December 3, 2011

The Vocabulary of Glamour

John Kobal

Hollywood glamour photography has for some time now occupied a significant place in the world of art. Film Star portraits are routinely exhibited in chic galleries and museums around the world. I however remember a time when these images of Garbo, Harlow and Dietrich were not so highly regarded, especially way back in 1969. It was my good fortune to know on personal terms three of the most famous of the MGM photographers of Hollywood’s golden age: George Hurrell, Laszlo Willinger and Ted Allan.
The man responsible for these introductions is the late author and collector John Kobal. The Kobal Collection is still a going concern in the world of photography and awards are given in his name to the next generation of would be Hurrell’s and Willinger’s every year in London.
I started thinking about John the other day, not to mention these amazing gentlemen who benefited so much from his friendship, when I was writing about MYRA BRECKINRIDGE of all things… because George Hurrell was the unit photographer on that film. It was also where then-novice reporter John Kobal first met the man he would within ten years elevate back to his rightful place as the foremost photographer of Hollywood glamour portraits.
In 1969, Hurrell was not the man Hollywood once referred to as “the Rembrandt of photographers.” He was a 65 year old has been, his once brilliant career a faded memory.
It was an obsession of John’s that these photographs were iconic, transcending their purpose of studio publicity to become works of art. John was an avid collector of stills and negatives, making it his mission in life to tell the world about the genius behind the camera lens over at MGM’s portrait gallery when Norma Shearer was queen of the lot and Joan Crawford’s body heat wilted gardenias during photo shoots.
Through hard work and several exhibitions in New York, London and Paris, the public began to refer to movie stills as “Images” and George Hurrell became simply “Hurrell.” The climax of all this idolatry came in the form of an auction, when a small 1929 photo of Ramon Navarro would fetch a staggering $90,000, the highest price ever paid for the work of a living photographer at that time. Experts today regard that image known as “The new Orpheus” as a “masterpiece”.
Both Willinger and Ted Allan had followed Hurrell at MGM….. Allan replaced Hurrell in 1933 after photos from TARZAN AND HIS MATE, especially those of his mate, Jane (Maureen O’Sullivan) were seen by the Tarzan producer. Ted was also an actor and appeared in many films during the late thirties and forties. Ted Allan’s Studio was infamous for giving Ed Wood his magnum opus with Bela Lugosi BRIDE OF THE MONSTER, which Tim Burton immortalized in ED WOOD. It was Frank Sinatra who placed Ted in the limelight for all time. Frank made Ted his personal photographer, and Ted went on all of “Old Blue Eyes’” films. By then Frank had given Ted his own “Rat Pack” nickname of ‘Farley Focus.’ Ted Allan was dazzled, referring to all this as “the best time a man could have in this life”
I knew Ted and his wife Jeanne so well they became my second family as did Laszlo and his wife Yvonne. (She had been a Music Hall favorite in her youth and helped introduce a very young Julie Andrews to English audiences.) Jeanne Allan used to love to tell me how Carman Miranda kept her cocaine in the heels of her shoes for that emergency when the “South American Bombshell” might need a special lift!! These two couples were close friends as John kept them all very busy with exhibits and a very lucrative endeavor known as “portfolios’” of their respective photography.
By the mid-eighties, Hurrell was not speaking to Kobal, which personally hurt John until his dying day. There was simply too much money at stake and too many agents and self- serving promoters in the mix. What John discovered in working with these elderly men was that few had access to the thousands of negatives that passed through their hands from the studio days. By 1979 the demand for signed editions of Hurrell, Willinger and Allan was at a premium. Hurrell began using copy negs and even making negs from original prints to satisfy the public demand for glamour portraits.
I remember going down to Laguna Beach with Laszlo and John to see an exhibit of Hurrell. When we arrived there was a giant print of John Barrymore and Garbo from GRAND HOTEL in the window, signed “Hurrell.” Laszlo took one look and said “You know that is a Fred Archer photo, so what is George doing with his name on it?” This was the end of an era for Kobal and the “Great Hurrell.”
I had the special honor of being photographed by all three men during this time and I am sharing those prints with “Camp David” Ted Allan also went with me to see Christopher Isherwood and his lover Don Bacardy, who had just done several sketches of me, one of which is now in use here as my bio photo for ‘Films in Review’. Ted took the photos of the originals from Don’s studio so I would have copy prints.
In retrospect I remember Hurrell as a very edgy, cranky old man with severe mood swings, while Laszlo was a cultured man with a caustic wit, brought over to MGM from Vienna, and by then Laszlo had photographed the most famous figures in Europe, including Sigmund Freud. Ted Allan was the most likeable of the trio as he wanted everyone to like him. Ted just needed to have some time away from his wife and daughter since they all lived together in a jungle-like abode below the Hollywood sign in exile and frustration, having lived in an era once filled with travel and glamour, longing for the lost style of better days. The new Hollywood was a cultural void filled with tattoos and body-piercing. No wonder the work these men did would now seem exotic to those who would mistake Dietrich for Madonna!!
These men were innovative artists who brought the art of photography to undreamed of heights within a studio system that boasted “more stars than there were in the heavens”. As Hurrell was fond of saying, “You have to dream more.”

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