John W. Leezer, a Leading Light in Early Cinematography

International Photographer November 1931

The International Photographer November 1931


John William Leezer was born in Keokuk, Iowa, on May 1, 1876, he was an intelligent, thoughtful man with his attentions directed toward the artistic rather than just the functional; he stood 5-feet-8-and-a-half-inches tall, stout boned, a youthful face with brown hair and brown eyes. Leezer was regarded by his peers and critics to be an artistic cinematographer.[1] His later professional years would be occupied by his love of the art of photography, the innovation of the equipment and furthering the knowledge of those interested in the field of cinematography. Leezer believed himself to be the first use the soft-focus lens on, The Marriage of Molly O, 1916.[2]

Personal Leezer:

Leezer served in the Spanish-American War of 1898 in the Fifth U. S. Artillery, in Battery K.[3] After the war, Leezer made his way to New York where he met his future wife, Rena Crocker, who was born in 1882, and the coupled married in 1902. Their first child, Dorothy was welcomed the next year, and the year following saw Lewis added to the family. By 1906 the Leezer clan had moved to Pennsylvania and there in the same year another daughter was born, Marian, and finally Arthur was welcomed in California, in 1914.

Leezer’s Laser Steps to Hollywood:

John W. Leezer opened a portrait studio, which did business from 1907 through 1909 in the Keystone State.[4] Finally, Leezer, growing weary of his venture accepted a position with the National Cash Register Company of Dayton, Ohio, in the photographic department. National Cash Register was highly active with industrial films capturing the commercial activities of the company.[5] Leezer spent two years in Dayton and then moved to the Kinemacolor laboratory, which location (east or west coast) is unclear, where he was in charge for 1912 and most of 1913.[6]

In the latter part of 1913 he fulfilled a short engagement with Mack Sennett; and in late 1913 and into 1914 he worked at Essanay Studio, Reliance on one project and with Majestic and Mutual.[7] It was this early work with Sennett and at Reliance that D. W. Griffith viewed and hired Leezer for the Fine Arts staff, where he made ten movies;[8] one of these ten that Leezer made for Griffith is lost to his résumé.

In 1920 he and wife Rena were living in Burbank, California on Olive Avenue, it was in this period, the 1920’s and throughout the 1930’s that Leezer often wrote articles regarding photography, the process and its innovations, for, The American Cinematographer and International Photographer.[9] Also, 1921 was the year Leezer became the vice-president and general manager of, The World Classics Film Corporation, an educational film production concern.[10]

Mr. Leezer was always inventive with his camera-work but he made his mark photographing in the outdoors, with such films as, A Girl of the Timber Claims, 1917, Nugget Nell, 1919 and two Strongheart the Dog pictures: The Love Master, 1924, where Leezer and crew went to film in the Banff National Park, Alberta, Canada,[11] and returned to the same for White Fang, 1925.[12]

American Cinematographer February 1, 1922

John Leezer American Cinematographer February 1, 1922


Lighting the Leezer Lens: Missing Leezer

J. W. Leezer worked with Wilfred Lucas on The Trey o’ Hearts, a serial for Universal, in 1914; his cameraman for the project was Steve Rounds.[13] It is clear that Leezer photographed for director Arthur Mackley on one or more Broncho Billy Anderson westerns.[14] Leezer once claimed that he had shot more Indians than anyone in the country,[15] so it may be that his time with Broncho Billy was more extended than anyone has previously thought; how many titles are missing? Anyone’s guess to that question is as good as another. As well, Leezer may have donned the director’s cap, this according to one report, but for what production is a mystery.[16] He was working for R K O, in 1929, but in what capacity was not stated.[17] Leezer was also one of numerous cameramen used on, Hell’s Angeles, 1930, under the photographic direction of Gaetano Gaudio, who supervised the ground level cameras and Harry Perry who was in charge of the aerial cinematography.[18]

On Saturday, August 6, John W. Leezer died in Vista, California, at the age of 62; he was remembered with a sixteen-word obituary in the August 17 edition of Variety.


By C. S. Williams


[1] Wid’s Daily, January 8, 1919

Washington Post, February 22, 1920

[2] The American Cinematographer, February 1, 1922

[3] Motography,  March 3, 1917

[4] The American Cinematographer, February 1, 1922

[5] The American Cinematographer, January, 1926

[6] The American Cinematographer, February 1, 1922

[7] The American Cinematographer, February 1, 1922

The International Photographer, January, 1935

[8] The American Cinematographer, February 1, 1922

[9] The American Cinematographer, November 1, 1921

The American Cinematographer, March 1, 1922

[10] The American Cinematographer, January 1, 1922

[11] Exhibitors Herald, January 5, 1924

[12] Exhibitors Trade Review, January 27, 1923

[13] The International Photographer, January, 1935

[14] The International Photographer, January, 1935

[15] Moving Picture World, April 5, 1919

[16] Exhibitors Trade Review, February 25, 1922

[17] Motion Picture Almanac, 1929

[18]The International Photographer, March, 1929

The International Photographer, August, 1930


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