The Apartment Complex: Urban Living and Global Screen Cultures

The Apartment Complex: Urban Living and Global Screen Cultures

by Pamela Robertson Wojcik (Editor)


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From the bachelor pad that Jack Lemmon's C. C. Baxter loans out to his superiors in Billy Wilder's The Apartment (1960) to the crumbling tenement in a dystopian Taipei in Tsai Ming-liang's The Hole (1998), the apartment in films and television series is often more than just a setting: it can motivate or shape the narrative in key ways. Such works belong to a critical genre identified by Pamela Robertson Wojcik as the apartment plot, which comprises specific thematic, visual, and narrative conventions that explore modern urbanism's various forms and possibilities. In The Apartment Complex a diverse group of international scholars discuss the apartment plot in a global context, examining films made both within and beyond the Hollywood studios. The contributors consider the apartment plot's intersections with film noir, horror, comedy, and the musical, addressing how different national or historical contexts modify the apartment plot and how the genre's framework allows us to rethink the work of auteurs and identify productive connections and tensions between otherwise disparate texts.

Contributors. Steven Cohan, Michael DeAngelis, Veronica Fitzpatrick, Annamarie Jagose, Paula J. Massood, Joe McElhaney, Merrill Schleier, Lee Wallace, Pamela Robertson Wojcik

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781478001089
Publisher: Duke University Press Books
Publication date: 10/19/2018
Pages: 216
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.56(d)
Age Range: 18 Years

About the Author

Pamela Robertson Wojcik is Professor of Film, Television, and Theatre at the University of Notre Dame and author of The Apartment Plot: Urban Living in American Film and Popular Culture, 1945 to 1975, also published by Duke University Press.

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The Depression-Era Cinematic Penthouse Plot


Penthouses and politicians don't last forever, do they?

Susan Lenox: Her Fall and Rise (Robert Z. Leonard, 1931)

The last scenes of Ladies' Man (Lothar Mendez, 1931) serve as a paradigm of the Depression-era penthouse plot, in which the upscale dwelling drives the spatial and ideological elements of the film. The penthouse is a site of confrontation between its dweller, the effeminate gigolo Jamie Darricott (William Powell), and wealthy banker Horace Fendley (Gilbert Emery), prompted by Darricott's illicit affairs with both Fendley's wife and daughter. Darricott is outfitted in silken attire as the infamous Russian advisor Grigory Potemkin, the lover of Catherine the Great, for a costume party at the Fendley mansion, linking penthouses to the visual spectacle of parties, dissembling, gender dysfunction, and performance. The gun-wielding Fendley has come to Darricott's penthouse to threaten him for the double humiliation he has wrought but is momentarily thwarted. In the darkened confusion, which is a hallmark of cinematic penthouse space and temporality, Darricott wrestles the weapon from him and tosses it away. But Fendley is not dissuaded, taking the physical altercation to the penthouse terrace. Seen in dramatic close-up, Fendley soon gains the upper hand and forces Darricott's head over the ledge, just prior to the latter's plummeting. Such spatial metaphors as ascent and descent are often employed in penthouse plot films as a caveat to the audience that upward class striving in the decade's tarnished or Potemkin architecture will inevitably lead to tragedy.

In such murder mysteries as The Secret Witness (Thorton Freeland, 1931), Penthouse (W. S. Van Dyke, 1933), A Shriek in the Night (Albert Ray, 1933), Affairs of a Gentleman (Edwin L. Marin, 1934), The Ninth Guest (Roy William Neill, 1934), and Ellery Queen's Penthouse Mystery (James P. Hogan, 1941), the action occurs almost exclusively in the penthouse, which structures the plot, the criminal intrigue, and the depiction of spatiality. Melodramas such as Susan Lenox: Her Fall and Rise, The Easiest Way (Jack Conway, 1931), Ladies' Man, Possessed (Clarence Brown, 1931), Skyscraper Souls (Edgar Selwyn, 1932), and Baby Face (Alfred E. Green, 1933) also include the lofty new apartment as a pivotal location that signifies sexual conquest, compromised upward mobility, and dishonestly acquired privilege.

