Kay Francis was one of the biggest stars of the early 30s, probably best remembered today for Lubitsch’s delicious Trouble in Paradise (1932).The clothes she wore in movies, and the way she wore them, were a central lure to female audiences of the day. In Mandalay (Michael Curtiz, 1934), she changes outfits for practically every scene, and in this post, I merely want to render hommage to her and to Orry-Kelly, who designed the clothes, by posting them in chronological order. Sometimes, you’ll see various aspects of the same outfit, again as the film shows them to us, in order to better understand how the clothes look in close-up and and long shot. I’m doing a separate post on the film itself where you’ll be able to see how at least some of the outfits photograph in motion.
We’ve heard of Edith Head, Travis Banton, Orry-Kelly, Irene, even the dreaded Helen Rose. But who is Milo Anderson? I had to look him up. He doesn’t even get a wiki entry in English. Luckily the French and Germans are more thorough. It turns out he worked at Warners from the early 30s to the late 50s and designed the clothes for many films you’ve probably seen (To Have and Have Not, Mildred Pierce). The reason you’ve probably never heard of him is that he designed clothes like these for Doris Day’s first film, Romance on the High Seas. Her charm and the positivity she exudes — plus that great voice on hit tongs like ‘It’s Magic’ and ‘Im in Love’ -meant she survived the clothes and became a film star anyway. But she really did have to survive them. Janis Paige wasn’t so lucky.
As you can see below, sometimes, when he doesn’t allow himself to get too matchy-matchy, a feel for colour can be detected: but the design, cut and fit are atrocious. Though they do make a ‘statement’:
Janis Paige didn’t escape either:
Particularly when she wears what looks like a small ottoman on her head
Pauline Kael called Dark Victory a ‘kitsch classic’. It was certainly one of her most popular films and continues to be one of her most enduring. If it weren’t for her, I’d find most of it hard to bear. The script is one cliché after another. Edmund Goulding directs skillfully, but cynically — one can’t imagine him believing what he’s trying to get us to swallow. It’s got George Brent, arguably the dullest leading man in film history (though it’s a category not short of contenders), Ronald Reagan (another contender for the title: leaden, amateurish and completely unconvincing as a drunken playboy), and Humphrey Bogart as an Irish ‘stable boy’ (you’ll find it hard not to giggle at his accent).
Davis plays Judith Traherne, a rich Long Island heiress who lives for parties and horse races (‘I won’t be tamed!’). She gets headaches; she begins to see double. She doesn’t mind putting herself in danger, but when she almost kills a horse she allows her best friend Anne (Geraldine Fitzgerald) to get her to her family doctor. A younger, smarter, doctor, Dr. Steele (George Brent), finally diagnoses a fatal disease.
An operation is called for. It’s only a partial success: she’ll live normally for a few months but then one day her vision will begin to cloud and that will be a sign that she’s only got a few hours to live. Anne and Dr. Steele decide to keep the verdict from Judith, who falls in love with the doctor, finds out they’ve been hiding information from her, suspects the Doctor’s only agreed to marry her out of pity and decides to live life to the full while she can; a situation Irish Bogart threatens to take advantage of. Eventually she ‘sees sense’, marries the Doctor, and a has a few happy months until one day she imagines the sky clouding over whilst the sun is still hot on her hands, and then she and Ann, in a neat reversal, keep the good doctor from knowing she’s just about to die in order to minimise his hurt.
The only reason to see the film today is for Davis and for the celebrated final scene. In the trailer for the film, Warner Brothers promises: ‘In the career of every great actress one role lives forever as her finest creation….The most exciting star on the screen in a story that light the full fire of her genius’. Whilst Judith Traherne is far from Davis finest creation — she’s better inJezebeland The Letter, amongst many others — she is definitely a star of fire and genius in Dark Victory. Most of the fire is misguided, the first scenes are all snap and verve, and such are the mannerisms that would be accentuated in later years by female impersonators defining her by what are essentially her worst characteristics: the bulgy eyes, the nervy arm movements, the speedy clip of a walk, the turn of the head.
She’s got some beautiful moments, the famous ending of course, but also a drunk scene with a wooden Ronald Reagan (see clip above) where she gets the band to stay after hours and play ‘Oh Give Me Time’ for her. It’s very restrained: she doesn’t overdo the drunkenness. It’s also poignant of course, because Judith has little time. It’s very-well directed (as opposed to merely ‘professional’, like the rest of the film). She’s very glamorously made up. Orry-Kelly has her in a black dress, with a fur bolero and matching hat, the hairs of which match and rhyme with the shadows cast by her eyelashes, her face framed by the fur, and a glistening diamond brooch on the black dress. It looks exquisite. She’s clearly at her peak yet soon to die. It’s beautifully done. But Davis is even better, and her acting is part of the mise-en-scène. Just look at the very last shot, where she sighs, her shoulders droop and she seems to expire before us as the scene fades to black (see image below): At her most beautiful yet soon to die. It’s the stuff of melodrama. But Davis elevates it, makes it beautiful and true. With her, it’s melodrama at its best.
Aside from Davis, I’m interested in how the story lends itself to a gay reading, not in all its aspects, more like a kaleidoscope in which only some parts glisten towards that particular audience. It’s a place I suppose where the female audience the trailer addressed might have intersected with a gay male audience (of yesterday and today). The trailer (see below) tells us Dark Victory is, ‘The story of a free soul: ‘I’ve never taken orders from anyone, as long as I live I’ll never take orders from anyone. I’m young and strong and nothing can touch me’; dialogue extracts include: ‘‘What a relief to know you’re no better than I am’; ‘Are you afraid to burn Michael’? We’re told that she’s:
Dangerous (the title of the film she won her first Academy Award for; Reckless is the title of a Jean Harlow vehicle)
I’m sure many gay men felt the same way. The line, ‘She tried to give her heart honestly and completely, fighting the terrible shadow that stood between her and the man she loved’ might still have particular resonance with men with HIV.
