Introduced by Timothy Long
Directed by French filmmaker Julien Duvivier during his WWII exile in Hollywood, Tales of Manhattan presents a series of individual stories with different characters and situations. In this neglected film, the link is a dress suit that seems to carry bad luck. Unlike many anthology films in which the linking device is little more than a convention, here the exchange of the suit carries an extra charge with its owners cutting across different class and social strata. An amazingly diverse cast fits into the suit as it migrates not only from wearer to wearer but also from genre to genre and through various fashionable situations (theatrical performances, weddings, concerts). Exchanges of the tailcoat allow switches in romantic partners, social status, even as it comes apart at the seams and inspires a shirtsleeve solidarity. If the finale now seems condescending in its portrayal of black stereotypes, Paul Robeson’s passionate articulation of the Popular Front vision of social equality nonetheless has poignant resonance.
USA 1942. Dir. Julien Duvivier. With Charles Boyer, Rita Hayworth, Ginger Rogers. Costumes Irene, Bernard Newman, Dolly Tree, Gwen Wakeling, Oleg Cassini.
+ In Which We Live: Being the Story of a Suit Told by Itself
With John Carol and Rosalyn Boulter.
Produced during WWII by Public Relationship Films and sponsored by Board of Trade, In Which We Live is a charming autobiography of a man's suit. Director Richard Massingham’s idea to turn a garment into a speaking hero with a soul while asking an audience to empathise with ‘him’ had in the context of wartime scarcity an obvious message. The suit stresses key values such as quality, durability, meticulous care, and ultimately also resourcefulness, even in the face of its own destruction/reconstruction (it ends up being remade into kids clothing). Although it was made in the historically specific propaganda spirit of Make Do and Mend, the film may well find a new relevance today in debates on fast fashion and sustainability.
UK 1944. Dir. Richard Massingham. Produced by Public Relationship Films; sponsored by Board of Trade. with John Carol and Rosalyn Boulter. 35mm.
Timothy Long is Curator of Fashion and Decorative Arts at the Museum of London. He has worked in the world’s top collections of historic dress, including the Chicago History Museum, and New York’s Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology.