V&A Online Journal
Issue No. 1 Autumn 2008
The film work of stage designer Oliver Messel
Assistant Curator, Theatre Collections. V&A
In 2005, with the support of the Heritage Lottery Fund, the Friends of the V&A and the National Art Collections Fund, the V&A Theatre Collections purchased the collection from Lord Snowdon. Under the funding agreement, the V&A established a touring interactive display using the collection as an inspiration. The Museum also staged a conference held at the Theatre Museum where V&A curators and Messel’s nephew, Thomas, gave papers on Messel’s legacy as an interior, film and stage designer.
Oliver Messel (1904 - 1978)
'I attempted to use every device to make as much magic as possible'. Oliver Messel. (1)
Oliver Messel was the leading British stage designer of the mid-twentieth century. He was born on 13 January 1904 to Maud Frances (1875-1960) (daughter of the Punch cartoonist Edward Linley Sambourne (1844-1953)) and Lieutenant-Colonel Leonard Charles Rudolph Messel (1872-1953), a successful banker. Messel began his fifty-year career in 1925 and won international acclaim for his exquisite taste and mastery of period style in revues, plays, films, interiors, buildings, musicals, operas and ballets, becoming one of the most sought-after and highly-paid scenery and costume designers of his era.
Messel was a master of illusion and make-believe; from his early childhood he made model houses, furniture and painted maquettes. He could make a chandelier out of sticky paper and fuse-wire, or construct a dancer’s head-dress out of pipe cleaners. His nephew, Lord Snowdon, remembers as a child finding a bird’s nest in his London garden and on inspection discovering that it had been made by his uncle Oliver, and that the eggs were made of hand-painted china.
Messel was a perfectionist who knew exactly how fabric should be cut and how every stage prop should be made. He often demanded items be remade if they were not to his satisfaction. He worked with every major theatre director of his generation and received a CBE in 1958. He designed nine films throughout his career, each displaying his intrinsic knowledge and research for period detail and his flair for creative inventiveness.
‘Oliver made a white dress for me with a blue sash worn like a halter, which he made from a wonderful material called lisse, which is finer than organza. He had a sharp eye for what you were and never overdressed me. He made me look like a million dollars’. Eyelyn Laye (2)
Messel had trained as a painter at the Slade School of Art where his contemporaries included Rex Whistler (1905–1944). His formal studies concentrated on life drawing and painting, but he also made masks from papier-mâché and wax for student events. An exhibition of his masks at the Claridge Galleries in London in 1925 led to his first stage commission to design masks for the prestigious Diaghilev ballet production of Zéphyre et Flore, performed at the London Coliseum. From 1926 onwards, Charles B. Cochran engaged Messel to design costumes, masks and sets for his annual reviews at the London Pavilion. These reviews consisted of songs, sketches and chorus numbers, and provided Messel with ample opportunities to develop and exercise his talent for minute attention to detail, inventive use of materials and imaginative pastiche of historical periods and styles. This would become Messel’s trademark in whatever medium he worked.
In 1932, Messel’s white-on-white set and costume designs for Helen, an opera bouffe with music by Jacques Offenbach, directed by Max Reinhardt, caused a sensation on the London stage. The production cemented his success and secured a steady stream of prestigious London theatre design commissions from the 1930s to the 1960s.
It was Messel’s work on Helen and the 1932 production of Max Reinhardt’s wordless medieval play The Miracle that brought him to the attention of film director and producer, Alexander Korda. Korda was founder of London Films and Denham Film studios in Buckinghamshire. He was a figurehead in the fledgling British film industry and was the first film director to be knighted. Messel’s first film for Korda was The Private Life of Don Juan, which starred Douglas Fairbanks. It was during Messel’s second film for Korda, The Scarlet Pimpernel, starring Leslie Howard and Merle Oberon, that Messel really explored the pastiching of a historical period – in this case the late eighteenth century. Messel was hired especially to design costumes for Oberon, who would later become Korda’s wife. The film is a romantic adventure set during the French Revolution with a supporting cast including Raymond Massey and Nigel Bruce. The costumes for Oberon were daringly low-cut but very flattering. Messel used picture hats to frame Oberon’s dark features. They were fanciful and fairylike versions of the Regency period style of dress and this approach to designing and creating costumes would become Messel’s own distinctive style over the next thirty years.
