Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Out & About--Walking (and Rowing) through the History of Echo Park Lake

One of the things I admire most about Los Angeles is its history.  Though relatively young--California itself only became a state in 1850--the impact of this area is staggering, everything from inventions to innovations to style.  As a lover of film, I am constantly in awe of the fact that I live in the same city where that industry was born over a century ago.  It all seems like sacred ground.  Wherever one goes, there are reminders of the Golden Age of Hollywood.  Someone has lived there.  Played there.  Worked there.  Filmed there.  I recently wrote about Sunset Boulevard (1950) which, like many other film noir, features classic Los Angeles locations.  I've visited several of these historic places for GlamAmor--including Union Station, City Hall, the Bradbury Building, and Angel's Flight.  And a few weekends ago, I took a tour of the lake at Echo Park. 

Many will remember Echo Park Lake from the neo-noir Chinatown (1974) where Jake Gittes (Jack Nicolson) rides in a rowboat to follow and photograph his client's husband.  But the lake began far less glamorously--simply known as "Reservoir #4" and intended to be a source of drinking water for LA.  Back in 1868, a ditch was dug from the Los Angeles River through the Arroyo de las Reyes that then emptied water into the reservoir.  Once filled, it became the largest body of water within LA's city limits.  Workers could hear an echo when calling across the ravine, so the entire area became known as Echo Park.

However, "Reservoir #4" soon ceased to be useful as a water supply, and then not profitable as a power supply either.  Because the city was growing, discussions quickly turned to developing real estate around the water in Echo Park.  At this early point in LA's history, this was still called the "West End"--today, Echo Park is among those cities considered "Eastside," not "Westside"--and a park promised to increase interest and value to the area.  In 1891, Mayor Henry Hazard signed papers to allow the reservoir to be converted into a park.  Major changes began in 1892--first, transforming the reservoir into a reinforced man-made lake and then creating an island within it, building a boathouse and bridges for it, and landscaping acres and acres around it.  Finally, the park was completed and opened to the public in 1895.

The greatest period of growth for the park was between 1905 and 1935.  At this time, the city was booming due to the influx of the new film industry--first as part-time visitors from the East Coast and then as permanent full-time residents of the West Coast.  Keystone Studios, run by legendary producer Mack Sennett, was located very close to Echo Park Lake.  Known for the "Keystone Cops," the studio also made names for Charlie Chaplin, Mabel Normand, Gloria Swanson, and Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle.  Sennett would produce about 1,100 pictures, and often used the park and lake as filming locations.  You'll see two movies with Chaplin below.  By the late teens, though, city leaders accused the studio of trampling too many plants in the park and banned Keystone from ever using it again.  

During the 1930s, there were many changes at Echo Park Lake.  Spanish style homes had come into fashion and sprung up all around the park's perimeter, so suddenly the original Victorian boathouse seemed a bit outdated.  And so, in 1932, the old boathouse was replaced with another that had a working lighthouse and designed in the Spanish style.  Yet another feature that was added around this time was the Queen of the Angels statue--also known as the "Lady of the Lake"--which was erected in 1934.  Both the statue and boathouse still stand and have become signatures of the park.

After many years of being part of the city's recreational center, Echo Park Lake started suffering from misuse and neglect and fell into great disrepair.  But in 2006, there was a dramatic reversal of fortune.  First, it was declared a Cultural Historic Monument.  This landmark status was well deserved, and also offered the park protection while the city planned an enormous rehabilitation project.  Today, what was once a reservoir is now a lake with a sustainable wildlife habitat.  It is also designed to prevent water pollution as a valuable part of LA's storm drain system.  

Echo Park Lake now blends its rich history with a stunning sanctuary that offers a wide variety of fauna and flora to admire.  Some of these are the famous lotus blossoms, which have mysterious origins back to the earliest days of the park and are celebrated each year in a festival.  As you'll see, these flowers and many others were in bloom during our visit.  So join me now as I take you on a ride in a rowboat as well as a walk through history at Echo Park Lake.

