Welcome to Vintage Powder Room Cinema! This week’s feature is TOPPER  starring Constance Bennett, Cary Grant and Roland Young. I’m a Cary Grant fan (who isn’t?) and this film is a delight.
Middle-aged New York banker Cosmo Topper’s wife Clara insists that they live a staid, well-ordered existence, the complete antithesis of bank owners George and Marion Kerby, who live for fun and excitement. After a board of directors meeting, the Kerbys try to convince Topper to stop doing what his wife says and “live.” On the drive back to their country home, just after Marion says that she wants to do a good deed and make Topper over, George loses control of their speeding car and they crash. Though they feel all right, George and Marian quickly realize that they are transparent and, in fact, died in the crash.
I love old Hollywood, especially the B movies of the 1930s and 40s, so when I first saw this Monogram hair net in an online auction it reminded me of Monogram Pictures Studios.
The quintessential B movie factory of its era; Monogram churned out westerns, melodramas, mysteries and, most notably, series like Mr. Wong, starring Boris Karloff. The design on the Monogram envelope above looks like it could be a studio logo, and the woman depicted on the front with her au courant hairdo and makeup could be a starlet on the verge of major motion picture career.
Of course, Hollywood stardom has proved elusive to all but a fortunate few. Of the actors who were making pictures in the 1930s, most were not on the payroll of a major studio like MGM or Warner Brothers. They were more likely working as extras or for a small studio, like Monogram.
One young Hollywood hopeful, Carmelita Geraghty, who graduated from Hollywood High School in 1919 and began her career as an extra, made many of her films for independent studios like Monogram. In 1931 she starred in a drama entitled “Forgotten Women.” Ironically, the trials and tribulations of women trying to succeed in Hollywood is the subject of the film.
A stunning girl with beautiful eyes, Carmelita was selected as one of the Western Association of Motion Picture Advertisers Baby Stars for 1924. By 1925 she seemed poised for great things; Carmelita had appeared in The Pleasure Garden, the first feature directed by Alfred Hitchcock, and would soon accept the role of Jordan Baker in the 1926 production of The Great Gatsby. Despite these successes Carmelita’s breakthrough role never came.
The unknown girl on the Monogram hair net envelope may have shared Carmelita’s fate and never have made it to stardom in the movies—or maybe not. I like to imagine her sitting for the portrait that will forever remind me of Hollywood during its heyday.
It is not possible for me to discuss the history of modern cosmetics without invoking the name of Max Factor. The man was a genius.
He created Pan-Cake, the make-up that made filming in Technicolor possible. He introduced the lipstick brush and indelible lip color that didn’t come off, even with smooching. He designed the famous “Cupid’s Bow” or “Bee-Stung” lips for stars like Clara Bow during the 1920s. In the early 1930s, when Joan Crawford went from playing wise-cracking, dance-crazy flappers to the more mature rolls for which she is now best known, it was Max who transformed her mouth from a cute pucker to the dramatic “Hunter’s Bow Lips,” which Crawford referred to as the “smear”. The look became her trademark.
Factor didn’t limit himself to creating cosmetics alone. He also invented devices like the Kissing Machine, which was used to test the longevity of lipstick formulas. In my opinion his most brilliant creation was the Beauty Micrometer, also known as the Beauty Calibrator.
At first glance the calibrator resembles a medieval torture device, but it wasn’t designed to inflict pain; it was made to measure the contours of a woman’s face and head within one thousandth-of-an-inch! Why were such measurements needed? Why to correct with cosmetics the imperfections of nature, of course.
Here are the ideal facial measurements according to Factor:
Nose: same length as the height of forehead
Eyes: separated by a space the width of one eye.
Even the most beautiful stars in Hollywood had imperfections by these standards, but with the deft application of light, shadow, and color, any actress could become perfection personified.
The Beauty Micrometer was featured the February 1933 edition of Popular Science magazine, and was also featured in a 1935 article in Modern Mechanix. With all the buzz, Factor hoped to place micrometers in beauty shops around the world, but his plan never came to fruition. As far as I know, only one micrometer was ever constructed. Which is why, in 2009, I was stunned to discover that the machine had been placed in an auction!
To own such a rare piece of beauty and cosmetics history I would have been willing to do almost anything, but with a preliminary estimate of from $10,000 to $20,000 I feared the micrometer would never be mine. Crackpot ideas for making a quick buck filled my brain. I considered dozens of schemes, most of which would probably have landed me in jail. Then cold, harsh reality finally set in: I would have to watch the auction and hope that whoever was lucky enough to win the micrometer would treat it with care.
