Great Cinematographers, Part 20: Gregg Toland

The final chapter of cinematography posts ten through twenty is dedicated to the career of Gregg Toland (1904-1948), the man whose name is synonymous with high quality and creative achievements in the art of cinematography. His innovations gave many films which are considered masterpieces of American cinema their distinct style. Although he stood just barely over five feet tall, Toland’s contributions to film history are colossal.

Wuthering Heights (1939, dir. William Wyler) – Toland won the lone Academy Award of his career for this magnificent adaptation of the classic Gothic romance novel by Emily Brontë. The tragic longings of these characters are heightened by the visuals: Laurence Olivier hiding in the shadowy doorway, Merle Oberon lit by the glow of lightning, Flora Robson illuminated by flickering candles.

The Grapes of Wrath (1940, dir. John Ford) – Amazingly, out of the ten films from 1940 that were nominated for the Academy Award for Best Cinematography (Black-and-White), Grapes was not one of them, although Toland did receive a nomination for his work on the John Ford film The Long Voyage Home. For some reason it’s impossible to find individual scenes on YouTube, so here instead is a clip of the New York Times reviewer A.O. Scott talking about the film. You can see many examples of Toland’s lighting and framing.

Citizen Kane (1941, dir. Orson Welles) – Welles felt so strongly about Toland that the last frame of the film, which is the title card announcing Welles as the director-producer, also lists Toland on the same card. (John Ford did the same thing for The Long Voyage Home a year earlier.) Welles must have felt particularly indebted to Toland, so much so that Toland appears in the film as a reporter during the “News on the March” segment. There are many scenes that I could chosen for this post – particularly the early childhood scene (the shot traveling from Charles into the inside of the cabin shows Toland’s skill for deep focus) and the fabulous lighting techniques used in the projection room scene and library scene – but I think it makes the most sense to highlight the film’s opening scene. From the views of Xanadu (again employing deep focus) to the reflection of the nurse in the snow globe, can you think of any other American sound film that looks anything like that? (Some silent films had quite impressive cinematography, but things changed when the talkies came.) I would argue that substantial reason for why Citizen Kane has the legacy that it has is thanks to Toland’s eye.

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