Monday, February 15, 2010

Pre-Code: Tabac Blond


In 1929, a group of Catholic priests sat down with some of their followers to draw up a series of guidelines for the motion picture industry. Throughout the 1920’s, the fast-living young women known as “flappers” had been part of Hollywood’s lexicon, bringing to the heartlands images of speakeasies, pocket flasks, short dresses and bee-stung lips, often dragging on  -- horror of horrors! -- cigarettes.  
As now, the motion picture industry both reflected and advanced its times. The term “flapper” came into popular use after 1920, when the silent “The Flapper” was released. Flapper-dom became a fad, then a style. From corsets to step-ins; from elaborate upswept hairdos and chaperones to boyish bobs and late-night parties; this was more than a look. It was upheaval, an aftereffect of the horrors of World War One, and of Prohibition. Denied legal liquor, young men and women drank bathtub gin, and they often did so in clandestine bars. It was the thumbing of the nose at convention which led to this louche emancipation. 

Two silent films starring a very young and very uninhibited Joan Crawford -- Our Dancing Daughters and especially Our Modern Maidens -- were part of the output that led to the formation of the Production Code. In the latter movie, Joan Crawford plays a flapper who offers herself to an older diplomat to further the career of her rakish fiance, who is busy seducing her best friend at a wild party. Billie marries her rake, but leaves him for the diplomat when she finds out.
Not exactly Andy Hardy, is it?  And, even more surprising, it was released by MGM, America’s family values studio. In the studio's early years, however, MGM’s creative mastermind was Irving Thalberg, a literate young man who got films such as this one made, even after he helped form the “Studio Relations Committee.” That committee was mostly ignored by the industry, and Thalberg’s MGM continued to release risque classics like Red Dust (which starred Jean Harlow and Clark Gable, marooned together in the tropics) and James Cagney’s The Public Enemy. But illnesses weakened Thalberg, who died in 1936, not long after the National League of Decency was formed. Finally, the Breen Office/Hays Code, which had to approve scripts before filming could start, came to power. Once it was fully implemented, even existing films had to be re-edited to conform to its policies. The Hays Code lasted roughly until the next era of cultural upheaval, the mid-Sixties.
The Caron scent “Tabac Blond” was released just before the flapper phenomenon hit the U.S. It was the opposite of the delicate floral perfumes, often based on violet, that had been in wide use during the days of corsets and buttoned shoes. I’ve recently obtained a bit vintage Tabac Blond, and it is not what I expected. It’s not dark, not masculine (although it probably seemed so in 1919) or bitter. It’s smooth and rich, more like a fine cognac than a riding crop. Generally, it is thought that the flappers used this scent and the later Habanita to hide the smell of tobacco smoke from their eagle-eyed mothers. That could be, but I doubt that it was the reason for the perfume’s invention! It was just one of those synergies that happen sometimes, and smelling it now is like stepping into a time machine.

“Our Modern Maidens” was released less than two months before the stock market crash of 1929. That event brought an end to the era of the convention-flouting flapper, although the last of the “Our” trilogy, “Our Blushing Brides” came out in 1930. (These flappers weren’t the careless debutantes of the earlier two movies, though. They were shopgirls on the hunt for rich men a la “How to Marry a Millionaire,” Depression version.)
And so these leather fragrances, most exempified by this one but with companions like Chanel’s Cuir de Russie, are monuments, wearable history. Like the pre-Code movies, there is something really emancipated, but reflective of reality, about them. They aren’t idealized, aspirational or even artificial -- in their vintage versions, anyway.
There is a scene in “Our Dancing Daughters” where Joan Crawford, seen only from the knees down, does an impromptu Charleston as she prances into her step-ins. Once she’s dressed (but just barely) the scene widens to include the only-in-Hollywood lavish art deco set that is her bedroom. Behind her is a window lined with glass shelves, on which are arranged many bottles of perfume. In this way, we’re shown something about her character. She’s well-off, true, but also discriminating; she has many choices. And unlike her friends, she generally knows what’s what.
It is that quality, that subtle gravitas, that defines vintage Tabac Blond to me. 
Tabac Blond was released in 1919. Like all old perfumes, there have been changes, but the notes include bergamot and a bit of orange blossome, carnation, jasmine and iris, amber, musk, civet, benzoin and oakmoss. The perfumer, Ernest Daltroff, founded the House of Caron.
For a YouTube look at Joan Crawford in Our Dancing Daughters (and the perfume shelf) go here.
The photo is a production still from Our Dancing Daughters, which I found on a Joan Crawford fan site.

