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OSCAR CONTENDERS 2015 – BEST COSTUME

This year brings a wealth of costume-rich movies to see, and several veteran costume designers have secured nominations for Best Costume Design by the Acedemy of Motion Picure Arts and Sciences. The Nominess are: The Grand Budapest Hotel; Inherent Vice; Into the Woods; Maleficent: and Mr Turner.  Each of the movies and their costume designs are certainly excellent in their own way. The Academy’s voters have traditionally favored historical costume movies, or fantasies. Rarely has a contemporary costume movie won this award, only once, in memory.  Below is my summary of the costumes for each of these nominees and my prediction for the winner.

Watch for my annual Silver Screen Modes Most Glamorous Gown Award here after the the 87th Annual Academy Awards on Sunday night February 22nd  for the most glamorous red carpet gown.

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Jude Law plays a young writer staying at the Hotel in its later years

 

Wes Anderson’s film about the Grand Budapest Hotel located in the fictional Alpine country of Zubrowka  as told through its old concierge M. Gustave, is a bravado of costume design.  The costumes were the work of Italian designer Milena Canonero. Ms, Canonero has won three Oscars and has been nominated nine times for Best Costume Design, including her first Oscar for Barry Lyndon in 1975; and for Chariots of Fire;  and most recently for Marie Antoinette in 2006.

In the movie M. Gustave is adorned in a purple tailcoat with red piping that complements his dove-gray pants and cutaway vest. The lobby boys’ costumes are also in purple with red striping.

grand-budapest-hotel 1

 

M. Gustave, as played by Ralph Fiennes,  is intimate with the old ladies who stay at the hotel, here seen below with Madame D. Madame D. was played by Tilda Swinton in heavy makeup.  Ms. Canonero was inspired in the scene below for the design of her gown by a painting by Gustave Klimt.

 

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Jeff Goldblum is shown below as Deputy Kovacs. His costume heightens his demeanor as the serious lawyer he is trying to be. The wide notched  lapels are the styles of the 1930s. Ms. Canonero said she drew inspiration by looking at the photos of George Hurrell and the paintings of Tamara de Lempicka.

grand-budapest-hotel Jeff Goldblum

 

Into the Woods, brings us into a more typical fantasywith costume designs by veteran designer Colleen Atwood. Ms. Atwood has won three Oscars for costume design, and this is her eleventh nomination. Into the Woods is based on the Stephen Sondheim Boadway musical hit,  adaptated as a movie and directed by Rob Marshall.

INTO THE WOODS

Into the Woods stars Meryl Streep as the witch, Johnny Depp as the wolf, Anna Kendrick as Cinderella, and Lilla Crawford as Little Red Riding Hood. Ms. Atwood used the motif of wood bark to design the textile and gown for Meryl Streep. A leather and satin cording was woven into the chiffon to give it a special texture. For the pouffy-sleeved gown shown above and shown in many publicity shots, ribbons were woven into the fabric.

INTO THE WOODS

For Cinderella’s step-sisters, Ms. Atwood used black and taupe colors. She wanted contrast without using black and white. After trying different colors contrasts, she liked the ones shown above the best. Ms. Atwood also used a pale pink for Rapunzel’s costume, with a sheer overlay, giving the ensemble a pale, ethereal look emphasizing that she had been held captive in the tower for so long.

Johnny Depp had suggested the Zoot Suit look himself as a design theme for the wolf’s costume. Ms. Atwood ran with it. The zoot suit had exagerated features and was made famous by singer and band-leader Cab Calloway in the early 1940s and worn by many of the young Mexican-American “Pachucos” in Los Angeles.  The long fur collar and tail were actually made from thread. Little Red Riding Hood’s cape and hood were made of specially dyed lamb’s wool.

 

Into the woods

 

The third Best Costume nominee is Maleficent, designed by Anna B. Sheppard, and it too is for a fantasy, this one a Walt Disney production starring Angelina Jolie.  This is Ms. Sheppard’s third nomination. She has previously been nominated for Schindler’s List, (1992) and The Piano (2002).

 

Oscar Melificent 1

Ms. Sheppard stated that she used Disney’s original animated  Sleeping Beauty from 1959 as the model for Maleficent’s costume, only slimmer. In her original form, above,  Maleficent has her wings. Angelina Jolie makes a great looking fairy Maleficent, her pale skin a contrast to the black horned headpiece and high-collared gown. In the Maleficent costume shown below, Ms. Sheppard used  Python skin for the horns. Duck feathers over leather were used for the capelet.

 

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Photo by Disney Enterprises/Chris Floyd

 

 

 

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The costume of the three fairies are each very different as they hover over the infant Aurora.. The clothing style is from the High Renaissance.

 

MALEFICENT

 

The next nominee, Mr.Turner takes us to  early19th century Britain, and the art world of the eccentric but brilliant painter J.M.W. Turner. Jacqueline Curran designed the costumes in the film directed by Mike Leigh, in their sixth collaboration.   She won an Oscar for Anna Karenina, their last film together. Her emphasis was to design in a muted palette of colors, with Mr. Turner’s being on the dark side, typical of the period. This was also done to contrast with the light which was such a focus of his paintings.

 

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Timothy Spall plays Mr. Turner, shown in the photos above and below

The film only covered a twenty-five year time period in his life, so the silhouette of his costumes didn’t much change.  The film’s costume budget was also modest. But it was intentional that all the costumes looked “lived-in.”

Oscar Mr TURNER

 

And now for something completely different, we go to Hollywood in 1970, a place and time I knew well.  Inherent Vice, designed by Mark Bridges is directed by Paul Thomas Anderson, and is based on the Thomas Pynchon  1970-era novel. Bridges has designed all of Anderson’s previous movies, and he won the 2012 Best Costume Oscar for The Artist.

Although set in 1970, the styles were very much that of the hippy-chic modes of late 1960s. In the Pynchon book in particular, the women’s styles emphasized sexiness. The men were either hippies mobsters, or the detectives that were after them for drugs, or various musicians and other gonzo characters.

 

INHERENT VICE

Katherine Waterston is seen above in one of the vintage styles of the period. Designer Mark Bridges tried to have a short crocheted dress made out of macramé but it never worked. He ended up finding the perfect dress in a vintage store. He did dye it to make it more orange, however. And with a dress this short, pantyhose would have been worn in those days.

la-et-Inherent Vice

Joaquin Phoenix is shown above as detective “Doc” Sportello, next to the prim Reese Witherspoon playing a D.A.. Mark Bridges said he kept his main characters like Doc in very similar costumes, since the plot was complicated, the character’s costumes helped ground the story.

Mark Bridges went to the L.A.County Museum of Art to study the iconic fashions of 1960s/1970s designer Rudi Gernreich. This became the inspiration for Serena Scott Thomas’ bathing suit, shown below. This knock-out piece had no straps in the back and had a very low back at the posterior. It took several fittings to make it work. Serena is the younger sister of Kristin Scott Thomas. Below is shown Mark Bridges’ costume sketch and a photo of her wearing the bathing suit, playing a mobster’s wife named Sloane Wolfmann. Bridges said the bathing suit was one of his favorite costume pieces in the movie.

 

Inherent vice

 

As I mentioned previously, contemporary costume design rarely wins the Best Costume Design Oscar, which is voted on by all Academy members. Whereas the big marketing and publicity budgets and other techniques of influencing the voters do have a significant role, this is less a factor in the costume award, as is the case with the other craft awards as well.

The costume designer nominees are all experts with excellent work presented here and with notable past achievements. There are several fantasies and historical movies that would seem to please the voters among which to choose from. My own prediction would be that The Grand Budapest Hotel will win. The film’s visual exuberance exempified by its costumes is one of its trademarks. It has already been awarded the BAFTA (British Academy of Film and Television Arts) Costume Design Award, and seems to be the front-runner. We will see on Sunday, February 22.

 

 

 

 

 

 

THE DUELLISTS: RIDLEY SCOTT’S NAPOLEONIC THRILLER

Let it not be said that men are not the equal of women as duelling divas. There is no better proof than in the film The Duellists, with its noble heritage of being based on a Joseph Conrad short story titled The Duel, which in turn was based on a true story about two members of Napoleon’s cavalry that carried on a series of duels with each other that lasted 20 years , from 1794 to 1813.

The Duellists, made in 1977, was the directorial debut of Ridley Scott. It was made for Paramount under a  tight budget of $900,000, and Scott was offered certain actors to work with. Those who accepted to be the principals were Harvey Keitel as the hot-headed Cavalry Hussar Gabriel Feraud, and Keith Carradine as Hussar Armand D’Hubert. Keith Carradine almost didn’t accept since his song I’m Easy was a hit in 1976, and had received the Oscar for Best Original Song for Nashville. He was  thinking maybe the singer-songwriter life was calling him.

The panoramic scene below is not a duel between the protagonists, but rather of Feraud at left just before he seriously wounds the nephew of the Mayor of Strasbourg, which sends Carradine/D’Hubert on orders to arrest him for duelling, which precipitates their years-long grudge match of duels.

The Duelling Divas Blogathon is hosted by Lara at the Backlots blog

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This opening scene is very reminiscent of the opening pastoral duelling scene of Stanley Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon, made only two years before and undoubtedly a stylistic influence on The Duellists. The scene below takes place at Mme. de Lionne’s salon, where D’Hubert is about to tell Feraud he is under arrest.

The costumes were excellent in the film, designed by Tom Rand and fabricated in Italy. The military uniforms were very accurate.  The Hussar’s uniform of the period consisted of a fur-trimmed pelisse jacket with rows of buttons, frogging and loops, worn over the left shoulder. The torso was also covered with a dolman that also featured rows of frogging and a two-toned barrel sash. the trousers worn inside  cavalry boots. Belted sabers were accessorized with the black leather “sabretache” pouch that featured the Napoleonic eagle. The hat was the tall leather shako with brass chin straps, emblems, and feather, and later the bearskin hat. The colors of the uniforms depended on the regiments. D’Hubert at left wears the colors of the 4th Hussars, Feraud at right that of the 7th Hussars. Historically all hussars were light cavalry and assumed to be impetuous. They used sabers, pistols and carbines as weapons.

 

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D’Hubert’s visit, official business or not, was perceived by Feraud as an insult and the cause for their 1st duel. In filming these fight sequences, Ridley Scott operated the camera himself, using a hand-held camera and getting close to the action, dodging sword swings as he shot. Scott had been a maker of commercials before turning filmmaker, so he felt comfortable operating his own camera, talking directly to actors  while filming, and paying attention to the details of set design. He stated this made is easier for him to be thrifty while still achieving his goals in filmmaking.

The duel below ends with Feraud being wounded, but his girlfriend saved him by jumping on D’Hubert and severely scratching his face.

 

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The photo below shows a close-up of the hussar uniform and hair-style. The French hussars’ hair was worn long, somewhat typical of their Hungarian origins. It was braided at the side, this to add protection from saber cuts to the cheeks. The back was worn in a knotted queue, offering more protection for the back of the neck. Mustaches added extra panache. The red and white barrel sash belt was largely decorative – its origin was that of a rope to tether horses.

 

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The scene below was shot from the interior of a village building that was transformed into a café. Scott filmed the movie mostly in France in the Dordogne area, No sets were used, only real buildings and outdoor settings. This worked for its authenticity and also to save money. Carradine as D’Hubert sits looking outside the window with his friend and fellow lieutenant Lacourbe played by Alun Armstrong. Also in the scene is the great actress Diana Quick, playing D’Hubert’s girlfriend Laura. Outside the window, the dreaded Feraud’s friend and second can be seen walking down the street, who also sees D’Hubert. Thus, the second duel is set up.

 

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The second duel  is also set in a pastoral landscape, on a lush carpet of grass using epees as weapons. The duel is quick, as Feraud runs his blade into D’Hubert’s chest. The wound is not mortal, but quickly ends this encounter. He is seen lying on the ground surrounded by the other hussars in the image below.

 

Duellists 7 Alan Armstrong

Laura nurses D’Hubert back to health, yet they separate as he prepares for another duel. This one is fought to exhaustion with swords inside of a vaulted barn. Ridley Scott shot this sequence himself as well with a hand-held camera. He used some rudimentary special effects, using chicken wire on the walls that had been wired to a 12 volt battery, so when Keitel’s sword blade hit the wall sparks flew (and Keitel got jolted). The duel ends in a draw, as both men are bloodied and can barely lift their sabers, they lock arms and collapse on the floor.

 

Duellists 3rd

In 1806  D’Hubert is now in Lubeck, with the rank of Captain. Again with  Lacourbe in a tavern, he is spotted by Feraud, who has also achieved the same rank. Fighting a superior officer would be grounds for a courts martial . Feraud immediately challenges him to another duel, this time on horseback, a “tribute to the cavalry,” D’Hubert is told, who finds it hard to take this connection seriously.

The duel will be made by cavalry charges with sabers. D’Hubert is nervous, remembering his previous chest wound. When the two pass each other in their “joust,” Feraud is struck on the head and knocked off his horse. D’Hubert celebrates by jumping his horse over a cart piled high with hay and then races down a country lane.

 

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The Napoleonic wars continue and D’Hubert and Feraud find themselves in the disastrous Russian campaign. In the frozen terrain they are about to shoot each other with pistols when cossacks attack them, so they empty their pistols  at the cossacks instead.

After the wars D’Hubert, now a General, returns to a more peaceful life. He visits his sister and her two sons. The sons, shown in the picture below, were played by Ridley Scott’s two boys: Jason and Luke Scott.

 

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D’Hubert’s sister Leonie, played by Meg Wynn Owen, introduces him to the beautiful Adele, played by Cristina Raines. Cristina just happened to be Keith Carradine’s girlfriend at the time. In the scene below he proposes to her. She can’t keep from laughing, however, as according to Scott, Keith’s horse had an erection during the shooting. Erection or not, the horse should have gotten a Best Supporting Actor Award for continuously nudging Keith in Cristina’s direction.

 

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In the Conrad story D’Hubert wants to settle a final duel with pistols before he marries and so writes a letter to Feraud. In the movie Feraud’s  friend and second, Chevalier played by John McNery, now in humbled condition as is his companion, finds D’Hubert and asks for satisfaction on Feraud’s behalf – for a now long-forgotten reason. In fact unknown to Feraud, D’Hubert had saved his life by intervening when Feraud was put on a death list when the new Bourbon king came back on the throne. Feraud and many Bonapartists were in disfavor at best with the new royal regime.

