Posted by Kimberly Lindbergs on January 17, 2013
William Edward Cronenweth photographing Rita Hayworth (1947)
In my ongoing quest to learn more about the talented men and women who were responsible for taking the imaginative studio portraits and set photos we all love but too often take for granted, I recently became fascinated with the work of William Edward Cronenweth. Trying to compile information about the man was difficult and I often ran into obstacles while attempting to learn more about his life and work. Cronenwerth’s name is rarely mentioned in the various books I’ve read about studio photography and if it is, the information tends to be sparse and inconsistent. Hopefully this brief portrait I’ve compiled will shine some light on Cronenweth’s considerable contributions to Hollywood’s glamorous history.
William Edward Cronenweth was born in Wilkensburg, Pennsylvania in 1903. His father owned a camera shop, which undoubtedly sparked his own interest in photography. The Cronenweth family eventually relocated to Los Angeles and while attending high-school in 1918 young William began working for Famous Players-Lasky as a cameraman’s assistant. At age 17 Cronenweth was hired by Universal Pictures as an assistant cameraman and although he often went unaccredited, he apparently worked on many films for the studio between 1920-1925, including Wallace Worsley‘s THE HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME (1923) starring Lon Chaney in one of his most memorable roles. In 1926 Cronenweth’s career took a different turn when he accepted a job as a still photographer at Warner Brothers and this quickly led to more work with Paramount as well as Universal. By 1928, Cronenweth had begun working exclusively with Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer and for the next 10 years he regularly shot film stills as well as star portraits for MGM.
During this period Cronenweth often collaborated with actor Clark Gable and helped develop Gable’s on screen persona as one of Hollywood’s most desirable leading men. His still photos and promo shots for films such as DANCING LADY (1933), SAN FRANCISCO (1936), SARATOGA (1937) and TOO HOT TO HANDLE (193) were so popular with Gable’s fans that one of them was used in the 1938 production of BROADWAY MELODY, which featured a young Judy Garland singing “You Made Me Love You” to a scrapbook full of Gable’s portraits. In 1941 Cronenweth received a special Academy Award for his still photography, a category that has long since been abolished. The award was presented to Conenweth for his dynamic portrait of Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney that captured the stars in a lighthearted dance maneuver. Today’s Cronenweth’s photographs are often recognizable because they seemed to reveal a more playful and active side of his subjects. He enjoyed demonstrating movement, which was probably an expression of his early work as an assistant director on motion pictures and his photos frequently depicted actors in lively poses.
Top: Judy Garland with Clark Gable’s photo (1938)
By 1942 Cronenweth was one of the most recognizable photographers working in Hollywood and he decided to accept a position with Columbia Pictures that would last for more than 15 years. During his time with Columbia, Cronenweth photographed many of Hollywood’s biggest stars but he developed special relationships with Rita Hayworth and Glenn Ford. The two actors selected Cronenweth as their favorite still photographer and he shot some of their best portraits. His work with Rita Hayworth is particularly stunning and seemed to recognize the various and complex aspects of her character. Cronenweth’s photos encapsulate the contrary elements that Hayworth so often brought to the screen. In front of Cronenweth’s camera Hayworth is playful and thoughtful, sexy and demure, smiling and somber.
Top: Cronenweth portraits of Glenn Ford & Rita Hayworth
Besides producing stunning portraits of many Hollywood stars, Cronenweth continued to work as a still photographer on the set of many of Columbia’s pictures. Some of his varied credits during this time include THE LADY FROM SHANGHAI (1947), JOHNNY O’CLOCK (1947), THE LOVES OF CARMEN (1948), THE WILD ONE (1953), THE CAINE MUTINY (1954), PAL JOEY (1957) and THE TINGLER (1959). His impressive career as a studio photographer came to a sudden end in 1966 when his back was badly injured during the filming of the WW2 drama, PT 109. I haven’t been able to find any detailed accounts of the accident that caused his injury but it was so severe that Cronenweth decided to retire at age 63.
One of Cronenweth’s promo photos for THE WILD ONE
Vincent Price in THE TINGLER (1959) – Dick Powell & Evelyn Keyes in JOHNNY O’CLOCK (1947)
It’s unfortunate that his career ended so early but the legacy that Cronenweth left behind continued to find new avenues of expression after his retirement. William Edward Cronenweth and his wife Rosita (a Busby Berkeley dancer) are the parents of Jordan Cronenweth, a celebrated cinematographer who worked on many notable films and music documentaries including PLAY IT AS IT LAYS (1972), ROLLING THUNDER (1977), ALTERED STATES (1980), BLADE RUNNER (1982), STOP MAKING SENSE (1984), PEGGY SUE GOT MARRIED (1986) and U2: RATTLE AND HUM (1988), which all undoubtedly owe a sliver of credit to William. And today audiences are probably most familiar with the cinematography of Cronenweth’s grandson, Jeff who’s best known for his celebrated work with director David Fincher on FIGHT CLUB (1999), THE SOCIAL NETWORK (2010) and THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO (2012). The Cronenwerth family has had a long and fascinating history in Hollywood and it can all be traced back to William Edward Cronenwerth’s hard work and talent, which left an indelible mark on the City of Angels. Information about William Edward Cronenweth is scarce considering the family legacy he started but not all that surprising. The work of studio photographers often goes unaccredited and it can be difficult and time-consuming process to research their accomplishments. Hopefully this brief look at Cronenweth’s career has helped shine a light on his contributions to film history that continue on in the work of his son and grandson.
What follows is a small selection of William Edward Cronenweth’s photos. Hope you enjoy the eye-candy!
Myrna Loy & Ann Miller
Carole Landis & Ginger Rogers
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