WAMG Interview – Susan Claassen: A Conversation with EDITH HEAD – SLIFF 2013
ALL ABOUT EVE, ROMAN HOLIDAY, THE TEN COMMANDMENTS, A PLACE IN THE SUN, THE STING. These great films and hundreds more have one thing in common: costume designer Edith Head (1897–1981). The small woman with the familiar straight bangs, black-rimmed saucer glasses, and unsmiling countenance racked up an unprecedented 35 Oscar nods and 400 film credits over the course of a sixty-year career. The golden age of Hollywood sparkled with extravagant cinematic productions and stars such as Bette Davis, Elizabeth Taylor, Natalie Wood, Mae West, Cary Grant, Audrey Hepburn, Grace Kelly, Barbara Stanwyck, and Robert Redford were made even more glamorous by donning the costumes designed by the incredibly talented Mrs. Head.
Theater director Susan Claassen, a New Jersey native, got the idea for a project based on Edith Head several years ago after she watched a televised biography of the designer. She realized that her physical resemblance to the designer was uncanny, especially when she put on a pair of large dark glasses. Sharing Edith Head’s passion for fashion, she came up with the idea of a one-woman show. In A Conversation with Edith Head, Susan walks around the theatre as Edith Head. She interacts with her audience, allowing them to ask questions and even bringing one or two into the production with an improvisation that only an accomplished actress like Susan Claassen can do. She imparts many “Edith-isms”. Some of her favorites are – “Early on, I learned the most important person to please is the Hollywood director.” Or “The director I’m currently working with is always my favorite.” And “When you find a magic, stick with it and never change it.”
Susan Claassen will be bringing A Conversation with Edith Head to The Sheldon Ballroom (3648 Washington Blvd, St Louis, Missouri 63108) on December 6th and 7th (details and ticket info for that event can be found HERE)
Susan Claassen will also be in town this weekend as a guest at the St. Louis International Film Festival (SLIFF). As part of the five-program Fashion Reels, SLIFF offers Alfred Hitchcock’s TO CATCH A THIEF (1955), one of the Master of Suspense’s most nimble-footed, lighthearted entertainments, with costumes by Edith Head and performances by Cary Grant and Grace Kelly. American expatriate John Robie (Grant), a retired cat burglar, lives in high style on the Riviera, but a wave of jewel heists forces him to catch the copy-cat thief to avoid blame. High on the list of prime victims is the bejeweled Jessie Stevens (Jessie Royce Landis), in Europe to help daughter Francie (the never-more-gorgeous Kelly) find a suitable husband. Knowing that the Stevens gems are ripe for the pilfering, Robie charms his way into the women’s lives with the intent of trapping the cat.
Susan Claassen will introduce TO CATCH A THIEF in character as Edith Head and will conduct a Q&A afterwards. The event is Sunday, November 17th at The Plaza Frontenac Theater at 1:00pm. More information can be found at Cinema St. Louis’ site HERE
Susan Claassen took the time to talk with We Are Movie Geeks about Edith Head and her upcoming events here in St. Louis.
Interview conducted by Tom Stockman November 11th, 2013
We Are Movie Geeks: Hi Susan, are you looking forward to coming to St. Louis to talk about Edith Head?
Susan Claassen: Yes, did you see the Google doodle on October 16th?
WAMG: I did not.
SC: It was Edith Head. It was her 116th birthday – the face of costume design in film
WAMG: Neat! Have you been to St. Louis before?
SC: Not for many, many years.
WAMG: Edith Head’s mother was from St. Louis. Do you know much about her?
SC: She was born there but then moved to San Bernardino, so she didn’t really have roots there. But that’s interesting and I always adapt my show to each city. I’ll be back in December to do my show, A Conversation with Edith Head. It’s kind of a history of film. She worked for 60 years in the film industry. It’s kind of amazing.
WAMG: Tell me about what you are doing in conjunction with the TO CATCH A THIEF screening at SLIFF next Sunday?
SC: That was one of Edith Head’s favorite films. Edith designed for all of the Hitchcock blondes. She and Grace Kelly were great friends. So, as Miss Head, you won’t get to meet me next Sunday, you’ll be meeting Edith. She will intro the film from her perspective, giving some back story, things to watch for, and what it was like to work for Hitch. They were great friends. That will be kind of what will happen on Sunday. Have you seen the film?
WAMG: I have it on DVD, but have never seen it on the big screen.
SC: Exactly, that often happens when we come in to town with the show. Cinemas will show these films on the big screen. TO CATCH A THIEF was quite a sensation when it came out.
WAMG: Why TO CATCH A THIEF? Was that your choice?
SC: I think it was their (Cinema St. Louis’) choice. We considered several choices that were fashion oriented. REAR WINDOW was one of them. I Iove to introduce that one as well because that’s a fashion film.
WAMG: I think TO CATCH A THIEF is a good choice because it’s one Hitchcock film that has not shown theatrically in revivals the way something like REAR WINDOW has.
SC: Yes, and the restoration is gorgeous.
WAMG: What are special about the costumes in TO CATCH A THIEF?
