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Biography sheds light on William Cameron Menzies, the first production designer

By Harry Ransom Center

While researching his recent book William Cameron Menzies: The Shape of Films to Come, author James Curtis visited the Ransom Center to seek insight about Menzies’s career. Menzies worked with producer David O. Selznick on several projects, including Gone With The Wind and Spellbound. Using the Selznick collection at the Ransom Center, Curtis was able to research the work and efforts of the film industry’s first production designer. Below, Curtis recounts some of his findings.


There’s a saying among biographers: If you can’t write the first book about someone, then write the last. But writing a first book about anyone is a challenge, particularly when there are no formal archives, no papers that have been collected and inventoried, and–God forbid–few survivors to interview. This can especially be the case when the subject has been dead for half a century.


<em>William Cameron Menzies: The Shape of Films to Come</em> by James Curtis.
William Cameron Menzies: The Shape of Films to Come by James Curtis.


In my efforts to write the first book about William Cameron Menzies, the man who introduced the concept of production design to American films, I found the two most comprehensive archives to be those of the Menzies family and the Harry Ransom Center. In the case of the family, artwork dating to the early 1920s was in the possession of Menzies’s younger daughter and his grandchildren, as were papers and letters, all waiting to be organized, in which Menzies described the making of some of the films he directed, particularly the groundbreaking science fiction classic Things to Come.


The Ransom Center held another great piece of the puzzle in the David O. Selznick collection, a spectacular archive of documents and artwork relating to the great producer’s career, including the films on which he collaborated with Menzies–Nothing Sacred, Made for Each Other, Spellbound, and Gone With The Wind among them.


<em>Gone With The Wind</em> production designer William Cameron Menzies.
Gone With The Wind production designer William Cameron Menzies.


It was at the Ransom Center that Selznick’s memos revealed the full extent of Menzies’s involvement with GWTW–something that up to then had been given short shrift in many studies on the making of the film–and how his thinking evolved on the matter of Menzies’s credit. On September 1, 1937, Selznick acknowledged that Menzies was “terribly anxious” not to go back to art direction, and that his work on Gone With The Wind would be far greater in scope than what was normally associated with the term. “Accordingly, I would probably give him some such credit as ‘Production Designed by William Cameron Menzies’ or ‘Assistant to the Producer.’”


Storyboard by William Cameron Menzies for the Burning of Atlanta scene in <em>Gone With The Wind</em>, ca. 1939.
Storyboard by William Cameron Menzies for the Burning of Atlanta scene in Gone With The Wind, ca. 1939.


Six months later, he wrote: “Menzies’ task is a monumental one and I am anxious that he receive fair credit. Actually what he is doing is ‘designing’ the picture, and designing it in color…” What grew from these two historic memos is the now-common term “production design” for the practice of composing a film shot-for-shot in advance of production. And so the on-screen credit for Gone With The Wind became: “This Production Designed by William Cameron Menzies.”


Now that I have written the first book on Menzies, others may be written in the future. Whatever forms these works may take, they will all necessarily derive, at least in part, from the materials contained in the Selznick collection at the Harry Ransom Center.


Los Angeles Times’s It’s a month of tributes for groundbreaking filmmaker William Cameron Menzies

Wall Street Journal’s He Made Them More Beautiful

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