A Christmas Story (1983) Directed by Bob Clark Shown on the set, from left: Peter Billingsley, director Bob Clark and Ian Petrella


The low-budget , unsentimental yet nostalgic movie,   A Christmas Story is now 35 years old. And it is, in spite of the low expectations of the studio that produced it, a classic. But as the great and recently departed screenwriter William Goldman said about what will succeed in the movie business, “nobody knows anything.” A movie set in the early 1940s about a kid wanting a BB gun for Christmas? It seemed the only two people who believed in it were the director Bob Clark, fresh off a hit with Porky’s in 1982 who threw in some of his own money in the production.  And Jean Shepherd, the writer of the short stories the movie was based on: Duel in the Snow, or Red Ryder Nails the Cleveland Street Kid;  and others from his book, In God We Trust: All Others Pay Cash. The two argued constantly  until Clark had to eject Shepherd from the set.

Bob Clark had first heard Jean Shepherd on the radio, where he was already a legend among many comics and spoken word /late night radio fans in the 1950s,1960s and 70s, me among them. Shepherd spun  tales of childhood life  set in fictional Hohman Indiana. His stories were never written until Shel Silverstein began taping and transcribing his radio shows. Shepherd shortly thereafter began writing his own stories. By then Shepherd’s stories were being published in Playboy magazine, where Hugh Hefner was a big fan.  So Bob Clark knew he had to make a movie – a Christmas movie – based on Jean Shepherd’s stories. But it took over 10 years to happen.

Bob Clark began working on a script for A Christmas Story  with Jean Shepherd along with Jean’s wife Leigh Brown. She was another believer, having worked with Shepherd at WOR Radio and together they had traveled the New York Beat scene years before they maried. With Shepherd’s distinctive voice, it was decided that he would narrate the movie as an older and more jaded Ralphie. He was perfect for this, having perfected his style on the radio. At times he sounded dramatic, at times sounding conspiratorial or world-weary, but always speaking directly to the listener – as the smart aleck kid in an adult’s body.

Finding the actor for the role of Ralphie was critical. Thousands of kid actors were considered and auditioned. Peter Billingsley, who got the part, was already a regular at making commercials in New York. He was considered almost too perfect, even though approaching 12, he was playing the 9 year old Ralphie. As it turned out Billingsley needed a dialogue coach during production to say the name “Red Ryder 200-shot Carbine Action Range Model Air Rifle” that he wanted for Christmas. His angelic face was the perfect contrast to his scheming nature. It’s hard to imagine anyone but Darren McGavin playing the Old Man, but Jack Nicholson was also considered for the role. Melinda Dillon as the mother got the part based on her strong role as the mom in Close Encounters of the Third Kind. 

Ralphie is obsessed, as only a 9 year kid can be, with having a Red Ryder 200-shot Carbine Action Range Model Air Rifle.  With Christmas around the corner he plants hints around the house to his indifferent parents. A trip to downtown “Hammond” with his buddies Flick and Schwartz and kid brother Randy also serves as occasion to gawk at the Higbees Department Store Window where the Christmas Baccanalia of toys and trains also diplays the “Holy Grail of christmas presents,” the Red Ryder 200 shot BB gun rifle. Ralphie fixates on the window. He lets out to his mother that night that this is what he wants for Christmas, only to be told, “You’ll shoot your eye out.” But he fantasizes about warding off and shooting bandits with his Red Ryder, with Ralphie the hero to his parents and kid brother. But Ralphie must live in the real kid world, a world Jean Shepherd never lets us forget.

Going to school is one of the daily humiliations in Ralphie’s world. He has to wait for his kid brother to be dressed up for snow – in so much clothing he can barely move. A recess gives Ralphie’s buddies the chance to try out Schwartz’s saying that if you stick your tongue to a flag pole (in freezing weather) it will stick there. Only the triple dog dare convinces Flick to try it, and sure enough his tongue sticks to the pole. It stays stuck as all the kids go back after the recess bell sounds. Only the teacher Miss Shields seems to notice Flick’s absence, the class mates feigning ignorance. Soon she  calls the police and fire department to pry him loose, where he barely gets out a whine with his bandaged tongue.

Flick sticks his tongue to the flag poll. The pole was hollow and had a hole cut into it. A vacuum was created so that his tongue was actually sucked to the pole.

The whole experience results in the need for a class excercise  in writing an essy on “What I want for Christmas” – the perfect segue for Ralphie writing a winning essay on the importance of the Red Ryder BB gun for a present. This reverie lasts as long as it takes for the neighborhood bully Scut Farkus and his side-kick to have Ralphie, Flick and Schwartz running home for safety. Little brother Randy, still wrapped like a pig in a blanket, plays possum in the snow. Ralphie’s daily life always seems to sink into a contrast to his daydream reveries. Just as he saw his A+++ essay becoming a stepping-stone to getting a Red Ryder BB gun for Christmas, he gets his essay back from Miss Shields. Not only did it just get a C+, but she wrote in red “You’ll shoot your eye out!” Hope dashed again.

Ralphie’s home life is a constant battle of trying to get his wish for the Red Ryder noticed, His mother dotes on Randy and his lack of interest in food. Mother and child play games of “pigs in a trough” with his mom laughing as Randy buries his face in the mashed potatoes. His father is either buried in the newspaper or cussing as he tries to fix the furnace in the basement.  The Old Man’s one happy moment is when he won a prize of a leg lamp, “electric sex” as Ralphie calls it, which the Old Man proudly displayed in the window to his wife’s mortification.


An embarassed and upset Ralphie in Aunt Clara’s Christmas present he doesn’t want


These unique scenes from A Christmas Story and several more that follow mostly came from separate stories in Jean Shepherd’s books. They form a remarkable whole because they sprang from one mind, Yet they took form as a film with Bob Clark’s expert and remarkable direction. Each scene builds on another leading to a climax that is perfect. The viewpoint always from that of Ralphie and a kid’s world. This is maximized by the low-angle cinematography, borrowing a technique from film noir: cutting a hole in the floor to sink the cameras for a low angle shot. These are the reasons the audience has continued to build for the movie year after year. As with many classic movies, the end result masks the friction that produced it. With Shepherd and Clark, it was Jean’s continual interference with the actors. Shepherd was always trying to have the scene come out according to his original vision. Clark finally had to have Shepherd removed from the set in order to have this stopped. Still, we can see Jean Shepherd in cameo in the movie, he playing the man in the Santa Claus line at Higbee’s – telling Ralphie when he and Randy get ready to go up to see Santa,  “The line ENDS here. It begins THERE.” pointing far away. Shepherd narrates in the movie “The line stretched all the way back to Terre Haute.”

On Christmas day the surprises go all around. But being a Jean Shepherd story, surprises are good and bad. As he narrates in the story, “Life is like that. Sometimes at the heart of our revelries, when our joy is at its zenith, and all is right with the world, the most unbelievable of disasters descend upon us.”

For a low budget movie, production designer Reuben Freed and Art Director Gavin Mitchell still had to look at 20 cities for locales and sets. Toronto served for some outdoor scenes and Cleveland served for others. Higbee’s Store was in Cleveland (and the building is still there). Ralphie’s home, the Parker house exterior, is in Cleveland. In winter 1982-1983 when the movie was filmed, it was a very warm winter and no snow had fallen. The special effects supervisor Martin Malivoire and assistant Neil Trifunovich had to truck in snow, and resorted to using potato flakes for falling snow. Shredded vinyl was also used on set as well as firefighter’s foam for exterior sets.

A Christmas Story was a not a big hit when it opened, although it did make money for MGM when it was re-released. In 1985 it was released on video and word of mouth began to grow. Its unique take on Christmas made it a favorite for many. In 1997, it had reached more than cult-status when TNT began running A Christmas Story marathons.  And since 2006, San Diego resident Brian Jones has opened the A Christmas Story Museum at the house in Cleveland that served as the exterior of the Parker house. Nearby properties have also been added as to the compound.

Jean Shepherd died October 16, 1999 at age 78. Bob Clark died tragically on April 4, 2007, age 67 with his son Ariel  in a car crash caused by a drunk driver.

The Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences is commemorating the 35th anniversary on December 10 of A Christmas Story with a special invitation-only screening of the movie along with hosting members of the cast and crew. Peter Billingsley will be there along with Production Designer Reuben Freed, Set Director Mark Freeborn, and Costume Designer Mary E. McLeod.

TNT is already playing A Christmas Story.  So let us enjoy this unsentimental but kid-in-the-adult movie. The movie that screenwriter Robert McKee considered a new genre in the modern era: A Christmas Story.



Walter Plunkett was there at the very beginning of Golden Age Hollywood. He launched the wardrobe department at RKO in 1927, designing everything from flapper outfits to western costumes. And when he designed  the costumes for Singing in the Rain, he was recreating some of the looks he had designed 25 years earlier. Yet he was best known for his period costumes, especially for the classic Gone With the Wind, one of many films featuring his historic costume designs. Walter Plunkett could do it all in the field of costume design, from thrillers like King Kong, to Art Deco musicals like Gay Divorcee, to period pieces like The Hunchback of Notre Dame and How the West Was Won. And he could design for both men and for women.


Walter Plunkett with my great-aunt Marie Ree, the head-cutter-fitter at RKO

Plunkett’s first big hit at RKO was Rio Rita in 1929, starring Bebe Daniels. Although she played a Mexican senorita in a western film, he designed a striking gold lamé costume for her. Although he was not yet the accomplished period designer – the costume got everybody’s attention. By 1930 he had designed a string of movies for RKO and had organized their wardrobe department.  But he now felt his pay had not kept up. He left RKO and started designing for Western Costume. RKO soon lured him back with better pay and started him designing for two giants of the screen – King Kong , Katharine Hepburn. Or at least designing for King Kong’s heart-throb , Fay Wray. And for Katharine Hepburn, he designed the stunning, skin-tight, gold lamé gown complete with skull-cap and moth-like antennae in Christopher Strong.  This was Hepburn’s second movie for RKO, which was otherwise costumed by a free-lancing Howard Greer. Hepburn was having a rough adjustment to Hollywood, and was known as having a sharp tongue. When Plunkett was having a fitting with her he came right out and told her, “At this rate you’ll become a worse bitch than Constance Bennett.” Hepburn laughed, and they became friends and worked together throughout his career. He designed the rest of her film costumes while he remained at RKO, including for such classic period films as Little Women, Mary of Scotland, and A Woman Rebels.


Plunkett’s “moth” costume for Katharine Hepburn in “Christopher Strong.”


Plunkett’s costume for Hepburn in “Mary of Scotland.”


While at RKO Plunkett also designed the costumes for the start of  Ginger Rogers’ career with Fred Astaire as her dance partner in Flying Down to Rio. She had previously played in some Warner Bros. musical. He had started as a youth in Vaudeville where he danced with his sister. Although they had second billing in this film, that changed after people saw them dance together. They were the stars in their next movie The Gay Divorcee. Plunkett created what would become the classic silhouette for Ginger Rogers’ dance gowns: a form-fitting bodice, tight at at the hips, flowing into a swirling skirt that accentuated all her dance moves with Fred Astaire.

Then in 1937 Katharine Hepburn  gave Walter Plunkett a tip about a production coming up that he would be great for, one that she herself was seeking the lead role:  David Selznick’s Gone with the Wind. Both of them had already worked with Selznick at RKO, where he  had been Head of Production before launching Selznick International Pictures in 1935. Plunkett contacted him and was hired, but on a non-exclusive basis, for GWTW.  At this point, it was only to do studies for the movie, and thus at a lower pay. Plunkett signed on anyway, and thus found himself working on the biggest movie to hit Hollywood. Little did he know that it would take over a year before he actually began working on the costumes. With the extra time he visited Atlanta, New Orleans, and examined antique Southern fabrics. He even had time to design costumes for other Selznick films like The Adventures of Huckleberry Flynn. But when he had finished his GWTW  costumes, they were magnificent. Katharine Hepburn never did get the part of Scarlett, but she too left RKO later in 1938.

Plunkett’s great success with Gone with the Wind only made it harder for him to find another job afterwards. Studios thought he would be too expensive, or that he would only do big historical movies, and most had their own period costume specialists. After returning to RKO to do one more film, the great Hunchback of Notre Dame (1939). Plunkett became a free-lancer. Things got worse as Europe plunged into WW II and film distribution to the lucrative European market plunged. Plunkett was now designing for the poverty row studios of Columbia and Republic.

Katharine Hepburn had returned to Broadway after Hollywood, and found success with the play “Philadelphia Story.” Her lover at the time, Howard Hughes, bought the film rights for her, and with that she went to MGM to make the film version. MGM made the movie in 1940, with Hepburn picking George Cuckor as director, Cary Grant, who she had worked with at RKO, and Jimmy Stewart as co-stars. It was a big hit. Hepburn also got a long term contract. When she was about to make her first historical film, Sea of Grass with Spencer Tracy, she asked that her friend “Plunky” be brought in to design the costumes. So Walter Plunkett started at MGM in September 1945. MGM already had a wardrobe department full of talented designers, with Irene (Lentz Gibbons) as the head (she had replaced Adrian), Helen Rose, Irene Sharaff, Karinska, and men’s designers Valles and Gile Steele.

Plunkett found his home at MGM. Although the 1930s are when MGM ruled supreme, it had many great musicals and period films ahead. And Walter Plunkett would be involved in  most of them.

By 1948, Walter Plunkett had been in the movie business for so long that he was now designing costumes for re-makes of his own previously designed films. The first such film was The Three Musketeers. Plunkett had designed the previous one at RKO in 1935. Now he was designing MGM’s version in 1948 for Lana Turner, Gene Kelly, June Allyson, and Angela Lansbury. But it was the same swashbuckling story on bigger sets and scenery. One of his early period films that set a fashion trend was now also being remade at MGM. Little Women. His first version in 1933 starred Katharine Hepburn, was produced by David O. Selznick and directed by George Cukor. Now in 1949 Plunkett was dressing June Allyson, Elizabeth Taylor, Janet Leigh, Margaret O’Brien, and Mary Astor. Plunkett also got to work for the first time with the red-headed beauty Greer Garson in 1949. That Forsyte Woman, based on the John Galsworthy saga. The movie starred Greer Garson, Errol Flynn, Janet Leigh and Walter Pidgeon.  The Victorian style costumes he designed were full-skirted, with bustles and tight bodices. Another grea hstorical film that Plunkett designed in 1949 was the classic story of Madame Bovary, this version starring Jennifer Jones with co-stars Van Heflin and Louis Jourdan. Plunkett designed several beautiful gowns for Jones. One of his costume sketches is shown below.


With the start of the 1950s, Walter Plunket would again find himself designing musicals. It was for Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein’s Showboat starring Ava Gardner as Julie with the role of Magnolia going to the singing actress Kathryn Grayson and that of Gaylord to Howard Keel. For the story taking place on a Mississippi riverboat, Plunkett designed both the men’s and women’s late 19th century costumes. As a set for the movie, the floating showboat Cotton Blossom was built on the MGM backlot pond. The set for the town of Natchez was also built on the MGM backlot.

Ava Gardner as Julie in “Showboat”


In 1951 Plunkett also worked on An American in Paris.The movie had so many costumes that the design job was split between Irene Sharaff, and Orry-Kelly who was free-lancing. Walter Plunkett only designed the costumes for the wild Black and White Beaux Arts Ball scene.  An American in Paris won Best Costume Design Oscars for all three designers. Plunkett must have found it ironic that he won an Academy Award – his only Oscar as it turned out – for a Ball scene after having designed Gone with the Wind, Little Women, Mary of Scotland, and Gay Divorcee. But Plunkett was not finished. The next year in 1952 he designed the costumes for the most popular musical ever made, Singing in the Rain. Here too he was re-living his early days at RKO, from the “plus-fours” men’s pants – to the flapper dresses – to the problems while recording sound caused by scratchy fabrics and thumping fans. His designs for Debbie Reynolds, Jean Hagen, and Cyd Charisse were magnificent. Cyd’s emerald green flapper outfit with the crystal decorated panels was as perfect for her dance number with Gene Kelly as was her transformative satin wedding outfit for the Broadway Ballet number.


Below is Plunkett’s costume sketch for Debbie Reynolds in the pink bubble-gum chorus girl outfit she wore when she jumped out of the cake at the party scene in Singing in the Rain.

Plunkett also designed the men’s costumes, including Gene Kelly’s and Donald O’Connor’s. It’s a shock today to realize he wasn’t even nominated for a Best Costume Design Oscar for Singing in the Rain.

Costume sketch design by Walter Plunkett for Cyd Charisse in the Broadway Melody number in “Singing in the Rain


In 1952 Plunkett designed the costumes for another musical, Cole Porter’s Kiss Me Kate. It’s best remembered for Ann Miller dancing her famous “It’s Too Darn Hot” number wearing Plunkett’s hot-pink, fringed and sequined show-girl outfit.



Plunkett got to combine music and period costume in the show-stopper Seven Brides for Seven Brothers. He used a clever scheme of bright color differentiation of the brother’s shirts to separate them. And he also used old quilts as material to make the bride’s skirts,

As the 1950s roled on television competed with movies for audience, and the studios were forced to sell off their movie theater ownership because of an anti-trust court case. Thus fewer movies were being produced. Walter Plunket still had a few good movies he worked on in the late 1950s. While it was not a hit, Raintree County with Elizabeth Taylor and Montgomery Clift had fabulous Civil War era costumes designed by Plunkett. He even said it was more challenging than designing Gone with the Wind. 

As 1960 came he designed the costumes for a new face in Hollywood, Hayley Mills starring in Walt Disney’s Pollyanna.Walter Plunkett was now free lancing, long term contracts gone with the wind for costume designers, indeed for much of the studio arts and crafts personnel.

He would design one more big Hollywood movie, How the West Was Won in 1962. After that he designed a few more movies and had a long career to long back on. He especially enjoyed many celebrations of those glory days of Hollywood’s Golden Age. He even recreated his old costume sketches and he also painted flowers. His legacy today lives on through those great movies.



