Thanks to reader Suzanne Stone, who let me know about her relative Ira H. Morgan (1889-1959), who was born on April 2. I rarely write about cinematographers, but on occasion I have given attention to certain important ones like Billy Bitzer, Karl Freund, George Stevens, and Haskell Wexler (and the last three more in the context of their directing). But Morgan shot so many interesting and seminal movies, and made a journey from silents to B movie talkies much reminiscent of directors like William Beaudine and Jean Yarborough, whom we’ve written about with respect and affection. And beyond this, he had a sister in vaudeville I’m VERY much interested in but have been able to learn just a few scraps about. We mention her at the bottom.
The pair were from Fort Ross, California, which is on the coast in Sonoma County, north of San Francisco. (This is an especially interesting town, as it was the Southernmost RUSSIAN settlement in the Americas in the mid 19th century.)
Morgan started out as a newsreel cameraman for Gaumont, then got a job shooting pictures for Flying “A” Studios in Santa Barbara in 1916. This led to stints working at Essanay for Broncho Billy Anderson and at Cosmopolitan, shooting Marion Davies Pictures. He was 2nd assistant assistant cameraman on Chaplin’s The Immigrant. He was first cameraman on Janice Meredith (1924), with Davies, Harrison Ford and W.C. Fields. Notable movies he shot as cinematographer include When Knighthood was in Flower (1922) with Davies, the Tod Browning pictures The Mystic (1926) and Tell it to the Marines (1926), The Taxi Dancer (1927) with Joan Crawford and Owen Moore, and The Callahans and the Murphys (1927) with Marie Dressler, Polly Moran and Sally O’Neil. According to Stone, he was lifelong friends with Mary Miles Minter, suspect in the William Desmond Taylor murder.
He started out strong in the talking era, shooting such memorable pictures as the demented ventriloquist film The Great Gabbo (1929) with Erich Von Stroheim and Betty Compson; the musical Chasing Rainbows (1930) with Bessie Love, Charles King and Jack Benny; the horror classic The Vampire Bat (1933) with Lionel Atwill, Fay Wray, Melvyn Douglas, and Dwight Frye; and Chaplin’s Modern Times (1936). His last couple of decades were spent shooting a steady stream of B pictures, including the first live action film adaptation of Superman (1948), several Charlie Chan pictures, and episodes of the tv series Dick Tracy and The Adventures of Rin Tin Tin. His last film was the Bert I. Gordon horror classic The Cyclops (1957), which, for B movie fans, is going out strong. Cast your mind over some of these pictures — Morgan had many a special effects problem to solve and shoot over the years, and he did a bang-up job for his place and time.
Now for his elusive sister. Her name was Lucille Morgan, and she worked as a male impersonator under the name “Lucille Tilton” in vaudeville, mostly on the west coast circuits. Prior to 1910 she was married to Charles W. Alisky, who operated theatres in Santa Cruz and Sacramento. The Santa Cruz was later purchased by silent movie comedian Mack Swain, and afterwards known as the Unique Theatre. Her second husband was a vaudeville performer named Harry Lavall. Lucille Tilton was widely praised for her impressions and her baritone voice. One finds references to her in performances as early as 1908 in such cities as New Orleans, Elmira, and Santa Rosa, California. She died in the 1918 flu epidemic; a notice was placed in Variety in April of that year. If she was close in age to her brother, this would have made her pretty young at the time. Ira was just getting started in his career when his sister passed away. Thanks to Melani Carty for putting us in touch with some of this info!