Monday, April 28, 2014

Setting and Color in "Auntie Mame" (1958)

I know I've said it before, but even after all these years of watching classic film, Auntie Mame is still one of my favorite movies of all time. How could it not be? With an endearing story, timeless humor, and Rosalind Russell, who doesn't fall in love with the film that's all about learning to "LIVE! LIVE! LIVE!" And, to top it all off, the film is a visual delight. The set in Auntie Mame is simply "top drawer-" there's no other way to succinctly describe it. So, I'm dedicating this post to those beautiful sets and how those sets helped set the mood of the film in general.
1.The Oriental Phase
I'm not alone in my praise of the set of Auntie Mame. Famously, the film redecorated the central staircase to reflect Mame's changes of styles and moods. I want to talk more about the paintings on the wall and the color schemes used in the different apartment designs rather than simply focus on how the staircase and the chandelier's changes signaled a mild change in Mame's personality. 
2.The Blue Period
As a true Mame-iac, I'm familiar with the novel, play, film, musical, and (unfortunately) the musical film (I do love Lucy, but not that much). In the novel, Mame's home changes throughout the novel because she moves all over New York as her economic status changes. She moves from Beekman Place right after the Stock Market crash in '29 and ultimately ends up setting up camp in several rooms of the St. Regis Hotel after she marries Beau. But in the play (and later in the film), Mame simply stays at No. 3 Beekman Place. Instead of the whole house (and set) changing, her decorations change instead. It's rather brilliant, very practical (in a stage sense) and makes for a very interesting setting analysis. 
3.The Genteel Mourning Stage
Before I start, I have a few confessions to make. The first is that I'm not going to focus in on each of the decor changes. That would be extremely time consuming and, besides, I am not qualified to be a strict judge of decor. Secondly, despite my best efforts, I have been unable to identify any of the paintings or decor in the film. I'm going to keep looking and I'll keep you up to date if I find anything. However, for the purpose of this post, we're looking much more broadly at decor anyway so individual pieces are less important than the composition created by uniting the group of paintings or sculptures, etc. There will be a companion post to this analysis, showing and describing individual pieces in hopes that some helpful member of the art or film history community can help out. 
4.Classical Literary Phase
Auntie Mame transitions time by focusing in on set changes. Throughout the film, there are iconic shots when the camera focuses in on the chandelier (or what's in its place) and then slides down the stairwell to reveal the rest of the decor. Obviously, these decorative changes represent the changes of Mame's interests and personality. When Patrick first meets her, she is in her "Oriental stage" and the decor is clearly Chinese with a 1920s twist- lots of lacquered wood and decorative dragons. But at the same time as the paint and furniture changes, Mame's individual fashion (which is uniquely incredible) with the sets, something which is incredibly significant. There are a number of effects to these extreme costume changes. 
5.The Exotic Modernism
First, Mame looks great in almost every scene despite the alterations in her hair, dress, jewelry- she just shines. Which is, of course, credit to the brilliantly wonderful Rosalind Russell. Mame's matching home and fashion create a feeling of unity with her apartment. They equally reflect each other's styles. At the same time, Mame looks incredibly comfortable and at home in her apartment- no matter the style. Even when she's in her traditional, staid literary phase, she manages to find a perfectly wonderful, uniquely modern outfit that still manages to fit in with the interior design. This, I think, is a bit of subtle characterization by the set designers. Mame is perfectly at ease wherever she is which is part of her undeniable charm. Visually, we immediately recognize it and grow to appreciate it as we see her character develop. 

I'm going to start focusing in on a few individual set designs and explicate this idea further.Before I get much further, though, I just want to give credit to the cinematic geniuses behind the look of Auntie Mame.
Set Designer: George James Hopkins
Costume Designer: Orry-Kelly 

1. Mame's Blue Period (ca. 1929)
A costume sketch by Orry-Kelly 
Like I said earlier, when Patrick first comes to New York, Mame is in the midst of Mame's Orientalism. But, in a few weeks, perhaps transformed by Patrick, she redesigns the apartment. In my opinion, this is the best the apartment looks throughout the whole film. Dominated by gentle shades of blue, gray, and purple, No. 3 Beekman Place is just so sophisticated- I love it. In my opinion (and I've been wrong before), it is a mix of Art Deco elements and mild classical elements (I'm thinking of those classical urns framing the doorway).

