Films without people


GENTLEMEN OF THE PRESS (Millard Webb, 1929) Designed by William Saulter.

When the 1930s movie studio closes for the night, what do the empty sets dream of?

Designing Dreams, Modern Architecture in the Movies by Donald Albrecht reproduces some fantastic stills showing just the sets, actors long fled or not yet arrived. And when Albrecht says “modern,” you can be sure the silent “e” on the end is at least implied. These dreams are deco through and through.


The offices of McGloin Enterprises Inc, from RACKETY RAX, directed by Alfred Werker in 1932 and designed by Gordon Wiles.

One thing that’s great about the book is that it uses not only famous examples like METROPOLIS, or obscure but deserving ones like Marcel L’Herbier’s dazzling LE VERTIGE (giddy modernist decor being very much a favourite L’Herbier trope), but truly unknown Hollywood entries like these, on which spectacular elegance has been lavished even though the movies were destined for the dustbin of film history. Though who knows, they may yet be rediscovered and appreciated anew.


This is from MEN MUST FIGHT, which I previously wrote about here. Directed by Edgar Selwyn in 1933, with Cedric Gibbons as the credited supervisory art director.

Why don’t we live in these films? Or at least in these rooms? Life would be so much more… elegant.


13 Responses to “Films without people”

  1. David E – Great minds obviously think alike!

    My favourite L’Herbier films (for design, at least) are LE PARFUM DE LA DAME EN NOIR and its gorgeous companion piece LE MYSTERE DE LA CHAMBRE JAUNE. Love the way he creates a unique look for each film, with Gothic/Expressionist touches in CHAMBRE JAUNE and pure Art Deco camp in PARFUM.

    As for LE VERTIGE, I can’t comment as I’ve never actually seen it. Some photos, please, Mr Cairns!

  2. David Boxwell Says:

    Wiles went on to direct THE GANGSTER (47) and it’s a humdinger in terms of art direction and set decoration!

  3. The Costume Department files of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art owns an impossibly elaborate book of stills and set and costume design illustratons for Le Vertige. Priceless I’m sure as it’s never put on display.

    Le Mystere de la Chambre Jaune/ Le Parfum de la Femme en Noir stars Roland Toutain , a performer whose most famous credit is an obscure little potboiler called The Rules of he Game. He played the airplane ace who’s the center of the action in that one. In the L’Herbier(s) his athleticism puts him on par with Doug Fairbanks (Sr.)

  4. La Faustin Says:

    My design for living? Ruth Chatterton’s home in Curtiz’s FEMALE: architecture by Frank Lloyd Wright, the swimming pool from FOOTLIGHT PARADE’s “By a Waterfall”, and a pipe organ for mood music (“Shanghai Lil”, of course). Robert Greig, obviously, is the butler.

  5. By 1950 the wind would be wheezing through that organ and Von Stroheim would have taken over the butling. So watch out.

    I might have to get a copy of La Vertige so I can frame grab it at will. L’Herbier’s L’Inhumaine, designed by Cavalcanti, is entirely about the set design.

    Clearly, I have to see The Gangster. It has Charles McGraw!

  6. Actually the cast for THE GANGSTER looks altogether pretty incredible.

  7. Oh, I’d forgotten how nice those intertitles are. If I can’t live in a Cavalcanti house, I’d just as happily live in those intertitles. Might not be as roomy, but chic.

  8. david wingrove Says:

    Personally, I’ve always fancied living in the colonial villa from INDIA SONG (in fact, the derelict Palais Rothschild just outside Paris). I could also make do with Christopher Walken and Helen Mirren’s Venetian palazzo in THE COMFORT OF STRANGERS or Catherine Deneuve’s vampire shag-pad in THE HUNGER. My favourite house in silent movies is probably Brigitte Helm’s in THE WONDERFUL LIE OF NINA PETROWNA!

  9. Just looking at The Thin Man, and I need to write something about Cedric Gibbons’ elegant yet oddly bleak interiors in that.

  10. […] August 29, 2012 Movie Observers, March 29, 2012 The Ol’ Fish-Eye by Kevin K., January 31, 2013 Shadowplay by D. Cairns, February, 2013 Just a Cineast by Ted S., December 14, […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: