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Mike Kaplan


Dancing With the Movie Stars: The Art of the Movie Poster

Posted: 07/09/2012 11:48 am

Maybe I was born with a poster gene. As a child in Providence, R.I., I'd remove the full-page theater ads announcing a new play or musical from the Sunday New York Times, color them with paints or pastels and then compare the results with the printed versions when I visited New York with my parents. Though they were not then available for public purchase, movie posters were easily viewed as they were prominently displayed in lobby frames and exterior display cases at every cinema.

I loved movies and movie posters equally and studied both. Whenever a new Otto Preminger film was announced, I would await its opening but would be just as excited anticipating the first look at the film's poster, for Preminger employed graphic master Saul Bass and Bass' concepts were always bold, sophisticated and surprising (The Man With the Golden Arm, 1955; Anatomy of a Murder, 1959; Advise and Consent, 1962).

Becoming part of the film industry in 1965 allowed me to collect new film poster favorites. This was still a period when a poster's key art, along with the trailer, was the main advertising tools in attracting audiences. My mantra was: a film's campaign could determine its success and every good film could be a box-office winner if it had the right poster. But more posters began to look alike, with little imagination and a preponderance of photography, while paintings and illustration, which I believe elevate a film and entice the public, faded from view. The exciting poster work was now being done by the music industry, with ground-breaking imagery from new artists as rock dominated mainstream culture. Album covers became works of art. I wanted the same for movie posters.

When I discovered the availability of vintage movie posters through collectors and funky memorabilia shops, a new world of striking and provocative poster art was revealed, one that blossomed during "the golden age" of movie poster design (1925-1950). Design was what I responded to, regardless of nationality or whether I knew the film, and I relished fiinding and being inspired by these treasures from around the world.

In "GOTTA DANCE: The Art of the Dance Movie Poster," the current exhibit from my collection at the California Heritage Museum in Santa Monica, over 80 pieces are on view from eleven countries. All have unique qualities in using dance imagery from both musical and non-musical films. Several are great posters from great films -- a rare synthesis: the Italian Singing' in the Rain by Nano; the British Red Shoes; the Belgian 42nd Street and Vandor's Astaire-Rogers image for the French Carefree in "The Fred Astaire Room." It shows Fred and Ginger in full flight in formal evening attire, an iconic image one knows from all their films.

Other examples of poster perfection include three by Roger Soubie, France's most prolific movie poster artist, for Born to Dance (1936) with a vibrant Eleanor Powell and a young James Stewart; Gene Kelly's personal copy of An American in Paris (1951) and Jailhouse Rock (1957), arguably the best Elvis Presley poster with the King and his dancing cellmates. From Germany there is Greta Garbo as the contemplative ballerina in Grand Hotel (1932) by Meiss; fading vaudevillian Laurence Olivier in The Entertainer (1960) by Hubner and the only poster from West Side Story. (1961) to center on Oscar winners Rita Moreno and George Chakiris. From Argentina, Tomey created a lush fashion tableaux for Il Caliente (1935) with glamorous Dolores del Rio, and led by the exquisitely sensual image of George Raft and Carole Lombard in Bolero (1934) by Moje Aslund, every poster from Sweden, where their modern designs still feel advanced today.

Toulouse-Lautrec inspired Bernard Lancy for his colorful Kid From Brooklyn (1946) with Danny Kaye and a bevy of chorus girls; Astaire and Rita Hayworth pulsate in Boris Grinsson's design for You'll Never Get Rich (1941), and Rene Peron devised the ultimate Esther WIlliams aqua feast for Million Dollar Mermaid (1952), the centerpiece of the exhibit's "Water and Ice" section.

Superb American designs are exemplified by: the elegant Dance Team (1932); the pastel stone lithography of Rudy Vallee, Alice Faye and Jummy Durante in George White's Scandals (1934); the art deco Moulin Rouge (1934), with sophisticate diva Constance Bennett, then Hollywood's highest-salaried actress, and Astaire and Rogers on roller skates in Shall We Dance (1937). America's master caricaturist Al Hirschfeld is represented by a dynamic drawing of Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland dancing on a drum for Strike Up the Band (1940). Hirschfeld is one of the few American artists whose poster art was eventually credited. In Europe, where both the poster and the movies were held in higher regard, poster artists were always allowed to sign their work.

