Thursday, July 31, 2014

Vivien Leigh costume from "A Streetcar Named Desire"

Vivien Leigh wore this dressing gown in her Oscar winning role as Blanche Dubois in the 1951 Warner Bros. classic "A Streetcar Named Desire" which was based on the Pulitzer Prize winning play by Tennessee Williams. 

Costume worn by Vivien Leigh in "A Streetcar Named Desire"

A Streetcar Named Desire is one of the all time classics of the silver screen, and one of the major films of the 1950's.  It virtually began the film career of Marlon Brando, and ushered in a new kind of acting in Hollywood, what would become known as "method acting." It was destined for success simply because it was the film version of the great Tennessee Williams play, and all of his stories have been successfully brought to film, but it's the great performances that really drive the movie, especially those of Leigh and Brando. Kim Hunter and Karl Malden are also excellent in supporting roles for which they won Oscars, and the screenplay which Williams co-wrote is full of the kind of sharp dialogue and deep characters that he was known for. Elia Kazan directed the movie as well as the Broadway production, and he brought it to the screen without it having the feel of a stage play. Jessica Tandy played the role of Blanche on Broadway, while Leigh played the role in the West End, London production. Both were successful in the part, but when it came time to cast the movie, the producers wanted a "box office" name for the star role and chose Leigh. Her performance is amazing, proving once again how great an actress she was, a decade after she had turned in the performance of a lifetime in "Gone With the Wind."

Read more about the movie on wikipedia where it gives more details... If you haven't seen it yet definitely put it on your list... as they say on TCM, it's one of "The Essentials!"

A little about the legendary Vivien Leigh... 

Vivien Leigh was born Vivian Mary Hartley in 1913 in India to British parents and was raised there as well as in London by her mother, and also traveled extensively with her father throughout Europe. She showed an interest in acting early on after attending a boarding school for a time with future actress Maureen O'Sullivan. Her father enrolled her in the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts in 1931, and in 1935 she made her first movie, "Look Up and Laugh". She also started acting in plays and made other minor films. She married for a short time which produced a daughter, Suzanne, as well as Leigh's stage name, which was her husband Herbert Leigh Holman's middle name. In 1937 she made "Fire Over England" where she first worked with future husband and love of her life Laurence Olivier. In 1938 she made "A Yank at Oxford" co-starring with her friend Maureen O'Sullivan, and it was shot in England for MGM.

Around this time casting was beginning for the role of Scarlet O'Hara in "Gone With the Wind" and Leigh and Olivier traveled to the U.S. for her to audition for the part. Selznick was impressed with her film work up to this time but was reluctant to cast her as a girl from the South since she was British. However, the rest as they say is history, since Leigh got the part and turned in one of the great screen performances of all time. Her portrayal of spoiled Southern belle Scarlet O'Hara is the driving force of the movie, and, like the character of Blanche Dubois has an intensity and resilience that glues you to the screen. It's hard to imagine any other actress having played the role of Scarlet, even though just about every actress in Hollywood at the time was considered.

As Scarlet O'Hara

In 1940 Leigh made "Waterloo Bridge" for MGM, co-starring Robert Taylor which was a great success. Then in 1941 she and Olivier finally teamed up again in the romantic drama "That Hamilton Woman" which was made in England by the brilliant Alexander Korda. It's a great production and she and Olivier are magnetic on screen in it. After beginning their affair in 1937, they had married by 1940 after each of them got divorced from their respective spouses. Theirs was one of the great romances of classic Hollywood... being a famous and glamorous acting couple they were always in the fan magazines and papers, and hobnobbed with the A list in Hollywood and Europe. They also continued to do movies and theater, together and apart throughout their marriage which lasted until 1960.

Olivier and Leigh at the premiere of  her film "Anna Karenina" in London

In 1945 she made "Caesar and Cleopatra" with Claude Rains, and in 1948 came the classic "Anna Karenina" with Ralph Richardson. Then in 1951 came "Streetcar", and in 1954 she was all set to do "Elephant Walk", when due to ill health she had to drop out and was replaced by Elizabeth Taylor. Her last few films were unimportant, ending with "Ship of Fools" in 1965.

Leigh was known as one of the great theatrical stars of London's West End as much as she was known for her movies. She also worked on Broadway, winning the Tony Award for "Tovarich" in 1963. Her extensive theatrical work is one of the reasons that she made so few movies, only 19 in her career. It's because of her brilliant work in GWTW and Streetcar that she's considered such a legend of the silver screen today.

