Karl Struss, A Tripod in Two Worlds: Part Two—Early Hollywood Years

Karl Struss’ studio apartment at 6602 Yucca Avenue in the heart of Hollywood was just a short uphill walk from the Lasky-Famous Players Studio at the corner of Vine and Selma. Everything about this movie boomtown rising out of the surrounding desert hills looked fresh to the 33 year-old photographer: the open spaces, the intense sunlight, the palm trees. Nothing here reminded him of the New York cityscape that had been the subject of his exploring camera lens during the past decade. But the maze of Manhattan was a world to which he was determined not to return. He wrote to his mother, “The future is very bright and I know I’ll love the place… . Everything is also new and clean, and one doesn’t meet the crowds or poverty that abounds in the Eastern cities.”

Struss had no immediate contacts in Hollywood upon his arrival in early February 1919, but the portfolios of his New York photographs, especially the commercial work sent to him by his mother, was a viable calling card when he began to make the rounds of the studios seeking employment.

New York Public Library, 1912.
New York Public Library, 1912.

Struss knew that much of the publicity photography being done for movies was inferior to the tightly composed, well-lit and richly printed images he had created back in Manhattan. His own interest in the movies reached back to some of his fledgling work there, as well as to his encounter with cinematographer Charles Rosher in Bermuda five years previous. He was not a complete stranger to this new world of image making.

The April 1919 issue of Photoplay magazine featured an article by Anthony E. Anderson, a Los Angeles Times critic, titled “The Next Genius—A Cameraman.” In it he praised the preeminence of purely visual elements such as composition and lighting over plot and performance. In an era where scenario “writing” was limited mainly to inter-titles, and most of those were of a mundane nature, it is little wonder that large numbers of critics saw the future of the medium to be in an increasingly sophisticated use of images in photography and editing. In the next few years the influences of art direction and cinematography coming from German Expressionist cinema, and the montage techniques of Soviet filmmakers such as Eisenstein, would help move Hollywood pictures from melodrama and slapstick two-reelers onto the world stage of sophisticated visual narrative. Struss’ arrival in Hollywood could not have been timelier. In the “Karl Struss Remembers” section of the catalog of his 1976-77 touring retrospective, Susan and John Harvith quote Struss:

…I went to Hollywood because I wanted to get into the picture business. I’d seen plenty of pictures and that’s what I wanted to do. [Struss said that he had seen Hollywood movies on a daily basis while at Fort Leavenworth during the war]. Why? Because the majority of what we then called cameramen were not photographers. They knew nothing of lighting… . It was all guesswork.

Struss met an assistant director named Horwitz who was a fan of art photography. Struss showed him his New York photos as well as some portraits:

He went nuts over them. And he immediately thought, here’s DeMille, he needs a still man to take the burden off [cinematographer] Alvin Wyckoff, who had enough to do lighting the sets, photographing them, seeing to the operations of three different cameras, and running the lab. Then he took me to the studio manager who talked to DeMille about it and he said OK.

On March 17, Struss went to work at Lasky Studios for DeMille. C.B. was one of the first producers to understand that publicity and still photographs were as important to selling the film as the film itself, and he immediately knew that Struss’ artistry was way beyond what others could provide. One of the first photos Struss made was of DeMille in his office:

So desirous of bringing Struss on board, DeMille must have yielded up to him magazine rights; Struss sent staged portraits of the stars he photographed back home for East Coast publication. This became an added source of income for him. But he was careful not to reveal to East Coast publishers that he was actually under contract to a Hollywood studio. He worried that his photos could be seen as no more than promotion, thereby compromising their sale price.  His set and production stills, of course, remained within the purview of the studio.

