Thursday, September 29, 2011



It might be interesting to reflect in these days of economic disaster how the great European Cathedrals were built in the Medieval Era – that Era which finds no shortage of detractors today and which we are frequently assured was littered with poor serfs struggling to stay alive in dirty hovels. It is amusing to this writer to read from our intellectual giants of today how ignorant our medieval ancestors were, or from our vaunted economic experts of today (of whatever stripe) how wretched were the lives of medieval serfs. A case of the pot calling the kettle black?

Yes, actually.

I will always be indebted to the late, great Scottish writer Hamish Fraser who reprinted an article from the Anglican journal The Rock in an issue of his excellent publication Approaches,
which tells the brief but amazing story of how the great European Cathedrals were built. It is a fascinating glimpse into a time when men lived full and comfortable lives, a world which the wage slaves of today can hardly even conceive of. Like the best of thrillers, this is an article you won’t be able to put down.

I must further express my indebtedness to the son of Hamish Fraser, Anthony, who is keeping his father’s brilliant journalism alive with his own publication which he calls Apropos. There is nothing to compare with sitting in a favorite chair and actually reading a fine book, journal or newspaper, quietly reflecting upon the printed word. Strange talk, yes, from one who writes this on a computer; but it is by way of a “plug” for his superb (but very periodic!) journal which is well worth a subscription.

And now, for the brief but fascinating story of how it was economically feasible to create those great gothic cathedrals, and for a peek into the actual living conditions in the Ages of Faith, give this a look:

Tuesday, September 13, 2011


       Marlene Dietrich in Alfred Hitchcock's STAGE FRIGHT, photographed by Wilkie Cooper

In celebrating the centenary of cinematographer Wilkie Cooper, BSC we are celebrating too that period of movie making which was, after the silent era, the richest period of world cinema.  From the middle 1930s to the early 1960s sound motion pictures were at their artistic peak; it is that era which saw the remarkable contribution of Wilkie Cooper, a British cameraman who had one of the more interesting careers in that period.

Britain had no shortage of brilliance in its cinematographers, and Cooper was of that generation of English camera artists that gave us people like Robert Krasker, Freddy Young, Osmond Borrodaile (actually a Canadian but who worked extensively in England), Jack Hildyard, Stephen Dade, Christopher Challis, Guy Green, Desmond Dickinson, Jack Cardiff, Geoffrey Unsworth and Douglas Slocombe, to name but a few of the more well-known masters of photography who were then active.

Wilkie Cooper came by his photographic skills quite naturally.  Born Douglas Ralph Cooper on October 19, 1911 his father was already one of the pioneer British cameramen of the silent era, D.P. Cooper (“Dippy” to friends and colleagues).  Dippy Cooper photographed features, serials (one which starred the great Japanese actor Sessue Hyakawa), shorts and even educational films, doing much of his work for the Stoll Company.  Dippy’s assistants at the time included Freddy Young, Guy Green and Desmond Dikinson, all of whom could share an amusing story or two about this single-minded artist.  The elder Cooper not only photographed many of the English leading players of the era but he brought several unknowns into the business, including Victor McGlaglen, who was an unknown bit player until Cooper insisted he be given a major role in one of the films he was making.  It led to one of the great acting careers in the business, including an eventual Oscar for McGlaglen, in John Ford’s THE INFORMER in 1935.

Dippy’s young son Douglas, soon nicknamed “Wilkie”, was fascinated by cameras from an early age.  He took a tremendous interest in the study of fine painting, visiting the London galleries with his father who would instruct the young lad on how to create on film some of the luminous lighting effects they would see in paintings.  He was fascinated by the work of Monet, all the French Impressionists and the work of the gifted English painter of watercolors, J.M.W. Turner.  When Wilkie was still “a very young lad in very short trousers” his father, in an act of charity, invited a near-destitute William Friese-Greene to come and live in the Cooper household.  Friese-Greene, the virtual inventor of cinema, was being ignored in an industry he created and this so shocked Dippy and his generous wife Alice Rose that they took him in and kept him alive for a number of years before his death.  Young Wilkie would sit by his father’s side and listen to the two men discuss every aspect of film, lighting and technique.  The boy drank deeply from this fountain of photographic expertise and kept with him this knowledge learned throughout his long career.  He also learned the vicissitudes of acting, for his father would often find small parts for him to play in the silent movies he was photographing.  “I was forever being thrown into dustbins or mud puddles in all these silent comedies,” he would recall.

