"Designs on Film: A Century of Hollywood Art Direction"
by Cathy Whitlock
HarperCollins (!t), 384 pp., $75
Reviewed by David Marshall James
This is the sort of book in which I used to immerse myself during study halls and library periods in junior-high and high school.
To be sure, it would make a nice addition to your coffee table, or home library. Guests can lose themselves in these pages, and children can obtain a fine visual overview of the history of American cinema.
Indeed, the accent is placed on the visual in the design of this volume, as well it should be, taking the reader from a time when full-scale sets for such lavish silent-era productions as "Robin Hood," "The Thief of Baghdad," and the original "Ben-Hur" were constructed over multiple city blocks, to today's computer-generated images, filling in the "green screen" backgrounds against which actors are filmed.
The photographs are well chosen from a cross-section of movie genres, and author Cathy Whitlock clearly explains the "triumvirate" of director/art director/cinematographer collaborating as the chief architects of a film's "look."
She also recounts the evolution of the Hollywood art director to production designer, who sometimes created thousands of "storyboards" to serve as a blueprint for the visual aspects of a film.
William Cameron Menzies, who received a full title-card in the opening credits of "Gone With the Wind," was the first person officially designated as a "production designer."
Before the auteur, or "director-centric," theory of filmmaking took hold and the studio system began to wane during the late 1940s, multiple directors often worked on a film, particularly a production of the enormity of "GWTW."
Menzies' storyboards thus proved their weight in cardboard, ink, and watercolors by supplying a unified vision for the film.
Alfred Hitchcock also subscribed heavily to the use of storyboards, not just from scene to scene, but often from shot to shot.
(It's interesting to note that, in storyboards for "Raiders of the Lost Ark," the Indiana Jones character resembles actor Tom Selleck, the original choice for the role, much more than Harrison Ford.)
The writing will rest all right with noncinephiles, but for those who have a fuller knowledge of Hollywood history through the many hundreds of volumes published thereon since the 1960s, the text will often seem more so-so than original or insightful, and at times simply superfluous.
For instance, the author states, " 'The Wizard of Oz' is perhaps one of the most iconic films of all time."
Well, you can kick out the "perhaps." That's entirely superfluous. Why not say, " 'Oz' is the most iconic film of all time?" Be bold. It's your book, Ms. Whitlock! Say what you will! Besides, you obviously think as much about "Oz," as you have wisely chosen an image therefrom to grace your cover.
Admittedly, I don't envy this author or any other who attempts to compile a comprehensive survey of a century's worth of Hollywood art direction. Through her bountiful use of photographs, the author has succeeded further than many who have undertaken such a task.
She might now narrow her focus-- how about a volume on art direction in film noir? The "women's pictures" of the 1950s and 1960s? Or the productions guided by art director Cedric Gibbons at
M-G-M? The last would make a nice companion volume to the recently released "M-G-M: Hollywood's Greatest Backlot."
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