Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Lyle Wheeler - Setting the Scene

Watercolor pre-production painting of Tara for Gone with the Wind (1939)
by guest author Captain Gregg  
The art director is one of the most important artists in the film industry for it is his talent and skill that bring a script to visual life. Lyle Wheeler was a master craftsman in this field of production design. In his career, he created the environments to over 350 films. From their initial sketches on paper to the purchasing of the props and furnishings, to the costumes of the characters, to the construction of the studio and outdoor sets, his eye oversaw each and every process.
Everything that surrounded the action in front of the camera, in the foreground as well as the background, was his responsibility and Lyle Wheeler knew how to interpret a script to set it to its best advantage.
Born on February 12, 1905 in Woburn, Massachusetts, Lyle Reynolds Wheeler began his career as a magazine illustrator and went on to become an industrial designer before joining MGM in 1931 as a layout artist. His skill in this new field was evident, and it was not long before he worked his way up to assistant art director under Cedric Gibbons (head of the MGM art department ).
In 1936 a new Technicolor dye transfer process was created and as his first assignment as a full-fledged art director Lyle worked with David O. Selznick in making The Garden of Allah, a visually stunning vehicle to showcase this new development in filmmaking. He worked on several more Technicolor films and acquired a skill in the medium that was later justly rewarded with a 1939 Academy Award for his work on “Gone with The Wind”, where – working with William Cameron Menzies – he created two of the most magnificent motion picture settings of all time - the beautiful plantation and surrounding grounds of Tara, and the burning of Atlanta.
Tara - Gone with the Wind
 Wheeler’s talent for creating historically accurate sets was exercised in many other period films of the 1940s and 50s including That Hamilton Woman (London, 1799 ), Anna and the King of Siam and its remake The King and I (Siam, 1870s ), The Foxes of Harrow (America, 1821), Dragonwyck (1844 ), Titanic (1915 ) and the numerous Biblical-era films he designed sets for, such as, The Robe, Demetrius and the Gladiators, David and Bathsheba and The Egyptian.
That Hamilton Woman (1941)
The entrance of Manderley in Rebecca (1940) - note impressive wood carvings
The Grand Room of Manderley in Rebecca...yes, it's quite graahnd
The quaint seaside cottage in Rebecca
A Lyle Wheeler setting is always characterized by its extreme clarity and sharpness of lines. Why, his scenes look so crisp and real you almost feel like you’re transported into the setting along with the characters! This is especially evident in his black-and-white productions. Through varying tones of shade and the accentuation of shadows, Manderley estate (Rebecca ) comes alive for us as much as it does for Mrs. de Winter. And in Laura we come to know the characters primarily through their personal environments. Decorated sweet and simply, Laura’s apartment reveals the kind and innocent girl behind the painting that Mark comes to love, whereas Waldo Lydecker’s place of abode is modern, aesthetic and although pleasing to the eye, it’s as cold as his marble bath.
Laura (1944)
 It was Wheeler’s decision to have Leave her to Heaven filmed in color. While all film noirs of the era were being shot in black-and-white ( to emphasis their dark storyline), this tale of deception is vividly contrasted against bright country lawns, sunny skies of New Mexico and peaceful blue waters of a private lake in Maine.
Traditional New England=style furniture in the Maine House in Leave Her to Heaven (1945)
Leave Her to Heaven included many sumptuous sets, but this is my favorite. What marvelous wood flooring and beams!
 In 1953 he created another masterpiece in color noir by effectively utilizing a carillon tower as a scene for murder in Otto Preminger’s Niagara.
From 1947-1960 Lyle Wheeler was head of 20th Century Fox’s art department and during his tenure at the studio he worked on a broad range of productions which required sets of all sorts of different styles and themes. In The Diary of Anne Frank there is the confined quarters of a family in hiding; in Come to the Stable a songwriter’s Pennsylvanian country retreat; in The Best of Everything, the stylish living and working domains of a group of New York secretaries. The post-war buildings of Hong Kong were beautifully created for our eye’s entertainment in Love is a Many-Splendored Thing; the opulent interiors of a Parisian nightclub for Can-Can and with a giant leap into the future, we are given a glimpse of the sleek interior of an alien messenger’s private spaceship in The Day the Earth Stood Still.
The Royal Palace of Siam in The King and I (1956)
The Robe (1953) - Caligula's throne
One of my favorite of his settings is his highly imaginative creation of the center of the earth in Journey to the Center of the Earth. Luminescent cavern walls, pillars of salt, the lost city of Atlantis, rainbow colored waters, and giant mushrooms abound in this under-the-mantle world of adventure.
Professor Lindenbrook's library in Journey to the Center of the Earth (1959) - a heaven for book lovers!
Mushrooms galore are discovered beneath the earth in Journey to the Center of the Earth
After he left 20th Century Fox, Wheeler worked for several years on Perry Mason. Here, the sets were made with the same attention to detail as on a feature film. Mason’s rich clients were surrounded with rare antiques, hand-carved furniture and priceless oil paintings in their posh apartment pads or elaborate Beverly Hills mansions – a very fitting setting for the high-end nail-biting drama that would take place within their walls.
In all, Lyle Wheeler was nominated for 29 Academy Awards (!) winning five which, unfortunately, were lost to him when they were accidently auctioned off in 1982.  He passed away in 1990 in Los Angeles. I wonder whatever became of his golden statuettes?

