(National Portrait Gallery, London, 7 July – 23 October 2011)
There’s something about the golden age of Hollywood that still captures the attention today: an era when men were men, women were women and everything was screened by a veil of cigarette smoke. This wonderful exhibition brings together a selection of photographs of the biggest film stars from the 1920s to the 1950s. Most are silvery black-and-white prints, luminous visions of another age, with the odd colour interloper feeling oddly out of place.
The exhibition celebrates the photographer as much as the subject, familiarising you with characters such as the pioneer photographer Ruth Harriet Louise, the only woman in her profession in 1920s Hollywood; George Hurrell, who worked for MGM in the 1930s; and Robert Coburn at RKO in the 1930s/40s, along with a host of other names. Like me, you might not be familiar with them, but you’ll recognise their photos. These are the iconic images of the stars – Cary Grant, Humphrey Bogart, Audrey Hepburn, Ingrid Bergman, Marlene Dietrich, Marlon Brando…
But the rather touching thing about the exhibition is that, as it begins in the 1920s, it also records some of the stars who have nowadays been almost forgotten. Among the photos of Buster Keaton, Charlie Chaplin and Laurel and Hardy, I found shimmering portraits of actresses – Anna May Wong, or Evelyn Brent – whose names I’ve never heard before. Mary Astor, Mary Pickford and Lillian Gish, all of whom appear in particularly gorgeous portraits, have been a little more fortunate in that their names still ring a bell; and Louise Brook’s portrait by Eugene Robert Richee (1929) is now more famous than the actress herself. Her black gown and black bob blend into a pitch-black background, with only her face, hands and long string of pearls catching the light: a classic image of jazz-age style.
You have to feel sorry for John Gilbert, a mustachioed leading man in the Clark Gable mould, who’s represented here in a still from Flesh and the Devil (1926) with Greta Garbo. Gilbert was one of the biggest stars in the silent era, but when the studios began to move into ‘talkies’, his voice was judged too squeaky and high-pitched, and he was ditched. Fame is a slippery slope.
As you move on through time, the faces become more familiar: Gary Cooper, with a cigarette drooping from the corner of his mouth, gazing off into the middle distance; Cary Grant, eyebrow characteristically quirked, looking remarkably like George Clooney; Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers captured in the middle of a routine for Swing Time (1936); Humphrey Bogart looking comparatively gritty and worn in a still from High Sierra (1940); and that portrait of Rita Hayworth from Gilda (1946). It makes you itch to settle down on a wet Sunday afternoon, wrap yourself in a blanket and lose yourself in these old films, as an escape from modern Hollywood.
The exhibition is a great opportunity to see this marvellous collection of prints assembled together. If the rooms are too crowded on the day you visit, you can take solace from the fact that the catalogue is a fantastic record. As photographic prints, the experience of looking at the images in the catalogue isn’t drastically different from seeing them on the wall (to us non-specialists, as least), and what’s more, the catalogue contains a vast number of photos which aren’t in the exhibition. All are printed as full plates and there are opening essays on the various aspects of Hollywood studio photography.
Here’s looking at you, kid.