I’ve spent most of the Jubilee weekend immersed in Brendan Nash’s evocation of Berlin in the 1920s. THE DIRECTOR is as much a page-turner as THE LANDLADY; the same characters re-appear, even more likeable; their movements through various spaces in the city – some still legendary; many subsequently destroyed in WWII –roots the fiction in a particular kind of historicising, where events read simultaneously as vividly alive and lost; and as the book proceed its status as historical fiction becomes clearer. It’s not just that Claire Waldorff is a substantial character in the novel; but director Billy Wilder becomes a main one, appearing right from the beginning accompanying the arrival of Paul Whiteman’s band in Berlin; with the inspiration behind his and Robert Siodmak’s PEOPLE ON SUNDAY (1930) occupying several short chapters; we also go into Babelsberg where Pieps becomes an extra in METROPOLIS; Leni Riefenstahl or someone very much based on her appears tangentially but recurringly; and Goebbels, who likes to be called ‘The Director’ appears at the very end. The book is set in Berlin in the Summer of 1926, and divided into three sections, one for each month. Politics are the background to the book’s main pre-occupation, the search for love by people who are different, in a wide array of ways, but nonetheless want to live as they imagine themselves to be. The street fights between the Nazis and the Communists are just shocking background on their way to an assignation or a day out. What I found particularly lovely about these books as historical fiction is that the focus is not on the great figures of the era, though they do appear, but on ordinary people trying to get by; some of them are taxi dancers; some of them get a scholarship to the Bauhaus; some are cleaners and gardeners, some of them end up singing with Paul Whiteman. But what makes THE DIRECTOR such a democratic iteration of historical fiction is that the stars are ordinary people, very understandable and perhaps extremely likeable for being so, who appreciate they’re living in an extraordinary place, many of them sought Berlin as a destination, a place that allows them to be. What the place was like– and more concretely what particular cafes, cinemas, restaurants, hotels and nightclubs in the Berlin of the period were like — and who these characters want to realise themselves as, is part of the fascination of these extremely likeable page-turners.
A page-turner of a novel, reminiscent of Armisted Maupin’s TALES OF THE CITY. This city, however, is Berlin in the twenties instead of San Francisco in the 70s. Prices are out of control and rising every day. Everything is changing, and survival means being open to whatever comes next, to be modern. Meta has always been well off but soon won’t be able to pay the rent on the large apartment she’s taken for granted the last two decades. Her landlady, Esther, manages the apartment building and is the widow of Meta’s long-term lover. Esther’s son Pieps, works delivering coal by day but by night explores Berlin’s gay hot spots, where he’s sometimes mistaken for a rent-boy. He falls in love with Frank, who claims to be an actor from America but is actually a drug-addicted ship’s steward trying to pack in as much of Berlin as he can in his week’s leave. Eva, Meta’s maid, becomes lovers with Lotte, the woman who pulls the strings in Berlin’s most fashionable queer clubs. Claire Waldorff is known by all and Claire knows a certain Marlene. A great read, with the city itself as a main character, and Berlin’s legendary queer nightclubs of the era as historical settings which the appealing fictional characters move through in search of their desires. I’m now eager to read Bredan Nash’s follow-up, THE DIRECTOR.
First chapter of THE DIRECTOR begins with the arrival of Paul Whiteman in Berlin, from Vienna, with a certain journalist in tow, not yet named but clearly the young Billy Wilder. So, exciting from the first!
Billy Wilder directs this adaptation of Agatha Christie’s Witness for the Prosecution, a courtroom drama concerning a man on trial for the murder of an old woman – did he do it? What’s up with his wife? Will his lawyer’s nurse catch him smoking? As with Christie’s stageplay, The Mousetrap, upon the film’s conclusion, the audience is kindly asked to refrain from revealing its twists and revelations, but we at Eavesdropping at the Movies respect no such requests. Spoilers within.
Charles Laughton is pleasingly hammy, Marlene Dietrich composed, and Tyrone Power a loud, sweaty, stressed out mess – and somehow mostly in the background, despite his central role as the accused murderer. We discuss their performances and characters, the pleasures and methods of Agatha Christie’s mysteries, and Wilder’s direction, which hopes, in that classic Hollywood style, to render technique invisible. Witness for the Prosecution is an engrossing mystery filled with interesting bits of business that enrich its characters, and a classic.
The podcast can be listened to in the players above or on iTunes.
The film that introduced Marlene Dietrich to America, Josef von Sternberg’s The Blue Angel tells the tragic story of a man who gives up everything for love. Emil Jannings is delightfully pompous and uptight as Professor Rath, a schoolteacher charmingly disarmed by Dietrich’s seductive cabaret star Lola Lola. The two marry, but unable to change and consumed by jealousy, Rath loses his status, dignity and the woman he loves.
Dietrich is captivating as Lola, wearing a seemingly permanent smirk of knowingness – much of the film’s action takes place backstage, an environment she controls effortlessly, in which the fewer items of clothing she wears the more uncomfortable Rath grows. José notes a moment in which she ungraciously adjusts her underwear, and who cares who’s watching – Mike remarks upon her legs, which at times are posed and filmed to take on a character all of their own. José considers the greatness of Dietrich’s collaborations with von Sternberg, of which this was the first, and in particular the way he composes layered, complex imagery here.
We discuss the film’s characterisation and morality – it’s a tragedy, and to some extent its cabaret world is responsible for Rath’s decline, but because of his inability to understand and adapt to his new life, rather than an inherent immorality to the setting. Lola, too, isn’t simply some succubus; she may find Rath socially useful to marry, given his status as a professor, but moreover her affection for him is apparent. And we consider the film’s two-part structure, how it mirrors itself through its two memorable tracking shots in the classroom, the clown character into whom Rath is transformed, and Rath’s rooster-like crowing on his wedding day taking on a different significance at the film’s climax.
The Blue Angel is ninety years old and remains as tragic and sexy as ever. Don’t miss it if it’s showing near you.
