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Judy, Judy, Judy! M-G-M Musicals on Laserdisc

Published August 12, 2012 by allaboardforskinkersswamp

Has there ever been a better home video release than “Judy Garland – The Golden Years at M-G-M”? This gorgeously packaged laserdisc set was lovingly produced by the titan of home video marketing, George Feltenstein, assisted by Allan Fisch and John Fricke in 1995. The set features three of Garland’s greatest movies – The Harvey Girls, The Pirate, and Summer Stock – along with dozens of glorious supplementary features, including rare short subjects, dozens of original theatrical trailers, and new stereo remixes of classic performances. Many of these features have been reissued on DVD, but the set remains unique for the treasure trove of rare audio tracks capturing the pre-recording sessions in all their raw splendour. Here we find Judy and her many co-stars on M-G-M’s fabled Soundstage One, having fun and displaying their musical talents as they record the soundtracks to over a dozen legendary movies. You can read more about these sessions in an article I wrote here http://bit.ly/R3hXfg but suffice to say they make for essential listening. There is so much to say about this release. Do whatever you can to find a copy, buy it, and then get yourself a laserdisc player. You won’t regret it.

Following in the footsteps of the Judy Garland collection, a similar set was released in 1996 paying tribute to another of M-G-M’s musical stars. “The Gene Kelly Collection” again featured three timeless movies – On The Town, Brigadoon, and It’s Always Fair Weather – plus an assortment of classic performances, original theatrical trailers, interviews, and rare pre-recording sessions. Once again, the presentation was top notch, featuring an outstanding illustrated cover in the best MGM/UA tradition.

The third star in the M-G-M Musicals triumvirate was, of course, Fred Astaire. And although MGM/UA did not follow-up the Gene Kelly collection with a special Astaire set, Image Entertainment had already paid tribute to the Astaire/Rogers RKO musicals with a four disc box set titled “The Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers Collection” in 1994, featuring four of their best collaborations. Once again, the set came replete with glorious artwork and bountiful liner notes. Ah, those were the days.

The M-G-M Musicals of the 1930s were well represented on laserdisc, with many titles released in special “double feature” discs. Here are a selection of ’30s classics featuring some of Hollywood’s biggest stars, with the MGM/UA discs displaying some typically sumptuous covers by graphic artist Mike Baggetta.

But box sets were MGM/UA’s specialty, and they delivered in spades with “The M-G-M Composers Collection,”  released in the twilight of the laserdisc era in December, 1996. Focusing upon three composer ‘biopics’ – Till The Clouds Roll By, Words and Music, and Deep In My Heart – the package was notable for sparkling remasters of the three movies, copious liner notes, rare outtake sequences, and a plethora of pre-recording session audio tracks that remain unavailable elsewhere.

1995 proved a banner year for fans of M-G-M Musicals, with the release of dozens of classic movie scores on CD thanks to a partnership between Turner and Rhino Records. For the first time, movie fans could hear the original recordings in pristine sound – direct from the original scoring session tapes and remixed in glorious stereo. To mark this auspicious event, the three That’s Entertainment! movies were packaged into a stunning laserdisc box set in April, 1996, titled “That’s Entertainment! The Ultimate Musical Treasury.” Just look at that cover! With each musical segment carefully listed in the annotated booklet, we could finally discover the source of each clip, and use the chapter marks to skip to our favourite sequences. And the extras! A full disc of additional performances titled That’s More Entertainment! – introduced by Michael Feinstein and still unreleased on DVD! Over an hour of rare pre-recording sessions, featuring the likes of Jean Harlow, Jeanette Macdonald, Judy Garland, James Stewart and Groucho Marx! Rare documentaries! Outtakes! Surprise bonus clips! Stereo remixes! Wow!!

But even that set did not compare with the special “That’s Entertainment! III: Collectors Edition,” released in 1994 and literally overflowing with goodies. Inside we find four discs crammed full of special treats, including documentaries, audio pre-recordings, and an additional programme featuring an hour of unreleased musical outtakes from classic M-G-M movies. But wait – there’s more. Also included is a special collector’s souvenir program that is chock full of information and classic images, plus a deluxe set of six classic lobby cards. A collection not to be missed.

