ELIZABETH TAYLOR & DESIGNER HELEN ROSE

Elizabeth Taylor: the last great movie star might be her epitaph.  One thinks of her great roles, both on and off the screen, and her jewels, and her costumes. One thinks of Edith Head when thinking of Elizabeth Taylor’s costumes, A Place in the Sun, perhaps. But it was Helen Rose at MGM that created Elizabeth’s formative and most striking gowns and wardrobe pieces. In this post we will explore some of these costumes and film fashions designed during Hollywood’s golden age.

This is another in a series of Silver Screen Modes dual portrais of stars and the unique relationships they developed with certain designers. See Marlene Dietrich and Travis Banton and Audrey Hepburn and Givenchy. An earlier post had appeared in my Silver Screen Modiste on Adrian and Garbo.

One almost forgets that Elizabeth Taylor began as a child star, not just in National Velvet, but as an eleven year old in Lassie Come Home (1943), a film that didn’t even  bother giving a costume credit. But it didn’t take long for Elizabeth (she never liked being called Liz) to grow into a teenage beauty and magnetic young woman. MGM costume designer Helen Rose knew how to make the most of her dark hair, violet eyes, and developing figure. In A Date with Judy (1948), Helen had her first chance to show Elizabeth off to the world as the new beauty in Hollywood.

Elizabeth Taylor a-date-with-judy

Elizabeth Taylor plays a spoiled rich-kid high-schooler (she was 15 at the time) her friend in the movie was played by Jane Powell, with a cast of Robert Stack, Scotty Beckett, Wallace Beery, Xavier Cugat, and Carmen Miranda.  From the cast you can tell it’s a musical, and it was old-fashioned even when it came out in 1948.  In the photo above Elizabeth’s hair and make-up are perfect for her, and in perfect harmony with her costume.  Her role in the movie was definetly designed to capitalize on her charms  The outfit she wears above is a perfect combination of modest and sexy: an off-white form-fitting bodice over a pleated skirt,  the white accented in red; buttoned securely but with a deep v-cut decolletage that actually highlights her face. Elizabeth’s waist was always tiny, but here, in 1948, she wears padded shoulders, a look I find flattering to her. Alas, the style would dissappear in the coming flood of the New Look.

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Jane Powell at left and Elizabeth are shown above at the high school dance. Although Jane Powell sang some nice numbers, it’s clear that Elizabeth was meant to be the star at this show.

And it wasn’t long before Elizabeth was getting married, in the movies and in real life.

Elizabeth & Helen Father_Bride_1950_

The “Father of the Bride” wedding gown for Elizabeth was made of ivory colored satin and lace. Photo courtesy Photofest

The movie wedding took place in Father of the Bride (1950), with Spencer Tracy playing the father and Joan Bennett playing the mother. The groom was played by an unknown actor Don Taylor, although his parents were the veteran actors Billie Burke and Moroni Olsen.  The movie was a hit, the box office smash helped by Elizabeth’s real wedding to Conrad “Nicky” Hilton on May 6, 1960, just before the film’s release.  And of course Elizabeth had wanted Helen to design her own wedding gown, similar to the one she would be wearing in Father of the Bride. And MGM even made Elizabeth a gift of the wedding gown, not a small matter since it took fifteen seamstresses and embroiderers three months to make it.

elizabeth-taylor wedding gown

 

Elizabeth Taylor's Wedding Dress For Sale

Photo courtesy Christie’s

Elizabeth’s wedding gown as it appeared  in preparation for auction by Christie’s in 2013, where it fetched $188,000. The gown was made of 25 yards of ivory silk satin, with “illusion” lace shoulders and all-over embroidered decorations of bugle beads and seed pearls.  The gown was previewed by good friend and fellow blogger Kimberly Truhler before it went to Christie’s London.  She confirmed that the  level of craftsmanship was so high for the gown that it would be virtually impossible to duplicate it today.

And so with Helen’s beautiful wedding gown designs for both Father of the Bride and Elizabeth’s wedding that preceded its release  by a month, Helen Rose was constantly in the news as the “it” wedding gown designer. Indeed, she would go on to design Grace Kelly’s wedding gown to Prince Ranier, an even more elaborate marvel of dressmaking, and again made at the MGM wardrobe Department.

In 1952 Love is Better Than Ever, was finally released,  directed by Stanley Donen. Elizabeth was cast opposite Larry Parks, who had been blacklisted, which resulted in delaying the release of the movie.  Elizabeth was at the peak of her youthful radiance, and was here playing a dance teacher attending a convention in New York and engaging in a romance with a confirmed bachelor played by Parks.  The movie is a light romantic comedy but it captured Elizabeth at a unique point in her ascent to super stardom. Her role in A Place in the Sun had already been shot and released by Paramount in 1951, where she was dressed by Edith Head. Love is Better Than Ever had actually been filmed earlier, and completed in January 1951. Even with the blacklist situation, MGM didn’t want to lose out on the hot streak of the radiant Elizabeth Taylor.  Helen Rose here begins to fashion her in the New Look that will dominate most American women’s fashion in the 1950s, especially that of young women and teenagers – a direct result of Elizabeth Taylor’s influence.

