Hollywood collection of Belsize Park film critic highlights golden age

PUBLISHED: 10:30 26 July 2012

From Hollywood Movie Stills: filming (and recording) the roar of the MGM lion. ©Joel W. Finler. All rights reserved.

From Hollywood Movie Stills: filming (and recording) the roar of the MGM lion. ©Joel W. Finler. All rights reserved.

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Greta Garbo, Marlene Deitrich and Cary Grant are among the stars whose stills feature in new book

»In the golden days of Hollywood, the stills photographer was called upon to produce the heavily retouched iconic images of future screen legends.

Portrait photographers worked in the studio galleries to create memorable images of the likes of Garbo, Dietrich, Crawford, Gable and Grant.

But the snappers who worked on the movie lots were also responsible for other PR fashion shoots or poster art, publicity stills promoting new movies and reference shots of sets, locations, props and costumes to help the production team.

Belsize Park film critic Joel Finler has put together a history and tribute to this “neglected profession” in his book Hollywood Movie Stills: Art And Technique In The Golden Age Of The Studios.

He argues that the role of the stills photographer is as old as Hollywood itself, dating back to the emergence of the star system in 1910 as fan magazines sprang up to cater for the growing appetite for images and information about matinee idols.

PR portraits of stars grew in importance as the large studios boomed in the 1930s and studio photographers would snap actors at home, in restaurants, at parties or in behind-the-scenes shots between takes.

Finler writes that these everyday photos of actors and crews at work now offer an historical record, not just of the times but of the process of movie making.

“They have acquired a great nostalgia value and are of historical interest as part of the extensive visual record documenting the styles and fashions of the times. In addition, many of the production shots serve as a valuable record of Hollywood film-making.”

Some photos offer a clue to lost or missing films, the last surviving visual record of cut or censored scenes – or even casting changes and altered endings.

The book has fascinating pictures including one of Alfred Hitchcock apparently caught dozing during a filming break on The Lady Vanishes and photos of early film studios taken around 1908.

In one photo, Charlie Chaplin is pictured in a top hat and goatee, a departure from his customary Little Tramp image. Another shows the gigantic sets and complex action shots required pre-CGI such as DW Griffith’s Intolerance and The Birth Of A Nation.

Then there are the moments of pure cinema history – a still of the roar of the MGM lion, an iconic image which marked the end of the silent era; Bogart posing with various guns as he cements his hard guy image; and Garbo smouldering enigmatically. Clarence Sinclair Bull, head of MGM’s stills department, said: “I never had to say ‘Hold it’ or ‘Still, please’. All I did was light that face and wait and watch. Her face was the most inspirational I ever photographed.”

Finler ends his history in the mid-1960s, when most images were shot in colour, standards had declined and the great tradition of quality stills photography in black and white was reaching an end.

H Hollywood Movie Stills is published by Titan Books, priced £19.99.

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