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In the Galleries: Norman Bel Geddes’s 1931 film of "Hamlet" production

By Ady Wetegrove

By the time Norman Bel Geddes began work on a contentious adaptation of William Shakespeare’s Hamlet in 1931, he was considered an established theatrical designer and a pioneer of the New Stagecraft movement in America. Collaborating with literary advisor Clayton Hamilton, Bel Geddes abridged the play in order to communicate Shakespeare’s text through the characters’ actions, rather than rely on realistic backdrops or extended soliloquies. In addition to marking Raymond Massey’s American theater debut, the production of Hamlet served as the subject of Bel Geddes’s own amateur documentary film.

Throughout his career, Norman Bel Geddes filmed the genesis of his design projects to record each stage of the creative process. Bel Geddes also used film to produce amateur motion pictures on subjects such as insect behavior and ones in which he portrays an imaginary naturalist named Rollo.

Of the major American productions of Hamlet in 1931, critics deemed Bel Geddes’s version the most radical. Serving as both designer and director, Bel Geddes sought to transform the classical literary piece into a modernized, emotionally charged, melodramatic production. Bel Geddes’s controversial Hamlet elicited outcries from many Shakespearean enthusiasts who found Bel Geddes’s experimentation distasteful. Bel Geddes’s aim, however, was not to recreate a traditional depiction of the Shakespearean tragedy but instead, to “produce upon a modern audience an emotional response as similar as possible to that which Shakespeare produced upon his Elizabethan audience.”

Although Bel Geddes had experimented with powerful bursts of focused colored lighting in earlier productions such as The Miracle, his lighting innovations in Hamlet eclipsed all previous techniques. Highly concentrated light illuminated actors on one raised platform, while stagehands worked in darkness to prepare other scenes on adjacent platforms. A technologic innovation in 1931, the sharply focused light contributed to Bel Geddes’s vision of an updated and modernized Hamlet.

Bel Geddes developed a spatial arrangement that aligned with the characters’ actions rather than the traditional patterns of movement. Specifically, he positioned steps and platforms diagonally on stage at New York’s Broadhurst Theater. The austere, architectural set and minimalist style of the geometric blocks fostered dynamic movement on the stage, and the production adopted a swift, cinematic pace.

Hamlet is one of the few filmed theater productions that survives in Bel Geddes’s archive. The 16-millimeter black and white footage shown here is an excerpt from an hour-long amateur documentary in which Bel Geddes captures every phase of the development of Hamlet—from the creation of models and action charts, to rehearsals, and opening night. The Hamlet documentary, which offers a rare behind-the-scenes glimpse into the inner workings of 1930s theater productions and of Bel Geddes’s creative process, is one of over 300 short films by Norman Bel Geddes housed in the Ransom Center’s moving image archives.

Because Bel Geddes filmed Hamlet with two different types of 16-millimeter film—reversal film and negative film—on the same reel, the film deteriorated at different rates, causing preservation difficulties. The digitization of Bel Geddes’s films was made possible by grant support from the National Film Preservation Foundation.

Learn more about Bel Geddes in the Ransom Center’s exhibition I Have Seen the Future: Norman Bel Geddes Designs America, on display through today.

Curator discusses Norman Bel Geddes’s influence in video

By Ady Wetegrove

Donald Albrecht, exhibition organizer and curator of architecture and design at the Museum of the City of New York, discusses industrial designer Norman Bel Geddes’s influence on the American landscape. Albrecht—editor of Norman Bel Geddes Designs America (Abrams)—emphasizes the breadth of the Bel Geddes collection at the Ransom Center, which includes Bel Geddes’s plans and sketches of his futurist visions.

Sanora Babb: Stories from the American High Plains

By Ady Wetegrove

Photo of Sanora Babb. 1938.
Photo of Sanora Babb. 1938.

Coming of age on the American High Plains, American novelist Sanora Babb was familiar with the endeavor for dignity among the people living in the poverty-stricken area. With her intimate knowledge of the landscape, she provided access to the daily circumstances of individuals struggling to survive in the Dust Bowl. Babb sought to depict the High Plains as a featureless physical space, while humanizing “the Great American Desert” as the stage on which people’s daily lives unfolded.

The Ransom Center holds the Sanora Babb papers, and some of the materials are highlighted in the Center’s web exhibition Sanora Babb: Stories from the American High Plains. In her fiction, Babb sought to illuminate the stories of those families who left little written account of the unrelenting duress and the socio-economic strife that characterized the American High Plains at mid-century. Materials from this collection are also featured in this Sunday’s premiere of Ken Burns’s new documentary The Dust Bowl on PBS, which draws heavily on Babb’s novels and documentary writings.

Before the stock market crash in October 1929, Babb moved from Colorado to Los Angeles where she found work as a scriptwriter for a radio station and began publishing her literary work in experimental activist magazines. These “little magazines” helped Babb get her foot in the door, and she soon met writers Dorothy Parker, Ralph Ellison, Genevieve Taggard, Nathanael West, John Howard Lawson, Theodore Dreiser, and B. Traven.

Increasingly involved in political activism and social advocacy, Babb worked with the Farm Security Administration (FSA) to set up tent settlements for the dispossessed in California’s farmlands. Babb’s employment with the FSA, as well as her own childhood experiences, provided the subtext for her first novel, Whose Names Are Unknown, which chronicles the lives of displaced High Plains families and their struggle to find work as seasonal harvesters in California.

Although Random House accepted Babb’s novel for publication in 1939, the contract was rescinded when John Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath was published during the same year. According to Random House editor Bennet Cerf, the market could not support two books with similar subjects. Although both Steinbeck and Babb explore the Dust Bowl exodus of the 1930s, the authors interpret the difficult conditions in starkly different terms. In Whose Names Are Unknown, the intimate world of human relationships relies on testimonial witnessing, while Grapes of Wrath employs symbolic means to represent the condition of “Oakies.”

Disappointed that Whose Names are Unknown was eclipsed by Steinbeck’s work, Babb turned her attention to the manuscript of her second novel, The Lost Traveler (1958). Babb continued to work as a writer and publisher into her eighties, publishing An Owl on Every Post (1971), Cry of the Tinamou (1997), and Told in the Seed (1998). A re-edited manuscript of Whose Names Are Unknown, published in 2004, received critical recognition as a rival to Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath.

In The Galleries: Bel Geddes’s Modular Homes

By Ady Wetegrove

"Unassembled model of Bel Geddes's Prefabricated House," ca. 1941—42. Photograph by unidentified photographer. Image courtesy of the Edith Lutyens and Norman Bel Geddes Foundation.
"Unassembled model of Bel Geddes's Prefabricated House," ca. 1941—42. Photograph by unidentified photographer. Image courtesy of the Edith Lutyens and Norman Bel Geddes Foundation.

By the end of the 1930s, Depression-weary Americans were confronted with a housing shortage and skyrocketing prices. Norman Bel Geddes, perpetually optimistic, viewed the precarious geopolitical climate as a ripe opportunity to reshape domestic architecture. With a housing crisis, economic depression, and looming entrance into a world war, Bel Geddes believed Americans faced a defining moment in which they could forge “new beginnings.”

In 1939, Bel Geddes was commissioned by the Housing Corporation of America (HCA) to design and develop an affordable, prefabricated single–family dwelling. By the time of completion in 1941, Bel Geddes’s mass–produced house model included 27 separate building modules complete with doors, windows, utility units, and the kitchen and bathroom, “ready for connection to service lines.” The low–cost prefabricated panel system provided an economic alternative to traditional domestic building techniques.

To meet the needs of low–income families, each four–room home was to be erected for a cost of $2,500 under a “controlled co-operative” system. Licensed by the HCA, the co-operative system would provide former Works Progress Administration laborers with salaries and shares, thus keeping thousands of Americans off of government assistance. Bel Geddes sought to modernize the assembly and marketing of houses in anticipation of a postwar housing crisis.

Although the modular home project was never realized, Bel Geddes’s prefabricated dwelling system displays his ingenuity not only in building techniques but also in his promotional strategies. As a part of Revere Copper and Brass’s “Better Living Campaign” of 1941, Bel Geddes’s prefabricated home occupied full-page advertisements in the Saturday Evening Post. By 1945 the Revere Copper and Brass Company had distributed more than 800,000 copies of a 12-page booklet describing Bel Geddes’s plan for “tomorrow’s homes for the many.”

Bel Geddes had explored ways to effectively configure space into cost-effective designs since the late 1930s. Ultimately, his interest in prefabrication waned after a proposed prefabricated “Expand-a-House” franchise in the mid-1950s failed to launch.

“Unassembled Model of Bel Geddes’s Prefabricated House” is on view in the exhibition I Have Seen the Future: Norman Bel Geddes Designs America, which runs through January 6.

In the Galleries: Norman Bel Geddes's diagram for 'Highways and Horizons'

By Ady Wetegrove

Norman Bel Geddes's firm's 'diagram in relief of city-traffic plan for 1960 showing features of boulevards and location of Highways & Horizons exhibit,' c. 1938. Image courtesy of the Edith Lutyens and Norman Bel Geddes Foundation.
Norman Bel Geddes's firm's 'diagram in relief of city-traffic plan for 1960 showing features of boulevards and location of Highways & Horizons exhibit,' c. 1938. Image courtesy of the Edith Lutyens and Norman Bel Geddes Foundation.

