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  • Mid-Century Fetish: Torch Song

    Posted on August 10th, 2010 Toby Weiss 2 comments

    It is great fortune to have another Joan Crawford film to dissect for its art direction (the previous one being The Best Of Everything), though this film is notorious for soooo many other things that not many notice the details of the scenery being chewed up. In fact, I didn’t notice it the first time I saw this 1953 MGM musical in the 1990s. But much thanks goes to Steve Hayes – the esteemed Tired Old Queen at the Movies – who inspired me to watch this film again.

    Here’s Mr. Hayes vivid 3-minute overview of this must-see flick.

    The opening credits clue you into the visual delights that will unfold, because the art directors are the justly-legendary Cedric Gibbons and the somewhat forgotten Preston Ames. While Gibbons put a never-to-be-overlooked art deco stamp on MGM movies from the 1930s and 40s, he was contractually given art director credits on all MGM movies until his retirement in 1956. So while he had to approve the look of each film, Torch Song definitely looks like the hand of Ames, who is best known for his collaborations with director Vincenti Minnelli on films such as An American in Paris, GigGi and (to my mind) Bells Are Ringing.

    For this overblown Crawford vehicle, it’s as if Ames purposely tried to compensate for the unflagging overwrought plots and performances by grounding the action in sets that looked like catalogs for the best in early 1950s residential modern design. From furniture to lamps to accessories, he found endless ways to upstage Miss Crawford (gasp!) in the hearts of mid-century modern design aficionados.

    Miss Crawford’s character Jenny Stewart is a deliciously repugnant battle axe of a Broadway star who obviously makes enough money to afford digs like this. While she prowls and growls at home, the camera takes every opportunity to share the details of her living quarters (where most of the movie takes place), and it is so sumptuous that I often had to rewind to pick up key dialogue that I’d missed.

    We do get to see a few other character’s places, like the modest home of Jenny Stewart’s mother, or the traditional-tinged-with modern apartment (above) of Tye Graham (played by Elizabeth Taylors’ then-husband Michael Wilding), the blind pianist who riles up Miss Crawford before (spoiler alert) taming the shrew.

    To my mind, the stars of the movie are – in this order – Miss Crawford, Jenny Stewart’s Living Room and Jenny Stewart’s Bedroom. And The Bedroom steals the movie outright for 14 minutes. During this long, unbroken scene with no dialogue, we watch Jenny Stewart deal with her vexation and frustration over Tye while cloistered away in The Bedroom.  She relentlessly paces the floor of muted gray carpet, plows into bed to play with the overhead metal lamp (above), pulling it down, sending it back up and swinging it from side to side.

    She goes through a series of cigarettes that are dramatically lit and violently stamped out in glamorous ashtrays atop gorgeous pieces of built-in furniture.

    And in one of the more spellbinding mimes during this 14-minutes, she ravages this clock, spinning its hands like flicking the spinner in a game of drunken Twister. The clock even gets a 5-second close-up, which robbed valuable time from Miss Crawford. Actually this bit with the clock was so odd and so absorbing that I didn’t understand why (other than it being fabulous) the clock figured so prominently and had to rewind to figure it out.  Which is the case with this entire scene; it felt like Crawford was only a game show model guiding you to the finer points of this bedroom’s high design.

    She even dutifully goes to the window and throws back the curtains so you can see the chairs and planter on the balcony! After watching the entire scene again, I realized we were supposed to be concentrating on Crawford’s anguish, and if she had any clue that Ames was stealing her thunder with the complicit approval of director Charles Walters, she’d have fired them both, immediately!

    The Living Room comes back for another great scene involving a party Jenny throws to lure blind Tye into her private world. She is the only woman in a sea of white men (and one lone black piano player) who must have been instructed to wear navy blue suits so they would coordinate with the brown tiger wood paneling and the white George Nelson pendant lamps.

    Jenny’s fury at (spoiler alert) being stood up by Tye causes her to kick everyone out as she runs back to The Bedroom, and for this scene featuring the silk drapes, Ames also sneaks in a new hanging lamp (upper left) whose orange bulbs echo the burning rage of Jenny.

    We now pause from adoring Jenny’s decor to pay homage to the most bizarre scene ever filmed – the musical production for “Two-Faced Woman.”

    If you’ve never done psychedelic drugs, this a safe way to experience a scary trip. For those who have done psychedelics, it’s an unwelcome acid flashback.

    Back to sobriety, more rooms in Jenny’s apartment are revealed, like her dressing room, all done up in colors a Barbie doll would choose if trying for a sophisticated look.

    And the doorbell ringing gives Ames another opportunity to introduce some more new features, like this built-in shelf with abstract sculpture…

    …and the Eero Saarinen Womb Chair, which upstages Wilding, who is adhering to the household rule of Men In Navy Suits. This scene also gives new angles on the rest of The Living Room that are so breathtaking that I overlooked the major plot point that Tye only came over to tell Jenny to piss off, which of course….

    …sends her running to his place, where she sneaks up on him, accosts him and makes him fall to floor in tears. This, naturally signals a great love and compassion…

    …that allows them to neck awkwardly through the closing credit.

    I only poke fun at the great Miss Crawford because she can no longer choke a wench! But seriously, she always had fabulously modern tastes for her own homes. Take a look at her New York City apartment from 1957-67. Which highlights the very real possibility that she loved everything about these Preston Ames sets, so didn’t mind how prominently they were featured. Though it takes a strong commitment (and fetish) to mid-century modern design to think they upstaged her.

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  • Connecting the Mad Men Dots

    Posted on January 5th, 2010 Toby Weiss No comments

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    In a previous post, I made a set design connection between the movie The Best of Everything and the TV series Mad Men.  I even wrote:“I’d make a bet that (Mad Men creator) Matthew Weiner has seen this movie even more times than I have, if only for set design research purposes.”

    From the photo above, turns out he’d not only seen the movie, but he and his writing staff used the book as research, and then inserted into an episode in Season 2.

    Betty Draper walks into the bedroom, where Don is reading a paperback copy of Rona Jaffee’s The Best of Everything.
    DON This is fascinating.
    BETTY It’s better than the Hollywood  version.
    DON It’s certainly dirtier.
    BETTY Joan Crawford is not what she was.  You know, honestly, I found her eyebrows completely unnerving. Like a couple of caterpillars pasted there.  Her standing next to Suzy Parker as if they were the same species.
    DON Well, some men like eyebrows, and all men like Joan Crawford.  Salvatore couldn’t stop talking about her.

    Trash talking Miss Crawford?  Another reason why I dislike Betty, and this moves to #1 on the list.  At least Don told her what for!

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  • Mid-Century Fetish: The Best Of Everything

    Posted on September 13th, 2009 Toby Weiss 8 comments

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    The Best of Everything is a rich chocolate sundae of Hollywood melodrama and mid-century modern design, with Miss Joan Crawford as the cherry on top.

    Filmed and released in 1959, the movie is based on the 1958 novel of the same name by Rona Jaffe.  The book is a really great read because it’s far more than a soap tale of 3 girls coming to New York City to find love and good fortune; it is a realistic snapshot of how post-WW2 cultural and corporate standards demanded the creation of Women’s Liberation.

    The dramatic and/or tragic stories of the girls’ journeys through sex and career were obvious bait for Hollywood, who added spoonfuls of glamor sugar to make the medicine go down, and this lesson was clearly understood and aped by both Cosmopolitan magazine and, later, Mad Men.   I’d make a bet that Matthew Weiner has seen this movie even more times than I have, if only for set design research purposes.

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    Along with Hope Lange, Barbara Lamont and Suzy Parker (above center), the Lever House should have been billed as a co-star, because it actually appears on screen as often as Joan Crawford.  It appears so much because it’s caddy corner on Park Avenue to the building where our heroines work…

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    … the Seagram Building.  So within the first 15 minutes of the film, you know you’re in for a rich and gooey mid-century modern treat.

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    The main character, Caroline Bender, comes to her first day of work as a typist and secretary at Fabian Publishing Company.   She arrives early to absorb the place, and the camera pans over this Mondrian-like office set.  The film’s art direction is primarily by Lyle R. Wheeler, who had already worked similar magic on films like The Long Hot Summer, Peyton Place, Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? and Bus Stop.  For the Fabian Publishing set, he used door colors to signify which level each inhabitant occupied on the corporate totem pole and adhered to tight grids in the typing pool to symbolize the rigid class distinctions between executives and the female typing pool.  If – without seeing the move – this set looks familiar to you, it may indicate that you…

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    …watch Mad Men. During the first few episodes of the first season, I was vaguely disappoint in how refined the sets were, until I realized that I was instinctively comparing their sets to The Best of EverythingThe people responsible for the Mad Men sets have essentially created the accurate, real-world version of of Hollywood’s glossy interpretation of late 50s/early 60s corporate world.

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    Caroline Bender  (above) has ambitions to become an editor but first assigned secretary duties to editor Miss Amanda Farrow (Miss Crawford, below right).

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    The Mad Men character Peggy Olson is a perfect compilation of these two characters.  Peggy “before” is Caroline, all freshly scrubbed from a small town looking to make it in the Big City, and her quick learning curve and natural talent moves her quickly up the ladder.  If you’d like a sneak peak at Peggy “after,” see this movie and keep an eye on the Amanda character.  And look at those chairs!

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    This is the office of Fabian editor-in-chief Fred Shalimar, and dig the wall of built-in book shelves holding the paperbacks he’s overseen.  As in Mad Men, actual work takes a backseat to drinking, smoking and carousing, so the office needs to be comfy and stylish.

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    Hollywood depicted the bustling employee cafeteria inside the Seagram building as a mod fantasy of vivid aqua, yellow and purple, which stood in stark contrast to the marble and glass lobby that couldn’t be glossed into submission.

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    When the action leaves the office, we get a wide sample of the different aspects of mid-century modern residential design.  Above is the work-a-day kitchen in Amanda Farrow’s apartment, and below is the penthouse of rich playboy Dexter Key (played by Robert Evans) who will do terrible things to one of our heroines.

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    Eventually, Caroline becomes second-in-command at Fabian and gets this spacious new office.  It  does a better job of expressing the character’s reactions to her rapid rise than the actress does, which pretty much sums up the movie.  As often happens, Hollywood sucks the soul out of a book for the sake of selling tickets.  In the case of The Best of Everything, the sets and the costumes are the reason I watch this movie so often, and the reason I get an extra kick out of Mad Men.

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