During Hollywood’s Golden Age the movies were marketed through the stars and their fashions. The visual presentation of these alluring features came in colorful posters and glossy photographs, all reproduced in magazines and newspapers. And before the stars’ romance could light up the screen (often continued off-screen), whether in romantic comedies or murder mysteries, they were photographed together in dual portraits.
In those days each studio had its own portrait gallery, where photographers were busy shooting the stars. “Stills” as they were called, were shot of each movie star. These photos were issued to fans and used for publicity and for fashion articles. The portrait photo was the most carefully handled of all stills, an art form crafted by photographers such as George Hurrell, Ernest Bachrach, Clarence Sinclair Bull, Eugene Robert Richee and others. Such portraits not only helped sell the picture, but also sold the star. And when romance was part of the movie, the dual portrait had to convey a strong chemical attraction. The intimacy portrayed in the photo was a signpost to audiences signifying that whatever troubles the plot threw at them, the couple would always share their love.
The dual portrait was tricky business. Each star needed to be prominently shown, with the all-important lighting capturing each of them individually – while displaying their mutual attraction. The best of these photographs are sublime. Like the film itself, the photo can give the illusion that we are peering into a very private and personal moment, with the photo freezing that image in time. In real life, then as now, the two stars may not have gotten along at all. Getting each of them in for a photo setting, where one or both may have agreements to approve the results before they are issued, added to the complexity of the job. But like the costume designers, the portrait photographers learned to work with each star. And the stars knew the results were important to their careers. Sometimes very opposite personalities worked unexpectedly well, like the light-natured, all-American Jean Arthur with the French romantic, but always serious, lead Charles Boyer, in History is Made at Night. In film plots opposites can often lead to trouble. In the dark pre-codeThree on a Match, Ann Dvorak’s well-married character takes up with a small-time hood played by Lyle Talbot. She also turns to drugs and comes to a bad end.
In Leave Her to Heaven, a film noir in blazing Technicolor, Cornel Wild falls hard for the siren call and alluring beauty of Gene Tierney. Little does he know that she will become morbidly jealous.
“My name is Tondelayo” is all Hedy Lamarr had to say in White Cargo to knock adventurer Walter Pidgeon off his feet. Billed by MGM as the most beautiful woman in the world, she didn’t need to do much acting, but don’t underestimate her intelligence.
Since the set-up for the portrait shot was complicated, and the cameras used were bulky, the screen lovers rarely peer into each other’s eyes. Often they seem to stare into the distance – firmly connected – yet dreaming their own dream. The photographer’s art was to capture that moment on photographic film – the double-visioned dream.
Gregory Peck and the Italian actress Valli starred in Alfred Hitchcock’s little known The Paradine Case. Peck’s aquiline features and Valli’s prominent cheekbones give a beautiful symmetry to this photo.
With the classic photo of Bogart and Bergman below we can relive the entire Casablanca film. Here they look off, he seemingly backwards at their time in Paris, she, apprehensive, worried about Laszlo getting caught, or perhaps who it is she will leave with?
When the screen lovers do stare into each other’s eyes, we can feel the intensity of the moment. It’s the moment before the kiss. These photos were usually taken on the set rather than in the portrait gallery. The set had more room for action, and a drama might soon unfold.
Joan Crawford and Clark Gable starred in eight movies together, in addition to having been actual lovers. Their early dual portraits usually display real heat. Although they were extras together in The Merry Widow (1925), Dancing Lady is their first starring movie together.
Gary Cooper and Barbara Stanwyck are another example of opposites attracting, at least in the film. In Ball of Fire, he was a straight-laced professor. She was a burlesque dancer. In real life he was 6ft 3. She was 5ft 4.
The classic The Thomas Crown Affair, starred Steve McQueen and Faye Dunaway. The cat and mouse story leads to the two on opposite sides falling in love. Its a classic story that will not doubt lead to another re-make.
The art and practice of the dual portrait is now largely lost. These images have a haunting beauty that was artfully captured on film. Love is eternal, and these actors in their youthful beauty and the photographers they worked with captured that essential truth.
Although movie posters still advertise new movies, the genre of romantic comedies and romances are largely gone. Some photos are still being taken on the set for advertising purposes but the idea of getting two actors to pose for a series of romantic photos is also unthinkable these days. Even in 1992’s The Last of the Mohicans, the captivating moment on screen was not captured in the photo above, where each actor seems already preparing for their movie trials and tribulations. And in that tribute to classic musicals, La La Land, the romantic couple is shown in set stills or screen grabs, dancing or holding hands. We could be more convinced of the romance with a photo like those that led off this post.
The verve and magic of La La Land echoes and pays tribute to the classical Hollywood musicals of the 1930s, 40s, and 50s. It was in those Depression years of the 1930s that audiences flocked to see Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers dance, and look like they were having fun. La La Land’sdirector Damien Chazelle was inspired by those musicals, as well as the ones that followed. He was especially aware of how uniquely song and dance could transform a moment into a visible expression of pure emotion. And how a wordless dance could do that perfectly. As with every movie, costume helps the actors define their role and sets them appropriately in a scene. For movie musicals, the costumes usually have dual roles: they need to be worn as street clothes but must also work for dancing. Chazelle turned to veteran costume designer Mary Zophres for the designing job ( Fargo, Oh Brother Where Art Thou, Catch Me If You Can, True Grit, Interstellar, Hail Caesar).
As with the Fred and Ginger movies, Mia (Emma Stone) and Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) are two ordinary people pursuing their lives when they meet by accident, and not on friendly terms. He a struggling jazz musician, she an aspiring actress. After some frustrating meetings and even worse career blocks they fall for each other. Breaking into dance is an exuberant display of their growing attraction. In the long tradition of Hollywood musicals (versus the Broadway musical), it’s the long-form couple’s dance that is the pure display of love. And also the metaphor for love-making itself. Damien Chazelle knew well the repertoire of Hollywood musicals, as well as such classic French musicals as Les Parapluies de Cherbourg. andLes Demoiselles de Rochefort thatinfluenced him. He was also thinking about the importance of the setting. “… why hasn’t L.A. been used as a romantic playground since those Old Hollywood musicals about Hollywood likeSingin’ in the Rain?” he asked rhetorically in an interview with Vogue magazine. And with that setting in mind and the actors and costume designer chosen, he could see the scenes and costumes from those old musical classics. ” I loved reveling in the Technicolor possibility of Emma like she was Moira Shearer inThe Red Shoes,” he stated in that same interview for Vogue. Mary Zophres designed the canary yellow dress above for Emma Stone. its bright color picked after the designer reviewed past gowns the star had worn at red-carpet appearances. The color matched a particularly flattering Atelier-Versace gown she had worn in 2014. The basic style of the dress, perfect for the dance scene, is enhanced by hand-painted floral designs.
Mia is a striving actress working as a barista on the Warner Brothers Studio lot, In the photo above she walks past a mural of old movie stars in Hollywood. Zophres had particular film looks in mind. She cited Funny Faceand Audrey Hepburn’s black dance pants as inspiration for the black pants that Mia wears walking through the lot. Similarly, the color of Mia’s emerald green dress worn at the Griffith Park Observatory is inspired by that of Judy Garland’s in A Star is Born.Mary Zophres also remarked that Mia’s dresses get fuller as the movie goes on. Ryan’s clothing were all made for him. He was meant to look jazz-inspired, but his pants were a bit shorter to show off his two-tone shoes and his dancing. The shoes were purchased at a dance-shoe store in Los Angeles.
At the end, her dance dress is white, no doubt inspired by Cyd Charisse’s dress from the “Dancing in the Dark” scene in Band Wagon.
And while the fantasy dancing amidst the stars scene after the walk along the Seine has been compared to a Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers dance, the backdrop is reminiscent of The Broadway Melody of 1940 with Fred and Eleanor Powell.
In these times of stress and turbulence, the musicals of the 1930s-1950s with their notes of hope and escape may end up providing a relevant model for some of today’s movies. Certainly our dystopian movies of the last ten years have run their course. And the Golden Globe voters agree, having lavished the movie with a record seven awards.
Below are some of the original costume design sketches from some of those Golden Age Hollywood Musicals.
Shown above is Mary Ann Nyberg’s original costume design sketch for Cyd Charisse in Band Wagon, 1953. Charisse plays the younger ballet trained dancer to Astaire’s older (now somewhat tarnished) star. But sparks fly as they walk and then Dance in the Dark in Central Park. The costume sketch design has been somewhat modified for the film as the top has the front décolleté. Remaining is the free-flowing pleated skirt shown below.
The late great Debbie Reynolds had her first starring role in Singing in the Rain, considered by many to be the greatest movie musical.
This vivaceous outfit above could only seem normal worn while popping out of a cake – and so it was for Debbie Reynolds in Singing in the Rain. Walter Plunkett designed it for her and some chorines to do a number after she emerged from a giant cake at the Monumental Pictures party, tossing out candy from her hip pocket.
Another Walter Plunkett costume sketch is shown above, this one for Cyd Charisse in the “Broadway Melody Ballet” number with Gene Kelly. She has been Kelly’s femme fatale in the previous scene and now she comes out dressed as a bride. As the scene morphs into a fantasy the bridal outfit gets stripped of the skirt and she is bare-legged in their dance.
Helen Rose began her career designing costumes for showgirls . So she knew how to infuse flash and movability in her movie designs. She also specialized in using chiffon and had a great sense of color. Below is her costume design for Marge Chapmpion who danced frquently with her husband Gower Champion in movie musicals at MGM. The design was for Give a Girl a Break, 1953. It’s a perfect dance gown – an eye-catching red color with decollete top and full swinging chiffon skirt with sequins.
Helen Rose designed the costume below for the dancer Carol Haney in On the Town. The movie was a vehicle for some of MGM’s stars, including Gene Kelly, Frank Sinatra, Ann Miller and Vera Ellen.
Below is Frank Sinatra’s stand-in dancer and Carol Haney dancing , with Gene Kelly waiting his turn.
One of the more unique musical numbers was that of Maureen O’Hara’s in Dance Girl, Dance, directed by Dorothy Arzner in Edward Stevenson designed the costumes including the costume sketch below. Maureen O’Hara plays a ballerina forced to work in burlesque, where she gives a feminist lecture to an audience of leering men.
Musicals, like all movies, have been both great and trivial. At their best they combine the power of music, dance, story and the other arts to elevate our emotions to, as Dick Van Dyke sang, “Up to the highest hight!.”
The death of Debbie Reynolds on December 28, 2016 was a sad loss to classic Hollywood and show business. Her many movies and well-known starring roles in Singing in the Rain, and theThe Unsinkable Molly Brown among others are a lasting legacy. Her personality and bravery were matched to the subject of the latter film, her personal favorite. Although oft-mentioned, her collecting of movie costumes and memorabilia is usually glossed-over. But this too is one of the sagas of her life, its own roller-coaster of tragedy and triumph. Yet ultimately she never reached her goal, and her loss has also become our loss.
How did Debbie Reynolds begin collecting Hollywood’s treasures and what happened to them? Collecting movie memorabilia really began when MGM auctioned off its fabulous collection of props and costumes in 1970. Before then the studios kept their props and costumes for re-use so there was very little supply and low demand to encourage collecting. The late 60s was a sad period for MGM and the other studios due to shrinking revenues. The new owners of MGM decided that there was more money to be made in selling off its assets than in keeping the studio’s traditions alive. MGM was Debbie Reynolds’ home studio, and she understood the value of the props and costumes as historical objects, not just as accessories of movie-making.
Debbie was aghast when she learned that the new owners of MGM were going to sell off the back lots with the old standing sets where so many movies had been filmed. And along with these, warehouses full of props and costumes: from antique furniture and carriages to iconic costumes from films like The Wizard of Oz and her own Singing in the Rain. Debbie tried in vain to save the lots by convincing the management to turn them into an amusement park, much like Universal City was to become later on. They wouldn’t hearof it. Then she tried to get a loan to buy the properties herself. She failed. She did manage to get enough money to be prepared when the inevitable MGM auction arrived.
And so Debbie attended the MGM auction every day of its nearly three weeks duration from May 1 through May 18, 1970. And she bought and she bought: Adrian-designed gowns for Norma Shearer from Marie- Antoinette and Romeo and Juliet; an early version of Judy Garland’s Dorothy pinafore from The Wizard of Oz; Greta Garbo’s velvet gown from Anna Karenina;her own Walter Plunkett designed “Good Morning” flapper dress from Singing in the Rain; Elizabeth Taylor’s riding outfit from National Velvet; Leslie Caron’s peacock-feathered dance dress from An American in Paris, and dozens more. Over time, Debbie bought from the other studios as well while building her collection.With her name and status she had entre to those studios. But Paramount and 20th Century-Fox were also to hold auctions. And she also bought from the underground market in costumes from such sellers as Kent Warner.
Debbie was a discriminating collector and a far-sighted one. It was easy enough to select the wardrobe from award winning pictures, but Debbie also selected several costumes from the same film to give a better representation of the movie. And she went after set props too to enhance the original backdrop, all while envisioning a museum setting. When there were obvious duos, like the costumes from both Romeo and Juliet, she bought both of them. Two bold green-striped “Fit As a Fiddle” costumes worn by Gene Kelly and Donald O’Connor were also bought as a pair. Debbie Reynolds also showed her important connoisseurship by acquiring the costumes that were not just beautiful, but the ones that became truly significant in defining the leading film character in the role portrayed. So in her collection was the Mildred Pierce coffee-shop waitress uniform worn by Joan Crawford, the rose and white-striped dress worn by Shirley Jones in the memorable “If I Loved You” scene with Gordon MacRae from Carousel, Elizabeth Taylor’s jockey uniform from National Velvet, Leslie Caron’s school-girl outfit from Gigi, Grace Kelly’s rose-colored skirt and white-embroidered sleeveless top from To Catch a Thief, Betty Hutton’s rose-embroidered cowgirl outfit from Annie Get Your Gun, Basil Rathbone’s caped overcoat from The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, and on and on.
But as most of us know, The most amazing collection of historic Hollywood movie costumes ever assembled will never become the core of an American museum. Try as she might, Debbie Reynolds failed at building a museum based on her collection of costumes and treasures spanning the history of Hollywood movies. One would think it could not be so hard with someone of her talent, name, and resources. She tried first by incorporating a small museum within the Debbie Reynolds Hotel and Casino. But that Las Vegas ventureultimately failed. She was even forced to have an auction of some 400 lots from her collection in 2003 at the Julien Auction House. Lots included costumes from Marilyn Monroe, Gloria Swanson, Judy Garland, Fred Astaire, and many other stars. Then she tried developing a museum within the new Hollywood and Highland complex in Hollywood. This failed effort also placed her in debt. (along with her last marriage). And finally, she tried to open a museum at Dollywood in Pigeon Forge Tennessee, another money-losing plan. All of these plans left her in deep debt with no alternative but to auction off her treasured collection. All along the way she had approached the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences with the idea of starting a museum and offering her collection at a then reasonable price. The CEO at the time was uninterested.
