Four leading cinematographers talk about their work and the stars they’ve filmed in this article published in the February 1941 issue of Modern Screen.
Here, then, in their own words are some revealing insights into how they see their work, observations of some of the stars they’ve filmed and revelations of tricks of the trade. And an opportunity to showcase a series of behind-the-scenes images of various cinematographers and crew at work.
But first a brief introduction to the cinematographers themselves:
- Gregg Toland. Orson Welles once said that Gregg taught him everything he knew about the art of photography. Before filming Citizen Kane, Gregg spent a weekend giving him a crash course on lens and camera positions. Orson would never lose his admiration for Gregg, saying on many occasions, “Not only was he the greatest cameraman I ever worked with, he was also the fastest.” Gregg’s advice to aspiring cameramen was simple: “Forget the camera. The nature of the story determines the photographic style. Understand the story and make the most out of it. If the audience is conscious of tricks and effects, the cameraman’s genius, no matter how great it is, is wasted.”
- James Wong Howe. In the 53 years he spent developing and perfecting his craft, “Jimmy” Howe was nominated for 16 Academy Awards and won two Oscars. In his ongoing quest for realism, he strove to make all his sources of light absolutely naturalistic and developed various filming techniques. For example, to get the audience as close as possible to John Garfield in a boxing scene in Body and Soul, he got up into the ring on roller skates and scooted about the fighters to capture the most evocative shots of their struggle.
- Rudolph Maté. Rudy worked in Europe with Carl Theodor Dreyer on both The Passion of Joan of Arc and Vampyr before migrating to the US in 1934. During the 1940s he received five consecutive Academy Award nominations for Best Cinematography, the last of them for the Rita Hayworth vehicle, Cover Girl. He also worked with her on Gilda and (uncredited) The Lady from Shanghai. He went on to direct a series of movies including DOA.
- Ernest Haller. Ernie is best known for his Oscar-winning work on Gone With The Wind (over the years he had six other Oscar nominations). He was admired within the industry for his expert location shooting and his ability to balance make-up and lighting to bring out actors’ best features. He shot 14 of Bette Davis’ movies and was her favourite lensman. During the 1930s and ’40s, he worked at Warner Bros. His later movies included Rebel Without a Cause and What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?
Shooting for the Stars by William Roberts
They make fat stars thin and old stars young! Who? Those magnificent Merlins of Movietown – the unsung cameramen.
These fellows are pretty tough, believe me. They’re banded together in a secret organization called the ASC, and it’s not that they try to be secret but just that no one knows much about them outside of Hollywood. Movie stars dread them and, privately, call them super-assassins.
The leaders of the ASC have committed many drastic deeds. They have literally taken flesh off Myrna Loy’s legs. They have flattened Brenda Marshall’s nose. They have removed pieces of Madeleine Carroll’s cheeks They’ve reduced Priscilla Lane’s mouth, narrowed Zorina’s forehead and changed Vivien Leigh’s blue eyes to pure green. And for committing these atrocities they have been paid as much as $1,500 per week.
However, if truth will out, the secret organization referred to is actually a staid labor union, the American Society of Cinematographers. The members, merchants of mayhem, are the very expert and very well-paid cameramen of Movieland who, with thick ground glass and well-placed kliegs, have made ordinary faces beautiful and have converted terrible defects into gorgeous assets.
If any one class of worker in Hollywood does not get credit where credit is due, if any one class of laborer is hidden behind the star-bright glare of publicity, obscure, unsung, unknown – it is the cinema cameraman.
“It’s this way with us,” Gregg Toland told me. “They’ve got us wrong, entirely wrong, everywhere. They think cameramen are low-grade mechanical morons, wearing overalls and stupid grins, existing on starvation wages and merely grinding 35 mm. toys. Well, maybe. Only we don’t like that impression. Maybe we are technicians. Nothing wrong with that. But sakes alive, man, tell ’em we’re creative artists, too!”
And so, I’m telling you. They’re creative artists, too. They’re makers and breakers of thespians and pictures. They’re the Merlins behind the movies.
