Hurrell's Hollywood Portraits: The Chapman Collection

Mark A. Vieira - Harry Abrams

Book Review By Monica Sullivan

George Hurrell made Hollywood stars look better, brighter and more beautiful than they really were. It was a shock when I first saw an original Hurrell photograph of Johnny Weismuller posed in a tree and saw that several inches had been air-brushed from his waist! So even movie stars didn't look like movie stars without enormous help and Hurrell made sure that they got it. In 1929, when Hurrell was 25, he shot a series of photographs of Ramon Novarro that made him look quite wonderful. (Hurrell discovered that highlighting Novarro's face and legs made him look even better.)

Norma Shearer wanted to persuade her husband Irving Thalberg that she could play sexier roles and Hurrell's sensual portraits helped her land the role of "The Divorcee," which won her an Academy Award in 1930. When Hurrell had a session with Lon Chaney, his pictures revealed more than the star was willing to admit: Chaney's imminent death four months later at the age of 47. Hurrell's many sessions with Joan Crawford contributed to the lustre of her stardom, especially one spectacularly lit full-face portrait used to promote 1931's "Possessed." Hurrell could add elegance or charm or beauty or allure where none existed and his ecstatic models dashed off to studio bosses with the results and asked to be cast accordingly.

Hurrell called the shots in his own studio and, when MGM executives complained after he photographed Joan Bennett, who worked at another studio, Hurrell quit in a huff. The stars would have to come to him for their portraits, not stroll across the lot, and Shearer, Crawford and many other stars willingly sat still for the Hurrell treatment. That treatment included much re-touching, as well as careful lighting. Was Crawford's face really that glistening? Ahm, no. Even at 27, she had two visible lines around her neck, freckles, and lines around her neck and eyes. Six hours of retouching and voila! Crawford's face was as bright, perfect and soft as that of a baby. Two months before her death, Hurrell photographed Jean Harlow and made her look glowingly happy and healthy. Since many films of the thirties are lost or out of circulation, Hollywood portraits are often our main connection with long-dead actors and actresses who were stars once upon a time.

Mark Vieira's warm tribute to his mentor includes 275 photographs, all masterfully reproduced in this Harry Abrams book. Look for it the next time you're in the film section of your favorite bookstore or pay a visit to San Francisco's Photo Metro Gallery (at 17 Tehama Street) before July 12th. Los Angeles listeners can see the work of Hurrell, who died in 1992, at the University of Southern California Cinema Television Library through August 10th.

© 1997 - Monica Sullivan - Air Date: 06/25/97

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