Monday 10 October 2011

MGM Redux - The Lion Roars Again

I've published several blogs on specific MGM effects films in the 18 months since my blog has been operational, with special editions on such iconic Metro visual effects films as FORBIDDEN PLANET and the still amazing THIRTY SECONDS OVER TOKYO  among others.  I probably love the golden era Metro Goldwyn Mayer matte art above all of the other production houses, with something of a 'A Grade' seal of approval always seemingly part of the deal with the matte paintings from that great studio.  That's not to say that MGM were the boldest nor ingenious when it came to pulling off magic. That honour would have to go to the incredibly resourceful and imaginative Warner Brothers Stage 5 effects department who, in my book, remain unsurpassed throughout the 30's and 40's (though they dropped the ball all too often in the fifties, sadly), even under the miserly penny pinching rule of studio head and founder, Jack Warner... though as usual, I digress! 

I feel honoured to own a pair of original MGM Newcombe mattes from the 30's and early 40's respectively, and these take pride and place on my living room walls (between much of my own mediocre artwork) and I never lose a sense of engaged fascination as I look up at them and think about the illustrious 'magic kingdom' from whence they came.  Even the old, musty smell - akin to that one would encounter when browsing the old hardcover first editions section of a long established second hand bookshop - incidentally an aroma I enjoy so much (let's see these Apple I-Pad gimmicky things achieve that sensory delight).

Today's blog is - for the most part all new material - with a handful of previously blogged mattes added in as I'm especially fond of them.  Only a few of these appeared in my previous MGM blogs: 'Up in Lights' - the Art of the MGM Musical' and 'MGM's Lesser Known Mattes'.  I'm always conscious of some of the more rare or important images just getting lost to newcomers to my blog in the sheer clutter of so many frames, articles and what have you. 
Warren Newcombe - 1947 Oscars
My early blogs go into some detail as to who was who at Metro, special effects wise, with, in the early days all effects coming under the broad umbrella of Cedric Gibbons' Art Department.  In the early 30's Englishman James Basevi would take charge of all special miniature, process and mechanical effects, with his right hand man, Arnold Gillespie eventually filling that role when Basevi moved into art direction and later visual effects for Samuel Goldwyn Pictures in the latter part of the thirties on effects films such as Gary Cooper's THE ADVENTURES OF MARCO POLO (1938).
Insofar as matte painting went at MGM, the name Warren Newcombe will be familiar to all who have stuck with this blog over time.  Newcombe - one of the more eccentric personalities ever to feature in the realm of special effects was an illustrator who would paint pastel mattes at the studio, probably as early as the  mid  twenties on silent pictures such as AMERICA (1924) under Gibbons' art department.  The argumentative Newcombe would assume command of the matte art department in the mid thirties - a position he would hold until his retirement in 1957.  Pictured at right is Newcombe receiving his 'best visual effects' Oscar in 1947 for the picture GREEN DOLPHIN STREET.

It's uncertain just how much actual hands on painting Newcombe did, as many interviews suggest he did practically none - at least since becoming head of department in the mid thirties.  Former Metro matte artist Irving Block would later state:  "Warren Newcombe never touched a brush.  He was my friend and I worked for him, but Warren never did anything.  He sat in his office and played around with his shortwave radio calling all his friends to play chess".  Apparently, Warren would spend a great deal of time mastering the sport of Ping Pong - in the matte studio no less- with the constant 'click, clack' of Ping Pong ball's reverberating from his locked down, closely guarded little fiefdom. 

Newcombe's successor, Lee LeBlanc had interesting dealings with the man too.  According to LeBlanc's daughter, in the biography of her father: "Dad finally landed the position as head of the matte painting department at MGM, where Warren Newcombe - a most eccentric man - was about to retire.  Dad ordered Newcombe's office fumigated before he would move in, because Newcombe would take a cup of coffee, if it had grown cold, and just fling it across the room!  The walls and floor were stained with splashes of old coffee, and the place was a mess.  Newcombe also had the strange habit of keeping dozens of pairs of brand new white socks in his bottom desk drawer.  He would take off the two pairs he was wearing, throw away the ones that had been next to his skin, put back on the ones that had been on top, and then put on a brand new pair over those". 

A recent account of Newcombe I read would detail his ritualistic dining table habits which included soaking the table cloth in water and washing his hands, face and neck with it - no matter who was present.
As if that weren't enough, even Matthew Yuricich would tell author Craig Barron of Newcombe's bizarre behaviour which extended to conducting imaginary orchestras to a full blast hi-fi, dabbing black shoe polish in his hair and taking to wearing an oddball assortment of ear rings to ward off evil spirits.    I have heard more stories, but we're getting off track......There certainly was nobody else around like Warren Newcombe.

Mark Davis and Warren Newcombe
A great number of fine painters would work throughout the decades under Newcombe, and it's certain the high success rate of trick shots is due to Warren's eagle eyed supervision and sense of motion picture savvy of instinctly knowing where and when a glass shot should be used, which, despite his many idiosyncracies, would see Warren regarded somewhat as Metro's golden boy and generally left alone to his own devices.

