An Introduction to the Park Ridge Series by Howard Mandelbaum
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.
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.
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.
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.