DEBBIE REYNOLDS’ VALIANT EFFORT TO SAVE HOLLYWOOD’S PAST

 

Photo by Kirk McKoy

Photo by Kirk McKoy

The death of Debbie Reynolds on December 28, 2016 was a sad loss to classic Hollywood and show business. Her many movies and well-known starring roles in Singing in the Rain,  and the The Unsinkable Molly Brown among others are a lasting legacy. Her personality and bravery were matched to the subject of the latter film, her personal favorite.  Although oft-mentioned, her collecting of movie costumes and memorabilia is usually glossed-over. But this too is one of the sagas of her life, its own roller-coaster of tragedy and triumph. Yet ultimately she never reached her goal, and her loss has also become our loss.

How did Debbie Reynolds begin collecting Hollywood’s treasures and what happened to them? Collecting movie memorabilia really began when MGM auctioned off its fabulous collection of props and costumes in 1970. Before then the studios kept their props and costumes for re-use so there was very little supply and low demand to encourage collecting. The late 60s was a sad period for MGM and the other studios due to shrinking revenues. The new owners of MGM decided that there was more money to be made in selling off its assets than in keeping the studio’s traditions alive. MGM was Debbie Reynolds’ home studio, and she understood the value of the props and costumes as historical objects, not just as accessories of movie-making.  

Debbie was aghast when she learned that the new owners of MGM were going to sell off the back lots with the old standing sets where so many movies had been filmed. And along with these, warehouses full of props and costumes: from antique furniture and carriages to iconic costumes from films like The Wizard of Oz and her own Singing in the Rain. Debbie tried in vain to save the lots by convincing the management to turn them into an amusement park, much like Universal City was to become later on. They wouldn’t hearof it. Then she tried to get a loan to buy the properties herself. She failed. She did manage to get enough money to be prepared when the inevitable MGM auction arrived.

And so Debbie attended the MGM auction every day of its nearly three weeks duration from May 1 through May 18, 1970. And she bought and she bought: Adrian-designed gowns for Norma Shearer from Marie- Antoinette and Romeo and Juliet; an early version of Judy Garland’s Dorothy pinafore from The Wizard of Oz;  Greta Garbo’s velvet gown from Anna Karenina; her own Walter Plunkett designed “Good Morning” flapper dress from Singing in the Rain; Elizabeth Taylor’s riding outfit from National Velvet; Leslie Caron’s peacock-feathered dance dress from An American in Paris, and dozens more. Over time, Debbie bought from the other studios as well while building her collection.With her name and staus she had entre to those studios. But Paramount and 20th Century-Fox were also to hold auctions. And she also bought from the underground market in costumes from such sellers as Kent Warner.

 

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Debbie was a discriminating collector and a far-sighted one. It was easy enough to select the wardrobe from award winning pictures, but Debbie also selected several costumes from the same film to give a better representation of the movie. And she went after set props too to enhance the original backdrop, all while envisioning a museum setting. When there were obvious duos, like the costumes from both Romeo and Juliet, she bought both of them. Two bold green-striped “Fit As a Fiddle” costumes worn by Gene Kelly and Donald O’Connor were also bought as a pair. Debbie Reynolds also showed her important connoisseurship by acquiring the costumes that were not just beautiful, but the ones that  became truly significant in defining the leading film character in the role portrayed. So in her collection was the Mildred Pierce coffee-shop waitress uniform worn by Joan Crawford, the rose and white-striped dress worn by Shirley Jones in the memorable “If I Loved You” scene with Gordon MacRae from Carousel, Elizabeth Taylor’s jockey uniform from National Velvet, Leslie Caron’s school-girl outfit from Gigi, Grace Kelly’s rose-colored skirt and white-embroidered sleeveless top from To Catch a Thief, Betty Hutton’s rose-embroidered cowgirl outfit from Annie Get Your Gun, Basil Rathbone’s caped overcoat from The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, and on and on. 

