Archive for September, 2011

Video Deco by matthew c. hoffman

Posted in Uncategorized on September 22, 2011 by mchoffman

Here are a few more examples of Art Deco courtesy of my friend Jackie Jones…

L’Argent (1928)

L’Argent (1928)

Our Modern Maidens (1929)

Millie (1931)

Faithless (1932)

Dancers in the Dark (1932)

Nine to Nine (1935)

Great God Gold (1935)

Glamour’s Golden Age (BBC, 2009)

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The Film Architect by matthew c. hoffman

Posted in Uncategorized on September 22, 2011 by mchoffman

I was checking out a middle-aged patron at the front desk in Circulation and she had her stack of a dozen dvds– all new releases like The Roommate and I Am Number Four. She asked me if I had seen any of her choices and I told her no, I hadn’t. Then she looked at the “Hot” dvds on display behind me and asked if I had seen Beastly. Again I told her no. “You must not be a movie person,” she tells me. I told her, “No, I’m not.”

When people check out disposable entertainment like The Switch or Just Go With It and then ask me if I’ve seen it, I wish I could tell them how I really feel. I’d rather handle Bridesmaids with a pair of tongs, but I prefer to just check them out and keep my mouth shut instead of alienating patrons. Maybe 99% of the new releases I have no motivation to see. Sorry. I’m not that type of movie person. Don’t ask me if I’ve seen Bad Teacher. If you can find it on Netflix, most likely I’m not interested in sitting through it. Nor do I understand why there are so many reserves– and a waiting list– for the third season of “Castle” or “The Mentalist” or “Dexter.” The older patrons are always checking out “Midsomer Murders” and recommending British mysteries to me, but how do you tell any of that apart? The entertainment we circulate exists in some other world from the one I know. There is a sameness to it all, and it all blurs together. So no, I’m not a movie person by most people’s standards.

Thank you to “Classic Images” editor Laura Wagner for her mention of our upcoming Art Deco series in a recent issue. Click here to read the article!
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I am, however, a historian of a certain time period in film history. When I think of the movies I’ll be showing next spring, I think of names like Lubitsch or DeMille or Leisen. I think of stars like Garbo, Crawford, and Lombard. To me, film is a commitment to them, and you experience it on film as a living and breathing entity in a theatre where it can overwhelm you rather than out of an impersonal redbox. To me, the new releases are only dead things being ejected–to be viewed and forgotten… fast food entertainment out of a vending machine. We carry them all at the library, but good luck finding the Ernst Lubitsch musicals in the collection. But that’s indicative of all public libraries– catering to popular taste and pop culture.

But there are no deficiencies in our actual programming. The Park Ridge Public Library offers the most in-depth film study of any library in the suburbs. I have the priviledge to showcase films from an era most people have forgotten or neglected. It’s the only world I know. But with Screen Deco, we’ll be doing more than just showing films and talking about them. I want to build something more than just an appreciation for these particular titles. Screen Deco is being designed with something more in mind. It goes beyond architecture and set design. It’s a high style, an attitude, a philosophy, a way of life. It’s elusive to describe, but words like sophistication and civility come to mind. I’m not building just a lineup of movies, but a vision of the Past and Future. I want people to walk out feeling excited by the architectural ideals and inspired by the glamourous film content. I hope audiences will no longer settle for what is easily available but instead try to seek out what isn’t. You can do that with black and white movies? Yes, you most certainly can.

Program Host Matthew C. Hoffman
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Even the films that aren’t making the cut in our 2012 series have far more merit than any of those “Hot” dvds I have to check out every day. Right now I’m in the process of viewing as many Art Deco films as are available, but some I will not have room to show. The Easiest Way (1931) with Constance Bennett and Robert Montgomery offers some very stylish Deco sets as well as a fine performance by Adolphe Menjou. Susan Lenox: Her Fall and Rise (1931) starring Greta Garbo and Clark Gable is a fascinating film, but there’s really only one sequence in it that features Modernism in set design. Both are available through the Warner Archive.

These are the films people should seek out instead of the latest violent video game passing for a movie like Battle: Los Angeles. These “old” films are more relevant to our lives than what is playing in the cineplex because they make you dream of something higher– something worthier. I think there are people out there who are becoming sick of popular culture and the ugly things it puts in the spotlight. People still watch it because there are no alternatives. The Park Ridge Public Library offers the alternative. Screen Deco isn’t about cynicism and embarrassment. It’s about transcendence and cultural achievement. It’s about looking your best and succeeding. It’s about living the first-class lifestyle– the inner millionaire. Screen Deco provides those models, and it is those models that elevate us as a society.

