Blog Archive

18 April 2018

Fred Astaire, Radical

Radical fashion iconoclast, that is.

Teenage Fred in suit, with straw hat, gloves, and stick

It's hard to write about Fred Astaire, just because he was so great that superlatives don't seem adequate. How can you describe the originality, the grace, the precision, the line? You really can't. You can only say the world is a much better place for our being able to see those things, that a life working hard to create loveliness only he could create was a boon to us all. He kept his public persona low-key, but he never let anyone talk him into doing anything vulgar, cheap, or ugly. He makes us proud to be human beings. 

But on a lighter note, besides being probably the greatest dancer who ever lived, a choreographer of stunning originality, a subtle, intelligent, and influential singer, entrepreneur (Fred Astaire Dance Studios), and champion racehorse owner, Fred Astaire was a men's fashion icon.

From his earliest days as a musical comedy star, partnering his sister Adele, Fred was an elegant dresser. His slight figure -- I don't think he ever weighed more than 135 pounds in his life -- was perfect to carry off men's high fashion of the times. As young adults, the Astaires were extremely popular in London, and took their hit shows to West End theaters, residing in Britain for several months out of the year. During this time Fred became a devotee of the best British tailoring, usually found in the shopping district known as Burlington Arcade. There he could stock up on fine wool suits, tweed jackets, silk ties and ascots, and (of course) custom made shirts. But that was just step one; once he had the materials, it was how he combined the basic elements that made him a fashion leader.

At the studio:

Astaire wears a 3-piece suit, suede shoes, with a gold collar pin and watchchain

Casual at home:

Off screen, tweed jacket, gray flannel slacks, yellow sweater vest, and brown suede shoes

In those days -- and indeed up until the 1960's -- men's high fashion was subtler than women's. In fact, subtlety was an important value; brashness and sharp changes of silhouette were frowned on. Unlike the swings from narrow long skirts to exaggerated padded shoulders to full, multi-petticoat skirts that marked women's fashion from 1933 to 1960, the changes in the basic shape of menswear were less obvious. Since the long ago days of Beau Brummell, elegance for men had to be unobtrusive, only seen by those who looked for it. Today this seems odd -- in fact it seems downright weird -- but keep in mind that a prominent mystery writer in the 1930's had her detective determine that a character was insane because he wore a very loud waistcoat.*

In the 1940's, a chalk striped double breasted suit, coordinated tie and handkerchief, fedora hat

The hallmark of Fred Astaire's creativity as a fashion icon, like his choreography and his singing, was refinement, a combination of extreme attention to detail, flair, and excellence in performance. Astaire never really enjoyed his signature top hat, white tie, and tails, and I think at least part of the reason was that the requirements for formal evening dress were so rigid that little self-expression was possible. Except in one respect; if you look closely, you'll see a set of beautiful diamond and ruby studs on his pristine white shirtfront when he wears formal dress. He had these studs custom made in London in the 1920's, by a jeweler recommended to him by the Prince of Wales.

At the racetrack -- notice the striped suit, striped shirt, and striped tie -- very daring!

When he arrived in Hollywood he was already established (for those who noticed such things) as exceptionally stylish. It's a little known fact that, unless a film had a historic or fantastic setting, male stars usually provided their own wardrobe, coordinated with the overall design scheme by consultation with the costume designer. So most of the incredibly snazzy clothes you see Astaire wearing are his. In publicity photos and scenes from his films, you can see the careful combinations of suit, shirt, tie, pocket handkerchief, hat, shoes, and even socks. Some of his innovations were knit vests and two-tone or suede shoes. Again, these seem trivial today, but they were positive statements of free-spiritedness. His more striking touches can be seen in casual and rehearsal clothes, such as his wearing a silk tie or ascot as a belt -- a truly radical move!

Rehearsal clothes -- notice the silk scarf instead of a belt

One of my favorite examples of Astaire's attention to detail is this scene from The Band Wagon, 1953, where he sings "I'll Go My Way by Myself" on the railroad platform, wearing a light grey double breasted suit, light blue shirt, and light blue tie, with his dark red and navy pocket handkerchief coordinated with his hatband! (All of his clothes in The Band Wagon are sheer poetry.) Thirty years later, in the celebration of Hollywood musicals called That's Entertainment, Astaire appeared on the same railroad platform set -- wearing a coordinated outfit.

The Band Wagon, 1953

On the set of The Band Wagon, 30 years later

Of course, it's difficult to tear your attention away from the dancing, but if you do you see yet another demonstration of Fred Astaire's superlative attention to detail, grace, and style, in almost any film of his you watch.

Astaire kept his interest in style all his life and our last memories of him are of an extremely natty gentleman, always. I'm sure that's how he wanted it.

Still looking good in his later years

* This happens in Death of a Ghost, by Margery Allingham, published in 1934.

