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Fashion February: Vogues of 1938 (1937)

The movies have been influencing style since the early silent film era. Audiences gawked at Gloria Swanson's gowns in her DeMille films, escaped their shabby mended and re-mended wardrobes during the Depression and the war years in the glamourous clothes they saw on screen, and they reminisced about the Jazz Age 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 Samantha got an eye-full of Vogues of 1938.

SAMANTHA GLASSER: The House of Curson is a top couturier which rich women patronize to show off their beauty and wealth. Curson (Warner Baxter) is designing a wedding gown for lovely Wendy Van Klettering (Joan Bennett) who is engaged to marry millionaire Henry Morgan (Alan Mowbray). She doesn't actually want to marry him. In spite of his money, she is repulsed by his awkward stuffiness. Wendy asks Curson to sabotage the wedding by failing to deliver the dress on time, but he refuses to ruin his reputation for her. When she calls off the nuptials, Morgan blames Curson anyway and begins to take him down, supporting a rival designer (Mischa Auer). Curson contributes to his own demise by investing in his wife's (Helen Vinson's) dreams of becoming a stage star.

ADAM WILLIAMS: Full confession: I watched this film two weeks ago but failed to take notes. A handful of scenes stuck with me, but by and large this movie fled my brain with the swiftness of a runway model. So, I appreciate the synopsis. It’s all coming back…

SG: I think this film would have been infinitely more interesting if it were simply about two rival fashion houses competing for clients and notoriety. The sequences where Wendy sabotages Prince Muratov's line by showing up at night clubs wearing the same "one of a kind" pieces as the wealthy society women is a riot. I wanted to see more of that. Imagine if the gowns became more and more outrageous as the designers tried to top each other. Sadly, this is not that film, and we were deprived of what could have been a great comedy. Instead, the filmmakers tried to infuse drama and a love story which diluted it.

AW: The movie is mired in ordinariness, a fatal flaw when the subject is fashion. If the writers were aiming for a love story, Baxter and Bennett don’t ignite the screen for one second. There is a scene where Baxter is fine tuning Bennett’s sheer white dress prior to a competition. This intimate moment should be fraught with seductive tension or at the very least coy suggestiveness. When Baxter asks Bennett if she’s in love with him, she responds, “Terribly.” It’s hard to believe her.

SG: Yes, it sounds more like she's being flippant than sincere.

I did get a laugh when Wendy wanted to go to Columbus, Ohio to visit a friend after leaving her fiancee, and to keep her from that wretched place, Curson offered her a modeling job. Baxter himself hailed from Columbus.

AW: Baxter’s incredulous line reading of “Columbus, Ohio!?” gave me a smile. I thought you would get a kick out of that.

SG: Another Ohio connection is Maurice Rocco of Oxford, who plays the piano in the "Turn on That Red Hot Heat" number. This all-black musical sequence is fantastic. It opens with the Cotton Club Singers wearing fur and telling us they prefer highbrow arts, glowing in sepia tones, but then one of them gets the jazz bug, and the screen explodes with energy and music. The Four Hot Shots, a vaudeville dance group, assists the action and surround Rocco at the piano, who waggles his head around ala Cab Calloway in a truly fun musical sequence that seems to exist on its own outside of the film.

AW: This is the best sequence of the film, but it also highlights the lackluster direction. When the song reprises with the dancers writhing on the stage under the red lights of Hades, the camera rests on a static long shot. For over a minute, the camera stays stock still as if the filmmakers were out to lunch. How anticlimactic!

Maurice Rocco is indeed electrifying—a crazy-eyed keyboard-pounder who could not be contained on a stool. There would be no Little Richard without Maurice Rocco.

SG: I imagine this film was originally going to be a musical. It was planned in 1935 with Frances Langford in the leading role, but delays caused her to be unavailable when the film was ready to shoot.

AW: Even though the leads don’t sing, I think Vogues fits squarely in the musical genre. It even ends with a big musical production where switchboard operators connect Curson’s clients in London, France, and Manhattan complete with sing-songy overplayed accents. The film only succeeds when it relies on music; the plot is mere padding. After the “Red Hot Heat” number, the biggest pleasure of the film is Virginia Verrill singing—in fact, introducing—the gorgeous Sammy Fain/Lew Brown tune “That Old Feeling.” It’s funny how a song like this could originate in a middling movie from the larynx of a forgotten singer.

