Tag Archives: Billy Wilder

Style on Film: Sabrina

This stunning yet simple black cocktail dress which Audrey Hepburn wore in the 1954 romantic comedy Sabrina is – believe it or not – one of the most controversial frocks in cinema history. It helped to make Sabrina one of the most stylish films of the 1950s – and to establish its young star’s famous chic gamine look. It also marked her first collaboration with Hubert de Givenchy, the French couturier, with whom her style would be inextricably linked for the rest of her life. Being a Cinderella-style love story, Sabrina opens with its heroine dressed in rather dowdier attire, however …

Audrey Hepburn’s wardrobe in Sabrina was originally to be designed by Paramount Studios’ costume supremo, Edith Head. In the film, Sabrina, the chauffeur’s lovesick daughter, goes to Paris as an awkward adolescent and returns transformed into an elegant young lady. Edith Head was put out to learn that, after their first meeting, Audrey had asked director Billy Wilder if she could wear “a real Paris dress” in the film. Mrs Wilder suggested Audrey go to Balenciaga but when the young star turned up, the couturier was too busy see her and sent her to his young friend, Hubert de Givenchy.

Givenchy later recalled: “When the door of my studio opened, there stood a young woman, very slim, very tall, with doe eyes and short hair and wearing a pair of narrow pants, a little T-shirt, slippers and a gondolier’s hat with red ribbon that read ‘Venezia’. I told her: ‘Mademoiselle, I would love to help you, but I have very few sewers. I am in the middle of a collection – I can’t make you clothes.’  Audrey asked to see the collection – and ended up choosing all of Sabrina’s post-Paris capsule wardrobe from it, starting with the super-elegant ensemble with which she wows her childhood crush when she arrives back on Long Island from France.


For Sabrina’s first-ever date with David Larabee (the dashing William Holden), the playboy with whom she has been besotted all her life, Audrey (for it really was her choice) selected from Givenchy an exquisite strapless evening gown with a boned bodice and flowing, full, ankle-length skirt. She asked the designer to alter it to that it would hide the hollows behind her collarbone. He later said: “What I invented for her eventually became a style so popular that I named it ‘decollete Sabrina’.”

Needless to say, Sabrina is the belle of the ball in her black and white Paris dress. It certainly opens the otherwise-engaged David’s eyes, prompting him to say: “Oh Sabrina, if I’d only known…”. But the “if I’d only known” dress isn’t my favourite from the film; I love the cocktail dress and cute catwoman-like hat that our fickle heroine wears when she’s being romanced by David’s brother, Linus (Humphrey Bogart). What made this cocktail dress so controversial? Well, here’s a clue:

You would assume that this sketch, by Edith Head, is evidence that she designed the dress which sums up Sabrina’s seductive blend of playfulness and elegance. But that isn’t actually the case – though Head herself allowed the misconception to go uncorrected for the rest of her life. The truth – as explained in Jay Jorgensen’s superb book, Edith Head – The Fifty Year Career of Hollywood’s Greatest Costume Designer (Running Press) – is that Head’s department was supposed to make this dress, with its distinctive bows on the shoulder and boat neck, from a sketch by Givenchy. Jorgensen explains: “Confusion about the designs in the film began as sketches were done in the wardrobe department to execute all the clothing needed. Edith began sending the sketches out to publicize the film, leading to the assumption that all the clothes were her designs.” Here’s Sabrina wearing it on her pre-theatre dinner date at The Colony with Linus.

The boat neck of what became known as “The Sabrina Dress” – the design of which was translated into a best-selling dressmaking pattern when the film was released – became a hallmark of the Hepburn look. As did the black legging-like trousers and pumps which she wore, along with a slash-necked top, for a casual visit to Linus’s office.

