THE HOLLYWOOD COSTUME COLLECTORS – LARRY MCQUEEN

 

As we see on reality TV and read about in blogs and magazines, there are collectors of just about everything these days. The remnants of everyday life seem to find a place in some collector’s storage shed, as seen in the American Pickers. Yet the treasures from the dream factories of Hollywood’s Golden Age, those material things seen on the silver screen  by millions around the world, and by generations after generation, have been the most fragile collectible of all. These things are the costumes, the “second skin of the actors.” They were often re-used or modified. They hung in studio warehouses for years until they were in tatters. When the racks were too full they were sometimes dumped as trash. When the studios were in financial straits in the 60s and 70s, the better costumes were often auctioned, while others were sold in bulk. Paradoxically, it was during this time in the 1960s that classic film was being rediscovered, and for many, it had been the staple of their youthful daytime TV viewing. A younger generation was attracted to Hollywood with ideals. Many had artistic skills and some got jobs working in the studio wardrobe departments. It didn’t take long to see that the old studio system was unraveling, and the wardrobe department, along with several of the other “crafts” was an early casualty. Within this environment, several young men began in earnest to collect the movie costumes that the studios considered surplus. To these idealists, the costumes represented the essence of the characters: the actors; and the movies themselves. Debbie Reynolds had also begun collecting, but she had the deep pockets and the connections that made it easier for her. The others, with a young costumer named Kent Warner priming the pump, entered a feeding frenzy. The idealism that had started the group’s quest to save Hollywood’s costume heritage eventually turned into a realization that the costumes represented a source of quick cash, when those with easy access to the costumes could sell them to those that didn’t. And from there, things entered a downward spiral.

 Several years later, Hollywood costume collecting entered a new phase. Larry McQueen, then and now, represents the very best of what a collector, without great financial means, can accomplish. Larry has, with great dedication, dogged perseverance, skilled research, a wealth of knowledge, the highest ethical standards, and along with the guidance and help of his late mentor Bill Thomas, developed an outstanding collection of classic Hollywood costumes.

 I am very gratified to be able to offer herewith my interview with Larry McQueen.

Bill Thomas and Larry McQueen recieving Marlene Dietrich's Angel  gown
Bill Thomas and Larry McQueen recieving Marlene Dietrich’s Angel gown

 

What got you interested in film costume? Was there someone who particularly influenced you?

 That is a simple question.  Bill Thomas (not the costume designer of the same name).  I met him when he was around eighteen or nineteen and he had this – what I thought was a very exotic hobby – working with and collecting film costumes.  We would see each other from time to time and he would tell me the stories of working with Debbie Reynolds and the original band of “Robin Hoods.”  I wanted to get involved and to meet them, but Bill always kept me at a distance.  At first, I couldn’t understand why he didn’t want me to get involved, but later I realized that it was probably the best thing he ever did because I wasn’t involved with the negative aspect of what they did.  The band of collectors was turning on each other and was forgetting their original mission for collecting these things. Bill told me that “his greed for these things was destroying his love for them.”  In 1984, Bill sold the majority of his collection.  It wasn’t until 1989 that Bill and I agreed to start “The Collection of Motion Picture Costume Design.”

  Do you recall your first acquisition? Your first major acquisition?

 My very first acquisition was purchased from Kent Warner through Bill.  It was a helmet and chain mail worn by Ingrid Bergman in “Joan of Arc.”  It was probably in the late 70’s and I thought it was the most incredible thing until my apartment was broken into and it was taken. It was a fairly standard break-in and I’m sure that whoever took the item had no idea what it was.

 In 1989, Bill and I agreed to go into business together and start a collection.  It was because of the gown worn by Greta Garbo in “Queen Christina” (this is the royal gown with all the heavy beading and rhinestones shown in the V&A exhibition). The gown went for a substantial amount of money at the time and far more than either of us could afford separately.  Since we had no intention of ever selling it, The Collection of Motion Picture Costume Design was created.

  As youth we are first stimulated visually by film, but do you recall if your first attraction to costume was tactile or visual?

 My first recall of costumes was when I was in fifth grade.  The class went to see a theatre production of “The King & I” and I was fascinated with the theatricality and fantasy world it created.  From that moment on, I knew I would be involved with theatre and I went on to get a degree in it.  Life sometimes changes the directions of your plans, but I’m still involved with the theatre of costume exhibitions.

 Do you have favorite designers or perhaps favorite stars or films?  How do you approach your collecting strategy?          

 I don’t have a favorite designer, but I do have a designer that I very much respect and who does not get the attention that I think he deserves.  Travis Banton.   Perhaps it is because of his lack of a couture line and perhaps it was because of his alcoholism but, his creations were extremely beautiful and perfectly expressed the high glamour of the 1930’s and 40’s.

 My fascination with collecting costume is the art of costume design.  I do not have an affinity for a particular star or film.  I, of course, have my favorite actors and films.  But, when I collect, I choose pieces that tells my particular story- that I have decided to tell- of costume design while taking into account the value associated with the stars and films.  I try to tell that story from the pieces that come available to me and not obsess on the pieces that I can’t afford or may not still exist.

 Continual price increases are a trend in Hollywood costume collecting, and Hollywood memorabilia values in general. Are there other notable trends you see?

 The trend I most notice, especially as a collector myself, is the shift from private collectors to corporate collectors.  I noticed this happening first with Planet Hollywood who was trying to amass an immense collection of movie memorabilia for the restaurants and Hotel.  As the years continued, the prices continued to rise.  With the Debbie Reynolds auction, prices again took a giant leap forward.  I still continue to collect well-chosen pieces, but certainly not at the pace that I used to.