As they had left off in Russia, pistols would be the weapon: two pistols; one shot in each in open country.

 

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True to his character, Feraud is the more tempetuous, firing more quickly in their game of cat and mouse. D’Hubert is left with the last shot, which he can take at close quarters. Instead, he spares Feraud’s life, on condition that he forever leaves him in peace.

The last film shots are of Feraud overlooking the hills and a river. He is expressionless, and we are left to draw our own conclusion about his state of mind. Like his Emperor’s, his ultimate battle was a defeat. And the monarchy and its aristocracy, that they both fought against, were back in power in France and safe on their thrones throughout Europe.

 

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One can view The Duellists as an anti-war film, or one depicting the futility of war as represented by the stupidity of duelling. It was in any case an auspicious beginning for Ridley Scott. While it had limited distribution in the U.S., it won a Best First Work at Cannes where Ridley Scott was nominated for a Palme d’Or, and was nominated for Best Cinematography and Best Costume by BAFTA. One can see in this film Scott’s clear focus on setting and his characters’ often  sharp delineation in that world. The chiaroscuro of his cinematography is both beautiful and effective, and a hallmark of his film Blade Runner.

There is no more iconic story of dueling divos than The Duellists, but it is also fundamentally a story of forgiveness.

 

 

THE 10 WILDEST COSTUMES IN FILM HISTORY

Hollywood movies have a rich history of wild and outrageous costumes. My list of the “Ten Wildest” must be prefaced. I did not include show girl, chorine, or musical number costumes. If I had, Adrian would likely have taken all ten slots in his costumes from The Great Ziegfeld, and Ziegfeld Girl.  I also did not include fantasy, fairy tales, superhero, and science fiction movies, which precluded the great costumes from movies such as The Hobbit series, Snow White and the Huntsman,  the Star Wars series, and the fabulous Edward Scissorhands costume.

I did include the  costumes from historical characters on film, and from masked balls, which often depict historical characters, although with a bit of fantasy. Quite a bit as we’ll see later.  The costumes skew to the 1930s. As has been written about elsewhere, so much energy was channeled into the movies as a release from the Depression and other societal pressures. This was especially true for film costume design. Well represented below are the great designers of that field: Adrian; Travis Banton; Walter Plunkett; Edith Head, and Irene Sharaff.

Your own list may be very different than mine. There are many costumes out there to discover. But to start out 2015, here’s my ten wildest costumes of the last century on film. They are arranged in chronological order.

 

Costume Wild Salome Nazimova

1) Alla Nazimova in SALOME. Costume design by Natasha Rambova, 1923

The Biblical story of Salome, the daughter of Herod II and the original femme fatal, is told in this film, based on the Oscar Wilde story. The sets and costumes were designed by Natasha Rambova, the wife and manager of Rudolph Valentino. Even Erte was an admirer of Rambova’s style. She was born in Salt Lake City, and was not Russian. She did dance in the ballet and was very talented. She hired Adrian in New York to design costumes for Valentino, and was responsible for bringing him out to Hollywood with them. This costume was inspired by the book illustrations of Aubrey Beardsley.

 

Costume wild Evelyn Brent_ Slightly Scarlet_gray shades_001

2) Evelyn Brent in SLIGHTLY SCARLET  Costume design by Travis Banton, 1930

Evelyn Brent plays the unwilling accomplice of a jewel thief in Paris and the French Riviera in this caper. She looks like a jewel herself in this Travis Banton “hostess gown.”  The fabric was a sapphire blue chiffon, encrusted with crystal bugle beads. She wears no brassiere, definitely pre-code.

 

 

Costume wild Mme Satan 2

3) Kay Johnson in MADAM SATAN Costume design by  Adrian, 1930

This is a C.B. DeMille directed movie, which has to be seen if only for its Zeppelin Ball and “Ballet Mecanique” sequence. Kay Johnson plays a staid housewife that is losing the attention of her husband and so takes on the persona of “Madame Satan” at a party on a dirigible. The costume designed by Adrian had red sequins on the interior of the cape, flame-cut fabric that went up the bodice, flame shaped gauntlet gloves, and the horned mask. The velvet was not black but a dark purple that registered better on the black and white film.  See below.

 

Costume wild Madam Satan 1

 

 

 

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4) Greta Garbo in Mata Hari. Costume design by Adrian, 1931

Certainly one of the most amazing costumes in movie history is this outfit made for Garbo in Mata Hari, its pants were made of gold mesh, the bodice of spruce green colored glass beads, and crystals, with a metallic scull-cap, jeweled-belt, and a bugle-beaded, long-trained skirt. Yet the costume was backless, a typical asymmetrical flourish of Adrian’s, but one showing Garbo’s vulnerability as Mata Hari the spy. Fifteen women worked three weeks to make the costume.

 

Dietrich Coq feathers

5) Marlene Dietrich in SHANGHAI EXPRESS. Costume design by Travis Banton, 1932

Marlene Dietrich plays “Shaghai Lilly” in Von Sternberg’s film, playing a regular rider on the Shanghai Express, living by any means possible in China for a woman of her beauty and wits. Travis Banton dresses her to perfection for the role, the picture of allure that only the silver screen and the glamour photography of the era can capture. The black coq feathures, skull cap, and veil, concentrates attention on her face, yet surrounds it in mystery. Still the confidence and the power of glamour radiates from within. The long  string of pearls add sparkle over the black dress. The gloves and bag are Hermes.

 

Costume wild Hepburn Christopher Strong

6) Katharine Hepburn in CHRISTOPHER STRONG Designed by Walter Plunkett, 1933.

Katharine Hepburn played an aviator in this story of complicated love affairs within the Brittish upper classes. This was her first starring role. Here she wears this stunning Walter Plunkett designed costume to a party, The costume’s theme is “the silver moth” taken from “The White Moth,” an early working title for the film. The costume was made from small silver-metallic squares like an airplane would be, and she had a skull cap/helmet with the antennae of a moth. Indeed, she flies too close to the sun.

 

Costumes Wild Cleopatra 34 1
Photo courtesy Photofest

 7) Claudette Colbert in CLEOPATRA, Designed by Travis Banton, 1934.

Cleopatra was one of the Cecil B. DeMille spectacles, and despite its age, holds up well in its visual and storytelling qualities. The sets are amazing, though very much influenced by the styles of the 1930s, but the same holds true with the later Cleopatra and the influence of the 1960s. Travis Banton’s costumes are magnets for the eye, with essentially simple form-fitting, 1930s silhouettes adorned with Egyptian-chic  accesories. Banton had a series of arguments with Claudette Colbert over the designs for her costumes.  She found them too revealing, with disapproving comments written all over his beautiful costume sketches. He left a second set of costume sketches for her approval, with instructions that she had better either like these or slit her wrists. The next day Banton waited and waited, only to have them returned streaked with dried blood. Furious, Banton left the studio and went on a binge, not returning until several days later when studio head Adolph Zukor called him personally and mediated the situation.

 

Color Cleopatra_1934_3

 

 

 

Costumes wild GWTW
Photo courtesy Photofest

8) Vivien Leigh in GONE WITH THE WIND, Designed by Walter Plunkett, 1939.

This is one of the most iconic costumes in movie history. Although the curtain dress was part of the original novel, Plunkett designed it with  much panache, adding its one sided capelet and huge tassled belt. Plunkett picked a green velvet to match Vivien Leigh’s eyes, although he had parts of it faded to look like authentic curtains. Vivien’s hat of velvet and black coq feathers was made by Mr. John. Scarlett wears the costume in crucial scenes as she goes asking for money from Rhett and then runs into Frank Kennedy.

 

 

Costume wilf Grace-Kelly

9) Grace Kelly in TO CATCH A THIEF, Designed by Edith Head, 1955

The exquisite Grace Kelly does not play hard to get opposite Cary Grant in this movie where we are kept wondering, is he or is he not a jewel thief, operating on the French Riviera (jewel thieves and the Riviera have a long history in film). This movie has some of Edith Head’s best costumes, and the one above is a knockout. It is worn at a costume party and the plot’s climax, and Grace is wears the mock Marie Antoinette 18th century gown of gold lame, complete with golden birds and a golden wig.

 

Costumes Wild Cleopatra 63
Photo courtesy Photofest

 

10) Elizabeth Taylor in CLEOPATRA, Designed by Irene Sharaff, 1963.

The last “wild costume” comes from another Cleopatra, and probably the most lavish costume film in history. In fact the production and marketing costs of $44 million (in 1963 dollars) for the movie nearly bankrupted 20th Century-Fox, and halted production on several of the studio’s movies. The number of costume changes for Elizabeth Taylor still holds a record at 65 costumes. The gold costume above and below was made of seed pearls, gold bugle beads, and sequins, including  a cape made of 24-carat gold -covered leather strips, made to look like the wings of a Phoenix.

costume wild Cleopatra Liz
Courtesy 20th Century-Fox

 

If only we still had such Masked Balls.

 

 

BONHAMS/TCM AUCTION ANOTHER HIGH FOR OZ

The Bonhams TCM auction held in New York on November 24 set a record for the Cowardly Lion costume worn by Bert Lahr in The  Wizard of Oz, selling for $3, 077,000 including the buyer’s premium. It had belonged previously belonged to James Comisar, who had owned it for years and had it restored. He is the founder of the Television Museum in Los Angeles and sold it to raise funds to develop the museum. Another high spot at the auction was the piano played by Dooley Wilson in Casablanca, which also sold for $3,413,000. This is the second year of collaboration between TCM (Turner Classic Movies) and Bonhams. This year’s theme was There’s No Place Like Hollywood, celebrating the 75th anniversary of The Wizard of Oz. The auction also featured a Dorothy pinafore, an early test model, that sold for $245,000 including premium. A Munchkin’s soldier’s jacket also sold for $23,700, among other Oz items. TCM Cowardly Lion The Cowardly Lion’s mane has been duplicated as it was not part of the costume when it was sold at the MGM auction in 1970. Dorothy’s pinafore, a test version designed by Adrian, like all the others, was not the final one used in the film.  This same Cowardly Lion suit failed to sell at the Profiles in History auction of December 15-16, 2011. Profiles in History subsequently consigned it to eBay where it sold for $805,000.TCM auction Dorothy

TCM Auction 2014

 

For further information on the sales history of several of the Wizard of Oz costumes, see my blog post: http://silverscreenmodes.com/?p=145

NORMA SHEARER: 1st SCREEN SYMBOL OF SEXUAL LIBERATION?

There were more far more beautiful actresses than Norma Shearer in the 1920s and 30s, and more pretty and flirtateous ones: the “It Girl” Clara Bow, or the beguiling Louise Brooks at Paramount. Gloria Swanson was there too, all of them representing the allure of sex without ever engaging in it.  At MGM, the hot looks of Joan Crawford, Greta Garbo, and Jean Harlow were magnets in the roles they played. Garbo was the  foreign exotic, made to seek redemption for her sexual transgressions, even in her Pre-code films.   And at Warner Brothers, gangster movies and women going bad were part of the wave that came with the Great Depression. We forget the revolutionary roles of Norma Shearer in the Pre-Code era, drowned amidst her later sympathetic and well-known roles in films such as Romeo and Juliet and The Women, and even Marie Antoinette.  But it was Norma Shearer that broke the barrier of the “everyday” middle-class woman on screen that had sex just because she wanted to, or in her ground-breaking role in The Divorcee (1930), to get back at her cheating husband.

Norma  Shearer Hurrell

Norma Shearer had already  been making films at MGM for several years, she in fact starred in the studio’s first film, He Who Gets Slaped, in 1924. Although many of her roles were good, she was ambitious and wanted to push the envelope. She wanted roles that were daring, and wanted to break out from the “good girl” stereotype -roles that would later be considered liberating to women. That she was married to MGM production head Irving Thalberg was both a blessing and a curse. She had access, which in Thalberg’s case was exremely hard to get. On the other hand he didn’t think she was glamorous or sexy enough for these kind of roles. But Norma was undeterred. So she turned to two consumate artists. The first was photographer George Hurrell, who took a series of photographs of her in poses that, while sexually suggestive, were done in a manner that enhanced her best features and remained in good taste. These photographs surprised and ultimately convinced Thalberg that she had the qualities to take on the role for the film The Divorcee. The second artist was Adrian. He had just been made Head Designer at MGM in 1928, where in his first year he designed her costumes in A Lady of Chance, and the following year for The Last of Mrs Cheyney. His designs emphasized her best features while compensating for her less than ideal figure, all while making her look chic and alluring.  In The Last of Mrs Cheyney her role is such that one is kept guessing as to whether she is a “good girl” or a “bad girl.”  She plays a jewel thief – but with a twist. She is shown below with Basil Rathbone. The dynamic is that he’s from the upper-class and has no compunction about playing the field. But what rules apply to women? In 1929 there was still the basic elements of a code, but questions were being asked and doubts were being raised.

 

Norma Last of Mrs. Cheyney

With The Divorcee the year later (1930) a big leap had been made by Norma and the movies.  This is the script she had lobbied her husband for. It was based on a book by Ursula Parrott, Ex-Wife.  Norma described the role as  “…very strong, almost ruthless. Perfect for me.” And perfect for getting her out of the too-refined and too sweet roles she had been playing for years. Adrian takes her through a make-over with obvious results. She is transformed into a woman of the world – and into a very modern woman – no longer an ingenue of the 1920s. Her husband has been cheating on her. So she gets even by cheating on him – with his best friend.  When he finds out, has a fit, gets drunk and decides to walk out on her, she has her own angry speech, “I’m glad I discovered there’s more than one man in the world, while I’m young and they want me. Believe me, I’m not missing anything from now on. Loose women are great…From now on you’re the only man in the world my door is closed to!”

Below Norma Shearer never looked better – dresssed by Adrian in The Divorcee and out on the town with Robert Montgomery.  Norma won the Best Actress Oscar for her role. She attended the Academy Awards ceremony in an Adrian gown she wore in the film, the first recorded designer gown at the Oscars.