Echo Park Lake today (above)
and back at the time of its opening around 1895

The park's signature row of palm trees still stands along the banks of the lake

If you want to row on the lake, you visit the boathouse,
which has a working lighthouse and dates back to 1932

Evolution of the Echo Park Lake bridge...
an ornate rustic bridge shown here circa 1895

The park's more Victorian style bridge shown around 1900

The nearby Keystone Studios used Echo Park Lake as a location in many films...
Charlie Chaplin with Mabel Normand in Mabel's Married Life (1914, above)
and Chaplin with Helen Carruthers in Recreation (1914)

In Chinatown (1974), Jake Gittes (Jack Nicholson) and his associate follow the mystery to "water again"
and take pictures while rowing near the bridge on Echo Park Lake

The beautiful bridge today...
the island was off limits to visitors

The lake has been turned into a protected habitat for various fauna and flora,
like these different-colored lily pads

Fortunate to catch flowers in bloom in the lake's famous lotus bed, 
which has mysterious beginnings in the early days of Echo Park

Canoeing around the lotus bed in 1930

Two types of water birds that now inhabit the sanctuary of Echo Park Lake

The Queen of the Angels statue was erected in 1934
and often called "Lady of the Lake"

The fountain was erected as part of the 1984 Olympic Games in Los Angeles

The city of Los Angeles stands tall behind Echo Park Lake

Information and Historic Images

Los Angeles Public Library Historic Collection
USC Library
W. H. Fletcher Collection at California State Library

Aerial image

Rest of photos are originals by Kimberly Truhler for GlamAmor

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

You're invited! Discover the HISTORY OF FASHION IN FILM 1950s in Live Webinar 9/20

If you love style in the movies, join me this Saturday for the next in my live 6-part webinar series to learn all about THE STYLE ESSENTIALS: HISTORY OF FASHION IN FILM.  The Style Essentials are 50 films with the most iconic costume design that immediately impacted fashion and continues to influence the way we dress today.  This is an online version of the HISTORY OF FASHION IN FILM course I teach at Woodbury University and in presentations around Southern California.  There is one webinar per decade from the 1920s to the 1970s. 

Saturday's online seminar focuses on the style icons of the Golden Age of Hollywood during the 1950s--including ELIZABETH TAYLOR, GRACE KELLY, AUDREY HEPBURN, and MARILYN MONROE.  

Each presentation includes live video of me discussing the film history, costume and fashion designers, and fascinating backstories of the stars alongside stills from the movies and images that show the influence on our fashion today.  

Cost is $20 per webinar, which also includes sessions of Q&A.  Each one of these live classes takes place one Saturday per month starting at 10:30 am PT.  But if you miss the live classes, fear not.  You can view the video recordings at any time for only $10.  

I will send out reminders here, on Facebook, and Twitter to register before each of the upcoming webinars.  Once you register, you will receive an event reminder in your email inbox and a link for you to be able to enter the class.  

The more the merrier, so share with all your friends.  I look forward to seeing you there!

for any of the webinars--
whether live or recorded  

The 1920s--The Jazz Age

Saturday, June 21st
2 hours

The 1930s--Art Deco Elegance

Saturday, July 19th
2.5 hours

The 1940s--Film Noir Style

Saturday, August 23rd
3 hours

The 1950s--Opposites Attract

Saturday, September 20th
3 hours

The 1960s--Revolution

Saturday, October 18th
2.5 hours

The 1970s--Everybody's All American

Saturday, November 15th
2.5 hours

Image courtesy of Larry Brownstein

Monday, September 8, 2014

Cinema Style--Edith Head Gets Gloria Swanson Ready for her Close-Up in SUNSET BOULEVARD

Few films capture the feel of Hollywood better than director Billy Wilder's Sunset Boulevard (1950). Though much of the movie feels almost dreamlike (starting with voiceover narration that comes courtesy of a dead man), in many ways it couldn't be more real.  Wilder wove fact in with fiction at every turn of the production--from its classic Los Angeles locations to the actors involved to its story of a fallen star.  Even its costume design--with its deep history between costume designer Edith Head and star Gloria Swanson--adds to the surrealism.  Costume design is always important in a film, but it is vital in Sunset Boulevard.  With it, Swanson transforms herself into Norma Desmond, one of the most iconic film characters of all time.  

The realism in Sunset Boulevard starts with the actresses Wilder first considered to play the part of Norma Desmond.  Mae West, Mary Pickford, and Pola Negri were all approached, but each were concerned that her life came a little too close to the character of a former, and now faded, star.  In contrast, Gloria Swanson was very unlike the character--an energetic and savvy business woman who was always working.  From her success in acting, she became a of the first women to finance her own productions.  And from her success as a producer, she evolved into an entrepreneur.  Most notably, this included fashion design and running an apparel manufacturing company in New York. 