 Fabric and paper are the most fragile of collectibles. How do you preserve your costumes?

 I take the care of the costumes as much as a responsibility to me as acquiring them. Any expense associated with the care of the costumes comes out of my own pocket so, I often find myself forgoing acquiring a costume so that I can afford to take care of the costumes that I already have.  I try to follow museum standards for their care by boxing the costumes to avoid the stress of hanging, using acid free boxes and tissue and/or unbleached muslin and keeping them in a temperature and humidity controlled environment.  It’s a never ending process and I certainly take more time in the organization and the care of the items than I do in the collecting of them.

 You have generously loaned some of your costumes to exhibitions in the past. Can you tell us about some of these items and exhibitions for us?

 The goal, from the conception of “The Collection of Motion Picture Costume Design” was to exhibit the costumes and share them with the public.  Our very first international exhibition was negotiated on the evening after Bill passed away.  Regardless of what was going to happen, Bill wanted that meeting to occur and knew that our dream was entering the next phase of exhibition.

 We made the decision a long time ago that the pieces deserved to be shown in museums, because we felt they were artwork.  So, for the most part, I only allow the pieces to be shown in museums with the proper facilities and care. There was one photo session when I did allow a piece to be worn, but it was for a prominent photographer, magazine and actress and I was there to control every aspect. When I first met Bill, he himself did fashion shows with people wearing the costumes. But during one such exhibition, one of the models stepped on the train of the costume and tore it off at the waist. Even though I do enjoy seeing the pieces “move” as they were originally designed to do, it is not worth the damage that can occur.

 I have been honored to have shown many of the costumes in museums around the world, the most recent being at the Victoria and Albert museum in London.  I have worked with museums in Japan, Germany, Italy and Australia.  I am often amazed that “foreign” markets often respond far more enthusiastically than American audiences.  It is probably because that is how they learned about our culture, by watching films. I am often amazed that they know films- especially some of the classic films and actors far better than American audiences. I am so pleased that the pieces are now being recognized as artwork.

 Costumes were sometimes altered at the studios for later productions, or may have seriously deteriorated. Do you believe in restoring a costume to its original look?

 This has always been a major consideration.  When purchasing a costume, I try to collect pieces that are still in good condition, retain the original “magic” and will withstand the rigors of exhibition. If they are to be considered artifacts, they should be treated as such.  I am always having discussions with museum experts concerning conservation vs. restoration. I have changed over the years and made decisions to restore costumes that could not otherwise be shown.  I have no problem with accessorizing the costumes with articles such as shirts, ties or shoes that are missing so that they will better reflect their original appearance.  But, I do take issue with replacing the majority of the fabric and basically re-making the costume.  It then becomes a copy of the original.  And most importantly, it comes down to documentation and disclosure.  I see so many pieces on display or on the market that are not real and I feel they diminish the pieces that are.

 Do you have any preferences for historical (period) or contemporary costumes?

 My personal preference is certainly period costumes because of the drama and theatricality of them.  But, I also appreciate the representation of the styles that have occurred during the various time periods.  I often purchase a costume because it fits into a particular time period and better tells the story of fashion trend in history and in film. So many things have changed in fashion and the films often reflect those changes, even though it may not have always reflected it accurately.

 With the loss of much of Debbie Reynolds’ collection through sales on one hand, but with plans for the Academy’s Museum on the other, do you see a place for an institutional collection of Hollywood costume?

 The demise of the Debbie Reynolds collection was one of the most unfortunate things that has happened in the world of collecting film costumes.  My answer is so short because I could actually go on for hours about it.  It was definitely an end of an era and a missed opportunity. I only hope that the museum world will understand and appreciate this “art form.”

  Is there a question I neglected to ask you that you’d like to answer?

 I was very fortunate to have gotten involved with this field when I did.  When I started, only a small handful of people understood or appreciated what these pieces were.  I have often stated that “I was at the right place, at the right time.”  Not only in the ability to acquire pieces, but to have the opportunity to do my part in creating the field.  Bill always told me that this industry that we were helping to develop would someday “turn around and ‘bite’ us.”

 Also, even though it was a financial stretch to acquire the pieces that we did back then, and even though there was “deception” or misrepresentation in the market, it is nowhere near the market of today.  It is certainly a market where the buyer needs to be informed and aware.

 Can you watch a film without analyzing the wardrobe, or if it’s a classic film and you missed the credits, identify the costume designer?

 The way that I watch films has certainly changed.  When watching a film I do notice when there is a costume that is extremely beautiful or one that I realize is extremely important to the action of the film and secretly desiring that I had that costume. But, since I do so much research on film costumes for a living, I usually can turn it off and switch modes and just enjoy the film itself.

 Thank you Larry for sharing your time and knowledge with us.

 Larry is active as a consultant in the field of Hollywood costume – in identification, valuation, exhibition, preservation, and related fields. He has worked with several major auction houses as a consultant in appraising and cataloging film costumes. He has also worked with Paramount Pictures on their auction in 1992 and with MGM/UA studios consulting on their costumes. Similarly, he has worked with Debbie Reynolds and the Western Costume Company. He has lent items from his important collection, and served as consultant to several museums around the country and around the world. His last museum involvement was with the major exhibition at the V&A in London: Hollywood Costume, now on tour. Larry loaned several major pieces for this exhibition, including the Greta Garbo Queen Christina gown mentioned above. Larry related to me how he had traveled to London for the Grand Opening. Between the jet lag and the nervousness, he couldn’t sleep, and instead entered into a long conversation in his mind with Bill Thomas about Larry’s long road to to get there, and to have Hollywood costumes be featured at London’s Victoria and Albert Museum. I think Bill would have been very proud.

