Art Markets: Vintage movie posters played an important roll in promoting movies

Walk down the aisles at any multiplex cinema and the conclusion is inescapable: movie posters are nothing special nowadays. Most posters for recent films are cookie cutter affairs featuring large photos of the stars and a clever tag line accompanying the movie’s title and rating. The marketing money moved years ago to television ads and the 10-minute stream of trailers that preface most screenings. Most of the posters look insignificant and have no aspirations for winning design awards.

In the past, posters played a more important role in promoting movies. Calling to passersby from glass displays near the entrances of theaters, they often featured bold images and innovative graphics meant to entice and intrigue audiences in an age when many people walked to neighborhood theaters. Many of the poster designers were not executing literal illustrations of anything from the films in question. The infamous poster for Stanley Kubrick’s Lolita (1962), for example, depicted the movie’s young star Sue Lyon wearing heart-shaped sunglasses and sucking on a lollipop. No such scene could be found in the movie.

Collecting vintage movie posters has become a popular hobby for film enthusiasts. Some collect by genre and others by decade, as every decade has become its own era of nostalgia. During the 1920s, Hollywood became the world center of movie production with the cultivation of silent film as popular entertainment and a popular art form. Realizing the enormous potential of motion pictures and movie stars, ambitious entrepreneurs built-up the movie studios as production factories. An industry was born. MGM, Warner Brothers and Universal Pictures became the “majors” in the industry and the names of these studios continue to exist today, even if they have been reduced to subsidiaries of multi-national conglomerates. Making movies was big business and America couldn’t get enough.

The 1930s was the era of the talking picture and its subject matter was largely influenced by the Great Depression that encompassed the decade. Films of the 1940s are identified with World War II, film noir and the postwar era. Popular genres from the 1950s include science fiction films and the horror classics. In the 1960s, all hell broke loose in the industry; the Motion Picture Production Code was abolished and morality went on a long break. It was difficult to tell the good guy from the bad, and if the good guy was around, he didn’t always win in the end. The 1970s through the present day have brought advancements in all technical aspects of production, notably stellar special effects, making films of the last quarter century larger than life, and sometimes closer to home. Which brings us back to collecting vintage movie posters and the nostalgic appeal they possess.

Running across the decades are many genres of special interest to film buffs, including Westerns, screwball comedies, film noir and crime dramas, musicals, art house films from the 1950s and ’60s, and the ever popular horror and science fiction flicks that proliferated throughout the world after World War II. The commercial-free Turner Classic Movies channel on cable television plays a substantial role in keeping the interest in vintage movies alive.

Reproductions of most of the original studio lithographs are readily available and affordable on the open market today. Quality, size and paper stock vary but to the general film buff who just wants a favorite movie poster in the rec room, consistency is not an issue. To the vintage poster collector looking for a piece of movie history, it’s essential to own a poster that was issued direct from the studio marketing department and created when the movie premiered. Nothing but the original release will do.

Ritchies Auctioneers (Toronto), dominant in the sale of rare international poster and cinematic art, held its annual movie poster auction this fall. A leader in acquiring sought-after movie posters, its September 2004 sale auctioned the full-color poster from Casablanca (1942), the Warner Brothers studio classic World War II story about the fight for love and glory, for $55,000 (Canadian currency). Of the 624 works offered at the September 2008 auction, 32 hit the hammer at over $1,000 (Canadian) with the highest selling lot, Shall We Dance (1937), bringing in $7,800. All prices include buyer’s premium. The RKO musical teamed the dynamic dancing duo of Astaire and Rogers, who paired up in 10 lighthearted musical romps in the ’30s and early ’40s, creating Hollywood magic with their legendary ballroom dance routines that remain in esteem today. A title card (11 inches by 14 inches) of RKO’s It’s A Wonderful Life (1947), from the collection of the director of the movie, Frank Capra, sold for $1,440. A set of eight lobby cards (11 inches by 14 inches each) from MGM’s Gone With The Wind (1939) sold for $3,600.

The oldest item in the collection at auction was a poster from the Paramount Studio’s silent film, Shadows of Paris (1924), starring Pola Negri. The six-sheet (81 inches by 81 inches) sold for $2,280.

International posters of American film classics also held interest at the sale. A Belgian poster of MGM’s A Night at the Opera (1935), the Marx Brothers classic, sold for $5,400. The Swedish poster of Universal’s The Mummy (1932), starring Boris Karloff, sold for $6,000. An Italian poster of 20th Century Fox’s Bus Stop (1956) starring Marilyn Monroe sold for $1,800.

The Italian poster of the classic Clint Eastwood Western from United Artists, For A Few Dollars More (1965), sold for $1,960. The American poster for Dr. No (1962), starring Sean Connery in his debut as James Bond, sold for $1,020. Not all returns were impressive. Taxi Driver (1976), the Columbia release that brought Robert De Niro to the pinnacle of his career, sold for only $300. Warner Brothers’ The Shining (1980), starring Jack Nicholson, sold for a mere $180.

One of the highest-selling items at the auction was among the smallest. A lobby card (11 inches by 14 inches) from the ever popular Casablanca brought $5,206. It’s proof that the classics endure as time goes by.

Mary Manion

About Mary Manion

Mary Manion is associate director of Landmarks Gallery and Restoration Studio in Milwaukee, Wis. A columnist for Antique Trader since 2006, Manion is a member of the New England Appraisers Association.