LIFE magazine was first published in 1883 and remained a weekly publication until 1972, meaning that it was in print every single week throughout the classic era of Hollywood. A magazine dedicated to human interest and news stories, LIFE‘s format was heavy on pictures, which included many iconic images of classic film stars. The mag featured film reviews, a “Movie of the Week” column sharing stills of new-release films, and feature stories on all aspects of filmmaking. As the introduction to LIFE Goes to the Movies puts it, the magazine had a “love affair with an industry”: the film industry.
LIFE Goes to the Movies was first published in 1975 by Time-Life and re-printed in paperback by WALLABY in 1977. I happened upon one of these 1977 paperbacks at a used book shop and of course, as a collector of vintage magazines and lover of old movies, had to add it to my collection!
This is a book I’ve flipped through many times but never read cover-to-cover until selecting it as one of my six titles for the Summer Reading Classic Film Book Challenge. Filled with large re-prints of the magazine’s iconic images, LIFE Goes to the Movies is a quick read, and beautiful to look at. Most of the images are in black and white, but there are some stunning color images as well, including several full-page or multi-page spreads of classic LIFE covers.
The book is divided into five chapters, each focusing on one particular aspect of LIFE‘s coverage of the film industry, and each accompanied by some explanation of LIFE‘s journalistic practices relating to that aspect. The chapters are as follows:
- CHAPTER I: The Stars
This chapter features the mag’s favorite and most frequently-featured stars, including those who found their fame in LIFE‘s pages. Carole Landis, for instance, saw her salary rise from $75 per week to $750 per week after being featured in LIFE, according to the book. And that obscure actress, Elizabeth Taylor? She covered the mag 11 times in a span of 25 years, and gets her very own cover collage in this chapter.
- CHAPTER II: The Buildup
This chapter is all about publicity — the press photos printed exclusively by LIFE, and the mutually advantageous relationship between the mag and Hollywood’s spin doctors. From Edward G. Robinson in the bath with a newspaper to Jeanne Crain being measured for costumes, many of these photo spreads promised a glimpse into “a day in the life” in the glamorous world of the movie studio. They also often featured starlets on the cusp of fame — many of whom never made it big.
- CHAPTER III: The Movies
The book mentions that during the approximately 15-year run of the “Movie of the Week” column, about 800 films were featured. Sometimes publicity stills were used, and other times photos were shot on-set during production, to accompany descriptions of each film’s story line within the pages of the magazine. The vibrant photos featured in this chapter are my favorites in the book, packed to the brim with energy and movement. Ginger Rogers floating in mid-air as she dances with Fred… John Wayne throwing a punch Monty Clift’s way in Red River… Bogie and Bacall sharing a smooch in To Have and Have Not… Burt Lancaster smashing a window in The Killers… these pictures are truly worth thousands of words, capturing the moods and action of the films they came from.
- CHAPTER IV: The Studio
This chapter is not just about Hollywood’s major studios, but the people who worked behind the scenes: directors, producers, hairdressers, makeup artists, special effects masters, and even the men hired to sweep the sand on set of Lawrence of Arabia. Sometimes, LIFE took those who usually worked behind the movie camera and put them in front the still photographer’s camera, capturing glimpses of their faces, and their work. This chapter also includes candid shots from film sets, like Gina Lollobrigida hula-hooping in costume between takes on the set of Solomon and Sheba, or Kim Novak eating ice cream on the set of Picnic.
- CHAPTER V: Behind the Scenes
The final chapter of the book briefly discusses the role of the journalists — their attempts to keep themselves removed from their subjects, the time they spent in the company of Hollywood’s major players, and the back-and-forth influence between the magazine and the film industry. One very interesting section places original LIFE photographs side-by-side with film stills they influenced, including a 1942 photograph of Army nurses, and a near-identical image (with actresses rather than real nurses) from the film So Proudly We Hail. Another showcases LIFE‘s more intimate star portraits — photographs taken in their homes, or with their children.
An interesting look at the relationship between print publications and the film industry, and a fantastic collection of photographs. This book is a must-own for any classic film fan’s movie-related book collection!