Hollywood’s Deco-rators: Cedric, Hans, and Van Nest

decomaidens2Our Modern Maidens (left, 1929), best known as an early flapper vehicle for Joan Crawford, airs on TCM this Wednesday at 9:45am. In addition to its role in Crawford’s burgeoning stardom, the film was renowned for its Art Deco set design by Cedric Gibbons, who had launched his signature Deco style a year earlier with Our Dancing Daughters (1928).

Art Deco and Hollywood fit together like hand in glove. Originally known as Modernism, Deco emerged in the 1920s, depicting and capturing the fast pace and modern lifestyle associated with the Jazz Age. This unique linear style began in the mid-1920s with ornate zig-zags and geometric shapes then quickly evolved into the stripped-down curvilinear forms of Streamline Moderne in the 1930s. Other styles of the time included Bauhaus and the International Style. The catch-all phrase Art Deco was not coined until the 1960s to refer to most of the styles of this era.

UNIVERSAL'S 1930s DECO-INSPIRED LOGO

UNIVERSAL’S 1930s DECO-INSPIRED LOGO

Art director Cedric Gibbons is credited with popularizing Art Deco in the movies, though his work was not the first Deco-inspired designs to show up in Hollywood. Gibbons attended the 1925 Exposition des Arts Decoratifs et Industriels Modernes in Paris, inspiring him to embrace Modernism as his signature style. According to Screen Deco by Howard Mandelbaum and Eric Myers, Our Dancing Daughters was the first Hollywood film to completely exploit Modernist designs. Gibbons had entered the film industry in 1914, working as a set dresser for Hugo Ballin. When Ballin left art direction to become a producer-director, Gibbons replaced him as supervising art director, a title not used in the industry before. He joined the newly formed MGM just before attending the Paris Exposition. When he returned, he began incorporating the styles he had seen at the Exposition into a string of films, helping to establish MGM’s trademark opulent, glossy look. His streamlined, geometric Hollywood Deco favored plain white walls and decorative plaster. He loathed wallpaper and ornate patterns. MGM adopted a high-key lighting style in part to flatter Gibbons’s shimmery white sets.

RAMON NOVARRO'S HOME AS DECORATED BY CEDRIC GIBBONS

RAMON NOVARRO’S HOME AS DECORATED BY CEDRIC GIBBONS

At the time, American movies enjoyed a love-hate relationship with the rich and the pursuit of wealth. During the 1920s, some genres reflected an opulence that many Americans felt it was possible to achieve because of the era’s prosperity. After the Depression, audiences were still drawn to stories of great wealth and luxury, though the rich were often depicted as heartless, selfish, insincere, clueless, or just plain immoral. Gibbons and other art directors such as Van Nest Polglase and Hans Dreier perfected a Deco dream world that suited stories of big-city adventures or romantic escapades.

A PUBLICITY STILL WITH GINGER ROGERS IN PURE HOLLYWOOD DECO

GINGER ROGERS AMIDST PURE HOLLYWOOD DECO

The style became popular not only in Hollywood movies but also among the stars and industry insiders who made up the Hollywood Colony. The house that Ginger Rogers’s purchased in the 1930s was decorated by Van Nest Polglase and his RKO art department. Silent star Ramon Navarro bought a house designed by Lloyd Wright (son of the famous architect) and decorated by Cedric Gibbons in black and silver, with black fur accents. Legend has it that Navarro demanded visiting dinner guests wear black, white, and silver to match his décor. The studios adopted graphics and logos in the Deco style and staged publicity photos for their stars with Deco-inspired props.

I hope you enjoy this selection of Hollywood Deco, which captured the glamour and fantasy of the Dream Factory and shaped America’s attitudes toward class and style.

A CEDRIC GIBBONS DESIGN FOR MGM'S THE SINGLE STANDARD (1929), STARRING GRETA GARBO

A CEDRIC GIBBONS DESIGN FOR MGM’S ‘THE SINGLE STANDARD’ (1929), STARRING GRETA GARBO

 

IN WIFE vs. SECRETARY, THE OFFICE BUILDING DESIGN WAS INSPIRED BY THE SIMPLICITY OF THE INTERNATIONAL STYLE. (THE FILM AIRS WEDS. AT 6:30pm.)

IN WIFE vs. SECRETARY, CLARK GABLE’S OFFICE BUILDING WAS INSPIRED BY THE SIMPLICITY OF THE INTERNATIONAL STYLE. (THE FILM AIRS WEDS. AT 6:30pm.)

MOVIE NIGHT CLUBS HAD TERRIFIC DECO DESIGNS. THIS  NIGHT CLUB IN SWING TIME BY POLGLASE WAS INSPIRED BY ONE OF THE FEW AUTHENTIC DECO CLUBS, THE RAINBOW ROOM IN ROCKEFELLER CENTER.

MOVIE NIGHT CLUBS HAD TERRIFIC DECO DESIGNS. CLUB RAYMOND IN ‘SWING TIME’ BY NEW YORK DESIGNER JOHN HARKRIDER WAS INSPIRED BY ONE OF THE FEW REAL-LIFE DECO CLUBS, THE RAINBOW ROOM IN ROCKEFELLER CENTER.

SOMETIMES OFTEN, DECO-STYLE INTERIORS WERE USED TO DEFINE CHARACTERS. IN 'WONDER OF WOMEN,' LEWIS STONE'S MISTRESS'S MODERN DECO APARTMENT IS CONTRASTED WITH THE WARM HOME BY THE SEA HE SHARES WITH HIS WIFE.

SOMETIMES DECO INTERIORS WERE USED TO DEFINE CHARACTERS. IN ‘WONDER OF WOMEN,’ LEWIS STONE’S MISTRESS’S MODERN APARTMENT IS CONTRASTED WITH THE OLD-FASHIONED HOUSE BY THE SEA HE SHARES WITH HIS WIFE.

 

PARAMOUNT'S HANS DREIER HAD WORKED IN GERMANY'S UFA STUDIOS, AND BROUGHT A TOUCH OF BAUHAUS TO HIS DECO DESIGNS.

PARAMOUNT’S HANS DREIER HAD WORKED IN GERMANY’S UFA STUDIOS, AND BROUGHT A TOUCH OF BAUHAUS TO HIS DECO DESIGNS.

IN ‘A WOMAN OF AFFAIRS,’ GRETA GARBO AND BROTHER DOUGLAS FAIRBANKS, JR. LIVE IN A DECO APARTMENT, WHICH SIGNALS THEIR MODERN VIEW OF LIFE.

 

IN 'THE BLACK CAT,' BORIS KARLOFF PLAYS POLZEIG, AN ARCHITECT OBVIOUSLY OF THE BAUHAUS SCHOOL.

IN ‘THE BLACK CAT,’ BORIS KARLOFF PLAYS POLZEIG, AN ARCHITECT OBVIOUSLY OF THE BAUHAUS SCHOOL.

 

MORE OF GIBBONS'S WORK IN 'DYNAMITE' (1929), STARRING CHARLES BICKFORD. THE MURAL IS WHAT INSPIRED ME TO INCLUDE THIS STILL , BUT THE REST OF THE FILM LOOKS TERRIFIC, TOO.

MORE OF GIBBONS’S WORK IN ‘DYNAMITE’ (1929), STARRING CHARLES BICKFORD. THE MURAL IS WHAT INSPIRED ME TO INCLUDE THIS STILL , BUT THE REST OF THE FILM LOOKS TERRIFIC, TOO.

 

ANTON GROT, SUPERVISING ART DIRECTOR FOR WARNERS, DESIGNED THIS GIANT HOOD ORNAMENT FOR THE "MECHANICAL BALLET" NUMBER IN 'LILIES OF THE FIELD' (1930). THAT'S CORINNE GRIFFITH AS THE HOOD ORNAMENT.

ANTON GROT, SUPERVISING ART DIRECTOR FOR WARNERS, DESIGNED THE SETS FOR THE “MECHANICAL BALLET” NUMBER IN ‘LILIES OF THE FIELD’ (1930). THAT’S CORINNE GRIFFITH ATOP THE ROBOTS.

IN ‘TOP HAT,’ VAN NEST POLGLASE DESIGNED A MODERNE-STYLE VENICE, A SET THAT WAS 2 STORIES HIGH AND OCCUPIED 2 ADJOINING SOUND STAGES.

 

FINALLY, DOUGLAS FAIRBANKS, JR. WAKES UP IN HIS DECO BEDROOM. IN MY FANTASY LIFE, I COULD  WAKE UP IN THIS ROOM, WORK IN CLARK GABLE'S OFFICE BUILDING, THEN GO FOR A DRINK AT THE CLUB RAYMOND.

FINALLY, DOUGLAS FAIRBANKS, SR. WAKES UP IN HIS DECO BEDROOM IN ‘REACHING FOR THE MOON’ (1931). IN MY FANTASY LIFE, I WAKE UP IN THIS ROOM, WORK IN CLARK GABLE’S OFFICE BUILDING, THEN GO FOR A DRINK AT THE CLUB RAYMOND.