Sunset Boulevard seems all the more real because of how much Gloria's real life intersects with those in the film.  Even minor characters are familiar faces--silent screen stars Buster Keaton, H. B. Warner, and Anna Q. Nilsson make a group appearance at Norma's card game.  Actress-turned-gossip columnist Hedda Hopper also makes a cameo at the end of the movie during Norma's demise.  But it's two of her co-stars who have the deepest connection to Gloria--Erich Von Stroheim and Cecil B. DeMille. Von Stroheim is cast as Max Von Mayerling, Norma's butler who was once her husband and movie director.  Max is described in the film as one of the great directors of the silent era alongside D. W. Griffith and Cecil B. DeMille, which is certainly true of Von Stroheim.  A clip of his Queen Kelly (1929, starring Gloria Swanson) even makes an appearance in Sunset Boulevard.  And of course DeMille could not have been a bigger part of Gloria's life and career. They made six movies together starting when she was only a teen and they turned Gloria into an international superstar.  

DeMille called her the "movie star of all movie stars." Wilder has the character Max remind us that she "was the greatest star of them all."  In her role as star, Gloria was the first clotheshorse in Hollywood, known for her high style onscreen as well as off.  Her films with DeMille like Why Change Your Wife? (1920) were known for the quality and quantity of her costumes.  In fact, he found fashion to be an integral part of his formula for success--"sex, sets, and costumes." Costume designer Clare West dressed her in everything from European haute couture to her own custom-made clothes.  Luxurious fabrics were loosely draped on Gloria's figure and accents like beading and feathers made her an Art Deco goddess.  Audiences lined up again and again for her "fashion films" (as DeMille called them) and everyone wanted to be as glamorous as Gloria.  She was so influential that it is largely her style we think of when we envision the early 1920s. 

 Furs--like this monkey fur, above--and feathers were a huge part of Gloria's 1920s onscreen style 
as well as beading and headdresses galore

Gloria was already the queen of the movies, but in 1925 she flew to France and also married a Marquis (Henri de la Falaise de Coudray).  There was global fanfare about the marriage that included parades in both New York and Los Angeles.  Upon Gloria's return to Paramount, she passed through the gates in what Romans would call a triumph--the entire studio lined the streets and literally threw roses at the procession and then her feet when Gloria emerged from her Rolls Royce.  The event became enough of Hollywood legend that Wilder seems to reference it in Sunset Boulevard when Joe Gillis (William Holden) describes Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson) as a former star "still waving proudly to a parade that had long since passed her by." 

Costume designer Edith Head was among the adoring employees who lined up to greet Gloria with petals in hand.  The experience was one she never forgot.  "In my mind, Gloria represented the greatest from the days when I was just a beginner," Edith said.  "She was a legend when I was walking around with stars in my eyes."  Edith had only started at Paramount two years earlier as a sketch artist and assistant to head costume designer Howard Greer.  In contrast to Greer and colleague Travis Banton--who both came to Paramount from the Lucile couturier--Edith did not come from the world of fashion.  Instead, she had a Masters degree in Romance Languages from Stanford, taught French and art at the Hollywood School for Girls (where DeMille's daughters went), and took art classes on the side.  But for 15 years, she would learn everything there was to know about costume design from the masters of "Paramount Polish."  They taught her about fabrics, design techniques, and the production process.  She turned out to be a natural, and complimented the genius twosome by being particularly gifted at management and politics. When Edith started, Gloria was at her height of popularity and only worked with the best, which meant Banton and Greer.  Edith's job was to wash her hosiery.  

Edith in the 1920s during her first decade at Paramount (above)
and with Gloria Swanson around the time of Sunset Boulevard 

Obviously, Edith relished the opportunity to now design for Gloria.  "Dressing her meant dressing an idol," she remembered.  Though at first she was anxious about working with the "meticulous" actress who was well versed in fashion--both Banton and Greer had mentioned her exacting nature--Edith found she already had an admirer in Gloria.  After all, Edith had enjoyed great success since succeeding Banton as Paramount's head of costume design in 1938.  This included contributing to style in film noir that we now consider iconic.  For instance, she created the costumes for Barbara Stanwyck in Double Indemnity (1944) and other noir like The Strange Love of Martha Ivers (1946).  She also helped create Veronica Lake's look (as well as co-star Alan Ladd) in This Gun for Hire (1942), The Glass Key (1942), and The Blue Dahlia (1946).  Now she would help create another iconic film noir character with Gloria in Sunset Boulevard.  

