Designing Hollywood: Studio Wardrobe in the Golden Age is my new book published by the University Press of Kentucky. It grew out of several of my blog posts over the last few years covering the Hollywood studio’s wardrobe departments, their costume designers, and the movie stars they dressed. Fellow CMBA blogger Patricia Schneider first gave me the idea to develop these blogs into a book. Now after three years – from post to press with lots of hurdles in between – this coming August the work will be released.
The subject of Hollywood costume design during the “Golden Age” is one part of a continuing spectrum. My book actually covers the period from the beginning of the Hollywood studios to the end of the studio system, or from about 1912 through 1970. Costume designing is still happening today with great results, only the work is not being done within the studios. The studios and their wardrobe departments are covered here in chronological order by their start, beginning with: Universal, Fox/20th Century-Fox, Paramount, Warner Bros., M-G-M, Columbia, and RKO. Within each of their chapters is covered the studio’s history in brief, the costume designers that worked there and the stars they dressed – and in many cases created the images for, and the important films that were produced. The films within the chapters are described chronologically.
In the earliest days of the Hollywood studios – the decade of the 1910s – actors usually came to the set in their own clothes, unless the film had a period setting. In the latter case, the studios usually rented costumes from Hollywood’s venerable Western Costume Company. But as actors became popular household names, they demanded a wardrobe commensurate with their status. And not long after that, the studios realized that the largely female audience was attracted to the fashions the stars wore on screen. Moreover, the costume designers themselves were becoming popular names, especially after studio publicity linked their names with the names of the stars they dressed, and the advice they gave to women on their own wardrobes.
Cecilia Evans appears above in Dressmaker from Paris, 1925. Paramount brought in Travis Banton from New York to design the costumes for this film and its fashion show. He became head designer not long after and created the look of glamour for Marlene Dietrich, Claudette Colbert, and Carole Lombard.
M-G-M had lured the Russian-French designer Erté to its studio in 1925 to design costumes, capitalizing on his celebrity status. Erté did not last long at M-G-M. Gilbert Adrian (Adrian) soon took over as head designer and created international fashion trends with his broad-shouldered look for Greta Garbo, Joan Crawford, and even the Wizard of Oz. Between Adrian and Travis Banton, they virtually created the look of modern glamour. Warner Bros. had George Orry-Kelly, an Australian who had been designing revue shows in New York and roomed with Cary Grant. He became Bette Davis’ regular costume designer. Walter Plunkett at RKO designed the early look for the dance gowns of Ginger Rogers. At 20th Century-Fox, William Travilla designed Marilyn Monroe’s famous dresses. Elizabeth Taylor first became a teenage idol at M-G-M with Helen Rose designing her look, as Jean Louis did for Rita Hayworth as Gilda at Columbia.
The above photo shows embroiderers working on a costume for Romeo and Juliet (1936) in the M-G-M wardrobe department. Note the hand-embroidered sleeve of the lady on the right.
In addition to the famous designers of the Golden Age, the other designers that worked in the studios are covered as well. These range from very early costume designers such as George James Hopkins who designed Theda Bara’s costumes in films like Cleopatra (1917) at Fox, or Vera West who designed the costumes for women in Dracula (1931), and for The Bride of Frankenstein (1935) at Universal, going on to less monsterly movies with a killer dress for Ava Gardner in The Killers opposite Burt Lancaster (1946). Also at Universal was designer Yvonne Wood, shown below at left, with Ella Raines for the film The Web, (1947).
Some less well-known costume designers are Renié (Conley) who started her career as a sketch artist at M-G-M in the late 1920s, designing her last movie Body Heat in 1982 and a TV mini-series in 1985 – a career almost as long as Edith Head’s. Or Edward Stevenson, who began as a sketch artist at M-G-M and later became the costume designer at First National Pictures, and Columbia’s first regular designer. He spent most of hist career at RKO where among many other films he designed costumes for Out of the Past, It’s a Wonderful Life,Suspicion, and Citizen Kane. He went on to design for Lucille Ball in her TV series I Love Lucy and The Lucy Show.. Edward Stevenson had also worked at RKO with Bernard Newman, a favorite designer of Ginger Rogers.
Designing Hollywood: Studio Wardrobe in the Golden Age also covers the workings of the artisans that fabricated all the costumes for the films, whether for the glamorous or for biblical epics, for Western films or for characters playing the poor. Many of their methods are revealed. And the behind-the-scenes- stories that bring the era to life are peppered throughout the book.
Along with the dramatic black and white star studio photographs, the book is supplemented with color photos of original costume design drawings. Below is a costume design by Helen Rose for Elizabeth Taylor for The Last Time I Saw Paris (1954).
Many things come to mind when thinking about Hollywood costume, but few think about the venerable Western Costume Company, founded in 1912 when fledgling studios were start-ups in Hollywood. The company was started by Louis L. Burns. Burns had collected Native American clothing, jewelry, weapons and props for renting through a trading store and then started Western Costume Company to supply Western films made in the new film industry. Cowboy star William S. Hart was a regular customer, as was Cecil B. DeMille. Years later director John Ford became an investor. The first Western Costume location was in a small space in downtown Los Angeles at 7th and Figueroa. By 1924 a ten-story building was needed when Western was supplying D.W Griffith with all his costumes. It had 154 employees. It was located on Broadway in downtown LA. A Hollywood branch was also opened on Sunset Boulevard near Western.
The Great Depression hit many studios hard and Western Costume was also affected. Previously, a competitor, United Costume Company had also entered the business. Western Costume went bankrupt. Three brothers from the Oakland area, Dan, Joe, and Ike Greenberg bought Western and consolidated its locations into a new site in 1932 at 5335 Melrose Avenue in LA. It was next door to Paramount and RKO and near Columbia and the Goldwyn studio. Although Western was the go-to place for renting Western, period and foreign costumes, it had also developed into a full costume supplier, being able to design in-house and fabricate whatever film costumes were needed. Their particular strength was in male costumes, because many studios did not have a dedicated male costume designer. Not only costumes were supplied, but all manner of decorations and medals to match appropriate uniforms. Even Warner Bros. went to Western to have the costumes designed and fabricated for Errol Flynn in his many early swashbucklers including The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938) and The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex (1939). Western had also costumed the Douglas Fairbanks Robin Hood in 1922. To support its costume design, Western developed a superlative research library from its early days in the 1920s. Books, fashion magazines and pamphlets were collected from the US and abroad, and continue to help costume designers to this day.
