Born April 6, 1895 in New York, New York, Harold “Hal” Rosson came from a film-making family. His older brothers, Arthur and Richard were successful directors and his younger sister, Helene, was an actress.
Rosson began his film career in 1908 as an actor at the Vitagraph Studios in Brooklyn, working his way up the ladder to Famous Players Studio in New York. His first film as a cinematographer was for 1915’s David Harum.
Moving to California in December 1914, Rosson went to work for Metro, where he made such films as 1916’s Oliver Twist before joining the Army during World War I. His career continued through the silent era with such films as 1926’s Up in Mabel’s Room, 1927’s Getting Gertie’s Garter and 1928’s Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, Abie’s Irish Rose and The Docks of New York.
Now one of MGM’s top cinematographers, he was director of photography on such films as 1932’s Tarzan the Ape Man, Red-Headed Woman and Red Dust, 1933’s Bombshell, 1934’s Treasure Island and 1935’s The Scarlet Pimpernel.
Having photographed Jean Harlow in numerous films, he became her third husband in September 1933, but they separated in May 1934 and divorced in March 1935. He married socialite Yvonne Crellin in 1936. They would be married for ten years before divorcing.
There were three black-and-white films nominated for the 1936 Oscar for cinematography with Tony Gaudio winning for Anthony Adverse. Rosson and Harold Wheeler were given an honorary Oscar for their joint work on The Garden of Allah.
Rosson received his first official Oscar nomination for 1939’s The Wizard of Oz. It would be his only nomination for a color film. He would later earn nominations for 1940’s Boom Town, 1944’s Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo, 1950’s The Asphalt Jungle and 1956’s The Bad Seed, all in stunning black-and-white.
Other important films on which Rosson was director of cinematography include 1937’s Captains Courageous, 1946’s Duel in the Sun, 1948’s Command Decision, 1949’s On the Town, 1952’s Singin’ in the Rain, 1953’s The Actress, 1954’s Ulysses, 1955’s Pete Kelly’s Blues and 1958’s Mo Time for Sergeants and Onionhead, after which he retired, coming out of retirement just once as director of cinematography on 1967’s El Dorado at the request of director Howard Hawks.
Harold Rosson died on September 6, 1988 in Palm Beach, Florida and is buried in Hollywood Forever Cemetery in Los Angeles. He was 93 years old.
THE GARDEN OF ALLAH (1936), directed by Richard Bolesalwaski
Still one of the most beautiful films to look at, Rosson’s first color film earned both he and co-cinematographer W. Howard Greene honorary Oscars three years before the category split between black-and-white and color. Set in a small Arab town on the edge of the Sahara, Rossen and Wheeler not only had beautiful locales to film, but two of the then most beautiful stars, Marlene Dietrich as an alluring woman looking for meaning in her life and Charles Boyer as a Trappist monk having a crisis of faith. Throw in subplots of vengeance on several fronts and you have more hokum than you can throw a stick at, but somehow it all works.
THE WIZARD OF OZ (1939), directed by Victor Fleming
In the first year in which the Oscar for Cinematography was split between black-and-white and color, Rosson received a richly deserved nomination for his still revered capture of Dorothy and friends traversing the yellow brick road on the way to see The Wizard of Oz. Wuthering Heights would win the Oscar for black-and-white cinematography and Rossen would lose the color award to Gone with the Wind which like The Wizard of Oz had more than one director, but which like Oz was officially directed by Victor Fleming.
SINGIN’ IN THE RAIN (1952), directed by Stanley Donen and Gene Kelly
The Hollywood transition from silent films to talkies was something Rossen certainly knew about, having lived through it. As such he was the ideal cinematographer for his second most famous color film, one that oddly didn’t earn him an Oscar nomination. Then again, the film was shockingly only nominated for two Oscars – best scoring and best supporting actress Jean Hagen. It remains the most popular film of stars Gene Kelly, Donald O’Connor and Debbie Reynolds despite their long and rewarding careers in many other films. Rosson’s cinematography fairly pops on this one.
THE BAD SEED (1956), directed by Mervyn LeRoy
Rosson’s striking Oscar-nominated black-and-white cinematography is almost as much of a star of this Hitchockian-style thriller about an eight-year-old murderess played by best supporting actress nominee Patty McCormack. Rosson’s camera takes the audience on a journey as it expands upon the stage play in interesting ways. Nancy Kelly earned an Oscar nomination for best actress as the mother of the brat and Eileen Heckart earned one as well as the mother of one the brat’s child victims. There are also plum supporting roles for Henry Jones and Evelyn Varden among many others.
EL DORADO (1967), directed by Howard Hawks
Rosson was eight years into a comfortable retirement when director Hawks asked him to be his director of photography on Hawks’ virtual remake of Rio Bravo starring Hollywood legends John Wayne and Robert Mitchum. Up-and-coming James Caan gives the veteran actors a run for their money as the third star of the film which features an eclectic cast that includes Charlene Holt, Paul Fix, Arthur Hunnicutt, Christopher George, Edward Asner, Johnny Crawford, Adam Rourke, Michele Carey, R.G. Armstrong and Jim Davis. One return, though, was enough for Rosson, who never worked on another film.
HAROLD ROSSEN AND OSCAR
- The Garden of Allah (1936) – Honorary Award – Color cinematography
- The Wizard of Oz (1939) – nominated – Best Cinematography, Color
- Boom Town (1940) – nominated – Best Cinematography, Black-and-White
- Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo (1944) – nominated – Best Cinematography, Black-and-White
- The Asphalt Jungle (1950) – nominated – Best Cinematography, Black-and-White
- The Bad Seed (1956) – nominated – Best Cinematography, Black-and-White