William Cameron Menzies: The Man From The Future - Part Six
William Cameron Menzies: The Man From The Future
By Scout Tafoya
Part 6: 1939-1946
In the introduction of his essential biography William Cameron Menzies: The Shape of Films to Come, author James Curtis describes the painstaking and elephantine production of the famous “burning of Atlanta” scene, a centerpiece of the 1939 David O. Selznick production Gone With The Wind. The film had directorial contributions from everyone from Val Lewton, Victor Flemying, George Cukor, Sam Wood, and of course Menzies himself. Menzies had planned the burning of Atlanta like a daredevil planning to jump through a ring of fire on a motorcycle. Carriages, frightening amounts of real flame, lights, dollies; you name it it had to be timed perfectly because once they’d burned most of the leftover King Kong set it’s not like you could rebuild it and burn it again. Selznick knew he wouldn’t entice Menzies back to art direction without the role being so rewarding and public facing and sure to succeed that he couldn’t possibly say no, and Selznick had just the ticket. He and Cukor and Menzies even agonized over his credit “production designed by” because he was aware how crucial the work was to the success of the finished film, even in the early days of planning.
Menzies wasn’t really sure what kind of a role he’d have on Gone with the Wind, and as the books popularity grew from its blockbuster 1936 release date to its 1937 Pulitzer win, he got the feeling that Selznick had something on his hands (certainly the 50 grand he paid for the rights said so). He hadn’t read the book, it wasn’t exactly his speed but by Christmas ’37 he was on the payroll designing it. Historian and architect Wilbur Kurtz was given to him as an assistant and he started drafting sets paintings. While they were gearing up and Selznick and original director Cukor was touring the south with Margaret Mitchell to get a feel for the place described in her novel, Selznick had a brainstorm. Janet Gaynor was under contract with Selznick, who wanted to keep his relationship with United Artists alive in case he needed their help releasing Gone With the Wind. On the movie they settled on, eventually called Young at Heart, Selznick asked Menzies to take a break from prepping Gone to go work as the producer’s assistant and help do some continuity work and then, eventually, handle reshoots. He aced Selznick’s test, which lead to work on a John Cromwell picture called Made For Each Other, during which Selznick used him increasingly for everything from miniature shots to b-roll. He’d need all of these skills and more for Gone. When he was finished on Made for Each Other he went back to Selznick’s studio to start doing technicolor camera tests; the film’s wild color scheme took careful planning and masonite matte paintings and tests and trying out screens for photographic effects and grounding up brick to spread over the ground to mimic the look of Georgia clay. Menzies developed a color scheme for the film like he was composing for an orchestra. After the fire sequence was shot Selznick knew he had a hit on his hands. Hollywood had never seen a fire that big.
Selznick’s love of Menzies drawings, and his reliance on the designer to do the bulk of the planning of the film’s mise-en-scene was part of a grander design than he let on. If he could approve Menzies shot choices, and had Cukor adhere to them strictly, Selznick was essentially ghost directing the movie. He’d already basically rewritten Sidney Howard’s script and, according to cinematographer Lee Garmes, Cukor was too much of a gentleman to stand his ground about it. Instead he just quit amiably and Victor Fleming came aboard, a month into principal photography. Fleming, on loan from MGM, had none of Cukor’s gentlemanly compunction. He demanded Howard’s script on day one and Selznick gave it to him because every hour they were shut down it cost thousands of dollars. Garmes was fired the week after and Ernest Haller replaced him soon after. Fleming worked for a few weeks before exhaustion and kidney stones got the better of him and he took a few weeks off and Sam Wood stepped on. This whole time Menzies was busier than just about anyone on set, drinking all through the work day and working non-stop on lighting and shot design and shooting second unit whenever the occasion called. By most accounts Menzies was the only crew member for whom no one on set harbored a grudge. Wood, renowned for his direction of actors, worked as efficiently as Menzies and the two admired each other’s work from across the studio. They had no way of knowing how important they were about to be to each other.
But first an old friend came knocking. As Menzies was wrapping up second unit, Alexander Korda rang up Selznick with a favor. He was remaking The Thief of Bagdad and he was running out of time before the studios were going to close for the next few years of the war. His director Ludwig Berger was eccentric and picky and he wasn’t going to finish on time. Korda had already picked up quota quickie master Michael Powell to help him finish up some of the sequences but he knew it wasn’t enough. He needed Menzies. The two had been a little at odds during the shoot of Things to Come but between Menzies having designed the original Thief of Bagdad, his resourcefulness on short shoots, and his enormous, self-evident talent he couldn’t help but ask. Menzies finished up his work on Gone with the Wind, gave his notes on a four hour temp cut, and departed once again. England was a mess. Preparations for war had spilled onto the street. The chaos was reflected on the Bagdad set. Three units were running concurrently, with Larry Butler, an old effects hand and a friend of Menzies, heading the last. They were filming when England joined the war after Germany invaded Czechoslovakia. Powell was press ganged into service; the way he describes it one minute he was on one of Korda’s enormous sets and the next he was in a bomber making a propaganda film called the Lion Has Wings. Menzies hung around until October until he could escape England on a Dutch ship. For a movie conceived in chaos The Thief of Bagdad is a seamless, fantastical yarn. Its fans include Francis Ford Coppola and Martin Scorsese and it helped kicked off a wave of fantasy films set in a fictionalized (and it must be said entirely Anglicized) version of the Arab world. It’s tough to imagine Ray Harryhausen’s second act without Thief of Bagdad and its images of a giant (played by Rex Ingram) granting wishes and performing magic. Menzies handled a lot of those scenes and they still enchant to this day. A very old fashioned and still very magnificent movie.
