Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Set Design: Elephant Walk ( 1954 )

Elizabeth Taylor was caught in the middle of a love triangle and an elephant stampede in Paramount's 1954 adventure Elephant Walk. Dana Andrews and Peter Finch portrayed the two tea plantation owners vying for her affection. As lovely as Ms. Taylor was however, the real star of the show was the titular "Elephant Walk", Finch's sprawling "bungalow" in Ceylon, India. Built by Finch's father, it's name came from the fact that he had it constructed directly on the ancient old path that the elephants use to travel to their watering hole. He liked to be stubborn in that sort of way....but elephants can be stubborn too and they are not ready to give up their path so easily. 


Let's take a trek to the land of the monsoons and gawk at these glorious Technicolor screenshots of Elephant Walk, featuring the design work of Joseph McMillan Johnson and Hal Pereira. 

The film begins on a rainy day in England where we see Elizabeth Taylor as a book dealer ( the job doesn't suit her ) in the tiny village of Shillingworth. We only get to see a shilling's worth of the town in a rainy view of the window outside of Taylor's bookshop but the interior of this quaint little shop makes one love the village nonetheless. 


That's the wonderful British character actress Norma Varden who has her back turned towards the screen. Finch meets Taylor during one of this annual business expeditions to England and the two marry, whence he takes his new bride to Ceylon to live. 


"Why, I married a millionaire!" Taylor exclaims upon seeing the interior of her new home....as though she would ever marry a commoner. Finch whisks the happy bride over the threshold and then that's about it, as far as the marriageable bliss angle. Instead of consummating their marriage, her husband rather socialize with his pals on their first night home.  


The cronies come to stay every weekend and sponge off their ol' bean, enjoying "the gov'nas" Madeira, first class cigars, and of course...a rousing game of bicyclette polo ( you'll have to watch the movie to see how its played ), and Taylor realizes then that there are no British womenfolk for miles to have any tupperware parties with.


Johnson and Pereira did a marvelous job of designing a palatial manor befitting a British tea mogul. Black wood floors and heavy beam columns hearken the spirit of the imperialistic conqueror, while bare marble floors echo the coldness of Taylor's love life. 


The kitchen is especially grand. Taylor decides to preoccupy herself by taking over the kitchen and other "women's work"....but the chief caretaker, Appuhamy, highly disapproves. And one does not cross paths with Appuhamy ( unless you're an elephant ).


Even if she doesn't have a social life, she never has to worry about starving on the plantation. Take a look at that kitchen pantry!  


Finch takes a spill over the banister during one of the polo games and ends up with a busted leg. This puts him in an ornery mood and obeying doctor's orders, is confined to the upstairs bedroom. Elephant Walk must have at least a dozen bedrooms, but unfortunately, this is the only one we get to see. 


Those intricately carved edges around the doorways are gilded in a sparkling silver, which glitters enormously depending on the resolution of your television set. Outside the bedroom is a wide balcony with the perfect little wicker writing desk, which Taylor uses to pen letters to her mother back in Shillingworth-on-the-Thames. She isn't all together happy at the Ceylon stomping grounds since she found out about the spirit of Finch's old man residing there. 

Her only ally among the men folk is Dana Andrews, who wants her to run away from Elephant Walk and all its symbolic references to the past, and marry him instead. 

Andrews doesn't own an Elephant Walk, he owns a real bungalow instead...a small one: 


( Be sure to take advantage of our sloppy pastiche and click on the image for a larger view. )
Seeing what a swell place he has, she decides maybe it is best to leave Finch and go with Andrews instead, but.....


...a cholera breaks out on the plantation! Drats. Now Ruth and Dick ( that's Taylor and Andrews' characters ) are kept within the confines of the place and cannot leave. The plantation gets turned into a hospital and Elephant Walk becomes a veritable warehouse for medical supplies. 



After seeing how she handles the situation, Appuhamy comes to respect Taylor as the new mistress of Elephant Walk, but the elephants, led by Old Bull, are still resentful no matter who resides there. They want their path back and are willing to bust through the barriers to get to it. 

When Elephant Walk was released, Liz Taylor and its marvelous elephant stampede sequence were touted as the film's drawing features. We think the whole atmosphere of the film make it enjoyable to watch, and this of course, is due to the talents of its art directors and set decorators. 


The set decorators did a great job with all the tiny details. Just look at the wear on those old crates, and even the cups and saucers used in the house bear the Elephant Walk tea logo. The set decoration for Elephant Walk was handled by Sam Comer and Grace Gregory, two highly talented individuals who beautified the sets of White Christmas, Houseboat, Omar Khayyam, The Naked Jungle, Blue Hawaii and The Ten Commandments. 

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