“Our Dancing Daughters” and “Our Modern Maidens” were released on videocassette by MGM-UA Home Video in the early Nineties as part of a “Forbidden Hollywood” promotion, but are difficult to find now.

16 comments:

Rappleyea said...

Very interesting review/social commentary. Love your writing! I also want to say that I agree with the comment you made on Perfume Shrine regarding the New Look fashions. I hadn't thought about them in an anti-feminist light, but of course they are. I see some of the same thing going on in recent years in women's fashion after the freedom and revolts of the '60's.

The Left Coast Nose said...

I *loved* this post-- it's wonderful to think of perfumes as the scent track to our lives. You point to interesting ways that perfumes from this era can be read as texts, which I think is a wonderful pursuit.

I am still in the dark about the gender classification of most smells, but tobacco in the early 20th century was clearly gendered, and it's a swell artifact that perfumers picked up on that and used it to make scents that seemed daring and transgressive.

Thanks for the shout-out to pre-code cinema-- Did you ever catch Barbara Stanwyck in "Baby Doll"? Trouble..

Olfacta said...

Hi R -- Thanks! I'm glad I wasn't around for the "New Look." If you weren't Lauren Bacall it would have been impossible without that armored underwear! I remember seeing a slide show about women's fashions, when I was in college, and their deeper meaning. Remember the super-tight "French" jeans and high platform shoes of the 70's? Same thing, different era. Now, I guess, it's those "Bondage" shoes.

Olfacta said...

Hi R -- I've always thought that if music is the soundtrack, perfume is the scent track; it says a lot. While doing research for the post, I came across a photo of a bunch of flappers all smoking, exhaling huge clouds of smoke at the camera, very defiantly. Like "I dare you to tell me to put this out." I do wonder if Daltroff had in that mind when he made "Tabac Blond."

chayaruchama said...

Much enjoyed, O !

This is one of those "I cut my teeth on ".
It just felt so right....

[More sad evidence to prove why I was such a bewildering child ;-) ]

Olfacta said...

Hi C -- I wish I'd known about Tabac Blond back in my teenaged years! (We lived in a smallish town where the scents were mostly the drugstore ones, and even the department store wouldn't have carried Caron.) If it had, I'm sure I would've been trailing clouds of it too.

Good to hear from you as always --

a blog by Brian Pera said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
a blog by Brian Pera said...

What a great post, Olfacta. Your writing continues to amaze me, the things you pull in. I'm reading a booklet on Bette Davis by David Thomson right now, part of a series he's doing on "the stars". He reports: Louella Parsons said that Davis had stepped into the shoes left behind by a recently more respectable Joan Crawford. Reading your post I remember what she must have meant. I forgot how scandalous Joan was when she first hit the scene.

Olfacta said...

Hi B - I've read that Ms. Crawford, in her earliest days, felt that she wasn't getting promoted properly, so she began to enter (and win) Charleston contests in Hollywood, developing her own fan base, which ultimately led to her early rise. Hmmm. Sounds like a certain Eighties superstar, doesn't it?

Every generation thinks they invented everything.

I think I would have loved the Twenties, assuming that modern dentistry had been invented early.

CagneyFan said...

Late to the party, sorry. Great post. I'm a big fan of pre-Codes, many of which are simply well told but hard hitting stories. A few may creak by today's standards, but many are still worth watching.

BTW, it wasn't MGM which produced and released Cagney's PUBLIC ENEMY; PE was a Warner Bros movie, directed by William Wellman and produced by Darryl Zanuck.

TheLeftCoastNose---did you mean to reference Stany's BABY FACE? This is the movie which caused Warner's to cut Zanuck, who then migrated to another studio. Look for a brief appearance by a very young, very handsome John Wayne.

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