Sunday, December 6, 2009

Costume Party

Around 1955-56, Hollywood's more, shall we say, mature actresses suddenly and inexplicably caught costume fever. While younger sexpots like Marilyn and Liz and Sophia and Kim were slinking about in ever-more-revealing outfits, the grandes dames began wearing bustles and corsets and petticoats. What's interesting is that such period pieces generally cost exorbitant amounts of money to produce, and historically didn't generate much excitement at the box office. What's more, attaching aging female stars as the "names" to carry such projects seemed a gamble, as well. None of these films fared well with either critics or audiences, so one has to guess at the reason why so many were produced during this period. They seemed to exist solely to give their leading ladies a chance to swan around in elaborate costumes and act noble and/or haughty - which, we admit, is really good enough for us.

Greer Garson had just ended her long association with MGM when she made Strange Lady in Town for Warner Bros. in 1955. Her career at Metro, which began so brilliantly with Pride and Prejudice (1940), Mrs. Miniver (1942), Random Harvest (1942) and Madame Curie (1943) had petered out steadily in the post-war years, spiraling from Clark Gable's "comeback" misfire, Adventure (1945) to the numbingly sentimental Her Twelve Men (1954). Garson's one-off at Warners cast her as a proto-feminist lady doctor in 1880's Sante Fe; she actually looked splendid in her period costumes, and the role suited her dignified-yet-spunky persona perfectly, but the script was far too mediocre to overcome. It marked Garson's final stab at being a romantic leading lady; she was off the screen for four more years, when she deglamorized herself to portray Eleanor Roosevelt in Sunrise at Campobello (1960).

The woman Garson had effectively replaced at MGM back in the early 1940's, Joan Crawford, made only one costume drama, The Gorgeous Hussy (1936); and it was such a crashing failure, she vowed to never make another. She kept her promise, too, which is a shame, because it would have been interesting to see a 1950's-era Crawford tackle, say, Lucrezia Borgia! Her nemesis, Bette Davis, not only stepped into Edwardian costume for The Virgin Queen (1955), but actually reprised her role as Queen Elizabeth I, a figure she essayed in the acclaimed 1939 film, The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex. Despite lavish production values provided by 20th Century Fox, lightning did not strike twice - and La Davis suffered the indignity of not only having her head shaved for her troubles, but also of being effectively omitted from the U.S. poster art for her own film: advertising featured images of the younger co-stars, Richard Todd and busty British newcomer Joan Collins, with an illustration of the famous Bette Davis eyes only.

20th Century Fox welcomed another former Warner Brothers star to their lot in 1955, and Bette Davis's self-professed "best friend," Olivia de Havilland corseted herself up and even donned a spiffy eye patch to portray Ana de Mendoza, Princess of Eboli in the rather vapidly-titled That Lady. It had been a Broadway vehicle for Katharine Cornell in 1949-50, when it ran for a meager 79 performances; there were, perhaps, 79 people who saw the film version. de Havilland had been off the screen since 1952, and only made sporadic appearances following the failure of That Lady; most notably in the thrillers Lady in a Cage (1963) and Hush...Hush, Sweet Charlotte (1964) - but now we're getting ahead of ourselves...

Considerably lower-rent was Universal's production of Lady Godiva (1955), which purported to tell the historical story of the noblewoman who rode nude on horseback through the town of Coventry. In this sense, it was perhaps a costume-less drama; but the end result wasn't fish, fowl, or good red herring: neither historically accurate nor particularly titillating, it merely fell flat. It was yet another curiously inadequate film for the fiery, gorgeous, talented Maureen O'Hara, who, after triumphing in How Green Was My Valley (1941) and Miracle on 34th Street (1947), freelanced her way through the 1950's in some truly unworthy vehicles. But Lady Godiva surely even trumped Flame of Araby (1951) and Malaga (1954) as the nadir of O'Hara's career. And although O'Hara still looked lovely (discreetly) undraped, hiding George Nader underneath period garb was surely a mistake.

Finally, aging sweater girl Lana Turner finished out her MGM contract with the ornate Diane (1956). Ironically, Turner looked more beautiful in her dramatic, body-concealing Walter Plunkett costumes than she did in her abbreviated pagan love goddess scanties in The Prodigal (1955) - but it wasn't enough to save her from the chopping block at Metro. If Diane was Dore Schary's way of giving Turner the gate, he at least didn't skimp on her going-away party: static though the film may be, it's a rich feast for the eyes.

If the spate of female-driven costume dramas failed to ignite sparks, Turner nearly single-handedly started the infinitely more successful trend for the next round of films featuring mature heroines: the plush sex-and-scandal driven melodrama. Lana was the queen of the genre, but soon Susan Hayward and Eleanor Parker and Joan Fontaine were acting out torrid, sordid scenarios while dripping in up-to-the-moment jewels, furs and gowns. But with the studio system in disarray and money going down the drain, it was only a matter of time before the grandes dames were once again in danger of being put out to pasture - until the grandest of them all, La Davis and La Crawford, proved that the old gals not only still had the power to pull in audiences, but that they could do it in a low-budget film which provided maximum impact. But that's another story for another time...


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