William Cameron Menzies set the Hollywood standard for designing sumptuous movie panoramas. In epics such as Gone with the Wind and fantasies such as The Thief of Baghdad, studios relied on the visual wizardry of Menzies, whose prestige derived from his uncanny eye for movie visuals.
Menzies played a crucial role in creating the stunning scenes of Gone with the Wind. The muted earth tones, shocking swatches of bright color, and the sweeping range of the sets are among Menzies's landmark contributions to this favorite American film. His sure and brilliant hand lies behind the wizardry of many other classic films. Menzies was an innovative designer who pioneered many special effects techniques. His varied contributions and the depth of his influence on the art of film were not widely recognized in his lifetime. In his career as a director, Menzies was often criticized for under-directing. But his films always looked stunning.
Making Film into Art
A graduate of Yale University, Menzies served with the American forces in Europe during World War I. After the war ended, he attended classes at the Art Student League in New York City. He began his long career working for Famous Players and then for United Artists as a set designer on silent films. His earliest film credit was as art designer for a 1918 movie, The Naulahka . He worked on several films with director Raoul Walsh and actress Miriam Cooper, including Serenade in 1921 and Kindred of the Dust in 1922.
Menzies first teamed up with some big names when he worked on the design of a 1923 hit, Rosita, which was directed by Ernst Lubitsch and starred Mary Pickford. In a few years, Menzies gained notoriety within the film industry for his hard work and willingness to go beyond conventional designs into new territory. He brought his magical touch to the filming of the ancient Arabian tale, The Thief of Baghdad, in 1924. Directed by Walsh and starring Douglas Fairbanks, the movie was hailed by critics and adored by audiences. Menzies's wondrous sets helped weave an intoxicating spell. The New York Times called it an "entrancing picture, wholesome and compelling, deliberate and beautiful, a feat of motion picture art which has never been equalled." Critic James Quirk called it "a work of rare genius. Here is the answer to critics who give the motion picture no place in the family of the arts."
Menzies was instrumental in elevating the Hollywood film to an art form. His creative energy and craftmanship raised the status of the designing arts in filmmaking. Menzies was the first to get billing as a production designer, indicating overall credit for the entire look of a movie. He paid careful attention to every aspect of how a film looked. He would walk through movie sets with a sketch pad under his arm, always seeking to improve on details.
In 1925, Menzies contributed to four films, including a couple of romantic comedies and the Rudolph Valentino star vehicle, Cobra. Menzies' lavish interiors for that film illustrate the opulence of the 1920s. Also in 1925, Menzies contributed to the Valentino adventure, The Eagle.
Elegant interiors, sprawling exteriors: Menzies could do it all. His services were in increasing demand. In 1926, Menzies worked on Valentino's Son of the Shiek, the hokey terror film The Bat, and two other movies. The prolific Menzies contributed production designs to five films in 1927, six in 1928, nine in 1929, and ten in 1930. Increasingly, Menzies was working with top Hollywood stars and directors—with Douglas Fairbanks in The Iron Mask and Taming of the Shrew, with Ronald Colman in Raffles, and with John Barrymore in The Beloved Rogue and The Tempest, an adventure story set during the Russian Revolution.
Menzies's contributions were recognized during the first presentation of the Academy Awards, covering the years 1927 and 1928. Menzies received an Oscar for art direction for his work on The Dove and The Tempest. . Menzies' last silent film, made in 1928, was Sadie Thompson, starring Gloria Swanson.
Menzies revolutionized film set decoration, transforming it from an incidental aspect of moviemaking to a central component of cinematic design. The grandeur of the classic Hollywood adventure epics, historical dramas and opulent romances was heavily influenced by his work. So was the popular film noir style, which Menzies pioneered by welding German expressionism with a hard-nosed American realism in films such as Alibi.
In 1930, Menzies produced his first film, The Wizard's Apprentice. Later, in the 1940s and 1950s, he would be the producer or associate producer on six other films.
A more significant step came in 1931, when Menzies co-directed his first two films with Kenneth McKenna: Always Goodbye, a romantic comedy, and The Spider, a murder mystery adapted from a stage play. In 1932, Menzies had his first solo directing credit with Almost Married, a remake of a melodrama about bigamy. That same year he co-directed a Bela Lugosi science fiction thriller, Chandu the Magician.
With Cameron King, Menzies co-directed a romantic comedy, I Loved You Wednesday, in 1933. That same year, Menzies helped write the screenplay and design the sets for the Paramount version of Alice in Wonderland, a flop despite an all-star cast and Menzies's dazzling sets.
