Veronica Lake in The Blue Dahlia and Her Star Image Making

Alan Ladd and Veronica Lake in “The Blue Dahlia”, 1946

 

As the clocks turn back and the weather turns cold, I turn back to my favourite genre,
film noir, transforming “Noirvember” into one of my favourite months.

 
 
Back from the South Pacific, Johnny Morrison (Alan Ladd), returns home only to discover a dark truth from his wife and the past catches up with the present. Later on she is found dead and he is the prime suspect. Joyce Harwood (Veronica Lake) picks him up on the street, but there is something she runs away from too. There are more dark sides to the story and one of them has to do with Johnny’s friend, Buzz (William Bendix), who suffers a trauma, an enlisted man brain damaged in the war, a psychological subject sometimes explored in noir films. The possibility of Buzz killing Johnny’s wife hovers over the entire film, thus touching a visceral level. There are, of course, other key elements of classic noir, specific visual qualities, that are also explored.

I am a fervent proponent of costume design as one of the most important parts of film language and one of the most far-reaching influences of cinema, but the costume design approach had certain particularities in those days, even in the case of the best films. The goal of a film costume was not resumed to supporting the actors in their roles and further the plot. In film noir, for example, one of the defining elements of the genre was the stylization, from settings to wardrobes. Films, especially in the hay-day of the major Hollywood studios, were trying to entertain, therefore some characters’ wardrobes didn’t exactly match their economic status. Clothes were often used to attract the audiences, as part of the escapist element of classic cinema-going and the American films were fashion phenomena, leading to women haphazardly copying the stars in a manner unsuited to their lifestyle and body types. Costume designers and wardrobe supervisors would also often recycle costumes and use the same clothes for different films, for different actors, for different characters. And there were some actors (both male and female) whose star image was so well shaped by the studios that they brought the same look on screen time and again. On the other hand though, people back then, regardless of social position, were so elegant that someone not so well-off could nonetheless look impeccably dressed. That is to say, there used to be various factors involved in costuming the classic actors.
 

Alan Ladd and Veronica Lake in “The Blue Dahlia”, 1946

 
This Gun for Hire, 1942, was Veronica Lake’s and Alan Ladd’s first film together. They had great chemistry and would be paired in three more productions. In This Gun for Hire, Veronica Lake is a poor singer, dating an ordinary detective, but she is dressed in a luxurious lamé gown when we first meet her. This may be a case of ill-fitted character for her class-belonging, but it could also be true that this dress could perfectly well belong to the club where she works. Her elegant wardrobe in The Blue Dahlia makes perfect sense though. It is a clear indication of her social status. But her wardrobe also employed a few tricks. Lake was very petite, and certain measures were taken to make her look taller. In the aforementioned This Gun for Hire, Edith Head had dressed her in long-sleeved and floor-sweeping gowns to hide very tall heels, in turtlenecks to elongate her neck and cinched waists. It was about image-making.

The actors were the biggest style influence and sometimes things went to the extreme. Veronica Lake was nicknamed “the peek-a-boo girl” after the hairstyle the studio came up with for her, with long blonde locks covering the right side of her forehead and her right eye. There was hardly any other star who wore long hair back then and when, in I Wanted Wings (1941), Veronica Lake “walked into camera range and waggled a head of long blonde hair at a suddenly enchanted public”, wrote Life magazine that same year. She donned this hairstyle in This Gun for Hire, but when she appeared in The Glass Key, 1942, in her second film alongside Alan Ladd, the hair-do was missing. Reportedly, her hairstyle had become so popular with women during the war that several accidents occurred in factories because women could easily get their hair caught in the machines. As a consequence, Paramount was officially asked to change Lake’s hairstyle. But in The Blue Dahlia Veronica would return to her signature look, although trimmed, in support of the war effort. In 1930, an average of 80 million viewers attended movies every week in the United States. In 1946, the year The Blue Dahlia was released, the record of 4 billion annual moviegoers was reached. The influence of fashion in film could not possibly be overstated.
 

Alan Ladd and Veronica Lake in “The Blue Dahlia”, 1946

 
 

“Every guy has seen you somewhere before. The trick is to find you.”


 
 
The Blue Dahlia (1946), based on an unfinished story by Raymond Chandler, was sold to Paramount and Chandler came along to script it. He didn’t finish the screenplay when production began, so Edith Head had to dress the two female characters, Veronica Lake and Doris Dowling, for a film that was being written as it was shot. Lake’s wardrobe bore the hallmarks of a film noir protagonist (she is not a femme fatale, it’s rather Johnny Morrison’s wife who plays the steely vixen, but she is an ambiguous and mysterious character nonetheless), but it also fit Lake’s star image. When Johnny meets Joyce that rainy night, she is wearing a white trench coat and gloves. He is wearing a trench coat, too, navy, thus associating Morrison with his job in the service. When the trench coat became an optional item of clothing in the British army during the First World War, only officers were allowed to wear it. “Few officers were ready to give up their coats when the war ended,” writes Josh Sims in his book, Icons of Men’s Style, “and the style entered civilian life and sartorial history.” It had since come to be the uniform of Chandler-esque characters of the 1940s.

Veronica Lake wears again a floor-length evening gown with long sleeves, a black-sequined and key-holed dress this time, and, in another scene, a turtleneck. Unusual for a film noir heroine, she also wears trousers, a pair of white wide-legged trousers, and a dark-coloured, shoulder-padded oversized coat, thus making her look one of the most modern and current noir film styles. It was not the only time Veronica wore trousers in a noir. In This Gun for Hire, she disguised as Philip (Alan Ladd), also borrowing his hat and trench coat, to take the police off his trail. And in Sullivan’s Travels (1941), she impersonated a bum for part of the film. Although not a noir, this was a satire that played with the idea of star image, and that contrasting role I believe was in accordance with Veronica’s own beliefs.

According to Edith Head, Veronica Lake was a woman who could totally transform herself through costume. “Her real personality was in direct opposition to the wisecracking and seductive image created for her by the studio,” writes Jay Jorgensen in the book Edith Head-The Fifty-Year Career of Hollywood’s Greatest Costume Designer, and she eschewed any display of overt sexuality and hated posing for cheesy photographs. The real Veronica liked to wear simple clothes, tweeds, flat heels, and her hair pulled back. During fittings, when she had to get into her characters’ clothes, she used to say do Head: “Pardon me while I put on my other head.” One cannot deny the promotional reasons behind the star image making machinery during Hollywood’s Golden Age, but it also worked well to keep the actors’ personal style and life at bay. That kind of mystery, that kept the screen magnetism of the stars intact and would make the viewer eagerly wait for a new movie, is lost today.
 
Related reading: Gloria Grahame in Film Noir / Bacall and Bogart in The Big Sleep / Lizabeth Scott: She Had What It Took for Film Noir

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