foolish heart

Close Up #5

Close Up #5: Susan Hayward’s frock in My Foolish Heart (1949)

Woman’s pictures elevate the significance of style details to an unwritten code that informs women’s lives. In a classic double bind, women negotiate sartorial choices that have both enormous importance and absolutely none at all. In woman’s pictures, viewers bask in plots that measure the thread and texture among layers of stylish import. Ask a woman what she wore when she met the love of her life and odds favour her total recall.

If she pays no attention to matters of style, she’s a rube, such as Jeanne Crain in her mail order dress in A Letter to Three Wives (1949). Wearing a tatty chiffon monstrosity with too many tiers and improbably placed floral appliques, she makes her social debut outfitted as a hick among soigné country club wives. A woman’s lack of style presents social embarrassment, it renders her a ‘Christmas tree’, as snotty teenagers brand over-embellished Barbara Stanwyck in Stella Dallas (1937), whose lack of taste authorises her stuck up daughter to leave and pretend her mother never existed. Style deficiency paints a woman as a gate crasher from the unfortunate side of the tracks, as Lana Turner’s taxi dancer appears to be among spoilt co-eds in These Glamour Girls (1939). A series of awkward, ill-fitted gowns prepare Olivia de Havilland for her father’s psychological abuse and the cruelties of a fortune hunter in The Heiress (1949).

If a woman pays too much attention to fashion, she’s a bubble-headed half-wit with nothing better to do, like Scarlett O’Hara before she must plow the earth to survive, before the war, when women did little else than boast about the size of their waist. An obvious focus on style indicates an outrageous socialite with too much time on her hands, like Rosalind Russell in The Women (1939), who wears a shirtwaist dress with a bustle to a fashion show, where she declares with dramatic irony that ‘no one disputes how I wear clothes’. Or, if she devotes her life to fashion, like the designer Barbara Stanwyck plays in There’s Always Tomorrow (1955) when she makes a friendly overture to Joan Bennett by offering her a dress straight off the runway, Bennett’s character smugly dismisses the need for a stylish dress to stage a romantic evening with the husband played by Fred MacMurray. Busy wives and mothers don’t have time for such larks, she basically scoffs. Bennett relegates Stanwyck’s professional accomplishments to the trash heap with a single eviscerating comment.

In the style wars, what the right dress can do for a woman has endless variation on film, and the scenario never dulls into cliché. Call her Madame Satan (1930), in Adrian’s sex bomb torso cut-out costume for Kay Johnson to win back her husband; Joan Crawford in simple moire silk in The Last of Mrs Cheyney (1937) who has a society dame drooling over her gown, which gains entry to their circle; Bette Davis greets the family in a long sleeve sumptuous number, accented with fresh camellias as newly made over after a nervous breakdown in Now, Voyager (1942), or Anna Neagle, a poor Irish immigrant shop girl who turns up to a society ball in her mother’s vintage blue gown and becomes a modern Cinderella in Irene (1940). A dress might spell social suicide or a passport to social mobility and opportunity—the right frock opens doors.

Fate and fortune often turn on a dress. Susan Hayward’s character Eloise in My Foolish Heart (1949) learns that a frock matters, not only for the impression it gives, but also how it frames power relationships with other women and men. What you wear makes you vulnerable, as Hayward so adeptly underscores with a stirring performance. Playing an Idaho girl in a New York college, naturally she wants to look as though she’s earned the passage from Rocky Mountains to gold standard metropolis. Except she made a greenhorn mistake by assuming a shop clerk in Boise ‘who swore on her life’ knows what will pass for the height of fashion in New York.