 

Larry McQueen at opening of Tokyo Exhibition 1995
Larry McQueen at opening of Tokyo Exhibition 1995
Bill Processing Paramount collections at  Christies 1989
Bill Processing Paramount collections at Christies 1989
Bill Thomas and Larry McQueen- at AMC 1992
Bill Thomas and Larry McQueen- at AMC 1992
Larry's Marlene Dietrich gown from Angel at the V&A Exhibition
Larry’s Marlene Dietrich gown from Angel at the V&A Exhibition

 

Larry's "Queen Christina" robe at right at the V&A Exhibition
Larry’s “Queen Christina” robe at right at the V&A Exhibition

 

 

BARRY LYNDON – ANOTHER LOOK

 

Stanley Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon has been judged by many to be either a masterpiece or a monstrous bore. For years after its release in 1975, the common opinion was shared with that of the noted late film critic Pauline Kael, who called it “an ice-pack of a movie.”

I am a big fan of the Baroque era’s arts, crafts, and architecture, as well as being a fan of Kubrick’s films, and thus have admired the film ever since its first release.  Admiring this particular Kubrick film is a bit of a guilty pleasure,  bearing no judgment on the quality of the film, but rather on my own guilt in admiring it so for its baroque aesthetics and overwhelming beauty, while downplaying its devastating depiction of human vanity, aggressiveness, and greed.

Barry Lyndon 1

 

The first scene could be a metaphor for the entire movie: a beautifully composed view of a bucolic countryside, in the distance two men fight a duel, and one of them will die. It will be the protagonist Redmond Barry’s father, as it happens, and so begins this picaresque story based on the novel by William Thackeray.

In my opinion, Barry Lyndon has few equals in harnessing the arts to the service of film making.  Kubrick poured over and drew inspiration from the oil paintings and watercolors depicting 18th century European pastoral and courtly life, especially those of Thomas Gainsborough, William Hogarth, and Francois Boucher. Many of his scenes are purposefully composed as would a period landscape painter. Kubrick also listened to all of the European 18th century classical music he could find, and the soundtrack is so perfectly blended with the film that it is hard to listen separately to one of the pieces without envisioning the unfolding scene, perfectly in sync with its soundtrack. In this sense, Barry Lyndon is primarily a visual and auditory experience. Its dialogue is brief, and we depend on the excellent voice- over narration given by Michael Hordern, spoken as Thackeray had written it, or in a very similar style.

 Barry Lyndon 11

Kubrick insisted on capturing nature’s full beauty as the backdrop for man’s schemes and wars. His cinematographer was John Alcott, who used an Arriflex 35BL with a large aperture control to capture as much of the ever-changing lighting as possible.

Barry Lyndon 9

Redmond Barry is played by Ryan O’Neal, whose plain good looks made a good stand-in for the plucky character inadvertently set off on a life of adventure. As narrated, his attractive cousin Nora Brady was “the cause of all his early troubles.” After seducing him to a soundtrack of the Chieftain’s “Women of Ireland,” she promptly takes up with an English officer of means. The duel that ensues between the jealous rivals (one of many duels fought in the film), forces him to take to the road with a pouch of money his mother gave him. Though he was mightily impressed with the cut of a soldier’s scarlet uniform, it was only a highway robbery that left him penniless and forced him to enlist in the army. After many adventures and mis-adventures in various armies in various countries he vowed that, “never again would he fall from the ranks of a gentleman.” But this was not before his experience among the dregs of the Prussian army had ensured that he was “far advanced in the science of every kind of misconduct.”

 

Barry Lyndon 12
Barry fought as a soldier, but had higher aspirations

 

Redmond Barry gambles, where he meets the beautiful Lady Lyndon

Redmond Barry gambles, but meets the beautiful Lady Lyndon

The life of a gentleman rake was close enough for our intrepid hero. He had fallen in with a fellow Irish libertine who called himself the Chevalier di BaliBari, and thus did he meet the Lady Honoria Lyndon, “a woman of vast wealth and great beauty,” played by Marisa Berenson. His slow seduction of her at the gambling table and on the palace terrace is a masterpiece of film-making. No greater contrast exists to the current methods of filming scenes of seduction. The scene on the terrace is wordless, and indeed, nearly motionless. It develops through the beautiful, inexorable beat of Schubert’s Piano Trio No. 2. The gestures of the actors are slow, with each slight movement invested with meaning. When Lady Lyndon stands outside on the terrace, only a slight sideways glance conveys the understanding that she awaits him. After he advances to her, their hands show their anticipation, reaching out slowly and deliberately, grasping just before they kiss.

 

Marissa Berenson as Lady Lyndon
Marissa Berenson as Lady Lyndon

 

Barry Lyndon bathtub scene

The role of the Countess Lyndon is played stylishly but with dignified restraint by Marisa Berenson. Her beauty is magnified by impressive period-styled wigs. The costumes throughout are authentically and beautifully designed and add to the richness of the scenes and the characterization of the actors. The fabrics and laces used blend perfectly with the rich tapestries, linens, and upholsteries in the film. The make-up too provides the white-powdered, beauty-spotted, 18th century style adopted by both men and women. And these personal adornments and the great palace interiors, are richly bathed in light – the strafing of natural light through open windows during the day and the incredible glow provided by candle-light and chandeliers at night. For the candle-lit scenes, no artificial lighting was used, and such was Kubrick’s obsessive compulsion in replicating the look of the era that when no camera lens was found capable of filming such scenes, he used a lens built by the Carl Zeiss company for NASA: the Zeiss 50mm lens with the largest aperture of any ever built for a movie (f/0.7). Thus are we provided with that candle-lit chiaroscuro so beautifully used by painters such as Caravaggio and de La Tour. The chandeliers even had metallic reflectors added on the ceilings for adding light.

