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Louise Brooks in Overland Stage Raiders (1938)

The only thing tragic about Louise Brooks’s appearance in Overland Stage Raiders (1938) is that it was her final film. No longer the icon of the silent screen, here she is unrecognisable. Her exoticism has turned to homeliness and her famous Pandora’s Box (1929) bob has been replaced with a shoulder length cut as Lulu meets rising star, John Wayne:

Available on a cheap 20-disc John Wayne DVD set.

Veronica Lake in Flesh Feast (1970)

The beautiful Veronica Lake starred in now-classic noirs such as This Gun For Hire (1942), The Glass Key (1942) and The Blue Dahlia (1946), and also sparkled in Sullivan’s Travels (1941), one of the finest films of the 1940s. Yet she went on to have a tragic life. Dropped from Paramount at the end of the 1940s, she failed to continue her career independent of a studio contract. Washed up, she wound up working in bars and turned to drink and eventually died at the age of 53. Her final acting appearance was in the cheap Flesh Feast (1970), a world away from her films of the forties.

Available on a schlocky DVD release.

Joan Crawford in Trog (1970)

By the 1940s Joan Crawford was giving some of the most stylised and unique performances of classic cinema. It felt like films such as Mildred Pierce (1945), Humoresque (1946) and Possessed (1947) were constructed around her image of a fragile yet powerful woman. Kicked out of the studio system and into the world of low budget horror, Crawford still attempts to hold some control through the mannered nature of her performance. But then again she was starring in films such as Straight-Jacket (1964) and Berserk (1967). Once an icon of refinement, here we see the surreal sight of the great Joan Crawford on the quest to discover a frozen monkey…. thing, in her final theatrically-released film, Trog (1970).

Amazingly this one was respectably released by Warner Bros. in the DVD boxset Cult Camp Classics vol. 2: Women in Peril.

Mae West in Sextette (1978)

Mae West, one of the true comediennes of the studio era, famously returned to the screen in the 1970s after a 30-year hiatus for the films Myra Breckinridge (1970) and Sextette (1978). As the name would suggest West continued to play a sex-kitten even though she was in her eighties.

Available on a now-expensive out-of-print DVD.

Bette Davis in Wicked Stepmother (1989)

Of course Bette Davis continued to work non-stop from the 1930s to the 1980s, eventually featuring in over 100 movies. Her final film was Wicked Stepmother (1980), an eighties ‘comedy’ that has come to be widely reviled, partly for its sense of exploiting a once-great star. Rumour has it that she even walked off the picture mid-production. Most shocking, however, is how frail Davis looks at the very end of her life. Yet even though she looks impossibly skeletal, she still seems tough as ever.

This one is currently unavailable and DVD, but can be found on an old VHS release.

If you know of any other final films as tragic, surreal or as shocking as these, please let me know.

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Gloria Swanson by Steichen

Today I visited the Vanity Fair Portraits exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery, a fascinating collection of photographs ranging firstly from the 1910s-30s and then from the 1980s to the present day. 

The magazine folded in 1936 only to be revived in 1983 but began remarkably early. In 1913 Condé Nast brought out the first issue of what was then known as Dress and Vanity Fair and those early issues published portraits of personalities such as a young Irving Berlin and an old Thomas Hardy.

Through to the twenties images of movie stars become a staple of the Hollywood magazine: Fred and Adele Astaire, Joan Crawford, Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., W.C. Fields, Garbo, Lillian and Dorothy Gish, Gloria Swanson, Charlie Chaplin, Fairbanks & Pickford, Gary Cooper, Cary Grant, Katherine Hepburn, Paul Robeson, Charles Laughton and Peter Lorre.

It also published portraits of writers: H.G. Wells, George Bernard Shaw, Virginia Woolf, Ernest Hemingway and James Joyce, as well as dancers, composers, scientists and high-profile directors: Nureyev & Pavlova, Stravinsky, Einstein & Eisenstein, and Ernst Lubitsch. 

Vanity Fair, then, became a great portrait of the age during which it was published. Three parts fan, fashion and Hollywood magazine it both revelled in and further circulated the image of Hollywood and its stars as perfect and ethereal.

However these photographs seem to do two things at once: on the one hand provide a stylised image of its subject, and on the other capture a candid, revealing portrait of them. The formal composition, pose and lighting creates a barrier between the image and the viewer while the connection with its subject pulls that barrier back down.

Photographers of the original Vanity Fair included Baron de Meyer and the versatile Edward Steichen, who took the enigmatic and powerful shot of a veiled Gloria Swanson (above). The revived Vanity Fair included such famed photographers as Herb Ritts and Annie Liebowitz, and during the past 25 years has continued to publish many of the iconic photographs of movie stars during that recent era.

The exhibition continues until 26 May 2008 so if you happen to be in town, make sure you take a look. Below is a snap I took on exiting: Jean Harlow looking over London.

Jean Harlow in London

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