Monday, March 5, 2012

The Style Essentials--Jean Harlow Draped in Deco Decadence in 1933's DINNER AT EIGHT

In doing a Month (or so) of Art Deco, I would be remiss if I did not include George Cukor's 1933 classic Dinner at Eight.  It is an iconic moment for both film and of those rare occasions in which a great star is put into the hands of an equally great costume designer.  In this case, it is platinum blonde bombshell Jean Harlow who was put in the artistic hands of Adrian.  It was a match made in heaven and out came a masterpiece of Art Deco film design.

Like Grand Hotel (1932) before it, Dinner at Eight is an ensemble piece filled with the giants of the early film industry.  Jean is first and foremost...shining so brightly it's easy to forget she's acting among some of the greatest talent film has ever seen.  John Barrymore, Lionel Barrymore, Wallace Beery, Marie Dressler, Billie Burke, and on and on.  The parts are worthy of the talent, too...each character is richly written with both wit and pathos, which is customary for any George Kaufman-Edna Ferber play.  Something is always simmering just beneath the surface, and Herman Mankiewicz and Francis Marin brought this out even more with their sophisticated screenplay.  This seasoned group of actors, which includes the best of Broadway as well, knew the depth and talent behind their scripts. 

But I'm going to gloss over all of these heavyweights for the one reason I come back to Dinner at Eight again and again--Jean Harlow.  Though I love her more in movies like Red Dust (1932), you cannot avoid the fact that this is a great moment on film.  It is a moment that largely defined what was sexy in the 1930s...and even now.  Adrian had three opportunities to dress her for Dinner at Eight and each is a look that has become iconic.  First is when we meet Jean's character bed, no a silk halter gown as loungewear. At some angles, it almost suggests a pantsuit and may have inspired 1970s design from the likes of Halston.  She makes her second appearance while getting ready for the party in a sequined robe with sleeves made of ostrich feathers.  And her last look is the silk bias-cut gown so iconic that it embodies the 1930s Art Deco style that continues to inspire design today. 

Adrian loved to add flourish to garments and it's interesting to watch what he does in Dinner at Eight.  You'll see how often he transforms outfits just by tying a shrug around Jean's neck.  In her opening scene, the shrug she wears around her husband is relatively innocent, covered in sequins and gauzy ruffles. But that changes when her lover comes to visit...she switches to one covered in luxurious fur that slips easily off her shoulders. Finally at the end of the movie, she wears yet another fur-covered shrug at the party and interestingly it never comes off.  As a minimalist, I often think that's a shame.  It would have been wonderful to start with the shrug and then remove it...both because of the dramatic effect and also to give us a good look of Jean in that gown.  Luckily photographer George Hurrell thought the same, and MGM allowed his camera to capture the images that Cukor's did not.  I share some of the photographs below and think you'll agree the gown definitely deserved some screen time.

Though Jean herself spends a significant amount of time onscreen in Dinner at Eight, I still always feel the moments with her go by too quickly.  It's almost as if I cannot believe I'm looking at such sultry perfection.  Because of this, I'm thrilled to share these screen shots so we can all better appreciate how sophisticated and sexy she is in this wardrobe from Adrian.  So much in design today is taken from it...its influence could be seen at this year's Oscars, for example, in Badgley Mischka's dress for Penelope Ann Miller.  Though of course they did their own beautiful interpretation, even they will acknowledge that Adrian was the master who started it all.  

And with that, my dear guest, welcome to Dinner at Eight.

The first part of the movie is Millicent Jordan calling to invite several guests for a dinner at 8:00

One call goes to Dan Packard (Wallace Beery) and his trophy wife, Kitty (Jean Harlow), and
we get to see her lifestyle amidst one of the most incredible Art Deco bedrooms on film

We see the white phone of the Big White Sets of Art Deco movies
when Kitty says yes to Millicent (Billie Burke)

We really see the spoiled and superficial side of Kitty...
but wow does she live in style

Husband Dan (Wallace Beery) rushes in...
and rushes out leaving Kitty to her own devices and diversions

Jean is luminescent from the lighting of cinematographer William Daniels

Look at this backless silk gown that acts as loungewear for Kitty...
Adrian pairs with a fur and longsleeve silk shrug

Kitty feigns interest in a giant book her doctor lover has encouraged her to read
as she lets her shrug slip suggestively past her bare shoulders

Once the door closes, Kitty has her way

Kitty isn't the only invited guest for the evening...
the list also includes the legendary John Barrymore (as actor on the decline Larry Renault)

Interestingly, he's secretly having an affair with Millicent's 20-something--and engaged--
daughter Paula Jordan (Madge Evans)

Millicent in her element planning a stressful party
and her long-suffering (and financially troubled) husband Oliver Jordan (Lionel Barrymore)

Other guests include former Broadway and film star Carlotta Vance (Marie Dressler)
and nouveau-riche mining magnate Dan Packard (Wallace Berry), Kitty's husband

Look at the difference in the suits between the two characters--
one so conversative he's wearing a bow-tie and the other with a striped tie, patterned scarf, and best suit money could buy

Kitty getting ready for the party in her boudior

Iconic perfection--there is no other way to describe the shot of Jean standing or lounging around
in that sequined robe with ostrich feathers

Peeks of the lacy slip Jean has on beneath the glittering robe
as she angrily tells her husband what she thinks of his underhanded ways

Carlotta drops by in her Art Deco finery to visit

Look at the contrast in styles between Carlotta and the other women...
though it references Art Deco, the style from her best days goes back much farther than theirs

Millcent changes from her sleek black modern dress
into a frothier frock for the dinner party

Here's an opportunity to really drink in what the other gals at the party are wearing...
they're all lovely and decidedly more mature than Kitty, though Carlotta has heaps of Deco jewels on

And now here's Jean's so sleek and over the top sexy, especially for a dinner party...
the word everyone is searching for is wow

Jean is really able to flaunt her incredible figure in this gown

My only objection is that she never takes off  this shrug...
though still revealing, it hides the incredible gown underneath

Two photographs from George Hurrell of the incredible gown

Though a gold digger--look at those bracelets!--Kitty still wants to stop Dan from hurting Oliver

Great final moment of the movie when Kitty claims she's read a book (!) that says machines will take over all our jobs...
Carlotta looks her over and assures her, "Oh my dear, that's something you'll never have to worry about."

To read more about Jean's life, be sure to check out 
by Darrell Rooney and Mark Vieira

And to find the best selection of Jean Harlow films, go to my favorite TCM Shop!


Marline said...

Can't remember where I learned this "tidbit", but Jean Harlow routinely used ice cubes to, shall we say, "perk up" her girls before filming...and she never wore undies. Talk about an uninterrupted line beneath a gown! What a pity she died so young! Thanks for sharing this nibble of Dinner at Eight, Kimberly...wonderful screen caps and information! Love, Kay

Kimberly Truhler said...

You may have learned the little tidbit about her icing her breasts from my earlier post on just Jean and her fabulous style on GlamAmor:

It took me a little time to get to know and love Jean, but now that I have I'm positively hooked! It's absolutely CRAZY that she died at 26. 26! Think of how much she accomplished by an age that most of us are just getting started. Of course she had one heckuva mom-ager (mother who was her manager) so that always helps. ;)

Thanks Kay!

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