I bought my first vintage 8×10 photo at a used bookstore in Hackensack, New Jersey when I was 13 years old. It cost 25 cents, which was just what I could afford. I’ve continued buying stills ever since, carefully filing and cross-referencing them as only a compulsive person would. Why? Because I love looking at them, noticing details in the background, admiring the often-anonymous photographers who shot them. I thought I’d start sharing some of my favorites with you.
Wouldn’t you love to have been a fly on the wall at this 1930s party? W.C. Fields looks to be in fine fettle and good humor—and look at the laughter on the faces of his companions, Herbert Marshall and Leslie Howard. Also take note of how well they’re all dressed. Fields (drink in hand) is even sporting a boutonniere. This is an original still, not a recent copy, but it bears no caption or identification of an kind, sorry to say. [Fields biographer James Curtis tells me it was taken at a Masquers Club tribute to the Great Man on February 16, 1939 at the organization’s Sycamore Street clubhouse in Hollywood.]
I just had the pleasure of introducing a showing of Wings at the United Artists Theatre on Broadway in Los Angeles, which has been restored by Ace Hotel. The Moorish design of the interior was inspired by a visit to Spain by UA cofounder Mary Pickford, who posed for this promotional shot when the movie palace was about to open in 1927—along with a 12-story office building. Today Ace Hotel has transformed that building into a historic hotel and its auditorium into a performing arts center.
Movie stars routinely posed for magazine ads and tie-ins in the studio era. Here, square-jawed Jack Holt, the inspiration for Chester Gould’s comic-strip detective Dick Tracy, extols the benefits of a radio-phonograph console. He may be best remembered today as the father of Tim Holt, who alternated between B westerns and such major films as Stagecoach, The Magnificent Ambersons, and The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (in which Jack makes a brief appearance).
Technology rears its head in this publicity shot of Paul Muni, who is using a Dictaphone to help him memorize his lines for The Story of Louis Pasteur, which bore the working title Enemy of Man. It must have been effective, because the performance earned him an Academy Award as Best Actor. In recent years, my friend Robert Bader has transcribed Bing Crosby’s Dictaphone recordings, which yielded fascinating insights for the PBS American Masters special Bing Crosby Rediscovered.
I especially like this shot of Dennis Morgan and his family because I walk on this very street between sound stages every time I attend a press screening at Warner Bros. studio in Burbank. It looks almost exactly the same, except the cars are more modern today.
Here is the great Mel Blanc, performing for his son Noel on one of those Warners sound stages. It’s difficult to see detail in the background, but there are chairs and music stands for musicians in the studio orchestra. Animation voice expert Keith Scott recently told me that Blanc and the other voice actors worked on a giant stage and not within the confines of a tiny recording booth. I can’t help but think this inspired Mel to “fill the room” with his readings as Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, et al.
I’ll have more goodies for you soon.