Roman Holiday

In this continuing oppressively muggy weather our intellectual energies are sapped. Consequently I’ve returned to a degenerate old habit. Every night I’ll watch the same DVD: time after time. For the last few weeks I have been hypnotised by ‘The Roman Spring of Mrs Stone’ (1961). It’s so relaxing to pick a familiar film to pieces, knowing that no shocks or surprises await you; but that new innuendoes are still there to be understood. Tiny overlooked details are yet to be found in the corners of the frame. Very similar it is to exploring the outer limits of your favourite perfume. And so, only two nights ago, kneeling before the set with my sharpest specs on, I spotted the flacon of Shalimar to the side of Mrs Stone’s dressing table: the same prop and bottle previously noted in Diana Dors’s beauty shop in ‘Yield To The Night’. Guerlain, your magic spell is everywhere!

‘Mrs Stone’ – adapted from the Tennessee Williams novella – is as disturbing as anything you might expect by that upsetting writer. The film is a study of – I suppose –  sexual desire, loneliness and moral decay. Abruptly widowed in the skies over Rome, the “proud…arrogant” – and to use a modern euphemism, “troubled”  – stage legend Karen Stone comes to live in a palazzo apartment on the Spanish Steps. Here the angel of death and his troupe of unlikely heralds in the costumes of low cafe society come to stalk, court and seduce her.

What twists the knife, is the unnerving casting of Vivien Leigh in the title role. The whilom Lady Olivier is compelled to play out her own tragic story in the unattractive persona of Karen. There is not a sympathetic character in the movie: not even among the servants where a more sentimental piece might have discovered a little warmth. Mrs Stone’s maid has a smirking knowingness to her; her chauffeur (Warren Mitchell, would you believe, in a bit part¤) is perfunctory and gruff. Alone among assorted birds of prey – though she is ironically the only one so stigmatised by the script – Karen Stone begins to lose her bearings, to drift.

She “was becomingly alarmingly conscious of a sense of drifting if not of drowning in a universe of turbulently rushing fluids and vapours.” ¤¤

As the narrator intones this, we pace with Mrs Stone in her sealed airless pastel bedroom with its huge empty sateen bed and closets of Balmain couture on padded hangers. These were the days when bags, shoes and gloves were dyed to match the dress. Karen sits at her dressing table loaded with its extensive armoury against age. The “fluids and vapours” materialise – not rushing, but torpid – as luxurious lotions, creams and perfumes. Unguents for the embalming. There stand Shalimar and Miss Dior, for sure; those with keen eyes will probably identify other famous names. Here, too, as throughout the film are endless arrangements of flowers. “Floral tributes” might be more appropriate: there is something funereal about the stagey profusion of waxy magnolias, freesias, lilies and indecent anthuriums. Their scent may be invisible but the claustrophobic painted sets seem saturated by it. When Karen buys a posy of muguet in the street, she fidgets and sniffs with it while lying to old stage colleagues that she has an incurable illness. And we then remember “Flores para los muertos!” – the ominous flower seller in the earlier Leigh vehicle A Streetcar Named Desire. We gradually notice too that Mrs Stone’s soi-disant best friend (Coral Browne) is clad exclusively in shades of black, white and grey whenever they – uncomfortably – meet. Colours of premature mourning.

This sense of doom is intensified by the modern audience awareness of Vivien Leigh’s own precarious health, neuroses and early death. One of her many preoccupations was with hygiene and her fear that others might find her evil-smelling. She worried about her breath; and kept a series of silk embroidered squares which she threw over discarded intimate clothing. Mind you, there may be something exaggerated about this last report. I remember reading it out to my mother some 40 years ago, and she said “oh, we ALL had those cloths then. Maybe not silk nor embroidered – but everyone had them…”

Vivien Leigh’s signature perfume was apparently Patou’s Joy: that wonderfully intense and exaggerated heady animalic jasmine that either delights or repels. It’s an old favourite of mine although – or is it because? – within the rainy damp loveliness you can detect the faint whiff of imminent decay.

And that’s how poor Vivien looks on film: a wrecked beauty at age 47; garishly made-up, atrociously coiffured. Kittenish still, sometimes, but now a spiteful hard-eyed kitten who has been teased too much by life. Her tormentor-in-chief is the Contessa who is obsessed with – amongst other things – food. With “fine dining”, as we might say now. In the original story, I remember the Contessa as being consequently obsese. Here in a stroke of casting genius she’s played by the angular and voracious Lotte Lenya – forever famished for caviar, lobster and money. Here we go again, back to the predatory birds and the smells of meat, flesh and blood – life and death in Rome, ancient and modern.

