Much ado about headwear: Mary Pickford’s New York hat

1 Apr


What’s in a hat?

There’s never been a more troublesome bonnet. D.W. Griffith’s The New York Hat (1912) is a version of the Cinderella story, scripted by Anita Loos and Frances Marion. Mary Pickford plays Mollie, who leads a cheerless life thanks to her miserly father. When her mother dies she leaves money in trust for Mollie with the Minister, played by Lionel Barrymore. Mollie falls in love with an exotic hat from New York she sees in the milliner’s window, and the Minister, remembering her mother’s dying wish, buys it for her. This innocent act sets off the gossips, and a mighty scandal ensues. The Minister eventually produces a letter from Mollie’s mother explaining all, order is restored, and the Minister proposes to Mollie.

Mary Pickford’s acting in the film is a masterclass in the intimate performance style developed by Griffith at Biograph. She conveys a wide range of emotions from joy and wonder to ecstasy, despair and distress through small gestures and subtle body language as well as facial expressions. Her ‘bits of business’ with hat, gloves and kerchief are brilliantly executed. Her acting style is a modified version of the histrionic techniques favoured by silent screen actors in the period, who used conventionalised broad gestures and frozen poses to express heightened emotion. Pickford moves about in a more naturalistic manner that departs from tableau shots to create the impression of ‘real’ space. The film displays the match cutting and parallel editing that became standard in classic cinema.

The hat is a wondrous concoction, hot from the sophisticated city. In Mollie’s small town with its malicious gossips, it stirs up salacious rumours about the young girl and the Minister. Although these are resolved, the underlying theme is quite racy. The meeting of city style and small town mores creates a disastrous situation that devastates Mollie and results in the destruction of the hat by her father. (In 1927, F.W. Murnau would make Sunrise A Song of Two Humans with a similar town/country theme — though without the hat.) There’s a moral, of course, warning against the dangers of city decadence and excessive consumerism. The New York hat is pivotal: Griffith et al. use it as a narrative device, and as a means of demonstrating acting technique, highlighting the significance of screen costume in telling stories, evoking character, and producing spectacular visual display.

The video essay takes found footage from the film, cropped and re-edited with added music, visual and sound effects, to analyse the fine details of Pickford’s emotional performance. Along the way, some playful touches feature the hat itself as a central character.

© Pam Cook

More …

Roberta E. Pearson, Eloquent Gestures: The Transformation of Performance Style in the Griffith Biograph Films, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1991

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Locke: costume, character and cracks

21 May

Locke_QUAD_Art 1 pack.indd


I love characters who are not what they seem. In Locke (2013) Tom Hardy delivers a virtuoso turn as a man whose identity crumbles as he drives down the M6 from Birmingham to London, leaving behind the job and family that have defined him for years, to be present at the birth of his child by a woman he hardly knows. Apparently a responsible parent, husband and boss, on his fateful journey construction engineer Ivan Locke is assailed by his demons, revealing a deeply divided personality. Steven Knight’s beautifully executed film has a noir look and feel, exposing cracks in the façade of masculinity. Cracks are something Locke fears: if the concrete mix for his mega-construction isn’t just right, the building will tumble …

Concrete is the subtext for Locke, and Hardy’s performance provides the drama. In this one-man show that takes place almost entirely in the confines of a car, costume does not immediately stand out as a distinctive feature. But together with the effects created by the Red Epic digital cameras, which enmesh our hero in a shimmering, chimerical landscape, the costume design by Nigel Egerton and make-up design by Audrey Doyle (make-up artist for Hardy’s upcoming Mad Max: Fury Road) unpick the threads that hold together this solid family man.




Facial hair

Locke has a bushy, untrimmed beard. OK, facial hair isn’t strictly costume. Nor is it exactly a prosthetic or make-up. It is, though, an essential element in portraying character. Hardy’s facial hair disguises his handsome, film-star looks and gives Locke the appearance of ordinariness, maturity and reliability. Beards are also a form of masquerade, concealing identity. As Locke and other people heard in the film remark, his behaviour in fleeing to London is uncharacteristic. It’s almost as though he’s on the run.


At the start of the film there’s a brief scene in which a man in builder’s gear (who turns out to be Locke) walks away from the construction site to get into his BMW. He’s wearing a standard helmet, yellow safety jacket and boots encrusted with dirt. He looks like any builder making his way home after a day’s graft. He removes his boots before getting into the car, and when we next see Locke inside the vehicle the helmet and safety jacket have also gone. It’s a tiny gesture, but the removal of the boots is significant. Later, in a telephone exchange with his angry wife (Ruth Wilson), she reminds him of the years she’s spent cleaning the concrete residue from his boots ingrained in their kitchen floor. Apparently he’s not as sensitive about her environment as he is about his car. 




Wristwear and jewellery

Locke wears two bracelets, emblems of his integrity. They both signify charities: Help for Heroes (for which Locke displays a car sticker) and The Prince’s Trust, which Hardy also supports. Together with his wedding ring they indicate the caring, concerned persona he projects to the world. This persona is stripped away as his anger and violence surface in his imaginary conversations with his dead father. Locke is both damaged and driven to inflict damage – not a good omen for his flagship construction project. The bracelets seem to be there to ward off danger and hurt, to deflect victimisation on to others. At the same time, they are a troubling intimation of his destructive inclinations.

The checked shirt

Locke’s checked shirt is a brilliant touch. He wears it under a naval sweater that Hardy claims to have chosen himself. It’s open-necked and the sleeves are rolled up. The actor draws attention to the rolled up sleeves by using a repetitive gesture, pushing them up his arms as he drives. The grid pattern on the shirt is reminiscent of graph paper, suggesting structure, planning and equilibrium. The rolled-up sleeves indicate Locke’s readiness to get to work, solve problems, put the world to rights. Yet the repeated gesture of pushing up his sleeves is almost compulsive, a desperate, anxious response to the chaos his actions have unleashed. The open collar evokes vulnerability and the crumpled fabric of the shirt points to the collapse of structure and stability.

The naval sweater

Locke wears a dark-brown chunky sweater over his shirt. As with the shirt, the straight lines of its cable-knit pattern are rumpled and broken. For Hardy, the sweater contributed to the sense that Locke was trying to hold things together in a difficult situation. Its earthy colour and bulky texture signify Locke’s connection to solid ground; however, it’s difficult to avoid the connection between the sweater and Locke’s feckless dead father, whom he hates with a vengeance but with whom he also identifies. Ranting and railing against his father, he threatens to dig him up and inflict terrible violence on him. It becomes clear during this tirade that Locke has unearthed his father within himself. The sweater is like a pile of soil under which he’s buried his true self.

Costume in Locke is minimal, but together with performance it plays a crucial role in a brilliant character study that creates compelling drama from the breakdown of character itself.

© Pam Cook

Further information on ‘Locke’

Lionsgate production notes






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.

Why Change Your Wife - Cecil B. DeMille - 1920

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.



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.



beth shoes

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. 

Screen shot 2010-05-26 at 9.28.07 PM

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!



© Pam Cook


Fashion film: performing boundaries of identity

10 Dec


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