Saturday, September 26, 2009

Studio Library Rights and Film History

It's no new observation that our understanding of film history depends in part on the availability of films, which depends in part on the distribution rights and willingness of media companies to circulate older films. One of the amazing boons to our understanding of Hollywood's studio period, at least those in US and Canada, has been cable rebroadcast of titles, first on AMC (back in the 90s) and now on TCM. Before, scholars could collect prints or VHS, or visit archives, but the new mediascape opens up accessibility to an extent previously unimaginable.

But it's easy to equate TCM with "Classic Hollywood" without recognizing that what it really refers to is MGM + Warner Bros. +UA, with some RKO and a little Fox thrown in. Noticeably sparse is Paramount's library, which has been held back from both home video release and cable broadcast.

A quick tabulation of what's showing on TCM this fall suggest that about 2% of their 30s and 40s films are Paramount productions. The percentage is similarly small going the other way: less than 2% of Paramount's 30s and 40s films are going to be shown on TCM. And if it weren't for Preston Sturges, these percentages would be lower. This, for one of the dominant and most productive studios of the classical years.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Sea of Grass

Back to 1947...

Sea of Grass (MGM, Elia Kazan) is just the kind of film that fascinates me as a scholar but gets almost universally ignored by all but the most hardcore of Classic-Hollywood cinephiles. (Much of my 1947 viewing would fall into this category.)

To begin with, the film is almost a test case in auteurism. It is both an outlier in the Kazan ouevre – much like Kubrick with Lolita, Kazan reputedly disavowed Sea of Grass. It is different from his other work and would suggest the importance for the studio as a major determinant of film aesthetics. For Sea of Grass is decidedly an MGM product, in distinction to Kazan's normal 20th-Fox home: Standling's cinematography seems a world apart from

Tonally, the film is an awkward mishmash between safe MGM programmer style and new directions in 40s and especially postwar film stressing realism and complex characterization. The lyrical shots of prairie grass are followed by much more typical studio lot shots.

The narrative is not too far from The Romance of Rosy Ridge: an outsider arrives on a small, frontier town only to step into an ongoing feud. In this case, though, the outsider is Lutie (Katharine Hepburn) who has come West from St. Louis to marry Col. Jim Brewton (Spencer Tracy). The feud is a battle over resources: Brewton leads the cattle ranchers, who are resisting settlers coming to farm. His means are to corrupt the legal system and to terrorize the farmers. Essentially, enclosure and agriculture will mean the end of ranching. The land, Brewton warns, will not support farming.

And yet the film is disctinctively Kazan's in its thematics. Ideologically, the rancher-settler divide sets up an allegorical battle between local and federal authority that cuts across many of Kazan's work. Thus, the ranching tale is ultimately about two battles – one over the New Deal, the other over civil rights – that he would return to more explicitly in Wild River.

Eventually, Brewton is right: the land cannot sustain agriculture and eventually the town is turned into a dust bowl. As Brice (Melvyn Douglas) suggests in voiceover that “one of these days we'll be able to get it right" with planned agriculture and dams, a montage sequence uses documentary imagery that could be straight out of Plow That Broke the Plains. Maybe it is.

Additionally, Sea of Grass demonstrates how hybrid generic categories of MGM's 40s output tended to be. Rick Altman in Film/Genre argues that classical Hollywood in fact tended to operate by optimizing multiple generic appeals at once. His example of Only Angels Have Wings points out that advertising played up adventure and romance simultaneously. Even if this was generalized practice (I gather it was), some studios in 1947 were inclined to films that seem more straightforwardly generic (RKO), other studios (Fox) at times tried to avoid the taint of cinematic genre, while MGM combined a sentimental melodrama with almost every genre: biopic, Western, comedy, musical. Sea of Grass in Altman's terms is semantically a Western but syntactically a sentimental melodrama.

Finally, my biggest surprise with the film is how downbeat it is in its characterization. Maybe MGM made other films like this (I'm still tracking their output down for 1947), but I've yet to see anything like this from the studio: the Brewton character pushes the Spencer Tracy flawed-hero image to the cracking point, Lutie manages to be both selfish and masochistic, and the restorative ending hardly feels redemptive. I credit Kazan less than the source material; it seems that MGM was trying to match a morally complex novel to its studio style.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

CFP: 20th Screen Conference

20th international Screen Studies Conference
University of Glasgow, Scotland, 2-4 July 2010

Organised by Screen journal and programmed by Screen editor Karen Lury.

Confirmed plenary speakers:

o Chris Holmlund, University of Tennessee
o Andrew Klevan, University of Oxford
o Jacob Smith, University of Nottingham
o Lesley Stern, UC San Diego

Screen performance will be the subject of the plenaries and will form a strand running throughout the Conference. However, papers on any topic in screen studies, i.e. cinema, television and digital media, are welcome. Submissions for pre-formed, three-person panels will be considered but not prioritised.

Please send your 200-word proposal to arrive no later than Friday 8 January 2010, marking the subject box 'Conference 2010', to

For updates, please visit

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Shamroy on Shamroy

One difficulty in researching cinematography is that for the studio period especially there's not a lot of record of the aesthetic dimensions of the shooting process. Trade periodicals like American Cinematographer are invaluable, of course. (Incidentally one of the things I appreciated in Scott Higgins' book is his use of trade press as evidence without treating it as a transparent window into what the “industry” as a whole did or thought.) And there are a few scattered interviews and published accounts from cinematographers, or about them.

One useful account is Charles Higham's Hollywood Cameramen: Sources of Light (Indiana UP, 1970), a collection of interviews with seven cinematographers: Leon Shamroy, Lee Garmes, William Daniels, James Wong Howe, Stanley Cortez, Karl Straus, and Arthur Miller. These sketch in biographical details, but also give insight into their aesthetics. Shamroy for instance noted, "My signature became established as high-contrast: they'd always say, 'use more light,' but I liked shadows." (Higham 24). He elaborates on this under-lit style:

Zanuck gave me complete freedom at 20th... Here I developed my technique of using the absolute minimum of lights on a set.... To light economically is a rarity in this business: most cameramen put a light in front, others at the sides, fix up backlighting here and there; I don't. For instance, on Justine, in the scene with Michael York telephoning Justine in the bedroom, I only had one light shining on his face – to suggest dawn – and two other small lights. Every light has to mean something, be fully justified, like words in a sentence. (Higham 27-28).

And here he is on his approach to color:

I believe in accuracy; if you walk into a room with a candle flame, only the area round the flame should have warm colour; the rest of it should be cold. But Cukor [director of Justine] wanted the whole scene to be warm, through the use of coloured filters. I remember when I was making The Black Swan, I wanted to dispense with the usual Technicolor man from Kalmus, and to emulate the old master, men like Van Dyck and Rembrandt, and I'd say to Zanuck, 'When you're shooting a sunset, use yellow light instead of white light, and ignore realism, make a deliberate mistake.' And Mrs. Kalmus went to Zanuck and said, 'That isn't the way to make a colour picture should be photographed.' Zanuck stepped on me, but I was still the first black and white man to win an Oscar for colour – with that picture. (Higham 33-34).

I think “deliberate mistake” neatly summarizes Shamroy's approach.

Wednesday, September 09, 2009

The Shamroy Style

What is the signature Leon Shamroy style? In short, it's an aesthetic in which paradoxically realism and romanticism (at least as these tendencies were understood at the time) are not at odds. This is especially true of his work at Fox, but even in independent productions. A few tendencies stick out:

Undiffused, overexposed light. To generalize, the prevailing practice in the 1930s was to heavily diffuse light, to glamorize the star and to deal with the background, whereas the prevailing practice by the late 1940s was to use harsh light to increase contrast and render rich ink-black tones.

Shamroy seems to be doing both. Light in his image has a harsh intensity yet also a fuzzy glow. The best I can tell, he does not diffuse the light (at least not entirely) but instead overexposes the image to create a similar effect. (You Only Live Once/Lillian Russell)

This goes along with his tendency to underexpose part of the set/frame so that modest illumination will glow.

Spotlights. The star close shots tend to rely on heavy spotlights on the face. At times these will cover the full face, at other times only part of the face (Lillian Russell):

Or a character may enter in and out of one (The Black Swan):

The usage becomes particularly experimental in Daisy Kenyon, both obscuring parts of the face, washing it out into gray, or being distinctly unmotivated:

Overlighting. Shamroy has a strong preference for lighting his figures from above, even without the traditional genre/effects-lighting cues for such treatment (Lillian Russell):

The Diagonal Shadow
. Shamroy can hardly be the only D.P. to cast diagonal shadows in the background to differentiate foreground-background relations and to lend a sense of three dimensionality. But the diagonal shadow is a default aesthetic choice for Shamroy and takes on an expressive quality of its own. Here's a shot from Only Live Once, or compare the still of Alice Faye in Night in Rio from my previous post.

