Snapshots into the Past with Movie Set Decor


I've been wanting to do this for a long time for you folks, but was recently reminded of it when Gloria of Home Decorating Room-by-Room asked me this question the other week: "When you look at classic movies, are you paying attention to the decor and accessories used in the background setting for inspiration?"

And the answer? Boy, do I! So much can be learned from watching movies with period-influenced decor in it. Once, I spotted one of my vintage lamps in a Bogey picture, confirming it was from the late 40s. Other times, I've spied the kind of upholstery fabric that should have originally been on a certain sort of chair. And every now and then, I'm able to draw some insights to why certain objects just look right together.

Today, I thought I'd share with you some of the films that have caught my eye because of their sets... Luscious backgrounds which provide atmosphere and interest to a lover of romantic decorating. And please forgive me if some of the images are a little crooked. The, er, camera person photographing the screen isn't always as steady as she'd like to be.

We'll start with one of my favorites... The Coen Brothers' Barton Fink...


This is the Hotel Earle... A once-beautiful but now worse-for-wear structure where the lead character, Barton Fink (played by John Turturro) stays as a resident. What I love about the lobby is its sense of warmth... from the smushy velvet chairs and the tall palms, to the fringed lampshades and the whirring fans...


I also love seeing the 40s deco chairs in color...


I'd be happy enough just to sit and read there in that chair. Of course, given the strange clientele of the Hotel Earle, I'd probably also get mugged or murdered... But even so, the grand movie-house feel of the lobby certainly does have its appeal.

Here's the hallway to Barton's room. Note the large patterned palm-frond wallpaper, art deco ceiling arches and deco wall sconces. Very symmetrical, very geometric... Very much of its time.


Now we move on to another film with decor that always gets my attention... The 1990s version of The Secret Garden. Our little heroine Mary's room is decorated in very heavy, very medievally-influenced themes...

The tapestries that cover the wall are reproductions of the Cluny mille-fleurs Unicorn tapestries...


These same type of tapestries are also used in the Harry Potter films, to decorate the Gryffindor common area. But in Harry, where they seem to convey a mystical feel, in The Secret Garden they seem to show a sort of ancient, austere strength. Ignore the angry little girl in the nightdress and just look at the carving on this bedpost...


Next, we have a film set I always wish I could have seen in color... The 40s film Arsenic and Old Lace starring Cary Grant...


No, that's not Cary Grant there, that's crazy uncle Teddy. But look at that globe shade lamp! See the elaborate tile fireplace! Note the Staffordshire dogs along the plate rail above.

Then we see the winding staircase and family portraits hung down it...


It says taste, some money, but yet it's not overly patterned-- probably the influence of more streamlined modern tastes taking over the late 1700s/early 1800s history of the place...

And here we get one more glimpse at the shelves-- lots of space for plates and collectibles here! What do you think it looked like in color?


Well, there's no lack of color in this last film set I wanted to show you. This is the 90s version of A Little Princess, and this is the exterior of Miss Minchin's School for Girls...


The movie does some very interesting things with the use of color. Things related to the school-- from the school exterior, to the uniforms, to the color of the hallways-- are all in varying shades of green. My theory is the green was intentionally used to imply money, jealousy and bitterness, because it shows up consistently in all of those situations...

It is also, as it would turn out, very beautiful...


This is the interior of Miss Minchin's, and that is Miss Minchin herself. Their surroundings are very lush, very plush, and very, very green, all balanced with dark woods...


Look at the sculpted wallpaper, and the torchiere on the right! Lots of textiles here, lots of layers. This opulence will then be contrasted later with the attic room where poor "orphaned" Sara ends up staying as a servant girl, with holes in the roof and little to eat.

(Yes, it is a crying film-- how did you guess?)

But dig this amazing art nouveau fireplace!...


And while green may mean all of the things discussed above, gold appears to be used in just the opposite way. When Sara's cold attic is transformed by the magic-wielding Indian servant across the street into an inviting richly-swathed boudoir, the green is exchanged for warm golds...


