It should come as no surprise to anyone reading “Big Reel” that movie posters are highly collectible. Six-figure auction prices for particularly prized pieces are becoming more common, and even such venerable financial publications as “Forbes” have begun to take notice of what was, until fairly recently, a niche hobby.
Anyone even casually interested in collecting movie posters has heard of record prices paid for the top science fiction and horror titles, such as the $334,600 realized for a one-of-a-kind Style D Bride of Frankenstein (1935) one sheet in a recent Heritage auction. Other posters, perhaps not quite so valuable, are revered for their groundbreaking art and graphics, as seen, for example, in the landmark posters of Saul Bass, responsible for the unforgettable images used to promote such films as “Vertigo,” “The Man with the Golden Arm,” and “West Side Story,” or in the exceptionally beautiful poster for “The Sin of Nora Moran,” a stunning image far, far better than the movie it was intended to promote.
That said, however, it should also come as no surprise that, just as in any hobby, there are those pieces that are undervalued and underappreciated by many active collectors, overlooked gems that are still quite lovely and desirable, even if they don’t get the international press coverage of a Universal horror one sheet.
Westerns, as a genre, are a good example of posters that are often overlooked. Although certain titles bring outstanding prices when offered — the one sheet for “Stagecoach” (1939) brought $77,675 in a recent auction — most titles in the genre can be had for very reasonable prices.
The Western, probably the most truly American of all film genres, has a long and distinguished history in motion pictures, dating back to Edwin S. Porter’s landmark film classic “The Great Train Robbery,” one of the earliest Western movies. A staple of both big- and small-screen entertainment, the Western has birthed such heroes as The Lone Ranger, Hopalong Cassidy and The Cisco Kid, and made icons of actors such as John Wayne, Gene Autry, Roy Rogers, and Tom Mix.
Some of the most attractive Western posters ever produced are those promoting the handful of sound films legendary cowboy star Tom Mix made for Universal between 1931 and 1932. All nine films, including “Destry Rides Again,” “Hidden Gold,” and “My Pal, the King” (which pictured both Tom Mix and a 12-year-old Mickey Rooney), offer incredibly beautiful poster art, and all are highly prized by Mix collectors. Nevertheless, many poster aficionados pass these beauties by in favor of high-profile horror and sci-fi titles.
Although John Wayne was one of the biggest stars ever to grace the silver screen, many people forget that he toiled in relative obscurity before appearing in “Stagecoach,” the movie that made him a mega-star. Prior to that landmark role, Wayne appeared in scores of B movies, many of them for Monogram, a Poverty Row studio noted for pictures with high levels of action and excitement that eventually became Allied Artists. Wayne also appeared in quite a few films for Republic, another small studio, best known as one of the leading producers of serials during the 1940s and 1950s. Posters featuring Wayne from this era, including “Texas Terror” (Monogram, 1935), “King of the Pecos” (Republic, 1936), “Santa Fe Stampede” (Republic, 1938), “The Lonely Trail” (Republic, 1936), and “The Desert Trail” (Monogram, 1935) offer spectacular graphics and wonderful images of this soon-to-be major star, but they often are overlooked by all but die-hard Western or John Wayne collectors. If you appreciate outstanding imagery, you owe it to yourself to take a look at pre-”Stagecoach” John Wayne posters.
Another long-overlooked area, which actually is gaining in popularity among particularly savvy collectors, is foreign posters. Most American collectors tend to focus on American releases, or at least “country of origin” posters. But many posters produced abroad for foreign markets feature exceptional graphics, often far surpassing their American counterparts.
Swedish posters from the 1930s are typically triumphs of Art Deco design. Just look at such spectacular sheets as “The Black Cat” (1934), “Frankenstein” (1931), “Charlie Chan in Shanghai” (1935), “The Clairvoyant” (1935), “Trouble in Paradise” (1932), and D.W. Griffith’s “Lady of the Pavements” (1929) for just a few examples, by artists including Gösta Aberg and Eric Rohman.
