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“Cinema on Paper” Explores the Art and Appeal of Film Posters

Updated: Jul 16, 2023

In a recently released Assouline book, collector Dwight Cleveland showcases his passion for the visuals that lure you into a theater seat.

An 11x14-inch U.S. title lobby card from 1935’s “The Girl From 10th Avenue,” starring Bette Davis.

Dwight Cleveland has trekked from the flea markets of Havana to trailer parks in Iowa, a train station in Tokyo, auction houses in London, and countless points in between, all in his pursuit of the next thrilling piece for the collection he’s been amassing since he was 17: the artful film poster.

The cover of “Cinema on Paper,” published by Assouline.

Cinema on Paper (Assouline, $95) showcases just part of the outcome from the four decades-plus that the Chicago-based Cleveland has spent on his quest, and they are indeed worthy results. This stunning compilation of more than 100 pieces of cinema art may be a small sampling of Cleveland’s collection, but they also span almost the entire history of film itself, from a circa-1910 French image highlighting an early moviegoing experience to the seductive legs depicted on the poster for the 2002 film Secretary, starring Maggie Gyllenhaal and James Spader.

That relatively recent title aside, it’s clear that classic-film art is Cleveland’s true passion, particularly “the ‘Golden Age’ of cinema – the 1930s,” he said during an interview this week (examples of that decade in Cinema on Paper include the 1930 Howard Hughes-produced and -directed aviator film Hell’s Angels, starring Jean Harlow, and 1932’s Rain, starring Joan Crawford as Sadie Thompson). “But what drives me the most are compelling graphics that evoke the essence of a film.”

Cleveland’s obsession was birthed when he was a high-school senior and spotted a lobby card for the 1929 film The Wolf Song, directed by Victor Fleming, in his art teacher’s office; the image featured a young Gary Cooper clutching the beautiful Lupe Velez, and Cleveland’s life has never been the same. “I was a naïve 17-year-old high-school senior without any art training,” he recalled. “But when I first saw that Wolf Song portrait card, it was what the French call ‘le coup de foudre’ [edit note: the phrase roughly translates to a love that hits like a thunderbolt]: The deep color saturation, the deco graphics, the romantic embrace of Gary Cooper and Lupe Velez – they just grabbed me and begged, ‘Take me home!’”

The three-sheet poster art, measuring 41 x 7.25 inches, of 1938’s “The Adventures of Robin Hood."

Forty-four years later, Cleveland’s private collection is considered to be among the most comprehensive in the world. He’s bought and sold many pieces over the years, with his archive currently standing at approximately 3,500 works on paper, he said, noting that “it’s organic, as I’m still actively acquiring.” Is there any one poster he’s still actively seeking? “After 44 years of rabidly hunting things down, I’m really happy with what I own,” Cleveland added. “But it is usually some random silent piece that has never appeared before that strikes my fancy.”

In Cinema on Paper, classic-film fans can discover plenty of beloved titles to sate their own passion, from Casablanca and multiple versions of King Kong to The Adventures of Robin Hood, This Gun for Hire and The Girl from 10th Avenue, a 1935 Bette Davis drama. What might they have in common? Vivid colors, compelling graphics and the challenge of conveying a film’s story or tone in a single image are just a few of the shared elements. For some fans, it’s also a chance to discover the tone in films we’ll never be able to see, such as the colorful graphics of Manhattan Cocktail, a 1929 silent directed by Dorothy Arzner and believed to be lost, or Dry Martini from the same year, starring a young Mary Astor; a 1937 fire in the Fox Studios vault is believed to have destroyed that film. The combination of their compelling artwork and the inability to view the films they inspired made each a worthy entry in Cinema on Paper, Cleveland said.

A one-sheet poster for the 1928’s “Dry Martini” starring Mary Astor, a pre-Code film thought to be lost.

