Wednesday 31 August 2011

From silver screen to uncertain flickers

Glamour of the Gods: Hollywood Portraits, National Portrait Gallery, London

Unattainable heroines, dashing men, swashbuckling antics, spectacular settings. We think we know what to expect whenever we hear of the glamour of Hollywood’s golden age. Does this exhibition show us anything we haven’t seen shimmering on the silver screen, or something which has not crossed our imaginations?

Given that this is the first museum exhibition of vintage prints from the John Kobal Foundation, we should expect to have our assumptions challenged. Kobal (1940-1991) was a collector and author who methodically sought to understand the role of photography in the Hollywood legend, arguably becoming a sort of Bernard Berenson of Tinseltown memorabilia in the process. Starting his collecting work in the 1950s, when many of the major studios were being bought by corporations who cared little for the film industry’s history, Kobal’s interest went from the stars of Hollywood’s golden era and their films to the photographers behind the pictures. For- in those pre-paparazzi times – photographs marked ‘copyright free’ were issued by studios for publicity purposes. They were the only link between stars and fans. Many studio photographers whose role was vital in this process remained uncredited for creating career-defining, timeless portraits. Now we can see their credited work: they have the recognition that is their due. Just as importantly, we can see how that work helped to define the cultural phenomenon that is Hollywood.

With nearly 70 vintage photographs spanning 40 years of Hollywood history we are spoilt for choice. But outstanding examples can be chosen. A photograph by Karl Struss shows Gloria Swanson for ‘Male &Female’ (1919) with an androgynous face surmounted by a feathered head-dress and wearing a beaded dress, while James Abbe’s photo of Lillian Gish (1920) shows her looking ethereal yet surprised. Seven years later we see her in a publicity photo attributed to Milton Brown for ‘The Wind’ (1927) struggling against the wind in the Mojave Desert. In contrast with this study of female vulnerability we have Russell Ball’s photo of Dolores del Rio for the film ‘The Trail of 98’ (1928) showing her short-haired head with a no-nonsense expression emerging from a fur-collared coat.

Adventure comes in different guises. Clarence Sinclair Bull shows Johnny Weissmuller for ‘Tarzan, the Ape Man’ (1933) wearing nothing but a loin-cloth, while he adopts a camp pose on a swing. Ted Allan shows Myrna Loy and William Powell for comedy crime film ‘The Thin Man’ (1934). Loy displays a mixture of cynicism and despair while her husband, played by Powell, appears to be asleep in a drunken stupor whilst holding a rifle between his legs (for most of the time the film showed them as an affectionate couple). Scotty Welbourne gives us a tougher view of crime with his photo of James Cagney for ‘Angels With Dirty Faces’ (1938) showing the actor as a fierce-faced gangster, the effect of which is only slightly undone by the over-tough grimace of his mouth.

Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney adopt an all-singing, all-dancing pose in front of a giant drum for the high-spirited high-school musical ‘Strike up the Band’ (1940) in a photo attributed to Eric Carpenter. Lana Turner is seen as cautious yet trusting as she receives a kiss from Clark Gable in a photo by Clarence Sinclair Bull for the comedy melodrama ‘Honky Tonk’ (1942). But a new, less confident Hollywood - more of that later – seems foreshadowed with Ernest A Bachrach’s 1941 photo of Ingrid Bergman, where she seems sad yet cynical, as if sadness is all she can expect from life. John Engstead’s photo of Marlon Brando for ‘A Streetcar Named Desire’ (1950) shows him as someone who appears angry because of disappointment or betrayal. Laszlo Willinger shows Joan Collins for ‘Seven , Thieves’ (1959) as a sexy dancer (in contrast with Cornel Lucas’s 1953 photograph of her in a sweaty-pouty mode). But the photo attributed to Ken Danvers of Elizabeth Taylor for ‘Suddenly last Summer’ (1959) shows her on a beach as a mixture of vulnerability and sexual attraction, as if the two emotions are fighting for supremacy.

In the post-war period, a sense of diminishing glamour seems to permeate the photographs the nearer we get to the present day: it’s rather like comparing the palatial cinemas of the inter-war years with functional modern multiplexes. What might be the cause of this apparent decline? It’s tempting to say with Norma Desmond - the aging film star played by Gloria Swanson in Billy Wilder’s classic 1950 naif portrayal of changing Hollywood, ‘Sunset Boulevard’, ‘It’s the pictures that got smaller.’ But is that the complete answer?

The word ‘Gods’ in the exhibition’s title is - possibly - the giveaway clue here. Although golden-era Hollywood was part of mass entertainment, its stars benefitted from working within an era when established hierarchies - church, state, parents, judiciary, politicians, academics - still dominated Western thought and behaviour: their power was taken for granted. Stars of stage and screen shared in this stratified system of authority: hence the almost ethereal glamour that the photographs here show: even when playing downtrodden or struggling figures, the stars themselves were still, ex-officio, people deemed worthy of instant respect, and were portrayed accordingly. Today’s stars are poorly-off in comparison - but then they can’t be anything else. Like, say, well-educated politicians who adopt plebeian accents in an attempt to convince us that they are ordinary guys, so today’s stars must exude a humble, insecure friendliness. Preferably this involves, at some stage, the ritual purging themselves of the ‘baggage’ of their ‘demons’, with a spell in ‘rehab’ acting as a form of absolution for having committed the sins of stardom and success. Nobody seeking the limelight - in art or politics - can speak with genuine, individualistic authority; their efforts must be clothed in false humility.

Also, because of the demise of traditional Western hierarchies, film stars - like sportsmen – have had the dubious honour of being role models thrust upon them, now that the old ones are no longer considered (or can make the effort to be) valid vehicles of ethics and standards for contemporary society. This pleasure-crushing burden means the days when stars could play around knowing that - unless they’d upset their employers in some way - their antics would be covered-up by the studios’ publicity machine, are long gone. Also - and paradoxically - the old hierarchical society gave room to the talented individual who stood out from the ordinary: it valued the achiever who could contribute his or her energy and skills to their chosen field. This helped the off-beat but talented newcomer to the film business climb the ladder of success. Now, the desire to have stars conform to an image which has optimum appeal at the box office, vital when the cinema has to compete with online entertainment, means contemporary film actors and actresses have a mass-produced sameness about them - today’s size-zero blondes and pretty-boy males have a production-line feel in contrast with the individualistic stars of the golden era whose images we see here.

Taking the exhibition as a whole, we can admire this blast of glamour from the past. Students of the cinema should find in it an effective visual introduction as to what made Hollywood work as a dream factory. Fashion students will be able to use it to widen their sartorial knowledge. Clubbers who wish to enliven their presentational skillsfor the nightspots of Soho and Shoreditch will find it inspirational, just as their New Romantic predecessors raided Hollywood’s glories for their nigh-time forays a quarter of a century ago. But there is a deeper message to take away from this exhibition. These photographs are not simply examples of past glory generated by a new, vibrant industry feeling its way. They reflect an age when Hollywood had - arguably, like he West itself - a sense of self confidence, something which now flickers uncertainly like an old movie.

Till 23 October 2011

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