Life through a Lens

Life through a Lens: Memoirs of a Cinematographer

Osmond Borradaile
Anita Borradaile Hadley
Copyright Date: 2001
Pages: 160
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    Life through a Lens
    Book Description:

    Covering all aspects of his film experience B from his childhood encounter with an exploding nickelodeon show, to his apprenticeship as a lab technician in Hollywood's Jessie Lasky Studios, to director of photography for Paramount Pictures - Life through a Lens details how "Bordie" thrived on the evolving technical demands of an art form in constant flux. Accepting Alexander Korda's invitation to join London Film Productions, he travelled the world, making such memorable films as The Private Life of Henry VIII, Elephant Boy, The Four Feathers, and Scott of the Antarctic. Through his daring and innovative photography, Borradaile, whom Raymond Massey called "the greatest exterior camera artist in the world," enhanced the work of such major filmmakers as Cecil B. De Mille, Alexander Korda, Robert Flaherty, Alfred Hitchcock, Michael Powell, and Otto Preminger.

    eISBN: 978-0-7735-6982-9
    Subjects: Art & Art History

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. vii-viii)
  4. Editor’s Preface
    (pp. ix-2)
  5. Prologue: The Journey Begins
    (pp. 3-10)

    Seeing the world through the lens of my camera defined my life in every If I am moved to tell my story, it is not to make revelations about the celebrities with whom I worked, but to share my discovery of the world through the medium I loved. As a young man in the 1920s,I learned the technical side of film production, later experiencing the transitions from film to sound and then to colour. Restless in the confines of the studios, I eventually adapted my skills to the unique conditions of filming in distant locations. For over thirty years, my...

  6. Hollywood Apprentice
    (pp. 11-25)

    I count my early years in California as the transition period from childhood to manhood. Indeed, it was not long after our arrival in San Diego that I decided the days of my formal schooling were over. With the exception of University School in Victoria, I had never enjoyed school. Nor had I adapted happily to the impersonal and comparatively undisciplined atmosphere of San Diego High School. At the age of sixteen, I therefore considered myself ready to serve my apprenticeship in the school of life and, to my mother’s dismay, I quit school to seek my fortune elsewhere.


  7. Journeyman on Location
    (pp. 26-40)

    Hollywood in the roaring twenties was both a town and a state of mind. Everywhere, optimism and audacity reflected the creative ebullience of a young, brash, and booming industry. In a milieu where everybody knew everybody else, friendliness, good-natured humour and a spirit of collaboration tempered potential rivalries. During slack moments in production, artists and technicians would visit each other from set to set, and occasionally even from studio to studio. In this manner I came to know and enjoy the companionship of Will Rogers and Eddie Cantor, although we never actually worked together on a production. However, this easygoing...

  8. Cameraman Abroad
    (pp. 41-53)

    On arriving at Les Studios Paramount at Joinville, France, in late 1929, I found a modern, well-established plant with five stages, a laboratory, and all the departments necessary for film making. The technicians were a cosmopolitan lot. In addition to the French crew, cameramen and soundmen had come from practically every country in Europe. Of course, there were Americans too. Three cameramen from New York, Harry Stradling Sr, Ted Pahl, and Phil Tannura, showed me around and assured me that life in France could be delightful. I was glad of their welcome. To one newly arrived from unilingual Hollywood, Joinville...

  9. Sanders of the River
    (pp. 54-67)

    My lifelong dream of visiting Africa was realized in 1933-34 with the shooting ofSanders of the River.This marked the first time London Films had sent a crew to a distant location to shoot background footage for a feature film. By today’s standards, Edgar Wallace’s story of the trials and tribulations of a colonial administrator is dated and politically suspect. But at the time it reflected British pride in the Empire and struck a sympathetic note with audiences. Certainly, critics were quick to praise Alexander Korda, the anglophile Hungarian, for his sympathetic portrayal of the “unsung heroes” administering “Britain’s...

  10. Elephant Boy
    (pp. 68-87)

    I almost didn’t make it to India to shootElephant Boy. Prior to its production in 1935-36, I had been preparing camera mounts for aerial sequences to serve as back-projection plates forConquest of the Air,a film on aviation. That was when I met the American director Robert Flaherty, famous for putting the documentary film on the map with his 1922 tour de forceNanook of the North. Now he had interested Alexander Korda in a story based on the trusting relationship between a boy and his elephant. Although Flaherty and Korda were different in so many ways, I...

  11. The Drum
    (pp. 88-101)

    The success ofElephant Boyand the appeal of its lead character triggered demands for more films starring Sabu. Seeking to capitalize on so promising a career, Alexander Korda bought the rights to A.E.W. Mason’sThe Drum. It was an improbable tale of the British army backing a young oriental prince pitted against a treasonous uncle. As inSanders of the RiverandElephant Boy,Korda’s ideals of Empire and personal courage found expression against a backdrop of wild and romantic places. YetThe Drumremained above all a rousing adventure of heroes and villians – a sort of oriental version...

