Billy Wilder’s SOME LIKE IT HOT starring Marilyn Monroe is still hot, the 60th anniversary of its making. It is screened every year to a large crowd at the Coronado Island Film Festival – on the beach in front of the Hotel del Coronado where a large part of it was filmed. Like many of Hollywood’s greatest movies, it has a fascinating backstory and a yacht-full of movie making convolutions.
Director Billy Wilder had bought the rights to a German movie about a couple of Jazz musicians pretending to be women. It was the Depression and they just wanted to get into any band with an opening . Billy and his writing partner I. A. L. (Iz) Diamond spent nearly a year on the script, changing the circumstances to having an all-woman band in the 1920s. Here their two characters get mixed up in a gangland event shooting, and are now being hunted as witnesses. Tony Curtis as Joe (Josephine) and Jack Lemmon as Jerry (Daphne) dress up as women as a disguise and join the band. They now escape by train but are stuck in their female roles as musicians. For Jerry and Joe that’s all of a sudden not so bad when they discover Marilyn Monroe as band-member Sugar Kane Kowalcyzk is aboard. Suger Kane drinks, but Jerry saves her job by stating that a fallen flask of whiskey is his, thus making a good friend. Later Suger visits his sleeping compartment and a flustered Jerry is only saved by more band-women visitors. They are on their way to the fictional Ritz Seminole Hotel in Florida, the story stand-in for the Hotel del Coronado, where they will be playing. Once there, among the resort guests is the very rich Osgood Fielding III, who immediately starts flirting with Daphne (Jerry/Jack Lemmon). Jerry is ready to give up their act as he rooms with Joe (Josephine/ Tony Curtis). But Joe says that the gangster “Spats” (George Raft) will be looking for any male musicians, and besides, he has his own designs on Suger. For this, he pretends to be the Shell Oil heir, speaking with the accent of Cary Grant as he woos her on the beach.
Censorship still existed at the time, and the characters and subject matter of the film had problems. The National Catholic Legion of Decency found Some Like It Hotto contain “screen material elements that are judged to be seriously offensive to Christian and traditional standards of morality and decency. …The dialogue was not only ‘double entendre’ but outright smut. The offense in costuming was obvious.” The MPAA was more sympathetic, citing Shakespeare as a precedent in cross-dressing.
Marilyn Monroe had worked with Billy Wilder previously on the Seven Year Itch, and asked Wilder to work with him again. She consented to work on Some Like it Hot (SLIH) for 10% of the gross. When she signed, Lemmon came on board, SLIH becoming one of seven films he made with Wilder. These were difficult times for Marilyn. She was pregnant. She was taking drugs. She had her acting coach Paula Strasberg telling her what to do. She overdosed and spent several days at the hospital. So now she couldn’t remember her lines, and take after take was needed – as many as 47 for some very simple lines of dialogue. Some days she wouldn’t come out of her dressing room ( more like a motor home) until noon.
The film’s costume designer was the famed Orry-Kelly. He was the native Australian who had dressed Bette Davis and all the other Warner Brothers stars of the Golden Age of Hollywood. Orry-Kelly and Marilyn Monroe got off on the wrong foot right off the bat. Orry-Kelly was known to be as temperamental as the stars he dressed. He made the mistake of saying Tony Curtis had a better looking ass than she did. But Marilyn had a sharp retort, she unbuttoned her blouse and said, “Tony Curtis doesn’t have tits like these.”
But Orry-Kelly still managed to design some great looking outfits for her.
Tony Curtis and Marilyn had once had a brief affair. And according to Curtis in his autobiography, the affair had being rekindled on the set. Although the script has him playing an inhibited role in this scene, Marilyn seems very natural in this scene.
The stolen evening on Osgood’s yacht is followed the next day by chaos as the mob descends on the resort hotel. The two “girls” scurry for safety, although Daphne/Jack Lemmon ends up with Osgood/Joe E Brown escaping on a boat together. The final line has become a classic in comedic cinema, a sentence that was a place- holder sentence written by Iz Diamond until they came up with a better line. They never did.
Orry-Kelly won an Oscar for Best Costume design for black and white film. At the time, there were two costume design Oscars, the other was for color films. It also received nominations for Best Actor (Lemmon), Best Art Direction, Best Cinematography (again for black & white film), Best Director and Best Screenplay. The American Film Institute selected it the #1 comedy of all time. Marilyn’s black cocktail dress pictured in this blog post sold at auction for $460,000.
Skin and beads, the name I gave this post, is based on what Marilyn Monroe called her Jean Louis-designed gown from 1962, the one where she sang Happy Birthday Mr. Presidentto John F. Kennedy at Madison Square Garden. Indeed, the main advantage of a dress made of glass bugle beads is that their weight presses against the skin. You either see the skin left exposed, or you clearly see the contours of the wearer since the beads hug the figure with from the gravity of their weight. And the beads not only reflect light, but are themselves translucent, and sewn onto the sheerest of silk chiffons. They are made of cut glass, an can be colored or lined in silver or gold. Marlene Dietrich belowknew how to pose in a gown made of bugle beads. This one was designed for her by the costume and fashion designer Irene. Little skin actually shows, yet you feel that all of her is showing.
The tubular bugle beads can be sewn solidly on a dress, or they can be used sparingly for decoration. Bugle beads shared the same limelight as sequins in the 1920s, when glitter was in favor (did it ever go away?). Sequins don’t let the light through, and they are much lighter in weight, an advantage in cost of production and wearability. But sequins don’t flatter the screen figure like beads do. Below a young Joan Crawford wears a fur wrap and nude souffle (not pronounced soufflay) dress bodice, both decorated in bugle beads and sequins, here in a photo by Ruth Harriet Louise from 1926.