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But as most of us know, The most amazing collection of historic Hollywood movie costumes ever assembled will never become the core of an American museum. Try as she might, Debbie Reynolds failed at building a museum based on her collection of costumes and treasures spanning the history of Hollywood movies. One would think it could not be so hard with someone of her talent, name, and resources. She tried first by incorporating a small museum within the Debbie Reynolds Hotel and Casino. But that Las Vegas venture ultimately failed. She was even forced to have an auction of some 400 lots from her collection in 2003 at the Julien Auction House. Lots included costumes from Marilyn Monroe, Gloria Swanson, Judy Garland, Fred Astaire, and many other stars. Then she tried developing a museum within the new Hollywood and Highland complex in Hollywood. This failed effort also placed her in debt. (along with her last marriage). And finally, she tried to open a museum at Dollywood in Pigeon Forge Tennessee, another money-losing plan. All of these plans left her in deep debt with no alternative but to auction off her treasured collection. All along the way she had approached the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences with the idea of starting a museum and offering her collection at a then reasonable price. The CEO at the time was uninterested.

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Gene Kelly and Donald O’Connor’s “Fit as a Fiddle” costumes from “Singing in the Rain. The suits have hand-painted stripes. Debbie bought both as a pair, alas they were bought by separate buyers at auction

So on June 11, 2011 the first of a scheduled three auctions held by Profiles in History was held at the Paley Center in Beverly Hills to disburse the legacy of Golden Age Hollywood, from Charley Chaplin’s bowler hat to Elizabeth Taylor’s Cleopatra headress to Marilyn Monroe’s subway dress and hundreds of other costume icons. In the auction catalog Debbie wrote, “I used to spend my spare time in the wardrobe department, watching the most talented people create costumes for the actors. I loved everything that went into the process – the sketches, the fabrics, the construction.”

Weeks before the event a publicty campaign had placed stories in broadcast news and print media everywhere. The Paley Center had displayed many items in Debbie’s collection for the public to see two weeks prior to the auction. A line formed before opening on auction day. Debbie Reynolds was beside herself. She was accompanied by Carrie Fisher and Todd, along with her grandchildren.  Inside, Carrie was vaping what was then the new electronic cigarette. Profiles in History President Joe Maddalena introduced Debbie to the audience of bidders.  Debbie put her best face on the event, joking with the audience and prodding the bidders, all in the long tradition of “the show must go on.” But she choked up in her opening remarks, and indeed it was a melancholy day for Los Angeles and the rest of the country. We will never see the likes of this collection again.

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Bids came from phone callers and the Internet as well as the audience. I sat behind a Korean gentleman that seemed to bid and win most of the choice items. During a break Debbie herself asked for his card in a friendly manner. He said he didn’t have one and wouldn’t give his name.

Other items sold like Judy Garland’s screen-tested gingham dress from The Wizard of Oz, and a version of the Ruby Slippers. They were rumored to be destined for Saudi Arabia. The audience held its breath and then clapped when the Dorothy dress was hammered down for $920,000. We knew it was going to be a big day when item number 2 in the auction, Rudolph Valentino’s matador costume from Blood and Sand went for $200,000.(prices without premiums and taxes).

 

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It was no surprise that the biggest items in the auction were worn by Marilyn Monroe. What was shocking though was their hammer prices: Marilyn’s William Travilla-designed cream rayon “subway” dress from Seven Year Itch, $4.6 million. At this point Debbie knew she was doing well financially and started buying back a few of her sentimental favorites like Harpo Marx’s hat with its wig. When one lady was biding against her she asked her to stop and the woman did. Then more big prices came in: Marilyn’s Travilla-designed red-sequined gown shown above from Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, $1.2 million. And there were two more, including the stunning Travilla-designed “Tropical Heat Wave” costume from There’s No Business Like Show Business, a mere $500,000It is shown below. But the second most expensive item in the auction was not a Marilyn Monroe costume but rather Audrey Hepburn’s Ascot gown from My Fair Lady. It was hammered down for $3.7 million. By that point Debbie couldn’t stand it and had gone home but was following the auction on the computer.  “Holy shit,” she texted Todd.

 

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Photo by Christian Esquevin

The auction at the Paley Center was packed, with a small auditorium and a separate hall used for the occasion. There was also a row of phone-bid handlers, two on-line auction handlers, absentee bids, floor bidders, and an auctioneer that masterfully handled the whole operation. Bidding began just after noon. It didn’t finish until after 1:00am. The audience consisted of devoted classic movie fans, the curious, some serious collectors and those representing institutions or having a professional interest. Several long-time costume devotees were there, including noted costume collector Larry McQueen, and costume designer-turned UCLA Copley Center for Costume Design director Deborah Nadoolman Landis. I had waited in line with author Virginia Postrel.

An early auction indication that the prices were reaching the stratosphere was demonstrated in Judy Garland’s Adrian-designed pinafore from The Wizard of Oz, hammered down for $920,000. And this was for an early wardrobe test version that was never worn in the film.    

    

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Photo by Christian Esquevin

A result of seeing the costumes up close is a heightened  appreciation for the skill of the dressmaking and tailoring. The costumes were fabricated to provide a 360 degree view of the garment. Exact camera angles were unknown in advance, and most every costume had to be ready for a possible close-up.  And the gowns themselves are in vivid color, like the one Norma Shearer wore in Romeo and Juliet, also designed by Adrian,  shown below. This was the case even when the movie was filmed in black and white. The detailing on the bodice is incredible, with gold embroidery and cascades of tiny silver sequins

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Photo by Christian Esquevin

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Photo by Christian Esquevin

Evidence of the high quality of the film costumes is shown above in the coronation robe designed by Rene Hubert for Merle Oberon as Empress Josephine in Desiree. The silk gown is embroidered with gold floral decorations. The red velvet train is also embroidered and trimmed in ermine. Debbie began her collection with the MGM auction of 1970. Most of the studio’s wardrobe at that time consisted of period costumes, which is by and large reflected in the strength of Debbie’s collection. That MGM had many years earlier dumped many costumes in its wardrobe collection is little known. Due to the small value that was ascribed to contemporary fashion of the day, and the lack of its re-usability in later films, many crown jewels of costume were destroyed. By the time of the 1970 MGM auction, many of those late 1920s and 1930s costumes were already gone. These had been the costumes that created the very image of glamorous Hollywood movie-stars, and that started fashion trends around the world.  The Adrian-designed gowns worn by Jean Harlow, Greta Garbo, and Joan Crawford that defined the look of glamour were mostly discarded. It is informative to consider the sale of Debbie’s collection as reflecting the earlier MGM auction and the even earlier destruction of those movie costumes.

The costume below was designed by Mary Wills for Joan Collins playing Beth Throgmorton in The Virgin Queen. The costume sketch  some others designed by Mary Wills from the movie are shown on my blog post The Costume Sketches of Mary Wills

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Photo by Christian Esquevin

Coming in second place in price to Marilyn Monroe’s Seven Year Itch dress was Audrey Hepburn’s Ascot gown from My Fair Lady. It was hammered down for $3.7 million. Having the huge original hat along with the gown added much to the value of the ensemble.