Take that fellow Gregg Toland who just had the floor. A lean little man in brown clothes – cultured, brilliant and active. Twenty-one years ago he obtained a job during a summer vacation as an office boy at the old Fox Studios. The film stars on the lot didn’t impress him, but the intent cameramen, cranking their black-sheathed boxes, hypnotized him. He decided to skip school and become a photographer. The result? Well, the last I heard, he had prepared for canning such products as “The Grapes of Wrath,” “The Long Voyage Home” and “Citizen Kane.”
I talked with Toland in the comfortable study of his sprawling Benedict Canyon home. He downed a long beer with a practiced gulp and explained the qualifications and duties of the cameraman.
“A first-rate cameraman must realize,” said Toland, “that while some scenes of a film might be shot much, much better, much more artistically, those scenes are worth neither the extra time nor extra cash investment. The cameraman must have a strain of the economist in him, and get speed into his picture without sacrificing quality. After all, time becomes a paramount item when you realize that a single day on a certain picture may run to $22,000 in expenses!
“As photographer on a major movie, my first job is to manage my camera crew. I have a special crew of seven men. All specialists. I take them with me wherever I go. There’s an operator and two assistants. There’s a grip, a gaffer or electrician, a standby painter and a microphone boy. But that’s only the beginning of my job. I must see that there is efficiency. Speed, again. And, with things as they are, I must practice economy by being artistic with one eye on the production budget. These days a cameraman is actually a producer, director, photographer, actor and electrician. The out-and-out old-fashioned photographer who just had to maneuver a camera is as extinct as the dodo bird.”
With two decades behind a Hollywood camera, I wondered just which particular feminine face Gregg Toland considered the best he had ever brought into focus.
His answer, like his personality and his pictures, was direct.
“Anna Sten,” he replied. “She was by far the most photogenic woman I ever shot. She didn’t have an insipid baby doll face, you know the type. She had a face full of good bones and character. Her cheeks caught the lights well, and her nose was so tilted as to place attractive shadows beneath. Frances Farmer was another face I enjoyed working on and, of course, if you want to go way back into ancient history, there was no one like the incomparable Gloria Swanson.
“On the other hand, an actress like Merle Oberon gives the photographer a good deal of work. Her countenance can only be photographed from certain angles. And as to clothes, her body requires that she wear either fluffy dresses or evening gowns to show her up to advantage. Jean Arthur, a dear friend of mine, won’t mind my mentioning that her face is also a lighting job, but, when it comes to attire, she is perfectly photogenic in anything from a cowboy costume to a bathing suit.
“Thinking back on personalities, I recall that I had difficulties with Ingrid Bergman when I worked on ‘Intermezzo.’ Ingrid is really two persons. Shoot her from one side and she’s breath-takingly beautiful. Shoot her from the other, and she’s average.”
Toland paused for punctuation, then smiled.
“Of course,” he said cheerfully, “I’d rather photograph girls like June Lang and Arleen Whelan with their pretty little faces, than any. Because they’re no work at all. You set your camera and your lights anywhere, and they still look cute. If I shot them constantly, though, I’d become far too lazy.”
Now he spoke of the stronger sex.
“The most photogenic male is Gary Cooper. But he looks best when he isn’t photographed well! Here’s what I mean. If he’s shot casually and naturally, without frills or fuss, he has plenty of femme appeal. He doesn’t have to be dolled up like the juvenile leads. If you don’t believe me, just take a gander at him in ‘The Westerner.’ He’s grand in it and without special lighting or any make-up.
“Henry Fonda is another I enjoy working with. He also doesn’t require makeup. And he’s so damn intelligent. Understands props, stage business, electricity. You know, Fonda’s main hobby is photography, and on ‘The Grapes of Wrath’ he spent half his time looking through my camera, which, of course, gave him a better understanding of what I was after.”
I inquired about Toland’s most recent and celebrated patient, Orson Welles.