Movies shot on or projected from film have been declared dead or dying for years. Yet some directors and cinematographers still recognize the superiority of this almost 125 year- old technology.  Stanley Kubrick’s  science-fiction classic 2001: A Space Odyssey was shot on film in 1968, as were all movies back in the pre-digital days. But on May 13, 2018 it was projected in Cannes for the Film Festival from 70mm film. Christopher Nolan had worked with Warner Brothers to re-release the film on 70mm. Kenneth Turan of the Los Angeles Times called it “breathtaking.”



Why was this “film” still available? Nolan has been a persistent advocate of film. He had persuaded Warner Brothers to convert 100 theaters to allow projection of 70mm films for his Dunkirk. His cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema shares his passion, noting that a 70mm IMAX film print has resolution equivalent to 18K. When Nolan found out that there was an effort to print 2001 from the original negative, he became very excited. This effort at WB was led by Ned Price, vice president of restoration at Warner, Vince Roth, technical director at the post-production facility FotoKem, and color timer Kristen Zimmermann. Nolan remembered vividly seeing the movie as a kid. He was affected again watching the  space station rotate above earth to the music of “The Blue Danube.” I must have watched that scene 20 times,” the director says when seeing the new print, clearly affected, “and every time the space station enters the shot, it moves me.” The Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences had a screening in 70mm for their members on June 11, with an introduction by Christopher Nolan, and  the film began a limited release.

As Nolan stated about film,  “… it’s still the best analog for the way the eye sees that has ever been produced. Except for the last 10 years, the entire history of cinema has been done exactly the same way, photochemically, and it’s a great passion of mine to maintain this knowledge and expertise…”


Cinematographer John Bailey, now President of the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences, agrees that projected 35mm “…seems to have a kind of animation and life to it — a breathing quality. It has to do a lot with the film grain; it has to do a lot with the projection shutters and the fact that every frame in a film print is completely distinct.”

At the TCM Classic Film Festival in Hollywood in April 2018, one of the panel discussions was Writing with Light, held at the American Society of Cinematographers Clubhouse. The event was moderated by director Taylor Hackford, and included veteran cinematographers Amy Vincent, John Toll, Bob Richardson, Caleb Deschanel, and Stephen Burum. Taylor Hackford  asked stimulating questions that each cinematographer answered in turn. Three of the five cinematographers still use film. They recognize the advantages of digital: you need less light and you have more control. Caleb Deschanel (National Treasure, Jack Reacher, Winter’s Tale), said that “digital is a scientific representation of skin color.” Film is more natural in representing true skin, he said, which he has to color-corect when he uses digital. One of the other current problems with digital is that nothing is standardized in its use, which the American Society of Cinematographers is trying to correct. As for film, the people that have the skill to develop it are in very short supply, as are the labs that process it and the companies that manufacture it, which have closed down over the last decade. Fortunately, Kodak is still producing 35mm color and b&w film stock. Kodak also has a website and an app, Reelfilm, where movies shot on film playing in your area are listed: https://reelfilm.kodak.com

Movie theater projection has virtually all been converted to digital at this point. Instead of multiple cans of film reels, a single DCP (Digital Cinema Package) cartridge is sent to the movie theater. Another advantage here is that the DCP costs about $100. Christopher Nolan’s 70mm Dunkirk print cost over $30,000. The goal eventually will be to send the movies by satellite transmission. Theater film projectors have been surplused and most of them junked. For the few vintage theaters, its been  a good opportunity to get replacement projectors and ancillary equipment or spare parts. Finding skilled operators of this equipment is another story. Many of the former projectionists have retired. And there is little incentive for learning this skill as a career path.

There are some fans of celluloid that are fortunate to get on a cinema wayback machine. The old Grauman’s Egyptian Theatre in Hollywood, now part of the American Cinematheque, had its projection room remodelled for fire safety so it could play nitrate-based film. At the 2018 TCM Classic Film Festival it screened the beautiful Leave Her to Heaven on nitrate stock, on loan from the Museum of Modern Art in New York. During that screening the film broke, and the audience waited as the projectionist spliced the film back together.

The threat of damage to film prints is constant, said Dominic Simmons, Head of Technical, at the British Film Institute. “Every time you run a film print through a projector there is some element of damage done to it. You’re running it over sprockets at loads of feet per second,” he said. Writer Daniel Curtis described the process during a screening of a documentary, at BFI, “It’s loud, quick, and, after leaning in to look more closely, it’s easy to see that it’s violent.” Simmons added, “It’s a really physical process. The film is starting and stopping 24 times a second.”


The preservation of movies on film has been going on for decades. The preservation of digital movies is still in its infancy.  Many mistakingly assume that just because a movie is shot on digital “it will last forever.” The Library of Congress and the American Film Institute  have been cooperating on film preservation for 50 years. The  Nitrate Film Vault manager, in an oft-quoted statement,  says digital preservation may be an “oxymoron.”  “How do you save digital material? ‘Cause digital as a rule is very iffy. You have only a couple of different ways you can store it, you can store it magnetically or optically or on a card, but none of those are permanent. Something can disrupt them and the stuff is gone.” This also begs the question – is the preservation effort going to be made to begin with?

According to experts the answer to the problems of digital preservation is redundant storage, periodic migration to newer media, and emulation (using  current software that simulates original or obsolete ones). Paramount Pictures is one of the studios that is making the effort to archivally preserve its film-based and digital library. Andrea Kalas, VP of Archives, says she makes four copies of every Paramount movie. She stores their library of films in Pro-Tek vaults on high-density mobile shelves at 29 degrees and 35% relative humidity. on that basis, they can last well over 100 years.

Miranda Murray photo


The British Film Institute has a new facility for the storage of the national collection. Heather Stewart is BFI’s Creative Director. While recognizing the importance of digital movies, her opinion of film was quoted recently in The New Statesman,  “It’s the realism the film gives you – that organic thing, the light going through the film is not the same as the binary of 0s and 1s. It’s a different sensation. Which isn’t to say that digital is ‘lesser than’, but it’s a different effect. People know. They feel it in their bodies, the excitement becomes more real. There’s that pleasure of film, of course but I don’t want to be too geeky about it.” Once film is placed in proper storage conditions, it can be very stable. As Stewart states, “…“all archives worldwide are on the same page and the plan is to continue looking after analogue, so it ain’t going anywhere.”

Along with preserving film itself, an efort was made in the UK to preserve, at least in photograohs, the film projectionists.  Prompted by the transition to digital, The Projection Project centered at the Department of Film and Television Studies at the University of Warwick sought  to record and investigate the history of movie projection in Britain. In 2012, with 90% of projectionists already displaced by digital, the photographer Richard Nicholson began photographing movie theater film projectionists.

Allan Foster is shown above at the Hyde Park Picture House, Leeds. From the series ‘The Projectionists’ by Richard Nicholson. Copyright © Richard Nicholson, 2016.


Many movie viewers don’t see any difference between digital or film, and some say digital is even superior. For now there are still the two. If you are a movie fan, go see for yourself. At least while there are still film movies being made, and at the few theaters that can still non-digitally project them.

This post has been part of a series on film vs. digital



May 16 is National Classic Movie Day and the Classic Comfort Movie Blogathon: perfect for that wonderful Capra classic Lady for a Day. If the term “The Lubitsch Touch” hadn’t already been coined it would need to have been invented for Frank Capra. Starting with this film, he directed  eleven hit movies in a row.  Each had a unique quality – with most featuring strong populist characters facing hard challenges ending with heartwarming results.  Working at the “Poverty Row” studio of Columbia, and for a tough boss in Harry Cohn, the Depression was on and Capra was having a tough year.  He had bought on the cheap the rights to a short story by Damon Runyon titled Madame La Gimp. His writing partner Robert Riskin thought they could make something out this story of an “old lady” street corner apple seller  – once a stage performer now fallen on hard times. She sent her daughter for schooling in a convent in Spain, sending money she collects off the street. Only now  her daughter is grown-up and making a surprise visit. For Capra, who else could play such a role other than Marie Dressler, but MGM would never loan her out. As Capra and Briskin stewed on their dilemma, Cohn kept putting on the pressure to come up with a hit. And in the meantime things got worse as Capra’s wife miscarried their first child. Then a big earthquake hit in nearby Long Beach.



When Capra and Briskin got back to finding the talent for the film, they looked for a suitable “Apple Annie.” These street corner merchants came out of a confluence of the hard times of the Depression and a glut of apples in the Pacific Northwest.  The Unemployed Relief Committee of the International Apple Growers Association started an apple selling effort by distributing low-cost apples to the the so-called Apple Annies and the unemployed who sold them for a nickle apiece. Capra looked among  older actors and found a Broadway veteran and Hollywood transplant for the lead, the 75 year old May Robson. She had made her first stage appearance in 1883.  Her years of acting made her perfect for the role. The “Dave the Dude” character went to the handsome and debonair Warren William, with Bob Briskin’s girlfriend Glenda Farrell being perfect for the Dude’s moll. Apple Annie’s daughter is played by the beautiful Jean Parker. The Dude’s henchman “Happy” was played by Ned Sparks, who Capra described as “…he of the bleak mien, and  parched voice squeezed dry of all compassion.” And then there was “The Judge”  played by Guy Kibbee, pool shark and,  (SPOILER) fill-in for Apple Annie’s husband, filling out the principal cast.


This is a Cinderella story for an old woman, and at the end, as Richard E. Grant said giving a movie pitch in The Player, “There’s not a dry eye in the house.”  Partial SPOILER: Apple Annie has a network of friends in the neighborhood, one of which is the doorman at the Hotel Maybery. He provides her hotel stationary on which she writes her daughter under her assumed name of Mrs. E. Worthington Manville. Apple Annie’s fictions fall apart when her daughter writes back in her latest letter that she is coming for a visit, along with her fiancé Carlos, and his father, Count Romero from Spain. Since receiving this letter, Annie has not been seen. Dave the Dude, a gambling man (and racketeer),  relies on her for his “lucky apples.” Soon all the neighborhood street characters ask the Dude to do something. When Dave the Dude finds Annie at her apartment drinking and bemoaning her fate, he see’s the photo of her daughter Louise and understands. Her friends now ask him to rent her rooms at the Maybery where she can receive her daughter and  fiancé, they will even pay with their meager earnings. The Dude declines their money but puts her up anyway, and gets his girlfriend Missouri Martin (Glenda Farrell) to dress her up as a society matron. She’ll have to have a husband so the Dude gets the pool shark, alias  Judge Henry D. Blake  (Guy Kibbee). This assemblage is all lined up at the docks as Louise’s ship arrives and a tearful but happy reunion is celebrated and acquaintances made with the new  prospective in-laws. A journalist  happens to be there, however, and before the well-known “gangster” mug of Dave the Dude can be noted with the new arriving dignitaries, “Happy” kidnaps the reporter. And with cops around, the other street characters start a fight to divert the cops from the Dude’s presence.


All is going well in this underworld scheme-for-the-good. But life is full of surprises, even a movie life. When all has gone smoothly and the visitors announce they are returning to Spain, “The Judge” announces he and “Mrs. Worthington Manville” will have a party for their departing guests. He has also asked the Dude to round up guests, meaning to turn Missouri’s “gals” and the Dude’s “mugs” into society people. Meanwhile, several more reporters have been kidnapped and the Police Commissioner, under pressure from the Mayer, is cracking down on Police Captains to find the missing reporters. Just when all the mugs and gals are at Missouri’s club rehearsing before going to the party,  the cops come in for a bust.  It looks like no one will show for Apple Annie’s  going-away party for her daughter, fiancé, and Spanish guest. She is thinking about confessing the whole charade to them. But life is full of surprises, especially movie lives.


Lady for a Day was a great success for Frank Capra and Columbia Pictures.  The film received four Academy Award nominations: for Best Picture;  Best Actress; Best Writing; and Best Directing, which was Frank Capra’s first nomination. The Academy Awards were held at the Biltmore Hotel that year, and Capra was all worked up, already seeing in his mind the publicity for the first movie to ever win four Oscars. His wife Lu was in her 9th month of pregnancy, so he attended with a group of Hollywood friends. Bob Briskin had his own table of guests (yes, tables with food and drink at the time). Will Rogers was the MC, and as each of the categories was announced that Lady was nominated for  – it went to another nominee. Capra’s heart sank further and further. Finally, the BEST DIRECTOR category came up and Will Rogers opened the envelope and said how great it was for this young director – how he saw him come up from the bottom, and then he said, “Come up and get it, Frank!” Capra’s table burst in applause as Capra shot up and made his way through a maze of tables towards the dais. On the other side of the room another man was also heading for the dais, Frank Lloyd, and the spotlights landed on him –  he was the one winning for directing  the movie Cavalcade. Capra realized to his shame that he wasn’t the winner standing out there. Walking back to his table was a humiliation he never forgot – except later that night when his guests and the Briskins all got drunk at his house. Hollywood is full of surprises.

This post is part of the National Classic Movie Day Comfort Movie  Blogathon sponsored by Rick at Classic Film & TV Cafe





Image by TCM

The 9th annual Turner Classic Movies Film Festival was a full-card of film screenings and other events that thrilled every classic movie fan in attendance. This was my ninth year attending. The first couple of years were a bit chaotic in movie-line management, but now all has been ironed out. Every staff member and usher is helpful and knowledgeable  and one need only know what event one wants to attend (and that is hard enough). The one thing that remains constant is to remember to occasionally eat and sleep. If you have a smart phone, using the TCMFF app will be easier than carrying the program around, plus you get regular updates to changes and added screenings.

My 2018 TCMFF actually started early as I participated on a panel discussion at the Hollywood Heritage Museum for the program  Feud: Costuming Bette Davis & Joan Crawford. This was all about the TV mini-series FEUD, and featured Jay Jorgensen and me talking about the costumes of the stars and the show moderated by Louise Coffey-Webb.

The first film screening I attended was a surprise hit at the Fesival: Finishing School. I was relaxing at the Roosevelt/TCM lounge when fellow costume historian and blogger Kimberly Truhler told me a line had already formed for the screening. I chugged my drink and dashed accross the street (the long way around the block since the Chinese Theatre was blocked off). This film is  little known and stars the beautiful Frances Dee and Ginger Rogers. This was an RKO production, where Dee met Joel McRae and the two subsequently married. The film is about a “Girls” finishing school, or boarding school, where high school aged girls learn manners and refinement. Ginger is already a student and Frances learns rebelliousness from her, but after Dee gets all the blame, she adapts some attitude of her own. Soon she meets Bruce Cabot, a medical student and intern. As she gets restricted, her ability to see him gets more and more difficult. Wanda Tuchock wrote the screenplay and co-directed this 1934 film. Great acting by Frances Dee. Her grandson Wyatt McRae, shown below at right, was on hand to talk about the film and his grandparents.




The classic  Stage Door was the next film I attended Thursday night. Gregory LaCava’s adaptation of George S. Kaufman and Edna Ferber’s play, with Anthony Veillor’s script (and ad-libbing), is a gem of a movie that everyone should watch – more than once. Hold your breath at the starring roles: Katharine Hepburn; Ginger Rogers; Lucille Ball; Eve Arden; Gail Patrick, Ann Miller; Andrea Leeds (steals your heart) Constance Collier; and Adolphe Menjou (the cad Broadway producer). This was The Women before there was The Women. It played at the American Cinematques’s GRAUMAN’S EGYPTIAN Theatre. It was preceded by The Letter, One of Bill Morrison’s unique films made of edited deteriorated remnants of silent films.


The next morning  I stood in line to see another favorite, the lesser known but wonderful The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek, directed by Preston Sturges. It stars that spark plug on legs Betty Hutton (as Bob Hope used to call her), with Sturges regulars Eddie Bracken, William Demarest, and Brian Donlevy. This 1944 film’s whacky but funny plot defies brief description – it just has to be seen.

How to Marry a Millionaire was a good follow-up movie, especially enjoyable on a big screen in Cinemascope. The plot of three women teaming up to catch some rich men had been done several times already by 1953, but combining Marilyn Monroe, Lauren Bacall, and Betty Grable was dynamite. Although William Powell was a catch that didn’t quite last, Rory Calhoun, Cameron Mitchell, and David Wayne survived the test. Directed by Jean Negulesco, who remade  the story a year later in Rome with Three Coins in the Fountain.


A smart film was screened starring Deanna Durbin in her first big starring role: Three Smart Girls for Universal Studio, in what would be the upcoming star’s single-handed job of saving the studio from bankruptcy. This Henry Koster directed film had Deanna Durbin and her two sisters, played by Nan Grey and Barbara Read, trying to prevent her divorced father from marrying a gold-digger. This to keep their mother from having a broken heart. Their schemes are complicated and highly entertaining. Also stars Binnie Barns, Charles Winninger,  Ray Milland, and Ernest Cossart. Bob Koster, pictured above, the director’s son, spoke about his father’s career and the movie.


An even longer line was formed for Leave Her to Heaven, a fabulous Technicolor film screened here at the Egyptian from a nitrate print from the Museum of Modern Art in New York. I attended with fellow blogger Patty Schneider aka The Lady Eve’s REEL LIFE. The film stars Gene Tierney, Cornel Wilde, Jeanne Crain, and Vincent Price. This John Stahl directed film is unique in depicting Tierney as a twisted  personality, and is often described as a Technicolor film-noir. One is struck on first viewing it by the rich lush colors of the scenery and sets, and of Gene Tierney’s beauty and initial magnetism (this was the 2nd time I had seen it at a TCMFF). Cinematography by Leon Shamroy.

