Sartorial Crisis for Jean Simmons in Home Before Dark (1958)

By: Megan McGurk

Home Before Dark (1958) tells a story with four dresses. Jean Simmons plays a woman whose psychological recovery stalls through an inability to choose a dress that fits, both in terms her of body and personality. Her character Charlotte Bronn, released from the scary Danvers psychiatric institution, buys two dresses that are wrong on every level. Poor shopping choices signal that she still doesn’t know herself after a year in hospital. Each sartorial travesty shows her effort to gain purchase on reality and find her place within it. Charlotte tries to become someone else, someone her husband desires, when she buys the frocks. The dresses match a streaky peroxide dye-job for an awkward style. Two other dresses and natural hair colour indicate Charlotte’s stable mental health. In between tragic attire, Jean Simmons looks adorable in menswear: a soft wool cap, pea coat with popped collar, relaxed tops and turned up jeans with loafers. She looks most comfortable in shoreman-on-leave gear, accessorised with a mug of sweet black coffee and a cigarette.

Hectored by her step-mother (Mabel Albertson) to buy new clothes, Charlotte visits a boutique in their small New England town, and selects the dress on display she had examined in a previous scene. The shop keeper questions whether Charlotte can charge the items and rings Arnold, her button-down college professor husband (played by Dan O’Herlihy) for permission. Since it’s Charlotte’s inheritance they live on (she also supports her step mother and step sister, Joan, played by Rhonda Fleming, who live with them) the scene builds a moment of humiliation for Charlotte. With no money in her pocket and no access to her bank account, she’s furthered estranged from herself. Who is a woman if she can’t even charge something in a backwater shop?

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Sass Mouth Dames Film Club: Series 4

Join Megan McGurk 10 April to 12 May for another round of woman’s pictures from Hollywood’s classic period.

Screened Thursdays at 7 in the lovely Denzille Cinema, Merrion Square.

Snacks and soda are included.

Get your tickets

 

A Woman’s Face (1941)

12 April

Joan Crawford believed A Woman’s Face earned her the Academy Award for Best Actress as much as Mildred Pierce. Crawford stars as Anna Holm, a scar-faced woman who runs a blackmail ring. Conrad Veidt plays Torsten Barring, a scapegrace who recognises the power she wields and draws her into a torrid love affair. He manipulates her with sex until she agrees to participate in a scheme to eliminate his rival heir. In an odd twist of fate, she meets Melvyn Douglas, a world-renowned plastic surgeon who specialises in scar removal. What happens after the surgery? Will Anna become a beautiful monster?

The Great Lie (1941)

19 April

Bette Davis and Mary Astor took one look at the lousy script about two women who compete for George Brent and decided they would re-write it to salvage the picture. Their collaboration made the man an afterthought in a story that locates the drama between two women. Mary Astor won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress for her role as a temperamental classical pianist who dallies with Brent and ends up pregnant with his child. Bette handed the juicy part to her friend for what amounts to a high-toned study of how women transcend jealousy so they can both get what they want.

Hold Back the Dawn (1941)

26 April

Charles Boyer (king of woman’s pictures) plays a European gigolo down on his luck, waiting at the Mexican border for a visa into the States. Paulette Goddard, an ex-lover and fellow scam artist, tells him to follow her example and marry an American for citizenship. When he sees Olivia de Havilland shepherding her pupils around on a school trip, he dials up the charm to warp factor ten. Olivia’s character had held out for romance and now she’s unable to resist the elegant man who murmurs in her ear at sunrise. Paulette still carries a torch. She suggests they resume their act bilking rich folks once he’s legal. What does he do about the teacher with cheeks plump like summer fruit, who plans on hanging curtains for her new husband?

The Hard Way (1943)

3 May

Based on the life story of Ginger Rogers, Ida Lupino and Joan Leslie play sisters (rather than mother and daughter) determined to leave a small town and find success on Broadway. Ida Lupino’s character does everything in her power to make her sister a star. Director Vincent Sherman thought it represented his most personal expression to develop a story. The Hard Way features outstanding performances from Lupino and Leslie, but also from Gladys George (as the washed up star) and Jack Carson (as the first husband who launched the teenager’s career). James Wong Howe’s cinematography creates gritty realism to produce one of the best woman’s pictures during the war made by Warner Bros.

Lady in the Dark (1944)

10 May

Although this production had plenty of trouble on the set, with everything from bitter feuds, health and safety hazards, costume snafus, to schedule and budget problems, virtually none of it shows on-screen. Mitchell Leisen’s picture uses elaborate set and costume design to stage the psychological crisis Ginger Rogers experiences as a fashion magazine editor who has sudden panic attacks and can’t make up her mind. In her first film shot in technicolour, Ginger shines in dream sequences dipped in a primary colour palette of blue, white and red. Edith Head designed the mink skirt lined with red sequins that Ginger wears for the show stopper ‘The Saga of Jenny’. Not to be missed.

Sass Mouth Dames Film Club Series 3

 

Thursdays in March.

Hosted by Megan McGurk

Join me for another round of classic woman’s pictures.

Tickets available through Eventbrite

 

1 March

The Good Fairy (1935)

William Wyler spins a modern fairy tale from an age-old nightmare about a young woman among wolves. Margaret Sullavan exchanges her drab orphanage smock for a hussar hat and cape when she accepts a post as a cinema usherette. On her first day, she meets a waiter who extends an invitation to an opulent ball. Instead of Prince Charming, she meets a rape-minded butcher. To forestall his attack, she invents a husband, a random name she picks out of the phone book. In a winsome script by Preston Sturges, Sullavan takes initiative and acts like a good fairy for her pretend husband, played by Herbert Marshall. When the world seems especially bleak, The Good Fairy helps restore your belief in common decency.

