IMAGE MAKERS: THE ADVENTURES OF AMERICA'S PIONEER CINEMATOGRAPHERS (2019) B/W & C 91m dir: Daniel Raim
w/John Bailey, Kevin Brownlow, Steve Gainer, Leonard Maltin, Michael McKean, Rachel Morrison, Matt Severson, George Spiro Dibie, Lothian Toland, David Totheroh
From the San Francisco Chronicle website, datebook.sfchronicle.com, this article about the film by G. Allen Johnson: "When Charlie Chaplin set about to revolutionize cinematic storytelling with his blend of athleticism and precisely choreographed physical comedy, he turned to a San Francisco-born former baseball player.
"To create the luminescent, exotic allure for the sexiest movie star in the world, Greta Garbo demanded that a young man from Cleveland make it happen.
"Those are among the stories in Daniel Raim’s absorbing treat for classic film buffs, Image Makers: The Adventures of America’s Pioneer Cinematographers, a documentary that premieres just in time for the 100th anniversary of the American Society of Cinematographers on Turner Classic Movies on Wednesday, Nov. 6.
"The film, written by former San Francisco Examiner film critic Michael Sragow, traces the creation of a new language — the language of cinema — by pioneers whose influence endures to this day. Raim and Sragow focus mainly on Billy Bitzer, D.W. Griffith’s master cinematographer on Intolerance and many other classics; Rollie Totheroh, whose understanding of teamwork and athletics made him indispensable to Chaplin; Charles Rosher and William Daniels, the personal cameramen for Mary Pickford and Garbo, respectively; German-American expressionist Karl Struss; and groundbreaking artists James Wong Howe and Gregg Toland (Citizen Kane).
"We hear from the subjects themselves. Raim (Harold and Lillian: A Hollywood Love Story) and Sragow had access to the ASC’s archives, which included an extensive audio project undertaken in the 1960s to interview cinematography pioneers before they passed away.
“'There was an intensity to the older movies that were so well thought out in visual terms — certainly for the silent films,' said Sragow, who was the lead critic for the Hearst-owned Examiner in the 1980s and early ’90s. 'These were milestone cinematographers individually who also helped us tell the growth of American cinematography from the very beginning to Citizen Kane.’
"Adding to the discussion are current cinematographers such as Rachel Morrison, the first woman nominated for best cinematography (Mudbound); John Bailey (Ordinary People, The Big Chill) and historians such as Kevin Brownlow and Leonard Maltin.
"Totheroh was playing for the San Rafael Colts semipro baseball team when he was discovered by 'Broncho Billy' Anderson, the movies’ first Western star, and put to work at Anderson’s Essanay Studios in Niles Canyon. But Totheroh, who was hired to play on the company baseball team, was worthless as an extra, unable to hit his mark in a timely fashion and was clueless about continuity. But when he picked up a camera, he was a natural.
"In 1914, Totheroh was sent to the Hayward train station to pick up Essanay’s newest star. It was, of course, Chaplin, and the two hit it off. Soon, Totheroh was Chaplin’s personal cameraman, because he was able to keep up with Chaplin’s complicated and fast-moving blocking and provide perfect framing.
"Playing baseball, Sragow said, 'was probably the best preparation for being Charlie Chaplin’s long-term collaborator because Rollie was a team player. Charlie really set all the goals and practices of the team. He was a very idiosyncratic filmmaker, developing his features improvisationally. He needed someone of Rollie’s temperament. And Rollie was very inventive and had a great eye.'
"Since the idea of films was relatively new, so was the job description of a director of photography. Totheroh wasn’t the only DP who took an unconventional path to the movies.
“'It’s really amazing the different roads these guys took to get in the industry,' Sragow said. 'Billy Bitzer was a silversmith. … James Wong Howe was a great story of American immigration. He came to America at age 5 from China and he’s a tough, smart, talented guy who withstands all the racial prejudice of the time.'
"Sragow said he hopes Image Makers gives people an added visual awareness and appreciation of the photography, composition and movement of great filmmaking.
"And, even not-so-great filmmaking.
“'You can watch a pretty mediocre horror film like ‘Mark of the Vampire’ — not one of (director) Tod Browning’s best,' Sragow laughed, 'and you can just see it for the texture that James Wong Howe brings to the cinematography.'”