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Doohickey: Vertigo's Elusive Homage

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Vertigo, Paramount Pictures, 1958

by B. Alexandra Szerlip

doohickey (noun)
thing, so-and-so, whatever it’s called.
INFORMAL: whats’it, whatnot, doodad, thingy, thingamajig, thingamabob, what’s-its-name, whatchamacallit.
ORIGIN: early 20th cent. (originally servicemen’s slang): blend of doodad and hickey .

The most analyzed and intensely debated film of all time, Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958) has provided grist for seemingly endless critiques, debates, graduate theses and at least three entire books.

The film has been scrutinized under the rubric of scopophilia, fetishism, voyeurism, the sadistic male gaze, objectification of the female body, “a dream substrate of waking life,” Pygmalion fantasies, the “symptomology of trauma,” the “phenomenology of falling,” “death-drive pulsations,” the “psychoanalytic object-relations theory,” and the triple threat of the imaginary Real, the symbolic Real, and the “Real Real.” One film theorist pointed out that its “psychoanalytic readings of gender politics [lead] to the crisis of representation and of our understanding of subjectivity,” another pegged its theme as “a struggle to obtain an awareness of a historic city outside the bonds of psychological determinism.”

Marxists like to point out buried references to class and race. Freud’s theory on “why the familiarity of a double feels frightening” has been evoked, as have the dangers of transference and counter-transference love, exploitative narcissism, neurotic self-annihilation, and castration anxiety.

And then there are the rescue-slash-mythological references. In D’entre les Morts, the novel the film was based on, the hero repeatedly calls the heroine “my little Eurydice.” And given such French beginnings, Madeleine’s name has inevitably been linked with Marcel Proust’s memory pastry.[1]

Respected film critic Roger Ebert offered a simpler, jargon-free explanation. Vertigo, he wrote, “is ‘about’ how Hitchcock used, feared and tried to control women,” in particular “icy” blondes (in this case, a “redesigned” Kim Novak), whom he delights in humiliating, “literally and figuratively” dragging them through the mud.

One can’t help thinking that Sir Alfred, the obese greengrocer’s son from Leytonstone, Essex, would be amused, if not bemused, by all the belated attention to a film that was so badly received. Time Magazine called it “another Hitchcock-and-bull story in which the mystery is not so much who done it as who cares….” [2] Orson Welles deemed it “worse” than Rear Window. Hitchcock died in 1980, shortly before his alleged “least favorite” film was re-issued, this time to a previously elusive acclaim that only accelerated after a 1996 restoration. In little more than a generation, Vertigo went from disparaged flop to “undisputed masterpiece.” As a final touch, Vertigo dethroned Welles’ Citizen Kane as “the best film of all time,” a spot the latter had occupied for half a century, in Sight & Sound’s 2012 critics’ poll.

But for all the minute analysis and dissection Vertigo has inspired over the last thirty years, no one has commented on its oddly incongruous “brassiere” scene, a hidden-in-plain-sight homage to actress Barbara Bel Geddes’ father.

• • • •

By his mid thirties, when he established the first office dedicated to what became known as Industrial Design, Norman Bel Geddes had already put his hand to some 200 Broadway productions (and several operas), in the process revolutionizing set and costume design and initiating lighting techniques that emphasized character, plot points and mood. His 1933 bestseller, Horizons, was largely responsible for promoting “streamlining,” the era’s defining aesthetic, which he’d incorporated into projects ranging from a massive airliner (complete with orchestra and solarium), an ocean-going diesel yacht (with removable “skin”) and the notorious Chrysler Airflow to Ringling Brothers’ menagerie (including a much-publicized Honeymoon Suite for gorillas). The public could never quite figure out who this restless, shape-shifting, design genius was. Long before he created his most famous work, Futurama, at the 1939 New York World’s Fair, Bel Geddes was being lauded in Europe and beyond. When Russian filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein first visited Manhattan, in 1930, Norman was one of the first people he asked to meet.

