A white telephone! I've always wanted one of those.
-Cecile in The Purple Rose of Cairo (1985)
These are the first "on screen" words uttered by the waitress heroine of Woody Alien's 1985 film The Purple Rose of Cairo when she leaves a Depression-era New Jersey movie theater and literally walks onto the silver screen-and into a Hollywood version of a sleek Manhattan penthouse. Although her exclamation upon surveying her new surroundings registers as a witty commentary on a decade of American motion picture set design, it is more incisive than the director might have realized. For white telephones, along with streamlined chrome furniture, faceted mirrors, glass brick walls, and bakelite floors, were not just stylistic hallmarks of American movies of the 1930s. As crucial components of the most popular entertainment of the era they were also a form of mass marketing that attempted to mitigate the social and economic crisis of the Depression by exploiting the standards and mores of the burgeoning consumer culture. Film historian Charles Eckert analyzed this phenomenon with respect to women's fashion in his 1978 essay "Carol Lombard in Macy's Window." He observed that almost from the beginning of the cinema movie makers and manufacturers recognized "the full potential of film as a merchandiser of goods" (Eckert 99). While Eckert examined clothing and accessories as they appeared in Hollywood films of the so-called Golden Age (1920s-1950s), architecture and design have yet to receive the same consideration, a serious oversight given their prominence in this period.
Throughout the 1930s, architecture, decorating, and shelter magazines featured movie sets alongside "real" architecture and design, analyzing them in as much detail as the newest skyscrapers and redecorated apartments. But movie sets were unique among buildings and interiors because they had an almost unimaginably huge public-as many as 80 million people per week by 1938 (Mast 225). Thus, movie sets had the ability to set trends, arbitrate public taste, and influence and inspire millions of Americans. A Fellow of the American Institute of Architects put it this way when explaining how his colleagues might break into the movies, "the buildings they depict are not permanent to be sure, but they reach many more people with their message than do many permanent buildings" (Grey 33). As critics, architects, interior designers, and art directors gradually recognized this potential in the 1930s, they were merely following the lead of producers and studio executives. From nearly the advent of cinema, film makers were conscious of the central role that movies might play in American culture, transmitting social values and ideals and shaping public opinion and mores. This was particularly true with the introduction and enforcement of the production code and the worsening of the Depression in the early 1930s. As the decade progressed, movie makers increasingly created an on-screen world that deliberately simplified American life, both prescriptively and proscriptively, in order to mollify the distressed masses of the general public (Paine 22).
One of the most compelling ways to convey these social messages was visually through sets, props, decor, and lighting-through the very design of the film. Set design became, in effect, a quasi-character. It did not just accompany, but commented upon the action of the plot, reinforcing and promoting the vision of American society it depicted. This vision became even more convincing after technological advances in the 1920s enabled set design to move away from its theatrical origins toward more fully realized depictions of inhabited space. In the early days of cinema, flatpainted back-drops or three-walled "box" sets were the norm (Heisner 7). With the development of depth of field moving photography and panchromatic film stock, however, all objects within the shot remained crisp and clearly focused whether they were near the camera or receding in space. …