Puttin’ on the Glitz: Fashion & Film in the Jazz Age

At the end of March I attended an event at the British Library hosted by Amber Butchart and (Lord) Chris Laverty. I covered this event for Joe Kucharski over at Tyranny of Style and I’m posting the link here in case you haven’t seen it!

BL

The event was great and it’s worth thanking everyone all over again. And, contractually*, I have to say how charming and handsome Chris is. Amber was perfection and wears a turban like nobody’s business.

I hope you enjoy and don’t forget to check out the rest of Tyranny of Style.

S x

*not really.

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‘The Great Gatsby’: Costume Adaptation Fidelity – 1974 Vs. 2013

This should be the last post on The Great Gatsby (we’re all glad about that), but I thought it was worth looking at the costumes from Jack Clayton’s 1974 adaptation against Baz Luhrmann’s 2013 adaptation (out on DVD and Blu-Ray today yesterday); particularly regarding costume descriptions in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel.

There are not that many references to costumes throughout the novel but when they are mentioned there is a feeling that a lot is being told to you via that little description. Looking at Theoni V. Aldredge’s costumes next to Catherine Martin’s is very interesting because you can actually see a closeness – sometimes when the costumes are widely different from their descriptions.

Tom Buchanan

his riding clothes… he seemed to fill those glistening boots until he strained the top lacing (p. 24)

Tom

Here I have to confess to having no knowledge of riding clothes, modern or historical. It is worth noting that both Tom’s (Bruce Dern and Joel Edgerton) have similar colours. This is one of the few occasions where the 1974 version has a brighter colour than that in the 2013 – but only with the jersey.

Daisy Buchanan and Jordan Baker

they were both in white, and their dresses were rippling and fluttering (p. 25)

as cool as their white dresses (p. 28)

White Dresses

Daisy and Jordan tend to be pictured in white a lot. There is no other colour that displays wealth like white. These people don’t do anything that would endanger the pristine white of their clothing. Mia Farrow and Lois Chiles are almost camouflaged against the white furniture and set. But for Carey Mulligan and Elizabeth Debicki the white tones are much closer to cream. The production design (also designed by Catherine Martin) is much more sumptuous and the cream costumes fit perfectly with the mood and the setting. White would have been too sharp and mismatched against the rest of the aesthetic.

Jordan

One interesting change from the description that is found in both films is that Jordan is wearing trousers. This is perfectly fitting for Jordan’s character (with Debicki playing with a golf club to reinforce the sports woman image) and the flow of the trousers and top still provide ‘rippling and fluttering’.

three-cornered lavender hat (p. 85)

Daisy

This barely deserves inclusion but it is worth noting that both Farrow and Mulligan are dressed in purple, although the 1974 version is very muted. The only description of Daisy in this scene regards the hat (swiftly removed anyway) but both designers seemed to have followed that through for the dress. Unless Farrow’s costumes are so much in memory…

white dresses (p. 109)

White Dresses2

Here we have Martin being more “faithful” to the description. Or, as much as she was earlier. Mulligan and Debicki are both in cream dresses whereas Chiles is in light blue. This is quite a change and marks her out from Daisy quite sharply – also her tone of blue seems to be a little too close to Gatsby’s tie…

Myrtle Wilson

a spotted dress of dark blue crepe-de-chine (p. 38)

Myrtle1

Myrtle was the one character that remained completely different from description in both adaptations. Both versions had a much more brash version – although Luhrmann takes brash to a whole new level. One thing I noticed when comparing Karen Black with Isla Fisher was that their first dresses have the same silhouette. The angled flounces down the front of the dress highlight a sexier shape than was desired in the ’20s. Fisher’s definitely looks more modern from the flow of the fabric alone, let alone the colours and pattern.

She had changed her dress to a brown figured muslin, which stretched tight over her rather wide hips (p. 39)

Neither adaptations had Myrtle change from her “dowdy” clothes into city clothes. There was no need. Myrtle was never pretending to be anything for George Wilson so she had no need to separate her life from Mrs Wilson to Tom Buchanan’s mistress.

elaborate afternoon dress of cream-coloured chiffon (p. 42)

Myrtle2

Once again, the colours in 2013 are much more saturated than those in 1974. The flounces from Myrtle’s first dress are here again but to a more extreme cleavage bearing extent. Nothing about Fisher’s dress says restraint and the bright colours could not be more different from the whites and creams of Daisy. Black’s dress is softer in tones but those orange feathers let you know instantly that this isn’t Daisy and couldn’t be a serious replacement for her.

Nick Carraway

dressed up in white flannels (p. 51)

Nick

Maybe white flannel was more period accurate for Fitzgerald but for both 1974 and 2013 party scenes it would both be too much and underdressed. Nick is underdressed in both settings (in remarkably similar suits) when compared to Gatsby in a tuxedo, but a white flannel suit would also stand out too much. Visually Nick cannot outshine Gatsby and it would make no sense for him to dress that way. Without making all the other costumes work against Nick’s.

Dancing Girls

two girls in twin yellow dresses (p. 52)

Yellow Girls

Because I couldn’t not include this comparison. I know which pair are my favourite…

Jay Gatsby

caramel-colored suit (p. 69)

Gatsby Caramel

Gatsby has the most costume descriptions and this are mostly adhered to – especially in the iconic scenes. This isn’t one of those scenes. Leonardo DiCaprio’s suit is the closest to caramel whereas Robert Redford’s is confidently brown. Redford’s suits as Gatsby have a much different feel to DiCaprio’s. A lot of this is down to the double-breasted nature of his jackets and/or waistcoats. Nowadays double-breasted waistcoats and jackets tend to give a more villainous feel – think of gangsters. In Luhrmann’s film both Tom and Meyer Wolfsheim wear double-breasted suits. Our hero is Gatsby and he couldn’t be seen wearing anything to besmirch his honour. But in Clayton’s? Only Gatsby is seen wearing double-breasted suits. They are his specific style detail. Much like a pink suit.

in a white flannel suit, silver shirt, and gold-coloured tie (p. 84)

Gatsby White

Both white suits. Gold-coloured tie, just about. Silver shirt? No. Both have gone for a light blue. A light blue that doesn’t look unlike silver in the right light. The main costume interest between the two costumes is their cut. Everything about Redford’s suit is wider – the tie, the lapels, the double-breasted waistcoat, even the jacket length. The slimline of DiCaprio’s suit and accessories fits with the modernisation of the ’20s silhouette. And the mustard coloured waistcoat allows Gatsby to wear a three-piece suit without being overpowering in white – especially when stood against all those flowers.

