Behind the Curtain: The Three C’s (Part 3)


In this final post on the subject of “The Three C’s”,  three categories behind the scenes that enhance and make truly memorable what we see onscreen, I now come to what some would regard as the least important of the three, and what others may regard as what really ‘makes’ the movie, particularly movies from the Golden Age. What ‘C’ would this be? It would be the costume designer.

To put some perspective on this for those who may find this category nonessential in comparison to the previously discussed work of the cinematographer and the composer, it must be admitted that for many lovers of old movies part of the appeal is looking at the clothing worn by the stars of yesteryear, particularly movies of the ’30’s and ’40’s. They instantly evoke glamour, an attitude, a look that defines the character or the star that plays them, in many cases for years to come. From the trenchcoat and fedora of Humphrey Bogart which perfectly characterized  the tough-guy image that made him a superstar, to the sartorial splendor of Cary Grant (pictured above) setting the standard for well-dressed men even today, the influence has been profound. Along with the glorious gowns, dresses and stunning business suits worn by every major female star of the ’30s and ’40s in one film after another, movies of that era created an allure just through the costumes,  greatly adding to the timeless appeal of that period of moviemaking.

This was all due to the work and influence of the top costume designers in Hollywood who worked on just about every film you may know and love from that era-talents such as Orry-Kelly at Warner Brothers, Walter Plunkett at RKO, Adrian as well as Helen Rose and Irene at MGM, Jean Louis at Columbia, freelancer and 5-time Oscar winner Irene Sharaff (who, besides designing costumes for “the King and I”, also convinced Yul Brynner to shave his head), and perhaps the most well-known one of all, Edith Head, who worked primarily at Paramount during her heyday and later moved on to Universal. Though she worked with just about every major female star in Hollywood at one time or another and was nominated for and won more Oscars than any other woman in history, creating looks that have become legendary (such as Bette Davis and her dress in “All About Eve” pictured with Gary Merrill above)  her work with Alfred Hitchcock may be the most remembered: Grace Kelly’s breathtaking wardrobe in both “Rear Window” and “To Catch a Thief” (Grace Kelly pictured above from both films), along with Kim Novak’s iconic gray suit in “Vertigo” build on what already makes those movies so memorable. Add to this Orry-Kelly’s eye-popping designs for the top women at Warners such as Kay Francis (pictured above) and  Bette Davis, and Adrian’s image-defining work with Joan Crawford at MGM (Joan Crawford pictured above in “Grand Hotel” with Wallace Beery) along with the opulent “Marie Antoinette” and “The Women” (with a color fashion show in the middle of the movie that shows off his work!) and we get some idea of why what was seen on screen at the time set a standard  for sophistication and glamour that has stood the test of time.

With that being said, there are a couple of lesser-known designers who also did great work during that period, and even though their names may not be as recognizable, their contributions are, allowing their talent to stand alongside their more famous peers during the most stylish period in movie history. They are as follows:

(1) Dolly Tree- A leading costume designer at MGM during the 1930’s, her versatility allowed her to work on projects as diverse as the chic “The Thin Man” (William Powell and Myrna Loy pictured above) and the underappreciated great comedy “Libeled Lady” (pictured above) to historical epics such as “the Good Earth” and “David Copperfield”.  She became famous for dressing the major actresses of the studio such as Myrna Loy, Mae West, and Jean Harlow (One of Dolly Tree’s gowns pictured above, being modeled by Maureen O’Sullivan) . Although eventually overshadowed in fame and popularity by Adrian, she helped create and maintain the style and glamour of costume that MGM became famous for, a standard that remains to this day.

(2) Travilla (pictured above with Diahann Carroll) William Travilla,  always billed as just ‘Travilla’, designed gowns for many established stars while working at 20th Century Fox. However, it was his work with one particular star that established his legacy if not his name-Marilyn Monroe.  He designed the clothes for eight of her more popular movies, including “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes” (Marilyn on phone pictured above), “How To Marry a Millionaire” (Monroe with co-stars Lauren Bacall, Betty Grable, and William Powell pictured above), and the most famous one of all where a certain white cocktail dress met a subway grate and the rest is history in “The Seven Year Itch”.  An Oscar winner in 1949 for one of Errol Flynn’s solid late-career swashbucklers, “Adventures of Don Juan”, his contributions have made a lasting imprint on movie history and his work with Monroe makes his impact undeniable.

The last three posts have hopefully shed a little more light on some of the dedicated craftspeople who have toiled in the background to bring what is onscreen to vivid life. So as opposed to paying “no attention to the man behind the curtain” as the Wizard of Oz said, keep them in mind when watching your favorites from the past, and you may hear or (you might know what’s coming so pardon the pun) ‘C’ more fully what you may have been missing all along.


About bjbradford

An avid collector of classic movies for over 20 years ranging from the silent era through the early 1960's, from the justly famous to the unjustly obscure and quite a bit in between.
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