The Blue Bird (1918): Sweet Mystery of Life

I have only my brightness, which Man does not understand…. But I watch over him to the end of his days…. Never forget that I am speaking to you in every spreading moonbeam, in every twinkling star, in every dawn that rises, in every lamp that is lit, in every good and bright thought of your soul…

—the Spirit of Light, The Blue Bird (from the original play by Maurice Maeterlinck)

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I don’t know about you, but most of the time when people describe a movie as “magical,” I want to hurl.

That whimsical adjective serves all too often as a rationalization, a shiny foil wrapper for cynical, syrupy flicks designed to make adults think that they’re reliving their childhood when they’re really wallowing in empty brain calories. Not to sound hardboiled, but a “magical” film is a rare thing. It’s something that you seek only to be continually disappointed, something for which there is no substitute. And where magic truly is, there melancholy must also dwell. Ironically, we can only appreciate the helpless joys and sorrows of childhood once we have come to realize that our joys and sorrows as adults are just as helpless, if a little less pure.

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The Blue Bird is that fabulous movie which seems to enfold you with the gentleness of the one who told you stories as a child, if you were that lucky. This film understands everything you lost by crossing the threshold into maturity—and shows that it’s never lost if you keep looking. Director Maurice Tourneur gives this film a shimmery sense of yearning, weaving in every available special effect of the time to create a “fabric of moonbeams,” an ethereal, translucent dreamscape.

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Its plot follows an established fairy tale quest trajectory. In order to cure their neighbor’s invalid daughter, Tyltyl and Mytyl, brother and sister, embark on a journey to find the Blue Bird of Happiness. Travelling through a fantasy realm fraught with peril and delight, the siblings are accompanied by a good fairy and the anthropomorphic or personified spirits of various household objects and creatures—all of whom, the children learn, must die at the end of the voyage.

As a post-WWI allegory, The Blue Bird cradles a world shattered by hate and destruction and offers its paradisiacal beauty as a balm for bruised souls.

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Made the year before The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari, Tourneur’s childlike fantasy bears a number of similarities to the milestone horror film. Most obviously, Weine and Tourneur deftly harnessed the power of art direction—especially flat backgrounds of painted chiaroscuro lighting—to influence the mood and ambiance of a particular scene and to translate subjective mental states.

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However, to the eyes of this viewer, The Blue Bird makes Weine’s high-profile thriller look primitive by comparison. Whereas Caligari too often contents itself with letting drama play out in front of its impressive scenery—as it would on a stage—Tourneur’s masterpiece demonstrates a finely calibrated comprehension of the pas de deux that needs to take place between mise-en-scene and editing in order to tell a story.

We watch the painted illusions of Méliès come of age and acquire new meaning and wisdom, once wedded to narrative. For instance, when Tyltyl and Mytyl watch as a cemetery turns suddenly into a meadow, a cut switches the toning color from a lugubrious bluish-gray to a warm, inviting mauve. The triumph of love over death articulates itself in a simple switch from one shot to another.

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Several visual patterns, especially a frame-within-a-frame motif, help to structure the wildly diverse imagery in The Blue Bird and lend a measure of continuity to the somewhat episodic plot.

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Today’s filmmakers could learn a lot from The Blue Bird’s delicate balance between the awe we feel before the film’s visual flourishes and our emotional investment in the characters.

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As Kenneth MacGowan noted, “A number of scenes showed the players against fantastic flat designs—with perhaps a mountain or a castle in silhouette. There was no attempt to light these drops so as to imitate reality or to create an abstraction of vague dreaminess. It was a ‘stunt,’ an attempt at abstraction. The effect of individual scenes was pretty enough, but the contrast between these and succeeding scenes of three-dimensional realism was disconcerting.”

Consequently, the film flopped at the box office. I guess 1918 wasn’t ready for this level of brilliance.

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Personally, I savor how the movie pirouettes on the apparently volatile boundary between fantasy and reality. Even the most quotidian of objects, after all, can transmogrify into something alien and chimerical if you just look at them a little differently. This fluidity in The Blue Bird is more indicative of what goes on in our minds—especially the elastic, synapse-storm brains of children, as they shuttle back and forth between interior worlds and exterior demands—than accepted norms of “realism.”

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If this “children’s film” occasionally succumbs to sentiment and eye candy, it also probes the darkest questions that haunt us all. Why do good people suffer? What happens to the people I love after they die? Will I ever find my soul mate? What’s the point of being alive?

Herein lies the genius of The Blue Bird. Kids do think about these grave matters. I was, like, 7-years-old when I asked my mom, “What’s the meaning of life?” Needless to say, I was gravely pissed when she told me that nobody really knows. (My mother is blessedly honest.)

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Though its subject matter is heavy, The Blue Bird confronts such grisly vagaries and questions with a touch as light as a baby’s pinkie toe. Consider, for instance, how Tyltyl’s loyal dog comically saves him from the shrieking ghouls of madness in the Castle of Night. Isn’t it true, though, that the love and affection of one living creature can save you from going bananas?

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Tyltyl and Mytyl’s also pay a bittersweet visit to their dead grandparents—who take care of the souls of their dead brothers and sisters. You might expect morbidity or mawkishness, but no. The humor and casual domesticity of the odd scene quickly ingratiated its wish fulfillment with me.

The spiritual splendor of this film amazes me. You might say that it glows with the iridescent beauty of a lost treasure; its cinematographer John van den Broek drowned at at the age of 23 while shooting a picture just a few months after The Blue Bird was released. This film bears witness to his incredible talent, cut down in its prime.

Fanciful set designs by the inspired Ben Carré transform every frame into a living storybook illustration. And fans of silent movie intertitles (who isn’t?) will be floored by the most stunning intertitle art I’ve ever seen—bar none.

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Significantly, however, Tourneur reserves the most magical moment of the film for the return to so-called reality. Once the children have bidden farewell to their spirit playmates and found the Blue Bird (I won’t say how!), the creature flutters away, having cured their neighbor.

And then, Tyltyl turns to the camera. He looks right at us and addresses us, urging the audience to carry on the search for the storied Blue Bird.

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Breaking the fourth wall is not really a special effect. It’s a shock to the mind, to the barriers we put up to keep ourselves apart from the story. However, the impact of movie characters suddenly speaking to an audience can stir us more than any display of visual wizardry.

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Just as the lines separating reality and fantasy blur within The Blue Bird, they also blur without. The playful universe of the story permeates our own more mundane realm once its protagonist addresses us.

Whereas many dreamlike films leave you to shrug it off and think, “Well, it’s just a movie,” The Blue Bird flies into our world, anointing those privileged enough to see it as the new seekers of happiness, the torchbearers of the quest. Perhaps the wonders of the world do lie dormant and curled up in the things that we most take for granted.

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Pardon this non sequitur, but when I was a little girl, I read something that Napoleon Bonaparte wrote and which has remained with me ever since. In a letter to Josephine, he asked, “What magic fluid envelops us and and hides from us the things it is most important for us to know? We are born, we live, and we die in the midst of the marvelous.” When I was watching The Blue Bird, I remembered that wistful quote and realized that this movie somehow lifts the veil from our eyes so that we may perceive the marvels all around us.

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Cinema’s magic arsenal easily lends itself to the depiction of sickening violence and ugliness. The first ever film edit, a hidden cut in The Execution of Mary Queen of Scots, served the purpose of portraying a decapitation in horrifying, realistic detail. One of the most iconic breaking-the-fourth-wall shots in film history, from The Great Train Robbery, was exactly that—a shot right at the audience, a gesture of idiotic, unreasoning aggression. We associate expressionism with horror movies, and, today, CGI generates grotesque, turgid battle scenes, slip n’ slides of hemoglobin and sweat.

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The Blue Bird proves to us that cinema’s magic apparatus can marshal its powers for good as well as evil.

This masterpiece stands as an elegant example of what a film built on special effects ought to be; that is, Tourneur’s many forays into silly hidden cuts and double exposures all strive to shed light on a character or hint at a universal truth about the human condition.  Reversed footage makes ordinary objects dance, and trick editing delivers fanciful, symbolic creatures into being. The Kuleshov Effect assembles a palace of wonders and curiosities—behind each door, impossible landscapes wait to be discovered.

If I ever go to heaven, I hope it looks like this movie. In any case, The Blue Bird shows how art can make heaven on earth.

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You can watch The Blue Bird on YouTube right now or download it for free at the Internet Archive. I strongly urge you to do do. Really. I shudder in horror at the thought that I might have gone through my whole life and not seen this movie.

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Beau Brummel (1924): Deeply Superficial

Poster“But the true beau is a beau-ideal, an abstraction substantialized only by the scissors, a concentrated essence of frivolity, infinitely sensitive to his own indulgence, chill as the poles to the indulgences of others; prodigal to his own appetites, never suffering a shilling to escape for the behoof of others; magnanimously mean, ridiculously wise, and contemptibly clever.

Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine, 1844.

Superficiality gets a bad rap. After all, what does that much-maligned word denote, in its essence? It means an emphasis on the surface, on that which is readily apparent. Now, I will never condone an obsession with exterior beauty that dismisses any interior value; however, I cannot help but detect something heroic about the desire to project a surface of agonizing perfection. Appearance-consciousness rises to the level of greatness—and dare I say art?—when it demands extreme discipline and taste on the part the person who takes up the heavy burden of being an exalted human spectacle.

I am referring to that hallowed creature, the dandy. And if we want to enjoy Beau Brummel as anything other than a quaintly moving romance based on Clyde Fitch’s 1890 play, we need to introduce ourselves to this most charming phenomenon.

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The dandy as a cultural and literary concept resists a simple definition. It depends on whom you’re talking to, but I like Nigel Rodgers’s recent definition of “the perennial dandy principles: independence, elegance, courtesy, wit.” On a more philosophical level, the love of my life Charles Baudelaire likened the dandy to the Stoic of antiquity because the dandy wears a mask of whimsy and nonchalance even when in the throes of pain or misfortune or when sullied by the teeming mediocrity of the commercial world around him. His beauty is not vulgar because it cannot be bought merely with money (although it helps, all dandies agree); that beauty reflects his originality, his ability to style and reimagine himself.

And no man incarnated the ideals of dandyism more famously than Beau Brummel, the subject of today’s offering, a 1924 silent period drama based on his spectacular life. (N.B. I am spelling the character’s name Brummel because that’s how it’s written on the titles. However, the favored spelling, according to the junta at dandyism.net. is with two L’s.)

jackprofileBeau Brummel follows the trajectory of a rise and fall. As a young officer, Brummel falls in love with Lady Margery, an heiress betrothed to an aristocrat and fails to rescue her from the clutches of her family.

Deciding to climb the social ladder, Brummel ingratiates himself with the Prince of Wales by getting him out of an amorous jam. Through his careful cultivation of mannerisms and trends and his blistering wit, “Beau” sets himself up as the reigning king bee of the upper crust—but earns as many enemies as friends. Eventually, Beau grows too big for his breeches and winds up banished by the Prince to some frigid outpost in Calais, northern France, where he dies in utter penury.

Harry Beaumont, best known for another film about style and appearances, Our Dancing Daughters, directed this poignant tale with panache and an acute eye for stunning compositions and haunting details. In depicting the rise and fall of a fashion arbiter, Beaumont uses mirrors as a motif to explore the character’s self-consciousness. The first shot we see of Brummel is a shot of him between intertitles, reflected in an oval mirror. In that classical round frame, he resembles the immaculate, still images on 18th century cameos. This is the image—but the real man is onscreen, too, although you notice him as an afterthought. We understand that appearance means everything to Brummel. Paradoxically, the most profound desires of his soul express themselves in his drive to be flamboyantly attractive and debonair.

Once Brummel has fallen from grace, the mirror, once his friend, becomes his enemy. Barrymore brought me to tears in one scene where the ravaged, wasted Brummel tries to look at his face then turns away, pushing at the glass with his fingers, streaking it in dismay.

However, I hope that our director, the talented Mr. Beaumont, won’t roll over in his grave if I observe Beau Brummel wears the unmistakable charm and savoir faire of John Barrymore front and center—like a gracefully tied cravat—and deserves most of the credit for this film’s emotional impact. A rake, a genius, a matinee idol, and as self-destructive a man that ever existed, Barrymore incarnated the sardonic wisdom and reckless hedonism at the core of dandyism.

Our star is also responsible for perhaps this film’s most significant contribution to posterity: Mary Astor’s breakout role.

maryAstor—a woman who never gave herself enough credit for her depth and strength—initially attracted attention from Hollywoodland by winning a beauty contest. Superficiality, at least, brought her to the screen and to all of us. Her possessive parents, so cruel and pushy that they might have easily fit into the ruthlessly upwardly-mobile world of Beau Brummel, recognized her beauty as their cash cow. Mary played several minor parts until John Barrymore asked for her as his leading lady in Beau Brummel.

And that’s when life and art started to intertwine to the point that it would be hard to say which was imitating which. In her autobiography, My Story, Astor recalled her screen test for the role of Lady Margery and her first meeting with the Great Profile:

“We were both in costume of sorts, just enough to indicate the period, and as we were standing in for lighting my awe for this great man made me confused and awkward. Mr. Barrymore broke through my shyness by talking about everything under the sun but the picture; he made me laugh about something, and he gradually and skillfully made me feel that I was his contemporary as an actor and as a person. He told me he had seen a picture of me in a magazine while he was on a train coming out from New York, and the caption had appealed to him: ‘On the brink of womanhood.’ I told him I was seventeen, and he said, just a little sadly, ‘It seems so long ago that I was seventeen. I’m forty now.’

“ ‘That’s not so old,’ I said, and we were great friends.

“I know that on that afternoon we fell in love, and I am sure he was even more startled than I.”

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Barrymore gave Mary her first acting lessons and unlocked a new realm of ideas and intellect to this affection-starved girl. During some of these lessons, there was no studying, however. These forbidden trysts between the ingénue and the mentor over twice her age echo the roles that they poetically brought to life onscreen. Astor remembered,

“In the filming of the many romantic, delicate love scenes of Beau Brummel we could stand in each other’s arms, Jack in his romantic red and blue hussar uniform and white wig, I in the beautiful Empire style dresses, while the camera and lights were being set. We whispered softly, or just stood there, quietly loving the closeness; and no one was the wiser. Between scenes, Jack had the prop man place two camp chairs together just off the set, and we sat side by side.”

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And so, finally, after much perambulation around the film’s contexts, I arrive at Beau Brummel itself. Unlike me, this movie wastes no time; we don’t see the romance between Beau (or George) and Lady Margery blossom—we see it cut off in medias res.

Dressed in a bridal gown, Margery meets her beloved George, a dashing soldier, in the garden to say goodbye. She’s about to depart for a life bound to another man in a marriage of convenience. Watching Barrymore’s duly celebrated face going nose-to-nose with Mary Astor’s equally photogenic profile presents a sight so stunning and precise it borders on graphic design! I felt like I was looking at one of those dual-profile-chalice illusion sketches.

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Their dazzling united loveliness might sound like a superficial thing to remark on—but, again, it’s an instance where superficiality weds something more spiritual. The surreal perfection of these two people leads us to wordlessly understand that they are meant to be together. Our eyes know it and our eyes speak directly to our hearts.

Beau Brummel is one of those rare films that captures the spark of an off-screen love affair. You can read it in Astor’s overly wide eyes and in the tender care with which Barrymore’s hands never seem to stop moving, but always seem to nervously long to caress a different part of this splendid creature.

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Unfortunately, Lady Margery’s nasty, social-climbing mother (not so different from Astor’s real-life maternal unit) bursts in. This harpy forces the girl to choose between her duty and the man she loves—really, no choice, because she can’t exactly run away with an enlisted man. George leaves her in despair, vows to climb the social ladder with his charm and wit. He takes his miniature portrait of her and writes on the back, “This beautiful creature is dead.” We know that he will meet her again.

Mary Astor, even in her teenage years, possessed a striking aura of grief and maturity. For instance, after Beau leaves for France, she clings to the door he just exited through, almost squashed against it like a broken butterfly. Seen from behind and in a long shot, she communicates a universe of pain merely by wiggling her arms despondently.

