In the throes of the Great Depression, the nation looked to Hollywood to buoy its spirts, to escape from mediocrity. Actors were immaculate, sculptural, their pictures flooding magazines and newspapers. “People went to the movies in the 1930s,” says Ann Shumard, senior curator of photographs at the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery, “just to lift their spirits, to be transported to a world, to get lost in it.”

But Hollywood’s publicity stills were prosaic. Modeled after commercial portraits, they were flat, shot with a single light. Then came George Hurrell, whose portraits were refulgent, dripping with glamour.

“He had tremendous dexterity,” says Shumard, the curator behind “Star Power,” a new exhibition at the Washington, D.C. museum. The show, of more than 20 pictures, spotlights the leading men and women of Hollywood’s golden age, among them actors Spencer Tracy and Myrna Loy. “The way he animates his sitters,” Shumard observes, is his abiding gift: “He can sculpt with light.”

Spencer Tracy
Spencer Tracy by George Hurrell, gelatin silver print, 1936 National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution
Myrna Loy
Myrna Loy by George Hurrell, gelatin silver print National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution

Born in Cincinnati, Ohio, in June 1904, Hurrell moved to Chicago as a child and studied painting at the Art Institute and the neighboring Academy of Fine Arts. He eventually quit school to pursue painting full-time. To make ends meet, Hurrell took up hand-coloring in a photography studio and, flitting between jobs, learned the art of retouching and darkroom work.

Hurrell ventured west in May 1925, landing in Laguna Beach, California, a popular art colony at the time, before establishing himself in Los Angeles. At 24, the five-foot-nine Hurrell, his expressive face crowned with dark, curly hair, quickly became one of the city’s most sought-after photographers, earning him the nicknames “The Magic Man of Hollywood” and “The Rembrandt of the Shutters.” Hurrell was clear-eyed, attuned to beauty like a composer to harmony. For him, photography was instinctual, all-knowing.

One of his pictures of Jean Harlow, shot for a 1935 Vanity Fair feature, is a prime example. Known for her breakout role in the World War I epic Hell’s Angels, Harlow was the bombshell of Hollywood. In Hurrell’s portrait, the actress rests on a bear rug, her platinum blond curls echoing the folds of her creamy chiffon skirt; Harlow is a goddess, her eyes fixed on something out of frame. “A white dress is always more arresting, in the camera and in life,” Hurrell told his fellow photographer Mark A. Vieira. “Men always turn to look at a white-gowned woman.” But it isn’t just the dress. Harlow carried it, playfully, delicately. She was, as Hurrell put it in a 1945 interview, “the most glamorous beauty we have had in this generation.”

Jean Harlow
Jean Harlow by George Hurrell, gelatin silver print National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution

The magic of Hurrell’s pictures, Shumard notes, is in the relationship between the sitter and the camera, something the photographer can set in motion but never fully control, like a stage play when the curtains go up: Anything can happen.

Harlow had that spontaneity about her, brimming with playfulness. Far from camera shy, Harlow knew how to move, how to enchant. “I was the third party,” Hurrell observed, so natural was Harlow before the camera. “They were the conspirators.”

Hollywood in the 1930s was ripe with Harlows, with stars who exuded grace, like Greek gods to be marveled at, seen, ravishingly, from afar. “Apollos and Venuses are everywhere,” photographer Cecil Beaton said in 1930. “It is as if the whole race of gods had come to California.”

It’s easy to lose oneself in Hurrell’s 1936 portrait of Clark Gable and Joan Crawford, Hollywood royalty who frequently starred together in MGM films. In the decadent photograph, Crawford throws her head back, her skin incandescent against Gable’s black suit, the dark spangles of her gossamer-like dress catching the light. “Each of them holds their own,” Shumard says of the picture. “One doesn’t dominate the other.” Gable, in Hurrell’s view, was an actor’s actor, with a personality “bigger than life.” And Crawford was Hurrell’s classic beauty, notable for the “lovely modeling in her face.”

Bill Bojangles Robinson
Bill "Bojangles" Robinson by George Hurrell, gelatin silver print on paper, 1935 National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution © The Estate of George Hurrell

At their first meeting, Crawford reportedly found Hurrell’s directions overbearing. “You can’t talk to her like that,” the actress’s publicity assistant warned Hurrell. “She knows how to pose.” Two days later, Hurrell was having lunch when a woman ran up to him and kissed his hand, “Please forgive me, Mr. Hurrell,” said a remorseful Crawford. “I’ve just seen the proofs. They are so very, very lovely.”

