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The stuff [shown at the 1925 Paris International Exhibition of Decorative and Modern Arts] ... was not the normal output of commerce. It was extreme in its tendencies and not adaptable to the ordinary lives of our people. Actresses may temporarily take some of the stuff into their living quarters as a passing fad, but even they will soon replace it for another sensation.
--Arthur Wilcock, "A New York Decorator's Opinion of the Paris Exposition;" Good Furniture Magazine (1925)
As a teenager, living in Stockholm, a working-class girl named Greta Louisa Gustafson was employed by Bergstrom's--one of the city's major emporia. (1) When the establishment wanted a salesgirl to appear in How Not to Dress (1921)--a promotional film for their women's apparel line--they selected the beautiful Gustafson. She also was featured in the store's catalog, modeling hats like those she sold in Bergstrom's millinery department. Years later, she recalled that amongst all her customers, she most "envied the actresses!" (24, 26).
Greta Louisa Gustafson, of course, eventually realized her dream--leaving Sweden in 1925 to become Greta Garbo at MGM Studios in Hollywood. What is especially intriguing about the early years of her screen career is her continuing association with fashion--a factor that seems presaged in her adolescent job as department store shop girl. For, during the 1920s, Garbo would not only become a leading American actress, but a prominent symbol of the prevalent design style of the era--Art Deco. Her identification with this trend (and her constitution as one of its pivotal icons) is especially clear in those Garbo films set in the modern period, where her character is seen in a contemporary context.
For example, in The Torrent (dir. Monta Bell, 1925), Garbo's first American film, she plays Leonora Moreno, a Spanish peasant girl with an extraordinary singing voice. As a young woman, she is spurned by Don Rafael Brull (Ricardo Cortez), a rich landowner's son. Though he adores her, Rafael fails to marry her because his betrothal would displease his overbearing mother. Leonora leaves her village and travels to Paris, where she becomes "La Brunna"--a famous opera singer. In early scenes of the film, when Garbo is playing a simple rural maid, her demeanor is reminiscent of that of Lillian Gish--subdued and quasi-Victorian. But when Leonora appears in Paris, the actress's bearing is totally transformed. Not only does Leonora become "La Brunna," but Greta Louisa Gustafson becomes "Greta Garbo."
Significantly, the structure of the film moves dramatically between these two poles and stylistic characterizations. When Leonora bids farewell to her village, she sits on the back of a horse cart--a shawl draped over her head, Madonna-style. We are told that "a curtain of gray years" intervened, and that "behind it, Leonora Moreno vanished," and "from it emerged a new star--La Brunna, the idol of Paris." We then see Leonora performing on an opera stage. Shortly thereafter, a title introduces us to "The Cafe American in Paris," a tony nightclub. La Brunna is shown there in a stunning medium close-up, her hair slicked back, wearing a bold white-and-black striped fur collar. The cafe stage is done in a contemporary mode, with concentric arches and a tiered stairway. After watching the performance, Leonora approaches one of the players to offer him a tip. As she does so, we finally see the entirety of her dazzling outfit: a full-length lame evening coat completely bordered with fur. Here, in Greta Garbo's first cinematic "glamour shot" she is adorned in chic fashion and inhabits a modernist space. An Art Deco diva is born.
Throughout The Torrent, at heightened moments of the text, she returns to wearing haute Deco couture. After being reunited with Rafael in Madrid, the two plan to elope. But, again, Rafael is too cowardly to fulfill his promise. As Leonora futilely awaits him in her apartment, she wears a black-and-white, geometrically patterned cape dress, with a stiff, round, ruffled collar. Thus, as she plays the "fool" to Rafael a second time, she looks like a Deco Harlequin. (Interestingly, in Vogue magazine of 15 February 1925, there is a fashion sketch of a woman with a short, manly Garboesque haircut wearing a dress with an almost identical pattern). (2)
But, clearly, it would not be interesting simply to enumerate the scenes in which Garbo appears in a Deco-inspired costume or perambulates through a modernist decor. Rather, what I propose is to analyze the semiological role played by the Art Deco style in her films and the manner in which it fashions her screen image in the 1920s and early 1930s. In so doing, I will bring to bear several new perspectives on the study of Garbo and of Art Deco, a movement that pervades many decades of Hollywood design, but has escaped scholarly attention in the Film Studies field. Thus I will examine the way that Art Deco reflects a certain gender politics (not only in the cinema, but in the movement's production of sculpture, lamps, jewelry, and objets d'art). I will explore how Garbo's iconic persona is created in relation to Deco's complicated codes of femininity (in both her costuming and placement in the set by such Deco advocates as Adrian and Cedric Gibbons). I will also explore this topic in relation to the broad question of modernity and its particular address to the female subject as "New Woman." Finally, I will investigate how the elements of fashion and mise-en-scene can be made excessively prominent in the genre of melodrama, a form that has received little attention for such stylistic tropes (in comparison to, say, the musical).
Of all the decorative arts styles, art deco was perhaps the most eclectic, drawing as it did on a wide variety of historical and contemporary sources.
--Eva Weber, Art Deco in America
But first a word about Art Deco in order to situate our discussion of Garbo and cinema. Deco was a popular international trend that surfaced between 1910 and 1935. In its ubiquity, Art Deco affected all aspects of world design including fashion, crafts, housewares, jewelry, statuary, architecture, and interior decoration. The term itself was not coined until the 1960s as an abbreviation of the hallmark International Exposition of Decorative and Industrial Modern Arts staged in Paris between April and October of 1925. During the twenties and thirties, the movement was known as modernism or the style moderne.
In truth, Art Deco was not monolithic but had many branches and influences. In its insistent modernity, it was identified with the machine age, both in its imagery and graphics. Not only did Deco adopt a rhetoric of the mechanical, it also utilized new modes of fabrication. In its industrial orientation, Art Deco employed synthetic materials like plastic (Bakelite, Lucite, Vitro-lite) and metal (chrome, stainless steel, aluminum, and wrought iron). Characteristically, Art Deco was known for its streamlined, geometric, and symmetrical patterns--traits associated with the industrial age. In keeping with Deco's stark high-tech facades, color was often reduced to the basics: black, white, and silver.
Like modernism itself, Art Deco was tied to the city and was often deemed the "skyscraper style." In its bonds to urbane modernity, Art Deco also echoed various avant-garde movements. From constructivism and futurism, it inherited a love of technology; from cubism, a passion for pure form; and from German Expressionism, a penchant for distortion.
While beholden to experimental modes, Deco was also palatable to the general public. As Mark Winokur observes: "Deco was accessible ... in a way the various other modernisms were not." (3) With its emphatic consumer orientation, Deco imposed itself on all aspects of American culture: "Art Deco romanticized and then sold soap, tires, and train tickets" (198). While Deco artifacts at the high end were available at such elegant stores as Tiffany, knock-offs were accessible at low-end stores.
Despite its resolute modernity, however, Art Deco also entertained an alternate theme--one that contradicted its futurist tendencies. Like many styles of the era, it was influenced by traditional and even primal forms. Specifically, Deco evinced a fascination with the "ancient" and the so-called primitive as rendered through a litany of tropes: From Egypt where King Tutankhamen's tomb had been discovered in 1922, Deco embraced Pharaonic imagery (from sphinx heads and scarabs to cats). From the broader Middle East, Deco recycled the Assyrian/Babylonian ziggurat structure--a pyramidal, terraced tower. So popular was this motif (as the base of furniture or objets d'art) that an entire strain of Deco came to …