Feb 4, 2016

Damn The Torpedoes: Wartime Housing Shortage in The More The Merrier (1943)

The year is 1943, the location Washington DC; bureaucratic capital for wartime decisions. The film starts with a narrator mockingly welcoming the viewer to hospitable Washington, "eagerly throwing wide her doors," while all we see is shots of "no vacancy"-signs. Although wartime housing shortage was a very real problem, the film manages to deal with it humoristically. 

Whereas Elizabeth Lane (Barbara Stanwyck) was doing her Wartime duty by hosting a sailor for Christmas, Connie Milligan (Jean Arthur) does her patriotic duty by subletting half of her apartment. Although she was hoping to sublet it to a girl, fate will have it that a "well to do, retired millionaire," named Benjamin Dingle (Charles Coburn), works his way into Connie's apartment. 

Connie Milligan is a very efficient lady. When Dingle remarks this, she gives the simple explanation of having worked in the office of facts and figures. When she knocks on Mr. Dingle's bedroom door to explain the morning schedule to him, she does not let anything go unplanned. Whilst vigorously flipping her bicolored pencil to mark their movements on the floor plan, she explains to Dingle:

"At 7:01 I enter the bathroom, then you go down to get the milk, and by 7:05 you've started the coffee. One minute later I leave the bathroom, and a minute after that you enter the bathroom. Now, that's when I'm starting to dress. Three minutes later I'm having my coffee and a minute after that, at 7:12, you leave the bathroom. At 7:13 I put on my eggs and I leave to finish dressing. Then you put on your shoes and take off my eggs at 7:16. At 7:17 you start to shave. At 7:18 I eat my eggs and at 7:21 I'm in the bathroom fixing my hair, and at 7:24 you're in the kitchen putting on your eggs. At 7:25 you make your bed, 7:26 I make my bed, and then while you're eating your eggs, I take out the papers and cans. At 7:29 you're washing the dishes and at 7:30 we're all finished. You see?" A very puzzled Dingle looks up from the floor plan [below]. "It's really very simple," deadpanned Connie, making it even funnier. 


The morning schedule was created as a matter of efficiency, but of course the next morning turns into a slapsticky routine of trying to stick to the schedule. You can see the scene here: [link]

It is especially in this scene where the history of director George Stevens shows. In 1922, when he was only 17, Stevens started working as an assistant cameraman for Hal Roach Studios. By 1927 he was working as a cinematographer and gag writer for Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy.

The first 30 seconds of this scene are eight shots being cut in a fast, ping-pong like pace. The first seven shots are of Connie's bedroom and Dingle's bedroom, alternating every few seconds. Because we can envision the floor plan of the apartment, our brain goes back and forth between left and right. Then for the eighth shot, Stevens takes us outside, showing Connie and Dingle synchronously storming out of their bedrooms, seen by us through their bedroom windows.

Both flatmates start running at 7:01, trying to stick to the schedule — unsuccessfully. When Connie is headed for the bathroom she bumps into Mr. Dingle in the hallway, where he makes the mistake of going into the kitchen instead of bringing in the milk, as planned for in the morning schedule. They bump into each other in the hallway another time, when Dingle is bringing in the milk and Connie just put on the coffee. This, of course, is partly Connie's fault, as she herself isn't sticking to the schedule by taking over Dingle's task of putting on the coffee. For efficiency reasons I drew out both their movements. Connie is done in red pencil, Mr. Dingle in green. The two dots in the hall are the two times they bump into each other.

As you can see in the very clear, uncluttered floor plan above, Mr. Dingle even ventures outside of the apartment when he is locked out of the apartment by Connie. He climbs out of the window onto the fire escape, which leads to Connie's bathroom window, where she is brushing her teeth.

At 7:30 Connie is all finished, whereas Mr. Dingle is spread out on the floor, still wearing his pajama pants.

Once Connie has left for work, and Mr. Dingle has succeeded at getting dressed properly, he sees a "high-type, clean-cut, nice young fella" on the doorstep, coming for the vacancy advertised for in yesterday's newspaper. Right then and there Dingle decides to play Cupid and rents half of his half of the apartment to Joe Carter (Joel McCrea), without Connie knowing (and with Connie already being engaged to a 42-year old Mr. Charles J. Pendergast for 22 months). This results in another scene where the three protagonists and the architecture of the apartment perform a beautiful choreography. The hall once again becomes the main place for passage. You can see the scene here: [click]
Remember; Connie is not to know about Carter until Dingle has told her, so when both Connie and Joe start going from room to room, Dingle has to use every trick in the book to prevent them from seeing each other. Since the apartment is not so big, this proves to be difficult. The moment Carter closes a door, Connie opens one and vice versa. This can't last, and we know it.

Eventually Connie and Joe cross the hall at the same time. The realization doesn't come until they've entered the room they were heading for. Joe spits out his milk upon realizing and Connie makes a dramatic stop before running back to the hallway and meeting each other for the first time.

There is a lovely moment in the scene, where Stevens has Connie and Joe rumba-ing together, but apart, merely separated by a wall. We know this, because we have come to know the architecture of the apartment by now. Later on in the film we get a throwback to this moment when the two are seated across each other at a table in a cafe, shimmying their shoulders. Dingle, still playing for Cupid, tells the "kids" to get on the dance floor. This is the first time the two actually get to dance with each other, without a wall or table separating them.


The floor plan scene is reminiscent of kitchen efficiency diagrams published in The New Housekeeping: Efficiency Studies In Home Management (1913) by Christine Frederick [below]. Frederick was a home economist, interested in applying Taylorism to the domestic sphere. In ca. 1912 she established the Applecroft Home Experiment Center in her home in New York, where she would set up experiments for domestic efficiency, mainly focusing on efficiency in the kitchen. Like Connie, Frederick would trace and time these movements, looking for labor-saving methods of preparation and use.

Kitchen efficiency diagrams published in 'The New Housekeeping' (1913), p. 52

The diagrams pictured above only have to deal with one person's movements, making it easier to make them as efficient as possible. The flow that Connie mapped out already looks rather hectic, but the floor plans in color (where I drew the actual movements) are pure chaos. The scenes wouldn't have been as funny as they are now if Mrs. Frederick would have directed it, though, for it is the architectural gags that give the movie so much of its comedy.

When discussing the morning schedule scene, I already mentioned Stevens shooting both bedroom windows from outside. This shot becomes a sort of leitmotiv throughout the movie. We get introduced to this type of shot when it is used to picture the platonic relationship between Mr. Dingle and Connie. The next time we see the same type of shot, it is with Joe and Connie.

Connie had ordered Mr. Dingle and Joe to be moved out by the time she got home from work, but Joe was somewhat delayed in his packing, which gives him an excuse to hand Connie a letter of apology written by Mr. Dingle in person. By communicating via their bedroom windows, Joe and Connie are in a way ignoring the existence of the thin wall that is separating their bedrooms. After reading the letter Connie changes her mind and Joe can stay. From this moment on the bedroom window shots aid in the depiction of the relationship between Joe and Connie.


The romance between Joe and Connie, that is not supposed to be, is growing. After their reconciliation Joe asks Connie on a date, but she is already going on a date with Mr. Pendergast. Connie's defiance has began to crumble, but she still tries to put up some resistance: "He's supposed to call at eight, you know. Sometimes he gets into a conference and he can't even telephone. So if that happens, naturally the date is off. So, I'll wait for him 'till eight, and if he doesn't call, well, then I guess it would be alright, [...]" Another window-shot shows Connie and Joe anxiously watching the clock opposite their building strike eight, hoping to go out together before Charles J. calls on his fiancée.

But Charles J. Pendergast does call on Connie and with visible disappointment she leaves Joe behind in the apartment. Joe then goes to a cafe with Mr. Dingle and who are there? Mr. Pendergast and Connie. This is where they first dance together and walk home together, thanks to another cunning Cupid-trick performed by Dingle. An intimate conversation between the two where they declare their love for each other takes place with both of them in their own bed, still separated by the tin wall between them. But the wall seems to be hardly there anymore, because of Stevens' use of photography. The wall is merely a blurry line and visually it's almost as if the two lovebirds are in bed together.

Nearing the end, after the couple had to get married due to circumstances, the camera goes outdoors one more time, this time panning along the facade. We see Joe opening the windows, without realizing that all of a sudden he is opening the window of Connie's bedroom. We, as voyeurs, are the firsts to realize the wall between the two bedrooms is gone. Only after we have been given this privilege, Steven goes inside, and it isn't until then that the newlyweds become aware of what is now their bedroom. The wall of Jericho has been broken down.


So, we can say the apartment in The More the Merrier is the architecture for comedy and romance. It is the floor plan, the slamming of doors and the windows that give us the moments that make us laugh and at times makes us swoon.


Credits:

Produced by Fred Guiol & George Stevens; directed by George Stevens; Story by Garson Kanin, Robert Russell & Frank Ross; screenplay by Robert Russell, Frank Ross, Richard Flournoy & Lewis R. Foster; cinematography by Ted Tetzlaff; art direction by Lionel Banks & Rudolph Sternad, starring Jean Arthur, Noel McCrea & Charles Coburn.

Sources:


  1. “Another Old Movie Blog: War Stories Part 2 - ‘The More the Merrier.’” Accessed January 12, 2016. http://anotheroldmovieblog.blogspot.be/2010/12/war-stories-part-2-more-merrier.html.
  2. Aquila, Marie L. Movies as History: Scenes of America, 1930-1970. McFarland, 2014.
  3. “Christine Frederick.” Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia, November 7, 2015. https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Christine_Frederick&oldid=689558167.
  4. “Christine Frederick: Kitchen Innovator of Efficiency.” Edible Long Island. Accessed January 11, 2016. http://www.ediblelongisland.com/2014/03/17/christine-frederick-kitchen-innovator-efficiency/.
  5. Dancyger, Ken. The Director’s Idea: The Path to Great Directing. Taylor & Francis, 2006.
  6. “From Laurel & Hardy to James Dean and Beyond: A Love Letter to George Stevens.” Sister Celluloid, December 18, 2015. http://sistercelluloid.com/2015/12/18/14994/.
  7. “George Stevens.” IMDb. Accessed January 30, 2016. http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0828419/.
  8. “Haphazard Stuff - THE BLOG: The More The Merrier (1943) - A Review.” Accessed January 12, 2016. http://haphazard-stuff.blogspot.be/2015/11/the-more-merrier-1943-review.html.
  9. Inc, Active Interest Media. Old-House Journal. Active Interest Media, Inc., 1999.
  10. Jr, George Stevens. George Stevens: A Filmmaker’s Journey. Documentary, Biography, 1985.
  11. MarsMoonlight, Publicada por. “Back to Golden Days: Film Friday: ‘The More the Merrier’ (1943).” Accessed January 23, 2016. http://back-to-golden-days.blogspot.be/2015/11/film-friday-more-merrier-1943.html.
  12. Milberg, Doris. The Art of the Screwball Comedy: Madcap Entertainment from the 1930s to Today. McFarland, 2013.
  13. Rutherford, Janice Williams. Selling Mrs. Consumer: Christine Frederick and the Rise of Household Efficiency. University of Georgia Press, 2010.
  14. “Scientific Management.” Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia, January 20, 2016. https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Scientific_management&oldid=700681998.
  15. Stevens, George. The More the Merrier. Comedy, Romance, 1943.
  16. “The More the Merrier (1943).” Journeys in Classic Film. Accessed January 5, 2016. http://journeysinclassicfilm.com/2014/03/25/the-more-the-merrier-1943/.
  17. “The More the Merrier: Watch His Hands At All Times | The Sheila Variations.” Accessed January 23, 2016. http://www.sheilaomalley.com/?p=53490.

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Jan 28, 2016

"Catastroph!": Faking Domestic Bliss in 'Christmas in Connecticut' (1945)


This is Elizabeth Lane. She has a husband, a baby and a farm in Connecticut. She's the finest home-maker around; knows about raising a baby, can flip a flapjack, owns 36 rocking chairs, is America's best cook and has her own column in Smart Magazine where she writes about all of this. All women want to be her and all men want to marry her.


