Arthur Charles Miller, the Academy Award-winning director of photography who was a master at the craft of black and white cinematography, was born on July 8, 1895 in Roslyn, New York, on Long Island, not far from New York City. At the age of 13, he began his apprenticeship in motion pictures, taking advantage of the fact that the first “Hollywood” of the American film industry was the greater New York metropolitan area.
He started at Bison Motion Pictures as an assistant for director-cameraman Fred J. Balshofer on such pictures as “The True Heart of an Indian” (1909). Bison was one of the film companies absorbed by Carl Laemmle when he merged his Independent Motion Picture Co. and several other film production companies into the new Universal Film Manufacturing Co. Miller moved on to Pathe’s American outfit, where he was the head cameraman on the famous serial The Perils of Pauline (1914), which was made for a then astronomical sum of $25,000.
In 1916, at Pathe, Miller was the cameraman on New York (1916), where he first worked with the director George Fitzmaurice. It was a collaboration that would encompass 33 movies altogether, through 1925, when Miller shot his penultimate and last films, respectively, for Fitzmaurice: A Thief in Paradise and His Supreme Moment. It was a fortuitous working relationship for Miller as the director allowed his cinematographer great latitude when filming scenes. Miller used the freedom to experiment with new ways of capturing images on celluloid.
The director and his cinematographer moved over to Famous Players-Lasky Corp. (the corporate forerunner of Paramount) in 1919, where they made A Society Exile. In 1924, Fitzmaurice began a working relationship with producer Samuel Goldwyn, and although Miller continued to shoot movies for him, their collaboration ended in 1925. Miller next shot two films for director Paul Sloane, The Coming of Amos (1925) and Made for Love (1926), the latter for DeMille Pictures Corp., the independent production company set up by director Cecil B. DeMille after his failing out with Famous Players-Lasky. Miller signed with DeMille Pictures.
For his next film, The Volga Boatman, Miller discovered he had segued from the harmonious relationship he had had with Fitzmaurice, who respected Miller’s control over all aspects of lighting and photographing a movie, into a antagonistic one with the imperious DeMille. DeMille would not allow Miller the freedom he had enjoyed as a lighting cameraman under Fitzmaurice. Although Miller continued to work for DeMille’s production company, including shooting Eve’s Leaves (1926), The Clinging Vine (1926) and The Blue Danube (1928) with Sloane, but never again worked for DeMille the director.
By 1929, DeMille had wrapped up the operations of his indie studio and signed a three-picture deal with Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. M.G.M. was just one of the studios Miller worked at after shooting his last film at DeMille in 1928; others included his old studio Pathe, R.K.O. Radio Pictures, and Universal. Some of the directors he worked with in the post-DeMille period were Donald Crisp (better known as an actor who would win an Oscar along with Miller on John Ford’s classic How Green Was My Valley), Alan Hale (also better known as an actor), and William Beaudine (famously known as “One-Shot” for his propensity for a single take). It must have been a clash of styles between “One-Shot” and Miller, who was a perfectionist renowned for going to great lengths to achieve a certain look for his films, even oiling furniture and other woodwork to give a scene a glossy look when it was captured on celluloid.
In 1932, Miller shot Me and My Gal (1932) for director Raoul Walsh as the first picture under a long term contract he signed with Fox Studios. It was a fateful decision, to sign with Fox, as at the studio, he would become associated with the two people with whom he would establish his lasting reputation: Shirley Temple and John Ford.
Shirley Temple, in the mid-1930s, was the most popular movie star in the country, if not the world. Three times she was ranked the number one box office star in America by Quigley Publications, the bible of exhibitors, keeping Clark Gable — the fabled “King of Hollywood” due to his box office prowess — from ever actually getting his hands on the box office crown. Arthur Miller became the moppet’s personal cameraman: Just as William Daniels was assigned to shoot Greta Garbo movies at M.G.M., so was Miller assigned to Temple’s oeuvre by Fox.
Miller created an aureole around the tot’s blonde locks by back-lighting her head, often lighting her in high key and the actor with whom she was playing in low key to heighten her allure. (Miller would use a similar lighting scheme to create a mystical effect with Jennifer Jones — in an Oscar-winning performance — in The Song of Bernadette, the film that brought him the second of his two Academy Awards for black and white cinematography.)
Arthur C. Miller first worked together with John Ford on the Temple vehicle Wee Willie Winkie (1935), and the six-time Oscar winner would become Miller’s favorite director. John Ford gave Miller the freedom to light and photograph a picture that he desired as the great craftsman he was. Their collaboration reached its height in, when Miller shot How Green Was My Valley for Ford.
Camerawork in the 1920s and ’30s, as the movies matured, tended to emphasis a soft style, which was felt to be more “artistic” as it evoked the softness of a painted picture, not the sharpness of a documentary photograph, which at the time was considered inartistic. This “soft style” that was considered “art” by most lighting cameramen and directors of his generation was anathema to Miller, who was a hyper-realist.
Miller created hard images, with deep shadows and brilliant highlights. A master of black and white photography, he gave his images a high glossiness and intense coloration. For How Green Was My Valley (1941), an evocation of a Welsh mining time a generation or so in the past, Ford wanted a sharpness that would not let his miners disappear into a background (not into a haze of sentimentality), as they would if the film was shot with a flatness of style. He and Miller decided on deep-focus photography, such as that William Wyler and Ford himself had pioneered with the great lighting cameraman Gregg Toland on such films as Dead End (1938, Wyler) and The Long Voyage Home (1940).
At the 1942 Academy Awards ceremony, both Miller and Ford won Oscars, Miller for his cinematography and Ford for his direction. (In addition, 20th Century-Fox head honcho Darryl F. Zanuck took home the gold that evening for Best Picture with How Green Was My Valley.) Miller’s deep-focus cinematography on the picture beat out Greg Toland’s fabled deep-focus work for Citizen Kane (1941), which has given grist to many a debate.
The fact is, Arthur C. Miller was very respected in his craft, being nominated for an Oscar for cinematography each year from 1940 through 1947, inclusive, with the sole exception of 1945. He won a second Oscar two years after How Green Was My Valley for The Song of Bernadette (1943), and though his mastery was in black and white, his second Oscar nomination was for the color cinematography of The Blue Bird (1940).
One of the great ironies is that Miller never shot a Western for Ford, whose great visual sense as evidenced by his Westerns is acknowledged as “painterly”. However, he did shoot one of the most interesting Westerns ever made, The Ox-Bow Incident (1943), entirely in a studio. Miller’s lighting scheme conveys the idea that he story is taking place in the course of a single day, from sunset to sunrise.
Arthur C. Miller retired in 1951 after shooting The Prowler for Joseph Losey, and two years after shooting one of the seminal film-noirs, Otto Preminger’s Whirlpool (1949). Miller later served as president of the American Society of Cinematographers. In the 1960s, he set up an extensive exhibit of vintage camera equipment for the ASC. Shoftly before his death, he finished making the documentary The Moving Picture Camera. He died on July 13, 1970 in Hollywood, California from tuberculosis, eight days after his 75th birthday