The Movie Poster Myth

Ralph Stephenson’s “Posters and Credits” in Film Review 1971-72 is on a short list of literature suggesting that the golden age of movies was not the golden age of movie posters: “the fact remains that for many years the average film poster was unexciting and unoriginal, and nowadays it is an unrewarding experience to thumb through a glossy volume reproducing Hollywood’s poster images of the thirties.” As Stephenson realized, the pre-TV moviegoing audience was a captive one, hardly needing lures to attend the theater weekly.   Ads featuring star portraits (very ably rendered in fine color) contained little accompanying copy. When TV menaced film hegemony at mid-century, posters became filled with scenes and over-the-top blurbs.   They became more interesting—or sublime—and possessed of a panache altogether more entertaining than their forebears. The golden age of movie posters ran from about 1950 to the mid-70s. Examples from this period:

The Lost Continent (1951): “INCREDIBLE! Atomic powered sweep to a NEW World of Thrills!”

The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms (1953): “Prehistoric Sea-Giant Rages Against City! They Couldn’t Believe Their Eyes! They Couldn’t Escape the Terror! AND NEITHER WILL YOU!” + “Cast of Thousands. Over a Year in the Making!” + “The Sea’s Master-Beast Of The Ages Raging Up From The Bottom Of Time!” + “You’ll See It Tear A City Apart!”

manchurian candidate

Macabre (1958): “Any member of the audience is insured for $1000.00 against DEATH BY FRIGHT! during the performance of this terrifying picture!”

The Manchurian Candidate (1962): “If you come in five minutes after this picture begins, you won’t know what it’s all about! When you’ve seen it all, you’ll swear there’s never been anything like it!”

Point Blank (1967): “There are two kinds of people in his up-tight world: his victims and his women. And sometimes you can’t tell them apart.”

The Detective (1968): “An Adult Look at a Police Detective” + “You Killed a man before breakfast…You helped a teenage addict…You sent the wrong man to the electric chair…and at home…your wife is making love…to another man!”

A Man Called Horse (1970): “become an Indian warrior in the most electrifying ritual ever seen!”

dirty harry

The Vampire Lovers (1970): “IF YOU DARE…taste the deadly passion of the BLOOD NYMPHS!” + “CAUTION. Not for the mentally immature!”

The Abominable Dr. Phibes (1971): “Love means never having to say you’re ugly.”

Dirty Harry (1971): “Detective Harry Callahan. You don’t assign him to murder cases. You just turn him loose.”

The Stepmother (1972): “She forced her husband’s son to commit the ultimate sin!!” + “…it’s a family affair.”

Admittedly, some classic ads contained excellent artwork and even description—for newspaper reproduction. For example, inspecting The New York Times on microfilm reveals:

Sign of the Cross (1933): “A picture which will proudly lead all the entertainments the world has ever seen. Cecil B. DeMille’s Superb Road-Show Dramatic Spectacle.” + “Cecil B. DeMille’s The Sign of the Cross is a Paramount Picture. Paramount in Spectacle! Paramount in Appeal! Paramount in its Swift Action! Paramount in Technical Skill! With FOUR STARS. Fredric March, Elissa Landi, Claudette Colbert, Charles Laughton. Assisted by 7500 others.”

The Gunga Din (1939) ads were similarly full of hoopla, as were Arizona (1940), Jesse James (1939), High Sierra (1941), and Murder, My Sweet (1944).

In summary, rather than coffee table books extolling the 1930s as a golden age of film poster art, we need a comprehensive volume covering the best that was to come.

By Kim



Speed, F. Maurice, ed. Film Review 1971-72. 1971.

Borst, Ronald V. Graven Images: The Best of Horror, Fantasy, and Science Fiction Film Art. 1992.

Vance, Malcolm. The Movie Ad Book. 1981.

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