With Lens, Frame, and Motion: Walter Lundin, Harold Lloyd’s Cameraman by matthew c. hoffman

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“These men I kept all the year round. We may lay off for four months, but it made no difference. Their salaries went right on, and they just went ahead and did whatever they wanted. They weren’t happy when the unions came in, I can tell you that right now! They were better off without the unions. That wasn’t the case, of course, at other studios where they didn’t treat their personnel the way I did.”~ Harold Lloyd

Behind the great comics were the cameramen who made them look great. Buster Keaton had Elgin Lessley, who displayed an acute understanding of camera technique in such films as The Navigator and Sherlock, Jr. Chaplin had Rollie Totheroh who, though not as cinematic, nevertheless understood where to place the camera. With Chaplin, it was all about performance anyway. Nevermind the dollies, just make sure the camera is in focus. But Harold Lloyd’s films reflect a consistency in quality. He spent his own money to give the public the absolute best. His films looked great and no other comedian matched his filmmaking technique. One of the reasons was because his movies were photographed with exceptional care by Walter Lundin.

A Sailor-Made Man (1921)

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Lundin was born in Chicago on April 20, 1892. He was exactly one year older than Harold, who was born on April 20, 1893. Lundin’s association with Lloyd began in 1915 with one of Lloyd’s “Willie Work” one-reelers called Willie Runs the Park. Their collaboration would last through 1934’s The Cat’s Paw. Lundin was with the Harold Lloyd Corporation from the very beginning and considered himself a “Lloyd loyalist.” During these years Lundin served as first cameraman on Lloyd’s best films including all of his “thrill” comedies like Safety Last! His work was not only some of the best in screen comedy, but in all of silent film.

The cameramen of the silent era were some of the greatest cinematographers in the history of cinema. They worked harder for their shots because, in most instances, they only had one chance to get it right. In the days of slow motion picture stocks, they had to know what they were doing. They understood the nuts and bolts of the camera’s mechanics. Anyone unfamiliar with silent film– or those with false notions of the era’s cinematography– will be pleasantly surprised by the results. Today in the digital age, people don’t realize the hard work involved in silent film production. Now, everything is so much easier for the modern cameraman. 

Lundin would frame up a shot and then hand crank the camera. The popular model of the time was the Bell & Howell 2709, a camera which featured a multiple lens turret. It was an amazing, solid machine that could capture crisp images. The results were often beautiful.  

The Bell & Howell 2709

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The other night I was revisiting Lloyd’s best talkie, Movie Crazy (1932), which is a film about the making of movies. Lundin’s camera is as fluid here as it was in his silents. A great example is the boom shot that takes in the entire movie set of the film’s climax. The scene begins with the director calling out instructions to his movie crew. The camera wonderfully surveys the set as it goes from one stage hand to the next.

But it is for his silents that Lundin is best remembered. Kid Brother, a rustic comedy made in 1927, is a favorite among many Lloyd fans precisely because of the beauty of its cinematography. One of the most famous scenes is the one in which Lloyd says goodbye to the departing medicine show girl, played by Jobyna Ralston. He scales a tree in order to get a better vantage point of her walking down the hill. As though on an elevator, the camera follows him to the top of the tree. In the films of Harold Lloyd, these effects serve the story and are not done for the sake of visual showmanship. They arise naturally from the story. One has the real sense watching it that there were no restrictions on Lundin when it came to doing his job. Working for Lloyd for so many years no doubt had a nurturing effect on Lundin’s abilities. He became a skilled photographer and an expert craftsman at capturing the visual sight gag. One does not expect such technique if one is only familiar with the relatively static and functional camerawork of Chaplin’s films. It’s refreshing to this viewer to see this visual richness. The Kid Brother is one of the essentials of my program because of its look.

Lundin’s work on Lloyd’s Girl Shy had the effect of inspiring  a moment in Ben-Hur’s (1925) chariot race. During the climactic race to stop his girl’s wedding to a bigamist, Lloyd races a horse wagon through the streets of downtown Los Angeles. It is a brilliant sequence, but the shot that Ben-Hur director Fred Niblo would appropriate came when the horses  raced over the camera. To get this shot, Lundin positioned his camera in a manhole on Grand Avenue. Though it’s only fleeting, it reflects the high degree of  technical care Lloyd and company took to make these films the best they could be.

Behind the scenes of Welcome Danger (1930).

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Lundin would also work with Laurel and Hardy, most notably on The Music Box and Way Out West. In addition, Lundin shot some of the later “Our Gang” comedies in the early 1940s. There were other shorts he worked on, but it was with Lloyd that Walter Lundin secured his place in cinema history. He passed away on June 21, 1954 in Los Angeles County.

The Freshman (1925)

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2 Responses to “With Lens, Frame, and Motion: Walter Lundin, Harold Lloyd’s Cameraman by matthew c. hoffman”

  1. Mary jo Lundin Says:

    How very cool. Walter Lundin was my great uncle. I never met him; however my Dad, who passed three yrs. Ago on the exact anniversary of Walter’s passing was a HUGE fan! My dad fought with my mom at the birth of each of my 4 brothers to name the baby Walter. Mom did not give in.

    My Uncle Wally, now deceased, was named after him and his grandson carries on the name.

    I love to point out his name as the credits role. Such an artisan of his craft.

  2. Thank you for a such thoughtful writing on Walter Lundin. I was curious and glad to find your article.

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