A Good Game: 1934’s The Black Cat by matthew c. hoffman

Posted in Uncategorized on May 11, 2012 by mchoffman


“Do you hear that, Vitus? The phone is dead. Even the phone is dead.”
~Hjalmar Poelzig (Boris Karloff)

Two weeks ago we had a wild night at the Wonder Bar. I mentioned how that pre-Code musical had a carefree, amoral tone to it. Tonight’s film goes beyond moral indiscretions into one of the lowest levels of Hell. Evil has a face in a film that offers us murder, torture, incest, and a Satanic ritual. It’s one of the most perverse, morbid films to come out of Hollywood. Some of its suggestiveness got past censors who didn’t realize exactly what was going on. What’s so fascinating from our perspective is that the atmosphere of death that pervades the entire film is closely associated with the Art Deco set design.

The Black Cat is the most striking example of Modernist design in 1930s cinema. Tonight we will see it in the horror genre and next week we shall see it in the fantasy civilization of Kor in She. In many scholarly examinations of director Edgar G. Ulmer’s masterpiece, authors frequently refer to the “Bauhaus” influence.

The Bauhaus, or “house of construction,” was a state-sponsored design school in Germany that was prominent in the Modernist movement. It was founded in Weimar, Germany, in 1919 by Walter Gropius. He created an environment that fostered an artistic spirit. Form following function was one of the basic tenets. These designs were often simplified and devoid of ornamentation. Some of the elements in tonight’s film that represent the style include the stainless steel staircase, the neon lights, and the chrome furnishings.

But the spirit of Modernism flourished in other parts of the world besides Germany. There was France, of course, considered the cradle of Art Deco. In America, Modernism reached the public through the medium of motion pictures where audiences could for the first time discover this new architecture. In Hollywood, theatre-goers experienced the Modernist trend in films like 1930’s What a Widow!, which starred Gloria Swanson. But one of the most memorable of all 1930s films that showcased modern decor was Universal’s The Black Cat, directed by Edgar G. Ulmer.


Ulmer was a product of Weimar cinema. He had studied architecture in Germany before entering film and was undoubtedly familiar with the Bauhaus style. He served as a set designer early in his career for stage director Max Reinhardt. In addition, he was a designer-apprentice to the great German director F.W. Murnau before eventually coming to America. The Black Cat, his second film in the United States, has a strong Germanic influence throughout due to Ulmer’s (uncredited) hand in its set design. Charles D. Hall, a brilliant designer himself, was the credited art director. Besides the gothic look of the Universal monster series, Hall designed the Art Deco nightclub in the 1929 musical Broadway as well as the streamlined factory for Charlie Chaplin in Modern Times.

The Black Cat begins with a honeymooning couple played by David Manners and Jacqueline Wells. On their train ride they meet the renowned Hungarian psychiatrist Dr. Vitus Werdegast, played by Bela Lugosi, a soldier from the Great War with a score to settle. After an accident on a bus in the countryside, Werdegast guides the travelers to a Modernist house built on the ruins of Fort Marmaros. The owner, Hjalmar Poelzig—the Boris Karloff character– is the man Werdegast has sought out.

David Manners and Jacqueline Wells

To say more of the bizarre plot would rob you of the element of surprise, and though many of us have seen this film many times, I always have to assume, when writing these talks, that you have not. As I mentioned earlier, the film is about the kind of evil that can be seen and felt, as embodied in one human form. Poelzig is, like the black cat of legend, evil incarnate– a practitioner of the Black Arts who is masked by a veneer of sophistication.

The classical music arrangements add to Poelzig’s façade of intellectual refinement. Unlike most films of the era, music is heard almost continuously in The Black Cat with selections from such composers as Bach, Beethoven, Schubert, and Liszt. And I haven’t heard Tchaikovsky’s “Romeo & Juliet” theme played this often since, well, since our screening of The Kiss with Greta Garbo.


Poelzig is an architect. (His name is Ulmer’s homage to German Expressionist designer Hans Poelzig, whom he had met on the set of The Golem back in his silent days.) The home, built on the ruins of a World War I battlefield, is heavily influenced by the geometric asymmetry of the Bauhaus tradition. Despite having the “old dark house” trappings of stranded guests and secret rooms, The Black Cat is unique because its horror is set in a thoroughly modern and brightly-lit setting–not a shadow-filled castle. Illumination contrasts with the moral darkness of Poelzig. Modernism is also equated with European decadence resulting from the First World War—a new style built upon the buried past. A sense of entrapment and doom pervade the house as though the souls of the dead soldiers are still there. His home, stark and industrial, becomes a prison for those that represent normality. The Black Cat is a superb example of how set design can establish the mood and tone of a film.

“The house is a cold and glossy marvel of glass brick, Bakelite floors, and curving metal staircases,” write Howard Mandelbaum and Eric Myers in Screen Deco. “Furnishings include glass tables, Breuer chairs, and digital clocks. ‘When one sees The Black Cat today,’ mused Ulmer in an interview, ‘one realizes that the set could have been conceived by Poelzig twenty years after the film was made.’” Ulmer himself was ahead of his time in designing it.


Of the film’s origins, I’d like to quote its director. In Peter Bogdanovich’s Who the Devil Made It, which is a collection of his earlier interviews with legendary Hollywood filmmakers, he asked Ulmer where the idea originated for the house being built on the graveyard of a battlefield.

“That came out many years before,” Ulmer said. “I had been in Prague, as I told you, and had worked on The Golem. At that time I met Gustav Meyrinck, the man who wrote Golem as a novel. Meyrinck was one of those strange Prague Jews, like Kafka, who was very much tied up in the mystic Talmudic background. We had a lot of discussions, and Meyrinck at that time was contemplating a play based upon Doumont, which was a French fortress the Germans had shelled to pieces during World War I; there were some survivors who didn’t come out for years. And the commander was a strange Euripedes figure who went crazy three years later, when he was brought back to Paris, because he had walked on that mountain of bodies. I thought it was an important subject, and that feeling was in the air in the twenties.”

Bela Lugosi

The Black Cat was the first—and best– of eight pairings of the two titans of terror of the 1930s: Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi. For those who’d like to read in-depth about their respective careers, one of the best authors out there is Gregory Mank, who has written profusely on the subject. The most detailed examination of tonight’s film can be found in his Karloff and Lugosi: The Story of a Haunting Collaboration. (Every monster fan should have this volume on their bookshelf.) Karloff, of course, best known for playing the Frankenstein monster three years before, and Lugosi, the Hungarian who will forever be identified as Dracula.

They are two of my favorite actors, and for those of us who admire Lugosi, it was nice to see him play the hero for once. Aside from things like The Return of Chandu, which was a Poverty Row movie serial, he never got to be the romantic hero. He was mostly typecast as the villain. In fact, in an earlier cut of The Black Cat, Bela’s character, consumed by madness, vengeance, and lust, veered into the familiar territory of villainy. Bela was discouraged with what he had once again become. But in the retakes that Ulmer shot, he made Bela  more a protector and less a predator.

