Glamour: The Influence of Vivien Leigh’s Film Costumes on Dressmaking Patterns of the 1930s and 1940s

Victoria Haddock, Royal Albert Memorial Museum (RAMM), Exeter

20 March 2020

This blog piece aims to investigate the cultural influence that Hollywood film costumes of the 1930s and 1940s had on women’s fashions, by focusing especially on dressmaking patterns produced during this period. By concentrating on the interplay between film and fashion, it examines the impact that actresses and films of the Golden Age of Hollywood had on women’s dress. This will be discussed further by focusing on the stardom of actress Vivien Leigh, and her Oscar winning role as Scarlett O’Hara in Gone with the Wind (1939). The film was immensely popular, having a huge effect on fashion trends, which Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer exploited through merchandise and ‘tie-in’ products, including a range of Gone with the Wind inspired Hollywood dress patterns. At a time when ‘keeping up appearances’ was so important, dressmaking was an affordable way in which women could aspire to the ‘glamour’ and ‘style’ that Hollywood prescribed through its films. Using a range of archives and collections, including the Commercial Pattern Archive at the University of Rhode Island and the Bill Douglas Cinema Museum, this piece will investigate the importance of film on fashion.

During the 1930s and 1940s, working-class women had a disposable income for the first time. Women spent this income by attending leisure activities and by increasing their power as consumers. One of the biggest influences on society was the American cultural ‘invasion’ that saw Hollywood films and American actresses replace society women as trend-setters. By the 1930s, the cinema was the most popular form of mass entertainment. The American film studios attempted to counteract the harsh economic climate by spending large amounts of money on beautiful stars and glamorous costumes that depicted a silver screen of luxury that became known as the golden age of Hollywood cinema. It is thought that 75% of adult cinema audiences were female, and through working with manufacturers the studios actively encouraged the cinema audiences to physically consume items they saw on the screen. The passing of the Webb-Pomerene Act in 1918 by Congress legislated Hollywood’s ability to act as a cartel, thereby internationally advancing America’s trade strength by offering an attractive product and a vehicle to promote American consumer lifestyles. The President of the MPPDA, Will Hays, recognised the film industries’ promotion of fashionable goods in a speech he gave to advertising executives in 1930; ‘we are accused abroad of selling American goods and it is true that every foot on American film sells $1.00 worth of manufactured products some place in the world.’ One of the main ‘goods’ that Hollywood sold was fashion. Women were targeted by Hollywood marketing and in her book, Screen Style (2000), Sarah Berry discusses how the resulting overlap in the target markets of the fashion, cosmetics, and film industries gave rise to a culture of cross-promotion that would now be called ‘synergy’: a boom in star endorsements, the merchandising of film costumes through Hollywood ‘tie-in’ labels, product placements in movies, and the extensive use of fashion publicity for upcoming films.

In stark contrast to 21st century Hollywood films, many large-budget films of the 30s and early 40s were focused around a female star, which resulted in a decade fascinated by powerful women both on and off the screen. One of the most popular actresses of the 1930s and 40s was the stage and screen star, Vivien Leigh.

Leigh was nicknamed the ‘fame in a night girl’ after her breakthrough role in the 1935 production of The Mask of Virtue. Leigh was regularly featured in the film magazines of the period (especially for her relationship with her second husband, Laurence Olivier) but she also frequently modelled and publicised her career in Vogue magazine. She starred in nine films between 1935 and 1938 before being cast in the coveted role of Scarlett O’Hara in the adaptation of Margaret Mitchell’s 1936 novel, Gone with the Wind. The publicity for the film had been huge, ever since producer David O. Selznick began his search for an actress to play Southern Belle, Scarlett. In England, the film played constantly in cinemas throughout World War 2 and was extremely popular with a female wartime audience who could see themselves reflected in Leigh’s portrayal of a woman trying to survive in war. Sarah Berry describes Leigh’s performance as Scarlett as exemplifying the ‘rewriting of history in terms of (white) feminine power and emotion.’ Costume was a central vehicle for fans’ engagement with these roles and copies of the iconic barbecue dress were sold by countless department stores and wholesalers, whilst dress patterns were produced for fans to make their own piece of Gone with the Wind at home.

