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.
Continue reading “Swaddle This: Joan Crawford in Fur”
By: Megan McGurk
George Cukor’s A Life of Her Own (1950) wastes no time reminding viewers how tough women have it. For instance, we can’t just walk into a room and sit down. Creepy Tom Ewell (sorry, but I run to the shower to apply salt scrub whenever I recall his oily, horn-dog play for Marilyn Monroe in The Seven Year Itch) lectures a wannabe model in his office about a woman’s appearance in any room as something that requires effort, which she must practice every minute she can (when she’s alone in her apartment, in her bedroom, on the street, or in the bathroom). Women should never ‘make up’, and should instead ‘make down’. We should walk on the balls of our feet like wild cats, rather than our heels, like bears. Two imaginary rails should corral each hip to modulate a smooth gait. We should sit in a graceful ‘S’ position which cranks our spine into a chiropractor’s nightmare because the silhouette pleases the eye:
Most women drop into a chair like a bag of meal and haul themselves out of it like a bag of coal.
We should stretch ourselves so that our neck pulls out from shoulders, shoulders out of the waist and the waist out of the hip. Lana Turner sits in a chair trying to commit his mixed metaphor tips to memory. Cats, bears, meal, coal, rails, got it? Meanwhile he would resemble a domino tile if not for the expanse of his well-fed middle. Ewell’s character Tom Caraway sports bad posture, a double chin, traits he excoriates in the job hopeful woman, not to mention his grease pocked complexion and sloppy demeanour. Somehow men who enjoy prosperous careers as curators of beautiful women always fall short of the aesthetic standards they demand of women. Femininity, by contrast to anything lacklustre machismo, rates a full-time occupation. Lana performs his inane specifications to the desired effect and lands a job.
Caraway assesses Lana Turner’s tallboy drum majorette inspired hat and smart waistcoat and quips that she doesn’t look like she’s from Kansas. Lana’s character Lily James responds with a steady understatement which points out that they have magazines and movies in Kansas. She adds, for his education we don’t all wear sun bonnets. Unlike many other films that paint small-town women as awkward fashion hayseeds (like Susan Hayward in My Foolish Heart), screenwriter Isobel Lennart (whose credits include Anchors Aweigh; East Side, West Side; Love Me or Leave Me and Funny Girl) realises that ambitious women in rural outposts practice for the thrill of Gotham with enough heated dedication to fry an egg. And director George Cukor knew that women have studied glossy mags and films stars for style tips since his 1932 masterpiece What Price Hollywood? Lily James didn’t work her tail off waiting tables and sweeping up hair in a salon to be turned away at the door for looking corn pone. She’s carefully dressed in a stylish ensemble, as evidence of the old dictum to dress for the job you want. She had plenty of time to do her homework while she worked a variety of jobs for six months to save the train fare.
Continue reading “‘There are rats like you everywhere’: Lana Turner in A Life of Her Own (1950)”
By: Megan McGurk
Woman’s pictures elevate the significance of style details to an unwritten code that informs women’s lives. In a classic double bind, women negotiate sartorial choices that have both enormous importance and absolutely none at all. In woman’s pictures, viewers bask in plots that measure the thread and texture among layers of stylish import. Ask a woman what she wore when she met the love of her life and odds favour her total recall.
If she pays no attention to matters of style, she’s a rube, such as Jeanne Crain in her mail order dress in A Letter to Three Wives (1949). Wearing a tatty chiffon monstrosity with too many tiers and improbably placed floral appliques, she makes her social debut outfitted as a hick among soigné country club wives. A woman’s lack of style presents social embarrassment, it renders her a ‘Christmas tree’, as snotty teenagers brand over-embellished Barbara Stanwyck in Stella Dallas (1937), whose lack of taste authorises her stuck up daughter to leave and pretend her mother never existed. Style deficiency paints a woman as a gate crasher from the unfortunate side of the tracks, as Lana Turner’s taxi dancer appears to be among spoilt co-eds in These Glamour Girls (1939). A series of awkward, ill-fitted gowns prepare Olivia de Havilland for her father’s psychological abuse and the cruelties of a fortune hunter in The Heiress (1949).
If a woman pays too much attention to fashion, she’s a bubble-headed half-wit with nothing better to do, like Scarlett O’Hara before she must plow the earth to survive, before the war, when women did little else than boast about the size of their waist. An obvious focus on style indicates an outrageous socialite with too much time on her hands, like Rosalind Russell in The Women (1939), who wears a shirtwaist dress with a bustle to a fashion show, where she declares with dramatic irony that ‘no one disputes how I wear clothes’. Or, if she devotes her life to fashion, like the designer Barbara Stanwyck plays in There’s Always Tomorrow (1955) when she makes a friendly overture to Joan Bennett by offering her a dress straight off the runway, Bennett’s character smugly dismisses the need for a stylish dress to stage a romantic evening with the husband played by Fred MacMurray. Busy wives and mothers don’t have time for such larks, she basically scoffs. Bennett relegates Stanwyck’s professional accomplishments to the trash heap with a single eviscerating comment.
Continue reading “Susan Hayward’s Frock in My Foolish Heart (’49)”