Today I’m really surprised (I haven’t written for my blog in ages!) but super chuffed and very flattered to have been quoted in José Arroyo’s blog First Impressions. Check out his thought provoking article on the Adrian designed outfits for Joan Crawford in ‘Today We Live’ (1933). He has some really interesting ideas! Click on the link below.
This month is my turn to choose the ‘Four for Friday’ star and I’ve gone with the indomitable Barbara Stanwyck and one of my favourite films of hers, Cry Wolf (1947). If you’d like to read this month’s other ‘Four for Friday’ reviews, head over to the All Good Things Facebook page and check them out!
For some reason this lesser known film in Barbara Stanwyck’s repertoire really stands out for me. It’s a mystery film with airs of Film Noir, the haunted house film, murder mystery and the suspense thriller. I love a dark film and this one has darkness in spades!
Stanwyck plays Sandra Demarest, recently widowed after being secretly married for only a few months. After arriving her late husband’s former home, a huge foreboding estate worthy of a horror film, Sandra suddenly finds herself wrapped up in a whirlwind of suspicion and mystery when Mark Caldwell, uncle and trustee of her husband’s inheritance, refuses to let her see the body.
Mark is played by Errol Flynn who gives a wonderfully ice-cold performance of which I’m sure he very much enjoyed. He was apparently extremely fond of his role as Soames Forsyte in That Forsyte Woman (1949) where he was also able to break away from his all too familiar swashbuckling roles and get down to some much coveted dramatic acting. Before that film we see this other side of him in Cry Wolf and his talent is evident in both. In the latter, he is the perfect compliment to Barbara Stanwyck’s hard-boiled performance.
Stanwyck in this film is everything you would hope she could be. Famous for her steely determination and no-nonsense attitude, the actress gives it her all in Cry Wolf as her character throws herself into a fierce investigation of her husband’s suspicious death. The role was also quite a physically demanding one as she scales a rooftop, falls from a skylight and and hoists herself up several floors in a dumb waiter; not to mention those always impressive horse riding skills of hers!
She also looks fantastic! The film was produced at the height of 1940s fashion and her costumes were all designed by Edith Head who, from the early 1940s, designed most of the outfits for her films as well as her personal wardrobe. Edith Head revolutionised Barbara’s look as she disguised her long waist with wide belts and made her look taller. The outfits in this film are to die for. So chic yet so casual; the style that suited her best, in my opinion.
Also to be noted is Geraldine Brooks as Julie Demarest, Sandra’s sister-in-law being held captive in her own home by Mark. Her frustrated performance as she begs Sandra for help is fantastic and just as good as the two leads.
The film itself is intriguing to the last! It draws you in and keeps you in suspense and it achieves all this with some top notch acting, a solid screenplay and a wonderful visual design. The film is dark and shadowed like all great Film Noirs and in fact rarely shows the light of day at all! While I’m a huge fan of comedy and other lighthearted genres, I just revel in Film Noir and it’s deliciously stylistic form! There is something so thrilling about a nihilistic film. Human curiosity, I guess.
As a side note, Film Noir was also my favourite class (bar Classic Hollywood) at University in which I learned so much and my tutors were so nurturing and the best I ever had!
Cry Wolf was based on a 1945 novel, the movie rights of which were bought by Warner Brothers as a vehicle for Barbara Stanwyck. Denis Morgan was originally cast as Mark but Flynn was eventually chosen instead. The film received mixed reviews from critics, some found it wooden and clichéd while others found it thoroughly engaging and exciting, but the public was fixed on it’s success. The clichés, I believe, are often what makes Film Noir so entertaining. While of course the genre can surprise you, it’s formulaic screenplays and stylised dialogue is largely what the audience relishes! Granted this may be a “modern” way of looking at it as Film Noir was not a recognised or conscious genre at the time of it’s peak production.
In any case, I think the reason I love this film so much has to do with many of the filmic elements that I love all coming together in one film. With all it’s delectable Film Noir visuals, it’s intrigue and suspense, it’s wonderful performances and a thrilling musical score by my favourite film composer Franz Waxman, it also presents Barbara Stanywck in the era that I like her best, the 1940s.
Cry Wolf is a hidden treasure and one that I wholeheartedly recommend tracking down, especially for fans of Film Noir and the awesome Barbara Stanwyck!
