Thursday, December 28, 2017

Dressing Actors For Success

Despite any Marxist fantasies about the benefits of a classless society, with the signing of the Republicans' loathsome Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017 by President Trump, there can be little doubt that the United States is headed toward becoming a society whose members are increasingly separated by race, religion, wealth, and social class. Thankfully, the arts offer plenty of predictions about what that looks like.
Whether such stories are adapted for the stage, screen, or opera house, costume designers always welcome an opportunity to contrast the fashions of the haute monde with those of the poor. The task of dressing Donizetti's three queens (Elizabeth I, Mary Stuart, and Anne Boleyn) can be just as formidable as providing costumes for a large chorus of peasants.

Soprano Sondra Radvanovsky in costume as Donizetti's three queens
for the Metropolitan Opera (Photos by: Ken Howard)

In 1956, Cecil Beaton had a stroke of genius when he designed all of the costumes for My Fair Lady's Ascot Gavotte in shades of black, white, and grey with the lone exception of Eliza Doolittle's costume. When Julie Andrews directed a 60th anniversary revival of the beloved Lerner & Loewe musical for Opera Australia using Oliver Smith and Cecil Beaton's original designs, John David Ridge explained their historical accuracy.

Although the history of fashion from many cultures and eras is well documented, the challenge for costume designers is not just to recreate what they see in archives, but to craft costumes that will work well on stage or in front of a camera. Sometimes, costume design needs to be sly enough to send a message that the costumes are not being worn by characters who are rich enough to afford them. Consider the lyrics to "Elegance" from Act II of Hello, Dolly!
"What a knack there is to that acting like a born aristocrat
Exercise your wildest whims tonight
We are out with Diamond Jims tonight.
Vanderbilt kowtows to us
J.P. Morgan scrapes and bows to us
We've got elegance, if you ain't got elegance
You can never ever carry it off!

Middle class don't speak of it, savoir faire, we reek of it!
All the guests of Mr. Hackl are
Feeling great and look spectacular
Some were born with rags and patches
But we use dollar bills for matches 'cause
We've got elegance, we were born with elegance
And with elegance we'll carry it off!"
Eileen Brennan as Irene Molloy and Sondra Lee as Minnie Fay
in the original Broadway production of Hello, Dolly!

One of the reasons I love attending screenings by the San Francisco Silent Film Festival is that the costumes in many films from the 1920s (even though they may only have been filmed in black and white) are stupendous fashion statements. While some people like to claim that "clothes make the man" two films from 1925 that were shown during December's "A Day of Silents" program did a splendid job of showing that clothes make the woman, too.

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Born on January 15, 1893 in Cardiff, Wales, one of Great Britain's most beloved stars of stage and screen was a true polymath. Ivor Novello (who composed the scores to several popular musicals) had his first hit as a songwriter with 1914's "Keep the Home Fires Burning." As his career grew, he gained fame as a writer, actor, and composer. In 1916, Novello was introduced to Bobbie Andrews (who became his lover for the next 35 years and introduced him to Noel Coward). Coward, who was in awe of Novello, later confessed that "I just felt suddenly conscious of the long way I had to go before I could break into the magic atmosphere in which he moved and breathed with such nonchalance."

Ivor Novello as Pierre Boucheron in the 1925 silent film, The Rat

In 1920, Novello made his screen debut as a romantic lead in Louis Mercanton's silent film, The Call of the Blood, followed by his stage debut in Sacha Guitry's 1921 play, Deburau. According to Wikipedia, Novello appeared in 22 films and, as a writer, contributed to 14 screenplays. He performed onstage with Ellen Terry and starred in the London premiere of Ferenc Molnar's Liliom (which inspired Rodgers and Hammerstein's 1945 hit musical, Carousel). Among the stage productions that Novello wrote (W), composed (C), and/or acted in (A) are the following:

The camera loved the expressiveness of Novello's face and he quickly became one of the most famous matinée idols of silent film. After Novello's brief affair with writer Siegfried Sassoon, he was described in Sassoon's biography by John Stuart Roberts as "a consummate flirt who collected lovers as he gathered lilacs."

Isabel Jeans as Zélie de Chaumet and Ivor Novello as Pierre
Boucheron in a scene from the 1925 silent film, The Rat

Following Novello's death on March 6, 1951 at the age of 58, newspaper reports of his funeral stressed that, as with Valentino's funeral, there was mass hysteria among his devoted female fans.
Poster art for the 1925 silent film, The Rat

In 1924, Novello produced, co-wrote, and starred in a play called The Rat. The SFSFF's recent screening at the Castro Theatre of the 1925 silent film adaptation (co-written by and starring Novello) was a classic tale of what can go wrong when, just like Rose and Jack in Titanic, a fascination with someone from a vastly different social class causes all kinds of unforeseen problems.

Set in Paris, The Rat stars Novello as Pierre Boucheron, a familiar figure in underground society who likes to hang out at The White Coffin. A notorious heartbreaker among young women, Boucheron (who is equally adept at stealing jewelry) has been living with Odile Etrange (Mae Marsh) when he encounters Zélie de Chaumet (Isabel Jeans), a woman who is being kept by the older man Herman Stetz (Robert Scholtz). Fearing that the performance she is attending with some friends at the Folies Bergère might be somewhat underwhelming, she arranges to have an after-party at The White Coffin.

Ivor Novello as Pierre Boucheron in a scene
from the 1925 silent film, The Rat

Because Pierre has forgotten to take his knife with him, Odile brings it to The White Coffin and leaves it in the care of Mère Colline (Marie Ault). Upon arriving on the scene, Pierre sees Herman acting aggressive with Odile and throws him out of the club. By the time Zèlie and her friends arrive, Pierre has gotten into a knife fight and begins to perform the famous Apache dance.

Before leaving the club, Zèlie passes a note to Pierre with her address, suggesting that he come up and see her sometime. But while she is pursuing the man known to all as "The Rat," Herman has tracked Odile back to her rented room and is trying to attack and subdue the thief's girlfriend. Directed by Graham Cutts, The Rat demonstrates how a well-made play can find new life in a carefully crafted film adaptation. With a plot filled with surprising twists and turns, The Rat has an unexpectedly satisfying ending as Pierre and Odile are saved from torment by Zèlie's willingness to testify on Rat's behalf.

Ivor Novello as Pierre Boucheron and Isabel Jeans as Zélie
de Chaumet in a scene from the 1925 silent film, The Rat

With live accompaniment by Sascha Jacobsen and the Musical Art Quintet, The Rat benefits from strong character acting by Julie Suedo (Mou Mou), Iris Grey (Rose), James Lindsay (Detective Caillard), and Esme Fitzgibbons (Madeline Sornay). But there is never any doubt who the star is -- or why. As Margarita Landazuri notes in her program essay:
“Beginning in the silent era, Novello was a magnetic presence in the movies, with his perfect profile, soulful eyes, and cupid’s bow lips (even when playing a shady character, as he does in The Rat). Film historian and critic Geoffrey Macnab writes that Novello’s performance as Pierre Boucheron was ‘the role in which he best combined the dreamy, neurotic side of his screen personality with swaggering, action-hero antics.’”
Mae Marsh (Odile) and Ivor Novello (Pierre) in a scene from The Rat

When the silent film adaptation of The Rat was released in 1925, it did so well that it was followed by The Triumph of the Rat in 1926 and The Return of the Rat in 1929 (both starring Novello). As Norma Desmond stressed in 1950's Sunset Boulevard, "We didn't need dialogue. We had faces!"

Ivor Novello stars in 1925's silent version of The Rat

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In 1925's silent film adaptation of Oscar Wilde’s 1892 play entitled Lady Windermere's Fan, Lord Windermere (Bert Lytell) and his wife, Lady Margaret Windermere (May McAvoy) find their fidelity put to an extreme test when a mysterious woman contacts Lord Windermere and insists on meeting with him in private. After revealing that she is, in fact, Lady Windermere’s long-lost mother (who had an illegitimate child and was forced to leave London under scandalous circumstances), Lord Windermere agrees to give Mrs. Erlynne (Irene Rich) a generous allowance but warns her that surprising his wife with the news of her true identity would be a shocking and tragic mistake.

Mary McAvoy (Lady Windermere) and Ronald Colman (Lord Darlington)
in a scene from the 1925 silent film, Lady Windermere's Fan

Meanwhile, Lady Windermere has been desperately trying to discourage the attentions of her husband’s close friend, Lord Darlington (Ronald Colman), who insists on flirting. During a day at the races, the mysterious Mrs. Erlynne attracts the attention of one of London’s “most distinguished bachelors," Lord Augustus Lorton (Edward Martindel), who is entranced by her presence. If Mrs. Erlynne can get Lord Lorton to propose to her, she could marry him and regain her position in London society. But, with Lord Darlington having informed Lady Windermere that her husband is writing checks to a strange woman, the web of intrigue based on gross misassumptions starts spinning out of control.

The three gossiping duchesses in a scene from the 1925 silent film
adaptation of Oscar Wilde's play, Lady Windermere's Fan

Ernst Lubitsch’s screen adaptation poses a strange contradiction. A beautifully shot silent film blessed with the extravagant wardrobe Sophie Wachner designed for Irene Rich, the movie is stunningly bereft of Wilde’s brilliant writing (which includes such great lines as “I can resist everything except temptation”). With a running time of 90 minutes, Lubitsch’s film does a delicate dance around questions of marital infidelity by showing how a ravishingly beautiful woman (scorned by societal gossips) can make all the men at a race track supremely uncomfortable after having seemingly returned from the dead.

Ronald Colman (Lord Darlington) and Irene Rich (Mrs. Erlynne)
in a scene from 1925's silent adaptation of Lady Windermere's Fan

In her program essay, Monica Nolan sheds light on how so much of the Irish playwright’s writing managed to disappear from the screenplay.
  • Supposedly, the executors of Wilde’s estate "were violently opposed to a transfer of the play to film and consent was obtained only when the executors learned that Lady Windermere’s Fan would be placed in the hands of Ernst Lubitsch. However, this was “promotional piffle" considering that film historian Charles Musser had revealed that Warner Bros. did not acquire the rights from Wilde’s estate, but from the Ideal Film Company (which had made a movie from the play in 1916).
  • Lubitsch’s famous race track sequence is described as “a tour-de-force montage of society gossips and lip-licking men peering at Mrs. Erlynne from every angle, during which Lubitsch wordlessly establishes the series of misinterpretations (just who is looking at whom, and why?) that drive the play’s crucial misunderstanding. Although Warner Bros. gave Lubitsch carte blanche, neither Harry nor Jack Warner were fans of subtlety (one of Lubitsch’s greatest storytelling strengths).
  • Lubitsch was quoted in the New York Herald Tribune as saying that “Epigrams on the printed page or on the stage are delightful, but … would much charm remain to long excerpts from Wilde’s play if the audience had to ponder laboriously over the scintillating sentences on screen?” Lubitsch didn’t leave Germany for Hollywood until 1922. As Nolan astutely posits: “This is probably more promotional puffery. Could Lubitsch, still struggling with English, have actually produced the alliterative ‘scintillating sentences on screen’”?
Irene Rich (Mrs. Erlynne) and Mary McAvoy (Lady Windermere)
in a scene from the 1925 silent film, Lady Windermere's Fan

With live musical accompaniment by the Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra, Lady Windermere's Fan lost some of its bite due to so much missing dialogue, but gained quite a bit from Lubitsch's meticulously directed visuals. Carrie Daumery, Helen Dunbar, and Billie Bennett were comic foils as the three gossipy duchesses, while the dashing Ronald Colman oozed sex appeal. Thankfully, the entire film is available online for your enjoyment on YouTube.

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