Among the names who would feature, uncredited, in the Newcombe Department were artists Clyde Scott, Otta Kiechle, Henri Hillinick, Jack Shaw, Jack Robson, Stanley Poray, Oscar Medlock, Albert Ashworth, Norman Dawn, Candalario Rivas, Rufus Harrington, Joe Duncan Gleason, Irving Block, George Chittenden, Louis Litchtenfield, Vernon Mangold, Matthew Yuricich (pictured below), Jack Rabin, Hernando Villa, Emil Kosa snr, Sig Nesselroth, Howard Fisher and Lee LeBlanc among others, with former 20th Century Fox artist LeBlanc being given the job of head of department following Newcombe's departure.  Many of these personalities had, or would have successful gallery careers in fine art outside of the film industry.

Lee LeBlanc in later years.
After a long career at 20th Century Fox, Lee LeBlanc would only remain with the Metro studio for a few years and around 1963 left to pursue a career in fine art. There are still a handful of original matte paintings on display at LeBlanc's memorial art gallery, including one from BEN HUR and another from GREEN MANSIONS.   

Metro's matte department, unlike pretty much all other studios, were gung ho in the use of pastel crayons for the creation of their matte paintings. 
For several decades this was the tried and true method for the Newcombe artists, with the only other matte painter using - or in fact pioneering this method being the great Norman Dawn, who started the whole matte process around 1910.  Interestingly, Dawn would work for Newcombe throughout the forties on numerous films, some of which I have examples from below. 

Intrigued as I am about the seemingly unusual choice of pastel as a medium, I asked author, historian and owner of Matte World, Craig Barron about this:  "All the matte paintings I have seen from MGM’s Newcombe department were pastels – film stocks were softer back then and the technique was good at blending into the live action. I don’t know if it was mandated but I would guess it was as Newcombe ruled with an iron hand and I have not seen other matte departments (like Selznick) using it". 

"When Newcomb left MGM and Slifer and Yuricich were doing films like Ben Hur they were using oil paints – unfortunately they were also developing that IP process that required the paintings to be painted in weird colors and contrast that looked correct when photographed with the IP film stocks – they also did not always have c-scope lenses on the matte cameras so wide screen matte paintings were often painted squeezed. That’s why the later era MGM matte paintings don’t always look so great in person when they are on display".

"Early MGM and American studio style matte paintings of the era were like technical illustrations. That changed later with the Pop Day, Peter Ellenshaw and Al Whitlock method that really pushed the paint around in order to refine and develop “the look” through building up an illusion from a very impressionist start".

Matte artist Matthew Yuricich - 1955

Director of effects photography was the multi talented Mark Davis, who as well as being a top notch matte cinematographer and key collaborator, but also a sometime matte artist himself.  The picture above shows Davis on rostrum with Newcombe posing in front of his matte camera - probably taken in the thirties.  Davis worked at the studio from 1930 until 1956, whereby he went freelance and worked on many films such as Columbia's THE DEVIL AT 4 O'CLOCK (1961).  In addition to Davis, the Metro matte department would benefit significantly from the early fifties onward with the skills of veteran effects cameraman Clarence Slifer, who's career had started with Willis O'Brien on KING KONG as well as Jack Cosgrove on GONE WITH THE WIND.  Former MGM effects head, Buddy Gillespie would rate Slifer as one of the true greats in visual effects photography.  Other matte effects cameramen were Tom Tutweiler, Dick Worsfield , Dwight Carlisle, Cliff Shirpser, Don Jarel and Winton Hoch.

Visual effects designer J.MacMillan Johnson in matte dept.
Former art director, conceptual artist and  visual effects designer J.MacMillan Johnson (pictured at left) was to oversee the matte and  special visual effects department upon LeBlanc's move away from the movie industry.  Johnson, known among his peers as 'Mac' Johnson, although not a matte painter himself, did have a considerable pedigree in visual effects and design, having painted watercolour conceptual art for GONE WITH THE WIND 's many matte shots, and several other Selznick pictures, including his Oscar winning visual effects work for PORTRAIT OF JENNIE in 1948.  Johnson would work on many MGM films in a design-storyboard capacity such as THE WIZARD OF OZ.  'Mac' would be frequently credited for 'special visual effects' from 1963 up until 1971 on films such as ICE STATION ZEBRA and would be nominated, deservedly, for the astonishingly beautiful matte work in the epic scaled THE GREATEST STORY EVER TOLD (1965) - which, as we know, lost out that year to the penny dreadful effects work in the remarkably pedestrian Bond film THUNDERBALL.... but don't get me started on bloody Oscar injustices.

Matte painter Matthew Yuricich at work on MGM's tv series LOGAN'S RUN
In addition to the matte department, the studio had a busy optical effects department  run by Irving G.Ries from as far back as 1927, with thousands of opticals in many hundreds of films - an example being many amazing mobile invisible split screens being used in the Johnny Weissmuller TARZAN pictures of the thirties to combine wild animals with the cast.  (I'll cover the TARZAN effects in a separate blog.)  Ries worked hard right through to his retirement in 1958, with his highpoint being the wonderful 'Dancing Shoes' set piece from Fred Astaire's THE BARKLEY'S OF BROADWAY (1949) and the astounding Tom and Jerry live action combo for Gene Kelly's ANCHOR'S AWEIGH.  Ries' longtime assistant in the opticals unit was second cameraman Robert R.Hoag, who would take control of the department after Ries' retirement  in 1958 on through to the seventies on films such as  SOYLENT GREEN (1972) being responsible for not only opticals but overall mattes and visual effects once Mac Johnson stepped down.