While that Wolf Song lobby card initially spawned Cleveland’s interest, through self-education he discovered all the various forms of poster art created to market a film. “There are 14 U.S. sizes, each with a specific purpose, and then each country has their own specific sizes as well,” he explained. “These accommodate the display cases straddling the ticket booth, interior lobby displays, retail shop window cards, billboards, etc. And the sizes first established in the 19-teens have remained consistent.”

Also key to Cinema on Paper’s appeal is discovering just how different a film might be marketed via its artwork in the U.S. vs. other countries. A side-by-side pairing, for example, of posters from 1950’s Sunset Boulevard – the widely seen American version next to a Polish print by renowned poster artist Waldemar Świerzy – demonstrate nicely how European or Asian versions of posters and lobby cards often can feel more artful than their U.S. counterparts. “The posters in the U.S. were done by the [studio] art departments, and just like the early movies, they were cranked out like Model T Fords,” Cleveland said. “Remember that everyone was originally under contract as an employee. Art posters evolved in Europe – think Jules Chéret or Toulouse Lautrec – [while] the very first posters in the U.S. were public-service announcements, like ‘Wanted’ posters.”

Indeed, make no mistake: Among fans of film and contemporary art, cinema posters are celebrated as an art form in their own right, said Cleveland, who describes himself as an art collector who specializes in the film genre, rather than a movie-memorabilia collector. “Film posters go way beyond simply advertising a film,” he said. “They represent the culture and society from which they were created. My collection depicts a 125-year panorama of America like no other medium. So we can learn a lot about ourselves and how others think about us, through studying foreign posters for domestic films.”

A U.S. lobby card measuring 11 x 14 inches for 1932’s “Rain,” starring Joan Crawford as Sadie Thompson.

Of course, advances in technology also have impacted both the creativity and commerce behind promoting a film. In 1920, 100 percent of a film’s advertising budget would be spent on the poster, Cleveland noted; but these days, those funds would be allocated to producing the film’s trailer, imaginative social-media campaigns, the appearance of the cast and director at Comic-Con — and that’s just for starters. “So the quality of the posters have taken a huge hit,” he said. “Also, up until the last 15 years, 95 percent of a film's profits were derived in the U.S., so foreign distributors were given free rein in poster design. Some of the most compelling images came out of Eastern Europe, Italy and Japan. Now, Hollywood studios are more dependent on foreign ticket sales, so they are more mindful of branding the same image worldwide.”

The U.S. one-sheet poster, measuring 27 x 41 inches, for 1930’s “Hell’s Angels.” Howard Hughes produced and shared directing credit on the World War I-era aviator film, but the poster emphasized Jean Harlow, added late to the production to replace the original female lead, Greta Nissen.

Might Cinema on Paper inspire your own interest in collecting film posters? Perhaps, though Cleveland offers some pragmatic advice. “Don’t, unless you can control obsessive behavior and are willing to make huge sacrifices of time and money – and risk becoming a slave to nostalgia,” he said. “Buy only what you love. And if you do catch the bug, start attending conventions, subscribe to Classic Images, get on eBay, follow several current auction houses, ask a lot of questions, and be very mindful of condition.”

If cinema art is lacking in any aspect, it’s that it hasn’t appreciated to the same level as, say, vintage baseball cards or comic books. But that idea may be evolving, albeit slowly, Cleveland said. “There are something like 50 copies of the Honus Wagner T206 baseball card and many copies of Superman #1 – and they sell regularly in the seven figures – but there are only two known copies of my Italian Casablanca poster, and the other one sold for a fraction of that a few years back,” he pointed out. “The Norton exhibition [in Palm Beach in 2019] and this book help elevate film posters to a position within the fine-art world that they have never seen. So I believe we are at the start of a long upward trend.”

Just don’t ask Cleveland to name his favorite. “Each poster and lobby card is near and dear to me,” he said. “And that’s the best advice I can give others – it doesn’t matter if the market goes up, down or sideways; you always love what you have.”

All images are courtesy of Dwight Cleveland and Assouline.

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