When Karl Struss walks into the room, the entire history of the American film walks in with him.
Erect, spare, dressed in a wonderfully Californian melange of browns, Struss at 90 has behind him a career as director of photography on more than 120 films, films that cover a spectrum seemingly much too much for any one man to encompass.
When the first Academy Award for cinematography was given in 1929, Struss was the co-winner for "Sunrise." He shot the last film D.W. Griffith made and Mary Pickford's first ventrue into the wilds of sound. He photographed Charlie Chaplin in "The Great Dictator" and "Limelight," and Mae West, who gave him a diamond ring he still wears in "Belle of the Nineties." He worked on the original "Ben-Hur" and even ended up filming poor Vincent Price in "The Fly."
Strauss is currently being honored with a retrospective at the American Film Institute, but the room he's just walked into is in the Phillip's Gallery where, if all the above wasn't enough, still another aspect of Karl Strauss is on display.
For Struss is also one of the last surviving members of the Photo-Secession, the elite, early 20th Century group of still photographers that included Alfred Stieglitz, Edward Steichen and Edward Weston and had his work appear in Stieglitz's Camera Work, a magazine which then sold for $2 and issue and now, he gleefully reports, goes for upwards of $2,000.
Struss, who likes to say he "took up photography in self-defense," also claims that his turning to Hollywood in 1919, a turning which led to his being largely forgotten by historians of the Photo-Secession, was due strictly to the weather.
"I was a native New Yorker and I hated the climate. It would be below freezing in New York and when I saw in the papers that the temperature was in the 60s and 70s in California, I knew it was just the place for me," he says, pleased with his choice. And besides, "I figured the cameramen they had in those days weren't really photographers. Anyone who could turn a rank was a cameraman."
Struss' pictorial eye brought him to the attention of Cecil B. DeMille, who gave Strauss his first joband later used him on "Sign of the Cross," where Claudette Colbert had to swim around in goat's milk that "smelled to heaven" after awhile.
Struss' other memories include:
Watching Charlie Chaplin direct Paulette Godard until she broke down and cried and then having him tell her "go to your dressing room and when you can behave yourself come back on the set."
Working with the art director on "Sunrise," "a real Prussian who clicked his heels when you asked him anything, took a strict posture and said, 'It must be so.'"
Perfecting his most-famous effect, the changing of Frederic March from Dr. Jekyll to Mr. Hyde without any cuts or dissolves by using makeup sensitive to different color filters. "It was a natural, I'd already done it with the healing of the lepers in "Ben Hur." I don't remember ever talking with the director, Rouben Mamoulian about it, I just did it. But today when we appear at colleges he never wants me to disclose what and how it was done."
If there was one thing Struss liked about the old days, it was the great amount of autonomy the director of photography had in areas like that. "You tried to take the whole burden of production off the director so he could concentrate on the acting. He was the captain, you were the lieutenant."
What Struss sees these days is better left unsaid. "Today, I don't know. I don't go to see pictures for photography, the people who are photographers know nothing of the fundamentals of photography. You have these big, full-screen closeups of faces these days; that's disgusting, a lot of baloney. Today the photography is pretty, pretty . . . You can use any word you want."
A smile comes to Karl Struss' face, though, as he thinks about the days before. "Irving Thalberg once said to me, 'You can use any scheme of lighting you want, but the actors and actresses have to be beautiful." That, he tells you without saying it, was a time that's passed us by, and we are hardly the better for it.