Note: This is an encore post from 2012.
Many people come from all over the world to try and make a new start in Hollywood, particularly in the film industry. Among these over the years have been many artists from Eastern Europe looking for new opportunities to create art and live freely. One such early trekker seeking fame and fortune was Slavko Vorkapich, recognized as one of the top practitioners of montage editing and shooting in the 1930s and 1940s.
Vorkapich traveled to America from Serbia, arriving in Hollywood about 1921. He was a talented artist, focusing on painting and taking part in art exhibits. At one that year, film director Rex Ingram, who also painted and sculpted pottery, bought his painting “The Lady and the Swan,” but obviously liked the look of the man as well. Per the Aug. 19, 1923, Los Angeles Times, the director hired Vorkapich two years later to play the role of Napoleon in his film “Scaramouche.” As the paper described it, he didn’t want an older and plump man to represent the character, but “he wanted the lean and moody, rather handsome, young lieutenant…”
After the film, Vorkapich continued painting and exhibiting his work. His painting “Atlantis” appeared in the February 1926 Los Angeles Times art section, with the paper calling it “Jugo-Slavik Art,” and noting it was owned by M. S. Zhorowski of Los Angeles. The paper also ran a photo of another painting on March 1, 1929, saying that “Siegfried,” along with works called “Modern Pietro” and “American Girl” would appear in a May exhibit in Belgrade, “Jugo-Slavia.”
He also had begun working in Hollywood in the studios camera departments, where he came to know young assistant director Robert Florey. Together they decided to make a short surreal film about extras in Hollywood. Cameraman Arthur Miller saw it, and wrote a long column in the March 24, 1929 Los Angeles Times about it. Calling it “The Suicide of a Hollywood Extra,” (real title is “The Life and Death of 9413, A Hollywood Extra”), he notes that it cost only $97 and was made in Vorkapich’s kitchen. He states that Florey came up with the idea and the money, and Vorkapich wrote the treatment and provided filming facilities. “All lighting was furnished by a single 400-watt bulb, and sets were done in miniature cardboard cut-outs. The story satirized the star dreams of a Hollywood extra, played by Jules Raucourt, who, when given his number, 9413, by a casting bureau, becomes an automaton, only to be released as he is finally drawn up into a mechanical heaven on a 10-cent automobile. Humorously enough both the men obtained new jobs in the satirized industry as a result.”
As Miller goes on to state, Vorkapich realized what was the essence of cinematography, “a symphony of motion.” “Vorkapich, believing that the essence of cinema art lies in motion, was one of the first to realize that the success of such a picture as “the Last Laugh” did not depend on queer angles or cross shots but in the fact that the camera itself was in motion as an observer who was always a character on the screen.”
A couple of months later, he invited Harvard art critic Norman Byrne to help him write “a grammar of motion, based on the idea that the essence of the motion-picture art is motion.” The Los Angeles Times also noted in this May 30, 1929, article that Vorkapich was known in Hollywood for his theories of “Music of shade and light.”
This eye for movement served Vorkapich well, as he began creating unique and powerful montage segments for major studio films, those that condensed a certain period of time, as well as directing for motion pictures. His fostered the use of turning calendar pages to reveal the passage of time. He helped direct “Confessions of a Debutante” at Paramount in 1930, and “I Take This Woman” in 1931. The June 13, 1931 New York Times in its review notes that the photography is first rate, but that “the microphone is too much for them,” that the dialogue didn’t seem to flow smoothly.
He knew how to create beautiful images as the Dec. 10, 1933, Los Angeles Times review of “Dancing Lady” notes in describing the number “Rhythm of the Day.” “The latter is easily the most beautiful ever seen on the screen and reflects credit not only on those responsible for the actual staging and drilling but especially Slavko Vorkapich for his marvelous transitional effects, which, though admired in former pictures, have never reached such artistry as is here displayed. Coming as the finale of the film, this sequence leaves the spectator all but breathless and strengthens belief in everything that has preceded it.”
In his spare time, Vorkapich played a lot of chess, and helped found the Hollywood Chess Club in 1932 with Douglas Fairbanks Jr.
Vorkapich and camera crew scared police in New York in January 1935 during the filming of Ben Hecht and Charles McArthur’s “Crime Without Passion.” Four cars filled with equipment and cameramen stopped in front of the Wall Street office of J. P. Morgan at 10 o’clock one Sunday morning, and were promptly stopped by policemen, who they believed were called by Morgan building watchmen. As Vorkapich recounted in the Jan. 11, 1935, Los Angeles Times, “We were seeking shots of the skyscrapers and purposely picked a time when the financial district would be deserted. But there must have been plenty of wide awake watchmen who were out of sight but very much alert. Had we been bandits we would not have had a chance. There were probably twenty five policemen on the spot within three minutes, and the first police car pulled up along side of our cars in less than a minute after we came to a stop.” After examining the filmmakers’ credentials, the police allowed filming.
In 1937, Vorkapich, along with such filmmakers as Adolph Zukor, Cecil B. DeMille, Spencer Tracy, and Frances Marion, were honored by USC at the fourth annual dinner of the American Institute of Cinematography. The National Board of Review invited him to speak at a three day conference about filmmaking in 1939, along with people such as writer Dudley Nichols and actor Franchot Tone.
The New York Times called him “the master of the modern montage” in a Dec. 5, 1937, article. The piece states that he served in a student regiment in World War I and immigrated to America after the war, working as a painter until discovered by Ingram, who hired him to work on dissolves. The article stated that he had contributed to “David Copperfield,” “Maytime,” “The Last Gangster,” and “The Good Earth,” among others, working with musical director Herbert Stothart to compile short musical sections to accompany the montages.
The New York Times profiled him again on Nov. 26, 1944, calling him a camera artist. They reiterated some of his views, such as that producers weren’t doing all they could to exploit the use of the camera, using it as recording equipment rather than in a creative way. For film to become art, it should become silent again, with no dialogue and more focus on the use of the camera and cutting. He also felt that “the film industry would do well to establish foundations for “experiment in film as an art form.” Vorkapich moved to New York in 1932 to direct shorts for Pathe News, since studios wouldn’t hire him to direct features. He had directed and edited over seven shorts.
By 1948, he was directing the USC Cinema Department, which he would continue for over ten years. He also conducted workshops around Hollywood on montages and editing, and gave lectures at the Museum of Modern Art in New York on the subject.
Vorkapich died Oct. 20, 1976 in Mijas, Spain at the age of 82. Obituaries noted he worked on films like “The Prisoner of Zenda,” “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington,” “Meet John Doe,” “San Francisco,” and “Joan of Arc” among others. The Directors Guild of America, the American Society of Cinematographers, the American Film Institute, and Los Angeles County Museum of Art’s film department hosted a tribute to him in March 1977.