Norma Shearer and Robert Montgomery The Divorcee2

Soon after making The Divorcee, Norma made Let Us Be Gay, 1930, In this story too she plays a wife with a cheating husband, Only she has two children, and to emphasize the make-over central to the plot, Norma begins the movie wearing no make-up and in frumpy clothes. Three years later she is visiting her rich friend Mrs. Bouccicault, played by Marie Dressler.  “What have you been doing since I left you in Paris, she asks?”   Norma playing Kitty Brown, replies, “Oh different men for different months.” Kitty is now the well-dressed sophisticate, the magnet for every man in the entourage, including her former husband who happens to be there, shocked at her transformation. He is courting Mrs. Boucci’s granddaughter, and that’s why Kitty has been invited to lure him away from her.

The photo below shows Norma Shearer as Kitty Brown, the center of attention in her black Adrian gown. Seated at left is Hedda Hopper. This famous gossip columnist was a fashion plate in her day, and always loved the way Adrian dressed her in her movie roles.

 

Norma Shearer let-us-be-gay

Norma’s most daring role followed in Strangers May Kiss, 1931. In this movie she doesn’t believe in marriage. She has one boyfrend, played by Neil Hamilton, that travels with her, but is secretly married and then goes off on a trip without her. Another man loves her, played by Robert Montgomery, but she’s not in love with him. Stung by her boyfriend’s betrayal – she travels to Europe, where she will experience all the other men she fancies. And does she. The character Norma plays is openly sexually aggressive, and there are many references to that in the film. “She changes her men with her lingerie…” one man says.  In the scene pictured below, she tells Robert Montgomery, “I’m in an orgy –  wallowing – and I love it.”

The movie’s ending is rather implausable, and belies the point of the theme, but Pre-Code or not, social conventions and the MGM’s need to maintain a certain stature for Mrs. Thalberg prevailed. As it was the studio was getting a lot of flack by some critics, and  within the then Studio Relations Committee that reviewed movies  as part of the Production Code,  it represented: “…the initiatory stages of the degeneration of a people.” as one member put it.*

Norma Shearer and Robert Montgomery

Adrian’s gowns were defining  more and more Norma’s elegant but beguiling roles.  Norma especially liked the sleek nightgowns he designed for her, that she would wear without undergarments while filming. “Norma’s nighties” these would be called, and she would ask for them in all her movies.

Norma Shearer 1931

For A Free Soul below, Norma wears an Adrian-designed nightgown made of a tangerine-colored velvet with a train. Both train and the cord at the waist help accentuate her figure.

 

Norma Shearer_A Free Soul

A Free Soul, 1931, throws in more complexities in the plot. Based on the book by Adella Rogers St. John about her own life, Norma plays the daughter of defense attorney Stephen Ashe, played by Lionel Barrymore. Their relationship is troubled by his alcoholism. Norma’s steady boyfriend is played by Leslie Howard, an upper-crust type. One of Ashe’s clients is the criminal Ace Wilfong, played by Clark Gable in his first starring role. Norma as Jan Ashe is stricken by Ace’s animal magnetism and sexual attraction. In a famous scene from the movie, where they are together in his apartment, she cuts him off when he is talking about himself, reclining on his couch, she says, “Come on, put ’em around me.”

 

Norma and Clark A Free Soul

A Free Soul won Lionel Barrymore a Best Actor Oscar, mainly based on his stirring courtroom speech in the film. Norma was nominated for Best Actress but did not win. Clark Gable, not yet with mustache, was all over the fan magazines. The “Put ’em around me” scene caused more problems with the Studio Relations Committee and the American Motion Pictures Producers. The movie had managed to put both free sex and gansters in a good light.

Norma’s next movie, and her last “Pre-Code” film was Riptide, 1934. Here she plays a woman with a full romantic history but is married to an English Lord for convenience, played by Herbert Marshal. While he is off on a trip abroad she decides to go on one herself to Cannes on the Riviera, on the invitation of his aunt. But there she just happens to run into an old flame played by Robert Montgomery in the same hotel, and in adjoining rooms. The sex is is not overt here and Norma is not on the make. Robert Montgomery is the aggressor, which leads to the plot twists.

At this point in the cycle of her Pre-Code films, Norma Shearer had  blazed a trail of “sexual liberation.”  In that regard, and in its acting, Riptide is the weakest of her movies. It must also be said that she had become the lightening rod for the forces of censorship in the U.S. (and in other countries). This had also become an issue for Irving Thalberg. After a heart attack and a forced temporary leave, and against his will, he was replaced as head of production at MGM.

Riptide achieved the peak of glamour for Norma Shearer.  Adrian’s designs achieved Norma’s ultimate desires for sophisticated yet sexy dress, as shown in the following two images.

 

Norma Shearer_Riptide

 

Adrian’s designs for Norma Shearer often use a long skirt or gown that accentuate a flowing look for her otherwise short-legged figure. He also used fabrics and beaded material that hugged her figure to accentuate the slimness she worked hard to achieve.

 

Norma Shearer_Riptide_2

 

Enough protest had been taking place around the country, led by some of the churches and others, that the Production Code Administration took control of film content on July 1, 1934. Joseph Breen was its head, and there would be serious changes in how films were made. Naturally, anything to do with sex, especially women’s roles, would be scrutinized. Anything in the script would not likely be approved, anything that made it to the film would be subject to cutting. And anything that referenced “sex” that was not of the approved kind would need to have the character (the woman) punished as a consequence or made clear that the person  was a harlot. Criminals would also always be punished at the end of the story.

Norma Shearer had served a pivotal role in depicting women and their ability to choose their sexual identity and liberties, fleeting as it was. Actresses before her were sexual icons without overtly exercising sexual expression. Contemporaries like Greta Garbo that did make those choices on film were exotics that paid the price or sought redemption at the end. And others including Joan Crawford, Jean Harlow, and Barbara Stanwyck played women on the make or from a tough upbringing. Norma Shearer represented the middle and upper-middle class, and thus, many women fantasized about themselves while seeing her on film. For that she was more dangerous.

The next film Norma made would set the tone for her several films to follow: The Barretts of Wimpole Street, 1934 based on the life of Elizabeth Barrett Browning. This was followed by Romeo and Juliet, 1936,  and then Marie Antoinette, 1938.  They were all beautiful romantic films, though two had tragic endings – endings natural to the story, but certaily in compliance with the Production Code Administration for any transgression that was committed by the leading actress.

 

Norma Shearer and Tyrone Power
Norma Shearer as Marie Antoinette with Tyrone Power who plays her lover Count Axel de Fersen

 

* Vieira, Mark.  Sin in Soft Focus: Pre-Code Hollywood.New York: Harry Abrams, 1999, p 52.

See also LaSalle, Mick. Complicated Women: Sex and Power in Pre-Code Hollywood. New York: St.Martin’s, 2000 for an excellent discussion of women’s roles in Pre-Code films.

Gail Patrick: The Forgotten Star

gail_patrick 2

Gail Patrick was the perfect contrast for such sweet and adorable blond stars as Carole Lombard in My Man Godfrey and Irene Dunne in My Favorite Wife. She could also play the perfect bitch, roles that didn’t seem to phase her. She knew that with her tall, lithe figure, she was also the perfect model, and she need never be intimidated in any room, especially with a Baccalaureate degree tucked away in her purse pocket.

This post is part of the Classic Movie Blog Association’s Forgotten Star Blogathon.

Gail Patrick was born  Margaret LaVelle Fitzpatrick in Birmingham, Alabama, on June 20, 1911,  She had an older and a younger brother, and thus grew up competing for attention. Her family was very social, and  in the Southern manner, talk and storytelling were part of the environment. Gail received a B.A. from Howard College where she also served as dean of women for a period. She pursued a law degree at the University of Alabama, but after entering a publicized nation-wide contest by Paramount Pictures to play the “Panther Woman” in Island of the Lost Souls in 1932, she gave up her academic life and went Hollywood.  She lost the role to Kathleen Burke, who she nonetheless befriended. It turned out to be a good thing for Gail, her friend Kathleen later related to her that she could never get another good role after being identified as “the Panther Woman.”

 

Gail Patrick Death_Takes_Holiday_1934
Frederick March at left with Gail Patrick as a blond in Death Takes a Holiday, 1934, Photo courtesy Photofest

Gail was nevertheless placed on contract at Paramount Pictures for $50 a week. Not a large sum by movie star standards but a lot of money compared to what many people were earning during the Depression. She was given several uncredited roles in 1932-1933, and with her legal education she quickly negotiated her salary to $75 a week, and added a clause in her contract that she would not pose for cheesecake photos. In 1934 she played a minor role in a more important film, Death Takes a Holiday, shown above. It was directed by Mitchel Leisen and starred Frederick March and Evelyn Venable. In what would later be remade as Meet Joe Black.  This was Gail’s first film to be dressed by the talented Travis Banton. From here on, with the exception of a few westerns, Gail Patrick would be a fashion plate on film.

 

Gail Patrick 3

In the photo above Gail Patrick does her best dark Marlene Dietrich imitation in a publicity shot for Mississippi, 1935. The movie has apparently never made it to video or DVD, but was a classic pairing of W,C Fields and Bing Crosby. Crosby played Gail’s beau, until he didn’t meet up to her Southern ideals, whereupon he was relegated to her sister Joan Bennett’s attentions. This was one of eight movies Gail Patrick made in 1935.

Gail’s tough sister act in Mississippi must have made an impression on director Gregory LaCava, who cast her as Cornelia Bullock, the tough and jealous socialite sister of Carole Lombard in the wonderful My Man Godfrey. As Cornelia she tries her best to get William Powell as Godfrey fired since she couldn’t win his attention. As devious as Cornelia is in the movie, and in the best use of characterization, one can  be redeemed, and here we see Gail/Cornelia transformed by the nobleness of Godfrey.

 

Gail Patrick My Man Godfrey 1936
Carole Lombard, William Powell, and Gail Patrick in My Man Godfrey. Photo courtesy Photofest

 

Gail married Robert Howard Cobb in 1936, the first of her four husbands. He was the owner of the famed Brown Derby restaurant in Hollywood. The second was the derby-hat shaped restaurant on Wilshire Boulevard accross from the Ambassador Hotel, and its famed Coconut Grove lounge. All were famous as hang-outs for the stars. Alas , all are now gone. One lasting tradition, the Cobb salad, invented at the Brown Derby and named after its owner.

Gail played a leading role in a little known film titled Her Husband Lies  (originally The Love Trap), from 1937. The story is based on the character of the notorious gambler and gangster Arnold Rothstein (characterized in Boardwalk Empire). Gail plays a nightclub singer married to Spade Martin played by Ricardo Cortez as the Rothstein character. He swore to his wife he was going straight but due to a variety of circumstances involving his younger brother, he gets sucked back into the underworld of gambling. Gail goes back to singing torch songs at the nightclub, and film noir starts early in this movie from the late 1930s.

Gail was dressed by Edith Head in this film as Travis Banton was having his problems with alcohol. Edith would soon be made head designer at Paramount. She followed his advice though, “When in doubt, trim in fur.”

Gail Patrick_The Love Trap
Gail Patrick in Her Husband Lies.

Gail’s next big role was as a society beauty in Artists and Models, in 1937, co-starring Jack Benny, Ida Lupino, and Richard Arlen. The movie was a Paramount take-off from the Shubert’s Broadway Revues of the same title, the musical and chorus-girl themed shows popular in the 1920s. The central plot involved the production of the Artists and Models Ball. Jack Benny as the Ball Chairman had offered the “Queen of the Ball” role to his girlfriend Ida Lupino, a working class girl. But then he meets society girl Gail Patrick playing the part of Cynthia Wentworth, selling tickets for a charity benefit, and he offers her the “Queen of the Ball” role. The plot hinges somewhat on who will win out, but the real action is in the models and the musical numbers, including numbers by Louis Armstrong and Andre Kostelanetz. A real controversy ensued from the film’s showing in the South due to the  musical number with Martha Raye, this due to her apparent interacting with the black musicians and  dancing and gyrating in a style of the “negroes.”*

With all the emphasis on fashion and the musical stage costumes, Travis Banton got serious and produced some beautiful costumes for the film

 

Gail Patrick Artists And Models1937
Artists and Models – Left to right: Leroy Prinz; Ida Lupino; Raoul Walsh; and Gail Patrick. Photo courtesy Photofest.

Her next film was another classic and one of my favorite movies, Stage Door (below), directed by Gregory LaCava, whom she had worked with in My Man Godfrey, but this time at RKO. Before The Women, this was the women’s film par excellance. Its cast is a good indication of that: Katharine Hepburn; Ginger Rogers; Eve Arden; Lucille Ball; Ann Miller; Constance Collier; Andrea Leeds and of course Gail Patrick. Moreover, they are all roomates at the Footlighters Club, a boardinghouse for aspiring actresses in New York, supporting (or competing with) each other for roles on the stage. Constance Collier serves as a reminder of how it can all go bad, a sort of Norma Desmond without the mansion. This is also the model movie for delicious wisecracking and the women’s dialogue talking all over each other. The instant antagonism between roomates and polar opposites played by Katharine Hepburn and Ginger Rogers reflected their own rivalry at RKO, and the boarding house rivalry between the Ginger Rogers and Gail Patrick characters is feisty to say the least, spiced up with the wisecracks of Eve Arden and Lucille Ball,  some of it apparently improvised. Only the Andrea Leeds character is innocent, a victim of the system. Competing for roles and sometimes competing  for the same men, Stage Door shows the highs and lows of the stage life.

The women’s wardrobe for Stage Door was designed by Muriel King, a freelance costume designer and fashion designer.

 

gail-patrick-in-stage-door-(1937)

Several B movies and smaller roles followed: Mad About Music; Dangerous to Know; Wives Under Suspicion; King of Alcatraz; Disbarred; Man of Conquest; Grand Jury Secrets; Reno; and The Doctor Takes a Wife, where she plays the “other woman” to Loretta Young.

 

Gail Patrick My_Favorite_Wife_1940_

And then came My Favorite Wife, 1940, where the “other woman” role got really close to importance, as the groom was Cary Grant. As character Nick Arden he was finally free to marry Gail playing Bianca Bates after his wife was declared dead after seven years of being missing at sea.  The couple drive off to a honeymoon at a Yosemite lodge, unfortunately the same spot of his first honeymoon, where the now just-returned first wife played by Irene Dunne goes looking for him.  Plenty of surprise, embarrassment, and consternation is had by all.  And then Cary has to make a decision between her and Irene Dunne. Maybe Randolph Scott that Dunne dragged home with her from the shipwreck island where they lived together will complicate things sufficiently, it certainly did with the movie’s censor. Now if only his wife will take him back, but which one?