The Bill Douglas Cinema Museum, based at the University of Exeter, has an amazing archival collection of film magazines, dating from the 1920s to the present, which are extremely useful primary sources to research how film costumes and fashions were publicised. My following magazine sources are from this collection. In an article titled Film Fashions for Fans, published on 2 January 1932 in Picturegoer Weekly, Janet Montgomery states that ‘the costumiers at the various studios vie with each other in creating original styles, and many of these are destined to create a vogue when they are shown on the screen.’

The importance of cinema attendance is highlighted in this article as ‘all styles may be followed with confidence by Miss Nineteen-thirty-two, who goes to the movies quite as much to pick up ideas for her holiday suitcase as to see the film.’ Film costumes led to Hollywood becoming increasingly independent from the style capitals of New York and Paris. The French designer, Lucien Lelong, declared that ‘We, the couturiers, can no longer live without the cinema any more than the cinema can live without us.’

Walter Plunkett was the chief designer at RKO from 1926 until 1939, specialising in period costume. His most famous designs were for Gone with the Wind. More than 5,500 costumes for the 50 cast members and thousands of extras were created using 35,000 yards of fabric for the women’s costumes alone, according to Caroline Young in Classic Hollywood Style (2012). The historical authenticity of the costumes played a large part in the film’s promotion. Plunkett had meticulously researched the fashions of the period by using archives himself and scouring copies of the Philadelphia-based women’s magazine Godey’s Lady’s Book and visiting Southern states to speak to residents who owned period garments and fabric samples.

Writing in the New York Times, Lillian Churchill commented that: ‘As an influence of screen entertainment, Gone with the Wind is causing a magnificent splash in the cinema sea, and as an influence on women’s dress it has created a great stir in the pool of fashion [… The] bouffants, girdles, minute waistlines, and ostrich-feather trimmings […] are sure to have an influence on the creations of Paris and New York.’

It seemed extremely natural that the Big Five Hollywood studios would associate themselves with glamourous costumes and the marketing opportunities they brought, as studio moguls such as Paramount’s Adolph Zukor and Columbia’s Harry Cohn had links to the textile industry. The leading Hollywood costume designers, many of whom had begun their careers working for couturiers, became household names in the 1930s. Three of the top names in a survey of the favourite designers of one thousand American buyers in 1940 were Hollywood costume designers: Travis Banton, Adrian and Howard Greer.

Hollywood studios used the popularity of costumes to their advantage by actively promoting them. A costume exhibition for Gone with the Wind – including some 36 costume changes for Vivien Leigh’s Scarlett O’Hara (the most to date for any actress according to the film’s publicity) – travelled around America in advance of the movie’s opening. The unprecedented success of Gone with the Wind produced a merchandising blitz unequalled in the history of period film publicity tie-ins. Corsets, dress patterns, hats and veils, snoods, scarves and jewellery were all marketed and sold as ‘inspired’ by the film. Even the cover of the 1 May 1940 edition of Vogue featured a model in a Gone with the Wind inspired full-skirted dress with a ruffled skirt.

In 1930 the film magazine Motion Picture told its readers that: ‘The modern woman is a screen shopper.’ In the same year the Modern Merchandising Bureau was founded in New York by the entrepreneur and advertising agent Bernard Waldman. The bureau was not affiliated with a certain studio and mass-produced work from a wide range of Hollywood costume designers. The purpose of the Bureau was to manufacture and merchandise ready-to-wear copies of garments that were adapted from costume designs featured in the movies, and then publicize them through tie-up campaigns with other manufacturers and shops. Using the brand name ‘Cinema Fashions,’ the bureau took a modest commission and supplied garments and accessories to shops including R. H. Macys. According to Modern Screen magazine, the Cinema Shops carried dresses priced between 15 and 35 US dollars. The most famous costume to be recreated and sold was the white, organdie dress with voluminous sleeves worn by Joan Crawford in Letty Lynton (1932). There seems to be some discrepancy over the success of the Adrian designed dress, as whilst Macy’s claims to have sold 50,000 copies of the dress, there is no empirical proof existing in museums or in private collections. The costumes worn by Vivien Leigh in the role of Emma, Lady Hamilton, in the 1941 film, That Hamilton Woman, were also publicised widely. A range of clothes based on the film’s costumes were available to buy from department stores such as Bonwit Teller. The Grecian style gown shown in the slide was made from white crepe which draped over the bodice and shoulders and was decorated with embroidery and diamantes.

