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.

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.

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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.

All The Silly Dreams…

Brief Encounter is a great favourite, and as is the case with all great movies you read it differently with each viewing. Last night I remarked how desiccated and sour Laura Jesson’s life has become: the rather tiresome children seem to get on her nerves; her supposed friends are all hateful. How has this apparently highly sensitive person fallen in with the company of such shallow mean-minded treacherous women? She has no real friends at all. She spends every Thursday at the pictures and is dissatisfied with everything she sees: except for Donald Duck. What appeals to her about him? “His furious energy and his blind frustrated rages.” Go figure, as the young people say.

Laura’s energies are confined to a boring, narrow if relentless routine – reserving new books at Boots Library, dodging bores, and changing into the same dowdy dress for dinner with reliable affectionate Fred who appears interested only in his food, a quiet life and the crossword puzzle: in fact he’s the only person in the movie who genuinely cares for Laura’s wellbeing. Then she meets the glamorous doctor: is he all he seems? Alec may easily be seen as an cynical serial seducer, preying on lonely and impressionable middle aged ladies with not enough to do with their lives. The scene of him barging in Laura at the Kardomah cafe and suggesting, as he gobbles bread roll, that he come to the pictures with her can be romantic or horribly creepy, depending on your own mood. We only have his word for it that he has the alibi of a spouse (“his wife…Madeleine…”) and children at home. And what of his ambiguous relationship with the vile surgeon, Stephen, who lends Alec the keys to his arty service flat where he keeps tropical fish on the mantelpiece above a live fire. Though evidently not with assignations with virtuous housewives in mind: Laura’s appearance there provokes the most appalling outburst of vindictive spite from Stephen. In fact the two doctors (in the 1940’s, unimpeachable pillars of the community) compare very badly with Fred and Mr Godbey the ticket-collector at Ketchworth Station who are protective, loyal, reliable and full of soothing common sense: the two men who are – and how ironically! – satirised as figures of fun.

Is the tale we are narrated by Laura actually true? She is a dreamer; the story of the film is told in a flashback of sad reverie – she dreams within the dream, sitting in a darkening railway carriage spinning fantasies “like a romantic schoolgirl, like a romantic fool”.

Has Laura imagined the whole thing? Was there really any love affair at all? Does the whole romance simply take place in her head, prompted by the chance encounter with Alec who takes the grit from her eye? Is the rest of the film just her fantasy, as she sits in her chair sewing, of what might have been? A hash of everything she’s ever seen on the cinema or read in a toiletry catalogue? “ Then all the silly dreams faded”…..

I don’t think Laura Jesson is much of a user of scent and I suspect that Fred would probably dislike it, though he doesn’t mind his wife smoking providing it’s not in the street. She disparages frivolous hats and too much make-up; the malevolent friend (sic) Mrs Norton is seen plucking her eyebrows like a bird of prey, while Laura stumbles through her poor little lies on the telephone. Laura likes the smell of her chemist’s (“nice things: herbs and soap and scent”); maybe she dabs a little eau de cologne on her hanky for special occasions, but no doubt has a horror of “common” perfumes such as Evening in Paris and Californian Poppy. In this she is unlike her creator, Noel Coward, who was a promiscuous and liberal lover of scent on stage and off: Arpege, Narcisse Noir, No 5 and Mitsouko were all grist to his mill. But Laura is a lover I’ll bet of scent stories and beautiful bottles, anything to feed that starving imagination like the barrel organ music that so delights her. (“Strange how potent cheap music is”). That movie that she and Alec walk out of, Flames of Passion, sounds like the name of a Woolworth perfume, all promise and no fulfilment.

As the lights come on at the Odeon is Laura left with a fragrant memory or a cheating whiff of lies? Top-notes of exciting illusion with no base in fact?

Signing off for now…

Have you got your copy yet of ‘A Card From Angela Carter’ by Susannah Clapp? A fascinating memoir of the writer built around postcards sent by this fascinating woman, sure to appeal to all her admirers; as well as those who, like Lemon Wedge, are always inspired by the imagery, portability and accessibility of a picture postcard. Carter’s final novel was the entirely bewitching and screamingly funny “Wise Children”, the story of identical twins Dora and Nora who are defined by their signature scents – Mitsouko for Dora and Shalimar for Nora: one episode revolves around the sexual havoc that ensues when boyfriends trust to their sense of smell rather than their eyes and ears. A warning to us all.
Many perfume fanciers, women in particular, long for a signature scent; a perfume that will reflect their personality, advertise their presence and, like a memory or even a human soul, linger in the minds of others after they have departed – either from the party, the bed or from this world entirely. I used to know an elderly French lady who had married a Londoner and come to settle here in the 1930’s. During the Second World War her flat was a gathering place for Free French and other expatriates; they found the address, she said, by the trail of Shalimar. She once asked some French exiles what they missed most about home: “Ah, Mme! Les femmes parfumées!”  English women have always been shy of applying scent with the reckless abandon of their Gallic sisters. They want to be remembered, nonetheless: a frequent request is from a young mother who is looking for a perfume that will stay in her children’s minds for a lifetime, adding another dimension to her immortality. Rita Hayworth’s daughter, whom I have mentioned elsewhere in these pages, went so far as to have a candle created imbued with her late mother’s perfume, to surround herself with the scent – the WARM scent – of the maternal prescence.
There is poignant anecdote told – I think by Jonathan Gathorne Hardy (maybe readers can help me?) – in a book on English public schools, of an elderly gentleman reduced to floods of tears at a school reunion by meeting a fellow pupil on whom 50 years before he had had a tremendous crush, “At school he always used to smell of tangerines….” . Scent as we all know prompts the memory with such a powerful,immediate and visceral impact; reminding me of Mae West’s trick of shuffling across the carpet to greet visitors so as to generate enough static to give the caller a sharp electric jolt when she shook hands or kissed. A signature scent may come by design or by happen-stance; it need not be your personal favourite, just the smell that others associate with you. Or if you are fortunate enough, it can even be your own natural odour as saints are said to smell of roses, and Alexander the Great of violets. The signature scent may not even be one that emanates from your own person, but the redolence of your ambience – the magical Mona di Orio always spoke of childhood memories of her grandmother being inextricably tied up with the scent of geraniums, dry in the summer heat and then the delicious smell of the parched leaves and soil revived and made fragrant by the evening ritual watering.
The desire for a scent unique to oneself seems to be more widespread than ever: bespoke perfumes are heavily in demand despite the high cost involved and long waiting lists. The supreme luxury to indulge in to be sure, but I am not entirely convinced; it is a difficult trick to pull off, not so much for the perfumer but for the client. You can end up, I think, in the artificial position of over-analysing likes and dislikes, while straining for effects of which you still remain unsure. And the unfamiliarity with the technicalities of ingredients and manufacturing methods can add to this, together with the perennial problem of conveying olfactory feelings and desires verbally. There remain at least two other alternatives.
One is to take time to browse through perfume departments and particularly specialist shops where there is a wide and ample choice of scents which you can try and analyse at your leisure, until (maybe with a little guidance from sympathetic staff) you find a scent which calls to you, quite literally. Calls to you through your nose and brain, so that you know you can live with and in this through the seasons, day and night for as long as you wish, gradually inducing a Pavlovian reflex with your sillage. Alternatively – and I think this can be amusing besides seductive and highly effective – choose not a single scent but an ingredient, or a theme. Take, say, tuberose: you might define yourself with this oil but do so with a whole wardrobe of tuberose scents, starting with the classic pink froth of Fracas; through the fresh green of Carnal Flower; the sweetness of Bubblegum Chic; and reaching a crescendo with the flamboyant tropicana of Tubereuse Couture.

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.