Virgil Miller - Writer

Cinematographer. Nationality: American. Born: Coffeen, Illinois, 20 December 1887. Education: Studied electrical engineering at Kansas State University, Manhattan, B.S. Career: Teacher; 1913–15—gaffer, then cameraman, 1915–26, Universal; then worked for Warner Bros., Paramount, seven years, David O. Selznick, and 20th Century-Fox; mid-1940s—photographed 62 of James Fitzpatrick's Travel Talks documentary series; TV work includes You Bet Your Life and Do You Trust Your Wife series, 1950s. Died: 5 October 1974.

Films as Cinematographer:


The Big Adventure (Eason); Cheated Hearts (Henley); Colorado (Eason); Luring Lips (Baggot); Red Courage (Eason); Sure Fire (Ford)


The Black Bag (Paton); Don't Shoot (Conway); The Lone Hand (Eason); The Man under Cover (Browning); Ridin' Wild (Ross); The Scrapper (Henley); The Trap (Thornby)


Blinky (Sedgwick); The Flame of Life (Henley); The Gentleman from America (Sedgwick); Kindled Courage (Worthington); Nobody's Bridge (H. Blanché); Out of Luck (Sedgwick); The Ramblin' Kid (Sedgwick); The Scarlet Car (Paton); Shootin' for Love (Sedgwick); Single Handed (Sedgwick); The Thrill Chaser (Sedgwick)


Broadway or Bust (Sedgwick); 40-Horse Hawkins (Sedg-wick); Hit and Run (Sedgwick); Hook and Ladder (Sedg-wick); Ride for Your Life (Sedgwick); The Ridin' Kid from Powder River (Sedgwick); The Sawdust Trail (Sedgwick)


The Hurricane Kid (Sedgwick); Let 'er Buck (Sedgwick); Lorraine of the Lions (Sedgwick); The Phantom of the Opera (Julian); Ridin' Wild (De La Mothe) (co); The Saddle Hawk (Sedgwick)


Broken Hearts of Hollywood (Bacon); The Flaming Frontier (Sedgwick); Private Izzy Murphy (Bacon); The Runaway Express (Bacon); Under Western Skies (Bacon)


Finger Prints (Bacon); The Gay Old Bird (Raymaker); Irish Hearts (Haskin)


Alex the Great (Murphy); Captain Careless (Storm); The Count of Ten (Flood); Finders Keepers (Ruggles); Gang War (Glennon); Guardians of the Wild (MacRae); Headin' for Danger (Bradbury); Sally's Shoulders (Shores); Stores and Blondes (Murphy); The Two Outlaws (MacRae); Young Whirlwind (L. King)


The Amazing Vagabond (Fox); Come and Get It (Fox); Laughing at Death (Fox); The Little Savage (L. King); Pals of the Prairie (L. King); The Vagabond Club (L. King); The Woman I Love (Melford)


Drift Fence (Lovering)


The Garden of Allah (Boleslawsky); Little Lord Fauntleroy (Cromwell)


Find the Witness (Selman); Charlie Chan at the Olympics (Humberstone); The Slave Ship (Garnett); Danger, Love at Work (Preminger); Thank You, Mr. Moto (Foster)


Walking down Broadway (Foster); Mr. Moto Takes a Chance (Foster); Time Out for Murder (Humberstone); Inside Story (Cortez)


Mr. Moto's Last Warning (Foster); Chasing Danger (Cortez); Charlie Chan in Reno (Foster); Charlie Chan at Treasure Island (Foster); Charlie Chan in the City of Darkness (Leeds); The Honeymoon's Over (Forde)


The Man Who Wouldn't Talk (Burton); Charlie Chan in Panama (Foster); Charlie Chan's Murder Cruise (Forde); Pier 13 (Forde); Manhattan Heartbeat (Burton); Charlie Chan at the Wax Museum (Shores); Murder over New York (Lachman)


Ride, Kelly, Ride (Foster); Scotland Yard (Foster); Man at Large (Forde); My Life with Caroline (Milestone); Private Nurse (Burton); Small Town Deb (Schuster)


