Early Hollywood Movie Stills: Their History and Collectibility

February 10, 2024

Capturing Cinema Magic: The Movie Still

Movie stills can be traced back to the dawn of the twentieth century, a time when Hollywood’s film industry was still in its infancy. As cinema gained popularity, movie studios recognized the need to promote their films and the actors who starred in them. Thus, the era of publicity photographs was born.

Film stills, often referred to as publicity stills or production stills, are photographs captured either on or off the set of a motion picture during its production phase. These images serve various purposes, from promotional material for studios to behind-the-scenes glimpses for fans. 

Here we’ll look at the history of movie stills and their collectibility today.

The Birth of Movie Stills: Pioneering the Path

Milestones in Hollywood’s Publicity Machine

Around 1910, several events laid the foundation for the emergence of Hollywood celebrity culture. 

First, newspapers established dedicated film review sections, providing a platform for critics to write up the latest studio releases. Meanwhile, movie studios began crediting actors in their films, acknowledging their contributions and fostering a sense of star power. 

Additionally, the publication of the first fan magazine devoted to motion pictures marked a significant milestone in Hollywood’s promotional efforts.

Fueling the Print Media Boom

As magazines and newspapers emerged as primary advertising platforms for motion pictures, reaching audiences far and wide, the demand for images skyrocketed, prompting Hollywood’s studios to supply an endless stream of publicity stills to media outlets. These images became valuable assets, appearing prominently in publications and captivating moviegoers, who developed preferences for certain stars.

Vintage silent movie still featuring Louise Brooks
Original “It’s the Old Army Game” (1926) movie still featuring Louise Brooks.

Also, the proliferation of half-tone printing revolutionized the print industry, allowing for the widespread dissemination of photographs. Motion picture studios seized this opportunity to garner free publicity, forging relationships with print media outlets to mutual benefit.

The Golden Age of Publicity Stills

The golden age of movie publicity stills typically refers to the period spanning from the 1920s to the 1950s, when the Hollywood studio system was at its peak and movie stars were celebrated as larger-than-life figures. 

By the 1920s, studios had established dedicated photography departments to meet the insatiable demand for publicity materials. 

Distinct from cinematographers, still photographers specialized in capturing images specifically for marketing purposes. They worked on set to document key moments and also conduct specialized shoots in controlled studio environments. These photographers played a major role in creating promotional materials that attracted attention and generated interest in upcoming films. 

Millions of photographs were distributed to magazines and newspapers. From behind-the-scenes shots to glamorous portraits, these images permeated popular culture, shaping the public’s perception of Hollywood and its stars.

Types of Movie Stills

Publicity stills became a recognizable and attractive product, appealing to movie fans and driving box office revenues. These images were used for magazine covers and newspaper pages, creating a buzz for upcoming releases and cementing the celebrity status of Hollywood’s elite.

Studios produced packaged sets of movie stills which were distributed to cinemas nationwide. Movie stills were commonly used in the lobbies of theaters as part of promotional displays to entice audiences and generate excitement for upcoming or currently showing films.

These stills would often be displayed in glass cases or on bulletin boards, arranged alongside movie posters and other promotional materials. They served as a visual preview of the film, showcasing key scenes, the cast, and the overall look of the production. 

Original “Frankenstein” (1931) 8″x10 movie still, sold at auction for $850 in 2015

Sizes of Vintage Movie Stills

Vintage movie stills came in various sizes, ranging from small promotional cards to larger format prints. 

One common size for vintage movie stills was 8×10 inches, which was widely used for promotional purposes. These 8×10 stills were often distributed to theaters, press outlets, and fans as part of marketing campaigns for upcoming films or to commemorate a movie’s release.

In addition to standard 8×10 prints, vintage movie stills could also be found in smaller sizes, such as 5×7 inches or even smaller promotional cards. These smaller sizes were often used for mailing to fans or for inclusion in magazines and newspapers as part of promotional articles or reviews.

Occasionally, vintage movie stills were produced in larger formats, such as 11×14 inches or even larger. These oversize prints were typically used for display purposes in theater lobbies or promotional events, where they could grab the attention of passersby and entice them to see the film.

Overall, the size of vintage movie stills varied depending on their intended use, with smaller sizes being more common for promotional materials and larger sizes reserved for display purposes. 

Production Stills: 

These shots were taken on-stage during filming, capturing key moments and scenes as they unfolded. The still photographer worked closely with the film crew to document the action, ensuring that each shot reflected the director’s vision and the overall aesthetic of the production. Production stills provided a valuable record of the filmmaking process and were often used for promotional purposes to generate interest in upcoming releases.

A subset of production film stills are posed film stills – these tend to be better collected today. In a posed film still, the actors are costumed and in character, but carefully posed in a staged setting with the composition often highlighting some key moment in the movie. These images were typically used for advertising in magazines and for movie posters and lobby cards.

Off-Stage Shots: 

In between takes, actors remained in costume, offering opportunities for off-stage shots. These candid images provided a glimpse into the actors’ lives behind the scenes, showcasing their personalities and interactions on set.

Off-stage shots added depth to the promotional material, humanizing the stars and creating a sense of intimacy with the audience. These were popularly used in movie fan magazines, consumed by Hollywood gossip-hungry moviegoers.

Separately Posed Stills: 

This category encompassed a wide range of shots, each serving a specific purpose in promoting the film. Seasonal gag shots, fashion stills, and commercial tie-ups showcased the versatility of the cast and highlighted thematic elements of the production. Poster art and clinch shots were carefully staged to capture the audience’s attention and evoke intrigue about the story and characters.

Set Stills, Make-Up Stills, and Wardrobe Stills: 

These specialized shots were essential for maintaining continuity and consistency throughout the production. 

Set stills documented the intricate details of the set design, while make-up stills and wardrobe stills ensured that actors’ appearances remained consistent from scene to scene. These images served as invaluable references for filmmakers during post-production and were instrumental in recreating scenes for re-takes or additional filming.

Hollywood Glamour Photos

As the film industry matured, so did the art of movie still photography. 

Studios recognized the power of these images in shaping public perception and fueling audience interest in their films. But then – so did the performers themselves. Major stars in Hollywood would often seek out the expertise of specific photographers renowned for their ability to skillfully capture the allure and beauty of actors and actresses.

For example, in the 1920s and 1930s, actress Clara Bow, known as the “It Girl” of silent cinema, collaborated with Hungarian photographer Nickolas Muray, celebrated for his pioneering use of color photography. Their collaboration produced iconic images showcasing Bow’s charisma and Muray’s innovative approach to portraiture. These photographs solidified Clara Bow’s status as a style icon and highlighted Muray’s talent. 

Vintage George Hurrell Movie Star Portraits
George Hurrell’s 1930s portraits of Clark Gable and Joan Crawford, some favorite subjects

An elite roster of talented photographers were revered then, and now, for their ability to immortalize stars through their lenses. Some of the most notable names in vintage Hollywood glamour photography included George Hurrell, Clarence Sinclair Bull, Robert Coburn, and Laszlo Willinger. 

The black and white photographs taken by these photographers often featured subjects in glamorous attire, striking poses, and dramatic lighting. These images aim to evoke a sense of fantasy and escapism, transporting viewers into a world of luxury and refinement associated with Hollywood’s golden era.

Collecting Vintage Movie Photos

Various specialty areas in movie memorabilia collecting abound in the area of photography, ranging from glamour portraits to cheesecake (and beefcake) shots, and stills from both Hollywood and  international films. 

Today, certain original movie photos have ascended to the status of fine art photography and have been sought after by museums, libraries, universities, and featured in art galleries. 

What Makes a Vintage Movie Still Valuable?

It’s important to note, as in all areas of collecting, that just because a movie still is old doesn’t mean that it is also valuable. It’s possible to purchase massive collections of run of the mill movie stills, dating back decades, for very reasonable prices. 

Photos that were originally created for publicity and advertising purposes have now transitioned into collectible items, influenced by various factors. These factors include the photo’s age, authenticity, the specific film it represents, the featured star, the photographer (if identified), and, naturally, the condition of the photograph itself.

Collectible Hollywood Photographers

There are collectible crossovers of prominent photographers with mega movie stars of the era. 

For example, an original 1931 George Hurrell portrait of Joan Crawford once fetched over $7,800 at auction. In a portrait session during the same year, 1931, Clarence Sinclair Bull captured Greta Garbo in a promotional portrait for “Susan Lenox” which brought over $6,200.

Widely Collected Classic Films and Genres

Collectors are drawn to classic movies not only for their artistic merit but also for the way they encapsulate the spirit of their era. Whether it’s the romance and intrigue of “Casablanca,” the grandeur and tragedy of “Gone with the Wind,” or the charm of “Singin’ in the Rain,” these films have left an indelible mark on Hollywood history and continue to inspire admiration among collectors worldwide.

Original “The Wizard of Oz” (1939) movie still, sold at auction for $450

Values for vintage movie stills can run the gamut at auction. Some can sell for as little as $1, while others that are in high demand can fetch hundreds or thousands at auction. 

Certain movies can be incredibly collectible and thus their memorabilia, including stills, commands consistently high prices. Early horror and monster movies, for example, are a hugely popular collecting category. For instance, an original 1935 portrait of Boris Karloff in “The Bride of Frankenstein” sold for $2,000 in 2019.

Fritz Lang’s masterpiece of silent cinema, “Metropolis” (1927), can bring serious prices for its original movie stills. “Metropolis” photos have brought as much as $2,500 for a single photo at auction.

A Note About Snipes and Stamps

While not collected for snipes and stamps on the backs of old movie stills, collectors do find informational value in these remnants. 

Snipes, or captions, were typed or glued to the back of the photos, describing the person, movie, or event depicted in the photograph. These snipes were essential for print media outlets, helping them fulfill space requirements and providing free publicity for the studios. Captions included on these snipes were often used in movie fan magazine write ups.

Reference stamps, such as photographer’s stamps or studio stamps, offer further context and provenance for collectors. These stamps authenticate the origin of the image and provide a link to the photographers and studios responsible for its creation. 

Conclusion: Find the Value of Your Classic Movie Stills

Despite the evolving landscape of film promotion, the enduring appeal of movie stills remains as potent as ever, albeit with a shifted purpose.

Vintage movie photos serve as a tangible link to the past, preserving the legacy of Hollywood’s golden age for future generations. Whether framed on a wall or tucked away in a collector’s archive, movie stills continue to captivate collectors and fans.

If you’re interested in learning the auction value of your collection of vintage movie stills, get in touch for a free valuation today.

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