The Intense Kicker.
He is not alone in this (WB and MGM both indulged in this practice, particularly for its female stars). What I find interesting is the omnipresence of the kicker in Shamroy's work, often "feminizing" the male stars and appearing at unexpected times.

Grayscale experimentation. 30s cinematography tended to prefer bright brights and dark darks. Shamroy often toyed with the middle, in this shot in Only Live Once...

... or in Daisy Kenyon:

Busy shadow. Shadows fall everywhere, in diagonals, in criss-cross, and in gobo-ed patterns. Whether in black and white (Daisy Kenyon):

or in color (Leave Her to Heaven):

The individuated multiple setup. I had alluded to this in the previous post. Shamroy often choreographed complex crowd scenes with many lights for individual persons rather than relying on a general illumination for the crowd. (Only Live Once):

Here's a complex shot from Lillian Russell:

These practices are so expressionistic that they would seem to militate against any notion of realist photographic practice. And it's true that Shamroy is not going to be lumped in with Arthur C. Miller or James Wong Howe. Yet he made the transition from Paramount to Fox in the late 1930s and his romanticist, experimental tendencies were able to find a new home in the decidedly downcast and realist-oriented studio. I think it is because the way his lighting choices play against genre expectation. Lillian Russell has particularly hard-edged cinematography for a musical biopic. Daisy Kenyon treats its stars in a decidedly unglamorous approach. Leave Her to Heaven is almost bichromatic and non-spectacular. These choices matched Fox's image (and self-image) as distinct, a non-glitzy, "adult" Hollywood studio amid the genre factory. House style, that is, may be a question of structural categories rather than formal similarity.

Tuesday, September 08, 2009

The Technicolor Challenge

In some ways Technicolor solves the grayscale problem, in which different colors will render indistinguishable in black and white. On the other hand, it poses its own challenge, since background color, even out of focus, could compete for the specatator's attention with the foreground.

Also, famously, Technicolor required high key lighting and limited the dynamic range between highlight and shadow. The difference between two Shamroy musicals, Lillian Russell and That Night in Rio, is striking:

I would recommend Scott Higgins' terrific book Harnassing the Technicolor Rainbow for an account of the challenges Technicolor presented and the ways Hollywood cinematographers adapted their practice to color. He argues that after an initial showcasing approach to color, two alternatives developed: a restrained style downplaying hue in favor of variations in saturation and intensity and an expanded palette selectively varying hue in complementary fashion.

Leon Shamroy's Technicolor work both confirms and complicates this account. In fact, Higgins uses to Shamroy films, The Black Swan and Night in Rio, to exemplify the expanded palette and the mixed restrained-expanded approach, respectively. What I find interesting, though, is that of the three Shamroy Technicolor films I have watched (plus Wilson, but it has been many years since I have seen that one and I do not yet have a good copy of it to reexamine), there is a historical progression of Shamroy's adoption of his black and white aesthetic to Technicolor.

That Night in Rio is the least distinctive. For those looking there are still telltale signs of Shamroy lighting set ups (more to come on that), but by and large images like the above do not appear that different from a high-key MGM style of Charles Rosher, say. Also, in trying to create some hint of sculptural lighting effects, the light requirements seem to cast unwanted shadows. I have to imagine this setup for instance would have been seen as sloppy in a black-and-white film:

In order to pool extra highlight on Ameche's face, Shamroy has to settle for a top-hat double of a shadow. And even when he goes for his most typical glamorizing lighting (heavy kicker, spotlighting)...

...the high-key requirements wash out Alice Fay's face, flattening it at least in comparison to the black and white counterpart:

In the Black Swan, perhaps given more leeway for "effects lighting" by the swashbuckler genre, Shamroy employs far more of the expressive lighting and patterned shadows that his black-and-white features trade in. Many of the instances, too, use a common warm-cool color contrast, but amplify an unusual orange and blue-green palette, giving it almost the effect of two-strip Technicolor:

These effects lighting moments are at least minimally motivated (reflecting water, lamplight, etc.) and are reserved for nighttime. The film's daylight scenes are more typical of the high-key expanded palette approach that Higgins outlines (using Robin Hood as an example). What is distinctively a Shamroy touch, though, is the individuation of lighting within crowd shots, particularly in the assembly scenes. (This would develop more in Wilson).

This shot may look like a typical high-key Technicolor shot, but what distinguished from say an MGM shot is its use of overlighting to make each character sculpted, even with the intensely bright set. Note, too, the shadows on the background set in the top half of the frame.

