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He gave a starving world glamour at ten cents a ticket.

Aficionados of films starring Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire know his name well, and revere it. Scholars familiar with Citizen Kane know it, too, even if some aren't quite as respectful as Fred and Ginger's fans. Head of art direction for RKO at one of the most critical periods in that studio’s history, Van Nest Polglase was one of the first art directors to become a name with what Hollywood terms "marquee value".


M-G-M was supposed to have the best art direction in Hollywood, but this still from 1933's Dancing Lady shows Fred Astaire and Joan Crawford in the middle of a mishmash that included cellophane draperies and a hooked rug. Late in the dance number, Fred and Joan danced onto the rug, and a special effect made the rug take flight as they waved goodbye to the chorus. RKO's art direction would become much more sophisticated than M-G-M's.Photo: M-G-M

Born in Brooklyn, New York, in 1898, Polglase trained as an interior decorator and architect. At the age of only 21, he began his career in art direction at Famous Players-Lasky, better known today as Paramount Pictures. At the time Polglase started, Paramount maintained two major studio facilities in the United States: the Hollywood studio still familiar to moviegoers today, and its Astoria studios in Queens, New York. A third Paramount studio was located at Joinville, France. Taking advantage of Brooklyn’s proximity to Queens, Polglase began his career at Astoria.


For Flying Down to Rio, the look of Warner Bros. musicals was copied for much of the picture, as in the inset photo of chorus girls "dancing" on the wings of a biplane. But Fred and Ginger's appearance doing the "Carioca" called for something much more polished, so Polglase prodded Carroll Clark into doing what might be termed a Hacienda Moderne set for their number. Photo: RKO Pictures

Within only a few years, he had risen high enough within the Paramount system to begin receiving credit on films, due to his work on movies starring some of Paramount’s prime attractions, including its prime money-earner, Gloria Swanson. Swanson sometimes worked in Hollywood, but her heart was in New York; she maintained a country estate at Croton-on-Hudson, and her studio obliged her preference by permitting her to work at Astoria. Polglase’s most important credit during this period was 1925’s Stage Struck, a Swanson vehicle whose beginning sequences were in primitive two-strip Technicolor®.



In 1934's The Gay Divorcee, "The Continental" went on forever, in a huge Big White Set full of steps and levels and Streamline Moderne elements. Note that the chorus girls' costumes repeat the strappy neckline details of Ginger's dress in modified form; the detail would not necessarily be noticed, but moviegoers would savor the overall feeling of finesse. Photo: RKO Pictures

By the late 1920’s, Swanson’s star was slipping, Paramount was cutting costs by winding down its Astoria and Joinville operations, and Polglase did what any sensible art director would do; he headed to Hollywood. It seems he may have had a bit of trouble finding his footing there, despite his Astoria credentials; he did not garner any credits from 1925 to 1929, when he got an assignment at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, for 1929’s Untamed, Joan Crawford’s first talking picture. It probably didn’t help that Polglase had been a big noise in Astoria, whereas the art department at Paramount’s Hollywood operation was firmly under the control of Hans Dreier and Wiard Ihnen.


Although RKO advertising was not overseen by Polglase, this sheet-music cover for "The Continental" shows how cohesive the studio's design efforts were; the cover art evokes the sensibility of The Gay Divorcee perfectly. Photo: RKO Pictures

Polglase’s tenure at M-G-M was brief. Though he only worked on Untamed there, his time at M-G-M set the course for the rest of his career, due to the influence of his boss, Cedric Gibbons. The autocratic Gibbons ran M-G-M’s art department as one of the studio’s most powerful fiefdoms; he was generally considered one of the most important people at Metro. Since M-G-M was committed to releasing one feature film a week, there was no way that Gibbons could personally oversee every set in every M-G-M movie, and he didn’t. His major function was as an executive who oversaw the art direction done by others, setting the overall direction of the studio’s set designs. He also had a prerequisite that was rare then, but later became customary in Tinseltown: Gibbons was credited with art direction on all M-G-M movies, whether or not he’d overseen their art direction personally. Polglase did all the work on Untamed, but it was Gibbons’ name viewers saw onscreen. Whether Polglase was awed or angered by Gibbons’ use of his clout is unrecorded, but Polglase would be exercising exactly the same power himself one day.


In 1935's Roberta, Fred and Ginger danced "Smoke Gets In Your Eyes" in an Art Deco set; the set elements and the dancers' wardrobe are carefully coordinated to become a complete composition. Rogers' fluid grace is in deliberate contrast to the linearity of the set. Photo: RKO Pictures

After Polglase’s brief trip through the M-G-M system, it seems he had another fallow period; four years were to pass before he would resurface at RKO, the studio that made his name famous. Beginning in 1933, Polglase assumed art direction responsibilities for the studio’s output, and it appears he wasted no time constructing the same edifice of power and prestige around himself that Cedric Gibbons enjoyed at M-G-M. It probably wasn’t that hard to do; RKO was a very small and struggling studio compared to M-G-M and Paramount, and Polglase may have accepted perks instead of a more lavish salary. However he accomplished it, Polglase’s name appeared on all RKO movies for the next decade, regardless of who had done the actual design.