The MGM matte department - circa 1949.  Photo courtesy of Craig Barron

Matte artist Rufus Harrington in foreground, works on an unidentified matte shot in this 1939 photograph.

The popular 1950 musical ANNIE GET YOUR GUN featured beautifully saturated technicolor photography, with gorgeous matte, miniature and process shots to match.  Upper right is a Marcel Delgado miniature train, constructed in Donald Jahraus' gold standard miniatures department.  The two lower frames are Irving Ries blue screen travelling matte shots combining cast with a cleverly devised multi plane painting of the setting sun and landscape created by cameraman Mark Davis in the Newcombe department to wonderful effect.

Three more  mattes from ANNIE GET YOUR GUN - with upper left a stage set matted into either an ocean plate or a miniature tank plate.  Upper right is an full frame painted example of what I love most about Metro's mattes.... the glorious and glittering neon signs and theatre frontages - one of which I am happy to own.  Lower frame is indoor stage augmented with painted rooftops, trees and sky.

Another pair of frames from ANNIE GET YOUR GUN with spectacular Newcombe painted skies.

The 1935 version of ANNA KARENINA opened up the Metro backlot with several flawless Newcombe shots.

An unused ANNA KARENINA painted matte not seen in the final cut.

Several mattes adorn the Gene Kelly AN AMERICAN IN PARIS (1951) with Lou Lichtenfield contributing some.

The 1960 adventure ATLANTIS - THE LOST CONTINENT saw heavy use of Buddy Gillespie's tank miniatures and a number of matte painted views, some painted by Matthew Yuricich under Lee LeBlanc's supervision.

As I've already stated, my favourite 'genre' if you like, of painted matte art happens to be this sort of flickering theatre signs and marquees..... magic!

The famous 'Dancing Shoes' segment from THE BARKLEY'S OF BROADWAY (1949) which gave optical cameraman Irving Ries and his unit a chance to shine.  An incredibly complex sequence  whereby a number of dancers clad in black leotards performed on a black draped set minus Astaire with Ries pulling mattes and compositing against Astaire dancing on the same set with black drape removed.  Additional hand animated cels were employed to patch up portions of the shoe performance where the black clad performers accidentally passed in front of one another, thus obscuring the shoes momentarily, and these are visible in the circle dance portion shown above.  Sensational on all counts!

Yep..... here's another of those glorious neon signs - THE BAND WAGON (1953) - entirely fabricated on surprisingly thin and fragile artists board with dozens of minute and carefully drilled out holes at each 'lightbulb' placement for the purposes of backlighting on a separate pass.  These sorts of shots sum up the golden era of Hollywood like no other.

The exciting 1943 movie BATAAN was a showcase for excellent visual effects such as these Newcombe mattes.

Matthew Yuricich, shown here painting his grandest matte ever, for BEN HUR (1959) which, although it took the Oscar for visual effects, was for some unfathomable reason denied the matte art sub category, and only awarded for miniatures and physical effects!!!  The Lee LeBlanc supervised mattework far outshone any of the 'winning' effects shots.

Another of Yuricich's BEN HUR mattes, with this one opening the film.

Matthew Yuricich at work on BEN HUR in the MGM matte painting room in 1959. Click here for much more.

Three Newcombe shots from the CinemaScope musical BRIGADOON (1954)

One of the many sensational mattes in the Oscar nominated spectacle BOOMTOWN (1940)

Also from BOOMTOWN - a film which also featured staggering scenes of oil well infernos by Arnold Gillespie and Donald Jahraus as well as top drawer optical compositing by Irving Ries with actors in the midst of near death.  See my special BOOMTOWN blog for the full lowdown on this show.

A composite using one of pioneer Norman Dawn's pastel paintings which served as a 'stock street scene' according to Dawn's own meticulous records was used several times by MGM on different films from 1938 onward.
Charles Dickens' DAVID COPPERFIELD (1935) - although I'm unsure whether MGM or Selznick actually carried out the many effects shots.  The visual effects were all concieved and carefully supervised by Yugoslav montage consultant Slavko Vorkapich - a man much in demand throughout the 30's and 40's across many studios.

Two mattes from the rather listless Spencer Tracy 1940 version of DR JEKYLL AND MR HYDE.  The street scene at right would be reused years later in the musical TWO SISTERS FROM BOSTON - a not uncommon practice.

MGM's 1943 musical DU BARRY WAS A LADY with decor enhancements.

The final shot from EASTER PARADE (1948) which was Metro's first foray into motion repeater matte photography to achieve tilts and pans without resorting to poor quality optical dupe scanning.  At this same time Paramount came out with their version of the same basic equipment, though it must be noted, that the ever resourseful Warner's team had been doing high quality pans, tilts and pull outs for many years on amazing early forties effects shows such as YANKEE DOODLE DANDY,  RHAPSODY IN BLUE and THE ADVENTURES OF MARK TWAIN to name but three.