This is the image of Elizabeth Lane that is projected upon us, before we even see her. When we do see her for the first time, she most certainly is not in a farm in Connecticut, but in a small New York apartment — the habitat a career woman ought to have, apparently. Instead of wasting time by fixing a proper breakfast, she is eating sardines (presumingly canned) whilst typing up her new column. Her Uncle Felix, who owns a restaurant, even drops in to bring her breakfast so she can continue working, switching gender roles in a not too provocative way. She is even paying for her new mink coat herself, even though it will cost her six months' salary, because "it's very important to keep promises, especially to yourself."


Due to circumstances I won't go into detail about, Mrs. Lane later finds herself doing her patriotic duty of hosting a sailor for Christmas. In order to do this she has to pretend to be living in the Connecticut farm of a stuffy friend who keeps asking her to marry him. She has to pretend to be married with (and actually getting engaged to) this man and borrow a baby from another woman. Also Felix has to be taken along with her to Connecticut to provide the food for the Christmas feast. She goes through all of this just to keep her job. "The things a girl does for a mink coat."

We become fully aware of how clueless as a mother Elizabeth is when it's time for the baby's bath. After taking off its diaper, Elizabeth casually tosses it in the air, not knowing what else to do with it. When she's struggling to put the baby in the tub, Jones offers to test the temperature for her, already rolling up his sleeve. Apparently he's a self-proclaimed expert at bathing babies, making him a better housewife than Elizabeth. She gladly hands the baby over to her guest, once again switching gender roles. Returning after Jones successfully bathed the baby, the struggle with the fresh diaper begins. Not knowing how to fold it, Elizabeth hands over the diaper to Jones, with the excuse that she will in the mean time fix the baby's dinner. Once again her hero knows how to handle the situation and Elizabeth is convinced: what a man.


One of the very housewifely acts described by Elizabeth in her column was the flipping of flapjacks. This strikes a nostalgic chord with both Mr. Yardley (Mrs. Lane's publisher who invited himself over) and Mr. Jones, persistently requesting Mrs. Lane to flip just one pancake for them. The word "persistently" is added deliberately to point out that the men won't take no for an answer, not caring for Elizabeth's excuses of not being in the mood for it or being out of practice. They want to see "America's most resourceful home-maker" do her tricks.

When Felix tried to teach Elizabeth to "flip-flop the flop-flips" that morning, she failed numerous times, with the flapjacks always ending up everywhere but in the pan. However, the men get what they wish for, and with three anticipating and one very nervous man looking on, she successfully flips the flapjack. This, I might add, doesn't do anything for the story, apart from letting her keep up the illusion longer.


Christmas in Connecticut is a Wartime Christmas classic and starts of differently than others of the same type. The first scene of the film has a German submarine torpedoing a US ship. Even though we start off with American men at war, the real battle takes place back at home, where the gender that needs saving is the American woman.

What we have here is a film rather mockingly telling us what the ideal post-war wife, the domestic goddess, should be and should be able to do. Remember that during the war, women's roles were of less domestic nature. When the men left to fight in the war, they left behind their jobs with only women to do them. Not only it became acceptable for women to become taxi drivers, operate heavy machinery, make munition and more; it was expected of them: "Do the job HE left behind." War, for many US women, was about gaining mobility, strength and freedom. It got women out of the home where they had been confined to.

After WWII ended, women were expected to go back to the place that society had destined for them, meaning: back to their domestic tasks, while the men would get back to their manly jobs. While some of them returned, things had definitely changed. Women had changed.

An article in LIFE dating from 1947 wrote about a woman's work, visualizing the 100-hour workweek of a housewife:

"Mrs. John McWeeney of Rye, N.Y. has a big, good-looking husband who works in a nut and bolt company, and three children, Shawn, a grave little 4-year-old; John, called “Rusty,” almost 2, and baby Mark, 4 months old. She lives in a bright new seven-room house that has a safe backyard for Shawn and Rusty to play in and a number of modern machines to help her with her household chores. She uses a diaper service and she can afford a cleaning woman once a week who does the heavy laundry.

"The picture [below] shows the household tasks that Marjorie must accomplish every week. She has a crib and four beds to make up each day, totaling 35 complete bed-makings a week. She has hundreds of knives, forks and utensils to wash, food to buy and prepare for a healthy family of five and a whole house to dust and sweep. . . "

The article emphasized the dilemma women of 1947 had. Before the war the only big decision a woman had to make was choosing her husband and after marriage her duties were confined to the household. After the war, however, a growing number of women were confused and frustrated by the conflict between traditional ideas about a woman's place and the increasing reality of female involvement in activities outside the home. Although she still wanted to marry and have children, she also wanted to take part in the world beyond the domestic. The problem was that society's norms and values didn't yet offer women decent alternatives to being a homemaker.

Housewife Marjorie McWeeney amid symbolic display of her week’s housework. Photo by Nina Leen for Life, June 16, 1947, p. 105
It seems silly to talk about this when discussing a lighthearted comedy like Christmas in Connecticut, but the many traces of wartime (and even feminism) in this film can't go unnoticed, although they are presented in the form of gags. The film's comedy depends on the domestic shortcomings of Elizabeth, but she never loses her desirability, apart from to Mr. Sloane. Sloane, the conventional type, is glad that in the end he didn't mary Elizabeth, because she isn't "how Mrs. Sloane should be". "You've disrupted my household!" he even accuses Elizabeth. But the sailor will gladly marry her, even though she can't cook. Felix even tells her never to learn how to cook, for if she does, she won't be able to write about it the same way she does now, "all easy and fun".

She may not be able to change a diaper, she can't flip a flapjack and most of all: she can't cook, but "what a wife!", to speak in Uncle Felix' words.

Next week a post about The More The Merrier (1943), also staying in the spirit of war, where torpedoes and wartime housing shortage play a big role.