• • • •

Barbara Bel Geddes was very much her father’s daughter. Unlike her older sister, Joan, whose dark coloring, bookishness and religious bent were inheritances from her mother, Barbara, a.k.a. Babs, was fair, headstrong and easily bored. Her temperament, coloring and early theatrical focus came from Dad. And like him, she was told by teachers that she had “no talent whatsoever.”

At nineteen, she appeared in her first Broadway play; by 27, she was in Hollywood with four RKO films, an Oscar nomination and a Life Magazine cover under her belt. (Asked by photographers for a cheesecake shot, meaning something with a lot of leg exposed, she exhibited some of her father’s notorious wit, by producing an actual cake.) Barbara was under contract to star in two more films when Howard Hughes, RKO’s new owner, told the studio production chief to fire her, on the grounds that she was “too homespun” and had “no sex appeal.”

Devastated by Hughes’ pronouncement (she’d already endured “a nose bob” at the insistence of studio executives), Barbara Bel Geddes returned to New York, where her role in Otto Preminger’s The Moon is Blue soon earned her a Time Magazine cover.

“Barbara’s fear of and attraction to the limelight is a legitimate inheritance,” Time explained to its readers. “For a generation before she entered the theatre, her father Norman had rumbled and roared like an earthquake in the foundations of show business, making plans, productions, money, noise, friends and enemies on a gargantuan scale …. As a child, she was “comparatively small potatoes…. no match for [Norman’s] stupendous enterprises.”

In 1955, against the playwright’s objections, Barbara was cast as Maggie in the Broadway debut of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. The play, which garnered a Pulitzer, was a smash hit; Bel Geddes was the only cast member nominated for a Tony Award. She has, wrote Arthur Laurentis, “a good-girl-but-I-want-it kind of sex appeal” that made her Maggie “steam.” (When MGM shot the film version, the “steam” was overlooked in favor of femme fatale Elizabeth Taylor. MGM’s first choice, ice blonde Grace Kelly, was off to Monaco to become a princess.)

• • • •

By the time she was cast opposite Kim Novak in Amongst the Dead (Vertigo’s working title), Bel Geddes had been absent from Hollywood for seven years, in part because her name had been added to HUAC’s blacklist of entertainers with alleged Communist Party ties.

The well-scrubbed, homespun look that had bothered Howard Hughes and Tennessee Williams was used to advantage here. As Midge Wood, she appears dressed like a college undergrad in sweater sets and skirts, the kind of clothes the actress wore in real life.

The audience first meets her when John “Scottie” Ferguson (James Stewart) pays a visit to her San Francisco apartment on Russian Hill. Midge is Scottie’s best friend and ex-fiancee, a commercial designer of some sort, and a painter. A drafting table dominates one corner of her living room. There are paints, jars of brushes, and various drawings tacked to the wall. (For what it’s worth, both Hitchcock and Bel Geddes Sr. did stints, early in their careers, as draughtsmen and advertising directors.)

She sits working on a sketch as they discuss the vertigo (which he mistakenly calls agoraphobia) that has convinced Scottie to quit his police detective job. As they talk, he spots an odd, pink, sculpture-like contraption on a table.

Scottie: “What’s this doohickey?”

Midge: “It’s a brassiere. You know about those things. You’re a big boy now.”

Scottie: “Never run across one like that.”

It’s brand-new, she explains. “Revolutionary Uplift.” No shoulder straps or back, but “it does everything a brassiere is supposed to do. Works on the principle of the cantilever bridge. An aircraft engineer down the Peninsula worked it out in his spare time.”

“Kind of a hobby,” Scottie suggests. “A do-it-yourself type thing.”

The “Revolutionary Uplift” can be read as a subtle jibe at “streamlining,” and Scottie’s follow-up comment about “do-it-yourself-type” hobbies recalls everything from Norman’s legendary horse-race and war games (massively elaborate diversions created for the amusement of friends) to his reptile-and-insect filmmaking forays (grist for nationally syndicated cartoons). “Cantilever” references everything from the eastern span of the Oakland Bay Bridge, which could be spotted outside Midge’s window, to the projecting beams Norman incorporated into his stage sets, Toledo factory design, homes-of-the-future roofs and retail window displays. The Uplift was also a nod to Howard Hughes (an “aircraft engineer” whose “Spruce Goose” was said to have been inspired, in part, by Norman’s aforementioned airliner) and the infamous underwire push-up bra he designed (in his spare time) for Jane Russell to wear (she never did) in The Outlaw. Not coincidentally, the same Howard Hughes who’d sent Barbara running back to New York, furious and humiliated, seven years before.

