The Maze - Part One

William Cameron Menzies: The Man From The Future
By Scout Tafoya
Part One: 1896-1919

The section of Park Street where William Charles Menzies was born in 1896 is home now to a few charming old brick buildings, bare lots, and stern apartment buildings. Much of New Haven is in thrall to the demands of nearby Yale University, and indeed it feels like a disused alley for sleepless students, a neighborhood re-fitted for progress that never arrived. Menzies may not have recognized this street some one hundred and thirty years after his birth, but he would have felt it in his bones. Menzies was a man who saw the future, and it looked like a nightmare no matter what technological brilliance it promised.

In his essential biography William Cameron Menzies: The Shape of Films to Come (which will be the factual underpinning of the biographical sections of this series), author James Curtis writes that Menzies spent a formative year in his ancestral Scottish village, growing used to the idea that some untouchable natural world, of fairies and daemons, was just out of reach on the fog strewn heath. The bleakness of New Haven, the haunted Scottish hinterland, they’d recur throughout his work as a director and designer, whether in the Lovecraftian nightmare story The Maze (1953) or in the awe-inspiring early special effects film Things To Come (1936); Menzies never forgot what it felt like to be a child seeing the work of history. His most famous work as a director, Invaders from Mars, is one of the truest films about childhood Hollywood ever produced. A child’s horrified perspective of the world of adults, perverted and warped, is what makes Invaders the uncanny film it is. As a kid he had an early experience with the mortification of adult behavior when his teacher at a little school in Aberfeldy corrected his pronunciation of his own last name. “Mingies” not “Menzies.” His childhood was a constantly shifting, alienating experience and he’d never forget what it felt like to feel like he was being separated from everybody.

Writing for the Chicago Reader on the occasion of the release of Tobe Hooper’s remake of Invaders from Mars, Dave Kehr called Menzies’ original film “one of those rare movies that seem to tap directly into the director’s subconscious, bypassing every rule of dramatic logic and most of those of filmmaking. A small boy sees a spaceship land in his backyard and burrow into the ground. No one believes him, but then his parents start behaving very strangely. Every fear known to childhood (and some that are not) is explored in a mélange of Freudian symbols, debased expressionism, and screaming Technicolor.” J. Hoberman notes in his book An Army of Phantoms that it was the first film to depict Martians and flying saucers (a term coined in 1947 by an enterprising private pilot named Kenneth Arnold who was looking for the remains of a missing C-46 that had gone down near Mount Rainier) in color. As groundbreaking and unforgettable as Invaders is, it was only the latest and very nearly the last great feat of big screen mesmerism the talented Menzies performed in his too-brief career. He was dead by 1957, just 61 years old. He was buried in Forest Lawn Memorial Park, a cemetery in Glendale that’s home to a replica of The Republic by Daniel Chester French, a great mausoleum designed by T. Paterson Ross, and Jan Styka's enormous painting Crucifixion, all works that Menzies would have appreciated, and indeed could have designed for movies like Things to Come or Gone with the Wind (1939).

Menzies started drawing at a young age, inspired by the folklore of the Scottish hamlet he visited with his family and the vast medieval death toll to which it laid claim. He drew more than he studied. His father encouraged him, with a warning. “…as soon as you earn your first penny by art I’ll stop your allowance.” So best be good. He decamped to New York’s Art Students League and a cramped, frequently freezing little apartment. The long faced young Bill was still nobody’s idea of a model student, doing his homework late at night after wasting a day drinking 22 cent bourbon. Menzies started paying attention in class when the famous social realist painter Robert Henri showed up. The Ohio born Henri was only ten years from his death when he started his conversations with Bill. He had been a rebellious figure in the American art world, a hell raising independent, part Van Gogh, part Toulouse-Lautrec. It’s easy to spy works like Henri’s 1909 Salome in the production design work Menzies would later perform on frothy entertainments like The Spider (1931) and both versions of The Thief of Bagdad. Henri’s other students included George Bellows (whose futurist crowd studies share common fervency with Menzies) and Edward Hopper, who are each better respected in the field of the visual arts, which still shows some of the bias against filmic design work in Art history. Henri surely would have seen a kindred spirit if he’d lived long enough to see Menzies cheated out of academy awards, which always were awarded to the studio art department heads who frequently had no input whatsoever on the look of the movies they were supposedly overseeing. Bill’s friend the production designer Robert Sylbert, whom he met designing a Fu Manchu TV show starring John Carradine in the 50s, never forgot how the system treated Menzies, who had made some of their best films and received no laurels or appreciation commensurate with his efforts and vision.

Menzies studied under Charles Chapman and Harvey Dunn at their private school in Leonia, NJ whenever the league wasn’t in session where he rubbed elbows with other students like N.C. Wyeth, whose own work would take on the mythic in a way not at all dissimilar to Menzies. Wyeth’s paintings of giants, Buffalo Bill, Francis Drake, Lancelot, King Arthur, Billy Bones, and Robinson Crusoe had exactly the boisterous, boyish feel of the best of Menzies’ design work, especially Thief of Bagdad. They both rendered the antiquated in brilliant colors and muscular but supple lines, making history seem new and seductive. They were for the young adventurous mind to connect with the past and the future of art, to want to take part in the lineage presented by the figures. Menzies own paintings were more abstract and European than Wyeth’s, whose style is thoroughly American, indeed perhaps even more so than Henri. He lived for shadows and intrusions of monochrome into parlors, loved the chaos of conflicting brush strokes and pencil scratches. People were less detailed, though hardly less expressive. Their posture frequently told their stories more than their eyes.

Menzies and a few peers, all of whom would “make it” as artists roughly the same time as he, started getting work and would gradually expand the size of their living quarters. Just as his father cut him off as he was making money drawing for hardware catalogues and the like, he met a Polish artist named Anton Grot at Hendrick’s restaurant on 56th. Grot was a painter, too, except he had a job working in the movies. Grot wanted to hire Menzies’ roommate, but he enlisted and wasn’t available, so Menzies reported to Solax Studios in Fort Lee, NJ, assisting Grot on the preparation for the sets of a George Fitzmaurice film called The Naulahka (which wouldn’t be released until 1918 thanks to editing delays). Grot had presented “Fitz” with the idea of forced perspective, which was all well and good but that meant painting 60 foot high sets. That’s where Bill came in. While Grot was painting sets, Bill was dummying up palm trees shadows in a miserable corner of New Jersey. Soon Menzies was directing sequences in his and his friend’s apartments to get the inserts and backgrounds done on time, learning how to make movies with enormous speed and efficiency. Two more Fitzmaurice films followed, The Mark of Cain (1917) and Innocent (1918), and then a quick change of pace: marriage to a woman named Mignon Toby and the Merchant Marines, which saw him return to Scotland as part of his assignment at sea.

Stay tuned for Part 2.