Credits:

Produced by William Jacobs & Jack L. Warner; Directed by Peter Godfrey; Story by Aileen Hamilton; Screenplay by Lionel Houser & Adele Comandini; Cinematography by Carl E. Guthrie; Art direction by Stanley Fleischer; Starring Barbara Stanwyck, Dennis Morgan and Sydney Greenstreet


Sources:

  1. “25 Days of Christmas: Christmas in Connecticut (1945).” Journeys in Classic Film. Accessed January 3, 2016. http://journeysinclassicfilm.com/2015/12/12/25-days-of-christmas-christmas-in-connecticut-1945/.
  2. “A Film Celebrating Bad Cooks: Christmas in Connecticut.” Cary Grant Won’t Eat You. Accessed January 3, 2016. http://carygrantwonteatyou.com/christmas-in-connecticut/.
  3. Bryant, Joyce. “How War Changed the Role of Women in the United States.” Yale-New Haven Teachers Institute, n.d. http://www.yale.edu/ynhti/curriculum/units/2002/3/02.03.09.x.html.
  4. Chafe, William H., and William Henry Chafe. The Paradox of Change: American Women in the 20th Century. Oxford University Press, 1992.
  5. “Coleman’s Corner in Cinema...: Christmas in Connecticut (1945).” Accessed January 4, 2016. http://colemancornerincinema.blogspot.be/2008/12/christmas-in-connecticut-1945.html.
  6. Godfrey, Peter. Christmas in Connecticut. Comedy, Romance, 1945.
  7. Levison, Frances. “American Woman’s Dilemma.” Life, June 16, 1947.
  8. Ptak, John F. “‘Her Work’ Visualizing the100-Hour Work Week of the 1947 Housewife.” JF Ptak Science Books, June 1, 2010. http://longstreet.typepad.com/thesciencebookstore/2010/06/jf.html.
  9. says, Kelly. “1940’s Fashion - Housewifes Daily Routine | Glamourdaze.” Accessed January 4, 2016. http://glamourdaze.com/2011/02/1940s-fashion-housewifes-daily-routine.html.
  10. Stein, Sadie. “Silver Belles.” Paris Review Daily, December 19, 2013. http://www.theparisreview.org/blog/2013/12/19/silver-belles/.
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Jan 21, 2016

What She Loved Most Was Cleaning: Keeping House with Joan Crawford

There is a great possibility that when I coin the terms "Joan Crawford" and "cleanliness", you will immediately envision a raging Faye Dunaway as Joan Crawford (in Mommie Dearest, 1981) shouting "No wire hangers!". This is not the only reference in the film to Crawford's very peculiar way of taking care of her possessions. Another scene shows Dunaway on all fours, scrubbing the floor whilst claiming that she isn't mad at her maid, but she's mad at the dirt. She seems somewhat in control over herself in that scene, but the scene that follows the "No wire hangers"-scene shows her scouring the bathroom floor in hysterics.

image via Discussionist
image via Nessa in the Sky with Diamonds
The film was based on the book of the same title that daughter Christina wrote after Joan's death and after discovering that her mother left her (and brother Christopher) nothing "for reasons which are well known to them". Please do remember that this book is only one person's story, and there are more sides to every story.

However, during her life, Joan Crawford did nothing to deny that she was compulsive when it came to cleanliness, and that she was indeed a rather strict mother. Multiple articles have discussed Crawford's housekeeping. She would give tips on housekeeping to anyone who would listen, especially later in life, and would more than once refer to herself as Harriet Craig.

On January 16, 1970 a covered-in-pink-sequins Joan Crawford was guest on The David Frost Show. Only one minute into the interview she admits that she is a compulsive housekeeper. "I played Harriet Craig once and I was ready for the role." When after that confession Mr. Frost wants to ask her what her favorite role is, she already cuts him off at "What is your favorite..." when she promptly answers with "pork chops". She thought he was about to ask her for her favorite recipe.

Vincent Sherman, director of Harriet Craig, recalls that Crawford had the same obsessive attitude toward her home as the film's protagonist, stating that she was very old-fashioned in how she believed a man should treat a lady. In return, she would be the perfect lady of the house and a meticulous housekeeper, at times even doing the actual work herself.

Apparently even Joan Crawford herself used to laugh about her plastic slipcovers (more on that later on in the post) and say, "I'm Harriet Craig—but I can't help it!"

Left: photographer unknown, 1940s. Center & right: photos by Eve Arnold, 1959.
In an article called Hollywood's Rules for Love: Joan Crawford and Gary Cooper on a Great Subject, published in 1931 in Silver Screen, Crawford tells about what qualities she loves in men. In a part devoted to cleanliness, she writes: "When we were in school we learned that cleanliness is next to godliness. Perhaps as a child I doubted it, but now I know that it is true." However, she does stress that a woman who isn't careful about her appearance, cannot expect it from a man.

An extensive article in Screen Guide (published in 1950, the year Harriet Craig was released) teases their readers by writing: "Her name is familiar to everyone—but you might not know about the Joan we bring you in this story". "The Joan" they are bringing is a Joan Crawford that is just like any other person; She opens the door in a cotton housedress, does her own laundry and she goes down on her hands and knees to scrub the kitchen floor. It even tells a nice story of how one time she couldn't sleep because she didn't hang her gown properly:

"A stickler for neatness, Joan has a daily ritual which never goes undone. She empties her purse, stacks her shoes neatly in the closet, and hangs up her gown. One night, however, when a friend berated her for super­ fastidiousness, she vowed to toss her apparel over chairs and let them fall where they might. 'I did that,' Joan says, 'and I couldn't sleep all night. I finally had to get up at three in the morning and put everything away. Only then could I fall asleep!'"

Modern Screen article published in 1947 quickly mentions Joan's Brentwood home. Although fully staffed, "Joan checks on every department pretty thoroughly, but nobody seems to mind." One year later Joan graced the cover of the February edition of Motion Picture, and in the article explaining why Crawford is their covergirl they also mention her cleanliness. Next to saying that "although she's all that's lush and plush about Hollywood, she's not afraid of getting dishpan hands. She can, and has done, her own housework—sweeping, dusting, stacking firewood, cooking and mopping." they also mention her personal cleanliness. According to the article she showers at least four times a day, unless she has got nothing to do—then she takes another shower.

Left: Silver Screen, Feb. 1931 - Center: Modern Screen, Aug. 1947 - Right: Modern Screen, May 1948 (click for larger image)

Also in 1948, Modern Screen featured a close-up on Joan written by Norbert Lusk, who had been her friend for thirteen years by then. He also addresses the "obsessive" housekeeping of Joan, calling her a perfectionist, and even a "maniac housekeeper".