The podcast can be listened to in the players above or on iTunes.
Friends have been grumbling about this year´s programme at Ritrovatto. Did Musidora warrant so much attention? Did Henry King? Personally, I didn´t have any problem with any of that but I do have questions. The two images that represented the festival this year were those of Musidora, which was on the tote bags, and the image you can see above of Dietrich and Gabin which is the cover shot of this year´s programme. It´s a very striking image, beautifully designed, with the blue of Dietrich´s eyes overlaid onto the black and white image, along with the red of the rose which was made to match the lettering of ‘Il Cinema Ritrovatto (see pictures above).
Why an image of Gabin should represent the festival is understandable. Gabin is arguably the greatest French film star in history with more great films to his name than almost anybody. There was an interesting mini-retrospective of fascinating but lesser known Gabin films curated by Edouard Waintrop titled ‘Jean Gabin, the Man with Blue Eyes’: Coeur de Lilas (Anatole Litvak, 19319, De Haut en bas/ High and Low (G.W. Pabst, 1933),Pépé le Moko (Julien Duvivier, 1936), Au-delà des grilles – Le Mura di Malapaga (René Clement, 1948), La Marie du port (Marcel Carné, 1949), Le Plaisir (Max Ophuls, 1951), Maigret tend un piège (Jean Delannoy, 1957), En Cas de malheur (Claude-Autant-Laura, 1957), Le Chat (Pierre Granier-Deferre, 1970), plus a documentary on the life and career of the star: Un Français nommé Gabin (Yves Jeuland, 2017)
But why put Dietrich in the picture? She was only represented by one film in the festival, Destry Rides Again, George Marshall, 1939). Did the programmers not think Gabin´s image alone was enough of an attraction? Also since the retrospective is ´The Man With the Blue Eyes,´ why highlight hers?
The choice seems to be purely aesthetic. And there´s nothing wrong with that. It´s a great image. And the designer has done a wonderful job of turning it into a magnificent poster for this year´s Ritrovato. However, if you are going to choose that image, why not programme the film it´s from. As you can see above, the central image is also that of one of the posters for Gabin´s only on-screen pairing with Dietrich, Martin Roumagnac.
Jean-Jacques Jelot-Blanc´s in his biography of Gabin, Jean Gabin Inconnu (Flammarion, 2014) calls Martin Roumagnac, le plus gros échec de la carrière de Gabin/ the worst failure of Gabin´s career (loc 2457 Kindle edition), which I suppose is a reason not to screen the film. But in that case why not choose another image of Gabin, and highlight his blue-eyes?
And Martin Roumagnac being the worst failure of Gabin´s career is as much a reason to include the film in the retrospective as not. The film tries to adapt both Dietrich´s and Gabin´s personas to a post-war world. He´s still a man of the people, Martin Roumagnac is a builder, something of an entrepreneur and integral part of the community he lives in. Dietrich is Blanche Ferrand, only in town for a few years but long enough to have had affairs with the mayor, inspired devotion in the schoolteacher (a very young Daniel Gélin), and cast her eye over a consul whilst being entirely devoted to Gabin, i.e. vintage Dietrich.
The film has some wonderful scenes. Dietrich´s star entrance, which you can see below: the first sight is her legs coming down the stairs, then her voice, then the dialogue ‘vous desiré monsieur´? And you can see from Gélin´s look that he definitely desires and what he desires is her.
Maria Riva in her biography of her mother writes that part of the problem with the film is the incongruity of Marlene as a provincial French adventuress. But it´s no more incongruous than Dietrich as a provincial Spanish adventuress in The Devil is a Woman. And indeed the film gives Dietrich enough of a backstory, a woman of education and breeding descended through circumstances to the depths of Montmartre and Montparnasse but speaking several languages, unlike Gabin, knowing exactly how to behave at table and on the dance-floors of the chicest Parisian nightclubs, and wearing an eye-watering array of Jean Dessez couture with aplomb. She´s in the provinces not of them.
The film´s score almost ruins many scenes. It´s too loud, almost intransigent, and often mickey mousing scenes to Godzilla levels. But even that doesn´t ruin the great moment above: ´What did you say?’ Dietrich asks undressing. ‘Nothing. I wanted….’ says Gabin as he looks her over. ‘What did you want’ she says as she unbuttons her blouse.
Marlene met Gabin during his sojourn in Hollywood during the occupation and was so in love with him, that when he joined the forces, she followed him, first to North Africa, then to Paris immediately after the Liberation. Jacques Prévert and Marcel Carné had worked on the script initially but Dietrich demanded so many changes they bowed out and Georges Lacombe took over. It´s a pity. The film is overly symbolic in the ways of seriously bad drama. Here Dietrich sells birds, imprisoned in the shop front window or in cages, some of them, like Martin Roumagnac and Blanche Ferrand, need to be together as they can´t survive apart. But better to set the birds free as Blanche does later in the film knowing that they will die rather than to keep them in cages. At least they will die free. The film is full of such heavy handed quasi literary symbolising.
And yet it has great moments such as the scene above: ´Each day I don´t see you I´m lost´’ Roumagnac tells Blanche. ‘You are so much better than all the others’ she tells him. ‘I love you, I love you, I love you’. Gabin as Roumagnac says it three times. I wonder if those were lines each insisted on in the script? They certainly feed the legend of each, together and apart.
So the worst disaster of Gabin´s career, definitely not a good film, but an interesting post-war noir, enticingly fatalistic, with great use of the personas of Dietrich and Gabin and with a wonderful death scene for the latter where, like Bette Davis in The Letter he tacitly consents to be killed, we see him waiting for death, and then the death itself becomes a dramatic set-piece, richly visualised. There are many reasons why Martin Roumagnac deserved a place in the program. And really, if you don´t want to program it, why not choose another image to brand the festival? It would make it seem a little less like false advertising.