“Shot ‘Citizen Kane’ in sixteen weeks,” explained Toland. “It’s an unusual picture. For example, we worked with no beams or parallels (to hold spots) for the first time in Hollywood history. All sets were given natural ceilings, which made bright lighting difficult but also made for realism.
“Orson Welles was an interesting type to shoot, especially his characterization, changing from a lad of twenty-five to an old man of seventy, and wearing, in old age, blood-shot glass-caps over his eyes.
“His problem, today, will depend on whether audiences prefer him as a character actor or as himself. I like one quality in his acting and direction. Stubbornness. He would bitterly fight every technical problem that came up. Never say die. Never.”
Gregg Toland confessed that the one defect he’d found in most actors and actresses was discoloration and lines or wrinkles under their eyes. “Were we to leave them natural, it would make them appear tired and haggard on the screen, especially since they are amplified so greatly. So, I place bright spotlights directly in their faces, which wash out these lines and make their faces smoother.”
Then Toland began discussing technical problems in a very untechnical manner. It was a liberal education in cinema craft. He spoke fondly of “The Grapes of Wrath.” Said he enjoyed much of it because he was able to shoot his favorite type of scene – building somber moods through shadowy low-keyed lighting, such as the opening candlelight scene in that classic of the soil. “We slaved, Jack Ford and I, to make that picture real,” Toland revealed. “We sent the cast out to acquire good healthy sunburns. We threw away soft diffusion lenses. We shot the whole thing candid-camera style, like a newsreel. That’s the trend today in Hollywood. Realism.”
“Of course,” he added, “sometimes realism is attained only through complete trickery. Remember the third or fourth shot in the beginning of ‘The Long Voyage Home?’ The scene of the ship floating and rocking on the water? Here’s how that was done. I had the studio build half a miniature boat, set it on a dry stage. Then I took a pan full of plain water, placed it on a level with my lens – and shot my scene over this pan of water, catching the boat and giving the perfect illusion of its being in the water. But I better not tell you too much of that. Trade secrets, you know. You better have another beer …”
But, instead of another beer, I indulged in something equally stimulating. I saw another ace cameraman. I left Toland, drove out into the Valley north of Hollywood and halted before an intimate Oriental restaurant bearing a blinking neon that read “Ching How.”
This restaurant was the hobby and hide-out of the cherubic Chinese cameraman, James Wong Howe, the place where he came in the evening, to chat with old friends or supervise a steaming chow mein after a hard and tiresome day with Ann Sheridan, Rita Hayworth, Hedy Lamarr or Loretta Young!
Looking at Jimmy Howe, you’d never know what he’s been through and what his keen eyes have seen. Not because he has the “inscrutable” yellow man’s face of fiction, the traditional face that hides feelings and emotions, but because he is so cheerful, so friendly, so disarmingly sincere.
You wouldn’t know that he once fought gory battles in the fistic arena for ten bucks a knockout, or that he got his first job in Hollywood as a camera assistant at that same price. But you would know, immediately, that Jimmy Howe is as American as you or I, born in Pasco, Washington, of a farmer father; and you would know, too, immediately, that he understands more about Hollywood stars than any photographer alive.
I found Jimmy Howe a little interview shy when it came to discussing personalities. That was because he’d been burned once. Recently, a reporter asked him about Bette Davis, and Howe told the reporter that Bette’s enormous eyes were her finest feature, and that they must be emphasized by lighting, whereas her long thin neck must be shadowed. The reporter misquoted him as stating that Bette was badly pop-eyed. Ever since, Howe has been afraid to explain the truth to Bette – and if she reads this – well, hell, Bette, the guy thinks you’re the greatest actress on earth!
Over a delicious dish of aged Chinese eggs, bamboo shoots and other Far Eastern delicacies, in a nook of his popular eatery, Jimmy Howe softened sufficiently to discuss the women he had captured for celluloid.
He digressed on the subject of glamour gals.
