Tag Archives: Edith Head

FRED ASTAIRE’S DANCE PARTNERS AND THEIR COSTUMES

 

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

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

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

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

Flying Down to Rio. Photo courtesy Photofest

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

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

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

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

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

 

Top Hat (1935) Courtesy Photofest

Follow the Fleet followed Top Hat, and Bernard Newman followed his knock-out gown for Ginger with another one. The stellar gown in this movie was made entirely of silver bugle beads, trimmed with a fox collar. The gown weighed about 50 lbs. The bugle beaded skirt was translucent so you could see her figure against the light. But once again, Fred was not happy. The bell-shaped sleeves were heavy too, and when she twirled around in early takes her sleeves would slap up against his cheeks.  But again, the resulting “Let’s Face the Music and Dance” Irving Berlin number has to be their most beautiful (below). It was shot in in one take.

 

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

 

Swing Time (1936) Photo courtesy Photofest

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

 

Swing Time (1936) Photo courtesy Photofest

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

 

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

 

Howard Greer costume sketch for Ginger Rogers in Carefree

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

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

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

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

 

The photo below shows Marjorie in her gold beaded gown.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

 

 

EDITH HEAD’S OWN COSTUME SKETCHES

 

Edith head is known internationally as the epitome of the classic Hollywood costume designer. Her costume design sketches, however, were done in a  variety of styles depending upon who her sketch artist was at the time. That she had her own flair and could produce beautiful costume renderings is little known, mostly because these sketches are very rare, and the ones that are often seen are largely based on black and white photographs.

The story of how Edith Head got her job as a sketch artist at Paramount is famous. She interviewed with Howard Greer, then Head Designer, and wanting to make a good impression, she borrowed art pieces from several fellow art students at the Chouinard Art School for her portfolio. The portfolio really impressed Greer by its variety, so he hired her, even when she admitted that not all the pieces were hers. Designer Travis Banton soon after replaced Howard Greer and it was by him that Edith learned costume design. She also learned to replicate his costume sketches. especially the facial features and body postures of the  models. Not having had the anatomy and life-drawing classes in art, however, Edith never did learn to properly draw hands and feet, the most difficult feature to draw or paint. It is with these features that one can recognize the difference between a Travis Banton and an Edith Head sketch. Theses costume sketches are very lovely nonetheless.

Shown below are several costume sketches that she illustrated herself.

 

Mary Martin The Great Victor Herbert copy

The sketch above by Edith was done for Mary Martin in the film The Great Victor Herbert, 1939, a musical based on the songs and operettas of Victor Herbert (Babes in Toyland, Naughty Marietta, Little Nemo). Mary Martin played the lead role opposite Allan Jones and Walter Connolly. The hands are awkwardly drawn, but Edith kept the Howard Greer/Travis Banton tradition of drawing three fingers (the middle fingers were actually joined) and the use of bright red finger nails.

 

Edith Head sketch 7

The sketch above is from an unknown film and actress, beautifully rendered. A period costume, likely from the Civil War era.

 

Barbara Jo Allen Kiss the Boys Goodbye 1941 2 copy

The costume design above was done for Barbara Allen in Kiss the Boys Goodbye (1941), a movie about musical theater and rivalry between actresses based on the play by Clare Booth. The approval initials of the director and producer are on the sketch.

Edith unknown 1942

The costume design sketch above is also unidentified, although it has the approval initials of a director or producer. The style is clearly from 1942 – 1943 The smaller drawing at the top shows an alternate look with a vest. Women’s suits were popular in the 1940s and the broad shoulders were not just a military influence but had started earlier as a technique of giving women an air of power, athleticism and independence.

 

Dorothy Lamour Aloma of the South Seas 2 copy

Edith Head became famous for her sarong designs for Dorothy Lamour in several films starting with Jungle Princess in 1936. The design above is for Miss Lamour in Aloma of the South Seas (1941). Producer Monta Bell’s signature is at left bottom.

 

Barbara Stanwyck You Belong to Me.2 COPY JPG

Barbara Stanwyck was a favorite star for Edith Head to dress. Here is one  of Edith’s design sketches  for a ski outfit for the film You Belong to Me (1941).

