On October 7, 2015, art director Gene Allen passed away at the age of 97 in Newport Beach, California from natural causes. Among his many achievements, he won Best Art Direction-Set Direction for his work on the 1964 Best Picture winner My Fair Lady, of whom the director George Cuckor was a frequent collaborator of his. He spent 27 years leading the Art Director Guild from 1970-1997 and was president of The President of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (AMPAS) for three years from 1983-1985. His massive amount of work continues to be loved for film lovers everywhere for his vibrant style and attention to detail. He leaves behind an impressive catalog that is likely to stimulate your mind.
Born Eugene Allen in June 17, 1918, he always had a passion for art. However, he was laid off and forced to become a Los Angeles police officer. He would later go on to serve in the United States Navy during World War II. Upon his return, he attended art school to pursue his dream. During this time, he went around to the various studios and presented his artwork to them in hopes of getting work. He was acclaimed for his unique creative and administrative talents and skills. Among his credits includes an uncredited role as assistant art director for the 1938 classic directed by Michael Curtiz called The Adventures of Robin Hood. They would work together later on A Breath of Scandal.
However, it wasn't until he met director George Cuckor that he found his true calling. The two first worked together on the 1954 remake of A Star is Born, starring Judy Garland. Among the three noteworthy adaptations, it is considered to be the best. He would receive his first Oscar nomination for Best Art Direction-Set Direction (Color) for this film. He would also receive another nomination three years later for Les Girls. They would continue to work together until the 1964 film My Fair Lady, where Allen won his only Oscar.
Even during his speech, he was modest and gave credit more towards Audrey Hepburn, who supposedly lit up the screen. Of course, the film was nothing without its extravagance. From the costumes to the design of Henry Higgins' study, the lavish musical was a fitting image. The songs about English connecting society have withstood the test of time with critics such as Roger Ebert calling it the best musical ever made. Of course, a large portion of this must be given to Allen, who helped to design the look with Cecil Beaton and George James Hopkins.
Beyond Cuckor and Curtiz, Allen also worked with other directors, including Gene Kelly (The Cheyenne Social Club) and Peter Bogdanovich (At Long Last Love). While he wasn't the most prolific art director, having last noteworthy credit on IMDb from 1985, he was integral behind the scenes. When he stepped down from his 27 year stint with the Art Directors Guild, successor Scott Roth said that:
“Gene Allen displayed verve and brio in his 27 years leading the Art Directors Guild. Add to this his service as an IATSE vice president, president of the Motion Picture Academy, and his multiple Oscar nominations (and wins) for Art Direction and you’re looking at a protean career unlikely soon to be matched."
Among his talents away from film, he remained a constant water color painter until his autumn years. He was renowned for his work, even having it displayed at the Art Directors Guild's own Gallery 800 in North Hollywood in 2014. If nothing else, this proved that he had a passion for his craft that is easy to be envious about. With a long and impressive career, he leaves behind a colorful, beautiful look into what cinema could be with a little creativity. Even if My Fair Lady remains his defining film, it's a great one to be remembered for. It's colorful, vibrant, and captured the life of cinema in its essence, much like Allen himself.