Paper Trails, Masks and Mirrors – the archival quest for Anton Walbrook

The first ‘archival encounter’ discussed in my paper: the ephemera I was asked to catalogue in 2009 that fired my interest in Walbrook.

As most readers of this blog will know, for over a decade I have been working on a biography of the émigré actor Adolf Wohlbrück /Anton Walbrook (1896-1967), but this weekend provided a wonderful opportunity to talk about this work as part of the Stardom and the Archive conference held at the University of Exeter, 8-9 February 2020. The conference was organised as part of the Reframing Vivien Leigh research project – I have written about the relationship between Walbrook and Leigh elsewhere on these pages – and its aims are summarised here:

Conventional critical discourse focuses overwhelmingly on the findings of archival research rather than the process with scholarship telling ‘a story about what you found, but not about how you found it.’ (Kaplan 1990: 103) The Stardom and the Archive symposium seeks to challenge this convention by centralising archival process and curatorial histories in researching stardom.

The conference has seen film scholars from all over the UK and beyond, including Australia and Turkey, come together to discuss diverse aspects of archival research, curatorial practice and fan collecting in relation to stardom. The range and quality of the papers so far has been fantastic, with an imaginative scope that includes gravesites and multi-media artefacts as well as the more traditional paper-based archives.

It was a great delight, as ever, to talk about Walbrook in the presence of such distinguished and appreciative company. My presentation was entitled Paper Trails, Masks and Mirrors: the archival quest for an elusive biographical subject and discussed the different phases of archival engagement involved in writing my biography, including the challenges of dealing with gaps in the archive, the complex relationship between Walbrook’s onscreen persona, his life as a private individual and the archival record of both his life and career. It was also an opportunity to discuss the creation of my own Walbrook collection – an archive of my research as much as a fan collection – and share some of its treasures.

My collection includes original letters, postcards, film posters, vinyl, glass slides, lobby cards, cinema magazines, theatre programmes from the 1920s to the 1960s, copies of documentation from state archives and theatre museums, photographs, film stills, presscutting files and 16mm film reels, as well as some of the original costumes worn by Walbrook in his films, and I raised the issue of how the agenda of the collector relates to that of the biographer or researcher.

This offered a chance to revist the exhibition Anton Walbrook: Star and Enigma, which I curated at the Bill Douglas Cinema Museum back in 2013. Anyone wishing to know more about this should watch the excellent short film made by Olivia Luder and available to watch here. As another aspect of archival engagement, I also discussed the brilliant artwork by Matt Horan (Matt Mclaren), which he created by painting scenes from Walbrook’s films, cutting out the images and then reassembling them in 3-D scenarios which were then photographed and turned into prints. My paper ended with a call for more collaborations like these, in which scholars, archivists, curators, artists and fans can learn from one another through sharing their different passions and fields of expertise.

Now it’s time to return for Day Two of the conference, which will close with the launch of the new Reframing Vivien Leigh exhibition!

Janus: looking forward, looking back

AW was born in Vienna on this day 123 years ago. It is my sincere hope that by the time this anniversary comes around again next year, his biography Anton Walbrook: a life of masks and mirrors – will have been published. As this decade-long project nears its end, there is a sense of impending closure: there will come a point when the draft chapters and back-up files can be discarded, when the envelopes stuffed full of handwritten notes can be sealed up and sent for recycling, and the computer files of drafts, plans and synopses can safely be deleted. Perhaps this is why I have chosen to illustrate this post with the latest photograph of AW that I have in my collection. This was taken in 1967, during the production of A Song at Twilight, and therefore just a few weeks or months before his death.

Nonetheless, the appearance of the biography should not mean the end of my blogging about AW, his life and films – quite the reverse in fact: few biographers would consider their work to be the final word on their subject, and I see A LIfe of Masks and Mirrors as the beginning of a conversation, not the end of one. There will no doubt be feedback, amendments, revisions and corrections, and hopefully the publication of the biography will encourage others to start talking about, and looking into, those areas in AW’s story that need to be further explored. A new phase of my Walbrook research will start, so this year marks a beginning as well as an end, a time for looking forward as much as looking back.

As part of this process of retrospective reflection, I will be giving a talk at the University of Exeter next February entitled Paper trails, masks and mirrors: the archival quest for an elusive biographical subject – Anton Walbrook which will look at the role played by archives in my research: from the first archival encounter that started me off on AW’s trail, through the time spent searching through various archives while writing the biography, to the cumulative creation of my own personal archive of AW papers and memorabilia. This talk will be part of the Stardom on the Archive symposium, being held to mark the end of the 20-month Reframing Vivien Leigh project that has been exploring how how the legacies of Vivien Leigh are archived and curated by different archival institutions. Readers of this blog may remember that AW and Leigh met on many occasions, both at theatrical events and at the actor’s home in Hampstead. Those familiar with Leigh will know that she was more widely known for her screen roles but really saw herself primarily as a stage actress. One of the topics I look at in the biography is the relationship between AW’s stage and screen work, tracing his approach to acting back to his childhood and the significance of his theatrical ancestry – and of course the importance of Vienna, where he was born on 19 November 1896: and not 1900, which was the year erroneously circulated by the media for much of his career – although that’s a story for another day….

Caroline Young, Classic Hollywood Style (Francis Lincoln Limited Publishers, 2012)

I picked this up in a Soho bookshop some years ago after catching Faye Dunaway’s eye from the other side of the room. The cover photo, showing Dunaway in the 1967 movie – wearing ‘a tight mustard cable-knit sweater, a patterned silk neckerchief and beret – the classic Bonnie look’ – is just one of dozens of eye-catching and beautifully-reproduced pictures in this book. Classic Hollywood Style is not, however, just a coffee-table book of sumptuous images, for the accompanying text is as rich and fascinating as the illustrations themselves. Writer and journalist Caroline Young has an excellent grasp of both costume design and cinema history, and the way she weaves the two together makes this book especially valuable.