23 March 2018

Beyond Ambition, Beyond Success: Franchot Tone and Joan Crawford

Joan Crawford and Franchot Tone photographed by George Hurrell

"A man's reach should be beyond his grasp, or what's a heaven for?" Robert Browning.


Joan Crawford is still a controversial figure to some classic film fans, largely, as everyone knows, because of posthumous book written about her by her adopted daughter and the sensational movie made from it. I don't usually write about stars' private lives in this blog. It is difficult enough to judge the reality of relationships of people you actually know; I think it's impossible to know the truth about intimate relations of people long dead.

But I do feel that Joan Crawford has gotten quite a raw deal, and I base this conclusion not on gossip or newly revealed secrets but on what she actually did. I'm specifically referring to her lifelong relationship with Franchot Tone, who was her husband foe a few years, but who remained part of her life until his death from cancer at the age of 63.

It's little wonder that their marriage was hard to sustain; it would have been difficult to find two people with more different backgrounds. Crawford came from a hardscrabble, lower-class background, often denigrated in those days as "white trash." Her mother worked as a laundress, and her father deserted the family when she was a child. Crawford had to work her way through school, but never graduated from high school. All her life she regretted her lack of formal education. She recalled reading scripts with a dictionary by her side, because she didn't understand so many of the words used.

Crawford's beauty, talent, and determination led to early success in Hollywood but she still struggled with feelings of social inferiority. She blamed this social inadequacy for the failure of her marriage to Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., (with whom she also remained friends). She said at that stage in her life she never enjoyed a dinner party, because she was always worried about which fork to use.

Franchot Tone and Charles Laughton in Mutiny on the Bounty

Crawford, like Mae West, was her own creation. From a plumpish little starlet and the perfect flapper of the 1920's to the shop girl's delight and fashion leader of the 1930's to the composed, adult working woman of the 1940's and beyond, Crawford remade herself with iron determination and a real instinct for style. Her figure became svelte and graceful, she completely retrained her speaking voice, lowering it by an octave and inventing for herself a classy but region-free accent. The hard working little teenager scrubbing floors in Texas transformed herself into a convincing symbol of elegance and glamour.

Franchot Tone came from a wealthy, cultured background; the scion of an old family with pre-Revolutionary roots in the northeast, he attended prep school and Cornell University. He left this secure environment for New York City and life as an actor, and became one of the founding members of the progressive Group Theater, along with Lee Strasberg, Harold Clurman, and Cheryl Crawford.  When Hollywood called he went west, but continued to support the group financially.

Franchot Tone and Joan Crawford with their dogs

Tone met with early success in Hollywood, bringing great skill and intelligence to his roles, as well  as a unique personality. From the start he managed to avoid type casting, playing a wide range of  roles. He was nominated for an Academy Award for his work in Mutiny on the Bounty in 1935, the same year he and Joan Crawford married.

From this distance, it seems like marriage of great innocence and optimism. You can see what they saw in each other, and you can also see the seeds of the problems they were eventually unable to overcome. First among these was the fact that Crawford was at her height as a top box-office star; Tone was being cast as a second lead as often as not. He also began to drink heavily, not all the time but it was still a strain. Crawford put it succinctly, "husbands don't like second billing."

They were very much in love. One thing they shared was a yearning for continuing education; Tone, who had a wonderful speaking voice, studied classical singing. They studied Shakespeare together. They shared an interest in progressive theater, and attended the opening night of the precedent shattering Dead End together, a stunning and inspiring experience.

Crawford later wondered if their marriage might have worked if she had given up her career. But she couldn't really do this. Work meant more to her than anything else. Eventually the strains became too much, and they divorced in 1939.

Both Tone and Crawford went on to other serious relationships and other marriages, but apparently they remained close friends. As the decades went on, both relocated to New York City. Tone did some important work in early television, especially in the first broadcast of 12 Angry Men. Crawford, as the widow of the company's chairman, famously took on promotional duties for Pepsi Cola.

In the 1950's

Tone became ill with lung cancer in the late 1950's. As his condition worsened, Crawford took charge of his care, made sure he had appropriate medical treatment. and even had him stay in her apartment. When he passed away in 1968, she supervised funeral arrangements as he would have wished. having his ashes scattered in one of his favorite natural spots.

I've always found this story very moving. These two accomplished, dedicated people could not be everything they wanted to be; nobody wants to be divorced four times. But whatever had happened between them, they could forgive each other and be true to the love they had shared. In her autobiography she described him as "a beautiful person," and as very much the finer actor. You can see respect and affection in the way they look at each other in these photos.

