I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, I love movie stills. I can’t get enough of them, and if you feel the same way I hope you’ll enjoy this random assortment of rarities from the Golden Age of Hollywood.
Exhibitors knew all about ballyhoo in the silent-film era: a sidewalk giveaway helped promote this theater’s showing of The Big Parade(1925). It’s amazing how many promotional gimmicks were conceived way back when, from souvenir coins to trolley tickets. The Stillman was a prominent movie house in Cleveland but this engagement of the King Vidor epic was the first time it was being offered “at popular prices,” a phrase I never understood when I was a kid. Incidentally, the soldier in WW1 garb is just there for show: those souvenir mirrors were for ladies only.
In April of 1934 the Motion Picture Theatre Owners of America converged on the Warner Bros. studio lot in Burbank and posed for this fabulous shot. Easily identifiable are George Brent, Philip Reed (kneeling), Lyle Talbot, Phil Regan, Dick Powell, Ruby Keeler, Ricardo Cortez, Dolores Del Rio (in costume for Madame Du Barry), Kay Francis, Verree Teasdale (also in Du Barry), Jean Muir, and off to the right paying no attention to the camera, Mary Astor and Paul Muni. A clean-shaven Jack L. Warner is kneeling in front of Powell and Del Rio.
Moviegoers of the 1930s didn’t often get a chance to go behind the scenes of filmmaking the way we do today. This scene from Walter Wanger’s 1937 production Stand-In shows Humphrey Bogart and Marla Shelton examining a scene on a Movieola, which has a separate speaker for sound. The bin of 35mm film would have been a standard sight in any editing room. It’s too bad the movie itself didn’t turn out better. Shelton was producer Wanger’s “discovery” but her career never really took off.
Mary Pickford pretends to photograph Helen Morgan and Chester Morris on the set of the New York-based independent production Frankie and Johnnie (1936). The presence of America’s Sweetheart didn’t bring luck to this mediocre film, which sat on the shelf for ages before getting a desultory release. Perhaps it would have fared better if they’d found a role for Miss Pickford. By the time the movie opened, costar Lilyan Tashman had been dead for two years!
Even lookalikes had their moment in the sun every now and then. The 1940 Warner Bros. short Double or Nothing featured “The Hollywood Doubles,” including these doppelgangers for ZaSu Pitts and Joe E. Brown. The idea wasn’t original: it’s also a plot point in the 1937 feature It Happened in Hollywood with Richard Dix, which features doubles for everyone from Harold Lloyd to Greta Garbo.
No one sat on the cusp of stardom longer than Lucille Ball. She had several shots at the brass ring, at RKO in the late 1930s and MGM in the 1940s. It would take television to realize her potential and endear her to generations of fans. Here she is during her glamor-girl phase at MGM, using a slant-board to avoid creasing her gown between scenes of Easy to Wed (1946), in which she costarred with Esther Williams, Van Johnson and Keenan Wynn.
Frank Sinatra looks positively incandescent on the set of his Oscar-winning short The House I Live In (1945), seated between director Mervyn LeRoy and producer Frank Ross. I remember this film being shown in my elementary school, where its plea for tolerance was mitigated somewhat by Sinatra’s reference to Japs. (It was made during wartime, after all…) I still love the title song by Earl Robinson and Lewis Allan…and I get a kick out of seeing the special Academy Award that was presented to the star for his work on this film. It resides in a display case outside the auditorium where I teach at USC: Frank Sinatra Hall.