foolish heart

A brown and white buffalo plaid swing dress with a scoop neckline bears every aesthetic hallmark of an unsophisticated style frontier: broad, safe, and simple. First, in the words of Miuccia Prada, brown seems ‘difficult and unappealing’ an otherwise tricky choice for a party dress. (I should interject that I wore head-to-toe chocolate the night I met the love of my life, and spent most of 15 years with it as the dominant colour in my wardrobe, but even I never owned a brown party dress). A hue of bespoke industry, acumen and application, brown connotes serious engagement with work and study, not twirling on a dancefloor with a new beau. Too sombre for flirtation, brown amounts to frivolity’s antidote. Think of Katharine Hepburn’s style blunder when she marries Robert Taylor in a brown dress (and then meets his society friends) in Undercurrent (1946), where afterward, he rushes her to a dress shop fitting room to remedy her social gaffe. That’s not to malign the shade with a wide range of utility, but a cocktail dress fails within a brown range, unless worn by Bette Davis in All About Eve (1950) who has bigger fish to fry than having any fun, but even her famous Edith Head frock with fur pockets was really more of a rust colour, which has enough energetic red to lift a muddy hue.

foolish heart

The buffalo plaid print seems more aligned with outdoor pursuits or a picnic. As closely as it resembles a tablecloth, buffalo plaid suggests hidden comestibles or hay rather than a lady of intrigue. Only gingham would have surpassed in the infantilised department. A scoop neckline feels askew for NYC in 1949. Something about it looks saccharine, too innocent, more on par with a sweet sixteen party than a grown woman in university out on the town. Eloise looks out of step with the rest of her classmates, which snobby Miriam Ball (Karin Booth) delights to point out when she obliterates Eloise’s pride by telling her that no one wears a dress like that in New York anymore.

Miriam’s cutting remark shifts Eloise to the party side lines where she mewls and nurses her wounded self-confidence. She withers under a fashionable girl’s pronouncement. Only one thing can restore Eloise’s evening from self-pity in the corner, and it comes in the guise of Dana Andrews. With the most desirable man in the room by her side, she makes full social recovery. Along with his attention, he bestows a bouquet of Schadenfreude, when he issues devastating comments about Miriam’s ensemble. Even if men possess zero actual knowledge about fashion, they can still render scathing remarks that invalidate a woman’s style choices, because in the end everything rests upon their approval, so the sands that shift in patriarchy’s hourglass command. When Dana Andrews’ Walt Drieser looks at Miriam Ball, he takes less than a second to declare her a frump. He repeats it a few times. He bases his opinion on the fact that he knows people who went to Paris. By proxy of association, he may claim a mantle of style authority. Walt also reasons that most likely her dress was manufactured in Seventh Avenue, so it automatically rates as fashionable for the city. His argument seems persuasive on the surface because the Garment District had a strong level of production and influence in American clothing industry up until the 1970s. But just because brown and white buffalo plaid comes out of a New York sewing machine doesn’t mean women there elect to wear it. Eloise has little interest in poking holes in his theory. She’s content to squeeze solace from his explanation.

foolish heart

In a brief exchange, he rescinds Miriam’s status as fashion queen when he compliments her column gown and then adds that every girl in a mining town he had just visited wore the exact same dress as an almost uniform. She freezes as though he had tossed an ice bucket over her head. Before he can get started on her hair, she exits the ball with an excuse about an early morning. Walt’s opinion lacks any validity (it’s a lovely Grecian drape) but since he’s handsome and charming, his assessment may as well be the writ of Pharaoh Ramses carved in stone. Defenceless, Miriam suffers the blow. The vagaries of style limit a woman’s confidence that she’s always able to showcase impeccable style. Subjective, ever-changing and site of a thousand insecurities, fashion means every woman with a pulse knows how the room dims and shrinks in the wrong dress.

foolish heart

Eloise connects the dots for how a dress shapes the evening. Later, in his bachelor flat, she realises the home-on-the-range dress left her vulnerable to not only catty remarks by classmates but also wolfish-minded men on the prowl. Eloise’s dress achieved the same result as a large neon sign announcing her recent arrival from the sticks. Unaccustomed to a man with moves and a game plan, she accepted what he said and did at face value, influenced perhaps by what the dress suggested. Galinsky (2012) identifies a process of ‘enclothed cognition’ in a recent study, which traces a correlation between what we wear and how it influences our behaviour and decisions. In Eloise’s case, she became as naïf as the design, a guileless dress served as gift wrap for a man looking for an easy pick up. She tells Walt:

We only met because I wore the wrong dress.

foolish heart

Years later, when Eloise’s former friend Mary Jane (Lois Wheeler) visits, she doesn’t hold a grudge over how their friendship soured. Pragmatic Mary Jane understands the way the wheel of fashion fortunes turn:

I could have been the girl in the brown and white dress. Anyone could have.

