The 1920s were probably the last golden age of university life on both sides of the Atlantic. It was a time when serious scholarship, gentlemanly sport, camaraderie, and collegiate gothic were still the rule, before academia became an increasingly dreary training ground for the increasingly deranged Post-War political order.
At Oxford in 1928 the Union and Dramatic societies collaborated on a short film documenting student life. It was filmed by C.C. Calvert and edited by Thorold Dickinson, who went on to direct the superior 1940 version of Gaslight starring Anton Walbrook.
Oxford can be watched in its entire 19-minutes via the British Film Institute. But just the still frame above captures much that was special about the time and place.
Michael York, quoted in What Fresh Lunacy is This?: The Authorized Biography of Oliver Reed, by Robert Sellers:
And certainly Oliver was an aristocratic sort. I knew he had a house in the country and I could see him as the country squire type, wearing tweeds with his gun dogs. He fitted in perfectly with that kind of image. He’d been brought up in good schools, with good manners…he was like an aristocratic ruffian, a complete contradiction in terms.
Francis Ford Coppola’s 1992 adaptation of Bram Stoker’s Dracula was the subject of a recent post. It is a gorgeous, opulent film. Obviously Coppola, together with art director Thomas Sanders and costume designer Eiko Ishioka, gave a lot of thought to what was happening in the arts both in England and Mitteleuropa at the fin-de-siècle when the film takes place. As a result the scenery, costumes, and mis-en-scène are full of interesting references.
In this post I want to examine the influence of certain nineteenth century and Pre-War artworks on the production design.
Particularly during the first half of the movie we see a visual “dialogue” between Transylvania, represented by the imagery of Symbolism and the Vienna Seccession, and England, represented by Pre-Raphaelite imagery.
An example of the former is Dracula’s castle, which is depicted rising out of an outcrop in the Carpathian mountains, modeled on František Kupka‘s 1903 painting The Black Idol (Resistance).
At various points Dracula (played by Gary Oldman) is depicted sleeping either in his sarcophagus or boxes of earth wearing a golden robe inspired by Gustav Klimt’s 1907 painting The Kiss, which includes a similar pattern of whorls and rectangles.
On Twitter, Richard Wells called attention to a scene when Dracula scatters his vampire brides, causing two of them to withdraw, twisted together in a spidery form. According to Wells the choreography by Michael Smuin was inspired by “Virgil And Dante Looking At The Spider Woman,” an illustration from Gustave Doré’s 1861 edition of Dante’s Inferno.
The scenes involving female characters Mina Murray (played by Winona Rider) and Lucy Westenra (played by Sadie Frost) take place in and around the garden of an English country house, evoking the lush floral backgrounds of the Pre-Raphaelite painters.
Two works by Arthur Hughes, painted concurrently in the 1850s, The Long Engagement and April Love, seem to be referenced. In his book The Victorians, A. N. Wilson reads into The Long Engagement,
an emotional predicament stemming directly from an economic situation. The prosperity which had created the vast bourgeoisie with its gradations from lower to upper middle class had also created a code. You could not marry, and maintain the position in society to which you aspired, until you had a certain amount of money in the bank.
Mina is temporarily separated from her fiancé Jonathan Harker (played by Keanu Reeves) for precisely this reason. He is traveling to Transylvania to represent his firm in a real estate deal with Count Dracula in the hopes of advancing his career before they marry. The young lovers say goodbye in a shot composed similarly to The Long Engagement. Mina is later seen pining for Jonathan through a pergola like the female figure in April Love.
Another depiction of Mina during her separation from Jonathan places her at a table against the window of a solarium looking out into the garden. Although the angle is different the staging is reminiscent of John Everett Millais’s 1851 painting Mariana. The subject is a character from Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure whose engagement was broken after her dowry was lost in a shipwreck. Millais portrays her looking out the window longing for the return of her fiancé.
