Sunday, January 31, 2010

Special Katie Award For Cinematography: Lee Garmes (Shanghai Express and Scarface)

I've mentioned before that this blog had its start in a project to choose alternate Oscars for every award category dating back to Oscar's beginning, a project that after seventeen years became more of a hindrance than a help to my understanding of movies and their history. Last March, I pared the list down to seven categories—picture, director, a single, combined screenplay award, and the four acting categories—and I've been writing essays about the winners ever since.

Lost in the shuffle though were some key figures in the making of films and their history—cinematographers, film editors and composers, among others. From time to time, I'll hand out special Katie Awards to rectify the oversight. Today, I want to mention Lee Garmes, who had a spectacular year in 1932, lighting and photographing two of the year's best movies, Shanghai Express and Scarface, as well as two Norma Shearer vehicles—Smilin' Through and Strange Interlude—and one of Clara Bow's last movies, arguably her best talkie, Call Her Savage.

Scarface you know about if you've been reading this blog. The most violent and stylish of the early gangster movies, Scarface also represented the most fluid and beautifully photographed of Howard Hawks's movies.

Shanghai Express was the fourth of the seven collaborations between actress Marlene Dietrich and director Josef von Sternberg, and like their other efforts, it too includes an exotic location, a woman with a past, a tortured romance and just enough violence to whet the appetite. In this case, the exotic location is China during the early days of its civil war, the fallen woman is a high-priced courtesan named Shanghai Lily, the tortured romance involves a British doctor who left Lily years before when he mistakenly thought she was cheating on him, and the violence comes at the hands of Warner Oland made up to look like the leader of one of the warring factions.

In one sense, the movie is a meditation on the idea that love without faith isn't love at all, just animal instinct; but in fact Shanghai Express—like all the Dietrich-von Sternberg collaborations—is really a meditation on Marlene Dietrich's cheekbones. And indispensable to this rite was the camerawork of Lee Garmes.

Indeed, figuring out how to light Marlene Dietrich—putting the key light above and forward of her for her first Hollywood movie, Morocco, to hollow out her cheekbones and narrow her nose—might have been the most significant lighting choice of Garmes's career. Certainly it had a profound impact on Dietrich's, defining her look so successfully, she insisted on the lighting technique for the rest of her career.

In terms of composition, Garmes preferred deep shadows with highlights on the scene's key elements, and like the painters who influenced him, he like a soft, indirect "northern" light, which gave what others have called a "painterly" effect. He developed his techniques and preferences while working on comedy shorts during the silent era—the productions were so cheap, Garmes couldn't afford lights and shot the films outside, using reflectors to angle the sunlight.

In addition to Scarface and Dietrich's early Hollywood movies, Garmes was also the cinematographer on such films as Nightmare Alley, The Portrait of Jennie, Detective Story and The Desperate Hours. He was nominated for four Oscars and won a well-deserved one for Shanghai Express in 1932. He was also president of the American Society of Cinematographers from 1960 to 1961.

Perhaps the most cele- brated movie he ever worked on was the one he didn't receive credit for. Garmes began as the cinematographer on Gone With The Wind, photographing the burning of Atlanta scene and the scenes directed by George Cukor. He was replaced, however, when Victor Fleming took over the troubled project. Fleming typically liked a sharp, picture-postcard look to his movies; Garmes's soft pastels didn't fit the bill.

And who would have won the Katie Awards for cinematography in previous years?

1927-28: Charles Rosher and Karl Struss (Sunrise: A Song Of Two Humans)
1928-29: John Arnold (The Wind)
1929-30: Arthur Edeson (All Quiet On The Western Front)
1930-31: Fritz Arno Wagner (M)

I leave it up to you to fill in their biographies. But each now sports a Katie Award for the mantlepiece. Congratulations, fellas.

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