He wears a pink suit (p. 115)

luminosity of his pink suit (p. 132)

his gorgeous pink rag of a suit made a bright spot of colour against the white steps (p. 141)

Gatsby Pink

THE pink suit. Both three-pieces. The wide v. slimcut debate reigns on. The important notes are with the accessories. Redford’s shirt is almost as ostentatious as the suit itself – a white collar against a light blue shirt. Then there’s the light purple tie. Add in the white shoes and the white buttons on the waistcoat and you’ve got a bright, light-reflecting costume. DiCaprio’s pink suit has a wide pinstripe that breaks up the pink a little bit and then his burgundy pocket square and striped tie help to level the costume. Also, he doesn’t wear white shoes so the whole costume seems more wearable and, let’s say it together, more modern.

S x

(Quotations taken from Wordsworth Classics Edition, printed in 1993.)

5 Different Costume Interpretations of the…1920s

After the release of The Great Gatsby (yes, it was a fair while ago) I started thinking about the way eras are viewed by different periods. For example, Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby has a number of visual differences from Jack Clayton’s The Great Gatsby even though they are both set in the ‘20s and, ostensibly, the same place and characters. Every period film is released as an interpretation of that era and these interpretations can be widely different. Here are five varying interpretations:

[Just an advance warning, spoilers may abound for these films. If you don’t want to be spoiled for one of the films just scroll past!]

Singin’ in the Rain (1952)

Directors: Stanley Donen and Gene Kelly

Costume Designer: Walter Plunkett

Singin' in the Rain

The height of the fur collars on the coats here perfectly sum up the ’20s – but one example of the fashions taken to extreme levels?

This has to be one of the most iconic films ever and for good reason. But when you look at the costumes they do seem to take an interesting view of the 1920s. The colours used in the film are much more fitting with the idea of a ‘50s musical than a period perfect ’20s film. That’s not to say that the aspects of the costumes weren’t right – just that everything was turned up to 11.

Singin' in the Rain

Here, Debbie Reynolds’ dress shows a number of ’20s styles: the dropped waist, the full pleated skirt, the geometric design, but my favourite is the use of wool for the top. This reflects the men’s knitted tank top fashion; and these were worn by Donald O’Connor and Gene Kelly at points in the film.

Singin' in the Rain

Here we see the boys wearing knitted jumpers with high-waisted trousers. Very ’20s. Especially when you look at the length of the jumpers – the trousers need to be high-waisted to prevent any odd shirt reveal. The one thing that is noticeable in these photos is the true ’50s influence on the costumes – Kelly’s shirt collar width.

Singin' in the Rain

O’Connor again wearing a double-breasted waistcoat but here you can also see a watch chain.

This image shows more clearly the different in shirt collar widths between O’Connor and Kelly. O’Connor’s are a little too slim for the era but they suit him more at this width, while Kelly’s are vastly exaggerated for both the ’50s and the ’20s – they look more suited to John Travolta’s shirts in Saturday Night Fever… They’re both still wearing high-waisted trousers but Kelly’s costume is playing up much more to the golfer of the ’20s – the diamond knitted umper with very wide plus fours. This is from the “flashback” in the photo so Kelly’s costumes have moved on in the film yet O’Connor’s style remains pretty much the same. As does the eccentric director Roscoe Dexter (Douglas Fowley).

Singin' in the Rain

Then we come to the true ’50s musical section of the film. This is the extreme Hollywood view of the ’20s. From the cartoonish colours of Kelly’s first suit (plaids are still in keeping with the ’20s though), to Cyd Charisse’s low-cut, fitted super short fringed emerald green dress (obviously to allow for dance movement) to the extras. Every extra is wearing a heightened impression of ’20s fashion. Be the suits wildly patterned or the dresses too fitted, too short or with too much fringing. But why does this section work? Because it is set as the musical sequence within the film within Singin’ in the Rain. It is almost a dream sequence – anything goes.

Some Like it Hot (1959)

Director: Billy Wilder

Costume Designer: Orry-Kelly

Best Costume Design, Black-and-White

Some Like it Hot

The first view of our two male leads is in tuxedos playing at a speakeasy. Both are wearing wing collar shirts with bow ties and shirt studs. The nature of the lighting here means we can’t see the lapels that clearly but you can just make out Jack Lemmon’s lapels. They’re satin and fairly wide – ’20s wide, not ’50s wide. So far, so “accurate”.

Some Like it Hot

Then Marilyn Monroe enters the picture. Looking back at Curtis and Lemmon here, we can see dropped waists and limited decoration. Their dresses both have long sleeves as a way of covering up their manly arms and always wearing gloves. But along with that their dresses have a satin sheen to them that catches the light – not unlike Monroe’s. That’s where the similarities end though. Monroe’s dress is shorter but still just about ’20s length. It’s the rest of the fit that doesn’t match the ’20s style. The impression of a dropped waist may be given but the dress is fitted to show off her hourglass shape. And that neckline definitely wouldn’t be seen in the ’20s. These are changes that have been made for the actress’s shape and for the expectation of the audience. Sugar needs to look irresistible. The ’20s dresses aren’t the most flattering cut and wouldn’t really have suited Monroe.

