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

Harry Harrison, The Technicolor Time Machine (London: New English Library, 1970)

At first sight The Technicolor Time Machine might seem an odd choice for a classic film reading. After all, author Harry Harrison (1925-2012) was a doyen of the science-fiction community, beginning his career as an illustrator for the EC Comics titles Weird Fantasy and Weird Science before going on to write and edit numerous science-fiction stories, novels and anthologies. This book first appeared as a three-part serialised story in Analog Science Fiction and Fact (March–May 1967 issues) as ‘The Time Machined Saga’.

The original magazines in which the story first appeared, along with artwork by John Schoenherr

While there’s no denying its credentials as a piece of science-fiction, The Technicolor Time Machine can also be read as a satire of the film industry during Hollywood’s Golden Era, and indeed it was those elements of the book that I found most enjoyable.

At this point a quick recap of the plot would probably be in order. The story begins at the offices of Climactic Studios, where hack director Barney Hendrickson and corrupt studio owner L. M. Greenspan are facing financial ruin within a matter of days.

Only a miracle can save the studio, and this miracle comes in the person of eccentric scientist Professor Hewett, who claims to have built a time machine – the vremeatron – that would enable Hendrickson to go back in time and make a historical movie without the need to pay for any set construction or extras. This is the essential ‘gimmick’ of the novel, but as the story progresses, the notion of time travel is exploited more and more as a strategy for smoothing out difficulties in the film’s production.

In the first instance of this, to buy them some time, the Chinese-American scriptwriter Charley Chang is sent back to the Precambrian Era where he works away on a remote island in solitude for a month, returning to the present day with a script entitled Viking Columbus about the founding of the Viking settlement of Vinland in North America. Having obtained a script, cast and crew travel back to the Orkney Islands ca.1003 AD where they hire a real-life Viking – and larger than life character – named Ottar to be their guide and Norse interpreter. Ottar eventually takes over the leading role when Hendrickson’s vain star actor, Ruf Hawk, injures himself during filming – a replacement that has unexpected consequences for the leading lady, the voluptuous Slithey Tove.

Slithey Tove as imagined by artist Bruce Pennington on the front cover of my copy of the novel

As befits a story originally published in a science-fiction magazine, there are some serious efforts to get to grips with the complex mechanisms of time travel, but these are not pursued for their own sake – rather, they form an important part of the plot as Hendrickson struggles to meet the deadlines and needs to find ever-more desperate ways to save time.

Issues about the saving, passing and good use of time are at the heart of the story, which gives the author ample scope to lampoon Hollywood’s attitude toward the past. Jokes are made not only about Hollywood’s disregard for historical accuracy, but also the general illiteracy in matters of history and culture: ‘Eric the Red? You want us to get blacklisted with a commie picture’? Filmmakers are portrayed as mercenary individuals, churning out films with titles such as The Creature’s Son Marries the Thing’s Daughter, The Pfc. from Brooklyn and Teen-age Beatniks’ Hophead Rumble, which lie just on the borderline between absurdity and near-credibility. Despite the strongly satirical tone there are some nice little touches that make the cinematic setting of the story almost believable. The camera man Gino Cappo uses an 8mm Bolex camera to try out some angles, and later expresses his concerns about light exposure – ‘I should have loaded this up with Tri-X. It’s five in the afternoon’ – before offering his thoughts on the future of the movies. ‘You haven’t heard the last of Cinecitta yet, Mr Hendrickson, not by a long shot. The new realism came out of Italy after the war, then the kitchen-sink film that the British picked up. But you’ll see, Rome ain’t dead yet..’

As events in Vinland take a turn for the worse, death – in a very real sense –  threatens not only the Vikings but also the 1960s film crew. By the end of the book it becomes clear that – even if they succeed in eluding arrows, axes, spears or drowning – there will be serious consequences from their reckless time travel. As Professor Hewett explains, with the help of a handy diagram (in which A1-Z1 is the world time line, with A1 the past and Z1 the future, and A-Z is the timeline navigated by the film crew):

The film-makers must go back in time at B, arrive at C, stay till D and then return to E:  the graph must always read ‘B-E’, never ‘E-B’, otherwise K – ‘the interchange of energy point, where the scales of time are balanced’ – would not exist. Readers who are reminded of the prohibition in Ghostbusters  – ‘never cross the streams’ – will probably also recall the dire warnings in Back to the Future about what might happen if one meddles with the past. There will no spoilers here, and anyone wishing to find out what happens to Barney, Slithey and co. will have to read The Technicolor Time Machine to find out. Hollywood has been the setting for countless novels and the subject of many a satire, but combining these with a well-crafted science fiction tale provides a rare treat, even if the tone may at times be too whimsical for certain tastes. A BBC radio adaptation was broadcast in 1981 as part of the Saturday Night Theatre series, and there were rumours some twenty years ago that Mel Gibson had bought the film rights – although whether he is the best person to be at the helm of such a project is open to question. In the meantime, the clever concept of The Technicolor Time Machine has inspired a great number of book illustrators and the cover art for the myriad paperback editions are well worth exploring.

 

This post was written as part of the 2018 #classicfilmreading challenge.

 

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.