Romeo and Juliet (1936)
Messel’s next film project took him to Hollywood and gave him the resources of a major film studio with which to realise his designs in a historical film. In 1935, the Hollywood film studio Metro Goldwyn Mayer was planning a production of William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. Irving Thalberg was Head of Production at MGM and wanted a high profile production for his wife, Norma Shearer, who had been off the screen for a year, having given birth to their second child. Shearer was one of the most popular stars at MGM during the 1930s and she had first choice of any major film the studio was planning to produce. Irving, along with Chief Executive Louis B. Mayer, had established MGM as the most powerful film studio in the world with the famous tag line ‘more stars than there are in heaven’. The studio was synonymous with lavish glossy musicals, drawing-room comedies and high quality literary adaptations. For Shearer’s return to the screen, two high profile historical projects were considered: Romeo and Juliet and Marie Antoinette. Louis B. Mayer, felt the ‘masses’ were not ready for Shakespeare, but script problems on Marie Antoinette delayed the production so Romeo and Juliet was given the green light with a budget of $1,000,000 dollars. In 1935, this was the most expensive MGM production to date. George Cukor, who had recently scored a hit with a screen version of David Copperfield, was hired to direct.
Cukor was keen for a fresh look for the film, setting it in mid-Renaissance Italy. Having seen Messel’s work for The Miracle in New York, he arranged for screenings of The Scarlet Pimpernel and The Private Life of Don Juan for Irving Thalberg and Norma Shearer. Cukor felt Messel’s costumes for Merle Oberon were ornate but casual and captured the essence of the period.
As well as actors, writers and directors, MGM had two of the most creative individuals in the history of the Hollywood studio system under contract, Cedric Gibbons and Gilbert Adrian (often credited on films as ‘Gowns by Adrian’). As Head of the Art Department, Cedric Gibbons was known for his Art Deco-styled set designs; his loathing of wallpapered sets gave MGM productions a distinct, modern, unfussy ‘house style’. (3) Gibbons stipulated in his contract a clause that his name was put to every MGM production, regardless of whether he designed it or not. Messel’s arrival from England to design the film caused some initial tension at the studio.
Once Messel was formally engaged on the production, he was dispatched with a camera crew to Italy where he spent three months recording almost 3,000 photos of buildings, squares, balconies, paintings, frescos and drawings. He studied the paintings of Botticelli, Bellini, Carpaccio, Ghirlandaio and Piero della Francesca. Gozzoli’s painting Procession of the Magi, was used as an inspiration to fashion all the costumes for the entrance of the Prince of Verona and his followers at the beginning of the film. Norma Shearer’s costumes were inspired by Fra Angelico’s painting The Annunciation and her ball gown was adapted from Michele da Veronay’s The Betrothal. The level of research undertaken by Messel for the film is evident in the collection held at the V&A, with hundreds of photographs detailing every aspect of Italian imagery that would inspire the design for the film.
Once back in Hollywood, Messel discovered that the studio’s principal costume designer, Gilbert Adrian, had already designed all the costumes, but used his charm to complete what he had been hired to do. The costumes in the finished film can be matched with the costume designs that are held in the archive.
The shoot lasted 108 days and the set covered five acres of sound stages. The set department created a near reconstruction of Piazza San Zeno in Verona. Romeo and Juliet was one of the most intricate costuming operations in MGM’s history, with more than 1,200 costumes produced for the film on which 500 people worked for two months. Several looms were set up in Los Angeles and two mills were engaged in New York to weave tights all in one piece. A total of 18,000 yards of cotton, silk, satin, velvet and wool went into the costumes for the extras employed to portray crowds of townspeople, soldiers and nobles. One of Leslie Howard’s cloaks for Romeo used nine yards of Fortuny cloth imported from Italy. Norma Shearer’s costumes required one hundred yards of assorted silks, satins and other materials, all hand-embroidered or beaded to reproduce, as closely as possible, the embroidery of the time. The ‘Juliet skull cap’ worn by Norma Shearer was a fashion hit with audiences of the period. During his stay in Hollywood, Messel discovered Dozian’s, a shop in Los Angeles that sold, in his words, ‘every kind of material ever made’. He bought yards of unpatterned fabric, which was then hand-painted and stitched in the MGM workrooms.
