Austrian cinematographer and director Karl Freund made a huge impact on pre-WWII German cinema, particularly expressionist films, influenced early Hollywood through his work with Universal and MGM, and later went on to innovate the way television shows were filmed with his work on I Love Lucy. Born in the Austro-Hungarian Empire (now the Czech Republic), Freund got his start as a Pathe newsreel camera man in 1908. Due to his weight (a life long issue) he was unsuitable for military service, which allowed him to continue working in cinema and avoid the first World War. A few years later, he joined Germany’s major film studio, UFA, and was able to create his own lab to process film and experiment with processing techniques. When he emigrated to the U.S. in 1929, he was hired by the Technicolor Co. to help develop the color film process. His innovative work developing sound and color cinema ensured his expertise in silent, sound, black and white, and color film, making him one of the most important, knowledgeable, and employable cinematographers of the ‘30s, ‘40s, and ‘50s. Universal hired him in 1930, almost immediately after he moved to the U.S., which also guaranteed he was a major player in their series of classic horror films.
Throughout his career, Freund worked with a number of well-known directors, often repeatedly. He worked with Frankenstein director James Whale on The Kiss Before the Mirror (1933), Port of Seven Seas (1938) and Green Hell (1940), with John Ford on Airmail (1932), and with George Cukor on Camille (1936) starring Garbo. He worked on Rouben Mamoulian’s Golden Boy (1939), on Jules Dassin’s A Letter for Evie (1945) and Two Smart People (1945), with Vincente Minnelli on Undercurrent (1946), and with Alexander Korda on Madame Wants No Children (1926). He was also cinematographer for two of the most important early films: Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927) and the Academy Award-winning All Quiet on the Western Front (1930), where he developed the first sound lap dissolve on film. He co-wrote and shot the documentary Berlin: Symphony of a Metropolis (1927) and repeatedly worked with many of the important German expressionist directors, particularly F.W. Murnau on Satanas (1920), about Lucrezia Borgia and starring Conrad Veidt, The Last Laugh (1924), Tartuffe (1926), and Faust (1925), among many others.
Freund also worked with a number of well-known actors throughout his career, such as Spencer Tracy on The Seventh Cross (1944) and Tracy and Katharine Hepburn on Without Love (1945), Myrna Loy on Man-Proof (1938) and the fifth Thin Man film, The Thin Man Goes Home (1945), with director John Huston and stars Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall on Key Largo (1948), and with Errol Flynn on Montana (1950), Freund’s last film. He worked with Barbara Stanwyck and William Holden on Golden Boy (1939), with with Greta Garbo on Conquest (1937), with Clark Gable and Myrna Loy on the flop Parnell (1937), and with Bette Davis on The Bad Sister (1931), where Freund lobbied for Davis to be cast in her very first film. He first worked with Lucille Ball on Du Barry Was a Lady (1943), which is where he met Ball and Desi Arnaz. They would later convince him to become head cinematographer for I Love Lucy.
Though primarily a cinematographer, Freund also directed eleven films, including parts of Tod Browning’s Dracula (1931), though he remains uncredited, Universal’s third major horror film, The Mummy (1932), and the Peter Lorre vehicle Mad Love (1935), a loose remake of German expressionist horror film The Hands of Orlac. He directed two films while still in Germany, Der tote Gast (1921) and Der große Sensationsprozeß (1923), as well as a number of mostly forgotten comedies, adventure/spy films, and musicals in the U.S., including The Countess of Monte Cristo (1934) with Fay Wray. In addition to The Mummy, Dracula, and Mad Love, Freund was cinematographer on a number of important early horror films, such as Murnau’s Der Januskopf (1920), Paul Wegener’s Der Golem (1920) (as well as a number of Wegener’s other films from the period), and Robert Florey’s Murders in the Rue Morgue (1932).
Unlike many other personalities in the Universal horror canon, Freund’s talent was widely recognized during his lifetime. He worked on The Great Ziegfeld (1936), which won an Oscar for Best Picture, and The Good Earth (1937), where he personally won an Oscar for Best Cinematography. He received nominations for Pride and Prejudice (1940), Tortilla Flat (1942), A Guy Named Joe (1943), The Chocolate Soldier (1941), and Blossoms in the Dust (1941). Known for being one of the most experienced cinematographers working in the first half of the 20th century, Freund was a major technical innovator - for which he won several awards - and founded the Photo Research Corporation in 1944, where he and others could explore new techniques. He designed a light meter and innovated a three camera system for filming television, which is still in use today. He was a member of the American Society of Cinematographers (known as the A.S.C.).
Freund gave a lot of interviews, though he was relatively quiet about his personal life. His weight issues were known throughout Hollywood, as was his mixed reputation. He was known for being a genius behind the camera, but not a particularly pleasant person to deal with, particularly for certain actors (he allegedly terrorized Zita Johann on the set of The Mummy). He became a U.S. citizen in 1937 and returned to Germany only once during the war to retrieve his daughter and save her from possible internment (and death) in the concentration camps. He was unable to save his ex-wife, who was sent to Ravensbrück and later died. Freund represents some of the best elements of early German cinema and its influence on developing Hollywood and the advent of both sound and color film.