Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Style Essentials--Ava Gardner is Dressed to Kill in Vera West for 1946's THE KILLERS

We're now in the thick of awards season here in Los Angeles with this month leading up to the Oscars.  Turner Classic Movies (TCM) always celebrates this time with their 31 Days of Oscar and has divided this year's schedule in interesting ways, including a toast to the 75th anniversary of the iconic films from 1939.  Though 1939 is heralded as the Greatest Year in Film History--and with good reason, as you'll see if you look at the long list--I often point to 1946 as a very close runner up.  This is especially true when it comes to film noir.  The genre is largely defined by the films that premiered in 1946 and featured many of the most famous femmes fatales and intrigantes.  This includes Rita Hayworth in Gilda, Lana Turner in The Postman Always Rings Twice, Lauren Bacall in The Big Sleep, Veronica Lake in The Blue Dahlia, Ingrid Bergman in Notorious, and of course, Ava Gardner in The Killers.

The Killers is a film filled with breakthroughs.  It was Burt Lancaster's first movie (at the ripe old age of 32), but in many ways it seemed like Ava Gardner's, too.  Both of them became big stars overnight.  Though Ava had been with MGM since 1941, it was her loan to Universal to make The Killers that led to her breakthrough performance.  MGM had hired Ava for her obvious beauty--photographs of her segued to a screen test that resulted in Louis B. Mayer famously pronouncing, "She can't sing, she can't act, she can't talk. She's terrific!" Yes, she was stunning, but it was her magnetism while simply standing onscreen that really evoked Mayer's enthusiasm.  You couldn't take your eyes off her.  Yet MGM couldn't seem to put her in substantive roles that capitalized on all Ava had to offer.  It took the great independent producer Mark Hellinger (High SierraThe Naked City) to recognize she could go beyond being simply a sexpot (though she certainly was that, too) and had much more simmering beneath the surface.  He fought to borrow the worldly 23-year-old siren from MGM, and the role of femme fatale Kitty Collins made her the icon she is today.  Ava knew it; it was Hellinger she credited for the success of her career.

The Killers was a hit with the public and critics alike, and justifiably nominated for four Academy Awards.  Among those nominations, one was for Best Adapted Screenplay and that, too, can be traced to a contribution from Hellinger.  It was he who got the film rights from friend Ernest Hemingway for one of his short stories.  That said, though the opening 20 minutes of the film are true to Hemingway's original story, the remaining plot comes from screenwriter Anthony Veiller and, significantly, uncredited contributions from writer/directors John Huston (The Maltese Falcon) and Richard Brooks (Cat on a Hot Tin Roof).  The characters and plot that these men created would inspire many more to come, such as Quentin Tarantino for Pulp Fiction (1994).  Another Oscar nomination went to The Killers' director Robert Siodmak, well-deserved for the deep focus photography and extraordinary expressionist lighting that he and cinematographer Woody Bredell used to compose the film's impressive images.  Not surprisingly, Siodmak was born in Germany and started his career at UFA, the studio which gave birth to German expressionism in films such as Metropolis (1927) and Pandora's Box (1929).

Part of The Killers' visual style of course also comes from its incredible wardrobe, and the film should be considered a breakthrough for costume designer Vera West as well.  She is lesser known in the pages of film history, always surprising considering her immense talent and extensive career.  She began in fashion at the prestigious Lucile couturier--along with other costume design giants Howard Greer, Travis Banton, and Robert Kalloch--and then had a salon on New York City's 5th Avenue.  She then became head of costume design at Universal from 1928 to 1947, which means Vera's career in film lasted longer than legendary contemporaries Adrian at MGM and Banton at Paramount.

In contrast to the fashion forward films that both MGM and Paramount were known for, Universal focused more on monster movies like Dracula (1931) and Frankenstein (1931).  Though these would become iconic in their own right, this often cast Vera as the queen of "Horror Couture."  One should remember her great elegance in doing so, though--for example, Elsa Lanchester never looked so striking than in The Bride of Frankenstein (1935).  But Universal was also known for noir, and with The Killers Vera's fashion side could really shine.  We see some of the style that made her so sought-after, which only continued when she quit film to design couture for celebrity clients at the Beverly-Wilshire Hotel in Beverly Hills.  It's no wonder--Ava Gardner's wardrobe for The Killers featured an evening gown that has become so iconic it still influences fashion designers today such as Dior, Donna Karan, and Ben de Lisi.

That said, sadly one Oscar that The Killers was NOT nominated for was costume design.  This was not any oversight of the voters that year, but rather an oversight of the Academy itself; as I have oft discussed, the award for costume design was not even created until 1948.  This means that the nearly two decades of costume design since the beginning of the Oscars in 1929--much of it now iconic, as shown through The Style Essentials--was completely ignored by the Academy.  Thus, my way of righting some of this wrong is to celebrate it here on GlamAmor.  With regard to The Killers, let me just say that there are many black dresses from film that have made an impact on fashion, but the one from this movie is among the greats.  And so, during this Oscar season, for your consideration: Vera West's costume design for Ava Gardner in 1946's The Killers.

