. . . Gregg Toland

. . .

Cast a cold eye

A reader writes:

Now let's talk about Gregg Toland

OK, let's. You go first.

Me, I got nothin', except a couple of topics to research. Maybe you can help?

  1. At the height of his career as a cinematographer, having just finished Citizen Kane and The Little Foxes, Toland vanished into wartime work for four years. Then he returned to Hollywood and dropped dead, age 44.

    One artifact of his Navy tour is readily available: a peculiar attempt at propaganda with real good explosions. But I'm curious as to what else went on. Toland was a fast worker, an experimenter, and a control freak. What does a guy like that end up doing in the military?

  2. I wonder whether composition-in-depth can be funny.

    Toland had iffy results himself. He worked, uncredited, on Frank Borzage's sublime History Is Made at Night, but that's not exactly a laff riot. While I have a soft spot for both Come and Get It and Ball of Fire, neither click gracefully into place. It's possible that Edward Arnold was getting tired of his broken-hearty shtick; in Ball of Fire, Hawks bears some blame for flubbing the slapstick finale. But there's something more persistently off, some interference with the Hawksian rhythm.

    Even though claustrophobic clutter seems thematically appropriate to the later movie's sequestered scholars, Toland's style just might not meld with Hawks's gift for portraying social engagement. In a Hawks movie, the world's well sacrificed to the pleasure of two or three human beings noticing each other. In Toland's camera, the world stays with us.

    Maybe for a different type of comedy, though? Robert Altman and Jacques Tati are more detached, and use wider canvases. In the right hands (of a madman!) maybe deep-focus could attain Will Elder levels of disorientation?


The Little Foxes is The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari with Gibson Girls

Between his Naval discharge and his heart attack, Toland shot two films of interest to Renfrew Q. Hobblewort:

(1) Here's a man who came back from the wars, even if he fought them in Hollywood, to work with Walt Disney on "Song of the South", itself a cult film yet oft-neglected by filmistas, I think largely because of the whole Uncle Remus thing, arguments over which will permanently color (ahem, maybe a poor choice of words) the expeerience of watching it. But check out some of these frames.

(Toland visible or not in this production shot?)

It's been a while since I've seen the film (with good reason -- see below about distorted reality nightmares), but my recollection is this is the film where live action and animation had to be combined in greatest detail to date. Toland fans ought not neglect this one.

What my memory finds odd about the look of this movie isn't just the juxtaposition between the animated and live action, the black and white and color, but the sense of being in this otherworldly little box of parallel reality -- the sharp focus but limited horizon of the Uncle Remus soundstage. No wonder this movie gave me nightmares as a kid.

Parenthetically, and I don't want to open a digressive can of worms here, has anybody done a good study of Hollywood's process of learning how to photograph people of differing skin tones?

(2) "Best Years of Our Lives" is one of my favorite movies, and I don't think it's just because it's William Wyler. (Wyler, as I recall, lost his hearing while filming 'Memphis Belle', only partially recovered it, and made the sadsack unemployable bombardier the focus of the war-nightmares part of the movie. But I digress.) For all the rep "Best Years" has as an alternatingly sentimental and realistic (for the time) movie, there's a good part of the storytelling done visually.

"Kane" fans ought to all own a copy of this and take a look at it shot by shot. So hard to say how much of the editing and pacing and so forth came from where, but the framing and shots will be recognizable. Check out the ceilings in the scenes at Butch's; the lingering depth of focus on Hoagy Carmichael's fingers, just lingering in the foreground, while everything else goes on in the rear; the anti-Norman Rockwell composition of the scene with the Dana Andrews character coming home to his hell-hole home on the wrong side of (underneath) the tracks. Check out that pan over the drug store when he finds the best job he can get in the modernized place is as a soda-jerk. The from the floor shot of Fred in his hangover bed, where he wakes up not knowing where he is or who the pretty dame who put him to bed is, and compare it to Susan Alexander's suicide bed. Etcetera.

. . .

The Nuisance (1933)

I once asked whether Gregg Toland's deep dark cinematography was inherently anti-comic.

Although comparatively early, cheap, and shallow, I believe The Nuisance refutes the charge: Toland shreds the conversational weave of Hawks but he boosts the alert cynical ugliness of a Lee Tracy vehicle. His camera makes the legally acceptable most of Herman Bing's nude scene, gives Frank Morgan's stereotype the pathos of pickled meat, and wisely lets Charles Butterworth drift offscreen to deliver a laugh line.

The ending drags, but whose doesn't?


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All other material: Copyright 2015 Ray Davis.