Marcelle de Saint Martin
French born Marcelle de Saint Martin was creative, talented and a striking beauty who found great success designing costumes for the stage in London at the end of the First World War and later became chief designer and head of one of the first British film wardrobe departments. And yet her career was sadly all too brief and short-lived.
Marcelle was born in Paris on the 16th December 1898, the daughter of Professor Rene de St. Martin. Interestingly, Rene as a young man fought on the side of the Confederacy during the American Civil War. Dissatisfied with the War’s outcome, Rene returned to Paris to begin a career at the Ecole Polytechnique (X), one of the Grande Ecoles of France. Initially a military school, during the First World War the entire student body was mobilized, and the school itself was used as a hospital.
As a child Marcelle loved clothes and she designed and made them for her dolls. Her schooling in Paris encompassed a through study of drawing, painting, modeling, anatomy and the history of art which laid the foundation for her later career as a dress designer.
During the War, Marcelle and her mother emigrated from France to be with Yvonne, Marcelle’s elder sister who had married Ernest Watts, a soldier. Marcelle was developing her skills as an artist and costume designer and she soon came to notice.
She became entranced with the American actress Doris Keane who had bought the show Romance to London in 1915 where it ran for 1049 perfromances at the Lyric Theatre ending in April 1918. She drew a sketch of Doris that was greatly admired and exhibited in the theatre. This brought in commissions from actresses Violet Loraine and Kyrle Bellew. Seemingly, her first credit for costuming a show was for the romantic comic opera Valentine staged at the St. James theatre in early 1918. She was then signed by Julian Wylie to provide the costumes for the ingredients of the Plum Pudding ballet in the pantomime Jack and Beanstalk staged first at the Alhambra Theatre in Glasgow in 1918/19, then Liverpool in 1919/20 and eventually staged at the London Hippodrome in late 1921.
Thereafter, she become a designer for the couture outlet of Hockley of Bond Street and was secured by George Grossmith to design costumes or gowns for his various West End shows. This included Kissing Time (opened 20th May 1919 with all modern dresses by Marcelle, executed by Hockley) at the Winter Garden, Tilly of Bloomsbury at the Apollo (opened 10th July 1919), Eastward Ho! (opened 9th September 1919) at the Alhambra (that starred Violet Loraine), Baby Bunting (opened 25th September) at the Shaftesbury and The Little Whopper (opened 1st January 1920) at the Shaftesbury). She was also engaged by the producer Julian Wylie to create costumes for the regional revue Passing Show of 1920 with Dolly Tree that was launched at the Hippodrome Liverpool in March 1920. Marcelle’s contribution appears to have been the designs for a vocal ballet introducing My Lady Liqueur and 16 American cocktails.
Branching out from stage costume design, Marcelle was hired as a dresser for a fledgling Film company. The Famous Players Lasky company of America (later to become Paramount) decided to make a success of production in England by establishing a studio at a former power station of the Metropolitan Railway in Poole Street, Islington in late 1919.At the time the studio became the envy of other British studios due its array of excellent facilities, adequate backing and good distribution. Their intention was to raise the standards of British film production to the level of that of leading studios of the United States with films of the highest possible standard of technical and artistic excellence.
As part of the overall structure the managing director Milton Hoffman placed great emphasis on the costuming of the features to be released by the new studio and set up a wardrobe department at Islington headed by a Mme Langfier but the designing and construction of all dresses was carried out by an atelier in Paris with delivery by aeroplane to the studio. However, within a short space of time Marcelle’s flair for costume design and considerable stage experience was soon recognized and she became the studio designer. At the first dress parade journalists and specially invited guests viewed professional mannequins exhibiting the dresses to be worn in the first FPL feature The Great Day (TS Nov 1920), which featured garden party frocks, evening gowns, negligees and walking dresses. ‘These creations unquestionably outshine the best thing that Bond Street can offer and are highly fashionable without being tied down to any particular period.That is to say they are not committal enough to be unfashionable a year hence when the film is released. Milton Hoffman rightly plumes himself on the fact that the Islington studios are the only ones in this country to attempt such a venture and he is confident also that the establishment of the atelier in Paris will astound America.’
