The Lady Head and The Lady Eve

October 11, 2014

Fact: The most decorated costume designer in Oscar history (not to mention the most honored female recipient) notably possessed no real experience when she was hired by Paramount as a costume sketch artist in 1924.

 

In fact, she admitted to borrowing sketches for her interview.  

 

Ironically, Edith Head would go on to run Paramount's costume department, staying with the studio for 43 years before joining Universal in the late 1960s and working there until 1981. In total, she won eight Oscars and was nominated 35 times. 

Edith Head

The UCLA Film and Television Archive highlighted a dozen or so of the 444 films the designer worked on throughout her storied career in a retrospective entitled "What I Really Do is Magic: Edith Head and Hollywood Costume Design" in August and September 2014. Founding Director of the David C. Copley Center for the Study of Costume Design at UCLA and a leading authority on Edith Head, Deborah Nadoolman Landis, joined the Archive for several screenings, including Preston Sturges' 1941 classic The Lady Eve starring Barbara Stanwyck and Henry Fonda.

 

The Costume Designer

In addition to Nadoolman Landis' introduction that evening, the audience was treated to a short from 1950 entitled The Costume Designer, starring Edith Head herself. Tessa Idlewine, one of the Academy's Short Film Preservationists, came out to introduce the film for its West Coast Premiere. Idlewine explained that The Costume Designer was one of 12 movies made between 1949 and 1951 contained in the series "The Movies and You" and one of the 11 pictures preserved by the Academy with the help of the George Eastman House and the Library of Congress.

 

Shorts in "The Movies and You" series were co-produced by the Academy and funded by the Association of Motion Picture Producers in partnership with various studios, each focusing on a different branch of the industry to showcase that the movie-making process required a lot more than just cameras and actors. Made at RKO, The Costume Designer illustrates the skill and talent needed to create costumes for movies, and that doesn't just refer to the physical act of sewing materials together; in fact, what was so fascinating and revealing about the film, in my opinion, is just how much research goes into transforming an actor into a specific character. Designs have to be historically, geographically, and dramatically accurate and appropriate to give the character and film credence, and to prove that point, Head was shown sitting in libraries and sifting through history books to prepare for her assignments. Though only nine minutes in length, the doc did a fantastic job of demonstrating how much more work goes into costumes than one may think!

Edith Head with some of her designs.

Edith Head

Deborah Nadoolman Landis then took the stage to delve more into Head's background and her work, speaking specifically about her costumes for the movie we were about to watch, The Lady Eve.

 

When Nadoolman Landis began her career in 1975 at Universal, Edith Head was still working at the studio, though the newcomer didn't pursue meeting the famous designer. Why? Well, Head had a notoriously bad reputation among costume designers because she wasn't very generous with her acknowledgement of collaborations (at that time, many were grumbling about her win for 1973's The Sting). Being "young and stupid," Nadoolman Landis listened to the trash talk and didn't seek her out, meeting the icon only once at USC when Head was doing a gallery exhibition. Since then, in conducting research for the past 15 years on Head for her Doctorate, Nadoolman Landis has reversed her youthful stance and has, in her own words, fallen in love with the famous designer and her work.

 

Through her studies, Nadoolman Landis learned that although Head didn't start out with much design experience, her academic background was particularly strong: she earned a Masters from Stanford and taught French for a few years before deciding to take art courses, eventually responding in the mid-1920s to an ad placed by Paramount seeking a third designer. At Paramount, her people skills inspired trust and confidence in those she worked with, particularly the actresses; after all, it was Head's job to eradicate any vulnerability they had in the fitting room and help the actresses sell their part to the audience. 

Edith Head with Grace Kelly.

Nadoolman Landis stressed that the job was never about glamour for Head, and she didn't confuse the allure with her work. Rather, Head felt that clothes play a large part in telling the story, as Nadoolman Landis quoted her: the "basic test is if the clothes submerge the personality into the character...remember costumes are supposed to be invisible...if you can make the audience feel the actress is the character then that's a good job...that is what the costume designer must do - disguise the actress." Nadoolman Landis added that actors transform into a multitude of characters, and as the audience, we're supposed to be transported into a film, with their help, of course.  That last statement is particularly true of The Lady Eve, as Barbara Stanwyck portrays two very different women in the movie, a transformation partly assisted by her wardrobe.

 

The Lady Eve 

The Lady Eve opens in the Amazon. Yes, that's right. Charles Pike (Henry Fonda) bids his farewells to his colleagues and friends and hops a boat with his sidekick/valet Muggsy (William Demarest). Though heir to a beer company (and beer fortune), Pike is a snake expert who's been studying the animals for the past year in the jungle.

 

The ship he stops to board - in the middle of the ocean - just so happens to have Jean Harrington (Barbara Stanwyck), her father "Colonel" Harrington (Charles Coburn) and Gerald (Melville Cooper) aboard, a trio of con artists. Right when Pike sets foot on deck, the entire female population of the boat begins to swoon over him, each lady trying desperately to capture his attention. However, it's Jean, narrating all the ladies' failed passes from the mirror in her compact, who hooks Pike. Literally. With her heel. 