Since you are reading this, I assume you’re interested in movies; and if you’re interested in movies, you’ll be interested in the wonderful ‘Night & Day: 1930s Fashion and Photographs’ exhibition at the Fashion and Textile Museum in London, which runs until the 20th of January 2019.
The title of the exhibition, ‘Night and Day’ is taken from Cole Porter’s superb song which Fred Astaire introduced onstage in 1932’s The Gay Divorce and on film in 1934’s The Gay Divorcee. It is also the title of the famously terrible biopic of Cole Porter directed by Michael Curtiz for Warner Brothers (1946), in which Cary Grant plays Cole Porter. But it is Fred Astaire who the song is associated with.
‘Night and Day’ was written for Astaire. His recording was an enormous success which topped the charts for ten weeks in the early thirties; and indeed the spirit of Fred Astaire haunts this exhibit. Firstly because of the evening dress he so casually wore, the glamorous and glistening Art Deco which was the background to his dancing the final number in so many of his films with Ginger Rogers at RKO, and the beginnings of a sporty elegance he is associated with. Well-cut clothes that enhance and adorn the figure but also allow one to move in them well enough to burst into dance. Fred who from the twenties was a superstar of both Broadway and the West-End, embodied the mid-atlantic best of both worlds: He was always associated with ‘ Top Hat, White Tie & Tails’ but wasn’t limited to that look. His clothes and how he wore them is analogous to the sentiment behind Coco Chanel’s great contribution to fashion. She made the combination of casual and elegant possible for women in the way that it was for men like Astaire: American men who were as free in their movements as in their outlook but were dressed by Saville Row.
The Spirit of Fred Astaire
The movies in general and Fred Astaire in particular are everywhere evident in this exhibition. The sections are named after popular songs of the Thirties, which are either the names of movies or taken from movies of the period and which in turn evoke the period of The Great Depression (1929-1939): ‘Brother….can You Spare a Dime?’ (also written for the stage and made into a hit by Bing Crosby; ‘Whistle While You Work’ (taken from Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, 1937); ‘I’ve Got a Pocketful of Dreams’ (Bing Crosby again from Sing You Sinners, 1938); ‘Let’s Face the Music and Dance’ (Astaire again, this time from Follow the Fleet, 1936: you can see the marvellous excerpt below); ‘Somewhere Over the Rainbow’, eternally associated with Judy Garland and from 1939’s The Wizard of Oz;’Life is just a Bowl of Cherries’ ; ‘Happy Days Are Here Again’; ‘The Way You Wear Your Hat,’ which is a lyric from ‘They Can’t Take That Way From Me’ Astaire again, this time from Shall We Dance (1936).
Along with the glorious clothes, the exhibit also features movies stars, and shows them to us in the very collectible cigarette cards so evocative of a way of life and a structure of feeling in the Thirties. We also see how Madeline Carroll and Ronald Colman are featured in the Miss Modern magazine below, demonstrating how interlinked movies were with other mass media and how fashion was a thread which knit them together. Movie stars wore the clothes ordinary people dreamed of wearing and and manufacturers made sure they could, as for example with Joan Crawford’s famous Letty Lynton dress. The movie popularised the dress, the magazines popularised the dress and movie, the availability of the dress sanctified the star and increased the fandom for both magazines and movies.
Cecil Beaton: Thirty from the 30s: Fashion, Film and Fantasy
The exhibit also features a mini-exhibition within it with Cecil Beaton’s photographs of the famous: royalty, writers, society people but more than anything film stars (see below)
This being a British exhibition, royalty of course features:
But Hollywood’s influence dominates:
Sonja Henie, to left; Ruby Keller, top right; Tallulah Bankead bottom: From Cecil Beaton’s Scrapbooks
The exhibition is very good at contextualising the developments in fashion. The guide, for example, tell us: ‘Women’s fashions, which had reached giddy heights of youthful freedom (and brevity) during the Roaring Twenties, reflected the more mature and sober decade that followed. By the end of the 1920s the styles had already begun to change as the flapper grew up. Waits returned to a normal, rather than dropped, position. Skirts, which had begun to dip in the back by 1927-1928, fully descended to the knees and mid-calf for suiting, and the ankle for the afternoon and evening dresses. Structure infiltrated the relaxed shapes of 1920’s dressing: ‘hard chic’ became a watchword as couture houses such as Schiaparelli introduced a stylised and emphatic shoulder line.
As a decade the 1930’s presented the extremes: from the depths of poverty for many to a sparkling party-filled escape for the wealthy and international set’.
The exhibition’s great care with contextualisation really does pay off, though it also gives rise to moments of amusement, such as in the timeline below where Hitler’s rise is juxtaposed on the timeline right in between the drop of a hemline and the rise of the neckline.
The the main reason to see this exhibition is the clothes. No photos do them justice. You really need to see them in three-dimensions to see how they hang, to get a real sense of what the fabric is like, to walk around them and get the whole picture. I really recommend the exhibition. But for those of you who can’t go, here are some examples of what you are missing:
‘La vie en rose’, the classic written and made famous by Edith Piaf, is the opening musical number in Noches de Casablanca (Henri Decoin, Spain/France, 1964). Sara Montiel sings it in her leisurely suggestive way (see clip below), so easily imitable by drag queens across the Spanish speaking world, in a camp staging that’s a low-budget hodge-podge of the ‘Stairway to Paradise’ number in An American in Paris (Vincente Minnelli, 1951) and every MGM musical that had any staircases, candelabras and semi-clad women, which is to say quite a few, many by Minnelli, and sometimes even surrealistically deployed by him like in The Band Wagon so that the semi-clad women *are* the candelabras.
