Arthur C. Miller: Early Cinematography Pioneer & ASC President

A portion of the wall of portraits of ASC presidents.
A portion of the wall of portraits of ASC presidents.

The wall just inside the ASC boardroom is covered with photos of the organization's current and past presidents. All are mounted on similar wooden plaques, bordered in gold, with the year(s) of service written below. There have been about 40, all of them (not surprisingly) men; some served a single-year term, and others, such as John Arnold and Richard Crudo, not only served multi-year terms, but were re-elected after an interval.

The most notable hiatus was that of Hal Mohr, who served from 1930-31 and then was re-elected in 1963-65. Some of the names are cinematographers who are nearly lost in history; others are much lauded today, recipients of multiple Academy Awards. Leading the pack in the Oscar category is Leon Shamroy, president in 1947-48, a recipient of four Oscars. Just behind him is Arthur C. Miller, awarded three of the statuettes.

Miller’s term as ASC president was from 1954-56, several years after Joseph Losey’s dark thriller The Prowler proved to be his last job in the industry.

Low-budget film noir was not the usual fare for Miller, though he had photographed Whirlpool a few years earlier for Otto Preminger. After The Prowler, Miller was preparing to work in Africa with John Huston on The African Queen when, while taking a series of inoculations against tropical diseases, he discovered he had contracted tuberculosis in his right lung. He decided to withdraw from the production, and the great Technicolor cinematographer Jack Cardiff replaced him. Miller’s unrealized collaboration with Huston remains one of those cinematic “what ifs.”

Miller was born in Roslyn, Long Island, on July 8, 1895. He died in Hollywood five days after his 75th birthday, on July 13, 1970. The doctor who advised him to retire when he came down with tuberculosis said he’d live longer if he did so. The doctor was right; Miller lived another 20 years, and though he did not photograph any more feature films, he remained active in the industry, serving two terms as ASC president, producing the documentary The Moving Picture Camera and creating an exhibit of vintage motion-picture cameras at the ASC Clubhouse. Most notably, he co-authored with director/cinematographer Fred Balshofer, his silent-film mentor, a remarkable memoir about the early decades of filmmaking in New York City, Fort Lee, N.J., and Hollywood. Titled One Reel A Week, it has remained in print since its publication in 1967.

Miller and Balshofer use 15 of the book’s 16 chapters to discuss early days of filmmaking. They offer compelling insight into the origins of American cinema, reserving a scant dozen pages to the films for which Miller is best known, including his three Oscar-winning pictures, How Green Was My Valley, The Song of Bernadette and Anna and the King of Siam.

IMDb lists 146 titles for Miller, with the first being the 1909 one-reeler Romance of a Fishermaid, co-directed and co-photographed by Balshofer. However, in his papers, which are part of the ASC Collection at the Academy’s Herrick Library, Miller wrote that his debut was the one-reeler A Heroine of ’76, released on Feb. 22, 1910, and starring Lois Weber, who went on to become the first major American woman director. Miller recalled in a September 1962 interview that his first employment was for the Crescent Film Co. (later to become the New York Motion Picture Co.), and that “our studio was in the corner of an open beer garden on Prospect Avenue in South Brooklyn.”

Arthur Miller on the Pathé stage.
Arthur Miller on the Pathé stage.

Miller recalled that in 1906, when he was barely 10 years old, he was taking his Brownie #1 camera to the local photo shop to have a roll of film developed where he met a fellow named “Teddy,” who guided him to the washroom of a nearby tenement building and showed him how to develop his film in a bathtub. Miller noted, “Even today, when I smell the fragrance of a processing lab, my memory raches [sic] back to that day.”

In 1914, at age 19, Miller photographed the landmark serial starring Pearl White, The Perils of Pauline.

Filming The Perils of Pauline in the Jersey Palisades.
Miller (at camera) at work with Pearl White in the Jersey Palisades.

It was followed by several other White serials, notably The House of Hate (1918), directed by George Seitz.

Here is episode 1, featuring an eerie contemporary score by Kevin McLeod:

During the silent-movie era, Miller photographed 33 films for director George Fitzmaurice, a congenial collaboration that gave him great freedom. Miller had come to Hollywood with Fitzmaurice in 1918; they later returned to Manhattan, continuing their collaboration for Famous Players Lasky in Manhattan, Astoria and then Riverdale. Their collaboration ended in 1925, when Miller accepted an assignment with the tyrannical Cecil B. DeMille for The Volga Boatmen. He never photographed directly for DeMille again.

Miller traveled in England and throughout the continent in the early 1920s, and in 1921, he photographed The Eternal City in Italy for Fitzmaurice. He recalled the uneasiness he felt with the Fascist dictator Mussolini “looking over my shoulder” daily.