Good or bad luck often comes off the rack.

 

Share
carole lombard

Carole Lombard: Hoyden, Screwball, Mogul in the Making – Episode 17

Ice-blonde with blue piercing eyes and great gams, Carole surprised many with her salty tongue, endless pranks and keen head for business and publicity. A screwball comedy queen, she also had a big heart when it came to looking after everyone she came into contact with, on and off the set. A proto feminist, she strived for better contracts and demanded her way when it came to choosing writers, directors and cinematographers for her projects. Her life was tragically brief so we want to pay homage to this great lady who was really just getting started. In episode 17 we discuss Virtue (1932), No Man of Her Own (1932) and My Man, Godfrey (1936).

Sources:
Bogdanovich, P. (1997) Who the Devil Made It: Conversations with Legendary Film Directors New York: Ballantine Books.

Carman, E. (2016) Independent Stardom: Freelance Women in the Hollywood Studio System. Austin: University of Texas Press.

My Man Godfrey (1936) Dir. Gregory La Cava [YouTube] Universal Pictures.

No Man of Her Own (1932) Dir. Wesley Ruggles [DVD] Paramount Pictures.

Swindell, L. (1975) Screwball: The Life of Carole Lombard Brattleboro: Echo Point Books and Media.

Virtue (1932) Dir. Edward Buzzell [DVD] Columbia Pictures.

Ott W. Frederick. (1972) The Films of Carole Lombard: The Citadel Press

sensesofcinema.com/2011/cteq/my-man-godfrey/

Share

Sisters under the Skin – Joan Crawford ‘As Wobbly as the Statue of Liberty’ – Episode 13

This month is special. To celebrate our one year podcast anniversary we are devoting episode 13 to the Queen of Woman’s Pictures, Joan Crawford. No idle gossip, or mention of THAT film will intrude on the Joan love-in. We are here to celebrate Ms Crawford through three of her finest films, ‘Sadie McKee’, ‘A Woman’s Face’, and ‘The Damned Don’t Cry’. As part of our ‘Sisters under the Skin’ series, part 1 is Joan but in part 2 next month we will be discussing the incomparable Bette Davis. Bless you.

Sisters under the Skin – Joan Crawford ‘As Wobbly as the Statue of Liberty’ – Episode 13 by Any Ladle’s Sweet

This month is special. To celebrate our one year podcast anniversary we are devoting episode 13 to the Queen of Woman’s Pictures, Joan Crawford. No idle gossip, or mention of THAT film will intrude on the Joan love-in. We are here to celebrate Ms Crawford through three of her finest films, ‘Sadie McKee’, ‘A Woman’s Face’, and ‘The Damned Don’t Cry’.

Sources:
Ep 13: Joan Crawford ‘As Wobbly As The Statue of Liberty’ [the quote comes from Molly Haskell’s ground breaking study From Reverence to Rape: The Treatment of Women in the Movies in a discussion of Joan Crawford’s role as the head of a trucking company in They All Kissed the Bride]

A Woman’s Face (1941) Dir. George Cukor [DVD] MGM Studios.

Crawford, J. (1962) A Portrait of Joan: The Autobiography of Joan Crawford (with Joan Kesner Ardmore). New York: Doubleday.

Crawford, J. (1971) My Way of Life. New York: Simon and Schuster.

Haskell, M. (1973) From Reverence to Rape: The Treatment of Women in the Movies. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Newquist, R. (1980) Conversations with Joan Crawford. Secaucus: Citadel Press.

Sherman, V. (1996) Studio Affairs: My Life as a Film Director. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky.

Sadie McKee (1934) Dir. Clarence Brown [DVD] MGM Studios.