Judy Garland’s career at M-G-M was particularly well presented on laserdisc, with obvious care and affection devoted to every release. Deluxe multi-disc box sets showcased her greatest work in the best possible light, while even the weakest of her movies were afforded the luxury treatment, often being issued in special double feature presentations and featuring MGM/UA’s typically classy artwork. The laserdisc below remains the only source where you can find pre-recording sessions for Thoroughbreds Don’t Cry and Listen, Darling. And just look at that beautiful gatefold layout.

The Daddy of all laserdisc box sets arrived in 1993 with the release of MGM/UA’s “The Wizard of Oz: The Ultimate Oz.” Nowadays, we can find all the content on a single blu-ray disc for a fraction of the original price. But really, it’s just not as much fun is it. Opening this original laserdisc set is akin to entering an Aladdin’s Cave of vast treasures. There is just so much to discover. But – importantly – the invaluable liner notes help your journey and educate your progress during each step of the way. Classic film? Check. Informative documentaries? Check. Stunning visual artifacts? Check and double-check. Audio treasures, posters, continuity script, and a whole lot more besides all add up to a set that cannot be beaten for presentation, content, and quality.

The early 1940s heralded the arrival of two more stars to M-G-M’s unsurpassed roster of musical talent. Gene Kelly made an instant impression with his smash-hit performances in For Me and My Gal and Cover Girl, but his other work from this era was well represented on laserdiscs featuring some eye-catching cover artwork by the ever wonderful Mike Baggetta.

But if Gene Kelly was still finding his feet (so to speak) during the mid-1940s, then the reigning king of the M-G-M Musical was unquestionably Fred Astaire. He forged a fruitful partnership with Lucille Bremer in two classic movies – Yolanda and the Thief, and the incredible Ziegfeld Follies.

The “Ziegfeld Follies” laserdisc box set produced by MGM/UA in 1994 remains the definitive edition of this timeless movie, gloriously presented with jaw dropping artwork and an array of special features unavailable elsewhere. The audio pre-recordings – although restricted to outtakes from the movie – are plentiful and include such rarities as Kay Thompson singing “‘E Pinched Me,” an alternate arrangement of “Here’s To The Girls,” and an extended version of the “Limehouse Blues” ballet, masterly orchestrated by the great Conrad Salinger. The box also contains a unique document – a replica script of an unused number intended as a duet for Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland, titled “I Love You More in Technicolor Than I Did in Black and White.”

Such a shame that this number never made it on to the screen… However, we should be thankful for the movies that Mickey and Judy did leave behind for posterity, including these two wonderful laserdiscs. Did I mention just how much I love these MGM/UA covers?

The 50th anniversary of Meet Me in St Louis heralded the release of another superb MGM/UA laserdisc box set in 1994, celebrating the classic musical in style with a wonderful digital restoration and a brand new CD soundtrack release in true stereo. The set also included a special documentary, a music-only audio track featuring Conrad Salinger’s sublime orchestral underscore, and – unique to this release – thirty minutes of excerpts from the pre-recording sessions, notable for alternate versions of “Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas” and the Freed-Brown ballad “You and I.”

If you love Meet Me in St Louis, (and let’s face it, who doesn’t?), then be sure not to overlook Judy’s next film. The Clock is a minor masterpiece, directed with typical flair by her husband-to-be Vincente Minnelli. Even if you don’t own a laserdisc player, this disc is worth buying for the cover alone…

And have you ever seen a more elegant cover than the one that graces this laserdisc issue of Easter Parade? The interior art design isn’t bad either….

Judy’s stellar career at M-G-M came to a close with the bucolic Summer Stock, but before then she had a chance to partner Van Johnson in a charming musical remake of The Shop Around the Corner, titled In the Good Old Summertime.

