Tuesday, July 5, 2011

The Spanish Main: The Black Swan

The Movie
  Come buckle the swash with Maureen O'Hara, Tyrone Power and a cast of hundreds in glorious TechnicolorThe Black Swan (1942, directed by Rafael Sabatini) is a completely enjoyable movie in the historical extravaganza mode and an Oscar-winner for best cinematography.
   Tyrone Power plays Jaime Waring, associate of the dread pirate Captain Henry Morgan, who is soon to be hanged in England.  The early film sees Henry Morgan's fortunes turn with a pardon, knighthood and a post as governor of Jamaica.  Peace has been drawn up between Spain and England, and Sir Henry returns to Jamaica to recruit supporters from amongst his former privateer cronies.  Waring and his buddy Tommy Blue (Thomas Mitchell) throw their lot in with Morgan, but many others including Captain Billy Leech (George Sanders) and his first mate, Wogan (Anthony Quinn) prefer the pirate's life.  With hotheaded Lady Margaret Denby (Maureen O'Hara), the governor's daughter, to chase, a pirate rebellion to quell and treachery in the new administration, Waring has his hands full...

Spanish Main
   The Spanish Empire began in 1492 with Christobal Colon's landing in the New World.  By the early1600s, the Empire extended in the New World from California to the Gulf Coast of the United States including Florida, down through Central America and the Caribbean into South America to the mid-point of modern-day Chile and Argentina and east to Brazil.  From these areas, the Spanish would export a great wealth of natural resources, primarily silver and gold, in yearly convoys known as the 'Treasure Fleet'.  The typical amount of each shipment was 25 million pesos, which was two times more revenue than accrued to the British crown in a single year.  The Spanish would guard their fleet with warships, but with such rich cargo, this was not enough to deter piracy.  Mainland Atlantic ports of the Empire were the ultimate departure points for the Treasure Fleet, but to reach the open Atlantic, the ships had to navigate their way through the Spanish Main, the area encompassing the Gulf of Mexico and Caribbean islands south and east to the boundary of modern-day Brazil.  The many islands of the Caribbean provided shelter for ships seeking to attack the fleet.

Piracy on the Main
   Pirates of the Spanish Main were certainly out to make a profit for themselves at the expense of other vessels, but in many cases, they served another master as well.  Privateers, ships and crews commissioned by the leaders of other seafaring nations such as England, the Netherlands and Portugal, were sent in times of war to capture enemy vessels.  With a letter of marque and reprisal, ships captains could attack and capture enemy vessels.  Because the crew and captain would earn a slice of the take, it was in their best interest to choose the richest targets.  Actual pirates were commissioned by no nation and were in business strictly for themselves.  As noted in this BBC article, the conditions on board pirate ships were often much more egalitarian and democratic then on privateers.  Captains were elected by the crew and were selected for showing real skill, whereas the privateers were often commanded by members of the nation's upper-crust, whether or not they had real seafaring skill.
Hands off me, you brute!
   Some pirates and privateers even worked together enough to form a loose association known as the Brethren of the Coast; members were to abide by certain codes of conduct pertaining to treatment of prisoners and division of the spoils.  The Bretheren were based mainly in two locations:  Tortuga and Port Royal.  Hispanola, the island where the modern nations of Haiti and Dominican Republic are located, was a major pirate stronghold at the height of Spanish shipping.  Tortuga, which is often referred to in movies (including The Black Swan) as the pirate capital, is a small island off the northeast end of Hispanola.  Jamaica, with its capital city of Port Royal, was captured from the Spanish by the English in 1655, and became base of operations for English buccaneers and privateers in the Spanish Main.

Henry Morgan
Laird Creager as Morgan
   Henry Morgan, a Welshman, began his privateering career in the Caribbean in the late 1650s, working under other captains before securing his own command in 1657.  He is generally credited with leading the formation of the Brethren of the Coast, and was the captain in charge of several exploits in the Caribbean, including the storming of Portobello in Panama and an amazing escape from Maracaibo.  Similar to events laid out in The Black Swan, Morgan was sent to England to be tried after a raid in Panama violated a British-Spanish peace treaty.  Instead, Morgan was given a knighthood and made governor of Jamaica.

