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When Ruth Harriet Louise joined Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, the studio with "more stars than there are in heaven," she was twenty-two years old and the only woman working as a portrait photographer for the Hollywood studios.
In a career that lasted from 1925 until 1930, Louise (born Ruth Goldstein) photographed all the stars, contract players, and many of the hopefuls who passed through the studio's front gates, including Greta Garbo, Lon Chaney, John Gilbert, Joan Crawford, Marion Davies, and Norma Shearer. This book, which coincides with a major traveling retrospective of Louise's work organized by the Santa Barbara Museum of Art, is the first collection of her exquisite photographs. Containing over one hundred breathtaking images—reproduced from the original negatives—it attests to the talent and vision of a surprisingly unknown photographer who formed the images and helped create the popularity of some of our most enduring stars.
Louise shot about one hundred thousand negatives that distilled the glamour, drama, and excitement of MGM's feature productions. Louise's original photographs were circulated to millions of moviegoers, magazine and newspaper readers, and fans. The movies and publicity machine that these photographs supported shaped the basic notions of stardom, glamour, and fashion in the 1920s and still affect our ideas today.
Robert Dance and Bruce Robertson re-create the entire process—from the moment a performer sat in front of Louise's camera to the point at which a fan pasted a star's picture into a scrapbook. They provide insight into Louise's work habits in the studio and describe the personal dynamics between Louise and the actors she photographed. They include a condensed account of the methods of other photographers, a sharp analysis of fan culture in the period, and superb readings of Louise's photographs. With its combination of well-known and rare images, all magnificently reproduced, this book is a fitting tribute to one of the most gifted and underappreciated glamour photographers of Hollywood's golden period.
Note: The hardcover edition of this book does have a dust jacket. (Some hardcovers of University of California Press books available in paperback do not.)
RUTH GOLDSTEIN WAS HIRED BY METRO-GOLDWYN-MAYER as chief portrait photographer in the summer of 1925. Her transformation into Ruth Harriet Louise involved hard work, a certain amount of luck, and the indispensable element of talent. Contemporary sources discussing Louise's career always begin with a mention of her gender, youth, and attractiveness, as though what was interesting about her was how much she looked like her subjects. As one journalist put it, "If you saw her walking across the lot you'd think that she was a star going from one set to the other. She is as pretty as a star but instead of being one of them she bosses them!" Her work and the extraordinary fact that she was the most reproduced photographer in America during her tenure at MGM seemed less important to outside observers. Louise, however, had a different view of herself: "With actors, of course, ... having their pictures taken is part of their business and they are more or less in my hands. I don't mind bossing them around one bit-I realize some of their success depends on me." She was absolutely correct.
Ruth Goldstein was born in New York City on January 13, 1903, the daughter of Rabbi Jacob Goldstein and Klara Jacobsen Goldstein. She was the second child; her brother, Mark Rex Goldstein (1900-1945), was three years older. Her parents had immigrated to the United States not too long before the turn of the century; Jacob (1859-after 1925) had been born in London and Klara (1872-1956) in Vienna, but they journeyed to the United States, it seems, through Australia. Once in the New York area, the Goldstein family moved every few years, changing both homes and congregations, until eventually they settled in Trenton, New Jersey, around 1915. In 1921 Rabbi Goldstein left Trenton and accepted a position with Temple Anshe Emeth in New Brunswick, New Jersey, a dynamic and rapidly expanding congregation closely allied to the American Jewish Congress, a progressive Zionist organization. It is fair to assume that the rabbi and his family were equally progressive; the children were certainly cultured and musical, as old friends and contemporary documents record. The Goldsteins lived in a modest two-family home in the suburb of Highland Park, just across the Raritan River from the temple-an easy walk or quick trolley ride away. After New York or even Trenton, New Brunswick must have felt quite provincial. After all, it had only one first-run movie theater, the Opera House, while Trenton had seven.
Louise's brother, Mark, attended Columbia College the fall semester of 1918, taking classes in economics and science. He left the family in 1922, shortly after the move to New Brunswick, to find his fortune in Hollywood. He was drawn there by the success of their cousin Carmel Myers (the daughter of Klara's sister, Anna, and her husband, Isodore, a rabbi in San Francisco), who had a flourishing career as a motion picture actress. While visiting Myers, Mark discovered that he had his own skills to offer Hollywood. Although show business was not new to the young man-he was, as the Banner, the newspaper of the Young Men's Hebrew Association in New Brunswick, described him, "director of the recent Flapper Revue and lyric composer par excellence"-he obtained his first job because of his scientific aptitude. A story often repeated has him visiting a set on which his cousin was working at Century Studio. The comedy director Al Herman was trying to shoot a gag involving a "mechanical contrivance" that kept failing to go off. Mark, calling on his knowledge of physics, helped set up the gag correctly, and immediately found himself with a job as "prop boy" for Mr. Herman. By 1924 he was working as a writer at Educational Pictures (page 65), and later he became a director. By the time he returned to New Jersey in 1925 to marry, he had changed his name to Mark Sandrich, adopting an anglicized version of the original family name, Sandreich, which his father had changed to Goldstein before coming to the United States. Within a few years he would become famous by directing the classic Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers movies Top Hat and Carefree.