Barry's new family playing baroque music
Barry’s new family playing baroque music

The fortunes of Redmond Barry are looking up as he courts Lady Lyndon, the wife of a moribund Lord. Their quick marriage after the Lord’s death soon turns Barry into the lord of the manor, especially in his own mind and demeanor. He is now known by the name of Barry Lyndon.

Barry Lyndon Ryan O'Neal as Barry Lyndon & Marissa Berenson as Lady Lyndon
Barry Lyndon Ryan O’Neal as Barry Lyndon & Marissa Berenson as Lady Lyndon

Before long a son is born to them, which Barry loves above all else and dotes on. Such behavior is in contrast to the treatment he gives Lady Lyndon’s first son by her late husband, and the pair develop a mutual animosity.

Barry Lyndon 8

Aside from doting on his son, Barry Lyndon reverts to his womanizing. His attempts to aggrandize his name and to secure a title of his own leads him deeper and deeper into debt. Barry’s luck has changed again, and his bad behavior compounds his difficulties.

Barry Lyndon 6

The artfully composed picture above of Barry and his son foretells the isolation that Barry will soon endure. The inexorable beat of Handel or Schubert still plays, in ever more mournful tempo, as one disaster after another befalls Barry Lyndon. Even the panoramic landscapes are now shown devoid of  people that formerly had decorated these scenes.

A climactic duel between Barry and his step-son was fastidiously filmed, shot in such slow and deliberate actions that it paralleled the earlier seduction scene, this time to the music of Handel’s Sarabande, the movie’s theme music and itself of measured tempo. The scene is filmed in a barn, not in the pastoral settings used earlier.  It is here that Barry Lyndon finally displays true gentlemanly behavior, but alas it is all for naught.

Barry Lyndon 13

In the scene below and other interior scenes, extra lighting was provided by lights outside the windows, with many of the the windows covered in gels or tracing paper for special effecrs.

Barry Lyndon 4

 

Stanley Kubrick has set the last scene with Lady Lyndon, her son and their attendants,signing documents that will place their world back in order. The date that she signs the documents is 1789. This perfectly composed tableau shows the English aristocracy in their element. Kubrick has again presented a beautiful scene which belies reality and the events taking place across the English channel, where the French Revolution has begun. Soon such palaces as these will be looted there, and many of their aristocrat inhabitants will be sent to the guillotine.

Kubrick’s film-making techniques were unified throughout Barry Lyndon. His use of deep-focus was prevalent, which was used along with zoom-in and zoom-out shots that either clarified an action or gave a very different perspective on the events. His devotion to the authentic bordered on an obsession.The gathered packets of paper documents on a desk for example were held together with nearly imperceptible straight-pins, as they would have been before staples or clips came along. Over eight minutes of screen time and weeks of filming and editing were devoted to the climactic duel scene, in which moments pass ponderously as men face off with pistols, their seconds standing by and following every protocol.

Costume design for the film was recognized by an Academy Award given to Milena Canonero and Ulla-Brit Soderlund. This was the second film designed by the distinguished costume designer Canonero, whose first had been for Kubrick’s Clockwork Orange. Barry Lyndon also won awards for Best Cinematography, Best Art Direction and Best Music. Stanley Kubrick, although nominated, has never won an Academy Award for Best Director.

 

 

 

 

 

 

MARLENE DIETRICH & TRAVIS BANTON

 

Marlene Dietrich’s image jumps off the screen or the page with that look. Beginning with her first Paramount film in 1930, she was dressed by Travis Banton. He was the right designer to give her the “Marlene look” that she would carry throughout her career. What was it that made her image so unique?  Whether dressed as a man or dressed as a woman, Marlene’s image remains iconic.

Marlene Dietrich in "Morocco," 1930. Photo courtesy of Photofest
Marlene Dietrich in “Morocco,” 1930. Photo courtesy of Photofest

Marlene’s name is a combination of her first and middle name – Marie Magdelene Dietrich, born in Berlin on December 21, 1901. She was raised in an upper bourgeois family with a military heritage, where obedience, suppression of emotion, and discipline were ingrained in the two daughters. Her father died when she was six. After being raised in this proper bourgeois setting, she was released into the chaos and madness of post World War I Berlin, once described as the “Babylon of the World.” While then too plump to be considered attractive, she used her early musical training, her drive steeled by her discipline, her flair for getting noticed, and her already shapely legs, to get roles on stage and film, leading to the starring film role in UFA’s The Blue Angel, 1930, directed by Josef von Sternberg. Sternberg had seen Marlene on stage where she played the lead in Zwei Kravatten (The Two Neckties)Her detached disdainful stage manner seemed to match his own, and he cast her in the film and got her a contract with Paramount in Hollywood.


Once in Hollywood, von Sternberg controlled her steps through the studio system. He is commonly considered to have both created and dominated Marlene and her image. Their story in this phase of her career seems to bear resemblance to the myth of Galatea and Pygmalion, and if anyone was under a spell it was von Sternberg. His particular manner of fixation to the star and her appearance would not be seen again in Hollywood until Hitchcock..

 

Marlene Dietrich in "Morocco."
Marlene Dietrich in “Morocco.”