 

Margery Reynolds in Holiday Inn 2 copy

The glamorous gown design above, in another sketch by Edith Head, was done for Margery Reynolds in the classic Holiday Inn (1942), co-starring Fred Astaire and Bing Crosby. Although the film is black and white the gown was made of gold bugle beads.

 

Virginia Field Crystal Ball 1943 copy

The costume sketch by Edith above was a design for Virginia Field in Crystal Ball (1943). The film also starred Paulette Goddard as a rival in a fortune-teller scheme co-starring Ray Milland. The sleek but broad-shouldered silhouette of the gown with its décolleté illusion top is very chic.

 

Edith Betty Hutton

The costume sketch above by Edith Head was done for Betty Hutton in the Preston Sturges film The Miracle of Mogan’s Creek (1944) This is one of Sturges’ best screw-ball comedies co-starring Eddie Bracken. The coated outfit is very smart as worn by Betty Hutton in the film.

 

Marjorie Renolds in Holiday Inn copy

The sketch above is another design for Betty Hutton in the same film. She wears it in the famous all-night party scene.

The costume sketch below was not done by Edith Head, but rather was illustrated by Grace Sprague for Edith’s design forNatalie Wood in Sex and the Single Girl (1964). Ms. Sprague was the sketch artist that was most identified with Edith Head. She illustrated Edith’s book The Dress Doctor, as well as many of her newspaper and magazine articles in the late 1950s and early 1960s. She was a prolific sketcher and would turn out dozens of sketches for each film, many of them unused for any costumes.

Head sketch Sex&Single Girl

Sketch artist Richard Hopper illustrated the sketch below for Edith’s design for Elke Sommer in The Oscar (1966). He took over most of the sketch artist duties after Grace Sprague died, and remained with Edith for many years until he too became a costume designer.

The notes on the sketch are in Edith’s own hand. Costume sketches were working tools and part of the production process, handled by producers, directors, actors/actresses, and wardrobe workers.

Edith Head Elke Sommer in The Oscar

Many of the iconic Edith Head designs for such stars as Grace Kelly, Kim Novak, and Audrey Hepburn that are seen today were done years after the movies were produced. Edith Head did not keep these sketches after she left Paramount but had them reproduced (several times)  later for her fashion shows. As such they are not really costume design sketches and not a part of the production of a movie, but rather are movie art pieces or costume illustrations. We can see in the examples above that with either the production of the illustration, or with the notes on her designs, that Edith Head was very involved in all stages of the process.

 

DOUBLE INDEMNITY: THE FILM NOIR CLASSIC

A car careens through the dark streets of downtown L.A., avoiding an accident and blowing through a red signal. A man gets out of a car and enters an office building, getting  curious looks and questions from the night attendant. He goes to his office, shaky and weak. He  lights a cigarette in his trademark manner, striking the match with his thumbnail,  then  readies his Dictaphone.  He speaks out a memo for his boss at the Pacific All Risk Insurance Co. “I suppose you’ll call this a confession,” he states. “Well I don’t like the word confession. I just want to set you right about something you couldn’t see because it was smack up against  your nose.”

Double Indemnity Title

Set to the unforgettably dramatic and alternately mysterious musical score of Miklos Rozsa, thus opens Billy Wilder’s classic film noir –  Double Indemnity. Like Wilder’s later Sunset Blvd. and typical of the film noir genre, the film starts at the end of the story, a device emphasizing the fatality of the characters’ lives. Also paired with the end-of-story beginning is a voice-over from the character explaining how things went wrong in their lives. With Fred MacMurray as Walter Neff, this comes early in his  opening “confessional” scene regarding the Dietrichson case, the case that Edward G. Robinson as Barton Keyes finally suspects was murder. “Yes I killed him.” says Neff referring to Dietrichson. “I killed for money. And for a woman. I didn’t get the money and I didn’t get the woman.”

 

Double Indemnity confession

The woman was  Barbara Stanwyck playing femme fatale Phyllis Dietrichson. Walter Neff was a sucker as soon as he saw her at the top of the stairs wearing a bath robe, and sealed when she sat down across him wearing an ankle bracelet. Their sharp repartee moves quickly from her anklet to auto insurance to accident insurance to a come-on that is deftly repelled, with a succession of double-entendres leading to a time for him to return when her husband will be there. And of course her husband wasn’t there when Neff returns, with Neff now ready to settle in. But her plan of taking out accident insurance on her husband without him knowing about it has Neff beating a quick retreat. But Neff can’t get her out of his mind, and all it takes is a visit from Phyllis to his apartment late at night to set things in motion.

