“All By Yourself In The Moonlight” – Rosa Greta at Les Senteurs

 

My grandfather was a great Garbo fan. Whenever the Divine One’s latest movie opened in Leicester he’d be off into town on his motor bike. It was after one of these outings, on a dusky summer’s evening, that he claimed he’d had a supernatural encounter; that he’d driven right through a spectral monkish shade gliding across the road. I am always intrigued to hear to which great stars my venerable ancestors were addicted. Their preferences provide thoughtful and unexpected insight into their characters. One’s adoration of a certain actor is as revealing as one’s choice of perfume. I remember my grandfather as bluff and sporty, always gardening or racing, a glass well to hand. But he painted, too; loved Swinburne’s poetry and the novels of Balzac. He had served right through the Great War and was wounded twice. He was acquainted with the shadow side of life. His first meeting with his future bride was unorthodox. He, on his motor bike in a narrow leafy lane, ran into her mother’s funeral cortege. Miss Elliott raised her crepe veil – gazed into the eyes of Mr Craven – and that was that. A scene that might well have come from an early Garbo silent.

She was a funny one, that gloomy Swede, with her family of trolls under the sofa. Greta Garbo always had far more of a following in Europe, in the Old World from which she sprang. Americans found her just too nutty, too glacially and disturbingly beautiful; too much of the outsider. As David Shipman put it¤, she signally failed to muck in. It was to Europe that Garbo regularly returned for her holidays – to England and Sweden; and to the Mediterranean which provided the heat, sea and sunshine that she loved so much. She was once one of a cruising party on Aristotle Onassis’s yacht. Fellow guests included the Winston Churchills, Callas and the Duke & Duchess of Windsor. One of the company later complained of the extreme ennui of the glittering party. Garbo had easily the most boring conversation of any of them, her remarks being mostly about the price of dry groceries in New York.

(But is this in itself not strangely endearing? Rather like Marlene’s homely recipes for sardine sandwiches and boiled potatoes).

The new and exquisite ROSA GRETA by Eau d’Italie now at Les Senteurs is inspired by another, earlier, holiday: this time at the Villa Cimbrone at Ravello. The Villa is noted for its rose terraces and still very much on the tourist route today. Garbo arrived for a stay in 1938, on the arm of her current lover, the conductor Leopold Stokowski¤¤. He was over a quarter century her senior with a great mane of white hair. The fan magazines were baffled. Their editors would have been even more foxed had they been privileged to see Garbo unpack her luggage upon arrival at the Villa. From her one small and shabby suitcase she took a selection of pots of jam. The jam went down to breakfast with her every morning. Afterwards it was returned to the bedroom and locked in the case. I would like to know whether a.) G.G. had made the jam herself and b.) whether Leopold was allowed to try it.

Stokowski was then beginning to make a big splash in Hollywood. He worked with the new teen sensation Deanna Durbin; and was later to be spliced in with Mickey Mouse in Disney’s ‘Fantasia’. Despite his name, Stokowski was English: in fact he was born a short walk from Les Senteur’s Seymour Place store, in Upper Marylebone Street. He was schooled in Marylebone High Street. So it feels as though ROSA GRETA has a strange and unexpected link to Seymour Place. It seems to belong with us, in a very esoteric way.

G.G. had an affinity with roses. Roses have thorns. Unlike her compatriot Ingrid Bergman, there is no rose specifically named for Garbo but the flower is part of her myth. In the 1929 silent ‘A Woman of Affairs’ she emerges distraught and dying from a hospital room to embrace a vast bouquet of white roses as she would a lover. The title card reads:

“I don’t want much – only you!”

In the next decade her bizarre on-off affair with Cecil Beaton began at a Hollywood party. Garbo drew a yellow rose from a vase, kissed it and presented it to Beaton who dried, pressed and framed the petals. The shrivelled – richly symbolic! – rose hung by his bed for the rest of his life and was auctioned off after his death in the 1980’s. It was knocked down for only £750 which – whatever anyone says – wasn’t that much, even then. G.G. is not to everyone’s taste. That’s part of the appeal.

ROSA GRETA is packaged in the bright blue and pink that featured largely in Garbo’s private wardrobe. She was especially fond of a certain shade of blue to set off those huge blue eyes, never seen in colour in any of her 27 films – and rarely in photos. The Garbo image is essentially a creation of black and white. It takes a bit of practice to imagine her in clear cheerful shades flattering that honey-tanned skin and the silky hair described by Beaton as ‘biscuit’. And always smelling clean, sweet and delicious in a Nordic natural rural way. If she bothered to wear scent at all, it was usually some vaguely masculine cologne.

ROSA GRETA is sexually ambiguous and intended to be enjoyed by everyone. I love it. It’s a scent into which one can sink: as into a pool or a bath or a bed of roses. This refreshing graceful creation by Fabrice Pellegrin¤¤¤ is a summer confection of white tea, damask rose, lychee (very discreet; not at all gloopy) and ambery woody accords. It has a dewy dampness about it, and a soft mossiness. Rose perfumes are always chancy because they carry such a weight of association and expectation, inherent in the choice of theme. Everyone thinks they know how a rose smells, and how it SHOULD smell when translated into a fragrance. It’s the one flower everybody can identify and name. Every perfumer wants to have a go at creating the definitive rose. It’s the odour of universal myth and symbolism, the fragrance of prayer, myth, fairy tale and passion: “the raptures and roses of vice”. Very apt therefore for associations with Garbo. Like the famous closing shot of “Queen Christina” – “think of nothing at all: make your face a blank” – we each of us read whatever we desire into a rose perfume. You’re likely to find your Heart’s Desire in GRETA.

¤ In “The Great Movie Stars: The Golden Years” – that seminal work of 1970.

¤¤ he was married to – amongst others –  Gloria Vanderbilt of designer jeans and perfume fame; and the Johnson & Johnson heiress Evangeline Love Brewster Johnson. Interesting tangential fragrance connections!

¤¤¤ Pellegrin is already well known to us at Les Senteurs as the creator of By Kilian’s Smoke For the Soul.

Unpacking Our New Year

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I – and millions like me – have had this dreadful cold germ since Christmas and over the New Year. There’s been an awful smell trapped in my nose. It was something like the incineration of damp cardboard boxes – maybe the former domicile of cats – piled on a winter bonfire and burned like obdurate heretics, “au bois vert”. What a way for a fragrance maven to see in 2017! Heigh ho, there you go: at least I have my imagination and my memories.

And there’s still plenty to read. Now, for instance, there was a long piece in the Times* all about H.G.Wells, to mark his 150th anniversary. Notoriously amorous, he had an affair with the beautiful spy, Moura Budberg¤. Virginia Woolf school-girlishly referred to her as Moura Bedbug. So here’s a neat segue into the curious fact that our word ‘coriander’ is derived from the ancient Greek – ‘koris’ – for this obscene pest. The lovely fragrant herb (currently so fashionable with perfumers) was thought by our ancestors to smell like a bed bug, presumably when the insect was squashed against the walls or bedstead (the only way to catch them) with a deftly wielded cake of primitive soap. I have never yet met a bed bug – but I wonder, just as in the way that humans used to see colour differently¤¤, did Man’s nose also formerly play tricks quite unknown to us? Did the terrible  perfumes of the ancient world suspended in goat fat and rancid wine smell irresistible to Caesar and Cleopatra? Almost certainly, yes.

H.G.Wells himself, so the ladies said, smelled wonderful – even Biblical. He was blissfully redolent of honey and walnuts. (One of my very favourite food combos). We remember Alexander the Great’s natural odour of violets, Queen Victoria’s orange blossom aura and Elisabeth Bourbon’s exhalation of roses. And –  even more inexplicably – the one or two very heavy smokers I have known who exuded nothing but a delicious fragrance of peaches and cream, dewy freshness and flowers. A phenomenon which defies all expectation: and which must yet be explored in one of those expensive extensive ‘surveys’ we are always reading about.

You know I’m often referring to the presentation of perfume in the movies; the way stars play with it and talk about it – but take care never actually to wear it? Well, I have now found for us that powerful exception that proves the rule.

My brother and I exchanged DVDs at Christmas: coincidentally both were from the ‘Cary Grant Collection’. Die-hard Grant fans might have felt a bit let down, for these movies are essentially Mae West and Dietrich pre-Hays Code vehicles respectively, from the early 1930’s. “Cash & Cary” is just the dark young man in the background. But – judge for yourselves – why not run Mae in I’M NO ANGEL one afternoon? You’ll have the pleasure of two scenes in which Tira –  lion-tamer and ‘grande horizontale’ – fools around with an perfume atomiser, and also with a rather suggestive glass wand-applicator. And the camera lingers on Mae applying the perfume – heaviest red italics here – To Her Person. The context leaves the viewer in no doubt that this is the finishing touch of extreme rudeness: the apogee of egregious wilful shameless promiscuity.

And finally – the Brontes! Did you look at the play about them on tv? I was too tired with my cold to sit up: so I went to bed and read about this oddest and most fascinating of families. The smell I always remember in their connection is in that awful detail of the dying Emily trying to dress her hair on the sofa. The comb fell from her nerveless fingers and smouldered on the hearth: the dreadful smell of burning horn filled the Parsonage. Then Charlotte ran up the moors to fetch some flowery bells of heather: but it was all too late…..

The Guardian described this as a “…chronicle….(of)… the extraordinary challenges faced by ordinary people” – which we did find a bit comical. Those Brontes were very far from ordinary, I think.

Here’s hoping YOUR experience of 2017 has been so far extraordinarily good and – of course – sweetly scented.

* Ben McIntyre The Times 29/12/16

¤ Nick Clegg’s great great aunt. Get out your Google Images and wonder at the human gene pool: there is such a likeness between the two.

¤¤ Homer and “the wine-dark sea”; and the poet neither possessing nor needing a word to denote “blue”…

“Goodnight, Irene”

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“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

Doing The Flowers

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“Come here Barrett… Barrett, do you use a deodorant?
Susan’s (Wendy Craig) blunt interrogation of Dirk Bogarde in THE SERVANT (1963; screenplay by Harold Pinter) is an abruptly shocking cinema moment. Appallingly outspoken, the ultimate humiliation: one of the last taboos is to even imply that someone smells bad. It is what your best friend won’t tell you. Susan and Barrett loathe one another from their first meeting, with the instinctive unreasoning hatred of two animals. Red in tooth and claw they fight for the domination of boyfriend/employer Tony (James Fox). Barrett whips round with air freshener as Susan prepares to leave the house. Her inquisition of his personal hygiene is accompanied by her savage way with a bouquet of flowers, thrusting javelins of iris¤, carnations and daffodils into a vase like so many poisoned darts. Susan handles them as though she hates flowers as much as she hates – and fears – the manservant.

The first half of THE SERVANT is set in a perpetual bleak midwinter. Within doors, stylised and expensive flower arrangements are everywhere: an artificial deceiving hothouse spring which mirrors Tony’s idle fantasies of a career in the Brazil jungle. No sooner has Susan positioned a vase than Barrett is removing it. Needless to say, the arrangements in Tony’s bedroom are those most vigorously disputed. As regards interior decoration, Bogarde is given a wonderful Pinter line, drolly delivered –

“…mandarin red and fuschia’s a very chic¤¤ combination this year, sir”

This is fruity-floral extravaganza at its most florid¤¤¤, especially effective in a black and white movie whose monochrome is so much a part of its whole Gestalt. Outside Tony’s bijou Chelsea home, London is all darkness, wind, rain, snow and arid cold. Whereas the interiors are full of the smell of plants, tobacco, clothes, paint, sex, food and drink: all of them expensively chosen weapons in the armoury of domination¤¤¤¤.

Tony owns a spectacularly large bottle of cologne, guarded as possessively as a child’s teddy bear. It’s kept in his private bathroom which is duly invaded by the sluttish Vera (Sarah Miles) and Barrett. Once Tony has left the house the abandoned pair disport themselves (“splash it all over!”) with the master’s perfume in an orgy which is the more startling and disturbing for being left vague, enigmatic, still guarded by ’60’s censorship.

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A highlight of creepy sensory horror is the restaurant sequence: here’s an establishment that smells as though never aired. “Too posh to wash”, all right. This fine diner could do with some fresh flowers about and a window open.  A sinister bishop* guzzles with his chaplain, the pair of them simultaneously sticking their noses into brandy snifters. Harold Pinter in person is glimpsed in the background, dining with a girl who simultaneously eats, drinks and smokes: holistic sensual indulgence – “gorgeous! Simply gorgeous!” A strong-minded woman in a pot hat, gnawed with jealousy, dresses salad with lemon juice while interrogating her young female companion.

Even in 1963, flower arranging as a leisure activity and the employment of designated servants were beginning to seem a bit dated. Rather earlier, I  remember my mother being reluctantly enrolled on the Church Flower Rota. Specifically, I can smell the old brass tap set in the exterior south wall at just about my height. We were careful to walk round the church clockwise to the tap: if you went round a church widdershins terrible things happened, as a little book of fairy tales in the nearby library bore witness. I remember the smell of icy water gushing into a huge earthenware pitcher that I vaguely imagined having something to do with the Wedding at Cana; and the green sharp tang of brown and gold chrysanthemums unwrapped from rough brown paper to have their woody stems cut and trimmed with steely secateurs.

