actress

The Power of Costuming: A Tale Told by Two Robes

Diane Evans and Agent Dale Cooper Robe Collage
Forgive my diversion into TV for a moment, but like a lot of you, I’ve gotten hooked on the new season of TWIN PEAKS. I coveted the silk robe Agent Cooper‘s former secretary Diane Evans wore in Part 7. Its colors and floral pattern look like something I’d wear because of my vintage sensibilities. When I went hunting for a good image of it, I stumbled across the photo of Cooper in his bathrobe in an earlier season. Again another red robe, but his looks like a Pendleton with abstract snow-capped mountains. Two red robes reflecting their wearer’s tastes and gender, but seemingly calling out to each other between seasons, symbolically marking each for the other half of the pair they once were. The more concrete print of her robe is a stronger image for a woman who wears bold clothes, maybe once simply for fashion, but perhaps now they buck her up and distract her from the bitterness and pain of her broken heart.

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Happy Birthday, John Waters!

John Waters as William Castle and Jessica Lange as Joan Crawford on FX's FEUD

William Castle (John Waters) addressing the crowd at STRAIT-JACKET’s (1964) premiere as Joan Crawford (Jessica Lange) listens on FEUD (2017) episode HAGSPLOITATION

I grew up in a John Waters household, so when I caught up with FEUD (2017), I was delighted to watch his cameo as shockmeister William Castle. My parents went to Waters’ movies, and my mom owns an ODODRAMA card gotten at a first run screening of POLYESTER (1981). Living in Massachusetts close enough to The Cape that Provincetown could be a day jaunt, she thinks she shopped in Dreamlander Divine‘s thrift shop, which he ran in his poor, pre-fame days. It was only a matter of time until we shared some of Waters’ movies together. I’ve now seen most of his films and read most of his books.

Which is how I know it was an honor for him to play Castle. Physically, the two men were very different. Waters has remained trim while Castle was heavier in comparison and thicker haired. FEUD show creator Ryan Murphy didn’t want Waters costumed to resemble Castle. No, fat suit as Waters said. Murphy was aware those in this know would delight in how meta it would be for Castle disciple Waters to appear as himself when portraying the other director.

If you haven’t read Castle’s memoir STEP RIGHT UP! I’M GOING TO SCARE THE PANTS OFF AMERICA, you need to. Waters wrote a loving and nostalgic introduction on how seeing Castle’s gimmicky movies as a kid inspired a love of cinema and the outrageous. There’s a joy in both directors’ works at defying convention to pursue their own visions. Keep on reading after the introduction, and you’ll learn a lot about B-movie making on shoestring budgets, including what it was like to work with Joan Crawford on STRAIT-JACKET (1964).

Happy birthday to John Waters, who doesn’t think he’s ever topped William Castle, but got to be him for a day! That must have been his best early birthday present.

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Happy Easter!

Ann Miller Easter Top Hat 1946

Easter greetings from Spellbound HQ! I hope yours was lovely. For a last moment of celebratory fun, here’s Easter Parade star Ann Miller wearing a truly unique variation of the Easter bonnet. Inside her floral, hinged top hat sits a real, living rabbit. Miller and rabbit look nonplussed, and the actress does her best to make the look chic.

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FEUD & the Costuming of Bette Davis, What I’ll be Watching for

Susan Sarandon as Bette Davis in FEUD Smoking

FEUD premieres tonight on FX, and like many classic film fans, I’m watching to see how legends Bette Davis and Joan Crawford are portrayed, and I’ll be paying particular attention to one area of costuming.

Susan Sarandon plays Davis. The latter actress, while capable of glamour and being beautiful onscreen, always favored her performances over the strictures of the star machine that led more wary or canny actresses to compromise on characterization in favor of not lowering beauty standards too far. Davis felt no restriction. She wanted her Mildred Rogers in OF HUMAN BONDAGE (1934) to look as sickly as possible when the script called for that, and she pushed for her WHAT EVER HAPPENED TO BABY JANE? (1962) costume to be more extreme than as originally designed.

Sarandon has shown a willingness to deglam onscreen for the right roles, but offscreen she’s been a poster girl for not looking her age or letting it determine whether she should be sexy on the red carpet and how. A favorite outfit of hers to wear to movie launches, so much so it’s almost a uniform, is a suit with no shirt worn underneath its jacket, often leaving a pretty bra visible for all to see. If her bra isn’t in view, its push-up effects leave no doubt of its presence.

