Cinematographer. Nationality: American. Born: 1890. Education: Attended Colorado School of Mining. Family: Son: Joseph August, Jr. Career: 1911—entered films; 1913—first known film as cinematographer, From the Shadows ; 1914—first of many films for William S. Hart; 1919—cofounder, American Society of Cinematographers. Died: In Hollywood, California, 25 September 1947.
From the Shadows (Barker—short); The Heritage of Eve (Barker—short); The Iron Master (Barker—short); The Man Who Went Out (Barker—short); The Miser (Barker—short);
The Fugitive ( The Taking of Luke McVane ) (Hart and Smith—short); The Imposter (Barker—short); On the Night Stage (Barker—short; extended version: The Bandit and the Preacher , 1915); The Passing of Two Gun Hicks ( Two Gun Hicks ) (Hart and Smith—short); Pinto Ben (Barker—short);
Between Men (Barker); Cash Parrish's Pal ( Double Crossed ) (Hart and Smith—short); The City of Darkness (Barker—short); The Coward (T. Ince and Barker); The Conversion of Frosty Blake ( The Gentleman from Blue Gulch ) (Hart and Smith—short; extended version: The Convert/The Roughneck , 1915); The Darkening Trail (Hart and Smith—short; extended version: Hell Bound for Alaska , 1915); The Disciple (Barker); The Grit (Hart and Smith—short); His Hour of Manhood (Barker); The Iron Strain (Barker); Keno Bates, Liar (Hart and Smith—short); Rumpelstiltskin (Barker); The Silent Stranger (Hart and Smith); The Ruse (Hart and Smith—short; extended version: A Square Deal , 1915)
Hell's Hinges ; The Return of Drew Egan ; Apostle of Vengeance (Hart and Smith); The Aryan (Hart and Smith); The Captive God (Barker); Civilization's Child (Barker) (co); The Deserter (Edwards) (co); The Devil's Double (Barker); The Last Act (Hart and Smith)
The Cold Deck (Barker); The Desert Man (Hart); An Even Break (Hart); Golden Rule Kate (Barker); The Gunfighter (Hart); Truthful Tulliver (Hart); The Regenerates (Hart); The Silent Man (Hart); The Square Deal Man (Hart); Upholding the Law (Hart); Wolf Lowry (Hart)
Blue Blazes Rawden (Hart); The Border Wireless (Hart); Branding Broadway (Hart); He Comes Up Smiling (Dwan); The Narrow Trail (Hart); Riddle Gawne (Hart); Selfish Yates (Hart); Shark Monroe (Hart); The Tiger Man (Hart); Wolves of the Rail (Hart)
Poppy Girl's Husband (Hart); Breed of Men (Hillyer); John Petticoats (Hillyer); The Money Corral (Hillyer); Square Deal Sanderson (Hillyer); Wagon Tracks (Hillyer)
Sand (Hillyer); The Testing Block (Hillyer); The Toll Gate (Hillyer); The Cradle of Courage (Hillyer)
O'Malley of the Mounted (Hillyer); The Whistle (Hillyer); White Oak (Hillyer); Three Word Brand (Hillyer)
Arabian Love (Storm); Travelin' On (Hillyer); Honor First (Storm); The Love Gambler (Franz); A California Romance (Storm)
The Man Who Won (Wellman); Truxton King ( Truxtonia ) (Storm); Madness of Youth (Storm); The Temple of Venus (Otto); Big Dan (Wellman); Good-by Girls! (Storm); St. Elmo (Storm); Darkness and Daylight (Plummer); Cupid's Fireman (Wellman)
Dante's Inferno (Otto); Not a Drum Was Heard (Wellman); The Folly of Vanity (Elvey and Otto) (co); The Vagabond Trail (Wellman)
The Hunted Woman (Conway); Greater Than a Crown (Neill); The Fighting Heart (Ford); The Ancient Mariner (Otto and Bennett); Tumbleweeds (Baggot); Lightnin' (Ford)
The Road to Glory (Hawks); Fig Leaves (Hawks); The Flying Horseman (Dull)
The Beloved Rogue (Crosland); Two Arabian Knights (Milestone) (co); Come to My House (Green); Very Confidential (Tinling)
Soft Living (Tinling); Don't Marry (Tinling); Honor Bound (Green); The Farmer's Daughter (Rosson or Taurog)
Strong Boy (Ford); Salute (Ford); Seven Faces (Viertel) (co); The Black Watch ( King of the Khyber Rifles ) (Ford)
Men without Women (Ford); Double Cross Roads (Werker) (co); On Your Back (McClintic); Up the River (Ford); Man Trouble (Viertel)
Seas Beneath (Ford); Mr. Lemon of Orange (Blystone); Quick Millions (Brown); The Brat (Ford); Heartbreak (Werker); Charlie Chan's Chance (Blystone)
Silent Witness (Varnel and Hough); As the Devil Commands (Neill); Mystery Ranch (Howard); Vanity Street (Grinde); No More Orchids (W. Lang); That's My Boy (Neill)
Circus Queen Murder (Neill); Cocktail Hour (Schertzinger); Master of Men (Hillyer); Man's Castle (Borzage)
No Greater Glory (Borzage); Twentieth Century (Hawks); Black Moon (Neill); Sisters under the Skin ( The Romantic Age ) (Burton); The Defense Rests (Hillyer); Among the Missing (Rogell); The Captian Hates the Sea (Milestone)
The Whole Town's Talking ( Passport to Fame ) (Ford); I'll Love You Always (Bulgakov); The Informer (Ford); After the Dance (Bulgakov); Sylvia Scarlett (Cukor)
Muss 'em Up ( House of Fate ) (C. Vidor) (co); Every Saturday Night (Tinling); Mary of Scotland (Ford); Grand Jury (Rogell); The Plough and the Stars (Ford)
