The 10 best silent film posters

Silents by numbers

This is a guest post for Silent London by Isabel Stevens, production editor of Sight & Sound. The Silents by Numbers strand celebrates some very personal top 10s by silent film enthusiasts and experts.

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Just as films in the nascent years of cinema were characterised by their visual innovation, so too were their posters. Designers enjoyed far more freedom than most of their successors working in the sound era, who toiled in large publicity departments and had to comply with strict restrictions on the size and prominence of stars’ images and their names.

Designs for silent movie posters were also created using many different techniques – from hand-painting unique posters for local theatres to mass-produced lithographs or linocuts. The Stenberg brothers, whose designs alone could fill a list of 10 ground-breaking silent movie posters, even invented a special projector that paused a film frame so faces could be traced, the resulting image appearing somewhere between a painting and a photograph.

The designs collected here are for both masterpieces and little-known films alike, but all preference mood and visual daring, never just relying on tantalising narrative tit-bits to sell a movie. Many of them contain echoes of art movements of the time – Cubism, Art Deco, Constructivism, the Bauhaus and Expressionism – and were created in the 1920s, that decade of wild avant-garde experimentation.

The Green Spider, Vladimir Egorov, 1916
The Green Spider, Vladimir Egorov, 1916 (Credit: The Silent Film Poster: Russia 1910-1930)

The Green Spider, Vladimir Egorov, 1916

Here is the original spiderwoman, accessorised delightfully with eight-legged earrings. It’s a surreal vision that proves that Russian film poster design in the 1910s could be just as imaginative and strange as that of the Soviet era. Little is known about this tale of lust, apart from that it was considered a cult movie at the time of its release and played in theatres in seedy parts of St Petersburg. The poster is the work of Moscow theatre designer Vladimir Egorov, sketched one presumes under the influence of the many arachnoids that featured in the drawings of Symbolist artists such as Odilon Redon and Alfred Kubin.

Safety Last!, Curt Peters,1923
Safety Last!, Curt Peters,1923

Safety Last!, Curt Peters, 1923

Swedish film poster design was particularly adventurous in the 1920s, as exemplified by this vibrant design featuring stunt-mad comedian Harold Lloyd swinging into the frame and promising vertiginous laughs and spectacle galore. With his clothes billowing in the wind, his hair standing on end and a smile on his lips, he’s enjoying the ride as much as you will.

L'Inhumaine, Fernand Léger, 1924
L’Inhumaine, Fernand Léger, 1924

L’Inhumaine, Fernand Léger, 1924

French artist Fernand Léger was obsessed with dynamism and mechanical objects and when he came to make his only film, 1924’s Ballet Mécanique, it was as if the kaleidoscopic, fragmented worlds of his Cubist paintings were moving.  Leger also designed two film posters – one for Abel Gance’s La Roué and this energetic composition for Marcel L’Herbier’s opulent science-fiction drama L’Inhumaine (for which Léger also designed sets). Just a quick glance at Léger’s geometric spectacle is all that’s needed to know that the film is an avant-garde retinal extravaganza.

The Thundering Herd, Batiste Madalena, 1925
The Thundering Herd, Batiste Madalena, 1925 (Credit: Now Playing: Hand-painted poster art from the 1910s through the 1950s)

The Thundering Herd, Batiste Madalena, 1925

Cycling past New York’s Eastman theatre long after his poster-designing years were over, Batiste Madalena spotted his hand-painted creations lying in a heap of rubbish outside. He rescued 250, among them this abstract interpretation of buffalo-hunt period drama The Thundering Herd.  But the rest of the 1,400 vibrantly coloured Art-Deco-inspired designs he painted over a four-year period in the late 1920s were sadly destroyed. Eastman in Rochester was America’s third largest cinema in 1922 and Madalena painted up to eight designs a week, using tempura paint on paper board. At a time when most film posters where just bills of text, the brief that he received from the owner George Eastman was that the posters had to be vibrant distractions for people passing by on trolley cars. Madalena summed up his approach as “colour, atmosphere, punch”. His mantra? “I am an artist. Not a sign painter.”

Cassanova, Jan Tschichold, 1927
Cassanova, Jan Tschichold, 1927

Cassanova, Jan Tschichold, 1927

In the late 1920s, the typographer Jan Tschichold designed a number of posters for Germany’s largest cinema, the Phoebus-Palast, a 2,174-seat Munich theatre. In the city’s busy streets outside were Tschichold’s arresting but minimal asymmetric creations, which prioritised formal joviality over a film’s content. Stills were incorporated but they never dominated – the eyes of passersby were directed by lines and blocks of bold colours. A poster, in Tschichold’s view, “must strike and attract by means of its total effect”.

The General, Stenberg Brothers, 1927
The General, Stenberg Brothers, 1927

The General, Stenberg Brothers, 1927

The silent star whom film poster artists around the world had the most fun with was undoubtedly Buster Keaton. There have been so many ingenious and charming static depictions of his deadpan face, his hurtling adventures. The master of mayhem particularly appealed to Soviet artists such as the Stenberg brothers, who loved depicting characters in motion in their designs. So enamoured were they with Keaton’s train chase epic The General, they designed two posters for the film.

Metropolis, Boris Bilinsky, 1927
Metropolis, Boris Bilinsky, 1927

Metropolis, Boris Bilinsky, 1927

Heinz Schulz-Neudamm’s dramatic three-sheet is better-known (the most expensive film poster ever and in the possession of one Leonardo DiCaprio), but Boris Bilinsky’s photomontage for the film’s french release captures the awe-inspiring nature of Lang’s futuristic city far better. Inspired by Dadaist Paul Citron’s city collages, Bilinsky used actual images from Lang’s film to create a newspaper ad.  He later adapted this prototype into a four-sheet kaleidoscopic urban jungle (no surviving copies are known). For more on his Bilinsky’s wonderful creations and his dizzying use of repetition (including a delightfully curious poster for The Telephone Operator/Das Fraulein von Amt Hanns Schwarz, which makes you want to seek out the German comedy right away), see Adrian Curry’s excellent poster blog for Mubi here. 

The Divine Woman, Dolly Rudeman, 1928
The Divine Woman, Dolly Rudeman, 1928

The Divine Woman, Dolly Rudeman, 1928

Yes, there was a female poster artist of the silent era, and a pioneering one at that. Her name was Dolly Rudeman and her posters often offered acute character studies. She worked largely in an expressionist style, using bold colours and exaggerated forms, but her designs were at same time strangely sombre. Her striking creation for Sergei Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin mourns the horror of the bloody Odessa steps sequence – and couldn’t be more different from the constructivists’ stripped-down interpretations. But her most haunting image was for Victor Sjostrom’s The Divine Woman. Only a nine minute reel now survives, along with Rudeman’s vision of Garbo’s melancholic face floating in a sea of blue. The American poster for the release promised a movie of cocktails and gaiety. Despair, anger, fear and joy are sentiments commonly sketched by poster artists to sell films, but rarely does real sadness figure so prominently.

The Passion of Joan of Arc, René Péron, 1928
The Passion of Joan of Arc, René Péron, 1928

The Passion of Joan of Arc, René Péron, 1928

French designer René Péron’s poster for Dreyer’s classic measured 8×10.5ft. Imagine all those huge, intense faces staring down on you in the street. Dreyer insisted on capturing his actors makeup-free in bright light against white walls, his camera capturing every wrinkle and detail in their skin, and René Péron followed suit with his chiaroscuro graphic treatment. Many other posters for the film chose  to just isolate Renée Maria Falconetti’s face, often amidst the flames of her death. Dreyer’s masterpiece stood apart from the many ostentatious, elaborate cinematic worlds envisaged by his contemporaries and Péron’s medley of expressive faces perfectly distils a film shot predominantly in close-ups. For more on Péron, see this informative post.

Young Miss, Takashi Kono, 1930
Young Miss, Takashi Kono, 1930

Young Miss, Takashi Kono, 1930

Kono was a Japanese graphic designer celebrated for his exuberant and playful advertisements, book and magazine covers. But after graduating from the Tokyo Academy of Fine Arts he actually started out working as an art director for Shochiku studio on films such as Ozu Yasujiro’s I Was Born, But…(1932). He also designed film posters, including this sprightly study of objects for Ozu’s Young Miss and a whimsical double portrait for Ozu’s silent comedy The Lady and the Beard (for that design and more on Kono, see here). Another classic (and my favourite of his designs) is a dreamy Joan Miró-esque abstraction for an early sound film, Teinosuke Kinugasa’s 1932 period epic Dai Chushingura (The Loyal 47 Ronin).

By Isabel Stevens

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