Palermo, Sicily, 1892; emigrated to New York at an early age.
Attended schools in New York.
Still photographer, then laboratory and camera assistant;
1917—first film as cinematographer,
; worked for several studios, then for Warner Brothers in 1930s and 1940s.
Films as Cinematographer:
Rip Van Winkle (asst)
The Sins of Society (asst); The World against Him (Crane) (asst)
Queen X (O'Brien); Her Second Husband (Henderson)
The Imposter (Henderson); Who Loved Him Best (O'Brien); Her Husband's Honor (B. King); Ruling Passions (Schomer); Treason (B. King)
What Love Forgives (Vekroff); The Love Defender (Johnson); Are You Legally Married? (Thornby); Bill Apperson's Boy (Kirkwood); Burglar by Proxy (Dillon); Soldiers of Fortune (Dwan); Should a Woman Tell? (J. Ince)
Alias Jimmy Valentine (Karger); Price of Redemption (Fitzgerald)
The Roof Tree (Dillon); Misleading Lady (Irving)
Trimmed (Pollard); The Loaded Door (Pollard); Strength of the Pines (Lewis) (co)
Mighty Lak' a Rose (Carewe); The Girl of the Golden West (Carewe) (co); The Badman (Carewe); Bishop of the Ozarks (Fox)
Why Men Leave Home (Stahl); The Lightning Rider (Ingraham); Roaring Rails (Forman); The Siren of Seville (Stromberg and Storm); A Café in Cairo (Withey); The Flaming Forties (Forman)
Beyond the Border (Dunlap); Soft Shoes (Ingraham); The People vs. Nancy Preston (Forman); The Crimson Runner (Forman); Silent Sanderson (Dunlap); The Bad Lands (Henderson); Paint and Powder (Stromberg)
Driftin' Thru (Dunlap); The Seventh Bandit (Dunlap); Senor Daredevil (Rogell); The Frontier Trail (Dunlap); Satan Town (Mortimer); The Unknown Cavalier (Rogell)
The Overland Trail (Dunlap); Somewhere in Sonora (Rogell); The Land beyond the Law (H. Brown); Lonesome Ladies (Henabery); Hard Boiled Haggerty (Czabin); Gun Gospel (H. Brown)
The Shepherd of the Hills (Rogell); Burning Daylight (Brabin); The Hawk's Nest (Christensen); Heart to Heart (Beaudine); Show Girl (Santell); Burning Bridges (Hogan); The Border Patrol (Hogan); The Haunted House (Christensen)
Scarlet Seas (Dillon); Seven Footprints to Satan (Christensen); House of Horror (Christensen) (co); Broadway Babies (LeRoy); The Man and the Moment (Fitzmaurice); Twin Beds (Santell); The Isle of Lost Ships (Willat); Paris (Badger)
Girl of the Golden West (Dillon); Playing Around (LeRoy); No, No Nanette (Badger); Show Girl in Hollywood (LeRoy); Numbered Men (LeRoy); The Widow from Chicago (Cline); Madonna of the Streets (Robertson)
Going Wild (Seiter); The Hot Heiress (Badger); Woman Hungry (Badger) (co); Upper Underworld (Lee); Big Business Girl (Seiter); The Bargain (Milton); Five Star Final (LeRoy); The Ruling Voice (Lee); Local Boy Makes Good (LeRoy); Suicide Fleet (Rogell)
Union Depot (Green); Fireman, Save My Child (Bacon); It's Tough to Be Famous (Green); Two Seconds (LeRoy); Dark Horse (Green); Blessed Event (Del Ruth); Three on a Match (LeRoy); I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang (LeRoy)
42nd Street (Bacon); The Picture Snatcher (Gering); Mind Reader (Del Ruth); Gold Diggers of 1933 (LeRoy)
Hi, Nellie (LeRoy); Dark Hazard (Green); Wonder Bar (Bacon); Dr. Monica (Keighley); Madame DuBarry (Dieterle); Flirtation Walk (Borzage) (co)
Sweet Adeline (LeRoy); Go into Your Dance (Mayo) (co); The Woman in Red (Florey); The G-Men (Keighley); In Caliente (Bacon) (co); Shipmates Forever (Borzage); Frisco Kid (Bacon)
The Petrified Forest (Mayo); Colleen (Green) (co); Sons o' Guns (Bacon); The Charge of the Light Brigade (Curtiz) (co); Three Men on a Horse (LeRoy)
Ready, Willing, and Able (Enright); The Prince and the Pauper (Keighley); Varsity Show (Keighley)
Gold Is Where You Find It (Curtiz); The Adventures of Robin Hood (Curtiz and Keighley) (co); Gold Diggers in Paris (Enright) (co); Boy Meets Girl (Bacon); Angels with Dirty Faces (Curtiz); Valley of the Giants (Keighley) (co)
Dodge City (Curtiz); You Can't Get Away with Murder (Seiler); The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex (Curtiz) (co); Four Wives (Curtiz); Confessions of a Nazi Spy (Litvak)
Virginia City (Curtiz); The Sea Hawk (Curtiz); City for Conquest (Litvak) (co); Sante Fe Trail (Curtiz)
Navy Blues (Bacon) (co); The Sea Wolf (Curtiz); Sergeant York (Hawks) (co)
Captains of the Clouds (Curtiz) (co); The Gay Sisters (Rapper); Now, Voyager (Rapper)
This Is the Army (Curtiz) (co); Old Acquaintance (V. Sherman)
The Adventures of Mark Twain (Rapper); Arsenic and Old Lace (Capra)
The Corn Is Green (Rapper); Rhapsody in Blue (Rapper) (co)
Cinderella Jones (Berkeley); A Stolen Life (Bernhardt) (co); Cloak and Dagger (F. Lang)
The Long Night (Litvak); Escape Me Never (Godfrey); Voice of the Turtle (Rapper)
Sorry, Wrong Number (Litvak)
Anna Lucasta (Rapper)
On POLITO: book—
Lazarou, George A., Images in Low Key: Cinematographer Sol Polito A.S.C. , Athens, 1985.
