Thursday, 18 November 2010

Liberty lady shines her torch - Columbia Pictures matte shots

Todays blog has been a really exasperating effort - with numerous internet problems, including the whole web here slowing up to a near crawl  -which isn't unusual here with our very poor internet speeds.  Several instances of this blog NOT saving as I tirelessly typed away only to find zero at the end of it - causing me to bloody near throw the freakin' computer out of the window.  But we got there in the end (I hope)... so here goes...........

I worked for some eight years from the late 1970's for Columbia Pictures at the New Zealand distribution office Columbia-Warner Film Distributors where we shipped 35,16 and occasionally 70mm prints to theatres throughout NZ and many of the South Pacific territories such as Tonga, Fiji and Samoa.  Those days were the halcyon days of film exhibition where prints were constantly on the move and even films some twenty years old still had life left in them and would always be playing somewhere.  It was a great era for collecting rare one sheets and publicity materials too, the sorts of things that don't even get used nowadays in those cold, faceless multi-plex prisons that call themselves moviehouses.

Never one of the 'giants' of motion picture production unlike competitors MGM, Warners, Paramount and even RKO - Columbia, under the tyrannical reign of one Harry Cohn actually achieved alot with comparitively few resourses.  Similar in some ways to rival Warner Bros the lean,mean Cohn enterprise wasn't afraid to show the warts and all side of life in gritty, politically dangerous productions such as the excellent ALL THE KINGS MEN and all of Frank Capra's exceptional films such as MR SMITH GOES TO WASHINGTON and MR DEEDS GOES TO TOWN to name but a few.  MGM would never dare to lower it's glistening, sparkling self to such a common man level - nor would Paramount Pictures for that matter. As big a son of a bitch as Cohn was (and by ALL accounts, he was) the man should be commended for being a risk taker - something few moguls could compare to, especially now in this cut and dried teflon coated, politically correct, corporate era in which we are burdoned. 

New Zealand born glass artist Ted 'Oscar' Withers at work.
My actual knowledge on the special effects unit at Columbia Pictures is extremely limited I'm afraid.  It by all accounts wasn't on the scale of MGM or the huge Warner Stage 5 unit for that matter, but it seemed to be able to hold it's own with the relatively down to earth visual effects needs of the mainly more compact productions.  A few names seem to constantly crop up in the special effects side to the studio's output -  E.Roy Davidson, Jack Cosgrove, Russ Lawsen, Friend Baker, Ganahl 'Kit' Carson, Ted 'Oscar' Withers, Donald Murphy, Kenneth Wheeler, Leon Barsha, Robert Wright, Donald Glouner and with probably the key name associated being the legendary Lawrence W.Butler.

In my blog on Frank Capra's LOST HORIZON I go into some of these personalities mentioned above, with then director of effects Roy Davidson helming the camera effects department from around 1934 until the early forties whereby he moved across to Warner Brothers to do much the same thing.  Several key names in the world of matte art were associated with Columbia, two of whom I've written about in my blogs extensively - Jack Cosgrove and Russell Lawsen who both did a team stint at the studio in the middle thirties before being snapped up by Selznick International and Universal respectively.  Other matte painters associated with the studio were New Zealander Ted (Edward Oscar)Withers (pictured at left and above right setting up a glass shot) who according to his nephew painted glass shots for Columbia and MGM probably from the late twenties.  Hans Bartholowsky and Juan Larrinaga - the brother of Mario - were other matte artists connected with the photographic effects side of things at the studio until both moved across to Warner Brothers probably some time in the early forties.

Veteran matte man Lou Litchtenfield also worked at the studio for a time, as part of his self mandated gaining of experience at all the majors' in an effort to learn all the tricks of the trade.  Former Paramount matte artist Jan Domela also painted on some Columbia shows in the mid sixties for Lawrence Butler, though to pinpoint exactly which ones is next to impossible as I've not spotted any clues in his family archives.

It seemed that the natural steps of progression were to start at Columbia and after you'd paid your dues to move on up to Warners.  Larry Butler seemed to do the reverse  - having started at WB with his father when he was just 15 and later joining the Alexander Korda operation based out of London in the late thirties working under Ned Mann on all of the big Korda epics.  Butler would resume his US effects career at Warners in the early forties and direct all effects efforts on many films such as CASABLANCA before being taken on by Harry Cohn at Columbia in 1944 whereby he was in charge of all photographic and miniature effects produced at the studio - a station he held pretty much for the rest of his career until finally establishing his own independent effects house around 1960 when Columbia shut down their camera effects department.  Joining forces with long time effects partner, cameraman Donald Glouner they rebranded themselves as Butler-Glouner Films and worked non stop throughout the sixties and beyond on a number of sizable films such as THE DEVIL AT 4 O'CLOCK, IN HARMS WAY, ROBINSON CRUSOE ON MARS and TARAS BULBA..

So with that I'm presenting a collection of matte painted effects shots, plus a few opticals and miniatures, spanning the history of Columbia Pictures Corporation.  Most are from the golden era, some from the latter period where work was entirely outsoursed by external effects vendors and others that may just have been distributed by Columbia.  The films illustrated here are more or less in alphabetical order and cover the gamut - from delightful Arabian Nights fantasies, westerns, Bogart spy thrillers, Rita Hayworth vehicles, little epics to films with that irrepressible Frank Capra social conscience.  So, let's take a look at what Lady Liberty has in store for us shall we?

Columbia was never shy when it came to 'taking the mickey' out of it's own illustrious branding, with this delightful example of Lady Liberty' being scared off by a tiny mouse, from the 1958 Peter Sellers film THE MOUSE THAT ROARED

The rather amusing Phil Silvers' spoof A THOUSAND AND ONE NIGHTS (1945) with very nice Oscar nominated matte shots of ancient Persia.  Effects by Lawrence W.Butler and Ray Cory as visual effects cinematographer.

A nifty little transformation optical, and carried out during a dolly shot to boot whereby Cornel Wilde and Phil Silvers magically change costumes during a continuous moving camera shot, though the frames here aren't a good example.
Two matte shots from Ray Harryhausen's masterpiece THE 7th VOYAGE OF SINBAD (1957) with the top frame what appears to be a painted island, though the considerably grain build up almost suggests it to be one of Ray's Dynamation process screen set ups.  The bottom frame is a beautiful matte painting of the Baghdad bazar, though according to Ray it was a stock matte shot stolen out of another Columbia picture, though I've no idea which one.

Anyone here old enough to recall those so bad they're actually quite good Matt Helm pictures of the sixties? Well, that's good because these are very nice matte paintings from THE AMBUSHERS (1968).  No effects credits but I do know that former Paramount matte painter Jan Domela worked on a few Columbia films around this time so these may be his shots?

Frank Capra's 1932 AMERICAN MADNESS featured this painted set extension to the street outside the bank.

Roy Davidson was nominated for an Oscar for his mostly miniature aerial scenes for the 1939 Howard Hawks feature ONLY ANGELS HAVE WINGS with Cary Grant.  Matte artist was Chesley Bonestell - another of those to soon aspire to greater things at both RKO and Warner Brothers.  One of the few ever Columbia pictures to be nominated in the visual effects category.

Cornel Wilde was Harry Cohn's poster boy for sure, with many stirling leading man roles in pictures like THE BANDIT OF SHERWOOD FOREST (1946) among many others.  No effects credit but there was alot of good matte art throughout the low budget little show.

Also from THE BANDIT OF SHERWOOD FOREST - very nice matte shots with a most curious situation in the upper right frame of the castle and moat (and I'm not making a mention of the lack of painted reflection in the water) this exact matte shot was 'stolen' some 11 years later by, of all people, Warner Brothers (!) and recycled in the Errol Flynn picture THE ADVENTURES OF DON JUAN..... go figure!

