Film: Design & Architecture

Star of Midnight (1935)

This still really doesn’t hint at the wonderful sets that I’m about to show you.
This still really doesn’t hint at the wonderful sets that I’m about to show you.

The bachelor apartment is the real star of this film, not William Powell or Ginger Rogers. It’s interesting that stripes and plaids (refer to my past posts here and here) were generously used to decorate masculine quarters in many films from this era. Today’s male seems to prefer a more cavelike atmosphere populated with massive furniture upholstered exclusively in dark leather.

And who’s responsible for this wonderful set design? That would be Van Nest Polglase, the supervising art director at RKO. Born in Brooklyn, he studied architecture and interior design in New York before moving to a career in film design at Famous Players—Lasky and at Paramount’s film studio in Queens. Eventually he moved west to Hollywood where he joined RKO in 1932 bringing glamour to the beauty-starved audiences of the Depression.

At the heart of every Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers musical lies his handiwork. Van Nest Polglase’s larger-than-life sets with their massive space, elegant white furnishings, and interplay of black and white (refer to this post for an example) became what is known today as the “Big White Set”, a hallmark of that era. But this little jewel of a film showcases his small scale talents. Only an architect could divide the spaces in this small apartment so brilliantly, and at the same time encourage us to explore all its corners and details.

(above) Dal Dalzell must be an excellent lawyer, because his Park Avenue apartment is luxuriously appointed with beautiful Art Deco furnishings and details, and his servant is constantly entering the room with a tray full of drinks.
(above) Dal Dalzell must be an excellent lawyer, because his Park Avenue apartment is luxuriously appointed with beautiful Art Deco furnishings and details, and his servant is constantly entering the room with a tray full of drinks.
(above) Cocktails? Starting kind of late aren’t we?
(above) Cocktails? Starting kind of late aren’t we?
(above) Every proper gentleman has a butler. It doesn’t matter if his apartment is less than 800 square feet. A butler who can double as a valet is essential.
(above) Every proper gentleman has a butler. It doesn’t matter if his apartment is less than 800 square feet. A butler who can double as a valet is essential.
(above) Behind the cocktail-sipping William Powell is the front entrance to the apartment.
(above) Behind the cocktail-sipping William Powell is the front entrance to the apartment.
(above) A sneak peak towards an intriguing corner in the background. Exactly how many seating areas does a proper gentleman need in a tiny apartment?
(above) A sneak peak towards an intriguing corner in the background. Exactly how many seating areas does a proper gentleman need in a tiny apartment?
(above) Another perspective of the apartment.
(above) Another perspective of the apartment.
(above) After studying my stills, I’ve concluded the alcove in the background can also serve as a pass through from the butlers pantry. Only this bachelor has chosen not to set up a formal dining area, because he dines out every night in formal attire.
(above) After studying my stills, I’ve concluded the alcove in the background can also serve as a pass through from the butlers pantry. Only this bachelor has chosen not to set up a formal dining area, because he dines out every night in formal attire.
(above) With the arrival of another guest, we have now moved to another seating area in the living room. This space is a bit more cozier and has a fireplace in the mirrored wall. Unfortunately, it wasn’t shown in its entirety in any frame.
(above) With the arrival of another guest, we have now moved to another seating area in the living room. This space is a bit more cozier and has a fireplace in the mirrored wall. Unfortunately, it wasn’t shown in its entirety in any frame.
(above) Just beyond the alcove and piano is this corner. The doorway leads to the kitchen area. I’m really impressed how three corners of his living room are beautifully accessorized with liquor displays and cocktail accoutrements.
(above) Just beyond the alcove and piano is this corner. The doorway leads to the kitchen area. I’m really impressed how three corners of his living room are beautifully accessorized with liquor displays and cocktail accoutrements.
(above) It’s the same evening, different guests, different cocktails. Notice in the background the corner seating area. It’s brilliant how it’s been designed to appear as a separate room. Also notice how the custom wall panelling connects this niche with the adjacent walls and the apartment entry.
(above) It’s the same evening, different guests, different cocktails. Notice in the background the corner seating area. It’s brilliant how it’s been designed to appear as a separate room. Also notice how the custom wall panelling connects this niche with the adjacent walls and the apartment entry.
(above) Here’s a closer view of the corner niche in the background. Also, can we help but notice a different group of cocktail accoutrements from what we saw earlier in the evening?
(above) Here’s a closer view of the corner niche in the background. Also, can we help but notice a different group of cocktail accoutrements from what we saw earlier in the evening?
(above) A third seating area? Yes, it looks as if there is a custom banquette at the rear of the apartment.
(above) A third seating area? Yes, it looks as if there is a custom banquette at the rear of the apartment.
(above) And now for the bachelor’s bedroom with what appears a custom built bed using the same veneer as in the living room.
(above) And now for the bachelor’s bedroom with what appears a custom built bed using the same veneer as in the living room.
(above) Another view showing us how the bedside table connects the bed and custom cabinetry. Instead of plaid, stripes have been used to paper the wall niche behind the bed.
(above) Another view showing us how the bedside table connects the bed and custom cabinetry. Instead of plaid, stripes have been used to paper the wall niche behind the bed.
(above) Another view which shows us that there are two striped curtains on either side of the bed area. Could this be another clever device to trick the eye into thinking that this side of the room could be a separate space?
(above) Another view which shows us that there are two striped curtains on either side of the bed area. Could this be another clever device to trick the eye into thinking that this side of the room could be a separate space?
(above) Here we leave the veneer, stripes and plaids behind and enter into a jewel-box-of-a-bathroom with granite applied from floor to ceiling. A very dark sink adds more drama to the space. I couldn’t help but notice two faucets, one for hot and one for cold water. After a little research, I learned that the single-handled faucet was designed between 1940 and 1945, but production for Al Moen’s invention had to wait until after World War II, more than a decade after this film was released.
(above) Here we leave the veneer, stripes and plaids behind and enter into a jewel-box-of-a-bathroom with granite applied from floor to ceiling. A very dark sink adds more drama to the space. I couldn’t help but notice two faucets, one for hot and one for cold water. After a little research, I learned that the single-handled faucet was designed between 1940 and 1945, but production for Al Moen’s invention had to wait until after World War II, more than a decade after this film was released.
(above) A fair number of scenes take place in Dal's spacious bathroom, which is stocked with a stand-up shower, a full barber's chair, and a toilet that plays "Pop Goes the Weasel" when in use.
(above) A fair number of scenes take place in Dal’s spacious bathroom, which is stocked with a stand-up shower, a full barber’s chair, and a toilet that plays “Pop Goes the Weasel” when in use.
(above) This free standing shower box is way ahead of its time. It would be nice to see frosted shower glass come back into favor. And I’m not talking about applied frosting. I’m referring to the old fashion sandblasted technique.
(above) This free standing shower box is way ahead of its time. It would be nice to see frosted shower glass come back into favor. And I’m not talking about applied frosting. I’m referring to the old fashion sandblasted technique.
(above) I included this shot because of the monogrammed towel. The towel’s three-band-border mixes beautifully with the monogram lozenge. The lozenge border is the same width as the bottom and top stripes.
(above) I included this shot because of the monogrammed towel. The towel’s three-band-border mixes beautifully with the monogram lozenge. The lozenge border is the same width as the bottom and top stripes.
(above) I’m assuming the floor of this hallway is not linoleum. Throughout the film, I have noticed that the kitchen, bathroom, and this hallway have the same floor. The solid dark section stops shy of the wall by a foot, and a light and dark border combination follows the perimeter.
(above) I’m assuming the floor of this hallway is not linoleum. Throughout the film, I have noticed that the kitchen, bathroom, and this hallway have the same floor. The solid dark section stops shy of the wall by a foot, and a light and dark border combination follows the perimeter.
(above) I liked the way his bedroom looked with one light on. Most films at this time were way over lighted, but in this film accent interior lighting plays a big part.
(above) I liked the way his bedroom looked with one light on. Most films at this time were way over lighted, but in this film accent interior lighting plays a big part.
(above) Here’s another example of how individual accent lights along with overhead studio lamps highlighting single pieces of furniture add more depth and detail to this frame.
(above) Here’s another example of how individual accent lights along with overhead studio lamps highlighting single pieces of furniture add more depth and detail to this frame.
(above) At the rear of his apartment there is a wall of glass with a double door to a terrace. These sheer curtains with their subtle horizontal stripe give the impression from a distance that the wall’s glass panels have horizontal transoms and are made of many panes of glass.
(above) At the rear of his apartment there is a wall of glass with a double door to a terrace. These sheer curtains with their subtle horizontal stripe give the impression from a distance that the wall’s glass panels have horizontal transoms and are made of many panes of glass.
(above) I included this frame because of the way his apartment has been identified. The tiny shelf to the left of the door with the two letter blocks on top is something I’ve never seen before in all the years of my career as an environmental graphic designer. It’s a brilliant solution to numbering a room but probably not a practical one for contemporary use.
(above) I included this frame because of the way his apartment has been identified. The tiny shelf to the left of the door with the two letter blocks on top is something I’ve never seen before in all the years of my career as an environmental graphic designer. It’s a brilliant solution to numbering a room but probably not a practical one for contemporary use.

3 thoughts on “Star of Midnight (1935)”

  1. Saira says:

    Excellent!

  2. Patricia Harmanci says:

    I just saw this movie (Nov. 2013) and as a fan of 1930’s – 1940’s film apartment/home layouts and décor, I was delighted to find your pics and comments. So I’m not alone in my love of this period in interior design! Love, love, love it.

    You didn’t mention the change in floor heights, which is common in this period of films. Here it’s very interesting–the sitting areas floors are all raised slightly–a design feature which I love and I wish my apartments had higher ceilings to do the same.

    Do you have other examples of this era’s apartments/homes? “Bringing up Baby” teased my senses with just the few clips of Hepburn’s and Grant’s apartments. There was another Hepburn film of her apartment with raised floors but I failed to get the name.

    Thank you for posting!

  3. Thomas Gibbons says:

    I believe that the first cocktail served during the first scene with Swane was “The Last Word”. It was a Prohibition Era favorite and even Swayne commented that they should have cocktails now, because the quality of Gin at the dinner Dalzell was to attend was “of a low quality”. Perhaps someone could confirm that for me.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *