Book: Hollywood Movie Stills (Updated Edition)


Earlier this week, an updated edition of Hollywood Movie Stills by Joel W. Finler was released by Titan Books. It chronicles the history and art of movie still photography from the earliest days of film through the 1960s, with little snippets from the 1970s and 1980s.

If you’re into film history, the photos themselves are a remarkable chronicle of the stars of the past, with some beautiful images of Marlene Dietrich, Humphrey Bogart, Clark Gable, Audrey Hepburn, Jimmy Stewart, and Marilyn Monroe. There’s also one photo of Sophia Loren that’s all wolf whistles, vava-voom, awooga, hubba-hubba.

What’s surprising about a book so driven by images is Finler’s text and captions. Both are equally fascinating and help illuminate the images and vice versa. Not only do the photos capture classic films and filmmakers, they are documents of lost films, missing scenes, and careers that never took off.

Note: 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.

For years the studios used to hire still photographers to help with the publicity of their films. One of these photographers was Michael Powell, who directed classic films like The Red Shoes, Black Narcissus, and the reviled Peeping Tom. Powells shot stills for two Alfred Hitchcock movies in the 1920s, Champagne and The Manxman. Yet for the most part, the names of these photographers are mostly unknown or forgotten even though they played important roles in immortalizing classic films and film stars.

One of the most interesting things about the stills are what the images eventually come to represent. More than just glimpses into old Hollywood, many of the pictures take on a unique life of their own. They are not stills from the film negative, but are instead photos taken while shooting, in between shots, or during rehearsals. They exist as these works of art or catches of reality. (You could probably shuffle some of Cindy Sherman’s Untitled Film Stills photos into these images.)

The above image from Citizen Kane is a great example of a still photograph distinguishing itself, even if just slightly, from the film it depicts. The angle is Dutched in the photo whereas the composition in the film is level. (The still is on the left, the closest pose to this still in the film is on the right.) There’s a new dimension in the still that conveys what’s happening in the film, and both the moment in the film and this photograph share in the same sort of dynamism in the ways particular to their respective mediums. The photo was taken by Alex Kahle, one of RKO’s still photographers in the 1930s and early 1940s.

Accounting for the tilt, Finler quotes one of Kahle’s fellow still photographers, Robert Coburn. Coburn related the following advice from one of the great still photographers of the day, Ernest Bachrach:

Bachrach taught me and Alex (Kahle) never to take a straight shot. We always cocked out cameras. We’d go for the composition of the picture and make something interesting out of it rather than what we called “the company front”.

This idea of the still photo having its own life apart from the film is also found in the iconic image of Marilyn Monroe’s lifting skirt in The Seven Year Itch (which you can see in the gallery). Finler notes that the still image which appeared in all the publicity for the movie is much sexier than the scene in the movie. It’s been a few years, but I recall the moment is a lot skeevier in the film.

Sometimes the image outlasts the film itself. This is especially true with actor/actress portraits, another task given to many still photographers. There’s a portrait of Jane Russell in the book that was taken for the 1940s film The Outlaw. Few people remember the movie The Outlaw, but everyone who’s seen the publicity pictures of Jane Russell cannot forget them: dress sleeve dipping to reveal shoulder, the shadows emphasizing every soft curve of skin through the fabric, that defiant, erotic half-pout/half-sneer, at once inviting and intimidating, not asking if you want a roll in the hay but taunting you with the possibility, daring you, as if you aren’t man enough to handle a woman like her. That is Jane Russell, or at least what the studios wanted you to think about her. (One of these is in the gallery.)

There’s so much more classic Hollywood beauty, including some shots of it-girl Clara Bow, Louise Brooks, Carole Lombard, and a memorable bit of cheesecake from Betty Grable. Many of the images are retouched in some way. Finler mentions a bit of the painstaking process, with some photographers working for hours and hours just to get their subjects looking properly soft-focused, recreating the dream version of the starlet’s face. One striking double-page spread is all retouched photos of Greta Garbo save for one. Finler adds a funny line from Lauren Bacall about the retouching process, which she balked at, requesting her photographers take “a picture for the police.”

In a way this all makes sense since studios were similarly trying to create starlets in the image of other starlets. Numerous images in Hollywood Movie Stills are of would-be actresses posed like Garbo or Dietrich, their names altered and exoticized, in hopes of turning them into the next big thing. (Usually it didn’t work out.) Studios also had stars engage in certain activities for their candid shots, which were usually just as staged as portraits. And so on the comic end of things, Finler notes that Clark Gable was asked by his studio to hunt and fish; on the tragic end, there’s a photo of Rock Hudson and Phyllis Gates’s wedding, arranged by the studio to hide Rock Hudson’s homosexuality.

There’s a lot more going on in the book that I don’t want to reveal, like the little jokes and trivia in the captions, or the peculiar anecdotes that make their way into Finler’s history. (One story about Harold Lloyd sounds so insanely implausible, like a gag in one of his movies.) There’s so much grandeur and spectacle in some of the old Hollywood shots. (See the image from D.W. Griffith’s Intolerance in the gallery, which is the one after the book cover.) Finler’s writing itself is remarkably well-researched, and provides a lot of insight into the manufacturing of image and celebrity. It’s a practice that continues today, of course, but the veil is usually easier to look behind and the airbrushing less satiny and more synthetic.

My favorite bits in the book are about the movies that never were. This means films that were lost, never completed, or scenes that were junked. One of Finler’s previous books was about filmmaker Erich von Stroheim, so there’s some space dedicated to Stroheim’s film Greed. An adaptation of the Frank Norris novel McTeague, the original cut of the film was nine hours long. The most restored version of the film is only 239 minutes long, meaning that there are five whole hours of film that may be lost forever. And yet there are movie stills of these missing hours, which gives some indication of what would have been or could have been.

There are also stills from alternate endings of films. One in the book shows an unneeded capper for Double Indemnity, but it does make for a great publicity shot. There’s another still included from Woody Allen’s Bananas, and Finler recounts the alternate ending in his caption:

Having gained a reputation as a rebel hero, Fielding Mellish (Allen) is invited to give a revolutionary speech at Columbia University. But when a bomb goes off, he merges from the rubble with a blacked face. An Afro-American militant catches sight of him and exclaims, “Man, you’re a brother”.

Bananas went with the better ending in the finished film, but the picture of the alternate ending still isn’t that bad, with Allen and Louise Lasser giving off a lot of awkward embarrassment and realization, as if they just watched the gag they’re participating in. It’s an artifact from a time when Allen would have dared to put that in a movie, and when he probably could have gotten away with it. The final chapter of Hollywood Movie Stills is titled, “Things Ain’t What They Used to Be.”

Ain’t that the truth.

Hubert Vigilla
Brooklyn-based fiction writer, film critic, and long-time editor and contributor for Flixist. A booster of all things passionate and idiosyncratic.