How William Cameron Menzies Made Any Movie Better


The story goes that at its premiere at Grauman’s Egyptian Theatre, in 1924, The Thief of Bagdad won applause every time it revealed a new set. With its picturebook archways and spiraling minarets, its Baghdad’s walls as lightly sunny as lemon cake, Raoul Walsh’s jolly Orientalist epic, starring and dreamed up by Douglas Fairbanks, still stands as a miracle of production design. The camera was pulled back to capture the grand scale, and many shots suggest the gravity-defying richness of a page of Winsor McCay’s Little Nemo comics: A tiny Fairbanks might start at the top or the bottom of the frame, but somehow he’ll leap, tumble, or scrap to the other. It’s a dream, a comic strip, a prediction of future entertainment tech: Watching Thief is like imagining the world’s best side-scrolling platformer video game.

William Cameron Menzies, then not even thirty, had designed those sets and supervised their construction and their filming. That early triumph is enough to have made him one of the greats, and he might profitably have spent his career whipping up more fantastic gymnasiums for adventure heroes. But his art and ambition were more expansive than that, like Hollywood’s once were. James Curtis’s superb and illuminating new book William Cameron Menzies: The Shape of Films to Come surveys Menzies’s achievement, opening with a persuasive evocation of the night Menzies and company torched a backlot’s worth of sets — including King Kong‘s Skull Island wall — for Gone With the Wind. Film Forum’s series celebrating Menzies’s work is a welcome roster of the familiar and the too-little-screened — and a chance to consider the mysteries of genius, collaboration, and visual thinking. (Curtis serves as an adviser on the retrospective, working with programmer Bruce Goldstein; many of the screenings are on film.)

Menzies won a special Oscar for his experiments with Technicolor for Gone With the Wind, but perhaps his great achievement on that picture was the imposition of continuity — of a sustained graphic integrity — on a multi-unit production that burned through three directors. The junior helmer on that job, Sam Wood, collaborated often with Menzies, and Wood’s films always benefited: Kings Row, from 1942, is a seamy anti–Our Town, a melodrama of madness, incest, and surgical horror that only dares address the first of those head on. (Ronald Reagan gets his legs cut off!)

But the picture sings, its expressive composition and peerless studio sets suggesting a dark richness the scenario lacks. Menzies spoke of “framing” a movie rather than “designing” one, and Casey Robinson, who adapted Kings Row from Henry Bellamann’s novel, explains in Curtis’s book, “Bill Menzies sketched every scene, every camera angle, every setup.” Menzies prints many of its subject’s storyboards and concept paintings; for Kings Row, he drew thumbnails of each shot right in the script. (Curtis will introduce Film Forum’s November 29 showing of Kings Row, its November 28 Our Town, and a couple more; Tracey Goessel, author of the excellent new Fairbanks bio The First King of Hollywood, will speak before The Thief of Bagdad on December 6.)

Kings Row, like Wood’s Our Town and Menzies’s own future-minded sci-fi dazzler Things to Come (1936), is distinguished by Menzies’s great visual inventiveness, his practical understanding of construction and lighting, and his exquisite compositional sense, that sure-handed way of structuring the lines in a setup to guide the eye and the heart. For Our Town, he invented the stark, unforgettable cemetery sequences; Curtis links the chilly parade of Our Town umbrellas to the alienating panorama of them Menzies worked up for Hitchcock’s Foreign Correspondent the same year. Menzies’s own films, like 1953’s Invaders From Mars, often lag and fail to connect, despite first-rate design and moments of power, just as Wood’s films without Menzies are well acted and smartly paced but only rarely singular. That neither was a great alone is no demerit in this most mysterious and collaborative of media.

William Cameron Menzies

Through December 10, Film Forum