So on June 11, 2011 the first of a scheduled three auctions held by Profiles in History was held at the Paley Center in Beverly Hills to disburse the legacy of Golden Age Hollywood, from Charley Chaplin’s bowler hat to Elizabeth Taylor’s Cleopatra headress to Marilyn Monroe’s subway dress and hundreds of other costume icons. In the auction catalog Debbie wrote, “I used to spend my spare time in the wardrobe department, watching the most talented people create costumes for the actors. I loved everything that went into the process – the sketches, the fabrics, the construction.”
Weeks before the event a publicty campaign had placed stories in broadcast news and print media everywhere. The Paley Center had displayed many items in Debbie’s collection for the public to see two weeks prior to the auction. A line formed before opening on auction day. Debbie Reynolds was beside herself. She was accompanied by Carrie Fisher and Todd, along with her grandchildren. Inside, Carrie was vaping what was then the new electronic cigarette. Profiles in History President Joe Maddalena introduced Debbie to the audience of bidders. Debbie put her best face on the event, joking with the audience and prodding the bidders, all in the long tradition of “the show must go on.” But she choked up in her opening remarks, and indeed it was a melancholy day for Los Angeles and the rest of the country. We will never see the likes of this collection again.
Bids came from phone callers and the Internet as well as the audience. I sat behind a Korean gentleman that seemed to bid and win most of the choice items. During a break Debbie herself asked for his card in a friendly manner. He said he didn’t have one and wouldn’t give his name.
Other items sold like Judy Garland’s screen-tested gingham dress from The Wizard of Oz, and a version of the Ruby Slippers. They were rumored to be destined for Saudi Arabia. The audience held its breath and then clapped when the Dorothy dress was hammered down for $920,000. We knew it was going to be a big day when item number 2 in the auction, Rudolph Valentino’s matador costume from Blood and Sand went for $200,000.(prices without premiums and taxes).
It was no surprise that the biggest items in the auction were worn by Marilyn Monroe. What was shocking though was their hammer prices: Marilyn’s William Travilla-designed cream rayon “subway” dress from Seven Year Itch, $4.6 million. At this point Debbie knew she was doing well financially and started buying back a few of her sentimental favorites like Harpo Marx’s hat with its wig. When one lady was biding against her she asked her to stop and the woman did. Then more big prices came in: Marilyn’s Travilla-designed red-sequined gown shown above from Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, $1.2 million. And there were two more, including the stunning Travilla-designed “Tropical Heat Wave” costume from There’s No Business Like Show Business, a mere $500,000. It is shown below. But the second most expensive item in the auction was not a Marilyn Monroe costume but rather Audrey Hepburn’s Ascot gown from My Fair Lady. It was hammered down for $3.7 million. By that point Debbie couldn’t stand it and had gone home but was following the auction on the computer. “Holy shit,” she texted Todd.
The auction at the Paley Center was packed, with a small auditorium and a separate hall used for the occasion. There was also a row of phone-bid handlers, two on-line auction handlers, absentee bids, floor bidders, and an auctioneer that masterfully handled the whole operation. Bidding began just after noon. It didn’t finish until after 1:00am. The audience consisted of devoted classic movie fans, the curious, some serious collectors and those representing institutions or having a professional interest. Several long-time costume devotees were there, including noted costume collector Larry McQueen, and costume designer-turned UCLA Copley Center for Costume Design director Deborah Nadoolman Landis. I had waited in line with author Virginia Postrel.
An early auction indication that the prices were reaching the stratosphere was demonstrated in Judy Garland’s Adrian-designed pinafore from The Wizard of Oz, hammered down for $920,000. And this was for an early wardrobe test version that was never worn in the film.
A result of seeing the costumes up close is a heightened appreciation for the skill of the dressmaking and tailoring. The costumes were fabricated to provide a 360 degree view of the garment. Exact camera angles were unknown in advance, and most every costume had to be ready for a possible close-up. And the gowns themselves are in vivid color, like the one Norma Shearer wore in Romeo and Juliet,also designed by Adrian, shown below. This was the case even when the movie was filmed in black and white. The detailing on the bodice is incredible, with gold embroidery and cascades of tiny silver sequins
Evidence of the high quality of the film costumes is shown above in the coronation robe designed by Rene Hubert for Merle Oberon as Empress Josephine inDesiree. The silk gown is embroidered with gold floral decorations. The red velvet train is also embroidered and trimmed in ermine. Debbie began her collection with the MGM auction of 1970. Most of the studio’s wardrobe at that time consisted of period costumes, which is by and large reflected in the strength of Debbie’s collection. That MGM had many years earlier dumped many costumes in its wardrobe collection is little known. Due to the small value that was ascribed to contemporary fashion of the day, and the lack of its re-usability in later films, many crown jewels of costume were destroyed. By the time of the 1970 MGM auction, many of those late 1920s and 1930s costumes were already gone. These had been the costumes that created the very image of glamorous Hollywood movie-stars, and that started fashion trends around the world. The Adrian-designed gowns worn by Jean Harlow, Greta Garbo, and Joan Crawford that defined the look of glamour were mostly discarded. It is informative to consider the sale of Debbie’s collection as reflecting the earlier MGM auction and the even earlier destruction of those movie costumes.
The costume below was designed by Mary Wills for Joan Collins playing Beth Throgmorton in The Virgin Queen. The costume sketch some others designed by Mary Wills from the movie are shown on my blog post The Costume Sketches of Mary Wills
Coming in second place in price to Marilyn Monroe’s Seven Year Itch dress was Audrey Hepburn’s Ascot gown from My Fair Lady.It was hammered down for $3.7 million. Having the huge original hat along with the gown added much to the value of the ensemble.
Debbie also liked the costumes from classic Rome and Egypt, and who wouldn’t when they were worn by the likes of Elizabeth Taylor and Charlton Heston. The breast plate below is from Ben Hur. With the big-budget movies of that era, the costumes were works of art. The one below is hand-hammered metal. It was one of many such costumes and props in Debbie’s collection
The second of the three planned auctions of the famed Debbie Reynolds collection of Hollywood film costumes and props was held on Saturday December 3, 2011 by the Profiles in History auction house. While the auction didn’t have the same frenzy as the first one in June, there was still plenty of competition for the iconic costumes of Hollywood’s Golden Age
As was the case with the first auction, the Marilyn Monroe worn items fetched the most money. The gown above was designed by Dorothy Jeakins for Marilyn Monroe inLet’s Make Love, (1960). It is made of a pale green pleated silk decorated with rhinestones at the bust and at the Empire waist. It was hammered down for $240,000. Marilyn’s green show-girl leotard designed by William Travilla for Bus Stop,(1956), decorated with black sequins and beaded fringe, went down for $230,000. In addition, Marilyn’s pale-green suit from Niagara sold for $210,000, and her embroidered gown and bolero jacket from Gentlemen Prefer Blondes designed by Travilla sold for $260,000. These were among the top five big ticket items of the sale.
Above is a fabulous show-girlcostume designed by Adrian and worn by Eve Arden in Ziegfeld Girl,(1941). The gown is made of a silver lame with silver sequin stars embroidered on to a nude chiffon. The silver lame has tarnished to appear a golden color. The gown was sold for $5,500.
This striking dress was also designed by Charles LeMaire for Katharine Hepburn in Desk Set, (1957). It is a wool dress of black, gray, and cream-colored stripes with red accents. It sold for $6500.
One would definitely say that the costume above was designed for a star. Indeed it was, Donald Brooks designed it for Julie Andrews in Star! (1968). The coat is black velvet adorned with plastic silver stars. A silver lame top and pants were worn underneath, also decorated with stars. I should add that the Studio system was no longer in place when this costume was made. By 1968, the stars on the costume were no longer being made of sequins, fastidiously sewn onto the garment – the stars were now plastic. The famous line from The Graduate, “Plastic!” seems to have already grabbed hold in the wardrobe department. The three piece costume sold for $7000.
Debbie Reynolds never realized her dream of a Hollywood memorabilia museum. A new movie museum organized by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences is now being constructed. Alas, Debbie’s fabulous and historic costumes and props collection won’t be part of it. And probably harder to bear, the costumes, including sets from a single movie, have been scattered. One Internet bidder seems to have won many of of the choice costumes. It would be great if it was for a local collection or institution. More likely, these will go overseas along with the cream of Debbie’s first auction held last June. The Unsinkable Debbie Reynolds was vindicated by the very hich prices her collection got. She was for several years free of debt and could make her children comfortable. If only Hollywood and Los Angeles had cared as much about its history as she had.
Thank you for inspiring the rest of us Debbie .RIP
It was the smallest big studio in Hollywood. Owned in succession by the likes of Joseph Kennedy, David Sarnoff and RCA, Howard Hughes, and finally Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz. RKO was once home to Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, Orson Wells, David O. Selznick, and King Kong. Katharine Hepburn made her first movies there, and it was equally known for Val Lewton horror movies and films noir. For a small studio it produced outstanding period costumes. Its wardrobe department had top talent and its costume designers were among the best in the 1930s. At RKO’s creation in 1928 it amalgamated a vaudeville theater circuit with Kennedy’s Film Booking Office and Sarnoff’s, RCA . RKO stood for Radio Keith Orpheum. There were high hopes for it: RCA (Radio Corporation of America) was interested in sound film; Kennedy in making money. The studio was located on Melrose and Gower in Hollywood. It also includedPathé withinin its holdings, and its lot in Culver City, once the studio of Thomas Ince and later home of Selznick International Pictures. Today as a working studio RKO is long gone, its lot having turned into the Desilu Studio and now absorbed by Paramount Pictures.
At its beginning, RKO’s predecessor FBO (Film Booking Office) was owned by Joseph Kennedy. It made films, mostly westerns, and had hired a new costume designer named Walter Plunkett. When FBO was amalgamated into RKO in 1928, Plunkett became the de-facto costume designer for the new studio. As film production began to speed up, Plunkett had to organize an entire wardrobe department, as well as designing costumes for the principal cast of its films. RKO’s first major production was Rio Rita starring Bebe Daniels. The film was a big hit and Walter Plunkett made a name for himself. But working hard and launching his reputation still didn’t give him adequate pay, and so Plunkett walked off the job to work at Western Costume. He was finally lured back in 1932, just as Katharine Hepburn had started making pictures there. this was also when Ginger Rogers was about to make RKO famous dancing with Fred Astaire, and there was King Kong and Fay Wray too.
RKO Costume Designer Walter Plunkett is shown above. He is pictured with my-great-aunt, RKO’s Head Cutter-Fitter Marie Ree. In this staged photo they are inspecting fabric for an upcoming movie with Helen Mack. The Cutter-Fitter’s job was to take the designer’s costume sketch and fabric selections and make patterns from which the fabric pieces could be cut. She would also do the fitting on the star, where the designer was usually present. In the photo below, a pattern cut from muslin is laid upon the satin fabric, which will then be cut and later sewn by seamstresses. The muslin pieces were actually pinned together on a dress form made to the star’s measurements, prior to the actual costume being sewn. Patterns would have to be made by the cutter-fitter whether the costume was a bathing suit, a 1930’s glamour-gown, or an Elizabethan garment.
Below Marie adjusts a shoulder detail onto a custom dress form for an unknown production in the mid-1930s. This work was done for one shoulder piece for one costume for one movie at the studio. One can imagine the labor for 30 movies a year, even if only a dozen or so were “A” pictures.
In the photo below, Marie examines an embroidered decoration for fit on a velvet gown. The embroidery would be later cut and sewn onto the gown. The beaded and sequined decorations always drew attention as they flashed under studio lighting in the film. Photo taken for an unknown production in 1940.
Walter Plunkett became a specialist in historical costume. As the only costume designer at RKO at its beginning, he had to design for everything: contemporary; historical; for men as well as women. But he excelled at designing historical costume and found great success with that specialty. He stated later that he prefered designing period costumes because directors seldom knew enough about them to argue with him. But he also had expert assistance from Marie Ree. She was a stickler for detail and correctness, and had a keen knowledge in historical French folk costume. She also had the trade skills from having worked in the atelier of Jeanne Lanvin.
Under David O Selznick as producer, Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women, was turned into a film starring Katharine Hepburn. In the Depression year of 1933 this movie about the thrifty but loving March family, and its struggles while the father is off fighting in the Civil War struck a chord. It was a big hit and made Hepburn a star. The calico and gingham fabrics and Victorian styles were nostalgic, yet like a breath of fresh air to movie-goers. Surprisingly, the costumes influenced fashion as well, and were even noted by couturier Marcel Rochas, as “so pleasing.”
RKO was also finding a big success in the dance team of Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire. They had second billing in the movie Flying Down to Rio, but with The Gay Divorcee it was all about Fred and Ginger. With this movie Walter Plunkett designed the quintessential Ginger dance gown – form-fitting at the waist and hips to accentuate her figure and free-flowing at the ankles to twirl during her dance moves.
But soon Walter Plunkett was again dissatisfied. Bernard Newman was brought in as a second costume designer from New York’s Bergdorf-Goodman. He was now dressing Ginger Rogers, and according to Plunkett, getting all the plum assignments. So Plunkett resigned again. He said if New York designers could come to Hollywood he would go to New York, and he did, with a new job there. Below is Bernard Newman’s costume for Ginger Rogers for In Person from 1935, The gown is made of silver bugle beads sewn onto turquoise-colored chiffon. The bugle beads provided brilliance under the lights and hugged her figure and the chiffon provided some transparency.
Ginger Rogers loved Bernard Newman’s gowns. One of his famous gowns was the ostrich-feather and blue satin gown from Top Hat. The gown was backless. Ginger loved this gown and had to fight to keep it in the movie as Fred hated it. As they danced the feathers would come loose and stick to his tuxedo and lay on the polished dance floor. Wardrobe was challenged as well as they would repeatedly have to re-sew the feathers back onto the gown. Despite these issues, their dance scene and Ginger’s dress were amazing.
Bernard Newman is shown below with French opera singer Lily Pons. Miss Pons starred in two RKO films with Newman designs:I Dream Too Much andThat Girl From Paris. Newman had a great fashion hit in the movie Roberta, with Irene Dunne, remade in 1952 as Lovely to Look At, with designs by Adrian.
Costume designer Edward Stevenson came to RKO as Bernard Newman’s sketch artist. He had already been a designer at First National for several years but lost that job when they merged with Warner Brothers. Bernard Newman didn’t sketch his designs, and his method was rather slow. In fact he wasn’t well suited to the Hollywood studio production pace and was soon gone. Stevenson stayed at RK0 for many years and designed the costumes for dozens of films including Citizen Kane, Suspicion, It’s a Wonderful Life, Out of the Past, and others. He went on to design the costumes for the I Love Lucy shows. Edward Stevenson is shown below at right in 1940 with director George Abbott amidst his costume sketches for Too Many Girls.
But meanwhile Katharine Hepburn was unhappy that she had lost her friend and expert in historical costume design Walter Plunkett. This was especially the case since the hit movie Little Women had RKO casting her in more historical films. The next one coming up was Mary of Scotland, to be released in 1936. For this she demanded that Walter Plunkett be brought back to design the costumes. Walter was in New York, and employed. He responded that he could get a leave of abscence, but only for eight weeks. If the movie ran longer than that he would have to be paid double. So Plunkett came back to Hollywood, but the script kept getting revised and most of his eight weeks were used up before he began his designing. Thus he was earning double his initial salary, and soon had to resign his New York job.