In Top Hat, 1935's second Rogers and Astaire movie, the emphasis turned from Deco to Moderne. By this time, costume designer Bernard Newman had discovered that Ginger looked best in dance costumes that displayed a lot of volume at the hemline and shoulder line. This dress had feathers that Astaire hated, believing they would distract the audience from his dancing. It didn't help that Ginger accidentally swatted him with the feathers during a "take". Fortunately, the snafu didn't show on film. Photo: RKO Pictures

For all that, Polglase’s taste and skills were evidently the impetus behind the remarkably sophisticated design of RKO movies. His first year at the studio was quite busy; he supervised the sets for seventeen films. Though fewer than Gibbons handled at M-G-M, it was still an impressive number, and the mixed bag of productions proved that Polglase had the skill to oversee the creation of anything. RKO’s 1933 output ran the gamut from the tearjerking modern-day drama Ann Vickers, to the homey period design of Little Women, to the fantastic King Kong, to the movie that began making Van Nest Polglase a name every moviegoer knew, Flying Down to Rio.


In 1936, Follow the Fleet teamed Fred and Ginger in "Let's Face the Music and Dance", against a Moderne set. Photo: RKO Pictures

Flying Down to Rio began as RKO’s answer to the hit musicals like 42nd Street being made at Warner Bros. The Warner’s formula was simple: a fluffy love story was mixed together with some catchy new songs, some Deco-ish scenery, some mildly salacious jokes, and plenty of dancing. Starring Dolores Del Rio (who was, coincidentally, Mrs. Cedric Gibbons) Flying Down to Rio was pretty fair entertainment that did well at the box office, but would have been quickly forgotten, except for two things: Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire. The pair’s brief first appearance, dancing to “The Carioca” at the film’s end, was remarked on by so many moviegoers that RKO decided to cast them in a movie of their own, 1934’s The Gay Divorcee. An instant hit that still makes money on video today, the film launched a series of Rogers and Astaire musicals that kept RKO afloat in the Depression, turning both dancers into top stars.


1936's Swing Time is considered by many Rogers and Astaire fans to be their ultimate movie. For "Waltz In Swing Time", the pair danced in a mammoth BWS designed by John Harkrider in collaboration with Carroll Clark, overseen by Van Nest Polglase, proving that the look of a film is rarely attributable to one person alone. Photo: RKO Pictures

Rogers and Astaire made nine films together at RKO; all but the last were, more or less, Art Deco / Hollywood Moderne extravanganzas. In each, the duo “met cute”, had some silly misunderstanding that nearly derailed them from the path to True Romance, and resolved their differences in time for the final clinch at the fade-out, largely by dancing rapturously together. As the series progressed, the films got bigger, more lavishly budgeted, and more beautifully designed, but all of the first eight had one Van Nest Polglase-directed element in common, which RKO insiders dubbed the BWS. The acronym stood for Big White Set; each of the films had at least one dance number where a fantastical setting that seemed to go on for blocks served as backdrop to a major Rogers and Astaire dance number.


By the time of 1938's Carefree, Deco and Moderne were waning a bit as cinematic influences; viewers were beginning to look for something more "everyday" than the giddy fantasy of the early Thirties. Here, Fred and Ginger dance in a Connecticut farmhouse-style set to a number called- no kidding- "The Yam". Photo: RKO Pictures

All the BWS’s seen in the first eight Rogers and Astaire movies used the same general theme: curvilinear forms relieved by surface decoration bordered a vast expanse of dancing space, which was often composed of several levels. Not only did the designs look sensationally attractive onscreen, they effectively hid a secret: RKO was not the richest studio in Hollywood, not by a long shot. For all a BWS’s glory, it was mostly empty space; only the walls, stairs and dancing platforms had to be built. While a BWS was not exactly cheap, it was far more cost-effective than building, say, a period set of 1810 Paris, where expensive, obsessively researched detail would go largely unappreciated by moviegoers. RKO couldn’t compete with the glories of M-G-M and Paramount films that trafficked in the past, but it could go head-to-head with the majors when it came to futuristic fantasy.

Did Van Nest Polglase design the BWS’s himself? He did not; he supervised the work of Carroll Clark (Flying Down to Rio, 1934’s The Gay Divorcee, 1935’s Roberta and Top Hat, 1936’s Follow the Fleet, 1937’s Shall We Dance, and 1938’s Carefree), as well as that of John Harkrider (1936’s Swing Time, in collaboration with Carroll Clark). Polglase’s contribution was to approve or disapprove sets, to oversee their cost, construction, and furnishing, and to be certain that they evoked the world Rogers and Astaire fans wanted to see. That fans appreciated that world was certain: Rogers and Astaire movies were often seen by two-thirds of all American moviegoers.


