You may not know the name William Cameron Menzies. But this spring, the AFI Silver Theatre in Silver Spring will make sure that you’ll be able to know his work in a heartbeat.
Douglas Fairbanks’s carpet in “The Thief of Bagdad”? He made it fly. Salvador Dalí’s dream sequence in “Spellbound”? He shot it. The city of Atlanta in “Gone With the Wind”? He built it, and then, spectacularly, he burned it down.
As a film artist whose aesthetic values and embrace of bold experimentation helped define Hollywood’s Golden Age, Menzies was such a creative polymath, his contributions so crucial to the movies he collaborated on, that the industry was forced to invent a brand new term for the job that he did: production designer.
At its simplest, production design refers to the material culture of a film, in the form of look, style and setting; if movies are the stuff that dreams are made of, production design is the “stuff” of movies. A graduate of New York’s Art Students League, Menzies swiftly made a name for himself designing sets and visual effects during Hollywood’s silent era, putting his imaginative stamp on such classics as “The Bat,” “The Dove” and “Sadie Thompson.” In 1929, more than 10 years before “Fantasia,” Menzies collaborated on a series of experimental short films set to famous pieces of classical music, including “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice.”
Menzies’s most famous achievement was “Gone With the Wind,” whose producer, David O. Selznick, insisted that his favorite designer would be the “last word” on everything having to do with the visual look of the film. (Menzies reportedly drew more than 2,000 sketches meticulously outlining every shot, right down to the last camera angle.) In 1940, Menzies received a special Oscar for his mastery of Technicolor, a nascent process that achieved new expressive heights in the film.
Although Menzies possessed a preternatural ability to adapt his visual style to whatever story or time period he was working with, he was at his best with lush, layered environments in which light and textures overlapped with sometimes fascinating subconscious meaning. The 1947 suspense drama “Ivy,” for example, is a riot of Edwardian-era frills and bevelled surfaces, their glimmering propriety given a noir-ish edge by deep Expressionistic shadows.
On Feb. 19, the AFI Silver will launch a 10-week tribute to Menzies, offering a series of films that he worked on throughout his career, which was cut short in 1957 when he died. “Ivy,” which was directed by Menzies’s frequent collaborator Sam Wood, will be one of the films on offer, as well as “Gone With the Wind,” “Invaders From Mars,” “Foreign Correspondent” and “Things to Come,” which Menzies directed. It’s a wonderful chance to see one of Hollywood’s most undersung crafts — one that Menzies literally invented — at its finest.