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Sunday, November 30, 2008

Fashion Noir --- Part Two

There are those thrillers that make history, like Psycho, and then there’s the rest, like Midnight Lace, merely functional in their day, and little remembered now. Who cares that the latter played, and very successfully, but months in the wake of Hitchcock’s smash? Both were offered up as exercises in polished suspense. The not unfamiliar device of encouraging audiences to arrive not later than the picture’s beginning was gently pursued by theatres showing Ross Hunter’s confection (and yes, by golly, that’s the ideal word to describe it), while Hitchcock’s similar, but hard-and-fast edict on Psycho’s behalf, was actually written into exhibition contracts and enforced at ticket windows (as shown here). Having opened in October, Midnight Lace provided balm for audiences undone by Hithcock’s relentless assault upon genre conventions. Its mystery was as reassuringly elemental as its outcome was predictably resolved. To challenge viewers would be to distract them from matters of greater concern to Ross Hunter, namely clothes and décor that would center merchandising strategy and deliver a success on the order of previous Hunter hits. Midnight Lace represents the triumph of the superficial thriller, one that might emerge if an artist like Hitchcock were to shoot and release the barest skeletal outline of a coming project. By 1960, the guessing game as to villainous identity was one practiced non-stop on televisions everywhere, what with schedules awash in whodunits and series like Perry Mason making armchair sleuths of us all. The point of a Midnight Lace had to be something other than which character was seeking to terrorize Doris Day (shown here in a pair of unretouched portraits with co-star Rex Harrison). The imperative must be what Day was wearing while the unknown he/she was about it. Howard Hawks had been canny enough to observe the impact of relentless video recycling of westerns, and so put greater emphasis on character and bantering comedy in 1959’s Rio Bravo, cowboy formulae now being all but impossible to deliver fresh. The ubiquity of old movies at home was indeed forcing Hollywood to remix paints, especially with regards familiar genres.

Ross Hunter was something of an industry’s Ashley Wilkes. He so wanted Hollywood to remain that place of glamour others knew was dying. Almost poignant was his conviction that all of what once made movies great could somehow be recaptured in the likes of Midnight Lace. Toward such ends, he invited monuments of an already vanished studio era to sprinkle stardust upon pictures designed to remind patrons of theatre going at its romantic summit. Myrna Loy was among red herrings in Midnight Lace, but her larger purpose was to evoke larger-than-lives she’d essayed back when Hunter, and most of his audience, were thrilling to pulse quickeners more recently consigned to the late, late show. They Don’t Make Them Like Used To was a chorus sung by middle-agers who’d stopped going to theatres in any case, and the producer’s idea was to lure them back along with his now loyal core of women both teenaged and young adult. To these he presented Doris Day at the very moment of her coronation as Number One Boxoffice Attraction in America, with Midnight Lace arriving in the wake of Universal’s phenomenal Pillow Talk (here they are on location with co-producer, and Day's husband, Martin Melcher). To read Day’s straight-faced account of traumas she suffered enacting her victimized heroine in Midnight Lace, we’re all the more amazed, if not impressed, at how earnestly stars of her generation applied themselves to what viewers would now (charitably) call high camp. Part of my respect for Midnight Lace (and others like it) derives from its cast’s refusal to betray their condescension to what most of them knew to be pulpy material. Doris Day recalled projecting onto her character to a point of on-set breakdown and three days needed to recover. Within a few short years, players briefed on irony and the knowing wink would convey their indifference all too well, and sensibilities like Ross Hunter’s would run out of avenues for expression.