Even with his accent I think Bela could’ve been a great character actor in Hollywood if given the right material. His role in Son of Frankenstein is considered his best performance, but even in non-horror films he could’ve tackled parts that went to actors like fellow Hungarian Paul Lukas. In his prime, long before the days when Ed Wood came knocking, Lugosi was one of the most captivating stars with a magnetic screen presence.

Some critics label Lugosi a ham and nothing more, but I’m not one of them… although his reaction to the black cats is less than subtle. But some of his best acting is also found in The Black Cat. He effectively captures a sad longing for his wife when he meets the newlyweds on the train, and later in the film, I love how he gently underplays his reaction to seeing her in Poelzig’s gallery. These are qualities of his acting that were rarely exploited in the ensuing years.


Karloff’s performance as the demonic architect, on the other hand, is more understated than Lugosi’s role, but it’s no less potent as his expression comes mainly through body movement, like a cat toying with chessboard pawns. It’s one of the most disturbing roles he ever played. The Poelzig of Ulmer’s scenario may have been inspired by the real life exploits of British occultist and Satanist Aleister Crowley, a character once called by the press, “the wickedest man in the world.”

Boris Karloff, I feel, is underrated. He was certainly one of the great character actors. Karloff the Uncanny immortalized himself by playing some of the most ghoulish characters on screen, but in real life he was the opposite of that image. He was an English gentleman, respected and admired by the industry. He did not have Lugosi’s ego, and because of that directors like Ulmer enjoyed working with him.

Boris Karloff

“Karloff kept insisting that he didn’t want to make any more horror pictures,” Ulmer had said. “One of the things he found most exciting in the film was the wardrobe. He knew he would be playing ‘Karloff,’ but also felt in these duds, he could employ a sort of ‘out of this world’ appearance. That, as you know, was exactly as he appeared.”

David Manners, who died in 1998 at the age of 98, is a familiar face to horror fans, having starred in two of the defining films of the genre: Dracula in 1931 and The Mummy in 1932. Manners was a reliable leading man, bringing an affable quality to roles that could’ve otherwise been quite thankless or perfunctory. Though he’s rendered ineffectual in The Black Cat, it’s still one of his best films. I’ve always liked David Manners for simply being a likeable presence on screen, a beloved leading man for those of us who grew up on Universal horror.

In a shortened career, he appeared in The Last Flight, Frank Capra’s The Miracle Woman, and A Bill of Divorcement. He considered Hollywood to be what he called a “false place” and became bored with it and left the screen in 1936. In the 1940s he returned to the theatre and evidently made quite an impact on one young stage actor. “I owe him my entire career,” Marlon Brando reportedly once said of him. David Manners was also an artist and author of several novels as well as a book on philosophy. For more on his life, there is a wonderful tribute page at www.davidmanners.com.


Jacqueline Wells is better known as the actress Julie Bishop. She was never a big star, but appeared in several major films during the second half of her career. In the early 1940s the Warner Brothers studio offered her a contract but asked her to change her name. Up until then, “Jacqueline Wells” had been associated with B-movies like Tarzan the Fearless. She began as a child actress in the early 1920s and starred in some early Laurel & Hardy shorts and appeared in their 1936 feature The Bohemian Girl. After the name change, she starred in such memorable productions as Action in the North Atlantic, The Sands of Iwo Jima and The High and the Mighty. And like David Manners, in her years away from Hollywood she became a painter. She died on her birthday in 2001 at the age of 87.

Lucille Lund, who plays the angelic Karen Werdegast, broke into Hollywood on the basis of winning a Universal Studios-sponsored magazine contest for the most beautiful college girl. Lund had actually studied acting at Northwestern University. She debuted onscreen in 1933 and worked at various studios. Ironically, she would cross paths with Julie Bishop in several films. On the set of The Black Cat she had to resist the advances of director Ulmer. Author Steven Warren Hill writes that in retaliation, Ulmer treated her terribly. He called for a lunch break “as she hung helpless by her neck in her glass coffin in one case, and another time constricting her blood supply to the extent that she lost consciousness and began bleeding from the mouth.” Actor Harry Cording, who plays Lugosi’s servant, saved her life. Lucille Lund did not have a long career at Universal.


“Most of the pressbook ballyhoo recommended that theatres exploit the black cat angle. Typical of the feline-infested showmanship were recommendations that two men in a giant black cat outfit roam the streets, that a sidewalk projector beam the image of a black cat, that the theatre sponsor a black cat contest, and that an art contest be held for the best black cat drawing, and that an illuminated cat’s head be employed…” ~ author Don G. Smith

The film had a 15 day shooting schedule and was made for less than a hundred thousand dollars. As time would prove, Ulmer was a B-movie maestro and has a cult following to this day because of films like 1945’s Detour, a film noir which was made with even less. The studio attached Edgar Allan Poe’s name to the material, but aside from the title and the symbolic use of the black cat, there is no direct connection to the original source material. Poe’s name, as Ulmer would attest, was used strictly for publicity. Nevertheless, it is very much in the spirit of Edgar Allan Poe. The film runs just over an hour, but more footage had been shot, such as an opening wedding scene. The Black Cat did have some censorship issues which resulted in some cuts, such as a shot of a cat licking blood off Joan Alison’s shoulder. Some European countries banned the film outright, but in the United States it became Universal’s biggest hit of 1934 despite taking a beating by critics.

The Black Cat remains a favorite among genre fans and Karloff-Lugosi admirers alike. I believe the film is a masterpiece, and I never get tired of watching it. There are so many memorable lines of dialogue, the cinematography by Illinois-native John Mescall fluidly captures the set design, and the cast is absolutely perfect. Author Greg Mank summed it up best: “The Black Cat would be their most glorious teaming. Karloff’s Lascivious Lucifer versus Lugosi’s Avenging Angel makes The Black Cat transcend the horror movie genre, and become a grand, lunatic fairy tale, sparked by a wickedly imaginative director, a bewitched camera and a properly epic romantic score.”


Some library patrons ask me which is my favorite film in Screen Deco, and I’m always vague because I want people to see all these films—not just the ones I like the most. But if repeated viewing is any measure of a film’s impact in one’s life, then surely The Black Cat is my favorite.

The Black Cat is Hollywood’s best example of the Bauhaus influence. You don’t have to look hard to see it because its presence is as important as any character. It’s a landmark film in modern architecture because it shows the concepts of a European style in practice in American cinema. Where horror and the Bauhaus meet, you have The Black Cat. Enter at your own risk.

Style is Eternal by annette bochenek

Posted in Uncategorized on April 30, 2012 by mchoffman


Have you looked in the mirror lately? I don’t mean the one hanging over your bathroom sink, the rearview in your car, or a department store trifold. I mean the mirror that throws back an image of more than just you—the one that reflects your culture, the values of your time, personifies your point in history, and projects an image of your society. I mean the biggest, boldest mirror of them all: the silver screen.