Several people who knew Joan Crawford personally remember her plastic slipcovers. Her good friend and interior designer William Haines has been quoted as saying that sofas were discarded after soiling them once, until Joan discovered that she could cover them with plastic slipcovers. Carleton Varney, her other interior decorator, said that "there were more objects wrapped in plastic in Joan's apartment than in an A&P meat counter." Sy Kasoff also mentions the slipcovers as one of the things he remembers best about Joan Crawford in his book Odyssey: Early Days on the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson. Fashion designer Arnold Scaasi also talked about visiting Joan in her Fifth Ave. apartment for a photoshoot. After being welcomed by Joan, Scaasi and the photographer dutifully removed their shoes as not to soil the white carpet. The white couches (it was an all-white apartment, after all) were protected against intruding dirt by the plastic slipcovers.

Joan Crawford photographed in her all-white Fifth Ave. apartment for Holiday Magazine in 1961. Clothes designed by Arnold Scaasi.

When asked about the slipcovers by Roy Newquist in Conversations with Joan Crawford, she has this to say:

"Look, they keep the upholstery clean, and I so seldom have guests these days, that I might as well be as orderly as possible. With all this crap in the air--nothing stays clean that isn't covered. We do not live in a hygienic age. 

"Maybe I've always been a nut when it comes to cleanliness. When I was a kid I'd scrub the hell out of the rooming houses and crummy apartments my mother and her husbands lived in...and even after I had the money to hire an army of housekeepers and maids I ended up doing the cleaning myself because they never got things really clean. It's just part of being civilized, that's all. And I'm not about to apologize for it. 

"I had one hell of a time with [second husband] Franchot. He found it amusing and irritating, both, and there were times I could have strangled him when he'd answer the phone and say, 'Sorry, she can't speak to you right now; she's cleaning the toilets.' 

"That's one thing I could never understand, out on the Coast. I'd go to a party at someone's house, more like a mansion, really, and I'd go to the bathroom and have to wipe the seat with wet toilet paper before I dared sit down, or I'd sit on a couch, wearing a white gown, and come away with a film of dust. Once I went into the kitchen for a glass of water, and when I turned on the light the cockroaches scattered like mad. I don't understand this sort of sloppiness, and I don't think I ever will."

Joan Crawford and husband Alfred Steele photographed in their Fifth Ave. apartment, 1958, lounging on couches covered with plastic slipcovers.

The title of this blogpost refers to an article written by Doris Lilly for People Weekly (May 30, 1977), where she recalls the last months of Joan Crawford. Although most of the article focuses on the unhappiness of Joan during her last months, there are three paragraphs dedicated to "what she loved most": cleaning. Lilly recalls how Crawford had once told her that "there's a little bit of Harriet Craig in all of us." The parquet floors in her apartment were waxed every other day, draperies were cleaned once a month and plastic liners were installed on the window sill. On top of that, each and every piece of furniture (and walls) had been treated with a special vinylizing process that could not be penetrated by dirt. These "household 'idiosyncrasies'" were also mentioned in another 1977 article that remembers Mrs. Crawford (Rona Barrett's Hollywood, Oct. 1977). Only in this article it is stated that the floors were cleaned and waxed daily, instead of every other day. According to both articles she also swapped out all living plants and flowers for artificial ones, that could be cleaned with soap and water, and she evidently still wasn't afraid to get on her knees, as she had strained her back while scrubbing the kitchen floor three weeks before her death.

She truly reveals herself as a Martha Stewart avant la lettre in her 1972 book My Way of Life, in which she covers all aspects in life that are of importance and how she deals with them. I tried incorporating the book in this post, but it truly deserves a blogpost dedicated to nothing but the book. I will end with a quote from the book, coming directly from Mrs. Crawford's lips:

"Be ruthless about possessions, or they will possess you."

Mrs. Crawford was an impeccable housekeeper. She was peculiar and extreme, but nothing negative can be said about how clean everything was. Partly due to the media coverage concerning Joan's cleanliness, she has been immortalized as Mrs. Clean (this, apparently is the nickname Merv Griffin had for Crawford). Next week will bring us Elizabeth Lane (Christmas in Connecticut, 1945), "America's most resourceful home-maker". At least, that is what's printed in the magazines. And yes, I do know that the post is one month overdue.

Sources:
  1. “Actress Joan Crawford Believed An Organized Mind Can Accomplish Anything.” OrganizingLA Blog. Accessed January 14, 2016. http://www.organizingla.com/organizingla_blog/2013/04/actress-joan-crawford-organized-home-clutter-free-clean-orderly.html.
  2. Barrett, Rona. “The Way They Were ­— Joan Crawford.” Rona Barrett’s Hollywood, October 1977.
  3. Bischop, Eric. “Strange Woman.” Modern Screen, August 1947.
  4. Busby, Marquis. “Hollywood’s Rules for Love: Joan Crawford and Gary Cooper on a Great Subject.” Silver Screen, February 1931. https://archive.org/details/silverscreen01unse.
  5. Chandler, Charlotte. Not the Girl Next Door, n.d.
  6. Considine, Shaun. Bette And Joan: The Divine Feud. Hachette UK, 2015.
  7. Crawford, Joan. Joan Crawford Reads “My Way of Life.” 9 vols., n.d. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FRkY5HAjv2w.
  8. Doonan, Simon. “A Condom For Your Couch? Carleton Varney On Mrs. Clean.” Observer. Accessed January 14, 2016. http://observer.com/2002/02/a-condom-for-your-couch-carleton-varney-on-mrs-clean/.
  9. Inc, Time. LIFE. Time Inc, 1964.
  10. “Joan Crawford: Hollywood’s Most Glamorous Star.” Screen Guide, October 1950.
  11. “Joan Crawford on The David Frost Show.” The David Frost Show, January 16, 1970. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sVHjugKSslA.
  12. Jones, Stephanie. “New York City: Imperial House (22-H) 150 East 69th Street.” The Best of Everything, n.d. http://www.joancrawfordbest.com/geoimperialh.htm.
  13. Kasoff, Sy. Odyssey: Early Days on the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson. AuthorHouse, 2008.
  14. Lilly, Doris. “Joan Crawford a Suicide?” People Weekly, May 30, 1977.
  15. Lusk, Norbert. “Close-up (Joan Crawford).” Modern Screen, May 1948. https://archive.org/details/modernscreen3637unse.
  16. “Marilyn Monroe, Frank Sinatra, and Other Old Hollywood Stars’ Homes.” Architectural Digest. Accessed January 14, 2016. http://www.architecturaldigest.com/gallery/old-hollywood-at-home-marilyn-monroe-frank-sinatra-joan-crawford-slideshow.
  17. “Mommie Dearest: Was Joan Crawford Really a Whacko?” The Straight Dope, May 14, 2002. http://boards.straightdope.com/sdmb/showthread.php?t=115182&highlight=Christina+Crawford.
  18. Newquist, Roy, and Joan Crawford. Conversations with Joan Crawford. Citadel Press, 1980.
  19. Perry, Frank. Mommie Dearest. Biography, Drama, 1981.
  20. Quirk, Lawrence J., and William Schoell. Joan Crawford: The Essential Biography. University Press of Kentucky, 2013.
  21. Scaasi, Arnold. Women I Have Dressed (and Undressed!). Simon and Schuster, 2004.
  22. Skolsky, Sidney. “Joan Crawford, Our Cover Girl—and Why.” Motion Picture, February 1948.
  23. “Uh, Joan Crawford’s 1971 Book ‘My Way Of Life’ Is Kind Of Super-Bonkers.” xoJane. Accessed January 14, 2016. http://www.xojane.com/entertainment/joan-crawford-advice-book.

