My favourite movie costume, possibly of all time, is actually fairly understated. But it’s the one that, if I had the skills and ability to sew and make my own clothes, I would be trying to recreate it in an instant. In fact when I went on holiday to Thailand I did even consider going to a tailor and getting them to make one up for me.
So what is it about Joan Crawford’s dress in Grand Hotel (1932) that I love? I think it’s a combination of the contrasting lace collar and cuffs, the a-symmetry of the neckline and its fitted, calf length shape that enhances her willowy, lean silhouette.
Crawford plays Flaemmchen, who she described in her autobiography as “the little whore stenographer.” While Flaemmchen is employed to do secretarial work for Wallace Beery, it’s hinted that her service comes with extras on the side. I think that’s one of the aspects I like about 1930s movies, often you miss the insinuations of sex which were probably much more obvious to audiences back then who were used to movies getting round the censorship codes.
Crawford made her name playing ambitious girls who long to rise above their humble roots. Flaemmchen is a sensual character who knows how to get what she wants out of life; she gets taken skiing by a friend and hopes to break into the movies. Crawford also wears make-up which defined her look in the 1930s – her mouth shaped wider than in her silent films, and her eyes with lashings of mascara and kohl. In her book My Way of Life, which was part autobiography and part etiquette guide, Crawford said: “I played the prostitute and I felt that a more sensuous look was needed. Full, natural lip-line and generous eyebrows – no bra, no girdle. Definite features were called for, and I found that I liked the look so much that I kept it.”
Crawford, a renowned clothes horse, was apparently reluctant to take on the role because of the limited wardrobe changes. But it was much sought after, Picturegoer Weekly said there were “broken hearts in Hollywood over that role.”
Flaemmchen makes her entrance through the revolving doors and into the art deco lobby in a little black cloche hat, the black double breasted tailored dress, a briefcase and a typewriter under her arm.
With its white collar and cuffs, her dress is almost like that of a French maid, showing that she has to work hard to make ends meet. But with its figure hugging shape and a hint of cleavage, it’s a sexier working uniform.
The dress also inspired the costumes in one of my favourite films – Kitty Foyle from 1940. Dresses with contrasting collars and cuffs became known as the Kitty Foyle look, sparked by Ginger Roger’s Rene Hubert designed costumes. I go into more detail on Kitty Foyle in my book, but basically it was the Bridget Jones of 1940, and Ginger even won an Oscar for her role as the career girl deciding between two men.
Grand Hotel is considered the first film with an ensemble all-star cast, set in a ritzy hotel in Berlin. It’s often considered the definitive movie of the golden age and true to MGM’s style in the 1930s. Picturegoer Weekly (April 9 1932) declared: “The cast leads off with a ‘big 5’ that has never been matched – a constellation of stars of the first magnitude.”
Greta Garbo, having just played a gloomy spy in Mata Hari, now plays a gloomy ballerina who feels trapped in her life and longs to break away from the restrictions of her career (That’s where the famous ‘I want to be alone’ line comes from).
John Barrymore (Drew’s grandfather) is the Baron turned jewellery thief, with whom Garbo falls in love with. Each character faces a personal or financial crisis. The Barron is broke, but convinces others he is rich because of his title and the way he dresses. Kringelein (played by Lionel Barrymore) has money, but his shabby clothes means he is treated poorly.
There’s a wonderful, flirty scene between John Barrymore and Joan Crawford (picture together above) when they meet in the corridor and he invites her to have tea with him.
“Tea would spoil my dinner. I only have one meal a day, and I’d rather hate to spoil it.”
“But I always thought little stenographers made little pennies” he says.
“Very little” she replies, “Did you ever see a stenographer with a decent frock on?”
“I have indeed” says the Baron, admiring her dress.
“One she bought herself?” she interrupts.
As a side note, the fabulous Art Deco set was designed by Cedric Gibbons, and its black and white chess board floor signifies the games and the maneuvers being played by the characters.
It typified the extravagant and detailed sets particular to movies in the 1930s, and particularly at MGM. Films were shot on the studio lot rather than on location, so that everything was created by the set designer, from Indonesian rainforests to North African bazaars.
I found this quote from Gibbons (and Mr Dolores Del Rio) talking about the Grand Hotel set, in Picturegoer Weekly, from June 18 1932:
“The hotel itself is an actor in this picture. Usually we strive to keep settings as much in the background as possible. But in Grand Hotel we are constantly reminded of the hotels symbolism to life itself…the hotel we built for the picture is not copied from any institution anywhere in the world. Were it not for the German locale of the story, it might be in any cosmopolitan city. It is thoroughly modern, but not modernistic.”