One project that Judy did not work on during her time at M-G-M – even though it was initially purchased with her in mind – was the successful 1947 musical Good News. Released on laserdisc in 1993, the cover featured another wowzer illustration. This stuff should be hanging in an art gallery, I tells ya!

If the 1940s belonged to Judy Garland, then the M-G-M Musicals of the 1950s were dominated by the presence of Gene Kelly. In tandem with Stanley Donen, Kelly’s hit movie On the Town triggered a string of classic M-G-M Musicals beloved by audiences to this day.

This special laserdisc issue of An American in Paris, released in 1992, is notable for its audio-only music track and a short selection of pre-recording outtakes – both features are unique to this release, inexplicably dropped from subsequent DVD and Blu-ray reissues. And just look at that amazing booklet artwork.

Two more examples of Gene Kelly’s laserdisc magic, post Singin’ in the Rain: the wistful Brigadoon, and – Kelly’s final feature for M-G-M – the exuberant Les Girls.

Finally, lets end with tributes to two unsung leading ladies, Esther Williams and Jane Powell, and more movie musical magic from the 1950s. No words are neccessary – the eye popping colours and gorgeous illustrations speak volumes. Ah, the joys of laserdisc!

And a special bonus! Even though it is widely available on DVD, “The Busby Berkeley Disc” compilation still shines on laserdisc. Artwork like this should be cherished for life. You’ll never get this kind of magic from a wmv. download.

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Conrad Salinger – Master of the M-G-M Musical

Published July 17, 2012 by allaboardforskinkersswamp

Singin’ in the Rain, Meet Me in St Louis, The Band Wagon, On the Town, Easter Parade…

The overwhelming resurgence of interest in the Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer movie musicals, as spearheaded by young British conductor John Wilson and his Orchestra, is one of the great success stories of recent years. With sell-out UK tours, huge record sales, and an annual televised showcase during the BBC Proms season, Wilson’s achievements have led to an increased awareness and appreciation of the talented craftsmen that originally created this timeless music back in the 1940s and ‘50s.

Chief among these talents was M-G-M’s resident musical genius – master arranger and orchestrator, Conrad Salinger. Regarded by his esteemed colleague Sir Andre Previn as being “the greatest arranger who ever worked in the movies,” Salinger’s signature style of orchestration helped establish the classic, lush M-G-M sound, which is still wowing the crowds over 60 years later. “He made those musicals sound his way, no matter who the songwriter was,” acknowledged Sir Andre to radio producer Steven Paley, leaving us in no doubt as to where the credit lay.

“There were really so many orchestrators in Hollywood that were superb,” says historian John Waxman, the son of legendary composer Franz Waxman, “but certainly above them all was Salinger. I think among his peers everyone acknowledged that he was the greatest orchestrator.” Acclaimed music supervisor Saul Chaplin agreed, telling writer Donald Knox: “It’s my considered judgment that Hollywood’s major contribution to the American musical film is Connie Salinger. He’s the most imitated, and was simply the best for the kind of thing he did. Connie was incredible, incredible.”

Fred Astaire and Cyd Charisse perform to Salinger’s timeless arrangement of “Dancing in the Dark” in The Band Wagon (1953)

However, much of Conrad Salinger’s life remains a mystery. His death in June, 1962, at the age of 60 received scant news coverage; a cursory report in the Los Angeles Times noted only that he “wrote the music for the Bachelor Father TV series.” Yet there is so much more to discover about this unheralded giant of 20th Century orchestration, whose work – on the 50th anniversary of his death – is more popular now than ever before.

Los Angeles Times, June 18 1962

Conrad Salinger was born in Brookline, Massachusetts on Friday, 30th August, 1901. His name held a special significance, combining the family name of his father Joseph Salinger with the maiden name of his mother Clara Conrad. The origins of his family roots can be traced to Germany, where all four of his grandparents were born. His paternal grandparents Benjamin and Josephine Salinger settled in New York, where they had two sons, including Conrad’s father Joseph, born in July, 1861. Conrad’s maternal grandparents, David and Hannah Conrad, married in 1862 and made their home in Salem, Massachusetts, where they raised a family of five children, with Conrad’s mother Clara born in December, 1868. When Clara and Joseph married, they settled in Brookline, Massachusetts, and enjoyed a comfortable lifestyle thanks to a successful family run merchant business, Conrad & Co, led by Clara’s brother, Sidney. The couple’s first son, Richard Benjamin Salinger, was born on 17th July, 1896, followed five years later by youngest son Conrad.