The 18th century costumes designed by René Hubert were marketed to a wartime audience as ‘clothes you can wear, copied from Vivien Leigh’s, in her role of Lady Hamilton’ in a two page spread in the 15 March 1941 issue of American Vogue.

Inevitably, competitors appeared offering cheaper lines. Film fan magazine, Photoplay, introduced “Hollywood Fashions,” a chain of costume retailing franchises in 1931. The chain credited the designs of Gone with the Wind designer Walter Plunkett at R.K.O, which were advertised in issues of Photoplay by placing emphasis on their affordability with headings such as, “Now at Modest Prices: Styles of the Stars!”

Gone with the Wind produced one of the most copied dresses of the 20th century. Margaret Mitchell describes Scarlett on the first page of Gone with the Wind (1936), sitting in the April sun – ‘Her new green-flowered muslin dress spread its twelve yards of billowing material over her hoops’. This was the basis for the now iconic ‘Twelve Oaks’ silk organza barbeque gown. Caroline Young states that the screen printed design for the dress was copied from an authentic 1861 fabric, but Plunkett doubled the size of the sprigs so that they would be visible on camera.

Vivien Leigh’s svelte 5 foot 3 frame helped to show off Plunkett’s designs to perfection as her small stature was more similar to that of women of the 1860s. The dress was produced and sold in over a dozen variations, many of which bore little resemblance to the original costume. Costume historian Edward Maeder found that the dress was manufactured in a wide price range, and copied in rayon, seersucker and flocked organdie. The development of glamorous fashions from the films that were not only made from inexpensive and practical fabrics, but also simplified to retain only small features of the original costume whilst keeping the style of a Hollywood garment, must have been the stuff of dreams for women during wartime.

Dressmaking was an extremely popular pastime and skill in the 1930s and 1940s, allowing working-class women who worried about maintaining social standards a chance to improve their wardrobes. Dressmaking was ‘often shared, done collaboratively, or exchanged for another essential commodity’ and, as an activity, allowed women to learn from each other and pass on new skills which helped to develop their feminine identities. Dressmaking could be both rebellious and liberating as it enabled young women the opportunity to create their own identity and appearance, without interference from their mothers. Curator Keith Lodwick, claims the green Reconstruction period ‘curtain dress’, that Scarlett gets Mammy to make for her to visit Rhett in jail, was even more poignant in war-time Britain as it echoed the ‘make do and mend’ philosophy that would come to dominate millions of women’s lives during the war years. Home sewing was emphasised as a way to be frugal during clothes rationing and Scarlett’s request of Mammy to go up to the attic to get down the ‘old box of dress patterns’ must have struck a chord with many women of the period.

Pattern companies in the 1930s began to offer an ever-widening range of garments inspired by the latest fashions from Hollywood and Paris. As early as 1915, the film magazine Photoplay published an article highlighting the new opportunities for women to try out the latest fashions by sewing their own copies of film costumes. Even though patterns were sold in local shops and department stores, patterns also became an integral part of women’s magazines, targeting the rising ‘feminine’ market that also included hair and make-up products. Pattern companies typically produced around 350 to 450 different pattern styles each year, but during the 1930s, this number rose to 600 or more for brands such as Vogue, McCall’s and Butterick. The process of dressmaking also became increasingly simplified and standardized, assuming a wider audience with less dressmaking skills. Patterns, according to Joy Spanabel Emery (the late curator of The Commercial Pattern Archive), supplied women with the latest styles to aspire to and with the aid of fashion magazines, ‘the sewing machine, and greater accessibility to dress patterns… women could make fashionable as well as serviceable garments. Thus, patterns are credited with the democratization of fashion.’ A pattern could be re-used, copied and shared, which helped to rationalise the cost that on average, ranged between 30 and 50 cents. It is interesting that in a decade when ‘a loaf of bread cost five cents, the price of a pattern represented serious money’ for most women.