Echoes of Deco by matthew c. hoffman

Posted in Uncategorized on September 20, 2011 by mchoffman

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I can define Art Deco, but you don’t need words. You’ll know it when you see it.

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The Deco phone… from One Hour With You (1932).

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The Deco lamp… with Loretta Young.

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The Deco clock… from Trouble in Paradise (1932).

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The Deco bed… with Louise Brooks.

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The Deco movie poster… Trouble in Paradise (1932).

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The Deco set… with Loretta Young.

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The Deco actor… Adolphe Menjou.

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Fred Astaire

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The Deco actress… Joan Crawford.

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Carole Lombard

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Recommended Reading by matthew c. hoffman

Posted in Uncategorized on September 18, 2011 by mchoffman

The Park Ridge Public Library’s 2012 Screen Deco program is primarily an architectural film series– with a lot of pre-Code sex thrown in. When I did the Forbidden Cinema series last year, one of the nicest comments I received was from a patron who said it was like attending a college lecture for free. If I were to make this a college course, these two books would be the assigned reading:

Screen Deco: A Celebration of High Style in Hollywood (1985) by Howard Mandelbaum and Eric Myers is the inspiration for this film series. The book contains outstanding film stills related to Art Deco in film. But it is also supported by text that gives an entertaining, very fun overview of that period in Hollywood. This is a must for any fan of cinema from the 1920s and 1930s. I’ve already read it twice, and it’s one of my favorite books about Hollywood.

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Designing Dreams: Modern Architecture in the Movies (1986) by Donald Albrecht is exactly the kind of book I would find in a college bookstore. Albrecht writes extensively about Modernism in European and American cinema. His text goes into more detail about the actual elements of Modernism in Hollywood set design. There is only minor overlap in text, which makes this a wonderful companion piece to Screen Deco. There is also a useful filmography that lists films containing elements of Modernism.

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A very good overview of art direction in Hollywood is Designs On Film (2010), which includes sections on many of the art directors associated with Art Deco.

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Though not a film book, I would also recommend the following to any enthusiast of Art Deco. Alastair Duncan’s Art Deco CompleteThe Definitive Guide to the Decorative Arts of the 1920s and 1930s (2009) is a pricey ($125) but worthy volume that is a must for anyone interested in Art Deco in all its manifestations.

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12 Videos by matthew c. hoffman

Posted in Uncategorized on September 18, 2011 by mchoffman

The following videos offer some of the best examples of Art Deco that can be found on the Internet. These are only samples of films that are currently not available on dvd. We hope one day we will be able to see these either theatrically or on dvd. Though I prefer not to watch any film on a computer, this is unfortunately the only avenue open to discovering these great Art Deco films. I would like to thank my friend Jackie Jones for her enthusiasm and for having the patience to post these terrific clips on youtube.

Fig Leaves (1926)

L’Argent (1928)

Gentlemen of the Press (1929)

Broadway (1929)

The Matrimonial Bed (1930)

Our Blushing Brides (1930)

Girls About Town (1931)

Child of Manhattan (1933)

Men Must Fight (1933)

Reckless (1935)

No More Ladies (1935)

Artists and Models (1937)

The Glamour of Deco by matthew c. hoffman

Posted in Uncategorized on September 18, 2011 by mchoffman

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Screen Deco the series is more than chrome and glass brick, Lucite and Bakelite. It’s more than architecture. It’s about an attitude of sophistication and a high style that went beyond the elements of set design. The decor helped glamourize the stars, and so did the great portrait photographers of the era who captured their immortal quality. These photos often featured modernistic sets and props. Studios were creating a dream with stars like a Greta Garbo who embodied it. The image was carefully managed by the studio, and this added to the mystique of the stars. Theirs was a radiant light that poured out from the darkness of the movie palace.

Today, “they don’t make stars like that anymore” because we don’t. We don’t believe in them and they are not part of our dreams. There’s a cultural cynicism that brings everyone down and destroys the mystique. That can be said of society at large; we bring down what we can’t live up to. Gone are the fan magazines as they once were– replaced now by tabloids with reality TV stars on the cover. There are no Garbos, Crawfords or Lombards because there is no longer that alluring mystery that is part of stardom.

We’ve lowered our standards in society–  everything from how we dress to what we eat to the things we watch. It’s a culture of excess for the wrong things. That carries over into pop culture itself. Perhaps there’s an emptiness at the core of our society and an obsessive need to fixate on the most insignificant of celebrities, Bachelors, Survivors, and unwed teenage moms. There is an excess of attention and press coverage paid to these vapid personalties. It’s an American sideshow. What’s the attraction to “actress” Jennifer Aniston’s marriage or Angelina Jolie’s kid count or Kim Kardashian (whatever it is she is known for) or a thousand others no one will remember when history turns its page? You can access Hollywood, but there is nothing there now. No dreams. Only memories. The current celebrity culture is another world from the one I bring to audiences each spring.

