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SUNDAY BRUNCH | Culture watch

Idols' Idylls

June 28, 1998|STEPHEN LEMONS | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Clark Gable looks stiff and surly. Seated beside his swimming pool, fully clothed in the hot Hollywood sun, his expression all but commands the unseen photographer to take the shot and be done with it. By contrast, his wife, Carole Lombard, is all seductive ease in her portrait. Poised on the edge of a table beneath a gigantic umbrella and wearing a backless one-piece bathing suit, she radiates regal indifference. She knows that men will wilt before her image.

Then there are the more playful shots. Tony Curtis and Janet Leigh lounge and laugh together at their Beverly Hills home. Tough-guy Jimmy Cagney sports a boyish smile, sitting on a diving board in his modest swimwear. Jean Harlow, looking a bit zaftig by today's standards, flashes a saucy bit of cheesecake.

These are a few of the ocular treats on view at the new exhibit "Hollywood Poolside: Classic Images of Legendary Stars" on display through Aug. 23 at the Los Angeles Public Library's Central Library. The show, in the library's first-floor gallery, includes 43 glossy black-and-white reproductions of the original movie magazine publicity stills with captions telling the often tragic tales behind the shimmering portraits.

Based on the 1997 Angel City Press book of the same title by authors/show curators Frans Evenhuis and Robert Landau, the exhibit focuses on those twin icons of the Hollywood dream, movie stars and swimming pools.

The studios produced an endless supply of these often uncredited publicity shots in hopes of getting them in publications like Photoplay, Life, Screen Book, True Story and Time.

The owlish and affable Dutch-born Evenhuis, a graphic designer, says most of the photos in his book were assembled after he and Landau decided to collaborate. "It's a collection from many, many places," he says. "Some are my own. Others, I went to stores and literally went through thousands of photos to find a few. Others came from collections. And also we got a lot from the [motion picture] academy.

"I've always been interested in Hollywood," Evenhuis says, "so for me this is a natural thing to do. I always wanted something to do with Hollywood that had a bit of class to it. There are not a lot of interesting books out there that deal with Hollywood in this sort of fashion. There are either books for people who are really into Hollywood--professionals--or ones that are sort of trashy."

Landau, a Los Angeles native and photographer, also came to the project with a fascination with the subject. The theme of stars lounging by their pools "represents what people refer to as the Golden Age of Hollywood, which for better or worse means the period when the studios had control of everything, including the off-screen lives of their stars."

The studios "were sort of creating this unreal world through the pictures of these idealized lives," he says. "It was a simpler time because people were creating this lifestyle that we all take for granted--this whole idea of sunshine and swimming pools. The studios realized very quickly that they could use that to promote the stars by getting them out there in these skimpy costumes and creating this sex appeal they could use to sell more movie tickets."

Landau and Evenhuis were approached by the Central Library after officials there noticed their book was so popular that copies were being stolen or vandalized for the pictures.

Using the original prints, Evenhuis says, "I had everything basically high-scanned--cleaned up." The library made the prints for the show without negatives, creating a successful illusion. The dye sublimation copies produced from Evenhuis' digital file maintain the classic look of silver gelatin prints.

One might expect such eye-catching images of these most attractive examples of the species at rest and play to speak for themselves. But Evenhuis and Landau's captions cast these idyllic pictures in a different light.

The story beside Clara Bow's photograph may be the saddest. The ebullient red-haired "It" girl is pictured bathing her legs in the pool of her Spanish-style Beverly Hills bungalow at the height of her Jazz Era fame. But Bow's life soon began to mirror the racy exploits of the characters she was portraying. Scandal ensued, and by 1933 her career was over, leading to several nervous breakdowns. Bow spent much of the rest of her life in sanatoriums, often sending out Christmas cards with the pathetic handwritten query, "Do you remember me? Clara Bow." She died in 1965.

*

"Hollywood Poolside: Classic Images of Legendary Stars" continues at the Central Library's first-floor gallery, main building, 5th and Flower streets. Call (213) 228-7000. The book "Hollywood Poolside" is available for purchase at the Library Store.

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