The number led me to wonder if there is an international repertoire that ‘Gay Divas’ share. And I write this both as a statement and as a question. Do you know of any more? Off the top of my head, aside from Sara Montiel, La vie en rose is sung by Piaf, Marlene Dietrich, the superb version by Grace Jones. Eartha Kitt covered it. Donna Summer, who was one, was bumped off her throne by the time she made her version, which is not particularly good, due to homophobia. Peggy Lee does a lovely duet with Aznavour. Madonna and Bette Midler have performed it in concert. I’m not sure if Celine Dion qualifies as a gay diva but she sang it also..and well. Audrey Hepburn who is everybody’s icon, sang it in Sabrina (Billy Wilder, USA, 1954). It’s a staple of cabaret and theatre divas such as Ute Lemper. And in the forthcoming A Star is Born Bradley Cooper finds Lady Gaga singing ‘La vie en rose’ in a drag bar. See how a case builds?
‘La vie en rose’ was a big hit then and now. Marion Cotillard won the Oscar for playing Piaf in the film of her life called La vie en rose (Olivier Dahan, France, 2007). Ostensibly, according to wiki, there were seven versions of the song that made the 1950 Billboard charts. Now neither Bing Crosby, Tony Martin, Paul Weston, Louis Armstrong etc. are gay divas. So we can’t say everyone who sings this song is one. And likewise, we can’t say that if it’s not in their repertoires they’re not gay divas as lots of other gay divas have, as far as I know, not done a version: Garland, Minnelli, Cher, Diana Ross, Beyoncé, Britney. Niente!
Andy Medhurst told me that ‘Some landmark diva-songs seem welded very strongly to me to one particular diva (‘The Man That Got Away for Garland’, ‘People’ for Streisand etc etc) so much that other versions are overshadowed. Even though your ‘Vie En Rose’ list shows the opposite, for me it will always belong to Piaf.’ To this Kevin Stenson has also added Doris Day and ‘Secret Love’ also seem welded whilst noting that songs like ‘I’m Still Here’ and ‘Broadway Baby, both by Sondheim, are part of a shared repertoire amongst the ‘more mature divas’.’
All this I agree with, so we’re talking about intersections rather than absolutes. But isn’t it interesting that whilst each diva has songs that are entirely associated with them, and that are part of an appeal/address to a gay audience, so many also tend to add to their own unique repertoire by gravitating to particular songs that help constitute a shared one? Can you think of other covers of this song by gay divas. Are there other songs that seem a particular magnet to gay divas and and whose performance might constitute part of their appeal and address to a gay male audience, in turn helping consolidate the place these performers occupy in gay male cultures?
Is there a shared or intersecting repertoire? Do please let me know your thoughts.
Enquiring minds want to know.
You can look at some of the versions below:
Marlene Dietrich sang it in Hitchcock’s ‘Stage Fright’ (and I’ll post a clip from the film in due time):
Eartha Kitt did a growly cover:
Grace Jones classic dance version was the closing song of the first gay bar I went to.
Donna Summer in Tribute to Edith Piaf album:
Chrstos Tsirbas directed me to this lovely version by Bette Midler:
Adrian Garvey directed me to this version by Madonna in concert:
Peggy Lee with Charles Aznavour:
Celine Dion. Is she really a gay diva. Qua importa? She sings it well.
Matthew Motyka has pointed out to me that ‘Iggy Pop’s also covered it, and his sexually subversive persona I would argue, makes him qualify for queer cult if not full fledged icon status’. In my view he’s got a greater claim than Celine. But what do I know.
K.D. Lang duets with Tony Bennett on it here:
It’s a staple for Cabaret and Theatre divas like Ute Lemper:
.and, Kevin Stenson tells me that calling Gracie Fields a ‘Gay icon is pushing it but her records especially the comic ones were used by drag queens and played by DJ in gay pubs in lighter moments’.
Other versions include:
(Thanks, thus far, to Adrian Garvey, Andy Medhurst, Gary Needham, Kevin Stenson, Christos Tsirbas , and Phil Ulyatt for their input)
Dottie Ponedel was the make-up artist to the stars in the classic era. She helped develop Dietrich’s look and did her make-up throughout the thirties. She also developed Garland’s ‘natural’ look beginning in Meet Me in St. Louis. For years she was the only female make-up artist, hard to believe now, and for years the boys in the union tried to get her kicked out (see image below). The book is a reminiscence, jottings from memory once all the adventures had been lived and whilst Ponedel was living through a difficult and all too early retirement brought on by Multiple Sclerosis. In a way it’s a slight book; a person’s memories, treasured, vividly rendered, but of a past already distant when they were written.
But what a person Dottie Ponedel was! She moved to LA with her mother and on 300 dollars they set up a bakery. She was picked off the street to work as an extra, and LA being a small town then, got to know all the big stars; Valentino and his first wife, Jean Acker, Carole Lombard when she was a Mack Sennett bathing beauty. She moved from bit parts to dancing bits and even got a contract with Goldwyn. She became a make-up artist only when she solved a spit-curl problem for Nancy Carroll and Carroll insisted on having her onset. The film was Follow Thru in 1930. Then, by her account, Von Sternberg had seen what she’d done with Carroll and wanted her to do something similar for Dietrich. In the book Ponedel goes to great lengths to explain what she did do, and why Dietrich’s look in her American films was so different than in The Blue Angel. Soon she was under exclusive contract to Paramount as a make-up person, at a time when all of them were men, the most famous of them, the only one who enjoyed a similar level of fame to hers, being Perc Westmore, and that because he was head of the whole make-up department at Warners.
‘At the studios, the make-up men hated my guts’ writes Ponedel. ‘They called me everything under the sun because I wouldn’t make charts to show them what I was doing. Why should I, the way they were treating me. If they were smart, they would have done the same as I, take a little from this painting and that painting and use a little imagination and they would have the Ponedel make-up style. That’s how I became so well known’.
Whilst Ponedel had been an extra, bit player and dancer, men had been a certain kind of problem. The sexual harassment seems relentless: ‘it seems every time I did a dance I got into trouble with the male sex.’ And it was structural, from the lowest to the highest: ‘Those big guys had offices that looked like Grand Central Station. I did a hop, skip, and jump around the oval table and he after me’.
