Carmen Dillon - Prejudice and Slacks

When I first started this blog about Disney’s Story of Robin Hood three years ago, I tried to piece together as much information as I could about the art director on the movie, Carmen Dillon. The more I read about her the more there was to admire about her. What an amazingly talented woman she was. But there wasn’t a great deal about her work with Walt Disney. So I posted all that I could find.

But a few weeks ago Neil once again turned up an ace with this fantastic article from The Film Studio in 1951 about her work on Disney’s Story of Robin Hood. It is full of the information I had hoped for, including details of her battle in the early days against male prejudice, her detailed research for the Robin Hood movie and the construction of the massive sets at Denham. Read and enjoy!
Carmen Over Came Prejudice
 ..........And Put On Her Slacks

Carmen Dillon. Only woman who has succeeded in becoming an Oscar-winning director, has just completed one of her biggest assignments in this capacity on Walt Disney’s new, all live-action picture ‘Robin Hood’, starring Richard Todd in the title role, opposite Joan Rice as Maid Marian [November 1951].

The art director on ‘Robin Hood’ was a two-fold job; firstly to achieve period authenticity combined with photogenic scope on the many large scale Sherwood Forest and Nottingham Castle settings, which were spread over three stages at Denham Studios for filming by the interior unit, directed by Ken Annakin and photographed by Guy Green; secondly to find matching locations within easy reach of the studios for sequences in which the exterior unit, directed by Alex Bryce, with Geoffrey Unsworth as lighting camera man, took over the action and carried the scenes to completion.

Carmen Dillon was deemed the ideal art director for the job. She has a fine reputation on both sides of the Atalantic for imagination and artistic flair allied to a practical approach to set design and construction, which has been evidenced in her art direction of some of the biggest and most highly praised period films made in Britain, including ‘Henry V’ and ‘Hamlet,' for which she won her Oscar.

Fight for Recognition

Small and neat of figure, with greying hair and light blue eyes, Carmen Dillon was born in Ireland. After she had qualified as an architect, she became greatly attracted by the artistic possibilities of film set design and set out to get a job which would train her in this field. It is strange to reflect that this happened only fifteen years ago and yet at this time no one in film studios would take the idea of a woman art director seriously.

Anyone knowing Carmen Dillon, however, would realise that such an attitude would only serve to strengthen her determination to attain her objective. Eventually she obtained toe-hold in a studio at Wembley, as assistant in the art department. Even then petty restrictions beset her at every turn. She was not permitted to go on a set in slacks and was forbidden to discuss her work with the men in the studio workshops and stages. After a few weeks of making the best of this difficult situation, Carmen was asked to take over the work of an art director who had fallen ill on the eve of a production. By proving her undoubted talent and aptitude for production design she was able to overcome the prejudice which had hitherto hampered her career.

Early Career

Carmen Dillon was art director for Fox British from 1935 to 1937 and later worked for Two Cities on a series of major productions. She was associated with Paul Sheriff on ‘Demi Paradise,’ ‘The Way To The Stars,’and ‘Henry V,’ all of which contributed much to establishing the prestige of British films abroad. She was then put in sole charge of the vast and impressive settings for the brilliant Laurence Olivier film production of ‘Hamlet’. Her recent assignments as art director include ‘Women Hater’ ( a title aptly linked with the initiation of her career), ‘Rocking Horse Winner,’ and ‘The Browning Version.’

Although she can be extremely feminine and elegant in off-duty hours, Carmen now claims the prerogative to wear slacks throughout a production. In no other way could she supervise the sets in the process of construction at every level from studio tank to gantry.

Robin Hood Assignment

On Walt Disney’s Robin Hood Carmen was in control of a staff of over two hundred men, who accepted her advice and judgement with the same respect and deference as they would accord to any male art director. Among the technicians, she has earned, through her skill and tact, a reputation for knowing exactly what she wants, without fuss or muddle. She carries all the details of planning and building the sets in her head and has a remarkable knack of foreseeing and thus forestalling building problems.

Before the stage is set for the actors, the lighting cameraman and the director, Carmen plans the work, step by step, with fastidious detail. In the case of Robin Hood, the first step was research, to ensure that the pictorial effect should have a truly authentic 12th-century keynote.
Robin Hood's camp in Sherwood Forest

One of the most important sets in the film is the Sherwood Forest camp where Robin Hood and his Merry Men live in outlawry, in their woodland hideout. Some weeks before the film, Carmen accompanied a research party including producer Perce Pearce, script writer Larry Watkin, and film star Richard Todd to Nottingham and returned laden with photographs of every relic of Robin Hood days, which would help her construct the original setting at Denham Studios.

In what little remains of the original Sherwood Forest, Carmen studied the Queen Oak, where Robin Hood and Maid Marian are said to have their trysting place; Robin Hood’s Larder, another giant oak, where legend has it, the outlaws stored their game and the vast labyrinth of caves at the foot of Creswell Crags, where Robin Hood and his men are said to have hidden their horses when the Sheriff of Nottingham was on their tracks.

