Light & Noir: Through the Curator’s Lens

Red Carpet Season is well underway, and if you watched the Golden Globes last night, wasn’t it nice to glimpse a bit of classic Hollywood glamour?

Here at the Skirball, we’re approaching the halfway mark of our own homage to the Golden Age of American filmmaking, Light & Noir: Exiles and Emigres in Hollywood, 1933-1950. As KCRW’s Edward Goldman says, “From the get-go, it’s a winner.” With only about seven weeks to go until the proverbial credits roll on the show, I sat down with curator Doris Berger, who conceived of the exhibition and worked tirelessly on it for more than two years before its October “premiere.”

Curator Doris Berger in a vintage dress for the opening of Light and Noir.

Curator Doris Berger in a vintage dress for the opening of Light & Noir.

 

Is there one particular object in the exhibition that moves you especially deeply?
There are so many objects that move me in this exhibition. It was really hard to decide sometimes what to include and what to leave out. The correspondence of Carl Laemmle, the founder of Universal Pictures, to his extended family in 1938 is incredibly affecting—full of humility and conviction to help others. In a letter to his nephew William Wyler, Laemmle pleads for him to do everything he possibly can to help other refugees. Here’s a quote from that letter: “The Jewish situation in Germany has been getting on my nerves for a long, long time. I feel that these poor, unfortunate people need help the worst way. … If you want to do something really big—something that will give you an immense amount of pleasure—issue one or more affidavits, as many as your means permit. … I feel that every person in America, Jew or non-Jew, with a heart, should do his bit, and thereby get an immense amount of satisfaction and possibly save one or more lives.”

Laemmle also wrote a simple Christmas card to other family members on which he writes, Continue reading

The Shadow of Harvey

The design I created for the VHS release of Harvey is now being used on the DVD covers. Harvey is one of the many Golden Age of Hollywood films explored in the Skirball exhibition Light & Noir: Exiles and Émigrés, 1933–1950.

The design I created for the VHS release of Harvey is now being used on the DVD covers. Harvey is one of the many Golden Age of Hollywood films explored in the Skirball exhibition Light & Noir: Exiles and Émigrés, 1933–1950.

 

It was a dark rainy night in 1989. Tanks were rolling into Tiananmen Square. I dodged flaming cars returning to our residence from the hotel near the airport to rescue my design portfolio. I figured I was going to need it. I was right. In two weeks I was working in L.A.

I got a job with a design firm in the old Helms building on Venice Boulevard. An old friend scooped me up right away. In those days I really had chops.

Yeah, we had some accounts in the entertainment sector. Our specialty was creating airbrush illustrations for the front of video boxes, often using disparate scenes from the movie to create whole new scenes that do not even actually appear. But that was only part of our ruse. You see, even if the movie was B&W—as most classics are—the covers would always be in color. And if that wasn’t enough, the finished product would then be used in all subsequent advertising and promotion for the movie, all over the world. Okay, I’m not proud of it, but that’s the way it was back then.

We got the gig designing packaging for Harvey, a Henry Koster movie about a man (played by James Stewart) whose imaginary friend is a human-sized rabbit named Harvey.

Watch a scene from Harvey:

My task was to examine hundreds of stills from the movie and do several compositions. Continue reading

President’s Greeting: Jan/Feb 2015

Ernst van Leyden, Portrait of Lion and Marta Feuchtwanger, 1946, oil painting. Courtesy of Feuchtwanger Memorial Library, Special Collections, University of Southern California Libraries. On view now in our exhibition Light & Noir: Exiles and Émigrés in Hollywood, 1933–1950.

Ernst van Leyden, Portrait of Lion and Marta Feuchtwanger, 1946, oil painting. Courtesy of Feuchtwanger Memorial Library, Special Collections,
University of Southern California Libraries.
On view now in our exhibition Light & Noir: Exiles and Émigrés in Hollywood, 1933–1950.

 

I had the privilege of knowing Marta Feuchtwanger, pictured above with her beloved husband, Lion Feuchtwanger (1884–1958), the famed German Jewish writer. She and I were friends for two decades in her later years (we met in 1964; she died in 1987). From her I learned of Lion’s celebrated novels and plays, his outspoken opposition to the Nazi regime, his rescue from Nazi-occupied France, and his new life with her in Los Angeles. Their magnificent home in Pacific Palisades is now known as Villa Aurora, and stands as a memorial to the exiles and émigrés who found refuge from Nazi persecution in the United States.

Marta told me how Lion spoke out against Adolf Hitler as early as the 1920s. Continue reading

Light & Noir: A “True Hollywood Story”

These ten Declaration of Intent documents are on view in <i>Light & Noir</i>

These ten Declaration of Intent documents are on view in Light & Noir.

For the European exiles and émigrés featured in our exhibition Light & Noir: Exiles and Émigrés in Hollywood, 1933–1950, Hollywood was much more than the glamorous place of fame and fortune we often think of now. During those years, in juxtaposition to the turmoil brewing in Nazi Europe, Hollywood was a place where these émigrés could take refuge and start their lives anew.

This clip from the PBS documentary Cinema’s Exiles gives some context about what émigrés were fleeing from. You can watch the full film on the big screen here at the Skirball on March 1.

But, as is still the case, immigrating to the United States was no simple task. In addition to the geographical distance they had to overcome, émigrés also had to comply with the United States’ strict immigration laws. Many of them came on visitor visas that would expire after a certain amount of time. If they wanted to legally extend their stay—and, unsurprisingly, many of them did—they needed to file a Declaration of Intention. Not unlike what is today called a “green card,” the Declaration granted permanent residency in the U.S. And while it wouldn’t automatically grant these émigrés citizenship, it was the first step they had to take if they wanted to acquire it.

On loan from the National Archives at Riverside, the original Declaration of Intention forms currently on display in Light & Noir reveal some lesser-known facts about people we know well by different names. For instance, actress Marlene Dietrich (Shanghai Express, A Foreign Affair) and director Henry Koster (It Started with Eve, Harvey) were actually born as Maria Magdalene Sieber and Hermann Julius Kosterlitz. Marlene_Dietrich_Declaration_of_Intention

Not every category could be answered as matter-of-factly as one’s name… Continue reading

When Bauhaus Meets Judaica: A Unique Hanukkah Lamp

Hanukkah lamp, Ludwig Y. Wolpert, ca. 1960. From the Skirball collection.

Hanukkah lamp, Ludwig Y. Wolpert, ca. 1960. From the Skirball collection.

Hanukkah lamps come in all styles and materials. Here at the Skirball, the permanent collection of lamps is as varied as the artists who crafted them, each piece a reflection of the generation and the community for which it was fashioned. For example, lamps from countries surrounding the Mediterranean were demonstrably influenced by Sephardic traditions and style. Others reveal inspiration from modernist innovations popular in early-twentieth-century Europe.

The lamp pictured above, currently on display in the Skirball’s core exhibition, Visions and Values: Jewish Life from Antiquity to America, was designed by German sculptor Ludwig Yehuda Wolpert, the son of an Orthodox rabbi. Born in Hildesheim, Germany, Wolpert began his artistic studies at the School for Arts and Crafts in Franfkfurt. He then worked as a sculptor, specializing in metalwork. Artistically, Wolpert was inspired by the Bauhaus slogan “form follows function,” and also by Leo Horovitz, a silversmith and designer of Judaica. Under Horovitz’s guidance, Wolpert became involved in creating modern Jewish ceremonial art. One of his signature practices was to incorporate an abstract of a Hebrew letter in his pieces. The design of this lamp recalls the Hebrew letter shin.  Continue reading

Top 10 Items in the Femme Fatale’s Arsenal

Group1With the exhibitions Light & Noir: Exiles and Émigrés in Hollywood, 1933–1950 and The Noir Effect in full swing, noir is in the air here at the Skirball. Inspired by the seductive femme fatales of film noir, I’ve selected ten alluring items from our Light & Noir Holiday Pop-Up Shop that are perfect for the mysterious woman on your gift list. There’s no need to go on a manhunt for a creative Hanukkah present or saucy stocking-stuffer this year. Skip the bedlam at the mall and slip into the boudoir at the pop-up shop for some of these sassy and clever gifts.

