Saturday, January 11, 2014
Rooms Worth a View
Now that's a drawing room.
From the prologue to Bride of Frankenstein, it's a cozy retreat for Mary Shelley and her circle (including the divine Una O'Connor in her brief turn as a glorified dog-walker - the lesser-known of the film's two dual roles), and it probably has as much to do with any place the Shelleys actually lived in as it does to a Chinese tea house.
Even so, it's stunning, and it's got me thinking how much the poorer we are that movies these days are so much less interesting to look at. Oh, we've got CGI up the wazoo, exploding planets and hordes of zombies and all that sort of thing, of course - but we simply don't have the kind of inventive, lavish interiors that were commonplace once upon a time. Bride comes from comparatively puny Universal, but even they could lash out for a mantelpiece that would shame Buckingham Palace and a set of windows the light from which has nothing to do with either sun or moon. Over at MGM, you have the lobby of Berlin's Grand Hotel, at RKO there are the nightclubs through with Fred and Ginger dance, at Warner's the deluxe hotel rooms in which Bette Davis loves and suffers... on and on.
Today, even pictures that could encourage a touch of fantasy are too solidly grounded in dull reality - the '60s interiors in Saving Mr. Banks are painstakingly correct, for example, but I can't help thinking that its recreation of the Beverly Hills Hotel could have benefited from just a touch of the fantasy that Cedric Gibbons brought to Grand Hotel.*
Television gives us a slightly reduced version of the once-valued conceit that all rooms are beautiful - one thinks, for example, of the catalogue-perfect spaces in which Modern Family's Dunphys rattle about, or even the "after" shots of the legion of home-makeover programs, all caramel-colored walls and artfully tossed cashmere throws. These, though, however lavish they may be, are firmly grounded in retail and so a far cry from a Paramount boudoir for Mae West. What I want is modest little domestic dramas set in recreations of the Ritz, comedies in which the principals have to cross acres of gleaming tile to find each other, romances set in front of roaring fires contained in alabaster flues of high Hollywood Regency design...
But to think too much of all that is dangerous, leading as it does to wondering why characters all appear to dress at J. Crew or Chico's, why even period dramas these days traffic so heavily in reality that you can practically smell them (a very likely truth, I know, but not one I really need reminding of as the stars head into a clinch), and other reminders of what a sadly pedestrian age in which we live.
No, I'm happier keeping my eyes on the past, in which Mary Shelley can happily embroider in a room right out of San Simeon while dressed in a gown with a ten-foot train, and where Joan Crawford can deal with the slights of being a stenographer in a hotel room with 18-foot ceilings while wearing organza cuffs that must have required a day's worth of pressing each.
Confusing entertainment with reality, after all, only leads to Kardashians or worse.
* That said, if anyone's feeling generous, Mr. Muscato and I will happily accept a recreation of P.L. Travers's very pleasant London townhouse, thank you very much.