 

 

This September – 50 years after her death at the age of 53 – Sotheby’s are holding an auction of Vivien Leigh’s personal possessions. And right now in this “red raw moment”¤¤¤ we have at Les Senteurs a sensational new perfume. Andy Tauer’s L’EAU conjures up an aura of a happier Roman holiday with all the languorous delights of la dolce vita. L’EAU is a glorious paradox. This rara avis is a sensual citrus, an erotic hesperidic. It smells of sunshine on ancient balconies, terraces and verandas. Ancient stones soaked in a light and warmth that melt your bones in joyous languor as you open a second bottle of Limoncello. L’EAU wraps itself around the wearer in a cloud of lemon blossom, orange, bergamot and iris. The wonderfully persistent base lingers on for hours thanks to what appears to me to be beautiful infusions of amber, musk, sandalwood and tonka. It really is blissful: so sexy, stylish – and, unparalleled for a citric scent, sumptuous. Why not pop round?

¤ the whole cast is extraordinary: amongst others we meet –  Ernest Thesiger, Jean Marsh, Maria Britneva, Edward de Souza, Jill St John, Warren Beatty, Mavis Villiers, Elspeth March, Sam Jaffe and – toast of the early silents – Bessie Love.

¤¤ shooting script by Gavin Lambert

¤¤¤ Molly Keane, passim.

Wait For The Moment When DIANA DORS…

The movie retitled: for more immediately salacious impact...

The movie retitled: for more immediately salacious impact…

…proves herself a compelling actress in YIELD TO THE NIGHT (1956). An influential film in the campaign for the abolishment of capital punishment in Britain this is not, however, the story of Ruth Ellis. The Joan Henry¤ novel upon which the script (also by Henry) was based had been published in 1954, the year before the Ellis case. But no doubt director J. Lee Thompson readily enhanced the curious “coincidences” of plot and character: the rackety and unhappily married platinum blonde, the fatal public shooting of the faithless lover; the background culture of night clubs and pre-drinking; unhinged sexual obsession and jealousy. And of course – the frame and core of the film – a vital young woman’s last three weeks in the condemned cell at Holloway prison, told unsensationally¤¤ but in semi-documentary and horribly dreary detail. Joan Henry had been banged up in Holloway herself, and she was not sparing with the local colour. It’s not at all an easy film to watch. You may have to take it in short tranches, at least the first time around. But view it you should.

Mrs Mary Hilton (Dors) has been sentenced to death for gunning down her rival, the rich and disagreeable Mrs Lucy Carpenter in a London mews. Their mutual lover, Jim, has gassed himself in Mona Washbourne’s lodging house on New Year’s Eve, to the strains of Knees Up Mother Brown and Little Brown Jug coming up the stairs from his landlady’s party. Mary then uses Jim’s wartime revolver to commit her murderous act of despair and revenge. The casting of Dors ( an old friend and colleague of Lee Thompson and Joan Henry) was a masterstroke. Diana’s screen image and her apparently raffish but also obscure and ambiguous off-screen personality could not have suited the character better.

In flashbacks to the events which led to the crime, Mary seems a typical Dors character: exuberantly blonde, open-hearted, bosomy, impetuous and fun- loving. The audience is pre-conditioned to expect bad behaviour from Dors: was  not the star once publicly condemned by the Archbishop of Canterbury? Mary is one of a long line of individuals in British Cinema whom my mother used to describe as “naughty little girls”: discontented & sexually active young ladies who work in “Beauty Shops” but whose speciality is making trouble. Remember Phyl, landed with the manicures (and all the Allied Services) in MILLIONS LIKE US? And Queenie in THIS HAPPY BREED, who runs off with a married man and breaks her parents’ hearts? Mary’s discreetly curtained establishment – “Martin Douglas” – is right at the centre of things, perhaps in Sloane Street or Bond Street. “Lots of people came into the Beauty Shop…” recalls Mary in Holloway. The shop is a maybe a euphemism; certainly a metaphor for life, for sexual experimentation and adventure.