At a very young age he obtained work with the Alexander Korda production company without, oddly enough, any help from his well-established cameraman father.  Soon he and fellow enthusiast Robert Krasker found themselves assisting the great French cameraman Georges Perinal, who Korda had brought over from Paris to photograph some of his prestige films.  “Peri [Perinal] was my teacher, my Daddy you might say.  He took Bobby [Krasker] and I under his wing and made us learn everything there was to know about cinema,” recalled Cooper in an interview.

The creative aura of the Korda studio was exemplified by the numerous talents gathered together there in the 1930s.  Designers like Lazare Meerson, Vincent Korda, Fred Pusey and Ferdinand Bellan would create beautiful sets with unique visual styles.  Cameramen like Perinal were there, and then some of the American artists like James Wong Howe and Hal Rosson were invited by Korda to come over to photograph certain films.  Wilkie Cooper was Wong Howe’s camera operator on three epic films (UNDER THE RED ROBE and FIRE OVER ENGLAND among them), and he counted that experience as one of the most important of his cinematographic education.  Young Cooper would have the good fortune to work on real artistic masterpieces like REMBRANDT and THINGS TO COME among others.  William Cameron Menzies, the brilliant American designer, and writers like H.G. Wells and Lajos Biro would all be part of this artistic haven overseen by Korda.  In such an atmosphere as that it is not surprising that unique ideas and techniques could be absorbed.

The best way to celebrate the centenary of a great author is to re-read one of his books, of a composer to listen to their music and of a cameraman to watch some of his films.  Fortunately we have ever improving video formats like dvd and BluRay to give us a fairly good idea of a cameraman’s work.  Happily a number of Wilkie Cooper’s films have become available on these formats and it will be this writer’s pleasure to make some recommendations. 

When Cooper was at last promoted to the position of Lighting Cameraman, or Director of Photography, he had the good fortune to begin with the famous Ealing films produced by Sir Michael Balcon.  Two of them particularly stand out, CHAMPAGNE CHARLIE and WENT THE DAY WELL, both directed by the quirky yet highly talented Brazilian Alberto Cavalcanti.  After a number of Ealing films Cooper was chosen by Sidney Gilliat and Frank Launder to shoot many of their pictures and it is with these two that Cooper would photograph several important classics including I SEE A DARK STRANGER and GREEN FOR DANGER.  All of these are available on dvd.

There were many fortuitous collaborations ahead for him.  It is interesting to observe the fact that on those occasions when renowned cinematographers became directors, such as Guy Green and Jack Cardiff, they would choose Wilkie Cooper to shoot their early pictures for them.  A testament, undoubtedly, to the trust they placed in his skill.  Often  Cooper would be chosen by a number of directors known for being extremely demanding, John Guillerman being one such.  There were notable Hollywood directors who would call on him, too.  He loved working with the great Raoul Walsh.  “He called me ‘Will”,” recalled Cooper, “and I called him ‘General.’  He was a lovely man.”  Lewis Milestone, Edward Dmytryk, Guy Hamilton, Hugo Fregonese and Lewis Gilbert would all at one time or another select him to light their pictures for them.

And so did Hitchcock.  When the great maestro of suspense returned to England to make his delightful (and underrated) STAGE FRIGHT in 1950 he chose Cooper as his Director of Photography.  The stories of how Cooper dealt with two demanding leading ladies, Marlene Dietrich and Jane Wyman are, if one may use a much over used cliché, legendary.  This beautifully shot film is one that gives us what one may call the “signature” of Wilkie Cooper, for all his favorite lighting ideas can be found in it. 

It is interesting to note as well that, musically, Cooper was indeed lucky to have many of his images adorned by some highly esteemed composers.  Few cameramen could boast having their films scored by such as Sir William Walton, Miklos Rozsa, William Alwyn, Georges Auric, John Barry, Arthur Bliss, Richard Addinsell and Bernard Herrmann (whose centenary, by the way, is also being celebrated this year). 

