Mary Mallory / Hollywood Heights: Max Ree Adds Fine Design

Max Ree , in an undated photo.

Mostly forgotten today thanks to his short film career, Danish architect turned costume and set designer Max Ree fashioned elegant artistry in the motion picture field from the mid-1920s through the mid-1930s. He served as a respected consultant, teacher, mentor, and commentator for his erudite comments on design as well as serving the industry on various councils. Neither flashy nor forward, Ree followed the dictum that form followed function, allowing easy access, mobility, and cost.

Born October 7, 1889 in Copenhagen, Denmark, Ree studied law and philosophy before earning his degree in architecture from the Royal Academy of Copenhagen. He worked as an architect for several years, designing fine homes around the country before discovering theatre and the great German theatre producer, Max Reinhardt. The two men began a long collaboration producing such influential stage works as “The Miracle,” “Orpheus,” and “The Midsummer Night’s Dream” in Berlin and Vienna during the late 1910s-early 1920s, with Ree serving as costume and set designer. Ree was renowned around Europe for his elegant lines and subdued but striking design obtained through deep research and study.

Mary Mallory’s “Hollywood land: Tales Lost and Found” is available for the Kindle.


In 1922, Reinhardt and Ree decided to visit the United States to study theatre design and production before staging “Orpheus” in America. Ree traveled to the United States October 15, 1922 expecting Reinhardt to follow him shortly, but instead found himself alone in a foreign country. Putting his skills and good English to work, Ree began designing costumes for Earl Carroll’s Vanities, the Greenwich Village Follies, Hass and Shoot’s Ritz Review, and other stage shows. The September 9, 1923 Brooklyn Eagle reports on the diverse and colorful costumes and sets he devised for the Greenwich Village Follies musical revue, which included a barnyard set, an interpretation of Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Raven,” an East Indian sketch, among others. His designs enhanced the concepts of the production without overwhelming it. He served as art director for Earl Carroll, providing a luxurious sheen to his upscale burlesque shows. The Brooklyn Eagle stated that the February 2, 1925 edition of the Vanities included 108 girls adorning Ree’s massive sets. The designer created sets and stage settings for several productions large and small, with sketches also appearing in print in such publications as Vanity Fair.

On June 25, 1925, Ree applied for United States Naturalization in Los Angeles, finally approved on April 7, 1931, with Jean Hersholt and his wife serving as witnesses and sponsors.

Signed to his first motion picture contract by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer in fall 1925, Max Ree traveled west to California to work as an art director on the studio’s films. Almost immediately, producer Joseph Schenck signed him to a one picture crafting design for the Constance Talmadge film, “East of the Setting Sun.”

After working on this film, Ree joined MGM, where he crafted lovely but simple costumes for Lillian Gish in “The Scarlet Letter,” and the film, “The Girl From Montmartre.” He was then assigned to design elegant costumes for Greta Garbo in “The Torrent” and “The Temptress,” designing a lace collar that enhanced her long neck and started a fashion craze.

Max Ree described his way for working to “Picture Play,” stating that, “Before I am assigned to a star I must see the star, I must understand her personally…,” in order to craft clothes for the way she walked, stood, and carried herself while at the same time revealing the character she was portraying.

First National Studios in Burbank lured him away from MGM in 1927 to serve as head of the Costume Design and direct “designing of all productions,” per the Motion Picture News, which also called him “forceful and original.” His job was to bring out character in a way that also enhanced the beauty of the company’s gorgeous female talent. Ree’s work remained rich and beautiful without exaggeration or redundancy.

Ree designed twelve beautiful gowns for Billie Dove in a manner fitting for European royalty in the film “The Stolen Hours,” with long lines and form fitting curves accentuating her assets, while at the same time revealing her character’s wealth and success. For the feature, “The Divine Lady,” Ree created 28 different period costumes, each more detailed than the next, for star Corinne Griffith, in the retelling of the Lady Hamilton/Lord Nelson romance. He also designed 300 striking 19th century costumes at a cost of $150 each, spending $45,000 alone on these clothes. His extensive library of books dating as far back as the 1600s enabled him to create period correct costumes, though he worked to fashion them to each person’s body, enabling them to move with ease and grace. The talented Ree also crafted exquisite beaded and fitted flapper dresses for the charismatic Colleen Moore in “Synthetic Sin” and “Why Be Good?”

Magazines searched him out for his fashion sense and his articulate way of describing the current style for the average woman. As he told New Movie magazine in 1929, “Beauty is in the entire balance, not in any one definite line. We must accept new ideas and adopt them. This takes time and thought. There as rules for harmony in line, width, and length that have a certain balance that must be kept…I believe then, that clothes should be designed to suit the use to which they are to be put…” Ree also felt the mermaid silhouette looked more sophisticated and alluring as well as allowing for more concealing, and therefore could be more easily adapted for anyone.

Max Ree in Talking Screen.

Ree also freelanced for certain films, designing costumes for Erich von Stroheim’s “The Wedding March” and “Queen Kelly” among others.

Radio Pictures lured him away from First National in February 1929, signing him on to serve as what the March 2 Exhibitors Herald called the head of the costume, property, drapery, and art departments, working to achieve one consistent vision for a production. They stated his job “will consist of establishing harmony between color, line, and costuming and what may be called relation of surroundings to character.” This would allow more harmony, balance, and cohesion between all design elements and hopefully reduce costs.