Probably the best event of the Festival was Writing with Light, a panel discussion held at the American Society of Cinematographers Clubhouse. The event was moderated by director Taylor Hackford, and included cinematographers Amy Vincent, John Toll, Bob Richardson, Caleb Deschanel, and Stephen Burum. Taylor Hackford  asked stimulating questions that each cinematographer answered in turn. As a result, the audience got a lesson in what the cinematographer does, but also provided a fascinating series of anecdotes and stories about working with directors and on plethora of films, Highlights of their comnbined output includes: Braveheart;  TheThin Red Line; Cloud Atlas; Hateful Eight; Hugo; The Aviator; Kill Bill; The Horse Whisperor; National Treasure; The Natural; Being There; The Black Stallion; The Right Stuff; Mission Impossible; and The Untouchables among many others.


From left to right: Taylor Hackford; Amy Vincent; John Toll; Bob Richardson; Caleb Deschanel; and Stephen Burum.


Below is one of several early cameras on display at the Clubhouse, this was was able to pick up sound.



The next film I viewed was the under-appreciated The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, a David O. Selznick production done in 1938  while he was waiting for elements of Gone With the Wind to come together. Selznick used some of the production talent he would be wotking with in GWTW: art director William Cameron Menzies and costume designer Walter Plunkett. He also had James Wong Howe as cinematographer. Filmed in Technicolor, their on-set advisors gave a taste of the problems for the cinematographer they would cause on GWTW for costume colors. The director was Norman Taurog who worked with a large child cast as well as May Robson and Walter Brennan.  Cora Sue Collins who played the girl Amy Lawrence was interviewed about her role in this and many others. She had played  Queen Christina as a child in the Greta Garbo film and they had remained life-long friends.

Cora Sue Collins. Photo Christian Esquevin

An intriguing show was Cracking Wise, an edited medley of movie wise-cracks taken from dozens of films in the Paramount Archives. Rather than being Paramount films, however, these were mainly “B” films from the Republic Pictures (Paramount no longer owns the rights to their pre-1948 films). Paramount Archivist Andrea Kalas had assembled the clips representing the lines from many of the most clever Hollywood scriptwriters.

Always an interesting part of TCMFF, the Bonham’s Hollywood Memorabilia appraisal session was held at the Roosevelt lobby. There was not much exciting this year, except for this Belgian Casablanca poster printed on fabric. Here Catherine Williamson from Bonham’s, at far left, reviews the piece.

I had to skip out of the session to get in line for Places in the Heart, a special screening with both director Robert Benton (pictured at left below) and Sally Field in attendance. Sally Field received her second Academy Award for Best Actress for her role. They gave a lively remembrance of their working together on this excellent movie. She played a recent widower in  rural Texas trying against all odds to save her house and land by farming cotton with the help of an itinerant black man (Danny Glover) and blind roomer(John Malkovich).



My last film before a long drive home to San Diego was a favorite I couldn’t miss on the big screen: Silk Stockings, starring Cyd Charisse, Fred Astaire, Janis Paige, Peter Lorre, Jules Munchin, and Joseph Buloff. This remake of Ninotcha as a musical featured  the last work of Cole Porter. The fabulous costumes were designed by Helen Rose  for Cyd Charisse as she is transformed from a Soviet commissar into a Parisian beauty. The other female cast also were dressed by Rose. And so I got to hum the numbers from  Too Bad (We Can’t Go Back to Moscow), and Stereophonic Sound on the first part of my  high traffic drive. And remembering another great TCM Classic Movie Film Festival.

All Photos above by Christian Esquevin







Billy Wilder’s SOME LIKE IT HOT starring Marilyn Monroe is still hot, the 60th anniversary of its making. It is screened every year to a large crowd at the Coronado Island Film Festival – on the beach in front of the Hotel del Coronado where a large part of it was filmed. Like many of Hollywood’s greatest movies, it has a fascinating backstory and a yacht-full of movie making convolutions.


Director Billy Wilder had bought the rights to a German movie about a couple of Jazz musicians pretending to be women. It was the Depression and they just wanted to get into any  band with an opening . Billy and his writing partner I. A. L.  (Iz) Diamond spent nearly a year on the script, changing the circumstances to  having an all-woman band in the 1920s. Here their two characters get mixed up in a gangland event shooting, and are now being hunted as witnesses. Tony Curtis as Joe (Josephine) and Jack Lemmon as Jerry (Daphne) dress up as women as a disguise and join the band. They now  escape by train but are stuck in their female roles as musicians. For Jerry and Joe that’s all of a sudden not so bad when they discover Marilyn Monroe as band-member Sugar Kane Kowalcyzk is aboard. Suger Kane drinks, but Jerry saves her job by stating that a fallen flask of whiskey is his, thus making a good friend. Later Suger visits his sleeping compartment and a flustered Jerry is only saved by more band-women visitors. They are on their way to the fictional  Ritz Seminole Hotel in Florida, the story stand-in for the Hotel del Coronado, where they will be playing. Once there, among the resort guests is the very rich Osgood Fielding III, who immediately starts flirting with Daphne (Jerry/Jack Lemmon). Jerry is ready to give up their act as he rooms with Joe (Josephine/ Tony Curtis). But Joe says that the gangster “Spats” (George Raft) will be looking for any male musicians, and besides, he has his own designs on Suger. For this, he pretends to be the Shell Oil heir, speaking with the accent of Cary Grant as he woos her on the beach.


Censorship still existed at the time, and the characters and subject matter of the film had problems.  The National Catholic Legion of Decency found Some Like It Hot to contain “screen material elements that are judged to be seriously offensive to Christian and traditional standards of morality and decency. …The dialogue was not only ‘double entendre’ but outright smut. The offense in costuming was obvious.” The MPAA was more sympathetic, citing Shakespeare as a precedent in cross-dressing.



Marilyn Monroe had worked with Billy Wilder previously on the Seven Year Itch, and asked Wilder to work with him again. She consented to work on Some Like it Hot  (SLIH) for 10% of the gross. When she signed, Lemmon came on board, SLIH becoming one of seven films he made with Wilder. These were difficult times for Marilyn. She was pregnant. She was taking drugs. She had her acting coach Paula Strasberg telling her what to do. She overdosed and spent several days at the hospital.  So now she couldn’t remember her lines, and take after take was needed – as many as 47 for some very simple lines of dialogue. Some days she wouldn’t come out of her dressing room ( more like a motor home) until noon.


Orry-Kelly fits Marilyn Monroe for her beaded dress in SLIH


The film’s costume designer was the famed Orry-Kelly. He was the native Australian who had dressed Bette Davis and all the other Warner Brothers stars of the Golden Age of Hollywood. Orry-Kelly and Marilyn Monroe got off on the wrong foot right off the bat. Orry-Kelly was known to be as temperamental as the stars he dressed. He made the mistake of saying Tony Curtis had a better looking ass than she did. But Marilyn had a sharp retort, she unbuttoned her blouse  and said, “Tony Curtis doesn’t have tits like these.”

But Orry-Kelly still managed to design some great looking outfits for her.


Tony Curtis and Marilyn had once had a brief affair. And according to Curtis in his autobiography, the affair had being rekindled on the set. Although the script has him playing an inhibited role in this scene, Marilyn seems very natural in this scene.


The stolen evening on Osgood’s yacht is followed the next day by chaos as the mob descends on the resort hotel. The two “girls” scurry for safety, although Daphne/Jack Lemmon ends up with Osgood/Joe E Brown escaping on a boat together. The final line has become a classic in comedic cinema, a sentence that was a place- holder sentence written by Iz Diamond until they came up with a better line. They never did.



Orry-Kelly won an Oscar for Best Costume design for black and white film. At the time, there were two costume design Oscars, the other was for color films. It also received nominations for Best Actor (Lemmon), Best Art Direction, Best Cinematography (again for black & white film), Best Director and Best Screenplay. The American Film Institute selected it the #1 comedy of all time. Marilyn’s black  cocktail dress pictured in this blog post sold at auction for $460,000.




The role of fabric in the work of costume and fashion designers is always crucial. One textile designer was often seen but rarely heard. This post will feature the textile designer Pola Stout, and how her exquisite woolen designs were used by designers Adrian and Irene, as well as Edith Head, Pauline Trigere, Mainbocher, Bonnie Cashin, Muriel King, Valentina, and others.

Adrian suit, 1947


An Adrian suit of Po;a Stout woolens from the late 1940s. Here it shows his love of stripes as well as asymmetry.


Pola was born in Poland but defied her parents by going to Vienna to study art at the Kunsgewerbe Schule. She studied textile design and hand-looming under Professor Joseph Hoffman. At one period, out of money, she slept on a park bench for six-weeks. But she shortly joined the famed Wiener Werkstatte where her works were exhibited and sold. Subsequently she received a special mention for hand-looming at the 1925 Paris Exposition des Arts Decoratif (from where the term Art Deco was coined). The young Pola was well on her way to making a name for herself.

Adrian suit jacket above is made of Pola Stout woolens. The Bret Fowler Collection.

Always looking for the new frontier, Pola visited the U.S. and soon after moved here. She then began designing textiles for Dunhill in 1934. In the U.S. she also met and married the best-selling author Rex Stout, famed for his Nero Wolfe mystery stories. They had two daughters, Rebecca and Barbara.

Adrian Suit jacket of Pola Stout woolen

Both Adrian and Irene (Lentz Gibbons) began using Pola Stout fabrics in the late 1930s. Irene was still designing for Bullock’s Wilshire, and Adrian was at MGM when they began using Pola’s woolens. Soon after, the two costume and fashion designers traded places. Irene took over Adrian’s job at MGM and Adrian joined the fashion industry when he opened his own fashion line. Adrian then began using Pola Stout fabrics extensively for his suits, capes, and coats. Adrian so admired Pola’s textiles that he named one of his suit designs, Woven Joy. He named the suit above, Symphonic Traveler. Adrian said of her woolens, “Often the complexity of the material is a challenge and I try to simplify my approach as well as retain as interesting a use as I can possibly make of the fabric.” Looking at some of Adrian’s suits, one isn’t sure if this is one of his facetious comments or not as far as simplifying goes. He certainly made them interesting.

Photo of Pola and Rex Stout, courtesy of George Eastman House, photo by Nickolas Murray

Pola then began designing for Botony Mills in 1940, where she designed the “Botony Perennials” collection each season. She would also design limited edition textiles for several fashion designers, those that she worked closely with through Botany Mills. Thus, the designers could have their own custom look and color palette designed by Pola. These new textile designs were so beautiful that the upscale B. Altman’s 5th Avenue store in New York devoted all its windows to the Botany Perennials one season.

Pola would begin her design process by drawing lines on paper with color crayons. The vertical warp yarns would be in two or more colors and the horizontal weft yarns would often be woven in the same color sequence. But with all her color variations, Pola always had in mind the functionality, durability, and timeless appeal of her textile designs. She stated, “In developing Botany Perennials I visualize all kinds of American women interested in building a sound wardrobe, and I try to make that wardrobe something basic in style and wearability, something they can depend on.” And indeed the idea of the “Perennials” was that you could match skirts, jackets and coats in the same five-color harmonies, and from one season to the next.

Pola subsequently started her own company in 1946 with a mill in Philadelphia. She would design her own textiles for these looms, where she would have multicolored wool yarns woven into “blankets” that would be sold to the various designers and exclusively to certain department stores. The textile workers were very devoted to her and her artistic vision.

Photo courtesy Palm Beach Vintage

The suit shown above was designed by Adrian and made from a Pola Stout striped woolen. Both Adrian and Irene loved to use stripes in various patterns in their suits. Adrian needed his stripes to be unique in order to avoid looking common. They both insisted on impeccable matching of lines in their creations. Adrian liked to cut the Pola Stout blankets into mitered patterns that would then be re-assembled into right-angles and other patterns in his suits. He also liked to use large color-blocking elements from those bolder sections of Pola’s blankets in his suits.


The innovative use of stripes in women’s suits by both Adrian and Irene using Pola Stout woolens has not been matched in the sixty plus years since their last design collections.

The Adrian suit below of Pola Stout woolen  is a marvel of checks, with four different sizes. The jacket has an asymmetrical “slashing” of checks, increasing slightly in size as they go right to left and cross to the sleeve. They also go around to the back of the jacket. The skirt is also checkered.

Photo by Michael J. Shepherd


The image below shows an Adrian design for a hooded cape in the Grand Canyon colors of a Pola Stout woolen. In addition to the bold stripes are small polka dots in complimentary colors.

Pola generally believed in using five basic colors in her designs: blue; green; brown; black; and red. Combining these colored yarns, however, could create multiple effects. She would also  add white yarns to these basic colors to produce her varying shades. Adrian stated about one of his capes made from Pola’s blankets in his 1950 collection, “In the case of a dramatic cape in my present collection…I did use the blanket – 54 inches wide by 3 yards in length, in its entirety.”  Adrian’s cape matched the colors and stripes of the suit underneath it, all from Pola’s woolens. 

Adrian cape from 1950. Photo courtesy the Los Angeles County Museum of Art


Photo courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art

In addition to suits, Adrian also used Pola’s woolens to make dresses. Above is one example made entirely of Pola’s fabric, with various horizontal striping and blocking elements to create a unique design.

Pola Stout fabric swatches above are shown from Irene’s fall collection, 1948. Irene designed fabulous suits and also used the mitering technique to form interesting geometric patterns.

Below are several photos of sections from Pola Stout woolen designs. The variety in her designs was fascinating and endless. It should also be recognized that these are fine woolens, though they may appear as shear cottons or flannels and each photograph represents approximately 30-36 inches across.







Pola Stout continued her life-long commitment to the design of high quality textiles. She was also devoted to the promotion of the textile industry in America. She would no doubt be saddened by the fate of that industry in recent times, although hand-weaving on looms is currently a thriving art and craft. Pola was recognized by an exhibition of her work at the Bennington College of Vermont in 1957. She gave numerous lectures at industry groups and at colleges and museums. She also became a lecturer and consultant at the Fashion Institute of Technology.

Growing up with their illustrious parents, Rebecca and Barbara knew they lived in somewhat unique circumstances. As school girls, Rebecca recalls that their mother made the clothes that she and her sister wore. They were no doubt the best-dressed girls in school, but Rebecca  now recalls that at the time they wished they could just be dressed just like all the other girls. The sisters are now very proud of their mother’s artistic contribution to their lives and to that of her adopted country .

My thanks to Rebecca Stout Bradbury for sharing these amazing woolens with me and allowing me to photograph some of them shown here. The legacy of Pola Stout has uniquely enriched the heritage of fashion design and textiles in the United States.




The grand 20th Century-Fox studio has a long history of producing notable films supported by great costume design. The 20th Century Fox studio has been part of 21st Century Fox Corp, but has now become part of the Walt Disney Company since the buy-out of most of that corporation’s assets in December 2017. The studio had its roots as the Fox Film Corporation, started by William Fox in Fort Lee New Jersey, then the film capital of the U.S.  Fox sent his rep Sol Wurtzel to Hollywood to set-up a west coast studio in 1917. With the advent of sound pictures, Fox bought the Movietone system of sound on film. Later when the studio expanded to some 300 acres west of Beverly Hills between Pico and Santa Monica Boulevards in 1928, it was named Movitone City. But William Fox lost control of Fox after the crash of 1929, and the studio ultimately merged with 20th Century Pictures in 1935. 20th Century Pictures had been formed in 1933 as a production company by Joseph Schenck and Daryl Zanuck. They were leasing studio space at Samuel Goldwyn’s studio until the merger when they took over the Fox lot and Daryl Zanuck became head of production.

The Fox Studio circa 1920 on Western Blvd in Los Angeles.


Whether as Fox or 20th Century-Fox, a variety of costume designers worked at the studio, and usually left before creating a distinctive studio style. There was no Adrian/MGM, Orry-Kelly/Warner Bros., or Travis Banton or Edith Head/Paramount, combinations here.  Fox started with Sophie Wachner, a former teacher turned  Broadway costumer.  The noted English designer Dolly Tree came in to design films for Greta Nissen and Conchita Montenegro, then David Cox joined her from MGM in 1932. Earl Luick , an accomplished designer followed. Adrian gave him his first job as an assistant designer on C.B. DeMille’s King of Kings. He designed many of Fox’s notable films, including Cavalcade, Black Swan, Springtime in the Rockies, and The Oxbow Incident. He stayed through the merger and for 10 years in all.  Costume designer Royer (Lewis Royer Hastings) also came to Fox in 1933 . At about the same time, Gloria Swanson made a movie for Fox: Music in the Air (1934). She brought in her own costume designer that she met in Paris: Rene Hubert. He ended up staying for several years. Meanwhile, Rita Kaufman became “fashion creator.” She mostly had her sketch artists or young designers do the designing while she selected gowns and dresses from Hattie Carnegie.  A major new star but former movie bit player came to the studio, discovered when dancing in a movie lobby by songwriter Jay Gorner: Shirley Temple. The movie she would star in was  Stand Up and Cheer!   Rita Kauffman was credited with the costume designs but for Shirley’s big “Baby Take a Bow” number, her mother had her wear her own polka-dot and ruffled dress. The combination of Royer or Gwen Wakeling designed most of Shirley Temples costumes after that.

A talented newcomer also joined the ranks in 1936, Helen Rose, future head designer of MGM. She wasn’t there long as Kaufman and most of her staff were swept away along with Fox production chief Winnie Sheehan with the merger, but she did get to work on some notable films.