Elizabeth & Helen LoveIsBetterEver_1952

Photo courtesy Photofest

Elizabeth Taylor is shown above with some of her young students and with Larry Parks below in Love is Better Than Ever, where  Elizabeth plays a dance teacher.

Elizabeth Taylor Love is better than Ever

Photo courtesy Photofest

Helen Rose next designed for Elizabeth in Rhapsody (1954), another musical genre. In this movie she loves a self-obsessed violin player played by Vitorio Gassman while it’s really a pianist played by John Ericson who loves her. While the script and acting are of middling quality, the magneticism of Elizabeth Taylor at this stage in her career is riveting. She had a star quality at 22 that is unparallelled.

Helen Rose helped define her look, and for several years thereafter, the look combined a strong sexual appeal within a feminine and tasteful fashion style. Helen’s design elements emphasized Elizabeth’s beautiful shoulders, her small waist developing into a well-defined bust and an  evident decolletage, which the still- photographers usually shot from a high vantage point. Helen would also use the silhouette of the New Look to give Elizabeth a long full skirt  to further emphasize Elizabeth’s narrow waist and the feminine contour Helen liked.

Elizabeth Taylor is shown with John Ericson below. Helen Rose liked to emphasize Elizabeth’s shoulders. Since this became a focal point, Helen would always pay close attention to the fit and look of the straps on the gowns and dresses she designed. She liked to emphasize the shoulders and she knew they would always be a focus since they were so near the face. She carried this attention to detail for the other actresses she designed for as well.

Elizabeth Rhapsody

Photo courtesy Photofest

It was not a musical, but the words and music to the haunting song, The Last Time I Saw Paris, gave both the title and the theme to Elizabeth’s next movie, which co-starred Van Johnson and Donna Reed. Here Elizabeth and Van Johnson play tragic lovers in post-World War II Paris.

One of Helen’s gown designs for Elizabeth caused problems with the censor. It was a red chiffon gown with a deep decolletage and a very low back, a crucial costume for the plot. Apparently while on the set during production  the female censor got on a ladder to view the amount of cleavage showing and declared that the gown was “out.” Helen was devastated and the director Richard Brooks was so livid that he cursed up and down the set until the censor. Filming then resumed.

The costume sketch for Helen’s design for the Elizabeth Taylor gown that caused all the commotion in The Last Time I Saw Paris is shown below.

Elizabeth & Helen Last Time I Saw Paris

Elizabeth in  Helen’s dresses continued to light up the screen in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, the 1958 movie based on the Tennessee Williams play, co-starring Paul Newman.

Cat On A Hot Tin Roof (1958)Directed by Richard BrooksShown: Elizabeth Taylor

Photo courtesy Photofest

The film is based on the play of the same title. The more than obvious charms-yet failed attempts of Maggie “the Cat” played by Elizabeth to get her husband Brick , Paul Newman,  to take her to bed, gets her to say in frustration that she feels like a “cat on a hot tin roof.”  The film downplays the play’s more overt homesexual undercurrent, but maintains its mixture of mendacity, lies, jealousy and general “bad blood.” Nonetheless, Helen’s most famous design for Elizabeth, in her effort to entice her husband, has become legend, and was known for many years after as  the “Cat dress.”

It is shown below, a Grecian bodice with full but somewhat short  white chiffon dress. It became a best seller when she started her own  Helen Rose line in 1958.

Liz - Cat Dress

In Butterfield 8 (1960) Helen designed another costume that became a fahion winner for her own line. The dress was a black chiffon coctail dress with the usual decolletage that Elizabeth wears while seated on top of a bar as shown below.  It was costume designer Moss Mabry that suggested it to  Gayle and Fred Hayman of the legendary Giorgio’s of Beverly Hills for their store, where it became a best seller from Helen’s line.

 

Elizabeth & Helen Butterfield 8 1960 3

Photo courtesy Photofest

But the image that became iconic from Butterfield 8 is that of Elizabeth in a slip with a drink in her hand.  In 1960  this was still risque enough to be considered a bold image, especially for the movie advertisements and posters that were produced from it. It’s not so much what the image revealed, as what it implied. We were now entering the 1960s, where movies would be all over the spectrum in their degree of realism.  Helen Rose didn’t have to design the slip, it could be found in any department store.

Butterfield 8 (1960) Directed by Daniel Mann Shown: Elizabeth Taylor

Photo courtesy Photofest

Full length furs were still worn in 1960, convenient for wearing, like a trench coat, directly over a slip when one has nothing else to put on.  

Butterfield 8 (1960) Directed by Daniel Mann Shown: Elizabeth Taylor

Photo courtesy Photofest

This would be Elizabeth Taylor’s and Helen Rose’s last collaboration. At this pont Elizabeth wanted to exit her MGM contract, where she would soon be moving from $125,000 a movie to over a $1 million for Cleopatra.

Helen Rose left MGM in 1966. By that time, long term contracts were no longer being given to studio designers, or other skilled trades. Four years later the studio auctioned off thousands of its costumes, many of which Helen Rose had designed. The film library was sold also. Fortunately we can still see most of these film treasures on TCM and elsewhere.

 

 

 

LUST FOR LIFE

 

Lust For Life

In the days when movie biopics were romanticized versions of their subjects, usually straying far from the truth, out came Lust for Life, the 1956 film depicting the tortured life of Vincent Van Gogh, blazingly acted on screen by Kirk Douglas. This was a raw and honest portrait of the artist as non-conformist, alienating almost everyone he knew, a searcher for meaning in his life and for the calling that could bring out the only talent he believed he had, though few saw it in him. This might be considered a typical view of of an artist or musician today, but it was ground-breaking in 1956.

This entry in the Build Your Own Blogathon is sponsored by the Classic Film and TV Cafe. It follows The Lady Eve’s entry of The Good, the Bad and the Beautiful, and is connected by Kirk Douglas as actor. It also shares Vincente Minnelli as director and John Houseman as producer. The movie was based on the best-selling book by Irving Stone.

 

Lust for life 3

Kirk Douglas and his Bryna production  company was eager to do this film, and his resemblance to the artist, magnified with a beard and dyed red hair, was uncanny. John Houseman had produced Moulin Rouge to great success, based on the life of Toulouse-Lautrec,  which was released in 1951. Vincente Minnelli was the best director, really the perfect director, for Lust for Life. He had been a costume designer and set designer in Chicago and on Broadway, and considered leaving to study art in Paris before he was hired by MGM.  He knew how to show the dynamic of  both the inner conflict of the artist/individualist and the problems caused by trying to fit into a society. He knew the soul of the artist, and how to involve art itself into the fabric of film and film’s methods of storytelling.

Lust for Life-Vincent_van_Gogh_-_Self-Portrait_-_Google_Art_Project_(454045) 1887

Self portrait by Van Gogh, 1885

The movie begins when Van Gogh is 25, aspiring to be a minister as is his father. The church elders reject his application, since he can’t even deliver a sermon without reading it aloud. One of the elders takes pity on him, seeing his earnestness, and tells him to go to the Belgian Borinage coal mines and do services there (apparently no else wants to). Once there he realizes that the downtrodden people need little preaching, and more real help, which the church doesn’t provide. He gives away his clothes and the allowance he gets from the church. Upbraided by the elders for looking and living like one of the miners, he calls them all hypocrites and leaves his church calling.

Once back home with his family, he argues regularly with his father. His brother Theo understands him the most, but tells him he should overcome his idleness. Kirk Douglas passionately responds, there are two kinds of idleness, and he only wishes he was the first, but as he says, “I’m in a cage of shame and self-doubt.”

He finds expression through drawing, which he shows his sister in the photo below. The art he favors is the depiction of common people in their daily life and in drawing the countryside.  But his odd demeanor and unkempt looks prove an embarrassment to his family.  He goes to the Hague where his uncle is an art dealer that provides him with paints. He paints in monotones – such pieces as The Weaver  or The Potato Eaters. He suffers from unrequited love with his first cousin, then takes up with a prostitute for a while. Theo is now also an art dealer in Paris,  so Vincent joins him there and goes to the Impressionists art show and he meets Impressionist and other painters like Pissarro (trust your first impression he tells Van Gogh), Seurat (it’s all about the science of color he says), and Gauguin.

Lust-for-Life-1956-1

And then Van Gogh heads to the South of France – to Arles, “everything there is gold, bronze, copper and yellow,” he says in his letter to Theo. He first rents a cheap room but then rents a big “Yellow House” that he wants to make the “Studio of the South,” or a commune for the artists he met in Paris – to live and paint and exchange ideas.  But Van Gogh is too much of the strident personality, without social skills, for them to come. In the meantime he paints every day, often speaking to no one. Theo is providing the rent money, and he urges Gauguin to join Vincent so as to encourage him. Gauguin has the forceful personality and thinks he can make it work. A sojourn in the South of France is better than the hard life of a merchant mariner, which Gauguin had been.