The movies that resonate with us ultimately teach us about our own identity. Not only do they teach us about the norms and taboos of our culture, but they also cater to the likes and interests of specific audiences. Likewise, the costumes, actors, script, and scenery are tailored to what is typically relevant in the present. The motion picture industry very much wants to “give people what they want,” and strives to tell a story in an artful and appealing form.

However, there are many factors to be considered when creating a worthwhile final product. It needs to be worth the price, worth the time, and, more importantly, worth the escape. Within this endeavor is a part of making any magical cinematic illusion believable, especially in the genre of Screen Deco: the aspect of women’s fashion, and its impact upon costume design.

The Art Deco movement initiated in the 1920s, with major historical events revitalizing and energizing our nation. Within this time frame, women’s liberation was gaining strength and support, our economy was experiencing a wonderful boom, and technology continued to advance. The era was progression personified—highlighting all that was modern, embracing new and abstract ideas about the future, and mixing luxury with leisure.

Louise Brooks

The Art Deco period influenced fashion especially for women, allowing them to seamlessly shift personas by varying outfits. Women’s image can be characterized through three main stylistic icons: the Flapper, the Goddess, and the Athlete.

The Flapper’s image erupted from the repressed Victorian styles with boldness and fury. Women were seeking equality at the time in terms of suffrage and employment (due to the men mostly fighting in the War) and wanted to look and feel like their male counterparts. Rather than hide their figures in thick tufts of fabric and scrunch their forms into stiffening corsets, women rebelled against tradition and revamped the feminine image.

Long tresses were cut, skirts were shortened, and women sought a fashion that was closer to the characteristics of male clothing. Women were also no longer as sheltered, feeling that they should not be dependent upon men and should have similar freedoms. As a result, women drove, smoked, kissed, and danced in public. They term flapper was coined for these women, who were like young birds flapping their wings and finally learning to fly.

Looking at flapper fashion, one can notice designs and patterns that are reflected in the characteristics of Screen Deco. While the clothes are boyish, they are noticeably streamlined and tubular. There are also often geometric, angular designs on the fabric, which were typically paired with a cloche hat and rolled stockings.

The actresses of Screen Deco boasted costumes that reflected this time period, particularly the feisty flappers in Our Dancing Daughters. Women like Marie Prevost, Marion Davies, Joan Crawford, Louise Brooks, Dorothy Sebastian, Clara Bow, Anita Page, Barbara Stanwyk, Norma Shearer, etc., were all portrayed as flappers at one point in their careers. Some of them remain iconic flappers of their era to this day.

Clara Bow

Industry boomed between the two world wars, and so did nonessential luxuries (prior to the Depression, of course). Emphasizing the flashy and fancy, the image of the goddess was born. Women like Carole Lombard and Greta Garbo posed wearing expensive jewelry and gowns, while gorgeous mansions with elegant cars appeared across the nation. Moreover, people began to frequent the cinema once again, and obsessed over movie stars and their exquisite wardrobes.

The Hollywood lifestyle also portrayed luxury and glamour during thriving economic times. Glamorous stars like Jean Harlow slipped out of long limousines, sporting sleek gowns of silk, satin, taffeta, and chiffon, while enveloped in soft furs. Dresses emphasized a mermaid silhouette, with lengthy, sweeping hemlines, often embellished with geometric designs. It was celebrities like Harlow who were the trendsetters of the time, especially in terms of the platinum blonde hairstyle.

Jean Harlow

However, in a world of financial stability, not everyone was limited to the image of being a goddess surrounded by luxury. As Coco Chanel said, “Fashion is not something that exists in dresses only. Fashion is in the sky, in the street—fashion has to do with ideas: the way we live, what is happening.” Truthfully, women were experiencing the world much more than they used to at this point, and many people engaged in exotic travels and outdoor activities.

A growing interest in sports, leisure, and travel called for fashion to accommodate these activities. Leisure clothing still emphasized style and elegance, but it had to be comfortable and loose, rather than restricting. Just like all Deco costumes, clothing had to be both functional and aesthetically appealing.

Chanel, in particular, excelled in this category. She produced effortless, streamlined outfits with single color schemes and simple silhouettes. Her clothes sported dropped waists, pleated dresses and skirts, masculine jackets, and the then-shocking idea of women’s trousers. Marlene Dietrich was one of the first females to wear pants in film, while Katharine Hepburn went on to popularize them.

While fashion has certainly changed over the years, so has our society. The fluctuation of what is considered to be fashionable is a history of its own, as it parallels the popular values of society during a specific moment. Some outfits even reach the point of being historic and end up preserved in museums for guests to observe.

As far as Screen Deco, one beautiful gown was recently auctioned off from the Debbie Reynolds estate—Claudette Colbert’s Cleopatra gown.  Designed by the talented Travis Banton, the gown gave the heroine of the film a goddess-like image in her seduction of the leading man. The striking piece sold for $40,000 last June.


The fact that this gown survived for nearly 75 years in beautiful condition speaks to the loveliness of Screen Deco and its importance in movie history. The period truly paralleled a celebration of prosperity and affluence, while adapting functionality in a guise of splendor. When viewing Deco films, it is truly a delight to see the imagination involved in costume and design, in order to portray an assumed future of fortune.

Today’s less extravagant fashions add to the contrast between our world and the glitzy Deco fantasies that remain in some of the best films. Deco is dreamlike to most of us, and even a memory to some, but it is justly a style that has made its mark upon cinema, fashion, and architecture. Deco granted us a portrayal of optimistic style during a prosperous time, and its influence will no doubt continue to be studied and respected. As Yves Saint Laurent aptly put it, “Fashions fade, style is eternal.”

guest contributor Annette Bochenek

Why Can’t This Go On Forever? Re-Opening The Wonder Bar (1934) by matthew c. hoffman

Posted in Uncategorized on April 27, 2012 by mchoffman

“Don’t you remember…
the night we sat together
at the Wonder Bar.

 Don’t you remember…
We said we’d meet again someday
and here we are.”

The Wonder Bar welcomes you!… The Park Ridge Public Library had another 90+ turnout for this week’s screening of Wonder Bar. The response was overwhelmingly positive. We have some of the most knowledgeable supporters attending our film series. One of my patrons, Neil, who is also a regular at the Northwest Chicago Film Society’s series at the Portage Theatre, came prepared with a folder full of vintage movie stills from the film. All of which I had never seen before. He also had some wonderful print material on Ricardo Cortez and Dolores Del Rio. It’s rewarding to see film buffs take these films as seriously as I do! The following is a transcript of my talk on the film…

It’s a good thing there’s no show next week because you’ll need a week to recover from this one. Tomorrow you’ll wake up with a hangover of Code violations. Wonder Bar was released shortly before the infamous Production Code was strictly enforced. It’s still amazing that Warner Brothers was able to slip this one by. According to one source, the studio had submitted an incomplete version of the film to the MPPDA and told officials that there was nothing to worry about concerning the missing footage. As we shall see, there was quite a bit to worry about, but the studio never backed down. They simply ignored the censors. There’s verbal innuendo, marital infidelity, a gag about homosexuality, sadomasochism involving a whip– and even a murder with no accountability. In fact, the murder is very neatly covered up in a rather macabre twist! Wonder Bar has this amoral tone from start to finish. And I haven’t even touched upon the most controversial aspect of the film. But before I get to that, let’s not lose sight of why Wonder Bar is being shown tonight.

