Archive for January, 2012

Comedy Moderne: Art Deco in the Marx Brothers by matthew c. hoffman

Posted in Uncategorized on January 24, 2012 by mchoffman

Belgian poster for A Night at the Opera


There are many other films that could just as easily have been booked for the Screen Deco series. One of which is Duck Soup (1933). However, I had just done a comedy series and I didn’t want to schedule any more comedies. (You’ll have to settle for Guy Kibbee and Hugh Herbert in Wonder Bar.) Besides, Duck Soup is a classic that is readily available commercially. In addition, watching a Marx Bros. movie just to concentrate on the set design is like watching a John Ford Western for the comic relief. But it’s just one more thing to look for the next time you view it on New Year’s Eve or whenever. Duck Soup offers some of the finest examples of Art Deco in a Marx Brothers film. One of the best sets– by art director Hans Dreier– is the streamlined court of Freedonia…

Duck Soup








Monkey Business


An Introduction From Your Program Host

Posted in Uncategorized on January 24, 2012 by mchoffman

I thought I’d have Mr. Roy Fox provide the musical prologue for the Screen Deco film series…

I’ve always been an enthusiast of all things Art Deco and Streamline Moderne– from the fine and decorative arts to architecture. A film series like this was inevitable.

We are fortunate to have great examples of this aesthetic in Chicago as well as right across the street (from the library) at the Pickwick Theatre. I’ve always wanted to do a series that combines Deco with film, and the inspiration for that– aside from the films themselves, of course– is the book Screen Deco by Howard Mandelbaum and Eric Myers. Both of whom have generously contributed to this Park Ridge Public Library program.

My role as your master of ceremonies is sort of like Al Jolson’s in our film Wonder Bar. I’m here to fill seats and keep audiences entertained– and you never know what anecdote I might tell. (Though I won’t be performing any musical numbers.) Conversely, I also want to show people that there is something better on the other side of the hill. There are grander visions for our community and society at large. In this sense, I feel like John Cabal (Raymond Massey) in Things To ComeHis future was one rooted in science and technology– not the politics that weigh us down.

Raymond Massey as “Wings Over the World” in Things To Come


Art styles like Streamline Moderne– a later stage of Art Deco– certainly suggest progress and efficiency. But we won’t get philosophical about it as in the H.G. Wells book. I just want to show patrons that there are better films on the other side of the hill if they’d only look for them. It’s about changing a mindset with new ideas about style rooted in the past. “A celebration of High Style.”

Screen Deco the series isn’t the first time our library audiences have seen Art Deco on film. Last spring we saw Charles D. Hall’s streamlined factory in Chaplin’s Modern Times, and the year before that in our Forbidden Cinema series we screened one of the most Deco of all Hollywood films, Trouble in Paradise. Our 2012 series continues that tradition by offering some of the best examples of Art Deco in classic cinema, and I’m very excited about the structure of the program.

I wanted to open the festivities with an Art Deco-themed costume party aboard a dirigible (moored to the top of the Pickwick Theatre), but it wasn’t in the budget. So instead, we’ll open our series at the Park Ridge Public Library on the Ides of March with Cecil B. DeMille’s Cleopatra. I played this film when I operated the LaSalle Bank Theatre in Chicago, and I really believe this will be a big Opening Night. The sets are amazing– as are the costumes. As far as I’m concerned, Claudette Colbert is our Queen, not Elizabeth (Taylor). Try sitting through that ’63 remake.

Actually, seven of the twelve films in the series I had played at the LaSalle Bank, so I feel very strongly about their content to program them yet again for this series. Rarely-seen gems like Penthouse always got good crowds at the bank, so this time, I am able to do it for a suburban audience. Other rare titles in the series include Our Dancing Daughters, Female, and Madam Satan.

I love zeppelins almost as much as I love Art Deco, so Madam Satan became a programming certainty. Yes, you have to sit through about 50 minutes of bedroom farce before you get airborne, but it’s worth it, and Kay Johnson is terrific as the titular character. Never heard of Kay Johnson? Well, that’s why you should come to the series. But it’s the Ballet Mecanique in the film that makes it an essential. In this strange musical number, man and machine merge, which is certainly one of the underlying themes of the program.


