Art Deco--Between the Wars


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Film provides a powerful example of the intersection of the media and Art Deco. The Paris 1925 Exhibition featured movies. "Film, the most powerful medium of the modern age, established Art Deco as a mass style" (Benton, et al. 325). Students of I&S already know how effectively Fascist and Nazi dictators used this medium. German cinematographer Leni Riefenstahl revolutionized the degree to which film could be utilized for political purposes in Triumph of the Will. In America, movies played to the mass desire--especially during the Depression--for glamour and escape. The Hollywood dream factory "...wove a magical web with tales of luxury, youth, beauty, upward mobility, individualism, sexual liberation and rampant consumerism." (Benton, et al. 325)

In the 1920's, Micky Mouse made his film début in Steamboat Willie; Charlie Chaplin introduced the unforgettable "little tramp"; Al Jolson starred in the first talking film, The Jazz Singer, which transformed movie production all over the world.

Steamboat Willie, 1928 < >


Set designs, costumes, lighting all capitalized on Art Deco themes. Fred Astaire's and Ginger Rogers' signature film, The Gay Divorcée, 1934, right) and Flying Down to Rio (1933, left) were filled with themes associated with Art Deco and the Jazz Age.
(both graphics from Elizabeth's Reel Classics

The musical reigned supreme with Eleanor Powell, in Broadway Melody of 1938, for example, or Fred and Ginger
in any one of a number of their popular movies of the period. Art Deco skyscrapers, sophisticated ladies and gents,
complicated Busy Berkeley dance numbers all represented the new, the racy, the fast, the sophisticated, and of course,
(left, Striner 8-9; right, Benton, et al. plate ...).

Not to digress too long on American film, it is worth pausing to look at the Busby Berkeley musicals of the 20s and 30s--so fantastic and so Art Deco. They both symbolize and epitomize the contemporary mood: In his "Gold Diggers" and" "Ziegfield Follies" series, Busby Berkeley literally stunned his audieces with his bold incorporation of Art Deco motifs and complicated, almost machine-like casts-of-thousands dance numbers. "Extravagant" and "flamboyant" scarcely begin to describe these productions, which came, in the 1930s to include aquacades and to make a star of Esther Williams. Below left and right are frames from Ziegfield Follies and the "Shadow Waltz" from Gold Diggers of 1933. In the latter, the chorus girls dance and spin their way down and across the stage carrying neon-lighted violins! (author not available, both images from < >)

In the "Lullabye of Broadway" scene (left, below) from Gold Diggers of 1935, Busby Berkeley placed 150 dancers on stage; in a fantastic pattern seen from above for Dames (below right,) he choreographed a typical moving image. (Left image, as above; right image Armour < >)

And then, of course, there were the equally fantasmagoric movie palaces. One example, now the home of the Oakland Symphony Orchestra, was the Paramount Theatre. An Art Deco masterpiece, the Paramount Theatre was designed by San Francisco architect Timothy Plueger and completed in 1931. It incorporates many of the decorative themes that characterized Art Deco, including the exotic and fantastic, as indicated below. (images from Foster and Sullivan) After suffering from years of neglect, the building now enjoys protected status on the National Register of Historic Places. It's worth a look and a tour.

Gold Diggers of 1935 < >
"Busby Berkeley" < >
"Dance until Dawn" go to 1:00 < >

The Art Deco Paramount Theater in Oakland

( Foster. < > )



Armour, Nicole. "Dames Pattern." Machiine Art of Dziga Vertov and Busby Berkeley. Online Available.
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Art Deco 1910-1939. Edited by Charlotte Benton, et al. London: V&A Publications, 2003.

Background: Striner, Richart. Art Deco. New York, et al. Abbeville Press Publishers.

Bayer, Patricia. Art Deco Architecture. London: Thames and Hudson Ltd., 1992.

Elizabeth. "Fred and Ginger." Reel Classics. Online Available.
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Foster, Lee. "Paramount Oakland Theater". Online Available.
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Sullivan, Mary Ann. "Paramount Theatre Oakland." Digital Imagiing Project. Online Available.
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McKee, Peggy. "Film." Art Deco--Between the Wars. May 7, 2013 . Online Available:
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(McKee. "Film")