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July 16, 1901|
New York City, New York, U.S.
|Died||July 7, 1974
Los Angeles, California, U.S.
|Title||A.S.C. President (1947-48)|
|Spouse(s)||Rosamond Marcus (1925–1937; divorced); 1 child
Audrey Mason (1938–1948; divorced); 2 children
Mary Anderson (1953-1974; his death)
|Awards||The Black Swan (1942)|
Leon Shamroy, A.S.C. (July 16, 1901 – July 7, 1974) was an American film cinematographer. He and Charles Lang both hold the record for most number of Academy Award nominations for Cinematography. During his five-decade career, he garnered eighteen nominations with four wins.
In 1889, Shamroy's Russian father came to the United States to visit his brother, a revolutionary who had fled the homeland and become a physician in the U.S. Shamroy's father liked the United States and decided to stay. After he settled, he took a degree in chemistry at Columbia University and later opened a drugstore.
Shamroy was educated at Cooper Union (1918), City College of New York (1919–1920), and Columbia University (where he studied mechanical engineering). A product of a practical-minded family, after school young Leon often worked in one of his uncle's offices as a junior draftsman. Eventually he became an engineer himself, but left the field due to inadequate remuneration. Some of his family migrated to California and became affiliated with D.W. Griffith. In 1920, he joined them at the Fox lab to help with the laboratory work and went on the spend thirteen years as a struggling technician.
His career in cinema began with experimental film shot on speculation and with the most rudimentary equipment. He became a cameraman in the 1920s when he filmed many of Charles Hutchinson's popular action films for Pathe. His first experimental film, The Last Moment (1928), was a collaboration with a Hungarian called Paul Fejos. It was the first silent film made without explanatory titles and was voted honor film of 1928 by the National Board of Review. Another film, Blindfold (In the Fog) attracted the attention of Hollywood, some of whom described Shamroy's camerawork as "worth its weight in gold." B.P. Schulberg of Paramount spotted his work and signed him up in 1932. At the time, Shamroy was broke, for he had squandered what little money he had on "poor starving girls and on whiskey." John M. Stahl, for whom Shamroy later shot Leave Her to Heaven (1945) saw his film, The Last Moment, and, though highly impressed, thought Shamroy was "too artistic."
Around this time, Shamroy went to Mexico where he worked for Robert Flaherty on a film called Acoma, the Sky City, a story about an ancient Indian tribe. Unfortunately, the print was destroyed when the warehouse in which it was stored went up in flames. Flaherty wanted to form a new company and invited Shamroy's participation, but after paying his $10 union fee Shamroy only had $15 left to his name. Instead, he made a two-reel documentary film based on an Indian legend. It was never released. Shamroy's next employment was at Columbia with Harry Cohn. It lasted five days; Cohn wasn't ready for artistic people yet. Years later in the 1930s, he was loaned to Columbia to make Private Worlds (1935). After his brief stint at Columbia, Shamroy worked for Jack Cummings, Louis B. Mayer's nephew, on a series of parodies of the famous screen epics, starring dogs. In one of the films, All Quiet on the Canine Front, the dogs were so realistic that when they were shot down the Humane Society was enraged.
Shamroy's next engagement was with an ethnological project in Asia that turned into something of a nightmare. He and the crew were terrified when a fourth-class passenger on the ship they were sailing on, the Empress of Canada, ran amok and stabbed thirty people to death two days out of Yokohama. Years later, while working on a picture called Crash Dive (1943), he learned that the star, Tyrone Power, had experienced the same shipboard horror. Somehow, Shamroy managed to survive the ordeal with his camera and 100,000 feet of film intact. He traveled throughout Japan in 1930 and shot a lot of contraband footage. He left for China where, again, he shot secret footage before continuing on to Manila. He made films in places as far distant as the Dutch East Indies, Bali, Samarai, and Batavia. During World War II, he gave his material over to the War Department in Washington, D.C., which used it to determine bombing targets.
In the 1930s, Shamroy worked under contract for Paramount. Three-Cornered Moon (1933) was the first of several films he did with Claudette Colbert. During this period, he developed a solid reputation for understated black-and-white photography; yet in the 1940s it was his brilliant color that attracted attention. Highly inventive and creative, Shamroy used zoom lenses on Private Worlds (1935), directed by Gregory La Cava, long before they were popular. This was a film about mental illness, and the zoom lens was especially effective on the scene where Big Boy Williams, a patient, goes berserk. At the time, zoom lenses were few and far between and there were no light meters.
Shamroy left Paramount with B.P. Schulberg's fall from grace. Soon thereafter, David O. Selznick sent for him to make a test for Janet Gaynor. However, to his dismay, Shamroy discovered that tests were being done of her by other cameramen to see which one they liked best. Karl Struss, ASC, was one of the others; he took 12 hours to Shamroy's twenty minutes. Shamroy was hired to do the picture, The Young in Heart (1938).
With his talent and abilities now recognized, Shamroy landed a job through Myron Selznick at 20th Century Fox. He remained at Fox for the next 30 years and enjoyed complete freedom. It was during his tenure there that he developed his technique of using absolute minimum lighting on a set. In 1937, he filmed Fritz Lang's You Only Live Once. On Justine (1969), he used only one light shining on Michael York's face — suggestive of the dawn — while he telephoned Justine in the bedroom. A film that Shamroy was quite proud of was Wilson (1944), a pacifist film made during World War II. It was never shown to the troops, for obvious reasons. For this picture, he used natural interiors, a rare move in those days. One scene done in the Shrine Ballroom required that the lights be hidden behind flags. It took a hundred men moving arcs around the ballroom. Darryl F. Zanuck was so surprised by the first shots that he kissed Shamroy to the cheers of the staff. With 5000 people in the blaze of light and hundreds of flags flapping, the re-creation of theBaltimore Democratic Convention of 1912 was a most startling shot on the screen. In Forever Amber (1947), Shamroy shot many of the exteriors in rain. He used liquid smoke hovering over the bodies to achieve a dull, monotonous effect, and showed smoke coming from the doors to suggest something sinister inside. He matched the title, "Forever Amber," by use of amber-colored gelatins. Shamroy used actual places instead of sets, as in Twelve O'clock High and Prince of Foxes (1949).