Sea Devils (Stoloff) (co); The Soldier and the Lady ( Michael Strogoff ) (Nicholls); Fifty Roads to Town (Taurog); There Goes My Girl (Holmes); Super-Sleuth (Stoloff); Music for Madam (Blystone); A Damsel in Distress (Stevens)
The Saint in New York (Holmes) (co); Gun Law (Howard); Border G-Man (Howard); This Marriage Business (Cabanne)
Man of Conquest (Nicholls); Gunga Din (Stevens); Nurse Edith Cavell (Wilcox) (co); The Hunchback of Notre Dame (Dieterle)
Primrose Path (La Cava); Melody Ranch (Santley)
All That Money Can Buy ( The Devil and Daniel Webster ) (Dieterle)
They Were Expendable (Ford)
Portrait of Jennie ( Jennie ) (Dieterle)
Film Comment (New York), Summer 1972.
Focus on Film (London), no. 13, 1973.
Film Dope (Nottingham), March 1988.
Henderson, J. A., "Swan Song: Portrait of Jennie ," in American Cinematographer (Hollywood), December 1996.
* * *
Screenwriter Dudley Nichols once wrote, ". . . Joe August was a great cameraman, perhaps the most experimental and audacious I have ever known." Much of his silent work has been lost or is available only in poor copies that do little justice to Joseph H. August's exemplary skill. But the films that survive—both silent and sound—eloquently support Nichols's appraisal.
August began in the business under the tutelage of Thomas Ince and soon was William S. Hart's photographer of choice. With only a couple of exceptions, August photographed every Hart feature from The Disciple to Tumbleweeds . Hart's westerns provided August with a wide range of stylistic challenges: the blazing religiosity of Hell's Hinges ; the staid, almost geometric groupings of people and buildings in The Return of Drew Egan , the bright, expansive Truthful Tulliver , the desert panoramas of The Silent Man . August's eye for landscape distinguishes the Hart films; interiors, however, often look cramped and dull.
Though August was at home in the open western scenery, his work ranged farther afield during the 1920s. He provided startling images to moralistic fantasies like Dante's Inferno , The Temple of Venus , and The Ancient Mariner , and delighted in the unusual and experimental: he turns the camera upside-down for an effect in Big Dan , works with double exposure in Hart's Three Word Brand , utilizes Technicolor in Fig Leaves .
While the cliché would have it that the introduction of sound "nailed the camera to the floor," August found the new technology challenging and inspiring. His stunning camera work on John Ford films such as Salute and Men without Women is filled with elaborate tracking shots, underwater photography (at one point, he mounted a camera in a waterproof booth on top of a submarine and filmed the submersion), and other bravura techniques without sacrificing what Lindsay Anderson calls his "voluptuous lighting" which gives films like The Black Watch their "remarkable visual distinction: strikingly chiaroscuro , boldly dramatic in composition, strongly dramatic in atmosphere."
August worked often with Ford in the 1930s, oddly—considering that both men made their reputations in the genre—never in a western. Ford had August utilize double exposures to make twins of Edward G. Robinson in The Whole Town's Talking just as the cinematographer had done with William S. Hart in Three Word Brand (1921). Ford and August also worked together on the moody Mary of Scotland , The Plough and the Stars (an "Irish" film that seems to be composed equally of documentary and expressionist techniques), and The Informer , Ford's most overt excursion into the art film. The Informer seems more deliberate and obvious than much of Ford's best work but August's contribution is superb: stylized, shadowy, evocative.
However, Ford had no monopoly on August's services. Rowland Brown, Stevens, Dieterle, Cukor, and Borzage all brought out fresh facets of the cinematographer's talent. The cinematography in Quick Millions is fast-paced and hard-boiled; August suffuses Man's Castle with romantic mist; A Damsel in Distress is fluid and sun-lit; Gunga Din stylizes its roughhousing, mock-heroic images by placing the camera below eye level and undercranking.
Portrait of Jennie , August's last film, contains some of his most striking work: harsh, black-and-white contrasts in one scene, dreamy, misty romanticism in the next. Only in his late 50s when he died, August was a motion picture veteran of over 30 years. His career neatly spans the "Golden Age." He weathered the technical innovations of the silent period, matter-of-factly took on sound, and gracefully exited the scene before television ever played havoc with the sensitive, glimmering, and audacious images to which he devoted his life.