, as it first appeared in The Young Folks Magazine as a serial, under the title “The Sea Cook,” in October, 1881. It would be published in book form as Treasure Island by Cassel & Co., in London. So much for novels of the 1800s having lumbering starts. The story’s appeal to youths was recognized by the American publisher Charles Scribner’s Sons when it published the book in the U.S. in 1911, with dramatic illustrations by N.C. Wyeth.
It didn’t take long for the movie industry to recognize the cinematic appeal of Treasure Island, even if the only woman in the story was Jim Hawkins’ mother. The Edison Company produced the first film version in 1912, with a Fox version produced in 1918 with a cast of children (now a lost film – see my post on films lost in fires here. A 1920 production of Treasure Island was made at Paramount, with Lon Chaney starring as Blind Pew and Charles Ogle playing Long John Silver.
M-G-M’s silver screen classic version from 1934 set the tone for Treasure Island from then on. It’s own visual style for pirates was heavily influenced by N.C. Wyeth and Howard Pyle’s Book of Pirates (1921). The film was directed by Victor Fleming and starred Jackie Cooper as Jim Hawkins, Lionel Barrymore as Billy Bones, Wallace Beery as Long John Silver, Lewis Stone as Capt. Smollett, Nigel Bruce as Squire Trelawney, and Otto Kruger as Dr. Livesay. The film plot follows the novel fairly closely, whereby Billy Bones’ sea chest contains a treasure map, and Bones was right to be looking over his shoulder for Blind Pew, and then for Black Dog who comes to deliver the dreaded “black spot.” And then several men attack the Inn. But with a treasure map safely in their hands, Livesay, Trelawney, the young Hawkins, and Capt. Smollett will use Smollett’s sloop to sail for Treasure Island in the Caribbean. They only need a crew, and harmless-looking, one-legged, sea-cook John Silver knows just the Bristol shipmates for the job.
Stevenson’s novel and the first 1934 classic had firmly established pirate looks, lore, and vocabulary in popular culture before Walt Disney. Stevenson himself acknowledged borrowing seafaring and lost treasure lore and iconography in his novel. Long John Silver’s parrot was borrowed from Robinson Crusoe, published by Daniel Defoe in 1719. This was written as a novel but the first edition stated it was written by Crusoe and most people thought it was an autobiography. The story was about the shipwrecked protagonist who spent 28 years on an island off the coast of Venezuela and Trinidad. One of the characters in Treasure Island is Captain Flint, although he is is already deceased in the story and it is his buried treasure everyone is after. Stevenson also borrowed the visual imagery of a pointing skeleton from Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Gold Bug.” But Stevenson borrowed most heavily from The General History of the Pyrates, published in 1724 and written by the unknown Captain Charles Robinson. The book contains the embellished biographies of legendary pirates including Anne Bonny, Blackbeard (Edward Teach), Calico Jack Rackham, Charles Vane, Mary Read and William Kidd.
The colorful language and accents of pirates has become well known and imitated for decades — largely originating from the book, film and later screen versions of Treasure Island. Right off the page we have the drunken Billy Bones singing sea songs and telling tales to frightened Inn guests about men walking the plank. Common seafaring men, and the English-speaking pirates that had come from them, had spent so much of their lives on ships that they used the words for parts of ships or weather for their own anatomy or condition. Belay there!meaning to stop came from the belaying pin used to hold fast a rope. Abaft meant rear or aft of the ship or backwards. Yardarm was the wood spar where the sails hung from. In the British Navy, it was used on ships indicating , “you could drink once the sun was above the yardarm.” The word buccaneer is used in Treasure Island. Buccaneer refers to pirates that operated in or out of the Caribbean during the 17th and 18th centuries. Although the word origin is attributed to the wood racks used to smoke wild game (boucans or buccans) on Tortuga Island, the French word for a male goat is bouc, and a boucan is to make a racket or hubbub — the latter a good description for buccaneering.
The great actor Lionel Barrymore played Billy Bones in the 1934 Treasure Island. Although Wallace Beery played a fine sweet and sour Long John Silver, I think Barrymore could have done much more with the role. And at least he would not have tried to steal scenes from Jackie Cooper like Beery did. But alas, Barrymore’s arthritic hands did not allow him to maneuver himself on a crutch. The cast of this version included many M-G-M contract players, and comprised mostly Americans. With the Disney version produced in 1950, that all changed. American studios commonly had to spend part of their U.K exhibition profits making movies in England, and this was the case with the Walt Disney studio. Walt Disney had wanted to make Treasure Island for fifteen years as an animated feature, and he finally got the film rights from M-G-M. But the “frozen” funds changed his mind into making it a live-action feature — Disney’s first full live-action movie. It was produced and filmed in English locations including Bristol, Falmouth and the coast of Cornwall, as well as London’s Denham Studios. Disney’s cast were all from the U.K except for Bobby Driscoll who played Jim Hawkins. English actor Robert Newton played Long John Silver in the Disney 1950 version of Treasure Island and its sequel Long John Silver (or Long John Silver’s Return to Treasure Island, 1954). For the July 1950 release of Treasure Island, the Disney Company did an extensive advertising campaign. A treasure hunt was launched involving treasure chests full of merchandise that could be opened by “keys” printed in some 350 local department stores and drug stores in 40 states.
Robert Newton’s use of a Cornish accent in these movies has come down as the standard pirate accent in subsequent pirate movies. As for Billy Bones’ old sea song that featured so prominently in the Stevenson text, this was now a Walt Disney movie, so new words were composed for the “Yo Ho” song, dropping “and a bottle of rum.” We wonder if this made an impression on Robert Newton, who died soon after making the Treasure Island sequel from alcoholism.
Orson Welles had been an admirer of Stevenson’s book since his youth. He had wanted to make a version of it in the 1960s, and a version of it with him cast as Long John Silver was made in 1972. It was such a low-budget production that it is not worth watching.
Even in the days of Robert Louis Stevenson, writers of stories knew about “in media res.” This is Latin for start your plot in the middle of things. With Treasure Island, several characters are already out to get Billy Bones at the beginning of the story, and one of the lead characters is already dead. Leaving so much untold, however, left plenty of story material for a prequel to Treasure Islandin the long-form cable television show Black Sails. Here we see John Silver when he had two legs, and Captain Flint when he was a British Naval Officer and turning into a pirate. And Nassau in the Bahamas as an important town before it becomes a pirate haven.
Black Sails (2014-2017) is one of the best and most unique television series I’ve ever seen. That this should be set within a “pirate” story is surprising, but then The Sopranos took place within a mafia family. As with any movie or show, the writing and acting set within solid production values and direction will achieve high quality. But with Black Sails, individual characters were plumbed to the depths as they sought their freedom, destinies, redemption, and in some cases, revenge. And more, the characters developed over the four seasons to become very different persons from who they were at the beginning – those that survived anyway.
The ensemble cast was superb. IMDB should be consulted for all the actors, but most were from England, Australia, Canada, and farther away in Zimbabwe and South Africa. Toby Stephens (son of Maggy Smith) played Capt. Flint, Luke Arnold played John Silver, Hannah New played Eleanor Guthrie, Toby Schmitz played “Calico Jack” Rackham, Tom Hopper played Billy Bones, Clara Paget played Anne Bonny, and Zach McGowan played Capt. Charles Vane among many more.
From the first episode the ways of the pirate life are made clear in dialogue and action: they are not paid wages and are bound to no one. If you join a crew you share in whatever spoils you take from Spanish or merchant ships. Capt. Flint has his own vision. Civilization is coming to the Caribbean, and to its rulers, people like them are monsters that should be eliminated. Only by uniting can they survive. John Silver is an opportunist just looking to stay alive. He just happened to find a page from a ship’s log book showing the route of the treasure ship the Urca de Lima, which Flint has been seeking for weeks. If only John Silver could read. After a dramatic battle to take over a merchant ship and a subsequent fight over who will be be the pirate captain, part of the Flint crew land at Nassau where more pivotal characters are introduced.
The interaction of each character is fascinating to watch as each already has – or will develop – antagonisms. alliances, or even become mortal enemies. All of this set within the win or lose competition for treasure and power, and the coming attacks of Spanish or English armed forces – neither of which tolerated pirates. As in the case of the historic Brethren of the Coast, Captain Flint attempted to make a federation of pirates, inhabitants of Nassau, former slaves living in nearby islands, and whoever would join them in fighting British forces to keep Nassau a free pirate state. But in Black Sails, each strong-willed character is intent on fulfilling their own destiny.
While I can’t be sure what Paddy Nolan-Hall would have though of of all this, I’m sure she must have seen the M-G-M and Disney classic versions of Treasure Island.
Mary Ann Nyberg was one of those talented young women destined for Hollywood: she was pretty, she was artistic, and by 23, she was dating movie star and singer Rudy Vallee. By that time in 1946 she was illustrating for magazines, designing fashions, and aiming to be a costume designer for movie stars. She was already designing costumes for Vallee-Video, Rudy’s TV productions. Not bad for a girl from Tulsa Oklahoma, born February 7, 1923. She achieved many of her dreams, but her sunset came all too soon.
Mary Ann Nyberg and Rudy Vallee never married, as was rumored for years, although they were seen dancing at Ciro’s in Hollywood, and he took her to the Palm Springs Tennis Club in January, 1948. It was there that she met costume designer Jean Louis, who she would later illustrate for at Columbia Pictures. But since her affair with Vallee wasn’t going anywhere and he wasn’t getting her any roles in films, she found a job working for Arthur Freed at M-G-M in 1949. Nyberg wasn’t credited for any movies for several years, although she designed costumes for Leslie Caron in An American in Paris, released in 1951. But then she designed the costumes for Lili, including for its star Leslie Caron, released in early 1953. Here Caron played a teenage orphan taken in by a traveling magician and carnival troupe of puppeteers. Mary Ann Nyberg dressed Caron in simple dresses and sweaters. But Nyberg showed her talent for glamour and verve with the scene at the carnival cabaret by dressing Caron in the imaginary dance number with Marc, played by Jean-Pierre Aumont and his wife played by Zsa Zsa Gabor. Caron is dressed here in a sexy scarlet-colored waitress/dance tutu in part of the number with Marc, but when his wife enters in a sequined gown and grabs his attention, Caron too reappears in the same burgundy and gold-trimmed sequined gown with a deep leg slit. Nyberg also designed Mel Ferrer’s shirt with it’s shoulder straps. These have become common but at the time the film’s producer Ed Knopf loved it so much that he ordered dozens of them in various colors and took them to Paris. Caron was told at the beginning of filming that she was foolish for taking on the role of a waif. But the film was a big hit and received several Oscar nominations – and her song “Hi-Lili, Hi-Lo,” became very popular.
Nyberg’s next assignment was the one she is best known for, and, her first Oscar Best Costume nomination: The Band Wagon (1953), one of the best musicals of the classic era. Vincent Minnelli directed, featuring stars Cyd Charisse, Fred Astaire, Nanette Fabray, Oscar Levant, and Jack Buchanan. Although it goes off on a tangent in the story about impresario Jeffrey Codova’s modernist play ideas, all the other musical numbers and story are a delight. And Nyberg’s costumes are perfect for showing off Cyd Charisse in alluring outfits in the “Girl Hunt Ballet” and the “Dancing in the Dark” numbers. Cyd’s simple white pleated skirt from that scene was copied from one that Nyberg herself wore. But since none like it could be found off the rack, it was duplicated at a reported cost of $1000.
Nyberg endeared herself to Charisse by fixing her favorite “lucky” sweater. She cut squares out of colored cotton prints, hemmed the edges, and sewed them onto the worn spots in her sweater. Charisse loved the look and had her do the same to a new sweater. Fabray also had a creative and colorful costume for the “Louisiana Hayride” number. Nyberg also designed Fred Astaire’s look of gray suit, white tie, and dark blue shirt used in the Girl Hunt Ballet. The look was adapted by Michael Jackson for his 1988 “Smooth Criminal” music video.
Mary Ann Nyberg next went on to design costumes for the problematical A Star is Born in 1953-54, starring Judy Garland and James Mason and directed by George Cukor. The remake of the 1937 film that had starred Janet Gaynor and Frederic March started smoothly at Warner Bros., but Judy Garland became moody and sick. Garland’s version is that she disliked the costume that Nyberg had designed for her at the Malibu party scene. Garland claimed it was not flattering to her figure. But in preparations for the previous scene for the Academy Awards, Garland had so loved Nyberg’s white gown that she decided she wanted it for her personal wardrobe. So she said to Cukor that the gown made her look like a white whale and she couldn’t wear it.* The result was that filming stopped and costume designer Jean Louis was called in as Mary Ann Nyberg’s replacement. But Nyberg also served as sketch artist for Jean Louis in designs he made for the film. Designer Irene Sharaff did the costumes for the “Born in a Trunk” scene. All three designers were nominated for Best Costume Design Oscars.
Mary Ann Nyberg was then hired by Otto Preminger to design the costumes for Carmen Jones, the musical based on Carmen. Preminger reverted to the original story by Prosper Mérimée, but kept Bizet’s music. The cast consisted of all black actors, including Dorothy Dandridge as Carmen, Harry Belafonte as Joe, and Pearl Bailey as Frankie. Diahann Carroll made her film debut as Myrt. Nyberg used pinks and orange rather than the usual red coloration for several of Dandridge’s costumes. “Red denotes passion, fire, and sex,” said Nyberg, “and I am relying on Miss Dandridge to project those qualities in her performance.” The contemporary setting used the dress of the 1950s, and a much pictured orange wrap dress and black peasant top for Dandridge. Nyberg also designed a bold look for a hotel room scene, where Dandridge takes off her robe to reveal a black bra and zebra-striped panties, which she then covers in a pink dress. Dorothy Dandridge was the first African-American to be nominated for the Academy Award for Best Actress in a Leading Role for this movie.
Otto Preminger hired Mary Ann Nyberg for his next movie, The Man with the Golden Arm, 1955. This movie starred Frank Sinatra as a heroin addict, with co-stars Kim Novak, Eleanor Parker and Darren McGavin. The black and white movie with a downbeat theme didn’t give much range for Nyberg. Kim Novak was dressed in simple outfits, with one gown decorated in gleaming sequined scallop-shaped outlines. The beautiful Eleanor Parker’s role was played in a wheelchair mostly in house robes.
The Man with the Golden Armwas Mary Ann Nyberg’s last costume designing job. For whatever reason, either because she had had enough of Hollywood, or the assignments dried-up for her (this was happening as the studio system was coming to an end), it is not clear. In any case, she didn’t need the paycheck. She was married at the time to Don J. Koch and painted oils on canvas. It was the world of Hollywood costume design that lost a first class talent. One of the very few whose top skill in the illustration of costumes matched her skill at designing them.
Mary Ann Nyberg died on September 19, 1979 of a cerebral hemorrhage. She was only 56 years old. Perhaps she got to see That’s Entertainment! which released in 1975, where her costumes were flashed on the screen. If only her name had been honored as well, or for that matter, any of the costume designers.
James Stratton. A Star is Born and Born Again: Variations on a Hollywood Archetype.
Have you seen this boat bed? It appeared prominently in five movies, and was originally owned by a French entertainer. Its status is now unknown.
Although it won’t come to mind as a famous movie prop, it resonates in culture, entertainment, and film history like no other object. This boat bed was made for Gaby Deslys, the turn-of-the-century dancer, singer, and star. The native of Marseille France was a star of the Folies Bergère in Paris, where the King of Portugal and Sir James Barrie both fell for her. She also introduced the first striptease in a Broadway musical. She was also played by Tamara Toumanova in M-G-M’s Deep in My Heart in 1954. While still in her prime she was infected by the influenza, and died in 1920. She left her Villa off La Corniche in Marseille, a few hundred yards from where my grandparents lived, to help the poor. The City owns it now for civic purposes. The photo below the banner shows her Villa in Marseille.
Deslys had the boat bed made in Marseille. It is carved and gilt, with Cupid as a figurehead on its bow. The whole is based on the “Grotto of Venus” scene from Wagner’s opera Tannhauser. And Cupid is based on painter Francois Boucher’s model. Wagner’s opera had elements of medieval stories of Lohengrin and the Swan Knight, and images of a swan-bowed boat are also mixed in with the one above. Tannhauser and the Grotto of Venus were such powerful images that King Ludwig II of Bavaria (1845-1886) the “Mad King,” built an extravagant copy of the grotto in his castle’s grounds. It was so extravagant that any Hollywood movie or amusement park would envy it today. Ludwig had been fascinated by Wagner’s opera Lohengrin ever since he saw it as a prince. Not long after he inherited the throne he became Wagner’s patron. Ludwig built at his sumptuous Linderhof castle a reproduction of the Venus Grotto – with a 33 foot high ceiling, complete with a cascade, false stalactites, garnished grout, a pond, a faux moon, and arc-lighting. The Grotto itself was made to resemble the Blue Grotto of Capri. Ludwig had one of his servants row him on a boat around the pond – the boat that served as the model for the bed, with Cupid as its figurehead.
At the death of Gaby Deslys, her furnishings were auctioned. Director Rex Ingram was about to make Trifling Women starring Barbara La Marr as a vamp and had Metro Pictures buy her boat bed as a prop for the movie. Thus Cupid’s boat bed made its cinematic debut 100 years ago this year.
Ingram considered the film, now believed lost, to be his best. It made a big star out of both the beautiful La Marr and her lover Ramon Novarro. La Marr had a short life as a brilliant star as she died of tuberculosis in 1926 at age 29. Louis B. Mayer, the head of the combined Metro, Goldwyn, and Mayer companies considered Barbara La Marr so beautiful that he gave the last name to Hedy Lamarr, when he signed her to M-G-M in 1938 as “the most beautiful woman in the world.”