 

Double-Indemnity- 1

This entry in the Classic Movie Blog Association’s Planes, Trains, and Automobiles Blogathon, features a central plot element aboard a train.

The story itself was ripped from the headlines, a case from 1927 when a wife and her boyfriend knocked off the husband for insurance money. The noted noir writer James M. Cain (The Postman Always Rings Twice) serialized his novella of Double Indemnity” in Liberty Magazine before it was published as a book. A script outline had been sent to the Production Code Administration (the censors) by Louis B. Mayer as early as 1935, with the response that the story was “in violation of the Production Code,” with the same information given to Warner Brothers some years later. When Billy Wilder got interested in the story he asked Cain to write the script but he was too busy, so Wilder turned to Raymond Chandler who accepted. Wilder and Chandler did not get along. They were very much opposite personalities, and Chandler’s heavy drinking didn’t help. Chandler had written books but no scripts, so they stayed in the same room working on the script until the script was finished – and they couldn’t stand each other.They shared script-writing credits although Chandler’s characteristic  clipped, hard-boiled dialogue is a hallmark of the film, along with his facility with the thinly veiled dialogue of sexual come-ons.  A rare glimpse of Raymond Chandler seated on a bench reading a book can be seen as Fred MacMurray exits Edward G. Robinson’s office for the first time.

 

Double Indemnity 4

Neff is powerless when Phyllis Dietrich comes calling to his apartment. The mood is emphasized by the noir cinematography of John Seitz

 

This was an early film noir and a trend-setter. It was Billy Wilder’s first great film, but at the time everybody turned down the roles of the criminal leads. Billy Wilder had to convince Barbara Stanwyck to take the part of the femme fatale Phyllis Dietrichson, her first unsympathetic role. Fred MacMurray, a former saxophone player,  had previously only played in nice romantic comedy roles. Here he plays a devious insurance agent suckered into a murder scheme for money and for a woman. Edward G. Robinson was uninterested in playing a supporting role, having been a lead since the 1930s. As it turned out, these were all memorable career roles for the three actors. The scenes between Stanwyck and MacMurray were masterfully shot by cinematographer John Seitz, pushing the envelope of darkness in interior and exterior lighting, and  using the coming noir  trademark of Venetian blind shadowing to foreshadow the prison bars in Neff’s future.

Double Indemnity_Bar_Lighting

And of course this is a story of pre-meditated murder. One of those where the premeditated part is supposed to be a plan where  all the details are worked out so that the insurance money is collected and the murderers get away with the crime. The fatality of film noir is emphasized early in the plot, however, “The machinery had started and nothing could stop it,” said Neff.  It’s Walter Neff’s voice-over we hear, his point of view, his slip from ordinary insurance salesman to punch-drunk lover to murderer. And yet his good-looks and soft-spot for the daughter Lola Dietrichson and her rough-edged boyfriend leads us to sympathize with his plight. As for Phyllis, she’s “rotten to the heart” as she admits, but achieves a sort of redemption by not following through with killing Neff, and gets killed instead. A repeated line in the script emphasized their partnership “straight down the line.” Neff’s boss Barton Keyes (Edward G. Robinson) said it more explicitly about the pair in the crime, “They’re stuck with each other. They have to ride all the way to the end of the line, it’s one-way and the last stop is the cemetery.”

The crime itself was a simple strangulation in an automobile, with the plan to dump the body next to the rail-road tracks and make it look like the body had fallen off the train. This would be made verifiable by Neff getting on the train earlier and mpersonating Mr. Dietrichson, complete with fake broken leg and crutches. Only there was another rider on the observation deck, who saw him, but he was sent of to fetch “Dietrichson’s”  forgotten cigarettes. He could now jump off near where the body was, and be picked up by Phyllis and be dropped off near his apartment. It all seemed to work, except that when Neff was walking home, Neff reflected on his situation, “I felt that everything would go wrong. I couldn’t hear my own footsteps. It was the walk of a dead man.”

