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.
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 Wind (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.