William Cameron Menzies: The Man From The Future - Part Seven
William Cameron Menzies: The Man From The Future
By Scout Tafoya
Part 7: 1947-1954
Sam Wood’s Ivy (1947) begins with Joan Fontaine having her fortune told by a psychic. She sees that a man will come into her life soon and play an important part…then it goes dark. Dark things in store for her. The fortune teller doesn’t tell her that, which leaves Fontaine with a note of optimism in her heart. If William Cameron Menzies had gone to a fortune teller around the time of Ivy they might have said he was about to become immortal, a highly respected legend in his field, the man to whom all who follow in his footsteps must measure up. The trouble is he’d achieve this ultimately by dying at age 60 after decades of non-stop work, a miserable personal life, and little chance to enjoy what his labor had wrought. In an interview with U.S. Camera at the outset of the United States’ involvement in the Second World War, as reprinted in James Curtis’ essential biography William Cameron Menzies: The Shape of Films to Come, Menzies said he didn’t even really like directing. If he’d had his way, he wanted to open a little bar in London and retire. He never got to retire.
Menzies’s fortunes were on the wan in the mid-40s, so it’s no surprise he was eyeing an escape route. He worked on a movie called Deadline at Dawn with a theatre director named Harold Clurman making his picture debut, and his movies with and without Sam Wood were making less and less money. Producer David O. Selznick still valued him (he’d had him do reshoots on Hitchcock’s Spellbound (1945) and brought him in to do about five days work on the troubled Duel in the Sun (1946) shoot) but that value went down every time one of his movies went into the red. Frank Capra had come back from active duty to direct It’s a Wonderful Life (also ’46) and once more hired Menzies to help him design some things. Capra wanted Menzies to make the heaven sequences less maudlin in their design but wound up keeping the designer on set with him almost as a crutch while the director got his legs back under him after so long a hiatus. Menzies was also working with Lewis Milestone on Arch of Triumph near simultaneously. He was overtaxed and receiving very little in the way of credit. He and Wood made Ivy together when both productions ceased, and though the film is an astonishment visually, apparently Wood was coming to his end as a useful collaborator for Menzies, who had relied on him to work with the actors while he designed the look of the film. Fontaine remembered Wood as being practically mute. Their relationship grew silently strained with Menzies drinking heavily after filming every night and Wood unable to help him or rein him in. They hadn’t been estranged for more than a year and a half when Wood died of a sudden heart attack. He was 66, only six years older than Menzies would be when he joined him in death a few years later.
It was under these troubled circumstances that Menzies was casting about wildly for a project in the late 40s. Treatments were being snubbed, his release credits were weighing him down, a proposed TV program out of short films he was producing was turned down because of high costs, and no one seemed sure what was going to be a hit or not anymore. It was only ingenuity that produced his next film. His most recent script had been rejected and, while he still had producer Walter Wanger’s ear, he suggested they shoot something fast on the still standing sets of his most recent failure, Joan of Arc with Ingrid Bergman. They grabbed a script for a project called The Bastille, French in setting so the sets wouldn’t need to be altered, gutted it for parts and built a potboiler right into the middle of it like an ectopic pregnancy. The resulting film, Reign of Terror or Black Book, cost about as much as a single day’s shooting on Ivy, but was designed by Menzies, directed by Anthony Mann, and photographed by John Alton, so it turned out to be one of the best movies of the decade, still the kind of perfect B movie against which all others must be judged. Menzies rolled right into the next production, a similarly low budget production called The Man He Found, which was a joy to shoot for the director, working with unknown actors who were delighted be working with him. The finished film was fatally tampered with by producer Howard Hughes who turned it into an anti-communist screed (instead of an anti-fascist one - Menzies, though hardly outspoken, was no fan of the red baiting that had begun to define Hollywood in the 50s). The film is a nifty little potboiler all the same, predicting such little-town-with-a-big-secret movies as Bad Day At Black Rock (1956) and Night Slaves (1970).
