Concluding a three-part series on cinema's most flamboyant production designers.
Marcel L'Herbier arguably confused great design with great filmmaking, but he did deliver consistently on the former. And some of the time, influenced by and in rivalry with Abel Gance, he produced the latter.
Years before the moderne/streamline/art deco style conquered Hollywood, L'Herbier was featuring minimalist art nouveau decor and Bauhaus architecture in his French productions. In L'inhumaine (The Inhuman Woman, 1924) he has the services of Alberto Cavalcanti as production designer.
Cavalcanti's career took not only design, but experimental sound editing (Night Mail, 1936), and the production, writing and direction of both documentaries and dramas (Dead of Night, Went the Day Well?) in France, Britain and his native Brazil. And everything he did was touched with genius.
In L'inhumaine, his work is supplemented by the art of Fernand Leger (cubist-tubist-mechanist) and the costumes of future director Claude Autant-Lara.
The L'Herbier film is stagy at times, but by making Jaque Catelain's hero a brilliant scientist, L'Herbier and his co-authors allow for a Frankensteinian climax where he brings his love back from the brink of death (jealous lover; asp concealed in bouquet; I think it was an asp anyway; I'm not actually a professional herpetolgist), using some very chic form of electrogalvanism, presented with a great deal of zap and stroboscopic editing from L'Herbier, which seems to anticipate James Whale's monster movies. Certainly one can picture Whale responding to the L'Herbier style, which is elegant and striking to the point of giddiness.
Catelain's fervid, low-lit ECUs seem a clear antecedent of Colin Clive's corrugated-brow moments during the creation of Karloff and Lanchester.With Constructivist intertitles and Futurist vortices thrown in for good measure, L'inhumaine synthesizes the whole of European avant-garde design in the twenties. Even after nearly ninety years, to visit it still seems like traveling forward in time as much as back.
The Forgotten is a regular Thursday column by David Cairns, author of Shadowplay.