 

 

16 Responses Hollywood’s Deco-rators: Cedric, Hans, and Van Nest
Posted By Arthur : October 13, 2014 5:04 pm

I like how you note that the term “Art Deco” was coined after the fact, in retrospect, to group together a number of now seemingly related styles. We see “Art Deco” in old buildings and antique cars and in photos, but especially in movies where it comes to life in gleaming black and white celluloid memory. Thanks for the pictures.

Posted By Emgee : October 13, 2014 7:27 pm

Those fabulous sets are just one of the delights of Thirties movies. I sometimes forget to listen to the actors while marvelling at the amazing interiors. Great post!

PS the name of the architect in The Black Cat is in fact Poelzig. Hans Poelzig was a real life architect and set designer for the Golem

Posted By Susan Doll : October 13, 2014 7:31 pm

Thanks for the compliments.

I know Poelzig was a real set designer/architect. Karloff’s name was an inside hommage to him by Ulmer, but I don’t think he was a Bauhaus designer. He was an Expressionist.

Posted By AL : October 13, 2014 7:54 pm

that’s Fairbanks Sr.

Posted By Susan Doll : October 13, 2014 8:02 pm

Al, you are correct. It is DF, Sr. One of my sources called him Jr. That’s what I get for not looking closely. Thank you. I corrected it.

Posted By Lisa W. : October 13, 2014 10:12 pm

I could look at these photos all day. I love those robots and noticed that the set design behind them resembles 2 large car headlights, spotlighting the action. I think transportation was an Art Deco theme, too? Art directors and set designers communicate so much about the themes, the mood, the characters. Thanks, for the great post!

Posted By Donald : October 13, 2014 10:55 pm

Here’s my favorite piece of Hollywood Deco–”Page Miss Glory”

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qGsM0NmNTxo

Posted By Susan Doll : October 14, 2014 1:17 am

Lisa:
The film still is from a musical number. And, Corinne Griffiths ends up as a hood ornament on a giant car at the end.

Posted By george : October 14, 2014 1:17 am

I’ve always been fascinated by that shot of Corrine Griffith as an apparent hood ornament in LILIES OF THE FIELD. Too bad it’s a lost film. Shots from the “Mechanical Ballet” were used in the 1932 Joe E. Brown vehicle THE TENDERFOOT, but minus any footage of Griffith.

Is any star of silents and early talkies more thoroughly forgotten than Corrine Griffith? Sounds like a “subject for further research,” as Andrew Sarris would have put it.

Posted By Susan Doll : October 14, 2014 1:19 am

Donald: That was really cool. I may show it in my class.

Posted By Donald : October 14, 2014 2:40 am

Susie: So glad you liked it. It’s always been one of my favorite Tex Avery cartoons.

Posted By Christopher Wilson : October 14, 2014 2:42 am

THANKS, Susan for a great review of the relationship between Hollywood and Art Deco.

In my design history class, I use stills from “Stage Set for The Kiss” (Art Director: Richard Day, 1929), “Stage Set for The Blushing Bride” (AD: Cedric Gibbons, 1930), “The Magnificent Flirt” (AD: Van Nest Polglase, 1928) and “Stage Set for Twin Beds” (AD: John du Casse Schulze, 1929).

I LOVE Corinne Griffith’s costume in the Mechanical Ballet number. Compare that to the automobile-inspired gargoyles of the Art Deco Chrysler Building in New York (William van Alen, 1928-30) – https://www.flickr.com/photos/alindbt/3852081694/

Keep up the good work!

Christopher

Posted By LD : October 14, 2014 12:29 pm

Appropriately, the “Page Miss Glory” cartoon is included on the DVD of TOP HAT.

Posted By kingrat : October 14, 2014 8:50 pm

Thank you for all the wonderful photos.

Posted By Kimberly Lindbergs : October 15, 2014 5:19 pm

Really liked this post! It hit a lot of sweet spots for me at the moment. I’ve been spending Oct. revisiting many of my favorite classic horror films from the 1930s and I really enjoyed TCM’s barrage of pre-code films last month that often featured amazing Deco set pieces. I’m married to a graphic artist who loves design and we have a great library of books that cover every period imaginable but the Deco books are some of my favorites.

Posted By The Roundup: October 13 | The Frame : October 15, 2014 10:34 pm

[…] Hollywood’s Deco-rators: Cedric, Hans, and Van Nast by Susan Doll at Movie Morlocks […]

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