From the beginning of the production, everyone was clear about the character of Norma Desmond.  Wilder described her saying,

Although her greatest moments were in her silent movie days, Norma Desmond tried to be as contemporary as possible by wearing fashionable styles, clothes, and makeup; yet there was something about her that connoted a sense of the past, a bit of deja vu.  

For Edith, this translated into somewhat merging the styles of the New Look with those of the Jazz Age.  The waists of the costumes were generally nipped in to be current with 1950s style, but she also incorporated some looser silhouettes of the 1920s as well.  Then there was the avalanche of accessories--layers of oversized jewelry and heavy accents of fur and even peacock feathers that were popular in the earlier era.  Everything was pitch perfect because Edith had the ultimate resource in her style-setting star.  Gloria advised her in clothes, hair, and makeup, but also made sure to describe how actors moved onscreen in the silent age.  She used those more melodramatic gestures in the film to bring out the character and Edith "added a touch of the bizarre to each costume to remind audiences that [Norma] was living in a dream world of the past."  That said, Edith knew there were limits; Wilder was firm in his direction that he "didn't want anything ridiculous or laughable."  Thus, Norma is seen in "fashionable styles," yet her complicated clothes contrast with other characters, such as young Betty Schaefer (Nancy Olson) who wears simple suits, sweaters, and skirts with very little jewelry.  

The costumes for William Holden are equally telling about his character Joe Gillis.  In the early part of the film, we see the unemployed screenwriter in a sports jacket and "baggy" trousers that he wears regularly.  Eventually, Norma's complaints about his clothes prompt a trip to the best tailor in Hollywood and a new wardrobe--18 bespoke suits, 6 dozen shirts, and a vicuna overcoat that feels like mink.  His closet even includes a tuxedo with tails, a style so clearly outdated that his friend jokingly compares him to Adolph Monjou.  Accessories are an important part of his new look as well and consist of custom-made shoes along with a watch, cuff links, platinum key chain, and gold cigarette case engraved with "Mad about the boy" (referenced in the 2006 film Hollywoodland).  In the end, as he tries to reclaim his life, he rejects everything and slides back into his old ill-fitting jacket and pants to say good-bye.

Shockingly, Sunset Boulevard was not even nominated for costume design in 1950.  Even so, Edith would win not one but two of her eight Oscars that year--one for dressing Bette Davis in the black-and-white All About Eve, and another as part of the design team for DeMille's color epic Samson and Delilah (interestingly, this is the very film he is directing in his scenes for Sunset Boulevard).  Even without an official accolade, Edith took great pride in her work for Sunset Boulevard.  It was, of course, the opportunity to succeed her mentors and dress her idol.  She helped transform glamorous Gloria Swanson into the tragic Norma Desmond, who became one of the best known film characters of all time.  That said, it is ultimately the greatness of Gloria that makes the transformation complete.  As you look at the pictures here, note the difference between how she appears posing in costume for the test shots (as herself) versus how she appears onscreen (as Norma).  There are many more insider details about the costumes and film among the photos below, so I hope you continue to enjoy this journey on Sunset Boulevard.

The Phantom House--L.A. mansion then owned by the ex-wife of J. Paul Getty and loaned to Paramount--
acts as the rundown estate of Norma Desmond

Our first glimpse of the pool, which has a major role in Sunset Boulevard...
Paramount built it as part of their payment for renting the estate as a film location

Our first glimpses of Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson) are in shadow

Though Norma is certainly stylish, much of her look feels like an earlier time
such as the turban and jewelry that is so overdone

"You used to be Norma used to be big."
"I am's the pictures that got smaller."

