February 16, 1987 12:00 PM

by Donald Albrecht

When early Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers films turn up on television, among their most apparent assets are their settings. The dancing is fantastic, but would it seem as effortless and magical if the ships, the hotel suites, the nightclubs weren’t such wonderfully slick backdrops? While the movies of the ’20s and ’30s were planting the temporary delusion that any of us in the audience could trip the fantastic as lightly as Astaire, our subconscious was absorbing some art director’s dream about a world of white-and-black surfaces that gleam, desks of glass bricks, cities of glass towers, curving chrome furniture, fur rugs and opulent staircases designed for magnificent, show-stopping entrances. The author, an architect and museum curator, shows how the work of Le Corbusier influenced such films as What a Widow!—a Gloria Swanson movie made in 1930. The designs of Frank Lloyd Wright, their cantilevered drama so exaggerated that architects and engineers were outraged, were the inspiration for the buildings Gary Cooper designed in The Fountainhead. For films made in Europe, artists such as the Delaunays and Fernand Léger actually created sets. Albrecht concludes: “Modern architecture itself may have left the public cold, but modern architecture in the movies caught its imagination by embodying in forms both tangible and beautiful their fears, hopes and aspirations.” This book includes wonderful photographs. (Harper & Row, $29.95; paper, $15.95)

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