The Magnificent Mia Farrow Blogathon – ‘A Dandy in Aspic’ (Mann, 1968)

Sobakevich: Are they all as pretty as you [in London]?
Caroline: No. I’m the only one.

A Dandy in Aspic marked a turning point in Mia Farrow’s career, for although her name was widely known through her role (1964-66) as Allison Mackenzie in US soap opera Peyton Place, this 1968 spy film was her first major screen role and within months, she had followed it up with the starring role in Rosemary’s Baby. However, the film merits a closer look for many reasons, not the east of which is the magnificent array of fine couture on display.

The film’s production and Mia’s career

Mia left Peyton Place abruptly in order to marry Frank Sinatra in July 1966, after which it soon became clear to her that he was not happy with her pursuing a full-time film career. However, it was soon equally clear to Sinatra that his young wife had a mind of her own and was not afraid to stand up to him. Eventually a compromise was reached, and it was agreed that she could appear in one film a year. When casting for A Dandy in Aspic took place in January 1967 it seemed ideal: the schedule would involve Mia in ten days filming in London followed by three days in Berlin, so the couple wouldn’t be apart for long. Also, her co-star would be Laurence Harvey, who had been a friend of Sinatra’s since they worked together in The Manchurian Candidate (Frankenheimer, 1962). She said her goodbyes, and left Los Angeles for London in the middle of February.

As a matter of fact, Mia had not been the first choice for the character of Caroline: the part was offered to Julie Christie, who turned it down. She had already worked with the two males stars, having played opposite Laurence Harvey in Darling (1965) and Tom Courtenay in Billy Liar (1963), films that positioned her as the incarnation of the ‘Swinging Sixties’ girl. However, Dandy in Aspic would have been a very different film had she accepted the role. Christie’s sultry intensity was not what the film needed: Mia was an inspired choice.

A Dandy for Aspic is a cold war thriller, adapted by Derek Marlowe from his own 1966 novel of the same name. Harvey plays Alexander Eberlin, a.k.a. Krasnevin, a Russian double agent working for the British intelligence service. Homesick and weary, he wishes to return to Russia but finds himself in a desperate position after he is despatched to Berlin – to track down and catch Krasnevin. His British colleagues include the imposing intelligence chief Fraser (Harry Andrews, from Saint Joan), his partner for the Berlin trip, Gatiss (Tom Courtenay) – who is openly hostile towards Eberlin from the first moment they meet – and the suave and lecherous Prentiss (played with relish by Peter Cook). Unfortunately Eberlin’s KGB bosses aren’t any friendlier, making it clear that they have no use for him back in Russia and the door to the east is closed…

As this brief synopsis indicates, this is very much a man’s world, bleak, dour and humourless, populated by men whose duplicitous lives have made them cold and cynical. Mia brought to the film not only a much-needed feminine presence in the character of Caroline, but also warmth, colour, humour and charm which would otherwise be conspicuous by its absence.

After her arrival in London, she flew out to Paris with Laurence Harvey where they were both fitted out with costumes by the legendary designer Pierre Cardin.

Pierre Cardin (left) fitting Mia and Harvey in Paris

Although Harvey was already an experienced star with over forty films to his credit, the red carpet was rolled out for Mia, whose unique charisma and striking looks was already recognised: she was welcomed by the French ambassador’s wife, Madame Alphand, who Cardin deployed to deal with his most prestigious clients. As part of her contract, Mia was allowed to keep the Cardin outfits, some of which will be discussed below. After leaving Paris, Mia unexpectedly flew back to New York before travelling onto Miami where Sinatra was performing at the Fontainebleu Hotel. However she soon rejoined director Anthony Mann and the rest of the cast in London, and filming began.

Anthony Mann (1906-67) directing Mia in London. Although probably best remembered now for his westerns, Mann excelled in the film noir genre, demonstrating great skill in visual composition and unsettling camera angles, There are traces of this flair in A Dandy in Aspic.

