Born May 29, 1904 in Charleston, Illinois, the only child of Frank and Jennie Toland, Gregg Toland would grow up to become the first cinematographer whose name was well known by the public. Both John Ford (with The Long Voyage Home) and Orson Welles (with Citizen Kane) would insist that he be given credit on the same title card and in equal print size as that of the director.
Toland’s parents divorced while he was very young and he moved to Hollywood with his mother who worked as a housekeeper for various film executives. Her connections helped provide a way for young Toland to enter the film business as an office boy at Fox Studios when he was just 15 years old. He soon became the youngest cameraman in the business and by the age of 22 had his first on-screen credit as a co-cinematographer with 1926’s The Bat. He continued to work through the silent era and into the early sound era where he invented a device that made cameras quieter, allowing the camera to move more freely. He had his first solo credit as cinematographer with 1931’s Eddie Cantor film, Palmy Days.
Toland was not the first cameraman to employ deep focus, but he is credited with advancing it to perfection. Deep focus is a photographic and cinematographic technique using a large depth of field. Depth of field is the front to back range of the image in focus. In deep focus the front, middle and back of the image are all in focus as opposed to the more common shallow focus in which the foreground is sharp and the background fuzzy. It is not used much anymore for two reasons. Today’s wider lenses allow for sharper depth of field and the multiple cameras used for filming today’s movies make editing in the editing room rather than in the camera much more efficient.
Toland’s first film with major scenes in deep focus was the 1935 horror classic, Mad Love, directed by Karl Freund, starring Peter Lorre. That same year his work on Richard Boleslawski’s film of Les Miserables brought him his first Oscar nomination. It was followed, among others, by William Wyler’s 1936 classic, These Three, the first of many Wyler films he would be associated with.
He was uncredited on Frank Borzage’s stunningly photographed 1937 film, History Is Made at Night, but his contributions to the film seem clearly evident. His deep focus work on Wyler’s Dead End that same year further enhanced his reputation, resulting in his second Oscar nomination.
In 1939 he received Oscar nominations for both David O. Selznick’s production of Intermezzo and Wyler’s Wuthering Heights, winning for the latter.
Now he was in demand, not only by Wyler, but John Ford as well, acting as director of photography for Ford on both of his 1940 Best Picture nominees, The Grapes of Wrath and The Long Voyage Home, receiving his fifth Oscar nomination in six years for the latter. Ford was so pleased with his contribution to the film that he insisted on Toland receiving equal credit with his name appearing on the same title card and in the same size as the director’s.
Orson Welles, who considered Ford the world’s greatest director, would do the same for Toland on 1941’s Citizen Kane.
While Welles was initially celebrated as the soile genius behind Citizen Kane, he was not the whole show. It was co-written with Herman J. Mankiewicz with three other writers including John Houseman making uncredited contributions. While Welles was originally credited with coming up with the film’s many innovative camera angles, it was later revealed that they were Toland’s invention, given to Welles behind the scenes so as to allow the novice director to make an impression on the seasoned crew.
Toland received his sixth and surprisingly, final Oscar nomination for Citizen Kane despite the fact that his work on Wyler’s The Little Foxes and Howard Hawks’ Ballof Fire the following year were equally celebrated as was his contribution to Wyler’s post-war masterpiece, The Best Years of Our Lives.
Toland’s first color film was Disney’s 1946 mix of live action and animation, Song of the South with its vivid imagery. Three more films, 1947’s The Bishop’s Wife and 1948’s A Song Is Born, the musical version of Ball of Fire and Enchantment would follow before Toland’s untimely death on September 26, 1948 from coronary thrombosis at the age of 44.
Toland was survived by his second wife, a daughter from his first marriage and two sons from his second. His daughter Lothian later became comedian Red Skelton’s third wife.
WUTHERING HEIGHTS (1939), directed by William Wyler
Wyler’s film of Emily Bronte’s classic novel is a visually stunning masterpiece thanks in no small measure to Toland’s cinematography. Whether focused on the moors or the faces of Merle Oberon, Laurence Olivier, David Niven, Geraldine Fitzgerald, Flora Robson, Donald Crisp, Leo G. Carroll or the rest of the cast, there isn’t a wasted frame in the whole thing.
Toland received his third and fourth Oscar nominations for his black-and-white cinematography for Intermezzo and Wuthering Heights this year, winning for Wuthering Heihgts over such strong competition as Juarez; Only Angels Have Wings; The Rains Came and Stagecoach.
THE GRAPES OF WRATH (1940), directed by John Ford
From the opening scene of Henry Fonda walking down the road to the Oklahoma dust bowls to the various work camps and the faces of Jane Darwell, John Carradine, Russell Simpson, Charley Grapewin, Doris Bowden, John Qualen and the rest, you can’t take your eyes off the screen thanks to Toland’s mesmerizing camerawork.
Surprisingly Toland was not nominated for an Oscar for his work here, but was nominated for his other Ford film this year, The Long Voyage Home, losing to George Barnes for Rebecca.
CITIZEN KANE (1941), directed by Orson Welles
Innovative camera angles first attributed to the genius of novice director Welles were eventually property credited to Toland who was at least Welles’ equal. Bernard Herrmann’s score, Welles and Mankiewicz’s screenplay and the acting of Welles, Joseph Cotton, Dorothy Comingore, Ruth Warrick, Agnes Moorehead, Everett Sloane, Ray Collins and others contribute to the film’s greatness, but turn off the sound and just watch Toland’s imagery and it’s still a great film.
Toland received his sixth and final Oscar nomination for his contribution to the film, losing to Arthur C. Miller for How Green was My Valley.
THE BEST YEARS OF OUR LIVES (1946), directed by William Wyler
Wyler’s epic about three homecoming of World War II veterans (Fredric March, Dana Andrews, Harold Russell) and their women (Myrna Loy, Teresa Wright, Virginia Mayo, Cathy O’Donnell) succeeds on many levels, not the least of which is once again Toland’s stunning cinematography.
There were only two nominees each allowed for black-and-white and color cinematography this year. The nominees in the black-and-white category were Anna and the King of Siam, for which Arthur C. Miller was once again victorious, and The Green Years. Had three or more nominees been permitted, Toland’s work on The Best Years of Our Lives would surely have been among them.
ENCHANTMENT (1948), directed by Irving Reis
Toland’s camerawork provides a warm glow to this film which is essentially about unrequited love. David Niven in old age make-up plays a man who has retired to the family home during World War II where he reminisces about his lost love, played by Teresa Wright. He is joined in the home by his niece, Evelyn Keyes, an ambulance driver who has fallen in love with a wounded soldier played by Farley Granger. The elderly Niven encourages the young Keyes not to make the same mistake he did and marry the impetuous Granger.
Toland’s focus on the fireplace and other objects in the house make the various segues between present day and flashbacks seamless. This bittersweet romantic film with its happy ending makes a perfect counterpoint to Wuthering Heights and a perfect conclusion to one of the great Hollywood careers, albeit one that ended way too soon.
GREGG TOLAND AND OSCAR
- Les Miserables (1935) Nominated – Best Cinematography
- Dead End (1937) Nominated – Best Cinematography
- Intermezzo (1939) Nominated – Best Black-and-White Cinematography
- Wuthering Heights (1939) – Oscar - Best Black-and-White Cinematography
- The Long Voyage Home (1940) Nominated – Best Black-and-White Cinematography
- Citizen Kane (1941) Nominated – Best Black-and-White Cinematography