And yet, the auction ended differently than I’d anticipated. The one-of-a-kind Max Factor Beauty Calibrator did not meet the auction reserve! So, what happened to the calibrator? I phoned the Hollywood Museum and they assured me that it is now where it belongs: currently on display where Max Factor himself once worked.
Note: This article originally appeared in The Clutch/Los Angeles Magazine on December 29, 2013.
The exquisite Duska face powder box (c. 1928) is one of the first I ever acquired. I had seen a photo of it in a book on collecting ladies’ compacts, so when I found it years later at a vintage textiles sale I was thrilled. It was as stunning in person as I’d hoped it would be. The box’s oval shape accommodates the length and breadth of the fountain, allowing it enough space to make a statement. Its bright red color was meant to catch the eye of a woman looking for something modern and sophisticated.
I was initially under the impression that the box had been created, like most of the items in my collection vintage cosmetics ephemera, by an anonymous graphic artist as a tribute to the fountain designed by Rene Lalique for the Exposition des Arts Decoratifs held in Paris in 1925. I discovered however that the back story on the Duska box is unique because was conceived by well-known artist Frank Graham Holmes, the chief designer of Lenox china from 1905 to 1954.The United Drug Company hired Holmes to design Duska for their chain of Rexall Drug Stores.
I feel strongly that in 1926 when Holmes drew the “Fountain” pattern for Lenox, he deliberately chose to pay homage to Lalique. Holmes’ design for the china, and subsequently this powder box, is a blend of bright colors (a hallmark of Art Deco) and a traditional floral theme, with graceful cascades of water flowing in a precise geometry. If not patterned after Lalique’s exposition fountain, Holmes’ Duska creation is similar enough to a glass panel designed by Lalique to be its twin.
Which is why, no matter how the fountain concept originated, for me it will always evoke Paris during the 1920s. It would have been an exciting place to be, with a cast of characters one can only read about now: Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas. (Had I been there then, surely I would be involved in a steamy assignation a la Anais Nin and Henry Miller, and I would make it a point to catch Josephine Baker’s infamous “banana dance” at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées.)
Fortunately there are ways in which to vicariously experience an expatriate’s life in Paris during the 1920s, You can read Hemmingway’s or Fitzgerald’s novels, Anais Nin’s diaries or erotica, Henry Miller’s novel “Quiet Days in Clichy” (which I love) or rent the 1988 film “The Moderns” or the 1990 film “Henry and June” (based upon a portion of Nin’s diaries). For me, looking at this Duska powder box does the trick.
At the end of the witty, bitchy, superbly filmed MGM classic of 1939, ” The Women”, a sadder yet wiser Mary Haines poses dramatically in her sumptuous white satin bedchamber, dons a lame gown similar in style to one that her husbands new wife/former mistress Crystal Allen once modeled for her and utters the immortal lines, ” I’ve had t…wo years to grow claws mother- Jungle Red!”
It’s an unforgettable moment and Norma Shearer plays it with just the right amount of humor and vitriol–she’s nobody’s fool and absolutely her own woman.
So where did the actual oft-mentioned siren shade originate? Although it’s suggested at a swanky Manhattan beauty establishment at the beginning–(Sydney’s by name), it is also applied by a somewhat vulgar, gossipy manicurist–Olga who was fired from Black’s Fifth Avenue sometime earlier.
Scarlet nails were considered somewhere between appealing and appalling at the time; some men reveled in needling wives, sweethearts and mistresses with,. ” You’re hands look as if they were dripping blood.” Echoing these sentiments cinematically is the lone masculine voice of acerbic writer Peggy (who is usually read as a lesbian), when she turns to viper-tongued Sylvia and states. ” You look as if you had been cutting somebody’s throat.”
This resplendent ravishingly and risqué image appeared on the back pages of the surprising, ‘Popular Song’ sometime prior to either the original play or the later film.
Boldly featuring the announcement of a wicked new shade for lips and fingernails- Jungle is feverishly described as vivid, brighter–willingly able to make you into the most disarmingly dangerous dame this side of the south seas.
This would have been the kind of makeup that girls, likely from poor or working class backgrounds would favor. It was meant to suggest in no uncertain terms that the brand and the shade were capable of making the wearer irresistible glamorous daring, an almost volcanically intense object of desire.
Bringing this back into the film–this all makes perfect sense. Duplicitous, disastrously loud-mouthed, gossip-ridden beastly blabber-mouthed, Sylvia Fowler suggests the shade after hearing a racy tale regarding Mary Haines perfect paragon (tall, fair distinguished’ an engineer), of a husband, realizing the second Mary puts on a coat or two of the tantalizing polish, the whole gruesome story will pour forth. It’s the first of two cinematic examples of how this shade is also a weapon; it leads to harmful gossip, that literally rips apart a supposedly elegantly ideal marriage.
