Wednesday, January 22, 2014

John Decker: The Master of Satire

I came upon the work of the brilliant John Decker quite by accident a few weeks ago when I was sporadically looking up different portraits of different old Hollywood stars (as I often do). Immediately I was completely enthralled by his life work and style. But I was also confounded by my ignorance about his work. Fortunately, I am in a position to not only add to my knowledge, but to add to the knowledge of the public as well. So, here we go.
The portrait that caught my eye was a painting of one of my favorite comedic actors, William Powell. Powell's most famous role was, of course, Nick Charles in The Thin Man movies. Ever since I saw his performance in that quintessential film, and consequently his work in other films, I've been a great fan of his seemingly effortless and elegant comedy. The portrait I discovered, however, was almost as unique as Bill Powell. It was certainly his face, of that I was certain. But he was dressed in 16th century clothing. After a little cursory research, I realized that this was not a set piece. That left two alternatives. Either the piece was created digitally using some sort of photoshopping software. Because I found older photos of the portrait, I quickly eliminated this option. The second option was more attractive, but it was also more confusing: that a period portrait had been commissioned.
I quickly discovered that Powell's was not the only privately commissioned period portrait. Rather, his was almost a member of an unofficial series of portraits painted by one of Hollywood's most unique artists John Decker. Decker's life story is crazily interesting and my short post won't do justice to it, so I suggest you to check out one of the references below where I found my information and where you can find more about Decker and his art.
Decker was born in 1895 in Germany. He had a crazy childhood and somehow ended up in England where he was apprenticed to a famous art forger. Under this auspicious teacher, Decker mastered his artistic talents in theater set design as well as more discrete (and criminal) work. During the first World War, his unscrupulous acquaintances and his German heritage led him to be suspected for treason and he was briefly exiled on the Isle of Man. After the war, he migrated to the home of all artistic delinquents: Hollywood. While there, he failed to establish a successful acting career and turned once again to his artistic talents. He worked as a set painter and designer, costume sketcher, and many other artistic odd jobs. More importantly, he befriended the likes of John Barrymore, W.C. Fields, and Errol Flynn (seen below with his portrait), who all shared his love of hard drinking and partying. Eventually, a group of these drinkers and jokers formed an unofficial club known as the "Bundy Drive Boys" which has since been written extensively about.

In 1929, John Decker began doing what interested me so much: portrait painting. He began painting a variety of stars and their friends. Soon, he began painting their head on the works of the Old Masters of Europe. These portraits were immensely popular and showcased the actors' own egos and Decker's own artistic talents and creativity. His subjects included Gloria Swanson, Charlie Chaplin, Errol Flynn, Vincent Price, John Barrymore, and many others. Perhaps his most famous portraits were W.C. Fields as Queen Victoria and Greta Garbo as Mona Lisa. These actor/Old Masters paintings became quite his forte, and indeed are quite wonderful. Some of his portraits, which were not commissioned, got him in some legal and social trouble and he was brought to court for his sense of humor (such as Katharine Hepburn, who was horrified (and rightly so) for her terrifying portrait that Decker painted).

Decker would continue these mock-portraits throughout his career. In addition, it is whispered that he continued to work as an art forger in California but was so skilled and discrete that no one every could tell. Towards the late-30's, he began working on some "serious" high art once again. These were met with popularity and acclaim. Unfortunately, his lifestyle had taken a toll. Like his more famous friends, a lifetime of hard drinking caused his early death, at 51, in 1947.
But to return to his portraits, I'd like to examine closely two particular painting which struck me so much. They both exhibit two different approaches he took to his "Old Master" portraits. The first, in the case of the Powell portrait (below), is allusion. Powell's portrait is clearly him. His head is merely superimposed on a period body. Judging from the collar, it appears to be from the 16th century. I was able to find a slightly comparable portrait of Sir Richard Grenville that seemed somewhat similar to me, but I could not find an exact match. I am guessing that Decker sometimes merely imitated the style of great artists or eras, not just the works.

But in fact, Decker did, in fact, sometimes copy works exactly. In particular, I am thinking of one of Decker's more famous paintings, certainly more famous than the Powell portrait. It is a early '30s painting of Harpo Marx as the Gainsborough "Blue Boy" seen below. Gainsborough, the famed 18th century British portrait painter, is perhaps most famous for this particular painting, The Blue Boy, which in fact is an homage to the work of an earlier British portrait painter, Van Dyke. Decker's painting is clearly The Blue Boy with Harpo's mischievous face topping the famous body. Not only is it exceptionally funny, it shows some impressive artistic talents.

