Classic films abound in comforting stories and feel-good endings that are right for our times. After years of dystopian movies it’s great to have a plot that doesn’t have everybody dying. During years of the Great Depression, war years, and finally getting back to normal in the 1950s, many movies wanted to look at the sunny side of the street. The Classic Movie Blog Association’s Spring Blogathon is now Classics for Comfort. My five recommended favorites are listed below:
ROMANCE ON THE HIGH SEAS (1948) Warner Bros, Directed by Michael Curtiz. If you haven’t been anywhere and haven’t had a laugh in weeks – you’ll be vicariously voyaging and belly laughing with this movie. Romance on the High Seas was Doris Day’s film debut, and it also starred Jack Carson, Oscar Levant, Janis Page and S.Z Sakall. It’s a real screwball comedy, and here the joke is on some of the characters. Doris Day as Georgia Garrett, is a nightclub singer aching to take a ship cruise. Instead she just takes out travel brochures since she can’t afford a trip. Janis Page as Elvira Kent is well-off but jealous of her husband, who is always cancelling their honeymoon trips and now has a new attractive secretary. Elvira and Georgia bump into each other at the travel agency and exchange stories. Elvira is booking a cruise to Rio with her husband, which then gets cancelled. Her uncle Lazlo (S.Z. “Cuddles” Sakall), tells her just to go alone. Elvira then schemes to stay in town where she can spy on her husband, and she asks Georgia to take her place, which Georgia is thrilled to do. But Georgia is told that she must uphold Elvira’s proper high society reputation since Georgia will be travelling under Elvira’s name – so no flirting with male travelers. Meanwhile Elvira’s husband is equally jealous, and he hires a private detective to take the voyage and spy on “Elvira.” The P.I. is played by Jack Carson, who in no time once shipboard falls for Georgia/Elvira and vice-versa. The shipboard fun is enlivened by Latin-inspired music and Doris’s singing. The late 1940s wardrobe designed by Milo Anderson and the 1940’s Deco sets make for smashing visuals. The romantic confusion continues however, as Georgia’s old boyfriend (Oscar Levant) appears from a port of call, and then Elvira’s jealous husband flies to Rio, where by then everybody is either dodging each other or trying to make up with their permanent mate. Michael Curtiz directed the film. Doris Day was not happy with her acting and asked Curtiz where she could get a drama coach. “No, no!” Curtiz replied, “You’re a natural just as you are, if you learn how to act, you’ll ruin everything.”
MY MAN GODFREY (1936)Universal. Directed by Gregory La Cava. If you don’t think there’s salvation and the plot of a screwball comedy in a homeless camp during the Great Depression, you haven’t seen My Man Godfrey. The story starts in New York as two rich sisters, Cornelia and Irene Bullock played by Gail Patrick and Carole Lombard, go to the city dump to obtain a “forgotten man” for a scavenger hunt party. Cornelia offers $5 to the down-and-out Godfrey Parke played by William Powell. The well-spoken Godfrey is offended by her snobbish manner and pushes Cordelia into a trash heap. Irene thinks that’s funny. Godfrey is charmed by Irene and agrees to play along. He is such a refined homeless character that Irene wins the scavenger hunt game at the Waldorf-Ritz Hotel. But Godfrey is disgusted with the whole idea and wants to return to his homeless camp. Irene is so smitten with him that she offers him a job as their family butler. Once at their mansion, the absent-minded society Mom and Papa Bullock, are charmed too. The couple are played by Alice Brady and Eugene Palette. Mother Angelica is always distracted and father Alexander can’t believe he lives with this bunch and worries about money. But mean sister Cornelia thinks about how to get back at Godfrey, and then there’s a free-loading protégé named Carlos who adds to the wackiness of the household. Godfrey carries out his butler duties with great skill and polish. At a tea party thrown by Irene, one of the guests recognizes Godfrey as a fellow Harvard man. Godfrey silences him, but it seems that our butler is not who he seems to be. Between Irene’s crush on him and his unflappable demeanor, Cornelia decides to play dirty. She plants her pearls under his mattress and says they were stolen. But Godfrey is a clever man. He not only graduated from Harvard, but he lived on the streets. This family may be wacky and have a mean-spirited daughter, but maybe he can do some good. And the homeless camp at the dump might just become useful.
STAGE DOOR (1937) RKO. Directed by Gregory La Cava. The 1930s were the era of “women’s films,” and here’s a perfect movie of the type. It is witty, it has an all-star women’s cast, and it is simply unforgettable and comforting in its resolution of the conflicts inherent in a boarding house full of struggling actresses. The 1930s were also the era of wise-cracking dames. And the snappy dialogue launches you right into the story. The cast includes Katharine Hepburn as Terry Randall, an aspiring actress from a rich Midwestern family. The haughty Terry lands in a group of world-weary actresses and chorus girls boarding at the Footlights Club in New York. From the beginning Terry antagonizes Jean Maitland as played by Ginger Rogers. Then they find out they’ll be roommates. The other wise-cracking boarders were also like oil and water with Terry. Except for Gail Patrick as the ambitious sophisticate and venomous Linda Shaw. The super cast included Lucille Ball, Eve Arden, and a very young Ann Miller. The “house mother” and acting advisor is played by Constance Collier, an actress famous in the silent era. A very earnest member of the house is loved by all, Kay Hamilton, played by Andrea Leeds. Kay had starred in a play the previous year, but now can’t find a role. The key theatrical producer is played by Adolphe Menjou as Anthony Powell. When the desperate and malnourished Kay visits his offices but is denied an appointment she faints. Terry (Katharine Hepburn) was also waiting and barges into Powell’s office to berate him for his callousness. He is unphased, until later he learns that Terry’s father wants to secretly bankroll a play, Enchanted April so she can get the lead role. If only things were that simple. Powell is a notorious womanizer, making advances on Terry and Jean. But Terry is weak as an actress and has bad rehearsals; and the lovable Kay had wanted that part. Kay is now giving Terry acting tips. Menjou/Anthony Powell sees a disastrous play in the works. It will take a tragedy for all of these disparate characters to come together in this bittersweet gem of a movie.
LADY FOR A DAY (1933) Columbia Pictures. Directed by Frank Capra
Apple Annie, played by May Robson, was once a stage performer but has now fallen on hard times. She sent her daughter for schooling in a convent in Spain. She sends her the money she collects from selling apples on a street corner. Only now her daughter is grown-up and making a surprise visit to see her mother in New York. Apple Annie has a network of friends in the neighborhood, one of which is the doorman at the Hotel Maybery. He provides her hotel stationary on which she writes her daughter under her assumed name of Mrs. E. Worthington Manville. But not only is Annie’s daughter coming for a visit, but she is bringing her fiancé Carlos, and his father Count Romero. Annie is beside herself, not knowing how she is ever going to keep from shaming her daughter. Ever since she got her daughter’s letter she has been drinking and not getting out of bed. This has been noticed by “Dave the Dude,” played by Warren William. He’s a racketeer and gambler who relies on buying Annie’s “lucky apples.” All of Annie’s neighborhood street friends are worried, and having heard of the problem, ask Dave the Dude to rent rooms at the Maybery so Anne can receive her daughter in style. They will even put up some of their meager earnings. When Dave visits Annie he sees a portrait of her beautiful daughter and understands her situation. He will put her up at the Maybery. Dave gets his girlfriend Missouri Martin (Glenda Farrell) to dress Annie up as a society matron. She’ll have to have a husband so the Dude gets the pool shark, alias Judge Henry D. Blake (Guy Kibbee) for the part.
This assemblage is all lined up at the docks as Louise’s ship arrives and a tearful but happy reunion is celebrated and acquaintances made with the new prospective in-laws. A journalist happens to be there, however, and before the well-known “gangster” mug of Dave the Dude can be noted with the new arriving dignitaries, “Happy” his partner, kidnaps the reporter. And with cops around, the other street characters start a fight to divert the cops from the Dude’s presence. All is going well in this underworld scheme-for-the-good. But life is full of surprises, even a movie life. When all has gone smoothly and the visitors announce they are returning to Spain, “The Judge” announces he and “Mrs. Worthington Manville” will have a party for their departing guests. He has also asked the Dude to round up guests, meaning to turn Missouri’s “gals” and the Dude’s “mugs” into society people. Meanwhile, several more reporters have been kidnapped and the Police Commissioner, under pressure from the Mayer, is cracking down on Police Captains to find the missing reporters. Just when all the mugs and gals are at Missouri’s club rehearsing polite behavior before going to the party, the cops come in for a bust. It looks like no one will show for Apple Annie’s going-away party for her daughter, fiancé, and Spanish guest. Annie is thinking about confessing the whole charade to them. But life is full of surprises, especially movie lives.
YOU CAN’T TAKE IT WITH YOU (1938) Columbia Pictures. Directed by Frank Capra.
There’s nothing like a great ensemble cast from the Golden Age of Hollywood – even when most of them play wacky members of an eccentric family. The patriarch of this family is Grandpa Martin Vanderhof, played by Lionel Barrymore. He refuses to sell his house, the last property in the area, to tycoon, hard as nails, Anthony P. Kirby, who wants to squeeze out his competitor’s factory. Kirby is played by Edward Arnold. Grandpa has a large household: his daughter Penny Sycamore (Spring Byington) and her husband Paul Sycamore (Samuel S. Hinds); Their daughter Essie (Anne Miller), married to Ed (Dub Taylor). Each one has followed their whims as far as avocation: Penny is a playwright (for no other reason than she was given a typewriter); Paul makes fireworks; their daughter Essie dances ballet around the house and makes candy, which her husband Ed delivers around town. Essie’s sister is Alice, who has a real job – she works for Tony Kirby, the tycoon’s son. Alice, played by Jean Arthur, and Tony, played by Jimmy Stewart, love each other. Tony thinks that it’s time that their parents should meet each other, Alice is nervous but agrees and sets a date. Mrs Kirby does not approve of her son’s choice for a love interest. Tony starts to think that Alice’s parents will start putting on a show trying to impress his parents (how little he knows) and therefore decides to visit the Vanderhof/Sycamore clan a day early. And so begins a whirlwind ride that starts literally when fireworks explode in the basement during dinner and continues in the jail and then at a courthouse. Mr Kirby is cantankerous to everybody the entire way, while Grandpa tries to tell him about the importance of having friends. Who’s going to win this battle, and is there any hope for Alice and Tom? Watch this jewel of a romantic screwball comedy to find out.
The Turner Classic Movies Classic Film Festival celebrated its 10th anniversary last year, 2019. And as with every film festival or other event this spring, the 2020 TCM Classic Film Festival had to be cancelled due to Covid-19. This year it will be presenting on-air through its cable station highlights from the past ten years of its festivals. This will start on Thursday April 16 at 8:00 p.m. EST and run through Sunday (actually early Monday morning) with its last showing at a 3:30 a.m. start time.
The films begin with A Star is Born, (1954) which was the opening night event back in 2010. And the second showing will be of the restored Metropolis (1927) directed by Fritz Lang, which closed that Festival. Many great films will be shown, including some interviews and shots of stars that have since passed away, including Luise Rainer, Esther Williams, Peter O’Toole, Martin Landau, Burt Reynolds, Max von Sydow, and of course TCM’s long time host, Robert Osborne.
As a ten-year attendee of the TCM Classic Film Festivals, here are my own highlights and impressions from the Festivals. Given that events and screenings were concurrent, my selections were always too limited.
The first TCM CLASSIC FILM FESTIVAL was held in 2010 in Hollywood, as have all subsequent festivals. The venues have remained with the core at the old Grauman Chinese Theatre (now the TCL Chinese), the adjacent multiplex, with the Egyptian Theatre and the headquarters at the Roosevelt Hotel. I didn’t attend the Opening Night screening of A Star is Born, but rather the Roosevelt pool-side showing of Neptune’s Daughter (1949)with Esther Williams and Betty Garrett in attendance and featuring a performance by the Aqualilies. Viewing many of these movie classics that year was a thrill, especially in the old movie palaces among rapt movie fans from around the country. My favorites were: In a Lonely Place; Casablanca; Sunset Blvd.; Leave Her to Heaven; The Graduate; and The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly. Panel discussions were also held. Despite some glitches with finding where lines formed, this was a very enjoyable festival.
The TCM CLASSIC FILM FESTIVAL 2011 repeated the successful formula from the previous year. The use of themes was further developed, such as, “The Silent Legacy,” “The Music of Bernard Hermann,” “Disney’s Musical Legacy,” etc. One of the idols of my youth was in attendance and was interviewed as part of the screening of Parent Trap: Hayley Mills. Miss Mills revealed that she had been “discovered” by Walt Disney’s wife Lillian in London while on stage. Walt brought her over to star in Pollyanna(1960), and later films. Peter O’Toole was also in attendance as part of the screening of Lawrence of Arabia, and for a special interview session. In those days at the festival Vanity Fair sponsored a party for Spotlight pass holders and he attended the party, but he was in a wheelchair at this point in his life and was in a cordoned off area with friends.
The Opening Night movie was An American in Paris (1951), and Leslie Caron was in attendance for an interview. Other highlights for me were: Gold Diggers of 1933; To Kill a Mockingbird (1962); with several members of the Peck family in attendance; Carousel (1956); Pennies From Heaven (1981); and The Unsinkable Molly Brown(1964), with an interview of Debbie Reynolds.
The 2012 TCMCFF was the biggest and best of the three annual festivals held thus far. It was a classic movie lover’s paradise. The over-all theme was “Style in the Movies.” Costume design featured in the programming, with costume designer, author, and professor of the UCLA Copley Center for Costume Design, Deborah Nadoolman Landis. She gave a talk and visual presentation on “The Good, The Bad, and The Beautiful,” a mini-history of costume design in film. Deborah showed us that not only is a Jean Harlow silk glamour gown a film costume, but so is Sylvester Stallone’s sweat-suit in Rocky.
As the Festival began drawing more attendees, the lines became longer and some venues were filled before you could get in. . I did get to see the two most spectacular epics being offered, the three-hour The Longest Day, and the equally long How the West Was Won, the latter shown in the Cinerama format at the original Cinerama movie dome. Having seen both of the films on television only, I was unprepared for how spectacular they truly were. Showing the film in the original Cinerama format required three projectors and five personnel. How the West Was Won premiered at the very same theater 50 years earlier. It was the last epic that MGM was ever to produce. It was also costume designer Walter Plunkett’s last film at MGM. His contract had expired and was not being renewed. In another movie actor Richard Widmark gave a tour de force performance as Harry Fabian in the film noir classic, Night and the City. The film was directed by Jules Dassin, and is set in London, but it is otherwise full of noir essence, a film that Widmark makes incredibly palpable.
Grauman’s Chinese was the site for the screening of the bewitching Vertigo. And if this screening was not its own reward, Kim Novak was there being interviewed by Robert Osborne about her appraisal of the movie and her role. The next day Ms. Novak got her hand and foot-prints set in concrete for the Grauman’s Chinese forecourt. The Festival included screenings of some of the Universal horror classics. The seminal Frankensteinwas shown at the Egyptian Theater, which was also a Grauman’s Theater when it opened in 1922. The classic 1931 Frankensteinwas introduced by director John Carpenter. It’s amazing how compact a thriller the movie is, still powerful after all these decades. It was an iconic movie, made so by director James Whale and the incredible acting of Boris Karloff. And finally for me, the screening of the newly restored, 60th Anniversary premiere of the beloved Singing in the Rain. It was shown at the Grauman’s Chinese Theater, where it had first premiered 60 years earlier and where the film’s opening scene was filmed. Debbie Reynolds was interviewed by Robert Osborne, and following the film, Patricia Ward Kelly, Gene Kelly’s widow, provided personal stories from the late Gene Kelly’s writings and recollections. She could have entertained us for hours, though time had run out, much too soon. The restored Singing in the Rainprovided outstanding color – a marvel of fun and theatrical good times.
The 2013 TCMFF had the theme of TRAVEL, which hardly seemed to matter as the movies I picked to watch were based on a mix of proximity, old favorites, new discoveries, and star talent.
The Opening Night screening Thursday was Funny Girl (1968), the classic musical based on the life of Ziegfeld star Fanny Brice, as played by Barbara Streisand in her film debut – inspired casting. I can’t imagine anyone else in the role. The screening was not attended by Barbara Streisand, but the audience was thrilled by the guest appearance of Cher, who was interviewed by Robert Osborne.
A classic not to be missed on the big screen was the 1959 BenHur, probably the biggest film spectacle of the classic era. Indeed, the music and big screen of the Chinese Theater produced a completely different experience than seeing this film on a TV screen. The introduction to the Ben Hur screening was provided by David Wyler, son of the brilliant director William Wyler, who was also the director of Funny Girl. At this screening David Wyler regaled the audience with his stories about being a kid on the film lot in Italy.
Classic animation was also added to the line-up, in celebration of Bugs Bunny’s 75th anniversary. Leonard Maltin and animation historian Jerry Beck introduced a series of ten Bugs Bunny personal favorites, starting with A Wild Hare, Bugs’ first appearance in 1940. Another animation treat was getting to watch Lady and the Tramp (1955) on the big screen at the El Capitan Theater. This fun classic was also introduced by Leonard Maltin. I had not seen this Disney film since I was a kid. It was then and remains a sentimental favorite.
Silent film also had a strong showing at the festival, with silent film historians introducing or talking about some of the major silent classics. One particularly fascinating talk and slide show was presented by author and silent film historian John Bengston, who has researched and written, Silent Echoes, about the outdoor Hollywood film scenes of Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton and Harold Lloyd. Bengston has used film grabs and old fashioned-shoe leather to track down the filming locations of many of the silent classics, finding them in miraculously still-existing buildings and the streets of modern Los Angeles and elsewhere in California. Much of his current research is now helped by Google street view.
Watching King Vidor’s The Big Parade, digitallyrestored, was a revelation.It first premiered at the Egyptian Theater in 1925, and it went on to become the most profitable MGM film of its day. The story is centered around World War I, and a young French peasant woman and an American doughboy who fall in love. John Gilbert plays the soldier, in the favorite role of his career, and Renee Adoree plays the Frenchwoman. It is a stirring depiction of the frustrations of love and the horrors of war. The silent film actor Karl Dane gave an impressive performance. I had seen several photos of him but never saw any of his movies or knew why he was a big star for a short period.. He had the kind of strong but pliable face that I can only compare to Lon Chaney’s. The strong emotions of the film were greatly enhanced through a new score composed by Carl Davis and played by the English Chamber Orchestra. The experience was enhanced by Kevin Brownlow’s introduction and his retelling of his student interview with King Vidor.
The TCM Festival included screenings of many great movies, including Giant, Gilda, The Birds, Shane, Cape Fear, Bonnie and Clyde, It Happened One Night, My Fair Lady, Lady Eve, Mildred Pierce, Ninotchka, Night of the Hunter, On Golden Pond, On the Waterfront, Notorious, and many more. One is definitely in cinema heaven at the TCM Classic Film Festival.
TCM’s 5th Annual Classic Film Festival was held in Hollywood April 10-13, 2014, this was held concurrently with the 20th anniversary of Turner Classic Movies. The Festival’s theme was “Family in the Movies: The Ties that Bind.” Actors that were celebrated were: Maureen O’Hara; Charlton Heston; Jerry Lewis; and Richard Dreyfuss. The Opening Night movie was Oklahoma (1955). But instead I was at the Roosevelt poolside watching American Graffiti (1973). Zulu (1964) was screened the next morning, introduced by Alex Trebeck. This was Michael Caine’s first film. The next movie, the nostalgia- twinged Meet Me in St Louis (1944),starring Judy Garland.This screening was made very special by the appearance of Margaret O’Brien, who nearly stole the show as little Tootie. She not only still looked young but could apparently still can fit in the coat she wore in the film as a 7 year old. The mood changed to film noir and pre-code as I watched Double Indemnity (1944) along with a nighttime wrap-up of Employees’ Entrance (1933).
The next morning’s highlight was Mary Poppins (1964) at the El Capitan. The line for the movie was jaw-dropping. Donald Bogle interviewed Richard Sherman, who along with his late older brother Robert composed the songs and wrote the lyrics to Mary Poppins and other Disney films. The Beatles’ A Hard Day’s Night (1964), played at the Chinese Saturday night to a packed house. It was a great movie to watch on the big screen and to recapture the youth of the Beatles (and my own high school days), in this film from 1964. The songs that kept ringing in my head for the next several days were And I Love Her, and those beautiful harmonies by John and Paul in If I Fell (in love with you). Alec Baldwin provided a spirited introduction and interview with music producer Don Was. I closed out the Festival with two more musicals: Easter Parade (1948)and The Wizard of Oz (1939) . “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” filled my head as I drove home.
The 6th Annual TCMFF in 2015 drew some 20,000 people, The theme of this one was “History According to Hollywood,”And this year talent was very prominent, with Julie Andrews, Christopher Plummer, Dustin Hoffman, Sophia Loren, Shirley MacLaine, Alec Baldwin, Shirley Jones, Ann-Margret, Spike Lee, Peter Fonda, Keith Carradine, Robert Morse, William Daniels, Ken Howard, and others. Julie Andrews and Christopher Plummer were there as part of the Opening Night screening of The Sound of Music (1963).
The next morning featured a special showing of Lenny, about the radical stand-up comic Lenny Bruce, starring Dustin Hoffman. Dustin Hoffman was interviewed, after the screening, by Alec Baldwin. But “interviewed” is really a misnomer as this was a wandering dialogue that was as fascinating as it was funny as each actor took turns mimicking comedian Buddy Hackett and trading show business lore. In the same Egyptian Theater, and with seemingly the same line length, The Cincinnati Kid followed. The Steve McQueen/Edward G. Robinson movie also starred Ann-Margret, who was in attendance and interviewed by Ben Mankiewicz. She let out that what was special about McQueen was his “animalism.” She shared his love of fast motorcycles.
I attended Rififi (1955) which was introduced by Eddie Muller who complemented the audience for attending what he thought was the best movie of the whole festival, and “as perfect a movie as you can get.” Other great movies I attended were The Philadelphia Story, with a Q&A with Illianna Douglas and Madeleine Stowe; 42nd Street; The Smiling Lieutenant; 1776, and The Hunchback of Notre-Dame.
The 7th Annual TCMFF 2016 had nine themes, among them animal movies, journalism, coming-of-age, and love and loss. Among the actor tributes were stars Faye Dunaway, Gina Lollobrigida, Eliott Gould, Carl Reiner. Director Francis Ford Coppola was also celebrated. The Opening Night movie was All the President’s Men (1976), with Carl Bernstein interviewed along with Spotlight screenwriter Josh Singer and director Tom McCarthy. A journalist movie of a different sort was the classic Ace in the Hole (1951) starring Kirk Douglas, screened on Saturday . Earlier Saturday morning Francis Ford Coppola was interviewed for the screening of The Conversation (1974), revealing he had been influenced by Michelangelo Antonioni’s Blow Up (1966).
Other notable movies I attended were Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid (1982) as part of An Afternoon with Carl Reiner. This entertaining movie happened to be the last film whose costumes were designed by Edith Head before her death. And there was the silent The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928), with live music from an orchestra conducted by Mark Sumner and a choir performing The Voices of Light composed by Richard Einhorn. This event at the Egyptian Theatre was truly unique. Also unforgettable was a long interview of Faye Dunaway by Ben Mankiewicz at the Montalban Theatre. The discussion ran through most of her career. Although Mrs. Dunaway is known to be difficult, she was most gracious in her answers and to her audience.
TCMFF 2017 was the eighth annual Festival held April 6-9, 2017 in Hollywood. We missed the great Robert Osborne as MC the last couple of years. And this year TCM officially paid homage to him after his death on March 6. Without irony, and perhaps as Robert would have wanted it, the theme this year was Make em Laugh: Comedy in the Movies. With only a Classic Pass, my choice for the Thursday night movie was the romantic-comedy Love Crazy (1941) with Myrna Loy and William Powell, their tenth and zaniest film together. With co-stars Gail Patrick and Jack Carson it’s a fast-clipped and wacky movie where love and marriage is tested but eventually wins out Fitting the Festival theme was Stanley Kramer’s It’s a Mad Mad, Mad Mad World (1963) . It was screened at the fabulous Cinerama Dome, built in 1963. This crazy comedy of a film was beyond analysis, so instead the discussion was about the technical aspects of filming the climactic last scene at a supposed public square with lots of traffic and a tall building and a ladder fire truck rescuing people. All of this was actually shot on a studio back lot. Craig Barron and Ben Burtt were on hand to talk about the making of the film. Ben Burtt is a legendary movie sound designer, having created the voice of R2-D2 and Darth Vade. Probably my favorite film of the Festival was the French Noir Panique. This little known film gem is based on a Georges Simenon novel and stars the great French actor Michel Simon in the title role (the French title is Les Fiancailles de M. Hire). This is a very dark noir with an unblinking depiction of the cruelty of mob mentality.
One of of the films I didn’t want to miss was The Last Picture Show. Director Peter Bogdanovich was on hand to talk and answer Illeana Douglas’ questions about the 1971 film. It starred Timothy Bottoms, Cybil Shepherd, Ellen Burstyn, and Jeff Bridges among others and was a multi-Oscar nominee including Best Picture and Director. It won Best Supporting Actor Awards for Ben Johnson and Cloris Leachman. Bogdanovich related how he had wanted to make the film using deep-focus cinematography, like Citizen Kane. Orson Wells told him not to film it in color. And besides, he added. “All the best performances are in black and white.” So Bogdanovich asked the producer and was told to go ahead. Bogdanovich was also a fan of the John Ford westerns, and wanted Ben Johnson to play the role of Sam the Lion. But Johnson turned him down. “Too many words,” he said about his part in the script. So Bogdanovich turned to Ford for help. Ford said Johnson always said that about a script. But after Ford called him, Johnson accepted and called to tell Bogdanovich he would accept. It would become the most iconic role of his career. The director’s cut was screened.
Among other films awaiting me were two memorable ones. One was The King of Hearts (Le Roi de Coeur) 1966. Directed by Philippe de Broca and starring Alan Bates and Genevieve Bujold along with a strong supporting cast. I hadn’t seen the movie since the late 60’s and I remembered it as a gem of social satire. During World War I the Germans occupy a small French town and leave munitions timed to blow it up as they leave. The locals get wind of this and leave town. Only those inhabiting an insane asylum are left behind. When a lone Scots Black Watch “bomb disposal expert” is sent in to the village he manages to escape the Germans by entering the asylum where the inmates crown him king. After they leave, the inmates get out and find costumes to wear and assume roles they always wanted in life – from the mayor and firefighters, to whores and hairdressers.
The other remarkable film was the screening at the Egyptian Theater of The Black Narcissus (1947). The fuss was about the projection of this Powell & Pressberger classic on nitrate film stock – a great early Technicolor copy owned by the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences. In order to show it, the projection room at the Egyptian had to be retrofitted, courtesy of the Hollywood Foreign Press Association, TCM, the American Cinematheque, Academy Film Archive and George Eastman Museum. This work included having the room meet fire codes and installing a panic button in case of fire that would stop the projectors and drop metal louvers to encase them. The film itself was magnificent. It’s a gripping story of a group of nuns sent to the other-worldly Himalayas to open a convent.
The 9th Annual TCMFF was a full-card of film screenings and other events that thrilled every classic movie fan in attendance. The first film screening I attended was a surprise hit at the Fesival: Finishing School (1934). Frances Dee and Ginger Rogers starred. This was an RKO production, where Dee met Joel McRae and the two subsequently married. The classic Stage Door (1937) was next. Gregory LaCava’s adaptation of George S. Kaufman and Edna Ferber’s play, with Anthony Veillor’s script (and ad-libbing), is a gem of a movie that everyone should watch. The all-star cast includes: Katharine Hepburn; Ginger Rogers; Lucille Ball; Eve Arden; Gail Patrick, Ann Miller; Andrea Leeds (steals your heart) Constance Collier; and Adolphe Menjou. This was The Women before there was The Women. It played at the American Cinematques’s GRAUMAN’S EGYPTIAN Theatre. It was preceded by The Letter, One of Bill Morrison’s unique films made of edited deteriorated remnants of silent films. A unique event I attended was a cinematographers panel moderated by director Taylor Hackford. The panelists provided inside information on their art and many anecdotes about working with directors and actors, and the weather. The event was held at the historic American Society of Cinematographers Club House. Another fun screening was Cracking Wise, an edited medley of movie wise-cracks taken from dozens of films in the Paramount Archives. The clips came from Republic B pictures and were presented by Andrea Kalas.
Other great movies I saw were Miracle of Morgan’s Creek (1943),How to Marry a Millionaire (1953 in Cinemascope), Three Smart Girls (1936), Silk Stockings (1957), and Places in the Heart (1984), a special screening with both director Robert Benton and Sally Field in attendance. Sally Field received her second Academy Award for Best Actress for her role. They gave a lively remembrance of their working together on this excellent movie. She played a recent widower in rural Texas trying against all odds to save her house and land by farming cotton with the help of an itinerant black man (Danny Glover) and blind roomer(John Malkovich).
The 2019 TCM Classic Film Festivalcelebrated love in all of its forms. This was the 10th annual Festival, and the 25th anniversary of TCM, The hosts and TCM made over the ten-time attendees such as myself. We were given special lanyards for our name badges and thus greeted warmly at each screening or event. There was also a Roosevelt Hotel Rooftop party for all the Ten-Timers.
The Opening Night Screening featured When Harry Met Sally (1989), with Rob Reiner as director and stars Meg Ryan and Billy Crystal. talking about making the film. Carl Reiner revealed that the woman in the scene at Katz’s Deli that says “I’ll have what she’s having” after Meg Ryan acts out her fake orgasm was his mother Estelle.
There were many great movies to be seen over the week-end. Some of my favorites were: The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, that made a star of 21 year old Catherine Deneuve; The Postman Always Rings Twice; The Clock (with Judy Garland); Day for Night, with Jacqueline Bisset in attendance; Love Affair; The Killers, the remake with Angie Dickenson in attendance, Disney’s Sleeping Beauty, and a special Fox: An Appreciation, this before 20th Century-Fox was absorbed by the Disney Company. This program was presented by Schawn Belston,the then Exec VP of 20th Century-Fox. And I also attended , as I usually do, Bonham’s Entertainment Exhibition and Appraisal. This is held Sunday morning and people bring in their collectible Entertainment memorabilia for appraisal. As a collector, I’m always interested in what turns up.
This wraps up my 10 years with the TCMFF, I wouldn’t have missed it for anything. THANK YOU TURNER CLASSIC MOVIES.
When Helen Rose began working at MGM with its roster of stars, mogul Louis B. Mayer told the costume designer to, “Just make them beautiful.” With her plentiful use of chiffon and her figure-flattering style, Helen Rose did just that, designing the costumes for leading ladies including Elizabeth Taylor, Grace Kelly, Ava Gardner, Cyd Charisse, Debbie Reynolds, Lana Turner, Lauren Bacall, Doris Day, Esther Williams, Leslie Caron, and many others.
Helen Rose started at MGM in September 1943 as just one more costume designer among many. World Ward II was raging but the movie business was healthy. Helen got her start designing showgirls in the cabarets and nightclubs of Chicago. She learned early how to make their costumes comfortable and especially t using chiffon for its “twirly” quality for the dancers. After coming to L.A in 1929 she had struggled but finally found jobs working as a costume designer at both 20th Century-Fox and for the Ice Follies. When Mayer found out it was the same person designing the colorful outfits for the Fox musicals and for the fantasies on ice, he had to hire her. Irene Lentz Gibbons was the executive director for designing, not only designing costumes herself but assigning designers to various films. With several designers on staff including Irene Sharaff, Barbara Karinska, Marion Herwood Keyes, and two men’s designers, Helen waited months until she got an assignment. This finally came with the big production of Ziegfeld Follies released in 1945. Helen designed the colorful “Here’s to the Ladies,” number including Lucille Ball’s pink spangled costume. Louis B. Mayer was impressed and Helen’s career was on its upward trajectory.
Helen designed the costumes for Harvey Girls, the big hit of 1946. This was the first of many occasions she would dress Judy Garland. Here the styles were 1880s, with eye-catching clever lapel designs and mutton-chop sleeves. This Americana musical with Judy Garland and an all-star cast is now considered a classic. Helen next designed most of the costumes for a big all-star cast for the musical, Til the Clouds Roll By (1948). The movie was supposed to be a bio-pic about composer Jerome Kern, but instead became a series of musical numbers of his greatest hits. Notable were Helen’s designs for her friend Lena Horne’s blue and lavender gown worn when she sings, “Can’t Help Loving Dat Man.” There was a knock-out midnight blue sequined top and deep-cut fringed skirt for Lucille Bremer’s dance outfit for the “I Won’t Dance” number, and Judy Garland’s yellow feathered skirt and sequined chiffon top in the “Who” (Who Can it Be) number, a question she seems to ask a staircase of chorus boys. Judy Garland, pregnant with Liza at the time, related to Helen, “What a song to sing in my present condition.”
A Date With Judy in 1948 starred Jane Powell and Elizabeth Taylor. Jane Powell was the bigger star at the time, and Elizabeth Taylor was only 16 years old. But Elizabeth stole the show, especially the way Helen Taylor dressed her. Her youthful beauty radiated from the screen, and Helen took advantage of her violet colored eyes in her design fora knock-out evening gown of lavender-colored chiffon with a slight décolleté. With her thick dark hair and bold eyebrows, Elizabeth Taylor became a magnet for the camera. In Helen’s “New Look” fashions she became the fashion icon for teenagers across America. In 1948 Irene launched her own fashion line and stayed on at MGM but would no longer be supervising other designers. She would design for some movies but this opened up opportunities for Helen. Helen’s relationship with Elizabeth would grow with their next collaboration, Father of the Bride. Here Elizabeth stars as the young bride in the family with Spencer Tracy as father, Joan Bennett as the mother, and Don Taylor as the groom. Helen designed 47 costumes for Elizabeth. including a stunning wedding gown. Elizabeth was so impressed she had Helen design her own wedding gown. The gown took 15 seamstresses and beaders three weeks to make. MGM then gave her the dress as a present. The movie was a hit, the box office smash was helped by Elizabeth’s real wedding to Conrad “Nicky” Hilton on May 6, 1950, just before the film’s release.
Just as things seemed to to going so well for Helen, everything turned bad. Helen had sympathized with Judy Garland ever since they first worked together. Judy was just coming back to make Summer Stock after a three month stay at a sanitarium to cure her drug-addiction. While they began working on Judy’s wardrobe Helen was blamed for leaks to the gossip columns blaming MGM for Judy’s problems. Dory Schary had become the MGM Production Head and he took Helen off the movie. Walter Plunkett took over and designed Judy’s costumes and all the other cast members with the exception of Gloria DeHaven’s costumes. Judy was next scheduled to make Royal Wedding with Fred Astaire after June Allyson became pregnant. This got off to a rocky start but Helen started designing costumes for Judy. After getting into one of Helen’s costumes Judy had a run-in with Arthur Freed. She left the studio and didn’t return, having gotten a notice of suspension in the mail. The “Get Happy” number from Summer Stock ended up as Judy’s last MGM scene after thirteen years with the studio. Helen was taken off that film as well.
When Irene left MGM to devote herself full-time to her design business: Irene LTD., MGM found itself in need of another regular designer other than Walter Plunkett. Despite Helen having been in the dog house over the Judy Garland issue, she had gotten great publicity for her designs for Elizabeth Taylor. So she was back to designing for Elizabeth Taylor and Esther Williams at MGM through 1951, She did complete Royal Wedding with Jane Powell in the lead, playing as Fred Astaire’s partner. Jorjett Strumme, who became a friend of Helen’s and modeled for her fashion shows, noted her extraordinary sense and use of color. One of the examples she pointed out was Jane Powell’s lavender dress and coral belt worn in the dance scene with Fred Astaire on the ship going to England. She also notes Helen’s clever use of gradations of the same color in other costumes, “The petticoat would be purple and every layer on top of it would get lighter so that the body of the dress was lavender.”
Nineteen fifty-two turned out to be a very big year for Helen. She started out designing a big turn-of-the-19th century costume movie, The Belle of New York, starring Fred Astaire and Vera-Ellen. Helen also designed the remake of The Merry Widow, starring Lana Turner and Fernando Lamas, using both black and cream-colored gowns that earned her a Best Costume Oscar nomination. She also designed Elizabeth Taylor’s costumes for Love is Better Than Ever, and for Esther Williams in Million Dollar Mermaid. Helen finished off the year by designing another wardrobe for Lana Turner, this one for The Bad and the Beautiful. Helen was nominated for another Oscar for Best Costume (black & white film), and won the award for this movie. Her friend Elizabeth Taylor was the category presenter that year and handed a stunned Helen Rose the statuette.
Helen Rose won her Academy Award Oscar in March of 1953. She would get another great prize that year when she designed the costumes for Mogambo, and for the first time for the fabulous Grace Kelly. She also dressed the beautiful Ava Gardner in the same film, a remake of MGM’s Red Dust. Clark Gable starred in both films. Mogambo was set in Africa involving safaris. Helen Rose designed flattering khaki bush outfits for Grace Kelly that have influenced modern fashion for decades. Helen liked to emphasize figures so for Ava Gardner she designed tightly belted skirts and pants that flattered Ava’s gorgeous figure, and the yellow, dusty rose, and green colors that set off her beautiful skin. Not a bad wardrobe for the bush. The Clark Gable and Ava Gardner characters end up romantically linked in the movie, but it was Gable and Kelly that had the affair on set.
Nineteen fifty-four was another great year for Helen Rose. Including another Academy Award. I’ll cover the rest of her MGM career in Part II of my blog post coming soon.
Every year brings us five nominations for an Academy Award for Best Costume Design. For the movies of 2019 the field was not one of the best in my opinion, even with multiple previous Oscar winners in contention. As is customary, the nominations were made by the Costume Designers branch of the Academy, but all members will vote on the winner. This can often result in a bit of a popularity contest among the movies, which influences the Costume Design voting. In any event, the historical (period) or fantasy movies almost always prevail over contemporary costume design. With this year’s nominees, there was only one real period piece, Little Women, although all the others took place in various decades of the 1900s. The nominees are:
THE IRISHMAN. Costume design by Sandy Powell & Christopher Peterson. Directed by Martin Scorsese.
Sandy Powell has won the Oscar on three previous occasions and she has worked with Scorsese on seven previous films. The Irishman centers on the life of Teamster Union boss Jimmy Hoffa, as played by Al Pacino. Robert De Niro plays the “Irishman” Frank Shearan who looks back on his life and relationship with Hoffa. The movie also stars Joe Pesci. Since most of the cast were men playing their roles over several decades, the job for the designers was showing the passage of time in costume where little change happened in style, especially for lower class gangsters who needed to blend into society. Scorsese told Powell, “This is not Goodfellas and it’s not Casino.”
Sandy Powell had just come off her work on the films The Favourite and Mary Poppins Returns. She asked designer Christopher Peterson to join her, since there was a large cast of extras to dress as well as the principal actors, some 400 principals and 6500 extras. The story takes place over the decades of the 1950s though the 1970s. The first thing they did was try to find what costumes they could from costume rental houses. They also looked through thrift and vintage shops. This became especially important for the many suits that were needed for the different periods of time. Lapel widths were one of the indicators of time, and the fabrics of vintage suits were just more substantial than what is available today. De Niro reportedly had 102 fittings for his suits and other costumes. The piles of ties they located were also needed to pin-point time period, and in the end, what the actors’ favorites were.
Few women appear in the movie, although Shearan and Bufalino and their wives Irene and Carrie (Stephanie Kurtzuba and Kathrine Narducci) take a long road trip. The women wear similar Pucci-style polyester tops and pants. Although this takes place in the 1970s, the women still wear outfits from the late 1960s.
JOKER. Costume design by Mark Bridges. Directed by Todd Phillips.
Mark Bridges has won two Oscars for The Artist and The Phantom Thread. This is the story of the comic book Joker with a more violent and psychotic twist. Joker (Arthur Fleck) as played by Joaquin Phoenix, is a mentally ill aspiring comic and clown. The cruelty of his life is returned. Set in Gotham City “New York” circa 1981, the decaying city of the time is emphasized and adds to Joker’s downward spiral.
Joaquin Phoenix lost a lot of weight for the part, wanting to emphasize the illness of Arthur Fleck. Mark Bridges came around to finding costumes that showed that very lean physique rather than hiding it. He also explained how he came up with the movie’s iconic Joker costume, “The Joker suit came from something that was written in the script about Arthur owning an outdated jacket—a suit, in terra cotta. I didn’t feel like that was a really strong color, so I suggested the burgundy, which was really hot in the ’70s.” The 1970s was appropriate since Arthur Fleck had little money and lived with his mother. His clothes were several years old.
JOJO RABBIT. Costume design Mayes Rubeo. Directed by Taika Waititi.
This movie is a satirical story about Hitler as imagined by a 10 year old boy in the Hitler youth. The imaginary part is that Hitler is the boy’s friend and appears at odd and trying moments during Jojo’s summer. Jojo lives with his mother played by Scarlett Johansson. While in the Hitler Youth Jojo has to prove himself as rugged and deserving, which he is not quite ready for. His imaginary friend comes in handy, as does his real friend Yorki. He still has his zeal, which is compromised when he discovers his mother is hiding a Jewish girl in their apartment.
As related by Cathy Whitloc in Hollywood Review, “Waititi was the driving force on the costumes. He was very specific in what he wanted the costumes to be, and we had long intensive conversations about the looks,” said designer Mayes Rubeo. “We wanted it to look like wartime through the eyes of a child and do something unexpected.” And since Hitler, at least the imaginary Hitler, was a main character, he had to resemble the historical character. In part anyway. His costume was more of a mustard color, and to give him the look of a caricature, his pants were made wider.
Scarlett Johansson as Jojo’s mother is a chic dresser. She is modern in wearing trousers, and she is given colorful items for her wardrobe.
Sam Rockwell, plays Captain Klenzendorf the Hitler Youth’s flamboyant leader. Mayes Rubeo stated that, “He came into my wardrobe trailer with a picture of Bill Murray from Saturday Night Live and said, ‘This is who I want to look like.'” The costume that Rubeo designed for him fits right in with the satirical theme. She said it was “a uniform made by someone who knows almost nothing about the rules of design.”
ONCE UPON A TIME IN HOLLYWOOD. Costume design by Ariane Phillips. Directed by Quentin Tarantino.
Ariane Phillips’ biggest challenge with Once Upon a Time in Hollywood was landing the job, Quentin Tarantino was one of her favorite directors and she found out that only two designers would get a meeting/presentation with him. Fortunately she was one of the two. After being given the opportunity to read the script she knew she would have to hyper prepare – so she came to the meeting with a vintage Hawaiian shirt and 1960’s sunglasses for the Cliff Booth character and even some new old stock Brylcreem in its container that the Rick Dalton character used in the Bounty Law show. She also had a very well-developed look-book of 1960s styles, celebrities, and people-on-the-street. All these were shown to Tarantino to a mixed CD soundtrack of 1969 hits, even including some KHJ radio station ads a friend had mixed in. Tarantino was impressed. Something he told her left a strong impression, “One of the things that’s important to me, in my relationship with a costume designer, is that if I write something in the script, I really mean it.”
After landing the job Phillips got down to doing her customary serious research. She had to create the wardrobe for late celebrities such as Sharon Tate, Michelle Phillips, Mama Cass, Bruce Lee, Jay Sebring, Steve McQueen. Some 125 characters and between 1500 and 2000 extras. “I always say being a costume designer is like being a detective — specifically a people detective or a story detective,” Ariane Phillips said.
Both Ms. Phillips and Quentin Tarantino wanted to respect the memory of Sharon Tate. Her looks and wardrobe was well documented as a star, fashion-plate, and jet-setter. Phillips emphasized a yellow color for her costumes to symbolize her cheerfulness and the Southern California setting. Sharon Tate’s sister Debra served as a consultant on the production and loaned some of Sharon’s jewelry for Margot Robbie to wear. One of Sharon Tate’s original outfits was a snakeskin Ossie Clark coat that Sharon had worn to the Premiere of Rosemary’s Baby. Phillips had it reproduced for a driving scene in the movie.
Brad Pitt as Cliff Booth played a stuntman and friend to Leonardo DiCaprio’s fading star Rick Dalton. His basic costumes were Levis pants and a shirt. The Levis were vintage and the Hawaiian shirt was custom made from digitally printed fabric. He wears it open so that his Champion spark plugs t-shirt can be seen. The latter was supplied by Tarantino himself – a cool symbol from the era of the muscle car. Arianne Phillips was thrilled when she found a genuine vintage Stuntman’s Association belt buckle at a costume house. for Brad to wear. Brad Pitt also wears a vintage Wrangler denim jacket. The zip-up jacket, like the one worn by Tom Laughlin in Billy Jack, was a real challenge to find on the vintage market.
DiCaprio as Rick Dalton is always trying to find his next acting job. He turns to television and gets roles from an FBI agent to a western maverick, His costumes change accordingly, His Hollywood man about town is a cool brown leather jacket.
LITTLE WOMEN. Costume design by Jacqueline Durran. Directed by Greta Gerwig.
Little Women, based on the novel by Louisa May Alcott, is the story of four growing daughters in a household run by a progressive feminist mother. The father is away during the civil war. The novel has been made into six feature films in the US not counting TV. Illustrious past costume designers such as Walter Plunkett ( the 1933 and 1949 versions) and Colleen Atwood have designed previous versions. Jacqueline Durran began her vision of the costuming of Little Women by looking at paintings by Winslow Homer. “Homer was an absolute revelation to me,” Ms. Durran said about the painter’s scenes of people in scenes of beautiful landscapes. As the designer related in InStyle magazine, The mid-19th century costumes depicted were also inspiring. “When she’s a child, Jo slightly hates clothes because she doesn’t want to be a girl, The paintings have a real life to them.” In the story Jo cuts off her hair to sell it. Durran used as a model for her the Winslow painting of a little boy standing in a field.
The different personalities of the sisters are to be emphasized by their costumes and their colors. Amy is a beauty and has an appreciation for fashion. She wears Parisian styles afforded her by Aunt Marsh. For these Durran referred to paintings by Impressionist painters Claude Monet and Edouard Manet.
Meg had a bent towards the Pre-Raphaelites, their Romanticism and art. Hints of these were added to her wardrobe. She also had a beautiful pink ball gown worn at a ball in Boston. While the costumes of the 2019 Little Women charm,the craft skills of the Wardrobe Departments in Walter Plunkett’s day were superior.
Eliza Scanlen, Saoirse Ronan, Laura Dern and Florence Pugh in ‘Little Women’ SONY.
The five nominees will be voted on by all Academy members and the Oscar will be given at the Academy Award ceremony on Sunday February 9, 2020. Period (historical) costume movies usually win the Oscars. Accordingly, Little Women would be the favorite. The costume design is also excellent in this case. Once Upon a Time in Hollywood has been an Academy and audience favorite and may be a dark horse. So stay tuned for the February 9!
Gene Kelly had a storied career as dancer, singer and choreographer. He also partnered with many of the greatest actresses and dancers in show business. He taught dance at his family’s Pittsburgh dance school while attending college and then law school. He gave that up when he decided to act and choreograph on Broadway. He had success acting in The Time of Your Life in 1939 and then Pal Joey. He came to Hollywood to make his first movie in 1941 for MGM, the soon to be classic For Me and My Gal with Judy Garland. With great chemistry, smashing good-looks, and his athletic dancing style, Kelly made a star of himself in this sentimental vaudeville-themed movie. What should have been obvious somehow eluded MGM, as he was next placed in straight roles as a pilot in WW II in Pilot #5 and then as Alec Howe/Black Arrow in DuBarry was a Lady,
Columbia Pictures knew exactly how to use Kelly in his next movie: Cover Girl, co-starring Rita Hayworth in its first Technicolor film. In this story of the Hayworth character’s yearning to make it as a star on Broadway, Kelly danced and choreographed as well. Although un-credited, Columbia and director Charles Vidor gave him license to choreograph and direct the “alter-ego” scene, assisted by Stanley Donen whom he had worked with on Broadway. In the scene he dances with himself (his inner conscience) as partner. Cover Girl was a hit for Columbia. It won an Oscar for Best Musical Score and had three other nominations including for Best Song: Long Ago and Far Away.
With MGM’s Anchors Aweigh in 1945, Gene Kelly hit full maturity on film. The movie co-starred Frank Sinatra and singer Kathryn Grayson. Kelly and Sinatra are two sailors on shore leave looking for fun and romance – and find so much more. In a scene that made movie history, Gene Kelly’s dance partner was Jerry the Mouse of the Tom and Jerry cartoon characters. MGM had wanted to use Mickey Mouse but Disney wouldn’t grant permission. Instead they developed their own animation unit. Stanley Donen worked for most of a year with the animators to animate Jerry’s dance with Gene Kelly. Kelly appeared next in an all-star MGM musical, The Ziegfeld Follies in 1945. The movies didn’t have a plot but was a series of musical numbers and comedy skits much like an old Ziegfeld Revue. Gene Kelly’s dance partner in this movie was also a historic pairing: Fred Astaire. They only danced together twice in their career, and the second time was 31 years later for That’s Entertainment. In Ziegfeld Follies they danced in the The Babbitt and the Bromide number. The characters are personality types based on literary characters made into a Gershwin song. Gene and Fred pussy-footed around each other to work out a dance number, each used to being the lead. Gene showed deference to Fred’s seniority and they settled on this older number even though it wasn’t a stretch for either of them.
After Gene Kelly’s service during WWII and his starring in Living in a Big Way, his next starring role was The Pirate in 1948. Here he was reunited with Judy Garland in the Vincente Minnelli directed romantic comedy. The movie was an ideal vehicle to showcase Kelly’s dancing, athleticism, and plain good looks in buccaneer costumes. Kelly doesn’t really dance with Judy as the character Manuela in this movie, but as the character Serafin/Macoco he dances and performs for her to win her affection. He does dance with the amazing Nicholas Brothers, Harold and Fayard. And partners with Judy Garland in their wonderful Be a Clown number. The latter’s melody was the same used as “Make em Laugh” by Donald O’Connor in Singing in the Rain. The following year, 1949, Kelly started with the dramatic dance number in Words and Music to “Slaughter on 10th Avenue” with his dance partner Vera-Ellen. The movie was about the composing team of Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart. Helen Rose designed the women’s wardrobe and Valles designed the men’s. Although in their scene together both Gene Kelly’s costume and Vera-Ellen’s are smart and sexy, their colors don’t complement each other- neither opposites (complementary) nor matching. Gene was in black pants with a violet top. and Vera-Ellen had a scarlet dress with a striped yellow top.
Nineteen forty-nine was a good year for Gene Kelly. He next starred in Take Me Out to the Ball Game, co-starring Frank Sinatra , Esther Williams and Jules Munchin. The story was about early 1900s baseball players performing Vaudeville at night. The team’s owner K.C. Higgins just happens to be the beautiful Esther Williams. Since Vaudeville is part of the plot, many of the scenes are songs and skits. Kelly did a dance scene partnered with Frank Sinatra. Sinatra was at a low ebb in his career at this point. Dancing was not one of his skills, but since Kelly had been a dance instructor he taught Sinatra some basic steps to keep up with him in their song and dance number, “Take Me Out to the Ball Game.” Gene Kelly and Esther Williams had one dance number together in “Baby Doll,” but it was cut for the final release. Helen Rose designed the women’s wardrobe. She was particularly talented at designing turn-of the-20th century costumes, and did a fabulous job here. Valles likewise did a great job with the men’s outfits. And then there was On the Town. The movie was based on the Jerome Robbins New York ballet from 1944. MGM bought the movie rights before the musical even opened, but then Louis B. Mayer didn’t like the results. Betty Comden and Adolph Green had written the original book and were asked to re-write it for the movie. Leonard Bernstein composed the original score. Four of his songs were kept and he wrote six new ones for the movie. For the first time, Stanley Donen directed the film, with Gene Kelly also credited. Kelly’s co-stars were Frank Sinatra, Vera-Ellen, Jules Munchin, Ann Miller, and Betty Garrett. The movie also complement the story of Anchors Aweigh of sailors Gene Kelly (Gabey) and Frank Sinatra (Chip) now joined by Jules Munchin (Ozzie) on shore-leave. But here they have leave in “New York, New York a helluva town,” only the censor wouldn’t allow them to sing “helluva” so the word was substituted by “wonderful.” Nonetheless, with Gene Kelly’s insistence, location shooting in New York was done for several scenes including the Brooklyn Navy Yard, Wall Street, the Statue of Liberty, Central Park and Fifth Avenue. The story line is sailors out to see New York but naturally they get sidetracked looking for women and getting into adventures. Kelly as Gabey can’t get past the subway without falling in love with a photo of “Miss Turnstiles” on a poster. His love interest is the lovely Vera-Ellen. He catches up with her as she becomes his story dance partner in two of the several great dance numbers: “Main Street;” and the colorful “A Day in New York Ballet.” The latter number introduced the great dancer Carol Haney to film. Helen Rose designed the women’s wardrobe. The lead men stayed in their Navy whites, which made the colorful yellow, rose, and green costumes of the women stand out as an ideal choice.
In 1950 Gene Kelly did a favor to Judy Garland by starring in Summer Stock. Not that she asked for this favor, but she was starring in the movie coming off of a suspension from MGM and three months in a drug-cure clinic. She needed support and Kelly was there to give it to her as was friendly director Charles Walters. Even then it was rocky for Judy. She had gained weight in the clinic and costume designer Walter Plunkett designed loose blouses and dresses with open collars that emphasized her face. Since the story was about a theater summer stock company living and rehearsing in a farm barn owned by Judy’s character, she is often dressed in overalls. Town and country soon clash in the story but love also develops. The reason they came to the farm was because Judy’s sister Abigail played by Gloria DeHaven wanted to be in show business and her boyfriend was the theater troupe manager. The character was Gene Kelly, and before long he was falling for Judy Garland (Jane). Jane had some talent too. Besides driving a tractor she could sing and dance. And in “Portland Fancy,” Gene and Judy do a great tap dance number for the far farm community. But Summer Stock also featured Judy’s finale number,, “Get Happy.” It was filmed two months after principal photography was finished and a big closing number was sought. Judy had lost weight in the interval and looked very trim compared to the beginning of the movie. She wore just a black tuxedo jacket, white blouse, fedora, and black hose. The costume was a hold-over from a scene in Easter Parade that had been deleted. It was a knock-out number based on a Harold Arlen/Ted Koehler Christian revivalist song. Gene Kelly never had high hopes for Summer Stock. Yet one of his best career numbers was his solo dance with a newspaper in a barn, and Judy’s “Get Happy” was a memorable number. As it happened, this was also Judy’s last movie for MGM.
Gene Kelly’s next movie was to be his most ambitious yet, and a highlight of his career: An American in Paris. Working closely with Vincente Minnelli, the movie would be about an American artist living in Paris, with many of its scenes danced through landscapes inspired by famous French and International painters.
The decision by producer Arthur Freed, Minnelli, and Gene Kelly to include a 17 minute dance sequence was bold and risky. In 1948 the success of The Red Shoes filmed in England would serve as inspiration. But in An American in Paris, the art scenes as background depicted the emotional state of Kelly as the protagonist. Further, the ballet was to be a realization on film of the artistic works of Impressionist and Post-Impressionistic painters. This feature would not only guide the nature of the choreography, but also of the set designs, cinematography, action sequences, and costumes. The ballet scene would be the heart and soul of the film. The music, of course, would be based on the haunting score of George Gershwin’s An American in Paris symphony, with the story for the film by Alan Jay Lerner.
Costume designer Irene Sharaff was one of three designers for the film. She had been a Broadway designer and had worked for Minnelli at MGM previously.. Minnelliconvinced her to come back from New York to design some 300 costumes for the ballet. While working on the costumes, Sharaff also started designing sketches for what the sets might look like for the various artist-inspired scenes. These sketches in fact were adapted by art director Preston Ames for the sets. Ames had been an architecture student in Paris, and could quickly envision the set designs. The sets would be based on the styles of Raoul Dufy; Henri Rousseau; Piere Auguste Renoir; Maurice Utrillo; Vincent Van Gogh; and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec. Not a bad set of artists from which to draw inspiration. But how would the ballet transition from one artist-styled set to the next?
Those transitions indeed became a high-point in Hollywood film arts and crafts.Some 30 painters worked six weeks to paint the backgrounds and sets. Irene Sharaff also came up with the idea of using certain dancers, characters she called Furiesfor the women and Pompiers (firemen) for the men. The Furies were dressed all in red ballet outfits and the Pompiers were dressed as traditional French firemen, with their brass helmets but also adorned in a military-inspired costume. Together they served as the “bridge” from one scene to the next, luring Kelly as Jerry Mulligan to pursue the ever-escaping Caron as Lise Bouvier. These transitions were also accomplished by using a “match-cutting” filming technique whereby the action of the dancer is exactly matched from the end of one scene to the beginning of the next. And so Gene Kelly dances through the various scenes, with Leslie Caron as his partner Lise Bouvier. The dance scene is not the entire movie, but it represents Kelly as Jerry Mulligan’s love for Lise, with a red rose as its symbol.
In addition to Irene Sharaff, two other costume designers worked on the film: Orry-Kelly and Walter Plunkett. Walter Plunkett designed the costumes for the “Black and White” Ball scene, including Kelly’s and Caron’s costumes, and Orry- Kelly designed the other costumes in the films. He also designed Leslie Caron’s green dance costume for the dance scene in the Fountain of the Concorde. Plunkett also designed one of Caron’s ballet costumes. An American in Paris was Gene Kelly’s favorite film. It won six Academy Awards for: Best Picture; Best Art Direction; Best Cinematography; Best Screenplay; Best Music Scoring; and Best Costume Design for Irene Sharaff, Orry-Kelly and Walter Plunkett.
More about Gene Kelly’s movies and dance partners will be covered in PART II of SILVERSCREENMODES.COM
Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer began in 1924 with the merger of Metro Pictures, Louis B. Mayer Productions, and Goldwyn Pictures. It was a package costing $5 million. The new owner was Marcus Loew who owned a chain of theaters. He had already bought out Metro Pictures and its studio in Hollywood, but was unsatisfied with its productions. Louis Mayer met with Marcus Loew and arranged for the new company to be run by Mayer, with the head of production to be the “boy wonder” from Universal, the 24 year old Irving Thalberg. Loew, HQ’d in New York, would have Nicholas Schenck overseeing operations from that office. The studio lot they took over was the Samuel Goldwyn lot in Culver City, once the Triangle Film Corp. lot. They also took over Goldwyn’s logo of Leo the Lion and his motto, Ars Gratia Artis (art for art’s sake). Samuel Goldwyn had walked away from the company after battles with its controlling Board.
