At Last: A Biography of William Cameron Menzies

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.

William Cameron Menzies-Son of Shiek

Son of the Sheik (Pantheon)

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.

Things to Come-Wiliam Cameron Menzies

Things to Come (Pantheon)

         Director Sam Wood went so far as to hire Menzies as his principal collaborator, allowing him full control over the look of such films as Our Town, Kings Row, The Pride of the Yankees, and For Whom the Bell Tolls. Others would call him in for consultations or fix-up jobs, for which he often received no credit.
Thief of Bagdad-William Cameron Menzies

The Thief of Bagdad (Pantheon)

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.

William Cameron Menzies

William Cameron Menzies Publicity Still (Pantheon)

I’ve known that Curtis has been working on this book for quite some time and have eagerly awaited its publication. (I’m sorry it’s taken me this long to review it…but it lives up to, and even exceeds, my expectations. William Cameron Menzies: The Shape of Films to Come is an essential addition to any film library and a great read. Bravo!

Leonard Maltin is one of the world’s most respected film critics and historians. He is best known for his widely-used reference work Leonard Maltin’s Movie Guide and its companion volume Leonard Maltin’s Classic Movie Guide, now in its third edition, as well as his thirty-year run on television’s Entertainment Tonight. He teaches at the USC School of Cinematic Arts and appears regularly on Reelz Channel and Turner Classic Movies. His books include The 151 Best Movies You’ve Never Seen, Of Mice and Magic: A History of American Animated Cartoons, The Great Movie Comedians, The Disney Films, The Art of the Cinematographer, Movie Comedy Teams, The Great American Broadcast, and Leonard Maltin’s Movie Encyclopedia. He served two terms as President of the Los Angeles Film Critics Association, is a voting member of the National Film Registry, and was appointed by the Librarian of Congress to sit on the Board of Directors of the National Film Preservation Foundation. He hosted and co-produced the popular Walt Disney Treasures DVD series and has appeared on innumerable television programs and documentaries. He has been the recipient of awards from the American Society of Cinematographers, the Telluride Film Festival, Anthology Film Archives, and San Diego’s Comic-Con International. Perhaps the pinnacle of his career was his appearance in a now-classic episode of South Park. (Or was it Carmela consulting his Movie Guide on an episode of The Sopranos?) He holds court at Follow him on Twitter and Facebook; you can also listen to him on his weekly podcast: Maltin on Movies. — [Artwork by Drew Friedman]

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June 2024