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Ripping Open the Set

French Film Design, 1930–1939


Ben McCann

French film design throughout the 1930s was not just descriptive, but also expressive: sets were not merely part of the background, but were vital components of a film’s overall atmosphere, impact and critical afterlife. This was a period when sets were ‘ripped open’, as painted backdrops were replaced by three-dimensional constructions to ensure greater proximity to reality. Accomplished set designers such as Alexandre Trauner, Jacques Krauss and Eugène Lourié crafted a series of designs both realist and expressionistic that brought out the underlying themes of a film’s narrative and helped create an exportable vision of ‘Frenchness’ that influenced other European and American film design practices.
This book details the elaborate paraphrasing tendencies of French film design in the 1930s. The author explores the crucial role of the set designer in the film’s evolutionary process and charts how the rapid development of studio practices enabled designers to become progressively more ambitious. The book examines key films such as Quatorze juillet (1932), Un Carnet de bal (1937), La Grande illusion (1937) and Le Jour se lève (1939) to demonstrate how set design works at establishing time and place, generating audience familiarity and recognition and underpinning each film’s visual style.


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Introduction Ripping Open the Set


Creating ‘Lived In’ Sets On 11 March 1939, during pre-production for Gone with the Wind, legend- ary Hollywood producer David O. Selznick sent the following internal memorandum to the film’s production designer William Cameron Menzies, art director Lyle Wheeler, and set designer Edward Boyle: There has been a great deal of comment recently about the dif ference between the outstanding foreign pictures, particularly the French pictures, and the American pictures, in that the better foreign pictures seem to capture a quality of reality in the photography, sets, and costumes that is lacking even in the best American pictures. I personally feel that this criticism is a justifiable one. I feel that our sets always look exactly what they are – sets that have been put up a few hours before, instead of seeming in their ageing and in their dressing to be rooms that have existed for some time and have been lived in. (Behlmer 2000: 217) At first glance, Selznick’s ambition to create more ‘lived in’ sets may seem a little contradictory, given that the dominant design mode while he was Head of Production at RKO and Selznick International Pictures (with such auspicious output as Dinner at Eight [1933], Anna Karenina [1935], A Star is Born [1937] and Intermezzo [1939]) was characterized by a glossy decorative intensity which ironically appeared to corroborate his appraisal of the inherent sameness and anonymity of Hollywood decor. Yet Selznick’s rebuke to the perceived artificiality of Hollywood decor, and his recogni- tion of the ‘quality...

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