Forecasting the automobile’s ability to transform society, industrial designer Norman Bel Geddes planned his Futurama exhibition at the 1939–1940 New York World’s Fair around vehicular transportation systems. The Fair’s theme, “Building the World of Tomorrow,” provided an international stage for Bel Geddes to showcase his optimistic and auto-centric vision of the future American landscape. Bel Geddes, along with other modernist pioneers, crafted models, dioramas, and multimedia displays to provide Depression-era Americans with a brighter vision of the future.

Eager to shape national consciousness, Bel Geddes provided attendees of Futurama at the General Motors “Highways and Horizons” pavilion with a choreographed experience on the curvilinear thoroughfares of an imagined 1960 America. One of the World Fair’s most popular attractions, Futurama led exhibit-goers on model highways through a massive model city, complete with miniature buildings, trees, and streamlined automobiles. The holistic urban plan of Futurama borrowed from Bel Geddes’s earlier theater work, in which he created a dynamic and participatory environment for audience members.

Shown here is a 1938 “diagram in relief of city-traffic plan for 1960 showing features of boulevards and location of Highways & Horizons exhibit.” Tear-drop shaped highways bisect the model city and converge at the General Motors Exhibition Buildings, which housed Futurama. Proposing ways to alleviate traffic congestion and increase efficiency, Bel Geddes created imaginative traffic plans to route through-traffic around the city center.

Recognizing the growing importance of automobiles in American society, Bel Geddes modeled his Futurama around an intricate network of streamlined motorways. Futurama’s elevated pedestrian walks and interconnected highway systems would not only accommodate fast and more efficient modes of transportation but would also foster American egalitarianism through the linkage of rural and urban areas. Bel Geddes even fought “to keep large super-billboards off the highways in Futurama.”

With Futurama’s success, Bel Geddes pursued avenues to alter America’s fledgling car culture. Bel Geddes alerted President Franklin D. Roosevelt of Futurama’s “enormous popularity. . . as indicated by the nation-wide press use of the subject matter, and the consequent editorial comment.” In response, Roosevelt appointed Bel Geddes to work on preliminary plans for the National Motorway Planning Authority, which influenced the interstate highway system of the 1950s.

This diagram of a city-traffic plan for 1960 is on view in the exhibition I Have Seen the Future: Norman Bel Geddes Designs America, which runs through January 6, 2013.

In the Galleries: Norman Bel Geddes’s Costume Designs for "The Miracle"

By Ady Wetegrove

Perhaps best known as the innovative designer of the Futurama exhibition in the General Motors pavilion at the 1939–1940 New York World’s Fair, Norman Bel Geddes was also a noted theater designer, fabricating costumes, sets, lighting, and theaters.

After beginning his career in Los Angeles, Bel Geddes moved to New York City in 1917 where his creative ambitions manifested in producing dynamic theater experiences. Using principles of the European New Stagecraft movement, Bel Geddes brought German director Max Reinhardt’s The Miracle to the American stage. The New Stagecraft movement, which divorced theater from the structures of bourgeois realism, aligned with Bel Geddes’s vision of simplified details and abstract settings and costumes.

Bel Geddes’s work on the 1924 production of The Miracle reveals his talents as a theatrical polymath. The play, a medieval legend about a nun, relied on Bel Geddes’s mechanized scenery and single switchboard. The technical modifications allowed a single electrician to control the focus, direction, and color of the lighting. Audience members sat on pews to watch the play, as Bel Geddes transformed the interior of the theater into a Gothic cathedral, complete with light trickling through stained glass windows and incense wafting through the air. The Miracle fused theater and architecture, creating a participatory environment that immersed audience members in the drama that surrounded them.

Highlighted here is a series of four costume designs for The Miracle, including “Oriental Gentleman,” “Chief Gypsy or Jester,” “Noble Gentleman,” and “Gypsy Woman.” The watercolors showcase Bel Geddes’s dexterity as an artist.

The innovations of Bel Geddes’s early theatrical career inform his later work as an industrial designer. Indeed, the same mechanical track system used to move scenery in The Miracle also guided model cars along the highway system of Futurama.

Materials from The Miracle and other theatrical works by Bel Geddes are on view in the exhibition I Have Seen the Future: Norman Bel Geddes Designs America, which runs through January 6, 2013.

Please click on the thumbnails to view larger images.