Some Like it Hot

Then we come to THIS dress of Monroe’s. Definitely not ’20s. This is super sexy for the ’50s let alone thirty years earlier. The sequins barely cover her…modesty, the dress is fully fitted and also is mostly made of a powernet type material (commonly used for ballet costumes and other dancewear). The authentic ’20s aspects are the length, the dangly nature of some of the embroidery and the use of a fur stole. (Although how Sugar could afford that is beyond me.) Curtis as Joe as Junior looks much more the part (not even intended as a pun). Although, suspension of disbelief that Beinstock’s double-breasted jacket would fit Joe.

Some Like It Hot

This image shows some of the beautiful detailing on Curtis and Lemmon’s custom made dresses – ’20s female costumes just wouldn’t fit their shapes. The slightly fusty details at Curtis’ neckline is a great contrast to the eternally low necklines of Monroe. Lemmon’s neckline is simpler because he has a…more manly(?) neck. Curtis’s neck looks a little more feminine so the neck detailing can play off better and less obviously.

Some Like it Hot

Monroe’s final dress has much of a similar cut to the silver dress from earlier (their backs are different and can be seen here but for arguments sake, they are similar). The body fit is similar as is much of the style of embroidery but here, there is no imagination that the dress is held up on its own. The black beading is along all of the neckline so there is no guessing involved – the power net is there! The embroidery is used across all seams and then sparsely across the skirt with some beading fringing.

Thoroughly Modern Millie (1967)

Director: George Roy Hill

Costume Designer: Jean Louis

Nominated for Best Costume Design

Thoroughly Modern Millie Thoroughly Modern Millie has a brilliant opening number that attempts to show all the fashion changes of the ’20s in about 3 minutes.

You start with the haircut (also meaning that Julie Andrews looks like Julie Andrews), then there’s the dress, then the underwear to get the desirable flat shape (your pearls need to lie flat) and then the cigarettes… This is a mass generalisation of the ’20s, obviously, and it doesn’t show the social and political changes that went into these fashion changes but it sets the film up (and the character of Millie) exactly where she needs to be. The first costume has all the markings of the ’20s fashion (dropped waist, pleated skirt) but it still seems…more fitting with the Singin’ in the Rain idea of the ’20s. As we’re entering another musical, and a rather…fantastical (?) one at that, this seems completely acceptable.

Thoroughly Modern Millie

Here we see the collected cast and the different interpretations of the ’20s – this is where Millie comes into its own. Miss Dorothy has the look and feel of old money. Her dress is beautifully cut with a classic drape and the soft colours are subtle – she doesn’t need her clothing to stand out. When she is next to Millie their differences seem fairly clear – Millie is trying to emulate the ’20s too much. She is the ’60s view of the ’20s that has been emphasised since the ’50s view in Singin’ in the Rain. And also, because the film is firmly in the world of musical everything is heightened anyway. Muzzy’s costume is interesting because she has clear similarities to Miss Dorothy (that wealth, even if Muzzy isn’t technically ‘old money’ herself) but her clothing (in this image at least) also reflect the past. Unlike Millie she isn’t rushing to the future and trying to change her entire personality. Muzzy is Muzzy and that’s enough for her.

Thoroughly Modern Millie

This is the true stern look of the ’20s in Millie – sharp lines in monochrome colours with just the red flower for colour. No red lipstick, the black of the dress, bag, hat, scarf and eyeliner are the pulls. It’s all about the eyes. This costume is worn when Millie is determined to take control over her life. To be the confident, independent woman of the ’20s that she is determined to be she needs to look the part. In the only way she knows how.Thoroughly Modern Millie

And for contrast here we have Jimmy in Millie’s dress. Fits quite well doesn’t it?

Chicago (2002)

Director: Rob Marshall

Costume Designer: Colleen Atwood

Best Costume Design

Chicago

So far all of the films that I’ve looked at set in the ’20s are musicals. It just turned out that way – it wasn’t planned! Chicago, however, is the only film that started as a stage musical and not the other way around. (Well, the history of Chicago is a bit more complicated than that but that’s the gist.) What does this mean? It means that a high level of theatricality existed for the story before filming began.

“The designs were based on quite a lot of research of the period, with a nod toward what a movie musical is, somewhat filtered through the eyes of today,” Atwood explains. “We wanted it accessible to the audience of today. If we‘d gone strictly with the ‘20s, the movement would have been impaired. The costumes had to serve the choreography.”

Chicago

The two costumes worn by Catherine Zeta-Jones above (for All That Jazz and Cell Block Tango) are definitely a sexualised, theatrical interpretation of the ’20s and particularly the ’20s nightclub scene. In the context of the film these two musical numbers also exist in different locations: All That Jazz being real and Cell Block Tango being in Roxie’s “dream world”. The real number is more of a show-stopping number full of fringing, beads and sequins. This is Velma’s workplace and the sexier she is, the bigger the audience and the more money she can command. That number also comes before her arrest and marks her first solo performance – all eyes on her rather than split with her sister. The fringed skirt (like Charisse’s in Singin’ in the Rain) allows for freedom of movement but also catches the light. Comparing the costume with Charisse’s you can see the modern eyes because this costume in the ’50s would have been scandalous but, here, it isn’t the most revealing. The Cell Block Tango costume is in a way toned down due to the simple decoration (she is in prison) but the closer connection to underwear means that it is even more sexualised than the previous costume. This costume also plays into the contradiction of the victim role that Velma is trying to portray.

Chicago

Another example of Roxie’s fantasy world view. Not only are the showgirls obviously a creation of her mind but even Billy’s suit. This one has pinstripes of red glitter – just enough sparkle to play off the showgirls costumes and catch the light. The jury are the “audience” members, along with Roxie herself, so Billy needs to clearly be part of the “show”. It’s the same style and cut of suit that he normally wears with only slight changes that make him fit in that world. This is again against the traditional ’20s outook. A man in the ’20s would never wear a suit with red glittery pinstripes but this is a musical number taking part in the lead character’s mind.

