Sunday, January 30, 2011

Gilding the Lily

For nearly thirty years, Lily Pons was the principal coloratura soprano at the Metropolitan Opera. Moreover, she transcended the rarified opera world to become a bona fide movie star, a radio fixture, a major concert draw, and an international symbol of glamour, charm and grace.

Born near the turn of the century in Draguignan, Provence-Alpes-Côte d'Azur, France, Pons first studied piano as a child. Her formal voice training didn't begin until 1925; remarkably, she made her professional debut in 1928 in the difficult title role of Léo Delibes' Lakmé. Pons continued to build her reputation and repertoire, appearing at various provincial opera houses throughout France.

At the beginning of her opera career in France, circa 1928

Pons successfully auditioned for the Metropolitan Opera in New York in 1930, at the urging of her mentor, Giovanni Zenatello, who, in the twilight of his stellar singing career, offered guidance to upcoming talent. As it happened, the Met had recently lost their resident coloratura, and in an operatic twist on the classic Ruby Keeler "You're goin' out a nobody, kid, and comin' back a star!" riff, the unknown Pons was quickly put into that spot, making an unprecedented Met debut in January 1931. She became, literally, a star overnight; the acclaim was extraordinary, though not without dissenters -- notably, the New York Times felt she showed more promise than actual talent. The most oft-heard criticism throughout her career was of Pons' supposedly "small" voice; although what it lacked in volume, her admirers felt it made up in delicacy and overall strength: she could hold a high "D" for one minute.

Just before leaving for Hollywood, 1935

Now firmly ensconced as the Met's new star coloratura, it was only a matter of time before Pons was courted by Hollywood. The operetta musical was at the apex of its brief popularity, making a superstar out of MGM's Jeanette MacDonald, while Pons' fellow Metropolitan soprano, Grace Moore, earned an Oscar nomination as Best Actress for Columbia's One Night of Love (1934). Pons signed with RKO, and made three moderately successful films: I Dream Too Much (1935), That Girl from Paris (1936) and Hitting a New High (1937).

With Henry Fonda in I Dream Too Much (1935)

Making music with Jack Oakie, Lucille Ball and Frank Jenks in That Girl from Paris (1936)

Hitting a New High (1937) with John Howard

Although movie critics generally praised Pons' "bird-like charm" and, predictably, her singing talents, the films were rightly assessed as mere diversions, and Pons turned her attentions back to the Met and, in 1944-45, an ambitious concert tour. Canceling her fall and winter season in New York, Pons traveled overseas with the USO, performing for the troops in such far-flung places as North Africa, Burma, the Middle East, and the Persian Gulf, often under grueling conditions. The tour continued through China, Belgium, France and Germany (in a performance delivered close to the front lines), then returned to America. Pons was accompanied on the tour by her second husband, the colorful conductor André Kostelanetz, with whom she shared a 20 year marriage -- and an even longer professional union. The secret to their deep-seated affection, even after divorce, perhaps can be found in a 1942 interview. "I love cra-zee hats," Madame Pons squealed, "and it is my luck that my husband is one of the few men who love cra-zee hats, too!"

Life with André: the bottom photo was taken at the Brazilian Pavillion of the 1939 World's Fair in New York.

In spite of what would total 300 performances on the Met stage, in some of the most famous roles in history, Pons seemed to have a refreshing lack of pomposity, as well as possessing a sly, Gallic sense of humor. In 1950, at benefit for the San Francisco Opera, Pons made a splashy appearance "in a sleazy, strapless, slit-skirted and low-cut black dress," doing a burlesque pantomime to a recording of "Diamonds are a Girl's Best Friend" by Carol Channing. "I forgot some of my routine," Pons gleefully recounted, "so I just added some extra bumps and grinds!"

Well into her own fifth decade, Pons reached a new level of fame in the 1950's, thanks to the new medium of television. True to her celebrity status, and her impish humor, the diva could be seen getting folksy with Tennessee Ernie Ford, trading jokes with Jimmy Durante, playing lookalikes with Imogene Coca, or warbling with Nat King Cole. She also, like nearly every other celebrity of the day, made a memorable appearance on What's My Line?