 A bright student, Conrad Salinger graduated from Harvard University in 1923, and a life on the stage seemed to beckon, with Salinger earning rave reviews for his performance as Talleyrand in the University production of Beranger in May, 1922. “Conrad Salinger ’23, played with an authority and a penetration that often made me forget I was not listening to a professional actor of ripe experience,” wrote Professor Andre Morize in The Harvard Crimson. “Physical appearance, poses, ironical, cynical, often colorless voice, glances that expressed more than his lips dared pronounce, shrewdness and flattery, extreme courtesy and insulting superiority – all these he combined into a whole that does him the greatest credit.”  But Salinger’s future lay in music and he would spend the next six years in France, studying the art of orchestration intensely at the Paris Conservatoire under the tutelage of Andre Gedalge and Nadia Boulanger. It is likely he also took lessons from composer Paul Dukas, who arrived at the Conservatoire as tutor of composition during Salinger’s final year in 1928.

The incredible Nadia Boulanger

Upon his return to America in 1929, Salinger found employment in New York as staff arranger at Harms music publishers, and by the end of 1931 had received his first credit on Broadway for his work on The Laugh Parade. The remainder of the decade would see his reputation soar under the wing of famed orchestrator Robert Russell Bennett, and he would contribute orchestrations to dozens of legendary Broadway shows, developing a refined, sensual style of writing for pit orchestras that made a lasting impression upon his colleagues, including composer David Raksin. “The theatre orchestra has four violins and one viola and one cello, and Connie did wonderful things with them,” he recalled to Steven Paley. “They sounded as rich as you can imagine. He used to do these arrangements, and I saw one of them with a tempo and style indication that said ‘gently, like my back hair.’”

Salinger finally made the move to Hollywood in 1937, ultimately settling at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer studios in 1940, where he quickly established an enduring partnership with Roger Edens, the prodigious musical associate of producer Arthur Freed. Together, the pair would form the backbone of the legendary Freed Unit for the next fifteen years, with Edens acting primarily as vocal arranger and music supervisor, and Salinger as principal arranger and orchestrator. They would also pioneer a whole new sound for movie musicals, rejecting the then-popular credo “the bigger the orchestra, the better the sound,” in favour of lush, polished arrangements with delicate, intricate textures. This was particularly well suited to the recording techniques of the time, as well as complementing the tender, intimate voices of star singers Judy Garland, Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly.

Conrad Salinger shares lunch with one of M-G-M’s top singing stars, Lena Horne, in 1945.

Salinger’s major breakthrough at M-G-M arrived with his sublime orchestral score for Meet Me in St Louis (1944), where his gentle, plaintive arrangements added a beguiling layer of romance to the movie. His treatment of Hugh Martin’s classic songs were equally appealing, with rubato tempos employed extensively throughout “The Boy Next Door,” and a propulsive, sumptuous arrangement elevating “The Trolley Song” to legendary status. Salinger’s orchestral score also showcased his own eerie composition “Halloween Music,” which would later be successfully performed at a prestigious Hollywood Bowl concert in August, 1945.

Judy Garland sings “The Boy Next Door” in Meet Me in St Louis (1944)

Meet Me in St Louis served to confirm Conrad Salinger’s peerless position amongst fellow arrangers and orchestrators in Hollywood, and the next decade would see him at his creative peak, producing dozens of definitive arrangements for movies such as Ziegfeld Follies (1946), Easter Parade (1948), On the Town (1949), Singin’ in the Rain (1952), and The Band Wagon (1953). His arranging style was purposely designed to provide both space and support for the singer, and he was especially praised for his wonderful use of counter melodies heard discreetly behind the vocalist, and for the perfectly timed obbligatos he would write between vocal phrases. Reaching a peak of perfection in the early 1950s, his classic arrangement for “Singin’ in the Rain” would lead composer Elmer Bernstein to compare its “effortless perfection” to that of Mozart.

