Laura La Plante in a photograph by Jack Freulich, Motion Picture Classic.
History is written by survivors, so those who die young often seem to recede into memory, forgotten or ignored as time passed them by. While often great artists, their contributions are overlooked while those who achieve longevity are praised and promoted, though sometimes not as talented.
Jacob (Jack) Freulich has seen his integral part in shaping early film stills photography virtually overlooked because of his death in 1936, barely a generation after he started the Universal Studios stills department in 1920. A talented man with a keen eye for character and detail, he photographed virtually every major Universal picture star from 1920 until his death in 1936, including Lon Chaney, Erich von Stroheim, Boris Karloff, Mary Philbin, Norman Kerry, Lew Ayres, Hoot Gibson, Margaret Sullavan, and Bela Lugosi, to name a few. Many people mistakenly credit his younger brother Roman with the rich body of work he left behind.
“Hollywood Celebrates the Holidays” by Karie Bible and Mary Mallory is now available at Amazon and at local bookstores.
Anna May Wong, photographed by Jack Freulich, Motion Picture Magazine.
Born September 11, 1880 in Czestochowka, Slaskie, Poland to Isaac and Nisla Freulich, Jacob was the oldest of five children, spread eighteen years apart. Little is known of his early life, but he appears to have immigrated to the United States around 1901, a driven young man eager to get ahead. By 1909, “Jack” Freulich set up his own studio in New York and joined the major New York photography agency Underwood & Underwood as a portraitist in 1911.
Transferred to Washington, D. C. in 1914, he shot foreign dignitaries and American political and social leaders for the camera for one year, before returning to New York to head the photographic department. In later years, he considered Secretary of Commerce Herbert Hoover as one of his best subjects, along with Franklin Delano Roosevelt. While Freulich’s work appeared in virtually every magazine and newspaper around the world, none appeared in his name.
Fiery and rugged, Freulich also produced portrait shots for leading entertainers of the period, including early film stars like Valeska Suratt. In fact, David Shields in his book, “Still: American Silent Motion Picture Photography,” describes how Jack Freulich “photographically channeled Theda Bara’s dangerous femininity” in a series of stills presenting Bara as the preeminent female vampire: wicked, sensual, and alive, for her star making role in “A Fool There Was.” Every major portrait studio and film studio began courting him to head their departments.
Jack Mulhall photographed by Jack Freulich, Stars of Photoplay.
Universal chief Carl Laemmle lured talented Freulich to California in 1919 to head the photography and still department for the studio with a nice increase in salary to $100 a week and most importantly, name recognition and credit. The studio head found a connection with the portraitist due to their shared Eastern European background and Jewish heritage. Freulich’s job was to give a lustrous sheen and allure to Universal’s stable of stars at a reasonable price, while adding credibility and respect to the budget conscious company.
Times were changing in portrait photography as stars moved from sessions with independent studios and photographers to exclusive work with studio publicity departments for specific films and campaigns. As Freulich recounted in a wire story published in the Rushville Republican on January 29, 1931, stars sat for portraits once a month or more with portraitists in the teens, ordering several hundred or even several thousand at a time to send out themselves to the media. By the 1920s, studios took over this function, establishing stills departments to shoot myriad types of photographs mailed out in bulk to newspapers and magazines, controlling the timing and theme of these images.
Freulich established a rapport with his subjects, helping put them at ease by playing music in his studio, the first to do so per a September 13, 1925 Los Angeles Times story. The music helped stars relax into mood, drawing out their natural character and emotions. Freulich’s portraits show vitality as well as gravitas, etched like marble with light, full of shadow and definition. He employed lighting instead of scenery in his work, focusing on faces surrounded by textured fabrics or patterned textiles.
Ginger Rogers photographed by Jack Freulich, Modern Screen.
The cameraman recognized the importance of publicity stills, telling International Photographer in 1934, “Stills are the direct selling factor for the picture. They are used as advertising ‘come-on” in the lobby of the theatre, good stills will pack a house, that is if they are arranged to attract attention.” He described portraits as selling tools for stars and films as well, sent out to magazines, newspapers, advertising products, window displays, and to fans. “The publicity department, a very important cog in the motion picture industry, uses thousands of these stills for mailing lists to theatrical managers and newspapers; it is their way of building up a new picture.” In this way, studios blanketed the country with images of a film and star, building name recognition and word of mouth for their products.
As the number of required stills expanded, Freulich hired family members to help produce the required output. He hired both his son Henry and his younger brother Roman to shoot production stills for the company, while he focused on portraits and character studies. Freulich later employed future photography stars Ray Jones and Bert Longworth as well. Jones served as his assistant, shooting portraits in Freulich’s absence when the department head visited his family in Europe.
Erich von Stroheim photographed by Jack Freulich, Motion Picture Magazine.
When new leadership took over Universal in 1936, they cleaned house of veteran employees like Freulich, replacing him with his quick young assistant Jones in May 1936. Freulich felt emasculated and stripped of respectability with the loss of his passion and mainstay, committing suicide on October 17, 1936.
Because of Jack Freulich’s early death, many people mistakenly credit his outstanding work to his younger brother Roman, though portraits by the two can be differentiated by style as well as signature. Freulich’s keen eye captured the allure and sexiness of Universal’s film stars, helping shape the iconography of Hollywood’s glamour photography for years to come.