Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Watch This Movie- Roberta

Over the years, I had seen bits and pieces of the 1935 movie Roberta, but I decided to give the movie my full attention after my friend Ron van Empel encouraged me to do so. Ron, a very talented Dutch lighting designer, loves old movies as much as I do. In fact, unbeknownst to the other, we watched Lost Horizon around the same time and both of us were inspired by the movie's upholstered doors. (I was simply inspired; Ron actually acted upon the inspiration and designed Lost Horizon doors in his own home!)

Roberta's plot revolves around a hayseed American (Randolph Scott) who travels to Paris with his best friend (Fred Astaire) and their band. Scott visits his famous fashion designer aunt, Madame Roberta, who employs a Russian princess played by Irene Dunne. Romance and music and dance numbers ensue. But this post is all about the sets. Ron told me that I would get a kick out of the exuberant sets, and he was right. The art directors of the film were Van Nest Polglase and Carroll Clark. In typical 1930s fashion, the sets were very white. What struck me the most were the number of murals and painted designs on the set backdrops. While painting decorative motifs and murals was certainly cost effective, it would be safe to say that these sets were painted to within an inch of their lives. Most of the film takes place at Madame Roberta's Paris couture house, and the motifs and murals there are a curious mix of Roman, Greek, and pastoral scenes. Madame Roberta's was a far cry from the salons of Mademoiselle Chanel and Madame Lanvin!

To read my post on Lost Horizon, click here. To see Ron's Lost Horizon doors, click here.

The lobby of Madame Roberta was typical for the era. Glamorous zebra print chairs, a banister that is pure pastiche, and an elaborate door surround.

Madame Roberta's living area was probably the most elegant. Columns abound with two holding crystal lamps and one supporting a Deco looking sculpture.

But, the set designer couldn't resist adding something painted. This time, it's a Roman gladiator.

The Salon at Madame Roberta was most interesting. Inexplicably, there was a deer in the snowy woods mural as well as a door painted with a carriage and wagon wheel. I'm not sure what the thought process was behind this. After all, this was a Paris couture house.

One of the atelier's offices with some kind of mural in the background.

Ginger Rogers practicing her nightclub act at Cafe Russe. Russian motifs were (what else?) painted on the backdrop.

I actually like the faux ornamental tree. What kind of fruit is that supposed to be?

The finale was a musical fashion show of Madame Roberta's latest creations. Quite a production. And who would have thought that Madame Roberta's atelier on Avenue Montaigne was so large? I do want to point out the diamond patterned door and Greek key surround in the photo of the model in the lame dress.


  1. A must watch....thank you, xv.

  2. Great to see the stills this time.
    I am soo ready to see the movie again. I know I will see other interesting design elements, I did not notice before. Still lots to discover.
    Clients visiting my showroom often comment on my version of the 'Lost Horizon doors'. A big succes, I would say......

    Ron ( empel collections)

  3. There are so many design elements and details that I could take out of these fabulous old films that I would put to use today in my house or a clients.
    Great post!

  4. I haven't seen this movie in a few years (I adore anything with either Astaire or Dunne) but I do remember how fantastic all of the music is as well. I'll have to rewatch this soon!

  5. I have tried to research the work of both Cedric Gibbons and Van Nest Polgase but it has been frustrating because, as Department Head, both claimed screen credit whether it was actually their work or not. I did learn, however, that these sets were especially appreciated by the studio money men because they were a big effect for relatively little money, utilizing the talent of decorative painters on the payroll anyway. The neutral settings were the perfect stylish background for the actors, adding to dream-like quality of these classic films. Interestingly, previous books have side-stepped this element of analyzing these sets, so I always especially appreciate your featuring them. It would be fascinating to know what became of these murals, screens, doors, etc. It would have been easy to reuse many of these elements.

  6. I'm definitely going to add this to my list of movies to watch... loving those doors with the profiles of roman soldiers!

  7. The visual of the carriage and wheel might have been a reference to the clientele served -- the "carriage trade."

  8. Annette- Aren't you clever! I bet you're absolutely right. Now it all makes sense!