It wasn’t long before the boat bed was being slept in by Mary Philbin as Christine Daae – with Lon Chaney as the Phantom of the Opera pursuing her. Universal’s 1925 classic set the model for both “horror” movies, following the studio’s Hunchback of Notre Dame in 1922, and its emphasis on droll characters.
Movie studios would rent props and costumes to other studios, and it appears the Cupid boat bed went from Metro to Universal to Paramount. It stayed at Paramount however, where it next appeared in the most retro of movie set designs for Sunset Blvd. Norma Desmond, star of the 1920s should have no other bed than Cupid’s boat bed, even though another vamp had already slept in it, not to mention a dance hall striptease artist.
Cupid’s boat bed next went to Columbia Pictures to appear in a lightweight comedy titled Good NeighborSam in 1964. The movie starred Jack Lemmon, Romy Schneider and Dorothy Provine. It is shown below in a partial view in a dream scene with Romy Schneider and Jack Lemmon.
By the 1960s the Hollywood studio system was starting to fall apart, and with it, the warehouses full of props and costumes that each studio had amassed over the decades. M-G-M auctioned all of their props and costumes in 1970, with their back lots of standing sets following. 20th Century-Fox sold off their props and costumes in 1971.
Under unknown circumstances, Cupid’s boat bed was auctioned or sold to James (Jim) Buckley. Buckley had an interesting background as a window display artist for Bloomingdales, Saks Fifth Avenue and Bergdorf Goodman in New York and later at Saks in Beverly Hills. He attended the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in London after World War II and by that time had married Olga. He was also a set decorator for M-G-M. The couple founded the Pewter Plough Playhouse in Cambria California. Jim also wrote the book, The “Drama of Display: Visual Merchandising and Its Techniques.” Olga ran an antique store there as well and Jim planned to open a museum for his collection of movie props and memorabilia, including Cupid’s boat bed. Jim continued to run the theater with his second wife and artistic director Rebecca Buckley until his death in 2015.
The location of Cupid’s boat bed is not publicly known at this time. While it may not feature in another movie, its centennial in movies would be wonderful to celebrate.
Acknowledgments to the following for their informative resources:
Joseph Nevchatal on King Ludwig and Linderfof Castle
Sherri Snyder, “Barbara La Marr: Life on Her Own Terms.” Guest Post in Classic Movie Hub. December 11, 2017
Sarah Linn. Passion in the Pines: Jim Buckley Brings Theater to Cambria. White Hot Magazine, November 18, 2012
Costume designer Anthea Sylbert always added life and character into her costume designs. She designed for many notable actors in her career, and the movies they starred in are classics of the late 1960s and 1970s. This skill came partially from studying art history at Barnard College, attending Parsons School of Design to study fashion – before dropping out to become a research assistant for a theater group in New York. Her grandmother had already taught her to sew in her Greek heritage home. She started designing ready-to-wear garments for boutiques as well as shoes and sports wear. But moving from costume design to becoming Vice President of Productions at Warner Bros. and later Executive Vice President at United Artist had all to do with her intelligence and problem solving abilities.
Anthea Giannakouros married Paul Sylbert, a movie production designer, and she began socializing with a set of New York avant-garde theater and film actors including Warren Beatty, Dustin Hoffman, Jack Nicholson, and directors Roman Polansky and Mike Nichols. That led to her designing the costumes for her first movie, the low-budget The Tiger Makes Out (1967), where her husband was also the production designer. Stars Elli Wallach and Anne Jackson were married, and this was Dustin Hoffman’s first movie. Anthea Sylbert’s second movie had more consequence – Rosemary’s Baby (1968). Roman Polansky directed, with Mia Farrow, John Cassavetes, and Ruth Gordon starring. Sylbert’s costumes for Farrow made a splash, and were very influential. The baby doll dresses in mostly floral patterns, pastel colors, or stripes, increasingly short as her situation grew perilous under the satanic forces of a coven, made for a bold contrast and sympathetic audience response.
Several movies followed but her next substantial movie was Carnal Knowledge (1971) directed by Mike Nichols starring Jack Nicholson, Candice Bergen, Art Garfunkel, and Ann-Margret. The sexual life and opinions of two friends through the decades was the plot of the film, and the come-on for the 1971 audience. Since then the views of the protagonists has dated badly. But the costumes of the principal cast perfectly defined their character – who they are or want to be, from the well-dressed college days of the 1940s to the urban sophisticates of the late 1950s.
For something completely different, Sylbert designed the Western costumes for John Wayne in The Cowboys (1972). The movie costarred Bruce Dern, Colleen Dewhurst, and introduced Robert Considine. The Cowboys segued into designing Bad Company, Robert Benton’s directorial debut about a gang of young men and boys on the loose in the post-Civil War West. Jeff Bridges and Barry Brown star. The gang were dressed by Sylbert in threadbare period costumes fabricated or provided by the Western Costume Co., which had done the same for The Cowboys.
Anthea Sylbert’s biggest hit came with Chinatown (1974), Roman Polansky’s film noir classic starring Faye Dunaway, Jack Nicholson., and John Huston. The movie about Los Angeles water rights, corruption, murder, and incest is ranked as one of the best movies of all-time. The screenplay by Robert Towne and Edward Taylor is used as a model in script writing. The new Paramount production head Robert Evans hired Roman Polansky to direct a Technicolor film noir with a European perspective with a very Los Angeles-based setting. And that 1930s setting was enhanced in every way with period details.
Anthea Sylbert designed costumes for the principal cast that put them squarely in the sunny, drought affected Los Angeles of 1937. Jack Nicholson played a detective much like Philip Marlowe, only more of a dandy. Faye Dunaway, like her earlier Bonnie and Clyde, made fashion news. W magazine devoted a multipage feature on her costumes from the movie in its December 28 ,1973 issue. Dunaway plays Evelyn Mulwray, the rich wife of the Chief Engineer of LA’s Department of Water and Power. In a series of daytime scenes, she wears elegant tailored suits with stylish hats and gloves, the common well-dressed look of the day. Polansky insisted she wear red lipstick and have high penciled eye-brows, which he remembered his mother wearing. This look was common for the 1930’s movie-star. Sylbert’s palette of light colors for Dunaway’s suits, blouses, and riding outfits, change to black after her husband dies, and continues through to the end of the movie. The movie itself turns to night scenes as its plot turns increasingly dark.
Shampoo (1975) was something completely different. Directed by Hal Ashby about the fast times of 1968 in the life of a Beverly Hills playboy hairdresser. The movie starred the real playboy Warren Beatty, with Julie Christie, his movie and then real girlfriend, and Goldie Hawn and Lee Grant, his other movie girlfriends. A young Carrie Fisher also cameoed, with costars Jack Warden and Tony Bill. Warren Beatty plays the hairdresser that all his women clients fall for. Those with husbands suspect nothing as they assume he is gay, even when he visits them at home or takes them out. The screen play by Beatty and Robert Towne is patterned after English Restoration comedy of manners, and takes aim at the hypocrisy of society.
Anthea Sylbert designed costumes for Beatty and the women that captured their sexiness and allure. Based on the times of 1968, the skirts were very short on Goldie Hawn and Julie Christie. Christie’s final all-white outfit of a belted short skirt, ribbed turtle neck sweater, and white go-go boots was a knock-out. But her climax outfit worn at a restaurant dinner for the group, worn when she gives her unforgettable line, was a long black beaded gown covering up to her throat, but was completely backless. As Sylbert explained it, “I just thought it would be funny when we first saw her, if she looked so proper, like the queen mother, and then when she turned around, there she was, right down to the crack of her ass,” *
Lee Grant, as the somewhat older woman and rich wife of Jack Warden’s character, is also a client and lover of Beatty’s character George. Her wardrobe is more situational, although Sylbert designed a wonderfully distinctive sailor-suit dress of white satin with black piping.
Beatty as George was dressed in a combination of stylish but masculine costumes.
Anthea Sylbert’s next two movies were not successes. The Fortune (1975) was a 1930’s screwball comedy take-off directed by Mike Nichols that did not work, even with co-stars Warren Beatty and Jack Nicholson. King Kong (1976) was a remake of the 1933 RKO classic. Jeff Bridges starred, and it introduced a young and very sexy Jessica Lange, reprising the role made famous by Fay Wray. The movie has its pros and cons, but the costumes did their jobs, especially in making Lange the enticing object of Kong’s affections. Sylbert designed a stunning silver beaded, strapless and contoured gown with half-diamond patterning that was her costume for the final New York performance when Kong breaks all his chains after seeing her.
The Last Tycoon (1976) had a lot of promise, directed by Elia Kazan, Robert De Niro starring as the protagonist based on F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel about M-G-M’s Irving Thalberg, with a cast including Jack Nicholson. Robert Mitchum, Tony Curtis, Dana Andrews, Jeanne Moreau, Ray Milland, and introduced Theresa Russell. Yet the screenplay by Harold Pinter and the not fully realized book led the plot nowhere. The art direction was notable. Sylbert’s costume designs hinted at the 1930s but were still planted in the 1970s.
Sylbert’s next movie Julia (1977) was nominated for several Academy Awards including Beat Costume Design and it won for Best Supporting Actors for Vanessa Redgrave and Jason Robards and for Best Adaptive Screenplay for Alvin Sargent. The story was based on the writing of Lillian Hellman and her childhood friend Julia. The movie was directed by the great Fred Zinnemann.
Anthea Sylbert’s final film as a costume designer was for F.I.S.T., which starred Sylvester Stallone as a union organizer among truckers. After Sylbert made suggestions to the movie’s director Norman Jewison about how Stallone was not wearing an article of clothing. She was told that he didn’t want a costume designer interfering with his actors. After that she quit.
But she landed on her feet. She was offered and accepted a job as Vice President of Productions at Warner Bros. Proving herself fully capable at WB, she then moved on to United Artists as Executive Vice President. She had forged a friendship with Goldie Hawn during the filming of Shampoo, and when Sylbert produced Private Benjamin (1980), they formed the Hawn/Sylbert Movie Productions Company. After Anthea Sylbert finally retired, she moved to Greece, where she now lives on the island of Skiathos.
The actors in the earliest Hollywood movies came ready for the camera in makeup. And that makeup was usually a carry over from the stage – powder and greasepaint in the form of different colored sticks, applied by themselves. Eyes were accented, faces whitened, and lips darkened – even for men. The most striking examples were the looks of Theda Bara as Cleopatra – or in her various “Vamp” roles with her dark eyeshadow for Fox in the 1910s . While her look made her an early star, by the 1920s the Vamp look was out, only to return to style with Goth fashion starting in the late 1970s.
Like Theda Bara, Lon Chaney applied his own makeup, but for “The Man of a Thousand Faces,” this involved much creativity. He starred in such classics of the silent era as The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923), Phantom of the Opera (1925), and The Unknown (1927). In addition to his talents in makeup, his acting was sublime. Both of his parents were deaf, and he developed with them facial expressive and non-verbal communication that he used in his art as a silent film actor.
Lon Chaney’s makeup kit above is in the collection of the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County. Curator Beth Werling has stated that the Chaney Collection is the most famous among the museum’s motion picture memorabilia.
When it became apparent that the close-up was a valuable tool of cinematography – makeup became more natural for normal acting roles. This was also due to the look which resulted from using orthochromatic film stock throughout the 1920s. It was sensitive to the blue-violet end of the color spectrum, making these colors appear light while the yellow-red appeared darker. Early female makeup had idealized a light face with smoky eyes that “opened them up,” further emphasized with a higher eyebrow. The rouged or highlighted lips was not so much to emphasize the lips, a usual assumption, but to emphasize white healthy teeth – the reason for the big smiles. The perception of beauty from the latter is an evolutionary and instinctual response.
It was Polish -Jewish émigré wigmaker Max Factor that developed the makeup that stars and movies needed, He moved to Los Angeles in 1904 and entered the cosmetics business. He supplied the human-hair wig for Dustin Farnum in Cecil B. DeMille’s The Squaw Man in 1914. The Max Factor Company was soon supplying Hollywood studios all the wigs they needed – these for period or contemporary films. Factor was also developing a flexible greasepaint more suitable for movie stars. And after that Factor worked with individual stars to develop makeup in their own flesh tones. Factor’s improvements in makeup corresponded to improvements in film stock by Kodak. Orthochromatic film was replaced by Panchromatic film. which was sensitive to the full color spectrum. Although it was available in the 1920s, it was too expensive for regular studio use. But by 1930 Kodak discontinued manufacturing orthochromatic motion picture film and the panchromatic had become cheaper. Max’s son Frank Factor developed the “Pan-Cake” makeup, which was more suitable for Technicolor film, and since it was applied with a damp sponge, and had a matte finish, it concealed surface imperfections. It was first used for the movie Vogues of 1938 starring Joan Bennett and Helen Vinson.
Movie star hairstyles often set trends in the classic era. The bobbed hair of Clara Bow and Louise Brooks made the style popular for the young flappers of the Jazz Age. This changed to the marcelled finger waves popular in the late 1920s and early 1930s. The later were made possible by the invention of the curling iron by Marcel Grateau. When the U.S entered World War II and women went to work in factories, the U.S. Government encouraged movie studios to show actresses with “updo” hairstyles, which paralleled women plant workers going to work with their hair wrapped up and out of the way of tools and moving parts. But no sooner was the war over than women let their hair down on-screen, exemplified by the Veronica Lake side-swept “peekaboo,” and Rita Hayworth’s long wavy mane. The high thin eyebrows of the 1930s disappeared in the early 1940s. The trend for a natural and thicker eyebrow came not from Hollywood, but from the influence of the young socialite Gloria Vanderbilt, who was modeling in Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar by 1940 at the age of 15. Vanderbilt influenced the younger Elizabeth Taylor, and from there every teenage girl in America.
Regardless of the hairstyles in fashion, the need for continuity in filming scenes often required the use of wigs. The wigs would remain stable in their appearance while the real hair of an actress (or actor) would constantly change. Wigs were also cheaper, even real hair wigs custom made for the star, rather than having a hair stylist constantly redoing a hairstyle to look like the last take. Nellie Manley was a hairstylist that began working in the 1930s. She styled Marlene Dietrich’s hair in The Garden of Allah in 1936. She was the Hair Style Supervisor for Vertigo in 1958. In Vertigo, Kim Novak’s costumes, and her wig hairstyle with its twirled bun, were the defining characteristic for Scottie’s obsessive vision of Madeleine. Nellie Manley worked through the 1960s.
The epitome of wig making and use in classic film occurred for the production of M-G-M’s Marie Antoinette (1938). Norma Shearer starred in the title role. The Max Factor company reportedly made 903 white wigs for the Marie Antoinette cast, plus an additional 1,200 wigs for the extras. The Max Factor Co. assembled nine binders full of photos of the Marie Antoinette cast in costume, with hair and makeup. M-G-M’s hair stylist Sydney Guilaroff also designed 18 wigs for Norma Shearer as Marie Antoinette. While the white, shiny wigs made for great spectacle, they were not authentic to the period. All the wigs of 18th Century were powdered and appeared gray, as can be seen in painted portraits of the era. See Kendra Van Cleave’s excellent blog post on that subject. Sydney Guilaroff was M-G-M’s chief hairstylist. He had made a name for himself cutting Louise Brook’s bobbed hair. Joan Crawford regularly used his services in New York and talked Louis B. Mayer into hiring him. Guilaroff stayed at M-G-M through 1969. Hairstylists were rarely credited until modern times. A veteran from M-G-M that went on to work in television was Peggy Shannon. She was working at M-G-M by 1958 on Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, and had become Joan Crawford’s personal hairstylist from 1959 through the 1960s.
M-G-M’ s makeup department had begun with English born Cecil Holland in 1927. He was a former stage actor that had learned by applying his own makeup, and then doing so for other actors. He did makeup for the war-scarred face of Lewis Stone in Grand Hotel (1932). Jack Dawn succeeded him in 1934, with William Tuttle as his assistant.
One of the great early makeup artists was the late Jack Pierce. He worked at Universal Pictures when their classic monster movies were made: Dracula; Frankenstein; The Bride of Frankenstein; The Wolfman, and others. His story of working with Boris Karloff to develop the look of Frankenstein’s monster, undescribed in the original novel, is pure classic Hollywood movie-making – a story of agony and ecstasy. Pierce even changed the monster’s makeup after he was scarred in the fire, with gradual healing. For the Bride of Frankenstein, Elsa Lanchester’s classic hairstyle wig was the product of both director James Whale and Pierce’s idea to make it resemble the profile of the crowned Nefertiti.
The famous Westmore makeup family started with English wigmaker George Westmore. He established the first Hollywood studio makeup department at the Selig studio. Westmore made Mary Pickford’s false ringlets.. But his most famous product, along with his first wife Ada (who died in 1923) were his six sons, all of whom followed him in the studio makeup business and had stellar careers. A third generation of Westmores followed in their footsteps. Wally Westmore at Paramount aged Barbara Stanwyck from a teenager to a centenarian in The Great Man’s Lady in 1941. Perc Westmore worked on virtually all the great films and actresses and actors at Warner Bros. during its Golden Age.
The Wizard of Oz (1939) is usually credited with introducing pre-fabricated foam-latex prosthetics (or appliances as they are known in the trade) in makeup. Jack Dawn was the head of M-G-M’s makeup department but each character in Oz had their own makeup artist, which included the lead makeup artists William Tuttle and Charles Schram, both of whom had apprenticed with Dawn. Tuttle won an Honorary Oscar for his makeup work on The 7 Faces of Dr. Lao (1964), encouraged the Academy to institute the Makeup Award category. Tuttle also worked on the Moorloks in The Time Machine and dozens of well-known movies.
