Why Change Your Wife? (1920) at BEV 2014

13 Apr

BFI Southbank was abuzz on 10 April for the BEV festival screening of Why Change Your Wife?, featuring a superb live score created and performed on stage by the Niki King Jazz Quintet. The film, shown in sparkling digital transfer, is a witty marital comedy starring Gloria Swanson as newly married Beth, who is determined to improve her husband Robert’s mind. He (Thomas Meighan) would rather pursue other pleasures with her — such as dancing the foxtrot.

Gloria Swanson as Beth

Gloria Swanson as Beth

Beth doesn’t care about style. She dresses down and wears reading glasses. She introduces Robert to serious music — a performance by virtuoso Russian violinist Radinioff (Russian ballet dancer Theodore Kosloff), who turns out to be something of a Lothario.

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To spice up their love life, Robert goes shopping to buy clothes he hopes will change his wife into the vamp he would prefer her to be. In the Maison Chic he is surrounded by women draped in exotic orientalised gowns and shoes and accessories that leave him bewildered and excited.

Thomas Meighan as Robert

Thomas Meighan as Robert

At the gown emporium he meets model Sally Clark (Bebe Daniels), who sets her sights on him even though she finds out that he’s married. Sally is aware of her charms and has no compunctions about using them to snare her quarry.

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Sally wears her heart on her shoulder

Sally wears her heart on her shoulder

Robert resists her advances and ends up buying a revealing negligee for Beth, but she is horrified and refuses to wear it without underclothes. Sally visits Robert at his office on the pretext of returning something he left at the shop. Just at this moment, Beth turns down her husband’s invitation to a show because she wants to attend a more highbrow event, and Sally and Robert go to the show together. At her apartment later, as Beth waits for Robert at home, Sally tries to seduce him and they dance the foxtrot. Beth is upset when Robert gets home late and they quarrel. The rift gets worse and Robert decides to divorce Beth and marry Sally. Stung by gossip that her lack of clothes sense drove her husband away, Beth decides to acquire a new wardrobe.

Beth fascinates Robert with her new bathing suit

Beth fascinates Robert with her new bathing suit

Her makeover is dramatic. On holiday at a luxury spa with her Aunt Kate (Sylvia Ashton) she shows off her new bathing attire, complete with  bejewelled sandals and daring leg bracelet worn below the knee. Her revamp is a magnet for the male guests, including ex-husband Robert, who is at the spa with new wife Sally. When Robert is clearly attracted to Beth, Sally flirts with Radinioff, who is also at the spa (wearing a revealing bathing suit himself) and has pursued Beth. Beth and Robert independently decide to leave, ending up on the same train. Back in the city, when Robert slips on a banana skin and is knocked out, Beth arranges for him to be taken to her place to recover. He cannot be moved for 24 hours, so Beth telephones Sally to let her know. A jealous Sally insists on taking him back home, at which point the film appears to tip over into revenge melodrama. Beth threatens Sally with a vial of acid, whereupon Sally attacks Beth, breaking a mirror, and throws the acid in her face.

Beth is attacked by Sally

Beth is attacked by Sally

In a brilliant comic reversal, the acid turns out to be eye wash (Beth was bluffing). But the brief foray into violence and melodrama is telling: there’s a moral there somewhere about the consequences of investing too much in appearance. Sally leaves and Robert is reconciled with Beth. They remarry and in their new home Beth wears her glamorous bohemian wardrobe and dances the foxtrot with Robert. Why change your wife when she can change so you don’t have to?

Why Change Your Wife?  is a delight. A Gloria Swanson vehicle, it plays with the star’s reputation as leader of style and fashion. Clearly aimed at the female audiences who were so significant in the 1920s, it not only puts costume design on display but also at the heart of the narrative. The numerous close-ups of fashionable items of clothing eroticise shoes and accessories to create fetish objects that capture the eye and the heart and awaken libidinous desire.

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This highlights the tie-ins that operated between film and fashion in the teens and twenties — department stores were often involved in promoting movies, frequently hosting fashion shows. The costumes are a tour de force, designed by Clare West and Natacha Rambova, who was probably responsible for the exotic extravagance of the fashionable gowns. Rambova, a protégée of Theodore Kosloff, was known for her bohemian elegance. She worked on other Cecil B. DeMille productions and went on to become a leading costume and set designer, working with Alla Nazimova and Rudolph Valentino on prestigious art productions. Costume adds so much to the film — sometimes the designs are so over the top they are comic in themselves, satirising women’s attachment to fashion and cinema’s exploitation of it. 

