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  • Writer's pictureGeorge Seminara

William Cameron Menzies (July 29, 1896 – March 5, 1957)

Updated: Feb 26, 2023

George tries to talk about William Cameron Menzies, powered by a pencil, a keen mind, and a power name, who changed movies for the better. (Briefly for him.)

By George Seminara

William Cameron Menzies at his art table, creating another world.

William Cameron Menzies (July 29, 1896 – March 5, 1957) was an American film production designer (a title he fabricated from the ether to describe a nonexistent job - "Are you the Art Director?" Menzies turned, "Me? No, no, no, I'm the 'Production Designer!'") and yes as art director as well as a film director and producer during a career of close to fifty years. He went west from Connecticut, leaving his Scottish immigrant parents behind. But, before that, he went to Yale, went to the U of Edinburgh (east), and served in the US army in WW1. While a student at the Art Students League in New York City, ten blocks from Times Square's theaters, he fell in love with the movies. His career started in the silent era. He pioneered the use of color film for dramatic and psychological effects. He directed two classics of science-fiction, Things to Come (1936) and Invaders from Mars (1953). Are you ready for more? 

Two examples of Menzies' artwork.

The first production he worked on was the Mark of Cain (1917), shot at the Astra Studios in the sunny western city and capital of cinema, Fort Lee, New Jersey. (It's west of Connecticut!) After a couple of other films working under Anton Grot, a five-time Academy Award nominee and winner of a special Oscar for the Water-Ripple machine! Grot's credit was the "settings" director. Menzies was the assistant settings director. (Grot was instrumental in creating the Warner Brothers house style. Including one of my favs- I'll give you a hint, "Mother Machree. Is this the end of Rico?" (Answer below. [1])

After three films with Grot, Menzies jumped ship to Famous Players-Lasky on Long Island, New York. (Technically south of Connecticut.) He then moved to Select Pictures back in Fort Lee. Select was owned by Lewis Selznick, father of David O. Selznick. (Pay attention, he plays big later.) Two interesting things happened sometime around now, Menzies joined the Navy, and Adolf Zucker bought half of Select. (Menzies's credits barely stop during his military service. I could only verify he served.) 

Adolf Zucker was a big deal in the fur business. He wanted to diversify his riches, and the movie business beckoned. Zucker threw around his moolah on Broadway and Vaudeville. Soon he started investing in small but successful production companies. He did this enough times, plenty of times, to create Paramount Pictures. (This is just so crazy as to deserve its own post!) At this point, Zucker's company was Famous Players. They made a move to California, and Menzies went with. (Finally, truly west of Connecticut!) 

Once ensconced in California, Menzies proved himself to be a one-person art direction machine. He quickly became the go-to man for the entire roster of Paramount directors. The art director in these early days was responsible for many elements of filmmaking. Their responsibilities involved sets, costumes, lighting, and special effects. Things like the previously mentioned Water Ripple machine, the smoke machine, Matte Painting, the carbon lightning arc, (a little like a welding gun), and the Cucoloris, a cut board that creates patterns of shadow that mimics light through blinds, dapples from the sun through the trees, etc. Menzies work went so deep into the actual making of the film that his fingers would be in every part of the finished film. He would often assist the director on set to guide him through a particularly sticky scene he designed.

William Cameron Menzies (Tah Dah!) did more than any other creative to show the importance of art direction in filmmaking. He made a hella lot of films, and I'd like to discuss two. The original Thief of Bagdad (1924).

Douglas Fairbanks wanted not just to make an epic. He wanted to make the most amazing film of all time! Let's face it, folks, the film industry was less than two decades old at the time, so in retrospect, it could only be the best film of the last twenty years! This baby cost around a whopping $1,135,654.65, or in today's dollars, $334,689,982.01 or roughly a Marvel movie. It was reputed to be the biggest film ever staged on a Hollywood studio set, which is some trash talk. DW Griffith's 1916 sets for Intolerance were still standing when they started production. Those were ridiculous! William Cameron Menzies was responsible for all the production design and special effects. Fairbanks, who acted as writer, producer, and the picture's star, watched the production like a hawk. He had invested quite a bit of his own cabbage in the project. 

Douglas Fairbanks wanted this film to be "Top drawer, all the way!" It was. Fairbanks was like his era's Tom Cruise. Suppose Tom was on the U.S. Gymnastics team and could dance like the cast of the Magic Mike movies. Fairbanks had that smile, but he had a boisterous laugh, which sounds weird for a silent film, but somehow it worked. In this film, he bounces all over the place, leaping, jumping, climbing, and sliding, which is impressive because Fairbanks was 40 years old! At forty, I had trouble getting out of a chair!

Fairbanks even threw the kitchen sink in by having a whole symphony composed for it. This was a bit over the top because most movie accompanists played the piano or organ and most couldn't read music. Let's face it, kids, not every accompanist was Cole Porter. (And Cole replaced Chico Marx at the Loews Orpheum - the same place I saw the original Star Wars (1977)!)

Fairbanks allowed Menzies to create complex visual imagery, necessitating the creation of state-of-the-art special effects featuring a magic rope, a flying horse, and a flying carpet. When I say state-of-the-art, I mean created the state-of-the-art because there was no actual state before The Thief of Baghdad. Here's the kicker: all the effects were done in the camera, meaning no green screen, rotoscoping, computer graphics, nothing! They had Menzies; he had nails, paint, paper, rubber bands, some rope, a couple of pieces of wood, and a pot of Elmer's glue. And a lot of ideas. 

Check these pictures of some of his drawings for The Thief of Bagdad's sets and how they made the effects work. 

Douglas Fairbanks' investment paid off, earning three million bucks in its initial release in the U.S. and Canada alone. Almost a cool billion in today's simoleons. 

For Gone with the Wind (1939), producer David Selznick wanted Menzies to be involved early in the preparatory stages. Not long after he paid fifty grand for the rights to the book, Selznick booked Menzies. Selznick knew Menzies would plan the whole film on paper. Using what Menzies called "Story Boards," he also wanted Menzies to prepare sketches showing lighting and camera angles and for him to handle the montage sequences. For these tasks, Menzies got the title of his choice, "production designer." Lyle Wheeler (not too shabby in the art department either. He won five Oscars!) handled the more traditional aspects of set and costume design and got credited as "art director." 

Menzies also directed a portion of Gone with the Wind, including the "Burning of Atlanta," and was one of four directors. Four directors, you ask? Four: George Cukor, who ran afoul of Clark Gable, Victor Fleming, Clark's pal, and good sport but not especially fit. While Fleming was getting treated for exhaustion, Selznick brought in another of Clark's pals, Sam Wood (there isn't a human alive who hasn't seen his work, one of my favorites, "People all say that I've had a bad break. But today (at, ay, ay.) Today, (ay, ay, ay.) I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of the earth." Do you recognize it? Answer below. [2])

By the time Gone with the Wind was in the can, four dudes directed scenes that got included in the finished film. That the film was a success despite having had so many directors must be attributed to Menzies's total start-to-finish design and the vision of Selznick. It is rare when more cooks don't actually spoil the food. Only Casablanca (1942), with its 679 writers, has more creatives who do not ruin the film. 

Gone With the Wind probably cost around seven million dollars. It is still the reigning box office king when adjusted for today's money. It made about three and a half billion smackers! Take that, James Cameron! 

Feast your eyes on some fine production design work and Menzies's amazing storyboards. For your viewing pleasure, I have included one behind-the-scenes shot and what the camera was shooting simultaneously on the other side of the flames. 

Please, remember this isn't about the value of Gone With The Wind to society. Or to film history. Or to morals, truth, or politics. Gone with the Wind is one hell of a movie. (Don't hate the player. Hate the game) Times and tastes have changed. Our view of the acceptable presentation of history has changed. 

What hasn't changed is that it was a mammoth project. Certainly, the largest ever done in those days. Its success as a movie was due to a strong producer, David O. Selznick, and a visionary production designer, John Cameron Menzies. Together they kept the film's canvas unified as one. Scenes could have different directors, but it holds together because the film's scope is set in stone and visually by design. 

Don't laugh, but not unlike episodic television, take Law and Order. If you were to watch Law and Order episode one, season one, and episode 298,000, Season 96, outside of the age of the actors, very little has changed. It looks, sounds, and behaves the same scene after scene, year after year. That's quality producing and production design.

Menzies was, above all else, a movie fan. He was conscious of what others had done before he arrived at Fort Lee. He kept his eyes peeled for worldwide innovations in movies, art, and illustration. In the silent era, language was not as much of a hurdle as today. All cinema before sound was world cinema. Menzies could incorporate many influences to reflect and enhance his work. 

In a 1929 article, Menzies said that early movies required  sets with a simplified design. Because the viewer only saw the scene briefly, the sets were meant to be a sketch. An idea of a room or a place. Menzies believed that his job was to create an overall design of lines and values that could be applied to the realism of the film's architecture, figures, and properties. Placing the scene in its own reality. Pretty fancy college boy. I get it. His was a holistic approach to cinema, seeing the whole film like a canvas. His work mirrors American art of the same period, like Edward Hopper. 

Hopper's paintings have realistic details within a carefully constructed composition of shapes representing light and structure. Realism but not photography. (You caught me. I just saw the Hopper exhibit at the Whitney. Hopper's New York.) What you don't include in painting or illustration is as important as what you do. Menzies elevation from the Art Director to the Production Designer places him in the vanguard of American art of the early 20th Century. His influence on today's films cannot be overstated.  

Questions? Why didn't he direct more films? He directed 24 projects over his career, not all credited, but that ain't hay! His directorial work covered classics like Things to Come  to the less classic  Chandu the Magician (1932). To drop four names, he worked with most of his lifetime's big directors: Capra, Griffith, Hitchcock, and King Vidor. (Okay, no Ford, Hawks, Wellman, or Wyler. Still!) From 1924s, The Thief of Baghdad  to 1956s,  Around the World in 80 Days, all the films he designed had that sure hand and unified look that elevated each production above the commonplace. 

William Cameron Menzies wasn't a Primadona. He was, by all reports, straightforward to work with and didn't apply his ego to the project, just into his work. That work stands today as some of the best. 

Answers: [1] Little Ceasar (1931) and [2] Pride of the Yankees (1942). (How many of you guys teared up just reading it?)

Follow George Seminara and the movies he likes in the pages of It Came From Hollywood! The first three books are available at a fantastic price at Half Price Books.

In Came From Hollywood Book 4, George talks about Night Shift (1982), Cooley High (1975) and Curse of the Demon (1957). OUT SOON!

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