Jungle Red, our newest color was new in 1936 and seen to provocative excess in the kind of magazine (Screen Stories, True Confessions, Popular Song), that a manicurist or a shop girl would be likely to read.
The shade Jungle and brand name, Savage, would have been sold in the five and dime, or the local drug-store thus equating in, in thirties parlance as common, vulgar and most definitely cheap. Each of these qualities is exactly what those untrustworthy supposedly straight-arrow spouses seem to fall for- a duo of the leads looses her man to respectively a shopgirl and a chorus dame!
F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel THE GREAT GATSBY has been adapted for film a few times. The first was in 1926 and starred Warner Baxter, Lois Wilson, Neil Hamilton, and Georgia Hale. As far as anyone knows the trailer for the film is all that survives.
In 1949, THE GREAT GATSBY was once again adapted for film. This time it starred Alan Ladd, Betty Field, and Macdonald Carey.
THE GREAT GATSBY was lavishly produced in 1974, and Mia Farrow and Robert Redford took the lead roles. The first issue of PEOPLE magazine, March 4, 1974, featured Mia Farrow, as Daisy Buchanan, on the cover.
And now, nearly 40 years after the last big budget production of THE GREAT GATSBY, we have Leonardo DiCaprio and Carey Mulligan as Jay and Daisy. I haven’t seen the film yet; I suppose I’ll get around to it eventually. Meanwhile, I think it is time to read the novel again.
The Woodbury Face Powder box depicts a young couple during the early 1920s — it’s not clear if they are on their way to a dance, if they have they become engaged, or if they are they embarking on a love affair. Whatever their relationship, for me they call to mind Jay Gatsby and Daisy Buchanan from F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Jazz Age novel, THE GREAT GATSBY.
The golden hue and soft pastels of the c. 1920 Woodbury box would ultimately give way to the bright colors and bold graphics of the Art Deco Era — just as stolen kisses and chaperoned dances would yield to frank discussions of sex, and uninhibited flappers doing the Charleston.
THE GREAT GATSBY is set in 1922, just as the “Roaring Twenties” were picking up steam. The end of WWI signaled the beginning of a social revolution characterized by enormous changes in the lifestyles, attitudes, and sexual habits of the generation who had survived the conflict. The younger generation had found the values of the older generation lacking in honesty and in fun.
Adding fuel to the revolutionary fire in the U.S. were two Constitutional Amendments: the Eighteenth Amendment which took effect on January 17, 1920 and established the prohibition of alcohol; and the Nineteenth Amendment which was ratified on August 18, 1920 and which gave women the right to vote.
In THE GREAT GATSBY Jay Gatsby and Daisy Buchanan represent a collision between old and new money and, additionally, the different ways in which men and women sought to achieve the American Dream. The nouveau riche Gatsby earned his wealth rapidly, in part through bootlegging; Daisy was a privileged daughter who made an advantageous marriage to become an even more privileged wife.
When Daisy was told that she had given birth to a daughter she offered up her interpretation of the American Dream for women:
‘All right,’ I said, ‘I’m glad it’s a girl. And I hope she’ll be a fool—that’s the best thing a girl can be in this world, a beautiful little fool.'”
Gatsby’s dream is to win Daisy, and he believes that in order to manage it he is going to require money — one hell of a lot of money. Nick Carraway, the narrator in the novel says of Gatsby:
“He hadn’t once ceased looking at Daisy, and I think he revalued everything in his house according to the measure of response it drew from her well-loved eyes.”
The dichotomy of old and new money and the pursuit of the American Dream are also represented by West Egg and East Egg. The two Long Island communities are separated ideologically by the condescension and suspicion of old money for new, and physically by a lake. Gatsby watches the lights of the Buchanan’s East Egg mansion from the shore of his West Egg estate as he holds fast to his dream of once again winning Daisy’s love.
Gatsby wouldn’t survive to play out his personal dreams; nor would he be around to witness the crash of the collective American Dream on “Black Tuesday”, October 29, 1929 when Wall Street would free fall into a decade of oblivion.
We can only hope that the sweet looking couple on the Woodbury powder box weathered the financial uncertainties of the Great Depression — I hate to think of them in standing in a bread line.
Bette Davis is a natural for the Vintage Powder Room — she was a woman with style and substance. To appreciate Miss Davis you really need to see her films. So put your feet up and enjoy Bette Davis in DANGEROUS (1935).