29th Century-Fox Wardrobe Department, 1939. Photo courtesy Los Angeles Public Library


20th Century-Fox dress forms, photo by Margaret Bourke-White


With the merger of Fox with 20th Century, Daryl Zanuck put Arthur Levy in charge as general manager of the wardrobe department.  The manager was not a designer but ran the department: its finances; hiring personnel; purchasing supplies; workflow, etc. Costume designer Royer had came to Fox in 1933 and stayed until 1939. He designed for Loretta Young who had come along with Daryl Zanuck. Royer’s  beautiful costumes for her appeared in  Love is News, Cafe Metropole, Suez, and Wife, Husband and Friend.  He was now doing most of the designing with newcomer Gwen Wakeling, whom Zanuck hired.. They both designed the costumes for the biggest star on the lot – Shirley Temple. Costume designer Gwen Wakeling, had started in the mid-1920s with C.B. DeMille, and had become  one of 20th Century’s key designers. The two designers got along well, especially in their complaints about Zanuck’s wardrobe budget and having to remake old clothes rather than making new. It seems the merger had put the studio in debt and the Depression hadn’t helped. In 1939 both designers left. A replacement was found in Travis Banton, the brilliant but alcoholic former designer at Paramount. He designed some notable films during his tenure in 1940-1941: The Mark of Zorro (with Tyrone Power and Linda Darnell); Tin Pan Alley (with Betty Grable & Alice Faye); That Night in Rio! (with Alice Faye, Don Ameche & Carmen Miranda); Blood and Sand (Tyrone Power, Linda Darnell & Rita Hayworth);  and Moon Over Miami ( Betty Grable & Don Ameche). One designer that stayed was Herschel ( Herschel McCoy). He was at Fox from 1935 until 1943. He designed mostly B pictures early in his career but got better assignments in later years. A costume sketch by Herschel for Carole Landis in Cadet Girl (1941) is shown below.

Men’s costume design for period or genre films also had a nebulous history at Fox. The Samuel Goldwyn studio had designed costumes for the 20th Century studio, and Omar Kiam had done a couple of their big productions including male costumes. After the merger Sam Benson, a costumer, handled most of the men’s costumes. Fox had hits with two movies in 1939, The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes and The Hound of the Baskervilles. The films starred Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce, and their distinctive costumes, especially Sherlock’s “deerstalker’ hat and Inverness cape, were designed by Marjorie Best. A costume sketch for Basil Rathbone as Sherlock Holmes is below.

A new era began at 20th Century -Fox when Charles LeMaire took over as general manager of the wardrobe department. LeMaire had been designing costumes on Broadway since the 1920s. He had even turned down Adrian for a job on Broadway. When he took over in 1943, Fox (hereafter the shortened term for 20th Century-Fox in this post), was down to one designer. As head of the department, Le Maire brought in several designers. One was the versatile Yvonne Wood who could do men’s costumes, musicals, or Carmen Miranda’s silly hats. Kay Nelson designed the beautiful and symbolic Leave Her to Heaven with Gene Tierney. William “Billy” Travilla would design Marilyn Monroe’s sexy outfits. Mary Wills, previously at Goldwyn, would design a variety of films, and Emile Santiago would do biblical films like The Robe

A rising star named Lena Horne was loaned to Fox from MGM to make Stormy Weather (1943), one of the first films with an all black cast: including Bill Robinson; Fats Waller; Cab Calloway; Dooley Wilson; Ada Brown, and the NIcholas Brothers. Helen Rose designed knock-out gowns for Lena Horne and the film had great musical numbers by Cab Calloway and the Nicholas Brothers.  Lena returned to MGM and Helen would soon join her  there.


After Shirley Temple’s heyday, Alice Faye made consistent hits for  the studio. She started her career there in 1934 and both sang and starred in her films through the early 1940s. She was often paired with either Don Ameche or Tyrone Power and with the latter made musical romantic comedies.  She starred in several hits including; You Can’t Have Everything; In old Chicago; Alexander’s Ragtime Band; Hello Frisco, Hello; and Lillian Russell.  Alice Faye had a figure more typical of the (or more popular) 1950s. Still, she was well served by The designers that dressed her in most of her films: Royer, Gwen Wakeling, Travis Banton. and Helen Rose.

Alice Faye in Hello Frisco, Hello. Designed by Helen Rose.


Betty Grable  came to Fox in the 1940s. She had a number of hits including:Tin Pan Alley (1940); Moon Over Miami (1940); Coney Island (1943); Pin-Up Girl (1944); and The Dolly Sisters (1945). She ran the gamut of Fox designers, using, in the same order as the listing above: Travis Banton, Travis Banton, Helen Rose, Rene Hubert, Orry-Kelly, and Orry-Kelly. She would also use Rene Hubert for When My Baby Smiles at Me, and The Beautiful Blond from Bashful Bend (both 1948).



Bonnie Cashin was one of the costume designers that worked a few years at Fox. She had a different aesthetic that most, and her style would make a fashion trend starting with Laura (1944), starring Gene Tierney. She created a relaxed, sporty style of dress, and Gene Tierney’s cloche-like rain hat started a fashion trend. The costume sketch above is for Gene Tierney in Laura. Bonnie Cashin went to New York in 1949 to design sports clothes, starting her own line in 1952.





Charles LeMaire is shown with costume designer Emile Santiago at his left above after both won Best Costume Design (Color) for The Robe.  Gene Tierney is at right, and a model at left wears a classically draped gown inspired by the costume designs for  The Robe.

Charles LeMaire at right confers with Dorothea Hulse about the right yarns to use for costumes in The Robe. Below is a costume sketch by Emile Santiago for a character in the movie.


Costume designer Mary Wills was another very talented designer who could work in historical periods as well as contemporary. She had a Master’s Degree in Art and Drama from Yale. Below is one of her costume sketches for Bette Davis in the role of Queen Elizabeth in The Virgin Queen (1955).


Costume Designer Dorothy Jeakins also joined the designer staff at Fox in 1952, during the seemingly bulging staff period of the 1950s. She had been the first designer to win a Best Costume  Oscar when that category was first launched in 1948, this for Joan of Arc (for Walter Wanger Productions). She shared the award with Barbara Karinska. At Fox Ms. Jeakins designed several notable films, including: My Cousin Rachel; Niagra (with Marilyn Monroe); Titanic; Three Coins in the Fountain; and South Pacific. Ms. Jeakins later received  the Women in Film Crystal  award in 1987.

When Marilyn Monroe started getting popular, with Don’t Bother to Knock in 1952, William Travilla (Travilla) started designing her wardrobe. Her outfits got sexier and sexier as she became more and more popular. Her dresses have became iconic, and have set records on the auction market ( see http://silverscreenmodes.com/the-10-most-expensive-movie-star-gowns/ ).

Marilyn Monroe in a wardrobe department photo as Lorelei Lee in “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes” costume designed by Travilla.


Marilyn Monroe’s The Seven Year Itch (1955) “Subway” rayon crepe halter top dress with pleated skirt designed by Travilla sold at the famous Debbie Reynolds-Profiles in History auction in 2011 for $5.5 million. Travilla could not only design sexy dresses and gowns for Marilyn, but also wild stage costumes like the costume in the Tropical Heatwave number from There’s No Business Like Show Business, shown below.



Fox continued producing musicals, after early hits with the Betty Grable films. In1956, Fox produced Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Carousel, starring Shirley Jones and Gordan MacRae. The costumes were designed by Mary Wills, depicting the characters of a 19th century New England fishing village. Below is a Mary Wills costume sketch for Shirley Jones  for the scene where they sing “If I Loved You.”

The serious theme of Carousel hindered its popularity at the box office, but Fox’s next musical proved to be a hit. The King and I, based on Rodgers and Hammerstein’s  musical play, starred Yul Brenner and Deborah Kerr. Irene Sharaff had designed the Broadway stage production’s costumes, and she was brought in to design those for the movie. This included the Siamese (Thai) costumes and the mid 19th century outfits for Deborah Kerr. Miss Kerr’s skirts were filled out with real iron hoops, held in place by fabric stringers.


Fox films were not all musicals. In 1959 they made a very serious movie directed by George Stevens – The Diary of Anne Frank. The role of Anne was played by Millie Perkins, with a cast including Shelly Winters, Ed Wynn, and Joseph Schildkraut. Mary Wills designed the costumes. She was nominated for a Best Costume Oscar.

As television started eroding movie attendance, the studios started experimenting with various methods of attracting an audience with which TVs could not compete. In the 1960s, such means included increasing use of 70mm film, Panavision, and the Cinerama theater. Another method was to produce lavish spectacles. Thus Fox embarked on the huge undertaking of producing Cleopatra. Producer Walter Wanger began the project in 1958, with some footage started in England with Rouben Mamoulian directing and starring Elizabeth Taylor as Cleopatra, but with no male lead determined. Elizabeth Taylor fell ill and and this footage was scrapped with production moving to Italy in 1961.  A new director was hired in Herbert Mankiewicz, and two new male leads: Richard Burton as Mark Antony and Rex Harrison as Julius Caesar. Shooting began in the spring of 1961, with the budget now at $12 million. Filming was done on  sets constructed at Cinecittà studio in Rome, sprawled over eleven acres of the back lot, and shot on seven soundstages. Villages up and down the coast of Italy would also be used for location shooting. The total cost of production when finished was said to be $32 million, the most expensive movie ever made. Marketing costs would be extra. Elizabeth Taylor had 62 costume changes, a record, with her winged gold ceremonial entrance costume costing some $4,700 (worth $37,800 today).

Costume designers Irene Sharaff, Renie, and Vitorio Nino Novarese won Oscars for Best Costume design for Cleopatra. As was common for the period (then and now?) producers insisted that female costumes be made sexy, even if dubiously accurate for the period.

Although Cleopatra did pretty well at the box office, it was far from making back its costs. The result in fact was that it practically bankrupted Fox, and production of several films was halted at the studio.

Fox had another conventional musical hit with The Sound of Music in 1965, but the times were changing for the studios, for audience expectations, and in moviemaking. Travilla was one of those designers that moved easily into the 1960s fashion scene. Fox was looking for a best-selling book to produce as a movie and landed on the lusty, pop-culture hit Valley of the  Dolls, Jacqueline Susann’s first book about three brassy and ambitious young women on the make in Hollywood, fuelled by pills and dreams.

Travilla is shown below amidst his costume sketches for Valley of the Dolls (1967) a cult favorite starring Sharon Tate and Barbara Parkins. Judy Garland was slated for the role of Helen Lawson, but was replaced when she showed up drunk on set.


One of Travilla’s costume sketches, below, is for Sharon Tate at a scene at the once famous but now gone Chassen’s restaurant. It is also shown at bottom left in the photo (with hair later modified). Travilla started a line of clothing based on Valley of the Dolls that were merchandised in several department stores.

The following year, Fox went out on a limb making a movie based on  a story by Pierre Boule called Planet of the Apes, the movie became a surprise hit. Another movie where Fox went out on a limb was Myra Breckinridge (1970), starring Mae West and Raquel Welsh. This notoriously camp movie involves the sex change operation of the film critic Myron Breckinridge (played by real critic Rex Reed), into the post-op Myra, played by the sexy Raquel Welsh. Nobody on set seemed to get along, especially with the director Michael Sarne, and even less between Mae West and Raquel Welsh. West had costume approval for her own costumes, designed by Edith Head, but also those of Raquel Welsh, which irked Welsh considerably. Raquel’s costumes were designed by Theadora Van Runkle. The costume sketch below is a costume sketch for Raquel Welsh from the movie.

On its release the reviews stated it was one of the worst movies ever made and it was a complete flop.

20th Century-Fox had lost money from 1969 through 1971. Years earlier in 1961, under then head Spyros Skouros, Fox sold  their 260 acre L.A. westside backlot (the old Movietone lot) for $43 miliion. The area is now known as Century City, a commercial property-rich environment worth tens of billions today.

Like MGM did in 1970, Fox would also hold a big auction of their costumes, props, art, and vehicles in 1971. The costumes included many of Marilyn Monroe’s, which were bought by Debbie Reynolds. These and other costumes from the auction have since been sold and resold, and we hope are being well cared for.

20th Century-Fox  went on  to profitability in 1974 with Towering Inferno (which  it co-produced with Warner Bros.) and then with a block-buster called Star Wars in 1977. By  then, the studio system had disappeared, and costume design and fabrication was done outside of the studios. Costume designers and their talent persevere, but the collaboration of studio designer and star is long gone.




Each year brings a diverse group of five movies as the nominees for the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences Awards for Costume Design. This year the nominees for the 2017 movies were: Jacqueline Durran for Beauty and the Beast; Jacqueline Durran for Darkest Hour; Mark Bridges  for Phantom Thread;  Luis Sequeira for The Shape of Water; and Consolata Boyle for Victoria & Abdul.  The highlights of the nominees and Oscar recipient follow:

BEAUTY AND THE BEAST. This is a live action version of Disney’s animated film which was itself based on the classic 1946  French Jean Cocteau filming of an 18th century fairy tale. The movie was directed by Bill Condon and starred Emma Watson and Dan Stevens, with a strong supporting cast. Costume designer Jacqueline Durran has also been nominated this year for Darkest Hour. She previously won a Best Costume Oscar for Anna Karenina in 2012, and was nominated for Mr. Turner (2012); Atonement (2007); and Pride and Prejudice (2005).


Jacqueline Durran wanted to stay true to the animated Disney version of the story, “Those costumes exist in people’s imagination,” she stated. “…all I wanted to do was to honor what they expect those costumes to be in a live action movie.” Durran also looked to 18th century French folk costumes for details. Women’s garments were layered, including undergarments – for warmth as well as function. The pants-like bloomers were Emma Watson’s favorites.


The floral print dress that Belle wears in the dance scene above is based on an 18th century piece of fabric that designer Ms. Durran bought as a student. She had an artist re-draw it and had the fabric printed in larger scale so it wouldn’t look like a wedding dress. The flowers were also re-printed over each other. The men’s frock coats were laced with Swarovsky crystals that gave them sparkle under the lights.

Her ball gown is made of satin organza, taffeta, and tulle. Emma Watson did not want to wear a corset, but then again, she didn’t need to. This ball gown in the story is made by Madame Garderobe (Audra McDonald), who gets the gold pattern from the ceiling and puts it around the dress. Although subtle, the pattern can be seen on the three layers of the skirt itself. Some sparkle was added by adding Swarovski crystals over the pattern. Beast’s coat was made by Plumette (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) with her feathery brush in the story, and thus  had a more painterly quality. The movie is a combination of fantasy and historical, thus sure to be a favorite with the Academy voters.

DARKEST HOUR. Darkest Hour is the second movie to be nominated for a Best Costume Oscar by Jacqueline Durran, in addition to Beauty and the Beast above. Directed by Joe Wright and starring Gary Oldman and Kristin Scott Thomas, this is the story of Winston Churchill’s ascent to prime minister during the early days of the Battle of Britain.

Jacqueline Durran has designed the costumes for several of director Joe Wright’s previous movies, including Anna Karenina for which she won an Oscar. After discussing costuming Darkest Hour, with Wright,  it became clear what was needed, “… we were doing a replication of Churchill as far as we could. And all the members of the parliament, we were looking to replicate what they’d look like and bring out the individuality in each of the costumes, each of the men, so you have a feeling of their characters,” she stated. In the case of Gary Oldman’s costumes as Churchill, he first had to have a prosthetic “fat suit” made in the right dimensions. It was from there that the costumes were fitted. She said seeing Oldman after he was fitted in his prosthetics and costume was “a magical transformation.”


Durran said of the costumes for the movie, “We really have to work to build a world for the performance, that’s what the people connect with. They connect with the performance and the themes of the movie. The costumes will work if that part is creating the whole. With ‘Darkest Hour,’ you don’t notice the costumes or the sets, you notice the whole thing together. The building of the world and you believe this world that Churchill is in, all those things and it’s all because all those things work together.” Indeed. Although Academy voters love period movies, the predominance of male costumes in this movie will be a disadvantage in the voting, in my opinion.

THE SHAPE OF WATER. The costume designs for the movie were done by Luis Sequeira. Directed by Guillermo del Toro and starring Sally Hawkins with Michael Shannon, Richard Jenkins, and Doug Jones. The story inspired by Creature of the Black Lagoon , takes place in the early 1960s in a research facility where a female janitor forms a bond with an amphibious creature held in captivity. The movie has garnered 14 Academy nominations including Best Picture, and Best Costume Design, a first for Luis Sequeira.

Richard Jenkins and Sally Hawkins in the film THE SHAPE OF WATER. Photo by Kerry Hayes. © 2017 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation All Rights Reserved

Much of the movie is dark, and is shot after hours when Elisa (Sally Hawkins) works at the Lab as a janitor. But she also watches old movies with her neighbor played by Richard Jenkins. They watch Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers movies and Elisa fantasizes about them, producing a dream sequence in the movie where she wears a white Ginger Rogers-style gown. When Luis Sequeira first saw Sally Hawkins fitted for the dress, she had her hands to her face and said, “I can’t wear this, it’s too beautiful.”


Sequeira collected fabric swatches from Los Angeles, New York, Montreal, and Toronto for the gown, and combined his favorites into the ivory colored gown. Sequeira said “Although the sequence in which the dress appears is so short – I think its a striking piece of cinema. It was magical when we shot the scene and even more so when we watched it on the big screen.”

The underwater scenes were not actually filmed in water, but the look was achieved through lighting in a process called “dry for wet.” the bathtub scene was filmed in actual water, however, and the outdoor rain scene was filmed in pouring rain. For that scene the costumes had to have inter-lining to keep the actors fairly dry.



VICTORIA & ABDUL. This movie is directed by Stephen Frears and has its costumes designed by his frequent collaborator, designer Consolata Boyle. They have worked previously on Mary Reilly (1996), The Queen (2006) and Philomena (2013).  Ms. Boyle has previously been nominated for The Queen and Florence Foster Jenkins (2016). Victoria & Abdul,” is a story of the friendship that grew between Queen Victoria (played by Judi Densch), with one of her Indian servants, Abdul Karim (Ali Fazal),  over the last 15 years of her life.

As is usual for recent historical movies, authenticity is called for. Yet Ms Boyle had to develop character and status in her costumes. An interesting visual in the movie is the contrast in costumes between the  somber colors of the Queen’s wardrobe and her court, and the vibrant colors of Indian dress.   “I used fabrics, color, weight, texture and embellishment to reflect the difference between their worlds and to develop the stories of each character,” Boyle explains. “When we first meet Abdul, he wears simple, unbleached linen and cotton kurtas, chogas and churidars; later this evolves to rich, heavily embossed silks and then to his royal uniforms.” But the real contrast was in the plot, as the relationship between the queen and Abdul grew closer, and the court was shocked and then ever watchful.