“Hedy Lamarr has more glamour than anyone in Hollywood. Her jet black hair and fine light complexion, marvelously contrasting, requires no faking soft diffusion lens. But, like all glamour ladies, she must be aided by the cameraman. First of all, I took attention away from her lack of full breasts by playing up her eyes and lips. With a bright light I created a shadow to make you forget her weak chin. Then, I really went to town! I planted an arc on a level with her eyes, shadowing her forehead and blending it and her hair into a dark background. Now, all attention was focused on her eyes. Remember her first meeting with Boyer in ‘Algiers?’ Her eyes got away with lines that would never have passed Mr. Hays.
“It’s an old glamour trick. The average girl should learn it. For example, when you wear a hat with a low brim, and then have to peer out from under the brim, it makes you more interesting, centers attention on your orbs. When you sport a half-veil, you have to look from behind it and thus become an exciting and intriguing person. There’s no question about it. The eyes certainly have it.
“Now Ann Sheridan. Her gorgeous throat and shoulders, and those lips. I light them up and disguise the fact that her nose is irregular and her cheeks overly plump. Incidentally, to correct her nose, which curves slightly to the left, I put kliegs full on the left side of her face, pushing her nose perfectly straight. Once, on ‘Torrid Zone,’ when Annie arrived on the set with a pimple on her chin, I had the make-up man convert it into a beauty mark, and then viewing her through the camera, realized that this concentrated attention on her full lips, which made her even more glamorous!
“Each actress, no matter how beautiful, becomes a problem. Madeleine Carroll has a good and bad side to her face, like so many others. I always shoot her threequarters, because it thins her out. A full face shot makes her too fleshy. With Myrna Loy, there must not be white around her neck, because it’s too contrasting to her complexion. Moreover, lights must be low, shooting upward, to reduce the size of her underpinnings.
“Zorina, off-screen, relaxing, is an ordinary woman, with a good-sized healthy body. But, the minute she dances before the camera, her true personality grows. Her face turns from good looking to gorgeous. Her body becomes smaller and willowy. She’s easy to work with, except that an enthusiastic uncle of hers, a doctor, gave her four vaccination marks when she was young, and we have to get rid of them with make-up and special lights.
“But you want to know the most photogenic lady I ever set my lens upon? Priscilla Lane. An absolutely eye-soothing face, despite a generous mouth. A fine skin texture. A rounded facial structure. Mmm. Lovely to look at.
“There is no perfect camera face, Confucius say. Not even Loretta Young, who is reputed to have a camera-proof face. Why, she wouldn’t want a perfect face and neither would any other actress. A perfect face, without irregular features, would be monotonous and tiresome to observe. Of course, a well-balanced face is another thing. Oh, I’ve seen so-called perfect faces – those composite photographs showing Lamarr’s eyes, Leigh’s nose, Dietrich’s lips – but the result is always surprisingly vacant!
“Most women must be photographed with flat lights, shooting down from a forty-five degree angle, because this lighting washes out any defects. Whereas, a cross-lighting from either side, while it makes the face natural and round and real, also accentuates wrinkles, blemishes and bad lines. There are exceptions. Flat lighting would wash Joan Crawford’s face clean to the point of blankness. Crosslighting chisels her beautifully. But others can’t stand up as well.
“I’m not telling you these inside items on the stars to give you a sensational story. I’m trying to point out this – that while the Chinese author, Lin Yutang, wrote a book called ‘The Importance of Living,’ I should like to write one called, ‘The Importance of Lighting.’ It’s all-important. Take a look at the way celebrities appear in a newsreel, without careful kliegs adjusted to them. They seem messy.
“Why, the only newsreel personages I ever saw who looked decent without expert work on them, and who were, in fact, once offered a million dollars to come to Hollywood, were the Windsors. Now Wally Simpson is a bit too thin in the face and has some blemishes. But this could be corrected by shooting her three-quarters, the lights flat against her. She should never be shot in profile. As to the Duke, Edward himself, well, while he often appears a bit weary and haggard, he would have to be kept that way in Hollywood. It’s part of his adult charm. We wouldn’t want to wash that out with faked brightness.”
