History Fail: Hollywood’s Period Problem

A word of explanation: this started off as a simple review of the recent Blu-ray release of Sydney Pollack’s The Way We Were. That seminal ’70s sobber has enjoyed a terrific transfer from Twilight Time–one of my favorite distributors currently in the home video market–and it’s just about as pretty as it can be. I love that soppy weeper something chronic. That Babs. She makes me verklempt. Talk amongst yerselves. (And if you don’t get that reference, then I feel really, REALLY old…)

But something kept nagging at me while watching the Blu-ray that would not let go– like a dog with a toy. And the result is this article…an exorcism, if you will.

The Way We Were takes place during the 1930s and ’40s. So. Why the hell is Robert Redford wearing boot cut jeans and a gold chain? Why are the Hollywood insiders wearing leisure suits? Why is Babs’ hair feathered and frosted? The film was made in 1973, but it insists on being SO 1973, visually, which rather takes one out of the world its meant to play in: it’s more like The Way We Weren’t. George Roy Hill’s The Sting was released the same year, which does an admirable job of capturing the look and feel of the 1930s. (Especially Eileen Brennan’s kimonos.) That’s probably why when comparing The Sting next to The Way We Were, one feels decidedly fresher than the other.

The reason is simple: period films, when done right, remain entirely within their respective time period and therefore the natural process of “dating” is generally kinder to it. At least that’s the way it works in theory.  Gone with the Wind (1939) obviously benefitted from Selznick’s obsessive-compulsive attention to period detail, and it looks as fresh today as the day it was filmed. Powell and Pressburger’s sublime The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943) crosses three visually distinct decades with masterful fluidity. Milos Forman’s Amadeus (1984) is showing little (if any) of its 30 years, still a decadent slice of 18th century Viennese life, and that goes double for Stanley Kubrick’s glorious Barry Lyndon (1975), which went to extreme lengths to film in period environment–the results of which are still as striking as they were 40 years ago. The stark, Depression-era vistas of Peter Bogdanovich’s Paper Moon  (1973) remain timeless, and I don’t think anything screams Gibson Girl Glamor quite like Vincente Minnelli’s Meet Me In St. Louis (1944). Obviously, then, Hollywood has always been capable of getting it right. Yet for some reason, sometimes, (as for instance, The Way We Were) Hollywood has gone out of it’s way to really, really, REALLY get it wrong.

Here are 5 moments when Hollywood totally flunked out of History class:. (NOTE: This post is about period costume design and production design– Hollywood getting actual historical events wrong is a whole different blog post…I’m looking at you, Pearl Harbor.)

#1. Pride and Prejudice (1940). Perhaps the most famous period offender, this first film adaptation of Jane Austen’s classic is, indeed, a highly enjoyable film. (My god. Garson and Olivier. Just LOOK at how beautiful they are…) Highly enjoyable, that is, as long as you’re not expecting Jane Austen. Nevermind the fact it negates critical aspects of the book, it consciously takes Austen out of its decidedly modest Regency setting to make it more … well … Hollywood. Wishing to capitalize off the success of the grander mid-19th century styles popularized in Gone with the Wind, MGM upped the ante. Seriously, there’s more crinoline here than the Old South ever saw. If you want to know how to get 19th century period fashion correctly, well, take a note from Gone with the Wind. After all, how ridiculous would it have been if Scarlett O’Hara had been dressed in Regency empire gowns?

#2 Good News (1947.) This charming musical comedy is based on the 1927 play of the same name. Capitlizing off the highly popular June Allyson and Peter Lawford, MGM threw its weight behind lavish production numbers. And … ’40s-era big band musical numbers. And…dresses with sweetheart necklines and victory rolls. Good News, although fun, warrants an epic facepalm on the period costume front. Aside from the occasional varsity sweater vests, the only thing 1920s about this film are the opening titles that tell us we are supposed to be in 1927. One assumes MGM wanted its stars to look glamorous at all times, wagering the public wouldn’t buy June Allyson in an androgynous flapper cut. (To be fair, it’s not a look everyone can pull off.) If you want to see a film that really tries–and largely succeeds–at getting ’20s fashions down pat, check out the ridiculous but fun Thoroughly Modern Millie (1967).

#3 Cleopatra (1963). OK, I’m not sure if this is entirely fair because the costumes, hair and makeup in this film are legendary. Let’s be honest: the best thing about this bloated, over inflated, overlong mess of a movie are Elizabeth Taylor’s costume changes. (That and Rex Harrison. He owned this movie.) It’s just too bad Taylor’s Cleopatra isn’t a go-go dancer, otherwise she would have been period-perfect. I mean, come onnnn you guysssss. You know it’s bad if you make Anne Baxter’s Queen Nefertari in The Ten Commandments look like the genuine article. But the good thing is that the film obviously didn’t want to try, so I really can’t fault them there: the entire point was to make Liz look a sexy as humanly possible, which they definitely succeeded in because, after all, it IS Liz Taylor. Although I’d argue that Claudette Colbert’s barely there, bra-less number for Cecil B. DeMille’s 1934 take on the epic is way hotter than anything in the ‘63 version. (Yes, even hotter than Liz’s semi-nude back rub.) And … no ’60s eyeshadow either.

