Perfume Shops Pt. 2: Health and Efficiency

Rosalind Russell 'The Women' 1939

Rosalind Russell ‘The Women’ 1939

No one has yet made a movie about the life and times of Les Senteurs but there are numerous examples of perfumeries on film. In British pictures they used to be discreetly referred to as “beauty shops”, maybe to distance them from the dubious sort of apothecary’s which Margaret Lockwood patronises to procure poison – and perhaps other services? – in “The Wicked Lady”. Celia Johnson tells us how much she loves the smell of a chemist’s shop but we also remember the sinister establishment in “Pink String and Sealing Wax”, a hot-house of frustration, vivisection, blackmail and poisoning. No, “Beauty Shop” is preferable – clean within and without: a healthy mind in a healthy body. This has a more reassuring ring about it, especially in the coded symbolism of 1940’s cinema.

But it’s a funny thing: as we have noted in this column before, once a screenwriter brings perfume into a script it usually heralds the advent of some kind of calamity. Diana Dors’s sale of a bottle of “Christmas Rose” in “Yield To the Night” is her first step to the gallows. How inspired it was of Wilder to have Norma Desmond sitting on the sofa in “that grim Sunset castle” smelling of some anonymous tuberose, maybe bought at Schwabs Pharmarcy along with her Egyptian cigarettes. I don’t suppose it was frothy Fracas ( though that was already in the shops in 1950), but rather a dark predatory tuberose with all its folkloric connotations of madness, narcotic stupefaction, obsession and lust: a thumbnail sketch of Norma’s personality that would fit on the bottle’s label. Joe Gillis tells us tuberose is not his favourite scent – not by a long shot. He would do well to heed his animal instinct (as we should all do with scent) and get the hell of there before overtaken by the havoc bred by that voracious and invasive scent.

We never learn the name of Norma’s perfume, not that of the haunting mimosa scent in “The Uninvited”. And when Ann Todd wants to keep her sister on side in “Madeleine” while purchasing arsenic ( “a rat in the cellar” ) she buys her silence with anonymous rosewater. An unexpected and mordant add-on purchase is that! A nameless fragrance makes its reference infinitely more effective, each member of the audience imagining the redolent plot device in his own terms. Naming a scent is a tricky task and, once named, fragrance is forever fixed in certain mould.

Fictional names are usually pretty uninspired: “Persian Rose”, ” Jungle Venom”, “Love Kiss”, “Summer Rain” and of course the ghastly “Seduction” which shop-girl Susan Shaw brings as a gift to slatternly sister Jean Kent in “The Woman in Question”. Here the name is all too obviously matched to the outlandish Kent character who snuffs at the bottle in a piggy kind of way before banging it down on her filthy dressing table. “Seduction” comes from Shaw’s Beauty Shop: has she nicked it, as Jean Kent rudely suggests? It comes unboxed which is odd – maybe a tester? A customer return? Faulty goods? A manufacturer’s sample? The risk here is that the viewer gets carried away with the retail conundrum and consequently misses vital details of plot.

I was once asked to propose a name for a simple floral scent created for a department store. I came up with more than 500 over-elaborate suggestions and none was quite right: in the end they called it just “Rose”: the answer was right under my nose. From the back list of classics, favourite names include “Magie Noire”, “Shalimar”, “Teint de Neige”, “My Sin”, “Moment Supreme”, “Crepe de Chine”, “Shocking”, “Vega” and “Ciao!” My current rave is Tom Daxon’s “Crushing Bloom” – an absolutely inspired title for a glorious green spicy rose weighed down with raindrops, nectar and gorgeous perfume. The first word makes you think of pashes & Schwarmerei & ardent swoonings; it has a wonderful onamatopeic quality and it rhymes with “lush”, a quality it has in abundance. “Crushing”: it’s kind of fun to say the word out loud, rolling it around the tongue, thinking of crush bars, fresh fruit drinks, Imperial Roman revellers crushed under tonnes of petals. Then “bloom”, a great silky flower pinned in one’s hair or in a corsage; or lowering, vast and heavy and outsize in a flower bed: I’m sure if we could hear a huge flower opening it would make a sound like this, a whooshing resonant noise as great velvet petals roll back like theatre curtains or lilies trumpet forth nectar and pollen. Bloom / zoom / va va voom. What’s in a name? Everything.

My Happiness: a special Christmas blog for Les Senteurs by guest writer Mrs Lemon Wedge

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O! The soft sweet golden glow of DRIES VAN NOTEN: all the tenderness of Christmas morning. Or the ferocious night-time sensuality of COLOGNE POUR LE SOIR, richly animalic like the rosy satin lining of a sable coat. The flowery dew of NOCTURNES, a rope of luminous pearls still warm from the wearer’s body. The dark sacred odour of the Christmas night stars in MYRRHIAD.
How privileged and fortunate am I to be Mrs LW, with all the treasures of the fragrance world at my husband’s generous disposal!

Why is perfume such a great gift? It is altogether timeless, both ancient and modern in its facility to become an integral part of you and your dreams. Imagine sitting up in bed on the Great Day in the darkness before dawn, with that curious magical feeling of uniqueness, and all of Christmas in the air, that still wonderful atmosphere that begins in early childhood and hopefully never quite dies away. It’s still there, if only for a minute or two: the world of carols, snow and Santa; of stuffed stockings, Margaret Tarrant Nativity picture books and infinite good will.

So there I shall be on the Day of Days, propped up in bed with a cup of hot sweet tea under my Princess Margaret apple green satin eiderdown wondering “Now, HOW shall we set about all this?” I agree with Elizabeth David and would prefer a light lunch of smoked salmon and champagne but Mr LW always says, “my dear, I shall give you The Works!” Indeed he is already below decks in the kitchen, manipulating the festive bird with deft hands and spatulas. Or apparently so, for suddenly he appears the foot of our bed, setting this intriguing package before me, exquisitely wrapped and ribboned. It feels wonderfully heavy and solid. For one awful moment I fear it might after all be a book or a set of table mats. But, no, its too square for that and too small. And there’s a faint juddering when i shake the parcel indicating the presence of a bottle. My lovely Mr LW has done it again, for sure. “Careful, now..”, he says. He adjusts my pillows a trifle and sits beside me to watch my face.

Shall I daintily pick off the wrappings like a finicking archaeologist and put them aside for use again? Or open my present in one glorious wasteful rip, yanking off all the tussore, grosgrain and glitter like James Mason pawing at Margaret Lockwood’s stomacher? I tear the coverings asunder, loving the explosion of cracklings, rustlings and rendings. And there it is. Surely nothing beats the thrill of a luxuriously crafted box in black, red or white; then easing off the perfectly fitting lid to discover a jewel-like flacon filled with … with?…well, with every possibility and infinite variety under the sun.

You can choose perfume every Christmas for a lifetime and the fulfilment and excitement never palls. The joy of a new bottle of scent – whether it’s a signature, an old favourite or a suprise novelty – never dates, never stales. It promises infinite riches, experience and adventure. It’s like being born all over again, especially when you’re lying in bed spraying lavishly from a big now bottle, immersed in your own dream world.

But where is LW? Eager, I hope, to be thanked in a suitable manner. Not at all: gone below and making with the goose fat and roast spuds. My treasure!”

PS

Entre nous, this year I’m giving her the sweet and sultry broken blossoms of Kilian’s GOOD GIRL GONE BAD. Our little private joke.
But say nothing!

Merry Christmas!
LW

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