Silent Stars Share Their Favorite Camera Angles: Colleen Moore, Buster Keaton, Hoot Gibson and More

I stumbled across this amusing piece in a 1926 issue of Photoplay Magazine. Most movie fans know that stars often had a side of their face that they preferred or a camera angle that they thought flattered them. Well, here’s the skinny on some of the biggest silent stars! All ready? Let’s go!

As always, my notes will be in italics.

Clara Bow’s favorite pose — that over-the- shoulder, catch-me-if-you-can glance. But if it is used too often, it gets to be too much of a good thing.

Florence Vidor’s mask of tragedy — a three-quarters shot with head drooping. Somehow or other, this pose instinctively suggests pathos and bids for your sympathy.

Miss Vidor’s mask of comedy — a full-face shot. When the scene calls for a light mood, Miss Vidor faces the camera. It’s a little studio trick all the comedians use.

Come to think of it, I have noticed comedy stars facing the camera a lot more than their dramatic counterparts. I would also like to mention that Florence Vidor is shockingly underrated and I like her a lot.

Colleen Moore can look straight at the camera and laugh without breaking the lens or the cameraman’s heart.

Douglas MacLean is “shot” with the camera placed above him to shorten his high brow.

Willing to bet that “high brow” is what eventually sent MacLean from acting to producing.

REGINALD DENNY: Reginald Denny is one of those fortunate individuals who can be photographed from any angle, except the back of his neck. At least, that is the assertion of Arthur Todd, who photographs the majority of his pictures. Reggie has no best angle, though the crooked whimsical smile of his is more pronounced when “shot” three-quarters rather than full on. From a back view, Reg’s neck, due to his athletic ability, is inclined to be too heavy.

Darn it! Now I am going to have to stare at Denny’s neck next time I see one of his pictures!

HOOT GIBSON: Hoot Gibson’s best angle is a three-quarter shot from the left, and whenever it is possible the riding star presents this part of his visage for the camera. However, as an action star, he is “shot” from all angles.

BOBBY AGNEW: Bobby Agnew’s full face presents an appearance of youthful boyishness which is most often captured for the camera — and so is considered his best angle.

“Woof!” shouts Wallace Beery. “Camera angles are only for the pretty ones. So far I haven’t been bothered with people hanging around telling me how good-looking I am. Bring on your big scene and Mr. Beery will do the rest.

NORMA TALMADGE: Norma Talmadge names a close-up profile as the one she likes the best. However, she believes that it is up to the director and the photographer to devise the “shots” which will best picturize the scene. In one of her pictures the director and the cameraman rode on a perambulator and caught a close-up of her profile as she walked along. It proved very effective on the screen. Another camera angle she always likes is a “shot” from a ten foot parallel on the set below.

Constance Talmadge has been “shot” from every conceivable angle. “If I ever did have a preference no one ever asked me to express it while we were making a picture,” she says. “A comedienne has to neglect dignity for laughs, and I’m sure the camera has caught me in some very unconventional poses. I remember one picture in which I was being spanked and that certainly was not my favorite camera angle. Seriously, I dote on full face close-ups. I hope I do not seem egotistical in saying this, but I always have taken a great delight in getting my face as close to the camera as possible and making faces.”

As someone who has been irritated by Talmadge’s self-conscious mugging, I have to say that this surprises me not at all. I prefer her earlier work when she was not in a position to stick her face into the camera.

BUSTER KEATON: Any camera angle suits Buster, just so he can get a laugh out of it. He doesn’t care if his cameraman shoots him standing on his head, hanging on his toes, resting on his chin or what haven’t you. The only angle he has to worry about is that the camera may start grinding too soon some day and catch him smiling.

VILMA BANKY: Let Vilma explain it herself: “It ees not a full face an’ not a profile. What you call eet — a tree-quartier face. But everry director, he shoot me a differunt angle, so an’ so an’ so. Meestaire Fitzmaurice like them all. Me, I like the tree-quartier. Why? Eet is simple. I look much bettair that way.”

Now isn’t that clear?

Ah, the charming “transcribe someone who speaks English as a second language verbatim” trick. Just letting you know that verbatim transcription is ALWAYS unflattering– who among us does not have our share of “ums”– but it’s particularly rude here because it is othering an immigrant. Feh.

RONALD COLMAN: Mr. Colman believes that the full profile has the advantages because it shows the least of his mustache, and everyone knows he doesn’t like to wear one. When it comes to still pictures, he never likes any of them. “Do I prefer the right or left profile?” asks Mr. Colman. “Well. I’m rather firmly attached to both of them.”

This is amusing because every account of A Tale of Two Cities has talked about Colman’s hesitation to shave his ‘stache.

ALMA RUBENS: Alma Rubens gives a totally different appearance in full face and when shot in profile. For spiritual beauty and general charm, the cameraman usually uses Alma’s profile, but to express tragedy or tense emotion Alma’s full face is best.

MARGARET LIVINGSTON: Margaret Livingston’s face is piquant, with the result that it is a fairly easy matter to choose an angle as sheer beauty does not have to be considered. However. Miss Livingston looks most charming when shot at an angle which discloses her right side in three-quarter view.

DOUGLAS FAIRBANKS: Doug Fairbanks is one of those fortunate individuals who has a universal face — sort of on the order of the universal joint of an automobile. It can operate from any angle — and does. Doug’s features are effective from any position. It matters nary an iota whether his visage is pictured upside down or to-side foremost. The camera is never particular from what angle it catches him. In fact, at times — when he is doing one of his stunts, for instance — it is lucky to catch his face at all. For this, naturally, there is a reason, the answer being that Doug happens to possess symmetrical features, which state of physiognomy is most unusual. This means that one side of his face is exactly like the other; there is no “good” side or “bad” side. This applies to profile as well as to front elevation. And having said that, “there ain’t no more” concerning the deadly “camera angle” as it applies to Fairbanks.

“Sparrows”

MARY PICKFORD: The old-fashioned photograph galleries, before the days of artificial lighting for pictures, always had a north window. The subject sat facing the east, with the light on the left side of the face.

It is probably from instinct that Mary Pickford usually poses for “still” pictures with the left side of her face to the camera, for K. A. Rahmn, who has photographed Mary for several years, declares that she has a perfect “camera face” from any angle.

Miss Pickford certainly has no favorite camera angle in moving picture work, for Charles Rosher, her cameraman for the past eight years, has never found an angle yet that did not do her justice. Perhaps the most beautiful “shots” of Miss Pickford Rosher ever made were those in her latest picture, “Sparrows.” where the little baby dies in Mary’s arms, and she sees a vision of Christ taking the baby through green fields. In this sequence Rosher photographed Miss Pickford showing the left profile, then with full face toward the camera.

Now I seem to remember that Pickford was QUITE particular and Rosher called her Monkey Face. So…

RICHARD BARTHELMESS: Richard Barthelmess prefers to have the right side of his face photographed. His reason is that the part of his hair, which is on the right, conforms to the contours and gives a better angle to his face and head.

JACQUELINE LOGAN: Let Jackie speak out: “I don’t believe in bad camera angles any more. Until the other day I was afraid of half a dozen different angles in close-ups, and was so worried in every close shot that my work undoubtedly suffered. Then came my screen test for the role of Mary Magdalene in ‘The King of Kings.’ It seemed as though Mr. Cown, who directed me, planned every bit of ‘business’ in a deliberate attempt to make me work in the angles I always dodged. When I left the studio I was convinced I didn’t have a chance for the role. Consequently, when Mr. De Mille told me I had been selected I decided that camera angles would never worry me again.”

ROD LA ROCQUE: Rod is “agin” bird’s-eye views! During the filming of “Gigolo,” William K. Howard, his director, decided upon an angle which called for the camera’s shooting practically straight down at Rod from a vantage atop a lofty parallel. Howard’s aim was an unusual “shot.” He got what he was after, all right. Rod looked most unusual — about as tall as Jackie Coogan, and his height is part of his “stock in trade.” The “take” was thrown out and not used in the final picture, but Rod learned this much from the incident: Never again will he let a director or cameraman talk him into a bird’s-eye angle.

WILLIAM BOYD: Mr. Boyd tells his own story: “I had never paid much attention to different effects from varying camera angles until about a year ago, when I was called on for a crying close-up. We took the scene over and over without satisfying the director, and after looking at the ‘rushes’ we made a re-take. In every case I looked as though I was either choking to death or laughing. Finally we decided to shoot it from the opposite side — the right — and the result was so entirely different you’d have thought I had a double. “Since then I have never played in a crying close-up, but when I do it will take a tough director to make me show the left side of my face.”

LEATRICE JOY: It took an enthusiastic bumblebee to convince Leatrice that the left side of her face didn’t photograph badly. In the midst of “For Alimony Only,” her most recent De Mille picture, a tremendous bumblebee visited her right eyelid and deposited a stinger about the size of one of grandmother’s needles. Of course her eye swelled aplenty and she told her director she would have to cease work until the swelling went down. He suggested that she continue and play with the left side of her face. Leatrice squawked loudly, for she had always avoided angles which featured prominently her left side. He talked her out of it, however, and the “rushes” the next day convinced her that all the time she had been harboring a false appre- hension.

MARIE PREVOST: Marie Prevost experienced the unusual difficulties of most motion picture actresses in overcoming bad camera angles during her early career. Even in the instance of ravishing beauty there is often some particular angle that does not do the player justice. She found she screened better from a front or three-quarter view. Her profile was not so good, according to directors. Test after test was made of her from every conceivable angle. But the directors agreed that front or three-quarter views were the best for her.

PHYLLIS HAVER: Phyllis Haver discovered early in her screen career that her face was a little too round to show her at best from a direct front view. This was easily remedied by using a slightly three-quarter view, which succeeded in eliminating suggestion of pronounced roundness of features.

JACK HOLT: Jack prefers a three-quarters angle to any other. There’s no particular reason, except that he believes that he photographs more convincingly at this angle and better lighting effects are obtained.

TOM MIX: Tom Mix is usually shot full face. It is undoubtedly his best angle from the statement of his cameraman, Dan Clark, who has shot over fifty of Tom’s pictures. Of course it is often necessary to shoot from a direct profile, but in the case of this star, a three-quarter view is avoided wherever possible.

GEORGE O’BRIEN: Because of the length of his face and prominent chin, George O’Brien is shot, particularly in close-up, with his chin well forward and slightly raised.

OLIVE BORDEN: Olive Borden has to avoid a direct full face. Her best angle is a three-quarters left side face.

BEBE DANIELS: Bebe Daniels is one of the stars who prefers to be photographed full face. Her reason for this preference is because of the eyes. Eyes are the most important medium of expression, the living screen upon which emotions are reflected, and this is Bebe’s reason. Therefore, give her a full face shot and let the profiles and three-quarter views go their merry ways.

POLA NEGRI: When the lights are properly handled, it really does not matter to her from what angle her face is photographed. However, if she has a preference, it is for profile or three-quarters.

BETTY BRONSON: Betty prefers the three-quarter view. Perhaps this is because in the earliest stills she had taken in screen work, she thought the three-quarter portraits the most attractive.

MARY ASTOR: Mary can be photographed from any angle. She has a camera-proof face. But cameramen like to get her profile — clear-cut as a cameo.

LLOYD HUGHES: Lloyd’s favorite pose is profile view, but his face can be photographed any way for the screen.

DORIS KENYON: Doris’ face records best in a full face shot. It is rather long and slightly thin, so a front view fills the hollows.

Just wait ’til you see him in “The Sea Hawk”

MILTON SILLS: Another perfect camera face. That of Milton Sills. Photograph it from any angle and it’s bound to please.

NORMA SHEARER: Ben Reynolds, who has photographed Norma Shearer in five pictures, has tried to improve on each picture. Three-quarter view is one of Miss Shearer’s best angles. She has a beautifully moulded face that is just round enough, but not perfectly circular. There are a good many stars who cannot stand a three-quarter shot because their cheeks are not round enough.

Know what I’d like to find out? The origin of the story, attributed to almost everyone who left MGM under a cloud, that they said some variation of “Norma’s eyes sure are crossed, amiright, Irving?” to hubby Irving Thalberg.

CLAIRE WINDSOR: Many of the players believe that they photograph best from certain angles, while the cameramen have other ideas. Claire Windsor, for instance, has a preference for the right side of her face, although cameramen agree that either profile is good.

PAULINE STARKE: Pauline Starke’s best angle is absolutely full face.

ELEANOR BOARDMAN: Eleanor Boardman has the idea that she is hard to photograph. She is taller than many women on the screen, but her face is ideal from the cameraman’s angle.

All my sources put Eleanor Boardman at 5’6 ½ “. Thought you’d like to know.

JOAN CRAWFORD: According to John Arnold, the cameraman, when Joan Crawfor first came on the M-G-M lot she presented difficulties. Her face looked thinner than it really was. Seemingly there was no reason for this, until she and the cameraman began experimenting with make-up. She had been using a light pink make-up, which gave her face a pasty look. When she changed to a dark make-up. almost red, the difficulty was eradicated.

WILLIAM HAINES: William Haines is angle-proof. His eyes arc exactly alike, his face is round and one side of his face is neither better nor worse than the other.

JOHN GILBERT: John Gilbert’s best angle is full face.

You can look up lots of swell clippings like these at the Media History Digital Library.

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4 Replies to “Silent Stars Share Their Favorite Camera Angles: Colleen Moore, Buster Keaton, Hoot Gibson and More”

  1. How can a face like Florence Vidor’s or Ronald Colman’s not be gorgeous from any angle?

  2. Interesting. I wonder….I enjoy collecting lobby cards. Does the preference of angle spill over into the actors’ positioning on cards?

    1. I would imagine that could happen, though images could be flipped. I remember a producer friend of mine had to work all weekend because a major modern film star didn’t like the angle of the photo being used for the European market and my friend had to do an emergency redesign. (Veto power over marketing material was in the star’s contract, apparently.)

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