When the opportunity arose to initiate or create unique poster art for new films, I gravitated to painters and illustrators who could interpret a movie's essence with inspired style and individuality -- David Hockney (A Bigger Splash, 1975), Don Bachardy (Short Cuts, 1994) Allen Jones (Maitresse, 1976), Philip Castle (A Clockwork Orange, 1971), John van Hammersveld (Welcome to LA, 1976), Andre Carillho (Never Apologize, 2008).

Movie posters have complex and competing elements -- text in the form of title treatment, credits and slogans that merge with visuals -- they are a pre-Ed Ruscha construct. With one exception, the Starchild/ Ultimate Trip poster that relaunched Stanley Kubrick's 2001:A Space Odyssey in 1970, every poster took longer to produce than actually making the film. As an independent distributor in England, I delayed the release of Barbet Schroeder's The Valley (La Vallee) for a year until Philip Castle's airbrush artwork was finalized. Sometimes examples from the Golden Age inspired new designs -- Blonde Crazy (1931) and Suez (1938) for Robert Altman's Kansas City (1996); Tales of Manhattan (1942) for Alan Rudolph's Trouble in Mind (1985).

In curating exhibits at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences in Los Angeles, the Roy Furham Gallery in Lincoln Center, The Gallery of Film Poster Art at Cal State, Northridge and now at The California Heritage Museum, my hope is that the art of the movie poster will be recognized as a genuine art form, not a sidebar of popular culture and that, perhaps, painting and illustration may once again become part of today's movie poster mix, contractual restrictions aside.

A few years ago, the Odeon Cinema Circuit in Great Britain conducted a poll among their patrons to select the All-Time Best Film Poster. I collaborated on the one that topped their list, Stanley Kubick's A Clockwork Orange. But picking "The Best" of anything is only an exercise. Altman often said, "My movies are like my children. I love them equally, regardless of their success."

Walking through GOTTA DANCE!, every gallery is filled with favorites. Each piece is equal as I remember the excitement of the hunt for the acquisition, the exhilaration in discovering a knockout design, the surprise in learning an unexpected aspect of movie history.

The movies have always been a prime source of escapism. The ideal movie poster is a microcosm of the movie itself, capturing with inventiveness the feeling one has after leaving the cinema. It should be both a work of art and a souvenir of one's movie experience.


As the exhibit's last identifying caption was installed for Poor Little Rich Girl (1937), an extraordinary discovery emerged. When researching David Olere, the artist who created the charming French poster of a dancing Shirley Temple, we learned that he was a Holocaust survivor who spent his post World War II years depicting the tragic scenes he experienced at Auschwitz.

Knowing Olere's history, one can only marvel at the life force that created that jubilant confection of Shirley Temple, with joyful "Animal Crackers" lettering, and was then compelled to remember in his art, the fate of those that did not survive.

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  • Although there are great American posters for the ten Fred Astaire & Ginger Rogers movies -- on roller skates in <i>Shall We Dance</i>; on an anchor for <i>Follow the Fleet</i>; doing 'The Carioca' in <i>The Gay Divorcee</i> -- dancing in elegant evening dress is their definitive image and nothing captures their artistry as perfectly as the French poster for <i>Carefree</i>. Songs: Irving Berlin. Director: Mark Sandrich. <i>Carefree (1938)/RKO/Amanda/France/Artist: Vandor</i>

  • Her movies included the titles -- <i>The Little Colonel, The Little Princess</i> and <i>The Littlest Rebel</i> -- but in the history of the motion picture, Shirley Temple should be accurately called <i>The Little Giant</i>. She was the consummate entertainer in the midst of the depression and saved 20th Century Fox from going under as she rose to the top of the box-office charts, a position she held for most of the '30s. She was cute, clever and displayed an intelligence well beyond her age. She knew how to put over a song; her dancing was infallible, matching the incredible Bill Robinson as they tapped up and down the stairs. Shirley Temple's dancing takes center stage in the delightful French poster for <i>Poor Little Rich Girl</i>, a charming pastel confection with "Animal Crackers" logo lettering and a smartly placed triangle for the supporting credits. <i>Poor Little Rich Girl (1936) / 20th Century Fox /Pauvre Eliite Fille/ France /Artist: David Olere</i>