  1. The Perfect Red Lipstick
    As the chaotic holidays approach, I heed this advice from Elizabeth Taylor: “Pour yourself a drink, put on some lipstick, and pull yourself together.” Red lipstick (and perhaps a little gin!) really is the perfect pick-me-up. During WWII, cosmetics entrepreneur Elizabeth Arden encouraged women to wear red lips as a symbol of victory. (The beauty company even released a line of cosmetics for the Marine Corps Women’s Reserve, which included the shade “Victory Red” to coordinate with their uniforms.) Personally, I look to locally-based Bésame Cosmetics for long-lasting, classically glamorous shades of red. One of my personal favorites is Red Velvet. Every Bésame product is re-created from popular vintage formulas and lovingly packaged in a retro style. Learn for yourself how to apply that perfect femme fatale look on Sunday, December 7, when Bésame Cosmetics founder Gabriela Hernandez gives a makeup talk and demo in conjunction with the exhibition Light & Noir: Exiles and Émigrés in Hollywood, 1933–1950.
  2. An Alluring Perfume
    Perfumer Margot Elena created this irresistible “Femme Fatale” collection of fragrances, part of her TokyoMilk/DARK line. Each fragrance is stunningly packaged in matte-black bottles featuring charming lithograph illustrations for each scent. My favorite is “Everything & Nothing” No. 10, with its light hint of citrus. I’m also a fan of the coordinating hand creams.
  3. Compact Mirror
    A slim, stylish compact mirror is a must for every glamour girl to ensure her makeup is always in place. I myself designed the pattern featured on this cute compact from LucyLu as a nod to the iconic film noir motif of striped shadows. The compact is accompanied by a protective silver leatherette pouch with a magnetic closure, which helps keep the outside of the mirror shiny and scratch-free. Continue reading

Dressed to Kill: Film Noir Fashion

This Mildred Pierce suit worn by Joan Crawford is on display in the exhibition Light & Noir, on view through March 1. With the mirrors behind it, you can appreciate the costume design fully. Courtesy of Warner Bros. Corporate Archive.

This Mildred Pierce suit worn by Joan Crawford is on display in the exhibition Light & Noir, on view through March 1. With the mirrors behind it, you can appreciate the costume design fully. Courtesy of Warner Bros. Corporate Archive. 

Taking a historical and aesthetic approach to film noir fashion, educator Kimberly Truhler has connected the dots between the realities of American life in the 1930s and 1940s (a harsh economic climate, social and cultural trends, wartime struggles) and the amazing resourcefulness and creativity of cinematic costume designers. Her informative and visually appealing website GlamAmor demonstrates how these classic trends have endured and continue to influence today’s fashion. In conjunction with the exhibition Light & Noir: Exiles and Émigrés in Hollywood, 1933–1950, Truhler appears at the Skirball on December 7 to give a lecture on “The History of Fashion in Film Noir.” Below, we ask the style maven about the origins of her passion for film fashion history and for a sneak peek at some of the films and designers she’ll be discussing.

What was the first film noir you watched, and what did you think of it at the time?

My father has been a police officer all of my life, and he loved to watch film noir when he came home from work. As a result, I saw movies like The Maltese Falcon, The Big Sleep, and The Thin Man when I was just a child, and I absolutely adored them. I was drawn to the mood and mystery of these films first, and then started to really appreciate their overall style. Film noir was my introduction to classic cinema and it began a lifelong passion for it. I suspect it’s that way for many other people as well. Continue reading

The Cameraman Always Shoots Twice: Enter to Win

Old-school signage (and hey, look, a pay phone!) can add a retro feel to your photos. Submit yours to the Skirball’s “Shoot Your L.A. Noirscape” photo contest today!

