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.

 

Love in Noir 1
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.

Oscar costume American Hustle 6
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.

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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.

Oscar Costume 12-years-a-slave 3

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