Our occasional series about history’s most interesting people and events that have been overlooked by Hollywood. See also our articles about travelers, scientists, queer people, writers, artists, Renaissance women, Medieval women, 18th-century people, pirate women , journalists, Tudors, and suffragists who need movies made about them. We’ve also also nominated Rose Bertin and several of Henry VIII’s wives for specific screen treatment.
There seem to be 8 billion frock flicks set in World War II, another ton about Henry VIII and / or his wives, plenty of English Regency romances, and scads of intrigues at the 18th-century French court. I’m not saying I don’t love all of these (OK, I am over WWII as a setting), but I would love to see some historical costume movies and TV shows set in and / or focusing on different historical moments and events. Here are five moments in history that I think are fascinating fodder for frock flicks!
Inigo Jones Masques, 1605-1640
Inigo Jones was primarily an architect, but he’s also credited as perhaps the first to incorporate scenery (especially moving scenery) into theater. Jones collaborated with playwright Ben Jonson for over a decade on performances, and many of their works were “masques,” a type of performance that combined pageantry, singing, and dancing, with a theatrical performance that was often allegorical in theme. Key to masques were elaborate stage designs and costumes, both of which Jones designed. Masques were performed at the English court from at least Henry VIII’s time through the Restoration court of Charles II, and royalty and courtiers tended to be main players, although professional singers, dancers, and actors also performed. These could range from small entertainments to huge, elaborate events!
A number of historical movies and TV shows have hinted at these masques but insufficiently IMO. You get trash bags and floating ruff or just masks, but none of the stage set, for example.
Masques were a big part of English court life, and this setting could be a fabulous — and visually stunning! — place to set a story. There’s the court, of course, but also all the folks who make the event happen. Whether the story used real people like Inigo Jones and Ben Jonson as the stage designer and playwright or invented characters, they and their staff / associates / friends / lovers / enemies would be ripe for plotting something. You’ve got opportunities for characters of various classes, then add extra costumes and masks, and it could get rather juicy. C’mon, somebody, this stuff almost writes itself and the costume design is ready and waiting!
Seneca Falls Women’s Rights Convention, July 19-20, 1848
The first event of its kind, this gathering was organized mostly by female Quakers and abolitionists and would kick off annual conventions. Lucretia Coffin Mott, Martha Coffin Wright, Mary Ann M’Clintock, Jane Hunt, and Elizabeth Cady Stanton were key planners of the event, and several of them gave fiery speeches. The convention argued about and eventually ratified a Declaration of Sentiments that listed 16 grievances against men and male governance and called for full enfranchisement of women. Abolitionist and orator Frederick Douglass spoke in favor this declaration and was one of over 30 men to join in signing it.
If the signing of the Declaration of Independence can be turned into a musical like 1776 — and even better, Cabinet discussions in the early U.S. government can become rap battles in Hamilton — why couldn’t the start of the women’s suffrage movement be the setting for some high frock flick drama? I’m not requiring a song, but I’ve always been partial to this one:
Storyville, New Orleans, 1897-1917
This was the red-light district somewhat ironically named after Sidney Story, the city alderman who wrote legislation that controlled prostitution in the city. One of the most famous brothels in Storyville was Mahogany Hall, an ‘Octoroon Parlour’ run by Lulu White. She had a sumptuous house filled with chandeliers, mirrors, marble, and ferns. White called herself the “Diamond Queen of the Demi-Monde,” and Louis Armstrong’s song “Mahogany Hall Stomp” was about her fabulous brothel.
Yeah, it’s another story about prostitutes, but Harlots showed that can this be done from the women’s point of view. So call it the Black American Early-20th-Century Harlots and set some good writers and actors on it! This setting has dramatic highs and lows, glittering settings, jazz music, a diverse cast by default, and obviously lots of sex — it’s a winner, baby!
“The Rite of Spring” Premiere, May 29, 1913
I’ve always enjoyed this work, and I heard ages ago that it was so radical for its time that people rioted when the ballet first premiered. Well, the contemporary reports are unclear — maybe the audience threw things and shouted? maybe they just walked out? — but the performance did shock people because of the music’s dissonance and the ballet’s originality. This was super modern stuff that nobody seemed to expect!