Wyckoff took Struss under his wing and in a short time Struss was operating third camera for him, then second camera, and eventually sharing screen credit with his mentor. There were no barriers at the time to rapid advancement and it was clear that Struss’ artistic abilities, as well as his practical skills at invention and gadget-tering, was of a high order. Filming with multiple cameras was standard at the time; often a separate negative had to be made for foreign distribution. But director DeMille called for three or more cameras at the same time; he preferred to shoot as many coverage angles as possible for continuity and speed. Two of the major stars of the studio were Bebe Daniels and Gloria Swanson. Struss did photo sittings of both that received great acclaim.

Once he had become a noted cinematographer a decade later, Struss’ reputation as a specialist in lighting women stars landed him multiple picture contracts with Mae West, Dorothy Lamour, Miriam Hopkins, Claudette Colbert, even Mary Pickford, who had had a long-standing relationship with Rosher until her first sound film, Coquette.

Many of DeMille’s early films photographed by Wyckoff used a follow-spot technique that singled out the star as she moved around the set but which gave little attention to the reality of source light. It was called “Lasky Lighting” and it was not considered to have the cachet it aspired to—“Rembrandt-esque.” I saw this technique recently in a MOMA screening of DeMille’s The Cheat and it is indeed pretty erratic looking. When DeMille decided to remake his own film The Golden Chalice as Forbidden Fruit, Struss’ artistic vision became clear. Struss continued to advance in his technical and lighting skills at Lasky but in the summer of 1921, the bottom fell out of the Hollywood box office due to an economic slump. Struss took a cut in pay with the understanding that he would continue to be employed; despite this, he was let go a few months later.

On Valentine Day, 1920 Struss met Ethel Wall at a gathering of fellow Pictorialist photographers. She had been working in the studio of a photographer who owned a Struss Pictorial Lens. She had resolved to meet Struss and to get his advice on how to better use the lens. They spent the evening together, surely taking about more than optics because eleven months later they were married. She began to work with him, assisting him evenings in the studio darkroom, acting as a sometimes model for his personal work, and becoming a partner in the photo trips they made into the countryside.

Karl and Ethel, photo by Edward Weston, 1923.
Karl and Ethel, photo by Edward Weston, 1923.

Struss now found himself in a highly competitive market where many of the best movies were being made by directors who had ongoing relationships with more established cinematographers such as Charles Rosher, Joe Ruttenberg, Hal Rosson, Billy Blitzer, even Wyckoff. But Struss did land a job with director Marshall Neilan who introduced him to B.P. Schulberg at Preferred Pictures. It was here, where he was at last on his own and not sharing assignments, that his technical skills became evident—even on the quick, low budget fare that Preferred produced. This ability to make the most of little was a skill that Struss drew upon his entire career and which became his mainstay at Paramount decades after Sunrise, when he was assigned many "programmers" rather than the sought-after “A” pictures.

It was now that Struss invested in his own camera, a motor-driven Bell & Howell that he purchased for $4500, a princely sum. He had a plate affixed to the camera door with the stylized initials “KS” set inside a square logo. Shortly afterwards, the photographer Edward Weston, who had a studio in Tropico, between Los Feliz and Glendale, made a series of portraits of Struss standing next to the camera. One of these is the cover of Karl Struss: Man with a Camera. I made a photograph of the poster of this traveling exhibition with the glass frame reflecting myself just below Struss’ head, a marker of the high regard I have for Struss, my own reflection in appropriately diminished proportion.

I have a signed, variant photo from this series, a profile angle that frames Struss with the noisy Cooper-Hewitt tube lights that so fascinated Weston. At the time, Weston secured commissions for studio portraits of the wealthy and of celebrities, and he was still working in the Pictorialist tradition. It was only a year later with his trip to Mexico that he fully embraced “straight photography.” This session with Struss is well within the style that Struss also embraced. Struss recalls Weston’s visit to Preferred Studios:

We worked together as judges several times at the Los Angeles Camera Pictorialists’ big international salons. He was very fine, very friendly, and I admired his work. I suppose he wanted to photograph me because he had seen [my] transition from pictorial photography to the movies. Nobody from the pictorial crowd had ever done that—I was the first.

Struss continued to use his B&H camera until sound came in and he went over to Paramount in 1931. But he was ever mindful of controlling his compositions (one of his New York work’s signatures was over-all composition, tightly compressed to the edge of the frame, often incorporating dynamic framing of foreground elements.) To preserve the same integrity as his still photo framing when he transitioned to the movies, he had a metal matte cut to insert into the gate of his camera. He was not about to allow a projectionist to tinker with his compositions.

Struss never abandoned his love of still photography and he continued it throughout his Hollywood years. He took his cameras on location and he was always on the lookout for photographic opportunities during his rare free time.  He took stills on the set of Sunrise for production promotion and for himself. And during this time, he continued to exhibit in Pictorialist exhibitions. A small portfolio of his California work is included in the photo section of the 1930 American Cinematographer’s Annual.

Ethel and Barbara on the Pier, Lake Tahoe, 1930.
Ethel and Barbara on the Pier, Lake Tahoe, 1930.
Sails, En Route to Catalina, 1929.
Sails, En Route to Catalina, 1929.

Struss’ cinematic star was very much on the rise. He was called to MGM in 1924 by Irving Thalberg to interview for Ben Hur but he did not get the assignment. The picture began filming in Italy, quickly got into trouble and experienced severe cost over-runs, constant strikes and fights between fascists and anti-fascists with Mussolini acting as spoiler. The problems warranted the new studio head L.B. Mayer’s going to Rome. Mayer sent for Struss and director Christy Cabanne. Once there, they were told that the current director, Fred Niblo, was staying on and the French cinematographer, René Guissart, was taking over as principal cinematographer. Cabanne and Struss remained in Rome for extra camera and 2nd unit work. But eventually the picture was shut down in January, 1925 and was returned to Hollywood. Struss photographed many sequences that were to be re-shot, including that of the healing of the lepers. This sequence utilized an in-camera effect that Struss devised; he used green make-up on the actors, filming the scene with a red filter in the camera matte box, causing the skin to photograph black. He then slowly slid a green filter of the same density across the lens, replacing the red one as the camera continued to roll; it made the make-up photograph pale, as if the lepers were miraculously cleansed. Struss reversed this effect years later for the transformation of Frederick March from Dr. Jekyll to Mr. Hyde in the 1931 Rouben Mamoulian film. All the knowledge of filters and mattes that Struss had acquired in his New York days served him to great advantage in Hollywood.

Struss bridled at his second-place credit on Ben Hur. He said he had shot at least 50% of the finished film; Guissart got top billing only because he had a first place clause in his contract that Struss did not know about (Struss was soon to have a similar complaint about his smaller font credit in Sunrise).  Struss photographed many of the two-color Technicolor sequences for the film.

But who can ever know the truth about Ben-Hur, one of the most labor-intensive and expensive movies in the history of cinema? IMDB credits five directors alone; for the second filming of the chariot race (in which Struss was not involved), at what is now the corner of La Cienega and Venice Blvds., 62 assistant directors were hired, one of whom was William Wyler, who directed the 1959 Ben Hur re-make. A mind-boggling and hilariously fascinating detailing of the scale of the film is at this site:

IMDB trivia link

It also constitutes a lengthy chapter in Kevin Brownlow’s seminal book from 1968 on the history of silent cinema as told by its witnesses, The Parade’s Gone By…

Charles Rosher called upon Struss to work with him on the Mary Pickford film Sparrows; Struss happily shared credit. Rosher absented himself part of the time as he was also preparing to shoot Sunrise for German director F. W. Murnau who was to make his American debut with this groundbreaking film. Rosher had met Murnau in Germany two years previously; he had offered Murnau and cinematographer Carl Hoffman technical advice on the Hollywood “look” during the filming of Faust.

(The story of Sunrise and the collaboration of Rosher and Struss will be the fourth and last part of this essay.)