The famous balcony scene in Romeo and Juliet was reshot three times at Thalberg’s insistence (he watched the daily rushes of all the films he supervised at MGM) in close-up, medium and long shot and the set occupied 52,000 square feet of sound stage. Many of Messel’s characteristic design motifs that he would use throughout his career are visually evident in the film: in the Capulets’ ball scene, for example, where Romeo first spots Juliet, ornate flowered garlands hang around the high arched walls.
Norma Shearer employed the English theatre actress Constance Collier on the set to coach her verse delivery. Shearer, not a trained actress, was extremely nervous of taking on such a classical role. Her anxiety, however, was compensated with generally good reviews for her performance and an Academy Award nomination for Best Actress. The film was also nominated in the following categories: Best Supporting Actor (Basil Rathbone), Art Direction (Cedric Gibbons) and Best Film (Irving Thalberg). Nevertheless, Romeo and Juliet made a loss at the box office, although the studio felt that films of this quality added to MGM’s prestige. Producer Irving Thalberg died ten days after the Los Angeles premiere of Romeo and Juliet; he was thirty-seven years old.
Watching the film today, the sets alternate between Messel’s romantic interiors and Gibbons’s solid, geometric rooms, and the film generally lacks a certain passion, with the emotion of many scenes underplayed. This is possibly due to the period in which it was conceived. Later in his film career, George Cukor stated that out of all his films, this was one to which he would have liked to return.
Caesar and Cleopatra (1946)
In 1944, Messel began work on a film version of George Bernard Shaw’s stage play Caesar and Cleopatra. The production was directed by Gabriel Pascal, who became the only director trusted by Shaw to film his plays after successful film versions of Pygmalion in 1938 and Major Barbara in 1941.
‘Pascal is doing for films what Diaghilev did for ballet’.
George Bernard Shaw (4)
The film starred Claude Rains as Caesar, Vivien Leigh as Cleopatra, Stewart Granger as Apollodorus and a host of strong English character actors in supporting roles. The production was filmed in Technicolor, and remains the only full production designed by Messel that displays his design work in colour. (5) He was engaged to design costumes, props and interior decoration (sets for the film were by John Bryan) and in this production his talent and skill for creating objects from everyday items and transforming them into something ‘real’ for the screen displays his versatility and creativeness.
During the Second World War, Messel had been stationed in Norwich as Camouflage Officer and it was Messel’s experience of designing camouflage which would be used again in designing Caesar and Cleopatra. Under the conditions of wartime Britain, with strict rationing in place and many shops closing down, materials required for the film were not readily available. Therefore, Messel had to extend the ‘make do and mend’ ethos of wartime Britain into the film’s design. Many of the props required had to be created using what was freely available. Authentic-looking antique Egyptian jewelry was created from thin wire, plastic, cellophane and bits of glass. Gold plates and ornaments were made from a combination of gilded leather and papier-mâché. Many of the costumes were contrived from Indian saris, obtained from some of the large department stores in London which where still functioning. Costume-making workshops were also badly understaffed due to the essential dressmaking workforce having left London due to bombing or on war service.
Interiors, decorative hangings and bedspreads were printed in hand-blocked Egyptian and Persian designs, curtains of coupon-free gauze were stencilled with authentic patterns of the period in specially mixed dyes. Messel’s assistants on the film included Eleanor Abbey, Margaret Furse, Beatrice Dawson, Arthur Boys and Matilda Etches, and the small production team worked extremely long hours to sew individual replica jewels onto the costumes. Messel designed the fringed bed hangings in Cleopatra’s bedroom. For the feathered fans used by Cleopatra’s handmaidens in the music room scene, he borrowed some of the large fans from the Messel family home, Nymans, in Sussex (these are now in the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge).
