Obituary: Irene Sharaff
Wednesday 25 August 1993
IRENE SHARAFF was among the creme de la creme of Hollywood designersin the great age of decor, when nothing was off the peg and location shooting was rare. She chose to call herself a designer instead of 'costume designer' advisedly; she designed clothing rather than costumes - with a flair rivalled only by Travis Banton and Edith Head. She was imaginative and inventive without being flamboyant - and by the time she went (temporarily) to Hollywood, one of the most sought-after and highest- paid people in her profession.
Her brilliance was recognised while working with Alice Berstein at the Civic Repertory Theatre. Eva Le Gallienne chose her to design Alice in Wonderland (1932) and, although the costumes were based on Tenniel, they so impressed Irving Berlin that he engaged her to work on his revue, As Thousands Cheer (1933).
She enjoyed the challenge of designing for musicals, and worked on four shows for Rodgers and Hart, I'd Rather Be Right (1937), On Your Toes (1938), The Boys From Syracuse (1938) and By Jupiter (1942), as well as the Kurt Weill-Moss Hart Lady in the Dark (1940), doing some spectacular work for the dream sequences as imagined by the heroine, Gertrude Lawrence. She was also involved with one of the most prestigious straight plays of that time, Robert Sherwood's Idiot's Delight, costuming Lynn Fontane and Alfred Lunt.
Sharaff was one of the Broadway talents that the MGM producer Arthur Freed brought to Hollywood, with Vincente Minnelli, who had been a designer before becoming a director; and she made her first film with Minnelli, both of them 'on loan' to Jack Cummings, I Dood It] (1943). Gile Steele shared the credit with her on this and Madame Curie, her first chance to do a costume picture.
The second, reunited with Minnelli, was a triumph: Meet Me In St Louis (1944). Colour was still a rarity in Hollywood and virtually every period musical till this time had been set in burlesque theatres, requiring vivid and indeed vulgar hues. But Meet Me in St Louis was about a well-to-do family, giving Sharaff a chance to work from the fashion plates of the time, 1903. Judy Garland played one of the daughters, and Sharaff designed for her a scarlet velvet ball dress which was the most sophisticated costume that Garland had yet worn on the screen. The consultant from Technicolor initially objected, saying that the dress would overwhelm that worn by Lucille Bremer (playing Garland's sister) and would anyway look inappropriate in a room with red plush furnishings. It worked dramatically and added an extra poignancy to the following scene, when Garland soothed the sobbing Margaret O'Brien by singing 'Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas' with a pale turquoise shawl over the dress. Garland, not a great beauty, never looked more attractive.
The film took in more money than any MGM film till that time (MGM released, but did not produce, Gone with the Wind), encouraging Freed and Minnelli to embark on Yolanda and the Thief. It starred Fred Astaire and Lucille Bremer, and was based on a whimsical story by Ludwig Bemelmans; but from the first preview it was recognised as an aberration, saved only from disaster by Astaire and its visual qualities, which included the costumes, designed by Sharaff predominantly in white for both the men and the women.
Simultaneously Sharaff was struggling with Freed and Minnelli on the troubled Ziegfeld Follies, an all-star revue which ended with more songs and sketches on the cutting-room floor than were actually in the finished film. The nature of the film required several designers. The studio's long-serving Irene was in overall control and the more striking costumes went to Helen Rose, a recent acquisition from 20th Century-Fox. Sharaff produced some of her most exquisite work, including the chinoiserie costumes to be worn by Astaire and Bremer when dancing to 'Limehouse Blues'. She customarily put a few details behind her costume drawings, and so impressed Freed and Minnelli that they asked her to design the sets for this sequence.
She might have stayed happily with the Freed unit, but Goldwyn wanted her for The Best Years of Our Lives, already regarded as Hollywood's most important film since Gone with the Wind. William Wyler was to direct from a script by Robert Sherwood on returning servicemen; Myrna Loy and Teresa Wright were set to play wife and daughter to Fredric March, bank manager before the war and now a sergeant. They required a wardrobe such as any banker's family could afford - halfway between dowdiness and the distinctive look of Hollywood.