Now the little man expounded on picture-making. He told exactly the way pictures should be made. Here’s Howe:
“My theory of picture -making is that a movie must run true. It must be real. You must not feel that it is obviously a movie. A big fault is that photographers often try to make their photography stand out. That is bad. If you go away raving about the photography of certain scenes, you’ve seen a bad photographic job.
“When I was a beginner, way back, I had that common failing. I never gave a damn about the actor. All I wanted was to get those fat beautiful clouds in, so people would say, ‘Some shot. Some photographer.’ But now I know that’s not professional.”
There was one more thing. I had a hunch a lot of photographers, like producers, were repressed actors at heart. Did James Wong Howe ever aspire to histrionics?
“Oh, once I almost became an actor. The late Richard Boleslavsky wanted me to play with Greta Garbo in ‘The Painted Veil.’ Just a bit part. I refused. My place is behind the big machine, not in front of it. Besides I’d be scared stiff. Me, Wong Howe, an actor? Hell, the boys would rib the pants off me!”
To continue my scientific study of the lads behind the lenses, I went to a party of General Service Studios. There, on the lavish set of “Lady Hamilton,” Vivien Leigh was passing out cake to celebrate her birthday, and a stocky, dark-haired handsome man named Rudolph Mate was celebrating his first year as a full-fledged American citizen.
Rudolph Mate, born in Poland, student of philosophy, lover of fine paintings, was the cameraman on the newest Leigh-Olivier vehicle. His previous pictures had been movie milestones – “Love Affair,” “Foreign Correspondent” and “Seven Sinners.”
I asked Mate about the ingredients that make a tip-top photographer, and he answered very slowly and very precisely. He spoke slowly to prevent becoming mixed in the languages he knows – French, German, Hungarian, Russian, Polish, English and pinochle – all of which he speaks fluently.
“To become a good photographer, one must have a complete knowledge of the technical end,” stated Mate. He pointed toward his $15,000 movable camera. “One must make everything about that instrument a habit, a second nature, as natural and uncomplicated as walking. This complete technical knowledge gives one time, on the set, to think in terms of the story being shot. A photographer must be creative, imaginative. Above all, he must have a talent for continuity.
“What do I mean by continuity? The celluloid mustn’t be scatterbrained. For example, every day a cameraman looks at the daily rushes of the footage he’s shot. Some photographers have excellent daily rushes, excellent separate scenes – but, when the film is cut, patched together, it’s mediocre and without full meaning because the cameraman had no feel of harmony, no sense of continuity. “A cameraman must be thorough. I study a script page by page and solve each problem as I study it. Also, on the side, I study oil paintings and works of art. In fact, I have a big collection of my own, because this study gives a cameraman knowledge of composition and color.”
Rudolph Mate was ecstatic about Vivien Leigh as Lady Hamilton.
“A marvelous subject. Cool. Positive. The certain beauty of a steel dagger. No bad facial angles. And an actress in her head and in her heart. Laurence Olivier is fine for me to shoot, too. His face is so expressive. It has so much character.”
Mate admitted that he had enjoyed toiling with Marlene Dietrich on “Seven Sinners,” and that he was scheduled to do her next opus at Universal.
“She has a wonderful head. I mean both brains and shape. Furthermore, like no other actress, she understands lighting problems and angles, and takes all suggestions without a fight. She is cooperative despite the nonsense you read. She will pose for fifty different takes if need be. The reason she knows so much is that she acquired her photographic education from Josef Von Sternberg, her first director, who still has the best pictorial mind in the cinema business.”
Mate, I understood, was a master magician at trickery. He could make anything real. In “Lady Hamilton,” you’ll see the Battle of Trafalgar, when Olivier as Lord Nelson is killed. It’ll be a terrific scene, realistic as war and death – but remember, it was made with miniature boats, only five feet tall, costing $1,000 each, and the cannon balls were tiny marbles shot into thin balsa wood.
