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Behind the Seams: Coco Chanel and “Tonight or Never”

Coco Chanel was a renowned fan of astrology; born under the sign of Leo, she was known to decorate her Paris apartment with statues of golden lions. To celebrate her Aug. 19th birthday, we look behind the scenes at a producer-designer relationship rarely discussed, when Samuel Goldwyn lured the famed couturier to Hollywood to create stylish costumes for his films.

Gloria Swanson in a costume by Coco Chanel in the classic film Tonight or Never
Gloria Swanson, left, in a print jumpsuit by Coco Chanel in 1931’s “Tonight or Never.”

At least two decades before Hubert de Givenchy, Christian Dior and Yves Saint Laurent became marquee names in the opening credits of stylish films, another French fashion designer was translating her signature aesthetic for the cinema: Coco Chanel. By the early 1930s, the famed couturier was already a huge success, with an atelier at 31, Rue Cambon in Paris and a lengthy list of aristocrats as clients, while her signature fragrance, Chanel No. 5, was approaching its first decade and adorning wrists of women around the world.

Coco Chanel in 1931, newly arrived in America.

A chance meeting in early 1931 in Monte Carlo, however, opened up a new avenue: Hollywood. Chanel’s known lover at the time, the Grand Duke Dmitri Pavlovich, introduced her to producer Samuel Goldwyn, who immediately realized he might be able to reap more than a few benefits for his United Artists studio if one of the world’s most sought-after couturiers would consent to design not only costumes for his films, but also the clothes his stars would wear in their daily lives. Always a shrewd businesswoman, Chanel likewise thought the idea had merit, even as she seemed lukewarm about a lengthy trek to the west coast of the United States. But a contract reportedly worth $1 million proved irresistible, and in early March 1931, Chanel arrived in New York. After a press conference with American journalists, Chanel boarded the train to Los Angeles; ever the showman, Goldwyn had arranged a specially outfitted all-white train car to carry her across America to Hollywood. For ultimate star power, Greta Garbo greeted Chanel with a kiss at Union Station in Los Angeles, while a luxurious working space, also custom-created for the designer, was waiting for her at Goldwyn’s studio.

But before the month was out, Chanel would be returning to Paris. Over the years multiple stories have been conjured about why the relationship wasn’t a success: Goldwyn thought he was hiring a costume designer, while Chanel never planned to think of him as her boss, for example. But ultimately it seems the couturier simply preferred her Paris surroundings to the California lifestyle, and perhaps hadn’t planned to stay long-term from the beginning. As she told reporters upon her arrival in New York, “I will make not one dress. I have not brought my scissors with me. Later, perhaps, when I get back to Paris, I will create and design gowns.” It also didn’t help that some Los Angeles journalists did not embrace Chanel with open arms, with several publications implying — or stating outright — that importing a designer from Paris wasn’t necessary when there was plenty of talent in Hollywood. They weren’t wrong, of course, but the pronouncements did little to make Chanel — long considered a strong and defiant woman, but also deeply sensitive — feel welcome in her new environment. (In the 1950s and ‘60s, of course, the idea of crediting French designers like Givenchy, Saint Laurent or Dior became very welcome in Hollywood films, as the inclusion of a high-profile designer’s name evoked an instant allure of glamour.)

Gloria Swanson in an evening gown by designer Coco Chanel in the classic film Tonight of Never
Gloria Swanson wearing a Chanel gown in an early scene of “Tonight or Never.”