Those themes inspire our short subjects, such as home movies from the 1939 World’s Fair. The theme of that great cultural event was a better tomorrow through technology– how man can benefit from the machine. The 1939 World’s Fair was also the culmination of the Streamline Moderne movement in America. So when you come into the first floor meeting room at 6:30 on March 29th, you’ll understand why I’m playing it.

Though I can’t provide a demonstration of Elektro, the fair’s Art Deco robot, I will be unveiling the greatest Art Deco rocketship of them all. On May 24th, we’ll see the first chapter of 1936’s Flash Gordon with Buster Crabbe… Another short subject on our program is The Women of Deco. This video is a collection of rare images of some of our favorite Art Deco actresses. Since our series has a more feminine slant, I chose to compile a video on female glamour rather than one on the Deco Actor. As in Forbidden Cinema– a sister program to Screen Deco– there are many dominating women in the series. Think Colbert, and Helen Gahagan in She, and Ruth Chatterton in Female (well, for the first 50 minutes anyway). Though our emphasis is on architecture and set design and the visionaries who designed such dreams, we couldn’t do a series like this without discussing glamour.


When you think of Art Deco and Streamline Moderne in Hollywood film, you think of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. They are, in my opinion, the heart of Screen Deco, and that’s why I chose to end the series with them on May 31st. My only regret is not showing more of their RKO films, but I want to present as diverse a selection as possible.

Finally, though not listed officially in our brochure, I hope to play additional video clips from some rare films that offer outstanding examples of set design. Many of which are posted here in this blog. I’d love to share these same clips with our Screen Deco audience. Sadly, there are so many Art Deco films that have been lost. And those that survive are not available commercially on dvd. But thanks to friends like Jackie Jones (a series regular), many great clips have been uploaded to youtube. This might not be the ideal way of seeing these movies for the first time, but right now, it’s the only way. Fortunately, many key titles in this series are available through the Warner Archive Collection.

Kay Francis and Al Jolson in Wonder Bar


There are no giveaways this year as in years past– there isn’t exactly a box collection of “Screen Deco”– so instead we’ll be offering patrons the opportunity to purchase a Screen Deco t-shirt. All proceeds go towards future film programming at the Park Ridge Public Library. It’s important that we keep the Classic Film Series going in order to make patrons aware of all the treasures that are buried. When people are weaned on junk food– anything in your Redbox– then that’s all they know. But those are not the standards we go by in our programs. The films in this series will get you excited about cinema. Few films today can do that.

The only movie in recent years that got me excited about film itself was Martin Scorsese’s Hugo. It made me excited about our movie past as well as the future (in 3-D storytelling). Its strength lay in the fact that its director knows our cinema heritage, and he expresses that through the medium he loves. Hugo is a great film because its director wasn’t weaned on video games and music videos and television and the things that seem to inspire– for whatever reasons– the younger generation of pop culture filmmakers. Understanding film history is knowledge– as well as a powerful and transformative tool.

So please come this spring and tell your friends about the Park Ridge series. Sign our Grand Hotel-inspired guest book since you are the stars that keep the Classic Film Series going. These films were once our dreams of style and sophistication. They remain retrofuturistic visions of a better tomorrow. And they continue to provoke thought and stimulate imagination.

When Hollywood had stars… Grand Hotel will be shown on April 5th.

Screen Deco Origins

Posted in Uncategorized on January 21, 2012 by mchoffman

The Park Ridge Public Library is extremely honored to have the support of both authors of the book Screen Deco (St. Martin’s Press, 1985), Howard Mandelbaum and Eric Myers. I asked Eric in an email about the story behind their book and how it came to be. The following is his response which I’d like to share with you…

I was always a 1920s-30s fan, but my love of Deco began when I spent my senior year in college studying film history in Paris. Paris is a major Art Deco city, of course. I came back to the U.S. with my eyes wide open to Deco, and became fascinated with its use in the film sets of the between-the-wars era. I kept saying to Howard, “You know, some day I really should write a book all about Art Deco film sets.” I said it so often for so long that Howard finally said, “Eric, the only way this is going to happen is if you and I collaborate and write it together!” I needed that push, and we set right down and got to work on it, writing the text and searching out the rarest Deco-era film stills we could find. Fortunately, as Howard is the owner of Photofest, one of the country’s largest collections of entertainment stills, we had a great place to start. And of course, Howard knew many other still collectors who generously opened their archives to us.