No completely “nice” girl would be standing there on counter, looking edibly gorgeous in “that sort of place”, selling perfume. That’s made quite clear. Mary is on the slippery and risky slope of living with vicarious luxury, even if a romantic dinner later consists of a tin of Heinz spaghetti. But, such a glorious counter of scents as Mary has to offer! Never was such splendid product placement of Guerlain and Lucien Lelong. The glorious Shalimar parfum flacon (1 oz) even gets its own glittering close-up and we glimpse Mitsouko, too. You’ll probably spot other old favourites if your eyes are sharper than mine.

Then Jim appears, sniffing around and trying to remember the name of horrid Lucy’s scent:

– ‘…not as cloying as that. Something sharper, more like the bouquet of very good brandy..’

– ‘ “The Lost Weekend”, by the sound of it!’

Mary is an excellent saleswoman  – ‘you’d be fortunate to have this person work for you!’: outgoing, immaculately groomed, knowledgeable of stock. Her counter is spotless; her manner is a nice blend of light flirtatiousness and reassuring briskness. And she’s not afraid to “ask for that sale”.

It turns out, of course, that Mary is wearing the perfume in question: an ironic re-orchestration of the old shtik of wife and mistress being given the same fragrance to avoid “mistakes”.

– ‘It’s called Christmas Rose…we only have very small bottles of Christmas Rose at 5 guineas’ ¤¤¤

The name is inspired: the plant which in the language of flowers is said to mean “please relieve my anxiety”; the coldly beautiful, poisonous and witchy hellebore which blossoms imperturbably through the coldest months of the year, decked in the semi-mourning colours of mauve, white and dark purple. It is one of the many strands of the flower imagery that plays such a major role in the film, echoing  the Christian burial service:

“He cometh up and is cut down like a flower…”

And throughout YIELD TO THE NIGHT Mary is obsessed with Housman’s A Shropshire Lad and its intimations of mortality –

‘”Loveliest of trees, the cherry• now
Is hung with bloom along the bough…”

….hung…’

The aged prison visitor Miss Bligh (Athene Seyler) – a lightning sketch of gaol reformer Margery Fry•• – comes to see Mary in Holloway.  Miss Bligh is a great gardener –

‘…it’s chastening work, gardening’.

This triggers off all kinds of thoughts in the contemplative viewer – Christ’s Agony in the Garden; Our Mother Eve in Eden; and another poem, Kipling’s sermonising, sententious but irresistible The Glory of the Garden. Miss Bligh unpins a small bunch of violets••• from her own dress and presents them to Mrs Hilton:

‘There you are, my dear. They’ll give you some water and you can put them beside your bed.’

But in her cracked and peeling cell with its parody of an en suite bathroom, and the dreadful “Other Door” at the foot of her bed, Mary cannot even do that. A ghastly “caring” provision is made for every bodily need and necessity in Holloway – if only for three weeks.  The constant starchy meals and mugs of cocoa*; “tea!”; ‘plenty of sugar’ dumped  on her porridge by a flustered wardress. There are the endless footling games of chess and cards to “distract” the prisoner; the smothering fuss over the blistered foot of one so soon to be killed. The terrible naked lights are kept on twenty four hours a day ( all the better to see the unsparing truth ) and there’s an upsetting scene where Mary is bathed like an infant while a wardress cuts her nails. Yet the intrusion of a spontaneous posy of flowers cannot be accomodated. The wild violets with their disturbing ungovernable fleshy sensual scent do not “fit” – and the tin mug in which they are dumped will not sit on the window sill either.

Mary’s last three weeks on earth are in the month of April – “the cruellest month”; the fertile, Easter month; the sweet rainy month of The Canterbury Tales. Life should be crazily burgeoning not being brought to an abrupt and unnatural end. But what a weird and blasted April Lee Thompson creates! The prison yard sets are dressed to look like a nuclear winter. “There’s a bitter east wind”, and not a bud on the twigs. Only at the very last, on Mary Hilton’s final afternoon, as she comes to some sort of terms with her fate does the sun briefly come out and there’s a distant glimpse of a daffodil.

But by then the light of the sun is too bright for Mary and she asks to be taken back to her cell where the last smells are of bromided tea, the medication of calming injections, the slopping-out pail
and the final cigarette which burns on long after Hilton’s life is snuffed out.

DIANA DORS  1931 – 1984
diana dors perfume

¤ Joan Henry became the second Mrs Lee Thompson a couple of years later.

¤¤ unlike the film’s publicity.

¤¤¤ that’s around £90 today.

• “white cherry = deception”.