Gene Kelly in a classic pose from “Singin’ in the Rian” (1952)

It was at this time that Salinger’s skills as an orchestrator also paved the way in creating what is now regarded as the classic M-G-M sound: rich, bold and sonorous, with contrapuntal lines and call and response dialogues echoing throughout the orchestra, combining to create a lushly textured, melodic tapestry. It was a sound all of his own making – inspired by the teachings of Nadia Boulanger who encouraged her pupils to write linear, ‘singing’ harmony lines in their counterpoint exercises, but enhanced by his own unique brand of instrumental colours, in particular his outrageous, stratospheric French horn counter melodies, and a multitude of doubled woodwind combinations.

Composer John Williams appreciated the idiosyncratic nature of these scores when studying Salinger’s work at close quarters, paying tribute to his genius during an interview with Films and Filming magazine in 1977: “He’d have the third trombone way up in the tenor clef, and trumpets low down doing some funny thing – as if some Chinaman had written the score! And then you’d go on the soundstage the next day and hear the result … it was like a wonder. No one quite had his touch.”

Fred Astaire and Lucille Bremer perform “This Heart of Mine” in Ziegfeld Follies (1946), featuring one of Salinger’s most opulent orchestrations.

Salinger also possessed the technical capacity to take standard pop tunes of the era, such as “Limehouse Blues” and “Broadway Melody,” and magically transform them into fully fledged orchestral ballets, helping to establish balletic sequences in movies such as An American in Paris (1951) and Ziegfeld Follies (1946) as genuine artistic milestones. “The sophistication and the knowledge that he had in some of those numbers for the Freed Unit were really amazing,” marvelled Sir Andre Previn to Steven Paley. “When he wrote a balletic development of a song, it really was a balletic development. When he put them into the orchestra, you thought you were listening to a really first rate French composer.”

Fred Astaire and Lucille Bremer perform the classic ballet “Limehouse Blues” in Ziegfeld Follies (1946)

As with most great craftsmen, Conrad Salinger’s artistry appeared deceptively simple, yet behind it lay a lifetime of musical knowledge and sheer hard graft. Often working in tandem with his assistant Robert Franklyn, Salinger’s working method would see him sketch his arrangements across four staves, before fleshing out the full orchestration over 32 staves. Music Supervisor Saul Chaplin, who shared a bungalow with Salinger on the M-G-M Music Department lot, recalled the struggles Salinger would endure during the creation process: “When you hear his arrangements they are so smooth, so beautiful and velvety, yet if you heard him working you wouldn’t believe it. He would suffer them out through a piano, he used to bang on the piano and play these chords which the next day with the orchestra sounded glorious, but I would keep thinking ‘no way… this is never going to work’, and it always did work.”

The Freed Unit circa 1945, with Roger Edens on piano, flanked by Arthur Freed (left) and Conrad Salinger, with Kay Thompson singing to a rapt Jerome Kern (seated).

As the popularity of film musicals gradually declined, the 1950s would see Conrad Salinger compose a handful of dramatic scores for contemporary M-G-M movies, including Carbine Williams (1952), Washington Story (1952), and Dream Wife (1953). Yet perhaps his greatest personal success away from the Freed Unit arrived with A Lovely Afternoon (1957), an album of his own arrangements released by Verve Records under the direction of conductor Buddy Bregman in 1957. As Bregman recalls, “I went out to M-G-M, and I said, ‘Connie, you’re my hero! I love what you do.’ He was a very sweet guy; very nice, very quiet. He was so impressed that I was such a fan of his, and we became good friends. He was a wonderful guy – I loved him a lot.”

“A Lovely Afternoon,” Conrad Salinger’s classic album recorded for Verve Records in 1957

Salinger was by common consent a man of great sophistication and taste – erudite yet humble, displaying impeccable manners, meticulous attire (often dressed head to toe in white), and a total devotion to his work. Sir Andre Previn described him as “one of the most likable human beings I’ve ever met – utterly outrageous and flamboyant and crazy, but generous to a fault and sweet natured,” while lifelong friend Johnny Green fondly remembered how “Connie had one of the most gigantic, monumental, delightful, delicious senses of humour that any human being ever had. He was hysterically funny.”

Conrad Salinger (left) with lifelong friend Johnny Green, dated circa 1937

Although by nature he was an intensely private man, away from the studio Salinger loved to socialise. Tales of him drinking to excess are legendary, yet it is thought by many that Salinger used alcohol mainly as a release to cope with the stress of a heavy workload, and to escape the problems he faced due to his homosexuality. Labelled disparagingly in the film industry as one of ‘Freed’s Fairies,’ Salinger’s open homosexuality in an era of mass bigotry predictably made him the butt of many jokes at the studio.

The final years of Conrad Salinger’s life were littered with minor triumphs and major disappointments. He achieved his final success within the Freed Unit in 1958 with the release of Gigi, after which the Freed Unit dissolved following the loss of key components Roger Edens and musical wunderkind Lela Simone. The new decade would see Salinger launch a fresh career as a successful TV composer, providing musical accompaniment to 65 episodes of Bachelor Father between 1960 and 1962.

Bachelor Father, starring John Forsythe

But the pressures of composing to tight deadlines for TV did not suit Salinger’s working methods, and Johnny Green believed the stress contributed towards his friend’s early death. “He was never able to divorce himself from fright and the inability to cope with tension,” Green told writer Donald Knox. “I think this, with all the other tensions in Connie’s life, is what broke him down.” Salinger’s downward spiral intensified on Monday, 6th November, 1961, when his newly acquired luxury Bel-Air home was amongst 484 residences destroyed by the worst brush fire in the history of Los Angeles at that time. All of his possessions and papers were lost, and Salinger never recovered from this tragic incident.

The LA brush fires, picture dated November 6, 1961

Conrad Salinger was found dead on the morning of Sunday, 17th June, 1962. It is unclear to this day whether he committed suicide or died of an accidental overdose of barbiturates. He had earlier completed one final orchestration, a typically luxurious arrangement of “Little Girl Blue” for Doris Day to sing in Billy Rose’s Jumbo (1962). Following Salinger’s death, his name and reputation slowly faded into obscurity, and his legacy was dealt a hammer blow with the tragic destruction of the M-G-M music library in 1969, with all of the classic scores he had worked so hard to create needlessly discarded – thrown away to be used as landfill.

It is a minor miracle that, 50 years on from Conrad Salinger’s death, we can finally appreciate the amazing legacy he created. Thanks to the devoted efforts of record producers such as George Feltenstein, Marilee Bradford and Bradley Flanagan, we can marvel at restored CD soundtracks of the scores he orchestrated with such mastery during his halcyon days at M-G-M, while acclaimed performers such as Michael Feinstein and Barbra Streisand have lovingly recreated Salinger’s original arrangements for their own recordings.

Ultimate salvation of Salinger’s legacy arrived with the hugely successful BBC Proms concert held at the Royal Albert Hall in 2009, which saw dozens of Salinger’s original orchestrations painstakingly reconstructed by conductor John Wilson, and performed to rapturous acclaim during a celebration of ‘75 Years of M-G-M Musicals.’ Roger Wright, Director of The Proms, admitted to being stunned by the overwhelming reaction in the weeks following the concert, capturing the mood of the public by noting “clearly it touched the hearts of many.” John Waxman found Wilson’s achievements particularly emotional. “The wonderful thing about John Wilson,” he recalled, “is that I saw his concert and I actually started to cry, because it brought back Salinger, and my stepmother (Lela Simone), and Roger Edens, and I only wished that they could have lived long enough to see what he had reconstructed – their music being played in London at The Proms as written.”

