Tag: classic film

classic film events london

Hollywood costumes come to London!

(Via the V&A)

On October 20, the Victoria & Albert Museum brought Hollywood filmmaking to the heart of London. Hollywood Costume, curated by designer and historian Deborah Nadoolman Landis (Raiders of the Lost Ark), is an ambitious and beautiful exhibition that illuminates the central role costume design has played throughout a century of Hollywood filmmaking. As a previous resident of southern California, I’ve seen a fair share of old Hollywood costumes before. I’ve even been lucky enough to try some on (it turns out that with enough sucking in, I’m the same size as Hedy Lamarr). But none of these experiences had prepared me for the sheer volume and awesome spectacle of this exhibition.

I met up with Zoe from Vagabond Language on a particularly cold day a couple weeks ago. Exhibitions are always more fun when you see them with someone else who enjoys the subject matter as much as you do. Several of the most iconic outfits in film history were on display. Most astonishingly, they weren’t behind glass cases, but out in the open with strategic lighting and projected images that made it seem as if we had stepped into a Technicolor fantasy.

The exhibition is arranged in three sections: Deconstruction (designer’s research), Dialogue (innovation and design), Finale (a huge mash-up of noteworthy designs).  There were costumes worn by everyone from Charlie Chaplin to Matt Damon – Mary Pickford to Meryl Streep and just about everyone in between; we’re talking Hedy Lamarr, Carole Lombard, Elizabeth Taylor, Johnny Depp, Greta Garbo, Kate Winslet, Barbra Streisand, Judy Garland – they even had the original ruby slippers from The Wizard of Oz shipped over from the Smithsonian.

vivien leigh gwtw dresses

While I enjoyed the full range of costumes on offer, there were two that particularly stood out to me. These were the green curtain dress and  red ostrich feather dress worn by Vivien Leigh as Scarlett O’Hara in Gone with the Wind, which were among those recently restored by the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas. This exhibition marks the first time the costumes have been in the UK since the 1940s and it was surreal to view them up close. I’d seen a version of the green dress at the Atlanta History Center back in 2009, but was quite unprepared for the vision of the red dress. Major kudos to the people who did the restoration. It looks absolutely stunning. It also reaffirms the fact that Vivien Leigh’s waist was smaller than my thigh.

Aside from ogling at the artistry on display, I was quite surprised to see that many of the older costumes came from a select few collectors or costume companies in Los Angeles and Asia. It must have taken quite a while for the curators to track all of them down, let along negotiate for them to be shipped to London.

Whether you’re in to fashion, film or plain old nostalgia, Hollywood Costume has something for everyone and should be on the top of every tourist’s list of things to see and do in London.

*Hollywood Costume runs until January 27, 2013. Advance bookings strongly recommended.


classic film

Back to Titanic: A Night to Remember

Titanic at Queenstown Ireland

The RMS Titanic sails into Queenstown, Ireland before heading out to sea

On April 10, 1912, the RMS Titanic set sail from Southampton on her ill-fated maiden voyage to New York.  Built in Belfast by Harland and Wolff, Titanic and her sister ships the RMS Olympic and HMHS Britannic were the pride and joy of Liverpool’s White Star Line shipping company headed by J. Bruce Ismay and American financial tycoon J.P. Morgan. The ships were designed to be the last word in luxury transatlantic travel, and were in fierce competition with Cunard, based in Southampton (Cunard’s Lusitania was famously torpedoed and sunk by a German U-boat during the First World War). Not only was Titanic the largest and fastest passenger liner at sea, she was hailed as “unsinkable” — a towering metaphor for power and optimism during the industrial age.

More famous than the ship itself was the sad fate that befell it. In the late hours of April 14, 1912, Titanic struck an iceberg off the freezing coast of Newfoundland and sank, killing over 1500 people in one of the worst maritime disasters of the 20th century.  Like the Hindenburg, the Titanic has remained a source of morbid fascination for the past century. I, myself, have been interested in the story of the ship since I was a child. I remember doing a school project and flipping through an old copy of the issue of National Geographic that detailed Robert Ballard’s expedition to the bottom of the Atlantic and his discovery of the wreckage. For my 23rd birthday, a few of my close friends and I went to Las Vegas, where an exhibition of Titanic artifacts had been raised from the seabed and put on display in at the Tropicana. It evoked similar feelings to experiencing an exhibit about the Holocaust, for example. The reason for divers plundering the ship’s remains and displaying what they’ve found is understandable. The Titanic is rapidly disintigrating and will soon be nothing but a pile of rust at the bottom of the sea.

A Night to Remember

Tucker McGuire as the “Unsinkable” Molly Brown

Over the past 100 years, Titanic has proven profitable source material for filmmakers. Just ask James Cameron, who basically took my entire life’s savings when I was 14. Although Cameron’s 1997 film has been the biggest moneymaker and is still fresh in everyone’s memories, especially now that it’s been re-released in cinemas in 3-D to mark Titanic’s centenary, Roy Ward Baker’s 1958 classic A Night to Remember is considered by many serious film folk to be the “best”. Drawing largely from Walter Lord’s book of the same title based on the official Titanic inquest, A Night to Remember has been praised for its historical accuracy, keeping the focus on the reality of the disaster rather than the mythology.

A Night to Remember

“I take it that you and I might be in the same boat later?” Robbie Lucas (John Merivale) and Thomas Andrews (Michael Goodliffe) stoically accept their fate

Baker’s film recalls the documentary realism movement that defined British cinema during the war years. It features wonderful performances by Kenneth More, John Merivale, Anthony Bushell, Honor Blackman and Michael Goodliffe, among others. The ship itself is the main character, and we see the human error that caused her demise from all angles. But what sets it apart from Hollywood renderings of the same story is its restraint.  It lacks the melodrama that permeates Cameron’s film and lets the horror of the tragedy speak for itself. No need for extra gimmickry to tug at audience’s heartstrings.

Titanic in A Night to Remember

Full steam ahead

There are many similarities between Baker’s and Cameron’s films, aside from the obvious part about the sinking boat. The latter not only uses a good chunk of the dialog featured in A Night to Remember, but contains many very similar shots.  A minor but interesting difference worth noting is that A Night to Remember was filmed prior to Ballard’s discovery, so the ship is depicted sinking in-tact. Now we know it split in half while going down, as shown in Cameron’s film. In the end, however, comparing A Night to Remember and Cameron’s Titanic is as pointless as comparing Ken Burns’ The Civil War and Gone with the Wind. One presents historical facts as they were. The other is a fictional story set against a real historical backdrop. Which film floats your boat (pardon the pun) will depend on your keenness for realism vs romance. But A Night To Remember is an exceptional film, and a worthy one to watch to commemorate the 100th anniversary of Titanic’s tragic voyage.

Rating: A


classic film general discussion laurence olivier the oliviers vivien leigh

Vivien Leigh and the Search For “Rebecca”

One of the things Vivien Leigh did after finishing filming on Gone with the Wind was test for the role of the second Mrs. DeWinter in the film version of Daphne DuMaurier’s Rebecca.  The film, being directed by Alfred Hitchcock and produced by David O. Selznick, was set to star Laurence Olivier (Vivien’s then fiancee) in the lead as Maxim DeWinter.  Vivien wanted the part because she’d be acting opposite Olivier, but not many people were enthusiastic about her getting it.  It wasn’t because they doubted her acting ability, it was because her personality was deemed too strong for such a weak character.

Vivien and Alan Marshall

Even in the book, DuMaurier’s heroine is shy, plain, meek, and “gauche,” as she describes herself.  Vivien, even without make-up and silly blond wigs, is anything but gauche and plain.  Her eyes have a fiery intensity in the screentests, and opposite Alan Marshall, she seems more Scarlett in a cardigan than the weakling the part called for.  Her test opposite Laurence Olivier is very interesting by contrast.  Vivien plays it down but puts forth obvious love and intensity for “Maxim.”  When the two tests are compared, I think it is easy to tell that she and Larry were in love with each other off-camera, and this is something that Hitchcock did not want.  He thought it would not be believable to audiences when everyone knew they were together in real life.  Larry shared in this sentiment as well.  In Charlotte Chandler’s book “It’s Only a Movie,” Larry is quoted having said:

“When they called to say someone named Joan Fontaine had been given the role opposite me, I can’t say I was thrilled. I’d certainly never heard of her. When I met her, what I noticed was how young and skinny she was. I didn’t really understand what my character, Maxim DeWinter, could see in her. As I understood Max better, I decided that she was just what he wanted–someone exactly the opposite of Rebecca. He’d had enough of Rebecca, and he was looking for docile, even wilted.

“I admit I was prejudiced from the start. I’d exerted my influence to persuade Selznick that the best possible choice for the part was Vivien. Vivien had her heart set on playing opposite me, and she loved the part, which she tested for. She was a very good actress, and it was rather mortifying for me not to have been more influential. It affected our personal lives for a while…

“I didn’t like having to plead Vivien’s case, but I couldn’t say no to her. Hitch was very decent about it. But the worst part of it was I really didn’t want to have her get the part. There was already so much strain in our personal life, our divorces, leaving a wife and a child, and a husband and child in England, the European situation, the war. It was perhaps better for us to have a little vacation from constant togetherness.



“Vivien thought I didn’t try hard enough for her with Hitchcock for the part in Rebecca. Well, I didn’t. I hadn’t felt she was right for that part, truth be told.

“Vivien was exactly the opposite of Scarlett O’Hara, who said something like, ‘I’ll worry about it tomorrow.’ She worried about everything–yesterday, today, and tomorrow. But she was so beautiful.”

Despite Vivien being thought of as totally wrong for the role of Mrs. DeWinter and was thus denied the part (which eventually went to Joan Fontaine, who happened to be blond, in true Hitchcockian form), there was a role Alfred Hitchcock, at least, thought she’d have been perfect for: the ghostly, yet ever-present Rebecca.  When Hitch was interviewed by Henri Langlois, the director of the Cinematheque Francais, he spoke of the perfect Rebecca.

“But there WAS an actress to play Rebecca. A perfect Rebecca. And she even wanted to be in the film, only she wanted to play the wrong part, that of the cringing, meek girl with rounded shoulders who was totally lacking in self-confidence.

“The actress was Vivien Leigh, who was born to be Rebecca, as she was to be Scarlett O’Hara. Scarlett shared many characteristics with Rebecca. Vivien Leigh had the requisite beauty. She and Rebecca were both uniquely strong women who knew that they wanted and how to get it, if not how to enjoy it. They were not girls; they were women.

“Vivien Leigh was absolutely right to play Rebecca, but Rebecca never appears in the film, so neither does Vivien. And for people who knew about the real life affair between Olivier and Leigh, that would have intruded on any illusion.”

I have to say I agree with Hitchcock. Although it’s a shame she and Hitch never worked together, I think Vivien would have been much more believable as Rebecca than as “I” in this film. Apparently the people who design Italian movie posters thought so, too.

Watch Vivien Leigh’s screentests for Rebecca in the vivandlarry.com Cinema Archive