The opening shows some of Woody Bredell's cinematography and 
director Robert Siodmak's composition that has made The Killers so great

The two killers enter a room at the beginning of the film
that means the end for The Swede (Burt Lancaster)

Back to the beginning--flashbacks begin to tell the tale of how The Swede
meets and falls for femme fatale Kitty Collins (Ava Gardner)

The Swede can't take his eyes off Kitty and even his date doesn't blame him...
after all, she's wearing a one-shouldered gown so iconic it continues to influence fashion

Cinema Connection to fashion--Christian Dior for Mila Kunis at the 2012 Golden Globes (above)
and Donna Karan for Sofia Vergara on the 2013 SAG awards red carpet

Even in a seemingly innocent skirt and sweater, Kitty is trouble
as the rest of the guys plot their own

The sweater and skirt was first made popular on stars like Clara Bow in It (1927),
but came on strong in the 1940s with "Sweater Girls" like Ava and Lana Turner

Function and fit were the order of the day in the fabric-rationed 1940s,
so that helped make simple pencil skirts and blouses like this in fashion

The sweetheart neckline was extremely popular in the 1940s
and no one did it better than Ava who led men to their doom in dresses like this

Though the trench coat was first made popular for women by Greta Garbo in Woman of Affairs (1928),
film noir made it popular again through femmes fatales like Kitty Collins

If you're interested in learning more about The Killers and the best of 1940s costume design,
take a look at my past webinar from my HISTORY OF FASHION IN FILM series!

This article is also featured in Week Two of the great 31 Days of Oscar Blogathon


Silver Screenings said...

Fascinating to see how influential that gown still is! It's a stunning piece...although I don't think anyone can pull it off quite like Ava Gardner can. Her character had the attitude to match.

VP81955 said...

Congratulations! GlamAmor has been accepted as a member of CMBA (Classic Movie Blog Association). Welcome aboard, from Carole & Co.!

Kimberly Truhler said...

Yes, it's remarkable, isn't it Ruth? And I'm only showing a small small sample of all the examples out there of that gown's influence.

You're also right--NO ONE has attitude like Ava Gardner. This role was so perfect for her. Even though she's great in many roles, I'm not sure she really got one so juicy again.

Kimberly Truhler said...

Thanks Carole & Co.! I'm thrilled to be a part of the CMBA group, especially since I know so many of you already. :) Cheers!

Caftan Woman said...

Loved reading about Vera West and "The Killers". I find fashion fascinating and you do so much to educate.

Kimberly Truhler said...

Thanks Patricia! There are just so many more interesting aspects of classic cinema that can be learned through stories related to costume design. And costume design's impact on fashion--then and now--is just astounding and shockingly underappreciated. So glad you enjoyed the article!

Kelly Lewis said...

What an interesting post- I did not know that Best Costume was not awarded until then! Wonder who would have won in 1939? Loved you examples from the red carpet. There is truly nothing new under sun!

Anonymous said...

Kimberly, Thank you for this post on the incredible Ava Gardner--masses of glossy black hair, those sultry eyes--and the cleft chin that changes everything. You can see why Sinatra wrote I'm a fool to love you. In The Killers, besides Lancaster's amazing "poor sap," I love the late scene where Kitty is bending over the body of her dying lover, closer and closer--you think she's going to weep or ask for forgiveness--instead she demands to know where the money is! Tell me, tell me, where is the money! I gasped, then laughed out loud. A woman I admire--but wouldn't want any where near my man. Kitty

Kimberly Truhler said...

Thanks Kelly! Yes, it's fascinating to think about what costumes would have won each year from 1929 to 1947--all the years before there was an Oscar for it. Further, for the longest time, there were then TWO Oscars for costume design--one for color and one for black/white.

For 1939? Man oh man. I mean, I would have to think Walter Plunkett would win for GONE WITH THE WIND. What do you think?

Kimberly Truhler said...

Thanks for those great comments on Ava! Yes, she was truly a siren and no wonder why Frank was so nuts for her, as you say. And I laughed at the end of THE KILLERS, too! Yes, you think she's finally going to be sweet and say good-bye, and she's only thinking of herself--asking him to absolve her of any wrong-doing so the cops won't take her away. Heartless! lol

Irish Jayhawk said...

Brilliant post, Kimberly! Ava was always gorgeous but in this black gown she was her MOST sexy, no doubt. The Sofia Vergara wore it in white exceptionally well also. Love all the photos. Thanks for writing such a stylish write-up and thanks for contributing to our blogathon! Welcome to the CMBA, too!

Kimberly Truhler said...

Thanks Kellee! I agree that Ava is perhaps her most gorgeous in THE KILLERS. And thanks for the warm welcome to the CMBA!

Anonymous said...

Ah yes of course, it isn't the money, it's tell them I didn't have anything to do with it! Amazing what Ava could do for a skirt and blouse . . .

Anonymous said...

No one could wear it like Ava, and it's testament to her lasting style (and Vera West's designs) that actress are still emulating it today. I can't believe that this film didn't have the chance to win an Oscar, but had the category been created I'm sure it would have been nominated - for me, The Killers is the most stylish film of 1946!

Kimberly Truhler said...

Thanks for your comments, Girls of Film, and I completely agree! No one did it like Ava and it's proof of her iconic style (and Vera West's talent) that people still emulate it today. I love your nomination for THE KILLERS being the most stylish film of 1946!

Paula said...

Thanks for this really fabulous, informative post, Kimberly. When someone says, "Ava Gardner..." I always picture her as Kitty, and I love seeing modern evidence of our shared cinema subconscious.

Kimberly Truhler said...

Thank YOU Paula for being part of such a great blogathon as well as all the work you do for #TCMParty. :) I appreciate your comments and totally agree. It's also true in reverse--if I hear the name "Kitty," you can bet I'm thinking of Ava. ;)

cheap coach purses said...

The dress came a little wrinkled, but there was plenty of time with me beforehand to deal with that. I couldn't wait to wear it in front of all my friends.

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