Patterns based on film costumes had appeared on sale in the 1920s with companies such as the Elite Pattern Company offering patterns based on costume designs by David Cox for Joan Crawford and Anita Page in the 1928 film Our Darling Daughters. Film magazines featured articles on clothes from Hollywood films, whilst also offering photographic and illustrated sources for paper patterns for readers to make their own. The fan magazine, Silver Screen, sold patterns for a wide age range, including Shirley Temple patterns for children. In 1932, publishing company Condé Nast began to suffer competition from the less expensive pattern companies. The companies’ range of Vogue patterns were priced between 40 cents and $2, a steep price range for consumers during the period, yet Nast was fearful of reducing the price and cheapening the image of Vogue. So, in 1932, Nast started the cheaper Hollywood Pattern Company that appealed to the national fascination with the movies by offering a line modelled after clothes worn by Hollywood movies stars. The line was sold in stores such as W.T. Grant at the more affordable price of 15 cents, and they were an immediate success. The Hollywood Pattern envelopes usually featured the name, affiliated studio and photograph of the actress on whom the clothes were based, a small piece of text about their latest film and an illustration of the pattern garment.

The patterns were produced like Vogue patterns with small instruction sheets and were aimed at women aged seventeen to thirty-five, which was in keeping with the Hollywood Patterns motto, ‘Patterns of Youth.’ In 1933, Condé Nast introduced the Hollywood Pattern Book, which Joy Spanabel Emery (2014) describes as including ‘promotional photos from new films, articles about what the stars were wearing, and information about the designers, as well as a catalog of new Hollywood patterns.’ The patterns insinuated that the featured Hollywood star was wearing the garment from the pattern, but the clothes were not copies of those worn in the films. The April/May 1935 edition of the Hollywood Pattern Book stated that the designs are inspired by the clothes of the smartest stars, not copies from them. The dress which may be perfect for the camera may be too dramatic in the office or home. Our staff studies the best previews, then creates clothes in the same spirit, but easier to wear.

A series of dress patterns, ostensibly based on the film costumes of Gone with the Wind, were produced by Hollywood Patterns, featuring street-length, hoopless versions of the dresses, which used less than one-tenth of the yardage of the screen costumes.

Five patterns were produced, four of which were based on costumes worn by Vivien Leigh, and one based on a dress worn by Ann Rutherford as Carreen O’Hara. The patterns numbered 1987, 1988, 1989 and 1993 featured Vivien’s face in a small circle on the front of the pattern alongside the words ‘Vivien Leigh as “Scarlett O’Hara” in Gone with the Wind‘. A Selznick International Picture, produced by David O. Selznick. A Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer release.’ Patterns 1988 and 1989 are obviously stylised versions of the iconic ‘barbecue’ dress and the ‘prayer’ dress worn by Leigh in the opening scenes of the film, whilst patterns 1987 and 1993 are for early 1940s dresses that are loosely based on the designs of the film costumes.

Even though viewers left the cinema convinced they had seen a true reflection of the Civil War period, as a fashion historian it is quite clear that many aspects of the film’s costume styles are rooted more in the 1930s than in the 1860s. In all the dresses for the film, the bodices were cut to conform to the shape of the bosom, when in actual fact the corset formed the basis for the fashionable shape in the 1860s, and the bosom conformed to it. The crinolines in the film are also exaggerated, designed in the dome-shaped style that is larger and wider than that found in surviving examples from the 1860s. These touches made the costumes more appealing for the late 1930s/early 1940s audiences and therefore something they would wish to recreate for their own wardrobes.

Vivien Leigh’s Gone with the Wind costumes can be seen to have influenced fashion trends through the evidence available in The Commercial Pattern Archive at The University of Rhode Island. The database of dress patterns provides a unique tool for researchers and designers to recreate or date clothing from 1847 to the present. They hold a large collection of Hollywood Patterns in their collections and it is interesting to see the influence of Gone with the Wind film costumes on other patterns produced in the 1940s. For example, Pattern No. 1059 (showing Marjorie Woodworth, a ‘Hal Roach Star’), that was produced in 1943, and the Anne Shirley of R.K.O Radio pattern produced in 1940 both feature a full-skirted evening dress with puffed sleeves that have a distinctly Victorian inspired style to them.