To help achieve this, Ree built elaborate miniature sets that he, cameramen, directors, and others could study to examine all camera angles and determine exactly what was needed before constructing sets, therefore saving time and money. This process also allowed him to coordinate the mise-en-scene and costumes to complement each other. Ree was employing his architectural skills to help in the creation of films, “applying principles of design, pattern, and color” as the June 8, 1930 Los Angeles Times called it. This visceral process would lead the way to what is a now a 3D process created in computers.


Ree worked to ensure that production work did not overwhelm the film’s story, believing that the setting served as a large outer circle, costumes as a smaller circle, all leading toward the center circle, the actor’s face and character.

The Los Angeles Times often employed the designer to comment on current fashions in special pages of the women’s section featuring Peggy Hamilton, having him describe what was going on with fashion juxtaposed against photos of starlets in high fashion. Ree even designed a elegant dress for Hamilton’s position as Her Majesty Queen Olympics at the Coronation Ball February 21, 1931, with her court gown rich in velvets and embroidered in pearls and rhinestones featuring a red velvet train 15 yards long.

Ree studied new technical innovations going on in the motion picture industry with the switch to both sound and increasing use of Technicolor. He described in an article in the Brooklyn Daily Eagle how fabric values appear different on screen from real life, with greens photographing dark gray and deep reds photographing black. He attended research council meetings and presented papers on the changing industry.

The designer stayed busy crafting costumes and sets for such Radio blockbusters as “Rio Rita,” “Dixiana,” and “Cimarron,” earning an Oscar for art direction from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in 1931. Columns reported that while Ree could design Louis IVth salon, ballrooms, art deco stateroom, or a lavish board room, he maintained graceful and refined lines without overwhelming the story. His work was luxurious without being louche.

Radio also employed his architectural skills to supervise construction of a Spanish patio adjoining the main administration building, as well as upgrading and redecorating the Los Angeles’ Mason Theatre. The company would stage plays they hoped could be filmed for later release.

Ree was elected to AMPAS’ Board of Governors in 1931 as a member of the Technical Branch, serving on panels, writing articles for Bulletins, and other duties.

After a political shakeup at RKO enhanced by financial troubles brought on by the Depression, Ree resigned from the studio and began sketching set designs for various companies in Los Angeles, including the Experimental Theatre and Henry Duffy’s Little Theatre. He designed shows such as “The Three-Cornered Moon,” “Personal Appearance,” “Michael and Mary,” “Tonight at 8:30,” “Liliom,” and “Is Life Worth Living?,” creating gorgeous designs on a shoestring budget. He also taught at Woodbury College’s new costume design class in the mid-1930s.

His old friend and colleague Max Reinhardt hired him in 1933 to design costumes and sets for a gigantic production of William Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” at the Hollywood Bowl in fall 1934. Set construction involved working after midnight for several nights after September 1 taking down streetcar lines in front of the Bowl on Highland Avenue in order that huge trees from Calabasas could be delivered and set up on stage. The Bowl shell itself was dismantled and moved into storage so that a huge hill with lawn could be installed.

Ree would visit the Bowl many nights after midnight after realizing a new color technique would be required for the production. He placed dummies on stage draped in vivid colors, inspecting them from a distance to ensure how they looked to the human eye before constructing costumes. He then created paper dolls wearing costumes in the perfect color combinations which milliners copied for the 400 person cast.

Reinhardt’s “Midsummer Night’s Dream” received huge plaudits for its wonderful acting, imaginative staging and lighting, and classy but colorful costumes. Allan Hersholt in the September 20, 1934 Hollywood Filmograph called the production “utterly exquisite”, applauding Ree’s costumes, the striking staging, and the fine acting, especially by Mickey Rooney.

Warner Bros. quickly signed the duo to produce the stage show on film, with many of the actors repeating their roles. One of Ree’s costumes for Verree Teasdale was a 145 pound gown covered in pearls, diamonds, and other jewels, with 35 years of white cambric petticoat and 65 yards of crinoline. Once again, the film received outstanding reviews for everyone involved.

Max Ree in Motion Picture Herald.

Ree virtually retired at this point, spending time traveling, studying, and reading. He married the former Mrs. Burrows Parrot of New York on June 16, 1940, but divorced after a few months.

He served as both costume and art designer for Edgar Ulmer’s film “Carnegie Hall” in 1947. The film starred Marsha Hunt , Frank McHugh, and Martha O’Driscoll, with appearance by such individuals and groups as Jascha Heifetz, Leopold Stokowski, Lily Pons, Bruno Walter, Walter Damrosch, Rise Stevens, Artur Rubenstein, and the New York Philharmonic Orchestra.

Ree retired for good upon completing the film, enjoying his life in Beverly Hills. Unfortunately, he died of cancer at Cedars of Lebanon March 7, 1953, only 63. While his career failed to stretch as long as those of such people as Adrian, Travis Banton, and Edith Head, Max Ree also left his own mark on the world of costume and art design, bringing a refined and graceful elegance both to women’s fashions and the screen.

About lmharnisch

I am retired from the Los Angeles Times
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