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

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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.

POSTSCRIPT:

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.

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