  • Formerly Gene Kelly's personal poster. The central image of Kelly holding Leslie Caron was adapted throughout Europe but none had the rich texture of the stone lithography process of this French original, nor the detailed, multi-colored montage of Parisian scenes, which were significantly simplified in later posters. Score: George & Ira Gershwin. Vincente Minnelli's Best Picture Oscar winner introduced Caron to international acclaim. 2012 marks the centenary of Gene Kelly's birth, a perfect time to celebrate his work by seeing <i>An American in Paris</i>, <i>Singin' in the Rain</i>, <i>On the Town</i>, <i>Cover Girl</i>, <i>It's Always Fair Weather</i> or any number of his films -- and be awestruck by the graceful athleticism he brought to dance. <i>An American in Paris (1951)/MGM/Un Americain À Paris/France/Artist: Roger Soubie.</i>

  • A wealth of inspired color, a bevy of dancing girls and a humorous illustration of Danny Kaye vibrate in the star's second film with Virginia Mayo and Vera-Ellen, a poster that violates the French "auteur theory," wherein producer Samuel Goldwyn receives the "film by" credit rather than director Norman Z. McLeod. <i>The Kid From Booklyn (1946)/RKO/Le Laitier De Brooklyn/France/Artist: Bernard Lancy</i>

  • Exquisite in every detail, the Swedish poster for <i>Bolero</i> reflects the heat generated by George Raft and Carole Lombard in their climactic dance to Ravel's "Bolero," performed in the film atop a circular stage with blinding lights and dramatic shadows. The posters in every country highlighted the dancing couple but none approached Moje Ashlund's perfect creation of art deco elegance and sensuality. Raft, an accomplished dancer, had few opportunities outside of his gangster roles to display his talent on the dance floor. Here, as the ambitious, self-centered nightclub owner who discards his dancing partners with abandon, he meets his match in self-reliant Carole Lombard. <i>Bolero</i> was a huge hit, established Lombard as a major star, and spawned their second teaming in <i>Rhumba</i>. The dramatic film was a favorite of both Raft and Lombard. <i>Bolero (1934)/Columbia/Sweden/Artist: Moje Aslund</i>

  • The sharp, spunky granddaddy of all backstage musicals starred Warner Baxter as the producer putting on his last show with newbie dancer Ruby Keeler waiting in the wings when star Bebe Daniels injures her leg and can't go on. George Brent, Ginger Rogers and Dick Powell were also in the cast but the actors took second place to Busby Berkeley's dazzling, kaleidoscopic production numbers, with their legion of chorus girls. His choreography takes center stage in this stunning Belgian poster, showcasing his dancers atop and within the three-dimensional title treatment. An art deco knockout. <i>42nd Street (1933)/ Warner Bro./ 42eme Rue/ Belgium, pre-WAR</i>

  • Claudette Colbert, whose legs stopped traffic in the multiple Oscar-winner <i>It Happened One Night</i>, displayed them again in a buoyant performance as the French music hall performer who becomes a great actress after an affair with a married man. The successful stage play, opera and previous filmed versions were handled this time by director George Cukor, who elicited solid performances from his cast, including star comic Bert Lahr, shortly to be transformed into 'The Cowardly Lion" for <i>The Wizard of Oz</i>. Colbert effectively sang several songs, coached by Fanny Brice. Paramount capitalized on Colbert's previous leggy success for this striking advance teaser. <i>Zaza (1939)/ Paramount/Advance Poster/Signed by Claudette Colbert</i>

  • A rainy grey-black background contrasts and highlights the colorful, joyous trio of Gene Kelly, Donald O'Connor and Debbie Reynolds, the three major talents who headline one of the great movies, depicted here in their most imposing rendering. "What a Glorious Feeling!" from directors Kelly and Stanley Donen. Songs: Arthur Freed and Nacio Herb Brown. <i>Singin' In the Rain (1952)/MGM/Cantando Sotto La Pioggia/Italy/Double Panel/Artist: Nano</i>

