Saturday, August 6, 2011


This is an occasional series featuring my favorite movie books. Before TCM and the internet, the only way to satisfy my passion to know more about classic Hollywood was through books, books and more books. I've cleared away the clutter over the years, but many remain permanent residents in my home. You'd never throw out an old friend, now would you?


The cover of this 1980 book hooked me from the start. Dolores Del Rio. Stunning. Not my favorite actress, but one of my favorite photo subjects. You see, I am a star gazer. I admit I am totally, shamelessly and hopelessly mesmerized by that product of Hollywood called glamour. Looking at beautiful portraits of beautiful stars is equally as pleasurable to me as watching a movie. And, lest some think that is pretty shallow, it is through the beauty and artistry of these portraits that I came to know about some wonderful stars and later sought out their films. Before TCM, it was easier to find a picture of Garbo than it was to see one of her films.

This book has the three key ingredients that I crave in a movie tome: 

1. lots of good information;
2. lots of good, quality photos on good quality paper stock; 
3.  and lots of good gossip!

The author, John Kobal, was a great collector of film photos and author of many fine books about the golden age of Hollywood. This is just one of his books I possess and treasure and have no intention of giving up. You can't put these great coffee table books on a Kindle!

"The Art of the Great Hollywood Portrait Photographers" treats those great give-away fan portraits of 1925-1940 as not only a record of the era, but as tools that helped build and create the allure of the star. Like the ancient Greek sculptures of the gods and goddesses and the Renaissance and Victorian romantic portraits of great beauties, these works celebrate and elevate human beauty. 

Portraits of such early stars as Mary Pickford, Theda Bara and Rudolph Valentino perpetuated their stardom, but were often done by photographers were not employed by a studio. The studio's use of portrait photographers did not fully flourish until the late 1920s and 1930s. By then, portrait photography became an integral part of creating the star's image and publicizing their films.
Mary Pickford and Rudolph Valentino:
early examples of the power of the portrait
By the 1930s, the film industry actively employed thousands whose sole function was to find performers of extraordinary physical beauty and create, says Kobal, a "compelling visual ideal that would stand as a statement of our desires and our need for fulfillment." Jean Harlow, Gloria Swanson and Clark Gable embodied our ideal of sex, glamour and beauty. Kobal asserts that this was not new and asks if, long ago, did Emma Lyon's wordy lovers fall in love with the blacksmith's daughter or with the Lady Hamilton created by the painter Romney? Centuries later, did Aly Khan fall in love with Margarita Cansino or with the ideal beauty called Rita Hayworth?

Kobal chroncicles the careers of many of the greatest, interviews many stars and photographers and presents a feast of gorgeous photos. I especially enjoyed his interviews with Loretta Young, whose observations are astute and honest.

Some interesting facts and gossip: Joan Crawford, Carole Lombard and Katharine Hepburn liked to be photographed and recognized the importance of these photos. They were willing and cooperative subjects and their photographers appreciated them. Constance Bennett, Veronica Lake and Irene Dunne were not very enthusiastic subjects and Miriam Hopkins was a handful (to say the least and are we not surprised?). Errol Flynn needed a drink to get going, as did Jean Harlow, who liked to disrobe in front of photographer Ted Allan (which he didn't seem to mind at all) and Gary Cooper was lazy (but managed to always come through looking just right). Hedy Lamarr's stardom was created almost completely through portrait photography and Norma Shearer's slightly crossed eye was a challenge. Spencer Tracy, James Cagney and Humphrey Bogart considered sitting for portraits "sissy stuff," but Cagney used eye makeup to highlight his piercing gaze.
My favorite story is  Laszlo Willinger's reminiscence of his assignment on the 1939 film  "The Women," which starred MGM rivals Norma Shearer and Joan Crawford, as well as Rosalind Russell and Paulette Goddard. Shearer and Crawford both wanted Willinger as their photographer, but both had the right to reject photos they appeared in together. In shots of the two of them together, countless prints were rejected in a real-life version of the on-screen cat-fight. Willinger describes his experience:

Shearer would look at the prints first and say "Gee, this is a beautiful picture of me, but I really don't like the way Joan Crawford looks." And then Joan would have her turn, and we'd have the same thing. It's a wonder any pictures of them were released at all.
There were two on that film who were easy to work with - Paulette Goddard, because she was ambitious, and Rosalind Russell, because she didn't give a damn. As a result, Goddard got practically 90 percent of the stuff that was published, because she made herself available.
One day the three principals took off from filming, just so we could shoot stills. The call was for ten a.m. I'm up there, ready - nobody. It's ten-thirty, eleven - still nobody. Finally Rosalind Russell turns up and says, "Sorry I'm late." I told her, "You're not late. You're the first one here." I walked outside the stage that had been set for the session. A crew of ten was standing around waiting, including a flower man, in case one of them wanted a flower. (I couldn't give them a flower, because that would have been against union rules, and everybody would have walked off.) Finally, I saw Norma Shearer's car drive by. It slowed down. She looked out and continued driving around the block. A little behind her was Joan Crawford, who also slowed down, looked out and drove on. I thought "What the hell is going on here?" I called [publicity director Howard] Strickling and told him "There are two stars outside driving around the stage and not coming in." He said "Don't you know what they're doing? Shearer isn't going to come in before Crawford and Crawford isn't going to come in before Shearer. The only thing I can do is stand in the middle of the street and stop them." Which he did.
Good stuff. And the book is full of great tidbits like that. But best of all are the photos by these great artists. Some of my favorites:

Ruth Harriet Louise

This is my favorite Garbo portrait. Although she is always beautiful, here she  is is more approachable than I have ever seen her. I think this is just breathtaking.