Leave Her to Heaven plays up effects lighting to extreme, pushing it into the realm of atmospheric lighting. As in Black Swan, Leave Her to Heaven relies heavily on the orange-green contrast, but does not require motivation for it:

Interiors extend this contrast across a dizzying assortment of shadow combinations:

One early scene shows these not as static, expressionist effects, but rather part of a sustained Shamroy aesthetic:

In establishing and reestablishing shots (1, 4 above) the multiple lights and their shadows create a three-dimensionality and emphasize the low ceilings and "homey" decor. In Shots 2, 3, the shadows help distinguish the actors from the background. Additionally, partial spotlights sculpt the actors faces and figures. In short, the scene is lit much like a black and white Shamroy film, only with the additional element of color added and less use of overexposure.

Still, Shamroy does play around with exposure. Leave Her to Heaven is surprisingly underexposed at points, both notably in the funereal scene...

and in some interior scenes, such as the dinner scene in which candlelight creates a glare reflected in the glass:

Leave Her to Heaven signals that the distinction between restraint and expressionistic color does not apply to Shamroy, for whom the fully sculpted style comes only as he uses color in more expressionistic ways. This paradox gets at the contours of a style I call mannerist, but that's a post for another day.

Wednesday, September 02, 2009

The Grayscale Challenge

There's a shot in Lillian Russell (Fox, Irving Cumming, 1940) that exemplifies the ordinary/extraordinary dialectic of classical illusionism. A horse-drawn omnibus enters the shot frame left...

... then drives into shadow...

...and finally turns a corner and is framed against a building itself in shadow...

I often think of the grayscale challenge facing black and white cinematographers primarily as two dominant practices: three point lighting (to give roundedness) and shallow focus (to differentiate the figure from the background). The above shot suggests the complexity possible, though: as the carriage moves, we have three separate gray shade contrasts with the background. The first (and shortest) is the least distinct, but all of them keep foreground and background separate.

It is this ability that preoccupied the trade press coverage of cinematography and made cinematographers like Leon Shamroy respected in the industry. Shamroy's style, in fact, seems built upon a play with grayscale. All good cinematographers were supposed to keep gray tones separate and foreground-background relations defined. Shamroy went further in a) exploiting mid-gray tones for their own sake, but also b) in pushing the challenge as far as he could take it. Here, for instance, is another shot from Lillian Russell:

Female and male actor are lit differently, but not as drastically as the soft-light/hard-light contrast that defined more pedestrian classical cinematography. Here, Shamroy lights Alice Faye's face so that it is both more illuminated and more shadowed than Don Ameche's. But not much more. The difference is just on this side of perceptability.

And to think this stylistic verve takes place before a wave of experimentation that would mark Shamroy's later work for Fox.

Tuesday, September 01, 2009

Cinematographer as Auteur

I have not foresaken the 1947 project, but my viewing has been on hold as I try to track down more films and find the time to rewatch films I had already seen before I began the project. Thanks to those who have asked about my '47 viewing or have linked to this blog.

In the meantime, though, I have taken on a mini-project of focusing on cinematography. I come more from a literary-criticism background in film studies, not art history or practice, so some of my study about cinematographic style is on a learning curve. Still, it has been enlightening and has given me a new lease on appreciating the work of 30s and 40s Hollywood in particular.

The above still is from You Only Live Once (Fritz Lang, 1937), photographed by Leon Shamroy. I'm not sure it's a typical Shamroy shot - which I'll describe more in future posts - but it struck me for its surprising abstraction. Moreover, it does involve a play in grayscale that is typically Shamroy's. Which brings up another point: the way we often read visual style is cued to the director more than the DP. In some instances this makes sense, because the director is nominally responsible for narrational choices and textual analysis can privilege narrational elements over textural ones. But take another still from the film:

This in its iconography is more classically Langian, with its geometrical use of stark light and shadow for thematic ends. And yet most of You Only Live Once is not shot or lit this way at all. Shamroy's work has perhaps a wider range of experimental latitude because of being a Lang and a UA/Wanger film, but more or less the film is lit and shot within the norms and expectations of a classical Hollywood film. It is the interplay between experiment and norm that makes the cinematography of the 30s and especially the 40s so fascinating for me.

More to come. I am also happy to have any suggestions for reading or viewing. It's my feeling that cinematographers' style remains under-discussed, especially before the New Hollywood "masters" arrive on the scene.