Messel’s assistants were adept interpreters of Messel’s artistic intentions. Hugh Skillan, who designed and created many headdresses for the ballerina Margot Fonteyn, also worked on the headdresses required. Materials used on one of the wigs for Vivien Leigh as Cleopatra include leather, wax, wire, acetate, glass, beads and paint. Finally, over 2,000 costumes were created for the production.
Caesar and Cleopatra was shot under extremely difficult conditions, beginning on 12 June 1944, six days after the D-Day landings. The director Gabriel Pascal wrote to George Bernard Shaw on 22 June 1944 and told him:
‘Last Saturday, I had a narrow escape on the Pharos set which is built out of doors on the studio lot, when a flying bomb landed and exploded 150 yards from the set in a nearby field. Last night the French windows in my sitting-room were blown in and the ceiling in my bedroom has cracked open completely. I am having the same gay start on the picture as I had with Major Barbara during the Blitz. I hope these pilotless planes are not reaching your district’. (6)
Shaw took a keen interest on almost every level of the film, down to the smallest detail. Below is a sample of correspondence between the two during the film:
1 July 1944 : George Bernard Shaw wrote to Gabriel Pascal about one of the characters costumes:
'Britannus is so hopelessly wrong that he will hold up all the scenes in which he appears until he is redressed. I enclose a suggestion of what he should look like. He must have an academic gown.'
8 July 1944 : Pascal to Shaw:
'I have discarded the original costume and have had a long gown made for him. His wig I have had remade with red hair, as you suggest, and a new moustache, turning down.'
9 July 1944 : Shaw to Pascal:
'Britannus’s must be mainly in blue, the shepherd’s plaid is only for the tunic, that is why the blue overall should be an academic gown, opening all at the front [sic]. They have plenty of things in Oxford still.'
23 July 1944 : Pascal to Shaw:
'I made a new costume, a new wig, and a new moustache for Britannus and am sending you photos of his costume and make-up. The costume is now a lovely cornflower blue.'
26 July 1944 : Shaw to Pascal:
'Brittanus’s costume is alright now but his moustache is hopeless. He must have Dundreary whiskers – yellow whiskers.'
Shaw’s letter was accompanied by a water-colour sketch of Britannus’s head. (7)
The sets for the film which complemented Messel’s interior decoration and costumes were by John Bryan, who had designed Pygmalion and Major Barbara. The ancient Memphis Palace, to which Cleopatra brings Caesar after their encounter at the Sphinx, was the largest interior created for the film. It occupied 28,000 square feet of floor space and each of its pseudo-granite columns measured nineteen feet in diameter.
A twenty-seven-foot-high mini-Sphinx was created for the film, and when the crew moved to Egypt for exterior shots, the Sphinx was dismantled and shipped over. Once filming was completed the Sphinx was left in the desert to save money on transportation, where it became a photographic background for tourists.
The final cost of Caesar and Cleopatra was £1.3 million, the most costly production at that point in British film history. (8) The film is a testament to Messel’s resourceful and creative inventiveness, working under extraordinarily difficult circumstances and the ability of his team of makers and assistants to interpret his designs into objects than could be ‘read’ in cinematic terms.
The Queen of Spades (1949)
The film version of Alexander Pushkin’s The Queen of Spades is one in a long line of classic British supernatural thrillers such as Dead of Night (1945) and The Innocents (1961). The story is set in 1806 in St Petersburg and is a Faustian tale of bargains with the devil and ghostly apparitions. The film was directed by Thorold Dickinson, who took over the production at only three days notice. Messel was hired to design the sets and costumes.
From the outset the production was fraught with difficulties and it was not until the film was completed that it emerged as one of Dickinson’s finest films, with Messel’s contribution to the work helping to create one of the most famous British supernatural-themed films of the 1940s.
The production was filmed at Welwyn Garden City, in out-of-date, cramped and badly soundproofed studios. They were situated next to the main railway line so that shooting had to be halted every time a train passed by. The lack of space added to Messel’s headaches but he insisted on designing and building the Countess’s stage coach to full size and not to scale so that it could not be moved more than ten feet in either direction.
