Those wonderful movie posters
Original movie posters are highly collectible and often an excellent investment. To fully qualify, a poster must have hung in a movie house.
Today’s movie posters are descendants of the playbills and posters that once graced live theaters all over the world. You can bet the Roman Coliseum in Ancient Rome advertised somewhere: Appearing this week: Spartacus & the Gladiators! Centuries later, The Globe Theater might have nailed a playbill to its facade advertising Hamlet, a Ghost Story. We all know the Ford Theater was playing Our American Cousin the night Lincoln was assassinated because the actual playbill is on display at the Smithsonian.
The first movie posters that advertised silent films were beautiful artworks, done by some of the best artists of the day (including Walt Disney himself), to illustrate the film that was playing. Most movie posters were made in very limited quantities and shipped to theaters folded up inside the cans with the film. Later they were mailed to the theaters rolled up in cardboard tubes. They had a hard life; few survived intact. Very old posters are so expensive because they are so rare.
Movie posters were not made to be collected by the public; studios expected them to be returned after the run of the show. Before 1940, the posters were owned by each studio. Incredibly, each studio had an office in just about every large American city. Often, big city theater owners would go to the offices and pick up the posters.
Most theaters would show a film for only three or four days as part of a program: the feature film, a second feature, a newsreel, a cartoon and a serial.
Sometimes the theater owner would take down the posters after the last showing and put them on a late night bus to arrive in another city by morning. If all this seems complicated, remember that in those days, the major studios owned their own theaters.
In addition to the posters displayed in the movie theater poster box, there were other posters made to hang in bus stations and local store windows. These posters didn’t have to be returned. Vintage movie posters survived to our time because people stole them to use as insulation inside the walls of their houses.
In 1940, National Screen Service (NSS) was created to take over the distribution of all posters. The NSS dated and authenticated each poster.
The twin Holy Grails of movie posters: the oversized poster of Frankenstein (1931) and the original Metropolis (1927). Should you come across either of these at a garage sale, buy them; they are worth almost two million dollars to a big-time poster collector.
Years ago, Dumont NJ had its very own movie theater. It closed in 1948. Before it was torn down in 1958, I use to break in and explore with other adventurers my age. Always scared witless in the dark, empty, dusty movie house, I couldn’t wait to get out. One day I remember, In my haste to depart, I stumbled into a back room. It was empty except for a table in the corner. On it was a big pile of movie posters neatly stacked— all of them pre-1940. Too young, too stupid and above all too honest, I never even considered taking a few. Who knows if I had—perhaps I’d be a Harvard man instead of the graduate of a state college. Oh well.
PS—Not all posters in the old days were honest. Some showed scenes of a movie that didn’t exist. Most of them enhanced a glamor girl’s body parts or exaggerated a leading man’s muscles. One poster for the 1956 sci-fi classic, Forbidden Planet shamelessly showed Robby The Robot as a menacing, monster, carrying off a screaming and kicking (but scantily-clad) Anne Francis. In the film, Robby is Anne Francis’ benign, lovable servant and companion. Robby The Robot was such a hit in this film, he starred in a second film the following year.
Ric Pantale writer and director, is an independent film maker.