Wednesday, January 26, 2022

Designer Double Dip: Seeing "Red!"

In 1937, MGM was set to film an unproduced play of Ferenc Molnár's called "The Girl from Trieste" with Luise Rainer set to star. After the death of whiz kid Irving Thalberg, the production decisions reverted back to Louis B. Mayer, who found the storyline (involving a prostitute) distasteful and too bleak. So the whole thing was overhauled - renamed The Bride Wore Red - and slated to star Joan Crawford. The refurbished plot line now involved a poor cafe singer who is decked out in finery and sent to an exclusive lodge in a Pygmalion-ish experiment. (Rainer didn't exactly suffer from this change. She won an Oscar that year for the previous season's The Great Ziegfeld and went on to win another - consecutive - one for The Good Earth, 1937!) To suit the colorful title, designer Adrian fashioned a dazzling gown of scarlet with a coordinating cape. 

The irony is that, for whatever reason, the movie was shot in black & white! So, lovely as it was, the gown was only seen in its true color through promotional photos or the odd lobby card. But it really was red. And it weighed a reported 30 pounds (presumably including that cape with its bejeweled trim and closure.)

Miss Crawford was given a slick new hairstyle, though the role she was playing (of downtrodden gal making good) was as familiar to her as her wide smear of lipstick. She played such parts multitudinous times over her career. Even she had to be tiring of such repetition and apparently moviegoers were to some degree as well. This is one of the movies that led to her being labeled (along with several other major stars) as "Box Office Poison" by a group of theater-owners.

She at least had the pleasure of having her husband as costar. (Franchot Tone did seven films with her, this being the last.) Their marriage only lasted from 1935-1939, however. The other leading man vying for her attention was Robert Young. Here you can see the trio posing with her sans cape.

After the film did middling business at the box office (though it didn't actually lose money), the expensively crafted gown made its way into the costume vaults of the studio, perhaps never to be seen again...

But it was, Blanche. It was! It was scarcely recognizable however. In Groucho Marx's 1941 comedy The Big Store, it figured into a fashion show, worn by one of the models.

The uncredited lady wearing red this time doesn't exactly have the same level of physical presence that Miss Crawford possessed... At 5'4" Crawford was hardly a towering monument, but this gal is just rather squatty looking. In the movie, Marx amusingly informs the viewer that the dress is indeed red, Technicolor being too expensive for the movie they're watching!

But that wasn't all. In 1943, Red Skelton starred in the musical Du Barry was a Lady and, in a number featuring the months of the year, model-actress Inez Cooper donned the gown (no cape) as Miss December. Cooper's look here is very Hedy Lamarr, though Crawford had herself had also sported Lamarr's signature hairstyle when she did the hooty Ice Follies of 1939. This would be the final time that the dress hit movie screens, though it almost made still another belated comeback!

After nearly a quarter-century, the gown was unearthed once more and slated to be featured in Robert Aldrich's garish oddity The Legend of Lylah Clare (1968.)

Unfortunately, the red dress was only used in publicity photos of Kim Novak. It didn't make its way into the final cut of the movie. I think Kim looked marvelous in it. In fact, I think this gown looks much better than any of the Renie creations she wore in Lylah Clare. This was the last gasp for the fabled red dress, but not the final time anyone would lay eyes on it.

The dazzling creation still exists and has made its presence known at various exhibitions of cinema fashion. You'll notice that along the way and through the years of its 85-year lifespan, the clasp on the cape has been changed out more than once. But the general workmanship of the legendary Adrian remains for all to see. 

** UPDATE: One of our faithful friends out there in the surface world sent us yet another example of this gown being sported by a star. This time, the delightful Miss Angela Lansbury donned the scarlet stunner for a 1945 photo opportunity at the entrance to her dressing room! We offer our thanks for keeping the fabric facts as complete as possible. **


joel65913 said...

Hi Poseidon,

Wonderful snapshot of the journey of this particular piece of Hollywood glamour! Like the equally petite Gloria Swanson Crawford OWNED her space and learned well how to wear even the most outlandish outfits. She manages to dominate this scarlet number.

The Bride Wore Red isn't one of Joan's greatest films but of its type it is an enjoyable time passer. The same can not be said for the horrendous Ice Follies of 1939 that you mention which I think is the worst thing she ever did...yes even more than Trog. At least you know Trog is going to be junk walking into it, with Ice Follies you see the names attached and that it came from Metro and assume you're going to see something of quality! HA!

I agree about the dress on the second model. It just sort of hangs there but it does look great on Kim. Too bad the photo isn't in color, I'm sure with her blonde hair it was quite striking.

Thanks for a fun day beginner! said...

Hi, Poseidon!
Great gown!
Regarding Crawford's hairstyle: Looks like JC from the front, but looks like she got some help in the back. A foreshadowing of those "Berserk" falls?

VictorG said...

What a fabulous gown by the legendary designer Adrian for the great Joan Crawford! I had no idea it was used in other films; you always find such interesting movie history to share with us, Poseidon, including photos of lovely Kim Novak in the gown. Wow! I remember when MGM sold everything back in the early 1970s and the people preparing the costumes for auction found this beautiful gown folded up in a bureau drawer. It was said that someone in the Wardrobe Department at MGM knew what they were doing and that's why the gown survived. If it had been hung in a closet for all those years, the weight of the beads would have shredded the silk base of the gown and destroyed this incredible piece of art. So fold your sequin gowns, guurrrls, no wire hangers ever!

BryonByronWhatever said...

I've long thought that Ms. Crawdord never looked better than in this film which, Adrian aside, I've always attributed to director Dorothy Arzner.

hsc said...

Thanks for posting this! I've never seen THE BRIDE WORE RED, but I've always thought this was one of Adrian's best creations.