This was another RKO film, directed first by the talented Leo McCarey, but following a serious car accident Garson Kanin finished directing the film. Costume designer Howard Greer, formerly at Paramount, who now had his own fashion business based in Los Angeles, designed the women’s wardrobe.

 

gail patrick william powell 1

 

By 1941 Gail had perfected the “other woman” role, as she was once again cast the part, this time as William Powell’s old flame in Love Crazy. In this film he’s married to Myrna Loy, and they are about to enjoy their 4th wedding anniversary when the mother-in-law visits, slips on a carpet, sprains an ankle and prolongs her visit. It’s his job now to go mail an important letter since his wfe was out, whereupon, low-and-behold, he runs into his old flame Gail in the elevator, finding out that she has just moved into the building with her husband. Sure enough, the elevator breaks down and he ends up with a concussion, but with some special nursing by Gail as seen above, a spark is relit (enough for the plot amyway). There are complications galore, although everyone ends up with their respective spouses, Gail Patrick is all fun in this movie, and as usual beautifully dressed.

No costume credit is given in the film, a time of transition between several designers coming and going at MGM. But my eye says it was designed by Adrian.

 

hit parade 1943

Gail starred in the Tales of Manhattan in 1942 and Hit Parade of 1943, as seen above. She appeared in several more films through the mid 1940s, but none with any major roles. She retired from acting in 1948, her last film being The Inside Story, produced at Republic Pictures, one of the “Poverty Row” studios.

In 1947 she married Thomas Cornwell Jackson, her third husband. He was the literary agent for Erle Stanley Gardner, who wrote the Parry Mason mysteries. Gail and her husband produced the TV show based on the book series, which ran from 1957 – 1966. For a few years previously she also designed a line of children’s garments.

Gail Patrick died in 1980 of leukemia at age 69. She bequeathed $1 million to her sorority  Delta Zeta, the largest gift it has ever received.

 

Gail Patrick 1

 

 

 

*American Film Institute, Catalog of Feature Films. Artists and Models.  http://www.afi.com/members/catalog/DetailView.aspx?s=&Movie=5196

HOLLYWOOD COSTUME: THE ACADEMY’S EXHIBITION

LA Hollywood Costume 4

After opening in London’s V&A Museum in 2012, traveling to Australia and two American cities,  Hollywood Costume finally comes to Los Angeles, where the vast majority of the films and costumes  that make up the exhibition originated. The idea and impetus for the exhibition also started in Los Angeles, well Beverly Hills, with Deborah Nadoolman Landis, costume designer and current professor,  founding director, and Chair of the David C. Copley Center for for the Study of Costume Design at UCLA. It is altogether fitting that the exhibition be in Los Angeles, but even more significantly, that it opens on the site of the future home  of the Museum of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. The museum has been in the planning stages for years, but is now solidly in the works and set to open in 2017 in a major reworking of the former May Company department store on Wilshire Boulevard in the “Miracle Mile,” a site leased from the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.  Hollywood Costume the exhibition is open now through March 15, 2015.

 

LA Hollywood Costume 1A

Some 150 costumes are on exhibit, ranging from the silent era through Hollywood’s Golden Age to last year’s Oscar nominee The Dallas Buyer’s Club. Iconic costumes are included such as Marilyn Monroe’s “subway dress” from  The Seven Year Itch, Judy Garland’s pinafore from The Wizard of Oz, and the Academy Museum’s recently acquired treasure, the “#7” pair of the Ruby Slippers, the ones in the best condition out of all those known to exist. Other wonders include Marlene Dietrich’s sequins and crystal-studded gown and cape from Angel designed by Travis Banton, Norma Shearer’s court dress from Marie Antoinette designed by Adrian, Jean Hagen’s flapper dress from Singing in the Rain designed by Walter Plunkett, and Marilyn Monroe’s sequin decorated and fur-trimmed gown from Some Like it Hot, and Ginger Roger’s mink skirt lined in sequins designed by Edith Head.

Hollywood costume VA SomeLikeItHot
Marily Monroe’s dress from “Some Like it Hot.”

 

The exhibition as conceived by Deborah Nadoolman Landis was to put costume in the context of the character, the actors, the plot and the total movie experience. So sections of the script are on view, as are screens with projections of the actor’s faces. The multimedia approach has filmed interviews, monologues, and film clips. The costume design process is explored through scripts highlighting personality clues, costume sketches, budget breakdowns, and fittings.

 

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Above is pictured a blown up section of a script. The costumes shown are from Kim Novak in Vertigo and Joan Crawford  in Mildred Pierce, designed by Edith Head and Milo Anderson respectively.

 

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The Indiana Jones costume is well recognized. It was designed by Deborah Nadoolman Landis herself.

 

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Photo KABC

Some other well recognized costumes are on view. The eye-popping red gown at left was worn by Julia Roberts in Pretty Woman, Barbara Streisand’s costume in Hello Dolly, at left and Funny Lady at right, and in the background is Ginger Rogers in Lady in the Dark, and at right Kate Winslet in Titanic.

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Marilyn Monroe’s “subway dress” is shown above. It was designed by Travilla, who designed many of her film costumes. It was sold in the famous Debbie Reynolds auction in 2011 for $4.6 million, minus commission, by Profiles in History.

Larry McQueen Hollywood costume V&A Angel Travis Banton

One of the most fantastic costumes from Hollywood’s Golden Age is Marlene Dietrich’s gown from Angel, 1937, designed by Travis Banton. It is a marvel of Hollywood studio craftsmanship.  It was made from chiffon and embroidered with thousands of hand-sewn silver and gold  sequins and Austrian crystal beads, which took weeks to make. The stole is trimmed in Russian sable. It was lent by Larry McQueen who took great pains to restore it.

 

Superhero costumes are shown on display at the Hollywood Costume exhibit in Los Angeles

Men’s costumes, and the blockbuster superheroes, are represented as well, including Superman, Batman, and Captain America.

 

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Deborah Nadoolman Landis introduced the exhibition opening on October 1st.

Matt Petit / ©A.M.P.A.S
Michelle Monaghan views the exhibition during the opening event. Matt Petit / ©A.M.P.A.S

If you are in the Los Angeles area in the next several months and can book a ticket, go a see it. This is one of those very special exhibitions that will not likely come around again.

 

60s A-GO-GO

Sixties fashion image The striking and continually fascinating aspect of mid-to-late 1960s fashion is that it so closely reflected the mood of the times. And the fashions changed constantly as new themes blew in with the wind. Before the word fusion was in use, this phenomenon was happening to fashions in the 1960s. The youth were looking for change, and in fashion, they found inspiration in the past. But it was not in the most modern country – the U. S. – that Mod or “modern” dress first sprung, but rather in the U.K. The fashions that evolved from there had two notable characteristics: the “push/pull” attraction and reaction with the past; and also  that the fashion trends did not begin with well-known fashion designers and couturiers but rather from small designers, tailors, and boutique owners.

This is a modified version of a post  that first appeared in my  Silver Screen Modiste blog in April 2012.

60s+twiggy The “pop” of Mod and mid-60s women’s fashion came not from a striking silhouette (though showing lots of leg helped) but rather from the colorful fabrics and striking prints. The colors and patterns were bold and expressive. And the new development of pantyhose, which facilitated the wearing of mini-skirts, themselves now offered many options in color and decorative patterns. Clothes had changed from a mode of showing status and aspiration, to one enabling personal expression. The clothes were often worn with an underlying attitude, “Look at me, this is who I am,” the styles exclaimed. The new young women’s silhouette had definitely changed from “The New Look,” first seen in Paris in 1947 and widespread throughout the 1950s. Inspiration was now drawn from much further back in time, to the 1920s, which was characterized by short skirts, bobbed hair, and fast times. The slim and boyish figure was again in favor, exemplified by the model Twiggy shown above.

Sixties 1967 Fashions on the Field
Fashions on the Field, 1967 – the Brisbane Racing Club fashion and horse racing event.

 

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Striped & patterned wrap-around coat by Forquet, circa 1966

A related inspiration was the bohemian or gypsy look, another transplant from the 1920s. This could be achieved with a simple addition of a beret or head-scarf. Boots were borrowed from their strictly functional use to become the perfect companion to a mini-skirt. Bohemian style signified a free, artistic, and nomadic lifestyle – strong attractions for mid-60s youth. The mid-century interpretation of the look by Juliette Greco, Left-Bank Parisian intellectuals, and working class “Apache” dancers was borrowed from France. The “British Invasion” of bands and rockers swept through the U.S. like a gale. Their fashion influence on young men was enormous. 60s Mod The mini-skirt started in London with designer Mary Quant and her Bazaar boutique. London was prime ground for a convergence of fashion hungry youths with small boutiques and local designing and tailoring talent. Not only were small women’s shops filling the need for a new style, but a select few men’s shops and tailors were providing non-traditional, often Victorian or Edwardian-inspired clothes.  Michael Fish opened Mr. Fish in Picadilly and helped start the “Peacock Revolution” in the U.K.

60s Courreges Coat

The couturiers were not without influence. Parisian fashion designer Andre Courreges also designed mini-skirts in the mid-60s, with very modernist garments and accessories. He specialized in geometric shapes and boxy coats and dresses. He launched a “Space Age” collection in 1964 that featured short skirts, boots, and goggles. The coat above is from Courreges.

60s -mondrian-dresses

Yves St. Laurent was inspired by modern art to design a series of “Pop Art” designs in 1966, including adapting a Piet Mondrian painting into a simple shift dress. Color-blocking on dresses was not new, however, as Adrian had designed his color-blocked “Modern Museum” series of gowns in the mid-1940s. The design above shows the favored silhouette of the mid-60s, the short shift dress with a bold print or fabric design. Fashion designer Emilio Pucci also invigorated dress design with his bold and beautiful fabrics – all so perfect for the era.

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The movies still provided inspiration for fashion styles and personal looks. Cleopatra starring Elizabeth Taylor, released in 1963, provides a curious case of using a 1960s aesthetic in its own costume and set designs for a classic Egyptian/Roman period while simultaneously influencing women’s hair and make-up styles for the mid-60s. Elizabeth Taylor’s “Cleopatra” eyes – smoky, elongated,and with heavy mascara, was widely copied after the film’s release.

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Southern California had also become a style center. Fashion designer Rudi Gernreich styled mod and Go-Go looks for iconic 60s model Peggy Moffitt, shown above and below. Her trademark page-boy haircut and heavily mascara-lined eyes became an iconic look of the era. The bold use of color became a characteristic look of the Go-Go 60s. Moffitt was photographed by her husband William Claxton.

Sixties Peggy Moffitt William Caxton

Model Donyale Luna is sown below wearing a Paco Rabanne mini-skirt made of metallic discs in 1967.  She was one of the first African-American fashion models.

60s fashion model naomi sims   60s+fashion+rolling-stones The clothes of the English bands like the Rolling Stones and the Beatles heavily influenced the new rock and roll generation in America. Brian Jones of the Stones, shown seated at center, was a bit of a dandy who influenced many other musicians and young men on both sides of the Atlantic. Jimi Hendix, performing in the U.K. and the U.S., brought out a more flamboyant dress blending a mix of antique military jackets with Gypsy trimmings.  The film Blowup was released in 1967 and highlighted 60s fashion and music.

Photo courtesy of the V & A Museum, London.
Photo courtesy of the V & A Museum, London.

Men’s clothing in London transitioned from Mod to Go-Go while keeping its emphasis on good tailoring. The suit above reflects the influence of the English Regency period and from the French “Incroyable” dandies. It was custom made of cotton velvet by Mr. Fish in 1968. Nehru Jacket 2 Nehru jackets, named after the Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, became popular in the the U.K. and the U.S. after the Beatles wore them in 1965. Many other rock musicians sported them in the 1960s. While usually in white or a solid color, the paisley model shown above was made by Sy Amber of Hollywood in 1967 and worn by me to nightclubs like the Whisky-a-Go-Go. Paisley itself was a fabric decoration from India, and the two fit perfectly in a 60s environment increasingly influenced by Indian meditation and the music of Ravi Shankar.

The styles of the 60s continued to change as one influence after another was reflected in street fashion: Native American fringe and buckskin, Southern California Beach and Surfing culture, Army/Navy surplus and hippie psychedelic. Youth by now were creating their own fashions, which was eagerly but poorly portrayed in mass advertising and the fashion media, retail, and Hollywood films of the day. And hard to believe, was poorly marketed, if at all, to to the “youthquake” generation. In many ways the liberating spirit of the mid to late  1960s was more broadly applied in the early 1970s. And now the fashion fresh-air of the 1960s continues to be recycled, newly influencing designers and the youth of today.

60s Marc Jacobs show 2012 Paris fashion week

 At the Paris Fashion Week in 2012, Marc Jacobs for Louis Vuitton brought the full 60s Go-Go look back, with a plethora of minis, bright yellows, checks, and checkerboard prints, as seen above. The fall 2014 shows again brought back the 60s look, cresting on a wave of Beatles nostalgia on the 50th anniversary of their appearance on the Ed Sullivan show. The looks by Saint Laurent, Valentino, Gucci, and Miu Miu, among others, featured mini-skirts with boots and A-frame dresses. And more currently, at the London Fashion Week on September 15, 2014, the Burberry show featured a line-up right out of the psychedelic 60s:

Sixties Fashion Week Burberry
Photo Alastair Grant AP

I never liked the word groovy – but the 60s look in fashion has certainly found its way in the groove. Now that’s cool, to use a better 60s term*.   *Although “cool” had been used since the 30s around the African-American jazz scene, it was used by hippies and other young people in the context of fashion, clothing, and lifestyle.

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.

Elizabeth-Taylor-in-A-Date-with-Judy-elizabeth-taylor 2

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.

Lust for Life 1956 2

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.

Lust for Life 6

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.

 

COSTUME DESIGNER IRENE: HER NEW BIO

 

Irene cover

Hollywood costume designers seldom get a book length biography, unless their name is Edith Head, in which case even book editors have heard of them. And in these days of a retrenched book market, it’s a miracle that one is coming out on Irene, after several attempts by different authors to pay tribute to the amazingly talented but ultimately tragic figure of Irene Lentz Gibbons.