Likewise, Italian posters tend to be exceptionally dramatic and visually compelling, rendered by such outstanding artists as Anselmo Ballester, Angelo Cesselon and Luigi Martiniati, whose paintings for Bogart posters are particularly thrilling. Martiniati creating stunning images for such pieces as the two-folio designed for “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre,” the four-folio for “The Big Sleep” and the Italian one sheet for the 1953 re-release of “The Oklahoma Kid.”
French posters also are outstanding sources of high-quality graphics. In fact, one of the best examples of a foreign poster outshining its American equivalent is the French Grande released in support of the classic sci-fi film, “Planet of the Apes.” The original American one sheet is strikingly dull. The French Grande, which features colorful and exciting artwork by leading French poster artist Jean Mascii, shows Charlton Heston being manhandled by those “damn, dirty apes.” Many genre collectors consider this the poster to have on this film.
Other French poster artists to look for are Constantin Belinski (his posters for “The Creature from the Black Lagoon” and “The Creature Walks Among Us” are exceptional); Boris Grinsson; and Roger Soubie.
Japan is another country whose poster art is becoming more and more popular with collectors. Unlike many of the other countries mentioned here, many Japanese posters rely on photography rather than art. The result is a collage-like piece that is very appealing in its originality.
Consequently, there are no Japanese poster artists per se to look for. Posters promoting the Godzilla series of films, as well as pictures by such renowned directors as Akira Kurosawa, Takashi Miike, and Kenji Mizoguchi, always are favorites. Also popular are Japanese sheets for well-known American titles, such as the James Bond films. Although many Westerners cannot read the kanji script used on the posters, the Japanese characters actually become part of the overall design, greatly enhancing the appeal of the sheet.
At one point in movie history, the big-budget musical was a mainstay of cinematic entertainment. Classic films like “The Jazz Singer,” “The Wizard of Oz,” “Yankee Doodle Dandy,” “An American in Paris” and former Broadway shows, like “Oklahoma,” “The Sound of Music,” “West Side Story” and, more recently, “Chicago” and “Sweeney Todd,” all have brought the joys of music to the screen. But in more recent years, this wonderful genre seems to have fallen out of favor with both moviegoers and poster collectors. While a few titles still command considerable interest, like “The Wizard of Oz” and several of the films starring Elvis Presley, many are still somewhat undervalued.
Collectors looking for an area of poster collecting that seems promising for future growth should explore Golden Age (1930-1949) musicals, particularly those featuring major stars like Fred Astaire, Shirley Temple and Lena Horne. These posters often featured wonderful graphics by artists including Hap Hadley, Al Hirschfeld and such legendary pinup artists as Alberto Vargas (“Moon Over Miami”) and George Petty (“Ziegfeld Follies”).
Silent films are an area that often rewards dedicated collectors with the thrill of discovering hitherto unknown posters. While posters featuring top stars, such as Rudolph Valentino, Mary Pickford, Lon Chaney, Charlie Chaplin, Douglas Fairbanks and the like often command strong prices, there are plenty of posters out there with exciting, colorful graphics that lack nothing but a recognizable star’s name. These posters can be had for far less, and their attraction is undeniable. Made using a stone lithography process, they are glorious examples of the printer’s art, with a fine-grain texture that is extremely striking. Silent film-era posters are well worth seeking out and collecting for their own sakes, regardless if you’ve seen the movies promoted or are familiar with the stars.
Many collectors today are unaware that, until fairly recently, there was a strong tradition of “separate cinema” in America, in which films starring black actors were made for black audiences and shown in separate theaters, sometimes called “sepia movies.” Several of these films, such as the well-known and historically important “Stormy Weather” and “Cabin in the Sky,” received widespread acclaim, but most remain relatively unknown to this day. This is unfortunate, as many of these films are quite good, with exceptional acting, directing and production.
Surprisingly, black cinema can trace its roots back to D.W. Griffith’s landmark film, “The Birth of a Nation.” As important as this movie is to film history, it was seen at the time — and even more so now — as racially intolerant and bigoted, as it portrayed the Ku Klux Klan as nothing less than national heroes, saving the poor, oppressed Southerners from the depredation of newly-freed slaves in the aftermath of the Civil War. Even though Griffith later stated that such depictions were not his intention — and even made his next film, “Intolerance,” as an “apology” for “The Birth of a Nation” — the picture galvanized black filmmakers worldwide, particularly director Oscar Michaux, who made “Within Our Gates” (1919) as a direct response to Griffith’s film. Michaux’s 1920 film, “The Homesteader,” was the first movie to feature an all-black cast.
The concept of “separate cinema” expanded, and by the 1930s, it had firmly taken hold. One of the biggest stars in this genre was Herb Jeffries, a singer and actor who starred in some outstanding all-black Westerns, including “Harlem on the Prairie” (1937), “The Bronze Buckaroo” (1939) and “Harlem Rides the Range” (1939). Because of the limited distribution that Jeffries’ films — and those of other black actors appearing in “sepia movies” — received, posters can be relatively hard to find. However, they are often a bargain when they do turn up, as they are exceptionally attractive pieces. Posters from this era of “separate cinema” can be extremely satisfying to collect, and they provide insight into an area of movie history that deserves further study.
If you’re a fan of “Mystery Science Theater 3000,” you’re no doubt aware of an entire genre of films known as “Sword and Sandal.” While in a broad sense, this genre could be seen to include any historical/Biblical epic, such as “Cleopatra,” “Ben-Hur” or even “The Ten Commandments,” the label typically is used to refer to a certain type of movie that typically features gladiators and/or heroic or mythical figures. Sword and sandal films typically were produced in Italy in the 1950s and 1960s.
Some of the best-known films of this genre are those in the “Hercules” series, and the best of these starred former Mr. Universe and Mr. America, bodybuilder Steve Reeves. Although Reeves only played Hercules twice, he starred in a number of sword and sandal films, and his ongoing fame primarily is attached to that genre (although fans of director Edward D. Wood Jr. will remember that Reeves also had a role in Wood’s noir-esque film, “Jail Bait”).
After he experienced limited success in Hollywood, Reeves traveled to Italy, where he starred in “Hercules” (1958), a movie that was a box office triumph upon its release in the United States. It was the enormous success of this film that inaugurated the sub-genre of sword and sandal films.
An interesting side-note regarding Reeves: His career — which seemed to stall after his success in the first two Hercules pictures and was over entirely after 1968’s “A Long Ride from Hell,” (also known in the U.S. as “I Live for Your Death”) — had the potential to be much, much more. It’s reported that Reeves was offered and turned down the roles of James Bond in “Dr. No,” which made Sean Connery a superstar, and that of Joe, “The Man With No Name,” in “A Fistful of Dollars,” the movie that launched Clint Eastwood’s career.
Strongman Maciste was as popular as Hercules. Widely recognized as the oldest recurring character in movie history, Maciste’s character first appeared in Giovanni Pastrone’s landmark 1914 silent film, “Cabiria,” and appeared in more than two dozen subsequent pictures between 1915 and 1927, played in all of them by Bartolomeo Pagano.
The character Maciste proved so popular that he was revived, following the success of “Hercules,” in 1960 in the film “Maciste nella valle dei re” (“Maciste in the Valley of the Kings”), which was released in the U.S. as “Son of Samson,” as American distributors felt that domestic audiences wouldn’t have the faintest idea who Maciste was. All of the Maciste films released in America identified the hero as another strongman, such as Samson, Goliath, Colossus, Atlas, etc.).
Mark Forest played Maciste in the first film, and he is the actor most identified with the Italian strongman during this period, but others took up the role as well, including Gordon Scott, Kirk Morris and Alan Steel. In all, 26 Maciste films were released between 1960 and 1965, until the spaghetti Western fad supplanted the sword and sandal boom.
These are just a few examples of some wonderful posters awaiting truly savvy and forward-thinking collectors. So, the next time you look through an auction catalog or peruse a sales list posted online, look past the obvious choices and consider some of the more obscure treasures.
There just might be untapped gold waiting to be discovered!