Book Review: Hollywood Movie Stills

On the first page of his book, Hollywood Movie Stills: Art and Technique in the Golden Age of the Studios, author Joel Finler says, “They (movie stills taken by studio photographers) are of historical interest as part of the extensive visual record documenting the styles and fashions of the times, the streets, houses and automobiles, the restaurants, nightclubs and cinemas in that tinsel town in sunny California, which claims the title of ‘movie capital of the world.'”

I’ve said it many times, probably to the point of exhaustion for anyone who reads my blog regularly, that one of the main reasons I love old movies is that I am fascinated by real life photos, videos, or depictions of what life was like back in the first half of the twentieth century.

It just happens to be the time period in history I most like to study, so given Joel’s description it was not surprising that his book was right up my alley and one I really enjoyed reading and viewing.

I knew a little bit about movie stills before I read this book, but I didn’t realize just how important of a role they played when movies were being made during the Golden Age of Hollywood and that they still hold much value today several decades later.

Throughout the book, the author did a very thorough job of exploring the many ways still photography was used back then to promote movies and movie stars as well as explaining the different types of photographers that were employed in the process. He supplements in-depth and interesting textual information with many wonderful pictures to illustrate each use. Here are just a few of those uses that are covered more extensively in the book:

  • Still photographs were often used to launch and develop the careers of new movie stars.
  • Behind the scenes photo shoots were used to capture the personalities of the stars. Potential locations or events for these types of photos included the stars’ homes, restaurants, night clubs, weddings, movie premieres, and award ceremonies.
  • Stills were sometimes used to publicize movies before they were even complete, which resulted in the release of some stills that showed scenes which did not end up in the movie. So if you see a photo from a movie you’re familiar with and you say, “Hey, that scene was never in that movie,” now you know why. :-)
  • Movie poster designers frequently used stills as a prime source of inspiration and material for movie posters.
  • “Poster photos”┬áincluding “leg art,” pin-ups, or cheesecake photos were often used in fan magazines, usually to publicize the studios’ attractive female stars. I thought it was interesting to note that some stars, most notably Greta Garbo, refused to pose for these types of photos.

It was also interesting to discover that some stars enjoyed getting their photos taken and were very cooperative and other stars disliked it, some quite immensely. Actors Spencer Tracy, James Cagney, and Humphrey Bogart and actresses Bette Davis and Irene Dunne are just a few examples of those who were known to dislike posing for stills and could often be difficult subjects for portrait photographers. Joan Crawford, Katherine Hepburn, and Greta Garbo are a few of the actresses who actually enjoyed the process and developed special relationships with photographers over the years.

Hollywood Movie Stills is a book that is sure to please both those who like to read about the history of movies from the Golden Age of Hollywood and those who like me, enjoy a more visual representation of movies and stars from that time period. The book can be purchased through Amazon or the Titan Books website.

Disclosure: I would like to thank Tom from Titan Books for sending me a copy and giving me the opportunity to review this great book.

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  1. John says:

    Nice book. I love old movie photo and poster books. There are plenty of those type of books out there on Old Hollywood. You just have to look. Many photo books by John Kobal, Mark A. Vieira, and Bruce Hershenson just to name a few. The B/W photos are better than color photos to me.

    There also them great “Films Of” books by Citadel Press and Crown publishing that include many classic actors and actresses.

  2. R.A. Kerr says:

    This looks like a fabulous book! I think I need to add this to my wee personal library.