For Screen Deco, I wanted to play a Busby Berkeley film. His choreography of dancing girls was essentially Art Deco transformed into human form. Showgirls became geometric shapes in high-gloss settings. There were many films to choose from such as Footlight Parade and Gold Diggers of 1933 and others. I wasn’t sure which one exhibited the most Art Deco styling, so I wrote Howard Mandelbaum, the co-author of Screen Deco, for his advice. He suggested Wonder Bar because of the Art Deco nightclub. The film is set entirely at the club, so it made more sense to show this film. The other Warner musicals were always about putting on a show. What we saw onstage was completely modern, but everything else—the behind-the-scenes drama—was rather ordinary from a set designer’s perspective.

I had played Wonder Bar once before when I operated the LaSalle Bank revival house, and I love it, having seen it many times now. It’s a film that’s not readily accessible, and TCM only shows it in the early hours when the least amount of viewers will be offended.

The controversy for modern viewers comes down to the final song in the film: Al Jolson’s “Goin to Heaven On a Mule.” It’s a musical number that tries to combine the plaintive quality of a black spiritual with the vibrancy of the Harlem Renaissance. Brace yourself when you see Jolson applying the theatrical makeup in the mirror. He performs one of his characteristic musical numbers in blackface. The sequence is filled with just about every racial stereotype you can think of—all performed by white actors in blackface.


Many viewers have dismissed the entire film because of this one sequence, labeling it as hateful. (Mind you, this is a sequence that also has a mule getting its wings in Heaven with Al. Why a mule would be joining him in Heaven is anyone’s guess, but the point is that it wasn’t meant to be taken seriously.) In an article on the film, writer Jay Carr writes that “Going to Heaven on a Mule is cringe-makingly appalling in its racial stereotyping. (Its insensitivity is signaled earlier in a brief but offensive exchange between Jolson and an Asian checkroom worker.) Not even a glancing reference to Eugene O’Neill’s The Emperor Jones can disguise it from the fact that it’s a blackface routine, with Jolson as a dying field hand in overalls and worn work shirt, departing his decrepit shack for an art deco afterlife.”

I’ve never been a huge fan of Al Jolson. The Jazz Singer is certainly a historically significant film for being the first to have a recorded soundtrack, but how many people have actually tried sitting through it? I’d offer Hallelujah I’m a Bum as his finest film, which you can sometimes find on TCM. But he was The Great Entertainer—and an American patriot. He entertained our fighting troops around the world, and this may have led to a premature death in 1950. The other thing I will add is that Al Jolson was not a hateful person. He was not motivated by racial hatred when you see the sequence. Most people who know his biography already know this.

Jolson was a Russian Jew and knew something about discrimination and could draw a parallel between the suffering of blacks and his own people. He grew up in the minstrel tradition of vaudeville and used his blackface as a way of bringing black music to white audiences. It was also a way for him to immerse himself in the characterization. It’s been said Jolson used the technique as a metaphor for human suffering.

Jazz music became mainstream in society because of Al Jolson. He opened doors for many black performers and broke racial barriers—both in theatre and in Hollywood. Anyone who researches him will find many quotes from black artists of his era who respected him. Al Jolson was without question loved in the black community and viewed as a friend. His blackface sequence in this film is actually more a parody of a 1930 play called Green Pastures, which depicted an Afro-centric vision of the Bible. It was later turned into a film in 1936.

At its worst, perhaps Jolson shows a condescending appreciation of black life—as defined by Hollywood. But he did not intend on making hate-filled propaganda. It would seem to me that these vaudeville sensibilities would’ve been passé by 1934, but no, audiences still expected his “characteristic numbers.” “Goin to Heaven On a Mule” is infused with the minstrel tradition, but perhaps Jolson could’ve used his influence in Hollywood to make something greater with actual black performers instead of white actors in blackface like tapdancing Hal LeRoy. Wonder Bar would have a better reputation today if stars like Josephine Baker had appeared instead– not that they would’ve wanted to act opposite oversized slices of watermelons. Jolson had the influence to shape Berkeley’s musical sequence, and it’s a shame he did not fashion it a different way—perhaps one that added something to the plot, or simply an elegant musical number befitting the high style of a Parisian nightclub. Instead, we have ol’ Gus walking through Possum Pie Grove while holding a porkchop. It does not fit the style of the rest of the film. Aesthetically, it simply does not belong.


Wonder Bar was based on a stage play which Jolson had performed in, and the property was purchased for him. Harry Warren and Al Dubin were hired to write new songs, and Jolson requested Dolores Del Rio for the film. Wonder Bar is filled with an all-star cast of Warner Brothers stars. Besides Del Rio, the film features Ricardo Cortez, Kay Francis, and Dick Powell. According to Film Daily, other actors who were originally considered included Ruby Keeler (who was Jolson’s wife), Adolphe Menjou, Barbara Stanwyck, Ann Dvorak, and Bette Davis.

In many ways, the film was Warners response to Grand Hotel, though the studio had done similar stories before, such as Union Depot with Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. Wonder Bar has interconnecting storylines that tie together by the time the film concludes. One of the famous lines of dialogue in Grand Hotel was that “nothing ever happens.” There is an obvious reference to that in the Wonder Bar trailer which tells us that “There’s always something happening at the Wonder Bar.” In Grand Hotel, we had Lionel Barrymore going out with a bang by spending his money in a first-class binge, and here, Robert Barrat plays Captain von Ferring who wants to live it up before committing suicide—an act which he not-so-subtly telegraphs every chance he gets.

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Click here to see the Wonder Bar trailer! (Who is the mysterious Garbo-like figure at 0:56? She does not appear in the released version.)

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But in the earlier film, everything, including the set-up, is seen from within the hotel. Here, however, the exposition is established outside the bar. Once we, the audience, arrive and are greeted, the action unfolds in the club as though it were in real-time. Jolson plays Al Wonder, the proprietor of the bar. His performance is better than in previous films that relied on his brand of heavy-handed sentiment. (Although there is one shot where he pours it on thick. While still in blackface, a broken-hearted Jolson looks forlornly at the young lovers Tommy and Inez. You can almost hear the audience sigh, “Awww.”) Al Jolson is at his best in Wonder Bar not as an actor but as himself: comedian, singer, showman.

The film is a summation of who Al Jolson was as a stage performer– now preserved forever on film. It’s fitting, then, that he insisted on singing “Vive La France” live on the set in front of the camera. Seeing Jolson on the big screen, one can feel the magic and energy of a live performer who could always put a spark in everyone in the audience. His enthusiasm becomes contagious. The only sequence where Jolson brings the film’s visual dynamic to a screeching halt, though, is the absurd verbal interplay with the Russian, an interminable scene of vaudeville ethnic humor which finally ends with his singing of the ballad “Ochi Tchornya.” His interactions with patrons of the club become mere set-ups for jokes. He is the central figure, a ringmaster surrounded by storylines of drama and vice– storylines which he will shape and manipulate.

