Oscar Profile #438: W. Howard Greene

Born August 16, 1895 in River Point, Rhode Island, William Howard Greene, whose nickname was “Duke”, was a pioneer in color cinematography. He won two honorary Academy Awards for his work before color cinematography became an Oscar category and was then nominated in each of the first five years in which it was a category from 1939-1943, twice for 1942, finally winning a competitive Oscar on his sixth nomination at the 1943 awards.

Greene began specializing in color cinemagraphy in the early 1920s. He shot the color sequences for 1925’s Ben-Hur in two-strip Technicolor, which was a subtractive cemented-dual-print process. He later worked as camera operator for Warner Bros. on 1932’s Doctor X and 1933’s Mystery of the Wax Museum, which were photographed in Technicolor’s newer, subtractive two-color dye process. Mystery of the Wax Museum is generally considered the most beautiful color film made in that process.

Color usage waned in the early 30s due to the economic effects of the Depression, the lack of novelty, and audience dissatisfaction with the limited palette of colors. It wasn’t until later in the decade with the advent of Technicolor’s three-strip, three-color dye transfer process that color film took hold. 1935’s Becky Sharp, for which Greene was the camera operator, was the first filmed in the process. 1936’s The Trail of the Lonesome Pine, which was shot by Greene and documentary filmmaker Robert C. Bruce, was the first shot outdoors.

Technicolor chief Herbert Kalmus didn’t believe that color cinematography could be done outside of a studio because he thought that light and color couldn’t be controlled, but Trail’s director, Henry Hathaway insisted, and the on-location photography was a success.

Working for independent producer David O. Selznick, Greene established his reputation as one of the best color cinematographers in the industry, working with the new three-strip Technicolor process that reproduced the visual spectrum. He received honorary Academy Awards for both 1936’s The Garden of Allah and 1937’s A Star Is Born. Oddly, even though there were eleven films nominated for Best Cinematography of 1938, none of them were in color and no honorary award was given to Greene for perhaps his greatest accomplishment, that of his color work on The Adventures of Robin Hood.

Color cinematography was finally given a category of its own with the 1939 awards when Greene was nominated for The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex. He would be nominated in each of the next four years as well, for 1940’s North West Mounted Police, 1941’s Blossoms in the Dust, 1942’s Arabian Nights and The Jungle Book, finally winning for 1943’s Phantom of the Opera.

Greene’s subsequent films included 1944’s Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves, Cobra Woman and Can’t Help Singing, 1945’s Salome, Where She Danced, 1947’s Tycoon, 1950’s High Lonesome and 1951’s When Worlds Collide for which he received his final Oscar nomination.

Greene’s penultimate film, 1955’s The Violent Men, was the last of his films released during his lifetime. 1956’s Three for Jamie Dawn for which he was credited as Duke Greene, was released posthumously.

W. Howard Greene died February 28, 1956 at 60.

ESSENTIAL FILMS

BECKY SHARP (1935), directed by Rouben Mamoulian

This long-neglected film was restored by the UCLA Film Archives and will be released on Blu-ray and DVD by Kino Lorber on April 16, 2019. This is fantastic news for film buffs who only know the film from badly constructed public domain sources reprinted from the 1945 re-release version which was reprinted in the inferior Cinecolor process instead of the glorious three-strip Technicolor process that was first used in this version of Thackery’s oft-filmed Vanity Fair starring Miriam Hopkins in her only Oscar nominated performance. Mamoulian replaced Lowell Sherman as director after Sherman’s untimely death.

THE TRAIL OF THE LONESOME PINE (1936), directed by Henry Hathaway

Even more glorious than Becky Sharp, on which Greene was the camera operator, this first three-strip Technicolor film, for which Greene was credited for his Technicolor photography, is as significant an accomplishment as Greene’s cinematography for the better known Marlene Dietrich-Charles Boyer starrer, The Garden of Allah later the same year, for which he received his first honorary Academy Award. This one was about family feuds in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia involving Sylvia Sidney, Henry Fonda, Fred MacMurray, Beulah Bondi, Fred Stone and Spanky McFarland among others.

THE ADVENTURES OF ROBIN HOOD (1938), directed by Michael Curtiz, William Keighley

By all rights, in the absence of a category for color cinematography and the refusal of Academy members to include it among the eleven films it nominated for Best Cinematography, all of which were in black-and-white, this beautifully filmed color classic Errol Flynn-Olivia de Havilland-Basil Rathbone-Claude Rains starrer should have earned Greene a third honorary Academy Award following The Garden of Allah and A Star Is Born. Instead, they singled out color photography pioneer, Arthur Ball, who worked on Douglas Fairbanks’ Technicolor film, The Black Pirate, in 1926.

PHANTOM OF THE OPERA (1943), directed by Arthur Lubin

Two honorary Academy Awards, six nominations in five years, and finally a competitive Oscar of his own, Greene had to share the honor with Hal Mohr. Sharing, though, was something Green was used to. Six out of seven of his nominations were shared with other cinematographers. The only film for which he was the sole nominee for Best Cinematography-Color was 1942’s The Jungle Book, directed by Zoltan Korda, starring Sabu. This first color version of Gaston Laroux’s classic novel was also the first musical version with songs sung by Nelson Eddy and Susannah Foster. Claude Rains was the phantom.

WHEN WORLDS COLLIDE (1951), directed by Rudolph Maté

Greene shared this nomination with John F. Seitz, who like Greene, had seven nominations to his credit, albeit unlike Greene, never won despite nominations for such classics as The Divine Lady, Double Indemnity, The Lost Weekend and Sunset Boulevard. This was a rare foray into science fiction for both legendary cinematographers, as it was for director Maté who was also known primarily as a cinematographer and who had five nominations of his own in that discipline for such films as Foreign Correspondent and The Pride of the Yankees.

W. HOWARD GREENE AND OSCAR

  • The Garden of Allah (1936) – Honorary Award – Color Cinematography
  • A Star Is Born (1937) – Honorary Award – Color Cinematography
  • The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex (1939) – nominated – Best Cinematography, Color
  • North West Mounted Police (1940) – nominated – Best Cinematography, Color
  • Blossoms in the Dust (1941) – nominated – Best Cinematography, Color
  • Arabian Nights (1942) – nominated – Best Cinematography, Color
  • The Jungle Book (1942) – nominated – Best Cinematography, Color
  • Phantom of the Opera (1943) – Oscar – Best Cinematography, Color
  • When Worlds Collide (1951) – nominated – Best Cinematography, Color

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