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The Independent (31/May/2006) - Obituaries: Henry Bumstead

(c) The Independent (31/May/2006)


Hitchcock's production designer

One of Hollywood's foremost production designers, Henry Bumstead worked on nearly 100 films in his career, which started in 1935. A popular as well as highly talented figure, he was used regularly by such directors as Alfred Hitchcock, George Roy Hill and Clint Eastwood, for whom he was designing films at the time of his death.

Bumstead won two Academy Awards - for Robert Mulligan's To Kill a Mockingbird (1962), filmed entirely on Universal's backlot, on which "Bummy", as he was affectionately known, created a small town in Alabama, and Hill's The Sting (1973), the popular tale of two conmen (Paul Newman and Robert Redford) in 1930s New York.

"When we started filming The Sting," he said, "I suggested that we do the whole picture in brown and sepias that would evoke that vintage 1930s smoky, backroom feel. George and the great cameraman Bob Surtees liked the idea, so we did it."

He was also Oscar-nominated for Hitchcock's romantic thriller Vertigo (1958) and Clint Eastwood's celebrated western Unforgiven (1992). Bumstead was proud of his reputation for being able to "age" sets, a skill he felt had been largely lost in modern films. He ensured, too, that sets looked as if they belonged to the character inhabiting them. "For Vertigo, I didn't stack bookcases in Jimmy Stewart's apartment with encyclopaedias or books because I knew he was a cop, not a reader."

It was a lesson Bumstead had learned 20 years earlier from his mentor, the great Hans Dreier.

One day, he walked into my office, briefly looked over my sketches, nodded his head and said, "Ah ha, the character who inhabits that room must be a very learned man." Then he walked away. I didn't know what he meant so I went back to the script, re-read it and shook my head because the main character was anything but an educated person, and I had given him more bookcases than you will find in most people's homes.

The youngest of three children, Bumstead was born in 1915 in Ontario, California, where his father ran a sports-goods store and his mother was a schoolteacher. At high school, he excelled at both architecture and on the football field. Offered football scholarships by several universities, he accepted the University of Southern California, which had an outstanding fine arts and architecture programme. "God bless them: if I had not gone to USC, I would probably never have become an art director in the film industry."

A serious back injury ended his athletic ambitions (he was later to have two operations), and in 1935, on the recommendation of a former classmate, he received an offer from RKO to work for the summer as an apprentice draughtsman, an assignment he would later refer to as "my first big break".

Two years later, he was hired by Paramount to work as an assistant to Dreier, former Ufa designer who was now head of the studio's art department. After serving in the US Navy and being stationed at Washington, DC, during the Second World War, Bumstead returned to Paramount to work as an art director and production designer, though not always with a screen credit.

Bumstead worked on vehicles for most of Paramount's top stars, including Alan Ladd and Veronica Lake in Saigon (1947), Barbara Stanwyck in No Man of Her Own and The Furies (both 1950), Martin and Lewis in My Friend Irma (1949), Sailor Beware (1951) and Jumping, Jacks (1952), William Holden in Streets of Laredo (1949) and The Bridges at Toko-Ri (1954) and Bing Crosby in Top O' the Morning (1949) and Little Boy Lost (1953), the latter partly filmed in Paris.

He was working on Michael Curtiz's musical The Vagabonding (1956) when he was recommended to Hitchcock, who hired him for The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956), for which Bumstead recreated a Marrakesh market-place. Hitchcock was to use him for three more films, Vertigo, Topaz (1969) and the director's last movie, Family Plot (1976).

In 1960 Bumstead was scheduled to work on Howard Hawks's adventure Hatari!, starring John Wayne, but he accepted a four-picture deal with Universal instead. "I really would have liked to work with John Wayne, but I just couldn't see myself riding across the African terrain with my bad back."

He travelled instead to Italy, to design Robert Mulligan's romantic comedy Come September (1961), which featured the romantic couplings of Rock Hudson and Gina Lollobrigida, and the teen favourites Sandra Dee and Bobby Darin. Mulligan said, "Making a movie with Bummy was like going to work with a good friend who also had a fine artistic eye, who shared your vision, and who knew infinitely more about the practical nuts-and-bolts business of putting a story on camera than you did. Everything he designed served the movie. He knew how to visually bring it to life."

Bumstead also acted in one movie, A Time of Destiny (1988), playing a colonel in a scene with its stars William Hurt and Timothy Hutton. ("I liked the film, even though it didn't do very well at the box-office.")

One of Bumstead's most challenging location jobs was for George Roy Hill's ambitious version of Kurt Vonnegut's cult novel Slaughterhouse Five (1971), which entailed scouting expeditions across Romania, Yugoslavia, Czechoslovakia and Hungary. Ultimately, part of Prague was transformed by Bumstead into a strikingly convincing pre-firebombed Dresden. He recalled in an interview last year with Eric Nazarian of MovieMaker magazine, "It was a tough movie to make, but George is one of the best directors I've ever worked with. I've done eight pictures with him because he realises what a good art director can add to a picture. I had the same relationship with him that I now have with Clint Eastwood."

The first Eastwood film on which Bumstead worked was Joe Kidd (1972), directed by John Sturges - "We built sets in the high Sierras and in Tucson, Arizona, where the train runs into the saloon at the end." Eastwood then asked Bumstead to design a western he was directing himself, High Plains Drifter (1973).

Years later he hired me to do Unforgiven, which was a very rushed production. We scouted and picked the location in one day. What helped me most was designing a simple and uncomplicated period set - no Victorian gingerbread and no big mirror behind the bar with a nude woman centrepiece. I made the drawings in LA, flew to the location and built the set in 36 days, with a lot of help.

"What really makes Bummy invaluable," Eastwood told Variety, "is that he has a great reservoir of memory and technique of working with everybody from Hitchcock to Wilder. Of that era, he's the last man standing." Bumstead did every Eastwood film after Unforgiven, with the exception of The Bridges of Madison County. He recently completed work on Eastwood's companion movies, Flags of Our Fathers and Red Sun, Black Sand, bringing their collaborations to a total of 13. Other Eastwood films he designed included Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil (1997), Mystic River (2003) and Million Dollar Baby (2004).

Looking back on his career in 2002, Bumstead said "Sometimes I wake up in the night and just can't believe that I've been able to raise four kids, send them all to universities and, at the same time, been so lucky to do what I've always wanted to do. I've never been laid off, I've never been fired and I've never looked for a job. It's been a great life, every minute of it."