This probably explains a lot about my later life, like why I wore 1940s-style sweater vests every day in high school and didn’t have a date until after I graduated. But my teenaged angst notwithstanding, those Saturdays spent with the old movie stars of Dewey Decimal number 791.43 are something I would never trade. In the era before Google could show you everything ever published on every topic, the basement of the Hewlett-Woodmere Public Library was my search engine. And those musty books were my portal to the past.
Fast-forward thirty years, and I’m still a sucker for a book filled with gorgeous pictures of classic film stars. And they don’t come gorgeous-er than Hollywood Celebrates the Holidays, a collection of the “sometimes stunning, sometimes kitschy seasonal holiday art” churned out by studio publicity departments since the movie business began.
Focusing on the the half century commonly thought of as the Studio Era (1920-70), this glossy, hardcover volume includes more than 200 images, most collected over a lifetime of fandom by co-authors Mary Mallory and Karie Bible (a Halloween baby, herself). Many photos are accompanied by original, studio-written verso copy from the back of the photograph, and all include explanatory captions offering anecdotes and background information that often clears up misconceptions regarding provenance. (For instance, I’ve frequently seen Shirley Temple identified as the subject of one of the New Year’s pictures in the book when, in fact, she was born a year after it was taken.)
Each chapter focuses on a particular holiday, from New Year’s Eve to Christmas, with added sections on classic television and Hollywood’s contribution to the World War II effort. In one wartime photo, adorable Ann Miller reminds us to seal our Valentine’s v-mails with a heart-shaped kiss and to post them by January 15 (to arrive overseas in time). And, in case you were wondering, Ann is soon to be seen in the new service comedy HEY ROOKIE, coming in April, 1944 from Columbia Pictures!
And that’s the fascinating subtext of Hollywood Celebrates the Holidays: almost all of these pictures, as iconic as they may seem today, began life as simple sales tools. Each was created to market a star, studio or movie, while simultaneously filling space in newspapers, magazines and fan publications. But reviewed in retrospect, these powerful images clearly contributed to the reality of today, where our calendar has become a spiderwork of heavily marketed holidays.
We can’t blame the stars for this, of course; they were just doing their jobs, as were the photographers, art directors and costumers, but the impact they achieve with these pictures is staggering. Consumed in one sitting, the collected images in Hollywood Celebrates the Holidays wield a hypnotic, almost propagandistic power. From a shotgun-wielding Joan Crawford coming down a 1920s chimney, to Edgar Bergen’s wooden son Charlie McCarthy lighting fireworks in the 1930s, to Peter Lorre swinging a bat at “Santa” Sydney Greenstreet’s head in the 1940s, these images provide a visual record of both the evolution of social mores and the Hollywood P.R. machine over five decades.
Longtime film buffs may have seen some of these images on websites like Tumblr or Pinterest, but no computer screen could make me feel as happy as this book did. Now to re-open that time portal, so I can visit Yvonne De Carlo the day she shot the picture on page 39.