An American in Paris: John Alton vs. Alfred Gilks

1.

The day after the Nov. 11, 1951, wide release of the soon-to-be landmark musical An American in Paris, the ASC Board of Governors met at its Clubhouse in Hollywood. One item that came up for discussion centered on the movie’s cinematography credits, and it soon erupted into a firestorm of recrimination that quite possibly led to lauded cinematographer John Alton’s second resignation from the ASC. Alton had previously resigned in January 1944, reputedly because of his ongoing conflict with his nemesis, silent-era cinematographer John Arnold, who was the powerful head of the MGM camera department from 1931 to 1956. Alton was reinstated in the ASC a few months later with the support of Fox cinematographer Leon Shamroy, who convinced Alton that withdrawing from the tightly knit community of feature-film cinematographers, most of whom had long-term studio contracts, was tantamount to career suicide.

That did not, however, deter the maverick Alton from his second resignation a decade later. I explored this “divorce” in the first of a three-part post about Alton in 2013.

In March 1954, several years after winning his Academy Award for ‘An American in Paris,’ the unpredictable cinematographer again resigned from the ASC, choosing language in his letter that was almost verbatim that of his 1944 withdrawal letter. This time his quitting was for good. I had always wondered why the screen credit of Alton’s several dozen last decade films did not read “ASC.” The six low-budget features, most of them Westerns, that he did with director Allan Dwan in the mid-1950s, as well as his last films with Richard Brooks, including his swan song, that superheated riot of color and expressionistic camera ‘Elmer Gantry,’ did not have the ASC attribution, nor did his most lauded noir credit, ‘The Big Combo.’

John Alton

Recently, while reading papers in the ASC Collection at the Academy’s Herrick Library, I found the minutes from several 1951 ASC Board of Governors meetings that illuminated Alton’s credit on An American in Paris. The Arthur Freed-produced musical received eight Academy Award nominations and won six statuettes. Both credited cinematographers, Alton and Alfred Gilks, who was also an ASC member, won Oscars. There had occasionally been shared cinematography credits, particularly for films in color, but most Oscars had been awarded to a single cinematographer. However, the following year, the Oscar for Color Cinematography went to both Winton Hoch and Archie Stout for John Ford’s The Quiet Man.

It is common knowledge to film historians that Gilks photographed all of An American in Paris except for the climactic, delirious, 17-minute ballet sequence. This fantasy come to life, suggestive of the painting styles of Dufy, Utrillo, Renoir, Rousseau, Van Gogh and Toulouse-Lautrec, was Alton’s sole contribution to the movie.

The question any cinematographer must have asked was, “Why Alton?” At the time, Alton was known for his razor-like hard light and deep shadow work — key elements of his black-and-white film noir style — and for his 1947 book, Painting with Light, which was as much a self-styled tribute as it was a guide to Hollywood beauty lighting. Some in this community of gentlemen cinematographers regarded Alton as a poseur and a rogue because of his independent ways and authorial ambitions, while others believed he was (as self-advertised) a singular artist. His controversial reputation easily put him in the crosshairs of the ASC governors at that November 1951 board meeting.

It’s important to note that at the time, Gilks was not only on the ASC board, but also served as its secretary. So, he was responsible for writing the meeting’s minutes.

Director Dorothy Arzner and cinematographer Alfred Gilks at work on Get Your Man.

Director Dorothy Arzner and cinematographer Alfred Gilks at work on Get Your Man.

Like many of Gilks’ minutes, the Nov. 11, 1951, minutes are scrawled in pencil on sheets of yellow ruled paper. Presiding over the meeting was ASC President Ray Rennahan, an Oscar-winning Technicolor cinematographer. (He had hired future Technicolor great Jack Cardiff as his camera operator in England on Wings of the Morning in 1937.)

The minutes refer to an unattributed “verbal protest” regarding Alton’s credit on An American in Paris. It is not unreasonable to imagine that the speaker was the board secretary himself, who would seem to have had the most at stake in challenging Alton’s credit. The minutes read: “It is common knowledge at the studio that Alton did not photograph the sequence in question.” It was suggested that the ASC send a letter to MGM, the producing studio, and to the Academy requesting “said credit be removed from the screen.” There was some discussion about the feasibility of doing this for a film that had just been released. The motion, which referred to the “undeserved credit” given to Alton, passed after a first by Shamroy and a second by Charles Rosher.

I could not find a copy of the letter that the ASC sent to the Academy, but Bruce Davis, the former executive director of AMPAS who is writing a history of the organization, told me that in his research, he might have seen some mention of the controversy. I’ve not yet learned how AMPAS adjudicated the challenge to Alton’s credit, but the fire was put out when the film’s star, Gene Kelly, and its director, Vincente Minnelli, confirmed that Alton had, in fact, photographed the “sequence in question.”

An American in ParisAn American in Paris

Gilks had a substantial résumé that went back to the silent era, but he was not exactly an A-list cameraman. He had recently photographed a Lassie film and several Dr. Kildare movies, but after his Oscar win for An American in Paris, his career devolved into a few black-and-white television series and a couple of low-budget features. Alton, on the other hand, perhaps still drunk on the vibrant colors of the ballet sequence, continued to explore the dramatic and psychological effects of color in a number of highly respected films in the 1950s, including the stunning noir Slightly Scarlet, directed by Alan Dwan, as well as several movies with director Richard Brooks, especially Elmer Gantry and The Brothers Karamazov, both of which are awash with intense, even lurid color lighting. (Alton’s final credit, the pilot for Mission: Impossible, was the subject of my third post about him in 2013. Though the video I embedded has since been disabled, the post includes many screen grabs from the pilot that reflect the expressionistic color palette, one that must have been shocking to TV audiences in the 1960s.)

2.

