Saturday, 21 August 2010

The art of the MGM matte... a selection of lesser seen mattes from the Newcombe Dept.

*note - before I launch into another blog entry I should mention that I frequently update and add to existing published blogs here, often as new or improved images come to hand, or I just find stuff that my failing memory and lousy filing system may have overlooked.  So if anyone is really keen, I have added alot of matte paintings to Jan Domela's page and some interesting Roy Seawright photos of wonderful stop motion effects from BABES IN TOYLAND, more unseen Russ Lawsen matte paintings and also with the huge pile of Warner Bros mattes I'm sitting on I've added several wonderful shots to that page as well, such as the beautiful painted mattes seen in SAN ANTONIO  and classic images from SERGENT YORK and a few great 1940's behind the scenes glass shot - miniature set ups.
                                                                            Just thought I'd mention it for any die hards out there.



Among the thousands of exquisite matte shots produced under the watchful eye of the eccentric 'genius' Warren Newcombe at Metro Goldwyn Mayer I've selected, almost randomly, a number of wonderful mattes from some classics and some not so well known MGM pictures, mostly from the 1940's which for my money was THE heyday of the artform.  The sheer audacity and boldness of the matte supervisors of the forties and the glorious results up on screen I find tremendously exciting, and nothing thrills this writer more than to watch a hitherto unknown old DVD title and find such gems combining camera ingenuity with hands on draughtsmanship skills.  The craft is seen at it's best advantage in many of these frames.  Some of today's frames are also old school optical composites, the likes of which are now resigned to history.

Most of today's matte images I've included are from the Newcombe era, with a few other examples post Newcombe, from Lee LeBlanc's management of the matte department.  This is a kind of lucky dip on my part, as I have more or less 'shuffled the deck' and come up with these terrific shots which I hope devotees will enjoy as much as I do.

The 1936 classic SAN FRANCISCO featured some terrific miniatures by James Basevi and alot of great opticals tying extras into the model destruction in addition to the painted mattes.

Aside from the famous locust plague THE GOOD EARTH (1937) has some lovely glass shots.
Greta Garbo's 1935 ANNA KARENINA with beautiful painted train station among other great mattes.

The original 1939 version of GOODBYE MR CHIPS was a US-British co-production and as such I can't be certain that Newcombe was involved.  Some sourses suggest Percy Day as matte artist, though I feel it's probably a Stateside job.
Gene Kelly does amazing acrobatic work in this 1948 variation on the famous Dumas classic, featuring only a few Newcombe shots, with the clifftop castle being a favourite of mine.

COMMAND DECISION, a tense, expertly directed 1948 wartime drama with good miniatures by Arnold Gillespie and Don Jahraus, plus some subtle matte effects such as the airbase and the group flyover visual effects.

The masterfully played American version of GASLIGHT - one of the best Joseph Ruttenberg lit and photographed pictures ever and complimented by several classy painted mattes of Victorian England.

I cannot live without the comedy of THE MARX BROTHERS, and here are some mattes from their films - top: AT THE CIRCUS, GO WEST (both mediocre) bottom: A DAY AT THE RACES (bona fide classic) and AT THE CIRCUS.

Rudyard Kipling's KIM  (1950), starring Errol Flynn - these shots part of a lap dissolve matte shot.

The watered down Spencer Tracy 1941 version of the Robert Louis Stevenson classic.

Laurence Olivier and Greer Garson's 1940 PRIDE AND THE PREJUDICE

Painted ceiling atrium and seedy Soho from the 1945 Oscar Wilde masterpiece.

George Cukor's comedy of manners, shown here with rare original matte paintings including one at bottom right that didn't appear in the finished film.  Look at the wonderful close up detail on the matte at left.

From the master of subtle social observation, Ernst Lubitsch came the 1939 Greta Garbo picture NINOTCHKA.
Although the comic duo mostly worked for Universal, they did the occasional picture for Metro such as this one, the 1942 RIO RITA.  The big canyon at lower left may be a large painted back drop.
The exciting 1943 WWII war film BATAAN features several dynamite matte shots like this beauty.
I already posted a wonderful 'invisible matte shot' from THE POSTMAN ALWAYS RINGS TWICE on another earlier blog entry, so here is another nice moody matte from the same sensual red blooded 1947 film.

My crude cut and paste of a sweeping, vast pan across a fictitious landscape from the fifties incarnation of THE PRISONER OF ZENDA.  I can't decide whether this was an on set in camera glass shot or a post production composite?

Ancient Rome in CinemaScope - Newcombe grandeur as seen in THE PRODIGAL with the lower wide image being a broad pan across the painted vista and into the residence of Lana Turner. Lovely work.
Another of the numerous flawless widescreen mattes in THE PRODIGAL (1955)

Although I have a whole 'The World of Charles Dickens in Painted Matte'  blog ready to go, I can't resist an advance preview of a couple of those shots, these being some of the astounding mattes from the Ronald Colman version of THE TALE OF TWO CITIES (1935) - a superb telling of that great Dicken's story.
Another of the many mattes from TALE OF TWO CITIES.

