Webster Film Series: Best B/W Cinematography (1936-1966) | May–July 2016

Since Virginia Woolf was the last film to win the Oscar for black-and-white cinematography, you could say the category went out with a bang rather than a whimper.

Who's Afraid of Virginia Wolff
Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolff

Cinematography is the most fundamental aspect of the movies. You can have a movie without sound, without a director, even without actors, but without images recorded on film, there’s no movie. People working in the movie business understand this, so it’s no surprise one of the categories included in the very first Academy Awards was Best Cinematography. At the time (1929), just about all films were in black and white, but when color became more common, the Academy split the award in two: From 1939 to 1966, separate Oscars were given for black-and-white and color cinematography; from 1936 to 1936, special achievement awards, but not Oscars, were given for color cinematography.

Four black-and-white films that won the Oscar for Best Cinematography will be screened this spring as part of the Webster University Film Series. The series kicks off with Sidney Franklin’s 1937 film The Good Earth (May 13–15), an epic tale of a Chinese family who overcomes famine, revolution, locusts, and a whole lot more in their journey from poverty to prosperity. The Good Earth can be a little hard to watch these days, thanks to the yellow-face casting (Paul Muni and Luise Rainer play the central role of Wang Lung and O-Lan). One thing that hasn’t aged, though, is the spectacular cinematography of Karl Freund, whose career stretched from 1911 through the 1950s and includes such notable films as Metropolis (1927), Dracula (1931), and Key Largo (1948). MGM wanted to shoot The Good Earth in China, but this proved impossible due to the Sino-Japanese War and difficulties in negotiating with the Chinese Nationalist government. The film ended up being shot in California, but incorporating scenes shot in China for a different, unreleased film.

Next up is The Picture of Dorian Gray (June 10–12), directed by Albert Lewin and featuring cinematography by Harry Stradling, Sr. It’s based on a novel by Oscar Wilde about a young man so in love with his own beauty that he wishes to remain forever young (in appearance, that is). Someone must have been listening, because Dorian (Hurd Hatfield) seems to be able to lead an unspeakably dissolute lifestyle (ruining a young singer played by Angela Lansbury along the way) without a trace of it showing on his face (and remember, this was written in the days before penicillin). But what’s going on with that portrait he keeps locked in the attic?

George Sanders received top billing as Lord Henry Wotton, who gets the best Wilde-ean quips while also serving as the voice of reason and morality. References to homosexuality were removed from the novel before publication, and they couldn’t have been included in the film anyway under the Motion Picture Code, but you can guess what is going on all the same. (Note to forestall misunderstanding: The point in the novel and film is not that it is wrong to be gay, but that Dorian was a destructive force to everyone, including his sexual partners.) Stradling had quite a career, including 13 nominations for the Academy Awards for Cinematography, winning a second time for his work on My Fair Lady (1964, shot in Technicolor). In The Picture of Dorian Gray, which was shot almost entirely on the MGM lot, Stradling demonstrates his mastery of deep-focus photography and scenic composition, making the most of unusually large sets and favoring sharply edged lighting rather than the soft, diffused look typical of contemporary MGM glamor pictures.

On the Waterfront (June 24–26), directed in 1954 by Elia Kazan, features an Oscar-winning

On the Waterfront
On the Waterfront

performance by Marlon Brando as the confused dockworker Terry Malloy. He has quite a supporting cast, including Eva Marie Saint (who also won an Oscar in this, her film debut) as his love interest, Rod Steiger as his brother, Karl Malden as a priest, and Lee J. Cobb as the union boss from hell. Maybe it’s a pure coincidence that Kazan made this film two years after he renounced his former membership in the Communist Party, naming names to HUAC in the process, or maybe Kazan was trying to justify his betrayal of former associates by likening himself to the heroic Terry Malloy, and those associates to the corrupt leadership of the longshoreman’s union. I come down on the latter side (how better to justify your own squealing than to make a film starring one of the most charismatic actors of the day as a heroic squealer?), but I can still enjoy watching On the Waterfront, particularly the fine location cinematography by Boris Kaufman.

Kaufman came by his talent honestly: One of his brothers, Denis, directed the wildly creative Man with a Movie Camera in 1929 (under the professional name “Dziga Vertov”), while another brother, Mikhail, served as the cameraman in the film. Boris Kaufman shot all of Jean Vigo’s films, and also worked with, among other directors, Abel Gance, Sidney Lumet, and Jules Dassin. His neo-realistic style was a perfect match for Waterfront’s gritty story (adapted from a story by Budd Schulberg) and Kazan’s Method approach, and the film was well served by the 36 days the cast and crew spent shooting in and around the Hoboken waterfront. You can look up the real shooting locations—many of them unrecognizable today due to gentrification—so On the Waterfront also serves as a little time capsule of the time before Hoboken was full of high-rise condos built to accommodate young people working on the other side of the Hudson.

The series wraps up with Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (July 15–17), based on Edward Albee’s searing, blackly comedic play. It was director Mike Nichols’ first film (he was already an experienced stage actor and director), and is generally regarded as exemplary cinematic adaptation of a work written for the theater. Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton star as the battling George and Martha (no coincidence about the names, although the characters may have been modeled on the real-life couple Willard Maas and Marie Menken), with Sandy Dennis and George Segal as a younger couple who just may be seeing their futures played out before them. If you have any experience with academia, you’ll particularly enjoy the insider references to academic hierarchies and snobberies (“Martha tells me I’m in the History Department…as opposed to being the History Department”), but such knowledge is not required to appreciate the existential angst and dark-hued humor of this film.

Color films had become the Hollywood norm by 1966, so Nichols’ choice to shoot in black and white went against the grain, an inspired choice consistent with the world of shadows in which his characters dwell (one can hardly imagine George and Martha sunning themselves at the beach). Filming in black and white may also have facilitated the director’s ability to capture the extreme performances of the cast members (Taylor, in particular), and to present these performances to the audience without overwhelming them. Cinematographer Haskell Wexler maintains an air of claustrophobia throughout Virginia Woolf, even through Ernest Lehman’s screenplay takes the characters outside of George and Martha’s house, and his camera work is highly expressive, using odd angles, unusual close-ups, and handheld shots to mirror the out-of-kilter nature of the characters’ worlds. The Oscar for black-and-white cinematography ceased to be given after 1966, and since Virginia Woolf was the last film to win in this category, you could say the category went out with a bang rather than a whimper. Since then, only one black-and-white film winning the Oscar for Best Cinematography: Schindler’s List, directed by Steven Spielberg and shot by Janusz Kaminski, in 1993. | Sarah Boslaugh

All films will be screened at 8 p.m. at the Winifred Moore Auditorium at Webster University (470 E. Lockwood Ave., St. Louis, Mo., 63119). Tickets are $6 for the general public, $5 for seniors, Webster alumni, and students from other schools, $4 for Webster University staff and faculty, and free for Webster University students with proper ID. Further information about tickets is available here and the film series calendar is available here.

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