The Hollywood Pattern Company was running at an operational loss in 1935, but the Nast Corporation persevered, with manufacturing only finally ceasing in 1947. In her article, ‘Dress Like a Star’ (Dress, 2001), Joy Spanabel Emery examined how film costumes proved to be extremely popular marketing tools for pattern companies of the 1930s and Hollywood Patterns ‘spawned a number of subsidiary pattern names such as Butterick’s Starred Pattern, Screen Star and Photoplay,’ which gave women an inexpensive way to recreate the glamourous fantasies they saw on the screen.

The influence of Vivien Leigh and her film costumes, especially those from Gone with the Wind, had a far reaching impact on fashion trends in the 1930s and 1940s. I will conclude by stating that even though there is a lack of evidence for how clothing culturally influenced by Hollywood was consumed in the 1930s, it is clear through the primary archival and secondary source material that I have referenced that women did aspire to the glamorous images they saw at the cinema. The existence of dress patterns inspired by film costumes is evidence of this. Vivien Leigh’s fame and her female central roles in films such as Gone with the Wind and That Hamilton Woman inspired women’s fashion as women wanted to not only emulate Leigh, but her strong characters. The Hollywood Patterns that were produced over fourteen years allowed women on limited budgets, either because of the Depression or war, a chance to have their own piece of Hollywood glamour. The main reason Hollywood Patterns was one of the more successful pattern brands may have been because their patterns were not straight imitations of film costumes, which costume designers stated were made to be photographed, and were therefore more accessible for women to wear, especially reproductions of period film costumes. I think David O. Selznick was correct when he claimed that Gone with the Wind’s costumes were responsible for 50% of fashions at the end of 1939. ‘All of this is trivial and laughable in a world that is shaken by war,’ he said. ‘But women being what they are, I think it could make for excellent publicity.’

Victoria Haddock graduated with a BA (Honours) History degree in 2016, before undertaking a Masters degree in the History of Design and Material Culture from the University in Brighton, graduating in 2019. Victoria’s dissertation focused on the topic of fashion tie-ins inspired by film costumes during the 1930s. She works as a Freelance Collections Care Curator for Zenzie Tinker Conservation, working on the Royal Courts of Justice Legal Dress Collection, and has previously worked for the Gallery of Costume, Platt Hall, and the National Trust’s Killerton House. Victoria also volunteers with the Costume/Textile collections at Killerton and RAMM.

Disclaimer: The IAMHIST Blog is a platform that offers individual scholars the opportunity to present their work and thoughts. They alone are responsible for the content, which does not represent the view of the IAMHIST council or other IAMHIST members.

A Day at the Archives… Warner Bros. Archive

Jennifer Voss, De Montfort University

17 April 2018


In the summer of 2017, I embarked on a 12-day archival research trip to the film libraries and studios in Los Angeles, along with a cohort of PhD students and supervisors from the Cinema and Television History (CATH) Research Centre and Drama Research Group at De Montfort University, Leicester. Having developed connections with various libraries and archives in Hollywood (such as the Margaret Herrick Library and Warner Bros. Archives) via email prior to the trip, we were able to discuss our requirements and request our materials well in advance. We were also fortunate enough to be able to arrange some additional activities to enhance our experiences within the archives, such as tours of the archives and vaults, as well as a meet and greet with a number of librarians and archivists working as part of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.

With my PhD thesis addressing actor training processes and women’s experiences working as actresses within the film industry during the transition from silent to sound, I spent my time in LA divided between the Margaret Herrick Library, and the Warner Bros. Archives at the University of Southern California, School of Cinematic Arts. The Margaret Herrick Library reminded me somewhat of the British Library; in terms of the formalities, securities, and hushed reading rooms, as well as a sense of prestige and legacy. The Warner Bros. Archive, however, was a much more unfamiliar research environment, but one I was eager to immerse myself in.

