Saturday, April 3, 2010

The Declining Art of the Movie Poster

In 1979, on Markham Street, behind Honest Ed's in Toronto, I found my mecca. As a movie-mad university student, Memory Lane -- a film poster, lobby card shop and general treasure trove of pop culture paraphernalia owned and operated by "Captain" George Henderson -- was a godsend. I'd fallen in love with the posters used to promote the films I loved, hated, or had never seen. The artistry of the posters immediately caught my eye and I was instantly hooked.

George's place was a cluttered paradise featuring piles of posters and lobby cards stacked in no particular order. You just picked a pile and dug away. Over the years, I unearthed some real treasures for next to nothing (all lobby cards were $1 and posters were $5 - the exception was the year Ronald Reagan was elected. George hauled out all his old Reagan posters, put a $15 to $20 price tag on them and watched what had been gathering dust disappear). Amongst my finds were a full set of lobby cards from The Manchurian Candidate (1962), a set of 20 lobby cards from Barry Lyndon, a huge three-sheet poster for Dr. Strangelove, a lobby card for Bogart's The Desperate Hours, a lobby card for Preston Sturges' Christmas In July, the one-sheet for Hitchcock's Marnie, another - but badly torn - of Hitch's North by Northwest, lobby cards for Lolita (a good friend of mine spotted the stack of cards before I could, but he graciously gave me one). It went on and on. The posters in particular were often outstanding hand-illustrated works depicting scenes or characters from the films. Artists, such as Frank Frazetta, who went on to great fame as a comics and poster illustrator, worked their magic in this field too (Frazetta's poster for a film I don't even like, Hotel Paradiso (above), is still a favourite). If I wanted an image of the actors, I bought the lobby cards.

When George died tragically early in 1992 (he was 62) , the shop changed hands, the place was cleaned up and prices went through the roof. At the same time, the magic seemed to die in the art of the film poster too. Today, film posters, regardless of genre, are now horribly uninspired, celebrity-centric creations that feature huge head shots of the movie's stars in various poses (holding guns, holding each other, looking tough, looking sexy, etc. - for an example, see Time Traveler's Wife poster, to the right). I guess they're well photographed, but that's all they are (and photoshopped, of course, to remove any imperfections). Even fantasy films rarely feature anything but a photograph, or photo-realistic representation of the film's leads. When they are illustrated, as with the Pirates of the Caribbean movies, they all look like they've been rendered in a computer, not by the human hand. As we descend further and further into celebrity worship, even something as enticing as the film poster can't seem to muster up anything more than drab shots of the leads, and that is a downright shame.

Captain George and his shop may be long gone, but not everything is lost. In the US, a website called offers three-time weekly auctions of movie posters, lobby cards, cinema magazines, etc. of films from the 1930s right through to the present day. Every now and then, if I want to look at what the old posters were like, I'll spend an hour 'digging' through what they have on auction. I've yet to bid on anything, but I'm mightily tempted. It's like George's shop reborn on line. The art may be long gone from the current film poster, but the history still lives on.

-- David Churchill is a film critic and author. He is putting the finishing touches on his first novel, The Empire of Death.

1 comment:

  1. I'm not in the same league as you David, but I have been collecting what I can of various jpg etc. files of posters and lobby cards via the Internet. Check Google Images -- there are thousands out there.

    At least I can have something of my fave films.