But big advances in prosthetics were made by John Chambers, Ben Nye and a team of 80 working on the makeup on the movie Planet of the Apes in 1968. Of course CGI and SFX makeup these days can do almost anything, but the progress from Lon Chaney’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame to The Planet of the Apes in 45 years is truly amazing.
One of the greatest love stories ever filmed is barely known. Its director Max Ophuls and co-producer John Houseman are masters. And its cast of Joan Fontaine and Louis Jourdan are an Oscar winner and an international star. The film story is based on a novella by Stefan Zweig, one of the most popular writers in the world in the 1920s-1930s, and adapted by Howard Koch who was one of the scriptwriters of Casablanca and The Letter.
The story starts in Vienna circa 1900. It is night and men are discussing a duel in a carriage. Louis Jourdan as Stefan Brand exits the carriage and enters his house. He tells his mute valet that he will be packing and leaving soon, with no intentions of dueling. His valet gives him a letter which Brand opens. “By the time you read this letter I may be dead, ” it said, the cursive hand written on St. Catherine’s Hospital Stationary. The letter is narrated in voiceover by Joan Fontaine. “I have so much to tell you.” The movie goes into flashback as we see a teenage Fontaine as Lisa Berndle, and a young friend in a courtyard. Lisa lives in an apartment there with her mother. Lisa becomes entranced by the music coming from another room upstairs, played by the famous pianist Stefan Brand. Lisa is enchanted by him and takes dance lessons and learns about music, all so she could someday impress Brand, with whom she has fallen in love. Helping his valet move rugs inside Brand’s house one day, she even sneaks into his study to gaze lovingly at his piano and belongings, running out as John the valet sees her. But Lisa is panicked when her mother says she has accepted an offer of marriage, saying they must move to Linz. Lisa refuses, and then accepts, and then runs away at the train station. Loitering by Stefan’s house, she sees him arrive with a woman, shattering her illusions. She goes to Linz where she turns eighteen and is courted but refuses to marry. The course of the flashback is broken as we see Brand reading the letter in astonishment as the night goes by and the woman’s life is explained.
Lisa returns to Vienna, where she finds a job as a model in a dressmaker’s shop. She models beautiful gowns for the upper class. She still loves Stefan, and visits his apartment building, where one evening she listens to street musicians when he walks by. He notices her direct stare, and he asks her out to dinner. At dinner she struck a chord with him when she said his music sounded like he was searching for something he hadn’t found yet. After dinner they spend the night at an amusement park, endlessly riding a make-believe train, then dance to a women’s band until the dance hall closed down. Afterwards they go to his house.
The next day he lovingly told her he needed to go to Milan with the orchestra and he would return. They went to the train station where she tearfully sees him off. She did not see him again for nine years — until they see each other at the Opera – he alone and Lisa with her husband. Some people talk about how Stefan’s promise as a musician had faded. Lisa could not bear to see him and got up to leave. Stefan from the seats below saw her leave and followed, wanting suddenly to take her away from her husband. At the exit he stops her to talk, although he did not seem to recognize her. Will Lisa trust Stefan after what he has done before, leaving her alone with a child? Even though he never knew about the boy? Could she possibly leave her settled and comfortable life in society? The love of Lisa for Stefan is unfathomable, but in this remarkable film, it leads not to a Hollywood ending.
Joan Fontaine was a perfect choice for the lead, although she was older than Jourdan who played the older man. Her face can always portray the look of innocence and earnestness, so well acted in Rebecca,Suspicion, and Jane Eyre. Her lover was played by the handsome French star Louis Jourdan in his second film in the U.S. Fontaine’s then husband William Crozier was the executive producer. Amazingly, the content of the letter and its ending, which was central to the plot, was objected to by the censor’s office, saying it, “… romanticized the characters’ illicit relationship.” And the censor’s office had their own language to substitute in the letter, which completely transformed its meaning. Crozier had to appeal this decision in order to keep the original language.
Hollywood’s Golden Age costume designer Travis Banton designed the costumes. His contract ended at Universal with this film, and he only designed for a few more movies before retiring. He had designed the glamorous gowns for Carole Lombard, Marlene Dietrich, Claudette Colbert, and the other stars of Paramount.
Letter from an Unknown Woman was selected in 1992 for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant.” The film has been restored by the UCLA Film & Television Archive, with funding provided by The Film Foundation.
The following commentary contains spoilers. Letter from an Unknown Woman has been considered by many to be the most tragic love story ever filmed. It does not have the southing closing shot of Wuthering Heights, nor the peace-making consequences of Romeo and Juliet. Lisa has spent a lifetime fanning the embers of Stefan’s flaming and dying passion for her, hence, the letter from an unknown woman. Unknown because, when he came back into her life and she was ready to throw everything away for him (again), he didn’t even remember who she was.
Lisa remembered every detail of their time together, and even of all the time they were not together — staring at his rooms, listening to his music, or longing to be with him. The film makes clear that Stefan thinks often about his own enjoyment – living moment to moment. Dennis Grunes has written an excellent article on Letter From an Unknown Woman, about how its was not well received in 1948, and especially about the theme of memory that haunts the story’s original writer Stefan Zweig and the film’s director Max Ophuls. Both men were Jews from either Austria or Germany. The ruins of the pre-Nazi and pre-Holocaust world they came from forms the foundation that the story, and Lisa’s memory, tries hopelessly to recreate. For Lisa, she was creating, recreating in the letter, a world of love she lived, a world Stefan could have shared with her and his son. But oblivious of this world, even of their brief loving affair, and of his second chance, Stefan reads the entire story when it is too late, written as Lisa died before she finished it — or signed it. Thus it was a letter from an unknown woman, concluding with these words:
“If only you could have recognized what was always yours. If only you could have found what was never lost, If only….”
The blog post is part off the CMBA HIDEN CLASSICS BLOGATHON Please see the other excellent entries on Hidden Classics.
The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences released their Oscar Nominations March 15, very late, and in an abnormal year to say the least. With the Covid pandemic, movie theaters were shut and so last year’s big argument over theatrical release vs. home streaming eligibility was moot, as several Netflix movies were nominated. Despite some criticism over the limited audience for the Best Picture nominees, the Costume Design nominees were a diverse but excellent field of candidates both in movies and in costume designers, ranging from “clothes that make you hungry,” to a snail ” … that can hide back into its shell and create a stubborn distance between itself and the outside world.” The Nominees are:
EMMA – Costume design by Alexandra Byrne, directed by Autumn de Wilde. Features the hot new star Anya Taylor-Joy of the Netflix hit, The Queen’s Gambit. The story is based on the Jane Austen novel of the same title, and is set in a country village in Regency England (1795 to 1837). Anya Taylor-Joy plays Emma, who is rich and rather spoiled. She means well, but thinks she is more capable than she really is. Her fashionable and colorful wardrobe demonstrates her high status. And as costume designer Alexandra Byrne stated, the pastel-colored costumes are the “clothes that make you hungry.”
Byrne is very talented designing period costumes, although she and director Josie Rourke went a bit off the rails with Mary Queen of Scots in 2018, which featured plentiful use of denim and black coloring in its costumes. But Byrne also designed Elizabeth and Elizabeth, the Golden Age, the latter winning her an Oscar. And for Emma, she has conducted scrupulous research, using existing historic costumes at the V&A Museum for inspiration.
The vivid pastels and reds for the red riding hoods were very authentic. The “Empire style” was then the fashion, named after Napoleon and his empire. The huge court dresses of the Ancien Régime were gone in favor of light, high waisted gowns with square necklines and deep décolletage. Byrne used the model of a spencer jacket to great effect. The pink spencer shown below, was named after Lord Spencer, who ripped the partially torn tails off his riding coat and had all his other coats made short. It was later adopted into women’s fashion. At one of the formal evening events, Emma wears a beautiful salmon-colored Empire style gown modelled after one at the V&A Museum. The original was made of silk tulle with chenille accenting. And Byrne’s Ball gowns were less formal, “…they were soft and moving, Byrne said. And a style element we are completely bereft of today are plentiful here – hats, whether adorned with a feather or beautiful flowered straw bonnets. All the bonnets were made for the movie.
The men’s styles were also based on authentic fashions of the era, although the collar heights are a bit exaggerated. War had blazed in Europe, so men’s styling emphasized masculine qualities with a definite military uniform influence (although uniforms of the day were very stylish). Alexandra Byrne also designed the superhero movie The Avengers. When having to fabricate leather trousers that wouldn’t sag, she used her former experience for Johnny Flynn’s character, “We developed a technique of fusing leather onto Lycra so it stretches but has memory to return to its shape. We used that technique on his britches, so he’s wearing superhero buckskin britches!” Actor Bill Nighy as Mr. Woodhouse plays an older gentleman but he’s also the most dapper man in the movie. He wears the latest fashions including Cossack trousers made fashionable in 1814 with Alexander’s visit to England with his Russian Cossack soldiers.
MA RAINEY’S BLACK BOTTOM – Costume design by Ann Roth, directed by George C. Wolfe. The movie starred Viola Davis as 1920s “Mother of the Blues” Ma Rainey, and Chadwick Boseman, as cornet player Levee. This dynamic actor died shortly after this film. The story is based on the August Wilson play, and most of the drama takes place in the a basement of Ma Rainey’s manager, where her musician’s rehearse, soon joined by Ma, including the rebellious Levee. Costume designer Ann Roth is the most accomplished of movie, stage and TV costume designers. At age 89, she has almost seven decades of experience and has been nominated five times for an Oscar, winning for The English Patient (1997). She began working for costume designer Irene Sharaff in the 1950s.
Ma Rainey had a flamboyant persona, which she needed as an entertainer and recording artist. For the Ma Rainey’s stage performance, Roth designed a blue fringed velvet dress with sequins to reflect the light.
The men in the band had to wear suits to perform, though they were suits worn every day as they travelled from town to town performing. Levee was more cocky and wanted to distinguish himself in his dress, He wore a gray chalk-stipe jacket with a vest. But that day he spent a lot of money on a pair of “yellow” shoes – a big contrast to the other men’s black or brown shoes. Ann Roth and Chadwick Boseman had a chance to discuss his wardrobe and fully agreed on his look for the movie. Both Viola Davis and Boseman have been nominated for SAG Awards.
MANK – Costume design by Trish Summerville. Directed by David Fincher. Mank is another Netflix movie, and is based on classic Hollywood’s Herman Mankiewicsz and especially his time writing the screenplay for Citizen Kane. The alcoholic “Mank,” played by Gary Oldman, is cooped up in a rented cottage by Orson Welles, along with a secretary and a nurse – there to stay until he finishes the screenplay. And since he has a broken leg and the motel cottage is in the desert outside L.A., he can’t get far. Much of the story is told in flashback about Mank’s Hollywood studio life -antagonisms with Louis B. Mayer and friendship with Marion Davies. Since the movie was shot in black and white, a costume challenge for Trish Summerville was figuring out which patterns and prints would work, along with what colors. Summerville had worked often with Fincher, so there was mutual respect from the start of the project. One technique that helped from the start, used by Summerville and the production designer, was using the monochromatic filters on their iPhones to see how color would convert into black and white film. Summerville told Jazz Tangcay for Variety, “We wanted to have the tones blend. For us in costumes, it was more burgundies, purples, navies, blacks. And you could pump up from there to gowns with muted lilacs or dusty roses, which came in as nice light grays.” This worked out fairly well, but the classic era costume designers had a career-long experience with this, an example being using a a bronze fabric as a stand-in for red in Bette Davis’ “Red Dress” in Jezebel.
Glow was always a big part of classic Hollywood glamour, and Summerville chose an antique-gold lamé fabric for one of Amanda Seyfried’s costumes as Marion Davies., which draped beautifully. Since there were so many men in the cast, a big job was differentiating suits by pattern and color, as well as ties. The Davies and Hearst party scene costumes were based on photos of some of the actual celebrity guests. Summerville said designing the costumes was fun.
MULAN – Costume design by Bina Daigeler. Directed by Niki Caro. Disney’s 2020 Mulan is based on its earlier animated version, here starring Yifei Liu as Mulan, with Donnie Yen as Commander Tung, Gong Li as Xianniang, and Jet Li as the Emperor. The story is that of Mulan, a girl who embarrasses her parents as a future bride, and redeems herself by running off to join a recruitment of soldiers, passing as a man. Her training is short, but her skill with a sword will lead to glory,
Costume designer Bina Daigeler travelled to China to study the period costumes in several museums. She was especially inspired by the costumes of the Tang Dynasty. She told members of the D23 Disney Fan Club that, “All my costumes are based on deep research that I did about Chinese culture and Chinese history, … for me, it was very important that I treat the Chinese history with respect, because it’s so rich and such a treasure.”
Bina Daigeler said that Gong Li’s costume as the witch was perhaps the most elaborate, and that it was inspired by hawks. Although she and the director Niki Caro started out with, “…a floaty, airy design – and ended up with a leather construction., very strong and empowering. But we kept the floaty sleeves. I loved the idea that they finally got used as a weapon in her fight scenes.”
PINOCCHIO – Costume design by Massimo Cantini Parrini. Directed by Matteo Garrone. This is a live action movie of the classic tale about a woodcarver’s puppet that comes to life. The woodcarver Geppetto stars Oscar winner Roberto Benigni, with Federico Ielapi playing Pinocchio, who gets into one misadventure after another.
Italian costume designer Parrini’s grandmother was a seamstress in Florence, and he learned much from her about the art of tailoring. The “fashion archeologist” Parrini previously designed Ophelia and has many Italian films in his credits. He has won four David di Donatello Italian film awards including one for this movie, for which he designed 30 costumes. Massimo Cantini Parrini said, “The snail costume is with no doubt the one that impressed the most. It is an animal that can hide back into its shell and create a stubborn distance between itself and the outside world.”
All of the nominees are worthy of the Oscar. All Academy members get to vote. Traditionally a movie like Emma would be a favorite, especially with the beautiful and period accurate costumes. But then Mulan also has period accurate and vivid costumes, and the movie may get an extra boost of sympathy this year.
The 93rd Academy Awards will be presented Sunday, April 25, 2021 both at the Union Station Los Angeles and the Dolby Theatre at the Hollywood & Highland Center and televised
Early and silent films are known to have low survival rates due to many causes. But there is no more lethal enemy of early film than fires.
Approximately 90% of American silent films are considered lost, as well as 50% of sound films made before 1950. In a study by the Library of Congress, it found that of the 11,000 silent films that were produced by the American movie industry between 1912 and 1929, only 14% (1,575) survive today in their original release condition, while another 11% survive in various imperfect formats. The combustible nitrate-based film of the silent era is largely responsible, leading to major fires at studio or storage vaults and film processing plants.
As early as 1920, the Lasky/Famous Players and Metro film exchange building in Kansas City caught fire. An unexplained explosion in a film vault in the shipping and examining room caused a fire that swept through the 12th floor of Lasky’s and then the 11th floor of Metro. $1,000,000 in films were destroyed but all employees were able to escape.
Closer to Hollywood and easier to recoup, a fire started at Universal City on May 23, 1922 when a short-circuited electric wire, “whipped like a flail” set film on fire in the cutting room of the studio. The heat caused boxes of film to explode with shards of metal flying in all directions. Actress Priscilla Dean, still in costume, tried to retrieve her film, “Under Two Flags ” but tripped on her robe and sprained her ankle. Irving Thalberg, then general manager, and Leo McCarey tried to reach the fire but were turned away. In this case the production just had to begin again.
One year later, a fire broke out at the Goldwyn Studio in Culver City (future M-G-M lot) on June 15, 1923. Some twenty films stored in the processing lab plus prints and negatives of seven partially completed films were destroyed in a fire at the lab. Actors Lew Cody, Edmund Lowe, directors, prop men and then fire crews put out the fire.
More seriously, the October 28, 1929 fire at Consolidated Film Industries, a film processing plant, killed a technician who nonetheless staggered out of an exploding and burning building with cans of film in his arms. Five others were burned and $2,000,000 in films were lost. Fifty other employees on the night shift escaped. A machine that polishes the developed film caused the initial fire. The plant was adjacent to Paramount and RKO studios, where some of their stages caught on fire. Films starring Douglas Fairbanks, Bebe Daniels, Mary Pickford and Norma Talmadge were lost.
Deadly fires were now becoming the norm. A catastrophe in film history occurred in Little Ferry, New Jersey. There 20th Century-Fox had a film storage facility, and on July 9, 1937, neglect and circumstances combined to ignite a fire. Nitrate film was long known to be unstable and prone to spontaneous combustion when exposed to heat. In the Fox storage vaults, made of concrete, poor ventilation and excessive summer heat caused gases from the nitrate film to spontaneously catch fire. A domino effect of fires destroyed them all. One youth was killed in the adjacent neighborhood, and two were injured. For film history, the loss was irreparable: most of the silent films from the Fox Film Corporation and many pre-1932 were lost. The Theda Bara films are lost except for some fragments, Some actors’ film work is unknown except by name. 75% of Fox films before 1930 were lost.
And then there was the MGM film vault fire in 1965. It occurred in the Film Storage Vault (#7 of the series) on Lot 3 adjacent to Jefferson Blvd. These vaults were built of concrete in the mid-1930s, separated from each other and far from any buildings. An electrical spark caused the fire and explosion that killed one person. The films of Metro Pictures, Goldwyn Pictures, and Louis B. Mayer Productions were lost, as well as several early M-G-M silents. These included Greta Garbo’s “The Divine Woman” and Lon Chaney’s “A Blind Bargain” and “London After Midnight.”