I’m finding it ironic that an actress sartorially famous for her bras and gravity defying chest is playing one who eschewed underwire bras, despite being as generously endowed. As the recent Orry-Kelly documentary, WOMEN HE’S UNDRESSED (2015) revealed Davis was convinced wearing underwire caused breast cancer. The costume designer was left having to camouflage that the leading lady was undersupported or braless by “using foulards, pockets, buttons, and other visual tricks.”

So while I’m watching FEUD, I’m going to be looking at Sarandon’s silhouette to see if series costume supervisor Katie Saunders incorporated this particular quirk when approving designs. Like Davis knew, it’s paying attention to the little details that help a performer build and inhabit a character.

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Before They Were Stars: Audrey Hepburn’s Revue Days

Audrey Hepburn London Revue Costume
In Audrey Hepburn‘s third film, the British comedy LAUGHTER IN PARADISE (1951), she played the part of “Cigarette Girl” She was cute and memorable in a role that gave her more than one scene and multiple lines. Costuming treated her body as something to be made more stereotypically sexy, so they padded and pointed her chest.

In the above picture from her London revue days, she was starting to make a name for herself, but the costuming plan was corrective as well. The long legs are shown off, but her hips are made to look fuller by tacking on a partial skirt which in turn makes her waist look more nipped. Her bust line is obscured by an asymmetric neckline and shoulder, and her elegant “swan neck” is shortened by a ruffled collar.

Her gamine figure was not yet receiving the tailored looks best suited to it. Audrey’s impact on style and acceptable body types would come after better roles.

 

Thanks to Terence Pepper for allowing me to reblog his photo and the thoughts it inspired!

 

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Happy Valentine’s Day!


The holiday is over, and I’m off to slumber, but this redhead hopes your holiday was as least as good as hers!

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Happy Thanksgiving!

Fifi D'Orsay Thanksgiving Publicity Still

Things have been hectic at chez Spellbound. We’re moving! As I pack today, my husband’s been cooking our Thanksgiving dinner. While we hadn’t planned to move yet (our landlords are resuming occupancy of our apartment), something stressful has turned into a blessing. We’re relocating to a cool, new home–a loft on the second story of what used to be a movie theatre. We’re grateful for the family and friends who have been supportive through all parts of this process, and we can’t wait to settle into our new home.

I, also, can’t wait to take our turkey out of our oven like Fifi D’Orsay above. Marketed “The French Bombshell,” D’Orsay never set foot in France. She was born in Montréal, and her real name was Marie-Rose Angelina Yvonne Lussier. D’Orsay was clever. When auditioning for the Greenwich Village Follies, she sang her song in French to make herself stand out. She reinvented herself as an ex-Follies Bèrgere showgirl, and the Parisian persona stuck! Her career stretched from vaudeville to Hollywood movies to television to a final return to the stage, only on Broadway. She played Solange LaFitte, a former Follies star, in the Sondheim musical, FOLLIES. A perfect role to cap her career!

While I eat my meal tonight, I’ll take a moment to think of D’Orsay. I’m inspired by her ingenuity and drive, and those are traits I’ll call upon as Hubbs and I make a new home.

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Dress Up Friday: Carmen Miranda


For this installment of Dress Up Friday, here’s an image of Carmen Miranda that’s pure 1930s glamour. The performer was born in Portugal, but immigrated to Brazil as a child, and she considered herself Brazilian at heart despite maintaining her Portuguese citizenship. The woman, who would become famous for her Bahian costume featuring headwear adorned with fruit, was a successful milliner before her singing career took off.

The photograph is by Annemarie Heinrich, a European emigré to Argentina. Her family fled WWI Germany for safety in South America. Heinrich is best known for her portraits, often featuring stars of Argentinian cinema, and her nudes.

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Review: Debra Paget, For Example (2015)

Beautiful, classic film era actress Debra Paget never quite became an A-list star. Despite being in some high profile films, she was mostly relegated to genre roles, usually playing exotic parts and often wearing skimpy and skin-tight costuming. Filmmaker Mark Rappaport chose her as the subject of one of his latest video essays, Debra Paget, For Example (2015), that’s part career biography, part examination of studio era Hollywood, and part personal digression into side topics or characters that interest him.