Links and Sources
Reefs, Wrecks and Rascals, Mel Fisher Maritime Museum
Pirates of the Spanish Main, BBC
Brethren of the Coast, Wikipedia
Henry Morgan, Wikipedia
Piracy in the Caribbean, Wikipedia
Spanish Empire, History World

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

The Automat: Thirty Day Princess

The Movie
   The consensus:  screenwriting credits by Preston Sturgess make a formulaic plot enjoyable, and top talent helps the cause.  The set-up:  Thirty Day Princess (1934, directed by Marion Gering) is set smack in the middle of the Depression and stars Cary Grant as Porter Madison III, a newspaper editor out to take down fat cat bankers.  When he hears word that the Princess of Tyronia is coming to New York as an introductory tour in hopes of securing an international loan arranged by one of those bankers, he becomes suspicious and sets out to investigate.  On the other side, the Princess Catterina (Sylvia Sidney) has contracted mumps and cannot fulfill her public duties.  The fat cat banker (Edward Arnold) looks for and finds a ringer in Nancy Lane (also Sylvia Sidney), a down-on-her-luck actress who takes the part of the Princess.
   I find the opening few sequences where the King of Tyronia meets the banker pretty interesting.  The King, who cannot even afford to give his daughter money for the movies, says he would like to give the peasants of his country electric lights and heat.  The banker asks the King how much he would need.  "Oh, about 5 million," says the King.  "No, no!" replies the banker, "50 million!"  Ring any bells?

The Automat
   An automat is an extinct type of restaurant first brought to the U.S. in the early 1900s, modeled after a Berlin restaurant, the Quisisana Automat.  Automats had been in Europe since the late 1800s.  In this type of eatery, one would get change from the cashier, then pay for meal items by inserting nickels and drawing the items one selected out from behind small glass-and-chrome doors.  Trays were available to carry the food, and, much like a cafeteria, a tray-slider was in place below the food cases, so that one could move down the rows, looking at options.  The kitchen was located behind the 'wall' and slots were refilled from the kitchen.  Food included items such as Salisbury steak, chicken pot pie, creamed spinach, rice pudding, baked beans, blueberry pie and many others, all of which were subject to high quality control standards.  Spigots were provided for coffee and other drinks.  Seating was also cafeteria-style, with a group of tables and chairs in the middle.  Side note:  the automat or studio set featured in Thirty Day Princess seems to be the same one where the great food fight scene in Easy Living was shot.
   Horn and Hardart were the entrepreneurs who brought the European model to the U.S., opening the first restaurant in Philadelphia in 1902.  From there on it was expansion time, and many Horn and Hardart automats would open up in Philadelphia and New York.  Competitors, who could see how well the H&H model worked, would open up other restaurants as well.  Drive-in restaurants struck a blow to the automat model of business in the 50s and 60s, and by the 1980s, with fast food becoming commonplace nationwide, the few automats that were left were hanging on by a thread.  Since the last Horn and Hardarts shut down in 1991, there have been several attempts at revival, but none have been successful in the long term
A kiss on the hand may be quite continental
but diamonds are a girl's best friend.
A kiss may be grand, but it won't pay the rental
on your humble flat, or help you at the automat...
                                     -Gentlemen Prefer Blondes
Links and Sources
Automat, Wikipedia
Meet Me At the Automat, Smithsonian
The Automat
European Automats, Victualling
An East Coast Oasis, Victualling
A book about the Automat by one of the descendants of Hardart:  The Automat (M. Hardart & L. Diehl)

