Monday, May 14, 2007

The Cinematographer's Influence

The following clip is from A Song is Born, which I've highlighted before: as a movie, it's basically worthless, in that it offers nothing the original version, Ball of Fire, didn't do better. (Samuel Goldwyn decided to remake Ball of Fire as a vehicle for his contract stars, Danny Kaye and Virginia Mayo. He used the same director and cinematographer, Howard Hawks and Gregg Toland, and much of the movie is just a line-for-line remake of Ball of Fire, except without Gary Cooper and Barbara Stanwyck to make it work.) But what makes it worth watching anyway is as a showcase for all the jazz musicians who show up in guest appearances.

In this scene, Kaye's stuffy musicologist character (originally the stuffy non-musical professor played by Gary Cooper) goes out to find out about modern popular music, and goes to various nightclubs where he hears Mel Powell, Tommy Dorsey, the Golden Gate Quartet, Charlie Barnet, Louis Armstrong, Lionel Hampton, and finally the Page Cavanaugh Trio (with a very dubbed Virginia Mayo, though to be fair, Barbara Stanwyck's singing was also dubbed in Ball of Fire).

One thing I noticed (and I'm not sure if a similar shot occurs in Ball of Fire, though it certainly might) is the shot about 2:45 into the clip, where Kaye is listening to the Golden Gate Quartet: he's on the left of the screen while the Quartet is framed in an elaborate mirror next to Kaye. This is a very arty, self-conscious shot that doesn't feel like something Hawks would normally do -- but which does feel very much like the type of shot that occurs in all the movies shot by Gregg Toland. (In addition to being under contract for most of Goldwyn's movies, he was loaned out for movies like The Grapes of Wrath, Citizen Kane and Song of the South; on Kane, Toland's credit was as big as Orson Welles' and on the same title card.) Thinking back to Ball of Fire I recalled some shots that similarly look like Toland, rather than Hawks, like the shot of Barbara Stanwyck reflected in a table, or the deep-focus shot of Cooper in the back of a crowd.

That doesn't mean that Toland was the real director of these movies (though on A Song is Born, which Hawks hated, it's possible that Hawks might have wished someone else was directing). But he had such strong ideas about composition, technology and technique that he influenced most of the directors he worked with, meaning that no matter who's directing, you see Toland's own ideas turning up.

Are there other cinematographers whose style is so distinctive that their movies all contain similar shot setups, compositions, techniques, etc., regardless of the director? RKO's noir master Nick Musuraca comes to mind, but his style has more to do with lighting than actual shot setups; similarly, Sven Nykvist was one of the most famous cinematographers in the world, but his movies for other directors don't necessarily look the same as his movies for Ingmar B.

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