William Cameron Menzies: The Man From The Future - Part Three
William Cameron Menzies: The Man From The Future
By Scout Tafoya
Part Three: 1924-1929
Working on Thief of Bagdad was at once creatively nourishing and, as it turns out, stifling for William Cameron Menzies. He’d finally been given his biggest canvas, come to see that, when properly designed, film could be the most beautiful and expressive medium, completely divorced from traditional reality and more like a living dream…and now he had nowhere to turn to replicate the highs he’d experienced making it. In William Cameron Menzies: The Shape of Films to Come, James Curtis notes that Douglas Fairbanks, the star of Bagdad, had given Menzies enough of a celebration in the press leading up to and after the film’s release that people would applaud every new set when they appeared on screen. Menzies regrouped with three quick films for producer Joseph M. Schenck, one for a young Frank Borzage, but Schenck had neither the time nor the money to lavish on Menzies and his designs.
It was here that Menzies’ old society friend Rudolph Valentino came to his aid, in an indirect way. Valentino had run in the same crowds as Menzies’ wife Mignon Toby back when they were making in roads in New York’s burgeoning film scene. When Valentino’s wife Natacha Rambova (an invented name; she was born Winifred Kimball Shaughnessy and had invented a persona for herself as a consort and dancer to go with the exotic nom-de-guerre) saw The Thief of Bagdad she knew that in Menzies she had found someone who could make Valentino a movie worthy of his icon status. They started drawing up plans for a June Mathis-scripted epic called The Hooded Falcon, but backstage intrigue and deceit kept pushing it further and further from its proposed start date. Valentino, Rambova, and Menzies threw together Cobra (1925) to raise money while they retooled Falcon. It’s hardly a distinguished picture but Menzies’ sets are impressive and evocative, lending the film’s world of gangsters a literally crooked appearance. The copies most easily available aren’t in great shape, so much of the film is too dark to make out (and most of it is shot in lazy close-ups and mids, all the better to show off Valentino’s million dollar face), but sets, archways, fireplaces, and more leer out of the darkness, always suggesting a strange and elegant netherworld inhabited by the movies’ schemers. It’s like a half-remembered dream of underworld romance. They hint at what Menzies could have done if The Hooded Falcon had become a reality, but it wasn’t to be. The budget and the ambition were never going to meet in the middle and the film was scuttled before it ever got properly underway.
Menzies was given two consolation prizes after the fiasco with the Valentinos, a 350 dollar a week contract for Joseph Schenck, and a job making Rambova’s next film, What Price Beauty?starring Myrna Loy. He’d next work on a comedy starring Norma Talmadge (Schenck’s wife and the frequent leading lady of his productions), Kiki (1926), the kind of thing he’d become used to making for Schenck by now, but he had a little more money and freedom, and in Clarence Brown, the director of passionate melodrama like the same year’s marvelous Flesh and the Devil starring Greta Garbo, a director who knew what was good for a picture. Kiki is frequently very funny (Talmadge wasn’t known as a comedienne but acquits herself nicely indeed). Menzies had seen some of Chaplin’s films by now and you can sense him trying to meet the film’s comedic trappings, rather than designing it the way he would a more artistic or fantastical endeavor. The streets where Kiki spends time between her rows with her landlord and her boss (the ever debonair Ronald Colman) look like Chaplin’s, while the elegant theatrical space where Kiki performs, and the busy and portrait laden office of Colman’s theatre agent are more in keeping with the Menzies style. There’s also some great, clearly storyboarded, visual ideas, as when Talmadge catches Colman making out with another starlet by staring up at the over-the-door window to his office and seeing the pair in its reflection. After Kiki came The Bat (1926), by the less exacting Roland West. You can see a lot of Menzies’ personality early on - from the high ceilings to the model buildings that would later resurface in his science fiction opus Things to Come (1936), and light and shadow work on the cheaply constructed, but carefully drawn, sets. The Bat is like the missing link between German Expressionist classics like The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920) and the Neo-Art Deco nightmares of Edgar G. Ulmer’s The Black Cat (1934). James Curtis surmises that it was West’s background in vaudeville that allowed him to be so ill-exact in his direction, and it’s hard to disagree that misjudgments abound. Still, a frequently gorgeous film to look at thanks to Menzies’ unerring designs. Valentino once more hired Menzies to design The Eagle (1925) and The Son of the Sheik (1926), the sequel to the film that had put the star on the map, but between budget concerns and unforeseen lighting damage, neither was quite the showcase for Menzies’ talent they might have been.
By now Menzies was overworked but undeniably prospering. His wages allowed for the birth of his and Mignon’s second child, as well as the construction of Menzies’ self-designed Beverly Hills manor (complete with doors lifted from the set of Cobra), and he now had an office at United Artists’ Pickford-Douglas studios. When UA bought John Barrymore’s contract, they did so with big plans for their first collaboration. Alan Crosland’s The Beloved Rogue (1927) starred Barrymore as a mad French ne’er-do-well opposite genre legends like Angelo Rossitto (later of Freaks (1932), The Trip (1967), and Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome (1985) a few years before his death at age 83) in his first film appearance and Caligari star Conrad Veidt, who’d been imported from Europe after his work. This was Veidt’s American debut and were it not for the fact that he later starred in Casablanca, it might have been his best. Veidt’s entrance alone is pantheon level. He strides towards a camera retreating from him as if refused by the sight of the hunchbacked monarch, flanked on all sides by guards. He’s like an insect passing through the teeth of a predator, gleefully poisoning whatever swallows him. If I don’t miss my guess Marcel Carné must have seen this before making his classic Children of Paradise (1945).
Menzies wrote (and Curtis reproduces in his essential biography) that he tried to imbue the scenery with emotion. If a scene was comedic, the sets and props had round edges and squat properties. They made things feel whimsical. During the burning of Joan of Arc, the buildings stand tall and defiant around the action to match Joan’s posture, refusing to yield to the king. Alan Crosland, an undistinguished figure, is every bit Raoul Walsh’s equal here. His is a more active camera, taking on the lithe motion of its heroes and villains to better explore the enormous Menzies sets. You remember here that Menzies was a superstitious and bullied child; the actors are but mites on the enormous stages, dwarfed by mythic structures yanked from antiquity and from Menzies’ own dreams of the fantastic. The film seduces with its fairy tale scenery from the first frame to the last.
Between film projects, which included all five of Norma Talmadge’s last films - The Dove (1927), The Woman Disputed (1928), Show People (1928), New York Nights (1929), Du Barry, Woman of Passion (1930) - Menzies started designing houses for his showbiz friends. Menzies’ reputation grew and grew to the point where some critics would sight him in their reviews and producers stopped caring what director was assigned to his projects because his design work was so thorough he’d already done all the visual heavy lifting. Menzies re-teamed with Walsh and worked with directors on their way up (Lewis Milestone) and down (D.W. Griffith). There were further challenges on the horizon for the workaholic Menzies, however, and the coming of sound was just one of them. He’d soon try his hand at directing and realize that to some people, there was more to a movie than what the eye could see.