The EASTER PARADE tilt up matte being photographed on the patented 'Dupy Duplicator' motion repeater, invented by sound engineer Olin Dupy (left).  The others folk are assistant studio head (who's name escapes me), matte cinematographer Mark Davis, Warren Newcombe and lastly assistant mattes cameraman Bob Roberts.  Photograph from Craig Barron's utterly indispensable book on the subject, The Invisible Art - The Legends of Movie Matte Painting.
Yep... another of my deliriously delightful marquee mattes - this one from EASTER PARADE.
The cult classic (which not many people liked back in it's day) FORBIDDEN PLANET (1956) was a nominee up against John Fulton's Paramount team with THE TEN COMMANDMENTS.... Moses took home the Oscar that year.  This shot was painted by veteran MGM artist Henry Hillinick - the mentor of up and coming matte artist Matt Yuricich.
Another of the four FORBIDDEN PLANET mattes that were painted by Henry Hillinick.

Rare before and after frames from FORBIDDEN PLANET's key matte sequence - the Krell reactor.  A Howard Fisher painting on masonite with backlit 'lighting' gags.  I did a full on retrospective on this classic sci fi flick should anyone wish to know more about all of the effects shots...  click here.
Sam Wood's 1939 version of GOODBYE MR CHIPS
Next to those glittering neons, classic painted ornate ceilings always grab me.  From GOODBYE MR CHIPS.

Another invisible matte set extension from GOODBYE MR CHIPS

The eerie and effective 1944 version of GASLIGHT had some beautiful matte paintings in it - as well as magnificent, moody lighting by Joseph Ruttenberg.   Bergman rarely looked as good as she did here.

The rather long William Powell film THE GREAT ZIEGFELD (1936) opened with some spectacular mattework.

A beautifully atmospheric Lee LeBlanc tilt up matte shot from the astonishingly bad Audrey Hepburn vehicle, GREEN MANSIONS (1959) directed by her husband, Mel Ferrer..... a sort of Jane of the Jungle adventure... my god... what were they thinking?  Great matte shots though, composited by Clarence Slifer.

Two more LeBlanc mattes from GREEN MANSIONS.  I believe one of the paintings from this film still exists in the care of the art gallery established in Lee's name

I include these Robert Hoag GREEN MANSIONS blue screen comps as an example of the dozens of similar shots - some quite complex with panning moves and so forth whereas the film was touted as being shot on location in the wilds of the South American jungles, yet not one shot shows the principals in anything resembling an actual jungle, with everything either travelling mattes, studio backlot or 2nd unit stand ins filmed separately!  Indeed!

Closing matte view from GREEN MANSIONS as the LeBlanc painted sun sinks slowly into the Slifer aerial image printer!

The Oscar winning effects showcase GREEN DOLPHIN STREET (1947) which saw some excellent miniatures of New Zealand being hit by earthquake and tidal wave, and numerous good mattes, some of which were painted by glass shot and process pioneer Norman Dawn who worked on and off for Newcombe throughout the forties - and from the evidence I've seen, was none too enthused about it either.
A close detailed view of one of Norman Dawn's painted set additions for GREEN DOLPHIN STREET where Dawn added the roof and upper portion onto a backlot set.  The actual shot in the film is a far wider shot than this cropped image from Dawn's own records of each of his 800 plus matte shots from throughout his long career.  Of interest, Dawn had this to say about this particular shot and an intriguing encounter with Cedric Gibbons:  "This particular effect, while in no way spectacular, in fact it went by in the picture entirely unnoticed (which is the purpose of a successful effect).  This pleased Mr.Gibbons very much, and was among the last of the things I was to do at MGM.  He had approached me after I made this, with the idea of taking over in an area where he was not entirely satisfied with the way things were going in the department.  However, both Mr.Gibbons and the other two men involved were all getting old, suffering from success and big fat salaries..... and I wanted none of it.  I was slowing down myself".

The huge Metro effects show which was robbed at the Oscars, inexplicably, by a totally undeserving (but far more successful) picture.  THE GREATEST STORY EVER TOLD (1965) may have been very, very long though it benefitted from some of the finest matte work of the sixties..... Scores of stunningly atmospheric painted vistas and set augmentations executed by a team of matte painters such as Jan Domela, Matthew Yuricich and Albert Maxwell Simpson.  Visual effects overseen by J.MacMillan Johnson, effects photography by Clarence Slifer and Cliff Shirpser.

One of Jan Domela's numerous matte contributions to THE GREATEST STORY EVER TOLD.  Jan's daughter Johanna told me of visiting her father while he worked on this film on the MGM lot:  "He was at MGM as a freelancer then and was ensconced upstairs in an old building on the MGM lot, something that looked like it was ready to fall down!  But the room upstairs had lots of light and plenty of space for him to work there.  Downstairs were the cameramen and when I visited they took me through on a tour, much of which, unfortunately, I didn't understand at the time.  But it was then he was working on Greatest Story and some TV shows - The Man From Uncle, as well as The Unsinkable Molly Brown".