•• sister of pre-eminent art critic, Bloomsbury sage and Omega Workshops maestro Roger Fry.

••• “violets = faithfulness, modesty”.

* note the tin plate of baked beans, maybe mirroring the canned spaghetti eaten in happier days.

Vignettes of Old Marylebone: No. 9 – House of Wax

France Robespierre's FaceWhen you’ve stimulated your imagination with gorgeous perfume why not float up to Baker St and excite a little more fantasy at the Waxworks? Back in the 1960’s when I first visited Mme Tussauds the place was filled with glamorous gloom, potted ferns and elaborate tableaux behind plate glass. People still squealed and fainted in the Chamber of Horrors: all those rows of butter-coloured murderers wearing clothes supposedly bought from their familes even before the condemned were hanged.

Maybe visitors still swoon upon occasion but the last time I went to Mme Tussauds, 10 years ago, the atmosphere was greatly sanitised. Too few shadows, and far fewer exhibits. Diana Dors in gold lame (fresh off the cover of “Sergeant Pepper”) was gone and the Royal Family looked less convincing under brilliant spotlights. But it was still great fun. For you could now grope or kiss the models if so inclined and so pose for a saucy snap. The Sleeping Beauty was still elegantly palpitating under her lace veil, her breath quickening at a touch.

Maybe you read about the true face of Robespierre being recently reconstructed from a death mask cast by the Madame in 1794? And an ugly old phiz it is, too. I have my doubts: his portraits show a neat fastidious little face whereas this is that of a toad-like pockmarked brute. Maybe Tussaud took the wrong head out of the basket? And you know, from the state Robespierre was in when he was guillotined – botched suicide attempt with a pistol, smashed jaw – would the taking of a mask have been possible or desirable?

What loses the truth game at Tussauds is that the glass-eyed throng all lack a smell, whether of hair, perspiration, fear, or the jonquil & rose waters of eighteenth century France. Or even, as if in some fairy tale her creatures should suddenly grow hot hearts of flesh and blood, the intoxicating odour of hot melting wax: the scent that excited De Sade.

Image: huffingtonpost.com

“Would you like us to lay on a turkey?”

mariamontez

“Its almost here again!” as the sherry adverts used to say so reassuringly. And in the great stores the lovers of tradition are queuing up to keep Christmas with their annual purchase of Royal Secret, Nuit de Noel and Cinnabar. A great glowing gaudy perfume adds much to the sense of occasion and lays down every year in an scented album of memories: for myself I cherish thoughts of Decembers past spent with Fahrenheit, Lancome’s lost pearl Climat, Miss Dior, Creed’s Bois du Portugal, Coty’s Rose and Knize Ten. Arden’s Red Door was a real cracker: amazingly florid, exuberantly exaggerated – redder than Santa’s robe, bursting with a bumper harvest of scarlet roses, jasmine and vanilla. If ever a perfume was Queen of the Music Halls, this is it: spangled tights, plumes and earsplitting high notes.

Party perfumes, fragrances as brilliant and expressive as emerald and violet tinsel, golden ribbon and foil wrappings: a new flacon to open on Christmas Eve and polish off before Twelfth Night, keeping company with the sloe gin and the coruscating iced cake. But Shalimar is the flower of the flock, the non pareil. Worn on an endless rattling train into the dripping Fens for a New Years Lunch in ’94 it won me the ultimate accolade, the penetrating voice from further down the carriage: “There’s a wonderful smell in here…!”

In movie metaphor Shalimar is like Dorothy Lamour wrapped in a silver lame sarong or Maria Montez beneath a veiled turban. Shalimar is a glittering Edwardian pantomime at the Gaiety or the Alhambra with 100 gas footlights flickering blue and green and white to illuminate “Chu Chin Chow” or “Aladdin”, an exaggerated Western erotic fantasy of the Orient. A crazy intoxicating musical spectacle designed by Bakst in hues of orange, bronze, crimson and indigo – shimmering in the limelight with huge citric sequins of bergamot and lemon, turning to a rosy pink as luscious as the Principal Boy’s lips and as ample as her thighs and bust; as sexually ambiguous too as her courtship of Princesss Balroubador. Not for nothing do we see Diana Dors at her most incandescently platinum shot sharing a luminous close up with Shalimar in “Yield To the Night”. Those bizarre top notes like a burnt offering of perfumed woods, pop off like fireworks before simmering down into opoponax, tonka and a madly exaggerated creme brulee of vanillin. A spicy powderiness as from the No 1 dressing room dusts the wearer like the fragrant ashes of a fiery nimbus, or the immolation of a phoenix. And the bottle, the original fluted amphora with its stopper like an Egyptian fan or palm, must be the best ever – what might not happen if you rub it? Only one way to find out…

