Monday, September 7, 2009

Ode to Technicolor

Laurence Olivier and a black fog descend on London. Traffic teams, neon signs glimmer and silhouettes deepen as all turns a darker shade of grey in the depths of night. Olivier is forced to hole up in a hotel due to the weather. Suddenly as he enters the lobby it’s like Dorothy opening the door onto Oz: brilliant colour, divine light, another world: not the land over the rainbow but a rainbow unto itself.

It was 1938 and rare for a comedy to get the Technicolor treatment, colour being reserved for musicals and period pieces, but Alexander Korda was producing The Divorce of Lady X and he was in love with his leading lady. The credits list a Technicolor Photographic Advisor and a Technicolor Colour Director. Korda also enlisted award-winning cinematographer Harry Stradling Sr. The Art Director’s credit reads: Settings Designed in Colour by Lazare Meerson. And it looks as if Mr. Meerson took his palette from the candy store, the soda fountain, the cake shop. Sherbet, parfait, ice cream, cotton candy, cake, icing, candy, candy and more candy.

All eye candy! Merle Oberon makes her entrance waving a two toned blue feather fan and wearing a white wedding cake of a gown adorned with lavender bows. She’s attending a costume ball at the hotel and now she can’t go home because of the fog. But all the rooms are booked so she has to talk Olivier, a complete stranger to her, into letting her stay in his lavish and colourful suite. There’s romance and mistaken identities brewing and, of course, antics ensue. (I believe the studios had special writers for the latter, their doors labeled AE Department). It’s a romp, a farce, a romantic comedy but mostly it’s a colour extravaganza. Peacock, lavender, lemon, gold, bubble gum, violet, plum, rose, mint, pistachio: The Divorce of Lady X is one huge crystal bowl of gay assorted bonbons. Vibrant pastels play off jewel tones as energetically as Olivier plays off Oberon.

Olivier’s character is a barrister and the day after he shares his suite (most chastely) with Oberon a new client shows up wanting a divorce because his wife has apparently spent the night in a hotel room with a man. Olivier believes this man’s wife is Merle Oberon and he goes into a spin in his elegantly appointed office: slate grey doors, ice blue walls, warm caramel-coloured leather chairs, buttery yellow picture frames.

Ralph Richardson portrays the allegedly cuckolded husband. While he downs glowing amber whiskey at the club surrounded by pale aqua walls and glittering chandeliers, Binnie Barnes, his supposedly cheating wife, sits at her vanity in a smoky grey-mauve dress. Her huge apartment foyer has mint green walls interrupted by robins’ egg blue doors and her boudoir sports a daffodil yellow fireplace, peach lampshades, cream quilts, champagne carpets and the palest banana chachkas: the perfect setting to have AE.

There’s great dialogue and wonderful acting but also scene after scene of endless hand wringing and mischievous doings and it would be tedious if not for the sheen and glow, the satin and froth. What the plot lacks Technicolor makes up for. Olivier’s hair is black as midnight against a wall mural of sunshine yellow and dusky blue. Here on a red velvet banquet he converses with Merle who wears an ink black dress that highlights her blush-pink heart-shaped face and creamy décolleté. Her lips are like cherry candy.

As the revelation is about to unfold that Merle is not married to Sir Ralph she nervously flits about the parlour in a gown that rivals the hearth fire: orange-gold accessorized with a wisp of a red gossamer scarf. The fire burns deep orange and glimmers like jewels while Merle’s jewels sparkle like emerald fire and compete with her eyes. Sapphire blue carpeting, pale green seltzer bottles, silver coffee pots, yellow lamp glow, apple green and peppermint tapestry – what more could you want on a foggy grey day?

(PS You’ll have to find the DVD or catch this gem on TCM as you won’t see the colours I’ve described here in the youtube upload).