Gloria Vanderbilt (1924-2019) recently passed away, and the news reports made me realize I didn’t know much about her besides 1. famous last name and 2. jeans. Cue a Wikipedia read, in which I learned about the custody dispute in which her aunt (Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney) tried to take her away from her mother (Gloria Morgan Vanderbilt) in the 1930s… and then I saw it: TV MOVIE BIOPIC. I love nothing more than a good biopic, and since it was filmed in 1982 I was hoping for a high cheese factor, ESPECIALLY when I saw the title: Little Gloria … Happy at Last. Apparently that’s taken from a book written about the custody dispute, so I guess we can’t blame the filmmakers.
Surprisingly, the film has some quality to it: Bette Davis plays Gloria’s grandmother, Alice Gwynne Vanderbilt; Christopher Plummer is her quickly-deceased dad, Reginald Claypoole Vanderbilt; Angela Lansbury plays her aunt, Gertrude Whitney; and Glynis Johns as Mom Gloria’s mother.
The movie focuses much more on Gloria’s mother (Lucy Gutteridge) which, thank god, because young Gloria (Jennifer Dundas, who also played the young Anastasia in Anastasia: the Mystery of Anna) mostly just gets to scream annoyingly a lot. It’s decently entertaining, in a soapy 1980s-biopic way, starting with Mom Gloria meeting dad, getting married, having Daughter Gloria, and then the whole custody dispute. Also, you haven’t lived until you’ve seen an older Angela Lansbury 1. erotically carving a statue of a naked man, and 2. getting fluttery and smoochy with her secret lover.
The movie was nominated for a number of Emmy’s: outstanding drama series, supporting actress (Bette Davis), lead actress (Angela Lansbury), art direction, writing — and costume design.
The costumes were designed by Julie Weiss, who’s done some big modern-set movies, like Steel Magnolias, Twelve Monkeys, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, and American Beauty; in terms of period pieces, she would go on to design A Woman of Independent Means (1995), Frida (2002), and The Missing (2003).
I weirdly really enjoyed the costumes, despite the fact that I was watching a shitty YouTube version of the movie. There was a lot of glam, and I even started screencapping stuff I liked.
Since it’s an older production, it was hard to find out much about the costuming, but I did find two articles that gave some insight. Weiss was interviewed by Women’s Wear Daily about the film, and the most interesting bits were these:
“‘If I work alone, the best I can do is dress somebody. And I prefer to design from the inside out.’ Which is why, she says, she enjoys and accepts suggestions from the stars involved… ‘An actress like Bette Davis is someone you should listen to… The Twenties were also a time of new freedom for women; they had only recently won the right to vote.’ She especially enjoyed the chance to show a change in fashion with the passage of time, from the free-flowing styles to ‘the slight beginning of a more fitted waist’… Weiss had what she calls ‘a rather limited budget’ and eight weeks before shooting to get the costumes together. Somewhat less than half represent her own designs, the rest ‘a kind of search and seize show’ in which costumes from the period were collected. ‘When we finished adding touches and accessories, every costume was like a collage'” (Pat Lowry, “Home Watch: ‘Little Gloria’s’ Glorious Costumes,” WWD, Aug. 25, 1982).
There’s also an article about Bette Davis and how she related to her fellow cast and crew, in which Davis’s former assistant and biographer recalls:
“I remember Miss D advising the costume designer Julie Weiss that she needed to stick up for herself more. Outfitting this large cast in period clothing was a monumental task and Miss D recommended that she insist on hiring more people to help her. Miss Weiss said that the producers would not agree to that” (Bette Davis: Tireless Advocate for her Crew).
Gloria Morgan Vanderbilt’s Costumes
The film starts in 1923ish, when 19-year-old Mom Gloria meets Dad:
Alice Vanderbilt’s Costumes
Bette Davis was the Grand Edwardian Dame throughout.
Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney’s Costumes
Angela Lansbury’s character was rich and an artist (she went on to found the Whitney Museum in New York), which meant her wardrobe was shockingly fabulous.
Laura Kirkpatrick Morgan’s Costumes
Gloria’s Sisters’ Costumes
Mom Gloria had two extra-chic sisters, luckily for the costume designer and us.
And One Rando…
A French girl who served as Mom Gloria’s maid, and testifies in court, had such a great hat I had to screencap it:
Watch out, this sent me down a rabbit hole of TV movie biopics! There will be more in this vein soon…