The Metro Studio at the intersection of Romaine and Cahuenga in Hollywood before the merger.
Above is the Metro Pictures studio lot in Hollywood. These are the stages and shops before the merger. Located at 1025 Lillian Way in Hollywood.
This blog post celebrating the 95th anniversary year of MGM is part of the Classic Movie Blog Association 10th Anniversary Blogathon. Given MGM’s long and deep movie history, this post will focus on its formative years.
From the beginning, Mayer, Thalberg, and studio operations man Harry Rapf set out to go big and go classy. Mayer’s policy was, “…great star, great director, great play, great cast.” To do that they needed to quickly develop their roster of directors and stars. This was paralleled in the crafts people they hired for a variety of studio jobs, from costume designers to metal workers. Mayer and Thalberg brought in noted stars Lon Chaney, Norma Shearer, and Renée Adorée, along with directors Fred Niblo and John M. Stahl. Metro had Ramon Navarro, Alice Terry, Viola Dana, Jackie Coogan, Buster Keaton, and Mae Busch, along with director Rex Ingram. The Goldwyn Pictures group included Mae Murray, Conrad Nagel, Aileen Pringle, John Gilbert, William Haines, and Eleanor Boardman. The directors included King Vidor, Marshal Neilan, Erich von Stroheim, Robert Z. Leonard, and Victor Seastrom. Two department heads became significant additions: Howard Dietz in Advertising and Publicity, and long-time Art Director Cedric Gibbons. And another Goldwyn tie-in was the Cosmopolitan Production Company, Randolph Hearst’s company set-up to produce films for Marion Davies.
A public ceremony was held to celebrate the merger and launching of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM) on April 26, 1924. The former Vice-President of Samuel Goldwyn, Abraham Lehr, handed a giant key of “Success” to Louis Mayer, Irving Thalberg and Harry Rapf. After their speech Master of Ceremonies Will Rogers arrived to give his rather long talk, only to be interrupted by director Marshall Neilan who ordered his cast and crew to return to the set to work on Tess of the D’Urbervilles. This head-strong director was not the only one on the roster. Erich von Stroheim, the hold-over from Goldwyn, was well into shooting his 42 reels of Greed . His struggle with Thalberg and the cutting of the film to 10 reels is a movie legend. And that was not the only troubled production. Another Goldwyn film, Ben-Hur, was being shot on location in Egypt and Italy and had spent its already large budget building grand sets and used up months of filming. Thalberg and Mayer were unsatisfied with both the results and the pace of production. The film’s director and lead actors had already changed once., so the production was recalled to California. By the time Ben-Hur was finished, it had cost $6 million, a staggering sum for its day. Fortunately it was a big hit for MGM and its stars Ramon Navarro, May McAvoy, Francis X. Bushman, Betty Bronson and Carmel Myers.
The photo from 1925 above shows the first sign with the full name of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. The glass sound stage was “Stage 1.” The lawn area in front, only partially shown, is where the launching ceremony of April 1924 was held. This area would soon be covered over with concrete sound stages and the Sound Department building.
The Goldwyn Studio property in Culver City was 39 acres, the original Triangle Studio’s 16 plus 23 more acres that Goldwyn purchased. Six glass sound stages were on the property along with various buildings. The glass sound stages were needed in the early days of filmmaking to provide sufficient natural lighting.
The photo above shows the Goldwyn lot in 1924 with the six sound stages and other buildings. The classic facade on Washington Blvd was already there when MGM began, shown on the right of the image. Standing sets are at the rear of the photo.
The photo above shows the MGM lot in 1924. It shows the old water tower without the MGM logo. The tree in the foreground is a fig tree where Greta Garbo used to pick figs when she first arrived from Sweden. Men’s Wardrobe is the building at the lower left.
The above photo shows a glass sound stage on the right and the old dressing rooms on the left. The upper floor was the ladies’ dressing rooms. Workers are preparing the grounds for new concrete sound stages. The glass stages were moved for other uses.
The photo above also shows the old “dressing room row”in the background with the grassy area in front as it was at the time of the beginning of MGM. Behind it was the MGM facade facing Washington Blvd.
The first film that MGM produced on its own was He Who Gets Slapped. The film featured three of its future stars, John Gilbert, Norma Shearer, and Lon Chaney. And despite its drole title, the melodrama was a commercial and critical success when released in October 1924. The year of 1925 brought much more success for MGM with revenues second only to Paramount. Ben Hur was released as a giant epic and would have made a big profit had it not been for a revenue-sharing deal made by MGM’s predecessor. But its own big epic was the World War I-based film The Big Parade. The film made stars out of John Gilbert and Renée Adorée , with their parting scenes leaving no dry eyes in the house. The battle scenes too were very realistic, though shot in Griffith Park in Los Angeles. The film made $6 million for MGM. And MGM had such diverse offerings as the creative and funny movies of Buster Keaton (first coming with Metro) in Go West and Seven Chances. Then there were the horror movies of Lon Chaney in The Monster and The Unholy Three. Further diversity was introduced with The Merry Widow, where increasingly popular John Gilbert was paired with former Universal Pictures star Mae Murray in a setting of an old world kingdom. The film’s director was Erich von Stroheim, which led to a turbulent set with shouting matches and walk-outs between director and Ms. Murray. and the Gilbert. The result, however was a big popular film that swept fans like Diana Vreeland off their feet. But perhaps the biggest event of 1925 was the signing of two new actresses to the MGM roster: Greta Garbo and Joan Crawford (then with the last name of Le Sueur). Ms Garbo was 20 years old and had just come from Sweden. She starred in the melodrama Torrent, released in early 1926. Joan Crawford played uncredited bit roles in several films, even doubling for Norma Shearer in one film. She finally got a break in late 1925 in Sally, Irene and Mary, co-starring Constance Bennett and Sally O’Neal. The story is about three showgirl friends with very different fates. Two of the biggest stars of Golden Age Hollywood were on their way.
In 1926 MGM starred an actress already well known and respected. Lillian Gish came to make La Boheme with John Gilbert. Louis B. Mayer gave her considerable control when signing her to MGM, and she used it to make this picture. King Vidor directed, and much time was spent in rehearsals. MGM had spent much time and effort to lure Erte from Paris to design costumes for the studio. He designed the costumes for Miss Gish for La Boheme, but they disagreed on their look. He wanted crisp and stylish costumes befitting her star status. She said they should depict her life as a waif in Paris. This was one more frustration that led to Erte’s departure soon after. But La Boheme was another hit for MGM, and rated one of the best movies of 1926.
The photo above shows Cecil Gibbons, MGM’s Art Director. He came with the Goldwyn merger, and stayed until 1956. He was one of the original founders of the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences, and designed the Oscar statuette.
MGM introduced the first true musical film with its “All Talking, All Singing, All Dancing,” movie The Broadway Melody in February 1929. This made musicals very popular but sound ruined the careers of stars with heavy foreign accents or those whose voices didn’t match their personas, as in the case of John Gilbert.
MGM recording director Douglas Shearer is shown above with his sound recording equipment. He was Norma Shearer’s brother.
Above is pictured MGM’s Recording Room.. Each of the machines is connected to a microphone at a stage and records voice, song, or music on film “sound tracks.”
The photo above shows a part of the MGM lot with a sound stage roof painted with huge letters intended for aircraft to avoid flying overhead. In 1929 Mines Field was built nearby as the Los Angeles airport just as “Talkies” were being made at MGM.
Above is pictured the old Guard Shack at MGM, at the old entrance from Washington Blvd. The gate was narrow and only one car width, where everyone would check in with the guard.
Here’s a morning’s worth of check-ins from the mid-1930s. Not just for studio P.R., but Joan Crawford and Greta Garbo were the compulsive early starters.
By the 1930s, as MGM publicity emphasized, the studio had more stars than in the heavens. It would be many decades before the studio’s demise. And in the years before and following World War II, it was the biggest and most profitable studio in Hollywood. Ars Gratia Artis. Thankfully, we can still enjoy viewing the majority of those movies through a variety of methods and formats.
Further view of the old MGM lot can be seen on my blog post at: http://silverscreenmodes.com/a-virtual-tour-of-the-old-m-g-m-back-lots/
Hollywood’s late costume designer Milo Anderson created looks for the stars that are icons of style. But ask anyone about him and blank stares are the response. His name was simple, as were the styles he created: Joan Crawford’s waitress uniform in Mildred Pierce, Marlene Dietrich’s dark blue trench-coat, skirt and beret in Manpower, Lana Turner’s debut “sweater-girl” Angora sweater in They Won’t Forget, and the chorus girls’ costumes in 42nd Street.
Milo Anderson was born in Chicago on May 9, 1910. His parents moved to Los Angeles when Milo was 8, He attended Fairfax High School and during the summers worked at Western Costume. He got to do some designing. One costume he remembered was for Common Clay (1930), that starred Constance Bennett. One tip she gave him stayed with him throughout his career, “It’s not what you put on a costume, it’s what you take off that counts.”
When Milo had several costume sketches in a portfolio he took them to MGM’s head designer Adrian. Adrian was not encouraging. He did however recommend him to Samuel Goldwyn, who was then short of a designer since Coco Chanel had not finished the designs for the film The Greeks Had a Word for Them. So he was hired to finish that film and then to design the costumes for The Kid from Spain, a big musical. It was 1932 and he was too young to sign the contract, his mother had to do it.
Another unforgettable costume that Milo Anderson “designed” was for Joan Crawford in Rain, 1932. The movie was a re-make of Sadie Thompsonthat had starred Gloria Swanson, and also the Broadway play with Jeanne Eagels. Joan Crawford had asked to be loaned out to United Artist to play the role. She wanted a change in her usual roles to play something more serious and less glamorous. She got more than she bargained for. The role of Sadie Thompson was that of a prostitute. Milo was told to make something quickly, even though Joan only had two costume changes in the entire movie, and she wore one through most of it. That costume was a checked suit with short sleeves that he bought at a shop on Hollywood Blvd. He bought it large enough for her shoulders and fitted the rest to her measurements. It was perfect for her role, but the problem was she would have to wear it through the entire movie while it was undergoing through South Seas weather. Milo went back to the store but that had been the only model. Wardrobe ended up silk- screening the checks onto like fabric and tailoring duplicate suits.
Milo had been loaned out to United Artists as well as Joan Crawford for Rain. It was a pleasant experience. working with her at the time, although the film did poorly at the box office and it was too much out of character for Joan’s fans – or the critics. While at United Artists he also worked with Adrian designing Mary Pickford’s and the others cast’s costumes for Secrets(1933).
Milo started working at Warner Brothers in 1934. He had previously designed its production of Footlight Parade with Jimmy Cagney on loan-out the previous year. In 1935 he designed the costumes for Errol Flynn and Olivia de Havilland in Captain Blood, two stars he would work with repeatedly at Warner Bros. He also designed one of their most famous films together The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938). Milo cleverly devised the use of metallic painted rope to look like chain-mail for many of the costumes. This avoided the noisy clanking of metal and was of course lighter. At Warner Bothers Milo Anderson was working along side of the famous designer Orry-Kelly. Fortunately Milo did not have a big ego or felt competitive. They split their assignments and there were plenty to go around.
The decade of the 1940s started with some big movies for Humphrey Bogart and his female co-stars at Warner’s. They Drive by Night (1940) gave him the opportunity to design for both Ann Sheridan again and with the new Warner Bros. star Ida Lupino. This film about long-haul truckers and their dames (and a femme fatale) gave Milo a range of costume options. The following year Milo costumed another pairing of Bogart and Ida Lupino: High Sierra. All though it would become an all-time classic, it was not much of a costume movie.
That same year of 1941 presented him with the opportunity of dressing Marlene Dietrich in Manpower. Milo recalled that Marlene was very hard to satisfy – she had previously been dressed by Travis Banton and Irene. This film did not call for a glamorous wardrobe, but Milo Anderson created enticing costumes for Marlene and the two became good friends.
The U.S was now in WW II and movies took on different themes. Humphrey Bogart had another classic with To Have and Have Not in 1944. This was the film that introduced Lauren Bacall. Orry-Kelly was supposed to have designed it but he briefly served in the Army. In his autobiography he said he made the costume sketches for Bacall. Milo Anderson stated he designed the costumes for the film and he is listed as the designer in the credits. At issue is the iconic hounds-tooth suit with the peplum jacket she wears in a key scene. That suit started a fashion trend. But the film’s director Howard Hawks also claimed credit, stating he wanted Bacall to wear the same type of suit his wife “Slim” Hawks was wearing. Milo Anderson said he actually had the idea of using Slim’s suit – fitting it for Bacall after nipping the waist and broadening the shoulders.
Milo then had the most difficult job of his career: working on Mildred Pierce. Joan Crawford had just moved over to Warner Bros. after 20 years at MGM. Director Michael Curtiz did not want her for the title role in that film, but he was obliged to have her do a screen test. With a hostile attitude, Curtiz yanked her blouse off, shouting, “You and your damned Adrian shoulder pads!” Only she had bought that outfit at Sears and there were no shoulder pads. She had wanted to appear in-character for the screen-test. Milo said she was very difficult to work with, unlike their first collaboration on Rain. He attributed that to her nervousness from being at Warner Bros and not knowing if she would have a future there. And she was constantly fighting with Curtiz. She got along famously with Ann Blythe, who walloped her on the staircase scene.
Milo also created a stunning look for Patricia Neal, not the typical Glamorous star, in The Fountainhead (1949). She co-starred with Gary Cooper who played an architect. Milo dressed Patricia Neal in a black silk peignoir that she wore for her opening scene, and later a lace nightgown for a seduction scene.
By the early 1950s Milo Anderson became disillusioned with the state of designing costumes for Hollywood movies. Warner Brothers wasn’t even giving him design credit half the time. He finished designing So Bigfor Jane Wyman in 1953, who he had worked with since his first film, The Kid from Spain, in 1932. This was their 30th film together. He left Warner Bros. after that and designed for Catalina swim wear. He designed the costumes for one more Jane Wyman movie, at her request , Miracle in the Rain(1956).
In an interview with the late movie costume historian David Chierichetti, Milo Anderson said about his time during the Golden Age of Hollywood, “We ran ourselves ragged trying to keep up with the demands of our jobs, but we had the best materials, the best craftsmen and the most glorious women to wear them. It was an unforgettable era.”
After he left Warner Brothers Milo Anderson joined the firm of Robert Muir & Associates as an interior designer. He also taught classes periodically on costume design. He maintained a friendship with fellow costume designer Howard Shoup – “Shoupie” as his friends called him.
Milo Anderson died on November 10, 1984 at age 74 from emphysema. Then and now he is little known despite the many stars he dressed and the beautiful iconic garments and costumes he designed.
A convergence of world phenomena hit director Costa-Gavras when he harnessed their energies to create his political masterpiece Z in 1969. In Paris and France, students and workers went on general strike and caused civil disorder in 1968. In the U.S. President Kennedy, Martin Luther King, and Robert F. Kennedy were all assassinated. The Vietnam war caused national protests. But the model for the film was the assassination in Costa-Gavras’ (Constantinos Gavras) native Greece of the social democrat, pacifist legislator, and left-wing activist Grigoris Lambrakis in 1963. And because of the WW II anti-Nazi, anti-fascist, resistance work and Communist membership of his father, Gavras junior was also branded as second class in the new right-wing Greece. So Gavras went to law school and then attended the national film school in Paris, where he was exposed to the New-Wave of French cinema. He began working as an assistant to several directors and made his own first movie, The Sleeping Car Murders (Compartement Tuers) , in 1965. The cast included Jean-Louis Trintignant, Yves Montand, and Montand’s wife, Simone Signoret.
(This Post is part of the Vive la France Blogathon hosted by the Lady Eve’s Reel Life and Silverscreenmodes. See other entries here.)
What Gavras noticed in the film-making of the day, whether traditional or New Wave, was a lack of movies with any political plotting. A new book became his inspiration, Z by Vasilis Vasilikos, a fictional account of the murder of Grigoris Lambrakis. His brother, still living in Greece, had sent it to him. The Z in the title came from the ancient Greek verb zei, meaning “he lives.” Gavras teamed with screenwriter Jorge Semprun for the story, along with his producers including Jacques Perrin. Perrin would play the persistent photo-journalist in the film. There was very little financing for the film, and they would certainly not be able to film in Greece. Shooting in France could provide similar geography but was too expensive. Algeria was approached for funding, but could only provide facilities and location. The politically charged The Battle of Algiers had already been filmed there. Costa-Gavras then employed Greece’s best musical composer, Mikis Theodorakis, composer of Zorba the Greek, to write Z‘s driving score. This was just before he was imprisoned by the right-wing junta as a communist. Gavras also got the Greek actress Irene Papas to play Montand’s wife in Z .
Z starts off running, its music pulsating as scenes change with the beat. The backdrop could be in any country, although the film is in spoken French. A group of military officers and civilians are explaining the need to eliminate a disease of grape vines in a veiled analogy to the elimination of certain unwanted people. In the next scene a politician and member of the opposition played by Yves Montand arrives in the city to give a speech. Almost immediately he receives a death threat. His inner circle, his apostles, are divided and begin arguing whether to continue or abandon in the face of visible hostility. The police, under the control of the military, are there to “protect” the politician from harm. A rally and speech that were supposed to be in a large venue have now been forced into a 200 seat hall – all over “bureaucratic” reasons. The politician’s (Z) anti-government supporters are in the streets as are the anti-protesters and the hired thugs. Filmed in cinéma vérité style by cinematographer Raoul Coutard, the fights that break-out have your heart racing from the first scene. The Algerian extras that were hired, either as police or protesters, already knew their sympathies from years of national strife, and got into their roles with vigor. Montand’s character “Z” arrives and decides to press on, walking through crowds as he’s harassed and struck. He enters his hotel. The police did nothing.
The main characters are quickly delineated. The colonels who control the police, the thugs planning chaos and worse, Z’s increasingly powerless inner circle. And there is a photojournalist who is documenting every action, on who’s side we are unsure. Within minutes of the movie’s start Z makes the decision to carry out his plan – his rendez-vous with fate. He and his group walk from their hotel to the hall, but before they get there he is struck on the head. Woozy but determined, he continues and gives a speech in the hall. After this he will speak to his followers outside that couldn’t fit in the Hall. But agitators are filling the square. His group enters the breech of chaos. The police are passive.
Complaining members of Z’s inner circles are attacked themselves.
After all the stunning events of the night. A magistrate of the Department of Justice must determine what happened and if anyone is guilty. Jean Louis Trintignant plays the magistrate. His disposition presents a mystery. He wears tinted glasses, giving him an elusive air reinforced by his poker-faced demeanor. As thugs and colonels go about their self-satisfied ways, he soon begins his investigation. He is methodical and his questions have one of the thugs admitting to belonging to CROC, the Christian Royalist Organization against Communism. And Yago the thug admits that the cops use the organization to “keep order” during events such as Z’s visit. Soon the accidents begin to look predetermined. Here Costa-Gavras’ film’s editing moves in rapid fire. The magistrate interviews various witnesses. No time elapses between these scenes, as we are shocked seeing a case build against the guilty. The wall of defense of the thugs, colonels and elites crumbles. The hooded schemes of the powerful seemingly undone by the straight-forward questioning of the magistrate: your name and profession? Then the charges brought against them., with a deconstruction of their defense. All of this proceeded by the indignity of being photographed by the press as they enter the magistrate’s office, with some colonels chasing the photographers around the hall.
Yet absolute power corrupts absolutely. And the real end of the story needs a long view of progress. When released in the U.S., Z was like a shock for its viewers. Political thrillers were virtually unknown here in 1969. Critic Roger Ebert called it the best film of 1969. At a time when assassinations had taken place in the U.S. – with no satisfactory answers for many – here was a film with a plot that seemed shockingly real. I remember attending Z’s opening with a couple of friends. One of them didn’t attend college and rarely had any political thoughts. He left the theater shaken and for long after became distrustful of government and authority. Movie audiences were struck by its audacious film-making techniques coupled with the film’s political message. It won an Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film, and for Best Film Editing. Costa-Gavras was also nominated for Best Director.
Fifty years after its creation, Z still stuns the viewer. It has influenced political thrillers ever since, from Parallax View (1974) to Enemy of the State (1998) to State of Play (2008). Riots and large protests have grown around the world and in the U.S. – with increasing size offering some measure of protection to its participants. For filmmakers this has enhanced the need for even more realistic filming techniques. The riots in Greece in 2008 begun over the police killing of a young student and the state of the economy provided realistic film footage for the movie Jason Bourne (2016). The rise of protests themselves over the fight for liberties continue in the face of harsh crack-downs, as we have seen in Hong-Kong. The outline provided here for Z give’s only a hint of its power. Even in translation it is a remarkable and one-of-kind film. It is both a film of the 1960s – and a film for today.
Universal Studios has the longest history of the Hollywood studios. It was founded in 1912 in New York by Carl Laemmle and other partners. Like many other film companies, it moved west. By the end of 1912 Universal was in Hollywood and by 1915 it opened its 230 acre Universal City Studio, the largest film production studio in the world. It was actually a movie “theme park” in 1915 through the silent era when it had public seating for viewing of films being made. Since the movies were silent, any cheering for favorite stars (or booing for villains) did not matter since none of this interfered with the filming (or apparently the actors).
Vera West is recorded as one of the first Universal costume designers in 1926. At that time the old 1915 studio buildings made way for some new buildings including a new Wardrobe building in 1926. in these early years Universal made its biggest hits with off-beat characters. In 1923 came The Hunchback of Notre Damestarring Lon Chaney, Then it was Phantom of the Opera in 1925, again with Lon Chaney starring. The box-office success of these two films led to even bigger hits with Universal’s famed monster classics: Dracula, with Bela Lugosi, and Frankenstein with Boris Karloff, both 1931. Costume designer Vera West designed the costumes for Dracula,The Mummy, and then for The Bride of Frankenstein in 1935, She also designed for some “normal” films such as Back Street in 1932 starring Irene Dunne, Great Expectations 1934, starring Jane Wyatt and Florence Reed, Irene Dunne’s costumes in Showboat, 1936, Destry Rides Again1939, starring Marlene Dietrich. and The Killers starring Ava Gardner and Burt Lancaster, 1946. Vera West also designed for several of Deanna Durbin’s popular films at Universal, including It Started with Eve, 1941. After a waning popularity of the monster movies what with real monsters in WW II in Europe, Deanna Durbin’s movies single-handedly saved Universal. But Vera West had had enough when the cycle came back around, and she decided to launch her own fashion line in 1947. A few months later in June 1947 she took her own life by drinking alcohol and drowning in her pool. She left a mysterious note stating that she was tired of the blackmail and this was the only way. Her husband was away at the time. A police investigation never resolved if this was a suicide or a murder.
The fashion designer Muriel King came in to design Margaret Sullavan’s costumes for the remake of Back Street in 1941 which co-starred Charles Boyer. Ms King stayed to design Appointment for Love for Margaret Sullavan and then returned to design Christmas Holiday for Deanna Durbin in 1944. Ms. King regularly designed for Lord & Taylor and B. Altman as well as for Katharine Hepburn’s personal wardrobe.
Prior to Vera West’s death, Travis Banton had been hired by producer Walter Wanger in 1945 to design the big production of Night in Paradise with Merle Oberon. But his first designs for her came out in This Love of Ours instead. Banton designed for Universal’s top female stars from 1945 through 1947. Banton’s motto had always been, “When in doubt, trim in fur.” Even in the more frugal post-war era, he kept to his ways, cost be damned. His contract was not extended. But in 1948 Rosalind Russell said she wouldn’t wear another designer’s clothing. In his place, Orry-Kelly joined Universal.
Orry-Kelly would also have a short stay at Universal, lasting from 1948 through 1950. He designed for some notable stars, including for Ava Gardner in One Touch of Venus in 1948; for Claudette Colbert with Fred MacMurray in Family Honeymoon, 1948; for Barbara Stanwyck in The Lady Gambles in 1949; and for Ida Lupino in Woman in Hiding, 1950. He also designed for two Shelley Winters movies, for whom he had taken a strong dislike. As with Travis Banton, Orry-Kelly drank heavily, only he was more temperamental.
During the time Orry-Kelly was at Universal, designer Yvonne Wood had also been hired, starting in 1946. She designed for Universal’s active slate of adventure movies, westerns, and some films noir. She designed for many of Yvonne de Carlo’s movies, which were released regularly in the late 1940s. This included the classic Criss Cross, 1949, with de Carlo and Burt Lancaster. She also designed for Ella Raines in White Tie and Tails in 1946 and for The Web in 1947 and for Shelley Winters in the classic western Winchester 73 with Jimmy Stewart in 1950. She designed through 1950, her final year at Universal although one of her films was released in 1951.
Costume designer Rosemary Odell had also been hired in 1945 and worked almost all of her career at Universal until 1967. She designed mostly for the B pictures. She also designed for Yvonne de Carlo (who didn’t at Universal?). Ms. Odell did design for some significant films including: Has Anybody Seen My Gal, 1952; Creature from the Black Lagoon, 1954; and To Kill a Mockingbird,1962.
Bill Thomas was hired to replace Yvonne Wood after she left in 1950. Thomas had attended Chouinard Art Institute in Los Angeles and then served in World War II. After the war he became a sketch artist at MGM for Irene and Walter Plunkett. At Universal he soon became very busy, designing fourteen movies a year by 1951. Thomas also became a very successful designer, both at Universal and later at the Walt Disney Company. With the new ambitious producer Ross Hunter at Universal, Bill Thomas designed some of his best movies at Universal, starting with Magnificent Obsession with Jane Wyman and Rock Hudson, 1954. Thomas also designed Touch of Evil, 1958 with Janet Leigh and Marlene Dietrich; and Imitation of Life, 1959, with Lana Turner.
Producer Ross Hunter also launched a very successful series of films starring Doris Day, starting with Pillow Talk in 1959 co-starring Rock Hudson and Tony Randall. And since Doris Day was very discriminating in her on-screen fashions, Irene (Lentz Gibbons) was called in to create the costumes for her next two movies (Jean Louis had designed Ms. Day’s gowns in Pillow Talk). Midnight Lace, 1960, was Irene’s return to designing movies. Tragically, Lover Come Back, 1962 with Doris Day and Rock Hudson and A Gathering of Eagles, 1963 with Rock Hudson and Mary Peach were Irene’s last two movies before she killed herself by jumping out of the Knickerbocker Hotel window in Los Angeles. She had a long history of depression and alcoholism that finally overcame her. These problems exacerbated by the recent death of Gary Cooper who she had long loved.
Ross Hunter also brought in the talented designer Jean Louis, starting with his designs for Susan Hayward in another remake of Back Street in 1961. Jean Louis had previously been at Columbia where he designed Rita Hayworth’s gowns. Now he took over designing for Lana Turner and Doris Day. Jean Louis designed the costumes for several notable films, including: The Thrill of it All with Doris Day and Rock Hudson, 1963; Send Me No Flowers, again with Doris Day and Rock Hudson, 1964; Madame X, with Lana Turner and Constance Bennett, 1966; and Thoroughly Modern Millie, 1967 with Julie Andrews, Mary Tyler Moore, and Carol Channing. Jean Louis left in 1968 to open his own fashion line, and famously, designed Marlene Dietrich’s casino and stage gowns.
When Edith Head’s contract was not renewed at Paramount in 1967, after 44 years with the studio, she was offered a job at Universal. She had worked well with Alfred Hitchcock who was now a producer at Universal. She was given her own design studio. The only problem was a shortage of movies for her to design for. Studio movie production was on the decline, and sound stages were busy shooting television shows. In her first year at Universal (1968), she only worked on six movies, all unassuming ones at that. But Ms. Head hadn’t been a 44 year Hollywood pro for nothing. She started networking with the stars and directors she had worked with and promoted herself as the potential designer for upcoming Universal movies.
The next year 1969 got better with Edith Head designing for Shirley MacLaine and Chita Rivera in Sweet Charity, directed by Bob Fosse, as well as Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid with Redford and Newman along with Katharine Ross. And she designed for her first Universal film for Hitchcock, Topaz, although it was no North by Northwest. As the decade of the 1970s hit the studio, feature films requiring original costume designs ebbed to an historic low. Edith Head was now designing a handful of movies per year. Ross Hunter began producing disaster films in order to compete with television, and thus the first of the Airportmovies came out in 1970, with a second in 1974, along with Earthquake, all designed by Edith Head.
Universal had opened its theme park in 1964, and Edith Head’s bungalow studio was one of the highlights of the bus tour. With more time on her hands, Ms. Head began giving fashion shows as charity events, featuring her past creations. Knowing of their popularity in the Los Angeles area, she took these on the road. She did this with the help of June Van Dyke, who produced the shows and employed the models. Both the costumes and costume sketches had to be re-created since Ms. Head did not own these.
Edith Head spent the rest of her life at Universal. By the late 1970s, she was also designing television movies, where she made friends with costume designer Jean-Pierre Dorleac. Mr. Dorleac was the costume designer for Battlestar Galactica for Universal Television and other shows and movies. Ms. Head designed again for Katharine Hepburn for Rooster Cogburn, and for Sean Connery and Michael Caine in The Man Who Would be King, as well as The Great Waldo Pepper starring Robert Redford and Susan Sarandon, all in 1975. And returning to her youth in film, she designed Lombard and Gable with Jill Clayburgh and Josh Brolin, and W.C. Fields and Me with Valerie Perrine and Rod Steiger, both in 1976. She very much disliked the depiction of both Clark Gable and Carol Lombard in Lombard and Me, however. Ms. Head received her 35th and final Best Costume Academy Award nomination for Airport 1977, with an all-star cast. Edith Head’s final movie designs were for Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid, 1982, directed by Carl Reiner and starring Steve Martin and Rachel Ward. She died on October 24, 1981, shortly after completing her designs.
Today the Prop and Costume Building at Universal Studios is named in her honor. That’s more respect than she received in her final years at the studio. She would probably be surprised. But then again she always had her multiple Academy Award statuettes on display in her salon to impress any uppity starlets that might want to argue with her.
Universal has an active Wardrobe Department and Archive, managed by Poppy Cannon-Reese. The department supplies Universal’s costume designers and costumers with costumes and fashions as well as renting costumes for filmmakers. Shown below is one section of the extensive inventory.
Classic films made in France, classic films made in Hollywood (or elsewhere, if you like) that are set in France (fully or partially).
Profiles of the stars of French films (like Jean Gabin, Catherine Deneuve, etc.) and profiles of French-born stars who had significant Hollywood careers (like Charles Boyer, etc.).
Films on significant French writers, directors, producers, and the same for French-born Hollywood behind-the-camera folks.
American films set in France
Basically, the focus is France and French, with broad application including animation.
French movies are very diverse and have a long history. You may already have a favorite film, star, or director that you may want to enter into the blogathon. If not, there are many possibilities. French filmmaking has a rich tradition that has also included American and other “expats” into the fold. The American director Jules Dassin left when blackballed and directed some of his greatest films in France. American actor Eddie Constantine made a career playing a hard-boiled detective in France. Or other nationalities like the English actress/singer Jane Birkin or the Belgian singer/actor Jacques Brel. Popular French actors are legion, a few among the women include:
Jeanne Moreau; Simone Signoret; Brigitte Bardot; Anouk Aimee; Emmanuelle Riva, or Catherine Deneuve. Among the men are: Jean-Paul Belmondo; Alain Delon; Jean Gabin; Yves Montand; and Jean-Louis Trintignant. Some popular genres have existed
in France in their classic films. Although Westerns are popular in the imagination, they never got a footing in filmmaking. Film noir however, generated some excellent material, including: Elevator to the Gallows; Purple Noon; Rififi; Le Jour Se Leve; Touchez Pas
au Grisbi; Bob le Flambeur; and Le Samourai, among many others. Musicals, although disjointed due to WWII, had some great material in such modern and old classics as: The Umbrellas of Cherbourg; The Young Girls of Rochefort; Under the Roofs of Paris (1930) and A Nous la Liberté (1931). Comedy has been a French staple but is not well known here as one usually needs to understand French to catch the humor. Still, Jacques Tati as a “mime” has caught on and some individual movies like Le grand Blond avec Une Chaussure Noire (1972) and La Cage aux Folles were hits and were remade in American versions. And there’s my favorite L’Emmerdeur (Pain in the Ass, 1973) with Jacques Brel and Lino Ventura.
The French “New Wave” offers an abundance of films such as Breathless, 400 Blows, Jules et Jim, Alphaville, and Hiroshima Mon Amour, among many others. The New Wave’s directors also offer a plethora of opportunities with such important figures as
Jean-Luc Goddard, Francois Truffaut, Agnes Varda, Eric Rohmer, Claude Chabrol, Louis Malle, and others. And then there are French actors who worked, or are working, in the USA. There are famous examples including Maurice Chevalier, Claudette Colbert,
Simone Simon, Charles Boyer, Leslie Caron, Louis Jourdan, and others. These are just a few examples of what French Cinema and French actors have to offer for the Vive la France Blogathon on August 25 and 26, 2019.
This blog post looks back at the history of Paramount Pictures’ Wardrobe Department, its Golden Age costume designers, and its current Archives. An interview with Randall Thropp, the Manager of the Costumes and Prop Archives at Paramount is also included.
Movie history permeates the air at the Paramount Pictures Studio Archives. It might be difficult to realize these days, but Paramount was not born in Hollywood, California, but rather in New York, where in 1912 Adolph Zukor released the first full-length drama shown in the U.S; the French-made Queen Elizabeth, starring Sarah Bernhardt. At the time Adolph Zukor’s company was called Famous Players Film Company, which merged with the Jesse Lasky Company in 1916, and thus became Famous Players – Lasky. It soon took on the name of Paramount Pictures when it merged with Paramount Pictures film distributors. Lasky was making movies in Hollywood, having produced the first feature-length Hollywood movie in 1914, Cecil B. De Mille’s The Squaw Man. The latter was the first movie made in Hollywood, shot in and around a barn on Vine St. (now moved to Highland Avenue as the Hollywood Heritage Museum). Famous Players made its movies in Fort Lee, New Jersey, a thriving hub of studios in the early silent era, and in Astoria, New York. The new combined company took the name and logo of Paramount Pictures. Zukor followed Queen Elizabeth by hiring John Barrymore and Mary Pickford.
In 1926, Jesse Lasky built the Hollywood Paramount Pictures lot in the location where it still stands today, on Marathon Street at Bronson, adjacent to Melrose Boulevard. It comprised about 26 acres, with the usual admin building, several sound stages, outdoor standing sets, prop and costume departments, film-developing labs, and the rest.
The first credited costume designer for Paramount was Clare West. Ms. West had begun working for C.B De Mille. De Mille believed in the importance of costume in attracting the attention of viewers and helping “sell” his films. De Mille’s motto was “…don’t design anything anybody could possibly find in a store,” which he emphasized to his costume designers. Very soon his movies were known for the lavishness and excess of its costumes. As film production increased in the late teens and early 1920s, Clare West became the Wardrobe supervisor. She was there when Mitchell Leisen, an architect/set designer, came on as a costume designer. Another addition to De Mille’s costume designers was the flamboyant dancer Natasha Rambova, soon to become Rudolph Valentino’s wife. The multi-talented Rambova was also a set designer. She joined De Mille in company with Theodore Kosloff, the former Ballets Russe dancer, both as costume designers. They came to work on The Woman God Forgot in 1917. When De Mille found out it was Rambova that actually designed all the costumes, he kept her as a costume designer. She next designed the costumes for Why Change Your Wife in 1920 with Clare West, Forbidden Fruit 1921, with West and Leisen, and Monsieur Beaucaire 1924, starring her husband Valentino, where she also served as art director.
The wild 1919-1923 era of Hollywood costume design flowered when stars Leatrice Joy, Glora Swanson and Pola Negri joined Paramount. The most lavish of costumes were invariably used in the De Mille spectaculars. Mitchell Leisen designed the Babylonian costumes for Gloria Swanson in Male and Female. Clare West and Howard Greer designed De Mille’s The Ten Commandments (1923). Greer had been a Chicago and New York designer of Broadway shows and had designed for the famous Lady Duff Gordon, aka, Lucille couture. Leisen started working as an assistant director for De Mille, so Greer took over as head designer when Clare West left in 1923. Although Greer could illustrate his own costume designs, he advertised for a sketch artist/assistant in 1923 because he was too busy. A young woman came in with “a carpetbag full of sketches.” Greer was very impressed by their diversity: architectural drawings, interior decoration, fashion design. etc. He hired her on the spot. When a very nervous Edith Head came in the next day she confessed and told him that she had borrowed the works from several of her fellow art students. Greer kept her anyway, no doubt remembering his own nervous first sketches for Lady Duff Gordon. Greer taught her how to illustrate fashion sketches – a necessity in showing the stars, directors, and producers, what the wardrobe would look like. And importantly, what the costume makers were going to be fabricating.
Not long after Edith Head joined Paramount, Travis Banton was hired to design the wardrobe for Leatrice Joy in The Dressmaker from Paris in 1925. The film’s tag line was having, for the first time anywhere, “the 1926 Paris fashions.” Such was the importance movie marketing now placed on film fashion, and the influence of the studio costume designer. Interestingly, Dressmakerwas based on a scenario by Howard Hawks. It’s a curiosity that the director of such “manly” films as Scarface(the original version), The Big Sleep, and Rio Bravo wrote this script as well as Fig Leaves, (1926) which featured a fashion show designed by Adrian. One might expect that Howard Greer would become jealous of a new designer – also coming from New York and with experience with Madame Frances couture, where he had designed Mary Pickford’s wedding dress. But Greer and Banton got along famously. Paramount was doing well too, with its new star, the “It” girl Clara Bow and her jazz age movies. It helped that both designers were paid handsomely.
Travis Banton had just settled in when Howard Greer decided to open his own couture business in Beverly Hills. Greer left in 1927 and had an instant clientele of Hollywood movie stars. Travis Banton now became the Head Designer and Edith Head began designing the B pictures and “Horse Operas,” as she called the western movies. And as the roaring 1920s turned into the 1930s, new fashions developed and a new bevy of movie stars crashed through the Paramount gates.
As big as the 1920s movie divas were at Paramount, the new stars of the 1930s proved just as bright and glamorous (and demanding). At the end of the 1920s the flapper look suddenly became passé . Even the popular uneven hemline (or handkerchief hemline as it was often called) became immediately out of fashion when Jean Patou in Paris came out with his long gowns and dresses in 1929. Banton’s design above for Lilyan Tashman in The Marriage Playground, 1929, was only shot from the hips up as a consequence. The new Parisian style affected all the Hollywood designers, and the studio moguls were not happy. From then on, Hollywood costume designers developed a “timeless” style of glamour and chic based on a look born in Hollywood movies.