Caroline Hetherington

Mia’s character, Caroline, is a London socialite and photographer, the daughter of Lady Hetherington, who first meets Eberlin at the Café Royale in Regent Street. Clearly intrigued, she asks if he is married, and engineers a meeting in the lobby as he prepares to leave. While most of the diners are in formal evening wear and finery, Caroline stands out in a short, sleeveless floral dress, over which she later slips a white fur-lined cape. Eberlin’s lack of interest in her reverses when he realises he is being followed, and he accepts her invitation to return to her flat, which doubles as a photographic studio.

It should be noted that there is no reference to her being a photographer in Marlowe’s novel, and it seems likely that the decision to introduce this theme into the film was inspired by the recent Blow Up (Antonioni, 1966), in which David Hemmings played a fashion photographer in ‘Swinging’ London. Caroline’s neat studio and her references to portraits of writers and actors positions her among the same sort of glamorous circles as Hemmings’ character Thomas, who was clearly based on David Bailey. The photography theme is not tossed aside, as it provides the motive for Caroline’s journey to Berlin – where she bumps into Eberlin again, apparently by coincidence – and she continues to carry and use her camera throughout the film. For those who are interested, she uses a 1965 Nikon F camera, with a Nikkor-S 50mm f / 1.4 lens, and fitted with a Photomic T viewfinder.

Caroline asks if she can take a photograph of Eberlin who refuses, prompting her to admit that she already has one of him that she took when he was on holiday in Tunis. (In the book, she glimpsed him in Tripoli and there was no photograph.) He asks if he can have it for reasons of vanity, but then destroys it when he leaves, without – as we suspect Caroline wished – having spent the night. Their encounter raises some intriguing questions about their motives. Firstly, it is suggested that Eberlin felt no romantic attraction to Caroline and only accepted her invitation to get away from the intelligence agents who wished to speak to him, while his pretended interest in her photographs was only a ruse to destroy evidence that he was in Tunis, where he actually carried out the assassination of a British agent. (A futile act, given that a) Caroline almost certainly retained the negatives of her work and b) his colleagues were already aware that he was in Tunis.) Regarding Caroline, however, few viewers are likely to believe that her repeated meetings with Eberlin are coincidence – and she must be fairly adept at clandestine photography if she can take a close-up portrait of a spy without him noticing. Is she in fact deliberately stalking him as part of another operation? This is something that is left open throughout the film. Evidence suggests otherwise, but the romance that develops between them is always underpinned by a vague sense that at least one of them is pursuing a secret agenda.

As a little nod towards Mia’s home life, Frank Sinatra’s 1966 album Strangers in the Night – which had just won two Grammy awards – is visible on the table as she picks up her camera.

Despite the bleakness at the heart of the story, Mann did not follow the well-trod path of other cinematographers who convey this coldness through draining their films of colour. Both in London and Berlin the locations positively pop with vibrant tones, acting as a counterpoint to Eberlin’s increasing ennui and exhaustion.

Caroline is (apparently) over in Berlin for a photo-shoot, and manages to bump into Eberlin several times in different places across the city. She is accompanied by her photographic assistant Nevil, played by a young Richard O’Sullivan, a former child actor who would soon gain fame in TV sitcoms such as Man About the House and Robin’s Nest.

Nevil, Caroline (in another Cardin creation) and friend, on location in Berlin

She goes along willingly with Eberlin’s new identity of ‘George Dancer’ but falls foul of Gatiss, who disapproves of her being around and is determined to keep Eberlin focussed on his task of finding Krasnevin. The double agent’s sojourn in Berlin is a bizarre sequence of furtive meetings, violent murders and grim conversations alternating regularly with romantic encounters with Caroline, some of which border on the surreal. He leaves her in bed during the night to despatch another agent in the bathroom along the corridor, while on another occasion he wanders off and finds her dressed in a cloth cap and fisherman’s sweater, sitting in a tree by a lake. No explanation is given either for her outfit or her presence there.

One has the sense that Eberlin knows there is no way out, and finds solace in Caroline’s quirky and unpredictable behaviour. It is clear too that there are genuine affections on both sides, although by this time it seems unlikely that there will be a happy ending. In one telling scene, they are interrupted in bed by Gatiss, who forces Eberlin to leave before telling Caroline: ‘I do believe you two would have got on well together. You haven’t got a past, and he doesn’t have a future. None at all.’