A rare, unbalanced  test composite blow up of the above Domela painting.  For more on this film go to my Epics blog.

A view of the matte painting studio at MGM during the making of THE GREATEST STORY EVER TOLD - with another of Jan Domela's completed paintings of the walls of Jeruselem seen here on the easel.  For the whole Jan Domela story, click here for lots of amazing old Paramount mattes.

Visual effects pioneer Norman Dawn painted this 1946 matte of the hills and cloudy sky for this Judy Garland film, among others during his tenure at Metro Goldwyn MayerDawn's detailed records of all of his effects shots note this period as being one of "drudgery jobs that I was tied into at the MGM studio at that time".

An unidentified matte from the 1930's - and one of two that I happen to own.  All I know is that it's from a W.S Van Dyke film......   I've watched alot of his films such as THE THIN MAN series but haven't spotted it yet.  If anyone can identify it, please let me know.  The piece is an incredible example of Newcombe's mandated use of pastel crayon matte art.  It's on very thin, fragile sort of chip board and has amazingly  withstood the ravages of time with virtually no smudging of the delicate pastel work - which given the 70 to 80 year lifespan is pretty impressive.  It may not be a classic museum example of Newcombe's studio, but I love it and just having a piece of golden era trickery is a joy.

J.MacMillan Johnson was again up for the effects Oscar in 1968 (against Kubrick's 2001 no less - no contest) for ICE STATION ZEBRA.   These opening rocket shots look great, with Matthew Yuricich's painted earth and some excellent cell animation for the re-entry shots.  I remember seeing this one as a kid with my dad in 'Cinerama' though not the proper 3 strip version, but the later 70mm sort of Super Panavision 70 sometimes branded as Super Cinerama..

One of the sets in what was known as the Process Tank on MGM's lot 3, with significant scenic expansion courtesy of matte painter Matthew Yuricich.  Don Jarel was probably shooting Yuricich's paintings on this show, and the two would work together often over the years right up to Spielberg's CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE 3RD KIND (1977)

More Yuricich matte shots from ICE STATION ZEBRA.

Spencer Tracy-Katherine Hepburn double headliner, KEEPER OF THE FLAME (1943).  Exquisite composition and execution were the stock and trade of Metro's highly regarded Newcombe department.

Another matte from KEEPER OF THE FLAME (1943)

The ineffectual 1950 Errol Flynn adventure KIM featured this staggering closing sequence involving multiple matte paintings - probably three -  lap dissolved as a changing landscape, with actor added by travelling matte.

Some of the finest matte work to be seen in a big Biblical epic appeared in KING OF KINGS (1961).  Lee LeBlanc was matte supervisor with artists probably people such as Yuricich and Howard Fisher who was still around.

H.Rider Haggard's oft filmed KING SOLOMONS MINES would again materialise again in 1950 with Deborah Kerr and Stewart Granger.  The sole matte shot was this long view across the African planes.  This matte may possibly have been created in England by the British MGM outpost, under Tom Howard - though I'm not sure.  This shot (and various action shots) would be recycled in later films such as WATUSI and others.

The period CinemaScope costumer, THE KING'S THIEF (1955)

The 1944 technicolor version of KISMET looked better than the big Scope remake.

The added gimmick of CinemaScope did nothing to help the 1955 version of KISMET where the matte shots were surprisingly lackluster indeed.

Although the 1976 Oscar winner for visual effects, I've always cringed at the unbelievably shoddy effects work in LOGAN'S RUN.  Very poor miniature photography, appalling model pyro work, marker pen thick blue screen outlines throughout and alot of grainy, poorly balanced matte painted shots, sad to say.  The Matthew Yuricich paintings (surprisingly)  ran the range from poor to excellent, with this shot one of the better ones.  Apparently Yuricich used his photo blow up techniques to augment with substantial painted alteration.  I recall seeing the film (several times) back in the day in 70mm 6 track mag stereo and even then the mattes looked poor, with bizarre colour matching issues.  The frame here is from a BluRay edition and looks great - but this was always a solid fx shot anyway.  As far as I know this was the first ever on screen credit for matte veteran Yuricich, after 25 years in the biz!

Another of Yuricich's better matte shots - actually a full frame painting atop a photo blow up.  I understand that Matt's adult children still own a couple of the original LOGAN paintings.  This frame is also taken from the BluRay edition and looks great.  BTW - despite it's flaws I've always really liked the film.... groovy Dale Henessy art direction, the hottest female costume design ever (thanks Bill Thomas...I owe you one),   sensational Jerry Goldsmith score (which sells many a matte), the unbelievably delectable Jenny Agutter,    The jaw droppingly politically incorrect 'Love Shop' PG rated orgy sequence (!!!),   The daffy 'New You' plastic surgery gone awry,  the dim and vacant Farrah Fawcett-Majors,  Roscoe Lee Browne's 'Box' the coolest killer robot ever seen armed with what looks like a turkey baster or a whipped cream cake decorating thing, which causes great concern to Michael York and Jenny Agutter (did I say she was 'delectable'?)......... what's not to like?

