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Menzies, William Cameron (1896-1957)

Designer, Director, Script

Main image of Menzies, William Cameron (1896-1957)

William Cameron Menzies was born in New Haven, Connecticut on 29 July 1896 to Scots immigrant parents. He studied at Yale and the University of Edinburgh, and after serving in the US Army during World War I he attended the New York Art Student League, then joined Famous Players-Lasky (later to evolve into Paramount) working in special effects and design. He went independent in 1923 to work with prominent directors of the period such as Allan Dwan, Raoul Walsh and Fred Niblo, and soon made a name for himself as one of the most individual and gifted of cinematic designers. His status was confirmed at the first-ever Academy Awards ceremony, when he won Best Art Direction Oscar for The Dove (d. Roland West, 1927) and Tempest (d. Sam Taylor, 1928).

In 1931 Menzies took up direction, and made half-a-dozen pictures - but always as co-director. The art director Lyle Wheeler, who worked with him later at Fox, felt that Menzies was "no damn good as a director... He wanted to photograph ceilings and didn't give a damn what the actors were saying" (Frayling). His first solo directing commission came in 1935, when Alexander Korda invited him to Denham to direct the massively ambitious science fiction project Things to Come (1936).

The script was adapted from HG Wells's futuristic novel The Shape of Things to Come, and Korda had ill-advisedly given Wells control not only over the script but, as Raymond Massey noted, "he had contractually agreed to [Wells's] interference in every phase of the production, in the direction, design, cutting, even in the promotion of the finished picture" (Frayling). Korda, it seems, hoped that Menzies would make up for the novelist's lack of visual imagination.

In the event the easy-going Menzies found himself hamstrung and out of his depth. Wells took against him, describing him as "an incompetent director... a sort of Cecil B. de Mille without his imagination; his mind ran on loud machinery and crowd effects and he had no grasp of my ideas" (Frayling). Lacking experience with actors, Menzies could do little to help his cast with Wells's stiff, didactic dialogue, and the film is constantly toppled into pomposity by its script. Its strengths are almost entirely visual, for which Menzies can surely claim some input, although the shimmering Bauhaus-influenced sets were partly the work of the uncredited László Moholy-Nagy, and Korda's brother Vincent took final credit for set design.

Menzies directed one more film in Britain: The Green Cockatoo, a quota quickie thriller, with John Mills as a tap-dancing night-club owner, made for a Twentieth Century-Fox subsidiary in 1937. It featured some striking visual images, and Graham Greene's story, set against a background of racetrack racketeers, offers intriguing pre-echoes of Brighton Rock (which he published in 1938). But the producers were unhappy about Menzies' direction of the dialogue sequences and brought in another expatriate American director, William K Howard, to re-shoot scenes and supervise the re-editing.

Back in the USA, Menzies won an Oscar for art direction on Gone with the Wind (US, d. Victor Fleming, 1939) and directed a few more films, of which the best was the cold-war science-fiction allegory, Invaders from Mars (US, 1953). He died in Hollywood on 5 March 1957.

Albrecht, Donald, Designing Dreams: Modern Architecture in the Movies (London: Thames & Hudson, 1987)
Frayling, Christopher, Things to Come (London: BFI Publishing, 1995)
Neumann, Dietrich (ed.), Film Architecture: Set Designs from Metropolis to Blade Runner (Munich/New York: Prestel Verlag, 1996)

Philip Kemp, Reference Guide to British and Irish Film Directors

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Selected credits

Thumbnail image of Thief of Bagdad, The (1940)Thief of Bagdad, The (1940)

Michael Powell co-directed Korda's lavish Arabian Nights fantasy

Thumbnail image of Things to Come (1936)Things to Come (1936)

Britain's biggest sci-fi film of the 1930s, adapted from H.G.Wells

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