George Folsey, a motion picture industry office boy at age 14 and a cameraman at 19 who retired six decades later with 13 Academy Award nominations and one Emmy for his photographic labors, is dead at the age of 90.
Folsey, who was behind the camera for such memorable films as "The White Cliffs of Dover," "Green Dolphin Street," "Meet Me in St. Louis," "Seven Brides for Seven Brothers" and "Executive Suite," died Tuesday at St. John's Medical Center in Santa Monica.
Folsey, born in Brooklyn, was running errands as a teen-ager at the old Lasky Players New York headquarters. Jobs were so scarce at the time that he opted to be employed rather than complete high school and gravitated toward the technical end of the embryonic picture industry. Within a year he was an assistant cameraman and four years later, had earned his first film credit as a camera operator.
He earned a reputation as a pioneer in the area of subtle lighting, abandoning the harsh contrasts found in the early silent and sound films.
Folsey's first pictures include the fabled "Applause," Rouben Mamoulian's 1929 tragic story of a vaudeville star who loses the affection of her daughter. Folsey's camera was praised by the journal The Arts as "an omniscient, omnipresent eye that slides easily over the links of the story and emphasizes only the true and the relevant."
Folsey's photography ran the gamut from the first two Marx Brothers wacky tours de force ("The Coconuts" and "Animal Crackers") to several of Metro Goldwyn Mayer's melodic extravaganzas, including "Meet Me in St. Louis."
In 1957, Folsey was one of 15 men awarded a special George Eastman Medal of Honor. That year the Kodak company singled out a handful of cameramen and photographic executives for what was then considered the highest prize in cinematography ever awarded outside the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.
(Folsey's lone Emmy came for one of his few television programs, "Here's Peggy Fleming," broadcast during the 1968-69 season.)
Harry Wolf, president of the American Society of Cinematographers, which last year gave Folsey its Lifetime Achievement Award, observed that "when Folsey was winning all these (13 Oscar) nominations Hollywood was producing 500 to 600 feature films a year. There were many other great cinematographers working during that time so it was an extraordinary achievement."
Folsey recently recalled the day as a youth when he was visiting a museum and saw the 18th-Century French painter Jean Ingres' painting "of a young boy stepping out of a bed with a lot of draperies and curtains blowing and soft, suffused, absolutely beautiful light. . . . This seriously affected my concept of how light should look."
Folsey is survived by his wife, Angela, a son, George Jr., the producer, and two grandchildren. A funeral Mass will be said Saturday at 10 a.m. at St. Paul the Apostle Church in Westwood.