- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 20, 2004

Accomplished cinematographers, who supervise lighting schemes and camera crews on motion pictures, have been a mainstay of the American film industry since it became decisively professionalized, by the conclusion of World War I. Many influential cinematographers have also remained active well beyond conventional retirement ages.

One who didn’t, alas, was Gregg Toland, whose centennial can be marked this weekend at the American Film Institute’s National Theater at the Kennedy Center. “The Best Years of Our Lives,” the last of six movies Mr. Toland made in collaboration with director William Wyler, is being revived tonight and tomorrow afternoon.

Born May 29, 1904 in Charleston, Ill., Mr. Toland died of a coronary thrombosis in Hollywood on Sept. 26, 1948. This premature passing denied us anything but speculation about how his work might have evolved.

Mr. Toland, notoriously restless, inventive and a perfectionist about photographic resources, would not have responded passively to such challenges as color and the widescreen. Early in a prolonged career at the Samuel Goldwyn studio, he worked on a two-strip Technicolor musical starring Eddie Cantor, “Whoopee!” In the final years of his life Mr. Toland shot the live-action scenes in Walt Disney’s “Song of the South” and rejoined director Howard Hawks for a color remake of their 1941 romantic comedy “Ball of Fire,” revamped for Danny Kaye under the title, “A Song Is Born.”

But death precluded a systematic exploitation of vintage Technicolor by the Gregg Toland crew. Not that they lacked practice with the appropriate lights. The so-called broadside arcs invented to provide more illumination for color-film exposure also permitted Mr. Toland to sharpen the focus in the deepest backgrounds of such classic black-and-white productions as Orson Welles’ “Citizen Kane” and Mr. Wyler’s film version of “The Little Foxes,” both released in 1941.

Perhaps nothing in the grammar of filmmaking is more closely associated with Gregg Toland than deep-focus composition, a boon to sustained scene-playing and alert, literally farsighted observation. This style of presentation, encouraged by such directors as Mr. Welles, Mr. Wyler, Mr. Hawks and John Ford, aimed to keep everything in the picture frame sharply focused, from foreground to background, with performers cleverly and geometrically balanced in at least three planes of the image, often moving from one plane to another while exchanging lines. Everyone who loves sustained takes is drawn to deep-focus cinematography, sooner or later.

Given his preference for enlarging and sharpening the field of observation, it’s likely that Gregg Toland would have been intrigued by the expanding picture frame that emerged in the early 1950s, after the success of “This Is Cinerama” and “The Robe.” He might have cringed at the wobbly, blurry defects in anamorphic lenses at the outset, but it wouldn’t have taken him long to lobby for the sharpest focus feasible. It’s a pity that there isn’t at least one example of how Mr. Toland would have manipulated the format.

Mr. Toland was first employed in the film industry at age 15. Hired as an office boy, he became a camera assistant and rose swiftly through the ranks. By 1926, he was the assistant to the esteemed George Barnes, principal cinematographer at the Goldwyn studio.

Mr. Toland assumed his own crew with another Cantor musical, “Palmy Days,” in 1931. Soon, he enjoyed a creative autonomy on the Goldwyn lot that was rare in the industry. When he departed to shoot “Citizen Kane” at RKO from June to October, 1940, Mr. Toland took not only his crew but also a storehouse of equipment that he had spent the better part of a decade refining and customizing.

The principal tools of the mission to help Mr. Welles take the industry by storm: a Mitchell BNC camera, substantially lighter and more flexible than the studio machines of the 1930s; a fast new Eastman Kodak stock called Super XX; and a 24mm wide-angle lens, streamlined for aperture reductions that allowed the Toland crew to redefine suitable f-stops.

Despite a taste for exquisite imagery, Mr. Toland also enjoyed an enviable reputation as one of the fastest workers in the business. His most impressive contributions belong to the years 1939-1941. This period encompasses “Wuthering Heights,” the only movie that won him the Academy Award for cinematography, plus “The Westerner,” “The Grapes of Wrath,” “The Long Voyage Home,” “Citizen Kane” and “The Little Foxes.”

The latter four seem to announce their intention of being exceptional-looking movies from the outset. In the supremely playful and deceptive case of “Kane,” still a secure No. 1 in polls of the greatest movies ever made, the cinematographer and director delight in pictorial virtuosity, exposing the spectator to an abundance of shifting perspectives and camera tricks before settling into a methodical, flashback narrative.

“The Best Years of Our Lives” was a reunion project for Gregg Toland and William Wyler under Goldwyn auspices in the aftermath of their World War II documentary work. It became the period’s unrivaled homecoming classic after dominating the Academy Awards of 1946. Incredibly, Mr. Toland wasn’t a nominee. Some bizarre economy move reduced the finalists in all craft categories for the calendar years of 1946 and 1947. There were only two nominees for black-and-white cinematography, and Mr. Toland failed to make the cut.

Although it doesn’t begin on dynamically pictorial notes, “Best Years” is clearly a masterful example of disarming, quietly naturalistic deep-focus presentation by the time we’re introduced to the principal characters, returning veterans played by Fredric March, Dana Andrews and Harold Russell. They’re arranged in loosely triangular positions in the nose of a bomber as it flies toward their hometown, Boone City, over presumably Midwest landscapes. This prelude creates an expectant intimacy with the actors while projecting the apprehensions of the characters into the country at large.

The pattern persists eloquently throughout the movie: Encounters in the foreground pointing toward crises or reconciliations in the background. Whether showing off or underplaying his photographic prowess, Gregg Toland gave Hollywood’s best directors an invaluable expressive asset.

EVENT: Revivals of William Wyler’s “The Best Years of Our Lives” (1946), with cinematography by Gregg Toland, part of an American Film Institute Theater retrospective, “America Celebrates the Greatest Generation”

WHERE: AFI National Theater at Kennedy Center. Additional selections in the series continue through June 13 at both the Kennedy Center and the AFI Silver Theatre, 8633 Colesville Road in Silver Spring

WHEN: Tonight at 7:30; tomorrow at 2 p.m.

TICKETS: $8.50 for the general public; $7.50 for AFI members, students and seniors (65 and over)

PHONE: At the Kennedy Center, 202/795-4600; at the AFI Silver, 301/496-6700

Copyright © 2018 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

The Washington Times Comment Policy

The Washington Times welcomes your comments on Spot.im, our third-party provider. Please read our Comment Policy before commenting.


Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide