Tag Archives: MGM



Early and silent films are known to have low survival rates due to many causes. But there is no more lethal enemy of early film than fires.

Approximately 90% of American silent films are considered lost, as well as 50% of sound films made before 1950. In a study by the Library of Congress, it found that of the 11,000 silent films that were produced by the American movie industry between 1912 and 1929, only 14% (1,575) survive today in their original release condition, while another 11% survive in various imperfect formats. The combustible nitrate-based film of the silent era is largely responsible, leading to major fires at studio or storage vaults and film processing plants.

As early as 1920, the Lasky/Famous Players and Metro film exchange building in Kansas City caught fire. An unexplained explosion in a film vault in the shipping and examining room caused a fire that swept through the 12th floor of Lasky’s and then the 11th floor of Metro. $1,000,000 in films were destroyed but all employees were able to escape.

Closer to Hollywood and easier to recoup, a fire started at Universal City on May 23, 1922 when a short-circuited electric wire, “whipped like a flail” set film on fire in the cutting room of the studio. The heat caused boxes of film to explode with shards of metal flying in all directions. Actress Priscilla Dean, still in costume, tried to retrieve her film, “Under Two Flags ” but tripped on her robe and sprained her ankle. Irving Thalberg, then general manager, and Leo McCarey tried to reach the fire but were turned away. In this case the production just had to begin again.

One year later, a fire broke out at the Goldwyn Studio in Culver City (future M-G-M lot) on June 15, 1923.  Some twenty films stored in the processing lab plus prints and negatives of seven partially completed films were destroyed in a fire at the lab. Actors Lew Cody, Edmund Lowe, directors, prop men and then fire crews put out the fire.

More seriously, the October 28, 1929 fire at Consolidated Film Industries, a film processing plant, killed a technician who nonetheless staggered out of an exploding and burning building with cans of film in his arms. Five others were burned and $2,000,000 in films were lost.  Fifty other employees on the night shift escaped. A machine that polishes the developed film caused the initial fire. The plant was adjacent to Paramount and RKO studios, where some of their stages caught on fire. Films starring Douglas Fairbanks, Bebe Daniels, Mary Pickford and Norma Talmadge were lost.

Deadly fires were now becoming the norm. A catastrophe in film history occurred in Little Ferry, New Jersey. There 20th Century-Fox had a film storage facility, and on July 9, 1937, neglect and circumstances combined to ignite a fire. Nitrate film was long known to be unstable and prone to spontaneous combustion when exposed to heat. In the Fox storage vaults, made of concrete, poor ventilation and excessive summer heat caused gases from the nitrate film to spontaneously catch fire. A domino effect of fires destroyed them all. One youth was killed in the adjacent neighborhood, and two were injured. For film history, the loss was irreparable: most of the silent films from the Fox Film Corporation and many pre-1932 were lost. The Theda Bara films are lost except for some fragments, Some actors’ film work is unknown except by name. 75% of Fox films before 1930 were lost.

Fox Film Vault fire at Little Ferry New Jersey, 1937

And then there was the MGM film vault fire in 1965. It occurred in the Film Storage Vault (#7 of the series) on Lot 3 adjacent to Jefferson Blvd. These vaults were built of concrete in the mid-1930s, separated from each other and far from any buildings. An electrical spark caused the fire and explosion that killed one person. The films of Metro Pictures, Goldwyn Pictures, and Louis B. Mayer Productions were lost, as well as several early M-G-M silents. These included Greta Garbo’s “The Divine Woman” and Lon Chaney’s “A Blind Bargain” and “London After Midnight.”

M-G-M film vault circa 1936.


Fire at National Archives and Records Service, Suitland, MD., 1978.

Studio fires destroyed more than film. A large fire destroyed parts of the Lasky/DeMille studio on April 30, 1918 located at Sunset and Vine.  The cause was sparking electrical wires that ignited a rack of films in the color-room and tinting department, purchasing offices, stock room, glass stage set, and wooden buildings. Employees fought the fire while saving records, wardrobe, and films as best they could until L.A firefighters arrived. Costume designer and head of women’s wardrobe Alpharetta Hoffman along with C.S. Widom the Men’s wardrobe head managed to save the wardrobe from the 1916 “Joan the Woman” production. Valuable films in the vault were ordered to be removed to the street-side. DeMille was working on “Old Wives for New” when the fire started. The release was delayed a month and made from surviving negative copies. The colored positive copy was destroyed and the color process abandoned for the film.

Another fire at the old Fox studio on Sunset and Western started from crossed electrical wires  at 2:00 a.m. May 20, 1928. A large sound stage was destroyed. The initiative and quick work of the Fox telephone operator Pauline Fuller had her at the switchboard calling studio executives and stars such as Charles Farrell, Victor McLaglen, Mary Duncan, Madge Bellamy and others to go to their dressing rooms and retrieve their wardrobes before the fire got to them. Nearly $200, 000 in damages was estimated.

Fires managed to hit many studios. Columbia’s 40 acre Movie Ranch in Burbank had a spectacular fire on May 26, 1950. The fire was probably started in the paint shop or lumber mill. It destroyed the power plant with two generators, the lumber mill, the water tank on its steel tower. Standing sets such as the New York street were mostly destroyed, as was the Western town.

One sound stage fire broke the heart of costume designer Irene Sharaff. On July 2, 1958 a fire broke out in the huge Sound Stage #8 at the Samuel Goldwyn Studio on Formosa Avenue in Hollywood, where the set for Columbia’s “Porgy and Bess” was located and being filmed. The raging fire in the early morning caused one entire wall of the sound stage to collapse into the interior of the building.  The complete set for “Catfish Row” which Oliver Smith had designed and Prop man Irving Sindler furnished with a 30-year collection of props were all destroyed. Irene Sharaff’s complete wardrobe for the production was also destroyed.  Stars Dorothy Dandridge, Sidney Poitier, Sammy Davis Jr. and Pearl Bailey were called and told not to come in for the dress rehearsal. Damage was estimated at $2,000,000 to $5,000,000.

Another fire at MGM is sometimes confused with the 1965 film vault fire, but this one took place on Lot 2’s standing sets, where a fire started March 12, 1967 in a chapel and spread to Brownstone Street, where scenes from “The Easter Parade” had been filmed among other movies and TV shows.  The fire continued to Waterfront Street and destroyed it. Despite its name, it fronted no water. It was used, with some redecoration, for “An American in Paris.” The fire was so hot it blistered the paint off a fire truck.

And another fire at the Samuel Goldwyn Studio at Formosa Ave. and Santa Monica Blvd. occurred on May 6, 1974. A large spotlight burned out and showered sparks on the TV set for “Sigmund and the Sea Monster.”  Three sound-stages burned down before the fire was put out. Films such as “Dodsworth” and “The Best Years of Our Lives” had been made there. Although named the Samuel Goldwyn Studio, the lot was used for independent productions and TV shows in the 1970s. It had been a Hollywood studio since 1919, and once been the Pickfair Studio when Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks bought it in 1922. A few years later it became the United Artists Studio with their merger with Charlie Chaplin and D.W. Griffith. Goldwyn became a stockholder. Later still, Joseph Schenk and Darryl Zanuck rented the lot for use for their 20th Century Pictures before they merged with Fox.

Now much progress has been made in the safety of film and theaters, just in time for their disappearance. As for studio lots, well, they don’t make many movies there anymore either. Curiously, the Universal Studios lot had been used to store in a 22,320-square-foot warehouse, the master recordings and session masters of UMG, the world’s largest record company. These masters have been described as, “irreplaceable primary source of a piece of recorded music.”  But on Sunday, June 1, 2008 after blow torches had been used on asphalt roof shingles on a standing set structure on the New England Street, it flared-up two hours after the work crew left and caused a fire. The New England Street burned as did the New York Street and the Courthouse Square used in “Back to the Future.” From there it burned down the wherehouse with the UMG music masters and recordings. And whatever videos and films also stored there Universal has yet to disclose.

Universal Studio Fire, 2008

Let’s be happy for the movies and music we still have, but recognize, like the family members, friends, and ancestors that are gone, what we have lost.

