An ill-fated acting cameo led to Slim Aarons capturing one of Hollywood’s most iconic images. Matthew Butson tells the story…

As you can imagine with Hulton Archive being one of the largest commercial archives in the world, there are a whole host of wonderful stories that provide the background to many of our images. Slim Aarons’ ‘Kings of Hollywood’ is a case in point. One would never guess that the source of the amusement depicted here was actually the photographer himself!

US born, Slim Aarons began his photographic career with Yank Magazine during World War II - the official Army publication distributed to the armed forces.  Slim generally photographed in the field though it was an ability to deal with and shoot the high and mighty that set the pattern for his future career.

During the war he met several Life Magazine staff photographers who admired his individual style as well as his photographic technique and his career soon blossomed.  Slim was the paparazzi of class - always by invitation in white tie and tails - and was soon was on a first name basis with most of the powerful first families in America.

Just after the war, Slim was invited by Henri Cartier-Bresson to be a founding member of the renowned Magnum photographic agency but turned the offer down as he much coveted his independent status. He later went onto freelance for a number of high profile magazines including Stars and Stripes, Town & Country, Esquire, Holiday and Life. But I digress - back to the story…

Screen legends Clark Gable and Sophia Loren were in Italy shooting a film entitled ‘Bay of Naples’. Slim, being friendly with Gable was invited along as the set photographer but during the course of the filming it became apparent that two of the scenes required a tall American in a small cameo role who could play the part of a drunk.

Slim is six foot four so Gable says to him, "Gee Slim, you're here, you're an American, you're the perfect type!"

“But I don't drink” replies Aarons.

Gable says "Well, can you act drunk?"

Aarons considers this and tells Gable "Yeah, well anyone can act like an idiot but look, I'm not an actor, I'm a photographer", so Gables offer him two hundred thousand Lira at which point Aarons suddenly declares, "I'm an actor!”. 

His first line is seemingly simple, "My name is Tim Costello, I'm from Chicago, I'm in the laundry business - cleaning up". They shoot take after take…after take. Gable is getting increasingly irritated by Aaron’s ineptitude which is making Slim more and more nervous and therefore he can't utter the line.

So it's "take" and "cut" fifteen times or more, even the extras are saying "get rid of this bum!" according to Slim. Gable decides to go to the second line. A question is posed to him - "So what do you think of the girls in Naples?" and Slim is supposed to retort "the girls in Naples? I don't even drink the water," but comes out with "I don't even drink their water" among numerous variations on a theme.

After many hours on the set Gable finally explodes,"Enough! That's enough! I've had enough! I'm tired and I'm going home! Goodbye!"

Gable eventually dubs both Slims lines in the movie.

Needless to say, Slim was somewhat distraught at the thought of losing the close friendship he had with Gable so was relieved later that year to be on hand to shoot what was eventually dubbed the ‘Kings of Hollywood.’

The image was taken in 1957 at Romanoff’s New Year’s Eve Party in Beverley Hills, California where Gable was recounting to his illustrious colleagues - Jimmy Stewart, Van Heflin and Gary Cooper - Slim’s dubious ‘performance’ in Naples earlier that year.

Obviously Slim’s antics in front of the camera, as opposed to his undoubted ability behind it, was the source of much mirth among Hollywood’s finest. At that point Slim knew he had not only retained Gable’s friendship but in the process had taken an iconic image with which he would later become synonymous.

Editor’s Note: Slim Aarons collection was acquired in 1997 by Getty Images and is now part of the company’s archival division, Hulton|Archive. There is an exhibition of Slim’s work currently showing at the Getty Images Gallery in London until 9th June 2014. Admission is free.

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