Irene: A Designer from the Golden Age of Hollywood, the MGM Years 1942-1949, by Frank Billecci and Lauranne B. Fisher offers a winning combination of insider information from Irene’s own sketch artist Virginia Fisher and her secretary Chrys Carter, along with scores of costume  sketches illustrated by Virginia Fisher herself during many of the years in question, and supplemented by costume sketches from Irene’s previous sketch artist Katy Bill.

Irene had been the designer at Bullocks Wilshire’s The French Room, where she dressed many of the leading stars of screen and society in the 1930s. She designed gowns for Marlene Dietrich that Dietrich wore for years, even taking them on her USO tours on the front in WW II. She was free-lancing as a costume designer as well before MGM hired her to replace Adrian in 1942. Irene designed for many of the major stars of the 40s, but the glamour years of the 30s were over. Irene never quite found her rhythm with the historical films, musicals, and the lower budgeted films of the mid-40s. Then when she made enemies with Katharine Hepburn, things really turned bad.

The book is not just an homage, but presents Irene as a troubled person. Just after a year of marriage to film director F. Richard Jones, to whom she was deeply in love, he died of tuberculosis. Irene developed a melencholia that ultimately turned to alcholoism. It was amazing that she could remain so creative under an increasingly gripping addiction. Her condition was not without its problems, however, as her time at MGM is elucidated in this book. Irene went on to start her own very successful line.

Based on inteviews, institutional research and containing some 150 costume sketches and photographs, this book is well worth its place on the book shelf of those interested in Hollywood lore and costume design history.

ISBN13: 9780764345555 $50  Schiffer Publishing

 

 

 

 

 

AN AMERICAN IN PARIS: ART ON FILM

An American in Paris title card 1   An American in Paris was made in 1951 at the very peak of the Hollywood studio system and the pinnacle of Gene Kelly’s artistic career. It was the perfect blend of art and technique in classic American movie-making. MGM had among its employees all the veteran craftspeople and artists that could produce such a film. And as with many great movies, the back-story is as fascinating as the movie itself. In 1950 as the first plans were being made for the film, MGM, and indeed the entire Hollywood film industry, was in  transition. Television was siphoning off viewers and a court-imposed consent decree required studios to sell off their movie theaters. Cost-cutting was now the mantra, and MGM’s expensive musicals were not viewed favorably by its new production head Dore Schary nor by the corporate offices at Loew’s in New York. The old lion Louis B. Mayer, still in charge of studio operations, supported musicals and the planned An American in Parisbut it took a lot of pleading and persuasive pitches to gain the approval of Schary, and then even more to Loew’s corporate head Nick Schenck and his board. And still the threat of budget cuts loomed over the entire production.

This post is part of Silver Scenes’ MGM Bologathon. My post on An American in Paris was previously published in 2012 as part of the Gene Kelly Centennial Blogathon. An American in Paris title card 2

The famed Arthur Freed was the producer of An American in Paris,and he wanted Vincente Minnelli to direct and Gene Kelly to star and choreograph the film.  Minnelli and Kelly worked very well together and respected each other’s artistic talents. One of the big challenges for the film was the proposed 17 minute-long, wordless ballet and dance sequence  (called the “ballet” in the film’s production).  At the outset, I should say that the ballet sequence was heavily influenced by The Red ShoesPowell and Pressberger’s marvelous film with its own 15 minute-long ballet scene. And it was not just that The Red Shoes’  filmed ballet scenes influenced the ballet sequence in An American in Paris, but also that both film’s ballet sequence has as its purpose the visual depiction of the principal dancer’s interior conflicts and subjective emotions. To his credit, Vincente Minnelli’s  An American in Paris used this influence to produce a complex and deeply artistic film sequence of his own. And Gene Kelly brought to life the character that was an American in Paris – through his acting, choreography, and his unique dancing skills.
Kelly as Jerry Mulligan, in a very early scene, shows his unhappiness with his own image or in his ability to produce a self-portrait, which he will soon to deface
Kelly as Jerry Mulligan, in a very early scene, shows his unhappiness with
his own image or in his ability to produce a self-portrait, which he will soon to deface

The decision by Freed, Minnelli, and Gene Kelly to include a 17 minute long dance sequence was bold and risky. Regardless of the success of The Red Shoes, nothing of that scope had been done in an American film. Further, the ballet was to be a realization on film of the artistic works of Impressionist and Post-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. An American In Paris 6

Other than Gene Kelly, the question of who should be cast for An American in Paris was not apparent. While MGM had several great female dancers, Kelly was convinced that a fresh faced and a native Frenchwoman should be cast as Lise Bouvier. And for that role he had seen a 19 year old French ballerina named Leslie Caron that he wanted for the part. This too was a risky move – a major role for a young woman who had never acted. In continuing with the relatively unknown  cast members, Georges Guetary, a French Music Hall singer, was cast as Henri Baurel. For the fellow American expat and starving musician-neighbor, the inspired choice was the concert pianist and wit Oscar Levant, playing the role of Adam Cook. Another fortuitous decision was bringing in costume designer Irene Sharaff. Sharaff was a Broadway designer but had worked for a spell in Hollywood. Minnelli convinced 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, which Ames, a former architecture student in Paris, could quickly envision. 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 crafst.Some 30 painters worked six weeks to paint the backgrounds and sets. Irene Sharaff also came up with the idea of using certain dancers, characters she called Furies for the women and Pompiers for the men. The Furies were dressed all in red ballet outfits and the Pompiers were dressed as traditional French firemen, with their brass helmets but also adorned in a military-inspired costume. Together they served as the “bridge” from one scene to the next, luring Kelly as Jerry Mulligan to pursue the ever-escaping Caron as Lise Bouvier. These transitions were also accomplished by using a “match-cutting” filming technique whereby the action of the dancer is exactly matched from the end of one scene to the beginning of the next.

From left to right Georges Guetary, Gene Kelly, and Oscar Levant
From left to right Georges Guetary, Gene Kelly, and Oscar Levant

As the film opens, each character as played by Gene Kelly, Oscar Levant and Georges Guetary narrates that the happy characters depicted on screen, “are not me.” Gene Kelly as Jerry Mulligan is a struggling artist that stayed in Paris after WWII. He sells his paintings (sometimes) on a street in Montmartre, where a rich widow discovers him and decides to support him (with strings attached). Oscar Levant as Adam Cook is a struggling pianist, the “oldest former child prodigy.” In a very clever later scene Levant as Cook fantasizes about playing in a symphony, which he is also shown conducting while simultaneously playing several instruments. This take-off of an old Buster Keaton film is still funny, especially since Levant being the only one that truly appreciates himself, also fills the audience with himselves. Georges Guetary as Henri Baurel is the successful singer and entertainer, now worrying about getting older, but  providing the yet unknown rival for the love of Lise. His singing performance of “I’ll Build a Stairway to Paradise”, in classic Hollywood show-girls-down-the-stairs style, is a highlight of the movie. an american in paris guetary A  later dual number of Kelly and Guetary in “S’Wonderful,” where they are still ignorant of their rivalry, is pure joy. But Kelly as Jerry Mulligan is deeply in love with Caron as Lise Bouvier, made beautifully obvious in the “Our Love is Here to Stay” number, their song and dance on the banks of the Seine, here amazingly duplicated on a painted set built around one of the those old MGM “cycloramas” is pure joy. Another scene provides laughs as Levant, sitting between Jerry and Henri while they each describe Lise and how much they love her, oblivious of each other’s common object of affection, all the while nervously smokes two cigarettes and chugs several coffees and whiskies.

A later scene is the wild Beaux Arts “Black & White” Ball, here providing a stark contrast to the disintegrating relationships of the two couples: Jerry Mulligan with patroness Milo (Nina Foch), and Henri with Lise. Henri even overhears Jerry and Lise’s tender, heart-breaking exchanges.

Gene-Kelly-in-An-American-in-Paris-gene-kelly-rose transition
Jerry spots the rose, which earlier he and Lise had shared and which now symbolizes their love

Forlorn, Jerry realizes he is just a failed artist, a stranger in a strange land. The ballet scene begins with Jerry sketching the scene of the Cheveaux de Marly, the sculpted horses flanking the Champs Elysees. He enters that sketched scene which is his ballet dream, the love of Lise symbolized by a fallen red rose. The ballet sequence will put to music and art all his hopes and fears, as he continually pursues Lise through various sets.

Forlorn, Jerry realizes he is just a failed artist, a stranger in a strange land. The ballet scene begins with Jerry sketching the scene of the Cheveaux de Marly, the sculpted horses flanking the Champs Elysees. He enters that sketched scene which is his ballet dream, the love of Lise symbolized by a fallen red rose. The ballet sequence will put to music and art all his hopes and fears, as he continually pursues Lise through various sets.
The Place de la Concorde by Raoul Dufy

The opening scene in the style of Raoul Dufy’s Place de la Concorde becomes Jerry’s  dream world.

Gene-Kelly-in-An-American-in-Paris-gene-kelly-furies transition

The Furies, dressed in white and then red, beckon Jerry to pursue Lise. Gene Kelly as Jerry is dressed simply in form-fitting clothes, the better to appreciate his dancing and his physique.

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The white furies turn to more intense red furies

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The fountain at the Place de la Concorde serves as the dream dance floor to a united Jerry and Lise, dancing to George Gershwin’s exhilarating and romantic An American in Paris symphonic poem.

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A garden painted by Renoir
A garden painted by Renoir

Jerry pursues Lise to the floral backdrop inspired by Pierre Auguste Renoir, and as they dance, they hold the red rose of love. An American_in_Paris_5 Alas, even in dreams our dreams escape us. Lise has been transformed into flowers, soon to fall from his grasp. Gene-Kelly-in-An-American-in-Paris-gene-kelly-flowers The background has now turned into the melancholy monochromatic artwork of Maurice Utrillo. Gershwin’s music is also changing to American jazz-inspired melodies. An American in Paris Utrillo sacre-coeur Jerry becomes homesick, as had Gershwin in Paris, which inspired him to add the sounds of American blues and jazz into his musical composition. Gene-Kelly-in-An-American-in-Paris-gene-kelly-Utrillo Jerry’s homesickness is symbolized by his former side-kicks, the U.S. military service-men shown in the scene. They are not quite tangible, the artist’s paint still fresh on their uniforms.

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A Bastille Day celebration painted by Henri Rousseau

The scene turns to the artwork of Henri Rousseau: primitive; wild; and exuberant. Jerry’s service-men are now in dressed in cheerful suits, as is he, with the Pompiers now leading them forward in dance. And now Lise will reappear. An-American-in-Paris Kelly-suits-pompiers     An American in Paris 7 pompiers Here now we enter the more turbulent world of Vincent Van Gogh, the skies of the backdrops painted in swirled colors.

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A Cafe painted by Vincent Van Gogh
The Place de la Concorde again provides the setting for the romantic and sexy dance of Jerry and Lise. The dance transforms into the climax, one of the most beautiful scenes in movie history – a perfect blend of music, dance, romance and art.
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But still the Furies beckon, transforming from red to many shades of yellow and orange.
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The setting now changes to the nocturnal and hallucinatory world of Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec.
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A painting of the Moulin Rouge by Toulouse-Lautrec
An American in Paris Chocolat dancing in the 'irish_american_bar', 1896 by Toulouse Lautrec
And now Jerry himself is transformed into one of Lautrec’s characters, a black stage dancer named Chocolat.
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This final ballet scene is the most exuberant yet, and Gene Kelly provides one of his best dance numbers, a masterpiece of choreography, dance, and art. In this cheerful dance he is joined by his dream Lise, taking on the historical dance-hall character of Jane Avril, another Lautrec favorite.
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Deep from his dream he begins to wake, only to realize that Lise is once again just a rose, and his colorful dream-setting turns black and white.
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Only this dream turns into his real dream, and Lise returns, running up the stairs of the real (set) stairs of Montmartre. The final kiss says it all, our love is here to stay.

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The film ends with a title card stating: Made in Hollywood, California. And so it was, where it also received 8 Academy Award nominations and won 6, though none for Minnelli. It won for Best Costume Design for Irene Sharaff, Orry-Kelly and Walter Plunkett. Yet Walter Plunkett, who designed the costumes for the Black & White Ball scene, must have found it ironic, he who had designed Gone With the Wind, the two Little Women ( and the subsequent Singing in the Rain, Diane, Raintree Countee), among scores of others.  This would be his only Oscar, given for a relatively minor designing job.

Today it’s Singing in the Rain that is the crowd favorite and receives the “best musical ever made” accolades. No doubt that Singing in the Rain is the most cheerful and fun movie there is to watch, and the dancing is also outstanding. An American in Paris seems to be considered somehow less worthy because it strove to be art. But there is no more beautiful film ever made, and its integrated combination of music, dance, art, costume, and cinematography is the pinnacle of classic Hollywood film, and a proud achievement of the MGM Studio.