Although the film was in black and white, most of the costumes were in glorious color. Katharine’s sleeves and upper bodice were in rich red Lyon velvet, with gold thistles. The actual costume is pictured below as it was shown at the Debbie Reynolds auction of 2011..
Plunkett was now on a movie-by movie contract with RKO. But that would soon come to an end in 1936 as he sought and got the job of designing the costumes for Gone with the Wind.
Marie’s RKO book of film costumes and fabric samples, usually with cost notations. is shown below. The red velvet fabric at left was used on Katharine Hepburn’s sleeves and upper torso. Fabric samples in book were for one of Queen Elizabeth’s costumes.
Costume designer Renie Conley, who just went by the name Renie joined RKO in 1936. She had a very long career, having started as a sketch artist at MGM in the 1920s and designed her last film in 1981. Renie’s portrait is shown below.
Renie’s design’s for Ginger Rogers appeared in Ginger’s only Academy Award for Best Actress. This was her win for Kitty Foyle, 1940.
Renie’s costume design shown above made a strong statement in the film with it’s colonial accents of the tri-corn hat and ruffled collar. It was also a fashion hit at the time. Below is Renie’s original costume sketch.
RKO continued making movies through the 1940s, making particularly excellent films noir. The great costume movies, whether historicals or musicals, were now a thing of the past. When Howard Hughes bought out the studio in 1948, it started going down-hill. Eventually Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz bought out the lot and turned it into the Desilu Studio in 1957. Paramount later bought the lot in 1967, and virtually nothing remains denoting RKO’s physical presence today. Gone, but not forgotten.
A new world record was set on November 17, 2016 for the most ever paid for a personal dress. This for the “Happy Birthday Mr. President” nude illusion gown worn by Marilyn Monroe on May 19, 1962 as she sang from the stage to President Kennedy at Madison Square Garden. The gown, designed by Hollywood costume and fashion designer Jean Louis, was auctioned for $4, 810,000 including commission and taxes. It was bought by the Ripley’s Believe it or Not Museum at Julien’s Auctions . Marilyn Monroe had the gown made for her for $12,000. She died three months later.
Marilyn called the gown “skin and beads,” and the audience gasped when she removed her coat on stage, thinking at first she was naked. The gown was made of a flesh-colored souffle, and decorated with rhinestones, not beads. But Marilyn’s point was that it was tight enough to be her skin. It sold at auction at Christie’s New York for $1.2 million in 1999. Marilyn’s film-worn “subway” dress from The Seven Year Itch actually set a higher record at auction, fetching $5.5 million dollars at the Debbie Reynolds/Profiles in History auction in 2011.
Here are the 10 most expensive movie star gowns and costumes ever sold:
1. Marilyn Monroe’s The Seven Year Itch, 1955 “Subway” rayon crepe halter dress with pleated skirt designed by William Travilla. Sold at the famous Debbie Reynolds-Profiles in History auction of June 19, 2011 for $5.5 million.
2. Marilyn Monroe’s “Happy Birthday Mr. President” gown, made of souffle with hundreds of sewn rhinestones and designed by Jean Louis. Worn at the Madison Square Garden Democratic Party fundraiser/Birthday Party for John F. Kennedy. Sold at the Julien’s auction of November 17, 2016 for $4.8 million
3. Audrey Hepburn’s My Fair Lady, 1964“Ascot” white embroidered lace Edwardian gown with black trim designed by Cecil Beaton, including the large picture hat. This was another costume sold at the Debbie Reynolds/Profiles in History auction of June 19, 2011 for $4.4 million.
4. Judy Garland’s Dorothy Pinafore from The Wizard of Oz. This was the costume worn by Judy Garland throughout the movie. The blue and white checked pinafore and off-white blouse with rick-rack trim was designed by Adrian. Several “test” versions were designed before this final dress was used in the film. A solid blue “test” version was sold at the Debbie Reynolds auction in 2011 for $1.1 million, although the heavy promotion for the auction had much to do with that price. The pinafore being auctioned here is one previously owned by Kent Warner, the costumer who had “liberated” many costumes from MGM including several pairs of the Ruby Slippers. He always picked the most important items, with his rationale being to either preserve them, or in the case of the 1970 MGM auction, as payment for organizing costumes for the auction. Kent Warner first had this costume up for auction at Christies in 1981. Labels in this costume have Judy Garland’s name and the number 4461, a sure way to trace its provenance. Sold at the TCM/Bonhams auction on November 23, 2015 for $1.625 million.
5. Marilyn Monroe’s Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, 1953, “Two Little Girls from Little Rock” sung with Jane Russell in a matching gown. Red sequin showgirl gown with deep V cut designed by William Travilla. Sold at the Debbie Reynolds auction of June 18, 2011 for $1.44 million.
6. Judy Garland’s Wizard of Oz, 1939 “Dorothy” pinafore – a solid blue “test” variant designed by Adrian. This pinafore was worn for the first two weeks of shooting before the director was replaced. Sold at the Debbie Reynolds/Profiles in History auction of June 18, 2011 for $1.1 million.
7.Audrey Hepburn’s Breakfast at Tiffany’s, 1961 black evening gown designed for the scene where she eats a croissant while looking at the Tiffany’s window,. Sold at Christie London December 5, 2006 for $900,000. The sale was to raise money for the City of Joy – aid for India’s poor. The gown was donated by its designer Hubert de Givenchy, although it was not the gown worn by Miss Hepburn in the film.
8. Marilyn Monroe’s Some Like it Hot black souffle dress decorated with strands of bugle beads. It was designed by Orry-Kelly for her scene in Some Like it Hot, 1958, where she sings sitting on a piano. It sold at the Julien’s auction of November 17, 2016 for $460,00 .
9. Marilyn Monroe’s Something’s Got to Give , 1962 silk crepe large rose-print dress with deep V cut back, designed by Jean Louis and worn for the never completed film. Marilyn was fired from the 20th Century-Fox film but when co-star Dean Martin said he would walk if she was let go, she was later re-hired. She died in August 1962 before the movie could finish. Sold for $358,000 at the Julien’s auction of June 27, 2015.
10.Marilyn Monroe’s “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend” hot-pink silk taffeta gown with the huge bow at the back worn when she sings the song in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, 1953. Designed by William Travilla, sold at the Profiles in History auction of June 11, 2011 for $356,500
Movie costumes and gowns are fragile and rare collectibles, and few of the older ones have survived from Hollywood’s Golden Age. They command even higher prices than jewelry, and have that quality of being the most intimate and iconic of objects. Six of the top ten were once owned and worn by Marilyn Monroe. Two were worn by Audrey Hepburn. Two of the others were worn by Judy Garland as Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz. If other Oz costumes were included, they would have made the top ten also, such as the Cowardly Lion costume and the Ruby Slippers. One of the most expensive of costume items are Dorothy’s Ruby Slippers. There are several pairs in existence. The ones in best condition were purchased from the Profiles in History consignor in 2013 after they failed to sell for $2 million. They were purchased privately by Leonardo diCaprio and Steven Spielberg to go to the new Academy of Motion Pictures Arts & Sciences Museum. The Wicked Witch’s Hat from The Wizard of Oz, fetched $230,000 at its last auction. Some costumes came close to the Top Ten, including Kate Winslet’s “Rose” dress from Titanic at$330,000, Jennifer Lawrence’s Katniss “Fire” gown from The Hunger Games, designed by Trish Summerville, which sold at auction for $300,000 in 2013. One of Julie Andrew’s costumes from The Sound of Music was frequently reported in the media as selling at auction for $1.56 million. These media sources failed to say that the auction was for a set of costumes from the film, not just hers, so I do not include it in the Top Ten. The prices quoted in the Top Ten includes auction house commissions, which are generally the total figures reported in the media.
The stellar prices paid for these costumes, and the fact that relatively few are in institutional hands, should mean that some will reappear at auction and set new records. This is the second Top Ten list I’ve produced in as many years.
“Come to Los Angeles, the sun shines bright, the beaches are wide and inviting and orange groves stretch as far as the eye can see. ” So begins L.A Confidential’s opening voice-over by Danny DeVito as the Hush-Hush sleeze tabloid publisher Sid Hugens. The sunny narration accompanies scenes of cozy houses, happy families, and Hollywood movie stars. Sid types one of his tabloid stories, but as he likes to say, there’s trouble in paradise, and he quickly turns from brochure glossy jargon to organized crime headlines, tales of gangster Micky Cohen and gangland murders, all reflecting badly on the Los Angeles Police Department. How could that happen in “paradise on earth,” he states, and with the “best police force on the earth? This is all set in Los Angeles, 1953, based on James Ellroy’s neo-noir novel, and adapted for the screen and directed by Curtis Hanson in 1997. It’s also one of the best movies of its era.
Hanson grew up in L.A. and had a strong affinity for Ellroys’ novel. He had loved the Warner Brothers actors Jimmy Cagney, Humphrey Bogart, and Edward G. Robinson and the alienated characters they played. He saw L.A Confidentialas an extension of that tradition. He had also admired directors John Ford, Howard Hawks, Alfred Hitchcock, and Nicholas Ray. In the film he combined his favorite theme of image versus reality, with L.A. as the natural center of manufactured reality. This made the L.A. Confidential story a natural for him. After he optioned the novel he was pitched by Brian Helgelend who was also seeking to write a screenplay based on the novel. The two then teamed up. Hanson had two other strong suits: a definite visual style, and a keen ear and love of music. Out of his personal collection of Los Angeles photos and images he picked 18 to show to the producer Aron Milchan. Some of them ended up in the film, like the opening postcard of “Greetings from L.A.” and the photo of Veronica Lake. Other portraits he had were those of Guy Madison and Aldo Ray. These he showed to the two unknown Australian actors who would take on lead roles: Guy Pearce and Russell Crowe. The photos were guides to their respective time-period appearances. Hanson introduced them to Hollywood film noir classics. One of his particular favorites was In a Lonely Place, starring Humphrey Bogart and Gloria Grahame. He had to work hard to convince Kim Basinger to take the role of Lynn Bracken, after she had recently given birth to her daughter. He met her for lunch at the Formosa Café and showed her his photo board and wowed her with his grasp of the visuals for the film. As for Russell Crowe, he patterned his tough-guy demeanor after Sterling Hayden in Stanley Kubrick’s noir film The Killing.
Hanson and Helgeland pared-down Ellroy’s baroque novel with its staccato mix of street slang and police procedural jingo, yet certain key dialogue was kept. Hanson would focus the story on three main characters, but even then the studio thought that was too many. They are intoduced in quick successive scenes. After the Hush-Hush intro, it’s night, and we see the face of Officer Bud White in his car. Officer Dick Stensland is in the back seat, drunk. We hear a couple arguing – with the man being abusive. Bud calls-in a domestic violence case to the Hollywood station. He gets out of the car, sees what’s happening in the window, and pulls the electric cord to the eleborate Christmas decorations that crash down from the roof. The man comes and asks “Who the hell are you. ” Bud says “The ghost from Christmas past, and “why don’t you dance with a man for a change.” After the guy misses his swing and takes a few punches to the mid-section and head, he ends up hand-cuffed to the railing. Bud tells the guy if he ever hits her again he’ll have him sent up on a child-molestation rap. He then gives the wife money out of the guy’s wallet and asked if she has somewhere she can go.
The next scene introduces officer Jack Vincennes, played by Kevin Spacey. He’s the flashy detective , seen here at a party on the set of the hit TV show Badge of Honor, where’ he’s the technical advisor. But now he’s dancing with a beautiful wanna-be TV star. The pairing is short-lived after Sid Hugens walks up and she huffs off. It seems he wrote a piece on “Ingénue Dikes of Hollywood,” where her name was mentioned.
The following scene introduces the third main character: “good cop” the young Sgt. Edmund Exley, He’s being interviewed by a journalist as the son of the legendary detective Preston Exley. He’s filling-in that night as the Watch Commander at the HQ while the “men” have their Christmas party. One of the other central characters, Capt. Dudley Smith, excellently played by James Cromwell, chimes in to the interview. And just as Bud White and Stensland and Jack Vincennes and all the other cops are good and fueled up on alcohol, several Mexicans are hauled in – charged with beating up two cops. A brawl results and while Exley tries to break it up he’s pushed into a storeroom and locked in. The reporters covering Exley’s story get plenty of photos which make newspaper headlines. Some cops will have to pay for this bad press , the Police Chief says, and somebody’s going to have to stool – and that sets up some of the dynamics and plot lines that make up this riveting movie. But that’s not all, cops are not just getting rid of mafia types to rid the City of the Angels of crime, maybe some of them just want to take over the rackets for themselves?
As Hanson had wanted, L.A. Confidential is a film where it’s difficult to tell image from reality. In addition to the normal crimes of drugs, racketeering, and gambling, here we have prostitution where the hookers are “cut” to look like Veronica Lake, Rita Hayworth, and Lana Turner. Or is it the real Lana Turner? Ed Exley and Jack Vincennes team up, and go to the Formosa Café, still in business in Hollywood today. There they interrogate Johnny Stompanato, a real hood back in the day. He’s having drinks with a blond, who Exley calls a whore cut to look like Lana Turner. Vincennes tells Exley that she is Lana Turner.That’s before she throws her drink in Exley’s face.And of course Lana and the Stomp really were lovers, until Lana’s daughter Cheryl stabbed him to death for being abusive, and put on trial for it. Or was it really Lana that did it? Hush-Hush.
Officer Bud White was one of the two cops set up to take the fall for the brawl at the HQ. Only Capt. Dudley Smith thought his tough guy skills too important for the bureau to lose. He gets his badge and gun back, along with special assignments as “muscle.” Except he’s also smart, and attracted to Lynn Bracken, and starts some investigating of his own.
The film has its own filming set, where a TV show has actor cops arresting fake criminals, while real cops are perpetrating real crimes while sending newly arrived Mafiosi back to New Jersey after a good beating. Jack Vincenes does his investigating in places like Hollywood’s Frolic Room, next door to the Pantages Theater, where The Bad, and the Beautiful is playing, starring Lana Turner.To feed Hush-Hush with stories we have an innocent gay man Matt Reynolds set up with the crooked D.A. Jack Vincennes tries to find Matt to talk him out of it. But its too late when he finds Matt in his room. Jack has now gone full gamut from the cool show business cop to a man full of self loathing.
Meanwhile, two other characters are either centers of gravity or are pulling the strings in the plot. Bud White and Ed Exley have both fallen for Lynn Bracken, causing jealousy and fights but eventually teaming up to look for where the rot lies in the police force. This was an investigation Jack Vincennes started. And Capt. Dudley Smith and his men are particularly interested in framing some innocent men for some reason. Exley and Bud White, polar opposites, end up partners in a snakepit. They get trapped and must fight it out – for their own lives and for the version of their story that must get told.
L.A. Confidential was a surprise hit and won universal critical acclaim. It received nine Academy Award nominations and won two: Best Actress in a Supporting Role, and best Adapted Screenplay. It went up against Titanic or it would have undoubtedtly won more.