The beautiful and quite mesmerising Frank Capra film THE BITTER TEA OF GENERAL YEN (1933) was chock filled with glass shots of revolutionary China.  Possibly painted by Jack Cosgrove and Russ Lawsen who worked at Columbia around that time.  The film is exquisite, and features many impressive glass shots.

BITTER TEA matte shot with added fire effects and mass panic.

Some of the exquisite glass shots from GENERAL YEN.  A quite haunting and arresting film, and so well photographed.
Vintage Columbia matte art from the 1948 film THE BLACK ARROW

"Aaaaaarg, me hearties and land lubbers"..... among the many serials made by the studio was this one THE ADVENTURES OF CAPTAIN KIDD from the late forties with many miniature battles and matte painted locations.


Nice matte art and miniatures - with that style of olde school end title some of us may remember?

Being basically a cheap-jack outfit it would come as no surprise to see a Harry Cohn technicolor pirate yarn such as this, but with some action shots still in black and white!!  Obviously 'borrowed' from another show, possibly a serial.

Nice miniatures also from CAPTAIN PIRATE (1952)

A latter day Columbia blockbuster, CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE 3RD KIND (1977) featured many Oscar nominated effects shots such as this Matthew Yuricich-Scott Squires shot (with curious bleed through of Melinda Dillon's head).  Doug Trumbull's Future General effects outfit supplied all of the effects work in this show, though it is worth noting that old hand Larry Butler was on the payroll as a sort of 'advisor' to the studio.  It was pointed out to me recently that in one scene in the film on the Devil's Mountain, Richard Dreyfuss is introduced to Josef Summer's character named 'Larry Butler' !!  True story.

Mattes from a mid fifties Columbia western CONQUEST OF COCHISE.

Matte shot from the 1947 Humphrey Bogart thriller DEAD RECKONING

Now here's a strange one for you from DRUMS OF TAHITI (1954) ... the same matte shot turning up in two different movies buy two different studions twenty years apart - with the latter being an Albert Whitlock effects show!  I asked Al's cameraman Bill Taylor about this and he was totally baffled, though did tell me of a particular miserly producer of 'B' movies and tv shows on the Universal lot who probably would have had no qualms about just such a rip-off.... a producer who shall remain nameless but whom Whitlock himself characterised as "a dustbin producer".
One of Columbia's big shows of 1961 was the Spencer Tracy-Frank Sinatra disaster film THE DEVIL AT 4 O'CLOCK.  The film is jammed with effects shots - ranging from very poor blue screen with so much spill and bleed through you could drive a motorcycle through 'em (with Tracy's silvery hair becoming a beacon much like a lightbulb attracting bugs to all manner of spill artifacts rendering his hair invisible in at least two shots!)- to mostly very good matte art such as this shot and excellent miniatures.  Although surprisingly uncredited, Larry Butler and partner Donald Glouner handled all of the vast numbers of effects shots on this film, though who the matte artist was is a mystery.  The shot above is outstanding and has all the hallmarks of an Albert Whitlock painting, which wouldn't surprise me as Al was out of Disney by that time and doing several freelance jobs, including several for Larry Butler on shows such as THE PIT AND THE PENDULUM, so this may be Whitlock.  I did ask Bill Taylor but he didn't know whether Al worked on this show or not.

DEVIL AT 4 O'CLOCK matte shot with painted in canyon and rock face.

Excellent huge scale miniature volcano built on Butler's ranch, with in this example good compositing.

Painted set combined with travelling matted model volcano to excellent effect.

Among the effects personel on DEVIL AT 4 O'CLOCK was long time MGM matte cinematographer Mark Davis who had left that studio in 1956 after almost thirty years as effects cameraman for Warren Newcombe and Arnold Gillespie to work on his own.  These shots are combination matte art, miniatures and live action - with some of these shots looking pretty darned good... and a few others having that requisite 'magic marker' matte outline to contend with.

