Original vintage movie posters and movie memorabilia were never meant to be bought or sold. From the birth of cinema, movie posters were loaned or “rented” to movie theaters strictly to be displayed to promote a film, then returned to the film exchange or sent to the next theater on the distribution circuit. Printed on inexpensive paper, movie poster art was never intended to be preserved for posterity. Unlike so-called “limited edition prints” and the glossy reproductions available from numerous sources, original movie posters are the actual theater-used artifacts made and displayed when the film was actually released.
In 1933, one of the darkest years of the Great Depression, a theater owner might receive a 15-cent credit for returning a movie poster to his regional exchange. Compare this figure with the cost of a gallon of gas (18 cents) or a loaf of bread (12 cents) and it’s easy to understand why very few movie posters survived from this period. If the austerity of the times and the frugality of theater owners was not enough to keep movie posters out of the hands of the general public, the sweeping paper drives of the war years also did their part to help keep movie memorabilia out of general circulation. So it’s no surprise that movie posters from the years of 1930 through 1945 are quite scarce.
In fact, it is estimated that fewer than 20 copies of movie posters exist from most films made during the period of 1930 through 1945. For many landmark films of the era (e.g., “The Grapes of Wrath”, “Stagecoach”, “The Wizard of Oz”, “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs”, “Fury”, “The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes”, “Flash Gordon”) it is believed that less than a dozen examples have survived of any particular poster.
Dig deeper into the 1930s and the numbers grow even smaller. For many films produced at the depths of the Depression, only a handful of posters have ever surfaced. Included in this ultra-rare group are original movie posters for “The Big Trail”, “Tarzan, the Ape Man”, “The Public Enemy”, “Flying Down to Rio”, “The Thin Man”, “Frankenstein”, “Dracula”, “the Bride of Frankenstein”, “I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang”, “King Kong”, “Grand Hotel”, “The Cocoanuts”, “All Quiet on the Western Front”, and numerous others.
From the very beginning movie posters were a part of commerce, designed to get patrons to the box office. In 1890 a Frenchman named Jules Cheret is credited with producing the very first movie poster, a lithograph designed to promote a short film entitled “Projections Artistiques”. Five years later, a movie poster for the Lumiere Brothers’ “Arrival of a Train” in 1895 was the first to depict an actual scene from the film. However, up until the early 1910s, the majority of early film posters were nothing more than simple “broadside” style signs with little more than block text. A typical poster for an early Edison film contained little more than the movie’s title and the words “Another Edison Photoplay”.
This situation changed rapidly with the birth of the Studio System, and by the mid-1910s such studios as Essanay, Biograph, Vitaphone, Edison and Mutual were each producing their own posters and developing their own unique advertising styles with special border art, title treatment, studio logo, and slogan or “tag-line” to distinguish their quality film from the rest of the pack. In this way, patrons could readily distinguish, for example, between an Edison morality play and a Biograph cliffhanger.
By the mid-1920s the major studios had each developed their own unique style that reflected their output. Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (founded in 1924), with its Leo the Lion logo and boasting “more stars than there are in heaven”, set the industry standard for movie posters. Befitting its position as top studio, M-G-M often hired established artists and illustrators for its posters, including Al Hirschfeld, John Held Jr., Hap Hadley, Ted Ireland, Louis Fancher, Clayton Knight and Armando Seguso. During the late 1920s through the 1940s, MGM’s movie posters tended to be uncluttered and highly-polished painterly pieces of art, with unusual graphic treatments, often featuring pastel color schemes on white backgrounds. 20th Century Fox (founded as Fox in 1915 and merging with the 20th Century Corporation in 1935) is perhaps best known for elaborate dance features and musical escapism. The studio used brilliant and fanciful stone lithos to promote their product, and their posters are noted for rich lithography and vivid colors.
Paramount (founded in 1930), with its stable of top stars, produced sleek, witty posters with a minimum of text. By contrast, Warner Bros. (founded in 1923) adopted a starker, punchy, no-frills style of movie poster, often dominated by a photo-montage design, in keeping with their catalog of strong social-realism films. Columbia Pictures, despite its Poverty Row beginnings and no-frills movie-making, employed as vast an art department as any major studio. Throughout the 1930s and 1940s their posters were consistently eye-catching and explosively rich in color. In response to the public’s preference for photographic quality color likenesses of their favorites stars, Columbia pioneered the “fake color” process by which black and white still photos were colorized and turned into poster art, a process quickly adopted by all the other studios. Universal Studio, founded in 1912, is the oldest in existence. During the 1920s and 1930s, Universal movie posters were remarkable for their bold color saturation and dynamic composition, with very little white space. It is no coincidence that the posters for their 1930s horror, serial and western movies are among the most highly prized by collectors.
Over the years movie posters have been produced in a dizzying variety of sizes ranging from as small as the handbill-sized heralds and petite midget window cards all the way up to traffic-stopping billboard sized 24-sheets. But the most prevalent size remains the standard one-sheet movie poster poster (roughly 27 inches wide by 40 inches tall) which has remained relatively unchanged since the early days of cinema and is still in use today at your local multiplex. For bigger-budget films, the studios often created “advance” or “teaser” one-sheets that would announce the impending arrival of a film weeks and sometimes months ahead of its theater booking. For other major releases, the studios often produced several different styles of one-sheet for the same film, one to showcase the action-packed elements of the movie and the other to exploit the romance angle, in hopes of luring a broad cross-section of patrons into the movie theater. For a more detailed explanation of movie poster sizes and definitions please see the “Poster Sizes” section of this web site.
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