Monday, June 13, 2005

Perfume at the Movies Rides Again

The Siren moves into the post-World War II era with her survey of fragrance in films.

My Darling Clementine, 1946

One of the greatest Westerns--heck, greatest movies--of all time. This gorgeous, brooding take on Wyatt Earp and the gunfight at the OK Corral is almost entirely lacking (some would say mercifully) in the slapstick humor beloved of its director, the incomparable John Ford. But it has funny moments and perfume is involved in them.

Wyatt Earp (Henry Fonda, in one of his best performances) goes to the barber to get gussied up on Sunday because, we surmise, he wants to please the ladylike girl he's fallen for, Clementine Carter. As Earp is leaving the Bon Ton Tonsorial Parlor, the barber chases after him with an atomizer that looks suspiciously like the Tin Man's oil can left over from the set of The Wizard of Oz. "Sweet-smelling stuff, Mr. Earp" he coos as he spritzes Earp's coat and trousers.

Earp goes out to join his two brothers on the porch; they watch as the townsfolk of Tombstone, which Marshal Earp has spent the movie cleaning up, drive out to go to a church social.
"It's wonderful!" says Tim Holt, who plays Virgil Earp. "Why, you can almost smell the honeysuckle!"

"That's me," says Earp, in a voice that dares his brother to be amused. “It’s the barber."

The brothers go off, Clementine appears and Wyatt diffidently makes conversation with her. "I love your town in the morning, Marshall," says Clementine; "it's so fresh, and clean. And the scent of the desert flower..." "That's me," corrects Wyatt. "It's the barber."

That must have been one girly-smelling cologne, but it's enough to help Earp take the lady of his dreams to the church social.

Black Narcissus, 1947

Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger's exquisite film about nuns in the Himalayas (yes, you read that right). Sabu plays one of the nuns' pupils, the Young Prince, who douses himself in perfume. When he arrives and pulls out his handkerchief, the nuns are nearly overcome. As they're trying not to cough, he mistakes their expressions for interest, and says eagerly, "Do you like it? It's called Black Narcissus." Of course they call him "Black Narcissus" from that moment on. Later, the Young Prince encounters Jean Simmons, as a beautiful Indian beggar girl; fascinated, he lets her sniff his handkerchief. Simmons smells it, closes her eyes, and with the most hungry, sensual expression she breathes in the scent as though she can draw in the Young Prince along with it. I always wondered if Caron's Narcisse Noir was named after this film, or the other way around. It's certainly strong enough for the Young Prince!

An American in Paris, 1951

If you've set out to make a movie that conveys every glorious enticement of Paris, you must have perfume in it. Leslie Caron's character works in a perfume shop. Because this is a Vincente Minnelli movie, the shop is stupendous, with a curving staircase you could swear shows up later in "Stairway to Paradise." Lining the walls and cases are the most exquisite bottles you've ever seen. (The Siren adores this movie in any case, but confesses that part of the reason she bought the video was to hit "pause" and get a better look at those bottles. As far as she can tell, none of them are actual perfumes of the time.)

Gene Kelly, determined to get a date with the reluctant Leslie, barges into the shop and smoothly gets rid of her customer so he can talk to Leslie alone. American matron Edna from Milwaukee can't decide between "Escapade" and "Nuit d'Amour." Kelly takes a stopper in each hand (stoppers! those were the days), sniffs, and tells her Nuit d'Amour is the one. "You wear that and the Frenchmen will never let you get back to Milwaukee," he says. When the smitten Edna finally exits, Kelly gets to flirt a bit with Leslie. He makes some funny gestures with a couple of enormous perfume bottles (here the Siren pauses the tape again, realizes she still doesn't recognize the perfumes, sighs, and proceeds) and that's all it takes. Leslie finally agrees to meet him. Life is good when you're Gene Kelly.

Speaking of Leslie Caron; if anyone out there in the 'Net world knows whether Leslie is related in any way to the Caron perfume house, I would be delighted to hear from you.

Bonus Trivia: The Shop Around the Corner, 1940

This movie was based on a Hungarian play called Parfumerie, in which the characters worked in a perfume shop. Ernst Lubitsch's take on a perfume shop would have been lovely to see, but the Siren finds this film absolutely perfect as it is.


Anonymous said...

I have got to watch Black Narcissus now and can't believe I haven't before, because I love Powell and Pressburger. I was just listening to the Criterion commentary for The Red Shoes this weekend, and Jack Cardiff, the cinematographer for it, also did the photography for Narcissus. So if I needed any more convincing, the perfume reference is the last straw. :)


The Siren said...

You absolutely must! It is as good in its way as Red Shoes. Let me know when you do.

Anonymous said...

Loving your gorgeous blog! I am Canadian as well. I am certain Leslie caron is no relation to the perfume house. I had investigated this as well, once I saw American in Paris, but unfortunately cannot remember my source.
Have you seen Beat the Devil?

Anonymous said...

Hello, dear! Leslie Caron bears no relation to Parfums Caron, which were founded by Daltroff in 1904.

Off the topic, but I really want the Caron book I saw at their boutique!

Anonymous said...

And all thru Fonda's Sunday on the porch, we hear the church choir 'gathering at the river.' How many directors have injected that old chestnut into their films. Peckinpah does so at the start of Wild Bunch, but more like a Salvation Army hymn. Did they gather at the river in Night of Hunter? I remember them 'bring in sheaves' and 'leanin' and there is the mighty Ohio but can't remember.