The survivors make their way down the mountain.  A substantial, full glass shot from DEVIL AT 4 O'CLOCK  (1961)

"Well, Pal...I guess this is it" - studio set with matted in miniature background and augmented with foreground matte art.
Artfully created matte work from the bizarre 1952 Dr Seuss show.

More uncredited mattes from THE 5000 FINGERS OF DR T" which may have been painted by Louis Litchtenfield who was at Columbia for a period prior to working at Warner Bros.

5000 FINGERS OF DR T mattes.      Special thanks to my pal Domingo for these beautiful frames.

An utterly obscure little 'B' movie with this uncredited painted in horizon.

A poor frame from a funny film.. Lucille Ball set adrift at sea via split screen matte from THE FULLER BRUSH GIRL (1950)

Matthew Yuricich's Spook Central matte from GHOSTBUSTERS (1984) for Richard Edland's Entertainment Effects Group - formerly known as Future General with Trumbull but soon to become BOSS Films - but not for long.
The very mediocre sequel GHOSTBUSTERS II did at least feature this monumental Mark Sullivan glass painting which was better than all the other effects in the show put together.  Sadly the painting is no longer with us and is resting in tiny little pieces up in matte shot heaven.   :(
Mark's exquisite glass painting as composited into the final film.  The sense of perspective, texture and aging is magnificent, and as good a showcase of Mark's brush skills as anything he's done - and I make a point of trying to see all his work.  As colleague Rocco Gioffre once said  "man can that guy paint",

The last great Harryhausen picture  -THE GOLDEN VOYAGE OF SINBAD (1973) utilised the extraordinary talents of premier Spanish matte artist, the great, one and only Emilio Ruiz del Rio for this utterly convincing and invisible foreground painted city (to facilitate camera pan) which thrilled Ray no end.

Another of Emilio's invisible trick shots from the same great film.  All perfectly aligned foreground art perfectly blended in and 'sold' on the basis that the same light that lights the set lights the matte art.  The man was a genius in my book.

A big Columbia hit film THE GUNS OF NAVARONE (1961) starring the interminably dull Gregory Peck.  These are two of the many Bob Cuff matte paintings featured in the British made film, which won an Oscar for miniatures and mechanical effects courtesy of Bill Warrington.  Sadly, most of the matte shots were printed down so far to render them as indecipherable on DVD, yet quite okay on vhs and 35mm.

Another 1962 British production under the Columbia banner - HMS DEFIANT (aka DAMN THE DEFIANT) a rather good period sailing ship drama with Dirk Bogarde and Alec Guiness. These examples of several matte shots are uncredited but most probably from Wally Veevers matte department at Shepperton.  This shot consists of extras with real ship but with both sides of the street being exclusively glass art.

Another Shepperton matte shot from HMS DEFIANT - possibly painted by George Samuels or Bob Cuff?

A great matte artist at work on a far less than great piece of celluloid - Mark Sullivan painting on the film ISHTAR (1986) the legendary bomb which almost broke the studio.  The sweeping masterpiece Mark is finishing off wasn't used in the final film by the way!

Columbia struck gold with Ray Harryhausen - having the majority of his pictures on their register, with this classic being yet another such example - JASON AND THE ARGONAUTS (1963).  Again the matte requirements were handled by Wally Veevers effects department at Shepperton with a roster of matte painters such as Bob Cuff, Doug Ferris, Peter Melrose and Bryan Evans on staff at the time.  Matte cinematographers were John Grant and Peter Harmon.

THE JOLSON STORY (1946) was a very popular and entertaining bio-pic of Al Jolson, even despite the star, Larry Parks being blacklisted shortly thereafter by that collossal bastard Senator McCarthy - though, as usual, I digress.  The film has a number period matte shots, theatre set extensions and (a pet fave of mine) trick shot glittering light facades featured under the supervision of montage director Lawrence W.Butler.

Washington DC around 1910 - from THE JOLSON STORY

One frame from the jaw dropping night to day matte sequence which blew me away.  Lots of animated neon lights here.

