Film

Vital Hollywood Doc ‘Women He’s Undressed’ Celebrates the Man Behind the Gowns

by

Women He’s Undressed offers a warm, revealing portrait of one of Golden Age Hollywood’s behind-the-scenes heroes. Gillian Armstrong presents the life of Orry-Kelly, who went from Australia to the bohemian New York of the 1920s to Hollywood, where he worked as a costume designer from the studio era through the early 1960s — at Warner Bros., Orry-Kelly did sixty films a year, many of which required dressing hordes of chorus girls. Armstrong uses film clips and archival photographs to illustrate Orry-Kelly’s creations from films like The Gold Diggers of 1933, Baby Face, Casablanca, and Some Like It Hot. The furs, spangles, and tulles on display are highly inviting, the documentary serving as an overview of how women dressed (and wanted to dress) during Hollywood’s most iconic years.

Armstrong tells Orry-Kelly’s story through impressionistic re-enactments, with actors playing the designer, his mother, and his former lovers; the technique is something of an aesthetic gamble, as documentary re-enactments often feel hollow. Here, though, Armstrong adds visual interest with a motif of bright blue water and moody, projected settings. Actors and costume historians elucidate Orry-Kelly’s work and share anecdotes — fascinatingly, he was the first designer to include actresses’ faces in his illustrations. His relationship with a pre-superstar Cary Grant is compelling, and the film treats it without gossipy ogling. After learning about Orry-Kelly’s dedication and creativity, one can’t help but eagerly dig back in to his 301 films, his name a sign of style and elegance after that now-antiquated “Gowns By” credit.

Women He’s Undressed

Directed by Gillian Armstrong

Rialto

Available on demand