William Cameron Menzies: The Man From The Future - Part Five


William Cameron Menzies: The Man From The Future
By Scout Tafoya
Part 5: 1934-1938

There was an unprecedented group of talents stuffed on the incredible sets of Things to Come in the mid-30s. Producer Alexander Korda and his brother, the production designer Vincent Korda, Bauhaus stalwart and fugitive from the Nazis László Moholy-Nagy, H.G. Wells and his son Frank, and of course, William Cameron Menzies, directing solo for the first time in his life. H.G. Wells had never really ventured into the realm of filmmaking before when he and Korda met for tea to discuss a collaboration. Wells had seen Fritz Lang’s Metropolis and loathed it. He didn’t agree the future should have been assumed to be ruled by a literal fascist hierarchy (as in the rich above, the poor below), that instead it should be described as a kind of technological space race, a constant striving for utopia through progress (for a man who wrote about the future he was hilariously off base about what lay in store for human beings). Wells wrote a script that Professor Sir Christopher Frayling described as more like a campaign speech than a proper screenplay. By then the Korda brothers knew about Menzies and figured if anybody would have success visualizing such an abstract and grandiose vision, it might be him. 

The opportunity couldn’t have come at a better time for Bill Menzies. After Chandu The Magician, his most impressive and probably his most polarizing film as a co-director after a decade of production design work, Fox dragged him back down to earth. They wanted him to design their Noel Coward adaptation Cavalcade (1933), which wound up winning best picture. It’s a deeply boring film mercifully anointed with some of Menzies’ great set and shot design flourishes. The best part of the movie is the plotless montage that shows the years of World War 1 in double and triple exposures of men marching and dying in the mud. Three minutes of pure expression. When he wasn’t designing Fox had him essentially doing grunt work, like taking cast photographs for continuity. James Curtis, in his biography William Cameron Menzies: The Shape of Films to Come, describes his condition on set as “demoralized,” noting that even after the film won a raft of Academy Awards including best picture, he refused to put it on his resume. It’s the kind of movie where characters look up from conversation and see Charles Lindberg landing his plane after a transatlantic flight before then stepping onto the Titanic. In other words: nonsense. Things didn’t pick up from there. He helped Henry King design I Loved You Wednesday a few months later and did such a good job that they retroactively gave him a co-director credit. 

His next project was at Paramount (Fox let his contract lapse after just a handful of films) working on a star studded movie version of Alice In Wonderland directed by Norman Z. McLeod with a script begun by future academy award winner Joseph L. Mankiewicz. Menzies took the script and started augmenting it with his design ideas. Shooting was a disaster (the actress who played Alice wasn’t cast until well into production, the actors resented having to wear heavy and hideous latex masks) and the reception was worse. It scared children and critics didn’t know what to make of the thing. Indeed, apart from a handful of trademark Menzies visual ideas, the film is a horrifying cacophony of broad performances under nightmare-inducing faces. Paramount had hoped to have a new Christmas staple on their hands. By Christmas the film had been all but pulled from circulation. 

Lucky for Menzies, Paramount had been impressed enough by his work that they threw him onto another picture (co-directed with Georges Somnes) that was about to start. He was friendly with cinematographer Victor Milner and they got on like a house on fire. The film was well received but 19 year old star Dorothy Dell was killed in a car accident a few months after its release which cast a pall on the picture’s popularity. Somnes never directed another movie. The atmosphere is extra thick in this one. Menzies couldn’t design any sets so he had to make do with what was already built, but he and Milner make the film a collection of rough chiaroscuros. Dell flounces in and out of shadow like she’s trying on different outfits. Victor McLaglen, a discovery of John Ford, is energetic and strapping and more heroic and handsome than Ford ever let him be. Menzies was put onto another film immediately afterwards but his star was poached by a different production, his co-director got ill, and then he crashed his car under the influence. The Paramount PR machine said he was sick and tried to keep the crash out of the papers and hurriedly assigned him something to ride out the rest of his time under contract. In this case it was on Cecil B. Demille’s characteristically huge if uncharacteristically fleet and sexy Cleopatra with Claudette Colbert. He was to design a battle sequence as he did for Cavalcade, though if anything his work here was more violently ? and overwhelming. Every split second a new sword blow or arrow hit rocks the screen, men are crushed by spiked wheels, ships sink each other, fire, blood, screaming; it’s a lot, and it’s easy to think that under all of it was Menzies’ own internal pain at having made such a mess of his career in such a short time. He put the word out on the street that he was looking for work after his Paramount contract expired. No one bit. 

