Girls Like Us: Carmen Dillon, Art Director

 

In April and May 2017 the National Film Theatre is running a season of films under the heading'Girls Like Us: British Women and WWII Cinema'. There are some real treasures here. Some of the April titles – Went the Day Well?, Millions Like Us, In Which We Serve – are relatively well-known. But – to my enduring shame, I’m sure - I have never seen Demi-Paradise, or The Gentle Sex, or Unpublished Story. I can’t wait.

The 'Girls Like Us' theme refers, of course, to the actors. These are films of female agency, where women take the lead in terms of storyline and performance. But with regard to the process of production, they reflect the film industry of their time, the industry of the 1940s. Every film in the series was directed by a man, every producer was a man, every cinematographer was a man. But even so, it wasn’t a masculine clean sweep. Female designers, technicians and craft workers were breaking through here and there. Marjorie Whittle was Hair Stylist on The Gentle Sex and Perfect Strangers; and Elizabeth Haffenden took on the Costume Design for Two Thousand Women (on whom see Melanie Williams’s blog post at http://historyproject.org.uk/blogs/girl-you-don%E2%80%99t-see-julie-harris-and-costume-designer-british-cinema, and interviews with Edward Carrick at http://historyproject.org.uk/content/0182 and Anthony Mendelson at http://historyproject.org.uk/content/0280).  

Significantly, the role in which women made the biggest impact – in this collection of films, at least – was that of Editor. Thelma Connell (mentioned in the History Project interview with Sidney Cole at http://historyproject.org.uk/interview/sidney-cole) co-edited In Which We Serve with David Lean in 1942; Vera Campbell edited Unpublished Story in the same year; and Flora Newton edited Piccadilly Incident in 1946.

But the individual I want to discuss here is Carmen Dillon, Art Director on the three films I’ve already highlighted: Demi-Paradise, The Gentle Sex, and Unpublished Story. Carmen, who trained as an architect, had arrived as an Art Director with a bang in 1938, in which year she made four films. But this was not achieved without a struggle: she faced open hostility from some men in the studios, was subjected to comments such as “That bloody Carmen Dillon is keeping a man out of a job”, was not allowed to wear trousers, and was discouraged from mixing with her colleagues.

Maybe the toll taken by this experience partly explains why she dropped off the radar for a while. But in 1942 the director Harold French brought her back to work on Unpublished Story and Secret Mission, after which she was in steady demand. In these years her key relationships seem to have been with French himself, and with Anthony Asquith. After Demi-Paradise she worked with Asquith on several more films including The Way to the Stars, The Woman in Question, The Browning Version, and the sumptuously-designed, gorgeously-Technicolored The Importance of Being Earnest in 1952. By that time she was at the top of her trade, the first woman to win an Oscar for art direction/set decoration for her work on Laurence Olivier’s Hamlet in 1948.

Carmen’s career from the 1950s onwards was a gloriously varied affair, taking in more Shakespearean Olivier, a couple of Carry On’s, and the iconic horror The Omen.

The History Project collection has three sources on Carmen Dillon: her own interview at http://historyproject.org.uk/content/0288, and references to her in the interviews with Kay Mander (http://historyproject.org.uk/interview/kay-mander) and Tom Peacock (http://historyproject.org.uk/interview/tom-peacock). Other online sources include several production case-studies at http://www.screenonline.org.uk/ , and for some wonderful insights into the making of The Reluctant Widow in 1950, go to https://isthereroomformetosew.com/2015/03/18/reflecting-on-the-reluctant-widow/ .

Martin Spence

 

 

 

 

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