Showing posts from September, 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 pr…

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…

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

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 …

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 c…

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…

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 gr…

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:…