With a cast of first-magnitude stars from both sides of the footlights, this delightful tome, encompassing the history of both photography and Broadway, illuminates a particularly meaningful period of the theater, featuring Tallulah Bankhead, Gertrude Lawrence, Katharine Cornell, Helen Hayes, Lynn Fontanne and Alfred Lunt, among others.
Above all, the shot’s the thing. This collection of monochrome photographs is more than an eye candy-laden coffee-table book: It’s a reference guide, an endlessly fascinating trip down memory lane for veterans, and an eye-opening panoply of the greats — many in their youth — for neophytes.
The lively, informative introduction is by John Lahr. There’s interesting text, particularly the sidebars. But it’s Eileen Darby’s work, artfully chosen and displayed, that holds attention. That the photos are solely black-and-white adds to their dramatic quality.
Darby’s work marks the transition from posed stills to caught-in-action candids. Her brilliance lay in capturing motion — a radiant Gwen Verdon high-kicking, Harold Lang seemingly in flight, a beautiful young Ethel Merman in fishnet tights taking aim with a rifle, Carol Channing and Katharine Hepburn lighting up the sky with their own solar power.
There are deeply revealing photographs of actresses in their youth, some of whom we know only as old, and only from the movies. Judith Anderson was lovely long before she was Mrs. Danvers in “Rebecca.”
At the end of the book are probing portraits, among them Tennessee Williams and George Abbott.
One might wish for better fact-checking. On page 9 Lahr accurately describes Robert Sherwood’s “There Shall Be No Night” as an anti-Nazi drama, but on page 23 it’s called an antiwar play. These were opposite anti’s in 1940. Fontanne’s name is correctly spelled in the text, but misspelled in the index. On page 30 we’re told the honor of being the first woman to photograph stars belongs to the wife of Aime Dupont, but we’re never told her first name. Judgments could also be questioned, including the assessment of “Finian’s Rainbow.”
But these are quibbles. The photographs are the core of this book, and they speak profoundly to eye and heart.
Surprises abound. Stars whose movies keep us watching latenight TV are shown in their Broadway and even summer-stock roles: Tyrone Power, Gregory Peck, Ingrid Bergman, Montgomery Clift. In presenting Bette Davis in “Two’s Company,” Mary C. Henderson paraphrases Douglas MacArthur: “Old soldiers may just fade away, but old Hollywood stars go back to Broadway, where most of them started.”