Sharaff remained with Goldwyn and worked, among others, on four Danny Kaye musicals; and was the unanimous choice of Freed, Minnelli and Gene Kelly when planning the climactic ballet of An American in Paris (1951). Most of the film was already finished. The only decision made for the ballet was that the sets were to be based on the Impressionist painters; and at her first meeting with her collaborators Sharaff found herself asked to design these as well as the costumes. The plotline of the ballet and the choreography were devised by Kelly after studying Sharaff's artwork. She worked again with this creative team on Brigadoon (1954), bringing her wit to a film which badly needed it.
Then she again designed both sets and costumes for yet another almost completed film. This was A Star is Born, Judy Garland's comeback film at Warners - and she was probably hired at Garland's suggestion. After the director, George Cukor, had left the film, it was decided that something was missing in what Jack L. Warner believed would be the most successful movie in his company's history. Roger Edens and Leonard Gershe had accordingly written a compilation number for Garland, 'Born in a Trunk', and it was hoped that Sharaff would do as much for this as for the Gershwin ballet in An American In Paris. Whether she did remains an open question: Cukor himself loathed the sequence and the film itself, though much admired, did not begin to realise Warner's expectations.
Sharaff, meanwhile, had returned to New York. She did not care for the way of life in Los Angeles, and was in any case being offered some appealing jobs on Broadway, including The King and I (1950) for Rodgers and Hammerstein, with Gertrude Lawrence, which gave Sharaff a chance to deal with both Oriental silks and Victorian crinolines. Its highspot was the polka 'Shall We Dance?' for the king and the governess: Sharaff designed a dress of pale purple, of heavy silk and with a skirt so exaggeratedly large that the sequence had a panache rare in even the best musicals. She adapted it for the film version in 1956 which starred Deborah Kerr, who called Sharaff 'brilliant' but was only reconciled to the heaviness of the skirts' metal hoops when she realised that they gave them 'a flow they wouldn't have had with cane'. Sharaff worked with Rodgers and Hammerstein again on Me and Juliet (1953) and on both the stage and film versions of their musical set in San Francisco's Chinatown, Flower Drum Song (1958 and 1961).
She designed the costumes for two colourful period musicals with Shirley Booth, A Tree Grows In Brooklyn (1951) and By the Beautiful Sea (1954). Other Broadway assignments included Leonard Bernstein's Candide (1956) and West Side Story, which she also repeated for the film (1958 and 1961). West Side Story was the first time she had worked with Jerome Robbins as both choreographer and director; in 1958 he invited her to design the duds for Ballet: USA, which played to great acclaim in New York, Edinburgh, London and Paris. Later stage work included Noel Coward's The Girl who came to Supper (1963), Jules Styne's Funny Girl (1964; and film 1968) and Cy Coleman's Sweet Charity (1965).
The films she accepted were chiefly musicals, which carried the sort of big budgets with which she liked to work: Call Me Madam (1953), Can Can (1960) and Hello Dolly (1969), all at Fox. She was Joseph L. Mankiewicz's unequivocal choice to bring a racy character to the clothes worn by the Damon Runyon urban types in Guys and Dolls (1956), produced by Goldwyn, who also employed Sharaff on Porgy and Bess (1959). Mankiewicz sent for Sharaff again when he took over Cleopatra (1963), to dress that lady, because he wanted her outfits to be both authentic and not unnecessarily dwarfed by the mammoth sets. Renie designed the costumes for all the other women and Vittoria Nino Novarese those of the men, but it was Sharaff who became an ever-present presence on the set, adjusting Elizabeth Taylor's costumes when her weight fluctuated overnight.
Mankiewicz was one of those praising Sharaff at a gala tribute at the Museum of Modern Art last year. She won the last of her five Oscars in 1966 for Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (the others were for An American in Paris, The King and I, West Side Story and Cleopatra) and the last of her 16 nominations was for The Other Side of Midnight (1977) - but then style, as Sharaff understood it, was seldom any longer in demand in Hollywood. Her last film was probably the only bad one on which she worked, Mommie Dearest (1981), but its perpetrators knew that to recreate the Hollywood of Joan Crawford it required an artist who understood the particular glamour of the Crawford era.
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