SG: That's a beautiful song, but it fell flat for me directly following the exuberance of the Cotton Club Singers number. It was poorly placed.

Lets talk about the clothes! There are lots of gorgeous designs on display in this film, and a few bad ones. Many of these pieces feature fur in one way or another, which at the time was THE way to signify luxury, maybe even more so than diamonds. (Those are here too.) The conveyor belt finale was a great way to deliver a lot of looks all at one time, and the models look straight out of fashion catalogues of the era. It was smart to use real fashion models instead of a bunch of actresses because instead of looking at the faces we might recognize, we pay attention to the clothes. Some say this film inspired the Technicolor fashion show in 1939's The Women. Irene made Bennett's many beautiful costumes, Omar Kiam made Vinson's, John-Frederics made the hats for the film and Max Factor did the makeup. (Uncredited Helen Taylor also worked on the wardrobe.) Factor revolutionized the makeup industry alongside the development of film by creating products that looked more natural than greasepaint, which was a staple of stage makeup. In 1935, he debuted Pan-Cake makeup which was used extensively in this movie to make actresses look natural under the strong lights required for Technicolor. It is a heavy coverage foundation which covers skin imperfections and it is still sold today.

AW: In nearly every city across the country, there were tie-in “as seen in Vogues of 1938” promotions with local department stores. Sally Victor hats, Max Factor rouge, dresses, stockings, even table clothes were associated with the movie. The conveyor belt sequence is quite pleasing in a languid way—like the cinematic equivalent of flipping through a catalog. One of the most striking costumes in the film is one that would never appear in a store: Mischa Auer’s valet uniform. That’s what I want!

SG: A reporter for the Missouri Film Bulletin said, "Warner Baxter's Curson, although appropriately harassed and quietly charming, leaves one with the suspicion that he could not tell sable from rabbit or satin from sateen." I wonder who they would have deemed more acceptable. Franchot Tone? Ramon Navarro?

AW: Personally, I would have chosen either Wallace Beery or Ward Bond.

With all this advertising money exchanging hands, how much can we trust the mainstream media when it comes to reviewing the film? This is a case where the opinions of the great unwashed, namely the theater managers whose incomes could rise or fall on the merits of a picture, are of more interest than the establishment critics. Before perusing the online archives of Motion Picture Herald, I theorized that the opinions on Vogues would dim the further it played from 5th Avenue. The report from Westby, Wisconsin (1,074 miles from Manhattan) seemed to confirm my theory: “In 14 years’ experience, this set an all time low gross, not reaching even half of film rental. A lot of beautiful color and a fair story but they just don’t want fashion shows in small towns,” L.V. Bergtold of the Westby Theatre wrote. However, the more I read, the more my theory collapsed. For every “beautiful […] but it’s not a small town picture” (Groveton, Texas), there’s a “…one of the grandest pictures of its type ever produced” (Tilbury, Ontario). At a certain point, I just started to look for outliers in the comments. A.E. Eliasen of the Rialto in Payneville, Minnesota was curt: “Color was good. Story was nothing. Bennett and Baxter didn’t hit. The ladies loved it and the gents thought it pretty punk. So did I.” The report from the New Strand Theatre in Griswold, Iowa just flat out stated, “This is no doubt the most beautiful picture made.” In summary, opinions varied wildly.

SG: Script magazine wrote, "Technicolor at its most luxuriant and expert applied to the fashion industry... But for good, healthy entertainment, give us plot. Maybe we're biased." I'm inclined to agree with them. I think the enthusiasm for the film is owed almost entirely to the Technicolor, which was still new. Remember, this is a couple of years before The Wizard of Oz and Gone With the Wind. Although I frequently indulge in black and white films, my eyes are mostly unresponsive to an element that is no longer a novelty. Yes, this is an opulent film, and casting Bennett is part of that, but the story is so weak that I can't give this more than two stars.

AW: I recently watched the new restoration of Doctor X (which, incidentally, features some very interesting Max Factor makeup), so I can confirm that color still has the ability to bowl me over. I’m sure an original 35mm Technicolor print of Vogues would be stunning, though maybe not as much as the early two-strip film. Unfortunately, available video copies are drab. Until they get that original print out of mothballs, I won’t be revisiting this one. Two stars.

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