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Jan 14, 2016

There's No Place For Them Here: Home, Order and Independency in Harriet Craig (1950)

In last week's post I mentioned how Rebecca's bedroom (in Hitchcock's Rebecca, 1940) had become a shrine, with a place for everything and everything in its place. This surely counts for the Craig's household as well. Harriet Craig (played by Joan Crawford) is the perfect mistress of the house, with a talent for running a household.

At the beginning of the film we see a beautiful house with the servants running up and down the stairs. We hear the mistress of the house being irritated because the tissue paper she asked for is taking so long. Then we find out what all of the commotion is about: Mrs. Craig's mother has been moved to a sanitarium and she wants to catch the next train to visit her mother. The shouting for tissue paper is forgiven, because we all know the stress of catching a train, and especially to visit a parent in a sanitarium, although the majority of us probably doesn't stuff every shoe and dress with tissue paper. This is just a lady that takes really good care of her possessions: she's immaculately groomed, her wardrobe looks perfect, she packs her luggage with care and she is leery about her interior. For when everything looks nice, it is nice and it will be loved.

We soon learn that Harriet values her home to extremes. She knows the place by heart; every painting, every coffee cup and every lamp has been put in its place by her, and in its place it should remain. When entering a room, Harriet scans the interior for changes—in other words: traces—to map out the movements that were made during her absence.


One of Harriet's most prized possessions is an Early Ming Dynasty vase. She notices when the vase is just the tiniest bit too close to the edge of the mantle or when it's not perfectly centered. She proudly tells a party about the old custom of filling the vase with rice from your wedding feast to protect the home. One of the ladies replies that "it takes more than rice these days."

On the train back home from visiting her mother in the sanitarium, Harriet confesses to her cousin: "I don't like trains. I don't like the feeling of being rushed along in the darkness, having no control, putting my life completely in someone else's hands." This confession comes rather out of the blue and is followed by her rational approach to marriage. "The average woman," she says, "does completely put her life into someone else's hands; her husband's." But not Harriet, independent as she is, for marriage is merely a "practical matter" to achieve security; she becomes a wife to get a house.

Upon arriving back home, the first trace that is out of place is spotted before even entering the house: the newspaper is still outside. She leaves it there and enters the house, eager to find out what has happened. She stands still and takes in the view, carefully registering every object that is out of its place. Quickly she maps out a scenario of what has happened the night before.


The house looks like a rather wild party has taken place: The furniture is out of place, there's beer bottles on the floor and on the piano, the lampshade is tilted, the blinds aren't closed (they should be closed by 11 a.m. to prevent the sun from fading the colors in the room) and a full ashtray indicates that people have been smoking heavily indoors. A closer look at the ashtray reveals a cigarette butt with lipstick and then there's a vase full of Mrs. Frazier's roses. Hadn't Harriet clearly told Mrs. Harold, one of the servants, that there was no place for them here?

Mrs. Frazier is the "scheming widow" who lives next door together with her little boy. She can always be found tending her roses. Innocent as she may seem, she's a threat to Harriet's controlled household: she's friendly, her house is being lived in (with traces to prove it) and she's got a son, which is one of Walter Craig's biggest wishes. Naturally Harriet wants to keep Mrs. Frazier from invading their private lives by keeping her roses out of her home and out of her husband's sight.


As a contrast to Mrs. Frazier's cozy home, the Craig's house takes aesthetics over comfort. From the first glance it is clear that a lot of thought has been put into decorating the house. Symmetry can be found everywhere and all of the rooms have the same oriental influences. Throughout the house figurines are displayed, either in glass showcases or as lamp bases. When it comes to the furniture: aesthetics over comfort, once again. This becomes painstakingly clear when we see Walter trying to become comfortable on the sofa, without success, not even when rearranging the throw pillows. Harriet, however, seems perfectly at home on the sofa the way it is. She is comfortable with keeping up appearances.

In reviews of Harriet Craig, Harriet is often written about as the bitch of all bitches, with not a good cell in her body. Indeed, Harriet isn't a warm person and she does some heartless things like feigning infertility, or preventing her cousin from being loved. It's inexcusable, but it doesn't make Harriet heartless.


Early on in her childhood Harriet was hurt by her father when she caught him with "a vulgar blonde". The father left Harriet and her mother alone to make ends meet. From this moment on Harriet decided that no man can be trusted. The only person a woman can rely on is herself. Every part of her life is carefully planned and thought about as if it were a game, and she is playing it by the rules.

Harriet doesn't have to build walls around her to protect herself from getting bruised again for the house provides them for her. Decorated with hand painted oriental wall hangings, it becomes a lovely facade. The house is her safe haven, her territory, so when somebody disrupts her household, it disrupts her. A vase too close to the edge isn't just any object put in a different position, it is someone endangering the security of her home.