Travis Banton’s special gift was to transform the excess of the 1920s into the fashionable glamour that became Hollywood’s hallmark. And with the new stars of Paramount, he had the models that would become famous around the world. The Depression audience needed a diversion – featuring exotic settings and stories of rags to riches. This became the new entertainment. And a new star came to Paramount in 1930 who became its answer to Garbo: Marlene Dietrich from Germany. She came via a film about the French Foreign Legion and a handsome legionnaire played by Gary Cooper. The film was Morocco. Period films had not gone away, however. In 1934 C.B. De Mille made a lavish Cleopatra with unforgettable costumes by Travis Banton, worn by Claudette Colbert. Their overt sexiness must not have pleased Ms. Colbert, however, who probably blamed Banton rather than De Mille for their key presence in the film.
The exoticism of the 1920s was replaced by the glamour of the 1930s. This glamour became the specialty of Hollywood, and Banton, Designers Adrian at MGM, Irene at Bullock’s Wilshire and free-lancing, and Orry-Kelly at Warner Brothers were exporting the look around the world. Soon Claudette Colbert and Carole Lombard joined Paramount and Banton was dressing the A list of Hollywood. But not all was rosy. The demand to design newsworthy and glamorous fashions for demanding divas in their film roles on tight schedules was stressful. Banton’s relationship with Claudette Colbert deteriorated as she became very demanding about the look of her costumes. One day Ms. Colbert tore up his costume sketches because she didn’t like his designs. Banton was furious and disappeared for a week, drinking heavily the whole time. He was finally convinced to come back, but his days were numbered at Paramount. Edith Head took his place as Head Designer in 1938, but Ms. Colbert didn’t like her designs either. Ms. Colbert would use Irene to design her costumes after Edith Head’s Zaza (1938). But before Banton left, he had taught Edith Head to imitate his style of costume sketch illustration. It got so you couldn’t tell the sketches apart.
But just as Edith Head had taken over at Paramount, war had started in Europe. Foreign revenues for American movies was throttled and the importation of fine European fabrics came to a halt. Then, as the U.S entered WW II, fabrics were rationed. The days of glamour and lavish costumes were coming to an end. Edith Head believed that more realism was needed in her costume designs. Glamour and sexiness may still be needed for certain roles at certain times, but sparingly. She was probably as surprised as anybody, however, that her first big fashion trend was based on a costume for Dorothy Lamour based on an Indonesian sarong. Jungle Love from 1938, was so popular that several sequels followed over the next several years, all with Ms. Lamour in sarongs – or what passed as a sarong in Hollywood costume.
When the popular floral-pattern, printed fabrics were no longer available during the war, the fabrics were hand-painted at Paramount’s wardrobe department. Edith’s assistant hand-painted these floral prints and other fabrics as needed.
Except for Claudette Colbert, Edith Head was now designing the wardrobes for Paramount’s leading ladies: Betty Hutton; Veronica Lake; Barbara Stanwyck, and a mature Marlene Dietrich. As the 1950’s rolled in, she began designing for Gloria Swanson in Sunset Blvd., a legend from her very beginning days at Paramount. And then she designed for Elizabeth Taylor in A Place in the Sunreleased in 1951. Although she had illustrated her own costume sketches in the 1930s and early 1940s, she now needed a sketch artist in order to keep up. In her long career she would use several, including Adele Balkin, Rudi Gernreich, Waldo Angelo, Willa Kim, Pat Barto, Bob Mackie, Grace Sprague, and Richard Hopper. It was often through her sketch artists that Edith Head’s style became known visually in many magazine and newspaper articles and advertisements, and also through her costume sketches. Grace Sprague came along at the height of Ms. Head’s popularity in the mid 1950s – early 1960s. Ms. Sprague was so proficient and quick at illustration that she would turn out several variant sketches for the same costume based on Ms. Head’s idea.
Edith Head would occasionally have other costume designers work with her as well. Most of these designers worked on the C.B. De Mille films where he often used teams of designers. Natalie Visart was a regular designer working on the De Mille films, along with long-time De Mille designer Gwen Wakeling, Dorothy Jeakins, Elois Jennsen, John Jensen and Ralph Jester. Mme Karinska, the Broadway costume designer and Raoul Pene du Bois also from New York joined the design staff in 1944 to work with director Mitchell Leisen on Lady in the Dark. Pene du Bois worked on six films until 1946.
Mary Kay Dodson a former model for Irene (of Bullock’s Wilshire) was also added to the design staff in 1943. Ms. Dodson was brought on to work with Mitchel Leisen. She was not only glamorous herself, but she proved to be an excellent designer. This caused Edith Head to grow jealous of the newcomer, who came to the studio dressed like a star and was given choice assignments. It didn’t help that while on location with Leisen making Golden Earings she doubled for Marlene Dietrich before Marlene could arrive. Apparently she was also dating a Paramount executive. She was given a five-year contract in 1942. Edith Head also became nervous when Mary Kay Dodson started getting good press in the Los Angeles newspapers and Hollywood columns. She must have been relieved when, at one of Lucille Ball’s parties, Miss Dodson met the New York playwright Jody Hutchinson. They eloped two weeks later on October 4, 1949 and they soon moved to New York where Ms. Dodson started her own line.
Edith Head did not need to worry about her longevity as a costume designer. She went on to win eight Oscars for Best Costume, a category which was finally instituted by the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts & Sciences in 1948. And she was nominated thirty five times. In all she worked on designing costumes for some one thousand films. Ms. Head dressed virtually all the great actresses of the era. She not only had great skills and talent, but she knew how to work with her movie stars to adapt her designs to their personalities and desires as well as the roles they were playing. Ms. Head was still the Head Designer at Paramount when Gulf & Western bought Paramount in 1966. In 1967 she turned 70 and feared that her contract would not be renewed. She took the opportunity to move to Universal Studios where Alfred Hitchcock was now directing films, with whom she had worked on several films. She remained at Universal until her death in 1981.
The studio system in Hollywood came to an end at the time Edith Head left Paramount. Costume designers were put on short term contracts and soon were free-lancing. The vast wardrobes of costumes and warehouses of props were often auctioned off in part or in whole. Studio ownership itself changed hands from corporation to corporation. The costumes and props that had been used as tools in the dream factories for decades, often discarded, suddenly became valuable memorabilia in the late 20th Century. Paramount, like some other studios, began to organize and archive its remaining artifacts and in 2007 launched its costume and prop archive. Archives manager Randall Thropp was able to answer questions about the archives for Silver Screen Modes.
When were the Paramount Pictures Archives first established?
Paramount has always maintained some sort of film collection dating back many years. However, by the mid 1980’s the archival process fell into place. The current building was opened in 1990 and now houses every aspect of the Archives. The Costume/Prop Archive was started in 2007, but became official in 2009.
When did you first become involved and what is your current role?
I started working at Paramount in the costume department in 2003. By the end of 2004 I was managing the rental floor. Whenever I had to re-stock or write up costumes, I looked for names inside the garments and set them aside – thus laying the groundwork for archiving key pieces. When the costume department was closed in late 2007, I was allowed to pull together anything that I thought was “historical” and to set it aside. Currently I am the manager of the Costume/Prop Archive.
Do the Archives contain all types of materials such as objects, graphic materials, documents, as well as costumes?
The Paramount Archive is unique in that it covers many different areas under the direction of Andrea Kalas (SVP Archives). We have a team of people who oversee film preservation, restoration, stills, music, costumes, props and jewelry. Within the costume collection I also have 350 sketches and a collection of stills related to costume continuity. We are the only studio archive that has a jewelry collection. There are approximately 12,000 pieces dating back to 1923.
Most studios have seen the loss of their material heritage through gifts, auctions or other means. What vintage do the various Archive materials represent?
There are 3500 vintage costumes dating back to 1914. The contemporary collection has over 29,000 individual pieces dating back to 1987. Sadly, there is a big gap in our collection for films between 1967 and 1986. Paramount is also the owner of the Republic Pictures catalog and a significant amount of work has been done to preserve and restore those titles. Our music and stills collection are quite extensive dating back to the silent era.
Was going through the existing collection difficult and was it well supported by the Corporate HQ?
Our current management team could not be more supportive. They understand the historical value these elements represent. The Archive is also a very important stop on the V.I.P. Studio Tour. We have film fans from all over the world passing through and viewing the assets we have on display.
Are the Archives in a separate facility or at the Melrose main lot?
The Archive is located on the lot – however we have several storage facilities off lot.
Are the Archives accessible to researchers or the public?
The Archives is not publicly open generally to researchers like a library would be – our clients are the many departments of the studio officially. Research for example that is done by production is very welcome, but as I mentioned, the V.I.P. tours give the public a chance to see the artifacts.
Costumes and textiles are fragile. Are they stored in boxes or through some other method?
The costumes are stored in various ways. Some in muslin bags, some in archival boxes – but many are in clear garment bags with archival tissue.
Are there records still extent from the Paramount costume designers such as costume plots, production/star/costume cards, costume sketches, wardrobe test photos, etc.?
As I mentioned earlier – we have approximately 350 sketches dating back to the late 1940’s. The bulk of the sketch collection is from the 1950’s and early 1960’s. There are only a handful of continuity books from the older titles, but we do keep all the continuity books from our contemporary productions.
What is the date range of the items in the Archives? Is there a cut-off date or are efforts made to archive new or newer materials?
The oldest piece in the collection is dated 1914 and was owned by the director, William Desmond Taylor. Many of our 1920’s costumes were lost to neglect. (Silk chiffon and heavy beading do not like wire hangers and heat.) Also, as you know, many costumes that were considered “dated” were sold off by the studio as far back as the 1940’s. Today I work in tandem with Feature Production and go through all the assets from current productions. I determine what we put into the archive and what can be recycled into future productions. We also service Marketing and Publicity requests as well as museums all over the world.
I would imagine Edith Head is well represented by costumes in the collection. Are there costumes you don’t have by some of the Paramount designers?
Edith Head is attributed to at least 75% of the vintage collection. We also have pieces designed by Travis Banton, Howard Greer, Mary Kay Dodson, Irene, Mitchell Leisen, Oleg Cassini and Raoul Pene Du Bois.
Yes, there are many costumes from the classic years that we are missing. I wish we had more Banton pieces, but I’m happy to have the few that we do.
What are a couple of your favorite items in the collection?
I have many favorites including, Barbara Stanwyck from THE LADY EVE, Carole Lombard from TRUE CONFESSION, Barbara Stanwyck from DOUBLE INDEMNITY and Roy Rogers from SON OF PALEFACE. (all Edith Head)
As far as costumes from our contemporary collection I must single out LEMONY SNICKET (Colleen Atwood), BLADES OF GLORY (Julie Weiss), ALLIED (Joanna Johnston) and ROCKETMAN (Julian Day).
Thank you Randall Thropp and Andrea Kalas, Senior Vice President, Archives at Paramount Pictures.
Costuming the HBO series The Game of Thrones is as near a Herculean job as you’ll find in television costume design work. When HBO started production of the series in 2007, there existed a legion of fans that had been reading the book series: George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire, since 1996. Four books in the series had already been published and a cult was firmly established around the fantasy series.
British costume designer Michele Clapton has designed all eight seasons of TheGame of Thrones(GOT) except for Season Six while she designed the series The Crown. This means that she oversaw a crew of about 70 to 100 people that worked with her at any one time. With the diversity of costumes in the Seven Kingdoms, various specialists were involved including embroiderers, dyers, leather workers, printers, fitters, cutters, sewers, armorers, metal workers, and jewelers. Any given show needed about 700 costumes, although the speaking roles got most of the attention. Along the way she has won Emmy Awards for Outstanding Costumes for Season 2, Season 4, Season 6, and Season 7. She also won an Emmy for The Crown that ran in 2017.
Almost all of the costumes were made in Belfast, close to where most of the filming was shot. Some of the arms were made in India. Much of the work was also done in Ireland. Michele Clapton told the Los Angeles Times. “We have everything on site: our armorers, our weavers, and our embroiderers. We weave our own fabric with our loom—many of the fabrics are literally made from scratch.” All types of materials are used besides fabric (and jewelry) to make up a costume. The exotic peoples and the locales they live in in the lands of Ice and Fire means that indigenous materials are used in their costumes. Items such as beads, shells, stones, crystals, and feathers are woven or sewn into the costumes. Ms. Clapton usually has a supply of such items that she has been collecting over the years, She was stumped, however, when she needed a variety of bones to accessorize the costumes of the Wildlings, especially the Lord of Bones. But she sourced the bones on eBay. Her team then molded these for reproduction and attached them using string and latex. The Wildling costumes were fabricated using hides, the parts of which were “sewn” together using latex thongs lashing the pieces together. The fur capes of Samwell Tarly and several of the Night Watch (not Jon Snow) were actually made from IKEA Skold sheepskin wool rugs.
Arms and armor are their own specialty and the costume designer must work with their makers in coming up with the total look – even for the women. And since both arms and armor become part of the most active scenes, the costume designer must work in collaboration with the stunt coordinators and sword-fight masters. Although The Game of Thrones (GOT) is a fantasy, the purpose of its costume design is the same in this as in all movies or other television dramas: the costumes are there to delineate the characters in the story, to advance the plot by setting the scene, and to help the actor feel the role they are portraying. Since GOTdeveloped over eight seasons, the actors had plenty of time to change over the course of the story, and for some of them, to actually grow-up. The actors’ aging actually helped both the story-telling and the costume designer’s ability to help develop and portray character.
Good examples of the change of character as emphasized by costume has been seen in the leading female stars of the show. The beautiful and even sexy gowns of both Cersei and Daenerys, from the early seasons, exposed skin and shape. After the death of Drogo, Daenarys wore costumes with deep V necklines, yet she still mostly wore loose pants and boots, a sexy yet commanding figure. The boots and pants still necessary for riding horses. After her conquest of Meereen she began wearing outfits more in the style of a classical queen. In Winterfell she was obliged to wear warmer clothing, and her wardrobe changed to shades of snow and red. But as things deteriorated in the war with Cersei and King’s Landing, the Breaker of Chains turned to the Dispenser of Death, and her costume turned black.
Cersei’s form-fitting gowns in Lannister red or mauve color sets off her figure and makes her the center of attention in most every scene. But Cersei changes from King Robert Baratheon’s vindictive but unimportant Queen to a major plotter in the game of thrones. And as time marches on, her enemies grow as her victims mount up. She thus takes on a more war-like and self-protective persona. Her costumes perfectly displays this transition. But as the final season nears its end her confidence has grown to match her ego. She wears no armor or protective costume devices save her long necklace and the medallion that had been her daughter Myrcella’s. She wears it no doubt as a reminder of her need for revenge.
Sansa has made a remarkable transition, one that has been filled with sorrow and abuse. Her costumes show how she has grown and changed, from an innocent teenager to a self-assured and self-protective survivor – a learner of life’s skills and of men’s treachery. She too has learned about the game of thrones, becoming a judge of character and a leader of men. Returning as an heir of the House of Stark and as Lady of Winterfell, she is in a position of command, vying with Daenerys for control of the North. Her costume reflects both the tradition of the Starks with the ample use of fur capes (the Dire Wolf is the house sigil) and the obvious need for warm outfits. Her costumes in the final three seasons are accessorized by a necklace composed of a large ring and chain, forming an aiguillette. The ring represents her wholeness forged out of her former enchainment.
The fur cape style is shared by Jon Snow (though now becoming Aegon Targaryen). His costumes have been shaped by his days at the Wall – amidst all black-clad men nicknamed the crows, with heavy fur collars and capes. This last feature had become almost a standing joke on the set. Whereas several cast members really liked their costumes and some wanted to keep them. Kit Harrington as Jon stated he never wanted to see his furs again.
Arya, the younger Stark girl, was always the tom-boy. Her survival skills were a strong instinct that led her from one life-learning skill to another as she escaped from danger to danger. She first escaped the tragedies at King’s Landing and then assumed a boy’s urchin costume for disguise. She wore the costume through several seasons. Her one steady accessory was her short sword Needle. She learned to fight in her early fencing lessons and her lessons in death learned from Jagen H’gar at the House of Black and White, the home of faceless men. Maisie Williams as Arya was thrilled to be finally out of her tom-boy costume and into different costumes. And once back to Winterfell, she had a proper costume befitting her stature, now not only accessorized with Needle but with a dagger made of deadly valyrean steel. But wherever she goes she never seems to get far from Sandor Clegane, alias the Hound. sometimes her tormentor, sometimes her protector, Arya has not grown large but with acquired skills she has dispensed “frontier” justice. Together they make a perfect odd travelling couple, only separated near the very end. Yet she is the ultimate avenger, and the woman of many faces.
The men of GOTare almost all a lusty and warlike bunch. Their costumes reflect their station, place of origin, and their combat readiness at any given time. As in the real armies of the ancient world, they are meant to look terrifying. In those days when combat was almost always hand-to-hand, you often stared at your enemy up-close and had time to become afraid – or confident. Your military costume helped you become more confident. Padding and armor protected you and made you look bigger. Heavy boots not only protected their feet but planted them solidly on the territory they defended or conquered. Shoulder armor made you look stronger. Swords, axes, bows, spears, and spikes showed the opposing side how they would be wounded or killed. Colorful banners with household sigils served as rallying points and showed the other side the powerful enemies they were dealing with. Even outside of combat, the men of rank wore their swords. Their costumes were festooned with leather straps and belts, with exaggerated V-lines in the angle of their torsos. Such a silhouette has been used down to the comic superheroes of today.
Today’s costume designers not only have to design and produce appropriate, character-building costumes for the cast, once they’re made they have to beat them up. Any male costume (with few exceptions) has to look like its been worn in the field for some time. So the costuming staff has to abrade, cut, tear, and even make visually noticeable repairs. Painters also add fading and wear marks to textiles to make them appear old.
The men of mystery, such as Varys, Peter Baelish and the Maesters wear different costumes than men of arms. Varys the spymaster or Master of Whisperers, served whomever was in power (but always for the greater good of the realm) often vying for influence with Peter Baelish, which he eventually won. He sided with Daenerys along with Tyrion. His costumes reflect a somewhat exotic but simple look, having been born across the Narrow Sea in Lys. His posture was usually to place his hands in his long wide sleeves, traditional Chinese style. This denotes that he not only doesn’t need his hands for work or for combat, but that his doings are mysterious as well. One never knows what he has up his sleeve, or what ring he wears on his finger. Peter Baelish considers himself important with no office high enough for his ambitions. He usually wears a dark belted tunic. The tunic is invariably high-necked, symbolically protecting his throat. The Maesters are scholars and men of learning. They wear heavy monk-like cloaks with heavy metal chains around their necks, each of the metals is different indicating their particular scholarly expertise. There is also a woman of mystery, Melisandre, the Red Priestess. Her costume is invariably a red gown that she once wore with deep decollete, or a long red robe to match her red hair. She is the priestess to the Lord of Light.
The Game of Thrones has been so very complex and so very rich in so many ways. Set aside that as George Martin stated, it really would have taken several more seasons to properly finish the story. The costume designer and staff accomplished their job with high skill and flair. They took us on a journey around the world of the Seven Kingdoms and beyond, having us believe in the peoples that inhabited those worlds, and no doubt had the actors believing in them too as they dressed the part – the true role of the costume designer. And as the costumes served their purpose we are lucky that they were not discarded as in the studio days of old. But instead they have been kept for the archives and have been exhibited as they will continue to be. So we can have the chance perhaps to admire up close the art and craft that fueled our fantasy for so many years.
The film noir classic The Killers, like the Ernest Hemingway short story it was based on, got right to the point. Two men get out of a car at a gas station and enter Henry’s lunchroom. They take a seat. “What’s yours,” George the waiter asks, in the clipped diner-speak of the day. So began a bad night for George, the cook, and Nick Adams, the Hemingway “stand in” for his stories. We could tell things would go badly by the mugs of the two men: actor Charles McGraw, the Dick Tracy-faced heavy who plays either cops or criminals, and William Conrad, who later played TV’s detective Cannon, in his film debut. In true film noir style, the two had emerged from their car in near total darkness, walking into a pool of light at the gas station. They made no pretense of their visit to the lunchroom as they harass the staff and the guest. They were there to kill the “Swede.”