We’re glad to have planted these seeds, which have now grown into events like your series and the upcoming Turner Classic Movies Festival in April, which will be showcasing films with smashing Art Deco sets.

Author Eric Myers

The Art Directors by matthew c. hoffman

Posted in Uncategorized on January 12, 2012 by mchoffman

“He must have knowledge of architecture of all periods and nationalities. He must be able to visualize and make interesting a tenement or a prison. He must be a cartoonist, a costumier, a marine painter, a designer of ships, an interior decorator, a landscape painter, a dramatist, an inventor, a historical and, now, an acoustical expert.” ~ William Cameron Menzies

More than the film director, cinematographer, or star, Screen Deco will examine the role of the art director. However, it’s almost impossible to pinpoint the specific contributions he may have had primarily because of two factors: 1) the work of the other designers in his unit and 2) the influence of whatever director in charge of the production. Who constructed what can be somewhat nebulous territory, but at least we are acknowledging their contributions to cinema. And we can say with some degree of certainty that the final result, as seen on the screen, reflected the vision and style of the head designer.

In the days of the studio system there was a supervisory art director followed by a unit art director. For instance, at RKO, the head of the art department was Van Nest Polglase, who is best-known for the look of the Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers films. But Polglase did not do it all alone at RKO. He had five unit art directors. One of whom was Carroll Clark, whose name is linked to Polglase’s on the Astaire-Rogers films. It is the unit art director who is the acting designer. The major studios had this two-tier system, and there were often many other craftsmen below them who were building the sets.

Van Nest Polglase


Unlike an architect, the art designer was responsible for creating something that approximated reality. It was not meant to last, and these temporal constructions found permanence only in the preservation of the films themselves. During the high style of the 1930s, the major studios developed specific studio looks. You could easily recognize the glossy style of an MGM film, for instance. This was due to the fact that every art director in charge had his own ideas on what was “Moderne.”

Throughout the program at the Park Ridge Public Library, audiences will hear many of these names. Though they may not be familiar to the general public, I can guarantee that most viewers with a basic understanding of classic film will have seen these names before in the credits. In our series, we are primarily concerned with the art direction found in classic American cinema, but we acknowledge the contributions of some of the brilliant designers in foreign cinema who laid the foundation in film architecture and who designed an imaginative world of tomorrow. Films like 1927’s Metropolis (Art direction by Otto Hunte, Erich Kettelhut, and Karl Vollbrecht) and 1928’s L’Argent (Art direction by Lazare Meerson and Andre Barsacq) are two of the finest examples.

The following list, though far from complete, are a few of the builders and dreamers responsible for the Art Deco and Streamline Moderne decor contained in American cinema:

Richard Day (1896-1972): Active between 1923 and 1970, the Canadian-born Day would ultimately win seven Academy Awards for Art Direction in a career that spanned 265 films. He was a designer for Erich Von Stroheim in the 1920s before working under Cedric Gibbons at MGM. He made significant contributions to films credited to Gibbons such as Our Dancing Daughters (1928) and The Kiss (1929). Recommended: Dodsworth (1936)

Hans Dreier (1885-1966): Born in Germany and influenced by the Bauhaus school of design, Dreier started in the famed UFA studio before emigrating to the United States in the late 1920s. He would go on to work on many of Ernst Lubitsch’s most famous films in the early 1930s. The Paramount look– the all-white sets, the Continental elegance– was largely the work of Dreier. He gave the Paramount product a glow. Unlike Cedric Gibbons, Dreier was a practicing designer and had more of a hands-on role. He would also find time to mentor other young designers. Dreier would win three Academy Awards for Art Direction. Recommended: Trouble in Paradise (1932)

Hans Dreier


Cedric Gibbons (1893-1960): Perhaps the most influential art director whose name contractually appeared on every MGM release from 1924-1956. Having attended the 1925 Paris Exposition, he brought Europe’s Art Moderne to the American screen beginning in the late 1920s. The glossy and elegant look of the MGM product is attributed to Gibbons, who is famous for the “all-white” set in films such as Dinner at Eight (1933). Gibbons lived the life of a movie star, and his Streamline Moderne home in Santa Monica reflected that. He would win eleven Academy Awards and is also the designer of the Oscar statuette. Recommended: Our Dancing Daughters (1928)

Stephen Goosson (1889-1973): Worked as an architect in Michigan before becoming a supervising art director for Columbia Pictures. He began with period films but later applied his knowledge of contemporary architecture to films like Skyscraper (1928). With Ralph Hammeras, he designed the futuristic Art Deco city of Just Imagine (1930). Recommended: Lost Horizon (1937), for which he won the Academy Award.

