Gregg Toland

Hollywood cinematographer Gregg Toland (1904-1948) was the man who gave Citizen Kane its haunting, distinctive look. Toland's pioneering work in deep-focus photography brought a new level of realism to movies, giving sharp detail to all the characters in a scene.

In the 1930s and 1940s, Toland was recognized as Hollywood's most inventive and creative cinematographer. His innovations in soundproofing cameras, lighting and focusing set a high technical standard for generations of filmmakers. His brilliant compositions contributed heavily to making Citizen Kane the top film of all time on most movie critics' lists.

Quick Rise in Hollywood

Toland was born in Charleston, Illinois, in the prairie lands of southern Illinois. From a young age, he was captivated with the emerging American film industry. He moved to Hollywood as a teenager after studying electrical engineering and working with crude cameras as a hobby. At age 15, Toland landed a job as an office boy with Fox Studios. Within a year, he became an assistant cameraman, working on two-reel comedies for director Al St. John.

In the mid-1920s, Toland worked as second cameraman to cinematographer Arthur Edelson on several films. The first was The Bat in 1926, one of the earliest American films to use a few instances of deep-focus photography. Most films of the day used shallow focus, in which only one character or part of the screen is in focus and the rest of the scene is blurred. Deep-focus photography puts the foreground, background and middle ground all in focus, but it was a difficult feat to achieve with the crude cameras of the 1920s.

Also in 1926, Toland was signed by Samuel Goldwyn Studios to become an assistant cameraman to cinematographer George Barnes. Barnes was impressed with Toland's speedy, sure-handed work and grasp of advanced photographic techniques. Toland was fortunate to be working for Goldwyn, who gave him an unusual amount of freedom. It was rare in those days for film credits to be given out liberally, but Barnes had no trouble convincing Goldwyn to give Toland equal billing as co-cinematographer on The Trespasser in 1929 and on eight subsequent productions.

Toland's skills as an innovator were badly needed. Movie cameras of the day whirred and clicked. That was not a problem for silent films, but in 1928, with the advent of sound pictures, Toland invented a soundproof housing for cameras, a blimp-like device that enabled directors to shoot close-ups of whispering lovers without camera noise interfering.

In 1929, Toland and Barnes collaborated on Bulldog Drummond, another film in which several scenes used a crude form of deep-focus photography. Toland and Barnes used the technique in several other movies, despite the clumsy film stock and lighting available at the time, which made deep-focus shots extremely difficult. The deep-focus scenes excited critics, but it would be years before technology allowed Toland to perfect the method.

At age 27, Toland became the youngest first-unit cameraman in Hollywood history, getting solo credit for the first time on Palmy Days, a 1931 musical starring Eddie Cantor. A year earlier, he and Barnes had shot the Cantor musical Whoopee, using two-strip Technicolor. Toland's prestige was rapidly growing. Goldwyn gave him his own camera crew and his choice of subjects.


Innovations and Oscar Nods

The young cinematographer was such a hot property that Goldwyn had to loan him out to other studios from time to time. He was loaned out to work on Tugboat Annie in 1933, Forsaking All Others in 1934 and Mad Love, a film that featured Toland's first use of the kind of innovative lighting and interiors that would make Citizen Kane a landmark.

In many of his films of the 1930s, Toland dabbled with experimental techniques, borrowing images from German Expressionism and other sources. His films often contained moody black-and-white scenes, but the photography was always in the service of the story line and never a distraction. For We Live Again (1934) and The Wedding Night (1935), his scenes were mostly soft and impressionistic. In a version of the classic Les Miserables (1935), Toland used dangerous-looking foreground objects and shadowy depths to signify peril for the characters. He was nominated for an Academy Award for the film. Another Oscar nomination came in 1937 for the film Dead End, in which Toland transformed a back lot at the Goldwyn studios into a gloomy Manhattan neighborhood. Toland was again Oscar-nominated for 1939's Intermezzo. By the end of the 1930s, Toland had credits for almost 50 movies.

In 1939, Toland worked as cinematographer on the classic adaptation of Emily Bronte's masterpiece, Wuthering Heights. He won an Oscar for the compelling scenes he shot in a variety of settings: claustrophobic, menacing interiors in the mansion; romantic escapades in fields of flowers; a chaotic snowstorm; ghostly images and nightmarish flashbacks. The depth of Toland's concepts and his increasing mastery of complex scenes are evident in this brooding, stunningly photographed film.

Improvements in lenses, faster films and better cameras and Toland's technical and artistic superiority enabled him to produce sharper, more precise images than anyone else at the time. In 1940, his breathtaking shots of Dust Bowl America and a family struggling to survive took John Ford's The Grapes of Wrath into mythic territory. That same year, he shot Ford's The Long Voyage Home, getting another Oscar nomination for the downbeat story of merchant seamen at the beginning of World War II. Toland told Ford he thought audiences needed to see the story the way they would see with their own eyes-with sharply delineated, deep images rather than the soft, shallow focus often used in cinema. The film was the most accomplished use of deep-focus photography to date. Instead of lighting from rafters on sets that had no ceilings, as had been the custom up until then, Toland had muslin ceilings constructed, enabling sound mikes to be placed above them, and lit most of the interior scenes from the floor to heighten the realism.


