Cinematographer. Nationality: French. Born: Paris, 1897. Career: in French films from 1913, working on documentaries and short films; 1933—persuaded by Alexander Korda to join London Films, and later worked in the United States. Award: Academy Award for The Thief of Bagdad, 1940. Died: In London, 23 April 1965.
Films as Cinematographer:
La Bière (Grémillon)
L'Auvergne (Grémillon); La Justicière (Gleize and de Marsan)
Au pays de George Sand (Epstein)
Maldone (Grémillon); Six et demi onze (Epstein); Gratuités (Grémillon)
Les Nouveaux Messieurs (Feyder) (co); La Zone (Lacombe); La Tour (Clair) (co)
Ces dames aux chapeaux verts (Berthomieu); Gardiens de phare (Grémillon)
David Golder (Duvivier); Mon ami Victor (Berthomieu); Le Sang d'un poète (The Blood of a Poet) (Cocteau); Sous les toits de Paris (Under the Roofs of Paris) (Clair)
Dainah la metisse (Grémillon); A nous la liberté (Clair); Le Million (Clair); Le Parfum de la dame en nois (L'Herbier); Jean de la Lune (Choux)
The Girl from Maxim's (Z. Korda); La Femme en homme (Genina); Hotel des étudiants (Tourjansky); Le Picador (Jaquelux); La Petite Chocolatière (M. Allegret); Pomme d'amour (Dreville); Quatorze juillet (Clair)
The Private Life of Henry VIII (Z. Korda)
Escape Me Never (Czinner); Sanders of the River (Z. Korda); Things to Come (Menzies)
Rembrandt (A. Korda)
Dark Journey (Saville); The Squeaker (W. Howard); Under the Red Robe (Sjöström); I, Claudius (von Sternberg—unfinished)
The Challenge (Rosmer); The Drum (Drums) (Z. Korda); Prison without Bars (Hurst)
The Four Feathers (Z. Korda)
The Thief of Bagdad (Berger, Powell, and Whelan); Old Bill and Son (Dalrymple)
The First of the Few (L. Howard); The Jungle Book (Z. Korda)
The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (Powell and Pressburger)
Perfect Strangers (Vacation from Marriage) (A. Korda)
A Man about the House (Arliss)
An Ideal Husband (Z. Korda); The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby (Cavalcanti)
The Fallen Idol (Reed)
The Forbidden Street (Brittania Mews) (Negulesco)
My Daughter Joy (Ratoff); That Dangerous Age (Ratoff); The Mudlark (Negulesco)
I'll Never Forget You (Baker); No Highway (No Highway in the Sky) (Koster)
L'Amant de Lady Chatterley (Lady Chatterley's Lover) (M. Allégret); The Man Who Loved Redheads (French); Three Cases of Murder (O'Ferrall)
Loser Takes All (Annakin); Satellite in the Sky (Dickson)
A King in New York (Chaplin); Saint Joan (Preminger)
Bonjour Tristesse (Preminger); Tom Thumb (Pal)
Serious Charge (Immoral Charge; A Touch of Hell) (Young)
The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (Minnelli)
By PÉRINAL: article—
Film Weekly (London), 4 May 1934.
On PÉRINAL: articles—
Cine Technician (London), April-June 1942.
Hill, Derek, in American Cinematographer (Hollywood), August 1958.
Clair, René, in Film and TV Technician (London), May 1965.
Focus on Film (London), no. 13, 1973.
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One of the most influential cinematographers in the history of the cinema, Georges Périnal had a career extending from his early work in the French silent cinema (Chartres, L'Auvergne, and other films), to films for Jean Cocteau (The Blood of a Poet), the Kordas (The Private Life of Henry VIII, I, Claudius, and his Academy Award-winning Technicolor photography on The Thief of Bagdad), then on to assignments for Charlie Chaplin (A King in New York), and Otto Preminger (Saint Joan). He retired in 1960 after the production of Oscar Wilde, and died shortly thereafter.
Périnal's work is a curiously continental hybrid of a delicately gallic lighting style modified by the various directional sensibilities he labored under. For Cocteau, he gave The Blood of a Poet a dreamlike, ethereal quality, shooting on silver nitrate black-and-white stock through a variety of filters and gauzes to achieve a fluid, phantasmagorical look, ideally suited to Cocteau's vision of "a realistic documentary of unreal events." Périnal received the assignment from Cocteau when the director sent out postcards to all cameramen working in Paris at that time, asking each one to come to Cocteau's flat for an interview the following morning. Périnal was the first to arrive, and Cocteau was immediately taken with him. The film proved an international triumph, and a classic of the avant-garde, still frequently revived today. During that same year, for the director René Clair, Périnal also photographed Sous les toits de Paris, which was a great success; and in 1931, he shot A nous la liberté, also for Clair, which many consider to be the director's masterpiece. All three of these early films showed an imaginative flair for combining music and image in a variety of complimentary ways, usually by closely synchronizing the movements of the actors and/or props with a quirky, effervescent score.