Located in an industrial area of University Park, across the road from the Los Angeles DMV, the Warner Bros. Archive is housed in a large but unassuming, white painted building. There are no visible windows, just a small door at the front, with ‘3716 S. HOPE RESEARCH ANNEX UNIVERSITY OF SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA’ printed above it. After being buzzed in via the intercom, my colleague and I were lead through to a set of big double doors with the words ‘USC WARNER BROS ARCHIVES’ stencilled above it (had it not been my colleague’s second day in the archive, I would not have been confident we were in the right place until seeing this sign!). We were then taken through the archive, beyond rows and rows of shelves stacked high with boxes, to a small study area tucked in the back corner of the archive. The Archive Curator, Brett, set me up at one of the 6 or so research desks, and presented me with my single box of requested items.

Prior to the trip, there were some issues accessing the Warner Bros. Archive index, and so there was not a centralised online catalogue or system to search and request. However, this was not a problem as I spoke to Brett via email, and he was quick to offer assistance. I sent him a list of actresses and films I was interested in, as well as the HR information I might find useful, and he sent me a list of potential items to look through and request.

Here are a few examples of some of my exciting finds at the Warner Bros. Archive:

  • Contract files for Dialogue Directors and Dramatic Coaches; detailing the films they were contracted for. Particular highlight: business card/pamphlet for Malvina Dunn, Dramatic Coach, revealing her connection with the Paris Conservatoire.
  • Legal papers and contracts for Colleen Moore from 1928-1928, showing additional clauses for her first three ‘talkies’.
  • Production file for Footlights and Fools (1929); Colleen Moore’s third sound film

On the third day of the trip, the whole group met up at the Warner Bros. Archive, where we were given a tour. The tour began with a brief overview of the history of the archive. Brett explained how the archive was donated by Warner Bros. to the University of Southern California in 1978, and that the archive holds a vast range of Warner Bros. film, television and music material dating between 1918 and 1968. Due to a number of reasons, including the condition of the items, as well as copyright restrictions, the items held in the archive have not been digitised, and are therefore only available to access by researchers on-site. Moving through to the shelved unit situated right next to the study area, we were told that in order to make accessing documents relating the most popular/most frequently requested films easier for both staff and researchers, the archive has ready made-up boxes of records/documents for certain film titles. Brett had set-out one of these boxes for us to look through, to see the sorts of material held in the archive; the film was The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948) starring Humphrey Bogart. The file included correspondence from the research department file, script/story developments, legal files, set department stills, budget and other financial statements, press releases, wardrobe and make-up files, as well as more general inter-office memos and correspondence. After taking time as a group to move around and look through the documents, Brett took us on a tour of the building to see where the different files are pulled from, in order to make up the boxes for each individual researcher’s requests. It was a unique opportunity to be able explore the cataloguing and curating side of the archive, and we also got to see some incredibly exciting items, including an original animation drawing of Daffy Duck!

The extensive knowledge of the archive curator was invaluable throughout my time in the archive; he was keen to know what was useful and what wasn’t, and he was more than happy to dig out any additional material while I was working on my pre-ordered items. Similarly, the relaxed and informal atmosphere of the study space creates a really calm and comfortable working environment. The ‘thank you’ messages from students and academics alike which completely cover the partition wall is a testament to the great support offered at this fascinating archive.

This blog post has been adapted from my short blog series documenting my 12-day research trip to the film archives and studios in Los Angeles:

Jennifer Voss is a PhD candidate in Drama Studies and Film History at De Montfort University, and is funded by the AHRC in partnership with Midlands 3 Cities. Jennifer’s doctoral research, which uses performance theory to build upon a traditional film studies approach to cinema history, focuses on actresses’ performance of emotion during the transition from silent to sound cinema in Britain and America.

Disclaimer: The IAMHIST Blog is a platform that offers individual scholars the opportunity to present their work and thoughts. They alone are responsible for the content, which does not represent the view of the IAMHIST council or other IAMHIST members.

Love and revenge in The Eagle (1925)

Agata Frymus, University of York

23 January 2018


Big budget costume dramas were a prominent fixture in the changing landscape of early and mid-1920s Hollywood. Such productions were instructive in responding to ‘a specific spectatorial desire for escapism into an ahistorical time of myth and magic, inured to the ravages of urbanization [and] industrialization.’[1] In other words, silent historical epics were tailored to cater to audiences’ desire for spectacle, whilst also providing a conceptualisation of chivalry and romance untarnished by the shifting gender discourse of the time of their production. Vilma Bánky’s stardom was constructed around the notions of respectable (and largely passive) femininity, concepts which were easily accommodated by this type of drama. Because it was one of the most conservative genres, at least as far as gender portrayal is concerned, it gave its female protagonist a chance to fulfil the role of damsel in distress.

