The Motion Picture Department is home to nearly one million film stills covering over 100 years of movie making. Historians, scholars, students, and others from a broad range of disciplines contact us every year for access to the stills collection, both in person and remotely, from all over the world.
It is fairly simple and straightforward to find and select stills when requested by a film title or by a person’s name. That is how the stills in the collection are physically organized in the vault; it is also how stills are most frequently requested. But what about requests for stills that show certain subjects, such as World War I airplanes, stars with their pets, Technicolor cameras on set, or…
This was the task at hand when we received a request for stills of stars wearing beautiful jewelry that could be used in conjunction with the upcoming Carole Tanenbaum Vintage Collection Jewelry Trunk Show and Sale.
In this case, the catalog record unfortunately does little in trying to get at stills that show lovely pieces of jewelry on lovely actresses. The catalog record for a still typically captures the title of the film and the actors and actresses shown in the still, but doesn’t go to the deeper level of what objects happen to be in the still, or how well accessorized the actresses are. This is where creative thinking, some research, and of course knowledge of the stills collection come into play.
A little research into jewelry designers such as Joseff of Hollywood, whose company designed jewelry for films for over 30 years, was the first step that led us to several titles as likely sources of stills featuring outstanding jewelry: Gone With the Wind, Casablanca, Humoresque, Kismet, Singin’ in the Rain, Breakfast at Tiffany’s, and Cleopatra were just a few. Our search quickly led us to the Warner Bros. Keybook Stills Collection for an abundance of stills of Ingrid Bergman in Casablanca (1942) and Joan Crawford in Humoresque (1946), both very well appointed in 1940’s jewelry.
Images of even more stunning jewelry creations, worn by Grace Kelly and Jessie Royce Landis in To Catch a Thief (1955) and by Elizabeth Taylor in Cleopatra (1963), were found in the Core Publicity Stills Collection.
Film stills of this era were primarily shot and printed in black and white (even the stills shot for color films). So for color images, we consulted a collection of gorgeous color transparencies from the 1950’s featuring such stars as Mitzi Gaynor in a publicity portrait for There’s No Business Like Show Business (1954) and Dorothy Dandridge in a publicity portrait for Island in the Sun (1957).
It never fails to surprise me how many different ways there are to access the stills collection, and for so many different and unexpected purposes. Requests like these keep an already fascinating job even more fascinating!
Nancy Kauffman is the Archivist for the Stills, Posters and Paper Collections in the Moving Image Department.