Curtis Hanson died September 20, 2016 at age 71. His other notable films included, “The River Wild” (1994), “Wonder Boys” (2000), “8 Mile” (2002) and “In Her Shoes” (2005). He received high praise by the actors he worked with.
James Ellroy was also born in L.A. He wrote L.A. Confidential as one his “L.A. Quartet:” The Black Dahlia, The Big Nowhere, L.A. Confidential, and White Jazz. When he was ten his mother was raped and murdered. The perpitrator was never found. Ellroy transfered his confused emotions to the case of the Black Dahlia, and has written crime fiction in his adulthood.
I came to L.A when I was 4 in 1953 the year the movie takes place, growing up and frequenting the neighborhoods of Echo Park, Eagle Rock and Hollywood depicted in the novel and movie. I am the same age as Ellroy and lost my father in tragic circumstances when I was 13, so I can identify somewhat with his confused early years.
He went by the stage name of Orry-Kelly. Designers liked using just one name at the time. But he was born Orry George Kelly in Kiama Australia. His friends just called him Jack. He dressed the top movie stars of the Golden Age of Hollywood, from Bette Davis to Marilyn Monroe. He was a hard drinker with a temperament more suited to that of a big movie producer. He wrote his memoirs – which were never published in his lifetime. In fact they sat in drawers and boxes for decades – until 2016. Orry-Kelly had been room-mates with Cary Grant, both in New York when Cary was still named Archy Leach, and then in Los Angeles. They had a falling out subsequently, and It was rumored that Grant blocked publication of the memoir. At any rate, the book Women I’ve Undressed, by Orry-Kelly but ghost-written by Whitney Stine when Orry-Kelly was still alive, has now been published in Australia and in the United Kingdom. It seems U.S. publishers care less about our own Hollywood heritage. The book has also been turned into a docu-drama directed by Gillian Armstrong.
Kiama Australia was a small seaport town. His mother was a housewife and his father was a tailor. The young Orry developed his future passion when his mother took him to the theater in Sydney when he was seven. He loved the experience and the next Christmas he got a miniature theater as a gift. He made his own sets and actors, which he dressed with scraps from his mother’s leftover materials. His father told him boys shouldn’t be playing with dolls and one day destroyed the whole set.
As an older youth Orry moved to Sydney to attend technical school, at first living with his aunt but eventually going out on his own. Although he got a job in a bank, he hung around the theater looking for parts, with a few minor roles on stage coming to him. But It wasn’t long before he was mixing with a rough crowd of pick-pockets and prostitutes. Realizing he was only going to get in trouble he decided to move to New York.
Once in New York, he found a hotel room and looked for parts in vaudeville. His neighbor and friend was Gracie Allen, who would soon partner with George Burns. Another friend-to-be in the area was Jack Benny. And then sharing his room was another recent arrival to New York, struggling vaudevillian Archie Leach. Although this was during the Prohibition, the heavy drinking that Orry-Kelly got used to in Sydney continued to be a regular habit. Orry-Kelly had auditions and some performances, he just never made a success on the stage. So in order to make ends meet he turned to his artistic abilities. He painted some murals and experimented at home hand block-printing his designs on shawls, and selling the best ones on the street. He found a way to print his designs on ties also, and got Cary Grant to both make them and sell them on a 50-50 commission. Soon they were able to support themselves without the theater. But then he got a job designing costumes for the Schubert Theater. He even designed Katharine Hepburn’s costumes for Death Takes a Holiday, though she only lasted a week in the role.
Orry-Kelly was broke by the time he made it to Los Angeles in 1931. Archie Leach came separately and got a screen test and then a contract at Paramount, along with the new name of Cary Grant. They met every night for a 65 cent dinner at the drug store counter- splurging for the 85 cent version on week-ends. Cary’s agent took Orry-Kelly and his portfolio for an interview at Warner Brothers. After waiting 42 days he finally got a job offer as costume designer. He said in his book that his first movie designs were for Loretta Young, who he loved working with. This was for Week-End Marriagein 1932, Then he designed the costumes for Bebe Daniels in Silver Dollar, a period film about the Silver Queen of Denver, Baby Doe. I include below several images from my own costume sketch collection.
Above is my costume sketch of Orry-Kelly’s design for Loretta Young in “They Call it Sin,” 1932.
His first designs for Kay Francis, the fashion-plate of Warner Brothers, was for One Way Passage. He said she was, “Well mannered, cooperative, easy to please, and knew exactly what she wanted.” Boy was he in for a rough ride with some of his other assignments.
Orry-Kelly said when he first got to Hollywood he studied the work of the top two designers: Adrian and Travis Banton. But in order to be different, he decided to design “simple, unadorned evening gowns.” The good news was Warner Brothers was picking up his contract – for $750 a week – and he could establish his own style as the Warner Brothers style.
Orry-Kelly reminisced about the first time he dressed Dolores Del Rio, star of films Wonder Bar, Madame du Barry, and In Caliente. “I draped her naked body in jersey. She wanted no underpinnings to spoil the line. When I finished draping her she became a Greek goddess as she walked close to the mirror and said, ‘it is beautiful.’ Gazing into the mirror she said in a half-whisper, ‘Jesus, I am beautiful.'”
Musicals had become a specialty at Warner Brothers ever since they brought in sound movies. The early 1930s was also the era of Busby Berkeley and his big chorus-girl musical numbers. Orry-Kelly worked with Berkeley on such hits as 42nd Streetand Gold Diggers of 1933. They would often go out drinking after the day’s work, and one night ended up at “Madam” Lee Francis’ and her girls’ establishment. Lee told him later that he was the sole representative of the designers who became a patron.
Orry designed for Ginger Rogers in her small roles in 42nd Street and Gold Diggers of 1933. In his book Orry Kelly states that subsequently it was Irene and then Jean Louis that dressed her. He had mis-remembered this, as Walter Plunkett dressed her at RKO, and then Bernard Newman.
Orry-Kelly became so busy at Warner Brothers that at one point he no longer painted the faces for his costume sketches.. And in fact he quit painting the costume sketches at all in favor of just doing pencil sketches. The otherwise beautiful costume sketch for Helen Vinson above in The Little Giant, co-starring with Edward G. Robinson, has no face. The costume sketch below for Loretta Young is done just in pencil. He designed for 23 movies in 1932 when he started, but in 1933 he did 42.
Bebe Daniels was already a big star by the time Orry-Kelly got to Hollywood. One of his first jobs was designing her costumes for Silver Dollar, a period film. His next designs for her was for the big musical, 42nd Street. Although Ruby Keeler stole the show, the best costumes went to Bebe Daniels, including the outfit below. It was worn in an important scene with George Brent. The fox furs were eliminated, which was indicated at right on this sketch.
Orry-Kelly led an active social life with the Hollywood social set and celebrities. He remembered one of Marion Davies’ costume parties in Malibu, this one with a Spanish theme. Some of the guests included Dolores Del Rio, Carole Lombard, Constance Bennett, Jean Harlow, Marlene Dietrich, Hedy Lamarr, Eleanor Boardman, and Ann Warner (Jack’s wife), among others.
Ann Dvorak was another beauty at Warner Brothers, whose flame did not last long enough. Orry-Kelly’s fashionable outfit design for Midnight Alibi is shown below.
Although he had been working with Bette Davis for many years, the two temperamental artists could occasionaly get into tifts. While working on Now Voyager, Bette Davis was in a bad mood for a whole week and wouldn’t look at any of the three gowns Orry-Kelly had prepared for her fittings. This caused him to drink even more than usual and get in a bad mood himself. Finally Bette tried on two of them which she wore in the film. One is shown in the photo below.
Casablancais one of the most favorite films of all time. Orry-Kelly designed the women’s wardrobe including Ingrid Bergman’s day dress shown above. The white sleeveless top and skirt with the striped short-sleeved sailor sweater was a big fashion hit in 1942.
Orry-Kelly also designed the costumes for Lauren Bacall’s first movie, To Have and Have Not, which paired her with future husband Humphrey Bogart. This was the role where whe said, “You know how to whistle don’t you Steve? You just put your lips together and blow.”
After a brief period in unform during World War II, Orry-Kelly himself got in a tift with Jane Wyman and one of the producers in one of her films. After that he left Warner Brothers and went to 20th Century-Fox on a non-exclusive contract. Jack Warner told him he would double his money. Bette Davis had wanted him to design her costumes at 20th Century-Fox for Dark Victory – he did for $2000 a week, triple his WB salary.
He also designed films at Universal including those for Shelley Winters, who he couldn’t stand working with. This was during her brief sex-kitten days. He didn’t renew his contract at Universal. He later had to dress her again for a Daryl Zanuck production. Although he doesn’t relate this in his book, it’s been told that at one point Shelley Winters refused to come out of her dressing room trailer for a costume fitting. Orry-Kelly got so mad he rocked the trailer back and forth until the terrified Winters ran out.
Orry-Kelly had always wanted to dress Marilyn Monroe. He thought she had always been put in gowns and dresses that were too tight, and should be dressed in bias-cut satins that just draped her figure. When the film Some Like it Hot was announced, he asked Billy Wilder for the costuming job and got it. But Orry-Kelly was surprised when he first saw Marilyn in a meeting. She had gained weight (she was pregnant during part of the filming). He knew he would be dressing her along with Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon in a scene together where the two men were dressed as women. He selected a matt finish fabric for her skirt and a more shiny fabric for theirs, he told her, so as to make her rear not look as big since the men’s were naturally smaller. At this she took offence and was cold to him the rest of the time. Tony Curtis gave a different story. He said he and Jack Lemmon were getting measured by Orry-Kelly, just like Marilyn Monroe was. When Marilyn got measured, “He put the tape around her legs, looked up at Marilyn and said, ‘You know Tony Curtis has a better-looking ass than you.’ She was standing there, she unbuttoned her blouse and said, ‘He doesn’t have tits like these.'”
One film that Orry-Kelly narrowly missed doing wasMy Fair Ladywith Audrey Hepburn. The director George Cukor wanted him for the film and so did Warner Brothers. But Cecil Beaton was specified in Alan Lerner’s contract, so Orry-Kelly lost out. Beaton’s costumes for the film have been sanctified by time, but I think Orry-Kelly would have done an even better job. He tells many anecdotes in his book, and relates stories about other famous actresses he dressed, including Ava Gardner, Rosalind Russell, Rita Hayworth, and Natalie Wood.
Orry-Kelly died of liver cancer in 1964. Now with both the book and the film out on Orry-Kelly, and an exhibition that was held in his native Australia, he is justly being celebrated in the English commonwealth. If only we could have such triple crowns for some of our American film costume designers.
There was a time in Hollywood when any star would recognize the name Irene. And in greater Los Angeles anywoman of means would buy their custom-made clothes designed by her.Long before movie stars borrowed or were given couture designer gowns for their award shows, they’d flock to Irene at Bullock’s Wilshire in Los Angeles. In the 1930s and 1940s, Irene’s gown prices equaled hose demanded by the Parisian couturiers. And since Irene designed for the custom trade at Bullock’s as well as designing free-lance for the stars at their home studios, the celebrated name of Irene was known by all. But now several people including her grand-niece Karlyn are trying to keep the legacy of Irene Lentz Gibbons alive. It is a rich and visually stunning one – unique to its time but an inspiration for today.
Marlene Dietrich was completely focused on her image. She knew exactly where to stand under the lights when being photographed.She would patiently wait through exacting fittings for her custom clothing. She always dressed when going out and always demanded that her gowns be “a la Dietrich.” For her personal wardrobe she turned to Irene, and after Banton left Paramount, she had Irene design her film costumes as well. One such design is shown above, and Marlene looked fetching in this Irene-designed beaded outfit in The Lady is Willing, 1942.
Irene designed devastatingly glamorous gowns. She had studied couture in Paris after her first husband, the movie director F. Richard Jones, died in 1930. She had closed her small dress shop and packed her bags to spend time with a friend. After she returned to the U.S. Irene combined those skills into her own look of glamour, mixed with elegance and sexual allure, looks that Adrian and Travis Banton had pioneered in Hollywood. Such combinations of strength, sex, and style had not yet become acceptable in continental couture.
Beginning in 1933, Irene designed with her own label for The French Shop at Bullock’s Wilshire.The costume sketch above was for an Irene creation for Bullock’s Wilshire, the art deco palace of shopping and fashion in Los Angeles. Irene was also simultaneously designing the movie wardrobe for many of her customers. The costume sketch below is also an Irene design for an unknown production, circa 1940.
Irene designed the gown below for publicity photos for Paulette Goddard’s appearance inSecond Chorus, 1940. Paulette was photogenic, but she never looked more alluring than in this gown.
Before Jean Louis came to the U.S. and began designing for Rita Hayworth at Columbia, Irene designed the glamorous gowns for Rita in the films You Were Never Lovelierin 1942, below, and You’ll Never Get Richin 1941. Irene could always be counted on to provide both elegance and sex appeal. She often used nude souffle and lace to provide that eye-catching balance between exposing and concealing the figure that stimulated the eye.
After Adrian left MGM in 1941 to open his own fashion business, Robert Kalloch designed for the studio for a brief period. But soon thereafter MGM hired Irene to become its executive designer, at a salary she couldn’t refuse. Even as MGM lost Greta Garbo and Joan Crawford, a new stable of stars was being groomed. One of them was the beautiful champion swimmer Esther Williams. Irene designed the gown below for publicity photos for Esther in 1942, showing off MGM’s newly-signed star. Irene was the perfect designer for Esther, accentuating her athletic physique in her suit designs and gowns. Helen Rose who followed Irene prefered the New Look, which I believe was not as flattering to her.
Irene designed the costumes for Lana Turner in The Postman Always Rings Twice. Lana Turner makes her entrance in the movie bare legs first. She’s dressed in white shorts and a white halter top. Janine Basinger describes the scene as “…one of the iconic showstoppers in modern motion picture history.” Irene designed an almost all-white wardrobe for Lana, wanting to emphasize her sun-tanned California look in her crisp white Twin Oaks uniform. Irene also wanted to help create that heavenly vision of Lana first coming down the staircase. The contrast of her platinum blond hair and white outfits with co-starJohn Garfield’s darker complexion makes for the perfect film noir atmosphere. As Lana was described in this film, “a black widow in white shorts.”
Irene also designed the costumes for Katharine Hepburn, who was also new at MGM. Below is a costume sketch for Kate in State of the Union, 1948. Irene designed for several of Hepburn’s films co-starring Spencer Tracy. Irene and Hepburn never got along, and Hepburn had her favorite designer of historical costumes Walter Plunkett, brought in to MGM, he of Gone With the Wind fame. They had worked together at RKO and were close friends.
Irene is pictured below in her MGM office with some costume sketches from Easter Parade, 1948,The movie starring Judy Garland and Fred Astaire was a festival of period costumes. In that same year she started her own fashion label and fashion design business. She used the hobble-skirt silhouette from Easter Parade in her own slim designer label skirts and suits.
The costume sketch below was a design for Patricia Vanever in, Easter Parade. She was seen in the movie as one of the fashionable ladies strolling down 5th Avenue during the “Easter Parade” scene.
The costume sketch below was an Irene design for Ginger Rogers in The Barkleys of Broadwayfrom 1949. This was the last film in which Ginger Rogers appeared with Fred Astaire. This design shows Irene’s flair for designing suits, which she would include regularly in her own label. Along with those from Adrian, there were no better suits ever designed.