 

Double Indemnity 6

It was made to look like an accident – he fell off the train, and one of those “double indemnity” cases where the insurance would pay double

 

Those were haunting words and thoughts for the man who had planned it all to go perfectly. But was he really in control? Or was he a patsy in Phyllis’ scheme. Keyes is suspicious, and won’t pay on the claim; Lola visits Neff and they spend time together, where she says Phyllis was her mother’s nurse but  believes she murdered her to marry her father; and then Neff hears Keyes’ Dictaphone recording of his suspicions, including private eye evidence that Phyllis and Lola’s ex-boyfriend Zachette were spending a lot of time together. Neff no longer trusts Phyllis, and believes he has to get off of that one-way train.

 

Double-Indemnity-Jerrys

Walter and Phyllis at Jerry’s Market

Neff calls Phyllis and sets up a meeting at her house. They had been holding secretive meetings at “Jerry’s Market” up until then. Phyllis is prepared, with a handgun tucked away under the cushion of her stuffed chair. Neff tells her he knows she’s been playing him for a sucker, that she was going to run off with the money, but now Keyes isn’t paying off on the insurance, and has Zachette down as the murderer, with her as the accomplice, and  he was getting off this train. Then Phyllis shoots Neff, wounding him in the shoulder. “You can do better than that baby,” he says. As he walks toward her she holds the gun but doesn’t shoot.                                                                      “Don’t tell me you loved me all this time.”                                                       “No, I never loved you, Walter, not you or anybody else. I’m rotten to the heart. I used you just as you said. That’s all you ever meant to me. Until a minute ago, when I couldn’t fire that second shot. I never thought that could happen to me.”                                                                 “Sorry, baby I’m not buying.”

Phyllis has a look of surprise and horror when Neff shoots her, twice. Walter lay her down on the couch, dead. Once outside, Neff runs into Zachette, and tells him to call Lola, who really loves him, and to beat it. Neff then goes on a speed run to where we first saw him, making his confession. Only now, barely holding on as he speaks, Barton Keyes overhears him. Neff asks for time to get to the border, Keyes tells him he won’t make it to the elevator. Indeed, he collapses at the office doorway. Neff props himself up, as Keyes bends down beside him.                                                                                                                                 “You know why you couldn’t figure this one Keyes? I’ll tell you. Cause the guy you were looking for was too close, right across the desk from you.”                                                                                                          “Closer than that, Walter.”                                                                                              “I love you too.” Neff says.

Neff tries to light a cigarette. Keyes does it for him, striking the match with his thumbnail. With Rosza’s now indelible pounding theme music closing out the scene, Double Indemnity comes to its end. It was dialogue like that quoted above and the closing scene that distinguishes  Double Indemnity and makes it sublime among Noir films. An alternate ending had Neff going to the gas chamber (in the book the lovers commit suicide). It tested unpopular and in reality would have compromised the greatness of the ending above.

The look of Barbara Stanwyck as Phyllis Dietrichson is very characteristic in the strict definition of the word. Her blond wig and dark glasses as worn in the last Jerry’s Market scene is often viewed as a clip from the movie. Billy Wilder himself selected the wig from a wig store, rather than to have the more professional studio hair stylist dye and prepare her hair. Some say it was to make Phyllis seem “cheap.” I think it was to emphasize the “costumed” character, playing one of her many roles: wife; seductress; nurse; step-mother; murderess; widow; spy. Edith Head designed her costumes. Barbara and Edith had developed a close relationship since working together on The Lady Eve, Ball of Fire and several other movies. In this period of the early and mid-1940s, Edith had developed a  very flattering silhouette for Barbara, whose slight, long waisted figure was improved with Edith’s designs. Characteristic of the film and also of several films noir are the location shots. Here we see Jerry’s Market at 5330 Melrose Avenue, the “Dietrichson” house at 6301 Quebec Drive in the Hollywood Hills, 5th and Olive for the beginning car scene, 1825 N. Kingsley Drive for Walter Neff’s apartment, and the intersection of Hollywood and Western, among others.

 

Double Indemnity received seven Academy Award nominations, including Best Picture, Director, Actress, Writing, Music, Cinematography and Sound. It won in none of those categories. It received no Best Supporting Actor nomination, which continued Edward G. Robinson’s streak of never having won an Academy Award. The winner of Best Picture that year was Going My Way.