Chicago

We now have a view of the real world – or as real as it gets in Chicago. Roxie has been playing up for the cameras and has secured herself hair dye, hair styling and a new dress. The dress itself is in a similar tone to the grey prison dresses – enough for her to stand out without being seen as too different. She is currently top dog and this needs to be reflected visually. The dress itself is a great example of ’20s draping, it wouldn’t look out of place in the early ’30s either… From the way the light hits the fabric and it flows over her arms and legs you can see the quality of the fabric.  Another side-step from true “prison attire”. Billy, on the other hand, has his three-piece suit sans jacket (and sans glitter) with noticeably large cuffinks and a pinky ring like the one Joe wears in Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day. His shirt collar seems to be an acceptable width – not comedy width like Gene Kelly’s but also not too slim and “modern”.

Chicago

Now we have the epitome of Roxie’s dreamworld, and yet, this doesn’t scream out ’20s to a modern audience. The men in tuxedos are a classic look that mostly remains timeless. Roxie’s costume on the other hand would be scandalous in the ’20s. In the world of Chicago this seems perfectly acceptable and fits in with the circus/ballet costume world that Atwood has already created. For this sexy number (Roxie) it would be inconceivable to use an “authentic” ’20s costume. For modern eyes this would look ridiculous and take you out of the action more than an “inaccurate” costume does. Costume is there to facilitate storytelling and this is what Chicago achieves.

Midnight in Paris (2011)

Director: Woody Allen

Costume Designer: Sonia Grande

Midnight in Paris

Midnight in Paris could be seen to be similar to Chicago in the idea of a “dream world” as the film is showing a romanticised view of the ’20s as seen through the eyes of Gil. It is a very different dream world to that of Roxie’s but both are seeing what they want to see – with Gil it means seeing the influential artists of the time. One of the first characters within Gil’s story that we meet is Adriana. Her first costume is true flapper glamour. Black, dropped-waist, knee-length, embroidered and styled with a headband. She is Gil’s first real connection with his romanticised world and she is also the audience’s entrance. She needs to be “believable” as from the ’20s. To be believable as a muse for all the talented artists of the era.

Midnight in Paris

Then we meet Ernest Hemingway (here with Juan Belmonte the bullfighter). Hemingway’s costume is not too dissimilar to Gil’s. Gil has to have a classic look so that although he stands out in this world he doesn’t look ridiculous. Hemingway’s costume is a basic white shirt (with only a slightly wider collar than Gil’s) with a suit jacket. He has no noticeably “period” accessories. From what we know of Hemingway he just wanted to write, drink and fight. He lived life to extremes but none of these extremes would’ve been concerned with his clothing. Contrast his look with Belmonte’s (who looks exceedingly smart). Neither would look particularly out of place in the contemporary world. We are accepting Gil’s meeting with Hemingway, you wouldn’t want to push the audience’s acceptance levels too far.

Midnight in Paris

Here we see another of Adriana’s dresses but this is much more of a day dress. As with Hemingway’s costume, a modern audience wouldn’t be completely distracted by her dress. The ’20s silhouette is visible (along with the accessories) but this dress wouldn’t be out of place on the high street today. You can then look past her costume and appreciate her bond with Gil – to be fully immersed in their relationship rather than her different time period.

Midnight in Paris

Then we have the ’20s party atmosphere. Here is another flapper dress for Adriana but in a softer tone – she is no longer stuck with Pablo Picasso and his moods. Her dresses have been getting softer in colour and generally lighter. This dress signifies the development of her character and also culminates in her decision to remain in La Belle Époque. Her romanticised view of perfection, The draped fringing on her dress reflects the curtains that surround the Moulin Rouge. Adriana’s costume must serve that nostalgic/timeless quality that Gil’s has.

Midnight in Paris

And I couldn’t talk about Midnight in Paris without referencing the Fitzgerald’s – the height of glamour in the ’20s. The costumes for Zelda and Scott are the true visual markers of the ’20s. As we meet them having already met Picasso, Hemingway, Cole Porter and Gertrude Stein the audience is more willing to accept the ’20s era. It would be unthinkable to have the Fitzgerald’s look too modern. But, having said that, this is a couple that were at the height of fashion, style and trends. This is the couple that the ’20s aspired to look like. Zelda is in a classic ’20s dress but highly embroidered and embellished. This is old money and she is the true Daisy Buchanan. Scott is relishing the success of his novels and looks the perfect ’20s host in a three-piece suit with a double-breasted waistcoat. The light colours showing wealth and making him seem open and welcoming. Along with Hemingway, he is Gil’s ideal; a successful, well-regarded author. The two go about it in different ways but they are Gil’s heroes.

So those are just a smattering of films set in the ’20s filmed in the ’50s until very recently. The Great Gatsby was the most recent interpretation of the ’20s (and bear in mind that that’s Baz Luhrmann’s interpretation of the ’20s) but we’ll see what comes up next…

[Update: I’ve just remembered another film set in the ’20s with an interesting interpretation of the era – The Cat’s Meow. I didn’t include it within these five because I talked about the costumes here but thought I should mention it now!]

S x

Saw This And Thought It Was Cool

Everyone knows I’m majorly excited about The Great Gatsby (2013) right? It’s one of my favourite books and, as luck would have it, is our book this month for book club. (Waterstone’s Croydon if anyone is interested.) Because of this, and the recent costume design developments (1 and 2), the book has been in my head. As has all the new releases/old releases of Gatsby related items so I thought I’d share a range with you:

The soundtrack to The Great Gatsby (1974). In vinyl.

The soundtrack to The Great Gatsby (1974). In vinyl. This is available either on ebay, from second-hand vinyl shops or through amazon sellers. Take your pic. Although I didn’t love the Clayton film, the music is great. And what better to get you in the mood of the twenties?

The Great Gatsby cover t-shirt from truffleshuffle.

