On this eve of New Year’s Eve, I thought it would be fun to look back to the February 1941 issue of Modern Screen magazine. In it resides an article written by William Roberts, titled Shooting For the Stars. Ignore the studio-flack hyperbole and enjoy it for what it is: A rare, fan-rag look at some noted cinematographers, their techniques and the world they lived in.
I’ve always thought that being a contract cameraman at one of the major studios during that time would’ve been the greatest job in the world. This piece has done nothing to dissuade me of that conviction. Due to its impressive length, I’ll be breaking it up into several posts, so be sure to stay tuned for more.
Until then, I send you my best wishes for a Happy and Healthy New Year!
They make fat stars thin and old stars young! Who? Those magnificent Merlins of Movietown – the unsung cameramen.
These fellows are pretty tough, believe me. They’re banded together in a secret organization called the ASC, and it’s not that they try to be secret but just that no one knows much about them outside of Hollywood. Movie stars dread them and, privately, call them super-assassins.
The leaders of the ASC have committed many drastic deeds. They have literally taken flesh off Myrna Loy’s legs. They have flattened Brenda Marshall’s nose. They have removed pieces of Madeleine Carroll’s cheeks. They’ve reduced Priscilla Lane’s mouth, narrowed Zorina’s forehead and changed Vivien Leigh’s blue eyes to pure green. And for committing these atrocities they have been paid as much as $1,500 per week. However, if truth will out, the secret organization referred to is actually a staid labor union, the American Society of Cinematographers. The members, merchants of mayhem, are the very expert and very well-paid cameramen of Movieland who, with thick ground glass and well-placed kliegs, have made ordinary faces beautiful and have converted terrible defects into gorgeous assets.
If any one class of worker in Hollywood does not get credit where credit is due, if any one class of laborer is hidden behind the star-bright glare of publicity, obscure, unsung, unknown – it is the cinema cameraman.
“It’s this way with us,” Gregg Toland told me. “They’ve got us wrong, entirely wrong, everywhere. They think cameramen are low-grade mechanical morons, wearing overalls and stupid grins, existing on starvation wages and merely grinding 35 mm toys. Well, maybe. Only we don’t like that impression. Maybe we are technicians. Nothing wrong with that. But sakes alive, man, tell ’em we’re creative artists, too!”
And so, I’m telling you. They’re creative artists, too. They’re makers and breakers of thespians and pictures. They’re the Merlins behind the movies.
Take that fellow Gregg Toland who just had the floor. A lean little man in brown clothes – cultured, brilliant and active. Twenty-one years ago he obtained a job during a summer vacation as an office boy at the old Fox Studios. The film stars on the lot didn’t impress him, but the intent cameramen, cranking their black-sheathed boxes, hypnotized him. He decided to skip school and become a photographer. The result? Well, the last I heard, he had prepared for canning such products as “The Grapes of Wrath,” “The Long Voyage Home” and “Citizen Kane.”
I talked with Toland in the comfortable study of his sprawling Benedict Canyon home. He downed a long beer with a practiced gulp and explained the qualifications and duties of the cameraman.
“A first-rate cameraman must realize,” said Toland, “that while some scenes of a film might be shot much, much better, much more artistically, those scenes are worth neither the extra time nor extra cash investment. The cameraman must have a strain of the economist in him, and get speed into his picture without sacrificing quality. After all, time becomes a paramount item when you realize that a single day on a certain picture may run to $22,000 in expenses!
“As photographer on a major movie, my first job is to manage my camera crew. I have a special crew of seven men. All specialists. I take them with me wherever I go. There’s an operator and two assistants. There’s a grip, a gaffer or electrician, a standby painter and a microphone boy. But that’s only the beginning of my job. I must see that there is efficiency. Speed, again. And, with things as they are, I must practice economy by being artistic with one eye on the production budget. These days a cameraman is actually a producer, director, photographer, actor and electrician. The out-and-out old-fashioned photographer who just had to maneuver a camera is as extinct as the dodo bird.”