Monday, June 13, 2005

Perfume at the Movies Meets Joan and Bette

More in the Siren's continuing series about fragrant scenes from classic films.

The Women, 1939

I don't care what anyone says; Joan Crawford at her best was a treat, and this movie proves it. She plays a sales assistant at a perfume counter, back when they called them "girls." Perfume plays a huge role in this flick from the beginning. Hard as nails and ambitious as Lucifer, Joan has Norma Shearer's husband in her clutches; the poor sap went to buy Norma a bottle of perfume, and never knew what hit him. Two of Norma's so-called friends, Rosalind Russell and Phyllis Povah, visit the perfume counter to get a better look at the perfume-pushing Other Woman, Crystal (Crawford). Of course Crystal figures out what they're up to almost from the minute they arrive, and gives as good as she gets. One of the best catty lines in the movie comes as Ros Russell picks up a bottle from the counter and begins sniffing. Crystal says silkily, "Oh, I shouldn't think that suggested your personality at all. It's called 'Oomph.'" Check out the perfume Crystal is selling, "Summer Rain," and the amazing, umbrella-bedecked bottle it comes in. And some things never change; earlier in the movie it's revealed that Crystal is supposed to push Summer Rain no matter what the customer is looking for. Later on, as Crystal's fortunes rise, check out the bath oil bottles in her huge, vulgar bathroom. "Well, I guess it's back to the perfume counter for me," she says ruefully at the end. But I don't think anyone who's seen The Women thinks there's a counter in all of Manhattan that can hold back Crystal for long.

The Letter, 1940

A William Wyler masterpiece, which boasts an opening as jolting today as when the film was released (I refuse to spoil it), as well as one of Bette Davis' most subtle and brilliant performances. As Leslie Crosbie, the wife of a rubber planter in Malaysia, she is as impeccably, crisply correct as she is corrupt. And the tightly controlled Leslie doesn' wear perfume on her skin. She places her scarf over her perfume bottle and turns it over to apply the scent. You watch her walk about, trailing her scarf, and know she is trailing that scent as well. The gesture is just another small, splendid detail that bit by bit gives you a complete picture of her complex character. I'd love to know if it was in the script, or came from Davis and/or director Wyler. (Thanks to my dear friend Sissi for pointing out that well-bred 19th century ladies frequently confined their perfume to their handkerchiefs or scarves.)

Meet Me in St. Louis, 1944

If you are one of those people who ask, "Why do some gay men have a thing for Judy Garland?", your answer is right here in Vincente Minelli's peerless musical. They have a thing for her because they have taste. She was a superb singer and a gifted and versatile actress.

But I digress. In this movie, Judy's character has figured out an excuse to get Tom Drake, a.k.a The Boy Next Door, to stay behind after an evening party: She asks him to help her lower the gaslight. As they go from room to room, dimming the lights, Drake leans in close and says, "Wow, that's nice perfume." Judy flutters, "Do you like it? It's Essence of Violet. I only take it out on special occasions." Drake replies, with a nostalgic sigh, "Exactly the kind my grandmother wears." Judy's expression is priceless.

The Corn Is Green, 1945

Probably the Siren's favorite perfume scene. Bette Davis is a teacher in a poor Welsh coal-mining town, and John Dall plays her star pupil, Morgan Evans. Joan Lorring is Bessie, the trampy, no-good daughter of Davis' housekeeper. (In a funny scene, the housekeeper confesses she can't stand her daughter: "Never liked her. Even when she was born, I took one look at her and said, 'No.'") One day, when Morgan is feeling frustrated and rebellious, Bessie decides to seduce him. Her come-on line, in its entirety, spoken in broadest Cockney: "I've got some scent on my hands. Would you like to smell it?" She holds out both her hands, palms down. Morgan takes a deep whiff, and immediately (and wordlessly) goes upstairs with her. Next thing you know, Bessie is pregnant. I have no idea what she was wearing. It was probably cheap, like Bessie. But few can boast that their signature scent gets such instant results.


Anonymous said...

I have never seen The Women, but now I know that I must! That whole description had me laughing out loud.

Anonymous said...

Love this blog! I just discovered it, so am late to this discussion. I just wanted to add that there is yet another great perfume moment in The Women: toward the end after Shearer's divorce anniversary dinner party, Lucile Watson goes around spraying from a HUGE atomizer. When asked "what are you doing? she replies, "Fumigating!"

The Siren said...

ha! yes, that is harsh but funny. I bet that moment doesn't make it into the remake; not "affirming" enough. :D

Lilith said...

o! so funny! Thanks