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Published: Wednesday, 10/10/2012

Old Hollywood is the star of new museum show

BY TAHREE LANE
BLADE STAFF WRITER
Clark Gable and Joan Crawford for 'Dancing Lady' MGM 1933 Clark Gable and Joan Crawford for 'Dancing Lady' MGM 1933
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 The alluring mystery of the stars of the Silver Screen was nurtured by studios that strictly controlled information about the stars' private lives (no Lindsay Lohans here). It was fabricated in large part by studio photographers.

The work of many of these largely forgotten photographers can be seen at Made in Hollywood: Photographs from the John Kobal Foundation, through Jan. 20, at the Toledo Museum of Art.

It's a fun, pop culture experience: Enter via an old movie turnstile, under a bare-light bulb HOLLYWOOD sign. Doorways to the three galleries (emptied of the usual contemporary collection that will be reinstalled next year), were given a snazzy art-deco treatment. There's an engaging seven-minute video (Telephone) and iPads in each room for viewing film clips and composing close-up photographs from the exhibit.

The 93 photographs are mostly black-and-white silver prints, 11-by-14-inches, taken between 1920 and 1961 by more than 30 talented studio photographers. Atmospheric images, mailed to legions of fans and blown up into promotional posters, helped launch young beauties and gents to stardom and keep them there for decades. Magic was conjured with lighting and angles. Freckles and wrinkles were brushed out in the dark room, complexions were toned.

Toledo's the final venue for Made in Hollywood. It's traveled to museums in five locales, including Australia this year, and London in 2011, where 87,500 saw it at the National Portrait Gallery.

If you go:

Made in Hollywood

Through Jan. 20 at the Toledo Museum of Art.

Admission: $8 for ages 23 through 64; $5 for others; no charge for children under 5; free for members. A combination ticket to this and the Manet: Portraying Life show, is $12.

Free admission Oct. 27 for visitors who dress as a Hollywood star.

Information: 419-255-800 and toledomuseum.org.

Many of these photos were taken at MGM studios, about which one photographer noted that MGM's aim "was to make [the stars] more glamorous, more remote, not so accessible." John Kobal, photograph and film-collector extraordinaire, had cultivated people there and had ready access to its studios.

"John Kobal was very interested in the photographers and befriended them and wrote down their stories. He also got to know these aging actresses," said Karen Sinsheimer, who put the exhibit together for the Santa Barbara Museum of Art in California in 2008.

Kobal, she said, accumulated his material (even personal scrapbooks) every which way. He was not beneath pursuing tips from friends about which garbage dispenser in the back of a studio lot had just been filled with thousands of old photos. MGM later sued him for his dumpster diving but lost.

There is a mix of commercial publicity shots that would have been sent out by the thousands to adoring fans and magazines, carefully constructed portraits that would have been a gift to the actor and director, and scenes from movies.

Glamorous images

Loretta Young said of studio photographers: "We all thought we were gorgeous because by the time they finished with us we were gorgeous."

And drop-dead gorgeous they are. A dreamy-eyed Katharine Hepburn. Clark Gable about to kiss Lana Turner in a still from 1942's Honky Tonk.

There's a terrific cluster of images by George Hurrell, who told his subjects to show up with what they wanted to be photographed in and he'd take care of the rest. Using intense lighting and all kinds of angles, Hurrell sometimes made their hair into a dramatic feature as seen in portraits of Jean Harlow, Veronica Lake, Joan Crawford, and Marlene Dietrich,

There's the joyous image of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, tap dancing with arms raised in Swing Time (1936). James Dean, 24, stretching out his arms, a switchblade in one hand, as he portrays a troubled teen in Rebel Without a Cause (1955). He was killed in a car crash later that year. Johnny Weissmuller stands on a swing, wearing a scant loincloth that shows his amazing physique, in Tarzan, The Ape Man (1933).

A telling detail about the homogeneity of the time is that only one image of an African-American is included: the beautiful Nina May McKenny, who was 17 when she starred in the 1929 musical Hallelujah. The sole Asian is Anna Mae Wong, who starred in many silent and talking films.

A handful of color photos pull the eye like taffy: among them, a birthday-suited nude Marilyn Monroe, 23, languid on red draping. And an astonishingly beautiful 16-year-old Elizabeth Taylor in a demure pose that proclaims she's finished with kid films and ready for romance. She'd certainly made that transition by the time of a sultry swimsuit shoot when she was 27 (Suddenly Last Summer, 1959).

Enchanted by movies

The photos were selected by Sinsheimer and a few others, from the vast John Kobal Foundation archives in London.

Born in 1940 in Austria, Kobal's father was an electrician for the Canadian Forces after World War II and grabbed the chance to immigrate to Canada in 1948. As a boy, Kobal was enchanted by movies and stars, especially the goddesses. At 18, hearing that Marlene Dietrich would appear in Toronto, he made his way the 200 miles from his home in Ottawa, and posed as a journalist, speaking German to get her attention. He wiggled in to her after-show party and before the evening was out, she sang Falling In Love Again in German for him, and took him back to her hotel suite where he slept on the couch.

He went on to ingratiate himself to scores of other luminaries: Mae West, Tallulah Bankhead, Carole Lombard, as well as their photographers, and he came to realize what a vital role they'd played in creating stars.

In London, Kobal began lending his photos to people writing books or articles on film, and eventually charged a small deposit for his loans. The collection grew to be a public-access archive and Kobal's source of income. He also wrote and edited 30 books about stars, specific eras, and films, before his death in 1991.

"Film," Kobal said, "is the only thing of any creative worth that this century has produced. If not, it is still providing the most fun."

A companion book to the show is the hefty 288-page Glamour of the Gods ($45 softcover; $65 hardcover), with 200 images. The cover shows a troubled, open-shirted Rock Hudson, shot during Lover Come Back (1961). Hudson was often a leading man to glamour pusses, and his handlers worked hard to conceal his homosexuality which was well-known in Hollywood. In retrospect, his countenance in the photo takes on particular poignance, said Sinsheimer.

Contact Tahree Lane at: tlane@theblade.com or 419-724-6075.



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