~ Arts and Culture

★ Love in La-La Land: Hollywood Valentines

Betty Grable as Cupid for Valentine's Day 1937

★ Happy Valentine’s Day everyone! I couldn’t let this day pass without taking a look at rather a bygone tradition in Hollywood – the Valentine’s Day publicity shot. It’s where upcoming young starlets (and sometimes even well-established stars) would pose for cutesy Valentine’s Day themed portraits, which would be distributed by the studios to the fan magazines for a bit of quick publicity. Having started in the 1920s, the concept survived right up to the dying days of the studio system in the late 1950s and early 1960s, as actors became independent and no longer had studio management attempting to wrest value-for-money out of their salaried stars.

For a day that is all about hearts and flowers, I must say that having seen innumerable examples of Hollywood Valentine photos, I’m quite impressed with just how inventive the studios were in actually styling these photoshoots. Over several decades and for literally hundreds of actresses, they came up with so many variations on the theme that I’ve never seen two of these pictures that are quite the same. There are, however, a few main ‘styles’ that I think they can be divided into – I think of them as costume, frame, lighting, background, and situation.

First, there is the ‘costume’ kind, which often involves a fancy-dress outfit, but can also include a more normal outfit embellished with hearts, cherubs etc. This gorgeous picture (above) of Betty Grable dressed as Cupid for Paramount Pictures in 1937 is a great example (I particularly love the tulle ruffles). Next, the ‘frame’ style in which the star is positioned either in front, behind or sometimes through a literal frame, very often heart shaped. The (below left) picture of Arlene Dahl from the 1950s shows exactly what I mean, and also plays on the ‘Queen of Hearts’ idea, which gives a nice crossover with the ‘costume’ type. Below right, this photo of Jean Arthur from the 1930s is an absolutely gorgeous example of ‘lighting’ in Valentine shots, in which a special heart-shaped lighting masque is used to frame the subject (another crossover in styles).

The ‘background’ type involves subjects being photographed in front of a large heart, several smaller hearts, or some other love-themed backdrop, but usually with the distinction that if the background were removed it would simply leave a very beautiful yet completely normal portrait. This lovely 1940s photo of Dorothy Hart (below left) is a typical example (and she has the perfect name for it too…). It’s this straightforward use of a background that seems to be the most prevalent kind of Valentine publicity shot, though that’s unsurprising given the relative ease with which it can be achieved. At the opposite end of the spectrum in terms of complexity, is the ‘situation’ style. This involves placing the star on a complete love-themed set, or with elaborate props, and frequently seems to be intended to echo more everyday situations. A great example of the ‘situation’ style is this early 1940s photo of Ann Rutherford (below right) tending to a garden of heart-growing plants while wearing a very girl-next-door outfit. It even has a white picket fence, and you couldn’t get more ‘everyday American’ than that!

So, there are what I see as the five main varieties of Hollywood Valentine. There can be a lot of crossover, I’ll admit, but I’ve never yet seen one of these publicity photos that doesn’t basically fall into one of the five groups. I would love to be surprised though, so if you’ve come across a vintage Hollywood Valentine that breaks the mould, please do let me know in the comments! And wherever you are, whatever you’re doing, and whoever you’re with (or not, as the case may be), I hope you have a very Happy Valentine’s Day!

Much love,

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