William Cameron Menzies: The Shape of Films to Come

William Cameron Menzies: The Shape of Films to Come

by James Curtis

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He was the consummate designer of film architecture on a grand scale, influenced by German expressionism and the work of the great European directors. He was known for his visual flair and timeless innovation, a man who meticulously preplanned the color and design of each film through a series of continuity sketches that made clear camera angles, lighting, and the actors’ positions for each scene, translating dramatic conventions of the stage to the new capabilities of film.
Here is the long-awaited book on William Cameron Menzies, Hollywood’s first and greatest production designer, a job title David O. Selznick invented for Menzies’ extraordinary, all-encompassing, Academy Award–winning work on Gone With the Wind (which he effectively co-directed).

It was Menzies—winner of the first-ever Academy Award for Art Direction, jointly for The Dove (1927) and Tempest (1928), and who was as well a director (fourteen pictures) and a producer (twelve pictures)—who changed the way movies were (and still are) made, in a career that spanned four decades, from the 1920s through the 1950s. His more than 120 films include Rosita (1923), Things to Come (1936), Foreign Correspondent (1940), Kings Row (1942), Mr. Lucky (1943), The Pride of the Yankees (1943), For Whom the Bell Tolls (1943), Address Unknown (1944), It’s a Wonderful Life (1947), Invaders from Mars (1953), and Around the World in 80 Days (1956).

Now, James Curtis, acclaimed film historian and biographer, writes of Menzies’ life and work as the most influential designer in the history of film. His artistry encompassed the large, scenic drawings of Douglas Fairbanks’ The Thief of Bagdad (1924), which created a new standard for beauty on the screen and whose exotic fairy-tale sets are still regarded as pure genius. (“I saw The Thief of Bagdad when it first came out,” said Orson Welles—he was, at the time, a nine-year-old boy. “I’ll never forget it.”) Curtis writes of Menzies’ design and supervision of John Barrymore’s Beloved Rogue (1927), a film that remains a masterpiece of craft and synthesis, one of the most distinctive pictures to emerge from Hollywood’s waning days of silent films, and of his extraordinary, opulent appointments for Gone With the Wind (1939).

It was Menzies who defined and solidified the role of art director as having overall control of the look of the motion picture, collaborating with producers like David O. Selznick and Samuel Goldwyn; with directors such as D. W. Griffith, Raoul Walsh, Alfred Hitchcock, Lewis Milestone, and Frank Capra. And with actors as varied as Ingrid Bergman, W. C. Fields, Cary Grant, Clark Gable, John Barrymore, Barbara Stanwyck, Ronald Reagan, Gary Cooper, Vivien Leigh, Carole Lombard, Mary Pickford, Gloria Swanson, and David Niven.

Interviewing colleagues, actors, directors, friends, and family, and with full access to the William Cameron Menzies family collection of original artwork, correspondence, scrapbooks, and unpublished writing, Curtis brilliantly gives us the path-finding work of the movies’ most daring and dynamic production designer: his evolution as artist, art director, production designer, and director. Here is a portrait of a man in his time that makes clear how the movies were forever transformed by his startling, visionary work.

(With 16 pages of color illustrations, and black-and-white photographs throughout.)

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781101870679
Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
Publication date: 11/17/2015
Sold by: Random House
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 432
File size: 125 MB
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About the Author

JAMES CURTIS is the author of Spencer Tracy: A Biography, W. C. Fields: A Biography (winner of the 2004 Theatre Library Association Award, Special Jury Prize), James Whale: A New World of Gods and Monsters, and Between Flops: A Biography of Preston Sturges. Curtis is married and lives in Brea, California.

