“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)
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)
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)
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)