The budget ran out before the film was completed and Dickinson was forced to improvise with some sets which were constantly being torn down and replaced with new ones. In addition, he was working with two performers who had never made films before, Edith Evans and Yvonne Mitchell (although Edith Evans had made a number of silent films, it was her first ‘talking’ picture). They both found it difficult to adjust to the demands of the camera after their experience on the stage. Edith Evans for example, had been advised by Alec Guiness to let the camera do all the work and so she underplayed drastically and had to be coaxed into expanding her performance. Yvonne Mitchell tended to give her best performance during the first take and found herself unable to repeat her initial performance in subsequent takes. The script underwent numerous changes throughout the production; the original prologue of the film became a flashback, and sequences were cut or transposed, frequently being shot with no real idea of what order they would finally appear in. Under these conditions Dickinson rose to the challenge and was spurred on in inventing visual techniques to drive the story forward.
Dickinson created a number of superb sequences in which he uses suggestion to create terror. The visit of the young Countess to the palace of St Germain is worthy of the great English horror director James Whale (Frankenstein, The Bride of Frankenstein). Once at the palace, the camera follows the Countess down the cobwebbed corridor until she comes to a huge door, which opens to reveal a gaping blackness beyond. Messel’s set design for this sequence created the suggestive and eerie atmosphere that Dickinson was able to replicate on film.
Dickinson often used shots of visual symbolism, common in the silent film era and used by Alfred Hitchcock in almost all of his films. One such key moment is when the Countess, now armed with the secret of the cards, goes to the gambling house. As she flings her crucifix onto a transparent glass table so that it dominates the frame, Dickinson places the camera underneath the table focusing not only on the crucifix being used as a gambling tool, but the ceiling above her head which depicts two huge claws that will now symbolically consume her soul for the remainder of the film.
Mirrors are a recurring motif in the film: characters look at themselves at crucial points and their actions are also frequently seen reflected in mirrors. Such devices provide a visual unity to the film which plays creatively off the sets, the movement of the camera and angle of the camerawork.
When the film opened in June 1949, it received universal praise from the critics. Dilys Powell wrote in The Sunday Times:
‘The Queen of Spades is something rare in this country, a successful essay in romantic period, Oliver Messel’s setting and costumes are among the most beautiful I can remember seeing on the English screen’. (9)
A young Ken Adam was a production draughtsman on the film. He would go on to design many of the James Bond films, Chitty, Chitty, Bang, Bang (1968) and Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964).
At the end of 1950 The Royal Opera House in London presented its first ever production of Tchaikovsky’s The Queen of Spades, directed by Michael Benthall. As Messel had designed the film, he was the obvious choice for the opera version. For the most significant scene, when the Countess dies, Messel created a masterly conception: he placed her in a giant armchair creating the illusion of her shrunken image.
Suddenly last summer
Messel’s last film was based on Tennessee Williams’s stage play Suddenly, Last Summer. The film was directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz from a screenplay by Gore Vidal with an all-star cast in the leading roles – Katharine Hepburn, Montgomery Clift and Elizabeth Taylor. Filmed in Shepperton Studios near London, Messel’s sub- tropical deep-south jungle set for Mrs Venables’ house, with its larger than life exotic garden containing huge and menacing plants, was reminiscent in style of his exterior stage settings for The Little Hut, Ring Round the Moon and The House of Flowers. The garden became the main set piece where many key scenes take place, creating an essentially claustrophobic and over-powering presence in the film.
Messel’s research into capturing the New Orleans French Quarter atmosphere was as extensive as always. Images of buildings, balconies, squares, gates, and, for the extraordinary garden, photographs of prehistoric forests and plants, are all contained in the V&A collection.Messel once again engaged Hugh Skillan to assist him on the film. Skillan had worked with Messel since 1942; his headdresses were so light and excellent in construction that artists found them comfortable to wear. Skillan worked on making the insect-eating plants and out-sized exotic foliage. Messel made banana leaves with waxed crinkle paper and then mixed them with real plants; he also made vines from paper twisted round in coils and then covered with pale green flock. Over seventy different varieties of plants were used on the set and mixed with a painted backdrop; the effect was that of a monstrous jungle.