Everything is offset with beautiful white accessories and soft furniture in the color scheme. But it is also decidedly modern: the movers are seen fixing an abstract painting (in the color scheme, of course) to the wall and there are several Cubist paintings evident. One of my favorite changes in the film's decor is how the stair's baulestrade changes with each style switch. It is just kind of fun to notice

The Blue Period also eventually fits Mame's mood. Out of money from the Crash, she keeps the apartment in its blue glory until she meets and marries Beau. (How she is able to afford the two story apartment is honestly beyond me). It doesn't take a genius to know that blue symbolizes sad and there are several heartbreaking scenes in the apartment during this decorative phase. The room fits Mame's mood when Mr. Babcock takes Patrick away and later when she is desperately trying to keep a job.

I wish I could identify the paintings on the walls, but unfortunately, I am pretty certain that they are studio originals. They were probably put in a prop warehouse and appear in a plethora of films. Patrick does change one painting- a so-called Picasso- to make it more Christmas-y: he adds a funny beard which probably devalues the painting by millions, but no matter. Mame has a great line when she calls the painting a example of Picasso's "Black and Blue period:" an obvious joke about Picasso's real life Blue Period.
Mame's wardrobe matches the apartment and likewise her mood. In that devastating scene when Mr. Babcock takes Patrick, Mame is left alone in that beautiful blue fur coat. That outfit is simply stunning and makes Ros look great! But even later, when Mame returns to the apartment after being fired from Macy's at Christmas, she is dressed in a simple, but chic, blue dress. Despite everything that happens to her, Mame fits her surroundings perfectly. She makes life work for her, which is the strength of her character.

2. The Classic Literary Phase (ca. 1940)
Mame stops being blue when she meets Beau and is rescued financially and romantically. At the same time, she ends her mellow blue period. After all, she can return to her old habit of spending with Beau. After her marriage, she goes through a Southern phase, whose effect on the apartment goes unseen. After Beau dies, Patrick (and Vera?) redecorate the apartment into a very traditional and flowery design: an exuberant mix of Rococo and Classicism. But, I'm focusing on her literary phase- which itself is a tasteful mix of styles. There's a little American Federalism, Neoclassicism, and all-round very traditional, very staid design choices.
The color scheme for this phase of Mame's life is clearly... shades of toast (a phrase Patrick Dennis himself coined). There are light tans and rich browns offset by the neutral whites and beiges. There is beautiful woodwork- both traditional mahogany and painted white. The fireplaces are much more ornate. And there are books and bookshelves everywhere. Look at the picture at the very top, those rows of matching volumes- absolutely beautiful. Books can be so decorate, can't they? (That's an ironic reference to the film).


The inspiration for this design is a little muddled. Sometimes, it reminds me of a British men's club with all the dark wood and traditional furniture, but somehow I don't think that the Irish bum O'Banion would have brought that on. I think that the set designers were simply looking for a very academic setting for Mame in her literary phase and this very traditional, Federalist style worked.


I'm going to write a companion post about the paintings (which I am unable to identify), but I can tell you that they are an interesting mix. In this set alone, I notice an early 19th-century American portrait, late-17th century European portraits (on the staircase), a 20th century portrait (almost definitely from a former studio film), a Dutch floral piece, and a 17th or 18th century animal painting. There are also Federalism American motifs, such as a beautiful carved Federal eagle above the fireplace.
I love Mame's costumes in this phase of her life. You really have to hand it to Orry-Kelly- he covers such a variety of colors, fabrics, and styles in this film alone. And they all really work. Mame's costumes in her literary phase are boldly modern and practical (those fabulous tights and flowing robes) but they still manage to fit in with the setting, which is incredible. In the first outfit we see Mame in, maybe its the pseudo-tuxedo look, but she just looks like a natural literary figure marching around the house giving Agnes orders and giving us another quick view of her apartment. And her second outfit- that wonderful sequined brown outfit- is the perfect match to the apartment's color scheme. Watch the famous "Life is a Banquet" scene again- you'll notice that Mame matches the painting behind her perfectly.
The result of this period of Mame's life is obvious. She is diving full into her memoirs and following in the footsteps of the great... or at least trying. You really can't beat that shot of her leaning against a Shakespeare bust. But at the same time, she is doing it her way- modern, unique, and a little madcap- but wonderful all the same.

