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

By Lucy Fischer | Go to book overview

6. STRANGERS IN PARADISE
South Seas Films of the Art Deco Era

As I have shown, various strains of the Art Deco style focused on the Exotic, the Ancient, and the Primitive—themes that were often intertwined in creative works of the period. While much of the Art Deco aesthetic highlighted a vision of the Future, these branches of the movement romanticized the Past. In chapter 1, I mentioned Deco's fascination with Africa, as well as with the Far and Middle East as represented in the decorative arts. Thus, in such works as Georges Fouquet's pendant of 1925 (fashioned from jade, onyx, and diamond to resemble an ancient Chinese mask), artists combined contemporary tropes from the Style Moderne with more traditional motifs (Arwas 1992:124).

Cinema could launch the viewer into the future with science fiction, and … into the timeless past.

—Fatimah Tobing Rony (1996:130)

Like other artifacts of the 1920s and 1930s, Hollywood movies also evinced a fascination with the Exotic. However, rather than formulating modernist works from traditional motifs, these films (entirely conventional in their style) invoked exoticism as pure content. Films like Trader Horn (1931), King Kong (1933), and the Tarzan series were set in Africa or on mysterious lost islands and told tales of Westerners' encounters with the jungle wilds. Movies like The Painted Veil took place in China and chronicled the transformation of white people under the influence of Oriental “carnality.” Finally, works like Cleopatra (1934) were situated in the Middle East, cashing in on the era's fixation with Egyptology.

Here, I will concentrate on another region invested with symbolic meaning during the Art Deco era—the South Seas—a realm which also came to be represented in the movies. Most often, it was conceived as a tropical wonderland, largely untouched by modern civilization —clearly, a popular fantasy in Depression-era America. Most travel books of the time represent it in precisely this fashion. Frederick O'Brien's Mystic Isles of the South Seas (1921), which records the author's

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