Du Barry Was a Lady (1943) is not a great film, but it’s fun. It has some very clever dialogue, some enjoyable musical numbers, it’s funny, it’s ridiculous and it has a great cast. At the time, it was considered a ‘B’ picture and featured Gene Kelly as his star was beginning to rise, slap stick sensation Red Skelton and the “Queen of the B’s” Lucille Ball before she became our beloved “Lucy”. It’s Lucille’s gorgeous outfits in this film that we’re going have a good swoon over!
Now the film is kind of all over the place in it’s structure but it’s mainly split up into two parts. The contemporary 1940s first half and the second half, set in the time of King Louis XV. I’m only going to focus on the contemporary half as that’s where my love for fashion lies. The period dresses used for Lucille when she plays Madame Du Barry during the dream sequence were mainly re-used from other films anyway, such as Marie Antoinette (1938) with Norma Shearer.
There was no particular designer credited to the lovely creations in this film, however Irene is listed as the Costume Supervisor. This usually meant that the clothing was curated for the film and not specifically designed for it. It could also have meant that the costumes were designed by a lesser know designer but in this case, the former is more likely. Nevertheless they are beautiful outfits and the lovely Lucille Ball carries them with absolute perfection.
Many of her outfits have a distinct tailored look, with smart suits and long flowing rayon gowns. They are all fitted with small shoulder pads to create that chic look of elegance and empowerment that was so synonymous with the 1940s. The film was also shot in Technicolor and Irene uses it to full advantage! The first outfit we see Lucille wear is a bright red two piece gown that exposes the midriff. The skirt hits the floor and as she walks and her legs and a lovely white lace slip peak through a long split down the front. It’s a gown designed for lounging about in luxury and she wears it with matching red silk/satin bedroom slippers.
As a nightclub singer, May Daly (Lucille) dreams of marrying a rich man who can support her comfortably and provide her with all the fineries that her parents never had, as poor working class people. Although she’s in love with Alec Howe (Gene Kelly) a penniless fellow performer at the club, she refuses to act on it for fear she’ll end up like her parents and it’s hinted that her lavish wardrobe has come from the attentions of millionaires who frequent the club.
The outfit that she wears on her way home is one of my favourites! With a grey jacket, dark green skirt with matching gloves and handbag, she tops it off with a matching grey fur hat that sits on a hairdo styled specifically for it. As if we believe she had time to do her hair like that before going home but we’ll just ignore that little fact. Who cares, if it means we get to stare a stunning hairstyle for a while!
Du Barry Was a Lady is also the first film where Lucille debuted her new hair colour after MGM dyed it red and it’s just absolutely glorious in the rich colours of Technicolor! Some of my favourite hairstyles in Classic film ever are hers in this film and she has only contributed to my driving need to be a red-head! Ever since I was a little girl, I’ve always wanted red hair and I dye it and I dye it but it never comes out that perfect “Lucille Ball” red! One day, I am determined, I will find my perfect dye!
Another lovely outfit that keeps on theme with the “matching” trend so loved in the 1940s is a lovely day time suit that May wears outside a newspaper stand. It has beautiful a beautiful lace-work collar (almost lapel-like) that continues on a stylish matching hat.
Finally, my favourite outfit of all is the stunning evening gown that appears in the middle of the film and then again at the end. Lucille’s entrance in the dress is enough to knock you off your seat as the lovely drape of the garment flows from her beautiful tall form. Made of pink rayon, it’s cut on the bias and has a matching cape and clutch. It features stunning pink ombré bead-work both stitched on and fringed and shines so brilliantly in technicolor, it’s dazzling! The pink colour compliments her red hair beautifully which is styled in a victory roll, poodle ‘do to die for! It gives me ultimate hair envy and is my all time favourite vintage hairstyle in Classic film!
Cue lots and lots of photos!!
There are many other lovely gowns and outfits in the film such as a few that are worn by Virginia O’Brien, but these are my favourites and the ones that have always stuck in my memory.
I drool every time I see them on screen and they only makes me love 1940s fashion more. It was so elegant and chic and so much thought and care was put into matching accessories and styling one’s hair around one’s hats; a care that has been all but lost in today’s fashion. It was an era of female empowerment that reflects strongly in the lines of women’s fashion.
Oh, for a wardrobe like May Daly’s!
