There’s no such thing anymore as the “art” of the movie still, with images from movies now part and parcel of carefully orchestrated marketing or sales plans driving the films. They are, generally speaking, grist for the mill, and while the first look at an imminent blockbuster or secretive project can provide a temporary thrill, the sheer overwhelming pervasiveness and availability of images, all at the click of a button, means that enjoyment is a temporary thing. Movie stills aren’t about the glamor of a production anymore, so much as placeholders until we can see the actual movie. And that’s not to cast judgment on how things work — after all, we’re a movie blog and very much perpetrators of the cycle — but how images from movies are used and how they are perceived, from inside the studio and out, has changed dramatically.
Flipping through the pages of Joel F. Finler‘s “Hollywood Movie Stills: Art And Technique In The Golden Age Of The Studios,” you are immediately struck by the reverence the photos hold for the talents and films they capture. But as Finler notes in the book, movie photography first began as a matter of necessity. As the medium grew from a novelty to an industry, and one of the most exciting new methods of popular entertainment, movie producers soon found that audiences wanted pictures of their favorite actors. As Finler explains, in the earliest days of cinema, the actors names were kept off the advertising, and still frames were used instead to give ticket buyers an idea of what kind of movie they were going to see. But they turned out to not only want to know the names of the actors and actresses on the screen, they wanted pictures as well. Very quickly, postcard-size shots of the actors were made available, and by the height of the silent era, unit photographers became a staple on film sets.
As the sound era began, studios not only hired on photographers full time, they began to seek out talent that they could develop into movie stars. For those of you not up on your classic cinema knowledge, unlike today where actors move from project to project, from indie productions to mainstream blockbusters, for decades it was the other way around, with studios seeking beautiful and talented faces. And if newly acquired actors lacked the talent aspect, studios would work to develop it. Actors then signed multi-picture contracts with studios, and part of this process meant extensive photo sessions, with the results plied in the plethora of movie fan magazines at the time. That way, the studios could plant the bug early about a name and get buzz brewing, so that a year later when the unknown actor or actress was making his or her debut film, their picture and info would be out there already, with viewers already familiar with who they were seeing.
But even for established stars, keeping their image in the public was crucial. For many actors of the time, they were contractually bound to sit for portrait sessions between films, to make sure studio bosses continued to have a fresh supply of pictures they could use for promotional purposes. And even on set, the stars had to acquiesce for still photos. Remember, photography shutter speeds were not as lightning fast as they are now. Often, scenes had to be re-staged (sometimes with wardrobe for the actors changed so they are wearing something more fashionable) with the actors posing to get the shot.
As you might be gathering, the photographer’s job was a vast one, and as Finler elaborates, they were often involved from pre-production right through to the premiere, snapping shots on the red carpet (in black and white, of course). Where nowadays, each department of a film project might have their own unique way of operating, in the era of early cinema, the photographer was everywhere. He did everything from take pictures of potential locations to help the costume designers snap the various outfits they were dreaming up so they could have a record of what everything looked like before they met with the director and a decision was made. And they were there on every day of the production, hoping for a spare moment in which they could capture a scene, or perhaps the actors off set for more “casual” images.
This thoroughness had the unintended consequence during the silent era of serving as a historical document for many of the films that would not survive due to the lack of archiving and the volatility of the nitrate stock used at the time. One only has to look at Erich Von Stroheim‘s films — particularly the mauled and ruthlessly cut “Greed” — that live on thanks to the stills taken at the time, that reveal details of the sequences and scenes that were snipped. Or there’s silent film star Theda Bara, whose most famous and notorious film “Cleopatra” is lost forever. But the image of her in a barely-there costume — wearing a half-bra and nothing else, which would be eye-opening even by today’s standards — is a glorious tease at what that movie might have been. Many of the images from this early chapter of the book are wonderfully duplicated and serve as a generous window into a period of filmmaking that is quickly being forgotten.
But the images from ’30s and ’40s are no less dazzling. The portrait pictures in particular are a wonder to behold, not only for their stylistic approach, but also for the fact they tend to be far more commanding than the kind of magazine snaps we get today. You have to remember, actors sat in for these sessions on a much more routine basis than they do now, and the very best knew how to command their image in the frame of a camera. Pics of Marlene Dietrich, Humphrey Bogart, Louise Brooks and even an uncharacteristic early photo of James Stewart are impressive. Even actresses who didn’t find their star vehicle, like Anna Sten, are made intriguingly gorgeous thanks to the efforts of these photographers whose lifeblood rested on the success of their subjects.
Finler’s reverence and knowledge is without question, but sometimes he does get in the way of himself. As an author who has previously written a book about Erich Von Stroheim, his constant references to the helmer throughout “Hollywood Movie Stills,” to underline various points, begins to get a bit tired. And it should be noted that the book is actually an updated reissue, and while we’re unclear when it was originally published, “Tootsie” is bizarrely the most contemporary film mentioned and seems to be where the study of movie stills stops. And that’s fine. But thus, the last chapter (titled transparently “Things Ain’t What They Used To Be”), which is basically a long lament about how movie stills are no longer an art as photographers are now freelanced and generally not as involved, doesn’t stand up under scrutiny. What Finler fails to realize is that instead of studios developing stars, agents and PR reps do that job now. And as we mentioned in the opening paragraph, the role of movie stills in the scheme of movie marketing has simply changed, and saying it has gotten better or worse misses a broader understanding how much the relationship between talent, the studios, marketing and the audience has fundamentally shifted.
But that attitude is mostly muted through the rest of the book, which, in and of itself, is one that demands space on a coffee table. The generously sized hardback, printed on beautiful glossy paper, makes it one that you appreciate flipping through not only for the vast wealth of fantastic and diverse photos included, but also because it’s a reminder that there are some sensations that a computer screen can’t duplicate. These are the kinds of pictures you want on print, not in pixels. Turning the pages of “Hollywood Movie Stills” is like taking a cinematic journey back in time, and for any cinephile (or maybe for one you know) the book is a must-have. [B+]
“Hollywood Movie Stills: Art And Technique In The Golden Age Of The Studios” is in book stores now.
Hollywood Movie Stills text copyright © 1995, 2008, 2012 (Titan Books) by Joel W. Finler. All rights reserved. All photographs used in the spirit of publicity, criticism and review.