It’s not clear why Minnelli chose Gilks for An American in Paris, given most of the cinematographer’s lackluster credits (cherchez John Arnold?), but Minnelli’s path to selecting Alton for the ballet sequence is a matter of record. He had worked with Alton on Father of the Bride, and when An American in Paris went on a planned hiatus after a shooting schedule that had begun on Aug. 1, 1950, Minnelli quickly directed the sequel to Father of the Bride, Father’s Little Dividend. This film was shot in six weeks, less time than it took to shoot the ballet sequence for the musical. Minnelli engaged Alton to film Father’s Little Dividend while waiting for the sets and costumes to be readied for the ballet, which began filming on Dec. 6. Given their recent history, it is not surprising that he would ask Alton to shoot this demanding, intricate sequence despite Arnold’s lack of support for the choice.

In the biography Vincente Minnelli: Hollywood’s Dark Dreamer, author Emanuel Levy explains why the director did not ask Gilks to finish the film:

[Minnelli’s] wish for visual nuance and detailed mise-en-scène didn’t suit Alfred Gilks’s style; no matter what the emotional texture of a scene, Gilks tended to flood it with light, an aspect of film production that Minnelli knew particularly well. Minnelli asked to replace Gilks with John Alton … More of a film noir specialist, Alton had not much worked with color cinematography, but Minnelli believed this was an asset because Alton would not be confined to preconceptions of what was possible (or impossible) to achieve in Technicolor.

Gene Kelly and friends in the number "I Got Rhythm," lit by Gilks.

This screen grab of Gene Kelly performing “I Got Rhythm” typifies Gilks’ lighting.

Regarding his doubt about Gilks, Minnelli said:

With Gilks, every little thing was lit, and there were certain things that had to have mood. Alton had never worked in color … he’d done some very fine black-and-white things at Eagle-Lion. He was disliked, however, by the other cameramen — they all thought he was egotistical. But he was so fast and used so few lights. I got along just wonderfully with him. I felt that the ballet needed someone who would live dangerously.

“Dangerously” is just  how Alton engaged the ballet sequence. Here is an excerpt that is pure Alton noir lighting, a complete departure from the cinematography of the rest of the film.

Not all of the principal creative team supported Alton’s ideas about color and light. Film critic Todd McCarthy, in his biographical essay in the new edition of Painting with Light, notes that the movie’s art director, Preston Ames, and costume designer, Irene Sharif, were furious about what they felt was Alton’s inappropriate interference with the color palette of their work. Ames said:

This fellow was doing a petty thing, and he was destroying everything we had worked months to get, which was the perfect matching of everybody’s thing clicking and working together.

Clearly, Alton was not totally in control of all the lighting in the sequence, especially at the beginning, as several of the painterly tribute vignettes resemble Gilks’ “museum lighting” approach, which was to use little colored light to wash the sets and costumes. However, even here, Alton’s signature lighting from the set floor rather than from green beds is quite evident, especially in several subtly side-lit episodes. Alton’s unbridled color rules mostly in the fountain pas de deux section, itself a standalone triumph.

Minnelli continued to work with Alton after An American in Paris; the Francophile director and the bowtie-and-beret-wearing cinematographer partnered again on Tea and Sympathy and Designing Women. (Neither of these films aspires to such bold color, however.) Alton racked up more than two-dozen additional credits after An American in Paris before hanging up his beret.

IMDb doesn’t include Alton in the credits for An American in Paris, although his Oscar win is included in his own page on the site. Here, probably to no one’s satisfaction, is how the film’s cinematography title card reads:

An American in Paris

On July 9, a pristine print of An American in Paris was screened as part of the continuing Films on Film series at the Academy. Warren Sherk of the Herrick Library Special Collections Department presented highlights from the movie’s voluminous papers. I made a short presentation about the Alton/Gilks dust-up that sparked discussion in the lobby afterwards — 65 years after the movie opened.

NEXT: Paul Outerbridge @ Bruce Silverstein

 

Comments

  1. Pete Kuttner

    John- By describing Vincent Minelli as a “Francophile” and John Alton as “beret-wearing” you suggest a connection that seems to be obvious. My own experience teaches me otherwise. In the late 1970s, I visited Paris for the first time. I was scheduled to present some documentary films about Chicago for an American Studies class in one of the colleges started for workers as a result of the 1968 protests and strikes in France.  So, assuming the beret to be iconic as you assume Minelli assumed about Alton, I chose to wear one to show my solidarity with young, rebellious French workers and students. To my chagrin [ a French word btw] I found most Parisian heads covered in peaked caps with US sports, truck and seed company logos. The only berets I saw were on people twice my age, no longer young, rebellious or even working. My image of Paris took a big hit that day in the Bois de Boulogna. I walked the six kilometers along the Champs Élysée to the Louvre. At the ticket counter I discovered that my Local 666 camera union membership card allowed me free admission to all museums because I was”un artiste”. I often wonder whether my beret helped seal the deal.

    I still wear a beret, though
    I am now twice my age.
    -Pete

    JOHN’S REPLY: A great story, Pete. No irony intended by my “francophile” remark. Nor do I think Alton intended irony. His chapeau choice, like his bow ties, was a fashion as well as a cultural statement. On retirement, he and his wife traveled widely and spent a lot of time in France. When I used to visit Carol when she was doing graduate work in Paris at the height of the Nouvelle Vague, I used to enjoy wearing a cowboy hat in the metro. It got a lot of attention– something one would choose to avoid in Paris today.

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  2. Richard Walden

    Cool that you used a picture of Alfred Gilks with director Dorothy Arzner the only woman director, to the best of my knowledge, of that era. I have seen that photo before ( or one nearly identical ) about two years ago in the lobby of the DGA where they have a photography display featuring directors on set from the early days to the mid 70’s.

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