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Posts Tagged ‘William Cameron Menzies’

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.

Invaders From Mars (1953)

Friday, September 9th, 2011

Click here, or on the image above, to see the entire film, uncut.

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.

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.

Click on the image above to see the trailer for Invaders From Mars.

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 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 numerous books and more than 70 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. To contact Prof. Dixon for an interview, reach him at 402.472.6064 or wdixon1@unl.edu.

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