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The costumes also send up the vogue for orientalism and the female types in circulation at the time. In spite of her transformation into a vamp, Beth is unable to behave like one and remains a good wife — albeit one who is capable of using deceit to get her way. At the end, a compromise is reached and Beth emerges as a domesticated version of the vamp. The somewhat unstable resolution reminds all wives they should remember to be sweethearts sometimes — but not before a lot of fun at the expense of marriage is had on the way. 

A very enjoyable experience — thank you BEV 2014 and the Niki King Jazz Quintet!

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© Pam Cook

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The Great Gatsby visual effects reel

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Within and without: The Great Gatsby’s 3D experience

2 Jun

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Baz Luhrmann’s aesthetic is the opposite of slow cinema. Rather than a contemplative experience, the audience gets a demonstrative display of vertiginous camera movement, fast editing and busy visual design that makes it hard to keep up. Even intimate scenes are loaded with distracting detail, so that the eye can’t rest for long. This is Luhrmann’s vision of modernity – it moves so fast you’re in danger of being left behind. The technique is assaultive and didactic, exhibitionism taken to extremes. ‘I want to show you something’, Gatsby says to Daisy before he reveals his scrapbook dedicated to her. This could be Luhrmann’s credo.

But the razzmatazz is not simply about dazzling with technique. There are technical set-pieces, but they’re thematically integrated and tied to character, which differentiates Luhrmann’s work from special effects extravaganzas in which the visual effects stand alone. Luhrmann’s films put technology at the service of story-telling and emotional affect - The Great Gatsby is no different: it uses 3D technology as a dramatic device. One of the virtuoso 3D set-pieces is the car ride in which Gatsby drives Nick in his flashy yellow vehicle across the bridge into the city, careering madly at hair-raising speed with the camera in impossible positions – in the middle of the road, on the bonnet, below the bumper, in the passenger seat, travelling on the running board or in mid-air. Fast editing contributes to the sense of speed and excitement as well as evoking the social turmoil of the period.

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In this sequence the death-defying driving alternates with personal exchanges in which Gatsby tries to impress Nick with his fabricated life story. If the 3D aspires to put the viewer in the scene during the driving, provoking a visceral response, in the conversations between the two men the windscreen acts as a barrier that creates a distance. The viewer is aligned with eternal watcher Nick, oscillating between inside and outside. Nick describes himself as ‘Within and without … enchanted and repelled by the inexhaustible variety of life’.

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Barriers are created in other scenes too, denying the illusion given by 3D that viewers can touch actors and objects. Characters are positioned behind windows, the scene behind them obscure. In some cases the effect is like a pop-up book, lining up planes of vision, recalling the beginning of Moulin Rouge! (2001).

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THE GREAT GATSBY

The strategy of denying the viewer the illusion of touching is central to the story and Gatsby’s doomed desire to touch the green light and realise his dream of possessing Daisy. It transmits a powerful sense of loss: like Gatsby, we reach out to grasp something unattainable. And it intensifies the contradiction at the heart of cinema: the sense viewers have of being there yet being absent.

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Characteristically, Luhrmann and co’s innovative use of 3D reflects on the way viewers are implicated in the viewing experience as well as encapsulating Fitzgerald’s devastating critique of the American Dream. Delve beneath the show-stopping effects and you find cinematic gold.

© Pam Cook

Fleurs du mal: Daisy, Rosebud and the language of flowers in Luhrmann and Martin’s ‘The Great Gatsby’

27 May

Rosebud Daisy

You can’t really miss the references to Citizen Kane (1941) in The Great Gatsby (2013). From Gatsby’s  ‘incoherent’ mansion folly to the snowfall imagery and Gatsby’s whispered ‘Daisy’ as he dies, you’re left in no doubt that the filmmakers want you to get the parallels between the two tragic heroes brought down by hubris. There are more subtle references waiting to be teased out, but even the most obvious ones carry layers of meaning, often relayed by the intricate set and costume design that, as usual with Luhrmann and Martin, is the result of meticulous research and flawless attention to detail.