Decker's name remains slightly obscure today, which really is not that much of a surprise. Even his more theatrically talented friends like John Barrymore are not part of the public memory any more. Time has taken its toll on his reputation. But his work, when found, should be marveled over and appreciated.

References and Suggested Reading:
Bonhams Auction House (Harpo Marx Portrait)

"The Daily Mirror" By Mary Mallory (Biographical Information) 

Hollywood's Hellfire Club
by Gregory William Mank

Bohemian Rogue: The Life of Hollywood Artist John Decker
by C. Stephen Jordan

Monday, January 13, 2014

Ralph DuCasse Abstract Painting in "Pillow Talk" (1959)

Anyone who knows me, knows that I love a smart romantic comedy. It might not be my most... masculine trait, but I can't deny it. So, it should come as no shock that I've always had a soft spot in my  heart for Pillow Talk (1959). I still remember watching the movie with my mom for the first time and being so impressed with the sharp dialogue and great humor throughout. Sure, the film is based on an outdated principle and requires a little explanation beforehand, but it is funny and it showcases Doris Day and Rock Hudson at their finest.
Recently, I've noticed another source of admiration for Pillow Talk: its set design. Again, this is not particularly surprising. Doris Day's character, Jan, is a interior designer. As with most films about artists, the film highlights exceptionally good contemporary tastes. I consider it a matter of trust between the filmmaker and the audience. If you are watching a film in which a character is a designer or an artist, you expect to see credible design and artistry. Pillow Talk certainly does not disappoint in this aspect at all. In fact, this post was actually requested by a loyal reader- I hope it doesn't disappoint!
One piece in particular stands out in the beginning of Pillow Talk. In the beginning of the film, Jan (D.D.) is first seen while she is working. We're introduced to her as the crush and interior designer of wealthy Jonathan (Tony Randall), who has commissioned an office redesign. Jan orders some workmen to bring in a new painting to hang in the office: a beautiful, large abstract painting that will serve as the inspiration for this post.
The painting receives some adoring film time. At one shot, it almost fills the entire still. Jan rotates the painting ninety degrees and hangs it on the wall. She proudly shows off her new find to Jonathan (who couldn't care less: he's more interested in her than her work). He asks her out and she declines and then she departs the scene. The painting does focus in the background of a few more scenes, but it's five minutes of fame is finished.

At first, the painting seems quite innocuous. This is because, unlike...say, portraits, the painting's reasoning is not immediately apparent. This is partially due to its abstract content. What can be surmised from a bunch of abstract shapes and dabs of paint? A lot more than you would initially think.
Jan Morrow (Doris Day)
"The Modern Woman"
And consequently, modern art-lover
Pillow Talk is based on the wooing of the "modern woman." Jan has a very successful career. She has a professional demeanor. She (gasp) lives by herself (without a man, obviously). In 1959 (when Pillow Talk was released), this is extremely cutting edge stuff. Jan is undoubtedly modern (whether the film portrays this as a positive or a negative is neither here nor there). So this painting, which we view in our first look at Jan helps establish this modernity. As in other films, abstract art represents modern (or contemporary) culture and standards. So, when Jonathan doesn't understand the abstract painting, he also doesn't understand Jan's desire for independence.
Untitled (1957)
by Ralph Du Casse
This painting was incredibly difficult to find. But, after a long pursuit, I finally managed to find it in the records of Omega/Cinema Props. Omega is an extremely large prop house that actually has headquarters in the first-ever film prop-house. Over the years, Omega has bought and consolidated other independent firms and I can't tell you how it ended up there. But I can tell the basic details about it. It is an untitled painting by a lesser-known American abstract expressionist, Ralph Du Casse. Du Casse painted this piece in, right on the money for Pillow Talk. Du Casse lived and worked in California and is especially noted for his oriental-inspired abstract expressionism. He was an esteemed member of the San Francisco Art Institute and a respected and beloved teacher who died in 2003 (follow this link for his obituary).
The painting is present in other scenes that take place in Jonathan's office:
A reminder of her presence and her independence
It's a decent abstract expressionist painting and very indicative of Du Casse's style. Furthermore, it really fits the feel of '60s contemporary modern art. And besides, it initially matches with Doris Day's fantastic hat. Can you get any better than that?