Friday, June 10, 2011

Tracing A Reference: Cynara

A guilty look.
 The Movie
   Free-associater that I am, I stayed away from Cynara (1932, directed by King Vidor) for quite a while, figuring it had to do with suffering, lost love and cyanide.  Having just watched this movie for the first time, I will say that I was spot on about two of these (and possibly even three).  I'd congratulate myself, but just the fact that this is a Kay Francis film pretty much gives the first two away.
   Ronald Colman has top billing in this flick, playing Jim Warlock (uh-oh), a lawyer with a high-flying career.  His wife, Clemency Warlock (Kay Francis), departs unexpectedly for vacation in Venice to get her sister away from a bad romance.  This leaves Jim, who up until now has been a happily-married man, at the mercy of a very bad octagenarian influence.  At his friend's not-so-subtle urgings to be less dull and get more variety in life, Jim responds to a girl he meets in a restaurant (Phyllis Barry).  He quickly quashes her advances, but when they are thrown together again at a bathing beauty pageant, the trouble really begins...

   Instead of cyanide, the title of this movie references a poem 'Non Sum Qualis Eram Bonae Sub Regno Cynarae' (I am no more the man I was in the reign of the good Cynara), written by Ernest Dowson. The poem's narrator speaks to Cynara, telling her how, while he drank, danced and made love to prostitutes, the thought of her turned these earthly pleasures into empty actions. Cold comfort, but a beautiful poem.
Non Sum Qualis Eram Bonae Sub Regno
Last night, ah, yesternight, betwixt her lips and mine
There fell thy shadow, Cynara! thy breath was shed
Upon my soul between the kisses and the wine;
And I was desolate and sick of an old passion,
Yea, I was desolate and bowed my head:
I have been faithful to thee, Cynara! in my fashion.
All night upon mine heart I felt her warm heart beat,
Night-long within mine arms in love and sleep she lay;
Surely the kisses of her bought red mouth were sweet;
But I was desolate and sick of an old passion,
When I awoke and found the dawn was gray: 
I have been faithful to thee, Cynara! in my fashion.
I have forgot much, Cynara! gone with the wind,
Flung roses, roses riotously with the throng,
Dancing, to put thy pale, lost lilies out of mind;
But I was desolate and sick of an old passion,
Yea, all the time, because the dance was long:
I have been faithful to thee, Cynara! in my fashion.

I cried for madder music and for stronger wine,
But when the feast is finished and the lamps expire,
Then falls thy shadow, Cynara! the night is thine;
And I am desolate and sick of an old passion,
Yea, hungry for the lips of my desire:
I have been faithful to thee, Cynara! in my fashion. 
               -- Ernest Dowson (1876-1900)

   'Non Sum Qualis...' is a poem following the Alexandrine pattern of twelve-syllable lines. Margaret Mitchell took the title of her famous novel, Gone with the Wind, from the third verse. 

Ernest Dowson
  Dowson was a poet considered to be of the Decadent school, a contemporary and acquaintance of Oscar Wilde and Yeats.  He was born into a middle-class family in 1867 and trained at Oxford, but did not finish his course.  After his schooling, he spent some time in England, some in France and most of it in and out of pubs, taverns and dinner clubs pursuing a dissolute lifestyle.  During this period he completed a play, a novel, wrote for several journals and continued with his poetry.  Key to any detail of Dowson's life was his love from afar for the 11-year-old daughter of a local restaurant owner.  It is possible that 'Non Sum Qualis...' was composed for her.  She was either unaware of or unresponsive to his love, eventually marrying a tailor who lodged above the family restaurant.
   The biography of Ernest Dowson is short; he died of alcoholism at 32.  In memorial at the time of his death, many words of praise were written by a friend, Arthur Symons,  who also wrote the following about Dowson's short life:  "We get out of life, all of us, what we bring to it; that, and that only, is what it can teach us. There are men whom Dowson's experiences would have made great men, or great writers; for him they did very little." 

Original Reference
    The poem's title in Latin comes from an ode written as if to Venus by Horace, a classical Roman poet.  In this ode, the author asks Venus (the goddess of love) to let him alone because he feels he is too old to love again - he is not the young man he was when he was with Cynara - it would be more fitting if the passion were given to another man.  Yet by the end of the poem, the poet admits that he has succumbed to Venus, and passion for the cold-hearted young man Ligurinus has him tied in knots.