Dolores Del Rio in a sequined gown designed by Orry-Kelly.

The film benefits greatly from the talents of those supporting Al Jolson in the film. Dolores Del Rio, as Inez, was one of the great Latin faces of Hollywood. Born in Mexico, she made her debut in the silent era and would star in such sound films as Bird of Paradise and Flying Down To Rio. She married MGM art director Cedric Gibbons and the two became one of the most fashionable couples in Hollywood. Reportedly, her affair with Orson Welles ended her ten-year marriage to Gibbons. Del Rio would eventually become a major star south of the border during Mexico’s greatest era of moviemaking in the 1940s.

Her partner in the film, performing the Gaucho dance, is Ricardo Cortez—the gigolo. Cortez was originally groomed to be a Rudolph Valentino-type, but he was terrific in many pre-Code films in which he played seedy gangsters as in Midnight Mary. It seemed like he was always getting shot by women in these films. Cortez starred in the original Maltese Falcon in 1931, but he was no one’s idea of Sam Spade.

Kay Francis

One woman under the spell of the gigolo is Kay Francis, the First Lady of Warner Brothers (and one of my favorite pre-Code actresses; her presence in this scandalous film thus became essential). To film buffs, she is known for two things: for being one of the best dressed actresses in Hollywood, and for her complete inability to pronounce the letter “r” which always came out as a “w.” My favorite Kay Francis movies are the ones she made with William Powell: Jewel Robbery and One Way Passage. She doesn’t have much to do in this film while in Del Rio’s shadow, and perhaps it wasn’t too hard for Kay’s character to appear sullen throughout most of the movie. Kay was not happy about her role but remained professional about it. With so many egos on the stage, Wonder Bar probably wasn’t an easy set to be on. In the Kay Francis bio I Can’t Wait to be Forgotten, author Scott O’Brien includes a passage written by William French, who recorded the making of the film for Photoplay. There’s a famous photo of all the actors together with upraised champagne glasses toasting the film. Of that photo, French writes,

“All five raise their glasses to a toast. Happy, happy set! ‘Click,’ goes the still camera. The players at the bar change their pose—and that is not all. Kay shrugs, glances about her and settles back with queenly indifference. Ricardo’s toothful smile straightens into a thin, hard line and friendly Dick Powell grins sheepishly at his director. Meanwhile Al Jolson edges a little forward in the center of the group and Dolores keeps discreetly silent. The almost inevitable friendly repartee that follows a shot is strangely missing. ‘Just one big, happy family,’ I suggest to Director Bacon. ‘Yeah,’ he returned, dryly. ‘But we are going to get a good picture out of this.’


Character actors Guy Kibbee and Hugh Herbert play a couple cockeyed businessmen too drunk to know they are in Paris. In a subplot that has nothing to do with the rest of the movie, they flirt with a couple nightclub hostesses—one of whom is played by Merna Kennedy, the wife of Busby Berkeley.

The most likeable character in the film is Dick Powell as the bandleader, Tommy. You get that impression right from the start when you see him walking through the revolving door during the opening credits. Powell played a crooner in many of the Warner Brothers musicals before eventually reinventing himself in the 1940s as a tough-guy leading man in film noir. I wrote an article last year on Dick Powell for the Nostalgia Digest called “Don’t Say Goodnight”—the title comes from the best song in the film– and the most beautiful thing in it.


Don’t say Goodnight begins as a waltz between Del Rio and Cortez, but Busby Berkeley’s choreography of the dance sequence—using blondes and mirrors in the shape of an octagon, is truly hypnotic in its fluidity. The sequence runs about ten minutes, yet it takes you to another world. There was always that moment in these Warner musicals when the stage show takes off into a flight of fantasy, into a world that went beyond the confines of the stage and even the theatre—a dream that stretched into infinity.

The nightclub itself is well-defined and we get all angles of the club with Sol Polito’s moving camera, which presents us with a circular layout. The sets were by Jack Okey, who had designed Ruth Chatterton’s streamlined office in Female. Assisting Okey was the Hungarian Willy Pogany, who had been an illustrator of children’s books. (Interestingly, other art directors like William Cameron Menzies and Joseph Urban were also at one time illustrators of children’s books.) Besides the nightclub itself, look for the Modernistic depiction of Heaven in the Jolson musical number when he crosses the rainbow-like bridge on his old Missouri mule. The lines of the painted shot recall the kind of Art Deco imagery you would’ve seen in WPA murals in the 1930s.

Wonder Bar is a film that is modern in its design and liberated in its social dynamics; it would be a stretch to call this deliriously decadent material “progressive.” The film makes no excuses and attempts no moralizing. And yet, it is also ideologically rooted in the past with traditions descended from vaudeville. The film combines modern music and modern settings with the old-fashioned blackface of 19th century minstrel. It’s an odd assortment of entertainment styles and cultural attitudes that you won’t soon forget.

A small screen can never do moments like this justice…

The Female’s Kiss: A Double Deco Night by matthew c. hoffman

Posted in Uncategorized on April 20, 2012 by mchoffman

An original photo gallery played before the show…

We had 90+ patrons turn out for The Park Ridge Public Library’s double feature of The Kiss (1929) and Female (1933). The following are my remarks during the intermission…

The Divine Garbo…

With that, Greta Garbo and MGM kissed the silent era of filmmaking goodbye. It was an era in which she had become a sensation in films like Flesh and the Devil with John Gilbert. Garbo’s next film after The Kiss was her first talkie, Anna Christie, for which she received an Academy Award nomination. Some viewers today minimize her acting talent, but how could you with films like Anna Karenina and Camille. A wooden actress would not have been nominated four times for an Academy Award.

Others see a persona that’s as cold as the gray winters of her impoverished childhood in Sweden. Garbo was certainly aloof and moody on screen, but this was at the heart of who she was, and it’s what made her a great tragedienne. No, she did not elicit the warmth of Claudette Colbert or Myrna Loy. She was Garbo, and there was no other like her. Her onscreen magnetism and mystery– fully appreciated when seen on a big screen– was undeniable, and the camera loved her. The “Swedish Sphinx,” as she was known, was an international phenomenon of mythic proportions– and perhaps the greatest movie star of them all.


In the book The Power of Glamour, author Annette Tapert writes, “How the world’s most enigmatic screen star was different has been analyzed and dissected since 1926, when she arrived in Hollywood under contract to MGM. Seven decades later she’s still an enigma. No matter how many photographs you see of her or how often you’ve watched her films, looking at Garbo is like looking at the Mona Lisa. Garbo’s face haunts you, holds you. Her beauty put her in a class by herself. And that in a way is symbolic of who she was—a solitary creature who by all accounts felt like an alien visitor, unsure of her place on earth.”

