A BOAT BED PROP FROM THE MISTS OF TIME

Have you seen this boat bed? It appeared prominently in five movies, and was originally owned by a French entertainer.  Its status is now unknown.

Although it won’t come to mind as a famous movie prop,  it resonates in culture, entertainment, and film history like no other object. This boat bed was made for Gaby Deslys, the turn-of-the-century dancer, singer, and star. The native of Marseille France was a star of the Folies Bergère  in Paris, where the King of Portugal and Sir James Barrie both fell for her.  She also introduced the first striptease in a Broadway musical. She was also  played by Tamara Toumanova in M-G-M’s Deep in My Heart in 1954.  While still in her prime she was infected by the influenza, and died in 1920. She left her Villa off La Corniche in Marseille, a few hundred yards from where my grandparents lived, to help the poor. The City owns it now for civic purposes. The photo below the banner shows her Villa in Marseille.

GABY DESLYS

Deslys  had the boat bed made in Marseille. It is carved and gilt, with Cupid as a figurehead on its bow. The whole is based on the  “Grotto of Venus” scene from Wagner’s opera Tannhauser.  And Cupid is based on painter Francois Boucher’s model.  Wagner’s opera had elements of medieval stories of Lohengrin and the Swan Knight, and images of a swan-bowed boat are also mixed in with the one above. Tannhauser and the Grotto of Venus were such powerful images that King Ludwig II of Bavaria (1845-1886) the “Mad King,” built an extravagant copy of the grotto in his castle’s grounds. It was so extravagant that any Hollywood movie or amusement park would envy it today. Ludwig had been fascinated by Wagner’s opera Lohengrin ever since he saw it as a prince. Not long after he inherited the throne he became Wagner’s patron. Ludwig built at his sumptuous Linderhof castle a reproduction of the Venus Grotto  –  with a 33 foot high ceiling, complete with a cascade, false stalactites, garnished grout, a pond, a faux moon, and arc-lighting. The Grotto itself was made to resemble the Blue Grotto of Capri. Ludwig had one of his servants row him on a boat around the pond – the boat that served as the model for the bed, with Cupid as its figurehead.

The Venus Grotto at Linderhof Castle with Cupid’s boat

At the death of Gaby Deslys, her furnishings were auctioned. Director Rex Ingram was about to make Trifling Women starring Barbara La Marr as a vamp and had Metro Pictures buy her boat bed as a prop for the movie. Thus Cupid’s boat bed made its cinematic debut  100 years ago this year.

Ingram considered the film, now believed lost, to be his best. It made a big star out of both the beautiful La Marr and her lover Ramon Novarro. La Marr had a short life as a brilliant star as she died of tuberculosis in 1926 at age 29. Louis B. Mayer, the head of the combined Metro, Goldwyn, and Mayer companies considered Barbara La Marr so beautiful that he gave the last name to Hedy Lamarr, when he signed her to M-G-M in 1938 as “the most beautiful woman in the world.”

Barbara La Marr in Trifling Women

It wasn’t long before the boat bed was being slept in by Mary Philbin as Christine Daae – with Lon Chaney as the Phantom of the Opera pursuing her. Universal’s 1925 classic set the model for both “horror” movies, following the studio’s Hunchback of Notre Dame in 1922, and its emphasis on droll characters.

Mary Philbin in “Phantom of the Opera,” Universal 1925

Cupid’s boat bed made it out of silent cinema. It’s magnetic powers drew one of the greatest and most admired stars of the 1930s: Carole Lombard. Twentieth Century was a movie about an impresario that helps make a lingerie model into a Broadway star. The title refers not to the time period but to the train line from Chicago to New York where some of the drama takes place. The bed featured prominently in her bedroom.
The boat bed appeared to be refinished in white to give it a more “Deco” friendly look

 

A better ( if nor more clear) view of Cupid)

Movie studios would rent props and costumes to other studios, and it appears  the Cupid boat bed went to M-G-M where it appeared briefly in the 1949 version of Madame Bovary with Jennifer Jones. It can be seen in the Hotel de Boulogne room where Madame to Bovary has a meeting with Leon just as she enters the room. The Boat Bed then went to Paramount.  It stayed at Paramount however, where it next appeared in the most retro of movie set designs for Sunset Blvd. Norma Desmond, star of the 1920s should have no other bed than Cupid’s boat bed, even though another vamp  had already slept in it, not to mention a dance hall striptease artist.

