THE WIZARD OF OZ: COSTUMING A CLASSIC

The Wizard of Oz  movie had its 75th anniversary in August 2014, and to commemorate the milestone, Warner Brothers re-released this classic in 3-D. For the occasion the movie was digitally re-mastered, and for the IMAX and 3-D release, each frame of the film print had to be depth-mapped and rotoscoped to maximize the viewer experience. In this post the movie’s production is summarized and the backstory on the costume designs is brought to life as part of the Classic Movie Blog Association’s Fabulous Films of the 1930s Blogathon.  This post will cover the Adrian-designed costumes for The Wizard of Oz, and the fabrication and wearing of the costumes and the related make-up of the actors. These relics from the movie have since reached celestial values. If you’re old enough, like me, you will probably wish you had attended that historic MGM auction in 1970 to buy them when they were relatively cheap. Although the Ruby Slippers at the auction, popularly thought at the time to be the only pair, did sell for $15,000. This was the highest price for any MGM auction item. Their story since the movie was made in 1938-39 is itself fascinating.  But as Glinda the Good Witch says, “It’s always best to start at the beginning.”

 

OZ group
Photo courtesy Photofest

 

 

The movie is based on the classic book published in 1900, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, written by L. Frank Baum and beloved by children long before it became a movie. It had in fact already been made into two previous movies, one in 1910 and another in 1925 which starred Oliver Hardy as the Tin Woodsman.  It had also been a popular Broadway musical in 1902 that toured the country. In all these versions, although the story might change, the look of the characters and the costumes were based on the original W.W. Denslow illustrations for the book. 

In 1935 Samuel Goldwyn bought the movie and stage rights, but never produced anything. But after Walt Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs became a big hit in 1937-1938, the children’s fantasy became a hot property again. MGM bought the rights from Goldwyn and began producing the classic in 1938. Eyeing its potential, MGM would spare no expense in the production. 

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W.W. Denslow illustration for “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz”

Mervyn LeRoy was assigned to produce the movie, with Richard Thorpe as the original director and Adrian creating the costume designs. Although Shirley Temple was considered ideal for the role of Dorothy, it was MGM’s own Judy Garland that got the job, and in the end it was a perfect choice. Some of the key characters began with different actors in the roles: The Tin Woodman started out with Buddy Ebsen playing the part, and indeed he was a unique dancer. The Wicked Witch was to be played by Gale Sondergaard. But early in the shooting with Buddy Ebsen, the aluminum powder on his face gave him a very serious lung problem from breathing the metallic makeup. He was hospitalized and subsequently replaced by the Vaudevillian and movie actor Jack Haley. Adrian dressed Gale Sondergaard in the iconic black gown and hat, although both pieces were adorned with sequins. Gale looked just too glamorous, and pretty, despite her make-up. A “hag” type look was deemed more suitable, and the strong-featured Elizabeth Hamilton was selected instead, her image exaggerated with facial prosthetics and green make-up. Although Ebsen was then considered to play the Scarecrow, it was Ray Bolger that got the part, a rubber-legged song and dance man ideal for the part.

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Although most of the film was in Technicolor, test photos like this one were in black & white. This early dress was solid blue with accents.

Judy Garland as Dorothy wore only one dress for the entire movie. Still, it took several tries before that one dress was decided upon. One dress design was in a  light  blue color with no trim, another had gingham trim at the bodice and skirt, still another was a darker solid blue with tiny bows on the bodice. Judy’s hair color and style also varied in the early tests, from red to blond to her final auburn color. After a couple of weeks of filming, the results didn’t satisfy Le Roy, and so he replaced Richard Thorpe with George Cukor, who because of his prior commitment for directing Gone with the Wind, was only temporary. Victor Fleming would succeed him as director of  The Wizard of Oz.  As it turned out, Cukor would in turn be replaced by Victor Fleming as the director of GWTW. Thorpe’s chosen look for Dorothy was also changed, this in favor of the classic Adrian design of a blue and white checked pinafore with the off-white puffed-sleeve blouse. Judy’s long curled wig was also eliminated. It had been an attempt to hide her breasts (Dorothy was a young girl in the book, Judy was 17), which was accomplished by wearing a flattening bra, just one of the uncomfortable costumes worn by the cast.

Oz early wardrobehair test of Judy Garland as Dorothy Gale

The photo below shows Judy in the classic pinafore, with Toto. It was the first color scene in the movie, just as they enter Oz and she exclaims, “Toto, I have a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore.”

Oz was one of the big Technicolor movies.  The use of this filming method created several difficulties. Technicolor cameras were owned by the Technicolor company, and their use was tightly controlled. Colors had to be approved by the Technicolor consultant, which drove Adrian mad due to the costume color modifications that had to be made. White did not work at all due to the strong glow it gave. Thus Dorothy’s white blouse had to be dyed to produce a sort of dirty white.  Technicolor also required very bright lighting, so banks of overhead arc-lights were used, as many as 150 on the biggest sets. This created intense heat which exhausted the actors in their heavy costumes and make-up. Ironically, this same intensive lighting requirement for Technicolor has made it feasible to render the movie into 3-D.

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Photo courtesy Photofest

Glinda (the Good Witch) is played by the wonderful Billie Burke. Adrian designed his favored shoulder-emphasis in her gown, with the pouffed shoulders actually resembling wings. In the book Glinda wore a white gown decorated with silver stars. Instead Adrian had to change the white to a dusty rose color in order to satisfy the demands of  the Technicolor company.

Oz Glinda & Dorothy

And then there were the Ruby Slippers. They serve a key role in the plot and are one of the most  iconic costume pieces in cinema history. In Baum’s book The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, Dorothy’s shoes are silver. Adrian thought that red shoes would have more pizzazz in the Technicolor film, and would  help to emphasize their importance to the story. Several types of red shoes were tested, including one pair with the curled-up toe that was called, the “Arabian slippers.”  Adrian believed that only red sequins would give the right sparkle. So now finding the right method of attaching sequins to shoes was experimented with. The shoes were not built from scratch. The pumps with their French heels were purchased from the Innes Shoe Company of Los Angeles, Hollywood, and Pasadena, in several pairs, and reportedly dyed red.Several pairs were necessary in order to account for wear and tear and a pair for Judy’s stand-in. In the MGM Wardrobe Department, embroiderers sewed red sequins (nearly 5000 sequins) onto shoe-formed  red sllk georgette, which was then sewed onto the red faille pumps. Somewhat later Adrian added the red bugle beaded and rhinestone jeweled bow which was also sewn onto each shoe of the regular pairs. Scarlet-colored felt was also glued onto the soles of some of the ruby slippers, most notably those seen on the dead Wicked Witch of the East, and the soles of others were painted red. The blue silk socks were also a great addition, especially as compared to the dark knee socks previously tested. The Ruby Slippers have their own crucial role as Dorothy is told by Glinda to tap her heels together three times and say, “There’s no place like home.” in order to return.

Oz  Dorothy & slippers

The Tin Man was costumed in close proximity to the book’s illustrations, as was the Scarecrow. Neither tin nor metal was actually used, but rather a starched and lined buckram, which was a common material used in making durable book covers. This in turn was painted silver. Jack Haley’s make-up was made up of a layer of cold-cream, white foundation, and then aluminum paint. This was modified from the disastrous first version used with Buddy Ebsen. Ray Bolger’s make-up for the Scarecrow was a partial rubber mask to simulate burlap. He went through dozens of these masks during the course of production. His costume was a green jacket and brown pants, stuffed at several places with raffia to resemble straw. Every couple of days these costumes had to be cleaned by a process of  hand-sponging them during the evening, if not replacing them altogether.

OZ Judy tin man scarecrow
Photo courtesy Photofest

The Cowardly Lion in the book was indeed a lion, so the costume was made of real lion skins and mane. Projecting ears were added, and Bert Lahr wore a prosthetic lip and jowls, and separate lion mittens. The costume also had interior padding, which made it weigh about 50 pounds. The tail was manipulated during the filming by a wire attached to a sort of fishing rod, handled by a crewman from above. All the heavily made up and costumed characters suffered because of the heat. Bert Lahr complained the most, saying he could only eat his lunch using a straw.