The Wonder Boys

The expressionistic innovations in The Long Voyage Home did not hook audiences, but they thrilled critics and photography buffs. Toland was giving cinema a new, more realistic yet at the same time more artistic look. In American Cinematographer in February 1941, Toland wrote of his desire to further exploit "the new technical and artistic possibilities offered by such developments as coated lenses, super-fast films and the use of lower-proportioned and partially ceiled [ceilinged] sets." He wrote that he wished that "instead of using them conservatively for a scene here or there" he "could experiment free-handedly with them throughout an entire production." He was soon to get his wish.

Creatively, Toland had been chafing at the bit for years, using innovations judiciously but never being let loose. He had to subordinate his wishes to directors. "I want to work with someone who's never made a movie," Toland said at the time. "That's the only way to learn anything—from someone who doesn't know anything." To that end, Toland courted 23-year-old Orson Welles, a prodigy who had worked at RKO radio and was eager to try his hand at filmmaking. Welles was set to write, direct and star in his first film, an epic about a fictional newspaper magnate who resembled William Randolph Hearst. It was a match made in movie heaven—an experienced cinematographer hungry for new challenges and a daring young auteur.

Welles persuaded RKO to let him use Toland and his entire camera crew and equipment, borrowing them from Goldwyn. In shooting Kane, Toland had free rein to use deep-focus photography, ceilinged sets, low-angle lighting, high-powered arc lamps, coated lenses and all the other tools he had developed throughout his career. Toland used a new lightweight, flexible camera with its own anti-noise device, enabling him to meet Welles's demands for fluidity and unusual perspectives. He used a 24-millimeter lens (rather than the more common longer lenses) and the fastest film available to allow a greater depth of field. Toland's masterful camera techniques allowed Welles to mount long, continuous scenes and minimize editing—a method eagerly imitated by directors for decades to come. Toland used split-focus lenses, double exposures, and other startling techniques, mixing old and new methods.

The result was something entirely new to cinema. For the first time, audiences could see sharply detailed characters and objects in all parts of the screen in nearly every scene. The depth of scenes seemed more imposing. In one famous shot, Welles as Kane is looming in the foreground of a long dinner table with his listless wife at the other end, in the background, but both characters are finely delineated.

Toland's contributions to what is widely acknowledged as the greatest film in American cinema were crucial ones. The fast-working, dynamic cinematographer conferred frequently with Welles, and the young director later admitted that Toland advised him on lighting effects and camera placement. Following the example set by John Ford, Welles ended up giving Toland credit as co-director for Citizen Kane.

Audiences at the time were not universally charmed. Many walked out of the picture, upset by wide-angle-lens distortions in some close-ups and other experimental techniques. Even some cinematographers criticized the movie for using outdated camera tricks. After being named Best Picture by the New York Film Critics, it was nominated for several Academy Awards, including Toland for cinematographer, but was booed by the Oscar audience at every opportunity and won only for best screenplay.

Despite the mixed reception for Citizen Kane, Toland's fame increased as more critics lauded the film. His workload remained heavy. Though only in his late 30s, he looked older than that. He was thin and pale and walked with bent shoulders. Many of his physical problems were related to alcoholism. Toland often seemed depressed, becoming animated only when talking about his work.

Toland had to leave the last weeks of shooting Kane to his subordinates so that he could work with director Howard Hughes on his western The Outlaw. Toland used deep-focus extensively again in The Little Foxes, where it seemed more accessible to mainstream audiences. During World War II, he served as a lieutenant in the Navy's camera department and shot a documentary, December 7th, for John Ford's military unit. After the war, Toland worked on The Best Years of Our Lives, again using deepfocus methods. This time, the technique, used in service of a more reassuring realism, did not disturb audiences, but entranced them.

Toland branched out by working for Walt Disney, shooting the live-action sequences in Song of the South in 1946. He also worked that year on The Kid from Brooklyn. Shooting two or three films a year was still not uncommon for Toland. In 1947 and 1948, he returned to work for Goldwyn as the cinematographer for three unmemorable films, The Bishop's Wife,, A Song Is Born, and Enchantment. At the young age of 44, he died of a heart attack in September 1948 in Hollywood.

Toland's influence continued long after his death. In just a few years, the techniques that seemed so startling in Citizen Kane were being adapted and imitated by cinematographers worldwide. Toland's innovations contributed greatly to modern filmmaking as well as to television. The kind of photography that modern audiences take for granted was shaped by Toland's craftsmanship and imagination.



Katz, Ephraim, The Film Encyclopedia, Harper, 1998.

Smith, John M. and Tim Cawkwell, The World Encyclopedia of Film, Galahad Books, 1972.

Thomson, David, A Biographical Dictionary of Film, Knopf, 1994.


"Film 100,"

"Gregg Toland—Sharp Practice," The Innovators, Sight and Sound