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