The dawn of the 1960's brought Pons' eventual fading from public view; with the fiery, publicity-driven Maria Callas dominating the headlines and gossip columns with her tempestuous private life, and thrilling listeners with her emotional, full-blooded approach to the coloratura, the charming, dainty Pons suddenly seemed quaintly old-fashioned. Her final performance at the Met was on December 14, 1960; after that, Pons made infrequent concert appearances until finally retiring. In one last burst of virtuosity, she emerged from that retirement to give one final concert on May 31, 1972, at New York's Philharmonic Hall. The event reunited Pons with André Kostelanetz, who conducted. The reception was rapturous, and Lily Pons enjoyed one final triumph. She died, on February 13, 1976, of pancreatic cancer in Dallas, Texas.

The overwhelming choice for our Mystery Guest was Marlene Dietrich, which no doubt would have made Lily Pons giggle with delight! And, in actuality, on more than one occasion, there was a very glancing resemblance.

We'll leave you, once more, with a recipe -- for Lily Pons' Pink Party Salad! Which is, basically, turkey salad dyed pink with pomegranate seeds. "It sounds frilly and feminine, but then, why do he-men in uniform fight for it?" trilled Madame Pons. Make it and find out for yourselves! As always, thanks for playing, darlings!

Lily Pons' Pink Party Salad

4 cups diced cooked turkey
2 cups chopped celery
Seeds from 2 large pomegranates
2 cups blanched shredded almonds
2 tablespoons cream
Salt to taste

Lightly toss turkey, celery, pomegranate seeds, and almonds together. Add cream, sufficient mayonnaise to moisten, and salt. Serve on lettuce leaves. Serves 12.

Friday, January 28, 2011

Good Costume

We'll do our Mystery Guest reveal tomorrow, darlings, but in the meantime...

A recent, marvelous post over at Poseidon's Underworld, detailing the costumes Edith Head created for the all-star Ross Hunter epic, Airport (1970), started us ruminating about the fabled, eight-time-Oscar-winning designer. During the early phase of her 42 year run at Paramount (1925-1967), the untrained Head was dwarfed by the staggeringly chic creations being turned out by head designers Howard Greer and, later, Travis Banton. When called upon, though, Head could supply the fireworks, as with the spectacular emerald sequined gown she designed for Mae West in She Done Him Wong (1933).

Mae West in She Done Him Wrong (1933, Paramount)
Designer: Edith Head

More often, though, Head took a practical, workman-like approach -- which, it must be admitted, gave many of the costumes she worked on an undated, timeless look. There was a minimum of adornment on her dresses and gowns, most of which were made in either neutrals or subdued tones. Her no-fuss ethic was in direct contrast with the fantastical, glamorous, almost otherworldly creations that other designers like Adrian (MGM), Orry-Kelly (Warners), René Hubert (Fox), Kalloch (Columbia), Walter Plunkett (RKO) and Paramount's Banton were turning out.

Joan Crawford in Dancing Lady (1933, MGM)
Designer: Adrian

Kay Francis in Mandalay (1934, Warner Bros.)
Designer: Orry-Kelly

Gloria Swanson in Indiscreet (1931, Fox)
Designer: René Hubert

Irene Dunne in The Awful Truth (1937, Columbia)
Designer: Kalloch

Lupe Velez in Strictly Dynamite (1934, RKO)
Designer: Walter Plunkett

Marlene Dietrich in Desire (1936)
Designer: Travis Banton

To be fair, during this period, Banton, as head designer, was in charge of the plum assignments, and therefore, the most important films and biggest stars. More often than not, little Edie was left to toil in B-unit productions like Jungle Princess (1936), Her Husband Lies (1937) and Dangerous to Know (1938).