I assume there’s still a fashion industry, but does it thrive as in 1960 when Universal marshaled its forces on behalf of Midnight Lace? Hollywood must regain its place as Glamour Capital of the world and clothes is what made Hollywood just that, said Ross Hunter as the studio’s aggressive tie-up with retailers nationwide left the feature an almost afterthought in the wake of Doris Day-inspired outfits designed by Hollywood’s renowned Irene. She’d been in movies since Keystone days, first as would-be actress, and later more successfully as dressmaker to the stars. Ross Hunter built much of his Midnight Lace campaign around Irene’s wardrobe for Doris Day. There was a six-minute short, free to exhibitors, made up of costume tests for the film, and this was fanned out by Universal field men to department stores in every key location playing Midnight Lace. 16mm prints were shown to clerks in advance of shopper arrival and display windows were festooned with outfits seen in the film. In Kansas City, for instance, the sales staff of Harzfeld Clothier, a mainstay in that city since 1891, con-fabbed with studio reps at a closed screening of Midnight Lace with accompanying fashion short. The idea was to acquaint management and thirty-six sales staffers on how best to merchandise both the movie and clothing displayed during it. An original Irene suit as seen in the film would be a Grand Prize in contests held at the store. Professional craft and guile on the part of Universal exploiteers created Midnight Lace consciousness running weeks in advance of the show’s opening. As with Portrait In Black and its beauty salon tie-ins, this was surest to target femme patrons and inspire commerce both at Harzfeld’s and the National Theatre circuit, which had booked the feature into houses it controlled throughout the territory.

Why I Would Like To Be Doris Day For A Night was the subject of contemplation for over a hundred who responded to the Center Theatre’s contest appeal in Corpus Christi, Texas. It seemed not a foolish inquiry in light of this actresses’ popularity. There were scores of women nationwide who wanted to be Doris Day all the time, or at the least spend whatever they had to spare of it watching her films. Much of that appeal had to do with luxuries she was thought to enjoy. Pillow Talk was as much about (lavish) lifestyle as laughs, and Midnight Lace would be more of that same, only this time gracious living would be salted with comparatively mild thrills. Doris on screen (and fans assumed off) consumed much of what (lots of) money could buy, so To Be Doris Day was to wear the latest and buy the mostest. No more would vehicles find her in humble circumstance. She was tied inexorably to products sold on her image and/or endorsement. Representing an ideal to patrons now meant shopping for them as well, so why not be Doris Day for a night when that amounts to having your wish list filled? The contest winner in this instance would enjoy a night on the town consistent with those DD might routinely experience, provided one bought into Hollywood as the High Life Incarnate. Here was an illusion still tenable, but for not much longer, in December of 1960 when Mrs. Fran Lowley of Ronstown, Texas had her big night out. She and extended family (including kids not unlike ones Doris had in that year’s Please Don’t Eat The Daisies) were driven seventeen miles in a 1961 Chevrolet Impala sedan (on loan from a local dealer), with color commentary by a radio announcer brought along to broadcast the event. There was supper in the spacious dining room of the luxurious Luby’s Cafeteria in Corpus Christi, followed by a star entrance into the Center’s lobby (as shown here) and an interview on stage which was transmitted live to listeners. Mrs. Lowley then took receipt of gifts presumed worthy of a Doris Day and by courtesy of town merchants --- a transistor radio, Vinyl jacket, a cigarette lighter, and a crisp new $50 bill in addition to twelve months of free admission to the Center. It wasn’t a wardrobe by Irene, but this being 1500 miles east of Hollywood, it would do. Whatever glamour dust was needed to supplement this temporal Doris Day would be supplied by Midnight Lace, for which Universal collected $3.5 million in domestic rentals, their biggest profit taker for 1960 next to Operation Petticoat.


Blogger bryan doesn't blog much said...

Thanks for that - a great piece - and the unretouched photos and promotions for the film are excellent - it really shows how they did it in those days.

11:59 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I also liked seeing the unretouched photos of the two stars. I had no idea Doris Day had so many freckles (nor Rex Harrison such a deeply lined face).

2:04 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Bryan, I really like your Doris Day site. I've looked at it often and there's lots of great stuff there. The unretouched photos were what inspired me to feature "Midnight Lace" in a post. I should also have mentioned that a DVD is available from the UK in Region 2, but so far not here.

10:43 AM  
Blogger Hans Gruber said...

For me "Midnight Lace" was kinda of related to "Sorry, Wrong Number" and "Dial M for Murder". And William Castle´s "I Know What You Did!".

1:42 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

They took her to Luby's cafeteria. They gave her a VINYL jacket, a transistor radio, a cigarette lighter, and a $50 bill. That's the best they could do. In a word, heartbreaking.

11:06 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I love the expression on Fran's face in that photo. She's just letting it all sink in. The greatest night of her adult life. I wonder how many cigs were lit on that lighter before it blew up?

6:56 PM  

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