The story of Gregg Toland's Oscar award

There's something about the look of Citizen Kane that we've never quite been able to put our fingers on.

The film is as visually stimulating as its plot and characters, each of them artfully lit and set against dramatic shadowy backdrops.

However, while many are quick to attribute this distinct cinematography to the inimitable directing skills of Orson Welles, the story is not so simple.

A forthcoming sale at Nate D Sanders drew Gregg Toland to our attention, with his Oscar award from 1939 coming to auction later this month.

Toland is far from a household name, yet his contribution to the development of cinematography is greater than most.

The man in charge of camera and lighting on classic Golden Age movies such as Citizen Kane, Wuthering Heights and The Long Voyage Home, he helped develop many of the filming techniques we take for granted today.

Gregg Toland
Toland's use of depth of field techniques was pioneering, making for shadowy backgrounds and textures as opposed to the spacious, shallow shots of previous years

He's long been recognised by those in his profession, with the International Cinematographers Guild placing him in the top 10 most influential cinematographers, while a distinguished panel of those in the business today all cited Toland as one of their greatest influences.

However, most collectors are yet to catch on.

Gregg Toland was born in Charleston, Illinois in 1904, but like many of his era, he headed out to Hollywood to find his fortune in the thriving film industry.

Before long Toland was the youngest cameraman in town and, within two short years, was working as the chief cinematographer on some big productions.

His first real sniff of recognition came in 1935, after his work on Les Miserables, starring Frederic March and Charles Laughton, saw him nominated for the Best Cinematography award at the Oscars.

Toland's rise to prominence in Hollywood was meteoric, as directors recognised the inimitable feel of his work

However, while the film scooped up Best Picture and Best Film Editing, Toland's work came in in second place.

Two years later, he was nominated for Best Cinematography again for his work on the Humphrey Bogart film Dead End, but narrowly missed out on the coveted gong.

All the while, his reputation for injecting that Golden Age magic into every film he worked on was building.

Toland was then selected to work on William Wyler and Samuel Goldwyn's Wuthering Heights, and was chosen to use the Mitchell BNC camera that would later become the industry standard.

It was this movie that would finally earn him the Best Cinematography award at the Oscars - recognition at last for years of groundbreaking work.

But it is not the award itself that's important, it's the doors it opened for Toland.

The young Orson Welles was embarking on his first feature film, and couldn't be embarrassed in front of his highly experienced crew

We imagine Toland wasn't too impressed when he was approached by a young fresh-faced director to work on his first ever feature film. Why should an Academy Award winning cinematographer work for a rookie director?

Yet, Toland recognised the potential of the film, as well as the opportunity it would give him to develop his craft. He agreed to work on Orson Welles' Citizen Kane, on the condition he would be allowed to experiment heavily with both lighting and cameras.

Both Toland and Welles insisted following the 1941 release that it was Welles' genius that gave the movie that unmistakeable feel. However, Welles admitted years later that "Toland was advising him on camera placement and lighting effects secretly so the young director would not be embarrassed in front of the highly experienced crew."

Hailed as one of the greatest films of all time, Citizen Kane has since been scrutinised repeatedly by critics. While Welles' fans will still argue that he made Citizen Kane the almost-immaculate production it was, the real movie buffs know that Toland was the driving force behind what many regard as the best film of the 20th century.

As testament to Toland's career, the American Society of Cinematographers even has an iPhone app, known as the Toland ASC Digital Assistant, which helps those in the field to achieve Toland's style today.

Memorabilia from the Golden Age of Hollywood is some of the most sought after in the business. We have a fine selection of autographs and signed photos for sale, including Bebe Daniels and Ben Lyons, Shirley Temple, Judy Garland and of course, Marilyn Monroe.

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