*Side Note: Greer Garson also wore the pink rayon gown in publicity photos before she became a star. Perhaps MGM thought that because she too was a red-head, the dress might do something for her. They even did her hair in a similar way! Although, come to think of it Greer was an already a well established star by 1943 so perhaps she wore it first. It would be great to find out more about this.
Something I’ve always been fascinated with is how fashion adapts to its circumstances throughout time. It’s never as black and white as people think; never solely about trends and the vogue but often takes its form out of necessity. The Great Depression, Women’s Lib and the World Wars all had a profound effect on fashion and what better film to discuss this effect than the ultimate WW2 drama Mrs. Miniver (1942).
The film started production at MGM in 1941 while much of Europe was at War. America was still struggling to remain neutral and many believe that Mrs. Miniver was created to help ease the country into the idea of entering the fight. Half way through filming, however, America did officially enter and Mrs. Miniver became an act of propaganda for all Allied Forces.
Set in England, the film follows a typical middle class family as it moves through the moments of impending War and it’s inevitable arrival. It’s main purpose was to show how hard times can affect ordinary people and how strong those ordinary people can be when needed. It is a beautifully heartfelt presentation of the great sense of the comradery that War can create despite the difficulties forced upon us.
One such difficulty was the lessened availability of materials for clothing and other household needs. It was seen as a small sacrifice to make if those materials could go to a greater cause and help win the War. Nevertheless, women did struggle to clothe themselves and their families and as a result, Wartime fashion was largely modest and understated; at least in comparison to previous decades and the outburst of colour after the war in the 1950s.
Mrs. Miniver does a wonderful job of presenting the transition from the more elaborate outfits of the 1930s to those more modest and conservative during the War and it begins with one of the most memorable outfits in the film.
Greer Garson plays the title role of Kay Miniver. She has a somewhat typical English family of a husband (Clem – played by Walter Pidgeon), a son in late adolescence (Vin – played by Ricard Ney) and two smaller children, a daughter and and son (Judy and Toby – played by Clare Sandars and Christopher Severn). Her husband is doing well at his job as an architect and they are all living quite comfortably within their means. Like all of us, however, they dream of bigger and better things as Clem covets a new car and Kay battles her conscience on whether or not to buy a new hat. Both parties, of course, decide to buy them and worry about the other’s reaction later.
Kay’s outfit as she goes shopping has loads of lovely but nonetheless excess material. She wears an exquisitely tailored suit with a flourish of string detail at the neck and a large, scalloped picture hat. The War had not yet begun and women were still preoccupied with pastimes like shopping and fashion, soon to seem frivolous.
The hat that Kay buys represents these “unnecessary” frivolities.
Another extravagant dress is worn by Kay at a dance held at the town sailing club. Vin’s love interest Carol Beldon, played by Teresa Wright, also wears a beautiful gown. The party scene is designed to present England’s effort to keep up a sense of normality in the face of imminent trouble and so the women wear their finest silks and glittering organzas.
For the rest of the film though, the ladies are seen in somewhat less extravagant clothing, only sometimes displaying small adornments, and the men seem to repeat the same suits. Being Hollywood though, it was accepted, and in fact expected, that the women wear something different in every scene in order to keep things interesting however no “big name” designer was hired for the film. Robert Kalloch was assigned to design only the gowns and, as there was no need for any other lavish creations, the rest of the clothing went uncredited.
Women wore modest suits during the day to show respect for the world “situation” and this is reflected in many of the outfits of Kay and Carol.
Modest outfits are also worn at night and only small accessories are seen, if at all, as in the dinner party wear Vin proposes to Carol.
The only time, during the War in the film, that we see the ladies in any sort of finery is if there’s a special occasion. At one point, the whole town gathers for the annual flower show, a proud tradition in the Belham community. Kay wears a polkadot dress and another large picture hat with netted detail, mirroring that which we saw before the War. It’s another attempt to preserve a much needed sense of normality. On another occasion, Carol comes home from her honeymoon after marrying Vin. She sports a very extravagant hat indeed! Something clearly only worn for something as special as her honeymoon. Most likely her “going away” outfit.
But at no other time are the outfits more conservative than in the bomb-shelter sequences when Clem and Kay Miniver are protecting their family from the terrifying air raids. Always remaining calm and collected for the sake of their children, they keep the proverbial British “stiff upper lip” by reading them the story of Alice in Wonderland. Their clothing reflects these grave moments and their efforts to stay positive.
