Posted by Susan Doll on February 13, 2017
I am teaching a section on mise-en-scene later this semester, and I am going to use stills and clips from the 1936 sci-fi classic Things to Come, which is adapted from H.G. Wells’ The Shape of Things to Come. While it is tailor-made for art and film students, any recommendation for others comes with a warning. I don’t want to discourage anyone from watching Things to Come, which is streaming on The Criterion Channel of FimStruck, but brace yourself for the wooden, two-dimensional characters, pretentious ideas and ponderous speechifying that tends to bring scenes to a screeching halt.
Wells used an unconventional structure for the original novel, positing the narrative as the unfinished historical chronicle of a Dr. Philip Raven. But for the screenplay, he adopted a more conventional approach while peppering the dialogue with his socialist-like political views and pontifications on what constitutes a perfect society. The film opens in 1940 when Everytown is attacked by a wave of bombers from across the sea, eerily predicting the London Blitz. The ensuing war continues for 30 years until Everytown is reduced to ruins and the people plagued by a disease called the wandering sickness. What remains of Everytown is dominated by the Boss, a demented warlord who thrives on the breakdown of social order. One day, John Cabal arrives by plane from another part of the world where scientists and intellectuals have come together to form a peaceful government. Cabal deposes the Boss and turns Everytown into a seeming utopia shaped by science and technology. Instead of existing in rubble, the people live underground in massive tiered structures that are modern and clean. Perhaps too clean, according to artist and resident troublemaker Theotocopulos, who finds their new world cold and sterile.
While Wells dominated the screenplay, director William Cameron Menzies, a highly respected production designer, dominated the stunning visual design. The directorial experience proved grueling for Menzies because of the slow pace of the production process, the ever-increasing budget, the depressing nature of the material and the real-world news coming from Nazi Germany. Menzies hit the bottle regularly during this time and once became so drunk while out with associates that he couldn’t remember his room number or even what floor he was staying on. One of the men helped him back to his apartment-style hotel, holding him up as they walked. At each floor, Menzies tried to guess which room he was staying in while his companion knocked on doors, hoping to find the right room as angry residents shouted their displeasure.
What makes Things to Come a must-see despite its shortcomings is the visual design, which is the work of Menzies, set decorator Vincent Korda and art director Frank Wells (the youngest son of H.G.). As an art and film historian, I look for moments in history when art and film collide. Things to Come provides a perfect example.
Menzies attended Yale where he studied architecture at his father’s suggestion. However, he soon discovered that he preferred art. He moved to New York City to attend the legendary Art Students League, where he was exposed to a variety of styles and teachers, including Robert Henri, F. Luis Mora and George Bridgman. His biggest influence was his illustration instructor, Charles S. Chapman. When Chapman opened his own school in New Jersey with illustrator Harvey Dunn, Menzies joined up at $15 per month, plus $5 for rent and kitchen privileges. Dunn had been a student of the great Howard Pyle, and he retained connections to Pyle’s colleagues and students. He frequently asked his former associates to visit the school and look at the students’ work, so Menzies’s art was critiqued by such illustrators as Frank Schoonover and N.C. Wyeth. Illustration taught Menzies the power of composition, the importance of using background as well as foreground and the inherent drama in certain angles, particularly when depicting figures against a background. When the character John Cabal (played by Raymond Massey) stands in a low angle against the bleak ruins of Everytown after defeating the Boss, it looks very much like a story illustration.
As an artist, Menzies was absolutely aware of modernism, the shift in the art world at the turn of the century toward capturing the sensibilities and images of the new industrial age. The incarnations of Everytown at the beginning and end of Things to Come reflect various 20th Century art movements. The opening sequence that takes place in 1940 looks very much like German Expressionist filmmaking. Similar to the recreation of Berlin executed in the UFA studios for The Last Laugh (1924), London at night was constructed inside Denham Studio to look like a bustling modern-day metropolis. The exception is the Pantheon-like classical building in mid-frame—a reminder of democratic ideals. The urban buildings constructed in forced perspectives, then shot in high and low angles suggest a crowded modern city.
For the futuristic Everytown, Menzies and his team wanted to hire an artist whom they considered a visionary. Painter Fernand Leger, artist and designer Laszlo Maholy-Nagy and architect Le Corbusier were considered. Leger had developed a personal and simplified approach to cubism that emphasized cylindrical, conical and tubular forms. Dubbed “tubism” by his critics, these forms looked streamlined and machine-like. An enthusiastic supporter of all things modern, Leger loved the cinema and considered giving up painting for filmmaking. He had designed the laboratory set for Marcel L’Herbier’s film L’Inhumaine (1924) and collaborated with Man Ray on the experimental film Ballet Mecanique (1924). Though Leger did not work on Things to Come, echoes of his streamlined, modernist style are evident in the tubular, pristine geometric shapes of futuristic Everytown.
Bauhaus alum Laszlo Moholy-Nagy, who embraced technology and abstraction as signifiers of the industrial age, was hired to create some abstract animations. Unfortunately, his contributions were largely eliminated from the final film. A few clips were rediscovered in 1975 and included on the DVD of Things to Come as a supplement.
During the 1930s, the simple geometric aesthetic of architect Le Corbusier became known as the International Style. Steel frames, open interiors, geometric shapes, and the mingling of indoor and outdoor spaces describe Le Corbusier’s style, which influenced the look of the futuristic subterranean Everytown. Some film historians have exaggerated the connection between the film and the architect. In truth, he did not participate in the production, declining to become involved immediately after reading the script.
Eventually, Menzies and Korda gave up their quest for a visionary artist to create Everytown, and Korda created the set designs himself. He spent hours at the library researching avant-garde furniture design, contemporary architecture and futuristic design in transportation (such as monorails and electric bubble cars) and media (television). The set designs reflect the modernist sensibilities of the era, rather than the influence of one specific artist, director or film. The designs also seem to anticipate certain looks or designs, such as the atrium hotels of John C. Portman and the glass elevators of the Hyatts.
The influence of Things to Come on subsequent sci-fi films is open to debate, but the apocalyptic look of Everytown after the big war prefigures the burned-out devastation of Mad Max’s world, especially the scene in which an automobile is pulled by horses because of the scarcity of fuel. Also, while watching the 2015 film The Avengers: Age of Ultron (don’t ask), I couldn’t help but see a little bit of Korda and Menzies in the streamlined, ultra-modern bar with the pristine, metallic sheen.
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