trouble in paradise 1Glamour!

When I look at the romantic comedy films of the 30s, it strikes me how many of the American-made films are set in a kind of fantasy Europe.

Ernst Lubitsch’s Trouble in Paradise was perhaps the most quintessential, but there were a lot of them, including Grand Hotel, set in Berlin and starring Greta Garbo and a host of the top stars of the period.


Fred  Astaire and art deco

And of course the inimitable Top Hat, starring Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, set in a Venice that seems to exist in a fairy tale world.

That fairy tale world extended to a fantasy New York, such as in Dinner at Eight, and a host of ‘Broadway’ musicals whose numbers could never have been produced on an actual stage.

venice Fred Astaire Ginger Rogers Top Hat

The explanation I’ve seen most often is that Americans who in those Depression days could manage to cadge the nickel for a show wanted escapism, the more glamorous the better.

art deco 2

But I wonder if there is also because so many of the creative minds in film, particularly in the twenties and thirties, were first and second generation Europeans, harking back to what they remembered of European society, or their childhoods in the rougher parts of New York, looking in longing at the elegant cars and clothes of the Park Avenue swells.

Some of the most brilliant of those filmmakers—like Lubitsch—imbued their films with a kind of continental sophistication that ran orthogonal to strata in American culture.

Some friends and I once binged on a succession of these films, after which one of the group remarked that young people today,  given the lamentably skimpy history prevalent in so many schools, might garner from watching old movies an impression that the thirties was a sunshiny period filled with rich people having fun.

Europe in these glamor films was presented as a gigantic Disneyland, with enormous gilt theaters, sophisticated art deco restaurants, and marble-pillared houses as settings for fabulous parties instead of rides, just as New York was a world of night clubs, theaters, mansions, and horse carriages in Central Park.

joan crawford and art deco 2

I’ve heard it said that the thirties were the last of Europe’s glamour period, that once the war ended, glamour was gone forever, except in dress-up parties that hearkened to the past. Even as prosperity slowly returned, the days of fabulous Art Deco designs, and slinky silk gowns and suavely tailored tuxedos didn’t make a comeback, except in costume balls.

Joan crawford and art deco

Instead there was the boxy-shouldered, awkward look of the forties’ costumes for women, and men endured twenty years of dumpy suits, with their pants hitched almost to their armpits, before the tight pants and bell-bottoms look of the sixties and seventies. No “glamour” anywhere in sight.

But maybe that depends on one’s definition of glamor.

trouble in paradise 3

What’s your take on the thirties, and the age of glamour, in the West?



Glamour — 24 Comments

  1. I think about it in the same way I think about art. Through much of history art portrayed the ideals of society, and glamor is a attempt to realize those as well–even if it’s largely fantasy. But, hey! I like fantasy.
    The world turned awfully ugly in the twentieth century, and the art world expressed and portrayed the nastiness, and then perhaps people thought that glamor was frivolous or phony?

  2. Glamour, as used to refer to movie stars and so on, never appealed to young me. It was only when I discovered the word in the context of enchantment (fairy glamour) that I became intrigued.

    … I can see how the notion got transposed into Hollywood–the lights and makeup and clothes creating an effect, just like fairy glamour. But for whatever reason, adolescent me couldn’t get into the tuxedos-and-gowns glamour. Now if the guy was a pirate or Robin Hood, or if the girl were a princess or fortune-teller, that was different. . .

    • I found out about fae glamour after I heard about Hollywood glamour (not surprising, growing up in LA) however from those early days I thought the world was magic. Driving past the old studios–old buildings like the Brown Derby (shaped like a gigantic hat) filled L.A. with its own peculiar glamour.

      Mostly though, I responded very strongly to the line and style of art deco from a young age.

  3. From my earliest years it was clear that Hollywood “glamour” was a deliberate construction, which wasn’t of interest to a little farm girl. It was only when I began to grasp their were relationships between art, the uban, civilization, fashion, style, manners, the urbane, and sophistication — which started, oddly enough, with the European medieval courtly romances — that I could see a value in frou frou films of the era. Also, it took an understanding of music and even dancing to fully get what was going on.

    Art Deco, out of Art Nouveau (like Rococco out of the Baroque) do not and never have been equivalents of glamour for me. It was a mostly decorative art (both of them were, for that matter) as opposed to — I dunno — what is called fine art? among the European stylists, who were looking for something different, that was both realist yet not photographic. They tended to look for natural forms as models, such as vines and leaves — shades of the Pre-Raphaelites. That would then become a conflicting dialectic with what would become the Modern, with cubism and other forms that were so deeply influenced by African objects and design.