Lust for Life Harvest-At-La-Crau-With-Montmajour-In-The-Background-Vincent-Van-Gogh

So Van Gogh and Gauguin live together in the Yellow House, although it does not take long before their personalities clash, and when the weather turns bad or the Mistral winds blow the canvases of their easels, they are confined to painting indoors, which Van Gogh loaths. Gauguin can paint from memory. Van Gogh paints from observation and the feeling associated with it.

Lust for LIfe vanGogh-

At the cafe in Arles, which they frequent and drink absenthe with regularity, Van Gogh painted the scene , “The Night Cafe.” Drinking the alcoholic absenthe was rumored to be addictive, and along with Van Gogh’s other mental issues, possibly bipolar disorder or Asperger Syndrome, fueled his strong reactions.

Cafe at Night in Arles Van Gogh

Van Gogh’s and Gaugin’s arguments led Gauguin to saying he was leaving Arles, which in turn caused Van Gogh to threaten him with a razor blade.  This led to the off-screen scene where Van Gogh actually cuts off part of his own ear – perhaps in an effort to cut his own throat, or as self mutillation, no one knows.  The preceding scenes are dramatically acted by Kirk Douglas, his physicality shows his distress, alternating between threatening and abject, in shame and in terror.

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The photo below shows Kirk Douglas in the set rendition of the famous Van Gogh bedroom in the Yellow House in Arles, at Place Lamartine.

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And as painted by the artist, the room was actually a trapezoid shape.

 

Van Gogh's bedroom in Arles

The ear episode ends up with more psychological trauma for Van Gogh – Gauguin leaves and Theo has his brother committed to an asylum, where Van Gogh sits days on end, saying or doing little. Eventually he returns to painting from his window, and then from the outdoors. A poignant scene has Kirk Douglas painting outside as a few of the inmates watch intently – a subliminal note by Minnelli on the power of art. But soon more psychological attacks follow, and Theo has him brought closer to Paris, to Auvers-sur-Oise, where he can be treated by Dr, Gachet. It is there that Van Gogh paints what is probably his last canvas. Wheatfield with Crows. It is indeed a foreboding work, dark skies, a road leading to nowhere, and the many crows, depicted in the movie as unintended subjects for the canvas, irritating Van Gogh to the point where he jabs black paint on his canvas in their shape, shortly before he shoots himself.

Lust for Life 5

The screenplay for Lust for Life was written by Norman Corwin, using an episodic approach to Van Gogh’s life. As pointed out by Professor Drew Casper of the USC School of Cinematic Arts in the film’s DVD commentary, it has a five-part narrative which breaks down Van Gogh’s life into five parts, each structured around the letters he writes to Theo, which are narrated. The objective world as seen by Van Gogh is depicted in each of the five parts by at least one of his major paintings, separately seen. Each segment also had a color theme: black and gray in the Borinage; dark green in Holland; reds and blues in Paris; yellows and greens in the South of France; and multi-colored in Auvers.

The film was also richly complemented by the excellent costume designs of Walter Plunkett. Plunkett was one of the few designers that was equally adept at designing for both men and women. He conveyed the careless but individualistic dress of Van Gogh as well as the equally individualistic but almost dandy-working man dress of Gauguin – with his flashy and decorated vests and jackets – a purposeful magnet for the ladies. Walter Plunket also conveyed the full panoply of late 19th century France – the farmers and peasants, the red and blue soldier uniforms of the Zouaves, the decorated uniform of the facteur Roulin, the uniforms of the band, the traditional folk costumes of the women of Arles. All of this was of course accomplished through careful on-location research. The filming itself was mostly on-location in Holland, Belgium, Auvers, Arles, and the South of France. The cinematography of Freddie Young adds depth and beauty to the film.

The musical score composed by Miklos Rozsa evokes the settings and the emotions of the painter in a masterly way. Themes and moods are heightened by Rozsa’s compositions, conveying inner feelings of romance, pain, inertia, seizures, and even brief periods of contentment at painting in the plein-air.

Kirk Douglas said in his autobiography, The Ragman’s Son, that in performing the role of Van Gogh in Lust for Life, “It was the most painful movie I ever made.” And it took him a while to get over the role and the psychological effect it had on him. Douglas was nominated for Best-Actor for his role as Van Gogh, his third nomiation. Anthony Quinn was nominated for Best Supporting Actor. Everyone kept telling Douglas that he was a sure thing to get the Oscar. It was his third nomination after all, and there was little competition. He was in Munich Germany when the Academy Awards were held, making Paths of Glory. He said he had even practised looking surprised for all the photographers waiting in the lobby at his hotel. He was indeed surprised when  he learned that Yule Brynner won for his role in The King and I. Anthony Quinn, however, won for Best Supporting Actor, the only award winner in the film.

Perhaps voters thought he over-acted. It is certainly a style of acting not much seen today. Lust for Life leaves an indelible image of the actor and of Van Gogh, a raw, powerful image as powerful as the canvases Van Gogh painted himself.