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William Mortensen in his studio with a photo of Jean Harlow.

Last month I was gifted with a copy of American Grotesque: The Life and Art of William Mortensen. This beautiful coffee table worthy book contains a compilation of work by William Mortensen (1897–1965), a brilliant, innovative and visionary photographer who once worked in Hollywood snapping glamorous and exotic portraits of actors on movie sets and in his studio. Mortensen’s unconventional methods and propensity towards grotesque, esoteric and erotically charged imagery compelled his peers, such as photographer Ansel Adams, to label him the “Antichrist” and in the following decades, critics attempted to minimize Mortensen’s artistic contributions and erase his name from history books.

Thankfully they didn’t succeed and today we have the opportunity to reevaluate Mortensen’s work in two recent books published by Feral House that piece together the man’s fascinating life and career. Mortensen’s a complex individual with many different facets to his personality but the years he spent in Hollywood should be of particular interest to classic film fans.

agbookMortensen arrived in Hollywood in 1921 accompanied by 14-year-old Fay Wray. At the time, Mortensen was an accomplished artist who had studied art in New York after a brief stint in the U.S. Army. He was born in Utah and returned there in 1921 where he became acquainted with young Fay Wray and her family. And although accounts vary, Mortensen reportedly was engaged to Fay’s older sister Willow and in 1921 he agreed to accompany her young sibling to Hollywood in an attempt to jump-start Fay’s acting career and secure himself work there.

The two set up house together on Hollywood Blvd. where Mortensen eventually opened his own photography studio. Due to his immense talent and an acquaintance who introduced him to director and producer King Vidor, Mortensen was quickly able to find work painting and designing backdrops for films. One of these films was Ferdinand P. Earle’s lost silent film, The Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám aka THE LOST OATH (1925), which starred Ramon Novarro. Soon afterward Mortensen found himself working with photographer Arthur Kales on Alan Dwan’s big-budget production of ROBIN HOOD (1922) featuring Douglas Fairbanks. During all of this, the photographer continued to act as Fay Wray’s guardian by providing her with a home, signing her school report cards, encouraging her to take dance lessons and securing her bit parts in a number of silent films. He also took a series of risqué photos of the young actress for publicity purposes that eventually found their way back to Utah and into the hands of Fay’s mother, Vina. Soon afterward, Vina Fay reportedly raced to Hollywood in an attempt to rescue her daughter from Mortensen’s (assumed) advances.

By the time Fay’s mother arrived in Los Angeles she was furious. She accused Mortensen of “having his way” with her young daughter and in her rage she attempted to destroy all the photographs that Mortensen had taken of Fay along with the negatives. The parting between the Wray family and William Mortensen was ugly and unfortunate but the photographer insisted that he was innocent of any wrongdoing and had simply provided Fay with a good home and some attention-grabbing publicity photos.

After Wray’s departure from his life in 1922, Mortensen began earning a name for himself in Hollywood as a portrait photographer. Over the next nine years, he photographed a number of popular leading ladies and men including Rudolph Valentino, Norma Shearer, Clara Bow, Romon Navarro, Warner Baxter, and Janet Gaynor. He also continued to work in production and as a photographer on a number of films including Cecil B. DeMille’s biblical epics, THE TEN COMMANDMENTS (1923) and THE KING OF KINGS (1927). During this period Mortensen also became acquainted with actor Lon Chaney who he had immense respect for due to their shared interest in grotesque makeup and exotic mask making. The two men worked together on William Nigh’s MR. WU (1927) and Tod Brownings’ WEST OF ZANZIBAR (1927), where Mortensen created unique tribal-style masks that were worn by Chaney and other cast members.

Mortensen’s time in Hollywood did not entirely revolve around work. He had an adventurous romantic life besides his curious dalliance with Fray Wray, which included marriage in 1924 to Courtney Finch Crawford. Very little is known about Courtney and their union wasn’t especially happy or successful. Mortensen was an attractive man who had a wandering eye and reportedly maintained a number of affairs with the beautiful starlets he photographed.

