Book Review: Joel Finler’s “Hollywood Movie Stills: Art and Technique in the Golden Age of the Studios”

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For the truly serious cineaste, Joel Finler’s Hollywood Movie Stills:  Art and Technique in the Golden Age of the Studios is a buffet of exquisite ironies.  For one:  that much of the history, the grandeur and the glitz, the behind-the-scenes grit and the red carpet glory associated with the moving picture have come to us through pictures that don’t move.  One could argue that much of the glamour and mystique which defines Hollywood – at least the Hollywood of the Golden Age of the old studio system – is as much the result of the work of still photographers as the movies themselves.  In some cases, the work of “stillmen” is all that remains of lost footage cut from movies still acclaimed today (as with Eric von Stroheim’s silent era classic, Greed [1924]), as well as entire movies lost through accident, poor storage, or even intentional destruction in an era when no one could see the long-term residual value in films people had stopped going to theaters to see.

Go further: anyone who studies film – from the casual buff to the serious student pouring through Louis Gianetti’s Understanding Movies to the genre geek leafing through the latest Star Wars commemorative – would have empty bookshelves but for the tens of thousands of bits of Hollywood dream-making preserved forever by the (often anonymous) cadre of still photographers who served their studio masters, in some cases, for decades.

Finler’s Hollywood Movie Stills – originally published in 1995, but with Titan Books putting out a new edition next week which includes previously unseen material – is a salute, an exhaustively researched chronicle, and a keen analysis of the work of the studio photographer over the half-century when they made their biggest contributions to the business of Hollywood.  Like Finler’s other books – among them, Hitchcock in Hollywood, The Director’s Story, and my go-to info source for historical perspectives on the movie business, The Hollywood Story – Hollywood Movie Stills is a must for the serious student or follower of film.

In the chaotic early days of the movie business, photographers were often outsiders brought in by production companies, but as the industry consolidated and established the factory-like studio system, all of the studios established their own in-house still photography departments.

The stillmen had their own hierarchy.  At the top were the portraitists, those known throughout the industry by name who took the iconic glamour photos, the posed “at home” shots to prove movie stars were just like the rest of us (except for being incredibly rich, famous, and living a life of unbelievable luxury), and the “cheesecake” pix to help sell leggy up-and-coming starlets to the public.

And then there were unit photographers.  Often anonymous, they were attached to a film production long before shooting began.  It was their job to take pictures of everything:  costume and make-up tests, record every scene for reference by the production crew, and, of course, scene stills during filming for publicity and marketing purposes.  Even after the production was completed, the unit photographer was still on the job, shooting the stars on their red carpet walk to their film’s premiere.  Theirs was the harder job, dealing with prickly stars, cantankerous directors, and a busy set.   And yet, while trying to be as unobtrusive as possible, often playing catch-as-catch can with their subjects, they sometimes captured a magic even the portraitists missed.

Finler gives the example of an iconic still from Citizen Kane (1941) taken by RKO unit photographer Alex Kahle.  Orson Welles’ Kane stands in the foreground at a podium at the political rally where he launches his ill-fated bid for the New York gubernatorial seat, gesturing grandly to a gigantic poster of himself (Finler guesses also taken by Kahle).  With its tilted, sharply up-angled composition, Kahle’s image captures the essence of Welles’ baroque directorial style as well as the overstuffed ego of the movie’s central character.  The photo is…Wellesian.

During the heyday of the studio system – the 1930s-1940s – the stillmen were ever busy.  The studios put out a continuous stream of hype, promoting new releases, upcoming releases, and maintaining the value of their stars by keeping them in the public eye even between pictures.  The stillmen’s contributions were thousands of images:  stars at home and at play, stars at public events, stars posing for fashion photographs, et al.  The pictures and publicity fed the bottomless need of countless fan magazines which, in turn, fed the equally bottomless appetite for movie glamour of a public then buying over 80 million movie tickets each week (almost three times today’s rate in a population about one-third the size).

But the greatest value of their work would be what it saved for us.  Behind-the-scenes photos show us the evolving complexity of the movie-making process, give us insight into how the old studio system created, maintained, and protected their greatest assets – their stars – and present a mosaic of the old self-contained, production-line environment of mogul Hollywood.

Be forewarned:  Finler is not writing for the casual buff.  Consequently, his prose tends to be dry and sometimes dense.  But he livens up his text by liberally sprinkling it with anecdotes and first person accounts from stars, filmmakers, and, of course, the photographers themselves, such as the story by RKO’s unit photographer Robert Coburn and how he managed to co-exist on the set with an irascible John Ford – a man who, according to Coburn, not only hated photographers but “…didn’t even like his own cameraman.”

But the heart of the book, frankly, is not Finler’s text but the rich collection of still work, from behind-the-scenes and actors-at-play pictures to fashion layouts, scene stills, and those lovely star portraits the likes of which the movie business hasn’t seen since.  Titan has done an exceptional job on reproducing these pictures; the quality of these images is exceptional, capturing the shimmery black and white luster which defined an age of moviemaking.

By the 1950s, the studio still photographer was an endangered species.  The studio system was slowly collapsing, and as costs were cut, the stillman was among the first to go.  Freelancers would pick up the slack, but the collective portrait they provided of a changed Hollywood wasn’t quite the same…not that many people were still looking.

Today, with video the preference over text, the still photographer doesn’t have the value he (or she) once had.  Entertainment Tonight and Hollywood Extra now do what the fanzines used to do and that’s fine with a mass public which would rather watch than read.

And instead of providing glamour, an army of mercenary photographers – the paparazzi – get paid top dollar to provide a look behind the satin curtain, feeding a dark public appetite for hidden cellulite, drunk driving mug shots, and any public misstep which makes a movie star seem less star-like.

Finler’s book illustrates that the Dream Factory during its Golden Age didn’t stop the dream-making at the big screen, but continued it through a thousand thousand images which, together, formed a mosaic of the biggest dream of all:  Hollywood.

Bill Mesce

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