Studio fires destroyed more than film. A large fire destroyed parts of the Lasky/DeMille studio on April 30, 1918 located at Sunset and Vine. The cause was sparking electrical wires that ignited a rack of films in the color-room and tinting department, purchasing offices, stock room, glass stage set, and wooden buildings. Employees fought the fire while saving records, wardrobe, and films as best they could until L.A firefighters arrived. Costume designer and head of women’s wardrobe Alpharetta Hoffman along with C.S. Widom the Men’s wardrobe head managed to save the wardrobe from the 1916 “Joan the Woman” production. Valuable films in the vault were ordered to be removed to the street-side. DeMille was working on “Old Wives for New” when the fire started. The release was delayed a month and made from surviving negative copies. The colored positive copy was destroyed and the color process abandoned for the film.
Another fire at the old Fox studio on Sunset and Western started from crossed electrical wires at 2:00 a.m. May 20, 1928. A large sound stage was destroyed. The initiative and quick work of the Fox telephone operator Pauline Fuller had her at the switchboard calling studio executives and stars such as Charles Farrell, Victor McLaglen, Mary Duncan, Madge Bellamy and others to go to their dressing rooms and retrieve their wardrobes before the fire got to them. Nearly $200, 000 in damages was estimated.
Fires managed to hit many studios. Columbia’s 40 acre Movie Ranch in Burbank had a spectacular fire on May 26, 1950. The fire was probably started in the paint shop or lumber mill. It destroyed the power plant with two generators, the lumber mill, the water tank on its steel tower. Standing sets such as the New York street were mostly destroyed, as was the Western town.
One sound stage fire broke the heart of costume designer Irene Sharaff. On July 2, 1958 a fire broke out in the huge Sound Stage #8 at the Samuel Goldwyn Studio on Formosa Avenue in Hollywood, where the set for Columbia’s “Porgy and Bess” was located and being filmed. The raging fire in the early morning caused one entire wall of the sound stage to collapse into the interior of the building. The complete set for “Catfish Row” which Oliver Smith had designed and Prop man Irving Sindler furnished with a 30-year collection of props were all destroyed. Irene Sharaff’s complete wardrobe for the production was also destroyed. Stars Dorothy Dandridge, Sidney Poitier, Sammy Davis Jr. and Pearl Bailey were called and told not to come in for the dress rehearsal. Damage was estimated at $2,000,000 to $5,000,000.
Another fire at MGM is sometimes confused with the 1965 film vault fire, but this one took place on Lot 2’s standing sets, where a fire started March 12, 1967 in a chapel and spread to Brownstone Street, where scenes from “The Easter Parade” had been filmed among other movies and TV shows. The fire continued to Waterfront Street and destroyed it. Despite its name, it fronted no water. It was used, with some redecoration, for “An American in Paris.” The fire was so hot it blistered the paint off a fire truck.
And another fire at the Samuel Goldwyn Studio at Formosa Ave. and Santa Monica Blvd. occurred on May 6, 1974. A large spotlight burned out and showered sparks on the TV set for “Sigmund and the Sea Monster.” Three sound-stages burned down before the fire was put out. Films such as “Dodsworth” and “The Best Years of Our Lives” had been made there. Although named the Samuel Goldwyn Studio, the lot was used for independent productions and TV shows in the 1970s. It had been a Hollywood studio since 1919, and once been the Pickfair Studio when Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks bought it in 1922. A few years later it became the United Artists Studio with their merger with Charlie Chaplin and D.W. Griffith. Goldwyn became a stockholder. Later still, Joseph Schenk and Darryl Zanuck rented the lot for use for their 20th Century Pictures before they merged with Fox.
Now much progress has been made in the safety of film and theaters, just in time for their disappearance. As for studio lots, well, they don’t make many movies there anymore either. Curiously, the Universal Studios lot had been used to store in a 22,320-square-foot warehouse, the master recordings and session masters of UMG, the world’s largest record company. These masters have been described as, “irreplaceable primary source of a piece of recorded music.” But on Sunday, June 1, 2008 after blow torches had been used on asphalt roof shingles on a standing set structure on the New England Street, it flared-up two hours after the work crew left and caused a fire. The New England Street burned as did the New York Street and the Courthouse Square used in “Back to the Future.” From there it burned down the wherehouse with the UMG music masters and recordings. And whatever videos and films also stored there Universal has yet to disclose.
Let’s be happy for the movies and music we still have, but recognize, like the family members, friends, and ancestors that are gone, what we have lost.
Los Angeles Times, Huge Lasky Film Fire. July 24, 1920 p13.
Los Angeles Times, Blast Rocks Universal City. May 25, 1922 p I.
Los Angeles Times, Millions in Films Endangered in Fire. June 16, 1923. II 3
New York Times, Millions in Films Lost in Studio Fire. October 25, 1929 p28.
Wikipedia. 1937 Fox Vault Fire.
Wikipedia, 1965 MGM Vault Fire
Los Angeles Times, Lasky Picture Plant Suffers in Spectacular Studio Fire. May 1, 1918 p I
Los Angeles Times, Fox Studio to Build on Fire Ruins.May 22, 1928, p A1
Los Angeles Times, Studio Fire Loss Set at $450,000. May 27, 1950 p A1
Los Angeles Times, Goldwyn Studio Fire Razes $2,000,000 Set. July 3, 1958 p I
Los Angeles Times, Fire Destroys Sets at MGM. March 13, 1967 p I
Los Angeles Times, 3 Sound Stages Will Be Rebuilt, Executive Says. May 7, 1974 p3
The New York Times Magazine, Judy Rosen, The Vault is on Fire. June 11, 2019
The Coronado Island Film Festival, Reframed, is happening November 11 -15, 2020. We deliberated for most of the last year on what the Festival, our 5th Annual, should be like considering the pandemic, and decided on a mix of mostly virtual events with few live events highlighted below. Instead of passes as in previous years, individual film downloads and events are sold by tickets. A great line-up is offered.
The Festival starts on Veteran’s Day with Coronado’s traditional Culinary Cinema live-stream cooking demonstration by Chef Lauren Lawless on “American tapas,” along with a “Salute to Veterans” virtual selection of films. These include “My Father’s Brothers,” a filmmaker’s interview of his father and seven survivors of an intense battle in Vietnam, and “We Left as Brothers” about six Veterans that return to Vietnam 50 years after the war. A package of short documentaries about Veterans will also also be offered.
The OPENING NIGHT FILM will be shown at the South Bay Drive-In on Thursday November 12 featuring Searchlight’s NOMADLAND starring Frances McDormand in this year’s Venice Film Festival Golden Lion Award winner. Another outdoor screening on the beach in front of the historic Hotel del Coronado has had to be postponed recently due to the recent rise in Covid cases.
Honorary Head Juror Leonard Maltin, who has been associated with the Festival since its beginning, will again present the awards for the filmmakers based on jury selections. This year the awards will be presented to them, but without an audience and without a festive dinner in the grand ballroom of the Hotel Del. Nonetheless, the presentation will be livestreamed from one of Coronado’s historic houses.
Many outstanding documentaries and shorts are offered, including: Billie, about the legendary Billie Holiday with unheard interviews, and key performances; Fish & Men: the High Cost of Cheap Fish; The Capote Tapes, the audio archives and interviews with Capote’s friends and enemies; and RIDERS of the PURPLE SAGE: THE MAKING OF A WESTERN OPERA about a classically-trained composer adapting the famous dime novel into a grand opera.
These programs and many more were developed by Executive Director Merridee Book and Chair Doug St. Denis. The full program and ticketing info can be found at: https://coronadofilmfest.com/ciff-2020-virtual-screenings/ We hope you can attend.
Christian Esquevin, President, Coronado Island Film Festival
Alfred Hitchcock never admitted that he used any symbolism in his masterpiece, Vertigo, let alone incorporating any mythic elements. Yet this film, obsessed with the hopeless task of bringing a lost love back from the dead, leads to such interpretation. Indeed, the very premise is rooted in the Greek myth of Orpheus and Eurydice, where Orpheus travels to the underworld to retrieve his dead wife. His love was so strong that the god Hades let her go, on condition that Orpheus be patient and not look at her until they exit. On their journey out, Orpheus thought he was fooled, he looked back at Eurydice before they reached the light, and Eurydice was pulled back among the dead. This myth has inspired countless works of literature and art. In the case of Hitchcock, his film was based on the book D’Entre les Morts (Between Deaths) by Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac, where the same obsessive search for a dead love then creates the makeover of the same/different woman. In writing the script for Vertigo, many screenwriters were involved, and versions changed. During preparation of the last version involving Hitchcock and Samuel Taylor, Hitchcock was hospitalized twice in two months for a naval hernia and then serious gallstone surgery. He was in the hospital for a month for the latter, where he contemplated his own death. “The only way to get rid of my fears is to make a film about them,” he once said.
It was not only fear Hitchcock was trying to excise in Vertigo, but his own obsessions and subconscious feelings. Rather than communicate them in scripted dialogue, these elements were communicated symbolically and visually. Hitchcock had started as a silent filmmaker and believed that in many ways it was superior form of film making. In his interviews with Francois Truffaut he stated, “The silent pictures were the purest form of cinema.” Vertigo was filmed with long stretches of silence, but scored by the brilliant Bernard Herrmann: scenes of the introductory chase, Scottie’s tailing of Madeleine with drives through San Francisco streets, through a flower shop, at the cemetery of the Mission Dolores, and at the Art Gallery at the Palace of the Legion of Honor. Scottie voyeuristically watches her gazing at the portrait of Carlotta Valdez, whose gravestone she had just visited. Just enough dialogue elicited information on the painting from a museum guard. Madeleine’s husband had told Scottie that she thought she was Carlotta’s reincarnation. Hence the identical twirl to their hair-buns, and the same flower “nosegay’ they hold. As a main character, the beautiful Madeleine is also obsessed with death. We as the audience perceive, without dialogue, Scottie’s obsessive love begin. A mere private detective job of tailing a man’s wife changes completely. Scottie’s walk through the very dark tunnel-like back of the Podesta Baldocchi flower shop, then as he opens its rear door, magnificent full colors of flowers fill the screen, with a radiant Kim Novak as Madeleine turns and appears to walk toward him. Then as he follows her to the Mission and through its cemetery, his curiosity is heightened beyond where his reason finds answers. And finally on their third stop at the Art Gallery his attraction to her beauty is magnified by her unexplainable aura of mystery.
Chris Marker was a big fan of Vertigo, having watched it nineteen times. He said about Vertigo in his film Sans Soleil, in part, “….It seems to be a question of trailing of enigma, of murder, but in truth it’s a questionof melancholy and dazzlement…so confidently coded within the spiral that you could miss it, andnot discover immediately that this vertigo of space in reality stands for the vertigo of time.”
Immemorial time is likely what Marker meant and can be inferred by the symbolism and myths in Vertigo. Scottie is fascinated by Madeleine, who says she is the reincarnation of a woman from the old Californio days of California, a theme reinforced by the visuals from two old missions. This is further reinforced by their trip to the Sequoia Redwood forest. The visual here shows their tiny size compared to a giant sequoia and the forest, reinforced by Scottie saying the tree is two-thousand years or older. Their name is, “Sequoia sempervirens — ‘always green, ever-living,’” Scottie explains. Madeleine views that as how many lives have come and gone in that time. This is emphasized visually by her looking at the tree rings of a sequoia. “This is where I was born,” Madeleine tells Scottie, pointing to a ring from the 1800s, “and this is where I died.” On the trip she also explains how she feels like she is walking down a long corridor that is covered with mirrored fragments. She feels the life she sees is not her own.
In Jean Cocteau’s great film Orpheus (Orphée) Jean Marais as Orphée walks through a mirror to reach the underworld. Mirrors serve as a symbol of duality throughout Vertigo. From the scene where Scottie first sees Madeleine at Ernie’s restaurant, as she and Gavin Elster are walking toward the bar, and then leaving, their duplicity is emphasized by their double images in the mirror. Earlier at the flower shop, Scottie’s best view of Madeleine was in the mirror. And later, with Judy, we see her often in the mirror, “putting on her face.” The other woman in Scottie’s life was Midge, the woman who cared for him the most and took care of him after his breakdowns. She knew too well about his obsession, but like a mother she was always there for him but could do little to divert his attention. Her warmth was symbolized by her red and yellow sweaters, and her work illustrating bras.
The symbolic meanings of the colors used in Vertigo have been written about at length. Starting with Madeleine’s gray suit, a fixation for Scottie, and more so for Hitchcock. He insisted Edith Head design one for Kim Novak despite her objections. Gray represented modesty, and the gray was perhaps an association with a nun’s habit. Combined with Kim Novak’s blond hair it gave the image of the woman of mystery – the figure-hugging suit on a cool woman with fiery insides. Her car is green, and Judy’s first costume is a bright green color. While green normally denotes evergreens and life, Hitchcock’s strong association with green started in the theater in London as a youth, where ghostly representations were depicted in lime green. See for example the greenish gown and make-up of the ghostly character Elvira in the 1945 British film Blithe Spirit directed by David Lean.
After Scottie saves Madeleine’s life after she jumps into the bay, he becomes obsessed with her. And when later he is powerless to save her from jumping to her death, powerless because of his vertigo, he enters those dark places of the mind. This is exacerbated by his trial for her death. “The freedom and the power is something men once had,” Pop Leiber said in the Argosy book shop. Rather than a philosophy of the film or of Hitchcock, I believe this was used as a method to further symbolized Scottie’s weakness.
Vertigo is full of symbols. After Scottie has finally persuaded the character Judy to be made over in the image of Madeleine, she emerges from her bathroom and we see the bed as she approaches Scottie, which was barely seen before. Scottie’s own apartment window has a clear view of the phallic Coit Tower. The Mission Dolores, as it was commonly known, plays an important role, an old and historic building, named after the nearby Creek of Sorrows. Then there is the double itself, always a bad sign in mythology, and the basis of so much of Vertigo. The movie is structured as two halves, or a doubling of Scottie obtaining and then losing his love by “death.” And there is that great symbol of the Lissajous spiral, that swirling vortex that sucks in our main characters and serves as the graphic symbol of the movie’s opening title sequence. Death permeates Vertigo, alongside re-birth and reincarnation. Scottie has met Judy and begun a relationship – a relationship where he needs to change her into the lost love Madeleine. “Can’t you just love me for who I am?” Judy asks Scottie. But her need for love and his obsession results in the makeover. That miraculous final transformation takes place when Judy emerges, seemingly from the haze of time and green light in her apartment, as the very image of Madeleine, gray suit and blond hair in spiral bun. Scottie is transfixed, his eyes dazzling, and as they embrace and kiss, the camera captures a rotating scene of them at San Juan Bautista Mission. Seemingly spinning through time and memory, a “vertigo of time” as Chris Marker stated.
But as we know, Scottie has been duped in the story’s plot. Judy really was Madeleine all along, or rather Madeleine was Judy. Scottie discovers this when, as Judy dresses for dinner, she puts on the Carlotta Valdez necklace. So instead of going out to dinner Scottie takes her on a long drive, back to San Juan Bautista, back to the scene of the crime. Judy is bewildered at first, but she sees Scottie’s hostility as he pushes her up the bell tower stairs. “He made you over just like I made you over,” he says accusingly to Judy. Only Elster had made her over first, and thus Scottie had been pursuing the hollow goal of recreating another man’s fantasy. And then he accused her of being “an apt pupil,” for Elster, which he repeats twice – something she hadn’t been for him. That demonstrated to Scottie, and served as the film’s underlying theme, that the pursuit of an empty ideal is futile. For Hitchcock, it was a deeply ingrained motif, one that would keep repeating itself as he tried to mold one of his blonds after another into his fantasy, only to have her leave him for one reason or another. With the character Scottie, this creation and possession fantasy was played out not as a means of domination, but rather one where we could believe that once his fantasy woman was created, he could surrender and succumb to her. She could have been his Madeleine/Midge. But alas we know that that that too would have been another fantasy – another beguiling but untrustworthy image reflected in a mirror. But such was Scottie’s anger that he overcame his vertigo to go all the way up the stairs, dragging Judy to the top of the bell tower where “Madeleine” had fallen, or rather had been pushed to her death. In the book D’Entre les Morts, Roger Flavières strangles “Madeleine.” the woman who had duped him, out of jealousy, and knowing what he had transformed her double into was an illusion of lost love. Scottie wants to do Judy harm, although Judy shows her honest emotion. The ending seems clumsy, an accidental fall off the tower, but caused by the dark appearance of a nun announcing, “I heard voices.” For the Catholic Hitchcock, a director that never had anything in his films not carefully considered, this must have been a sort of absolution for Scottie (Hitch’s alter ego?). Yet we start off nearly where we began. Orpheus caused Eurydice to fall back to the underworld by his carelessness. Roger Flavières is sent to the mad house. Scottie would no doubt have returned to a clinic, forever damaged, perpetually seeing the loving, imploring eyes of Judy/Madeleine staring into his. Vertigo is not Hitchcock’s greatest mystery, but rather his greatest tragedy.