It’s only when Sabrina removes her coat – a collarless number which anticipates the Givenchy coats she sports in their classic 1960s collaboration Charade – and turns around that we see the sly sexiness of the ensemble:

There aren’t that many different outfits in Sabrina – just enough to immediately establish it as a must-see for style lovers. Which must help explain why Edith Head presumably kept quiet about the extent of Givenchy’s involvement in the film and the fact that, with Audrey, he created Sabrina’s Parisian-inspired look, the look that dominates the movie. Not only did Givenchy’s name appear nowhere in the credits, but Head accepted an Oscar for Sabrina and didn’t even acknowledge the French designer’s contribution to the film.

According to Jorgensen’s book, Head even had the gall to parade the original dress down the runaways of her fashion shows. It was only after Head’s 1980 death, that Givenchy, a true gentleman, finally confirmed that the dress had been his design but had been made under Head’s supervision at Paramount…

 

 

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Hold The Front Page!

The Glasgow Film Theatre is currently showing a mini-season of films from a genre which is routinely overlooked but is as quintessentially American as the gangster movie and the western.

The season, Heroes and Villains, celebrates journalism on the silver screen and belongs to a bigger genre – the newspaper movie, which had its heyday in the 1930s.

The newspaper building (or at least newspaper buildings until ten years ago, when journalists became  bogged down by bureaucracy and cost-cutting) is an obvious setting for a Hollywood movie. All human life can be found there, and the pace – leisurely and laidback at the beginning of the day; frantic and frenetic as deadlines approach – is quite unlike that of any other workplace.

Many of the great newspaper movies have been based on true stories: after all, this was – like the gangster movie – a genre born out of topicality. The 1933 James Cagney comedy Picture Snatcher, for example, was based on the scandal surrounding the New York Daily News’s secretly snatched photograph of murderess Ruth Snyder in the electric chair. Cagney – like Jude Law in The Road to Perdition – played a snapper who often beat the cops to grisly crime scenes.

Some of the most memorable characters in newspaper movies were inspired by real people, proof that newspaper people are not only excellent sniffers-out of stories but also great material in themselves. It took only a handful of tyrannical editors to furnish Hollywood with enough material to create the stereotypical kick-ass editor character we see in such classic newspaper movies as Nothing Sacred (1937) and His Girl Friday (1940).

Both these films were comedies but the newspaper movie can also be a hard-hitting drama (in the case of Five Star Final), a fantasy (Superman) or a crime drama.

Indeed, the newspaper movie has most often functioned as a variation on the traditional crime movie, with the reporter playing the detective role. The Humphrey Bogart film Deadline USA (1952) and Ron Howard’s all-star comedy-drama The Paper (1994) focused on newspaper investigations into mob murders.  And, of course, All the President’s Men (1976) concerned the Washington Post’s investigation into what proved to be the scoop of the century – the Watergate scandal.

But what sets these films apart from crime dramas is that they are as much about the putting together of a newspaper and the people involved in that process as they are about the investigation.

The newspaper genre is one of the few which showed women working as men’s equals from day one:  in 1931, the year in which the newspaper genre broke through, Fay Wray starred as a hotshot reporter battling corruption in The Finger Points, and Loretta Young (above) played Gallagher, just “one of the boys” in the newsroom and the press bar, in Platinum Blonde.

The most popular film version of the hit Broadway play The Front Page was the second one, His Girl Friday, in which ace reporter Hildy Johnson was rewritten as a woman, and played – with great panache – by Rosalind Russell. And Katharine Hepburn portrayed a leading political columnist in Woman of the Year in 1942.

Roles like these were among the best that Hollywood had to offer since the characters were – by necessity, since they were operating in a male-dominated environment – feisty and street-smart.

THE newspaper genre came about as a result of coincidence. The 1920s had been a boom time for the newspaper and magazine industry in America. A new style of tabloid emerged in the 1920s: the sensationalistic rag which shied away from no topic and which would publish photos of murder victims, suicides, illicit lovers caught offguard – anything likely to titillate the readership. There was no level to which these papers wouldn’t stoop for a scoop. And the truth was rarely newsworthy.

Against this backdrop came the sound era in Hollywood, and studios suddenly found themselves in need of snappy, realistic dialogue.  The idealised characters and situations favoured by many of the filmmakers of the silent era were now passe, and audiences,  reeling from the effects of the Depression, demanded films which tackled the problems facing society.

Prohibition and gangsters quickly became favoured topics, and movies set in newspapers were seen as the perfect vehicles for debates about corruption, crime and poverty. The role of newspapers themselves could be dealt with in this new genre, and there was plenty of comic material to be found in the crazy stunts pulled off by some of the tabloids in the bid to increase circulation.

Five Star Final and The Front Page were two of the first newspaper movies. Both were made in 1931, both had their roots in reality, and both had been successful Broadway plays. Five Star Final was written by Louis Weitzenkorn, former editor of one of New York’s most salacious rags, The Evening Graphic (fondly known as the Pornographic). Randall, the editor, played by Edward G Robinson, was based on another Evening Graphic editor, Emile Gauvrau, who, like Lady Macbeth, was always washing his hands as if to rid himself of guilt for some of his dirtier deeds.

Five Star Final spared no detail about the way in which the sleazier papers operated. The opening shot is of an old news vendor being beaten up by thugs employed to ensure that the Evening Gazette is given the prime position on the news-stands.

Written by former newspapermen BenHecht and Charles MacArthur, The Front Page (remade as His Girl Friday, then again in 1974 as The Front Page, and then re-worked as Broadcast News in 1988) was a black comedy about a newspaper finding an escaped death-row convict, and trying to keep him hidden to protect its scoop. The editor, Walter Burns (most famously played by Cary Grant in His Girl Friday), was based on Walter Howie, the Chicago editor whom Ben Hecht claimed he would not work, “being incapable of such treachery as he proposed”.

Clearly, there was no scheme too odious for Walter and Hildy who, at one point reminisces: “Remember the time we stole old Aggie Haggerty’s stomach off the coroner’s table? We proved she’d been poisoned, didn’t we?”

Hecht also satirised the tabloids’ desperate publicity stunts in his 1937 comedy Nothing Sacred (above)  in which reporter Frederic March and his newspaper shamelessly exploit an apparently dying girl (Carole Lombard), little realising that she is in fact exploiting them.

Exploitation was also the theme of Billy Wilder’s blackly cynical Ace in the Hole (1951)  in which reporter Kirk Douglas artificially prolongs a human interest story so he can get as much mileage out of it as possible.

In the 1930s, when it was fashionable to look down on hacks, the newspaper genre was at the peak of its popularity. When the papers tidied up their act, and journalists – especially war correspondents – were looked on in a more respectful manner, the genre began to die. And by the 1980s, the setting for journalism-themed movies had switched to the TV newsroom. But I’ll bet there are still would-be hot-shot reporters and girl fridays out there who seek the thrills of the 1930s-style newspaper offices..

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Christmas Crackers, Hollywood-style

Strangely for something with as much sentimental potential as Christmas, there is only a handful of really classic Christmas movies. Yet, every year, this buff draws up a list of Christmas movies to watch in the run-up to the big day – and every year she fails miserably to get through them all.

The viewing itinerary usually kicks off with a little-known 1945 comedy called The Cheaters, which is getting a rare screening on Channel 4 this weekend. With a screwball cast that includes the elephantine Eugene Pallette and the twittery Billie Burke (best remembered as Glinda from The Wizard of Oz), it’s about a family of hard-up socialites who – in order to impress their daughter’s rich suitor – take in the down-and-out Joseph Schildkraut over Christmas, and learn a thing or two about dignity from him.

The Cheaters makes a nice double bill with Christmas in Connecticut (pictured), another rarely shown 1945 comedy, this time about a sophisticated magazine columnist (Barbara Stanwyck) forced to live up to her phoney reputation as a Nigella-style domestic goddess when her editor decides to spend the holidays at her country cottage.

Continuing the unwelcome guest theme, The Man Who Came to Dinner (1941) is one I always manage to squeeze in to the viewing schedule. A gloriously funny comedy, it stars Monty Woolley as the obnoxious “idol of the airwaves” Sheridan Whiteside (a character based on the humorist Alexander Woollcott) who, during a lecture tour, breaks his leg and has to spend his recovery – and Christmas – at the home of the unlucky mid-west family outside whose house he slipped.