Guest author "Captain Gregg" is a young (early 20s) classic film enthusiast who is also a member of the Turner Classic Movies fan site, the Classic Film Union (CFU). She recently entered a giveaway here at "Eve's Reel Life" - and won the Errol Flynn Adventures boxed set from Warner Bros. Which is how we met.  Not long after, she posted this very fine piece on Lyle Wheeler at CFU and I asked if I could republish it here. She kindly agreed.


  1. Very informative post about a set designer I knew little about. After perusing Wheeler's full filmography, I was even more impressed with his work! I love his set designs in REBECCA and LEAVE HER TO HEAVEN, two films in which the settings greatly enhance the themes (e.g., I find Manderley to be cold, much like Rebecca was; in LEAVE HER TO HEAVEN, the charming lake setting physically separates Cornel Wilde from everyone else...which is good because that's just want Gene wants). Enjoyed your debut at Eve's, Captain!

  2. one can really see the "fingerprints" of a LYLE WHEELER set...thanx!!

  3. This is a wonderful post - informative and beautifully written and presented. I enjoyed it immensely!

  4. Very interesting! For some reason I always thought Vincent Korda did the sets for That Hamilton Woman.

  5. Thanks Captain Gregg for this very informative post on Lyle Wheeler, a true master. I have always been particularly impressed with the design of Leave Her to Heaven, which I saw again on the big screen alast year at the TCM Classic Film Festival. The sets at Ellen's ranch house are fabulous. And Wheeler used the color green in many of the sets - the color of jealousy - which gives the movie a unifying, and unusual, look.

  6. Wheeler did some stunningly effective work. Well done!

  7. I'm dazzled by Wheeler's sets ("Rebecca" and "Laura" are favorites) and the look of "Leave Her to Heaven" has intrigued me for years. It's colors are so rich and evocative - and the interiors and exteriors so perfectly enhance its storyline. Thank you again, Capt. Gregg, for a thoughtful and instructive look at a great cinematic artist/craftsman.

  8. That was a wonderful post and beautifully illustrated. Lyle Wheeler is one of those pros whose name I'm always happy to see in the credits, as much as any performer or director.

  9. Really interesting article about Wheeler, about whom I knew almost nothing. But I've seen every one of the movies you described and he is indeed a master. I liked seeing that he designed Journey to the Center of the Earth, one of my very favorites, and one I always thought was beautiful. At the end, the credits say that part of it was filmed on location in Carlsbad Caverns. I've always wondered which shots were the real cave...tribute to Wheeler!

  10. Wonderful article about Wheeler, who had an amazing talents. You mentioned some of my favorite movies and one of the reasons why they were my favorites, was because of the settings..

  11. Captain Gregg,
    Well this was a fun little look back!
    Rebecca is my favorite film and as we all know the scenery, locations and that insane Mandalay were such a huge presence for making it such a mysterious but intriguing place. I think I cried the first time I saw Rebecca upon seeing Mandalay burn to the ground. Then that little cottage where everything ugly happened, wanting to peek inside along with Mrs. de Winter part deux. When I finally got a peek it was everything I imagined down to the last cobweb and dusty couch.

    The King and I was also so visually appealing. I saw it for the first time as a little girl and it was so colorful and elaborate that I didn't know where to look at times.

    I didn't know that much about Wheeler and just how many great films he applied his genius to so this was a fun post.