Old-school signage (and hey, look, a pay phone!) can add a retro feel to your photos. Submit yours to the Skirball’s “Shoot Your L.A. Noirscape” photo contest today!

I knew I was in trouble the minute this contest walked through my door. Suddenly my random, obsessive photography of my surroundings acquired a sinister focus. I saw shady characters everywhere—thick-necked loan sharks chomping cigars, aspiring starlets with murder in their eyes, barflies in disheveled suits with a story to sell, stage-door Johnnys, short-order cooks, ex-boxers with prison tattoos, nosy landladies, guys with five o’clock shadows who spent all day studying the daily racing form—the city was chock full of ‘em, and I got them all in front of my camera, one way or another. I prowled the city at night, getting lost in a twisted warren of steam-shrouded back alleys, on the hunt for fresh material. Two filters fought tooth and nail for dominance in my photo stream—Tonal, Noir, Tonal, Noir, Ansel? No, Noir! I was spiraling out of control, shooting everything at Dutch angles, falling headlong into the crazy, disorienting shadows I once composed artfully from a safe distance. I was a goner, a stiff, a patsy, and then at the very last second I was pulled back from the brink. By a dame, no less.

“You’re not eligible for this contest. See right here in the contest rules? It’s not open to relatives of staff.” Continue reading

A Noir View of Los Angeles

In celebration of the new exhibitions Light & Noir: Exiles and Émigrés in Hollywood, 1933–1950 and The Noir Effect, we asked photographer Helen K. Garber—who has several pieces on display in The Noir Effect—to walk us through some of her favorite places in Los Angeles to shoot. Garber is also the instructor of “Urban Noir: Night Photography in Los Angeles,” a six-session course starting this week, offered by the Skirball in partnership with Otis College of Art and Design. Garber is known for her striking nighttime landscapes, including A Night View of Los Angeles, a five-foot-high, forty-foot-long, 360-degree panorama of the entire city taken at night.

The Santa Monica Pier is my favorite location to shoot, especially at night and in the fog. It was a very creepy place when I first moved to Santa Monica in the early 1980s. Back then, soon after sunset, the area would turn into a real Night of the Living Dead. The tourists would flee and some of the shady characters who populated Palisades Park would rise and approach anyone around. Things started to change in 1989, when Cirque du Soleil began to set up at the pier and attract people with money. The addition of a police station, new restaurants, and the redesign of Pacific Park made it a tourist mecca. Now the pier is as packed at night as it is during the day, and no one feels threatened (unless you find people dressed as cartoon characters scary).

The Santa Monica Pier is my favorite location to shoot, especially at night and in the fog. It was a very creepy place when I first moved to Santa Monica in the early 1980s. Back then, soon after sunset, the area would turn into a real Night of the Living Dead. The tourists would flee and some of the shady characters who populated Palisades Park would rise and approach anyone around. Things started to change in 1989, when Cirque du Soleil began to set up at the pier and attract people with money. The addition of a police station, new restaurants, and the redesign of Pacific Park made it a tourist mecca. Now the pier is as packed at night as it is during the day, and no one feels threatened (unless you find people dressed as cartoon characters scary).

 

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President’s Greeting: Nov/Dec 2014

The Herscher family, San Jose, CA, 1958

A rare photograph of the extended Herscher family, San Jose, CA, 1958.

Memory is meaning. It is how we understand existence. It is how we locate ourselves in time. It is what we learn and how we learn. Amnesia is a tragedy, for in severing us from the past, it severs us from ourselves. Who are we without that frame of reference? How can we know where we’re going if we don’t know where we’ve been?

The debut of the Skirball’s new exhibition Light & Noir: Exiles and Émigrés in Hollywood, 1933–1950 prompts these reflections.

Continue reading