3. The Exotic Modernism
I wish I knew more about the production design because I would love to know who exactly designed the specifics pieces in this phase of Mame's life. I don't want to focus too much into this wonderful Yul Oolu design but I do love it dearly. I know Mame's motive for this design is to stick it to the Upsons, but I still love the modernism of it. My favorite piece is that Calder-esqe mobile that Pegeen has so much trouble hanging up and which brings Patrick and her together. 
It's in this modernist setting that Mame seems the most comfortable in. With that beautiful, sparkling outfit with that beautiful green shawl, Rosalind Russell has never looked more stunning. Of course, that scene also has some of the funniest dialogue in the whole film and makes it completely worth waiting for. But, to return to the costume- doesn't it seem that Mame fits in perfectly? The sparkles of her outfit match the sparkles of that fabulously bizarre sculpture in the center of the staircase. Most wonderful of all, though, Mame has become the center of attention that scene. Her sparkling silver outfit (which matches her personality) and her green wrap stand out of the linear browns of the apartment and the browns,whites, and blacks of the rest of the dinner guests. Which is what we, the audience, want by the end of the film because we've completely fallen in love with her.

4. Indian Stage
At the very end of the film, we get this very brief look at Patrick's married life when he brings his young son to visit his Auntie Mame. At this point, Mame is in an Indian stage, dressed in a sparkling gold sari with an apartment with a gold-motif that matches her perfectly. Mame may in her golden years (literally), but her charm and her style (albeit changing) are still constant. I've always noticed how, at the very end, when Mame is leading Michael up the stairs, she matches perfectly with the Buddha in the Indian temple on the staircase's wallpaper. Is she perhaps leading Michael up the steps of Enlightenment? 
Mame is one of the great characters of film history due in large part to the talent of the incredible Rosalind Russell. But Auntie Mame is one of the great films because it is so all-round perfect: funny, heartwarming, and beautiful. And it is made beautiful by the unity of the costumes of Mame and her equally stunning and matching setting. She fits in, she feels comfortable, she is simply... wonderful. 

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Cleopatra and Katniss: Influences on Costume

I wrote a while back about the fascist and Soviet influence on the production design of "the Hunger Games." I mentioned extensively the influence of the Roman Empire, especially how the Roman influence on fascist architecture and design tricked down into the film's production design of the Capitol. But my observations about the Hunger Games aren't limited to the design of the fictitious city. How could I claim any literary merit if I wasn't attracted to the influences of the characters themselves? Especially when the main character is as dynamic as Jennifer Lawrence's Katniss.
I read an interesting article in Time last week about the growing popularity of the strong female protagonist in young adult fiction (citing the Hunger Games and the Divergent series as evidence of this growing trend). Interestingly enough, the article cited the influences of characters like Alice or Dorothy as important in shaping strong women like Katniss. But if my visual hunch is correct, the filmmakers identified a more interesting historical source with some more troubling consequences.
They both even had intense parades!
Because, it didn't take me too long to see the similarities between the visual appearance of Katniss and the appearance of Liz Taylor's Cleopatra. Maybe its the scope of the work or the looming Roman influence, but for some reason, when I saw Katniss's Capitol costumes in Catching Fire, I immediately thought of that famous (or is it infamous?) epic Cleopatra. And its not just because they start with the letter "C."
Don't get me wrong, Cleopatra and Katniss are very different characters. I'm not going to attempt to connect them thematically. But, it seems that, costume-wise at least, they share some visual connection. And why not? In the Capitol, opulence is the defining characteristic in every aspect and what is more opulent (cinematically at least) than Cleopatra. With a budget of millions, cast of thousands, and stars to die for (Liz, Robert, Rex... just to name a few)- what is more opulent than Cleopatra. The movie might be a few hours too long with some overacting, but it is a thing of visual beauty. And those costumes! Wasn't Liz's jewelry alone worth more than most of our homes? And how about the real gold dress? In terms of epics, Cleopatra is EPIC.
Sharaff with Taylor and the Phoenix dress
I mentioned the costumes with good reason. Tens of thousands of costumes were used in the film and Liz had over 60 costume changes. That is a lot of elaborate costumes to make. So, it isn't a surprise that the costume designers, Renie Conley, Irene Sharaff, and Vittoria Nino Novarese won the 1963 Academy Award for their costume designs. They may not have been the most historically accurate (I don't think anyone showed as much as Liz ever did) but they stressed the character and her great beauty and sexuality. In short, they were brilliant.

The main similarity I noted was between Katniss' Capitol party dress and Cleopatra's gold dress (made of 24-carat gold). After all, the situations are similar: a confident woman is thrown into a new, scary situation in grand style. What I really think that got me were the wings on both dresses. Cleo's dress makes her look like a beautifully rich golden eagle. Katniss always evokes the Mockingjay image. I'm not going to talk about her beautiful transforming wedding gown, but the wing motif is repeated there. I have to wonder whether the Catching Fire designer (Trish Summerville) was thinking of that gold dress when she was designing Katniss' gowns. You know I don't believe in coincidences.




But really, the similarities don't end there. Even Katniss' hair had an Egyptian vibe with all the elaborate braiding and gold beads. Couldn't have Liz's Cleo worn the same exact hair? These similarities can't be supported by fact, but you make your own observations. Are similar women in uncomfortable situations simply drawn to bird-related outfits, or is there a Cleopatra-influence on the Hunger Games. I think the odds may very well be in my favor.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Grace of Monaco Trailer: Homage to Grace

I can't help myself. I don't know if it is wrong or not, but I can't wait for the upcoming Olivier Dahan biopic about Grace Kelly, Grace of Monaco. I become crestfallen every time I hear news that its release is pushed off again. I know that her family has called it an over-romanticized version of her life, I know that Nicole Kidman may not be the perfect Grace, but I still want want to see it. Part of it comes from my love of Dahan's Academy Award-winning biopic of another legendary star, Edith Piaf, La Vie En Rose. I think we can all agree that that film was perfection, thanks in part to Marion Cotillard's incredible performance. But, back to Grace.
My opinion may completely change when I finally see the film (if Harvey Weinstein will allow me to). But as of now, I am sustained only by the recently released full trailer for the film. And I can't help it again: I love it all the more. And part of my new anticipation comes from the homages to Grace's great films that I recognize in the short trailer. If, in two minutes, I recognize obvious attempts to mimic Grace's film career, what will I recognize in a full feature film? You all know that I consider an homage to be one of the highest and purest forms of art in film. And what is better art to imitate than the wonderful Princess Grace.

I want to go over the specific homages that I've seen and you can make your mind up whether I'm crazily looking for connections or whether I'm just brilliant. Or, of course, there's the third option that I've spent too much time anxiously watching the brief moments of Kidman's Grace in the trailer.

1. The Car: To Catch a Thief

Now I actually recognized this in the teaser trailer, but the same clip also appears in the full trailer. It's a short shot of a convertible driving around the curves of a beautifully curvy road overlooking Monaco. It's a dramatic drive, and it is certainly very beautiful. At the same time, you can't help but recognize how Dahan is copying Hitchcock's technique to show that wonderful car chase scene in To Catch a Thief. Sure, TCAT is set in the French Riviera not Monaco, but it is close enough.

2. The Fireworks: To Catch a Thief


This is another fairly obvious Hitchcock homage. In the trailer, there is a scene of Rainier and Grace arguing in evening clothes in front of a window. And behind Grace, fireworks are going off in the background. Which is the most obvious Hitchcock homage ever. After all, the fireworks/love scene between Cary Grant and Grace Kelly in TCAT is probably one of the most famous love scenes he filmed (with the exception of Grace and Jimmy Stewart in Rear Window and Ingrid Bergman and Cary in Notorious). Grace and Fireworks: that's not even Hitchcock 101, it's more like Hitchcock 82.
In that scene, Nicole/Grace is wearing a stunning golden dress. I can't help but think that the dress is an homage to that fabulous gold dress that Grace wore in TCAT. Of course, in the film, it is an 18th century period dress, but I can't help but think that the beautiful gold is more than mere coincidence.

3. The Magazine: Rear Window


I've said it before, but Rear Window is my favorite film, period. So, I was very quick to pick up on a very brief clip where Grace is seen reading a fashion magazine outside. How classic Hitchcock is this? Who can forget the ending of Rear Window when Lisa puts down that travelogue and picks up that gorgeous fashion magazine?? I certainly can't! And obviously, neither could Dahan.

I also want to say that in that brief moment, perhaps thanks in part to its brevity, I really thought that Nicole fully looked like Grace. With the hair pulled back, and the glasses, and the perfect outfit, in that moment, she truly was Grace. Hopefully the film is full of more moments like that.

4. The Pool: High Society


This is the biggest stretch in the world. But there was just something about that pool that they show in the trailer-where Grace and Rainier are fighting, that just made me think of that great, classic pool scene in Grace's last film, High Society.

As you can tell, I am slightly obsessed with this movie. I cannot wait until it is released in the US. Grace is such a legendary star, she deserves to be memorialized in film, a medium she affected so much in so little time. Hopefully, Grace of Monaco, will live up to my expectations and her reputation.


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