The American Film Institute ranks it #27 in the 10th edition of 100 Years 100 Movies.

 

 

 

 

THE SUN NEVER SETS ON SUNSET BLVD.

 

The classic movie about Hollywood, Sunset Blvd, is approaching its 65th anniversary. It premiered at the Radio City Music Hall on August 10, 1950, where it shattered non-holiday attendance records. For a film noir about 1950 Hollywood, reflecting on a fading 1920s era movie star, it’s amazing that it has remained so relevant. That it has is thanks to the acting and directing – which were outstanding. But it’s the writing that’s sublime. the writing in combination with that great character Norma Desmond.

 

Sunset_Blvd 3

“Those idiot producers! Those imbeciles! Haven’t they got any eyes? Have they forgotten what a star looks like? I’ll show them. I’ll be up there again. So help me! says Norma Desmond. Photo courtesy Photofest

 

The story of faded glory, youthful ambition, and desperate attempts to hold on to to the Hollywood dream is forever being relived. The script by Charles Brackett and Billy Wilder makes a great story of Hollywood’s long past and eternal present, but it’s the one-liners that pepper our vocabulary today. “All right Mr. De Mille, I’m ready for my close-up,”  says Gloria Swanson as Norma Desmond. Earlier in the movie, reflecting on her silent films, she said, “We didn’t need dialogue, we had faces,” and “I am big, it’s the pictures that got small.” And indeed, William Holden as Joe Gillis is more transfixed by Norma Desmond herself in the scene above, rather than in the movie she shows him.  Sunset Blvd.  continually reflects on itself and on Hollywood history, a hall of mirrors for old movie fans. In the photo above, Norma Desmond shows Joe Gillis a film in which she starred – when she was big. The movie shown is Queen Kelly. Wilder had a wicked sense of humor, Queen Kelly is the movie that made Swanson not so big. She lost a fortune on this self-produced film, never even released in the U.S. due to its outlandish content. She never fully recovered.

Below Erich von Stroheim  playing Max the butler is “directing” her final “scene”, since in the story he was once her director, and who in Hollywood  really was once her director. For the scene Gloria Swanson is dressed as Salome, whose part she once really played, descending the staircase to the theme music from The Dance of the Seven Veils. The director of that movie, Queen Kelly, had been Eric von Stroheim. who Gloria Swanson had fired.

 

Sunset_Blvd_6

 

The team of Billy Wilder and Charles Bracket both wrote the script and produced the film for Paramount Pictures. The idea of a Hollywood-themed movie had come to them, one primarily focused on a faded star with hopes of a comeback. The idea of a younger, hungry scriptwriter was a natural fit. The actress to play the role was crucial. Which one, they debated? Greta Garbo perhaps, although she would never consent. Then there was Mary Pickford – uninterested. Perhaps Pola Negri, who was big, but now living as a recluse. Mae West was considered, but didn’t quite fit the image they had in mind, and likely to want to re-write the script. Gloria Swanson was finally considered, the one star that really was considered royalty on the Paramount lot back in the 1920s. Indeed, she married into French aristocracy  in 1925  and became the  Marquise de la Falaise de la Coudraye. Gloria read the script, such as it was early in its draft form in 1949, and agreed to play the part. She was taken aback, however, when she got a call from the Paramount casting director wanting her to take a screen test. “Without me there would be no Paramount Studio!” one can imagine her shouting, as did Norma Desmond in the movie.* But Gloria was somewhat more complacent, saying she had made two dozen pictures for Paramount. Why the need for a screen test? Neither the casting director nor Billy Wilder told her that after all those years away from making movies, they wanted to see how old she would look on film, and what presence she had on screen.  But as it turned out, they would actually have to use makeup to make her look older, but she still had the old magnetism.

As for the role of Joe Gillis the young screenwriter, Montgomery Clift was offered the part, but backed out of the production at the last minute. It seems he didn’t want the role of making love to an older woman.