In a hilarious scene, Jean (Barbara Stanwyck) secretly calls the action as numerous women attempt to pick up Charles Pike (Henry Fonda).

Jean whisks Pike back to her room to change shoes, and the seduction is swift enough that the naive Pike, who has been given the nickname "Hopsy" (or "Hopsi"), has no clue what's happening; all he knows for sure is that he's firmly under her spell:

 

Jean: Don't you like my perfume?

Pike: Like it? I'm cockeyed on it!

Jean: Why, Hopsy, you ought to be kept in a cage!

Hopsy's just a bit nervous in this scene...

Arriving back in the dining area, Jean and Pike take a seat with the Colonel.

 

Colonel: Ah, there you are. Well, it certainly took you long enough to come back in the same outfit.

Jean: I'm lucky to have this on. Mr Pike has been up the river for a year.

(Side note: How did this line get by the Production Code Administration? In my research in the PCA files at the Margaret Herrick Library, numerous other lines were asked to be cut by various state censor boards, including the word 'puke,' but to my recollection I saw nary a mention of this very suggestive line!)

 

After sitting down, it comes to light that Pike knows how to play cards ("Look, he does card tricks!" Jean exclaims). JACKPOT. Naturally, Jean and the Colonel set out to fleece him and succeed at first, but an unexpected complication arises along the way: Jean falls for Pike and consequently does her best to shield him from her father and his conniving behavior. 

 

Always suspicious, Muggsy soon uncovers that the trio are known card sharks and breaks the news to Pike. He confronts Jean at breakfast (she was about to tell him the truth, of course) but turns the tables on her: he tells Jean that he knew about her all along, which sufficiently ruffles her feathers (and is a lie)! Now equally upset with each other, the couple goes their separate ways.

 

Back on solid ground, Jean and the Colonel find themselves conning a new crowd at the races, along with fellow con artist Sir Alfred (Eric Blore). Sir Alfred informs Jean and the Colonel that he's been swindling the Connecticut rich folk, of which Pike's family is part, which gives Jean a plan: to get back at Pike, she disguises herself as Sir Alfred's niece, the regal Lady Eve Sidwich from England. The getup snags her an invitation to a lavish Pike party, one thrown in her honor no less. 

Enter the glamorous Lady Eve...

It is there, in his family's own home, that Pike lays eyes on Jean/Eve again and both he and Muggsy swear that she's the same girl, though Eve of course denies it (despite her on-again off-again English/Brooklyn accent). Both men make continuous embarassing scenes in their disbelief - Pike falls and trips everywhere, which requires multiple wardrobe changes, and Muggsy keeps trying to get a closer look at her. In the midst of all this, Sir Alfred whips up an elaborate lie about the existence of a twin (Jean, in this case) to quell Pike's roaming mind. Naturally, Pike falls for it. 

 

To successfully complete her revenge plot, Eve makes Pike fall for her, and before you know it they're married. The wedding night, however, is not as smooth as the courtship. Note to self: it's probably not the smartest idea to casually run through a list of ex-boyfriends with your brand new husband, which is exactly what Eve does while they're on the train on route to their honeymoon. Being Pike (or any man, really), the nonchalant roll call, and the info itself, sufficiently terrifies and appalls him, prompting Pike to quickly flee from the train.

 

With husband and wife in separate locations, divorce proceedings are quickly brought up with lawyers in tow; however, in a move that surprises everyone, all Jean/Eve wants is...well, nothing. She simply requests for Pike to meet with her in person so they can talk everything over, but he refuses. Being the resourceful con she's always been, Jean/Eve finds out Pike will be traveling again that evening and goes to work...

 

Lounging in the dining room aboard another ship, Jean and the Colonel seem to be back at the old game when in walks - and trips - Pike. 

She's back! And so is her partner-in-crime/father Colonel Harrington (Charles Coburn).

When he realizes it's Jean he fell over, he instantly takes her into his arms and whisks her downstairs to his stateroom, though there's just one small complication:

 

Pike: I have no right to be in your cabin.

Jean: Why?

Pike: I'm married.

Jean: But so am I, darling. So am I.

 

Wonder how she's going to explain that one!

 

Dressing The Lady Eve and Barbara Stanwyck

Though Stanwyck and Head's professional association began with 1937's Internes Can't Take Money (Travis Banton received the costume credit on that film), The Lady Eve stands out as the picture that really solidified both their working and personal relationships; while she didn't always get her way, Stanwyck would go on to request that each studio she worked with from then on borrow Head to design the costumes (40). Why? Well, Head knew how best to dress Stanwyck's body, which the designer called "quite trim and...a better shape than most of the other actresses around," though she also "possessed what some designers considered to be a figure 'problem' - a long waist and a comparatively low rear end" (43). Head used rather simple illusions to cover the issue up in the form of waistbands and belts that were wider (and sometimes higher) in the front and narrower in the back, which served to invisibly lift the star's backside. With these tricks, articles such as straight skirts, avoided by other costumers, were fair game to Head when dressing Stanwyck.

By far my personal favorite outfit of the picture. Here you can (barely) see how Head widened Stanwyck's waistband in the front and made it thinner (and lower) in the back.

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