John Wilson conducts his outstanding Orchestra during the incredibly successful M-G-M Musical Proms in 2009

As we mark the 50th anniversary of his death, the musical achievements of Conrad Salinger are continuing to enjoy a renewed lease of life. Enthralling fans old and new, his classic scores are now destined to become a permanent fixture on record and in concert halls for many years to come – conclusive proof that the legacy of Conrad Salinger is enduring, enchanting, and – ultimately – eternal.

*An extended version of this article appears in Film Score Monthly Online, Vol. 15, Issues 11/12.

The M-G-M Music Department circa 1950, including Miklos Rozsa, Johnny Green, Andre Previn, Scott Bradley, Bronislau Kaper, David Raksin and Conrad Salinger.

Joan Crawford – the Forgotten Queen of Style

Published July 16, 2012 by allaboardforskinkersswamp
 

Joan Crawford – the Queen of Style

Considering her vast influence over the fashion world for almost three decades, it is an unfortunate quirk of fate that Hollywood legend Joan Crawford is now mainly remembered for a tirade against wire hangers. Quotations from her daughter Christina’s salacious biography, “Mommie Dearest,” have forever enshrined the perception of Crawford in terms of camp excess: “No wire hangers, ever!” “Tina, bring me the axe!” “I’m not mad at you, I’m mad at the dirt!” Joan Crawford deserves far better than this. Even the most casual survey of her glittering film career, from her debut in 1925 to her final movie in 1970, makes clear that here was a woman who used her workaholic nature and her innate fashion nous to constantly stay ahead of the pack, forever striving to find a new look or a new approach. She was a true original – always a dictator of trends, never a follower. As such, she remains today a timeless icon of fashion, elegance and style.

The secret of Joan Crawford’s prolonged success lay in her ability to capture the mood of the times: from the very beginning, her on-screen image was that of the modern girl. Arriving in Hollywood in the mid 1920s, she quickly rose to fame at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer studios by personifying the spirit of the “jazz age” on the screen. With her cropped hair, natural style of acting, and her all-signing all-dancing party attitude, she became, in the words of author F. Scott Fitzgerald, “the best example of the flapper, the girl you see at smart nightclubs, gowned to the apex of sophistication … Young things with a talent for living.” Her costumes of the time also immortalised the popular garb of the flapper, with movies such as “Our Dancing Daughters” (1928) and “Our Modern Maidens” (1929) showcasing Chanel-inspired sleeveless, embroidered frocks, with symmetrical lines, slim waists and short hemlines, as well as more ostentatious accessories such as ostrich feathers and rhinestone trimmings.

Crawford struts her stuff in Our Dancing Daughters (1928)

With the Roaring Twenties derailed by the sucker punches of prohibition and the stock market crash of 1929, Joan Crawford’s image underwent a significant transformation at the start of the new decade. No more the good-time girl, instead she returned as the atypical working class female, caught up in the depression like the rest of her audience, and seeking a life beyond her limited means. Here, we see the classic Crawford identity take shape – tough, ambitious, determined, yet also vulnerable and radiating enough sex appeal to seduce any man she desires. In tandem with couturier Gilbert Adrian – commonly regarded as the greatest costume designer in Hollywood history – Crawford also establishes her iconic look, both in style and fashion. Using make-up to emphasise her best facial attributes (saucer-wide eyes, broad slashed lips, and chiselled high cheekbones), she treats clothes in a similar manner, incorporating wide padded shoulders into her costumes to accentuate her broad back, which also serves to create a V shaped torso, topping off the effect by wearing a variety of peekaboo and wide brimmed hats to focus attention upon her eyes.