New Brunswick was the home of the New Jersey College for Women (later Douglass College, a part of Rutgers University), but Louise did not pursue further education. Sharing her brother's interests in the theater and music, Louise appeared in local musical comedies put on by the youth of the temple. In one such production, "Captain Applejack," she portrayed Anna Valeska, a supposed Russian spy. "No one would think," wrote one reviewer, "that our sweet, gentle Ruth could transform herself into such a double-crossing vamp." This sweetness was remarked on by everyone who encountered her. She was, in the words of her sister-in-law, "natural," with a no-nonsense attitude. What also stood out were her large, attractive eyes and youthful intensity, so much so that later she was sometimes mistaken for Joan Crawford on the lot of MGM.
Like her brother, Louise soon sought work at a juncture between science and art when, in 1922, she set herself up as a commercial portrait photographer. As she explained to a reporter in 1926, she had wanted to be an artist, a painter, "but somehow her fingers failed to create the images of her active mind." Sitting for a portrait by famed New York portrait photographer Nickolas Muray, however, "she realized what he could do with lights and shadows and a camera and saw that he was not merely 'taking a picture' but creating a personality." Encouraged by this revelation, she enrolled in a photographic school, but then dropped out to apprentice herself "in the studio of a well-known photographer in New York" (probably Muray). Once she had gained the skills she needed, she set up her own studio in New Brunswick, in Montalvo's Temple of Music, a music store down the block from Temple Anshe Emeth.
She began advertising her services as early as the fall of 1922, listing her qualifications as "D.G.P."-Darn Good Photographer, we can assume. "Won't you visit my studio, and let me perpetuate your personality," she coaxes in the Banner. It was a one-room studio, and she was the only staff member. According to a 1927 account in Royal Magazine, "She did it all, from the taking of pictures to retouching, developing, printing, even down to scrubbing the floors." The following year she listed herself in the city business directory, a clear expression of her professional ambitions. She also assumed what would become her professional name: the first published appearance of "Ruth Harriet Louise" appears in a listing in the Banner's holiday greetings issue of September 1923.
Although few photographs from this period survive, we can learn something of her early thoughts as a photographer from a short essay, "The Better Photography," she published in November 1922 in the Banner. "Good photographs," she writes, "like good books, or a resonant mellow old violin, possess a soul.... A violin sings to you, a book holds a mental seance with you and makes you think. Even so a photograph can talk to you. If it is the better type of photograph, it not only talks to you, but it strikes you between the eyes and makes you gasp for breath." Balancing this romantic emphasis on soul and the emotional response to photographic art, however, is a confident assertion of her knowledge of the "science" of photography, in the handling of lighting, film, and chemicals and the making of fine prints.
Certain aspects of her character as a Hollywood photographer can be discerned even at this preliminary stage. First, there is an interest in fashion. In a striking simile, she compares a good photograph to a glamorous evening dress: "The difference between a photographic study, and an ordinary picture is just like a gown of Poiret of Paris compared to a dress displayed in the shop window of some small town shop. One is a creation expressing individuality, and grace, the other is-well, the other, let us say, is a necessary evil!" Evident in this comparison is also her ambition, since by most reckonings a teenager (even a precocious one) in the town of New Brunswick would be more like the small-town shopkeeper than the Parisian couturier.
In addition, she carefully enunciates her criteria for a good photographic portrait. First and foremost, "the photograph must express personality." Flaws in appearance should be minimized through posing and lighting, and in the print itself the subject's features should be softly and evenly modeled (Louise decries "needle point sharpness"), not "over-touched and lighted till a soft round face looks like a paste" but revealing real skin texture. Finally, the print should be finished and presented pleasingly. Only with regard to retouching would Louise's Hollywood technique differ from the program she set herself during her first months as a professional photographer.
How commercially successful she was is uncertain. The only photographs we know of from this period are family portraits and portraits of her father's congregants. Certainly Louise worked hard at her career within the limited realm of New Brunswick, keeping abreast of photographic trends in New York. She also took advantage of the first opportunity to move on to a larger arena. Soon after her brother's marriage and his return to Hollywood in March 1925, Louise moved to Los Angeles. With a safe, chaperoned environment provided by Mark and Freda Sandrich to welcome her, Louise immediately set up shop in "a tiny studio on Vine and Hollywood, close to Famous Players-Lasky Studio" and began to forge an independent career. Two sessions can be dated with great certainty to the months before her MGM contract. One was with the Fox director Emmett Flynn, who continued to use Louise's photograph for publicity for many years. And Samuel Goldwyn, working as an independent producer, hired Louise to photograph his latest discovery, Vilma Banky, in costume for Dark Angel (which was in production in June 1925). A portrait from this session appeared in Photoplay magazine in September 1925, Louise's first published Hollywood image. In Louise's account, within three weeks of arriving in Los Angeles she was brought to the attention of "a man who was a big power in the moving picture world." This might have been Goldwyn, but more likely it was MGM studio boss Louis B. Mayer.
