When Karl Struss became a contract cinematographer for Paramount Studio in 1931, the continued ascending arc of his career seemed all but inevitable. He had become a founding member of the still embryonic Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences and a recent member of the decade old American Society of Cinematographers. Along with Charles Rosher he had won an Oscar for his work on Sunrise: A Song of two Humans for director F. W. Murnau; he had worked on four films with one of the founding fathers of American cinema, D. W. Griffith; and he had become cinematographer to the legendary star Mary Pickford on her first four sound films.
One of his early assignments at Paramount was with Rouben Mamoulian on Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. For this film and for the following year’s The Sign of the Cross, he received two more Oscar nominations. The director of the latter film was C. B. DeMille, his old boss from the Lasky days. DeMille now was firmly ensconced at Paramount (think of the scene from Sunset Boulevard when Gloria Swanson visits him on set), the behemoth studio that had grown out of Lasky. It must have been a comforting thought to him that he had finally settled at a studio that had the box office clout and the technical resources to engage his ever-restless techno-bent mind. Mamoulian was a director who loved to move the camera as much as Murnau did, but Struss was never to work with either man again. As for C. B. DeMille, who did not like to move the camera, and whose visual style had not evolved much beyond his early silent days, Struss worked with him only once more. In short, he did not come through Paramount’s fabled Marathon Gate with any kind of retinue.
Although his fifteen-year stint at “The Mountain” would engage him in 4-7 films a year, few of them were “A” list assignments, especially after the mid-thirties. One of the things that Struss ran up against was a strong seniority system among the roster of established Paramount cinematographers. A list of the major ones included Lee Garmes, Victor Milner, George Folsey, Bert Glennon and Charles B. Lang, all very strong colleagues; most of them also had strong personal connections with name directors. But Struss had a technical bent that went back to his darkroom days as a Clarence White student, and ignoring protocol and status, he readily threw himself into every project.
John and Susan Edwards Harvith, the organizers of the 1976-77 Struss retrospective, spent a month with Struss organizing his photographic work and watching many of his films at the UCLA Film Archives. They write in The Man Behind the Camera, their essay for the New York to Hollywood book, that Struss was not always the best judge of his own photographs, that he often preferred sometimes-routine images that extolled multi-layered darkroom techniques, to stronger images that were printed more simply. It is not a far reach to imagine that even at Paramount, Struss was attracted to movie projects that had considerable technical challenges rather than dramatic or literary gravity, and it seems that many of the other cinematographers were eager to let him take on those films. While Struss produced always sophisticated work even on the most mundane programmers, this was not likely to get him much attention in Oscar circles. In fact, after The Sign of the Cross he received only one more nomination, for Aloma of the South Seas, from 1941, a three-strip Technicolor South Seas sarong epic starring Dorothy Lamour.
Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde was a technical tour de force for Struss. There are spectacular moving camera shots, starting with the opening scene that runs four minutes and which is shot from Jekyll’s POV. The transformation scenes from Jekyll to Hyde and back to Jekyll exploited smart in-camera effects done with filter changes, reversing the filter sequence of the healing of the lepers scene from Ben Hur. The new Kodak higher speed panchromatic stock made these effects even more possible; it was the reason Struss had abandoned his beloved Dupont stock, for which he had done many testimonial ads.
The Oscar nominations he received for Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and The Sign of the Cross were for very different styles. Changing from the harder edged look of the former film, Struss shot the DeMille biblical epic with red gauze filters throughout. I saw a pristine print of this picture at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art retrospective in February of 1977. Its nostalgic look had a burnished edge in the highlights and evoked the feel of a much earlier silent film, perhaps a glance back to DeMille’s The Ten Commandments from 1917. A review from March 1933 in American Cinematographer Magazine says of The Sign of the Cross:
The climactic sequences played in the dungeons of the arena are exquisite examples of Struss’ powerful cinematography, almost equal in conception to some of the works of a Michelangelo.
Struss’ career took an unexpected and abrupt turn in 1933 when he became embroiled in the incredibly divisive IATSE strike of that summer. Bad feelings over this action lasted for decades and were still debated around the ASC Clubhouse when I became a member in 1984. When the studios and the IATSE reached an impasse and the existing contract was invalidated by the strike, the American Society of Cinematographers became an alternative bargaining group with the producers and studios. Struss, like many cinematographers, was a member of both the union and the guild; he decided to side with the ASC. Even worse, in terms of his status with the union, he decided, in the midst of the contretemps, to leave Hollywood to make a film in Hawaii with DeMille, Four Frightened People. The February 1934 issue of American Cinematographer magazine reviews Struss’ work:
Even with the advantages of super-sensitive film, fast lenses and the incredibly high-powered lighting installation the company must have enjoyed, it is incredible that even Karl Struss would bring back so successful a picture.
DeMille was notoriously anti-union as well as politically conservative (see my story in the archived essay “Film Author, Film Author, Part Two” about his dust-up with John Ford over loyalty oaths at the height of the McCarthy era).
According to Richard Koszarski’s essay in “New York to Hollywood,” Struss became persona non grata in union circles and was never again mentioned in the union house publication International Photographer. Koszarski writes, “His banishment seems to have been complete: as late as July, 1992, [then] Local 659 reported that it could find no information on any Karl Struss.”
While in Hawaii on Four Frightened People Struss, as always, continued his personal photography with a series of studies in nature:
“Photographic Modernism and the Cinematographer” is the title of an article that Struss wrote for the November 1934 issue of American Cinematographer. Its revisionist tone must have taken readers by surprise. Struss seemed to recant the stylistic artistry of his Photo-Secessionist photography from New York as well as his high gloss lighting and dynamic camera movement in Sunrise, in favor of a much more constrained style that he deemed more “modern.” He wrote that “the sensational German and Russian films of the early part of the last decade” had had a deleterious effect on still photography and the movies. Surrealist and self-conscious conceits distracted the viewer from the true role of cinematography that must always “remain the vehicle for the story, and, as such, it may never call attention to itself at the expense of either story or players.” This stunning reversal of aesthetic principles was not pulled out of thin air. It became, in fact, almost a dire directive for how Struss would work in the bulk of his Paramount years.
For the remainder of the decade Struss found himself aligned to a number of major Paramount stars rather than to signature directors. Whether this was by design or default is hard to know. He did make a string of pictures that were quite profitable for the studio and which were vehicles for a stable of stars like Mae West, Bing Crosby and Dorothy Lamour. His mediocre work on The Great Dictator in 1940 may have reflected Chaplin’s avowed indifference to artful cinematography as well as his mandate to support the Tramp’s habitual but underwhelming cameraman, Rollie Totheroh; but it did not burnish his ability to secure “A” list pictures. Because of his technical bent and expertise, Paramount assigned him to a number of the demanding 3-strip Technicolor musicals; this became a specialty, one in which Struss could indulge his abiding love for visual challenge.
An anomaly of this period was Struss’ assignment to Journey into Fear, directed by Norman Foster, but under the aegis of Orson Welles’ Mercury Theater. Struss’ mandate was to photograph it in the Gregg Toland style of dramatic lighting, long takes and deep focus, and this he did, as always, with great aplomb. But it turned out to be the very last studio dramatic film that Struss would photograph.
Bring on the Girls, a limp film with Veronica Lake, was Struss’ last film for Paramount. It was released in early 1945; Struss’s expired contract was not renewed. Struss now began a period of work on many independent films with very limited budgets. The first of these, Tarzan and the Leopard Woman, was for RKO whose studio on Gower and Melrose was at the west end of the huge lot shared with Paramount. This was Struss’ first film with director Kurt Neumann with whom he began a long relationship that lasted for 10 pictures. Their budgets and schedules were definitely of the “B” movie ilk. Rocketship X-M, their fourth film, was filmed in 11 days; Suspense, for director Frank Tuttle was done for indie Monogram Pictures and was the closest Struss came to shooting a true film noir. It was also the last time he was featured on the cover of American Cinematographer Magazine:
Struss’ high point with Neumann (in terms of popular success at least) was with Vincent Price in The Fly, from 1958. The success of this film would have broken Neumann out of bargain-basement budgets, but he died one month after its release, only 50 years old.
While he was on location in Death Valley for Rocketship X-M, Struss made many stereo slides. Ever innovative and seeking new photographic possibilities, his fascination with the incipient revival of 3-D brought him to the attention of Italian producers Dino de Laurentiis and Carlo Ponti. He decamped with wife Ethel to Italy to photograph a Kirk Douglas film of Ulysses. He took two special 3-D rigged Mitchell cameras with him but he discovered upon arriving that, through a mix-up, Hal Rosson was set to photograph the film. But Struss stayed in Italy to make at least three 3-D movies, none of which were released in the U.S. Here is a stereo frame from one:
I have a photo Struss took of Ethel at this time; the camera is pointed down to her lower body, seen through a glass café table, while her face and upper body is reflected in the glass top; it is a faded color print struck from one of two 3-D slides, a very intimate and personal image, but one indicative of his ever restless eye:
Struss spent the last decade of his career, (he retired in 1970) like many of his generation, photographing commercials, industrials and TV series such as My Friend Flicka. (The great Karl Freund had spent his later years shooting I Love Lucy.) These commercials were perfect jobs for an artist in semi-retirement; they had short schedules and always presented new technical challenges. It also provided Struss time to continue his personal photographic work.
In 1949 the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences produced a series of films meant for the general public, describing the various motion picture crafts. The ASC chose Karl Struss to be the anonymous cinematographer featured in this 9-minute short. I saw it 15 years later in a beginning camera class at USC film school. Neither in the film itself nor in the introduction in the classroom was Struss’ name mentioned: certainly there was no acknowledgement of his Oscar for Sunrise, nor for his role as one of the nation’s pre-eminent art photographers:
When I met Struss at LACMA in January 1977, he was 91. I had seen Sunrise a number of times, usually in battered 16 mm prints. I had a decent knowledge of early 20th century American art photography. But I knew Charles Rosher’s name as a distinguished cinematographer more than Karl Struss’, an artist whose name had been relegated to smaller type and second position in the silent classic’s credits; none of the books on the history of the Photo-Secession that I had seen, had profiled Struss’ work, nor mentioned his name in more than a general index of Camera Works artists.
The traveling retrospective of 1976-77 was the first step toward a revival of awareness of Struss’ contribution to American photography and cinema. The long-term effect of this revival has been somewhat stutter-stop. As I have seen more of his still and film work, it is a mystery to me why he has remained a name that many film students and filmmakers know only vaguely. There is, in fact, no other American cinematographer whose breadth of work and artistry has been as far-reaching in its variety and career length. An IMDB search lists over 160 feature credits. Perhaps this is part of the problem. Many cinematographers are associated with a personal “style.” It becomes, perhaps, a defining indicator, a kind of shorthand, that is used when trying to discuss individual work. Karl Struss spent his entire career pushing against this kind of associative marker. He photographed feature films in all genres, in many styles, and with an amazingly broad spectrum of directors. This is what he aspired to and what he described in his 1934 American Cinematographer article on the “modern” cinematographer. To delimit him as merely another contract cameraman or a journeyman-like craftsman who shared his Oscar with a legendary peer, especially when he is compared to the acknowledged “masters of light” such as Toland, Wong Howe, Miller, Folsey, or Shamroy is to miss the essence of what he was from his earliest student days.
Some artists pride themselves not so much on a signature style but in an ability to be versatile in responding to the unique challenges and opportunities of every work they do. The degree to which time has not elevated Karl Struss into the forefront of American visual artists is the degree to which we too often look for easy categories. Maybe it’s time for a re-consideration of his work beyond Sunrise.
The fourth part of this essay will go back to 1927 to the making of Sunrise, a film so singular in American cinema, that it has no antecedent and certainly no sequel. It is at this high point, in the final part of this essay that I will leave Karl Struss.
(I’d like to acknowledge the meticulous work in interviewing Struss that was done by the late curator at the Amon Carter Museum, Barbara McCandless, by Richard and Diane Koszarski, who interviewed Struss in August 1976, and by John and Susan Edwards Harvith who organized the 1976-1977 retrospective and spent weeks with Ethel and Karl Struss in preparing the catalog for the traveling show. Their work has been an invaluable resource for me.)