Rappaport performs a sort of archaeology with classic film elements. The majority of his movie is comprised of clips from Paget’s films. He allows some excerpts to play straight through, while with others he creates new scenes by making collages with with his selected images and moments. At times the material shown simply supports the biography. Other times it’s used to illustrate points. Because of the material he’s working with, a video made in his Paris apartment on a Mac with Final Cut Pro has an expensive, glamorous look. Aspirational DIY filmmakers could be inspired by how easy it would be technology-wise to create their own movies without ever leaving home.


When the documentary opens, Rappaport repeatedly superimposes the 2oth Century Fox logo over Paget’s face. This happens first in black and white and then in Technicolor. During her fifteen year film career, she was a contract player for the studio for eight years. Those were her career’s glory years. She once was third in the volume of fan mail received there, only being bested by Betty Grable and Marilyn Monroe. Getting beyond the surrealism of a logo appearing and disappearing through fade and reverse fade over her visage, the imagery suggests she was part of the studio, branded by it, and never bigger than it. She will always be part of its story and vice versa.


The director narrates the documentary and he attempts to provide a female companion voice by having Caroline Simonds periodically speak Paget’s thoughts. Simonds never really says anything to counter to Rappaport’s narration. Instead her lines bolster his point of view. Her lines don’t always ring true or come from a female point of view.


Rappaport brings up that in Paget’s film debut, Robert Siodmak‘s film noir Cry of the City (1948), it is weird that a fourteen year-old is the romantic love interest of thirty-eight year old Richard Conte‘s character. Simonds retrogradely asks, “Why is my mother allowing this?” Paget’s mother was a stage mother and pushed all of her children into performing careers, but her father was part of their family life. Either parent could have reviewed her potential roles and rejected parts or scenes. Ultimately that’s not the perspective of a fourteen year-old girl. Someone that age tends to think they’re more grown-up than they are. Paget might have thought Conte ancient as the young feel about anyone that much older than them, or she might have been so excited about playing such a dramatic role that the age difference might not have been on her mind, or she could have had an age inappropriate crush. Those are possibilities.


The filmmaker points out that Paget is repeatedly cast as older than her age. She later plays a college coed when she’s really high school age. There’s a suggestion that she was pushed into maturity working in an adult business. There’s a suggestion of how movies do sell us illusions. There’s a suggestion that the commodification of her charms had begun.


Rappaport evaluates Paget’s talents. In “her very first shot in her very first film,” he sees skill. “She knows how to walk across a room. Not as easy to do as you might think.” He praises her for being able to cry on demand. Essentially he goes on to say and show she could act, dance, and sing. She might have had a very different career as the musical film biography of John Philip Sousa Stars and Stripes Forever (1952) showed, except musical movies were on their way out.


The dark-haired-but-blue-eyed Paget found herself the studio’s go to woman for ethnic roles. She played Middle Eastern, Native American, South Sea island, and East Indian parts. For some films, she’d wear contact lenses to turn her eyes brown. She hated that because Kleig lights would heat the lenses up. Her thoughts on having her skin darkened for roles might not be recorded. Rappaport creates a sequence showing her many exotic parts. Not only does it highlight the absurdity of the films she was cast in, but also it acts like an odd sort of fashion show, and while the castings and characters were ethnically tone deaf, there’s a pleasure in seeing a beautiful woman wearing outlandish fashions in glorious Technicolor that makes everything prettier than it should be.

He discusses how sexualized her roles were. There’s the aforementioned skimpy and skin-tight outfits. In the Biblically inspired Ten Commandments (1956), her character was a sex slave, and the costuming had her braless. In Fritz Lang‘s The Indian Tomb (1959), she performs a bump and grind dance routine more suited to Las Vegas stages. Because of her image, Rappaport mentions how Paget was the first crush of many a boy. Those crushes may or may not have been innocent. I’m sure there was many a lad (and a lassie) who didn’t know why they adored the actress, who were getting a hint of what their budding sexualities were. Rappaport chooses to focus on the masturbatory fantasies she inspired. No mention is made of those who may have been influenced to be like the Paget they saw on the screen, a very different kind of wanting.

