From Instruction to Consumption: Architecture and Design in Hollywood Movies of the 1930s

By Esperdy, Gabrielle | Journal of American Culture (Malden, MA), June 2007 | Go to article overview

From Instruction to Consumption: Architecture and Design in Hollywood Movies of the 1930s


Esperdy, Gabrielle, Journal of American Culture (Malden, MA)


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. …

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
One moment ...
Default project is now your active project.
Project items

Items saved from this article

This article has been saved
Highlights (0)
Some of your highlights are legacy items.

Highlights saved before July 30, 2012 will not be displayed on their respective source pages.

You can easily re-create the highlights by opening the book page or article, selecting the text, and clicking “Highlight.”

Citations (0)
Some of your citations are legacy items.

Any citation created before July 30, 2012 will labeled as a “Cited page.” New citations will be saved as cited passages, pages or articles.

We also added the ability to view new citations from your projects or the book or article where you created them.

Notes (0)
Bookmarks (0)

You have no saved items from this article

Project items include:
  • Saved book/article
  • Highlights
  • Quotes/citations
  • Notes
  • Bookmarks
Notes
Cite this article

Cited article

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Buy instant access to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

(Einhorn, 1992, p. 25)

(Einhorn 25)

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Cited article

From Instruction to Consumption: Architecture and Design in Hollywood Movies of the 1930s
Settings

Settings

Typeface
Text size Smaller Larger Reset View mode
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

Help
Full screen

matching results for page

    Questia reader help

    How to highlight and cite specific passages

    1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
    2. Click or tap the last word you want to select, and you’ll see everything in between get selected.
    3. You’ll then get a menu of options like creating a highlight or a citation from that passage of text.

    OK, got it!

    Cited passage

    Style
    Citations are available only to our active members.
    Buy instant access to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn, 1992, p. 25).

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences."1

    1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

    Cited passage

    Thanks for trying Questia!

    Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

    Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

    Buy instant access to save your work.

    Already a member? Log in now.

    Author Advanced search

    Oops!

    An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.