The Maze - Part Two

William Cameron Menzies: The Man From The Future
By Scout Tafoya
Part Two: 1819-1924

When William Cameron Menzies was discharged from the Merchant Marines in 1918 he had to start from scratch. He no longer had the design job in New Jersey he had left to go soldiering and so started freelancing as an illustrator for advertising firms once again. He did this for as long as he could stand it before fate threw him a bone; he ran into his first major collaborator, the director George Fitzmaurice, who got him a gig working at producer Jesse Lasky’s Famous Players studio, just two blocks from his and his wife Mignon Toby’s apartment on 58th. He threw himself into the work, endeavoring to make himself indispensable. He impressed the star of a film that would eventually be called The Test of Honor: John Barrymore in his first dramatic leading role. Barrymore’s favor got Menzies a raise and a promotion. Soon he’d be designing sets for two movies a month for Famous Players. A studio like Famous Players couldn’t afford (or house) the grand sets of something like a D.W. Griffith production and so a man like Menzies was worth his weight in gold. He could design sets that could trick the eye better than anyone. As Art Nouveau gave way to design trends like futurism and Art Deco in the teens and twenties, so did motion pictures begin to rely on the same visual intricacy in their staging. Movies could no longer just be people in rooms; they had to…well, move. And if you weren’t putting comedy chases in your films as in the work of Harold Lloyd or Buster Keaton, then the sets would have to do the running for you. 

Menzies was sent to England to head design at Famous Players’ new (and still under construction) studio there, but no work materialized so he returned. He took an offer from Raoul Walsh to start designing for him at twice his usual rate just as he was about to return to advertising. Walsh, who was born in New York in 1887, turned to directing partly as a way to ensure roles for himself and his wife Miriam Cooper. Walsh had hooked up with Mayflower Photoplay Corporation, which had been started to give directors like Allan Dwan a freer hand, making them one of the earliest examples of an oft-tried but rarely successful method of putting the director first in production company hierarchies. Menzies would be the beneficiary of this model a few times in his career, most notably during his stint as Walsh’s right hand man. Their first film together, The Deep Purple, is missing, but what is known is that it wasn’t much of a success. As it had been Walsh’s idea, he decided to give Cooper control over the decision for their next project, and she chose to make a melodrama called The Oath, which flopped even worse than The Deep Purple. As Menzies was working for Walsh and still taking the occasional freelance assignment, Mignon Toby became pregnant with their first child. Walsh decided to follow the film industry’s trend and headed to Los Angeles to open a studio out there and Menzies went with him, leaving his wife and daughter in New York while he looked for a place to live and started working. He and Walsh finally scored a hit with the romance Serenade, also starring Cooper but that success was short lived; their next film Kindred in the Dust, would flop and Walsh would take a contract job at Fox back in New York, done once and for all with running his own independent studio. 

Menzies panicked at the development. Here he was in LA with a baby and wife to provide for and he had no prospects. He was barely getting work as an advertiser without his rolodex of New York contracts and connections. He wired Walsh for help and the director gave him a letter of recommendation for Douglas Fairbanks, who was well on his way to becoming one of the biggest movie stars in history. Menzies was one of a handful of art directors assigned to Fairbanks’ gargantuan Robin Hood adaptation directed by Walsh’s old Mayflower stablemate Allan Dwan, and though he didn’t contribute much in the way of recognizable Menziesisms in the design, working on the film brought him to the attention of Fairbanks wife Mary Pickford, who co-owned the studio Pickford-Fairbanks. Pickford had been playing coquettes and ingenues for most of her career and at 30 Pickford was finally looking to grow up on screen. She flew German director Ernst Lubitsch over from Europe, then renowned for opulent romantic drama and risky genre pictures, to help with the job and they quickly clashed over what project was the best fit for both of their goals. They settled on a French farce called Don Cesar de Bazan by Philippe Dumanoir and Adolphe d'Ennery, which went through a few translations (including by Fairbanks friend the playwright Edward Knoblock) and name changes before being released as Rosita in 1923. Walsh is rumored to have been brought in to help direct some of the scenes, probably because, as Pickford would later confess after his death, she hated working with Lubitsch. 

Drama aside, the film was boon for Menzies (who added “Cameron” to his screen credits around now, looking more distinguished on screen, he thought), who did a bang up job creating a stage-bound Spain right out of the American imagination of the place, a million miles from the lusty imaginings of Hemingway. Menzies Spanish streets were right out of a storybook. Menzies biographer James Curtis, whose book The Shape of Films to Come is the primary source for these pieces, suggests that working with Lubitsch had awoken in him the idea that the European way of set design (think of the set design in a film like Robert Weine’s foundational expressionist work The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, in which the sets dictate nearly everything, from mood to action to character and plot reveals) was the way forward, the only way he’d ever feel truly satisfied with his creations. Not as mere backdrops, but as characters, as story. Fairbanks was cooking up just such a chance for him as he was plotting this new phase of his career. 

It’s not unreasonable to suggest that Fairbanks way of creating a movie - thinking up the plot with some friends, imagining the set-pieces and stunts he could perform, then handing the mess to a writer whose job it was to build the story around the feats of Fairbanks physicality - is still basically how Hollywood product is designed. Today producers come up with ideas for set-pieces which can help sell rides or toys, have underpaid CGI artists render them, and then have the writers and directors build the film as connective tissue between them. There’s hardly any need for a director. Of course the differences between the old way and the contemporary way of building a bigger blockbuster (a term that wouldn’t definitively enter the critical lexicon until the 1970s) is that everything back when was done by hand, so to speak. Fairbanks really was swinging from ropes and the sets really were there, having been built and painted by people like Menzies and his crew. Curtis suggests that it was Mitchell Leisen (then Pickford’s costumer, later a director of excellent comedies and dramas that have Menzies’ flare for impressive sets) who suggested Fairbanks hire Menzies back to have him create the world of his new film, The Thief of Bagdad. Fairbanks wasn’t sure about the 27 year old designer but when Menzies presented him with watercolor paintings of his ideas for the sets, that sealed the deal. Fairbanks was so bowled over by Menzies work he showed them off to the press before they’d even finished writing the movie (a process aided by boosting some scenes and ideas from Fritz Lang’s film Der müde Tod, which Fairbanks had bought remake rights for). 

Menzies was given free range over the design of The Thief of Bagdad, but Fairbanks asked Leisen to keep an eye on him, to make sure things actually got done on time and within budget. His designs became sets some 60 feet high and constructed by teams of men who were eager for the job just for the chance to look at the sheer beauty of the finished product. Fairbanks hired Raoul Walsh to come direct it (likely because he had experience shooting Menzies’ designs) but, as with a lot of 21st century product, Walsh knew he was really being asked to shepherd the departments from charts and sets and plans to the camera. They’d already worked out every single aspect of the movie’s shape and size, Walsh just had to make sure the camera was in the right place, which was easy, if painstaking, because Fairbanks as star and producer insisted that every composition look exactly like Menzies’ paintings. Walsh was, however, a necessary member of the creative team because there were certain effects, like the magic carpet, that they hadn’t been able to work out practically. Walsh, used to working for lower budgets and on earthier stories, helped the production realize some of its wilder dreams through deception and simplicity. The film was an astonishing success, playing non-stop for the rest of the decade in every corner of the United States, and it would be stolen from and remade ad infinitum for the rest of the century. Everything from Cleopatra to Walt Disney Studios’ Aladdin owes it a debt.

The Thief of Bagdad, Curtis points out, would always be the credit with which Menzies would be remembered for the rest of his career, and rightly so. Walsh was no slouch behind the camera even then and would become one of the more muscular studio directors of the 30s, 40s, and 50s, but here he needed to do little but point the camera at Fairbanks’ impressively lithe performance and Menzies breath-taking designs to have the kind of hit that some filmmakers only dream of. Every few seconds an impressive effect shows up, from the words written in stars in the opening tableaux to the winged horse of the climax, to the rope held aloft in the air by magic, to a two story door opening in four sections to let in a procession from another kingdom. You could strip the film of intertitles and still be completely immersed in its world and story. It’s still one of the most exciting spectacles ever produced, capable of reducing audiences to child-like wonder even now. Menzies, not Lubitsch, not Pickford, not Fairbanks, had brought the European arthouse to American screens. Italian epics like Cabiria and The Inferno, German expressionist genre fare like Caligari and The Student of Prague and epics like Fritz Lang’s Die Nibelungen, French serials like Fantomas and Les Vampires; each had their impressive scale, visual brio, and electric plotting shown up by an upstart designer gifted the heft of Fairbanks’ wherewithal and influence. Hollywood would continue importing talent from Europe throughout the next two decades (most notably F.W. Murnau, and later Jean Renoir and Lang himself in the ‘30s), and having shown themselves capable of nurturing visual talent, a Hollywood studio could plausibly lay claim to the same resources and artistic freedom of the European majors thanks to a film like The Thief of Bagdad having been created here. Menzies, for his part, would design a further 35 movies before the end of the 20s, but it wasn’t until he was once more allowed to create a world from scratch in this fashion that his design work would again make headlines. 

Stay tuned for Part 3