Hurrell shot Crawford countless times, in one case making 500 plates in one evening. She described him as “an octopus,” zipping across the studio to get the perfect shot. Hurrell, in turn, was smitten with her: “If I were a sculptor, I would be satisfied with just doing Joan Crawford all the time.”

The masterful Hurrell knew what he wanted from his pictures, something spellbinding, a dream, frozen in time. He was uninhibited, an extrovert brimming with energy and never standing on ceremony.

Hurrell took his craft seriously, though, overseeing every detail of the shoot. He favored women with curves, as he asserted in a 1945 interview, with “luscious thick hair worn free and flowing,” and “lips emphasized.” Each picture had to be pristine, enviable.

“Maybe it was too artificial, like a Cinderella story,” Hurrell conceded, years later, “but it was a great life.”

Johnny Weissmuller
Johnny Weissmuller by George Hurrell, gelatin silver print, 1932 National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution

That greatness comes through in Hurrell’s pictures of the tap-dancing showman Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, poised elegantly on a backlit staircase, and the svelte actor Johnny Weissmuller, shot on the set of the 1936 film Tarzan Escapes. As Shumard says, “Each picture has its own presence.”

Indeed, Hurrell’s portrait of Marlene Dietrich sounds a distinct, sparkling note. The slinky, smoky-voiced actress, known for her starring roles in Morocco and The Blue Angel, is clad in a gown of sheer folds, spilling over her pointed leg. Donning a brilliant white headpiece of fringed feathers, Dietrich is radiant. The light catches her translucent sleeve and the wall in the middle ground. Conscious of her every move, Dietrich insisted on bringing a full-length mirror to the shoot. She was a perfectionist, through and through.

Hurrell first saw Dietrich on a Paramount set. She was perched on a staircase, a queen towering over the cast and crew. “In a glance,” Hurrell said, “she knew what every one of those 65 men was doing,” as biographer Whitney Stine wrote in 1976. For Dietrich, nothing could be left to chance.

Marlene Dietrich
Marlene Dietrich by George Hurrell, gelatin silver print National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution

But Hurrell was after something more spontaneous. For him, glamour was effortless, “nothing restrained,” he once told a reporter. In his shoots, Hurrell played music, often jazz, and danced about, doing whatever he could to catch his sitter off guard, to peer into their eyes for a second, unawares.

Standing before Hurrell’s pictures, time is suspended. They are not just beautiful. They are tender, mesmerizing. His airy, velvety portraits cast a whimsical glow. “Hurrell set a standard for what a star could look like,” Shumard says. The sitters in his pictures were not everyday people. They were visions, like an iridescent starling that perches on a branch, not a second too long. They existed in another world, one immaculate and gauzy, veiled in mystery.

Among the most elusive pictures in the show is Hurrell’s portrait of the Swedish-born actress Greta Garbo. “This girl has everything,” Variety said of the star of Ninotchka and Grand Hotel, “with looks, acting ability and personality.” Hurrell’s picture is sumptuous, with Garbo bedecked in glittering rosettes of diamonds, her hair falling in perfect ringlets, a lush gray-black fur encircling her plunging neckline. But the picture is all eyes. Framed under high, arched brows, her glance is mischievous, almost sinister. She sees something the viewer cannot and is tickled by the thought. Hurrell’s pictures have that brilliant ambiguity about them. Nothing is oversimplified. The stars he shot are doubtless impeccable, but they are not without depth. In their far-off glances and pensive wonder, they are fragile, breakable.

Greta Garbo
Greta Garbo by George Hurrell, gelatin silver print National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution

Hurrell learned, shooting Hollywood’s most illustrious, that everyone is vulnerable, if caught in the wrong light. “Even veterans before cameras dreaded portrait sittings,” Hurrell told Vieira. They had a “surprising inferiority complex” when faced with that most intimate medium, the portrait.

Garbo was especially prickly on that score. A beauty “from any angle,” as Hurrell attested, in her shoot she was stiff as stone. Hurrell hummed and jumped up and down, to no avail. Garbo was striking, but she was a statue. “She liked to look grim and dramatic,” Hurrell surmised, “as if the world were coming to an end.”

In Hurrell’s best pictures, though, the world was just beginning. It was filled with light, sometimes set against dark shadows, but always artfully placed, and full of whimsy.

At the end of her shoot, Garbo gathered her things and walked out, remarking to an assistant on the way, “There’s a crazy man in there.”

“Star Power: Photographs From Hollywood’s Golden Age by George Hurrell” is on view through January 5, 2025, at the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C.

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