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Posts Tagged ‘William Cameron Menzies’

Video: Things to Come (1936) – H.G. Wells’ Vision of the Future

Wednesday, January 6th, 2016

H.G. Wells’ Things To Come is one of the most prophetic visions of the future ever created for the screen.

H.G. Wells wrote many novels about the possible future of mankind, all of which have been filmed in various adaptations, but he wrote only one futuristic vision with a film adaptation directly in mind; his 1933 magnum opus The Shape of Things To Come, which Wells then adapted into the screenplay for the film Things to Come in 1936.

The production designer and director of the film, William Cameron Menzies, is lately having a run on this blog, with posts on his film Invaders from Mars and James Curtis’ book William Cameron Menzies: The Shape of Films to Come, but it’s only right that this film, perhaps the only time that Menzies really had a decent budget at his disposal as a director, gets its own entry here.

The collaboration between Wells and Menzies – as well as the actors, including Raymond Massey, Sir Cedric Hardwicke, and Sir Ralph Richardson – was stormy at best, with the major stumbling block being that Wells, who had almost no visual or dramatic sensibility for the cinema, kept insisting that his long, declamatory speeches remain intact on the screen, despite Menzies’ and the cast’s insistence that judicious cuts to the material would make the end product more effective.

But Wells wouldn’t hear of it, and so there are, in truth, about thirty minutes of the film that could easily be cut – something that all the contemporary reviewers of the film readily pointed out – and Wells, disappointed with the film’s initial reception, amazingly blamed Menzies for this – but it simply isn’t so.

Despite this problem, however, Things to Come remains an astonishing film, accurately predicting the onset on World War II, for one thing, as well as such technological advances as television, space travel, enclosed cities, social breakdown bordering on feudalism in some areas, and clearly posited science as the savior of mankind.

It’s essential, of course, to see Things to Come on a big screen; it’s one of those films that calls insistently for large scale projection – and for many years, when the film fell into the Public Domain, inferior 16mm and video copies circulated from a variety of sources, none of which approached the scope and grandeur of the original film. However, in recent years, the film has come back under copyright.

Legend Films has thus brought out a superb DVD and Blu-ray of the film, completely restored, which can be seen either in its original black and white version (my choice), or in a remarkably good colorized version, supervised by the late special effects master Ray Harryhausen. So, thanks to Curt Bright, here’s a short video essay on the film as part of the Frame by Frame series, and now, you can see the film for yourself.

Don’t miss a chance to see this classic if you can; click here for a video essay on the film.

William Cameron Menzies’ Invaders from Mars (1953)

Monday, December 28th, 2015

Click here, or on the image above, to see Menzies’ entire film Invaders From Mars.

Invaders From Mars is a classic of 1950s Red Scare science fiction, depicting a world that is paranoid beyond belief, photographed in garish color, as directed and designed by the renowned William Cameron Menzies, the production designer of many excellent films, including Gone With The Wind (1939) — the first film on which a “production designer” credit was formally listed in the credits. The film is being screened in January at the UCLA Film Archive in its original 35mm format, and has long since been recognized as one of the classic “childhood nightmare” films of the era, and one of Menzies’ finest achievements. Menzies’ biographer, James Curtis, will introduce the screening.

As Glenn Erickson of DVD Savant notes of the film:

Invaders from Mars was made relatively early in the 50s Sci Fi cycle, when the field was still dominated by “A” quality efforts. A script by John Tucker Battle, optioned by one set of producers, eventually landed with Edward L. Alperson, who made the uncharacteristically brilliant decision to put the entire project into the hands of legendary production designer and sometime film director William Cameron Menzies. Menzies was the genius who practically invented the concept of production design, on big silent movies like The Thief of Baghdad. His unique graphic sense graced the films of Sam Wood (Our Town, For Whom the Bell Tolls, King’s Row). Menzies made Hollywood history with David O. Selznick by single-handedly engineering Gone With the Wind’s visual dimension. Without him, the divergent contributions of a half-dozen directors might have created a shambles.”

You can read the entire essay by clicking here.

As Glenn Erickson continues, “the furious action that concludes Invaders from Mars becomes even more dreamlike with the repetitions of shots and scenes [. . .] Dialogue lines are also repeated, especially young David’s, “Colonel Fielding!, Colonel Fielding!,” which is heard so often it becomes an unending echo. These repetition patterns make the ending more dreamlike in two ways. First, a high level of anxiety is maintained while the actual story progression slows to a crawl. A classic anxiety dream situation is ‘running in place but not getting anywhere,’ exactly the feeling imparted to Invaders. Second, the repetition forces a fixation on the images that keep coming back, a fixation that has the obsessive quality of dream logic. In our dreams, shocking moments seem to hang forever in the consciousness, or illogically ‘come back again, but for the first time,’ over and over.”

Click here, or on the image above, to read the entire screenplay for the original film.

William Cameron Menzies’ The Maze (1953)

Sunday, September 21st, 2014

William Cameron Menzies’ The Maze (1953) has to be seen – in 3D - to be believed.

With everyone talking about The Maze Runner, a pallid rehash of Lord of The Flies, I thought I would highlight this little-seen gem from 1953, which is the subject of a thoughtful essay by Jeff Kuykendall, which begins by noting that “if you’ve ever seen the Douglas Fairbanks version of The Thief of Bagdad (1924), then you love and respect William Cameron Menzies. In the 1920′s Menzies quickly established himself as a first-rate art director, and the Fairbanks vehicle was enlivened considerably by Menzies’ sets, which resembled the exaggerated illustrations of a child’s Arabian Nights storybook, while Fairbanks hopped, skipped, and swashbuckled through every inch of them.

In 1929 Menzies won the first Oscar ever awarded for art direction (for The Dove and The Tempest), and he quickly graduated to directing his own films, his first solo directing effort being the visually stunning (if dramatically lacking) H.G. Wells adaptation Things to Come (1936). David O. Selznick put him in charge of Gone with the Wind‘s art direction, for which he won another Oscar, but in the subsequent decades Menzies never quite established himself as a director of note. His best-regarded film is Invaders from Mars (1953), a dream-like, dread-filled science fiction yarn tailored for the Cold War. Less remembered is the film’s companion-piece, 1953′s The Maze. Shot in 3-D, it’s even more surreal than Invaders.”

Check out the trailer for the film here, and the rest of Jeff Kuykendall’s essay here, with a number of excellent frame grabs; like Kuykendall, I, too, am a Menzies fan (as who isn’t, I might ask?) and when watching The Maze Runner, I kept wondering what Menzies would have done with the material from a visual standpoint, especially given CGI and green screen capabilities which he, of course, didn’t have the advantage of using back in the 20s through the 50s. But I’m sure he would have jumped at the chance to design The Maze Runner; in the meantime, check out this moody Gothic from Menzies, and see what you think.

The Maze is a completely bizarre and deeply original film; well worth watching.

H.G. Wells’ Things To Come (1936)

Saturday, February 4th, 2012

Click here, or on the image above, to see some clips from Things to Come.

I’ve blogged on director William Cameron Menzies before, especially on his 1953 film Invaders from Mars, and his long and often tortured career as a pioneer set designer — most notably for the 1939 production of Gone With the Wind. But I’ve never really singled out his most ambitious film as a director, from H.G. Wells’ screenplay based on his 1933 novel, Things to Come. The large — and I do mean large — cast includes Raymond Massey, Sir Ralph Richardson, and Sir Cedric Hardwicke. To give you some idea of the size and scope of the project, just take a look at the image above.

After Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927), it’s arguably the most ambitious science fiction film ever made, and also one of the most prophetic, envisioning everything from giant flat screen televisions to the eventuality of another World War just a few years later. Bogged down by Wells’ insistence that both the actors and directors follow his verbose screenplay to the letter, Things to Come is nevertheless a visual tour de force, and a remarkable achievement both as a film, and as a vision of the future.

Easily available on DVD, including a 2007 version colorized by special effects wizard Ray Harryhausen — I can’t believe I’m recommending this, but it’s that good — Things to Come is essential viewing for anyone interested in science fiction, set design, world history, or the history of film. Also in 2007, Network DVD in the UK released a digitally-restored version, which to date is the longest version available anywhere in the world. The two-disc set also contains a “Virtual Extended Version” with most of the missing and unfilmed parts represented by production photographs and script extracts.

In short, if you haven’t seen it, you should check it out immediately; this is where modern sci-fi begins.

The Whip Hand (1951)

Tuesday, December 6th, 2011

Here’s an essay I published last week — November 28, 2011 — on one of the most deliriously paranoid noirs of the early 1950s, William Cameron Menzies’ The Whip Hand, which was produced by the reclusive financier Howard Hughes after he took over RKO Radio Pictures. The film was originally designed as a neo-Nazi espionage thriller, but at the last moment, Hughes scrapped large portions of the film to retool it as an anti-Communist effort. As I note in the web journal Noir of the Week, ably edited by Steve Eifert,

“Ultimately, The Whip Hand is a work as curious and resonant as the reclusive lifestyle led by its true auteur, Howard Hughes; while Menzies designed and executed the film, paying as little attention as possible to the actors but lavishing enormous attention on the sets and mise en scene of the film, it was Hughes own obsessions and paranoid delusions that really inform the bulk of the film’s convoluted narrative [. . .] Hughes typically reshot films after they were finished, and in his own mind, the Communist threat was not only more timely than the Nazi angle; it was also more real. What Menzies did was to give solidity to Hughes’ paranoid fantasies, and it is this, more than anything else, that makes The Whip Hand simultaneously preposterous, and yet all too real; this was the way Howard Hughes saw the world in the 1950s, and Menzies brought his vision to life.”

You can read the entire essay by clicking on the image above, or here.

About the Author

Wheeler Winston Dixon

Wheeler Winston Dixon, Ryan Professor of Film Studies at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, is an internationally recognized scholar and writer of film history, theory and criticism. He is the author of thirty books and more than 100 articles on film, and appears regularly in national media outlets discussing film and culture trends. Frame by Frame is a collection of his thoughts on a number of those topics. All comments by Dixon on this blog are his own opinions.

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Wheeler Winston Dixon has been quoted by Fast Company, The New Yorker, The New York Times, the BBC, CNN, The Christian Science Monitor, US News and World Report, The Boston Globe, Entertainment Weekly, The Los Angeles Times, NPR, The PBS Newshour, USA Today and other national media outlets on digital cinema, film and related topics - see the UNL newsroom at for more details.

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