Oz Lion

As a starting point, the Art Department envisioned the world of the tiny Munchkins as being close to the ground. Thus Adrian incorporated the theme of flowers for their costumes: appliqued and embroidered flowers; flower-pot hats; leaf decorations, and the like. And all the Munchkins’ costumes would be made of felt for softness. He emphasized their smallness by designing over-sized collars and large vests and hats. As in the book, various Munchkins had titles and defined jobs: the fiddlers, the heralds, the soldiers, the First Townsman, the Coroner, the Mayor, and others. For the Commander of the Army, Adrian used a rose for his spurs and a birdcage hat. 

The characters were played by dwarfs (little people as they liked to be called), with some child actors used as well.

OZ munchkins
Photo courtesy Photofest

The costumes in the Emerald City of Oz were of course all green. Thus shoes, stockings, dresses, and coats were green. This gave much extra work for the Wardrobe Department since stockings, shoes, and coats were not available in green, and so these costume parts all had to be dyed, which took several days to accomplish. For the shoes, they were spray-painted, which meant the insides and the soles had to be taped off. One of the highlights of the movie was the Emerald City Beauty Shop, where Dorothy was beautified as well as the other lead characters. Here Adrian was finally able to add some fashion styling to the beauticians’ wardrobe.

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Photo courtesy Photofest

The basic exterior look of the Emerald City of Oz was the result of a brainstorm of Cedric Gibbons, the Head of the Art Department, when he was discussing the problem of designing a unique look for Oz with production designer William Horning. Gibbons was looking at a German studio photo of a group of glass beakers when he had the idea to use these elements for the look of Oz. The idea was to make the beakers green and turn them upside down in a grouping. This ended up giving a unique look to Oz as seen from far away.

OzThe Kingdom of OZ

Frank Morgan played key roles throughout the movie. His job was very laborious as he had to be fitted for each costume and tested in a variety of make-ups, wigs and mustaches. In different make-up and costumes he played the roles of Professor Marvel, the Doorkeeper of Oz, the Guard at the gates of the Wizard’s palace, a horse-drawn wagon cabby, and of course the Wizard of Oz himself. An unbelievable yet true story surrounds the frock coat he wore as Professor Marvel. Not finding an appropriate tattered-looking coat in the Wardrobe Department, Wardrobe personnel were sent searching in a second-hand (not yet called vintage) clothes store. There they picked up a rack of appropriate-looking coats. Frank Morgan, Victor Fleming and the wardrobe man picked out one that had the right look of well-worn gentility. Later on Frank Morgan looked inside and discovered an interior  label with the late L. Frank Baum’s name on it. The coat’s authenticity was later verified by Baum’s widow Maud as well as his taylor.

Oz Morgan

The heavily made-up face of Bert Lahr as the no-longer-cowardly Lion expresses the joy that this movie has given millions of people.  The Wizard of Oz is a national treasure.

OZ Lion & Wizard
Photo courtesy Photofest

And The Wizard of Oz was also a musical, with music by Harold Arlen and lyrics by E.Y (Skip) Harburg.  For the first time ever, a non-animated feature film would have its music “pre-scored,” that is the songs were conceived as an integral part of the script. What would The Wizard of Oz be without Over the Rainbow? Yet this song was almost eliminated from the movie, when some MGM execs doubted that anyone would go for a girl singing in a barn yard. Arlen and Harburg pleaded for the song. After some initial negative previews it was almost cut again. Arthur Freed, then an assitant to producer Mervyn Le Roy,  finally threatened to quit if the song was cut. The final decision was made by Leo B. Mayer, who said it would stay.

The Wizard of Oz Actually lost about a million dollars after its initial realease in 1939, after distribution and advertising costs were added to the $2,777,000 production costs. It  was first shown on television on November 3, 1956. Since then its popularity has grown and it is now the most-watched movie in the history of film. The movie made life-long celebrities of all of its main cast members. Judy Garland won a miniature Oscar for Best Performance as a juvenile performer. Oscars were also won for Best Score and Best Song (for that barnyard classic, Over the Rainbow). There was no Oscar for Adrian, as no Oscars were awarded  for costume at that time, when the classic costume designers were in their prime.

One pair of Ruby Slippers have been on exhibit  at the Smithsonian Museum for many years, where lines are usually formed to see them. Another pair has recently been donated to the future Museum of the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences in Los Angeles, where no doubt they will be the chief attraction. Their current value is now nearing $2,000,000.

The inked #7 pair of Ruby Slippers originally found by Kent Warner

Several excellent research resources exist on the Wizard of Oz production, including:

*Aljean Harmetz, The Making of the Wizard of Oz

*William Stillman and Jay Scarfone, The Wizard of Oz:The Official 75th Anniversary Companion

* Rhys Thomas, The Rubby Slippers of Oz

BEHIND THE SCENES AT THE OLD MGM WARDROBE

At the biggest and busiest movie studio of Hollywood’s Golden Age, hummed the most productive studio wardrobe department in movie history. At its most complete in the  1960s, it had some 300,000 costumes in its wardrobe storage – not counting those it had already dicarded in previous decades. MGM regularly produced over 40 moves every year, with its costume designers and wardrobe department producing the costumes for most of them. By comparison, today’s studios make 10-15 movies a year, and of course studios no longer have in-house costume design and fabrication capabilities.

MGM facade

The facade of the old MGM Studio and its original entry gate on Washington Blvd as it looked in 1936 is seen above. The Wardrobe Department was located near Washington Blvd and what the studio called 1st Street. Men’s Wardrobe was located elsewhere and costumes were also stored in various locations.  The Wardrobe Department had a manager who ran its day-to-day operations, separate from the costume design staff.  A view to the three-story department is seen in the photo below. In addition to the glamorous part of movie costumes, post-production they would have to be laundered or dry-cleaned, and then inventoried and hung up in the high racks. Bolts of fabrics of all kinds would have to be kept on hand or custom ordered.

MGM ladies wardrobe 1

MGM went through several designers after its beginning in 1924-25. The studio hoped to capitalize on the name of Erte in 1925, but he didn’t last. Andre-Ani, Max Ree, and Rene Hubert all did fine work but none lasted long at the studio. Gilbert Clark managed to last longer, but was as temperamental as the divas he dressed. This didn’t work for Garbo. So when Cecil B. DeMille came to make movies for MGM and brought his costume designer Adrian, he soon found his designer under contract to MGM. Starting in 1928, every movie that Garbo starred in was designed by Adrian, as was every Joan Crawford movie until 1941 when Adrian left to start his own fashion line. He also designed the costumes for Jean Harlow, Hedy Lamarr, Lana Turner, and Katharine Hepburn.

MGM+Adrian
Adrian liked to paint his costume sketches on his sofa, using the end table to lay out his water colors.

Seen below is a group of MGM wardrobe ladies at work.  The Adrian sketch shown and the costume on the dress form are for Greta Garbo in Grand Hotel. As was the case for all leading ladies, Garbo had her own custom-sized dress form (padded to her dimensions).

MGM Wardrobe_Garbo Sketch from Grand Hotel

Hannah Lindfors, a cutter-fitter, is shown below. She  translates the designer’s costume sketch into muslin pattern pieces, which are then used to cut the chosen fabric. In this case its for a Dolly Tree design for Rita Johnson. When Adrian left to start his own fashion business, Hannah Lindfors left with him as his cutter-fitter.

MGM Cutter-Fitter

Several lace-makers are at work below on the bridal veil for Helen Hayes for the movie White Sister, 1933. It took two weeks to make.

MGM lace workers

Two Wardrobe ladies are working on the embroidery for a costume for Romeo and Juliet, starring Norma Shearer, Leslie Howard and John Barrymore. Adrian and Oliver Messel designed, and Wardrobe fabricated , some1250 costumes for the film.

MGM+Romeo

Cutter-fitter Inez Schrodt is seen below working on a gown for Marie Antoinette, 1938. The film starred Norma Shearer and Tyrone Power. Some 2500 costumes were used in the film, and Adrian designed 36 costumes for Norma, which was a long-standing record until Cleopatra of 1963.

Inez Schroedt & Marie Antoinette gown

Jane Halsey is seen below resting on a “leaning-board” during the filming of The Great Ziegfeld, 1936. The costume was made of bugle-beads and weighed 102 pounds. The leaning boards were heavily padded with cloth – less for comfort but as to prevent snags to the costumes.