Their first American film would be Morocco in 1930In addition to wardrobe, an important part of the studio system was the portrait and stills photography process, used heavily for film publicity. Here too von Sternberg directed the photo sittings. Paramount portrait and set photographers Eugene Richee, Don English, and William Walling shot dozens of stills, this at the time when single-negative cartridges were hand-loaded. The lighting used for Dietrich was a high spot, creating shadows under her cheekbones, with others to accentuate her forehead, this to create a shadow under her nostrils and thus emphasizing the triangle of eyes and nostrils, perched above her beautiful lips. With Marlene Dietrich more than with any other actress, she looks directly at the lens, and thus straight at the viewer. You are brought into her world – whether to join her in the role – or as viewed in today’s more cynical world – just to play along with her tease.

Marlene Morocco 3_1930 Photofest

 Travis Banton would find out immediately that Marlene Dietrich was no prima donna. Her ingrained discipline and suppression of emotion or of any complaint steeled her for every hardship. The production of Morocco was rushed before some of her costumes could be completed. With Sternberg’s late filming habits, Banton was forced to take costume fittings late in the evenings. Nevertheless, Dietrich would come into wardrobe late after her shooting schedule, and she would stand stiffly upright while Banton, the seamstresses and fitters would work, exhausted, until the early hours of the morning. Dietrich’s costume fittings became legendary as to the lengths she would go to have everything perfect. Dietrich’s role in Morocco as a cabaret singer gave Banton liberty with a variety of provocative costumes. The top-hat of Blue Angel is changed to Dietrich dressed in white tie and tails based on an idea of Dietrich’s.  In this famous scene, shocking at the time (in the U.S.) for a woman dressed as a man, Dietrich sings and entertains while strolling into the audience up to the table of a pretty woman, takes a flower from her hair, hesitates, then kisses the woman on the mouth. 

Marlene playing the role of Amy Jolly quickly falls for the Foreign Legionnaire Tom Brown, played by Gary Cooper. Travis Banton discovered that Marlene’s style of cool, almost disdainful style of acting, a product of her upbringing and suppression of emotions, was best served by costumes that were hot and punchy, even over the top and more than most actresses could wear. Feathers and fur, sequins and beads were immediately put into his inventory for her. The last scene in the movie is memorable, as Marlene walks into the desert sands in heels, which she quickly discards, as she trails the camp-followers that follow Tom Brown and the rest of the the legionnaires into the horizon.

Gary Cooper would become one of the leading men with whom Marlene had affairs. Others included John Gilbert, Douglas Fairbanks Jr., Maurice Chevalier, John Wayne, Yul Brynner, Jean Gabin, as well as Joe Kennedy and General Gavin, and those were just the men.

Marlene Dietrich and Gary Cooper in "Morocco," 1930. Photo courtesy of Photofest
Marlene Dietrich and Gary Cooper in “Morocco,” 1930. Photo courtesy of Photofest

Marlene’s next film was Dishonored1931, written and directed by von Sternberg. Here she plays a WWI era Viennese prostitute that is turned into a spy against the Russians. Only she falls in love with the Russian agent she is supposed to be working against and is tried for treason. The costumes designed by Banton go from the cheap and tawdry look of a poor prostitute to those sure to grab the attention of any man (see below). The studio and Banton had been working with Marlene to lose weight. In Dishonoredshe appears as the slim sex goddess that she would forever be remembered as.

Marlene Dietrich in "Dishonored," 1931. Photo courtesy of Photofest
Marlene Dietrich in “Dishonored,” 1931. Photo courtesy of Photofest

Blonde Venus followed in 1932, and is notable for several things. For one, Marlene co-starred with Cary Grant, the only film they made together. Another is the musical scene where Marlene comes out of a gorilla suit that she was dancing in with a revue – the whole number is amazing and is indelible as a film memory. The plot involves a wife and former night club singer played by Marlene that returns to the stage in order to pay for treatment for her sick husband. She later takes up with the rich Cary Grant character with whom she falls in love and that supports her. But she has a son and goes on the run when her husband wants to take him. Although this was a pre-code film, the censors still had the final say in the film’s ending.

Marlene Dietrich in "Blonde Venus," 1932. Photo courtesy of Photofest
Marlene Dietrich in “Blonde Venus,” 1932. Photo courtesy of Photofest

Travis Banton again used beads and sequins to give Marlene plenty of flash in her night club act. The blonde afro wig is worn during her gorilla suit Hot Voodoo number.The extravagant feathered  hat and trim shown below is pure Banton/Dietrich.

Marlene with Cary Grant in "Blonde Venus."
Marlene with Cary Grant in “Blonde Venus.”

Then came Shanghai Express, and Marlene knocked our eyes out. Banton had already proved that he could go over the top with Marlene – and it worked. Here she plays another exotic role: Shanghai Lily. Banton dresses Marlene in a black dress exploding at the sleeves, shoulders, and collar in black coq feathers. Her scull cap is veiled to add to her aura of mystery. Her accessories of deco black and white gloves and purse are by Hermes. The long string of pearls provide another white accent on the black. Her look is devastating.

Maarlene in "Shanghai Express," 1932.
Maarlene in “Shanghai Express,” 1932.

Much of the action in the movie takes place in the Shanghai Express train, or in train stations in China. The confined spaces of the train cabins magnify the appearance of Marlene and her co-stars. Von Sternberg uses many close-ups of Marlene with the same expressive chiaroscuro lighting he favored in their photo sessions. One can’t help but being mesmerized by her, and the camera as directed by von Sternberg clearly is. The film is also notable for the beautiful Anna May Wong as co-star.