Figure 1: Rudolph Valentino’s star appeal was used in The Eagle’s publicity campaign.

The opening sequence of The Eagle (1925) depicts the first encounter between Lieutenant Dubrovsky (Rudolph Valentino) and Masha (Vilma Bánky) as the handsome man saves her from being kidnapped. One might extrapolate the significance of their meeting for the further development of the plot, given that the motion picture builds upon the trope of the ‘damsel in distress’, a patriarchal fantasy that has long foregrounded the depictions of love in mainstream art. In accordance with this representational pattern, the act of rescue perpetuated by the hero equates Bánky’s character with the trophy awarded for his exceptional bravery. At that point, Dubrovsky is unaware of Masha’s precarious status as the daughter of the man who had seized Dubrovsky’s dying father’s familial estate. Whilst Bánky exchanges the look of the film’s protagonist, her ‘to-be-lookedness’ within the scene is counterbalanced by the negative position appointed to Catherine the Great, who observes the rescue action unacknowledged by Valentino’s gaze, with her face ‘momentarily transfigured in desire.’[2]

Figures 2 and 3: Seducer and seduced: Valentino as Dubrovsky with Masha (left) and Catherine the Great (right).

Portraying Catherine the Great in terms of sexual insatiability was by no means a development pioneered by The Eagle, but a long-standing tactic that has persisted across a plethora of other cultural texts.[3] Suggesting debauchery in relation to the monarch operated to highlight the notion that female political power constitutes an ultimate reversal of the ascribed gender positions. Much of the film’s comedic potential is built around the juxtaposition between the young, seemingly inaccessible Masha and Czarina, an older and sexually aggressive woman who pursues soldiers in her own guard in exchange for military status. Masha’s standing as a representational antithesis to the Czarina is inadvertly highlighted through visual means, particularly by costume: whilst the former wears delicate gowns and elaborate Russian dress, the latter is seen mostly in military uniform.

Moreover, Bánky’s heroine gains in moral stature because she is constructed in opposition to the corporeal aspects emblematised by the Czarina and, by extension, in referencing the idealistic notions of the spirit rather than the body. Historian Arthur Marwick has traced some aspects of this discourse back to the body vs. mind philosophy of the nineteenth century, which supported the notion that female beauty is evaluated in the context of the emotions it invokes in a heterosexual man; if the feeling is lustful, then the woman cannot be morally virtuous.[4] Confronted with this notorious man-eater, Dubrovsky chooses to desert the army rather than to conform to Czarina’s advances, eventually assuming a new identity as a Robin Hood-esque hero, the defender of the downtrodden, by the name of Black Eagle. ‘I enlisted for war service only’ proclaims the proud lieutenant, as he leaves the Czarina’s chamber in haste. To paraphrase Wood, The Eagle testifies to the universality of Western fantasy because it reduces two major female characters to archetypes of the Mother and the Whore, which embody the two fundamental myths of women continually re-inforced within patriarchal society. In the initial scenes of The Eagle Valentino is defined as a target of seduction, a ‘reluctant male trapped by the lustful designs of a female seductress’, which constitutes an ultimate reversion of his most famous role of predatory lover in The Sheik.[5]

The main challenge encountered by Dubrovsky in his quest to challenge Kirilla ? the corrupt man who robbed him of his inheritance ?  is the fact that the villain has a familial relationship with his love interest. One might argue that this obstacle naturally falls into the remit of ‘courtly love’, [6] in the sense that Masha’s inaccessibility not only elevates her status as an object of desire, but also creates the chief force driving the narrative forward. For Lacanian theorists, this is a culturally persistent trope, where hindrances and complications function to strengthen the desire to attain one’s goal. ‘Obstacles’, writes John Richardson, ‘are necessary in this understanding to preserve the illusion that without them the object would be instantly accessible.[7]