After Sunrise, Struss went to United Artists for three years, a period where he worked on some of the most prestigious films of his career. D. W. Griffith had returned to Hollywood after an eight-year hiatus in New York; he asked Struss to photograph Drums of Love along with Billy Bitzer. Struss shared credit with Bitzer on three of the four Griffith films he did, though it is believed Bitzer’s contribution diminished with each one. And Struss’ lighting and camera style is evident in each film. On Abraham Lincoln, Griffith’s first sound film, Struss receives sole credit. Bitzer’s own autobiography, “Billy Bitzer: His Story” makes no mention of the late Griffith films and fades into a twilight reverie of the heady early years. There is a photograph, however, of Bitzer and his wife, Ethel, (same name as Struss’s wife) attending the premiere of Lady of the Pavements in 1929.

Bitzer and Ethel at premiere of “Lady of the Pavements,” 1929.
Bitzer and Ethel at premiere of “Lady of the Pavements,” 1929.

Lady of the Pavements was Struss’ last silent picture and it incorporates some of his most glamorous lighting effects. The two women stars, Jetta Goudal and Lupe Velez, are luminous. It was for the latter actress that he developed the “Lupe Light,” a soft-frost bulb in a reflector on a movable arm, positioned below camera. It provided a shadow-less fill and eye-light a decade before Lucien Ballard’s “Obie Light.”

Mary Pickford was always much involved in the pre-production elements of her movies. Coquette, her first sound film, presented new challenges because of the space requirements of the sound department. When Charles Rosher saw how his lighting space was going to be severely restricted, even compromised, he said he could not photograph Pickford as he needed to. She wouldn’t accept this, terminated their long-standing alliance—and asked Struss, who had been on Sparrows, to take over. I can find no record of how this came down, and what effect it had on the Rosher/Struss relationship that had begun over fifteen years earlier in Bermuda. This is what Rosher told Brownlow: “I expressed myself freely, and as a result my career with Pickford came to an end… . I took no part in the production.” He does not mention Karl Struss.

Charles Rosher and Mary Pickford.
Charles Rosher and Mary Pickford.

Since his earliest days in Hollywood, Struss had a reputation for technical innovation and flexibility; after Sunrise he must have felt his time had finally arrived. Technical flexibility was a quality demanded for Coquette. Struss used up to four cameras, much in the style of the DeMille days with Wyckoff a decade earlier. Pickford received a Best Actress Oscar for her performance in this film. Struss’ relationship with Pickford must have been mutually rewarding since he photographed three of her sound films. His next few assignments presented better opportunities for him to find ways to free the camera from the constricting “iceboxes” they had been relegated to the first few years of sound. Struss also developed a rolling tripod to help move around the cumbersome new blimped cameras. Even though the caption indicates it, I am not at all convinced Struss had developed this compact blimp and tripod in time for Coquette:

(Note the misspelling of Mary Pickford in the caption above.)
(Note the misspelling of Mary Pickford in the caption above.)

On several United Artists films, Struss worked with the great art director William Cameron Menzies, whose own sense of stylized sets was compatible with the deliberate aesthetics of Struss. Their relationship came to an end, however, once United Artists failed. Struss left for what would become a fifteen-year stay at Paramount. It started with Skippy for director Norman Taurog, for which screenwriter Joe Mankiewicz received his first Oscar nomination (Mankiewicz is the subject of an earlier two-part essay on this blog.)

“Film Author, Film Author” Part One

A few films later, Struss himself was nominated for an Oscar a second time, for Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, as well as the following year for The Sign of the Cross, directed by his old boss from the Lasky days, C.B. DeMille. The future looked bright for Struss at Paramount, just as it had back in 1919 when he headed out to California after the dim days at Fort Leavenworth. But his tenure at Paramount would, at times, come to resemble the prison term he barely had avoided in Kansas.

This essay continues in Part 3.



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