Debbie also liked the costumes from classic Rome and Egypt, and who wouldn’t when they were worn by the likes of Elizabeth Taylor and Charlton Heston. The breast plate below is from Ben HurWith the big-budget movies of that era, the costumes were works of art. The one below is hand-hammered metal. It was one of many such costumes and props in Debbie’s collection

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Photo by Christian Esquevin

The second of the three planned auctions of the famed Debbie Reynolds collection of Hollywood film costumes and props was held on Saturday December 3, 2011 by the  Profiles in History auction house. While the auction didn’t have the same frenzy as the first one in June, there was still plenty of competition for the iconic costumes of Hollywood’s Golden Age

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As was the case with the first auction, the Marilyn Monroe worn items fetched the most money. The gown above was designed by Dorothy Jeakins for Marilyn Monroe in Let’s Make Love, (1960). It is made of a pale green pleated silk decorated with rhinestones at the bust and at the Empire waist. It was hammered down for $240,000. Marilyn’s green show-girl leotard designed by William Travilla for Bus Stop, (1956), decorated with black sequins and beaded fringe, went down for $230,000. In addition, Marilyn’s pale-green suit from Niagara sold for $210,000, and her embroidered gown and bolero jacket from Gentlemen Prefer Blondes designed by Travilla sold for $260,000. These were among the top five big ticket items of the sale.

 

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Photo by Christian Esquevin

 

Above is a fabulous show-girl costume designed by Adrian and worn by Eve Arden in Ziegfeld Girl, (1941). The gown is made of a silver lame with silver sequin stars embroidered on to a nude chiffon. The silver lame has tarnished to appear a golden color. The gown was sold for $5,500.

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Photo by Christian Esquevin

 

This striking dress was also designed by Charles LeMaire for Katharine Hepburn in Desk Set, (1957). It is a wool dress of black, gray, and cream-colored stripes with red accents. It sold for $6500.

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Photo by Christian Esquevin

One would definitely say that the costume above was designed for a star. Indeed it was, Donald Brooks designed it for Julie Andrews in Star! (1968). The coat is black velvet adorned with plastic silver stars. A silver lame top and pants were worn underneath, also decorated with stars. I should add that the Studio system was no longer in place when this costume was made. By 1968, the stars on the costume were no longer being made of sequins, fastidiously sewn onto the garment – the stars were now plastic. The famous line from The Graduate, “Plastic!” seems to have already  grabbed hold in the wardrobe department. The three piece costume sold for $7000.

Debbie Reynolds never realized her dream of a Hollywood memorabilia museum. A new movie museum organized by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences is now being constructed. Alas, Debbie’s fabulous and historic costumes and props collection won’t be part of it. And probably harder to bear, the costumes, including sets from a single movie, have been scattered. One Internet bidder seems to have won many of of the choice costumes. It would be great if it was for a local collection or institution. More likely, these will go overseas along with the cream of Debbie’s first auction held last June. The Unsinkable Debbie Reynolds was vindicated by the very hich prices her collection got. She was for several years free of debt and could make her children comfortable. If only Hollywood and Los Angeles had cared as much about its history as she had.

Thank you for inspiring the rest of us Debbie .RIP

 

 

RKO STUDIO WARDROBE’S GOLDEN AGE

It was the smallest big studio in Hollywood. Owned in succession by the likes of Joseph Kennedy,  David Sarnoff and RCA, Howard Hughes, and finally Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz. RKO was once home to Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, Orson Wells, David O. Selznick, and King Kong. Katharine Hepburn made her first movies there, and it was equally known for Val Lewton horror movies and films noir.  For a small studio it produced outstanding period costumes. Its wardrobe department  had top talent and its costume designers were among the best in the 1930s. At RKO’s creation in 1928 it amalgamated a vaudeville theater circuit with Kennedy’s Film Booking Office and Sarnoff’s, RCA . RKO stood for Radio Keith Orpheum. There were high hopes for it: RCA  (Radio Corporation of America) was interested in sound film; Kennedy in making money. The studio was located on Melrose and Gower in Hollywood. It also included Pathé withinin its holdings, and its lot in Culver City, once the studio of Thomas Ince and later home of Selznick International Pictures.  Today as a working studio RKO is long gone, its lot having turned into the Desilu Studio and now absorbed by Paramount Pictures.