Tonight we saw a very different Garbo than the one from Grand Hotel. In the 1932 film, she was playing a very dramatic and animated ballerina—one with emotional highs and lows. If that was the only Garbo film you’ve seen prior to tonight, you might’ve had the impression she was over-the-top and theatrical in all her films. But she could be very natural and subtle as in The Kiss where the slightest movement or gesture spoke volumes. I love the moment when she’s trying to keep an eye on the police who suspect her and you only see the slightest eye movement.


The Kiss was directed by Belgium-born Jacques Feyder. He had been an actor before switching to directing. He made films in several countries and was known for bringing a poetic realism to his work, most notably the films he made in the early 1930s. His films would influence directors like Jean Renoir. Garbo admired his elegance as a director. When a scene was over, he would wave a handkerchief in front of the camera instead of simply yelling, “Cut!” Feyder would direct Garbo again when MGM made a German-language version of Anna Christie.


The camerawork in The Kiss was accomplished by William Daniels, who knew how to capture Garbo’s allure on film. He would photograph 19 out of her 24 American films. The set design was by Cedric Gibbons and Richard Day. The Kiss is one of several Garbo silent films that could’ve easily been shown in this series. Films like 1928’s  A Woman of Affairs and 1929’s The Single Standard exemplified Modern set design. Images from these films can be found in the book Screen Deco, which of course is the inspiration for our film program.

The Art Deco of The Kiss creates an atmosphere of luxury and sophistication. Modern décor is linked to the modern woman, and that is the case in our next film, Female. Ruth Chatterton plays the ultimate modern woman: an automotive executive who’d rather have a canary than a husband. She has a pool of male secretaries she freely draws from, so cue “Shanghai Lil” on the phonograph and get the vodka ready in the library. Then along comes George Brent as the gear shift inventor out to show her some new clutch action.

Ruth Chatterton and George Brent

The Irish-born Brent was actually married to Chatterton in real life. It was his second of five marriages. Brent was a dependable leading man at Warner Brothers. He starred opposite many of the great actresses of the 1930s including Bette Davis with whom he co-starred in thirteen films.

But Female belongs to Chatterton, who brings intelligence and a playful sense of humor to her portrayal of Alison Drake. Ruth Chatterton is an unknown commodity these days, but the confidence she brought to her roles was an influence on the better-known actresses who followed her. (Supposedly, there is a biography on her in the works by author Scott O’Brien.) Chatterton was a Broadway actress Warner Brothers had signed to give the studio some class. She became the First Lady of Warner Brothers until she was usurped by Kay Francis. Chatterton is best known for her pre-Code films like Frisco Jenny, Lilly Turner, and of course, Female. Her best performance, though, may have been as Walter Huston’s wife in William Wyler’s Dodsworth in 1936. Dodsworth is also noteworthy in terms of its Streamline Moderne set design by Richard Day. Besides acting, Chatterton was a novelist as well as an early aviatrix. Amelia Earhart was a good friend of hers.

An early photo of Ruth Chatterton. For more about Chatterton’s early years on the stage, click here!

The Art Deco in Female is fantastic, such as Miss Drake’s streamlined factory office and the stylized lines within other scenes at the factory. The exterior of her home was actually shot on location in the Hollywood Hills at the Ennis House which was designed by Frank Lloyd Wright. One of the most impressive sets, however, is the swimming pool with the fountain and the odd statue. Eagle eye film buffs will recognize it as the same pool used during the “By A Waterfall” musical number in Footlight Parade. This is without a doubt one of the great examples of Art Deco at the Warner Brothers studio. It was designed by Jack Okey who was the art director for the studio throughout the 1930s. He also designed the Art Deco nightclub in Wonder Bar which will be screened next week.


I won’t say anything about how the film concludes– a subverted ending which many have criticized– but keep in mind the context of the film’s time of production. Even though this is a delirious pre-Code film, motion pictures were still at the mercy of local censor boards throughout the country. Had this film ended any other way, prints of the film could’ve easily been butchered by all the edits. This is why some films had a tacked-on moral at the end, as though to excuse everything that had come before. Despite this, Female remains a fun ride with some terrific performances.

One other note about this film. I had played it at the LaSalle Bank revival house in Chicago when I did a retrospective profiling director William Dieterle. Dieterle began Female, but when he became ill, William Wellman replaced him. Wellman, in turn, had to leave the production to work on another film, and so Michael Curtiz took over. It’s Curtiz who received the director’s credit. But all these Warner contract directors knew how to crank out a fast, efficient, and effective product. Today, a movie like Female would be 2 ½ hours long and loaded with subplots, but the great studio craftsmen knew how to tell stories back then without the dross.


Rise of the Zigzags

Posted in Uncategorized on April 16, 2012 by mchoffman

The Park Ridge Public Library is not even halfway through Screen Deco, but because of the tremendous turnout for this film event, I’d like to say thank you to the ground troops who are getting the word out. We’re averaging 90+ patrons a week, which is crazy for any library film series. There’s been a run on programs and newsletters because of the outpouring of visitors, so now we are relying on word of mouth (and our t-shirts) to promote the series. Each week there are new faces from Chicago and surrounding suburbs– as well as the loyal regulars right here in town. I thank all these supporters of Screen Deco— or, as they would be known in the Art Deco world: the Zigzags!

Lines out the front door to see Penthouse (1933)…

Our friend Nicole sporting the Screen Deco t-shirt…

When a 22-year-old can speak eloquently about a movie made 80 years ago, there’s hope for the next generation! Special guest Annette Bochenek…

Welcoming the audience…

Program Host Matthew C. Hoffman (left) with assistant Michael Hominick…

Penthouse (1933) by matthew c. hoffman

Posted in Uncategorized on April 13, 2012 by mchoffman


Penthouse is an absolute gem ready for rediscovery. It’s every bit as sophisticated a romance and light comedy—with an air of mystery—as The Thin Man, made the following year. And it’s one of my favorite films in Screen Deco. I’m glad I’m able to play it tonight because I had wanted to show it in my Forbidden Cinema pre-Code film series two years ago. Penthouse was directed by W.S. Van Dyke and written by Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett. These three would collaborate again for The Thin Man. And, of course, Penthouse stars Myrna Loy– Nora Charles from The Thin Man. Here she plays an alluring nightclub call girl named Gertie.

Myrna Loy had made over 70 movies before she finally became a star. Tonight’s film was one of her breakthrough roles. Earlier in her career she had been typecast as an exotic woman of mystery, often with sinister intentions. As late as 1932 she was playing Dr. Fu Manchu’s daughter in The Mask of Fu Manchu with Boris Karloff. But director Van Dyke had an eye for talent and saw her potential. He pictured her playing American girl types where she could show off her abilities as a light comedienne. He saw her charm, wit, and comedic touch playing normal girls. Van Dyke knew she would be a star and helped to make her one.


Myrna Loy was born in Helena, Montana, in 1905. Her father, who was a real estate developer, had named her after a nearby train station because he liked the name. When her mother almost died from pneumonia, Myrna went with her to California to recover. They temporarily moved to Ocean Park, California, where Myrna began to study dance. She took the experience back with her to Montana, but when her father died from the Spanish influenza of 1918, the family returned to the Golden State and settled in Culver City.