MGM 8

Wardrobe ladies below are at work on Lana Turner’s costume in Ziegfeld Girl, 1941. The film had completely different but equally magnificent costumes as The Great Ziegfeld, which Adrian also designed.

MGM 7

Greer Garson has a stitch repair done to her costume by Vicky Nichols on the set of Mrs. Parkington, 1944. Her costumes were designed by Irene, who had taken over as head designer from Adrian. Irene was at MGM from 1942 until 1948. She was joined by Helen Rose and then Walter Plunkett. Irene Sharaff and Robert Kalloch also worked there for a period, and Gile Steele and  J. Arlington Valles designed men’s costumes.

MGM+Greer+and+wardrobe+lady

The Wardrobe Department kept most all of the costumes it made. These were re-used in other films, and often modified. Costumes are being pulled here and placed on a rack for some film. All of these costumes were sold in the MGM auction of 1970.

MGM Wardrobe racks

This section of shelving shows Roman style helmets, most likely with other armor pieces further inside the shelves. Similar but smaller shelves housed thousands of shoes.

MGM waedrobe helmets

Shelves and bins of shoes of all sizes and styles were also available for stock use. After years some of these were neglected and placed in more recessed areas, where no doubt the, several pairs of the Ruby Slippers from the Wizard of Oz were later found. Only one pair made its way to the MGM auction of 1970. It set the record for the highest priced item at the auction: $15,000. At recent auctions, pairs of the Ruby Slippers have fetched around $2 million.

Lana Turner is shown below with a costume sketch for one of her costumes and the actual costume from The Prodigal, 1955. Herschel McCoy designed the costumes for the film.

MGM+Lana+and+fitter

By 1955 when The Prodigal was produced by MGM, the heyday of the studio system was over. Leo B. Mayer had been replaced as head of the studio by Dore Schary. The Consent Decree forced by the US Court over an Anti-Trust suit had made studios divest their ownership of movie theaters, and television viewing had decimated movie audiences. Costume designers like Walter Plunkett, who had been working since the late 1920s, had gone from designing for over 20 movies a year back then to designing just two movies  for MGM in 1957.

Fortunately, the legacy of MGM, its movies and the work of its costume designers and makers , and the other artists and artisans of the studio are preserved in the movies for all of us to see and enjoy. These behind the scenes photos show that the work of producing glamour was not glamorous. And in those days film credits did not acknowledge the work of any of them in wardrobe except for the costume designer. This is a small tribute to their work.

TCM FILM FESTIVAL 2015 – ITS A WRAP

Turner Classic Movies held its 6th Annual Classic Film Festival in Hollywood over four days ending Sunday night March 19, 2015. The festivals keep getting bigger and better, which I can attest, having attended all previous festivals. The theme of this one was “History According to Hollywood,” with film screenings and programs fitting into this or several sub-themes. As in prior years, the TCM staff was everywhere present and graciously introducing movies or tending to logistics, the needs of talent, and those of the attendees. And this year talent was very prominent, with Julie Andrews, Christopher Plummer, Dustin Hoffman, Sophia Loren, Shirley MacLaine, Alec Baldwin, Ann-Margret,  Spike Lee, Peter Fonda, Keith Carradine, Robert Morse, William Daniels, Ken Howard, and others.

In keeping with prior years, and in order to keep some 20,000+ attendees busy, multiple movie showings  and other events were taking place concurrently. This also made it possible to have a different personal experience of the TCMFF, as it is known in shorthand, than someone else. This is probably the case with me, as I sometimes pick the less popular movies to watch.

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In the photo above, the TCMFF Red Carpet is being set up on Thursday, with its step and repeat backdrop. Years earlier the Red Carpet was fairly open to watch and photograph. Now you need credentials and you can’t get close to it.

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Directly across the street, if you picked the right position, you could get some good photos of the limousines arriving with the stars attending the 50th anniversary screening of The Sound of Music.  It helped  to be standing next to autograph hunters with loud and adulatory voices.

 

Julie Andrews

Julie Andrews  attended, as did Christopher Plummer, who would later set his hands and feet in cement at the TCL Chinese Theatre. The ever-lovely Shirley Jones also attended, as seen below.

 

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Michael Tucci, who starred in Grease, and lately in The Heat, crossed  Hollywood Blvd. with police escort to sign autographs, as did Barry Pearl also from Grease. That movie was playing poolside at the Roosevelt.

 

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Michael Tucci, photo Christian Esquevin

 

 

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Barry Pearl, photo Christian Esquevin

 

I attended the  simultaneous screening of Queen Christina, the Greta Garbo classic with costumes designed by Adrian, which included both a phenomenal court gown but also her many masculine garments. This was also the film that brought back John Gilbert to the screen before his early death.

The next morning featured a special showing of Lenny, about the radical stand-up comic Lenny Bruce, starring Dustin Hoffman. Dustin Hoffman was interviewed, after the screening, by Alec Baldwin, but “interviewed” is really a misnomer as this was a wandering dialogue that was as fascinating as it was funny as each actor took turns mimicking comedian Buddy Hackett and trading show business lore.

In the same Egyptian Theater, and with seemingly the same line length, The Cincinnati Kid followed. The Steve McQueen/Edward G. Robinson movie also starred Ann-Margret, who was in attendance and interviewed by Ben Mankiewicz. She let out that what was special about McQueen was his “animalism.” She shared his love of fast motorcycles.

 

 

Ann-Margret
Photo by Christian Esquevin

 

 

Another quick hop to the next screening back at the Chinese for Rififi,  a French film noir classic directed by the American Jules Dassin. TCM’s  film noir buff Shannon Clute introduced Eddie Muller who in turn  introduced the film, starting by complementing the audience for attending what he thought was the best movie of the whole festival, and “as perfect a movie as you can get.” Indeed, it was a great film with a taut plot about a reunited gang out to do a big jewelry store heist. Its climax robbery scene , almost silent, lasted 28 minutes and had you on the edge of your chair the whole time.

For something completely different, there was the mostly forgotten movie musical 1776, itself based on the successful Broadway musical which Jack Warner produced as his swan song in 1972. Its book and plot centered on the Second Continental Congress – and its raucous debates on whether to declare independence which eventually led to the Declaration of Independence. It was surprisingly good history, fine music, and great acting. Its original stage and movie director Peter H. Hunt was there as were cast members Ken Howard (John Adams) and William Daniels (Thomas Jefferson). The three were interviewed by Ben Mankiewicz, and William Daniels got a surprise birthday cake. Director Peter H. Hunt said that Richard Nixon saw the movie and then personally asked Jack Warner to cut out the number “Cool, Cool, Considerate Men”  about Representative Dickinson and the Conservatives. The number was cut from the release but was added back in this director’s cut.

 

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Peter H. Hunt, photo Christian Esquevin
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Ben Mankiewicz and William Daniels photo Christian Esquevin

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Ken Howard photo ChristIan Esquevin

 

A traditional program at the TCMFF is the Hollywood Home Movies shown in the Club TCM  at the Roosevelt Hotel. This program features a collection of home movies mostly shot by movie stars, their family members, or others, showing scenes of early Hollywood or the stars enjoying  their leisure hours. Many of the films are in the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts & Sciences and the Academy Film Archive. On hand were Jane Withers, Bob Koster, and Neile Adams McQueen talking to Randy Hauberkamp and Lynne Kirste of the Academy about their home movies, featuring Steve McQueen, the indefatigable Jane Withers, and “home movies” from director Henry Koster of Gary Cooper in the early 1930s.

 

The Club TCM is also graced with displayed costumes and memorabilia on loan from Bonham’s auction house. Bonham’s also holds an appraisal session during the festival if you bring in your entertainment memorabilia. These items may also end up in the TCM/Bonham’s Auctions if you are inclined to consign.

 

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Neile Adams McQueen left, with Lynne Kirste and Randy Hauberkamp, photo Christian Esquevin

 

 

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Jane Withers, photo Christian Esquevin

 

Sunday morning started out with a long line for the screening of The Hunchback of Notre Dame, that 1939 classic among a packet of other remarkable films from that year. This was Maureen O’Hara’s first U.S film and starred Charles Laughton as Quasimodo. It also starred a young, good-looking and almost unrecognizable Edmond O’Brien as Gringoire. The movie was a big production for RKO at the time, and it has remained an excellent film.

