Wait For The Moment When: Jean Harlow has Clark Gable scrub her back in ‘Red Dust’ (1932)

Jean Harlow in Red Dust

Jean Harlow in Red Dust

She’s a tropical trollop with a pet parrot, shacked up on an Indo-Chinese rubber plantation with over-sexed planter Gable. Beautiful Mary Astor is about to shatter their jungle idyll with refinement and a revolver, but for now Harlow decides to take a dip in a rain butt. She’s just cleaned out the parrot’s cage – “What ya been eating? Cement?”. It’s all very pre-Hays Code and when Depression audiences saw Gable duck Jean’s gleaming white body in the barrel there were riots in cinemas across the USA. Seats were torn up and women fainted. It doesn’t happen like this any more. The last time I witnessed anything remotely similar was when a noisy and packed late house in Leicester Square gasped and squealed in unison as Travolta peeled off his shirt in Pulp Fiction. This spontaneous reaction – “thousands cheer” – was one of my more memorable cinema experiences.

A recent survey of Harlow’s brief hurricane of fan mail (she died of kidney failure at 26) revealed not the expected lecherous outpourings of middle aged men but the sweet admiration of young girls and their requests for beauty tips. Maybe this should not surprise us. On screen, despite the heavy make-up and the clingy gowns, she’s often like a child dolled up in her tarty mother’s clothes. There’s no guile about Jean – she’s frank, noisy and honest; amoral not immoral. They called her “the Baby” on the MGM soundstages so we assume that the essence of her real-life personality translated to the screen.

f0c28927103e50082f6677a8c40febeb

Guerlain’s Mitsouko

 

And, talking of her fan base, it’s nice to know that George V and Queen Mary were avid Harlow admirers, having all her movies privately screened at Buckingham Palace – even the notorious Red Headed Woman, banned for general viewing in the UK until 1965 (can you believe it?). Despite their starchy exteriors the Royal couple were both Geminis – with all the mercurial spirit and delight in novel entertainment which that implies. Remember how Queen Mary later adored all the murders, seductions and cleavage of The Wicked Lady?

Harlow is famously said to have worn Guerlain’s Mitsouko – her second husband reputedly covered himself with his wife’s heady scent before his mysterious suicide in their bathroom. But for me the real mystery is how this gorgeous oakmoss emerald-dark chypre came to sit so well on Jean’s translucently fair skin. The trademark platinum hair was bleached but Harlow was naturally fair, almost albino, and photos of her wearing only diminuendo makeup are quite startling in their lunar luminous pallor. I always think of Mitsouko as quintessentially a brunette scent – enhancing an Ava Gardner or Liz Taylor type. I cannot imagine the impact of it as worn by tiny, vivacious, wise cracking Jean. Now, none of us shall never know; and very few are left to remember.

Dinner-at-Eight

Dressler and Harlow in Dinner at Eight

 

It all goes to show that with perfume there can be pride and prejudice but there’s also personal preference; and most importantly those spectacularly unpredictable idiosyncratic unions of fragrance and chemistry. I never pass a Guerlain counter without an admiring thought of the original Blonde Bombshell with her ice-cube-toned breasts, no knickers, and her snappy brisk way with a line. Marie Dressler’s celebrated put-down at the climax of Dinner At Eight works so well only because of the brilliant way Jean supplies the feed:

” I was reading a book the other day…all about civilisation or something… a NUTTY kind of a book…and the guy says that machinery is gonna take the place of EVERY profession!”

“O my dear: that’s something you need NEVER worry about…”

Curtain.

Caron Cocktail

Beatrice+Lillie+-+What's+New+With+Bea+Lillie+ +-+7'+RECORD-548139

I don’t know about you, but the recent hot weather has left me craving a scent that’s exuberantly floral. Something cool and white and petally to spray liberally of an evening, after a tepid bath or a cold shower & before the first sundowner. A perfume to calm the fever of heat and complement one’s loosest linen slops, bleached out and soft by constant launderings. This is really the only time of year when it’s permissible to spray fragrance on your easy-wash clothes, knowing they’ll be back in the Bendix and up on the line again in a couple of hours.