LE GRAND MEAULNES: 1967 IN FILM BLOGATHON

Its title is strange, its been out of circulation since it was released in 1967, it’s in French and has no subtitles, yet no film is so enchanting but ultimately tragic as Le Grand Meaulnes, based on the classic novel of the same title written by Alain-Fournier, his only novel published the year after he was killed in the first World War. I’ll need to start with the novel since it is so fundamental to the film. Whoever read it in their youth can never forget it. It influenced Jack Kerouac, and thus became the only book that Sal Paradise carried with him in On the Road. Author John Fowles considered it, “the greatest  novel of adolescence in European literature.” In the U.S, it is usually translated as The Wanderer, a fitting title. The film’s setting is rural France at the beginning of the 1900s. In a small school house the adolescent boys are struck by a newcomer, a taller and braver version of themselves. He is 17 year old Le Grand Meaulnes, Meaulnes is his last name, meaning Miller, or simply, the big Miller. He impresses all of the boys, especially 15 year old Francois Seurel, the book’s narrator and a central character of the film. Soon after arriving, Augustin takes a horse and wagon to go to wandering. The horse returns but not Meaulnes. Le Grand Meaulnes aka The Wanderer He is gone three days, and on his return he says little, only that he didn’t sleep. It is only after several days that he retells the story to Francois. His adventure was  the most marvelous and mysterious adventure. He had taken a horse cart and left town, but he became lost and then his horse got away. When looking for the horse he had to walk a long time and finally heard children’s voices. He followed them and found a chateau, where children were dressed in period clothes and were playing games. le grand meulnes 3 Augustin entered the Chateau and hid in an unused room and lay on a bed. Two actors were talking in another room , one a Pierrot, and invited him to the masquerade ball. Augustin found clothes and dressed as a marquis. There were few adults around other than the entertainers, and a few others, and the children and teenagers seemed to rule in this world. The children escorted him through the rooms into the Great Room where a banquet was being held for the engagement of the son of the house, Frantz de Galais, to the beautiful Valentine. All of the scenes at the chateau and its surroundings are photographed in blurred colored shots, evoking a surreal and mysterious world unlike the everyday world. le grand meulnes 6   le grand meulnes 7     le grand meulnes 5   Augustin joins in the merriment and eventually enters a room where beautiful music is being played on the piano by a dazzling young beauty. Children surround her and Augustin joins them, feeling like he belonged there. This was like a dream, a moment of perfect contentment, that she was his wife and these were his children.  He is kissed by a little girl.  Hours pass by in the Chateux and the next morning the festivities continue outside, where Augustin finds the young lady again and rows on the lake with her to an island. She is Yvonne de Galais, the daughter of the house.  When they row back she tells him that he shouldn’t follow her – that they were only playing at children’s games. When Frantz de Galais returns to the Chateau he announces that his fiancee has broken their engagement. He leaves word that he longer wishes to live. Soon, everybody leaves. Augustin leaves too, and from the carriage he sees Ganache, who played the Pierrot character, carrying the body of Frantz, who has a wound to his head. le grand-meaulnes-1967-05-g

Meaulnes thinks of nothing but of finding the chateau again. He tries to draw a map, and enlists Francois’ help in finding it. One day a mysterious gypsy comes to the town, with a bandage around his head. He enters the school and competes with Meaulnes for the attention of the other boys. But they become friends, and with Francois, they enter a pact of loyalty, swearing to come to each other’s aid whenever they hear a certain call of distress. With this he gives Augustin the address in Paris where Yvonne now lives. The gypsy is Frantz de Galais. As time passes, Augustin has gone to Paris and come back. Francois is now the schoolteacher. He is trying to have Yvonne and Augustin see each other at a local event after he finally meets her in a local shop and finds that she is unmarried. le-grand-meaulnes 7 Augustin and Yvonne finally meet again, but the magic has neen dispelled. He learns that her family became indebted because of Frantz, the chateau is no longer there and the boats and horses were sold off. Augustin’s feelings turned to gloom, and this turned to anger at the family for using its one old horse to pull a cart. Later that evening, in shame, he asked Yvonne’s hand in marriage.

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Brigitte Fossey as Yvonne de Galais

They wed at the local church seen below, only Frantz lurks at left, still in misery over his lost fiancee and needing the help of Augustin.   grand-meaulnes-1967-04   Francois and another friend try to get Frantz to leave and let the couple find their happiness, but as the couple settle in he wails the call that Augustin had pledged to follow to his aid. Augustin has been restless. He knows that the bliss that he found with Yvonne at the Chateau has been dispelled, and worse, that he no longer has the purity to deserve her. He must at least make right what happened to Frantz. As it happened, he had his own past with Valentine, Frantz’s former fiancee. And so he leaves Yvonne to join Frantz.

I should not give away any more of the plot, either of the film or of the book, as this really would become a “spoiler.” The character of Augustin is very much in the classical Romantic tradition, and yet his quest for perfection, orof this Garden of Eden is almost Medieval. The novel was magic realism before that term was used. As filmed, it is unique. It is one of those stories that is daunting to put to film, and yet the film creates it’s own magic. One can read the reviews on imdb.com to get an idea of the impression this movie left on those who have seen it. Jean Blaise played Augustin Meaulnes and Alain Libolt played Francois Seurel.

Although Le Grand Meaulnes came out in 1967, what relationship did it have with the other films of that year or with that era? The movie was directed by Jean-Gabriel Albicocco, a cinematographer like his father. He made few films and only had financial  success with this one. Although it was a period film, its romanticism was in the air. Far From the Madding Crowd was another period film from that year. The idealism of Le Grand Meaulnes was very much in keeping with 1967, although the book had been written in 1913. By the following year in 1968, the assassinations of Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr. put an end to that, just like the WW I’s Flanders Fields of 1914 ended the life of Alain-Fournier.

Alain-Fournier
Alain-Fournier

 

BLOWUP: ANTONIONI’S CLASSIC FILM

Blowup is a film about the illusion of reality and the reality of illusion. It’s a film that circles on itself, spiraling towards a bull’s eye of life’s contradictions. It’s a maze whose walls are lined with mirrors – flashing scenes of beauty and gritty reality in equal proportions. Its central story is about a journey continually interrupted, an odyssey with the protagonist’s pursuits constantly distracted or detoured. There are no easy answers in Antonioni’s Blowup, it’s like the pursuit of life itself – the blown-up life of modern society. 

This post was first written for the centennial of Antonioni’s birth in  2012. .

Courtesy Photofest
Courtesy Photofest

Blowup is a story that could only have been told on film. Perhaps it’s one of those “the medium is the message” phenomena, or it’s just that the story could only be told through the various arts combined in film. It was Michelangelo Antonioni’s creation, who wrote the screenplay, inspired by a short story from Julio Cortazar, and directed it in the swinging London of 1966. It portrays the flashy but empty life of a celebrity fashion photographer who views life through a lens and then follows the lens down a rabbit hole. Thomas, the photographer, is loosely based on photographers David Bailey and John Cowan, and who also has elements of Avedon in respect to that photographer’s later fascination with shooting gritty reality photos completely opposed to his beautiful fashion photography. The film opens with a scene depicting one of its several displays of contradiction, wherein the noisiest element in a modern urban setting is a jeep-load of mimes, carousing through London.  A quick cut then shows Thomas exiting a doss-house (flophouse) along with a line of down-and-out men. He’s dressed in torn clothes and unshaven. He walks down a street and gets into his convertible Rolls-Royce. As he drives off he’s later stopped by the mimes, then drives away. Contradictory visual images confront us on the street: two black nuns in white habits, and a Royal Guardsman guarding nothing.

Blowup Verushka
The supermodel Verushka plays herself, wearing the jet beaded slip that Thomas photographs her in.

 

He then drives to his studio where the impatient model Verushka waits for him. They have a frenetic photo shoot which is a small masterpiece of cinema. The final shoot, where he straddles her, is like sex with a camera, the lens a phallic symbol of his power. He climaxes by getting all the shots he needs, quickly getting up and flopping on the couch, Verushka is left on the floor, unfulfilled and wanting more. It is apparent that in this sexually liberated film sex for Thomas has been sublimated. In the next scene he shoots five models in mod clothes, barking orders at them but clearly unengaged. One of the models is played by the iconic Peggy Moffitt. As he’s about to leave the studio two young aspiring models barge in wanting their photos taken.  Thomas tells them he has no time for them. One is played by Jane Birkin, future wife of French singer Serge Gainsbourgh, the duo that recorded the scandalous erotic hit song, Je t’aime.

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David Hemmings with the “birds,” model Peggy Moffitt is shown seated. Photo courtesy Photofest.

Thomas seems to have it all. He has piercing blue eyes and the profile of Michelangelo’s David. Women and beautiful models flock to him. He drives a Rolls Royce and comes and goes as he pleases. He’s handsome and cool. He listens to Herbie Hancock, whose soundtrack infuses the film.Yet he seems alienated from life, a searcher seeking something that he knows not what.  

 Blowup 3

 

Thomas visits the flat next door, where his artist friend Billy is painting a canvas, and lives with his wife played by Sarah Miles. She and Thomas share an intimate past, but the nature of their relationship is not divulged. In one of the purest statements made about art in film, the artist says to Thomas, as they look at his painting, “They don’t mean anything when I do them. Afterwards, I find something to hang onto. Like that leg,” he points to his canvas, painted in a half-pointillist-half cubist style, the leg barely discernible. “Then it sorts itself out. It’s like finding a clue in a detective novel.” And thus said, the key to the whole movie is pointed out: art is a stand-in for life, yet life intrudes on the creation of art.
Thomas drives away from the studio to visit an antique shop he wants to buy. He drives through a part of London where old buildings are being demolished to make room for new condominiums, an alienating landscape. He calls the  store a “junk shop” but he clearly likes antiques as objects of beauty. The grumpy old attendant at the antique store is unwilling to sell him anything, so Thomas will wait for the owner to arrive – another contradiction as she is a pretty 20-something in a short skirt. The park across the way looks inviting, an oasis of green that beckons him. He walks in and immediately his spirits lift. He snaps photos, frolics with birds, and skips up the stairs. The only sound is the rustling of tree leaves in the wind, a strong and recurrent element in the park scenes. He views a couple in tender play and embraces, she is young and beautiful, he is older and looks like a successful businessman or politician. Thomas begins photographing them. He hops over the fence to hide in the bushes so he can keep shooting unobserved. This “shooting” behind the bushes serves as a dual image for that of a gunman, who is also similarly hidden behind the bushes. Thomas continues photographing them from behind a tree.
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Thomas is finally seen, and is chased down by the woman, played by Vanessa Redgrave. She is very upset and wants the film, hinting by her nervous behaviour the clandestine nature of the lovers’ meeting. “This is a public place and everyone has a right to be left in peace,” she tells him. “I’m a photographer,” he tells her (meaning he is an artist, creating art – this is not about life). “It’s not my fault if there’s no peace.” She gets nowhere with Thomas, who also wants the photos for a book he is doing. She goes back to find her lover, and not seeing him, quickly looks behind a tree, then runs off. Thomas goes back to the “junk shop,”, and impulsively buys an old wooden airplane propeller, perhaps a symbol of escape, that will later be delivered to his studio.
Then Thomas meets his publisher for lunch, and shows him his portfolio of doss-house inhabitants, along with other gritty realism shots of butchers and homeless people, all for his book. He’s excited about the photos he’s taken in the park. As additions to his book he says they are “peaceful” compared to the “violent” ones they are looking at. Thomas adds, “I wish I had tons of money, then I’d be free.” “Free like him,” his publisher says, looking at a photo of a homeless man.” Thomas rushes out when he sees someone snooping on him and his car. That character is never defined, although there was commentary, made years later, that this was the role of Vanessa Redgrave’s young lover who commits the murder, and some scenes that were edited out of the film.  Thomas drives off, going through a peace rally. The protesters’ home-made placards carry typical slogans – though some are more interesting when you read them from their back-side.
Blow Up Hemmings Redgrave 1

Jane, played by Vanessa Redgrave, has tracked him to his studio. She asks for the negatives, while he invents stories about himself. He plays jazz, teaching her about the upbeat, and they share what is likely a marijuana cigarette. He gives her a fake roll of his film, and she takes off her top. Just as they are about to get intimate they are interrupted by deliverers arriving with the propeller, which Thomas now finds to be a nuisance. He then finds her standing beside the long rolls of suspended backdrop paper. When he spreads open one of these , she appears wedged between two sheets, an allusion to the work of photographer Irving Penn and his famous “corner” photographs. She leaves thinking she has the correct roll of film.

BlowUp corner

After two interruptions, Thomas now begins developing his film. He pins up one after the other to his wall. He then storyboards all his prints, as would a film director, to make sense of the  story. Thomas here is trying to use a technique of art to explain life. While looking at them he follows the woman’s gaze to a spot in the bushes. These sequences are wordless and without music, yet tense from Thomas’s efforts of trying to uncover a mystery. He is more excited in this process than he has been in anything else he’s done. Antonioni’s technique of almost soundless action is very absorbing. We are so accustomed to a musical score telling us how to feel in a movie that here we are left to concentrate on the action directly in view, looking for absent cues and forced to draw our own impressions.

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Blowup David Hemmings 6
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In the photos Thomas is shocked to see a hand holding a gun hidden in the bushes, and realizes he’s just saved a man’s life. He is lost in thought about what could have happened, but then his door bell rings.
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Again Thomas is interrupted, this time by the same two “birds” that want to be models. The end result is a free-for-all, with tearing off clothes and carousing on the floor. Whether there was sex involved is left to the imagination, but the girls were nude. Near the end of this frolic, Thomas looks back at his park photos and gets re-absorbed, telling the girls to leave. He blows-up more photos and is shocked to see a body. He blows up the photo again until the body is just a pixilated image of light on dark, completely indecipherable. His intial use of art to explain what has happend in life has resulted in a blur.
Blowup man
Blowup body 2
But the image leaves little doubt in his mind that the man he saw with the woman has been shot and killed. He rushes back to the park to find out – to confirm in life what happened, only to find that life has been lost in this scene. It is night, but the body is still there behind a tree. He touches it to be completely sure it is not just his imagination. He tries phoning Jane to talk to her about what happened but she left him the wrong number. He realizes that he never saved the man. And the idyllic park, the “peaceful” park, is where a murder has just taken place. He realizes that this seeming oasis is as bad as the rest of the urban chaos. Thomas returns dejectedly to his studio, where all his belongings have  been ransacked and his photos have disappeared. He finds just one photo left, the pixilated, indecipherable image of the “corpse,” which could just as well be a photo of anything. When Patricia, played by Sarah Miles, comes in, he tells her, “I saw a man killed this morning.’ She asks how it happened. Thomas says, “I don’t know, I didn’t see.” Indeed, he was photographing the event instead of experiencing it. When he shows her the remaining photo she says, “It looks like one of Bill’s paintings.” Reality and illusion have traded places.
Thomas drives off. He sees Jane in a line in front of a store window. When he looks again she has disappeared completely from the shot. He goes around the back alley looking for her and enters a night club. Here the Yardbirds, including Jeff Beck and Jimmy Page, are playing the rockin’ Stroll On to an audience that appears comatose. This visual contradiction is another of Antonioni’s tricks – the contradiction of a lifeless audience during a blazing rock performance. Thomas searches for Jane.  On stage, Jeff Beck destroys his guitar and throws the neck out to the audience, which only then goes wild and scrambles to get the guitar neck. Thomas grabs it and fights off the crowd to keep it. He runs out of the building, only to throw the guitar neck on the sidewalk as he leaves. He had been searching for the etheral Jane, and was only interested in the experience of claiming the guitar neck in a struggle, and latching on to something. He seems always able to possess material things while people and relationships evade him.
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Jeff Beck and the Yardbirds playing Stroll On, a version of Train Kept A-Rolling.

 

David Hemmings to Verushka as she smokes a joint: "I thought you were in Paris." "I am," she replies. She is one that believes in her illusions.
David Hemmings to Verushka as she smokes a joint: “I thought you were in Paris.”
“I am,” she replies. She is one that believes in her illusions.

His interrupted odyssey continues. He goes to his publisher’s house where a party full of young hipsters drink and smoke pot. His publisher Ron is high too, but Thomas tries to convince him to go to the park to see the corpse. “We have to go to the park and get a shot of it,” Thomas says. “I’m not a photographer,” Ron answers. ” I am,” Thomas says. They enter the room where the pot is being smoked. In the next shot Thomas wakes up in that room, but the house is completely deserted, everyone here too has disappeared.  He leaves and gets his camera to return to the park. But the corpse has disappeared –  both reality and illusion (and art) have escaped. The leaves rustling in the wind are the only sounds to be heard.

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As Thomas walks through the park, the jeep-full of mimes roar back into view, coming full circle from the beginning of the film. Two of them begin playing a game of tennis, with make-believe rackets and an imaginary ball. They bring with them both their contradictory images and their illusory reality
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When the imaginary ball goes over the fence they look over at him to fetch it. He buys into the illusory reality, and he runs through the grass to fetch the imaginary ball, which he then throws  back. His smile slowly disappears and he looks forlornly at the grass, as if realizing the emptiness and illusory nature of his life and his own experiences. The shot of Thomas recedes into a wide-screen shot of grass, in the opposite process of a blow-up, but just like the corpse, he disappears from the screen. Was he too an illusion? Or was he just the creation of a film director that put him in the picture and just as easily cut him out. Perhaps it’s like the painting by Magritte, The Treachury of Images where the illusion has become the reality, but the reality is really an illusion.

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  I first saw Blowup in France during the summer of 1967 after graduating from high school. It left an indelible impression on me. Though the film has several sequences in which there were no words spoken, nor any music played, it’s the sounds of the movie that keep ringing in my head. I still hear the locomotive sounds of the Yardbirds playing Stroll On, and whenever I hear leaves rustling in the wind I think of Maryon park as filmed in Blowup. The film has been considered a masterpiece, or a complete enigma, and criticized for its affected artiness, or its obtuse plot. Alfred Hitchcock stated in 1978 that he thought Antonioni and Fellini , “…are a hundred years ahead of us,” and that Blow-up and 81/2 are bloody masterpieces.” To me it captured the era perfectly, much more so than many of the notable “outsider” films of the late 60s.
Antonioni did not believe in delivering a pat story with a happy ending in his films. And with Blowup, the movie is like an onion that you  peel back its many layers of meaning. In an interview with Roger Ebert he said, “I never discuss the plots of my film.” “How could I? Until the film is edited, I have no idea myself what it will be about.” He also went on to say,”I depart from the script constantly, I may film scenes I had no intention of filming; things suggest themselves on location, and we improvise. I try not to think about it too much. Then, in the cutting room, I take the film and start to put it together, and only then do I begin to get an idea of what it is about.” This was indeed the process by which Thomas tried to make sense of the killing in the park. Regardless of his technique, Antonioni was an artist, and the statement made by the painter Billy in Blowup applies well to Antonioni. For his artistic elements he looks for color to use in his shots, whether natural or applied, and he painted entire buildings bright colors just for a certain look in his scenes. He also looked for angles and interesting composition elements to add to his frame. Contradictory visual cues infuse this film. In Blowup, Antonioni frequently used mirrors and reflective surfaces to add a multi-dimensionality (or etherealness)  to his characters and their settings. Antonioni also stated that, “I think the theme of most of my characters is loneliness,” and that “…they find little to sustain them. They are looking for a home.” For all the external success of Thomas in Blowup, a good-looking guy in the swinging London of the 1960s, he was basically unhappy with his life and his surroundings. He was like Odysseus on his episodic  journey home. The late David Hemmings said at that time that Antonioni got it right, “…that is the sort of life we live today in London. We are all available to whatever happens to come along. We do not exercise choice in our lives.”
The film is filled with the Mod clothes of mid-60s London. The models in the early scene wore exaggerated versions of Mod outfits, a common slant for runway or editorial purposes. It is especially interesting to compare the Mod clothes of the young people shown with that of the older Londoners that walk the streets. The line between Mod and not was very clear. David Hemmings’ garments were simple, and since the entire film took place over 24 hours, he only had two costume changes. Still his clothes were distinctive and showed him to be of the creative world vs. business: white denim pants, a wide black belt and black low-rise boots, a checked blue long sleeve shirt, which he wears without a t-shirt, and a dark forest green blazer.  The model Verushka wears the most striking outfits: the opener in a sequined loose flowing but short gown open at the sides; and at the party a snakeskin and lozenge-patterned pants-suit with high suede boots. No costume design credit is given in the film, although Rebecca Breed is credited as wardrobe supervisor. As such it’s likely the clothes were off the rack, and with the Mod-look garments to be found in London in this early film, that was probably a good choice.
 As an 18 year old, transitioning from high school to college, uncertain about life and what it would bring, seeing Blowup was revelatory, even for a self-styled hip kid like me from the swinging L.A. of the 60s. But if even a successful bloke like Thomas was losthe who had everything I could have wanted, what chance did I have? And yet there was always the music ringing in my head, the music of the Yardbirds playing Stroll On.

DESIGNING HOLLYWOOD: COSTUME SKETCHES at FIDM

 

FIDM Dolly Tree

Original costume design sketches provide a fascinating look into how fashion, whether from the Jazz  Age or from the Renaissance, was molded into the the service of a film character.  And more, the sketches themselves turn into a rabbit hole for entering into the bygone world of film production during the golden age of Hollywood. I’ve been collecting these relics from the old studio system for over 25 years. One hundred of the more interesting ones are on exhibit at the Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising (FIDM) Museum & Galleries  for the Designing Hollywood: Sketches from the Christian Esquevin Collection. The exhibition will be open from June 11 through November 1, 2014. FIDM is located at 919 South Grand Avenue in Los Angeles. The costume sketches will be complemented by several of FIDM’s own Hollywood costumes, plus original studio wardrobe workbooks and muslin pattern pieces.  And on special loan from the late costume designer Mary Wills’ daughter Marri Champie, her  Oscar statuette from the Best Costume Design for The Wonderful World of the Brothers Grimm. One of her costume sketches from this film, and several of her other films, are represented in the exhibition. FIDM Museum Curator Kevin Jones has worked tirelessly along with the Museum staff to bring this exhibition to life.

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Christian Esquevin before the Opening Reception

 

Irene - Patricia Vanever in Easter Parade 2

Costume sketches may look beautiful, but they were the working tools of the studio. They were the product of the studio’s in-house designer, in the case above, from  Irene Lentz Gibbons at MGM, designing for a model to wear while parading in Easter Parade in 1948. A sketch artist, Virginia Fisher, made the illustration. Sketches were done in watercolor, either on paper or on illustration board.  They were made to look good because they had to impress the film’s producer and director, who would have to approve the sketch. For a lead actress, she would have approval rights also. Often their initials are on the sketch – so the sketch was passed around from sketch artist to designer to producer to director to star until everyone was happy. If they weren’t, the sketch was modified or started over. One sketch on exhibit, a beauty from designer Orry-Kelly, has fox fur trim at the shoulders boldly crossed out in pencil.

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Once approved, a costume sketch  has still more work to do. It now goes to the studio Wardrobe Department, where the costume on paper becomes a costume in 3-D.  It now became the job of the cutter-fitter to translate the sketch into muslin patterns, these in turn would be used to cut the chosen fabric for the costume. Before the costume was sewn, however, muslin pieces were pinned for fit on a dress form made to the star’s size, which was then used to sew the costume by the seamstresses. A fitting was done on the star by both the Head Fitter and the Designer. Embroideries and other decorations were then added. The sketch above was designed by Orry-Kelly for Kay Francis for an unknown Warner Brothers film circa 1934. a very sporty golfing outfit.

Edith Betty Hutton

The costume sketch above was designed by Edith Head for Betty Hutton in The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek, 1944, directed by Preston Sturges. It was illustrated by a sketch artist rather than Edith herself. There are several costume sketches from Edith Head in the exhibition, and yet many of them look very different one  from another. This is because Edith used several sketch artists in her long career, and they had very different styles. Even for costume designers that were very good illustrators, the time pressures of the job did not usually allow them to do their own costume sketches (with a few notable exceptions).

Mary Wills - Joan Collins The Virgin Queen

The costume sketch above was a design by Mary Wills for Joan Collins as Beth Throgmorton,  Sir Walter Raliegh’s love interest in The  Virgin Queen, 1955. The star of the film was Bette Davis, who is also represented in the exhibition by a sketch from the same movie. The designers that did their own illustrations had very distinctive styles. Mary Wills, was one, and others included Adrian, Orry-Kelly, Kalloch, Irene Sharaff, Donfeld, and Theadora Van Runkle, all  during the time of the old studio system.

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Most every costume sketch is interesting, many are gorgeous, and a few are simply iconic. Gloria Swanson in Billy Wilder’s Sunset Blvd.designed by Edith Head, in the costume where she goes back to visit the Paramount studio and meets with C.B. DeMille, that’s iconic. But even iconic images develop gradually. The costume sketch for Gloria Swanson is shown above, and it even has Billy Wilder’s approval initials.  But before it was worn on the set, the skirt was modified, the muff became all white, and Gloria Swanson wore a hat with a feather stuck in it, an idea of Swanson’s that recalled the silent age of film. Of all the designers, Edith Head was always the most obliging about modifying her designs to accommodate an actress, and consequently, her costume sketches are frequently different than the costume’s on-screen appearance.

Mary Wills - Our Very Own

Here’s another sketch by Mary Wills, for Ann Blyth in Our Very Own, 1950, one of those fabulous films of the 1950s. This design if for a very unique bathing suit, both a striking costume sketch and an eye-catching and fetching piece for the beach.

Costume sketch Rose - Paris

Helen Rose became MGM’s top designer after Irene left to start her own line in 1948. This is one of her designs for Edie Adams in Made in Paris, 1966, which is actually one of Rose’s last films. This film did continue the tradition, started in the 1920s, of having fashion shows as part of the film’s plot, designed by the film’s costume designer. This one of course designed by Helen Rose. By 1966, the studio system of having long-term contract designers was coming to a close. Helen Rose left MGM in 1966 to start her own fashion line.

 

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Jean Louis was another of the very talented costume designers working in Hollywood  that began in couture.  Above is his design for Shirley Jones in Bedtime Story1964.  In the mid-sixties, Hollywood films, and film fashion, was in transition. The movies were caught during changing tastes and needing to appeal to different demographics. Fashions were changing too. Film fashion was no longer, with few exceptions, starting fashion trends.  Film fashion would now have to look at the street.  Hollywood’s designers would have to be younger, or at least design younger.

Head Natalie Wood Sex&Single Girl

Sex was coming back into the movies, not seen this much since  the pre-code Hollywood films of the early 1930s. The costume design  above is for Natalie Wood in Sex and the Single Girl, designed by Edith Head.

Donfeld  for AnnMargret in Cincinatti Kid

Donfeld was one of the young designers in the field. He had a deep respect for the veteran designers. Like many of them he used one name – combining Don and Feld, his real names, into his working name. He had a very active career in the 60s and 70s. Costume sketches sometimes never make it into the final film.  The costume sketch above was designed by Donfeld for Ann-Margret as Melba in The Cincinnati Kid, 1965. Sam Peckinpah was the film’s first director, but producer Martin Ransohoff didn’t like some of his overly sexy scenes and fired him. Norman Jewison was hired to take over. The costume designs were done over too and the costume sketch above along with several others didn’t make it into the film.

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Donfeld also designed the costumes for for Prizzi’s Honor in 1985, for which he received a Best Costume nomination. The sketch above is for Angelica Huston. Donfeld was the right choice to blend the 1940s style film noir costume into  the 1980s aesthetic.

The Designing Hollywood  exhibition at FIDM is not arranged chronologically but rather thematically, into five categories. These are Studios, Film Genres, Designers, Wardrobe, and Stars. If you live in, near or can visit the Los Angeles area, please plan to view the exhibition. These costume sketches, or others,  are rarely on view.

The sketch at the top is by Dolly Tree for Greta Nissen 

 

 

 

 

CAROUSEL: ROGERS AND HAMMERSTEIN’S CLASSIC

 

In the happy world of 1950s movie musicals came one where the protagonist dies after a failed mugging, leaving his pregnant wife behind. This was Rogers and Hammerstein’s Carousel. The movie was based on the Broadway musical from 1945, itself based on an older play Liliom, by Ferenc Molnar, and made into several films prior to Carousel. Molnar’s basic theme was kept but a few changes were made to the story, and notably setting it to music, which Molnar was only convinced to allow after Rogers and Hammerstein took him to see Oklahoma!  The story’s setting was shifted to 1870s sea-coastal New England. The 1956 movie of Carousel, like its Broadway predecessor,  is considered one of Rogers and Hammerstein’s most seriously themed musicals, and well it should. Like  Sunset Blvd, its protagonist leads off the movie dead, having been killed attempting a robbery.

This blog post will feature original costume design sketches by Academy Award winner Mary Wills, who designed the costumes for Carousel.

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Costume sketch by Mary Wills of Shirley Jones as Julie

 

Costume sketch by Mary Wills of Barbara Ruick as Carrie
Costume sketch by Mary Wills of Barbara Ruick as Carrie

 

Costume sketch for Gene Lockheart as the Starkeeper
Costume sketch for Gene Lockheart as the Starkeeper

Yes, Billy Bigelow played by Gordon MacRae is dead. But he inhabits the lowest rung of Heaven, where he has lingered for years. He is told that things are not going well for the family he left behind. The Starkeeper tells him everyone in his station can have one day on earth to redeem their wrongs, which prompts the re-telling/flashback of Billy’s life. The scene opens to the cheerful music of The Carousel Waltz.  He was  a carousel barker, a braggart and ne’er-do-well, but handsome, and a magnet for the young ladies wherever the travelling show would take him. One day he flirts too seriously with the pretty Julie Jordan, played by Shirley Jones. His lady boss gets jealous and she sends Julie and her girlfriend Carrie packing. He gets lippy with his boss and gets fired. Billy and Julie end up spending the evening together, even after she is questioned by her own boss, a Mill owner, and then by a police officer, for hanging around with a good-for-nothing like Billy, and missing her curfew for which she’ll be fired. Even Billy asks her why. In musicals, the strongest emotions can only be expressed in song, and so she sings one of the musical’s most moving songs, the heart rending “If I Loved You,” which leads a few minutes later into his own singing of the same song.

