Archive for William Cameron Menzies

The Monday Intertitle: No Atheists in the Foxholes

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on January 13, 2014 by dcairns


I was wondering, looking at early Lewis Milestone talkies, what made him so kinetic and exciting? The charging camera of ALL QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT, surging headlong across the battlefields, is the best-known example of this, but the kinetic, fluid and nimble movements of RAIN are extraordinary, and in THE FRONT PAGE he seems to be pushing for the steadicam thrillrides of vintage Scorsese before the technology existed to allow it. In the less celebrated NEW YORK NIGHTS he goes so far as to stick his camera in a dumb-waiter and ride it up to the second floor. Yet my impression was that in silents, Milestone had not distinguished himself with the dynamism of his camerawork. Why did he becomes so willfully fleet-footed at exactly the moment sound technology made the roving eye of something like WINGS almost impossible to achieve?

(The other guy with itchy tracks was Tay Garnett, whose restless visuals in BAD COMPANY paved the way for SCARFACE, no question, and who combined tracking and panning with the Paramount zoom lens on PRESTIGE, with results that seem to echo Visconti or Fulci for ADHD antsiness.)


So seeing TWO ARABIAN NIGHTS, a big-budget WWI romp (a far cry from the anti-war sentiments of ALL QUIET) from 1927, is instructive. It’s true, there are few impressive camera movements, but nor are we stiff or static. Designer William Cameron Menzies is much in evidence, a man who liked to design not just sets but SHOTS, reducing the director to mere drama coach for the cast (here, a pre-Hopalong Cassidy William Boyd and thuggish Louis Wolheim, paired as an imitation of Edmund Lowe and Victor McLaglan in the previous year’s Raoul Walsh smash WHAT PRICE GLORY?). Early on, the two frenemies are fighting in a crater, unmindful of the encroaching Germans. When they realize they’re surrounded, we get two shots which flamboyantly make this apparent, one a low-angle POV, in which the shallow ditch they’re in is suddenly fifty feet deep to afford the best view, and a God Shot looking down like Busby Berkeley in which the bomb-site is a fairly shallow depression, but much wider. The lesson comes from German expressionism, of which Menzies was a student — a different set for each angle gives you the strongest possible graphic impact, which is fine if what graphic impact is what you want.


At any rate, the central mystery remains, and will do until I’ve seen more silent Milestone, preferably with the distinctive influence of Menzies removed from the equation. Unfortunately, I’ve only got THE RACKET to watch, plus FINE MANNERS and THE KID BROTHER, each of which Milestone directed parts of — and we don’t know which parts.

How about a Lewis Milestone Week, everybody?

Get Off The Earth

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , on November 16, 2012 by dcairns

From arch-Shadowplayer Mark Medin, this poster for a Raymond Griffith comedy that never got made — I think the coming of sound stymied it, since Griffith famously had damaged vocal cords and couldn’t speak above a whisper. In any case, it looks like a gigantic project ~

The sensational comedy novelty of

1926, from “The Ship That Sailed

to Mars” by W.M. Timlin.

THE high-hat comedian absolutely tops every-

thing he has ever done in his life before in this

startling surprise offering! Hurrying down Fifth

Avenue, New York, to his wedding, Raymond sud-

denly spins right off the earth up into a dizzy but

delightful paradise of beautiful damsels, mon-

strous-sized animals and more fun than twenty

normal worlds like ours! Of course Raymond

comes back to earth and marries the girl but — ?

Clarence Badger directed PATHS TO PARADISE which, though sadly incomplete, is perhaps the best surviving R.G. comedy. I recommend it. And if you should find yourself in a parallel universe where GET OFF THE EARTH was made (perhaps with FX by Willis O’Brien, but more likely using the animatronic dinosaur approach put together by William Cameron Menzies and his team for Howard Hawks’ FIG LEAVES), please check it out and report back to me.

Poster was originally uploaded by Bruce Calvert, to whom thanks are due.

The Sunday Intertitle: Primeval Genius

Posted in FILM, Mythology with tags , , , , , , , , , on November 20, 2011 by dcairns

Howard Hawks was probably right to reckon that his movies came into their own when they started talking, but that doesn’t mean his silents are devoid of interest — they’re just damned hard to see. A GIRL IN EVERY PORT at least ought to be more widely available, but it was made at Fox and so has vanished into a black hole (not even light can escape, though the great Ford & Borzage box set did manage to make it out, a lone blip alas). And so to FIG LEAVES —

A nice dinosaur with long eyelashes.

We open in the Garden of Eden, envisaged as part of stone age times, so Darwin and Biblical Creation co-exist happily. The scene-setter is a cave-man getting walloped by a giant chimpanzee, leant height by forced perspective sets courtesy of William Cameron Menzies. In fact, that might be one of the giant chimps from the Menzies-designed THIEF OF BAGDAD, minus the fetching black satin shorts Mitchell Leisen provided. How many chimpanzees in Hollywood were there willing to be subjected to optical illusion growth?

From there we go to Adam’s love shack, where he (George SUNRISE O’Brien) and Eve (Olive “the Joy Girl” Borden) snooze in their twin beds, a trickling sand device eventually tipping a coconut onto George’s noggin to wake him. This delightful prelapsarian Flintstones fantasy world segues into a slightly less interesting contemporary section, essaying standard domestic comedy situations with a pronounced sexist slant surprising and disappointing in Hawks (and his male and female writing partners).

I kind of wish they’d kept it all stone age — the main advantage of the modern stuff is some snazzy fashion show bits of catwalk finery by Adrian. I guess cro-magnon times offered fewer opportunities for flapper garb, although I did admire George’s fur mankini.

Generally, Hawks romcoms can be divided into those which have goofy gimmicks, and those that have strong, interesting and convincing story worlds. This one is firmly in the same category as MONKEY BUSINESS, which — hey! — had a chimp in it too. And begins with Hawks’ offscreen voice directing Cary Grant. I like MONKEY BUSINESS. It’s not great or anything, but it’s fun. And so with FIG LEAVES.