Thursday, 5 April 2012

The Grace Kelly "Look" in 'Rear Window' and 'To Catch a Thief'.

Rear Window (1954) Directed by Alfred Hitchcock. James Stewart, Grace Kelly, Wendell Corey, Thelma Ritter. (112 min.)
Alfred Hitchcock was the only director of his day most filmgoers knew by name. His face and form familiarized by his popular tv program, Alfred Hitchcock Presents, contemporary critics often denigrated him as too commercial, a mere entertainer. The New Yorker calledRear Window "claptrap" and the single set "foolishness." Bosley Crowther in the New York Times wrote plainly "Mr. Hitchcock's film is not significant." When Francois Truffaut published his admiring book-length interview with Hitchcock in the early 1960s, a young American film professor advised him, "This book will do more harm to your reputation than your worst film."
Rear Window was adapted from a story in Dime Detective Magazine called "It Had To Be Murder" by Cornell Woolrich, writing as William English. On the surface, the film is a pure expression of 1950s movie magic, with attractive movie stars photographed in lush Technicolor. But, it is clearly intended as an allegory of movie going. James Stewart's LB Jeffries sits in the dark and watches his neighbors' apartments as we watch the screen, his observations revealing his fears and fantasies. And, for a Catholic such as Hitchcock, the sins of omission and comission (thinking about doing something bad and actually doing it) are equally wicked.
In Woolrich's story, the hero had no profession. In Rear Window, he is a photojournalist. Donald Spoto, one of Hitchcock's biographers (the one with his mind in the gutter) speculated that he was inspired by Ingrid Bergman's love for photojournalist Robert Capa, a romance observed by Hitchcock while shooting Notorious with Bergman. Spoto suggests Hitchcock was fascinated by Capa's indifference to a beautiful woman about whom he could only fantasize. Other writers have suggested a closer autobiographical tie is the villain Torvald's resemblance to producer David O. Selznick, with whom Hitchcock had often tussled for creative control.

Grace Kelly's character was modelled intentionally on Anita Colby, a cover girl who became an advertising executive at Harper's Bazaar, then continued her career in Hollywood as a combination fashion and beauty stylist and personal assistant to the aforementioned Selznick. Edith Head did Kelly's chic wardrobe for Rear Window and it is one of her best. The color of the celadon green suit was specified by Hitchcock, much as he had demanded Kim Novak's grey one in Vertigo, over Novak's protests. Head wrote in The Dress Doctor she loved working with Kelly: "She came up the stairs briskly that first day, looking like a girl just out of Bryn Mawr--the whitest of white gloves, the whitest of blouses, the grey tailored suit, the tailored hat, the most immaculate scrubbed look! We're used to a certain amount of careless dressing in Hollywood; nothing about Grace was careless. Even better than the clothes was the quiet, shy, interested manner; she becomes articulate and gay as she gets to know you, and hers is a childlike ability to be pleased. In the pale frothy negligee of Rear Window, she positively giggled at her image in the mirrors. "Why, I look like a peach parfait!" she said.

 Picture perfect
Edith Head’s costumes for Hollywood are legendary
By Christopher Muther in The Boston Globe
December 24, 2009

Fashion is a language,’’ legendary Hollywood costumer Edith Head wrote in her 1959 biography, “The Dress Doctor.’’ “Some know it, some learn it, some never will - like an instinct.’’

Head, who designed costumes for more than 400 films during Hollywood’s golden age spoke the language of fashion through Grace Kelly’s full chiffon skirts, Bette Davis’s mature and glamorous party dresses, and even Mae West’s fur-tipped hourglass gowns for the so-bad-it’s-good camp classic “Myra Breckinridge.’’ So when it came time for Museum of Fine Arts film manager Kristen Lauerman to choose movies for the museum’s “The Costumes of Edith Head’’ film series, there were hard decisions to be made.

“Her time with Paramount studios was special,’’ Lauerman says of Head, who passed away in 1981 just shy of her 84th birthday. “Particularly between 1941 and 1958. That really coincides with the height of the classical Hollywood cinema period. I just wanted to focus on her work at that particular studio. That’s the studio she is most associated with.’’

As a result, “The Costumes of Edith Head’’ film series, which continues through Jan. 3, not only features some of Head’s most glamorous work, but also celluloid gems such as Alfred Hitchcock’s “To Catch a Thief,’’ “Vertigo,’’ and “Rear Window.’’

“She worked closely with Hitchcock,’’ Lauerman says. “And they enjoyed working with one another. Hitchcock even paid for her to go to the Riviera [for ‘To Catch a Thief’] which is something that probably any other studio wouldn’t have allowed. He had a very strong vision of what his characters should be wearing, and Edith Head translates that really well. You can see this especially when she worked with Grace Kelly. She just thought Grace had the most fantastic figure to work with because she could dress her in high fashion pieces.’’

In Kelly, Head found an ideal muse, an actress with sophistication and beauty who could showcase some of her most glamorous design work.

“What Grace has is an elegance all her own,’’ Head wrote in “The Dress Doctor.’’ “The white gloves are her trademark, so is the smooth hair. She looks that way even after sleeping all night on a plane.’’

In addition to restricting the series to the Paramount years, Lauerman edited down her list of films to those with actresses whom Head worked with frequently, such as Veronica Lake, Olivia de Havilland, Barbara Stanwyck, and Elizabeth Taylor.

