It’s no secret that the Hollywood Comet loves musicals.
In 2010, I revealed I had seen 400 movie musicals over the course of eight years. Now that number is over 600. To celebrate and share this musical love, here is my weekly feature about musicals.
This week’s musical:
Fashions of 1934 (1934) – Musical #233
William Powell, Bette Davis, Frank McHugh, Hugh Herbert, Verree Teasdale, Reginald Owen, Dorothy Burgess, Nella Walker, Henry O’Neil, Arthur Treacher
When one business fails, Sherwood Nash (Powell) teams up with fashion designer Lynn Mason (Davis). The two of them set out to plagiarize haute couture fashions and sell them at a cheaper rate. When they are caught by American fashion houses, they set sail for France to create new fashions, which include ostrich feathers and a phony duchess.
• For the “Spin a Little Web of Dreams” number, dance director Busby Berkeley sought out 400 ostrich plumes and 200 girls. The estimated cost for the feathers was $10,000, according to the film’s pressbook.
• Working titles were “King of Fashion” and “Fashion Follies of 1934.”
• Arthur Treacher plays his first role as a butler, which later became a recurring role for him.
• The fashions, designed by Orry-Kelly
• Busby Berkeley’s ostrich feather number.
• “Spin a Little Web of Dreams” performed by Verree Teasdale and the chorus
You may be looking at this title and thinking, “I don’t remember Fashions of 1934 being a musical.” In truth, this isn’t what you would call a traditional musical. However, 45-minutes in to this 88-minute comedy is a 7-minute Busby Berkeley number, which in my opinion, merits a Musical Monday spotlight.
In this sophisticated fashion-crime-comedy, William Powell and Bette Davis play fashion plagiarizers, redesigning haute couture and selling it at a lower cost. When they are caught in the United States, they head to France, and when copycat fashions don’t work there, they try their own fashion gimmicks. One of these includes teaming up with a phony duchess, played by Verree Teasdale, and getting her to promote the fashion of ostrich feathers via a Broadway musical show.
That’s where Busby Berkeley’s number comes in. Teasdale sings “Spin a Little Web of Dreams,” and then we transition to a shopgirl working with feathers, falling asleep, and dreaming a fabulous Berkeley-style kaleidoscope dream. Women holding large ostrich feather fans, use the fans to create various shapes, hide themselves and then use them as ores, rowing in a large boat. Beautiful girls also form human harps, with strings of jewels. The whole number is awe-inducing and also will leave you humming the main song for days.
Overall, “Fashions of 1934” is an amusing film, but one of the stars wasn’t amused while making it: Bette Davis. Hoping to be cast in more serious roles, she was unhappy to be not only cast in a light comedy, but to be “glamorized beyond recognition,” Davis wrote in her autobiography.
“I played a fashion model in a long blonde wig and with my mouth painted almost to my ears,” Davis is quoted in a 1950s Colliers article. “Imagine me as a fashion model! It was ridiculous. My leading man William Powell thought so too.”
As for William Powell, this was one of his last films at his home studio of Warner Bros. One particularly fun character is played by Frank McHugh who plays the definition of a cad. There are some Pre-Code moments, especially with McHugh, like when he’s about to smack a woman’s behind and then stops when he’s caught.
While “Fashions of 1934” wasn’t a favorite of Bette Davis’s and isn’t really a full musical, I enjoyed it. It’s only an hour and 18 minutes, so a brief bit of fun.
And while it’s not really a musical, I hope no one begrudges me of that. Anything with a Busby Berkeley extravaganza feels like it deserves the spotlight, in my opinion, even if it’s only one number.
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Great review, Comet!!
I really like this film… always watch it when it comes around on TCM, or I try to, at least. Glad you picked this for inclusion in your “series”. !!