Mary Mallory: Hollywood Heights – Erte and the Movies

Nov. 3, 1925, Erte Nov. 3, 1925, Erte
Nov. 3, 1925: Romain de Tirtoff — also known as Erte — with Carmel Myers.

Note: This is an encore post from 2011.

In 1925, Romain de Tirtoff, better known under the pseudonym Erte, was one of the most highly sought over costume and production designers in the world.  His Art Deco designs, lovingly illustrated by the artist himself, peppered magazines like HARPER’S BAZAAR, COSMOPOLITAN, and VOGUE.  Erte had risen to fame around 1912, and soon apprenticed under the designer Paul Poiret.  He worked as a production/costume designer for the Folies Bergere, and worked on the 1920 Marion Davies film, THE RESTLESS SEX.

Louis B. Mayer soon came calling in Paris, inviting him to come to Culver City to work for MGM designing costumes and sets, especially the film PARIS.  When he arrived in town, major stars came to greet him at the black, white, and gray studio he created on the MGM lot.  MGM even rented him a home at 3020 N. Beachwood Drive in Hollywoodland to remind him of his south French home.

Nov. 28, 1925, Erte
Nov. 28, 1925, Erte
Nov. 28, 1925: Erte leaves, right,  Los Angeles, with Prince Ouroussoff and Anna Case.

Not only did Erte work on productions, he also worked on at least one stage show, the opening prologue for THE BIG PARADE’s premiere at the Egyptian Theatre in Hollywood.  THE BIG PARADE was a huge financial gamble and piece of prestige for the young studio, which some members of the press considered the greatest film made to that time, so they pulled out all the stops creating new pieces of ballyhoo to promote it.

Pete Smith of MGM even wrote a two page press release promoting the fact of Erte’s contribution to the elaborate Egyptian Theatre prologue, in collaboration with Sid Grauman, owner and operator of the Hollywood theatre.  Smith called the event, “One of the most magnificent and spectacular prologues ever attempted…The climax of the prologue is an Erte creation with a set and costumes especially designed by this master craftsman… .”  There would be models representing Belgium, France, Italy, England, and the United States, with each of the costumes studded with jewels and fashioned from hundreds of yards of fabric.  The event would be the first time that Erte creations graced an American stage.

Grauman’s Egyptian hosted THE BIG PARADE’s premiere Nov. 5, 1925, hosted by director Fred Niblo.  Grauman urged attendees to arrive early and be seated by 8:15 PM, in order not to miss a minute of the event, the most elaborate prologue ever created by the theater, which would feature over 150 performers.  This world premiere was also the first in which stars, distinguished guests, and celebrities were introduced live over the radio, per the Nov. 4, 1925, Los Angeles Times.  A street parade would start at 7 p.m. at Western Avenue and Hollywood Boulevard and be broadcast over the radio, before introductions of arriving stars at 7:45 p.m.   Lew Cody and Maud Marsh of the Metro-Goldwyn costume department would announce the arrival of the stars while broadcasting descriptions of their evening gowns.  Everyone seemed to come, with a two mile backup of traffic.  John Gilbert escorted Norma Shearer. and Douglas Fairbanks Jr. escorted Betty Bronson.

Isobel Stuyvesant raved about the event in the Nov. 8, 1925, edition of The Los Angeles Times.  She exclaimed that, “To describe gowns makes it impossible to emit mention of the most remarkable creation of costumes that Hollywood has ever known.”

Titled “Memories of 1918,” the prologue featured understated but elaborate gowns and sets by Erte.  Per Smith’s press release, Belgium’s costume contained the country’s colors, yellow, red, and black.  “The head piece is a sword from which blood, in the form of rubies is dripping.

France is shown as the country with the sun coming out of the clouds.  The sun is a great splendid ornament made of thousands of brilliants while the costume beneath is a billowy effect done in contrasting shades of gray.

Italy is represented by the arts.  The head piece is a golden lyre while two bronzed figures take the place of arms.  The outer costume falls into a train some twenty feet in length and is of Roman purple liberally dotted with gold, while the under dress brings to view the silver cross which is given a striking effect against a background of red.

England is shown as an island upon a mighty ocean.  The long rippling costume is of various shades of blue upon which in gold and bronze the British possessions such as Canada and India, are painted.

Last of all is America.  A blazing thing of glory made almost entirely of cloth of gold:  the twenty-five foot train will serve as a costume for thirteen girls.  Thirteen head pieces in the shape of stars are electrically lighted and represent the original thirteen stars in Old Glory.  Upon the skirt of the gown of the leading figure from which the train falls, are six figures painted in silhouette.  These supposedly are pouring the fuel of progress and of wealth into the coffers of the country.”

Photographs were taken of Erte and Grauman in consultation for the event, but photos or designs haven’t been found presenting the costumes for the evening.

This was Erte’s last work in Hollywood.  He told The Los Angeles Times on Nov. 3 that he would return to France “where he can work quietly and receive the consideration  to which he has been accustomed.”  Erte expressed frustration at how long everything took, that the film which brought him to America (PARIS) had been rewritten four times, with him constantly changing sets and costumes.  The studio ordered him to design 50 costumes in three or four weeks, along with sets.  Erte retorted, “It is impossible.  I asked them to release me from my contract and they have done so.  Motion pictures, pouf!”

He declared that Carmel Myers was his only good memory.  He felt so offended by Lillian Gish that he demanded she never reenter the studio.  Erte enjoyed working with Renee Adoree and Claire Windsor, but was disappointed not to work with Eleanor Boardman.  “On the whole, he said, motion-picture stars are not more beautiful than other women, and offer no more inspiration to a designer.”

He swore that he would never design for films again, and Erte died almost 70 years later true to his word.

About lmharnisch

I am retired from the Los Angeles Times
This entry was posted in 1925, Art & Artists, Fashion, Film, Hollywood, Hollywood Heights, Mary Mallory and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Mary Mallory: Hollywood Heights – Erte and the Movies

  1. Eve says:

    I wrote Erte a fan letter back in the 1980s and got the loveliest reply–one of his cards, signed, and a nice letter telling me how pleased he was I liked his work, and inviting me to visit him if I was ever in Paris (of course that never happened). My friends were writing fan letters to Burt Reynolds and Farrah Fawcett; I was writing to Lillian Gish. Erte and Joan Crawford.


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