 

Gloria Swanson and William Holden in Sunset Blvd. , 1950

Cupid’s boat bed next went to Columbia Pictures to appear in a lightweight comedy titled Good Neighbor Sam in 1964. The movie starred Jack Lemmon, Romy Schneider and Dorothy Provine. It is shown below in a partial view in a dream scene with Romy Schneider and Jack Lemmon.

By the 1960s the Hollywood studio system was starting to fall apart, and with it, the warehouses full of props and costumes that each studio  had amassed over the decades. M-G-M auctioned all of their props and costumes in 1970, with their back lots of standing sets following. 20th Century-Fox  sold off their props and costumes in 1971.

Under unknown circumstances, Cupid’s boat bed was auctioned or sold to James (Jim) Buckley. Buckley had an interesting background as a window display artist for Bloomingdales, Saks Fifth Avenue and Bergdorf Goodman in New York and later at Saks in Beverly Hills. He attended the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in London after World War II and by that time had married Olga. He was also a set decorator for M-G-M.  The couple founded the  Pewter Plough Playhouse in Cambria California. Jim also wrote the book, The “Drama of Display: Visual Merchandising and Its Techniques.”  Olga ran an antique store there as well and Jim planned to open a museum for his collection of movie props and memorabilia, including Cupid’s boat bed.  Jim continued to run the theater with his second wife and artistic director Rebecca Buckley until his death in 2015.

The location of Cupid’s boat bed is not publicly known at this time. While it may not feature in another movie, its centennial in movies would be wonderful to celebrate.

 

Acknowledgments to the following for their informative resources:

recicyledmoviecostumes.com

Joseph Nevchatal on King Ludwig and Linderfof Castle

Sherri Snyder, “Barbara La Marr: Life on Her Own Terms.” Guest Post in Classic Movie Hub. December 11, 2017

Sarah Linn. Passion in the Pines: Jim Buckley Brings Theater to Cambria. White Hot Magazine, November 18, 2012

 

17 thoughts on “A BOAT BED PROP FROM THE MISTS OF TIME”

  1. Hi, Christian,

    Thank you, but no credit is necessary. 🙂

    That copy of “Madame Bovary” at archive dot org is out there for all to enjoy.

  2. Hi again, Christian. 🙂

    It turns out that I wasn’t having a false memory about the boat bed putting in an appearance in 1949’s Madame Bovary. I was idly half-watching the movie on television this morning over my morning coffee and saw it.

    You can see it best in the opening of this scene at the Hotel Boulogne when a porter brings luggage into the room at around the 1:27:55 mark:

    https://archive.org/details/madame-bovary-legendas-pt_202011

    1. Yes indeed – you are right. The famous boat bed features in the hotel room where Mme. Bovary meets Leon. I will add that to my narrative. I’d like to add your name for a credit in spotting this. Is it Mikos?

  3. Christian, There’s an undated picture of the Pewter Plough Playhouse at californiacommunitytheatre dot org. It looks like either the boat bed might have been on stage, or there was a painting of it on a back drop?:

    https://www.californiacommunitytheatre.org/single-post/2017/01/06/pewter-plough-playhouse

    Even before Jim Buckley died, the PPP was struggling:

    https://www.newtimesslo.com/sanluisobispo/facing-the-fire-squad/Content?oid=2935584

    Miscellaneous pictures of the property from a real estate company:

    https://therealestatecompanyofcambria.com/property-171-824-828-Main-Street-Cambria-CA-93428

    Rebecca Buckley was still updating her blog in 2020, and seemed to have moved to Las Vegas:

    https://rebeccabuckley.blogspot.com/2020/

  4. I could be having a false memory about the boat bed appearing in “Madame Bovary.”

    It is a highly distinctive piece of furniture, though. I can’t imagine the owning studio not keeping careful track of a loan like that.

