The MGM Style

“A film still (sometimes called a publicity still or a production still) is a photograph taken on or off the set of a movie or television program during production. These photographs are also taken in formal studio settings and venues of opportunity such as film stars’ homes, film debut events, and commercial settings. The photos were taken by studio photographers for purposes. Such stills consisted of posed portraits, used for public display or free fan handouts, which are sometimes autographed. They can also consist of posed or candid images taken on the set during production, and may include stars, crew members or directors at work.

“The main purpose of such publicity stills is to help studios advertise and promote their new films and stars. Studios therefore send those photos along with press kits and free passes to as many movie-related publications as possible so as to gain free publicity. Such photos were then used by newspapers and magazines, for example, to write stories about the stars or the films themselves. Hence, the studio gains free publicity for its films, while the publication gains free stories for its readers.” (Wikipedia Article: “Film Still.”)

Frequently these photos were also turned into drawings, either as copies of the original, or as a compilation of figures from different photos. These were also used for publicity and I wonder whether they didn’t reproduce well for print ads in local newspapers. Like the photos, these drawings almost always focused on the star or stars of the picture. There was also the opportunity to airbrush the stars and remove any blemishes or signs of aging. Here is a selection of drawings and photos for Robert Taylor movies.

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“Ambush” 1950

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“Ambush” 1950

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“Ambush” 1950

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“Ambush” 1950

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“Bataan” 1943

RT4021

“The Bribe” 1949

RT4007

“The Bribe” 1949

RT2238

“The Bribe” 1949

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“Billy the Kid” 1941

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“Billy the Kid” 1941

RT3683

“Billy the Kid” 1941

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“Billy the Kid” 1941

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“Ride Vaquero” 1953

RT1965

“Saddle the Wind” 1958

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“Saddle the Wind” 1958

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“Saddle the Wind” 1958

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“High Wall,” 1947

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“High Wall,” 1947

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“High Wall” 1947

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“High Wall” 1947

RT5153

“His Brother’s Wife” 1936

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“His Brother’s Wife” 1936

RT2780

“Stand Up and Fight” 1939

RT3766

“The Power and the Prize” 1956

RT4710

“Knights of the Round Table” 1954

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“Knights of the Round Table” 1954

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“Quentin Durward” 1955

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“Quentin Durward” 1955

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“Valley of the Kings” 1954

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“Valley of the Kings” 1954

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“Valley of the Kings” 1954

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“The Law and Jake Wade” 1958

A few observations:

There is a wide variety of effects in these drawings. The style is remarkably consistent and was presumably dictated by the studio. The MGM style is very smooth with considerable detail and a good use of chiaroscuro, or contrast of light and dark. Figures and faces are very realistic. Background is minimal and usually just sets up a mood–jagged strokes and dark tones for excitement, fluid strokes and openness for calm or subdued tension.

For instance, in Row 1, the first two pictures, a photo and the drawing made from it, are very consistent. In the third photo, however, Arlene Dahl has been replaced by a generic blonde, The fourth picture, the best artistically, is a dramatic rendering of Robert Taylor’s character with a lot of chiaroscuro.

In Row 2, the three drawings from “The Bribe” are somewhat unusual in that they don’t concentrate on the stars of the picture, Robert Taylor and Ava Gardner, but are snippets of various scenes, emphasizing the action-adventure elements of the film.

The 4 “Billy the Kid” drawings in Row 3 seem to be elements that a local theater or newspaper could choose from for their advertisements. The Taylor as Billy element is shown looking left and looking right, perhaps to best fit the requirements of different advertisers. The gun and the Mary Howard figure are placed separately for easy use on their own.

In Row 4 the two “Saddle the Wind” drawings both draw on the photo on the right and are pretty uncomplicated except for the addition of a dramatic background.

Row 5 has a fairly literal but nonetheless quite dramatic adaption of the photo to its right. The style is much more edgy and jagged than the usual illustration. The hand on Mr. Taylor’s shoulder, clearly attached to an arm in the photo is disembodied in the drawing, adding to the tension. The last two items, a drawing in color and a photo are totally unrelated to the content of the film. The photo is one of series posed by Robert Taylor and Audrey Totter in costumes and situations not in the movie. The color drawing is unusually abstract and dependent on its vibrant hues. Using images not actually related to the movie was a common practice–anything to get the seats filled.

In Row 6 a still from the film “His Brother’s Wife” is used for a self-congratulatory ad extolling the movie’s success. It also played on moviegoers interest in the real life romance of Barbara Stanwyck and Mr.Taylor.

In the photo and drawing from “Knights of the Round Table,” Row 7, the drawing changes the mood of the photo by moving Ava Gardner closer to Robert Taylor and changing her expression. His expression is also altered.

The “Quentin Durward” drawing is taken from another photo in the series. It is pretty generic and smooth in the MGM preferred style.

Row 8 has a drawing and two photos from “Valley of the Kings.” The drawing is highly romantic and even melodramatic. The second photo one is pretty straightforward but the first has been seriously airbrushed to make the stars look younger. Robert Taylor was 43 and Eleanor Parker 32 at the time. The drawing and first photo look a lot like the covers or modern romance paperbacks.

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About giraffe44

I became a Robert Taylor fan at the age of 15 when his TV show, "The Detectives" premiered. My mother wanted to watch it because she remembered Mr. Taylor from the thirties. I took one look and that was it. I spent the rest of my high school career watching Robert Taylor movies on late night TV, buying photos of him, making scrapbooks and being a typical teenager. College, marriage and career intervened. I remember being sad when Mr. Taylor died. I mailed two huge scrapbooks to Ursula Thiess. I hope she got them. Time passed, retirement, moving to Florida. Then in 2012 my husband Fred pointed that there were two Robert Taylor movies that evening on Turner Classic Movies--"Ivanhoe" and "Quentin Durward." I watched both and it happened all over again. I started this blog both for fans and for people who didn't know about Robert Taylor. As the blog passes 200,000 views I'm delighted that so many people have come by and hope it will help preserve the legacy of this fine actor and equally good man.
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