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Screenings to honor production designer Robert Boyle

The legendary craftsman, who turns 100 this year, will be toasted Sunday by the Art Directors Guild Film Society and American Cinematheque in a centennial tribute.

March 27, 2009|Susan King

Production designer Robert Boyle may have "retired" from the film business some 20 years ago, but the truth is he never really stopped working.

Twice a week, he climbs the stairs leading to his Hollywood Hills home and heads off to the American Film Institute, where he lectures to students about his craft.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Saturday, March 28, 2009 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 4 National Desk 1 inches; 43 words Type of Material: Correction
Robert Boyle: In some copies of Friday's Calendar section, a headline on an article about 99-year-old production designer Robert Boyle said he had "created the look for some of the 19th century's iconic films." The headline should have referred to the 20th century.

By the way, Boyle turns 100 in October.

"I'm a relic of the studio system," says Boyle, relaxing in the dining room of his rustic home, which, as a trained architect, he designed. Though he uses a cane and has oxygen pumped into his nose, Boyle hasn't lost a step.

And the reason he's opened his doors for an interview is because the Art Directors Guild Film Society and American Cinematheque are honoring him with a centennial tribute Sunday at the Egyptian Theatre.

In addition to Boyle discussing his craft -- a production designer, originally called an art director, is responsible for coordinating all aspects of a movie's visual imagery-- with fellow production designers John Muto and Rick Heinrichs, the event will feature two of Boyle's most imaginative works: 1941's "The Wolf Man," his first film as an art director, and 1969's "Gaily, Gaily," for which he received an Oscar nomination for his re-creation of 1910 Chicago. His designs for the latter include a huge, opulent bordello that plays a major part in the nostalgic comedy.

"We should all be so fortunate to have his ability of recall," says Art Directors Guild President Tom Walsh. "He is a wonderful testament to the fact that the best narrative designers are constant chameleons. Whatever project they do, they inhabit it."

Muto says the key to Boyle's longevity is his resilience. He points out that Boyle had injured himself in 2008 at a party right before he was to receive his honorary Oscar at the Kodak Theatre. "He was in the wheelchair backstage, but he made a point of hobbling out there with Nicole Kidman. He kept working at it and he got out of the wheelchair. How many people go into wheelchairs at 99 and get out of them? He doesn't give in."

Boyle began his career in 1933 at Paramount, having just graduated from the University of Southern California with a degree in architecture. Boyle explains that the studio's art department head Hans Dreier "recognized the value of the young architectural students in his department. When I first got there they were finishing 'The Scarlet Empress' with Marlene Dietrich."

The studio system, he says, was the best teacher for craftsmen like himself. "The studios were self-contained units and so certain elements of the old system, particularly with the crafts, are now lost," Boyle laments. "In those days every studio did everything."

At Paramount and especially at Universal, where he graduated to art director, Boyle worked on a wide range of movies including horror films such as "The Wolf Man," Alfred Hitchcock classics "Shadow of a Doubt" and "Saboteur" and even the old "Ma and Pa Kettle" comedies.

After working with Hitchcock on those two films, Boyle went into the Army during World War II. "After my discharge, I went back to work with Hitch, who had formed a company at RKO with Cary Grant and that didn't pan out. The next opportunity to be with Hitch was he called me for 'North by Northwest' and then after that 'The Birds' and 'Marnie.' "

According to Boyle, once you worked with Hitchcock you became part of his movie family. "He was a great collaborator," he says. "He would discuss a movie with anybody, including his driver."

Boyle also had a longtime collaboration with director Norman Jewison, which began with 1963's "The Thrill of It All" and continued through 1968's "The Thomas Crown Affair," "Gaily, Gaily" and 1971's "Fiddler on the Roof," for which he received another Oscar nomination.

"I still talk to Norman," he says. "I had a lot of fun working with [him]. He made moviemaking very enjoyable."

As for teaching at AFI, Boyle says, "I don't know whether I am teaching. I like going on just to be with the young students. This is the only way you can pass [the craft] down."

Joseph Garrity, who heads the production design discipline at AFI, says that Boyle is the living history of production design. "He amazes our kids about how things were done back then," says Garrity. "He knows all the tricks and in-camera effects. He sometimes comes up with these little words of wisdom the students really appreciate. He is grandpa to all of our fellows."

--

susan.king@latimes.com

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