Note the animal print in this first ensemble...
there is a lot in her wardrobe (and even her car) and adds to the feel of her character's predatory nature

The famous cigarette holder on her finger is yet another accessory to make her feel over-the-top

Norma waits for Joe Gillis (William Holden) in the morning in her lounge attire
surrounded by her own images from the past

Edith used tricks to elongate the petite Gloria Swanson (who was only around 5' tall)...
this longsleeve, v-neck, floor-length gown shares similarities with dresses she did for Veronica Lake

Actual images from Gloria's career fill Norma Desmond's living room
and add to the realism of the film

Norma's butler Max Van Mayerling (Erich Von Stroheim) readies the room for Movie Night

Again, though it's clear Norma has both money and style, her outfit is still a bit outdated...
the peplum, for example, experienced peak popularity earlier in the 1940s

"We didn't need dialogue...we had faces then."

Norma screens Queen Kelly, a 1929 film starring Gloria directed by Von Stroheim...
before she and co-producer Joseph Kennedy fired him

Norma's early 1930s Isotta-Fraschini limousine

Once again you can see animal print around Norma in the car upholstery...
she's also wearing fur that accentuates her dominance

A "pale gray woven Kasha dress with mink-lined cape and spiral mink hat"...
Gloria's shoes were the smallest Edith had ever seen and allegedly only a size 2

Norma decides to buy Joe a new wardrobe, starting with a blue flannel suit

His new clothes include 18 bespoke suits, 6 dozen shirts, custom-made shoes,
and this vicuna coat...all bought by Norma

Joe also gets a tuxedo with tails that definitely speaks of an earlier age...
Norma greets him for New Year's Eve in a one-shouldered chiffon gown, headdress, and oversized accessories

Leopard-print overload from her clothes to her platform pumps
that she wears to lounge poolside

For an evening out, Norma tops her brocade dress with a chinchilla wrap,
considered the most expensive fur in the world

Gloria does a couple impressions in the film, including this Mack Sennett 'Bathing Beauty,'
which is the studio where she began her career

Despite her lifelong denials of being a 'Bathing Beauty,' we see Gloria playing with co-star Phyllis Haver (above)
and pouting by the rest of the Beauties (below, left) in Mack Sennett's The Pullman Bride (1917)

Gloria also imitates Charlie Chaplin as she originally did in the movie Manhandled (1925) ...
Chaplin happened to cast her in the first film he ever directed, which was appropriately called His New Job (1915)

Norma drives onto the Paramount lot through the original front gate...
here is a photo of that same gate from my visit last year

Norma wears a "black Kasha peg top dress with a short waist-length cape lined in ermine 
accessorized with an ermine cuff muff and hat" for her big visit with Cecil B. DeMille

DeMille greets Norma with "Hello, Young Fellow,"
a term of endearment for Gloria that he had used since their first film together in 1918

DeMille and Gloria with Wilder on his Sunset set in 1950 (above)
and on DeMille's set back in the early 1920s

As a silent film star, Norma symbolically swats away the sound equipment
but welcomes the warm glow of the spotlight

DeMille performs his cameo for director Billy Wilder in Sunset Boulevard
while on the set of his own epic Samson and Delilah

The sets in Sunset Boulevard--such as the living room and Norma's bedroom--
are extraordinary and also add to the character

While waiting up for Joe and doing some snooping,
Norma wears a strapless gown topped in sheer chiffon

As Norma attempts to ruin Joe's chance at love,
her gown falls off the shoulder in very 1920s style

Off-the-shoulder (and slightly tormented) in Cecil B. DeMille's Why Change Your Wife? (1920, above)
and again in Sunset Boulevard

At first, the gun might have been an idle threat,
but Norma decides she would rather kill Joe than let him leave her

After getting ready for her close up,
Gloria is once again somewhat directed by Von Stroheim for the final scene

Gloria did this scene barefoot to make sure she wouldn't slip or trip going down the stairs

"Alright, Mr. DeMille...I'm ready for my close-up."

Norma has regressed to the early days of silent cinema again, so 
her costume shows the influence of Gloria's less structured and over-accessorized early 1920s style

Sources (in addition to my own knowledge)

DeMille, Cecil B.  The Autobiography of Cecil B. DeMille.  New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1959.

Head, Edith and Paddy Calistro.  Edith Head's Hollywood.  Santa Monica: Angel City Press, 2008.

Jorgensen, Jay.  Edith Head: the 50 Year Career of Hollywood's Greatest Costume Designer. Philadelphia:  Running Press, 2010.

Historic Images

All screen captures by GlamAmor
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