 

Sunset Blvd. (1950) aka Sunset BoulevardDirected by Billy Wilder

Photo courtesy of Photofest

 

The opening shot of the movie shows Joe Gillis, the lead character, dead and floating  up-side down in a swimming pool. He narrates his own story in the third person, Relating how the body of a young man was found in a movie star’s swimming pool early in the morning, He states that it was, “Nobody important really. Just a movie writer with a couple of ‘B’ pictures credit. The poor dope always wanted a pool. Well, in the end he got himself a pool —only the price was a little high.”

Filming the scene above was devised by art director John Meehan. Rather than using expensive underwater cameras, he placed a large mirror at the bottom of a process water tank. The film camera shot down  from the edge of the “pool”and caught Holden, the cops  and the others reflected in the mirror.

 

Joe Gillis switches to the first person narrative when earlier in his story he is still alive, typing out a screenplay in his crummy apartment on Ivar Street in Hollywood. He’s trying desperately to sell a screenplay to make some money to pay his next car loan payment, one step ahead of the car-repo men about to tail him. He goes to the Paramount studios to meet a producer. There he has no luck, especially when Betty Schaeffer, a script reader played by Nancy Olson, pans his script. He even asks the producer for a loan but gets nowhere. He goes to see his agent and asks for a loan from him and gets the brush-off. Soon he’s spotted by the repo-men and speeds down Sunset Blvd.

 

Sunset Blvd escape

It’s by trying to outrun the car-repo men that Gillis ends up turning into a driveway off Sunset Boulevard  and into an old garage, where the clues were mounting that he was entering  into the Twilight Zone.

sunset-boulevard Isod

Inside was an old Isotta-Fraschini,  the kind of car that one doesn’t drive, but is chauffeured in. “It must have burned up ten gallons to the mile,” narrates Gillis. Although this one needed some cleaning, the leopard-skin upholstery showed him that it was no ordinary car.

 

Sunset Blvd. Mansion

 

Joe Gillis thought he’d just leave his car there and skip town, giving up trying to make it as a script writer in Hollywood. But he thought he’d take a look at the mansion, figuring it had to be abandoned. “It was a a great big white elephant of a place. The kind crazy movie people built in the crazy Twenties,” he said. He compared it  to Miss Haversham’s in Great Expectations.

The Twilight Zone beckons, as a woman calls out to him, imperiously asking why he has kept her waiting so long. Max the Butler calls him in, expecting an undertaker come to take care of the necessities for Madame’s deceased “pet” chimpanzee. It’s after a few minutes of wordplay and shock that Gillis begins to recognize the woman, after she wants to throw him out for not being the undertaker, and he delivers the line about “…you’re Norma Desmond…you used to be big.” And since this is really a film noir about Hollywood, everyone has a racket. She shows him her piles of manuscripts for her Salome “comeback,” he tells her he’s really an expensive scriptwriter that could polish up her sludge pile for $500 a week, and she starts to see a handsome  live-in companion, and Max had it all figured out   at hello.

Things are all cosy for a while, and Gillis slips into becoming a kept man. Only he  starts sinking into the feeling of an age gone by. This is symbolized by Norma’s friends that come over for a bridge game, the “Wax works,” Gillis calls them. They are played by Buster Keaton, that genius of silent-film comedy, in 1950 not yet rediscovered, Then there’s H.B. Warner, who played Jesus Christ in the DeMille King of Kings in 1927but in 1950 was more recognized as the drunk druggist Mr. Gower in It’s a Wonderful Life.  And perhaps the most forgotten star of all, Anna Q. Nilsson, the first Swedish beauty of the silver screen, who started her motion picture career in 1911, and due to a severe accident had a long interruption, but resumed acting late culminating in Seven Brides for Seven Brothers.

 

Sunset_Blvd_4

 

Norma realizes she needs to start putting some spark in Joe’s life. Maybe a big  New Year’s Eve party, with plenty of champagne and music, only with no guests so she can have Joe all for herself and tell him how much she needs him and loves him. Joe’s life flashes before his eyes and he tells Norma that he has a life of his own, and maybe even a girl he loves. Their disagreement ends in a slap, which convinces him to leave, and in rainy weather he goes to his friend Artie Green’s party, where he again  sees Betty Schaeffer. She’s Artie’s girlfriend, but they have a strong attraction for each other. Joe plans to move in with Artie, making a call to Max saying he’ll collect his things in the morning. That’s when he finds out that Norma has tried to kill herself, and so he returns to the Mansion.

