Thursday, 9 September 2010

Cosgrove's Technicolor wonderland - matte painted effects from two vintage Selznick films.

For anyone familiar with my early blogs, as well as my contributions on the matte painting forum of, you'll know I'm a huge devotee of golden era photographic effects man and master matte painter Jack Cosgrove.  My earlier blogs have concentrated on a number of Cosgrove matte shows - many for wonder child David O'Selznick such as my all time number one matte exposition GONE WITH THE WIND in addition to SINCE YOU WENT AWAY, REBECCA, THE PRISONER OF ZENDA,  A STAR IS BORN, SPELLBOUND, DUEL IN THE SUN as well as the many films he later worked on for Warner Brothers.  Those new to this blog may want to check out these posts - although the unfamiliarity of this technology at the time meant that the layouts were all over the place and they organisation questionable at best (I was even considering deleting the first 2 or 3 blogs altogether as they are a shambles - but will leave them as a sort of shaky, amateur matter of record)

Today I will focus in on two glorious vintage Jack Cosgrove effects shows - both produced for David O'Selznick in the thirties, and notable for being among the very first 3 strip technicolour matte shot films.  The first one here today, THE GARDEN OF ALLAH was made in 1936 and was to a large extent a learn as we go along exercise for the burgeoning new Selznick photographic effects department.  I've written much about Cosgrove already so I'll not repeat myself other than to say that with friend and associate, effects cinematographer Clarence Slifer, Cosgrove was tasked with the until then unknown world of compositing glass paintings onto the 3 strip technicolour process, a task requiring much experimentation of use of filtration, incandescent light sourse on the artwork and above all else much trial and error testing of the unforgiving precision in negative developing.  

Technicolour was a lifetime away from the then bog standard monochromatic effects work, and as such the Technicolour corporation who owned the cameras and lenses placed strict caveats upon the Selznick operation (and presumably other studios of the day as well) to adhere to their dictates in all aspects of camera and negative.  For example it was a dictate that all rewinds of camera elements requiring second or multiple exposures was to only conducted by licensed technicolour staff on technicolour's premises!  For a time Cosgrove and Slifer acquiesqued to this arrangement, but as the matte load grew and grew on most of these colour Selznick productions it was soon apparent that for speed of operation and consistency of quality such work had to be carried out (behind closed doors) in the Cosgrove effects department.

The first of today's retrospectives is the Marlene Deitrich - Charles Boyer romantic starrer, THE GARDEN OF ALLAH.  The use of three strip colour in the production cinematography by W.Howard Greene and Hal Rosson is extraordinary to say the least.  Selznick was gung ho to have his films meticulously designed and orchestrated to make maximum use of the new expensive process.  Veteran art director Lyle Wheeler, who was to play a major role in Selznick's GWTW worked out glorious, almost fairy tale settings reminiscent of the many of the exquisite orientalism paintings (an art genre I love dearly) of the late nineteenth century.  The Selznick studio was a tiny one, and it's effects unit similarly 'cosy' - yet the films that came out of the studio were some of the biggest pictures of their day - though several lost money, such as GARDEN OF ALLAH which cost a fortune was not a success.  The critics trashed the film and it never really found it's audience, though I rather liked it.  Interestingly, Selznick allowed Cosgrove significant artistic and autonomous freedom in his effects work and had utmost faith in what Jack and Clarence could achieve.  No department on GWTW went more significantly over budget than Cosgrove's effects department.  Cosgrove budgeted for $29'772 yet the finished roster of mattes and composites came in at a then staggering over run of $89'832.  Selznick wasn't purturbed as he had so much faith in Jack's wizardry - a wizardry without which, GWTW could never have realised the old south anywhere near as successfully.


The opening shot - it may be a Cosgrove shot, but could be one of the only actual location shots in the film, with the rest, aside from the extensive Palm Springs location, being extensive matte painted composites.

The monastery - all Cosgrove!

One of Cosgrove's trademark effects - the sun rays streaming across the set  - almost all of which is a glass shot.  Jack utilised this lovely sense of romanticism in many of his mattes over the years, notably GWTW,  SINCE YOU WENT AWAY and several Warner Bros films.

