Posted by Susan Doll on August 24, 2015
Between Capitolfest and TCM’s focus on stars from the 1930s, I have discovered a newfound love for films from the Depression era. Among the many reasons for this recent interest is the imaginative, almost dream-like quality to some of the production design. I don’t know a lot about Golden Age production designers beyond recognizable names such as Cedric Gibbons and Hans Dreier, but I am beginning to understand the connection between their set designs and the overall tone or ambiance in films from this time frame.
Some of my favorite set designs are of nightclubs. Nightclubs and speakeasies boomed in America during the late 1920s, boosted by Prohibition and the liberation of women after securing the right to vote. Though clubs were regularly raided, many survived the end of Prohibition to become successful in the 1930s. Famous clubs like the Rainbow Room or the Park Avenue Club boasted elegant interiors by well-known designers, but the majority merely adopted gimmicky decorative styles to help them stand out from other clubs.
Nightclubs began to appear regularly in films after the coming of talkies, which is no surprise considering that club music and sync sound was a match made in movie heaven. However, the fantasy clubs of the movies had few equivalents in real life. Spacious, spotless, and well-illuminated movie dream-clubs featured huge dance floors, dozens of tables, and large orchestras or bands that played the latest music (see the club at the Bella Vista resort in The Gay Divorcee above). Because Art Deco was the prevailing style for interior design, many onscreen clubs dripped with Deco elements like curvilinear walls, glass blocks, round windows, chrome decoration, sanded glass, inlaid wood, and geometric details. Examples include the Club Raymond and Club Sandal from the Astaire-Rogers musical Swing Time. Both club sets were designed by the New York-based John Harkrider, who got an onscreen credit for his contributions. The Club Raymond featured a glass elevator from which guests emerged to get to the club floor, while the Club Sandal was a marvel in black and silver. Harkrider was later hired by Universal, where he designed the night clubs in Three Smart Girls and My Man Godfrey.
Likewise the club in The Thin Man, where audiences meet Nick and Nora Charles for the first time, consists of the clean lines and simple planes of Deco, particularly the bar with its glass shelves full of liquor bottles and glassware. The night club in Rosalie, a classic musical starring Eleanor Powell and Nelson Eddy, offers an example of the cavernous space of movie dream-clubs. Likewise, the Paradise Club in Broadway designed by Charles D. Hall was so spacious that a special crane was constructed to allow the camera to move unimpeded. Compare the clubs in Rosalie and Broadway to the real-life Texas Guinan’s Club 300, a legendary night club in New York City, which had only 20 to 30 tables and modest space in the middle for dancing.
Wonder Bar, starring Al Jolson as Al Wonder, takes place almost entirely inside a night club, reflecting the appeal of this new form of urban entertainment. The fabulously Deco exterior of the Wonder Bar is matched by the imaginative paintings and décor in the interior.
Lesser known movies with Deco-inspired dream-clubs include Lady Killer, starring James Cagney and Mae Clarke who visit the Seven Eleven Club, with its coolly elegant neon sign. And, check out the Club Merry-Go-Round in Shadow of Doubt, airing tomorrow, Tuesday, August 25, at 6:00am. Patrons of the Merry-Go-Round sit on back-to-back oversized couches while chorus girls in with huge feather-fans stroll past them during the opening number. Elsewhere, customers relax at white tables with silver-striped chairs, which are set against white walls adorned with round portal-style windows.
Some movie clubs sacrificed the elegance of Deco for the exoticism of jungle settings, Asian motifs, or other unique designs. These are among my favorites though film stills of these set designs are much harder to find. The action in Lady Killer moves from New York City to Hollywood, where the characters visit the famous Cocoanut Grove with its tropical décor. Art director Robert Haas re-created the Grove on a Warner Bros. sound stage, complete with the club’s legendary coconut palms. Three Smart Girls features the Jungle Moderne cabaret, designed by John Harkrider. The best tropical décor is likely the Club Congo in Illusion, starring Nancy Carroll and Charles “Buddy” Rogers, but finding a still of the club is virtually impossible.
My favorite movie dream-club is the Angle Club in Million Dollar Ransom, which I recently saw at Capitolfest in Rome, New York. Perhaps a spoof of the gimmicky clubs popular at the time, the completely white Angle Club did not feature one straight line anywhere. The floor, doors, and ceiling were all slanted. The chairs, tables, and music stands in the orchestra were constructed of crooked or angled slats and slabs. Art direction is credited to Harrison Wiley, though I don’t know if he created the Angle Club, or if Universal contracted an outside designer.
The dream-club set designs served the same purpose as the stories, characters, costumes, and other elements in Golden Age movies. Together, they created a fantasy world, where viewers could immerse themselves in another time and place to escape the anxieties, difficulties, and preoccupations of their everyday lives. Problems or issues of the day were not ignored in Hollywood films but presented in the narratives or subtexts of enjoyable formulaic stories set in familiar but idealized environs. Movies may have been set in New York, California, Miami, or other iconic urban centers, but many times, the cinematic cities had little in common with their real-life counterparts.
The gaming industry throws around terms like virtual, immersive, or immersion. The terms refer to the perception of being physically present in a non-physical world, or an imaginary world. This illusion is created by surrounding the player in images, sounds, or other elements that create an environment that is totally engrossing. Enthusiasts like to think that gamers and game designers created this concept or experience of immersion. However, if they really want to understand immersive environments, they should watch Golden Age films like Swing Time, Rosalie, Wonderbar, or Million Dollar Ransom, where fantasy versions of familiar cities, countries, and locations were created as a matter of course by the world’s most talented yet under-rated designers.
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