In a service to cinephiles/nerds everywhere, guest-Shadowplayer Mark Medin has created a pre-history of pre-code films that used the recently developed zoom lens. The list at bottom doesn’t claim to be complete — neither of us has seen every film from this period — but with your help, we can make it more so. Write in if you’ve seen a zoom in any Hollywood films of the period not listed below. And by all means spread the list around — we’d like to build up as complete a picture as possible of zoom use at the time.
Zooms In Cinema
1) Pre-history of the zoom
The zoom lens was not new when it first made its cinema appearance in 1927. It had been described many decades before and an example was even patented in 1902. For cinema of the time it wasn’t an ideal solution, as the cameraman had no way of seeing exactly what he was shooting while in the act of shooting it (true reflex finders didn’t arrive in cine cameras until the Arriflex, but see a clever way around the limitation below). One advantage is it needed to only be focused once and the lens would stay in focus throughout the shot. So, it had uses even in its original form for cinema and was developed and patented by more than one person. Now, the optical elements of a zoom could not be patented outside any novel lens formulae, but the mechanism used to zoom could and was. The problems were worked on, and so came a small number of patents. The first major one applied for came from Rolla T. Flora in early 1927 and was granted patent #1,790,232 in January 1931. This was what was known as the Paramount zoom, and was the earliest cine zoom used. The third was Joseph Walker’s zoom (#1,898,471 applied for September 1929 and granted March 1933). From a profile on Walker, he had been working on a practical zoom for years, but there is no evidence of a useful patent emerging from his work before this, and no evidence this mechanism itself was then useful. I’ve found no examples of the Walker zoom in use. So in the years from 1927 until 1932, the zoom lens was essentially exclusive to Paramount. It was used immediately: In the first shot of the 1927 film IT, when establishing the store setting: After the Waltham’s sign is shown, the camera tilts down then zooms to the bustling sidewalk storefront. Unfortunately a great number of Paramount films of the late silent era are lost so I can’t say how many times it was used in the silent era, but it was certainly used in early/precode sound. Director Erle Kenton was of course closely associated with its use. Some directors at Paramount used it only occasionally or perhaps not at all.
In early 1932, a commercially available zoom began to be sold by Bell and Howell (pat#1,947,669). This was known as the B&H/Cooke Varo. Initially it was made to order, but later was available as stock. In later advertisements the lens was said to have been acquired by all the major studios and by the government. As confirmation of studio use, I have found zooms in films by RKO, Fox, and MGM, but as yet no sightings in Warner/First National productions. The lens was also available as a rental to any reputable producer, so it may have found its way to independent producers or a small studio like Monogram.
2) Tech Gibberish (skip this if uninterested)
Now for a bit more optical tech geekiness. These early zooms had problems. With no existing antireflective coatings, the lenses could only have a limited number of glass-to-air surfaces (The fast Planar-type’s 8 was considered the maximum before light loss was too severe, though if you look at the Varo lens patent, it has 16!) Due to the light loss, they used a small number of glass elements to correct for optical aberrations, and the lenses had limited ability to change focal length (magnification). So the zooms were short on magnification (3x seemed the limit), very large, “slow” (from descriptions the fastest was f/3.5 – as slow as standard amateur cine lenses of the day), had uncorrected aberrations, and also had to be stopped down (to f/8) to be usable along the full length of the zoom. The B&H/Cooke Varo had another advertised limitation. Removable supplementary lenses for different distances were required, and these had to be changed out to suit the distance of the subject to the camera. I don’t know if the Paramount zoom was similarly limited (documentation apart from the patent doesn’t appear to exist online), but I wouldn’t be surprised to find out it had similar or other limitations. Also consider that without the ability to see each shot through the lens as it was being filmed (though a partial solution is shown), a zoom shot had to be framed in advance, and with just a viewfinder to use, only the extremes of the zoom’s framing range could be permanently marked in the viewfinder. Any smaller zoom ranges the director planned had to use a mask marked especially for the shot, which is why most zoom framing of the time is limited to keeping the most important part of the image framed as close to center as possible.
Despite all this, the zoom was used quite a bit in precode days. Most early uses at Paramount look to be functional/cost-saving and were not meant to be expressive, as in filming a shot without the trouble of having to use a crane or dolly. The one zoom shot in the film Only Saps Work illustrates this kind of use well. The shot is merely an overhead of Leon Errol in a car, and after he is zoomed in upon, he waves. Simple, and it saved the use of a crane. A more elaborate zoom use in Only The Brave had the camera follow Gary Cooper as he rode his horse and while panning, zoomed in. As the cameramen got familiar with how to use it, more expressive ways were found, but it still was limited.
Although use appeared to tail off during the ’30s, Paramount kept with development of the zoom, which led to another patent and a faster lens (f/2.7), though how far this design got in use is also a puzzle. (pat. 2,159,394). These zooms may not have been much in their day, but when Dr. Back created the Zoomar in the 1950s, he cited some of the design elements incorporated in these first zooms in his patent.
Zoom at 0:53, in case you’re doubtful.
A scattered, incomplete list of films which used the zoom:
It (1927) Paramount
Wings (1927)* Paramount
Our Modern Maidens (1929) MGM
Only Saps Work (1930) Paramount
Only The Brave (1930) Paramount
Guilty As Hell (1932) Paramount
Island of Lost Souls (1932) Paramount
Love Me Tonight (1932) Paramount
Make Me A Star (1932) Paramount
Prestige (1932) RKO
Thunder Below (1932) Paramount
What Price Hollywood (1932) RKO
Down To Earth (1933) Fox
From Hell To Heaven (1933) Paramount
King Of The Jungle (1933) Paramount
King Kong (1933) RKO
Night Flight (1933) MGM
Sweepings (1933) RKO
The Stranger’s Return (1933) MGM
Search for Beauty (1934) Paramount
Private Worlds (1935) Paramount
*: claimed in print but unconfirmed by viewing as yet.
(1) Journal of S.M.P.E. Oct. 1932, p.329-339