 

Madeleine Stowe graced the stage to open The Philadelphia Story, the Katharine Hepburn/Cary Grant/Jimmy Stewart classic. I never get tired of seeing it, and here on the really big screen, I can appreciate even more Adrian’s remarkable costumes. They are not only eye-popping in their own right but they thoroughly do their job in defining her character from steely goddess to humbled bride-to-be.

In her interview with IIleanna Douglas, Madeleine Stowe let-on that her early ambition was to become a film critic – luckily for us she was “discovered” and became an actor.

 

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The photo below shows the second part of three sections of the line for The Philadelphia Story at the TCL Chinese. The lines were well managed and things moved along.

 

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I also attended the thoroughly charming The Smiling Lieutenant with Maurice Chevalier, Claudette Colbert and Miriam Hopkins. Ernst Lubitsch directed this 1931 musical. Lubitsch fell for Hopkins, and starred her in several of his films.

The Reign of Terror, or The Black Book as it’s also know by was a film noir set in revolutionary France. It was a very good movie although it was not good history. Anthony Mann directed Bob Cummings and the beautiful Arlene Dahl.

The documentary program The Dawn of Technicolor was excellent. this presentation was based on the book by David Pierce and James Layton, and clips from the early musicals of 1929-1930 were shown. After the advent of sound, the studios spent money on adding color to attract larger audiences into their expanding markets. Rare clips were shown as many films thought lost are recent discoveries and in some cases only segments survive.

It was also a thrill to see 42nd Street on the big screen. The combination of wise-cracking chorus girls, great Busby Berkeley numbers, and the wonderful lead of Warner Baxter in a cast of Ruby Keeler, Bebe Daniels, Ginger Rogers, Dick Powell, George Brent and Una Merkel was real pleasure.

Many more movies were outstanding, including the Diary of Anne Frank, Breaker Morant, Roman Holiday, Rebecca, The Proud Rebel, My Man Godfrey, My Darling Clementine, Marriage Italian Style, and The Apartment among many others.

I was happy to have started out the 6th Annual TCMFF with friend and fellow bloggers Kimberly Truhler and Kellee Pratt. And here’s to TCM for bringing these great movies to us on the large screen and in great prints or fine digital copies. So here’s looking forward to the 7th annual TCMFF and a recovered Robert Osborne.

 

 

EXODUS: GODS AND KINGS – THE NEW EPIC

The history of epic film is rich with the story of Moses and his liberation of the Jewish people from Ramses and the Egyptians, along with the dramatic crossing of the Nile while being pursued. Cecil B. DeMille made two versions of the story in The Ten Commandments, including the famous 1956 version with Charlton Heston and Yul Brynner. Now the epic has been modernized with Ridley Scott’s sweeping direction in the 20th Century-Fox production of Exodus: Gods and Kings. The costumes, sets, and scenery of the production do justice to the biblical epics of DeMille’s day while adding special CGI effects not known in classic film days. With a cast of Christian Bale as Moses, Joel Edgerton as Ramses, John Turturro as Seti and Sigourney Weaver as Queen Tuya, the actors bring this historic drama to life. If you missed it on the big screen, it is out now on Digital HD and Blu-Ray.

To see more behind-the-scenes production content, check out the Exodus interactive site:  http://bit.ly/InsideExodus

Grab it on Digital HD: http://bit.ly/ExodusDHD

 

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Conceptual art for Moses for the movie Exodus: Gods and Kings

 

Ridley Scott is famous for his vision of what style and look the movies he directs will have. One can see that as far back as his first film The Duellists, starting in 1977 and going on to Alien, Blade Runner, 1492, Gladiator, Kingdom of Heaven, and American Gangster, to name a few. Having started out as a cameraman he has a keen eye for how visual details can help tell the story and  set the mood. He has forged strong relationships with his creative team, including costume designer Janty Yates, who won an Oscar for Best Costume design for her work in Scott’s film Gladiator.

 

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Conceptual art for the character of Ramses II

 

When Janty Yates got the call asking her to work on Exodus: Gods and Kings, she knew from experience that this would involve a cast of thousands, but her reaction was “I can do this.” But then she found out she had four months to make it happen. That’s when she started waking up every night at 3:15 a.m. concerned about getting it all done – and done to Ridley Scott’s exacting vision. “Research, research, research,” she said about how she started the job.  The original Egyptian sources proved the best resources. “I spent a huge amount of time looking at wall paintings, ”  added Yates. “You can get a huge amount of reference from tombs, temples … even color.”

In an epic of this magnitude, costuming runs the spectrum from providing period dress for some 7000 people, including armor for warring armies, to detailed accessories for the Egyptian aristocracy. This also included jewelry like pendants, arm bracelets, multiple rings, collar pieces, headdresses, ornate belts and aprons. “Everyone wore about 15 pieces,” Yates said.  “Was it blingy?” asked Ridley Scott about the movie. “Absolutely,” he said.

When it comes to costumes from the Egyptian period, the costume rental houses fell short of what was needed. “The last big Egyptian movie  was Cleopatra with Elizabeth Taylor,” Yates said . That movie was released in 1963. But in the early 60s, the tastes ran to bright colors in women’s costumes, and foundation undergarments were used  to  nip in waists and  emphasize breasts, looks no longer considered appropriate for period films.  So Yates pretty much had to start from scratch. For the Egyptians that meant fabricating the costumes , from the palace guards to the principle cast members. For the Hebrews, their rustic linen costumes were historically more functional, made in a basic T-form by Italian costume houses. These  very contrasts in the costumes tell part of the story.

 

Exodus 6 Queen

Queen Nefertari is played by the Iranian actress Golshifteh Farahani. As a queen, and as one of the Great Royal Wives of Ramses, she wears a royal headdress and all the trappings of her station. Much of the costume design elements came from Egyptian hieroglyphics and wall paintings.

 

Exodus 7 Queen Tuya

Queen Tuya was another Royal Wife, played by Sigourney Weaver. Ridley Scott told Yates he wanted her “to be little more of a man-eater.”

One of Yates’ favorite costumes to design was for Ramses. His suit of armor was plated in gold.That was also discovered in the wall paintings. She designed one of his helmets  in a rich blue, and shaped like a bees’ nest.  But a gold helmet design was used instead. This alternate design was a better match for Joel Edgerton’s face. Janty Yates loved going over-the-top on his costumes, especially since Ramses II himself  was just such a vain and out-sized character.

 

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The court costume of Ramses as designed for Joel Edgerton is shown below. The costumes for Edgerton and Christian Bale as Moses were essentially “dresses” so they had to be “butched up” according to Yates. And the colors for Moses had to be made quite different than from Ramses in order to highlight their differences.

 

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Exodus 1- Moses

Costume sketches for Moses in Egyptian armor are shown above. The Egyptians used a type of armor called lamellar, which was made of rectangular shaped platelets or scales which were hole-punched and laced together. For the movie the platelets were made of urethane by the UK company FBFX, a supplier of specialized costumes and props to the industry. The material is very light but tough, and it can take a finish that resembles metal. The lightness of the urethane was very functional for all the stunt men in their fight scenes.

 

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The Egyptian infantry fought mainly with a spear, or a bow, and protected by a shield as well as the loin shield shown in the sketch above and below.

 

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The costumes in Exodus: Gods and Kings, like all the best costumes in movies, help define character and sets the story in time and place. Here is a visual treat that makes the scenes and the action all the more life-like as a movie experience.  Yates thinks it compares very well to The Ten Commandments, with enhanced special effects and without dated costumes,  saying , “… to make it glorious, that was my mission.”  And in the process another great collaboration between Ridley Scott and Janty Yates was made.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

CRIME & PUNISHMENT: ON FILM WITH PETER LORRE

 

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The Czech poster for Crime and Punishment

 

Fyodor Dostoevsky’s novel Crime and Punishment was also the title of the 1935 film. It opens with the prologue: “The time of our story is any time, the place is any place where human hearts respond to love and hate, pity and terror.” The novel is one of the great works of literature, and its  plot has been adapted for many films from the silent era through modern times. Josef von Sternberg directed Crime and Punishment, but he did so for Columbia after having been fired at Paramount after directing  The Devil is a Woman, his last film with Marlene Dietrich. His last two films there had not done well and had caused various problems for the studio. He was going through the motions at Columbia and later spoke unfavorably about the movie, and that Lorre was inappropriate for the role, which has caused it to  have a poor reputation. It was not the sort of glamorous films he was used to making with Dietrich, but Crime and Punishment deserves to have more respect. For one, it was Peter Lorre’s second American film, and virtually his only  lead role as a normal character in an American movie.

josef von sternberg 1939 - by laszlo willinger

 

Peter Lorre had just come to the United States in 1935, and got a job at Columbia Pictures.  He shared a room with Billy Wilder and they both had to learn English. He had already received strong reviews playing the child murderer in Fritz Lang’s M, and subsequently after fleeing Germany, in England for Alfred Hitchcock in The Man Who Knew Too Much. It was Lorrie who suggested to Harry Cohn that he star in Crime and Punishment, for which he would be willing to be traded to MGM to make Mad Love, which would become his first American film, while waiting.