The Depression-era cinematic penthouse is never typical of normative domesticity, a place for the nuclear family or its daily occurrences. Prefiguring the apartment plot in film, especially after World War II, which creates a domestic urbanism composed of playboys, bachelorettes, gays and lesbians, and other nontraditional familial arrangements, the Depression-era cinematic penthouse likewise is a setting filled with nontraditional denizens in unorthodox arrangements. Yet it is often an unsafe recreational location for self-indulgent, libertine married men and bachelorettes, and frequently filled with menace and criminality — a nocturnal space of both possession and confusion in which residents, especially unfaithful men, attempt to control their domains but are punished for their acquisitiveness, in keeping with Depression-era morality tales. I explore how an urban philosophy and a style of life that commenced in the 1920s, which constructed the penthouse as an exclusive, sequestered sphere of designer-made luxury and privilege given over to visual spectacles, both natural and artificial, interior and exterior, circulated through the Depression-era cinematic penthouse plot. These views of the penthouse were promoted by such urban planners as architect and renderer Hugh Ferriss; New Yorker magazine columnist Marcia Davenport, who authored "New Apartments" under the pseudonyms "Penthouse" and "Duplex" from 1927 to 1930; articles in architectural periodicals and other shelter magazines that frequently featured the penthouses of various luminaries; and real estate developers who placed regular advertisements in Tony magazines such as the New Yorker and Vogue. However, by the 1930s with its economic debacle, the class-inflected ideas of architectural critic and urban historian Lewis Mumford had gained currency. Mumford viewed the penthouse's spectacular visual delights and putative privileges as irrelevant to the lives of common citizens who could ill afford them, which coincided with the skyscraper's fall from grace in popular culture and cinema.

Penthouses are hybrid spaces or spaces between: both apartments and not apartments, mansion-like domiciles atop skyscrapers that are often multiple stories in height, they conflate the public and the private, the indoor and the outdoor, the urban and the rural, and the everyday and the exotic. Situated in buildings composed of multiple units, they satisfy the wish for a private, sanctuary-like home while appealing to the need for more public services, fulfilling both individual (even mercenary) and collective desires. I consider how filmmakers adopted their architectural structure and space, such as their high ceilings, numerous floors, expansive square footage, often ultramodernist decor, technological conveniences, and isolated locations (many were separate, seemingly freestanding dwellings on building roofs rather than simply upper-story apartments), pointing to the way material culture and its embodied ideology is mediated through set design and cinematography, in this case, to undermine it. In accord with dominant attitudes toward both real and fictional skyscraper space, the cinematic penthouse was viewed as a sumptuous den of iniquity, or what Simon Schama referred to in another context as an "embarrassment of riches," designed to create desire before material acquisition and class rise obtained through moral compromise were renounced.

Air Castles Emerge

Cinematic penthouses were employed in response to the appearance of their real counterparts in the mid-1920s, prompted by a complex interaction of economic, legal, and aesthetic forces, including the post–World War I building boom in New York and the development of midtown around the new Grand Central Terminal, incentives that placed a moratorium on taxes for residential buildings, and new zoning laws, which had an impact on architectural design. In turn, the wealthy sold their stately homes in favor of the new "air castles" or "mansions in the clouds" because of the enormous savings in taxes, heating costs, upkeep, and servant salaries.

Architects such as Emery Roth and Rosario Candela designed these new fifty-story, more dramatic apartment buildings and apartment hotels largely on New York's Park Avenue, which now replaced Fifth Avenue as the prestigious new penthouse address. Roth imbued the penthouse level of his luxury buildings with dramatic architectural crowns; for example, his San Remo (1930) sported ten-story double towers with English baroque penthouse mansions, which were capped by an adaptation of the Choragic Monument of Lysicrates. Monikers such as the San Remo, the Marguery, the Berkshire, the Lombardy, and the Ritz that evoked the royal, far off, and exotic lent these lofty buildings additional publicity value and exclusivity. Hence, penthouses came freighted with an upper-class domestic pedigree normally reserved for mansions, estates, castles, and even historical monuments.

The penthouse was further prompted aesthetically by Hugh Ferriss and Harvey Wiley Corbett's design solution to New York's 1916 zoning ordinance, which limited the height and bulk of buildings. This resulted in the proliferation of a novel architectural idiom: the setback or art deco skyscraper, which sported more tapered upper stories, further differentiating the penthouse accommodations and providing both occupants and pedestrians with an enhanced visual experience. As Ferriss explained in 1929, "The effect of stepping back the building was to draw more attention to the uppermost floor; roof spaces began to be planned on a larger scale as servant's quarters; a few adventurous individuals began to lease some of these floors, throw two or three friends in the diminutive rooms and produce apartments which rather surprised their friends. ... Realtors appreciated the point — that is to say rents were steeply raised and, at the present moment, the erstwhile janitor's quarters have become the most expensive rentable space in the building." However, as late as the spring of 1926, a Vogue editorial claimed that penthouses were still illegal as living quarters in New York.

Ferriss conceived of multileveled skyscraper cities as a solution to urban congestion; such cities would be composed of hundred-story skyscrapers topped by gardens and recreational spaces, with a series of multileveled, horizontal passageways that would accommodate pedestrians and various types of vehicular traffic, including air transport for penthouse dwellers. In Ferriss's richly illustrated book The Metropolis of Tomorrow, which represented a decade of work, he rendered penthouses as an integral component of his futuristic urban plan; indeed the city's upper sphere is the site of lofty apartments surrounded by spaces for public outings and entertainments. A penthouse owner himself, and anticipating its dramatic role in cinema, he showed a miniature of himself at an easel, gazing in awe at the metropolitan scene, while categorizing it as a "levitated stage box" where "some gigantic spectacle, some cyclopean drama of forms" of an urban play is about to be revealed.

Havens of Extravagance, Romance, and Crime

Despite the emergence of penthouses by the mid-1920s, it was several years before they fully captured the public imagination, denoting luxury, taste, performance, and erotic play. The most well-known example was publisher Condé Nast's thirty-room duplex extravaganza at 1040 Park Avenue, which contained ten rooms for entertainment alone, including an enormous ballroom connected to a commodious solarium, where politicians and industrialists hobnobbed with famous actors and writers. Nast's abode was so well publicized that it served as the springboard for publisher Van Stanhope's (Clark Gable) penthouse apartment in the film Wife versus Secretary (Clarence Brown, 1936).

Although penthouses were inextricably linked with New York modernity, they also made their appearance in Southern California and in Hollywood cinema, beginning with Cedric Gibbon's lavish set designs for the penthouses in Our Dancing Daughters (Harry Beaumont, 1928). Writing in the Los Angeles Times, R. P. White claimed in a competitive tone that successful civic leader and businessman General Walter P. Story's five-room villa of 1920 on the roof of the older Story Building (1909) was the first such apartment, but that the "penthouse craze" was now concentrated in Hollywood. One of the most prominent downtown abodes in Los Angeles was haberdasher James Oviatt's ten-room penthouse, which he nicknamed his "castle in the air." It was outfitted with a Turkish bath, a gymnasium, a tennis court, a rooftop garden, a pool with sand to make a private beach, and thirty tons of custom-made Lalique glass imported from Paris. Fashion and domestic luxury met in both his clothing shop and his penthouse, which served as a destination for the Hollywood elite, including his friends Cecil B. DeMille, Clark Gable, John Barrymore, and the best-dressed Adolphe Menjou.

Soon penthouse knockoffs of all kinds abounded, such as the glitzy stacked ashtray set christened Penthouse (c. 1935) and designer Norman Bel Geddes's copper penthouse cigarette box (1935), which were both seen as the epitome of sophisticated display. Several songs were even dedicated to penthouses, including Val Burton and Will Jason's "Penthouse Serenade (When We're Alone)" of 1931 and Fats Waller's "Pent Up in a Penthouse" of 1939, which depicted the sequestered apartments as havens of romance and heightened sensation.

By the Depression, penthouses were portrayed contrastingly in the mass media and popular culture as places of deception, criminality, and murder, with frequently featured tabloid stories on the arrests that occurred therein. A typical New York Times article of 1933 reported on two former Sing Sing prisoners found by the police, "lounging in their silk pajamas on the terrace of a penthouse," amid closets that "were crammed with new and flashy suits." Several pulp mystery novels that served as the springboards for films echoed these characterizations, highlighting the mysterious deaths of penthouse owners and inhabitants who hobnobbed with members of the underworld and other unsavory types. These included Gwen Bristow and Bruce Manning's 1930 novel, The Invisible Host (adapted to film as The Ninth Guest), Arthur M. Chase's The Party at the Penthouse (1932), Arthur Somers Roche's Penthouse (1933, adapted to the film Penthouse), and Ellery Queen's The Penthouse Mystery (1941, adapted to the film Ellery Queen's Penthouse Mystery). Even the cartoon "Penthouse" (David Fleischer, 1933) registers sexual predation as Betty Boop is spied on and then stalked by a monster in her skyward, cottage-like abode, testifying to the ambivalent view of penthouses during the economic downturn.

