Thursday 22 June 2017

Forgotten Gems of Special Visual Effects Part One - SUEZ (1938)

Hi there friends.  Sorry it's been so long since we last touched base, but as many of you may already know, NZPete just has to be in the exact 'frame of mind' to tackle one of his often gargantuan and always illuminating blog posts.  The mood right now is just right and I suddenly decided very late last night that today will indeed be 'the day'.... so blogging here we come with all guns blazing, as it were.  No preparation ... just frantic typing and assembling pictures in a mad, frenzy of blogging activity.
This issue will be the first in a series of retrospectives on individual films which take a firm place in my own personal Hall of Fame for their outstanding or just plain memorable special photographic effects work.  The films I've selected for this and subsequent blogs were largely neglected, overlooked, lost in the shuffle or to many of the modern viewers out there weaned on endless bloody 'Marvel' regurgitations (oh, when will it ever end?) these films may be completely unknown!

There are so many Golden Era effects shows that I still find entertaining and pack a sizable punch in their respective technical achievements, even many decades later as today's featured motion picture will prove.  Some upcoming Forgotten Gems on NZPete's Matte Shot blog include not only matte painted wizardry but in some cases stop motion animation, optical work and full blown physical effects.  In an effort to keep it as fresh as possible I'll try not to re-visit movies already covered at length - though thoroughly deserving they may be - such as all time faves 30 SECONDS OVER TOKYO, GONE WITH THE WIND, DARBY O'GILL AND THE LITTLE PEOPLE, THE NAKED JUNGLE (may re-visit that one now that I have excellent HD1080 screen captures), IN OLD CHICAGO, THE RAINS CAME and many others.

What we will be covering, starting with this post, will be the epic and still spectacular 20th Century Fox desert picture SUEZ (1938) where the sheer volume of trick shots and brilliant effects design blows me away completely.  In following articles expect to see some retro visits upon the beautiful matte showcase that was MARIE ANTOINETTE (1938) - with hitherto unseen crisp high definition imagery.  I'll be reviewing JOAN OF ARC (1947) where Jack Cosgrove and John Fulton joined forces to create evocative vistas of period France, again illustrated in exquisite 1080p images directly captured from the recent BluRay.

Also expect to see a comprehensive look at the massive Paramount visual effects show FOR WHOM THE BELLS TOLL (19430 which must set some kind of record for the sheer number of mattes and composites in a single film.  Out of left field comes the Hammer flick WHEN DINOSAURS RULED THE EARTH (1970) where Jim Danforth and a host of British matte and effects fellows created probably the best Dinosaur footage and settings since KONG.  I've recently acquired a truckload of terrific high rez BluRay frame grabs from the WDRtE, and the film has never looked better.  Danforth's animation far outclasses even Ray Harryhausen's from ONE MILLION BC in my opinion.  Watch this space...

Special Photographic Effects Director:  Fred Sersen
Photographic Effects Associate:             Ray Kellogg
Miniature Photography:                          Ralph Hammeras
Mechanical Effects Supervisor:              Louis J. Witte
Special Effects:                                       Bill Gallagher
Optical Cinematography:                        James B. Gordon
Effects Camera Operators:                      L.B Abbott,  Walter Castle,  Al Irving
Process Photography:                              Sol Halperin, Edwin Hammeras
Matte Painters (then active at Fox):        Emil Kosa snr,  Emil Kosa jnr,  Menrad von Muldorfer,                                                                         Gilbert Riswold,  Hector Serbaroli, Joseph Serbaroli snr,
                                                                Ray Kellogg,  Ralph Hammeras,  Barbara Webster,  Clyde                                                                     Scott,  Max De Vega,  Fitch Fulton

The Sersen Special Effects Department at Fox, pictured here in 1938.  That's Fred standing centre with one hand in his pocket.  Photo courtesy of Joseph Serbaroli jnr.

Ray Kellogg and, Fred Sersen
It may not look it from the fairly dull one sheet poster, which sold the film on the basic boy meets girl(s) under the blazing desert sun level, but SUEZ (1938) was in fact a lavish and extremely well mounted period piece packed with as much spectacle as it did predictable romantic entanglements.  Star Tyrone Power was everybody's favourite square jawed leading man back in the day - decades before Charlton Heston assumed that mantle - and no one recognised this as much as 20th Century Fox's head honcho Darryl F. Zanuck, who made sure Tyrone was gainfully employed in as many huge, epic scale cinematic events as possible.