Menzies's most interesting film as a director was his 1936 conception of the H.G. Wells epic, Things to Come. Later science fiction films such as Blade Runner owed much to Things to Come. Invited to England by producer Alexander Korda to direct the film, Menzies mounted the action on elaborate, futuristic mindscapes. Visually, Things to Come was a seminal work of cinematic science fiction. It unfolds as a series of rather static scenes, set in three different periods in the future. Slow and somewhat didactic, it is remarkable for its special effects and hyper-modern style.
Not enjoying the success as a director that he had enjoyed as a production designer, Menzies returned to his earlier calling in 1938, designing the set for the cave sequence in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer.
The Burning of Atlanta
Perhaps the most memorable sequence in all of Hollywood filmmaking is the burning of Atlanta in Gone with the Wind. Menzies is responsible for that incredible scene. It was done on a set in Los Angeles, with flames shooting 100 feet in the air. It was Menzies's idea to use the fire for a dual purpose—to clear out old sets from MGM's 40-acre back lot and to film the epic's climactic scene. Special effects teams piped oil and water into the sets to stoke or douse the flames, seven cameras were used, and the sets were made to collapse by tractors pulling wire cables. Menzies masterminded the entire arrangement.
Menzies's handprints were all over Gone with the Wind. His tireless work was evident in the fine details of the sets, but he did much more than just production design. Three directors have been recognized as working on the film—Victor Fleming, George Cukor and Sam Wood—but Menzies also deserved credit. Producer David O. Selznick said Menzies "spent perhaps a year of his life in laying out camera angles, lighting effects and other important directorial contributors."
In fact, Menzies began work on the epic in 1937, using a five-hour-plus shooting script. He made a storyboard of every scene and camera angle—a rare achievement in those days. His concepts provided the impetus for the film's producers to go ahead and shoot the film on a studio back lot.
For his work on Gone with the Wind, Menzies received a special honorary Academy Award that cited his innovative use of color "for the enhancement of dramatic mood." The memorable uses of color include Scarlett O'Hara's red dress as she walks over gray dead bodies. In many other films, Menzies also used his technical skills to emphasize emotions. He often would use barriers, such as fences or walls, to depict grief or tension between characters. He pioneered the technique of "forced perspective," building sets and using camera angles to exaggerate depths and thus emphasize danger or emotional distance.
A Director's Best Friend
Gone with the Wind marked the first of Menzies's notable collaborations with Wood. In 1940, Menzies contributed special effects (including the memorable windmill scene) for the Alfred Hitchcock picture, Foreign Correspondent, ; designed the acclaimed and popular Wood-directed film Our Town, and produced the masterful remake of The Thief of Baghdad . Alexander Korda was the director for that brilliantly conceived film about the Arabian Nights, and again Menzies did not receive credit for his full contributions; he should have been listed, according to some film historians, as co-director.
Menzies designed the productions of The Devil and Miss Jones in 1941, a popular romantic comedy; The Pride of the Yankees, a legendary sports biography, and Kings Row, an acclaimed melodrama about small-town Americana, in 1942; and the adaptation of Ernest Hemingway's For Whom the Bell Tolls in 1943. Wood directed all four of these exceptional films, but Menzies played an immeasurable role in their success. Actress Teresa Wright, in an interview in 1959, recalls Wood relying heavily on Menzies's visual sense in Pride of the Yankees : "Bill Menzies used to draw a sketch for every scene—it was beautiful, it was well conceived. Bill had a marvelous motion picture eye. In his mind's eye he saw what would be the right finished product on the screen."
While doing stellar work on such important films of the 1940s, Menzies produced and directed several less notable movies, such as 1944's Address Unknown . In 1949, Menzies tried something new, directing a television series, Fireside Theater.
In the early 1950s, Menzies directed and designed the production of three films— Drums in the Deep South, The Maze, and Invaders from Mars. The first was a pedestrian western, and The Maze was a bizarre horror-comedy about a wealthy heir who turns into a frog.
Invaders from Mars is standard 1950s science-fiction fare redeemed by Menzies's unusual visuals. The plot involves a boy who sees aliens abduct his father and has a hard time convincing anyone that it really happened. The viewer gets a surreal, nightmarish glimpse into a child's world of uncaring adults. When the boy reports the incident at the police station, the sergeant's desk is impossibly high. Doors are too large and halls too long, and the only decorations on the walls are clocks that are always fixed at the same time.
The final film to which Menzies contributed was 1956's Around the World in Eighty Days, in which he was credited as associate producer. He died just a few months after that comedy-adventure became a big box-office hit.
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