Once Ponedel became a make-up artist most of that stopped. The make-up men and the union boys might have hated her. But the stars, particularly the women –Dietrich, Mae West, Tallulah Bankhead, Barbara Stanwyck, Judy Garland — loved her. The book evokes a strong sense of female solidarity, women creating all-women networks in which they could find mutual support, help, voice their troubles. And we all know the hair and make-up people are privy to all the secrets. And Ponedel still respects them. We hear of Dietrich’s extraordinary generosity and kindness. How Paulette Goddard credited her with getting her role in Unconquered after De Mille had rejected her. How Garland stole back some of her own money from Sid Luft so that she could go to Rome. What come across here is the kindness and generosity of women one thinks of a bit as monstres sacrées.
Almost a third of the book is devoted to Judy Garland. The chapter that begins the story of their relationship is entitled ‘My Wonderful Judy’ and begins, ‘Now that Judy Garland has taken her final trip over the rainbow, it’s up to me to write the story that Judy and I were going to write together. I was with Judy a quarter of a century and if she wasn’t at my house or me at hers, or on the phone, I always knew what she was up to. Few people meant more to me in my life than Judy Garland.’
What follows, for almost a third of of the book or more is an account of that friendship, its professional beginnings and how it flowered into something deeper. Men do not come across well in this account. Here’s Danny Kaye jumping on Ponedel in a hotel room whilst she’s asleep and pretending he’ assaulting her for a practical joke. Ha Ha: the humour curdles the blood. Here’s Minnelli, distant, ineffectual, complete powerless to help, uncaring of the many adventures Garland is undertaking with other men; here’s Sid Luft, exhibiting the classic behaviour of an abuser and stealing her money; worse he’s stealing her money whilst she knows he’s stealing her money and she lets him because…well, one can always make more money.
It’s quite an extraordinary tale, partial, lacking in context, but offering information one doesn’t get elsewhere and told with a personality that jumps off the page. I recommend.
Les innocents aux mains sales/ Dirty Hands is an ingenious thriller by Claude Chabrol with a glorious opening: Romy Schneider plays Julie Womser, a St. Tropez housewife saddled with a rich but impotent husband (Rod Steiger as Louis Womser). As the film begins, she’s sunbathing nude, a kite falls on her bum, a cute man (Paolo Giusti playing Jeff Marle) chases after his kite, she asks him to remove it and offers herself to him. She brings him home; the husband’s there, drunk; they make out anyway; and in what seems a nanosecond, they’re planning his murder. I won’t go into the plot because it’s full of clever twists and continues to surprise until the end. Suffice it to say that it’s an elegant, almost minimalist chamber piece, with outstanding use of sound and the zoom lens so typical of that period.
What I want to focus on here are the clothes. The 70s are often seen as something of a sartorial joke; and that may be true of men’s fashion, particularly when we look at old family photographs of ourselves wearing psychedelic prints, long pointy collars, flares and platform shoes. But it’s a glorious period for women’s fashion, so influenced by vintage forties clothing with it’s variant on the platform, the knee-length suit, the cinched-waisted gowns etc. And as the 2015 exhibit, Yves Saint Laurent + Halston: Fashioning the 70s, at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York in 2015 demonstrated, ‘No two designers defined and dominated the decade more than Yves Saint Laurent and Halston. They were the era’s most influential and celebrated clothing creators, becoming celebrities in their own right. Both have been the subject of countless books, articles, films, and exhibitions.’
I have already in this blog commented on St. Laurent’s clothes for Romy Schneider in Max et les ferrailleurs and César et Rosalie. I here simply want to explore the various looks developed by Romy Schneider, Chabrol and St. Laurent in Les innocents aux mains sales and how they function as aspects of the mise-en-scène to evoke something about the type of woman Romy Schneider’s Julie Womser is, how she’s feeling, how she’s hiding what she’s feeling; how they express what’s happening to her; how the clothes serve the storytelling, characterisation and mood in the film.
After her nude introduction, we’re shown Romy Schneider in a sexy, hip-hugging black dress; elegant, with a jewelled strap but also showing lots of flesh. What’s evoked is wealth, elegance a sexyness that remains distanced , sober and sheathed, but that nevertheless is offered up to Jeff Marle on a white shag rug as soon as her husband has drunk himself into a stupor
Look 2: The kaftan, such a staple of 70s clothing, particularly St. Laurent’s, here conveying elegant couture casual; perfect for St. Tropez and the opposite of what we associate with Demis Roussos. It’s the setting where the husband surprises her with the gift of the car that is to play such an important part in the plot subsequently.
Look 3: The murder
How does a murderess look? Well, a chignon helps. Here Julie/Romy is dressed in black, the collar a hint of the sexuality that drives the passion and edges it into murder. Note too the cut of the dress, the bit of leg and the heels, which seem as much of a weapon as the chignon.
Look 4: The Sleepless Night. Light blue on a darker shade of blue for ‘une nuit blanche’ when she thinks she’s murdered her husband, can’t sleep and gets ready to make up her lies, dress them into view, and lie convincingly to the police.
Look 5: A Kaftan for The Morning After a Murder. This evokes and might be a precursor to St. Laurent’s famous Russian and Chinese inspired collections of the late 1970s. See also look 7.
Look 6 and 7 : Changes to Call the Police, in a darker shade of blue, closer to her sheets than her nightgown in Look 4, but then returns to Kaftan though this one is slightly different than the one above whilst clearly aiming to recall it. Romy’s Julie clearly’s got a collection in her closet
Look 8 and 9:
She returns to look 2, where her husband had bought her the car, but this time to receive a letter from her lover; and then goes to meet with her bank manager and the police at the bank but in the same dress she called the police in earlier but now wearing a black widow’s cape. The looks are clearly associative, symbolic, meant to unconsciously render situation and character whilst also recalling situations and events (here she’s wearing the kaftan she wore when she received the car that was her husband’s token of love but which we’re here told is how her lover drove away the husband’s body. Love turned to murder via money and passion)
Looks 10 and 11, Turbaned in black and wearing a respectable and elegant grey tweed to meet her husband’s friend and business manager, where she once more meets with the police who are getting suspicious of her. When she goes to see the judge she wears the same sober and elegant colour scheme but in a different outfit (see image three, below right). It’s like at this point in the plot the looks, colours, even textures of the character are seeping into one another.
