For this week's episode of our cinematography series Hit Me With Your Best Shot we wanted a slight curveball as a way to celebrate the release of the Costume Design documentary Women He's Undressed. It's now available to rent on iTunes or purchase on other digital platforms. (Jose's interview with the director here). The film is about the legendary Orry-Kelly, who designed a truckload of classic Hollywood features and stars, and won three Oscars in the 1950s for An American in Paris, Les Girls and Some Like It Hot. So those playing "Best Shot" this week could choose any of those three. I watched Les Girls since it gets the least attention and they even use its image for the documentary's poster (left).
Les Girls (George Cukor, 1957) is not well remembered today but curiously it reminds us yet again that mainstream Hollywood in the 50s and 60s paid a lot of attention to foreign auteurs and absorbed (or ripped off - you be the judge) their styles and conceits. The semi-musical (a few dance numbers mainly) concerns a libel lawsuit involving a former showbiz act "Barry Nichols and Les Girls" and in the courtroom we hear three different versions of the group's break up in Paris. In each of the stories Barry Nichols (Gene Kelly) gets mixed up romantically with a different girl (America's Mitzi Gaynor, Britain's Kay Kendall, and Finland's Taina Elg) and their musical act eventually implodes. It's clearly modelled on Akira Kurosawa's Rashômon (1950) which had taken an Honorary Oscar from the Academy earlier that decade.
So let's choose a best shot and a best costume after the jump. Happily my three favorite shots come from each of the film's three acts...
Bronze. I wanted to choose this image at first from Lady Sybil's (Kendall) telling which blames Angele (Elg). Look at how moodily the set, costumes, and cinematography are working together to create this gorgeous distillation of showbiz heartbreak. (The film was also nominated for Best Art Direction and you'll find no complaints here). But the image might as well be from a different film entirely. In Rashômon the crime in question was a rape so the movie was quite serious. Les Girls , by contrast, wants to be a light comic soufflé but you know how easily those things collapse; it's quite an uneven picture though it offers periodic amusement. The best part about it, beyond the pretty pretty, is how angelic whoever is telling the story comes off and how cartoonishly awful they are in the version which blames them for all the squabbling trouble.
Silver. This runner up shot is more in keeping with the film's sense of humor. In the sequence above, from Angele's telling which blames Lady Sybil, Sybil is a hopeless lush and has missed rehearsal. Barry (Gene Kelly) enters to either fire or console her, and the scene gets its romantic comedy friction from Kelly playing it for dramedic misunderstanding and Kendall playing to the rafters like she's still swigging 100 proof from her roommate's perfume bottles (where she's hidden all her liquor. But the shot, the shot. It's a simple one but it gets everything right, capturing both performances (I will never stop complaining that modern movies refuse to let actors share the frame) and the lighting from the window casts just the perfect sectional light on the painting behind Sybil of two women. It's almost as if all four of the main characters are in the same room, but not in the same image given the squared off lighting: Joy and Angele judge from the oil painting, the light separating them from each other. Sybil's inebriated meltdown on the bed, gets the bottom half of the frame and Barry takes up the right side of the frame (but note how there's no light behind him so he's standing perfectly straight framed by a rectangular shadowed wall) and Sybil is barely acknowledging him.
Gold. Does this really need an explanation? It's a funny physical snapshot of the love quadrangle of the film with Charmed Gene Kelly as its grinning center. If gifs weren't such huge file sizes we'd share the entire shot. It's just perfection in its lovey-dovey overkill. There are TEN kisses. And then six more air kisses. Haha. Barry may not love any of 'his' girls but he sure loves their attention. To quote Mitzi Gaynor as the every quipping Joy at the beginning of the film.
Barry fell in love with himself the first time he looked in the mirror. He's been faithful ever since.
(He looks like Gene Kelly. Can you blame him?)
The choices are endless from this very showy job for the dazzling magician that was Orry-Kelly. Despite many worthy gowns and Gene Kelly's dahing looks, too, there was one costume that stood out above all, both because we see it three times and because it keeps bringing the laughs. It's from "Ladies in Waiting" a naughty musical number early in the film about 'serving' the King. This scene gets multiple laughs including from the costumes peek-a-bootie surprise.
And that's not even this costume's best punchline!
NEXT TUESDAY ON BEST SHOT: We're looking at the first episode of Baz Luhrmann's "The Get Down" premiering this weekend on Netflix
OTHER BEST SHOTS CELEBRATING ORRY-KELLY FILMS THIS WEEK
• Jason Choi *first time participant* on An American in Paris (1951)
• Christian Bonamusa has fun with An American in Paris (1951)
• Timothy Brayton has a lot to say about Best Picture An American in Paris (1951)
• I Want to Believe relates to Sugar Kane in Some Like it Hot (1959)
• Dancin' Dan on Marilyn's curves in Some Like It Hot (1959)
• Allison Tooey looks at the musical Les Girls (1957)