When Fred Astaire sang about ‘Puttin’ on the Ritz,’ he had one destination in mind: The Supper Club. Chances are, if you’re at all familiar with American cinema of the 1930s, you’ve seen these decadent nightclubs in all their shimmery, nitrate wonder. An impossibly beautiful black and white dream world so light that it seems to float on air. But these wonderlands of champagne and feather dresses were hardly a creation exclusive to Hollywood.
A bit of historical context:
By the mid 1930s, America was in the darkest throes of the Great Depression. The underground speakeasies that had so proliferated the years leading up to the Crash had gone above ground, transforming themselves into expensive nightclubs that became the American version of Europe’s Cafe Society. As so perfectly rendered in Joseph Conlon’s excellent book The American Past: A Survey of American History Since 1865: “Before long, ordinary Americans were as dazzled by the “rich, young and beautiful” cafe set as they had been by yachts and private railroad cars. The Walter Winchell’s and Cholly Knickerbockers held their audiences breathless with gossip. … Status was based on beauty, on what passed for wit (there was little of it) and simply on being well known, the cafe set freely admitted movie stars, athletes and celebrated musicians.”
With The Stork and El Morocco on the East Coast, The Cocoanut Grove and Perino’s on the West, elegance and razzle dazzle were the order of the day. (No one went to Perino’s for the food. You went to Perino’s to see and be seen.) In Top Hat, Ginger Rogers is the fashion model who wears designer clothes at the fanciest joints in Europe– all of which appear to be supper clubs.
By 1935, Cafe Society centered around posh former speakeasies that had come above ground as restaurants and nightclubs. There, patrons sat and dined on mediocre overpriced food, chatted, danced, drank, danced some more and reveled in seeing and being seen at such capitals of cafe society as El Morocco, The Stork, and 21.
It was society’s chameleon: as chaste as a church social, but with a current as wicked as Satan’s bedroom, and in the movies they proved an ideal playground. Light musical numbers (The Awful Truth), coexisted with production numbers both bold (pretty much every Betty Grable/Alice Faye/Carmen Miranda film) and brassy (Ball of Fire), novelty acts, and–in the case of the Fred and Ginger films– it was the perfect backdrop for elegant musical interludes.
The supper club was also a convenient environment for plot twists, trysts, turns and all manner of complicated confrontations, as is the case of the 1947 screwball comedy The Bachelor and the Bobby Soxer when Sidney Sheldon’s Oscar-winning screenplay sends its characters, and the club goers around them, into delirious screwball anarchy. Even in serious dramas like The Pride of the Yankees (1942), the supper club plays a key role as the backdrop for a scene that provides its characters a sweet romantic interlude that will make the film’s ending so tragic.
Commonly accompanied by orchestral scores sweeping along in the background, often studio orchestral reworkings of the film score or popular standards of the day, the supper clubs brandished names like Chesterfield, The Mocambo Room, The Copacabana, The Stork, Sardi’s, The Tick Tock Club and, of course, The Cocoanut Grove. They were decadent. Incandescent. And if you hadn’t already noticed: lily white. (Spain was the one notable exception here … apparently it was OK to be Spanish, because, you know, Caucasian.)
And yet. at the same time the shimmery luster of Anglo-Saxon ballroom elegance was dominating the screen, there was another breed of nightlife burgeoning; undulating to the rhythms of American jazz and blues. Not as elegant, a smidge unsavory, and always fascinating: the jazz club. But that’s another story for another time.
For now, here are just a handful of examples of the world of the supper club at its most decadent:
“They All Laughed”
Shall We Dance (1937)
“Everything I Have is Yours”
Dancing Lady (1933)
“My Dreams Are Gone with the Wind”
The Awful Truth (1937)
“Down Argentine Way”
Down Argentine Way (1940)
“Serenade in Blue”
Orchestra Wives (1942)