Rennahan, Ray

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Cinematographer. Nationality: American. Born: Las Vegas, New Mexico, 1 May 1896. Career: 1917–1943—cameraman/assistant/ director of photography for Technicolor; 1943–1950s—independent director of photography; also served at various times as president and secretary of the ASC (American Society of Cinematographers). Award: Academy Award for Gone with the Wind, 1939. Died: In Tarzana, California, 19 May 1980.

Films as Cophotographer (Technicolor):


Blood Test (dir ph); The Ten Commandments (De Mille) (color sequences only)


Gold Diggers of Broadway (del Ruth)


The King of Jazz (Murray Anderson); The Vagabond King; Whoopee! (Freeland)


Doctor X (Curtiz); Ebb Tide


Mystery of the Wax Museum (Curtiz) (dir ph)


Becky Sharp (Mamoulian) (dir ph)


Wings of the Morning (Schuster) (dir ph)


Her Jungle Love (Archainbaud) (dir ph)


Drums along the Mohawk (Ford) (dir ph); Gone with the Wind (Fleming)


The Blue Bird (Lang); Chad Hanna (King); Down Argentine Way (Cummings); Maryland (King)


Belle Starr (Cummings); Blood and Sand (Mamoulian); Louisiana Purchase (Cummings); That Night in Rio (Cummings)

Films as Cinematographer:


For Whom the Bell Tolls (Wood)


Lady In The Dark (Leisen); Up in Arms (Nugent)


Incendiary Blonde (Marshall); A Thousand and One Nights (Green)


California (Farrow); A Duel in the Sun (Vidor)


The Perils of Pauline (Marshall); Unconquered (De Mille)


The Paleface (McLeod); Whispering Smith (Fenton)


A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court (Garnett); Streets of Laredo (Fenton)


The Great Missouri Raid (Douglas)


Flaming Feather (Enright); Silver City (Haskin); Warpath (Haskin)


The Denver and Rio Grande (Haskin); Hurricane Smith (Hopper)


Arrowhead (Marquis Warren)


Pony Express (Hopper)


A Lawless Street (Lewis)


Seventh Cavalry (Lewis)


The Guns of Fort Petticoat (Marshall); The Halliday Brand (Lewis)


Terror in a Texas Town (Lewis)


On RENNAHAN: articles—

Focus on Film, no. 13, 1973.

"Ray Rennahan, ASC Honored by Star in Hollywood's 'Walk of Fame'," in American Cinematographer (Hollywood), January 1979.

Obituary, in Variety (New York), 28 May 1980.

* * *

As one of the premier Technicolor photographers in Hollywood, Ray Rennahan was a prominent figure in the industry's transition to color. During the experimental period of the 1920s and 1930s, Rennahan was responsible for supervising such early Technicolor endeavors as Gold Diggers of Broadway (1929), The King of Jazz (1930), and Whoopee! (1930). As Technicolor's rendering grew more proficient, Rennahan's reputation grew. By the early 1940s he was one of the busiest photographers in Hollywood, supervising many of the industry's great Technicolor films. Though his career during the 1950s lacked the impact of his earlier years, Rennahan's commitment to the Technicolor image remained unchanged—after over fifty years in the industry, his name, more than that of any other, has become synonymous with the art and history of color photography.

When Rennahan entered the industry in 1917 to work with Technicolor, the concept of color film was not yet a viable option. Tinting, toning and hand coloring were commonly practiced, but the actual technology of recording color was still very much in its infancy. Operating as a service firm, Technicolor had established itself to develop and promote a feasible system of recording the natural spectrum. With its own cameras and developing laboratories, it would lease its service to a particular studio and oversee the filming of an assigned project. As company photographer, Rennahan found himself working with various studios as supervisor/assistant to the studio cameraman.

The company's earliest experiments were novel but not successful. For example, in Whoopee!, an Eddie Cantor vehicle shot at MGM, Rennahan's photography lacks clarity, while the colors, garish and unreal, are ill defined and muddy. Though the film was reasonably successful in its initial weeks at the box office, attendance soon died down. Returns were not sufficient to warrant the high costs of the process, and the industry deemed it impractical.

In the mid-1930s Technicolor introduced the three-color system. Though the same in principle as the two-color system (it used three negatives—red, green, and blue—instead of two), it offered a wider range of spectrum and a clearer, crisper picture. The first feature to be shot with the system was Becky Sharp (1935), Rouben Mamoulian's rather stagy version of Thackery's Vanity Fair. However, as photographer Rennahan gave the picture a radiance and fidelity never before seen. One sequence, in which a ball in Brussels is interrupted by the cannon fire of Napoleon's army, brilliantly conveys the ensuing panic through a movement from the subtle greys and blues of the ballroom to the violent reds of the soldier's uniforms. In retrospect, however, the film seems a little too in awe of its own capabilities, with color at times overused, often to the point of distraction. Nevertheless, the film proved that color could entrance both audience and critics alike. When the picture was released, The Post declared it a dramatic indication of hitherto unrealized possibilities in the art of the motion picture.

Rennahan's work for Technicolor continued. He went to England in 1937 to shoot the country's first Technicolor film, Wings of the Morning. While there he proved a considerable influence on British cinematographer Jack Cardiff, with whom he worked. (Cardiff would later work on such Powell/Pressburger films as Black Narcissus [1946] and The Red Shoes [1948].) Rennahan returned to the U.S. the following year to add a colorful touch to Her Jungle Love (1938) and Drums along the Mohawk (1939). In 1939 began work on Gone with the Wind. Working closely with Ernest Haller the cophotographer, and production designer/codirector William Cameron Menzies, Rennahan helped create an intimacy and grandeur through the film's ground-breaking, superlative use of low-key photography. Made just four years after the advent of three-color production, the film remains the most extravagant and breathtaking example of the use of the technology. Though many talents contributed to the look of the film, Rennahan's efforts remained significant enough for him to collect his first Academy Award, shared with Haller.

Technicolor at this stage had mastered the industry. Rennahan continued, under his contract with Technicolor, to move from one studio to the next, and in 1941 he shot what is perhaps his greatest achievement. Blood and Sand, a remake of the Valentino silent concerning the rise and fall of a Spanish bullfighter, was directed by Mamoulian, with Tyrone Power in the starring role. Influenced by the styles of various Spanish painters, Rennahan and Mamoulian used the vivid and striking hues of Goya for the film's dramatic bullfight scenes, while the solemn hues of El Greco were employed for many of the film's quieter, more reflective moments. In short, the color not only aided the tone of the action—the bullfight scenes owe more to the actual photography than either the editing (which never fails to hide the use of a double) or the acting (Power is unsuitably timid in his role)—but also helped to articulate the theme. Rennahan's use of shadow and gloom perfectly captures the film's foreshadowing of, and preoccupation with, death.

In 1943, with the epic, somber-toned For Whom the Bell Tolls, Rennahan left Technicolor and began a career as an independent director of photography. His subsequent films ranged from colorful musicals (Up in Arms [1944]), to exotic fantasies (A Thousand and One Nights [1945]), and lavish westerns (A Duel in the Sun [1946]). Much of his later career was identified with rather formulaic westerns, and in the late 1950s he retired from the motion picture industry and worked for a period in television. His work there was associated with such shows as Wells Fargo, Suspicion, and Laramie. At various times he served as president and secretary of the American Society of Cinematographers. In 1980, after a long, productive career, he died at the age of eighty-four.

—Peter Flynn