March/April 2011
David Cairns

The Dreams of a
Creative Begetter

How One Man’s Hallucinatory Vision Changed the Look of Hollywood

Discussed: Skull Island, A Philosophy of the Image, The Coming of Sound, Fug-Enrobed Buffers, The Dialectic of Inspiration and Inescapability, Ronald Reagan in a Fun-House Mirror-World, Actors as Vehicles for Gigantic Hats, Development Stalled at the Amphibian Phase, Oncoming Nazis
William Cameron Menzies sketch forBulldog Drummond (1929) / Image from The Cinema of Adventure, Romance and Terror, 1989

Hollywood is burning. Crimson flames consume the great Skull Island gateway from King Kong and the giant wall of Jerusalem from Cecil B. DeMille’s The King of Kings. The incongruous artificial city has been disguised as Atlanta for the filming of Gone with the Wind (1939). The man responsible for capturing the destruction on film is William Cameron Menzies.

Menzies was an art director, production designer (a title he invented himself), producer, and director, the man who created the look of Gone with the Wind, unifying the work of a posse of directors. His career rocketed from big-budget epics to low-rent trash, but there’s a stark visual consistency to it: massive, overwrought close-ups, compositions in sweeping arcs, clinical symmetry or radical displacement upward or downward, leaving blind walls of empty space staring at the viewer while the subject of the shot nestles at screen’s edge, hemmed in by nothingness.

The films he directed rove across genres and the political spectrum. Address Unknown (1944) is an excellent anti-Nazi propaganda piece, but when the cold war got frosty, The Whip Hand (1951) was swiftly rewritten so that the villains were commies instead of fugitive Nazis. Invaders from Mars (1953) could have pursued a Red Scare subtext but preferred to chase the visual possibilities of dime-store sci-fi, the child’s-eye view, and the dream sequence. And The Maze (1953) is a movie about a giant frog.

Menzies’s binding vision was not thematic or political, but a philosophy of the image itself: a vision of cinema as a dream, hatched in the mind of a single artist, unleashed via a flat screen. The cinema’s power was visual, made up of composition and movement, and the man best suited to control the image was not the director, producer, or even the cinematographer, but the designer.

Whatever his listed role (and credits are especially deceptive with this unclassifiable multitalent), the importance of Menzies to a given production can be assessed by the evidence on-screen. He took the stance that each shot of a film should express forcefully a single, striking visual idea. By sketching not only the layout of the set but the camera position, the movements of the actors, and the lighting design, the designer could map the entire surface of the film.[1]

  1. Similarly, Arnold Schoenberg, invited to compose music for The Good Earth, offered to do so only if he could take command of every element of the sound track, including the dialogue. MGM said no. Menzies somehow got away with an equally bold approach.

We hope you enjoy this excerpt.

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David Cairns runs the film blog Shadowplay, writes and directs films, teaches film at Edinburgh College of Art, and generally sees a lot of old movies.

ABOVE: William Cameron Menzies sketch for Bulldog Drummond (1929)
Image from The Cinema of Adventure, Romance and Terror, 1989

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