After this initial success, Périnal began a long association with Alexander Korda, starting with The Private Life of Henry VIII which starred Charles Laughton. Although this film was in every way a more conventional project than the films Périnal had previously been associated with, he nevertheless collaborated effectively on the project, giving his images a sense of light and shadow consistent with Laughton's hearty performance, and prefiguring in many ways his moody, atmospheric work on Rembrandt, which also starred Laughton. On Rembrandt, Périnal purposely designed each shot as though it were a painting by the great artist, with light shafting in through the windows of the sets in sharp contrast to the Stygian gloom of the interiors. Yet these films, and Things to Come (which he shot for Korda under the stylistically astute direction of art-director-turnedfilm-director William Cameron Menzies), show that Périnal was interested in being commercially successful as well as artistically innovative. Things to Come is a particular disappointment: although the film is undeniably spectacular, and uses the considerable talents of such excellent actors as Sir Cedric Hardwicke and Raymond Massey, Périnal's lighting of Menzies's gigantic sets is too often flat and perfunctory. Perhaps this was intentional, as the appropriate manner in which to light and photograph the world of the futuristic, totalitarian "science-state" in Things to Come, but Périnal's lighting here falls into the category of one strategy, perfunctorily extended and seldom modified. One could say the same of his work in Rembrandt and even The Jungle Book, which is so lushly lit and shot that its sumptuousness borders, at times, on the suffocating. Nevertheless, Périnal's work in these productions set the style for a generation of British cameramen, and he continued working in the British cinema for most of the balance of his career.
Certainly, Périnal's is an intensely romantic style, full of pronounced lighting contrasts and glossy, hard-edged key lighting. Yet one misses the airy, gentle lyricism he brought to his photography of the two Clair films and Blood of a Poet. Ironically, some of Périnal's best work during this "middle period" can be found in his work on the unfinished I, Claudius, directed by Josef von Sternberg. The film was abandoned after only a few days' shooting, principally because of Laughton's inability to get along with the strong-willed director or to "come to grips" with the role of Claudius. The few tantalizingly brief scenes that survive, which were woven into an excellent documentary by Bill Duncalf (The Epic That Never Was) on the making of I, Claudius, show that the film might have been Korda's supreme achievement. In addition to von Sternberg's direction and the performances of Laughton and Oberon, Emlyn Williams appears effectively in the incomplete footage as a debauched, languidly corrupt Caligula, and William Cameron Menzies designed the appropriately grandiose sets. Périnal's work on the film is at once seductive and sinuous; working with von Sternberg, an excellent cinematographer in his own right, Périnal blends bold, stark lighting patterns in the wide shots with gently, "cookied" close-ups of the protagonists, making the world of I, Claudius somewhat of an extension of von Sternberg's cinematographic vision in Morocco or Shanghai Express.
Perhaps Périnal's last truly realized work is his photography of Nicholas Nickleby in 1947, although one could make a strong case for his exquisite black-and-white photography on Graham Greene's The Fallen Idol, which starred Ralph Richardson, in 1948. Thereafter, Périnal's work, though not diminishing in quantity, went into a period of stasis. The Mudlark, No Highway in the Sky, and Saint Joan are all journeyman assignments, and Périnal apparently walked through them with little enthusiasm or interest. The same could certainly be said of his contributions to Tom Thumb and Once More, with Feeling! Yet, even in the midst of these frankly commercial productions, Périnal was capable of creditable work on Preminger's Bonjour Tristesse, one of the director's most affecting works, and A King in New York, although Chaplin's visual sense in this film is distinctly utilitarian, and gives Périnal little space to work in.
Despite, then, a certain adventurousness in Périnal's work as evidenced by his rapid assimilation into the Korda movie machine, the cinematographer emerges as a formidable commercial stylist, whose work between 1930–31 set the foundation for much of what was to come in both classic and New Wave French cinema, through his expressive use of naturalistic techniques and a gracefully fluid moving camera. In his second phase, from 1933–46, Périnal became the architect of one of the great classical British styles of cinematography: brooding and dramatic, reveling in off-angled close-ups, and inextricably tied to the use of studio facilities. Certainly, Périnal is a major figure in the history of motion-picture cinematography, and his influence continues to be felt in both British and French studio work to the present day.
—Wheeler Winston Dixon