Matte painters at work in the busy Sersen Department.

Power was a strong leading man and, especially later in his career, took on many demanding and rewarding roles.  His Fox era would see the dashing box office drawcard frequently cast in big disaster type epics, and long before anyone even coined the phrase.  THE RAIN'S CAME and IN OLD CHICAGO being two prominent earth shattering crowd pleasers from Zanuck, and both top notch motion pictures, especially in the special effects side of things, with THE RAIN'S CAME taking home the 1939 Oscars for best special visual and sound effects, and boy were they good!  A class act all the way thanks to Fred Sersen and his collaborators in the Fox effects department.

Fox Optical Department with Jim Gordon and staff.
SUEZ is a fairly predictable though undeniably exciting yarn of the earliest notions and practical attempts to build the famed Suez Canal in Egypt.  Apparently historic accuracy wasn't a consideration for the studio and many liberties were taken.  That aside, SUEZ provides much drama and sprawling vistas of a cast of thousands of swarthy labourers and engineers slogging away with shovels, camels and creaky steam powered mechanisation carving out a mighty chunk of Egyptian desert in what seems an impossible endeavour.

Being a special effects blogger naturally it's that area that interests me the most.  The many (and I do mean many) trick shots are, in a word, amazing.  There are a huge number of painted mattes to be seen in SUEZ, complimented often with miniatures, optical printer combinations, excellent process work and awe inspiring full scale live action physical effects.  The production value in the visual effects sequences is on the scale one can always expect from the Sersen Department at Fox, who pretty much cornered the Hollywood studio system in producing a consistently high standard throughout the 1930's and beyond.
I've written much about Fred Sersen in many previous blog articles and in an effort to not repeat myself I've included an interesting article below penned by Sersen himself for the 20th Century Fox in-house magazine Action from the mid 1940's, which although isn't related to SUEZ, it does provide an excellent overview of the man and his department.

Louis J. Witte - Mechanical FX

Key to the success of the large scale on-set action in SUEZ was long time Fox mechanical effects man Louis J. Witte (shown here at the studio pay window).  Witte, who is not to be confused with the similarly named Louis DeWitt of Project Unlimited fame some years later, had a lifelong association with the William Fox Studios and 20th Century Fox and engineered hundreds of physical effects for many Fox films including the phenomenal work seen in THE RAINS CAME and IN OLD CHICAGO to name but two.

James B. Gordon was another industry veteran who operated Fox's optical department from the mid thirties through to the late fifties.   Jim would provide amazingly subtle optical work on films such as THE MARK OF ZORRO and DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL among many others.  Gordon was an experienced visual effects cinematographer who would continue through the 1960's in partnership with Linwood Dunn and Don Weed at Film Effects of Hollywood.  As with his contemporaries in sister studios such as Ross Hoffman at Universal, Lin Dunn at RKO, Paul Lerpae at Paramount and Irving Ries at MGM, Jim too was a company man for most of his very long career.  It seems that optical men were married to their printers!

The 1930's and 40's represent my favourite period when it comes to the artform of matte painting, so, let us take a look at a long neglected and for many people completely unfamiliar picture.... SUEZ.  Let the canal digging commence!




I love these old time hand painted title cards.  An art form all in itself and one sadly lost now.  :(

Note Sersen's very own individual screen credit which was extremely rare indeed. 

Fox's top drawer box office stars Loretta Young and Tyrone Power

It suddenly dawns on our feisty and resourseful leading man that all that separates the Mediterranean from the Red Sea is a bunch of sand.  Shouldn't take more than a week or two to dig it out...?

Stage set topped up with detailed matte art.  The exact same set and camera position was used for a completely different scene with another painted extension, which is shown as a comparison later in this blog post.

Complex perspective drawing for this matte composite.

Ceiling and upper part of chandelier painted in.

The old Sersen standby, the double glass foreground matte.  The palm tree hides the join between the two glasses as the camera pans across.  This trick was a Fox standard and was utilised on more films than I can count.

Included for no real reason other than the actress, Annabella, married Tyrone afterward and hoped for a Hollywood contract, which mogul Zanuck did not provide and didn't much care for Mrs Power apparently.

An extensive painted top up over a minimal set.

Another extensive matte addition with the matte line running across the foreground tree trunk just above the soldier's head.

Glass shot
Much painting here, with the cavalry flag bearer's staffs merging into the matte line at left as they ride past.

I love this matte.  Encompasses the best of every desert picture I've ever seen.

