Legendary cinematographer Jack Cardiff was born in Great Yarmouth on September 18 1914. He was christened John G. J. Gran. His father and mother were on the stage under the name of Cardiff. They occasionally worked on films and Jack performed in some silent movies and once played the character Billy Rose. Cardiff became a clapper boy for Claude Friese Green (1898-1943), son of film pioneer William Friese Green. Cardiff went on to operate for cinematographer Hal Rosson (1895-1988) Rosson’s films included The Wizard of Oz (1939).
Your mother and father were on stage and also appeared in films. You acted in a few; I take it you didn’t want to be an actor?
No,I do remember appearing in Billy Rose when I was around four. My parents were paid around a guinea a day. Being brought up in the theatre, I was present at most rehearsals, and I would watch how things were arranged. I always made chums with the art director, so that was a fascinating side issue. I became interested in the drapes and the colours. The art director was also my big friend. I would watch how he designed the set. I was fundamentally interested in the design, and then I realised the photography in films was very important.
What got you interested in cameras, was it watching the cameramen at work when your mum and dad were in films?
Yes, I did a lot of that. It was fascinating for me. I was interested in watching the way the camera was used; changing lenses and so on. Sometimes they would say. “Sonny, please go and bring that case over here,” They let me pull focus. At that time Debrie cameras were used and they had a wonderful focus attachment across the top of the camera from infinity to one foot in a fraction of a second.
When did you start operating?
It was in 1931 on British Quota films. In 1932 I operated on Brewster’s Millions.
I understand you have an interest in paintings?
I don’t know how it happened, but I did become very interested in looking at painting in museums. When I was a boy going around with my parents we would spend a week somewhere and one of the first things I did was get someone who worked with us and lived in that town to take me to the museum. I soon developed an admiration for the impressionists. I realised even at that early age that the paintings that contained light and shade, were almost like film lighting.
When did you become a director of photography?
In 1937 I was working at Technicolor, and one day a very expensive car turned up with a gentleman and his wife. His name was Count Von Keller. They said to Technicolor that they had travelled all over the world with a 16mm camera and they felt they would like to do it again with a 35mm Technicolor camera. They were supplied with a camera and I set off with them. My big break as a director of photography was given to me by director Michael Powell (1905-1990). He saw me working one day. I was shooting stuffed animal heads for the film The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943). Later, I photographed A Matter of Life and Death (1946) for Powell.
Which films were your favourites?
They were Sons and Lovers as a director and Black Narcissus a cinematographer.
Which film proved to be the most difficult?
Well, they were all difficult. I can’t remember any that stood out.
Did you have a favourite director?
Michael Powell was my favourite; he was a great director. He was so enthusiastic and gave you the same enthusiasm. He made everybody think and work hard. We had a very good art director by the name of Alfred Junge (1886-1964). He would say, “I am the art director, this is my set, and I want you to light it this way.” I said, “I’m sorry, but I want to put the light on the other side.” He said, “No no, it is my set.” We often had a lot of arguments, but I usually got my way. He was a very good man to work with. Michael Powell would say, “Let’s go, let’s do this, let’s do that. He was keeping people very busy. He would run instead of walk on the set.
You directed and photographed Girl on a Motorcycle (1968). Was it difficult doing both jobs and how long did it take to shoot?
Of course it was difficult, but on the other hand it was a fascinating opportunity to do a film with a motorcycle. Marianne Faithfull and Alain Delon were great to work with. It was not easy, and it was made on a low budget. Sometimes I had to try and work out a way that wouldn’t cost so much.
I forget how long it took to shoot. It wasn’t done like films today where you start on January 1 and carry on until the film is finished. We would work a bit on it, and then have a break, because of the lack of finances. We didn’t have many actors that we had to keep continuity with. In between I would work on another film.
What were Humphrey Bogart and Katharine Hepburn like?
Bogart (Bogie) was a tough guy, saying things like “What the hell is this? OK, what are we doing?” He was great fun to work with. Hepburn and Bogart were completely different personalities. Bogie would say, “OK, let’s do this.” She would say, “Now wait a minute. I don’t see why……” John Huston the director on The African Queen was magnificent. I respected him very much as a director. He had a very good way of handling the actors. He never shouted and screamed, “ I’m the bloody director.” There was none of that stuff. He and I got on very well and I would do anything for him. Sometimes he would ask me to light something that was very difficult. Some cameramen would say, “That is impossible,” I tried my best to make it work.
I understand that you started to direct William Tell in 1953, but the production ran out of money, does the footage still exist?
The footage is kept in Boston. Only a third of the picture was shot.
Finally, which year did you receive your OBE?
I receive it in 1998 for services to the film industry.
Jack Cardiff worked on many memorable films as cinematographer and director. He passed away on 22nd April 2009, age ninety-four
David A Ellis © chestercinemas.co.uk
The Northgate development is due to start soon, which will bring cinema back into the centre of Chester with the new multiplex Picture House, which will be operated by Cineworld. It will be built on the top of Chester’s new market hall.
Cineworld in Sealand Road was the last cinema in Chester. In the meantime, Storyhouse continues to provide selected movies in a boutique 100 seat cinema within their complex.
The nearest commercial cinemas to Chester are at Broughton, Wrexham and Ellesmere Port.