31 August 2001 | lugonian
The King of Fashion
FASHIONS OF 1934 (Warner Brothers, 1934), directed by William Dieterle, is a light comedy that pairs debonair William Powell for the one and only time opposite the very young but unrecognizable Bette Davis. Although an unlikely pair, there isn't much chemistry between them. It is also surprising for a first time viewer to find Bette in platinum blonde shoulder length hair supported with heavy eye lashes and lipstick. One can only imagine Davis detesting such an assignment having her look more like a department store mannequin than herself, but it was one of many such "nothing" film roles before the studio would know what to do with her. In spite of it being labeled a musical, Davis does not sing a note nor dance, but the movie itself does consist of one lavish production number, choreographed by Busby Berkeley, which needs to be seen to be believed, but otherwise, worth the price of admission. On and all, FASHIONS OF 1934 (TV and video title: FASHIONS), solely relies on comedy and its presentation of the latest fashions, which were probably never seen again after this movie finished its theatrical run.
The story opens with Sherwood Nash (Powell), a smooth operator who can talk his way in and out of anything, being evicted from his Golden Harvest Investment Corporation for back payment of rent. While his furniture is being moved out, Nash encounters Lynn Mason (Bette Davis), a fashion designer seeking employment. Looking over her drawn sketches, Nash, finding Lynn to be very talented, decides to pursue another kind of racket, that as a fashion swindler. He uses theatrical methods to steal dress designs from famous designers and presenting them to potential buyers at cut-rate prices. After getting caught, Lynn, Nash and Snap (Frank McHugh), Nash's girl-chasing partner, shipboard their way to Paris to get the latest designs. Trying to come up with new and original ideas, Nash meets and befriends Joe Ward (Hugh Herbert), a California feather merchant hoping to interest designers into using more ostrich feathers on their creations. With the help of his former girlfriend, Mabel Maguire (Verree Teasdale), posing as the Grand Duchess Alix, a Russian noblewoman, presently engaged to designer Oscar Baroque (Reginald Owen), Nash arranges to get revue and fashion show together featuring the Grand Duchess Alix. Nash meets further complications when there is a possibility that Lynn might walk out on him, and of he being exposed by Baroque, who wants to ruin him.
FASHIONS OF 1934 very much belongs to Powell, quite amusing and self-confident man. His performance itself never disappoints. The fashion show is preceded by a Busby Berkeley number, "Spin a Little Web of Dreams" (music and lyrics by Irving Kahal and Sammy Fain), as sung by Verree Teasdale. It highlights several chorus girls as human harps and others in pre-production code bikinis, exposing more skin of the female body than any other Berkeley number has up to that time. However, the heavy blonde wigs the semi-nude girls wear make them appear older than their actual youthful ages. And of course, in true Berkeley tradition, the girls in ostrich feather gowns form themselves into one large blooming rose.
In the supporting cast are Philip Reed as Jimmy Blake, a struggling songwriter in love with Lynn; Gordon Westcott and Dorothy Burgess as a couple of swindlers working for Nash in the early portion of the story; Henry O'Neill, Etienne Girardot and George Humbert as famous fashion designers who have their designs stolen by Nash; Hobart Cavanaugh as a man with a box of dancing worms; and Jane Darwell in a small role as a patron during the fashion show sequence. And then there is that Frank McHugh laugh, especially while either looking at some "naughty girlie photographs" or encountering them in the flesh.
FASHIONS OF 1934 is enjoyable fluff from the Golden Age of Hollywood, and would be recommended to those who enjoy watching pre-code production movies. Formerly presented on commercial television's WPHL, Channel 17, in Philadelphia prior to 1974, and available on video cassette in the mid 1980s from Matinée Classics, it can be seen occasionally on late night Turner Classic Movies.(***)