The Great Gatsby cover t-shirt from truffleshuffle. Any t-shirt that is to do with The Great Gatsby is a-ok by me.

The Great Gatsby t-shirt from truffleshuffle.

The Great Gatsby t-shirt from truffleshuffle. This is my favourite of the two t-shirts. I love the text font and the bright colours used in the illustration behind. Beautiful.

The Great Gatsby. On a poster.

The Great Gatsby. On a poster. Who wouldn’t want this on their wall? My problem is that I’d get distracted by it whenever I walked past. I’d never get anything done…(cos I’m so busy normally). (Scarlet & Jones.)

A new hardback version of The Great Gatsby.

A new hardback version of The Great Gatsby. I’m a sucker for re-released book covers. I already have four copies of The Great Gatsby. But you know I’ll be buying this one too. I’m not sure if I love it more than this one. I can’t decide. They’re both so perfectly Deco.

I found this by browsing through waterstones website.

I found this by browsing through waterstones website. Look at that cover! After minimal research, I think it’s the original The Great Gatsby text with a new pulpy cover. I’m sold. Easily better than another release of The Great Gatsby – as an erotic novel… Thanks 50 Shades. Thanks a lot.

Careless People: Murder, Mayhem and the Invention of The Great Gatsby. I found this months ago. Already on my pre-order list. Plus the cover is pretty cool. I'm easily persuaded.

Careless People: Murder, Mayhem and the Invention of The Great Gatsby by Sarah Churchwell. I found this months ago. Already on my pre-order list. Plus the cover is pretty cool. I’m easily persuaded. (It’s available earlier and cheaper on Kindle. As much as I love my Kindle there’s no way I’m not owning a hard copy of this book.)

Any you’re interested in? I’m pretty sure I want everything.

S x

5 Things I Like About ‘The Cat’s Meow’

I really enjoy watching The Cat’s Meow. It’s not perfect, a lot of people will never have heard of it but I still have a soft spot for it. I don’t even remember how I heard about it. But I have the DVD and have had it for years…your guess is as good as mine. To educate (or something less condescending) those of you that have never seen/heard of The Cat’s Meow here are five things I like about it (in the order that best makes sense for reading this, not in my preferred order):

1. History/Story

The film is based on the play, of the same title, written by Steven Peros (who also wrote the screenplay) which, in turn, is based in fact. Based. The fact being that, in 1924 a mysterious death occurred in Hollywood and that death was never seriously investigated by the authorities. The play is based on common gossip at the time – there will never be a distinctive solution to the death (keeping it quiet so it can “surprise” you if/when you watch the film).

So, there’s the beginnings – murder mystery in the 20s. As a huge Agatha Christie fan my enjoyment of the film is making more sense, isn’t it? And what else do you need in a murder mystery? Suspects. This story’s got plenty: William Randolph Hearst, the highly influential publisher; Marion Davies, the silent actress and W.R.’s mistress; Charlie Chaplin, movie star; Elinor Glyn, author of erotic fiction; Thomas Ince, film producer; Louella Parsons, movie columnist; Margaret Livingstone, actress and Ince’s lover; to name just some key players. So not only are they an eclectic group but they are a famous, wealthy and influential eclectic group. Interested yet? Good. Now I’m not going to intentionally ‘spill’ the beans here so you’re safe to watch the film later or read Hollywood Babylon by Kenneth Anger – fascinating for fans of salacious Hollywood gossip of days gone by.

I like the idea of merging fact and fiction in such a glamorous surrounding – a birthday party on a yacht. (Personally, I do it all the time but I guess not everyone does.) As long as you take the story with a pinch of salt, I think there is some enjoyment for everyone. Well, maybe not hard-core Michael Bay fans.

2. Costumes

These are the first costume that these three characters wear. Marion is throwing the birthday party for Tom with W.R. and here she is playing the ‘role’ of sailor. She can treat the yacht as hers so the whole costume is a nice little nod to her humour and her place within this group. She is probably the onlt female attending who could get away with it – she’s untouchable. Elinor is very classic. Everything is perfect and she knows it. She belongs to this group and this is in contrast with Louella. She is new to the group. She is trying to fit in, to ingratiate with these people and everything about her costume screams trying too hard. Everything is over embellished.

I am drawn in by costumes. Always. But then as my degree is in costume that’s not too surprising. The costumes in The Cat’s Meow are interesting for more than just being beautiful and, you know, successful as a character extension. Peter Bogdanovich, the director, had wanted to shoot the film in black and white but the film studio wouldn’t allow it, so he ordered Caroline de Vivaise, the costume designer, to dress the cast in only black and white as a way of “shooting in black and white”. This, in itself, can be a bit overused as a design technique. Vivaise begged to be allowed to include gold and silver in the spectrum because many of the vintage evening wear pieces used were trimmed with them. The softening that was allowed through the gold, silver, tones of grey and cream mean that the ‘black and white’ effect isn’t too jarring.

A nice little nod to the sailor costume with more detaling of Davies’ top revealed. George Thomas is Ince’s business partner and, as such, remains in the background of the industry for a lot. His light brown three-piece suit is fitting for the era and also for being overlooked – there is nothing showy about it. Margaret is ‘hiding’ under the rpetence of being Thomas’ date for the party so that word of Ince’s affair doesn’t sully any chances of a deal for Ince. She is nearly completely covered up – gloves, cloche hat, high necked blouse, knitted coat. Whereas Ince, as the birthday boy, is wearing a snazzy bowtie with his striped cream three-piece suit with a polka dot pocket square. Nothing subtle about it. He doesn’t need to hide.

This is the way we first meet Charlie. He’s wearing a grey three-piece suit, his tie has a tie pin, he’s got a pocket square and the chain of a pocket watch. I’m sold. Clearly time and effort has gone into this look but it is still more restrained than Ince’s. I think there was also the instinct to stay away from blak for a day suit lest it be too ‘Tramp-ish’. And formal.