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At its beginning, RKO’s  predecessor FBO (Film Booking Office) was owned by Joseph Kennedy. It made films, mostly westerns, and had hired a new costume designer named Walter Plunkett. When FBO was amalgamated into RKO in 1928, Plunkett became the de-facto costume designer for the new studio. As film production began to speed up, Plunkett had to organize an entire wardrobe department, as well as designing costumes for the principal cast of its films. RKO’s first major production was Rio Rita  starring Bebe Daniels. The film was a big hit and Walter Plunkett made a name for himself. But working hard and launching his reputation still didn’t give him adequate pay, and so Plunkett walked off the job to work at Western Costume. He was finally lured back in 1932, just as Katharine Hepburn had started making pictures there. this was also when  Ginger Rogers was about to make RKO famous dancing with Fred Astaire, and there was King Kong and Fay Wray too.

 

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RKO Costume Designer Walter Plunkett is shown above. He is pictured with my-great-aunt, RKO’s Head Cutter-Fitter Marie Ree. In this staged photo they are inspecting fabric for an upcoming movie with Helen Mack. The Cutter-Fitter’s job was to take the designer’s costume sketch and fabric selections and make patterns from which the fabric pieces could be cut. She would also do the fitting on the star, where the designer was usually present. In the photo below, a pattern cut from muslin is laid upon the satin fabric, which will then be cut and later sewn by seamstresses.  The muslin pieces were actually pinned together on a dress form made to the star’s measurements, prior to the actual costume being sewn. Patterns would have to be made by the cutter-fitter whether the costume was a bathing suit, a 1930’s glamour-gown, or an Elizabethan garment.

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Below Marie adjusts a shoulder detail onto a custom dress form for an unknown production in the mid-1930s. This work was done for  one shoulder piece for one costume for one movie at the studio. One can imagine the labor for 30 movies a year, even if only a dozen or so were “A” pictures.

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In the photo below, Marie examines an embroidered decoration for fit on a velvet gown. The embroidery would be later cut and sewn onto the gown. The beaded and sequined decorations always drew attention as they flashed under studio lighting in the film. Photo taken for an unknown production in 1940.

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Walter Plunkett became a specialist in historical costume. As the only costume designer at RKO at its beginning, he had to design for everything: contemporary; historical; for men as well as women. But he excelled at designing historical costume and found great success with that specialty. He stated later that he prefered designing period costumes because directors seldom knew enough about them to argue with him. But he also had expert assistance from Marie Ree. She was a stickler for detail and correctness, and had a keen knowledge in historical French folk costume.  She also had the trade skills from having worked in the atelier of Jeanne Lanvin.

Under David O Selznick as producer, Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women, was turned into a film starring Katharine Hepburn. In the Depression year of 1933 this movie about the thrifty but loving March family, and its struggles while the father is off fighting in the Civil War struck a chord. It was a big hit and made Hepburn a star. The calico and gingham fabrics and Victorian styles  were nostalgic, yet like a breath of fresh air to movie-goers. Surprisingly, the costumes influenced fashion as well, and were even noted by couturier Marcel Rochas, as “so pleasing.”

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“Little Women” 1933 with Katharine Hepburn, Joan Bennett, Frances Dee, and Jean Parker

 

RKO was also finding a big success in the dance team of Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire. They had second billing in the movie Flying Down to Rio, but with The Gay Divorcee it was all about Fred and Ginger. With this movie Walter Plunkett designed the quintessential Ginger dance gown – form-fitting at the waist and hips to accentuate her figure and free-flowing at the ankles to twirl during her dance moves.

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But soon Walter Plunkett was again dissatisfied. Bernard Newman was brought in as a second costume designer from New York’s Bergdorf-Goodman. He was now dressing Ginger Rogers, and according to Plunkett, getting all the plum assignments. So Plunkett resigned again. He said if New York designers could come to Hollywood he would go to New York, and he did, with a new job there. Below is Bernard Newman’s costume for Ginger Rogers for In Person from 1935, The gown is made of silver bugle beads sewn onto turquoise-colored chiffon.  The bugle beads provided brilliance under the lights and hugged her figure and the chiffon provided some transparency.