After a long cessation, O Venus, again are you stirring up tumults? Spare me, I beseech you, I beseech you. I am not the man I was under the dominion of good-natured Cynara. Forbear, O cruel mother of soft desires, to bend one bordering upon fifty, now too hardened for soft commands: go, whither the soothing prayers of youths invoke you. More seasonably may you revel in the house of Paulus Maximus, flying thither with your splendid swans, if you seek to inflame a suitable breast. 
As for me, neither woman, nor youth, nor the fond hopes of mutual inclination, nor to contend in wine, nor to bind my temples with fresh flowers, delight me [any longer]. But why; ah! why, Ligurinus, does the tear every now and then trickle down my cheeks? Why does my fluent tongue falter between my words with an unseemly silence? Thee in my dreams by night I clasp, caught [in my arms]; thee flying across the turf of the Campus Martius; thee I pursue, O cruel one, through the rolling waters.                 --Horace  (65 BC - 8 BC, Rome)
Links and Sources
The Works of Horace, Authorama
Poem -- Ernest Dowson, Wandering Minstrels
Ernest Dowson, The Victorian Web
Ernest Dowson
Gone With the Wind, Wikipedia
Horace, Wikipedia

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Technicolor: Vertigo

The Movie
    Hitchcock's classic.  For most movie recaps, I don't mind gabbing on about what happens here and there in the movie, but to know too much about this movie before watching it would negate the point of the film, so will keep it brief.  Vertigo (1958, directed by Alfred Hitchcock), is a slow-paced thriller set in San Fransisco. Indeed, the city and the Bay Area are just as much of a star of the film as its charismatic lead (I'm sorry that I can't attribute charisma to Kim Novak in this movie, although she does well enough in the second half).  The movie was not a box-office or a critical success when it was released, but is considered by many people today to be one of his finest.  As for me, I still prefer North By Northwest.
   Jimmy Stewart plays 'Scottie' Ferguson, a former police officer who is forced to take a leave from the police department when an on-the-job tragedy that leaves him with acute acrophobia, or fear of heights.  As he is pondering what to do to fill his empty days, an opportunity presents itself in the form of an old acquaintance, Gavin Elster (Tom Helmore).  This acquaintance is very concerned about the mental state of his wife, Madeline (Kim Novak).  As Elster tells it, Madeline may or may not be possessed by the spirit of a Spanish woman who, deprived of her child and love, took her own life a century earlier.  Jimmy is hired to investigate Madeline's activities, but and soon finds himself becoming over-involved and fascinated by the vulnerable blonde...

