Author James Curtis starts his new book William Cameron Menzies: The Shape Of Films To Come by describing one of the most memorable scenes in film history: the “burning of Atlanta” in Gone With the Wind. The scene was staged but the fire was real; the soon-to-be discarded movie sets of King Kong and King of Kings were dressed up like Civil War-era Atlanta and burned to the ground. It was the first time that a scene like that had been done in real life (rather than in miniature), and every last detail of the set–from the rust on the cars to an intricate network of pipes that could fuel and dampen the flames–was meticulously thought out for the most realistic effect possible.
For this scene and many other classic Hollywood moments we have Bill Menzies to thank. The first designer to extend his artistic sensibilities outside set design–he was well-known for creating an overall mood for the films he worked on–Menzies was a pioneering film director, art director, and production designer (a position he coined).
“Trained as an illustrator rather than an architect, he created a fantasy world that was integral to the action and not merely a backdrop. He gave the film size, and with it came a sense of wonderment,” Curtis writes in the book’s introduction. “He brought the illustrator’s eye to the camera and graphic validity to an art form that was all too often theatrical rather than cinematic.”
His technique was to sketch out every shot in the movie before filming, which allowed him to create a distinct overall tone and mood to the film, while also giving him more control over the entire production than a typical set designer. He also often constructed his set visualizations in miniature so as to attain the same quality of illustration on-screen as they had on paper.
Menzies first came on the Hollywood scene with the 1923 original The Thief of Bagdad. “Design influenced every aspect of the film–acting, writing, direction, cinematography,” Curtis writes. The clean lines and simplicity of the sets were a perfect contrast to the ornamental Arabian costumes. The sets were even designed to facilitate the famous stunts of Douglas Fairbanks, playing the part of the thief, Ahmed–Menzies would map out the distances of his jumps and leaps so that they would appear effortless on camera.
He went on to design for a slew of other directors (Alfred Hitchcock, Anthony Mann, Sam Wood) and even directed his own films, the most famous of which were an adaptation of H.G. Wells’s Things To Come and Invaders To Mars), but he’s still best remembered for his design of Gone With The Wind. Menzies bold visual style helped give continuity to the film, which went through three directors over the course of filming. He was awarded the first Oscar ever given for art direction–for “use of color for the enhancement of dramatic mood”–thereby paving the road for a more holistic view of art direction and production design.
William Cameron Menzies: The Shape Of Films To Come by James Curtis is out from Pantheon this month. Curtis will also introduce the films in Film Forum’s two-week festival dedicated to William Cameron Menzies, which opens November 27.