During Hollywood’s Golden Age the movies were marketed through the stars and their fashions. The visual presentation of these alluring features came in colorful posters and glossy photographs, all reproduced in magazines and newspapers. And before the stars’ romance could light up the screen (often continued off-screen), whether in romantic comedies or murder mysteries, they were photographed together in dual portraits.

Tyrone Power and Loretta Young in” Café Metropole,” 1937


Loretta Young and Joseph Cotten in “The Farmer’s Daughter,” 1947


In those days each studio had its own portrait gallery, where photographers were busy shooting the stars. “Stills” as they were called, were shot of each movie star. These photos were issued to fans and used for publicity and for fashion articles. The portrait photo was the most carefully handled of all stills, an art form crafted by photographers such as George Hurrell, Ernest Bachrach, Clarence Sinclair Bull, Eugene Robert Richee and others. Such portraits not only helped sell the picture, but also sold the star. And when romance was part of the movie, the dual portrait had to convey a strong chemical attraction. The intimacy portrayed in the photo was a signpost to audiences signifying that whatever troubles the plot threw at them, the couple would always share their love.


Jean Arthur and Charles Boyer in “History is Made at Night,” 1937,


Anne Dvorak and Lyle Talbot in “Three on a Match,” 1933.


The dual portrait was tricky business. Each star needed to be prominently shown, with the all-important lighting  capturing each of them individually – while displaying their mutual attraction. The best of these photographs are sublime. Like the film itself, the photo can give the illusion that we are peering into a very private and personal moment, with the photo freezing that image in time. In real life, then as now, the two stars may not have gotten along at all. Getting each of them in for a photo setting, where one or both may have agreements to approve the results before they are issued, added to the complexity of the job. But like the costume designers, the portrait photographers learned to work with each star. And the stars knew the results were important to their careers. Sometimes very opposite personalities worked unexpectedly well, like the light-natured, all-American Jean Arthur with the French romantic, but always serious, lead Charles Boyer, in History is Made at Night. In film plots opposites can often lead to trouble. In the dark pre-code Three on a Match, Ann Dvorak’s well-married character takes up with a small-time hood played by Lyle Talbot. She also turns to drugs and comes to a bad end.


Gene Tierney and Cornel Wilde in “Leave Her to Heaven,” 1945


In Leave Her to Heaven, a film noir in blazing Technicolor, Cornel Wild falls hard for the siren call and alluring beauty of Gene Tierney. Little does he know that she will become morbidly jealous.


Hedy Lamarr and Walter Pidgeon in “White Cargo,” 1942.


“My name is Tondelayo” is all Hedy Lamarr had to say in White Cargo to knock adventurer Walter Pidgeon off his feet. Billed by MGM as the most beautiful woman in the world, she didn’t need to do much acting, but don’t underestimate her intelligence.

Since the set-up for the portrait shot was complicated, and the cameras used were bulky, the screen lovers rarely peer into each other’s eyes. Often they seem to stare into the distance – firmly connected – yet dreaming their own dream. The photographer’s art was to capture that moment on photographic film – the double-visioned dream.


Alida Valli and Gregory Peck in “The Paradine Case.” 1947


Gregory Peck and the Italian actress Valli starred in Alfred Hitchcock’s little known The Paradine Case. Peck’s aquiline features and Valli’s prominent cheekbones give a beautiful symmetry to this photo.

With the classic photo of Bogart and Bergman below we can relive the entire Casablanca film. Here they look off, he seemingly backwards at their time in Paris, she, apprehensive, worried about Laszlo getting caught, or perhaps who it is she will leave with?

Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman in “Casablanca,” 1942


When the screen lovers do stare into each other’s eyes, we can feel the intensity of the moment. It’s the moment before the kiss. These photos were usually taken on the set rather than in the portrait gallery. The set had more room for action, and a drama might soon unfold.


