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Monday, April 08, 2019

Great Performing For The Stills Department

Should They Have Given Academy Awards For Posing?

How to test an actor’s skill and truest commitment: watch them in stills. There is unexplored territory, for how many stills do we see, even for films we profess to adore? Hundreds were taken for every major title. Gone With The Wind piled up over a thousand. Stills were used for publicity of all sort: newspapers, magazines, store windows, tie-ins … every reference made to the product outside studio walls. Players and crew would devote days just to posing, each of captures lit with care toward eventual use by publishers, or showmen sliding photos into lobby frames. Stills were seen far in advance of films they promoted. What ran on screens was for many anti-climactic, for hadn’t they seen “the story in pictures” as told by popular publications? I collected stills for many years, still do if something interesting comes up. Never was there completion on any title. Acquire a hundred images from Captain Blood and you’re still not a fraction of the way there, and what if all of “scene” stills are gathered? There are yet candids, on-set sits, portraits … no limit to possibilities. I doubt anyone at Warners in 1935 could tell us how many stills were taken for Captain Blood. Publicity was a job more exhausting for actors than films they performed in.

Ethel Barrymore and Legit Cast Pose For a 1901 Still
Two back-lit frames sit beside my work station at Greenbriar HQ. One holds a lobby card, the other an 8X10 still. Sometimes I stare at them while figuring what to write next. Recently I pondered the glossy pose of John Garfield with Roy Roberts in Force Of Evil (below) and asked myself: Are they not “acting” here as surely as before the moving picture camera? Stills were often made shortly after a scene was completed, players asked to stay behind so staff photographers can memorialize the drama just enacted. All this was necessary to selling down the line, for films were a commodity; players had to understand that and cooperate with the process. Garfield and Roberts were experienced enough to know what was expected of them. They'd not sit rigid or tableau-like as stage casts often did in earlier days when photos were taken for a play in preparation. Movie stills had to reflect drama we would enjoy for a paid admission, that meaning actors must act same as when speaking or in motion. There was art to still posing, and it had to be learned same as emoting otherwise. Stars crabbed at what some called extra duty, though wiser heads knew it was stills effectively published or displayed that got their public past a boxoffice and into seats. This was a reality of the business that brooked no argument.

Ponder this Force Of Evil shot through eyes of those for whom it was unknown quantity in 1948. Garfield and Roberts represent their characters nicely here. Nothing is overstated. We might reach any number of conclusions for not having seen Force Of Evil, but chances are this pose will make us seek it out if that’s the case. Stills were made to rouse curiosity and close distance between a magazine page and the Bijou’s ticket window. After that practical fact, they become most precious souvenirs of having seen a film. It is for that reason I prefer them over other sorts of memorabilia. Garfield and Roberts here speak a volume to content of Force Of Evil. It is a hotel room, breakfast or at least coffee has been brought up. Poker chips on the table indicate a game the night before, or maybe one to come. The actors regard each other, both “in character.” Garfield wears a Phi Beta Kappa key on his vest, certainly a key to the man he portrays. Roberts remains seated but is still a threat. I’m resisting an impulse to stop writing now and go downstairs to watch Force Of Evil again.

I could random-pick stills and never come up for air. They represent a deepest rabbit hole there is. I’ll generally pull the file after I watch something. Last night it was The Lady Eve. Above are two stills, both reflecting situations in the narrative. Barbara Stanwyck looking warily at Charles Coburn, him the same to her. This was no frame capture or in-action shot made while cameras turned. Stanwyck and Coburn had to stick around after, or come in special and pose, their doing so essential to exploitation. The other shot intrigues: What are Eric Blore, Eugene Pallette, Stanwyck, Janet Beecher, and others, looking at? We know for having seen The Lady Eve many times, but readers in 1941 had to wonder, then come and find out for themselves. Henry Fonda having taken another spectacular pratfall, each react in respective pro actor way, though I doubt Fonda laid back down on the floor covered in foodstuff just to assist their performances. In any case, our curiosity is properly piqued.

Here is Rudy, putting over attitude for the still photographer. Some came by expertise by repeated effort and dogged application, others like Valentino got the trick by pure instinct. He had what the best fashion models displayed, but also a feel for conveying conflict. Rather than point an accusing finger at Vilma Banky, as here, he could as easily crook a same digit outward and bid us enter his torrid tent scene. What made this sheik a sensation? I’d propose a genius for standing still equal at least to his action aptitude.

All hail Norma Shearer. She is a most magnetic of 30’s actresses, at least for me. And I said actress. No one did gestures, up-and-down voicing, that laugh, many, many lines in the precodes where she spoofed Victorian attitudes her characters would dispatch. Norma’s histrionics could as often be her spoofing histrionics, but when she got serious, other players best back off and give her the moment. Norma too was fabulous with the stills, hers a “flawed” beauty, as if there could ever be true consensus as to what is beautiful. Think of people who are more aroused by “cute” than “beautiful,” and those who are actually turned off by convention’s idea of beauty. Shearer is here on behalf of Strange Interlude, that wild growth of unspoke thoughts conveyed only to us in the audience, plus inherited insanity, which movies won’t touch anymore, and Norma as a woman every man in the cast wants. Look at her with Ralph Morgan, him the mama’s boy desperate to have her, but never will, Norma looking straight on with knowledge of just that. Theirs is a thinking posture to tell a chapter of the story for a potential audience who will see this image in a newspaper or magazine. Does it call for acting as dedicated as that applied to the film? Certainly it does.

Then there is Clark Gable in what looks an awkward pose with a child player (Tad Alexander). They’re not connecting, us to infer that Gable, as “Ned Darrell,” has given the boy a present he does not want. The two must play this “scene” without moving, but convey the drama that Strange Interlude will further flesh out. Did Gable and Tad discuss, if briefly, what pose they will strike to properly reflect the dramatic situation in play? Sitting for stills, outside of portraits or straight glamour stuff, must have been tiring for actors, for they could not be casual about the job, not if they wanted to do it right.

Norma again, dragged up a flight of stairs by May Robson. Why? The terrified apprehension on Norma’s face --- what for? Come see Strange Interlude to find out. We know what May knows and will now show to Norma … a family member gone starkers and kept upstairs, the family secret and disgrace. Never doubt there was artistry in still work, on the part of players in addition to master photographers kept on staff during the Classic Era.

So how’s for a Joker in the deck, and it would be John Barrymore. Here he’s tricked out in what looks like a Cossack hat for Hold That Co-Ed, a fluff he need not have given best effort toward, so why put down a lit and refreshing smoke just to face a camera with Marjorie Weaver and George Murphy? Who’s to chastise the Great Profile, already slumming enough just to be here? And yet note, where it was a part he respected, with a partner he admired, Barrymore could rise to the occasion and apply his gifts to a most effective capture, as here in Grand Hotel with Garbo. JB was not for spending his acorns too glibly.


Blogger Reg Hartt said...

I have always thought Barrymore's refusal to memorize screen dialogue to be the only intelligent course in movie acting. Words that are only going to be said once need not nor should not be committed to our memory banks. Save that space for what really matters.

Marlon Brando followed his lead.

More should.

7:20 AM  
Blogger Tommie Hicks said...

"Hold it for a still!"
I find the Laurel & Hardy Fox films sub par. Yet those films produced some great L&H stills.

Most stills were shot with 8x10" negatives (I have some Vitagraphs that are 5x7") and then contact printed en masse. The clarity of some of these stills are amazing to me to this day.

9:24 AM  
Blogger iarla said...

I used to work in Jerry Ohlingers famous store in Manhattan. I collected thousands of stills, still have them. It was fun to work there, downstairs, there is a crypt of thousands of stills in files on rows of shelves, for everyone you could dream of. I found many rare stills.

8:32 PM  
Blogger RichardSchilling said...

This is such an evocative, and yet revisionist post. After reading this appreciation how could anyone now just flip through even the most basic book about Hollywood without paying closer attention to the stills? Without a doubt they contributed to making the "Golden Age of Hollywood" so golden.

Jerry Ohlinger's was such a terrific store; the staff was always friendly and knowledgeable! My memorable purchases included stunning stills of Gene Tierney, Ingrid Bergman and Judy Garland. Now, years later, I wish I bought so much more!

However one of my earliest purchases was of Bette Davis and Miriam Hopkins toasting each other in Old Acquaintance. When I finally saw that scene in the movie, it actually did not live up to the still itself! However in that image, the talents and star power of Miriam Hopkins and (especially) Bette Davis still shine brightly.

2:05 AM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

I went to Jerry's store several times. A tiny place ... you could barely squeeze through the door and up to the counter, but what an inventory! Jerry even sold 16mm film at one point, during the 70's as I recall, trailers and such, mostly for sci-fi and horror films.

7:01 AM  
Blogger John McElwee said...


I loved your column/musing on stills. My favorite still (of my collection) is from The Road to Hong Kong. If you look at any cast listing for that film, some list Zsa Zsa Gabor. Despite several viewings, I have never been able to spot her. Finally, I was able to obtain still showing her cameo-from the costumes and set, my guess is that it was right before the scene with Peter Sellers.

Joe from Virginia Beach

10:09 AM  
Blogger DBenson said...

An odd subset: There were lobby cards for "Snow White" and "Gulliver's Travels" that showed not actual animation art (cels on backgrounds) but an artist's rendering based on a scene from the film. Here and there you find one off-model; the UK version of Snow White discovering the dwarfs bedroom makes her a bit thinner and older.

I get the impression that approach quickly ended, with stills showing actual frames. Perhaps because moviegoers knew what a cartoon looked like compared to an illustration?

9:20 PM  
Blogger Reg Hartt said...

What we think of acting for the screen is really posing for individual shots that will be spliced together to make a movie. Posing for still photographs is the same as posing for moving ones.

7:55 PM  
Blogger KING OF JAZZ said...

My submitted post might have gone awry, so just want to say again this was an excellent article.

10:35 PM  

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