In recent months, I’ve been viewing a lot of films to prepare for the next series at the Park Ridge Public Library, and I’ve seen several with Greta Garbo. What I’ve come to appreciate about her, in particular, was her star power. Like her other contemporaries, she had allure. Her persona was removed, distant. It didn’t exist in the common realm– nor did it operate at the base level of today. She really was like some untouchable sphinx. There was an elusive mystique about her, and the filmmakers and photographers captured that on film.

There is no one even remotely like that today, and that absence has made me appreciate vintage glamour all the more. Today’s Hollywood will attempt faux-glamour with recreations of the past– usually around Oscar time– but there are few actors with stature who can carry that off and look like a star on the red carpet. The Deco actors of the golden age like a Fred Astaire or an Adolphe Menjou or a Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. all had style, and the women had glamour. Fans went to bed in the 1920s and 1930s wanting to be like them because of their incomparable beauty. Movie stars were larger than life then because they represented our hopes and dreams.

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Joan Crawford

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Carole Lombard

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Greta Garbo

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Cedric Gibbons: Art Deco Man by matthew c. hoffman

Posted in Uncategorized on September 17, 2011 by mchoffman

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“The decorating craze touched off by Our Dancing Daughters was unprecedented. Households began aping (Cedric) Gibbons’s use of such elements as venetian blinds, dancing figurines, and indirect lighting. Those with money and relatively adventurous tastes were soon having their homes redecorated in the ‘modern’ style. Unfortunately, few of these homes could fully capture the scale and luxury of Gibbons’s sets, which tended to depict drawing rooms roughly the size of Grand Central Station.” ~ Howard Mandelbaum & Eric Myers, Screen Deco

Anyone familiar with the screen titles of classic films will undoubtedly recognize the name Cedric Gibbons. Though he had but one directorial credit to his name– Tarzan and His Mate (1934)– it was as a designer at MGM that he is best known. From 1924 until 1956, Gibbons’s name appeared in 1500 movies as the credited art director. That’s a Hollywood record for individual film credits. (A clause in his contract stipulated that his name appear on every MGM release.) Though his actual hands-on involvement may have only been 10% of that total, 150 films is still an impressive number. More an executive than an on-the-set designer, he supervised a huge staff and made sure the designs they created were in keeping with the glossy style MGM was known for. For instance, Gibbons designed the “Big White Set” seen in such films as Dinner At Eight (1933). It was a distinct studio look that he originated.

Austin Cedric Gibbons was born in 1890 in Brooklyn of Irish descent. He attended the Art Students of New York school and worked as a draftsman for his father, who was a Manhattan architect. After his mother died in 1910, he was abandoned by his father. On his own, he worked various jobs including one in advertising. In 1915, Gibbons began his film work with the Edison Studios before moving on to the New Jersey-based Sam Goldwyn lot in 1918 where he served as art director. When Goldwyn merged with Louis B. Mayer’s company to form MGM in 1924, Gibbons retained his title and became head of the department. In 1925 Mayer experimented with the famed Russian designer Erte, but Erte had the misfortune of being an artiste in a studio system. It was a short stay for Erte at MGM. In his wake, Cedric Gibbons emerged as the visionary. He was more studio-minded and knew how to produce at a studio level while maintaining the high standards of quality.

Joan Crawford in Our Dancing Daughters (1928)

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Cedric Gibbons had visited the 1925 Exposition des Arts Decoratifs et Industriels Modernes in Paris, which was the peak of Art Deco in Europe. Gibbons brought these ideas back with him to the States where he incorporated them into many of the studio’s films from the late 1920s. It could be said that it all started with Our Dancing Daughters (1928), the first in a trilogy of films starring Joan Crawford which told the stories of modern women in the Jazz Age. The follow-ups, Our Modern Maidens (1929) and Our Blushing Brides (1930) also feature remarkable set design such as the Art Deco treehouse in the last of the series. Another star whose persona benefited from Gibbons’s designs was Greta Garbo, who appeared in such Deco films as A Woman of Affairs (1928), The Single Standard (1929) and The Kiss (1929). One of the most successful of all her films was Grand Hotel (1932), which won Best Picture. The hotel itself was also one of Gibbons’s greatest legacies. Being a prestigious MGM release, Gibbons most likely had a larger role in the design of this film than in the designs of many lesser films that also carry his name.

