Bright Lights Film Journal

William Cameron Menzies and the Totalitarian Menace

Can a film’s designer be its effective auteur? He can, if his name is William Cameron Menzies.

Menzies is best known for directing and designing two classics of the science fiction/fantasy genre, his 1936 adaptation of H.G. Wells’ Things to Come (above) and his 1953 masterpiece of Childrens’ Expressionism,* Invaders From Mars (below right). However, Menzies can also be considered the auteur or co-auteur of a number of films on which he functioned primarily as art director or designer: the silent Thief of Baghdad (1924), Paramount’s 1933 Alice in Wonderland, and three films directed by Sam Wood – Our Town (1940), Kings Row (1942), and Ivy (1947). As Production Designer, he was responsible for the look of David O. Selznick’s 1939 Gone With the Wind (he also shot some of it). Even when collaborating with artists whose visual senses were as strong as director Anthony Mann’s or cinematographer John Alton’s on 1949’s Reign of Terror (aka The Black Book), Menzies’ angular forced perspectives dominate the proceedings.

Menzies, who 30 years ago didn’t even rate an entry in Andrew Sarris’s The American Cinema, has been enjoying something of a revival recently — at least, in the blogosphere. Dave Kehr wrote Menzies up at The New York Times while reviewing the DVDs of Alice in Wonderland and Reign of Terror.  David Cairns just posted a fine piece on Menzies’ 1944 anti-Nazi drama, Address Unknown . Best of all is this lengthy and wonderfully illustrated article by David Bordwell analyzing Menzies’ visual style.

Menzies’ visuals are so distinctively his that I am reminded of what Jean-Luc Godard once said contrasting Alfred Hitchcock and Roberto Rossellini: Re Rossellini, “Where there is that much content, there must be style,” and re Hitchcock, “Where there is that much style, there must be content.” So does Menzies have any consistent themes or content that are expressed through his visual style? At least one thread runs through almost all of Menzies’ work, and that is a protest against totalitarian uniformity. In that sense, he is the opposite of a Leni Riefenstahl whose Triumph of the Will and other films celebrated the visual patterns of groups subordinating their individualism to a uniform ideal. Of the films Menzies directed, the three most explicitly anti-totalitarian are Address Unknown, which is anti-Nazi, The Whip Hand (1951), which is anti-Communist, and Invaders From Mars, whose Martians are often read as stand-ins for the Red Menace. Framed as the nightmare of a child, Invaders From Mars reveals how deeply and primally the fear of totalitarian authority figured in Menzies’ artistic personality.  One of the most effective sequences inThings to Come shows a world that has devolved into barbarism and which is ruled by a Mussolini-like fascist called “The Boss” (one of Ralph Richardson’s best early roles), while later sequences highlight a fear of mobs. Reign of Terror, produced by Menzies, was about the totalitarian excesses of the French Revolution. The 1933 Alice in Wonderland, whose screenplay is partly credited to Menzies, was one long surrealistic protest against capricious authority.

Even his 1930 experimental short subject, The Wizard’s Apprentice (below), demonstrates Menzies’ animus toward the lockstep of totalitarian conformity. The menace in The Wizards’ Apprentice is a legion of animated whiskbrooms, one indistinguishable from the other, each one carrying buckets of water that lead eventually to an uncontrollable flood.  If these brooms and their water buckets look familiar, it’s no doubt because you’ve seen “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” segment of Walt Disney’s Fantasia which ripped off the entire concept.

*Childrens’ Expressionism flourishes today in the work of Tim Burton.