Unpacking Our New Year

cary-grant-and-poodle

 

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”…

Advertisements

“Goodnight, Irene”

theodora-goes-wild

 

“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

Woman in a Dressing Gown

From http://notreallyworking.co.uk

A universal cliche holds it as a truth that you cannot portray or even talk about perfume on film or tv without extreme difficulty: ” they can’t smell it, don’t you see?”. I don’t at all agree, holding with that apocryphal but accurate endorsement of radio that the pictures on the wireless are better. I believe that imaginary smells may be more pungent if the correct stimuli are applied to the senses. Do you remember that gruesome children’s game – was it Murderer in the Dark?  – when we all sat in a circle with the lights off while peeled grapes, lumps of meat, pickled onions and egg yolks were passed from hand to hand, purporting to be parts of a dismembered corpse? (Childhood still retained its innocence in the 1950’s). Parents worked very hard preparing the objects for this tableau vivant and there’s no doubt it left a lasting impact on the players and the development of their imaginations.

If you think about it, film has always been able to suggest smell and scent; using them as part of the holistic mood of a movie. I don’t mean that handful of novelty features which pumped smells into the auditorium or used scratch cards to release odours on cue.(“Smell-o-vision” being one such process). No. I’m talking about aromas released in the viewer’s head via the screenplay, the dialogue, the camera. “Out of the character comes the movement; and out of the movement comes the dialogue”, Louise Brooks used to say. Maybe out of the camera comes the perfume.

And out of the vision of a gifted director. Think of Germany’s first talkie, Dietrich’s breakthrough picture The Blue Angel. Setting the action mainly in schoolrooms and the backstage of  tavern cabarets Von Sternberg enhances his banal and sordid theme with a battery of smells, mostly unsavoury, implied by sets, characters and action. A dead canary thrown into the stove, a performing bear, Marlene’s knickers repeatedly gloated over by the camera, face powder blown in Emil Jannings’ face, tatty costumes, beer, cheap champagne,coffee, smoke, tobacco, broken eggs, a pineapple, chalk dust, old books, sweaty wigs…well, see for yourselves sometime. Then take a deep breath on Sunset Boulevard. I don’t know whether (as Caron used to claim) Billy Wilder really sprayed the sets with Narcisse Noir but there’s certainly the dead monkey, the decaying house and pool, the Isotta Fraschini upholstered in leopard in the damp garage, Norma’s Egyptian cigarettes (“Abdullahs”), her tuberose perfume, her “half an inch of makeup”, the rats, the untouched buffet at her New Year party. Plus, what is she smoking in that curious wire holder on her finger? I’m now on series 4 of Mad Men and a holder just like Norma’s is used to puff marijuana at a wild club. And we all used to think it was the champagne making her talk so silly.

But the olfactory movie par excellence must be the more modest Woman In A Dressing Gown, Ted Willis’s 1957 British slice of kitchen sink: Amy (Yvonne Mitchell) in the throes of unrecognised undiagnosed depression, surrounded by her ghastly menfolk and her own hopeless mess at 23 Nightingale House. She’s past bothering to dress, just throws on the eponymous dressing gown.  Her first appearance is accompanied by an beast-like snuffling and sniffing as the breakfast toast burns, followed by a huge close-up of the charred slice shot from under the grill. We’re off!

The camera lingers obsessively over Amy’s dreadful cooking – the blackened bacon and eggs, soaked in fat and the plate wiped on her gown; the burned fillet of plaice and chips (“Smells Good!” – doesn’t taste it though); and yet another supper treat, “cold ham, cold veal, cold pork”. All are served with a battery of bottled sauces, and everything smells of confusion, anxiety and a desperate longing to nurture and please. (Jimbo’s mistress, of course, cooks like an angel in the kitchen: a beautifully presented Sunday roast to mirror her skill in quite a different room).

From breakfast we cut to Jimbo shaving in a steamy bathroom and segue into laundry, hot irons, baby-minding, pawnshops (an old old coat being popped), timber yards, the river, raucous pubs, a hairdressing salon run by Olga Lindo, Tallulah’s understudy in the 1920’s and now a gruff dragon-manageress with a golden heart. And the rain pours down: black, mucky, sooty city rain – used as so often in old cinema as a metaphor for sex, a symbol of illicit passion. Wasn’t film so much more interesting when we had to familiarise ourselves with all these codes and ciphers which faded away so quickly with the collapse of censorship? The film ends with the saddest “happy ending” you ever saw and a threat that the dressing gown may be discarded, even washed. Like dogs, the characters have returned to their own vomit, reassured by the smells of their own debris and failure, safe if not happy in their soiled bedding.

Image from: http://notreallyworking.co.uk