Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Van Nest Polglase ~ Architect Of Cinematic Dreams, Part I

by guest contributor Whistlingypsy

The artistry of classic films reveals a cinematic alchemy in melding talent both before and behind the camera. The actor/actress and director are the two most visibly recognizable artists who created the image on screen. A careful viewer can also learn to recognize the names of the creative individuals who labored behind the scenes. Van Nest Polglase was one of these individuals who created the world in which our favorite characters move and have their lives.

Despite his elegant and intriguing name, his nearly decade-long tenure as RKO Studios’ art director and over 300 films to his credit, Polglase remains something of an enigma. In the absence of a definitive biography on the man’s life and career, much of what has been written is often contradictory and filled with errors (he was not married to actress Dolores Del Rio as one source claims).

Van Nest Polglase was born in Brooklyn, New York on August 25, 1898, and his unique name is a result of his family’s Cornish heritage. His education included the study of both architecture and interior design, but this is where the two paths of his life story diverge.

Some sources claim that Polglase finished school and was employed by Berg and Orchard, a New York architectural firm. He is also credited with work on the Presidential Palace under construction in Havana, Cuba. The likelihood that he was involved in the Cuban project is remote, the architects of record were Cuban born Carlos Maruri and Belgian born Paul Belau, and some sources claim that Polglase actually dropped out of school before receiving a degree in architecture.

However, in 1919, at the age of 21, Polglase was working for Famous Players-Lasky (today known as Paramount Studios) at their New York studio facilities. He made the move to the studio’s Hollywood location when financial constraints forced the closing of the locations in New York and Europe. He remained with Paramount Studios for a decade before moving to M-G-M where he worked under Cedric Gibbon’s leadership.

During his first decade alone, advances in architectural design and filmmaking technology forced Polglase frequently to reevaluate his style and expand his visual vocabulary of art direction. He came to filmmaking at a time when the first sets were built to resemble a theater stage to give audiences a reference point, and the category of “settings” covered everything from art direction to set design. The practice of grouping the different disciplines into one category, as well as crediting an individual for a department’s work, makes it difficult to track Polglase’s work during his early career. However, the AFI Catalog of Motion Pictures lists Stage Struck (1925, Paramount) and Untamed (1929, M-G-M) among his early titles.

Stage Struck proved a challenge for Polglase to create a design suitable for Gloria Swanson, who had distinguished herself as a design and style icon through her previous films in partnership with Cecil B. De Mille. Untamed was set in three distinctly different locations requiring equally distinct design sensibilities and featured Joan Crawford in her first sound picture, which came with the added challenge of incorporating the new technology into the set design.
RKO Studios was formed when the KAO (Keith-Albee-Orpheum) theater chain and FBO (Film Booking Offices Of America) were brought together under the control of RCA (Radio Corporation of America). David O. Selznick was hired in 1931 and in his new role as production chief, he recruited producer/director Merian C. Cooper, director George Cukor, actress Katharine Hepburn and art director Van Nest Polglase. One of Polglase’s first projects as art director was to redesign the studio logo to incorporate the blinking radio tower at the heart of RKO’s business ties with the RCA Corporation.

The image most frequently associated with RKO’s art direction is the series of films that paired Fred Astaire and Gingers Rogers. The films were charming fantasy confections, but the art direction was equally rooted in the concepts of architecture. The art direction is ideally suited to the dancers with both personifying the streamlined and elegant, witty, athletic and sexy ideals of art deco architecture.

The fantasy version of Venice in Top Hat (1934), which combines streamlined modernism and neo-classical references, displays an architectural style both immediately recognizable and equally unfamiliar to movie audiences. The result is tied neither to the past nor the present, but freely evokes the glamorous lifestyle of theatergoers’ dreams, transporting weary Depression era audiences out of their all too grim present and allowing them to hope for a better future. The popularity of the Astaire and Rogers films allowed the studio to pursue projects set in a wide variety of eras with equally varied plotlines.

A glimpse at Katharine Hepburn’s filmography during the period reveals the careful attention to detail in the Civil War era design of Little Women (1933); the modified art deco chic of Adolphe Menjou’s apartment in Morning Glory (1934); the use of a Victorian era Arts and Crafts design blend in the boarding house of Stage Door (1937) to communicate homey comfort; the all for fun eccentric design of Bringing Up Baby (1938) from the jail cell to the museum display.

In 1939, RKO undertook the ambitious remake of The Hunchback of Notre Dame, a film that had been an enormous success for Universal Pictures during the silent era. The challenge was to create a new version that would exceed the expectations of those who could remember the original and make new fans of younger moviegoers. The film proved a showcase for Polglase’s attention to detail, and his perfectionism gave the historical sets an element of accuracy not found in the creations of the larger studios.

The Paris of the RKO version features extravagant sets, immense staircases and oversized doors; the attention to detail is evident in the massive bells (Gabrielle, Big Marie and the rest) and a whole cow roasting on a spit (a prop that seems to have traveled to Citizen Kane for a picnic), the garden party lit by paper lanterns and the grand spaces within Notre Dame, from Clophin’s (Thomas Mitchell) court of miracles to Quasimodo’s (Charles Laughton) sanctuary in the clouds.
A fundamental point to keep in mind is the emergence during this period of an RKO-specific visual style, and while the stylistic elements of art direction are the product of a talented art director, other factors contribute to this development. The influence of German expressionism in film noir is widely acknowledged and can be observed in films made by German expatriates in Hollywood during the silent era. The creative individuals of RKO’s art direction were working between the influence of expressionism and the emergence of film noir, and the challenges of the studio system; reduced budgets and relatively modest sets provided the genesis of a new genre.

During Polglase’s tenure at RKO, the studio faced continued economic challenges and numerous changes at the executive level. One such change in management philosophy led the studio to distribute films for independent producers, with Walt Disney’s earliest feature length titles among these films. The artistic vision of any RKO film bore Van Nest Polglase’s name, but he was not solely responsible for realizing this vision. Polglase relied heavily on his department and especially on the talents of Carroll Clark, Perry Ferguson and Charles Kirk. The question regarding artistic vision is additionally problematic when such independent directors as Ford, Hitchcock and Welles are behind the camera. Did these directors have cooperative relationships with Polglase, working to bring their visions to the screen, or was an art director entirely secondary to their vision?

Part II will follow soon...

Thank you Lady Eve for your gracious invitation to contribute to your blog site, and thank you filmguy24 for your invaluable insights into the world of architecture as it relates to art direction.


  1. It is very nice to meet you whistlingypsy! Also... I wanted to thank you for introducing me to the very talented art Director, Van Nest Polglase. He worked on some of my favorite films. I'm really looking forward to reading part II.

  2. Wow, you have written a tremendously interesting and informative article about a man who deserves this kind of attention. I had no idea he was responsible for the look of such wonderful movies. The Hunchback alone was an incredible work, making it seem as if you were actually on location in Paris.
    I wonder if you know whether he did the Astaire/Rogers dance "Let's Face the Music and Dance" in "Follow the Fleet"? The set was exceptional and very art deco.
    Thanks whistlinggypsy for a great article. Now you have whetted my appetite for Part II.

  3. Dawn and Becky, it is nice to meet both of you and thank you for your comments. Becky, it is a bit difficult to answer your question regarding Follow the Fleet (1936), since Polglase’s contributions varied from project to project. He certainly established RKO’s style during the 1930s, but Carroll Clark was probably an equal contributor to the look of the films that paired the dancers. I watched several of the RKO titles over the past few weeks, and I find that I want to re-watch all of the Astaire and Roger’s films, just one added benefit

  4. Whistlingypsy, thank you for introducing me to this talented art director. I've always wondered about the museum display of Bringing Up Baby. I'm looking forward to reading part II. Fascinating blog with beautiful photos.

  5. here is a link to his filmography...WOW! thanx, gypsy..i only new him from CK..great post..and i thought WILLIAM CAMERON MENZIES was a giant!!
    doctom666 from CFU!!!

  6. I want to compliment you, Whistlingypsy, on this very perceptive and detailed portrait of Van Nest Polglase. I knew very little about him, but am learning so much, and in depth, from you. Wonderful research. I, too, am looking forward to Part II. And thank you for being a guest contributor...

  7. A very informative, well-written article on an art director whom I don't know by name...but have certainly admired his work! The biggest compliment I could give Mr. Polglase is that his wonderful sets perfectly complemented the classic films they inhabited without taking the focus away from the story and the performers.

  8. This is a great article, Whistlinggypsy. It is ibvious you put in a lot of time researching it. I look forward to reading the next part.

  9. I knew the (unique) name from the credits, and I knew he played a major role in the urbane look of RKO films, but beyond I knew relatively little about him. Thanks for this entry.

    Incidentally, I plan to endorse your membership for CMBA. (I'm administrator of "Carole & Co.", a site dedicated to Carole Lombard's life and times.)

  10. Thank you each for your feedback and positive response to my tribute to Van Nest Polglase; I hope his is a name you'll remember when you watch the wonderful RKO Studios films. Although I spent a lot of time researching his career and life, the information available comes (primarily) from the lives of the directors who worked for RKO and the films they made for the studio. Thanks again and I look forward to hearing your thoughts on part two of VNP’s story.