Design for Living

A new design for living characterized penthouses, replete with heightened aesthetic features, enhanced technological amenities, and human services, which were a hypertrophic version of luxury apartments. Marcia Davenport's "New Apartments" column in the New Yorker celebrated all aspects of penthouse architectural space and style, frequently commenting on deluxe characteristics such as private elevators, multiple fireplaces, casement windows, French doors, sweeping stairwells between stories, and outdoor recreational spaces. In addition to sumptuous interior design, these castle-like apartment-hotel hybrids included improved services, such as uniformed doormen, showy lobbies, decorative elevator banks, switchboard operators, and a multitude of servants. Some even offered an array of recreational and commercial facilities on the premises. The London Terrace boasted about its well-equipped gym, its swimming pool, its restaurant with private dining rooms, and the variety of smart shops in its lobby.

Penthouse apartments were most often showcased in shelter magazines devoted to architecture and the home or fashion periodicals, featuring the most stylish interior decor in a variety of foreign and indigenous idioms. Condé Nast's own Vogue magazine included a four-page spread on his penthouse in 1928, which was presented as untenanted so that viewers could project their own desires onto the luxurious dwelling. Premier designer Elsie de Wolfe, who had written the influential The House in Good Taste (1913) and had previously designed for the Fricks and Vanderbilts, outfitted Nast's penthouse in her characteristic French rococo style with original Louis XV furniture. The ballroom was full of exotic touches and royal splendor, with eighteenth-century Chinese wallpaper from Welbeck Abbey obtained from the home of a marquis.

Yet other essays celebrated the modernist furniture and color schemes of several penthouse dwellings, an approach that was ultimately adopted by a majority of Hollywood set designers, such as MGM's art director Cedric Gibbons, who rendered the penthouse in Our Dancing Daughters with the most up-to-date furniture, an acknowledgment that the interior must coincide with the novelty of the architectural typology. In an article appropriately titled "An Apartment in the Twentieth-Century Manner" of 1930, Helen Sprackling argued that the exigencies of the penthouse's architectural design, engineering, and industrial design necessitated a more modern approach to its decor. Well-known furniture and industrial designer Gilbert Rohde created skyscraper bookcases, chrome-accented furniture, and a neutral color scheme for a simple bachelor penthouse in Greenwich Village, which was viewed as the epitome of stylistic efficiency and decorum.

However, modern-style furniture and up-to-date conveniences frequently assumed a more sinister character in Depression-era penthouse films. According to architectural and design historian Donald Albrecht and others, such accoutrements were seen as detrimental to the morality of the nuclear family, signifying waste, excess, and dissembling. The perceived threat to traditional domestic tranquility was exacerbated by a host of technological amenities, which were blamed for freeing women from their supposedly natural feminine duties as housekeepers and for leading men astray, thus disrupting traditional gender expectations. In The Secret Witness, A Shriek in the Night, and The Ninth Guest, stylish skyscraper-shaped cabinets were filled with secret compartments, false fronts, and sinister electrical gadgets, which altered their real functions.


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Table of Contents

Acknowledgments  ix
Introduction: What Makes the Apartment Complex? / Pamela Robertson Wojcik  1
1. Palaces of Pleasure and Deceit among the Clouds: The Depression-Era Cinematic Penthouse Plot / Merrill Schleier  21
2. From Walter Neff to C.C. Baxter: Billy Wilder's Apartment Plots / Steven Cohan  44
3. Alain Renais, Tsai Ming-liang, and the Apartment Plot Musical / Joe McElhaney   65
4. Movement and Stasis in Fassbinder's Apartment Plot / Michael DeAngelis  84
5. Housework, Sex Work: Feminist Ambivalence at 23 Quai de Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles / Annamarie Jagose  105
6. Home's Invasion: Repulsion and the Horror of Apartments / Veronica Fitzpatrick  126
7. Reattachment Theory: Gay Marriage and the Apartment Plot / Lee Wallace  145
8. "We Don't Need to Dream No More. We Got Real Estate": The Wire, Urban Development, and the Racial Boundaries of the American Dream / Paula J. Massood  168
Bibliography  187
Contributors  195
Index  197

What People are Saying About This

Spectacle of Property: The House in American Film - John David Rhodes

“This collection builds on the groundbreaking and expansive work that Pamela Robertson Wojcik began in The Apartment Plot. Bringing together a distinguished group of scholars—who are all also compelling writers—The Apartment Complex makes us see apartments and urban cinema differently. The essays assembled here proceed by way of close, attentive reading, careful historicization, and theoretical argumentation. Threaded throughout the book is the claim that the modern apartment is the representational ground of various forms of modernist cinema. This collection is a pleasurable and serious addition to contemporary film scholarship.”

Cinema by Design: Art Nouveau, Modernism, and Film History - Lucy Fischer

“Distinguished by its range of topics, themes, and nationalities, as well as by the uniformly excellent quality of the writing, this book will be welcomed within film studies and in the broader area of urban studies.”

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