A number of years ago, when I was an actor devoted to his craft, I set out with some friends to study the work of Bette Davis. Arguably the best of Bette’s work was done between 1936 and 1943, and as Warner Brothers top star she had the power to work with whomever else Warners had under contract.
During the Golden Age of Movies MGM and Paramount were the twinkling stars while Warners was grit, and most of their output was shot in black and white. But that didn’t mean a star could do without glamor. On the Warners lot that meant Orry-Kelly. A very private man, not a lot is known about his personal life. He came to Hollywood with Cary Grant to be an actor and when that career didn’t take off as quickly as Grant’s, he transitioned into production design and soon became the top costume designer, producing costumes for hundreds of films in the late 30s and 40s, working with all of Warners’ top leading ladies, most notably Bette Davis. When necessary, his work commands the screen, and when necessary his work recedes, providing an understated frame for the actor’s work.
In 1936 a little book titled Gone with the Wind was all the rage and Warners had lost the bidding war for the film rights. This, of course meant Bette would not be playing the heroine. To pacify her and cash in on the antebellum craze sweeping the nation, Warners rushed a knock off into production, Jezebel which earned Bette her first Oscar. Jezebel swipes several themes from GWTW and tells the story of a headstrong young woman who defies local tradition and refuses to wear a white gown to the debutante’s ball, instead insisting upon wearing a red satin gown. Society is scandalized and Bette is ostracized and the plot goes on to demoralization, destruction and redemption. But really, all that’s remembered about the movie is Bette’s red dress.
Using only a palate of black, white and a gray scale, Orry-Kelly manages to create the impact of a vivid red through contrast and texture. In a room full of gauzy white ball gowns and black and white suits, Davis stands out in a shiny dome accented with crisp black ruffles. Bette’s acting creates the impact of this vivid red gown in a sea of pristine white. There’s a reason they call it Hollywood magic, and that reason is on full display in Jezebel. While under Bette’s and Orry-Kelly’s spell, you forget you’re watching a Warner Brothers black and white backlot potboiler and believe you’re seeing a red dress.
But it’s Now, Voyager that is the triumph for both Bette and Orry-Kelly. Bette is an ugly duckling spinster who breaks the tyrannous bonds of her mother and becomes a beautiful swan. It is pure romantic melodrama from start to finish and Bette leans into it, giving one of her best performances of the era. But again it’s Orry-Kelly who shines brightest. The dress of note really comes in at about the three-quarter mark. Bette is breaking the heart of a bit player. He’s handsome and rich and everything her mother approved of for her. The dress represents the danger of slipping back into the world of oppression. Well-tailored, but almost oppressive in its neckline and long sleeves, the floral pattern nearly overwhelms the scene, and even the talents of Bette Davis struggle for attention. It was only seeing a still of the dress that the brilliance of the design becomes clear. It perfectly bridges the gap between the two worlds Bette has been living in. Bette was a secure enough actress to give another artist room to work. Glamor, yes, but not at the expense of the art. When directed to climb a staircase, Bette famously asked William Wyler, “Will I be acting this scene, or will Max?” Max being Max Steiner, the music director of the film.
The brilliance of Bette Davis and Orry-Kelly is to know when to be pretty and to know when to showcase the unattractive in service of the story. It’s the contrast that hooks the audience. It’s the give and take between attraction and revulsion that makes the story compelling.