  12. Four Feathers ... and a Thief
    (pp. 102-114)

    My career in the motion-picture industry alternated between periods of intense productivity, often in remote locations, and between-film interludes which gave me the chance to unpack my bags and catch my breath. I generally welcomed these periods of respite that allowed me to renew body and soul and immerse myself in the simple joys of home life. But they never lasted long, for in those days London Films was in full production.

    The interlude from late 1934 to early 1935 – betweenSanders of the RiverandElephant Boy– was a case in point. At that time Alex Korda was preparing...

  13. Photographer in Uniform
    (pp. 115-128)

    My first wartime assignment was a documentary drama intended to whip up public zeal in the early stages of the war. Although this was a period of limited military action - the so-called “phony war” - it was clear that much worse was to come. Throughout 1939-40 Britain feverishly speeded up her military production in anticipation of the inevitable onslaught. Predictably, the motion-picture industry had its part to play. By mobilizing public support, boosting morale, and disseminating vital information it quickly proved itself a powerful instrument of national policy. To ensure that film production carried the “right” message and respected...

  14. North African Campaigns
    (pp. 129-142)

    The Ethiopian campaign was drawing to a successful conclusion when we heard of the siege of Tobruk. A vital link in the Axis supply line, this superb North African port had been captured by the Australians in January 1941. Now it was again besieged and bombed – this time by the Germans under General Erwin Rommel. Unable to get an air flight to Cairo, Geoffrey Boothby and I drove our little truck to Asmara, via Dessie and Amba Alagie. The road swarmed with surrendered Italians also making their way to Asmara. On arrival we were surprised to discover how much then...

  15. The Tide Turns
    (pp. 143-159)

    The Britain I came back to at the end of 1941 had become a fortress. Approaches to towns and cities bristled with anti-aircraft guns and concrete pillboxes, while every street bore further signs of preparedness: first aid centres, air raid shelters, air raid wardens’ posts, auxiliary stations. In school grounds and sports fields members of the Home Guard drilled with rifles and machine-guns alongside civilians undergoing physical training with the Fitness for Service scheme. On main roads, camouflaged military vehicles – armoured cars, tanks, transport wagons, and guns new from the factory – streamed towards the coast to take their place...

  16. Safari Scenes and Scottish Mists
    (pp. 160-169)

    The spell of home life I had longed for after the war soon drew to an end. Scarcely had I rejoined Christiane and the children at “The Den,” when I received a call from Zoltan Korda in Hollywood asking me to go to AfricaThe Macomber Affair,a United Artists production. I was to contact his brother Alex concerning film crew and travel arrangements. Although Zoli had as yet no script, he would base his next film on Ernest Hemingway’s short story “The Short, Happy Life of Francis Macomber.”

    This savage story of contempt, cowardice, and bitter marital strife unfolds...

  17. To the Antarctic ...
    (pp. 170-181)

    In 1946 Antarctica was still a mysterious continent to most of the world, a distant, hostile region known only to a handful of explorers and scientists. Ealing Studio’s Sir Michael Balcon was determined to change all that. He wanted to show the story of Captain Robert Scott’s doomed 1910 race to the South Pole over the frozen expanses and ominous mountains of that vast, unforgiving terrain. To this end, he sent a crew of three to Antarctica: myself, my assistant, Bob Moss, and our technical advisor, David James.

    Once again, I had a small crew for a big job. In...

  18. ... and Back
    (pp. 182-193)

    Poor weather conditions and scarcity of suitable locations had frustrated many of our efforts up to mid-March 1947. Despite some exciting shots, I had been increasingly worried about the success of our trip. So when at lastTrepasseyemerged from a black cloud of flying ice particles and anchored just beyond our ice-shelf, Bob Moss and I were waiting for her. Two hefty Newfoundlanders rowed us out to the ship through heavy freezing seas. With a gale blowing up and heaving the ship around we settled in for a miserable night. Regrettably, limited room aboard prevented David James from joining...

  19. Journey Home
    (pp. 194-208)

    I did not know it at the time, butScott of the Antarcticended my travels to distant lands for feature film footage. Personal and professional reasons urged me to look beyond the film industry for new frontiers on turning fifty. With the birth of our son, George, in August 1948, the time had come to realize my life’s dream of returning to Canada. I wanted my son to grow up in the land I had known as a boy. Besides, with the British film industry severely constrained by Treasury Board regulations, I sensed that distant locations would soon be...

  20. Selected Filmography
    (pp. 209-212)
  21. Index
    (pp. 213-224)