As was the formal etiquette for mourning dress in that era, wardrobe colors changed from black to mauve and gray, even white, over time. Ms. Boyle introduced some of those colors in Victoria’s wardrobe. Although somber, mourning clothing at the time, and also in the movie, was embelished on the surface embroidery, lace, and use of jet beading. The latter provided sparkle on a black costume. Ms. Boyle and her team searched for vintage fabrics including silks and Victorian trim in auction houses in London and elsewhere. She needed to have fabrics that recreated the look and weight of substantial Victorian garments.


Consolata Boyle also liked working with the Indian costumes. “I really enjoyed some of Abdul’s later costumes—especially the pajama trousers. One of the first areas I studied was historical fabric, so I’m always fascinated by fabric in India and the subcontinents. The sophistication is magnificent. The shapes of the garments are so simple yet so utterly beautiful. I absolutely love that.” And of course there was working with Dame Judi Dench. Designer Boyle said about her, “Like all great actors, she knows how to use her costume. She knows how to utilize every piece – every glove, every bag.”

Although there always seems to be a  Queen Elizabeth or Queen Victoria movie in the Best Costume contention, this is a worthy candidate, and Academy voters love their historical costume films.


PHANTOM THREAD  This movie directed by Paul Thomas Anderson stars Daniel Day Lewis, Lesley Manville and Vicky Krieps.  Its costumes were designed by Mark Bridges, who won an Oscar  for The Artist (2011) and was nominated for Inherent Vice (2014) where he previously worked with PaulThomas Anderson. Phantom Thread is the story of the obsessive mid-1950s London couturier Reynolds Woodcock, whose business and home is shared by his Hitchcockian, Mrs Danvers – like sister Cyril, and the string of model/muses he invites into his life –  until he tires of them. At that point he asks Cyril to get rid of them. This usually happens after breakfast when the young women make too much noise buttering their toast.

Phantom Thread  was written by Anderson, after discussing the idea with Day-Lewis. While supposedly not based on any individual couturier, they had thought about Balenciaga and his marvelous and influential fashions. The Anglo-American designer Charles James,  brilliant, eccentric, and famously possesive of his fashion creations, had to be an inspiration as well. Day-Lewis prepared for the role by spending most of a year as an apprentice at the New York City Ballet costume department, where he learned how to sew, make buttonholes, cross-stitch and even cut patterns. Day-Lewis and Bridges also visited the V&A Museum’s couture collection.

As Woodcoock, after the strains of producing his last fashion creations, his sister suggests he go to the country house for a few days to rest. He agrees and it’s there, having breakfast at the local inn, that he meets Alma, the waitress that he invites to model his designs and become his latest muse.

He says she has the perfect figure for modeling his creations. A simple village girl, she is flattered, and soon falls in love. Though simple, her will is made of strong stuff. And she will not be gotten rid of, no matter how loudly she butters her toast and no matter how disruptive she is to the house’s other routines.

An early scene at the House of Woodcock has a countess (played by Gina McKee) being fitted for an evening gown. This particular gown’s design was based on Day-Lewis’ own rough costume sketch. Both director and costume designer were generous in giving him ownership in the design process, especially as this design was repeated with a different color scheme for Alma to wear later in the Woodcock fashion show. With hints of previous centuries, it has little resemblance to mid-fifties fashion.


Alma models  a red dress with lace in a House of Woodcock fashion show (the number she holds indicates the creation number for ordering the item). The garment refers back to Woodcock’s and Alma’s first meeting when she was a waitress – the lace symbolically serving as and resembling an apron. This was not meant as a put-down of Alma. The American designer Adrian cleverly used the humble fabric of gingham in many of his expensive garments, even in evening gowns.  The red dress above was actually director Paul Thomas Anderson’s idea, “Can we take something she wears earlier and turn it into high fashion?” he asked Mark Bridges.

The gown above that Alma models is the pretiest of the costumes in the movie. The colors that prevail in the House of Woodcock are largely jewel colors, and particularly purples and violets and lavenders – colors that match his socks. And colors that were not much seen in mid-1950s fashion. But they were the colors that Daniel Day-Lewis liked. Mark Bridges had some rare 17th century Belgian lace that was used for the gown. The lace had another role in the movie.  As explained by designer Mark Bridges,  “We had to schedule the filming so he could use it as a single piece when he’s showing Alma in his shop and saying, ‘I saved this piece from the war,'” said Bridges. “And then we took it away and cut it, during which everyone held their breath.”

The production of the costumes for the pricipal actors (many others came from a costume house in Rome) were made in London. Couture seamstresses and a pattern cutter (Cecile Van Dyke) fabricated the costumes made-to-measure.  The team of seamstresses working at the House of Wookcock were professional costume makers and included two retired couture house seamstresses.

The background work on Phantom Thread was impressive. As a movie whose story is focused on couture, however, I was disapointed. I won’t get into the neurosis of the character of Woodcock. Many fashion and costume designers had extreme pressure on them – having to create beauty, fashion, character, dreams and money out of their heads regularly- only to succumb to alcohol, drugs, or suicide. And I won’t compare Phantom Thread ‘s fashions or its fashion show to 1950s classics such as Adrian’s Lovely to Look At, or Helen Rose’s Made in Paris or Lucy Gallant.  As a window to fashions of the 1950s, it was a view at the new look, architectural form in gowns, silk taffeta and foundation undergarments, and the beauty of lace. Beyond that, it was a brave if idiosyncratic look inside the pained mind of a fashion designer. I think there was too much tinkering and overload placed on Mark Bridges in this movie.


2017 was not a particularly great year for costume design in film. The costume designers always do a great job given the script, time, and budget constraints they are given. It’s not that we need epics, but the movies were not rich in costuming potential. And movie producers usually give too little time and funding for costume designers to do their best work. They nonetheless did their job, which is to develop character and therefore contribute to the plot. The movie with the most potential, Phantom Thread, a movie all about clothing  and its creation within one person and its sharing with others, seemed to lose its own way.

I had predicted that Victoria and Abdul would win, but Mark Bridges received the Oscar for Phantom Thread. He had said earlier that working on the movie was the high point of his career.




Women movie stars have traditionally gotten all the attention for their glamour, fashion styles and movie costumes. But the look of male stars has also been important. And while men’s styles have a fashion stability that often lasts for decades, this makes it even more important for that unique personal twist – that bit of extra style that distinguishes the screen man of fashion.  Looking back over several decades we can see some of those striking fashions and definite influences on the discerning male wardrobe. 

For something different, we’ll start with a fairly recent movie and then go back to the classic era. Let’s start with Ryan Gossling in Drive, from 2011. Gosling  plays a Hollywood stuntman and mechanic – good skills for also being a getaway driver on the side. No suits or tuxedos are called for in his wardrobe. This is a neo-noir directed by Danish director Nicholas Winding Refn.  Costume design by Etrin Benach.

Ryan Gosling above wears a 1950s style Korean satin bomber jacket. On its back is embroidered a scorpion. The jacket was custom made. This style of jacket was popular in the 1950s during and after the Korean war, and had large emboidered images on the back. The style fitted the retro look of the movie and gave a distinctive look to Gosling.

The Levi’s jacket is another stylish piece that gives a retro but also timeless look (I wore one in high school in the late 60s). Here his is  very snug and is fitted short. As with all movie costumes, they are meant to emphasize the character the actor plays.


Tyrone Power was “the” matinee idol of the late 1930s. Women flocked to his films, and although he was a serious actor, his studio, Fox, put him in one swashbuckler movie after another. His good looks made him a natural for pairing with many of the leading ladies of his day. He looked good in either leisure clothes, suits or formal. The herringbone tweed jacket he wears above is a classic for any wardrobe. It can last decades as long as your size doesn’t change significantly, and it never goes out of style.

Powell’s swordplay and fencing was athletic and skilled, His fencing duel with Basil Rathbone in The Mark of Zorro is, as this former collegiate fencer can attest, the best seen on film.  With his dark hair Tyrone Power looked good in black, a natural for black and white films.


Earlier in the 1930s a couple of top stars made their mark through two very different routes. Although one was tall and good looking, the other could dance with great style and class.


Gary Cooper has been one of the handful of male stars that exemplified fashion flair and striking good looks in his day. He was over six feet tall and had the angular features that made him a magnet for the camera and for female audiences. Having been born in Montana to English parents, he spent part of his youth attending school in England. He embodied that odd mixture of a horseback riding cowboy and dapper gentleman that would make him a versatile movie actor. His horse riding abilities landed him his first job in Hollywood as a cowboy film extra. His seemingly contradictory persona of toughness and playful bashfulness endeared him to women, and several of his leading female co-stars fell in love with him, notably Marlene Dietrich and Ingrid Bergman. His tall lanky body made him look like a male model in tuxedos or suits, both of which he seemed as comfortable wearing as he was of blue jeans or khakis.

Fred Astaire personified the well-dressed American gentleman, seemingly born in white tie and tails. Yet he was born to immigrant parents in Omaha, and he and his sister grew up performing in Vaudeville. Fred’s sister Estelle went on to marry the second son of the Duke of Devonshire, and thus Fred’s exposure to the English upper-class provided him the polish that, like Gary Cooper,  put him in film roles that could show either his everyday American, or high-class gentleman, persona.

Fred never really liked wearing tuxedos (dinner jackets, as is the proper term) and top hats. His natural flair really came out when wearing sport-coats and comfortable trousers, all the more appropriate for his vigorous dance routines on film. He personalized his wardrobe by wearing neck-ties as belts, and his colorful socks lent him individuality while providing flashes of color while he danced. His shoes too looked both flashy and comfortable – brown suede or black and white “correspondents.”

Fred’s dancing was legendary, and he made all his dancing partners, almost all legends themselves, seem all the more beautiful and graceful. But then again Fred danced with broomsticks, chairs, hat racks, canes, shoes with wings, and even with his own shadow – and he made them all look good too.

Cary Grant was the other most handsome and best dressed man of the 1930s and 40s. He looked great in a dinner jacket also, but he really owned the suit. As his hair turned from dark to gray over the years his suits went from black and dark colors to medium grays. He exemplified on screen the increasing use of the solid color business suit for American men during the 1950s. These suit jackets had two or three buttons and narrow lapels, almost always worn over white shirts with French cuffs and pocket squares. The pants were narrow, even when fitted with pleats and cuffs. Cary Grant, like Fred Astaire, and keeping to the style of that period, liked his pants with a high waist.

Photo courtesy Photofest

The famous suit Cary Grant wore in North by Northwest was a medium gray. Not particularly noticeable, especially on a small screen, is that his suit was in a Glen plaid wool, and the jacket was ventless. His sock color matched his pant color – a good tip in dressing – which gives the legs a longer and more seamless look. Alternatively, Fred Astaire used contrasting colors for his socks, but this was a way to enhance the look of his feet while dancing. Cary Grant’s look from the 1950s (also bolstered by Greg Peck in The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit), was revived on the Mad Men series.


Men’s styles on screen made sharp turns during the 1960s, but the decade started out with the ever-classic dinner jacket and black-tie look personified by Sean Connery in the James Bond films. Whether in a jacket with lapels or one with a shawl collar, in black or white, Sean Connery had the broad shoulders, the tall figure, and the masculine grace to make the look his own. 

Sean Connery. Photofest

Steve McQueen seemed to own the screen in the 1960s, or at a minimum, was considered the coolest actor of his day. His tough years as a youth matched with his considerable physical grace made him another actor that could play cowboy or banker with equal comfort and style. While his personal wardrobe was worn for comfort or the needs of his various motorcycle riding or car racing hobbies, he looked great in a pin-striped three-piece suit for The Thomas Crown Affair1968He helped return the vested suit to popularity.

Photo courtesy Photofest


And Steve McQueen always looked natural and attractive in casual clothes. Below he is shown in his glider pilot outfit from Thomas Crown. He was often seen on screen wearing tanker jackets, which he wore in his early film The Blobin 1958. The tanker was a World War II Army jacket that has served as a model for many of the casual jackets worn by men ever since.


In 1971 a new film genre began with Shaft, starring Richard Roundtree, playing a black private detective as a tough but cool character in the mixed up world of black crime and white injustice.Richard Roundtree’s wardrobe helped define his role. His frequent use of turtlenecks provided a classy anti-establishment look made masculine by his long black leather coats and brown leather jackets. 

Photo courtesy Photofest

In France the American gangster look of the 1930s was being recycled in films such as Borsalino1970, starring Alain Delon and Jean-Paul Belmondo. In Le Samourai, 1967, directed by Jean-Pierre Melville, Alain Delon plays a hitman. He is usually impeccably dressed, in long coats and fur-felt fedora hats bringing back the 1930s look to American men’s fashion. He is also seen in the usual trench-coat, his with a stiffly starched collar that accentuates his handsome.face.

Alain Delon also starred in Purple Rain (Plein Soleil), 1960playing the role of Tom Ripley in the earlier French version of The Talented Mr. Ripley. Delon is a natural for wearing the casual clothing worn on the French Riviera. Below he is seen in a coral-colored shirt.


Urban cool was personified in the disco fashions made famous by John Travolta in Saturday Night Fever. The look was characterized by tight flared pants worn over low boots, snug jackets, and colorful polyester shirts with big collars. The shirts were worn open in the continental European style, and the large collars would only work if worn outside the jacket collar. The look has often  been mocked (mainly due to its over-use during the 70s), but it was a unique fashion style for men that showed a lot of flair and panache.

Photo courtesy Photofest

As a plot element, the pinnacle of men’s fashion in film was reached with American Gigolostarring Richard Gere and model Lauren Hutton and released in 1980. This film was important in transitioning American men into high quality Italian garments. Armani served as costume designer for Richard Gere, who made a big splash in the film with his casual-chic assortment of fine sport jackets, ties, shirts and slacks.

Photo courtesy Photofest


The crowning scene in the film came when when Richard Gere was selecting his wardrobe for his evening out – laying out his many clothing options and jacket-tie combinations on his bed, all the while strutting to a song by Smokey Robinson. The light-colored combinations of olive, grays, sandy browns and taupes influenced men’s fashion for more than a decade.

Photo courtesy Photofest

Another look altogether came from the streets and ended up in movies like Straight Outta Compton. Influenced by gangs and then rappers the look is mostly dark and baggy, with jeans or dark chinos and dark short sleeved shirts or t-shirts and bomber jackets or hoodies.With financial success bling was added with gold chains. The dark, loose clothing was convenient as camouflage on the streets, hiding person and their size when this was desired (or their weapons). The movie is about Compton rappers Ice Cube Dr.Dre, Eazy-E with DJ Yella and MC Ren.


There will be one more James Bond movie with Daniel Craig, and he will most likely look as good as ever.


Craig has worked with two costume designers, first with Lindy Hemming and with Jany Temime on the last two movies. His suits  have mostly been Tom Ford, along with Brioni. Lindy Hemming put him in dark blue suits, the blue to match his blue eyes. Jany Temime has liked lighter colors, especially gray to match his light complexion and light hair. While also using Tom Ford suits, she has preferred slight patterns such as sharkskin, glen-check, and herringbone. 

With the current state of affairs, we may be arriving at the age of the peacock in film.                                          



After many years of planning and some false starts, the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences has finally begun construction on the Academy Museum, a museum for the heritage of Hollywood film.

The artifacts of movie Hollywood’s past have long known a diaspora. Attempts over the decades to establish movie memorabilia museums in Hollywood or Los Angeles have been met with indifference or worse. A curator a the Natural History Museum was among the first, early in the 20th century, to recognize the importance of the movie industry and its physical legacy, asking the studios to contribute artifacts. Occasionally the items are placed on display at the Natural History Museum but they never fully recognized movie making in their mission.

As the Hollywood studio system fell apart in the late 1950s, renewed calls for the preservation of Hollywood’s movie-making history were heard. The County of Los Angeles got involved, and even pledged land opposite the Hollywood Bowl as a site for the “Hollywood Museum.” A  committee was formed, artifacts were donated, and preliminary plans were drawn by noted architect William Perreira.  But this caused a backlash reminiscent of the McCarthyism days in County government circles, where doubts about the value of a museum dedicated to movies and “those people” running the studios could be heard. Before long, this project also came to nought.

Hollywood’s physical heritage was very much appreciated – by Henri Langlois at the Cinematheque Francaise in Paris. Beginning in the mid 1930s he made frequent trips to Hollywood over many years, asking for or buying costumes, films, and props for the archives he had started in Paris. He had acquired enough to open a museum in the 1970s. It wasn’t until the studios started auctioning their own collections, starting with MGM in 1970, that Debbie Reynolds officially jumped in as a major collector. Several aficionados working on the inside had already begun “liberating” costumes from their questionable fate. Debbie Reynolds tried in vain to get MGM to open up their backlots and create a Hollywood museum. This too went nowhere and the lots with their standing sets were sold to developers. Debbie’s own multiple efforts to open museums, see here, would also end in defeat. Her unique collection of costumes and props were scattered to the winds in auctions in 2011. Serious collectors have been preserving Hollywood’s artifacts on their own since the 1970s.

The Academy’s Museum is being built on land leased from the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. The former May Company Dept. Store at this site will now be the Saban Building at the corner of Wilshire Boulevard and Fairfax. It will have six stories of dynamic spaces, including more than 50,000 square feet of exhibition galleries, a state-of-the-art education studio, the 288-seat Ted Mann Theater, a restaurant and café, a store, and public and special event space. The building is named after financial supporters Cheryl and Haim Saban. A Board of Trustees has been formed to guide the Museum, chaired by Ron Meyer.

All Academy Museum images courtesy Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences

The architect for the project is the internationally known Renzo Piano. The signature building element is the glass “Sphere,” a transparent building located in the former parking lot of the May Co. It will house a bright red theater as well as a viewing terrace to the Hollywood Hills and the renowned Hollywood sign.


The Sphere connects to the Saban building with elevated walkways. Special and permanent exhibits will be located in the Saban building.


The Geffen Theater will seat 1000, and will feature a variety of special screenings of documentaries, classics, and newer movies.