Read an Excerpt

In the year 1963, Alfred Hitchcock was questioned by an earnest young interviewer who said that he presumed that all of Hitchcock’s films were “pre-designed by an art director.” Did he, in fact, do all the drawings himself?
“Well,” said Hitchcock, “art director is not a correct term.
You see, an art director, as we know it in the studios, is a man who designs a set. The art director seems to leave the set before it’s dressed and a new man comes on the set called the set dresser. Now, there is another function which goes a little further beyond the art director and is almost in a differ­ent realm. That is the production designer. Now, a production designer is a man usually who designs angles and sometimes production ideas. Treatment of action. There used to be a man . . . is he still alive? William Cameron Menzies. No, he’s not. Well, I had William Cameron Menzies on a picture called Foreign Correspondent and he would take a sequence, you see, and by a series of sketches indicate camera setups. Now this is, in a way, nothing to do with art direction. The art director is set designing. Production design is definitely taking a sequence and laying it out in sketches.
With the completion of Rebecca, Selznick closed his studio for an extended period, ultimately liquidating Selznick International in order to draw down the sub­stantial profits generated by Gone With the Wind. He began selling off the properties he owned—The Keys of the Kingdom and Claudia, among others—and loaning his contract talent to other producers. Vivien Leigh and Ingrid Bergman were sent to M-G-M while his one director, Hitchcock, was lent to producer Walter Wanger. The deal with Wanger was concluded on October 2, 1939, establishing Hitchcock as the director of Vincent Sheean’s memoir Personal History, a property that had been under development since 1935.
Considering the book dated and unsuited to his particular strengths as a sto­ryteller, Hitchcock, in collaboration with his wife, Alma Reville, and his secretary, Joan Harrison, devised an entirely new plotline which carried Sheean’s title from the book and little else. Eventually, the title, too, would be dropped, the film instead drawing its name from Sheean’s longtime profession—Foreign Correspondent. By the time Menzies came aboard in March, reportedly at Hitchcock’s behest, a total of twenty-two writers had contributed to the script, including John Howard Lawson, Budd Schulberg, John Meehan, James Hilton, Ben Hecht, and Robert Benchley. Indeed, Selznick may have had a hand in putting the two men together, as Hitch­cock had never before tackled a picture as big or as complex. Selznick was also keen to establish a demand for his British import, whose last released picture in the United States was Jamaica Inn—a dud.
Menzies found that Hitchcock, himself a former art director, was in the habit of making rough pencil sketches on his copy of the script. Menzies, in turn, worked out more than a hundred oversized drawings of sets and action for the start of production, as well as models of a dozen sets. When shooting began on March 18, 1940, the film was already four months behind schedule and progress was, at times, agonizingly slow. Menzies later recalled “a rather unpleasant association with Hitch” that nevertheless yielded “some pretty good results.” Among the principal sequences was a plane crash staged in the same manner as the dirigible crash in The Lottery Bride. “I hardly used any miniatures at all,” said Menzies, “but did the whole thing objectively, that is from a point of view always inside the cabin. I also had a very interesting sequence in a windmill where we really got some good photographic effects, and an assassination sequence in Amsterdam in the rain, which I rather bor­rowed from Our Town.
The huddle of black umbrellas to represent Emily’s funeral cortege was a memo­rable feature of Jed Harris’ original stage production, and Menzies had elaborated on it, gathering the canopies, glistening in the rainfall, in the foreground of the shot and allowing the night sky to fully occupy the upper half of the frame. There had never been a more spiritual composition for the talking screen, and now Menzies took the same basic elements, expanded their numbers exponentially to fill a public square, and clustered them to emphasize the particularly brazen murder of a Dutch diplomat, an event that sends John Jones in pursuit of the killer, an adventure simi­lar in substance and pacing to the director’s earlier 39 Steps.
The windmill scenes were shot during the first days of production and afforded a kinetic maze of hazards and hiding places, the actors confined to a claustrophobic tangle of stairways and gears, the protagonist (Joel McCrea) eluding Nazi agents while attempting to rescue the drugged and disoriented Van Meer, whose memory holds the critical clause of an allied peace treaty. Menzies estimated he made “about 200 drawings” for Foreign Correspondent, roughly a quarter of the number he typi­cally did for a feature, implying he worked primarily on the film’s complex set pieces.
“It was my observation,” said actress Laraine Day, “that Mr. Hitchcock and Mr. Menzies conferred on every shot that had been drawn by Mr. Menzies. Whether or not there was a storyboard for the entire production, I don’t really know, but it would seem reasonable to believe that if every scene was drawn before it was filmed, there must have been a storyboard from which these individual scene depictions were taken for them to discuss. Their working relationship during Foreign Corre­spondent seemed very close.”
The crash, much more elaborate in design and execution than its 1930 predeces­sor, formed the basis for the climax of the picture. And unlike the dirigible crash in Lottery Bride, which took place in frozen environs of the Arctic Circle, the downing of the clipper in Foreign Correspondent takes place over the ocean. “The whole thing was done in a single shot without a cut!” marveled Hitchcock in his marathon 1962 interview with François Truffaut. “I had a transparency screen made of paper, and behind that screen, a water tank. The plane dived, and as soon as the water got close to it, I pressed the button and the water burst through, tearing the screen away. The volume was so great that you never saw the screen.”
The teaming of Alfred Hitchcock and William Cameron Menzies proved an inspired melding of two vastly different artistic sensibilities, Hitchcock being inter­ested in the conveyance of visual information, Menzies in the deepening of the film’s graphic impact. Together, they produced one of the grand thrillers of the sound era. When production closed on May 29, 1940, after sixty-five days of shoot­ing and eleven days of retakes, the negative cost of Foreign Correspondent stood at $1,484,167—by far the most expensive picture Hitchcock had ever made.

Table of Contents



1 Atlanta Burning 3
2 An Artist of the Modern School 19
3 The Thief of Bagdad 33
4 The Hooded Falcon 46
5 Maturing Period 59
6 I Could See the Future Clearly 81
7 Profound Unrest 100
8 A Few Faintly Repressed Bronx Cheers 116
9 Wonderland 134
10 The Shape of Things to Come 150
11 What I’ve Wanted to Do All My Life 170
12 Production Designed By . . . 183
13 GWTW 197
14 Something Quite Bold 219
15 The Best Spot in Town 246
16 Address Unknown 264
17 Ivy 283
18 Making a Living 297
19 Worth Every Penny 319

Notes 347
Appendix I: Stage Chronology 367
Appendix II: Film Chronology 369
Index 399

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