The Last Picture Show



  1. Los Angeles Times,  Huge Lasky Film  Fire. July 24, 1920 p13.
  2. Los Angeles Times, Blast Rocks Universal City. May 25, 1922 p I.
  3. Los Angeles Times, Millions in Films Endangered in Fire. June 16, 1923. II 3
  4. New York Times, Millions in Films Lost in Studio Fire. October 25, 1929  p28.
  5. Wikipedia. 1937  Fox Vault Fire.
  6. Wikipedia, 1965 MGM Vault Fire
  7. Los Angeles Times, Lasky Picture Plant Suffers in Spectacular Studio Fire. May 1, 1918 p I
  8. Los Angeles Times, Fox Studio to Build on Fire Ruins.May 22, 1928,  p A1
  9. Los Angeles Times, Studio Fire Loss Set at $450,000. May 27, 1950  p A1
  10. Los Angeles Times, Goldwyn Studio Fire Razes $2,000,000 Set. July 3, 1958 p I
  11. Los Angeles Times, Fire Destroys Sets at MGM. March 13, 1967 p I
  12. Los Angeles Times, 3 Sound Stages Will Be Rebuilt, Executive Says. May 7, 1974 p3
  13. The New York Times Magazine, Judy Rosen, The Vault is on Fire. June 11, 2019





When Helen Rose began working at MGM with its roster of stars, mogul Louis B. Mayer  told the costume designer to, “Just make them beautiful.” With her plentiful use of chiffon and her figure-flattering style, Helen Rose did just that, designing the costumes for leading ladies including Elizabeth Taylor, Grace Kelly, Ava Gardner, Cyd Charisse, Debbie Reynolds, Lana Turner, Lauren Bacall, Doris Day, Esther Williams, Leslie Caron, and many others.

Helen Rose started at MGM in September 1943 as just one more costume designer among many. World Ward II was raging but the movie business was healthy. Helen got her start designing showgirls in the cabarets and nightclubs of Chicago. She learned early how to make their costumes comfortable and especially t using chiffon for its “twirly” quality for the dancers. After coming to L.A in 1929 she had struggled but finally found jobs working as a costume designer at both 20th Century-Fox and for the Ice Follies. When Mayer found out it was the same person designing the colorful outfits for the Fox musicals and for the fantasies on ice, he had to hire her. Irene Lentz Gibbons was the executive director for designing, not only designing costumes herself but assigning designers to various films. With several designers on staff including Irene Sharaff, Barbara Karinska, Marion Herwood Keyes, and two men’s designers, Helen waited months until she got an assignment. This finally came with the big production of Ziegfeld Follies released in 1945. Helen designed the colorful “Here’s to the Ladies,” number including Lucille Ball’s pink spangled costume. Louis B. Mayer was impressed and Helen’s career was on its upward trajectory.

Lucille Ball in Ziegfeld Follies

Helen designed the costumes for Harvey Girls, the big hit of 1946. This was the first of many occasions she would dress Judy Garland. Here the styles were 1880s, with eye-catching clever lapel designs and mutton-chop sleeves. This Americana musical with Judy Garland and an all-star cast is now considered a classic.  Helen next designed most of the costumes for a big all-star cast for the musical, Til the Clouds Roll By (1948). The movie was supposed to be a bio-pic about composer Jerome Kern, but instead became a series of musical numbers of his greatest hits. Notable were Helen’s designs for her friend Lena Horne’s blue and lavender gown worn when she sings, “Can’t Help Loving Dat Man.” There was a knock-out midnight blue sequined top and deep-cut fringed skirt for Lucille Bremer’s dance outfit for the “I Won’t Dance” number, and Judy Garland’s yellow feathered skirt and sequined chiffon top in the “Who” (Who Can it Be) number, a question she seems to ask a staircase of chorus boys.  Judy Garland, pregnant with Liza at the time, related to Helen,  “What a song to sing in my present condition.”

Elizabeth Taylor in A Date With Judy

A Date With Judy in 1948 starred Jane Powell and  Elizabeth Taylor. Jane Powell was the bigger star at the time, and Elizabeth Taylor was only 16 years old. But Elizabeth stole the show, especially the way Helen Taylor dressed her. Her youthful beauty radiated from the screen, and Helen took advantage of her violet colored eyes  in her design fora knock-out evening gown of  lavender-colored chiffon with a slight décolleté. With her thick dark hair and bold eyebrows, Elizabeth Taylor became a magnet for the camera. In Helen’s “New Look” fashions she became the fashion icon for teenagers across America. In 1948 Irene launched her own fashion line and stayed on at MGM but would no longer be supervising other designers. She would design for some movies but this opened up opportunities for Helen.  Helen’s relationship with Elizabeth would grow with their next collaboration, Father of the Bride. Here Elizabeth stars as the young bride in the family with Spencer Tracy as father, Joan Bennett as the mother, and Don Taylor as the groom.  Helen designed 47 costumes for Elizabeth. including a stunning wedding gown.  Elizabeth was so impressed she had Helen design her own wedding gown.  The gown took 15 seamstresses and beaders three weeks to make.  MGM then gave her the dress as a present.  The movie was a hit, the box office smash was helped by Elizabeth’s real wedding to Conrad “Nicky” Hilton on May 6, 1950, just before the film’s release.


Elizabeth Taylor in Father of the Bride


Just as things seemed to to going so well for Helen, everything turned bad. Helen had sympathized with Judy Garland ever since they first worked together. Judy was just coming back to make Summer Stock after a three month stay at a sanitarium to cure her drug-addiction. While they began working on Judy’s wardrobe Helen was blamed for leaks to the gossip columns blaming MGM for Judy’s problems. Dory Schary had become the MGM Production Head and he took Helen off the movie. Walter Plunkett took over and designed Judy’s costumes and all the other cast members with the exception of Gloria DeHaven’s costumes.  Judy was next scheduled to make Royal Wedding with Fred Astaire after June Allyson became pregnant. This got off to a rocky start but Helen started designing costumes for Judy. After getting into one of Helen’s costumes Judy had a run-in with Arthur Freed. She left the studio and didn’t return, having gotten a notice of suspension in the mail. The “Get Happy” number from Summer Stock  ended up as Judy’s  last MGM scene after thirteen years with the studio. Helen was taken off that film as well.

When Irene left MGM to devote herself full-time to her design business: Irene LTD., MGM found itself in need of another regular designer other than Walter Plunkett. Despite Helen having been in the dog house over the Judy Garland issue, she had gotten great publicity for her designs for Elizabeth Taylor.  So she was back to designing for Elizabeth Taylor and Esther Williams at MGM through 1951,  She did complete Royal Wedding with Jane Powell in the lead, playing as Fred Astaire’s partner. Jorjett Strumme, who became a friend of Helen’s and modeled for her fashion shows, noted her extraordinary sense and use of color. One of the examples she pointed out was Jane Powell’s lavender dress and coral belt worn in the dance scene with Fred Astaire on the ship going to England. She also notes Helen’s clever use of gradations of the same color in other costumes,  “The petticoat would be purple and every layer on top of it would get lighter so that the body of the dress was lavender.”

Nineteen fifty-two turned out to be a very big year for Helen. She started out designing a big turn-of-the-19th century costume movie, The  Belle of New York, starring Fred Astaire and Vera-Ellen. Helen also designed the remake of The Merry Widow, starring Lana Turner and Fernando Lamas, using both black and cream-colored gowns that earned her a Best Costume Oscar nomination. She also designed Elizabeth Taylor’s  costumes for Love is Better Than Ever, and for Esther Williams in Million Dollar Mermaid.  Helen finished off the year by designing another wardrobe for Lana Turner, this one for The Bad and the Beautiful. Helen was nominated for another Oscar for Best Costume (black & white film), and won the award for this movie. Her friend Elizabeth Taylor was the category presenter that year and handed a stunned Helen Rose the statuette.


Lana Turner and Fernando Lamas in The Merry Widow


Lana Turner and Kirk Douglas in The Bad and the Beautiful


Helen Rose with her Oscar for The Bad and the Beautiful


Helen Rose won her Academy Award Oscar in March of 1953. She would  get another great prize that year when she designed the costumes for Mogambo, and for the first time for the fabulous Grace Kelly. She also dressed the beautiful Ava Gardner in the same film, a remake of MGM’s Red Dust. Clark Gable starred in both films.  Mogambo was set in Africa involving safaris. Helen Rose designed flattering khaki bush outfits for Grace Kelly that have influenced modern fashion for decades. Helen liked to emphasize figures so for Ava Gardner she designed  tightly belted skirts and pants that flattered Ava’s gorgeous figure, and the yellow, dusty rose, and green colors that set off her beautiful skin. Not a bad wardrobe for  the bush. The Clark Gable  and Ava Gardner characters end up romantically linked in the movie, but it was Gable and Kelly that had the affair on set.

Grace Kelly, Clark Gable, and Ava Gardner in Mogambo


Helen Rose costume sketch for Marge Champion in Give a Girl a Break, 1953.


Nineteen fifty-four was another great year for Helen Rose. Including another Academy Award. I’ll cover the rest of her MGM career in Part II of my blog post coming soon.

Christian Esquevin




Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer began in 1924 with the merger of Metro Pictures, Louis B. Mayer Productions, and Goldwyn Pictures. It was a package costing $5 million. The new owner was Marcus Loew who owned a chain of theaters. He had already bought out Metro Pictures and its studio in Hollywood, but was unsatisfied with its productions. Louis  Mayer met with Marcus Loew and arranged for the new company to be run by Mayer, with the head of production to be the “boy wonder” from Universal, the 24 year old Irving Thalberg.  Loew, HQ’d in New York, would have Nicholas Schenck overseeing operations from that office. The studio lot they took over was the Samuel Goldwyn lot in Culver City, once the Triangle Film Corp. lot. They also took over Goldwyn’s logo of Leo the Lion and his motto, Ars Gratia Artis (art for art’s sake). Samuel Goldwyn had walked away from the company after battles with its controlling Board.

The Metro Studio at the intersection of Romaine and Cahuenga in Hollywood before the merger.

Above is the Metro Pictures studio lot in Hollywood. These are the stages and shops before the merger. Located at 1025 Lillian Way in Hollywood.

This blog post celebrating the 95th anniversary year of MGM  is part of the Classic Movie Blog Association 10th Anniversary Blogathon. Given MGM’s long and deep movie history, this post will focus on its formative years.

From the beginning,  Mayer, Thalberg, and studio operations man Harry Rapf set out to go big and go classy. Mayer’s policy was, “…great star, great director, great play, great cast.” To do that they needed to quickly develop their roster of directors and stars. This was paralleled in the crafts people they hired for a variety of studio jobs, from costume designers to metal workers.   Mayer and Thalberg brought in noted stars Lon Chaney, Norma Shearer, and Renée Adorée, along with directors Fred Niblo and John M. Stahl. Metro had  Ramon Navarro,  Alice Terry, Viola Dana, Jackie Coogan, Buster Keaton, and Mae Busch, along with director Rex Ingram. The Goldwyn Pictures group included Mae Murray, Conrad Nagel, Aileen Pringle, John Gilbert, William Haines, and Eleanor Boardman. The directors included King Vidor, Marshal Neilan, Erich von Stroheim, Robert Z. Leonard, and Victor Seastrom. Two department heads became significant additions: Howard Dietz in Advertising and Publicity, and long-time Art Director Cedric Gibbons. And another Goldwyn tie-in was the Cosmopolitan Production Company, Randolph Hearst’s  company set-up to produce films for Marion Davies.

A public ceremony was held to celebrate the merger and launching of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM) on April 26, 1924. The former Vice-President of Samuel Goldwyn, Abraham Lehr,  handed a giant key of “Success”  to Louis Mayer, Irving Thalberg and Harry Rapf. After their speech Master of Ceremonies Will Rogers arrived to give his rather long talk, only to be interrupted by director Marshall Neilan who ordered his cast and crew to return to the set to work on Tess of the D’Urbervilles. This head-strong director was not the only one on the roster. Erich von Stroheim, the hold-over from Goldwyn, was well into shooting his 42 reels of Greed . His struggle with Thalberg and the cutting of the film to 10 reels is a movie legend. And that was not the only troubled production. Another Goldwyn film, Ben-Hur, was being shot on location in Egypt and Italy and had spent its already large budget building grand sets and used up months of filming.  Thalberg and Mayer were unsatisfied with both the results and the pace of production. The film’s director and lead actors had already changed once., so the production was recalled to California. By the time Ben-Hur was finished, it had cost $6 million, a staggering sum for its day. Fortunately it was a big hit for MGM and its stars Ramon Navarro, May McAvoy, Francis X. Bushman, Betty Bronson and Carmel Myers.

The photo from 1925 above shows the first sign with the full name of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. The glass sound stage was “Stage 1.”  The lawn area in front, only partially shown, is where the launching ceremony of April 1924 was held. This area would soon be covered over with concrete sound stages and the Sound Department building.

The Goldwyn Studio property in Culver City was 39 acres, the original Triangle Studio’s 16 plus 23 more acres that Goldwyn purchased. Six glass sound  stages were on the property along with various buildings. The glass sound stages were needed in the early days of filmmaking to provide sufficient natural lighting.

The photo above shows the Goldwyn lot in 1924 with the six sound stages and other buildings. The classic facade on Washington Blvd was already there when MGM began, shown on the right of the image. Standing sets are at the rear of the photo.

The photo above shows the MGM lot in 1924. It shows the old water tower without the MGM logo. The tree in the foreground  is a fig tree where Greta Garbo used to pick figs when she first arrived from Sweden. Men’s Wardrobe is the building at the lower left.

The above photo shows a glass sound stage on the right and the old dressing rooms on the left. The upper floor was the ladies’ dressing rooms. Workers are preparing the grounds for new concrete sound stages. The glass stages were moved for other uses.

The photo above also shows the old “dressing room row”in the background with the grassy area in front as it was at the time of the beginning of MGM. Behind it was the MGM facade facing  Washington Blvd.

The first film that MGM produced on its own was He Who Gets Slapped. The film featured three of its future stars, John Gilbert, Norma Shearer, and Lon Chaney. And despite its drole title, the melodrama was a commercial and critical success when released in October 1924. The year of 1925 brought much more success for MGM with revenues second only to Paramount.  Ben Hur was released as a giant epic and would have made a big profit had it not been for a revenue-sharing deal made by MGM’s predecessor. But its own big epic was the World War I-based film The Big Parade. The film made stars out of John Gilbert and Renée Adorée , with their parting scenes leaving no dry eyes in the house. The battle scenes too were very realistic, though shot in Griffith Park in Los Angeles. The film made $6 million for MGM. And MGM had such diverse offerings as the creative and funny movies of Buster Keaton (first coming with Metro) in Go West and Seven Chances. Then there were the horror movies of Lon Chaney in The Monster  and The Unholy Three.  Further diversity was introduced with The Merry Widow, where increasingly popular John Gilbert was paired with former Universal Pictures star Mae Murray in a setting of an old world kingdom. The film’s director was Erich von Stroheim, which led to a turbulent set with shouting matches and walk-outs between director and  Ms. Murray. and the Gilbert. The result, however was a big popular film that swept fans like Diana Vreeland off their feet. But perhaps the biggest event of 1925 was the signing of two new actresses to the MGM roster: Greta Garbo and Joan Crawford (then with the last name of Le Sueur). Ms Garbo was 20 years old and had just come from Sweden. She starred in the melodrama Torrent, released in early 1926.  Joan Crawford played uncredited bit roles in several films, even doubling for Norma Shearer in one film. She finally got a break in late 1925 in Sally, Irene and Mary, co-starring Constance Bennett and Sally O’Neal. The story is about three showgirl friends with very different fates. Two of the biggest stars of Golden Age Hollywood were on their way.


In 1926 MGM starred an actress already well known and respected.  Lillian Gish came to make La Boheme with John Gilbert. Louis B. Mayer gave her considerable control when signing her to MGM, and she used it to make this picture. King Vidor directed, and much time was spent in rehearsals. MGM had spent much time and effort to lure Erte from Paris to design costumes for the studio. He designed the costumes for Miss Gish for La Boheme, but they disagreed on their look. He wanted  crisp and stylish costumes befitting her star status. She said they should depict her life as a waif in Paris. This was one more frustration that led to Erte’s departure soon after. But La Boheme was another hit for MGM, and rated one of the best movies of 1926.

Lilian Gish as Mimi in La Boheme. watched by Irving Thalberg at right. King Vidor directing, and cinematographer Hendrik Sartov


The photo above shows Cecil Gibbons, MGM’s Art Director. He came with the Goldwyn merger, and stayed until 1956. He was one of the original founders of the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences, and designed the Oscar statuette.

MGM  introduced the first true musical film with its “All Talking, All Singing, All Dancing,” movie The Broadway Melody in February 1929. This made musicals very popular but sound ruined the careers of stars with heavy foreign accents or those whose voices didn’t match their personas, as in the case of John Gilbert.

MGM recording director Douglas Shearer is shown above with his sound recording equipment. He was Norma Shearer’s brother.

Above is pictured MGM’s Recording Room.. Each of the machines is connected to a microphone at a stage and records voice, song, or music on film “sound tracks.”

The photo above shows a part of the MGM lot with a sound stage roof painted with huge letters intended for aircraft to avoid flying overhead. In 1929 Mines Field was built nearby as the Los Angeles airport just as “Talkies” were being made at MGM.

Above is pictured the old Guard Shack at MGM, at the old entrance from Washington Blvd. The gate was narrow and only one car width, where everyone would check in with the guard.

Here’s a morning’s worth of check-ins from the mid-1930s. Not just for studio P.R., but Joan Crawford and Greta Garbo were the compulsive early starters.

By the 1930s, as MGM publicity emphasized, the studio had more stars than in the heavens. It would be many decades before the studio’s demise. And in the years before and following World War II, it was the biggest and most profitable studio in Hollywood. Ars Gratia Artis. Thankfully, we can still enjoy viewing the majority of those movies through a variety of methods and formats.

Further view of the old MGM lot can be seen on my blog post at: http://silverscreenmodes.com/a-virtual-tour-of-the-old-m-g-m-back-lots/         



Walter Plunkett was there at the very beginning of Golden Age Hollywood. He launched the wardrobe department at RKO in 1927, designing everything from flapper outfits to western costumes. And when he designed  the costumes for Singing in the Rain, he was recreating some of the looks he had designed 25 years earlier. Yet he was best known for his period costumes, especially for the classic Gone With the Wind, one of many films featuring his historic costume designs. Walter Plunkett could do it all in the field of costume design, from thrillers like King Kong, to Art Deco musicals like Gay Divorcee, to period pieces like The Hunchback of Notre Dame and How the West Was Won. And he could design for both men and for women.


Walter Plunkett with my great-aunt Marie Ree, the head-cutter-fitter at RKO

Plunkett’s first big hit at RKO was Rio Rita in 1929, starring Bebe Daniels. Although she played a Mexican senorita in a western film, he designed a striking gold lamé costume for her. Although he was not yet the accomplished period designer – the costume got everybody’s attention. By 1930 he had designed a string of movies for RKO and had organized their wardrobe department.  But he now felt his pay had not kept up. He left RKO and started designing for Western Costume. RKO soon lured him back with better pay and started him designing for two giants of the screen – King Kong , Katharine Hepburn. Or at least designing for King Kong’s heart-throb , Fay Wray. And for Katharine Hepburn, he designed the stunning, skin-tight, gold lamé gown complete with skull-cap and moth-like antennae in Christopher Strong.  This was Hepburn’s second movie for RKO, which was otherwise costumed by a free-lancing Howard Greer. Hepburn was having a rough adjustment to Hollywood, and was known as having a sharp tongue. When Plunkett was having a fitting with her he came right out and told her, “At this rate you’ll become a worse bitch than Constance Bennett.” Hepburn laughed, and they became friends and worked together throughout his career. He designed the rest of her film costumes while he remained at RKO, including for such classic period films as Little Women, Mary of Scotland, and A Woman Rebels.


Plunkett’s “moth” costume for Katharine Hepburn in “Christopher Strong.”


Plunkett’s costume for Hepburn in “Mary of Scotland.”


While at RKO Plunkett also designed the costumes for the start of  Ginger Rogers’ career with Fred Astaire as her dance partner in Flying Down to Rio. She had previously played in some Warner Bros. musical. He had started as a youth in Vaudeville where he danced with his sister. Although they had second billing in this film, that changed after people saw them dance together. They were the stars in their next movie The Gay Divorcee. Plunkett created what would become the classic silhouette for Ginger Rogers’ dance gowns: a form-fitting bodice, tight at at the hips, flowing into a swirling skirt that accentuated all her dance moves with Fred Astaire.

Then in 1937 Katharine Hepburn  gave Walter Plunkett a tip about a production coming up that he would be great for, one that she herself was seeking the lead role:  David Selznick’s Gone with the Wind. Both of them had already worked with Selznick at RKO, where he  had been Head of Production before launching Selznick International Pictures in 1935. Plunkett contacted him and was hired, but on a non-exclusive basis, for GWTW.  At this point, it was only to do studies for the movie, and thus at a lower pay. Plunkett signed on anyway, and thus found himself working on the biggest movie to hit Hollywood. Little did he know that it would take over a year before he actually began working on the costumes. With the extra time he visited Atlanta, New Orleans, and examined antique Southern fabrics. He even had time to design costumes for other Selznick films like The Adventures of Huckleberry Flynn. But when he had finished his GWTW  costumes, they were magnificent. Katharine Hepburn never did get the part of Scarlett, but she too left RKO later in 1938.

Plunkett’s great success with Gone with the Wind only made it harder for him to find another job afterwards. Studios thought he would be too expensive, or that he would only do big historical movies, and most had their own period costume specialists. After returning to RKO to do one more film, the great Hunchback of Notre Dame (1939). Plunkett became a free-lancer. Things got worse as Europe plunged into WW II and film distribution to the lucrative European market plunged. Plunkett was now designing for the poverty row studios of Columbia and Republic.

Katharine Hepburn had returned to Broadway after Hollywood, and found success with the play “Philadelphia Story.” Her lover at the time, Howard Hughes, bought the film rights for her, and with that she went to MGM to make the film version. MGM made the movie in 1940, with Hepburn picking George Cuckor as director, Cary Grant, who she had worked with at RKO, and Jimmy Stewart as co-stars. It was a big hit. Hepburn also got a long term contract. When she was about to make her first historical film, Sea of Grass with Spencer Tracy, she asked that her friend “Plunky” be brought in to design the costumes. So Walter Plunkett started at MGM in September 1945. MGM already had a wardrobe department full of talented designers, with Irene (Lentz Gibbons) as the head (she had replaced Adrian), Helen Rose, Irene Sharaff, Karinska, and men’s designers Valles and Gile Steele.

Plunkett found his home at MGM. Although the 1930s are when MGM ruled supreme, it had many great musicals and period films ahead. And Walter Plunkett would be involved in  most of them.

By 1948, Walter Plunkett had been in the movie business for so long that he was now designing costumes for re-makes of his own previously designed films. The first such film was The Three Musketeers. Plunkett had designed the previous one at RKO in 1935. Now he was designing MGM’s version in 1948 for Lana Turner, Gene Kelly, June Allyson, and Angela Lansbury. But it was the same swashbuckling story on bigger sets and scenery. One of his early period films that set a fashion trend was now also being remade at MGM. Little Women. His first version in 1933 starred Katharine Hepburn, was produced by David O. Selznick and directed by George Cukor. Now in 1949 Plunkett was dressing June Allyson, Elizabeth Taylor, Janet Leigh, Margaret O’Brien, and Mary Astor. Plunkett also got to work for the first time with the red-headed beauty Greer Garson in 1949. That Forsyte Woman, based on the John Galsworthy saga. The movie starred Greer Garson, Errol Flynn, Janet Leigh and Walter Pidgeon.  The Victorian style costumes he designed were full-skirted, with bustles and tight bodices. Another grea hstorical film that Plunkett designed in 1949 was the classic story of Madame Bovary, this version starring Jennifer Jones with co-stars Van Heflin and Louis Jourdan. Plunkett designed several beautiful gowns for Jones. One of his costume sketches is shown below.


With the start of the 1950s, Walter Plunket would again find himself designing musicals. It was for Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein’s Showboat starring Ava Gardner as Julie with the role of Magnolia going to the singing actress Kathryn Grayson and that of Gaylord to Howard Keel. For the story taking place on a Mississippi riverboat, Plunkett designed both the men’s and women’s late 19th century costumes. As a set for the movie, the floating showboat Cotton Blossom was built on the MGM backlot pond. The set for the town of Natchez was also built on the MGM backlot.

Ava Gardner as Julie in “Showboat”


In 1951 Plunkett also worked on An American in Paris.The movie had so many costumes that the design job was split between Irene Sharaff, and Orry-Kelly who was free-lancing. Walter Plunkett only designed the costumes for the wild Black and White Beaux Arts Ball scene.  An American in Paris won Best Costume Design Oscars for all three designers. Plunkett must have found it ironic that he won an Academy Award – his only Oscar as it turned out – for a Ball scene after having designed Gone with the Wind, Little Women, Mary of Scotland, and Gay Divorcee. But Plunkett was not finished. The next year in 1952 he designed the costumes for the most popular musical ever made, Singing in the Rain. Here too he was re-living his early days at RKO, from the “plus-fours” men’s pants – to the flapper dresses – to the problems while recording sound caused by scratchy fabrics and thumping fans. His designs for Debbie Reynolds, Jean Hagen, and Cyd Charisse were magnificent. Cyd’s emerald green flapper outfit with the crystal decorated panels was as perfect for her dance number with Gene Kelly as was her transformative satin wedding outfit for the Broadway Ballet number.


Below is Plunkett’s costume sketch for Debbie Reynolds in the pink bubble-gum chorus girl outfit she wore when she jumped out of the cake at the party scene in Singing in the Rain.

Plunkett also designed the men’s costumes, including Gene Kelly’s and Donald O’Connor’s. It’s a shock today to realize he wasn’t even nominated for a Best Costume Design Oscar for Singing in the Rain.

Costume sketch design by Walter Plunkett for Cyd Charisse in the Broadway Melody number in “Singing in the Rain


In 1952 Plunkett designed the costumes for another musical, Cole Porter’s Kiss Me Kate. It’s best remembered for Ann Miller dancing her famous “It’s Too Darn Hot” number wearing Plunkett’s hot-pink, fringed and sequined show-girl outfit.



Plunkett got to combine music and period costume in the show-stopper Seven Brides for Seven Brothers. He used a clever scheme of bright color differentiation of the brother’s shirts to separate them. And he also used old quilts as material to make the bride’s skirts,

As the 1950s roled on television competed with movies for audience, and the studios were forced to sell off their movie theater ownership because of an anti-trust court case. Thus fewer movies were being produced. Walter Plunket still had a few good movies he worked on in the late 1950s. While it was not a hit, Raintree County with Elizabeth Taylor and Montgomery Clift had fabulous Civil War era costumes designed by Plunkett. He even said it was more challenging than designing Gone with the Wind. 

As 1960 came he designed the costumes for a new face in Hollywood, Hayley Mills starring in Walt Disney’s Pollyanna.Walter Plunkett was now free lancing, long term contracts gone with the wind for costume designers, indeed for much of the studio arts and crafts personnel.

He would design one more big Hollywood movie, How the West Was Won in 1962. After that he designed a few more movies and had a long career to long back on. He especially enjoyed many celebrations of those glory days of Hollywood’s Golden Age. He even recreated his old costume sketches and he also painted flowers. His legacy today lives on through those great movies.




Joan Crawford was already working at MGM when costume designer Gilbert Adrian arrived with Cecil B. De Mille in 1928. MGM had gone through a succession of designers, including Erte, but it quickly contracted Adrian as the head designer.  Greta Garbo, already a major star, was thereafter dressed by Adrian and became an international fashion influence. Joan Crawford had been at MGM since 1926 and would also  become a major star. Dressed by Adrian, she would become as big a fashion influence as Garbo.

Joan Crawford’s first big starring role came with Our Dancing Daughters in 1928,  the movie that made her a hit with young women.  This film’s costumes had been designed by David Cox. Adrian designed her costumes for the sequel films, Our Modern Maidens,  and  Our Blushing Brides. He designed her next 28 films at MGM, creating her look both on  and off screen. About Adrian Joan Crawford later said, “Dear Adrian, he was the greatest costume designer of them all. There will never be a greater one.”

This post is part of the Joan Crawford Blogathon hosted by In the Good Old Days of Classic Hollywood


Joan Crawford Our Blushing Brides


Joan realized early the importance of the star-making machinery with costume design as a foundation. Adrian’s talents extended beyond the art of fashion. He understood the needs of the role, and importantly, the psychology of the actress and what it takes to create that extra spark of creativity on the screen. In Joan’s flapper days, such as in Our Dancing Daughters and in Our Blushing Brides, shown above, Joan embodied the notion and look of the flapper. Later, when she played the sophisticated “kept woman” in Mannequin, Adrian dressed her in a completely different style for that role. Joan absorbed these lessons in style and stardom eagerly. She wanted to pattern her stardom after Gloria Swanson, the greatest star from early Hollywood. Gloria Swanson was a fashion icon – always well dressed – always the star – a role played on and off  the lot.


Joan Crawford Mannequin
Joan Crawford in Mannequin


Adrian found Joan Crawford fascinating. Like Greta Garbo, the MGM star he most loved to dress, Joan presented him with the androgynous beauty that sparked his creativity. She had a beautiful figure with broad shoulders that Adrian admired, a “regular Johnny Weismuller” he said. She had normal hips, not wide as has often been reported, so there was no need to widen her shoulders in order to balance them. Greta Garbo had wide shoulders too and Adrian used wide-shoulder costumes for both of them from 1929 on.  He did this just because he liked a wide-shouldered look on these two powerful women. Indeed, Adrian was always fascinated by polarities, and the contrast between the beautiful yet strong, forceful face of Joan Crawford  illustrates that characteristic.

The costume designed for Joan Crawford that made Adrian famous was the “Letty Lynton” dress, named for the 1932 film of the same title. It has not been publicly screened in decades due to a copyright dispute. The puffed-sleeve (or shoulders) white organdy dress was worn by Joan on a ship’s deck when Robert Montgomery compares her to an angel and asks her to marry him. The dress was knocked-off by many  American designers and sold at every price-point. Parisian couturiers copied it too, as did other costume dessigners. Edith Head stated it was the single most important fashion influence in film history. The Cinema Shop at Macy’s has often been cited as selling 50,000, or even 500,000 copies of the dress, although both figures are gross exaggerations stated at the time for marketing purposes. Versions of the dress can be seen as wedding gowns in every decade since.


Letty Lynton 2

The photo below is another gown from Letty Lynton, although it was shot on the set of Grand Hotel.  The gown is made of white crepe and black bugle beads, with one section forming a wrap tied at her hips. The other, forming a true assymetry on her left side. The image itself is a master-work of Hollywood set photography, with Joan forming a crucifix at the swinging art-deco doors of the Grand Hotel.


Joan Letty Lynton 2


In Grand Hotel, 1932, Joan played a secretary. Adrian dressed her  simply in black dresses. Her predominant costume was the one shown below. Its large white collar emphasized her face, always desirable in film, and its open structure symbolized her vulnerability to the advances of Preysing.




