Mary Mallory / Hollywood Heights: Reading Codes on Movie Stills

Thelma Todd

Note: This is an encore post, Mary’s first from 2011!

Mary says: For Thelma Todd, 802 is the production number for FOLLOW THRU.  The 154 could be a scene code; usually that’s after a dash following the main number.  Paramount used a numbering system, which sometimes can be confusing, because there were East and West Coast branches through the early 1930s and they used the same codes.

Regular Daily Mirror readers will recognize author and photo archivist Mary Mallory as a key member of the Brain Trust. She’s agreed to contribute items and here’s her debut post. Thanks, Mary!

Thelma Todd I thought I’d start with a little history as to production numbers and still codes and explain why Larry has to hide them in the movie star mystery photo postings. Studios and production companies shot production and publicity photographs from early on as both reference for that and future productions and to help promote the films.

These photographs were called stills for a reason: the actors would pose after finishing a scene and remain motionless for several seconds while photographers using 8×10 negatives took aim. Most of the very first stillsmen were cinematographers, who would take production photos after finishing a scene. Almost none received or took credit.

Frances Farmer

Mary says: For Frances Farmer, SG1900 is the code for the Samuel Goldwyn film COME AND GET IT.  I can’t make out the letter, but think this is probably a publicity still of her from the film.  Those were often P1-P etc.

Frances Farmer By the late teens, major stars or studios hired their own personal photographer to shoot images, allowing them to occasionally take credit for their work by embossing or blind stamping prints on the back.  For images photographers considered outstanding, they would either sign the front of the prints or etch their signature in the negative.

Studios developed codes for keeping track of the photographs from their productions.  Each studio had its own style; some started at 1 or 100 and just continued on, others employed letter abbreviations for the titles, and others used different systems.  Early William Fox films used abbreviations of the director’s name and then the numerical status of the film, i.e. Frank Borzage’s SEVENTH HEAVEN was BOR-7.   For example, GONE WITH THE WIND’s production code was SIP-108.  Hal Roach shorts started with HR and then a letter for the series (A—Todd/Pitts, C—Charley Chase, G—Our Gang).

The early stills were glued into albums, and later prints were three hole punched and organized in key books.  There were the main production key books, but also ones for set reference, wardrobe reference, research, and location reference.  Each star was also assigned their own code for publicity purposes, and own key books.  Some studios employed letters, but most used a numerical system.  Snipes (also called captions) were often attached on the verso (back of the print).

Press kit photographs and stills mostly remained black and white well into the 1980s, when color was gradually introduced.  Digital prints entered the scene in the 1990s.  Now photographs are virtually almost always color, and come via a digital press kit or downloading.  And fewer and fewer photographers are actually employed, digital makes it easier for studios to frame capture from a feature.

About lmharnisch

I am retired from the Los Angeles Times
This entry was posted in Film, Hollywood, Mary Mallory, Mystery Photo, Photography. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Mary Mallory / Hollywood Heights: Reading Codes on Movie Stills

  1. skretvedt1958 says:

    Glad to see that you mentioned the Hal Roach films and codes. The early Laurel and Hardy films were still part of the “All Stars” series and had an “S” code. Starting with “Should Married Men Go Home?,” filmed in March 1928, the code changed from “S” to “L” for Laurel. They go up to L-40 with “Our Wife,” filmed in March 1931 and start over with L-1 with “Come Clean,” filmed in May. Each still has a unique code number — “HR-L24-20” is the twentieth still numbered from production L-24, “Berth Marks.” Oddly, two stills that were clearly taken consecutively can have widely varying code numbers — two photos taken one after another can be -13 and -32. The Laurel and Hardy feature films for Roach had different code numbers. “Pardon Us,” which began as a short, was originally L-35, but when Mr. Roach decided to make it a feature and secured a separate release agreement with MGM, it became F-1, as it was Roach’s first full-length feature in several years. The foreign-language pictures also had additions to their codes — SP for Spanish, GR for German, FR for French and IT for Italian. The stills were taken by Clarence “Stax” Graves; his wife, “Googie,” did the retouching.


  2. I saw “Follow Through” at a rare big-screen showing some years ago. Cute (i.e., very fluffy) movie, and it’s actually in early Technicolor, so it’s too surprising the publicity stills (at least, the ones that I can find online) are all in b&w.


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