Production Design: Gene Allen

Production design is more than just conjuring up a specific time and place, at it's best it also reveals the story's emotional content. Academy Award-winner Gene Allen, talks about George Cukor, My Fair Lady, and his masterpiece, A Star is Born.

There's an image at the beginning of the 1954 A Star Is Born that perfectly sets the tone for all that is to follow. James Mason, as partyboy movie star Norman Maine, is drunkenly lurching around backstage at a charity benefit. His publicity rep corrals the actor into a dressing room where reporters interview him, until Maine suddenly gets wise to the fact that he's being kept from appearing on stage. In a rage, he hurls the PR guy into a makeup mirror, shattering it. Through the glittering shards, we glimpse chorus girls dressed in blood red, and, framed against that dark red chiffon, we see Maine making his getaway. There can be little doubt, from the violent punch of this moment, that the love story to come will be an unhappy one.

There are many who contribute to such an electrifying moment in the movies: the director, cinematographer, sound effects, editing, and costuming people all play an important part. But the man who gives them the elements to bring off the scene is the man who designed its visual components: the production designer.

The superb production design of A Star Is Born is the work of Gene Allen. It was his first such assignment, and the beginning of a long association with director George Cukor.

"Cukor's initial approach was always visual," Allen said during a recent visit to his Mandeville Canyon home. " 'Be as arty as you want,' Cukor told me, 'Just don't get caught at it.' "

Though Allen won his Academy Award for Cukor's film version of My Fair Lady ten years later, he deserved it far more for A Star Is Born, which continues to stand the test of time as a high point in the design of movies, proof that production design is, at its best, an art that uses the external world as a metaphor for the internal states of the story's characters.

Early in that film, Judy Garland wakes in the middle of the night, tormented by the need to decide whether she should continue her steady gig as a band singer, or throw it all away for the unlikely chance to break into movies. She talks in the dark with a friend; by scene's end, she's decided to do the risky thing. Allen's design for this sequence tips us off visually that Garland's made the right choice, because as she returns to bed, dawn is breaking. She's no longer in the dark.

In a parallel scene at the film's climax, Garland must again choose, this time between her successful movie career and her marriage to James Mason. She stands on the terrace of their Malibu beach house, designed by Allen so she is surrounded by giant plate glass windows which reflect the churning surf below. She is undecided--literally, visually, at sea--and as she makes up her mind, this time the sun goes down. She may not know it yet, but soon will: it's too late to save the marriage. Moments later, Mason appears on the other side of the glass windows, and the couple is separated by the reflections of the pounding waves--together, but no longer as one.

"On that one picture," 71-year-old Allen recalls, "I went from sketch artist to assistant art director to art director to production designer."

Cukor, Allen relates, had hired a New York stage designer for A Star Is Born but realized early on the man did not know how to design for the camera. At Cukor's suggestion, Allen--a sketch artist recruited from Warners' art department--was given increasing responsibilities and soon became one of Cukor's closest collaborators.

After A Star Is Born, Allen designed twelve films, six of them for Cukor: Bhowani Junction (starring Ava Gardner, 1956), Les Girls (with Gene Kelly, 1957], Heller in Pink Tights (a Wild West romp with Sophia Loren and Anthony Quinn, 1960), Let's Make Love (with Marilyn Monroe, 1960), The Chapman Report (sex-in-the-suburbs, 1962), and My Fair Lady (1964]. It was in this work with Cukor that Allen was given the widest latitude and greatest opportunity for creative muscle-flexing. Working with the director, the cinematographer, other designers, and, often, the well-known fashion photographer George Hoyningen-Huene (given the title "color consultant" because none of the guilds regulated such a mythic creature), Allen not only designed sets, he coordinated costume and lighting design, suggested camera angles for innovative transitions into and out of scenes, directed second-unit photography (including the Ascot scene in My Fair Lady), as well as conceiving the overall look and palette of each film. On his films with Cukor, Allen developed a signature look--together they strived to shoot color films in simple monochromatic tones that evoked the visual clarity of black and white movies, only using splashes of bright color to convey the story's emotional meanings--as with the shock of red behind the broken mirror in the opening of A Star Is Born. Allen even went so far as a creative collaborator that he offered reactions to script revisions when he thought they affected the "design" of the film. "A good production designer," Allen quips, drawing on his own experience, "should be able to shoot the picture, write the script, and play the music if necessary." Though not a musician, Allen is a member of both the Writers and Directors guilds.

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