William Cameron Menzies: The Man From The Future - Part Four
William Cameron Menzies: The Man From The Future
By Scout Tafoya
Part 4: 1927- 1932
James Curtis tells a story in his book William Cameron Menzies: The Shape of Films to come that sounds too good and too beautiful to be true. Douglas Fairbanks was making a sequel to his hit Three Musketeers movie when he got word they were wiring a nearby stage for sound. He walked across the lot dressed like D’Artagnan, sword and all, and said to his friend the artist Irving Laurence, “The romance of the picturemaking ends here.” 1927 into 1928 had been a busy year for William Cameron Menzies. His father died in his home in Connecticut. He won an Oscar for his art direction on Tempest and The Dove. And sound film was going to mean that his great designs were going to have to compete with the sound of dialogue. He took it all in stride, though there were obviously birth pangs. Cameramen and designers had to rethink their approaches to everything. Huge sets like the ones Menzies had built for Thief of Baghdad or The Beloved Rogue weren’t going to work anymore because microphones had to be near enough to the actors to capture their dialogue. Cameras could no longer do as they pleased, having instead to worry about working within cramped sets wired for sound.
Menzies was always ready for a challenge and sound was just one more thing to work around. Before its advent he had collaborated with the surrealist former film critic Robert Florey, who shortly after, would turn into one of the most prolific genre directors in the world shortly after, on a short film called The Love of Zero, a movie with its meagre plot buried under kaleidoscopic technique and design. Florey shoots in woozy tilts and edits the film into pure abstraction, while every shot has the dynamism and angularity that by now was Menzies’ stock in trade. Florey was trying to do for Americans what Luis Bunuel & Salvador Dali had done for Europeans when they made the landmark surrealist short Un Chien Andalou two years later. Introduce pure images to a crowd used to linear storytelling. If Americans were going to embrace the avant-garde, Florey gave them plenty of chances. Menzies had been slowly but steadily steeping himself in the work of German expressionists by now. He would later say that the director who influenced him the most was likely F.W. Murnau but in Love of Zero you can see the fingerprints of directors like Paul Wegener, Robert Weine and Paul Leni. Since Baghdad had introduced him as the designer to have on your picture he got bolder about his geometric ideas. His first real sound movie, a reunion with Roland West, was 1929’s Alibi, a movie that contains the DNA for so much of American expressionism. Together Menzies and West here are occasionally the equal of Fritz Lang as image makers and montage authors.
Alibi is a very important example of how real film artists approached sound, not with caution but abandon. It opens with the sound of a cop twirling his billy club and hitting a wall, which then morphs into the sound of prisoners marching in line. The camera is stationary in jail, breathing in the terrifying enormity of the jail and its brutalist architecture, before it flees jail with its ex-con hero and into a dancing club, where the marching of prisoners becomes the sound of girls on a kick line, which the camera glides towards, dream-like. Heaven and Hell in 3 minutes. West is still sharp enough to tell much of the story visually, as when a dancing girl and her suitor speak in hand
signals during one of her numbers. Like John Ford’s The Black Watch or Hitchcock’s Blackmail from the same year, this was an inventive and frequently dazzling early talkie, embracing with both arms the possibilities of this new technology. West and Menzies falter when it’s time to do the talking, sticking the camera in front of the cast and cutting haphazardly between too many lines of dialogue to keep the soundtrack. After they’d finished Alibi, Sam Goldwyn asked to borrow Menzies for his next big thing: Bulldog Drummond starring Ronald Colman, the louche lover from the Menzies-designed Kiki. Though the production was an antic mess (several directors claimed responsibility for the end results, including Goldwyn, who claimed he reshot everything himself) it was a huge smash. Goldwyn was so impressed he brought him back to design Colman’s next starring vehicle, Condemned, which was just as well because the movie he’d been working on for Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks, Taming of the Shrew, was caught between their personalities and was a messy shoot.
