Backdrop Beauty

Look beyond the starlet in each of the vintage publicity photos below and you will see beautifully hand painted art deco backdrops and amazingly abstract set decorations & props. Unknown and probably uncredited set decorators created these beautiful pieces of art that were used to simply enhance each photograph as opposed to using a plain white backdrop. They do seem to add a visual balance to the shots, in many creating the perfect frame for the star, but I think some of them actually outshine the actors in the foreground.

Publicity stills featuring the stars of the films of the day were standard in the first half of the 20th century. Studios used these stills to promote new films, sending them in press kits to television and magazine publishers & critics in hopes of getting free publicity. These posed portraits called “fashion stills,” were taken by studio photographers when the actors were in between takes and still in costume. The studios would paste a description of the actor, their costume, or the film to the back of the still. I have included those descriptions below each photo if I could find them.

Olive Borden for The Social Lion, (1930). Photo by Eugene Robert Richee.
“For the country club dance chiffon is the selection supreme. Olive Borden wears a frock of orange chiffon cut in graceful triangles.”

Jean-Arthur-fashion-portrait  Jean Arthur

jeanette-macdonald-fox-1930 Jeanette Macdonald, 1930
“The Basque suit has caught the fancy of the fashionable. Jeanette MacDonald, the film star, wears a three-piece suit of gray Elizabeth crepe, trimmed with platinum fox fur.”

josephine-dunn-fashion_1929 Josephine Dunn, 1929
“Crisp black taffeta fashions the frock worn by Josephine Dunn. The straight-line bodice is shirred in at the hiptop and gathered flounce is set at the fingertip length. A yoke is formed by rhinestones embroidery and a huge bow with streamers extending to the floor finishes the back.”

josephine-dunn-fur-1929 Josephine Dunn, 1929

marion-davies-silver-fox  Marion Davies
“This Jenny coat is of thin shimmering gold cloth with an interwoven design of blue and gold. Around the uneven hem is a narrow fringe of gold beads. It is collared in silver fox and worn by Miss Marion Davies.”

patritia-ellis-The-Narrow-Corner-1933  Patritia Ellis for The Narrow Corner, 1933
“Patricia Ellis features this smart ensemble in The Narrow Corner. The jacket is double breasted featuring a high collar and brass buttons. Both jacket and trousers are brown and so is the beret. The sport shoes white and brown.”

katharine-hepburn-fashion_opt  Katharine Hepburn

anne-shirley-1934  Anne Shirley, 1934

mitzi-gaynor Mitzi Gaynor

carmel-myers-flowered-silk-pajamas-1931  Carmel Myers, 1931
“Carmel Myers wears pajamas of flowered silk”

Adrienne-Dore-2 Adrienne Dore ca. 1932

Adrienne-Dore-1 Adrienne Dore ca. 1932

mary-brian-fashion-portrait  Mary Brian

Lili-damita-the-match-king-fashion-1932  Lili Damita for The Match King, 1932

natalie-wood-sex-and-the-single-girl-1964  Natalie Wood for Sex and the Single Girl, 1964

jean-arthur-gown-fashion_1929  Jean Arthur, 1929
“A shady question is settled by this hostess gown worn by Jean Arthur that starts at the shoulders with dazzling whiteness but graduates into pearly grays and dusty black, then terminates in white.”


Betty Compson, Photo by: International
“A Study in Lace! One of the most startling fashion creations of the year has just made its debute before the eve of the motion picture camera, which in turn, will enable the millions of movie fans thoughtout the world to gain first hand knowledge of beautiful Betty Compson in a new “all lace” attire.  Miss Compson is just completing her latest production, “The Noose” for the Paramount program.

carole-lombard-5 Carole Lombard

rita-johnson-fashion-1941  Rita Johnson, 1941

ruth-hall-fashion_opt  Ruth Hall
“Charming Ruth Hall wears a cleverly draped midnight blue velvet jacket wrap with very full tucked sleeves with her new fall silhouette evening gown of icy white satin.”

marian-nixon-fahion-1929  Marian Nixon, 1929

Lilyan-Tashman-2  Lilyan Tashman

Lilyan-Tashman  Lilyan Tashman

rosalind-russell-fashion-1942  Rosalind Russell, 1942

American film actress Rita Hayworth (1918 – 1987) dances against a backdrop formed by a large musical score in a publicity still from the 1944 film “Cover Girl”.


Ella Raines for The Web, 1947
“Persian brocade fashions this beautiful coat designed by Yvonne Wood for Ella Raines in The Web.The background of beige is exquisitely patterned in a wheat motif with pure gold embroidery and muted tones of red, blue and green. Wide beaver cuffs set off the sleeves and a matching blue scarf is worn at the neckline.”

ann-dvorak-fashion_opt  Ann Dvorak

anna-may-wong-fashion-1938  Anna May Wong, 1938

ellen-drew-fashion-1939  Ellen Drew, 1939

dorothy-lamour-sequin-fashion_1937  Dorothy Lamour, 1937
“Sequins are particularly suitable for this black evening gown worn by Dorothy Lamour. The slim, slinky lines of the gown plus the glittering black pailettes spell smartness and extreme sophistication. At top of the bodice an arrow of rhinestones serves as a highlight.”

jane-wyman-fashion_opt  Jane Wyman

kay-francis-1941-fashion_opt-1  Kay Francis, 1941

gloria-stuart-fashion-1934  Gloria Stuart, 1934

jean-harlow-fashion-iron-man-1931 Jean Harlow for Iron Man, 1931

jean-parker-fashion-hat_opt1933  Jean Parker, 1933

“Rumba crepe in smart wide-shoulder frock with period puff sleeves, brown taffeta tie. Worn with visor beret in stitched brown velvet by Jean Parker.”

simone-simon-josette-fashion-1938  Simone Simon, 1938
“Black and white is perenially smart says Simone Simon, who wears this suit of black wool with its accompanying blouse of white sheer cotton. Gloves of white stitched in black and a version of the popular sombrero tied under the chin complete the French star’s ensemble.”

Sources: Most of these fabulous images came from the collection found at A Certain Cinema by Sergio Leemann. Also, Salon of the Dames, Cinemactor,

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