I also want to bring in here some of the associations turban sand berets have for us: Frenchness, as we can see below with Michèle Morgan; a Parisian variant of it we associate with the ‘we’ll always have Paris’ flashback in Casablanca with Bergman and Bogart; the intelligence and coolness we associate with De Beauvoir (here with Nelson Algren; the turban was a signature look for her as it avoided having to do her hair, clearly not a problem for Julie/Romy); and lastly the underworld of noir femme fatales evoked by Bergman’s take on Dietrich in Arch of Triumph (Lewis Mileston, USA, 1948)
Look 12: At her nadir, when all the evidence points against her plotting with her lover to kill her husband; Chabrol and cinematographer Jean Rabier film her in silhouette in a flowing dress, with a flowing scarf; when she comes in we see her all in black, like the unfortunate black widow she believes herself to be. Then, when her husband tells her what happened we flash back to her making love to her lover, the glittering strap being all that’s needed to associate this scene with the beginning (Look 1) where she had sex with her lover and which we now know her husband watched. Now she offers herself to her husband in an echo of the first time she offered herself to her lover, naked and in the sunshine; here enclosed in darkness and distance. At the end, he pays her, like the whore he believes her to be.
Look 13: After her husband returns and pays her to have sex with him, Julie makes herself up to be her version of an elegant whore, with St. Laurent seeming to draw inspiration from Lauren Bacall’s look at the end of To Have and Have Not (Howard Hawks, USA, 1944) and Dietrich in Blonde Venus (Josef Von Sternberg, USA, 1932). The Dietrich reference also recalls how in her biography of her mother, Marlene Dietrich by her Daughter, Maria Riva recounts how hard Dietrich worked at her looks, that she designed them in consultation with Von Sternberg and Travis Banton, and how her performances were powerfully based on the progression of ‘looks’ that had a narrative and dramatic function in the film, particularly as ‘put on the scene’ by Von Sternberg as part of his mise-en-scène
Look 14: In black now, still trying to pretend she’s the innocent and respectable widow but the mise-en-scène showing us the situation is not as as clear as it seems. The grey tweed jacket she wore when she went to see her lawyers is hanging nonchalantly from the chair she’s sitting in and later revealed to be accompanied by a matching skirt:
Look15: In most of the last half-hour of the film Romy’s half black/half tweed turns into full black, eventually accompanied by a crochéd shawl of the sort you’d expect rural peasant widows to wear (and echoing the cape she wore in Look 9 when she first went to meet the authorities). It’ s in this dress that the plot and the actress goes through a whole series of events: she’s discovered not to be a widow, the lover she though dead returns, she gets raped in that dress, and she discovers that when she was thought to be guilty there was no sentence whereas when she’s known to be innocent there is. She does a lot of running — seeking help, fleeing danger — in this dress; and the hem seems to be weighted so that it moves beautifully, in sync and as a result of Julie’s turmoil and distress. It’s the ‘little black dress’ in motion and in performance as put into the scene by Romy Schneider and Yves St. Laurent
Still in black, after she’s been rescued from a rape, and comforted by a red and black tartan blanket, of the sort one associates with Canadian lumber jackets, kilts, homey blankets, and worn like a shawl.
Telling her lawyer (the wonderfully cynical and funny Jean Rochefort), ‘when I tried killing my husband, nothing happened to me, now I try to save him and I’m been punished’. Her look is entirely calm, sophisticated (the hairstyle), demure (the heavy scarf/collar) and as we can tell not only from the cut and fabric of the clothing but from those earrings, rich. However, the chignon seems to bear witness to murder.
Look 17: Suffering chic-ly in minimalist modern interiors that evoke wealth, richness (the gold cigarette lighter on the otherwise empty table), anomie and lonelyness and before the great finale where the darkness calls out her name.
Undressing and Dressing:
In a way the whole film is about dressing and undressing Romy Schneider. She’s a mystery the film 9and the audience) is meant to uncover. We first see her in shades, a reflection of the audience’s desires, a morsel eager to be eaten. The film, then often films her in shadow, partially, in silhouette (see image two below)
The film undresses Julie/Romie only to dress her up in various guises, so she performs different types of femininity for her husband, her lover, the police, the judge, and the audience. She’s often shown having agency over this costuming/construction, the clothes part of her masquerade, the body a kind of currency with which she pays and rewards, both part of the way she performs the various aspects of Julie’s character into being. The most telling point is when her husband returns, pays her to have sex like the whore he thinks she is, and she curls her hair and dresses in white in that Bacall/Dietrich echo is that is the only moment we see her in white in the entire film.
In between displaying her body, selling it or having it raped, the film dresses her mostly in black, with various types of accents; shiny for the lover, sober and sleeklined for the murder, enclosing blue when she talks to the police, or framed by grey tweed at the solicitors, or accented by different shawls. The only moments of colour and brightness are the kaftany casualness with the husband or the moment where she contrasts in binary whiteness to accept that she’s prostituted herself to her husband and is wiling to accept the bargain. It’s really quite extraordinary what a look at the uses of clothing in a film can reveal about character, story and storytelling, not to speak of the performer’s art (which I have not quite done so here though Romy Schneider is glorious). It’s a gorgeous wardrobe by Yves St. Laurent, expressively worn by Schneider and beautifully deployed by Chabrol.