Joan Crawford and Clark Gable in “Dancing Lady,” 1933

Joan Crawford and Clark Gable starred in eight movies together, in addition to having been actual lovers. Their early dual portraits usually display real heat. Although they were extras together in The Merry Widow (1925), Dancing Lady is their first starring movie together.


Gary Cooper and Barbara Stanwyck in “Ball of Fire,” 1941. Photo by Hurrell

Gary Cooper and Barbara Stanwyck are another example of opposites attracting, at least in the film. In Ball of Fire, he was a straight-laced professor. She was a burlesque dancer. In real life he was 6ft 3. She was 5ft 4.

The classic The Thomas Crown Affair, starred Steve McQueen and Faye Dunaway. The cat and mouse story leads to the two on opposite sides falling in love. Its a classic story that will not doubt lead to another re-make.


Steve McQueen and Faye Dunaway in “The Thomas Crown Affair,” 1968.


The art and practice of the dual portrait is now largely lost. These images have a haunting beauty that was artfully captured on film. Love is eternal, and these actors in their youthful beauty and the photographers they worked with captured that essential truth.


Madeleine Stowe and Daniel Day-Lewis in “The Last of the Mohicans,” 1992


Although movie posters still advertise new movies, the genre of romantic comedies and romances are largely gone. Some photos are still being taken on the set for advertising purposes but the idea of getting two actors to pose for a series of romantic photos is also unthinkable these days. Even in 1992’s The Last of the Mohicans, the captivating moment on screen was not captured in the photo above, where each actor seems already preparing for their movie trials and tribulations. And in that tribute to classic musicals, La La Land, the romantic couple is shown in set stills or screen grabs, dancing or holding hands. We could be more convinced of the romance with a photo like those that led off this post.


The verve and magic of La La Land echoes and pays tribute to the classical Hollywood musicals of the 1930s, 40s, and 50s. It was in those Depression years of the 1930s that audiences flocked to see Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers dance, and look like they were having fun. La La Land’s director Damien Chazelle was inspired by those musicals, as well as the ones that followed. He was especially aware of how uniquely song and dance could transform a moment into a visible expression of pure emotion. And how a wordless dance could do that perfectly. As with every movie, costume helps the actors define their role and sets them appropriately in a scene.  For movie musicals, the costumes usually have dual roles: they need to be worn as street clothes but must also work for dancing.  Chazelle turned to veteran costume designer Mary Zophres for the designing job ( Fargo, Oh Brother Where Art Thou, Catch Me If You Can, True Grit, Interstellar, Hail Caesar).

Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling dance in the Hollywood Hills

As with the Fred and Ginger movies, Mia (Emma Stone) and Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) are two ordinary people pursuing their lives when they meet by accident, and not on friendly terms. He a struggling jazz musician, she an aspiring actress. After some frustrating meetings and even worse career blocks they fall for each other. Breaking into dance is an exuberant display of their growing attraction. In the long  tradition of Hollywood musicals (versus the Broadway musical), it’s the long-form couple’s dance that is the pure display of love. And also the metaphor for love-making itself. Damien Chazelle knew well the repertoire of Hollywood musicals, as well as such classic French musicals as  Les Parapluies de Cherbourg. and Les Demoiselles de Rochefort that influenced himHe was also thinking about the importance of the setting. “… why hasn’t L.A. been used as a romantic playground since those Old Hollywood musicals about Hollywood like Singin’ in the Rain?” he asked rhetorically in an interview with Vogue magazine. And with that setting in mind and the actors and costume designer chosen, he could see the scenes and costumes from those old musical classics. ” I loved reveling in the Technicolor possibility of Emma like she was Moira Shearer in The Red Shoes,” he stated in that same interview for Vogue. Mary Zophres designed the canary yellow dress above for Emma Stone. its bright color picked after the designer reviewed past gowns the star had worn at red-carpet appearances. The color matched a particularly flattering Atelier-Versace gown she had worn in 2014. The basic style of the dress, perfect for the dance scene, is enhanced by hand-painted floral designs.