Sequential frames from the above set piece in THE JOLSON STORY (1946)

Even ILM get in on the Columbia game today with this Caroleen Green matte from LABYRINTH (1987)

Larry Butler supervised the mattes for Orson Welles' LADY FROM SHANGHAI (1948)

Very nice, expansive mattes from the updated remake of the film LORNA DOONE (1951)

Another uncredited matte shot from LORNA DOONEI'm a sucker for castle matte paintings.

I wrote extensively in an earlier blog on Frank Capra's LOST HORIZON (1937) though I can't resist re-upping three of the mattes from that show.  Roy Davidson and Ganahl 'Kit' Carson ran the effects on the film.  Matte artist unknown.

Another LOST HORIZON glass shot.  I'm told that at least one of these original mattes still exists.

I particularly like this LOST HORIZON glass shot of Ronald Colman's trek through the snow and glaciers.

A bit of a con here - this soundtrack album cover for the LOST HORIZON mis-judged remake is better than the actual effects shots seen in the film (supervised by Larry Butler).

Another of Columbia's giant British productions - MAC KENNA'S GOLD (1969) which I have mentioned before in other blogs is filled with matte shots, all of which were carried out on 65mm negative in London by matte artists Ray Caple, Bob Cuff,  Lynette Lee and Joy Seddon.  Matte cameramen were John Mackie and Paul Cuff while veteran Larry Butler and Donald Glouner were overall effects supervisors on this epic.

A minor trick shot - the painted in addition of a ship and sky for the Rita Hayworth film MISS SADIE THOMPSON  (1953)

Frank Capra's 1939 masterpiece - MR SMITH GOES TO WASHINGTON with Jimmie Stewart missing a what should have been a sure fire Oscar that year.  As with many films of that period and beyond the artistry of the painted ceiling became a neccessity to top off incomplete sets for logistical and practical reasons.  These are just some of the many different ceiling matte paintings frequently seen in many different angles in the film.  It's a sort of a sub genre of matte art that interests me greatly - not through any bizarre fetish for ceilings on my part - but I just find the trick 'cool'.  For those like minded souls expect an entire blog soon on 'painted ceilings' from dozens of films.

Harryhausen and matte art  - although it's safe to say that Ray was never too keen on the method personally, he had to use it in many of his shows, such as this one MYSTERIOUS ISLAND (1961).  The mattes were produced at Shepperton by Bob Cuff and probably George Samuels under Wally Veevers supervision.

A rare Columbia 'epic' - SALOME (1953) starring Stewart Granger

More painted matte set extensions from SALOME  (1953)

Another one of the Matt Helm spy spoofs, THE SILENCERS (1967) with this painted in cliff face which may possibly have been done by Jan Domela in the latter days of his very long special effects career.

One of the many, many attempts to re-establish that special 'Casablanca' scenario for Humphrey Bogart - with this being the 1951 film SIROCCO, with some very nice painted mattes of Syria.

Another uncredited matte shot from SIROCCO (1951)

The closing matte painted shot from SIROCCO.

Nice technicolor mattes, some of which depict period Austria from  Cornel Wilde's 1945 picture A SONG TO REMEMBER.

I recall this odd little 3-D show, SPACEHUNTER-ADVENTURES IN THE FORBIDDEN ZONE (1983) as being quite a hit here when the gimmick had a brief resurgence in the early 80's with that awful blurry technirama double frame styled 3D, which I'm confident destroyed many a cornea.  Matte painting by Ken Marschall and comp by Bruce Block.

Another Ken Marschall matte shot - and an invisible one at that - this time from the Stephen King hit film STAND BY ME (1986).  Ken was a very busy matte artist in the 80's, working with cameraman-compositor Bruce Block out of the premises of Gene Warren jr's Fantasy II effects facility on many pictures and television shows.  Ken used to paint on amazingly small art board and never glass, with all his mattes composited on original negative.  I'm told his matte studio was not much more than a "broom closet" in size, with just the most bare essentials installed to make a good matte.