When Mr. Craig finally rebels against Harriet, he takes it out on the house, for that is the only way to hurt her. He smokes inside, throws the stub on the carpet and finally finds a way to be comfortable in the sofa; by rearranging the pillows and reclining with his shoes still on. He is taking back control. This is where the importance of the Ming vase and all it stands for comes back. Walter carelessly takes the vase from its pedestal and pours out the rice that was supposed to protect their home. He then smashes it.

H: "What was that?!"
W: "Nothing very much."
H: "What do you mean 'nothing very much'? It sounded as though the whole house fell down."
W: "Maybe it did."
[...]
H: "Why would you deliberately destroy a beautiful thing like this?"
W: "I didn't like it."

He has smashed Harriet's safe haven and broken down the facade. Their marriage is over, but "you can keep the house." And so Harriet remains alone in the house. The films end with Harriet drying her tears and straightening her back, trying to repair the facade with all her might. The last shot is of her ascending the stairs, before fading to black.

By the end of the film it is safe to say the house is the center of the film, the main protagonist even, for Harriet is her house: beautiful, but deserted.


In an article in People Weekly (May 30, 1977) Doris Lilly recalls Joan Crawford once telling her that
"there's a little bit of Harriet Craig in all of us." Crawford was known to be a fastidious housekeeper and she didn't shy away from branding herself as one. Next week's post will be about how Joan became known as the Queen of clean.

Question to you:

What I can't seem to figure out is why the interior is so oriental. As far as I know orientalist decor went out of style in the 1930's, so why would Harriet go for something outdated?

Credits:

Produced by William Dozier; Directed by Vincent Sherman; Based on play by George Kelly; Screenplay by Anne Froelich & James Gunn; Cinematography by Joseph Walker; Art direction by Walter Holscher; Starring Joan Crawford and Wendell Corey


Sources:

  1. “A ★★★★ Review of Harriet Craig (1950).” Accessed January 3, 2016. http://letterboxd.com/overbreakfast/film/harriet-craig/.
  2. Basinger, Jeanine. A Woman’s View: How Hollywood Spoke to Women, 1930-1960. Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, 2013.
  3. Bruno, Giuliana. Atlas of Emotion: Journeys in Art, Architecture, and Film. Verso, 2002.
  4. “Harriet Craig (Sony Choice Collection).” DVD Talk. Accessed January 3, 2016. http://www.dvdtalk.com/reviews/61509/harriet-craig/.
  5. “I’m Not Patty: Are Harriet Craig and Beth Jarrett Just Ordinary People?” Accessed January 3, 2016. http://imnotpatty.blogspot.be/2010/03/are-harriet-craig-and-beth-jarrett-just.html.
  6. Matt. “Films Feminism Forgot: HARRIET CRAIG (1950).” Ruthless Reviews. Accessed January 3, 2016. http://www.ruthlessreviews.com/20730/films-feminism-forgot-harriet-craig-1950/.
  7. Matthews, Glenna. “Just a Housewife”: The Rise and Fall of Domesticity in America. USA: Oxford University Press, 1987.
  8. “Self-Styled Siren: Harriet Craig (1950).” Accessed January 10, 2016. http://selfstyledsiren.blogspot.be/2011/08/harriet-craig-1950.html.
  9. Sherman, Vincent. Harriet Craig. Drama. Columbia Pictures, 1950.


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Jan 7, 2016

R and I: Monograms in Rebecca (1940)

"The shadow of this woman darkened our love", announces a newspaper advert for Rebecca (1940)from the Derby Daily Telegraph (07/Oct/1940), which certainly sets the mood for the film.

Rebecca is Alfred Hitchcock's film adaptation of Daphne du Maurier's novel of the same title, written in 1938. The story tells of Manderley, the estate of Maxim de Winter, in all its ancient, beautiful glory. Rebecca, the late first Mrs de Winter, made it so. When the Second Mrs de Winter comes to live at Manderley, Rebecca's influence is still present. How can the shy new bride ever fill her place or escape her shadow? Rebecca's presence, although only hinted at, is inescapable. From verbal references to objects and monograms to flowers, she is the most dominant character in the house.

Before we even see Mr and the Second Mrs de Winter living their lives as a couple in Manderley, we see a close up of a napkin with Rebecca's initials "R de W" embroidered on it. The camera then zooms out to show that the couple is having its dinner at a ridiculously large table, with them seated on far ends of the table, separated by a large empty space. Rebecca has already come between them, even before the first course is served at Manderley.


After breakfast Rebecca always did her correspondence in the morning room, the Second Mrs. de Winter is told. After getting lost Fontaine's character finds her way into the morning-room, where the fire is lit and her desk is waiting for her. A symmetrical display of the administration once again makes clear to the protagonist that it once belonged to Rebecca. In glittery thread Rs are embroidered on the covers of notebooks all serving different purposes: menus, addresses and guests. When the phone rings the Second Mrs de Winter, still startled by the presence of the previous mistress of the house, answers with: "Mrs de Winter? Oh, I'm afraid you have made a mistake, Mrs de Winter has been dead for over a year.", only after hanging up realizing she is Mrs de Winter now.


After a visit and a good looking over from Maxim's sister and brother-in-law, Mr and Mrs de Winter take their dog Jasper for a walk. Jasper, disobeying his master's commands, runs to a boathouse on the beach. The Second Mrs de Winter, also disobeying Maxim, runs after Jasper to get him back. Entering the boathouse with the excuse of looking for a piece of rope to tie Jasper with, she finds an exquisitely decorated interior, more resembling a cottage than a boathouse. While looking around for that piece of rope her eye catches yet another monogram bearing the initials "R de W".


Maxim shouts at his bride for not listening to him when he told her not to follow Jasper to the boathouse, adding that "if she had the same memories as him, she wouldn't go there, talk about it or even think about it". To dry her tears, the Second Mrs de Winter reaches for a handkerchief in the pocket of the mackintosh she's wearing, expecting to find one there. And she does. It is Rebecca's handkerchief, also carrying her monogram. That at such a vulnerable moment, when Maxim's new bride is crying after a row with her husband, it has to be Rebecca's handkerchief absorbing her tears, might for me be the darkest presence of the monogram throughout the film.