Ceiling additions to the rather funny THE LONG, LONG TRAILER (1954)

More great examples of those sensational Newcombe marquees that I like so much.  These are from the very good James Cagney - Doris Day picture LOVE ME OR LEAVE ME (1955).  Mattes like these are pure magic to this commentator.

Now, as amazing as this shot is, I'm certain it's actually a vast forced perspective set due to the very free dolly move of the camera, but I'll include it here none the less as it's a stunner and must have cost Louis B.Mayer a bundle.

One of several rare archival MGM mattes I have with no identifying title or date.  Any clues out there?

Although I've not managed to see it, the 1938 MARIE ANTOINETTE looks as though there's some great work in it.

The Lana Turner 1952 version of THE MERRY WIDOW.

Another unknown matte shot, possibly from the film MALAYA (1949) with Spencer Tracy and James Stewart. Norman Dawn was one of the matte artists to work on MALAYA (if that's what this frame is) though the description of his work on this film doesn't match with this particular shot.  Incidentally, he recorded this period at MGM as "Drudgery jobs".

A sense of elegance and opulence is brought to MRS PARKINGTON (1944) by the Newcombe matte department.

The superb 1935 version of the true maritime event has a few glass shots to add in islands, ships on cloudy horizons and so forth.  James Basevi supervised the visual effects.

Now, as good as the old Gable-Laughton picture is (and it is!), I feel the 1962 Brando-Howard adaptation has been overly maligned by critics and the like, when in fact it's a hell of a good film.  Tremendous production in all departments, with outstanding Oscar nominated special visual effects work including brilliant miniature work by Arnold Gillespie, with terrifying simulated storms and high seas, aided considerably by gigantic triple head process projection by Carroll Shepphird, subtle optical gags (such as a sailor falling to the deck from the crowsnest) by Robert Hoag and of course spectacular mattes by supervised by Lee LeBlanc.

Matthew Yuricich was matte painter on the MUTINY ON THE BOUNTY with Lee LeBlanc.  The film also has several excellent moving split screen composites combining a huge burning HMS Bounty miniature and beached crew watching in awe.  The interior fire sequences are a brilliant mix of process, physical effects and stunt players.  Top notch work!

The staggering opening wide panning shot across Plymouth Harbour and onto the town (crudely cut and pasted here by yours truly) was a meticulously designed and engineered set up overseen by Clarence Slifer.  The initial plate of the water was shot in the studio tank with mechanically towed rowboat in motion.  At the rear edge of the tank Slifer erected several cloths on poles to simulate the reflection of sails on moving water.  Matte painter Matthew Yuricich meanwhile painted the background ships on one glass, and the foreground ship and cityscape on a second overlapping glass.  Matte cameraman Clarence Slifer and his assistant Dick Worfield then combined the elements  and the complicated camera move on his aerial image optical printer with a wide pan across, followed by a slight tilt and push in on the actors Trevor Howard (very good in this) and Marlon Brando in the foreground.

A very young Elizabeth Taylor featured in NATIONAL VELVET (1944) - as did a large number of matte shots.

An impressive tilt down matte composite from NATIONAL VELVET.

A painted ceiling and fixtures from an untitled film.  I suspect the right side wall to be matte art as well?

Lee LeBlanc matte from the Frank Sinatra war picture NEVER SO FEW (1959)

Hitchcock's NORTH BY NORTHWEST (1959) was a bonanza for the matte department.  Again, Lee LeBlanc supervised and painted, with substantial work carried out by Matthew Yuricich.  If only the horrendous painted backings came this close to being convincing.... among the worst ever committed to film.

A rare and quite magnificent original matte painting from the film OUR VINES HAVE TENDER GRAPES (1945)

The finished composite, perfectly blended.  The film also has a number of miniature farmland effects shots.

The opening shot in the 1958 picture PARTY GIRL with a slow downward camera move from Chicago skyscrapers to flashing nightclub - all courtesy of matte artist Lee LeBlanc and effects cameraman Clarence Slifer.

A matte shot which never made the final cut of THE PHILADELPHIA STORY (1940)

David Niven and Doris Day's PLEASE DON'T EAT THE DAISIES (1960).  Tilt up matte by Lee LeBlanc.

Another of the 'title unknown' MGM mattes which I have.  Any ideas?

The excellent Lee Marvin thriller POINT BLANK (1967) seemed totally devoid of trick shots until I listened to director John Boorman's commentary track whereby he pointed out the subtle additions to an actual Los Angeles building to add a non existant luxury penthouse in several shots.  Probably painted by Matthew Yuricich - MGM's top artist.

Again, from POINT BLANK, a totally credible telescope POV up the building and onto the painted penthouse.  Special visual effects credited to J.MacMillan Johnson, with Clarence Slifer compositing the matte elements.

An incredibly good matte painting from THE POSTMAN ALWAYS RINGS TWICE (1946) where practically all of the scenery here has been created by an artist under Warren Newcombe's watchful eye.  Terrific stuff.

Three matte composites from the 1940 PRIDE AND PREJUDICE with Greer Garson.