Marlene in Shanghai Express in a negligee
Marlene in Shanghai Express in a negligee

Marlene’s next movie was The Scarlet Empresswhose original working title was Her Regiment of Lovers. Here she plays a German Princess selected by Queen Elizabeth of Russia to marry her son  “the royal halfwit” Peter, become Catherine II, and to produce an heir. Things don’t go well between the married royals but rather better between Catherine and various regimental officers. For her first historical film, Travis Banton dresses her in 18th century court dress. To play on Marlene’s masculine/feminine polarity, he designed a particularly fetching Hussar’s uniform in white, with white fur trim on the pelisse and shako headpiece. Marlene’s daughter Maria played her as a child in the movie.

Marlene in "The Scarlet Empress," 1934. Photo courtesy of Photofest
Marlene in “The Scarlet Empress,” 1934. Photo courtesy of Photofest

The last film that von Sternberg and Dietrich did together was The Devil is a Woman, a story of a femme fatale and her two lovers. The story’s early scene is of a baroque carnaval, a visually intoxicating street scene set in 1890s Spain. Marlene considered this her favorite film, and the “the most beautiful film ever made.” It is based on the book The Woman and the Puppet by Pierre Louys, the title an indication of its subject matter, and a title used in some if its later European film remakes. The costumes by Travis Banton were as over the top as the rest of the film, but here he used the Spanish costume accents and rich textures of lace, fringe, mantilla combs, and shawls, as well as embroidery, flowers, large sequins, and over-sized veiled hats.He used mostly black or white for her costumes.

Marlene in "The Devil is a Woman," 1935
Marlene in “The Devil is a Woman,” 1935

A variety of factors led to the professional separation of von Sternberg and Dietrich. He faced problems at Paramount, but she certainly felt the separation difficult. In her memoirs she stated that she considered von Sternberg both a master and a genius.

 

Marlene in Devil is a Woman
Marlene in Devil is a Woman

Marlene’s first American movie without the direction of von Sternberg was Desirewhere she was reunited with Gary Cooper, the film directed by Frank Borzage. In it she plays a jewel thief and Cooper plays an unsuspecting co-conspirator. It’s no surprise that they both fall in love.

Marlene in "Desire," 1936
Marlene in “Desire,” 1936

Banton’s styling for Dietrich provided the usual glamour but also varied her look. Shown above is her typical bombshell look in a fur-trimmed negligee. She also wears a stunning decollete black gown with fanned out coq feathers at the shoulders, but Banton also dressed her in a very sporty but chic double-breasted black jacket over a white skirt with black & white pumps.

Marlene in "Desire."
Marlene in “Desire.”
Travis Banton and Marlene Dietrich reviewing a costume sketch
Travis Banton and Marlene Dietrich reviewing a costume sketch

Travis Banton is shown above with Marlene, viewing costume sketches for Desire. Banton had been the brilliant costume designer at Paramount Pictures since 1925, and head designer since 1929. He also dressed Louise Brooks, Clara Bow, Mae West, Carole Lombard, Claudette Colbert, and many others, and where he also served as mentor to Edith Head.

Marlene in "Angel."
Marlene in “Angel.”

Marlene’s next film was Angeldirected by Ernst Lubitsch and released in 1937. It would be her last film under contract for Paramount. This was a romantic comedy, co-starring Melvyn Douglas and Herbert Marshall. It received mixed reviews at its opening and remains a little seen classic considering the talent used in its production. One of the jewels of its production, and indeed of the entire Hollywood studio system, is the gown Marlene wore in the film and shown above. It was made from chiffon and laced with thousands of hand-sewn sequins and beads, and encrusted with semi-precious jewels. The stole is trimmed in Russian sable. Marlene wanted very badly to keep this gown as a souvenir as she left Paramount, but this was refused her by the studio. Amazingly, the gown survived the decades. It was restored by Larry McQueen and has been part of the Hollywood Costume Exhibition originating at the V&A Museum in London.

Travis Banton did not last much longer at Paramount either, and Angel would be the last film he designed for Marlene Dietrich. Alcohol had been the way that Banton tried to cope with the pressures of his job, and eventually this made things worse. His contract was not renewed in 1938, and he was gone shortly after Marlene, replaced by Edith Head. 

Marlene went on to star in many other movies. After Banton she chose her costume designers very carefully so as to preserve her “a la Dietrich” image. For several years this would by Irene (Lentz Gibbons), and later when Marlene went on stage, her wardrobe was designed by Jean Louis.

So what was so unique about the look of Marlene Dietrich? Her upbringing had given that air of Nordic cool, yet her direct gaze invited you into her world. She displayed abundant sexuality yet could appeal to masculine or feminine tastes. She was bold in her dress, a model for later generations of film stars and stage performers, and she always owned her looks. She knew the best costume and fashion designers to use, and likewise, she used the best make-up artists, lighting technicians, and photographers there were. And she always worked as hard or harder than they did. During World War II, Marlene entertained the U.S troops on the European front.

Marlene Dietrich died in Paris on May 6, 1992. Her films will live forever.

 

LOVE IN NOIR

 

In the dual portraits of film noir couples, the tension is not just sexual but existential. Fate was in command, and the film titles said it all: Detour; Kiss of Death; Cornered; Criss-Cross; D.O.A; Fallen Angel: Out of the Past; Possessed. In film noir, the games were played for keeps. This photographic essay of film noir lovers tries to convey that brooding quality, that moment of tenderness or passion, that brief moment before fate comes calling.

 

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Gene Tierney and Cornel Wilde in “Leave Her to Heaven,” 1945.

Film noir twisted the normal expectations of movie plots. A happy ending was not in the cards, and everyone had an angle. The couples danced around each other’s schemes, or lost themselves in an obsession with the other. In Leave Her to Heavena film noir in Technicolor, the beautiful and bewitching Gene Tierney smothers her love of Cornel Wilde with jealousy.

Burt Lancaster and Ava Gardner in "The Killers."
Burt Lancaster and Ava Gardner in “The Killers.”

In The KillersBurt Lancaster’s past comes calling, and there is no escape. Whereas cars and trains previously represented escape and freedom in the movies, in film noir they became metaphors for confined spaces and one-way tracks to destiny. As the character  Barton Keyes (Edward G. Robinson) says to Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray) in Double Indemnity, “They’re stuck with each other and they’ve got to ride all the way to the end of the line.”

 

Susan Hayward and Bill Williams star in "Deadline at Dawn," 1946. Photo courtesy Photofest.

Susan Hayward and Bill Williams star in “Deadline at Dawn,” 1946. Photo courtesy Photofest.
 

During and after WWII, soldiers, marines, and sailors from all over the country passed through big cities like New York and Los Angeles. After the war ended, tens of thousands returned and were cast adrift there, looking for an illusive normalcy.  These veterans had developed a sense of fatalism, a reality born of the seemingly random and instantaneous death that so many saw all around them. Film Noir’s perspective matched their own, while women’s views were born from making it on their own.

Alan Ladd and Veronica Lake star in "The Blue Dahlia," 1946, photo courtesy Photofest.
Alan Ladd and Veronica Lake star in “The Blue Dahlia,” 1946, photo courtesy Photofest.

The black and white film and still photograhy, perfected in the 1930s, was ideal for the  film noir atmospherics. Deep shadows and strong contrasts of light and dark became film noir trademarks. These settings were perfectly represented by light streaming through venetian blinds and the patterns of prison bars and stair case rails casting long shadows.  These patterns were also mimiked in the criss-crossing of rail-road tracks, a name itself carried into film titles. The haunting settings were mostly of urban nightscapes, and the cinematography emphasized claustrophobic rooms, adding to the pressure-cooker effects of whatever plot-points were at play.

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Ann Blyth and Burt Lancaster in “Brute Force,” 1947.

 

Jane Greer and Robert Mitchum in "Out of the Past," 1947. Photo courtesy of Photofest.
Jane Greer and Robert Mitchum in “Out of the Past,” 1947. Photo courtesy of Photofest.

Noir films often start at the end, their story played out in flashbacks. There is no mistake that destiny rules over the protagonists. The only question is, what road will get them there. And whatever the road, the main characters are always looking  back over their shoulders or in the rear-view mirror. In Out of the Past, even returning to normal life in a small town provides Robert Mitchum no escape from the clutches of his big city past. And a similar fate traps Burt Lancaster in its spider-web in The Killers.

 

Richard Widmark and Gene Tierney  in "Night and the City," 1950. Photo courtesy of Photofest.
Richard Widmark and Gene Tierney in “Night and the City,” 1950. Photo courtesy of Photofest.

In Night and the Cityeven London provides the setting for film noir, and the hard-to-explain love of the beautiful Gene Tierney for a professional schemer like Richard Widmark. But even he draws our pity at the end, due to his tour-de-force acting in the role of Harry Fabian.

 

Victor Mature and Coleen Gray in "Kiss of Death," 1947. Photo courtesy of Photofest.
Victor Mature and Coleen Gray in “Kiss of Death,” 1947. Photo courtesy of Photofest.

Film noir combined great acting talent with great stories and screenplays. Outstanding film directors were also responsible for the classics of film noir. It seemed that the European directors working in the U.S. appear to have best captured the film noir aesthetic. They seemed to have understood the malaise of the post-war years. They included Robert Siodmak, Jules Dassin, Jacques Tourneur, Fritz Lang, Billy Wilder, and Otto Preminger. But film noir lives on, not only in these classics, but in more modern but stylish hits such as Chinatown,  Body Heat and L.A. Confidential. We could hope for some more – but bad endings are never very popular. This much is certain – there was no bad ending for Film Noir itself – it lives on in its masterly films and in its influence on filmmaking through today. And that moment, that special moment of movie love was captured forever in those movie stills.

Farley Granger and Cathy O'Donnell in "They Live by Night," 1949. Photo courtesy of Photofest.
Farley Granger and Cathy O’Donnell in “They Live by Night,” 1949. Photo courtesy of Photofest.

 

THE OSCAR BEST COSTUME CONTENDERS

The race for the 2013 Best Costume Design Academy Award  is a tight one, with several front-runners and favored films in the mix. Leading the pack for the likely top award winner is American Hustle, directed by David O. Russell with costume design by Michael Wilkinson. As with most favored award winners, this is a period movie, although the period here is the recent past; the free-wheeling 1970s.

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Bradley Cooper as Richie DiMaso and Amy Adams as Sydney Prosser

The plot is loosely based on the Abscam bribery scandal of that era, and the setting is New Jersey and Manhattan. For the gowns and dresses, Wilkinson looked back at the fashions of Halston, Yves St. Laurent, and Diane Von Furstenburg.

Amy Adams

Amy Adams wore several very low-cut gowns and blouses in the movie. Wilkinson dressed her in these revealing outfits to give her an air of sexy empowerment, and in keeping with her role, to lure clients to her particular  business with partner Christian Bale.

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Jennifer Lawrence as Rosalyn Rosenfeld at left with Amy Adams

Amy Adams as Sydney competes with Jennifer Lawrence as Rosalyn for the love of Christian Bale as Irving Rosenfeld.  The contrast in the color and texture of the gowns emphasized that competition, as well as in the amount of cleavage revealed.

