Updated: Oct 20, 2021
Dietrich is beautiful in Banton, a new Thin Man Blu-ray, and Susan Hayward's turn as a fashion designer highlight this month's releases.
Marlene Dietrich in lavish Travis Banton designs, Myrna Loy in head-to-toe glamour by Robert Kalloch, and Susan Hayward as a designer who can turn out chic clothes with the help of Jean Louis—what more could you ask for in stylish films this month? Let's dig in:
Starring Gary Cooper and Marlene Dietrich
Directed by Frank Borzage
Costumes by Travis Banton
Some of Travis Banton's best costumes for Marlene Dietrich are seen in Desire, a film that the star clearly loved when she was writing her 1989 autobiography: "The only film I need not be ashamed of is Desire, directed by Frank Borzage and based on a script by Ernst Lubitsch. I found Gary Cooper a little less monosyllabic than before. He was finally rid of Lupe Velez, who had been at his heels constantly throughout the shooting of Morocco," she wrote.
Combined with the drama Banton always brought to his work with Dietrich, that endorsement makes Desire required viewing (and also inspires a double feature with Morocco). In Desire, Dietrich plays "Countess" Madeleine, a jewel thief who thinks she's gotten away clean with a fortune in pearls—until she experiences trouble with her car and customs officers, and encounters Cooper as Tom Bradley, a tourist who tries to help her and soon gets left in the dust for his troubles. But in a series of circumstances that only might happen in a Lubitsch script, Madeleine discovers she left the pearls with Tom, and must meet up with him again to retrieve them—aided by John Halliday as her accomplice, "Uncle" Carlos. By the end of the film, does Madeleine choose life as a jewel thief or a life with Tom?
Cooper and Dietrich reportedly had an affair during the filming of Morocco and remained friends, another reason for their unmistakable chemistry in Desire. In addition to the script, Lubitsch also reportedly handled some directing duties when Frank Borzage had to fulfill a contractual obligation on another project. The result is a film with some pretty flawless ingredients; audiences and critics agreed, making Desire a resounding success. This Blu-ray features a new 2K master, as well as the theatrical trailer and a pair of audio commentaries by film historians Samm Deighan and David Del Valle.
Shadow of the Thin Man (1941)
Warner Archive Collection
Starring William Powell and Myrna Loy
Directed by W.S. Van Dyke
Costumes by Robert Kalloch
The fourth of the six Thin Man movies, Shadow of the Thin Man was released in November 1941, just two weeks before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, making this film an ideal choice in a moment when Americans truly needed some escapism.
Horse racing provides the backdrop for drawing Nick and Nora Charles into a murder investigation, after a jockey is found shot to death in a locker room. The requisite Thin Man elements are here, from cocktails and comedy to Asta getting plenty of close-up moments. Shadow of the Thin Man also sees Robert Kalloch taking over for Dolly Tree as costume designer, and the change is Myrna Loy's look is undeniable to fans of the series, starting with the parade of stylish hats she wears throughout the film. This is also the first movie in the series in which Nick, Jr. (played here by Dickie Hall) is old enough to take an active role in scenes—and for Ava Gardner fans, look for her as an uncredited extra at the racetrack.
Features are sparse on this Blu-ray—the theatrical trailer, a cartoon and a 1941 short, The Tell-Tale Heart, based on the Edgar Allan Poe story—but it's an essential for your library, especially if you're a fan of 1934's The Thin Man and want to see not only how beloved characters were kept fresh in both their scripts and style, but also how a movie could provide comfort and escapism at just the right moment.
Back Street (1961)
Starring Susan Hayward and John Gavin
Directed by David Miller
Costumes by Jean Louis
When you're in the mood for schmaltz set against a fashion backdrop, you can't do much better than this version of Back Street. The fourth version of Fannie Hurst's famed 1931 novel about a woman who accepts that she will always be the mistress of an unhappily married man, this Back Street is also undeniably the most glamorous, thanks to a bigger spotlight on the design career of Rae, played by Susan Hayward (her first name also got an upgrade; she was Ray in previous versions). Rae's chic designs are a resounding success in New York, Rome and Paris, but her personal life is a mess, because she just can't quit John Gavin's Paul Saxon, who is married to Liz, played by Vera Miles in a delightful scenery-chewing fashion.
This Back Street is one of those fashion films in which the costume designer should have received equal billing alongside the actors, as Jean Louis's gorgeous clothes are showcased throughout—and indeed, he received an Oscar nomination for Best Costume Design, though he ultimately lost to Irene Sharaff and West Side Story. Fold in Ross Hunter and his reputation as producer who loved a lush-looking film (his 1959 Imitation of Life remake, starring Lana Turner, is another example) and the unabashed melodrama of the script, and this Back Street is undeniably a stylish guilty pleasure. Features on this Blu-ray include the theatrical trailer and a new audio commentary with film historian David Del Valle and filmmaker David DeCoteau.