    So, you didn’t see any evidence of the boat bed being sold at the big MGM auction, huh?

    Does that mean you have one of the catalogs from that auction? I’ve seen them listed here and there on the Internet, and at some rather dear prices.

    I myself have wondered about what became of the “Gigi” furniture (dubbed as such by me, because the Rococo couch and matching chairs with the giltwood frames and exquisite upholstery were showcased in that visually beautiful 1958 movie):

    https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0051658/mediaviewer/rm245794560/

    I always figured some antique dealer or private collector snagged them. Judging from what I’ve seen, there were probably at least three of the matching chairs, because you see three of them in the ballroom scene in “Meet Me in St. Louis.”

    1. Yes, I have all of the MGM auction catalogs. A vast collection of antiques, furniture statuary, carriages, weapons, costumes, foundry and dry goods to furnish a town in different eras. But no boat bed.
      There could very have been the Gigi furniture. Many of the furniture pieces had what movie they were used in.

  5. Now that I think of it, I believe the boat bed also puts in an appearance in 1949’s “Madame Bovary.”

    It’s a scene where Emma Bovary has an assignation with one of her lovers in a hotel.

    I tried to find a still of it, but no joy. The closest I could get is this still that I think is from the same scene:

    https://www.listal.com/viewimage/12052992

    Interestingly, this movie contains a glimpse of one of my own old film furniture obsessions:

    https://www.listal.com/viewimage/11742429

    Gladys Cooper is sitting on a chair that belongs to a furniture set of which I’ve seen pieces in eleven different old movies thus far, ranging from 1939’s “Ninotchka” to 1967’s “Fitzwilly.”

    1. Thank you again. I just watched Madame Bovary and didn’t notice the bed in this scene – but I was moving quickly through it and concentrating on the costumes of Jennifer Jones. It’s amazing about the other piece of furniture. But once a piece was in the M-G-M prop department it could be used over and over again. What I wonder about the boat bed is how it traveled from one studio to another. Even if a studio rented prop furniture, it should have returned to the owning studio. I saw no evidence that it was sold at the M-G-M auction in 1970.

  6. Christian, You’re very welcome. 🙂

    I went back and found the subsequent appearances of the boat bed in “Two Girls and a Sailor.”

    They start at around the 1:28:35 mark in the dailymotion dot com video, and until almost the 1:31 mark, you get multiple looks at the bed. It’s unmistakable.

    As a bonus, if you watch the whole movie, you’ll get to see Durante do his immortal “Ink A Dink A Do” number.

  7. Great piece, Christian. 🙂

    However, I think you’re missing at least one old movie in which the boat bed puts in an appearance: 1944’s “Two Girls and a Sailor.”

    The screen siren who uses the bed in that one? Jimmy Durante. };-)

    He plays an old vaudevillian down on his luck, squatting in a warehouse.

    You get a glimpse of the bed in the background of the scene at around the 47:00 mark when Durante tells June Allison and Gloria DeHaven, “You got no right to bust into my boudoir like this!”:

    Two Girls and a Sailor (1944)

    https://www.dailymotion.com/video/x248hjo

    You get a better look at it later in the movie, but I’m short on time at the moment, so I’ll let you discover it for yourself.

  8. A fascinating piece, Christian. I was completely unaware of this “boat bed,” but now will be looking for it when I watch these films again. What a rich and glamorous life the bed enjoyed! I hope it is in good hands and well cared for now. With luck it will make its movie comeback someday. Wonderful.

    1. Thank you for your comment Patty. The boat bed’s appearances in film are far enough apart and are in some cases so overwhelmed by the plot and character that it
      gets overlooked. Yet what a history and what a backstory in its genesis in opera and troubadour’s tales. Like you I hope for its safety. I’m not hopeful for its
      reappearance in a movie, but it would make a great documentary.

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