William Cameron Menzies’ grand designs changed the visual landscape of cinema.
He was a budding young art director when he created the stunning, elaborate designs for Douglas Fairbanks’ 1924 classic, “The Thief of Bagdad.” He won the first Oscar for art direction for 1927’s “The Dove” and 1928’s “Tempest” and received an honorary Oscar for the use of color to enhance dramatic mood in “Gone With the Wind.” The term “production designer” was created just for him.
And his groundbreaking creation of continuity boards influenced the use of storyboards and digital previsualization used in films today.
The production designer-director, who died in 1957 at age 60, is the subject of a fascinating new book, “William Cameron Menzies: The Shape of Films to Come,” by James Curtis. Turner Classic Movies is also celebrating his legacy this month, showcasing several films he designed or directed Thursday evenings, with introductions by Curtis.
Curtis will also be appearing at a series at the American Cinematheque’s Aero Theatre, “Shaper of Films to Come: William Cameron Menzies,” on Jan. 28 to 31 and on March 26 when the UCLA Film & Television Archive presents its restorations of “Tempest” and 1926’s “The Bat.”
“At the time he started, which was 1917, art direction was pretty much the province of people who had been trained for architecture,” Curtis said. “They were people who were trained to build houses and walls. So you had a background for the actors, but it wasn’t an integral part of the action in a lot of cases.”
Menzies, said Curtis, “was trained as an illustrator, so his natural bent early on was to see the totality of the frame. You can see him starting to move in that direction in the mid-1920s when he started to visualize how whole sequences would work out on paper in advance of actually getting on the set. That was quite extraordinary for the mid-'20s here in Los Angeles.”
The German Expressionists, Curtis noted, had done it to some degree. “You can see some of that in F.W. Murnau’s work in the late 1920s especially. But Menzies was the guy who could draw significant sequences out in advance and kind of work out the compositional problems which made an easier, more efficient shoot once the money starts flowing.”
Menzies’ technique was especially groundbreaking on 1939’s “Gone With the Wind,” for which producer David O. Selznick wanted to control costs and “a great deal of the film. What’s interesting to note is that of all the people on the creative team that came and went during the course of the film, the two that were on from the beginning to the end were Selznick and Menzies. Selznick deferred on practically anything that had to do with visual design.”
Especially in his design of Technicolor. “His color is symphonic” said Curtis. “You can see ‘Gone With the Wind’ in terms of movement of color and how the color evolves as the story evolves. You can turn the volume off and just watch it from a visual standpoint and see how the color moves in waves and reflects the dramatic temperature of the film.”
Though he worked with countless filmmakers over the years, including Frank Capra and Alfred Hitchcock, he had a particularly successful relationship with director Sam Wood on 1941’s “King’s Row” and “The Devil and Miss Jones,” 1942’s “Pride of the Yankees” and 1943’s “For Whom the Bell Tolls.
“It was the perfect relationship,” said Pamela Lauesen, Menzies’ granddaughter. “I think Grandpa said Sam Wood didn’t knew where to put the camera. He was good with actors.”
But Menzies wasn’t.
“I asked one actor about when Menzies needed a particular response, would he give you the emotional temperature of the scene?” Curtis said. “And he said no. He said, ‘Make your eyes wider.’”