Hidden truths in flights of fancy : sex, power, and the cinematic staircase, 1932-1955

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2018-07-25

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Gill, Robert Scott

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Abstract

This dissertation explores the meanings of the residential staircase as revealed in the motion pictures of Hollywood’s Golden Age. It seeks to show how the staircase contributed to the colorful psychosexual power struggles that unfolded on the screen, in the process demonstrating how the convergence of narrative, psychology, form, and action can result in another way of reading architectural history.
Architectural historians often examine their subject at a scale writ large: as part of an urban fabric or an intellectual or social movement, for example, or, at a minimum, as a single constructed enterprise. The quest for meaning customarily follows a trail of documentary evidence that points decisively to a conclusion. This dissertation takes a path less traveled. The argument posited is that a single architectural element—the staircase—is a telling repository of architectonic significance whose messages, in the absence of chronicled proof, can be uncovered through the medium of the motion picture. By observing the filmic stair in action, and endeavoring to understand the process of its making within the context—sociological and psychological—of the era, one can see how the intersection of the static object with the dynamic human presents a more nuanced reading of the built environment. This is a pursuit of architectural history through the cinematic lens—that is, an appreciation of the real through the reel. This paper is situated within the time of the Motion Picture Production Code, years when movie censors restricted what could be depicted on the screen. These proscriptions led filmmakers to look elsewhere for ways to project, however subtly, what audiences still wanted: stories replete with sex, duplicity, murder, and more. The staircase provided such a vehicle. This study is structured as an investigative triptych. A contextual snapshot of the contemporary movie industry precedes an exegesis of relevant perceptual psychology, which is then applied in an analysis of stair typologies within a sample of case-study films. The approach relies to an extent on a subjective and speculative connecting of the dots. As such, it pushes the limits of orthodox historiography as it opens a different channel through which to view and understand the meanings, and history, of architecture.

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