Omega/Cinema Props provided me with the artist name. Their information on the particular painting is available in the link below.[0]=07_ART&subcategories[0]=Abstracts

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

The Ellenshaw Paintings in the "Chim Chim Cher-ee" Rooftop Adventure of "Mary Poppins"

A few weeks ago, after watching the fabulous Saving Mr. Banks, my family had the strongest urge to watch Mary Poppins again, after all these years. I doubt that we were alone in our inclinations. Anyone leaving Saving Mr. Banks has the strongest urge to re-watch the perennial classic again after renewed interest. Besides, those catching Sherman Brothers songs are so easy to get stuck in your head... So, we watched the film and delighted in it anew. But, later that week, I found out that my littlest cousin had never seen the film. So, I took it upon myself to educate her for the better and show her what real entertainment is. Which meant I watched Mary Poppins twice in one week- which means I wake up to the soundtrack- which means, I can't stop thinking about the film. And in all honesty, I don't want to stop thinking about it.
Mary Poppins is the classic Disney film. Because, perhaps more than most Disney film, it's magic is so timeless and its message is so potent. I have the warmest place in my heart for Bedknobs and Broomsticks. I love that movie to bits. But I can't help but acknowledge that not only is Mary Poppins the better film, it is one of the best films. Not best Disney films. Best films. Period. I dare you to contradict me.

Mary Poppins continues to succeed in entertaining because of the pure quality of its production. It had everything going for it to succeed. A warm-hearted story (strung together from P.L. Travers' excellent concept) paired with great music. A great cast, led by the beloved Julie Andrews (who never appears more sharp and beautiful or... practically perfect) and Dick Van Dyke who could charm the very birds away from St. Pauls' bird woman (despite and because of his occasionally terrible Cockney accent). Not to mention a terrific supporting cast and those marvelous children. Furthermore, the film is beautiful to behold. And one of the many reasons it is such a lovely picture is the fantastic special effects (which consequently won an Academy Award in 1964).
A chief contributor to the magic of Mary Poppins was the famous Disney artist Peter Ellenshaw who painted over "one hundred evocative" mattes of London. Ellenshaw was esteemed artist of his own rights, but is best known for his work for Walt Disney. He worked on Treasure Island, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, and, most famously, Mary Poppins. His work for Mary Poppins is exceptionally beautiful. In particular, I'm going to focus on one particular sequence that was composed almost entirely of mattes that Ellenshaw painted. As a quick aside, it is important to recognize the level of excellence found in the matte paintings of Mary Poppins. Many of the film's iconic sets of London were composed of equal, if not greater, artistry of the animation sequence ("Jolly Holiday").
I feel that the most visually beautiful and stunning scenes, and likewise, the most beautiful mattes of the film, are in (what I refer to as) the "rooftop adventure" scene. Soundtrack wise, it is nestled between (most of) Chim Chim Cher-ee" and "Step in Time." Mary, Bert, and the children trek through the jungle of chimneys and rooftops. They reach a final point, where Mary creates the "smoke staircase" and they climb up to a church steeple, where they are greeted with a sweeping view of London, dominated by St. Paul's Cathedral. In a brief, but stunning moment, the sun seemingly goes down and London by evening is transformed in London by night. And that beautiful scene is due to the work of Peter Ellenshaw.
Ellenshaw, who painted most of the London mattes, was most prolific (in my opinion) during this sequence. London never looked more incredible and impressive than from his brush. I am not exactly sure how he achieved the sunset effect. He could have painted a number of contrasting London skylines, which transitioned into each other, or he could have subtly changed one. I am in the opinion that it is multiple paintings. In the "Making of Mary Poppins" special feature, he explained how he poked small holes through the paint, so lights could shine through the glass gradually, achieving the effect of London's lights being slowly turned on as the sun goes down. The effect is achieved so successfully, that one can't help but feel you are enjoying a bird's eye view of Edwardian London, despite the impossibility of it.
Peter Ellenshaw
In my opinion, the painstaking and meticulous matte paintings of Peter Ellenshaw are just as convincing than the computer graphics of today. And more than that, they are assuredly more beautiful, especially when you realize the lengths that Ellenshaw went to create a realistic and magical world for us to enjoy. Ellenshaw's paintings of London have been described as slightly impressionistic and I'm inclined to agree with them. Impressionism is about light and color and how light plays with color, the magic within color and light if you will. The world of Mary Poppins is real, but it's not completely realistic because of its quintessential magic, just as impressionism is real, but is not quite completely real. And it is certainly beautiful and fantastic world.

"Matte Shot" Blog

"The Making of Mary Poppins" (2004 Special Features video)
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