Dorothy Lamour in Jungle Princess (1936, Paramount)
Designer: Edith Head

Gail Patrick in Her Husband Lies (1937, Paramount)
Designer: Edith Head

Anna May Wong in Dangerous to Know (1938, Paramount)
Designer: Edith Head

Whether it was due to the smaller budgets on these films, Head's own minimalist approach, or a combination of the two, these stills illustrate both the designer's career-long fondness for simple lines with a minimum of frills, and a certain uneasiness when pressed to do something more outré: the sequined gown for Dorothy Lamour seems sleazy, especially compared with the clean, uncluttered look she gave Gail Patrick and Anna May Wong (more successful was the sarong that Head designed for Lamour in the same film!). But Head was acutely aware of her own limitations, and, when she was made head designer after Banton left Paramount in 1938, Head took pains to ensure that she rarely stepped out of her self-imposed boundaries again. She also set to work at making herself a household name.

The dark glasses. The crisp white blouse. The tailored suit. The bangs and chignon. The look, adopted in the late 1930's, would remain in place for the rest of Edith Head's life. "I knew I could never be the greatest costume designer," she once remarked, "but I knew there was no reason I couldn't be the smartest." Brilliantly, she copyrighted and branded herself, making her image nearly as famous as the movie divas she designed for. What Head wasn't so brilliant at, was fashion. Let us be very clear here: we respect Ms. Head as a very talented costume designer. That was her job, and she not only did it tremendously well, but she took it very seriously. She conferred not just with the director and actors on creating looks for the characters, but also with the art director and set designers, to ensure perfect harmony of line and color in every scene. The idea was for the costume to enhance and compliment the scene and character, not to overpower for mere effect.

Consequently, many of Head's best-remembered costumes were worn by some of the most celebrated, tempestuous women in Hollywood -- precisely because it took enormous presence and strength of character to bring many of Head's designs to life. Do you recognize either of these rather drab, uninteresting gowns?

How about now? They are, of course, the iconic dresses worn by Bette Davis and Elizabeth Taylor, respectively, in All About Eve (1950) and A Place in the Sun (1951).

Bette Davis in All About Eve (1950, Twentieth Century Fox)
Designer: Edith Head

Elizabeth Taylor (with Montgomery Clift) in A Place in the Sun (1951, Paramount)
Designer: Edith Head

It could be said, then, that Edith Head's greatest strength was knowing exactly what would work for the actress at hand, and the character she was playing. The clothing itself wasn't the star of the scene: it became a seamless, almost subliminal part of it. Indeed, it's difficult to imagine Margo Channing tossing off her "Fasten your seat belts" sally without that brown satin dress; but seeing it on its own hardly conjures up such delicious glamour. The clothes may not make the woman, but in many cases in Head's career, they helped make the character.

Barbara Stanwyck in Ball of Fire (1941, RKO)
Designer: Edith Head

Perhaps Edith's greatest collaboration with a star was with Barbara Stanwyck. Stanwyck had a reputation among Hollywood designers as being difficult to fit; her long-waisted torso seemed to stymie them. The look Head perfected for Stanwyck -- wide waistbands, narrow backs -- gave Stanwyck a new identity, and the closest thing to a designer/star partnership (a la Adrian/Crawford, Banton/Dietrich) that the free-lancing, studio-hopping star would ever have. The two women remained close friends, with Head not only designing for Stanwyck's films, but also her personal wardrobe.

Barbara Stanwyck in The Lady Eve (1941, Paramount) and Ball of Fire (1941, RKO)
Designer: Edith Head

That Head and Stanwyck got on famously was no fluke; Edith Head was trusted and beloved by almost every actress she worked with. She not only knew how to accentuate and camouflage as needed (as in Stanwyck's case), she also knew better than to spill gossip about her clients' private lives or, worse, their figure flaws to the press. Edith may have lacked the talent of a true couturier, but she could very well have been a diplomat.

Edith Head and Gloria Swanson, in costume for Sunset Blvd. (1950, Paramount)
Designer: Edith Head

There were, of course, a few bumps along the way. Most famously, as Paramount's head designer, she refused to allow young French designer Hubert de Givenchy's name to be included in the credits of Sabrina (1954) -- in spite of the fact that he had designed all of the haute couture gowns for the film's star, Audrey Hepburn, at Hepburn's request. Adding insult to injury, Head won an Oscar for the film (her second for a Hepburn picture; she had won the previous year for Roman Holiday)! To Head's credit, she did thank Givenchy in her acceptance speech for his "contributions." History almost repeated itself three years later, when Givenchy designed the spectacular couture gowns for Hepburn in Funny Face (1957), while Head was relegated to Kay Thompson's gray suits and the sad-sack outfits worn by Hepburn prior to her transformation from duckling to swan. This time, however, Givenchy rightly demanded, and received, screen credit.

