30s American cinema remains my favorite era in the movies. And it would not be the same without the great King of Wardrobe at 30s Paramount, Travis Banton. First three screens (above and next two below. Click on any picture to run all the stills as a slideshow) here are the divine Carole Lombard, with Banton outfits, uncredited, in Gregory La Cava's My Man Godfrey in which she and William Powell rescue each other from their own social and personal prisons.
It's one of the first two masterpieces to initiate the age of Screwball Comedy in 1936. It was produced at Universal, to whom Banton was loaned out by home base studio, Paramount. The new Criterion Blu-ray of this from new Universal 4K ex-first gen 35mm elements is a complete joy.
The next four screens (below) are from Criterion's earlier release this year of a new 2K of Leo McCarey's' wonderful The Awful Truth, the second and major progenitor of the Screwball movement, made at Paramount in the same year where the director was on contract.
The picture is I think one of the greatest handful of movies about marriage ever made. Others in my book of lists, Mank's great underrated Cleopatra(1963) which contains the best running conversation between a husband and wife ever written for the movies, here Liz Taylor and Rex Harrison, reading Mank's own transcription of Shakespeare's own best of the genre, “Antony and Cleopatra”.
Also on top of the list Becker's light as air Edouard et Caroline in which a couple progress through one fearsome night from a small row over a dress to a showdown with the rich in-laws and a class war which climaxes with a terrible fight, then a rapturous resolution. All underpinned by a 90 second Chopin Prelude in A flat.
Getting back to McCarey, Banton's wardrobe for The Awful Truth on home turf almost seems to run the visual gamut of black to white and then some, aside from set and production design, with its sheer post-depression blitz of high fashion, and opulence. His wardrobe for Irene Dunne is astonishing in range and often times, absurdity.
Banton pioneers the insane abstract Brancusi hats (above) he would later display to dramatic perfection in Leisen's masterpiece, Midnight in 1939, in which some of the chapeaux seem to be threatening at any moment to dislodge the sets. Not only Dunne but even an actor as seldom used so well, Ralph Bellamy who despite playing a wealthy bumpkin is dressed with things like flared pitch fluted and tight-waisted pants with Fred Astaire ribbon belts, silk cravats (below) and shirts that only one of the most butch specimens of Hollywood might have carried off without looking ridiculous.
To complement the eye popping wardrobe McCarey gives Bellamy a scene in which he takes Dunne to the dance floor, while ex-husband Cary Grant looks on with contempt. The band heats up and so does Bellamy who reveals a deft dance skill with which he nearly sweeps Dunne off the floor. The movie keeps working on these turnarounds of expectation.
Dunne is constantly accompanied by her aunt, played by Hollywood's favorite 30s Lesbian, the great Cecil Cunningham (above). Cecil was routinely typecast as the growling bulldyke, barking out one liners with the authority of a steamroller. In this picture however, Banton gives her a surprising wardrobe which amplifies her range to create a major part. She’s also in Blonde Venus, where she's given some greater dimension by Jo as a bordello Madam who throws off a line to Dietrich at a key point, "I know how it is dearie, I've gotta kid of my own."
In Leisen's Swing High Swing Low (1937) she plays the Panama nightclub owner who hires both Lombard to sing and MacMurray to play the horn And again the picture is literally graced, not only by a Banton wardrobe, but Leisen directs DP Ted Tetzlaff to light and photograph her with warm affection and admiration, as a lesbian and a woman and a real character who has been "protecting" Lombard from MacMurray to that point. Nobody else but artists of the calibre of Leisen, Sternberg, McCarey and Banton would have ever bothered.
And that makes all the difference, doesn't it?