OK, so I found one TV movie by the BBC from 2005 called Riot at the Rite that seems decent with the BBC Symphony Orchestra and Finnish National Ballet in the background of a fictionalized story about composer Igor Stravinsky, ballet impresario Sergei Diaghilev, and choreographer Vaslav Nijinsky. But I can’t find this flick anywhere for streaming, nor can I find other dramatizations of this event. And did that one get into the audience’s head about why they “rioted”? This event is due another frock flick, please.
The Harlem Renaissance, 1918-1930s
Think of all the frock flicks set in the U.S. from the end of World War I to the mid-1930s in the U.S. — every version of The Great Gatsby, Singing in the Rain, Some Like It Hot, Chicago, Boardwalk Empire — and notice how they’re all pretty white (and add that to the non-American ones like Downton Abbey, Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries, all the Agatha Christie stuff, etc.). But the creation and elevation of a new Black identity through arts, music, literature, fashion, and discourse which centered on Harlem, NY, during this time deserves costume drama exploration too.
There have been some films about this movement, obliquely at least. Biopics of musicians like Bessie Smith, Ma Rainey, Josephine Baker, and Billie Holiday all skirt the edges of the Harlem Renaissance, but because of how typical biopics work, they don’t tend show the principle character as part of a community. The Cotton Club (1984), while lushly produced, is really about Richard Gere’s character, while Gregory Hines is his sidekick, along with only a few other minor Black characters. I have Idlewild (2006) on my to-watch list — it looks like a Black 1930s take on the Moulin Rouge concept starring the members of Outkast and with a hip-hop soundtrack by them. I’m also considering Hoodlum (1997), which is a ’30s gangster movie with Laurence Fishburne and Tim Roth. But there’s room for so much more! How about Langston Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston’s friendship? What about the nebulous acceptance of LGBTQ lives in the Harlem Renaissance, such as lesbian, cross-dressing performer Gladys Bentley? Gimmie more!
Do you want to see frock flicks set during these moments in time? What other historical events deserve films & TV shows?
If memory serves me correctly, The Rite of Spring is dramatized in a movie called Coco Chanel & Igor Stravinsky. It’s definitely in some movie about Chanel.
There is a movie from 1980 called “Nijinsky” that has a few scenes about that performance, if I recall correctly. Watched it in a high school arts class 25+ years ago, so I don’t remember it well.
I was thinking of this one too. The way they stage the performance posits that the audience was shocked because Nijinsky, er, self-pleasured onstage with the nymph’s scarf. I have no idea if that was actually the case.
That’s Afternoon of a Faun where he self-pleasured on stage. Rite of Spring is a different ballet.
Inigo Jones was much mocked as a social climber by his rivals, and on account of the grand houses he got invited to they nicknamed him “In-I-go Jones”. So any flick about him could include any number of the leading men and most stylish and influential ladies of the time, and loads of elaborate Jacobean outfits and hairdos, which aren’t something you see much of on screen..
and Jones and Johnson HATED each other! All that lovely snarking and snarling….
HARLEM RENAISSANCE, YESSS!
They all sound like wonderful moments with something for everyone (everyone sensible, that is). But that masque scene from “The Tudors”: so bad, so anachronistic. On the other hand, Renaissance and Baroque masque music is usually gorgeous.
‘Self Made’ briefly touches on the Harlem Renaissance, and Madam CJ Walker’s daughter’s role in it.
Just a brief scene or two in episode four tho.
I could be remembering incorrectly, but didn’t ‘Restoration’ have bits of a masque?
But great suggestions.
Any writers or producers reading Frock Flicks?
Just bits! I couldn’t get decent screencaps right now so I stuck w/Tudors & Wolf Hall tho.
If I remember correctly, the First Churchills has a scene where Young Princesses Mary and Anne are in The Chaste Nymph with Sarah and Margaret Blagge. Supposedly that’s when Marlborough fell in love with his lady.
