Feuds & Friends
Posted on April 21, 2017
The new FX show “Feud” is a wonderful exploration of the legendary rivalry between Joan Crawford and Bette Davis. It is also stunningly designed–recreating an environment I got to know in Black & White as a Technicolor dream. The design of the show also tells a story of a friendship–Joan’s interior designer is William Haines, Crawford’s longtime friend and fellow actor. A man of many talents, Haines was a successful actor who became an iconic interior and furniture designer whose studio is still popular today. Haines affectionately called Joan “Crawford Cranberry”, and she embraces his handle for her in this note.
Born in 1900, William Haines got his first acting job in 1922 and worked steadily until his open homosexuality, unique in Hollywood at that time, caused his career to suffer. In 1935, he decided to quit acting to start his interior design firm with his partner Jimmie Shields. Joan called them “the happiest married couple in hollywood” and they were together from 1926-1973. Jimmie took an overdose of sleeping pills shortly after William died–saying he found it impossible to go it alone.
Part of “Feud” is the contrast between Bette & Joan’s backgrounds–and one way they tell that story is through their homes. There is a great article about the recreated houses in AD.com this month called “Ryan Murphy’s Feud: Bette and Joan Is the Ultimate Showdown of Old Hollywood Style”.
Joan was a perfectionist, made famous by her daughter Christina’s book that became the movie “Mommie Dearest” (No more wire hangers!), and her home in the show reflects that perfectionism–including plastic slip covers on the furniture. Haines not only designed Joan’s house, but was the go to designer for a whole stable of Hollywood élite, including Rosalind Russell and Carole Lombard. He created a style that helped define what we think of as Hollywood glamour.
Joan was born in San Antonio, and lived in a boarding house on Crofton Ave. not far from where I now live in the King William neighborhood. Joan’s father left the family shortly after she was born, and despite hardships she got her start as a dancer and chorus girl. Bette was from an educated Eastern background and always considered herself a serious actress. Bette’s house in the show is full of comfortable warm tones and a casual, unassuming style absent from Joan’s.
Haines Design also designed furniture, and you can still purchase reproductions from their website. The production design in “Feud” seems to be inspired by Haines work, and what a world it is to live in…
Versatile and talented, Haines not only did he earn his star on the hollywood walk of fame for his early work in pictures but he built a surviving design studio and worked until his death, notably designing for Betsy Bloomingdale and Ronald and Reagan in his older years. He designed this fabulous room for the World’s Fair of 1939–a piece by Georgia O’Keeffe hangs over the fireplace.
Opening credits are getting increasingly sophisticated and inspired, and the opening credits of “Feud” are no exception. Inspired by the work of Saul Bass–graphic designer and filmmaker who designed many of the most iconic movie title sequences–the sequence feels both familiar and fresh. Saul Bass once said “Design is thinking made visual”, and the visual storytelling in these credits is incredibly subtle–with factual and fictional references peppered throughout.
The silhouetted figures and the red swirls seem inspired by the Bass’s Vertigo poster for Alfred Hitchcock’s masterpiece Vertigo, and the silhouetted body parts from the poster for Anatomy of a Murder.
One of my favorite quotes from early in the show is by Olivia de Havilland (played by Catherine Zeta-Jones), “Feuds are never about hate. Feuds are about pain. They’re about pain.” “Feud” is worth watching for the writing and performances alone, but the production design is a pure delight and may require repeated viewings. I await the next chapters eagerly…