Art Director. Nationality: British. Born: Cricklewood, London, 1908. Education: Attended New Hall Convent, Chelmsford, Essex; qualified as architect. Career: Actress and designer for amateur dramatics; 1934—assistant to Ralph Brinton, Wembley Studios; then long association with Two Cities and Rank. Awards: Academy Award, for Hamlet, 1948; Venice Festival prize, for The Importance of Being Earnest, 1952. Died: 1995.
Films as Art Director:
The Five Pound Man (Parker)
Who Goes Next? (Elvey)
French without Tears (Asquith) (asst); The Mikado (Schertzinger) (asst)
Freedom Radio (The Voice in the Night) (Asquith)
Quiet Wedding (Asquith)
Unpublished Story (French); The First of the Few (Spitfire) (L. Howard)
The Gentle Sex (L. Howard); The Demi-Paradise (Adventure for Two) (Asquith)
Henry V (Olivier); The Way to the Stars (Johnny in the Clouds) (Asquith)
Carnival (Haynes); School for Secrets (Ustinov)
White Cradle Inn (High Fury) (French)
Vice Versa (Ustinov); Woman Hater (Young); Hamlet (Olivier)
Cardboard Cavalier (Forde)
The Reluctant Widow (Knowles); The Woman in Question (Asquith); The Rocking-Horse Winner (Pelissier)
The Browning Version (Asquith)
The Sword and the Rose (Annakin); Rob Roy, the Highland Rogue (French)
Doctor in the House (Thomas); One Good Turn (Carstairs)
Richard III (Olivier); Doctor at Sea (Thomas); Simon and Laura (Box)
The Iron Petticoat (Thomas) Checkpoint (Thomas)
The Prince and the Showgirl (Olivier); Miracle in Soho (Amyes)
A Tale of Two Cities (Thomas)
No Kidding (Beware of Children) (Thomas); Watch Your Stern (Thomas); Carry on Constable (Thomas); Please Turn Over (Thomas); Kidnapped (Stevenson); Make Mine Mink (Asher)
The Naked Edge (Anderson); Raising the Wind (Roommates) (Thomas)
Carry on Cruising (Thomas); Twice 'round the Daffodils (Thomas)
The Iron Maiden (The Swingin' Maiden) (Thomas)
The Chalk Garden (Neame)
The Battle of the Villa Fiorita (Daves); The Intelligence Men (Spylarks) (Asher)
Sky, West, and Crooked (Gypsy Girl) (Mills)
A Dandy in Aspic (A. Mann and Harvey); Otley (Clement)
Sinful Davey (Huston)
The Rise and Rise of Michael Rimmer (Billington)
Catch Me a Spy (Clement); The Go-Between (Losey)
Lady Caroline Lamb (Bolt); The Nelson Affair (A Bequest to the Nation) (Jones)
In This House of Brede (Schaefer—for TV); Love among the Ruins (Cukor—for TV)
The Corn Is Green (Cukor—for TV)
By DILLON: article—
"The Function of the Art Director," in Films and Filming (London), May 1957.
On DILLON: articles—
Picturegoer (London), 16 July 1949.
Cinema Studio (London), November 1951.
Focus on Film (London), Spring 1973.
* * *
Carmen Dillon was born in 1908 in London. As did so many art directors, she originally studied architecture. Dillon worked as a set dresser and art director on many pictures for Two Cities and Rank, and for nearly a quarter of century she was the only woman art director working in English films.
Early in her career Dillon collaborated with the great British art directors Paul Sheriff and Roger Furse. She assisted Sheriff on Olivier's Henry V, and the sets of Olivier's Hamlet were by Dillon with design by Furse. These two pictures were very significant in the history of film design. Henry V changed style from a "realistic" look at a historic (Elizabethan) time, to a historic theatrical setting, and finally to a re-creation of the style, color, and spatial sense of medieval illuminated manuscripts. It was a daring and successful undertaking. As a contrast to the highly colored spectacle of Henry V, Olivier filmed the tragedy of Hamlet in black and white. The impression was that of an etching. The design emphasized spaces, with ominous repeating arches and geometric platforms, giving a sense of modern minimal theater as well as that of a dark and drafty castle.
Dillon did several historical reconstruction films. The Importance of Being Earnest and The Go-Between amply illustrate her skills as a researcher. In 1977 Dillon worked with Gene Callahan and Willy Holt on Julia. This film had great potential as a costumer. Art Deco was enjoying a revival and there were enough scenes of the wealthy, the bohemians, and the decadents for some standard streamlining and a bit of neon here and there. But the picture had none of that. Except for a calendar on the wall and the political events taking place it could have represented any time. This is critical. It gives the film a timeless meaning that speaks beyond a particular era and style. This story does not only tell specifically about Julia fighting Nazi atrocities but also how a brave human can stand up against injustice and evil. It is not just about the author Lillian Hellman and her deep relationship with a childhood companion, but of the strength of loving friendships. Furthermore, this film concerns nonmaterialistic characters who care more about feelings and ideas than decor. Dillon must convey that tone.
Julia uses clean simple lines. Dillon emphasizes few objects, and then with the precision of a still life. Objects, when shown, have specific relationships to the story. They are never there just for local color. Again, the sets are painted with the sparcity of a modern minimalist stage set. Often, particularly in the scenes of Hellman and Dashiell Hammett, darkness forms a cover. At times it serves as a protective blanket, at others as a threat of the unknown. Sometimes it serves for dramatic composition. Light also plays many roles—exposing, attacking, enlightening. Scene after scene features silhouettes and outlines, lamps and lighting fixtures. Ceilings are shown, giving a feeling of claustrophobia.
Dillon characterizes Julia's childhood in strongly lit reflective surfaces broadcasting to the viewer the opulent wealth of her family. There are few objects—the highly polished silver, the crystal chandeliers, the red velvet chairs. The rest of the house is almost bare, even the few hanging paintings blend into the blankness of the walls. The tall arches throughout oppress and intimidate. The staircase at the end of the film serves a similar function. Julia's room, in contrast, feels cozy, an all-white interior which symbolizes purity rather than coldness.
In Julia Dillon's free use of space and lighting as key elements in design goes back to her earlier work on Hamlet. These elements project inner feelings and serve a purpose other than that of decorative surface trappings. Dillon's versatility allows her to use detail or to eliminate it, in her pursuit of achieving an appropriate narrative effect.
—Edith C. Lee