I’ve already mentioned film historian Anthony Slide’s great-looking new book Now Playing, which documents the work of artists who created movie posters for urban movie palaces and neighborhood theaters alike, from the silent era to the 1950s.
Tony has kindly agreed to answer a few questions about both his work on Now Playing and the poster artists represented in it.
In-house King Kong and The Black Pirate posters: Courtesy of the Margaret Herrick Library
Girl Shy poster: Collection of Dr. Phil Sansone
“Now Playing.” In your own words, what is the concept of the book?
The book reveals what was to me – and just about everyone else, I believe – a unique aspect of promotional efforts by exhibitors. We had always assumed that the studio-approved printed posters were routinely sent out to theaters, and these were what appeared on display in the lobbies and the fronts of the buildings. But as far as many, many theaters – perhaps the majority – were concerned, this was not so.
The individual theaters and the regional theater chains, such as Paramount-Publix and Fox West Coast theaters, had their own in-house poster artists who designed groups of posters for display purposes; posters intended to meet the needs of the individual theaters and their display areas, and to appeal to local audiences. Now Playing is very much a tribute to these forgotten artists and their work.
How did you get involved in the writing of “Now Playing”?
The idea for the book originated with a lady named Jane Powell and her colleague Lori Berthelsen. (For fun, I always used to refer to Jane Powell as “not the actress” to avoid confusion.) In fact, her interest in marketing and promotion probably came from her husband, Charlie Powell, who was an executive at Universal. I knew Jane, and we spoke many times of the book while she was in the process of writing it. Sadly, she died of cancer before completion of the work, and it was her wish that I write the book. Happily, that was also the wish of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, which is co-publisher and sponsor of Now Playing.
I have to admit that I discarded everything that Jane wrote, came up with a new structure for the book, and, basically, I re-researched the subject. I went through the pages of Signs of the Times, a trade paper for commercial posters artists in all fields, checked what I could find in motion picture trade publications (which was not a lot), and read everything that had been written on movie poster art (most of which I have to state I found very inadequate).
You picked numerous movie posters as illustrations. What made you choose certain posters and not others? Were those stylistic choices, or did you choose posters that had a “story” to tell?
Choosing the illustrations was something of a problem in that not a lot had survived in its original form. If we had an original poster, we tended to use it. Otherwise, we looked for the best possible copies that were available, in the pages of Signs of the Times, in a scrapbook of photographs of the work of poster artist Ike Checketts, and elsewhere.
Sometimes, quite frankly, an illustration that I would have liked to use was rejected because the quality was not good enough. For example, I really wanted to publish Batiste Madalena’s poster for [the 1923 Western blockbuster] The Covered Wagon, but the bottom of the poster had been cut off for some reason, and the general feeling was that it was not acceptable for the high quality of the book that the Academy and Angel City Press wanted.
The King Kong poster on the left is a studio poster; on the right is an in-house poster created by Edward Augustus Armstrong.
Hollywood studios created their own posters. Why did theater owners opt to have local artists create new posters?
Now that’s the question to which we have no real answer. It was obviously cheaper to use the printed posters, which sold for as little as 25 cents each. But the theater owners wanted an in-house artist, whose weekly salary might be as high as $100.00 [multiply that amount by 10 or 11 to get current equivalent figures]. I think it was a matter of appealing to local audiences, knowing what poster images would appeal to them and would get them into the theater. Also, I suspect it was a matter of size. The studio posters were of uniform size, whereas many display stands and cases varied substantially in size.
How difficult was it to find movie posters created by local artists?
Very difficult. The posters of Batiste Madalena, from the Eastman Theatre in Rochester, New York, had survived, but the posters from other artists had not. Artists would routinely paint over the posters from previous weeks and eventually discard the boards they had used. Nothing would survive except for the occasional reproductions in Signs of the Times.
What was the general quality of the local poster artists? Did they follow a certain artistic pattern? Were there regional or social variations in terms of style (e.g., New England vs. the Deep South; big city vs. small town)?
Some poster artists were very good. There is no question that Madalena is the best, and that Otto Wise and Ike Checketts have considerable talent. At the same time, I would not like to pretend that all the local poster artists had talent. Some were pretty mediocre. I could name them, but as their relatives are still around, I will restrain myself.
As to the second half of your question, I was never aware of any artistic pattern based on locale or community. I don’t think the size of the town had anything to do with the quality of the work. In fact, Batiste Madalena in Rochester, New York, was turning out posters of far higher quality than those of artists in major cities.
Generally speaking, did the posters faithfully represent the films they were supposed to advertise?
No. You have to remember that the poster artists never saw the film itself in advance of creating the poster. Thus, they had to rely on still photographs and campaign books. Also, happily, there were no contractual obligations in terms of whose name(s) had to appear on the posters. And so, they might choose to emphasize an actor or actress whom they liked rather than an actor or actress who was the actual star of the film.
And finally, do you have a favorite poster or group of posters – a poster (or posters) that is/are both artful and dramatic/comic?
As I keep noting, Madalena is the best artist, and any of his posters are great.Well, perhaps not all of them – his poster for [the 1923 blockbuster] The Ten Commandments is pretty pathetic. I do like Otto Wise’s poster for [the Ramon Novarro vehicle] The Road to Romance. I don’t think you can choose between one Ike Checketts poster and another. They are all impressive and yet simplistic in style.
There is one poster artist in the book, about whom we know nothing – and that is O.A. St. Pierre of the Paramount-Publix chain in Boston. His poster for [the 1932 Josef von Sternberg melodrama] Shanghai Express is stunning. Certainly, Marlene Dietrich is not really recognizable, but the image is comparable to the work of some of the great Victorian artists in England, such as Millais or Holman Hunt.