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At Last: A Biography of William Cameron Menzies

At Last: A Biography of William Cameron Menzies

William Cameron
Menzies: The Shape of Films to Come
by James Curtis (Pantheon)

          This is a book
that demanded to be written. William Cameron Menzies has always been one of my
heroes. He is the man who brought a unique gift for visualization to such films
as Douglas Fairbanks’ The Thief of
Bagdad, Gone With The Wind,
and Alfred Hitchcock’s Foreign Correspondent, as well as minor films from the silent and
sound era that deserve to be seen just for his sets and compositions. He is
also celebrated for two of the (few) films
he directed, Things to Come and Invaders from Mars. How fortunate for
us that James Curtis took on the job of chronicling Menzies’ life and work. His
books on Spencer Tracy, James Whale, W.C. Fields and other towering figures
have proven his mettle. This one presented a different challenge, as the focal
point is Menzies’ prodigious and powerful work rather than his private life. Yet
Curtis offers a solid narrative that should captivate any true film buff.

         With the
cooperation of Menzies’ family, and the active participation of his late
daughter Suzie, Curtis has had access not only to private correspondence but a
generous number of beautiful, expressive sketches and finished designs. He was
a superb draftsman who understood, as few others did, the nature of the film
medium. With a lavish budget he could conjure fantasy images like the ones that
make Fairbanks’ The Thief of Bagdad
so incredible. If money was tight, he knew how to build a partial set piece
that would indicate a much larger backdrop. He could place objects in the
foreground that added depth—and interest—to otherwise ordinary shots. Producers
like David O. Selznick came to realize that Menzies could save him time and
money during the pre-planning of a film by storyboarding it—common practice
today, quite unusual in the 1930s and ‘40s.

         Director Sam
Wood went so far as to hire Menzies as his principal collaborator, allowing him
full control over the look of such films as Our
Town, Kings Row, The Pride of the Yankees,
and For Whom the Bell Tolls. Others would call him in for
consultations or fix-up jobs, for which he often received no credit.

         This, then, is
the story of a singular career. Lauded as he was, Menzies didn’t enjoy steady
employment or smooth sailing, in part because his role was not readily
definable within the Hollywood studio system… in part because he grew
frustrated with his collaborators and lack of control over the finished
product… and in part because he drank too much. Curtis captures all of this in
his well-written, meticulously researched text, and gives us a sense of what
made each production in Menzies’ career unique, whether it is the staging of
the burning of Atlanta in Gone With The
(which the designer arranged and essentially directed) or the unusual
title sequence in Our Town. He also
interviewed art directors whom Menzies inspired and mentored, including Ken
Adam (famous for his James Bond sets) and Richard Sylbert.

         I’ve known
that Curtis has been working on this book for quite some time and have eagerly
awaited its publication. (I’m sorry it’s taken me this long to review it…but it
lives up to, and even exceeds, my expectations. William Cameron Menzies: The Shape of Films to Come is an essential
addition to any film library and a
great read. Bravo!

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