Designing Women: Cinema, Art Deco, and the Female Form

By Lucy Fischer | Go to book overview

5. ART DECO &
THE MOVIE MUSICAL

In chapter 4, I discussed how the Art Deco style permeated the film melodrama of the late 1920s and early 1930s and attached to its heroine, who was characterized as a dangerous modern female. Likewise, the movie musical of the era had strong ties to the Art Deco aesthetic. The genre's centrality to that mode springs from numerous factors. First, the musical (with its chorus line) had always depended on the female figure, which we have seen is a fixation of Art Deco iconography. In Ray Enright and Busby Berkeley's movie Dames (1934), for example, a showman (Dick Powell) asks his creditors: “What do you go for, go see the show for?” and answers: “Tell the truth; you go to see those beautiful dames.” Second, many of the excessive fashions of the Deco era were first inspired by dance costuming—a crucial element of the musical film. Primary was the impact of Léon Bakst's designs for the Ballets Russes. Here, one recalls that in 1927 Marjorie Howard wrote in Harper's Bazar that the Paris fashion season resembled “a great ballet” whose “leit motif was “clothes, clothes, clothes.” The third reason that the musical favored Art Deco design is that one of the privileged subjects of its sculpture was the female dancer. Consider the titles of the following works by French artist Demetre Chiparus: The High Kick, Genre Dancer, Egyptian Dancer, Russian Dancer, Pirouette, and Dancer (Arwas 1975:17–23). That so many Chiparus works focused on choreography is no surprise, given that Paris in the 1920s was “inebriated with dance, in any and every form” (Shayo 1993:28). Beyond the Ballets Russes, there were a plethora of popular Parisian music hall venues, including the Folies Bergère (whose rue Richer façade bore an Art Deco frieze of an abstract dancer), the Moulin Rouge, the Olympia, the Alcazar, and the Alhambra (Shayo:3o). Furthermore, some chryselephantine sculptures of the period were modeled on famous performers.

Some [chryselephantine statuettes] are right out of the Ballets Russes, others from a smoky Parisian nightclub.

—Victor Arwas (1975:8)

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