Glamorizing Musicals and Modernism
Perhaps it’s not surprising that Musicals employed Cellophane the most. RKO Pictures, the powerhouse that managed such landmark cinematic successes as King Kong and Citizen Kane, often featured cellophane fabrics in the urban interiors of Astaire-Rogers musicals.
Imagine Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers dancing cheek to cheek in the 1935 screwball comedy musical Top Hat. Shot in black-and-white, Top Hat depicts a sumptuous world of fantasy and luxury—sets included a giant Art Deco dance floor, winding canals, and a floating nightclub. Now imagine stepping onto the actual set and seeing all its colors: the dance floor was coated in red Bakelite, the canal waters were dyed black, and the ritzy nightclub was decorated with shades of bright candy-colored Cellophane. Seeing the real colors would make Top Hat look much less cohesive than the ethereal, otherworldly realm of pristine whites and plummeting blacks that gave black-and-white films their distinctive drama and glamour.
But how can Cellophane, a material used for packing and tablecloths, be glamorous? According to literary scholar Judith Brown, Cellophane’s transparency is key to the transformation it wrought: the material allows viewers to look inside while keeping the wrapped object—whether tabletop, cigarette, or piece of candy—inaccessible to the touch.
Brown sees the 1920s and the 1930s as a time when people were amazed by the beautiful things they saw, things that remained just out of reach. Fred and Ginger were glamorous because their filmic black-and-white world was a step removed from the reality of their stage sets, which was, in turn, removed from everyday reality.
There is a close chemical resemblance between Cellophane and celluloid film, itself cellulose nitrate plastic, and one could extend Brown’s discussion of the transparent material to all of cinema: the so-called Hollywood dream-machine was only the play of light and shadow orchestrated by the apparatus of the projector. Studying the CHF’s holdings of plastic objects reveals the multiple ways that closely related materials were used within the film industry during the 1930s. Instead of getting lost in the otherworldly dreamscape of the silver screen, the material continuity of Cellophane and celluloid between garment, stage set, and film stock offers a way back to a richly diverse and colorful reality.
By Roksana Filipowska