   How do you visually and non-verbally represent the state of a disturbed person's mind?  For Alfred Hitchcock, it meant swirling visuals and rapid-fire changes from normal color to color overlay.  The highly saturated look of Technicolor was perfect for these sort of effects, and Hitchcock was familiar with the process having made his first Technicolor picture, Rope (also starring Jimmy Stewart), ten years prior to filming Vertigo.
   Technicolor was formed as a company in 1915 by three engineers, two of them from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (the Tech in Technicolor), according to this excellent website.  The intent of the two founders was to devise a workable method for filming and projecting color images.  The first film from the new company was shown in 1917, but the early technology used two separate projectors and the alignment of the two to form a cohesive image proved to be too difficult for frequent use.
The Toll of the Sea:  red, green, no blue. 
   In 1923, the group finally turned a profit with The Toll of the Sea, filmed by a new process that utilized a beam-splitting prism to separate the filmed image into red and blue-green negatives.  Once developed, the negatives were aligned and run through the projector.  Over the next several years, studios would commit to filming partial segments of certain films using the Technicolor process, but held off using the method for complete movies.  In 1926, Douglas Fairbanks commissioned the process for The Black Pirate.  The film was a success, but for Technicolor, it was another learning exercise; after successive showings, the heat of the projection lamp warped the two prints, causing a distortion in the film that caused erratic changes in projection focus.  Each print was sent back to Technicolor to be flattened, an expensive undertaking.
   The Viking, filmed in 1928, was the first full length Technicolor film with sound and using the new dye transfer technique that eliminated the need for back-to-back prints, putting all colors on one film strip, although the technology to capture only two colors was available at the time.  The new process was well-received and several new pictures were commissioned, but with the onset of the Great Depression in 1929, business took a hit.  The Mystery of the Wax Museum (1933) was the last such two-color film.
   Over a period of the prior years, the group had not been sitting on their laurels, and in 1932 they went to Walt Disney to see if his studio would serve as guinea pig for their 3-strip process.  Flowers and Trees, a Silly Symphony musical cartoon, was the result.  In the 3-strip process, a black-and-white receiver film was coated with a film that would allow it to accept the color dyes.  Green, red and blue negatives were also created.  Through a special process involving a gelatin wash, complimentary dye colors to the green, red and blue (cyan, magenta and yellow, respectively) were printed on the black-and-white ground film.  The accuracy needed for this process was printing within 8/10,000 of an inch.  Becky Sharp (1935) was the first full-length, three-strip picture.  The last was made in 1953 after Eastman Kodak developed the technology to replace the bulky three-strip camera with a single-strip.
   In 1952, a camera had been developed that recorded images to film using standard color photography processes.  Although the bright look and high quality of Technicolor remained popular for some time, it was a time-consuming and expensive process, made even more expensive by the requirement that each Technicolor camera was rented from the company and was accompanied by a color specialist and the need for the intricate dye transfer process.  By the time Vertigo was made, use of Technicolor was in slow decline.

Links and Sources
Technicolor, Wikipedia
Most of the material summarized above came from ten pages of easily understood Technicolor history at the American Widescreen Museum website
I tend to agree with several points about the movie noted here (spoiler)

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Monkeypuzzle: The Ghost and Mrs. Muir

 The Movie
   If this isn't the most misleading movie poster, I don't know what is - I wonder how many males it lured into seeing this sweet romantic film with the expectation of Gene Tierney in tight-fitting evening wear. Instead she spends the bulk of the film wrapped in turn-of-the-century widow's weeds and long gowns with her hair in a prim bun.
   This is just a great movie.  The Ghost and Mrs. Muir (1947, directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz) is a quiet romance, but all of the main characters have enough edge and willfulness that the story never turns saccharine, and the minor players are acted with humor. 
   The story opens with Lucy (Gene Tierney), widowed for a year, declaring to her in-laws that it's time for herself and her daughter to move out.  This doesn't go over well, but Lucy is determined.  She takes herself to the rental agent and, after seeing and admiring Gull Cottage, she determines on the spot to take it.  The agent is concerned, but rents it to her.  She, her daughter Anna (Natalie Wood) and their longtime housekeeper Martha Huggins (Edna Best) move in, but it isn't long before Lucy discovers that the cottage is haunted by its former owner, an adventuring sea captain (Rex Harrison)...

   A point of contention develops between Lucy and the Captain when she cuts down the monkey puzzle tree in the front yard of the cottage.  I have always wondered what a monkey puzzle tree was - was it imaginary - and is the Captain right about the name?

The Monkey Puzzle Tree
   There is such a thing as a monkey puzzle tree (Araucaria araucana), and they are apparently very popular in botanical gardens and as decorative trees.  Originally from Chile and southern Argentina, the monkey puzzle is a type of evergreen or conifer with very persistent leaves that can last for 10-15 years.  In its native range, the monkey puzzle grows in the lower-middle elevations of the Andes in areas receiving high snowfall in winter, and it can grow up to 70 feet tall.  As mentioned previously, it's a popular choice for decorative gardens in other regions as long as the climate is temperate - such as coastal England, where The Ghost and Mrs Muir is set.
   The Captain was right - the 'Monkey puzzle' name comes from a specific anecdote, where an owner of one of the earliest examples of the species grown in England, in around 1850 in Cornwall, described the tree as something that would 'puzzle a monkey to climb'.  The species was first introduced to England in 1795 by the naval surgeon on Captain George Vancouver's ship, who had been served a meal of the seeds in Chile.

   The monkey puzzle is the national tree of Chile, and is currently listed as Vulnerable on the IUCN (International Union of Conservation of Nature) Red List because of logging for timber and for the creation of agricultural land in its native range.  Current conservation efforts include mapping the distribution of the plant and developing infrastructure for restoration.  In addition to being a popular decorative plant, the seeds of A. araucana have been used as food by the Chileans.  The seeds are easily harvested when the cones drop, but this has not been developed as an agricultural crop because it takes a monkey puzzle 30-40 years to mature enough to produce seeds - a real barrier to efforts to restore naturally-propagating forests.

Links and Sources
Monkey Puzzle Tree, UNEP
Araucaria araucana, Wikipedia
Monkey Puzzle Tree, Global Trees Campaign
Monkey Puzzle Silviculture, About.com
Monkey Puzzle Tree, IUCN

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

The British Raj: The Lives of a Bengal Lancer

The Movie
   Back to the realm of pith helmetsThe Lives of a Bengal Lancer (1935, directed by Henry Hathaway) stars Gary Cooper, Franchot Tone, Richard Cromwell, C. Aubrey Smith and Mischa Auer in an adventure tale set in India when still considered part of the British Empire.  Gary Cooper is the lead to the three main players, a brotherhood formed during duty in Bengal.  In the course of duty they confront mortal danger and conflicts of love and duty.
   While this movie is an excellent adventure movie that does more witty exploration of the internal conflicts of soldiers than most of the time, it represents the colonialist perspective of the Empire and has a few strikes against it when viewed from a modern angle.  Reputedly Adolph Hitler's favorite film (I guess one film had to have that unfortunate distinction).  Shot in California, not India. Native Americans were hired from the nearby rez as extras to act as the tribesmen.  Stiff British actors as Arabic chieftans.  But still!  A grand adventure story of its times that has something to say about hard choices and loyalty, when one of the three main characters (whose father happens to be the regimental commander) is taken hostage.

The British Raj
   The protectorate of India under the British Empire (officially the British Indian Empire) began in 1858.  Civil unrest during the Indian Rebellion of 1857 after an extended period under the control of the British East Indies Company led to the takeover of the region by the British Crown.  The Rebellion had several causes; the main cited cause was discontent within the mixed-caste Indian Army.  Also, Maharani Lakshmi Bai, a major leader in the Rebellion, had lost her throne because of British policies.  British reaction to the rebellion, once initiated, was harsh.
Maharani Laxmi Bai
   Under Queen Victoria, the new Empire instituted a system of collaborative rule with local viceroys and leaders.  The governance of India, a large area far from the seat of government of the colonial power, was administered in two modes:    1. British India, where the Queen directly governed the states through her Governor-General, and 2. the Princely States, states ruled with a certain degree by local leaders, but whose foreign, military and selected other affairs were subject to British control.  This second type of government is known as suzerainty, and power was exercised over these 500+ states through Viceroy or the Governor-General.
   The road to the independence of India was a long one.  Mahatma Gandhi began his calling as an agitator for civil and social rights in 1911; India would not gain independence from Britain until 1947 after many failed attempts and tiny steps forward.  Self-rule was finally granted to the region, and it was divided into India and Pakistan.  Burma was also originally a part of the Empire but became independent in 1937.

The Khyber Region
   In Lives, major action takes place in the region referred to as Mogala, 'far north of the Khyber', possibly a reference to the Mughal Empire that previously encompassed Afghanistan.  The Durand line separated Afghanistan from Raj-controlled India (now Pakistan) at the time this movie was made, and was drawn in part through the Khyber region.  This area has been home for many hundreds of years to the Pashtun tribe.
gratuitous Cooper pic
   Prior to the establishment of the British Raj, the British had attempted incursions into the Khyber, but they were repulsed each time.  In the late 1800s, the Durand Line, denoting sphere of influence of each nation, was finally drawn.  Despite the presence of the line, which had been drawn up with both Pashtun and British input, skirmishes continued as one party or the other made mischief in the other's territory.  Border skirmishes and anti-colonialist sentiment form the backdrop of The Lives of a Bengal Lancer.

Links and Sources
West Bengal, Official Site 
From Empire to Independence, BBC
Durand Line, Wikipedia
British Raj, Wikipedia
Indian Rebellion of 1857, Wikipedia
Jhansi Tourism

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Edith Head: The Bride Wore Boots

The Movie
    The Bride Wore Boots ain't a great movie, but it's an afternoon's entertainment, and a great example of Edith Head's mid-40's designs.  And who could be a better clothes hanger for those outfits than Barbara Stanwyck, who stars in the movie as Sally Warren, a woman who loves horses and having her way.  Opposite her is Robert Cummings as her horse-hating husband, Jeff Warren, a Civil War historian.  Conflict arises when the youngest member Jeff's fan club, played with seduction by grown-up child star Diana Lynn, takes a real shine to Jeff.  Through a series of unfortunate accidents, Barbara gets the wrong idea about Jeff's intentions and readies a quick divorce...

Film Costuming
Leopard!  She's on the prowl.
   When I've thought of film costuming, my thoughts have been along the lines of: 'what a ton of fun! design an outfit on paper, have your assistants whip it up, make a few changes, a fitting and you're done!'.  Ah, but it is not so, as I learned when I went to find out more about the subject.  Designing a costume for a film sounds like it takes not only design skill and color sense, but diplomacy, patience and an ability to work on the fly.  Short deadlines, accidents on set, and many other factors make costume design more complex than it seems.  In addition, each design must fit with the concept of the character.  Then also there is the human element; one of the reasons Edith Head was so popular with many stars was her willingness to give the person what they wanted and to make them look good.

Costume Genius
    When do Oscar nominations become routine?  When you're Edith Head, famed costume designer nominated every year from 1948 to 1966, 35-time nominee over her career and 8-time winner (still the most for any woman).  A favorite of many major movie stars, Edith had a long and distinguished career designing the costumes for more than 1,100 films.
   Edith truly had a wandering childhood, although she never spoke much about it.  Bits and snippets gathered by her close friends hint at parents who never married, a portion of her young life spent in mining camps in the west and in Mexico, and finally high school in Los Angeles and college at Berkeley.   
   She was taught to sew as a young child and got her first break in costuming at the studio that would soon become Paramount, where she found a job working as a sketch artist and assistant to Howard Greer.  She would continue to work at Paramount for over 40 years.  She married twice and had no children.
Edith and Edna (rogerebert.com)
   Of Edith's physical appearance, it was said that she had "a face like a pussycat crossed with a Fujita drawing" (Howard Greer).  Through her observations of various studio-engineered star personas like Dietrich and others, she learned the importance of personal style, which became nearly as famous as the stars she dressed:  dark framed glasses with blue lenses (that helped her determine how a color would photograph in black-and-white, dark hair, classic clothes and placid demeanor.  It was distinctive enough to have a character, Edna Mode, based on her in the Pixar film The Incredibles.
   Many of her peers were dismissive of her talent, saying she relied too much on input from her assistant designers, couldn't draw or hadn't any flair.  She did design lower-key looks than many of the other costumers, but it was a classic look that set itself apart by being of the 'less is more' philosophy.  She was a favorite of several directors, including Alfred Hitchcock.
   Over her many years as a costume designer, Edith found insulation from volatile studio politics by working with the stars to give them what they requested and by being extremely diplomatic.  Films she would design in her long career included The Lady Eve, Holiday Inn, Roman Holiday, The Birds and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.  Her final memorial was a black-and-white film set in the 40s, Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid, with Steve Martin, released soon after she died in 1981.

Links and Sources
Costume Designer's Guild
This one looks interesting, lots of pictures, good text:  Edith Head: The Fifty-Year Career of Hollywood's Greatest Costume Designer by Jay Jorgenson
A great overview text by a man who knew her well: Edith Head:  The Life and Times...  by David Cherichetti
Edith Head, Wikipedia
Edith Head's How To Dress For Success