Is it the percussive rhythm of the trailer, the Beyoncé and Lana Del Rey songs, the vulgarising use of 3D or my love of Francis Scott Fitzgerald’s novel that compelled me to book my ticket to see The Great Gatsby? What really clinched the deal for me was that the novel was set during the onset of the Art Deco era, and I couldn’t think of a better director that Baz Luhrmann to portray the decadence and excess of the Roaring Twenties. I’ve been a sucker of Luhrmann’s extraordinary visual style since Moulin Rouge, one of my all-time favourite movies although you may have read some of the less flattering reviews accusing him of favouring style over substance. There has been a tremendous buzz around the release of this movie and there has never been a more pertinent time in my mind to talk about the glitz, glamour and kitsch that characterised the movies of the Art Deco era. The 1920s seemed like one long celebration after the great sacrifice and hardships of World War I. Women had won the right to vote at the beginning of the decade and with it came an empowerment and sense of newfound freedom. Fitzgerald’s novel portrayed a cautionary tale of the decadent downside of the American Dream, but MGM knew better than anyone else at the time how to use lavish Art Deco sets as a prop to sell their own Hollywood dream to international audiences.
Art Deco is a very eclectic movement and its divergent influences are thoroughly illustrated in two of my favourite movies of that era being Top Hat (1935) and Metropolis (1927) which epitomise the essence of what Art Deco is about. The extravagant Art Deco sets of Top Hat serve the plot of the story, highlighting and emphasising the romantic style of the movie. Metropolis, on the other hand, portrays a more compelling and threatening vision of Art Deco with man-made materials like glass, stainless steel, and techniques using symmetry and repetition. These two movies certainly racked up many column inches at the time and in later years, dividing critics on whether Art deco should be seen as elegant, glamorous but purely decorative as in Top Hat, or acknowledging the various influences that favoured this movement such as Cubism, Modernism and Futurism, as portrayed in Metropolis.
Of course, it would be foolish to ignore other vital elements that equally contributed to the success of these two movies: the iconic ostrich feathers dress in Top Hat, the successful chemistry between Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers and their magical and mesmerising dance routines while Metropolis simply stands as one of the greatest achievements of the silent movie era. Both movies are certainly different in their storylines and visual treatments but both portrayed a vision of life – present or future – for which Art Deco remained a decisive influence.
Art Deco sets of the 1920’s & 1930’s in Hollywood movies from Silver Screen Modiste :
Stills from Top Hat (Souce: Glamamor)
Stills from Metropolis: