Wednesday, March 2, 2011

1930s Car Design: If You Could Only Cook

"Hands up, yous mugs!"

 The Movie
Another enjoyable Jean Arthur flick.  In If You Could Only Cook (directed by William Seiter, 1935), Jean's down-on-her luck at the start of the picture but manages to sit on a lucky park bench.  She catches the eye of a fellow (played by Herbert Marshall) wandering the park, who is, unbeknownst to her, a prominent car designer-engineer.  Beknownst to us, he is also about to get married, but has taken a brief holiday from his job and tiresome fiancee.  He doesn't correct Jean when she assumes he is in the same dire straits that she is, and she persuades him to act as husband-butler to her wife-cook-maid so they can both become employed.  The house in which they find themselves employed turns out to be run by a gang of toffs...  Overall, it's no masterpiece, but a fun movie with some great art-deco and Depression-era details.

Car Design Leaps Forward in the 1930s
Herbert Marshall is a car designer (so famous his picture is frequently in the paper - ?!), and his draft designs figure in several plot points.  At right he is sitting with his buddy in a cab, and out the back window you can see the transitioning cars of the early 30s - boxy, narrow wheels, like a stagecoach with an engine up front.  His design, shown below, is a forerunner of more rounded, wide-tire designs to come.

Interestingly, most of the advances in auto-design didn't come from the Big Three (Chrysler, Ford, GM) who had already established themselves as auto-making giants.  Instead most of the advance came from smaller, independent automakers who used their unique designs as a selling point. Independent automakers were also hit hard by the Depression, a point made in the movie when one of Marshall's character's new designs is rejected for being too far out of the box.  Cars remained rather utilitarian throughout the 1930s (although there were some gorgeous luxury cars being made, just look up the Bugatti Type 57 if you need proof).  Streamlining of cars was a big trend during the decade.  Towards the end of the decade shiny trim and bells and whistles were added to attract nervous buyers.

 Links and Sources:

Art Deco and British Car Design: The Airline Cars of the 1930s by Barrie Down
The Development of 1930s Cars

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