May 21, 2010

50 Great Movie Posters: Part 1 (silent era-'40s)

Somewhere on the margins of cinema proper, at the nexus of advertising and fine art, you'll find the wonderful realm of the movie poster. Taking its cues from poster ads of the late Victorian and Edwardian eras, movie posters didn't come into their own until the dawn of the movie star. Makes sense when you consider that film exhibition didn't become standardized until about that time (the early to mid 1910s) when specific actors and actresses were becoming popular enough for the star moniker. In the early days of cinema, films were short and usually seen as part of a carnival or exhibition via Edison's Kinetoscope or similar device. Theaters and stars developed at about the same time, encouraging the symbiotic advertising relationship between the star, the film, and the theater. This model and the prevalence of movie posters (included under that umbrella are all in-theater ads--lobby cards, stand-up displays, even putting the star on a popcorn tub) continue till this day.

In a series of four entries, I'd like to present fifty noteworthy posters; some are personal favorites, some are historically interesting and some are just pretty. Enjoy!

Film: The Cinema Murder (George D. Baker, USA, 1919)
Designer: Unknown, USA

I've never seen this picture. I hadn't even heard of it until I found the poster. It is both typical of posters of the time in its pleasant, pastel watercolor, and yet the portrait of Marion Davies is uniquely captivating. This is a quintessential of star power as commercial draw. The design tells you nothing of the story--you're compelled solely by Davies' look, her youthful, angelic features counterbalancing the implied violence of the titular act.

Film: The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (Robert Wiene, Germany, 1920)
Designer: Unknown, Germany

If you want my opinion, silent era movie posters were dominated by foreign artists. U.S. posters tended more towards the deification of the star in mild, middle-of-the-road aesthetics, while the Germans (and French and Soviets) dipped into their rich graphic arts heritage to create some classic pieces. You'd be hard-pressed to find a boring poster for The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (take a look for yourself), but this design from Germany is my absolute favorite. Reminiscent of Picasso and indicative of Weimar culture, this poster is just downright beautiful. The film itself is most often praised for its jagged, surrealistic art design which is hinted at by the posters' geometric design. However, it is not incomprehensible because it focuses on the film's lead characters. It's a good example of fusing marketable, recognizable aspects (the actors) with design elements from the film.

Film: The General (Keaton & Bruckman, USA, 1926)
Designer: Unknown, USSR

This film has so many different versions of film posters, it's crazy. But this soviet design is my favorite. Throughout his career in the U.S., Buster Keaton was usually portrayed in cartoon caricature in heavy-lidded blue to emphasize his prominent eyes. Here, though, his portrait is more photo-realistic. And I don't know why Buster is on an old timey bicycle when he spends most of the movie on the the runaway train, The General (is there even a bike in the movie?). Regardless of the intent, the design is instantly eye-catching and intriguing.

Film: The Jazz Singer (Alan Crosland, USA, 1927)
Designer: Unknown, USA

If there's a more stunning graphic representation of racist performance, I haven't seen it. The Jazz Singer is actually a long, boring, very Jewish film--Jolson's blackface performances dominate the reception of the film but it's only incidental to the plot. Still, it's all we can seem to remember. And although regrettable, it does give us this poster, which is sort of instantly appealing and repulsive all at once.

Film: Metropolis (Fritz Lang, Germany, 1927)
Designer: Unknown, Germany

Again with those gorgeous Germans. Metropolis probably has the greatest poster art of any movie, ever. It's so so so beautiful. This is the most famous version of the original poster. The logo, typography and image of the female robot have been adopted and adapted so many times since the film's debut over eighty years ago, they now seem almost intuitive cultural images. The Art Deco composition of contrasting and complementing lines is instantly appealing, and aren't we always looking for beauty in urban architecture?

Film: M (Fritz Lang, Germany, 1931)
Designer: Unknown, Germany

All Fritz Lang, all the time! Possibly the most purely graphic poster I can imagine, but with a title like M, what else but a strong, single graphic symbol would suffice? M for mark, M for murder, M as a brand or tattoo, as these posters convey--the scarlet letter of the 20th century.

Film: The Grand Illusion (Jean Renoir, France, 1937)
Designer: Bernard Lancy, France

A powerful plea for peace and humanity, Bernard Lancy's poster for La Grande Illusion is the ultimate anti-war illustration. Starkly black and white, the soldier looks molded from steel, or like a chess piece unable to move under his own volition. The sole colors emanating from the soldier's chest--red, white, and blue.

Film: Gilda (Charles Vador, USA, 1946)
Designer: Manfredo Acerbo, Italy

The Italians really know how to draw women. Many Italian films from this period totally ignore the conventions of American posters (highlighting the romantic leads) and just feature the woman. From an advertising standpoint, this is a pretty smart movie and it made for some great posters, like this one for Gilda. A Gilda pinup poster makes more sense than, say, a Casablanca pinup poster (that actually did exist--thanks to Italy again!). Rita Hayworth's entire performance as Gilda is like one giant strip tease (it literally IS a strip tease at points). This poster highlights Gilda's introduction/epic hair flip ("Me?") while teasing any prospective viewer: the poster presents Hayworth in her trademark fiery locks in a way the black and white film can't. Also of interest on this poster: it lists King Vidor as the director instead of Charles Vidor. Oops!

Film: Notorious (Alfred Hitchcock, USA, 1946)
Designer: Segogne, France

Another film that has a great gallery of divergent poster designs, including this French version. Typical to films of this time, the poster favors the romantic coupling of the leads. However, I love Notorious posters because they almost always feature the key motif prominently. If you've seen the film, you know the importance of keys are to the plot. I like this use of the key motif specifically because of the way it splits the poster in half, dividing Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman as the figure of Claude Rains looms ominously. Great storytelling in this poster design.

Tomorrow will feature a diverse batch of posters from the '50s and '60s. See you then!


  1. You know, we want to be able to see every film--but somehow the posters can be almost enough. You've found some real beauties--and your text is enthusiastic and illuminating.

    By the way, that poster for The Jazz Singer is of course unfortunate--but a real stunner.

    And thanks for becoming a follower on my blog. I welcome your comments.

  2. Thanks, Paul! I really appreciate your feedback.

    You know, I was almost going to comment on your Butch & Sundance post today, but I couldn't think of a better counterpoint than "But...but...I really like this movie." Which I do. It's one of my favorites. I think what I wanted to say was that the film is something like that smart alec-y guy who gets cancer and knows he's going to die but keeps on deflected and keeps on joking because it's the way he survives, his defense mechanism. The film isn't outwardly mournful but I always feel a little bittersweet at the end. It's a class clown's elegy.

  3. I have just downloaded iStripper, and now I can watch the sexiest virtual strippers on my taskbar.