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Portrait of Peter Lorre taken for Crime and Punishment

 

Crime and Punishment is the great Russian story of crime and the power of redemption. It would be virtually impossible to capture the novel in a single movie. But this 1935 film has several qualities. Its acting for one is uniformly excellent for the principal cast of Lorre as Roderick Raskolnikov, Edward Arnold as Inspector Porfiry, Marian Marsh as Sonya, Tala Birrell as Antonia “Toni” Raskolnikov the sister, and Elizabeth Risden as Raskolnikov’s mother.

 

Crime and Punishment Sonya

 

Marian Marsh is pictured above as Sonya. There is no doubt that she is meant to be enticing and alluring. A magnet for Raskolnikov in many ways. The story is about Raskolnikov, a university student that has distinguished himself by his theories and understanding about crime and criminals. He has been given an expensive pocket watch for his graduation. He believes his intelligence and moral values puts him above the law. Yet he lives in poverty, eking out a living from his writings. When he learns his family is coming to visit, he goes to pawn his watch. There he sees a young woman, Sonya, given only a ruble for her silver-covered bible and kicked out by the woman pawnbroker. She drops and loses her ruble, and Raskolnikov offers her his money when he learns she is supporting her family.   The prologue was taken as a stylistic cue for the film and its art direction. It could take place at any time, and at any place. No cars are shown in the film to date whether it depicts Dostoesvsky’s time, or the film noir heights of the 1950s. No phones ring, or voice-over narrations explain the existential quagmire of Raskolnikov’s life, but the deep black shadows and contrasting lights, with the recurring bars of his staircases provide a favorite noir trope. And von Sternberg shows frequent shots of Lorre taken from behind, perhaps to make his character more obscure.

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But Peter Lorre is one of those actors that would have been perfect for the silent screen. He conveys every emotion on his face without the need of words: fear; anxiety; disdain; haughtiness; sympathy; love. His sympathy for Sonya and sudden hatred for the pawnbroker, mixed with his belief in his own ability to flaunt the law, takes him back to the pawnbroker, as he needs money again as his family is coming to visit. Only this time he kills her and takes her money.

Blogathon Lorre

Crime and Punishment the novel is the most psychological and existential of 19th century works of literature. The film boils that heavy story down to a proto-film noir, a bleak work about a lonely man in the process of estranging his family – but too smart to care about the trap that is being set for him by a plodding police inspector.

 

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The image above shows Lorre as Raskolnikov in his humble apartment. But his opinion of himself in not humble, symbolized by the portrait of Napoleon. He sees himself like Napoleon, brilliant and a maker of his own rules. He reads articles about  the crime he has committed, but he knows the pawnbroker was cheating people out of money. He is not enough above the law however for being arrested for not paying rent. There he meets Inspector Porfiry. The Inspector has heard of him and asks his opinion about the likely criminal and so begins his cat and mouse with Inspector Porfiry.

 

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Marian Marsh plays a beautiful a vision of innocence for Raskolnikov to be lured into wanting to protect and to give away all his money to. In the book she was a prostitute. She is doubly alluring to him for having had to pawn her expensive bible for which she received practically nothing. She is a mix of innocent and guilty.

Raskolnikov is also protective of his sister. He learns that her boss Grilov has forced himself upon her, and she then lost her job. When subsequently she agreed to marry a rich but older and more homely man, Lushin. Raskolnikov mocks Lushin , which breaks up their engagement.

 

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An innocent man is brought in and accused of the crime of killing the pawnbroker, This event does not fit in to Raskolnikov’s philosophical scheme.

When the innocent man is arrested, Inspector Porfiry is just as happy to pin the crime on him – he has his reputation to maintain. Later, Raslknikov is appalled when the man even confesses to the crime. This shakes his psychological foundation, and his conscious at having a man punished for a crime that he committed.

 

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Edward Arnold as Inspector Porfiry at left, Douglas Dumbrille as Grilov at right.

 

The Inspector insinuates himself into Raskolnikov’s life. He invites himself to a family dinner, then questions the family members about the crime. Raskolnikov becomes furious and asks him to apologize.

 

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The psychological foundation of Raskolnikov’s life is cracking. Guilt is the cause, hammered by Porfiry and  steeping in his subconscious. His love of Sonya, his sister and mother makes his guilt feel even more acute, especially when he confesses to Sonya and sees her reaction.

 

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The theme of Crime and Punishment the novel and the film, is the power of love and redemption to heal the soul – even the subconscious in the grip of past sins and misdeeds. Sonya offers to run away with him. But he decides he will turn himself in to Porfiry and save an innocent man.  Sonya goes with him,  and will follow him to Siberia. Only then does he feel true  happiness.

 

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Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment has often been the subject of films or film adaptations. It first appeared in a silent film version in 1917 produced by Arrow and  directed by Lawrence McGill and starring Derwent Hall Caine. A German production followed in 1923 titled Raskolnikov, then a Monogram production came out in 1946 entitled Fear starring Warren William. In 1959 Allied Artists produced a version starring George Hamilton.

Perhaps the most unlikely of modern adaptations of Crime and Punishment happened when Paul Schrader directed and wrote the screenplay for American Gigolo. He was influenced by the French director Robert Bresson and especially Bresson’s film Pickpocket (1959), Bresson was also a big influence on the French New Wave. Jean-Luc Godard reportedly viewed Pickpocket ten times. Bresson in his making of Pickpocket was himself influenced by Crime and Punishment. The story elements of the novel used in both films center on a young man who believes that he alone can judge that he is above the law, and that for some people even murder is permissible if it is done for a higher purpose, which he soon commits. Ultimately, he is doggedly pursued by a detective and he is sent to a Siberian prison, followed there by a former prostitute who he has helped, and who in turn helps him to heal. Dostoesvky’s theme was the power of love and redemption. Thus did this theme find its way in the final scene of Pickpocket, when the imprisoned robber for the first time tenderly kisses Jeanne, a young woman he had previously scorned, from behind bars and says, “…to come to you, what strange journey have I had to take.” This scene was repeated in American Gigolo. And in this more chaste version of Crime and Punishment, 1935, Peter Lorre and Marian Marsh are seen together as Raskolnikov and Sonya, where he is turning himself in, eyes heavenward, yet still with their future together.

 

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OSCAR CONTENDERS 2015 – BEST COSTUME

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

grand-budapest-hotel Jeff Goldblum

 

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

INTO THE WOODS

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

INTO THE WOODS

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

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

 

Into the woods

 

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

 

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

 

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Photo by Disney Enterprises/Chris Floyd

 

 

 

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

 

MALEFICENT

 

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

 

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

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

Oscar Mr TURNER

 

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

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

 

INHERENT VICE

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

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

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

 

Inherent vice

 

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

THE DUELLISTS: RIDLEY SCOTT’S NAPOLEONIC THRILLER

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Duellists 7 Alan Armstrong

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

 

 

THE 10 WILDEST COSTUMES IN FILM HISTORY

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

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

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

 

Costume Wild Salome Nazimova

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

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

 

Costume wild Evelyn Brent_ Slightly Scarlet_gray shades_001

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

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

 

 

Costume wild Mme Satan 2

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

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

 

Costume wild Madam Satan 1

 

 

 

Costume wild Garbo_Mata Hari_color_006

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

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

 

Dietrich Coq feathers

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

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

 

Costume wild Hepburn Christopher Strong

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

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

 

Costumes Wild Cleopatra 34 1
Photo courtesy Photofest

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

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

 

Color Cleopatra_1934_3

 

 

 

Costumes wild GWTW
Photo courtesy Photofest

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

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

 

 

Costume wilf Grace-Kelly

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

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

 

Costumes Wild Cleopatra 63
Photo courtesy Photofest

 

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

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

costume wild Cleopatra Liz
Courtesy 20th Century-Fox

 

If only we still had such Masked Balls.

