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Deco in the Dark : Until Now, No One Has Written a Book on the Most Obvious Art Deco Subject of All--the Movies

March 09, 1986|BEVIS HILLIER

I have seen books on Art Deco architecture, Art Deco furniture, Art Deco pottery, glass and jewelry. There is even a book on Deco chryselephantine sculptures, which are usually ivory-faced bronze ladies holding borzois on leashes and perched atop onyx plinths; crouching archers taking aim, or Cleopatras wrestling with asps.

But until now, no one has written a book on the most obvious Art Deco subject of all--the movies.

Art Deco--the jazzy style of the 1920s and '30s--takes its name from a French exhibition of 1925, the Exposition Internationale des Arts Decoratifs in Paris. But it was popularized and spread in the cinema. If you think about it, you probably first saw Art Deco in a film, not in an antique shop or flea market.

Now two writers have remedied the deficiency in our libraries with a book called "Screen Deco" (St. Martin's Press, $24.95). They are Howard Mandelbaum, who has rescued neglected American movies and co-founded a research library for motion-picture production stills, and Eric Myers, a movie publicist. They could have titled their book "Hollywood Deco," but that might have suggested, confusingly, that they were referring to our Los Angeles masterpieces of Deco architecture, such as the original Bullocks Wilshire store, the Wiltern Theater and that poor old wreck, the Pan Pacific Auditorium, which every day is allowed to fall into a more lamentable state of decay.

"Screen Deco" is a less ambiguous title, but the book is not only, as you would expect, about Deco set designs. It is also about the whole Deco ethos as interpreted in films. There is, the authors seem to suggest, such a thing as a Deco star. It would be an amusing party game to work out who the most archetypally Art Deco stars were, male and female. You might want to nominate Loretta Young, whose glamorous bathroom from "The Magnificent Flirt" (1928) and whose beautiful self are illustrated in the book; but Young's 1920s and '30s image is overlaid by memories of her sweeping through the high doors on television's "The Loretta Young Show" in the 1950s and '60s. Jean Harlow? Tallulah Bankhead? Myrna Loy? Norma Shearer? Of the men, surely it has to be Fred Astaire.

Since Art Deco started in France, it was only natural that the first Deco movies were French: Marcel l'Herbier's "Le Carnaval des Verites" (1919) and "L'Inhumaine" (1921). The Deco style surfaced before the 1925 Paris exhibition, but Hollywood was slow to catch on. Movie moguls tended to be conservative and to prefer oak paneling and gilded ballrooms to chromium plating and cubistic designs. The first really American Deco movie was the 1921 William Randolph Hearst production "Enchantment," starring Marion Davies and designed by Joseph Urban.

Because of the studios' conservatism, Art Deco was used at first mainly for vamps' boudoirs and nouveau riche underworld settings. But gradually the style began to be favored by interior designers in the world outside the cinema. Cedric Gibbons was asked to duplicate settings he had created for the screen. Ginger Rogers' 1930s house was designed by Van Nest Polglaze, who supervised glorious sets for Astaire-Rogers musicals. Mandelbaum and Myers record that "Ramon Novarro's plush Lloyd Wright house was decorated by (Cedric) Gibbons all in black fur and silver. For the sake of aesthetic consistency, dinner guests were commanded by Novarro to wear black, white and silver only." I wonder what color the Brussels sprouts were.

Bathrooms, in which stars could wallow titillatingly in a froth of bubbles, became Art Deco extravaganzas. Cecil B. De Mille, who loved bathroom scenes, was known as "the plumber's best friend." Offices, too, in the authors' words, "acquired sex appeal."

Ocean liners were another natural chance for Deco settings, either with the real thing (the French liner Normandie was a movie star more than once) or in fantasy, such as the white boiler room with a black floor in which Astaire performs a piston-like tap routine in "Shall We Dance?" (1937). Liners also gave plenty of opportunities for shipboard romances.

But the most extreme examples of Screen Deco were the human kaleidoscopes into which Busby Berkeley maneuvered phalanxes of chorus girls. His only rival in drilling humans into compelling patterns was Hitler, whose Nuremberg rallies were the subject of Leni Riefenstahl's "Triumph of the Will." Significantly, perhaps, Riefenstahl's film was made in the same year as Berkeley's "Gold Diggers of 1935."

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