I suppose it’s kitsch because its full of clichés we know are false, yet their particular rendering here is entertaining. We recognise them, laugh at them, enjoy them. Yet, one can’t deny there are moments when one becomes genuinely moved in spite of the kitsch. These are the moments we owe to Davis. It’s why we still continue to see these films; why these films are still worth watching.
Orry-Kelly was a bachelor all his life; he was chief costume designer for Warner Brothers between 1932 and 1944; lived with Cary Grant in the late Twenties and was furious when Grant moved on to Randolph Scott in the Thirties; was bestie to Texas Guinan, Ethel Barrymore, Marion Davies, Fanny Brice, Hedda Hopper and other formidable women; and oh did he love his mom. But it was only upon finishing the book proper and reading Catherine Martin’s Foreword and Gillian Armstrong’s Afterword to Women I’ve Undressed that I could be sure he was gay.
Gilliam Armstrong, the superb Australian director of Mrs. Soffel (1984), Starstruck (1982) and many other films that deserve to be classics (Little Women, 1994), had made a documentary on Orry-Kelly called Women He’s Undressed (2015). Orry-Kelly, born in Kiama, New South Wales, Australia and winner of three Academy Awards for costume design, was internationally one of the most famous Australians of the first half of the twentieth century — his billing in Australia often read ‘costumes by our Orry-Kelly’ — and of clear interest to an Australian filmmaker and an Australian audience (and beyond). It was amidst the publicity surrounding the release of the film that the memoir came to light. As Armstrong recounts, ‘ I mentioned Orry in an interview on a Newcastle radio station and a friend of Orry’s grand-niece contacted me, wondering if I’d be interested in meeting his niece who, by the way, had his memoir! She had been keeping Orry’s memoirs in a pillowslip in her laundry cupboard for her mother for over 30 years.’
The main reason for reading this book is because Orry-Kelly remains one of the outstanding costume designers of the classic era: when you visualise the Busby Berkeley musicals, or Warners gangster films or Bette Davis at her peak or Ingrid Bergman in Casablanca, you’re re-invoking the dreams, characters and stories that Orry-Kelly helped to create. Only Adrian, Travis Banton, Edith Head and Irene could be considered peers in Hollywood’s classic era. Plus, after his Warner’s period, he designed the costumes for An American in Paris (Minnelli, 1951), Auntie Mame (Morton D’Acosta, 1958), Some Like it Hot (Billy Wilder, 1959) and many other classics. As Catherine Martin, the costume designer who in 1994 finally superseded Orry-Kelly as the Australian to win most Academy Awards notes, his influence continues to be felt, beginning with the impact his work had on hers, and illustrating it with a comparison between the costumes Orry-Kelly designed for Bette Davis in Now, Voyager (Irving Rapper, 1942) and what she herself designed for Nicole Kidman in Australia (Baz Luhrman, 2008).
Orry Kelly wrote the book for an audience of the time after his peak (the late fifties, early sixties) but not quite yet for publication so it’s full of all kinds of obfuscation that act as a kind of discretion (what kinds of crushes where those that Cary Grant had on all those women; were they akin to those I have when I meet a new friend — a kind of romantic idealisation of who they are – or was it sexual. It’s not clear) and all kinds of indiscretions that would never have made print had the book been published in his lifetime (Errol Flynn’s drug consumption, Joan Fontaine’s imperious demands, Monroe’s exhibitionism in Some Like It Hot). The book is full of superb anecdotes: Flynn explaining that he hadn’t stolen that emerald necklace in Sidney – it had been a gift; Fanny Brice eagerly watching and dissecting Bette Davis’ performances like the true fan she was; Katharine Hepburn ensuring that Ethel Barrymore regularly received fresh flowers in her last years…an many more.
The book offers a wonderful evocation of lost worlds: Bohemian Sidney post WW1; the underworldly New York of gangsters and speakeasys. These raffish milieus take on an even brighter sheen if, to borrow Alexander Doty’s phrase, one makes things perfectly queer; that is to say not only a personal and subjective reading but one informed by a knowledge and understanding of gay cultures and identities in the first half of the twentieth century, an important if rarely valued kind of cultural capital. Read through a ‘gay lens’, those milieus where prostitutes and petty criminals intersected with show business are not only where Orry-Kelly got his start designing but also those that intersected with homosexual sub-cultures; the rage and hurt expressed by all the bitchy attacks on Cary Grant become those of a deserted lover rather than merely an ungrateful room-mate; the love for the nightlife of Hollywood and Vine becomes textured with sexuality; the friendships with George Cukor, Cole Porter, and Somerset Maugham, a network of middle-aged homosexuals gallantly staving off the worst ravages of middle-aged spinsterdom.
I’m not sure that the book is doubly inflected in the way that Harry Louis Gates Jr. indicates in Blues, Ideology and African American Literature: A Vernacular Theory, where he writes of black performers putting on blackface to perform minstrelsy but doing so in such a way that white audiences remained unaware and understood it one way whilst black audiences understood that it was a black person performing and understood it another. Did Orry-Kelly doubly-inflect it that way so that his gay friends and contemporaries understood a layer of meaning unavailable to other audiences? I’m not sure. Can it be read to bring out this double (at least!) inflection? Without a doubt and to great pleasure and advantage.
It’s a fascinating book; I now look forward to the film.