It was observed that the studio had successfully overcome the notorious difficulty of dress fashions in films by making its own costumes and that they had become ‘blissfully independent of Dame Fashion’s whimsical decrees.’ Marcelle made a point of stressing the need to circumvent the vagaries of fashion trends and pointing out that women find a film interesting if well dressed since many visit the cinema for their fashion tips. ‘One of my desires ….is to do away with the fashion-problem which so unfortunately dates a film. I am now designing costumes which more than keep pace with the vagaries of Madame La Mode. In this way the ‘movies’ will become to the picturegoer the mirror of fashion wherein will be reflected the graceful gowns of world famous stars clothed in styles which will be authoritative as those issuing from the famous ateliers of Paris. And instead of buying fashion magazines, the up-to-date woman of the future will pay a visit to her favourite picture house, there to watch society heroines garbed in frocks and frills which she herself will later reproduce for her own personal adornment.’
Marcelle also described her working methods. She made it clear that the studio spared no expense in ensuring she had everything at her disposal, including reserving a seat in the Grand Stand at Ascot and attending the Bal de l’Opera organised by Poiret on the eve of the Grand Prix results at which she ‘came back with my notebook filled with sketches which will prove an inspiration to me for some months to come.’ She explained that she started the design process by viewing the entire script ‘so that I have ample time to study the characters, their portrayers and those points of the story which call for particular care in the choice of textures, styles and colours.’ She also placed great emphasis on conferring with the other production staff ‘team work is essential if the studio dress designer is to be in any way successful.’ Discussions with the art director were vital to make sure she had an accurate idea of the kind of background against which here creations were to be grouped. She was also assisted by the camera and lighting men to make the most of filming certain fabrics to advantage. Virtually every costume was constructed by her team of workers but occasionally a Bond Street firm (most likely Hockley) would also assist where necessary.
It would appear that Marcelle designed the costumes for most of the films released by the studio in the early 1920s including The Call of Youth (TS Nov 1920), Appearances (TS June 1921), Princess of New York (TS June 1921), Besides the Bonnie Briar Bush (TS Nov 1921), The Mystery Road (TS Oct 1921), Dangerous Lies (TS Sep 1921), Three Live Ghosts (TS Mar 1922), Man From Home (TS Jun 1922) and Love’s Boomerang/Perpetua (TS May 1922).
One of last Famous Players Lasky films to be released was John Stuart Robertson’s Spanish Jade (TS Aug 1922) which was filmed in Spain. St Martin did not appear to work on this particular film and instead the costumes were entrusted to Mrs Robertson who had them made in Seville.
During this time she returned briefly to designing for the stage with costume designs for the Andre Charlot revue Snap (opened 11th August 1922) at the Vaudeville.
Marcelle’s talent as a costume designer was recognized by Cecil B. DeMille, who was getting a name for himself as a director. DeMille wanted Marcelle relocate to Hollywood to create the costumes for his planned production of The Ten Commandments, the first of his many over-budget spectaculars but she procrastinated, a decision she regretted all of her life.
From late 1922 production appears to have ceased and the studio was rented out to other film companies. In early 1924 J.C. Graham, the acting manager announced that in the opinion of the American company the productions had failed to reach a quality comparable with those made in America and as a result the exercise had failed. The British shareholders were paid back and the studio and equipment were sold to Michael Balcon and associates. The decision to close the studio was undoubtedly more complex than had been announced since many of the releases did well and exhibited good production values.
What happened to Marcelle on closure of the studio is not known but in 1924 she married Marcel Wallenstein, the manager of Planet News, a London based photo service and European correspondent for the Kansas City Star. Their child Eve was born 19th November 1925 and she gave up her career to look after her daughter and husband.
With the outbreak of the Second World War Marcel wrote about the Nazis and feared the Germans would target his family in the threatened invasion. So in 1940 he moved his wife and daughter to safety In Kansas City. In the early 1940s, Marcelle finally went to Hollywood where she was employed as a dresser for one of the Hollywood studios. She died September 1983 in Berkeley, California.
All images and text © copyright Gary Chapman / Jazz Age Club and must not be re-used without prior consent
Kineweekly, Motion Picture Studio and The Picturegoer
The History of British Film 1918-1929 by Rachel Low
My thanks also to Janice Ornellas for information about Marcelle’s family and marriage.
TS = Trade Show