Any number of fascinating projects were offered to him in the course of the 1950s but there was one association which pleased him especially, one he often recalled with fondness, and that was his long collaboration with the cinema’s doyen of special visual effects, Ray Harryhausen.  Starting with the enchanting and dazzling fantasy THE 7th VOYAGE OF SINBAD in 1958 Cooper went on to brilliantly photograph six films with this special effects genius.  It was in his Harryhausen films, gorgeously shot in color, that Cooper’s utter mastery of the medium of color photography really shone.  Color photography is the norm today but, oddly, very few contemporary cinematographers understand what color can do for a motion picture like this man did.  Cooper understood the psychology of color.

On a personal level Wilkie Cooper could be irascible at times and maddeningly vague in his interviews.  He had an amused disdain for the pretensions of some of the directors he worked for (often justified) and an undying respect for others, like the equally irascible but highly accomplished Nathan Juran.  Simplicity in photography was his credo, and he admired other cameramen who shared his ideas and were equally serious in their work, like Geoffrey Unsworth, Paul Beeson, Ted Scaife, Guy Green, Oswald Morris and of course Krasker and Perinal. For other cameramen who looked upon their work merely as a paycheck he had little sympathy. Here was a man who lived, thought and breathed the cinema all his life. That being so he had definite opinions.  He never approached a film merely to show off a style; for him the story came first.  Yet observant eyes can almost instantly tell a Cooper-shot movie, be it the dreamy look of THE END OF THE AFFAIR with Deborah Kerr or the hard, realistic ugliness of ABANDON SHIP (incredibly, entirely filmed in the Shepperton Studio silent stage) or the wondrous JASON AND THE ARGONAUTS.  His work is very much worth reappraisal.

He worked well into the late 1980s (he passed away on December 15, 2001). He was married to actress Peggy Bryan, a beautiful and highly-skilled actress who gave up a brilliant career in stage and films to be his wife. She bore him two sons, Gavin and Jonathan. Her later years were plagued with illness and it is due to this that Cooper retired much earlier than he might have. They were married for fifty years, until her death in 1996. Two of Peggy Bryan's films have recently been released on dvd, and both give a good example of her range: the George Formby comedy TURNED OUT NICE AGAIN (in which her future husband-to-be was on the camera crew) and the famous horror classic DEAD OF NIGHT, one of the genuine masterpieces of English cinema.

One of Cooper's last pictures was one that many have termed his masterpiece: the beautiful and striking RUN WILD RUN FREE which one can only hope that Columbia/Sony will soon make available on BluRay.  This is one of the most poignant family films ever made, exquisitely photographed on windswept Dartmoor.  Its mood is at once dark and oppressive, yet bright and fresh and clean.  The camera work is high art.  It is the pinnacle of Wilkie Cooper’s achievement.

For those who would like to acquaint themselves with the work of this talented man, and to see how much of the camera man’s art we have lost with today’s fake naturalism, here is a list of some films you may want to check out and which are heartily recommended, and all available on dvd:  REMBRANDT (1936), WENT THE DAY WELL, MY LEARNED FRIEND (with the great Will Hay), GREEN FOR DANGER, I SEE A DARK STRANGER, Alfred Hitchcock’s STAGE FRIGHT, SEA DEVILS (1953), THE END OF THE AFFAIR (1955), THE ADMIRABLE CRICHTON (1957), THE 7th VOYAGE OF SINBAD, MYSTERIOUS ISLAND, JASON AND THE ARGONAUTS, FIRST MEN IN THE MOON and MAN IN THE MIDDLE.

In a letter sent to Wilkie during the last months of his life, the famed cinematographer Freddie Francis wrote in closing, "Thank you, Wilkie, for all that you taught me." Another master of light and shadow, the renowned Douglas Slocombe, who began his professional studio career under Cooper's tutelage, said this: "He produced all this magic in the studio, and it was wonderful seeing him create something out of bare walls. It was that creation that was so exciting."

Happy 100th, Wilkie.

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