Kerry Brougher has been hired as the Museum’s Director, coming from Washington, D.C.’s Hirshhorn Museum.  Brougher stated, “We want to achieve the feeling you are going on a journey, an adventure, a kind of movie itself, walking through a dreamscape of immersive environments and moving images as well as the objects we have in the collection.” One of the galleries will be devoted to the history of the Academy Awards and another will evoke what he calls “the Oscar experience, “You can walk the red carpet and get your own Oscar.” But most of the two floors will be devoted to permanent exhibitions and will follow a chronological path. These will focus on the invention of cinema, and then move on to Hollywood and the studio system. Filmmakers from outside the studio system, from Italian neo-realists, French New Wave, and International film to the present day will also be shown. Additional galleries will house a section devoted to visual effects and other crafts.

The core exhibition, which will be supplemented by a third floor of  temporary exhibits, is being designed by Rick Carter, an Oscar winning production design.

The Academy has long held a rich collection of more than 10 million photographs, 190,000 film and video assets, 80,000 screenplays, 50,000 posters, 20,000 production and costume design drawings, and 1,400 other collection items . Lately, in anticipation of a museum to showcase its collections, it has begun acquiring (many through gifts) some significant artifacts such as the Ruby Slippers from The Wizard of Oz (1939). While several pairs are known to exist, including one at the Smithsonian Museum, this is the finest pair known, used in the close-up shot with Judy Garland at the end of the Oz sequence.


Photo Academy Museum Joshua_White-jwpictures.com 2017

Another pair of shoes are those below. These belonged to Shirley Temple. These tap shoes were used in  The Little Colonel (1935), where she co-starred with Bill “Bojangles” Robinson.

Academy Museum Joshua_White-jwpictures.com 2017

The doors below are are recent acquisition, the doors to the “Rick’s Cafe Americain” set used in Casablanca (1942).

The Academy Museum is not set to open until 2019. It has been a long time coming, and it will be a very welcome addition to the museum scene in Los Angeles. For classic movie lovers, it will finally become the showplace and preservation hall for all those flickering images shown in the dark.




RIFIFI has been called the best French crime drama ever made, and  the best French film noir. When Francois Truffaut was still a film critic, he said Rififi was the best film noir he had ever seen. And although its director’s name sounds French, Jules Dassin was an American, blacklisted and forced to work in France and Europe.

This blog post is part of the Classic Movie Blog Association’s Banned and Blacklisted Blogathon.

After leaving MGM, Dassin worked with Mark Hellinger on the noir classic Brute Force, (1947) starring Burt Lancaster, Ann Blyth, Hume Cronyn, and Yvonne De Carlo. By 1949 the House Un-American Activities Committee was looking for communists in the movie business. Daryl Zanuck at Universal purposefully sent Dassin to London to work on his noir masterpiece Night and the City in 1950, where he missed being called to testify to the Committee. Nonetheless, he was named by two others as a former communist and was blacklisted. Unable to find work, he moved to France, although he could not speak French. He was set to direct a movie starring the French comedian Fernandel, titled Public Enemy No. 1, but was fired after his blacklisting caught up to him. This caused a furor in France, with French director Jacques Becker (Touchez Pas le Grisbi) leading the protest. After a rough few years, he was hired by producer Henri Berard to direct a low-budget crime drama based on the book, Du Rififi chez les Hommes (Some Wrangling Among Men), by Auguste le Breton. The story involves a jewelry heist in Paris,  the dialogue heavy with French slang and underworld lingo. Dassin immediately began a script rewrite of the story, but still using le Bretton’s dialogue. Dassin made a big change, the jewelry heist caper involving a gang of professional criminals became the central scene in the movie. The heist lasted a fuIl 30 minutes, a quarter of the film’s length. If you’re thinking this sounds like the plot of Asphalt Jungle, you’re right, though Dassin said this was accidental as he hadn’t seen the film at that pont. There are several similarities, but in Rififi Dassin extracts every bit of tension and friction out of the characters and their endeavors, and in this low-budget film, he made every detail count in furthering the plot. Fortunately, he also had a superb crew, with Philippe Agostini as cinmatographer, Alexandre Trauner as Production Designer, and music by Georges Auric. The Paris setting was also key, especially with Dassin’s insistence on filming during cloudy days. He used the atmosphere of Paris as he had London in Night and the City, and New York in The Naked City, this becoming a stylistic hallmark of film noir.  “I remember walking the streets of Paris and dictating to a secretary,” Dassin said. “We’ll do this scene here and this scene there. Just really improvising as we walked. When you make a picture, and you do locations, you gotta walk.”

The lead character, played by Jean Servais,  is Tony le Stephanois (many characters have such monikers) who just got out of prison and is mad at his old flame “Mado.” She has taken up with gangster and nightclub owner Louis Grutter. Tony meets his two old pals, Jo le Suedois (the Swede) and Mario Ferrati at a cafe. They look over at a Jewelry store, where the two friends propose a quick window heist. Tony wants nothing to do with it or the chance of going back to prison. But he can’t resist checking on Mado at the “L’Age D’Or” nightclub. He sees her and emphatically asks her to his room. After some comparison of their lives over the last 5 years when he was in prison and she sold their flat and took up with Grutter, he takes her jewelry and fur coat. He gives her some pretty rough treatment and throws her out of his ratty apartment, then throws out her coat and jewelry. He doesn’t feel any better about himself, though he’s changed his mind about the jewelry heist. Servais as Tony le Stephanois is the picture of a hang-dog criminal with nothing left to lose. His only moment of joy is playing with Jo’s young son Tonio, for whom “Uncle Tony” makes sure Jo buys the toy the kid had wanted.

The idea of getting into the safe through the back like using a “can opener” was Dassin’s. His technician came up with the exact method. From L to R characters Jo le Suedois, Mario Ferrati, Tony le Stephanois, and Cesar le Milanais (played by Jules Dassin)

Tony now tells his two pals he’s in – only this should be for the whole store inventory that’s in the safe – not just a window job. It should be planned to the minute, but now a safe-cracker will be needed. Mario has an Italian compatriot and pro who could do the job – Cesar le Milanais (the Milanese), played by no other than Jules Dassin himself. Their plan is to break through the roof on a Sunday night. A couple lives there, but they’ll be gagged and tied. The large portable safe will be moved and lowered – to drill through the back. The entire operation is shown in a tight wordless choreography with no music. Each slight noise of tool or bump only amplifies the tension of the scene. Cesar the safecracker wears ballet slippers during the job. The 30 minutes of screen time represents several hours, until finally the job is done.

This is film noir, however, and things can’t continue to run smoothly. The men in this caper may be professionals, but flaws in character are always prone to interfere, as does fate. (Some spoilers follow) Cesar’s weakness is his desire to impress women. As he escapes the jewelry store he can’t resist stealing one expensive ring that he does not combine with the shared loot. This ring, that he gives his mistress, will lead to him being pegged for the heist by Louis Grutter, after news of the robbery hits the streets. And when he is captured by Grutter and his men, he rats out the others in his group, which leads to disaster.  Jules Dassin wanted to make a statement about his being ratted and blacklisted with the character he played. Tony catches up to him in a later scene and tells Cesar, “You broke the rules,” this before he shoots him.

Jules Dassin as Cesar, who rats and pays the price – a symbolic death for those who ratted him out in Hollywood

A downward spiral of events follow, as dramatic as the heist. The last long scene is itself a masterpiece, a “lyrical documentary,” as Truffaut called it. Watching little Tonio wearing Tony’s trenchcoat and a fedora hat, waiving a toy gun as Tony drives madly through the streets of Paris, the life ebbing out of him, racing for safety.  This last redemptive effort is a movie scene not soon forgotten.

Marie Sabouret and Jean Servais as Mado and Tony. Courtesy: Rialto Pictures / Gaumont

Dassin won the Best Director Award at the Cannes Film Festival in 1955. At the festival, Gene Kelly was the only American who would be seen publicly with Dassin. United Artist wanted to distribute the film in the U.S., but only if he would remove his name from the credits as director and writer. He refused. So UA set up a dummy corporation and distributed the film in 1956, with Dassin’s credits preserved. As such, he became the first of the blacklisted to be publicly credited in the U.S.

Yet it was rarely seen in the U.S., and not until it was licensed by Rialto and re-released in 2000 did it have public screenings. But even so, before and since, it influenced many heist movies, including: Ocean’s Eleven; The Italian Job, Reservoir Dogs, and The Town. 

I saw Rififi on the big screen at the TCM Classic Film Festival in 2015. Eddie Muller introduced the film, congratulating the audience for having picked the best movie of the whole festival to attend. He stated that Rififi was ,”as perfect a movie as you can get.” I agree.



Fred Astaire’s amazing career and his talented dance partners as dressed by the great Hollywood costume designers  is reviewed in this post, continued from Part I. We left off with the movie You Were Never Lovelier with Rita Hayworth in 1942.  One of his next big films was done at his new studio: MGM. The studio was still pumping life into the Ziegfeld legend by making a third movie about Florence Ziegfeld, this time with Ziegfeld looking down from on high to the creation of a new revue.  In Ziegfeld Follies, a great cast was assembled including: Lucille Ball, Judy Garland, Lena Horne, Kathryn Grayson,  Esther Williams, Fanny Brice, Red Skelton and William Powell. Fred Astaire had two dance partners, Lucille Bremer, and for the first time, the great Gene Kelly himself. The movie is worth watching if only for the  Gene Kelly/ Fred Astaire number. Fred dances  with Lucille Bremer, a good dancer but not in the league of Ginger Rogers, Eleanor Powell or Cyd Charisse. Their two numbers were a Chinese inspired “Limehouse Blues,” and “This Heart of Mine,” In the latter one Astaire plays a jewel thief trying to seduce Bremer to get her jewels, but gets seduced himself. Irene Lentz Gibbons designed the beautiful white embroidered gown she wore. Irene Sharaff designed the Chinese-themed costume for the other number, but Lucille Bremer did not get along with Sharaff.



The next two movies Fred made were not very successful. He partnered again with Lucille Bremer in Vincente Minnelli’s Yolanda and the Thief, in 1945, and in Stuart Heisler’s Blue Skies, in 1946 along with Bing Crosby and Joan Caulfield, a sort of Holiday Inn take-off. In the later movie Fred dances mostly solo. At this point in his career Fred was preparing for his retirement.

In 1948 MGM was making the big musical Easter Parade when Gene Kelly broke his ankle. Kelly suggested that Fred Astaire replace him. Fred was surprised but accepted. The movie was directed by Charles Walters and co-starred Judy Garland, Ann Miller, and Peter Lawford. Ann Miller was herself replacing Cyd Charisse, who had pulled a tendon. The movie’s plot complications are that Fred went from his regular stage and dance partner (and flame) played by Ann Miller to a new one played by Judy Garland (and back and forth). The movie was a huge costume production. The principals, cast, and extras in their 1912 finery was a big designing  job for Irene Lentz Gibbons. Some 700 extras were used. The long hobble-skirts and big picture hats cast a distinctive silhouette that was the big attraction for the “Easter Parade” scene on New York’s “5th Avenue.” Below is a costume sketch designed by Irene for one of the walkers on 5th Avenue.

Irving Berlin provided the compositions, many from decades earlier, but some written just for the movie. The musical numbers incuded some of Fred’s finest work, especially with Judy Garland. The Vaudeville number, “A couple of Swells” is pure joy in watching how much fun Judy Garland is having in this silly routine. “It Only Happens When I Dance With You” is the most beatiful song, sung by Fred to Judy, and the “Steppin’ Out with My Baby” number by Fred has to be seen. Easter Parade was MGM’s highest grossing film of 1948.


Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers were teamed – for the last time – in The Barkleys of Broadway in 1949. The movie was supposed to star Judy Garland, but she suffered a nervous breakdown and was replaced. The story is about a husband and wife musical comedy team. A French playwright convinces Ginger’s character that she should be doing serious theater roles, and accordingly she starts rehearsing – to Fred the husband’s irritation and jealousy. Things spiral downward until she takes to the stage separately, and we wonder if their team will ever re-unite. The working title of the film had been, You Made me Love You. The movie did not recapture the magic of their RKO years.

Irene Lentz Gibbons designed the costumes. Below is a costume sketch for Ginger Rogers, although the costume was not used in the final film.


Ginger’s gold lame gown below had plenty of fabric at the skirt to swirl as she danced with Fred in their opening number in the film.

While Royal Wedding (1951) is not as well known and is lightweight as far as story goes, it contains some of Fred’s most well-known solo dance numbers – and some nice ones with partner Jane Powell too. It was also historic in other ways. The movie rode on the popularity of the  earlier royal wedding of Queen Elizabeth and Prince Phillip. Judy Garland was supposed to star along with Fred Astaire, but after missing three rehearsals she was suspended for her third and final time from MGM, her studio for 14 years and where she had grown up.  The end of an era had come.

The story is about brother and sister Broadway stars taking a ship to England, played by Fred Astaire and Jane Powell. They are to play in the Mayfair theater during the festivites around the royal wedding. But of course they each meet and fall for a Londoner – she with an English  lord played by Peter Lawford, he to  an auditioner played by Sarah Churchill (Winston’s daughter). The movie is filled with clever dance acts, starting off with the Fred and Jane dancing on a rocking ship deck.

This is also the movie where Fred dances with a coat rack because his sister is not available at a rehearsal, and late in his bedroom imagines himself dancing on his walls and ceiling after staring at a photo of Anne (Sarah Churchill).

No costume design credit is given for the film. Normally Helen Rose would have been assigned the costume design, but with the troubles Judy Garland was having at the studio, Rose had made the mistake of siding with Judy. The studio bosses didn’t appreciate that and took her off the movie, and significantly, Band Wagon that followed was assigned to another designer.

Many fans consider Band Wagon to be Astaire’s best film. The film was directed by Vincente Minnelli and it pairs Astaire with the great Cyd Charisse. The plot parallels and was partially inspired by his own career. At that stage Astaire and the protagonist are facing a waning audience and with their best days behind him. Fred plays Tony Hunter, talked into making a stage musical by his friends as a comeback, the duo played by Nanette Fabray and Oscar Levant (passing as Comden and Green). The director Jeffrey Cordoba, played by Jack Buchanan turns the play into a dark modern hot mess, complicated by adding ballerina Gabrielle Gerard, played by Cyd Charisse into the cast. Tony and Gabrielle get off on the wrong foot from the beginning. Rehearsals are a shambles and it’s only after Tony and Gabrielle get to talking and later take an evening buggy ride to Central Park that the chemistry ignites. The musical number and dance, “Dancing in the Dark,” takes place as one of the highlights of the film, From there, one entertaining musical number after another takes place. Astaire and Cyd Charisse’s “Girl Hunt Ballet,” is particularly noteworthy.


The costumes were designed by Mary Ann Nyberg. She had few film costume design credits to her name, though A Star is Born with Judy Garland was one of them. She served as a sketch artist for Jean Louis and later a fashion designer. The costume sketch above is for Cyd Charisse in the wonderful “Dancing in the Dark” number. It is a simple but beautiful dancing outfit, its pleated skirt flowing to her every move with Fred.

The “Girl Hunt Ballet” scene with Cyd Charisse begins with Fred entering a bar where she sits, wearing a dark green coat. A quick removal of the coat reveals her bright red sequined dress – showing lots of leg through a 3/4 surround skirt and narrow front panel. This makes for a stunning dance number with Fred shown below.



Mary Ann Nyberg’s costume sketch above was for a Cyd Charisse costume in the “Girl Hunt Ballet” scene. For whatever reason, it was never used in the film.

Fred Astaire’s last full musical dance movie was Finian’s Rainbow, based on the 1947 stage play and directed by Francis Ford Coppola. It was released in 1968 and co-starred Petula Clark playing Fred’s daughter Sharon. The costumes were designed by Dorothy Jeakins.


The movie has a fanciful plot, where Fred and his daughter travel to a fictional Southern state and burying stolen leprechaun gold believing it will multiply. But then a bigoted local senator, Billboard Rawkins, tries to foreclose on the young and popular Woody Mahoney’s tobacco land. So Finian pays the balance of Woody’s debt and he and Sharon become loved by the sharecroppers of the valley. Things are not settled however and Rawkins is not finished with his schemes before Finian’s work is done and he can leave the valley to seek his fortunes elsewhere.


Finian’s Rainbow is a movie that as a whole is not s good as its parts. No matter, as Fred Astaire’s last full musical role, it is worth seeing. Thereafter, he could be seen in various bit roles and TV parts. And of course, was re-discovered in That’s Entertainment! in 1974. We are fortunate to Have Turner Classic Movies where so many of the movies of his prime are shown regularly, along with his marvelous dancing partners and the wonderful costumes they wore.



Alfred Hitchcock’s VERTIGO was the subject of a one day conference in Dublin, Ireland on September 14. The event was organized by Trinity college professor Donal “Dee” Martin and a dedicated team of assistants and held at the Central Hotel. Dee had spent many months planning and organizing this event and it was quite successful. A distinguished group of scholars spoke and gave visual presentations on Hitchcock and Vertigo, on a  fascinating range of subjects. I was fortunate to be among them, talking about the costume designs by Edith Head and the role costumes play in character and plot.

Organizer Dee Martin at right with speaker Christian Esquevin

After an opening by U.S Embassy Charge d’Affaires Reece Smyth, Sidney Gottlieb started the talks. Sidney is professor of Communications & Media Studies at Sacred Heart University in Connecticut. He co-edits the Hitchcock Annual. He opened with Why Vertigo?in terms of its cinematic distinction as a recent phenomenon. David Schroeder  followed with “Vertigo as Opera,”  David is Professor Emeritus of the Fountain School of the Performing Arts at Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia. His talk focused on the film score of Bernard Herrmann and its musical associations. Kevin Donnelly followed with a different angle on Vertigo’s music score, “Disagreeing with Hitchcock?: The Counterpoint in Vertigo’s Music.” His point here is that Herrmann actually encouraged different emotional responses in his music than what was going on in some of the scenes. Kevin is reader in Film at the University of Southhampton, and has written about Hitchcock and Herrmann. I followed with “Vertigo: Costuming a Masterpiece,” which I will provide the text for at the bottom of this post.  The music of Vertigo continued to be a topic of interest as Jack Sullivan gave his fascinating talk on “Relentless Destiny: The Score for Vertigo and its Background.” Jack is Professor of  English at Rider University and the author of “Hitchcock’s Music.”

