NIGHTMARE ALLEY 1947– Barbara McLean: Groundbreaking Film Editor
In Nightmare Alley Barbara McLean contributes to creating a landscape of a distorted reality alongside the dark, clandestine, and arcane carnival atmosphere. The film is beautifully woven, as the seamless images flow into one another. McLean blends together the invisible strands that only one’s dreams could effectively manifest. McLean’s editing constructs much of the surreal and tormented ‘movement’ of the film. It’s what transports each scene of the film, making it every bit as if WE were inhabiting someone’s nightmare.
With 62 film credits to her name, half of which were with filmmaker Henry King, Barbara McLean is a master of cutting and shaping. She’s worked on some of my all-time favorite films including this film, Goulding’s Nightmare Alley, Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s No Way Out (1950), Henry King’s The Song of Bernadette (1943), Robert Wise’s The Desert Rats (1953), John Ford’s Tobacco Road (1941) and again Mankiewicz’s All About Eve (1950). McLean also worked as an editor on Elia Kazan’s Viva Zapata in 1953, and in 1954 with Michael Curtiz’s on The Egyptian. She edited the first movie filmed in CinemaScope, The Robe (1952), directed by Henry Koster.
Barbara McLean was one of the most recognized editors working during the reign of Darryl F. Zanuck at the 20th Century Fox Studio, from the 1930s to the 1960s. Eventually achieving the honor of division chief of the editing department in 1949. She joined Fox in 1935 as one of only eight female film editors working in Hollywood in the 1930s. McLean was part of a huge team of technicians, writers, directors, and collaborators that Zanuck went to for guidance. She was very influential in much of Zanuck’s decision-making process, as she often acted as an adviser to the Hollywood movie mogul, helping him coordinate even a single shot.
She won the 1944 Academy Award for Film Editing for her work on Wilson (1944) director Henry King’s biopic film of Woodrow Wilson’s political career. McLean was nominated another 6 times for that award, including her work on All About Eve. I think she should have won the 23rd annual Academy Award for All About Eve, but she lost to Ralph E Winters and Conrad A Nerig for their work on King Solomon’s Mines. It was a tough year to compete with nominations also going to The Third Man and Sunset Boulevard. McLean’s greatest collaboration was with filmmaker Henry King, a relationship that spanned over 29 films including Twelve O’Clock High 1949.
Her last editing credit was for Henry King’s Untamed (1955). In later years, McLean acted primarily in a supervisory and administrative capacity, eventually retiring from 20th Century Fox in 1969, due to her husband’s declining health. She received the inaugural American Cinema Editors Career Achievement Award in 1988. McLean died in Newport Beach, California in 1996.
Her impact was summarized by Adrian Dannatt in a 1996 obituary in The Independent: McLean was “a revered editor who perhaps single-handedly established women as vital creative figures in an otherwise patriarchal industry.” Writer Tom Stempel, in a piece about Darryl F. Zanuck, writes of McLean‘s influence on Zanuck‘s filmmaking; “For all her focus on keeping the narrative moving, McLean’s editing could dazzle if called for. In A Bell for Adano (1945), she took material director Henry King shot on the return of the Italian POWs to their village and put it together with such a pure sense of emotion that when she cut at exactly the right moment to King’s overhead shot of the prisoners and villagers coming together in the square, the cut was more heart-stopping than conventional close-ups would have been.”
McLean brings together the writer’s and director’s vision and gives it completeness, a cohesion, like alchemy with film footage, she creates cinema gold. According to Bright Lights Film Journal “the basic rules of film editing, first established in the silent era, still govern the industry today: maintain your eye lines, preserve continuity, respect planarity (the rules governing the transposition of three dimensions onto a two-dimensional plane), find a good rhythm, and, most important, always advance the story.” Here is where McLean excels. If you look at the variety of narratives, milieus, and landscapes McLean has stitched together in the editing room, you can see how expansive her vision explores the realms of the human condition, moral corruption, and redemption weaving together images that shape the story into ‘the big picture’, with all the little pieces of the intricate moments of the framework, revealing an intimate story, a memorable story, a universal notion of people living in a state of transformation.
If I could enter the film industry at this stage of my life, there would be one thing aside from my already being a music composer, of course, would be to sit in the editing chair. One of the things I look for in a film, and feel passionately certain about is the cinematography, scoring, and casting, if there is one singularly essential component to what makes a film greater…it’s the editing.
We should also celebrate the women working in the very male-dominated career of film editing, women like Barbara McLean and even Dorothy Spencer (Lifeboat 1944, Stagecoach 1939, and the film I recently blogged about Valley of The Dolls 1967).
I should also mention, Anne Bauchens, who was Cecil B. DeMille’s editor, cutting nearly all his movies from 1915 until his death in 1959, and Margaret Booth. Two women who haven’t been put in the greatest light in terms of their ‘difficult’ personalities and skill, something I’ll write about in future. But aren’t women always difficult to work with? Geez.
And so let’s raise a toast to Barbara McLean’s contributions to the cinema… a pioneer in the industry not only breaking the glass ceiling but taking all the pieces and putting them back together to make an indelible cinematic mural for ages to come.
And now for the Carnival ‘Geek’ in Nightmare Alley: Tyrone Power’s astonishing portrayal of Stanton ‘Stan’ Carlisle the ambitious carney who rises to evangelistic notoriety as a slick and cunning mentalist, only to descend into the realm of self-destruction when power corrupts, consumes and destroys his life, ultimately leading him back to sideshow freakery becoming the very ‘geek’ he once found repulsive. McLean’s treatment of the film’s climatic excursion into the bowels of the carnival and Stan’s diminution into the shadows is quite viscerally staggering.
According to the book Carny Sideshows by Tony Gangi, a ‘Geek’ is:
An unskilled performer whose performance consists of shocking, repulsive and repugnant acts. This “lowest of the low” member of the carny trade would commonly bite the head off a living chicken, or sit in a bed of snakes. Some historians distinguish between “geeks” who pretend to be wild men, and “glomming geeks” whose act includes eating disgusting things. See the 1949 movie “Nightmare Alley” for a good geek story as well as for an excellent depiction of the mentalist’s technique of “cold reading”. In later years the geek show turned into a “see the pitiful victim of drug abuse” show. “Geek” as a verb (“he geeked”) is one of several terms in use among wrestlers meaning to intentionally cut oneself to draw blood.
Either on the fairway or the cutting room floor, I’ll be there! Your ever-faithful -MonsterGirl!