William Mortensen in Hollywood

William Mortensen in his studio with a photo of Jean Harlow.

Last Month my husband, a fellow photography buff, gifted me with a copy of American Grotesque: The Life and Art of William Mortensen for Valentine’s Day. The book contains a compilation of work by William Mortensen (1897–1965), a brilliant, innovative and visionary photographer who once worked in Hollywood snapping glamorous and exotic portraits of actors on set and in his studio. Mortensen’s unconventional methods and propensity towards grotesque, esoteric and erotically charged imagery compelled his peers, such as photographer Ansel Adams, to label Mortensen the “Antichrist” and in the following decades critics attempted to minimize his artistic contributions and erase Mortensen’s name from history books.

Thankfully they didn’t succeed and today we have the opportunity to reevaluate Mortensen’s work in two recent books published by Feral House that piece together the man’s fascinating life and career. Mortensen’s a complex individual with many different facets to his personality but the years he spent in Hollywood should be of particular interest to classic film fans.


Artist, Activist & Star-Maker: Photographer Eliot Elisofon

Kim Novak & Eliot Elisofon (self-portrait; 1958)

When I first started writing about Hollywood glamor photography here at the Movie Morlocks one of the photographers I was particularly keen on featuring was Eliot Elisofon. His captivating images of numerous Hollywood stars have mesmerized me for decades but back in 2010 there was very little information about the man available online. This year that changed significantly thanks to the Smithsonian museum, which launched the first retrospective of Elisofon’s photography at the National Museum of African Art. The exhibit is titled “Africa ReViewed: The Photographic Legacy of Eliot Elisofon” and it features an extensive selection of photographs Elisofon took for Life Magazine between 1947 and 1972 as well as pieces from his African art collection that were donated to the museum after his death in 1973 at age 61. The exhibition comes to an end on November 16th but since its debut nearly a year ago it’s received extensive media attention and sparked a renewed interest in Elisofon and his work. In an effort to keep interest in Eliot Elisofon alive I thought I’d finally delve into his fascinating career in Hollywood where he helped make Marlon Brando and Kim Novak household names and worked on a number of films including MOULIN ROUGE (1952), BELL BOOK AND CANDLE (1958), THE GREATEST STORY EVER TOLD (1965) and KHARTOUM (1966).


Spending the Day with Jack Cardiff

cardiffopenerI always say that if you want to learn about the art and the magic of cinema, then listen to a cinematographer talk about his or her craft. Tomorrow, July 2, at 6:30PM, TCM will air a documentary on cinematographer Jack Cardiff, who began his long career at the start of one revolution—sync-sound—and ended at the start of another—digital filmmaking.

I first saw Cameraman: The Life and Work of Jack Cardiff at the Telluride Film Festival a couple of years ago, where I met the director, Craig McCall, who was certainly passionate about his subject. Jack Cardiff, who is best known for his work on the films of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, was Great Britain’s premiere Technicolor cinematographer. The veteran cameraman was still alive during the production of the documentary, and his entertaining insights into his long career are a lesson in film history and aesthetics.  During the day, TCM will air several of Cardiff’s Technicolor classics so viewers can watch the films, then listen to his observations and experiences in Cameraman while the movies are still fresh in their minds.


Understanding Visual Storytelling with Steven Fierberg

Fierberg-8113Over the years, I have listened to many cinematographers speak about film. Whether describing their role in the making of a specific movie or talking about classics from previous eras, I have never been disappointed. Cinematographers are the best source for explaining how a film imparts meaning through its visual language.

Last week cinematographer Steven Fierberg (Love and Other Drugs; Secretary; Entourage) visited Ringling College of Art and Design to offer his insight and expertise to students. Part of his visit included a presentation to Ringling students and faculty on the art of visual storytelling. My History of Film students attended, and several wrote about the positive impression that Fierberg made on them for a class assignment. Instead of lecturing, Fierberg offered his ideas through a series of clips from well-known films, which made for a dynamic demonstration. I learned so much from his presentation that I wanted to share some of his comments and insights.  The films that Fierberg used as examples should be familiar to most TCM viewers; looking at them again from a different perspective reveals their craftsmanship and artistry.


William Edward Cronenweth: A Legacy in Photos


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.


A Funny Thing Happened on the Way … to writing this blog post

Have you ever gone to the theater expecting to see a movie (or play) about one thing but, once there, were then completely surprised – pleasantly or unpleasantly – with what transpired on the screen (or stage). For me, it used to happen more frequently before the explosion of the Internet (where spoilers abound), but it can still happen today when I adopt an intentional approach to such entertainment. For instance, when I watch a classic film, it happens more often because I tend to seek, find and view lesser known films on TCM or, in this case, the Fox Movie Channel.