One of the climaxes of the film happens when the Second Mrs de Winter enters Rebecca's bedroom, the holy of holies, for the first time. The room seems to be a shrine, a place for everything and everything in its place. So much so, that you wouldn't even dare to touch anything. When Mrs Danvers catches the new Mrs de Winter in the bedroom, she gives her a guided tour making sure to point out all of the luxurious items. She caresses the new mistress of the house's cheek with fur belonging to the old one, shows Rebecca's lingerie especially made for her by nuns and her nightgown that's so delicate you can even see her hand through. The nightgown is kept in a silk case that "I embroidered for her myself", Mrs Danvers explains. While Mrs Danvers is still obsessively looking at the sheerness of the nightgown, the Second Mrs de Winter turns around and starts walking away.


The last shot we see before fading to black is the camera zooming in on the silk nightdress case, going up in flames to symbolize an end to Rebecca's hold on the couple. It looks like in the end she didn't win.


Monograms first became popular for personal use in the Victorian Era. Initially textiles were monogrammed to make sure personal possessions wouldn't get lost or mixed up in laundry. Very rapidly it became a sign of prestige and wealth, so the Victorians started monogramming not only linens, but virtually everything they owned. Note that the Manderley that was created for the film is of Victorian architecture. Although monograms went out of style during WWI, they were making a comeback when the novel was written and the film was created. Styles, however, had changed. Victorian monograms were more artistic of nature, whereas the monograms of the 1930s and 1940s were of a more streamlined and typographical kind. As Julia Coburn wrote in "Make Your Own Monograms" (Ladies' Home Journal, May 1935): "... if you wish to be in fashion today, the design of your monogram must be in streamline simplicity. And —Gothic or modern— monogram you must, for everything is initialed these days."

In Rebecca, "R's" or "R de W's" seem to be looming everywhere. Our heroine, however, doesn't seem to have any monogrammed objects. Furthermore, she doesn't even have a name, only being referred to by pronouns ("I") or "the Second Mrs de Winter". Without a name, the protagonist isn't even worthy of having her own character, it seems. She is constantly reminded of Rebecca and how she is nothing like her. People, as well as the abundance of monograms imply that Rebecca was endlessly more elegant, more prestigious. So she tries to live up to her glamorous predecessor more and more by changing her hair and wardrobe and asking about what things Rebecca would have done, trying to become Rebecca instead of developing her own personality.

It is interesting to note that the monograms on both the nightdress case and the handkerchief (the more personal, intimate objects) seem to be in Rebecca's own handwriting, whereas the monograms on the napkin, plaid and notebooks are too curly, too frilly (although the 'W' bears resemblance to her handwriting). If anyone has a theory on why they did this, I would love to hear it. Fun fact: the handwriting for Rebecca was penned by Selznick's wife.

To end this post I would like to share how du Maurier described the morning room in her novel (p. 89):

This was a woman's room, graceful, fragile, the room of someone who had chosen every particle of furniture with great care, so that each chair, each vase, each small, infinitesimal thing should be in harmony with one another, and with her own personality. [...] There was no intermingling of style, no confusing of period, and the result was perfection in a strange and startling way, [...]

This makes a perfect transition to next week's post on Harriet Craig (1950), starring Joan Crawford, the protagonist of which seems to have a lot in common with Rebecca.

Credits:

Produced by David O. Selznick; Directed by Alfred Hitchcock; Based on novel by Daphne du Maurier; Screenplay by Robert E. Sherwood and Joan Harrison; Cinematography by George Barnes; Art direction by Lyle R. Wheeler; Starring Laurence Olivier and Joan Fontaine.

Sources:

  1. BlondeAtTheFilm. “Rebecca (1940).” The Blonde at the Film. Accessed December 2, 2015. http://theblondeatthefilm.com/2013/10/31/rebecca-1940/.
  2. Doherty, K. “Rebecca (Alfred Hitchcock 1940)- Image Is Everything.” Filmtank.org, October 25, 2009. http://filmtank.org/forum/showthread.php?t=114.
  3. du Maurier, Daphne. Rebecca. London: Arrow Books Ltd., 1992.
  4. Hitchcock, Alfred. Rebecca. Selznick International Pictures, 1940.
  5. Jacobs, Steven. Wrong House, the. Rotterdam: nai010 publishers, 2013.
  6. Strauss, Marc Raymond. Hitchcock’s Objects as Subjects: The Significance of Things on Screen. McFarland, 2015.
  7. Zegarac, Nick. “Hollywood Art, the.” American Hitchcock, 2013.
  8. http://www.embroideryarts.com/


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Dec 31, 2015

Hollywood Amuses Me*

Laura’s portrait as the investigator’s main obsession. (Laura, 1944)

On the 3rd of October 2015, around 8PM I wrote this:

Research working title: At Home in the Movies: Artificiality of Home in (Classic) Hollywood.

In all honesty I didn't know whether Classic Hollywood or Classical Hollywood was the correct term. In even more honesty; I still don't know which is correct. And whilst we're making confessions, I'd also like to mention that I'm no expert by any means on the subject, I'd just like to become one, eventually.

On this blog the main focus will be how the home is depicted in Hollywood during the golden years, either in films (The Wizard of Oz (1939), Laura (1944), Auntie Mame (1958), and many others) or in the lives of the stars.

How does the set design reflect the part the home or the house plays in the film and what techniques or tricks do they use to make the set look like it does? How do they make something so artificial look like a lived in home? Why should a character have a specific wallpaper in their house? Or how do they decide which flowers would suit the character?

Of course these homes were constructed for the film, but so were the off-screen personalities of these stars. As part of the Star System the film companies controlled the way the domestic lives of the stars were depicted to the public. The lives of the stars were literally as constructed as their onscreen characters and the sets the characters lived in. Can I also learn from —and use— the techniques the studios used to construct these stars?

This research is part of an artistic project about artificially creating domestic traces, but I won't go in details about that. Not yet, at least.

Please don't shy away from comments, for they can be highly educational to me and thus will be appreciated very much.

The next post will be about the presence of Rebecca through her monograms in Rebecca (1940) directed by Alfred Hitchcock and starring Joan Fontaine and Laurence Olivier. It will be published Thursday January 7.

* The title of this post is part of a quote by Grace Kelly that goes:

Hollywood amuses me. Holier-than-thou for the public and unholier-than-the-devil in reality.









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