Anton Grot (1884-1974): Born in Poland, Grot would make great contributions to set design with the Warner Brothers studio throughout the 1930s and 1940s. Grot’s big break in movies came when his oil paintings were discovered in a department store by a Hollywood producer. He worked in the silent era and had an uncredited role in the design for Douglas Fairbanks’ Robin Hood (1922). He has been called a genius with the use of space and perspective in his designs. His charcoal sketches were so beneficial to a production because they were made in the proper perspective for actual filming. His sets could be found in every genre from gangster films like Little Caesar (1930) to the Busby Berkeley musicals. Nominated for five Oscars and received a technical award in 1940. Recommended: Golddiggers of 1933 (1933)

Anton Grot


Charles D. Hall (1888-1970): Best-known for his contributions at Universal where he designed Gothic sets for their classic horror films, the English-born Hall would go on to work at United Artists before finally moving into television. He was nominated for two Academy Awards. Some of his best work in modern design includes Modern Times (1936) as well as My Man Godfrey (1936). Perhaps his greatest Art Deco set is the nightclub in the film Broadway (1929). Recommended: The Black Cat (1934)

John Harkrider (1899-1982): Originally a costume designer for Ziegfeld’s extravagant Broadway shows (where he collaborated with Joseph Urban), Harkrider would become a supervising art director at Universal. He is best known for his cinematic nightclubs such as the “Silver Sandal” in Swing Time (1936) and the “Moonbeam Room” in Top of the Town (1937) . He made other important contributions in films such as Three Smart Girls (1936) and My Man Godfrey (1936). Recommended: The Great Ziegfeld (1936)

William Cameron Menzies (1896-1957): A former illustrator of children’s books, Menzies became one of the most distinguished art directors in the business. He is also the director of 1936’s Things to Come. Menzies began in silent film and designed unforgettable settings for films like 1924’s The Thief of Bagdad. He won an Oscar for The Dove and Tempest (1928) at the first Academy Awards and would win another in a career that would last until the mid-1950s. In 1939, he was given the title of production designer (a new term) for 1939’s Gone With the Wind (1939). His vision for the Selznick epic was based largely on over 2,000 watercolor sketches he had made. Recommended: Reaching For the Moon (1930)

William Cameron Menzies


Jack Okey (1889-1963): Worked at Warner Brothers throughout the 1930s on many films such as Footlight Parade (1932) and Wonder Bar (1934), and in the 1940s served as art director on films such as It’s a Wonderful Life (1946) and Out of the Past (1947). Nominated for two Oscars. Recommended: Female (1933)

Van Nest Polglase (1898-1969): Brooklyn-born architect who would have a long career that included over 300 films. One of which, The Magnificent Flirt (1928), was one of the first to use Art Deco in its design scheme. He became head of the art department at RKO in 1932. (It was Polglase who designed the famous RKO tower logo which audiences saw at the start of every feature.) His best work in the Art Deco style can be found in the Astaire-Rogers musicals of the 1930s. These films are often filled with strong contrasts between black and white as well as glossy, streamlined elements. He was nominated for six Academy Awards for Best Art Direction. Recommended: Top Hat (1935)

Merrill Pye (1901-1975): With a background in architecture, Pye worked as an associate art director on many films at MGM in the mid-to-late ’30s. His best work can be found in musicals such as Dancing Lady (1933) and Reckless (1935). He would eventually become an art director in television for shows like “The Twilight Zone.” His one Oscar nomination was for North By Northwest (1959). Recommended: Broadway Melody of 1936 (1935)

Joseph Urban (1872-1933): Viennese-born architect who, like William Cameron Menzies, also had a career as a children’s book illustrator. He is most famous for his theatrical set designs in the United States. He was the house designer for the Ziegfeld Follies. His theatre designs would influence Hollywood musicals in the 1930s. Urban did work in film for William Randolph Hearst’s Cosmopolitan Pictures. He was a true pioneer and designed some of the first Modernistic sets seen in America. Recommended: Enchantment (1921)