Mann was superb at composing these complex shots

Their final meeting takes place at the AVUS race track just outside Berlin – which was also used in Anton Walbrook’s film Allotria (1936). These scenes blend real footage of races with a specially-filmed crash that appears to have been caused deliberately – and which will have fatal consequences for one of the party.

Sadly, there was another fatality in Berlin, as director Anthony Mann died of a heart attack on 29th July 1967, midway through filming. When Mia and the others heard he had taken ill, they all raced up to his hotel room but it was too late. In her memoir What Falls Away (1997) Mia describes her reaction to seeing her first dead body. It was decided that Harvey would direct the rest of the film – he also oversaw the final edit – with some assistance from Mann’s widow. This was uncredited at the time, and it is hard to know exactly which parts were filmed by Mann and which were the work of Harvey.

‘Go home, Caroline. Go home. I envy you.’
Her pale pink outfit emphasises her air of vulnerability and innocence.

When Eberlin and Caroline part, there is sadness on both sides, although perhaps for different reasons. Some commentators have suggested that Harvey’s cold and emotionless performance presents Eberlin as someone who is unable to feel anything for anyone – obviously sentimentality being a drawback for those working in espionage. Yet to me there is a sense of sadness, not only over his fate but also because his short time with Caroline has revealed to him what he has lost – both in her and within himself. A Dandy in Aspic is a film about identity rather than espionage – about the struggle to find one’s real self and the dangers of not being true to who you are. As Caroline remarks when she first meets Eberlin: ‘I’d say you’re definitely a Gemini. You know, two people in one.’ The fact that both Mia and Harvey were dressed in Pierre Cardin creations marks them out as a pair, two halves, and sets them apart from their friends and colleagues – Eberlin’s sartorial elegance (such as polo necks and lined collars) distinguishing him from the regulation suits worn by the other British agents. But I also feel that Mia’s performance brings out particular qualities of Caroline – colour, warmth, spontaneity, humour, charm, candour and vulnerability – that represent the humanity that Eberlin has denied or repressed. He sees in her what he might have been, another life he might have had – by which time, of course, it is too late…

Two people in one? The Gemini and the mirror image.

The end of Caroline and Eberlin’s relationship was a portent for the demise of her real-life marriage, with Sinatra’s increasing irritation about her extended absence fuelling his resentment about her decision to pursue an independent film career. As the production ran over schedule, he rang her on set every day to ask when she was returning to the States. Other film work was to follow, with Secret Ceremony also being filmed in 1967. Ira Levin’s bestselling novel Rosemary’s Baby was published on 12 March 1967 and Mia was offered the lead role in the production, filming of which began in Hollywood that autumn.

A Dandy in Aspic received its premiere at the Columbia Cinema (now the Curzon Soho) in Shaftesbury Avenue, London, on 4 April 1968. In Arthur Marwick’s book The Sixties (OUP, 1968) he draws a distinction between the colour and optimism of the ‘High Sixties’ and the increasing pessimism and radical fragmentation of the ‘Late Sixties.’ A Dandy in Aspic offers a perfect example of a film that occupies a transition point between these two, with Mia’s innocent sense of fun and vibrant fashion sense giving way to the world-weary despair and disorientation of Laurence Harvey’s identity crisis. This is a film that really deserves to be better known. It occupies an important part in Mia Farrow’s career, both in terms of her breakout role in a major film and for its formative role in establishing her as a style icon.

This was part of the Mia Farrow Blogathon hosted by Gabriela at Pale Writer. Check out the rest of the entries here!

Anna Massey, ‘Hollywood Beyond the Screen: Design and Material Culture’ (Oxford: Berg, 2000)

Anna Massey’s book takes a very different approach to that of Mary Ann Doane, although there is some overlap in their concern with how women engaged with the content of movies during the first half of the 20th century. Rather than using psychoanalytic theory as her starting point, Massey focuses on ‘edifices and artefacts…object-based material culture’ in order to explore the impact of American movies on British popular culture and design style. Her scope is far ranging, tracing the relationship between films and design by looking at the architecture of shops, cinemas and factories, interior room design, fashion, cigarette brands, advertisements, beauty products and family photographs. Unlike Doane’s work – which she cites – her writing is firmly rooted in real personal experiences, as is brought to life vividly by the inclusion of photographs of her mother and grandmother, with their own anecdotes about how their lives were affected by Hollywood movies.In her introduction to this book, entitled ‘Reclaiming the Personal and the Popular’, Anna Massey argues for the importance of embracing two strands that are often neglected in academic writing: a deliberate choice, spurred by the realisation that in much academic literature ‘affirmation of my own history and experience seems to be missing.’ (p.4)

 Joan Crawford and Dorothy Sebastian in Our Dancing Daughters (Beaumont, 1928) 

Using evidence drawn from these diverse sources and family anecdotes, Massey demonstrates the extent to which British popular and material culture was influenced at all levels by American style, as mediated through Hollywood, noting also how British intellectuals and establishment figures were determined to resist this Americanization which they associated with loose morals and subversive social mobility. There are four chapters, divided into rough chronological periods. The first of these, The Jazz Age, discusses developments between 1918 and 1929 when Hollywood eclipsed Paris in terms of influence on design, leading consumers in Britain to start looking towards America for the lead in matters of taste and style. A large chunk of this section looks at the films Our Dancing Daughters (Beaumont, 1928) and its sequel Our Modern Maidens (Conway, 1929) which propelled Joan Crawford to leading lady status and showcased Cedric Gibbons stunning art deco sets as well as Adrian’s daring costumes – which are discussed at length by Caroline Young’s book. Great concern was felt, both in America and Britain, about the dangers of young women trying to copy the behaviour exhibited in these films, and Massey quotes from women’s personal accounts of how they adopted the short skirts and flapper hairstyles worn on screen. A more specific expression of British resistance to Hollywood’s encroachment was the Cinematograph Film Act of 1927, although as the author makes clear, most of these attempts to hold back the American tide soon gave way in the face of popular and commercial demand – indicative of the tensions between elitist distaste for American culture and its mass popularity.  In Chapter Two, Bright Style in Dark Days, – the largest section of the book – the author traces how art deco evolved into the more streamlined art moderne style and the impact this had on British culture during the early 1930s, particularly in the form of architectural design in the south of England. Films discussed include Grand Hotel (Goulding, 1932,) Dinner at Eight (Cukor, 1933) and Top Hat (Sandrich, 1935).

Joan Crawford’s home in Our Dancing Daughters

The third chapter on Cold War Cultures covers the period during and just after the Second World War, including the impact of Christian Dior’s ‘New Look’ fashion line launched in 1947, and postwar British resistance to American influence in the shape of British design fairs and the moral concern over the influence of rock ‘n’ roll, recalling how the film Rock Around the Clock (Sears, 1956) was banned by councils in Birmingham, Liverpool, Bristol and Belfast. She discusses Bette Davis in Now Voyager, the ‘Americanized left-bank glamour of Hepburn’ (p.160), Hollywood actresses’ endorsement of beauty products and the short-lived British magazine Film and Fashion. A concluding section,  Post-modern glamour. A postscript, brings in some of the author’s own personal experiences of relating filmgoing to choices in dress and cultural attitudes, noting how the 1970s saw a revival of 1930s fashion, for instance through Mia Farrow’s stylish outfits in The Great Gatsby (Clayton, 1974).

The book should encourage readers to think more broadly about the cultural significance of classic films and the complex intersections that occur between the movies, avant-garde design, high fashion, popular culture and mass market commodities. The diverse and nuanced interplay between personal, popular, architectural and cinematic topics makes for a stimulating read, but it does create some problems for the author in trying to impose some order on the material and draw the various strands of her analysis together into a strong conclusion.

This will be the final post for the #ClassicFilmReading summer challenge this year, and for anyone who hasn’t done so, I’d recommend you check out the Out of the Past website for other reviews in the challenge as well as a wealth of material on all aspects of classic cinema

Isadora Duncan and Paris Singer

 
Last week saw the anniversary of the death of Paris Eugene Singer (1867-1932), the wealthy heir to the Singer sewing machine empire whose connections to Devon have long intrigued me. Sometime I might do a more detailed blog post about his properties at Redcliffe and Oldway, but today I thought I’d write about his relationship with dancer Isadora Duncan (1877-1927.) No other individual has exerted such influence upon the world of dance, and her life blended extraordinary accomplishment and appalling tragedy.  Her relationship with Paris Singer played a key part in both the both the triumphs and the disappointments.


