Jack Cardiff’s Magic Life: Part One

His entire life was magical, not just the ephemeral few moments of waning light at day’s end that is the title of his book, Magic Hour.

He never photographed a feature film in black and white, but his credits in movies begin at the end of the silent era, a decade before Technicolor 3-strip. His acting career began at age four when he wandered onstage during his parent’s performance, but after his teen years he was to remain behind the movie camera. Decades later, by then an established cinematographer, and asked by a director what he thought of ballet, Cardiff replied, “Not much. It’s so precious. All those sissies prancing about.” But shortly after that declaration, he was to photograph what many consider the greatest ballet film of all time. He had a commanding knowledge and love of painting, but he is renowned as one of the greatest “painters of light” not on canvas, but on 35mm film. By all accounts, he was a great oral storyteller with a prodigious memory, but his autobiography is one of the most well written memoirs of a life in cinema.

These are just a few of the many contrasts in the life and career of master cinematographer and director Jack Cardiff, whose life behind the camera spanned 80 of his 94 years. He was born a month after the outbreak of WWI, and died mere months after the inauguration of President Obama. He was witness to the cataclysmic events of the twentieth century, but he worked as an artist through it all.

Amazon.com—Magic-Hour: A Life in Movies link

On March 25, 2001, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences awarded an honorary Oscar to Jack Cardiff, the first ever given to a cinematographer. It was not an obvious choice for the Board of Governors, as this award had largely been until then the province of actors, producers, and directors. But Cardiff was already held in high regard by several generations of actors who had been captured by his lens. His first major feature film as a director, the 1960 Sons and Lovers, won him an Oscar nomination. He went on to direct a dozen more movies before returning in the early 70s to cinematography, photographing hard-edged action films in his later years that were totally unlike the art films with which he had gained international acclaim.

At the recent Telluride Film Festival, Scottish director Craig McCall presented his feature length documentary, thirteen years in the making, about the life and work of Jack Cardiff.

Craig McCall's film “Cameraman.”

It screened subsequently in Los Angeles and then at the NY Film Festival and will be presented in a dozen more festivals this fall. Here is a trailer that has a kaleidoscopic montage of images from several dozen of the more than seventy-five films Cardiff photographed. The images are so iconic you will recognize them in a flash:

A second trailer affords a few more glimpses of Cardiff at work including a shot of him twisting a few knobs behind a Technicolor 3-strip, camera, indicating how he used to kid the gullible tyros on set about how he “mixed” colors in the camera, an incident he describes in more detail in his autobiography:

If ever a person were born to be a cameraman, it is Jack Cardiff. He had an insatiable curiosity about movies since his childhood, and he had early access to film sets. This was at a time when many stage actors would move back and forth from daytime one and two reel movie shorts, to evening vaudeville performances. Jack met many silent film stars that were friends of his parents, including Charles Chaplin, who decades later were to be his neighbors in Vevey, Switzerland. In the “Fade In” chapter of Magic Hour Cardiff recounts the early days of silent films:

If my stage childhood was a fairytale existence, the film world in those days was pure enchantment . . . The cameras made a merry whirring noise with the handle—not on the side as many picture it, but at the back, so the cameraman cranked away at right angles, and the noise on the set as we worked could be deafening.

His first film as an “actor” was at age four in 1918. The title was My Son, My Son, and it starred Violet Hopson and Stewart Rome. The director barked instructions through a megaphone at how and where he should look. Little Jack was hooked.

The young thespian.

Four years later he was the lead in a film titled Billy’s Rose where he played an Oliver Twist type character.

I lay stretched out in a garret bed for a whole day, and died many times before the director was satisfied. It was a weirdly painful experience for Mum and Dad. They had to watch me ‘die’ as they had watched my brother die—at the same age—and there is little doubt that their tears were for real.

Cardiff recounts his many adventures in these free for all early days including being taught rope tricks on set by Will Rogers (some childhood).

Shortly before his fourteenth birthday Cardiff left school to help bring home income, as his father was ill. Jack got a job at Elstree Studio on the 1928 silent version of The Informer. He was hired as a set runner. Here is how he recounts his job:

My most important function was to supply the German director, Dr. Arthur Robison, with Vichy water as he had a flatulence problem. I had to be ready to hand him a full tumbler throughout the long day.

Production still from 1929 “The Informer.”

Alfred Hitchcock was on the same lot directing what was likely the first English sound film, Blackmail. So it was decided, as was common practice in those several transition years, to add a sound sequence to The Informer. Cardiff reveals how his first moment as a focus puller happened.

Our stage had no soundproofing, and because we could hear the traffic and other daytime noises, it was decided to shoot the sequence at night. At night, however, we had birds singing away in the gantry, so we had to fire revolvers… which kept them quiet for a couple of minutes while we hurriedly shot the scene. At one point during the shoot the assistant cameraman called me over and showed me two pencil marks on the lens. ‘Now, when I tell you, during the shot, I want you to rotate the lens from this pencil mark, to the other one.’ We shot the scene and I asked the assistant what I had done. ‘Well, sonny,’ he said, ‘you followed focus.’

Thus began one of the most significant cinematography careers of all time. Here is a photograph from that first year at the camera. I’ve not been able to establish that it is a photograph of Jack from The Informer, his first stint at the lens, but the tape measure is a big hint.

The 14 year old Cardiff, focus tape in hand.

Things were happening fast. Cardiff soon became a clapper boy.