A New Perception of ‘Inception’

What’s better than listening to a behind-the-scenes DVD commentary and discovering something new about a favorite film? It’s listening to a live commentary while watching the film on a big screen! Last week, I attended a “sound-down” of the sci-fi blockbuster Inception presented by cinematographer Wally Pfister. A sound-down is exactly what the term implies: The film is screened with the sound so low that it cannot be heard while a person of note—in this case, Pfister—provides an expert commentary. A sound-down offers an opportunity to fully understand the art behind the illusion that is Hollywood movie-making without destroying the magic.

A free event open to all film students and movie-lovers, the sound-down of Inception ended a week of workshops, master classes, and screenings at Ringling College of Art and Design in which Pfister generously gave his time and expertise to the students. Located in my new hometown of Sarasota, Florida, Ringling is the college where I now teach film and art history to a talented student body of future illustrators, fine artists, animators, and filmmakers. I was lucky to squeeze into a class in which Pfister provided an insider’s view of production design by explaining the interrelationship between the director, the production designer, and the cinematographer. Informal yet informative, Pfister painted a clear picture of the process of production, emphasizing that story needs to drive the choice of visual techniques—not the other way around.


In Praise of Cinematographers: Visions of Light

Visions of Light never fails to impress me. Produced in 1993 through the AFI, this documentary covers the history of film through the eyes of cinematographers. The film has many strengths, but two stand out:  It makes watching classic films seem infectious, as though you can’t wait to see some of the movies mentioned; and it will forever change the way you look at films.

While actors get the adoration of fans, and directors get critical acclaim from reviewers, cinematographers are rarely acknowledged. Visions of Light not only explores the role of the cinematographer, it also explains film history through the major changes in camera technology, including the impact of sound, the adoption of color, and the introduction of widescreen. Most importantly, it reveals how filmmaking techniques such as lighting, angle, and camera movement help tell the story in a film.

The documentary is structured chronologically. It brushes past the dawn of cinema with a few clips from the films of the Lumiere Brothers, Georges Melies, and D.W. Griffith, among others. The German Expressionists are given their due because of their advances in lighting effects and camera movement, but it is the discussion of the classic films from the Golden Age of Hollywood that will fascinate movie-lovers. Until Visions of Light, I did not realize the vital connection between movie stars and cinematographers. Unlike today’s stars who form intimate relationships with their plastic surgeons (who make them all look alike), stars from the 1930s and 1940s advocated for certain cameramen because these men knew how to light actors to their best advantage. Whether it was Charles Lang favoring Claudette Colbert’s good side or William Daniels collaborating with Garbo on her signature look, the cameramen of this period understood that audiences went to the movies to see the stars look their best.


The Films of Robert Mulligan, Part 3

This is the third part of a series discussing the complete filmography of director Robert Mulligan. Click to read Part 1 and Part 2.

As the 1960s ended, so did Robert Mulligan’s collaboration with producer Alan Pakula. After seven films together, Pakula embarked upon a successful directing career of his own, beginning with the college romance of The Sterile Cuckoo in 1969 (which would earn Liza Minnelli her first Oscar nomination). Mulligan also tried his hand at courting the youth market,  starting production on The Pursuit of Happiness late that same year, although it was not released until 1971. It was the first coming-of-age story that Mulligan directed since To Kill A Mockingbird, and its melancholic sense of lost innocence pervades all of his work in the early 1970s.


Death Is Not an Adventure: All Quiet on the Western Front (1930)

On February 4th, the last living veteran of WW1 passed away in King’s Lynn, England. Florence Green was 110 years old, and had joined up with the Women’s Royal Air Force in September 1918, two months before the armistice. The last surviving combat veteran, Briton Claude Choles, died in Australia in 2011. The Great War is no longer part of the world’s living memory, and so drifts slowly from history and into myth (see: War Horse). This process will accelerate in 2014-2018, the 100th Anniversary of the conflict. But no images, not even Spielberg’s, have defined the war more than those in All Quiet On the Western Front, Universal’s grim gamble of 1930. Banned in Poland, reviled in Germany, and a tough sell to  studios, this adaptation of Erich Maria Remarque’s landmark novel is one of the bleakest films ever made in Hollywood. Universal is releasing it on Blu-Ray today in a pristine restoration, in a nearly-complete 133 minute version, while also including the rare silent edition, which was made for theaters not yet equipped for sound (For background on all the edits inflicted on the film, please read Lou Lumenick’s article in the NY Post).


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