|Feature Article - Fashionably Early by Kristen Welch|
by Kristen Welch
HOW SAMUEL GOLDWYN & COCO CHANEL BROUGHT HIGH FASHION TO HOLLYWOOD
Fashion has always played an important role in the film industry, from costume departments to red carpet pre-shows. It has also been utilized in marketing campaigns, with fans able to purchase officially licensed replicas. (Witness the recent Glee line of clothing at Macy’s department stores.) Yet in 1930, when producer Samuel Goldwyn approached Gabrielle "Coco” Chanel to design for his films, the strategy was still considered an innovative promotional tool.
Spurred by the question, "what do women want?” the collaboration sparked controversy because of Chanel’s brief, two-month stay in America followed by the merely middling box-office take of the three films which marked the partnership (Palmy Days, The Greeks Had a Word for Them and the Gloria Swanson vehicle Tonight or Never). Goldwyn himself may have overestimated the popularity which Chanel’s first American visit would inspire, and dealt with an increasingly critical Los Angeles press. Coming between two World Wars, the collaboration became the target of nationalistic zeal, which tried to emphasize local costume designers over the interloper Chanel. This was not a Hollywood which embraced French fashion (as it would in the 1950s with Hubert de Givenchy’s designs for Audrey Hepburn) but instead an industry focused on shaping popular domestic taste. Taken as a whole, the episode remains a fascinating historical case study in the challenges of creative collaboration, especially given the multi-faceted nature of the producer’s role in filmmaking.
By 1931, Goldwyn and Chanel were each at the top of their respective games: Each began their career during World War I and solidified their success in the 1920s — he as an independent producer and she as a leading fashion designer — before their paths brought them together. Hollywood itself was in the middle of a transition, moving from silent to sound pictures and quickly standardizing into a fixed structure where personnel were under contract to a single studio and work was streamlined à la the Ford factory system. The five major and three minor studios — MGM, Paramount, 20th Century Fox, Columbia, RKO, Universal, United Artists and Warner Bros. — were also looking for new ways to appeal to spectators, particularly women; as Variety reported in 1931, female spectators provided 65% of box-office intake.
Of course, Goldwyn didn’t just find a fashion designer to join him in Hollywood — he had to get the designer of the age: Coco Chanel. Her creation of the "New Woman” look in the 1920s brought femininity into the modern era, with a design aesthetic that was sporty yet feminine and, most importantly, allowed the wearer freedom of movement (an aesthetic choice that continues to influence fashion today). Chanel herself would gain much from the collaboration; the trip would mark her first visit to the United States and would garner promotion throughout the country, even beyond major newspapers like the Los Angeles Times or The New York Times. Goldwyn sweetened the deal with a generous contract: Chanel would receive $1 million on the understanding that she would come to Hollywood twice a year to work in a personal salon created just for her. Just as importantly, the agreement not only included designing for his films but dressing his stars (Gloria Swanson, Norma Talmadge and Ina Claire) in their everyday lives.
Among the things Goldwyn did not count on, however, was that the initial fervor with which the press greeted the announcement would revolve around the designer herself, rather than the producer or his films. The New York Times touted that Chanel would provide a "definite service” to American women by bringing a Parisian design aesthetic and an elegance that the industry seemed to lack. Upon her arrival in New York, there began a steady stream of telegrams between Goldwyn and his public relations man, Lynn Farnol, chronicling everything from Chanel’s brief illness upon her arrival, to the specifics of studio preparation for an important guest, attempting to manage her large retinue and demands. The first telegrams assert Chanel’s desire to control her own publicity and make it clear that she is no mere employee. As Farnol’s March 4 telegram to Goldwyn states, "She is amiable and friendly but she ... seems extremely apprehensive of such phrases as ‘Samuel Goldwyn has engaged...’ suggest that we be very careful about this.”
Chanel herself would reiterate this to the press, explaining that her trip was a preliminary tour of Hollywood and that she would not be designing during her stay. While Goldwyn could not have been pleased by this announcement, he had more immediate concerns; none of her interviews were reaching the West Coast. Following Chanel’s first American press conference, Farnol reported to Goldwyn that the event had been a success, but the producer quickly replied with much ire that "delighted everything went over so well with Chanel reception however for your information none of newspapers here carried a line.” Thus, Chanel’s popular reception by the East Coast press was not duplicated in Los Angeles, the very city that Goldwyn hoped to impress. The discrepancy was alarming; without full publicity, the partnership would lose substantial value to him. Farnol quickly wired back that the Associated Press was to blame, in particular Hazel Reavis, the head of the women’s service. As Farnol explained, the reporter "hates [Chanel] like poison” which "explains animosity of your Paris Associated Press correspondent at time.”
Reavis may not be the only reason early reports of Chanel’s visit were minimal on the West Coast, considering the visit’s timing and the national mood. The period between the two World Wars found an America taken more by nationalism than globalism. For Hollywood costume designers, the 1930s was anticipated as a period when American fashion would overcome the French, who had been the arbiters of fashion since the 1850s. As MGM’s designer Adrian explained in 1933, "Every Hollywood designer has had the experience of seeing one of his designs ignored when first flashed on the screen, and then a season or two later, become the vogue because it had the stamp of approval from Paris.” His sentiments are consistent with most of the Los Angeles coverage of Chanel’s time in Hollywood, and reveals that while Goldwyn’s move may have been bold and innovative, it failed to account for the spirit of the period. In fact, Hollywood designs were slowly making claims on the popularity that couturiers like Chanel had enjoyed during the 1920s.
