Fans of film history and costume design will be thrilled by the new documentaryWomen He’s Undressed, which chronicles the life of three-time Oscar-winning costume designer Orry-Kelly. From his time as the head of Warner Bros. Studios costume department from 1932 to 1944, through his death in 1964, the "hem stitcher" as he called himself, designed the attire for 282 motion pictures including such classics as Casablanca; 42nd Street; Now, Voyager; Oklahoma!; An American in Paris; Some Like It Hot, and more.

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With a farcical, tongue-in-cheek tone that is said to match his personality, Australian director Gillian Armstrong (My Brilliant Career, Oscar and Lucinda) brings a long-overdue look to fellow Aussie designer’s stunning works.

Early life and work

Born in 1897 in the small township of Kiama on the coast of New South Wales, Australia, Orry-Kelly was different from the local folks in that he was gay and interested in the theater. Being forced into banking by his family, he moved to Sydney, but soon quit the business to take up with theater folks. After hooking up with a charming criminal, he decided to reinvent himself and moved to New York City. Residing in a hotel with other theater folks like Gracie Allen, George Burns and Jack Benny, spurred Orry-Kelly to the chorus of vaudeville shows, where he didn’t show much talent onstage, but showed talent in designing the frocks.

Cary Grant and Hollywood

In New York, the Australian befriended a young Bristol chap named, Archie Leach, who would soon become Cary Grant.

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Orry-Kelly and Grant lived together on and off for nine years. It’s assumed the two “mates” were a couple, as later it would be assumed that Randolph Scott and Grant were also an item until Hollywood forced each to marry. Nonetheless, both men propelled the other, and they both headed to Hollywood in the early 1930s. Grant’s agent helped get Orry-Kelly’s costume designs to Warner Bros. Studio head, Jack Warner. Warner would eventually hire the designer to head up the costume department where he would work with such actresses as Kay Francis, Ruth Chatterton, Bette Davis, Ingrid Bergman, to name just a few.

Although there was no denying his amazing talent – he designed clothes that accentuated women’s best attributes and didn’t go in for frilly and puffy concoctions – Orry-Kelly was a blunt talker. He wasn’t a “yes” man, which of course rubbed many people the wrong way. Plus, he was a drinker, which the film points out, was a characteristic of many costume designers of the time. There was a stint in rehab, which tarnished his relationship with Warners’ (although Jack Warner’s wife Ann would remain a lifelong friend).

Interviews and accolades for Orry-Kelly

Although the film’s Orry-Kelly symbolic re-enactments fall flat (due to no fault of actor Darren Gilshenan), it’s the interviews and the clips of the gorgeous costumes from the film classics that make this documentary shine. Those interviewed to discuss Orry-Kelly and his accomplishments include costume designers Colleen Atwood, Kym Barrett, Catherine Martin, Ann Roth, Michael Wilkinson, and historians Larry McQueen, Deborah Nadoolman Landis, Leonard Maltin, and actresses Jane Fonda and Angela Lansbury. Those interested in Hollywood of the 1930s – 1960s, costume design and complex trendsetters must seek out Women He's Undressed, available August 9 on all digital platforms including iTunes, Vimeo On Demand and Wolfe Video.  

Theatrical Trailer for Women He's Undressed