Born August 2, 1894, Hal Mohr was one of Hollywood’s most distinguished pioneering cinematographers. Fascinated with photography from an early age, Mohr built his own camera as a teenager, took and printed photographs which he sent to the New York Herald Tribune, which published many of them. Producer-exhibiter Sol Lesser took notice and hired him to shoot footage of some of San Francisco’s most notorious night spots before they were closed down. The footage was put together as a 1913 short called Last Night of the Barbary Coast, Mohr’s second credited documentary screen work. He graduated to feature films with 1914’s Salomy Jane. Among his many silent films were two of Mary Pickford’s greatest triumphs, Little Annie Rooney and Sparrows. With his reputation as a master of silent film cinematography firmly in place, he was asked to be director of photography on the first talking picture, 1927’s The Jazz Singer. He topped that achievement with two early talkie legends, 1928’s Noah’s Ark with its famed flood sequence and 1929’s Broadway, which required the building of a sixty foot crane and a new stage seventy foot stage to accommodate it.
He worked with Will Rogers on two of his biggest hits, 1933’s State Fair and David Harum. It was Rogers who introduced him to his third wife, Evelyn Venable who played Rogers’ daughter in the film. The two were married in 1934 and remained so until Mohr’s death forty years later.
Mohr won acclaim for his cinematography on two of 1935’s biggest hits, A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Captain Blood. Both films were nominated for Oscars for Best Picture, but Mohr failed to make the nominations list for either. This, however, was the second of only two years in which the Academy allowed write-in votes and Mohr was not only nominated for A Midsummer Night’s Dream, he won over actual nominees Gregg Toland for Les Miserables, Victor Milner for The Crusades and Ray June for Barbary Coast. It was the only time a write-in nominee ever won in any category.
Subsequently Mohr’s imagery was cited in such diverse works as Bullets or Ballots; The Green Pastures; Destry Rides Again; Phantom of the Opera (his second Oscar, this one in tandem with fellow pioneer W. Howard Greene); Watch on the Rhine; The Lost Moment and The Wild One.
Mostly on TV from then on, he was nevertheless director of photography on several films including 1960’s The Last Voyage and 1961’s Underworld U.S.A.
Mohr’s reputation amongst his peers was so strong that he was elected President of the American Society of Cinematographers on three separate occasions, from 1930-31; 1963-65 and 1969-70. He is also one of only six cinematographers who have his name on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. The others are J. Peverell Marley; Ray Rennahan; Leon Shamroy; Haskell Wexler and L. Conrad Hall.
Hal Mohr died May 10, 1974 at 79. Evelyn Venable died November 15, 1993 at 80. Their two daughters survive.
BROADWAY (1929), directed by Paul Fejos
A non-musical Broadway hit for Lee Tracy, the film version was made as both a silent and as a talkie – the musical scenes were not in the silent version. There is also a two-strip Technicolor finale, long thought lost, which has resurfaced and is part of the recently released criterion reconstruction of the film. Most notable, however, is the sixty foot crane director Fejos and cinematographer Mohr had built for the film which necessitated the construction of a cement platform for the sound stage and a seventy foot ceiling in order to accommodate the crane which was capable of panning from one end of the stage to the other, giving the film more movement than most early talkies. Released as the first “million dollar” picture, it stands as a marvel of technical engineering, albeit not one containing a very engrossing story.
Glenn Tyron and Merna Kennedy star as young singer-hoofers looking for something better than the dreary nightclub they’re performing in, but the film’s most notable performance is that of Evelyn Brent as a vengeance seeking chorus-girl whose gangster boyfriend is murdered early on.
CAPTAIN BLOOD (1935), directed by Michael Curtiz
The film that first paired Errol Flynn and Olivia de Havilland, making a star of Flynn owes much to Mohr’s innovative cinematography which seamlessly combines bathtub model ships with live action footage. Officially nominated for two Oscars, the film stretched its count to five when write-ins were recognized. Originally nominated just for Best Picture and Sound, write-in credit was given to director Curtiz, wrtier Casey Robinson and Erich Wolfgnag Korngold’s magnificent score. Mohr was a write-in candidate for Best Cinematography for another of his 1935 films, the sumptuously photographed A Midsummer Night’s Dream, for which he became the only write-in nominee to actually win an Oscar in the second and final year in which the practice was allowed.
If you have time for just one of these two, however, the rousing Captain Blood is the better choice.
THE LOST MOMENT (1947), directed by Martin Gabel
This film version of Henry James The Aspern Papers is notable for both its eerie atmosphere, owing to Mohr’s superb photography and the incredible makeup that turns the then forty-something Agnes Moorehead into a believable 100 year-old woman.
The story, somewhat reminiscent of Rebecca stars an excitable Robert Cummings and a frightened Susan Hayward.
A bit of trivia: Gable and his actress wife Arlene Francis’ actor grandson Seth Gabel is married to contemporary director Ron Howard’s daughter, actress Bruce Dallas Howard.
RANCHO NOTORIOUS (1952), directed by Fritz Lang
Mohr loved working with Marlene Dietrich because she understood perfectly how to work with light. She knew from the heat of the light how to move in front of the camera. His photography on 1939’s Destry Rides Again helped salvage her career. Working with her again on this film provided a great amount of joy that helped compensate for his disputes with director Lang who liked to ride the crane and look behind the camera lens when Mohr was trying to get his focus right. Mohr also got into fights with Lang over his alleged mistreatment of the camera crew. Lang wanted to fire Mohr and Mohr wanted to quit, but somehow they stayed together and wound up making one of the era’s most successful westerns.
THE LAST VOYAGE (1960), directed by Andrew L. Stone
Oscar nominated for its special effects, this disaster film is a small-scale Titanic that owes much to Mohr’s photographing of the film’s actors (Robert Stack, Dorothy Malone, George Sanders, Edmond O’Brien, Woody Storde, et. al.) in confined spaces.
Malone spends much of the time under a collapsed beam and the film moves swiftly along to its conclusion.
HAL MOHR AND OSCAR
- A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1935) – Oscar – Best Cinematography (only write-in winner in any category ever)
- Phantom of the Opera (1943) – Oscar – Best Cinematography – Color
- The Four Poster (1953) – nominated Best Cinematography – Black-and-White