Tiare, gardenia and magnolia are all perfect on a langourous summer evening but I’ve been really knocked for six – and not for the first time – by Caron’s 1933 stunner FLEURS DE ROCAILLE. Isn’t it interesting how perfume crushes go in cycles? I’ve been in and out of this one for the past thirty years at least. Maybe not one of the cult Carons, FLEURS is one of the easier to wear. In its day it was as influential and significant as Tabac Blond or Narcisse Noir, letting in light, sunshine and air to a perfume public stifled and oppressed by world recession and Depression. FLEURS DE ROCAILLE was the olfactory equivalent of Jean Harlow’s blindingly monochrome cut-on-the-bias satin; Crawford’s dazzlingly crisp ruffles and the ubiquitous Syrie Maugham cream decor of everyone’s new drawing room. And it’s not just stylish, its witty & fun – in the style of Beatrice Lillie’s surrealist telephone connection via two lilies.

A dazzling whoosh of aldehydes makes the initial hit smell like a foam of iced champagne cascading from a celebratory Nebuchadnezzar. Roses, violets, ylang ylang, lilac and muguet de bois pop pop pop in the pale gold bubbles like wedding confetti while underneath lies a damp green darkness of oakmoss and woods. Maybe the heady signature musk helps to brings out the alcoholic accord, too: Caron had been expert at creating the illusion since their gorgeous 1923 bath essence Royal Bain de Champagne. And here’s a thing: a couple of years ago I blew £1.00 on a bottle of Musk and had been fooling around with it when a visitor called and complained of the smell of flat stale champagne in the apartment. What can I say?

And there’s the hint of another scent in FLEURS DE ROCAILLE, too: a lovely Swedish girl once put her finger on it – “pigs!” she said. “Nice clean pigs!”: the sort of animals, all bathed and scrubbed, that Marie Antoinette might have herded on blue ribbons at the Trianon. It is this audacious whiff of the animalic that gives FLEURS its unique and unforgettable fascination: delicate fairytale flowers in a well-manured, very urban, rockery.

ATT15710Meanwhile I’ve had the rare chance to smell the flower that inspired Frederic Malle’s EAU DE MAGNOLIA: a huge grandifloria bloom the size of a Sevres soup bowl has opened in a neighbour’s garden and overhangs the pavement like Goblin Market fruit. I keep going to have another inhalation: very strange and fascinating, like green lemons rubbed on a metal grater but with an additional curious backnote which is as disconcerting as those pigs but less attractive. It’s as though the citrus is cupped in old dry plastic, a cracked basin from the back of the cupboard – or one of those plastic water beakers we gnawed at school. Truth is stranger than fiction: Editions de Parfums have retained and developed the lovely hesperidics – but wisely left the plastic accord for Mother Nature’s personal use.

The Smell of School

dailmail
Analysis of those few remembered smells depends on which school I am conjuring. Prep school was suffused with the odour of boiled cabbage, our inevitable luncheon vegetable, implacably doled out from a huge blue plastic colander. The headmaster’s wife wore tiny matching Wellingtons to supervise its preparation. It had to be eaten up: unfortunately we did not wear the bloomers into which my mother’s generation had tucked the leftover for thoughtful disposal after the meal.
Now comes the smell of paraffin heaters, Cherry Blossom Shoe Shine and Dubbin in the gloomy boot room where Mr Bowes cleaned 150 pairs of shoes and scraped away at football boots, a perpetual cigarette partially concealed in his curved palm. (People always said then that this furtiveness denoted an ex-con). The boot domain opened off a sort of concrete Victorian loggia: the next door along opened into the communal exiguous lavatories full of Izal and Bronco, walls streaming with damp, which so appalled me as a new boy that I preferred not to go at all. An experiment in will power which lasted for an unhealthy and remarkable length of time.
I remember more of public school scents, possibly because by the age of 13 my nose had awoken and become more enquiring and demanding. And O! the smells of that first evening when I was swamped and disoriented like a newly housed puppy by the odours of an establishment the size of a village, with 1,000 inhabitants. The dining hall had an echo which was overwhelming itself before one balked like a pony at the extraordinary smell: not especially nasty but very thick and pervasive, an accumulated miasma of floor wax, old food (particularly, it always seemed to me, mashed potatoes) and stale dishcloths. We sat on benches at varnished wooden tables; the windows were set very high, as in the workhouse, so there was no view. In fact, it was forbidden for boys to look out from any window whatsoever for their first two years. There seemed to be a perpetual light film of greasy damp laid over everything and it was all too easy for small fry to slip on the floor when bringing cauldrons of gravy or custard from the kitchens. Yet we dined below a beautiful domed ceiling of sky blue and gold: we looked up to Heaven from the mire. On Sundays we were offered a special breakfast of canned grapefruit, bread rolls baked very hard so that they crumbled to dust when broken and bitter coffee, wonderfully hot and strong. The distinctive fragrance of all this, mixed with slightly damp and clammy best black suits is always with me, and giving me goose flesh as I write this.
Then there were the odours concomitant with dormitories of 50 boys allowed baths only twice weekly and a clean shirt every Friday. Sports clothes were washed much less, say once a term. Between whiles they were merely dried on the pipes of a small boiler room which served as antechamber to the baths. Wet towels were hung here too, or slung over chairs by one’s bed. Some people had competitions as to how long they could go without washing their hair or whether they could get away with sleeping in their clothes for a whole term. Then you had to find storage space for your damp and muddy CCF uniform. Yet I remember only a certain mildewed mustiness, nothing worse, and the teachers never remonstrated. Neither did our parents. the furthest mine ever went was to say how tired and cross we seemed when allowed out. And my father said wistfully, leaving me at the beginning of one term,” do try to keep clean…”. He’d been there himself: he knew the form.
The magnificent library (another painted ceiling) smelled of dried-up leather bindings and Sunday dinners, especially vinegary mint sauce and horseradish. This was odd as it was nowhere near the dining room. The classrooms were still fragrant with ink. The wells in the hacked-about wooden forms  were no longer filled , but they showed ample evidence of former use and we pupils were still up to our wrists in Quink, plus tattoos of biro and fountain pen sometimes applied subcutaneously. Why did no one get blood poisoning? One of my friends henna’ed his fingers and grew his nails like a Manchu before stamping out circles in them with a hole puncher and threading them through with wires which then…etc etc. So much time we had then, so intricately and elaborately wasted.
The one part of the premises which unequivocably reeked was the kitchen yard onto which for two terms my study looked. I had one of the most privileged rooms (being furthest away from the gaze of authority) and yet it gave onto this terrible pen graced with three huge bins labelled  (and I should be correct, I gazed at them for 25 weeks) Sobas Segas, Conidas Segas, Liquido Salsas: – dry refuse, pig food, liquid waste. It was a year of continual strikes – including the dustbin men – coniciding with a very hot summer. The stench was all-enveloping and perpetual, yet it was never referred to, even by visiting outsiders, and no one took ill though looking back I’m inclined to think it made us even more lethargic and snappish. Everyone prided himself on idiosyncratic interior decoration – huge posters of Jane Fonda v Jean Harlow graced the walls – and there was always plenty of expressive music on the go, but the senses of smell and taste ( a study diet of black Nescafe and Mother’s Pride ) were strangely neglected. School was by and large a whole lot of fun and I’ve certainly laughed so much since, but the liberation of my nose began on the day I left.
Image: dailymail.co.uk

