Brooklyn, New York, 25 August 1898.
Studied architecture, Beaux Arts, New York.
Architect with Berg and Orchard, New York; 1919—followed his
architectural colleague Wiard Ihnen to Famous Players-Lasky;
1927–32—worked for Paramount; 1932–42—at RKO;
also worked for Columbia.
20 December 1968.
A Kiss in the Dark (Tuttle); Lovers in Quarantine (Tuttle); Stage Struck (Dwan)
The Magnificent Flirt (D'Arrast)
Bed of Roses (LaCava); Little Women (Cukor); Morning Glory (L. Sherman); Ann Vickers (Cromwell); Flying Down to Rio (Freeland); The Past of Mary Holmes (Thompson and Vorkapich); Melody Cruise (Sandrich); Emergency Call (Cahn); No Marriage Ties (Ruben); One Man's Journey (Robertson); Midshipman Jack (Cabanne); Ace of Aces (Ruben); Chance at Heaven (Seiter); After Tonight (Archainbaud); Professional Sweetheart (Seiter); Christopher Strong (Arzner); Headline Shooter (Brower); If I Were Free (Nugent); King Kong (Cooper and Schoedsack)
Romance in Manhattan (Roberts); Finishing School (Tuchock and Nicholls); Rafter Romance (Seiter); This Man Is Mine (Cromwell); Of Human Bondage (Cromwell); The Lost Patrol (Ford); Spitfire (Cromwell); The Gay Divorcee ( The Gay Divorce ) (Sandrich); The Fountain (Cromwell); Bachelor Bait (Stevens); Long Lost Father (Schoedsack); The Little Minister (Wallace)
Roberta (Seiter); Village Tale (Cromwell); Jalna (Cromwell); The Last Days of Pompeii (Schoedsack and Cooper); I Dream Too Much (Cromwell); In Person (Seiter); Star of Midnight (Roberts); Break of Hearts (Moeller); The Informer (Ford); The Return of Peter Grimm (Nicholls); Sylvia Scarlett (Cukor); Laddie (Stevens); The Nitwits (Stevens); Top Hat (Sandrich); Alice Adams (Stevens); Annie Oakley (Stevens); She (Pichel and Holden); The Three Musketeers (Lee); Seven Keys to Baldpate (Hamilton and Killy)
Winterset (Santell); Mary of Scotland (Ford); Swing Time (Stevens); The Plough and the Stars (Ford); Follow the Fleet (Sandrich); Mummy's Boys (Guiol); Muss 'em Up (C. Vidor); The Ex-Mrs. Bradford (Roberts); The Lady Consents (Roberts); A Woman Rebels (Sandrich); The Big Game (Nicholls and Killy)
Hideaway (Rosson); The Big Shot (Killy); Fight for Your Lady (Stoloff); Forty Naughty Girls (Cline); Living on Love (Landers); Meet the Missus (Santley); Music for Madame (Blystone); New Faces of 1937 (Jason); On Again—Off Again (Cline); Sea Devils (Stoloff); Shall We Dance (Sandrich); Stage Door (LaCava); Super Sleuth (Stoloff); The Toast of New York (Lee); Too Many Wives (Holmes); The Woman I Love (Litvak); Hitting a New High (Walsh); A Damsel in Distress (Stevens)
Affairs of Annabel (Stoloff); Carefree (Sandrich); I'm from the City (Holmes); The Law West of Tombstone (Tryon); A Man to Remember (Kanin); Room Service (Seiter); The Saint in New York (Holmes); Tarnished Angel (Goodwins); Vivacious Lady (Stevens); Condemned Women (Landers); Having a Wonderful Time (Santell); Bringing Up Baby (Hawks)
In Name Only (Cromwell); Love Affair (McCarey); The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle (Potter); Bachelor Mother (Kanin); Fifth Avenue Girl (La Cava); Allegheny Uprising (Seiter); Five Came Back (Farrow); The Girl from Mexico (Goodwins); The Great Man Votes (Kanin); Gunga Din (Stevens); Mexican Spitfire (Goodwins); The Hunchback of Notre Dame (Dieterle); Reno (Farrow); Panama Lady (Hively); That's Right—You're Wrong (Butler)
Abe Lincoln in Illinois (Cromwell); Primrose Path (La Cava); They Knew What They Wanted (Kanin); Vigil in the Night (Stevens); Curtain Call (Woodruff); Dance, Girl, Dance (Arzner); I'm Still Alive (Reis); Kitty Foyle (Wood); Laddie (Hively); Let's Make Music (Goodwins); Lucky Partners (Milestone); Married and in Love (Farrow); Mexican Spitfire Out West (Goodwins); My Favorite Wife (Kanin); Millionaire Playboy (Goodwins); Millionaires in Prison (McCarey); One Crowded Night (Reis); Pop Always Pays (Goodwins); The Stranger on the Third Floor (Ingster); Sued for Libel (Goodwins); Tom Brown's School Days (Stevenson); Too Many Girls (Abbott); Wagon Train (Killy); You Can't Fool Your Wife (McCarey); You'll Find Out (Butler)
All That Money Can Buy (Dieterle); The Bandit Trail (Killy); Citizen Kane (Welles); Cyclone on Horseback (Killy); The Gay Falcon (Reis); Look Who's Laughing (Dwan); Mr. and Mrs. Smith (Hitchcock); Suspicion (Hitchcock); Tom, Dick, and Harry (Kanin)
What a Woman! (Cummings); The Fallen Sparrow (Wallace)
Together Again (C. Vidor); Kiss and Tell (Wallace); She Wouldn't Say Yes (Hall)
Gilda (C. Vidor); The Thrill of Brazil (Simon)
The Crooked Way (Florey)
The Admiral Was a Lady (Rogell); The Fireball (Garnett); The Man Who Cheated Himself (Feist); Johnny One-Eye (Florey); Never Fear ( The Young Lovers ) (Lupino)
Silver Lode (Florey); Passion (Dwan); Cattle Queen of Montana (Dwan)
Escape to Burma (Dwan); Pearl of the South Pacific (Dwan); Tennessee's Partner (Dwan)
Slightly Scarlet (Dwan)
The River's Edge (Dwan)
"The Studio Art Director," in How Talkies Are Made , edited by Joe Bonica, Hollywood, 1930.
Spiegel, Ellen, in The Velvet Light Trap (Madison, Wisconsin), Fall 1973.
In The Art of Hollywood , edited by John Hambley, London, 1979.
* * *
Along with Cedric Gibbons at MGM, Van Nest Polglase was Hollywood's most influential supervising art director, responsible for the look of RKO's product from 1932 to 1942. Disputes linger over the precise nature and extent of Polglase's contribution to those films on which he received credit for art direction since they were most often collaborations, though it is generally conceded that he had the first and last say on all designs. However, little doubt remains that it was Polglase, with his scrupulous attention to detail, who was responsible for the eclectic look of the RKO product, a look which continued for some time after his departure. Whether it was one of the vast glossy spaces of an Astaire-Rogers musical, the moody streets of a thriller, or a stone and shingle structure for a historical drama, the RKO films under Polglase were redolent with that most sought after but elusive quality in production design—atmosphere.
Polglase practiced a perfectionism that gave his historical sets an accuracy which extended beyond the creations of other studios. The RKO-built stone and thatch Paris for The Hunchback of Notre Dame exemplifies Polglase's attention to detail and his proclivity for designing sets around large open spaces, as evidenced by the cathedral's interior and the public square in front of the structure. Polglase also held a latent inclination for expressionism, a predisposition which surfaced in his foggy, angular Dublin for The Informer , as well as in The Stranger on the Third Floor and Citizen Kane .
Polglase's best-known and most visually exciting designs were those for RKO's series of Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers musicals. Along with his associate Carroll Clark, Polglase supervised the creation of a series of sets that were, and continue to be, the hallmark of cosmopolitan design for the 1930s. The Big White Set, or BWS, became the centerpiece for these films, a massive space of elegant white that could accommodate both the practical concerns of the dance and the public's demand for fantasy. Over the course of the series Polglase's vision swept from the fantastic but functional to the abstract, and eventually touched down on the wholly realistic. The growing love affair between man and machine found its artistic outlet in the Art Deco movement and, in Deco, Polglase found the ideal counterpart to the choreography of Astaire and Hermes Pan and the lightweight scripts. The choices of material, including glass, chrome, and compounds like celluloid and bakelite met themes of mechanics and speed to produce generally smooth geometric forms. Polglase's use of Deco coupled with the free-flowing moves of the dance team gave the films a seamless, streamlined quality.
Beginning with Flying Down to Rio Polglase established the tenor of the series by employing motifs of movement and flight in the production design. Airplanes, butterflies, and even a bandstand in the form of a hot air balloon transmit the concept of motion and are reinforced by the sweeping rails and staircases that abound on the sets. Curved chromium rails, consisting of double or triple parallel lines, served Polglase with a consistent metaphor for movement through most of the film of the series. In The Gay Divorcee Polglase employs two variations of Deco. The first is the neo-classicism evidenced by the Greco-Roman busts, urns, and multi-square patterns. The second variation is the strictly abstract use of curvilinear form such as the walls along the esplanade, bisected by a set of dual horizontal lines which in turn are interrupted by a series of circular windows set in square frames. Refining and expanding the neoclassical Deco for Top Hat , Polglase removed the complexity from classical forms such as the scroll and the arch and then expanded them to a gigantic scope for the creation of the fantastic Venice set. Like the plot of the film, the set bore no resemblance to reality, and pushed the level of abstraction beyond that of the earlier movies. The same gigantism infected the Polglase-supervised sets for Xanadu in Citizen Kane .
In Shall We Dance Polglase reached the ultimate level of abstraction culminating in sets that were both outlandish and the epitome of Art Deco. For the engine room of the S.S. Queen Anne where Astaire performs "Slap That Bass," all relation to reality was dismissed. The vast space was turned into a sea of stylized white and chrome cylinders, mechanical fittings and pumping arms. The mechanisms were spread over a reflective bakelite floor and multiple levels were joined by sweeping gangways topped with razor-sharp silver rails.
After attaining the peak of abstraction the only direction left was realism. Carefree carried Astaire and Rogers through sets that were, for the first time, based largely on reality and which made use more of natural materials like wood and stone with a few Deco motives added for flair. The last film in the RKO series, The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle , returned the team firmly to earth with its pre-war setting and basis in biographical fact.
Polglase utilized the Deco concept of "total design" through the Astaire-Rogers series. Design motifs carried over into all phases of the production, such as the repetition of line in one of Alice Brady's dresses in The Gay Divorcee , which echoed a feature used throughout the film. Several of Polglase's favorite motifs return in film after film.
Increasing problems with alcoholism led to Polglase's dismissal from RKO in 1942 and to a series of freelance positions. He served as production designer for a number of notable films, including a series of eight Allan Dwan movies in the 1950s. Even though he never again had the money or the resources at his disposal that he controlled during his tenure at RKO, Polglase continued to develop worthy designs, and his influence on RKO resonated throughout the 1940s.