What played at the Roxy?

The Roxy Theatre opened at 153 W. 50 St., between 6th and 7th Avenues in 1927 with the film The Love of Sunya, produced by and starring Gloria Swanson. The theater seated 5,920 people. An apogee of “movie palace” distinction in New York City, its brief moment in history is now traceable only in photographs. Swanson can be seen in this photograph made during its eventual demolition in 1960 by Eliot Elisofon, for LIFE Magazine. Posed in an evening dress and feather boa, like some sort of belle dame sans merci out of a D’Annunzio novel, Swanson gestures to the heavens and eternity.

In a LIFE-imitating-art moment, the Elisofon/Swanson collaboration also references Swanson’s earlier role as the reclusive, mad silent film star Norma Desmond in the Billy Wilder film Sunset Boulevard (1950). Fade grandeur. Faded memories. The lost illusions of the movies as a vanitas in our world of stucco and brick. “. . . we’ll make another picture and another picture. You see, this is my life! It always will be! Nothing else! Just us, the cameras, and those wonderful people out there in the dark!… All right, Mr. DeMille, I’m ready for my close-up.

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The ICP Library owns a copy of Elisofon’s book Color Photography, New York: Viking Press, 1961. TR510.E43 1961

Color Photography presents a wide range of Elisofon’s assignments, along with technical information, including lighting and filter set ups. Looking backward we can get a sense of how complicated this process could be and why it would exist primarily in commercial venues such as magazines and advertising. Elisofon’s research and experimentation with color had led to work as a color consultant in Hollywood for the films Moulin Rouge (dir. John Huston, 1952), Bell, Book and Candle (dir. Richard Quine, 1958), and The Greatest Story Ever Told (dir. George Stevens, 1965).

The lighting set ups and technical information in Color Photography give a sense of the general status of photography in publishing at that time as more of a scientific craft than an independent art.  Elisofon’s language is plain and engaged with the process. There are books by the great Hollywood portraitists George Hurrell and George Hoyningen-Huene from the same period that provide similar data and insights: f-stops before philosophy. A late textbook example of this is Ansel Adams’ Examples: The Making of 40 Photographs, Boston: Little, Brown, 1983. TR161.A32 1982 – also available in the ICP library.

If the insistence of technical means as an articulation of vision  now seems foreign (besides discussing materials that no longer exist – tungsten balanced Kodachrome, for instance), I would suggest seeing it as akin to Elisofon’s marvelous pastiche with Gloria Swanson: we see the mechanical dream and its architectural armature simultaneously.

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About Bernard Yenelouis

Detroit. Movies. Modernist architecture in Los Angeles. Marcel Proust. Walter Benjamin. Vernacular photography. Spirit photography. Gay porn. Cats. Frankfurt School critique. Henry James. Cosmism. Werner Schroeter. Kenneth Anger. Aby Warburg. Robert Bresson. Iris Murdoch. Ernie Kovacs. Suzanne Cesaire.
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