Although not a match with the old Ronald Colman version, the 1952 PRISONER OF ZENDA has some nice mattes such as this very wide pan across the 50% glass painted vista.

Some of the nice technicolor mattes which open up PRISONER OF ZENDA to a broad canvas, as it were.

Also from PRISONER OF ZENDA  which incidentally featured many good split screen 'twin' gags by Irving Ries.

Rare original MGM archival proofs of a key PRISONER OF ZENDA before and after matte painting.
MGM were at the top of their game with huge Biblical style spics, with THE PRODIGAL (1955) having some good matte work.  The lower frame is a very wide pan across a painted city and into the boudouir of the heroine.

A fine, well blended matte, also from THE PRODIGAL.

The excellent 1942 Ronald Colman drama RANDOM HARVEST matted train station.

Another extensive matte from RANDOM HARVEST (1942).

Several matte painted shots from the 1936 version of ROSE MARIE.

Anyone know this film?

With the success of PRISONER OF ZENDA, Stewart Granger went on to do SCARAMOUCHE that same year.  Here's a before and after Newcombe shot.

More mattes from SCARAMOUCHE (1952)

An MGM archival proof of a key SCARAMOUCHE matte composite with the lower portion and bridge part of a permanent exterior set on one of the studio's vast backlots of the day.

SEVEN BRIDES FOR SEVEN BROTHERS (1954) before and after matte shot. 

Two more from SEVEN BRIDES FOR SEVEN BROTHERS.  Matthew Yuricich painted on this show.

Norman Dawn, the inventor of the matte process would work on and off at MGM for Cedric Gibbons over the years and among the films he painted on was the Wesley Ruggles picture SEE HERE PRIVATE HARGROVE (1944)According to Dawn's own records, now in the possession of the University of Texas, the ceiling was decorated with murals of naked women, and Cedric Gibbons, the chief art director at MGM, procurred young MGM women to pose for Norman while he drew the figures.  Well, it's a crap job, but I guess someone has to do it!

The 1951 Howard Keel remake of SHOWBOAT utilised a purpose built paddle steamer 'parked' in one of the backlot lakes for several sequences, with considerable landscape, sky and river detail painted in.  The matte line runs off to the lower right of the steamer and would no doubt have been problematic to blend, though the final shots are very smooth.

An archival proof from the Spencer Tracy film SEA OF GRASS (1947).

Another unknown Metro title.... any clues out there?

Two exotic mattes from the 1957 musical SILK STOCKINGS.

A beautifully crafted winter scene, painted for an unknown MGM film.

One of Matthew Yuricich's visions of New York in the future, from Richard Fleischer's SOYLENT GREEN (1972).

Another Yuricich shot from SOYLENT GREEN.

A Matthew Yuricich matte shot, which regrettably never made the final cut of SOYLENT GREEN, which is such a pity as the film really needed to be 'opened up' at times to escape the evident MGM backlot.

One of my all time favourite matte shots - from the grim finale of the brilliant A TALE OF TWO CITIES (1935).

An old MGM archival proof of one of the TALE OF TWO CITIES mattes.

Some more of the wonderful work seen in the superb A TALE OF TWO CITIES (1935)

Substantial matte addition from a Judy Garland film whose title unfortunately alludes me.

Another unknown title, possibly a TARZAN picture of the thirties.  I'll be doing a TARZAN matte shot blog some time.

Busby Berkley's TAKE ME OUT TO THE BALL GAME (1949) used this three part composite for one scene.  The sea is real, the car and immediate area are a separate plate and the building, sky and palms are all matte art.

If ever the invisible 'fix it' magic of the matte painter's art was in dispute, then this amazing matte from TAKE ME OUT TO THE BALL GAME is exhibit one!  An astoundingly convincing merging of painted people and real people in this brief, flawless piece of trickery.  How I'd love to get my hands on that beautiful painting.

My earlier blog on the making of THIRTY SECONDS OVER TOKYO (1944) has alot of detail, though I feel compelled  to repeat this amazing before and after matte shot.  Click here for all the info.

I do love that gothic castle that seems to rise up out from the sea in the middle frame.

Another mystery matte - one out of over two thousand such MGM mattes, many of which are now in the collection of the University of Texas I believe.

Oh, yeah... more marquee magic shown here in TILL THE CLOUDS ROLL BY (1946) in the form of those meticulously crafted neon signs and theatre frontages that I enjoy so much.  The one at top right I now own, though for this particular film the name on the marquee was altered, as was often the case with these easily reusable paintings, some of which showed up in 3 or 4 pictures, each time with an altered 'name' on the sign.  EASTER PARADE and THE BAND WAGON both share the same marquee paintings, though the names and other details are usually altered.

Now here is that same full painting as it now looks as it hangs on my wall.  The painting is the same as that used in TILL THE CLOUDS ROLL BY but now a new 'show' has been substituted, for a different film, the title of which I've not yet been able to discover, with all the info I have is that it's a Richard Whorf directed film.   The technique appears to be goache upon artists' board, with dozens of tiny holes carefully drilled out for each light bulb (see below).  The two shots above demonstrate the painting when backlit (lower image).