But it is Lucy who is the most overt Pre-Raphaelite character in the film. Her pale skin and red hair are the defining features of Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s models Elizabeth Siddal and Alexa Wilding. Her transformation into the monster, the femme fatale, the belle dame sans merci, is a standard Pre-Raphaelite narrative.
In the same scene, when Lucy joins Mina in the solarium, she is shown wearing an off-the-shoulder gown, seated amidst potted flora in a pose reminiscent of Rossetti’s Lady Lilith, which he painted in the 1860s and 70s. Notice roses of the same pink-white hue on the table in Rossetti’s painting and embroidered on the pillow behind Lucy.
This figure of Lilith, a demon from Hebrew mythology associated with seduction and the murder of children, foreshadows Lucy’s fate as the “bloofer lady.”
At The Pre-Raphaelite Sisterhood, Stephanie Chatfield considers whether Bram Stoker based the character of Lucy on Rossetti’s tragic wife Elizabeth Siddal. As I wrote in my book Victoriana, when Siddal died in 1862: “Rossetti buried Lizzie with the manuscripts of his unpublished poetry sealed in her coffin. This romantic gesture came to a ghoulish end, however. He later ordered her body exhumed to retrieve the poems.” Did this story of an open grave inspire Stoker? Chatfield writes,
In his notes made while working on Dracula, Stoker never mentioned the Rossetti/Siddal incident, so we can not definitively confirm that Lucy Westenra was inspired by Siddal. However, Bram Stoker lived in the same neighborhood as Rossetti and he was a friend of Hall Caine, who at one time was Rossetti’s secretary. Stoker dedicated Dracula to Caine, with a nickname used by Caine’s grandmother (“to my dear friend Hommy-Beg”). Stoker may not have included the story of Siddal’s exhumation in his notes, but due to his closeness with Caine he had to have heard an account of it at some point and he had probably read Caine’s book Recollections of Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1882).
The belief that Stoker used Siddal as inspiration is bolstered by his 1892 short story The Secret of the Growing Gold. The ‘growing gold’ is the hair of a dead woman, the very tresses that had been her most striking feature in life. Her hair grows persistently and with a purpose; her intent is to haunt her husband and avenge her own death. The similarity between Stoker’s story and the claim that Siddal’s hair continued to grow and fill her coffin after death is unlikely to be a coincidence.
The last artwork I will mention is not Victorian or Edwardian. In Dracula’s castle the ancient Count lives among the relics of his past. A portrait of Dracula as a young man is adapted from a self portrait by the early Lutheran painter Albrecht Dürer, circa 1500.
When I first saw the Coppola adaptation of Bram Stoker’s Dracula in the cinema as a (precociously gothic?) twelve year old in 1992, it made a memorable impression. I remembered one scene in particular well enough to notice that it was abbreviated in subsequent home video releases. It is a crucial scene early in the film: London solicitor Jonathan Harker (played by Keanu Reeves) has just arrived at the castle of Count Dracula (played by Gary Oldman). They sit together over Harker’s late dinner. The conversation takes a dangerous turn when Harker responds lightly to a story about the Count’s ancestors.
Dracula draws a sword and exclaims, “It is no laughing matter. We Draculas have a right to be proud. What devil or witch was ever so great as Attila, whose blood flows in these veins? Blood is too precious a thing in these times. The warlike days are over. The victories of my great race are but a tale to be told. I am the last of my kind.”
Harker stands and apologizes: “I have offended you with my ignorance, Count. Forgive me.” If you watch the film on video the scene ends here, rather awkwardly. But in the original screenings it continued.
Dracula gasps, perhaps realizing that he has alarmed his guest. He says, “Forgive me, my young friend, I am unaccustomed to guests and my heart grows weary with many years of mourning over the dead.” On video the scene transitions with a dissolve at the moment Dracula gasps and appears to speak (see the 3:35 minute mark here).
The missing dialogue I think obviously improves the scene: it gives us deeper insight into Dracula, it resolves a conflict that is otherwise left hanging, and it puts Harker somewhat at his ease before plunging him back into danger.