Warners and MGM shared the market in swashbuckling adventure, with this 1952 Technicolour Stewart Granger show being a perfect showcase for this genre.  Filled with spectacular mattes, these represent just a few shots.  The huge opera balconies have lots of 'moving people' courtesy of the scratched away interference gag.
Painted army encampment stretching into the distance from the Van Johnson film GO FOR BROKE (1951)

THE MERRY WIDOW - the 1952 version

Some of the unidentified golden era MGM paintings which were part of a matte exhibition some years ago.

Exquisite draghtsmanship and illustration skills are normally evident in matte work such as these examples up to the late fifties with the ushering in of the new wave of matte artist such as Peter Ellenshaw and Albert Whitlock.

Another marvellous thirties TARZAN glass shot.

Strike me down with lightning but FORBIDDEN PLANET never really did move me as a film, or an effects show, though I'll include this Howard Fisher tilt down shot as it is so reminiscent of Maurice Noble's out of this world background art for Chuck Jones' DUCK DODGERS IN THE 24th 1/2 CENTURY  - (and I love fifties Chuck Jones cartoons).

The 1949 Gregory Peck money spinner THE YEARLING

Another extensive set addition from THE MERRY WIDOW

A good solid 1942 drama of post WWI trauma wisely uses Newcombe shots to advance the storytelling process.

Absolutely one of my all time favourites - the brilliant THIRTY SECONDS OVER TOKYO  which deservedly took home the coveted visual effects Oscar in 1944.  Astounding visual effects throughout, from the multi-part matte comps on board the aircraft carrier deck with painted planes, ocean plate and partial set, through to the marvellous trek through China which features many superb matte paintings.  Of course the biggest effect here was the phenomenal all miniature bombing raid on Tokyo - an effects sequence rarely matched in authenticity and spectacle.  Flawless and huge Donald Jahraus miniatures and Buddy Gillespie-A.D Flowers pyrotechnics with extremely well choreographed overhead shots of the bombers flying through the mayhem along horizontal wires using a variation on the tried and tested Lydecker method - just sensational.  Effects cinematographer Mark Davis deserves a tip of the hat here too.
Among the dozen odd TARZAN epics produced at MGM this shot from TARZAN'S SECRET TREASURE (?) is my favourite matte - as evident in the stunning 'before comp' photo here.
Another vintage TARZAN glass shot.
One of the many wartime romances made by MGM - again given a sense of wonder (when all shot in the USA).

The 1947 Oscar winner for special effects, GREEN DOLPHIN STREET has many great mattes, and as it was set here in New Zealand but not shot here, alot of trick work was needed.  Also features an amazing tidal wave and bloody big earthquake that nearly wipes poor ole' NZ off the world map.... and then there'd be no matteshot blog !  :(
Another big WWII romantic drama, the 1944 WHITE CLIFFS OF DOVER was set again in Britain, but due to wartime events was shot entirely in LA and supplemented with dozens of great matte shots, some of which are illustrated here.
A few different versions of KISMET were made by MGM, one of which (the 1955 one) I illustrated in my other MGM musicals page, though this delightful matte is from the 1944 Ronald Colman - Marlene Deitrich version
A Lee LeBlanc painted second floor tilt down of David Niven's house from PLEASE DON'T EAT THE DAISIES (1962)

Whereas all the preceeding examples of MGM matte artistry are courtesy of the Warren Newcombe era, I feel duty bound to include a film not from his time, one from his successor Lee Le Blanc's period from the late fifties.  This interesting shot is from the 1958 Richard Brooks film THE BROTHERS KARAMOZOV with Yul Brynner.  What intrigues me about this effect is the mobility of the camera.  It starts screen right, with a focus pull and follows a character across the square (with a presumably painted Russian city visible in the distance) and the camera picks up on a young William Shatner as he walks up to the lens all in the one uninterrupted shot  How was it done?  I dunno - maybe a hanging miniature of the distant rooftops, maybe a large glass painting on set, or perhaps one of Clarence Slifer's aerial image composites???  A really impressive effect.  I tend to think of it as a hanging foreground cut out along the lines of what maestro Emilio Ruiz has been doing in Spain for 40 years.
Another pair of matte paintings from THE BROTHERS KARAMOZOV - possibly painted by Matthew Yuricich.


  1. Peter,

    Love the Tarzan shots. I've got all the Weismullers but wish they'd release the Lex Barker ones on DVD.



  2. Hi Peter

    Yes, if you look at the MGM thread at you'll find plenty more wonderful MGM TARAZAN mattes posted a while back courtesy of my friend Berengario.

  3. Anyone interested in the Title and credit artwork done by the MGM optical and matte processing dept should check-out this link:

    1. Server will only go to this link:

  4. Could Peter Cook please contact Tony Earnshaw on regarding Wally Veevers.


    Tony Earnshaw

  5. Your method of explaining everything in this article is genuinely good,
    all can easily be aware of it, Thanks a lot.

  6. Now I love your work here don't love FORBIDDEN PLANET ? It screams Science Fiction, why it's practically Science Fiction. Well, to each their own. I love the picture. And I don't hold it against you, I still love all you have done here, such wonderful homages.