It wasn’t unusual for Hitchcock to run through several collaborators in the course of developing a script. For Vertigo, he’d first engaged playwright Maxwell Anderson to adapt the novel and change its Paris-Marseilles setting to San Francisco, but the resulting script, entitled Darkling, I Listen, was deemed un-filmable. Hitchcock’s friend Angus MacPhailwas brought on next (he bowed out), followed by Alec Coppel whose draft, called From Among the Dead, left his mentor unhappy. Success came with longtime San Franciscan Samuel Taylor, who told the director that a far-fetched story would work only if it had emotional truth to it. “You haven’t got anybody in this story who is a human being—nobody at all. They’re all cut-out cardboard figures.” [3]

Enter Midge. Giving Scottie a former fiancee (it appears she was the one who broke things off) gave him a backstory, provided the film with a kind of Greek chorus — the voice of ‘normalcy’ and reason in an otherwise twisted tale — and a believable counterpoint to the exotic, remote Madeleine.

“Although he rarely did any actual ‘writing’ … Hitchcock supervised and guided his writers through every draft, insisting on a strict attention to detail,” claimed Steven De Rosa.[4] Taylor claimed he had greater autonomy. “I told him I was going to create a character. He said, “Fine.” I went off … It was as simple as that. He didn’t know anything about Midge until he read the script and liked it.” [5]

(Taylor also humanized the Stewart character, revealed Madeleine’s secret to the audience two-thirds of the way into the film, rather than at the end, and changed Madeleine’s dead ancestor from the novel’s Pauline Lagarlac to Carlotta Valdes, thereby drawing on San Francisco’s Spanish-American history. )

Interviewed years later[6], Taylor admitted that he’d created the role of Midge with Bel Geddes specifically in mind. The two were friends, and her triumph in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof was still fresh. And he certainly knew who her father was.[7] As did “Hitch.” The costume designer for Hitchcock’s previous film, The Trouble with Harry, was Edith Lutyens Bel Geddes, Norman’s fourth and current wife; her work on “Harry” earned a shared Tony Award for best costume design.[8] With Vertigo, Hitchcock followed up with another Edith, the legendary Miss Head.

eyegalsses

Like Bel Geddes senior, Hitchcock was a master of detail; his reach extended from script development, locations, camera angles, lighting and props to the color and style of his actors’ clothing. He felt strongly enough about the brassiere segment — which has nothing to do with the film’s story line — to ignore pressure from Paramount’s legal department and the U.S. Production Code Administration, which sought to eliminate it “on moral grounds.”

And then there are the eyeglasses.

They’re part of Midge’s “costume,” not surprising in her role as the practical, independent (non-icy) blonde. Later in the story, in an effort to win Scottie back from glamorous, enigmatic, eyeglass-less Madeleine, Midge paints a portrait of herself dressed as Carlotta (Madeleine’s supposed great grandmother), but she also paints in the glasses. Critics have noted that the painting parodies the ruse of Madeleine as Carlotta, but none have ever noted that Midge’s slender, amber, everyday pair have been replaced — inexplicably — with a large, square, horn-rimmed pair. Just the kind Norman had taken to wearing in real life. (Even without them, the actress’ resemblance to her father is undeniable.) The result is sadly comic.

Like Hitchcock’s fleeting onscreen cameos (in Vertigo, he appears about 11 minutes in, walking past Gavin Elster’s shipyard carrying a musical instrument case) and the McGuffins he was famous for, the purpose of the “Revolutionary Uplift” is ambiguous and, ultimately, completely unimportant to the plot. It’s a loony touch, something only the cognoscenti would catch. Like the nerdy horn-rimmed glasses, it was a tongue-in-cheek homage to Norman.

