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Fashions of 1934 (DVD Review)

14 Nov, 2011 By: Mike Clark

Available via WBshop.com’s Warner Archive
$19.95 DVD
Not rated.
Stars William Powell, Bette Davis, Frank McHugh.

I’ve always had a soft spot for light screen fare that mixes genres without being too absurd about it, the prime example being (within the limitations of thinking about it for no more than ten seconds) those Cyd Charisse dance numbers that are soldered onto to the ‘20s gangster material in Nicholas Ray’s deliriously expressionistic Party Girl from 1958. Here’s a much earlier example that also tickles me, though not as much: a mostly Depression-oblivious ‘30s swindler comedy that finds room for a full-scale Busby Berkeley production number (and a real gem of one at that).

It’s funny how, uh, fashions change in a way that Roger Ebert, in his new autobiography — Life Itself: A Memoir — addresses in passing, though I can’t recall his exact wording. His basic point is that amid the elongated evolution of viewing perceptions, we often reject (or temporarily come to regard as camp) what originally captivated us — only to see the pendulum swing back again years later when the work in question enters its permanent “mellow” period and begins to represent an attractive lost age. To this end, William Powell’s next-to-last movie at Warner Bros. before embarking on a long period of MGM superstardom began as Fashions of 1934 — and then was much later shortened to Fashions for its eventual TV sale so as not to seem too dated. The print utilized for this on-demand release also uses the shorter title, while the box art employs utilizes the more specific original. Whenever I programmed this movie at the American Film Institute Theater, I always made a big deal of playing up the “1934” because to a repertory theater audience, context meant a lot (and so, sometimes, does quaintness).

At least one thing is modern about this mild breeze about an agreeable cheat (Powell) who steals the designs of Paris fashions so he can bootleg them for U.S. sale: His colleague (Frank McHugh) carries around a cane with a concealed camera, which is both James Bond-ish and a variation on what someone might do today with a covert cell phone. Assisting them is a gal Friday who hangs around the office mostly hoping for a marriage proposal. Playing her is Bette Davis in the actress’s relatively brief early-‘30s blonde period — a time when she temporarily had to bolt home studio Warners so she could finally get some respect (at RKO, in the first screen version of Somerset Maugham’s Of Human Bondage).

The show-stopping Berkeley number comes fairly late in a short (77 minutes) picture during a fashion show meant to show off Powell’s thievery. Titled “Spin a Little Web of Dreams,” it is the source of a still photo that has shown up in film books since I was a kid: women posed as the frontal frames of harps that Harpo Marx would have probably wanted to finger. This interlude is also full of feathers and boas and women in fairly skimpy two-piece outfits (not bikini-like but equal to a bathing suit that would turn eyes on the beach).

According to the liner notes for the Rhino’s wonderful 2-CD set Lullaby of Broadway: The Best of Busby Berkeley at Warner Bros., it inspired at least one indignant mother to pen an article: “I Don’t Want My Daughter Growing Up To Be a Human Harp.” Later in the number, chorines are pictured as galley slaves: I wonder what mom thought of that.

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