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Time-travel to 1930s Hollywood with portraitist George Hurrell's show in Washington, DC

Just Earth News | @justearthnews | 07 May 2024, 07:47 am Print

Time-travel to 1930s Hollywood with portraitist George Hurrell's show in Washington, DC

Joan Crawford with Clark Gable shine in their classy romance double portrait by Hurrell

From the enigmatic Greta Garbo and the blisterning pair of Clark Gable and Joan Crawford to a bare-torsoed sex symbol Johnny (Tarzan) Weissmuller, Washington, D.C.'s National Portrait Gallery celebrates  Hollywood of the 1930s with a 10-month-long show of iconic movie portrait photographer late George Hurrell. Sujoy Dhar takes a trip down the classic black and white world of dramatic light and evocative compositions  

In the 1930s and 1940s Hollywood, big studios set high production standards inspiring filmmaking across the world. It was then that a portrait photographer named George Edward Hurrell (1904 –1992) was hired by the Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM) or the MGM Studios. Hurrell became within years as much of a hot property for MGM as their movie stars.

He ruled the world of American showbiz with his camera, lights and action, only to transform the moving silver screen stars into timeless glamour icons in their frozen avatars. 

From Joan Crawford, Clark Gable, Greta Garbo and Marlene Dietrich to international male sex symbol of the time Johnny Weissmuller, who essayed the role of Tarzan in the 1930s for MGM, Hurrell’s lighting and evocative compositions turned these men and women into divas and divos.

Hurrell grew up in Cincinnati, OH, and showed interest in painting and photography from his childhood. But he became a celebrated portrait photographer when MGM hired him.

If you are visiting Washington, D.C. anytime till January 5, 2025, do not miss this exhibition at the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery at 8th St NW & G St NW. Titled “Star Power: Photographs from Hollywood’s Golden Age by George Hurrell,” the show explores timeless images of film royalty from the 1930s and 1940s.

Joan Crawford reigned in Hollywood in the 1930s onwardsJoan Crawford reigned in Hollywood in the 1930s onwards

"George Hurrell, the acclaimed Hollywood portrait photographer, captures these stars in their most enchanting light. Among those featured are film icons, ranging from Jean Harlow and Bill 'Bojangles' Robinson to Greta Garbo and James Wong Howe. Selected from the National Portrait Gallery’s collection, which includes 70 recently acquired Hurrell portraits, the exhibition is curated by senior curator of photographs Ann Shumard," said the gallery.

In view from March 1 to Jan. 5, 2025, the show is compelling. “Through his expertly crafted, mesmerizing portraits, George Hurrell burnished the luster of Hollywood’s most memorable stars of the 1930s and ’40s,” said curator Shumard.

On display is a silhoutted bare torsoed Johnny Weissmuller, who played Tarzan in the 1930sOn display is a silhoutted bare torsoed Johnny Weissmuller, who played Tarzan in the 1930s

When in 1930, Hurrell started working for MGM, the studio claimed to have “more stars than there are in heaven.”  According to the exhibition website, shortly after joining MGM, Hurrell became the studio’s principal portrait photographer.

"His keen eye for lighting, composition and artful posing glorified Hollywood’s stars and influenced popular standards of glamour. In 1933, Hurrell established his own studio on Sunset Boulevard, where he continued to photograph actors for MGM and those working for other major studios. After closing his studio in 1938, he ended the decade as the head of photography for Warner Bros," the gallery said.

An exhibit of the enigmatic Greta GarboAn exhibit of the enigmatic Greta Garbo

Now when  it is common for male actors to go shirtless in popular movies and shows to objectify themselves as eye candies as much as the female actors, it is interesting to go back to a time when the bare-torsoed portrait of  Johnny Weissmuller, who played Tarzan in the 1930s, exuded sexuality with a touch of art thanks to the imagination and talent of Hurrell. Weissmuller, an international swimmer and Olympics gold winner, later became the “King of the Jungle” for a generation of moviegoers.