Irene left MGM in 1949 after problems due to her drinking. She could now concentrate on her own fashion business. Her line was carried by the leading department stores across the country. The stunning ball gown below was designed by Irene with white silk illusion fabric (normally used for bridal veils) over yellow, accented by a black velvet waist girdle and streamer and long black gloves. One can imagine the gasps heard when the woman wearing this creation made her entrance.
A classic Irene suit is shown below featuring a row of seven buttons on a peplum jacket with diagonal buttons on the flap pockets. Irene loved using buttons of distinction, often using buttons made of special materials and semi-precious stones. Her revers cuffs were another trademark. Irene’s suits could be worn for years and often were. They represented the pinnacle of women’s design and tailoring. Irene’s gowns also stayed fashionable for years, Marlene Dietrich took several of her Irene glamour gowns, purchased in the 1930s, to entertain the American troops during World War II.
Irene also loved floral prints. The bold print of roses on this column dress – with its open neck and bodice was perfection, heightened by the exact matching of its floral print on both sides of the bodice.
Irene returned to do a few more movie costumes, notably for Doris Day in Midnight Laceand Lover Come Backin 1960 and 1961. While her designing talents stayed at the top of her form, her personal life was plagued with anguish and melencholy. On November 15, 1962 she took her own life at the Knickerbocker Hotel in Hollywood.
High Noon, the 1952 classic western starring Gary Cooper, directed by Fred Zinemenn and written by Carl Foreman, set the model for the lone hero standing up to a bunch of outlaws. Cooper played the part of Will Kane, the newly-married town marshall. He has just resigned to leave town with his bride, a pacifist Quaker played by Grace Kelly, and a new marshall will soon arrive. But so will outlaw Frank Miller who Kane previously sent to prison, but now set to arrive on the noon train. And Miller’s bringing three other outlaws to join him. The wedded couple are no sooner on the outskirts of town than the marshall says he must turn back and do his duty, his bride aghast. Yet he never thought of taking on the outlaws alone. But now his deputy leaves him out of spite and jealousy, and then his wife makes plans to take the first train out of town. He tries to deputize men in a saloon but none of them will budge. He goes to a church and asks for help, but the men just want peace and the mayor doesn’t want the bad image of a gunfight in the street. His mentor and the past marshal won’t help him, and he even gets in a fistfight with his now-drunk deputy before he resolves to face four gunslingers on his own. Walking out in the middle of the street, western-movie style, he shoots it out with them, killing one, then two, and with the help of his wfe who shot one, shoots the last one standing: Frank Miller. He tosses his tin badge to the dirt street and they leave town. The marshal has done his duty as the lone hero and can now ride off in the sunset, albeit he leaves with a wife in a wagon.
Shanequickly followed High Noon as another classic western, the two cementing the myth of the lone hero in western movies. Here Alan Ladd stars in the film directed by George Stevens and written by A.B Guthrie. The movie itself begins with Shane riding his horse into a family homestead. Shane is the only name he’s given, and as with almost all lone western heros, his past is mostly mystery. The plot is set up immediately, when the young boyJoey plays with and cocks a gun, Shane reacts instantly by drawing his pistol. The alarmed father, Joe, played by Van Hefflin, sends Shane away. No sooner is he gone than riders come up, one of which is a cattle baron named Ryker who tells the family they are squatters and to get off the land that he uses for grazing his cattle. Joe refuses and things get tense until Shane returns as back-up, and the cattlemen leave. Joe’s wife Marian played by Jean Arthur, urged by Joey (Brandon de Wilde), invites Shane to stay for dinner, and then Shane spends the night. He ends up staying a while and helping do some work. The homesteaders are being threatened all around the area and some are leaving. When Shane goes into town to get some work clothes, he is called a sodbuster, but resists getting in a fight. At a homesteader meeting the harrassment is talked about including Shane backing down, which Joey overhears. Then several homesteaders go to town for 4th of July provisions including Shane, and this time, he goes to the saloon and throws drinks into the cowboy that harassed him and gets in a fistfight and wins, and then takes on all the other cowboys and is joined by Joe as well. When Ryker offers him a job and he refuses, Ryker hires a notorious Cheyenne gunslinger, played by Jack Palance. But meanwhile not only does Joey admire Shane but so does his mother. Ryker visits them with his brother and gunslinger Wilson to say they were there first to pacify the land that Joe is on, and it shouldn’t have fences. He then offered to buy them out. Joe says the government recognizes the homesteaders’ land. But the Ryker bunch start getting violent with the others and have orders to deal with Joe too. One of the homesteaders is killed going into town, another’s house is burned down. Some homesteaders want to leave. Joe is fixing to go into town to take on Ryker single-handedly, but Shane and joe get into a fight and Shane knocks him out, with the thanks of Marian, but Joey now resents him. Shane goes in Joe’s place, and confronts Ryker, starting with gunslinger Wilson, and brother Morgan, in the classic saloon gunfight. With sidelines help from Joey, Shane avoided a trap. With scored settled and the smoke cleared Shane gets set to leave. Joey then says he was sorry for what he said and asks him to come back to the homestead. Shane says he doesn’t belong there. “A man’s gotta be what he’s gotta be.” “A brand sticks,” he adds, and “There’s no going back to the past.” As he rides off Joey cries out, “Come back!” But Shane is himself a gunslinger, and he has taken on himself the violence that was necessary for the settlers to lead a peaceful life. Throughout Joey was the character that validated Shane, through initial curiosity and fascination, then disappointment and even resentment, to active partnership and to final jilted but glowing admirer. We see Shane through his eyes – the lone Western hero. “Come back.”
The lone western hero is a powerful myth reinforced by a long line of western movies including The Searchers, Pale Rider, and The Good the Bad and the Ugly. The model has also influenced police and detective films of modern times. But the actual episodes that inspired these films belies the theme of the lone hero. In them we find the legendary lone hero is more myth than fact in that iconic period of the American West.
One of the most notoriuous episodes of the American West was the Johnson County war of Wyoming in 1892, also called the Wyoming Cattle War or simply “The Invasion.” It is infamous because the powerful interests of big ranchers and the state government they influenced suppressed the story for so long. Although it was the subject of the filmHeaven’s Gate(excessively dramatized by Michael Cimino in a story that was dramatic enough), its story elements have been lifted and used, if not the full story itself, in many westerns. In the Johnson County war, homesteaders came and settled onto land that was also used by big ranchers to graze tens of thousands of cattle. This was the rich grasslands where buffalos, by then nearly extinct, had roamed for centuries. The settlers took up land where there was water, such as valleys along streams and rivers. They put up fences and raised livestock of their own. The big ranchers let their large herds of cattle roam free through the fall and winter, grazing as they went. When winter blizzards came the cattle drifted south, sometimes for hundreds of miles. By spring they would drift back to their native lands, joined by thousands of calves. This is when the “round-up” would take place, and the cowboys would brand the calves. Friction would arise over unbranded, “maverick” cattle, ending up in different herds, often with charges of “cattle rustling” made against the small ranchers or certain cowboys. Since the big ranchers and their Wyoming Stock Growers’ Association had laws written in the State legislature to protect their own interests (has nothing changed in 125 years?), the farmers and small ranchers found themselves perennialy on the losing side of whose cattle was being rustled.
Then as bad winters and more settlers came, and their fencing expanded, the profits of the beef cattle business sunk.The big ranchers decided to get more aggressive with the settlers. Not wanting to get physical themselves, they hired gunslingers from Texas and Arizona and other states, and outfitted them with guns and supplies in three supply wagons including dynamite. This was still the wild west as far as some were concerned.
Twenty of the big ranchers and some 30 hired gunmen rode into Johnson County, having cut the telegraph lines so that no news could get out about what they were going to do. Two lynchings had already been committed, and a list was drawn of people to be killed. The armed group first surrounded the K.C. Ranch house where alleged rustlers Nate Champion and Nick Rae were staying along with two traveling trappers. The trappers were allowed to go when they went outside but they shot and killed Rae as he came out in the morning and had an hours-long shoot out with Champion, who was writing in his diary the whole time. As the day was ending they set fire to the house. Nate Champion was shot and killed as he fled. Jack Flagg and stepson were riding by and witnessed the events until they too were shot at. They high-tailed it to the nearest town of Buffalo to alert the settlers that the invaders had arrived. Meanwhile the self-satisfied invaders took their time, having a hearty meal before their own planned ride to Buffalo, where they intended to kill sheriff W.G. “Red” Angus. But Angus was no lone hero – some 200 settlers has signed up as his posse to fight off the gunslingers. As the invaders were on their way to Buffalo, they got word of the riled-up citizens – farmers and town-folk alike – and decided to take up a defensive position at the T.A. Ranch at Crazy Woman Creek. The ranch buildings were made of hewn logs and now to which the invaders added breast works and gun-slits, all under orders of the group’s leader Major Wolcott. Except that their four wagons of supplies had been captured by the settlers – including their dynamite. Within hours the settler posse and Sherriff Angus arrived and took up positions around the T.A Ranch, only to be fired at, and they returned fire. The settler bullets doing nothing against log walls, they started working on an idea conceived by Arapahoe Brown – build a moving fort – the “Go-Devil.” This device was built of two of the big supply wagons from the invaders, rigged together with lumber and built with a protective lumber wall in front. The whole could be rolled up close to the ranch fence and dynamite tossed at the ranch house until the invaders came out where they could be shot. This attack vehicle was within distance of being implemented when the U.S. Cavalry from Fort McKinney rode in.
The invaders surrendered to them, with the understanding of the sheriff and the settlers that the invaders be held at Fort McKinney for trial. The quick arrival of the U.S. troops was the work of acting Governor Barber, who had, with help of the two Senators from Wyoming, woke President Harrison to say that an “insurrection” was taking place in Johnson County and beseeching him for the order to dispatch federal troops to stop the fighting (and protect the big ranchers and invaders). As it turned out the invaders were transferred to Douglas and then transported to Cheyenne where they could get an “impartial” trial. The judge meanwhile charged Johnson County $100 per man/per day for upkeep, nearly bankrupting the County. The two trappers, witnesses to the murder of Champion and Rae, had been kidnapped and then bribed to tell a false story at trial. At the trial, the judge acquitted all the big ranchers and their hired gunmen. They were left to their own fates and ignominy. That the story is not better known is testament to the ability of the powerful linked to government and their ability to suppress not only justice but history.
This was not the only case of the people rising up against gunmen riding into town. When the Jesse James/Frank James and Younger Brothers gang and their associates rode into Northfield Minnesota to rob the bank in 1876, several of the townsmen got rifles and guns from the hardware store and started firing on the gang members waiting outside the bank, killing two of them. Meanwhile inside the bank the assistant cashier refused to open the vault and was murdered. During the gunfire outside, other staff ran out the back door. All the robbers stole was a bag of nickels, all the rest getting shot and wounded and killing a couple more town people. After their escape the Youngers and James split apart. But the locals formed posses and within a couple of weeks the Younger brothers were captured and imprisoned. The James brothers managed to escape.
These real-life episodes did not lead to the lone-hero myth that was developed in the classic movies of the early 1950s. This post-war period had already seen the rise and wain of film-noir, and the expansion of the American suburbs. There were other needs at work in this myth-building phenomenon. Certainly the old tales of gothic knights and leather-stocking frontiersmen had an effect, and the basic call of the wild and the free. But Americans needed to cope with the disappearance of the old west itself. Not only was the physical west rapidly changing, but the promise that it held was evaporating too. Had we paved and polluted paradise? The Western Hero myth was the savior myth. But with the 1954 western film Johnny Guitar directed by Nicholas Ray, the western hero had been completely suppressed. Here is the first ripple of the tidal wave of anti-hero films of our current era, western and otherwise. Our current ever-present dystopian movie plots are beyond the abilities of any hero to save, merely surviving is the goal. Now no ordinary hero can cope with the mayhem of modern times, exaggerated ten-fold in movie-madness. Now its up to super-heroes to save us, as they fight super anti-heroes, or is it the other way around? Regardless, the actual facts of the Johnson County war may not be well known, but its implications have become all too clear.
Joan Crawford was already working at MGM when costume designer Gilbert Adrian arrived with Cecil B. De Mille in 1928. MGM had gone through a succession of designers, including Erte, but it quickly contracted Adrian as the head designer. Greta Garbo, already a major star, was thereafter dressed by Adrian and became an international fashion influence. Joan Crawford had been at MGM since 1926 and would also become a major star. Dressed by Adrian, she would become as big a fashion influence as Garbo.
Joan Crawford’s first big starring role came with Our Dancing Daughters in 1928, the movie that made her a hit with young women. This film’s costumes had been designed by David Cox. Adrian designed her costumes for the sequel films, Our Modern Maidens, and Our Blushing Brides.He designed her next 28 films at MGM, creating her look both on and off screen. About Adrian Joan Crawford later said, “Dear Adrian, he was the greatest costume designer of them all. There will never be a greater one.”
Joan realized early the importance of the star-making machinery with costume design as a foundation. Adrian’s talents extended beyond the art of fashion. He understood the needs of the role, and importantly, the psychology of the actress and what it takes to create that extra spark of creativity on the screen. In Joan’s flapper days, such as in Our Dancing Daughtersand in Our Blushing Brides, shown above, Joan embodied the notion and look of the flapper. Later, when she played the sophisticated “kept woman” in Mannequin, Adrian dressed her in a completely different style for that role. Joan absorbed these lessons in style and stardom eagerly. She wanted to pattern her stardom after Gloria Swanson, the greatest star from early Hollywood. Gloria Swanson was a fashion icon – always well dressed – always the star – a role played on and off the lot.
Adrian found Joan Crawford fascinating. Like Greta Garbo, the MGM star he most loved to dress, Joan presented him with the androgynous beauty that sparked his creativity. She had a beautiful figure with broad shoulders that Adrian admired, a “regular Johnny Weismuller” he said. She had normal hips, not wide as has often been reported, so there was no need to widen her shoulders in order to balance them. Greta Garbo had wide shoulders too and Adrian used wide-shoulder costumes for both of them from 1929 on. He did this just because he liked a wide-shouldered look on these two powerful women. Indeed, Adrian was always fascinated by polarities, and the contrast between the beautiful yet strong, forceful face of Joan Crawford illustrates that characteristic.
The costume designed for Joan Crawford that made Adrian famous was the “Letty Lynton” dress, named for the 1932 film of the same title. It has not been publicly screened in decades due to a copyright dispute. The puffed-sleeve (or shoulders) white organdy dress was worn by Joan on a ship’s deck when Robert Montgomery compares her to an angel and asks her to marry him. The dress was knocked-off by many American designers and sold at every price-point. Parisian couturiers copied it too, as did other costume dessigners. Edith Head stated it was the single most important fashion influence in film history. The Cinema Shop at Macy’s has often been cited as selling 50,000, or even 500,000 copies of the dress, although both figures are gross exaggerations stated at the time for marketing purposes. Versions of the dress can be seen as wedding gowns in every decade since.