From L to R Christian Esquevin, Sidney Gottlieb, Jack Sullivan, and Kevin Donnelly


Sidney Gottlieb addresses the audience on “Why Vertigo?”


I talk about the role of costumes in Vertigo – designed by Edith Head and the all-important gray suit that Kim Novak did not want to wear at the beginning.

After the lunch break William Rothman talked about Jimmy Stewart’s most complete performance in “I Look Up, I Look Down: James Stewart’s Performance in Vertigo.” Bill Rothman is currently Professor of Cinema and Interactive Media at the University of Miami. He is the author of “Must We Kill the Thing We Love: Emersonian Perfectionism and the Films of Alfred Hitchcock.” This talk was followed by Murray Pomerance who presented “A Cicerone’s Conjecture: Gallery 6 and Vertigo’s Foreshadows”  This was an interesting look at the art on exhibit (and installed especially for Hitchcock) at the gallery of the California Palace of the Legion of Honor. Sidney Gottlieb wrapped up the conference with his presentation on, “The Variety of Gazes in Vertigo,” addressing the issue of “the male gaze” in modern cinema and media.

This was a most fascinating conference held in  great city. It is hoped that next year the 2nd conference will be held on the occasion of Vertigo’s 60th anniversary in San Francisco, again to be planned by Dee Martin.

My piece on Vertigo is based on an earlier blog post I had submitted to Patricia Schneider’s blog Lady’s Eve’s Reel Life.   This had been for the occasion of a blogathon on Vertigo in 2012. My post, slightly modified, follows:


Edith Head at left with Alfred Hitchcock & Ingrid Bergman in Notorious


                        VERTIGO: COSTUMING A MASTERPIECE


Alfred Hitchcock had already worked with noted costume designer Edith Head on five films. Now he had chosen her again to costume Vertigo. Hitchcock had wanted Vera Miles to play the role of Madeleine, but she became pregnant. He thought about Lana Turner, another beautiful blond, but she was too expensive. So he secured Kim Novak from Columbia Pictures. As a loan-out, her studio was making a lot of money from her. She started off resentful, but she soon asked for and got a higher salary.  She was tough, but insecure.

Kim Novak made it crystal clear what she wanted in her first meeting with Edith Head. “I don’t wear suits, and I don’t wear gray. And another thing, I don’t wear black pumps,” Novak told Miss Head.

When Miss Head reported this to Hitchcock, he said, “I don’t care what she wears as long as it’s a gray suit.”

Thus began the creative tension over the costuming of Vertigo. But in a clash of opinion over the visual aspects of a Hitchcock film, Hitch always won. Indeed, he already had the colors and the costume types selected before pre-production for Vertigo began. Kim Novak wore the gray suit with the black pumps. And this became her iconic look in Vertigo.

 “I had never had a director who was particular about the costumes, the way they were designed, the specific colors,” Novak later said about Hitchcock.

Edith Head’s gray suit design for Kim Novak

The story theme within Vertigo is based on obsession, and the costume looks for the Madeleine/Judy character are a key symbol of that dysfunction. The “clash” that Kim Novak had with Hitch and Edith Head over her costumes was nothing new for an actress in Hollywood, but Alfred Hitchcock’s very specific clothing demands in type and color speaks volumes about Vertigo being for him a very personal film. Deeply embedded in Hitchcock’s psychology was this mix of the mysterious blond in a gray suit, the obsession with repossessing a lost past, and the madness caused by the futility of this effort. As far as the costume choices being good fashion, it didn’t matter that Kim Novak’s pumps were black. Yes, they would have looked better in gray or brown, or tan to match her nude-toned hose. This was a trick she had learned from Marlene Dietrich, a device to make one’s legs look longer.

The gray suit was in a neutral and sedate color. Hitchcock believed it revealed how the Madeleine character felt about herself. Edith Head also frequently designed gray suits for her film costumes, and wore them regularly herself, believing that it gave her a non-competitive look when working with the stars. But Marlene Dietrich had worn a gray suit for Hitch in Stage Fright, as had Doris Day in The Man Who Knew too Much, and as Tippi Hedren would wear in The Birds. So the gray suit touched something within Hitchcock, and along with the blonde hair of his leading actresses, denoted for Hitchcock the “woman of mystery,” the cool and subtle beauty with the blazing insides. And as for the black pumps, they can often be fetishistic objects, and Hitchcock’s insistence on them here gives them that significance.

The colors of the costumes and the sets had a symbolic meaning as well as a visual style for Hitchcock. Gray represented modesty when worn in a gray suit. Perhaps its dove gray color denoted a uniform to Hitchcock, perhaps even linking it to the color of a nun’s habit. And perhaps it was that modesty contradicted by the figure-hugging cut of the suit that added spice to the costume.  When Jimmy Stewart as Scottie first sees Kim Novak playing Madeleine, she wears a black gown but it is covered in a green-trimmed opera coat at Ernie’s Restaurant. The wallpaper of the restaurant forms a red background that vibrates with the green in these color opposites. Her face in profile against the red wallpaper fixes his gaze, and that  of the camera.

Green represented death for Hitchcock. This was a holdover from his youth going to the theater and seeing ghostly representations depicted in lime green. Madeleine’s car is also green. It’s in the following scene where Scottie begins tailing Madeleine that she first wears the gray suit.  His fascination with her was peaked at Ernie’s, but seeing her in the gray suit is when he becomes obsessed. Her connection to mystery and reincarnated lives is reinforced with scenes at the Dolores Mission and graveyard and the Palace of the Legion of Honor Art Gallery.

As for Scottie’s former love interest Midge, played by Barbara Bel Geddes, she is dressed in warm colors of yellow and beige and soft fabrics – symbols of her nurturing and loving proclivities towards Scottie.

After Scottie saves Madeleine from drowning and takes her to his apartment, she is dressed, albeit in his robe, in a vibrant red. Here the color evokes life and full-bloodedness. And indeed, a prior scene of intimacy is implied. Then in a later scene when Scottie and Madeleine drive to the shore, she is dressed in black and white – a black dress with black gloves and a white coat. The black and white in this costume denotes not the unambiguous nature of her character, but rather the duality of her persona. As an added twist, her black chiffon scarf blows freely with the ocean wind, perhaps a symbol of mystery, or one of doom.


As the character Judy, Kim Novak is costumed by Edith Head to appear dowdy. She wears the “deathly” green color – in a green sweater made bulky by being worn over a blouse. The blouse is green with white polka-dots and with a peter-pan collar turned over the sweater. The whole is accentuated by an unflattering hair style. The total look is purposefully unappealing. This look has several purposes: to define the common character of Judy in contrast to Madeleine’s higher class; to appear that she is “hiding” her identity; and to provide a stark difference with Madeleine in order to dramatize her coming make-over.

“Judy” in green, with braless top.

When they go on a date and later go shopping for her clothes, she is dressed better but still very simply. She wears lavender, a color of mystery and transition. But Scottie will not be satisfied until he makes her over in the very image and dress of Madeleine. The make-over itself is a key dramatic moment in the film – Judy’s reluctance, Scottie’s obsession in turning her visually into Madeleine, complete with gray suit and blonde hair in the characteristic twirled bun.

The nature of the costumes, and the make-over, reverberated not only with the character’s roles, but with the actor’s and the director’s deep psychology. Hitchcock exercised his darker side in molding an actress into his own obsession, while directing Jimmy Stewart to do the same. Kim Novak as Judy wondered why Scottie couldn’t love her as she was, just as Kim Novak really felt the same about Hollywood in general. The entire film reverberates not just from vertigo but due to mirroring techniques and doubling of the images of the main characters. We are challenged to keep our footing while viewing this Hitchcock masterwork. But the gray suit worn with the black pumps served their purpose, and they allowed Kim Novak to not only be in character, but by taking her out of her comfort zone in dress, Hitchcock enabled her to more effectively be an actress that plays a part of a character that is pretending to be someone else. The simplicity and neutrality of the gray suit belies the fact that when Kim Novak wears it as Judy she is a woman pretending to be another woman who was herself a fiction. This may create a blurred vision, But Scottie knows he has been tricked.

“Judy” finally transformed back into Madeleine

Hitchcock must have recognized his own dilemma in creating Vertigo. At the climactic end, Scottie demonstrated his tragic disappointment with Judy, and his own foolish endeavor. “He made you over just like I made you over,” he says accusingly to Judy. Only Elster had made her over first, and thus Scottie had been pursuing the hollow goal of recreating another man’s fantasy. And perhaps worse, he accused her of being “an apt pupil,” for Elster, which he repeats twice – something she hadn’t been for him. That demonstrated to Scottie, and served as the film’s underlying theme, that the pursuit of an empty ideal is futile. For Hitchcock, it was a deeply ingrained motif, one that would keep repeating itself as he tried to mold one Hitchcock blonde after another into his fantasy, only to have her leave him for one reason or another. With the character Scottie, this creation and possession fantasy was played out not as a means of domination, but rather one where we could believe that once his fantasy woman was created, he could surrender and succumb to her. She could have been his Madeleine/Midge.  But alas we know that that too would have been another fantasy – another beguiling but untrustworthy image, a reflection in a mirror, or another swirling and spiraling movement creating a feeling of vertigo.

Many viewers over the years have also been tricked by Vertigo. They came to view it as a Hitchcock mystery, but in reality it is cinema’s greatest tragedy.

Vertigo received several Oscar nominations, including Best Art Direction. Edith Head was not nominated for Best Costume Design, which was won by Cecil Beaton’s Gigi. And she had also just been snubbed for her outstanding costumes for Grace Kelly in Hitchcock’s To Catch a Thief. It seems that a fabulous gray suit as character-delineating costume was just too subtle to pick up awards. No matter, she had already won five of her ultimate eight Oscar wins by then. Worse, Hitchcock wasn’t nominated either for this iconic classic.

It didn’t do well at the box-office and Hitchcock took it out of circulation for many years. It became a bit of a cult class and after his death it was finally seen more broadly. The 2012 Sight and Sound poll listed it as the best film ever made, displacing Citizen Kane. For a deeper review of its symbolic and historical background, see my post:  http://silverscreenmodes.com/vertigo-spiraling-into-myth-madness-movie-history/





The fabulous fashions of the Jazz Age seem always to come back in style, their sheer energy jumping off the page or screen.. The 1920s flapper style has become a fashion icon, and Hollywood movies played a big part in spreading the look. The young flapper woman was herself a novelty. As a reaction to the end of World War I in 1918 and the massive loss of young men, women’s styles became liberated, and favored the look of young men or boys. The short haircuts started earlier by Irene Castle became even shorter with stars Colleen Moore, Clara Bow, Louise Brooks, and Norma Shearer. The fashions of Paul Poiret and Coco Chanel that had eliminated corsets had now changed to straight-sided, flat-chested, short-skirted and sleeveless dresses. This provocative look was matched by a lifestyle that favored fast cars, jazz clubs, and wild dancing. Smoking and drinking was taken for granted. And sex was always on the flapper’s mind.  

Colleen Moore above started in the movies in 1917 and was considered the perfect flapper in the movie Flaming Youth in 1923.  By 1927 she was a top box-office star and fashion icon.


Photo courtesy PhotoFest

Louise Brooks is shown above circa 1929. Louise was a free spirit that was the flapper ideal. She made several films for Paramount but quit the studio in a disagreement. She then went to Germany to star in the films Pandora’s Box and Diary of a Lost Girl for G.W. Pabst in 1929. Both films were censored. Late in life she wrote an autobiography, Lulu in Hollywood. Her photos have a mesmerizing quality that make them prized collector items.

Joan Crawford, shown above, was considered by F.Scott Fitzgerald to be the perfect embodiment of the Jazz Age woman. She began her career at MGM in 1925, and is shown above in Our Modern Maidens, 1929. Adrian designed the costumes for this movie, as he did for most of her early films. and all of her subsequent MGM films’ “I don’t remember any fashion before Adrian.” she said.

The photo above shows Joan Crawford and Josephine Dunn in Our Modern Maidens. Joan wears a sequined coat over the flapper dress that is shown in her first photo. Josephine Dunn wears a coat over her silver-fringed flapper dress. Joan is also shown below in total flapper mode for Our Dancing Daughters, 1928. This dress was also an Adrian design.

Evelyn Brent was another silver screen flapper. She was a big star in the silent era but never made a successful transition to sound. She is often photographed with a wide silk headband and had a striking profile. She is pictured above for an unknown publicity shot, circa 1930. The dress “pajamas” she is wearing were very fashionable as boudoir or beachwear in Europe. Adrian popularized pajamas for evening wear in 1929-1930 by having Greta Garbo wear them on screen, and predicting the popularity of pants for women.


Evelyn Brent at left is shown above with Constance Cummings in Travelling Husbands, 1931. Constance wears a cloche hat, the trademark flapper head piece. When Adrian, the son of milliners, put Greta Garbo in a slanted Empress Eugenie hat in Romance in 1930, the cloche went out of style.

Julia Faye is shown above in a silver-fringed dress designed by Adrian for Dynamite, 1929. Ms. Faye must hold a record for the most uncredited roles on film. She first appeared in movies in 1915 and ended her career on TV in 1963. She was in many C.B. DeMille films, including The Squaw Man in 1918 and the first The Ten Commandments in 1923.



Joan is seen again in Our Blushing Brides in 1930, the final film in the “trilogy” with Our Dancing Daughters and Our Modern Maidens. Adrian designed the dress with a great jazz age symbol of a zig-zag pattern on the bodice.

The jazz age flapper style was at its end by 1931. The stock market crash of 1929 took the wind out of the sails of the free-spirited lifestyle that the flapper signified. And the long dresses introduced in Paris by Jean Patou changed the hemline for decades to come. This also caused a problem for Hollywood movies that were suddenly caught out of style – prompting a search for costume designers with couture backgrounds. But Hollywood films and movie stars had helped spread the flapper style’s popularity. Now the style making its debut on the silver screen was one of sex appeal and glamour – still created by costume designers Adrian and Travis Banton. Fluctuations in style would no longer matter. The “Hollywood line” emphasized timeless glamour and the figure-hugging silhouette that plainly put sex appeal in clothing. The Hollywood styles would now be influencing the European couturiers.


Costume wild Evelyn Brent_ Slightly Scarlet_gray shades_001

Travis Banton designed the wild costume pictured above for Evelyn Brent in SLIGHTLY SCARLET, 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.

Regardless of passing styles amd passing decades – flappers and their dress are and endless source of inspiration, and in these often cheerles times, an echo of the troubled times that created the flappers and their jazz age.






Barbara Stanwyck was born July 16, 1906 in the Flatbush neighborhood of Brooklyn. She was the youngest of five children born to Byron and Catherine Stevens. She was named Ruby. Her mother was likely Scotch-Irish but died after a drunk accidentally knocked her off a moving streetcar and Catherine subsequently miscarried. Ruby was 3 years old. Her father then abandoned the children, the two eldest went off on their own and the middle child, by then a young-adult, raised Malcolm Byron and Ruby until they were passed off to one family and then another, as many as ten or twelve in succession, as orphans. Ruby grew up as a wild child with a tough exterior, with the primal understanding that only she could look our for herself.  Yet she was perpetually insecure. She hardly ever made friends and was always in trouble at school. She dropped out by age 14, ready to work for a living. She first worked wrapping packages at a department store, then for more money she took a job filing cards at the telephone company. She became a rep for Vogue garment patterns but was fired for bungling an order. But after her sister Millie began working as a chorine (chorus girl) on Broadway, Ruby began tagging along. She began imitating every dance step she saw, and it wasn’t long before she auditioned and got a job as a Ziegfeld chorus dancer in 1922’s Follies. She was 15 years old. Ruby also got a dancing job with the flamboyant Mary Louise “Texas” Guinan at the “El Fay” club, where Ruby Keeler and George Raft also made up the dancing talent. She made the transition to acting when Willard Mack hired her for a part as a chorine (“Why not cast a real one?), her friend had asked him. She got the part, and Noose, a prison  melodrama, lasted 9 months on Broadway.  It was for the play that she got her name Barbara Stanwyck. at the suggestion of the producer David Belasco.  He was looking through old playbills with Mack and concocted the name from a mix of former actresses. 


Ruby Stevens before she went to Hollywood


Writer and producer Arthur Hopkins picked Barbara Stanwyck to play the lead role in his new play Burlesque. The play became a hit. Movie moguls were scouring Broadway at the time looking for talent with good voices just as the movies were transitioning to sound. Famous Players-Lasky bought the rights to Burlesque, but for another lead actress. Joseph Schenck of United Artist offered Stanwyck the lead in The Locked Door in 1929. By then Barbara had married Frank Fay, a big vaudeville star with a big personality and plans of his own to make it big in Hollywood. They married and moved to Hollywood. Her next movie was with the “poverty-row” studio of Columbia – Mexicali Rose. Both of these movies are forgettable and even Barbara had doubts about continuing her career in the movies. But she got a non-exclusive contract at Columbia, and her next movie; Ladies of Leisure, would pair her up  with director Frank Capra. They would go on to make a string of successful and classuc films. He said of her that, “Her dedication made her beloved by all directors, actors, crews, and extras.” The first of these movies that got her critical praise was The Bitter Tea of General Yen, set in China and co-starring Nils Asther. But her next movie got her a lot of praise, and with her non-exclusive contract, it was made at Warner Brothers. It’s also one of the first to show on TCM that I would note for viewing on August 13 (spoilers will be included in all below).