The classic Crawford look, topped off with peekaboo hat

Joan Crawford’s partnership with legendary costume designer Gilbert Adrian is without equal in Hollywood history. Over the duration of 31 movies made between 1929 and 1941, the duo achieved a high watermark in the presentation of glamour, style and sophistication, producing an array of dazzling costumes, with many featuring Adrian’s trademark asymmetric patterns, contrasting black and white fabrics, puritan collars, tapered waistlines and diagonal fastenings. Accessories formed an essential part of the overall look too, with wide buckle belts, fur wraps, elbow length gloves and decorative bow-ties all adding to the decadent splendour. Invariably sleek, sexy and sassy, these were clothes with attitude – with the end results leaving women aspiring and men desiring. Typical of their work is the classic white, starched organdy dress with ruffled shoulders designed by Adrian for “Letty Lynton” (1932). Such was the popularity of this particular dress, manufacturers across the land wasted no time in selling budget replicas to the public, with Macy’s department store selling 15,000 copies alone and Vogue reporting how “every little girl, all over the country, within two weeks of the release of Joan Crawford’s picture, felt she would die if she couldn’t have a dress like that.”

The classic organdy white dress designed by Gilbert Adrian for Letty Lynton (1932)

Perhaps more than any other actress, Joan Crawford understood that her image was the key to her success. At the height of her career in the 1930s, she strove to mould and cultivate her look, and devoted her life to maintaining her appearance. She was known to endure a punishing exercise schedule and a strict skin-care regimen every day, massaging her whole body with ice cubes. Crucially, Crawford also employed the studio’s top stills photographer, George Hurrell, at every available opportunity. Recognising the importance of projecting herself in the best possible light (quite literally), she would spend countless hours sitting for publicity portraits with Hurrell, while dressed in Adrian’s finest designs. As a consequence, these classic, timeless stills taken during the 1930s are today in many ways Crawford’s most enduring legacy. Even more than the movies she made, the images of Crawford produced by Hurrell convey all the intensity, vitality and magnetism of her personality, while solidifying her reputation as a fashion icon for all-time.

Joan in radiant form – a fashion icon for all time

Following her departure from MGM in 1943, Joan Crawford would never again reach the stylistic heights of her 1930s heyday. Yet she still insisted on portraying modern women, and in keeping with the post-war, downtrodden characters she would play in future, her emphasis switched to plain, simple costumes. Her first role for Warner Bros., “Mildred Pierce” (1945), saw Crawford purchase her own wardrobe from Sears Roebuck department store, in order to achieve an authentically dowdy look – far removed from the glamour and luxury of her MGM years. However, elements of her old style remained, causing director Michael Curtiz at one point to bemoan, “You and your damned shoulder pads!”

Guns and shoulder pads – a killer combination in Mildred Pierce (1945)

In a later twist to her on-screen appearance, Crawford’s apparel in Johnny Guitar (1954) pioneered a new androgynous, sexually ambiguous look, sporting leather boots, high fastening breeches and tight buttoned shirts, and topped off with a severely cropped coiffure. Never willing to play the role of submissive female, here Crawford proves more masculine than any of the male characters, with her clothing visually signalling the dominant authority she displays over the masculine world in the movie.

It’s Joan who wears the trousers in Johnny Guitar (1954)

Her sense of style and choice of attire in “Johnny Guitar” serves to illustrate a crucial point about Joan Crawford and her affinity with fashion and clothing throughout her career: whether using her garments as a means to threaten male sexual identity, or to demonstrate her rise in social status, or merely as a ploy to snare her next man, Joan Crawford relied upon her wardrobe as a constant source of power in her movies. Nobody wore a designer gown or a gun holster with more panache, nor stared down a camera lens with more assertion. She deserves to be remembered for her enduring artistic legacy and for her lasting contributions to the world of fashion, rather than the hysterical, exaggerated caricature that “Mommie Dearest” portrays. No wire hangers, ever? Well, at least the sentiments were correct.

 

Sources:

Cowie, Peter. Joan Crawford: The Enduring Star. New York: Rizzoli, 2009.

Thomas, Bob. Joan Crawford, A Biography. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1978.

Gutner, Howard. Gowns by Adrian: The MGM Years 1928-1941. New York, NY: H. N. Abrams, 2001