 

 

NORMA SHEARER: 1st SCREEN SYMBOL OF SEXUAL LIBERATION?

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

Norma Shearer Hurrell

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

 

Norma Last of Mrs. Cheyney

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

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

Norma Shearer and Robert Montgomery The Divorcee2

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

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

 

Norma Shearer let-us-be-gay

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

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

Norma Shearer and Robert Montgomery

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

Norma Shearer 1931

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

 

Norma Shearer_A Free Soul

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

 

Norma and Clark A Free Soul

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

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

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

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

 

Norma Shearer_Riptide

 

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

 

Norma Shearer_Riptide_2

 

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

Gail Patrick: The Forgotten Star

gail_patrick 2

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

Gail Patrick 3

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

Gail Patrick_The Love Trap
Gail Patrick in Her Husband Lies.

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

Gail Patrick My_Favorite_Wife_1940_

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

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

 

gail patrick william powell 1

 

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

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

 

hit parade 1943

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

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

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

 

Gail Patrick 1

 

 

 

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

HOLLYWOOD COSTUME: THE ACADEMY’S EXHIBITION

LA Hollywood Costume 4

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

 

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

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Marily Monroe’s dress from “Some Like it Hot.”

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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Photo KABC

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

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

Larry McQueen Hollywood costume V&A Angel Travis Banton

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

60s A-GO-GO

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

60s Courreges Coat

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

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

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

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

Sixties Peggy Moffitt William Caxton

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

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

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

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

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

60s Marc Jacobs show 2012 Paris fashion week

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

Sixties Fashion Week Burberry
Photo Alastair Grant AP

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

ELIZABETH TAYLOR & DESIGNER HELEN ROSE

Elizabeth Taylor: the last great movie star might be her epitaph.  One thinks of her great roles, both on and off the screen, and her jewels, and her costumes. One thinks of Edith Head when thinking of Elizabeth Taylor’s costumes, A Place in the Sun, perhaps. But it was Helen Rose at MGM that created Elizabeth’s formative and most striking gowns and wardrobe pieces. In this post we will explore some of these costumes and film fashions designed during Hollywood’s golden age.

This is another in a series of Silver Screen Modes dual portrais of stars and the unique relationships they developed with certain designers. See Marlene Dietrich and Travis Banton and Audrey Hepburn and Givenchy. An earlier post had appeared in my Silver Screen Modiste on Adrian and Garbo.

One almost forgets that Elizabeth Taylor began as a child star, not just in National Velvet, but as an eleven year old in Lassie Come Home (1943), a film that didn’t even  bother giving a costume credit. But it didn’t take long for Elizabeth (she never liked being called Liz) to grow into a teenage beauty and magnetic young woman. MGM costume designer Helen Rose knew how to make the most of her dark hair, violet eyes, and developing figure. In A Date with Judy (1948), Helen had her first chance to show Elizabeth off to the world as the new beauty in Hollywood.

Elizabeth Taylor a-date-with-judy

Elizabeth Taylor plays a spoiled rich-kid high-schooler (she was 15 at the time) her friend in the movie was played by Jane Powell, with a cast of Robert Stack, Scotty Beckett, Wallace Beery, Xavier Cugat, and Carmen Miranda.  From the cast you can tell it’s a musical, and it was old-fashioned even when it came out in 1948.  In the photo above Elizabeth’s hair and make-up are perfect for her, and in perfect harmony with her costume.  Her role in the movie was definetly designed to capitalize on her charms  The outfit she wears above is a perfect combination of modest and sexy: an off-white form-fitting bodice over a pleated skirt,  the white accented in red; buttoned securely but with a deep v-cut decolletage that actually highlights her face. Elizabeth’s waist was always tiny, but here, in 1948, she wears padded shoulders, a look I find flattering to her. Alas, the style would dissappear in the coming flood of the New Look.

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Jane Powell at left and Elizabeth are shown above at the high school dance. Although Jane Powell sang some nice numbers, it’s clear that Elizabeth was meant to be the star at this show.

And it wasn’t long before Elizabeth was getting married, in the movies and in real life.

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The “Father of the Bride” wedding gown for Elizabeth was made of ivory colored satin and lace. Photo courtesy Photofest

The movie wedding took place in Father of the Bride (1950), with Spencer Tracy playing the father and Joan Bennett playing the mother. The groom was played by an unknown actor Don Taylor, although his parents were the veteran actors Billie Burke and Moroni Olsen.  The movie was a hit, the box office smash helped by Elizabeth’s real wedding to Conrad “Nicky” Hilton on May 6, 1960, just before the film’s release.  And of course Elizabeth had wanted Helen to design her own wedding gown, similar to the one she would be wearing in Father of the Bride. And MGM even made Elizabeth a gift of the wedding gown, not a small matter since it took fifteen seamstresses and embroiderers three months to make it.

elizabeth-taylor wedding gown

 

Elizabeth Taylor's Wedding Dress For Sale
Photo courtesy Christie’s

Elizabeth’s wedding gown as it appeared  in preparation for auction by Christie’s in 2013, where it fetched $188,000. The gown was made of 25 yards of ivory silk satin, with “illusion” lace shoulders and all-over embroidered decorations of bugle beads and seed pearls.  The gown was previewed by good friend and fellow blogger Kimberly Truhler before it went to Christie’s London.  She confirmed that the  level of craftsmanship was so high for the gown that it would be virtually impossible to duplicate it today.

And so with Helen’s beautiful wedding gown designs for both Father of the Bride and Elizabeth’s wedding that preceded its release  by a month, Helen Rose was constantly in the news as the “it” wedding gown designer. Indeed, she would go on to design Grace Kelly’s wedding gown to Prince Ranier, an even more elaborate marvel of dressmaking, and again made at the MGM wardrobe Department.

In 1952 Love is Better Than Ever, was finally released,  directed by Stanley Donen. Elizabeth was cast opposite Larry Parks, who had been blacklisted, which resulted in delaying the release of the movie.  Elizabeth was at the peak of her youthful radiance, and was here playing a dance teacher attending a convention in New York and engaging in a romance with a confirmed bachelor played by Parks.  The movie is a light romantic comedy but it captured Elizabeth at a unique point in her ascent to super stardom. Her role in A Place in the Sun had already been shot and released by Paramount in 1951, where she was dressed by Edith Head. Love is Better Than Ever had actually been filmed earlier, and completed in January 1951. Even with the blacklist situation, MGM didn’t want to lose out on the hot streak of the radiant Elizabeth Taylor.  Helen Rose here begins to fashion her in the New Look that will dominate most American women’s fashion in the 1950s, especially that of young women and teenagers – a direct result of Elizabeth Taylor’s influence.

Elizabeth & Helen LoveIsBetterEver_1952
Photo courtesy Photofest

Elizabeth Taylor is shown above with some of her young students and with Larry Parks below in Love is Better Than Ever, where  Elizabeth plays a dance teacher.

Elizabeth Taylor Love is better than Ever
Photo courtesy Photofest

Helen Rose next designed for Elizabeth in Rhapsody (1954), another musical genre. In this movie she loves a self-obsessed violin player played by Vitorio Gassman while it’s really a pianist played by John Ericson who loves her. While the script and acting are of middling quality, the magneticism of Elizabeth Taylor at this stage in her career is riveting. She had a star quality at 22 that is unparallelled.

Helen Rose helped define her look, and for several years thereafter, the look combined a strong sexual appeal within a feminine and tasteful fashion style. Helen’s design elements emphasized Elizabeth’s beautiful shoulders, her small waist developing into a well-defined bust and an  evident decolletage, which the still- photographers usually shot from a high vantage point. Helen would also use the silhouette of the New Look to give Elizabeth a long full skirt  to further emphasize Elizabeth’s narrow waist and the feminine contour Helen liked.

Elizabeth Taylor is shown with John Ericson below. Helen Rose liked to emphasize Elizabeth’s shoulders. Since this became a focal point, Helen would always pay close attention to the fit and look of the straps on the gowns and dresses she designed. She liked to emphasize the shoulders and she knew they would always be a focus since they were so near the face. She carried this attention to detail for the other actresses she designed for as well.