The rear of the same full matte painting, with all of the original 1946 'gags' still intact.  Not only are the 'bulb holes' evident with their coloured celophane, but the new 'show name' Midnight Girl has been carefully painted and inserted to replace the Leave it to Jane show marquee used for TILL THE CLOUDS ROLL BY ... all most fascinating, and a joy to own a piece of Newcombe magic (even if my wife doesn't see it quite that way!!!!!)

Not entirely matte art, but terrific optical compositing here of miniatures into live action... and it's from a silent Metro picture THEN TRAIL OF 98 (1927).  It all looks sensational when viewed in motion.

Some more of the avalanche sequence from THE TRAIL OF 98 (1927) which I'm sure Irving Ries would have worked on.

A wonderful piece of perspective draftsmanship by an un-named Newcombe artist for George Cukor's THE TWINS.

A wonderful opera house matte from TWO SISTERS FROM BOSTON (1946).  The painting of the opera has numerous slot gags cut into the board to suggest a sense of movement in the audience through interference devices rotating behind the painting, though the shots are so brief that nobody would notice (but subconsciously the viewer might detect a lack of movement and 'deadness' if the gag were not used?)

The 1964 Debbie Reynolds musical comedy THE UNSINKABLE MOLLY BROWN was a big matte show, with former Paramount artist Jan Domela recruited to paint a number of mattes as Jan's daughter Johanna told me: "Molly Brown  was fun for him to do.  He was at MGM as a freelancer then and was ensconced upstairs in an old building on the MGM lot, something that looked like it was ready to fall down!   What was fun for him were the various views that he had to create of cities in Europe, i.e. Paris, that Molly and her husband dance through in a lovely scene.  It was filmed in the dirt lot at MGM and then the mattes were created which changed the scene into something magical.  I think my father would have liked to stay at MGM but he only had a short stint there, probably because, as with so many other studios, there just wasn't a lot of work.  It was there that one of the cameramen told me how much they like my father because he always got it right.  He said that if anything was wrong with the shot it wasn't my father's doing, but their own.  I thought that was awfully nice.  They also admired how fast he worked".

Another of the many MOLLY BROWN matte shots with a beautifully moody sky and late afternoon sense of light.

A mid fifties Egyptian adventure VALLEY OF THE KING.

The 1940 remake of WATERLOO BRIDGE used mattes and photo cut outs to portray wartime London.

One of the innumerable safari love triangle films of the fifties, the 1959 film WATUSI, with this one borrowing the main exterior matte of the African landscape from the earlier KING SOLOMON'S MINES (1950).

Moody matte painted London, from THE WHITE CLIFFS OF DOVER (1944)

Another effective shot from THE WHITE CLIFFS OF DOVER all shot on the MGM lot to avoid difficulties of wartime production in continental Europe.

Practically all matte art:  WHITE CLIFFS OF DOVER.

One of the most beloved films of all time, THE WIZARD OF OZ (1939) has a great many mattes other than the obvious, well documented ones, such as this beautiful multi-plane cloudburst with the rays of the sun breaking through.  The clouds and the sun rays were two separate paintings, combined in the matte camera to great effect.

THE WIZARD OF OZ entirely matte painted set that not everyone notices.

The left photo was apparently taken in Irving Ries optical department, where a cameraman is shooting a title glass, probably for the trailer.  On the right are two more recognisable original paintings from the film.

An invisible before and after example from THE WIZARD OF OZ  (1939)

An especially beautiful pastel WIZARD OF OZ matte painting which recently went up for auction in the US.

Matte artist Candalario Rivas painted this matte for THE WIZARD OF OZ - one of the rare examples ever of an individual artist's name being associated with a given shot, especially at that period.

Although similar, I think the lower picture was a matte not used in the final WIZARD OF OZ.

I like a good 'last man on earth' story, and this 1959 science fiction thriller is a good one.  Lee LeBlanc was matte supervisor with Matthew Yuricich painting a number of shots.

Nightmarish traffic congestion - something New Yorker's are familiar with - but perhaps not on this scale. From THE WORLD, THE FLESH AND THE DEVIL  (1959)

LeBlanc and Yuricich would extensively rely upon the MGM in house method of utilising large format photo blow ups, pasted to glass, with details altered or added as required.  Apparently, the heat of the matte stand lights, especially for colour photography, would sometimes cause the lacquer to burn or the photographic paper to curl up.

One of Clarence Slifer's THE WORLD, THE FLESH AND THE DEVIL'S before and after matte set ups.

Two more examples of the WORLD, THE FLESH photo collage matte painting process which Yuricich would use frequently over the years on films such as LOGAN'S RUN (1976) and DAMNATION ALLEY (1977)

A commonly published matte from THE WORLD, THE FLESH...  which doesn't appear in the final film.  Obviously an unused sequence, though a portion of it does crop up in the theatrical trailer only.

The popular 1946 Gregory Peck drama THE YEARLING is a prime example of the magnificent pastel skills acquired by the artists at MGM.  An exquisite piece of artwork, which sadly, I could never locate in the film?

Detail of the intricate pastel work from THE YEARLING - highly indicative of the Metro Goldwyn Mayer matte ethic.