The Dreams of a Creative Begetter

An image of Cairns can be seen in this picture, which was uploaded to a website in the year 2011.

The city of Hollywood is ablaze, with flames of red consuming the entrance of Skull Island from the iconic King Kong as well as the wall of Jerusalem from Cecil B. DeMille’s The King of Kings. This fabricated city was dressed up to resemble Atlanta for the filming of Gone with the Wind in 1939. The man responsible for capturing the destruction on camera was William Cameron Menzies.

Menzies was a multi-hyphenate responsible for the visual appearance of Gone with the Wind, and his work spanned from large-budget films to low-budget ones. His style was characterized by intense close-ups, compositions in curved lines, symmetrical or asymmetrical arrangement of elements, and leaving the frame filled with blankness with the subject being pushed to the edges of the screen.

A series of 7 drawings, thought to be from William Cameron Menzies, in gouache and watercolor were created to illustrate the scene of “burning of Atlanta” from Gone with the Wind. Provided by Selznick Properties and the Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center of the University of Texas at Austin, these storyboard images are here seen.

His directing credits traverse a variety of genres and political ideologies. Address Unknown (1944) is a noteworthy anti-Nazi work, however, when the Cold War intensified, The Whip Hand (1951) was edited to make the antagonists communist rather than Nazi fugitives. Invaders from Mars (1953) could have embraced a Red Scare agenda, but opted to pursue the aesthetic potential of low-budget science fiction, a child’s perspective, and dream scenes instead. Finally, The Maze (1953) is a movie about a gargantuan frog.

The primary focus of Menzies’ understanding was not a political one, nor a thematic one, but a notion of cinema being a dream originating from an individual artist, visible on the plain screen. The strength of movies lies within the imagery, the frame, and the action which gives the designer control over the image’s quality, rather than the director, producer, or the cinematographer.

No matter the title of his job (which may not accurately reflect this multifaceted individual’s contributions), Menzies’ impact on any given production is visible in the result. He believed that each image should make a bold visual statement. By plotting out the set design, the camera angles, the actors’ movements, and the lighting design, he could determine the entire look of the movie.1

In the films he helmed, Menzies’ focus on storyboard preparation reveals two deficiencies: they can lack the graceful motion of films without such planning, and the performances, while usually excellent, may be subordinated to the requirements of visual design.

In 1918, Menzies, a former illustrator of children’s books, landed a job as a film art director and got his big break with the Douglas Fairbanks production of The Thief of Bagdad (1924). Collaborating with Anton Grot, who was highly respected in the field, the two men created a style of set design that guided the camera’s position, and the design of the film was composed. The set design for The Thief of Bagdad featured a combination of Middle Eastern fairy tale, art deco, and art nouveau elements, with an immense walled city and a soaring white palace as the centerpiece. Grot would later help to create the Warner Bros. look, with light and shade in movies like Little Caesar (1931) and a glossy aesthetic for The Sea Hawk (1940).

This is a movie of vast proportions yet enclosed by the tight walls, minarets, and alleyways of the city. Even away from the urban sprawl, the walls of the desert block out the sky. As Fairbanks travels, the landscapes of sand and stars and the steep canyons of stone blend together. Similarly, a Fellini-style sea of plastic sheeting limits his sea voyage and even his trip to the moon.

Menzies’ immense popularity and success, due to the Fairbanks swashbuckler, placed him at the top of his field. He moved on from there and designed numerous historical epics, such as The Beloved Rogue in 1927. The movie set in 15th century Paris featured a cartoonish expressionism with leaning, curving walls and oddly shaped towers and rooftops.

This type of architecture may have served as an inspiration for Dr. Seuss for the loopy architecture in his books. The casting of the movie also added to the weirdness of the atmosphere with Barrymore surrounded by variously shaped sidekicks, which made his own athletic physique stand out even more. It was almost as if a storybook had become alive.

When sound became commonplace in the film industry, Menzies was apprehensive as it posed the risk of overpowered audio from microphones as opposed to the compositional techniques he was used to. Initially, the transition to using sound in movies caused them to be stiff and still, much like a play that was being filmed from the audience. But the disorder caused by the introduction of sound enabled Menzies to campaign for a more prominent part in the filmmaking process.

For Bulldog Drummond (1929), he was able to secure the position of co-writer of the screenplay, with a focus on the potential visual aspects.

The finished product still has an artificial feel to it, but certain scenes where Menzies had creative control come alive. We are first introduced to a drowsy London gentleman’s club, where the camera slithers along the floor and the figures seem to be as still as a mountain range from a low angle. When there is some nefarious activity later in the movie, it takes place in a mad scientist’s lab, full of bubbling concoctions.

Menzies arranges the beakers across the screen, as if they are glued to it, and we can see the actors through the glassware.

In Alibi (1929), many of the dialogue scenes seem like the camera had been turned on unintentionally; however, Menzies’s influence is evident in the short, eye-catching visual interludes. The establishing shots, as opposed to being just a backdrop, build on a dynamic art-deco perspective, forcefully attracting the viewer in.

The screenplay for Alice in Wonderland (1933), written by Menzies with help of Joseph Mankiewicz, is a combination of favorite scenes from both Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass. It is chosen based on the visuals it can offer rather than its logic and coherence, as seen in the casting of W. C. Fields as Humpty Dumpty. Watching the film makes one realize the rationality behind Lewis Carroll’s nonsensical stories.

Menzies could not comprehend the rationale behind Carroll’s absurdity, but he was certainly adept at exploiting the distorted scales, the strange settings and characters, and the collapsing reality. The best part of the movie is its nightmarish climax which includes a plethora of sight gags and grotesque visuals as Alice’s dream disintegrates. Menzies was good at portraying Hollywood-style dreams, and even better at conveying the sensation of confusion and disorientation when a dream does not go as planned and reality steps in.