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Except for when she was playing comedy (and even then), Astor interacted with the world as one who has been hurt by it. And with her pale complexion and those perpetual dark circles that even panstick makeup couldn’t conceal, she never looked like she got quite enough sleep. That is a strong part of her allure. You wonder what she was doing all night.

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Both her fragility and her fortitude shine through her portrayal of Lady Margery. Although the script gives her little more to do than watch and react, her soulful eyes, so dark that the appearance of the whites is startling, convey a sense of heartbreaking loss. As she turns her eyes to signify the screen direction of her departing lover, we feel her happiness slip away.

trioThe scenes between her and Brummel stand out as the best of the film. Now, that’s not to say that Barrymore doesn’t beguile us pretty much constantly. Whether he’s flirting with another man, treating the Prince of Wales like an inferior acquaintance, or coyly nodding at his jealous fellow officers, he swaggers exquisitely. However, when he encounters the love of his life, then and only then do we perceive the man worthy of all that external beauty.

When Lady Margery visits him in Calais, her youth still shines while Beau, ground down by poverty, has aged horribly. He’s crouched by the fire, gnawing on a piece of bread when she comes in. As she stands in the doorway, the awkward stillness of the shot-reverse-shot exchanges tear at our heartstrings. Finally, she enters, informs him that her husband is dead, and, in an unusual inversion of the movie proposal scene, asks him to marry her. Do I smell a happy ending after all?

No, alas.

As Beau tells her, “I am grown old, and changed, and tired of life.” After she departs, he starts to sob by the door, biting on his own hand to keep her from hearing and coming back to his aid.

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Call it vanity, call it stupidity, but he loves her so much that he couldn’t live with the thought of giving her a second-rate version of himself. Thus we witness the pride and integrity that sustains dandyism. We also observe a very genuine facet of Barrymore’s love for his teenage costar.

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As Astor noted, “I know Jack loved me. I know it as surely as I know the fact of my own existence. Fifteen years afterwards he was talking to me about it, telling me how surprised he had been to find himself beginning to love me that first day on the Beau Brummel set. Even then, fifteen years later, he didn’t dismiss it lightly. ‘It s a good thing I wasn’t free to marry,” he said then. ‘And it’s a good thing I couldn’t get you away from your family. I would have married you, and you would have had a miserable life.’”

bgIf that Calais scene doesn’t wet your cheeks, wait until the denoument, which finds Beau in a debtor’s hospital as a decrepit, crazy old man. His former servant visits him with the news that Margery is dying.

This news penetrates Beau’s senility and he begins to relive his best days with her. Cut to Margery in her bed. She breathes her last… and her splendid spirit rises from the bed. Her double-exposure soul descends into Beau’s squalid room just as he expires. And he too emerges from his mortal coil as the idealized officer he once was.

Why is it that our celluloid souls are supposed to look like ourselves—but in the prime of life, at our youthful pinnacle? Are we being superficial? Or perhaps we associate that beauty with hope and with the time in our existence when we still aspired to something. It probably goes back to the Middle Ages, when funerary statues were made to resemble the departed individual at the age of 33, since that was considered the “perfect age,” the age at which Christ had died. So, once again, we see that it’s not so easy to separate the superficial from the spiritual, the corporal from the ethereal.

As the ghostly Lady Margery and Beau embrace, the shimmering schmaltziness of this telepathic love-beyond-life scenario actually works and triggers a surge of weepy fulfillment. The visual pleasure of gazing at such picturesque people, combined with the verisimilitude of the actors’ star-crossed love affair, succeeds at provoking a catharsis. After all, cinema is sort of a dandy; like Brummel, this art of surfaces runs surprisingly deep. It can see the veracity and purity of a love that no one else could perceive. And preserve that love for almost 90 years.

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Dressed to Kill: The Style(s) of Noir’s Bad Girls

avaIf I were to say “femme fatale” to you, what would you picture? Chances are, she’d be wearing something form-fitting and satiny—probably black—and most likely holding a gun or a cigarette. Or both. Veils or furs or tiny fascinator hats might play in there somewhere, if you want to get fancy. But that’s the archetype.

You probably wouldn’t imagine a scrawny blonde with a pixie cut in a bathrobe. Or a grimy drifter chick in a crocheted sweater. Or a fifty-year-old woman in a sunhat and a leopard print lounge ensemble. And yet, the bad girls of classic noir encompass all these shades of boyishness, grittiness, and full-on glamour. The one thing they all have in common, however, is that they use their clothes for a definite purpose, be it a stealth attack or a full-on assault.

In one of cinema’s greatest wardrobe scenes, from the noirish Leave Her to Heaven, Ellen, a psychopathically jealous wife, silently browses her closet, looking for the right dressing gown—that she’ll wear when throwing herself down a flight of stairs to kill her unborn child! It’s an extreme example, but clothing, for a femme fatale, offers an outlet for her to direct her own life, to orchestrate the world around her and control the reactions of others. She harnesses the power of her clothes perhaps to win sympathy or to generate attraction, but always to attain her goal.

4 5 1 A lot of characters in movies wear the sort of clothes that an audience expects them to wear. This is a huge generalization, but the costumes of classic Hollywood tend to announce the identity of the wearer, “This is who I am. You know what to expect from me.” The style of a character helps us read her; it introduces us to that person through a kind of sartorial shorthand. Most of the time, those costumes don’t try to draw attention to the fact that they were carefully constructed and selected—except insofar as they are beautiful and worthy of our admiration.

