PRINT May 1985


Return Engagement: Faces to Remember—Then & Now

The selling point here is that fashion cameraman Horst will “go back” and shoot bygone movie queens “as they are today”—as if he had shot them when they were. The problem is not even that the selling point is misleading—the Then pictures are almost exclusively not by Horst—but that those selected (from Museum of Modern Art files, Watters’ collection, etc.) don’t come close to telling the present-day viewer why so many of these women (74 of them, including Janet Gaynor, Fay Wray, Barbara Stanwyck, and Mary Astor) were so luminous on the screen. As for the Now pictures, most of the time we seem to be looking at the Pasadena Ladies Garden Club, if not merely the handiwork of various hairdressers and plastic surgeons: all too few of Horst’s photos capture any individuality at all.

On those rare occasions when he does get a shot with life in it—Louise Brooks, old, bitter, indomitable; Myrna Loy, at once unrecognizable and undeniable—the old production stills chosen to illustrate why were bothering to look at Now say nothing. (We don’t care about Loy because she was once a plump cutie pie or the Daughter of Fu Manchu, which is what were given to see; we care about her because she combined the impossible prettiness of her face with the impossible intelligence of her gestures.) Eleanor Boardman, Now, is a handsome hostess, anybody’s classy relative—Then, in Henry King’s 1929 She Goes to War, weeping in a hovel as Alma Rubens gave succor to a dying soldier, she burned her way into the synapses, of whoever was lucky enough to see her. All we get here of her Then is a little posed portrait of a girl who could have been a thousand other people. How and why Boardman was able to seize a moment and make it stick, make it fester, is the essence of the mystery of film; neither Horst’s new pictures nor James Watters’ skinny interview bios offer a clue to it.

Greil Marcus


James Watters, Return Engagement: Faces to Remember—Then & Now, with photographs by Horst, (New York: Clarkson N. Potter, Inc., 1984), 168 pages, 200 black and white photographs.