Around this time Menzies, who was already seeing how much the introduction of sound was demanding of moving pictures, met a very important collaborator, Dr. Hugo Riesenfeld, the music director for Pickford and Fairbanks United Artists. The Viennese born conductor was seized with the idea of giving classical music to audiences in bite sized doses, and contracted Menzies to help design short films around some of the great pieces of music. Together they brought to life compositions by Franz Liszt, Paul Dukas, Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky and more. The films are all charming and because of Menzies’ designs quite easy to watch but nothing rises to the level of hallucinatory excitement of The Love of Zero. They are significant, especially the Dukas Sorcerers/Wizard’s apprentice short, because the idea of setting music to film specifically was a novel concept. Walt Disney and Co. would recreate the Sorcerer’s apprentice visuals for Fantasia, which in turn would inspire the likes of Ken Russell, John Boorman, and Richard Lester, and of course it doesn’t take much squinting to see that in this concept is the seeds of what would become the music video.
Menzies’ short form production work (the music films but also the little comedy Glorious Vamps) kept bringing his talents behind the camera to the fore in press clippings. People kept wondering when he’d just have done with and step out from the drafting table and direct real movies. It had to have been preferable to appointing dully received UA movies as the company was running out of ideas and the depression was keeping everyone in a constant panic about the future of the business. None of the ten films he made in 1930 made much of a splash and he had the itch to do more than design. The highest profile of them all is likely D.W. Griffith’s Abraham Lincoln, a not-terribly deeply felt apologia for Birth of a Nation starring Walter Huston as the old rail splitter. Huston is all wrong for the part and despite some impressive sets, some typically brilliant composition work from Griffith, and a couple of lovely choreographed camera movements, the movie is lumpen, awkward, and relies overmuch on exposition. If you weren’t told Menzies designed it, you’d scarcely be able to guess. Just as Menzies first real champion Douglas Fairbanks was getting to retire, Menzies got offered a contract at Fox, which took him away from old bosses Sam Goldwyn, Joseph Schenck and United Artists and into the next phase of his career.
At Fox he started work on his first feature film as director. As was common practice he was paired up with a dialogue director (Kenneth MacKenna in this case) so he could worry about the visuals. The trouble was the first film Fox gave them to direct, 1931’s Always Goodbye, was almost all dialogue. Menzies went with it, but hardly had anything to do behind the camera. It lost 70,000 dollars. Menzies was determined to fix the mistakes of his first film with the rip snorting entertainment pieceThe Spider, starring Edmund Lowe as a magician solving a murder mystery in his theatre one night. The crucial difference here is that Menzies at the time talked about how much fun it was to make. There are great gags right out of Georges Melies, the screen’s first magician. He makes bodies float, cuts off heads, sets impossible fires and then puts everyone and everything back together again. Menzies is already much better at framing conversations with technique he’d keep around well into the 1950s, as when he cuts from a woman demanding to be allowed into the theatre to the young kid at her knees telling her to quiet down. Young Jimmy Hunt would be framed in reveal reaction shots like this in Invaders from Mars twenty years later. Menzies had developed a habit of fitting rooms with Art Nouveau wallpaper to spruce up shots with less action and here is no exception. The eye must always be engaged, and when he isn’t doing literal magic tricks, he’s got sets and costumes worth staring at. It helped of course that his cameraman on The Spider (and on his next big success Chandu The Magician) was none other than James Wong Howe, perhaps the greatest of the Hollywood camera men.
If The Spider showed promise, Chandu was a proper arrival of a directorial dynamo. The sets are as elaborate as any he designed for UA or Schenck -- Howe’s camera drifts over liminal spaces of rituals and artifice, performed in secret away from the eyes of the world. The trick of the rope with no anchor from is repeated in even more spectacular fashion. Lowe returns from the Spider as Chandu, a yogi who can astral project floating double exposures of himself across the set and walk across hot coals. It pleased Menzies enormously to perform magic on camera, to make people beg to know how he did it all, tapping in as ever to the mind of a child transfixed by the impossible things hiding in glens and moonlit woods. It was as if Menzies had awoken and realized what his real job was as a picture maker: do the impossible, show the unimaginable, keep them all guessing, hypnotize and mesmerize. His set designs are as elegant as his shot designs. Chandu is an unforgettable work of dark stage magic, and even so…it wasn’t enough. Menzies had bigger plans.