Kane’s secret, Rosebud, symbolising the loss of childhood innocence, blossoms into a full-blown visual metaphor in The Great Gatsby through the profusion of flower imagery. Exotic flowers and other natural iconography are central to the art deco style that dominates the set and costume design; they also echo the nineteenth-century Symbolist and Decadent art movements. Daisy’s black and white peony robe and the headscarf worn during the fleeting, nostalgic afternoon she spends with Gatsby and Nick Carraway recall Aubrey Beardsley’s designs for Oscar Wilde’s Salome (1894), while the oversized corsage on Myrtle’s outrageous red number is like something out of Baudelaire’s Les Fleurs du Mal (1857).

Daisy Beardsley robe

Beardsley Salome

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Léon Jouhaud, 'Les fleurs du mal' (1919)

Léon Jouhaud, ‘Les fleurs du mal’ (1919)

Myrtle and Tom’s fantastically gaudy, colour-saturated Harlem apartment, scene of illicit sexual liaisons and desperate hedonism, overflows with flower imagery (note the Fragonard prints on the pink sofa) – you can almost smell the cheap floral scent mingling with booze and other illegal substances as the giddy party people spiral towards oblivion. Gatsby’s mansion and the Buchanan house are the other side of this seductive vision of decadence: the Buchanan’s place has elegant silk floral wallpaper that whispers ‘old money’ while Gatsby’s overblown flower arrangements and the daisy motif inscribed on his art deco floor advertise his newly-rich status (and his obsession). At the other extreme, the cottage where Nick Carraway lives, also festooned with blooms, appears innocent and idyllic, a haven amid the corruption and decadence that surrounds him.

THE GREAT GATSBY

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The sets are designed to conjure up a fairytale world, and it’s no surprise that the film’s floral motifs evoke popular myths and stories surrounding flowers, many of which relate to love. One meaning attached to the daisy is loyal love; at the same time, it forms the fickle centre of the game ‘She loves me, she loves me not’, in which its petals are torn off one by one until the player gets the answer to their question. There could hardly be a more resonant metaphor for Gatsby’s insecure relationship to Daisy. The white roses cascading over Nick’s porch symbolise innocence, but also (appropriately for a character who guards so many secrets) silence and secrecy. A white rosebud invokes youth and beauty: the buttonholes worn by Tom and Nick at Gatsby’s party underline the passage of time and loss of innocence at the heart of The Great Gatsby‘s romantic vision. At the tea party staged to impress Daisy, Nick’s relatively austere place is transformed by Gatsby’s anxiety into a florist’s emporium overwhelmed by orchids, which connote love and beauty, visualising the translation of his excessive (and impossible) desire into things.

Nick Rosebud

THE GREAT GATSBY

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In this scene, with Nick as a witness, Daisy and Gatsby’s love is apparently rekindled and hope revived. Daisy’s association with flowers is marked in her lilac dress and gloves made of floral-patterned lace – but what are we to make of the epaulettes and skirt fashioned from drooping pieces of grey fabric that look like fading petals? The motif of dropping petals is echoed in other gowns worn by Daisy: she first appears in a white concoction fashioned from falling petals, and in the Daisy character poster (top of page) she’s wearing a rosebud-pink version of the same dress. This emphasises her own fragility, her elusiveness in Gatsby’s imagination, the passage of time and the inevitability of death.

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When Daisy and Gatsby slip away from the party to meet secretly in his enchanted garden they are shrouded in shadow. Blue light picks up the flowers and Gatsby’s suit, echoing the blue hydrangeas on the terrace, one of whose meanings is heartlessness. In contrast to the lush vegetation, Daisy’s dress and jewels glitter with a hard, metallic sheen, intimating the carelessness that Nick finally sees in her. The Tiffany jewellery mirrors the flower imagery, signalling Daisy’s attachment to wealth and status and her brittle outer shell.

Great Gatsby blue garden

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Carrie Mulligan in Gatsby

The flower symbolism in The Great Gatsby adds layers of meaning to this richly textured film. Together with the haunting music it visualises themes of love, hope, death and melancholy. A distinctive style feature, it’s there in the credits and in the Bazmark logo that appears on screen, marking its importance in the overall design concept.

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© Pam Cook

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