#4 Dirty Dancing (1987). So, I’m an ’80s child which means I love me some Dirty Dancing. LOVE IT. One of the most quintesential films of the ’80s couldn’t be more ’80s, if it tried. And that’s a good thing. Except for the fact that the film is supposed to take place in 1963. Which, to be completely honest, I didn’t even realize until a few years ago. The ’80s were fairly OK with period films (Amadeus, A Room With a View) so this one really is mystifying. Maybe the fact that 1963 was less than 25 years from the film’s release made everyone relax about it having to look “period.” Too bad the filmmakers didn’t have the foresight to realize that “modern” is relative: giving Baby a more ’60s look would have done much to keep the film from dating as harshly as it has:

#5 The Silver Chalice (1954). When it comes to Sword and Sandal epics, well, they’re all pretty much …just … no. And everything about this film is… well … I don’t even know what to say. Paul Newman and Pier Angeli and Virginia Mayo and Jack Palance and Natalie Wood–this terrific cast seems to have no idea whatsoever what is going on, or more to the point, what the heck they’re doing in this film at all. To be fair, the 1950s was a horrifying decade for period films anyway (Good heavens: The Conqueror? REALLY? John Wayne as Genghis Khan?) and Sword and Sandal epics were notoriously egregious when it came to fact, let alone fashion.  so I can’t say I’m surprised. But. This is painful. Ancient Rome seems to have been a persistently problematic period for Hollywood to get right, and I’m not sure they ever did get it right until Ridley Scott’s Gladiator. (Although Julius Caesar, and of course Spartacus, are essential viewing–yes, even with the buzz cut.)

Of course, the are honorable mentions galore: Julie Christie’s bouffant hairdo in Doctor Zhivago. (This ain’t the Whiskey A-Go-Go, Lara). Frank Sinatra as a Spanish Guerillia warrior in The Pride and the Passion (although, to be fair, that’s just plain old bad casting.) Robert Downey Jr.’s hair and Sam Neill’s tache in Restoration…wow. And risking excommunication from the classic film community: Michael Curtiz’s The Adventures of Robin Hood. Hey, I love that flipping movie too, OK? It’s one of the very best of the very best. BUT.  Costume designer Milos Anderson’s Technicolor vision of Medieval England is…um…shall we call it …questionable?

OK readers, it’s your turn: Weigh in on what your skin-crawlingly bad period pics are!

12 Comments

  1. oh my gosh, this is such a huge pet peeve of mine! It seems especially prevalent in the 60’s, almost every period picture from that decade comes complete with beehives and thick black eyeliner. One of the worst, in my opinion, is Ship of Fools. It would be such a good movie but the supposedly 1930’s (but totally 1960’s) costume, hair and makeup kills me.

    • Oh gosh. Yes. I mean, I love that movie too, but it’s like the costume designer was like … Nah. Can’t be bothered.

  2. THE WAY WE WERE. I love that you posted about this. And to be honest…I kind of forgot Dirty Dancing was supposed to take place in the 60s. There is absolutely nothing in that movie to make us think that. Basically NOTHING that was made in the 1940’s is historically accurate. People in the 40’s lived in the 40’s and kind of forgot that any other time period existed.

  3. “Inside Daisy Clover.” There’s hardly anything in that 1965 film — costumes, hairstyles, etc. — that would lead one to believe it was set in 1930s Hollywood.

  4. Just ran across this article but I had to throw in the Carroll Baker version of Harlow. Aside from it being a total fiction of Jean Harlow’s life, and a terribly defaming one at that, there is not one single thing about its design that resembles anything but the mid-sixties when it was made. Even Carroll’s hairdo is wrong!

  5. I totally agree with you. One thing I truly despise in film is when the “period” isn’t depicted properly; especially the costumes. I could name a ton of films, especially made in the 1960’s and 1970’s that completely ignore the look of the period they were set in. The 1940 Pride & Prejudice is one of the most blatant examples of this. The period of the film, for example, is later than that of Austen’s novel—a change driven by the studio’s desire to use more elaborate and flamboyant costumes than those from Austen’s time period. Even if Austin’s book too place then, these satins were NOT even that period. However, with the exception of “The Silver Chalice” which was just horrible, I liked the other films you list if I put aside my prejudice (especially for Pride). I too love “The Way We Were” even if it doesn’t look 1940’s. Great article! Thanks for sharing your insights with us!

  6. Re: WAY WE WERE, IIRC director Pollack said in an interview that he didn’t want to distract contemporary audiences with period idiosyncrasies. For instance, he didn’t want his leads looking dorky in authentic, period clothes, makeup and hairstyles. So, Pollack wasn’t being sloppy like many filmmakers, he was doing it on purpose. Go figure.

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