Although I can't be certain, I think the ceiling work and the upper part of the archways is more than likely a Cosgrove shot.

More classic Cosgrove glass shot magic. Whether other painters worked on this film I can't be sure.  Fellow matte artist Albert Maxwell Simpson worked numerous times with Cosgrove on several of these films so I assume he could very well have painted on GARDEN OF ALLAH as well.

Backlot limited set with painted mosque, rooftops and skyline.

Some of the many romantic visions of the desert night as augmented by Cosgrove.

As far as I know, most, if not all of the matte compositing on this and many other Selznick films of the era was carried out original negative.  None of the shots in the least appears to be duped as quality is magnificent.  Certainly GWTW bennefitted from this method three years later.

Why go to Cairo when you can ask Cosgrove to paint it on glass?
Marlene Deitrich waves her burning torch to attract her suitor.  The matte demarcation is visible and the actress walks partly through it becoming transparent briefly on her way down to greet her saviour.

More glass enhancements that lend a wonderful feel to the proceedings.
Back to the monastary.

Most of the trees and all of the monastary are Cosgrove's work.

 A year or two later Selznick embarked upon another technicolour production, this one being the delightful ADVENTURES OF TOM SAWYER (1938),  A number of lovely matte shots permeate this thoroughly enjoyable film of the famed Mark Twain classic tale.  The casting is terrific, with young Tommy Kelly stealing the show as everybody's favourite kid hungry for adventure.  I could easily imagine pre-adolescent audiences of the day screaming with delight in movie houses throughout this film and immediately re-enacting all of Tom's daring do straight after the movie emptied out.

Again Cosgrove and Slifer teamed and produced siome great heavily romanticised shots which suited the theme, time and notion so well.  Legendary production designer William Cameron Menzies was on staff here, at least for the substantial cave sequences which occupy the last 20 minutes of the film.  Menzies' creations supplemented with Cosgrove's glass art just added to the thrills and fun. Of course Menzies would be one of the key creative members of the next up GONE WITH THE WIND, and much of that film's grandeur is due to him.  So, on with the mattes.......


Tommy Kelly - the kid just stole the show!

Cosgrove establishing shots of the small backwaters town.
A classic and customary Cosgrove sky - a specialty which would present itself again and again in many films Jack painted on over his career.  See DUEL IN THE SUN for some fantastic examples.
The boys are off on an adventure - all painted from just under the roof eaves.
Tom and Huck confront danger in the guise of Victor Jory.
I love that full painting at left - complete with animation of a shooting star.
The boy's secret (all painted) pirate island - now what kid wouldn't want their own pirate island like this?

Picnic at Cosgrove Rock - high drama.

Extensive glass art with kids on set.  Danger lurks within.
Some of the many interior glass shots based upon the wonderful design of William Cameron Menzies, with the lower left frame of the underground waterfall (possibly created with falling salt?) and the kids approach simply magical!
The kids encounter swarms of cave bats - a cell animated composite by the looks of it, and it looks great.

Tom nearly falls into one of Cosgrove's glass shot subterranean canyons.
The search party await anxiously for the lost Tom.
Menzies' set and Cosgrove's additions.
A sense of old time romance in this beautifully designed glass shot that is all but forgotten nowadays.
Trouble's afoot!   The duel to the death...but who will win?

Well of course Tom Sawyer won, and perenial screen heavy Victor Jory took the dive!  The kids see the light and find their way out at last - all Cosgrove paint with what appears at right to be a small projected element of the kids due to odd looking contrast of the plate (?)
Free at last - a gorgeous matte painted shot to conclude the drama.

So endeth today's blog - I hope some of you enjoyed these shots.  I'll do a separate blog shortly on Cosgrove's mattes for JOAN OF ARC as I wanted to keep this one all Selznick oriented.


  1. Where did you get these images from Tom Sawyer ?
    The only dvd I find in the US is a crummy heavily interlaced Korean version.

  2. It's available on a nice transfer on Region 2 from


  4. Thanks Peter

    I've had 4 people send me that SPELLBOUND matte so far. I can't recall the shot in the film though so I've just hired the Criterian edition to take another look as it's been 25 years.