Image from chexydecimal.com

Fatal Attraction

“Her fingers touched me: she smells all amber!” And once again the intoxication of perfume sets the wheels of murderous mayhem in motion; this time, 500 years ago in Middleton’s stage shocker, The Revenger’s Tragedy. Our sense of smell catches us unawares at our most basely animal; it awakens  our ancestral instincts for escape and survival, the propagation of the species and the catching of a mate.

Many of the problems that perfume wearers experience come from a misunderstanding of our most atavistic sense. Why is it that we cannot smell our signature fragrance, whereas the horror sprayed uninvited by the girl in the Well-Known West End Store seems to accelerate in its awfulness over the next 24 hours? Its the brain, you see: it knows your favourite scent is “safe”; it presents no threat.The brain, via the nose, has passed it as the censor passes a film; and as there’s no more need to worry about it, switches off. Whereas when we are ambushed by a scent in the unpromising surroundings of a crowded store, the circumstances of the encounter take our senses totally by unwelcome surprise: the brain panics, the nose is affronted and both go into overdrive, analysing that perfume for hours afterwards. And like an animal, you remember the location with dread, shying away like a bolting horse “THAT’S where the girl sprayed me with that AWFUL….”

Our sense of smell has atrophied, we don’t really need it much it any more; we use it for the pleasure of perfume and maybe in the garden and leave it at that. But it’s there alright in all its complexity: we’ve just forgotten how to intepret it. It still sets off alarms when it detects smoke, gas, bad food, infection, decay, death: my aunt, in the wilds of her Canadian orchards, is still alert for the smell of bears down by the creek. She needs to be, and so does the dog. Have you ever picked up the smell of fear? Very rancid and foxy; as forbidding and repellent as you’d expect. I smelled it just once: in a crowded lunch-time shop, a few days before Christmas.

And thus to the mysteries of sexual attraction. The person who eventually formulates the perfume that will infallibly promote lust (the fragrance that is so often asked for) will make a fortune beyond the dreams of avarice; it will come in time no doubt but there’s something a mite Satanic about the thought, the manipulation of men’s souls… Meanwhile, if you’re looking for a seductive scent, trust to instinct and pick the perfume that makes YOU feel wanton, lubricious and desirable: like goes to like.

On the movies, in plays and books we see the power, threat, symbolism of perfume as a sinister metaphor and a symbol for sexual and mortal danger.
Lady Macbeth’s blood-reeking murderous hand cannot be sweetened by all the perfumes of Arabia; Cleopatra, bringing havoc, arrives in a ship whose sails are soaked in scent; in The Wizard of Oz, Dorothy and her team are beguiled and stupified by the field of poppies on the Yellow Brick Road. Diana Dors in Yield To the Night is working a beauty shop when she meets the homme fatal who will drive her to murder. The perfume she sells him (“5 guineas, please”) is with a pleasing cruel irony named “Christmas Rose”. Joan Crawford is the wicked shop-girl who steals Norma Shearer’s husband in “The Women” while selling him a flacon of “Summer Rain” (“When Stephen doesn’t like what I’m wearing, I take it off…”).

Billy Wilder, master of cynicism, offers us two of the most striking scented images. In Sunset Boulevard, Bill Holden’s two women are characterised by their odour. Norma Desmond, embalmed in her past, smells he tells us of tuberoses, “not my favourite perfume, not by a long shot”. And we somehow know he’s thinking of tuberoses in a funeral parlour, tuberoses faded and decaying in a close shut room. An outre, baroque, macabre scent for a vampiric woman on the brink of madness. Whereas the ingenuous Betty Schaeffer smells of “freshly laundered linen handkerchiefs or a brand new automobile” and doesn’t even know it (“must be my new shampoo”). But Wilder saves his best line for Fred MacMurray, sweatily lusting after Barbara Stanwyck in Double Idemnity and prepared to bump off her husband to have her; he’s already aroused by the perfume in her hair, now walking down the hot sidewalk he smells something else…. “How could I have known that murder can sometimes smell like honeysuckle?”

Image from Wikimedia commons