Arranged chronologically from Camille (Smallwood, 1921) through to The Thomas Crown Affair (Jewison, 1968), the author discusses costume designs from 34 films, including Greta Garbo’s ‘chic androgynous look’ in A Woman of Affairs (Brown, 1928), Morocco (Sternberg, 1930), Gilda (Vidor, 1946), The Killers (Siodmak, 1946), and A Place in the Sun (Stevens, 1951), The Philadelphia Story (Cukor,1940) and its musical remake High Society (Walters,1956). Her analysis is backed up by a wide range of illustrations including costume design sketches, film stills, studio press releases, candid photos, movie posters, censorship records, behind-the-scenes production notes and contemporary magazine articles. Examination of the costumes is integrated with discussion of the movies themselves and the personal lives of the stars – such as how Ava Gardner’s skin complexion influenced the lighting in The Killers and the rise of ‘beret fever’ after Bonnie and Clyde. This approach allows Young to explore not only the impact made by the movies on the fashion industry and popular culture, but also the reciprocal relationship between film stars and their favoured designers, and what distinguishes a movie star from a fashion icon. Designers discussed here include Travis Banton (who created outfits for Mae West and Marlene Dietrich), Academy Award winner Edith Head and Adrian, who designed the red slippers for The Wizard of Oz (1939) – copies of which were on display at the V&A’s  “Hollywood Costume” exhibition in 2012.

THE KILLERS, Ava Gardner, 1946

As with almost any book devoted to fashion, there is a strong bias towards women’s costumes and their impact upon female film-going audiences and consumers. Although I cannot claim to feel passionate about male sartorial issues, it would occasionally be interesting to read more about the significance and detail of costumes worn by male actors in relation to wider culture. With that in mind, Young’s discussion of the costumes in Rebel without a Cause (Ray, 1955) and The Thomas Crown Affair (1968) were particularly welcome. In my paper on Anton Walbrook as Prince Albert, I looked in depth at how film-makers deal with portraying historical events, and Young makes some well-observed comparisons between the approaches to historical accuracy taken by different costume designers (p.61).

All in all, Classic Hollywood Style is an engaging read, highly-informative and lavishly-illustrated. It would make a good companion volume to Deborah Nadoolman Landis’s Dressed: A Century of Hollywood Costume (London: Harper Design, 2007) and the massive exhibition catalogue for the V&A’s Hollywood Costume. Caroline Young has gone on to write some other film-related books such as Hitchcock’s Heroines, (San Rafael: Insight Editions, 2018) and Roman Holiday:  The Secret Life of Hollywood in Rome (Stroud: The History Press, 2018). Her website continues to discuss costumes in movies and is well worth a visit https://classichollywoodstylebook.wordpress.com/

Here’s a full list of the contents:

  1. Camille (1921) Rudolph Valentino and Alla Nazimova in Art Deco style
  2. Our Dancing Daughters (1928) Joan Crawford and flapper style
  3. A Woman of Affairs (1928) Garbo in a trenchcoat
  4. Morocco (1930) Dietrich in a tuxedo
  5. Queen Christina (1933) Garbo triggers bishop sleeve sensation
  6. Flying Down to Rio (1933) Fred and Ginger’s first billing
  7. The Dancing Lady (1933) Joan Crawford – rags to riches
  8. Cleopatra (1934) Claudette Colbert in Art Deco style
  9. Jezebel (1938) Bette Davis in Civil War period costume
  10. Gone with the Wind (1939) Vivien Leigh in Civil War costume
  11. The Philadelphia Story (1940) Katharine Hepburn in slacks and elegant gowns
  12. Kitty Foyle (1940) Ginger Rogers as modern working woman
  13. Casablanca (1942) Bogart in fedora, trenchcoat, white tuxedo
  14. Cover Girl (1944) Rita Hayworth as all-American girl-next-door
  15. To Have and Have Not (1944) Bacall’s wave hairdo
  16. Mildred Pierce (1945) Joan Crawford and shoulder pads
  17. Gilda (1946) Rita Hayworth’s black strapless gown
  18. The Killers (1946) Ava Gardner as the classic femme fatale
  19. All About Eve (1950) Bette Davis’s off-the-shoulder New Look dress
  20. A Place in the Sun (1951) Monty Cliff as a rebel in biker’s leathers, Elizabeth Taylor’s white prom dress
  21. A Streetcar Named Desire (1951) Brando’s t-shirt
  22. Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953) Monroe in burlesque pink
  23. From Here to Eternity (1953) Deborah Kerr’s halter neck bathing suit
  24. To Catch a Thief (1954) Grace Kelly the Grecian, glacial blonde
  25. Sabrina (1954) Hepburn’s first Givenchy film, clean and simple style, boat neck dress
  26. The Seven Year Itch (1955) Monroe’s white halter neck dress blowing up
  27. Rebel Without a Cause (1955) Dean in a red windbreaker – teen style
  28. High Society (1956) Grace Kelly and cocktail dresses
  29. Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1958) Elizabeth Taylor in the white chiffon ‘cat dress’
  30. Imitation of Life (1959) Lana Turner in expensive gowns and jewels
  31. Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961) Hepburn’s little black dress (and gloves)
  32. My Fair Lady (1964) Cecil Beaton’s Edwardian Ascot
  33. Bonnie and Clyde (1967) Berets, midiskirts, pinstripe and neckties
  34. The Thomas Crown Affair (1968) Faye Dunaway’s miniskirts, McQueen’s Ivy Style

This is the first in a series of blogposts written as part of the #classicfilmreading written for 2018.