Back in the studio, Carmen incorporated many of these features of the Robin Hood country into her set design, which then became the subject of a conference between producer Perce Pearce, scriptwriter Larry Warkin and herself before passing it into the hands of the draughtsmen and model makers in her art department. From their blueprints and scale models the construction manager, Gus Walker, was then able to allocate to the various departments concerned the work required to bring the sketch into concrete existence.

Continuity Sketches

The Robin Hood art department was also responsible for producing continuity sketches of every camera set up in the film, somewhat on the lines of a static Disney cartoon, to ensure dovetail co-ordination between the two units, who were frequently filming sections of the same film, several miles apart.

These were the work of Stephen Grimes, son of ‘Grimes,’ the well known newspaper cartoonist, and himself an artist of distinction. Also working with Carmen Dillon in the Robin Hood art department was Arthur Lawson, as associate art director, Harry White and Jack Stevens as set dressers, Ivor Beddces as model constructor and a large staff of draughtsmen.
Nottingham Square

Authentic Reproduction

Two more of the twenty-five interior sets designed by Carmen Dillon for Walt Disney’s Robin Hood serve to illustrate the immense research and artistry with which she conjured up the back ground and atmosphere of 12th-century England. One of- Nottingham Square, in the reign of Richard Lionheart-was constructed both on Denham lot and on one of the studio stages-to cater for both units.

Three sides of an irregular square were surrounded by houses, some half-timbered and all pre-fabricated in the plasterers shop under the direction of Master Plasterer Arthur Banks. The houses and shops made of plaster and wattle (which was in fact the building material of that period) had every appearance of solid antiquity in spite of their backing of tubular steel scaffolding. Most imposing was the Sheriff’s house, with its carved arches and steep outside staircase. Thatching was carried out by one of Britain’s oldest surviving craftsmen in this line Mr A. Gilder of Stoke Poges.

The centre of the square was filled with wattle hurdles and pens in which were enclosed game and produce of every type. By the time the stars, featured players and extras-numbering up to two hundred-had taken their place in the square it was hard to imagine a more convincing reproduction of life in 12th century England. It is in this setting that Robin Hood and his men ride in from the forest to rescue a poacher and a farmer who are suffering at the hands of the Sheriff of Nottingham and succeed in turning the tables on their hated persecutor.
The Great Hall, Nottingham Castle

Magnificent Illusion

Another fine set was the exterior and courtyard of Nottingham Castle, the scene of many of the most exciting and spectacular scenes in the film. On one side of the set a flight of steps ran up beside the forbidding stone wall of a Norman keep to an archway leading into the main building of the castle, facing, over a vast cobbled courtyard, ramparts overlooking the moat.

The drawbridge was a work of art in itself. Designed strictly on 12th century lines, this complicated piece of wooden mechanism had to be strong enough to bear the weight of a huge procession of crusaders clattering out of the courtyard on horseback. The impression of strength and solidity which pervaded this entire stage was overwhelming and yet the whole set was erected and painted in one day-due to the constant demands of the brisk schedule on studio floor space.

The secret again was meticulous pre-planning and prefabrication. The grey ‘stone’ walls were really plaster, cast in giant moulds and rigged onto movable steel scaffolding, while the forbidding curtain walls and towers, which looked as if they would defy an army, were in fact perspective cutouts. To aid the illusion of height and grandeur, the steps were designed in two flights, with a landing between them; the lower flight was quite shallow and the top one almost sheer.

These samples from the Robin Hood sets are sufficient to demonstrate the huge scale assignment tackled by Carmen Dillon on her latest appointment as art director and the great confidence placed in artistic talent by Walt Disney in the realisation of one of his most ambitious ventures.

'The Cinema Studio', November 1951 by Catherine O’Brien


Clement of the Glen said...

Carmen Dillon - Prejudice and Slacks

Walt Disney's Story of Robin Hood and his Merrie Men (1952)

'The Cinema Studio', November 1951 by Catherine O’Brien

Neil said...

I was elated too when I came across this revealing article of so long ago. It really serves to underline the huge scale of the film. Ken Annakin says in his autobiography that he was awe struck when he travelled through the gates of Denham Film Studios on that first day and he also states that two of the enormous stages at Denham had the Castle set with drawbridge and moat and the other which was over 200 ft wide the set of Robin Hood's camp and a still of this is shown here.
Also it is difficult to see when watching the film where the studio sets finish and the outdoor action starts. Carmen Dillon's sets here were among the best (probably THE best) I ever saw on film

Clement of the Glen said...

As you say, it is so hard to tell which sections of the scene were filmed outside or inside Denham Studios.

We sometimes forget how much work goes into the set design and artwork of a film. In this case such details as the medieval plastering and thatching.

Carmen Dillon stands out as a truely remarkable lady, not only wonderfully gifted but a true pioneer of her time, sadly I feel she never quite got the recognition she deserved.

Maria said...

I like the men wearing slacks their look more elegant,my father is always wearing it for his job.