Her early life contrasted starkly with his. Born Angela Isadora Duncan in San Francisco, the youngest of four children, she was three when their father abandoned the family after a banking scandal. Isadora’s schooling was scant, partly from lack of money, partly from choice. Always a free spirit, her love of dance manifested itself at an early age, but in unusual forms: seeking out deserted beaches or woodlands glades she would dance alone to her own rhythms. The Duncans earned money from music lessons, dance classes and family performances, given by Isadora and her sister Elizabeth with their mother on piano. Between dances their brother Raymond read from Greek classics. As Isadora’s dancing developed, so too did her passion for ancient Greece, influencing her preference for simple robes and barefoot dancing.
Her vision of “the dance” differed from the only two forms then recognised – ballet and music hall – but, needing an entry, she joined Augustine Daly’s theatre company. One tour took her to England where she performed for the first time in October 1897. Unsatisfied, however, she left Daly’s troupe and travelled to Paris.She quickly made her mark in the Parisian salons, including that of the Prince and Princesse de Polignac, frequented by the finest composers and writers. Prince Edmond de Polignac was 30 years older than his wife, Winnaretta Singer, and when he died in August 1901 Isadora had her first brief meeting with the Princesse’s brother Paris Singer.

Picture

The two siblings were among the numerous children of Isaac Merritt Singer (1811-75), founder of the Singer Sewing Machine Company. An enormously wealthy man, Isaac was nonetheless of humble origins and like Isadora, loved the stage. He spent many years acting with groups of itinerant players, combining this theatre work with his growing interest in sewing machines. He founded his own troupe, “The Merritt Players,” with money received from a machine patent in 1839. Business prospered by his brilliant production and marketing methods. Using his theatrical flair for showmanship and advertising, Singer popularised his machines and made them easier for households to obtain. Sales boomed and Singer factories opened across the world to meet the demand.

This physical drive and charisma also resulted in a complex domestic life. Over three decades, Singer fathered around two dozen children by five different women. Disgraced by a bigamy charge in 1862, he left America for Europe, only to abandon his then-wife for Isobelle Eugenie Boyce Somerville in Paris. They married in June 1865. Isobelle was a well-known society beauty, whose face – it is said – was used by French sculptor Auguste Bartholdi as his model for the  Statue of Liberty.

Named after the city where he was born on 20 November 1867, Paris Eugene Singer was Isaac’s third son and (probably) his 23rd child. When Paris was two, the Singers fled to England to escape the Franco-Prussian War. Isaac purchased Fernham estate in Paignton, near Torquay, where the foundation stone of a new 115-room residence named Oldway was laid in May 1873.  A circular pavilion was also erected, with banqueting hall, stables and pool, amid twenty acres of landscaped gardens. Just as Oldway’s interior neared completion, Isaac Singer died on 23 July 1875. He was buried in Torquay a week later, leaving a fortune of around $13,000,000.


Picture

Although orphaned at the age of seven, Paris Singer inherited much of his father’s character along with a weekly income of $15,000 from interest alone.  Standing at 6’3” with golden curls and beard, he cut a striking figure. After studying medicine, chemistry and engineering at Cambridge, he eloped with his mother’s maid Henriette Marais. Their marriage was annulled, and in 1887 he married Australian beauty Lillie Graham by whom he had five children.

Picture

After coming of age he bought out his brother Washington Singer’s interests in Oldway. Over the next 25 years the mansion underwent a series of lavish decorations and extensions, with the ceiling painting alone taking six years to complete.  The opulent blend of coloured marble, gilt panelling, mirrors and parquet floors remains stunning to this day. Passionately Francophile, Singer modelled his reconstruction on the Palace of Versailles. It was therefore fitting that Singer first met Isadora Duncan in Paris. 

She was by now an international figure, based in Germany and known throughout Europe from her performances and lectures, with a reputation as a passionate and unconventional spirit. She had toured Hungary, Italy and Russia as well as her beloved Greece, where she delved deep into archives and libraries to seek out musical manuscripts. She learnt German and read philosophers such as Nietzsche in their original language.