“These women came to depend on Head, and she developed important relationships with them,’’ Lauerman says. “They would specifically ask for Edith when they worked on a film. Edith liked Barbara Stanwyck so much that she even designed clothes for her personal wardrobe.’’

At the time of her death, Head was increasingly an anomaly as more studios purchased clothes off-the-rack for their stars, or hired famous designers to create wardrobes rather than keeping an in-house designer in their employ. Before her death, Head won eight Academy Awards for costume design, and was just as well known in Hollywood for her ability to juggle difficult directors and actresses as she was for her dark glasses and unchanging hairstyle. Lauerman says Head’s output was prolific partially because she always wanted to be working to keep her name on the tongues of studio executives.

“She was not the best designer in Hollywood,’’ says the legendary Bob Mackie in David Chierichetti’s 2003 biography of Head. “But she knew how to work it.’’

Series highlights follow:
‘Sunset Boulevard’
“Can you imagine what a thrill it was for me to do ‘Sunset Boulevard’?’’ Head writes in her book “The Dress Doctor.’’ In the 1950 film, which stars Gloria Swanson as Norma Desmond, an aging silent film star who’s descending into madness, Head had the task of making the star look like an actress who is long past her peak. “Because of her bone structure and assurance, Miss Swanson projected on screen just about as she had 20 years before. There was very little I could do about the clothes to accomplish the effect needed. It had to be done with makeup and lighting.’’
‘This Gun for Hire’
Head writes of the dramatic transformation that Veronica Lake went through to become the vampish nightclub singer in the 1942 WWII film: “This was the girl we transformed with hair-do and clothes (long, floaty, unearthly chiffons) into a glamorous nymph, half witch. We’d created a personality that didn’t exist, and from the moment the public saw her in ‘This Gun for Hire’ and ‘I Married a Witch’ they accepted that personality. It was an experiment that proved what clothes can do.’’
Further viewing
For a fuller picture of Head’s work in film costume, Lauerman suggests renting “All About Eve,’’ “Sampson and Delilah,’’ “Ball of Fire,’’ “Funny Face,’’ “The Birds,’’ and “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid’’ to view Head’s work at designing menswear.
‘Rear Window’
Head clearly enjoyed dolling up Grace Kelly’s fashion-loving socialite in Alfred Hitchcock’s 1954 thriller. “Hitchcock told me I’d have a field day,’’ she writes of Kelly. “That the girl had the model look, but I’d seen her only in ‘High Noon,’ and I wasn’t prepared. She came up the stairs briskly that day looking like a girl just out of Bryn Mawr.’’

( ... ) "This floaty, conspicuous dress is an appreciable nod to Christian Dior’s ‘New Look’, launched onto the fashion stage in 1947. Despite Edith Head’s well documented wariness of trends, she evidently needed to project the period in which To Catch a Thief is set, around 1947-49. Moreover there was the New Look copyright issue, especially prevalent in the U.S. whereby Dior’s distinctive gowns had been ‘reworked’ for the American market by boutiques and department stores. Legislation was introduced in 1952 protecting a collection for one season, though it was generally too convoluted to enforce. In any case, Dior licensed a prêt-à-porter line to Lord & Taylor and Neiman Marcus the following year.
Head’s blue débutante dress is her own suggestion of the New Look (for it is merely that). The colour in particular is incapable of blending into the background and serves to define rich girl Frances in a single shot:

Floor length ice blue chiffon evening dress. Fitted bodice into the waist with spaghetti straps, gathered from knot above left bust and left rear waist; natural blue block stripe below bust knot, draped into waist and running full length of the gathered skirt, also from left waist into skirt and above rear wrapover to knot on left waist then into skirt; worn with matching blue clutch bag, white open toe sandals and blue chiffon scarf.

To clarify what New Look typifies in terms of style… it was a fashion movement that began following Christian Dior’s first collection. The term was supposedly coined by Harper’s Bazaar editor-in-chief Carmel Snow. Broadly defined, it is an out-and-out rejection of World War II austerity; a distaste for anything resembling a uniform, i.e. shapeless and functional. New Look was a return to the gaiety of La Belle Époque (1890-1914); the embracing of full busts and high waists above voluminous skirts. Most of Dior’s creations were padded with bustiers and corsets. Spanish designer Cristóbal Balenciaga, also hugely popular at the time, embraced the luxury of New Look though was more concerned with working from the body than controlling it like Dior. Balenciaga never used padding.

This dress is not directly inspired by Dior or Balenciaga; it is a likeness by Edith Head to show Frances as wealthy and fashionable, although detached and overly concerned with display. Think that the dress is OTT? Consider that some of Dior’s gowns possessed five layers of tulle and nylon net and it suddenly becomes merely believably ornate.

Apart from her lamé gown for the costume ball finale, this is Frances’ most visible dress in the film. No jewellery is worn, there is no need; enough meaning can be ascribed with the style and colour. During this period such a vibrant blue for evening would have been unusual, even more so for a single woman in her late twenties/early thirties. This chilly ensemble immediately removes all trace of inner warmth from Frances and then the rest of the film is spent gradually restoring it while infusing her character with a dry and quite naughty sense of humour.

During their first meeting, dashing Robie cuts through this glacier easily enough, even receiving an unexpected goodnight kiss. Yet Frances, and by proxy Grace Kelly, has now been established as the principal object of fascination for characters and audience. Prioritising her as so central to the narrative (directly involving her with Robie), even hints that Frances could possibly be ‘The Cat’, an idea that is subtly reinforced by several costume choices further into the film.

 Chris Laverty. in "Clothes on Film"

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