Stars With No Papas

Bette Davis Deception

If you make a list of some of the greatest female stars of Hollywood’s golden age it is remarkable to see that so many grew up without the prescence of a father in their lives, either because he died or had absconded in their infancy. Garbo, Dietrich, Joan Crawford, Mary Astor, Jean Harlow, Ginger Rogers, Bette Davis, Barbara Stanwyck, Joan Foantaine and her sister Olivia de Havilland, Lillian and Dorothy Gish, Mary Pickford all fall into this category. Consequently, the gifted and luminous child became not only her mother’s fiercely cherished daughter but to some extent, a subsitute for the vanished husband. As an adult, the successful daughter operated psychologically, as the film historian Foster Hirsch so fascinatingly points out in his dvd commentary to the Davis vehicle “Deception”, on a level both male and female; an ambiguity that extended to so many of these women’s notoriously complicated sex-lives.

Abnormally preoccupied with her looks, like anyone whose face is a greater part of her fortune, the fatherless star was also depended upon by her mother and siblings for the family earnings. No wonder that Olivia de Havilland developed the life-long feud with her younger sister which has now run to six decades of “non-speakers” – professionally jealous but also maybe competing for their mother’s affection as not only daughters but surrogate partners and breadwinners. In other cases, the successful sister allowed (within limits) a sibling to trade on her own success: like Mae West’s sister Beverley who made a living imitating her sister on the stage in Mae’s cast-offs. Claudette Colbert employed her brother as her agent. Ginger Rogers’ mother wrote some of her daughter’s material. We also note cases when the original broken marriage which had fired up successful ambition in one child, caused others in the family to fall by the wayside to be ruthlessly dealt with – put in asylums, paid to keep away; and the bizarre case of Merle Oberon’s parent, turned into her own daughter’s maid, pushing in the tea-trolley incognito when gossip columnists were being entertained at the star’s home. The mothers often lived to a great age, fighting for their daughters but simultaneously feeding off them; while, as in a Greek tragedy, they witnessed their child’s rise, apogee, decline and retirement. As Bette Davis had inscribed on her mother’s tombstone: “Ruthie: you will always be in the front row.”

The male side of the star’s character was forced even more to the fore by the incessant unrelenting struggle to survive at the top of the Hollywood tree in an industry dominated by mostly misogynistic male monsters and the decisive role of the casting couch. “She thinks like a man and she drinks like a man,” was the highest accolade the industry could pay while simultaneously covertly mocking this “unnatural” behaviour. Mae West was so strong and powerful an operator that she was stigmatised by the accusation of being a man in drag: a woman could not BE that tough, have such control. Despite the most expert cameramen’s work you can see on film the ocular proof of how quickly the unrelenting fight of keeping at one’s professional and personal peak took its rapid toll on a star’s looks. And of course, she harder she worked and the more she worried, the quicker the lovely face aged. It was said that Garbo was not really concealing her face when she hid from photographers; she was attempting just to hide her beautiful mouth which revealed all too clearly the strain, bitterness and disappointments of her life.

Of course on any terms there is no decent perfume that is JUST for men, ONLY for women. A perfume is a collection of gender non-biased notes, and the user should select a scent that appeals to him emotionally, instinctively and which works perfectly with his skin. A perfume which appears to be more overtly feminine (say, Lys Mediterranee, with its predominantly floral character) can still work well on a man’s skin because his skin chemistry and hormones will tend to subdue the flowery elements of the fragrance and accentuate the greeness, the leafy woodiness at the base. Again, a dark leathery fougere (Knize Ten, say, or Royal Oud) will often soften on a woman’s arm, revealing those rose and jasmine underpinnings which form the spine or core of most scents, but which usually lurk unrevealed. It is often remarked that a man with a more pronounced feminine side will try as it were to “balance” his character with an obviously manly scent – and vice versa. Hard to quantify in Hollywood terms. Often it appears that female stars were trying to enhance their authoritative power aura rather than their orthodox femininity with scents which are heavy, heady and ambiguous: Jean Harlow and Mitsouko, Dietrich with Tabac Blond, Shalimar, Youth Dew and anything with a deep tuberose note; Swanson in Narcisse Noir; all of which incidentally can work superbly for a man, too, if he has the nerve. Crawford tells us in her memoirs how she, like Garbo, preferred contemporary men’s colognes, especially variations on geranium. Zarah Leander, massive, tall, stately with that basso-profundo singing voice made Bandit her signature.

