“I sleep only in two drops of French perfume…”. It’s Anita Ekberg guying herself in La Dolce Vita but – as a certain great lady of today would say in sonorous swooping tones – “remind you of anybody?” Obviously, here’s a reference to Marilyn and her preferred nightwear of Chanel No 5. Or maybe MM adopted the line from Anita and polished it up? And does anyone yet know, by the way, what Mrs May wears to set off her leather trousers and kitten heels? I always understood that Margaret Thatcher made a slave of Rochas’ Femme, that most gorgeous and assured of peachy chypres. Mae West’s perfume, too. Surely not without significance? ” The eyes of Caligula and the lips of Marilyn Monroe”.
A couple of weeks ago, I suggested that we might return and take a second inhalation of old Hollywood smells. Back in the last century when perfume was still so great and arcane a luxury, it was a popular idea for studio photographers to snap the great female stars posing with their collections of perfumes and scent bottles. It always frets me a little when I look at these old portraits. There are never any sign of the packaging, and the perfumes are already evaporating and fading (I think to myself) under the glare of the savage klieg lights: those all-revealing bulbs which are as cruel to fragrance as they are to waning beauty.
There’s a stimulating sequence in the Joan Crawford silent OUR DANCING DAUGHTERS (1928) where, robed and ready for a wild party, the hedonist heroine ‘Dangerous Diana’ peeks into her mother’s perfume closet. It’s a huge and slightly sinister Art Deco marvel by art designer Cedric Gibbons, built like a medieval tomb, or perhaps a gigantic reliquary. Shadowy and rather grotesque bottles repose within, like Dr Praetorious’s laboratory specimens. The mother seems a gracious, possibly slightly dowdy, woman who looks to appreciate her treasures more than she might successfully wear them. Joan seizes an especially elaborate flacon and unstops it.
Up flashes the title:
“Mother- how vicious! You’re too young to use such perfume. I’ll take it.”
Presumably the Gibbons cabinet made a big impression on the young Joan, for over 40 years later Crawford ran a photo of her own vitrine in her unique guide to gracious living¤. The focus is not sharp enough to identify the stock within but we may fancy there’s maybe a bottle of Fracas there. Which would accord perfectly with Joan’s earlier penchant for tuberose-gardenia fragrances.
There’s a sharp little scent sequence in the British wartime propaganda classic MILLIONS LIKE US. I’ve written about this film before; but, until my latest viewing, I’d missed the bit with Anne Crawford’s perfume atomiser. These old films are always meticulously busy; there’s masses going on in each shot; lots of background detail. Consequently it’s easy to get distracted. The bonus is, you find something new in the mixture every time¤¤. Crawford’s character Jennifer is a rich, spoiled and pointless¤¤¤ Society girl who is reluctantly drafted into munitions. On her first evening at the Carton Heath workers’ hostel she’s dolling herself for bed as though off to a ball, much to the bafflement of her room mate Annie, a stolid and sunny Lancashire mill girl. We begin to notice the most unsuitably enormous and elaborate perfume flacon looming up on Jennifer’s dressing table. This is suddenly brought into sharp focus in her looking glass. And then, of course, we remember those essential motifs of movie short-hand. Objects seen in a mirror – the true character revealed; the other self, its obsessions and preoccupations. Here’s an economical symbol of an empty-headed blonde – “War Effort’s caught it in the neck again…” – who’s fiddled her coupons, “stocked up before war broke out” and puts cosmetics before country. Was ever a perfume spray such a damning indictment of character?
Cary Grant – who’d worked with nearly all the greats – said in later life that of his leading ladies Irene Dunne smelled the sweetest¤¤¤¤. By then Cary was on the board of Faberge Cosmetics and Perfumes, so he’d gained an educated nose: he knew whereof he spoke. He recalled Irene sitting there between takes, playing with her collection of scents and oils; layering and blending and mixing to devastating effect. She was a Southern girl from Kentucky, and delicately reared: she knew about the pleasures of killing time slowly, elegantly and deliciously.
Perfume aside, if you’ve never seen Irene Dunne on the screen then why not make her acquaintance in your Christmas leisure time? Slightly older than most of her Hollywood contemporaries*, she was expert in drama and weepies; she sang like a nightingale; as a comedienne she was peerless. She delivered her lines with a wonderful freshness, as though she was inventing her witty dialogue as she went along. She had a way of setting her teeth while laughing knowingly and throatily. Irene Dunne had – appropriately – a beautiful nose; a classic profile; perfect legs; and was always wonderfully shod. While every inch a lady she could be exceedingly suggestive in the most sophisticated manner. To give only one instance, watch the flirtation (that goes so wrong) with the shoe shop salesman in MY FAVOURITE WIFE – “I’ve been running around without my shoes on for quite some time…..kind of running wild….”
And then comes that laugh.
All this – and she smelled like a flower garden, too.
¤ ‘Portrait of Joan’ 1972.
¤¤ rather like wearing your favourite scent.
¤¤¤ but don’t have a fit, she comes right in the end, and – it is implied – marries plain-speaking factory foreman Charlie (Eric Portman)
¤¤¤¤ quite a claim – seeing as how C.G. had played opposite both Hepburns, Mae West, Dietrich, Rosalind Russell, Joan Fontaine, Ingrid, Rita, Grace Kelly, Ginger Rogers and Leslie Caron – amongst others.
* 1898 – 1990