Marlon Brando for A Streetcar Named Desire, 1950 by John Engstead; Marlene Dietrich on the set of Manpower, 1941 by Laszlo Willinger © John Kobal Foundation, 2011

The Lost Age Of The Matinee Idol

22nd July 2011

Glamour of the Gods: Hollywood Portraits at the National Portrait Gallery
celebrates the forgotten practitioners of Hollywood studio portraiture.

Jack Watkins went along for a dose of nostalgia…

In the age of Twitter, camera phones and the round-the-clock news, it seems as if an actor can’t break wind without someone noticing it and making a story out of it. Regrettably, too many stars seem ready to connive with the noisy, gossiping rabble, milking the cash cow of publicity for fear that it might dry up tomorrow.

Half a century or more ago, however, they aspired to the ‘less is more’ theory. Privacy was demanded and, generally speaking, it was granted. In any case, Hollywood film studios practically chained their performers to their contracts and exercised a high level of control over image. This, of course, was going to the other extreme, and certainly it was bitterly contested by some rebels, notably Bette Davis. Nevertheless, the system did have the unintended plus of spawning what now seems a rather short-lived mini popular art form: Hollywood portraiture.

The photograph was the key link between a star and their fans in the pre-paparazzi period, endlessly reproduced to be sent out in response to old-fashioned fan mail, or republished in film magazines. It was usually vital that the pictures conformed to the carefully manufactured image of each performer – to do otherwise risked disappointing expectations, and might have jeopardised keenly calibrated receipts at the box office.

Eventually, as the lustre of the Hollywood Golden Age faded, this kind of studio portraiture, artificial and manicured, began to seem dated. An exhibition such as Glamour of the Gods: Hollywood Portraits might never have been possible had it not been for the efforts of one starstruck young American writer and collector. In the 1950s John Kobal began assembling an archive of photographs and visiting Los Angeles just as the big corporations – with no interest in the heritage they had in their hands – were buying up the studios from the ageing moguls. To start with, Kobal was mainly fascinated with the old movies and the stars, but gradually he became aware that there was an unsung battalion of creative photographers who had done so much to burnish the ‘celebrity’ images. He began tracking them down, and, through a series of books and exhibitions, sought to gain them the recognition they deserved.

Rather tragically, Kobal died at the age of only 50 in 1991, but the John Kobal Foundation has remained both as an incredible source of film negatives and photos, and as an organisation that continues to advance appreciation of the art of photography and photo portraiture in particular. The photographs shown in the new National Portrait Gallery exhibition are derived almost entirely from the Kobal collection, and so we have the names of the cameramen to put alongside those of the film idols. The most prolific of all seems to have been Clarence Sinclair Bull, who headed MGM’s photo department for almost forty years, photographed over ten thousand different subjects, and took four thousand studies of the elusive Greta Garbo.

Other notable figures were Ruth Harriet Louise, the only woman working as a portrait photographer in Hollywood, and ER Richee, who headed Paramount’s portrait studio from its inception in 1921 and photographed such exotics as Anna May Wong, Clara Bloom and Louise Brooks. In fact, the really fascinating photos in the show are those of the earliest stars – Gloria Swanson, photographed by Karl Strauss in 1919 in a pearl-encrusted gown and head feathers, for instance, or the sultry Mexican beauty Dolores Del Rio. When Ruth Harriet Louise took Del Rio’s picture in 1929, she was hugely popular. Today even film buffs might struggle to name one of her films. Next to her photo is one of Buster Keaton, never more clown like, and another of the ‘It’ girl Clara Bow.

Not all stars’ images remained unchanging, however. Bull’s portrait of Gary Cooper in 1933 shows him rather the man about town, a cigarette louchely hanging from the side of his mouth – little trace here of the self-effacing homespun hero of memory. One of the few early colour portraits is of Elizabeth Taylor, reminding you of her English rose period in the days before Richard Burton.

The key man to get to take your picture if you wished to enhance your image was clearly George Hurrell. He worked a great deal with Joan Crawford, determined but at first totally unsuccessful in her efforts to grab the attention of the studios. One case shows the amount of retouching that went into the process. Intense studio lighting and the film stock used tended to exaggerate flaws and facial imperfections. Hurrell’s original negative showed the lines in Crawford’s natural expression and her freckles – a contrast to the smooth, silken complexion of the final image.

Generally stars were pleased with the results that the studio photographers achieved. “No-one, including the men, ever said ‘This isn’t me’,” observed Laszlo Willinger, who’d made his name with his portrait studies of Marlene Dietrich. One of the best images in the show is surely Willinger’s of John Garfield, that 1940s existentialist, a rebel without a cause a full decade before the type became truly recognised. In this shadowy image Garfield holds a gun and looks troubled and menacing, yet the anger seems rather self-directed, as if he might be about to turn the gun on himself.

Even stars were made to look a little dishevelled, as Vivien Leigh was for a studio still from Gone with the Wind, but they still looked achingly lovely. It’s noticeable, however, that by the 1950s and 60s, a change in styles of portraiture was under way. The ‘look’ of actresses became younger (Grace Kelly and Audrey Hepburn) or earthier (Ava Gardner, Marilyn Monroe, and Joan Collins). The men became brawnier and more casual: Rock Hudson shown in an open neck shirt, and Marlon Brando – shock, horror! – in a T-shirt. Twenty years earlier Clark Gable had sent vest sales through the roof when he was shown wearing one in a scene opposite Claudette Colbert, but that, at least, was an undergarment. Brando was ushering in a whole era where it was now alright to look half-dressed in the street. He and James Dean, with the casual, ‘natural’ poses they adopted for portraiture, also reflected the change in acting styles, as the Method school took hold.

If there’s a tiny regret about this exhibition, it’s that we only see these photographers through the prism of their Hollywood work and learn little of their enterprises beyond. On the day I visited, though, everyone seemed content to savour the visuals. Most of us are susceptible to glamour – witness the frenzy over this spring’s royal wedding – but Hollywood ‘royalty’ was of a more democratic kind. As other styles of film came to the fore, including French cinéma vérité and the Method, and, of course, television, where stars in your living room inevitably became smaller and homelier, it became harder to sustain the idea of worshipping ‘matinée idols’. As these photographs demonstrate, however, there was really was a time when all you could do was gaze in wonder…

Glamour of the Gods: Hollywood Portraits continues at
the National Portrait Gallery until 23 October.
Standard tickets £6 / Concessions £5.50 / £5.
See www.npg.org.uk for more information.

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