Spoto, D. (2012) Possessed: The Life of Joan Crawford. London: Arrow Books.

Springer, J. (1973) Joan Crawford at Town Hall. Available at: www.youtube.com/watch?v=OeSwnYo_4hw

The Damned Don’t Cry (1950) Dir. Vincent Sherman [DVD] Warner Brothers.

Interview clip at end: The Louella Parsons Show, original airing November 9th, 1947.www.youtube.com/watch?v=nEJlwwRyO…&feature=youtu.be

Lukas, Karli. (2000) A Woman’s Face, Senses of Cinema sensesofcinema.com/2000/cteq/woman/

Share

Dress Tells the Woman’s Story: Designing Woman’s Pictures 1929-1958 – Episode 10

In this episode we’re focusing on the behind-the-scenes magic of the great costume designer’s from the golden era of Hollywood. Adrian, Edith Head, Irene and Orry-Kelly, the kings and queens of fashion design on film for over 4 decades.

He’s a Keeper this month is the glorious ‘King of the Pre-Codes’ Warren William!

Dress Tells the Woman’s Story: Designing Woman’s Pictures 1929-1958 – Episode 10 by Any Ladle’s Sweet

In this episode we’re focusing on the behind-the-scenes magic of the great costume designer’s from the golden era of Hollywood. Adrian, Edith Head, Irene and Orry-Kelly, the kings and queens of fashion design on film for over 4 decades. He’s a Keeper this month is the glorious ‘King of the Pre-Codes’ Warren William!

 

Sources:
All About Eve (1950) Dir. Joseph L. Mankiewicz [DVD] Twentieth Century Fox.

Auntie Mame (1958) Dir. Morton DaCosta [DVD] Warner Bros.

Billecci, F and Fisher, L.F. (2013) Irene a Designer from the Golden Age of Hollywood: The MGM Years 1942-1949. Atglen: Schiffer.

Dark Victory (1939) Dir. Edmund Goulding [DVD] Warner Bros.

Double Indemnity (1944) Dir. Billy Wilder [DVD] Paramount Pictures.

Greer, H. (2001). Gowns by Adrian: the MGM years 1928-1941. New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc.

Head, E. and Calistro, P. (2008) Edith Head’s Hollywood. Santa Monica: Angel City Press.

Imitation of Life (1934) John M Stahl [DVD] Universal Studios.

Jewel Robbery (1932) Dir. William Dieterle [DVD] Warner Bros.

Jorgensen, J. (2010) Edith Head: The Fifty-Year Career of Hollywood’s Greatest Costume Designer. Philadelphia: Running Press.

Letty Lynton (1932) Dir. Clarence Brown [internet archive] Metro-Goldwyn- Mayer.

Midnight (1939) Dir. Mitchell Leisen [DVD] Paramount Pictures.

Mr and Mrs Smith (1941) Dir Alfred Hitchcock [DVD] RKO.

Orry-Kelly. (2016) Women I’ve Undressed. London: Allen & Unwin.

Romance (1930) Dir. Clarence Brown [DVD] Metro-Goldwyn- Mayer.

Skyscraper Souls (1932) Dir. Edgar Selwyn [DVD] Warner Bros.

Stangeland, J. (2011) Warren William: Magnificent Scoundrel of Pre-Code Hollywood. Jefferson: McFarland & Company.

Susan and God (1940) Dir. George Cukor [DVD] Metro-Goldwyn- Mayer.

The Heiress (1949) Dir. William Wyler [DVD] Paramount Pictures.

The Match King (1932) Howard Bretherton & William Keighley [DVD] Warner Bros.

The Mouthpiece (1932) Dir. James Food & Elliot Nugent. [DVD] Warner Bros.

The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946) Dir. Tay Garnett [DVD] Metro-Goldwyn- Mayer.

Acker, Ally (1991). Reel Women: Pioneers of the Cinema, 1896 to the Present. B.T. Batsford, London.

Carman, Emily (2016). Independent Stardom: Freelance Women in the Hollywood Studio System. University of Texas Press.

Share