The significance of clothing becomes much more complex when we’re dealing with the deceptive dames of noir. With the truly well-defined femme fatale characters, we the viewers feel that these tough broads actually chose their outfits. We discern an added layer of calculation, of connivance in their clothing choices. The fashions of the femme fatale dare us to decode them, to try to understand why they’re wearing that. What are they after? What are they trying to get by looking that way? Men might explain their strategies in film noir. The women wear theirs.

You are dangerous…

For instance, let’s take one of noir’s best liars—Brigid O’Shaunessy from The Maltese Falcon (costumes by Orry-Kelly). If she has a gift for belying her true nature as a greedy, cold-blooded killer, her clothes are her best accomplices. She fearfully tiptoes into Sam’s office wearing a mountain of fur, thick, bumpy, grandmotherly fox. Her suit doesn’t scream sexy either. On the contrary, it’s rather baggy. And that hat. Has she been shopping Ninotchka’s closet?

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Okay, so I’m being catty, but Brigid’s beauty is certainly subdued by the rather matronly clothes she wears. She’s a natural “knockout” because of her porcelain features, but Mary Astor gives us a much more simmering femme fatale in place of the sizzler that Hammett wrote. And it’s utterly perfect.

I mean, evil women don’t wear big waxy gardenias on their floppy, blouson crepe dresses, do they?

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They don’t smother themselves in pleats and ruffles and tweed. I remember the first time I saw The Maltese Falcon as a young girl I could not bring myself to believe that Brigid killed Archer. And that she was “going over for it.” I gaped in astonishment. Her schoolgirl manner and her many, many pretenses—destroyed and then rebuilt—had me convinced.

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And I would argue that her decidedly un-flashy, quiet, slightly old-fashioned wardrobe as much as promised me that, at heart, she was a good egg. But don’t judge a book by its cover. That feigned modesty was all part of an act. As Sam Spade tells her, “You’re good.” Only as good a liar as her costumes.

Here Kitty, Kitty…

At the other end of the in-your-face sexiness spectrum, we’ve got Kitty from The Killers (costumes by Vera West). The first time we meet the mysterious woman, after quite a bit of screen time spent in the process of “chercher la femme,” she’s hosting a posh soiree for her main squeeze’s business associates (in flashback). Wearing that black dress, with just a single diagonal strap keeping the bustier up, Kitty practically jumps off the screen. She’s a vision. In fact, we see her for the first time from behind, her alabaster shoulders glowing in the candlelight, starkly contrasting with the inky shade of the dress.

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The visibility of her neck and shoulders also conflicts with the ridiculously covered-up outfit worn by Swede’s current girlfriend. Even the most monogamous man on the planet would be tempted.

The dress itself couldn’t be described as tacky. However, the amount of skin she coolly, comfortably displays suggests that this woman, no matter how refined she seems, probably did some gangland finagling to get to this point. The costume hints at the black diamond hardness that Kitty continues to exhibit throughout the film. If she’s partially at the mercy of the men who deign to look at her, well, she’s wise enough to work with their desire to get what she wants.

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We first see Kitty as this perfect china doll, another exquisite possession of Jim Colfax and we recognize her as the inevitable lure of Swede’s destruction. The next time we encounter her, she’s even more posh and ladylike in an ornate hat and a square-neckline day gown.

But after that, the moll beneath the polish shows up. In several flashbacks, we witness Kitty hanging out with the Colfax gang as they plan the payroll heist. In those flashbacks, she wears a simple black skirt, unadorned pumps, and a mannish collared shirt with the sleeves cuffed up or a rustic knit sweater. Not just the glossy mob mistress, this dame likes to be there when things are really happening—and can rock a more casual ensemble.

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Nevertheless, the rather unglamorous clothes she chose still showcase her voluptuous figure and enable her to stir up trouble between the Swede and Colfax as part of her own ‘divide and conquer’ mentality. She’s not one of the boys, but she dresses to demonstrate that, despite the daintiness of her face and body, her fierce determination cannot and should not be underestimated. The woman in these outfits can say, without the slightlest disbelief on the audience’s part, “Touch me and you won’t live ’til morning!”

10 A damsel in dis-dress

One of my absolute favorite things that noir dames do is to let themselves be caught, accidentally on purpose, in a state of undress or disarray. Make no mistake: I don’t believe that true deadly women like Phyllis Dietrichson ever let their guard down, even to sleep. Like sharks, they probably have to move constantly and scheme without cease, or they’d die.

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Oh, my! You just happened to catch me in my vine-patterned, designer beach towel!

So, when a noir dame reveals a little more of herself than she seems to want to, you bet your life, she’s making an opening gambit. The apparent absence of fashion—just wrapping oneself up in a towel or robe—in fact betrays a conscious choice to say, “Look, I have nothing to hide.”

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Most men have two weaknesses: (half-)naked ladies and ladies in trouble. The bad girls of noir innovated by combining the two.

Accessorize, accessorize!

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Sunglasses on a femme fatale serve no normal purpose. Most of the time, they do not protect these dangerous ladies from the sun; they conceal what they’re really thinking. Often, noir sunglasses are worn indoors—most famously by Phyllis Dietrichson in the famous market scenes of Double Indemnity.

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Those almost totally opaque cat eye glasses give her the eeriness of a Death’s Head combined with the suburban garishness of a bored housewife. One gets the feeling that she bought them—like that widow’s hat of hers—just for this occasion. They’re not sunglasses. They’re scheming glasses. Hm, wearing sunglasses to browse the local canned goods. That’s not suspicious, at all.