During the 1950s, Shamroy filmed most of Fox's big pictures. Of all of his films, he was very proud of Snows of Kilimanjaro (1952). Not withstanding his penchant to work in real locations, almost every foot of Snows was shot in the studio, even the night shots under the mountain. A few shots of the real mountain itself were done by Charles G. Clarke. The Robe (1953) was the first film done in Cinemascope. The tremendous widescreen aspect ratio was an almost unparalleled challenge for Shamroy. But despite the unperfected lenses and a host of experimental challenges with the tremendous screen image, The Robe's cinematography was outstanding. In his day, Shamroy had many battles with studio executives and others over color. He was vindicated when he became the first black-and-white man to win an Oscar for color. He became an industry pioneer in the 1950s/60s rush to find new film formats. In 1956, he was among the first to utilize Fox's Cinemascope 55 process. Here, a 55mm strip of film offered increased clarity in both color and definition. Although The King and I (1956) was shot in this process, it was reduced to 35mm film due to the potential trouble and cost to equip theatres with the necessary special projection equipment. Two years later Shamroy photographed South Pacific in a new process called "Toll-AO". With a film size of 65mm and more versatile projectors able to adapt to any film gauge, Shamroy's techniques shone through. Others of his films shot this way were Porgy and Bess (1959), Cleopatra (1963), and The Agony and the Ecstasy (1965).
While he helped many directors at Fox in the 1950s to adapt to the requirements of Cinemascope, Shamroy never really liked those days. In an interview done with Charles Higham, Shamroy exclaimed: "But those widescreen 'revolutions'; oh my God! You got a stage play again, you put pictures back to the earliest sound day...But though it wrecked the art of film for a decade, widescreen saved the picture business."
Shamroy once noted: "The obtrusive camera is like a chattering person—something we can do without. It's okay for the camera to join the conversation, so to speak, but it must never dominate. It must never distract from the story. The real art of cinematography lies in the camera's ability to match the varied moods of players and story, or the pace of the scene."
He was married three times and had three children. On November 1, 1925, he married Rosamond Marcus who gave birth to his first son, Paul Shamroy. They divorced in February 1937. He married Audrey Mason, daughter of E. Mason Hopper, a film producer/director in 1938, and they had two children, Patricia Mason and Timothy Cullinan. They divorced in 1948. From 1953 until his death in 1974, shortly before his 73rd birthday, he was married to movie actress Mary Anderson.
- The Agony and the Ecstasy (1965)
- The Cardinal (1963)
- Porgy and Bess (1959)
- South Pacific (1958)
- The King and I (1956)
- Love Is a Many-Splendored Thing (1955)
- The Egyptian (1954)
- The Robe (1953)
- The Snows of Kilimanjaro (1952)
- David and Bathsheba (1951)
- Prince of Foxes (1949)
- Ten Gentlemen from West Point (1942)
- Down Argentine Way (1940)
- The Young in Heart (1938)
- Tongues of Scandal (1927)
- Alma de Gaucho (1930)
- Stowaway (1932)
- Jennie Gerhardt (1933)
- Good Dame (1934)
- Thirty-Day Princess (1934)
- Kiss and Make Up (1934)
- She Married Her Boss (1935)
- Accent on Youth (1935
- Mary Burns, Fugitive (1935)
- Soak the Rich (1936)
- You Only Live Once (1937)
- Made for Each Other (1939)
- The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (1939)
- The Story of Alexander Graham Bell (1939)
- Little Old New York (1940)
- Lillian Russell (1940)
- Four Sons (1940)
- Tin Pan Alley (1940)
- The Great American Broadcast (1941)
- That Night in Rio (1941)
- Moon over Miami (1941
- Roxie Hart (1942)
- Crash Dive (1943)
- Stormy Weather (1943)
- Claudia (1943)
- Buffalo Bill (1944)
- A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (1945)
- The Shocking Miss Pilgrim (1947)
- That Lady in Ermine (1948)
- Cheaper by the Dozen (1950)
- King of the Khyber Rifles (1953)
- Good Morning, Miss Dove (1955)
- Desk Set (1957)
- John Goldfarb, Please Come Home (1965)
- Planet of the Apes (1968)
Other notable events
- Member of the American Society of Cinematographers.
- Directory of photography with Schulberg Productions, 1933–37
- Director of photography with Selznick International 1938
- Director of Cinematography with 20th Century Fox 1933-
- Introduced Cinemascope
- President of the Academy Award Winners School of Photography, Incorporated, 1946
- Awarded the 1st award for color photography The Black Swan (1942), Wilson (1944), and Leave Her to Heaven (1945)
- Film Daily Critics Award 1949, 53, 54, 55
- Motion Picture Association of America (Chairman of the photography committee research division 1946-1950)
- Society of Motion Picture Engineers Club
- Namesake for Rita Marlowe's (Jayne Mansfield) poodle in the 1957 movie Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter?
- International Photographer Magazine, 1997
- Who's Who in America 1960–1961