Masha’s initial rejection of Black Eagle’s advances (‘I don’t associate with masked men as a rule’) is hardly surprising, given the representation of romantic courtship in the bulk of popular Hollywood productions, as well as within Western cultural texts more broadly. Popular fictions on page and screen have long favoured a narrative contrivance in which heteronormative unity is achieved through the process of deferred courtship; that is, where the heroine is initially reluctant to fall under the hero’s spell, but does so eventually after he proves himself worthy of her affection. The ‘seduction plot’, was one of the central motifs of eighteenth-century sentimental literature that has been successfully disseminated across s great number of films, albeit in varying forms.[8]

As the action moves on, Dubrovsky gets closer to his arch nemesis – and, most significantly, to his daughter – by applying for the position of a French teacher in Kyrilla’s household. Bánky’s character resents Black Eagle at first, thinking very little of his chivalry and compliments. After she discovers the real identity of her French teacher, the narrative trajectory moves to emphasise Masha’s internal conflict: ‘I hate you!’, she screams. Eventually, she can no longer maintain the distance between herself and Dubrovsky, admitting that ‘Day and night I have fought against loving you – fought and lost!’

Figure 4: A still promoting the film seems to emphasise the semi-tragic aspect of Masha’s love for Dubrovsky, the nemesis of her father.

Of course, Masha wields little power on her own, being defined primarily through her relationship with the film’s chief antagonist. Eventually, the masked hero forsakes the oath of vengeance he has taken, concluding that ‘Revenge is sweet, but sometimes a girl is sweeter.’ In its critical appraisal of the film The New York Times deliberated that this dramatic shift is understandable, given the astonishingly good looks of Bánky’s character; ‘her beauty makes the hero’s gallantry all the more convincing.’[9] Thus, The Eagle culminates with the assumption that romantic fulfilment is a panacea for virtually all societal problems, including class struggle. The fight between the underprivileged citizens of the Russian state and the landowning class, epitomised here by Kirilla, is effectively eclipsed by the nuances of heteronormative romance.


[1] Diana Anselmo- Sequeira, ‘Blue Bloods, Movie Queens and Jane Does: Or How Princess Culture, American Film, and Girl Fandom Came Together in the 1910s’, in Princess Cultures: Mediating Girls’ Imaginations and Identities, ed. Miriam Forman-Brunell and Rebecca C. Hans (New York: Peter Lang Press, 2014): 169.

[2] Miriam Hansen, Babel and Babylon: Spectatorship in American Silent Film (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1994): 269.

[3] Peter Bondanella, Hollywood Italians. Dagos, Palookas, Romeos, Wise Guys and Sopranos (New York: Continuum International Publishing Group, 2006): 139.

[4] Sarah Berry, ‘Hollywood Exoticism’, in Stars: The Film Reader, ed. Lucy Fisher and Marcia Landy (London: Routledge, 2004): 183.

[5] Bondanella, Hollywood Italians, 138.

[6] The term is theorised by Slavoj Zizek in his The Metastases of Enjoyment: Six Essays on Women and Causality (London and New York: Verso, 2005): 89 – 91.

[7] John Richardson, ‘The Neosurrealist Musical and Tsai Ming-Laing’s The Wayward Cloud’, in The Oxford Handbook of New Audiovisual Aesthetics, ed. John Richardson, Claudia Gorbman and Carol Vernallis (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013): 300.

[8][8] Lea Jacobs, The Decline of Sentiment: American Film in the 1920s (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2008): 181.

[9] Mordaunt Hall, ‘Movie Review. The Screen,’ The New York Times, 9th November 1925, page unknown, available at [accessed 10/04/2017]

Agata Frymus is a PhD candidate at University of York and a recipient of White Rose Scholarship of Arts and Humanities. Her PhD thesis explores the star personae of three silent stars: Pola Negri, Jetta Goudal and Vilma Bánky. Her work has been published in Celebrity Studies Journal and Early Popular Visual Culture; she has an upcoming publication in Historical Journal of Film, Radio and Television.

Disclaimer: The IAMHIST Blog is a platform that offers individual scholars the opportunity to present their work and thoughts. They alone are responsible for the content, which does not represent the view of the IAMHIST council or other IAMHIST members.

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