This post is is part of the Classic Movie Blog Association Femme/Homme Fatale of Film Noir Blogathon. See here for more entries.
Nick Adams worked with Ole “Swede” Anderson, played by Burt Lancaster in his first film. Freeing himself from the lunchroom, Nick dashed to Swede’s lodging room to tell him two killers were after him. Swede was in bed. He didn’t feel well. He wasn’t going to run – he was tired of running. “Why do they want to kill you,” Nick Adams asked? ” I did something wrong once.” he says matter of factly. In true noir style, the end comes at the beginning of the film. Footsteps are heard on the steps (SPOILER). The men come in the room. All you see are their faces and torsos as they blast away, two pistols flashing in the darkness.
This classic is a study in film noir techniques. Ole Anderson aka Pete Lund the Swede’s life is retold in a series of flashbacks. Indeed, Hemingway’s short story went no further than the killers episode at the lunchroom. That was powerful enough that Russian filmmaker Andrei Tarkovky made Hemingway’s The Killers as a student film. Our 1946 version was produced by Mark Hellinger and directed by Robert Siodmak at Universal. Anthony Veillor wrote the script, with the uncredited assists by Richard Brooks and John Huston. Elwood “Woody” Bredell was the cinematographer. Vera West designed the beautiful women’s wardrobe and the powerful score was composed by Miklos Rozsa. The score opens the dramatic arrival of the killers, one of the most effective in film noir. Many may recognize it as the theme music of the old TV series, Dragnet.
We the audience are left to discover what the “the bad thing” that Swede had once done . This is accomplished in a series of flashbacks, viewed as his story is investigated by Insurance man James “Jim” Riordan – played by Edmond O’Brien. He starts interviewing Swede’s beneficiary, “Queenie” Doherty. Queenie had kept Swede from jumping out of a hotel window when he got out of prison. “She’s gone,” he screamed in the flashback. Jim then interviews Swede’s arresting officer, Swede’s old school friend, Sam, a retired cop played by Sam Levene. Swede had been a boxer, a good one, until he broke his hand. He was used to the high life, and with his career over, he needed another source of cash. Turns out Sam’s wife was Swede’s old girlfriend, Lilly. It was on their final date at a party given by Jake “the Rake” that Swede met Kitty Collins (Ava Gardner) and from then it was curtains for Swede. Kitty Collins – dark hair in a liquid black gown. They were introduced and she only had to say a few words to him. He was speechless and spellbound. Then she sang at a piano (Ava’s own voice). Her siren’s song completed his bewitching. The problem was, she was “Big Jim” Colfax’ girlfriend, the big-time crook.
The Killers has all the hallmarks of the American film noir: the protagonist doomed by his past; a life re-told in flashback; a crime caper turned bad; jealousy and double-crossing; an insurance man and a former cop investigating the case; the film shot in dramatic black & white cinematography, scored with pulsating music. And there’s the femme fatale. Ava Gardner joined the best of the 1940s femmes in her role as Kitty Collins. One never knows whose side she’s on, who her true love is, or whether she ever loved anybody. The Alpha males will fight over her, or try to beat her. “You touch me and you won’t live till morning,” she tells Big Bill Colfax. And you know she means it, if the Swede doesn’t kill him first. Her motives are shrouded, her eyes always veiled or looking somewhere else. While the Swede can only look at her.
Swede was the one that took the wrap for her when his old friend Sam the cop wants to bust her for stolen jewelry. And it’s when he gets out of prison that Kitty has vanished on him, and left him holding the bag. Ready to jump out a window.
A big caper will give them all something to settle down with, with Big Jim planning the heist. And with a crew of guys like Dum-Dum and Blinky, it can’t go wrong. Swede should have pulled out when his old cell-mate Charleston pulled out. But Kitty was still in. That was an explosive mix.
There are few heroes in film noir. Its characters largely lived with the deep wounds of World War II and its aftermath. The heroes were left on the battlefield. And no one at home knew what returning GIs were talking about. Many of the women had been living on their own. Everybody seemed to have an angle. Like the returning vets, the Swede was stoic, he had failed as a boxer, though his manager and trainer did nothing for him when he was injured, he tried making money as a robber but Kitty double-crossed him and broke his heart. So when the killers came he had nothing to lose – he was already half-dead. But all the others involved in the caper had something to lose. When insurance man Jim Riordan catches up with Kitty near the end of the film, she says, “I’d like you to believe something; I hated my life, only I wasn’t strong enough to get away from it. All I could do is dream of some big payoff that would let me quit the whole racket.”
The Killers was a hit when it opened at the Winter Garden Theatre in New York. The theater took in $300 more than it ever had previously for this 1946 opening. The movie made an instant star out of Burt Lancaster, who previously had been a circus acrobat. Ava Gardner would from now on appear in A movies with important roles. The Killers received four Academy Award nominations and is #11 on Edie Muller’s Top 25 Noir Films. The Killers was remade in 1963-64 as a TV movie that was instead released in 1964 theatrically because of its “sex and violence”. It was directed by Don Siegel and starred Lee Marvin, John Cassavetes, Angie Dickinson, and Ronald Reagan in his last film role. Reagan played the Big Jim character and John Cassavetes played the Swede although their names were different in this version, as were their role backgrounds. Lee Marvin and Clu Gulager played the “killers. ” Both versions of The Killers are available on the DVD set. The 1964 version of The Killers was screened at the 2019 Turner Classic Movies Film Festival on April 14, 2019, with Angie Dickinson being interviewed by Ben Mankiewicz.
Collecting and preserving movie memorabilia is like bottling the river of time. Even the best efforts are fragmentary while the flows continue by. The movie studios themselves made little or no effort in the first decades of movie-making, considering its material objects worthless unless they could be re-used for another production or rented out. To that end “Prop” warehouses on the studio lots began filling up with the furniture and decorative objects needed to decorate a set. This would even extend to horse carriages, wagons, and stage coaches, and the antiques needed for period movies. And weapons too. Costumes would also be stockpiled in the wardrobe department. There was no regard for saving items like scene or set designs, blueprints, costume sketches, or costumes. The paper items were of no value once the film was made and distributed. The wild Jazz-Age costumes of the 1920s would serve no purpose in the 1930s or 1940s and were just tossed. This cycle was repeated periodically as the costume warehouse became overcrowded. In the MGM Animation Department, as was the case at Warner Bros, cartoon cels once used were scraped clean of ink and paint and re-used. There were also stories of mounds of WB cartoons buried in a land-fill – cheaper than marketing them for sale, it was determined at the time.
One person with foresight was Earl Theisen, the Honorary Curator of Theatrical Arts at the Los Angeles County Museum of History., Science and Art, as it was then known. Theisen began asking the movie studios to donate items of historical value to the Museum of Natural History beginning in 1931. This apparently unique idea brought in some great and very rare objects to the Museum, including: Charlie Chaplin’s “Little Tramp” costume; the original King Kong miniature model; a set design for Citizen Kane; Fred Astaire’s Top Hat dance shoes; Lon Chaney’s make-up kit and wax-cast head; an architectural plan for Mack Sennett’s 1917 studio; and Walt Disney’s 1923 animation stand where he created Mickey Mouse. There is much more. Theisen left in 1939, and moved on to become a photographer for Look magazine, and eventually Hollywood memorabilia would no longer be a collecting focus for the Natural History Museum. Today the Hollywood Collection is overseen by Curator Beth Werling.
The “Silent Era” strength of many of the Natural History Museum’s Hollywood collection is fortunate, as these are very rare materials. Only 25% of the silent films made are estimated to have survived. This is largely due to their nitrate-based combustibility. In 1937, a Film Vault fire at the 20th Century-Fox facility in Little Ferry New Jersey resulting in the loss of most pre-1932 Fox films. A vault fire at the MGM studio in Culver City in 1965 destroyed all of the Metro and Mayer silent films, as well as some notables such as Garbo’s The Divine Woman and London After Midnight.
After this grand but all too brief beginning in collecting movie memorabilia, WW II and the 1940s brought a new era to Hollywood. Just as the economy started rolling again television began competing for the movie audience. The effects were compounded by an anti-trust consent decree that forced studios to divest their theater holdings. The Golden Age of the Hollywood studio system lasted through the 1950s but was on the decline through the 1960s. The old studio moguls were mostly gone as corporations took control. And with a decline in revenues, the precious commodities of movie-making went up for sale. An early indicator was when 20th Century-Fox sold 180 acres of its back lot and standing sets in 1961 – this for the development now known as Century City.
The birth of the individual movie memorabilia collector began with the MGM auction in 1970. This was really eight days of auctions of the crown jewels of MGM props and wardrobe – items as big as the Cotton Blossom steam boat from Show Boat, to as small as the Ruby Slippers from The Wizard of Oz. One notable collector began her obsession that May, 1970 – Debbie Reynolds – who not only bought scores of costumes but the props associated with the background scenes. In fact she tried to buy the entire back lot when those came up for sale later, an unsuccessful effort. She was not the highest bidder at the auctions. One bidder paid $15,000 for the Ruby Slippers. But little did he know at the time that there were several pairs of Ruby Slippers. One of the paid staffers for the auction (held by the David Weisz Co.) had been scouting the MGM Wardrobe Dept. beforehand, and had stolen other pairs. Duplicates or even more copies of a wardrobe item are common as they are made for stand-ins as well as for use in case of rips or tears during a scene. For the Ruby Slippers, variant designs were also made. Pairs occasionally show up at auction where they now fetch over a millions dollars.
Other studios were soon holding their own auctions, including 20th Century-Fox and Paramount. Besides the auctions, items were being tossed out by the studios, which encouraged passionate insiders like the “liberator” of the Ruby Slippers from MGM to take liberties by taking items out the back door. Encouragement came at the MGM auction itself as stock wardrobe costumes were sold for $2.00 a piece or by the truck-load for rental houses as Halloween costumes. After 1969 when Kirk Kerkorian bought controlling interest in MGM, the grand old studio would sink to new lows. In addition to the props and wardrobe auctions, several back lots with their standing sets where countless classic movies were filmed were sold for housing developments. Over the following years memorabilia such as music scores, screen tests, and architectural plans were tossed. Kerkorian was more interested in MGM for its name, which he used for his new hotel in Las Vegas. Apparently “truckloads” of MGM memorabilia such as costume sketches, movie photos, and other items were put up for sale at the MGM Grand’s gift shop, or used to decorate the hotel. Debbie Reynolds’ futile effort to save MGM’s legacy went for naught. All that she bought and saved, hoping to either establish her own museum or have one launched in Hollywood, never happened in her lifetime. Most of her outstanding collection – never to be duplicated – was scattered to the winds in a series of auctions starting in 2011.
Today things have changed. Beginning with the MGM auction in 1970 and with the Debbie Reynolds auction of 2011, Hollywood movie memorabilia has become vary valuable. This has gotten the attention of the studios, who have now launched their own archives and museums. The Walt Disney and Warner Bros. companies were in the vanguard on this. Disney because they were lucky in having librarian Dave Smith hired to organize Walt Disney’s office in 1970 four years after Disney’s death. Smith would become the company archivist over the next 40 years. Warner Bros. donated their archives to USC in 1977, under the management of the School of Cinematic Arts. They also launched a museum in 1996. They got serious about preserving and organizing their costume collection and memorabilia collection when in 2000 they lost a lawsuit against John LeBold. He was a Hollywood memorabilia collector and “curator” for Debbie Reynolds who was stealing costumes from Warner Brothers’ wardrobe and selling them. WB did not prevail in their law suit because, among other things, WB’s record-keeping on their ownership of the costumes was “sloppy or non-existent.” The charges were dropped after LeBold returned most of the costumes, including some he had taken from Debbie Reynolds.
Several auction houses have become specialists in “Entertainment” memorabilia. Christie’s and Sotheby handled movie memorabilia among their myriad other objects, but it was Julien’s, Heritage, Bonham’s, and Profiles in History that made a specialty of the field. Julien’s and Profiles in History have in particular staked out movie memorabilia. The early Profiles Hollywood catalogs from the late 1990s/2000 were about 100 plus pages long. Catalog 96 from December 2018 had 600 pages. Needless to say, those early catalogs also had very low prices. But there’s nothing like today’s high prices to shake out more collectibles from the tree.
High movie memorabilia prices has caused several outcomes – not just thick auction catalogs. For one, the studios are saving the best of the classic materials as well as much that’s coming from the new productions. The other is that independent productions are selling off their props and costumes as soon as a movie wraps – another source of revenue for some of the more popular movies. But another outcome is that some of the props, especially for the popular super-hero, science-fiction, fantasy or horror genres are being made in quantity so that more can be sold as the “original” item, usually unknown to the movie’s producer or prop-shop’s owner. Such “fakes” are not just made for new movies. The high prices set for Golden Age movie star costumes and costume sketches has encouraged these pieces of Hollywood memorabilia to be faked and forged as well. As always, let the buyer beware.*
Notwithstanding that comment, memorabilia collectors were in the forefront of gathering and preserving rare artifacts of Hollywood’s past. In addition to them and the studios, one of the museums in Hollywood has set out to preserve an important part of Hollywood history: the original Lasky-DeMille Barn. It was leased by these fathers of Hollywood film making for their production of The Squaw Man which was was made there in 1914. Hollywood Heritage manages the museum where other memorabilia can be viewed by the public. The Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences established a library in 1928, now the Margaret Herrick Library in Beverly Hills which contains research books, scripts, letters, scrapbooks, set designs, costume sketches, and production files and other items. Located within the Fairbanks Center for Motion Picture Study, tens of thousands of photos and posters can also be found there. But the big news is the forthcoming Academy Museum of Motion Pictures, set to open in late 2019. This is the museum that has been planned by the Academy for many years. It is located on the intersection of Wilshire Blvd. and Fairfax in Los Angeles, in the Los Angeles County Museum of Art campus. It will have Hollywood movie memorabilia in its collections, but these have largely been developed over the last few years (except for items already at the Herrick). The plan for “Opening Day” is to have a two-floor “permanent” exhibit tentatively titled, “Where Dreams Are Made: A Journey Inside the Movies.” Other temporary exhibits will celebrate filmmakers and films and the Oscar experience.
Hollywood memorabilia has come a long way since it was just dumped as useless baggage or sold at garage sale prices (but don’t give up on the latter). If only Debbie Reynolds could have gotten her wish years ago.
*I have found Profiles in History to be very responsive when I have had the occasion to notify them that a costume sketch did not look genuine. I can’t say the same for Christie’s in London.
Every year brings us five nominations for the Best Costume Design Academy Award. In 2019 the field had great candidates from the 2018 movies vying for the Oscar, with several multi Oscar winners among the contenders. As is customary, the nominations were made by the Costume Designers branch of the Academy, but all members voted on the winner. This can often result in a bit of a popularity contest among the movies, which influences the Costume Design voting. In any event, the historical (period) and fantasy movies almost always prevail over contemporary costume design. This year, all five nominees are ALL either historical or fantasy based. Besides that consideration, this year is one of the strongest of the last few years.
The recipient of BEST ACHIEVEMENT IN COSTUME DESIGN was Ruth E. Carter for THE BLACK PANTHER.
THE BLACK PANTHER – RUTH CARTER DESIGNER. Ruth E. Carter has been nominated twice before for Best Costume Design Oscar: for Malcom X, and for Amistad. Ms. Carter was born in Springfield Massachusetts. She attended Hampton University intent on becoming a teacher, with a special education major. But she changed her major to theater arts, where her artistic and performing arts side took over. When an audition led instead to being asked to do the costumes, she took another path altogether. In preparation she studied at the library and went to the local Joann’s for fabrics. By her senior year in college she was the costume designer on campus. Ms. Carter then interned at a local theater company, and subsequently worked for the Santa Fe Opera. She then moved to L.A. at the suggestion of a relative, working at the Los Angeles Theater Company. It was there that she met a young Spike Lee, who tried to get her to transition to working in movies. She stayed in theater – until later when Spike Lee called on her to design for his movie School Daze in 1988. She worked on his next twelve movies.
Director Ryan Coogler picked Ms. Carter to design Black Panther, based on the Marvel Comics character. Coogler wanted the costumes to be true to Africa as possible, but also reflecting the technological advancement of Wakanda. In the story Prince T’Challa takes on the Black Panther suit after his father the King of Wakanda, is assassinated along with many of his tribe. Wakanda is a technologically advanced African tribal homeland. After the death of his father, Prince T’Challa returns to take up the throne. He must also protect the hidden wealth and advanced technology of Wakanda from its enemies, who are intent on stealing it.
The Dora Milaje (“The Adored Ones”) are key to Wakanda’s history and culture.The Dora are the representatives of various tribes and must protect the T’Challa. They are selected from all over Wakanda. Ruth Carter did deep research into the tribes of Africa and their warrior culture and dress. “I looked at all kinds of armor, from indigenous African tribal armor to Japanese armor,” Ms. Carter says. “One of the most important things for me was to make sure their armor pieces look handcrafted, something from African tribes. Handcrafted elements looks a lot stronger and more personal,” she said. This went further than just the research, “…we had gone to South Africa and had these leather elements done by their traditional craftspeople,” she says. “They made hand tooled leather with beads and amber, and I took these leather straps to the craftsperson who was making the strapping on the Dora and said, ‘The leather on the Dora needs to look like this.’”
The Tabard is a very visible and key element of the Dora’s costumes. It runs from their waist down between their legs and is an element of protection as well as decoration. Ms. Carter placed much importance on the piece, “I thought if they’re going to wear something down the front of their costume, it should signify something significant,” she said. “The bead work across Africa, including within the Maasai tribe and their colors, with the Ethiopian Suri tribes, they all have this beautiful beadwork, so I thought we should bead the front of the Dora’s tabards, in the African tradition, and we’ll put some little areas of protection for each character.”
Angela Basset is shown above as Queen Ramonda. The Zulu headpiece is known as the Isicholo, which connects here to the lace-like collar. In order to get the perfect cylindrical shape for the hat, as well as the collar, it was fabricated out of a polyamide material by a special 3-D printer in Belgium.
Lupita Nyongo is shown above in a green gown designed by Ruth Carter. The gown has side splits and she wears it as a spy on a mission. The material was custom-dyed and printed with raised pattern to make it look like kente cloth. It was then over-painted to give it an ombre effect.
Angela Bassett, who plays Queen Ramonda, called Ruth Carter a “costume ninja.” Reflecting on her success, Ms. Carter wonders why there is still so few costume designers of color. “Look at me,” she says. “I’m a costume designer, and you can be that too.”
Ruth Carter became the first black costume designer to win an Oscar. “Wow. I got it. This has been a long time coming. Spike Lee thank you for my start. I hope this makes you proud (Spike Lee was in the audience).” She also added, “Thank you to my crews around the world who helped bring Wakanda to life.”
After receiving the Oscar, Ms. Carter said, laughing, “All the of the nominees had brilliant costumes, but I had 3-D printing, that might have done it.”
The other nominees were:
THE BALLAD OF BUSTER SCRUGGS – MARY ZOPHRES DESIGNER. Mary Zophres has been nominated twice previously for a Best Costume Design Oscar; for La La Land and True Grit. She grew up in Florida, where her parents ran a clothing store. She graduated from Vassar College with degrees in both art history and studio art. Her first job in the industry was as a Production Assistant in the costume department. Ms. Zophres worked on Oliver Stone’s Born on the 4th of July. One of her tasks as a PA was sorting thrift store clothes into the decades they were made: 1950s; 60s; 70s, etc. She had no problems with this task and quickly worked her way up to being a designer. Her mother had regularly taken her to the movies, and always told her, “You can do anything you want to do.”