 

8 March

These Three (1936)

Production code censors demanded no mention be made of Lillian Hellman’s play The Children’s Hour in the screen adaptation, nor that the script include any reference to repressed lesbian desire between schoolteachers, as in the stage production. Although the film develops a heterosexual triangle between Merle Oberon, Miriam Hopkins and Joel McCrea, Hopkins gives such a nuanced performance, that viewers could interpret her desire for either Oberon or McCrea. Bonita Granville steals the picture as a hellion who fabricates gossip about her teachers. Granville received an Oscar nomination for the role when she was only fourteen.

 

15 March

Marked Woman (1937)

Bette Davis stars in this film based on a true account of sex workers who joined together to appear on the witness stand against Lucky Luciano, a notorious gangster known for his violence against women. Davis leads a group of clip joint hostesses who balance demands from the mob and the district attorney played by Humphrey Bogart. Marked Woman looks and feels like a Pre-Code, in a story about women who speak truth to power and resist exploitation when they’re doing level best to survive the Depression. Bette Davis fought for realism and refused to accept the studio’s makeup treatment for a scene that involved a brutal attack. She had her personal physician dress her character’s injuries for the camera.

 

22 March

The Mad Miss Manton (1938)

Barbara Stanwyck’s character discovers a dead body during a late-night dog walk, then faces accusations from a cop and a reporter, who charge her with filing a falsified report for larks. Since the men in charge are inept, as they often are in any solid woman’s picture, Stanwyck’s Miss Manton enlists a crew of socialites to clear her name and solve the case. Stanwyck and company accessorise a battle against male authority with lipstick, sumptuous fur and bouncy hair. Their combined wit and power of deduction run circles around the men in charge. A classic screwball comedy, The Mad Miss Manton stands out for the multiple times society dames beat the living daylights out of Henry Fonda (who totally has it coming).

 

29 March

The Women (1939)

Anita Loos and Jane Murfin adapted Clare Boothe Luce’s Broadway hit for the screen. An all-women cast of 135 assemble for a story about a shopgirl mantrap (Joan Crawford) who steals a husband from a Park Avenue socialite (Norma Shearer). Although the tag line promises ‘it’s all about the men’, the ladies may as well be arguing over a new designer gown, because they change husbands as frequently as they do their wardrobe. Rosalind Russell steals the show as the scandalmonger who stirs up trouble and gets plenty in return. George Cukor’s The Women rates the gold standard woman’s picture. It continues to hold influence over how women’s relationships are depicted on-screen, especially when there’s conflict. Adrian, who produced between 50 and 75 sketches daily throughout his tenure in MGM, designed more than 230 gowns, many of which appear in a short technicolour fashion show sequence. This one’s not to be missed.

 

 

 

‘You ought to do something about your eyes’: Miriam Hopkins in Woman Chases Man (1937)

Miriam’s signature pose in Men Are Not Gods (1936)

 

By: Megan McGurk

Among the scenes depicting a woman’s libido on film, Miriam Hopkins lolling around on a bed lamenting the fact that she’s not a gentleman should rank at the top. While she’s remembered for her sexpot role as Gilda in Design for Living (1933), where she plays a woman enjoying a luscious three-way romance courtesy of Ernst Lubitsch, Miriam gets lost in the shuffle in favour of other screen goddesses from the era. She did not announce her desire in the same way that other women did on the screen. Miriam didn’t lower her lids and hug the shadows like Marlene Dietrich; she did not fall into a swoon like Garbo; nor did she adopt a suggestive slouch like Jean Harlow; and she didn’t drape herself in luxe high fashion like Joan Crawford. Miriam, often buttoned up to her neck, with a sober bow laced under her throat, could make a prim skirt suit appear as seductive as a silk bias cut gown. Her trademark used splayed hands across her hips and abdomen, as if to hold firmly in place the seat of desire. Miriam never left you in any doubt when her characters were gasping for it, especially in Woman Chases Man (1937). Posters for the screwball gem label her a ‘she-wolf’ which may misrepresent the romantic dynamic, but she serves as proxy for women (and men) in the audience who want to ogle Joel McCrea. She’s hot-to-trot for him in every scene.

Instead of obvious touches with wardrobe or boilerplate mechanics of allure, Miriam creates a subtle version of a grown woman’s sexual appetite. Miriam also straddles the line between seduction and screwball antics better than anyone, Carole Lombard included. Not many women can shift from a George Raft impression (talking out of both sides of her mouth at breakneck speed) in one scene to salivating over Joel McCrea in the next. Her desire for McCrea knocks against the restraints of a genteel background to  obliterate distinctions between a lady and a dame. Miriam’s debutante accent announces cotillions, mint juleps on the veranda, boarding schools, and echoes those familiar rules about what nice girls do and instead blows them a raspberry.

As Virginia Travis, a struggling architect, Miriam conspires with Charles Winninger’s failed entrepreneur B.J. Nolan to take his son through the hurdles, so that Kenneth (McCrea) will shell out from his inheritance and fund an experimental social housing project. But she’s distracted from the plan to eradicate tenements once the tall drink of man-water arrives. Suddenly, the petite blonde looks like a wolf in grandma’s clothing when her eyes land on the son. Joel looks so delectable from his first scene when he’s introduced in a manner that’s usually reserved for a socialite character in film (Claudette Colbert or Barbara Stanwyck, for example). Since we are in woman’s picture territory, our gaze lingers over McCrea lounging ship deck wearing glamorous black sunglasses with all the other gorgeous rich folks. He looks good in a suit, too, when he turns up to lecture his father about fiscal responsibility.

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Swaddle This: Joan Crawford in Fur

 

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.

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