Posted by Moira Finnie on September 2, 2009
Think of a montage in a classic movie. Are you picturing falling calendar pages, or swirling newspaper headlines spinning toward the camera lens, stock market crashes, the outbreak of wars or the mounting hysteria of an anonymous crowd evolving into a mob?
Perhaps we’ve seen them so many times, we are no longer conscious that these sequences in familiar movies were often composed with such artistry by unseen hands. Yet, if you are an inveterate credit reader of classic films, one of the creative individuals who developed these artful transitions had what is still an unjustly unfamiliar name to many of us.
Even if the name of Slavko Vorkapich (1894-1976) fails to ring a bell, you definitely know his work, especially if you happened to catch Wednesday evening’s broadcast of Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939-Frank Capra) on TCM. In a matter of moments, a lively montage unfolded in that film, telescoping the overwhelmingly heady experience of Jimmy Stewart‘s impressions of the nation’s capitol as he went on a whirlwind travelogue of the sights, ending at one of the most moving, the Lincoln Memorial. Bursting with movement and rapid visual imagery, the sequence conveys the naive Stewart‘s ebullience, awe and sense of freedom once he eludes his handlers, (led by the inimitable froggy-voiced Eugene Pallette).
That was just one example of Vorkapich‘s remarkable ability to goose the story of just about any film using a visual shorthand blending wipes, dissolves, flip-flops, and super-impositions to summarize and punctuate events during films, especially in the period from the 1920s to the 1940s.
A film theorist, an educator, an experimental filmmaker and a practical expert in the field of montages, Slavko Vorkapich (seen at left around 1950) had a career spanning forty years in Hollywood, making key contributions to the films of such directors as Howard Hawks, George Cukor and Frank Capra, among others. Born in Yugoslavia in 1894, Vorkapich (aka Slavko Vorkapić) was one of the millions whose life was uprooted by World War One. Educated as a painter in Budapest, Belgrade and eventually Paris, where he drifted after the war, “Vorky” fell in naturally with other avant-garde artists in the City of Light. His absorption of Expressionism, as well as Dadaist and Surrealist artistic influences in his youth affected his work over a lifetime, even when incorporating them into what we would think of as mainstream American movies produced by the studio system in the 1920s to the 1940s. Arriving in America in 1920, the youthful Vorkapich worked as a commercial artist determined to move on. As a young student, he later recalled that “Most of my spare time I spent at the movies–watching Chaplin, Intolerance, Perils of Pauline…I felt cinema is the art of the century, so I packed up and traveled to New York…as soon as I had enough money, I left New York for Hollywood.”
Gaining a toe hold in the industry when he was hired by director Rex Ingram for a small acting part and to design sets for The Prisoner of Zenda (1922), Vorkapich arrived just as some of the most exciting influences of German and Russian cinema began to influence American movies. Working in conjunction with the acutely visual director Ingram behind the scenes, Vorkapich gained needed experience and made contacts within the movie capital. The artist-craftsman even took a turn in front of the camera,taking the uncredited role of Napoleon Bonaparte in Ingram‘s adaptation of Rafael Sabatini’s Scaramouche (1923). A few seconds of the brief if rather impressive imitation of the future French emperor by Vorkapich can be seen in the clip below:
Slavko Vorkapich as an uncredited Napoleon in Scaramouche (1923):
By 1928, Vorkapich had made an eleven minute experimental movie, The Life and Death of 9413, a Hollywood Extra with the visually stylish director Robert Florey (perhaps best remembered today for his work on 1932′s Murders in the Rue Morgue and 1946′s The Beast With Five Fingers) and the future outstanding cinematographer, Gregg Toland, whose enormous contributions to cinematography, especially in Citizen Kane, (which had its share of amusing and revelatory montages) remain legendary and instructive.
Reportedly costing a grand total of $97 with scenes filmed in Florey‘s kitchen and Toland‘s garage, The Life and Death of 9413, a Hollywood Extra uses imaginative miniature sets constructed by Slavko Vorkapich from of toys, masks, paper cubes, cigar boxes, and tin cans, all vividly brought to life using a 400 watt bulb, the extreme shadows it would cast and a myriad of camera moves, all used in ingenious ways. The satiric, tragi-comic story it told of a doomed ambition and the soul-destroying world he longed to succeed in despite the odds began when Florey, Vorkapich and Toland decided to utilize as few words as possible to convey their observations of the Hollywood experience.
By 1930, Vorkapich began working at Paramount, and he would later contribute to many commercial films while under contract at RKO and MGM as well. Curiously, the most montage-happy of all the major studios, Warner Brothers, was one where Vorky did not toil. However, such imaginative workers as Byron Haskin and Don Siegel certainly held their end up in this department at that studio.
I first found myself entranced and consciously aware of Vorkapich‘s work when I saw large parts of one of the few Claude Rains films not being shown on TCM this month, Crime Without Passion (1934). This melodrama about a New York attorney who is, to put it mildly, ethically challenged, was made by the influential team of Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur, who had risen to fame thanks to the mammoth success of the play and film of The Front Page. The pair had worked as screenwriters in Hollywood, but when Paramount allowed them to produce and direct four films in the ’30s without studio interference in New York, the opportunity proved irresistible, (if more than a bit problematic to the less than consistently organized writers whose best work in this period was the little known but refreshingly frank study of The Scoundrel (1936), one of the early films of Noel Coward.
Undertaking the melodramatic tale of Crime Without Passion, which was loosely based on the checkered career of criminal lawyer William J. Fallon, the leading character played by Claude Rains is an amoral man. When Hecht and MacArthur (at the right), learned that the editor on their film, “Vorky”, was a montage expert rather than primarily a cutter, the pair wrote an outline of an opening montage sequence that allowed the special effects man to dazzle viewers with a blend of portentous imagery with classical allusions to Greek mythology, as a trio of The Furies flew over the skyscrapers of Manhattan, laughing at their suffering mortals’ fates inside the buildings. This simply spectacular dramatic opener was a highlight of what proved to be a movie that did not entirely live up to its promise, (though no movie with Claude Rains is truly a waste of time). Seeing Crime Without Passion several years ago on a grainy DVD, I was completely captured by this sequence and have tried to catch all of this craftsman and artist’s work ever since. This sequence, created by the man described “as a brooding fellow” by Ben Hecht in his memoirs, may be seen below:
The Furies (1934) from the Ben Hecht & Charles MacArthur‘s Crime Without Passion:
Vorkapich would go on for decades, making some strikingly effective art films when he wasn’t involved in teaching others or lending his talents to many studio films, (including the late career sojourn into horror films with his brilliant work on I Bury the Living (1958-Albert Band). Still I think this brief if rarely seen sequence from the 1930s may be his masterpiece, blending techniques and a startling poetic vision in a few minutes work.
Eventually in the 1930s, however, Vorkapich went on to MGM to lend his talents to that studio’s often glossy productions, though his work invigorated both Viva Villa (1934) showing the Mexican revolutionary’s progress, and David Copperfield (1935), in which Vorky’s montage work for director George Cukor touched the viewer’s heart as he depicted the long trek of Freddie Bartholomew to the haven of his Aunt Betsey’s home. Occasionally he was able to create a notable dramatic sequence, as he did in an anti-war film, They Gave Him a Gun (1937), directed by Woody (“shoot it fast”) Van Dyke. The editor and special effects man really did a splendid job of moving the story along with several vivid sequences; in particular was the montage he created that showed the wearing effect of a fellow prisoner’s jibes on WWI veteran and convict Franchot Tone, drawing the viewer into the experience of the character’s increasingly fragile mental state. While a fellow inmate, (played by MGM utility man in the late ’30s-early ’40s Horace MacMahon), speculated about the outside activities of Tone’s girl (character actress Gladys George, in an unexpected bit of casting in a role that might easily have been played by a Maureen O’Sullivan), the rhythm of the cutting in this scene and the placement of the camera closer and farther away from the actors underlines the mounting anxiety of the prisoner as his tension grows from frantic to cold rage. While this is not an entirely successful adaptation of a once famous book by William Joyce Cowen, if you ever have a chance to see this movie on TCM, (which is where I caught it), you will probably be alerted to the presence of something different about this movie from the moment it begins, as this movie starts off with a bang–literally, as a shell casing is pointed directly at the viewer just before the credits begin. That’s the Vorkapich touch, I believe.
In other, far more glossy and less gritty movies, the special effects/montage wizard would design sequences showing the rise of an opera singer (Jeanette MacDonald) in Maytime (1937), as you can see in the clip below. Using a dizzying array of traveling matte shots, cuts, dissolves and well paced fade-outs and fade-ins throughout the montage, Vorky brought considerable zip to a sometimes slowly evolving story. There is also a sheer poetic beauty in the sequence as well, with the white floral bouquet tied with ribbon set against a black background, a visual motif that recurs at the bittersweet end of the film as well:
Maytime (1937-Van Dyke): The rise of a soprano montage:
Working again on a movie featuring Jeanette MacDonald (a particular favorite of operetta-loving Louis B. Mayer, who seems to have had a yen for ladylike songbirds), Vorkapich designed the earthquake sequence of this entertaining morality tale featuring Clark Gable and Spencer Tracy in a tug of war for a grand city’s soul (and Jeanette’s virtue). Perhaps creating his best known work, Vorky, ably assisted by the indispensable A. Arnold Gillespie (a fixture in the photographic special effects department at MGM for decades), blended the violence of the 1906 San Francisco Earthquake with the anguish of human beings faced with falling buildings, the earth opening under their feet, and the loss of all certainty about their place in the world, as you can see in the familiar montage below:
San Francisco (1936-Van Dyke) The Earthquake:
Perhaps to allow audiences the luxury of leaving the theater relatively untroubled by the spectacle of destruction they had just witnessed, Vorkapich was given the additional task of creating a rather long montage at the end of the film. This showed the rebuilding of the city, blending actual San Francisco landmarks with a matte painting showing distant buildings rising from the rubble in the mist.
