Tag Archives: Fred Astaire

MARY ANN NYBERG: HER CINEMA SUNSET CAME TOO SOON

Mary Ann Nyberg was one of those talented young women destined for Hollywood: she was pretty, she was artistic, and by 23, she was dating movie star and singer Rudy Vallee. By that time in 1946 she was illustrating for magazines, designing fashions, and aiming to be a costume designer for movie stars.  She was already designing costumes for Vallee-Video, Rudy’s TV productions. Not bad for a girl from Tulsa Oklahoma, born February 7, 1923. She achieved many of her dreams, but her sunset came all too soon.

Mary Ann Nyberg fashion design sketch, mid 1940s.

 

Mary Ann Nyberg fashion design sketch, mid 1940s.

Mary Ann Nyberg and Rudy Vallee never married, as was rumored for years, although they were seen dancing at Ciro’s in Hollywood, and he took her to the Palm Springs Tennis Club in January, 1948. It was there that she met costume designer Jean Louis, who she would later illustrate for at Columbia Pictures. But since her affair with Vallee wasn’t going anywhere and he wasn’t getting her any roles in films, she found a job working for Arthur Freed at M-G-M in 1949. Nyberg wasn’t credited for any movies for several years, although she designed costumes for Leslie Caron in  An American in Paris, released in 1951. But then she designed the costumes for Lili, including for its star Leslie Caron, released in early 1953. Here Caron played a  teenage orphan taken in by a traveling magician and carnival troupe of puppeteers. Mary Ann Nyberg dressed Caron in simple dresses and sweaters. But Nyberg showed her talent for glamour and verve with the scene at the carnival cabaret by dressing  Caron in the imaginary dance number with Marc, played by Jean-Pierre Aumont and his wife played by Zsa Zsa Gabor. Caron is dressed here in a sexy scarlet-colored waitress/dance tutu in part of the number with Marc, but when his wife enters in a sequined gown and grabs his attention, Caron too reappears in the same burgundy and gold-trimmed sequined gown with a deep leg slit.  Nyberg also designed Mel Ferrer’s shirt with it’s shoulder straps. These have become common but at the time the film’s producer Ed Knopf loved it so much that he ordered dozens of them in various colors and took them to Paris.  Caron was told at the beginning of filming that she was foolish for taking on the role of a waif. But the film was a big hit and received several Oscar nominations – and her song “Hi-Lili, Hi-Lo,” became very popular.

Mary Ann Nyberg costume sketch for Cyd Charisse in Band Wagon “Dancing in the Dark” scene.

Nyberg’s next assignment was the one she is best known for, and, her first Oscar Best Costume nomination: The Band Wagon (1953), one of the best musicals of the classic era. Vincent Minnelli directed, featuring stars Cyd Charisse, Fred Astaire, Nanette Fabray, Oscar Levant, and Jack Buchanan.  Although it goes off on a tangent in the story about impresario Jeffrey Codova’s modernist play ideas,  all the other musical numbers and story are a delight. And Nyberg’s costumes are perfect for showing off Cyd Charisse in alluring outfits in the “Girl Hunt Ballet” and the “Dancing in the Dark” numbers. Cyd’s simple white pleated skirt from that scene was copied from one that Nyberg herself wore. But since none like it could be found off the rack, it was duplicated at a reported cost of $1000.

Mary Ann Nyberg costume sketch for Cyd Charisse in the Girl Hunt Ballet scene for The Band Wagon. The scene was cut from the movie. Note the skin showing in the sketch trough the fabric from her use of a thin wash of watercolor.

Nyberg endeared herself to Charisse by fixing her favorite “lucky” sweater. She cut squares out of colored cotton prints, hemmed the edges, and sewed them onto the worn spots in her sweater. Charisse loved the look and had her do the same to a new sweater. Fabray also had a creative and colorful costume for the “Louisiana Hayride” number.  Nyberg also designed Fred Astaire’s look of gray suit, white tie, and dark blue shirt used in the Girl Hunt Ballet.  The look was adapted by Michael Jackson for his 1988 “Smooth Criminal” music video.

