Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Leon Shamroy In Paradise

Henry Miller's A Devil In Paradise (1956)--later incorporated into Big Sur And The Oranges of Hieronymous Bosch (1957) as Part Three: "Paradise Lost"--is a short story about Conrad Moricand coming to stay with Henry and his family at Big Sur. Moricand was a pompous and eccentric astrologist whom Henry had befriended in Paris in the 1930s. By inviting the impoverished Moricand to stay with him in the paradise of Big Sur in 1948, Henry thought he was doing right by an old friend. But the offensive Moricand soon made him regret his generosity.
In the middle of Moricand's stay at Big Sur, Henry's cinematographer friend Leon Shamroy came to visit. For me, it's one of the funniest moments in the book. The motor-mouthed Shamroy is a brash Hollywood type who calls things as he sees them. Only a language barrier prevents Moricand from realizing how sharply he's being mocked and insulted by Shamroy.

Leonard "Leon" Shamroy was born in New York City in July 16, 1901 (Henry Miller was nine years old at the time, and had just moved to his home on Decatur Street in Brooklyn). After completing university studies as an Engineer, Shamroy began his career at Fox Film in 1920 as a laboratory technician. Within four years he'd started working as a Director of Photography, and would eventually become one of the innovators of American cinema (he was one of the first to use zoom lenses, and became of master of Technicolor and Cinemascope). One of his first films, 1928's The Last Moment (Dir: Paul Fejos) was honored by the National Board of Review (and is now considered one of the first American avant-garde films).

This marked the beginning of a lifetime of honours and awards for Shamroy (see this Film Reference listing). After signing to 20th Century Fox in 1939, Shamroy went on to win four Oscars, and be nominated for 14 others. Some of the films he shot are: Stormy Weather (1943), State Fair (1945), Cheaper By the Dozen (1950), The Robe (1954), Love Is a Many Splendored Thing (1955), The King and I (1956), South Pacific (1958), Porgy And Bess (1959), Cleopatra (1963), and Planet of the Apes (1968). He's also one of the few Cinematographers to have his own star on Hollywood's Walk Of Fame (6925 Hollywood Blvd [ref].). An interesting trivia note: Shamroy was the one who filmed Marilyn Monroe's screen test in 1946 [this is what he thought of her].

Henry Miller met Leon Shamroy in 1946 (ref), the same year he filmed Marilyn. Presumably, Henry met him through either Benny Bufano or Lilak Schatz. I say this because these two artists had been friends with Miller for many years, and--according to the Shamroy Manuscript collection at Indiana University--Bufano and Schatz had also been corresponding with Shamroy since around 1940.

Leon started buying watercolours from Henry the year he met him. Eventually he would own 30 of them. The Bibliography of Primary Sources v.2 makes reference to a Miller painting in the Shamory Collection called "The Hat And The Man" (1947), which was used on the cover of a gallery ad for a showing of Miller's work by the Westwood Art Association in 1973.

On page 101 of Big Sur And The Oranges of HB, Miller makes mention of 25 Miller watercolors which Leon paid a "good price" for. "He paid an even better price for the frames in which they hang." Two paintings were mailed back to Henry, along with the frames, because they "wouldn't stand the test, these two. The test imposed by the magnificient frames, is what I mean."

In 1946, when Leon met Henry, he appears to have been taking a year-long break from filming. The previous year he'd done four films, including A Tree Grows In Brooklyn (1945). Although nearly a decade apart in age, Shamroy and Miller shared a common bond as native New Yorkers living in California. They both enjoyed fine drink and food, were both direct in their communication, and were both inspired by painters [Shamroy explains how he was inspired by colour theory of Gaugin and Rousseau when lighting South Pacific, in The Art of the Cinematographer (1971)].

The Shamroy Manuscript collection summarizes the following Miller-related letters from a period covering mostly the late-40s and 50s: "Subjects discussed in the letters include several of Miller's books, particularly references to Sexus, Nexus, and Plexus, A Devil in Paradise, and Into the Night Life; Miller's water-colors which Shamroy would buy from him; Miller's generally impoverished state at this time and his problems getting money from his French publishers; marital difficulties of both Miller and Shamroy."

[P.331-338] Henry uses Leon's full name in the book, and identifies him as the "head camera man for the Fox Films. The man who wins all the Oscars." (p.331) Leon arrives at Henry's home on Partington Ridge, loaded with gifts: fine liquor, wine and cigars; a dress for his daughter Val; cornbread, cheeses, salami, and lachs. He's also loose with the billfold in his pocket, peeling them off for Henry. "Haven't made your pile yet, have you?" he states. "You and Bufano! A couple of orphans. Lucky you have a friend like me...someone who works for a living, what?" (p.332) He suggests that Henry haul out more of his watercolors; he may buy a few more.

Leon is clearly comfortable in Henry's home; he asks to use his shower and to stay for a day or two: he'd like to talk Henry into writing a screenplay for him. A few hours with Moricand, however, changes his mind.

Moricand observes Leon with interest--"le vrai type amercain, quoi!," Henry imagines him thinking. Moricand has no idea that the bold Shamroy is insulting his picky ways right to his face. "I only wish you could understand his talk," says Henry to Conrad Moricand, "There's no one in all America who can say the things he says and get away with it." (p.331) Shamroy perceives Moricand as sad, and tries to ply him with his cigars and drink. He's offended when Moricand prefers his French cigarettes over his Cuban cigars. "What's the matter with that guy? What's he got that stink weed in his mouth for? Didn't we just give him some good cigars?" [Moricand explains he wants to save it for later]. "Fuck that nonsense! Tell him he's in America now. We don't worry about tomorrow, do we?" (p.333) When he finds out that Moricand is an astrologer, he remarks: "He doesn't know his ass from a hole in the ground. Astrology! Who wants to listen to that shit? Tell him to get wise to himself." (p.334)

Henry and his friend Lilak Schatz--who is also visiting--try to convince Leon to consider buying Moricand's perverse drawings. Leon isn't impressed: "Hollywood's full of that crap. What do you want me to do--masturbate?" (p.335) He finally agrees to Moricans' outrageous price, sure that he can sell them for a profit elsewhere. When he says he'll have to pay with a cheque, Moricand jacks the price up. Leon: "He's mad. Let him stick 'em up his ass!" (p.337) On his way out, Leon gives Henry his final evaluation of Moricand: "What a finicky prick!" ... "You know what's the matter with him? He's sick [in the head]" ... "When you get rid of him, you'd better disinfect the place." (p.338)

Leon Shamroy had been a bachelor at this time, but when A Devil in Paradise was published in 1956, Leon was married to actress Mary Anderson (1953). Intersestingly, the last film that Shamroy shot was an adaptation of Lawrence Durrell's Justine (1969); perhaps Henry had something to do with this arrangement. After a long illness, Shamroy died on July 7, 1974.

LINKS: Shamroy's article, The Future of Cinematography. An article about the use of Cinemascope in filming The Robe. A biographical overview at Film Reference.

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

That's funny...I never made the connection or even thought about who Shamroy was.

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