Joan Crawford in the 1960's

Franchot Tone in the 1960's

25 February 2018

The Fight for Truth: Paul Muni in The Story of Louis Pasteur

Paul Muni as Louis Pasteur demonstrates his microscope to the court

Coming Up Next Week on TCM: The Story of Louis Pasteur, 1936

The Story of Louis Pasteur is not just an enjoyable movie, it's an informative and important movie. We're used to the format now, but this was one of the first serious biographies about an important cultural figure produced by Hollywood. True, Warner Brothers made some successful biographies starring the established stage star, George Arliss, but these were based on conventional "well-made" plays intended for entertainment purposes, not historical accuracy. Other early biographical films, such as The Lady With Red Hair (about the actress Mrs. Leslie Carter), Mata Hari, and Annie Oakley hardly bothered with any facts at all. Warner's "modern" biographies included up-to-date research, and when this approach proved popular at the box office, other studios followed.

Feeling that audiences needed a dramatic story to hold onto, with heroes and villains, even if there weren't any in real life, screenwriters William Gibney and Pierre Collings incorporated fictional happenings into the tale of Louis Pasteur's real scientific discoveries. They used these dramatic events to show the real struggle between conventional society and the changes engendered by scientific progress. The first big problem Pasteur tackled was what was called "child-bed fever," which was a deadly sepsis frequently developed by new mothers, nearly always fatal to the mother and often the child. Pasteur proved it was caused by infectious microbes transmitted by doctors' unwashed hands and instruments. This assertion was greeted with a storm of outrage from medical professionals. Most doctors didn't understand or believe in the whole concept of microbes, or that what they called "invisible animals" could cause disease. Pasteur, who was not in fact a medical doctor but a chemist, could do little to break through the solid wall of institutional resistance to change. His insistence that conventional medical practices led to thousands of unnecessary deaths made him powerful enemies. The fictional character of the haughty Dr. Charbonnet, who dogs Pasteur's footsteps for years, embodies these enemies.

Paul Muni is superb as Louis Pasteur; he shows the essential tough-mindedness of the true scientist. Critics and politics are ephemeral annoyances; only the truth matters. Muni had been an actor since his early teens, and probably never heard of such things before, but he explains with precision and authority scientific principles such as controlled experiments, which Pasteur employed to demonstrate the effectiveness of his world-changing anthrax vaccine. Anthrax decimated herds of sheep and cattle for centuries in the important food-producing areas of France. Pasteur's discovery of an effective vaccine, and his ability to prove it through a publicly observed test (a herd of sheep was divided into two groups and one group was vaccinated, while the other was not). relieved near famine conditions for the poor, and even prevented armed conflict in Europe over resources that had seemed to be growing scarcer and scarcer.

The cast is terrific. Muni gives us a sophisticated, skeptical Pasteur. very French, with a wry, understated sense of humor. Josephine Hutchinson is an intelligent, self-effacing Madame Pasteur, Anita Louise lovely as always as their daughter, who eventually marries another scientist, played by Donald Woods. Fritz Leiber is very effective as the conniving Dr. Charbonnet, Halliwell Hobbes is the great English scientist Dr. Lister.

Akim Tamiroff has a key role in a very striking part of the story, which is true -- a delegation from Russia arrives to beg Pasteur to find a treatment for rabies. Rabies was rampant among the animals in Russian forests and easily infected humans who came in contact with them. With some reluctance, the Pasteur Institute takes on the task, which is complicated by the fact that rabies is extremely contagious, and, in those days, always fatal. Even obtaining samples for study was dangerous. This leads to some very authentic science scenes; the investigators pretty much throw caution to the winds, handling cultures and samples with awe-inspiring recklessness (precautions are for other people). I'm sure that's exactly what they did.

Warner Bros. progressive political agenda shows through. In Germany, the Nazis were trying to establish "alternate facts," and rewrite reality with their "scientific" theories of racial superiority. The fact that one stubborn, unconventional thinker who bowed to no one solved the deadly mysteries of three scourges of humanity, rabies, anthrax, and childbed fever, says something about science, and how it must be done -- freely, with the ability to follow the truth wherever it leads. No societal pressures can be allowed to deter free thought and investigation. It also shows exactly what the Nazis didn't like about it.

This was an important film when it was released in 1936; the New York Times review considered it a landmark in the ability of film to educate and inform. It won a plethora of awards, including three Academy Award nominations, including picture, best screenplay. and best actor, which Paul Muni won. It also won the best foreign film award at the Venice Film Festival, and was included in many top ten lists. Even more to the point, from Warner Brothers point of view, it was one of the top-ten grossing films of the year, which inspired the studio produce more such biographies. Other studios took notice, too, and a golden era of movie biographies began, including such classics as The Life of Emile Zola (also starring Paul Muni), The Great Garrick, Parnell (which was MGM's first try, and it was awful), Conquest, Boys Town, Marie Antoinette (in which MGM proved they could still outspend anyone), The Buccaneer, Suez, and more.

The real Louis Pasteur