On POLITO: articles—
Film Comment (New York), Summer 1972.
Focus on Film (London), no. 13, 1973.
Reid, J.H., and G. Aachen, " Captains of the Clouds ," in Reid's Film Index (Wyong, New South Wales), no. 24, 1996.
* * *
Like most of the technicians who created collectively, if unselfconsciously, what is now known as the "classic Hollywood style," Sol Polito received little formal training in his craft, but instead learned the intricacies of cinematography on the job, first as an assistant during a three-year apprenticeship and then as head cameraman. If Polito was hardly an artist whose innovations inspired others, even as he broke with established practices, he was something much more valuable in the factory system of film production that emerged with the vertical integration of the studios in the twenties and the incredible expansion of the medium: a craftsman with a deep and abiding interest in a job well-done who was eager to create the best possible product by following industry guidelines even as he perfected their application.
The studio system in general suited Polito's temperament and work ethic; it is no accident that he thrived in the rather authoritarian setting of Warner Brothers, where studio head Jack Warner was notorious for demanding efficiency, competence, and fiscal responsibility (meaning, of course, no extra expense that did not justify itself in the finished product). As a studio technician, Polito found it necessary to work on a wide variety of projects in the different genres Warners then specialized in, most particularly what may be best described as the crime melodrama—gritty, hard-hitting pictures often based on events taken directly from yesterday's headlines. For these films, Polito and the other chief cinematographer at Warners, Tony Gaudio, devised an unglamorized look, not softened by flattering lighting effects, that made much use of the chiaroscuro contrasts between dark and light that were a heritage of German Expressionism. This style is the ancestor of the film noir cinematography that emerged to popularity in the late forties, an evolution based to some degree on technical advances (e.g., faster film stock and deep focus techniques) and a more thoroughgoing interest in realism promoted by wartime filmmaking and postwar developments abroad. Polito's work for the classic Warners crime melodrama I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang , however, bears comparison with that later style in its outstanding, expressive effects—most memorably, an overall somberness to which director Mervyn LeRoy's effective staging certainly contributed. Interestingly, though film noir evolved during the last decade of Polito's work at Warners and the studio was itself in the forefront of this thematic and stylistic innovation (the 1941 Warners version of The Maltese Falcon is often regarded as the most important early noir film), Polito was not centrally involved, as other cinematographers of his generation, such as John Alton, were. Nevertheless, he ceated for Anatole Litvak's classic noir melodrama Sorry, Wrong Number a washed-out, hazy look that fails to define clearly much of what is in the frame, a perfect correlative for this story of moral ambivalence, failure of character, infantile preoccupations, and anomie. In this film, Polito's lighting and exposure values deprive the upscale home of the invalid main character of any sense of richness or security. How different an inflection he gives to the same tonality of grays by making the lighting scheme more glamorizing, emphasizing soft focus in close-ups of star Bette Davis, in Now, Voyager , the classic forties melodrama in which the world of the rich is offered as exquisitely textured, the realm for the setting of the purest romantic fantasy. Neither film makes use of the hard contrast between white and black for which Warners became famous in the thirties, and thus each exemplifies the flexibility within a dominant studio style.
Polito, however, like any studio technician, did not enjoy the luxury of working simply in one genre and perfecting his handling of nuance within overall expressive requirements. His action photography for the studio's specialist in swashbuckling epics, Michael Curtiz, is excellent in another way. The Adventures of Robin Hood , in particular, shows how Polito could impart a highly effective glow to a Technicolor film, a medium then rather difficult to handle well. Polito's lighting and exposure values create a depth and crispness that are entirely appropriate to the story. Working with the studio's new tank and fog machines in the similar project The Sea Hawk , Polito is able to inflect this tale of maritime adventure with the appropriate atmospherics, a misty, often smoky look pervades the action sequences in a story that is darker and more brooding than the moral simplicity of the children's fable of the defeat of the evil King John by Robin Hood. Polito's other black-and-white work for Curtiz is exemplary, particularly in The Charge of the Light Brigade where his clear images and unusual setups perfectly complement the director's fascination with exciting action.
—R. Barton Palmer