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.


  1. It's true It's true. A favorite is the Vogue Regency home of Hurd Hatfield in Dorian Grey 1945.

  2. "Without art, the crudeness of reality would make the world unbearable." - George Bernard Shaw

    Let's face it, Britain is the replacement of choice for the old grandeur of Hollywood scene-building. Why recreate sumptuous, impossible elegance in a studio in San Diego when you can just pay the owners of Highclere (Downton Abbey) or Castle Ward (Game of Thrones) or Stokesay Court (Atonement) or Alnwick Castle (Harry Potter) or Blenheim Palace (Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade), and have the sumptuousness already there for you? Probably cheaper, too.


  3. Worse are the bland interiors and cheap overhauls that HGTV create. Whoever can up with open shelving in the kitchen needs to be smacked around.

  4. "Confusing entertainment with reality, after all, only leads to Kardashians or worse."

    Beautifully expressed! (And sadly accurate...)

    Just caught this again on TCM (admittedly missing O'Connor's double casting, having been preoccupied with the perms on 'Elsa's boys' -- the first safety gays?), and was moved to say to the husband, as O'Connor moved farther and farther from the camera, into ever receding planes of light to answer the door in Castle Frankenstein, "Can you believe the DEPTH of that set?"

    Having seen the film to death, this time we emerged whistling hit tunes from the stunning sets!

  5. isn't this why we watch downton?

    over and over?

  6. I'm always torn when I see these old costume epics -- do I love the over-the-top-ness of the costuming or do I rail against the total disregard for authenticity? But then I see a confection like Mary's and just roll over for it. Frothy and completely incorrect but so much fun.

  7. Victor/Victoria was indeed a late and marvelous entrant in the Heightened Reality stakes, and The Women is a textbook example - I don't care how well real-life Park Avenue Playgirls lived - it was almost certainly not in boat-shaped glass tubs with drop-down showers.

    The problem today is that even the few directors who try and go over the top (looking at you, Baz) spend so much time calling attention to it that it doesn't work. In the old films, it was simply taken as a given that the average New York apartment had a two-story, 1,500 square foot foyer, or that a Middle Western businessman's home would of course have a portico more approprate for a Medici.

    As for authenticity, while it's a noble goal, I find it often dates as badly as artifice - to my eyes, Barry Lyndon looks every bit as '70s as Network, despite being a trailblazer in what I think of as the dandruff-and-bedraggled-hems school of period films.

  8. I always thought Southfork Ranch looked a bit puny on Dallas though it was likely scaled quite correctly for the real wealth of such folk in the early 80's.

    I was much more taken with the over-the-top everything of Dynasty.

    Thankfully, NY apartments on TV are still quite generously scaled and fitted out for the incomes of the characters.