Norma perks up with his concern and return. Later with an unexpected but unanswered call from Paramount, she decides to visit the studio.The visit with Max driving them in the Isotta through the old main gates is classic. The worshipful reception of Norma/Gloria by the old-time studio hands and C.B. DeMille himself is a high-spot of the film. This element was added to the script after Billy Wilder witnessed for himself the reception Gloria Swanson received at the Paramount lot when filming of Sunset Blvd. began.

 

Paramount Studio Sunset_Blvd_1950_25

The visit to Paramount  also provides an opportunity for Joe to visit the writer’s room, and there to see Betty Schaeffer again. They agree to work on a story together, for which Joe must get out of the mansion at night for their rendez-vous

One night Joe and Betty stroll through the “New York” set on the Paramount lot. Here she tells him about the nose job she got in order to land film roles. After that they liked her nose but not her acting,

 

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Photo courtesy Photofest

 

And of course they fall for each other. There is a great kissing scene on the 2nd story balcony of the old writer’s building. It was shot from a crane, with Billy Wilder and the cameraman at their level. Down below were the other crew members, among which was William Holden’s wife Ardis. As Nancy Olson related at the TCM Classic Film Festival screening of Sunset Blvd. in 2010, Billy Wilder told her and Holden that they should keep kissing until he told them to stop. He said he didn’t know how the scene would need to be edited. So they kissed, and kissed, and kissed some more. And they kept on kissing, until finally  they heard a shout from Ardis down below , “cut goddammit!”

Things get serious between Joe and Betty, and they want to make plans, only this is a film noir, and we’ve already seen where it ends. Norma discovers their joint script one night and in jealousy phones Betty and spills about Joe’s situation. When Betty shows up at the mansion to see if it’s all true, there’s no hiding the rest of the story. That’s when Joe tells her he’s bound to Norma Desmond on a long term contract with no options. He escorts Betty out. Then tells Norma he’s leaving. As he gathers his things, leaving his eighteen suits and eighteen dozen shirts and platinum keychains she bought him, just packing his old things and typewriter, he tells her there will be no comeback movie for her at Paramount, that they only wanted her car, that Max was writing all her fan mail, and that no, he won’t stay. So she follows him, saying, “No one leaves a star,” and, “You’re not leaving me.” And as he makes his way towards the garage she shoots him – once – and twice more, as he falls into the pool.

Its early the next morning, and the film comes full circle, with police, photographers, the news, and all sorts of people hovering around. And there’s that pool again. The one Joe Gillis always wanted. He’s narrating his own story again, and now thy’re fishing him out of the pool. “Funny how gentle people get with you once you’re dead.”  But as a writer, even a dead one, he almost had the last word on Norma Desmond: “What would they do to her? Even if she got away with it in court – crime of passion – temporary insanity – those headlines would kill her: Forgotten Star a Slayer –Aging Actress –Yesterday’s Glamour Queen…”

Inside, Max tricks her out of her bedroom by telling her the cameras are ready.  Max at the bottom of the stairs, Are the lights ready?  Quiet everybody!  Are you ready Norma?

“What is the scene she asks?”  “This is the staircase of the Palace,” says Max. “Camera. Action!” he says. She descends the staircase in a trance, At the bottom of the staircase she stops, too happy to continue with acting the scene, then asking an imaginary Mr. DeMille if she can say a few words, then  saying,

“….You don’t know how much I’ve missed all of you. And I promise you I’ll never desert you again, because after ‘Salome’ we’ll make another picture and another. You see, this is my life. It always will be. There’s nothing else – just us and the cameras and those wonderful people out there in the the dark…All right Mr. DeMIlle, I’m ready for my closeup.”

 

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And if you’ve seen it a million times like me you can hear Franz Waxman’s musical crescendo closing out the scene.

                                                                   THE END

 

This last scene is the reason why Sunset Blvd is a masterpiece. Norma Desmond may have been considered a  faded movie star, but she was a star and a performer to the end. She had lived the life of a movie queen and never gave up the role. She dressed up – never totally in style but always chic. Her fan mail may have been fake but that would not have changed her. She knew what she had accomplished, she was once and always a star.  If she were around today she would be flocked by old movie fans. In this role Gloria Swanson had transcended the role and infused it with her own persona and her own glorious stardom. At a wrap screening for Paramount’s stars, it was said that Barbara Stanwyck wept as she kissed in reverence the hem of Gloria Swanson’s silver lame gown.