American-Hustle-1
Bradley Cooper at left with Christian Bale as Irving Rosenfeld

The men’s costumes displayed all the worst taste of the 1970s. The photo above is very restrained and looks good. But most of the others purposefully show mis-matched colors, textures, and patterns such as polka-dots, stripes, large herring-bone patterns and the like. While these were certainly around at the time, they seem exaggerated in the film.

Another award magnet is 12 Years a Slave, directed by Steve McQueen and designed by Patricia Norris. The story is based on the diary of Solomon Northrup, a free black man who was kidnapped and sold into slavery in the ante-bellum South.

Oscar Costume 12 years a slave 1

Solomon is played by Chiwetel Ejiofor,  shown above with his family, living the life of a mostly prosperous free man of color. His clothes and his family’s indicate a middle-class life.

Oscar Costume 12-years-a-slave-2

The costumes for slaves presented a challenge for Norris. They are not well represented visually in historical sources, so Norris began reading contemporary accounts. She relied on  a method of costuming that used styles of clothing that were slightly out-of-date,  and in those times were likely hand-me-downs. Since these still had to be made new for the film, they also had to be thoroughly aged, distressed, and often hand painted with dye.

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12 Years a Slave has been both a critical favorite and a period film, a good combination for winning a Best Costume Oscar.

Another period film nominee is The Invisible Woman, directed by Ralph Fiennes, who also stars as Charles Dickens, along with  Felicity Jones as Nelly, the young woman who loves him. The costumes were designed by Michael O’Connor.

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One of the challenges for the designer was that the film took place during two different time periods, the 1850s and the 1880s. In the 1850s, Nelly is young and timid. O’Connor dresses her in light colors with simple bow accents.

Oscar Copstume The invisible woman
Felicity Jones as Nelly

And Dickens liked Nelly to look young and girlish (he was married at the time). Dickens himself dressed somewhat as a dandy in his youth, so O’Connor on occasion put him in velvets and brighter colors.

Oscar Copstume The-Invisible-Woman 3

In the second part of the film Nelly is older and Dickens has died. At this point O’Connor dresses her in darker grays, stripes, and tartans, with a more structured 1880s silhouette.

The Invisible Woman was not widely seen in the U.S.  While Academy voters are all provided copies of the nominees for voting purposes, this is a movie that had no buzz.

Another nominee without wide distribution was The Grandmaster, directed by Kar Wai Wong and starring Tony Leung Chiu Wai and Ziyi Zhang. This is the first nomination for costume designer William Chang.

THE GRANDMASTER

Chang is a frequent collaborator with director Kar Wai Wong. Chang is also a production designer and an interior designer. It took Chang two years to collect the beads, ribbons, lace, and materials for the costumes in the film.

Oscar Copstume Grandmaster

As with The Invisible Woman, The Grand Master was not viewed by many, and has had little Oscar award promotion.

Oscar Copstume Grandmaster 2

The final nominee is The Great Gatsby. The movie made a big splash when it was released last May,  but that was a long time ago in Oscar-nomination and voter-memory time.

Great Gatsby Michelle

The film was directed by Baz Luhrmann, and starred Leonardo DiCaprio as Jay Gatsby,  along with Carey Mulligan as Daisy Buchanan, and Tobey Maguire as Nick Carraway. The costume designer was Catherine Martin, the wife of director Baz Luhrmann.

Oscar Costume great-gatsby-movie-image-tobey-maguire-leonardo-dicaprio

The leading men’s costumes were provided by Brooks Brothers. Miuccia Prada designed some forty dresses for the party scene, adapting many from Prada’s own archives.  Elizabeth Debicki is shown below in one of the party dresses, heavily bejeweled for the occasion. The jewelry for the costumes and the actors was provided by Tiffany. The flapper look is always cycling back in style, and 2012-2013 was one of those fashion cycles.

Oscar costume Great Gatsby Elizabeth Debicki
Elizabeth Debicki makes a great flapper

Carey Mulligan as Daisy had that beautiful yet delicate look that was particularly attractive in dressed in cream colored laces and silver sequins, with Tiffany pearl necklaces and silver headbands of course.

Oscar costume Great-Gatsby-myLusciousLife.com-Carey-Mulligan

My own favorite costume movie was not nominated –The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, designed by Trish Summerville  (Katniss’ wedding gown was designed by Tex Saverio).  For a separate awards program, the movie was nominated by the Costume Designers Guild for Excellence in Fantasy Film. Costume designers finally have their own Costume Designers Branch of the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences. For some reason, movies in trilogies like The Hobbit, or previously The Lord of the Rings, and now Catching Fire (although four movies will actually be made), don’t get nominated for Best Costume. This didn’t seem to be the case, however, with The Godfather part II, which won for Best Costume in 1974.  And in this case, each of the Hunger Games  movies had different costumes, and a different setting, and to my eye, those of Catching Fire were markedly more interesting than its predecessor. Who’s to say the third or fourth would be the best, if that’s what they are waiting for?

In the L.A area where most of the voters live, the Oscar nominees in all major categories are getting a lot of publicity. In the case of American Hustle and and 12 Years a Slave, additional publicity is being given to related personalities. Diane von Furstenberg is being celebrated for the 40th anniversary of the wrap dress, one of which  Amy Adams wore in American Hustle. And as for 12 Years a Slave, Lupita Nyong’o who plays Patsey in the movie has been hailed as the new fashion plate in magazines and blogs alike. Given the inclination of Academy voters to favor period films, I would predict 12 Years a Slave to beat out American Hustle as well as the others for Best Costume Design for 2013.  All of these movies were excellently costumed,  and their designers should all be proud of their excellent work.

A blog about classic movie costume design and fashion