Collecting Film Stills: Part II Major Stars

August 11, 2016

This is the second of three articles on collecting early (pre-1940) vintage movie photos (stills). It focuses on stills showing the most famous and collected stars.
The first installment addressed stills of special visual interest; the third will discuss miscellaneous categories of stills for collecting. As noted in part one, vintage movie stills are old photos, often of great rarity and beauty, that can cost as little as a dollar in today’s market. By contrast, brand new prints from the negatives of famous "art" photographers routinely start in price in the thousands.
Most stills collectors specialize in favorite stars or certain movies (or horror films in general). Collectors soon learn which stars remain desirable and which of their film roles are most highly valued. When performers enjoyed long careers, stills from most of their films can be acquired for nominal prices; but those showing a performer from a handful of movies tend to fetch much higher prices. Examples include Clark Gable in “It Happened One Night” and “Gone with the Wind,” Marlene Dietrich in “Blue Angel” or “Morocco,” and William Powell in “The Thin Man” or “My Man Godfrey.” Famous and striking scenes also usually bring more than routine ones. The condition of a still does affect prices, but only modestly as compared with other fields of collecting. I favor and will pay more for stills that have snipes, i.e. strips of paper pasted on the back giving information about a photo, or ink stamps or typing providing documentary context, but some collectors prefer pristine prints that display better.
Stills showing stars who had brief careers tend to be the rarest and most avidly sought. Theda Bara stills always evoke bidding wars. Bara, born Theodosia Goodman, was the first screen vamp - its first sex symbol. I have never won a Bara original because I decline to pay hundreds of dollars. The still shown here from “Cleopatra” is a reissue from 1946 whose fancy explanatory snipe calls actress Maria Montez "Bara's Modern Prototype." I paid a dollar for this.
Just below Bara in valuation are pre-1929 stills showing Charlie Chaplin, Lon Chaney Sr. in horror scenes, and Buster Keaton in legendary films like “The General.” In the next rank are superior scenes showing comedian Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle, love-god Rudolph Valentino, cowboy-star William S. Hart, and Clara Bow - the “It Girl.” Iconic scenes of Jean Harlow, who died at 26 in 1937, sometimes soar in price. Very early John Wayne stills can join this pantheon. And all of these are trumped regularly by superior representations of Boris Karloff in “Frankenstein,” “Bride of Frankenstein,” or “The Mummy.” Bela Lugosi in “Dracula” or the most iconic movie scenes - such as Cagney's grapefruit in the face, or Gable and Colbert behind the “Wall of Jericho” are also popular.
Most stills showing venerable stars are downright cheap compared to contemporaneous objects in other fields of collecting. Stills from the 1910s should be considered rare. Depending upon condition, those showing forgotten performers should cost less than $10. Those showing eternals like Gish, Pickford, and Fairbanks should start around $10. Routine stills of top stars of the '20s can often be bought for less than $5, but good scenes from still-remembered movies cost more - sometimes much more. For the 1930s, expect to find routine scenes of your favorite big names in the $1 to $5 class. Even great scenes from all but the most collected films should not cost more than $20. Assess for yourself the desirability of each scene offered. Stills have no absolute value. Each is worth what collectors are willing to pay at that exact opportunity. I encourage knowledgeable collectors to outbid (modestly) competitors when they decide that a still has a historic or aesthetic worth that others do not seem to recognize or appreciate. I do this all the time. I would never, however, decide that I had to have a still at any price. Bidding wars among obsessively competitive collectors sometimes lift prices to ridiculous levels and skew the market.
Stills of stars can be divided into numerous categories, including scenic, keybooks, candids, newsphotos, and publicity shots. We'll address the first three. The most typical/common movie still shows a scene from a film. Every film that releases stills uses scenic photos. These were sent to theaters, newspapers, and magazines to help publicize films. Scenic stills thus tend to be most common in terms of the number of different ones released and quantity of each printed. Keybook stills are photos that studios mounted on linen and preserved in notebooks as part of master files kept during production. Because they were never run off in quantity for publicity purposes, they are much scarcer than ordinary stills. Some show the same scenes sent to theaters, but many are images that survive nowhere else. Surprisingly, keybook stills sometimes sell for no more than mass-printed stills. Candid stills show stars on the set, sometimes while being filmed, or at home or pursuing their private interests. While many candids might be released in connection with a film, individually they are probably rarer than scenic stills. Not all candids prove popular with collectors. Collectors prize those that include films' directors and visiting celebrities, or give odd behind-the-scenes peeks into stars' lives, or at the skills that went into filmmaking.
Let's look at some of my favorite stills of stars, such as the posed scene where Fatty Arbuckle examines the skull of Cowboy star Bull Montana. Scenes uniting several stars naturally fetch more than singles. The still from “Wings” - the first film to win Best Picture - uniting Clara Bow with Buddy Rogers (who later married Mary Pickford) is another favorite, as is the scene from “Sparrows” (1926) where Little Mary is visited by Christ. The scene here from “Rasputin” (1932) is special because it unites all three Barrymore siblings in the only film they shared. The candid shot of Bette Davis and Henry Fonda, working together in “Jezebel” (1937/39), is poignant because its snipe predicts that they will "steal the thunder of 'Gone With the Wind'." Other choice stills here show: William S. Hart dancing in “Branding Broadway” (1918); Katherine Hepburn in “Christopher Strong” (1933); Gable and Colbert in “It Happened One Night” (1934); Paul Robeson in “The Emperor Jones” (1933); and Dolores del Rio and Al Jolson in “Wonderbar” (1934). My gem, however, is the great face-off between Hattie McDaniels and Oliver Hardy in “Zenobia” (1939) - the same year she gave her Oscar-winning performance in “Gone With the Wind.”


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