The photo below is another gown from Letty Lynton, although it was shot on the set of Grand Hotel. The gown is made of white crepe and black bugle beads, with one section forming a wrap tied at her hips. The other, forming a true assymetry on her left side. The image itself is a master-work of Hollywood set photography, with Joan forming a crucifix at the swinging art-deco doors of the Grand Hotel.
In Grand Hotel, 1932, Joan played a secretary. Adrian dressed her simply in black dresses. Her predominant costume was the one shown below. Its large white collar emphasized her face, always desirable in film, and its open structure symbolized her vulnerability to the advances of Preysing.
Greta Garbo also starred in Grand Hotel, although they did not share a scene. Garbo was notoriously reclusive and Joan had never talked with her on the MGM lot, and was rather intimidated by her. One day during the filming of Grand Hotel, Joan ran into Garbo on the stairs of the old MGM dressing rooms. Joan, locked in place and spellbound by Garbo, just said hello. Garbo put her hand to Joan’s face and said, “What a pity, our first picture together and we don’t work together. I am so sorry. You have a marvelous face.” Years later in retelling this story Joan said, “If there was ever a time in my life when I might have become a lesbian, that was it.”
Adrian used the symbolic power of the modified trench-coat on Joan Crawford, just as he had with Greta Garbo ever since 1928 in A Woman of Affairs. Below Joan is shown in Possessed, 1931. The Coat is only slightly feminized with the bow at the collar and at the belt, which is neutralized by a floppy cloche hat serving as a sort of fedora. She wears this outfit as she stands up to hecklers admitting that she’s the mistress of Clark Gable as the character Mark Whitney. He’s running for governor, she says, but he is an honorable man that once belonged to her but now belongs to the people.
Joan Crawford, like many young actresses at MGM, had gone through voice class to lose her native twang and regional accent. While Joan had developed a beautiful speaking voice, there was no mistaking that she was a working class girl, and always seemed natural in the many rags to riches roles she played. This was also a factor in her popularity with the many young women moving into the cities and who were entering the workforce in the late 1920s and 30s. Many movie and fan magazines and newspaper articles marketed the fashions she wore in the movies to this demographic. This was a lure to the movies themselves, and with the implied message that if you wear the right clothes you get the right breaks.
Sadie McKee, has the plot where Joan starts out as a household maid, then becomes a dancer, and finally the wife of a rich man. This is not the man she loves, however, played in the film by Gene Raymond. This was another film where Joan co- starred with a future husband, in this case Franchot Tone. She had previously co-starred with Douglas Fairbanks Jr. in Our Modern Maidens (1929), whom she first married. And then there was Clark Gable, with whom she co-starred in eight films. They never married, although they carried on an affair that lasted many years. They always seemed well paired in their roles together, and their chemistry was always hot. Sadie Mckee features a rare Adrian-designed gown that bares Joan’s shoulders. The sequined halter adds a lot of dazzle to the long black gown.
For I Live My Life (1935) Adrian designed a gown for Joan that let his wide-shouldered look run wild. It is shown below, but at three-quarter view the full effect is not grasped. It was referred to at the time as the “Mutiny on the Bounty” dress because of the sail-like appearance of the bodice – and that the “Mutiny” film had just been released.
The film where costume plays its most important role ever, in my opinion, is The Bride Wore Red (1937), directed by Dorothy Arzner and starring Joan Crawford with Franchot Tone and Robert Young. Simply, an aristocrat bets that he can take a tavern singer played by Joan and through a good wardrobe can pass her off as a high-society heiress at an exclusive mountain resort. His theory is that only luck separates the characteristics of the rich from the poor, so change the appearance and you change the person. and thereby ensnare the affections of the Robert Young character who disbelieves this theory. So he gives “Anni” enough money to buy an expensive wardrobe, and she chooses the most eye-popping brilliant-red bugle-beaded gown with matching cape in the store. So in this fractured-Cinderella-fairy-tale she goes off on the train to the Alps, where the postman played by Franchot Tone picks her up in a donkey-cart, her taxi to the resort. The costumes continue to play their significant part in this movie, not to make the actress feel comfortable in her role, but in this Dorothy Arzner film, to always make her feel like she has chosen the wrong wardrobe for the occasion.
It’s a bit of an irony that The Bride Wore Red was a black and white film, so who would have known what color the bride was wearing, even though she was not to be the princess bride? The gown was miraculously preserved and is now in the collection of the Museum of the Fashion Institute of Technology,
The Women was released in 1939, with its complete wardrobe for Norma Shearer, Rosalind Russell, Joan Fontaine, Paulette Goddard, Hedda Hopper, and of course Joan Crawford, including all the other all-female cast including the fashion show models, all designed by Adrian. The years-long rivalry between Norma Shearer and Joan Crawford was paralleled in the plot, and Adrian had to impose a rule that none of the actresses would get to see what the other was wearing before scene-shooting began. Although the outfit below covers Joan’s navel (necessitated by the censor) its partially exposed mid-riff was still considered risqué at the time.
The roles Joan played after World War II satisfied her less and less. Change was taking place at MGM. Garbo had left, and after that Adrian. Even her long-time rival Norma Shearer has retired. New stars were getting the choice roles: Katharine Hepburn; Greer Garson; Hedy Lamar; and Lana Turner. After a long review of her options, Joan had a meeting with Louis B. Mayer and asked to buy out the rest of the time on her contract. So on June 29, 1943, Joan left MGM, her home for eighteen years. Her last task was to clean up her dressing room, not just to pack up her personal belongings, but to physically clean it as well. No farewell party was held to see her off.
Her agent Lew Wasserman got her a contract at Warner Brothers., where a new phase of her career began. She was once again given more serious roles in this new age of film noir. There was Mildred Pierce in 1945 for which she won a Best Actress Oscar. With new clout, she returned to Adrian for her wardrobe, selecting costumes from among his designs at his new fashion salon in Beverly Hills. Thus did her next two films, Humoresque, and Possessed, get costumed by Adrian. Joan is magnificently dressed in Humoresque, showing a mature beauty in an elegant and classic wardrobe. Possessed calls for a simple wardrobe. In the film Adrian used a technique of reversing a white collar on a black dress, having the points of the collar turned to the back of the dress. The look has been copied many times since.
Joan Crawford went on to a long career, embodying what it was like to be a star in Hollywood’s Golden Age, and beyond. Adrian’s star burned bright while it lasted, but his health failed him. A heart attack forced him to give up his own influential fashion line in 1952, and a planned comeback was stopped by a terminal stroke in 1959. Fortunately we have those many films to see for ourselves on TCM and elsewhere the art that was created in this collaboration and under the talented umbrella of many at the Hollywood dream factories.
Edith head is known internationally as the epitome of the classic Hollywood costume designer. Her costume design sketches, however, were done in a variety of styles depending upon who her sketch artist was at the time. That she had her own flair and could produce beautiful costume renderings is little known, mostly because these sketches are very rare, and the ones that are often seen are largely based on black and white photographs.
The story of how Edith Head got her job as a sketch artist at Paramount is famous. She interviewed with Howard Greer, then Head Designer, and wanting to make a good impression, she borrowed art pieces from several fellow art students at the Chouinard Art School for her portfolio. The portfolio really impressed Greer by its variety, so he hired her, even when she admitted that not all the pieces were hers. Designer Travis Banton soon after replaced Howard Greer and it was by him that Edith learned costume design. She also learned to replicate his costume sketches. especially the facial features and body postures of the models. Not having had the anatomy and life-drawing classes in art, however, Edith never did learn to properly draw hands and feet, the most difficult feature to draw or paint. It is with these features that one can recognize the difference between a Travis Banton and an Edith Head sketch. Theses costume sketches are very lovely nonetheless.
Shown below are several costume sketches that she illustrated herself.
The sketch above by Edith was done for Mary Martin in the film The Great Victor Herbert, 1939, a musical based on the songs and operettas of Victor Herbert (Babes in Toyland, Naughty Marietta, Little Nemo). Mary Martin played the lead role opposite Allan Jones and Walter Connolly. The hands are awkwardly drawn, but Edith kept the Howard Greer/Travis Banton tradition of drawing three fingers (the middle fingers were actually joined) and the use of bright red finger nails.
The sketch above is from an unknown film and actress, beautifully rendered. A period costume, likely from the Civil War era.
The costume design above was done for Barbara Allen in Kiss the Boys Goodbye (1941), a movie about musical theater and rivalry between actresses based on the play by Clare Booth. The approval initials of the director and producer are on the sketch.
The costume design sketch above is also unidentified, although it has the approval initials of a director or producer. The style is clearly from 1942 – 1943 The smaller drawing at the top shows an alternate look with a vest. Women’s suits were popular in the 1940s and the broad shoulders were not just a military influence but had started earlier as a technique of giving women an air of power, athleticism and independence.
Edith Head became famous for her sarong designs for Dorothy Lamour in several films starting with Jungle Princess in 1936. The design above is for Miss Lamour in Aloma of the South Seas (1941). Producer Monta Bell’s signature is at left bottom.
Barbara Stanwyck was a favorite star for Edith Head to dress. Here is one of Edith’s design sketches for a ski outfit for the film You Belong to Me (1941).
The glamorous gown design above, in another sketch by Edith Head, was done for Margery Reynolds in the classic Holiday Inn (1942), co-starring Fred Astaire and Bing Crosby.Although the film is black and white the gown was made of gold bugle beads.
The costume sketch by Edith above was a design for Virginia Field in Crystal Ball (1943). The film also starred Paulette Goddard as a rival in a fortune-teller scheme co-starring Ray Milland. The sleek but broad-shouldered silhouette of the gown with its décolleté illusion top is very chic.
The costume sketch above by Edith Head was done for Betty Hutton in the Preston Sturges film The Miracle of Mogan’s Creek (1944)This is one of Sturges’ best screw-ball comedies co-starring Eddie Bracken. The coated outfit is very smart as worn by Betty Hutton in the film.
The sketch above is another design for Betty Hutton in the same film. She wears it in the famous all-night party scene.
The costume sketch below was not done by Edith Head, but rather was illustrated by Grace Sprague for Edith’s design forNatalie Wood in Sex and the Single Girl (1964). Ms. Sprague was the sketch artist that was most identified with Edith Head. She illustrated Edith’s book The Dress Doctor, as well as many of her newspaper and magazine articles in the late 1950s and early 1960s. She was a prolific sketcher and would turn out dozens of sketches for each film, many of them unused for any costumes.
Sketch artist Richard Hopper illustrated the sketch below for Edith’s design for Elke Sommer in The Oscar (1966). He took over most of the sketch artist duties after Grace Sprague died, and remained with Edith for many years until he too became a costume designer.
The notes on the sketch are in Edith’s own hand. Costume sketches were working tools and part of the production process, handled by producers, directors, actors/actresses, and wardrobe workers.
Many of the iconic Edith Head designs for such stars as Grace Kelly, Kim Novak, and Audrey Hepburn that are seen today were done years after the movies were produced. Edith Head did not keep these sketches after she left Paramount but had them reproduced (several times) later for her fashion shows. As such they are not really costume design sketches and not a part of the production of a movie, but rather are movie art pieces or costume illustrations. We can see in the examples above that with either the production of the illustration, or with the notes on her designs, that Edith Head was very involved in all stages of the process.
My Cousin Rachel is a dark, brooding, and twisted gothic story – the kind Daphne du Maurier was famous for. In the movie, Olivia de Havilland gave an outstanding performance as Rachel. and Richard Burton made his bravura American film debut as the emotionally high strung Philip Ashley.
The best-selling author Daphne du Maurier was so confident in the sale of the story to Hollywood that it was placed on the market in 1951 for $100,000 plus 5% of the world gross. This was considered an outrageous cost at the time, even if Rebecca had been a hit movie in 1940 and an Oscar-winner. It was 20th Century-Fox that bought the option for My Cousin Rachel, although for a flat $80,000. George Cukor was involved early-on as the potential director, with Vivien Leigh, Jennifer Jones, and even Greta Garbo considered in the role of Rachel. All of these possibilities folded as Nunally Johnson became both the producer and screenwriter, with Henry Koster as director along with the final cast. .
The movie begins during the 1830s. “My entire life had been spent on the Cornish coast of England,” Richard Burton narrates and provides the voce over through many parts of the film. We see him first as the young boy Philip, orphaned, in the care of his much-loved cousin Ambrose. They are at a cross-roads, where Phillip stares up at a hanged man. “Death is the price for a murder,” Ambrose explains to him. Waves crash on the rocky coast, a metaphor for the rough seas of life and a favorite gothic meme
Philip grows up to be a young man in Ambrose’s mansion, until one day Ambrose decides to travel to Italy, “to improve his health” he says, but he will return in the spring. Philip and his friend Louise (Audrey Dalton) are alarmed when he doesn’t return, but soon a letter arrives saying he met a cousin, a half-Italian , half-English widow named Countess Rachel Sangalletti. This is followed by a letter stating they have married – but that Ambrose does not trust her – and subsequent letters stating that she is tormenting him and causing him maladies, and that he is to come quickly. Louise’s father tells Philip that Ambrose’s father had died from a brain tumor and had similar delusions, but Philip departs immediately nonetheless, only to arrive at the Italian residence to learn that Ambrose had died – and cousin Rachel had disappeared. He learns from a sevant the whereabouts of Ambrose’s lawyer, a Rainaldi who insists that Ambrose died of a brain tumor and not from poisoning. Rainaldi further states that Philip will inherit everything, including the estate, from Ambrose, and Rachel will get nothing. Philip is distrustful nonetheless, and on visiting the headstone of Ambroses’s grave site, he vows “to repay Rachel in pain and suffering.”
After returning to Cornwall, one day cousin Rachel comes to visit. Louise and her father Nicholas, the executor of Ambrose’s estate, says she is penniless and should- out of common courtesy – be put up at the estate. Philip does not greet her, but allows her to stay. When they finally meet he is beguiled by her beauty and charm, and mesmerized, confesses he had vowed to torment her as she had Ambrose.
Soon, the passion of his hatred turned to a passionate and mad love.
He is not yet 25 years old, at which point the terms of the Ambrose Ashley trust state he inherits the estate and all its possessions. Rachel must have known this. Did she come calling to catch Philip in her web? Was she guilty of poisoning Ambrose? We ride the roller-coaster of Philip’s emotions through his point of view, and try to read the Mona Lisa face of Olivia de Havilland as to Rachel’s intentions.
Philip has been ensnared. First he asks Nicholas to award her 5000 pounds a year, nice sum or revenue from the estate. Next Philip demonstrates his mad love by giving to Rachel the family jewels as a Christmas present, a lavish necklace, which she wears at a dinner party. This gesture shocks Nicholas, who argues with Phiilp so that even Rachel hears, whereby she returns the necklace to him. Embarrassed, Philip only hardens his determination to pursue his love, convinced that her first acceptance of the jewels signified her love in return. Even when he is told that her bank account is overdrawn and she is sending money to Italy, he defends her.
And he will go even further, after turning 25, he legally conveys all the estate to her, jewels, property and all. But he finds that for Rachel, that does not mean that she intends to marry him. At a dinner, he cheerfully announces their engagement, but she denies to all.
Then, as Rainaldi visits Rachel, Philip becomes jealous, and mistrustful, and finally, his hate returns.