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If I Loved You

But somehow I can see
Just exactly how I’d be-

If I loved you,
Time and again I would try to say
All I’d want you to know.
If I loved you,
Words wouldn’t come in an easy way
Round in circles I’d go!
Longin’ to tell you,
But afraid and shy,
I’d let my golden chances pass me by!
Soon you’d leave me,
Off you would go in the mist of day,
Never, never to know how I loved you
If I loved you.

The song’s lyrics foretell the problem that Billy and Julie have throughout most of the film, and they never do tell each other “I love you.” during his lifetime.

But Billy and Julie marry, and Julie takes a job waiting tables at her cousin’s restaurant. Billy has no job, however, and he’s too much a smart-mouth to take the one that’s offered to him by Carrie’s fiance on his fishing boat. Instead his considers  taking an offer by his old boss, Mrs. Mullins, to rejoin the Carousel. But he learns that Julie’s pregnant, and in a moment of joy, he decides he has to to stay and provide for her. On the beach he reflects about becoming a father, singing his  “Soliloquy.” His vision is of a boy, but then he comes the ponder the thoughts of a girl. Either way he must provide for them, and he then decides to take up the offer of a sailor acquaintance, Jigger to rob the mill owner Mr. Bascombe.

Costume sketch by Mary Wills for Cameron Mitchell as Jigger
Costume sketch by Mary Wills for Cameron Mitchell as Jigger

 

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Fisherman dancer

 

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Costume sketch of Barbara Ruick as Carrie

All the town-folk and the local sailors are excited about preparations for the annual “clambake” at the nearby island, cause for celebratory singing and dancing to “June is Bustin’ Out All Over.”  After the merriment everybody sets sail for the clambake.

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Fisherman dancer

 

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Dancer

 

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After everybody is sated from eating, Jigger makes advances on the now engaged Carrie, and then he and Billy row back to the mainland unseen, while everone else has a treasure hunt. The two lay in wait for Brancombe, Billy with a knife that Jigger persuaded him to carry. When they finally confront Bascombe, he pulls a gun and fires.  Jigger runs away. Policemen show up and Billy runs up some crates rather than get arrested. He falls back down and lands on his knife, which mortally wounds him. Then everybody comes parading back still in a festive mood, only to discover that it’s Billy lying on the ground dying. Julie runs over to him and cradles him, finally telling him that she loves him, only now its too late. Seeing this scene back with the Starkeeper, Billy is still unrepentant, until the Starkeeper shows him the next scene of his daughter, now 15, a loner that the other students tease because of her late father’s reputation as a thief.

He next sees his daughter Louise, played by Susan Luckey, as the Starlight Carnival comes to town, and a handsome dancer, played by Jacques d’Damboise, takes her in hand for for a dance. She is flattered by his attention, but Billy from above quickly recognizes his type (he should know), and the dancer leaves her just as quickly as he picked her up.

Jacques d’Damboise center. Photo courtesy Photofest

All this makes her again the butt of laughter from the other school girls and she runs home in tears. Billy makes himself visible to Louise and offers her a star to console her.  Thinking him a stranger and frightened she turns away, Billy in frustration slaps her hand. Louise runs to her mother, who senses Billy’s presense, but all Louise can say is that the slap felt like a kiss. Billy now invisible again, sings to Julie, and she picks up the star.

The next scene is the high school graduation ceremony, where Louise and the other girls and boys are gathered. The school principal is played by Gene Lockheart, who played the Starkeeper. His speech to the graduating class is that they need to become their own persons, and not let the faults and failures of their parents haunt them.  At this time Billy, invisible,  stands beside Louise and whispers for her to listen to the principal. He then goes over to where Julie is seated. As Dr. Selden, the School Principal, leads them into the song, “You’ll Never Walk Alone,” Louise puts her arm around a school mate, who does the same, and Billy tells Julie he loves her. Julie  and the chorus all sing as Billy is seen walking to the horizon.

When you walk through a storm
Keep your chin up high
And don’t be afraid of the dark.
At he end of the storm
Is a golden sky
And the sweet silver song of a lark.

Walk on through the wind,
Walk on through the rain,
Tho’ your dreams be tossed and blown.Walk on, walk on
With hope in your heart
And you’ll never walk alone,
You’ll never walk alone.

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PRODUCTION: The title of of the film is Rogers and Hammerstein’s Carousel, which was produced by Henry Ephron and directed by Henry King. It was made at 20th Century-Fox and thus had excellent production values including art direction by Lyle Wheeler, Charles Clarke as cinematographer, and the wonderful costumes of Mary Wills. She had designed Hans Christian Andersen, The Virgin Queen, The Diary of Anne Frank, Cape Fear, and the Wonderful World of the Brothers Grimm, for which she won a costume design Oscar, among many other films she designed.

Carousel was filmed in CinemaScope55, a 55mm film stock. which gave high definition and relief to the screen image. Since this was the first use of this process, each scene was filmed twice, in both 35 mm and the 55mm film as a precaution. Frank Sinatra was first cast as Billy but he walked off the set saying he wasn’t being paid for making two movies. As it turned out, the double filming was soon abandoned. The filming was done on location in Booth Bay Harbor, Maine.

CRITIQUE: As a musical, Carousel is one of the masterpieces of the American theater. The film stays very close to the stage musical, although with one critical differance, in the stage version Billy kills himself rather than be arrested for robbery. The film has gotten less high critical praise, but it is still one of the great movie musicals, and certainly one of the fabulous films of the 1950s. With the singing duo  of Shirley Jones and Gordon MacRae, it could only be a winner. It was released only a few months after Oklahoma! and it suffered in critical esteem in its wake. And yet Carousel sags in the middle – during the clambake scene the actions seem forced and somewhat ponderous. Yet unlike, Oklahoma! its theme of redemption gives it an uplifting kick at the film’s end that was totally in keeping with the story, and must no doubt have pleased Mr. Molnar, the song and lyrics to “You’ll Never Walk Alone” helped propel that wonderful finale.

I first saw Carousel as a child, in the company of my parents, one of my early film-going experiences. My recollections of the movie were one of utter boredom. It was thus a revelation when I saw the movie as an adult, not so many years ago, at a TCM Classic Film Festival. Its music and scenes are now unforgetable to me. Perhaps others will discover or rediscover this classic film, this fabulous film of the 50s.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

THE RED SHOES: POWELL & PRESSBURGER’S MASTERPIECE

 

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Few movies grab you heart and soul as does The Red ShoesMichael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s masterpiece. Indeed it seems like a hallucinatory vision, come from a magic potion distilled out of a simple but tragic tale conjured by Hans Christian Andersen. That such a masterwork could come from a simple fairy tale is a testament to the art of motion pictures, and to the creative genius of Powell and Pressberger, known as The Archers, along with their incredible production team.

This post was written by Christian Esquevin and previously issued as part of the Powell & Pressburger Movie Blogathon hosted by the Classic Film and TV Cafe in March of 2012.

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The Red Shoes was created in 1948, a blazing work of Technicolor in the black and white world of post World War II England. The film was written by Emeric Pressburger and directed by Michael Powell, but its artistic punch was the work of cinematographer Jack Cardiff, and especially that of art director Hein Heckroth. And as a film largely about ballet, it comes to life through the dancing of star Moira Shearer and of Leonide Massine.  Director Michael Powell’s vision nonetheless permeates the film. He had grown up in the French Riviera town of Cap Ferrat, close to Monte Carlo where he had seen the work of the Ballets Russe. It was there that Powell had heard the story of how the great Vaslav Nijinsky and ballerina Romola de Pulszky married , only to be fired afterwards by Diaghilev.

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Michael Powell, left, with Emeric Pressburger

Thus emerged a screenplay about a single-minded ballet impresario who launches the career of a young composer, while also molding the career of a beautiful young ballerina. Anton Walbrook plays to perfection the powerful impresario Boris Lermontov, a puppet-master whose marionettes take on a life of their own. Marius Goring plays composer Julian Craster, with the young ballerina Victoria Page played by Moira Shearer. Both characters are trying to make it big in ballet  and the orchestra, and to replace existing leads. Lermontov recognizes their talent and believes he can harness their ambition. To Lermontov, ballet is a religion. To aspiring ballerina Victoria Page, she must dance in order to live.

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Anton Walbrook as Lermontov

Miss Page will soon have her chance to become prima ballerina. Lermontov is angered when his star ballerina, played by Ludmilla Tcherina, becomes engaged to marry. His view is simple, “You can not have it both ways”, he says. “The dancer that relies on the comfort of human love will never be a great dancer.”  Lermontov knows what he wants – it is ART, and everybody working for him must be single-minded in its pursuit – and the pursuit of his vision. Lermontov thinks he has a replacement for her, Victoria Page is as dedicated to the ballet as he is.

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A scene shot inside the Opera in Paris

Art permeates The Red Shoes from its first title card to its last. While the film is not primarily concerned with filming backstage scenes and ballet production, it nonetheless captures the excitement at the peak of this activity at Covent Garden, as the dancers rehearse, the set dressers move props, musicians practice, sweepers clean, costumed characters parade on stage, and all appears chaotic. In an earlier scene, excited young aficionados rush in to get the best of the cheap seats.

Lermontov himself is always impeccably dressed, often in dark double-breasted suits with crisp white shirts and pale ties. The non-ballet costumes for Moira Shearer were designed by the noted Parisian couturier Jacques Fath along with Malli of London, while Miss Tcherina’s costumes were designed by another Parisian couturier, Carven. When they move the production to Monte Carlo, Miss Page wears a beautiful dress of horizontal stripes in pink, yellow and purple on white. She also wears an elegant full gown of blue over magenta, with a pleated blue silk opera coat.

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It is refreshing to see the men dressed in a variety of elegant and casual clothes with great flair. No men’s costume credit is given, but Michael Powell must have provided the direction for the French Riviera style that was needed. At a meeting where they plan a new ballet, Lermontov wears cream-colored slacks with a turquoise-blue short-sleeved silk shirt over a dark blue t-shirt and red scarf. He wears sandals over socks, as was the European fashion. Massine wears cream-colored slacks, a dark blue blazer over a white shirt, with a red scarf and white shoes. When Miss Page enters she wears a loose jacket in light violet-magenta tones over a striped blouse.

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A new ballet is being planned, the Red Shoes. Julian Craster will be the composer, and Victoria Page will be the prima ballerina. Red now appears as an accent color in many of the scenes.

Hein Heckroth designed the wonderful sets for the ballet, painting the backdrops himself. He spent six months painting some 120 scenes. Cinematographer Jack Cardiff sent for powerful new spotlights to be shipped to England from the U.S. These he used to light the dancers – brighter spots were needed amidst a general flood of lighting required for the Technicolor film. The incredible painted backdrops were not enough for the fantastical scenes filmed during the ballet – matte paintings were also used. For the Red Shoes Ballet, a magnificent red curtain rises over the scene of a shoemaker, danced by Massine, in front of a beautiful gold and brown set-painting of shelves full of shoes. He holds a special pair of red ballet slippers.

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The ballet sequence itself becomes a parable of the ballerina’s life. Massine as the cobbler is a stand-in for Lermontov, enticing Miss Page to dance in the red shoes. Choreographer and dancer Robert Helpmann plays the Lover, representing Craster. She dances happily with the Lover, but still the shoemaker pursues her. At a carnival scene other men forcibly separate the Lover from her, and they dance with her in turns. Soon she out-dances them all, as they drop to the floor and are represented by sheets of colored cellophane falling through the air like leaves from a tree.

The ballet scene leaps dimensions – it is no longer filmed from the point of view of an audience watching a ballet – it becomes the existential reality of Miss Page herself, its sets reflecting her emotions and her predicament. Since Miss Page, as in the original tale, can not stop dancing as long long as she wears the red shoes, she dances her way through a series of magnificently designed but symbolically charged set designs reflecting her inner turmoil.

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Miss Page dances through the night. In the early morning twilight, she dances with a floating newspaper, which metamorphoses into the Lover. Still the shoemaker pursues her, and soon demons do too.

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She dances back onto the stage, with only Lermontov in his box watching, and Craster conducting. The audience has become a raging sea, and Lermontov and Craster are now huge rocks.

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She dances and dances, unable to stop. She dances to a church in a town square, where memorial services are being held. She is not let in – her Lover has now now morphed into a priest. “Take off my shoes”, she gestures. She is offered a knife to cut them off, only it morphs into some flowers. She dies of exhaustion on the steps of the church, where the Lover finally takes off her shoes – and the shoemaker retrieves them for another use. An audience re-emerges to give Miss Page and the ballet wild applause.

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And now the film-story mirrors the ballet story. Victoria Page and Craster become lovers, Lermontov fires Craster and she quits. Much later, Lermontov  takes on the role of the shoemaker, enticing her to put the red shoes back on. He has gotten over his artistic jealousy for the sake of creating better art. Craster has not, and roils her planned return to the stage. But she has put on the red shoes, and her fate now becomes one with the tale.

As was the case with several great films, the production of The Red Shoes was steeped in problems and animosities. Moira Shearer did not get along with Michael Powell, suffering through injuries and, like the other dancers, discomforted from dancing on concrete studio floors. The initial art director walked off the production when he found out Powell had hired Heckroth to do the ballet sets. The 80 year-old German actor Albert Basserman, who played Ratov the costume and set designer, was publicly dressed down by Powell, and this offended Anton Walbrook who had venerated the veteran actor. And finally, Rank Studios who financed the film was unhappy with the final production, not to mention the significant cost over-run.

Regardless, the film is now considered a masterpiece. Its 17 minute long ballet sequence became a big influence on Vicente Minnelli and Gene Kelly in the production of An American in Paris.  And it was Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger that created this masterwork, mixing all the ingredients into the intoxicating stew that is The Red Shoes.

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