Even the dressing gown that Kay wears as she fights off a Nazi intruder in her home is simple and unassuming and one that would have been a staple item in the average English woman’s wardrobe.
Though some have criticised Mrs. Miniver for it’s tones of propaganda, in a time of great fear and uncertainty, propaganda such as this was much needed and welcomed and did great things for the War effort. The film was set for special release but President Roosevelt was adamant that it be released as soon as it was ready in order to been seen by the general public as soon as possible. Winston Churchill has even been quoted as saying that Mrs. Miniver did more for the War Effort than a flotilla of battle ships!
Greer Garson herself said: “I like to think that it had something to do with dispelling the last traces of isolationism in America. I don’t blame people for not wanting to get into a war… but of course it was not [just] a skirmish over in Europe, it was a global war and it would have affected America disastrously anyhow; if the freedom loving countries had been overcome in Europe, America would have been next.”
The clothing in Mrs. Miniver is a wonderful representation of Wartime fashion during WW2 and the hardships that were endured under the Blitz. Although a Hollywood version, the sacrifices that were made by women in terms of clothing is presented in as much “truth” as was possible and everyone involved in the film’s making was wholly respectful to it’s cause and humbled by it’s meaning. As a result of the film’s effort to reflect true-to-life situations and the ripple effect of a moral boost that it caused throughout the world, no Wartime drama in the history of film is as much loved and remembered today as Mrs. Miniver.
Below you can watch a rare interview with Greer Garson in 1985 as she reflects on her time as Mrs. Miniver
Just a little further into the 1940s now with a film that I love to re-watch over and over! It stars two of my all time favourite actresses and they both look just lovely! Joan Crawford and Greer Garson in When Ladies Meet (1941).
There are rumours and legends about the making of this film; about a supposed rivalry between Crawford and Garson and I’m sure that some of it is true (and I stress “some“), at least on Crawford’s part. At the time of the film’s production, Crawford was the reigning “Queen of MGM” and she wasn’t about to let any new up-start steal her crown; or so the rumours go. Crawford had been at MGM for almost twenty years and Garson was a relative newcomer who had just made a big hit with her fourth film Blossoms in the Dust (1941) and garnered a second Oscar nomination. With this in mind, can you really blame Crawford for being nervous?
Whatever the truth may be in the rumours, the film itself is thoroughly enjoyable. With a solid performance from Joan and an absolutely delightful performance from Greer it also exhibits a wonderful range of costumes from casual day-wear (Hollywood style, of course!) to beautiful night-wear, from stylish swim suits to jaw-dropping evening gowns!
Joan Crawford plays Mary Howard, a much admired novelist having an affair with her married publisher Rogers Woodruff, played by Herbert Marshall. Attempting to impress the sophisticated Rogers, she wears glasses that she doesn’t need in order to appear more intelligent. These glasses though, do nothing to hinder the glamorous image created by the gown that she wears to a party in her honour. The white floor length gown is pure Joan Crawford and clearly designed to compliment her movie star status. The added hood reflects the very latest in 1940s glamour and she wears sparkling diamond jewellery to accessorise.
She does look stunning, even if no real author would likely dress as glamorously, and although the hood is very much a product of the 1940s and not to everyone’s taste, I absolutely love it. It creates a complete head-to-toe look and, if in the same colour as the gown, makes the wearer look taller.
Thirty minutes into the film, we finally meet Greer Garson but it was certainly worth the wait! She plays Claire Woodruff, wife of Rogers Woodruff and is given what was known as a “star entrance”. The scene starts without her, as Jimmy Lee (Robert Taylor – also in love with Mary) converses with some friends at an elegant bar. They’re having a party and one guest is conveniently running late. Jimmy brings up the topic of this particular guest, the host’s cousin whom he’s been set up with on a sort of blind date, and begins to guess what she might look like. Assuming she will be a frump, as set-ups never turn out the way one hopes, he turns to see the Greer Garson, entering full frame in the most stunning floor length gown you have EVER seen!
For her first appearance on screen, MGM gave Greer the full star-treatment. Her entrance was made with absolutely no one else in the frame in order give her complete and undivided audience attention and her utterly devastating gown was meticulously designed by Adrian who only designed for the studio’s top stars.
