42nd Street – the art décor element in the film
42nd Street was released in 1933 and includes several interesting and intriguing elements which combine a backstage musical with sets that were very much in keeping with the designs of the day. First and foremost 42nd Street came out of the years of the Great Depression and this meant that some elements also influenced the staging. The musical is actually filmed mostly backstage so we sort of get a window into what is going on behind the scenes.
The sets in the film include the interesting use of Doric columns which also demonstrate the art deco element which comes out pretty clearly. The film’s costumes also have that Parisian/New York feel about them which again reinforces the art deco element very much like the paintings and architectural designs of Alphonse Mucha. Although there is a lot of American brashness in the film, the European style is evident especially in the Bauhaus like architecture which prevails throughout.
42nd Street was a film which garnered huge and considerable success. From the swanky and rather intriguing plot to the vast attention to detail given to sets and costumes, it turned out to be a sure fire winner in every department. It has had box office success for several decades especially with stars such as Ruby Keeler and Ginger Rogers who embodied the dance element that was so popular in Broadway at the time. The art deco element is strong, yet subtle and continues to play a very important role in the whole of the film.
Grand Hotel is another classic 1932 film starring Greta Garbo and John Barrymore. It is set in the heady days after the First World War in a Berlin Hotel where the noticeable art deco design can be seen on the set. The hotel has actually seen better days as has the Russian dancer who is portrayed by Garbo. Yet again the art deco element can be seen in the hotel’s designs, the rooms are ornate and colourful whilst we can also observe certain architectural touches on the walls and in the actor’s costumes. The surroundings mix well with the elements of the film’s plot which shows some wheeling and dealing going on as well as some characters who are out to get anything they can acquire. It is perhaps not so much of a directly entertaining film in the manner we understand today although it did win an Academy Award.
The art deco surroundings do play quite an important part here especially in the exchanges between the permanent hotel resident and the Russian ballerina. The latter is willing to go to any lengths to advance her career which is desperately on the wane and without much hope.
However the huge point in favour of the film is the way the hotel desk was portrayed by director Cedric Gibbons. With a 360 degree placement, the audience could focus on everything that was going on inside the hotel. Thus the art deco element of the rooms played alongside the human drama in a most effective manner, predating Rear Window by almost 25 years. This technique actually changed the way films were shot and was very innovative and daring.
Probably the most successful film in the Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers partnership, Top Hat symbolized the art deco element like no other. It was set in Paris and Venice so the sets had to be built to recreate these locations with exact reproductions.
Astaire-Rogers productions were usually very lavish regarding set design and Top Hat was definitely no exception. The films had what was called, ‘The Big White Set’, an art deco inspired creation in keeping with the subject and plot of the film. In this case the set even included a winding canal which was actually flanked by two bridges complete with staircases on one end as well as a bridge on the other end of the sound stage. This made the set quite ornate and very believable.
Just around the corner of this magnificently designed bridge we found the main piazza which was a giant stage completely covered in Bakelite materials actually reproducing the Venice Lido. Here we had three levels where there dance floors, restaurants as well as terraces all adding to the strong art décor element in the film. However the interiors of the supposedly Venetian palaces were not at all accurate instead reflecting the art deco tastes of the time – very much Hollywood style.
Top Hat is perhaps the film which best imbues the art deco style in the 1930’s. Although some may observe that Hollywood went too far and the end result was rather too glitzy, the efforts of set designer Carroll Clark supervise by Van Nest Polglase are definitely something to admire. It sums up the art deco movement in more ways than one with its ornate and lavish intensity.
Penny Sparke, The Modern Interior book. Chapter10, The designed interior, 185-212.
Sparke focuses on the modern interior with a subtle and sly reference to art décor as an expression of feminism. She states that by 1945, all the components of the modern interior were in place and these were actually a response to the shifting identities of the inhabitants of the modern world as well as by the complex and ever changing relationship between the private and public spheres. Sparke also speaks of the inevitable identity instability between what was being conceived as a home and a public place. She cites a strong shift to modernism after the Second World war especially with architects such Walter Gropius who was active both in European and American spheres. Functionality and minimalism had become the order of the day in this respect and this made architects and interior designers much liable to do away with frills in their designs.
Sparke reproduces a number of interesting and intriguing pictures which include the design for the Armani Showroom in Hong Kong as well as some 1960 apartment interiors from Italy which show minimalism at its best. Although may not be in entire agreement with such styles, there is no denying the extreme functionality of everything which shows that style does not mean clutter.
“In the years between 1945 and the late 1960s the Modernist interior reinvented itself yet again. It did so through the continuing movement of its visual, material and spatial languages between the spheres” (Sparke 1995, p 186).
This quote shows that interior design has turned full circle from the art décor beginnings set in the 1930’s films to the functional modernity of today.
Penny Sparke; The Modern Interior; Chapter10, The designed interior, 185-212.1995