Friday, June 5, 2009

The Black and White World: Joseph Walker

Above: Entering the Black and White World seen through the lens of Joseph Walker in "The Bitter Tea of General Yen" (1934)

Having had an opportunity to see many of director Frank Capra's early sound films within the last year, I found myself thinking more about the look as well as the fresher style of those movies, which are distinctly un-"Capraesque" in the sense that they seem edgier, with sharply observed glimpses of an artist inside the work of a man whose films have come to be unfairly regarded as lovably corny. As many scholars, notably Joseph McBride and Ian Scott, can attest, Capra was far more complex a man than we knew. He also owed more of his success to writer Robert Riskin and, as my TCM Movie Morlocks blog piece tries to demonstrate this week, to his cinematographer, Joseph Walker, a skilled man whose artistry blended the lit-from-within sheen of silent movies with the complexly lighted action scenes redolent with meaning in glorious black and white. Walker worked with the director Capra and many others over a forty year career, making major contributions to the art and science of film. Here's the beginning of the article--and an occasional series I'm starting--on the cinematographers of the black and white world:

TCM is officially celebrating the work of the studio era's great directors throughout this month, so I thought I might swim upstream a bit. As revered director John Ford once pointed out, "People are incorrect to compare a director to an author. If he's a creator, he's more like an architect."

The more I keep learning about the shadowy figures in the background of great movies who actually wrote the story, chose the sets, edited the film and designed the look of a movie, the truth of Ford's comment becomes more concrete for me. The director as an architect whose vision unfolded thanks to many hands, not just his will, is particularly intriguing when you realize that, unconsciously, you "know" someone's work, even when his or her name is unfamiliar.One of those background figures, whose work illuminated the films of Frank Capra, Howard Hawks, Leo McCarey, Julien Duvivier and more, much more than has been acknowledged, was cinematographer Joseph Walker (1892-1985) here to see the rest of the story

Above: Joseph Walker (behind the camera) with director Capra seated below the lens


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