When I participated in the second annual Coronado Island Film Festival in November I didn’t expect to come upon a treasure trove of Hollywood history in the town’s public library. I also met the man responsible for it, local resident Phil Garn, the grandson of Oscar-winning art director Alexander Golitzen. Naturally I knew Golitzen’s name, as it appeared in countless screen credits over the years. He was the supervising art director at Universal Pictures from 1943 to 1973—or, to put it another way, from the Claude Rains version of Phantom of the Opera to Earthquake. He was nominated for 14 Academy Awards and won three, for Phantom, Spartacus, and To Kill a Mockingbird, all shared with his colleagues in the art department.
One of the Oscar statuettes was on display, which is always cool, but it isn’t every day you get to see a personal letter from Stanley Kubrick. It was written in January of 1961 from his home base in England. We’ve been told that the filmmaker wasn’t happy with Spartacus, but in this friendly note he says, “I think you must know how much I would like to do another film with you, and despite the few idiotic arguments we had, how much respect I have for you and what a great job I think you did. Every time I see the film again I notice more wonderful set details.” Alongside the note was a candid shot of Golitzen on location in Spain for Spartacus taken by Kubrick, who launched his career as a photojournalist.
Another black & white photo made me do a double-take: it shows several men observing the majestic scenery of Monument Valley. Among them are director John Ford, cinematographer Bert Glennon, and Alex Golitzen. This still captures Ford’s first visit to the location that he would soon make famous. What a precious moment this is! Alex had just served as assistant art director on Ford’s The Hurricane and looked forward to working on Stagecoach, but he was summoned by Samuel Goldwyn to work on The Goldwyn Follies instead. Talk about a lost opportunity.
When Phil Garn saw how excited I was he generously allowed me to go through some of his grandfather’s personal scrapbooks. I tried to keep my jaw from falling to the floor like a Tex Avery character with the turn of each page. Although Alex passed away in 2005, we can be grateful that Barbara Hall of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences conducted an oral history with him. He was an eyewitness to, and participant in, so many milestones in Hollywood history.
Born in Moscow in 1908, he escaped from the Bolsheviks and rode a train across Siberia. He settled in Harbin, China for a few years before emigrating to the United States at the age of 16. Golitzen earned a degree in architecture from the University of Washington, then moved to Los Angeles, where his first movie job—of all things—was as a trick rider in the 1928 silent film The Cossacks. Before long, he was working as a sketch artist and draftsman, primarily at United Artists. One of his mentors was the great Richard Day, who earned seven Oscars over his long career. Alex worked on a wide variety of films for producers Samuel Goldwyn and Walter Wanger. It was Wanger who took Alex with him to Universal in the early 1940s, where Golitzen remained for the rest of his career.
Now retired from government service, Phil put in many hours to prepare a presentation about his famous family member, and wrote about his career in detail. “He served on the Board of Governors [of the Academy] with Gregory Peck. He designed sets for the Academy Awards, prize-winning floats for the Tournament of Roses Parade, his own house, which was one of the few in the neighborhood that survived the Northridge earthquake, and a chocolate factory in Japan. He worked on camouflage for the military during World War II, raised a son and daughter, five grandchildren and four great grandchildren.” His grandkids called him Sasha. In addition to his busy work schedule, he sat on the Academy’s Foreign Language Film committee for many years. “‘Six days a week with scripts and foreign films on Sundays,’ ” as he and my grandmother used to say.” Garn also told me that Alex tended to downplay his work in television as he considered himself a movie guy, but in fact he worked on all the Revue-MCA shows like Alfred Hitchcock Presents, The Munsters, McHale’s Navy, Ironside, The Jack Benny Show, Dragnet, Adam-12, Emergency, and Columbo.
In 1955 Edward Muhl, the head of production for Universal (then called Universal-International) appointed Alex as supervisor of the art department. When Richard Day at Fox heard the news he told a mutual friend, “It is a sad day to see Alex Golitzen go behind the desk. He was one of the great talents to come into the business.” Alex said, ‘If you have too much administrative work your artistic ability does not have enough opportunity for expression and could be lost.” Aware of this, he remained a hands-on participant as well as a supervisor.
How many people could claim that they designed Max Ophuls’ Letter from an Unknown Woman and remained at Universal long enough to work with Don Siegel, Bob Fosse, and Clint Eastwood? Alexander Golitzen kept busy even in retirement, and passed away in 2005.
I am grateful to Phil Garn for allowing me to share some of his grandfather’s photos and memorabilia with you. I’m saving another “find” from this personal archive for my next post: rarely-seen illustrations by the legendary Disney artist Mary Blair.