Classic films abound in comforting stories and feel-good endings that are right for our times. After years of dystopian movies it’s great to have a plot that doesn’t have everybody dying. During years of the Great Depression, war years, and finally getting back to normal in the 1950s, many movies wanted to look at the sunny side of the street. The Classic Movie Blog Association’s Spring Blogathon is now Classics for Comfort. My five recommended favorites are listed below:
ROMANCE ON THE HIGH SEAS (1948) Warner Bros, Directed by Michael Curtiz. If you haven’t been anywhere and haven’t had a laugh in weeks – you’ll be vicariously voyaging and belly laughing with this movie. Romance on the High Seas was Doris Day’s film debut, and it also starred Jack Carson, Oscar Levant, Janis Page and S.Z Sakall. It’s a real screwball comedy, and here the joke is on some of the characters. Doris Day as Georgia Garrett, is a nightclub singer aching to take a ship cruise. Instead she just takes out travel brochures since she can’t afford a trip. Janis Page as Elvira Kent is well-off but jealous of her husband, who is always cancelling their honeymoon trips and now has a new attractive secretary. Elvira and Georgia bump into each other at the travel agency and exchange stories. Elvira is booking a cruise to Rio with her husband, which then gets cancelled. Her uncle Lazlo (S.Z. “Cuddles” Sakall), tells her just to go alone. Elvira then schemes to stay in town where she can spy on her husband, and she asks Georgia to take her place, which Georgia is thrilled to do. But Georgia is told that she must uphold Elvira’s proper high society reputation since Georgia will be travelling under Elvira’s name – so no flirting with male travelers. Meanwhile Elvira’s husband is equally jealous, and he hires a private detective to take the voyage and spy on “Elvira.” The P.I. is played by Jack Carson, who in no time once shipboard falls for Georgia/Elvira and vice-versa. The shipboard fun is enlivened by Latin-inspired music and Doris’s singing. The late 1940s wardrobe designed by Milo Anderson and the 1940’s Deco sets make for smashing visuals. The romantic confusion continues however, as Georgia’s old boyfriend (Oscar Levant) appears from a port of call, and then Elvira’s jealous husband flies to Rio, where by then everybody is either dodging each other or trying to make up with their permanent mate. Michael Curtiz directed the film. Doris Day was not happy with her acting and asked Curtiz where she could get a drama coach. “No, no!” Curtiz replied, “You’re a natural just as you are, if you learn how to act, you’ll ruin everything.”
MY MAN GODFREY (1936)Universal. Directed by Gregory La Cava. If you don’t think there’s salvation and the plot of a screwball comedy in a homeless camp during the Great Depression, you haven’t seen My Man Godfrey. The story starts in New York as two rich sisters, Cornelia and Irene Bullock played by Gail Patrick and Carole Lombard, go to the city dump to obtain a “forgotten man” for a scavenger hunt party. Cornelia offers $5 to the down-and-out Godfrey Parke played by William Powell. The well-spoken Godfrey is offended by her snobbish manner and pushes Cordelia into a trash heap. Irene thinks that’s funny. Godfrey is charmed by Irene and agrees to play along. He is such a refined homeless character that Irene wins the scavenger hunt game at the Waldorf-Ritz Hotel. But Godfrey is disgusted with the whole idea and wants to return to his homeless camp. Irene is so smitten with him that she offers him a job as their family butler. Once at their mansion, the absent-minded society Mom and Papa Bullock, are charmed too. The couple are played by Alice Brady and Eugene Palette. Mother Angelica is always distracted and father Alexander can’t believe he lives with this bunch and worries about money. But mean sister Cornelia thinks about how to get back at Godfrey, and then there’s a free-loading protégé named Carlos who adds to the wackiness of the household. Godfrey carries out his butler duties with great skill and polish. At a tea party thrown by Irene, one of the guests recognizes Godfrey as a fellow Harvard man. Godfrey silences him, but it seems that our butler is not who he seems to be. Between Irene’s crush on him and his unflappable demeanor, Cornelia decides to play dirty. She plants her pearls under his mattress and says they were stolen. But Godfrey is a clever man. He not only graduated from Harvard, but he lived on the streets. This family may be wacky and have a mean-spirited daughter, but maybe he can do some good. And the homeless camp at the dump might just become useful.
STAGE DOOR (1937) RKO. Directed by Gregory La Cava. The 1930s were the era of “women’s films,” and here’s a perfect movie of the type. It is witty, it has an all-star women’s cast, and it is simply unforgettable and comforting in its resolution of the conflicts inherent in a boarding house full of struggling actresses. The 1930s were also the era of wise-cracking dames. And the snappy dialogue launches you right into the story. The cast includes Katharine Hepburn as Terry Randall, an aspiring actress from a rich Midwestern family. The haughty Terry lands in a group of world-weary actresses and chorus girls boarding at the Footlights Club in New York. From the beginning Terry antagonizes Jean Maitland as played by Ginger Rogers. Then they find out they’ll be roommates. The other wise-cracking boarders were also like oil and water with Terry. Except for Gail Patrick as the ambitious sophisticate and venomous Linda Shaw. The super cast included Lucille Ball, Eve Arden, and a very young Ann Miller. The “house mother” and acting advisor is played by Constance Collier, an actress famous in the silent era. A very earnest member of the house is loved by all, Kay Hamilton, played by Andrea Leeds. Kay had starred in a play the previous year, but now can’t find a role. The key theatrical producer is played by Adolphe Menjou as Anthony Powell. When the desperate and malnourished Kay visits his offices but is denied an appointment she faints. Terry (Katharine Hepburn) was also waiting and barges into Powell’s office to berate him for his callousness. He is unphased, until later he learns that Terry’s father wants to secretly bankroll a play, Enchanted April so she can get the lead role. If only things were that simple. Powell is a notorious womanizer, making advances on Terry and Jean. But Terry is weak as an actress and has bad rehearsals; and the lovable Kay had wanted that part. Kay is now giving Terry acting tips. Menjou/Anthony Powell sees a disastrous play in the works. It will take a tragedy for all of these disparate characters to come together in this bittersweet gem of a movie.
LADY FOR A DAY (1933) Columbia Pictures. Directed by Frank Capra
Apple Annie, played by May Robson, was once a stage performer but has now fallen on hard times. She sent her daughter for schooling in a convent in Spain. She sends her the money she collects from selling apples on a street corner. Only now her daughter is grown-up and making a surprise visit to see her mother in New York. 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. But not only is Annie’s daughter coming for a visit, but she is bringing her fiancé Carlos, and his father Count Romero. Annie is beside herself, not knowing how she is ever going to keep from shaming her daughter. Ever since she got her daughter’s letter she has been drinking and not getting out of bed. This has been noticed by “Dave the Dude,” played by Warren William. He’s a racketeer and gambler who relies on buying Annie’s “lucky apples.” All of Annie’s neighborhood street friends are worried, and having heard of the problem, ask Dave the Dude to rent rooms at the Maybery so Anne can receive her daughter in style. They will even put up some of their meager earnings. When Dave visits Annie he sees a portrait of her beautiful daughter and understands her situation. He will put her up at the Maybery. Dave gets his girlfriend Missouri Martin (Glenda Farrell) to dress Annie 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) for the part.
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” his partner, 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 polite behavior 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. Annie is thinking about confessing the whole charade to them. But life is full of surprises, especially movie lives.
YOU CAN’T TAKE IT WITH YOU (1938) Columbia Pictures. Directed by Frank Capra.
There’s nothing like a great ensemble cast from the Golden Age of Hollywood – even when most of them play wacky members of an eccentric family. The patriarch of this family is Grandpa Martin Vanderhof, played by Lionel Barrymore. He refuses to sell his house, the last property in the area, to tycoon, hard as nails, Anthony P. Kirby, who wants to squeeze out his competitor’s factory. Kirby is played by Edward Arnold. Grandpa has a large household: his daughter Penny Sycamore (Spring Byington) and her husband Paul Sycamore (Samuel S. Hinds); Their daughter Essie (Anne Miller), married to Ed (Dub Taylor). Each one has followed their whims as far as avocation: Penny is a playwright (for no other reason than she was given a typewriter); Paul makes fireworks; their daughter Essie dances ballet around the house and makes candy, which her husband Ed delivers around town. Essie’s sister is Alice, who has a real job – she works for Tony Kirby, the tycoon’s son. Alice, played by Jean Arthur, and Tony, played by Jimmy Stewart, love each other. Tony thinks that it’s time that their parents should meet each other, Alice is nervous but agrees and sets a date. Mrs Kirby does not approve of her son’s choice for a love interest. Tony starts to think that Alice’s parents will start putting on a show trying to impress his parents (how little he knows) and therefore decides to visit the Vanderhof/Sycamore clan a day early. And so begins a whirlwind ride that starts literally when fireworks explode in the basement during dinner and continues in the jail and then at a courthouse. Mr Kirby is cantankerous to everybody the entire way, while Grandpa tries to tell him about the importance of having friends. Who’s going to win this battle, and is there any hope for Alice and Tom? Watch this jewel of a romantic screwball comedy to find out.
The Turner Classic Movies Classic Film Festival celebrated its 10th anniversary last year, 2019. And as with every film festival or other event this spring, the 2020 TCM Classic Film Festival had to be cancelled due to Covid-19. This year it will be presenting on-air through its cable station highlights from the past ten years of its festivals. This will start on Thursday April 16 at 8:00 p.m. EST and run through Sunday (actually early Monday morning) with its last showing at a 3:30 a.m. start time.
The films begin with A Star is Born, (1954) which was the opening night event back in 2010. And the second showing will be of the restored Metropolis (1927) directed by Fritz Lang, which closed that Festival. Many great films will be shown, including some interviews and shots of stars that have since passed away, including Luise Rainer, Esther Williams, Peter O’Toole, Martin Landau, Burt Reynolds, Max von Sydow, and of course TCM’s long time host, Robert Osborne.
As a ten-year attendee of the TCM Classic Film Festivals, here are my own highlights and impressions from the Festivals. Given that events and screenings were concurrent, my selections were always too limited.
The first TCM CLASSIC FILM FESTIVAL was held in 2010 in Hollywood, as have all subsequent festivals. The venues have remained with the core at the old Grauman Chinese Theatre (now the TCL Chinese), the adjacent multiplex, with the Egyptian Theatre and the headquarters at the Roosevelt Hotel. I didn’t attend the Opening Night screening of A Star is Born, but rather the Roosevelt pool-side showing of Neptune’s Daughter (1949)with Esther Williams and Betty Garrett in attendance and featuring a performance by the Aqualilies. Viewing many of these movie classics that year was a thrill, especially in the old movie palaces among rapt movie fans from around the country. My favorites were: In a Lonely Place; Casablanca; Sunset Blvd.; Leave Her to Heaven; The Graduate; and The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly. Panel discussions were also held. Despite some glitches with finding where lines formed, this was a very enjoyable festival.
The TCM CLASSIC FILM FESTIVAL 2011 repeated the successful formula from the previous year. The use of themes was further developed, such as, “The Silent Legacy,” “The Music of Bernard Hermann,” “Disney’s Musical Legacy,” etc. One of the idols of my youth was in attendance and was interviewed as part of the screening of Parent Trap: Hayley Mills. Miss Mills revealed that she had been “discovered” by Walt Disney’s wife Lillian in London while on stage. Walt brought her over to star in Pollyanna(1960), and later films. Peter O’Toole was also in attendance as part of the screening of Lawrence of Arabia, and for a special interview session. In those days at the festival Vanity Fair sponsored a party for Spotlight pass holders and he attended the party, but he was in a wheelchair at this point in his life and was in a cordoned off area with friends.
The Opening Night movie was An American in Paris (1951), and Leslie Caron was in attendance for an interview. Other highlights for me were: Gold Diggers of 1933; To Kill a Mockingbird (1962); with several members of the Peck family in attendance; Carousel (1956); Pennies From Heaven (1981); and The Unsinkable Molly Brown(1964), with an interview of Debbie Reynolds.
The 2012 TCMCFF was the biggest and best of the three annual festivals held thus far. It was a classic movie lover’s paradise. The over-all theme was “Style in the Movies.” Costume design featured in the programming, with costume designer, author, and professor of the UCLA Copley Center for Costume Design, Deborah Nadoolman Landis. She gave a talk and visual presentation on “The Good, The Bad, and The Beautiful,” a mini-history of costume design in film. Deborah showed us that not only is a Jean Harlow silk glamour gown a film costume, but so is Sylvester Stallone’s sweat-suit in Rocky.
As the Festival began drawing more attendees, the lines became longer and some venues were filled before you could get in. . I did get to see the two most spectacular epics being offered, the three-hour The Longest Day, and the equally long How the West Was Won, the latter shown in the Cinerama format at the original Cinerama movie dome. Having seen both of the films on television only, I was unprepared for how spectacular they truly were. Showing the film in the original Cinerama format required three projectors and five personnel. How the West Was Won premiered at the very same theater 50 years earlier. It was the last epic that MGM was ever to produce. It was also costume designer Walter Plunkett’s last film at MGM. His contract had expired and was not being renewed. In another movie actor Richard Widmark gave a tour de force performance as Harry Fabian in the film noir classic, Night and the City. The film was directed by Jules Dassin, and is set in London, but it is otherwise full of noir essence, a film that Widmark makes incredibly palpable.
Grauman’s Chinese was the site for the screening of the bewitching Vertigo. And if this screening was not its own reward, Kim Novak was there being interviewed by Robert Osborne about her appraisal of the movie and her role. The next day Ms. Novak got her hand and foot-prints set in concrete for the Grauman’s Chinese forecourt. The Festival included screenings of some of the Universal horror classics. The seminal Frankensteinwas shown at the Egyptian Theater, which was also a Grauman’s Theater when it opened in 1922. The classic 1931 Frankensteinwas introduced by director John Carpenter. It’s amazing how compact a thriller the movie is, still powerful after all these decades. It was an iconic movie, made so by director James Whale and the incredible acting of Boris Karloff. And finally for me, the screening of the newly restored, 60th Anniversary premiere of the beloved Singing in the Rain. It was shown at the Grauman’s Chinese Theater, where it had first premiered 60 years earlier and where the film’s opening scene was filmed. Debbie Reynolds was interviewed by Robert Osborne, and following the film, Patricia Ward Kelly, Gene Kelly’s widow, provided personal stories from the late Gene Kelly’s writings and recollections. She could have entertained us for hours, though time had run out, much too soon. The restored Singing in the Rainprovided outstanding color – a marvel of fun and theatrical good times.
The 2013 TCMFF had the theme of TRAVEL, which hardly seemed to matter as the movies I picked to watch were based on a mix of proximity, old favorites, new discoveries, and star talent.
The Opening Night screening Thursday was Funny Girl (1968), the classic musical based on the life of Ziegfeld star Fanny Brice, as played by Barbara Streisand in her film debut – inspired casting. I can’t imagine anyone else in the role. The screening was not attended by Barbara Streisand, but the audience was thrilled by the guest appearance of Cher, who was interviewed by Robert Osborne.
A classic not to be missed on the big screen was the 1959 BenHur, probably the biggest film spectacle of the classic era. Indeed, the music and big screen of the Chinese Theater produced a completely different experience than seeing this film on a TV screen. The introduction to the Ben Hur screening was provided by David Wyler, son of the brilliant director William Wyler, who was also the director of Funny Girl. At this screening David Wyler regaled the audience with his stories about being a kid on the film lot in Italy.
Classic animation was also added to the line-up, in celebration of Bugs Bunny’s 75th anniversary. Leonard Maltin and animation historian Jerry Beck introduced a series of ten Bugs Bunny personal favorites, starting with A Wild Hare, Bugs’ first appearance in 1940. Another animation treat was getting to watch Lady and the Tramp (1955) on the big screen at the El Capitan Theater. This fun classic was also introduced by Leonard Maltin. I had not seen this Disney film since I was a kid. It was then and remains a sentimental favorite.
Silent film also had a strong showing at the festival, with silent film historians introducing or talking about some of the major silent classics. One particularly fascinating talk and slide show was presented by author and silent film historian John Bengston, who has researched and written, Silent Echoes, about the outdoor Hollywood film scenes of Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton and Harold Lloyd. Bengston has used film grabs and old fashioned-shoe leather to track down the filming locations of many of the silent classics, finding them in miraculously still-existing buildings and the streets of modern Los Angeles and elsewhere in California. Much of his current research is now helped by Google street view.
Watching King Vidor’s The Big Parade, digitallyrestored, was a revelation.It first premiered at the Egyptian Theater in 1925, and it went on to become the most profitable MGM film of its day. The story is centered around World War I, and a young French peasant woman and an American doughboy who fall in love. John Gilbert plays the soldier, in the favorite role of his career, and Renee Adoree plays the Frenchwoman. It is a stirring depiction of the frustrations of love and the horrors of war. The silent film actor Karl Dane gave an impressive performance. I had seen several photos of him but never saw any of his movies or knew why he was a big star for a short period.. He had the kind of strong but pliable face that I can only compare to Lon Chaney’s. The strong emotions of the film were greatly enhanced through a new score composed by Carl Davis and played by the English Chamber Orchestra. The experience was enhanced by Kevin Brownlow’s introduction and his retelling of his student interview with King Vidor.
The TCM Festival included screenings of many great movies, including Giant, Gilda, The Birds, Shane, Cape Fear, Bonnie and Clyde, It Happened One Night, My Fair Lady, Lady Eve, Mildred Pierce, Ninotchka, Night of the Hunter, On Golden Pond, On the Waterfront, Notorious, and many more. One is definitely in cinema heaven at the TCM Classic Film Festival.
TCM’s 5th Annual Classic Film Festival was held in Hollywood April 10-13, 2014, this was held concurrently with the 20th anniversary of Turner Classic Movies. The Festival’s theme was “Family in the Movies: The Ties that Bind.” Actors that were celebrated were: Maureen O’Hara; Charlton Heston; Jerry Lewis; and Richard Dreyfuss. The Opening Night movie was Oklahoma (1955). But instead I was at the Roosevelt poolside watching American Graffiti (1973). Zulu (1964) was screened the next morning, introduced by Alex Trebeck. This was Michael Caine’s first film. The next movie, the nostalgia- twinged Meet Me in St Louis (1944),starring Judy Garland.This screening was made very special by the appearance of Margaret O’Brien, who nearly stole the show as little Tootie. She not only still looked young but could apparently still can fit in the coat she wore in the film as a 7 year old. The mood changed to film noir and pre-code as I watched Double Indemnity (1944) along with a nighttime wrap-up of Employees’ Entrance (1933).
The next morning’s highlight was Mary Poppins (1964) at the El Capitan. The line for the movie was jaw-dropping. Donald Bogle interviewed Richard Sherman, who along with his late older brother Robert composed the songs and wrote the lyrics to Mary Poppins and other Disney films. The Beatles’ A Hard Day’s Night (1964), played at the Chinese Saturday night to a packed house. It was a great movie to watch on the big screen and to recapture the youth of the Beatles (and my own high school days), in this film from 1964. The songs that kept ringing in my head for the next several days were And I Love Her, and those beautiful harmonies by John and Paul in If I Fell (in love with you). Alec Baldwin provided a spirited introduction and interview with music producer Don Was. I closed out the Festival with two more musicals: Easter Parade (1948)and The Wizard of Oz (1939) . “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” filled my head as I drove home.
The 6th Annual TCMFF in 2015 drew some 20,000 people, The theme of this one was “History According to Hollywood,”And this year talent was very prominent, with Julie Andrews, Christopher Plummer, Dustin Hoffman, Sophia Loren, Shirley MacLaine, Alec Baldwin, Shirley Jones, Ann-Margret, Spike Lee, Peter Fonda, Keith Carradine, Robert Morse, William Daniels, Ken Howard, and others. Julie Andrews and Christopher Plummer were there as part of the Opening Night screening of The Sound of Music (1963).
The next morning featured a special showing of Lenny, about the radical stand-up comic Lenny Bruce, starring Dustin Hoffman. Dustin Hoffman was interviewed, after the screening, by Alec Baldwin. But “interviewed” is really a misnomer as this was a wandering dialogue that was as fascinating as it was funny as each actor took turns mimicking comedian Buddy Hackett and trading show business lore. In the same Egyptian Theater, and with seemingly the same line length, The Cincinnati Kid followed. The Steve McQueen/Edward G. Robinson movie also starred Ann-Margret, who was in attendance and interviewed by Ben Mankiewicz. She let out that what was special about McQueen was his “animalism.” She shared his love of fast motorcycles.
I attended Rififi (1955) which was introduced by Eddie Muller who complemented the audience for attending what he thought was the best movie of the whole festival, and “as perfect a movie as you can get.” Other great movies I attended were The Philadelphia Story, with a Q&A with Illianna Douglas and Madeleine Stowe; 42nd Street; The Smiling Lieutenant; 1776, and The Hunchback of Notre-Dame.
The 7th Annual TCMFF 2016 had nine themes, among them animal movies, journalism, coming-of-age, and love and loss. Among the actor tributes were stars Faye Dunaway, Gina Lollobrigida, Eliott Gould, Carl Reiner. Director Francis Ford Coppola was also celebrated. The Opening Night movie was All the President’s Men (1976), with Carl Bernstein interviewed along with Spotlight screenwriter Josh Singer and director Tom McCarthy. A journalist movie of a different sort was the classic Ace in the Hole (1951) starring Kirk Douglas, screened on Saturday . Earlier Saturday morning Francis Ford Coppola was interviewed for the screening of The Conversation (1974), revealing he had been influenced by Michelangelo Antonioni’s Blow Up (1966).
Other notable movies I attended were Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid (1982) as part of An Afternoon with Carl Reiner. This entertaining movie happened to be the last film whose costumes were designed by Edith Head before her death. And there was the silent The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928), with live music from an orchestra conducted by Mark Sumner and a choir performing The Voices of Light composed by Richard Einhorn. This event at the Egyptian Theatre was truly unique. Also unforgettable was a long interview of Faye Dunaway by Ben Mankiewicz at the Montalban Theatre. The discussion ran through most of her career. Although Mrs. Dunaway is known to be difficult, she was most gracious in her answers and to her audience.
TCMFF 2017 was the eighth annual Festival held April 6-9, 2017 in Hollywood. We missed the great Robert Osborne as MC the last couple of years. And this year TCM officially paid homage to him after his death on March 6. Without irony, and perhaps as Robert would have wanted it, the theme this year was Make em Laugh: Comedy in the Movies. With only a Classic Pass, my choice for the Thursday night movie was the romantic-comedy Love Crazy (1941) with Myrna Loy and William Powell, their tenth and zaniest film together. With co-stars Gail Patrick and Jack Carson it’s a fast-clipped and wacky movie where love and marriage is tested but eventually wins out Fitting the Festival theme was Stanley Kramer’s It’s a Mad Mad, Mad Mad World (1963) . It was screened at the fabulous Cinerama Dome, built in 1963. This crazy comedy of a film was beyond analysis, so instead the discussion was about the technical aspects of filming the climactic last scene at a supposed public square with lots of traffic and a tall building and a ladder fire truck rescuing people. All of this was actually shot on a studio back lot. Craig Barron and Ben Burtt were on hand to talk about the making of the film. Ben Burtt is a legendary movie sound designer, having created the voice of R2-D2 and Darth Vade. Probably my favorite film of the Festival was the French Noir Panique. This little known film gem is based on a Georges Simenon novel and stars the great French actor Michel Simon in the title role (the French title is Les Fiancailles de M. Hire). This is a very dark noir with an unblinking depiction of the cruelty of mob mentality.
One of of the films I didn’t want to miss was The Last Picture Show. Director Peter Bogdanovich was on hand to talk and answer Illeana Douglas’ questions about the 1971 film. It starred Timothy Bottoms, Cybil Shepherd, Ellen Burstyn, and Jeff Bridges among others and was a multi-Oscar nominee including Best Picture and Director. It won Best Supporting Actor Awards for Ben Johnson and Cloris Leachman. Bogdanovich related how he had wanted to make the film using deep-focus cinematography, like Citizen Kane. Orson Wells told him not to film it in color. And besides, he added. “All the best performances are in black and white.” So Bogdanovich asked the producer and was told to go ahead. Bogdanovich was also a fan of the John Ford westerns, and wanted Ben Johnson to play the role of Sam the Lion. But Johnson turned him down. “Too many words,” he said about his part in the script. So Bogdanovich turned to Ford for help. Ford said Johnson always said that about a script. But after Ford called him, Johnson accepted and called to tell Bogdanovich he would accept. It would become the most iconic role of his career. The director’s cut was screened.
Among other films awaiting me were two memorable ones. One was The King of Hearts (Le Roi de Coeur) 1966. Directed by Philippe de Broca and starring Alan Bates and Genevieve Bujold along with a strong supporting cast. I hadn’t seen the movie since the late 60’s and I remembered it as a gem of social satire. During World War I the Germans occupy a small French town and leave munitions timed to blow it up as they leave. The locals get wind of this and leave town. Only those inhabiting an insane asylum are left behind. When a lone Scots Black Watch “bomb disposal expert” is sent in to the village he manages to escape the Germans by entering the asylum where the inmates crown him king. After they leave, the inmates get out and find costumes to wear and assume roles they always wanted in life – from the mayor and firefighters, to whores and hairdressers.
The other remarkable film was the screening at the Egyptian Theater of The Black Narcissus (1947). The fuss was about the projection of this Powell & Pressberger classic on nitrate film stock – a great early Technicolor copy owned by the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences. In order to show it, the projection room at the Egyptian had to be retrofitted, courtesy of the Hollywood Foreign Press Association, TCM, the American Cinematheque, Academy Film Archive and George Eastman Museum. This work included having the room meet fire codes and installing a panic button in case of fire that would stop the projectors and drop metal louvers to encase them. The film itself was magnificent. It’s a gripping story of a group of nuns sent to the other-worldly Himalayas to open a convent.
The 9th Annual TCMFF was a full-card of film screenings and other events that thrilled every classic movie fan in attendance. The first film screening I attended was a surprise hit at the Fesival: Finishing School (1934). Frances Dee and Ginger Rogers starred. This was an RKO production, where Dee met Joel McRae and the two subsequently married. The classic Stage Door (1937) was next. 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. The all-star cast includes: Katharine Hepburn; Ginger Rogers; Lucille Ball; Eve Arden; Gail Patrick, Ann Miller; Andrea Leeds (steals your heart) Constance Collier; and Adolphe Menjou. 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 unique films made of edited deteriorated remnants of silent films. A unique event I attended was a cinematographers panel moderated by director Taylor Hackford. The panelists provided inside information on their art and many anecdotes about working with directors and actors, and the weather. The event was held at the historic American Society of Cinematographers Club House. Another fun screening was Cracking Wise, an edited medley of movie wise-cracks taken from dozens of films in the Paramount Archives. The clips came from Republic B pictures and were presented by Andrea Kalas.
Other great movies I saw were Miracle of Morgan’s Creek (1943),How to Marry a Millionaire (1953 in Cinemascope), Three Smart Girls (1936), Silk Stockings (1957), and Places in the Heart (1984), a special screening with both director Robert Benton 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 trying 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).
The 2019 TCM Classic Film Festivalcelebrated love in all of its forms. This was the 10th annual Festival, and the 25th anniversary of TCM, The hosts and TCM made over the ten-time attendees such as myself. We were given special lanyards for our name badges and thus greeted warmly at each screening or event. There was also a Roosevelt Hotel Rooftop party for all the Ten-Timers.
The Opening Night Screening featured When Harry Met Sally (1989), with Rob Reiner as director and stars Meg Ryan and Billy Crystal. talking about making the film. Carl Reiner revealed that the woman in the scene at Katz’s Deli that says “I’ll have what she’s having” after Meg Ryan acts out her fake orgasm was his mother Estelle.
There were many great movies to be seen over the week-end. Some of my favorites were: The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, that made a star of 21 year old Catherine Deneuve; The Postman Always Rings Twice; The Clock (with Judy Garland); Day for Night, with Jacqueline Bisset in attendance; Love Affair; The Killers, the remake with Angie Dickenson in attendance, Disney’s Sleeping Beauty, and a special Fox: An Appreciation, this before 20th Century-Fox was absorbed by the Disney Company. This program was presented by Schawn Belston,the then Exec VP of 20th Century-Fox. And I also attended , as I usually do, Bonham’s Entertainment Exhibition and Appraisal. This is held Sunday morning and people bring in their collectible Entertainment memorabilia for appraisal. As a collector, I’m always interested in what turns up.
This wraps up my 10 years with the TCMFF, I wouldn’t have missed it for anything. THANK YOU TURNER CLASSIC MOVIES.
When Helen Rose began working at MGM with its roster of stars, mogul Louis B. Mayer told the costume designer to, “Just make them beautiful.” With her plentiful use of chiffon and her figure-flattering style, Helen Rose did just that, designing the costumes for leading ladies including Elizabeth Taylor, Grace Kelly, Ava Gardner, Cyd Charisse, Debbie Reynolds, Lana Turner, Lauren Bacall, Doris Day, Esther Williams, Leslie Caron, and many others.
Helen Rose started at MGM in September 1943 as just one more costume designer among many. World Ward II was raging but the movie business was healthy. Helen got her start designing showgirls in the cabarets and nightclubs of Chicago. She learned early how to make their costumes comfortable and especially t using chiffon for its “twirly” quality for the dancers. After coming to L.A in 1929 she had struggled but finally found jobs working as a costume designer at both 20th Century-Fox and for the Ice Follies. When Mayer found out it was the same person designing the colorful outfits for the Fox musicals and for the fantasies on ice, he had to hire her. Irene Lentz Gibbons was the executive director for designing, not only designing costumes herself but assigning designers to various films. With several designers on staff including Irene Sharaff, Barbara Karinska, Marion Herwood Keyes, and two men’s designers, Helen waited months until she got an assignment. This finally came with the big production of Ziegfeld Follies released in 1945. Helen designed the colorful “Here’s to the Ladies,” number including Lucille Ball’s pink spangled costume. Louis B. Mayer was impressed and Helen’s career was on its upward trajectory.
Helen designed the costumes for Harvey Girls, the big hit of 1946. This was the first of many occasions she would dress Judy Garland. Here the styles were 1880s, with eye-catching clever lapel designs and mutton-chop sleeves. This Americana musical with Judy Garland and an all-star cast is now considered a classic. Helen next designed most of the costumes for a big all-star cast for the musical, Til the Clouds Roll By (1948). The movie was supposed to be a bio-pic about composer Jerome Kern, but instead became a series of musical numbers of his greatest hits. Notable were Helen’s designs for her friend Lena Horne’s blue and lavender gown worn when she sings, “Can’t Help Loving Dat Man.” There was a knock-out midnight blue sequined top and deep-cut fringed skirt for Lucille Bremer’s dance outfit for the “I Won’t Dance” number, and Judy Garland’s yellow feathered skirt and sequined chiffon top in the “Who” (Who Can it Be) number, a question she seems to ask a staircase of chorus boys. Judy Garland, pregnant with Liza at the time, related to Helen, “What a song to sing in my present condition.”
A Date With Judy in 1948 starred Jane Powell and Elizabeth Taylor. Jane Powell was the bigger star at the time, and Elizabeth Taylor was only 16 years old. But Elizabeth stole the show, especially the way Helen Taylor dressed her. Her youthful beauty radiated from the screen, and Helen took advantage of her violet colored eyes in her design fora knock-out evening gown of lavender-colored chiffon with a slight décolleté. With her thick dark hair and bold eyebrows, Elizabeth Taylor became a magnet for the camera. In Helen’s “New Look” fashions she became the fashion icon for teenagers across America. In 1948 Irene launched her own fashion line and stayed on at MGM but would no longer be supervising other designers. She would design for some movies but this opened up opportunities for Helen. Helen’s relationship with Elizabeth would grow with their next collaboration, Father of the Bride. Here Elizabeth stars as the young bride in the family with Spencer Tracy as father, Joan Bennett as the mother, and Don Taylor as the groom. Helen designed 47 costumes for Elizabeth. including a stunning wedding gown. Elizabeth was so impressed she had Helen design her own wedding gown. The gown took 15 seamstresses and beaders three weeks to make. MGM then gave her the dress as a present. The movie was a hit, the box office smash was helped by Elizabeth’s real wedding to Conrad “Nicky” Hilton on May 6, 1950, just before the film’s release.
Just as things seemed to to going so well for Helen, everything turned bad. Helen had sympathized with Judy Garland ever since they first worked together. Judy was just coming back to make Summer Stock after a three month stay at a sanitarium to cure her drug-addiction. While they began working on Judy’s wardrobe Helen was blamed for leaks to the gossip columns blaming MGM for Judy’s problems. Dory Schary had become the MGM Production Head and he took Helen off the movie. Walter Plunkett took over and designed Judy’s costumes and all the other cast members with the exception of Gloria DeHaven’s costumes. Judy was next scheduled to make Royal Wedding with Fred Astaire after June Allyson became pregnant. This got off to a rocky start but Helen started designing costumes for Judy. After getting into one of Helen’s costumes Judy had a run-in with Arthur Freed. She left the studio and didn’t return, having gotten a notice of suspension in the mail. The “Get Happy” number from Summer Stock ended up as Judy’s last MGM scene after thirteen years with the studio. Helen was taken off that film as well.
When Irene left MGM to devote herself full-time to her design business: Irene LTD., MGM found itself in need of another regular designer other than Walter Plunkett. Despite Helen having been in the dog house over the Judy Garland issue, she had gotten great publicity for her designs for Elizabeth Taylor. So she was back to designing for Elizabeth Taylor and Esther Williams at MGM through 1951, She did complete Royal Wedding with Jane Powell in the lead, playing as Fred Astaire’s partner. Jorjett Strumme, who became a friend of Helen’s and modeled for her fashion shows, noted her extraordinary sense and use of color. One of the examples she pointed out was Jane Powell’s lavender dress and coral belt worn in the dance scene with Fred Astaire on the ship going to England. She also notes Helen’s clever use of gradations of the same color in other costumes, “The petticoat would be purple and every layer on top of it would get lighter so that the body of the dress was lavender.”
Nineteen fifty-two turned out to be a very big year for Helen. She started out designing a big turn-of-the-19th century costume movie, The Belle of New York, starring Fred Astaire and Vera-Ellen. Helen also designed the remake of The Merry Widow, starring Lana Turner and Fernando Lamas, using both black and cream-colored gowns that earned her a Best Costume Oscar nomination. She also designed Elizabeth Taylor’s costumes for Love is Better Than Ever, and for Esther Williams in Million Dollar Mermaid. Helen finished off the year by designing another wardrobe for Lana Turner, this one for The Bad and the Beautiful. Helen was nominated for another Oscar for Best Costume (black & white film), and won the award for this movie. Her friend Elizabeth Taylor was the category presenter that year and handed a stunned Helen Rose the statuette.
Helen Rose won her Academy Award Oscar in March of 1953. She would get another great prize that year when she designed the costumes for Mogambo, and for the first time for the fabulous Grace Kelly. She also dressed the beautiful Ava Gardner in the same film, a remake of MGM’s Red Dust. Clark Gable starred in both films. Mogambo was set in Africa involving safaris. Helen Rose designed flattering khaki bush outfits for Grace Kelly that have influenced modern fashion for decades. Helen liked to emphasize figures so for Ava Gardner she designed tightly belted skirts and pants that flattered Ava’s gorgeous figure, and the yellow, dusty rose, and green colors that set off her beautiful skin. Not a bad wardrobe for the bush. The Clark Gable and Ava Gardner characters end up romantically linked in the movie, but it was Gable and Kelly that had the affair on set.
Nineteen fifty-four was another great year for Helen Rose. Including another Academy Award. I’ll cover the rest of her MGM career in Part II of my blog post coming soon.
Every year brings us five nominations for an Academy Award for Best Costume Design. For the movies of 2019 the field was not one of the best in my opinion, even with multiple previous Oscar winners in contention. As is customary, the nominations were made by the Costume Designers branch of the Academy, but all members will vote 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) or fantasy movies almost always prevail over contemporary costume design. With this year’s nominees, there was only one real period piece, Little Women, although all the others took place in various decades of the 1900s. The nominees are:
THE IRISHMAN. Costume design by Sandy Powell & Christopher Peterson. Directed by Martin Scorsese.