John Gilbert looking glamorous for Ruth Harriet Louise
Ernest Bachrach

Capturing the glamour, sophistication and exoticism of Dolores Del Rio
Beautiful Carole Lombard
Don English
Don English fulfilled the vision of Von Sternberg and Dietrich
George Hurrell

Joan Crawford: the essence of Hollywood glamour
and a favorite Hurrell subject
Another stunning Crawford portrait by Hurrell
Jean Harlow
Norma Shearer

Clarence Sinclair Bull
Bull was Garbo's favorite photographer and she his favorite subject
The stuff that dreams are made of
Laszlo Willinger
Hedy Lamarr
Tyrone Power looking beautiful
Vivien Leigh
Clark Cable
Otto Dyar
Anna May Wong
Robert Coburn
Rita Hayworth
Charles Boyer
This is only a hint of the great photos contained in this book. No wonder I held on to it! A few last thoughts on the art of the great Hollywood portrait photographers:

Madison Lacy, who spent fifty years as a photographer said, "I think probably everything to do with glamour - real glamour photography as we know it - originated in Hollywood."

Louise Brooks: "When you think of it, what people remember of those stars is not from films, but one essential photograph: Dietrich - heavy-lidded, sucked-in cheeks / Keaton - sad little boy / Crawford - staring self-admiration / Gable - smiling, darling. And when i think of Garbo, I do not see her moving in any particular film. I see her staring mysteriously into the camera. No matter how many times I've seen her in films, that is how I always see her. She is a still picture - unchangeable."

I don't know about you, but for my money these great photos are truly works of art and deserve to be treated as such.

Portraits are, sadly, all that we have left of
Theda Bara, as most of her films no longer exist


Christian Esquevin said...

Yes FlickChick, this book is great and I was hooked on it the moment I got it many years ago. I have acquired many of these great portrait photographs, and they are endlessly fascinating. Thanks for giving this book the credit for being one of the great books of art.

FlickChick said...

Thanks, Christian. I love my Kindle, but you can't put a big, beautiful photo book in an e-reader!

Caftan Woman said...

You can get lost for hours in a book like that, in the glamour of those faces or lost for a lifetime.

Diane said...

From one star gazer to another, I loved looking at these great photos. I also loved the tidbits in your post. I think I just might go out and buy the book. Thanks again Flick Chick...

FlickChick said...

@ CW - yes, I have been lost there for a lifetime, and don't want to be "found"!

FlickChick said...

@ Diane: I am glad I held on to this, as it is quite pricey now!

The Lady Eve said...

So much beauty! I'm with you, FlickChick, intoxicated by Old Hollywood glamor. Some of my favorite pictures are featured - the Dietrich (I'm an MD nut) and the Garbo with her hair falling over one eye...Hedy Lamarr, Tyrone Power. An absolutely wonderful post - so fascinating and informative that I made a little trip to

FlickChick said...

Thank you, Lady Eve. John Kobal's collections and interviews are treasures. I have another book of his called "People Will Talk" and it is precious. He has interviews with so many from our favorite era who are now gone. Good luck at Amazon - there is a wide range of price on this one. FYI - in 1980 I paid $35.

The Lady Eve said...

I paid $25 + shipping and also bought Christian's book on Adrian.

FlickChick said...

Super! And I love Christian's book, too - mucho gorgeous!

ClassicBecky said...

Good Lord! I'm sure the book is great, sounds like it, but I'm still stunned by the pictures! Ordinarily I don't need pictures in a book, but these are just incredible!

FlickChick said...

Words can't do justice to this art (and these faces)! The use of shadows and light is incomparable.

The Lady Eve said...

FlickChick - I received the book - WOW...and you can imagine my great joy when I began reading, on page 3, "No woman in art or literature was more lovingly created..." referring to Josef von Sternberg's realization of Marlene own opinion exactly (the only 3 part blog I've ever written is about their collaboration). Plus an entire chapter on JvS and Dietrich later in the book. I'm in heaven.

I've come to believe that, similar to JvS's exaltation of MD, Alfred Hitchcock (20 yrs later) was in the process of perfecting his conception of Grace Kelly as an archetypal goddess - and then she suddenly left acting for the monarchy...but that's another blog...

Thank you so much for the recommendation - Kobal's book is a jewel!

FlickChick said...

@ Lady Eve - I just KNEW you were going to lobe the MD photos and sections! John Kobal was a treasure

Julie Kirby said...

I watched "A Fool That Was" with Theda Bara, our library has a wonderful collection of Silent Pictures... Believe it was a Kino disc...

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