The important work of the onset still cameramen has gone largely under-appreciated as an art form, and yet many photographic images are iconic, descriptive of important people, events and places long gone, and celebrations of the industry. Joel W. Finler’s Hollywood Movie Stills: Art and Technique in the Golden Age of the Studios is a loving look at the evolution of still photography in Hollywood features rarities, fascinating peeks into every corner of movie-making. He’s passionate about his subject matter. Most of the images come from his own private collection and cover the beginning of movie-making in Hollywood to the ‘60s.
Cameras were often onset, catching moments, posed and unguarded, during production, shots of the biggest stars of the day working and waiting for their next shot, the directors and the technical artists. Finler outlines the importance of stills off the set as well in publicity, portraiture, as technical guides useful for set décor, wardrobe and hair continuity and promotional material.
In Hollywood history, money and dreams were sometimes invested in films that never saw the light of day and yet they were someone’s passion and a collaboration of talented people. Onset stills provide a priceless look at what might have been. Finler’s examples are intriguing.
Men and women hoping for stardom under the old studio contrast system were routinely buffed, puffed and posed for those all-important 8 x 10 glossies, creating fantasies that sometimes helped launch their careers. But most of those stars didn’t make it. Pictures of aspiring actors in the manufactured glory of the studio shot are bittersweet and match the intense nostalgia for the hopes and desires of thousands of Hollywood hopefuls.
Behind the scenes, shots of a skinny dipping Marilyn Monroe posing for photographers to publicize Something’s Got to Give are heartbreaking as she died soon afterwards. We see the spectacular folly of Elizabeth Taylor’s Cleopatra, makeup tests for Doris Day, Janet Gaynor’s wardrobe tests and impossibly perfect high contrast portraiture of among others, Jean Harlow, Louise Brooks, Clara Bow, Sophia Loren and Marlene Dietrich.
Finler shows stills that were highly staged but gave an accidental – or perhaps intended – glimpse into the reality of the moment, for instance, a group of freshly minted MGM starlets ride their bikes down Hollywood Blvd. during the depths of the Depression, beaming at the camera, while headlines in the nearby paper box read “More hunger as taxes leap”.
The stars at home was a favourite subject for promotional and publicity photography, where fans could drink up the stars’ elaborate, lavish Hollywood homes and see glimpses of the interiors, complete with pets, children and sense of homey relaxation. Staged of course.
Among those are the notorious shots of Joan Crawford with her adopted children who went on to reveal the hell of abuse they endured living under Crawford’s iron rule. Exuberant shots of Robert Young playing in the ocean with his children, Marlene Dietrich, the devoted grandmother reading to her grandson, and Janet Leigh and Tony Curtis holding their new baby Kelly, were bids to show the stars had domestic lives and lived in the same reality as everyone else. Well, almost. There’s Rock Hudson in a domestic shot with the woman the studio had him marry to cover his homosexuality.
Trick photography as artistic experimentation for lobby cards and movie posters. Images were doctored to provide shorthand for the film’s tone, genre, stars, and atmosphere and to an extent, to create an emotional response. There are images that were made especially for poster art but never made the grade, some that have never before been published.
We are treated to behind the scenes shots on the sets of some of the best known films of all time – Casablanca, Citizen Kane, King Kong, A Streetcar Named Desire, From Here to Eternity, The Seven Year Itch, The Hunchback of Notre Dame and an intriguing array of films from the silent days to the sixties. It is a treasure trove for the fans with significant historical importance.
Hollywood Movie Stills: Art and Technique in the Golden Age of the Studios is available on June 29. For more information, visit titanbooks.com.
Images from Hollywood Movie Stills: Art and Technique in the Golden Age of the Studios used in the spirit of publicity, criticism and review. Courtesy Titan Books.