Greta Garbo also starred in Grand Hotel, although they did not share a scene. Garbo was notoriously reclusive and Joan had never talked with her on the MGM lot, and was rather intimidated by her. One day during the filming of Grand Hotel, Joan ran into Garbo on the stairs of the old MGM dressing rooms. Joan, locked in place and spellbound by Garbo, just said hello. Garbo put her hand to  Joan’s face and said, “What a pity, our first picture together and we don’t work together.  I am so sorry. You have a marvelous face.” Years later in retelling this story Joan said, “If there was ever a time in my life when I might have become a lesbian, that was it.”


Greta Garbo in Mata Hari, portrait by Clarence Sinclair Bull
Greta Garbo in Mata Hari, portrait by Clarence Sinclair Bull


Adrian used the symbolic power of the modified trench-coat on Joan Crawford, just as he had with Greta Garbo ever since 1928  in A Woman of Affairs. Below Joan is shown in Possessed, 1931. The Coat is only slightly feminized with the bow at the collar and at the belt, which is neutralized by a floppy cloche hat serving as a sort of fedora. She wears this outfit as she stands up to hecklers admitting that she’s the mistress of Clark Gable as the character Mark Whitney. He’s running for governor, she says, but he is an honorable man that once belonged to her but now belongs to the people.




Joan Crawford, like many young actresses at MGM, had gone through voice class to lose her native twang and regional accent. While Joan had developed a beautiful speaking voice, there was no mistaking that she was a working class girl, and always seemed natural in the many rags to riches roles she played. This was also a factor in her popularity with the many young women moving into the cities and who were entering the workforce in the late 1920s and 30s. Many movie and fan magazines and newspaper articles marketed the fashions she wore in the movies to this demographic. This was a lure to the movies themselves, and  with the implied message that if you wear the right clothes you get the right breaks.

Sadie McKee, has the plot  where Joan starts out as a household maid, then becomes a dancer, and finally the wife of a rich man. This is  not the man she loves, however, played in the film by Gene Raymond.  This was another film where Joan co- starred with a future husband, in this case Franchot Tone. She had previously co-starred with Douglas Fairbanks Jr. in Our Modern Maidens (1929), whom she first married. And then there was Clark Gable, with whom she co-starred in eight films. They never married, although they carried on an affair that lasted many years. They always seemed well paired in their roles together, and their chemistry was always hot. Sadie Mckee features a rare Adrian-designed gown that bares Joan’s shoulders. The sequined halter adds a  lot of dazzle to the long black gown.


Sadie McKee (1934) Directed by Clarence Brown Shown: Joan Crawford


For I Live My Life (1935) Adrian designed a gown for Joan that let his wide-shouldered look run wild. It is shown below, but at three-quarter view the full effect is not grasped. It was referred to at the time as the “Mutiny on the Bounty” dress because of the sail-like appearance of the bodice – and that the “Mutiny” film had just been released.


Joan Crawford #2


The film where costume plays its most important role ever, in my opinion, is The Bride Wore Red (1937)directed by Dorothy Arzner and starring Joan Crawford with Franchot Tone and Robert Young. Simply, an aristocrat bets that he can take a tavern singer played by Joan and through a good wardrobe can pass her off as a high-society heiress at an exclusive mountain resort. His theory is that only luck separates the characteristics of the rich from the poor, so change the appearance and you change the person. and thereby ensnare the affections of the Robert Young character who disbelieves this theory. So he gives “Anni” enough money to buy an expensive wardrobe, and she chooses the most eye-popping brilliant-red bugle-beaded gown with matching cape in the store. So in this fractured-Cinderella-fairy-tale she goes off on the train to the Alps, where the postman played by Franchot Tone picks her up in a donkey-cart, her taxi to the resort. The costumes continue to play their significant part in this movie,  not to make the actress feel comfortable in her role, but in this Dorothy Arzner film, to always make her feel like she has chosen the wrong wardrobe for the occasion.


Joan Bride Wore Red


It’s a bit of an irony that The Bride Wore Red was a black and white film, so who would have known what color the bride was wearing, even though she was not to be the princess bride? The gown was  miraculously preserved and is now in the collection of the Museum of the Fashion Institute of Technology,

The Women was released in 1939, with its complete wardrobe for Norma Shearer, Rosalind Russell, Joan Fontaine, Paulette Goddard, Hedda Hopper, and of course Joan Crawford, including all the other all-female cast including the fashion show models, all designed by Adrian. The years-long rivalry between Norma Shearer and Joan Crawford was paralleled in the plot, and Adrian had to impose a rule that none of the actresses would get to see what the other was wearing before scene-shooting began.  Although the outfit below covers Joan’s navel (necessitated by the censor) its partially exposed mid-riff was still considered risqué at the time.


The Women (1939) Directed by George Cukor Shown: Joan Crawford (as Crystal Allen)
Photo courtesy Photofest


The roles Joan played after World War II satisfied her less and less. Change was taking place at MGM. Garbo had left, and after that  Adrian. Even her long-time rival Norma Shearer has retired. New stars were getting the choice roles: Katharine Hepburn; Greer Garson; Hedy Lamar; and Lana Turner. After a  long review of her options, Joan had a meeting with Louis B. Mayer and asked to buy out the rest of the time on her contract. So on June 29, 1943, Joan left MGM, her home for eighteen years. Her last task was to clean up her dressing room, not just to pack up her personal belongings, but to physically clean it as well. No farewell party was held to see her off.

Her agent Lew Wasserman got her a contract at Warner Brothers., where a new phase of her career began.  She was once again given more serious roles in this new age of film noir. There was Mildred Pierce in 1945 for which she won a Best Actress Oscar. With new clout, she returned to Adrian for her wardrobe, selecting costumes from among his designs at his new  fashion salon in Beverly Hills. Thus did her next two films, Humoresque, and Possessed, get costumed by Adrian. Joan is magnificently  dressed in Humoresque, showing a mature beauty in an elegant and classic wardrobe.  Possessed calls for a simple wardrobe. In the film Adrian used a technique of reversing a white collar on a black dress, having the points of  the collar turned to the back of the dress. The look has been copied many times since.

Joan Crawford went on to a long career, embodying what it was like to be a star in Hollywood’s Golden Age, and beyond. Adrian’s star burned bright while it lasted, but his health failed him. A heart attack forced him to give up his own influential fashion line in 1952, and a planned comeback was stopped by a terminal stroke in 1959. Fortunately we have those many films to see for ourselves on TCM and elsewhere the art that was created in this collaboration and under the talented umbrella of many at the Hollywood dream factories.

This post is part of the Joan Crawford Blogathon hosted by In the Good Old Days of Classic Hollywood



At the biggest and busiest movie studio of Hollywood’s Golden Age, hummed the most productive studio wardrobe department in movie history. At its most complete in the  1960s, it had some 300,000 costumes in its wardrobe storage – not counting those it had already dicarded in previous decades. MGM regularly produced over 40 moves every year, with its costume designers and wardrobe department producing the costumes for most of them. By comparison, today’s studios make 10-15 movies a year, and of course studios no longer have in-house costume design and fabrication capabilities.

MGM facade

The facade of the old MGM Studio and its original entry gate on Washington Blvd as it looked in 1936 is seen above. The Wardrobe Department was located near Washington Blvd and what the studio called 1st Street. Men’s Wardrobe was located elsewhere and costumes were also stored in various locations.  The Wardrobe Department had a manager who ran its day-to-day operations, separate from the costume design staff.  A view to the three-story department is seen in the photo below. In addition to the glamorous part of movie costumes, post-production they would have to be laundered or dry-cleaned, and then inventoried and hung up in the high racks. Bolts of fabrics of all kinds would have to be kept on hand or custom ordered.

MGM ladies wardrobe 1

MGM went through several designers after its beginning in 1924-25. The studio hoped to capitalize on the name of Erte in 1925, but he didn’t last. Andre-Ani, Max Ree, and Rene Hubert all did fine work but none lasted long at the studio. Gilbert Clark managed to last longer, but was as temperamental as the divas he dressed. This didn’t work for Garbo. So when Cecil B. DeMille came to make movies for MGM and brought his costume designer Adrian, he soon found his designer under contract to MGM. Starting in 1928, every movie that Garbo starred in was designed by Adrian, as was every Joan Crawford movie until 1941 when Adrian left to start his own fashion line. He also designed the costumes for Jean Harlow, Hedy Lamarr, Lana Turner, and Katharine Hepburn.