With Jean Harlow, Adrian had the perfect figure on which to mold a nightgown made of bugle beads, accented with ostrich plume sleeves. The contrast of the shiny, reptilian skin of the beads, along with the fuzzy-nest sleeves of the nightgown, provided the perfect symbolic duality of the good-bad girl that was Jean Harlow. The photographer Harvey White captured this essence perfectly in the photo below from Dinner at Eight.
While rarely paired on film, Jean Harlow and Clark Gable made a compelling couple in films like Red Dust. The chiaroscuro of black and white photography byHurrell captures their radiance. The Adrian-designed gown of bugle beads reflects the light as it reflects her figure.The two stars are perfectly comfortable with each other. This type of dual portrait photography is a lost art. The photo below is from Saratoga, her last film.
Adrian designed another knock-out gown of solid bugle beads for Joan Crawford in The Bride Wore Red, 1937, It was made of red bugle beads, and provided a key role in the plot of the film. Vintage beaded movie gowns rarely survived. Due to their weight, they would rip apart if left on hangers for long. This one miraculously survived at MGM because a wardrobe lady had placed it in a drawer where it was forgotten for decades. It is now in the collection of the Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology.
The Bride Wore Red gown in all its red glory is shown below in London at the V&A Museum’s Hollywood Costume Exhibition from 2013. The exhibition went on the road and finished its tour in 2015 at the future site of the Museum of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.
The photo below shows Carole Lombard in a beaded gown designed by Robert Kalloch for Brief Moment,1933, from Columbia Pictures. Travis Banton had designed her Paramount movies and then Irene took over her wardrobe designing until Lombard’s untimely death in 1942. She was always photogenic and looked great whether in glamour or everyday clothes.
The bugle beads these fabulous gowns were made from were usually silver-lined, which gave them their highly reflective quality. But the beads could be made of colored glass. Jeanette MacDonald below wears an Adrian designed gown of blue bugle beads in the film Sweetheartsin 1938. The back of the gown shows just enough skin to be tantalizing, and with Jeanette’s back framed with a yoke and swags of beading, it emphasizes Adrian’s favored V-line silhouette. The front was very close-fitting like Joan Crawford’s red-beaded gown in The Bride Wore Red.
Lana Turner, another platinum blonde, always looked smashing in black. Irene designed her wardrobe after Adrian left MGM, including this black bugle-beaded gown for Slightly Dangerous in in 1942.
Things became more colorful in the 1950s, especially when Marilyn Monroe was on the scene. Blonds were still popular, which Marilyn cast in cement for several more decades, especially in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, 1953. Jane Russel was the brunette serving as contrast. The gowns were designed by Travilla. Marilyn’s gown sold at the Debbie Reynolds auction in 2011 for $1.44 million.
Marilyn Monroe had some fabulous designers working with her: Charles LeMaire,Travilla, Orry-Kelly, and Jean Louis. The black souffle dress below is decorated with strands of bugle beads. It was designed by Orry-Kelly for her in Some Like it Hot, 1958.
Pictured below is the famous 1962 Happy Birthday Mr. Presidentdress designed by Jean Louis, otherwise known by her as the “skin and beads” dress. Actually it was made of a flesh-colored souffle, and decorated with rhinestones, not beads. But Marilyn’s point was that it was tight enough to be her skin. It sold at auction at Christie’s New York for $1.2 million in 1999.
Glass beads are expensive but ever in style. The famous model Verushka of the 1960s wears this outfit in the legendary film Blow Up, in 1966. In this outfit, which is actually a short nightgown with open sides, Verushka poses for the photographer played by David Hemmings.
The glamour of beaded gowns has moved from the screen to the red carpet in recent years. Two striking examples are shown below.
Selena Gomez wears a gold beaded Pucci at a 2014 Oscars after-party. The Pucci runway gown was modified to add the cutaway at the bust and to reveal more skin along with the beads.
Blake Lively wears a figure-hugging Zuhar Murad Couture nude- colored gown with black bead stripes at the movie premiere of Savages. The stripes are wild and not many could pull off this look but Blake Lively is one of them.
Glamour never dies, nor does the influence of classic Hollywood costume and fashion design.
This post was modified from the 100th post of my former Silver Screen Modiste blog. It’s now my 48th of Silver Screen Modes.
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 Paris, but 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.
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 Shoes, Powell 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.
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 TheRed 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.
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. Minnelliconvinced 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 Furiesfor 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.
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. 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.
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 opening scene in the style of Raoul Dufy’s Place de la Concorde becomes Jerry’s dream world.
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.
The white furies turn to more intense red furies
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.
Jerry pursues Lise to the floral backdrop inspired by Pierre Auguste Renoir, and as they dance, they hold the red rose of love. Alas, even in dreams our dreams escape us. Lise has been transformed into flowers, soon to fall from his grasp. The background has now turned into the melancholy monochromatic artwork of Maurice Utrillo. Gershwin’s music is also changing to American jazz-inspired melodies. Jerry becomes homesick, as had Gershwin in Paris, which inspired him to add the sounds of American blues and jazz into his musical composition. 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.
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. Here now we enterthe more turbulent world of Vincent Van Gogh, the skies of the backdrops painted in swirled colors.
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.
But still the Furies beckon, transforming from red to many shades of yellow and orange.
The setting now changes to the nocturnal and hallucinatory world of Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec.
And now Jerry himself is transformed into one of Lautrec’s characters, a black stage dancer named Chocolat.
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.
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.
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.
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.
A blog about classic movie costume design and fashion