Saturday, September 24, 2011

Fashion in Film Blogathon: A Letter to Three Wives

Fashion Spotlight on A Letter to Three Wives

Have I lured you all in with that gorgeous Jeanne Crain photo? Well, the Fashion in Film Blogathon has arrived, courtesy of the lovely and stylish Angela over at The Hollywood Revue. In honor of the day, I'm going to try something a little different from my usual list-making and movie-reviewing habits. I'm going to do a scene-by-scene fashion analysis of one of my favorite movies, Joseph L. Mankiewicz's A Letter to Three Wives.

I love this movie for many reasons. Its witty script, the talented cast, the biting social commentary, I could go on. But I also love the way it uses costume. Even though the film is about three beautiful, upper-class women, the costuming isn't used just as a glamor assault (although that would be fun), but as a way to subtly comment on class and character differences. Each of our three main protagonists has her own look and her own place on the social ladder.

For those who are unfamiliar with the plot of A Letter to Three Wives, I'll do my best to give the context for each scene. While I normally avoid recapping films, I think in this case, a little plot summary is required. Now, on to your irregularly scheduled fashion spotlight.

Let's start with two of our protagonists: Rita Phipps (Ann Sothern) and Deborah Bishop (Jeanne Crain). Rita, on the left, is married to a schoolteacher and brings in some much-needed money for the family with her radio writing. She is the mother of twins. Deborah, on the right, is a farmer's daughter who met her wealthy husband while they were both in the Navy during World War II. They're on their way to a charity event (taking underprivileged children on a riverboat ride and picnic). Rita and Deborah both belong to the country club set and their clothes reflect that. They're not overdressed but they still care enough to wear jewelry and white gloves, along with their sharply tailored jackets. Could you guess that these two were on their way to a picnic?

Enter our third wife, Lora Mae Hollingway (Linda Darnell). She's the young wife of wealthy businessman Porter Hollingsway, the richest man in town. Lora Mae is even more dramatically dressed than her friends, befitting her status. That jacket is more blindingly white than sunshine glinting off the polar ice caps. Personally, I would worry about some kid putting their sticky hands all over it, but I'm not the wealthiest woman in town.

The plot thickens. Their absent fourth friend Addie Ross has left them a note, telling them she's run off with one of their husbands. But she doesn't tell them which husband. This shot has nothing to do with costume but I have to say, I love Addie's handwriting.

This is a superb example of what I'd call "costume choreography." When the wives huddle together, we suddenly see how perfectly their outfits complement each other. Notice how Ann Sothern, with her dark jacket, white blouse, and blond hair is an almost perfect photo-negative of Linda Darnell's white jacket, dark scarf, and brunette hair. Jeanne Crain would be odd woman out, except that her polka-dotted scarf ties her visually to the other two, as well as contrasting with Sothern's striped collar. It makes complete sense for the wives to be visually linked because at this moment, they're all thinking the same thing. "Is it my husband?"

We flashback to Deborah as a new bride, on the night of her first country club dance. Deborah is practically tearing her hair out with anxiety because she has no experience with this kind of crowd. Her husband Brad tries in vain to console her. Here she is in her robe. Note the floral pattern and girlish ruffle. This robe probably comes from back home on the farm; she hasn't had time to get any new things.

After knocking back way too many martinis, Deborah comes downstairs in the only party dress she owns. And I have to say, this is the dress that made me pick A Letter to Three Wives for my blogathon entry. This thing is a genuine miracle of costuming, a valentine to bad taste. The bunchy sleeves, the big flounce at the bottom, those giant fake flowers that look like a space alien's so great. As much fun as it is to see Hollywood designers dress a woman beautifully, it can be equally fun to see them dress her horribly. This dress is a smacking visual reminder of the huge gaping difference between Deborah's simple farming background and the glittering social set she's married into.

The first meeting of Deborah and Rita. While Deborah collapses in despair, let's take a look at Rita. I'm not wild about this dress: it's sort of giving me a "Little-Miss-Muffet-Sat-On-Her-Tuffet" vibe. But it does provide a strong contrast to Deborah's floral disaster; unlike Deborah, Rita is an experienced wife and mother. Her dress is black, in a sober, conservative style that the country club set would find age-appropriate. By 1940s standards, Rita is moving into the "matronly" category.

Rita and Deborah bond as they attempt to improve Deborah's dress. Incidentally, the husbands are waiting outside, completely oblivious to the costuming turmoil.