In the book Designing Dreams: Modern Architecture in the Movies, author Donald Albrecht writes, “Circles are prominent in every aspect of the Grand Hotel’s design– an appropriate image for the spinning-wheel-of-fortune scenario. The circular motif appears in the hotel’s round, multilevel atrium with open balconies, in the continually revolving doors, and in ornaments on balcony railings. It also appears in the round reception desk, which acts as a pivot for the curving shots that follow the movement of the film’s characters, who travel across the black-and-white floor like pawns in a chess game. Movie plot and architecture have seldom been so closely harmonized.”

In the studio system there was always a supervisory art director at the top and then the unit art director beneath him. In the case of Grand Hotel, the unit art director was Alexander Toluboff. As mentioned, Gibbons did not build every set himself because he had a staff of  quality designers who deserve just as much recognition. One of the most talented at the studio was Richard Day, who would go on to design Modernistic sets for films like Arrowsmith (1931) and Dodsworth (1936).

Cedric Gibbons with Johnny Weissmuller on the set of Tarzan and His Mate (1934). Though Gibbons has a co-directorial credit, Jack Conway did most of the directing.

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Preston Ames, who joined the Gibbons staff in 1936, described his boss’s process:

“Cedric Gibbons worked very closely with me, as he did with all his art directors. The best way to describe our operation is to compare it to an architect’s office. You confer with the head man, but eventually you are assigned an architect who works on your assignment. The office, however, is going to be very much aware of whether the architect’s work is in keeping with the experience, the style, and the creativity of the head man. If there was bad taste, if there was bad composition, or if it couldn’t be photographed, Gibbons would spot it right off the bat and you were in trouble. If you did something which you thought was the proper thing to do and the director came along saying, ‘This isn’t right,’ Gibbons would defend you, or he might say, ‘It is a mistake.’ But if you were right you always had the support of your supervisor. He’d back you to the hilt. Gibbons had the background (I think that’s the proper word) to have the great respect and admiration of the entire studio. He represented quality, and he represented good art direction.”

Gibbons was a larger-than-life figure who had as much style as any star on screen. He lived the Art Deco life and even designed a Deco mansion in Santa Monica Canyon where he lived with his first wife, Dolores Del Rio. Anyone who might question the extent of his contributions at MGM needn’t look further than to this Art Deco paradise which shows off an inimitable taste in design. Structurally, it was as brilliant as any of his movie sets.

At home with his actress-wife, Dolores Del Rio.

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“The house was and still is a tour de force in what was then known as the Art Moderne style. Beyond the sterile white stucco facade, Gibbons crafted an interior as elegant and flawless as his wife. In fact, the inside seemed to be a direct homage to her beauty and stardom. Del Rio’s dressing room was wall-to-wall mirrors, even down to the plates for the electric switches, which were held in place with star-headed screws. Her dressing table was constructed like an altar. A grand staircase for entrances was the focal point of the living room. In a touch that was both characteristic of the era and a metaphor for Del Rio’s style, the rooms were marked by angular forms, sleek surfaces, and streamlined built-in furniture.” ~ Annette Tapert, The Power of Glamour

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Herbert Ryman, a sketch artist at MGM, described Gibbons as existing “in a kind of aura, or nimbus. He would arrive in his Dusenberg, in the grey homburg hat and the grey gloves, and he would walk up the stairs to the Art Department. By the time he was on the landing, one glove was off and his grey homburg was swept off, and he would walk in and say good morning to his secretary, with all of us in the art department watching him appear and disappear with this elegant procedure. I think it was intended on his part.”

In 1927, Cedric Gibbons became one of the founding members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. A year later, at the behest of Louis B. Mayer, Gibbons designed the “Oscar” statuette for an awards ceremony he helped establish: the Academy Awards. In his lifetime he would be nominated 39 times for this award– winning it 11 times: The Bridge of San Luis Ray (1929), The Merry Widow (1934), Pride and Prejudice (1940), Blossoms in the Dust (1941), Gaslight (1944), The Yearling (1946), Little Women (1949), An American in Paris (1951), The Bad and the Beautiful (1952), Julius Caesar (1953), and Somebody Up There Likes Me (1957). But it is the films he made from the late 1920s through the late 1930s that are best remembered. It was work that was visionary and thoroughly modern. He created the template for Modernistic decor and he set the standard for Art Deco in film.

Gibbons passed away in 1960 at the age of 67, just four years after his retirement. He was survived by his second wife of nineteen years, Hazel Brooks.

Greta Garbo in The Kiss (1929)

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