Andrew L. Stone

Producer-director Andrew L. Stone, one of the last silent film helmers, died in June 1999; his death was not chronicled until a report surfaced recently on the sale of his house. He was 98 at the time of his death.

His first film was made in 1926, and he was still going strong 50 years later. One of his best-remembered pictures is “Stormy Weather” (1943) with Lena Horne.

Stone’s earlier contributions have been overshadowed by his lavishly mounted musical epics such as “Song of Norway” (1970). But in his heyday he wrote, produced and directed a series of thrillers, all shot on location using natural sounds and the minimum of lighting.

He considered studio shooting outdated and wasteful; a pioneer of hand-lamps and radio mics, he was 50 years ahead of the modern Danish Dogma aesthetic.

Stone was a film enthusiast from early childhood. In 1914, the Oakland native built a movie theater in his backyard, with two projectors and seats for 50 kids. Films were bought at a dollar a reel. While still in high school, he got a job working for the Universal exchange after school and on Sundays. “I wanted anything I could get to do with films — rewinding, slicing, projecting,” he once said.

In the mid-’20s, he moved to Hollywood and worked in a laboratory and in Universal’s prop department. In 1926, he financed his own first directorial effort, a two-reeler called “The Elegy” (1926); it was an attempt to distill the emotional punch of films like “Humoresque” and “The Miracle Man,” and proved a bigger hit than the feature film it accompanied. He made his first full-length feature, “Dreary House,” in 1928.

During the ’30s, he made a habit of employing the silent players he had admired so much as a boy (in 1943 he even directed Pola Negri). In the mid-1930s, he was offered an MGM contract that would have given him a vest salary. “But I’d have had to pacify the stars and keep them happy — like a priest who doesn’t believe a word of what he says. Then there was a Paramount contract — no big stars, but freedom. That’s the one I went for. It didn’t take me long to see I’d never make a nickel, but I didn’t give a damn.”

Stone nonetheless ran into creative differences at the studio. He thought the best way to get a scene of shoppers in a big store was to shoot shoppers in a big store. When the studio insisted on taking over a store one Sunday and filling it with extras and big lights as well as adding a few zeroes to the budget, Stone walked out.

As a maverick, he was scornful of the power of the cameramen. “Cameramen have the biggest racket next to producers,” he said. “Studio heads don’t seem to worry, which seems fantastic. I insist on naturalistic lighting — not the sort where a room is uniformly lit by enormous lights in gantries. If a guy moves, the whole lot needs realigning — it takes hours, and the result is lousy. We could shoot by matchlight if we wanted to — yet cameramen are using the same number of lights they used in the days when stock was so slow.”

He rejected back projection, process work and even post-synching (dubbing). The technique paid off because whereas most studio pictures averaged eight setups a day, Stone routinely shot 20, shooting all night if he thought it would help the picture.

Films had retreated into studios since the coming of sound because it was easier to work on a set than to cope with the extraneous noises and distractions of a location. Stone thought this was ridiculous. Every scene for “Cry Terror,” for instance, was shot on location; Stone even took his crew into the New York subway, requiring James Mason to clamber down the inside of a real elevator shaft.

On “Ring of Fire” (1961), Stone planned to wreck a train on a burning bridge. “We had this location in a lonely part of the Oregon mountains — there must have been 500 people from the press, TV and newsreels to watch this big shot. … But then, the most terrible thing happened: As it hit the water, a curtain of steam rose up, obscuring our view of what was happening to the cars. … The most vital part of the scene had been missed by all five cameras. The TV networks had the shot all over the country — in black and white. So had the newsreels. And we hadn’t got it.” Luckily, one of the bystanders caught the crash on 16mm.

Stone was educated in the U. of California system.

Stone was later partnered by his wife Virginia, a first-rate film editor who, in 1945, at the age of 19, began her career at United Artists as a music cutter. They married in 1946; she acted as co-producer and editor on the films they made together.

He is survived by two children.