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Of course, Phyllis has a way with accessories: mourning veils and that “honey of an anklet,” that actually enables Walter to learn her first name. It’s the little intimate details that show that, underneath that garish Martha Washington wig and her often bulgy, padded ’40s style, she’s sexual dynamite.

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When we first catch a glimpse of Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard, she’s wearing oddly large glasses that catch the glint of the sun. Those great, bulging round lenses endow her with the look of a fearful insect, a preying mantis in seclusion. She continues to wear them while watching Joe read her script. The glasses render her all the more inscrutable as a means, we understand, of concealing her vulnerability.

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Like the many of the most ego-inflated people in the world, Norma quails and withers under the slightest criticism. Her sunglasses don’t keep out the sun; they protect her from the truth. I’d also note that the large, rounded shape of the glasses imbues her with a fusty, outdated air. The shape of her sunglasses wouldn’t have been particularly popular in 1950. But then again, neither were silent movies.

Although I have reservations about calling Leave Her to Heaven a film noir, it does feature one of the most relentless of femmes fatales that I’ve ever encountered and Martin Scorsese has called it a “film noir in color,” so I’m going to go with that. As an insanely jealous sociopath from a well-bred family, the stunningly beautiful Gene Tierney sets about removing any obstacle to the total possession of her husband. In the film’s most chilling scene, she lets her husband’s crippled kid brother drown while she sits calmly in a boat.

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As she fails to move a muscle and watches the little boy flail and scream, the blank darkness of her preppy, otherwise innocuous sunglasses translate the emptiness of her own soul. She’s a void. No matter how pretty her face, behind those vivid eyes, you’d probably look into something as black and glassy as those sunshades.

Noir Economics

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In the dog-eat-dog world of noir, fashion isn’t just a means to an end. It’s an end in its own right. The hard-knocks dames who walk down those mean streets want it all; often born into poverty, noir femmes fatales crave security and luxury: life, liberty, and the pursuit of furs and bling. Margot Shelby of Decoy, played by the rosy but fearsome Jean Gillie, even expounds this philosophy to her boyfriend, who’s reluctant to aid and abet some illegal doings:

“Reality? What do you know about reality? You like the clothes I wear, don’t you? You like to smell the perfume I use. You like that, don’t you? That perfume costs seventy-five dollars a bottle! Seventy-five dollars! That’s as much as you earn in a week sopping up runny noses. A bottle of perfume—that’s our reality.”

Tricked out in lush furs, rich silks, Margot flaunts her swag with the brazenness of a woman born into filth and grime. She occasionally caressing her own jewels, lavishing the affection that she lacks for her fellow man on the cold glitter of those heavy diamond bracelets. Even her shoes sparkle with pave rhinestones and a heavy broach graces her funny cylindrical cap. She lights up the darkness like a firecracker with her over-the-top glamour, even in the most grim and dire of settings.

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Live well and look great or die trying, that’s Margot’s mentality to the very end.

The fashions of noir are underwritten, usually, by crime. The desire for beauty and style propels the women of noir to navigate the underworld and find men whom they can manipulate into giving them the cutting-edge frocks they so crave. Security, money, fashion—they all go hand-in-hand. Take Vera, the psycho chick of Ulmer’s cheapie Detour. When we first see her, her clothes don’t exactly impress us. She sports a black skirt and heels scuffed up by her time spent hitchhiking. We never really learn where she wants to go or where she comes from.

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However, her crocheted cardigan with great big, round buttons that once was white and looks like it was purchased at a department store by a girl who wanted nicer things, but couldn’t really afford them.

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However, no sooner does Vera get her hooks into her fellow drifter and starts spending some of the money he took from a dead man than her true vanity reveals itself. She purchases a chic black gown with a padded peplum skirt and a sparkly brooch (designed by Mona Barry). “Don’t I rate a whistle?” She asks her companion. Clearly, she aspires a certain kind of upper-crust opulence, but can’t rid herself of her vulgar instinct. I mean really, who goes out wearing a torch singer gown in the daytime? Quelle horreur! Once again, the desire for fashionable duds, as well as other material comforts, spurs Vera on to more and more outrageous criminal schemes—and her own destruction. But hey, maybe it was all worth it for one shopping spree in Los Angeles.

Glamazons

Glamour actually comes from an old word for “spell” or “magic.” And each of noir’s wicked sorceresses casts her own kind of spell when it comes to big league glamour.

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Note: if you’re wearing sequins on your skin, your hair, AND your outfit, you had better be nuts, famous, and very, very rich.

Norma Desmond, decorated like a Christmas tree with excessive trinkets, brooches, rings, necklaces, and dress clips, exudes a sense of general decay. She tries too hard. She dazzles, yes, but too much. Just as she wears “a pound of make-up” to go visit the studio, she smothers herself in furs, wraps, and veils.

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And yet, there’s something compelling in her decadence. For the costumes, Edith Head channeled am overripe glamour so archetypal, so Hollywood, so leopard-print-exaggerated, that one cannot help but admire the grotesque splendor of it all. Norma, the moth-eaten goddess, the Miss Havisham of Sunny Roseland, radiates the kind of blinding self-indulgence that made the “crazy Twenties” so much more cool and enigmatic than “all that New Hollywoood trash.”

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When I last watched Out of the Past (costumes by Edward Stevenson), I couldn’t get over how much Kathie Moffat’s style changed over the course of the movie. First, she walks out of the sun in a feminine, square-necked white ensemble—so very put together and unruffled.

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Next, she’s the free spirited beach girl in a peasant dress, her hair soaked by the rain. Maybe she’s not so bad after all? Wrong!

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Once she returns to Whit, her silken dressing gowns, simple bias cut dresses, and fluffy mink wraps show that she’s equally comfortable as the gangland mistress.

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Perhaps more than any other noir woman, Kathie strikes us as a chameleon. She shifts her shape until she finally transforms into the militaristic dame of the conclusion, her hair hidden by a nunnish traveling snood.

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“I never told you I was anything but what I am,” she tells Jeff, but her clothes told us something else entirely.

Pure as the Driven Slush

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White costumes make strikingly misleading choices for femmes fatales. In a recent issue of InStyle, Tom Ford cited the white ensemble worn by Lana Turner’s Cora at the beginning of The Postman Always Rings Twice as one of his favorite film costumes (designed by Irene at M-G-M). The duality of white as innocence and the disguise for guilt really comes across from that first long shot of the erotic woman standing there giggling to herself, then intently applying lipstick. Wordless and self-contained, she almost seems like an apparition, some exotic dream girl in a pin-up costume, a fantasy that materialized just for Frank.

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Honestly, what woman lounges around the house in white bum-hugging shorts, a midriff-revealing top and a turban, for crying out loud? Throughout the film, white enhances her aura of youth, of childishness and yet also seems to be contradicted by her voluptuous figure. I wonder how many good-looking drifters she surprised with the same routine. This is one complicated dame.

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If someone were to ask me which movie character’s wardrobe I would most want to own, I wouldn’t hesitate: Elsa Bannister’s costumes designed by Jean Louis for The Lady from Shanghai. This ethereal femme fatale embraces a varied, but coherent style—she reeks of class and aristocracy, on land, on sea, or in a funhouse. I’m particularly in love with how she pulls off a clingy black bathing suit with a military pea coat and a captain hat. Don’t try that at home!

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But the defining outfit of her character, the one that cements our and Michael O’Hara’s deep and unreasonably stupid love for her is a feminine full-skirted white gown with a sheer collared capelet.

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This dress, shimmering, sparkling in the moonlight, cloaks Rita Hayworth in a seductive modesty. The floaty white transparency of the capelet might make us think for a moment that she’s angel. Elsa Bannister represents the enduring attraction of evil that comes to us in the form of what we most want. As she explains, “One who follows one’s original nature keeps one’s original nature… in the end.” Her beauty and her wistful  romantic costumes just encourage poor lost souls to follow.

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Fashion as a force of nature: Elsa Bannister’s white dress. She floats down the hill to the strains of “Amado Mio,” a clever allusion to Gilda.

I have left out quite a few of my favorite femmes fatales—and written a lot and still not said as much as I had hoped. The next time you crack open your favorite noir, though, I dare you to ask… why did she chose to wear this? What’s her angle? To tantalize? To play a part? To boast about her status? To love? To kill? Or all of the above, perhaps.

This post is part of the Fashion in Film Blogathon. Be sure to check out both Day 1 and Day 2 of this fabulous blog event hosted by The Hollywood Revue!

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Avant Glam: Hollywood Portraits and Surrealism

      

Which of these does not belong? From left to right: Joan Crawford by George Hurrell, Katie Holmes (apparently with a migrane) by Solve Sundsbo from the 2008 Holiday Issue of T Magazine, Hedy Lamarr also by Hurrell.

Today, whenever a magazine wants to channel the “classic Hollywood” vibe, the editorial staff thinks best to conjure up the era with an imitation of the Hurrell chiaroscuro paired up with a current celebrity, be it Angelina Jolie or Britney Spears, and act like they’ve captured the essence of the archetypal glam shot.

But something’s always missing. What exactly? Well, it does relate to the fact that they’re just not photographing stars with one iota of the charisma and untouchability they had in the olden days. “They had faces then,” declares Norma Desmond and she was right. Nevertheless, in my mind, it’s not just the they-don’t-make-stars-like-they-used-to attitude that accounts for why the homage so often falls short of the original.

No: there’s a subtle quality that makes many real old Hollywood glam shots so much more engaging, hypnotic and…for lack of a better word, trippythan their modern counterparts.

A subtly surreal texture infuses these images, beyond even the fetishist focus on the face or body that seems to exist in some kind glamorous limbo. Strange details, odd, angles, and inexplicable, looming shadows that call forth an uneasy tension between the star and something grim, dead, dizzily abstract, or just plain weird.

Now, please do note that I am not trying to say that surrealism influenced the photographers who sustained the Dream Machine with pictures like you’ll see below. That would be 1) obvious; 2) beyond the scope of this blog; and 3) pretty boring. Instead, I hope that the series of images I’ve put together will encourage you to reflect on the way of seeing and looking that classic Hollywood produced, which even I can sometimes take for granted but which I consider every bit as provocative, modern, and unsettling as avant-garde art. I used a lot of Hurrell shots because he was one of the most instrumental photographers in “branding” and perfecting the unique feel of the Hollywood glam shot, but I also threw in a few less-than-famous shots just to show how pervasive the aesthetic was.

These pictures seduce us, but don’t always ask us to realize how and why we’ve been seduced. They efface their own charm and wit. I think they deserve credit not just for their beauty but also for these visionary traits.

I went about coming up with this blog post by following a method that I’d describe as somewhat surrealist: I saw a few images of old time movie stars that slapped me across the face with their exoticism and eccentricity so I started searching for more and collecting files of the portraits that exuded that same surreal aura. I warn you: it’s an idiosyncratic collection more than anything else. A collage.