Sandy Powell has won the Oscar on three previous occasions and she has worked with Scorsese on seven previous films. The Irishman centers on the life of Teamster Union boss Jimmy Hoffa, as played by Al Pacino. Robert De Niro plays the “Irishman” Frank Shearan who looks back on his life and relationship with Hoffa. The movie also stars Joe Pesci. Since most of the cast were men playing their roles over several decades, the job for the designers was showing the passage of time in costume where little change happened in style, especially for lower class gangsters who needed to blend into society. Scorsese told Powell, “This is not Goodfellas and it’s not Casino.”
Sandy Powell had just come off her work on the films The Favourite and Mary Poppins Returns. She asked designer Christopher Peterson to join her, since there was a large cast of extras to dress as well as the principal actors, some 400 principals and 6500 extras. The story takes place over the decades of the 1950s though the 1970s. The first thing they did was try to find what costumes they could from costume rental houses. They also looked through thrift and vintage shops. This became especially important for the many suits that were needed for the different periods of time. Lapel widths were one of the indicators of time, and the fabrics of vintage suits were just more substantial than what is available today. De Niro reportedly had 102 fittings for his suits and other costumes. The piles of ties they located were also needed to pin-point time period, and in the end, what the actors’ favorites were.
Few women appear in the movie, although Shearan and Bufalino and their wives Irene and Carrie (Stephanie Kurtzuba and Kathrine Narducci) take a long road trip. The women wear similar Pucci-style polyester tops and pants. Although this takes place in the 1970s, the women still wear outfits from the late 1960s.
JOKER. Costume design by Mark Bridges. Directed by Todd Phillips.
Mark Bridges has won two Oscars for The Artist and The Phantom Thread. This is the story of the comic book Joker with a more violent and psychotic twist. Joker (Arthur Fleck) as played by Joaquin Phoenix, is a mentally ill aspiring comic and clown. The cruelty of his life is returned. Set in Gotham City “New York” circa 1981, the decaying city of the time is emphasized and adds to Joker’s downward spiral.
Joaquin Phoenix lost a lot of weight for the part, wanting to emphasize the illness of Arthur Fleck. Mark Bridges came around to finding costumes that showed that very lean physique rather than hiding it. He also explained how he came up with the movie’s iconic Joker costume, “The Joker suit came from something that was written in the script about Arthur owning an outdated jacket—a suit, in terra cotta. I didn’t feel like that was a really strong color, so I suggested the burgundy, which was really hot in the ’70s.” The 1970s was appropriate since Arthur Fleck had little money and lived with his mother. His clothes were several years old.
JOJO RABBIT. Costume design Mayes Rubeo. Directed by Taika Waititi.
This movie is a satirical story about Hitler as imagined by a 10 year old boy in the Hitler youth. The imaginary part is that Hitler is the boy’s friend and appears at odd and trying moments during Jojo’s summer. Jojo lives with his mother played by Scarlett Johansson. While in the Hitler Youth Jojo has to prove himself as rugged and deserving, which he is not quite ready for. His imaginary friend comes in handy, as does his real friend Yorki. He still has his zeal, which is compromised when he discovers his mother is hiding a Jewish girl in their apartment.
As related by Cathy Whitloc in Hollywood Review, “Waititi was the driving force on the costumes. He was very specific in what he wanted the costumes to be, and we had long intensive conversations about the looks,” said designer Mayes Rubeo. “We wanted it to look like wartime through the eyes of a child and do something unexpected.” And since Hitler, at least the imaginary Hitler, was a main character, he had to resemble the historical character. In part anyway. His costume was more of a mustard color, and to give him the look of a caricature, his pants were made wider.
Scarlett Johansson as Jojo’s mother is a chic dresser. She is modern in wearing trousers, and she is given colorful items for her wardrobe.
Sam Rockwell, plays Captain Klenzendorf the Hitler Youth’s flamboyant leader. Mayes Rubeo stated that, “He came into my wardrobe trailer with a picture of Bill Murray from Saturday Night Live and said, ‘This is who I want to look like.'” The costume that Rubeo designed for him fits right in with the satirical theme. She said it was “a uniform made by someone who knows almost nothing about the rules of design.”
ONCE UPON A TIME IN HOLLYWOOD. Costume design by Ariane Phillips. Directed by Quentin Tarantino.
Ariane Phillips’ biggest challenge with Once Upon a Time in Hollywood was landing the job, Quentin Tarantino was one of her favorite directors and she found out that only two designers would get a meeting/presentation with him. Fortunately she was one of the two. After being given the opportunity to read the script she knew she would have to hyper prepare – so she came to the meeting with a vintage Hawaiian shirt and 1960’s sunglasses for the Cliff Booth character and even some new old stock Brylcreem in its container that the Rick Dalton character used in the Bounty Law show. She also had a very well-developed look-book of 1960s styles, celebrities, and people-on-the-street. All these were shown to Tarantino to a mixed CD soundtrack of 1969 hits, even including some KHJ radio station ads a friend had mixed in. Tarantino was impressed. Something he told her left a strong impression, “One of the things that’s important to me, in my relationship with a costume designer, is that if I write something in the script, I really mean it.”
After landing the job Phillips got down to doing her customary serious research. She had to create the wardrobe for late celebrities such as Sharon Tate, Michelle Phillips, Mama Cass, Bruce Lee, Jay Sebring, Steve McQueen. Some 125 characters and between 1500 and 2000 extras. “I always say being a costume designer is like being a detective — specifically a people detective or a story detective,” Ariane Phillips said.
Both Ms. Phillips and Quentin Tarantino wanted to respect the memory of Sharon Tate. Her looks and wardrobe was well documented as a star, fashion-plate, and jet-setter. Phillips emphasized a yellow color for her costumes to symbolize her cheerfulness and the Southern California setting. Sharon Tate’s sister Debra served as a consultant on the production and loaned some of Sharon’s jewelry for Margot Robbie to wear. One of Sharon Tate’s original outfits was a snakeskin Ossie Clark coat that Sharon had worn to the Premiere of Rosemary’s Baby. Phillips had it reproduced for a driving scene in the movie.
Brad Pitt as Cliff Booth played a stuntman and friend to Leonardo DiCaprio’s fading star Rick Dalton. His basic costumes were Levis pants and a shirt. The Levis were vintage and the Hawaiian shirt was custom made from digitally printed fabric. He wears it open so that his Champion spark plugs t-shirt can be seen. The latter was supplied by Tarantino himself – a cool symbol from the era of the muscle car. Arianne Phillips was thrilled when she found a genuine vintage Stuntman’s Association belt buckle at a costume house. for Brad to wear. Brad Pitt also wears a vintage Wrangler denim jacket. The zip-up jacket, like the one worn by Tom Laughlin in Billy Jack, was a real challenge to find on the vintage market.
DiCaprio as Rick Dalton is always trying to find his next acting job. He turns to television and gets roles from an FBI agent to a western maverick, His costumes change accordingly, His Hollywood man about town is a cool brown leather jacket.
LITTLE WOMEN. Costume design by Jacqueline Durran. Directed by Greta Gerwig.
Little Women, based on the novel by Louisa May Alcott, is the story of four growing daughters in a household run by a progressive feminist mother. The father is away during the civil war. The novel has been made into six feature films in the US not counting TV. Illustrious past costume designers such as Walter Plunkett ( the 1933 and 1949 versions) and Colleen Atwood have designed previous versions. Jacqueline Durran began her vision of the costuming of Little Women by looking at paintings by Winslow Homer. “Homer was an absolute revelation to me,” Ms. Durran said about the painter’s scenes of people in scenes of beautiful landscapes. As the designer related in InStyle magazine, The mid-19th century costumes depicted were also inspiring. “When she’s a child, Jo slightly hates clothes because she doesn’t want to be a girl, The paintings have a real life to them.” In the story Jo cuts off her hair to sell it. Durran used as a model for her the Winslow painting of a little boy standing in a field.
The different personalities of the sisters are to be emphasized by their costumes and their colors. Amy is a beauty and has an appreciation for fashion. She wears Parisian styles afforded her by Aunt Marsh. For these Durran referred to paintings by Impressionist painters Claude Monet and Edouard Manet.
Meg had a bent towards the Pre-Raphaelites, their Romanticism and art. Hints of these were added to her wardrobe. She also had a beautiful pink ball gown worn at a ball in Boston. While the costumes of the 2019 Little Women charm,the craft skills of the Wardrobe Departments in Walter Plunkett’s day were superior.
Eliza Scanlen, Saoirse Ronan, Laura Dern and Florence Pugh in ‘Little Women’ SONY.
The five nominees will be voted on by all Academy members and the Oscar will be given at the Academy Award ceremony on Sunday February 9, 2020. Period (historical) costume movies usually win the Oscars. Accordingly, Little Women would be the favorite. The costume design is also excellent in this case. Once Upon a Time in Hollywood has been an Academy and audience favorite and may be a dark horse. So stay tuned for the February 9!
Gene Kelly had a storied career as dancer, singer and choreographer. He also partnered with many of the greatest actresses and dancers in show business. He taught dance at his family’s Pittsburgh dance school while attending college and then law school. He gave that up when he decided to act and choreograph on Broadway. He had success acting in The Time of Your Life in 1939 and then Pal Joey. He came to Hollywood to make his first movie in 1941 for MGM, the soon to be classic For Me and My Gal with Judy Garland. With great chemistry, smashing good-looks, and his athletic dancing style, Kelly made a star of himself in this sentimental vaudeville-themed movie. What should have been obvious somehow eluded MGM, as he was next placed in straight roles as a pilot in WW II in Pilot #5 and then as Alec Howe/Black Arrow in DuBarry was a Lady,
Columbia Pictures knew exactly how to use Kelly in his next movie: Cover Girl, co-starring Rita Hayworth in its first Technicolor film. In this story of the Hayworth character’s yearning to make it as a star on Broadway, Kelly danced and choreographed as well. Although un-credited, Columbia and director Charles Vidor gave him license to choreograph and direct the “alter-ego” scene, assisted by Stanley Donen whom he had worked with on Broadway. In the scene he dances with himself (his inner conscience) as partner. Cover Girl was a hit for Columbia. It won an Oscar for Best Musical Score and had three other nominations including for Best Song: Long Ago and Far Away.
With MGM’s Anchors Aweigh in 1945, Gene Kelly hit full maturity on film. The movie co-starred Frank Sinatra and singer Kathryn Grayson. Kelly and Sinatra are two sailors on shore leave looking for fun and romance – and find so much more. In a scene that made movie history, Gene Kelly’s dance partner was Jerry the Mouse of the Tom and Jerry cartoon characters. MGM had wanted to use Mickey Mouse but Disney wouldn’t grant permission. Instead they developed their own animation unit. Stanley Donen worked for most of a year with the animators to animate Jerry’s dance with Gene Kelly. Kelly appeared next in an all-star MGM musical, The Ziegfeld Follies in 1945. The movies didn’t have a plot but was a series of musical numbers and comedy skits much like an old Ziegfeld Revue. Gene Kelly’s dance partner in this movie was also a historic pairing: Fred Astaire. They only danced together twice in their career, and the second time was 31 years later for That’s Entertainment. In Ziegfeld Follies they danced in the The Babbitt and the Bromide number. The characters are personality types based on literary characters made into a Gershwin song. Gene and Fred pussy-footed around each other to work out a dance number, each used to being the lead. Gene showed deference to Fred’s seniority and they settled on this older number even though it wasn’t a stretch for either of them.
After Gene Kelly’s service during WWII and his starring in Living in a Big Way, his next starring role was The Pirate in 1948. Here he was reunited with Judy Garland in the Vincente Minnelli directed romantic comedy. The movie was an ideal vehicle to showcase Kelly’s dancing, athleticism, and plain good looks in buccaneer costumes. Kelly doesn’t really dance with Judy as the character Manuela in this movie, but as the character Serafin/Macoco he dances and performs for her to win her affection. He does dance with the amazing Nicholas Brothers, Harold and Fayard. And partners with Judy Garland in their wonderful Be a Clown number. The latter’s melody was the same used as “Make em Laugh” by Donald O’Connor in Singing in the Rain. The following year, 1949, Kelly started with the dramatic dance number in Words and Music to “Slaughter on 10th Avenue” with his dance partner Vera-Ellen. The movie was about the composing team of Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart. Helen Rose designed the women’s wardrobe and Valles designed the men’s. Although in their scene together both Gene Kelly’s costume and Vera-Ellen’s are smart and sexy, their colors don’t complement each other- neither opposites (complementary) nor matching. Gene was in black pants with a violet top. and Vera-Ellen had a scarlet dress with a striped yellow top.
Nineteen forty-nine was a good year for Gene Kelly. He next starred in Take Me Out to the Ball Game, co-starring Frank Sinatra , Esther Williams and Jules Munchin. The story was about early 1900s baseball players performing Vaudeville at night. The team’s owner K.C. Higgins just happens to be the beautiful Esther Williams. Since Vaudeville is part of the plot, many of the scenes are songs and skits. Kelly did a dance scene partnered with Frank Sinatra. Sinatra was at a low ebb in his career at this point. Dancing was not one of his skills, but since Kelly had been a dance instructor he taught Sinatra some basic steps to keep up with him in their song and dance number, “Take Me Out to the Ball Game.” Gene Kelly and Esther Williams had one dance number together in “Baby Doll,” but it was cut for the final release. Helen Rose designed the women’s wardrobe. She was particularly talented at designing turn-of the-20th century costumes, and did a fabulous job here. Valles likewise did a great job with the men’s outfits. And then there was On the Town. The movie was based on the Jerome Robbins New York ballet from 1944. MGM bought the movie rights before the musical even opened, but then Louis B. Mayer didn’t like the results. Betty Comden and Adolph Green had written the original book and were asked to re-write it for the movie. Leonard Bernstein composed the original score. Four of his songs were kept and he wrote six new ones for the movie. For the first time, Stanley Donen directed the film, with Gene Kelly also credited. Kelly’s co-stars were Frank Sinatra, Vera-Ellen, Jules Munchin, Ann Miller, and Betty Garrett. The movie also complement the story of Anchors Aweigh of sailors Gene Kelly (Gabey) and Frank Sinatra (Chip) now joined by Jules Munchin (Ozzie) on shore-leave. But here they have leave in “New York, New York a helluva town,” only the censor wouldn’t allow them to sing “helluva” so the word was substituted by “wonderful.” Nonetheless, with Gene Kelly’s insistence, location shooting in New York was done for several scenes including the Brooklyn Navy Yard, Wall Street, the Statue of Liberty, Central Park and Fifth Avenue. The story line is sailors out to see New York but naturally they get sidetracked looking for women and getting into adventures. Kelly as Gabey can’t get past the subway without falling in love with a photo of “Miss Turnstiles” on a poster. His love interest is the lovely Vera-Ellen. He catches up with her as she becomes his story dance partner in two of the several great dance numbers: “Main Street;” and the colorful “A Day in New York Ballet.” The latter number introduced the great dancer Carol Haney to film. Helen Rose designed the women’s wardrobe. The lead men stayed in their Navy whites, which made the colorful yellow, rose, and green costumes of the women stand out as an ideal choice.
In 1950 Gene Kelly did a favor to Judy Garland by starring in Summer Stock. Not that she asked for this favor, but she was starring in the movie coming off of a suspension from MGM and three months in a drug-cure clinic. She needed support and Kelly was there to give it to her as was friendly director Charles Walters. Even then it was rocky for Judy. She had gained weight in the clinic and costume designer Walter Plunkett designed loose blouses and dresses with open collars that emphasized her face. Since the story was about a theater summer stock company living and rehearsing in a farm barn owned by Judy’s character, she is often dressed in overalls. Town and country soon clash in the story but love also develops. The reason they came to the farm was because Judy’s sister Abigail played by Gloria DeHaven wanted to be in show business and her boyfriend was the theater troupe manager. The character was Gene Kelly, and before long he was falling for Judy Garland (Jane). Jane had some talent too. Besides driving a tractor she could sing and dance. And in “Portland Fancy,” Gene and Judy do a great tap dance number for the far farm community. But Summer Stock also featured Judy’s finale number,, “Get Happy.” It was filmed two months after principal photography was finished and a big closing number was sought. Judy had lost weight in the interval and looked very trim compared to the beginning of the movie. She wore just a black tuxedo jacket, white blouse, fedora, and black hose. The costume was a hold-over from a scene in Easter Parade that had been deleted. It was a knock-out number based on a Harold Arlen/Ted Koehler Christian revivalist song. Gene Kelly never had high hopes for Summer Stock. Yet one of his best career numbers was his solo dance with a newspaper in a barn, and Judy’s “Get Happy” was a memorable number. As it happened, this was also Judy’s last movie for MGM.
Gene Kelly’s next movie was to be his most ambitious yet, and a highlight of his career: An American in Paris. Working closely with Vincente Minnelli, the movie would be about an American artist living in Paris, with many of its scenes danced through landscapes inspired by famous French and International painters.
The decision by producer Arthur Freed, Minnelli, and Gene Kelly to include a 17 minute dance sequence was bold and risky. In 1948 the success of The Red Shoes filmed in England would serve as inspiration. But in An American in Paris, the art scenes as background depicted the emotional state of Kelly as the protagonist. Further, the ballet was to be a realization on film of the artistic works of Impressionist and Post-Impressionistic painters. This feature would not only guide the nature of the choreography, but also of the set designs, cinematography, action sequences, and costumes. The ballet scene would be the heart and soul of the film. The music, of course, would be based on the haunting score of George Gershwin’s An American in Paris symphony, with the story for the film by Alan Jay Lerner.