And so Chanel decamped from Hollywood almost as quickly as she had arrived, retreating to Paris and delving into design from the comfort of her rue Cambon atelier (Goldwyn was paying her handsomely, after all). Of the three United Artists films for which she contributed costume designs, the one that best survives today is Tonight or Never, largely because of its star: Gloria Swanson, an icon of the silent screen who was in the midst of making the necessary transition to talking pictures. With Goldwyn’s blessing, Swanson traveled to Paris for meetings and fittings with Chanel, also because the producer knew he could garner publicity from such a trip. But Chanel was met with one more challenge in her design process: Swanson was pregnant, a fact that remained undisclosed because of the fuzzy timing of her pregnancy and her marriage to Michael Farmer, an Irish sportsman whom she wed in August 1931. During their initial meetings, Chanel asked Swanson to lose weight to look her best in the clothes she was creating, forcing the actress to take the designer into her confidence; the result was multiple fittings and design tricks to mask Swanson’s growing waistline.

Tonight or Never is ultimately a fluff of a film, the story of an opera singer (Swanson) who exudes a cold persona in her performances only because she lacks love in her life. Early in the film she meets Melvyn Douglas; Tonight or Never originated as a play by Lili Hatvany, debuting at New York’s Belasco Theatre in 1930, and on Broadway Douglas had played the role of an opera impresario whom Swanson mistakes to be a gigolo. The misunderstanding leads to moments of comedy, and naturally by the film's end they fall in love, and her performances gain the passion desired to make her the ultimate opera diva and star.

A key look by Coco Chanel, worn by Gloria Swanson in 1931’s “Tonight or Never.”

That’s the story of Tonight or Never, but what about Chanel’s designs? She exclusively created Swanson's clothes for the film, and it shows in the sophistication of her looks vs. the rest of the cast (the only exception is the opera costume Swanson wears for her entrance, crafted in a fabric that simply didn’t translate well to the screen). That latter point is important, because it’s also been noted over the years that Chanel’s creations didn’t exhibit the overt drama that Hollywood costume designers had been accustomed to creating — though it’s hard to agree with that point when Swanson is seen in a satin jacket with a high fur collar midway through the film, over a beaded gown and jewels Chanel also provided. Some of her other designs are more subtle while also stylish, including a black gown she wears in an early scene and especially a print jumpsuit (shown in the photo at the top of this story), rendered in a Chanel-esque print that easily could have felt at home in one of her collections. More than anything, it’s simply fun to watch the film knowing all of Swanson’s costumes were designed by Chanel in the early years of her success.

In addition to Tonight or Never, Chanel would design for only two other Goldwyn films: the now-largely forgotten Palmy Days, a 1931 trifle starring Eddie Cantor (Chanel designed costumes for a then-unknown Barbara Weeks), as well as The Greeks Had a Word for Them, released in 1932. Starring Joan Blondell, Ina Claire and Madge Evans, this film perhaps does the most justice to Chanel’s work, as the camera seems to linger on many of her designs, including a lovely wedding gown worn by Claire. Turner Classic Movies occasionally shows Tonight or Never, while The Greeks Had a Word for Them (retitled Three Broadway Girls) surprisingly can be found on Amazon Prime Video. DVDs of Palmy Days and Tonight or Never also are available from third-party sellers on Amazon, but they can be pricey. Of the three, Chanel only received onscreen credit for one: Tonight or Never, of course, where in the opening frames she’s billed as “Chanel of Paris.” And while none of the films did well at the box office, the gowns of Tonight or Never indeed gained notice: As Variety’s unnamed reviewer noted, “the feature has one item that is bound to assay heavily at the box office; that is, the dresses worn by the star and for elegance and swank, even to the most untutored, they are drama in themselves.” Chanel’s name, unfortunately, is never mentioned in the article.

Chanel created costumes for a few other films later in her career, most notably Jean Renoir’s iconic The Rules of the Game (1939), but she never returned to Hollywood after that grand experiment with Goldwyn. Though she did ultimately enjoy several benefits from her Hollywood experience: not only that high-priced contract, but Chanel also picked up important — and long-lasting — private clients, including Greta Garbo, Marlene Dietrich, and Frances Goldwyn, the producer’s wife. While Samuel Goldwyn’s films never achieved the long-term prestige he had once envisioned in his partnership with Coco Chanel, his wife’s closet undoubtedly reaped the rewards.


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