Essay by Marketa Uhlirova The Wonderland of Fig Leaves

Marketa Uhlirova

Howard Hawks’s Fig Leaves (1926) has a prominent place in the canon of the post-WWI American comedy that was established by Cecil B. DeMille’s trilogy Old Wives for New (1918), Don’t Change your Husband (1919) and Why Change your Wife? (1920) at Famous Players- Lasky, a canon which spread almost epidemically by the mid-1920s, attracting wide audiences across the working and middle classes (1). Like DeMille’s films, Hawks’s Fig Leaves tells a story of a marital dispute and a transformation of a female heroine from a wholesome, housebound girl to a refined, sophisticated and independent woman. While remaining cautionary about the likely moral pitfalls of such a transition, this type of conflict, perceived in the 1920s as quintessentially “modern,” was designed for film heroines to help erode puritanical Victorian values of virtuous self-discipline and to replace them with open, unbridled consumption of the latest fashions in luxurious clothes and interiors. It forged an association between a woman’s acquisition of material goods and her self-fulfilment, validating the spectatorial self-fulfilment through a visual consumption of abundance and wealth presented on the big screen.

Barely ten minutes into the film, an inter-title uncompromisingly announces that “In the beginning, Woman had three problems: ‘I haven’t a thing to wear’, ‘I haven’t a thing to wear’, ‘I haven’t a thing to wear’.” Wearing clothes is thus introduced as a typical woman’s problem (2), and although it is for comical effect multiplied by three, it is still the one and only thing that supposedly occupies a woman’s mind. All Eve’s thoughts and conversations throughout are channeled to this one concern, and when she finally claims some of “her rights” and gets a chance to earn her own money, she invests it back into clothing.

Unlike the Biblical Eve’s urge to cover up, Eve Smith’s unquenchable desire for fashionable novelties in dress is not the result of a single act of eating the apple. The apple alone isn’t the source of her knowledge of fashion, rather, it is its awakening. Eve learns about fashion through an ongoing pact with the friendly but double-faced Serpent, who also appears in a modern-day reincarnation as Eve’s neighbour Alice Atkins, and less prominently, as the figure of the effeminate couturier Joseph André. Both scheme behind the back of Eve’s husband Adam Smith: the wicked Alice visits Eve’s flat for seemingly casual chats about clothes and men (in her presence Eve resumes her appetite for apple eating) while André, the owner of the “largest modiste shop in America” and “the biggest conceit in the world” fools Eve with his refined artiste persona and the exotic splendour of his fashion salon.

André happens upon Eve in a serendipitous car accident of which she is the victim. He immediately recognizes his chance and whisks her off to his salon on 115 Rue de la Fifth Avenue under the pretext of getting her clothes mended. Eve is thus brought into the lavish setting of his magnificent and dramatically lit art deco interior decorated with big clusters of chandeliers and grandiosely draped fabric flanking the walls. Her entrance into the world of high fashion is an almost intimidating event: rather than walking, she stumbles clumsily in and is left to look around in sheer amazement, as if a secretly honed fantasy just came true. The stage that opens up before her is grand and theatrical, with a group of mannequins casually promenading in their dresses and underwear, presumably for the benefit of a couple of clients who look on from their chairs. André’s salon is a true “wonderland to the eyes of the heroine as well as the audience,” to borrow DeMille’s apt characteristic of one of the goals of 1920s Hollywood filmmaking. (3)

But with plenty of flesh revealed during the fashion sequences, this wonderland was in no way designed uniquely for a female audience. A Variety critic, quite likely himself male, was quick to notice this: “The fashion salon, of course, gives opportunity for the display of a group of lingerie models which comes within an ace of having the sex kick of a night club show,” and adding, “However, the undraped girls never offend, probably because the whole scene and its background, as well as the models who take part, are of breathtaking beauty.” (4) Indeed, there are two moments in the film itself, both of them during the final fashion show, which actively encourage men to find their own in a domain otherwise reserved to women: first, Adam’s friend Eddie gets visibly overexcited at the sight of mannequins’ body-hugging figures and bared flesh, and later, another man in the audience gets asked by his companion which one was his “favorite one,” and replies, “the redheaded one.” This type of behaviour legitimates the idea that during fashion scenes women are expected to inspect the clothing on show while men are free to inspect the women who parade or sell this clothing (an idea that already formed the basis of film gags around 1900).

To Eve, André’s couture salon represents a new paradise, a more sumptuous and worldlier substitute for the one lost by her original sin. Not only does André’s salon free Eve from Adam and the traditional domestic role imposed on women by society, it also sends her into a reverie, endorsing her as divine. When in André’s realm, Eve is so much more than just a fashion consumer: she is effectively consumed by fashion. Unlike André, who only pretends creative trance and exhaustion as part of his seduction routine, Eve loses herself to fashion. First she looks at everything around her in such a state of consternation that she has to be dragged by force through the dressing rooms. Moments later, she is seen skillfully posing as a muse for the couturier, striking a graceful S-shape figure and artfully stretching her arms. Her goddess-like status is reinforced by her central framing in the symmetrical architecture of the salon.

Hawks deliberately contrasts the spontaneous mischief and girly innocence of the original (real) Eve with two opposing characters based on artifice, masquerade and lie: first, Alice’s chic, classy predator, and second, Eve’s own fashion diva. And although Alice is clearly responsible for Eve’s makeover into an exemplary consumer of expensive clothes, Hawks never shows Eve as truly fashion-innocent, not even in the Garden of Eden. On the contrary, from the very beginning she is portrayed as a determined and feisty “new woman,” lovably shrewd, flirty, even manipulative. Her transformation is only theatrical, calling attention to the comedy of womanhood that doesn’t change a bit.

In an interview with Joseph McBride, Hawks remembers that after the screening of his directorial debut The Road to Glory (1926), a story about a girl slowly turning blind after a car accident which he himself describes as “dramatic, serious [and] downbeat”, Sol M. Wurzel, the head of Fox studios at the time, good-heartedly pointed to him: “Look, you’ve shown you can make a picture, but for God’s sake, go out and make entertainment.” (5) Upon which Hawks went off and wrote the story for Fig Leaves (1926), reportedly in one night.

Wurzel’s advice to Hawks may at first sight seem like a cynical putdown, and may perhaps conjure the idea of a premature ending to the artistic integrity of a promising young director. But by 1926 Hawks was already reasonably well established in the smoothly purring traffic of the 1920s Hollywood studios, and a populist at heart. He already had several films under his belt as a scriptwriter and film producer for Paramount, following work as a prop man for DeMille, one of the most prolific and commercially driven film directors of his time. Nor was Fig Leaves the first time Hawks tackled the subject of fashion. In 1925 he produced The Dressmaker from Paris (1925), directed by Paul Bern, which was set in a mid-western clothing store and featured a fashion show which among others cast Olive Borden as a “beauty model,” who was later to play Eve in Fig Leaves.

Given his intimate understanding of the mechanics of Hollywood’s “dream factory,” or “dream industry” (to borrow Adorno’s more menacing term), Hawks shrewdly exploited another dream industry – that of fashion. At a time when it was becoming increasingly popular to stage fashion shows as “extra attractions” in American movie theatres, fashion offered itself as a highly contested subject matter on the one hand, and an environment which allowed for a highly profitable display of luxury and glamour on the other. Although fashion is an integral part of its plot, Fig Leaves is a prime example of narrative cinema which exploits fashion in a non-narrative way, showing it off for its own sake. It balances peculiarly on a tight rope stretched between two opposing notions of fashion (both of which would have been familiar from literature and women’s magazines): fashion as “a gift to glorious womanhood,” and fashion as a symbol of moral corruption.
(1) Charles Musser, “Divorce, DeMille and the Comedy of Remarriage” in Kristine Brunovska Karnick and Henry Jenkins (eds.), Classical Hollywood Comedy (New York and London: Routledge, 1995), pp. 282-313; and Sumiko Higashi, Cecil B. DeMille and American Culture: The Silent Era (Berkeley, Los Angeles and London: University of California Press, 1994), p.142
(2) Jeanne Thomas Allen, “Fig Leaves in Hollywood” in Jane Gaines and Charlotte Herzog (eds.), Fabrications: Costume and the Female Body (New York and London: Routledge, 1990), p. 127.
(3) Donald Hayne, ed., The Autobiography of Cecil B. DeMille (New York, London: Garland, 1985), p. 232.
(4) Variety, 7 July 1926, p.16. Another Variety critic, reviewing Bern’s The Dressmaker from Paris in the previous year was even more explicit when he wrote: “… the women will want to see the clothes and the men will eat up those models, one of whom, unprogrammed, is as beautiful as anything that ever was projected.” Variety, 18 March 1925, p.40.
(5) Joseph McBride (ed.), Hawks on Hawks (Berkeley, Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1982), pp. 20-21.

© Marketa Uhlirova 2006

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