One romance of particular importance blossomed between Jean Harlow, who (if the above photo is to be believed) mesmerized the photographer. Mortensen took a series of stunning pictures of the platinum blond star that are arguably some of her best and most luminous portraits. Considering his various flings, it’s not surprising that Mortensen’s marriage eventually dissolved but he ultimately became involved with the lovely Myrdith Monaghan, a budding actress and “Mack Sennett Girl.” Between his professional success and newfound romance, it seemed that Mortensen’s career in Hollywood was destined for bigger and better things but events took a sudden turn for the worse when Fay Wray unexpectedly reentered his life.

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Top: Fay Wray (unconfirmed)
Middle: On the set of ROBIN HOOD (192)
Bottom: Jacqueline Logan on the set of THE KING OF KINGS (1927) – all photographs by William Mortensen

The year was 1928 and Fay Wray was now signed with Paramount Pictures and had just starred in Erich von Stroheim’s THE WEDDING MARCH (1928). After the release of the film, Wray married the acclaimed screenwriter John Monk Saunders and while the couple was enjoying their honeymoon in New York they received a frantic telegram from Fay’s overprotective mother Vina asking Saunders to ignore “the story” and “photographs” currently making waves in Hollywood. Apparently, a magazine had got ahold of the risqué photos Mortensen took of Wray when she was a budding young starlet and published them accompanied by a sordid story detailing their alleged relationship.

Wray’s new husband was furious when he heard the news and Paramount Studio executives demanded an explanation from their new star. After a heated meeting between Paramount management, Fay Wray, her mother and her new husband, they concocted a legal document for William Mortensen to sign that would exonerate Wray from any wrongdoings. The photos were declared fakes and Mortensen was forced to claim that his entire relationship with Wray had been fabricated.

According to authors of American Grotesque, Mortensen never publicly spoke about these events but a few short years afterward he closed his studio in Hollywood, packed his bags and relocated to Laguna Beach with Myrdith Monaghan, who he eventually married. His career didn’t end there although the trajectory changed dramatically. There is much, much more to this fascinating artist and his intriguing body of work than I can convey so I encourage you to pick up a copy of American Grotesque if you’re interested to learn about the photographer and this little-known aspect of Hollywood history. Besides containing many extraordinary and never before published photographs, the book also features a wealth of background information about Mortensen along with his own essay on Creative Pictorialism, a glossary of his photography methods and a final chapter about the “Mysterious Disappearance of William Mortensen” from history books.

What follows is just a small selection of the photographer’s work for you to enjoy. I believe the photos were all taken between 1921 and 1942 and feature imagery that many classic film fans should appreciate.

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Myrdith “Mack Sennett Girl” Monaghan-Mortensen

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Anna May Wong in THE THIEF OF BAGDAD (1924)

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Sojin Kamiyama THE THIEF OF BAGDAD (1924)

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Janet Gaynor

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Jean Harlow

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Jean Harlow

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Jean Harlow

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Joyzelle Joyner in ONE HYSTERICAL NIGHT (1929)

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Model wearing mask from WEST OF ZANZIBAR (1927)

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This portrait of the demon “Belphegor”  (model Georg Dunham) illustrates Mortensen’s cinematic inclination and makeup skills.

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“Off for the Sabot” (model unknown) is another great example of Mortensen’s cinematic tendencies & fascination with the macabre.

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“L’Amour” with Myrdith Monaghan-Mortensen & unknown man in gorilla costume. The photo is reminiscent of KING KONG (1931) and some believe the gorilla is Ray “Crash” Corrigan who often played apes in Hollywood movies.

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Mary Duncan

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Jeanne Crain

For more information about American Grotesque: The Life and Art of William Mortensen please visit the Feral House website where you can also order copies of the book.

by Kimberly Lindbergs, originally written for Turner Classic Movies on March 19, 2015 and published at TCM.com