Another in our occasional series on Western cinematographers
Edward Cronjager ASC (1904 –1960) was in my view one of the most talented of all cinematographers, a real artist, and many of the fourteen feature Westerns he shot, between 1929 and 1954, were remarkable for their visual beauty and technical mastery. He was highly regarded in the profession and worked with some of the greatest directors, the likes of Victor Fleming, William A Wellman, King Vidor, Fritz Lang, Jacques Tourneur and John Sturges. He was nominated for an Academy award no fewer than seven times, though never won an Oscar.
DW Griffith, no less, called Cronjager’s work in Heaven Can Wait “the best color footage ever made.”
Eddie, as he was known, was born in New York City. His father Henry and Uncle Jules were well-known cameramen in the early silent era. Eddie’s brother, Henry Jr, was also a famous movie photographer, although his filmography is sometimes confused with that of his father. Eddie’s nephew (Henry Jr’s son) was William Cronjager, the resident DP on Alias Smith and Jones who also worked (though not as DP) on Rio Conchos and The Last Wagon. So cinematography was a family business.
One of Edward Cronjager’s first efforts behind the lens was at the age of 19, filming the heavyweight championship bout between Jack Dempsey and Luis Angel Firpo, in 1923. He began his career in the film industry in 1925 with Famous Players-Lasky, later Paramount, where he remained until 1930. His first feature film was a silent movie starring Richard Dix, and he would work on thirty pictures with Dix altogether, including five Westerns, most notably Cimarron in 1931.
By the end of the silent era Cronjager was credited with developing several new camera angles and was lauded by industry papers such as Variety for his inventive camera work.
There was a hiccup when he didn’t want to join a union but finally agreed to under studio pressure when the union threatened a strike.
Two of his earliest sound films were Westerns, when he worked (though uncredited) on Paramount’s The Virginian, directed by Victor Fleming and starring Gary Cooper, still today the best of all the versions. Some of the shots are stunningly good, though how much is Cronjager and how much the credited DP J Roy Hunt is impossible to know.
Later the same year, Cronjager filmed another Dix picture, Redskin, click the link for our review, directed by Victor Scherztinger. The picture was remarkable because it was shot in two-strip Technicolor, though Cronjager was in charge of the black & white parts – which contain many fine shots.
Cronjager now moved to RKO, as did Dix, and Cimarron was his next Western, in 1931. He meticulously planned each take and utilized up to 27 cameras at once during the famous land rush. He shot over two million feet of film, 250,000 of them during those scenes alone. He communicated with his cameramen through army-surplus field telephones. He received the first of his Oscar nominations for the work, and it is indeed truly remarkable.
It was a fine start to his Western photographic career.
In 1932 Cronjager was DP on RKO’s The Conquerors, with William A Wellman in the director’s chair. It was not maybe the greatest of Wellman’s films but Mordaunt Hall, the New York Times film critic, said that “There are shrewdly photographed sequences,” whatever that might mean.
Another Dix Western followed, Yellow Dust in 1936, a lust-for-gold yarn of no special merit, though with a few nice shots, but later that year Cronjager filmed The Texas Rangers for King Vidor, back at Paramount. A lot of it was shot on location in New Mexico (not Texas) and the picture is noticeably attractive from the visual point of view. Variety gave the picture a less than glowing review, calling it “just a fancy hoss opry”, but added that “Edward Cronjager’s camera work rates bends.” Not quite sure what that means.
The Gay Caballero in 1940 was a more modest affair, with what location shooting there was done up at Lone Pine (nice though). It was a Cisco Kid flick starring Cesar Romero and directed by quite unstellar Otto Brower. It was a Fox picture, and by now Cronjager was going freelance. You gotta work.
His next big Western, and it was big, came in 1941, again for Fox, when he shot Western Union for Fritz Lang (Brower was assistant director). This was an altogether more major affair and the color photography of House Rock Canyon AZ and Kanab and Zion National Park UT locations is truly fine. Variety talked of “the most eyeful exterior panoramas in Technicolor that have ever been photographed.” The review added, “The tinting photography does much to hold and maintain interest throughout.”
Canyon Passage was one of the classiest Westerns of the 1940s, with writing, acting and direction (Jacques Tourneur) all first class, but the photography, of Diamond Lake and Crater Lake National Park, Oregon locations was the match in terms of quality. The New York Times talked of the “beautiful outdoor scenery in stunning Technicolor”.
Cronjager’s last five Westerns weren’t quite in this class, but they all had visual merit. Columbia’s Relentless in 1948, directed by good old George Sherman, was a solid enough picture. RKO’s The Capture was interesting, a semi-Western really, helmed by John Sturges, as a noir. Cronjager had shot one of the first noirs, I Wake Up Screaming, in 1941, which the New York Sun had called “one of the most beautiful black-and-white movies ever made” and he handled the black and white in masterly fashion. Best of the Badmen in 1951, also at RKO, was in Technicolor. The picture was, I’m sorry to say it, a tad lame, but it’s nicely shot by Cronjager in some lovely Kanab, Utah locations. Powder River in 1953, directed by Louis King (Henry’s brother) was a bright Fox picture that was not great art (it was a remake of My Darling Clementine, at least in plot) and shot in the Glacier National Park, Montana. It is in parts a very pretty picture, though much was shot on studio sets. Lastly, Fox’s The Siege at Red River, directed by the slightly stodgy Rudolph Maté, suffered from a weak lead (Van Johnson) but once again it’s visually excellent. There are wonderful Utah locations, in Castle Valley and along the Colorado River, and there are some memorable scenes, such as a wagon being chased by horsemen in the dust, with a mesa in the background; it’s a great shot.
So that was it, fourteen Western features, 1925 to 1954.
He came close to an Oscar yet again in 1954 but once more lost out, but this time it was by Loyal Griggs, for Shane, so that’s semi-alright.
Cronjager also did some Western TV work: five episodes of Black Saddle, three of Bat Masterson, and two of The Westerner.
Edward Cronjager died in 1960. He had been ill for some time. Western-lovers will always think of him highly. He made mediocre pictures memorable and good ones great.