The gown itself is a two piece ensemble of black, bias cut rayon and metal detailing to catch the light, complete with a matching cape. The cape is made of the same black rayon, lined in lamé and is only on screen for about ten seconds before she takes it off. It’s enough to make an impression though and cause a few gasps from the audience!
With that entrance and Greer’s beautiful posture, it’s definitely one of my favourite Classic Hollywood gowns.
After these two beautiful dresses, we have some lovely day-wear, perfectly indicative of the 1940s. There’s a lovely, form-fitting casual suit that Greer changes into after a boating outing with Robert Taylor. The lines of the shirt and jacket strategically channel the nautical theme and it even has a matching coat and purse! And Joan wears a stylish white day dress, a matching coat and a heart brooch; a popular accessory in the 1930s and 40s.
Joan also wears another stylish Adrian designed day dress as she is doing her gardening. It’s rather elaborate and entirely too good a dress to be wearing in the dirty garden but I think audiences are asked to suspend belief on this one and just revel in the loveliness of the dress. Not hard to do as it really is gorgeous! A three piece matching outfit of dress, hat and gloves! I do so love the “matchy, matchy” of the 1940s.
There are so many outfits in this film it’s hard to know which to include and which to not but this photo is just too good to resist. So here is another photo of Joan in a beautiful white day suit and netted hood. She wears this in the final scene of the film and if memory serves, she wears all of her own jewellery as you can see it pop up in many of her other films too.
In the most dramatic scene of the film, the two actresses come head to head when they both find out who the other is. Joan discovers that Greer is the wife of her lover and Greer comes face to face with her husband’s mistress. And if they must do the scene set at night, why not do it in stunning négligées?!
Greer, as Claire, makes fun of her nightgown as her character has borrowed it from the lady of the house but we, as audience members, know better. It’s really a lovely gown and as she is the studio’s new “find”, MGM is not about to dress Greer in anything ugly. Granted there are LOTS of ruffles but Greer carries the garment beautifully and pulls off the look with aplomb.
Joan’s nightgown is a contrasting white to Greer’s black (possibly a deliberate choice to offset the ideas of good and bad?) with a tie to cinch in the waist. The main feature of the gown is the layered sleeves; perfectly draped to compliment the drape of the gown itself. It even has inbuilt shoulder-pads to finish off the all important “Crawford Look” as most of her other outfits do as well.
All of the outfits in When Ladies Meet are designed with the intention to showcase Adrian’s designs and to either compliment or increase the star-image of it’s two leading ladies. They are all wonderfully successful creations at the height of early 1940s fashion and, even though the characters would almost certainly not have been able to afford such stunning gowns in reality, MGM was not known for, nor did it intend to recreate reality. At least not very often.
When Ladies Meet is a delightful little film with an refreshingly comedic performance from Robert Taylor and an earnest performance from Joan Crawford. The stand out for me though, and not because I’m biased (I also adore Crawford) is Greer Garson. She is truly one of the most joyous actresses to ever grace the screen and her laughter is utterly infectious.
With a solid cast, an interesting story and some outfits and gowns to die for, what is not to love?!
Heading into the 1940s now for my contribution to Fashion Month and I’m so excited to discuss some of my favourite outfits from my favourite decade in film and fashion!
I love it’s entire aesthetic; how wonderfully it tells of it’s history and the many different options it held for women. From casual day dresses to beautifully tailored suits, from lovely and feminine swimwear to stunningly glamorous evening gowns, the 1940s was an era that combined traditional feminine beauty with the more modern idea of female empowerment. As WW2 raged and women entered the work force, they were beginning to realise their “working” potential and their clothing reflected their new found ideas.
The Philadelphia Story was released just on the cusp of the new decade and is therefore still partially rooted in 1930s ideals. It is a Screwball Comedy that examines the class wars as if still focused on the economic crisis of the Great Depression. However, before it was a film, The Philadelphia Story had been a play on Broadway in 1939 and although the War began than year, America did not officially enter the fight until 1942.
Still fascinated by socialites and “high society”, the film was a huge success and Katharine Hepburn won great acclaim for both her performance on Broadway and her transfer of it to film. Her collaboration with Adrian on the gowns designed for the film present some of the most lovely and powerful looks of the early 40s!
