Uncle Bardie’s Spotlight Creator: Gregg Toland, Cinematographer

Once a week on Friday, Uncle Bardie celebrates the creativity in others by shining a Spotlight on a movie, a song or a creator. This week’s Spotlight Creator is the Cinematographer Gregg Toland:

Orson Welles was not one to share credit. But he shared end credit with the cinematographer, Gregg Toland, on “Citizen Kane”. It was his only way of expressing the important contribution Toland had made to the film.

Last year I spent some time studying “Citizen Kane” to figure out why it is still considered, if not the greatest film of all time, one of the greatest. In addition to the sound achievement by Welles and his team, Gregg Toland did things in that film that makes the film so important, things like deep focus and transitions.

I’ve always watched movies for the story. Studying “Citizen Kane” the way I did, listening to critic Roger Ebert’s commentary, made me realize that the film medium is indeed the cameraman’s medium. No director, no actor, no set designer, no producer has more impact on this visual medium than the director of photography. Now I watch movies I like, trying to get at what the cinematographer did to impact the story. It has impacted not only my viewing pleasure but the way I look at story. Gregg Toland taught me that.

Gregg Toland and the Tools of Immersion.

Nominated for six Oscars, he won once for “Wuthering Heights”. In addition to “Citizen Kane”, he was the cameraman for sixty-six films. These included “The Long Voyage Home”, “The Grapes of Wrath”, “The Bishop’s Wife” and “The Best Years of Our Lives”. Unfortunately, he died at the young age of forty-four in 1948. What a loss.

Movie of the Week: Orson Welles & Citizen Kane

 

In a day and an age when Hollywood had so many boy wonders, Orson Welles was advertised as the greatest boy wonder of them all. When Welles went off to Hollywood, it was like Moses parting the Red Sea. He was going to lead RKO to the Promised Land of Major Studiodom. He was going to save the studio single-handedly.

Many great men, even artists, are full of themselves, and none were more full of themselves than Orson Welles. He fought the critics in the New York City theater world and won. He scared the bejesus out of the country with his radio presentation of “War of the Worlds”, creating a panic. Now he was off to Hollywood to save it with that boy wonder charm of his.

They said his movie was the story of William Randolph Hearst. But from Rosebud to Rosebud, it is Welles we are seeing on the screen, not William Randolph Hearst. Orson was William Randolph Hearst and John Foster Kane all rolled into an Ayn Rand sized ego. If truth be told, Orson Welles was right. “Citizen Kane” was not about William Randolph Hearst. It was as much about Orson Welles as it was about anybody else.

At least the early part. Both Charles Foster Kane and Orson Welles were orphans. Welles lost his parents at a young age; Kane was taken away from his parents when he was a boy.

Then Hearst’s story, you know the newspaper part, took over the movie. At least, that was what everybody ran with. Like Hearst, Kane took on a younger woman as his mistress. Soon Kane’s reputation was falling faster than an apple dropping off the branch of a tree. Until at the end, Kane, like Hearst, lost much of the power and the glory of his earlier years. But who is to say this wasn’t Welles doing his own prophecy? How his fall would be as great as his rise.

In all of this, I am reminded of Ayn Rand’s John Galt. “If they’d only do it my way.” Though Welles created a great film, he didn’t mind what bodies he stepped on to get where he was going and make the suckers stand up and cheer him on along the way. No matter who it hurt Welles was doing this for the sake of his art. Sacrifice was the price you had to pay. Especially if it was somebody else doing the sacrifice. Marion Davies’ reputation for one.

We all say, “What could have been, what would have been, if only.” The thing is “if only” was never possible. Welles with that oversized ego of his was bound and determined not to allow any “if only” to come between him and his ego. Talk about selfies. Orwell had the first.