Three main classes of directors can be identified when looking at the work of Menzies. There are those without any visual style, who are usually overshadowed by the designer’s plan, but who may fail if they try to resist it. Others have a strong enough visual presence that they can make Menzies just a regular art director without diminishing the work.

Hitchcock appreciated the expansive European cityscapes Menzies created for Foreign Correspondent (1940) with none of the results looking like the Menzies style. And there are a few directors whose work so closely integrates with Menzies that it is difficult to tell where one starts and the other finishes. Spellbound (1945) is the exception, as the Freudian dreamscape credited to Dali and Hitch was largely a result of reshoots directed by Menzies.

Anthony Mann, a Hollywood veteran who was known for his various genres, created one movie with the help of Menzies, Reign of Terror (or The Black Book). This 1949 French Revolution movie was elevated to a higher level due to its relentless, feverish energy and its vibrant visuals. The two collaborators, together with the renowned noir cinematographer John Alton, form a unique triangle which produces images of warped faces, gripping darkness, as well as peculiarly slanted angles.

The dialogue (Robespierre’s “Don’t call me Max!” is a memorable line in Hollywood history) and an intricate story of espionage add to this extraordinary combination of the three artists’ distinct characteristics.

The long-lasting collaboration between Sam Wood, a wing nut and journeyman director, and Menzies saw Wood channeling the latter’s stylistic excess while adding more attention to performance. This allowed a greater fluidity to the style, as Wood was interested in people as more than just elements in a composition. Despite this, Menzies’ shock-cuts, leering close-ups, and extreme angles were still present in movies such as Ivy (1947).

For example, the point-of-view shots often left the majority of the image void, yet the meaning of the shot was still as arresting.

The pairing of Wood and Menzies (with Menzies typically taking the producer credit, leaving us to guess his other roles through the recognizable evidence on the screen) comprises three American classics, The Pride of the Yankees (1942) starring Gary Cooper as Lou Gehrig, and the unusual two-in-one movie Our Town (1940) and Kings Row (1942). In the former, Thornton Wilder’s bare stage evolves into a visible, if sometimes intangible, town; it fades away to different eras during the opening, and then turns into a spiritual afterlife where large figures appear in a far-reaching focus.

Kings Row, the movie where Ronald Reagan says “Where’s the rest of me?”, is the opposite of Our Town ‘s paradise. Adapted from a risqué best seller, it presents a small community of serious corruption and hidden secrets, the Twin Peaks of its time. Menzies contributes with surreal angles and gigantic foreground props, turning the most simplistic kitchen into an amusement park of distorted mirrors.

With his proclivity for shapes, Menzies’ Mr. Lucky (1943) presents a memorable scene. As a character is about to tell a story, we are taken along an alley made of stacked crates that, through a quick dissolve, transforms into a thin slit of a doorway. This then opens to a breathtaking faux ship in port. The director’s technique of condensing a moment to lines and points allows him to bridge the gap between places and eras with geometry.

In 1936, Menzies was brought to the UK, having been the one responsible for Things to Come, which was penned by the illustrious H. G. Wells. The intention may have been to retaliate against Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927) but, due to its characters being reduced to mere ideological stands, its preference for grandiosity and spectacle over any kind of human drama, and its complete disregard for humor, it only served to highlight the criticisms of Lang’s work. Stanley Kubrick, upon having watched the film on Arthur C. Clarke’s suggestion while preparing for 2001: A Space Odyssey, declared “I’ll never listen to another movie recommendation you make.”

In spite of a lackluster script, the design of the film is grandiose with a combination of Plexiglas, neon, Lucite and white plaster, all courtesy of the incredible designer Vincent Korda. Actors in this production are mainly asked to wear gigantic hats or to be positioned in certain ways to accentuate the sweeping ellipses and towering shafts.

Menzies’s most remarkable work in the science fiction field is Invaders from Mars, a low budget movie with a plot line of collectable cards that introduces us to the unknown. At the end of the movie it is revealed to be a child’s nightmare, but the movie has three individual parts. The first part is dreamlike and the sets constructed by Menzies create a strange optical illusion.

The middle section is a vivid, comic book-like fantasy with the camera angles appearing as if they were designed for speech bubbles. The last part, which should be a fast-paced ending, instead becomes a strange avant-garde display with the movie playing over and over and the protagonist struggling to wake up from the surreal images. Hollywood never got more eccentric than this.

The narrative of The Maze appears to be a push to go even further. It follows the odd story of a man who has never progressed from the amphibian evolutionary stage, and is Menzies’ closing feature as director and his only one in 3-D. However, the intense visuals in his past works do not necessitate such a trick.

There were longstanding whispers that Invaders from Mars was filmed in three dimensions, although it only appeared to be. Moreover, his best drama Address Unknown has scenes that actually make people shudder, as Menzies presents a cluster of Aryans with bulbous heads towards us, or depicts Nazi troopers stabbing their way through a security curtain, as if they were cutting through the movie screen and coming after us.

Menzies was a quintessential Hollywood figure, yet his accomplishments ran contrary to the general rules of movie-making. He managed to be the primary creator of his films, despite not being the director or producer. He circumvented the industry’s established roles by taking artistic control of the moving image, no matter what job title he had or made up for himself.

Arnold Schoenberg, when requested to compose music for The Good Earth, proposed that he should have control over every constituent of the soundtrack, including the dialogue. However, this suggestion was declined by MGM. In contrast, Menzies had the freedom to implement a comparable audacious approach.

Much appreciation should be expressed to David Bordwell and Glenn Erickson for their extensive research and noteworthy views on Menzies and his movies.

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