Sunday, December 27, 2009

More Smilby on Bolles

During my visit with Francis "Smilby" Smith, I got to pore over his wonderful collection of illustrated books and rare periodicals. It was especially exciting to hold magazines in my hands I had seen only in books or as scans off the web. But there was one issue in particular I was disappointed to have missed...until I took a trip to the loo, and there she was hanging on the wall, staring right back at me with those piercing eyes. The situation was not without some irony. Francis was a staff artist for Playboy and one of his perks was a free lifetime subscription. There were decades of them stacked upstairs. Yet there wasn't a lone issue of Playboy to be found in his bathroom (and no, I wasn't looking). Francis was also a personal friend of Alberto Vargas, but it wasn't one of his girls who was confronting me. It was a Bolles girl and it was that one. The one who moved beyond the merely provocative and who had ventured deep into the territory of transgressivness. In her time she would be labeled as nothing short of pornographic; the argument would still be made by some yet today. Of course none of this was lost on Francis and here's what he had to say about her in Stolen Sweets:
"An exceptionally fine but curiously disturbing image that, facially at least, has more than a touch of Lolita about it. The conflicting images--modesty and a steady open gaze--combine with the setting--a sense of a forbidden something suddenly illuminated from the depths of a cavern--to give this cover a strangely charged eroticism."

I must admit that when first coming across this cover in Francis' book some years ago, I was unsure whether Bolles had painted her or not. Aside from being unsigned and appearing on an obscure 'smoosh' mag, it just seemed to be to be too much in all aspects. Too nude, too young and even too painterly. There were of course, several signature statements that eventually gave Bolles up as her creator, but why he put so much into a painting that may have paid him as little as $60 and could have gotten him tossed into the slammer is an equation I still haven't worked out.

Friday, December 25, 2009

Happy Holidays!!

Thought I'd share my favorite Bolles Santa with you. The fact is, this is also my favorite Bolles advertising illustration. It's as if the art editor saw the comp for the ad and said, "I'll take it as is." Enjoy!

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Bolles, according to Smilby

I'm continuing this modest tribute to the late Francis "Smilby" Smith with a brief except from his book, Stolen Sweets--The Cover Girls of Yesteryear: Their Elegance, Charm and Sex Appeal. Here's what he had to say about what many consider to be if not Bolles' best, certainly his most provocative magazine cover.
One of the finest of American covers. A superb conception--the body filling the space both ingeniously and erotically, with the satiny shine of the abbreviated lingerie emphasizing everything it was supposed to conceal. The textured backcloth and Bakelite radio are vital elements in the composition.
The book was published in 1981 and has been long out of print, though copies occasionally appear on eBay. By unnerving happenstance I got a copy that came in the mail just last week. Get one for yourself if you can. It is chock full of great images by Bolles and others with Smilby's wry and revealing commentary.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Francis "Smilby" Smith 1927-2009

I got some sad news this week. The cartoonist, writer, and collector extraordinaire, Francis Smith, who signed his work Smilby has passed away I first got to know Francis about 10 years ago after I cold called him. He had written what many still consider the best book about the history of pinup and glamour art, Stolen Sweets and I had the audacity to phone in order to pester him about some of the illustrations in the book that were unattributed but which I was convinced were done by Enoch Bolles. Other sections of the book (one is included below) had nice things to say about Bolles so I was guessing he would be be sympathetic to my cause. Francis graciously heard me out and we ended up speaking for nearly a half hour. By the end of our conversation we had agreed that the illustrations were indeed by Bolles. I followed up with several other calls and Francis connected me to another mentor, Reid Austin, the art editor at Playboy who convinced Hugh Hefner to hire on Alberto Vargas. Reid who alas, passed away two years ago, eventually became Vargas' personal assistant and editor at Playboy was a good friend of Francis, who himself contributed cartoons for Playboy for many years. Our relationship progressed to the point to where seven years ago I made the trip to the English countryside to visit the 400 year old (give or take a century) cottage Francis shared with his lovely wife Pam, a talented artist in her own right. Francis, his health flagging and eyesight fading but undimmed in spirit, greeted me--ginger and rye in hand--in their lovely garden where we talked about many things, including pinup. Inside the cottage I pored over his amazing collection of vintage pulps, many of which were reproduced in Stolen Sweets, and rare illustrated books by Barbier--whom he especially admired--and others. The shelves were stacked floor to ceiling with thousands of old 78's all in their original brown liners. Francis had one of the largest collections of blues and gospel records in the world (many of which have been remastered in a series of CD's. I think Francis may have written the liner notes). I had a grand time and ended up staying an extra day, having missed the last train back to London. In the years since Francis' health continued to ebb but he was comfortable to the end, supported by Pam's unflagging devotion, amazing energy and occasional sips of good wine that Pam would slip him while the nurses weren't looking. Francis will be missed by many but his words, art and spirit live on.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

A Hat Trick!