In one scene which takes place in Sebastian’s studio, Messel has placed masks from his 1920s reviews on the desk and on the walls. Among the set designs for Suddenly, Last Summer are more mundane sketches and ground plans for corridors, offices for the hospital in which Elizabeth Taylor’s character is being held and exteriors for the fictional location, Cabeza de Lobo. The extraordinary baroque lift in which Katharine Hepburn descends for her first entrance was created with John Claridge, who assisted Messel on many projects including the Dorchester Hotel suite created in 1953.
Winning Messel an Academy Award nomination for set and costumes design, Suddenly, Last Summer would be his last film. His successful working relationship with Elizabeth Taylor led Twentieth Century Fox to commission him to design her costumes and wigs for their forthcoming mammoth production of Cleopatra, but this had an unhappy end for Messel because his designs were never used and he was replaced on the production by Irene Sharaff who would win an Academy Award for her work.
In the mid-1960s, Messel moved to Barbados and began designing homes there and for the adjacent island, Mustique (including a villa for HRH The Princess Margaret). His work as an architect would again reflect his inventive use of materials: for his own house he made use of local coral stone.
Messel’s creative ingenuity was evident throughout his career in whatever medium he worked. For students of art, design, performance and film, access to this unique collection at the V&A and the availability of his film work on DVD gives new insight into the working practices and techniques of one of Britain’s most talented and accomplished stage designers.
- 1934 The Private Life of Don Juan
- 1935 The Scarlet Pimpernel
- 1936 Romeo and Juliet
- 1940 The Thief of Baghdad
- 1946 Carnival
- 1946 Caesar and Cleopatra
- 1948 The Winslow Boy
- 1949 The Queen of Spades
- 1959 Suddenly, Last Summer
Castle, Charles, Oliver Messel: A Biography (Thames and Hudson, 1983)
Deans, Marjorie, Meeting at the Sphinx, Gabriel Pascal’s Production of Bernard Shaw’s Caesar and Cleopatra (Macdonald & Co, 1946)
Geist, Kenneth L., Pictures Will Talk: The Life and Films of Joseph L. Mankiewicz (Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1978)
Gutner, Howard, Gowns by Adrian: The MGM Years 1928-1941 (Harry N. Abrams, 2001)
Lambert, Gavin, Norma Shearer (Hodder and Stoughton, 1990)
Lambert, Gavin, On Cukor (Rizzoli Publishing, 2000)
Pinkham, Roger, ed., Oliver Messel: An Exhibition held at the Victoria and Albert Museum, catalogue to the V&A Exhibition (V&A Publishing, 1983)
Richards, Jeffrey, Thorold Dickinson: A Man and His Films (Croom Helm Ltd, 1986)
(1) Castle, Charles. Oliver Messel: A Biography. London 1983: 6
(2) Castle, Charles. Oliver Messel: A Biography. London 1983: 58.
(3) Cedric Gibbons was nominated thirty-nine times for the Academy Award and won eleven statuettes (he also designed the Academy Award).
(4) Shaw, George Bernard. Meeting at the Sphinx, Gabriel Pascal’s Production of Bernard Shaw’s Caesar and Cleopatra. London 1946: vii.
(5) At the beginning of 1939, Messel co-designed costumes for the Alexander Korda epic The Thief of Baghdad (the other two costume designers on the film were John Armstrong and Marcel Vertes). It was Britain’s first Technicolor film and won Academy Awards for Special Effects, Art Direction and Cinematography.
(6) Shaw, George Bernard. Meeting at the Sphinx, Gabriel Pascal’s Production of Bernard Shaw’s Caesar and Cleopatra. London 1946:41.
(7) Shaw, George Bernard. Meeting at the Sphinx, Gabriel Pascal’s Production of Bernard Shaw’s Caesar and Cleopatra. London 1946: 37.
(8) Several British actors who appeared in the film went on to become household names; Jean Simmons appears as a harpist in Cleopatra’s private chamber, Roger Moore appeared as a spear carrier and Kay Kendall appeared as one of Cleopatra’s slaves.
(9) Powell, Dilys. Film review for The Queen of Spades. The Sunday Times, 20 March 1949.