It is harder to know for sure what the male contemporaries of these girls wore: cologne for men was not exactly tabu by then: Caron‘s Pour Un Homme had got the male fragrance industry going in 1934, but it was still not the sort of information that a press agent of a Great Lover would flash around. Memories of Valentino and the “Pink Powder Puff Scandal” were still a tender subject. Knize Ten was a favourite of Maurice Chevalier and Charles Boyer: Gary Cooper (and I believe Charlie Chaplin) wore the interestingly ambiguous Jicky. But if female stars lacked papas, a corresponding pathological syndrome demonstrates that so many of Hollywood’s legendary men seemed unable to procreate male children of their own bodies, despite serial marriages; and if they did, the sons often suicided or died young and tragically. It is as though Cooper, Tyrone Power, Valentino,Cary Grant, Robert Taylor, Hope and Crosby, John Gilbert and the rest needed to muster every scrap of virility and masculinity for themselves: there was nothing left over for their heirs. A  depressing and tragic reflection: how fortunate that we can always lighten the mood (as ever) with a memory and scent of their perfume.

Freckles

Eddie Redmayne FrecklesEveryone’s talking about Eddie Redmayne, star of My Week With Marilyn, Birdsong and the new Burberry advertising campaign. The columnists are fascinated by his voluptuous lips but I’m more interested in the freckles. He appears to be entirely covered in them.

Long considered to mar personal beauty, freckles used to be subjected to ritual scrubbings with cucumber lotions,lemon juice + sour milk in a vain attempt to bleach the skin. Yet there is something terribly attractive about them. As a child I was allowed to toddle up the road to a corner shop selling sixpenny packets of seeds,transfers, sweets, newspapers, bars of Walnut Bliss (remember?) + ices. On a good day you would find Kathleen behind the counter, very kind to infants and resplendent in a green overall which set off a magnificent head of red hair: she was completely covered with freckles, enhanced by brilliant pink lipstick and I was mesmerised by the look of her, finding it hard not to rudely stare.

Later on, I discovered all those red-headed movie stars with the same gorgeous look: Deborah Kerr, Van Johnson, Katharine Hepburn, Spencer Tracy, Zarah Leander and most famously perhaps Joan Crawford. There exists a wonderful photo portrait of Crawford near the start of her career, wearing dramatic lipstick + mascara and all the freckles on show: later they would be airbrushed out, covered with foundation or camouflaged by a perfect California sun tan; but in latter years journalists interviewing her were mesmerised by the dramatic pigmentation.

Incidentally why was Damian Lewis hailed as the first red headed star? Besides the above roster, there are also a fine muster of bottle reds: Rita Hayworth, Clara Bow, Lucille Ball, even Jean Harlow who had a dramatic change of look for RED HEADED WOMAN. A film,incidentally that was banned in the UK but privately screened at Buckingham Palace for George V – she was always his favourite star.

It is notorious that the skin type that often accompanies freckles + resplendent red hair can react very trickily with perfume. One of the cult classics in the fragrance hall of fame is Robert Piguet‘s Bandit which was created in 1944 by Germaine Cellier with the French actress Edwige Feulliere in mind – “the French Garbo” who was blessed with a mane of red-gold locks. Bandit is a dry leathery animalic green scent; it eschews the use of those floral notes such as jasmine, tuberose, hyacinth, gardenia that can create such havoc on a “red” skin. On a redhead it is the apogee of refined dangerous sexuality.

Therein lies the clue: avoidance of the fleshy hot-house flowers which can turn sour, catty and acidic. If you are a pale-skinned fiery redhead try to tailor your tastes to chypres, orientals, woods and fougeres which tend to harmonise with your natural skin chemistry. And we never, ever use this awful word “ginger”…

Image sourced from details.com