Modern Screen was one of the many fan magazines that flooded newsstands during the heyday of the Hollywood studio system.  Filled with propaganda that sold the shiny veneer of Tinseltown to the world, William Roberts’ February 1941 article, Shooting For the Stars, is something of an anomaly.  While maintaining its fawning, somewhat corny tone, it nonetheless contains information of genuine interest to today’s cinematographers.

            To continue my scientific study of the lads behind the lenses, I went to a party of General Service Studios.  There, on the lavish set of “Lady Hamilton,” Vivien Leigh was passing out cake to celebrate her birthday, and a stocky, dark-haired handsome man named Rudolph Mate was celebrating his first year as a full-fledged American citizen.

            I asked Mate about the ingredients that make a tip-top photographer, and he answered very slowly and very precisely.  He spoke slowly to prevent becoming mixed in the languages he knows – French, German, Hungarian, Russian, Polish, English and pinochle – all of which he speaks fluently.

            “To become a good photographer, one must have a complete knowledge of the technical end,” stated Mate.  He pointed toward his $15,000 movable camera.  “One must make everything about that instrument a habit, a second nature, as natural and uncomplicated as walking.  This complete technical knowledge gives one time, on the set, to think in terms of the story being shot.  A photographer must be creative, imaginative.  Above all, he must have a talent for continuity.

            “What do I mean by continuity?  The celluloid mustn’t be scatterbrained.  For example, every day a cameraman looks at the daily rushes of the footage he’s shot.  Some photographers have excellent daily rushes, excellent separate scenes – but, when the film is cut, patched together, it’s mediocre and without full meaning because the cameraman had no feel of harmony, no sense of continuity.  “A cameraman must be thorough.  I study a script page by page and solve each problem as I study it.  Also, on the side, I study oil paintings and works of art.  In fact, I have a big collection of my own, because this study gives a cameraman knowledge of composition and color.”

            Rudolph Mate was ecstatic about Vivien Leigh as Lady Hamilton.

            “A marvelous subject.  Cool.  Positive.  The certain beauty of a steel dagger.  No bad facial angles.  And an actress in her head and in her heart.  Laurence Olivier is fine for me to shoot, too.  His face is so expressive.  It has so much character.”

            “She has a wonderful head.  I mean both brains and shape.  Furthermore, like no other actress, she understands lighting problems and angles, and takes all suggestions without a fight. She is cooperative despite the nonsense you read.  She will pose for fifty different takes if need be.  The reason she knows so much is that she acquired her photographic education from Josef Von Sternberg, her first director, who still has the best pictorial mind in the cinema business.”

            Mate, I understood, was a master magician at trickery.  He could make anything real.  In “Lady Hamilton,” you’ll see the Battle of Trafalgar, when Olivier as Lord Nelson is killed.  It’ll be a terrific scene, realistic as war and death – but remember, it was made with miniature boats, only five feet tall, costing $1,000 each, and the cannon balls were tiny marbles shot into thin balsa wood.

            Remember, too, that Mate can – and often has – made mob scenes involving thousands of people with just a half dozen extras.  This he has accomplished with a special “button lens,” one with 220 separate openings for images, thus multiplying anything it is focused upon.



  1. Loren! I think nowadays it would be considered more of a prism-type attachment to the lens…

  2. “The certain beauty of a steel dagger…”
    I certainly think this is a grandly poetic expression that might get a bit of pushback nowadays. Great insights in this and all of your dispatches, Richard, thanks!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *