Have you ever wondered what makes the films of the 30s and 40s so visually appealing? Sure, there’s the perfectly slicked and groomed style, the pale and glossy curls, the exquisite costuming, the gauzy glow of actors, the enveloping story that reels us in, the glorious grain of the film, and so on. But it’s something more than leads and lines. What’s behind them?
Well, imagine away Colbert as a striking Egyptian queen. Erase a seductive Garbo from her hotel stay. Delete a graceful dance between a swaying Astaire and willowy Rogers. And, now, look at the view.
This, movie lovers, is pageantry. This is the simple yet dramatic reduction, distortion, exaggeration, expressionism, futurism, vorticism, and overall intensity that boasts streamlining and symmetry. This is the glamour and geometry that gives shape and structure to some of the most lasting films, and grants some of our favored characters a backdrop. This is architectural and cinematic history. This is Art Deco.
But where did it come from?
While Art Deco initiated in Paris in the 20s, it spread throughout the world and impacted just about every visual art. Writer F. Scott Fitzgerald once said that the unique style of Art Deco was prompted by, “all the nervous energy stored up and expended in the War.” Beautiful Deco skyscrapers found themselves on various skylines, as did banks, courthouses, inns, theaters, etc., all filled with the jubilant optimism of the 20s. All of these edifices were supremely eclectic, and bursting with a high style and energy that set them apart from the typical structures.
And it wasn’t long before it began to slip into Hollywood and onto our favorite big screen as Screen Deco. What’s more, the typical movie house was most likely an Art Deco structure. The motion picture industry was quite literally enveloped in Deco—inside and out.
Screen Deco, to me, symbolizes the incredible detail and ornateness that was poured into every 30s and 40s film. Films were more than just action and actors. Films were art. Shining sets, striking buildings, glamorous elegance, and functional modernity. Take a look at any screen still, and look behind the leads. Of course, the scenery and props will never have lines, but they certainly have presence and grandeur.
As you make your way through the film series, I know that the beauty of Deco will enamor you. It’s larger than life. Nearly everything is handmade, sculpted, painted, and fashioned to perfection. I guarantee you that no two props are alike. The spectacular scale of it all is not something that can be copied, and certainly not mimicked to perfection today. So much of what is striking, glorious Deco would probably just wind up being mere CGI today.
But, rest-assured, Deco has not abandoned us completely. It still stands in our society, and appears more often than we think. Look at the Rockefeller Center, the Empire State, the Chicago Board of Trade, the Adler Planetarium, and maybe even at or near your local movie theater. You can even spot it standing in the middle of Daley Plaza, on the façade of a power station. Just be receptive to it, and chances are, you’ll find it.
While I’m a Chicago native, I’m in Indianapolis for school, and Art Deco is almost everywhere I look. The local Chase Bank I frequent is housed in an Art Deco structure, as is the Indiana State Library, various apartment buildings, and even cemetery mausoleums. It’s not necessarily common in terms of today’s newest buildings, but it still exists because of its prominent heyday.
Deco, to me, is not a shell of what once was. Rather, it’s a pat on the back that brings some of my favorite elements of the classic film industry to life. It’s literally planted in the middle of our modern world. I am grateful that I can still witness its elegance firsthand, and notice its matchless magnificence on and off the screen.
Although Deco has waned in popularity since the 20s, these many remaining buildings speak with the joy and maturity of a bygone era as they nestle with our modern structures. They, like the classic films we continue to know and love, have withstood the test of time. They stand for our enjoyment, and add the glamour of the past into our present.
And similar to the likes of Colbert, Garbo, Astaire, and Rogers, we too may add our grace to the scene; exchange lines as we lead our lives, have our share of drama, grief, laugher, and romance, and be enveloped in the superb background of Art Deco.