From High Art to Pop Art—the Americanization of a Russian Cineaste

Steven P. Hill, University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign

Evgenij Lur'e (1903-1991; variously spelled Yevgenii Lurye, Eugene Lourie, Gene Lourie) had one of the most striking film careers of any Russian-Jewish expatriate. And a career not easy to trace in all its particulars, as published material is sparse. Despite attaining the heights of intellectual prestige in France in the 1930s (considered by some as the outstanding set designer in all French cinema), and plumbing the depths of commercial "exploitation" in Hollywood (director of several "creature" and "disaster" movies in the 1950s and 1960s), Lourie needs a more in-depth study than he has so far been accorded. Hence this preliminary attempt in that direction.

The only detailed account of SOME phases of Lourie's life and film work seems to be his little-noted auto-biography, with the nondescript title of My Work in Films (Harcourt, 1985, 369 pp.). In its 19 chapters, the precise but rather impersonal technician Lourie discourses at length about only 19 of his film, television, and stage assignments. Published obituaries when he died at 88 in Southern California were very sparse, and the New York Times in a slim note of 24 lines (buried at the bottom of a column (5/30/91, D-20) even made one mistake in his credits. But in a career in film extending from Russia (briefly, 1919) through France (1923-1940), then Hollywood and eventually West European film studios (1943-80) and US television (1971-80), Lourie's total output ("credits") adds up to 89 or more films. (Not counting at least 3 small acting appearances by Lourie -- one of which, Breathless ['83], will be illustrated in this talk by a video clip.)

The subject is worthy of further exploration particularly because "Monsieur" Eugene Lourie gained so much prestige in France in the 1930s as the designer who helped create the visual look of some of the most serious, intellectually important French films of all time, working with several significant French directors, especially Jean Renoir. In France Lourie designed the memorable backgrounds for Renoir in: Mme. Bovary ('33), Lower Depths ('36), Grand Illusion ('37), Human Beast ('38), and Rules of the Game ('39). He then followed Renoir to Hollywood, where he learned English and for Renoir he designed the sets for 4 more major, "serious" films. In his first decade in Hollywood, the inventive, never-at-a-loss Lourie also designed the look and devised ingenious technical effects for a number of other significant directors like Korda (Zoltan), Litvak, even Chaplin (Limelight '51).

Also worthy of examination, from a rather different perspective, is the "decline" of Lourie's career, when it could be considered that he sold out to sensationalism and commercial exploitation. Now 100% Americanized as"Gene Lourie," and seemingly ready to tackle any asignment, even those aimed at teen-age "drive-in" audiences, in the 1950s the former highbrow created the designs and/or technical effects in such genres as narcotics exploitation, horror, "disaster," even "Bikini Paradise." Lourie eventually rose to DIRECTOR, and became widely recognized in commercial Hollywood as one of the "ace directors of creature features"! One wonders, did Lourie ever live down the fact that the first gigantic "atomic mutant" dinosaur he himself directed (Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, 1953) seems to have inspired the whole lamentable series of Japanese "Godzilla" movies (1954-?).