Who Is Hope Schuyler? (Loring); Castle in the Desert (Lachman); Right to the Heart (Forde); Berlin Correspondent (Forde); Dr. Renault's Secret (Lachman)


Calling Dr. Death (Le Borg)


Weird Woman (Le Borg); The Pearl of Death (Neill)


The House of Fear (Neill); The Woman in Green (Neill); The Falcon in San Francisco (Lewis)


The Michigan Kid (Taylor)


The Big Fix (Flood); The Red Stallion (Selander); The Vigilante's Return (Taylor)


Street Corner (Kelley)


Navajo (Bartlett)


Murder without Tears (Beaudine); Crazylegs (Lyon); Miss Robinson Crusoe (Frenke)


Unchained (Bartlett)


By MILLER: articles—

American Film (Washington, DC), July-August 1987.

American Cinematographer (Hollywood), September 1991.

On MILLER: article—

Birchard, Robert C., in American Cinematographer (Hollywood), May 1983.

Obituary in Variety (New York), 16 October 1974.

* * *

Virgil Miller, a pioneer in the film industry in lighting and cinematography, began his long career at Universal around 1913. He was hired by Universal head Carl Laemmle to establish an electrical lighting department because the studio was considering the use of artificial light to supplement the natural sunshine the industry had depended on since it moved to California. Neither Laemmle nor Miller realized the ultimate impact such a decision would have on filmmaking, for with the introduction of artificial lighting came the means to create a specific atmosphere and the ability to manipulate the look, and therefore the meaning, of a scene.

Miller began the new department by assembling small lighting packages of spots and small packages of broads, which produce a large area of soft, diffused light. He was then put in charge of teaching the other photographers about electrical lighting. Miller also became Universal's powder and explosives expert, a job which entailed small effects such as a glass exploding in a character's hand as though it had been shot out.

Miller's interests also extended to cinematography, and in 1915 he was put in charge of the camera department. Constantly experimenting with both lighting and photography, Miller soon gained a reputation for his "tricks." For example, he perfected a process shot where a dancer seemed to cavort in and around a champagne glass. In another film, a western, he was able to match a shot of three covered wagons to make it look as though there were twelve covered wagons. The director Elmer Clifton was so impressed with the tricks that he consistently requested Miller to be his cinematographer. Miller was also Lon Chaney, Sr.'s favorite cameraman.

Eventually, this talented cinematographer was employed by almost all of the major studios. In 1926, he began working at Warner Brothers. Soon after, he joined Paramount, where he was in charge of their camera department for over seven years. He also worked for David O. Selznick's studios, where he enjoyed the position of "superintendent of photography," which meant he was consulted about the cinematography on every film.

With his work as a cinematographer on some of the Charlie Chan and Mr. Moto mysteries, Miller became associated with a particular atmospheric style. The use of heavy, dark shadows and the sharp contrasts of light and dark helped to create a sinister or eerie effect, which has always been a code for mystery and horror films. When director Roy William Neill of Universal began the Sherlock Holmes film The Pearl of Death , he requested the services of Miller to create this moody effect. Miller found himself again employed at Universal.

Miller's final long-standing job was as the head cinematographer on Groucho Marx's television game show, You Bet Your Life . Though perhaps not as creative or significant as his film work, the job still had its interesting problems. Marx had poor eyesight and was sensitive to the large amount of light necessary for a television program. Miller had to adjust the light so as not to hurt Marx's eyes, yet still have enough to light the set. In addition, Miller had to find the exact spot for the camera so that light was not reflected in Marx's glasses. After six years with You Bet Your Life , Miller retired.

In 1953 Miller was nominated for an Academy Award for Navajo , which had an all-Indian cast. Though Miller was quite proud of Navajo and his nomination, the film, like its cinematographer, remains relatively unknown. Miller's filmography does not include many prestigious projects, yet he is an important historical figure for his pioneering work at Universal in setting up one of the first electrical lighting departments in Hollywood, and for his experiments in lighting effects and trick photography.

—Susan Doll

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