And I'm fascinated to see that it popped up on screen on other occasions afterward, because I had read accounts of the dress having been preserved only because "someone at MGM put it in a drawer and forgot it" (Margaret J. Bailey, "Those Glorious Glamour Years," 1982)-- which sounds like it was "lost" right after filming.

According to that source, most bugle beading at that point was done with glass beads sewn to a thin fabric, sometimes chiffon, so that the weight of the beads would create kind of a "wet T-shirt" effect in the way the dress clung to the actress' curves.

However, if a fully beaded costume was stored on a hanger, eventually gravity would pull it apart from the weight of the beads putting constant stress on the thin fabric and on the threads they were attached with. As a result, a lot of these costumes didn't survive.

But because this one supposedly got misplaced and managed to get stored flat in a drawer, it didn't fall apart like so many others did as the materials aged.

On the other hand, you'd think the studios would have figured this out pretty quickly, since publicity departments would play up how heavy that glorious costume was for the poor actress to wear.

Bailey claims that "Crawford's red dress weighed approximately twenty pounds and had cross strings for support in back, not seen by the audience. Publicity said that Crawford lost three pounds wearing the *thirty-five* pound red beaded creation."

On the other hand, I suppose the costume could've been shoved in a drawer at MGM and "lost" after its last screen appearance in the early '40s, then got "found" again after a couple of decades before they were putting THE LEGEND OF LYLAH CLARE together.

I think I also read someplace that-- at least at one point-- this costume was owned by a university that received it as a donation, similar to that Dorothy dress from THE WIZARD OF OZ that turned up on a shelf in a faculty member's office and made the news last year.

I always *love* seeing these reappearances by movie costumes and accessories! Be well and safe, everyone!

Shawny said...

It's the cape that makes it Adrian. He always had to add something to make it pop. A garrish chopped off manikin hand holding a rose? Sew it on the lapel! A clear plastic cone? Why, it's a hat! Love love love Adrian.

Dan said...

As these pictures show, there are indeed women who “know how to wear clothes”.
The Smithsonian some years back had an Adrian women’s suit on display. Certainly nothing like this glamorous creation. Still, the workmanship and detail were remarkable. The fabric was a simple brown and cream stripe, as I recall, and at every seam the stripes were perfectly aligned. There were two sections on the collar where about 1” squares had been cut out and the fabric reversed for a herringbone effect - and still each color stripe was aligned. Just showing off, I suppose.

A said...

Hi Poseidon,

What a great post and a great dress!


Gingerguy said...

Fabulous, and welcome to my world. My guy is Hungarian and "Ferenc Molnar" gets thrown around frequently. Joan looks gorgeous in it. I did think that was Hedy Lamarr. Kind of amazed that it showed up in Lylah Clare, such an odd movie but Kim has a really great body and does the dress proud. I am always amazed that you catch these fashion repeats.

loulou de la falaise said...

And, Bette's famous red ball gown in Jezebel was not red, it just photographed as red in glorious B & W. It was burnt orange or rust I think. I remember Bette talking about it on some chat show when I was a kid.

Poseidon3 said...

I'm really glad I put this post up - almost didn't, thinking it lacked any big punch - because it clearly pleased quite a few of you! So happy to see so many positive reactions.

joel65913, I also really wanted to see Kim in color. I know she wasn't usually so big on wearing red (though she does wear a red dress in "Lylah" anyway.) Needless to say I agree about Joan owning her space. Even in the belated "Eyes" segment of "Night Gallery" one can still see that! "Ice Follies" contains one of JC's crazier looking getups, where she looks something like a parking meter in it! ;-)

Rick, there's inconsistency in her hair length between the publicity stills with the men and the actual movie. That's another sort of tell-tale sign of "help" with the hairdos. :-)

VictorG, thanks for the info on the gown after this period. Interesting factoids about storage of heavy clothing like this. Glad you liked this post!

BryonByron, I really need to see this one again. It's probably been two decades for me! Interesting that Dorothy Arzner might have especially taken care to make Joan look great - not that most directors didn't try to with all the big stars. I think JC worked for her at least one other time, too. Would have to look that up.

hsc, neat background on the dress. It stands to reason that they dress might be kept around for use for just a couple of years and then stored thereafter, only to be unearthed when Aldrich was planning his "epic" about a dead movie legend. Aldrich had, of course, directed "What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?" with Joan - and almost had her for
Hush, Hush..." after that! A little tether of connection there. Thanks!

Shawny, it sounds like the cape also served to disguise the cross-straps in back described above. Adrian really was something. He created big-screen fantasy which certain stars got to carry out in their roles. I bet a few of them were cumbersome to wear! I always recall the costume Roz Russell wore with eyes on it. (She sees everything, except what's right under her nose... LOL!)

Dan, that's neat about the Adrian suit. So many of today's clothes are basically disposable. There was a lot of care given to clothing back in the day, and tailoring. And clothing was expensive, too! You needed to care for it. I know there are still fine things to be had, but most people tend not to bother with it, it seems.

A, thanks! Glad you liked this.

Gingerguy, be careful throwing Molnar around too much in your cozy NY apartment! Ha ha! Thanks.

louloum, oddly enough, I think an actual red fabric was tested and didn't read/look right on film! said...

You can never go wrong posting about Joan!
Well, most of the time!
Cheers, Rick

Snappychuck said...

Always enjoy your posts, Poseidon! I have read that the bugle beads on this dress were several shades of red, so that they could use gradations of color to emphasize some areas of Joan’s body and de-emphasize others. Just fabulous!

Poseidon3 said...

Snappychuck, thanks so much for commenting. I appreciate it! That's a neat tidbit of information about the color of the gown. The workmanship must have been unreal... Take care.