 We arrive at the country club dance to meet Lora Mae and her husband Porter (Paul Douglas). The gruff and tough Porter looks on as his wife dances with another man. "If she was dancing with a tramp, she'd look like a tramp, got no class of her own. I like class." This is our first hint that Lora Mae and her husband aren't exactly the silver spoon type. We get another, much subtler, hint with Lora Mae's dress. Unlike Rita, Lora Mae has gone for a much more striking and sexy look, with bared shoulders and glittering collar and cuffs. While it keeps well within the bounds of taste, there's something about all the sparkle and skin. Rita seems to be hiding. Lora Mae is displaying herself.

Brad (Jeffrey Lynn) drags his wife Deborah onto the dance floor, failing to realize that she's completely drunk. As she tries to plead with him, Brad goes for a spin, only to rip the remaining flower off Deborah's dress. The flower lands on someone's plate, there's a hole in the dress, and Brad can't understand what just happened.

As Deborah's flashback ends, she reflects on how the mysterious Addie Ross would never have blundered in such a way. Unlike Deborah, Addie comes from Brad's social class.

We leave Deborah and enter Rita's backstory. Rita is planning a big dinner party to impress her employer, the formidable Mrs. Manleigh. Unlike the other two couples, Rita and her husband George (Kirk Douglas) belong to the upper class only by birth, not by money. They have to scrimp and save to support a family on his teaching income and her radio writing money. But Rita is ambitious and eager to succeed in her career. Here she is getting ready with her maid Sadie (Thelma Ritter). Got to love that Lucy Ricardo-esque hairdo that Ann Sothern's sporting.

When we get to the party, Rita's pretensions become painfully obvious. In her desire to impress the Manleighs, she appears in this glittering white dress, trying to act as if this is normal dinner wear for her. It's beautiful and flattering, but there's something a little off about it too. Rita's the mother of twins, she's a career woman, she's smart and sophisticated and yet this dress is so demure, so innocent. It's a fake.

Get a load of Sadie's formal outfit here. Rita is trying so hard to act as if her income was three times what it is.

A brief shot of Mrs. Manleigh (Florence Bates). Not much to point out here as Mrs. Manleigh is dressed respectably for a middle-aged woman, but you can see at a glance that she probably didn't take much time at all to get dressed for this party. It's a huge deal for Rita but it means very little to her. In the next scene, Mrs. Manleigh will end up breaking George's classical record, a birthday gift from Addie Ross.

And we can see that Lora Mae is just amused by the goings-on. This shot doesn't give the full effect of Lora Mae's dress which is simple enough except for the floor-length overskirt that ties in the middle. It's an unusual enough style that I tried to find out if Lora Mae is showing off some 1940s trend, but my research yielded nothing. Still, look how she's comfortably sprawled, while Rita, in her dainty white dress, has to sit with perfect china-doll posture.

Rita's party ends in disaster when George, fed up with Mrs. Manleigh's constant rudeness the whole night long, tells her exactly what he thinks about schlocky radio writing. George and Rita have a fight. As George storms off, Rita thinks bitterly about Addie Ross. Addie who remembered George's birthday when Rita didn't. Addie wouldn't have been caught in this mess.

Rita's flashback ends and we're back in the present. Rita confronts Lora Mae about their problem, but Lora Mae insists that it doesn't matter whether or not her husband ran off with Addie Ross. She's got Porter's money and that's all that matters. Apparently Lora Mae is the only woman who thought to bring along pants and boots to this picnic. Oddly appropriate for a scene in which she's talking about how she doesn't need a man.

Sadie: "If I was you, I'd show more o' what I got. Maybe wear somethin' with beads."
Lora Mae: "What I got don't need beads." 

Now, we come to the third segment of our program: Lora Mae and her gold digging past. She didn't just come from the wrong side of the tracks, she came from a house right next to the tracks (in a running gag, the house shakes like mad with every passing train).  Poor but gorgeous Lora Mae has snagged a date with her boss, the wealthy Porter Hollingsway. While her family frets over the indecency of it, in strolls Lora Mae, cool as a cucumber, in this elegant little black dress. The neckline's low without showing a hint of inappropriate cleavage and it hugs her figure without clinging. Unlike the stereotypical gold digger, Lora Mae subverts expectations by showing us (and Porter) that she's got "class."

Lora Mae has grabbed Porter's attention, but she's angling for more than that. After finding a portrait of Addie Ross adorning Porter's piano, she tells him what she wants. "I want to be in a silver frame on a piano. My own piano in my own home." Note Lora Mae's look here, just a simple blouse and a skirt. Again, she's not going for anything flashy, but she's doing her best to look attractive and respectable. It's all to show Porter that she's no cheap girl on the side.