Mia is a striving actress working as a barista on the Warner Brothers Studio lot, In the photo above she walks past a mural of old movie stars in Hollywood.  Zophres had particular film looks in mind. She cited Funny Face and Audrey Hepburn’s black dance pants as inspiration for the black pants that Mia wears walking through the lot. Similarly, the color of Mia’s emerald green dress worn at the Griffith Park Observatory is inspired by that of Judy Garland’s in A Star is Born.  Mary Zophres also remarked that Mia’s dresses get fuller as the movie goes on. Ryan’s clothing were all made for him. He was meant to look jazz-inspired, but his pants were a bit shorter to show off his two-tone shoes and his dancing. The shoes were purchased at a dance-shoe store in Los Angeles.

La La Land (2016) Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone
Photo by Dale Robinette

At the end, her dance dress is white, no doubt inspired by Cyd Charisse’s dress from the “Dancing in the Dark” scene in Band Wagon.


And while the fantasy dancing amidst the stars scene after the walk along the Seine has been compared to a Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers dance, the backdrop is reminiscent of The Broadway Melody of 1940 with Fred and Eleanor Powell.

In these times of stress and turbulence, the musicals of the 1930s-1950s with their notes of hope and escape may end up providing a relevant model for some of today’s movies. Certainly our dystopian movies of the last ten years have run their course. And the Golden Globe voters agree, having lavished the movie with a record seven awards.

Below are some of the original costume design sketches from some of those  Golden Age Hollywood Musicals.


Shown above is Mary Ann Nyberg’s original costume design sketch for Cyd Charisse in Band Wagon, 1953.  Charisse plays the younger ballet trained dancer to Astaire’s older (now somewhat tarnished) star. But sparks fly as they walk and then Dance in the Dark in Central Park. The costume sketch design has been somewhat modified for the film as the top has the front décolleté. Remaining is the free-flowing pleated skirt shown below.



The late great Debbie Reynolds had her first starring role in Singing in the Rain, considered by many to be the greatest movie musical.




This  vivaceous outfit above  could only seem normal worn while popping out of a cake – and so it was for Debbie Reynolds in Singing in the Rain. Walter Plunkett designed it for her  and some chorines to do a number after she emerged from a giant cake at the Monumental Pictures party, tossing out candy from her hip pocket.






Another Walter Plunkett costume sketch is shown above, this one for Cyd Charisse in the “Broadway Melody Ballet” number with Gene Kelly.  She has been Kelly’s femme fatale in the previous scene and now she comes out dressed as a bride. As the scene morphs into a fantasy the bridal outfit gets stripped of the skirt and she is bare-legged in their dance.




Helen Rose began her career designing costumes for showgirls . So she knew how to infuse flash and movability in her movie designs. She also specialized in using chiffon and had a great sense of color. Below is her costume design for Marge Chapmpion who danced frquently with her husband Gower Champion in movie musicals at MGM.  The design was for Give a Girl a Break, 1953. It’s a perfect dance gown – an eye-catching red color with decollete top and full swinging chiffon skirt with sequins.




Helen Rose designed the costume below for the dancer Carol Haney in On the Town. The movie was a vehicle for some of MGM’s stars, including Gene Kelly, Frank Sinatra, Ann Miller and Vera Ellen.



Below is Frank Sinatra’s stand-in dancer and Carol Haney dancing , with Gene Kelly waiting his turn.



One of the more unique musical numbers was that of Maureen O’Hara’s in Dance Girl, Dance, directed by Dorothy Arzner in      Edward Stevenson designed the costumes including the costume sketch below. Maureen O’Hara plays a ballerina forced to work in burlesque, where she gives a feminist lecture to an audience of leering men.




Musicals, like all movies, have been both great and trivial. At their best they combine the power of music, dance, story and the other arts to elevate our emotions to, as Dick Van Dyke sang, “Up to the highest hight!.”