George Hurrell: Hooray!
In 1974, songwriters Peter Allen and Carole Bayer Sager penned "Everything Old Is New Again," putting to melody the long-standing idiom and succinctly expressing a longing for glamorous Hollywood and days gone by. "Let's go backwards when forward fails," the song memorably stated, and that sentiment was somewhat echoed at this year's Academy Awards, which featured impressive dance routines from a few modern stars whenever host Seth MacFarlane wasn't slicing the heels off sophistication with tired dude humor. (Here's hoping all serious actresses boycott "boob" shots in their films for the next 10 years in protest.)
Lasciviousness has always been a part of the human animal, of course; it's just that we used to pretend it didn't exist, and we certainly didn't celebrate it as a model of behavior to which we aspire. Temptresses such as Joan Crawford slept around—with both men and women—and spritely pagan Jean Harlow often answered knocks to her door in the nude, giving brass handles a whole new dimension. When it came to public perception, however, and certainly to images that would be used to promote careers and entice adoration from fans, movie stars of yesteryear knew better than to go lowbrow.
Enter George Hurrell, the now-legendary Hollywood portrait photographer, a Midwest-born artist who rambled into Laguna Beach in the 1920s and soon channeled his talent with the paintbrush into painting with light on celluloid. Known as the man who made beautiful people even more beautiful, and whom the obsessive Crawford trusted implicitly, Hurrell's images are not just iconic, but also stand the test of time: There is nothing "old" about Hurrell's work, and any "new" photographer would do well to study it.
The Laguna Art Museum's "George Hurrell: Laguna to Hollywood" is a good place to start for those who aspire to Kodachromatic greatness (particularly in portraiture), as well as anyone who longs for the days when movie stars kept their private lives private and gave us what we really wanted—fantasy.
Hurrell was a product of his time and knew that turning a pretty puss or handsome heartthrob into an ethereal deity was what the public and studio demanded, but he also had an instinct about light and how to sculpt a face with shadow. All of the images in the exhibition reflect this extraordinary talent, with a few iconic renderings making his reputation as "the Rembrandt of photography" seem an understatement.
The moniker feels most apropos in the images of original platinum blond Jean Harlow, the free-spirited towhead who even bleached her nether regions in order to maintain the title. Harlow had luminous skin, according to those who knew her, but her features were rather angular and hard, and her eyes deeply set. Using an easily maneuverable "boom" light (similar to a boom microphone), Hurrell created shadows under her eyes to draw them out and used darkness to design her face instead of flooding it with light, most exquisitely rendered in a close-up reclining shot of Harlow in which she is positively translucent. Hurrell also knew better than to take all of the credit, remarking on the young starlet, "She reacted to [the camera], and in some strange way, I was a third party—they were conspirators."
Other visions of the sublime come from Crawford—whose face Hurrell proclaimed "the closest to perfection, like Garbo," even though, he allows, "her eyes were a little big"—and from the "dazzling, quick-witted" Carole Lombard just three years before her tragic death. These asides from Hurrell are where lovers of movie legends will find an added dimension to the striking eye candy, for many of the title cards include Hurrell's impressions on his sitting (and smoldering) subjects. Dietrich, for example, seen in a stunning recline, "posed exactly as she wanted" and told Hurrell when to shoot as she critiqued herself in a full-length mirror placed behind the camera. Bette Davis had "a special kind of beauty in her face," he says, and lovely Rita Hayworth was "gorgeous, but [there] was nothing else there." Katherine Hepburn proved "a vibrant and take-charge lady," and the king of the movies (as anointed by a national poll) Clark Gable was, in Hurrell's estimation, "the most charming man I have ever known."
These are the inside views that fans of long-departed legends long for—not the scandals, but a momentary peek behind the glorious façade by someone who saw them at their most authentic and vulnerable. The other truths, the flaws and the salacious behavior, were always hidden by glamour and sophistication—and the movies and their fans were the better for it. "Let's go backwards when forward fails," indeed.
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