She left school to help support the family. Though it would be years before she’d ever appear on the screen as a star at Grauman’s Egyptian Theatre, she did perform there in live musical prologues which preceded the film premieres. She almost won a role in a Rudolph Valentino movie, but though she lost out, she did find work in many silent movies. Studios like Warner Brothers noticed her. Myrna usually played vamps and was pretty much stereotyped as such. She appeared in some early musicals, but the public didn’t really notice her until a few years later when she starred in films like Manhattan Melodrama, which was one of fourteen films she would make with William Powell. When John Dillinger was killed after a screening of the film at the Biograph Theatre in Chicago, some papers reported that Myrna Loy was Dillinger’s favorite actress.


It wasn’t until she made The Thin Man in 1934 that she reached super-stardom. She would become one of the biggest and highest paid actresses in Hollywood. Some of her most memorable roles besides the six Thin Man films were The Best Years of Our Lives with Fredric March and Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House opposite Cary Grant. One of my favorite Myrna Loy films of the 1930s was Broadway Bill. This horseracing drama from 1934 was directed by Frank Capra. Her co-star in Broadway Bill was Warner Baxter, our leading man of Penthouse.


Of course, Myrna Loy may be the main draw tonight and the chief selling point for its dvd release, but it’s Warner Baxter who is the star. He plays the “gangster lawyer” Jackson Durant who is out to prove the innocence of a friend accused of murder. Baxter is impossibly handsome and suave and perfectly complimented by a sensual Myrna Loy in their surprisingly frank but casual relationship. Baxter was one of my favorite actors of the era. He always reminded me of the American version of Ronald Colman; though he didn’t have Colman’s vocal mellifluousness, he had good diction (like so many stars of the era) and screen magnetism. Baxter was actually good friends with Colman and William Powell. Nowadays, Warner Baxter is very much overlooked, but he has left a tremendous filmography. He is remembered today primarily for his role as the director in 42nd Street.

The American Ronald Colman… Warner Baxter

He was born Warner LeRoy Baxter in Columbus, Ohio, in 1889. With his widowed mother, they moved to San Francisco in 1898. But disaster struck the family when they lost their home in the 1906 earthquake. In the aftermath, they had to live in a tent for two weeks. His mother had wanted him to work as a traveling salesman, but this job did not quell his passion to act. By 1910 he found a way into the vaudeville circuit, and after a detour in the insurance business, he returned to the stage and performed in a Dallas stock company. Around 1916 he made a few appearances in bit roles in the movies, but it didn’t amount to much.

His first real success as an actor was in a Broadway play called Lombardi, Ltd. He would marry the star of the play, Winifred Bryson, and this marriage, his second, would last until his death. In the wake of his Broadway success, he made a second attempt in Hollywood. Regarding this next phase of his career, I’d like to quote my friend Laura Wagner, who is an author and a regular contributor to the magazine Films of the Golden Age. Of his early days in Hollywood, she writes,

“He was eventually signed by Paramount in 1924, which was a big break for him. The dapper Baxter, with his pencil-thin moustache, was a heartthrob in his day, with his smoldering eyes and dark good looks. He starred in the hit ALOMA OF THE SOUTH SEAS and was the first actor on film to portray THE GREAT GATSBY. By 1927 he had shed Paramount and started to freelance; he was able to broaden his acting with movies such as WEST OF ZANZIBAR. The role that made him a true star was very atypical, Fox’s 1928 all-talking IN OLD ARIZONA, where he played the Cisco Kid. (Director Raoul Walsh was set for the lead but had lost an eye in an auto accident.) Baxter, usually the serious, drawing room type of actor, was now portraying a Mexican bandit. He won an Academy Award for the role – the second actor and first American to win the Best Actor Oscar. He reprised the Cisco Kid character in THE CISCO KID, the comedy short THE STOLEN JOOLS, and RETURN OF THE CISCO KID, and there were other attempts to ‘recapture’ Cisco’s success with such movies as ROBIN HOOD OF EL DORADO. The film was such a hit that Fox immediately signed Baxter to a contract that eventually lasted until 1940.”

As Laura points out, Baxter was the first American actor to win an Oscar. For those who might’ve been wondering, he followed Emil Jannings, the German actor who had won in 1928 for The Last Command as well as for The Way of All Flesh. One of Baxter’s best performances, one that was certainly Oscar-worthy, was in John Ford’s The Prisoner of Shark Island, in which he played the doctor who treated John Wilkes Booth after the assassination of  President Lincoln. By 1936 Baxter had become one of the highest-paid actors in town. But a leading man cannot go on forever in Hollywoodland. With middle age came acceptance that his career had slipped. He took roles in B-films. After a nervous breakdown in the early 1940s, he signed a contract with Columbia for a series of ten Crime Doctor mystery films. The series ran from 1943 until 1949.

Warner Baxter gave an Oscar-worthy performance as Dr. Samuel Mudd in John Ford’s masterful The Prisoner of Shark Island (1936).

As with Warren William and Reginald Denny, actors I’ve mentioned in previous weeks, Baxter was inventing when he wasn’t acting. In the mid 1930s he designed a searchlight for a revolver, and in 1940 he came up with a radio device to control traffic signals for emergency vehicles. It makes you wonder where this device is now when so many drivers today are oblivious and continue to drive through green lights even though you can clearly hear an ambulance approaching the intersection.

Sadly, Baxter suffered from crippling arthritis. His condition was so bad that a lobotomy had been performed to reduce the pain. He developed pneumonia shortly after the procedure and died in 1951 at the age of 62.

Also starring in tonight’s film is character actor Nat Pendleton as Tony Gazotti, the good racketeer boss. Pendleton had won a silver medal as a wrestling heavyweight in the 1920 Olympics in Belgium. His fame as an athlete led him to Hollywood where he started out in small roles in films such as Horse Feathers with the Marx Brothers. Nat Pendleton was one of the great character actors of Hollywood. He often played dumb henchmen, which is ironic because in real life he was a Columbia University graduate and could speak four languages. Tonight is one of his best roles because he finally gets to play a take-charge guy with some degree of intelligence.


In the role of Mimi, whose fate sets the story in motion, is Mae Clarke. It’s hard to talk about Mae Clarke without also mentioning a certain grapefruit she was handed by Jimmy Cagney in The Public Enemy, but she should be remembered for more than just that as she was a terrific actress. Besides her well-known role as Elizabeth in the original Frankenstein, she gave an outstanding performance as a chorus girl in the pre-Code version of Waterloo Bridge, which was directed by James Whale.

Charles Butterworth plays Durant’s butler. Butterworth was a comedic eccentric, mostly portraying timid characters that could never make up their mind. The comedy relief he provides in Penthouse never seems as intrusive as that of other comic actors of the 1930s.

*            *            *            *            *            *            *            *

Jackson: [as they dance] Music is certainly a wonderful thing. I meet you, and five minutes later you’re in my arms.

Gertie: Do you have to have music?