Here is W.R.’s costume for greeting his guests. A navy blue wide lapelled double breasted jacket worn with a cravat and tie pin. There’s another pocket square – very important for the 20s. The costume keeps with Marion’s ‘at sea’ look. It sets them as THE power couple on the yacht.

Just a look at how important it was for the costume designer to be allowed to use silver and gold. The costumes would have looked flat and lifeless. And unrealistic. The sheen gives them life.

Just a quick glance at the “fancy dress” birthday dinner. A very important scene within the film. And the simplest fancy dress.

The ‘fun’ W.R.

3.  Cast

Straight into it – I like Kirsten Dunst. I always have. Even before her Melancholia win at Cannes. Her performance as Marion Davies lets the audience see a more mature Dunst (this was filmed in 2001), in a role that could easily have been demonised or a caricature. Davies has the potential to be seen as a gold-digger – this seems unlikely to be true and the film and Dunst do a good job of portraying that. Even without her speech to Ince. Davies genuinely seemed to feel a fondness for Hearst and this is clearly reflected in the film.

Another strong performance comes from Eddie Izzard as Charlie Chaplin. This was the first ‘straight’ acting performance I’d seen from Izzard and it helps move your mind away from Charlie ‘The Tramp’ Chaplin to just Chaplin. When you’ve heard about Chaplin’s womanising past, some of which is referred to here, you understand that he needed charisma. Izzard is both likable and despicable as Chaplin and, having not seen Downey Jr’s Oscar-nominated turn in Chaplin (I know, HCGI), is the only interpretation I have seen. (And I haven’t seen much of Chaplin’s work either…)

Edward Herrmann as William Randolph Hearst is wonderful. I can’t help but love Hermann because he’s Richard Gilmore! (That’s right. I like The Gilmore Girls. Go ahead and judge me.) Hearst is instantly powerful – helped by the fact that Herrmann’s quite an imposing figure anyway (6’5”). You can see the love and affection for Davies, the jealousy towards Chaplin, how he enjoyed to lord his wealth and power over Ince and there is also his anger. You can feel threatened just watching. Let alone being a seagull. (That’ll make sense when you watch it.)

I’ll stop just going through the cast but here are some other worthy mentions: Cary Elwes as Tom Ince (yes, Westley from The Princess Bride), Jennifer Tilly as Louella Parsons (determination, full of determination) and Joanna Lumley as Elinor Glyn (gleeful and bitchy, gleefully bitchy).

4. Music

So, we know I love Some Like it Hot. When’s it set? What do I love about it? 1920s jazz. Charleston, So enjoyable. The little dancey scenes might be cringeworthy but part of you just wants to Charleston along with them anyway. In a flapper dress.

5. Era

OK, so this one’s pushing it a bit. It HAS to be in the 20s because of the story it’s telling. This doesn’t mean I enjoy the era any less. There’s an unspoken decadence that goes with this time in America’s history where prohibition is still in force (and yet everyone drinks) and the country is on the brink of depression. I think that’s one of the reasons I’m so excited by Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby. The Jack Clayton version was very “Ralph Lauren”/70s to me (obviously, being that it was filmed in the 70s). Luhrmann is known for the excess  in his films and I think The Great Gatsby is a great use of that. Wealth is so important to the subtext…but I digress. To sum up: I love the 20s.

I just want all of her costumes. Particularly that headpiece. Not that I’d have an appropriate place to wear it.

So there you go. Five things I like about The Cat’s Meow. Am I completely wrong? (It’s highly likely.)

All of her costumes.

S x

Why I Love… ‘Some Like it Hot’

Goodbye Charlie.

When Tony Curtis died in September 2010 I felt a great sense of sadness as the last member of the Some Like it Hot “crew” had died: Marilyn Monroe (died in 1962), Jack Lemmon (d. 2001) and Billy Wilder (d. 2002).

I want another cup of coffee.

Some Like it Hot as been my favourite film for as long as I can remember. I think I was about eight when I first watched it with my parents and it’s set me up for life – especially when we got a DVD player and it was played non-stop for a few weeks. (Just so you know, it’s released on Blu-ray 23rd July. What are you waiting for?)

Suppose the stock market crashes. Suppose Mary Pickford divorces Douglas Fairbanks. Suppose The Dodgers leave Brooklyn. Suppose Lake Michigan overflows.

Joe

As this blog is about things we love…sort of…I guess, I knew I would have to include something on Some Like it Hot. (I’ve peppered this post with quotes from the film and will be discussing bits as a whole so if you haven’t seen the film 1) I don’t know what you’ve been doing with your life and 2) STOP and WATCH IT NOW.) So here are six great aspects of the film. (I’d like to say they’re in order but it’s almost impossible to rank one aspect higher than another – they all work in harmony. Cheesy, but go with it.)

Will you look at that! Look how she moves! It’s like Jell-O on springs. Must have some sort of built-in motor or something. I tell you, it’s a whole different sex!

Jerry

Monroe wearing Lemmon’s coat.

1) The Cast

Marilyn Monroe, Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon. The great trilogy that this film deserved.

It’s so drafty – they must catch cold all the time.

Jerry

Monroe is perfect in her role as Sugar Kane Kowalczyk. She’s sweet, naïve and yet sexy, sultry and worldly. These are difficult to combine, but Monroe achieved it and made Sugar an endearing character that you love to see on screen. So much has been made of Monroe’s difficulties during filming, more on that later, that sometimes that notoriety overshadows this role. Monroe had been great before but of all her film performances this will be the one that lives on indefinitely. And deservedly so.

We wouldn’t be caught dead with men. Rough, hairy beasts with eight hands. And they all just want one thing from a girl.