William Holden also makes this movie work. As co-star Nancy Olson stated at the TCM Film Festival in 2010, Holden made the movie during a personal dry spell, drinking heavily himself and facing the taste of desperation that breathed down Joe Gillis’s neck. Years later he stated that this was his favorite role. After Sunset Blvd., just like the principal star, Holden himself made a comeback. The film was ranked the16th greatest of all-time by the American Film Institute, and the Library of Congress placed it in the National Film Registry as one of the 25 landmark films of all-time.

Edith Head designed the costumes for Sunset Blvd. When she had first started as a sketch artist at Paramount in 1923, Gloria Swanson was studio royalty. When Swanson returned from France after marrying the Marquis de la Falaise de la Coudraye, Edith Head was just one of the Paramount employees told to throw flowers as the couple drove onto the studio lot. Although Edith had now come a long way, she was still in awe of Gloria Swanson. This was especially the case as Swanson had always been a clothes-horse and very particular about her dress, and owning her own garment company. On her return from France in 1925, Swanson had also brought back fashion and costume designer Rene Hubert.

The look of Norma Desmond, and the role of the costumes in her characterization, was of someone that had only a hint of the old styles of Hollywood. She was certainly no Miss Haversham. She dressed smartly every day and wore clothes appropriate to the occasion and the time of day, even if she stayed mostly at home. When Joe Gillis first visits, she is wearing a hostess dress, a popular early 1950’s  combination skirt and pants outfit.

 

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Above is Miss Head’s costume sketch for Swanson’s opening scene as Norma Desmond. When you look closely you’ll notice in the movie, as in this design sketch, that the outfit has the pants worn under a hostess dress. The liner fabric was changed twice in the design phase,  from the plaid fabric to a floral print and finally to the leopard print in the final production.

Edith designed a stylish ensemble that Norma wears for her Queen Kelly screening with Joe, shown as the first photo in this post.  It is a brocaded top with a cut-away peplum, dropping lower at the back. it is worn over a simple black dress and top, accessorized with a beautiful over-sized necklace.

 

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Above  is Edith Head’s costume design sketch for Norma Desmond’s visit to the Paramount Studio and visit with Mr. De Mille. The final costume was modified. Gloria Swanson had always been fashion conscious. She suggested the feathered hat instead of the headpiece above as a way to emphasize her movie-role ties to an earlier Hollywood. Edith Head designed Swanson’s wardrobe for Norma Desmond as being someone still chic, but with a hint at her old glamour days. Below is the final costume used in the film’s Paramount studio visit.

 

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For her final scene, Edith Head designed  a simple costume for Norma’s Salome , a black gown with a sequined chiffon wrap, a hint of Gloria Swanson as the Salome of 1925 as seen below, back when they had faces.

 

 

Sunset Blvd Bohemia Gloria Swanson Salome

 

 

*Idea originated in Sam Stagg   Close-Up on Sunset Boulevard. New York: St Martin’s Pess, 2002.

 

THE 10 WILDEST COSTUMES IN FILM HISTORY

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

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

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

 

Costume Wild Salome Nazimova

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

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

 

Costume wild Evelyn Brent_ Slightly Scarlet_gray shades_001

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

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

 

 

Costume wild Mme Satan 2

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

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

 

Costume wild Madam Satan 1

 

 

 

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

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

 

Dietrich Coq feathers

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

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

 

Costume wild Hepburn Christopher Strong

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

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

 

Costumes Wild Cleopatra 34 1

Photo courtesy Photofest

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

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

 

Color Cleopatra_1934_3

 

 

 

Costumes wild GWTW

Photo courtesy Photofest

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

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

 

 

Costume wilf Grace-Kelly

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

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

 

Costumes Wild Cleopatra 63

Photo courtesy Photofest

 

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

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

costume wild  Cleopatra Liz

Courtesy 20th Century-Fox

 

If only we still had such Masked Balls. Hope you have a wild or happy 2015.