I think the foreground and the sky may be artwork here?

A Jim Gordon optical lightning bolt over what I suspect is a miniature desert and painted backing.

Taking shelter from the sudden storm.

Glorious old school break in the weather.

A second matte reveals more.
An example of the exceptionally good process projection where the plates are sharp and steadier than normal for background travel plates where the view usually bumps all over the place so annoyingly.

Split screen matte with painted upper half and superimposed foreground moving foliage - a stock standard Fox gag.  This shot or at least the matted in part has appeared in other Fox films.
One hump or two?

Canal construction with matte additions and a whole lot of non-union labour on the job I suspect.

A sensational shot of the engineering endeavour.

Another view with combined matte art and miniature elements to excellent effect.

More matte magic from SUEZ.
Treacherous devils afoot.  Matte painted rocks above.

We never said this was gonna be easy, so quit complaining!

A multi element effects shot which leads on to a very spectacular sequence...
Terrorists undermine the project and blow up the cliff face causing a massive rock fall atop the hundreds of workers.  Excellent combination of painted matte art, live action and miniature elements, with the people enveloped in falling rocks courtesy of Jim Gordon's optical printer and what I presume to be much rotoscope work.

Closer view.

Mass panic with expertly composited landslide elements added to the live action.

Miniature-live action composite with extras being obliterated by large (model) rocks via optical processing techniques.

Rock n'Roll
Massive rockfall in miniature.

Fox studio set with painted in ceiling and partial chandelier.

London period matte art though it looks more like a miniature to me.

The same limited tennis court set shown at the start of the film is now transformed into the Houses of Parliament via a change of matte art (see below...)
Two mattes on top of the sam Fox stage for different sequences in different countries to boot!

The tour de force in SUEZ is the mother of all fierce dust storms that wipes out much of the hard work that Tyrone and his sweat soaked army of workers have thus far achieved.  Absolutely superb effects design and execution here.
Frames of the approaching sand storm which has been achieved very well, with a realistic 'sway' as it nears.

The ferocity of the storm.  A multi-part effects shot.

Mostly painted here with live action inserts and additional tornado elements added.

A live Louis Witte mechanical effect that I just loved.  This huge water cistern is toppling over in the massive winds despite attempts by workers to tie it down with cables.  Just as the last men scramble off the top the whole thing erupts spilling thousands of litres of water over all and sundry.

The deluge wreaks havoc with the machinery.  Miniature set up.

A brilliant visual effect where the spiralling cone of sand and wind sucks everything up - tents, junk and even people (note the guy flying upward into the vortex.  This effects method was also employed on numerous other Fox shows such as KING OF THE KHYBER RIFLES and DAVID AND BATHSHEBA among others.

That camp classic The Thing With Two Heads with Ray Milland and Rosey Grier may have found it's roots here?
"Pull my finger"

Miniature set up after the event.  We are insured.........aren't we??
Mrs Power finds herself somewhat Metabolically Challenged (dead).  I'm sure Tyrone had trouble keeping a straight face when playing opposite the veteran Sigfreid Rumann who made his name as a superb and utterly flustered foil for The Marx Brothers and carried on playing that same persona in every film I ever saw him in!

Actually a painted backing despite my initial thoughts.

Tyrone receives the Order of the Garter, or Garlic as the case may be, for services to the French Republique

It all got finished eventually...
Years later and elderly Tyrone Power reflects upon his dream now brought to fruition.


  1. Pete - As ever a wonderful addition to your blog. I have never seen the film but I look forward to seeing it on TCM perhaps. I am only sorry there were no behind the scenes shots. Thanks Again!

  2. I was getting anxious with the wait but worth it as usual - Can you let us know where you are finding these blu rays - nothing turns up when I google.

    1. Hello

      It's from Spain so as with with all foreign imports always check the "Language" header to ensure an English soundtrack is included.

      I have just finished watching (a not blu-ray version admittedly) at:

  3. I'll be watching for this one now. Looks interesting and if the story is enjoyable I will forget about watching for any special effects as it should be.

    Thanks for coming up with all these posts. For those of us who love pre-cgi effects and appreciate the skill and artistry that went into creating them your blog is indispensable.

  4. Wonderful essay! As it happens, I just watched "Suez" last week on VUDU-HD. It looked terrific. It can also be streamed in HD from Amazon.

  5. Would any fx pros know how the tornado was accomplished ?

  6. I just can't get enough of these! Thank You Pete. From New Jersey, USA