Charles Van Enger

Active - 1920 - 1958  |   Genres - Comedy, Musical, Drama, Western, Romance

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Charles J. Van Enger spent six decades in the movie business -- five of them as one of Hollywood's busiest cinematographers -- and was involved in a string of beautifully photographed movies beginning in the 1920s. Born in Port Jervis, NY, in 1890, his first job was as a page at the New York Stock Exchange, and he later worked for the Liverpool London Insurance Company. He served as a member of the National Guard and with a friend in the same regiment, he bought a candy story on 14th Street in Manhattan. In those days,the movie business was booming in New York City, and was as much a part of the landscape as the garment trade. Van Enger's store was directly across the street from D.W. Griffith's studio, and he visited the facility and got to know Griffith and his cinematographer Billy Bitzer and their circle of artists. When Van Enger's store was driven out of business by the construction of the Sixth Avenue subway line, a friend got him a job in the laboratory (where film was washed, dyed, and dried) at World Films in Bayonne, NJ. He later moved on to the printing room and perforating room (where raw stock was prepared for shooting) and got to know that end of the business, as well as many working in it. By 1911, Van Enger was a supervisor for the laboratory; he later moved to a facility on 90th Street in Manhattan where a lot of Cecil B. DeMille's early work was processed. Van Enger eventually became a cutter for Maurice Tourneur, and was able to persuade the director to help him become a cinematographer. He made his debut as an assistant cameraman on the Mary Pickford vehicles The Pride of the Clan and The Poor Little Rich Girl (both 1917), among other movies, and worked principally with Tourneur and John van den Broek in his early days behind the camera.

Van Enger moved to Triangle Pictures, then to Universal, and then Warner Bros., where he photographed Ernst Lubitsch's movies for seven years, including Three Women (1924), The Marriage Circle (1924), and Lady Windermere's Fan (1925). His other major activity in the years from 1919 into the 1920s was as a designer of improved motion picture cameras. His most well-known work of the silent era was as one of the camera operators on Phantom of the Opera (1925), a job he got with the help of its star, Lon Chaney Sr. He not only did many of the camera setups on that film, but also served as an unwilling intermediary between the nominal director, Rupert Julian, and Chaney. According to Van Enger in a 1973 interview with Richard Kozarski, Julian was totally out of his depth as a director and was constantly getting cues and creative decisions made for him not only by Van Enger, but also by his own wife, Elsie Jane Wilson, who was a director in her own right. Van Enger was responsible for lighting and saving the climactic chandelier scene in the movie, which Julian had proposed to shoot in the dark. Van Enger was later called up by Universal to film the new scenes needed for the 1930 sound adaptation of Phantom of the Opera. Meanwhile, at Warner Bros., Van Enger was directly responsible for the studio acquiring the The Jazz Singer, when he recommended it to Lubitsch and the director insisted that the studio purchase the property. He was also involved with a pair of early musicals during the sound era, Fox Movietone Follies of 1929 and Words and Music, and spent a major chunk of the '30s working for Gaumont-British in England as a supervising cameraman and occasional cinematographer.

Van Enger returned to the United States soon after war was declared in 1939 and went back to work for Universal, where his assignments included uncredited second-unit work of Alfred Hitchcock's Saboteur and shooting many of the films of W.C. Fields, Abbott and Costello (including their two best photographed features, Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein and The Time of Their Lives, and the Sherlock Holmes movies starring Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce). As the studio's output declined, the cinematographer's work became less distinguished in the 1950s, and, by the end of the decade, he was working in television on such series as Lassie, Broken Arrow, The Betty Hutton Show, Bat Masterson, My Mother the Car, and Gilligan's Island. Van Enger retired in 1969 at the age of 79. As one of the last active and living creative contributors to a string of major silent movies, he became an figure of much fascination to film scholars and historians, and his onscreen interview is one of the highlights of the definitive Phantom of the Opera DVD set released by Milestone in 2003. Van Enger died July 4, 1980, in Woodland Hills, CA.

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