Having made her point, Lora Mae puts on a plain coat and striped scarf that undermine the sophisticated, "woman-of-the-world" attitude she was going for earlier. It's a quick reminder that Lora Mae, for all her attempts to dress well, is still poor. She's probably had that scarf since high school.

Porter is infatuated with Lora Mae but refuses to marry her. We cut to New Years at Lora Mae's house. Her sister, Babe (Barbara Lawrence), is borrowing Lora Mae's best dress for a date. And here, the costumers made a grave error. No way was that fussy little dress, with those puffed sleeves and cheap, crinkly material, Lora Mae's best dress. When she was fourteen, maybe.

Lora Mae has stayed home to mope. And she's put on her moping clothes, a big-buttoned cardigan, a white blouse, and a scarf to tie back her hair. I love this costuming detail, really I do. Classic movies often chose to ignore the fact that beautiful women didn't always lounge at home in perfectly pressed skirts and pearl necklaces. So it's jarring and rather wonderful to see Linda Darnell appear in something so ordinary. Stripped of her armor, so to speak. So of course, this is the moment when Porter barges in to tell Lora Mae that he can't bear to let her go. "Okay you win, I'll marry you."

Our flashback ends and we cut back to the present. The wives have all gone home, frantic to see if they've lost their husbands. Rita rushes home and finds her husband waiting.  Turns out he's been helping his students rehearse for the school play. Thrilled, Rita calls up Mrs. Manleigh to tell her that while she likes her work, she's not going to be bossed around anymore. No costume changes although Rita's jacket and George's robe match up well together. They're now in sync.

Deborah comes home and discovers that Brad has stayed away overnight. She is now convinced that her husband has run off with Addie. Note that the color of Deborah's jacket almost exactly matches the wall. She's disappearing into her big, expensive, and empty house.

Lora Mae, trying to act unconcerned, comes home and tells her mother that Porter probably won't come back, only to have her grumpy husband stroll through the door. The two snipe at each other. 

Lora Mae has switched her outfit and now appears in a dramatic two-tone dress, with a sash at the waist and those Mildred Pierce shoulder pads. I could make an elaborate metaphor here about the contrasting colors and how it represents Lora Mae's divided nature, but you know, I just think the 40s really liked two-tone dresses.

It's the night of the country club dance. Rita and George go to Deborah's house where the icily controlled Deborah informs them that Brad isn't coming. And just look at Deborah! She's gone from looking like a hayride hallucination to an elegant society woman in this black evening gown. The glittering metallic detail adds to the frosty impression that Deborah is giving off. She's also trailing what looks like a very expensive fur. In a way, this costume is a moment of triumph for Deborah, proving that she can play the society game. But there's a sting in it. As we found out in an earlier scene, Brad picked this dress for her...because it was one that Addie wore once.

Rita on the other hand, has gone in an opposite direction. She looks almost too casual in a white buttoned-up blouse and long skirt. However, while it makes me a little sad that Ann Sothern won't be glammed up for the finale, it does make sense for the character. Now that Rita has given up the fawning, socially pretentious attitude she put on for Mrs. Manleigh, she's not going to pretend to be any wealthier than she is.

We get to the dance and meet Porter and Lora Mae. Porter looks over at his wife dancing with another man and grumbles. Deborah tells him off. "Have you any idea how much Lora Mae's in love with you? So much, she's afraid to tell you. Afraid you'd laugh at her." Tired of pretending everything's alright, Deborah stands up and tells them all, in a perfectly calm voice, that her husband has just ran off with Addie Ross.

As Lora Mae and Porter look on in disbelief, let's look at Lora Mae's dress. It's very similar to her earlier party dress except that she's gone for a statelier look with a rolled collar and cuffs, looser sleeves, and no metallic detail on the dress. Her one extravagance is that long, dangling necklace. Fittingly, it stops right at her heart. Porter is convinced that Lora Mae is in love with his money. Does her heart belong to the jewelry or to him?

Porter reveals the truth. Brad didn't run away with Addie Ross. Porter did...until he changed his mind. He turns to his wife. "They all heard me say I ran away with another woman. You've got everything you need, you can take me for everything you'll ever want."

But Lora Mae won't have it. "If you said anything, I just didn't hear it." Porter looks over at her, realizing for the first time how they really feel about each other. Lora Mae's bare shoulders, instead of playing up her sexuality, now seem to make her more vulnerable to Porter's searching gaze.

Our comedy ends. Deborah goes home to wait for Brad and our other two couples begin to dance. Addie Ross is gone and suddenly the future seems a whole lot brighter.