  • The legendary Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland spring to dancing life in this rare 40x60 poster of Busby Berkeley's <i>Strike Up the Band</i>, created by the master of caricature art, Al Hirschfeld. <i>The Line King</i> is the name of the award-winning documentary about him but <i>The Line Genius</i> might be more appropriate. I began collecting Hirschfeld's theatre drawings from the Sunday <em>New York Times</em>, then discovered his color creations which began in the late '20s. Hirschfeld eventually worked for all the studios but the majority of his movie work was for MGM. Songs: George & Ira Gershwin; Roger Edens. <i>Strike Up the Band (1940)/MGM/United States/Artist: Al Hirschfield

  • Roger Soubie had painted every legendary movie star in his career as France's most prolific film poster artist -- from Gable to Garbo; from Stanwyck to Sinatra. When the rock n' roll era arrived, Soubie rose to the occasion to produce the best poster of any Elvis Presley film. His <i>Jailhouse Rock</i> puts every American Presley poster to shame. Here, Elvis' vibrant profile immediately captures the viewer, made all the more effective by the less defined features of Judy Tyler, another of Elvis' mostly interchangeable leading ladies. Soubie then puts the icing on the cake by showcasing Elvis' jailhouse romp with his dancing cellmates, one of the King's most memorable choreographed numbers. <i>Jailhouse Rock (1957) / MGM / Le Rock Du Bagne / France / Artist: Roger Soubie</i>

  • It's ironic that many of the most colorful, beautiful and detailed movie posters were created during the early '30s, when film became more primitive as the techniques of the talkies restricted camera movement. Posters were the primary advertising tool; the visuals had to be instantly enticing. The one-sheet for <i>Dance Team</i> stands on its own as a work of art that grabs immediate attention. Draped against the title cup are James Dunn and Sally Eilers, a B movie team who each touched Oscar glory -- Dunn winning a supporting Oscar for Elia Kazan's <i>A Tree Grows in Brooklyn</i>; Eilers the star of Frank Borzage's <i>Bad Girl</i>, a multiple award winner. The dark musical was photographed by master cinematographer James Wong Howe. <i>Dance Team (1932)/20th Century Fox</i>

  • This bold German poster to 1932's Best Picture Oscar winner juxtaposes the stark black and white opening shot of the Grand Hotel's pulsating lobby with iconic color art of Greta Garbo as the Russian prima ballerina. In America, the first of MGM's all-star productions had Garbo first billed, with John and Lionel Barrymore, Joan Crawford, Wallace Beery and Lewis Stone following in same sized, above title lettering. Here, Garbo's name is larger, alone, and above title, reflecting her enormous popularity in Europe, which even surpassed her domestic star power. Critic Andrew Sarris' astute observations of her performance parallel the poster presentation: "Garbo acted her brief, two-scene part as if it were a continuous dance... She seemed to float in a different sphere from her more prosaic co-stars...This is the one movie that seemed to represent for the public her innermost depths." <i>Grand Hotel(1932)/ MGM/ Menschen Im Hotel/Germany/Artist: Meinss</i>

  • Lord Laurence Olivier transformed himself into "Archie Rice," the faded ego-driven vaudevillian, whose desperate schemes to maintain a semblance of stature and dignity ruin the lives of those around him. Lauded for his Shakespearean performances and other classical roles, Olivier proved to be an equal master of contemporary drama, recreating the stage performance written for him by playwright John Osborne, whose "Kitchen Sink" dramas revolutionized British theater. Olivier called this Oscar-nominated role his favorite. German artist Hubner shows "Archie" in the middle of a song and dance routine, with a dreamlike painted backdrop appropriate to his state of mind. <i>The Entertainer (1960)/United Artists/Woodfall/Germany/Der Kermodiant/Artist: Hubner</i>

  • Norma Shearer was "The Queen of MGM", being a major star as well as the wife of production chief Irving Thalberg. She won an early Oscar for <i>The Divorcee</i> (1930) and received many nominations thereafter. Shearer chose this witty confection as her penultimate film over safer, conventional projects. Her comic timing is at its peak balanced against the suave delivery of Melvyn Douglas, who would win two Oscars decades later for <i>Hud</i> and <i>Being There</i>. The two stars elegantly dance in a rare head to toe design for an oversized poster, obviously enjoying each other. Only known copy. <i>We Were Dancing (1942)/MGM/3 Sheet/Artist: Vincentini</i>

"GOTTA DANCE!: The Art of the Dance Movie Poster" runs through September 30, 2012, at the California Heritage Museum in Santa Monica.

All photos courtesy of Mike Kaplan.