Joseph Urban


Lyle R. Wheeler (1905-1990): In a career that included 350 films, he won five Academy Awards, including one for Gone With the Wind (1939). Wheeler was a former magazine illustrator and industrial designer who began his career in Hollywood in 1931 as an assistant to Cedric Gibbons at MGM. He would later work for David O’ Selznick where he collaborated with William Cameron Menzies on Gone With the Wind. One of his best Modernistic sets is the nightclub seen in The Young in Heart (1938). Recommended: A Star is Born (1937)

An Introduction to the Park Ridge Series by Howard Mandelbaum

Posted in Uncategorized on January 3, 2012 by mchoffman

The following introduction comes courtesy of Howard Mandelbaum who, with Eric Myers, co-authored Screen Deco– the printed inspiration for the “Screen Deco” film series. The Park Ridge Public Library program begins March 15, 2012, and runs through May 31.

The public’s embrace of THE ARTIST (Weinstein Company, 2011) proves that Art Deco and the movies are still a match made in heaven . During the Twenties and Thirties, Hollywood designers used this photogenic new style to swiftly establish up-to-date characters. Audiences generally spurned realistic portrayals of ordinary people. For an age obsessed with speed and liberation, bolder was better. Thus, on screen, the rich were very rich. Nowhere is this more true than in OUR DANCING DAUGHTERS (MGM, 1928), a seminal film for the scale and modernity of its sets. The decor is geometric and sparse, providing plenty of room for Joan Crawford and her fashionable friends to exemplify flaming youth. THE KISS (MGM, 1929) boasts a masterfully designed residence reeking of luxury and sophistication. Set in France, the cradle of Art Deco, the film creates a self-contained  universe for Greta Garbo, the trophy wife of a powerful magnate. Wildest of all is MADAM SATAN (MGM, 1930), starring Kay Johnson. Here Cecil B. De Mille pushes operetta and bedroom farce toward zaniness. The climax of this delightful farrago is a riotous costume ball with costumes by Adrian.

Madam Satan

GRAND HOTEL (MGM, 1932) offers Berlin’s finest accommodations. The film boasts a spectacular lobby dominated by a 360-degree desk. Dramatic overhead shots emphasize the circularity of the room and seem to mock the guests below. Lives may be dwarfed and destroyed, but the human spectacle plays on. PENTHOUSE (MGM, 1933) takes its legal-eagle hero (Warner Baxter) from a swank bachelor apartment to breathtaking nightclubs that are many times larger than their real-life counterparts. High hats also meet low life in WONDER BAR (WB, 1933), set entirely in an eye-catching Parisian club hosted by Al Jolson. But among Depression-era fantasy clubs, the ultimate escape has to be the Silver Sandal in SWING TIME (RKO, 1936), offering strongly contrasting black and white, a curvaceous double staircase and sparkling Bakelite floors to showcase the matchless grace of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers.

Grand Hotel

The phrase,”Befits a queen,” describes the settings for a trio of movies in the series. While these royal personages represent different nationalities and eras, their environments are all redolent of power. The empress of industry in FEMALE (WB, 1933), portrayed by Ruth Chatterton, controls an army of employees from her streamlined office. During quieter moments, her palatial Deco mansion is the backdrop for the seduction of handsome staff members. CLEOPATRA (Paramount, 1934), played by Claudette Colbert with her patented tartness, lolls in throne rooms and boudoirs favoring a distinctly Deco look for the ancient world. The Art Deco movement did draw on Egyptian sources, but designers casually modified period details to avoid alienating moviegoers.


There is even greater license in dealing with the mythic and supernatural. The  ancient kingdom ruled by an ageless queen (Helen Gahagan) in SHE (RKO, 1935) can be described as Barbaric Moderne. A house built over a battlefield provides the setting for a game of death between Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi in THE BLACK CAT (Universal, 1934). Expressionist touches and icy modernism suggest sadism and fetishism. In contrast, the monumental sets for Britain’s futuristic THINGS TO COME (Korda/UA, 1936) are brightly lit and imbued with the fascistic glamor of the period.

Things To Come

Savor as many of the films as possible to appreciate Art Deco’s visual scintillation in its different modes and moods. Newcomers to architectural history will also find the series to be a great deal of fun.

Official Series Poster

Posted in Uncategorized on January 1, 2012 by mchoffman


Style B

Style C

NOTE: The above image of Joan Crawford, wearing what appears to be a charmeuse dress, is from the 1932 film Letty Lynton.