Daphne

Curtis and Lemmon have different character problems to solve. Curtis has three roles to play (sort of): Joe the saxophonist, Josephine the saxophonist for Sweet Sue’s Society Syncopators and Shell Oil Junior the millionaire. Each character is inhabited in a completely different way. Joe is the embodiment of the male saxophone stereotype that Sugar tells us about – and, for my money, quite close to Curtis’ personality. Josephine is the quiet classy “girl” that would never fall for Joe’s lines or the bellhop’s, to his dismay. (Curtis had previously stated that the inspiration behind his portrayal of Josephine was Grace Kelly and his mother.) And then there’s, possibly my favourite, Junior. The Cary Grant-esque voice has been commented on repeatedly but remains funny. Particularly in the bathtub scene with Lemmon – possibly because Lemmon echoes the accent. Curtis has the difficult job of playing the straight man to both Monroe and Lemmon. The fact that he is sandwiched between such great performances means that he is often overlooked and this is definitely unfair.

Jack Lemmon plays Jerry the put-upon double bass roommate of Joe. Jerry is constantly worrying but will inevitably doe as Joe tells him. Lemmon really gets to break free when playing Daphne (as Jerry never liked the name Geraldine). While Monroe and Curtis play the romance, Lemmon plays for comedy with his “romance” with Osgood Fielding, III the millionaire. The most noticeable aspect of Lemmon’s performance is his energy. Both his characters are full of energy and you can almost feel his energy from the screen – never drops for a second. Lemmon was the only actor to be nominated for an Oscar for his role in Some Like it Hot (Best Leading Actor in 1960) but he sadly couldn’t beat Charlton Heston in Ben-Hur.

2) The Costumes

Poliakoff: You’re the wrong shape

Joe: Wrong shape? What’re you looking for – hunchbacks or something?

Orry-Kelly the costume designer of Some Like it Hot (also known for designing An American in Paris, Casablanca and The Maltese Falcon) was responsible for the film’s only Oscar win (Best Costume Design, Black-and-White). Straight off, the costumes in this film are stunning. Just beautiful. All of them. Even Josephine and Daphne’s dresses. The most iconic costumes are, of course, those worn by Monroe. If only for the staggering sheerness of her two most famous dresses. They barely cover her breasts. Barely. And the skirts of the dresses were tied underneath her bum to get them as close as possible. And the most interesting part about these costumes? In no way are they accurate to the 20s. Josephine and Daphne’s (as well as the other syncopators) have dropped waist more traditionally 20s dresses. Could you dress Marilyn in a loose fitted dress in the 50s? Why would you? Her hourglass figure was, and is, legendary. The mere fact that she was starring in the film meant publicity and you want to play up to that. Saying that. The fringing and detailing on the dresses mean that they never look staggeringly out of place. This is a stylised 50s view of the 20s anyway. (Just as Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby will be 2012s view of the 20s.) At least one of Monroe’s costumes will be on display at the V&A’s Hollywood Costume Exhibition running from 20th October 2012 – 27th January 2013. Everyone should go. The genius of costume design needs more appreciation.

 

Monroe’s dress barely covering her.

The back of this dress is only really shown on screen showing that it’s backless. If you look on the left side you can see a little heart on Monroe’s bum. Details like this didn’t make the film but I find it cute and funny at the same time.

This is the dress that is most likely to be on display at the V&A this October.

A rare colour photo clearly showing the back of the black dress. Add this back to the front. Wow.

Moving on from Monroe’s dresses and back to Josephine and Daphne’s dresses. Curtis and Lemmon were going to be dressed in pre-made costumes while Monroe’s were made by Orry-Kelly. The difficulties of dressing two men in dresses clearly not made for men became apparent and, at Curtis’ request to Wilder, Orry-Kelly made their dresses as well. Monroe even stole one of Lemmon’s costume pieces for her first scene in the film. Their dresses are dresses. They, in themselves, are not played for laughs. The laughs come from the two characters in the dresses. I mean, their coats I would steal if I could. And Monroe’s. You can see why she stole it from Lemmon. She owned it in that tiny, infamous scene.

How could you not want these coats?

It’s none of our business if you guys wanna bump each other off.

Jerry

The suits that Curtis and Lemmon wear when Joe and Jerry are standard tuxedos and with the elegance surrounding them are sort of overlooked. The male characters with distinctive costumes are Spats Columbo and Osgood Fielding, III. Spats’ costume importance is stated in his name. He must always be impeccably dressed. Otherwise his whole standing would disappear. Pristine spats must be worn with a pristine suit. Osgood’s costumes are much more flamboyant. He’s a millionaire with a thing for showgirls who can’t remember how many times he’s been married. And he has a catchphrase. Of course he’s eccentric.

Zowie!

Osgood Fielding, III

3) The Script

Junior: Syncopators. Does that mean you play that very fast music…jazz?

Sugar: Yeah! Real hot!

Junior: Well then, I guess some like it hot. I personally prefer classical music.

The dialogue in Some Like it Hot is one of the reasons that it is so easy to re-watch. Much of the comedy is derived from word-play and some lines have a pay-off much later on.

Real diamonds. They must be worth their weight in gold.

Sugar

The work that went into creating the script (written by Billy Wilder and I.A. L. Diamond) meant that each line was carefully considered. Any deviations by the cast were not allowed or involved detailed discussions before they could be considered, let alone, permitted. The film started shooting before the script was finished. Wilder also wasn’t happy with THAT final line. Diamond came up with it as just a throwaway line but Wilder was never convinced and was just waiting to come up with something better. And there was to and fro-ing over the film’s title. Some Like it Hot had always been the intention but, due to a previous film being called Some Like it Hot they had some issues. Other titles bandied around included Fanfares of Love and Not Tonight, Josephine!

Not tonight Josephine!

Jerry

The final ultimate pay-off for the film (and the script particularly) must be the awards bestowed by the American Film Institute:

#22 Greatest Movie of all Time

#14 of the 100 Greatest Movies

#1 Funniest Movie.

(Stats taken from Some Like it Hot: Me, Marilyn and the Movie)

4) The Story

Joe: Because we’re pals, buddies, the two musketeers.