One notable costume designer that worked at Western Costume (although briefly) was Walter Plunkett. After a salary dispute at RKO, Plunkett left and joined Western in 1930, where he knew the Greenberg brothers from his high school days in Oakland. But he was missed at RKO and hired back in 1932, just in time to design for Fay Wray in The Most Dangerous Game. Other early costume designers produced excellent work at Western in the 1930s, including Laon (Lon) Anthony who designed many of Errol Flynn’s costumes,
Emile (Mrs.) Santiago, who could design for men or women, and Marjorie Best, who designed mostly for men but could also design for women, also worked at Western. Costume designer Milo Anderson, at Warner Bros. from 1933-1952, developed his interest in costume while working during his summer vacations at Western while a student at Fairfax High School in the late 1920s.
By 1938, Walter Plunkett was back working with Western Costume, where he could supervise the fabrication of costumes for the principal cast for a big 1939 production he was working on – David O. Selznick‘s Gone with the Wind. The costuming of GWTW is a saga in itself. Some 4000 costumes were required, including 44 for Vivien Leigh as Scarlett and 21 for Olivia de Havilland as Melanie. Confederate uniforms and other costumes for extras were rented from several sources. In addition to the logistical issues, the requirements of filming in Technicolor were a constant constraint in the use of certain colors (or white) in the costumes’ designs and fabrics. Another 1939 film burnished Western’s history. The company long had cobblers and a shoe department. And as M-G-M was preparing to make The Wizard of Oz, Western was asked to provide shoes for Judy Garland as Dorothy Gale. * With Adrian’s final design for the shoe, this would be a sparkling Ruby Slipper. While there have been different accounts of how the shoes were made, it is generally believed that Joe Napoli at Western Costume made Judy’s shoe from a custom last of red satin with a short heel. At M-G-M wardrobe, the sequins were sewn onto chiffon and then formed on the shoe(s) and sewn into the fabric. Adrian revised the bow design adding rhinestones and bugle beads. No one is sure how many pairs of Ruby Slippers were made.
Changes in ownership of Western Costume continued as the profitability of the company see-sawed in the 1940s. In 1943, the company was endangered and six studios joined to buy a controlling interest in Western: Universal, 20th Century-Fox, Columbia, Warner Bros, RKO, and Republic. This purchase led to John Golden managing the company and making changes to its operation and consolidation into two divisions: one for made-to-order. the custom creations of working with designers, and the other the rental operations. A new “Golden Age” bloomed as a series of major movies were costumed by Western.
Costume designer Irene Sharaff used Western Costume to fabricate the costumes she designed – these for whatever studio she was contracted with, even for M-G-M’s Brigadoonin 1954. Likewise, Sharaff worked with Western on the costumes for The King and I (1956) Best Costume Oscar, West Side Story (1961) Best Costume Oscar, and Cleopatra (1963) Best Costume Oscar. Two other classic films had their costumes made at Western Costume, one was Some Like it Hot (1959), Billy Wilder‘s movie starring Marilyn Monroe,Tony Curtis and Jack Lemon. Orry-Kelly designed the costumes, winning a Best Costume Oscar. The other classic is The Sound of Music, (1965) starring Julie Andrews, Christopher Plummer, and Eleanor Parker, with costumes designed by Dorothy Jeakins, nominated for Best Costume. Costume designers were confident that their designs could be fabricated with expertise at Western, and this was done through the hands and supervision of cutter-fitters Elizabeth Courtney, Lilly Fonda, sisters Emma and Atti Parvin, and subsequently Tzetzi Ganev. and Nancy Arroyo. The talented men’s head tailor was Ruben Rubalcava and then Jack Kasbarian, with a crew of seamstresses, tailors, and dyers present for the jobs at hand. Embroidery was farmed out to Eastern Embroidery in Los Angeles, which Adrian also used for his fashion line.
Margo Baxley was hired by manager Al Nickel in 1957 to work in the Made-to-Order department. When Irene Sharaff came to have her costumes made for Porgy and Bess (1959), Ms.Baxley became Women’s Key Costumer for her film’s through 1961 while Bill Howard was the Men’s Key. For Porgy and Bess, Baxley had photocopies of Sharaff’s costume sketches and would get the fabrics that Sharaff had selected at Beverly Hills Silks. These would be in bolts, in which case only the amount of fabric used would be charged to that film. As it happened, the costumes and set for Porgy and Bess all burned in a fire at the Samuel Goldwyn studio on July 8, 1958. They all had to be recreated. Margo Baxley continued to work with Irene Sharaff at Western on Can Can, FlowerDrum Song, West Side Story, Cleopatraand later at Fox with Sharaff at Western on Hello Dolly, as well as with designers Dorothy Jeakins, Orry-Kelly, and Walter Plunkett. Ms. Baxley also worked with Vittorio Nino Novareseon The Story of Ruth (see below about Eduardo Castro) Irene Sharaff used Lilly Fonda as her favorite cutter-fitter at Western. .
Andrea Weaver started at Western Costume in 1964 (aged 19) after finishing at Chouinard Art Institute in Los Angeles. She kept calling Al Nichol for a job until he interviewed her and gave her a job, at first waiting on customers before Halloween. She also did orders called “put-ups.” She worked with costume designers and costumers and after some experience, with a senior costumer on the TV show Hollywood Palace and The Lawrence Welk Show. The cast members were fitted for their show costumes. After that costumer left, Andrea Weaver took over working with Designer Bill Thomas for Disney’s The Happiest Millionaire. Western also supplied the costumes for the riders on the Rose Parade floats. Weaver went on to became a successful costumer and costume supervisor after leaving Western.
Another costume designer that started his career at Western was Eduardo Castro. He was finishing up his last semester of graduate school at Carnegie-Mellon University in Pittsburgh when he had an interview as a stock boy in 1976 at Western. As he recalls, he entered the lobby already intimidated, when the talented designer Ann Roth, in a gabardine pencil skirt and crisp white blouse and pearls exited the fitting room. At the same time, descending the staircase into the lobby was the colorful Theadora Van Runkle, wearing an amber and black silk print, floor length kimono. And as a collector of unique eye-catching jewelry, she wore several antique necklaces and amber bracelets, and rings. She had already designed Bonnie and Clyde, and The Thomas Crowne Affair. It wasn’t long before Eduardo Castro was working with both designers, learning from the best in their very different styles and approaches to costume design. Western Costume has also been the go-to place in LA for renting costumes for costume parties and Halloween (I had rented a Musketeer costume from one of the film versions around 1970). Castro dreaded the arrival of Halloween as he was scheduled to work the front counter to help the “hordes” find costumes. But he came up with pre-loading costume carts with themed costumes. As he described it, “The first costume I prepared was a set of tail coats from a 1954 film designed by Rene Hubert and Charles Le Maire called “Desiree” starring Marlon Brando, and Jean Simmons. The film was about Napoleon and there was a series of about twenty-five or so tail coats in royal blue velvet with heavy gold embroidery, they came with coordinating white brocade vests and matching breeches. The pieces were all in great shape and I rented those costumes like hotcakes!!!” At auction today such costumes could fetch thousands of dollars each.