Menzies’ next project was for a bizarro outfit called the King Brothers and yielded one of his worst reviewed films, the Gone With the Wind copy Drums in the Deep South (1951). He picked up odd jobs for films as disparate as the Archers movie Gone To Earth (1950, one of their best, now unfortunately largely forgotten; it saw Menzies doing pick-up work once more for a Michael Powell movie after the remake of Thief of Bagdad) and Androcles and the Lion (1952), on which Nicholas Ray did some uncredited work. He went to New York to film the pilot of a TV show based on the Sax Rohmer Fu Manchu stories starring John Carradine and Cedric Hardwicke, and had such a lousy time of it he was actively hoping it wouldn’t get picked up. He got his wish. Menzies was all but going to studios with hat in hand when Edward L. Alperson approached him to make the two-years gestating Invaders from Mars. Orson Welles associate John Tucker Battle had written the script based on a nightmare his wife Rosemary had had as a little girl. Screenwriter Richard Blake (a graduate of shoestring production house Republic Pictures) was brought in to tighten and cheapen the script. Menzies drew the film up extensively beforehand, as was his custom, but the storyboards were stolen the day before filming was scheduled to start. Menzies filmed the color production as if it were in black and white (a trick William Wellman adopted on his arch western Track of the Cat the following year), and by all accounts had a great time devising effects and shooting the special set-ups. “Invaders” would end up as his epitaph as a picture director, and certainly it’s difficult to imagine the film working with a director less in tune with what makes the world seem nightmarish to the mind of a child. He was the right man for the job.
Invaders from Mars was a minor hit at the time and would play ad infinitum on television for the next several decades in increasingly degraded prints (which is why restoring it was of the highest priority to your hosts here at Ignite Films, and indeed why you’re reading this piece right now). Menzies was too desperate to wait for its release, however, and in the months between filming it and its release he went to RKO and filmed a 3D segment for a planned omnibus film called Three-D Follies, which never came to fruition. But this little bit of dabbling in 3-D brought him to the attention of Walter Mirisch, who was planning the first (and though he had no way of knowing, only) 3D film for Allied Artists, and knew that Menzies had some experience with Salvador Dali (whose designs had been crucial in Hitchcock’s Spellbound). Dali had drawn the illustrations that accompanied Maurice Sandoz’s book The Maze, about a woman’s fateful visit to an old castle. It had been adapted to be more conventional on the page. Menzies directed the 3-D feature to zero fanfare but it holds up as a true, stark oddity today, one of the most beautiful and spare horror films of the 1950s, an odd, transitional period for American genre much more amenable to science fiction. Menzies worked briefly on a TV show with Ronald Colman, but they both had heart attacks; Colman’s killed him. His last major production was Around the World in 80 Days, a movie made using an experimental widescreen process (Todd AO, an invention of maniacal producer Mike Todd, who made Menzies life a living hell even as he was giving him his last bit of lustre as a creative). Menzies was on set for most of the film’s production, solving problems and helping both Todd and young director Michael Anderson. The film was a huge hit and won the best picture Oscar at the Academy Awards, but by then Menzies was done. He’d had an operation that left him without the ability to speak coherently. He died a month after the Oscars, on a career high and a personal low.
In 2014 George Lucas endowed three faculty chairs at the USC film school, one named for Georges Méliès, one for Sergei Eisenstein, and one for William Cameron Menzies. It’s handy to split cinematic creation into these three polls (the magician, the politician, and the painter) but perhaps it’s more impressive to note that Méliès was, for all intents and purposes, the first fiction filmmaker, Eisenstein is still taught in film schools today as a way to teach students how and why to edit their movies, and Menzies? Menzies was the man whose work is a synecdoche for the idea that a movie is more than what a camera sees, but indeed how a movie teaches us to look. No one person contributed more to the visual schematic of decades of filmmaking in America. Movies might have emerged the visual feast they became after Menzies ran through his paint brush, but I for one am not so confident as to want to imagine a world without him. Maybe he would have been happier running a little pub out of the way somewhere, but the 20th century would have been very different if he had.