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Fresh from its’ extensive USA tour, Glamour of the Gods: Hollywood Portraits, an event sure to delight vintage movie fans from around the globe, enlivens an otherwise, decidedly drab wing of the National Portrait Gallery, just down from Trafalgar Square. This is the first exhibition of such Kobal Prints in a UK museum, ever, and as such, a time to re-evaluate our stance on celebrity culture, and, for those of us who remember the show’s icons, even second hand, how much of what we perceive as ‘glamour’ stemmed from the stars these influential photographers’ images effectively created.
Were it not for the collecting of Austrian born, UK based John Kobal (1940 – 1991) our world would, surely, be devoid of many of the iconic, historically important images from Hollywood’s golden age we take for granted today, as they were then, essentially considered past their sell by date and therefore, passé. In the course of his ardent collecting, Kobal began to link negatives and images with the photographers responsible for them, many of whom were then still contactable, effectively, reuniting artist with artwork, preserving their iconic photos for posterity in the process.
Heaviest on portraits of ‘Queen Bee’ Joan Crawford in its ‘20’s and ‘30’s something rooms, this grouping of seventy portraits from the definitive Kobal Collection, features publicity stills of mostly gone or faded, nonetheless, seminal stars whose heydays occurred circa ‘20’s to ‘50’s, among them Crawford’s eight time co-star/on again off again, real life lover Clark Gable, Rita Hayworth in her satin gowned Gilda days, and sassy ‘Baby’ Jean Hawlow, aglow in white feathers and platinum curls.
Before such icons were ‘20’s ‘It Girls’ Clara Bow and Louise Brooks, and Hollywood’s earliest queens - wistful but knowing D.W. Griffith darling Lillian Gish (1893 – 1993) shown here in bat-sleeved, lace dressing gown, courtesy of James Albe (1920), and ‘America’s Sweetheart’, (in reality, Canadian) Mary Pickford (1892 – 1979) as captured by Baron Adolph de Meyer (1920), looking coy but serene in her satin and chiffon wedding dress on the day of her marriage to ill-fated swashbuckler/fellow United Artists founder (with Charlie Chaplin) Douglas Fairbanks. Fashion is nearly as essential to the success of these images as the stars themselves, exemplified by Miss Brooks’ pose with pearls, in which only her long white necklace and rice powdered face are visible against photographer Clarence Sinclair Bull’s black background.
One of the raciest photos, of essentially nude (apart from some strategically placed ribbon) screwball comedy star Carole Lombard, the great love of Clark Gable’s life by freelance photographer William Thomas (1929), belies the era before cinematic censorship was imposed a year later, though it was not fully enforced until 1934. Lon Chaney, aka ‘man of a thousand faces’ is represented here by an evocative photo by Bull, one of the exhibition’s heaviest contributors, then head of MGM’s stills department who, over the course of four years, photographed some ’10,000 subjects,’ among which were 4,000 photos of silent screen queen Greta Garbo.
High points in this exhibition are unexpected and, fascinating – a wall sized enlargement of lone female Hollywood photographer - Ruth Harriet Louise photographing the indomitable Ms. Crawford by Bull, and a case full of photos, some of them snapshot size, of all but forgotten female stars like Ida Lupino, exhibiting bags of character for the cameras of their respective photographers.
Personality – wise, there are glaring absences in this exhibition though, most notably perhaps, ‘Mother God-Damn’/Crawford rival, Bette Davis. But Glamour of the Gods, like Kobal’s collection, is about the photographers who took these iconic images, rather than the stars themselves; it does a good job of showing us the handiwork of Crawford’s favourite artist Greg Hurrell in a classic, over the shoulder, sleek haired pose of the star in a black and white evening gown in the 1930’s room.
Strolling among reminders of the now vanished worlds these stars inhabited in Tinsel-town, one feels a pang, especially if one is a particular fan of the icon being faced, due to the merciless passage of time and all too often, fleeting nature of fame, which tends to fade with beauty, especially in relation to female icons. Knowing Vivien Leigh’s history of illness and premature death as I do, for example, I was somewhat saddened to see her radiant image as a down, but definitely not out, post - Civil War Scarlett O’Hara in the MGM/David O’ Selznick epic Gone with the Wind (1939) as photographed by Fred A. Parrish during that historic filming. That said, there are no signs of aging in stars of either gender here, apart from a couple of photos of Crawford in a case, depicting her as she really was, with freckles and fine forehead lines aside another image of the air-brushed ‘star’, sans imperfections of any kind, thanks to the dramatically effective retouching methods of the day.
Striking too is the raw masculinity inherent to Leo Fuch’s portrait of Rock Hudson (1955), which could easily have been seen as an illustration of pensive manliness, as his subject appears to be lost in deep thought. Hudson’s younger Giant counterpart, James Dean reaches out in his portrait by Floyd McCarthy (1955), and though the shot is staged, his acting ability is apparent via the depth of emotion on his face. By the ‘50’s realism had definitely entered the pictures, both motion and stills.
Few women on this planet could have matched Elizabeth Taylor’s beauty, first captured for gallery goers in Bull’s colour profile of the sixteen year old actress (1948), meant as a ‘coming of age’ portrait. Two rooms later, Ken Danvers offers us a much more sultry and knowing Taylor, circa 1959 seated on a beach in white swimsuit between shootings of Suddenly Last Summer, hair blowing in the breeze as she looks at the camera, sans smile. We are also at times, also privy to changes in a star’s status and if the photographer is skilled enough, their outlook too, as we progress along the exhibition’s timeline.
Other stars represented in this exhibition, but not otherwise mentioned here include: Fred Astaire, Ginger Rogers, Greta Garbo, John Gilbert, Buster Keaton, Charlie Chaplin, Gary Cooper, Marlene Deitrich, Humphrey Bogart, Katherine Hepburn, Lana Turner, John Garfield, Ava Gardner, Hedy Lamarr, Marilyn Monroe, Johnny Weissmuller, Cary Grant, Robert Taylor, Grace Kelly, Audrey Hepburn, and a myriad of other iconic figures from Hollywood’s bygone golden days…
Gone, but not forgotten, immortalised through the magic and artistry of Hollywood photographers.
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