For three months Menzies sat in his lavish home with his nervous family until a cable from Alexander Korda set him off on a week’s long journey from LA to New York and then finally onto London. Curtis surmises that it was likely someone from his United Artists days (maybe even Douglas Fairbanks himself, then making his last movie with Korda in England) who suggested Menzies to the Hungarian producer. But it’s not as though Menzies’ design work was a well-kept secret or anything. He lived alone in a small flat in London while he and Wells began collaborating on the design of the film. Wells’ script didn’t exactly set Menzies’ imagination on fire but he eventually started bringing drawings around for the dyspeptic author to eyeball, once or twice a week until they had some coherent shape of the film. Alexander Korda largely stayed out of it while his brother Vincent and Menzies busied themselves designing this most ambitious science fiction film England had yet seen. Designing the picture took months (Menzies wouldn’t see his family from fall of ‘34 until spring of ’35) and the production was disastrous; a set collapsed, killing one of the painters and injuring five more. The shoot took up most of the rest of the year and it was one headache after another. Wells was a brutal exacting creative force and when he wasn’t around Alexander Korda would show up filled with worry. Menzies, by the end was just anxious to have this elephantine thing done, even if Korda had been paying for what turned into a lavish lifestyle in England. 

The film was a design triumph, certainly, and Korda left with a favorable impression of Menzies (indeed he immediately and without consent announced that he’d be directing his production of Hamlet that year, though that never came to pass) but the reviews were mixed and the box office could have been better. Watching it today is an interesting experience. It presages the hugely ambitious works of English language science fiction; both versions of Frank Herbert’s Dune that have come to screens, Ridley Scott’s Alien and Blade Runner, the work of James Cameron, Tarsem Singh, and Lana & Lilly Wachowski; everything starts here with the distinct time periods and Well’s inch-thick mythology. The film starts in 1940 as the denizens of Everytown prepare for Christmas and war. Thirty years later the world has fallen to disease and violence and needs to be rebuilt. In 2036 civilization prepares for a moon launch. Wells’ dialogue is all demonstrative and declarative (he was chastised for it in the press and blamed Korda and Menzies for not making it work better) and thus makes the film rather difficult to get a foothold in. At its best it soars past you (Menzies’ by now trademark montages make up the battle scenes and time period shifts) landing on great sights designed by Menzies and Vincent Korda, spaceships and war machines and amphitheatres and cities of the future. It’s like one of Demille’s period pieces except that it’s set in the future. Nothing, not even Metropolis, looked like this, with its medieval dystopia giving way to fabulous futurism. 

Menzies left his family once more (and his wife Mignon Toby never fully forgave him for it, though she had no interest in decamping to London) to work for Korda, who had hired former UFA head Erich Pommer (who had produced Metropolis, incidentally) to run his studio while he directed Charles Laughton as Rembrandt in the so-named picture eventually released in 1936. Pommer tried to keep Menzies busy but the suggestions he came up with for projects failed to ignite his imagination. He was assigned to help design a never-completed movie of I, Claudius, but he wasn’t having any fun prepping it with the constant delays, though he did like Laughton well enough. After two more pictures dissolved he threatened to go home so Korda finally relented and gave him carte blanche. He said he knew a scenarist who could help him come up with something he’d be happy to work on, Graham Greene. Greene, a novelist and film critic, liked Menzies and they brainstormed a hundred ideas. The story they settled on was an inversion of Hitchcock’s The 39 Steps in which a woman (Rene Ray) is accused of murder and a man (John Mills) helps her flee the authorities and prove her innocence. Korda hated the film and wasn’t in a particularly forgiving mood; his Claudius production had crashed and burned so he took out a hefty insurance policy on it and scrapped it. Korda had director William K. Howard shoot additional scenes and finally shoved the movie, now titled The Green Cockatoo, in front of indifferent audiences. It wouldn’t be released in America for a full decade after its wrap date. It’s a little vacant, the movie, but as with Wharf Angel there’s no denying there’s interesting atmosphere to spare. 

Menzies still held out hope that he’d be able to direct movies for Korda when he got word that someone in America wanted to talk to him. Seems there’d been a slight snag back in Los Angeles and David O. Selznick, freshly independent after stints at RKO and MGM, and about to become the biggest producer in the world, needed an art director in a hurry. The man he’d hoped to hire, Fredric Joy, died during negotiations. How quickly could Menzies fly in to help him finish second unit on William Wellman’s Nothing Sacred, Menzies first film in Technicolor? Next up was a stunning bit of design for Selznick’s production of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. He designed the sequence where Tom and Becky are stranded in a cave, replete with his typically brilliant perspectives, shadows, and stern shapes. Gears were turning in Selznick’s head. His biggest production to date was coming up…and this Menzies fellow was looking more and more like a godsend.