SC: The thing about Hitchcock is that he was very detailed about all aspects of his films. And Grace Kelly was the ultimate Hitchcock blonde. It was very interesting because Hitch literally wanted to go on a paid vacation to the South of France. They made the film and he got Cary Grant out of retirement to do the film. And that was the last film Grace Kelly did with him so all of those are interesting factors. The costuming, especially the gowns, were proof that Edith Head really understood that costumes further the narrative and I think that’s a key point in this film. Before the film begins I’ll talk about some of the gowns and first impressions and second impressions. Regarding the color choices, you could always tell that Hitch wanted Grace Kelly, in this film as well as REAR WINDOW, to look like a piece of Dresden china. So those are the kind of interesting things throughout the film. And of course you have the chemistry onscreen between Cary Grant and Grace Kelly that rivals any in cinema history.
WAMG: So you’ll introduce the film and talk about the costumes. Will you answer questions about the film when it’s over?
SC: Yes, and whenever I portray Edith Head, it has to be time appropriate so I can’t answer questions about Edna Mode (the Edith Head-based character voiced by Brad Bird in Pixar’s THE INCREDIBLES) or the Google Doodle when I am Edith. When you see the full show (A Conversation with Edith Head) there are actual questions. I have a host who takes them to make sure they’re time appropriate but the show changes with every performance depending on the questions.
WAMG: When did you first develop an interest in Edith Head?
SC: I first became interested in Edith Head when I watched a biography of her. I’m an artistic director of a theater so I act and direct and put things together for other people but I had never put anything together for myself. I was watching Biography and I thought that I sort of look like her, and I was aware of her and I thought her story was fascinating. It was really a boy’s club when she came to Hollywood in 1923.
WAMG: So you never met or corresponded with her?
SC: No, but my collaborator wrote the book Edith Head’s Hollywood, so we had thirteen hours of taped interviews. The Academy put a reel together that I watched and studied and what’s really so wonderful is that people who did know her all have such rich stories to tell about her. Obviously, I know I’m not Edith Head, and most people know that I’m not, but they want to share a moment, a moment of memory of a movie palace or a film that they saw or who they were with or where they were in their lifetime when they saw one of her films. And I say, as Edith after the show, to share those memories and we’ve had people attend the show that did work with her. Tippi Hedren has seen the show several times. She was very good friends with Edith Head. After Alma Hitchcock, the next person Hitch had Tippi meet was Edith Head. They did a three day screen test together, full costuming and all, and they remained very good friends.
WAMG: There were two movies made bout Hitchcock a couple of years ago, HITCHCOCK and THE GIRL. I don’t recall, but was Edith Head a character in those films?
SC: No, HITCHCOCK was about PSYCHO and she didn’t do PSYCHO. She did do both THE BIRDS and MARNIE, but she was not a character in THE GIRL.
WAMG: She should have been. You mentioned you were a theater director. Were you a budding costume designer yourself?
SC: No, I’ve always had a sense of style, and I always collaborate on the set with costumes and all so I was always certainly aware of Edith Head. People who knew her have been so generous with sharing information. Art Linkletter for example, did a show called House Party that Edith Head worked on and we interviewed him, Bob Mackie was a sketch artist for Edith. And others. Elke Sommer came to see the show and Sally Kirkland, who made her film debut as a stripper in THE STING, has seen the show as well. Everywhere I go, somebody has known Edith because she was a household name. If you think ‘Costume Designer’, who do you think of? Nobody will ever achieve what Edith Head achieved.
WAMG: Do you own any of her costumes or drawings?
SC: Yes, I own costumes and drawings. I’m going to bring a miniature of the fabulous gold dress from TO CATCH A THIEF on Sunday. But when you see A Conversation with Edith Head, there are lots of great things on the set. There’s a recreation of the dress Bette Davis wore in ALL ABOUT EVE and a dress Elizabeth Taylor wore in A PLACE IN THE SUN.
WAMG: Tell me more about the A Conversation with Edith Head show. You say there’s a moderator that interviews you?
SC: Actually, we set it as if it’s a the Sheldon, because she was everywhere. He takes questions for me, questions for Edith Head to respond to. Again, you don’t have to know anything about film to enjoy it. You really understand what drives somebody and their inner workings. She was so driven She never walked off the set in a huff in 60 years. That’s phenomenal. She died two weeks after the wrap of DEAD MEN DON’T WEAR PLAID.
WAMG: I was going to ask about that. Her final job was for DEAD MEN DON’T WEAR PLAID where they incorporating Steve Martin and other actors into old movie scenes. Was this a challenging project for Edith Head?
SC: Carl Reiner, the director, wanted Edith for that film because of her work in Film Noir, DOUBLE INDEMNITY and others. And Edith Head loved working on that. The film is dedicated to her. She worked right up until the end. She was a big animal rights activist and advocate.
WAMG: Were there any films that Edith Head was embarrassed to have worked on?
SC: Yes. The final Mae West films.
WAMG: Oh, yes, MYRA BRECKINRIDGE and SEXTETTE.
SC: Yes. Edith Head was great friends with Mae West and she did those films as a favor to her but she never saw those films.
WAMG: Vincent Price was from St. Louis. Did Edith Head ever design any costumes for him?
SC: She was with Paramount and occasionally she was lent out just like stars were lent out. In the later years she was with Universal, but she did design the costumes for THE TEN COMMANDMENTS which co-starred Vincent Price, so yes, she would have worked with him.
WAMG: Good luck with your show at the St. Louis International Film Festival this weekend and your show next month. It sounds like a pair of interesting events.
SC: Thank you.