The Golden Age of Hollywood was defined by the excesses of talent, scandal, and fantasy. From the lifestyle of the players, to the creative geniuses who flocked to Southern California at the beginning of the twentieth century, it was unlike anything the average person had ever experienced. Today I’d like to take a look at this highly influential period – and more specifically set design – for how it shaped interior design in this country during the roaring twenties, and the depression era thirties.
Though there were many highly charged style powerhouses at the time, one in particular, Cedric Gibbons is my all time favorite contributor of this period. As a young man, I would devour old movies for their glamour, soignee, and surrealism. All the Astaire & Rogers, Garbo, Harlow, Dietrich, Crawford, and Powell & Loy vehicles transported me and millions of other movie goers into a world of make-believe and escapism. Though not all of these movies were Gibbons, there was a ‘je ne sais quoi‘ to them that made a lasting impression on me.
It seems that one film in particular was the stepping-stone into the world of Art Deco design for Gibbons and MGM. “Our Dancing Daughters”, starring Joan Crawford was released in 1928. Here we see a strong stylistic statement bearing witness to the times – and how Gibbons was influenced by the legendary French designers of the day – Emile-Jacques Ruhlmann, Sue et Mare, and Jules LeLeu.
Decorators and architects took to the new stylistic approach and produced sensational backdrops for the human experience. The excitement that Art Deco’s modernity fostered had caught on. Public buildings all over the country were being erected to represent the new age in architecture and design. Cedric Gibbons remains the ultimate visionary to look up to for our impressions of Art Deco in the cinema.
Gibbons was at the helm of a huge department at MGM. He oversaw the new glossy style he originated, while maintaining the high standards for art direction which became an MGM trademark. His abilities were innumerable and his work prolific. He was personally responsible for approximately 150 films: yet he had such clout at MGM that he is acknowledged in the credits of 1500 as the captain of his ship. So much of his inspiration came from his experiencing the Exposition de Arts Decoratifs et Industriels Modernes in Paris in 1925, which he attended. As the saying goes…”how ya gonna keep ‘em down on the farm after they’ve seen Paree”? He brought back with him fresh concepts that enabled him to invent a signature Hollywood style that many attempted to emulate. It portrayed a monied, carefree, escapist vision of a world of make-believe, which became the standard by which Hollywood conquered the world as it plunged into the Great Depression.
Gibbons the man was a larger-than-life character who had as much style as any star of the day, maybe more. He lived the Art Deco life. The magnificent manse that he built for himself and first wife Delores Del Rio is a masterpiece.
Annette Tapert wrote about the house in her blockbuster book ‘The Power of Glamour: The Women Who Defined the Magic of Stardom’;
“The house was and still is a tour de force in what was then known as the Art Moderne style. Beyond the sterile white stucco facade, Gibbons crafted an interior as elegant and flawless as his wife. In fact, the inside seemed to be a direct homage to her beauty and stardom. Del Rio’s dressing room was wall-to-wall mirrors, even down to the plates for the electric switches, which were held in place with star-headed screws. Her dressing table was constructed like an altar. A grand staircase for entrances was the focal point of the living room. In a touch that was both characteristic of the era and a metaphor for Del Rio’s style, the rooms were marked by angular forms, sleek surfaces, and streamlined built-in furniture.”
Gibbons brought to the forefront a style that became synonymous with the avant-garde. His work was for many the fodder from which dreams were formed. Through his design style, millions could dance at the most elite nightclubs, dine in architectural masterpieces of angles and asymmetry, and make dramatic entrances along with the stars of the silver screen.
After all, why shouldn’t our lives hold some fantasy at times? The great movies of Hollywood help us pave our paths with dreams that can come true. In the future, I’ll be writing addition posts about Art Deco, and how it remains a constant force in the design world.