Katharine Hepburn plays Tracy Lord, a spoiled heiress who sets impossibly high standards for the people around her, including the men in her life. The first few outfits she wears reflect her sense of superiority. They are all a variation of the shirt and “slacks” ensemble and one that Hepburn herself popularised in the 1940s.
The first traditionally feminine outfit that Tracy wears is when she is mocking the idea of the perfect hostess; social and gracious and dripping with sarcasm! It’s a brilliant scene, superbly acted by Hepburn and perfectly complimented by James Stewart and Ruth Hussy as reporters who have arrived to cover Tracy’s wedding. Their comic timing is sophisticated and tight and Tracy’s overly-ruffled dress reflects the silliness of the situation and her disdain for the very thing she is mocking.
It is a lovely gown, none the less, and she wears it beautifully.
Most of the outfits worn by Hepburn in the film are designed to suit the character’s state of mind in whichever scene they appear in. When she is feeling vulnerable, she is always half dressed in either a swim suit or a dressing gown but when she is on the defensive, she is either wearing slacks or glamorous gowns representing “no-nonsense” and power.
Perhaps the most famous gown of all, though, is the stunning rayon evening gown that Tracy wears at a party given the night before the wedding. After being balled out by her father for not having an “understanding heart”, Tracy arrives at the party in one of the most glamorous full length, flowing gowns I’ve ever seen! Maybe it’s the way Hepburn holds herself but the dress is just glorious! It’s presentation in the film is, once again, to represent superiority and “goddess-like” high class as Tracy desperately tries to hold onto her beliefs, all the while questioning whether they are right.
As a side note, this is my number one favourite Classic Hollywood gown in any film and I would give anything to see it in person! It still exists and is currently displayed around the world at various costumes exhibitions.
The final gown that Tracy wears is her wedding gown which is a mixture of conventional femininity and modern empowerment. It is made of white organza which was traditionally used to achieve an image of feminine daintiness but it also sports a thick waistband which adds a layer of modernity and shows that even though Tracy has relaxed her guarded ideals and chosen to give her previously failed marriage another try, she is still a strong woman and is slowly beginning to find balance between her pride and her love life.
Most of the costumes designed for Hepburn in the film version of The Philadelphia Story were based on the costumes designed by Valentina for the stage play but Adrian does a wonderful job of reworking them to suit the characters moods and development. They are some of the loveliest and most striking costumes of this early part of the decade and what with Hepburn’s sleekly tailored pant-suits and beautiful rayon evening gown they present an exciting glimpse of just where fashion will head into the 1940s.
Every month on the first Friday, three of my friends and fellow blog writers and I take it in turns to choose one Classic Hollywood star. We then each choose a film of theirs to review and we call it “Four for Friday”. This month it’s a little late, being the third Friday in May, but our star is actually a trio of stars, the three Barrymore siblings! As I’ve never seen anything with Ethel, I’ve chosen Grand Hotel (1932) to at least cover John and Lionel.
Firstly, I’m not going to rehash the plot of Grand Hotel because there really isn’t one. Well at least there isn’t just one. It’s made up of many little vignette stories in a film that was designed to be the first motion picture ever to feature more than two major stars. It was to be the very first “All Star Cast!” and MGM’s pride and joy!
Put simply, it follows the respective dramas of the various inhabitants of Berlin’s most luxurious Grand Hotel.
Funnily enough, my first experience with Grand Hotel (1932) was a rather anticlimactic one. I was right in the middle of my Joan Crawford kick and I was attempting to track down anything and everything she had ever appeared in, as is usually the case with me when I find myself obsessing over an actor. So I watched the film but I felt kind of lost afterwards. Had I enjoyed it or not? I wasn’t sure. Do you ever come out of a movie wondering this? For me, it’s much worse than disliking a film because it’s like being left in Limbo. Completely unsettling.
I gave it another chance though and I am so, SO incredibly glad that I did as I’ve now seen it countless times and I absolutely worship it! It’s one of the most apparently effortless films I’ve ever seen as it seems to just breeze in and out of each scene as if it were waltzing across a dance floor without a care in the world! It knows it’s good so why should it worry about “trying”? It doesn’t need to. It has that incredible array of top MGM stars to back it up.
