Monday, July 22, 2019

The Style Essentials - Kay Francis Battles in Bias Cut in 1932's TROUBLE IN PARADISE

Last Saturday was the second in my STYLE OF SIN series at the American Cinematheque, and it was focused on the Queen of Pre-Code herself - Kay Francis. I spoke all about the Production Code, Kay's life and career, and then the backstories of our double feature Girls About Town (1931) and Jewel Robbery (1932). Trouble in Paradise (1932) was also a critical success for Kay in both film and fashion, so I did share some of that in the presentation. But I felt it was important to share even more with you - both for those who came to the event and for those who missed it. I hope you enjoy this article I wrote for GlamAmor a few years ago.


Elegant. Sophisticated. Continental. Sensual. Stylish. All of these adjectives have been used to describe Ernst Lubitsch's Trouble in Paradise (1932). A Pre-Code classic with its suggestive sexual situations, the film looks at love and lust between its leads in exotic European locales like Venice and Paris. Films of the 1930s offered an escape for Depression era audiences and many movies took their lead from this romantic comedy, which set the standard for those to come. Top Hat (1935) and My Man Godfrey (1936) are but two that owe something to Paradise. It effortlessly evokes a mood as effervescent as the "moon in champagne" (a line from the film) and is the first from the director to be described as having the "Lubitsch Touch." Much of the reason that the movie is so magical is its costume design and his collaboration with the legendary Travis Banton. Not only is Trouble in Paradise a shining example of Lubitsch and his vision but, as you will see, the embodiment of Banton's own iconic style.

Though many may have heard of the "Lubitsch Touch," few today know the man. Surprising, even shocking, given he is revered like no other among great film directors. Frank Capra, John Ford, Orson Welles, Joseph Mankiewicz, and Peter Bogdonovich are only the start of a very long list. Each represents a different cinematic view and yet all hold Lubitsch in the highest regard. In addition to defining what romantic comedy could and should be, Lubitsch largely defined what all movies could and should be. Director Jean Renoir credited him with creating the "modern Hollywood" since, with him, the look and stories of film shifted from the early D. W. Griffith model of moviemaking into much of what we take for granted today. His structure and artistic choices were so admired that director Billy Wilder even had a sign on his office wall that asked "What would Lubitsch do?" 

What Lubitsch did was have a vision and work with great artists who shared it. First and foremost was his screenwriter Samson Raphaelson. The two were so close that Raphaelson would often weigh in on directing decisions while Lubitsch would also play with parts of the script. A frequent feature of theirs was the love triangle, which one can see somewhat in Ninotchka (1939) and of course the scandalous Design for Living (1933). The scandal started with Trouble in Paradise, though, with its strong sexual innuendo. Even the opening credits - with a bed floating behind the title - caused a stir. Because the Production Code was not yet fully enforced, the movie managed to squeak past the censors when it premiered. But by 1935, when the Code had its teeth, Paradise was prohibited from being distributed and would not be seen again until 1967. This has made Trouble in Paradise a lesser known film even among classic cinema fans, an oversight that many historians are now trying to make right.

Though Lubitsch is indeed great, the reason that Trouble in Paradise made my elite list of The Style Essentials is due to another talent - Travis Banton (above). The film is a virtual fashion show of the style he was known for best. Banton started his career in couture - first at Hattie Carnegie, then Madame Frances, and finally at Lucile. It was at Madame Frances that Mary Pickford chose one of his wedding gown designs for her wedding to Douglas Fairbanks in 1920. Not surprisingly, Banton became internationally known and Paramount's head costume designer Howard Greer (another Lucile alum) brought him to the studio. Though Banton would have an early success with Clara Bow in It (1927), the film's flapper fashion was not really indicative of his signature design style. He was a visionary already looking toward the 1930s.
A major shift in fashion was happening at that time courtesy of Madeleine Vionnet, a couturier who broke new ground in the late 1920s with her invention of the bias cut. This means that, for the first time, fabric was cut at a 45 degree angle (rather than straight along the grain) which allowed any fabric a certain amount of stretch. Designs that used the technique seductively hugged the curves of the female form. Though the bias cut started in Europe with Vionnet, the style's popularity soared and has became synonymous with the 1930s largely because of two Americans - costume designers Adrian at MGM (see 1933's Dinner at Eight, for example) and Banton at Paramount. Banton especially favored a long and lean silhouette and truly mastered the art of the bias cut. He used it extensively on friends like Marlene Dietrich - Shanghai Express was filmed the same year as Paradise - and Carole Lombard. One star of the era who was particularly associated with the bias cut was Kay Francis.  

Kay was a superstar of the 1930s and consistently glamorous in all of her roles, thanks to Banton as well as Orry-Kelly at her new home studio of Warner Bros. To fuel the fantasy of Depression weary audiences, Banton dressed Kay in sleek gowns that really pushed the limits of how bare a girl could go. She was known for wearing designs with deep décolletage in the front and back, often at the same time. Her body conscious slip and tank dresses were surprisingly modern, and would also later influence much of the minimalist style of the 1990s. Trouble in Paradise is one of the movies that best showcases her own signature style and many of the looks from the film are still influential in fashion. As you can see in a relatively recent Cinema Connection, designers like Ralph Lauren and Michael Kors continue to reference Kay in Banton's bias cut in their collections today.

For those who love films from the 1930s, and particularly the Pre-Code genre, Ernst Lubitsch's Trouble in Paradise is intoxicating. It's so light and lovely - as much an escape for those of us who suffered the Recession as it was for audiences during the Depression. The chemistry between the actors is amazing; though you may see nothing of sex, you do nothing but feel it through the entire production. Some of this was due to an actual attraction between its stars, but of course Travis Banton's costume design also does much to assist this. Both Kay and co-star Miriam Hopkins slink around the dazzling Art Deco sets (and Herbert Marshall) in little more than slips of silk over their fantastic figures. Though still being rediscovered today, Trouble in Paradise is essential to see both as a groundbreaking romantic comedy and how it features the forefront of 1930s fashion that is still inspiring design today. Enjoy the escape.

At the opera, Gaston (Herbert Marshall) spots Mariette (Kay Francis) -
and her expensive clutch - through his binoculars

As Mariette searches for her lost handbag,
we can admire her gorgeous bias cut gown with fur-trimmed wrap

Criminals never looked so good...
pickpocket Lily (Miriam Hopkins) strikes a pose in gold lame bias cut

Gaston devours Lily with his gaze - from the top of her head to her bottom -
and his lust for her becomes equally matched by feelings of love

Mariette meets Gaston in her search for her lost clutch in a fur-trimmed bias cut gown
and decides to hire her new infatuation as her secretary

Banton was associated with the phrase "When in doubt, trim in fur" because he so loved it -
mentor Lady Duff Gordon did it first and then
it was encouraged by Paramount head Adolph Zukor, a former furrier

Gaston, in turn, hires Lily as his secretary
and the love triangle is complete

We only get the briefest glimpse of this black silk bias cut with feather wrap in the film,
which was fortunately featured in promotional photos

Mariette dons this shimmering sequined white bias cut to seduce Gaston

Lily begins to suspect that Mariette is more than just a wealthy target to Gaston
and tries (unsuccessfully) to reach him by phone

The audience first sees this black sequin bias cut tank dress
under this fur wrap that owes much of its design to 1920s style

Images from an incredible edited sequence in the film -
"We have a long time ahead of us, Gaston...weeks...months...years."

This strand of pearls, along with the jeweled clutch, mean so much to Gaston
because they mean so much to Lily

This bias cut tank dress is perfect in its minimalism and highly influential -
it is also a great example of the style that Kay Francis was known for

The pearls and clutch find their way back to Lily (in her fur-trimmed bias cut suit)
as does Gaston's full attention and love for her

Wednesday, July 17, 2019

You're Invited! Presenting THE STYLE OF SIN: KAY FRANCIS at Egyptian Theatre 7/20

This Saturday is the next event in my 6-part Pre-Code speaker/screening series 
at the American Cinematheque!


Egyptian Theatre
Hollywood, CA

Talk starts at 1:00 pm 
followed by screenings of Girls About Town (1931) and Jewel Robbery (1932)

There will also be a display of Joseff of Hollywood jewelry from Jewel Robbery

The Pre-Code era of Hollywood refers to the years between 1930 when the Production Code was adopted and 1934 when it was in full effect. The Code prohibited seeing many sins on screen, so Pre-Code films are beloved for how risqué and provocative they could be with their look and content.

This 6-part series that introduces you to some of the most popular actresses of the Pre-Code era - Barbara Stanwyck, Kay Francis, Jean Harlow, Carole Lombard, Marlene Dietrich, Joan Blondell, and Joan CrawfordEach event will begin with one of my presentations followed by a double feature of films. There will be one event per month. 

Though costume design is important in film, it is particularly significant to the plot and production of the movies selected for this series. In each talk, you will also learn about the costume designers themselves - how they contributed to the style of the studios along with the evolution of the actresses' careers and personal style.

Upcoming events in the STYLE OF SIN series can be seen on the GlamAmor Events page.

I wore a late 1960s/early 1970s shirtdress with a neckline that was popular in the 1930s

 Two special guests came to my first Pre-Code event - 
Delta Burke and Gerald McRaney,
who are two of the nicest people you will ever meet

Some attendees flew in from across the country, 
like the wonderful Crumps who came all the way from Detroit

Some attendees like Valerie Zee have been so supportive
and have come to almost every one of my talks

The courtyard of the Egyptian Theatre
still looks very much like it did at its opening in 1922

Monday, July 8, 2019

Cinema Style File - Barbara Stanwyck Straight Down the Line in 1944's DOUBLE INDEMNITY

A little over a week ago, I started my Pre-Code screening series The Style of Sin at the Egyptian Theatre and my first star was Barbara Stanwyck. As we saw while watching Ladies of Leisure (1930) and Baby Face (1933), she was a talented actress from the very beginning of her career. And though a film like Baby Face was filled with glamorous costumes, Stanwyck's acclaimed onscreen style didn't really hit its stride until she moved to Paramount and starting working with costume designer Edith Head. Even when playing a femme fatale in Double Indemnity (1944), complete with blonde wig, you can still see the beauty in Barbara Stanwyck. Here I share an article I wrote back in 2012 about what many consider the best film noir of all time.


I knew when I committed to doing a month dedicated to film noir style on GlamAmor that Double Indemnity would have to enter into it. Merely saying its name conjures up images of all the conventions of noir - the femme fatale, shadowy and smoky cinematography, voice-over narration, and the architecture of historic LA. Even those who are not fanatics as I am seem to understand its significance. Though there are many movies to love in the genre, it is 1944's Double Indemnity that is widely considered THE quintessential film noir.  

Double Indemnity was based on a 1935 novela by James M. Cain, who wrote noir classics The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946) and Mildred Pierce (1945) as well. He was particularly gifted at creating nuanced women who murder and make you able to empathize with their motivations to do so. The novel was turned into a screenplay by director Billy Wilder and Raymond Chandler - yes, the Raymond Chandler - who was himself the author of novels on which film noir was based. The Big Sleep, Lady in the Lake, and Farewell, My Lovely (turned into the film Murder, My Sweet with Dick Powell) are all Chandler. The often contentious combination of these three writers is what resulted in the movie's tension and incredible banter. And it's John F. Seitz's mysterious cinematography that really creates the mood - another giant, known for photographing noir classics This Gun for Hire (1942) and Sunset Boulevard (1950). I think he really picked up where Josef von Sternberg left off in Shanghai Express (1932) where shadows, such as through venetian blinds, are used to great dramatic effect. 

Wilder is such a talented director that he created some of the biggest movie hits in history and in every genre. Comedy - Some Like It Hot (in fact, it's AFI's best comedy ever). Drama - Stalag 17. Romantic Comedy - Sabrina. And on and on. He was known for getting the most out of his actors, and he could not have cast more perfect performers as his leads for Double Indemnity. Barbara Stanwyck took on the amoral Phyllis Dietrichson after playing some slightly softer roles. Likewise, Fred MacMurray brought empathy and depth to Walter Neff when the role could have made him seem even more of a heel. And Edward G. Robinson steals every scene he's in as the movie's detective and conscience, insurance investigator Barton Keyes.  

But even with all that, my favorite part of Double Indemnity just might be the costumes by Edith Head. My hero - whose exquisite designs understood the needs of both the actress and her character. Her assignment was frequently the talented Ms. Stanwyck, a woman whom executives originally declared un-attractive. That is, until Edith entered her life. One of her tailoring tricks was to drop the waistline in the back of gowns in order to better present her proportions. It gave Barbara a new lease on life and she would never be without Edith again, whether she was working for Paramount or not.