When his rage becomes a physical outburst, Rachel shuns him thereafter, and he enters into a delirious sickness lasting several days. He awakens with Rachel by his side, and it all seems like a bad dream, and in his mind he believes that she had married him.
As Philip recovers he learns from his gardener that Rachel is planning a trip to Italy. He confronts her about why she was leaving, and learns from her that they were not married. He notices that she has a letter from Rainaldi, postmarked from Plymouth, where she had in fact just met him. Later, with Louise, he breaks into her chest of drawers to find the letter, which only contains poisonous seeds. He now suspects once more that she killed Ambrose and that she had caused his own illness.
Was Rachel guilty of murder? Is Philip himself paranoid and delusional, or just mad with jealousy? I will not give away the ending, ambiguous as it is, not just because it spoils the ending of the story, but because this would also taint the viewers image of Philip or Rachel throughout the film. Both Olivia de Havilland and Richard Burton give masterful performances. Ms. Havilland gives the perfect inscrutable performance, not overly manipulative, or stoic, but honestly conveying the appropriate emotion for the moment. As such she can be tender, caring, and sympathetic, or determined, selfish and cold.
The frequently dark, gothic setting of the film, amplified by the cinematography of Joseph La Shelle, with art direction by Lyle Wheeler and John De Cuir, gives a Film Noir feel to the work, which a change of costumes and décor could have thoroughly accomplished. Screenwriter Nunnally Johnson had previously written Woman in the Window and The Dark Mirror, the later another Olivia de Havilland vehicle. The dramatic film score by Franz Waxman (The Bride of Frankenstein, Sunset Blvd) provides plenty of mood and all the appropriate clues as to what type of drama is about to unfold. The costume design by Dorothy Jeakins, under house designer Charles Le Maire at Fox, did an excellent job of designing the women’s costumes within an 1830s silhouette. Richard Burton was nominated for Best Supporting Actor – and odd nomination – but Olivia de Havilland was considered the lead actor. The film was also considered, in the then Black & White category, for Best Cinematography, Best Costume, and Best Art Direction. Its only award was a Golden Globe for Best Newcomer for Richard Burton.
Happy 100th birthday Olivia de Havilland, a National Treasure, nay an International Treasure.
Famed costume designer Jean-Pierre Dorléac has had a dynamic and fascinating career designing costumes for film, stage, and television. He recounts many of his experiences in his book: The Naked Truth: An Irreverent Chronicle of Delirious Escapades, published last year by Monad Books. In his many years in Hollywood he met and worked with some of the legends of show business. His talent and skills in designing, sketching, and even producing costumes at the highest levels took him to Universal Studios during Edith Head’s final years. She befriended him and mentored him in the nuances of working with difficult stars. And of course they shared many stories, one in particular which had always grieved Edith, was the story of the creation of the Sabrina dresses.
Mr. Dorléac granted me an interview to cover some of the highlights of his career and the friendships and working relationships he formed in the industry (both good and bad). There are of course many trials and tribulations he went through, as well as experiences with some famous movie stars that do not flatter their reputations. All of that is in the book. As a basic introduction, it covers the period starting with his winning of the Los Angeles Drama Critics Circle Award for the play Marat/Sade in 1973. It took hard work to capitalize on the win before he worked regularly in film or television. He was befriended by June Lockhart, and the two were often out on the town. Connections he made would later prove helpful. Through her he met Ann Miller, who gifted him a good part of her personal wardrobe, forming the core of an eventual fabulous 25,000 piece vintage garment collection. Next came a promising film assignment starring Henry Fonda, with the then young stars Eileen Brennan and Susan Sarandon: The Last of the Cowboys. The film turned into a disappointment and even given a new title, but working with Henry Fonda was a great experience. In 1977 Jean-Pierre Dorléac was hired at Universal Studios to design period costumes for a TV movie called The Bastard. The risque title it seemed came from a popular novel by John Jakes, a story leading up to the American Revolution.
Eighteenth century costume was a specialty of Dorléac’s, costumes he had studied at the Ecole des Beaux Arts in France. But as it turned out, that helped him little for his next work, designing the space-age costumes for the cult-favorite Battlestar Galactica, also done for Universal Television. His next film may not have won great praise, but Good Guys Wear Black (Black Tigers), with Chuck Norris, introduced the use of spandex in action-costumes. Battlestar Galactica was such a hit that a TV series was produced, and Jean-Pierre Dorléac’s innovative costumes for the series have become legendary. In addition to his film and television costume designing, he has been very active designing for the private wardrobes of many stars.
I asked Jean-Pierre if there was still so much fan interest in his Battlestar Galacticacostumes. “Oh yes”, he said, “all the time”. “And I have donated 20 Galactica costumes to museums,” he added. He said his success with science fiction costumes was a surprise since he never liked uniforms and doesn’t read science fiction. In 1979-1980 his costume design work alternated between the 18th century and the space-age as he designed for another John Jakes saga: The Rebels, and then Galactica 1980 and Buck Rogers in the 25th Century.TheBattlestar Galactica costumes used a variety of innovative materials: Whiting & Davis ( famous for its antique purses) chainmail; chromed plastic; spandex jumpsuits; and specially made macramé.
The year 1980 became very significant for Jean-Pierre, he designed for both The Blue Lagoon starring then young It Girl Brooke Shield, and the fan-favorite Somewhere in Time, starring Christopher Reeve and Jane Seymour. He said Christopher Reeve was then at the height of his egotism and very demanding about his wardrobe. Edith Head’s advice for how to handle fussy stars worked just as well for men, he discovered.
Jean-Pierre started talking about his book by saying that, “I wanted to stay under the radar” after The Blue Lagoon came out. Brooke Shield was immensely popular at the time and there was intense interest in gossip about her and her mother, all of which he wanted to avoid because of his devotion to them. He was very gratified with his costumes for Somewhere in Time, designed for the period of 1912 and nominated for an Academy Award in Best Costume Design. Jean-Pierre said he immersed himself in the Belle-Epoque, “Looking for the character of Elise McKenna, an actress with advanced haute-couture taste.” He spent hours looking for antique laces and accessories. He was finally able to buy $5000 worth of the important silk and cotton laces through a dealer at an antique bazaar. He was frustrated in his search for period jewelry, however. But at a lunch Edith Head made him a significant present, a magnificent Rhinestone necklace from 1900 that had once belonged to Broadway actress Ethel Jackson. It was the perfect piece for the gown he had in mind and he couldn’t thank Edith enough for this gift, a very valuable piece.
Jean-Pierre Dorléac had not started out wanting to be a costume designer. He was interested as a young adult in the history of fashion and worked briefly at Balmain and Dior learning the basics of couture. He has admired many American costume designers. “Orry-Kelly was my favorite designer,” he says. He likes the classic look of the glamour gowns he designed. He knew and admired Walter Plunkett. “He gave me a book with plates of costumes that were inspirations for him in designing ‘Gone with the Wind.'”
He was friends with Theadora Van Runkle, whose personal style of dress he greatly admired. “She turned everyone’s head when she entered a room,” he said of her. “She had henna red hair and a constant display of vintage jewelry, outrageous beads around her neck and fascinating bracelets.” Jean-Pierre, who renders amazing costume sketches, greatly admired Theadora’s costume sketches as well. He also knew and admired Yvonne Wood and Noel Taylor. And of course there was Edith Head.
“Edith was always very kind and generous,” said Jean-Pierre. “She was never vicious.” This in Hollywood when the changed order of things had made climbing the ladder more like a game of thrones. She gave him presents, “that were always extra special,” and these always had a particular reflection on her career. Alfred Hitchcock had copies of the scissors made that Grace Kelly used as a murder weapon in Dial M for Murder. He gave a set to Edith Head, even though she was not the costume designer for the movie. The scissors and their red leather case with her name on it she gave to Jean-Pierre.
Regarding the notorious case of the design credit for Audrey Hepburn’s Sabrina dresses, Jean-Pierre had much to say. Part of the problem started early. “Audrey Young was a bit player at Paramount who did not like Edith.” he said. “She married Billy Wilder in 1949 and wanted to become a costume consultant.” He said that Edith told him that Audrey Hepburn wanted to get couture items from Givenchy but showed up with sketches she had made herself based on what she had seen at his runway show. And Audrey Hepburn had already gone to director Billy Wilder and he consented to giving her what she wanted. Edith said she then modified the sketches “to give them her touch.” Jean-Pierre said that the cutter-fitter (pattern-maker) at the time stated that all the costumes for Audrey Hepburn in Sabrina were made at Paramount. And also that Marjorie Bennett who played the cook said she saw Audrey Hepburn wearing the “bateau-neckline” Sabrina dress coming out of Wardrobe. Edith said that Audrey ‘s characteristic style was her angular features. So she designed her necklines with a pronounced horizontal line. Jean-Pierre emphasized the importance of the continuity of that neckline in the various costumes Audrey Hepburn wears in the film, from basic house-dress, to a sharp black apron, to the famed bateau neckline “Sabrina” dress, to the charcoal-grey embroidered ball-gown. All these indicate the obvious intention of the designer – the costume designer – who is developing the character in the story, not designing couture.
With all the kindness that Edith Head showed him at the start and throughout his career, Jean-Pierre was saddened at the tarnished reputation she experienced during her final years at Universal. The film-credit embroglio, along with her advanced years and worsening health allowed some people to disrespect her at the studio. He has done his bit to champion her rightful place in Hollywood movie history.
Jean-Pierre Dorléac has earned his own place in movie and television history. He has been nominated 11 times for the Prime-time Emmy Awards for Outstanding Costume Design, winning for Battlestar Galactica and The Lot. He has won two Best Costumes Awards from the Academy of Science Fiction, Fantasy, and Horror Films for Battlestar Galactica and Somewhere in Time. And he was nominated for a Best Costume Oscar for Somewhere in Time. Today he works mainly in South America and Europe. He raises orchids and epiphyllum cactus plants as a hobby. His book The Naked Truth was well-written, highly informative and entertaining, an inside look at Hollywood from the production end – or how much of a game of thrones (unsavory characters and all) it really is. As a fan of film costume this was a great book to read and a wonderful opportunity to talk to this notable costume designer and author. You will no doubt be able to enjoy it on several levels.
What five classic movies would you want with you if you were stranded on a desert island? That’s the question Rick of the Classic Film and TV Caféposed to several of us participating in his Blogathon in commemoration of a National Classic Movie Day. That’s a pretty short number, especially for being stranded for who knows how long, We could probably come up with our “100 Favorite Movies to Be Stranded on a Desert Island,” while exercising a little fantasy and throwing in some guilty pleasures. But Rick is holding the line.
So my rationale is that I had to fall back on my all-time favorites, movies I’ve seen over and over with continued pleasure, or maybe because of some inner need these films seemed to fill. They also fell into a sort of chronology of my life, as to when I first saw them, and perhaps representing that era. Regardless, there were many that vied for 4th and 5th place and could easily have been swapped as I held them in high esteem and they fit my criteria well. Is there an island-hopping option Rick, with various movies at each?
Resigned to 5, they are:
CASABLANCA –A movie on many classic film top ten lists, it’s also my favorite, a fast-paced thriller with characters galore and dialogue that has provided more apt quotes than any other movie. I never tire of seeing it. From the first few frames of its opening scenes I’m projected into a foreign place and time, where intrigues and passions are always on the simmer. No need for special effects here, your senses are grabbed by the base emotions of the people made large on the screen, with plot twists and small climaxes happening at regular intervals throughout the film. Two scenes in Rick’s Cafe American involving music are unforgettable: the endearing but melencholy singing of “As Time Goes By” by Dooley Wilson (“Play it Sam”), and the rousing and for me, choked-up playing and singing of the “Marseillaise,” the French national anthem – in opposition to the Nazis in the bar. The end of the movie itself is a surprise, bittersweet, but with doors left wide open for other adventures.
But I’ll always think, would my sweetie have come with me to this desert island? Or did she plan all along to go with away with Victor Laszlo?
WUTHERING HEIGHTS I have several reasons for choosing this dark gothic, tragic romance. Perhaps the easiest one is the appeal of its diametrically opposite nature, the dark and stormy Moors as relief from a sun-drenched desert island. But I always harbored an inner Heathcliff, a subconscious element from my childhood perhaps. Its actors are outstanding, the top-rung of the British of that period (1939) – Laurence Olivier, Merle Oberon, David Niven, and Flora Robson. The story conveys the conflict between convention and passion that was at the heart of Romanticism, and Olivier burns the screen with his jealosy, love, hate, vengeance, and regret. The conflicted love story of Heathcliff and Cathy is as powerful as has ever been put on the screen. It was one of the great movies of 1939 and was nominated for eight Academy Awards, including Best Actor for Olivier and Best Director for William Wyler.
The base theme of vengeance that lurks in the movie is one that, sad to say, appeals to me, as does Heathcliff’s madness and singlemindidness. Romantic period tropes that drew me to Edgar Allen Poe and Baudelaire. An alternative movie I had in mind, one that has some of the same appeal, but in a completely different setting, and which I never tire of seeing, is The Outlaw Josey Wales.
SINGING IN THE RAIN And now for something completely different, as the’d say on Monty Python’s Flying Circus. Another “usual suspect” on the top ten list of best movies, and often picked as the “best musical.” Who doesn’t need a good laugh on a desert island? It’s hard to pick a movie with good belly-laughs these days. I was thinking of It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World as a possiblity, but this is really one of my favorites. A re-cap of Hollywood movie-making itself with a bunch of whistle-while-you-work tunes. Not to mention the powereful Broadway Rhythm Ballet with Gene Kelly and Cyd Charisse, Donald O’Connor’s number to “Make ’em Laugh”, the wonderful duo to “Moses Supposes”, the iconic Gene Kelly song and dance to the title number, “Singing in the Rain, ” the talented Debbie Reynolds and Jean Hagen, and those wonderful costumes by Walter Plunkett. Just think of yourself kicking up the sand as you’re “Singing in the Rain.”
BLOWUP I’ve blogged often about Antonioni’s Blowup, an all-time favorite movie of mine that seems to perplex most people I mention it to. It grabbed me on a visceral level when I first saw it at age 18. I needed no explanation of its meaning. The murder mystery at its face was enough, and the unanswerable meaning of life it implied was already keenly felt. Francis Ford Coppola stated Blowup was a big influence on him, especially on his film The Conversation. Blowup is another film I never tire of watching, reveling in Antonioni’s silent and scoreless scenes of David Hemmings walking through London’s Maryon Park, with only the sound of rustling leaves to be heard, or of Hemmings fighting for a broken guitar neck at a Yardbirds concert, only to throw it away as soon as he’s free. If you are curious or perplexed, see my post on Blowup
THE SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION This modern classic is based on a novella by Stephan King. While I like stories of redemption: Crime and Punishment; American Gigolo, the redemption here has nothing to do with the protagonist’s (Andy Dufresne played by Tim Robbins) guilt but rather by his years-long effort to finally free himself from a corrupt prison system while making off with the warden’s crooked gains. His pairing with prison-mate Ellis “Red” Redding played by Morgon Freeman is inspirational (although the casting was accidental). The scene where Andy locks himself in the warden’s office and plays an aria from the Marriage of Figaro over the prison loudspeaker, for all the inmates to hear in the yard, they dumbstruck as if hearing the voices of the angels from on-high, is one of the high-spots of filmmaking. Naturally, Andy paid dearly for this stunt, and you can see his moment of glory disappear from his face as the guards finally break in the door. This movie is not always fun to watch, but its end is very satisfying. I figure I need a good prison break-out movie on a desert island. There are plenty of those of course, not to mention desert island movies including several versions of The Swiss Family Robinson, and Cast Away, where I might actually learn something useful about desert island living.
