What is Screen Deco? by matthew c. hoffman

Corinne Griffith as the “Spirit of Ecstasy” in the year 2500 A.D. in Lilies of the Field (1930), our symbol for the 2012 Park Ridge Public Library series.
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To answer that question, we must first define what Art Deco is. Art Deco was a decorative style that flourished between the World Wars. It suggested progressivism, which broke with the Victorian traditions of the past. Art Deco was the style for a dynamic new age, and it influenced art and architecture, in particular, from the mid-1920s until the early 1940s. The term Art Deco was first coined in 1966 and is derived from the 1925 Paris Exposition Internationale des Arts Decoratifs et Industriels Modernes. This exhibition showcased Art Deco at its peak and inspired architects and movie set designers throughout the world.

I asked Screen Deco co-author Eric Myers about details of this very important Exposition:

“As for what was on display at the Exposition, the idea was to show how design could be incorporated into all aspects of daily life, so in addition to architecture, you also had interior design, and everything that comprises that. In terms of specific objects, all the major designers were represented so you certainly saw furniture by Emile-Jacques Ruhlmann, screens by Jean Dunand, decorative paintings by Jean Dupas. One of the latter, ‘Les Perruches,’ turns up in some MGM films including Cecil B. DeMille’s DYNAMITE (1929).”  

The origins of the style are rooted in Europe, but they also draw upon ancient cultures for inspiration. A fascination with Egypt in the 1920s, for example, also shaped the ornamentation of the style. Other art movements such as Cubism can be found in Deco’s asymetrical, geometric shapes. Some of the motifs include ziggurats, zigzags, chevrons, sunbursts, and stepped elements. Deco movie palaces and city skyscrapers are some of the more striking examples of buildings made in this era.

Nancy Carroll in Child of Manhattan (1933)

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Art Deco is also associated with the Streamline Moderne style prevalent in the mid to late 1930s. It replaced the sharp angles of the 1920s. American industrial designer Norman Bel Geddes visualized “streamlining” for readers in 1932 with his book Horizons. Here, Bel Geddes revealed brilliant concepts for transportation that were never realized. His sleek models of automobiles and ocean liners convey a sense of speed and are the embodiment of Streamline Moderne.

Look no further than to a vintage travel poster to get a sense of what streamlining is. These graphic images suggest power and movement.

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Art Deco and the Streamline Moderne style were, at the time, referred to as Modernistic. It suggested affluence, luxury, and progress. The style fused art and technology and was evident in the design plans for New York’s 1939 World’s Fair– a cultural high point in America. The fair merged man and machine into an optimistic World of Tomorrow. Art Deco became a style and an expression. Regrettably, the fair would mark the swan song of Streamlining.

Screen Deco is derived from the book of the same name written by Howard Mandelbaum and Eric Myers. The authors examine how Art Deco influenced the high style of Hollywood. This is reflected in the set design of the movies made during the 1920s and 1930s. These sets had much to say about the characters who inhabited them. One of the most influential of all Art Deco films is Our Dancing Daughters (1928), which stars Joan Crawford in all her Jazz Age glory. The sets were designed at MGM by Cedric Gibbons, who had earlier visited the 1925 Paris Exposition.

Some of the other great art directors of the period include William Cameron Menzies, Hans Dreier, Anton Grot, Richard Day, Charles D. Hall, and Van Nest Polglase. It was Polglase at RKO, for instance, who shaped the look of the Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers musicals.  With their high-gloss sets and black and white decor, these films are most associated with Art Deco.

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Though not a set designer, Busby Berkeley’s geometric choreography of the female form in his musical numbers is in the best tradition of the Deco style. His arrangements of showgirls displayed a machine-like precision. Art Deco was brought to life in human form in films like Gold Diggers of 1933 and Footlight Parade.

Beyond the sets, objects, and fashion, the human form itself, specifically that of the woman, is identified with this high style. In Screen Deco, glamorous publicity photos radiate a streamlined beauty of the female form. The body itself becomes one with the surrounding decor. Actresses like Gloria Swanson, Joan Crawford, and Carole Lombard exemplified the look.

Joan Crawford in Our Dancing Daughters (1928)

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To understand Screen Deco is to imagine a world of clean lines and pure forms. It evokes a spaciousness, a brilliant whiteness– a perfection that can be as simple as two champagne glasses tinkling together. The Deco world is one of elegant nightclubs, penthouse apartments, grand hotels, and luxury liners.

The Park Ridge Public Library’s 2012 program is an architectural film series as well as an exposition of the Deco mystique. Through feature presentations and short subjects, we’ll explore visions of the past and future while understanding the Art Deco style– and the designers who shaped it.

The Hollywood style is certainly remote by contemporary standards of living, but for us, it symbolizes the greater heights we can achieve in style and sophistication. Screen Deco is an artistic expression, a Futurist philosophy, and a way of life captured on film.

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For more information, please visit our Screen Deco movie group on facebook and be sure to check out our extensive photo archive: click here!

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2 Responses to “What is Screen Deco? by matthew c. hoffman”

  1. Andrew P Says:

    Hi Matt. I’m excited for the program this upcoming Spring! The first two films I think of when I see these sets are “Metropolis” and “Duck Soup” (mainly the Freedonia Palace).

    • mchoffman Says:

      Thanks, Andrew! Both those films I considered showing, but I’ve decided to play stuff people have not seen– really rare titles. In addition, the restored METROPOLIS would be too long for my library audience. DUCK SOUP is a great example of Art Deco set design, but the Marx Brothers dominate that film to such a degree that few people (except us) will be paying attention to the sets. I’m trying to find films where the design itself dominates. REACHING FOR THE MOON would be a great choice, but the dvd quality is too poor… Feel free to comment as much as you’d like on this blog, and I look forward to seeing you Thursday nights next spring!

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