Frank Capra's YOU CANT TAKE IT WITH YOU (1938) featured this painted street scene complete with animated el-trains going back and forth just beyond the trees.  No effects credit naturally, but most probably Roy Davidson in charge here.

Burt Lancaster's controversial gang drama THE YOUNG SAVAGES (1961) directed by one of my favourite directors, the late John Frankenheimer.  Of note for being one of only two films ever awarded the rare 'R 21' (restricted to persons 21 years of age and over) censorship certificate here in New Zealand due to problematic gang violence and content.  The other similarly restricted film was Kubrick's LOLITA.

Well, it's been a long road to get this particular blog up and running due to endless internet problems and things that make me want to tear my hair out... but here it is, so enjoy it before something else screws up!


  1. The "the interminably dull Gregory Peck", Pete, don't let my mum hear you!

    Navarone has one of the worst FX shots I've ever seen near the start, there's a shot of an airfield and a miniature bomber just hangs still in the air!

    I'm going to hunt me down a copy of The Devil at 4 O'Clock (the pics of the bridge reminded me of When Time Ran Out).

    Great post as always!

  2. Hi Peter

    So I guess I'm off your mum's Xmas card list now (not that I was ever actually on it you understand). Yes, DEVIL is certainly worth the effort to catch again, with lots of excellent model work and some good mattes - all infinitely superior to that abomination that was Irwin Allen's WHEN TIME RAN OUT (now don't tell me... you mum loves that movie?)..... just abysmal in all departments with as bottom of the barrel photographic fx as you're ever likely to see (by Bill Abbott no less). What was it in 1980 with a couple of giant films with absolutely toe curling shite effects work - this one and METEOR. ???

  3. "This blog"? Do you mean "this blog post"?

  4. I'm afraid you'll need to expand on 'this blog' question my friend.

  5. Excellent article, as ever.

    Re: "the interminably dull Gregory Peck".

    I agree. In fact, my theory is that any actor with a bird-related name almost unwatchable.

    Ethan Hawke, Robin Williams, Walter Pidgeon (nearly..)...

    Not sure if there's a bird called a "Modine", but if my groundbreaking hypothesis is to be proven correct, there must be.

  6. I really enjoy reading your posts, and to be honest am impressed with it, learnt loads of cool stuff and inspirational as well,

    many thanks, more to come I hope

  7. Hey Andy,

    I think you might be onto something there.... though I'd have to say that one such 'avian' actor, the late Peter Finch gave one of cinema's absolute greatest portrayals in Sidney Lumet's masterpiece NETWORK (1976) which thankfully earned Peter a post humous Oscar.

    Best not let loyal reader Peter Noble's mum know your home address my friend!

  8. Peter Finch? Hadn't thought of him, damn you! Now I'll NEVER get my Hypothesis peer-reviewed.

    Ho Hum. Better crack on with my Paper about all Stanley Kramer movies being 20 minutes too long, then...

  9. I hope he won't mind but I have to share this Tom Sullivan story. He was working on ISHTAR and kept mentioning that the way they were having him do the painting would not cut in properly since they were having him paint the wrong side of the building. Now Tom has always been the most polite of people so when he was very insistent on this point they screamed at him, called him all sorts of names and he calmly proceeded to do what they had demanded. Lo and behold it didn't cut in and they demanded that he redo it for free or they would let it be know that he … Tom Sullivan … was responsible for a $40,000,000 (a GARGANTUAN amount of money for the time) failure. He quietly, and VERY politely, mentioned that it might improve his standing in Hollywood as a person with power. Either they cut in a "scene missing" card or they had to pay him to paint it the way he told them they should … in other words PROPERLY. They paid. I think it was cut out anyway but Tom never missed a paycheck since he was very good and very easy to work with.

    Spencer Gill (

  10. Hi Spencer

    I wonder if you mean 'Mark Sullivan' or was there a 'Tom Sullivan' also involved on ISHTAR??
    To the best of my knowledge Mark painted the mattes with Rocco Gioffre on that overblown film.