Friday, September 15, 2017

William Cameron Menzies by James Curtis

William Cameron Menzies: The Shape of Films to Come
by James Curtis
November 2015
432 pages
Pantheon

Amazon - Barnes and Noble - Powell's

"His name is William Cameron Menzies, whose name wouldn't cause a ripple among the screen's cash customers, but he is certainly one of the most important creative figures in Hollywood." - Irving Hoffman

Imagine the most entrancing movie scene you've ever laid your eyes on. You might credit the director or the cinematographer. But chances are that much of the credit should go to the production designer.  William Cameron Menzies took on my roles in his long career in Hollywood. Director, art director, producer  and even writer, he wore many hats and worked on many films. From the silent era until the late 1950s, Menzies contributed a vast amount of his enormous skill as a visual artist. His contributions varied from small to overwhelming and he worked tirelessly to create movies that enchanted audiences with their visual grandeur. Menzies was the master of forced perspective and set design. Sometimes he was a victim of his own talent and focused more on his art than on the functionality or bringing out the best in the actors. However Menzies single-handedly gave birth to the job of production designer and set the course for decades of films to come.

"As an art director I am interested in the photoplay as a series of pictures -- as a series of fixed and moving patterns -- as a fluid composition, which is the product of the creative workers who collaborate in production." - William Cameron Menzies

Author James Curtis took on the enormous task of telling the story of William Cameron Menzies impressive and lengthy career in Hollywood. Much like with his excellent book on Spencer Tracy, Curtis received help from the Menzies family, most notably Menzies' youngest daughter Suzanne. He had access to the family's collection of Menzies' art and letters and with all of that source material he was able to create a rich and thorough account of Menzies career.

While this book is less than 400 pages of actual reading, it is crammed with details that will take some time to absorb. It's also full of storyboard art, sketches, paintings, production stills and other photographs that illustrate Menzies' skills as a production designer and art director. These are presented in black and white images throughout the book as well as in a few full color inserts.

And the movies covered? There are so many. Most notably you'll learn about Menzies work on the following: The Thief of Bagdad, The Son of the Sheik, Bulldog Drummond, Puttin' on the Ritz, Chandu the Magician, Alice and Wonderland, Things to Come, Our Town, Kings Row, For Whom the Bells Tolls, The Pride of the Yankees, Spellbound, The Story of Ivy, It's a Wonderful Life, Reign of Terror, The Whip Hand, Invaders from Mars... oh and a little movie called Gone With the Wind.


William Cameron Menzies poses with some of his work from Gone With the Wind.


This was a fascinating book. I have to admit I have very little interest in GWTW which takes up a lot of the book. But it's the most important project Menzies worked on his career and the author is right to devote as many pages to it as he did. My list of to-be-watched films grew exponentially and I furiously took notes of what I wanted to watch.

Needless to say I highly recommend James Curtis' William Cameron Menzies: The Shape of Films to Come. Curtis is beloved in the classic film community and rightly so. This book is an spectacular achievement.



This is my sixth review for my summer reading challenge.



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