Behind the Curtain: The Three C’s (Part 1)


“Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain.” So goes a famous line from the beloved classic “The Wizard of Oz”.  As you may remember, this was said to force attention to be given to a projected image of “the great and powerful Oz” and away from the real man behind the scenes creating the persona. That line has great significance when it comes to the art of moviemaking. Despite the efforts of many craftspeople, it is only the relative few in front of the camera and the well-known writers, directors, or producers that receive the lion’s share of praise and attention.

What this unintentionally has done is minimized the vast contributions of many very highly talented people when it comes to what we see and enjoy on the silver screen. Though it may be true that the talent of the performers along with the vision of the writers and/or directors draws us in,  the artistry and skill of those behind the scenes ensures how much of that comes to life and remains with us. This is important to recognize because a truly good or classic movie is not just one that is seen, it is felt, touching the emotions in such a way that it can be remembered years later and revisited often. With that in mind, there is certain behind the scenes talent truly deserving of recognition for accomplishing this feat, particularly when it comes to Hollywood’s Golden Age.  So in this post and 2 others to follow, some of these highly creative individuals in three categories will be highlighted, allowing for a fuller appreciation of their contributions to this most fertile period in moviemaking history. All three categories happen to start with the letter C (thus the title of this post!) and here is the first one: Cinematographers.

Cinematographers, or directors of photography, have been called the unsung heroes of moviemaking, and that becomes readily apparent when we consider that movies are a visual medium and they are the ones that bring that to life. Add to that the fact that what we most remember from a favorite movie is a scene or scenes that either moved, thrilled, or entertained us, and we are seeing the power of their craftsmanship at work. There were many great cinematographers during Hollywood’s Golden Age , creating indelible images that have left us with treasured memories of movie years gone by. However, certain ones can be said to have stood head and shoulders above others in doing some of the greatest work in this field in motion picture history. Two in particular come readily to mind: Gregg Toland (pictured above, in glasses) and John Alton.

There has been quite a bit written about the work of both men so I won’t dwell at great length on them here, but any discussion of cinematography during the Golden Era must include some mention of their work due to its immense influence even down to this day. Gregg Toland was the genius behind the genius Orson Welles when it came to his masterwork “Citizen Kane”. He used methods such as deep-focus along with other cinematic techniques to such brilliant storytelling effect that Welles was moved to give Toland on-screen credit right alongside him for what is still considered by most the best movie ever made. John Alton (a personal favorite) was a master of low-key lighting for dramatic effect, greatly contributing to what we now commonly accept as the ‘look’ of film-noir, with his classic lighting on display in such noir gems as “The Big Combo” and “Raw Deal” along with others. As he was once quoted as saying, “It’s not what you light-it’s what you DON’T light.” Another genius behind the camera whose work has inspired many and can be enjoyed as much now as it was then.

What I’d like to highlight at this time, though, are two other cinematographers of the Golden Age who may not be as well-known by movie fans  but their work certainly is, and their influence has been great in creating the classic images that still resonate today. They are as follows:

(1) Nicholas Musuraca- Another superb craftsman and master of low-key and chiaroscuro lighting, probably second only to John Alton in this area. Criminally underrated, he created what many consider to be the actual first film noir look for a for a movie in a dream sequence for  “Stranger on the Third Floor” starring Peter Lorre. Highly respected among his peers, and responsible for the moody camerawork that was the signature of RKO Studios, his black and white photography helped define that era of filmmaking and is certainly worthy of discovery today.

Must-sees: Out of the Past (1947), Cat People (1942, with Jane Randolph pictured above), Stranger on the Third Floor (1940), Deadline at Dawn (1946), The Spiral Staircase (1945), The Locket (1946, with Laraine Day pictured above), Blood on the Moon (1948), The Woman on Pier 13 (1949), Where Danger Lives (1950), Clash By Night (1952), The Blue Gardenia (1953, with Anne Baxter pictured above), The Hitch-Hiker (1953)

(2) Leon Shamroy- Known as “the cameraman’s cameraman”, he holds the record for having been nominated for an Oscar more times-18-than any other director of photography, winning four times. What truly distinguished him, though, was his mastery of Technicolor while at 20th Century Fox. The studio’s leading cinematographer, he is responsible for much of the glorious Technicolor imagery we associate with that period, creating shimmering feasts for the eye. His work certainly deserves attention as superb examples of the beauty and richness of color films during the Golden Era.

Must-sees: Leave Her to Heaven (1945, Cornel Wilde and Gene Tierney pictured above), The Black Swan (1942 Maureen O’Hara and Tyrone Power pictured above), The Snows of Kilimanjaro (1952, Gregory Peck and Ava Gardner pictured above), The Robe (1953), The Egyptian (1954), Love Is a Many-Splendored Thing (1955), The King and I (1956), The Bravados (1958), Cleopatra (1963)

These examples hopefully provide some idea of the range of talent ‘behind the curtain’ that immeasurably shaped both what we see and feel when watching movies from the classic period, adding richly to our enjoyment. The next post will cover another important ‘C’ that is absolutely essential in our appreciation of what is on screen, making a great movie unforgettable. What could it be? Stay tuned and we’ll see.

About bjbradford

An avid collector of classic movies for over 20 years ranging from the silent era through the early 1960's, from the justly famous to the unjustly obscure and quite a bit in between.
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3 Responses to Behind the Curtain: The Three C’s (Part 1)

  1. This was a very interesting article bringing up a topic we don’t often think about. I always think of James Wong Howe if pondering the topic. Well done.

  2. bjbradford says:

    Appreciate your thought, Mike, hopefully more can take notice of their contributions when watching a favorite movie and appreciate the factors that make it so. Thanks again!

  3. Nice! Look forward to the other C postings.

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