The movies have been influencing style since the early silent film era. Audiences gawked at Gloria Swanson's gowns in her DeMille films. During the Depression and war years, they escaped their shabby mended and re-mended wardrobes in the glamourous clothes they saw on screen. Later, they reminisced about the Jazz Age fashions in Singin' in the Rain. This month we contemplate movies about clothing designers and focus on an industry that looks very different today than it did in the classic movie era. This week, Adam and Rodney go on a Stolen Holiday.
RODNEY BOWCOCK: Gay Par-ee! 1931! Our film immediately opens showing us the inner workings of one of those fancy dress shops that we see from time to time in vintage films, you know the ones, the kind where the models come out and show dresses to patrons, who sit around and comment on the models, but as near as I can tell, never actually buy anything. Maybe they do buy things? Maybe these sorts of situations still take place today? I’m not one to know, but I kind of like the idea that some people do buy their clothes that way.
ADAM WILLIAMS: In the parade of models there’s one that stands out from the rest—a lanky brunette wearing a dress with a neckline that plunges down like a rollercoaster. An astonished spectator comments: “What a fantastic coiffure, rather shocking. So…mannish.”
RB: It’s here we meet Nicole Picot (Kay Francis) with short hair, not unlike her persona in her pre-code films, which in 1936, audiences would still be aware of. She’s portrayed to be more glamourous and dare I say, risqué than the other models, so it’s no surprise that she catches the eye of Stefan Orloff (Claude Rains) who has a plan.
AW: Kay Francis was 5’9” and Claude Rains was 5’6”, the relationship was doomed from the start. Furthermore, there’s a rule in movies: always listen to the fortune teller. I’m not sure how they do it, but the fortune teller always knows what’s in store for the protagonist. In this case, cantankerous seamstress Alison Skipworth flips over a king of spades in the dressing room and warns Kay, “That is a man whom you should pray that you may never meet.” The camera even dollies in ominously, but our protagonist seems unconcerned. Then in walks Orloff…
RB: He needs to come off as a successful financier to attract the attention of a wealthy investor. Nicole’s part in this plot is simple. She needs to add some glamour to his appearance and help him to fit in at a party. Seems simple right?
Well, its not so simple, at least eventually. By 1936, Picot is heading up one of the top fashion houses in Paris, while still working closely and unknowingly with Stefan, who has conned his way into becoming one of the most affluent men in France. Stefan, hungry for more, talks Nicole into helping him with a gigantic bond scheme that seems to involve everyone in France. Without giving anything away, there are natural complications, a love triangle, and a wrap-up that I’m not particularly comfortable with, several days after having unraveled the film (not literally. This is available on DVD-R from Warner Archive. I watched it via a recording I made from a TCM airing in the distant past).
AW: The print used for the Warner DVD is in surprisingly poor shape. Nevertheless, if the movie is appealing, seek it out—I’d be surprised if this minor film was in contention for a restoration.
RB: This is the kind of film that never could’ve been made just a few years later as Europe found itself in the grip of a war that would soon find its way to America. It’s based on a true story (even though we are immediately assured in no uncertain terms that it most certainly IS NOT based on a true story). The scandal surrounding these proceedings seems to be fairly legendary in France, and I readily admit that I was completely unfamiliar with the circumstances before watching the film. After boning up a bit, I think that they tackled this as well as the production code would’ve allowed, although I think the film would’ve had more bite if it would’ve been able to have been made during those wild and wooly pre-code years.
AW: I always get a kick out of those statements insisting that “all incidents and institutions portrayed in this production are fictitious.” Of course, this legalese really just informs the viewer that what you are about to see is most definitely based on “actual persons, living or deceased.” In this case, the film takes l’affaire Stavisky as its source material. Since this chapter in French history is not well known here in the States, it’s worth doing some reading about the affair—and draw whatever parallels you would like to current events. In a nutshell, it was a financial scandal which culminated in a riot that left 15 demonstrators dead. Just like finding a mouse or a bat in your home lets you know there are fissures in the infrastructure, the likes of Serge Alexandre Stavisky expose the moral fissures in a society. In the early 1930s, the Russian émigré used a two-pronged approach: sell worthless bonds and ingratiate himself with the most powerful people in France. Each time he was arrested, he was immediately freed. A fraudster with unusually high aspirations, Stavisky knew that the only way to get rich was to appear rich. A large part of this charade was his marriage to Arlette Simon, a Chanel model. Stolen Holiday is told from the perspective of Arlette—sorry, I mean Nicole!
The success of this movie will likely depend on how much you like Kay Francis. I was sold on this movie as soon as I laid my eyes on Kay: her slightly stooped posture, those dark eyes, that androgynous look. Just watching her lean back in a chair and enjoy a cigarette was enough for me. Despite wearily describing herself as a “clotheshorse” early in the film, this is yet another parade of striking fashions for Ms. Francis. This was the 16th time Orry-Kelly designed for her, so she was in familiar hands.
RB: Kay Francis is lovely as ever and handles her role capably as any of us would expect her to. However, I’d argue that the real star of this film is Claude Rains, whose criminal mind is delightfully smooth. Michael Curtiz knew a thing or two about how to coax the best out of Rains, as evidenced by their multiple collaborations together (this of which I’d tend to argue is probably the most minor of them). The supporting cast is strong, I especially enjoyed Alison Skipworth, whose world-weary fashion model of days gone by provides a delightful contrast to the models on the way up. She knows the jig will be up eventually. She’s seen it all before.
It was no surprise to me while researching this film to see that it generally didn’t go over well in small towns. “Just a waste of time for the small-town theatre” lamented one showman. “They don’t want fashion shows. They want action and comedy”. Others found this played okay, but only if they paired it up with King of Hockey, a 1936 First National quicky starring Dick Purcell and Anne Nagel (which frankly sounds pretty good to me).
AW: The Chicago Tribune’s Mae Tinee gave the movie a positive notice writing, “The film is handsomely mounted, and, while primarily a woman’s picture, will undoubtedly set pretty well with the men, too.” This last point is important. I promise to anyone, male or female, who might pass this over as a clotheshorse picture—there is some juicy action in the final third.
RB: At the end of the day, I’m going to give this three stars, but a shaky three stars. It’s a good movie, solidly made, but it took me awhile to get into it. Once the mayhem starts, it’s compelling, but before that when it’s all fashion and drawing rooms, well, your mileage may vary.
AW: I watched this back-to-back with the 1974 Alain Resnais film Stavisky with Jean-Paul Belmondo in the lead. While the later film sticks closer to the facts and creates a fuller psychological profile of the archcriminal, Stolen Holiday is the more satisfying film. It’s sleek in the way that 1970s movies can only aspire to be. It's worth a watch, I give it three stars.