Grasping his dilemma, Goldwyn pivoted toward what he hoped was a solution: introducing Chanel to Hollywood’s crème de la crème, including Greta Garbo, Claudette Colbert and Fredric March, and even arranging a tea and luncheon to intro- duce her to the local press. But, the producer was once again frustrated by the results. In fact, the newly-appointed salon which Goldwyn had created both to appease his star designer and to show her off to the press only served to increase the journalists’ ire, as typified by Myra Nye’s "Society of Cinemaland” column in the Los Angeles Times. Nye opens with a backhanded compliment: "Chanel has proven that even an ordinary profession can be made into something alluring.” In characterizing couture as an "ordinary profession,” Nye relegates Chanel to the role of mere seamstress, a designation that would have enraged the proud designer. The column would go on to report on Chanel’s distaste for the newly-painted room before stating that "the well-dressed guests [Americans, of course] added the only beauty to the room.” In fact, the great expenditure lavished on the designer was made laughable by a cartoon published in the Los Angeles Times entitled "Sugar and Spice.” The panel featured a joke borrowed from an actual occurrence at the event, when a curious reporter overturned one of the knickknacks purchased for Chanel and, discovering the exorbitant price, declared that "maybe the tag was a movie prop.” Subsequent articles cited the tea and Chanel’s unhappiness with the entire function, all but painting the designer as an interloper on the Hollywood scene and Goldwyn as the producer forced to deal with her.
True to her word, Chanel left Hollywood two weeks later and returned to Paris on the understanding that she would design from her home. Gloria Swanson would make a personal visit to the designer, while Chanel used models to create the gowns for Palmy Days and The Greeks Had a Word for Them. Her move back to Paris not only signified her autonomy within the partnership but also gave the press more with which to find fault. For example, Muriel Babcock’s "Chanel Visit Echoes Heard,” written for the Los Angeles Times, reads like the start of a horror film, or perhaps the return of a serialized villain: "Maybe you thought you heard the last in Hollywood of Mlle. Gabrielle Chanel...” she begins before recounting her brief interlude in the city. Though the appearance of the gowns generated excitement, the article makes it clear that Chanel remained distrustful of Hollywood to the point that she declared that no photographs could be taken of the actresses in the gowns. In this case, that seeming mistrust is a misinterpretation, perhaps a willful one. In fact, Chanel’s alleged declaration was part of Goldwyn’s publicity strategy, allowing only a select few to see the gowns before the films’ release. Consequently, Goldwyn could tout his films as the first glimpse of Chanel’s fall line, which he would do in the Exhibitor’s Campaign Books as well as in his own promotional campaigns: "I suspect strongly when the grand premiere of [The Greeks Had a Word for Them] takes place, Hollywood will be less represented than the dressmaking world with its Rosies and Sadies and artist fellows rapidly sketching off models.”
But while the pair’s official relationship was that of employer-employee, the whole of their correspondence reads with the polite cordiality of equal business partners, and their amiable correspondence would continue long after the collaboration had ended. A letter from Chanel kept in Goldwyn’s file from 1937 notes: "I have not forgotten my voyage to Hollywood and how nice and helpful you have been.” Whatever stress may have been created by the reception to Chanel’s visit or the films themselves, the relationship proved strong and successful enough for the two to remain in friendly touch for years afterward.
Following the completion of the gowns, Chanel’s role in the films began to fade and it fell to Goldwyn to combat the growing antagonism toward her through favorable press. Throughout the summer of 1931, Goldwyn excited interest through "exclusive” photo spreads in Photoplay, actor interviews commenting on the designer, and promotional campaigns that included tie-ins with major merchandisers. In fact, exhibitors could partner with local department stores for Chanel window displays while stores could sell replica gowns. The photo spreads also played an important role, utilizing each film’s stars as models for Chanel’s designs, mimicking fashion spreads in their layouts. Posters for the films made it known that the gowns had been designed by "Chanel of Paris,” and in some instances, directly addressed female spectators with slogans that emphasized the gowns’ reception by other women; as one ad states, "Women rave over the Chanel Gowns!” Coming months after press scrutiny around fashion and the female spectator, the three films represented the final element of Goldwyn’s efforts to use high fashion as a marketing technique.
The results of his campaigns were mixed. Reviews singled out each film’s costumes, often suggesting that the ladies would love them, but only Palmy Days was a box-office success, largely due to the popularity of the film’s star, Eddie Cantor. Both Tonight or Never and Greeks quickly went through their first runs, in most cases, lasting only for one week, and received unfavorable reviews. Thus, while Chanel may have generated publicity and even piqued the interest of female spectators, her influence alone was insufficient to help either film achieve box-office success.
Though she never again worked with the American film industry, to label her visit as unsuccessful would be to take too narrow a view. Goldwyn and Chanel’s collaboration was, ultimately, a partnership 20 years ahead of its time. Even despite its mixed results as a box-office draw and sensational treatment in the press, the collaboration broke new ground for the industry and paved the way for future cross-pollination between cinema and couture. While Goldwyn, at the time, was unable to prove his theory that women wanted to see high fashion in film, his ideas were borne out resoundingly with the success of Billy Wilder’s Sabrina in 1954, and have continued to be borne out since. Today, film and fashion mingle frequently, both in front of the camera (as in The Devil Wears Prada and Sex and the City) and even behind it — consider 2009’s acclaimed A Single Man, directed by film- maker/designer Tom Ford. The next time you see high fashion on screen, you’re seeing the product of a relationship that’s 80 years old, that traces its roots to a visionary producer and impeccable designer.