For the femme fatale Phyllis Dietrichson, Wilder envisioned the character as oozing "sleazy phoniness." His decision for Barbara's over-the-top blonde wig was his vision of this. But I think Edith understood the character even better. Phyllis is sinister and superficial - her main motivation was money, so much so that her husband complained about the way she liked to spend it. As a result, Edith adorned the character with lots of jewelry, including inventing the iconic anklet for the film which is not in the original book. We also see her in expensive clothes, including a gown for day. But they're still classicly cut, almost as if Phyllis is trying her best to seem the good wife and mask all of her amoral intentions.  

Like most of Edith's work, you'll find Phyllis' wardrobe very wearable today - a belted cashmere coat, cashmere cardigan (worn backward as a top) with simple black pants, tailored suits, and a flirty fringed little black dress. She also wears a silk jumpsuit in the end, a garment way ahead of its time - 30 years later it would become all the rage, especially when interpreted by Halston in the 1970s. Though Double Indemnity was nominated for seven Oscars, nothing went to Edith Head for costume design. It's simply incredible to consider when these are costumes that have become iconic. Whether you recognize it or not, they continue to be referenced in design and live on in today's fashion collections. 

And so, let's take a look at the costumes that continue to inspire - inside the devious but incredibly stylish world of 1944's Double Indemnity.

Starts speeding through the streets of downtown Los Angeles...
the Biltmore Hotel is shown on the left corner below

Though many think the Pacific All Risk insurance company takes place at the Bradbury Building,
it is just a well designed Paramount studio set

Walter's tale is told through voice over and flashback -
one of the hallmarks of film noir

The Dietrichson neighborhood is filmed in the Hollywood Hills (6301 Quebec Drive),
but this Spanish Colonial style can be found everywhere in Los Angeles

Phyllis really knows how to make a first impression -
she also knows opportunity when it comes knocking

You can really see the skillful cinematography of John Seitz here
as we meet Mr. Dietrichson (Tom Powers) and his daughter Lola (Jean Heather) 
through photographs on the piano

First close up of Phyllis - and her provocative anklet -
as she puts the finishing touches on a ruffle-front silk shirtdress

 An iconic moment in the movie with her "honey of an anklet" -
Edith Head dresses the character with plenty of jewelry to show her attraction to money

"There's a speed limit in this state, Mr. Neff. 45 miles per hour."
"How fast was I going, officer?"
"I'd say around 90."

Driving back to the Pacific All Risk where we meet Keyes for the first time

When Walter returns to Phyllis to make his sales pitch, he finds they're alone
and she's looking fetching in a black and white floral gown

He also finds there's murder on her mind

Beer and bowling on Western before heading home

Walter's apartment - exterior filmed at 1825 N. Kingsley Drive in Los Angeles

An unsurprising guest pops in out of the rain

Despite being dressed in an innocent sweater, the scheming begins

Walter tricks Dietrichson into signing for accident insurance 
while Phyllis looks on in a little black dress (and brooch)
that has been copied in fashion many times since

Meeting at Jerry's Market to plan a murder

A call to confirm the plans -
Edith makes great use of the shot by including a ring for Phyllis to wear

The last time anyone sees Mr. Dietrichson
and the moment of the murder shows just how cold-blooded and calculating Phyllis is

Dropping off Walter (taking Dietrichson's place) at Glendale's Southern Pacific Train Station
since death by train brings twice the insurance money - the "double indemnity" clause

Time on the train shows just some of the direction, design, and lighting 
that make this movie so good and inspired many others to borrow from it

Playing a widow in mourning in a gray suit with black accessories,
including a hat with veil

Though at the inquest, Keyes believes Phyllis' story,
he drops by to tell Walter that his "little man" has started to tell him otherwise

 Now the trouble really begins

One bit of trouble is finding Mr. Medford, Oregon - witness from the train - in Keyes' office

Another is Phyllis telling him she has no intention of withdrawing her claim -
it's "straight down the line"

Out of guilt, Walter begins seeing Lola Dietrichson
at an Olvera Street restaurant and above the iconic Hollywood Bowl

Phyllis preps for the final showdown with Walter in a sexy silk jumpsuit

Walter arrives and announces he's getting off their ride together

Notice in the costume how similar the bodice is to Veronica Lake's style

Phyllis draws her gun first, but Walter gets the last shot

The story is finished...and so is Walter

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