Monday, August 21, 2006

Clothes on Film -- Lana Turner: Bad Acting, Great Clothes.

The woman explained herself quite well in the opening paragraph of her autobiography, LANA. I quote "One June evening in 1937, I sat in a Hollywood theatre, waiting for a preview of They Won't Forget. I played a Southern schoolgirl, Mary Clay, who would be raped and murdered. An innocent teacher would be blamed and lynched before he came to trial. I hadn't really understood the significance of the script, but I remember what I wore - a close-fitting sweater with patent-leather belt and a well-contoured skirt." --

Turner Classic Movies is doing its "Summer Under the Stars" specials this August. That's where the channel programs 24 hours featuring the work of one star. Lana Turner was featured on my birthday. She's not one of my favorite actresses by any means: by the time she made the movies that are shown most often, "Peyton Place," "Imitation of Life" and "Madame X," the mileage was really beginning to show and she had become as brittle as flint and about as expressive. But man, you had to give it up to the girl, she was always, always, beautifully, glamorously dressed, off screen and on.

Lana Turner was the Lindsay Lohan of her day. She was discovered and put into the studio system at age 15, she became an immediate sensation because of her impressive, if sweater-covered, rack, and she was wildly popular among men in their early 20s (although Lana's admirers were flying bombers over Germany instead of getting bombed in their parents' basements). Lana preferred partying to acting. At age 19, she eloped with Artie Shaw, one of the 20th Centuries most notorious serial husbands, just to piss off her boss, MGM's Louis B. Mayer. She was hospitalized for "exhaustion" (in Lana's case, aka a botched back-street abortion). And this was just the beginning of her career!

Unlike today's teen screen queens, however, Lana would never appear in public looking like a homeless person after a rough night. In fact, Lana's glamour actually helped her make a comeback after a scandal that would have ruined the career of Sarah Bernhardt, the killing of Johnny Stompanato, her sadistic gangster boyfriend by her daughter on Good Friday, 1958. The L.A. coroner's office bought Lana's story that her daughter was trying to protect her from Johnny during a fight between the lovers, and ruled the killing justifiable homicide, but rumors continued to circulate that Lana had done the deed and let her daughter take the rap.

To recover from the scandal, and earn some much needed cash, Lana agreed to forgo her usual fee to star in "Imitation of Life" for half the film's profits. As a publicity stunt, or perhaps as an effort to whitewash the sepulchre, Lana's wardrobe for that movie was the most expensive to date, $1.079 million dollars of Jean Louis gowns and Laykin et Cie jewels. The gowns and jewels were the perfect props for an actress who belonged to the "stop, pose, speak" school of acting.

"Imitation of Life" has been praised as a "brave" film about race issues, but I find it cringe-worthy to watch. Miss Lora, the white benefactress, is a little too good to be true; Annie, the African-American housekeeper, is not merely a jewel but a saint and way, way too devoted to Miss Lora for modern-viewing comfort; Lora's teenage daughter, whose crisis is falling for her mother's boyfriend, is a bore; and Annie's teenage daughter, who is trying to pass for white, is too damn sexy (although she does get to wear a show-stopping peach wiggle dress in one scene). This movie was made five years after "Brown v. Board of Education" and three years after the Montgomery bus boycotts, after all.

Oh well, the film's politics might be dated but the clothes are classic.


miss vintage love said...

Nothing beats real old Hollywood glamour, these wannabes today just don't do it for me.

Cookie said...

Oh! That's all very well-written and insightful! I will have to poke about this blog more! Keep up the good work, and let The Truth be known!