These are my five choices for desert island classic film viewing. But how about some TV series Rick? That way we could stretch things out a bit. Maybe even have some binge-watching – what else are you going to do on a desert island” That way you could really have some relevant watching, shows like Black Sails. And there’s always the Twilight Zone marathon.
“They threw me off the hay truck about noon.” So opens James M. Cain’s 1934 noir novel of rough sex, murder, double-cross, and the hand of fate. Things were not so sunny in California in 1934. The Depression was in in full force, and grifting was a fallback trade. James M. Cain had already participated in the butchery of World War I and a life as a journalist. He was raised among the Eastern establishment but always had a contrary streak, especially in using the common vernacular of writers Mark Twain and Hemingway. After several failed novels he found his path with a ripped-from-the-headlines story of the husband-murder case of lovers Lee Snyder and Henry Gray. And like fellow crime writer Raymond Chandler, he found the deepest shadows in the bright lights of Southern California. First of his crime novels was ThePostman Always Rings Twice, a best-seller. It was followed by Double Indemnity and Mildred Pierce. Classic movies were made of all three books, though in reverse order of their publication. ThePostman Always Rings Twice took the longest to get to the screen. It was the darkest of the three.
This post is part of the Classic Movie Blog Association Words! Words! Words! Blogathon
RKO was the first studio eager to make Postman. Knowing that the sex and the story would cause problems with the censors at the Production Code Administration, production head Merian C. Cooper submitted a synopsis to the PCA in 1934. Their answer was brief: the story was “…definitely unsuitable for motion picture production.” Warner Brothers and Columbia followed suit, but abandoned the idea after getting the same message from the PCA. But then on March 9, 1934 only hours after Columbia had abandoned their plans to move forward on an option; Eddie Mannix bought the rights to make the film at MGM. This despite the PCA’s pleas to MGM to drop any plans of making a movie of the book it considered, “unwholesome and thoroughly objectionable.” MGM shelved it, although it was then made in France in 1939 as, Le Dernier Tournant (The Last Turn). Then after a string of successes at different studios of the Cain stories; Double Indemnity and Mildred Pierce, MGM revived plans and developed different treatments and scripts and submitted these to the PCA in the 1940s. It took the end of World War II and the rising genre of film noir for the PCA to approve a temporary script in May 1945. From there it would go on the fast track as a star vehicle. This would be no B-film noir.
Cain’s novel uses few descriptive passages. Cora is introduced with, “Except for the shape she really wasn’t any raving beauty, but she had a sulky look to her, and her lips stuck out in a way that made me want to mash them in for her.” With book and film, there’s no chemistry in their narrator Frank and Cora’s encounter at the Twin Oaks Tavern, “a sandwich joint like a million others in California…with a house part…and a filling station…and a half dozen shacks that they called an auto court.” The chemistry soon heated up. In the film this was helped by the near perfect casting of Lana Turner as Cora and John Garfield as the drifter Frank Chambers, the newly hired help. Cecil Kellaway played the witless husband and Twin Oaks owner Nick Smith (Nick Papadakis in the book). Tay Garnett directed.
Lana Turner makes her entrance in the movie bare legs first. She’s dressed in white shorts and a white halter top. Janine Basinger describes the scene as “…one of the iconic showstoppers in modern motion picture history.” Although in the first minutes of the scene Garfield as Frank and Turner as Cora play cat and mouse, there’s no doubt in the mind of the audience that sparks are going to fly, and soon.
Irene Lentz Gibbons designed the costumes for Lana Turner. Irene designed an almost all-white wardrobe for Lana, wanting to emphasize her sun-tanned California look in her crisp white Twin Oaks uniform. Irene also wanted to help create that heavenly vision of Lana first coming down the staircase. The contrast of her platinum blond hair and white outfits with John Garfield’s darker complexion makes for the perfect film noir atmosphere. As Lana was described in this film, “a black widow in white shorts.” Tay Garnett claimed credit for having Lana dressed in white, along with producer Carey Wilson, stating it helped make her look less sensuous in trying to get past the censors. But in the book Cora starts out from the beginning in a white Twin Oaks uniform. The only exception to her all white wardrobe is one black dress Irene designed.
A hot affair develops between Frank and Cora, and when the unsuspecting Nick drives to the City to get a new sign for Twin Oaks, Frank and Cora decide to skedaddle. But they are hitchhiking, walking really, and Cora gets cold feet after eating dust for several miles. But she’s had time to think, why leave with nothing? She berates Frank for his satisfaction at being a drifter, “I want to be somebody, “she says. So they go back to Twin Oaks, and after they get back, and she sees Nick driving home drunk, she knew she could be somebody, and have Frank, and Twin Oaks – and all it would take is for Nick to have a deadly accident. And maybe that could be helped along. But this is James M. Cain’s darkest novel. And this is classic film noir, where even the best made plans take ill-fated detours.
Cora: There’s one thing we could do to fix everything for us.
Frank: What? Pray for something to happen to Nick?
Cora: Something like that.
Cora: Well you suggested it yourself once, didn’t you…
Frank: But they hang you for a thing like that.
And accidents did start happening to Nick. Until the last one killed him. Only the accidents happened to Frank and Cora too. Then there was a trial for murder. And then the circumstances had the lovers accusing each other. Courtroom shenanigans and a clever lawyer had Cora and Frank walking free. But the DA is not satisfied. And distrust has set in, and a blackmailer prowls, and another female lurks with her cats – big cats.
There is no happy ending in The Postman Always Rings Twice. Even this fact didn’t satisfy the censors in allowing the original story to be filmed until twelve years after it was published. Frank Chambers ended up paying twice for his crime. Although the lines were never meant for this book or this movie, Walter Neff’s statement from Double Indemnity, is apt, “I killed for money. And for a woman. I didn’t get the money and I didn’t get the woman.” The title of The Postman Always Rings Twice the book and the film is allegorical – with the second ring of the postman (as messenger) delivering the fate to Cora and Frank they had escaped with the first ring.
The late Oscar-winning costume designer Mary Wills created wonderful movie costumes as well as exuberant and beautiful costume sketches in the process. That her work is largely forgotten today is unfitting for such a great artist and costume designer. This especially and for someone who made so many contributions to significant movies in Hollywood history. Posted here are some of the costume design sketches that show her amazing talent for the notable films that she designed.
Mary Wills was the first woman admitted to the Yale Art and Drama School, where she earned a Master’s Degree. She was born in Prescott Arizona, and moved to Los Angeles after receiving her Master’s degree. She started designing costumes in 1944 at RKO withBelle of the Yukon. She then designed Song of the South for Walt Disney. She then began working for Samuel Goldwyn in 1948, where she designed costumes for Enchantment starring Teresa Wright and David Niven. Soon she was being referred to asThe Fabulous Miss Willsat the Goldwyn Studio.The above sketch is for another film, and shows a smart linen travelling suit she designed. She was equally at ease designing contemporary or historical costumes, and for men as well as women. The first big production that Ms. Wills worked on at Goldwyn, and a critical success, was Our Very Own, released in 1950. The film starred Ann Blyth, Jane Wyatt, Farley Granger, Ann Dvorak, and a young Natalie Wood. A costume sketch for Jane Wyatt is shown below.
The costume sketch below is a design for a swim suit for Ann Blyth in the same movie.
One of Miss Will’s most memorable films wasHans Christian Andersen. For this film she designed the costumes for Danny Kaye and the rest of the cast, excepting the ballet costumes. Shown below is a costume design sketch for Danny Kaye in the leading role. Using her artistic talent, Mary Wills was able to add subtle background scenery to many of her sketches, presenting a vignette for the context of the costume.
Since filming took place on a Hollywood sound stage, her colorful and realistic costumes for the market scene in Copenhagen helps bring to life the sights and sounds of the old city. Shown below is a costume design sketch for a flower seller and her daughter. Miss Wills’ sketches give the appearance of living characters, as if she had actually painted them seated at an easel in the market square. The film was nominated for a Best Costume Oscar in 1953.
And another pair of characters bringing their milk and goat to market.
Mary Wills was also a skilled designer of historical costumes for film. After moving to 20th Century-Fox, she began working on a major historical costume film.The sketch below is for a costume worn by Joan Collins in the role of Beth Throgmorton in the 1955 filmThe Virgin Queen,starring Bette Davis. The fabric swatches selected for the costume are still attached to the sketch. Mary Wills received a Best Costume design nomination for this film, as did Charles Le Maire who headed costume design at 20th Century-Fox.
Below is a remarkable costume sketch for Bette Davis as Queen Elizabeth in the same film.
Mary Wills also designed the Rogers and Hammerstein musical film Carousel, from 1956. The costume sketch below is the design that Shirley Jones wore in her first scene with Gordon MacRae when they each sang “If I Loved You.”
Below is the deign for Shirley Jones’ friend Carrie played by Barbara Ruick, also from the first scene where they go to the circus and meet Billy Bigelow ( Gordon MacRae ).
And a design for one of the many characters in the movie.
Mary Wills won her costume design Oscar for the 1961 filmThe Wonderful World of the Brothers Grimm. This was a Cinerama production starring Yvette Mimieux, Russ Tamblyn, Laurence Harvey, Claire Bloom and many others. The costume sketch shown below was created for Yvette Mimieux in theDancing Princesssequence. Miss Wills had a flair for designing dance and folk costumes, a talent she used later in her career designing for theShipstad & JohnstonIce Follies
Also below is another sketch for Yvette Mimieux as the Gypsy.
And Mary Wills could also design costumes for films that had a darker side, such as the firstCape Fear,andThe Diary of Anne Frank.The costume sketch below is for Polly Bergin in Cape Fear,co-starring Gregory Peck and Robert Mitchum.
Mary Wills worked on two major films that she didn’t get film credit for;Funny Girland Camelot.InFunny Girl,she designed the spectacular Ziegfeld show-girl Brides costumes and the costumes for Omar Shariff . Her last film work was forThe Passover Plotin 1976, for which she also received an Academy Award nomination.
Before her final retirement to Sedona, Arizona in the mid-1980s, she designed costumes for special productions such as theThe New Buffalo Bill Wild West ShowandThe Nutcracker on Ice.Mary Wills died on February 11,1997 in Sedona Arizona. Her work lives on in film, and her name should live on too. She brought a high level of artistic talent and integrity to her creations, breathing life into the costumes she designed.
Long before there was Jennifer Lopez, Salma Hayek, or Eva Mendez, the 1930s Hollywood silver screen blazed with the talents and hot looks of Latina movie stars Dolores Del Rio, Lupe Velez, and Conchita Montenegro. Dolores Del Rio was in the first ranks of movie stardom in the early to mid 1930s. Her radiant beauty was a magnet for the camera, and she starred in several major movies for Warner Brothers and RKO. Also pictured above is Ramon Navarro, born in Mexico and a lead actor for MGM in the 1920s. He played as Judah Ben Hur in the first Ben Hur, as well as the hero pilot in The Flying Fleet and other films.
Dolores Del Rio starred in the filmsThe Bird of Paradise(1933),Flying Down to Rio(1933),Wonder Bar(1934),Madame du Barry(1934), andIn Caliente(1935). She had started her Hollywood career in silent films such asTrail of ’98andRamona(both 1928). In the photo above, Dolores Del Rio models a sequin gown designed by Orry-Kelly. Below is a photo showing the classic beauty of Dolores Del Rio. The “Del” in her name became capitalized in the U.S, although she was born in Durango, Mexico.
Del Rio’s second husband was Cedric Gibbons, MGM’s Art Director. He made the art deco and moderne style of set designs popular in the MGM films of the late 1920s and 1930s. He also designed the famous Oscar statuette for the Academy Awards. After they married in 1930, they lived in this beautiful California moderne style house which he and architect Douglas Honnold designed in the Santa Monica mountains. Del Rio and Gibbons are pictured below in their living room. The very large windows were innovative at the time. One can imagine the fabulous parties they held there, attended by all of the great Hollywood stars of the era.
Another popular Mexican actress in the 1930s was Lupe Velez, shown above. She had acted in Vaudeville, and started her Hollywood career in silent films. She starred with Douglas Fairbanks inThe Gauchoin 1927, and was in C.B. de Mille’sThe Squaw Manin 1931.
In the photo above Lupe Velez models a gown designed by Walter Plunkett for the RKO film,Strictly Dynamitein 1934. The gown is of white crepe with diagonal lines of crystal beads. Lupe Velez and Dolores Del Rio were both early customers of designer Irene Lentz at her first two shops. It was through them that Irene developed a following in the Los Angeles film communitity, a following that soon became a flood. Irene later married Cedric Gibbons’ brother Eliot and thus became the sister-in-law to Dolores Del Rio.
In the photo above Lupe Velez wears an Adrian designed gown for an MGM film. The gown features open Dolman sleeves held with brilliant circle clips along the arms. Lupe Velez reached the height of her popularity in the film series,The Mexican Spitfire,filmed at RKO in the early 1940s.
Conchita Montenegro shown above was a beauty from Spain, a dancer and model who came to Hollywood with a contract at MGM in 1930. In those days MGM made Spanish language versions of their films and Conchita starred in several of these. She played a Spanish dancer in Strangers May Kiss, at MGM along with Norma Shearer. She also starred opposite Leslie Howard in MGM’sNever the Twain Shall Meetin 1931.
Conchita Montenegro left MGM and went to the Fox studio to make movies there. She starred with Warner Baxter inThe Cisco Kidin 1931.
The beautiful costume sketch above for Conchita was designed by Dolly Tree. It was probably designed forThe Cisco Kid,although Dolly Tree designed costumes both at Fox and at MGM during this period.
The photo above shows Raquel Torres in 1929. Miss Torres had a German father and a Mexican mother. She starred in two films in 1929 including The Bridge of San Luis Rey. She continued to make movies in the early 1930s.
This early flowering of Latina actresses was short-lived. By the late 1930s the importance of the roles offered the stars became less rewarding. Lupe’sMexican Spitfiremovies were popular but stereotypes became common. Both Dolores del Rio and Lupe Velez returned to Mexico to make films, and del Rio became just as big a star in her home country. Lupe Velez died young in 1943. Conchita Montenegro too returned to her native Spain. The movie La Otra,made in Mexico and starring Dolores Del Rio and Victor Junco, was re-made in the U.S. in 1964 as Dead Ringer, starring Bette Davis.
Another generation of Latina actresses came along in the 1940s and 1950s, and then another after that. While roles in film are there, they are always too limited. We are fortunate however, to still have the chance to see the trail-blazing early stars of the silver screen.
An earlier version of this post appeared in my blog the Silver Screen Modiste in 2011
A blog about classic movie costume design and fashion