Mary Zophres has worked with the Coen Brothers on 14 previous films, as well as The Ballad of Buster Scruggs. She has designed such iconic costumes as the puffy jackets ofFargo(1996), the Dude’s sweater and bathrobe in The Big Lebowski(1997), and the traditional but still iconic prison outfits ofO Brother, Where Art Thou?(2000), among others. Christopher Nolan, once told her, “You’ve done a lot of movies and a lot of times your costumes are very iconic. Do you do that on purpose?” “No, no”, she replied, ”I’m designing something that’s true for the character.” The setting for The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is a Western, only it’s six different stories. Ms. Zophres explained for an interview in Filmmaker Magazine, “The Coens were taking the approach of having six separate but equal stories. I knew early on that we were not necessarily going to change cinematic styles, but the stories that they’re telling are very separate, so it was a challenge. Usually you design your film doing your leads first, then you pull stuff for the background, but this was like designing for six different leads and six different backgrounds.” She is very methodical in her designing method, starting with research in books and using illustrations and paintings of historical characters and backgrounds, often using the resources of the Western Costume Co
“The period for this film has a very specific fabric pattern and silhouette,” Ms. Zophres stated. “I start with research and then kind of realize through the script who the characters are and then dress the characters according to what is written on the page,” Besides the stylish Western outfit of Tim Blake Nelson as Buster Scruggs, Liam Neeson as the Impresario wears a full “Bear-hide” coat. Ethan Coen had told Ms. Zophres that they were thinking of [Robert Altman’s] ‘McCabe & Mrs. Miller‘ floppy bear coat,” explained Ms. Zophres. As was the case with fabricating the bear coat for The Revenant, she couldn’t source enough of the material to fit Liam Neeson. So Ms. Zophres improvised and aged, custom-dyed and stitched many small pieces together to make one coat. The material used was actually shearling IKEA bath rugs – cut and resewn.
2) THE FAVOURITE – SANDY POWELL DESIGNER. Sandy Powell has won three Best Costume Design Oscars: for for Shakespeare in Love, Young Victoria, and The Aviator. For the Yorgos Lanthimos directed The Favourite, the setting is early 1700s England during the reign of Queen Anne. In the story the Queen is sickly, depressed from the loss of 17 children in childhood or in stillbirth, and prone to fits of madness. Queen Anne’s friend and adviser (and lover) is Sarah Churchill, Duchess of Marlborough, played by Rachel Weisz. Lady Sarah’s cousin Abigail Hill joins the household as Lady-in-Waiting,, She is played by Emma Stone. Abigail has fallen on hard times, but is soon rivaling Lady Churchill for Queen Anne’s attention (and affections).
Designer Sandy Powell chose a monochromatic palette for the costumes. This allowed for a “graphic, clear and clean” imagery. As is typical for almost all costume design and production, the budget is inadequate and the time allowed for fabrication is too short. As Ms. Powell stated about the movie, “… we had very, very limited funds and time. So there wouldn’t have been time to have done court costumes as they would have been.” Yet she still managed to produce 150 costumes in the 5 weeks she had before filming began.
The photo above shows Queen Anne in her court dress trimmed in ermine. Due to her gout, she had problems walking and was largely confined to her rooms. As a result, her normal dress had devolved to a comfortable bed robe. As Ms. Powell described how she designed it for an interview in Vulture.com “I just wanted it to be one of those things, like your favorite cardigan or your favorite robe. It’s reversible. It’s velvet on one side, and on the inside I actually made it from a bed cover that I found. In England they’re called candlewick, but I think it might be called chenille here, those wavy lines and little tufts of cotton — which I bought on eBay. So the queen’s wearing an eBay bed cover.”
3) MARY POPPINS RETURNS – SANDY POWELL DESIGNER. Sandy Powell received a second Best Costume nomination this year for the Rob Marshall directed Disney sequel to Mary Poppins. In this story the Banks children are grown up and Ben Wishaw plays the widowed Michael Banks with three children, His sister Jane, played by Emily Mortimer, tries to help him out as he is in debt and about to lose their family home. Mary Poppins, Played by Emily Blunt, magical and striking as ever, returns to put order in the household. The bank where Michael works seems to be the source of most of his problems. But Mary Poppins and Lin-Manuel Miranda playing Jack the Lamplighter, help the family through their struggles.
Mary Poppins was the first movie Sandy Powell ever saw. Its imagery and songs still leave an impression on her. But she had to design a new Mary Poppins outfit – the story was now taking place in 1934, not in 1910 as in the original. As she stated for an in article in Fashionista, “I designed a 1930s version of the belle-tiered, elegant longline coat, with the addition of a double-cape at shoulders,” Ms. Powell added. “Just to make it more modern and fashionable for the 1930s and also to create a bit of movement.” Her coat was a striking cobalt blue, making a great contrast for Mary Poppins’ red feather-topped hat. She also designed a wild Bohemian outfit for the porcelain restorer, Topsy, played Meryl Streep. The Gypsy-style costume is made distinctive by its accessories of pencils and paint-brushes. Meryl Streep was also taken by Sandy Powell’s distinctive orange-colored hair, and asked to have her own hair be colored to match. Sandy Powell designed and produced 448 costumes for the movie.
4) MARY QUEEN OF SCOTS – ALEXANDRA BYRNE This is a 1569 true life version of the game of thrones. The Catholic Mary Stuart, just widowed, returns to Scotland from France to assume the crown as Queen of Scotland. Her childless cousin Queen Elizabeth of England is a Protestant. The two religious factions vie for power and entangle the cousins in what will become a struggle for the crown of England and ultimately – a death struggle. Josie Rourke directed with Margot Robbie as Queen Elizabeth and Saoirse Ronan as Queen Mary.
Alexandra Byrne has previously won a Best Costume Oscar for Elizabeth: the Golden Age starring Cate Blanchett. She was raised in Stratford -upon-Avon in England’s Shakespeare country. In spite of her familiarity with historical costume, she wanted to simplify and give a contemporary touch to the costumes of Mary Queen of Scots. For this she decided to use the ubiquitous denim fabric. This along with other fabrics and tailoring made the men’s costumes look much more flattering to the contemporary taste.
Mary was dressed more simply and even with a masculine flair in certain scenes. Costume design is there to delineate character, and in this movie in particular, to show the contrast between Mary and Elizabeth.
We know from the many movies about Elizabeth and from her portraits the basic look: red hair (a wig), white face surrounded by a big ruff; jewel-encrusted gown; and stiff puffy sleeves. But as Ms. Byrne said in an interview for Hollywood Reporter, ” I knew from doing Elizabeth in the Golden Age that to do a figure-eight ruff, it takes at least eight inches of lace. Well, 11 or 12 years ago you could get the quantity of old lace, but now you’re so limited. I knew we had to find a new way of doing a ruff, so there was a lot of experimentation, using nylon and other materials.” Alas that is true for most all vintage and high quality fabrics. The limitation is not just quantity available but the budget allocated for costuming to afford them. For Elizabeth in particular, she had to wow her courtiers and anyone that came in her presence. “Elizabeth’s dressing was more strategic. She was so in control of the power of her appearance, and used her appearance to replace the iconography of the Virgin Mary in Protestant England. I wanted to give her specific outfits for specific occasions,” Ms. Byrne stated.
In the movie the two queens meet, which never actually happened historically. Ms. Byrne wanted to simplify the costumes in the scene to highlight the faces of the actresses. This technique has been used by designers since the 1930s, and is very effective for key dramatic scenes in movies.
The Black Panther was a clear favorite this year and well deserved an Oscar for Ruth E. Carter.
The era of classic men’s fashion heard a notable crack to its foundation with the announcement that Carroll &Co., Beverly Hills, clothiers to Hollywood stars and professionals for 70 years was closing by the end of January 2019. Carroll and Co., was the last of the quality men’s stores in Beverly Hills, squeezed out by a variety of economic factors. Company President John Carroll’s father opened the store after World War II because he loved fine clothes and there was no availability on the West Side of L.A. He was a Publicist for Warner Brothers, and it wan’t long before movie stars that liked dressing well became regular customers: Fred Astaire; Cary Grant; Gary Cooper; Clark Gable; Gregory Peck; and Frank Sinatra, among others.
Store founder Richard Carroll made buying trips to England for fabrics and collections. He preferred the English gentleman’s look, a style he wore himself. This was a connection with Gary Cooper, Fred Astaire, and Cary Grant: three style setters among American actors of the 1930s, 40s, and beyond.
Gary Cooper was one of the most contradictory figures in Hollywood. His childhood was split between a cattle ranch in Montana and “proper” schooling in England where his parents were from. He broke into film as an extra and stunt horseback rider. Better looking than the lead actors, it didn’t take long for him to get good roles in the late 1920s. His first major role was starring in The Virginian in 1929. His stardom was cemented the following year, 1930, in Morocco opposite Marlene Dietrich. With Valentino’s passing some years earlier, Gary Cooper was now the major heartthrob in Hollywood.
Cary Grant was another dapper Englishman and customer of Carroll & Co. He learned by aspiration how to dress as a gentleman. He was born in Bristol England to poor working class parents and was in Vaudeville at an early age. He re-made himself in America and his good-looks and put-on charm moved him quickly from New York to Hollywood.
Cary Grant always had a keen sense of his own style, both in clothing and in his film roles. He rarely swerved from either romantic or humorous leading man. His few exceptions in character still had him looking good ( I Was a Male War Bride’s gag scenes an exception). He paired well with Katharine Hepburn, Ingrid Bergman, and Sophia Loren (to whom he fell in love with).
In addition to his custom suits from Carroll & Co., Cary Grant had his suits made at Dunhill in London, and his sporting and leisure clothes from Abercrombie & Fitch. In spite of his solid blue gray suit from North by Northwest, most of his suits were of a plaid woolen.
The actors mentioned in this blog, especially the first three, were all equally talented at dressing well in leisure as in formal clothing. This is a style that has virtually disappeared, regrettably. Cary Grant below shows one example. Carroll & Co., supplied handsome casual attire to these customers.
Fred Astaire was an early example of an American gentleman always well-attired. Despite his frequent “black-tie and tails” look in the movie musicals, he never enjoyed wearing tuxedos. He grew up on the stage in vaudeville, in an act with his older sister. She retired from the stage when she married Lord Charles Cavendish, Duke of Devonshire. Fred traveled frequently to England and learned the dress and manners of the English upper class. He still maintained contacts with the diverse world of dancers and musicians of Vaudeville, Broadway and Hollywood.
Fred Astaire had his own style of dress based on fine tailoring and quality clothes. On film he liked colored socks that drew attention to his feet in dance. Always slim, he used ties as belts.
Fred liked three-piece suits, and was bold enough to wear both a pocket handkerchief and a boutonniere.
Gregory Peck came up from the stage, in New York and in his native La Jolla California. His career developed slowly in the 1940s, despite his obvious good looks. He had a string of hits with Spellbound in 1945, The Yearling in 1946, and Gentleman’s Agreement in 1947. Peck was of the post-war generation of actors that had a more relaxed style of dressing, yet still looked smart. Below Gregory peck wears a tattersall shirt with chino pants.
Paul Newman could also looks great in relaxed yet stylish casual outfits. Here he wears a Navy blue cardigan over a t-shirt, with chinos. The photo cuts off the shoes, which were blue Converse sneakers. Suede loafers would also be stylish. The I.D. bracelet or “slave bracelet” that Newman wears was always a stylish man’s accessory. It’s too bad they went out of fashion.
I keep hearing that men’s style is coming back (as in more stylish). Granted I live in Southern California where dressing has been very relaxed for a long time. I’ll keep looking, and hoping, that the perennial popularity of these actors’ films will have an influence.
The low-budget , unsentimental yet nostalgic movie, A Christmas Storyis now 35 years old. And it is, in spite of the low expectations of the studio that produced it, a classic. But as the great and recently departed screenwriter William Goldman said about what will succeed in the movie business, “nobody knows anything.” A movie set in the early 1940s about a kid wanting a BB gun for Christmas? It seemed the only two people who believed in it were the director Bob Clark, fresh off a hit with Porky’s in 1982 who threw in some of his own money in the production. And Jean Shepherd, the writer of the short stories the movie was based on: Duel in the Snow, or Red Ryder Nails the Cleveland Street Kid; and others from his book, In God We Trust: All Others Pay Cash. The two argued constantly until Clark had to eject Shepherd from the set.
Bob Clark had first heard Jean Shepherd on the radio, where he was already a legend among many comics and spoken word /late night radio fans in the 1950s,1960s and 70s, me among them. Shepherd spun tales of childhood life set in fictional Hohman Indiana. His stories were never written until Shel Silverstein began taping and transcribing his radio shows. Shepherd shortly thereafter began writing his own stories. By then Shepherd’s stories were being published in Playboy magazine, where Hugh Hefner was a big fan. So Bob Clark knew he had to make a movie – a Christmas movie – based on Jean Shepherd’s stories. But it took over 10 years to happen.
Bob Clark began working on a script for A Christmas Story with Jean Shepherd along with Jean’s wife Leigh Brown. She was another believer, having worked with Shepherd at WOR Radio and together they had traveled the New York Beat scene years before they maried. With Shepherd’s distinctive voice, it was decided that he would narrate the movie as an older and more jaded Ralphie. He was perfect for this, having perfected his style on the radio. At times he sounded dramatic, at times sounding conspiratorial or world-weary, but always speaking directly to the listener – as the smart aleck kid in an adult’s body.
Finding the actor for the role of Ralphie was critical. Thousands of kid actors were considered and auditioned. Peter Billingsley, who got the part, was already a regular at making commercials in New York. He was considered almost too perfect, even though approaching 12, he was playing the 9 year old Ralphie. As it turned out Billingsley needed a dialogue coach during production to say the name “Red Ryder 200-shot Carbine Action Range Model Air Rifle” that he wanted for Christmas. His angelic face was the perfect contrast to his scheming nature. It’s hard to imagine anyone but Darren McGavin playing the Old Man, but Jack Nicholson was also considered for the role. Melinda Dillon as the mother got the part based on her strong role as the mom in Close Encounters of the Third Kind.
Ralphie is obsessed, as only a 9 year kid can be, with having a Red Ryder 200-shot Carbine Action Range Model Air Rifle. With Christmas around the corner he plants hints around the house to his indifferent parents. A trip to downtown “Hammond” with his buddies Flick and Schwartz and kid brother Randy also serves as occasion to gawk at the Higbees Department Store Window where the Christmas Baccanalia of toys and trains also diplays the “Holy Grail of christmas presents,” the Red Ryder 200 shot BB gun rifle. Ralphie fixates on the window. He lets out to his mother that night that this is what he wants for Christmas, only to be told, “You’ll shoot your eye out.” But he fantasizes about warding off and shooting bandits with his Red Ryder, with Ralphie the hero to his parents and kid brother. But Ralphie must live in the real kid world, a world Jean Shepherd never lets us forget.
Going to school is one of the daily humiliations in Ralphie’s world. He has to wait for his kid brother to be dressed up for snow – in so much clothing he can barely move. A recess gives Ralphie’s buddies the chance to try out Schwartz’s saying that if you stick your tongue to a flag pole (in freezing weather) it will stick there. Only the triple dog dare convinces Flick to try it, and sure enough his tongue sticks to the pole. It stays stuck as all the kids go back after the recess bell sounds. Only the teacher Miss Shields seems to notice Flick’s absence, the class mates feigning ignorance. Soon she calls the police and fire department to pry him loose, where he barely gets out a whine with his bandaged tongue.
The whole experience results in the need for a class excercise in writing an essy on “What I want for Christmas” – the perfect segue for Ralphie writing a winning essay on the importance of the Red Ryder BB gun for a present. This reverie lasts as long as it takes for the neighborhood bully Scut Farkus and his side-kick to have Ralphie, Flick and Schwartz running home for safety. Little brother Randy, still wrapped like a pig in a blanket, plays possum in the snow. Ralphie’s daily life always seems to sink into a contrast to his daydream reveries. Just as he saw his A+++ essay becoming a stepping-stone to getting a Red Ryder BB gun for Christmas, he gets his essay back from Miss Shields. Not only did it just get a C+, but she wrote in red “You’ll shoot your eye out!” Hope dashed again.
Ralphie’s home life is a constant battle of trying to get his wish for the Red Ryder noticed, His mother dotes on Randy and his lack of interest in food. Mother and child play games of “pigs in a trough” with his mom laughing as Randy buries his face in the mashed potatoes. His father is either buried in the newspaper or cussing as he tries to fix the furnace in the basement. The Old Man’s one happy moment is when he won a prize of a leg lamp, “electric sex” as Ralphie calls it, which the Old Man proudly displayed in the window to his wife’s mortification.
These unique scenes from A Christmas Story and several more that follow mostly came from separate stories in Jean Shepherd’s books. They form a remarkable whole because they sprang from one mind, Yet they took form as a film with Bob Clark’s expert and remarkable direction. Each scene builds on another leading to a climax that is perfect. The viewpoint always from that of Ralphie and a kid’s world. This is maximized by the low-angle cinematography, borrowing a technique from film noir: cutting a hole in the floor to sink the cameras for a low angle shot. These are the reasons the audience has continued to build for the movie year after year. As with many classic movies, the end result masks the friction that produced it. With Shepherd and Clark, it was Jean’s continual interference with the actors. Shepherd was always trying to have the scene come out according to his original vision. Clark finally had to have Shepherd removed from the set in order to have this stopped. Still, we can see Jean Shepherd in cameo in the movie, he playing the man in the Santa Claus line at Higbee’s – telling Ralphie when he and Randy get ready to go up to see Santa, “The line ENDS here. It begins THERE.” pointing far away. Shepherd narrates in the movie “The line stretched all the way back to Terre Haute.”
On Christmas day the surprises go all around. But being a Jean Shepherd story, surprises are good and bad. As he narrates in the story, “Life is like that. Sometimes at the heart of our revelries, when our joy is at its zenith, and all is right with the world, the most unbelievable of disasters descend upon us.”
For a low budget movie, production designer Reuben Freed and Art Director Gavin Mitchell still had to look at 20 cities for locales and sets. Toronto served for some outdoor scenes and Cleveland served for others. Higbee’s Store was in Cleveland (and the building is still there). Ralphie’s home, the Parker house exterior, is in Cleveland. In winter 1982-1983 when the movie was filmed, it was a very warm winter and no snow had fallen. The special effects supervisor Martin Malivoire and assistant Neil Trifunovich had to truck in snow, and resorted to using potato flakes for falling snow. Shredded vinyl was also used on set as well as firefighter’s foam for exterior sets.
A Christmas Story was a not a big hit when it opened, although it did make money for MGM when it was re-released. In 1985 it was released on video and word of mouth began to grow. Its unique take on Christmas made it a favorite for many. In 1997, it had reached more than cult-status when TNT began running A Christmas Storymarathons. And since 2006, San Diego resident Brian Jones has opened the A Christmas Story Museum at the house in Cleveland that served as the exterior of the Parker house. Nearby properties have also been added as to the compound.
Jean Shepherd died October 16, 1999 at age 78. Bob Clark died tragically on April 4, 2007, age 67 with his son Ariel in a car crash caused by a drunk driver.
The Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences is commemorating the 35th anniversary on December 10 of A Christmas Story with a special invitation-only screening of the movie along with hosting members of the cast and crew. Peter Billingsley will be there along with Production Designer Reuben Freed, Set Director Mark Freeborn, and Costume Designer Mary E. McLeod.
TNT is already playing A Christmas Story. So let us enjoy this unsentimental but kid-in-the-adult movie. The movie that screenwriter Robert McKee considered a new genre in the modern era: A Christmas Story.
A blog about classic movie costume design and fashion