After years of seeing the complete scene truncated in both “Theatrical” and “Extended” cuts on DVD, and omitted from deleted footage reels, I finally found the missing thirty seconds (see the 12:54 minute mark here). Interestingly the scene runs longer than it did in the original theatrical cut. Dracula bids Harker “Drink….drink” and leaves the room. Both the theatrical and video edits seem to have been made to avoid Dracula’s departure since the next scene finds Harker and the Count sitting together again in another room.
All of this goes to show that the original instincts of Coppola and the film editors was correct and the scene played best in the 1992 cut.
“Television is a rather frightening business,” said the actor Peter Cushing in a 1958 interview. “But I get all the relaxation I want from my collection of model soldiers.” Over his lifetime, Cushing—beloved for his many films at Hammer Studios—had built a 5000-piece army of miniature soldiers, trains, and scenery. Many of the soldiers were handmade in lead by Frederick Ping, whose work was sought after by collectors, and painted by Cushing himself. With these the actor played “War” according to the rules devised by H. G. Wells.
In addition to pieces for wargames, Cushing constructed miniature theatrical sets. His assistant Bernard Broughton described his home in later years: “He had a set in one of the rooms, where the entire wall was comprised of different sets. One of his favourites was R. C. Sherriff’s play about the war (Journey’s End).”
Last year I wrote a long post about the influence of Thomas De Quincey on the mystery genre, broadly, and Sherlock Holmes, specifically. Thus I was pleased to catch a reference to De Quincey in the 1945 film The House of Fear starring Basil Rathbone. This was the tenth film in the long-running series with Rathbone and Nigel Bruce as Holmes and Watson.
The screenplay is an original story very loosely based on Conan Doyle’s “The Adventure of the Five Orange Pips.” In the film, Holmes and Watson are summoned to a remote castle in Scotland where seven men live together under a strange agreement by which they benefit from each other’s life insurance policies. Someone is murdering them one by one.
While searching for clues Holmes inspects the volumes on a bookshelf, selecting one titled Murder As a Fine Art. This is obviously De Quincey’s 1827 classic, “On Murder Considered as one of the Fine Arts.”
With a run-time of only seven minutes Moscow Clad in Snow offers a tantalizing glimpse of Russia in the halcyon days before the 1917 revolution. Filmed by Joseph-Louis Mundwiller for Pathé Frères in 1909 the film presents candid scenes of everyday life in Moscow. It is similar in structure to the London documentaries produced by Robert W. Paul in the previous decade.
Fritzi Kramer has written a shot-by-shot description of the film at Movies Silently that is worth reading. For me the highlight is an extended look at pedestrian and sleigh traffic on an unnamed street (from roughly 2:47 to 3:42). Here we see a city of charming Edwardian modernity similar in architecture and energy to the better parts of New York at the time. The sleighs and snowfall add a touch of fairytale ambience.
Anyone nostalgic for the Belle Époque will find this film bittersweet.
I recently alluded to Fred Astaire as one of the all-time best-dressed men, together with the Duke of Windsor.
G. Bruce Boyer called Astaire the “master of casual elegance.” In 1957 GQ published a long interview with Astaire on his style and philosophy of dress. I’ve mined it for quotes (arranged by topic below) but there is much more to read at the GQarchive.
He believes that his measure of male dress is basically British. “You have to give them credit. They have been very stable in their designing and tailoring. They hardly ever change.”
On buttons and vents:
…he feels that all coats should have the British side-vents: “quite deep, about seven inches.” He favors two-button jackets, although he used to be an addict of three-buttoners at the age of 20. “I only button one,” he says, “and I think it looks better that way.”
On the double-breasted jacket:
One of the present-day fashions that roils him is the prejudice against the double-breasted suit. “It’s incredible how they have maligned that garment,” Astaire declares. “Abroad, you will see three or four double-breasted suits to one single-breasted.” For instance, he points out, he prefers the double-breasted dinner jacket—”for one thing, you don’t have to wear a vest or that hideous invention, the cummerbund. And I can’t comprehend red evening ties or fluffy shirt fronts or that sort of thing.”
