Updated: Jan 17, 2021
A pair of Doris Day favorites, Barbara Stanwyck’s tackiest costume, and Nick & Nora Charles enjoy new debuts this month.
From 1930s chic to 1950s Technicolor and one intentionally garish look in between, there’s plenty of variety for costume-design fans among January’s Blu-ray and DVD releases. Let’s dig in:
Ball of Fire (1941)
Warner Archive Collection
Starring Barbara Stanwyck, Gary Cooper and Dana Andrews
Directed by Howard Hawks
Stanwyck’s costumes by Edith Head
If you’re seeking proof of Edith Head’s genius, look no further than 1941’s Ball of Fire. This Howard Hawks comedy – the director’s inventive riff on “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” – stars Barbara Stanwyck as the wonderfully named Sugarpuss O’Shea, the nightclub-singer girlfriend of mobster Dana Andrews. To avoid testifying against him, she hides out in the last place anyone would think to look: a research foundation occupied by eight stodgy professors.
Unaware of her subterfuge, the professor played by Gary Cooper believes her only motive is to assist with the group’s research project, a comprehensive encyclopedia of grammar. Earlier he discovered her ability to bring a modern-slang sensibility to his work while watching her perform one night, and it’s during this scene that Head does a terrific job in helping to establish the character through costume. The sequined two-piece look, with its bare midriff, sheer-panel sleeves and carwash-style skirt, is perhaps the tackiest ensemble Stanwyck ever wore, and that’s precisely the point: Sugarpuss isn’t sophisticated or elegant in these early scenes – she’s the girlfriend of a gangster, and that costume helps to convey that idea while she performs “Drum Boogie” with Gene Krupa and his orchestra.
Later, while Sugarpuss is reevaluating her life and begins to fall in love with both Cooper’s shy professor and the kindness of his seven colleagues, her wardrobe likewise gradually shifts toward quieter, more elegant designs. By the end of the film, she’s wearing a stylish gown embroidered with sprays of wheat on the shoulder and waist (seen below), a look that Stanwyck apparently loved so much, she asked Head to reproduce it in another color for her personal wardrobe.
This was the second collaboration between Stanwyck and Head after The Lady Eve, released earlier in the year, and it was clear that the star trusted the designer’s instincts with respect to both her body and the character she was playing. Indeed, check out the midriff-baring gown Stanwyck wears in early scenes of The Lady Eve, and compare its lines to her “Drum Boogie” dress. Head knew what worked for Stanwyck’s body, and then enhanced the character through fabric and details.
Please Don’t Eat the Daisies (1960)
Warner Archive Collection
Starring Doris Day and David Niven
Directed by Charles Walters
Costumes by Morton Haack
Doris Day spends a lot of time in dungarees as a wife and mother knee-deep in a fixer-upper while husband David Niven is working in the New York theater scene and fending off the advances of a wily Broadway actress played by Janis Paige, but costume designer Morton Haack allows Day a few moments of elegance – though it’s typically when she’s running off to meet Niven for scenes involving lunch or dinner.
If you weren’t already aware, Please Don’t Eat the Daisies is based on the memoir of Jean Kerr, a writer and the wife of theater critic, writer and director Walter Kerr, who indeed has a Broadway theater named for him on New York’s West 48th Street. The names have been changed from Jean and Walter Kerr to Kate and Larry McKay, but evidently many of the challenges Day encounters when the family leaves the city for an old Victorian mansion in the country are taken from Jean Kerr’s own experiences.
Haack was best known for designing the costumes for all five films from the original Planet of the Apes series, from 1968 to 1973, but he also created Debbie Reynolds’s costumes for 1964’s The Unsinkable Molly Brown – which like the first Planet of the Apes was Oscar-nominated for Best Costume Design – and designed the wardrobe for Gina Lollobrigida for both 1961’s Come September and 1968’s Buona Sera, Mrs. Campbell. Haack’s career spanned just 15 years, and during that time he created the costumes for 16 films, but given that roster, you can’t say he wasn’t versatile. And perhaps he fell in love with Italy while working on those Gina Lollobrigida movies: When he passed away in 1987 at the age of 62, he was living in Rome.
The Pajama Game (1957)
Warner Archive Collection
Starring Doris Day and John Raitt
Directed by George Abbott and Stanley Donen
Costumes by Jean Eckart and William Eckart
It’s a bit fun to think that perhaps Janis Paige was able to exact a bit of revenge when she played a conniving woman who goes after Doris Day’s husband in 1960’s Please Don’t Eat the Daisies. Three years earlier, Paige was a hit on Broadway as Babe Williams in The Pajama Game, which played for 1,063 performances between 1954 and 1955; but when the Tony-winning musical made the transfer to Hollywood, the part of Babe went to Day, undeniably the more bankable star.
Day would later write in her autobiography that, because many in the cast had been imported from Broadway, including her co-star, John Raitt, she felt a bit out of place amid a company that clearly had bonded. You don’t see it in her performance, of course, as a feisty employee at a pajama factory who’s trying to negotiate a raise for herself and her fellow workers; Raitt (the father of Bonnie) is on the side of management, so it’s only natural that 101 minutes of story later, they’ve fallen in love amid numbers that include the iconic “Hey There.”
Though they worked on several Broadway productions, husband-and-wife design team Jean and William Eckart didn’t create the costumes for The Pajama Game’s theatrical run – Lemuel Ayers handled that task, as well as scenic design, but he died before the film version went into production. For fans of 1950s musicals, this Blu-ray of The Pajama Game boasts at least two extra treats: It’s a brand-new 1080p HD remaster from a 4K scan of the original film negative, and it includes a deleted scene, Day performing “The Man Who Invented Love,” a number that had been written specifically for her, but which was cut before the film’s release.
After the Thin Man (1936)
Warner Archive Collection
Starring William Powell and Myrna Loy
Directed by W.S. Van Dyke
Costumes by Dolly Tree
William Powell and Myrna Loy made six Thin Man films together (and an additional eight in other stories), and though it’s hard to beat the 1934 original, this second in the series almost succeeds in doing so, also because of the inclusion of Jimmy Stewart in an early role in his career.
As Nick and Nora Charles, Powell and Loy are clever, crafty and always stylish, the latter thanks to costume designer Dolly Tree, who created the looks for the original, this film and 1939’s Another Thin Man (Robert Kalloch and Irene Lentz took over the design duties for the remaining three films in the series). Nick and Nora pick up where they left off at the end of The Thin Man, arriving by train in San Francisco and soon discovering that the husband of Nora’s cousin has gone missing, and a murder that needs solving quickly follows. Like the first film, Tree’s ingenuity with Loy’s ensembles is on full display in After the Thin Man, from the luxe coats she wears throughout to at least one party gown that would feel equally stylish today.
Thanks to the MGM publicity machine, Tree’s work for Loy, Jean Harlow, Rosalind Russell and others often was overshadowed by the glamour of Adrian, the man in charge of outfitting Garbo, Katharine Hepburn and Norma Shearer. That’s really a shame, because Tree should have received equal credit for her contributions to 1930s fashion via her work on films that at the time weren’t considered on the same “prestige” level of Ninotchka, The Philadelphia Story or Marie Antoinette, though that likely didn’t matter to the female audience members who viewed Nora Charles as an obvious style icon.
Among the bonuses included with this Blu-ray release, a brand-new 1080p HD remaster from a 4K scan of the best-surviving elements, is a 1940 Lux Radio Theater broadcast in which Powell and Loy reprise their roles, as well as a vintage MGM short, How to Be a Detective, starring Robert Benchley.