Remember, too, that Mate can – and often has – made mob scenes involving thousands of people with just a half dozen extras. This he has accomplished with a special “button lens,” one with 220 separate openings for images, thus multiplying anything it is focused upon.
Rudolph Mate had a date with Vivien Leigh, in front of the camera, and I had one, at Warner Brothers Studio, with a gentleman named Ernie Haller, a studious architect who wound up by becoming the genius to put that little tidbit labeled “Gone With the Wind” on celluloid.
Good-natured, bespectacled Ernie Haller didn’t waste words. “The cameraman’s main duty is to tell a story with lighting. Next, he must have a thorough understanding or feeling for composition; you know, how to group and balance people and objects properly. It’s like salesmanship – you create a point of interest, and you try to sell the fans a star or an idea by subtly focusing attention on this point of interest.”
Haller referred to a few tangible points of interest.
“I’m not merely being loyal to Warners when I tell you Ann Sheridan is the most photogenic female in this town today. Her features are well proportioned and take lighting easily. The most photogenic man is Errol Flynn. His oval face stands up from any angle or under any lighting condition.
“But, as you know, we have our sticklers, too. There’s Clark Gable. I always shoot him three-quarters, so that you see only one of his ears. If you saw both at once, they’d look like mine do – stick out like the arms of a loving cup.
“Brenda Marshall, whom I’m working with at present, is a fine actress. Her only defects are a slightly crooked nose and eyes set too closely together. I light up one side of her face more fully to straighten the nose, and push inkies square into Brenda’s face to spread her eyes.
“When I shot GWTW, I found Vivien Leigh ideal for Technicolor. But I learned too much light was extremely bad for her. Her face was delicate and small, and full brightness would wash out her features and spoil the modeling of her countenance. Another thing. She has blue eyes. David Selznick wanted them green. So I set up a baby spot with amber gelatine, placed it under my lens, and Scarlett wound up with green eyes.
“Listen, they all have handicaps that we have to correct. Most have square jaws, which must be softened and rounded. Some have prominent noses, which requires a low light set at the knees to push up their noses. Some actresses have thin legs. We plant spots right at their feet to fill ’em out.
“There’s no limit to what we have to do. We keep middle-aged actresses young by using special diffusing lenses that make faces mellow, hazy, soft, foggy, ethereal. We use these lenses on mood scenes, too, thus enabling us to create cold, crisp mornings on hot, sultry days.
“In my time, I’ve put them all in my black box. Some who were difficult and some who were easy, ranging from Mae Murray and Norma Talmadge to Dick Barthelmess and Bette Davis. I’ve never had trouble because I knew sculpturing, knew the basic foundation of the human face and was able to become, literally, a plastic surgeon with lights.”
“Most trick stuff is in the hands of the Optical Printing Department of any studio. This is conducted by specialized cameramen and special effects men who manufacture 75% of the mechanical trick scenes. Most impossible scenes are done in miniature, caught by a camera that blows them eight times normal.”
Ernie Haller, with an eye for the unusual, summarized some of the crazy paradoxes he’d run into during his many semesters in the movie village. He said that big banquet scenes were always filmed right after lunch, because the extras weren’t so hungry then and wouldn’t eat so much expensive food! Moonlit night scenes were taken in the daytime with a filter, because real moonlight was not photogenic. Faked fights photographed better than real ones, because real ones appeared too silly. Sequences on an ocean liner had to be faked on dry land, because an honest-to-goodness boat pitched and heaved too much for the average camera. Blank cartridges recorded better on the sound track. Real ones were too high-pitched.
“In barroom sequences,” concluded Haller, “cold tea is better than whiskey, not because it photographs better but because actors have to drink a lot of it – and tea, sir, keeps them sober!”
So there. You’ve met some of the boys from the ASC. Now paste Gregg Toland’s classical outburst into your hat –
“Tell ’em we’re not low-grade mechanical morons, we cameramen. Tell ’em we’re creative artists, by God!”
And, by God, they certainly are!