Curious to know more about Miller, I recently went to the Herrick Library to see what I could find in the ASC Collection. Looking through several files, I saw that Miller did not use his middle initial in his movie credits and records. (He likely adopted it at the end of his career to distinguish himself from the lauded American playwright whose Death of a Salesman made "Arthur Miller" a household name.) Despite his extraordinary reputation, Miller, like most of his peers, worked under a studio contract — he was head of production Darryl Zanuck’s favored cinematographer — and he was by most accounts a modest man of unassuming physical stature.

The first paper I found in the collection was a letter that Miller’s wife, Mae, sent to the ASC on July 26, 1927. The single page features her clear handwriting on blue paper, and it includes a check for $75, the admission fee for his entry into the ASC. Miller was active in Hollywood filmmaking at the time of the ASC’s founding in January 1919, but it was another eight years before he applied for admission. Though the Millers lived on Courtney Drive in Hollywood, they were often working abroad. So, Mae sent the ASC a postdated check from abroad, begging the ASC’s indulgence to withhold deposit till they could return home and transfer funds into their bank account. Miller’s application came before the ASC Board of Governors on Sept. 12; Charles Clarke and Victor Milner sponsored him. Their note read simply, “The number of pictures photographed by Mr. Arthur Miller need not be named, as we all know them.”

A few years later, Miller signed at Fox, where he remained until near the end of his career. He photographed 12 films featuring Fox’s reigning star, Shirley Temple. It was on the Temple movie Wee Willie Winkie (1937) that he began a relationship with director John Ford that culminated in the 1941 masterpiece How Green Was My Valley.

How Green Was My Valley
How Green Was My Valley

Ford and Miller won Oscars in their respective categories for How Green Was My Valley, the film adaptation of Richard Llewellyn’s novel of a late 19th century Welsh mining family. Their competition that year included Orson Welles and Gregg Toland for Citizen Kane.

In his new book on the making of Citizen Kane, Harlan Lebo reveals that in 1941, when Citizen Kane and How Green Was My Valley were released, Academy Award voting was not restricted to members only. Ballots were also sent to 6,000 screen extras, who voted on the acting categories as well as Best Picture and Best Song. Lebo speculates that actors in the industry resented Welles for casting Kane with his New York-based Mercury Theatre ensemble, and this may be why Kane came up short in the acting and Best Picture categories. Ford, already an industry stalwart, was an easy insider next to the upstart maverick Welles, who seemed to have no respect for mainstream Hollywood.

Wherever the truth lies, it in no way diminishes Miller’s Oscar win for his luminous and magisterial cinematography in Ford’s film. My generation of cinematographers has long viewed Toland’s work on Kane as the gold standard of creative cinematography. However, after seeing Miller’s work in a beautiful 35mm restoration of How Green Was My Valley at the Academy’s Dunn Theater recently, I think it is inarguable that Miller’s work is the equal of Toland’s; it even incorporates stunning deep-focus compositions that are considered the hallmark of Toland’s style (which he developed from his mentor, George Barnes). In an interview in Hollywood Cameramen by Charles Higham, Miller addresses the subject of deep-focus lensing:

I was never a soft-focus man. I like the focus very hard. I liked crisp, sharp, solid images. As deep as I could carry the focus, I'd carry it, well before 'Citizen Kane'. There were no secrets in our crew, at 20th, in the good days. When we used an effect, everyone knew exactly what the diffusion was, the intensity of each arc. And we'd work right in with the electricians … I had the same gaffer for eighteen years, and in the end, we'd just have to look at each other and we knew what we were going to do. There was no need for words …

On July 8, 1943, Miller resigned from the ASC Board of Governors for health reasons. “My physician has advised me to take a complete rest from all activities, mental as well as physical, as much as possible,” he wrote. He had been photographing four to six pictures a year for nearly a decade. They were mostly A-list movies, not short-schedule quickies, and he might well have been completely exhausted.

One of these remarkable movies is The Ox-Bow Incident, a Western filmed largely on Fox sound stages, its brooding chiaroscuro a kind of Western film noir.

(In this final scene, Miller’s bold compositions are very reflective of those in How Green Was My Valley. Please ignore the intrusive caption that quickly disappears.)

Another is The Song of Bernadette, which was not released till 1945. Its cinematography seems to anticipate the metaphysical light and dark of Bergman/Nykvist that arrived more than a decade later.

You can’t help but be struck by Miller’s stark, graphic light and low compositions. Though his style is quite different from Toland’s, it is easy to see why Miller was as highly regarded by his peers. Henry King, the deeply humanistic director of The Song of Bernadette, was not a stylist like Ford, so the strength of Miller’s work is more clearly evident in The Ox-Bow Incident (directed by William Wellman), as well as in a Western he did with King, The Gunfighter.

On the set of The Gunfighter
Filming The Gunfighter

In 1958, the ASC Board of Governors awarded Miller a plaque of merit, which he displayed proudly alongside his three Academy Awards.

A short video tribute by fellow cinematographers, critics and friends at the ASC highlights the work and the character of this pioneer of the art of cinematography.

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