It was not long after Eduardo Castro began at Western that he was put in “stock,” putting back all types of costumes and accessories from pirate outfits to Chinese robes to space suits. On the third floor there was an entire wall devoted to stored boxes for a biblical movie, The Story of Ruth (1960). There were so many boxes that it become a lazy way to drop in a costume or item by stock boys or costumers rather than finding the correct location. When the grand Tutankhamun exhibition came to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art in February 1978, the costumers on the third floor decided to decorate their area with an Egyptian theme, using costumes and props. Castro found a special item among The Story of Ruth materials. He describes what happened next, “So I gathered a few bits and pieces to decorate my office, and I was particularly proud of this one unique gold lame piece, beautifully lined, that I draped over my window. A few days later, Al Nickel who headed the women’s department passed by my office and stood staring at the window I had decorated in absolute shock! He asked me if I knew what the piece was, I confessed I did not know. He said “Young Man !!!, Those are Elizabeth Taylor’s Wings from “Cleopatra” !!!, I have been looking for those for months !!!, Where did you get them?” I told him I found them peeking out of a box marked “The Story of Ruth”.
More changes were coming ahead for the company when its neighbor Paramount Pictures bought out Western in 1988. But Paramount wasn’t interested in the costume business – they just wanted the land to expand. Accordingly, Paramount sold Western to a business group of three owners, on condition that they move out the collection of costumes within a year. The “Trinity Group” was agent Bill Haber, author Sidney Sheldon, and Paul Abramowitz, the latter serving as president. Soon after, it was costume designer Ann Roth that recommended costumer Eddie Marks to Abramowitz, who appointed him vice-president. Together they moved the contents of Western Costume to 11041 Vanowen in North Hollywood. The last of 34,500 boxes were moved in May, 1990, then the old building on Melrose was demolished. In 1992, Marks became President.
Among its estimated three million costumes, some were treasures no longer suitable to rent or reuse. The company decided to put some of the most valuable costumes up for auction. The costume historian Glenn Brown was enlisted to go through the inventory and select costumes for the auction in July 1994 by Butterfield and Butterfield. He found 300 items, among which were Rudolph Valentino‘s burgundy and silver coat, likely from his last film, Son of the Sheik (1926), Orson Welles’ coat from Citizen Kane (1941), a set of costumes from the Van Trapp family from The Sound of Music (1965), various Errol Flynn jackets, breeches, and shirts from his swashbucklers at Warner Bros., and an Elizabeth Taylor bustier. A previous “Star Collection” sale garnered a total of more than $590,000, on the strength of a Vivien Leigh Gone with the Wind costume (the traveling suit she wore as Scarlett during her ride through Shantytown). It sold for $33,350.
The Western Costume Company has demonstrated its role in Hollywood movies’ history. What’s more, it is still in business today, now entering its 111th year of operation.
See https://www.westerncostume.com/1950s-tour-with-bob-moon for a tour of Western Costume in the early 1950s.
*Rhys Thomas, The Ruby Slippers of Oz: Thirty Years Later, Tale Weaver Publishing, 1989. p 63-70.
Modern fashion shows often link to the glamour of old Hollywood movies. Important designers get movie stars to attend them. Fashion shows are produced with high entertainment and production values, and designers wage campaigns to have stars wear their gowns at major Hollywood award shows. Once upon a time Hollywood put fashion shows right in their movies. The early studio moguls promoted both their films and their movie stars along with the costume designers that created their looks. It wasn’t long after the birth of the major studios that their newly created stars began influencing how young women wanted to look. The clothes that stars wore and how they wore them quickly became a hot topic by the mid-1920s. The hugely popular movie fan magazines became filled with reports on what fashions the stars wore in their latest movie, and the names of the costume designers that dressed them. While Parisian couture designers were well known to a select group of rich women, it was Hollywood that reached the masses – in America as well as abroad. If the modern woman of the 1920s was fascinated with movie fashion, why not give them a fashion show within the movies? And so, by 1925 film scripts were developed that involved characters working in the fashion or clothing business, or stars that were mannequins (as models were then called), or if they had really become successful in the plot, viewed fashion shows to select their own wardrobe. Thus was born the earliest film fashion shows, created by the studios’ own costume designers
Model Cecilia Evan wears a fringed dress in Dressmaker from Parisabove designed by Travis Banton
One of the first fashion shows in film was Dressmaker from Paris, made at Paramount studio in 1925 and featuring the first movie costume designs by Travis Banton. Banton was lured from New York by film producer Walter Wanger. Banton had been working for the fashion house of Madame Frances. Paramount already had a great designer in Howard Greer, but Greer needed some help with the increasing number of films he had to design, and he was looking forward to starting his own fashion business. Banton made an immediate splash with his first movie, and from there his career took off. In 1925 the major studios suddenly became very competitive in luring new designers and thereby extracting maximum publicity. M-G-M itself grandly announced it was bringing Erté from France and putting him under contract.
Dorothy Seastrom plays one of the models, wearing a gown of satin with fur trim and capelet.
Dorothy Seastrom wears a Banton iridescent gown with the extra long string of pearls so in style in the 1920s.
Dressmaker from Paris was directed by Paul Bern and starred Leatrice Joy. It was surprisingly written by Howard Hawks, the director of later action films. Leatrice Joy played a fashion apprentice in Paris who returns to America as a modiste (a maker or shop owner of fashion garments) . Her old beau from Paris, a former American WW I aviator, is a part-owner of a clothing store. To promote the store and create some pizazz, he brings in a modiste from Chicago, who unbeknownst to him is Leatrice Joy his old flame, playing the role of Fifi. With a scenario firmly set in the fashion world, a fashion show was the next step. The film’s fashion show involved fourteen beautiful Travis Banton designs on models. From then on, Parisian couturiers and their designs were no longer necessary to sell or influence American fashion. Paramount went so far as to state in its promotion for the film, “for the first time anywhere the 1926 Paris fashions.”
Gilbert Adrian was also lured from New York, where he had been designing for the Broadway revues. He was then hired to work for Natasha Rambova and Rudolph Valentino, designing Valentino’s costumes for Paramount’s New York based films before moving with them to Hollywood. Adrian designed the costumes for Valentino’s last film, Son of the Sheik in 1926, after which Valentino suddenly died. It wasn’t long before several free-lance jobs were offered to Adrian, but he was hired by Cecil B. DeMille. Corinne Griffith had previously hired him to design her costumes and a fashion show scene for Mademoiselle Modiste released in 1926, a movie based on the Victor Herbert operetta. In this story Corinne Griffith, playing another Fifi, is sponsored by a wealthy man and opens a modiste’s shop. This serves as the prompt for many great costumes and a fashion show. Adrian used a theme of storms for the fashion show scene, with fashion creations based on storms, clouds, and lightening.
Corinne Griffith not only starred in Mademoiselle Modiste, she was also the movie’s producer, which was directed by Robert Z. Leonard.
Bernice Claire is hailed by French soldiers in Mlle. Modiste
Adrian also designed the costumes and a fashion show scene for Fig Leaves in 1926. This was based on another script by Howard Hawks, but was also directed by him. It is the earliest extent film directed by Hawks. And it’s a seeming contradiction to the manly type of film Hawks would be best remembered for
Olive Borden is shown above among the models in Fig Leaves
Fig Leaves starred Olive Borden and George O’Brien who played husband and wife. When Olive complains she has nothing to wear, her best friend suggests she get a job as a fashion model. This set up an eight-minute-long fashion show scene that was shot in two-strip Technicolor, a novelty in 1926. It was thus a precursor to Adrian’s The Women with its Technicolor fashion show in 1939. Adrian designed fifty costumes for Fig Leaves.
Olive Borden is shown above amidst the models and staff of the fashion store. The movie was made at the Fox studio. It was one of the early Hollywood movies to use Art Deco sets. The art directors for the film were the legendary William Cameron Menzies and the Hungarian William S. Darling. The striking Art Deco sets launched the trend for such sets as background for modern fashion shows on film.
In 1930 some of the biggest stars were still in their formative years, these included Greta Garbo, Joan Crawford, Loretta Young, Carole Lombard, Marion Davies, Jean Harlow, and others. Adrian was hired at M-G-M after C.B. DeMille had moved his production company there. Joan Crawford had already become a big star, and paired with Adrian, was starting fashion trends across the country. In Our Blushing Brides, released in 1930, the biggest fashion show yet seen on film was incorporated into the plot.
The gowns fashion show, with Joan Crawford at the center
The leisure wear show, designed by Adrian
Our Blushing Brides was made during the pre-Code years, when plot elements and wardrobe were more permissible. Joan Crawford, shown above, also modelled lingerie in the the fashion show.
Joan Crawford played one of three friends working in a department store, chasing or being chased by rich men. The two friends were played by Anita Page and Dorothy Sebastian. Joan also models in the store’s fashion shows – lavish theatrical numbers well beyond the production capabilities of even the biggest couturiers of the era. Ann Dvorak, then 18 years old, played one of the models.
Motion picture technology was not the only thing that had changed significantly between 1925 and 1930. The Great Depression had begun, and the need for escapism in film was dominant. Gone was the flapper look by 1929, and the high jinx of the jazz age. In fashion, short skirts and handkerchief hemlines had been replaced by long, sleek, and backless gowns in 1930.
Several other notable films from the 1920s had fashion shows. The 1926 Irene starred Colleen Moore, the flapper par excellence with the notable bobbed hair style. This First National film had Moore moving into New York and becoming a model, and it too featured a fashion shoe in two-strip technicolor. The costumes for Moore were designed by Broadway show designer Cora MacCreachy.
Colleen Moore is dressed in the above two photos by “Madame Lucy,” the designer, played by George K. Arthur.
Three other films with fashion shows were Miss Brewster’s Millions, from 1926, starring Bebe Daniels and Warner Baxter. Monte Carlo which also came out in 1926, starring Gertrude Olmstead and directed by Christy Cabanne. And Three French Girls, with Fifi D’Orsay, Yola d’Avril, and Sandra Ravel, all dressed by René Hubert, M-G-M, 1930.
The Fox studio made another film in 1930 with the lead role being a modiste, in this case it was Irene Rich playing Julianne and her chic 5th Avenue clothes boutique in On Your Back. H.B. Warner stars in the film, along with Ilka Chase. The boutique has several attractive models that not only show the latest fashions but also lure men to the premises. While the film title shortens the expression, The Clothes On Your Back, its double entendre in this Pre-Code era conveys how the models really made money. The costumes were designed by Sophie Wachner
The field day that Hollywood was having with its attention-grabbing film fashions had a hiccup in 1929-1930. The Parisian couture house of Lucien Lelong came out with the long evening gown and instantly made shorter skirts passé. Since movies, even during the fast-paced 1930s studio system, took several months to make, from first fashion sketch to theatrical release, a new fashion trend could catch movies off-guard. This happened when the long gowns came out at the end of 1929. While film fashion shows and the influence of Hollywood fashion continued its onslaught, the movie moguls and costume designers decided to concentrate on a look of timeless fashion and not be caught with a fashion statement that would look dated by the time the movie came out. The result was the creation of the glamour gown, a look that is timeless and still intoxicating.
Fashions for Women was the first film totally directed by Dorothy Arzner, the pioneer woman director. It starred Esther Ralston and was released in 1927. It was made at Paramount Pictures.
Fashions for Women featured the costume designing of the brilliant Travis Banton. The fashions in this movie are eye-popping examples of the 1920s look combined with the emergence of Hollywood glamour that Banton and Adrian were creating at the time. Above Banton dressed Ralston with strap shoes and lamé tunic top with its modernist floral design making a perfect 1920s outfit, complete with its simple loose pants and sash-tied waist
It is clear from the high quality of the costumes and the fabrics used for their fabrication that Adolph Zukor of Famous Players/Paramount style family was counting on the appeal of the fashions and the film’s fashion show to draw attention and get female viewers into the theaters. In those days, female viewers were credited with making most of the decision which film to go see. The fullness of the ostrich feather skirt and wrap is contrasted beautifully with the tightly-fitted diaphanous gown. The costume foreshadowed the Bernard Newman gown worn by Ginger Rogers in Top Hat.
In the photo above Ralston is shown wearing an extravagant gown with dolman sleeves and a tightly draped lamé fabric.
The basic story of Fashions for Women according to the American Film Institute’s catalog is about Céleste de Givray, whose social success is the result of the audacity of her press agent, Sam Dupont, is persuaded to retreat from public life and to have her face lifted. Lola Dauvry, a cigarette girl at the Café Pierre, who loves Raoul de Bercy, a former aviator, is hired by Sam to pose as the new Céleste in a fashion show while Raoul is hired as Céleste’s private aviator. While Raoul is waiting for Lola at Céleste’s apartment, the Duke of Arles, one of Céleste’s sweethearts, arrives; in despair, Lola begs Sam to inform Raoul of her identity, but he refuses. At the fashion show, Céleste appears and declares Lola an impostor, but the latter is declared “the best dressed woman” by the judges. Raoul, realizing that Lola has been faithful, returns to her at the café and they are happily reunited.
Esther Ralston was a big star in the 1920s, she was often called the “American Venus” after a role she played in the movie of the same title. She was clearly a great beauty with an attractive figure that she showed off generously. She is shown above in an embroidered velvet gown with a see-through embroidered wrap trimmed in fur. It was Banton’s habit to state, “When in doubt, trim in fur.
Fashions for Women has an incredible wardrobe designed by Travis Banton. It raised the bar for future fashions shows on film. It also demonstrated that fashion helped sell movie tickets in the 1920s. It set the stage for more and more competition amongst the studios for top costume and fashion designers, and the publicity that resulted from film fashion. We will see in later blog posts how fashion shows further evolved in film.
An American in Paris was made in 1951 at the very peak of the Hollywood studio system and the pinnacle of Gene Kelly’s artistic career. It was the perfect combination of art, dance, music and costumes in classic American movie-making. M-G-M had among its employees all the veteran craftspeople and artists that could produce such a film. And as with many great movies, the back-story is as fascinating as the movie itself. In 1950 as the first plans were being made for the film, M-G-M, and indeed the entire Hollywood film industry was in transition. Television was siphoning off viewers and a court-imposed consent decree required studios to sell off their movie theaters. Cost-cutting was now the mantra, and M-G-M’s expensive musicals were not viewed favorably by its new production head Dore Schary, nor by the corporate offices at Loew’s in New York. The old lion Louis B. Mayer, still in charge of studio operations, supported musicals and the planned An American in Paris, but it took a lot of pleading and persuasive pitches to gain the approval of Schary. And even more for Loew’s corporate head Nick Schenck and his board. And there was still the threat of budget cuts to the entire production.
This blog post id part of the M-G-M Blogathon hosted by the Metzinger Sisters ( Diana & Constance ) at the Silver Scenes Blog
Arthur Freed was the producer of An American in Paris, and he wanted Vincente Minnelli to direct and Gene Kelly to star and choreograph the film. Minnelli and Kelly worked very well together and respected each other’s artistic talents. One of the big challenges for the film was the proposed 17 minute-long, wordless ballet and dance sequence (called the “ballet” in the film’s production). The ballet sequence was heavily influenced by The Red Shoes, Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s marvelous film with its own 15-minute-long ballet scene. And it was not just that The Red Shoes’ filmed ballet scenes had influenced the ballet sequence in An American in Paris,but also that both films’ ballet sequence had as themes the visual depiction of the principal dancer’s interior conflicts and subjective emotions. To his credit, Vincente Minnelli’s An American in Paris used this influence to produce a complex and deeply artistic film sequence of his own. And Gene Kelly brought to life the character that was an American in Paris – through his acting, choreography, and his unique dancing skills – the movie that became his favorite.
Other than Gene Kelly, the question of who should be cast for An American in Paris was not apparent. While M-G-M had several great female dancers, Kelly was convinced that a fresh faced and a native Frenchwoman should be cast as Lise Bouvier. And for that role he had seen a 19-year-old French ballerina named Leslie Caron that he wanted for the part. This too was a risky move – a major role for a young woman who had never acted.
In continuing with the relatively unknown cast members, Georges Guetary, a French Music Hall singer, was cast as Henri Baurel. For the fellow American expat and starving musician-neighbor, the inspired choice was the concert pianist and wit Oscar Levant, playing the role of Adam Cook.
The decision by Freed, Minnelli and Gene Kelly to include a 17-minute-long dance sequence was bold and risky. Regardless of the success of TheRed Shoes, nothing of that scope had been done in an American film. Further, the ballet was to be a realization on film of the artistic works of Impressionist and Post-Impressionist painters. This feature would not only guide the nature of the choreography, but would also be the theme of the set designs, cinematography, action sequences, and costumes. The ballet scene would be the heart and soul of the film. The music 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. Minnelli convinced Broadway stage costume designer Irene Sharaff to come back from New York to design some 300 costumes for the ballet. She was able to envision a wider role of costume to the total look of the production and to have an additional role for costume as the transition from one scene to the next. 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, which Ames, a former architecture student in Paris, could quickly envision. The sets would be based on the styles of Raoul Dufy; Henri Rousseau; Pierre 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 Furies (based on Greek mythology) for the women and Pompiers 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. “There was an air of excitement and expectation among all of us working on the ballet which I have rarely felt in a production before or after,” Sharaff said about An American in Paris.
As the film opens, each character as played by Gene Kelly, Oscar Levant and Georges Guetary narrates that the happy characters depicted on screen, “are not me.” Gene Kelly as Jerry Mulligan is a struggling artist that stayed in Paris after WWII. He sells his paintings (sometimes) on a street in Montmartre, where a rich widow discovers him and decides to support him (with strings attached). Oscar Levant as Adam Cook is a struggling pianist, the “oldest former child prodigy.” In a very clever later scene Levant as Cook fantasizes about playing in a symphony, which he is also shown conducting while simultaneously playing several instruments. This take-off of the Buster Keaton film The Play House (1921) is still funny, especially since Levant being the only one that truly appreciates himself, also fills the audience with a hall full of himselves. Georges Guetary as Henri Baurel is the successful singer and entertainer, now worrying about getting older, but providing the yet unknown rival for the love of Lise. His singing performance of “I’ll Build a Stairway to Paradise”, in classic Hollywood show-girls-down-the-stairs style, is a highlight of the movie.
