By: Megan McGurk
Letty Lynton (1932), well known for the exaggerated organza sleeve gown that Adrian designed to embellish Joan Crawford’s already significant wingspan, features so many more interesting clothes. Clarence Brown’s picture remains out of circulation after an author of a play no one remembers sued and won for plagiarism. It’s a crime against cineastes, because Letty’s wardrobe by Adrian features some of his best work in fusing costume with character. Joan Crawford, queen of underplay, performs an uncharacteristic bit of scenery chewing in the climax scene with Nils Asther. A single blob of mascara slides under her eye as a result. We won’t see Crawford with a smudged face again until she’s beaten and tortured by Nazis in Above Suspicion (1943), her last picture before she left MGM. The ‘Letty’ dress that sold half a million knockoffs pales in comparison to the gown she wears for a first date with Bob Montgomery, a white column gown with silver beading and sleeve inserts in white mink. Joan’s fur shoulder cuffs look like clouds of candy floss that reflect all the light in the room upon her face. She casts an ethereal dream vision to dazzle the spoilt Montgomery.
Adrian gave Joan two different duvoons to snuggle into for this picture. The first is a praline-coloured confection she wears to disembark the ship from South America. When she discovers Nils Asther’s Emile, an ex-lover who turns up like a bad penny to ruin the glow of her recent engagement, she barricades herself in the sumptuous fur to reject his demand that their romance continue. Joan’s Letty cocoons in another fur duvoon, this time in black sable, when she meets Nils Asther in his hotel room to put a stop to his sexual blackmail. Never mind why Joan’s character keeps a bottle of poison in her medicine cabinet, or why she intends to drink it herself as a means to escape Nils’s threat to expose her love letters. Wanda Tuchock and John Meehan’s script contains gems that match the sartorial flair on offer, such as Joan’s remark after she takes off the black duvoon, revealing a silver metallic dress, and asks ‘any wine left? I’m congealed.’ (Or earlier, right before she breaks up with Nils and some random former lover goes in for a smooch and Joan shuts him down ‘You know I never kiss anyone before one o’clock’). Between the armour-plated frock and the duvoon, viewers know style vouchsafe when we see it. Joan appears as impervious to his nefarious plan as if she were wearing a shield and sabre. Nils deserves what he gets when he says ‘women don’t think. They change their minds, that’s all’ and then he knocks Joan to the floor twice. Down the hatch, Emile.
Letty Lynton has so much fur in it, you would assume it was set in the north pole rather than New York City. A fur-gasm appears on-screen in nearly every scene, In addition to the duvoons for swaddling, Joan carries a smoking hot fur cape. Even the men wear fur in this picture. Nils Asther a has stripe mink shawl collar, which only adds to his sinister appearance at the docks to meet Letty’s ship from South America. Bob Montgomery, too, looks like he’s in a full-length mink. Perhaps the quickest way to signal that everyone has too much money resides in big-budget pelts.
A bright blue fur complements the primary colour palette of Dorothy Arzner’s The Bride Wore Red (1937). Joan’s eye travels to the sky-hue pelts in a boutique window as antidote to the dank nightclubs where she sings maudlin love songs such as ‘Who Wants Love?’ Her character yearns for something that will brighten a life where she struggles to get enough to eat. Along with the brash red beaded gown, the fur coat looks too loud among a society crowd in dark sombre fur. Arzner’s picture points out how deeply conservative and conformist society fashion seems when a woman in a red dress summons gasps as though she were a Babylonian working girl.
Crystal Allen’s floor length silver fox coat for her swan-song society gathering in the ladies’ room represents the apex of her grab at socialite style. For The Women (1939), Joan’s beaded metallic and precious pelts embody everything she wanted from marriage to dull customer Stephen Haines. Crystal needs all the heft she can muster to hold her own against a phalanx of Park Avenue bitches. When the class wagons circle and close, Crystal, cast out, sees the perfume counter written in the stars. Even in a gorgeous beaded bare midriff gown and luxurious fur, they hiss ‘shop girl’ to disqualify her presence among their ranks.
For Mildred Pierce (1945), a burnt caramel brown tea-length mink coat emphasises Joan’s teeny tiny ankles, dressed up in her signature ‘fuck-me pumps’. With a massive silhouette that looks like she needs to go through the door sideways, Mildred appears indomitable in mink. She’s trauma-proof. Cushioned in the coat, she’s protected from men who diddle the neighbour, men who bleed her for pocket money and handmade shirts, from sex pests who steal her business empire. She will also survive the blow of having a daughter who scoffed at everything she had to give. Had she jumped off the pier, she would have sunk like a stone and died instantly, since her coat looks as though it weighs as much as the nice daughter who died. Mildred in mink presents the gold standard in film noir fur.
Joan used fur to bolster herself for an encounter with a bully more than once during her screen tenure. Sidney Greenstreet consumes vast quantities of milk in Flamingo Road (1949), a quirk that invites speculation about him not having been nursed as an infant, which accounts for his general dislike of women and his garden variety Madonna-whore complex. The sheriff clearly wants a teat for his jugs of milk. It makes him look more unsavoury than a gallon of bourbon. She’s expertly wrapped in a dark mink stole. Crawford’s character Lane Bellamy, a cooch dancer in a carnival sideshow can’t afford a full-length coat, but the stole suffices to lend gravitas to a lady with a pistol. It sits asymmetrically across one shoulder, then tucks into the crook of her arm on the other side. Joan’s mink stole proffers an unassailable authority, lending her the woman’s picture equivalent of a ten-gallon hat for a gunfight in the town square.
A blonde sable coat for The Damned Don’t Cry (1950) underscores the level of sophistication the former housewife from an oil town cultivated in a short period. She traded a homespun wardrobe for one that recognises that a woman might change five times in a day to suit her mood, just like Joan did in her own life. The tawny pelts are long but lightweight, a ‘summer’ fur appropriate for Palm Springs. Joan’s coat suits a woman who tosses off the line ‘I don’t care for orchids in the afternoon.’ She’s capable of drawing minute distinctions among a vast array of aesthetic choices that match any occasion. Joan Crawford made a career playing characters who affirmed that style and taste are a product of study and application, not something conferred at birth like those privileged with a society name.
In Sudden Fear (1952) she clutches a white mink stole when she catches Jack Palance pretending to check out of his boarding house. It makes her seem plaintive and even more desperate when she grovels ‘without you I have nothing’. Among individual credits for jewels and costume design, Al Teitelbaum receives billing for his work designing furs for Joan Crawford. During the brilliant scene when Joan foils the murder plot Palance hatches with Gloria Grahame, she uses a white headscarf and a hefty fur to show how women can appear interchangeable to men. A woman in a scarf and full-length mink adopt as much anonymity as a man in a grey flannel suit and hat. Disguised in fur, Joan becomes Gloria’s doppelganger, or rather, Gloria’s Irene appears indistinguishable from the playwright heiress they hope to bump off. Lester can’t tell them apart. Joan devises a terrific bit of cinematic business that’s used again for the climax of The Grifters (1990), where Annette Bening played Gloria Grahame for the first time.