In December 1904 she met actor and designer Edward Gordon Craig (1872-1966) in Berlin. Despite Craig being married, they fell in love and Isadora bore him a daughter named Deirdre in September 1906. When her Grünewald dance school had to close in 1908, she relocated to Paris where she performed triumphantly throughout January and February 1909 at the “Gaité-Lyrique” theatre. 

It was after one of these shows that Paris Singer appeared at Isadora’s dressing room with the words, “I have come to help you. What can I do?” With riches like his, there was a great deal he could do for her. In her autobiography Isadora called him “Lohengrin,” one of the Knights of the Round Table: but she would learn that this gallant benefactor’s support came at a price. In the meantime, with Singer’s marriage on the rocks, they embarked on a passionate affair.  In September 1909, while in Venice, she found she was pregnant.

After cruising the Nile they returned to France for the birth of Patrick Augustus on 1 May 1910. That summer was spent in Devon where a huge ballroom had been built at Oldway. Despite his extravagant gifts, Singer’s failure to share Isadora’s vision was a frequent cause of friction. Like many wealthy men, he was accustomed to having his own way; there were storms and sulks when his impulsive, temperamental lover danced to her own tune. The romance continued however, and in 1912 Singer bought her a property overlooking the Seine – scene of the greatest tragedy of Isadora’s life.

On 19 April 1913 Singer and Duncan met for lunch in Paris. Later, as the chauffeur was driving the two children home with their governess, he stalled and got out to crank the engine. The car restarted on a slope and – before he could get in – moved off, picking up speed before crossing the Boulevard Bourdon and plunging over a grassy bank into the Seine. Despite desperate attempts by bystanders, all three occupants drowned.

Isadora’s grief was beyond words. Probably desperate for another child, she fell pregnant by a young Italian lover, but the infant died in August 1914 while the citizens of Paris prepared for war. Isadora gave her newly-opened school to the Dames de France for use as a military hospital. Singer had Oldway converted for the same purpose, repeating what he had done 14 years earlier with Redcliffe Towers in Paignton, which housed convalescent soldiers after the Boer War. Oldway became the American Women’s War Relief Hospital, personally financed by Singer and well-respected: Queen Mary visited in November 1914 just as Isadora sailed for New York.

Picture

When she returned penniless after travelling around Europe and South America, Singer had no difficulty bailing her out again: his secretary at this time, Allan Ross Macdougall, received $1000 a week. (He was later Isadora’s first biographer.) Singer’s inability to appreciate her art led to their final quarrel in March 1917 after she refused, in public, his gift of Madison Square Garden.

His relationship with Isadora over, Singer divorced his wife in 1918 and married Joan Balsh, senior nurse of the military hospital at Oldway. For tax reasons he took American citizenship and began developing property around Florida – there is still a Paris Singer Island, off Palm Beach. His ambitious plans were shipwrecked in the late 1920s, and with heavy losses and lawsuits, he returned to Europe. Although Singer lost a lot of money, he always had plenty to lose. He might not have lost Isadora had he not been so determined to possess her.

By this time she had been lost to the world altogether, dying, like her children, in another bizarre motoring accident after a life of further twists. She broke with Singer the same week as the Russian Revolution, on the night of which she “danced with a terrible fierce joy.” Ever-sympathetic with revolutionary spirits, she moved to Moscow at the suggestion of a Russian diplomat who saw her dance in London. Her two years in the Soviet Union included a short, disastrous marriage to Russian poet Sergei Esenin. His drunken rages and violent behaviour hampered her European tour in 1923, foreshadowing the end of their marriage and Esenin’s hospitalization (and untimely death) in a Soviet mental asylum.

Early in 1925 Isadora moved to Paris, where she began writing her memoirs, still receiving anonymous financial support from Singer. She died in Nice on 14 September 1927, killed when her scarf caught in the wheels of a moving car. Her ashes were placed in Père Lachaise cemetery in Paris, following a funeral attended by thousands.

Paris Singer outlived her by less than five years, dying in London on 24 June 1932. He was buried in the family vault at Torquay.