After the last two posts what choice did I have but to pore over my files for other examples of hats. And boy did I find one. Here we see yet another fine example, again from a 1941 issue of Young's. The scan is lousy, but in this case I do have a physical copy of the Breezy Stories where this image first appeared back in 1936. Unfortunately it is in utterly abysmal shape and my paltry photoshop skills were redlined just to get the image to where you see it. But even with these crummy reproductions it is evident that the printing quality of the Young's mag suffers terribly. If I'm lucky maybe one of these days I'll be lucky enough to get my hands on a clean copy so we can see what she looked like in all her "unenthumbered" glory.
Contemplating our beached maiden one has to wonder why Bolles didn't get the opportunity to do work for the so-called slicks, or mainstream periodicals such as Liberty or SAT, both of which ran cheesecake covers. The easy answer is that Bolles girls were too hot. Try as he might (or perhaps he didn't) you couldn't hide that fact that the Bolles girl was not residing next door. Take a look at these side by side comparisons of work by Bolles and Liberty covers dealing with similar topics and published within months of each other.The Liberty covers smack with nostalgia and more than a bit of kitsch, whereas the Bolles girls have not lost any of the frisson that got him into trouble 75 years ago. And therein lies the problem. Bolles was just too successful for his own good.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Is this what she ended up wearing to the beach?

After my last post I had been lamenting the fate of our beach beauty so cruelly left off the front page, when another possibility flashed in my head. So I present this smashing cover that appeared on the newsstands in 1941 in the dysfunctionally titled Young's Snappy Realistic Stories. As best as I can tell, Young's was sort of a mash-up with the remains of what was once merely Young's Magazine along with dollops of Breezy Stories, Snappy Stories and perhaps Yellow Book, all of which were the legacy of the publisher Courtland Young, who got his start back around 1912 with the long lived Snappy Stories. Snappy is regarded as the first of the so-called sex pulps and more important for us, is where Bolles had some of his best work published. In the mid-1930s these titles were acquired by Phil Painter publications who managed to keep Breezy Stories on the newsstands until nearly 1950, in part by recycling many of Bolles early Breezy covers. Unfortunately, Bolles had no residual rights to his artwork and so didn't see a plug nickel out of this. Worse yet, take a look at the lousy hand lettered text penned in directly over Bolles signature. This was clearly no accident, Painter publications was not only too cheap to shell out for new cover art, they also weren't even willing to pay to have an engraver to tool out Bolles' signature or block it out with some type. Fortunately for us, Bolles still gets credit for what was a really smashing cover that imaginatively combines several of his signature elements. There's the unique employment of the bull's (Bolles'?)-eye as a compositional element and as a frame for the background. Notice how it intersects her hat precisely at its at its apsides or extremes--not by accident--and that the arc of the circle also intersects the shadow cast over her face). There's also the bimorphic shadow, a really cute animal feature with terrier and the the red blanket, which acts both as a sort of shadow but also works to thrust the composition toward the viewer. Basically the entire repertoire of Bolles tricks.

The only problem with this story is the image to our right, clearly the same girl as the Young's cover, albeit cropped and in a different suit. This issue of Breezy is from 1938 and I'd bet the cover was likely reused from yet an even earlier issue, perhaps as early as 1935 during the short time when Bolles was signing his covers for Breezy. So it's more likely the concept painting in the previous post was inspired by this cover rather than the other way round. But what about the costume change in the two versions I show here? It just makes the sorting this out more complicated, compounded by the unfortunate fact that I lack a complete run of covers to Breezy or Young's. So there remains work to be done and art to be discovered!

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

She didn't make the cut

Our fetching lass is known as a comp, or comprehensive sketch, in this case for a Film Fun cover that was never to be. The painting was sold at a Heritage Auction a few months back and would I ever wish I could brag that she was hanging out in my study. But alas, she exists only in my memory, or more accurately my hard drive's memory. I am lucky enough to own a comp of another Film Fun cover completed in 1941, and my guess is that this painting was done around the same time. It's curious to me that Bolles would still have been making such detailed studies, having 20 years and nearly 200 Film Fun under his belt. More so that the logo was painted in so carefully. By the way, I am pretty convinced that Bolles himself designed this logo for Film Fun, which first appeared in January of 1926 (he was a master letterer and designed other well known logos for commercial products including one long used for Bond Bread). But I have found one photo of a final Film Fun painting with the logo painted directly on it so perhaps this wasn't so unusual.
So why didn't our Bolles girl make the cut? I think the image is lovely and I like her hairdo, which seems to be more in the vein of Rita Hayworth than the tightly coiffed Betty Grable style he often relied on. While Bolles posed a lot of his girls in beach scenes, this image doesn't match up with any of them and I think the only cover that comes even remotely close is this stunning image from 1940. By the way the original painting for this issue was offered for sale on eBay about seven years ago and if one of you happens to own it I would love to include a photo of it for my book project.

Let's just hope there are more examples like our fair beach maiden out there yet to be discovered.