Every morning at 7:30 I had to assemble two Debrie cameras on tripods while Bruno Mondi [camera assistant to Heinrich Gartner] gave me instructions for oiling the mechanism with a hypodermic needle. There were over twenty oil positions on each camera. After this, I had to load the film in the magazines, and carry all the equipment on to the stage, including the cameraman’s special case filled with arcane aids for artistic effects: special diffusion filters; trick glass for all kinds of magic; a plain glass on which Vaseline could be smeared to make various diffusion effects; extremely fine gauzes with different shapes burnt into them by cigarettes.

Soon after, he got a job with Hitchcock on The Skin Game. Nearly twenty years later, Cardiff was Hitchcock’s cinematographer on Under Capricorn one of the director’s less appreciated films. It was photographed in three-strip Technicolor and is notable for absurdly long takes, all the more remarkable as the elaborate dolly shots were made with this huge, blimped camera, which was dubbed by English crews, The Enchanted Cottage.  In chapter 7 of Magic Hour Cardiff describes how this film from 1949 was photographed:

As the camera was to track on a crane all over the place, we used the equivalent of an entire year’s supply of carpet from the Granada cinema circuit to cover the whole stage so that we could track without rails through the many roomed building, from one end of the stage to the other . . .. I had to light many sets in one go. The sets were mostly in sections, which slid open electronically so that the giant electric crane could enter, and exit Sometimes I had lamps on separate dollies and electricians carrying lamps into positions and hurriedly scrambling out of shot or under a table as the crane passed by.

You can watch the film (unless it gets disabled) in excellent color on an Italian subtitled version on YouTube. An example of the fluid crane movement from room to room and up a staircase can be seen at 3:04 in this clip.

The IMDB link, a more faded version is here:

Archive.org—Under Capricorn link

Cardiff may have been forced to quit his formal education at an early age, but he had a lifelong passion for reading and painting. At the end of the “Crossing the Rubicon” chapter of his book he recounts how travels during the making of his films, both as director and cinematographer, have given him real life experiences in the arts that are richer than studying purely academic courses. He visits the asylum at Saint-Rémy de Provence where Van Gogh spent his final year and the Nottingham coal mine where D.H. Lawrence’s father had worked; here he met the people who had served as models for the novel Sons and Lovers. This gentle written soliloquy about Lawrence, Anne Frank, Van Gogh, and Renoir gives great insight into the poetry that resided in him and how it flowed forth in a creative stream in his work and in his own paintings (pages 22-26).

Painting by Cardiff in the style of Van Gogh.
Cardiff painting in the style of Degas, three studies of Leslie Caron.

Here is a YouTube clip of Cardiff discussing painting and how it intersects the cinematographer’s art and its importance in his own career. I believe that the interview takes place at the Wallace Collection in London, an intimate museum that houses many smaller canvases by great masters as well as ones by genre painters. It is one of those rare museums where you can feel as if you are in someone’s grand home; it is evident that Cardiff must have spent many hours there in quiet contemplation.

Cardiff moved on to Elstree Studios in the mid 30s and became a camera operator when he was moved up by Stanley Rodwell. It was a crazy time with a merry-go-round succession of cameramen and operators moving from film to film, studio-to-studio, not at all party to the rigid contract hierarchy of Hollywood.

Cardiff at the camera, Denham Studios.

A few times Cardiff operated second camera for Freddie Young. It was here that he finally accepted his family’s theatrical name Cardiff as his own (his family name, Gran, was of Hungarian origin). Cardiff moved to the new Denham Studio where he was assigned to the tyrannical Hal Rosson. Somehow, he survived. One day “Robespierre” Rosson was ill.  Lee Garmes who had just won an Oscar for Zoo in Budapest was called in. But it was midday before he could arrive, so Cardiff was asked to rough in the lighting of the set, the forest of Arden, for the Laurence Olivier starring Shakespeare play, As You Like It.

When Garmes arrived, I was introduced to the great man and the producer explained that I had just done a rough lighting job to prepare for him to light the set properly. Garmes looked at the lights I had set and then said calmly, ‘Well, this lighting is extremely good. Why don’t we shoot it as it is?’ How magnanimous. A less able man might have reset several lamps to justify his position, but his position (and his good nature) was unassailable.

Cardiff met or operated for many extraordinary American cinematographers then working at Denham, including James Wong Howe, Charles Rosher, and Harry Stradling, with whom he made two back-to-back films. The second of these was Knight Without Armor, directed by Jacques Feyder.

Still from “Knight Without Armor.”

Cardiff met that film’s star, Marlene Dietrich, when he crashed into her at the stage door. She talked Cardiff and Stradling through the lighting requirements she had gleaned from her mentor Josef von Sternberg. Stradling remained indulgent through it all; Cardiff was smitten by the star, no more so than in a bath scene. His description of it amply illustrates his painterly attention to detail, even as he writes about it some sixty years later.

Marlene strode regally through the cluttered stage, followed by her two maids, hugging bundles of warm towels. She was draped in a dazzling white bathrobe, her hair swept up in cunning disarray; an extra-long cigarette holder was clenched gently in her teeth so that her mouth was parted in just the hint of a smile, her Prussian-blue eyes gazing blankly ahead . . .. as she walked to the bath and tested the water with her finger, then casually took off her bathrobe, and immersed herself in the foam.

Marlene Dietrich in the bath, “Knight Without Armor.”

It was a simple action—but it had devastated the entire crew, for in that brief moment Marlene had shown herself to be stark naked . . .. In those early days at Denham, the sight of Marlene Dietrich, gloriously starkers, was cataclysmic.

One night, not long after this memorable incident, Cardiff was called back to the studio. All of the Denham camera operators had been summoned. They were to meet with representatives from the American laboratory Technicolor. One of them was to be chosen to go to Hollywood to learn about a new color camera system.

(Part two will begin with Cardiff’s “test” before Technicolor agents)



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