So, rather than write too much (too late!), I’ll let the pictures give you their thousand-words-worth.

Masklike

Clara Bow

(c. 1920s ? I chanced across this photo—such is the surreal nature of the Internet—and cannot find anything about it in any language I speak. The strangest thing, though, is that the star’s face serves as all the provenance I need. I believe that the mask is a commedia dell’arte copy, but am no expert.)

“Noire et Blanche”

(Man Ray, 1926; the woman is Kiki de Montparnasse who “starred” in Ballet Méchanique)

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Carole Lombard

(I’d say very early 1930s, just by the Crawford-ish look that Carole had in that period, but I have no clue what the hands have to do with anything.)

Dora Maar

(By Man Ray. N.B. Dora Maar also did at least one surreal hand photo herself that’s worth looking at.)

Rapunzel meets Ophelia: Floating Hair

Veronica Lake

(George Hurrell, 1941)

“Woman with Long Hair”

(Man Ray, 1929)

Fur-Bearing Curiosities

Joan Crawford

(Also by Hurrell, 1932)

“Le Déjeuner en Fourrure”

(Object by Meret Oppenheim, 1936)

Stop the Clocks

Adele Mara as a human sundial

(c. early 1940s. Again, details are not forthcoming. Mara, though, is quite an interesting dame—sort of a poor man’s Rita Hayworth—about whom you might like to read.)

“The Persistence of Memory”

(Salvador Dalí, 1931)

Space-Age Glampots

Clara Bow

(George P. Hommel, 1929)

Lee Miller

(Man Ray , c. 1930)

Subtle Distortions

For this final comparison, I will need to wade again into the muddy waters of analysis so I will revert to my old wordy ways. No, please, please don’t close the tab! Don’t touch the keypad! Okay, take a long look at these images:

Betty Grable

(Frank Powolny, 1943)

La Fourchette

(André Ketesz, 1928)

Unlike the other pairs, the link between these two images doesn’t slap you across the face. So why did I put them together?

The essence of surrealism, for me, is looking at an ordinary thing and seeing how extraordinarily strange it is, how perverse and ironic its very existence. That fork that you may unthinkingly use to shovel food into your mouth acquires a melancholy poignancy, an alien mutilated grace, that you may have never suspected when you really focus on its ponderous shape, purpose, invention—its personality, its soul. Kertesz can’t be pigeonholed as a surrealist, but this photo certainly is surreal in my mind and in my eye.

Like the fork, Betty Grable is, in many ways, an ordinary object. When asked, in 1958, about the perks and travails of making movies, she replied, “It pays better than slinging hash, but it’s a lot harder.” Perhaps the word most frequently used to describe her was and is “wholesome.” She is not Rita Hayworth, whose beauty was almost supernatural to begin with. Apart from her shapely gams, she’s so unremarkable that putting her before the lens automatically de-contextualizes her small-town charm to a certain degree. She is the unexamined small-town girl suddenly stripped of her veil of blandness to become something wildly sensual and weird. Any attention paid to her strikes me as paradoxical.

Then there’s the fact that we must consider this picture as more than a two-dimensional abstraction, and rather as a common physical object. Its meaning is bound up with its conception as a cherished, but quotidian possession: probably the number one pin-up photo of World War II, it must have peered out from the walls of heaven knows how many bunkers, submarines, and shanties. Pretty trippy, huh? A fork is something that we all experience individually, but consider to be basically nondescript. (A few tines and a handle, c’mon people, you don’t sit around giving much reflection to the anatomy of a fork. I hope not, at least.) Similarly, the same ordinary image of Betty Grable took on thousands of fantasy existences in men’s… minds.

And, the crazy part is, the subtle distortions of these images hint at the many askew, divergent lives of what they portray. Both Betty and the fork cast shadows that differ from the forms that we know and love. The pointy tines on the dish and the long stem underneath, on the table, are split from each other in the Kertesz photo, creating a sense of divided or bent space. Betty’s shadow (the darker one, to the right), though, reminds me of something from the movie Freaks. Her famous gams meld into one grotesque limb. There’s even another lighter shadow to the left so that she, like the fork, has been fragmented.

The oddly distorted shadows, in both cases, stand out against mostly white remainder of the images: white plate, white tablecloth, white bathing suit… The sum effect, on me at least, renders the form of the photographed object distorted. Betty’s legs appear too long and her torso is made to seem disproportionate by the famous over-the-shoulder glance, like the fork stands out as too long and lean. A woman’s body. A fork. Both awaken when scrutinized with a gaze that provokes as much, if not more, as it is provoked. When slanted slightly, tilted, pushed askew, the commodified star, the universal fetish serves as a vehicle not for looking, but for seeing.

That is what Hollywood glam shots managed to do with almost uncanny frequency: open our eyes to a beauty that wriggles out of definition but manages to be instantly recognizable. How do we pin down this specific glamour, this religion of visual textures that mutates, shocks, and frightens with its ability to transform perpetually and refresh our vision and concept of attractiveness?

Not to push the “open eyes” metaphor to far, but that notable surrealist Buñuel cut open an eye onscreen in Un Chien Andalou to prove to us how easily images could take hold of us with brutal, warped fantasies. Often considered prosaic or repetitive, old Hollywood glamour shots, and instances of classic glamour in general, do more or less the same thing. Only, if I may say so, they’re way easier on the eyes.

Simone Mareuil with Buñuel’s hand

(From Un Chien Andalou, 1929)

Joan Crawford as Sadie Thompson

(In a still for Rain, 1932)