One of the highlights of Vorky’s career at MGM was his work in the monumental adaptation of Pearl Buck‘s novel of Chinese peasants, The Good Earth (1937), a film that you can see on TCM on September 22nd at 2:45PM. Working with fellow European Karl Freund as cinematographer on this film, there are three sequences attributed by most scholars to Vorkapich, with the best known of these being the attack of the locusts on the peasant’s crops. Deliberately breaking the scene into short bursts of movement, emphasized by the intercutting of shifting camera angles of the sky and the wheat shaking violently, the intensity of this sequence is increased with the extreme close-ups of the locusts juxtaposed against panoramic shots of the swarms of locusts (reportedly using coffee grounds to simulate the movement of the insects across the sky while working with an optical printer, an invaluable device for his creations):
The Good Earth (1937-Sidney Franklin)–with the distant swarm of locusts played by coffee grounds–can be seen here.
While he continued to freelance, and made several government movies during World War Two, Vorkapich the Film Theorist began to disseminate his ideas as early as 1926, when he lectured at the American Society of Cinematographers (ASC). Eventually, the montages he specialized in began to be regarded as slightly old hat, though when Vorkapich became the Chairman of the University of Southern California Department of Cinema from 1949–1951, his influence on a new generation of film students, including such distinguished alumni as cinematographer Conrad Hall, continues to have a ripple effect to this day. “The whole world”, Vorkapich once said, “is nothing but an immense cacophony of motions…it is up to you, if you are an artist, to make a symphony out of it.” You can see one of the experimental films that Slavko made utilizing Debussy’s “La Mer” to create a visual tone poem in this brief movie,
Glenn Erikson, writing on The DVD Savant website encapsulated his impressions of Slavko Vorkapich rather well:
“Slavko Vorkapich was an interesting and funny film theoretician who received SRO attendance when he brought his multi-week seminar to the UCLA film school in the ’70s. His hard-line ideas about what in movies was cinematic and what was not, were at the time out of fashion. Vorkapich was unconcerned about content and intensely critical about the visual properties of moving images and how they cut together. For Vorkapich, the Cut was King. He lectured that cutting between talking heads may facilitate drama but that it wasn’t moviemaking. He had a wicked habit of showing classic film clips with the sound turned off, and pointing out the screwed-up dynamics of cutting from giant faces to giant faces. When he showed us the Herbert Lom tent scene in Spartacus, we saw that he was right; at every cut the actors just popped foolishly around the frame.
Whether or not we properly appreciated all of his ideas, the montages he showed were powerful masterpieces. Vorkapich designed the earthquake scene in MGM’s 1935 San Francisco, where many of the most dramatic effects were not elaborate opticals but simple camera moves and editing-rhythm tricks. He also did the locust attack in The Good Earth, so he must have been one of Thalberg‘s artistic favorites. One of his last, and fairly successful jobs were the elaborate 3-D sequences in the 1963 Canadian horror film The Mask. But the best thing we saw was a breathtaking stand-alone prologue to the 1934 Ben Hecht-Charles MacArthur Crime Without Passion. In it, a trio of terrifying harpies are born from the blood of murder victims. They fly through the canyons of Manhattan, laughing at the sinners inside the windows.”
Vorkapich might be an obscure figure in cinematic history, but I hope that you find these glimpses of his contributions entertaining and enlightening. If you are ever fortunate enough to hear that the founding curator of the Harvard Archive, film historian Vlada Petric, is anywhere near you presenting his homage to Vorkapich, entitled “True Cinema”, I hope that you will make a point to see this film historian’s enthusiastic tribute to Vorky. I had a chance to see this program last year and it has been presented in college communities around the country in the recent past.
You can see a complete filmography for Slavko Vorkapich here.
Many of the movies mentioned here that Vorkapich helped to create are available as individual DVDs and play regularly on TCM, but you may also be interested in Unseen Cinema: Early American Avant-Garde Film 1894–1941, a landmark box set, compiled by New York’s Anthology Film Archive and distributed by Image Entertainment, which contains 155 films totaling 19 hours spread over seven discs. If you try to dip into this still exciting collection of experimental films by Vorkapich, artist Joseph Cornell, famed production designer and director William Cameron Menzies, and many others, I suspect that you might come away as awestruck as me.
UPDATE! April, 2012: An interesting, informative post about Slavko Vorkapich has appeared on the blog The Daily Mirror:
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