Ladies They Talk About
LADIES THEY TALK ABOUT: (9:00 a.m EST)   Directed by Howard Bretherton and William Keighley, this is a drama set in a woman’s prison. Barbara’s character is sent up for serving as a decoy in a bank robbery. Prison life in the movie is not depicted as particularly harsh, but watching Barbara display her full sass, piss and vinegar to some of her prison mates is the highlight of the film.  She can’t wait to get out to extract some revenge on the one she thinks double-crossed her in the bank job. The movie stars Lillian Roth, Lyle Talbot and Preston Foster. Costume design by Orry-Kelly. 1933


After a couple of movies at Warner Brothers, Frank Fay’s short Hollywood career came to an end. Although he hung around, drinking and making a nuisance of himself and worse. He finally went back to Broadway and the couple divorced. After Barbara made His Brother’s Wife with Robert Taylor, the two became involved and eventually married in 1939. They lived in a large horse Ranch in the then undeveloped San Fernando Valley, neighbors to Janet Gaynor and Adrian.

Barbara Stanwyck in Mad Miss Manton


MAD MISS MANTON:  (10:30 a.m. EST)  This film was made at RKO in 1938, directed by Leigh Jason and co-starring Henry Fonda, the first of three films Barbara made with Fonda (The Lady Eve, You Belong to Me).  In the story, Barbara plays a young heiress and leader of the “Park Avenue Pranksters.” This was quite a role change for her and the first time she was given the glamour treatment for her part. The plot involves a murder, a corpse, and some missing jewels, some criminals, and charity balls, and the involvement of the newspaper – which is where Henry Fonda’s character comes in. It all gets sorted out in the end. The costume designer was Edward Stevenson, who used some clever design techniques to overcome her low rear. My great-aunt Marie Ree was the Head Cutter-Fitter in the Wardrobe Dept. at RKO.  She fitted Barbara for her costumes for this movie – see photos above and below.


Barbara Stanwyck in Mad Miss Manton



The Lady Eve
THE LADY EVE:  (12:00 noon)  An all-time Barbara Stanwyck classic co-starring Henry Fonda, written and directed by Preston Sturges at Paramount Pictures. The story is classic romantic comedy. A rich heir and zoology fancier (Fonda) on a ship returning home finds himself the mark for a beautiful card sharp (Stanwyck) and her father (Charles Coburn). Fonda’s buddy (William Demerest) smells a rat, but Fonda is hooked (almost literally). But before you know it she’s falling for him too. Only several changes of identity throughout the movie by Stanwyck and falling in and out and back in love by Fonda in the usually zany but totally entertaining manner of a Preston Sturges movie will get you to the happy conclusion of this tale. And for Barbara Stanwyck fans, a jewel of a film. Claudette Colbert and Paulette Goddard were both  considered for the lead until falling out for one reason or another. Edith Head designed the smashing outfits for Barbara. 1941.


Ball of Fire


BALL OF FIRE: (2:00 p.m.)  This could be Barbara Stanwyck’s nickname. This classic screwball romantic comedy was written by Billy Wilder and Charles Brackett with additional dialogue and slang terms added by Thomas Monroe.  Billy Wilder’s story is a take off on a basic fairy tale, where the eight wise men know everything about everything except about sex. The movie was directed by Howard Hawks. Barbara plays a burlesque entertainer, mixed in with a group of college professors writing an encyclopedia. Gary Cooper is the leader and a linguist, needing to update the slang section. That’s how Barbara, AKA “Sugerpuss” gets involved. She’s running from the law and some gangsters, and decides to hang out with the eight wise men and help them with their research. This is helped along since Professor Bertram Potts “Pottsie” is a looker. But soon things gets mixed up with the gangsters, and the professors have to get out of their study and get physical.  Costumes by Edith Head. 1941


All I Desire


ALL I DESIRE (8:00 p.m.) Directed by Douglas Sirk and starring Richard Carlson and Maureen O’Sullivan. In this powerful story set in 1910 Wyoming, Barbara as Naomi Murdoch returns to her small hometown as a famous Shakespearean actress – a town she left behind along with her husband , son and two daughters. Her daughter Lily had written her and is now acting in the school play. She finds her old emotional attachments returning. But her arrival stirs controversy, including the attention from an old lover. Her reputation and this renewed attention roils her family and the town. Can things ever be normal again? 1953.


The Strange Love of Martha Ivers


THE STRANGE LOVE OF MARTHA IVERS   (9:30 p.m.) Strange things happen behind closed doors and this movie has them in spades. The alternate title was Love Lies Bleeding and that was an apt title. Directed by Lewis Milestone, its cast includes Van Heflin, Lizabeth Scott, and in his first film role, Kirk Douglas.  Barbara (Martha) as a child kills her rich aunt in a fit of rage. Van Heflin (Sam) her friend is a witness. They were going to run away together but now he goes away alone to join the circus. Her tutor and his son Walter say it was an intruder that did it. Later Martha marries Walter, who has become a prosecutor. But then Sam returns to town, forming a love triangle – with nasty consequences. 1946.


Baby Face


BABY FACE (1:30 a.m.)  This is a real Pre-Code gem, where there is no mistaking the aims of Barbara as the protagonist. Starring George Brent, Margaret Lindsay, Donald Cook, and a young John Wayne. She is the daughter of a steel town speakeasy operator. She gets used to handling men early in life – which her father always seems to be foisting on her. She decides she’s had enough after a cobbler and friend tells her she’s beautiful and she could have power over men. So she moves to the city and applies for a job at a bank. The first man she meets in an office is about to give her the brush-off before she asks sweetly. He looks her up and down and asks, “Do you have any experience?” “Plenny,” she responds rolling her eyes. “I’d rather wait in there,” she nods towards a door to another room. “I hate crowds,” leaning close to him, “Don’t you.” As she gets one job promotion after the other through affairs with bigger and bigger bosses, with more careers ruined. The pans of the exterior of the bank building show the floors going higher and higher. The a big marriage lands her in the penthouse but will she ever be satisfied? The censors had problems with the movie upon its release, wanting the film pulled from distribution. Apparently changes were made to the ending for Barbara’s Lily Flowers character to make it acceptable.


But of course all of Barbara Stanwyck’s films can not be shown on one day and night at TCM’s Summer Under the Stars, especially as her career went through the 1960s, and on television well into the 1980s. There is one movie that should be pointed out as one of her all-time classics, however, and a favorite of mine: Double Indemnity. For a thorough review of this classic film noir, see my blog post here.

Anoyher one of Barbara’s films and one of my favorites is Meet John Doe, directed by Frank Capra (1941). This is also one of Capra’s all-time classics. It co-starred Gary Cooper, with Walter Brennan, Edward Arnold, Spring Byington, and James Gleason.  In this story Barbara as Ann Mitchell plays a newspaper columnist who writes a phony letter to the newspaper to keep her job. This was after hard-nosed business man D.B. Cooper buys the paper. In hard times the letter by “John Doe” states the sad state of affairs and says he will jump off the city hall roof at midnight on Christmas eve. This results in a mass of letters to the paper in sympathy and soon D.B. has Ann staying on the job and kept writing about John Doe. But now she needs to find him. And the public has formed John Doe clubs, wanting to stop him and in sympathy with his message. Only Ann has to find a real “John Doe,” and makes do with an out of work baseball player and his hobo companion. But this plan soon goes haywire as the puppet get ideas of his own – and D.B. resents his new political success – and Ann starts falling for him – and there’s that promise to jump off the city hall roof to keep. This movie is pure Capra, and the contrast between Cooper and Stanwyck works even better for the story than in Ball of Fire.

Barbara Stanwyck was one of the great stars of Hollywood’s Golden Age. Her films like her life are endlessly fascinating and this TCM line-up a fitting tribute.






Fred Astaire danced with the best dancing stars of classic Hollywood. And while they danced with him they were dressed by some of the best studio costume designers. His dance partners have included Ginger Rogers, who he danced  with in several movies: Rita Hayworth;  Eleanor Powell; Judy Garland; Vera-Ellen; Cyd Charisse, Leslie Caron; and Audrey Hepburn, and he even partnered with Gene Kelly in Ziegfeld Follies. 

Fred & Adele Astaire in Smiles (Broadway) 1930-1931 Photo courtesy Photofest

Fred Astaire was born to entertain. He and his older sister Adele began a Vaudeville act when he was 7. Fred met George Gershwin in 1916 and they remained friends for the rest of George’s short life. The Astaires were on Broadway by 1917. They performed in several musicals that took them to London. There, Adele was wooed and wed by Lord Charles Cavendish. Along with his natural grace Fred picked up the impeccable style of the British upper class. But now he was without a partner and his act fell apart.  He managed to find himself in another successful Broadway musical, Gay Divorce (1932-1933)with dancing partner Clare Luce, with Cole Porter’s music including the catchy number, Night and Day. After closing the show he went to Hollywood with a contract at RKO Pictures.

David O. Selznick was the head of production at the time, with Pandro Berman a leading producer. Fred’s first screen test for the studio didn’t bring down the house. According to Fred Astaire’s later memory, it summarized him as, “Can’t act. Slightly bald. Also dances.” But all Fred needed was a dance partner. Yet RKO’s first role for him wasn’t ready so he was loaned out to MGM for a role starring as himself with a dance partner not quite up to the task: Joan Crawford, in Dancing Lady (1933).  But lightning sparked when Fred was paired with Ginger Rogers in RKO’s Flying Down to Rio. Ironically, the future dancing dynamos were not even top-billed. The stars of the movie were Dolores Del Rio and Gene Raymond. Fred and Ginger had smaller parts, especially Ginger, but they smoked the floor when they danced to “The Carioca.” They stole the show, as they say in show business.  Dolores Del Rio was a big star at the time and used her favorite designer Irene (Lentz Gibbins) to design her wardrobe for the film. Walter Plunkett was RKO’s costume designer and he designed Ginger Rogers’ costumes and those of the chorines.

Flying Down to Rio. Photo courtesy Photofest

RKO realized they had something special with Fred and Ginger, and when Broadway’s Gay Divorce was turned into RKO’s 1935 film The Gay Divorcee (a gay divorce could not possibly happen according to the censor), the studio realized they had gold. This movie musical launched something different: Fred insisted on the cameras shooting Ginger and him dancing full bodied cross the studio floor. No jump cuts or edits of close-up foot-work or head shots would be used until they were finished. Plus they smiled as they danced, looking like they were having the greatest time.  Deep in the Depression, this was a winning combination for the audience. Fred’s early screen test meant nothing now, especially with his chemistry with Ginger Rogers. As someone said about the duo, “He gave her class and she gave him sex.”

Their dancing was infectious to look at, a symbol of the romance that was always bubbling as part of the plot. And a plot that became a standard with RKO’s Fred and Ginger movies. They meet seemingly by accident, and while there’s attraction, things go wrong and keep going wrong until they finally unite at the very end.

Walter Plunkett designed Gay Divorcee, and with his first two RKO movies he set the pattern for her dance dresses: a tight fit at the waist and bodice that showed off her gorgeous figure, and a flowing skirt that twirled as she danced with Fred.

Walter Plunkett’s costume sketch below shows the  costume worn by the chorines (the white version, there was also a black). The ruffles at the elbows were brought up to the shoulders.

By the time  Fred and Ginger’s third film Top Hat (1935was being made, Walter Plunkett had left RKO due to a salary dispute. New York fashion designer Bernard Newman had been brought on and was given the choice assignments and that didn’t please Walter. But Newman’s designs for Ginger became more eye-popping, and she became more involved in the designs. Newman’s famous light blue “Feathers” gown for Top Hat  was a good example. It was made of silk satin with ostrich feathers at the skirt and shoulders. It became a bit of a battle between the Astaire camp and the Rogers camp as to whether it would remain in the movie. The issue, unresolved to the end, was how to keep the feathers from coming loose when Ginger danced with Fred. Even after some hand-re-sewing of individual ostrich plumes, they can still be seen flying about in the “Dancing Cheek-to-Cheek” number, which irritated Fred to no end. But what a magnificent scene. My great-aunt was irritated too. As the head cutter-fitter at RKO wardrobe, she didn’t have to do the sewing, but she had to supervise the process. Fred made light of the whole matter afterwards. He made a present to Ginger of a gold feather for her charm bracelet.


Top Hat (1935) Courtesy Photofest

Follow the Fleet followed Top Hat, and Bernard Newman followed his knock-out gown for Ginger with another one. The stellar gown in this movie was made entirely of silver bugle beads, trimmed with a fox collar. The gown weighed about 30 lbs. The bugle beaded skirt was translucent so you could see her figure against the light. But once again, Fred was not happy. The bell-shaped sleeves were heavy too, and when she twirled around in early takes her sleeves would slap up against his cheeks.  But again, the resulting “Let’s Face the Music and Dance” Irving Berlin number has to be their most beautiful (below). It was shot in in one take.


Swing Time followed, which many consider the best of the Fred and Ginger movies (though closely matched by Top Hat).  Bernard Newman again designed Ginger’s wardrobe although there were no over the top gowns. At this point she didn’t need them to get noticed in a movie, as all eyes were  frequently on her. The usual plot-line of the rough meeting, sudden attraction, then roller coaster road to a relationship is layed out again. And there are the dances – always sublime.


Swing Time (1936) Photo courtesy Photofest

When they first meet, Ginger is a dance instructor and Fred pretends not to know how to dance (at first). For the scene she wears a simple black dress with white pleated Peter Pan collar with bow. The full pleated skirt is designed to flow as she dances.


Swing Time (1936) Photo courtesy Photofest

The climactic dance is the “Never Gonna Dance” number, Jerome Kern and Dorothy Field’s song written for the movie. Bernard Newman’s design for Ginger was a beautiful flowing backless  decollete gown with criss-cross straps decorated with rhinestones. This gown too is translucent, as was the detachable cape. The dance number was the highlight of their partnership.


Fred and Ginger made Shall We Dance in 1937 and Carefree in 1938 but their movies weren’t as popular as before. America was slowly coming out of the Depression and movie audience expectations were changing. A theater magazine had just listed several actors as “Box office poison,” and among them were big stars like Greta Garbo, Joan Crawford, Katharine Hepburn, Marlene Dietrich, and Fred Astaire. Bernard Newman had just left RKO. While his designs were stunning, he couldn’t keep up with the pace of work at a Hollywood studio. Howard Greer, formerly of Paramount Pictures filled in to design Ginger’s wardrobe for Carefree. He had opened his own fashion business in Beverly Hills and was doing rather well. After he finished this film Edward Stevenson, with years of experience going back to First National, assumed most of the design duties at RKO. A Howard Greer costume sketch for Ginger in Carefree is shown below. Fred and Ginger’s final movie at RKO was The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle. As the studio wanted, this would be a departure from their usual boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl back story. It was based on the real story of the once very famous dance team of the Castles.  But problems began early. Vernon had already died and Irene wanted the movie to be very exact in its portrayal of them – down to story line, dance steps, costumes, and their likeness. It’s still a mystery who designed the costumes. Walter Plunkett, who had come back to RKO, stated he bowed out when Irene Castle became so rigid in her demands. The costume sketches themselves are unlike any done by the regular sketch artists at RKO. In any event, the movie was not a success and while Ginger stayed on at RKO to win an Oscar for Kitty Foyle, Fred’s contract was up and he moved on.

Howard Greer costume sketch for Ginger Rogers in Carefree

Fred was not quite the box office poison the article made him out to be. MGM, Paramount, and Columbia all wanted him to do movies for them. MGM came in first with Broadway Melody of 1940, made in 1939, which was followed later by a long term contract. In this movie he more than met his match in tap -dancing: the incredible Eleanor Powell. When the two danced in the Begin the Beguine number, it was introduced years later by Frank Sinatra for That’s Entertainment!  He stated,  “You can wait around and hope, but you’ll never see the likes of this again.” But In the photo below, they dance in Eleanor’s favorite, the “Jukebox” tap dance number. They are both having fun with this one.

The costume designer for this film was Adrian, and while all Eleanor’s costumes move well while she dances ( and they don’t bother Fred) he adds whimsy with the Cossack accents.

Fred moved to Paramount Pictures where in 1942 he made what would become a classic,  Holiday Inn (along with it’s sequel)or as it was fully titled: Irving Berlin’s Holiday Inn. Here he was joined by Bing Crosby and Marjorie Reynolds. And while Fred dances Marjorie Reynolds around the floor (at one point on the floor when he plays drunk), it’s when Bing sings “White Christmas” to Marjorie, and then they sing in duo, that music history is made.

Edith Head designed Marjorie Reynolds’ costumes. Allthough the movie was black and white one of the costumes was made of gold beads. The costume sketch below (shown with Fred as the dance partner) was modified somewhat in the film as an embroidered silk gown. The signature on the sketch is that of director Mark Sandrich.


The photo below shows Marjorie in her gold beaded gown.


Fred made a couple of movies at Columbia Pictures after talking to producer Gene Markey. He would star with the daughter of an old dancing Vaudeville friend of his, Eduardo Cansino. His daughter was Rita Cansino, now known as Rita Hayworth. Their first movie together was successful: You’ll Never Get Rich (1941) but their second movie You Were Never Lovelier (1942) was a hit.  The music was by Jerome Kern and Johnnie Mercer. Here Fred courts Rita, but her Argentine father disapproves.


The two photos above and below show Fred and Rita dancing in You Were Never Lovelier promotional photos. Rita’s beautiful wardrobe was designed by Irene (Lentz Gibbons), who was designing for Bulluck’s Wilshire at the time. Irene frequently freelanced for studio work for stars that demanded her services, as she had for Dolores Del Rio.  This gown had embrodered sequins at the bodice and skirt, with an illusion top. It flowed beautifully as can be seen in the bottom photo. Unfortunately, while Fred sang the “You Were Never Lovelier” song to Rita, the dance scene was cut from the final film.


Fred Astaire had achieved an enviable career in his first decade in Hollywood. But much more was yet to come. More of his films, dance partners, and their costumes will be covered in Part II of this blog.





A blog about classic movie costume design and fashion