Costume designer Irene Sharaff was one of three designers for the film. She had been a Broadway designer and had worked for Minnelli at MGM previously.. Minnelliconvinced her to come back from New York to design some 300 costumes for the ballet. While working on the costumes, Sharaff also started designing sketches for what the sets might look like for the various artist-inspired scenes. These sketches in fact were adapted by art director Preston Ames for the sets. Ames had been an architecture student in Paris, and could quickly envision the set designs. The sets would be based on the styles of Raoul Dufy; Henri Rousseau; Piere Auguste Renoir; Maurice Utrillo; Vincent Van Gogh; and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec. Not a bad set of artists from which to draw inspiration. But how would the ballet transition from one artist-styled set to the next?
Those transitions indeed became a high-point in Hollywood film arts and crafts.Some 30 painters worked six weeks to paint the backgrounds and sets. Irene Sharaff also came up with the idea of using certain dancers, characters she called Furiesfor the women and Pompiers (firemen) for the men. The Furies were dressed all in red ballet outfits and the Pompiers were dressed as traditional French firemen, with their brass helmets but also adorned in a military-inspired costume. Together they served as the “bridge” from one scene to the next, luring Kelly as Jerry Mulligan to pursue the ever-escaping Caron as Lise Bouvier. These transitions were also accomplished by using a “match-cutting” filming technique whereby the action of the dancer is exactly matched from the end of one scene to the beginning of the next. And so Gene Kelly dances through the various scenes, with Leslie Caron as his partner Lise Bouvier. The dance scene is not the entire movie, but it represents Kelly as Jerry Mulligan’s love for Lise, with a red rose as its symbol.
In addition to Irene Sharaff, two other costume designers worked on the film: Orry-Kelly and Walter Plunkett. Walter Plunkett designed the costumes for the “Black and White” Ball scene, including Kelly’s and Caron’s costumes, and Orry- Kelly designed the other costumes in the films. He also designed Leslie Caron’s green dance costume for the dance scene in the Fountain of the Concorde. Plunkett also designed one of Caron’s ballet costumes. An American in Paris was Gene Kelly’s favorite film. It won six Academy Awards for: Best Picture; Best Art Direction; Best Cinematography; Best Screenplay; Best Music Scoring; and Best Costume Design for Irene Sharaff, Orry-Kelly and Walter Plunkett.
More about Gene Kelly’s movies and dance partners will be covered in PART II of SILVERSCREENMODES.COM
Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer began in 1924 with the merger of Metro Pictures, Louis B. Mayer Productions, and Goldwyn Pictures. It was a package costing $5 million. The new owner was Marcus Loew who owned a chain of theaters. He had already bought out Metro Pictures and its studio in Hollywood, but was unsatisfied with its productions. Louis Mayer met with Marcus Loew and arranged for the new company to be run by Mayer, with the head of production to be the “boy wonder” from Universal, the 24 year old Irving Thalberg. Loew, HQ’d in New York, would have Nicholas Schenck overseeing operations from that office. The studio lot they took over was the Samuel Goldwyn lot in Culver City, once the Triangle Film Corp. lot. They also took over Goldwyn’s logo of Leo the Lion and his motto, Ars Gratia Artis (art for art’s sake). Samuel Goldwyn had walked away from the company after battles with its controlling Board.
The Metro Studio at the intersection of Romaine and Cahuenga in Hollywood before the merger.
Above is the Metro Pictures studio lot in Hollywood. These are the stages and shops before the merger. Located at 1025 Lillian Way in Hollywood.
This blog post celebrating the 95th anniversary year of MGM is part of the Classic Movie Blog Association 10th Anniversary Blogathon. Given MGM’s long and deep movie history, this post will focus on its formative years.
From the beginning, Mayer, Thalberg, and studio operations man Harry Rapf set out to go big and go classy. Mayer’s policy was, “…great star, great director, great play, great cast.” To do that they needed to quickly develop their roster of directors and stars. This was paralleled in the crafts people they hired for a variety of studio jobs, from costume designers to metal workers. Mayer and Thalberg brought in noted stars Lon Chaney, Norma Shearer, and Renée Adorée, along with directors Fred Niblo and John M. Stahl. Metro had Ramon Navarro, Alice Terry, Viola Dana, Jackie Coogan, Buster Keaton, and Mae Busch, along with director Rex Ingram. The Goldwyn Pictures group included Mae Murray, Conrad Nagel, Aileen Pringle, John Gilbert, William Haines, and Eleanor Boardman. The directors included King Vidor, Marshal Neilan, Erich von Stroheim, Robert Z. Leonard, and Victor Seastrom. Two department heads became significant additions: Howard Dietz in Advertising and Publicity, and long-time Art Director Cedric Gibbons. And another Goldwyn tie-in was the Cosmopolitan Production Company, Randolph Hearst’s company set-up to produce films for Marion Davies.
A public ceremony was held to celebrate the merger and launching of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM) on April 26, 1924. The former Vice-President of Samuel Goldwyn, Abraham Lehr, handed a giant key of “Success” to Louis Mayer, Irving Thalberg and Harry Rapf. After their speech Master of Ceremonies Will Rogers arrived to give his rather long talk, only to be interrupted by director Marshall Neilan who ordered his cast and crew to return to the set to work on Tess of the D’Urbervilles. This head-strong director was not the only one on the roster. Erich von Stroheim, the hold-over from Goldwyn, was well into shooting his 42 reels of Greed . His struggle with Thalberg and the cutting of the film to 10 reels is a movie legend. And that was not the only troubled production. Another Goldwyn film, Ben-Hur, was being shot on location in Egypt and Italy and had spent its already large budget building grand sets and used up months of filming. Thalberg and Mayer were unsatisfied with both the results and the pace of production. The film’s director and lead actors had already changed once., so the production was recalled to California. By the time Ben-Hur was finished, it had cost $6 million, a staggering sum for its day. Fortunately it was a big hit for MGM and its stars Ramon Navarro, May McAvoy, Francis X. Bushman, Betty Bronson and Carmel Myers.
The photo from 1925 above shows the first sign with the full name of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. The glass sound stage was “Stage 1.” The lawn area in front, only partially shown, is where the launching ceremony of April 1924 was held. This area would soon be covered over with concrete sound stages and the Sound Department building.
The Goldwyn Studio property in Culver City was 39 acres, the original Triangle Studio’s 16 plus 23 more acres that Goldwyn purchased. Six glass sound stages were on the property along with various buildings. The glass sound stages were needed in the early days of filmmaking to provide sufficient natural lighting.
The photo above shows the Goldwyn lot in 1924 with the six sound stages and other buildings. The classic facade on Washington Blvd was already there when MGM began, shown on the right of the image. Standing sets are at the rear of the photo.
The photo above shows the MGM lot in 1924. It shows the old water tower without the MGM logo. The tree in the foreground is a fig tree where Greta Garbo used to pick figs when she first arrived from Sweden. Men’s Wardrobe is the building at the lower left.
The above photo shows a glass sound stage on the right and the old dressing rooms on the left. The upper floor was the ladies’ dressing rooms. Workers are preparing the grounds for new concrete sound stages. The glass stages were moved for other uses.
The photo above also shows the old “dressing room row”in the background with the grassy area in front as it was at the time of the beginning of MGM. Behind it was the MGM facade facing Washington Blvd.
The first film that MGM produced on its own was He Who Gets Slapped. The film featured three of its future stars, John Gilbert, Norma Shearer, and Lon Chaney. And despite its drole title, the melodrama was a commercial and critical success when released in October 1924. The year of 1925 brought much more success for MGM with revenues second only to Paramount. Ben Hur was released as a giant epic and would have made a big profit had it not been for a revenue-sharing deal made by MGM’s predecessor. But its own big epic was the World War I-based film The Big Parade. The film made stars out of John Gilbert and Renée Adorée , with their parting scenes leaving no dry eyes in the house. The battle scenes too were very realistic, though shot in Griffith Park in Los Angeles. The film made $6 million for MGM. And MGM had such diverse offerings as the creative and funny movies of Buster Keaton (first coming with Metro) in Go West and Seven Chances. Then there were the horror movies of Lon Chaney in The Monster and The Unholy Three. Further diversity was introduced with The Merry Widow, where increasingly popular John Gilbert was paired with former Universal Pictures star Mae Murray in a setting of an old world kingdom. The film’s director was Erich von Stroheim, which led to a turbulent set with shouting matches and walk-outs between director and Ms. Murray. and the Gilbert. The result, however was a big popular film that swept fans like Diana Vreeland off their feet. But perhaps the biggest event of 1925 was the signing of two new actresses to the MGM roster: Greta Garbo and Joan Crawford (then with the last name of Le Sueur). Ms Garbo was 20 years old and had just come from Sweden. She starred in the melodrama Torrent, released in early 1926. Joan Crawford played uncredited bit roles in several films, even doubling for Norma Shearer in one film. She finally got a break in late 1925 in Sally, Irene and Mary, co-starring Constance Bennett and Sally O’Neal. The story is about three showgirl friends with very different fates. Two of the biggest stars of Golden Age Hollywood were on their way.
In 1926 MGM starred an actress already well known and respected. Lillian Gish came to make La Boheme with John Gilbert. Louis B. Mayer gave her considerable control when signing her to MGM, and she used it to make this picture. King Vidor directed, and much time was spent in rehearsals. MGM had spent much time and effort to lure Erte from Paris to design costumes for the studio. He designed the costumes for Miss Gish for La Boheme, but they disagreed on their look. He wanted crisp and stylish costumes befitting her star status. She said they should depict her life as a waif in Paris. This was one more frustration that led to Erte’s departure soon after. But La Boheme was another hit for MGM, and rated one of the best movies of 1926.
The photo above shows Cecil Gibbons, MGM’s Art Director. He came with the Goldwyn merger, and stayed until 1956. He was one of the original founders of the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences, and designed the Oscar statuette.
MGM introduced the first true musical film with its “All Talking, All Singing, All Dancing,” movie The Broadway Melody in February 1929. This made musicals very popular but sound ruined the careers of stars with heavy foreign accents or those whose voices didn’t match their personas, as in the case of John Gilbert.
MGM recording director Douglas Shearer is shown above with his sound recording equipment. He was Norma Shearer’s brother.
Above is pictured MGM’s Recording Room.. Each of the machines is connected to a microphone at a stage and records voice, song, or music on film “sound tracks.”
The photo above shows a part of the MGM lot with a sound stage roof painted with huge letters intended for aircraft to avoid flying overhead. In 1929 Mines Field was built nearby as the Los Angeles airport just as “Talkies” were being made at MGM.
Above is pictured the old Guard Shack at MGM, at the old entrance from Washington Blvd. The gate was narrow and only one car width, where everyone would check in with the guard.
Here’s a morning’s worth of check-ins from the mid-1930s. Not just for studio P.R., but Joan Crawford and Greta Garbo were the compulsive early starters.
By the 1930s, as MGM publicity emphasized, the studio had more stars than in the heavens. It would be many decades before the studio’s demise. And in the years before and following World War II, it was the biggest and most profitable studio in Hollywood. Ars Gratia Artis. Thankfully, we can still enjoy viewing the majority of those movies through a variety of methods and formats.
Further view of the old MGM lot can be seen on my blog post at: http://silverscreenmodes.com/a-virtual-tour-of-the-old-m-g-m-back-lots/
Hollywood’s late costume designer Milo Anderson created looks for the stars that are icons of style. But ask anyone about him and blank stares are the response. His name was simple, as were the styles he created: Joan Crawford’s waitress uniform in Mildred Pierce, Marlene Dietrich’s dark blue trench-coat, skirt and beret in Manpower, Lana Turner’s debut “sweater-girl” Angora sweater in They Won’t Forget, and the chorus girls’ costumes in 42nd Street.
Milo Anderson was born in Chicago on May 9, 1910. His parents moved to Los Angeles when Milo was 8, He attended Fairfax High School and during the summers worked at Western Costume. He got to do some designing. One costume he remembered was for Common Clay (1930), that starred Constance Bennett. One tip she gave him stayed with him throughout his career, “It’s not what you put on a costume, it’s what you take off that counts.”
When Milo had several costume sketches in a portfolio he took them to MGM’s head designer Adrian. Adrian was not encouraging. He did however recommend him to Samuel Goldwyn, who was then short of a designer since Coco Chanel had not finished the designs for the film The Greeks Had a Word for Them. So he was hired to finish that film and then to design the costumes for The Kid from Spain, a big musical. It was 1932 and he was too young to sign the contract, his mother had to do it.
Another unforgettable costume that Milo Anderson “designed” was for Joan Crawford in Rain, 1932. The movie was a re-make of Sadie Thompsonthat had starred Gloria Swanson, and also the Broadway play with Jeanne Eagels. Joan Crawford had asked to be loaned out to United Artist to play the role. She wanted a change in her usual roles to play something more serious and less glamorous. She got more than she bargained for. The role of Sadie Thompson was that of a prostitute. Milo was told to make something quickly, even though Joan only had two costume changes in the entire movie, and she wore one through most of it. That costume was a checked suit with short sleeves that he bought at a shop on Hollywood Blvd. He bought it large enough for her shoulders and fitted the rest to her measurements. It was perfect for her role, but the problem was she would have to wear it through the entire movie while it was undergoing through South Seas weather. Milo went back to the store but that had been the only model. Wardrobe ended up silk- screening the checks onto like fabric and tailoring duplicate suits.
Milo had been loaned out to United Artists as well as Joan Crawford for Rain. It was a pleasant experience. working with her at the time, although the film did poorly at the box office and it was too much out of character for Joan’s fans – or the critics. While at United Artists he also worked with Adrian designing Mary Pickford’s and the others cast’s costumes for Secrets(1933).
Milo started working at Warner Brothers in 1934. He had previously designed its production of Footlight Parade with Jimmy Cagney on loan-out the previous year. In 1935 he designed the costumes for Errol Flynn and Olivia de Havilland in Captain Blood, two stars he would work with repeatedly at Warner Bros. He also designed one of their most famous films together The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938). Milo cleverly devised the use of metallic painted rope to look like chain-mail for many of the costumes. This avoided the noisy clanking of metal and was of course lighter. At Warner Bothers Milo Anderson was working along side of the famous designer Orry-Kelly. Fortunately Milo did not have a big ego or felt competitive. They split their assignments and there were plenty to go around.
The decade of the 1940s started with some big movies for Humphrey Bogart and his female co-stars at Warner’s. They Drive by Night (1940) gave him the opportunity to design for both Ann Sheridan again and with the new Warner Bros. star Ida Lupino. This film about long-haul truckers and their dames (and a femme fatale) gave Milo a range of costume options. The following year Milo costumed another pairing of Bogart and Ida Lupino: High Sierra. All though it would become an all-time classic, it was not much of a costume movie.
That same year of 1941 presented him with the opportunity of dressing Marlene Dietrich in Manpower. Milo recalled that Marlene was very hard to satisfy – she had previously been dressed by Travis Banton and Irene. This film did not call for a glamorous wardrobe, but Milo Anderson created enticing costumes for Marlene and the two became good friends.
The U.S was now in WW II and movies took on different themes. Humphrey Bogart had another classic with To Have and Have Not in 1944. This was the film that introduced Lauren Bacall. Orry-Kelly was supposed to have designed it but he briefly served in the Army. In his autobiography he said he made the costume sketches for Bacall. Milo Anderson stated he designed the costumes for the film and he is listed as the designer in the credits. At issue is the iconic hounds-tooth suit with the peplum jacket she wears in a key scene. That suit started a fashion trend. But the film’s director Howard Hawks also claimed credit, stating he wanted Bacall to wear the same type of suit his wife “Slim” Hawks was wearing. Milo Anderson said he actually had the idea of using Slim’s suit – fitting it for Bacall after nipping the waist and broadening the shoulders.
Milo then had the most difficult job of his career: working on Mildred Pierce. Joan Crawford had just moved over to Warner Bros. after 20 years at MGM. Director Michael Curtiz did not want her for the title role in that film, but he was obliged to have her do a screen test. With a hostile attitude, Curtiz yanked her blouse off, shouting, “You and your damned Adrian shoulder pads!” Only she had bought that outfit at Sears and there were no shoulder pads. She had wanted to appear in-character for the screen-test. Milo said she was very difficult to work with, unlike their first collaboration on Rain. He attributed that to her nervousness from being at Warner Bros and not knowing if she would have a future there. And she was constantly fighting with Curtiz. She got along famously with Ann Blythe, who walloped her on the staircase scene.
Milo also created a stunning look for Patricia Neal, not the typical Glamorous star, in The Fountainhead (1949). She co-starred with Gary Cooper who played an architect. Milo dressed Patricia Neal in a black silk peignoir that she wore for her opening scene, and later a lace nightgown for a seduction scene.
By the early 1950s Milo Anderson became disillusioned with the state of designing costumes for Hollywood movies. Warner Brothers wasn’t even giving him design credit half the time. He finished designing So Bigfor Jane Wyman in 1953, who he had worked with since his first film, The Kid from Spain, in 1932. This was their 30th film together. He left Warner Bros. after that and designed for Catalina swim wear. He designed the costumes for one more Jane Wyman movie, at her request , Miracle in the Rain(1956).
In an interview with the late movie costume historian David Chierichetti, Milo Anderson said about his time during the Golden Age of Hollywood, “We ran ourselves ragged trying to keep up with the demands of our jobs, but we had the best materials, the best craftsmen and the most glorious women to wear them. It was an unforgettable era.”
After he left Warner Brothers Milo Anderson joined the firm of Robert Muir & Associates as an interior designer. He also taught classes periodically on costume design. He maintained a friendship with fellow costume designer Howard Shoup – “Shoupie” as his friends called him.
Milo Anderson died on November 10, 1984 at age 74 from emphysema. Then and now he is little known despite the many stars he dressed and the beautiful iconic garments and costumes he designed.
A blog about classic movie costume design and fashion