Lots of fabric is used, and this is one more example of how objects of kindness, hope, home, and love are showcased in the orange-gold tones. Sara's favorite doll wears a gold dress, and Sara wears gold when she leaves Miss Minchin's with her rediscovered father. The Indian servant who befriends her wears gold. And, of course, there's this beautiful room.

The sunflowers add to the sense of warmth and hope.

So, in looking at these movie sets, it just goes to show how much can be expressed through decorating, through well-chosen objects, and through color. What does your color palette and your choice of objects say about you?

Isn't it fun to wonder?

And that's a wrap!

14 comments:

Da Old Man said...

Never thought about all the incredible detail that can be found in the background.
Thanks for such an interesting post.

Jenn Thorson said...

Da Old Man- Ah, glad you enjoyed it! I'm afraid once you start noticing the backgrounds, you can't go back. :)

Madeleine said...

I never realized how much you could discover about history just by looking at the sets in movies!

Janelle said...

I watched "Driving Miss Daisy" on TV this week--haven't seen it since it came out 20 years ago--and I was blown away by Miss Daisy's house! This gorgeous brick home with arched doorways and all this 1920's furniture...just gorgeous. I now have a new "movie home," LOL.

One of my favorite classic movie homes is Laura's apartment in "Laura." Very feminine and comfortable-looking.

I think my color palette and choice of colors says that I secretly wish I'd lived about 75 years ago! I love bright, warm colors, comfortable, homey accessories, and simple shapes. Stuff from the 1930s-40s makes me happy.

chyna said...

I've heard/read that on those old black and white movies the colors didn't matter so much as how well they showed up on film so seeing them in color would probably be startling. LOL

Funny you have this on your blog. On the cottage forum I started one just like this. You however picked some really neat ones. Forgot about the beautiful rooms in the Little Princess. I may have to pull it out this weekend and watch it again.

Jenn Thorson said...

Madeline- Well, it's not flawless info, but it does give you something to work from! :)

Janelle- Oh, that sounds wonderful. I haven't seen Driving Miss Daisy since, oh, I think I might have rented it on a VHS tape!

Your Laura reminded me, another film that has some interesting decor is "Gaslight."

Chyna- That is funny about the thread on the cottage forum. If I get a chance, I'll have to pop by and see how folks have answered.

The Little Princess is a wonderful movie. The Shirley Temple version is nice, too.

Andrea said...

I love the Secret Garden! I've watched the one that you selected more than once and I've watched other versions also. I am still a big fan of the movie "Mixed Nuts" when it comes to interior design. Juliette Lewis portrays a character who owns a boutique and I adore her decorating style. I am constantly looking at the backgrounds in movies and I suppose this is why I am apt to watch a "period piece" movie more than any other type.

fortheloveofthrift said...

Wicked post! I loved Barton Fink but watched it years ago. I must reawtch it and check out over the furniture and rich wallpaper

Jenn Thorson said...

Andrea- Yes, there's a very nice black and white version of the Secret Garden I've caught, as well. It's funny when we find ourselves looking at film backgrounds as if we were antiquing! :)

FortheLoveofThrift- Yes, indeed-- as scrubby as the Hotel Earle in Barton is, it's certainly worth looking at. Also, really, a pretty weird, interesting film.

Rena Klingenberg said...

Wonderful! I love those versions of A Little Princess and Secret Garden too.

Also, if you've ever seen Picnic at Hanging Rock (one of my very favorite movies!), the sets - both indoor and outdoor - are just perfect to convey the mood.

Thank you for this lovely analysis and journey!

Jenn Thorson said...

Rena- No, I'll have to check out Picnic and Hanging Rock-- thanks for the recommendation.

gossamer said...

Does anyone know the shade of green used in The little Priness?
I love it all , but I do love the up stairs shade where her mother picutes were hanging? Any help out there? gossamer@odsgc.net
Thanks LInda

Carmen said...

I watch a lot of '20s and '30s movies, and I almost want to hug the T.V. sometimes, because I just want to be that much closer to the fabulous Art Deco and Art Nouveau details of the decor.

Anonymous said...

Evoking the era and mood has more to do with arranging in harmony and proportion to each other and to the architecture, which changes every decade.
You can buy all the retro, but if you arrange with modern sensibility, you'll never capture the mood.