Bolero - Dirty Dancing in the 1930s

Louisa Amelia Jane Vintage Fashion Store

Some of you who have been reading my blog for a while may remember that I love pre-code Hollywood movies. These are movies made in the late 1920s-mid 1930s before Hollywood was forced to enforce the Hayes Code - a censorship code designed to stamp out perceived immorality in the movies. 

Bolero, c.1934, was directed by Wesley Ruggles and starred George Raft and Carole Lombard. The costumes are to die for. A strange mishmash of Belle Epoque and 1930s fashion, I found them endlessly fascinating. I wonder where they all ended up and whether any of them still exist. 

Publicity shot for Bolero

The movie tells the story of Raoul (Raft), an ambitious professional dancer, and his string of partners, culminating most successfully with Helen (Lombard). Raoul's character is (loosely) based on the french dancer Maurice Mouvet, who Raft had known. Like the music of Ravel's Bolero, the movie theme, the movie builds towards the climax of the ultimate dance performance, a sensual interpretation of the music and a display of the characters' passion for each other.

The movie is set mostly in 1914, ending in 1918. The music, Ravel's Bolero, did not premiere to the public until 1928, so we have to forgive Hollywood for a little anachronism here. Ravel's friend, Russian dancer and actresss Ida Rubenstein, had commissioned him to write a Spanish flavored ballet piece for her. After it's premiere in Paris in 1928 Ravel's best known work was received "by a shouting, stamping, cheering audience in the midst of which a woman was heard screaming: “Au fou, au fou!” (“The madman! The madman!”). When Ravel was told of this, he reportedly replied: “That lady… she understood.” (1)

But back to the costumes. The costume director was Travis Banton, who was uncredited. Set in 1914, the first scenes feature some glorious Belle Epoque fashions. However, when the glamorous women appear, first Frances Drake and later Carole Lombard, their outfits have a lot more about the 1930s to them than the 1910s. 1930s hats, collars and cuffs trim gowns that could be loosely seen as Edwardian. It was as if Banton, or maybe the director Ruggles, thought that they couldn't possibly let their leads be seen in dowdy Edwardian fashions when there was Art Deco!

Raft with Frances Drake, sporting a dashing 1930s hat in 1914

In this clip from Bolero, Raft and Drake tango. How amazing is her tasseled gown! Bell Epoque split skirt and tassels, but the cut looks so '30s.

Bolero was the first movie in which Lombard danced professionally and a double was used for many of her scenes. The long distance shots of the pair dancing were mostly of professional dancers Veloz and Yolanda, who were also uncredited.

This amazing dress is clearly a 1930s gown, but the shorter over layer does hint a little at the fashions of the Belle Epoque. Ostrich or swans down? Fashion in those days was certainly dangerous to bird and beast.

Lombard was the highest paid Hollywood star in the late 1930s. I can't look at her  without thinking of her famous romance with and marriage to Clark Gable, and of her tragic death in a plane crash in January 1942. Gable was devastated by her death and it spurred him to enlist in the US Air Force. 

Clark Gable and Carole Lombard with Lombard's mother, who was also killed in the accident

In July 1934 Hollywood began enforcing the Hayes code. We wouldn't have seen Sally Rand's erotic and almost naked Fan Dance, which is featured.

We wouldn't have seen Lombard auditioning in her underwear, and we wouldn't have seen Raft's hands across her breasts in the Bolero. The women dancers in the film are all looking for rich men to keep them or perhaps marry them, and the censors wouldn't have liked that either. Whew! Just made it through on the calendar!

 The finale - finally, they dance the Bolero. How she stayed in that dress in the days before double sided tape I do not know

In 1984, ice dancers Jane Torvil and Christopher Dean based their Olympic gold medal winning performance to Ravel's Bolero on the dance routine from this movie.

 If you want to watch the whole movie, and please do, it's available here, although the quality is not good enough to go to full screen, and you have to put up with French subtitles.

 Louisa Amelia Jane Vintage Fashion Store


(1) Classic FM; 2019; London;

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