|Watercolor pre-production painting of Tara for Gone with the Wind (1939)|
by guest author Captain Gregg
The art director is one of the most important artists in the film industry for it is his talent and skill that bring a script to visual life. Lyle Wheeler was a master craftsman in this field of production design. In his career, he created the environments to over 350 films. From their initial sketches on paper to the purchasing of the props and furnishings, to the costumes of the characters, to the construction of the studio and outdoor sets, his eye oversaw each and every process.
Everything that surrounded the action in front of the camera, in the foreground as well as the background, was his responsibility and Lyle Wheeler knew how to interpret a script to set it to its best advantage.
Born on February 12, 1905 in Woburn, Massachusetts, Lyle Reynolds Wheeler began his career as a magazine illustrator and went on to become an industrial designer before joining MGM in 1931 as a layout artist. His skill in this new field was evident, and it was not long before he worked his way up to assistant art director under Cedric Gibbons (head of the MGM art department ).
In 1936 a new Technicolor dye transfer process was created and as his first assignment as a full-fledged art director Lyle worked with David O. Selznick in making The Garden of Allah, a visually stunning vehicle to showcase this new development in filmmaking. He worked on several more Technicolor films and acquired a skill in the medium that was later justly rewarded with a 1939 Academy Award for his work on “Gone with The Wind”, where – working with William Cameron Menzies – he created two of the most magnificent motion picture settings of all time - the beautiful plantation and surrounding grounds of Tara, and the burning of Atlanta.
|Tara - Gone with the Wind|
Wheeler’s talent for creating historically accurate sets was exercised in many other period films of the 1940s and 50s including That Hamilton Woman (London, 1799 ), Anna and the King of Siam and its remake The King and I (Siam, 1870s ), The Foxes of Harrow (America, 1821), Dragonwyck (1844 ), Titanic (1915 ) and the numerous Biblical-era films he designed sets for, such as, The Robe, Demetrius and the Gladiators, David and Bathsheba and The Egyptian.
|That Hamilton Woman (1941)|
|The entrance of Manderley in Rebecca (1940) - note impressive wood carvings|
|The Grand Room of Manderley in Rebecca...yes, it's quite graahnd|
|The quaint seaside cottage in Rebecca|
A Lyle Wheeler setting is always characterized by its extreme clarity and sharpness of lines. Why, his scenes look so crisp and real you almost feel like you’re transported into the setting along with the characters! This is especially evident in his black-and-white productions. Through varying tones of shade and the accentuation of shadows, Manderley estate (Rebecca ) comes alive for us as much as it does for Mrs. de Winter. And in Laura we come to know the characters primarily through their personal environments. Decorated sweet and simply, Laura’s apartment reveals the kind and innocent girl behind the painting that Mark comes to love, whereas Waldo Lydecker’s place of abode is modern, aesthetic and although pleasing to the eye, it’s as cold as his marble bath.
It was Wheeler’s decision to have Leave her to Heaven filmed in color. While all film noirs of the era were being shot in black-and-white ( to emphasis their dark storyline), this tale of deception is vividly contrasted against bright country lawns, sunny skies of New Mexico and peaceful blue waters of a private lake in Maine.
|Traditional New England=style furniture in the Maine House in Leave Her to Heaven (1945)|
|Leave Her to Heaven included many sumptuous sets, but this is my favorite. What marvelous wood flooring and beams!|
In 1953 he created another masterpiece in color noir by effectively utilizing a carillon tower as a scene for murder in Otto Preminger’s Niagara.
From 1947-1960 Lyle Wheeler was head of 20th Century Fox’s art department and during his tenure at the studio he worked on a broad range of productions which required sets of all sorts of different styles and themes. In The Diary of Anne Frank there is the confined quarters of a family in hiding; in Come to the Stable a songwriter’s Pennsylvanian country retreat; in The Best of Everything, the stylish living and working domains of a group of New York secretaries. The post-war buildings of Hong Kong were beautifully created for our eye’s entertainment in Love is a Many-Splendored Thing; the opulent interiors of a Parisian nightclub for Can-Can and with a giant leap into the future, we are given a glimpse of the sleek interior of an alien messenger’s private spaceship in The Day the Earth Stood Still.
|The Royal Palace of Siam in The King and I (1956)|
|The Robe (1953) - Caligula's throne|
One of my favorite of his settings is his highly imaginative creation of the center of the earth in Journey to the Center of the Earth. Luminescent cavern walls, pillars of salt, the lost city of Atlantis, rainbow colored waters, and giant mushrooms abound in this under-the-mantle world of adventure.
|Professor Lindenbrook's library in Journey to the Center of the Earth (1959) - a heaven for book lovers!|
|Mushrooms galore are discovered beneath the earth in Journey to the Center of the Earth|
After he left 20th Century Fox, Wheeler worked for several years on Perry Mason. Here, the sets were made with the same attention to detail as on a feature film. Mason’s rich clients were surrounded with rare antiques, hand-carved furniture and priceless oil paintings in their posh apartment pads or elaborate Beverly Hills mansions – a very fitting setting for the high-end nail-biting drama that would take place within their walls.
In all, Lyle Wheeler was nominated for 29 Academy Awards (!) winning five which, unfortunately, were lost to him when they were accidently auctioned off in 1982. He passed away in 1990 in Los Angeles. I wonder whatever became of his golden statuettes?
Guest author "Captain Gregg" is a young (early 20s) classic film enthusiast who is also a member of the Turner Classic Movies fan site, the Classic Film Union (CFU). She recently entered a giveaway here at "Eve's Reel Life" - and won the Errol Flynn Adventures boxed set from Warner Bros. Which is how we met. Not long after, she posted this very fine piece on Lyle Wheeler at CFU and I asked if I could republish it here. She kindly agreed.