Russell A. Gausman

Active - 1938 - 1960  |   Born - Jul 4, 1892   |   Died - May 20, 1963   |   Genres - Drama, Comedy, Western, Romance, Action

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Biography by Bruce Eder

Russell A. Gausman managed to carve a name for himself as a set designer and art director at a single studio, Universal. In a 29-year career, he worked on over 500 films, ranging from sophisticated comedies such as The Rage of Paris to German expressionist-influenced horror vehicles such as Son of Frankenstein, satirical comedies such as The Bank Dick, slapstick vehicles like Buck Privates, and film noir classics such as The Killers (1946) and The Naked City. His screen career started with an uncredited contribution to Tod Browning's Dracula in 1931, and from 1938 onward he was one of the busiest art directors and set designers on the Universal lot, responsible for the look of most of the horror films made there (especially the various Frankenstein-related vehicles of the early '40s, and the Mummy films with Lon Chaney Jr.), as well as virtually all of the Basil Rathbone/Nigel Bruce Sherlock Holmes movies, and innumerable comedies starring W.C. Fields, Bud Abbott, and Lou Costello, and lots of lesser lights. He was very good at designing for dark, black-and-white vehicles, achieving a virtual visual "symphony" working in conjunction with director Robert Siodmak on films such as Phantom Lady and The Killers. He also worked on some attractive color films during the 1940s, such as the programmers Frontier Gal and Salome Where She Danced, and won an Academy Award for his set designs on Phantom of the Opera, but it was on the black-and-white films that his sets quietly insinuated themselves into the viewer's consciousness, like characters unto themselves; and even in lesser films, such as Abbott & Costello Meet the Killer, Boris Karloff, Gausman found room for some bravura pieces of visual magic, such as the cavern sequence in the latter movie. During the early '50s, he engaged in important collaborations with director Jack Arnold on some of his most visually interesting films, including It Came From Outer Space, The Glass Web, and Creature From the Black Lagoon, a trio of 3-D thrillers. Some of his color work during the 1950s, on movies such as This Island Earth, has always stood out, by virtue of its unusual character (the latter being a very well-made sci-fi adventure), while other examples, such as his work on such Douglas Sirk-directed vehicles as Captain Lightfoot, Taza, Son of Cochise, Written on the Wind, The Tarnished Angels, and Imitation of Life, are only now being appreciated in the course of the ever-increasing critical fascination with Sirk's career. Gausman also worked on such small films of the era as Joe Dakota and The Saga of Hemp Brown, which in later years are being taken more seriously as good, solid, unusually plotted B-Westerns. Gausman got his first Oscar nomination in 1941 for The Flame of New Orleans, and was competing with himself the following year, with nominations for The Spoilers and The Arabian Nights. He won his first Academy Award in 1943 for his work on Phantom of the Opera, perhaps the best-looking film that Universal ever made; on that production, Gausman and the rest of the visual production team expanded broadly on the original sets (which, in some instances, were still standing) from the earlier '20s silent production. He was subsequently nominated for his design work on Pillow Talk, and won again in 1960 for Spartacus. As with many old Hollywood hands, Gausman took on whatever projects, large or small, that he was assigned by the studio; Spartacus notwithstanding, by the start of the 1960s, Universal was retrenching, and Gausman finished his career working on Edward Dein's The Leech Woman (1960), a horror vehicle that was a far cry from Dracula.

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