Handkerchiefs should be flipped out and folded into the pocket with an appearance of casualness, Astaire thinks. He does not like the square or folded style, nor the puff type that he describes “like a range of the Andes.” Once, on a TV show, Ed Sullivan came to him and begged him to put his coat kerchief in properly. Astaire obliged. “I think it set a new standard for Ed,” he said. “At least he was still wearing it that way when he appeared weeks later on the show.’
On shirt cuffs:
He prefers a well-made buttoned cuff to French cuffs. In fact he never uses cufflinks except for formal dress, when he generally wears ruby-and-diamond studs and links or sapphire-and-diamond combinations.
He has what seems to him to be a “thousand ties” but in reality only between 50 and 100. He likes a full tie, not the narrow ones. “I always like to use the Windsor knot,” he says. As for the collars, he dislikes the tab and prefers the button-down and the wide-spread collar— braced by staves. “Once I used to wear bow ties,” he says somewhat wistfully, “with polka-dots, too, and enjoyed it, but I’ve got away from that.” He explains his aversion for the narrow tie with a smile: “I’m narrow enough myself, too narrow.” He points out that thinness seems to destroy an essential quality of dress, its style, by misuse in ties or lapels. “Look at the thin rolled lapels with the double-breasted suits—they are atrocities.”
In his own ties, he prefers a dark color and a very small pattern. He has only a couple of striped ties, emblematic of the clubs to which he belongs.
His daily jewelry is severely limited to a single gold-seal ring and the simples tie accessories.
In the way of belts, Astaire likes to use silk handkerchiefs—purely for utilitarian purposes rather than theatrical. He has a 31-inch waist and loses pounds when he is dancing. The resilient silk allows him to draw his pants right. “I used to use old neckties for the same purpose but the handkerchiefs are better.” At home he will use a belt, usually shoving the buckle to one side, “simply to get it out of the way.”
On pant cuffs:
His trousers are cuffed and inclined to be a little shorter than most—”I don’t want them slopping over onto my shoes.
In the shoe department, Astaire possesses perhaps 50 pairs of professional dancing shoes and more than 20 pairs of his own. “It’s really very economical to have that many,” he asserts. “I have shoes today that are as good as when I bought them 20 years ago—and I assure you I have worn them many times.” A few pairs are slightly large for his feet and Astaire wears two pairs of wool socks with them when he goes walking. All his shoes are custom-made in London.
As for style and color, he prefers suede as a material and the loafer design. Most of his shoes, exclusive of the formal ones, are dark brown. “I don’t have any evening pumps any more,” he says. “I used to wear them ‘way back. Now they’re out of style. They were fun to wear but I don’t see any chance of them coming back.”
Between 1924 and 1926 the British filmmaker Claude Friese-Greene made a series of short films known collectively as The Open Road. This project recorded a road trip across the length and breadth of Great Britain from Land’s End to John o’ Groats. It is noteworthy for the most extensive color photography of Britain up until that point.
Friese-Greene used a technology called Biocolour invented by his father. This process delivered a realistic color spectrum, but it was plagued by a flicker.
In 2006 the British Film Institute restored the film and corrected the flicker for a BBC broadcast entitled The Lost World of Friese-Greene.
Below is Friese-Greene’s footage of London from The Open Road.
This newspaper clipping has been floating around for a while. I am unable to find the original source, but the recipe seems to have appeared elsewhere in June of 1966. A version was published in the Alton Evening Telegraph.
Karloff was an immensely likable actor. He was initially cast to frightening effect in those famous mute rolls: Frankenstein’s monster, the servant Morgan in The Old Dark House. But when he spoke he could not help but exude charm. He had a gentle voice and a rather endearing lisp. I have always liked his detective characters (Mr Wong and Colonel March of Scotland Yard) as much as his monsters.