It’s well known that fashion designer Elsa Schiaparelli designed film costume, but her work for British cinema in the 1930s is not widely recognised. She worked on 29 British, French and American productions between 1931 and 1952; below I list the British titles on which she acted as costume designer, which make up a substantial part of her film work. During the 1920s and 1930s there was considerable transnational collaboration between the film industries of Britain and continental Europe, with many European émigrés coming to work in Britain and vice versa. This context may account for Schiaparelli’s involvement in British cinema – the productions to which she contributed were international in flavour. She consistently worked with film studio Gaumont British, based at Shepherd’s Bush, London.
A Gentleman of Paris (1931)
A crime melodrama and courtroom drama set in Paris, this early sound film was directed by Sinclair Hill and produced by Michael Balcon for Gaumont British. It features Sybil Thorndike as a murderess. Arthur Wontner, best known for his portrayal of Sherlock Holmes, plays the lead role of a morally compromised judge. This seems to have been Schiaparelli’s first credit for costume design. There’s little information available about the film, so the details of how she became involved remain obscure. Following this, she worked on four French titles.
Little Friend (1934)
Also made for Gaumont British, this film deals with the harrowing psychological effects on a young girl of her parents’ divorce. British child actress Nova Pilbeam plays Felicity, the girl from a wealthy family whose unhappiness leads her to harm herself. Scripted by Christopher Isherwood and Margaret Kennedy, directed by Austrian émigré Berthold Viertel with production design by Alfred Junge, another European émigré, the film opens with a surreal nightmare sequence that visualises Felicity’s disturbed state of mind. The glittering line-up of international creative talent suggests a stylish and upmarket production.
Brewster’s Millions (1935)
Directed by Thornton Freeland for Herbert Wilcox Productions, this musical comedy, a remake of the 1921 US silent film, stars dapper Jack Buchanan as a penniless young man Jack Brewster, who inherits a fortune but in order to receive it must spend a huge sum within 60 days. He is helped in this task by glamorous European import Lili Damita as chorus girl Rosalie La Rue.
The Tunnel (1935)
Another Gaumont British production, this ambitious futuristic film deals with plans to build a transatlantic tunnel between Britain and the US. Adapted by Kurt Siodmak from a 1913 German novel, directed by Maurice Elvey and produced by Michael Balcon, the film reflected current political and cultural concerns and represented an attempt by Gaumont British to break into the American market. As part of this project it starred US actors Richard Dix and Walter Huston, but it also featured an impressive roster of European talent, including Siodmak, cinematographer Günther Krampf and art director Ernö Metzner – and, of course, Schiaparelli.
King of the Damned (1935)
Directed by Walter Forde, co-scripted by Sidney Gilliat and produced by Michael Balcon for Gaumont British, this film starred German actor Conrad Veidt as Convict 83, who leads a prison revolt to set up a more humane regime at an island penal colony.
Love in Exile (1936)
Directed by US-born Alfred L. Werker, produced by Hungarian émigré Max Schach for Capitol Film, this film stars Clive Brook as abdicated King Regis VI, who outwits two oil magnates and stages a return to his throne. After this, Schiaparelli worked on two US titles.
The Beloved Vagabond (1936)
Directed and co-scripted by German émigré Curtis Bernhardt, produced by Italian Ludovico Toeplitz for Toeplitz Productions and starring Maurice Chevalier, this period musical drama is set in England and France. Chevalier plays the itinerant Paragot opposite a young Margaret Lockwood as the singer Blanquette, who offers to help him sort out his financial problems. Schiaparelli contributed to the costume design. A French-language version was also made: Le Vagabond bien-aimé (1937).
Jump for Glory (1937)
You might be forgiven for thinking this is an American film. It was directed by Raoul Walsh and co-produced by its star Douglas Fairbanks Jr. for British company Criterion Productions. A crime caper set in New Orleans and England, scripted by the British Harold French and American John Meehan Jr., it had an Anglo-American cast that included Valerie Hobson in a starring role as socialite Glory Fane, who helps thief Fairbanks to redeem himself after they fall in love. The costume design is credited to Schiaparelli and Norman Hartnell.
Pygmalion (1938) (uncredited)
This stylish adaptation of George Bernard Shaw’s play about a dialect expert who bets that he can teach a working-class flower girl to pass as a lady starred Leslie Howard as Professor Henry Higgins and Wendy Hiller as Eliza Doolittle. It was directed by Anthony Asquith and produced by Gabriel Pascal for Gabriel Pascal Productions. Costume design is by Ladislaw Czettel; Schiaparelli is reputed to have designed the hats, though she is not credited.
Ten Days in Paris (1940)
Schiaparelli’s last British production was a comedy mystery drama in which the urbane Rex Harrison plays a tourist in Paris who turns out to be the double of a German spy operating in the French capital. It was directed by Tim Whelan and produced by Irving Asher for Irving Asher Productions, with art direction by Frederick Pusey. Schiaparelli is credited with costume design.
© Pam Cook