To make this jump, especially so quickly, Louise needed talent, luck, and connections. We know she was talented, and her meteoric rise suggests considerable luck. Her Hollywood connections, however, played an especially important role in her quick success. With a brother established at Educational, she might have found some work at that small studio, but hardly at MGM. Rather, the key to Louise's success was certainly her cousin Carmel Myers. Myers, who was just completing the filming of Ben-Hur on MGM's Culver City lot (page 9), not only was on good terms with Goldwyn, but was also very friendly with Louis B. Mayer and his family: she was often Mayer's choice to chaperone his daughters. Nepotism ruled the MGM lot, as it did nearly all the Hollywood studios.
Myers, in fact, was the first Hollywood actress Louise photographed (though the session took place not in Hollywood but in Manhattan), and it was through Myers's intervention that Louise came to the attention of MGM. Early in the spring of 1925, Myers had returned from Italy to Hollywood along with the rest of the cast and crew of Ben-Hur. She stopped in New York on the way, and it was there that Louise photographed her cousin. As reported in 1928: "Carmel could not arrange to get to Ruth's home, which was out of the city, so the girl took her camera and all of her heavy lights to Carmel's hotel. It was this very sitting ultimately that changed the tide of her career, for Carmel returned to the MGM studios with the portraits and showed them to Mayer." Mayer, however, wanted proof that Louise could handle the responsibilities of such an important job, so MGM actress Paulette Duval, a close friend of Myers, was sent for a sitting. Although Duval was not impressed by Louise's youth and required some cajoling, the results were excellent and brought Louise an interview. The studio bosses were prepared to accept a young woman as an actress or even scriptwriter, but were dubious of one in a male-dominated technical field and asked if she were receiving help. "Send some other star-a man, if you like-and he can watch the whole proceeding from beginning to end," Louise suggested. Yet that proved to be unnecessary, and before the middle of the summer she had a contract with MGM.
When Louise arrived in Los Angeles in 1925, Hollywood was already a marvel for the entire country. As early as 1920, the reaction was ecstatic:
No one can breathe [Hollywood's] atmosphere long and not be profoundly conscious that some tremendous force is stirring here. It is for our generation an almost incredible experience to watch the beginnings and development of a wholly new art. It is no use for gentlemen with a Broadway past to assert, with a pungent oath, that it is not an art, but just the "show business." It is, or is going to be, an art and a great one, and in Hollywood they realize the fact with a kind of vague terror. It is a little as if they had somehow unloosed a great and beautiful beast and were wondering whether, with their inexperiences, their ineptitudes, and their vulgarities, they could long hold and control him.
By 1925 the beast was even larger: investment in the industry was reckoned at $1.5 billion, with seven hundred or so feature films made every year. The United States alone had some twenty thousand movie theaters, which sold 130 million tickets a year on average, if we are to believe industry figures-equaling approximately one visit to the movies for each man, woman, and child in the country. As Harry Reichenbach, one of the great publicists of the day, observed: "Pictures were the new Klondike and people swarmed to it like grifters to a mardi gras."
The biggest change between 1920 and 1925, though, arose from the decision by a small group of Hollywood's biggest producers to consolidate the industry. As a result of this move, the array of small film companies that characterized early Hollywood soon gave way to a core group of stable enterprises that were to dominate the industry for the next three decades. Whereas in 1924 there were some nineteen studios still in Hollywood, by 1935 only eight major ones ruled the scene. The most important single development leading to consolidation was the creation of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios in 1924, under the supervision of Louis B. Mayer (1885-1957) and controlled by Marcus Loew in New York. Loew, who owned a large chain of theaters, had purchased Metro Pictures several years earlier as a means of enlarging his empire and securing a steady supply of movie offerings. Louis B.
Excerpted from RUTH HARRIET LOUISE AND HOLLYWOOD GLAMOUR PHOTOGRAPHY by ROBERT DANCE BRUCE ROBERTSON Copyright © 2002 by Regents of the University of California. Excerpted by permission.
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one Ruth Goldstein Becomes Ruth Harriet Louise
two The Portrait Studio
three The Portrait Photograph
four The Publicity Department and the Fan
five Selling Fashion and Glamour
six What Is a Star?
seven Queens of the Lot: Norma Shearer, Marion Davies, and Joan Crawford
eight Photographing Garbo
nine Looking at Men: Ramon Novarro, John Gilbert, and Others
ten Telling Stories: Lillian Gish, Lon Chaney Sr., Buster Keaton, and Marie Dressler
eleven Leaving MGM
A Portfolio of Original Photographs by Ruth Harriet Louise
Appendix A. Garbo and Her Photographers, 19251929
Appendix B. MGM Photography Codes, 19241940