Oscar Artists: Toland, Gregg–Hollywood’s Greatest Cinematographer Won Only One Oscar

Wuthering Heights Grapes of Wrath Long Voyage Home Long Voyage Home Dead End

Born in 1904, Gregg Toland was one of the most highly acclaimed American cinematographer to ever worked in the American cinema. He was noted for his innovative use of lighting and deep focus, in such films as Orson Welles’ revolutionary “Citizen Kane,” in 1941.

The failure to honor Toland for “Citizen Kane,” which received 11 nods, was scandalous and outrageous, considering his contribution to the film’s visual style, artistic effect, and overall impact. It became Toland’s last nomination. Toland died in 1948 of a coronary thrombosis in L.A. He shot no less than three movies that year (see filmography).

He entered the film industry at 15, as an office boy, and later became an assistant cameraman. Moving into lighting cameraman in 1929, he soon distinguished himself as one of the most creative and resourceful artists. While he worked for various studios, most of his work (and the best one) was done for the Samuel Goldwyn company, which allotted him a great deal of creative freedom.

The young Toland was one of Hollywood’s most sought-after cinematographers. Between 1936 and 1942, he was nominated five times for the Best Cinematography Oscar, winning just once, in 1939 for “Wuthering Heights,” directed by William Wyler. Toland worked with many of the best directors, including John Ford, Howard Hawks, Erich von Stroheim, King Vidor, Orson Welles, and Wyler.

Critics and historians believe that the visual distinction of “Citizen Kane” was largely due to Toland, and less so to director Orson Welles. However, many Welles scholars maintain that the style of “Citizen Lane” bears resemblance to that of other Welles’ other films. It’s noteworthy that Welles’ “The Magnificent Ambersons” (1942), “The Stranger” (1946) and “Touch of Evil” (1958) were shot by Toland’s collaborators, Russell Metty and Stanley Cortez.  Others point out that “Toland was advising on camera placement and lighting effects secretly so the young director would not be embarrassed in front of the highly experienced crew.”

Toland’s art and technique were inventive and even revolutionary. Prior to him, shallow depth of field was used to separate the various planes on the screen, creating an impression of space, as well as stressing what mattered in the frame by leaving the rest (the foreground or background) out of focus.  But in Toland’s lighting strategies, shadow was as interesting and as useful as light, both visually and dramatically. The separation of foreground from background, and the creation of space within a two-dimensional frame while keeping both in focus, was remarkable and amazing.  With Welles’ blessing, Toland experimented freely on “Citizen Kane,” creating deep focus, working closely designer Perry Ferguson, allowing for a greater and wider range of camera movement.

The style of “Citizen Kane” bears resemblance to John Ford’s “The Long Voyage Home,” which he shot in 1940, a year before “Kane.” Both movies create an artificial lighting; characters are lit in the background and walk through dark areas to the foreground. The use of shadow over light, known as low-key lighting, influenced the genre of film noir. Both films distorted faces in close-up, especially during low-key lighting. Sets, interiors and exteriors, were often lit from low-angle positions. Sources of light placed closer to the characters allowed softer lighting.

Welles and Ford placed Toland’s credit as cinematographer on screen at the same time as their own credit as director (director/producer in Welles’s case), an unusual and conspicuously generous tribute; in both films, Toland’s credit was also the same size as the director’s.

Although “Citizen Kane” is his best-known achievement, his style was more varied than acknowledged, as manifest in John Ford’s “ The Grapes of Wrath,” whose style was inspired by Dorothea Lange’s photographs, achieving a rare gritty look.

During WWII, Toland was was commissioned as a lieutenant in the Navy camera department, and co-directed with Ford the war documentary “December 7th.”  For what turned out to be his final nomination, Toland used Technicolor for Disney’s 1946 “Song of the South,” which combines animation with live action in bright Technicolor.

Oscar Nominations

1935: Les Misérables (nom)
1937: Dead End (nom)
1939: Wuthering Heights (won)
1940: The Long Voyage Home (nom)
1941: Citizen Kane (nom)


Sadie Thompson (1928)
Indiscreet (1931)
The Dark Angel (1935)
Mad Love (1935)
The Wedding Night (1935)
These Three (1936)
Come and Get It (1936)
Dead End (1937)
Intermezzo (1939)
The Cowboy and the Lady (1938)
Wuthering Heights (1939)
The Grapes of Wrath (1940)
The Long Voyage Home (1940)
The Westerner (1940)
Citizen Kane (1941)
The Little Foxes (1941)
Ball of Fire (1941)
The Outlaw (co-lenser) (1943)
The Best Years of Our Lives (1946)
“Song of the South”(1946) Toland’s only color Film
The Kid from Brooklyn (1946)
The Bishop’s Wife (1947)
A Song Is Born (1948)
Enchanted (1949, released posthumously)