Friday, September 04, 2020

Tonight's Movie: Fashions of 1934 (1934) - A Warner Archive DVD Review

William Powell and Bette Davis star in FASHIONS OF 1934 (1934), available on DVD from the Warner Archive.

Powell plays Sherwood Nash, a shady operator whose latest "business" involves pirating the work of top fashion designers and selling the dresses at cut-rate prices. He's aided in the endeavor by Lynn (Davis), a sketch artist, and Snap (Frank McHugh), a photographer.

When the fashion houses join together to break up his racket, he proposes a new deal: He'll put his "skills" to work for the New York fashion industry and go to Paris to rip off the work of Parisian designers!

Sherwood, Lynn, and Snap head for France, where unfortunately for them, the Parisian businesses are sophisticated enough to stop their trickery immediately, so Sherwood finds a new money-making angle. This involves getting an old friend named Mabel (Verree Teasdale), now posing as an exiled Russian countess, to star in a review which will lure the rich and famous to their new salon; the new fashion emporium features gowns "inspired" (ripped off?) by classic artwork and fashions of long ago.

And thus, an elaborate Busby Berkeley number featuring lots of ostrich feathers and a "Hall of Human Harps" is born... The feathers are courtesy of Hugh Herbert's ostrich feather salesman -- you just knew that he'd have to turn up in a Warner Bros. movie like this one at some point!

This 78-minute film is pretty wacky -- or "bonkers," as a friend commented on Twitter -- but it's fairly entertaining thanks to the cast, the eye-popping pre-Code moments, and most especially Berkeley's work.

There's admittedly a certain distasteful undercurrent to the film, what with Powell lacking in ethics (and at times being downright criminal), McHugh leering at anyone in a dress, and Davis not really seeming to care whether she marries Powell or the more honest Phillip Reed, as long as she ends up with someone. Not to mention the presence of those somewhat disturbing human harps! (There's a line in THE BUSBY BERKELEY BOOK alleging the number led to an article being published titled "I Don't Want My Daughter Growing Up to Be a Human Harp.")

That said, no one in the movie seems to care about any of these issues, so the audience doesn't worry about it too much either, and it's rather entertaining from the standpoint of wondering what bit of pre-Code insanity will happen next. McHugh giggling over naughty photos might be the pinnacle of such moments.

Powell is always fun to watch, even if he's somewhat lacking in his usual charm here as a frankly devious man. Davis is almost unrecognizable in platinum blonde hair and seems a bit bored with the proceedings, which in truth I suspect she was. McHugh is waaaaay over the top...and Herbert is his usual annoying self, if slightly subdued in this one.

I most enjoyed the always-interesting Teasdale as Mabel from Hoboken turned Countess. I love the moments when amused facial reactions pop out from under her icy elegance. She has a nice amount of screen time in the second half of the film and adds quite a bit of energy to the proceedings. It sounds like it was actually her voice singing "Spin a Little Web of Dreams"; I was unaware she could sing.

FASHIONS OF 1934 was part of a recent push I've made to watch new-to-me films with Berkeley musical numbers. In July I watched a release from the same year, WONDER BAR (1934).

I've also recently revisited a pair of Judy Garland-Mickey Rooney films Berkeley worked on, STRIKE UP THE BAND (1940) and GIRL CRAZY (1943), for the first time in many years.

This film has some of Berkeley's craziest work, yet it's undeniably compelling to watch. Beyond the previously mentioned human harps, there are fantastic kaleidoscopic scenes, a giant flower opening and closing, and more. I only wish he'd been able to craft more than one number for this film!

FASHIONS OF 1934 was directed by William Dieterle. It was filmed in black and white by William Rees. The costumes were designed by Orry-Kelly.

The supporting cast includes Reginald Owen, Henry O'Neill, Arthur Treacher, Dorothy Burgess, Gordon Westcott, Etienne Girardot, Nella Walker, Hobart Cavanaugh, and Sam McDaniel.

For more on this film, with a focus on its "pre-Code" aspects, check out Danny's post at

FASHIONS OF 1934 has been continuously available from the Warner Archive since 2011. The DVD print is a tad soft and has a few light lines here and there, especially during the opening credits, but on the whole it's a solidly watchable print with a strong soundtrack. The disc includes the trailer.

Thanks to the Warner Archive for providing a review copy of this DVD. Warner Archive releases are MOD (manufactured on demand) and may be ordered from the Warner Archive Collection at the WBShop or from any online retailers where DVDs and Blu-rays are sold.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

So...what was the Busby Berkeley number for again? Just to sell ostrich feathers?

5:23 PM  

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