“Christmas may be postponed this year,” says one gossip column reporting the accident which has left the Stanley family confined to the upstairs quarters of their own home. The snazzy script, packed with one-liners, is a joy and the performances – by Billie Burke (again), Bette Davis, chic glamourpuss Ann Sheridan (my Christmas style icon), the wonderful character actress Mary Wickes and Jimmy Durante (playing a character based on Harpo Marx) – are as sparkling as a glass of Christmas bubbly.

Versions – live and animated – of A Christmas Carol abound, but the most atmospheric and haunting of all is the 1951 British classic, Scrooge, with the peerless Scots actor Alastair Sim gloriously dour as the miser who claims that “Christmas is a humbug” until he is visited by three spirits on Christmas Eve and realises that friendship and love are worth more than money.

Wash that one down with the gentler The Bishop’s Wife (1947), a grown-up romantic fantasy in which Cary Grant stars as a particularly debonair and charming angel named Dudley, who answers the prayers of a stressed-out clergyman (David Niven)and his neglected wife (Loretta Young) at Christmas-time, and leaves a trail of swooning ladies in his wake.

Or settle down with family favourite Miracle on 34th Street (1947 – a vintage year for Christmas movies) in which department store Santa Edmund Gwenn has to prove that he’s the real McCoy to a non-believing seven-year-old (Natalie Wood).

Heartwarming Christmas scenes feature in plenty of movies, but the ones worth digging out in the run-up to midnight are Little Women (any of the three versions will do, as long as you have your hankies handy) and Meet Me In St Louis (1944).

Although it covers a whole year in the lives of the characters it depicts, Meet Me In St Louis easily qualifies as a festive film: not only does it embody all the sentiments of the season, but it also features Judy Garland introducing the beautiful song Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas which is guaranteed to jerk a few buckets’ worth of tears.

The hours spanning Christmas Eve and Christmas morning should be spent in the company of Clarence the Angel, Zuzu, George, Uncle Billy and everyone else in Frank Capra’s evergreen It’s a Wonderful Life (1946) – the definitive Christmas movie.

And, if by December 27, I feel that I’ve overdosed on the old Christmas spirit, Billy Wilder’s The Apartment (1960) will provide just the right amount of cynicism to prepare me for the horrors of Hogmanay…

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Chandler On Screen

It’s Film Noir weekend on BBC4, so it seems like a good time to talk about Raymond Chandler – especially since the 50th anniversary of his death earlier this year only seems to have been commemorated by the literary world.
 
More than any single director and more than most stars, the name Raymond Chandler is synonymous with film noir. It appears on the credits of three of the handful of movies which gave birth to the genre: Double Indemnity, The Big Sleep and Murder, My Sweet (AKA Farewell My Lovely, its British title). These masterworks – directed by Billy Wilder, Edward Dmytryk and Howard Hawks respectively – are the grandparents of such diverse modern-day classics as the The Big Lebowski, Pulp Fiction and LA Confidential.
 
 Chandler, an American educated in upper middle-class England, brought style and panache to the detective thriller. His laconic yet poetic descriptions and the wisecracking, cynical observations made by his alter ego, the “shamus” Philip Marlowe, set him apart from other crime writers.

His stories were more than merely whodunits – which is just as well, given that plotting wasn’t his forte at all. Indeed, so complex and confusing was the plot of his 1939 novel The Big Sleep that when Howard Hawks was in the middle of filming it, he had to wire Chandler to ask him who had committed one of the peripheral murders. After re-reading his own book, Chandler replied that he had no idea.

What distinguished Chandler’s stories and books was that they were rich in atmosphere and packed with quotable passages. The language was authentically slangy, and the banter between the sexes crackled with playful and witty eroticism.

So, in 1943, when Paramount Studios bought the rights to former journalist James L Cain’s taut novelette Double Indemnity, Chandler was hired to collaborate on the screenplay with the director Billy Wilder. The Austrian emigre director had decided that Chandler was the man for the job after reading The Big Sleep and being impressed with what Chandler biographer Al Clark called the “poetic toughness” of the writing. He also appreciated Chandler’s knowledge of Los Angeles and his instincts about the kind of duplicitous seductress they would be portraying in their script.

Despite this, working together turned out to be an ordeal for both men. Wilder later recalled that “there was a lot of Hitler in Chandler” while Chandler wrote to his publisher saying: “Working with Billy Wilder on Double Indemnity was an agonising experience and has probably shortened my life”. Nevertheless, the tense collaboration produced a seminal film noir.

Double Indemnity, like a typical Chandler novel, was told in flashback with its central character, Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray), narrating his story into a dictaphone as he lies dying. It featured a classic Chandler-esque “big-league blonde”, the femme fatale (Barbara Stanwyck) who entices the hapless hero into a web of murder and deceit. With its night shots, and shadowy sequences, it, to use the slang of the day, reeked from atmosphere; Wilder’s arresting images the visual equivalent of Chandler’s evocative descriptions.

Billy Wilder, whose great run of success really began with Double Indemnity, later said of his grumpy, alcoholic, middle-aged writing partner: “He was a mess, but he could write a beautiful sentence.” He also admitted that he learned from Chandler “what real dialogue is”.

None of Chandler’s other forays into screenwriting in the 1940s were as successful – not even his excellent original screenplay for The Blue Dahlia, the 1946 thriller which starred the popular team of Veronica Lake and Alan Ladd and lent part of its title to the sensational, real-life “Black Dahlia” murder story that broke shortly after it opened in cinemas.

Of course, Chandler’s most easily recognisable gift to cinema is one of the most iconic screen personalities in movie history – of his private “dick”, Philip Marlowe. He made his movie debut under another name when the 1940 book Farewell My Lovely was used as the plot of one of the “Falcon” series of films about a gentleman sleuth played by debonair George Sanders.

Chandler’s Marlowe was no gentleman sleuth; he was very much a working, streetwise detective, available to hire for $25 a day (“plus expenses”). A loner with morals and a soft spot for the little guys whose inevitable deaths nobody else in the story cares about, Marlowe armed himself with a wry sense of humour despite being routinely “slugged” by brainless henchmen, and double-crossed by vampy blondes.

He has been portrayed numerous times on screen: Robert Altman’s spoofy The Long Goodbye (1973), has Elliott Gould portraying him as a pot-smoking slob in 1970s LA, while the reverential reworkings of Farewell My Lovely (1975) and The Big Sleep (1978) cast Robert Mitchum as a crumpled, middle-aged Marlowe. James Garner had a crack at the character in the 1969 Marlowe, while back in 1947, the actor Robert Montgomery made an admirable attempt at recreating for the cinema the first person viewpoint of The Lady in the Lake by having the camera/viewer as detective.

By far the best adaptations of Chandler’s Philip Marlowe novels, however, are The Big Sleep 1946) and Murder, My Sweet (1944), based on the book Farewell My Lovely. Both films met with Chandler’s approval, even though huge chunks of plot were lost as the stories were condensed for cinema audiences’ consumption.

The Big Sleep was rejigged at director Howard Hawks’s insistence so that the burgeoning romance between Marlowe and Mrs Rutledge onscreen – and Bogie and Bacall off it – was the main thread. But Chandler, who was the first to describe it as “a detective yarn that happens to be more interested in people than plot”, didn’t mind and actually felt that Humphrey Bogart was the ideal Marlowe. “Bogart can be tough without a gun,” he said. “Also, he has a sense of humour that contains that grating undertone of contempt.”

However, Dick Powell’s Marlowe in Murder, My Sweet is pretty impressive too – especially when you consider that instead of being established as a tough guy, Powell had to shake off his image as the crooning, goody-two-shoes hero of a string of 1930s Busby Berkeley musicals. In addition to its stylish direction – by the about-to-be blacklisted Edward Dmytryk – it boasts a terrific script which was able to utilise excerpts of Chandler’s brilliant prose by retaining Marlowe as its narrator.

And it doesn’t get much better than this: “‘OK, Marlowe,’ I said to myself. ‘You’re a tough guy. You’ve been sapped twice, choked, beaten silly with a gun, shot in the arm till you’re as crazy as a couple of waltzing mice. Now, let’s see you do something really tough – like putting your pants on.'”

 
CHANDLER TRIVIA
* Walter Neff, the character played by Fred MacMurray in Double Indemnity, was also the name of the local newspaper editor in The Witches of Eastwick (1987)
* Fred MacMurray only got the part of Neff after Wilder had been round the houses trying to find an actor willing to play the sap of an insurance salesman. Among those who turned it down were George Raft. As MacMurray later said: “If he’d got Bogart or somebody like that, the audience would have known instantly that the couple were going to knock off the husband.”
* Billy Wilder wasn’t the only director to have a hellish time working with Chandler. Alfred Hitchcock binned the screenplay that Chandler wrote for Strangers on a Train (1951) after the pair failed to see eye to eye.

* Two less well-known 1940s films were based on the Philip Marlowe story The High Window: Time to Kill (1942) – which starred Lloyd Nolan (best remembered now as the father in the 1986 film Hannah and Her Sisters) and was one of the Michael Shayne series of movies – and The Brasher Doubloon (1947), which starred George Montgomery as Philip Marlowe.

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Paris Blues & Highs

I was down in London yesterday to interview the mysterious jazz singer and guitarist Madeleine Peyroux whom I last interviewed by phone in 2005, just as her cultish CD Careless Love was on the verge of exploding into the mainstream (it topped the charts in August of that year).
One of the main subjects we chatted about was Peyroux’s time as a busker in Paris. Turns out she was there, singing and working as the “hat passer” for a group of street musicians in and around the Latin Quarter at exactly the same time as I was bunking off my 12-hour week as an English language “assistante” to go and watch old movies in the Latin Quarter – the cinemas in the rue des Ecoles, to be precise. (I do have a vague recollection of listening to a group of jazz-playing buskers at the St Michel fountain – and I may have bought a tape of them…)
I probably saw more old movies on the big screen during that year than in the rest of my life: they showed seasons devoted to the Marx Brothers (and you haven’t lived until you’ve watched Duck Soup in the company of like-minded strangers), Ernst Lubitsch, Billy Wilder, Astaire and Rogers, Frank Capra. This was where I saw Love in the Afternoon the one and only time ever, and ogled William Holden up close (in Sabrina) for the first time…
That year in France was one of abject poverty – until I got myself a summer job. But despite having no money, I did alright in the jazz stakes. During a trip back to Glasgow, I went to a concert at the late, lamented Glasgow Society of Musicians, a cavernous club, reeking with history (I think that’s what it was, anyway) behind an anonymous, speakeasy-style door on Berkeley Street. There I heard the American cornettist Warren Vache who struck up a conversation with my father and me. Upon learning of my imminent return to Paris, he told me to contact a pal of his, the trumpeter Alain Bouchet. And so I found myself at my first Parisian jazz club, nursing one Perrier (shared with my pal Siobhan) from 10pm-2am and then having to stay awake in the Pub St-Germain-des-Pres until the first RER train back to the suburbs at 6am. (Taxis were not an option – they cost money.) These were the lengths I had to go to back then to get my jazz fix.
I almost overdosed a couple of months later when, at the height of the Parisian summer, I crossed the city to attend the jazz festival at La Villette, the old abattoir, which, for one magical night, played host to the Newport All-Stars (with Warren, Scott Hamilton, etc) and the Re-birth of the Cool band, led by the great Gerry Mulligan – whose Glasgow concerts four years earlier had converted me from dabbler to devotee of this music….
* Madeleine Peyroux’s new CD, Bare Bones, is out now on Decca/Rounder – and my interview with her should be in The Herald Magazine on Saturday May 9th…

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