January 23, 2017

Any movie where clothes—specifically an actual costume—power the plot will garner attention around here. Even if the movie isn’t, well, very good.

Irene (1940) is the second film adaptation of a smash hit play. How big a smash? For decades, the musical (with a book by James Montgomery, music by Harry Tierney, and lyrics by Joe “Not the Senator” McCarthy) held the record for longest-running show on Broadway, with 675 performances. Colleen Moore toplined the 1926 silent version. British stage and film star Anna Neagle tackled the title role in one of a clutch of movies made during her five-year stateside sojourn.

Irene O’Dare is a lovely Irish lass now living in New York. She’s toiling in a department store like our Design for Dying heroine Lillian Frost when she catches the eye of wealthy man about town Don Marshall (Ray Milland). Don has anonymously purchased the salon of Europe’s famed couturier Madame Lucy, and after installing his own manager, played by veteran character actor Roland Young from the Topper movies, arranges a job for Irene modeling dresses.

The salon setting allows costume designer Edward Stevenson to create one extravagant gown after another. (Stevenson worked closely with Lucille Ball for decades and would win his only Academy Award for her 1960 film The Facts of Life, an honor he shared with his collaborator and Design for Dying’s other heroine Edith Head.) But it creates the first major problem with the film, which never bothers to explain who actually dreams up all these divine decorations. In the play, it’s eventually revealed that Madame Lucy is in fact—quelle surprise!—a man, and an effeminate one at that. The movie skips the issue entirely, so presumably the dresses are designed by helpful elves working throughout the night.

Irene is slated to wear the most coveted of Madame Lucy’s gowns to a Long Island society ball hosted by Billie Burke in the Billie Burke role. But following a collision with some Irish stew, Irene is forced to improvise. She dons a dress her late performer mother used to wear onstage, and her vintage vestment naturally becomes all the rage. It helps enormously that the movie shifts to Technicolor for this sequence, the better to spotlight the show’s signature number “Alice Blue Gown.”

When Irene is mistaken for Irish nobility at the party, Young gets the bright idea to set her up as a swell in order to flog togs. Irene becomes the toast of not only New York but the country, demonstrated in the movie’s best sequence, the “Moviebone News” musical newsreel parody that features a young Dorothy Dandridge. (Such a warm welcome is impossible to imagine now. Set this story today and you’d have to include the instant avalanche of #ihateirene hashtags.) There’s the usual quota of romantic misunderstandings but they lack the requisite champagne sparkle, and the multiple masked identities bogs the proceedings down. But the fashion finery never flags.

Marsha Hunt is a welcome member of the cast. Her book The Way We Wore is an essential for anyone interested in the attire of the 1930s and ‘40s. She’s still with us at age 99; you can watch her scorch the screen in the 2008 short film The Grand Inquisitor, directed by our good friend and TCM host Eddie Muller. One more note on the stage play Irene: it was revived in 1973 with both Debbie Reynolds and Carrie Fisher making their Broadway debuts.

Rosemarie’s Round-Up

In the Technicolor sequence all the party guests save Irene are dressed in black or white in order to showcase her Alice blue gown. Marsha Hunt describes her character’s dress in The Way We Wore as “Miles and miles of tulle, black over flesh, to give an iridescence to this superb ballgown.” Unfortunately, while the gown is a feminine dream its color reads on television as dishwater gray. Clearly I need to see this movie on the big screen. My favorite costume: No contest. It’s that Alice blue gown. One can never go wrong with a dress that comes with its own feathered fan.


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