Silver Screen Deco: New York Nights

By Howard Mandelbaum & Eric Myers

Glen Tryon confronting Merna Kennedy and Evelyn Brent among the Skyscraperettes backstage in the Paradise Night Club in Broadway (1929)

Nightclubs boomed in the late 1920s, boosted by both Prohibition and the loosening moral climate of the era. However, the greatest Art Deco nightclubs did not appear until the early 1930s, when it became apparent that the end of Prohibition was near. But even the most lavish New York nightclubs could not compete with what Hollywood built on its sound stages. The dream clubs of the movies had few real life equivalents. Texas Guinan’s 300 Club, El Morocco, the Rainbow Room ––were only springboards for the fantastic and grandiose plans of Hollywood’s set designers.

 

Only in rare cases were the fantasy nightspots of the movies matched by reality. Florenz Ziegfeld’s celebrated designer Joseph Urban created the Park Avenue Club, which featured soaring curvilinear walls covered with kaleidoscopically fragmented strips of mirrored glass. During the club’s short life, much of its decor, including its circular silver- and chrome-plated bar, was smashed and carted off by Prohibition officers.

Another Deco-inspired nightclub, the Town Casino, boasted a bar of sanded glass illuminated by sea–green lights with electric fountains placed behind it. Other fountains throughout the club had canopies and side panels of inlaid wood and blue neon, topped by nude statues. Although the majority of New York’s speakeasies were smallish hideaways in private residences, Hollywood chose to focus on these larger, modernistic, dance–and–drink arenas, which catered to those untouched by the Great Depression.

 

According to Hollywood, nightclubs were vast modern temples where passion and pleasure could be played out on a grand scale. Here, love affairs began and ended, fortunes were made and lost with the spin of the roulette wheel, human  lives  might  collapse, but the orchestra kept playing and the crowds kept dancing, oblivious to the tragedies unfolding in the real world. 

Nightclub sets could provide any film with an injection of glamour. They were an instant excuse to put characters into tuxedos and formal gowns and remove them from the confines of the office, apartment, or mansion. Invariably, people who had been studiously trying to avoid each other would meet face to face–in nightclub scenes–just barely containing shock, anger, and mortification under the rules of proper etiquette. But, of course, liquor served to loosen tongues and social decorum was often left at the coat check. Newly divorced Cary Grant and Irene Dunne accidentally meet in the nightclub scene of Leo McCarey’s The Awful Truth (1937). Romantic rivals might also meet, turning a location like the ladies’ lounge at the Casino Roof in The Women (1939) into a stadium for backstabbing bitchery. Nick and Nora Charles knew they would always catch suspects at nightclubs in the Thin Man series, and even a Countess could be confronted by a Comrade in the Paris nightclub of Ninotchka (1939). Wonder Bar (1934) is set almost entirely in a nightclub. In its twenty-four-hour time frame it offers a little of everything–adultery, murder, swindling, suicide–plus Busby Berkeley musical numbers.

Nightclub scenes tended to be brief during the silent era: their dances and floorshows needed a soundtrack for full impact. It was with the advent of sound that movie nightclubs made their first real impression. Broadway, by Philip Dunning and George Abbott, one of the big hits of the 1926-27 theatrical season, was filmed by Universal as its first all-talking picture in 1929. The stage version had taken place behind the scenes at a small, seedy New York nightclub. When Hollywood got its hands on Broadway, this dingy cabaret turned into one of the most unbelievably lavish Art Deco sets ever built. Art director Charles D. Hall’s creation was so vast that a special crane was constructed to allow the camera to swoop and glide, scrutinizing the set from every possible angle.

The film’s pressbook grandly intoned that “They [Universal chief Carl Laemmle, Jr. and director Paul Fejos] envisioned a nightclub which should be symbolic not only of one of Broadway’s glittering pleasure palaces, not only of Broadway itself, but of New York as a whole.” Amidst the explosion of Italian Futurist-inspired geometric motifs are such elements as a weirdly glowing omniscient eye, an ocean liner, and forests of skyscrapers tilting at wild angles. Six towering light standards were built in the form of skyscrapers illuminated with thousands of lights representing windows. Even a lighted elevated train roars over a cantilevered arch above the performers’ entrance.

Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers at Club Raymond in Swing Time (1936)

The term Art Deco had not yet been coined in 1929, so the Universal pressbook referred to the set as “a perfect example of ultra-modern cubistic art as a whole.” One and a half million dollars was cited as the cost of the set. In its review of May 28, 1929, The New York Times stated: “There are moments when one wishes he [Fejos] had not enriched the nightclub atmosphere to the extent that he has, but after the film has been running for several minutes one becomes accustomed to the spacious settings, as well as the skyscraper costumes of the dancers and the straight-line furnishings.” Everyone, including the critics, succumbed to the opulence of this landmark Art Deco set.

An even more cavernous nightclub—but one built along starker lines, evoking German Expressionism—forms the centerpiece of Busby Berkeley’s "Lullaby of Broadway" number in Gold Diggers of 1935. Conceived with an eye toward surrealism, this penthouse pleasure dome is built upon a series of stairways stretching out to infinity. Platoons of dancers flood in to tap out "Lullaby of Broadway" while Wini Shaw and Dick Powell perch high above them atop a column that supports the only table in the room. The dream logic of the sequence veers into nightmare when Wini Shaw plunges to her death from the club’s balcony.

Swing Time, made by RKO the following year, was perhaps the ultimate nightclub film of the 1930s. This Depression romance follows a penniless Fred Astaire as he dances and gambles his way into money, success, and Ginger Rogers’s arms. They make their way through three penthouse nightclubs, each more spectacular than the one before. First is the Silver Sandal, with its chrome-against-white décor and tables on curved tiers. This club was named after the Silver Slipper on West Forty-eighth Street, which had been one of New York’s best-known nightclubs until its closing in 1932.

 

The other two nightclubs, the Club Raymond and the redecorated Silver Sandal, were conceived by John Harkrider, a New York designer who, unlike most of his Hollywood contemporaries, was specifically credited for his work in films. Harkrider had originally been responsible for the costumes in most of Ziegfeld’s Broadway shows in the 1920s and went on to serve as a supervising art director at Universal. Two of his other films, Three Smart Girls and My Man Godfrey, had fantastic nightclub sets as well.

The redecorated Silver Sandel in Swing Time (1936)

Swing Time’s Club Raymond, again predominantly white, is decorated in a semi-nautical motif. It was inspired by both the Rainbow Room in Rockefeller Center and the Clover Club in Hollywood, a favorite gambling haunt of the movie crowd. Club Raymond boasts a quilted ceiling and tables seating three hundred, as well as a magnificent studio-created view of New York at night. It also has a sleek cylindrical glass elevator from which guests alight after their sixty-odd-story journey up from terra firma.

 

The stunning redecorated Silver Sandal is saved for last. A glittering dream world of black and silver, it enhances Fred and Ginger’s “fine romance.” Two huge staircases converge as a semi-circle to form the club’s entrance. Guests ascend the staircases alongside curving tiers of tables, each table bearing a silver tablecloth and a softly glowing Saturn lamp. At the bottom of the staircases is the spacious dance floor with its design of concentric diamonds in black and gray. Underneath the miraculously unsupported platform where the staircases meet is the round, white bandstand, placed above a foreshortened view of Midtown’s skyline inlaid on the floor. All of this is set against enormous windows revealing a star-strewn night sky, which adds a shimmering undulation to Fred and Ginger’s “Never Gonna Dance.”

 

We’re lucky that The Rainbow Room is still here to be enjoyed by guests from around the world. But can it hold a candle to anything on display in Swing Time? Not a chance. Hollywood outshone the real world every time.

About the Authors:

Eric Myers and Howard Mandelbaum co-authored Screen Deco: A Celebration of High Style in Hollywood, from which this article is adapted and accompanying images were originally published, as well as Forties Screen Style: A Celebration of High Pastiche in Hollywood. Both have worked in, have written and lectured extensively on the motion picture industry.

 

All photos: Originally published in Screen Deco: A Celebration of High Style in Hollywood.

Article originally published in the Art Deco New York journal, Vol. 2, Issue 1, Spring 2017. View a digital version of the full journal here.

© 2020 Copyright Art Deco Society of New York, Inc. 

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