When the director digresses, parenthesis appear on the screen. They look like crescent moons, tying into the exotic mysticism of some of Paget’s parts. Digressions can be relevant, like when he compares Paget to Maria Montez, “The Queen of Kitsch.” Montez’s roles surpass Paget’s in outrageousness of performance and costuming as a montage shows. He appoints Paget “The Princess of Kitsch,” and then he says that one person’s kitsch may be another’s nostalgia, and he seems not to want to rob anyone of their pleasure in that nostalgia. Momentarily, he’ll focus on other performers because of their Jewishness or sexuality, Paget being the launching pad to that discussion. Despite the tangents, Rappaport covers a lot of of her life in little more than a half hour.


Even if I didn’t always agree with Rappaport, Debra Paget, For Example was a fun way to spend time. I’d seen the actress in multiple movies, but I’d never investigated her, and the documentary piqued my interest in seeing more of her films. I enjoy kitsch and camp. Within films not successful at being what their creators hoped them to be and getting remembered for the wrong reasons, there were performers like Paget working hard to make something out of a role and lucking into starring in moments of stunning imagery.

Note: I watched this movie as a paid subscriber to Fandor. You can view it here.

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The Casting That Almost Was–Louise Brooks as Dorothy Shaw

Louise Brooks Reading Gentlmen Prefer Blondes

When refreshing about Anita Loos for my post on the writer, I stumbled across a reference in ‘s excellent silent film column Silent but Deadly! about a casting that almost was–Louise Brooks as Dorothy Shaw.

Louise was the studio’s choice to appear in the first screen adaptation of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1928). If she had been cast, this would have been her third film working with director Malcolm St. Clair. Louise had acted for him in two prior films, The Show Off (1926) and A Social Celebrity (1926). Instead another film was their third pairing.

Even though Louise’s The Show Off character was a Lorelei, the Dorothy casting wouldn’t have been against type. The character was a chooser of the road less travelled. While Lorelei pursued men with status, money, and jewels, Dorothy romanced who attracted her for himself, whether he was a writer, tennis player, or ballroom dancer, and she ended up having adventures like meeting the Prince of Wales and teaching him American slang. Everything depended on whom was cast as Miss Lee for Louise to appear the more romantic, less scheming, and in her own way, less conventional one.

Louise got as far as the screen test, which she bombed. Anita Loos viewed the test, and she was bitingly honest to the actress saying, “If I ever write a part for a cigar-store Indian, you will get it.” Likely due to lasting bitterness at losing such a high profile part, Louise “was partly responsible for the low regard that St. Clair’s films later fell into.” During her late in life rediscovery by cinephiles, she would tell interviewers what a terrible director he was, but she was critical of most of her directors.

We’ll never know what kind of Dorothy Louise would’ve been once she relaxed into the role, and we have to read period reviews  to know how the movie turned out. It’s a presumed lost film. It earned lukewarm reviews in which the cast were more praised than the project. Motion Picture News‘ critic Laurence Reid said it was missing “the sparkle of the book and the play.” We’ve the above picture of Louise to taunt us with the film that could’ve been, one we’d likely be lamenting as lost. Maybe we’d even be claiming that as Flaming Youth is to Colleen Moore, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes is to Louise Brooks.

 

References

Foote, Lisle. “Malcolm St. Clair.” Buster Keaton’s Crew: The Team behind His Silent Films. Jefferson: McFarland, 2014. 102-03. Print.
Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1928 Film).” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, n.d. Web. 09 Mar. 2016.
Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (novel).” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, n.d. Web. 09 Mar. 2016.
Hutchinson, Pamela. “Anita Loos – Sharp, Shameless Humour of the ‘world’s Most Brilliant Woman‘” The Guardian. Guardian News and Media, 11 Jan. 2016. Web. 08 Mar. 2016.
Kramer, Fritzi. “Lost Film Files #9: Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1928).” Movies Silently. Fritzi Kramer, n.d. Web. 09 Mar. 2016.
Louise Brooks.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, n.d. Web. 09 Mar. 2016.
Malcolm St. Clair (filmmaker).” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, n.d. Web. 09 Mar. 2016.
Reid, Laurence. “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes: Entertaining Enough But Lacks Color.” Internet Archive. Motion Picture News, 1928. Web. 09 Mar. 2016.

 

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