Fred Astaire and Cyd Charisse in The Band Wagon

Mary Ann Nyberg next went on to design costumes for the problematical A Star is Born in 1953-54, starring Judy Garland and James Mason and directed by George Cukor. The remake of the 1937 film that had starred Janet Gaynor and Frederic March started smoothly at Warner Bros., but Judy Garland became moody and sick. Garland’s version is that she disliked the costume that Nyberg had designed for her at the Malibu party scene. Garland claimed it was not flattering to her figure. But in preparations for the previous scene for the Academy Awards, Garland had so loved Nyberg’s white gown that she decided she wanted it for her personal wardrobe. So she said to Cukor that the gown made her look like a white whale and she couldn’t wear it.* The result was that filming stopped and costume designer Jean Louis was called in as Mary Ann Nyberg’s replacement. But Nyberg also served as sketch artist for Jean Louis in designs he made for the film.  Designer Irene Sharaff did the costumes for the “Born in a Trunk” scene. All three designers were nominated for Best Costume Design Oscars.

 

Harry Belafonte, Dorothy Dandridge, and Olga James in Carmen Jones.

Mary Ann Nyberg was then hired by Otto Preminger to design the costumes for Carmen Jones, the musical based on  Carmen. Preminger reverted to the original story by Prosper Mérimée, but kept Bizet’s music. The cast consisted of all black actors, including Dorothy Dandridge as Carmen, Harry Belafonte as Joe, and Pearl Bailey as Frankie.  Diahann Carroll made her film debut as Myrt. Nyberg used pinks and orange rather than the usual red coloration for several of Dandridge’s costumes. “Red denotes passion, fire, and sex,” said Nyberg, “and I am relying on Miss Dandridge to project those qualities in her performance.” The contemporary setting used the dress of the 1950s, and a much pictured orange wrap dress and black peasant top for Dandridge. Nyberg also designed a bold look for a hotel room scene,  where Dandridge takes off her robe to reveal a black bra and zebra-striped panties, which she then covers in a pink dress. Dorothy Dandridge was the first African-American to be nominated for the Academy Award for Best Actress in a Leading Role for this movie.

Otto Preminger hired Mary Ann Nyberg for  his next movie, The Man with the Golden Arm, 1955. This movie starred Frank Sinatra as a heroin addict, with co-stars Kim Novak, Eleanor Parker and Darren McGavin. The black and white movie with a downbeat theme didn’t give much range for Nyberg.  Kim Novak was dressed in simple outfits, with one  gown decorated in gleaming sequined scallop-shaped outlines. The beautiful Eleanor Parker’s role was played in a wheelchair mostly in house robes.

The Man with the Golden Arm was Mary Ann Nyberg’s last costume designing job. For whatever reason, either because she had had enough of Hollywood, or the assignments dried-up  for her (this was happening as the studio system was coming to an end), it is not clear. In any case, she didn’t need the paycheck. She was married at the time to Don J. Koch and painted oils on canvas.  It was the world of Hollywood costume design that lost a first class talent. One of the very few whose top skill in the illustration of costumes matched her skill at designing them.

Mary Ann Nyberg died on September 19, 1979  of a cerebral hemorrhage. She was only 56 years old. Perhaps she got to see That’s Entertainment! which released in 1975, where her costumes were flashed on the screen. If only her name had been honored as well, or for that matter, any of the costume designers.

Mary Ann Nyberg fashion sketch date unknown.

 

 

 

  • James Stratton. A Star is Born and Born Again: Variations on a Hollywood Archetype.

 

 

 

FRED ASTAIRE’S DANCE PARTNERS AND THEIR COSTUMES

 

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

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

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

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

Flying Down to Rio. Photo courtesy Photofest

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

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

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

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

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

 

Top Hat (1935) Courtesy Photofest

Follow the Fleet followed Top Hat, and Bernard Newman followed his knock-out gown for Ginger with another one. The stellar gown in this movie was made entirely of silver bugle beads, trimmed with a fox collar. The gown weighed about 30 lbs. The bugle beaded skirt was translucent so you could see her figure against the light. But once again, Fred was not happy. The bell-shaped sleeves were heavy too, and when she twirled around in early takes her sleeves would slap up against his cheeks.  But again, the resulting “Let’s Face the Music and Dance” Irving Berlin number has to be their most beautiful (below). It was shot in in one take.

 

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

 

Swing Time (1936) Photo courtesy Photofest

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

 

Swing Time (1936) Photo courtesy Photofest

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

 

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

Howard Greer costume sketch for Ginger Rogers in Carefree

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

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

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

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

 

The photo below shows Marjorie in her gold beaded gown.

 

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

 

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

 

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