The 7 Wonders of the Pre-Code World #6: Grot

Grot!

What visions of splendour that name conjures up! These snaps are all from LITTLE CAESAR, but the production design/art direction of Anton Grot graced countless films of the ’30s (and ’20s, and ’40s). I think visually he may have had more to do with the look of some of these films than the credited director. Certainly Michael Curtiz would have had something to say about the look of DR X or CAPTAIN BLOOD, whether or not anybody understood him, but I could easily see someone like Mervyn LeRoy simply following a storyboard for these great establishing shots ~

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Check those zig-zags!

I first read of Mr. Grot in Leon Barsacq’s nifty textbook Caligari’s Cabinet and Other Grand Illusions, A History of Film Design, which my dad bought me when I was a kid. I think at the time I was kind of disappointed that the book wasn’t really about Caligari and horror films, or film directing per se, but about the speciality subject of film design. And yet, the images in the book stayed with me — I’ve been trying to recreate versions of the Caligari image on the left all through my “career” — there’s even a version of it scripted in one of the feature projects I’m working on right now. The malevolent cross-legged man in the middle of the room!

So thanks, Dad.

Barsacq himself was a distinguished designer, closely associated with Duvivier, Carné and Clair, and his book opened up whole worlds to me — images got embedded in my unconscious, and the tricks of the trade impressed my youthful mind: forced perspective, the Schufftan process, matte paintings and hanging miniatures — THIS was the way to make movies. I don’t recall Barsacq having any particular agenda against realism, but his taste was obviously more attuned to spectacular fantasy and blatant trompe-l’oeil effects. His sensibility crystallized my own.

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13 Responses to “The 7 Wonders of the Pre-Code World #6: Grot”

  1. Arthur S. Says:

    Sounds like a delicious book. The title is wonderful – yoking a reference to two completely antonymic films in different styles -CALIGARI and GRAND ILLUSION yet both of them are exquisitely designed. It’ll probably be hard to find today. Since today, people prefer “sophisticated” film design via CGI and Blue Screen.

    Those zigzags are wonderful. Dante Ferretti when designing THE AVIATOR and did some research on production design in Ye Olde Hollywoode and found out that they were rarely realistic in any detail and were at times presented as if it was hermetically sealed. That appeal is part of the charm of these films. Of course when a director like Hitchcock goes super-realistic(like re-creating Ernie’s restaurant on a soundstage for VERTIGO) it ends up even more fantastic and surreal.

    I wouldn’t be so quick to discredit Mervyn LeRoy. Sure the art director can come up with the crazy designs but the director has to be the guy that knows just how to use it, to create the right tone. Like the first still has this cavernous sense of space among the moving figures emphasized by the lighting of the ceilings but the geometry of the image, the exact sense of where the image ends is determined by the director.

  2. David Boxwell Says:

    The Greatest Grot of All: both in 1931. SVENGALI and THE MAD GENIUS. Expressionist Modernism run riot!

  3. Right at the start of his career! Maybe he felt — or was told? — that he’d gone too far and had better rein back just a little.

    His miniature city in Svengali is astonishingly lovely, a great example of the hermetic approach Ferretti speaks of, and the opposite of Renoir’s statement about always leaving a door open on the set. Barsacq credits Renoir with the innovation of building sets on location so that the real and constructed worlds can cross-fertilise freely.

    The book’s not too hard to get, and is less of a how-to guide than a think-piece and history. I’m going to quote Rene Clair’s intro in full soon, because it’s lovely.

  4. No insult intended to LeRoy, whose pre-code work I particularly enjoy. It just seems like shots like that first one started life as violent charcoal sketches, got turned directly into solid form on the set, and could only be filmed one way, as an establishing shot. So LeRoy’s input in an image like that depends entirely on how involved he was with Grot’s department.

  5. Here are Grot’s credits. No charcoal in Romance on the High Seas. Plenty of it in Mildred Pierce. Clearly his influence on the “look” of Warner Bros. was important, but to what degree is still a matter of contention.

  6. Production designers generally get somewhat neglected in favour of directors and cinematographers, yet a designer has a massive influence on everything from blocking to lighting (depending on how they place the windows. Under ideal circumstances everybody communicates and so the designer can give the cinematographer what they need to attain the director’s vision.

    Grot is clearly an incredible talent — his sets for Captain Blood are amazingly stylised, gesturing towards period but achieving a sheen that’s very 30s. Warners seem to have steered him away from their more proletarian dramas and given him fantastical stuff to run wild on. Mildred Pierce fits into his canon because of that amazing modernistic house where the murder occurs.

  7. Christopher Says:

    notice theres never really anything to dress these Sets..just alot of space..Shows what you can do with some geometrical knowhow and lighting techniques..think of all the money save!?..Where is this kind of artistry today?

  8. Warners seemed to like a certain sparseness. But if you have a really good shape, then a lot of dressing is just going to mess it up. One the other hand, if you wanted to create the impression of a Victorian interior, then clutter is really the only way to go.

    As to modern designers, the great Ken Adam is still with us, and one does still see magnificent designs from the likes of Ferretti.

  9. Arthur S. Says:

    Dante Ferreti’s work on GANGS OF NEW YORK is out of this world. Never seen anything that vividly surreal in a long time.

  10. Christopher Says:

    come to think of it..the Sets for Goya’s Ghosts were really cool..Its criminal the way that films been neglected!

  11. Yeah, I couldn’t work out why it got such short shrift, it’s an unusual and ambitious film, at the very least.

  12. I love that book! I’ve found a lot of magnificent films, most of which have ended up as posts for the blog. As far as I’m concerned, I didn’t find that book early enough in life. How lucky for you to have known about these films for so long.

    Anton Grot is one of my favorite designers. Am I the only one who develops crushes on art directors instead of movie stars?

  13. Ken Adam, if you meet him, is quite a charmer!

    I don’t know enough about the great designers, but with my love of imaginary worlds, I have a thing for Alexander Trauner, Brian Eatwell, Alfred Junge, Herman Warrm, Asshetton Gorton, Hein Heckroth…

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