"Made in Hollywood" at the Norton Museum Reminds Us of What It's Like to Be Starstruck

Above, a candid moment from Marilyn Monroe in 1952.

Remember when almost anything that emanated from Hollywood – movies, TV shows, even Saturday-morning cartoons – bore the end-credit tagline “Made in Hollywood, U.S.A.”? As a kid, that imprint seemed to be evidence of magic, as if Hollywood were its own mysterious entity, unaffiliated with any specific state. Of course, that’s true in a way – they don’t call it the Dream Factory for nothing.

And so I approached “Made in Hollywood,” one of the new offerings at the Norton Museum of Art in West Palm Beach, with great expectations. I hoped the show would be brimming with the ineffable essence of that place in the sun in Southern California.

The exhibition, which is subtitled “Photographs From the John Kobal Foundation,” originated at the Santa Barbara Museum of Art, and it features nearly a hundred images by more than 50 photographers. Kobal was the author and editor of roughly 30 books, mostly movie-related, and he was a seemingly insatiable collector. Today his enormous London-based collection is one of the go-to sources for classic Hollywood photography.

The exhibition’s wall text skimps on background information on the colorful Kobal, who died of AIDS-related complications in 1991. Fortunately, the hefty, magnificent volume published to coincide with the exhibition, Glamour of the Gods, doesn’t. (It also includes dozens of images not featured in the show.) Kobal was born Ivan Kobaly in Austria in 1940, but like many an up-and-coming star, he shed his old identity in favor of a new one as he made his way west. His family moved to Canada when he was 10, and he briefly dabbled in acting in swinging 1960s London.

Fateful encounters with a couple of his icons – Marlene Dietrich and Tallulah Bankhead – helped the ambitious, starstruck young man insinuate himself into the corridors of power in Hollywood. His fascination with cinema-related ephemera soon proved his most valuable asset. Back then, the movie studios had no idea of the ultimate collectible nature of the promotional materials they cranked out in support of their product, and Kobal was able to scavenge their output for his own burgeoning collection of Hollywood memorabilia. From an initial base of about 4,500 images, spanning the period from the end of the silent era to the early 1960s, the Kobal Collection grew to its current size of more than 200,000 photographs.

In the old days, the studios took to hiring photographers whose job it was to feed the publicity machine that whetted the public’s appetite for their films. Performers were captured between takes, often in character, sometimes re-creating choice moments from the movies in progress. Production stills found their way into fan magazines like Photoplay, Motion Picture, and Screenland, which were enormously popular from the 1930s through the ’50s.

An intriguing tidbit of wall text explains that all this behind-the-scenes photography served a utilitarian purpose, aside from documenting movie production for the fan base. It also helped crews maintain continuity from one scene to another by serving as a record of how those scenes were constructed – who wore what, who stood where in what lighting, etc.

The show starts off with a couple of choice images of Gloria Swanson and the now-forgotten Thomas Meighan from Male & Female, a 1919 Cecil B. De Mille epic. There’s also a lovely 1925 Arthur Rice portrait of Buster Keaton reading a book.

From there, it’s one ravishing image after another, a virtual roll call of early Hollywood history: Mary Pickford, Carole Lombard almost revealing a breast, Lillian Gish, Lon Chaney, Ramon Novarro, Anna Mae Wong, Greta Garbo from Anna Christie, Fatty Arbuckle smoking, Buster Keaton in clownface, Gloria Swanson again. There’s an especially gorgeous Nickolas Murray portrait of Clara Bow, circa 1925, and a famous shot of John Gilbert canoodling Garbo on the set of Flesh and the Devil (1926) captures the sultry insouciance that made her a star among stars.

In a few instances, the photographers themselves became celebrities of a sort. The masterful George Hurrell, for instance, was hired in 1930 by MGM at the instigation of Norma Shearer, then developed an Art Deco-influenced style that enabled him to go private. Although best known for his work with Jean Harlow and Joan Crawford, he remained in demand until his death in 1992. The lesser-known but similarly influential Clarence Sinclair Bull, here represented by nearly a dozen images (including great shots of Garbo and Elizabeth Taylor), was affiliated with MGM from its early years until he retired in 1961.

As the exhibition moves forward through the 1940s and 1950s, we get Rita Hayworth, Orson Welles, Rock Hudson, Ingrid Bergman, Humphrey Bogart, Vivien Leigh, Alfred Hitchcock (directing the MGM lion!), Marlon Brando, Marilyn Monroe, Grace Kelly, Audrey Hepburn, James Dean, and many, many more.

Why, then, did I leave “Made in Hollywood” feeling vaguely dissatisfied? Maybe the Norton could have made a bigger fuss over the show – while it doesn’t exactly feel as if it’s thrown together, it doesn’t have the feel of a really big to-do for the museum. Or maybe it’s the nature of the Hollywood beast to leave us hungry for more.

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Michael Mills