Elizabeth Rhapsody
Photo courtesy Photofest

It was not a musical, but the words and music to the haunting song, The Last Time I Saw Paris, gave both the title and the theme to Elizabeth’s next movie, which co-starred Van Johnson and Donna Reed. Here Elizabeth and Van Johnson play tragic lovers in post-World War II Paris.

One of Helen’s gown designs for Elizabeth caused problems with the censor. It was a red chiffon gown with a deep decolletage and a very low back, a crucial costume for the plot. Apparently while on the set during production  the female censor got on a ladder to view the amount of cleavage showing and declared that the gown was “out.” Helen was devastated and the director Richard Brooks was so livid that he cursed up and down the set until the censor. Filming then resumed.

The costume sketch for Helen’s design for the Elizabeth Taylor gown that caused all the commotion in The Last Time I Saw Paris is shown below.

Elizabeth & Helen Last Time I Saw Paris

Elizabeth in  Helen’s dresses continued to light up the screen in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, the 1958 movie based on the Tennessee Williams play, co-starring Paul Newman.

Cat On A Hot Tin Roof (1958)Directed by Richard BrooksShown: Elizabeth Taylor
Photo courtesy Photofest

The film is based on the play of the same title. The more than obvious charms-yet failed attempts of Maggie “the Cat” played by Elizabeth to get her husband Brick , Paul Newman,  to take her to bed, gets her to say in frustration that she feels like a “cat on a hot tin roof.”  The film downplays the play’s more overt homesexual undercurrent, but maintains its mixture of mendacity, lies, jealousy and general “bad blood.” Nonetheless, Helen’s most famous design for Elizabeth, in her effort to entice her husband, has become legend, and was known for many years after as  the “Cat dress.”

It is shown below, a Grecian bodice with full but somewhat short  white chiffon dress. It became a best seller when she started her own  Helen Rose line in 1958.

Liz - Cat Dress

In Butterfield 8 (1960) Helen designed another costume that became a fahion winner for her own line. The dress was a black chiffon coctail dress with the usual decolletage that Elizabeth wears while seated on top of a bar as shown below.  It was costume designer Moss Mabry that suggested it to  Gayle and Fred Hayman of the legendary Giorgio’s of Beverly Hills for their store, where it became a best seller from Helen’s line.

 

Elizabeth & Helen Butterfield 8 1960 3
Photo courtesy Photofest

But the image that became iconic from Butterfield 8 is that of Elizabeth in a slip with a drink in her hand.  In 1960  this was still risque enough to be considered a bold image, especially for the movie advertisements and posters that were produced from it. It’s not so much what the image revealed, as what it implied. We were now entering the 1960s, where movies would be all over the spectrum in their degree of realism.  Helen Rose didn’t have to design the slip, it could be found in any department store.

Butterfield 8 (1960) Directed by Daniel Mann Shown: Elizabeth Taylor
Photo courtesy Photofest

Full length furs were still worn in 1960, convenient for wearing, like a trench coat, directly over a slip when one has nothing else to put on.  

Butterfield 8 (1960) Directed by Daniel Mann Shown: Elizabeth Taylor

Photo courtesy Photofest

This would be Elizabeth Taylor’s and Helen Rose’s last collaboration. At this pont Elizabeth wanted to exit her MGM contract, where she would soon be moving from $125,000 a movie to over a $1 million for Cleopatra.

Helen Rose left MGM in 1966. By that time, long term contracts were no longer being given to studio designers, or other skilled trades. Four years later the studio auctioned off thousands of its costumes, many of which Helen Rose had designed. The film library was sold also. Fortunately we can still see most of these film treasures on TCM and elsewhere.

 

 

 

LUST FOR LIFE

 

Lust For Life

In the days when movie biopics were romanticized versions of their subjects, usually straying far from the truth, out came Lust for Life, the 1956 film depicting the tortured life of Vincent Van Gogh, blazingly acted on screen by Kirk Douglas. This was a raw and honest portrait of the artist as non-conformist, alienating almost everyone he knew, a searcher for meaning in his life and for the calling that could bring out the only talent he believed he had, though few saw it in him. This might be considered a typical view of of an artist or musician today, but it was ground-breaking in 1956.

This entry in the Build Your Own Blogathon is sponsored by the Classic Film and TV Cafe. It follows The Lady Eve’s entry of The Good, the Bad and the Beautiful, and is connected by Kirk Douglas as actor. It also shares Vincente Minnelli as director and John Houseman as producer. The movie was based on the best-selling book by Irving Stone.

 

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Kirk Douglas and his Bryna production  company was eager to do this film, and his resemblance to the artist, magnified with a beard and dyed red hair, was uncanny. John Houseman had produced Moulin Rouge to great success, based on the life of Toulouse-Lautrec,  which was released in 1951. Vincente Minnelli was the best director, really the perfect director, for Lust for Life. He had been a costume designer and set designer in Chicago and on Broadway, and considered leaving to study art in Paris before he was hired by MGM.  He knew how to show the dynamic of  both the inner conflict of the artist/individualist and the problems caused by trying to fit into a society. He knew the soul of the artist, and how to involve art itself into the fabric of film and film’s methods of storytelling.

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Self portrait by Van Gogh, 1885

The movie begins when Van Gogh is 25, aspiring to be a minister as is his father. The church elders reject his application, since he can’t even deliver a sermon without reading it aloud. One of the elders takes pity on him, seeing his earnestness, and tells him to go to the Belgian Borinage coal mines and do services there (apparently no else wants to). Once there he realizes that the downtrodden people need little preaching, and more real help, which the church doesn’t provide. He gives away his clothes and the allowance he gets from the church. Upbraided by the elders for looking and living like one of the miners, he calls them all hypocrites and leaves his church calling.

Once back home with his family, he argues regularly with his father. His brother Theo understands him the most, but tells him he should overcome his idleness. Kirk Douglas passionately responds, there are two kinds of idleness, and he only wishes he was the first, but as he says, “I’m in a cage of shame and self-doubt.”

He finds expression through drawing, which he shows his sister in the photo below. The art he favors is the depiction of common people in their daily life and in drawing the countryside.  But his odd demeanor and unkempt looks prove an embarrassment to his family.  He goes to the Hague where his uncle is an art dealer that provides him with paints. He paints in monotones – such pieces as The Weaver  or The Potato Eaters. He suffers from unrequited love with his first cousin, then takes up with a prostitute for a while. Theo is now also an art dealer in Paris,  so Vincent joins him there and goes to the Impressionists art show and he meets Impressionist and other painters like Pissarro (trust your first impression he tells Van Gogh), Seurat (it’s all about the science of color he says), and Gauguin.

Lust-for-Life-1956-1

And then Van Gogh heads to the South of France – to Arles, “everything there is gold, bronze, copper and yellow,” he says in his letter to Theo. He first rents a cheap room but then rents a big “Yellow House” that he wants to make the “Studio of the South,” or a commune for the artists he met in Paris – to live and paint and exchange ideas.  But Van Gogh is too much of the strident personality, without social skills, for them to come. In the meantime he paints every day, often speaking to no one. Theo is providing the rent money, and he urges Gauguin to join Vincent so as to encourage him. Gauguin has the forceful personality and thinks he can make it work. A sojourn in the South of France is better than the hard life of a merchant mariner, which Gauguin had been.

Lust for Life Harvest-At-La-Crau-With-Montmajour-In-The-Background-Vincent-Van-Gogh

So Van Gogh and Gauguin live together in the Yellow House, although it does not take long before their personalities clash, and when the weather turns bad or the Mistral winds blow the canvases of their easels, they are confined to painting indoors, which Van Gogh loaths. Gauguin can paint from memory. Van Gogh paints from observation and the feeling associated with it.

Lust for LIfe vanGogh-

At the cafe in Arles, which they frequent and drink absenthe with regularity, Van Gogh painted the scene , “The Night Cafe.” Drinking the alcoholic absenthe was rumored to be addictive, and along with Van Gogh’s other mental issues, possibly bipolar disorder or Asperger Syndrome, fueled his strong reactions.