According to the gallery, he performed in water shows and promoted a line of swimwear before Cyril Hume, the scriptwriter tasked with developing a Tarzan screenplay for MGM, spotted him. At the Hollywood Athletic Club’s swimming pool, Hume was struck by Weissmuller’s "natural grace and athletic physique". "He arranged a screen test, and despite Weissmuller’s limited acting ability, he became MGM’s Tarzan." Hurrell photographed Weissmuller to promote the film Tarzan Escapes, released in 1936.

A portrait of Dorothy Lamour in the showA portrait of Dorothy Lamour in the show

One striking image is of the ravishing beauty that was Joan Crawford, who became a super star after her film debut with MGM. She was dancing in the chorus of a Broadway revue in 1924 when an MGM talent scout spotted her.

Born Lucille LeSueur, she became “Joan Crawford” in the movie world. In 1928 her stardom journey began with her tabletop performance of an exuberant Charleston in Our Dancing Daughters, the label of the picture says. She made an effortless transition from the silent era to talkies and ruled the 1930s starring opposite Hollywood’s leading men, including Clark Gable, with whom she made offscreen headlines for her dubbed "notorious" off-and-on affair in the course of starring in eight films together.

Golden era Hollywood actor John Barrymore Golden era Hollywood actor John Barrymore

Hurrell regarded Crawford as “the most photogenic of the Hollywood group of actresses.”

“When I caught my first glimpse of her in the lens,” he recalled, “I felt an emotional tug of excitement. . . . Her large wide eyes and strongly molded features were perfect in the camera.”

MGMMGM's principal costume designer Gilbert Adrian

One of the most enduring photos on display exuding classy romance and physicality is of Crawford with Clark Gable, known for his roughneck macho-stud charm. Shot in 1936, Hurrell created this double portrait to promote their romantic comedy, Love on the Run.

Clark Gable, who at that time was the “King of Hollywood”, broke his stereotyped “tough guy” image by starring in the romantic comedy  It Happened One Night, a film that inspired a genre of rom coms with several versions across the world, including India's Bollywood time and again.

"For his engaging performance as a down-on-his luck newspaper man who aids a runaway heiress, Gable took home the Oscar for Best Actor. By the time he appeared as the roguish Rhett Butler in Gone with the Wind (1939), Gable was MGM’s most popular leading man. In films that audiences flocked to see, he was teamed with the studio’s top female stars, including Jean Harlow, Myra Loy, and Joan Crawford," said the gallery cutlines.

The enigmatic Greta Garbo also featured in the exhibition. While she intrigued filmgoers with her reclusive lifestyle, it was in 1925 that the Swedish-born Garbo arrived in Hollywood in the company of Sweden’s principal film director, Mauritz Stiller.

Garbo went on to become MGM’s hottest “property.” Following her American debut in the silent drama Torrent (1925), Variety declared, “This girl has everything—with looks, acting ability and personality.” She enhanced her standing as a top box office draw in nine subsequent silent films, says the exhibit label accompanying a timeless portrait of Garbo in the gallery.

Star Power show is on till Jan 5, 2025 at National Portrait Gallery in DCStar Power show is on till Jan 5, 2025 at National Portrait Gallery in DC

Featuring more than 20 vintage photographs, this exhibition also portrays  John Barrymore, Jimmy Durante, Rosalind Russell, Spencer Tracy, Loretta Young and many more.

There are many reasons to visit  The Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery if you are in DC, as it tells the multifaceted story of the United States through the individuals who have shaped American culture.

While the exhibits include the paintings of Michelle Obama and Oprah Winfrey, till early January next year time-travel to the Hollywood of a golden era with this unmissable Hurrell show.


A post shared by Sujoy Dhar (@sujoydhar1)

The Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery at 8th St NW & G St NW should not be missedThe Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery at 8th St NW & G St NW should not be missed