Jack Etra

Active - 1955 - 1959  |   Genres - Musical

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Some cinematographers are talented and lucky enough to be associated with important directors, and with big and renowned movies, whose every aspect is regarded as important. Others are only fortunate enough to do their work on seemingly "small" projects that have a very long life: Jack Etra fits into this second category. Never one to be mistaken for Nestor Almendros, Sven Nykvist, Freddie Young, or Freddie Francis, or celebrated in any way resembling the honors accumulated by any of them, Etra's work is still among the most familiar of any cinematographer who ever stepped behind a camera, if only for his association with The Honeymooners TV series; additionally, he made a unique, even vital contribution to the preservation of images in popular music and, specifically, important black performing artists of the 1930s, '40s, and '50s. Jack Etra was primarily associated with low-budget films and television for most of his career. As with most cinematographers in that field, he knew how to work very quickly and efficiently, speed substituting for stylistic flourishes. Etra spent part of the 1930s working at MGM, and his earliest-known film work was as an uncredited second unit director on Thunder Afloat, a 1939 studio programmer set during WWI, directed by George B. Seitz and starring Wallace Beery, Chester Morris, and Virginia Grey. By the mid-'40s, he was working on independent productions such as Bud Pollard's Tall, Tan & Terrific, a showcase of Harlem-based entertainers. It was during this period of his career that Etra developed a reputation for being able to shoot musical acts in particular, well and quickly. By 1948, he was working at the short subject department at Columbia Pictures, on the series Thrills of Music, produced and directed by Harry Foster, on vehicles devoted to Ray Eberle & His Orchestra, Louis Prima & His Orchestra, and Charlie Barnet & His Orchestra, among others. During the early '50s, with movie work drying up as the studios retrenched and short subjects disappeared, Etra started working in television. In 1955, he joined the New York-based production team responsible for shooting the "classic 39" filmed episodes of The Honeymooners, starring Jackie Gleason, Art Carney, Audrey Meadows, and Joyce Randolph. It was during his 1955-1956 association with The Honeymooners that Etra returned to his musical specialty. In 1955, he photographed Rockin' the Blues, a concert film devoted to black musical acts that is considered a classic among aficionados of R&B vocal (i.e., doo wop) music. His next film, Jamboree, was a similar musical showcase, and Etra closed out his big-screen career with Go, Johnny, Go! (1959), a rock & roll/rhythm & blues blow-out that also became his first work to be honored with a release on laser disc. In addition to decades of reruns of the 39 Honeymooners episodes that he filmed -- which look astonishingly good in their latest digital incarnation as of 2002 -- the value of Etra's work is attested to by the constant licensing over the years of the performance clips of Chuck Berry, Jackie Wilson, the Cadillacs, and the Flamingos that he shot for Go, Johnny, Go! Much of that material, regarded as some of the best footage of its kind, is as familiar to rock & roll historians as The Honeymooners episodes are to casual viewers. Additionally, Rockin' the Blues has also achieved a cult following in those same ranks.

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