  12. An excellent article, Capt'n. The art director of a film is arguably the most important person to create the feel of the film. Think of movies like Chicago (2002) or Dick Tracy (1990) and the ethereal look they have, and the extravagance of Gone with the Wind, or the coldness on Citizen Kane. All of that is done by the A.D.

    You have chosen one of the best!

  13. For more on the Fate of Lyle Wheeler's five Oscars - the L.A. Times 1989...

  14. Thank you. I was as mesmerized by your article as I am by Wheeler's work.

  15. I loved this article. Lyle "Lonny" was my Grandpa. He was a true visionary. I feel fortunate that I had the opportunity to know him. Unfortunately, he died not long after my first child was born, so my children never knew their great Grandfather.

    1. Carla, Thank you so much for your comment! I'm so glad you found this post and enjoyed it. Your "grandpa" was a huge talent, one of Hollywood's great art directors. He may be gone, but his incomparable work lives on in some of the most iconic films of all time. You and everyone in your family have much to be proud of.

    2. Hi Carla

      My name is Mark Wheeler and think Lyle was my great uncle. My dad Taylor Ray Wheeler mentioned him several time in my youth.

    3. Hello Carla, my name is Riccardo De Franceschi, I am a typeface designer from Milan/London.

      I am investigating the work of a lettering artist that I believe drew the opening titles for a large number of movies art directed by your Grandfather between 1947/1957.

      I have reached a dead end in my research, and I was wondering if I could possibly drop you an email with a couple of questions, please?

      Many many thanks in advance,

  16. Only 1 Oscar was auctioned off. I know who bought them and I also know why the other 4 were never auctioned off. The Diary of Ann Frank was auctioned and Sherry and Tom got $17,000 for it... They were very greedy people. Thank goodness I am no longer related to them! What a wack job of a family.

    1. As I understand it, Tom and Sherry were the people who got their hands on Wheeler's Oscars when they purchased the contents of a storage unit he had rented but fell behind on. I read that the man who won the Anne Frank Oscar at auction returned it to Mr. Wheeler. Where all five Oscars are now, I have no idea. But I may be able to find out.

  17. No. Only one Oscar is there. For the record, my grandfather's wife had recently passed and she was paying the storage facility bill...when she passed the family discovered that my brilliant grandfather was suffering from memory issues, hence the bill not being paid. Had his children been aware of the situation they would have taken care of it. His entire life's work was auctioned off for $20. When the family became aware of the situation they made every effor to resolve it but Tom an Sherry would not negotiate. They were only interested in material gain, not integrity. Lyle had 5 children, none of them benefitted from his work. Now he has two sons left, and my mother who is 81...she met Clark Gable in real life, during the filming of Gone With The Wind...it would've meant so much to her to have inherited her father's Oscar, not for material benefit but because of her precious memories. She was denied the opportunity...

    1. Carla, Very glad you're following the comments here and thanks for filling in the blanks on how your grandfather's Oscars ended up in the hands of strangers. I gather the Anne Frank Oscar in the family's possession - or not? Do you know where the other four are? Were they auctioned off by Tom and Sherry? I've read conflicting reports online about what transpired - and all reports I've read are very old.

  18. Anne Frank was purchased by an individual who had money and admired Lyle's work and he donated it back to the Motion Picture Museum so it could be enjoyed by all. We do not know where the others are. Lyle's family tried to collectively purchase the Oscars from the purchasers of the box sold by the storage facility...we did not have enough money to interest them. The family does not know where they are, only that others have profitted by my grandfather's entire life's work.

  19. As so often happens, when it gets down to making a profit, integrity goes out the window.

  20. Brooke Wheeler and his son Justin were at La Senora Research Institute yesterday celebrating Cinco de Mayo with us, but more importantly sharing with our guests Lyle Wheeler's life and work during the time that the family lived at the Mojica Hacienda in SM Canyon.....those were happy, productive years when Oscars were on the table. Lyle had purchased the Hacienda from Anita's Loos' niece and throughout subsequent owners both he and the Loos' remained friends with new owners. A most memorable evening was a dinner party with King Vidor, Lyle Wheeler and Jeff Berg (the agent for virtually all of the stars of GWTW plus the cinematographer) as they told "War Stories" about Old Hollywood. Those days are recaptured whenever one of Lyle's films is screen in La Senora's 55 seat 1930s theater. What a time that was to be in Hollywood! Check out www.lasenora.org for additional info.