Gregg Toland

Active - 1927 - 1948  |   Born - May 29, 1904 in Charlestown, Illinois, United States  |   Died - Sep 28, 1948   |   Genres - Drama, Romance, Comedy, Musical

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Biography by Jason Ankeny

The most influential and innovative cinematographer of the sound era, Gregg Toland was born May 29, 1904, in Charleston, IL. He began working as an office boy for mogul William Fox at the age of 15, first making a name for himself in 1924 by creating a soundproof camera housing which blocked any mechanized noise from reaching recording equipment, a major advance in the new era of sound, as it allowed directors to film intimate moments without accidentally capturing the winding of film as well. By the age of 27, Toland was the youngest first-unit cameraman in Hollywood, and by the end of the 1930s, he was perhaps the most sought-after director of photography in the business, with an Oscar under his belt for his work in 1939's Wuthering Heights; ultimately, MGM chief Samuel Goldwyn was even forced to share Toland's services with other studios for fear of losing him permanently.

Toland's fame rested on his gifts for innovative lighting techniques and crystalline deep-focus photography. His work was remarkably evocative, spanning the urban sprawl of William Wyler's 1937 effort Dead End to the documentary-like grit of John Ford's 1940 adaptation of John Steinbeck's Dust Bowl-era novel The Grapes of Wrath. His Expressionistic work with Ford on 1940's The Long Voyage Home set the stage for his towering achievement, 1941's Citizen Kane. After offering his services to writer/director Orson Welles, Toland was given free rein to experiment on Kane, using coated lenses and arc lights to create a depth of focus staggering in its clarity and ability to capture the minutiae of each scene. Additionally, he revamped the Mitchell BNC camera to include a new anti-noise device which allowed even greater flexibility of movement and control, eliminating the need to intercut between scenes and enabling Welles to create long, continuous shots.

Toland was duly rewarded for his innovations on Kane by receiving credit alongside Welles at the film's close -- the director's clear acknowledgment of the crucial importance of Toland's work -- and it has often been suggested that the film's brilliance was as much a product of his vision as it was Welles'. However, deep focus was slow in sweeping across Hollywood. It was never a common practice; still Toland remained its leading proponent in features ranging from 1941's The Little Foxes to 1946's The Best Years of Our Lives. Ultimately, his techniques reached their fullest application in the medium of television. Sadly, Toland did not live to see his vision become the small-screen industry standard. He died of heart disease in Hollywood on September 28, 1948. His final effort, 1948's Enchantment, was issued posthumously.

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  • Began work in the film industry at the age of 15 as an office boy and rose to assistant cameraman the following year.
  • When sound became an integral part of the movies, developed a tool that prevented the camera's noise from being picked up by the microphone.
  • Helped expand cinematic language with chiaroscuro and experimental lighting and pioneered the deep-focus technique perfected for Orson Welles's classic film Citizen Kane.
  • Drafted into the Navy's camera department during World War II and, while there, co-directed the Oscar-winning short documentary December 7th with John Ford.