Most of Citizen Kane was set carefully in period; the designer was Perry Ferguson. But striking Modernist compositions sometimes resulted from unusual camera angles on the sets, as seen here. Photo: RKO Pictures

The success of the films had many effects: the Venetian blinds seen in The Gay Divorcee caused a national craze for them. White rooms with restrained Deco and Moderne details became highly fashionable. The money made by the dancing duo’s movies financed a program of RKO films that made the studio much more competitive with the majors. Van Nest Polglase became one of the most respected art directors in Hollywood, later overseeing movies like Alfred Hitchcock’s Mr. and Mrs. Smith and Suspicion, as well as Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane. By the time of Kane’s making in 1941, Hollywood was becoming less the magic kingdom it had been in the 1930’s, and more of a corporate town. Orson Welles criticized Polglase for years, saying that Polglase was less a designer than an executive, with the inference that Welles could have done without him handily.


In Alfred Hitchcock's Suspicion, shadows became an element of the set, lending greater emphasis and emotional weight to this climactic moment where Cary Grant carries poisoned milk to his wife. Photo: RKO Pictures

Welles’ criticism may have come about because he wanted to create every detail of Citizen Kane, and resented the necessary oversight of someone who had two decades of experience making sure that dream worlds sprang to life, on time and on budget. Citizen Kane did not do well in its first release, owing to the offense it gave publishing magnate William Randolph Hearst, who excoriated it in his newspapers, but it became famous for its sets and art direction. Polglase received an Academy Award® nomination for work Welles said was done entirely by period specialist Perry Ferguson, who had been supervised by Polglase on many films, including the last RKO Rogers and Astaire movie, a period piece called The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle.

For reasons that are obscure, Polglase left RKO in 1942, moving over to Columbia Pictures, where he assumed similar duties. He spent most of the 1940’s at Columbia, and then unofficially returned to his old studio, doing the art direction for a production company called Filmcrest, which released its films through RKO, until his retirement in 1957. His retirement lasted only eleven years; he died of burns received in a holiday-season fire at his home in 1968.

It cannot be said that Van Nest Polglase was an artist in the sense that he drew every line or sculpted every shape seen in films carrying his name. But as an executive charged with the responsibility for overseeing a synthesis that made dreams real, he had few peers. His sensibility shaped RKO’s films at one of the most critical points in that studio’s history, helping RKO make healthy profits in an era when small studios had a hard time staying afloat. The work Carroll Clark achieved under Polglase’s direction for the Rogers and Astaire movies stands today as the look of the Thirties – sumptuous, elegant, more sophisticated than even M-G-M’s sets of the time. RKO’s famous dancing duo was more down-to-earth than M-G-M’s star gods and goddesses, but Clark Gable, Norma Shearer, Robert Taylor, and Joan Crawford would have killed to get into the joints Fred and Ginger danced in.


Erik Rhodes, 1906-1990

This article is dedicated to the memory of the late Erik Rhodes, who made delightfully funny co-starring appearances in several Rogers and Astaire movies. The author, as a teen-aged apprentice in a summer stock theatre where Rhodes appeared in the 1970's, witnessed Rhodes’ talent, graciousness, and charm first-hand. I didn’t know much about the world of Fred and Ginger’s movies then, but I did know that Erik Rhodes had been part of something important, something the movies couldn’t do anymore. Wherever he is, I hope Mr. Rhodes somehow knows I continue to appreciate a movie star being nice to a kid.

SOURCES


David O. Selznick’s Hollywood, by Ronald O. Haver. Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 1980.
Ginger: My Story, by Ginger Rogers. HarperCollins, New York, 1991.
The Internet Movie Database,
www.imdb.com
Webpage, Art Directors of the Hollywood Studio System, by J.D. Chandler. www.jdchandler.com/artdirectors.htm
Webpage, Turner Classic Movies™ page on The Gay Divorcee, www.turnerclassicmovies.com

TRADEMARK / COPYRIGHT NOTICES


RKO® is a trademark of RKO Pictures, LLC.
Technicolor® is a trademark of Technicolor, Inc. and Thompson Multimedia.
Paramount Pictures® is a trademark of Paramount Pictures, Inc.
M-G-M® and Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer® are trademarks of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, Inc.
Warner Bros.® is a trademark of Time Warner.
Academy Award ® and Oscar ® are trademarks of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, © A.M.P.A.S.®
All motion picture titles and song titles cited in this article are the property of their respective copyright holders.
All photographs presented in this article are the property of their respective owners.


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Copyright © 2005 D.A. "Sandy" McLendon and Joe Kunkel, www.jetsetmodern.com Jetset - Designs for Modern Living. All rights reserved worldwide. This article may not be reproduced, reprinted, reposted or rewritten without express permission in writing from the author and publisher. First posted to the Web on January 8, 2005.