Film historian and collector, Jeff Gordon, has collaborated with Hamon staff on a fall 2016 installation of seven movie posters from his collection. These stunning and brightly-hued posters join an earlier loan of Dorothy Lamour’s Beyond the Blue Horizon poster also on view on the first floor of the Library. In addition to this installation, Mr. Gordon also agreed to the Blog’s invitation to write comments about his early and sustained interest in movies and memorabilia, and the unique context of each poster in the history of mid-20th century American film.
I’d be hard-pressed to name my favorite movie genre, for I’m drawn to most all of them! This has forever held true for baby-boomer me, “raised” on TV showings of movies from Hollywood’s golden age. During my youth, I also took advantage of the diverse film offerings in my native New York, spending as much time in revival theaters as in first-run movie houses. Then there was the Museum of Modern Art, which had the best film retrospectives anywhere. My appreciation for vintage cinema deepened when I did a three-year volunteer stint in MoMA’s Film Study Center during high school.
I had happened upon movie posters at age 13. Their graphics enchanted me as much as the films they were promoting. A lifelong movie memorabilia collector was born. Going to work at 14 to pay for my then-inexpensive hobby, I serendipitously got a job sorting out vintage movie paper from a defunct poster exchange, then cataloged similar fare for Greenwich Village’s Cinemabilia Bookstore.
Afterwards I attended New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts, where I was mentored by William K. Everson, then the dean of film historians. Everson helped see my senior paper to publication. 32 years (and many articles) later came my book, Foxy Lady: The Authorized Biography of Lynn Bari. Foxy Lady was released in 2010 – three years after my association with SMU and the Hamon Arts Library had begun.
Being a devoted friend of Hamon has brought me many unexpected rewards, including curating the 2013 Hawn Gallery exhibition, “Linda Darnell: From Dallas to Hollywood,” which featured posters and other memorabilia from my collection on this Dallas screen immortal. And today, the installation in Hamon’s lobby of seven pieces from my movie poster collection throws light on my diverse cinematic interests. Below are some brief comments about these films and their posters.
The Birds (1963)
The Australian “daybill” poster of Alfred Hitchcock’s avian thriller was not processed photographically with pixilated images and lettering. Rather, it’s a stone lithograph, imbued with the rich hues and textures of a printmaker’s work. Costly, stone lithos were abandoned by US film studios in the early 1950s – but they endured in Europe and South America through the 1970s.
Carmen Jones (1954)
Carmen Jones never ceases to fascinate. The interesting things related to this “version of a version of a version” could easily fill a book – or two. The musical drama’s graphic art would certainly account for at least one chapter. Importantly, its “one sheet” was the very first film poster designed by Saul Bass (1920-1996), the artist who revolutionized movie poster art and film credits. Bass had spent a decade in advertising when Twentieth Century-Fox and producer-director Otto Preminger gave him his big break on Carmen Jones. Studio and director were thrilled by the extraordinary way in which Bass got to the very essence of the film with his minimalist, intellectually appealing style. Consequently he was asked to design Carmen Jones’ onscreen credits. Bass brought to this assignment even more groundbreaking innovations. In dual capacities, he would go onto work regularly with Preminger and, later, Hitchcock. Bass would receive credit for all of his film graphics after Carmen Jones.
Jailhouse Rock (1957)
Elvis Presley’s signature movie, Jailhouse Rock, was exploited sensationally in the US; its posters dominated by a heavily-pomaded Elvis in angular profile. In France “The King” was also accorded splendid attention, but there his image was softened and further eroticized by the presence of starlet Jennifer Holden. Additionally, the French Jailhouse Rock movie posters put far greater emphasis on Elvis’s electric performance of the title tune. The results of this were outstanding – and they can be seen in “grande” form at Hamon.
Phantom Lady (1944)
Phantom Lady was one of Hollywood’s niftiest murder mysteries, one that established Robert Siodmak as a top noir director. The thriller’s success was due in equal part to the ingenious efforts of first-time producer Joan Harrison, Hitchcock’s longtime right-hand assistant. Phantom Lady’s “insert” poster proves striking, effecting the film’s intrigue by its employment of two scene fragments and three floating heads (a cutout design normally detested by poster aficionados!).
The Searchers (1956)
The heyday of American movie posters ended at the dawn of the 1950s. Cost-cutting seemed to translate into a lack of inspiration. This was glaringly apparent in the advertising art for John Ford’s peerless western, The Searchers. Bland, the graphics fell short in mirroring the film’s exquisite tableaux, additionally neglecting to highlight its stars. Commercial artists abroad, however, paid proper attention – and this can nowhere be better illustrated than in the French Searchers poster.
Swamp Water (1941)
The eerie settings in Swamp Water’s posters were the creation of famed scene painter Thomas Hart Benton (1889-1975). A leader in the Regionalist art movement, Benton had been commissioned by 20th Century-Fox to compose a set of lithographs depicting the characters and environment of the forthcoming Swamp Water. Known as the Swampland Series these lithos would be utilized as key elements in the marketing of Swamp Water (the film that marked the American directorial debut of Jean Renoir). The Swamp Water one sheet is a decidedly unique poster, a stone lithograph that combines Benton’s moody work with delicate portraits and a blazing tag line – all set against a solid dark background. Georgia’s desolate Okefenokee swamps never seemed so packed!
Thunder Birds (1942)
Despite its rather gritty title and a gritty director (William A. Wellman), Thunder Birds was a picture-postcard World War II morale-booster, one with recruitment on its mind. In Technicolor, it was primarily lensed in Arizona, at air bases in Scottsdale and Mesa. Despite a contrived narrative, focusing on a military love triangle, Thunder Birds turned out to be engaging fare, thanks to its gorgeous scenery, handsome actors and enthusiastically patriotic approach. If ever a war movie could be called “pretty,” it would be this one. And just as pretty was the film’s display art – like the insert poster at Hamon!
Special thanks to Georgia Erger, Jolene de Verges and Beverly Mitchell.
Further reading on film posters
Hershenson, Bruce. To be continued…1930’s & 1940’s serial movie posters. West Plains, MO:
B. Hershenson, 
Kisch, John. A separate cinema. New York : Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1992.
Marsh, Graham. Film posters of the 70s. Woodstock, N.Y. : Overlook Press, 1998.
McClelland, Doug. Forties film talk: oral histories of Hollywood, with 120 lobby posters. Jefferson, N.C. : McFarland & Co., c1992.
McClusky, Audrey. Imaging blackness: race and racial representation in film poster art. Bloomington : Indiana University Press, c2007.
Morella, Joe. Those great movie ads. New York : Galahad Books, c1972.
Salavetz, Jütka. Art of the modern movie poster: international postwar style and design. San Francisco, Calif. : Chronicle Books, c2008.
Wolff, Mark. Hitchcock poster art. Woodstock, NY : Overlook Press, 1999.
The Hamon Blog wishes to thank Jeff Gordon for this posting, and Jolene de Verges for the suggested reading list.
Feature image: Courtesy of Jeff Gordon