Hollywood Home Movies From The Academy Film Archive (USA, 1931-1970)
Il Cinema Ritrovato showcased a program of home movies donated to The Academy Film Archive and, in this instance, narrated live by Michael Pogorzelski, who told us where these movies came from (Fred McMurray, Douglas Fairbanks Jr’s estate, etc.) and who was in them (the audience sometimes seemed to know more than Pogorzelski). The collection of short home movies was exciting to see because these people figure in our pasts, sometimes in an intimate way, so this was a way of making part of their private life intersect with part of ours.
It was wonderful to see Randolph Scott gently stroke Cary Grant’s shoulder in a the way familiar to anyone who’s ever been in a couple, as a gesture, tender but proprietary, that only established couples do to let the other know they’re there, besides them, and that they are thinking of them, with love. And perhaps to let others know to buzz off – that person’s taken, mine. That gesture did more to convince me of something between those two, than all the gossip I’ve heard and photos I’ve seen thus far.
I loved seeing: Marlene Dietrich and Douglas Fairbanks Jr. pretending to be Tyrolean peasants in their huge mansion-size ‘little cottage’ whilst changing into dozens of outfits; Cary Grant, more handsome than I’ve ever seen with practically no upper lip and a lower lip three times the size of anyone I know, on the set of Gunga Din; some rare colour footage of Carole Lombard, always the liveliest and most beautiful person in any film she graces, including these home movies; Fred McMurray’s home movies, in three-strip technicolor, and showing him as the athletic and handsome leading man he was but that can be so difficult to detect in some of his films, particularly the later ones, or for that generation of people who grew up with him as a Disney star or as the father in My Three Sons. Also who knew he was a blond?
I adored also the footage of one of Hearst’s 1930s parties, all of the stars on their best behaviour, like at the boss’ house, and pretending to enjoy the prank of a shaft of air being wooshed up lady’s dresses from below. Marilyn was to be shown enjoying a heightened and eroticised version of this two decades later in The Seven Year Itch. But practically every ‘30s star you care to mention is shown here in that very human contradiction of being extremely annoyed and trying to have the good manners not to show it, particularly to someone who’s got power over one’s job. It felt a privilege to have been able to see these films.
I Don’t Want to be a Man/ Icht möchte kein Mann sein is a delightful sex comedy, a movie about teenage rebellion from a hundred years ago, funny and amiable but not without edge. Ossie (Ossie Oswalda) is a young woman who enjoys eating, drinking, smoking, playing poker and flirting with the boys. What’s not to like? Well, for one, her governess (Margarete Kupfer) doesn’t think it ‘proper’ for a young girl to do these things. She prevents her from smoking but then can’t stop herself from getting giddy on a few drags herself. Likewise, Ossie’s uncle, Counsellor Brockmüller (Ferry Sikla) is shocked to catch her drinking a thimbleful of wine from an itsy-bitsy wine glass but then gulps away on a huge goblet himself. The older generation has not only forgotten what it is to be young, they’ve become hypocrites in the process. The boys love Ossie and gangs of them gather on the street as she sits by her window. But when she flirts with them, the governess is appalled: ‘And you want to be a refined young girl!’ ‘I don’t want that at all!’ says Ossi.
It seems like all the adults are preventing Ossie from having fun, from doing what they do as a matter of course, from being a person, from being herself. All their urges to be ‘proper’ are experienced as restrictions on personal freedom and individual desires. When her uncle goes away on a trip she gets a new guardian, Dr. Kersten (Curt Götz), a handsome but stuffy disciplinarian who asks that she stand in his presence and bow to his wishes. ‘I’ll break you down yet!’ he tells her. ‘ Why didn’t I come into the world as a boy?’ she in turn moans at us in the final inter-title of the 1st act, soliciting our agreement as to the unfairness of gender roles and the injustice of their social enforcement. These early scenes, showing as they do social constraints on individual freedom and identity; and more specifically, patriarchal constraints on women’s desires and behaviour, are an eye-opener to anyone interested in the representation of women or the on-screen treatment of gender. I had never seen Ossie Oswalda before. She’s as alive, witty and transgressive a presence as I remember on-screen and I found her a revelation: irrepressible, joyous, transparent, energetic, social; a utopian flower in the worldly garden of weeds, a light that everyone’s out to extinguish. One would expect the Second Act to ‘correct’ some of Ossie’s transgressions, to claw back and reclaim for men some of the injustices towards women exposed in the first act. But this is Lubitsch. We do get to see some of the difficulties men have in dressing: those bow ties can be such a problem; and poor men have to give up their seats in the U-bahn when ladies are standing up; and they musn’t whine; and they’re so aggressive at the coat-check!; and the way women chase them is so ruthless! Boo-hoo. All of this ‘poor men’ malarkey is clearly undermined by Ossie being OUT, without a chaperone, on the street, in the U-bahn and in the hustle and bustle of a glamorous nightclub, doing what she wants and being free.
At the beginning of the second act, we see the sly pleasures Ossie takes in having all the taylors fight to take her measurements for her men’s suit. In the latter part, we see her being chased by women and not getting a lot of joy out of it: Ossie’s clearly heterosexual. We’ll find out her guardian’s sexuality is much more questionable. We already know that sex is the very air Lubitschland breathes. When Ossie sees her uncle at the nightclub flirting with a girl, she sets out to steal her away from him but before she can do so, the girl has already found someone else and Ossie, masquerading as a young roué, becomes friends with her guardian. On the evidence of this second act, Lubitsch is already a master of the medium. When we’re shown the nightclub (fig. 1), we get a wonderful composition with waiters entering from the left bottom corner of the frame on a diagonal and towards the band leader, set up as the frame’s horizon, to which waiter, after waiter, after waiter, is heading. The composition is brilliant, the staging sublime , and the rhythm of the scene, already that of the ‘Lubitsch’ we know.