• • • •

By the mid 1950s, Norman’s life, like the film’s title, had become a kind of spiraling down, though not for want of trying, a sad struggle after decades of having been hailed as America’s poster boy for global, interdisciplinary thinking — “a little Leonardo,” “the inventor of the jet age,” “the grand master of Modernism.” No longer in the limelight, he was considered by many as a “has-been”. In that regard, he was in good company, joining the ranks of such talents as D.W. Griffith, Nikola Tesla, Erik Satie, Antonin Gaudi and ultimately, Orson Welles.

In a tale predicated on illusion, Hitchcock and Taylor gave a nod, perhaps unintentionally, to the illusive, illusory nature of fame.

On May 8th, 1958, shortly after his 65th birthday, Norman Bel Geddes “dropped dead” of a heart attack on his way to lunch with an old friend at Manhattan’s University Club. Vertigo premiered the following day, May 9th, three thousand miles way, at San Francisco’s Stage Door Theatre.

Epilogue

Hitchcock worked with Barbara Bel Geddes again later that year, casting her against type as a woman who kills her unfaithful, police detective husband — shades of Scottie Ferguson? — with a frozen leg of lamb, then serves the evidence, roasted, to her husband’s colleagues. [It’s been noted that the final close-up in Lamb to the Slaughter prefigures the final shot of Anthony Perkins (Norman Bates) in Psycho — the broad, less-than-sane smile of someone gazing at the viewer.] Barbara ultimately appeared in four “Alfred Hitchcock Presents” TV segments, but Hitchcock considered Lamb the best of all his 273 half-hour shows.[9]

Despite an impressive theatre and film career, Norman’s daughter is best remembered today as the matriarch Miss Ellie Ewing in “Dallas,” a nighttime TV ‘soap opera’ that developed an international following. England’s Queen Elizabeth II — she knighted Hitchcock in 1980 — is said to have been a devotee.

In 1993, Barbara Bel Geddes was inducted into the American Theatre Hall of Fame, in recognition of twenty-five years’ distinguished service to her profession, an honor she shared with her father.


Notes:

[1] Several years ago, in a guest slide lecture at the San Francisco Art Institute, all the paintings in the film (in Judy’s hotel room, Elster’s mansion, Ernie’s Restaurant, etc.) were substituted with post-modernist images, an attempt to prove a theory this writer has since forgotten.

[2] quoted in Films of AH by Rbt A Harris & Michael S Lasky. Citadel Press, NJ, 1976, p. 186.

[3] “A Talk by Samuel Taylor” given at Pace University,, June 1986.

[4] Writing with Hitchcock: The Collaboration of Alfred Hitchcock and John Michael Hayes, by Steven de Rosa, 1991.

[5] “A Talk Given by Samuel Taylor,” idem.

[6] Vertigo: The Making of a Hitchcock Classic by Dan Auiler. Foreward by Martin Scorese. St.Martin’s Press, NY, 1998, p.51.

[7] In response to Norman’s objection to something she’d said in an interview, Barbara replied, “Since I have a father so much more famous than I am, it is virtually impossible to be interviewed without being asked questions about him….” Letter from BBG to NBG, HRC archive.

[8] Shared with the film Ondine, featuring Audrey Hepburn.

[9] 1972 AH interview with Janet Maslin, reprinted in Alfred Hitchcocks Interviews, edited by Sidney Gottlieb, University Press of Mississippi, Jackson, Miss, 2003.

About the Author:

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B. Alexandra Szerlip was a two-time National Endowment for the Arts Writing Fellow. Chapters from her work-in-progress on maverick designer Norman Bel Geddes can be accessed through Believer.com and ParisReview.com. In August 2013, she spoke on Bel Geddes at the Industrial Design Society of America’s international conference in Chicago (IDSA). Her recent mixed media sculpture show in San Francisco, CA, “A Visit to Mad Geppetto’s Workshop,” drew 2,500 visitors.

  • Adam Henig

    Well done, Alex. Very interesting and enjoyed learning about the NBG connection.