Cafe at Night in Arles Van Gogh

Van Gogh’s and Gaugin’s arguments led Gauguin to saying he was leaving Arles, which in turn caused Van Gogh to threaten him with a razor blade.  This led to the off-screen scene where Van Gogh actually cuts off part of his own ear – perhaps in an effort to cut his own throat, or as self mutillation, no one knows.  The preceding scenes are dramatically acted by Kirk Douglas, his physicality shows his distress, alternating between threatening and abject, in shame and in terror.

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The photo below shows Kirk Douglas in the set rendition of the famous Van Gogh bedroom in the Yellow House in Arles, at Place Lamartine.

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And as painted by the artist, the room was actually a trapezoid shape.

 

Van Gogh's bedroom in Arles

The ear episode ends up with more psychological trauma for Van Gogh – Gauguin leaves and Theo has his brother committed to an asylum, where Van Gogh sits days on end, saying or doing little. Eventually he returns to painting from his window, and then from the outdoors. A poignant scene has Kirk Douglas painting outside as a few of the inmates watch intently – a subliminal note by Minnelli on the power of art. But soon more psychological attacks follow, and Theo has him brought closer to Paris, to Auvers-sur-Oise, where he can be treated by Dr, Gachet. It is there that Van Gogh paints what is probably his last canvas. Wheatfield with Crows. It is indeed a foreboding work, dark skies, a road leading to nowhere, and the many crows, depicted in the movie as unintended subjects for the canvas, irritating Van Gogh to the point where he jabs black paint on his canvas in their shape, shortly before he shoots himself.

Lust for Life 5

The screenplay for Lust for Life was written by Norman Corwin, using an episodic approach to Van Gogh’s life. As pointed out by Professor Drew Casper of the USC School of Cinematic Arts in the film’s DVD commentary, it has a five-part narrative which breaks down Van Gogh’s life into five parts, each structured around the letters he writes to Theo, which are narrated. The objective world as seen by Van Gogh is depicted in each of the five parts by at least one of his major paintings, separately seen. Each segment also had a color theme: black and gray in the Borinage; dark green in Holland; reds and blues in Paris; yellows and greens in the South of France; and multi-colored in Auvers.

The film was also richly complemented by the excellent costume designs of Walter Plunkett. Plunkett was one of the few designers that was equally adept at designing for both men and women. He conveyed the careless but individualistic dress of Van Gogh as well as the equally individualistic but almost dandy-working man dress of Gauguin – with his flashy and decorated vests and jackets – a purposeful magnet for the ladies. Walter Plunket also conveyed the full panoply of late 19th century France – the farmers and peasants, the red and blue soldier uniforms of the Zouaves, the decorated uniform of the facteur Roulin, the uniforms of the band, the traditional folk costumes of the women of Arles. All of this was of course accomplished through careful on-location research. The filming itself was mostly on-location in Holland, Belgium, Auvers, Arles, and the South of France. The cinematography of Freddie Young adds depth and beauty to the film.

The musical score composed by Miklos Rozsa evokes the settings and the emotions of the painter in a masterly way. Themes and moods are heightened by Rozsa’s compositions, conveying inner feelings of romance, pain, inertia, seizures, and even brief periods of contentment at painting in the plein-air.

Kirk Douglas said in his autobiography, The Ragman’s Son, that in performing the role of Van Gogh in Lust for Life, “It was the most painful movie I ever made.” And it took him a while to get over the role and the psychological effect it had on him. Douglas was nominated for Best-Actor for his role as Van Gogh, his third nomiation. Anthony Quinn was nominated for Best Supporting Actor. Everyone kept telling Douglas that he was a sure thing to get the Oscar. It was his third nomination after all, and there was little competition. He was in Munich Germany when the Academy Awards were held, making Paths of Glory. He said he had even practised looking surprised for all the photographers waiting in the lobby at his hotel. He was indeed surprised when  he learned that Yule Brynner won for his role in The King and I. Anthony Quinn, however, won for Best Supporting Actor, the only award winner in the film.

Perhaps voters thought he over-acted. It is certainly a style of acting not much seen today. Lust for Life leaves an indelible image of the actor and of Van Gogh, a raw, powerful image as powerful as the canvases Van Gogh painted himself.

 

AN AMERICAN IN PARIS: ART ON FILM

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

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

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

The decision by Freed, Minnelli, and Gene Kelly to include a 17 minute long dance sequence was bold and risky. Regardless of the success of The Red Shoes, nothing of that scope had been done in an American film. Further, the ballet was to be a realization on film of the artistic works of Impressionist and Post-Impressionistic painters. This feature would not only guide the nature of the choreography, but also of the set designs, cinematography, action sequences, and costumes. The ballet scene would be the heart and soul of the film. The music, of course, would be based on the haunting score of George Gershwin’s An American in Paris symphony, with the story for the film by Alan Jay Lerner. An American In Paris 6

Other than Gene Kelly, the question of who should be cast for An American in Paris was not apparent. While MGM had several great female dancers, Kelly was convinced that a fresh faced and a native Frenchwoman should be cast as Lise Bouvier. And for that role he had seen a 19 year old French ballerina named Leslie Caron that he wanted for the part. This too was a risky move – a major role for a young woman who had never acted. In continuing with the relatively unknown  cast members, Georges Guetary, a French Music Hall singer, was cast as Henri Baurel. For the fellow American expat and starving musician-neighbor, the inspired choice was the concert pianist and wit Oscar Levant, playing the role of Adam Cook. Another fortuitous decision was bringing in costume designer Irene Sharaff. Sharaff was a Broadway designer but had worked for a spell in Hollywood. Minnelli convinced her to come back from New York to design some 300 costumes for the ballet. While working on the costumes, Sharaff also started designing sketches for what the sets might look like for the various artist-inspired scenes. These sketches in fact were adapted by art director Preston Ames for the sets, which Ames, a former architecture student in Paris, could quickly envision. The sets would be based on the styles of Raoul Dufy; Henri Rousseau; Piere Auguste Renoir; Maurice Utrillo; Vincent Van Gogh; and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec. Not a bad set of artists from which to draw inspiration. But how would the ballet transition from one artist-styled set to the next?

Those transitions indeed became a high-point in Hollywood film arts and crafst.Some 30 painters worked six weeks to paint the backgrounds and sets. Irene Sharaff also came up with the idea of using certain dancers, characters she called Furies for the women and Pompiers for the men. The Furies were dressed all in red ballet outfits and the Pompiers were dressed as traditional French firemen, with their brass helmets but also adorned in a military-inspired costume. Together they served as the “bridge” from one scene to the next, luring Kelly as Jerry Mulligan to pursue the ever-escaping Caron as Lise Bouvier. These transitions were also accomplished by using a “match-cutting” filming technique whereby the action of the dancer is exactly matched from the end of one scene to the beginning of the next.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The white furies turn to more intense red furies

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

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A garden painted by Renoir
A garden painted by Renoir

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

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A Bastille Day celebration painted by Henri Rousseau

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

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

Gene-Kelly-in-An-American-in-Paris-gene-kelly-Caron finale

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

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

LE GRAND MEAULNES: 1967 IN FILM BLOGATHON

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

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

le grand-meaulnes 1
Brigitte Fossey as Yvonne de Galais

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

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

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

Alain-Fournier
Alain-Fournier

 

BLOWUP: ANTONIONI’S CLASSIC FILM

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

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

Courtesy Photofest
Courtesy Photofest

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

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

 

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

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

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

 Blowup 3

 

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

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

BlowUp corner

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

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

 

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

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

Blowup -image-de-Blow-up-
As Thomas walks through the park, the jeep-full of mimes roar back into view, coming full circle from the beginning of the film. Two of them begin playing a game of tennis, with make-believe rackets and an imaginary ball. They bring with them both their contradictory images and their illusory reality
Blow-up- final 1

When the imaginary ball goes over the fence they look over at him to fetch it. He buys into the illusory reality, and he runs through the grass to fetch the imaginary ball, which he then throws  back. His smile slowly disappears and he looks forlornly at the grass, as if realizing the emptiness and illusory nature of his life and his own experiences. The shot of Thomas recedes into a wide-screen shot of grass, in the opposite process of a blow-up, but just like the corpse, he disappears from the screen. Was he too an illusion? Or was he just the creation of a film director that put him in the picture and just as easily cut him out. Perhaps it’s like the painting by Magritte, The Treachury of Images where the illusion has become the reality, but the reality is really an illusion.

blowup final

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

A blog about classic movie costume design and fashion