Lubitsch handles compositions in depth with ease and they recur frequently here. For examples, see the scene where Ossie and her guardian are in opposite balconies whilst the dancing happens between them (Fig. 2), the frame split vertically into three areas of action, with Ossie in the upper, receding third. The upper two thirds of the vertical frame is also split three ways horizontally, with Ossie, out of focus in the middle of the top third; her guardian and the woman Ossie sets out to steal from him are in focus and occupying all of the bottom third of the frame. See also the marvelous use of the mirror, when Ossie momentarily forgets she’s a man and is laughed at for powdering her nose, and how this enables us to see space that would normally be off-screen, distinguish between foreground and background, and create a dynamism in the composition through Ossie looking down, the women laughing and looking directly at the mirror, and the men looking in the opposite direction, towards the coat-check. Note too how this composition is not only dynamic and aesthetically pleasing but also coheres narratively: Ossie is shown twice, herself and her reflection, at the moment that she forgets that she is a woman passing as a man. Terrific.
I Don’t Want to be a Man/ Icht möchte kein Mann sein well illustrates one of the things Lubitsch learned from Reinhardt and that Lubitsch would be an acknowledged master of from this period until he departed for Hollywood in 1922 and beyond (see, for example 1929’s Eternal Love) : his handling of the crowd scenes. And this not only in the nightclub scenes with their dozens of extras but in other story-telling moments where an abundance of extras does not on the face of it seem absolutely necessary: our introduction of the guardian in the nightclub for example, where he’s framed by a bevy of people dynamically arranged in the staircase behind him; and the rhyming shot with Ossie in front of a similar grouping, before both of them coming together (see fig. 4)
Lubitsch likes actors so that he always gives each a bit of business. One can look at any part of the crowd and find something interesting going on, something thematically linked to the story. See for example the still from the coat-check scene below (fig. 5): Ossie is in the centre, the woman on the bottom right already checking ‘him’ out, the two women chatting on the right hand corner that will also soon be flirting with ‘him’, the man talking to the two women in the background in front of a curtain they will soon move through, thus creating a feeling of depth; see also the man at the coat-check looking towards the crowd of men who are all headed towards him jostling to get their hats checked-in. It’s not only beautiful to look at, but lively; one gets a sense of a whole world, a complex one, one in which Ossie’s story can take place. For if Lubitsch demonstrates he’s a master of the medium, it’s because of the stories he tells and how he tells them.
In the last act, Ossie and her guardian get tipsy. They smoke, drink champagne, and offer a toast to ‘brotherhood’; and then…. their lips lightly brush. ‘What’s your name,’ asks the guardian. ‘It’s better not to ask’, says Ossie. Then the lip-brushing becomes a more conscious, if still very light kiss. It’s not a deep French as they used to say in my home-town. They’ll then kiss some more and will continue to do so in the cab on the way home. The scenes are undeniably erotic, very subtly handled, with a frisson of the transgressive that is yet so light as to be mistaken for accidental whilst going slightly over the edge. In this way, even the more staid members of the audience can feel daring without having their hair stand on end.
Nicola Lubitsch, Lubitsch’s daughter, has called this film Victor/Victoria fifty years before Victor/Victoria but it is so much better than the Blake Edwards film (I’m aware of the 1930s German version but have not yet seen it). I Don’t Want to be a Man is less coy, more complex, more human than Blake’s film. For one, Ossie likes being kissed, is clearly heterosexual, but is enjoying her transgressions which to her simply amount to kissing and which give her a kind of power, in that she gets the upper hand over her guardian. Equally interestingly, the guardian knows he’s kissing a man and in the cab it becomes clear that he is not at all embarrassed by it, likes it, and does it again. One can so easily detect how this film was an influence on Dietrich and Von Sternberg in Morocco, not only sartorially, in that Dietrich is wearing a sleeker version of the top hat, white tie and tails that Ossie wears here, but in the labile view of sexuality, one with a ‘twist’ in that Ossie doesn’t like the girls as much as Dietrich does whereas the guardian likes the boys a lot more than Gary Cooper.
At the end, they wake up in each others’ beds, he with a feminine lace cap on. She has to trudge home through the streets of Berlin (and these are clearly shot on location). When he discovers that it was his guardian he had been kissing and asks her if this was so, Ossie retorts in the intertitle, ‘That’s right. The one and only!’ ‘And you let yourself be kissed by me’, ‘Well, didn’t you like how it tasted?’. The film ends with her turning the tables on him ‘I’ll bring you down yet…Down to here’, she says pointing to the floor just as he had done at the beginning. As the end, they kiss, and she tells us ‘I wouldn’t like to be a man’. But we’re left with the impression that she actually had a really good time impersonating one. She got to do the drinking, smoking and carousing that she’d been forbidden in the beginning of the film. She sure seemed to enjoy having a man’s freedom and his agency, even if it was exhausting stuff. Plus she got her man in the end and put him in his place whilst doing so. Extraordinary stuff.
Watching the last third, I wondered what audiences who saw it might have made of it; how exciting it must have been to women and to the lgtb members of the audience, however such identities might have been constructed then, lucky enough to see this; and what it might have meant to them. I’d like to learn more about that. What I do know now, almost a hundred years later, is that the film enchants and dazzles with its technique, its joy, its appreciation of freedom and its expansive notion of humanity and its foibles. And on top of that there’s the brilliant exuberance of Ossie. Alice A. Kuzniar, writing in The Queer German Cinema on I Don’t Want to be a Man and on Der Geiger von Florenz writes that ‘the “gender trouble” of these films does not reside solely in their depiction of independent, strong-willed women and their rejection of patriarchal authority. Both films deeply unsettle sexual as well as gender divisions in a way inconceivable for even independent gay cinema as well as mainstream straight cinema today’. i I’ve not yet seen Der Geiger von Florenz but that is definitely the case in relation to I Don’t Want to be a Man and but one of very many reasons to see it. i. Alice A. Kuzniar, The Queer German Cinema, Stanford: Standford University Press, 2000, p. 33.