I am told that today it’s getting harder to fill the quota for the Rota. Flowers are expensive and “tricky”; no one has the time nor inclination to choose and display them. The old ideal of a geisha spending a day positioning a single spray of cherry to its best effect seems bizarre. I notice at the supermarket that spring bulbs now come ready potted in cardboard so you don’t even have to choose a bowl for them once you get home. I’ll tell you one thing: Florence Nightingale would be relieved. There exist exasperated letters written in the late 1850’s by the great reformer, then bottled up in a baking London summer at the Burlington Hotel, writing reports on army hospitals. She was rarely free of background grizzlings from her mother and sister whose “whole occupation…was to lie on two sofas and tell one another not to get tired by putting flowers into water…I cannot describe to you the impression it made on me.”

Surely as lovers of fragrance we can find a Middle Way?

¤ “so spikey and unfriendly” as Ann Todd remarks in another context.

¤¤ pronounced, of course, “chick”

¤¤¤  the in-house workman tries to catch his mate’s eye.

¤¤¤¤ be sure not to miss Barrett’s washing of Tony’s feet in scalding water laced with Stag salt. The censor asleep again.

* the “Vicar of Hell”, indeed

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
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¤ 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.

Wait For The Moment When…

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…Noel Coward (Dr Christian Faber) and Margaret Leighton (Leonora Vail) slope out of a crowded West End theatre in THE ASTONISHED HEART (1950). Off they go to dance the samba (a notorious celluloid euphemism)¤ and drink “Stingers”¤¤ as a “prelude to adulterous criminal intimacy” – as the Divorce Courts reports used to say. The fleeting but triumphantly lascivious look on Leighton’s face as she makes sure of Nolly’s sexual infatuation is one of the few authentic reactions in a film of almost total glittering artifice. In a certain mood – perhaps slightly inebriated or incubating flu – THE ASTONISHED HEART is diverting if ultimately unsatisfying, but it was a disaster with post-war audiences on both sides of the Atlantic who at this period wanted grit not gloss.

The huge appeal of BRIEF ENCOUNTER in 1945 inevitably led to attempts by its creators to duplicate its success. That movie’s director David Lean achieved another – unaccountably neglected  – masterpiece with THE PASSIONATE FRIENDS (1949), while Coward developed the screenplay of THE ASTONISHED HEART from his own one act play of 1935. Noel sacked Michael Redgrave after several days’ filming, and took over the role of the tragic hero, the sexually obsessed suicidal psychiatrist Chris. He admitted later that he was unconvincing¤¤¤ but blamed this on the inadequacies of the part – which after all he’d written himself. Ironically one can imagine the tortured and twitchy Redgrave making rather a hit of the part whereas Noel is far too smug, stiff and middle aged in quite the wrong sort of way. He never for a moment forgets that he is The Master, relishing self-indulgent lines that enable him to enunciate words such as “grotesque” and “cataclysmic crisis” like an ENSA impersonator of himself. He and everyone else appear to live on a diet of cigarettes and cocktails: no wonder that the wonderful Amy Veness – as Alice the cook – although third-billed has her role cut to 2 lines.

The cast are Coward friends, lovers, pensioners and regulars; all great names but (especially boyfriend Graham Payn) rather strained and jumpy, not quite at their best, maybe on account of the sudden Redgrave departure and consequent presence of “Ole Nole” (Nancy Mitford’s soubriquet) amongst them on the studio floor. Leighton was initially shy of Celia Johnson, and Joyce Carey was dependent on Noel for all that she had.  Yet the sheer abundance and extravagance of star quality and star “turns” in this frivolous and perhaps silly little movie is what makes it nevertheless so interesting and entertaining. A bad film but superbly done. As Coward remarked years later, they had all needed a stronger director than Anthony Farnborough to keep them in check: he would have preferred the iron hand of Carol Reed. (Or so he said in safe retrospect).

As so often Coward uses the rivalry/friendship of two women as the axis of the plot. Chris Faber’s sensible wife Barbara (Johnson) runs into an old schoolfriend, the flighty and unhappily divorced Leonora (Leighton) in a London hat shop: “Darlingtons, in the Fulham Road” – you know. Over their subsequent tea – “no biscuits, Madam” –  Leonora becomes immediately, obviously and entirely unconvincingly fixated on the as yet unseen character of Chris, determining to seduce, dominate and possess him. She succeeds all too well, ruins him and he jumps to his death (not instantaneous) from the roof of his very ugly Park Lane apartment building (“70 Chester House”).