A later dual number of Kelly and Guetary in “S’Wonderful,” where they are still ignorant of their rivalry, is pure joy. Kelly as Jerry Mulligan is deeply in love with Caron as Lise Bouvier, made obvious in the “Our Love is Here to Stay” number, their song and dance on the banks of the Seine, here amazingly duplicated on a painted set built around one of those old M-G-M “cycloramas” is pure joy. Another scene provides laughs as the knowing Levant, sitting between Jerry and Henri while they each describe Lise and how much they love her, oblivious of each other’s common object of affection, nervously smokes two cigarettes at once and chugs several coffees and whiskies.
A later scene is the wild Beaux Arts “Black & White” Ball, here providing a stark contrast to the disintegrating relationships of the two couples: Jerry Mulligan with patroness Milo (Nina Foch), and Henri with Lise. Henri even overhears Jerry and Lise’s tender, heart-breaking exchanges.
Forlorn, Jerry realizes he is just a failed artist, a stranger in a strange land. The ballet scene begins with Jerry sketching the Cheveaux de Marly, the sculpted horses flanking the Champs Elysees. He enters that sketched scene which is his ballet dream, the love of Lise symbolized by a fallen red rose. The ballet sequence will put to music and art all his hopes and fears, as he continually pursues Lise through various sets.
The opening scene in the style of Raoul Dufy’s Place de la Concorde, becoming Jerry’s dream world.
The Furies, dressed in white and then red, beckon Jerry to pursue Lise. He is dressed simply in form-fitting clothes, the better to appreciate his dancing and his physique.
The white furies turn to more intense red furies.
The fountain at the Place de la Concorde serves as the dream dance floor to a united Jerry and Lise, dancing to George Gershwin’s exhilarating and romantic An American in Paris symphonic poem.
Jerry pursues Lise to the floral backdrop inspired by Pierre Auguste Renoir, and as they dance, they hold the red rose of love.
Alas, even in dreams our dreams escape us. Lise has been transformed into flowers, soon to fall from his grasp.
The background has now turned into the melancholy monochromatic artwork of Maurice Utrillo. Gershwin’s music is also changing to American jazz-inspired melodies.
Jerry becomes homesick, as had Gershwin in Paris, which inspired him to add the sounds of American blues and jazz into his musical composition.
Jerry’s homesickness is symbolized by his former side-kicks, the U.S. military men shown in the scene. They are not quite tangible, the artist’s paint still fresh on their uniforms.
The scene turns to the artwork of Henri Rousseau: primitive; wild; and exuberant. Jerry’s service-men are now dressed in cheerful suits, as is he, with the Pompiers now leading them forward in dance. And now Lise reappears.
Here we now enter the more turbulent world of Vincent Van Gogh, the skies of the backdrops painted in swirled colors. The Place de la Concorde again provides the setting for the romantic and sexy dance of Jerry and Lise. The dance transforms into the climax, one of the most beautiful scenes in movie history – a perfect blend of music, dance, romance and art.
But still the Furies beckon, transforming from red to many shades of yellow and orange.
The setting now changes to the nocturnal and hallucinatory world of Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec.
And now Jerry himself is transformed into one of Lautrec’s painted portraits, a black stage dancer named Chocolat. (here seen with Lise below).
This final ballet scene is the most exuberant yet, and Gene Kelly provides one of his best dance numbers, a masterpiece of choreography, dance, and art. In this cheerful dance he is joined by his dream Lise, taking on the historical dance-hall character of Jane Avril, another Lautrec favorite.
Deep from his dream he begins to wake, only to realize that Lise is once again just a rose, and his colorful dream-setting turns black and white.
Only this dream turns into his real dream, and Lise returns, running up the stairs of the real (set) stairs of Montmartre. The final kiss says it all, our love is here to stay.
The film ends with a title card stating: Made in Hollywood, California. And so it was, where it also received 8 Academy Award nominations and won 6, though none for Minnelli. It won for Best Costume Design for Irene Sharaff, Orry-Kelly and Walter Plunkett. Yet Walter Plunkett, who designed the costumes for the Black & White Ball scene, must have found it ironic, he who had designed Gone With the Wind, the two Little Women (and the subsequent Singing in the Rain, Diane, Raintree County), among scores of others. This would be his only Oscar, given for a relatively minor designing job.
Today it’s Singing in the Rain that is the crowd favorite and receives the “best musical ever made” accolades. No doubt that Singing in the Rain is the most cheerful and fun movie there is to watch, and the dancing is also outstanding. An American in Paris seems to be considered somehow less worthy because it strove to be art. But there is no more beautiful film ever made, and its integrated combination of music, dance, art, costume, and cinematography is the pinnacle of classic Hollywood film, and a proud achievement of the M-G-M Studio.
Turner Classic Movies is presenting FOLLOW THE THREAD, a series of films broadcast on TCM cable on Saturdays in June and July. Each will be moderated by TCM with guests from the fashion industry, costume designers, academics or historians. The series is inspired by the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Exhibition, In America: An Anthology of Fashion. Among the many movies, Bonnie and Clydealong with Blow-up will be shown on July 9.
Hollywood’s New Wave was born in the late 1960s with movies like Bonnie and Clyde and Blow-up. Bonnie and Clyde was the first to show the instant consequence of a man being shot, with its later footage (SPOILER), influenced by Akira Kurasawa’s Seven Samurai and the Kennedy assassination’s Zapruder film of the slow-motion, multiple machine-gunning of Bonnie and Clyde. Blow-up was the first general distribution movie to show full-frontal nudity. Blow-up not having passed the still present MPAA Production Code’s censors, MGM released it under the newly formed Premiere Productions. This heralded the collapse of the Production Code in favor of the current movie rating system.
Both movies were very influential on, and influenced by, street fashion. Theadora Van Runkle designed the costumes for Bonnie and Clyde. Van Runkle was self-taught as a costume designer. She had been an illustrator for the I. Magnin stores in Los Angeles, and had been a sketch artist for costume designer Dorothy Jeakins. She illustrated beautiful costume sketches that impressed producer Warren Beatty and director Arthur Penn, and she was tall and attractive and could wear the same clothes she designed for Faye Dunaway. But this was her first full movie assignment, and it turned into a bumpy road for her.
The job for any costume designer is to help develop character and advance the plot. Van Runkle started by reading the script and looking at old photos of Bonnie and Clyde, gangsters, and period clothes. She talked to Arthur Penn and Warren Beatty, and they wanted to put Fay Dunaway in dresses like Bonnie appeared in the photos. Van Runkle designed dresses and skirts for Dunaway, but they were cut on the bias and swung. The look of smart skirts, paired with a form fitting sweaters, Faye’s braless dressing, and a saucy beret cut an unforgettable image. Dunaway’s ivory-colored, fagotted seam sweater under her black wool suit was also striking.
But it was Faye’s berets that launched a fashion trend. Theadora liked the look, taking off from a photo of Bonnie Parker wearing a beret-looking hat, so she designed several of Faye’s outfits topped with a beret. The demand for berets became huge after the movie became popular. The men, Beatty and Gene Hackman, wore vested suits to do their bank robbing, with fedora hats. Off-work, they wore caps, which were more working class than fedoras.
Studio head Jack Warner hated the movie and would only provide limited distribution. But he sold Warner Bros. to Seven Arts at that time. Beatty finally convinced the new owners by reducing his profit participation share, to reopen the movie with wider distribution, and the movie became a hit.
Theadora Van Runkle was nominated for Best Costume Design for Bonnie and Clyde.
Blow-up has the trappings of a murder mystery but it is everything but. It is a film about the illusion of reality and the reality of illusion. It’s a film that circles on itself, spiraling towards a bull’s eye of life’s contradictions. It flashes scenes of beauty and gritty reality in equal proportions. Its central story is about a journey of discovery continually interrupted, an odyssey with the protagonist’s pursuits constantly distracted or detoured. There are no answers in Antonioni’s Blow-up, it’s like the pursuit of life itself – the blown-up life of modern society.
Blowup is a story that could only have been told on film. Perhaps it’s one of those “the medium is the message” phenomena, or it’s just that the story could only be told through the various arts combined in film. It was Michelangelo Antonioni’s creation, who wrote the screenplay, inspired by a short story from Julio Cortazar, and directed it in the swinging London of 1966. It portrays the flashy but empty life of a celebrity fashion photographer who views life through a lens and then follows the lens down a rabbit hole. Thomas, the photographer, is loosely based on photographers David Bailey and John Cowan, and who also has elements of Avedon in respect to that photographer’s later fascination with shooting gritty reality photos completely opposed to his beautiful fashion photography.
The film opens with a scene depicting one of its several displays of contradiction, wherein the noisiest element in a modern urban setting is a jeep-load of mimes, carousing through London. A quick cut then shows photographer Thomas, played by star David Hemmings, exiting a doss-house (the flophouses for the working homeless that still existed then) along with a line of down-and-out men. He’s dressed in torn clothes and unshaven. He wants to make a book about the photos he has taken there. He walks down a street and gets into his convertible Rolls-Royce. As he drives off he is later stopped by the mimes, then drives away. Contradictory visual images confront us on the street: two black nuns in white habits, and a Royal Guardsman guarding nothing.
He then drives to his studio where the impatient model Verushka (Verushka von Lehndorff playing herself) waits for him. They have a frenetic photo shoot which is a small masterpiece of cinema. The final shoot, where he straddles her, is like sex with a camera, the lens a phallic symbol of his power. He climaxes by getting all the shots he needs, quickly getting up and flopping on the couch, Verushka is left on the floor, unfulfilled and wanting more. It is apparent that in this sexually liberated film, sex for Thomas has been sublimated. In the next scene he shoots five models in ultra mod clothes, barking orders at them but clearly unengaged. One of the models is played by the iconic model Peggy Moffitt. As he is about to leave the studio two young aspiring models barge in wanting their photos taken.
Thomas seems to have it all. He has piercing blue eyes and the profile of Michelangelo’s David. Women and beautiful models flock to him. He drives a Rolls Royce and comes and goes as he pleases. He is handsome and cool. He listens to Herbie Hancock, whose soundtrack infuses the film. Yet he seems alienated from life, a searcher seeking he knows not what.
Thomas visits the flat next door, where his artist friend Billy is painting a canvas, living with his wife played by Sarah Miles. She and Thomas share an intimate past, but the nature of their relationship is not divulged. In one of the purest statements made about art in film, the artist says to Thomas, as they look at his painting, “They don’t mean anything when I do them. Afterwards, I find something to hang onto. Like that leg,” he points to his canvas, painted in a half-pointillist-half cubist style, the leg barely discernible. “Then it sorts itself out. It’s like finding a clue in a detective novel.” And thus said, the key to the whole movie is pointed out: art is a stand-in for life, yet life intrudes on the creation of art.
The film is filled with the Mod clothes of mid-60s London. The models in the early scene wore exaggerated versions of Mod outfits, a common slant for runway or editorial purposes. It is especially interesting to compare the Mod clothes of the young people shown with that of the older Londoners that walk the streets. The line between Mod and not was very pointed. David Hemmings’ garments were simple, and since the entire film took place over 24 hours, he only had two costume changes. Still his clothes were distinctive and showed him to be of the creative world vs. business: white denim pants, a wide black belt and black low-rise boots, a checked blue long sleeve shirt, which he wears without a t-shirt, and a dark forest green blazer. The model Verushka wears the most striking outfits: the opener in a sequined loose flowing but short dress open at the sides; and at the party a snakeskin and lozenge-patterned pants-suit with high suede boots. Although no screen credit is given in the film, Jocelyn Rickards is acknowledged as the dress designer. She was born in Melbourne Australia and moved to London in 1949 where she designed costumes for stage and screen.
Thomas continues his journey of art photography but then uses his camera as part of his day’s and night’s adventures meeting the character played by Vanessa Redgrave and running into The Yardbirds with Jimmy Page. His belief in the reality of photographs, and how continuously enlarging them will reveal truth, leads instead to disorientation.
Many viewers are disoriented and confused after viewing Blow-up. For an analyses of the movie, that the maestro Antonioni would not provide, see my blog post on the film HERE
The now classic Somewhere in Time was released in 1980 in the midst of a Screen Actors Guild strike. Although the movie starred Christopher Reeve and Jane Seymore, they were barred from promoting the film due to the strike. Along with negative movie reviews at its opening, the film quickly sank in obscurity until its revival in later years on cable television.
This post is part of the Classic Movie Blog Association “Fun in the Sun” Blogathon, May 17-20, 2022.
Somewhere in Time was directed for Universal Pictures by Jeannot Szwarc. It is based on Richard Matheson’s novel Bid Time Return. The late Matheson was a well known writer of fantasy and science fiction books and stories such as I Am Legend and The Omega Man. He also wrote the teleplays for many episodes of the Twilight Zone – including classics such as Nightmare at 20,000 Feet, Death Ship, and Nick of Time (the diner with the fortune-telling machine). The romantic Bid Time Return’s idea came to him when he saw a striking photograph of the early 1900s actress Maude Adams. He then spent several weeks at the 1887-built Hotel del Coronado and developed the plot for the story of a modern man crossing an emotional path with history based on such a photograph.
