Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Nicholas Ray (1932)

A full two decades before film director Nicholas Ray was in his celluloid ascent - reaching a peak with 1955's Rebel Without a Cause - and long before Jean-Luc Godard declared that Ray indeed was cinema, the latter-day legend was just embarking on an artistic journey that eventually would lead him to the modern medium of film. This journey had some unlikely twists and turns, not the least of which was a year spent as an apprentice to famed architect Frank Lloyd Wright.


James Dean and Nicholas Ray, Los Angeles, California, 1955

Ray, later known as Nick to most of his West Coast friends and acquaintances, was born on August 7, 1911 in Galesville, Wisconsin with the given name of Raymond Nicholas Kienzle. 3 months earlier in Spring Green, 100 miles southwest of Ray's birthplace, the maestro Frank Lloyd Wright began work on his own personal residence and workplace. This came to be known as Taliesin, a Welsh word which in rough translation means shining brow and refers to Wright placing the structure on the top or brow of a hill. Wright was in transition, having recently returned from nearly a year in Europe which had marked the end of what was later called his Prairie Period.

Frank Lloyd Wright, 1930, around the time he first met Ray, photo by Price Studios

As a youth, Ray was an uneven student seemingly distracted by the big city delights of Chicago, where he spent much of his formative years. He returned to Wisconsin for his senior year in high school and showed a strong affinity for and ability in public speaking, English, and drama. Two years in a state college was followed by a tumultuous semester at the University of Chicago in the fall of 1931, after which he left for New York City to study theater. However the connections made in Chicago precipitated Ray joining the inaugural fellowship of Frank Lloyd Wright at Taliesin in 1932, some time after the two crossed paths again during an event at Columbia University.

Design Sketch, Capital Journal Building, Salem, Oregon by Frank Lloyd Wright, 1931-1932

Contrary to many claims and by his own account, Ray spent a year under Wright's tutelage. The concept of the Fellowship was that Wright felt only by living and working with apprentices around the clock could the understand his concepts and ideas. As a social experiment, it was quite interesting. Members of the Fellowship not only actively executed ideas on Taliesin itself (the buildings there in a state of constant change), but worked as draughtsmen, farmhands, and domestics on the property. Living was for the most part communal. One suspects that the strict rigors of life at Taliesin did not sit well with the restless Ray, but many have commented that a political rift between Wright, a strong believer in the power of democracy, and his more radical-leaning protege was the cause of the latter's return to New York, which would eventually lead him to Hollywood and the world of film-making.

Nicholas Ray, Hollywood, c.1945

However, the year spent with Frank Lloyd Wright would prove to have a tremendous impact on the artistic eye of Nicholas Ray. 34 years after his death, Ray's widow Susan stressed the importance of the period in an interview, citing the nature of the Fellowship as shaping Ray's ideal work methods, as well as the very idea that architecture (and film in Ray's) provided a framework for the arts. Ray himself professed that his love of what he called the vertical line was due to his time with Wright and attributed his fondness for Cinescope to an extension of that love.

Storyboard, Rebel Without a Cause, Nicholas Ray, 1955

An interesting footnote: the 2003 DVD release of Ray's masterful In a Lonely Place, made for Humphrey Bogart's Santana Productions, features a short film extra in which director Curtis Hanson sings Ray's praises and calls out some of the architectural elements in the film - citing the Frank Lloyd Wright period. Hanson, of course, directed 1997's L.A. Confidential a neo-noir film based on James Ellroy's novel. One of the buildings prominently featured in the film is the Lovell House designed around 1927 by Richard Neutra. Neutra had only recently moved the United States and one of his first employers before moving to California was Frank Lloyd Wright. The Lovell House is just 2 miles down the hill from the Griffith Park Observatory which is perhaps the most well-know location used in Ray's Rebel Without a Cause.

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