Adrian liked to paint his costume sketches on his sofa, using the end table to lay out his water colors.

Seen below is a group of MGM wardrobe ladies at work.  The Adrian sketch shown and the costume on the dress form are for Greta Garbo in Grand Hotel. As was the case for all leading ladies, Garbo had her own custom-sized dress form (padded to her dimensions).

MGM Wardrobe_Garbo Sketch from Grand Hotel

Hannah Lindfors, a cutter-fitter, is shown below. She  translates the designer’s costume sketch into muslin pattern pieces, which are then used to cut the chosen fabric. In this case its for a Dolly Tree design for Rita Johnson. When Adrian left to start his own fashion business, Hannah Lindfors left with him as his cutter-fitter.

MGM Cutter-Fitter

Several lace-makers are at work below on the bridal veil for Helen Hayes for the movie White Sister, 1933. It took two weeks to make.

MGM lace workers

Two Wardrobe ladies are working on the embroidery for a costume for Romeo and Juliet, starring Norma Shearer, Leslie Howard and John Barrymore. Adrian and Oliver Messel designed, and Wardrobe fabricated , some 1250 costumes for the film.


Cutter-fitter Inez Schrodt is seen below working on a gown for Marie Antoinette, 1938. The film starred Norma Shearer and Tyrone Power. Some 2500 costumes were used in the film, and Adrian designed 36 costumes for Norma, which was a long-standing record until Cleopatra of 1963.

Inez Schroedt & Marie Antoinette gown

Jane Halsey is seen below resting on a “leaning-board” during the filming of The Great Ziegfeld, 1936. The costume was made of bugle-beads and weighed 102 pounds. The leaning boards were heavily padded with cloth – less for comfort but as to prevent snags to the costumes.


Wardrobe ladies below are at work on Lana Turner’s costume in Ziegfeld Girl, 1941. The film had completely different but equally magnificent costumes as The Great Ziegfeld, which Adrian also designed.


Greer Garson has a stitch repair done to her costume by Vicky Nichols on the set of Mrs. Parkington, 1944. Her costumes were designed by Irene, who had taken over as head designer from Adrian. Irene was at MGM from 1942 until 1948. She was joined by Helen Rose and then Walter Plunkett. Irene Sharaff and Robert Kalloch also worked there for a period, and Gile Steele and  J. Arlington Valles designed men’s costumes.


The Wardrobe Department kept most all of the costumes it made. These were re-used in other films, and often modified. Costumes are being pulled here and placed on a rack for some film. All of these costumes were sold in the MGM auction of 1970.

MGM Wardrobe racks

This section of shelving shows Roman style helmets, most likely with other armor pieces further inside the shelves. Similar but smaller shelves housed thousands of shoes.

MGM waedrobe helmets

Shelves and bins of shoes of all sizes and styles were also available for stock use. After years some of these were neglected and placed in more recessed areas, where no doubt the, several pairs of the Ruby Slippers from the Wizard of Oz were later found. Only one pair made its way to the MGM auction of 1970. It set the record for the highest priced item at the auction: $15,000. At recent auctions, pairs of the Ruby Slippers have fetched around $2 million.

Lana Turner is shown below with a costume sketch for one of her costumes and the actual costume from The Prodigal, 1955. Herschel McCoy designed the costumes for the film.


By 1955 when The Prodigal was produced by MGM, the heyday of the studio system was over. Leo B. Mayer had been replaced as head of the studio by Dore Schary. The Consent Decree forced by the US Court over an Anti-Trust suit had made studios divest their ownership of movie theaters, and television viewing had decimated movie audiences. Costume designers like Walter Plunkett, who had been working since the late 1920s, had gone from designing for over 20 movies a year back then to designing just two movies  for MGM in 1957.

Fortunately, the legacy of MGM, its movies and the work of its costume designers and makers , and the other artists and artisans of the studio are preserved in the movies for all of us to see and enjoy. These behind the scenes photos show that the work of producing glamour was not glamorous. And in those days film credits did not acknowledge the work of any of them in wardrobe except for the costume designer. This is a small tribute to their work.



An American in Paris title card 1   An American in Paris was made in 1951 at the very peak of the Hollywood studio system and the pinnacle of Gene Kelly’s artistic career. It was the perfect blend of art and technique in classic American movie-making. MGM had among its employees all the veteran craftspeople and artists that could produce such a film. And as with many great movies, the back-story is as fascinating as the movie itself. In 1950 as the first plans were being made for the film, MGM, and indeed the entire Hollywood film industry, was in  transition. Television was siphoning off viewers and a court-imposed consent decree required studios to sell off their movie theaters. Cost-cutting was now the mantra, and MGM’s expensive musicals were not viewed favorably by its new production head Dore Schary nor by the corporate offices at Loew’s in New York. The old lion Louis B. Mayer, still in charge of studio operations, supported musicals and the planned An American in Parisbut it took a lot of pleading and persuasive pitches to gain the approval of Schary, and then even more to Loew’s corporate head Nick Schenck and his board. And still the threat of budget cuts loomed over the entire production.

This post is part of Silver Scenes’ MGM Bologathon. My post on An American in Paris was previously published in 2012 as part of the Gene Kelly Centennial Blogathon. An American in Paris title card 2

The famed Arthur Freed was the producer of An American in Paris,and he wanted Vincente Minnelli to direct and Gene Kelly to star and choreograph the film.  Minnelli and Kelly worked very well together and respected each other’s artistic talents. One of the big challenges for the film was the proposed 17 minute-long, wordless ballet and dance sequence  (called the “ballet” in the film’s production).  At the outset, I should say that the ballet sequence was heavily influenced by The Red ShoesPowell and Pressberger’s marvelous film with its own 15 minute-long ballet scene. And it was not just that The Red Shoes’  filmed ballet scenes influenced the ballet sequence in An American in Paris, but also that both film’s ballet sequence has as its purpose the visual depiction of the principal dancer’s interior conflicts and subjective emotions. To his credit, Vincente Minnelli’s  An American in Paris used this influence to produce a complex and deeply artistic film sequence of his own. And Gene Kelly brought to life the character that was an American in Paris – through his acting, choreography, and his unique dancing skills.
Kelly as Jerry Mulligan, in a very early scene, shows his unhappiness with his own image or in his ability to produce a self-portrait, which he will soon to deface
Kelly as Jerry Mulligan, in a very early scene, shows his unhappiness with
his own image or in his ability to produce a self-portrait, which he will soon to deface

The decision by Freed, Minnelli, and Gene Kelly to include a 17 minute long dance sequence was bold and risky. Regardless of the success of The Red Shoes, nothing of that scope had been done in an American film. Further, the ballet was to be a realization on film of the artistic works of Impressionist and Post-Impressionistic painters. This feature would not only guide the nature of the choreography, but also of the set designs, cinematography, action sequences, and costumes. The ballet scene would be the heart and soul of the film. The music, of course, would be based on the haunting score of George Gershwin’s An American in Paris symphony, with the story for the film by Alan Jay Lerner. An American In Paris 6

Other than Gene Kelly, the question of who should be cast for An American in Paris was not apparent. While MGM had several great female dancers, Kelly was convinced that a fresh faced and a native Frenchwoman should be cast as Lise Bouvier. And for that role he had seen a 19 year old French ballerina named Leslie Caron that he wanted for the part. This too was a risky move – a major role for a young woman who had never acted. In continuing with the relatively unknown  cast members, Georges Guetary, a French Music Hall singer, was cast as Henri Baurel. For the fellow American expat and starving musician-neighbor, the inspired choice was the concert pianist and wit Oscar Levant, playing the role of Adam Cook. Another fortuitous decision was bringing in costume designer Irene Sharaff. Sharaff was a Broadway designer but had worked for a spell in Hollywood. Minnelli convinced her to come back from New York to design some 300 costumes for the ballet. While working on the costumes, Sharaff also started designing sketches for what the sets might look like for the various artist-inspired scenes. These sketches in fact were adapted by art director Preston Ames for the sets, which Ames, a former architecture student in Paris, could quickly envision. The sets would be based on the styles of Raoul Dufy; Henri Rousseau; Piere Auguste Renoir; Maurice Utrillo; Vincent Van Gogh; and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec. Not a bad set of artists from which to draw inspiration. But how would the ballet transition from one artist-styled set to the next?