Jerry: Don’t give me the musketeers!

Some Like it Hot started its life as a remake of Fanfaren Der Liebe, a German film from 1951 which, itself, was a remake of the 1935 French film Fanfare d’amour. Saying that, the plots for the two films were different from each other and,  in the end, Some Like it Hot only has a few plot similarities to Fanfaren Der Liebe. These being: two musicians joining an all-girls orchestra/band and one of the musicians playing another role to win the heart of one of the female musicians.

If I were a girl, and I am, I’d watch my step.

Daphne

The story itself is effective in its simplicity: two musicians witness the St. Valentines Day massacre and join an all-girls band to escape. One falls for the lead singer and pursues her in another guise and the other is pursued in his female guise. Originally Wilder had intended for Some Like it Hot to be contemporary but realised that having two leads in drag for most of the film would be noticeable. If everybody looked ‘peculiar’ because the film was set in a different era, the drag would look ‘less peculiar’.

And then the cops are gonna find two dead dames and they’re gonna take us to the ladies morgue and when they undress us, Joe, I tell you, I’m gonna die of shame.

Jerry

Side note on the story: don’t be fooled by weak, horrific rip-offs. That’s right White Chicks. I’m looking at you. You need to punish someone? Don’t make them watch White Chicks. It’s too cruel. Show them Some Like it Hot so they can feel extra guilty for whatever they did. No-one will thank or forgive you for forcing White Chicks on them. I’m trying to repress it. Hours of my life I’ll never get back that I could’ve spent watching Some Like it Hot.

I’m Cinderella the second.

Daphne

5) The Music

The film contains two of Monroe’s most famous song performances – ‘I Wanna be Loved by You’ and ‘I’m Through with Love’.

Sugar: I come from this musical family. My mother was a piano teacher and my father was a conductor.

Josephine: Where did he conduct?

Sugar: On the Baltimore and Ohio.

‘I Wanna be Loved by You’ was written by Herbert Stothart and Harry Ruby, with lyrics by Bert Kalmar, for the 1928 musical Good Boy. It was chosen as one of the Songs of the Century in a survey by Recording Industry Association of America. Watch this performance and see if you disagree. Hint: you won’t.

‘I’m Through with Love’ was written by Fud Livingstone, Matty Malneck and Gus Kahn. It wasn’t written for a film but is used to perfect effect in Some Like it Hot. The heartbreaking performance by Sugar is another nudge for Joe. He was already seeing the error in his ways but seeing Sugar’s dismay just hammers it home.

Another song sung by Monroe is ‘Runnin’ Wild’. The song was written by A.H. Gibbs, Joe Grey and Leo Wood and first performed and recorded in 1922. The song is used for the rehearsal in the train – the first time Josephine and Daphne play with Sweet Sue’s Society Syncopators and the beginnings of friendship between Sugar and Daphne.

6) The History

You know, I’m gonna be 25 in June. That’s a quarter of a century. Makes a girl think.

Sugar

Since the film’s production there have been numerous stories circulating. Some true, some exaggerated and some false.

One of the publicity shots taken using a stand-in for Monroe. Her face was superimposed later.

Curtis was reported to have told an interviewer that “kissing Marilyn was like kissing Hitler”. This quote has lived on despite Curtis denying ever having said it. In his book he changes his denial by claiming that it was a sarcastic, throwaway comment made to a journalist in a particularly difficult day. This seems like a much more realistic story. Especially when you take into account Curtis’ claim of a relationship with Monroe many years earlier.

Jerry: These are real diamonds!

Joe: Of course they’re real.  You think my fiancé is a bum?

Another story that has survived is that of Curtis and Lemmon testing out their drag costumes in the ladies toilets. The story goes that boys got away with it. Feeling overly confident they returned to the make-up artist and ‘tried harder’. That time, one of the girls in the toilets greeted Curtis, “Hi, Tony”.

Sugar: If my mother could only see me now.

Daphne: I hope my mother never finds out.

To calm Wilder during one of Monroe’s absence, for an indeterminate length of time, Curtis decided it would be fun to swap the gangster jumping out of Spats’ birthday cake at the end with a stripper. That’s pretty much the extent of the story. It happened. Wilder was shocked.

I could’ve written this but it’s so much better coming from Curtis:

Let’s be honest, the majority of publicity/controversy surrounding Some Like it Hot involved Marilyn Monroe. There were her frequent late arrivals to set, if at all, her problems with simple lines (notably “It’s me, Sugar” and “Where’s that bourbon?”) and her pregnancy. Monroe’s personal life had its own problems at this time. If you’ve seen My Week with Marilyn then you’ve seen some of the troubles she was having on The Prince and the Showgirl (portrayed by Michelle Williams). This was filmed two years before Some Like it Hot and things didn’t get better for her. Monroe’s problems on set always seemed to worsen when Arthur Miller was present. (Cast and crew would take bets on how many takes it would take for Monroe to get her lines right.) Miller’s presence, and its affect on Monroe, also damaged the cast and crew’s perception of her even more. Reports of Monroe’s pregnancy, and subsequent miscarriage, have always been noted. From Me, Marilyn and the Movie, Curtis claimed that he and Monroe had one last tryst during production and that she wondered if her baby was his. Curtis was sure that the baby was. Do we believe his tales? Do we believe Colin Clark’s tale (My Week with Marilyn)? Are they all lies? Exaggeration? Or do they merely add to the mystique that continues to surround Monroe?

Well, after my many many ramblings I conclude with: I LOVE Some Like it Hot. And you should all too. So I order you to re-watch it. Or, if not, at least watch this (the final scene so you have been warned):

To read more about the film:

Billy Wilder’s Some Like it Hot

Some Like it Hot: The Official 50th Anniversary Companion

Some Like it Hot: Me, Marilyn and the Movie by Tony Curtis

They are all very interesting and come with beautiful photos from the film, pre-production, production and publicity.

S x