The theme of sexual obsession – “The Lord shall smite thee with madness and blindness and the astonishment of heart”¤¤¤¤ – is (according to that durable star Joan Blondell, who should have known) the only plot in the movies. Margaret Leighton is – as usual – quite extraordinary and one can almost believe in her driving a “plain straightfoward alienist” nuts. Leighton’s current Wikipedia entry celebrates her sense of “exquisite grandeur and refinement”. It’s a good line – and one of the reasons why she always seemed years older than her true age (she was 28 in THE ASTONISHED HEART, looking and behaving like a glamorous 65 year old). Robert Stephens, who worked with her, described her in his memoirs as screamingly funny and common beyond belief. In private life she had terrible eating problems: she was also unusually tall* – 5’10” – in a profession of the tiny, and the height accentuates her sometimes alarming thinness. There are scenes in THE ASTONISHED HEART where her sumptuous and heavy Molyneux satin evening gowns seem to be falling off her, and her poor chest bones stick out alarmingly. Leighton has an alluring and varied repertoire of mannerisms and tricks to keep the viewer’s eye on her – a vertical butterfly flutter of her right hand, a slurring of her r’s as though tipsy, the word ‘extraordinary’ pronounced with at least seven syllables and ‘my’ said as “m’ . It’s all supremely actressy but perfectly suited to her character and put across with brio. Leighton is unrivalled at playing self-absorbed manipulative neurotic beauties with tragic secrets in their past**

And Celia Johnson, very crisp & snappy – though not above some rather rich eye rolling – is a perfect foil for her. Certainly Johnson is the most adroit of the three leads at suggesting the bleak tragedy of the situation behind the cocktail party banter and tomfoolery.  THE ASTONISHED HEART, BRIEF ENCOUNTER and THE PASSIONATE FRIENDS have certain curious tropes in common: a flight from a stale chilly marriage,  adultery-as-escapism, illicit sex as a cure for ennui. This risky game of make-believe is counterpointed and emphasised in each instance with rendezvous in the furtive scented darkness of masked balls, cinema balconies or theatre stalls *** plus real or imagined flight to exotic holiday locations in the guilty footsteps of Vronsky and Anna Karenina: Venetian canals, palmy tropical islands, Alpine lakes. And each film relies on a elaborate structure of flashbacks: these distance the guilt and enhance the fantasy, which is perhaps why we tend to forget in a casual review that all three pictures culminate in an attempted or successful suicide – and showy “public” suicides, too: under trains (Karenina, once again) or jumping from high places. The species of self-destruction that amateur psychologists say springs from a deep loathing of the human race.

But – for Heaven’s sake! – to happier thoughts. Coward was highly sensitive to smell and a born lover of perfume. It was an essential part of the theatrical act and celebrity persona. One of his short stories is entitled “Ashes Of Roses” and he famously makes extensive reference to Caron’s Narcisse Noir in his early shocker “The Vortex”. A later personal Coward favourite was Guerlain’s Vetiver. In the saucy tale “Me and The Girls” he pithily describes a nightclub – “the name of the joint was La Cumparsita & it smelled of fresh paint and piddle…”. In his only novel “Pomp and Circumstance” he memorably describes one Ursula Gannet as looking “…like an only slightly effeminate matador…her eyes…had an intense, almost hypnotic quality, and she’d put on a little too much ‘Arpege'”. Throughout his life, reporters and friends noted that, when receiving, Noel was as invariably surrounded by scent bottles as by cigarette holders, cocktail shakers and a piano. Actress friends in clinics were showered with flowers and perfume. Elaine Stritch remembered Coward giving her a nearly empty flacon of parfum as a first night gift: Noel told her it was so delicious he’d used most of it himself. Despising anything relating to ‘The Method’, he would douse himself before going on stage in his favourite scent of the moment : a habit other members of the cast might find off-putting, as when he played the working class patriot and pater familias Frank Gibbons in “This Happy Breed” drenched in Chanel. “Get on with it!” was his only response to tentative objections. As his friend the Queen Mum used to say,” And why not?”. Perfume, like life, is for the living.

¤ just as “dance hall proprietresses” are not always quite what they seem.

¤¤ “brandy and creme de menthe, mixed”.

¤¤¤ his mother, with bland maternal candour, told him she hated the film and that she thought he looked hideous in it.

# Coward regretted that the alienist is not shown at work: on the contrary, Dr Faber is presented in a succession of scenes with a variety of patients discussing their complex, lurid and eminently distressing sex lives

¤¤¤¤ “Deuteronomy 28… I think”. Noel’s text for his important lecture on Jung’s concept of the inferior function. Guess who’s gazing up from the floor with huge soft-focus swimming eyes?

* in long shots with Noel she wears large flat shoes which look strange beneath those opulent couture gowns.

** maybe most effective of all as David Niven’s sociopathic but fatally irresistible wife in CARRINGTON V.C.

*** with the concomitant opportunity for sly parodies of various genres.

Wait For The Moment When: Mae West

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…manifests on screen. Her film debut (she’d been on the New York stage for 20 years) was a supporting role in Night After Night in 1932, a film remembered now only for Mae and the exchange:

“Goodness, what beautiful diamonds!”

“Goodness had nothing to do with it dearie!”

The more you think about it the funnier it is; with its lilting scansion it is also poetically simple. Maybe that’s why the line is so frequently garbled and misquoted – as with Marilyn needing 58 takes to recite “where’s that bourbon?” while simultaneously opening a drawer. Less is more. Legendary theatrical turns of a century ago were by modern standards basic, even nugatory, but nonetheless radiated a concentrated energy (Sarah Bernhardt expected nightly to die on stage). Mae undulated an indolent shimmy, yowled suggestive songs, rotated her hips and delivered startling innuendo in that curious voice, part nasal, part mashed potato, that veered between New York brashness and tom cat purr. It was an old music hall persona but brand new to the screen: Hollywood kept Miss West on ice till the talkies arrived. Despite her extraordinary appearance she was also a creature of aurality as her notoriety on the wireless testifies.

Once she appears, you can’t take your eyes off her: the only definition of a true star. Like Garbo – quite unlike, say, Davis, Crawford or Rita Hayworth – she ignores everyone else in the picture: they are laid on merely as feeds and props. Far larger and stranger than life, entirely self-obsessed, Mae loves Mae. While appearing so transparently lubricious and blatantly arousing she is in fact a complete enigma. Presenting nothing but sex, is she in fact sexy?

Entirely the wrong figure and silhouette for her era, she dresses in a parody of the styles of the 1890’s. Her sweeping spangled gowns conceal the 8″ inch heels and soles that, with pompadours and plumes, transform her from petite to Statue of Liberty dimensions. The legs are rarely glimpsed. Never a beauty, Mae was 40 before she filmed, with an odd little face which Cecil Beaton later likened to that of an ape. Was she laughing at herself or was she deadly serious? Was she really a man, as has often been suggested? Was she the experienced voluptuary she implied or a sexually neurotic woman who avoided intimacy, preferring (like Somerset Maugham) “to be touched only by prior arrangement”.

From increasingly bizarre interviews and memoirs over the decades it’s impossible to tell. I always liked the account of one interview where she generated electricity from the nylon carpet to transmit a shock on shaking hands. Why did Billy Wilder have Mae down as his first choice for Norma Desmond? Had he got her number right off?

Yet one of Mae’s most endearing features is that on film she always appears to be enjoying herself: another aspect of the star persona. This is so even in the movie mistakes of her old age, Myra Breckinridge and Sextette, despite microphones hidden in her false hair to feed her dialogue, and with technicians kneeling on the floor propelling her around the set. There is on You Tube a sweet interview with Mae talking to Dick Cavett – her vast bosom is corseted and tightly upholstered in black velvet, and she comes over as a darling and slightly raffish old lady who has spent a jolly life in saloon bars (needless to say, she was in fact strictly teetotal). She looks fun and – as was once said of Swanson – she is fun to think about, too.

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Rochas took Mae at face value when he and Edmond Roudnistka created FEMME towards the end of World War Two. Couturier Marcel Rochas had known West for years as a client: he now designed the flacon as a surreal vision of the celebrated hips. Naturally it feels wonderful to hold. The box was patterned with the black lace panels that Rochas used to create the optical illusion of a slimmer figure. So maybe the sweet and fruity (prunes, but crystallised) chypre has a touch of tongue in cheek. Today – if you can find a bottle – it is still gorgeous and fascinating despite the passage of 70 years; and so, on celluloid, is Mae.

‘Oh, Beulah…’

‘Yes, ma’am?’

‘Peel me a grape.’

MAE WEST 1893 – 1980