Those transitions indeed became a high-point in Hollywood film arts and crafst.Some 30 painters worked six weeks to paint the backgrounds and sets. Irene Sharaff also came up with the idea of using certain dancers, characters she called Furies for the women and Pompiers for the men. The Furies were dressed all in red ballet outfits and the Pompiers were dressed as traditional French firemen, with their brass helmets but also adorned in a military-inspired costume. Together they served as the “bridge” from one scene to the next, luring Kelly as Jerry Mulligan to pursue the ever-escaping Caron as Lise Bouvier. These transitions were also accomplished by using a “match-cutting” filming technique whereby the action of the dancer is exactly matched from the end of one scene to the beginning of the next.

From left to right Georges Guetary, Gene Kelly, and Oscar Levant
From left to right Georges Guetary, Gene Kelly, and Oscar Levant

As the film opens, each character as played by Gene Kelly, Oscar Levant and Georges Guetary narrates that the happy characters depicted on screen, “are not me.” Gene Kelly as Jerry Mulligan is a struggling artist that stayed in Paris after WWII. He sells his paintings (sometimes) on a street in Montmartre, where a rich widow discovers him and decides to support him (with strings attached). Oscar Levant as Adam Cook is a struggling pianist, the “oldest former child prodigy.” In a very clever later scene Levant as Cook fantasizes about playing in a symphony, which he is also shown conducting while simultaneously playing several instruments. This take-off of an old Buster Keaton film is still funny, especially since Levant being the only one that truly appreciates himself, also fills the audience with himselves. Georges Guetary as Henri Baurel is the successful singer and entertainer, now worrying about getting older, but  providing the yet unknown rival for the love of Lise. His singing performance of “I’ll Build a Stairway to Paradise”, in classic Hollywood show-girls-down-the-stairs style, is a highlight of the movie. an american in paris guetary A  later dual number of Kelly and Guetary in “S’Wonderful,” where they are still ignorant of their rivalry, is pure joy. But Kelly as Jerry Mulligan is deeply in love with Caron as Lise Bouvier, made beautifully obvious in the “Our Love is Here to Stay” number, their song and dance on the banks of the Seine, here amazingly duplicated on a painted set built around one of the those old MGM “cycloramas” is pure joy. Another scene provides laughs as Levant, sitting between Jerry and Henri while they each describe Lise and how much they love her, oblivious of each other’s common object of affection, all the while nervously smokes two cigarettes and chugs several coffees and whiskies.

A later scene is the wild Beaux Arts “Black & White” Ball, here providing a stark contrast to the disintegrating relationships of the two couples: Jerry Mulligan with patroness Milo (Nina Foch), and Henri with Lise. Henri even overhears Jerry and Lise’s tender, heart-breaking exchanges.

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Jerry spots the rose, which earlier he and Lise had shared and which now symbolizes their love

Forlorn, Jerry realizes he is just a failed artist, a stranger in a strange land. The ballet scene begins with Jerry sketching the scene of the Cheveaux de Marly, the sculpted horses flanking the Champs Elysees. He enters that sketched scene which is his ballet dream, the love of Lise symbolized by a fallen red rose. The ballet sequence will put to music and art all his hopes and fears, as he continually pursues Lise through various sets.

Forlorn, Jerry realizes he is just a failed artist, a stranger in a strange land. The ballet scene begins with Jerry sketching the scene of the Cheveaux de Marly, the sculpted horses flanking the Champs Elysees. He enters that sketched scene which is his ballet dream, the love of Lise symbolized by a fallen red rose. The ballet sequence will put to music and art all his hopes and fears, as he continually pursues Lise through various sets.
The Place de la Concorde by Raoul Dufy

The opening scene in the style of Raoul Dufy’s Place de la Concorde becomes Jerry’s  dream world.

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The Furies, dressed in white and then red, beckon Jerry to pursue Lise. Gene Kelly as Jerry is dressed simply in form-fitting clothes, the better to appreciate his dancing and his physique.

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The white furies turn to more intense red furies

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The fountain at the Place de la Concorde serves as the dream dance floor to a united Jerry and Lise, dancing to George Gershwin’s exhilarating and romantic An American in Paris symphonic poem.

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A garden painted by Renoir
A garden painted by Renoir

Jerry pursues Lise to the floral backdrop inspired by Pierre Auguste Renoir, and as they dance, they hold the red rose of love. An American_in_Paris_5 Alas, even in dreams our dreams escape us. Lise has been transformed into flowers, soon to fall from his grasp. Gene-Kelly-in-An-American-in-Paris-gene-kelly-flowers The background has now turned into the melancholy monochromatic artwork of Maurice Utrillo. Gershwin’s music is also changing to American jazz-inspired melodies. An American in Paris Utrillo sacre-coeur Jerry becomes homesick, as had Gershwin in Paris, which inspired him to add the sounds of American blues and jazz into his musical composition. Gene-Kelly-in-An-American-in-Paris-gene-kelly-Utrillo Jerry’s homesickness is symbolized by his former side-kicks, the U.S. military service-men shown in the scene. They are not quite tangible, the artist’s paint still fresh on their uniforms.

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A Bastille Day celebration painted by Henri Rousseau

The scene turns to the artwork of Henri Rousseau: primitive; wild; and exuberant. Jerry’s service-men are now in dressed in cheerful suits, as is he, with the Pompiers now leading them forward in dance. And now Lise will reappear. An-American-in-Paris Kelly-suits-pompiers     An American in Paris 7 pompiers Here now we enter the more turbulent world of Vincent Van Gogh, the skies of the backdrops painted in swirled colors.

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A Cafe painted by Vincent Van Gogh
The Place de la Concorde again provides the setting for the romantic and sexy dance of Jerry and Lise. The dance transforms into the climax, one of the most beautiful scenes in movie history – a perfect blend of music, dance, romance and art.
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But still the Furies beckon, transforming from red to many shades of yellow and orange.
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The setting now changes to the nocturnal and hallucinatory world of Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec.
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A painting of the Moulin Rouge by Toulouse-Lautrec
An American in Paris Chocolat dancing in the 'irish_american_bar', 1896 by Toulouse Lautrec
And now Jerry himself is transformed into one of Lautrec’s characters, a black stage dancer named Chocolat.
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This final ballet scene is the most exuberant yet, and Gene Kelly provides one of his best dance numbers, a masterpiece of choreography, dance, and art. In this cheerful dance he is joined by his dream Lise, taking on the historical dance-hall character of Jane Avril, another Lautrec favorite.
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Deep from his dream he begins to wake, only to realize that Lise is once again just a rose, and his colorful dream-setting turns black and white.

Only this dream turns into his real dream, and Lise returns, running up the stairs of the real (set) stairs of Montmartre. The final kiss says it all, our love is here to stay.

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The film ends with a title card stating: Made in Hollywood, California. And so it was, where it also received 8 Academy Award nominations and won 6, though none for Minnelli. It won for Best Costume Design for Irene Sharaff, Orry-Kelly and Walter Plunkett. Yet Walter Plunkett, who designed the costumes for the Black & White Ball scene, must have found it ironic, he who had designed Gone With the Wind, the two Little Women ( and the subsequent Singing in the Rain, Diane, Raintree Countee), among scores of others.  This would be his only Oscar, given for a relatively minor designing job.

Today it’s Singing in the Rain that is the crowd favorite and receives the “best musical ever made” accolades. No doubt that Singing in the Rain is the most cheerful and fun movie there is to watch, and the dancing is also outstanding. An American in Paris seems to be considered somehow less worthy because it strove to be art. But there is no more beautiful film ever made, and its integrated combination of music, dance, art, costume, and cinematography is the pinnacle of classic Hollywood film, and a proud achievement of the MGM Studio.