Tuesday, September 27, 2016

William Cameron Menzies: A Production Designer Who Has Gone with the Wind

When we think about the landmark film production of Gone With the Wind, most of us conjure up images of Clark Gable and Vivien Leigh, Olivia de Havilland and Hattie McDaniels. If we’re up on film history, we remember the film’s imperious producer, David O. Selznick, as well as a revolving cast of directors that included George Cukor and Victor Fleming. But the name William Cameron Menzies doesn’t readily spring to mind. My colleague Jim Curtis’s exhaustively researched 2015 book, William Cameron Menzies: The Shape of Films to Come, aims to change all that.

Menzies began his career as an art director at the tail-end of the silent era. On such early sound films as 1933’s all-star Alice in Wonderland and the futuristic 1936 Things to Come, he used his artistic talents not only to plan appropriate settings but also to lay out camera moves and action sequences. Through volumes of elaborate sketches that are the forerunners of today’s storyboards, he conceptualized the visual aspects of many productions. He himself described his mandate: “As a production designer, it is my job to dramatize the mood of a picture and to keep it ‘in character.’ This is done simply by coordinating every phase of the production not covered by dialogue and action of the players.” 

That, of course, was a huge responsibility, and Menzies’ family life inevitably suffered. Still, those in the know fully recognized his genius. Selznick insisted he be part of the Gone With the Wind team, and later granted him the brand-new “production designed by” credit to reflect the broad scope of his services. Ironically, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences did not recognize the title of production designer when it came to handing out Oscars. That’s why the art direction Oscar for Gone With the Wind (one of eight won by the film) went solely to Lyle R. Wheeler. Happily, at the Oscar ceremony Menzies was awarded a special plaque recognizing his “outstanding achievement in the use of color for the enhancement of dramatic mood” in the film. (He had earlier nabbed a competitive Oscar for the 1928 silent, Tempest, but won no awards in his later career, which ended with an associate producer credit on 1956’s Around the World in Eighty Days.)

The Academy’s recognition of Menzies’ work on Gone With the Wind focused on his pioneering use of color. For instance, he deliberately chose severe red skies & indigo backings” to punch up somber scenes like the burning of Atlanta. When it came to filming the moment in which Melanie gives birth, the challenge was to suggest the anguish of the experience while not running afoul of the MPAA’s Breen office, which frowned on depicting outright pain and suffering. Menzies’ solution was to choose angles “of stark black and sharp, knifelike patterns of yellow, no light falling on the shutters or the human figures in the foreground, simply a white backing reflecting the colored glare of flood lamps through the slits.” He intuited that orange was a hot color, while black could suggest violence. The combination of the two colors suggested both a steamy afternoon and the violence of childbirth.

Menzies’ contributions to Gone With the Wind also included the iconic use of a (fake) tree in the foreground to add drama to the shot of Gerald O’Hara showing his daughter the land that is her birthright. When he needed towering shadows of Leigh and de Havilland, he got the effect by using doubles who were required to move in unison with the two actresses in the foreground of the shot. Who knew?  

Speaking of Atlanta, I encourage all working writers and journalists to be aware of the American Society of Journalists and Authors’ regional conference in that fair city on Saturday, November 5. There’ll be loads of practical info on how to further your career. Early bird sign-up rates end soon. Here’s the link. 

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