Upon my first watch, I had only seen Greta Garbo in Ninotchka (1939) which was another disappointing experience for me at the time (what was WRONG with me?!) as I didn’t see what all the fuss was about. I didn’t think she was beautiful but how was I to know that for Ninotchka Garbo was “frump-ified” and I now believe that that film was a terrible introduction to the Great Actress as I didn’t understand her method or how she worked. Perhaps I needed to know a little more about her before I watched Ninotchka to understand it’s humour better. But I digress…
After viewing Grand Hotel for a second time and having seen Garbo in a few more films, I was absolutely blown away by her beauty! And not just her appearance which is utterly sublime but her performance. I have come to believe that there is a great difference between the terms “melodrama” and “melodramatic” and for some, more ignorant people (and I mean it in it’s true sense, not derogatorily) Garbo may seem “melodramatic” (over-the-top) but in truth, she is one of the most beautifully subtle actresses to ever grace the screen. Her method is all her own and truly unique and in Grand Hotel as the long-suffering Russian prima ballerina Grusinskaya she is absolutely superb! She is melodrama at it’s finest and I am always left in complete in awe after her divine performance!
As for Joan Crawford, some say that she stole the film from Garbo and I can see how they may think that but I disagree. Crawford plays the “little stenographer” Flaemmchen and while she is delightful, when Garbo is happy, she instantly lights up the screen! But… this being said, Crawford is also adorable and her playful flirtations with the Baron (John Barrymore) are some of the most memorable scenes in the film. It’s also quite possibly the most natural acting that audiences had seen from Crawford by this time which is impressive knowing how much she wanted to do a good job and hold her own with the already established “Great Stars” of MGM.
John Barrymore’s performance in Grand Hotel is perhaps the comic relief of the film and it is utterly charming. He is handsome, mischievous and down right sexy at times as the penniless jewel thief Baron von Geigen and it is easy to understand how Grusinskaya could fall in love with him. His execution is also understated as his character, like Garbo’s, is also long-suffering and he makes light-hearted jokes to cover his pain.
John Barrymore’s real-life brother Lionel Barrymore is also a major character in the film as he plays Otto Kringelein, a working-class man who is dying and plans to spend his last days in luxury at the famous Grand Hotel. His efforts to spend his hard earned life savings on his own happiness for a change are both heartwarming and heartbreaking as we feel for him deeply in a poignant issue that is still so relevant today. Work-life balance.
Wallace Beery, Lewis Stone and Jean Hersholt make up the rest of the all-star cast but they all play smaller roles compared to the two Barrymores, Garbo and Crawford.
The characters’ stories weave in and out of each other as the characters themselves weave in and out of each other’s lives and this format, as well as the film itself, are metaphors for life and how grateful and observant we choose to be in it.
The most poignant line in the film, and one that is goose bump-inducing if you understand it’s meaning, comes from Doctor Otternschlag, played by Lewis Stone, a disfigured WW1 veteran and permanent resident of the Grand Hotel. Most of his time is spent loitering in the lobby and observing the people as they pass and at the end of the film he states, despondently…
“The Grand Hotel. Always the same. People come. People go. Nothing ever happens.”
We, as audience members, are left to ponder. After all that we have witnessed, after all of the drama that has happened in the Grand Hotel…. do we really believe this observation?
Letty Lynton is a film that was long thought to be lost to the public. In 1938, it was sadly sued for copyright infringement and was consequently pulled from circulation but the film has survived in various forms in terrible condition and no attempts have yet been made to restore it. It’s not available on DVD or VHS, yet it’s said to be one of the most influential films on the fashion industry in Hollywood history!
I came across a copy a few years ago when I was doing research for my thesis on Joan Crawford and it was almost unwatchable! It was scratched to within an inch of its life, the sound had pops and cracks and it appeared over-exposed. But it was still possible to follow the story and, more importantly, see the gowns!
Joan Crawford plays socialite Letty Lynton who finds herself with an abusive ex-lover. Crawford often played a socialite which gave costume designers an excuse to dress her to the nines, however it wasn’t always easy. Crawford had odd features for an actress of her time and many designers had trouble disguising her square jawline and broad shoulders. But it took one particular designer to discover the secret to her glamour. Gilbert Adrian realised that these things should not be disguised, they should be emphasised!
For Letty Lynton, Adrian created what is now known as “The Crawford Look”!
He designed a dress to reflect the 1930s eagerness to “get back to femininity” after the flapper years and thus yards and yards of fluffy organza was used to create an excessive ruffled effect. The waist was cinched to show off Crawford’s best attribute and the shoulders were emphasised, as Adrian desired. When the dress finally debuted in the film, it set of a nation-wide fashion craze as every woman decided she wanted to look like Joan Crawford! Thousands of more affordable copies were made for department store sales and allegedly every single one of them sold! Edith Head once said it was “the single most important influence on fashion in film history” and with it, the Crawford shoulders were born!
The famous Letty Lynton ruffled dress broke away from the Art Deco mold and harked back to more feminine times while most of the other outfits created for the film are more typical of the Deco style with their sleek lines and bias cuts. But Adrian always put his own stamp on his designs and in my opinion, they are all absolutely stunning and suit Crawford to a “T”!
They all manage to combine female sexuality with Crawford’s inherent masculine traits, creating a powerful silhouette of strength and self-confidence which is glamorous and appealing to both women and men.
The film has one or two powerful scenes itself and as Crawford demonstrates some of her considerable (and tragically overlooked) acting chops in a particularly dramatic scene, she does so in a stunning gold lamé evening gown. There is something about lamé that I adore! It was used in the 1930s more than in any other decade, I think, and in black and white it stands out like and light in the darkness, shimmering and oh, so glamorous! (I often wonder though, was it scratchy to wear? Haha!).
Joan Crawford’s gowns in Letty Lynton are some of my all time favourites and the history behind them and the film is forever fascinating. While the costumes are now more famous than the film, it’s still a highly enjoyable story and one worth restoring and releasing on DVD. Granted, it will be a huge undertaking for whomever chooses to do so, so I doubt it will happen any time soon. But still, it would be a wonderful thing so… we live in hope…
The 1930s in American film was the height of the Screwball Comedy; a special kind of sub-genre that exists in a very small space of time during the 1930s and to an extent, the early 1940s. It was preoccupied thematically with the “war of the classes” where lower to middle class people often teach the upper class a lesson or else the storyline itself results in a moral message, usually of “money isn’t everything”. The seriousness of this message is feebly disguised in a plot so zany and fantastic that you just have to laugh or else fall into a trap of over-analyzing the seemingly ridiculous. You simply cannot question the validity of events, you just to allow yourself to be dragged along with them for the absurd and hilarious ride!
In the 30s The Great Depression was at it’s full strength and so the “class wars” were of particular interest to society. The movies were a place where the public, “down on their luck”, could go to dream about luxury and decadence and the “upper class” portion of the Screwball Comedy film lent itself to some of the most breathtakingly beautiful costumes to fantasise about indeed!
The Thin Man series (six films in total) presents lower society as crime riddled and dangerous but it also shows many of it’s inhabitants to be honest and real. It presents high society as a world of pure class but it’s also filled with spoiled and false people. Nick and Nora Charles are stuck between both worlds. With the handsome and debonaire William Powell as Nick, a detective who’s wife came into money and therefore doesn’t have to work but does because Nora craves excitement, and the lovely Myrna Loy as Nora, his feisty wife and self-appointed sidekick. Nick is suavely dressed in his day suits, tuxedos, top hat, white tie and yes… tails, and Nora is elegant and chicly dressed in her beautiful in vogue day wear and her stunning evening gowns with all the trimmings!
Nick and Nora are smart and sophisticated but they’re also down-to-Earth. Their appeal lies in their ability to be both and their working-class audience forgives them their frivolities because they’re genuinely nice people.
In the 1930s, the fun-loving flappers had mostly grown up and when the Depression hit, the time for care-free living was over. Skirt hems were lowered to the ankles or just above and the close-fitting, bias cut gown came into fashion.
Over-sized collars and cuffs, interesting hats, large buttons, ruffles and fur were also in vogue and all of Myrna Loy’s beautiful costumes in the first Thin Man film, created by her favorite designer Dolly Tree, reflect these extravagant trends.
The Thin Man and it’s several sequels made within the decade are perfectly representative of 1930s glamour and the sophisticated style that was so very “in” at the time. The films are witty, the high-brow banter between Loy and Powell is unsurpassed and the costumes are to die for! The 1930s in film was a time for sophisticated glamour and Nick and Nora Charles deliver it in spades!