Gregg Toland: The Second Genius of Citizen Kane
There is a basic theory in film criticism called the auteur theory. It was developed in the early 1950’s by French critics and was presented in the famed film periodical Cahiers du Cinéma, with future film director Francois Truffaut developing it further. The theory was simple: A film reflects the director’s vision, thus making him the “author” of the film. It was a truly revolutionary theory at the time and while I can say that I agree with some of the theory’s wider implications, I cannot say I agree whole-heartedly. Yes, the film director is the one making most of the decisions but sometimes, there’s more to the picture. Sometimes there is cinematographer Greg Toland.
Greg Toland was one of Hollywood’s leading cinematographers for three decades. From his very first film, 1926’s The Bat, he worked tirelessly to improve not only his skill as a cameraman, but the art of cinematography in general. He worked with camera technicians and manufacturers to help invent new lenses that had a greater depth of field and could better capture light. He believed the camera, rather than the edit, should tell the story, and worked to create entire scenes to play out in one single frame. Camera blocking and the movement of characters were of the paramount importance. His style would gain notice, and in 1940 he won his first Oscar for Wuthering Heights. So when boy genius, Orson Welles, came to Hollywood to make a little film called Citizen Kane, he only wanted the best. He wanted Toland.
Citizen Kane is one of those films that the French Critics cited in their development of the auteur theory. They state that it was through the genius of Orson Welles that the film was created. And while I don’t want to downplay Welles role for the success of the film, I DO want to cast a light on the other most important factor in the film, Greg Toland’s cinematography. As mentioned earlier, Toland believed that the camera told the story. Take a look at the picture below.
This scene is one of the most important in the film — when the young Charles Foster Kane gets his life, and ultimately his childhood, signed away by his parents. The scene is typical of Toland’s style: using light and shadow to create separate and defined spatial planes in the frame using a “deep” depth of field. This simply means Toland liked to have the entire frame in sharp focus, with each plane separate from the other. By allowing each plane to contain a separate action, the audience could then essentially choose what to pay attention to, effectively creating their own “cut” in their head. The genius of this particular scene is Toland’s use of depth of field. The main action, Kane’s mother signing away his life, is in the foreground. The action happens without a cut, forcing you to watch the entire scene play out in real time. However, the audience is always privy to an in-focus background, the young Kane playing outside, unaware that his life is about to change forever. Because the entire scene is about Kane, Toland gave him a physical presence in the scene equal to that of the action. The scene could have just as easily happened without Kane there, for the information conveyed would have been the same. But Toland understood film as a visual medium, and thus made sure to include the visual of Kane. Without him, yes, the scene would have conveyed the same plot point, but the visual information would have been different. The film would have been different. And despite what the auteur theory may say, without Toland Citizen Kane would have been very different.
But don’t take my word for it. Takes Welles. After all, he is the one who insisted he share a title card with Toland. Something no director had ever done before.
Although nominated for the Academy Award for Best Cinematography in 1941, Toland lost to Arthur C. Miller for his work on John Ford’s How Green was My Valley. The same film that would beat out Citizen Kane for that Oscar Gold. Needless to say, history remembers one far better than other.
A big Thank You to Kellee (@IrishJayhawk66) of Outspoken & Freckled, Paula (@Paula_Guthat) of Paula’s Cinema Club and Aurora (@CitizenScreen) of Once Upon a Screen for hosting this fun 31 Days of Oscar event! There are so many more wonderful Classic Bloggers participating in this event so please be sure to check out the other entries.
–Minoo Allen for Classic Movie Hub