Art Director. Nationality: American. Education: Studied architecture in France. Career: Early 1930s—worked for the architect Arthur Brown, Jr., San Francisco, four years; 1936—hired as draftsman by MGM art department, after two years began working on films. Awards: Academy Award for An American in Paris , 1951; Gigi , 1958. Died: Of a heart attack in Los Angeles, California, 20 July 1983.
Lady in the Lake (Montgomery); No Leave, No Love (Martin); The Show-Off (Beaumont)
Three Daring Daughters (Wilcox); The Big City (Taurog)
That Midnight Kiss (Taurog); Outriders (Rowland); The Doctor and the Girl (Bernhardt)
Crisis (Minnelli); Two Weeks—with Love (Rowland)
An American in Paris (Minnelli); Dear Brat (Seiter); Rhubarb (Lubin); Submarine Command (Farrow); Sailor Beware (Walker)
The Wild North
The Band Wagon (Minnelli); Torch Song (Walters); The Story of Three Loves (Reinhardt and Minnelli)
Lust for Life (Minnelli); These Wilder Years (Rowland)
Designing Woman (Minnelli)
Green Mansions (M. Ferrer); The Big Operator (Haas)
Bells are Ringing (Minnelli); Home from the Hill (Minnelli); Where the Boys Are (Levin)
The Honeymoon Machine (Thorpe); Wild in the Country (Dunne)
All Fall Down (Frankenheimer); Jumbo ( Billy Rose's Jumbo ) (Walters)
It Happened at the World's Fair (Taurog)
A Global Affair (Arnold); The Unsinkable Molly Brown (Walters)
Quick, Before It Melts (Delbert Mann)
Made in Paris (Sagal); Penelope (Hiller)
The Impossible Years (Gordon); Live a Little, Love a Little (Taurog)
Airport (Seaton); Brewster McCloud (Altman); The Strawberry Statement (Hagmann)
Lost Horizon (Jarrott)
The Don Is Dead ( Beautiful but Deadly ) (Fleischer)
Rooster Cogburn (Millar); Babe (Kulik); The Lives of Jenny Dolan (Jameson); The Prisoner of Second Avenue (Frank)
Woman of the Year (Taylor)
Damnation Alley (Smight)
A Family Upside Down (Rich); The Cat from Outer Space (Tokar)
Beyond the Poseidon Adventure (Allen)
The Pursuit of D. B. Cooper (Spottiswoode)
Bare Essence (Grauman)
"Art Direction: The Technical Approach to Design and Construction," in IATSE Official Bulletin , Winter 1963.
In Hollywood Speaks! An Oral History , by Mike Steen, New York, 1974.
Filmmakers Monthly (Ward Hill, Massachusetts), June 1979.
In Dance in the Hollywood Musical , by Jerome Delamater, Ann Arbor, Michigan, 1981.
Obituary, in Variety (New York), 27 July 1983.
* * *
Preston Ames's most notable successes in Hollywood art direction took place during MGM's golden musical era. His greatest work was produced while working with director Vincente Minnelli. His portfolio includes such titles as An American in Paris , The Band Wagon , Brigadoon , Kismet , Lust for Life , Designing Woman , Bells Are Ringing , and that adorable piece of Art Nouveau fluff, Gigi .
Minnelli was a highly visual director with a great concern for detail. In the 1930s the concern for decor had been the Hollywood norm, particularly at MGM. However, the self-depriving war years had tarnished the luster of the glamor capital's looking-glass. Then, in reaction to an era of sacrifice, opulence returned to America in the 1950s. Unfortunately, this was often at the expense of sophistication. Minnelli's iconoclastic artistic vision belied this trend. His demands for specific images often perplexed the studio and he often clashed with the iron wills of both the Art Department head Cedric Gibbons and those new dictators of Hollywood—the special consultants from Technicolor. To work for such a creative maverick as Minnelli was an art director's dream, and such an opportunity came countless times to Ames.
Ames's most interesting assignments were for the Minnelli films An American in Paris and Lust for Life . The former was his first film with Minnelli, and somewhat appropriate since the American-born Ames had studied architecture in Paris and the film was about an American painter living in France. The movie, however, is far from a realistic depiction of life on the left bank. It is more a stateside fantasy of Paris life than cinéma vérité , colorful and quaint, with every set begging for a background of accordion music and spatially constructed for the Gene Kelly-Leslie Caron dance numbers. One of the less reproduced but fascinating designs was for a Follies Bergèretype number that did not feature the two principal dancers. "I'll Climb a Stairway to Paradise" had a long pink staircase with each stair electrically lit at the tap of the cabaret star's foot. At the base of its railing was a bevy of beautiful showgirls posing as ornaments and wearing enormous candelabras that would have made Carmen Miranda wince. It was an elaborate and difficult construction task, very uncomfortable for the showgirls, and it no doubt rekindled some fond memories for Cedric Gibbons about the good old days.
The most important number in the film, of course, was the "American in Paris" ballet. This production probably won the movie its many Academy Awards, including the one for Ames as art director. The credit cannot be given only to Ames, for costume designer Irene Sharaff also contributed a great deal to the sets. What made the film unique was its use of late 19th-century French art as the basis of design. It was not just the style and colors of painters such as Henri Rousseau, Toulouse-Lautrec and Raoul Dufy that were used. There was an attempt to emphasize the two-dimensional quality of these paintings on film, which, though a two-dimensional medium itself, almost exclusively aims at three-dimensional illusionism. (I should add that a similar attempt had been made as recently as 1944 in England when Olivier's Henry V used medieval illuminated manuscripts as a source for art direction.) Such an issue would be important to American artists of the 1950s, still battling with a general public unable to deal with non-objective art and mainly in love with impressionism for its "prettiness and charm."
Minnelli and Ames tried a similar approach when filming the Van Gogh biography Lust for Life . This time color played an even greater role. As Van Gogh's life progressed (or regressed) the colors of the film grew as intense as the colors in his paintings, indicating over-whelming madness.
Ames's films without Minnelli were not nearly as visually exciting. Lost Horizon as a musical remake was a pretentious flop, and Airport —well, there is only so much you can do with the inside of a plane. But due to his unusual achievements on the Minnelli films, we'll remember Ames well.
—Edith C. Lee