Menzies came back in a daze and flitted from project to project as news of the war started reaching America. He worked for Selznick directing the miniature scenes of Manderlay for his and Alfred Hitchcock’s movie of Daphne Du Maurier’s Rebecca, Hitch’s first American picture. Then independent producer Sol Lesser hired Menzies and Sam Wood to direct his proposed movie of Thornton Wilder’s Our Town, a success from the same time frame as Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind. Our Town was another production like Bagdad with a lot of cooks in the kitchen. Lesser had invited Wilder to collaborate on the film, his son in law Harry Horner had done a pass at designing the initial script (Menzies liked his ideas ok but Lesser thought he was an idiot), and Aaron Copland was writing the music. It’s a little shocking that this movie has fallen into something like obscurity it’s a visual marvel. With Wood getting remarkable performances out of a cast that included a young William Holden, Menzies was free to design a movie unlike just about anything the American cinema was producing at that time. It has the inventiveness of the best of silent cinema, the vivaciousness of a Busby Berkeley dance number, and yet the solemnity of an Ingmar Bergman chamber drama. Menzies compositional and lighting ideas were radical for a filmed drama, especially a play as heavily dialogue driven and previously as minimally staged as this had been on broadway. It opens with one of the great Menzies devices; a shot of a fence. Fences were Menzies way of splitting the screen, of centering and de-centering his compositions and adding distance and depth, and he’d use them throughout his career in movies like Wood’s King’s Row (1942) and his own Invaders from Mars (1953). His use of miniatures, off-kilter compositions, and dramatic changes in lighting bring the film to the brink of the experimental. Our Town is strange and beautiful and deserves to be better known.
The rapacious pace didn’t abate. Menzies received a special Oscar for his contributions to Gone With The Wind because they couldn’t decide with what exactly he should be specifically credited. He’d done everything on Gone with the Wind except catering, and yet perhaps too much of this and too little of that to just give him a department head Oscar. He then jumped onto Hitchcock’s next movie Foreign Correspondent. He helped design the plane crash, the windmill sequence, and the assassination; in short the most thrilling parts of the movie, sequence ideas that Hitchcock would endeavor to replicate and perfect as he advanced. It’s funny to think how much of a hand Menzies had in drawing out the best in Hitchcock; would he have become the same director, would he have sought out Saul Bass if not for his work with Menzies? Hitch would later bring Menzies back to shoot maybe the most visually memorable sequence of his pre-color movies: the Salvador Dali-designed dream sequence in the psychodrama Spellbound. It should be better known that he had a hand in that sequence, but then, just about every one of Menzies achievements should be better known. He then helped Capra with his truly bizarre Meet John Doe, then the anti-war film So Ends Our Night, once more aiding John Cromwell. Sam Wood, knowing what a stupendous collaborator he had on his hands, an “anomaly” as he called himself in a piece for the New York Times. In a row they made The Devil and Miss Jones with Jean Arthur, Kings Row, a stupendous film about the fortunes of a few people in a small American town, sort of a prestige and more straight forward version of Our Town, Pride of the Yankees, written partly by the great Herman Mankiewicz, and a movie of Ernest Hemingway’s For Whom The Bell Tolls. On Kings Row Menzies had to find visual solutions to subjects brought up in the book, from addiction to mutilation, by filming visual metaphors or synecdoches for the awful sights and sounds the production office wouldn’t allow to be shown directly on screen. Menzies grew to love working with Wood. “We’re two halves of the same thing,” he said to a journalist who visited the Kings Row set.
The Bell Tolls shoot almost killed Menzies. He hadn’t been in the field for as long in his entire career and the conditions were hard to control for a man like Menzies, used to being able to tweak everything carefully in a studio. He went snow-blind as the cast and crew drove each other crazy with lusty looks and on-set affairs. Menzies recovered with a safer prospect: Cary Grant’s first solo lead role in Mr. Lucky, which required much less specific work from the designer. He took a much more hands off approach, too, on Lewis Milestone’s The North Star, written by Lillian Hellman. He was able to delegate to a group of designers instead of doing all the work himself, though workaholic though he was, he wound up shooting re-takes anyway. Menzies was drinking a lot and was barely home during this period. His daughters remembered being filled with trepidation every night, wondering what kind of state he would arrive home in. Menzies somewhere understood that even though people everywhere were bowing in deference at their introduction to him, he wasn’t really doing the work he most wanted to be. Then Sam Wood came to him with a production for his daughter, KT, an anti-Nazi movie called Address Unknown. It would be his return to directing solo, and the start of the last phase of his career.