Tuesday, September 16, 2008

A Picture is Worth….

What do the 10 films on the following list have in common?

1. Back to God’s Country (1919)
2. The Grub-Stake (1923)
3. American Madness (1932)

4. It Happened One Night (1934)

5. Mr Dee
ds Goes to Town (1936)
6. Theodora Goes Wild (1936)

7. The Awful Truth (1937)
8. You Can’t Take it With You (1938)

9. Mr Smith Goes to Washington (1939)

10. It’s a Wonderful Life (1946)

Well, if I had to compile a “desert island” film list, this would work. Of course, there’s a lot of Capra here, but also films by Shipman & McCarey; there’s Cary Grant & Irene Dunn & Clark Gable & Jean Arthur & Jimmy Stewart & Claudette Colbert & Lionel Barrymore & more—certainly no one actor or actress appears in all these films; & the films are a mix of screwball comedies & melodramas. The one constant factor in all 10 of these movies (&, according to the IMDB page, over 130 others) is the cinematographer, Joseph Walker.

Walker’s career started in the silent era, when the “picture” was nearly everything. A westerner (born in 1892 in Colorado), Walker certainly seemed capable of undergoing the rigors of location shooting—a large segment of Shipman’s Back to God’s Country was shot near the Arctic Circle, & some of her film The Grub-Stake was shot in wintry conditions at Priest Lake, ID. According to the IMDB, Walker’s career began in 1919 with Back to God’s Country; however, a very informative page from filmreference.com points out that he’d done newsreel work prior to this. He had a background in electronics, & was responsible for a number of inventions & innovations throughout his career.

Walker worked for Columbia pictures from 1927 until his retirement in 1952. He was nominated for four Academy Awards: You Can’t Take it With You (1938); Only Angels Have Wings (1939); Here Comes Mr. Jordan (1941); & The Jolson Story (1946). In 1981 he won the first Gordon E. Sawyer award honoring “an individual in the motion picture industry whose technological contributions have brought credit to the industry.

Obviously, the images are the crucial thing for us when we watch the films he shot. All the Walker films I’ve seen have an aura—lighting, for one thing, but also an ability to capture a landscape, not necessarily in the sense of landscape portraiture (though he certainly could do this in the Shipman films or Capra’s Lost Horizon (1937), but rather a way of creating an environment & rendering it as mythic—this seems particularly true in the Capra movies, in which the images accumulate into an American mythos—not a “real” picture of America in the 30’s & 40’s, but the most real picture of the mythic “America” as it existed then. A shot of a newsboy holding up a headline; a shot of Jean Arthur in the Congressional gallery; Gable & Colbert in the half light on a bus; the images of ban
ks in both American Madness & It’s a Wonderful Life—these images & so many others define an unreal, but “true” vision of the U.S. in the Depression & afterwards. Of course, something similar is true of his work with Shipman—Shipman’s vision of an untamed & idealized wilderness—“God’s Country”—as well as the harsh aspects of both nature & man’s cruel frontier outposts in it—also are brought to a vivid & sometimes majestic life by Walker’s camera work.

Walker died in 1985 in Las Vegas, NV.

The pic up top shows Bert Van Tuyle, Nell Shipman & Joseph Walker at Priest Lake during the 20’s (I-r; I don’t know the identity of the man furthest to the right)

The lower pic is Jimmy Stewart & Donna Reed through a car’s rear window in the rain from (of course) “It’s a Wonderful Life”

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