Tuesday, May 31, 2011

The Style Essentials--Lana Turner Wears White for THE POSTMAN ALWAYS RINGS TWICE

When you look to any morality play--whether it's Greek tragedy, a western, or Star Wars--the antagonists are almost always adorned in black and the protagonists in the purity of white.  That symbolism seems to be as old as time.  Therefore when you think of a femme fatale in film noir, odds are you're not imagining her wearing white.  You're certainly not imagining her wearing white through the entire movie.  Yet this is exactly what director Tay Garnett decided for the character of Cora Smith in 1946's The Postman Always Rings Twice.

Lana Turner plays Cora, and her nearly all-white wardrobe is the real star of the movie thanks to MGM's costume designer Irene Lentz.  Known simply as Irene, her talent was truly dazzlingShe's one of the great costume designers who both started and ended her career in the fashion industry. She was well respected as the head designer at the prestigious and iconic Bullocks-Wilshire in Los Angeles, which the studios often used to supplement their own costume design departments.  But RKO came calling in 1937 and offered her the opportunity to create the gorgeous gowns for Ginger Rogers in Shall We Dance.  The success of the film led other studios like Paramount and Columbia to hire her as well, resulting in some sublime design like Carole Lombard's in To Be or Not to Be (1941) and Rita Hayworth's in You Were Never Lovelier (1942).  She was also the costume supervisor for several of Esther Williams' films like Bathing Beauty (1944) and Neptune's Daughter (1949).

Eventually Irene would reach what was arguably the peak of her profession when she became MGM's head of costume design in 1943.  It was then that she put together Postman's almost all-white wardrobe, iconic outfits that make this movie one of The Style Essentials.  It was all about form and these clothes acted as the sexiest of frames for Lana's face and figure. From her stunning entrance in a turban and those high-waisted shorts and heels--which has to be one of the best movie entrances ever--Irene has Lana dressed to perfection.  You can trace trend after trend to the costumes in this film.  Lana is also lit to perfection thanks to the dreamy cinematography of Sidney Wagner, who photographed Lena Horne so beautifully in Cabin in the Sky.  The combined effect is stunning and you simply can't take your eyes off Lana's soft summer-tanned skin.

So why a white wardrobe for a femme fatale?

The movie was based on James M. Cain's 1934 bestseller, which was actually banned in places due to its sadomasochistic sexuality mixed with violence.  This says a lot considering Cain also crafted two other graphic novels that became film noir classics--Double Indemnity (1944) and Mildred Pierce (1945).  What's interesting is the difference between the women in these stories.  Double Indemnity's Phyllis Dietrichson is evil, cunning to the core, and motivated by money.  Postman's Cora is a much more complicated character.  Cora's motivations for marrying Nick (Cecil Kellaway) are more out of security; a young girl who wanted a nice guy to fend off all unwanted advances. She also married for the opportunity to turn Nick's diner into a successful business...ambitious considering this was still a time when women were barely working outside the home.

This may be much more empathy than Cora deserves, especially when she does behave so badly with the lustful wanderer Frank (John Garfield). But there is a certain innocence about Cora and Irene's decision to dress Lana almost all in white reminds us of this.  There is both a seductiveness and symbolism about it.  Like the morality play, it's only in her worst moments after she's helped murder her husband that she suddenly appears in black, presumably mourning for both Nick and her own lost innocence.

Stylish even when working--the classic shirtdress as Cora's diner uniform

Wearing a lovely lace top while falling for Frank
during a hot summer night that you can practically feel 

After dancing, taking a night swim at Laguna Beach in a white hot bikini
whose style is all the rage right now in fashion

The iconic dress of the movie--surprisingly similar to this yellow seersucker keyhole dress in the GlamAmor Store

Traveling suit for running away--white silk shortsleeve blouse, pencil skirt,
beret, embroidered blazer, and cashmere coat

It's hard not to feel a certain amount of empathy when we see how trapped Cora becomes in the marriage.  Though temped to run away with Frank when she falls for him, her need for security and desire to grow the business bring her back.  Unfortunately once she returns, she learns that Nick has decided to sell the restaurant and for far less than its worth.  Young Cora also finds she is doomed to move to the middle of nowhere to take care of Nick's invalid sister for the rest of her life.  Without any recourse or escape, it is this far more than her lust for Frank that drives Cora to murder her husband.

In a scene similar to Double Indemnity, they knock Nick unconscious then drive the car off the road

The only time Cora wears another color is when she's a murderer in mourning--
a black silk keyhole dress and another turban

Battling blackmailers...and one another once their trust is gone

Back in the white blouse and skirt again when the two are brought to trial

Once they're found innocent, a swim rekindles their love...
but Frank loses his way in the midst of a kiss and an accident ends Cora's young life


Mere said...

This is such a great post! I just love looking at pictures from films. And you're right...the classic black//white color sequence rings true in this film. I hadn't really noticed it before but definitely after watching the movie a second and third time, it was obvious. I love subtle things like that that can bring a whole new meaning to a film!
(I saw a link to this post via tcm on twitter! :)

Kimberly Truhler said...

Well, welcome to GlamAmor Mere! You know, the nearly all white wardrobe wasn't something that I consciously caught when watching the movie the first time...it was something that crept up on me and full realization when I started analyzing her outfits. Isn't that something? Like you said, seems so obvious. And I agree about how things like the costume design can bring even more meaning to a movie. Always surprises me how many people take it for granted and happy when I can shine a little light on it. Thanks for your great comments!

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