The rest are brilliant ideas. Especially the Seneca Falls Convention and the Harlem Renaissance. Langston Hughes and Zora briefly made an appearance in Marshall, but the Harlem Renaissance covered so much more Artists, like Maya Angelou and Richard Wright. It is worthy of a miniseries or series as well.
From what I understand, the Paris riot about Nijinsky’s ballets centered on 2 things — first of all, the ballet “Midafternoon of a Faun” showed the faun masturbating on the woman’s scarf, which was naughty even back then. Secondly, the “Rites of Spring” centered on human sacrifice. Stravinsky’s music for “Rites” is primitive, brutal, and damnably hard to dance to due to its time signature. You can see some of the conflict about these ballets in the film “Nijinsky.”
I have seen both ballets recreated from Nijinsky’s sister’s notes. “Faun” is very sensual — then you realize what he’s doing with that scarf. “Rites” is shocking. It is hard to listen to and even harder to watch.
Quite some time ago, I read something– a book on either Nijinsky or Diaghilev, I guess– that tried to excuse the moment in “Faun” as an accident.
Basically, what happens in the ballet is the faun gets up languidly, spots a nymph and tries to pursue her, but she resists him and leaves her scarf behind as she runs off. He takes it, spreads it on the ground, and lays face down on it as the scene ends.
At this point in the premiere, Nijinsky arched his back and made a contorted face, taken to be a graphic portrayal of a male reaching sexual climax.
However, the source I was reading– and I have no idea who was making this claim– said that the scene was supposed to end with the faun simply going back to sleep on the veil.
But as Nijinsky was lowering himself on the veil, one of a bunch of glass grapes ornamenting his costume at groin level broke under the pressure of his body, injuring him and causing his to contort in actual pain, not acted ecstasy.
I can’t remember if that explanation was advanced in the film or anywhere else– or if it was unique to whatever I was reading decades ago.
I had a look at his costume and it does have some perilous pointy bits at crotch level.
NIJINSKY does feature “The Rite of Spring”– as well as “The Afternoon of a Faun”– and the negative response to both. But I only saw the film once on opening weekend, and can’t recall how much attention was given to “The Rite.”
(There was definitely a depiction of the ahem climactic moment in “Faun” that caused the scandal at its premiere.)
An entire film about “The Rite of Spring” would be welcomed, though I’m not sure how much I’ve heard about the initial audience reaction is “real” vs. “legend evolving with each retelling.”
It should be kept in mind that the premiere was just one part of a heavily publicized big-ticket event at a newly opened theater, and the other performances that night were more traditional.
Stravinsky’s score contained unfamiliar dissonant elements that would’ve likely been off-putting at the time, but even worse, Nijinsky’s choreography was so different as to appear comical– a lot of jerky movements and hopping up and down– so it’s easy to see that there would have been laughter and booing.
(And the scandal over “Faun” was exactly one year earlier, so a good part of the audience may have been primed to be not receptive to any new work from the same choreographer who gave an “obscene” performance on stage.)
But an actual “riot” probably didn’t happen– and I suspect the crazed, politically-charged reaction to Luis Bunuel’s 1930 film L’AGE D’OR, where property was allegedly damaged by an outraged audience, has influenced the legend of the reaction to “Rite.”
Also, I’d like to see a film about Lulu White and Mahogany Hall.
There have been a few films depicting Storyville– most notably Louis Malle’s PRETTY BABY (1978), which was well-done but really problematic to the point where you can’t watch it with a clear conscience. (A shame that the same effort couldn’t have gone into a film about Lulu White instead.)
There was also a low-budget film from the same year, FRENCH QUARTER, that’s really obscure and had a present-day/flashback structure and possibly dealt with reincarnation. I haven’t been able to track it down, but it has developed sort of a cult following, particularly because it featured actors like Virginia Mayo and Bruce Davison. (Photos I’ve seen online make it look really cheap, costume-wise.)
And there’s also another low-budget film, NEW ORLEANS (1947), described as “A casino owner and a high society singer fall in love during the birth of the blues in New Orleans.”
The AFI catalogue says it’s set in 1917 in Storyville, but it’s hard to tell from the few images I’ve seen– the poster seems to be determined to look contemporary– and it’s a film that started off at RKO as an abandoned Orson Welles project and wound up on Poverty Row released by Majestic Pictures.
The most notable thing is that it features a lot of music and performances from Louis Armstrong and Billie Holiday in her only feature film, but it’s apparently one of those films that frustratingly background the more interesting Black performers as window dressing for a typical dull “showbiz” plot. (I haven’t been able to track this one down, either.)
Yeah, those few film depictions of Storyville are not great. IMDB has pix from ‘French Quarter’ & it practically looks like soft-core porn!
I love watching shows which expose me to more obscure historical events or people. Have you seen Cyrano, My Love? It imagines the creation of the famous play by Edmond Rostand. I want more films like this.
Dang! Now I’ve got that Schoolhouse Rock song stuck in my head. Could be worse… :)
Riot at the Rite here on Youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JcZ7lfdhVQw
YouTube quality isn’t terrible but I hate the aspect ratio.
I’d like more pre-European contact movies. Hawaiian queen Keopuolani was instrumental in breaking the system of taboos that ruled society. I’d love to see a film about her and her accomplishments.
Also, a movie that takes place Cahokia during its heyday.
I love these ideas. I do worry though that stories supposed to be centred upon women and POC tend often to centre around how the (white) men in the story feel about or think about the other characters. And that is so much worse. And then the story has a movie about it and that’s that.
The impresario for Rite of Spring (Diaghilev) was known for making sure that his openings were scandalous, whether by misleading the audience, salting it with the easily offended, or leading the catcalls himself. It’s said that’s why he hired Nijinsky et al. The Joffrey Ballet did a reconstruction of the original choreography in the 1980s and there was a documentary about the whole thing … A woman who was (apparently) the last surviving member of the chorus at the premiere remembers Nijinsky pounding a staff on the stage floor because the dancers could not hear him over the noise from the audience.
Like so many others, I love ALL the ideas you put forth.
Re masking: I loved the masquerade dance sequence in Phantom of the Opera movie. Also, the mask scene in Kenneth Branagh’s version of Much Ado About Nothing. And the masked shagging in Queen Margot and Henry and June. But none of those films take place in the era you spoke of. Anyway, I’m all for “behind the scenes” type movies–in ANY era of the theater–and I LOVE watching the stage crew work during the Intermission segments of the Met Opera’s Live in HD simulcasts. John Turturro directed a behind the scenes Frock Flicks called “Illuminata” that I quite enjoyed when I watched it. And I also love Sally Potters’ “The Man Who Cried.”
Re Harlem Renaissance: Yes, yes, and yes. There are so many reasons why we don’t have more movies about this era. I think the Harlem Renaissance and its various artists are seen as “niche” and without mass appeal. And also, I think previous eras (in all cultures, including within the Black community itself), have not wanted to address the sexualities of some of its well known participants. I would love to see a movie about Arturo Schomburg and also one about Paul Robeson. Re The Cotton Club: In 2019 Francis Ford Coppola released a different version called The Cotton Club Encore, which allegedly restores scenes the studio forced him to cut that focused on the Black characters. I haven’t seen it yet, but I would like to.
Other stories: I’d actually LOVE to see more WWI and WWII films focused on the Black experience–either at home or abroad–beyond stories of the Tuskegee Airmen. I’d love to see stories about Black nurses and Black WACs. Also, I’d love to see stories about Black Americans in Europe during the Interwar years–Sidney Bechet, especially. HBO’s The Josephine Baker Story and Spike Lee’s Miracle at St. Anna told these types of stories, but I’d love to see more. You mentioned Storyville, but I think ANY era of New Orleans life is ripe for dramatization!!!
In regard to masques … a friend of my put on a reasonably good one as part of his academic work toward his PhD in theater.
As for interesting stories set in brothels … much of the negotiations for the founding of the United Nations took place in Sally Stanford’s “parlor” … a great setting for all the sex and politics junkies out there.