    That Hollywood so embraced these designs of Nouveau and deco — and the movie palaces themselves were perhaps the biggest influence for those designs to become an architectural and decorative platform in urban centers like NYC, would almost make sense. Since urban centers such as NYC and Chicago were and still are, always in flux of design, there was opportunity to redo the skyline in that design. And then it all changed again — and again, and again, and again. That design out of Hollywood films can only be seen here and there now in NYC, and mostly in a place like the Ziegfield, which isn’t the original theater or the original spot (the original opened in 1927, with live performances, which ironically can be seen fantasized in the Gold Diggers films — which sure don’t make the era look glamorous for the performers, thus the title — though nothing like the sorrow and pity films made of a Steinbeck novel such as The Grapes of Wrath), or the Radio Center theater. I think of these things a lot when watching the original King Kong destroy the Empire State Building and other Deco marvels of the NYC skyline.

    That we’ve still got the Chrysler Building is a miracle. From the first time I saw it it made me think of my grandmother’s perfume bottles on the mirrored tray on her vanity. O I loved that tray and the crystal bottles!

    I think what I’m groping toward here, is that even the architectural Deco palaces were deliberately built in the U.S. at least, as containers for the manufactured “glamour” of Hollywood! Everyone knew none of this was “real” but ‘this’ provided a magic carpet out of the Gold Digger universe of not having enough to eat on a daily basis, and no jobs to be had, for a little while.

    Love, C.

    • Yeah–I can see that they were never built to last (unlike those massive fascist buildings in Europe that contain some art deco lines); I love spotting remnants of art deco when I am walking about the streets of New York.

      • Have there ever been architectures more appropriately named “dream palaces?”

        I always think of Cooper writing the script for King Kong in an office situated almost under the Empire State Building construction site. He could see the progress of its erection, ahem, while working on what would become King Kong. As well, Cooper was the fellow responsible for — TECHNICOLOR — on the wide screen.

        Magic carpets indeed

        Love, C.

        Love, C.

      • I was admiring an elaborate building in downtown Oakland the other day and someone with me pointed out that we have a lot of Art Deco buildings here. It was silver and black, and I hope it survives the developer influx from San Francisco. Our Art Deco movie theatres from the 30s now house the symphony and other concerts. Lovely places.

  4. P. S. When it comes to our own era of screen Deco — the best proponent perhaps, the great preserver of it, especially as played in the UK, is the David Suchet Poirot series. Even the opening credits title screens capture the Deco era so well. Or at least as well as I know it, since I wasn’t there, except as on the screen retroly — that’s not a word!

    Love, c .

    • Oops P.S. 2 — re these deco movie – theater palaces — not magic carpets — but rather, what Greer would call them: portals to the numinous.

      Love, c.

      • Yet one more time: I must also draw attention to how very well the Suchet Poirot series integrates the commonality of Nouveau, Deco, Modernist and — further — including the Asian motifs that had entered European, British and English art quite longer ago than that.

        This presentation of glamor seems to be purely visual, unless my frigid brain (down to 2 degrees tonight and rapidly getting there) is forgetting even more than its been forgetting all along.

        Love, C.

        • Which, by and large, even in the Poirot content, Africans and Afro Caribbean and African Americans are left out of.

          And yet, in real life of the time, they melded into some of the most gorgeous style ever.

          The movies didn’t deal with interpenetration well at all, even, let’s face it, even Astaire-Rogers. with Fred in blackface in Swing Time.

  5. Erebor in the Hobbit Movies. Art Deco, and nicely done, too. Elves like Art Nouveau. Pick your glamour.

  6. The movie “My Man Godfrey” is interesting because it addresses bot the glamour and the downfall of the beautiful class during the depression ending, of course, with the rise of the financially fallen. Reading Nancy Mitford, though, one really gets the impression that the depression didn’t really touch the nobility or, the erosion hadn’t gotten to the point where the dotty old gentry had to take notice.

    “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes,” the book, not the movie, is a deliciously nasty and comical American view of the beautiful class in Europe and New York in the 1920s.

      • Plus the art deco designer Erté, who created everything from jewelry and lamps, magazine cover illustration, to stage sets and costumes. He acknowledged his great inspiration via Beardsley — all glamour and luxe, nothing middle class. His were the bodies of women that exist nowhere but in some never-never land. The illos for Eddison’s Zimiamvian Trilogy are heavily endebted to Erté’s vision. As a Russian, his and Diaghilev’s designs for the Ballet Russes particularly interpenetrated.

        Love, C.

        Love, C.

  7. Just watch the Suchet 1993 episode. “Dead Man’s Mirror” (which is specifically named at the auction as Deco) and see all these elements of Deco, Egyptian, etc. roll together seamlessly, including class considerations. This is the interum period when personal servants were going away. So. among many other elements these films are really talking about, these movies were presenting a world that was to reassure the class elite . . . .

    Not for long, babies . . . .

    Love, C.