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The Guardian (27/Oct/2000) - Obituary: Emile Kuri

(c) The Guardian (27/Oct/2000)

Emile Kuri

His imagination shaped the fantasy splendours of film sets and theme parks

The set decorator Emile Kuri, who has died aged 93, nominally won two Oscars - for his splendid work on The Heiress (1949) and 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea (1954) - and, in all, his name was put up for eight. But he never actually received the famous gold statuette, because, prior to 1955, set decorators were only given plaques.

Unlike the production designer or art director, who is in charge of a film's overall design, the set decorator is responsible, according to the Complete Film Dictionary, "for the furnishings, ornamentations and artwork, from the smallest to the largest items that make the setting real and immediate. He or she must have a knowledge of the technical aspects of film-making, especially how a set and its properties will photograph. The set director works with both stunt and special-effects personnel to create for them furnishings and properties that will satisfy their needs."

This exactly describes Kuri's work in general, and on 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea in particular. With Peter Ellenshaw, the British-born exponent of the matte (a mask used to blank out part of an image in order to superimpose another), he created the Nautilus, Captain Nemo's magnificent futuristic submarine, equipping the claustrophobic interior with sumptuous furnishings in red velvet and gleaming brass rococo decorations, and a magnificent pipe organ.

As most of the action of William Wyler's The Heiress takes place in a suffocating Washington Square mansion, Kuri's set decoration assumed primary importance. "I believe that the emotions and conflicts between two people in a drawing-room can be as exciting as a battle," Wyler claimed - and, in this instance, Kuri provided him with the perfect background for the drama between his stars, Olivia de Havilland and Montgomery Clift.

Kuri was born to Lebanese parents in Cuernavaca, Mexico. He left school at the age of 12 when his family moved to Los Angeles. A few years later, while working in a Hollywood furniture store, he met the wife of producer Hal Roach, who was so impressed by his advice and taste that she asked him to furnish the Roach mansion.

One of Kuri's first film jobs was as assistant decorator on Roach's production of the ghost comedy, Topper (1937). In the same year, he became principal set decorator on the Hopalong Cassidy western series. His big break came with Alfred Hitchcock on Spellbound (1945) and Rope (1948). The action of the latter is confined to the apartment of two young murderers, who serve dinner on a large chest - chosen by Kuri - in which their victim is concealed. "The most difficult thing," Kuri said, "is to make a set not look like a set, but like a home, as if the people just walked in."

For George Stevens's A Place In The Sun (1951), Kuri created the contrasting environments in which factory worker Shelley Winters and society girl Elizabeth Taylor live. In fact, he was so effective in conveying character through the sets - for instance, by giving a tawdry look to Winters' bedroom - that she complained that it made her character look like a tramp, and wanted something better. Also for Stevens, Kuri helped to create the atmosphere of the small homestead in Shane (1953) for gunslinger Alan Ladd.

In 1954, Kuri joined the Walt Disney Studios, where he remained for the rest of his career. Here, he decorated the sets of 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea, The Absent-Minded Professor (1960), The Parent Trap (1961) and Mary Poppins (1964). He was also among the leading "imagineers" of Disneyland, super- vising the decor on such attractions as the sailing ship, Columbia, and the New Orleans Plaza Inn.

Kuri shared Walt Disney's devotion to detail, and considered Disneyland his most challenging project because, unlike a movie set, the exhibits were to be permanent. Thousands of visitors to Disneyland and Walt Disney World in Florida, for which he was consultant, are daily exposed to Kuri's work.

He is survived by two sons and a daughter.

Emile Kuri, set decorator, born 1907; died October 10 2000