Jackson: I don’t know. Do I?

Gertie: I refuse to answer on the grounds that it may incriminate and degrade me.

This film is a wonderful precursor to The Thin Man. There is a depth to the characters. They have their own scenes and moments that add dimension to the story. The script is loaded with smart, snappy dialogue and pre-Code innuendo. It’s spoken in that fast-paced style of the 1930s. Another reason why I love this film is because the danger in it seems more real—an underworld menace that keeps us involved in the story. MGM was never known for its crime dramas—that was always Warner Brothers territory— but beneath the high society gloss typical of the studio, we see that Penthouse is also an urban gangster film that is handled very intelligently. It’s certainly strange to see blood when characters get shot—something you would never have seen after 1934 when the Production Code was enforced.

Myrna Loy presents W.S. Van Dyke with a birthday cake on the set of Manhattan Melodrama.


The film has a great pace thanks to director W.S. Van Dyke. He began his career in the silent era where he served as assistant director on D.W. Griffith’s Intolerance. He was one of the most efficient filmmakers at MGM and came to be known as “One Take Woody” because of his speed. He directed such classic films as Trader Horn (which was shot mostly in Africa), Tarzan the Ape Man, Manhattan Melodrama, and four of the Thin Man movies. He received the first of his two Best Director nominations for The Thin Man. The other was for San Francisco in 1936.

And finally, we have the wonderful Art Deco sets in glorious black and white. It’s half the treat. The most obvious example is the modern décor seen in Jackson Durant’s penthouse apartment. The credited art direction was by the Polish-born Alexander Toluboff, who had assisted Cedric Gibbons on Grand Hotel. During his career Toluboff was nominated for three Academy Awards for Art Direction including one in 1939 for John Ford’s Stagecoach.

“Thoughtful as well as alluring.”

NOTE: The preceding entry was in fact the speech for my Penthouse presentation, which was given on 4/12/12. We had 90+ attend our showing. Based on the positive feedback of patrons as they were leaving, this is their favorite film in the series so far.

The Flatlining of American Style by matthew c. hoffman

Posted in Uncategorized on April 6, 2012 by mchoffman

“A real star never stops.” ~Mae West

“Our stars today are photographed pushing baby strollers, appearing in public with uncombed hair, arriving at airports wearing leggings and sneakers. As a general rule, they feel their stardom should hinge on talent rather than on who they are as people or on how they present themselves in their off hours. The women I’ve profiled were almost exact opposites of today’s stars… none of these women would ever have considered leaving the house without being perfectly turned out. For them, lunch at Romanoff’s was like walking onto a movie set. They didn’t do it just because the studios expected them to dress and act like stars at all times. It was part and parcel of who they were or who they had become. ” ~ Annette Tapert, The Power of Glamour

Carole Lombard

Part of the attraction of Screen Deco is the desire to reach back in time and see what high style was all about. The lack of style and sophistication in the movies over the decades corresponds to the reality of what’s happening in society at large. In today’s real world there is a demise of glamour. Standards of fashion, for instance, are set by pop culture, and these are low standards. They are low even when not compared to anything that has come before. Men “dress up” in t-shirts, half-pants and sandals. Add a ball cap and put a beer can in his hand and you have the Modern Man. Teenagers, meanwhile, aspire to the party girl look and the class-less lifestyle that entails. This is not to say that we should all keep a tux in our closet and wear Adrian gowns to brunch. But there’s more to it than just articles of clothing. The demise parallels a general decline in behavior and mentality. Anything goes now. People just don’t care what they look like or what they do because there is no self-awareness. High style is about how you conduct yourself– a sense of decorum– which has eroded and fallen by the wayside.

Movie glamour– the specific glamour of the ’20s, ’30s, and ’40s– was always elevated and sometimes unreal… but not completely out of reach. There once were screen goddesses who walked amongst us. Today we don’t have those models– images that inspire us to be more than what we are now. We can never hope to have a Hollywood portrait photographer take our photo in soft-focus lighting for our driver’s license mug shot, but we can at least alter our perceptions of what is good taste. Pop culture has a funny, misplaced notion of what defines success now. The more screwed up you are the more popular you become. Our TV screens are littered with reality shows because people seek empty vessels. Viewers can then fill these empty personalities with their own aspirations. The mentality is that they are like us–“regular people”– because of their issues and problems. So if a reality star can have a TV show, then why can’t we?

This is the difference between then and now. Our culture creates a swamp of cynicism that diffuses our dreams and brings people down. Since we don’t believe in those heroic myths anymore, we look to the ordinary, the commonplace, and the dysfunctional to guide us– and to vacuous personalities to inspire or entertain us. Real style is gone from today’s movie scene, but for one night New Hollywood will become conscious of what’s come before and make an effort to mimic the past on Academy Award night. But these are only copies like cheap costume jewelry. It’s all artifice… artificial actors… in a new digital industry where movies aren’t even on film. There are few ties between the present and the past. There is no more greatness in the Kodak Theatre than there was in The Artist, a film which superficially copied the past without approximating greatness itself.

Myrna Loy

The other day a patron at the library, a 30-something soccer mom, expressed interest in Screen Deco and said she would “tell her mom about the series.” The perception is that only old(er) people would appreciate it. Though I’m grateful she would tell others, part of me wanted to ask, “Why can’t you bring your teenage daughter (or son) instead?” Why can’t the daughter take time out from “Gossip Girl” or “One Tree Hill” for, yes, truer models of style and sophistication– ones she can aspire to like a Myrna Loy? The power of glamour, as I define it in Screen Deco, is that the images projected are eternal, relevant, and still with us today. The “dead actors” are the ones at the local cineplex.

To understand what glamour is one need not look further than to actresses like Carole Lombard, Joan Crawford, Claudette Colbert, and Kay Francis. They had magic, mystery, and allure. The great stars that I admire carried a dignity to the end like a Frances Drake, for example. (Granted, even film buffs have a hard time remembering Frances Drake.) But she retired gracefully from the screen and remained a star within. She did not live to become a sideshow in the tabloids like Elizabeth Taylor and so many others who are now forced to endure the microscopic scrutiny of the modern-day media machine. The studio system is no longer here to protect them.

John Barrymore in Grand Hotel

In 2012, we no longer have those models of sophistication to aspire to. If the only movies they make today star 20-year-olds plucked off the CW network, then that becomes the (homogeneous) norm and how young people define a movie star. But since I’d rather have the old world charm and dignified bearing of a John Barrymore in Grand Hotel, it becomes essential for the Park Ridge Public Library’s Classic Film Series to preserve our hallowed past and make people see and understand what they are missing. Most young people don’t even know what a good movie is because they’ve been polluted by all this ephemera of pop culture. But for this season, the Classic Film Series is preserving the definition of movie style.

A terrific book I highly recommend to everyone about the subject is The Power of Glamour (The Women Who Defined the Magic of Stardom) by Annette Tapert (1998). I single out this book because the author listed some of the most influential actresses in the development of American sophistication on the silver screen. You understand what a real star is when you read The Power of Glamour.