After her divorce from Olivier she never remarried, although she had a relationship with actor John Merivale which lasted until her death. Throughout her life Leigh suffered from terrible bouts of manic depression and was later diagnosed as being bi-polar. This is what ultimately ended her marriage to Olivier who went on to marry actress Joan Plowright. Leigh also suffered from tuberculosis, which ultimately claimed her life on July 7, 1967 at the age of 53. 

Her natural acting ability, star quality, and stunning beauty will live on in the movies she made. So few actresses have made so few movies yet left such an indelible impression on the world... 

Read more about Vivien online... 

Her wikipedia link...

And now back to Streetcar... 

The dressing gown is made of blue chiffon with a pink chiffon overlay and has ruffles on the bodice and cuffs. There is also lace trim on the bodice in between the ruffles as well as near the cuffs. There is a small silk bow in the center of the bust, and the gown closes on one side with a snap. It originally also had a silk sash that she wore with it which is no longer present. I think there was also ruffle trim that ran along the bottom of the gown but was removed sometime after production. This piece was part of the Warner Brothers costume rental stock for many years and the ruffle may have been removed sometime then. The pink chiffon on the sleeves was also removed at some point, and the cuffs were shortened a bit when the gown had some restoration work done since they were very tattered. It's amazing that this piece has survived considering how delicate it was to begin with. It was also an unknown costume for many years until a resale company acquired it with other Warner Brothers wardrobe. They found that it was a Vivien Leigh costume by matching up the production number on the label to the movie.  Here is an image of the label with the number "372", which is the number for "Streetcar". This same number can also be seen in the bottom right corner of the photos from the movie. From what I've seen over the years, Warner Brothers typically labeled all of their ladies costumes with the production number that was assigned to the movie. And sometime in the 1950's they began adding the actresses name to the label as well. 

Lucinda Ballard was the costume designer for the movie, and she also did the costumes for the Broadway production. She was primarily a designer for Broadway and she won two Tony awards for her work over the years. She did design the costumes for one other movie, the classic fantasy "Portrait of Jennie". It's great that Warner Brothers brought her out to do the costumes for "Streetcar" since they were using as much of the original cast and crew from the Broadway show as possible. Aside from the great acting and writing, I think it's one of the main reasons why the movie worked so well. 

     Leigh wearing it on set at a birthday party for Elia Kazan     

And wearing it when Gary Cooper paid a visit to the set... the second image is the caption on the back of the photo...


We first see her in the gown during the card game scene, throughout the famous "Stella!" portion and then the following morning. During the scenes, Blanche (Leigh) meets Mitch (Karl Malden) for the first time, has an altercation with Stanley (Brando), and talks at length with her sister Stella (Kim Hunter). 

The scene begins when Mitch gets up from the card game and meets Blanche for the first time. Shy at first, she asks him for a cigarette and then admires the silver case, all the while flirting with him. She then asks him to put a paper shade over a light bulb in the bedroom, and says one of her best lines in the movie... "I can't stand a naked light bulb any more than I can a rude remark or a vulgar action"... 

As the scene progresses, Blanche turns on the radio after Mitch has put up the paper lantern, so that they might have "enchantment" as she puts it, and they start to dance. This annoys Stanley and his card game, so he comes in and smashes the radio through the window. Stella gets angry at his behavior and a fight ensues, and then Stella, Blanche, and the upstairs neighbor retreat to her house. This is when Stanley so famously cries out "Stella!" once he's remorseful and wants her back. She goes back to him, much to Blanche's surprise who follows but is reluctant to go back inside the house since she realizes what's going on. At this point Mitch then talks to her again outside as she's in a daze, shocked and confused by the events of the evening... 


The next morning Blanche comes back down to the apartment and finds Stella still in bed, in a happy mood from having spent the night with Stanley. Blanche has a heart-to-heart with Stella, trying to reason with her about how much of a brute Stanley is, and trying to come to terms with how Stella can even be married to him and pleads with her to leave him. During the conversation Stanley comes back to the apartment and overhears them without their knowing, and when he comes in to say hello Blanche is a bit frightened, thinking he may have heard her. Stella runs into his arms, and Blanche realizes that Stella will never leave him. Blanche is then left surprised and dismayed, knowing that she's alone.