Steve Gainer, ASC, ASK pursued his own “Rosebud” to find and restore the historic Mitchell BNC camera that Gregg Toland, ASC used to shoot Citizen Kane.
Images courtesy of Steve Gainer, ASC, ASK and the AC archives. Photo of Gainer by Sam Urdank.
Laying the foundation for a mystery that would unfold over more than two decades, Steve Gainer, ASC, ASK began collecting antique movie equipment in the early 1990s. In the years since, he’s come to serve as the longtime curator of the ASC Museum, and he’s found, identified and restored many a cinema camera from around the world and throughout the history of motion pictures. In that time, however, one particular camera has always been on his mind: the Mitchell BNC with serial number 2, the camera that legendary cinematographer Gregg Toland, ASC had used to shoot Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane and other classic films.
Gainer’s association with the ASC Museum began in 1996, when he found out that a trove of cameras, lenses and other equipment was sitting unkempt in the ASC Clubhouse. He jumped at the opportunity to assist the Society, undertaking what he foresaw as a six-month project to get the collection in order.
“It was a tinge of Indiana Jones, you know?” Gainer reflects with a laugh while speaking to AC from New Orleans, where he’s in production on the Netflix project The Last Laugh, starring Richard Dreyfuss, Chevy Chase and Andie MacDowell. “It was exciting — but it was also demoralizing at the same time because there were so many things to photograph, and to barcode, and to give a serial number to. Before I started there, the cameras were in old pawnshop cases, like the ones you’d see at Salvation Army. And all the labels were on the wrong cameras!”
That only accounted for what was on display inside the Clubhouse. “Under the building, there were dozens of hand-crank cameras just sitting on the ground,” Gainer continues. “It was unbelievable. Astonishingly, thanks to the arid climate — and the fact that under the house, in that section, it had apparently never flooded — none of the cameras were harmed. As far as I know, they’d been under the Clubhouse for 40 years — at least!”
In the course of working with the collection, Gainer identified historic models such as Edward H. Amet’s Audo-Moto-Photo from 1911; the camera-and-projector system also incorporated a phonograph recorder, making it one of the first “sound” cameras. There was also a camera that had been used by cinematographer G.W. “Billy” Bitzer on D.W. Griffith’s silent features The Birth of a Nation and Intolerance.
Having made such discoveries, Gainer decided to donate his own collection to the ASC. Further, even though he was not a member and was, in fact, just beginning his own career behind the camera, he volunteered to curate the Society’s collection.
The ASC Museum was established in 1953 by Arthur C. Miller, ASC, who also served as its first curator ahead of his run as ASC president from 1954-’56. Miller’s career behind the camera brought him three Oscars for cinematography — for the features How Green Was My Valley, The Song of Bernadette and Anna and the King of Siam — and his own 1912 35mm Pathé Studio camera was just donated to the ASC Museum this past May. [Ed. note: Read how Gainer came to accept that camera from Jim Mitchell.]
Following Miller, Charles G. Clarke, ASC took over curatorial duties, eventually handing the reins to fellow Society member Kemp Niver. “All of us, bar none, have been working cinematographers,” Gainer stresses, acknowledging that this is why the Museum’s collection hasn’t always been afforded as much attention as one might hope. For the last five years or so, Gainer’s busy shooting schedule has often kept him out of town and away from the Clubhouse. “It makes it difficult to donate a lot of your life to it,” he says. “You rely on the help of other people. One of the people who has helped me the most is [AC circulation manager and jack-of-all-trades] Alex Lopez. He’s learned a lot about the collection, and he’s responsible for everything when I’m not there.”
Beyond Miller’s Pathé camera, the Museum has received a number of significant donations of late. In May, Red Digital Cinema founder and ASC associate Jim Jannard bequeathed his Mitchell Standard 35mm camera with serial number 5; that camera was originally owned by George S. Barnes, ASC. [Ed note: That story can be read here.] Donations have also funded museum-quality cabinets to properly display curated selections from the overall collection; those cabinets are currently being customized for the ASC by the same company that has made such cases for the Getty Museum.
Throughout all of this, Gainer always kept an eye out for any hint regarding Toland’s famous Mitchell BNC. His quest involved poring over old records and receipts in an effort to trace the path of the camera that had been so instrumental in the annals of Hollywood moviemaking. “I knew from the Mitchell records that BNC cameras Number 1 and Number 2 had been sold to Samuel Goldwyn,” Gainer recounts. “Number 1 was kind of a homemade-looking job, but Number 2 was the first camera that actually looked like a Mitchell BNC.
“Goldwyn’s favorite cameraman was Gregg Toland — followed closely by George Barnes,” Gainer adds. That close relationship meant that Toland was frequently able to work with Goldwyn’s Mitchell No. 2.
Gainer would often mention the camera to his friends and colleagues in the industry. Ultimately, it was one of those friends — Sol Negrin, ASC — who had a kernel of information about the camera. “It had belonged to a gentleman named J. Burgi Contner [ASC],” Gainer says. “He was a cinematographer, and he owned a rental company, too.”
Negrin, who passed away in March, worked as a camera operator on a number of series that Contner photographed, including Naked City, The Defenders and Car 54, Where Are You? “Sol told me that he had used the camera,” Gainer marvels. “Sol had even operated on the original Kojak with it!”
Another conversation — this time with Roy H. Wagner, ASC — brought to light that Contner’s son, television director James A. Contner, still owned the camera. Introductions were made, arrangements were discussed, and the younger Contner eventually donated the camera to the ASC Museum. “The donation was entirely arranged by Roy,” Gainer emphasizes, with obvious gratitude for his fellow ASC member’s efforts.
The camera was in good condition but — unsurprisingly, given its long career in feature films and television — it had undergone several modifications since Goldwyn had first purchased it from the Mitchell Camera Corp. “At some point it had been painted kind of a marble-blue color by a rental house,” Gainer details. “The camera had originally been Mitchell’s black ‘crinkle’ color. Also, it had been reflexed. The Mitchell was originally just a BNC camera, not a BNC-R. Someone had put a pellicle mirror in the viewing system, which allows you to look through the lens when you’re shooting — which is obviously very helpful to the operator, but it’s not original.”
In restoring the camera to its factory form, Gainer found that matching the crinkle finish was among the most difficult aspects. He chipped the blue paint from the camera, but then found that most companies had stopped making crinkle black paint due to the carcinogens that were used to produce the texture.
Gainer tried several similar-looking coatings intended for motorcycle parts, but found that the finish didn’t settle correctly on the camera. “After I had tried and failed, and stripped the camera again, I had someone else try — and we had to strip it again,” he says. “It was redone about three or four times until we hit a finish that looked very close to the original Mitchell crinkle. I think anyone who hadn’t spent time with their head crammed up against an original Mitchell would never be able to tell the difference.
“In the midst of all of this,” Gainer adds, “I had Ken Stone, from Stone Cinema Engineering in Frazier Park, California, ‘un-reflex’ the camera.”
Over the years, Gainer has supervised and personally performed restorations on a number of pieces in the ASC Museum’s collection, even going so far as to burnish metal at aircraft plants for the sake of authenticity. Keeping the Toland camera restoration largely under wraps, he took his time to ensure that Mitchell No. 2 would once again be true to its original specs. “As it stands now, the camera looks absolutely perfect,” he enthuses. “It is a gorgeous camera — and a striking early example of the Mitchell BNCs.
“It’s also so historic,” Gainer continues. “Gregg Toland used it on Citizen Kane. He used it on The Grapes of Wrath. He used it on The Best Years of Our Lives. I mean, the camera was a hot rod!”
Toland had photographed nearly 70 features by the time he passed away in 1948 at the age of 44. He won an Oscar for his work on Wuthering Heights and was nominated five other times, for Les Misérables, Dead End, Intermezzo: A Love Story, The Long Voyage Home and Citizen Kane.
Complementing his work as a cinematographer, Toland was also a considerable engineer as well as an early adopter of new tools and techniques. For example, he employed the latest in filmmaking technologies, including the Vard “Opticoat” non-glare lens coating, which increased the lens speed and helped enable the extreme depth of field that Citizen Kane required. Toward the same end, he used Eastman Super-XX high-speed emulsion so that he could stop down even further. Toland had given Kodak his feedback on that stock prior to its release in 1938.
Welles had a sincere appreciation for the contributions that Toland brought to Citizen Kane, going so far as to share the screen for their credits on the film. Throughout his life, the multi-hyphenate filmmaker referred to Toland as the best and fastest cameraman with whom he had ever worked.
“It’s a treasure for the ASC to have this camera,” says Gainer, his decades-long quest at last happily resolved. “I think it’s going to enrich the lives of everyone who gets to see it. When you stand next to it, and you realize that Orson Welles stood with it and Gregg Toland stood with it, it becomes a profound experience.”
Below are a few images of the camera in its restored glory, as seen in the ASC Presidents office:
Further documentation on this exception piece of film history is being prepared with the help of Roy H. Wagner, ASC for a follow-up piece that will be posted soon. Mitchell No. 2 will soon be on public display at the ASC Clubhouse. You’ll learn much more about Toland in this additional profile piece.