The prolific Charles Le Maire was the wardrobe director for A Letter to Three Wives, while the underrated Kay Nelson (Oscar-nominated for Mother is a Freshman) designed the costumes. While her designs here aren't the kind of bravura work that wins awards, they are an excellent example of classic Hollywood costuming that works at every level to enhance the story. Each of our three protagonists has her own style, her own concerns, and her own budget to work with. And by the end of the film, Rita, Deborah, and Lora Mae have all gone through a journey that is perfectly visible through their costume changes. A great bit of costuming from a great and fun film.

Have a happy Fashion in Film Blogathon, everybody! 

The lovely Jeanne Crain image is credited to a link from Dr. Macro.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Dior J'adore: Reliving Hollywood Glamor

So, I've watched the new Dior ad about five times now and I'm still not sure what to think about it. For those who haven't seen it, Dior's ad for J'adore perfume features not only the actress Charlize Theron, stalking proudly through the Hall of Mirrors at Versailles, but the images of Grace Kelly, Marlene Dietrich, and Marilyn Monroe, brought to life through CGI. The living actress kisses Kelly on the cheek, glances over at the tuxedo-ed Dietrich, and, in the ad's most surreal moment, hands Monroe a bottle of perfume, as Marilyn whispers in a breathlessly worshipful tone, "Dior...J'adore." The ad ends on an image of Theron strutting down the catwalk, her sparkling gold figure turning into the Dior bottle.

My first reaction was a full-body shudder of, "Oh God, they're using dead women to hawk their perfume." Somehow, the thought of CGi-ed, reanimated actresses giving their seal of approval to a current product is frightening. The ad even seems to acknowledge this by hitting a "scare chord" at the moment when Grace Kelly first turns around. But I have to admit, there was an element of pleasure to the ad as well, in seeing these iconic legends again. When I showed the ad to my mom, she had fun picking out the actresses and told me afterward, "It's much more respectful than I thought it would be."

And she has a point. Except for the deeply jarring moment when Marilyn speaks (and wasn't she a Chanel woman anyway?), the ad can be taken as a simple homage to old-style Hollywood glamor. Which is a pretty clever choice for an ad campaign and a perfect association for a perfume. Scent evokes memory, after all. A great perfume can do more than attract a mate or match an outfit, it can trigger something deeply personal in our minds. Because of the way the ad is staged, the sense I got from it was not so much "Wear our perfume and be like Marilyn," but "The glamor of the past gives way to the glamor of the future."

 Of course, just because the ad has a good thesis doesn't mean it's a successful one. Charlize Theron is a stunning woman who, on the basis of her looks alone, could go toe to toe with any of these actresses. But in terms of iconic glamor and star power? They leave her completely in the dust. This isn't Theron's fault. I think it would be the same problem whether the ad featured Anne Hathaway, Halle Berry, or Mary-Kate Olsen. The star system is gone and with it, the idea that actresses could be goddesses. This ad doesn't just remind us of classic Hollywood glamor, it reminds us of how completely it's gone extinct.

The ad raises interesting questions for me. How far is it acceptable to go in using these iconic images? Can loving nostalgia co-exist with such an eerie use of our current technology? And why, in an ode to the past, did they choose a song with the lyrics, "If it's already been done, undo it?"

Monday, September 12, 2011

Miscastings in Classic Film

It's time for a list. And today, my chosen topic is:

If I could go back in time and change just one casting choice from one classic movie.

Now I must preface this list by saying that I'm mainly criticizing the casting, not the actors themselves. With perhaps one exception, my feelings for the actors listed below range from indifference to heartfelt love. I just don't believe they were suited for these particular roles. And I chose to go after films I consider true classics. There's little point in going after, say, Victor Mature in Samson and Delilah. And, even though I couldn't resist using the photo of John Wayne as Genghis Khan, I'm not going to go after Hollywood's long history of racial miscastings in this post. Mickey Rooney's portrayal of Mr. Yunioshi in Breakfast at Tiffany's may be an epically horrible stain on an enjoyable film, but the character would have been a racist caricature no matter who was playing him. For this list I want to talk about good characters, good movies, good actors and bad casting. So let's begin.

1. Valerie Hobson in Great Expectations

I have to confess a bias here: Estella is one of my favorite Dickens characters. She's that rarity: a Dickens heroine who isn't innocent and wholesome. Instead, Estella is an icy, damaged character, the Catwoman amongst the pigeons. She has humor and honesty and she feels something for Pip, but because of her upbringing, she can't be normal. Maybe she never will be. Because I love Estella, I had high hopes for Valerie Hobson's portrayal. Alas. Hobson is pretty enough but she's so prim and proper. She tries to sound like a heartless femme fatale and ends up sounding pert. Hobson would have made a fine Gwendolyn Fairfax, but as Estella? No. It's a pity because Jean Simmons as the younger Estella is so perfect. If only she could have played both parts.

2. Humphrey Bogart in Sabrina

Bogart's casting, as the harried workaholic Linus Larrabee, isn't so much a disaster as it is a collection of small annoyances. There's his age for one thing, a common problem with Hepburn's costars. There's the fact that he's playing a privileged businessman. Bogart always seemed more comfortable sneering at the upper crust than in playing their games. But the biggest problem, for me, is that he never strikes sparks against Hepburn. Bogart's best leading ladies were as flinty and fearful of surrender as he was, from the high-toned, scheming Mary Astor to the romantically tormented Ingrid Bergman. Hepburn is too elfin, too warm, to play ball with him. For her part, Audrey Hepburn needed leading men who were willing to be charmed, even if it meant letting her steal the light. Bogart was not that man. You can feel his discomfort. This is the itchy wool sweater of romantic comedy performances.

3. Cecil Kellaway in The Postman Always Rings Twice

Cecil Kellaway as the gruff, Greek husband of Lana Turner--I've already ranted about this one at some length. It still makes no sense to me.

4. Nora Gregor in La R├Ęgle du jeu

Jean Renoir's masterpiece about the boredoms and manipulations of France's upper class needed a strong leading lady to stand at the center, someone who could be both shallow and seductive. This character, Christine de la Chesnaye, is an aristocrat's wife, mired in the romantic gamesmanship of her class and too weak to break free from it. She is the object of many men's obsessions, but she can't hold on to her husband. She has the chance for escape but it eludes her. There's silliness to her, but tragedy too. For that kind of role, you need a talented and charismatic actress (I'm thinking of Arletty in Les Enfants du Paradis). Instead, we have Nora Gregor, who is just inadequate. She flutters, she pouts, she trembles. She has the mannerisms of a custard pudding. Gregor's Austrian background does allow Renoir to make a clever reference to Marie Antoinette and she gets more tolerable as the movie goes on. But the emotional weight of her character is left up to Renoir. Gregor doesn't spoil the movie but still, I ache for what Danielle Darrieux could have done with this role.

5. James Stewart in Rope

If you put me in front of the firing squad and told me to name my favorite actor, Jimmy Stewart would be it. I very rarely have a problem with Stewart's casting in anything. And Stewart and Hitchcock brought out the best in each other. So it's odd that his portrayal of the sharp-tongued, suspicious, possibly-gay Rupert Cadell in Rope does so little for me. On the surface, it seems like a fine choice. Stewart could spout witticisms about murder without losing audience sympathy and he didn't shy away from darker characters. But Stewart never seems comfortable in the role of this erudite shithead and quickly escapes into playing Rupert the detective. He talks about his own culpability in the murder, but it rings hollow. Properly, this role should have gone to George Sanders or James Mason.

6. Marlene Dietrich in Witness for the Prosecution

It's hard to talk about this one without giving away plot details, but Marlene Dietrich is an awkward fit for the role of Tyrone's Power's devoted wife. Christine Vole. In the original Agatha Christie story, Mrs. Vole was quiet, calm, and mysteriously "foreign," which made her completely unknowable to the stolid British men who dealt with her. Understandably, for the film version, Billy Wilder wanted to expand the character and make her funnier, more exciting. However, Marlene Dietrich is a little too far in the other direction. She's funny, melodramatic and larger than life. There's no mystery about her, everything she does is outsize. Which makes it impossible for her to fool anyone. I can't deny that Dietrich is a lot of fun in the part, though.

7. Leslie Howard in Gone with the Wind

This one's been argued to death but it's true. Leslie Howard is the weakest link in Gone with the Wind. Howard himself didn't want to play the milquetoast Ashley Wilkes and complained bitterly about the role ("I look like that sissy doorman at the Beverly Wilshire," "I'm not nearly young or beautiful enough for Ashley").  Actually, Howard's a little harsh; his portrayal of Ashley was dignified and intelligent and he had good chemistry with both his actresses. But it isn't enough to disguise the fact that Howard lacks believability as the personification of Scarlett's white-knight desires. He's too old and stiff, more like Scarlett's schoolmaster than her contemporary. Next to the pitch-perfect performances of Leigh, Gable, and de Havilland, Howard sticks out all the more. 

Well, that's enough negativity for now. Maybe for my next list, I'll tackle the many great against-type casting choices. That'd be fun.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Farewell, Cliff Robertson

 That, that is, is. That, that is not, is not. Is that it? It is.

 Cliff Robertson (1923-2011)