Audrey Hepburn in Roman Holiday (1953, Paramount)
Designer: Edith Head

Audrey Hepburn in Funny Face (1957, Paramount)
Designer: Hubert de Givenchy

Her ambitions to do high fashion designs for Audrey Hepburn thwarted, Head found her 1950's muse in Hepburn's sleek blonde counterpart, Grace Kelly. For the future princess, Head designed some of her loveliest, most fashion-forward creations, particularly for Rear Window (1954) and To Catch a Thief (1955). These two films also cemented a long, fruitful relationship with Alfred Hitchcock, who was not only impressed by how Head's designs looked on his treasured cool blondes (Head would also dress Kim Novak for Vertigo [1958] and Tippi Hedren for The Birds [1963]), but how effectively they complimented his vision and direction.

Grace Kelly in Rear Window (1954, Paramount)
Designer: Edith Head

Grace Kelly in To Catch a Thief (1955, Paramount)
Designer: Edith Head

The 1960's saw Head responding to the ever-changing times in a surprising fashion: she took the plunge into the outrageous, and her designs for such mid-1960's fare as What a Way to Go! (1964) with Shirley MacLaine and Love Has Many Faces (1965) with Lana Turner are eye-popping, jaw-dropping -- and not always in a good way. But they demonstrate Head's determination to remain not only relevant, but newsworthy and attention-grabbing. Much was made of the costume budgets for these two films, in particular; Lana's costumes alone were reportedly worth $1 million!

Lana Turner in Love Has Many Faces (1965, Columbia)
Designer: Edith Head

Shirley MacLaine (with Robert Mitchum) in What a Way to Go! (1964, Twentieth Century Fox)
Designer: Edith Head

In 1967, after her Paramount contract expired, Head jumped ship to Universal. Though much of her work for Universal was minor, she did manage to win one final Oscar, for The Sting (1973). In an echo of the earlier Givenchy debacle, however, she was sued by the sketch illustrator who worked on the film (Head herself didn't, or couldn't, sketch), claiming that he had, in fact, designed the costumes. This sort of controversy started Edith Head's career -- she had conned her way into Paramount's costume department by displaying a portfolio padded with sketches by her fellow art class students -- and would continue to the end. When, in the 1970's, she began holding "fashion costume shows" purporting to feature her classic film gowns, many whispered that the gowns were, in fact, reproductions, and that some weren't even originally designed by Head in the first place.

Edith Head and models at one of her costume fashion shows, 1970's

Still, when Edith Head died on October 24, 1981, she was mourned not only by Hollywood but, thanks to Head's unrelenting publicity drive, the world. Obviously, Edith Head's supporters far outnumber her detractors; and, whatever her shortcomings as a designer may have been, her massive influence and sheer force of personality are such that they override any deficincies. In any case, if the unflattering designs she created for Mary Martin, Hedy Lamarr and Claudette Colbert (three of the very few stars with whom she shared a mutual dislike) are any indication of the kind of retribution she would dish out to those who dared cross her, we'd rather stay on her good side!

Mary Martin in Love Thy Neighbor (1942)
Designer: Edith Head

Hedy Lamarr in The Strange Woman (1946, United Artists)
Designer: Edith Head

Claudette Colbert in Zaza (1939, Paramount)
Designer: Edith Head

Thank you, Poseidon3, for getting our creative juices flowing! Frankly, in spite of her legend and her undeniable longevity, we've never been a big fan of Head. (And we never thought we'd have that phrase coming out of our, er, mouth.) Her work always struck us as a little bland and a lot derivative. And yet, contradictorily, she's the woman behind some of the most iconic costumes in film history, a few of our favorites among them. In the end, we simply have to give the lady respect and credit for all that she achieved in her nearly-sixty year career. And it goes without saying that we heartily endorse the always entertaining, always educational Poseidon's Underworld. Visit him today, and tell him that Big Edie sent you.