The glorious staging of a large formal gathering for social dancing, the Ball, is the top of all movie parties. The movie Ball contrasts the elegant dressing and acting within the Ball’s rigid social code with life on the ordinary days that precede and follow the celebration. Dressing beyond formal attire in elaborate costumes, disguised behind masks, defines the Hollywood Costume Ball just as wearing tiaras and crowns in the palace distinguishes the Royal Ball.
The predominant cinematic setting for these enormous dance events on this side of the Atlantic is the American South—that society “gone with the wind.” At the greatest Confederate Ball on screen, Jezebel’s Olympus Ball, Southern Belle Julie/Jezebel (Bette Davis) recklessly flaunts her passion and her social impropriety wearing a red ball gown. William Wyler spent five days filming a series of camera moves for a scene only a few sentences in the script. Jezebel’s legendary Olympus Ball sequence was based on a real-life white ball in Hollywood at which all the women appeared in white—except Norma Shearer. The impact of this scene of Julie’s bold red dress among the virginal white costumes is quite a Dream Factory feat: Davis’s costume was bronze colored for the film shoot in black and white.
A classic Studio System Ball set “across the pond” convinces Olivier, Macfadyen, Firth, Rintoul, Seale, McGibney, Osborne, and Riley (with Zombies) among others, to run like hell from Elizabeth Bennet and her family in Pride and Prejudice. Also set in England, the Embassy Ball in Cukor’s My Fair Lady presents the world’s most elegant flower girl. This 1964 Oscar Best Picture Ball was outplayed by its casting. When Audrey Hepburn replaced Broadway’s Julie Andrews as My Fair Lady on screen, it branded peerless Hepburn the wrong actress in Eliza Doolittle’s very right Cecil Beaton ball gown. In casting the next year for 1965’s Oscar Best Picture, The Sound of Music, no one shed a tear for First Lady of the Theater, Mary Martin, being ridden out of the Salzburg Abbey more cruelly than Sister Luke is sent packing in The Nun’s Story’s in order to ensconce Julie Andrews on screen as Rogers and Hammerstein’s singing postulant. The Embassy Ball says a lot about the Hollywood community.
A Hollywood Masked Ball attracted the silent (sometimes Handshiegel Colouring Processed) appearance of the Phantom of the Opera as Poe’s Red Death at the 1925 Paris Opera Ball. The black-and-white Hollywood Manderley Masquerade Ball implodes on screen in 1940’s Oscar Best Picture, Rebecca. Joan Fontaine appears in a duplicate of her husband’s first wife’s ball costume. Based on a faux aristocratic 19th Century family portrait in the Manderley gallery painted for the movie by Mary Beavers, the ball gown in the portrait was actually based on a movie costume by Hollywood designer Irene Lentz. Tricked by leering Mrs. Danvers, shy Fontaine unintentionally wreaks social havoc by appearing overwhelmed in and by her deceased predecessor’s festooned masquerade costume. At a Technicolor Masquerade, Grace Kelly is costumed in 18th Century gold lamé with attending blackamoor and parasol. Heiress Francie Stevens negotiates her shimmering ball gown and entourage as party costuming because she is costumed for more than dancing. Dancing all night, she forfeits social propriety in a calculated ruse to aid and abet a criminal, charming jewel thief, and the “cat,” John Robie, at the Masked Ball on Hitchcock’s French Riviera.
Think Royal Ball—think Cinderella. As in Disney’s classic 1950 animation and Sondheim’s 2014 musical, Branagh’s live-action Disney a year later sets Cinderella’s Ball in the big-budget fairy tale castle. Radiant newcomers Lily James and Richard Madden spin around the dance floor as everybody else watches them in jealousy and awe. The right woman navigates the right blue gown only slightly smaller than a Volkswagen Beetle. The Prince (a discreetly trussed stallion in immaculate white military uniform ) and Cinderella (in the world’s most over-the-top batteries-included ball gown) dance and are admired. Each finds grace in the presence of the other. And they fall in love. It is pure movie magic and pure movie fantasy.
There is more going on than girls dancing with boys at these Balls, although that is definitely important. As we follow the innuendo and flirtations among the lines of formally attired paired dancers, the Ball provides a way to learn about community, traditions, family prospects and expectations, as well as social impediments. We see how people act and don’t act in public, so we can understand why they do so in private. The artificiality of the Ball attire clearly differentiates the reality of lives before and after it. And make no mistake; what happens at a Hollywood Ball definitely does not stay there! Stephen Sondheim illuminates the “real” protocol of the movie Ball, “To arrive at a ball/is exciting and all-/Once you're there, though, it's scary.”