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Ginger Rogers loved Bernard Newman’s gowns. One of his famous gowns was the ostrich-feather and blue satin gown from Top Hat. The gown was backless. Ginger loved this gown and had to fight to keep it in the movie as Fred hated it. As they danced the feathers would come loose and stick to his tuxedo and lay on the polished dance floor.  Wardrobe was challenged as well as they would repeatedly have to re-sew the feathers back onto the gown. Despite these issues, their dance scene and Ginger’s dress were amazing.

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Bernard Newman is shown below  with French opera singer Lily Pons. Miss Pons starred in two RKO films with Newman designs: I Dream Too Much andThat Girl From Paris. Newman had a great fashion hit in the movie Roberta, with Irene Dunne,  remade in 1952 as Lovely to Look At, with designs by Adrian.

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Costume designer Edward Stevenson came to RKO as Bernard Newman’s sketch artist. He had already been a designer at First National for several years but lost that job when they merged with Warner Brothers. Bernard Newman didn’t sketch his designs, and his method was rather slow. In fact he wasn’t well suited to the Hollywood studio production pace and was soon gone. Stevenson stayed at RK0 for many years and designed the costumes for dozens of films including Citizen Kane, Suspicion, It’s a Wonderful Life, Out of the Past, and others. He went on to design the costumes for the I Love Lucy shows. Edward Stevenson is shown below at right  in 1940  with director George Abbott amidst his costume sketches for Too Many Girls.

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But meanwhile Katharine Hepburn was unhappy that she had lost her friend and expert in historical costume design Walter Plunkett. This was especially the case since the hit movie Little Women had RKO casting her in more historical films. The next one coming up was Mary of Scotland, to be released in 1936. For this she demanded that Walter Plunkett be brought back to design the costumes. Walter was in New York, and employed. He responded that he could get a leave of abscence, but only for eight weeks.  If the movie ran longer than that he would have to be paid double. So Plunkett came back to Hollywood, but the script kept getting revised and most of his eight weeks were used up before he began his designing. Thus he was earning double his initial salary, and soon had to resign his New York job.

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Although the film was in black and white, most of the costumes were in glorious color. Katharine’s sleeves and upper bodice were in rich red Lyon velvet, with gold thistles. The actual costume is pictured below as it was shown at the Debbie Reynolds auction of 2011..

Plunkett was now on a movie-by movie contract with RKO. But that would soon come to an end in 1936 as he sought and got the job of designing the costumes for Gone with the Wind.

Marie’s RKO book of film costumes and fabric samples, usually with cost notations. is shown below. The red velvet fabric at left was used on Katharine Hepburn’s sleeves and upper torso.  Fabric samples in book were for one of Queen Elizabeth’s costumes.

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Costume designer Renie Conley, who just went by the name Renie joined RKO in 1936. She had a very long career, having started as a sketch artist at MGM in the 1920s and designed her last film in 1981. Renie’s portrait is shown below.

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Renie’s design’s for Ginger Rogers appeared in Ginger’s only Academy Award  for Best Actress. This was her win for Kitty Foyle, 1940.

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Renie’s costume design shown above made a strong statement in the film with it’s colonial accents of the tri-corn hat and ruffled collar. It was also a fashion hit at the time. Below is Renie’s original costume sketch.

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RKO continued making movies through the 1940s, making particularly excellent films noir. The great costume movies, whether historicals or musicals, were now a thing of the past. When Howard Hughes bought out the studio in 1948, it started going down-hill.  Eventually Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz bought out the lot and turned it into the Desilu Studio in 1957. Paramount later bought the lot in 1967, and virtually nothing remains denoting RKO’s physical presence today. Gone, but not forgotten. 

 

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