But rather than being filmed at the Hotel del Coronado, an old hotel modernized to keep up with tourism and conventions, the Grand Hotel on the lakefront of Michigan’s Mackinac Island was chosen. This remote site on Lake Huron did not even allow cars. Permission had to be secured for specific filming times when cars needed to be in the story.
The costume designer chosen for the film was Jean-Pierre Dorléac. He was well known for his Battlestar Galactica series (where he had previously worked with Jane Seymour) and the later Quantum Leap series. In preparing for designing Somewhere in Time, he suggested to the producer and director that the costumes for women would be less confining in the pre-World-War I period than in the original story’s 1896 period when Richard and Elise meet back in time. Producer Stephen Deutsch and director Jeannot Szwarc liked the idea and moved that setting to 1912. Dorléac designed the men’s costumes as well, with Reeve’s period costume being purposefully out of date since he purchased it at an Antique Store in his preparations to go back in time. Dorléac was also able to add a very special touch to Jane Seymore’s costume. Knowing that he was searching for a special piece of jewelry, his friend Edith Head gifted him one of her own vintage pieces — a cut-crystal necklace that had belonged the stage actress Ethel Jackson and worn when she played The Merry Widow in 1907. Each stone was faceted differently and glistened brightly. Now that he had this key piece in hand he scouted a vintage clothing bazaar to find the dealer who would supply him with over $5000 in vintage lace.
Christopher Plummer joined the cast as the manipulative manager of Elise/Jane Seymore. Susan French played the older Elise and Teresa Wright played her companion and aide.
The movie starts in contemporary time at a party where Reeve/Richard is celebrating the performance of his first play. In the crowd an elderly woman approaches him, hands him a pocket watch and whispers, “Come back to me.” She returns to her room at the Grand Hotel in Mackinac and listens to a record of Sergei Rachmaninoff’s “Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini,” while reclining on her rocking chair. Years later in Chicago after Richard and his girlfriend break-up, he drives off aimlessly but decides to visit the Grand Hotel. There he decides to spend the night, and visits the hotel’s history room, where he becomes entranced by the vintage photograph of a beautiful young woman. The bellhop informs him that she was Elise McKenna, a famous stage actress who had once starred in a play at the hotel’s theater in 1912. Richard is so smitten that he researches her at the local library, and even finds a photo of Elise as an older woman – the same woman who gave him the pocket watch, with her resounding words, “come back to me.” This sets Richard off on a mystical journey through time, endurance, and the multi-dimensional power of love.
John Barry composed the music, and selected the film’s haunting theme music, the eighteenth variation of Sergei Rachmaninoff’s “Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini.” This was not Barry’s typical film music, but both his father and mother had died within months of each other before he worked on Somewhere in Time, and this was an emotional time for him.
Somewhere in Time made the cover of the July 1980 edition of American Cinematographer, including an article. The film’s cinematographer was Isidore Mankofsky. Film director Szwarc’s concept of the film was to have very different looks between the contemporary part of the film and the period era. Mankofsky stated that, “… in order to make the film work dramatically, we had to make sure that, in terms of visual presentation, these two periods would not look the same. The objective was to carry the audience back in time subtly, but with a definite difference in the ‘look’ from one era to the other.” “We used Eastman color negative for the contemporary sequences, because it tends to be a little harder in the shadows and to have a crisper, more solid look to it. It seems to resolve better and to be sharper all the way through. Likewise, we decided to go with Fuji color negative for the period sequences because it seems to be a bit more pastel. It doesn’t appear to have quite the resolving power of the Kodak stock or the really black blacks.” Of course this was still in the days of using film rather than digital photography.
Szwarc and Mankofsky used Death in Venice as a guide, along with art books featuring paintings of Manet and Monet. Szwarc added, “For the sequences in the past we would use Fuji stock — which is a little bit softer and less contrasty — and go for wide-angle lenses and diopters and deep focus and a very pastel look. “We followed that concept through in everything — in set dressing, the colors of the walls of the sets, and also in wardrobe.”
In Richard Matheson’s story as in the movie, Richard Collier is given a condition for being able to go back in time to seek Elise. In the ancient tradition of mythology and the Greek myth of Orpheus and Eurydice, the good looks of Orpheus and his enchanting music allowed him to pass the monster Cerberus and got Hades to permit him to take back his dead love Eurydice from the underworld – on condition that he not look back at her until they exit. Fearing he is being tricked, Orpheus looks back to see if Eurydice is really behind him as they near near the exit, at which point she is trapped there forever — and the fate of Orpheus is to later die of sorrow wanting to join her in death. With the handsome Richard, good with words, he is warned when he goes back in time that he must not bring anything with him from his modern life. At the very moment when he believes that he and Elise have found true love and can have a life together – he finds a modern coin in his pocket, and is thrown back into modern times, never able to return to Elise.
Somewhere in Time was not well well reviewed. It was a science-fiction movie without any science – a “Time Machine” without the machine or any monsters. It was low budget without any special effects. Then and now some consider it too sappy. Yet the movie has its own fan club, INSITE, active since 1990. As a love story with wonderful period detail, it is as great as any, and Jane Seymore and Christopher Reeve actually fell in love while filming it. Somewhere in Time, fun in the all too short sun of a few days in 1912.
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. After her first marriage she married the influential film critic and University of Southern California professor Arthur Knight. They lived in Malibu and had lively parties where people from from L.A.’s entertainment industry and the arts attended.
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-last 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.
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 in 1922.
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.”
Soon after, producer B.P. “Bud” Schulberg and director Louis Gasnier made Daughters of the Rich in 1923, which featured the Boat Bed. The film starred Miriam Cooper, Ethel Shannon, and Ruth Clifford. Famed cinematographer Karl Struss did the photography. Below is Ethel Shannon as Mademoiselle Giselle posing in the Boat Bed.
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 to M-G-M where it appeared briefly in the 1949 version of Madame Bovary with Jennifer Jones. It can be seen in the Hotel de Boulogne room where Madame to Bovary has a meeting with Leon just as she enters the room. The Boat Bed then went 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 Boat Bed had been sold, however, and according to one of our readers, made its way to an Antique dealer in New Jersey. From there it was sold and was in a house that in turn was also sold.
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, or in a film-oriented museum.
Acknowledgments to the following for their informative resources:
Michelle Facey for research on Daughters of the Rich.
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.
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