Tuesday, September 28, 2021

A THOUSAND WORDS: The Art of the Movie Publicity Still

A lovestruck Jane Fonda leaves her mark on a photo of lanky basketball star
 Anthony Perkins to publicize her film debut in Tall Story (1960) 

There really ought to have been a special Academy Award category devoted to the creative artists behind the Classic Hollywood studio publicity still. Tasked with capturing the essence of an entire motion picture via a single photographic image, the resourceful, creative, obviously twisted minds responsible for these memorably dynamic, sometimes downright weird publicity photoshoots were the unsung geniuses of movie marketing. The overlooked masters of visual shorthand.
Unlike traditional movie stills, those on-set, taken-in-the-process-of-filming production photos displayed in movie theater lobbies depicting movie scenes from vantage points approximating the cinematographer's POV—the Hollywood publicity still shares no such allegiance to reality. 
This bafflingly cheery publicity still for the noirish melodrama Sunset Blvd (1950) suggests that perhaps Betty Schaefer (Nancy Olson) did indeed wind up joining fiance Artie in rainy Arizona.

Used as flexible, all-purpose tools of movie marketing and promotion (poster art, press books, programs, sheet music, fan magazines, newspaper blurbs) publicity stills can be anything from glamour merchandising to conceptual flights of fancy. The scope of what a publicity still could be was so broad, there didn't appear to be many rules that had to be adhered to. So long as cast members were dressed in character, it seemed the sky was the limit as to what the photo itself could be. Art and commerce collide in images that run the gamut from cheesecake to cheesy. Whether utilizing posed tableaus to recreate dramatic sequences from a film, or as stylized evocations of exploitable narrative themes, at their best, they stimulate interest by honing in on the essence of a movie. At their worst (i.e., most fun) they are kitschy, laughably misguided headscratchers capable of achieving almost surreal levels of overwrought theatrical intensity.
And the world's all the better for it.

Here are a few of my favorites: 
Double Trouble
In this dramatized publicity still for Alfred Hitchcock's Vertigo (1958) Jimmy Stewart (or a broad-beamed stand-in) is faced with an embarrassment of riches when it comes to the number of available Kim Novaks at his disposal for possible strangulation.  

Joan Crawford, about to get all up in that ax in the thriller Strait-Jacket (1950)

One of the oldest and most enduring of the standard movie publicity poses is the "dramatic clinch" shot. Here ratcheting up the sex and suspense while eyeing an unseen menace are (l. to r.): Robert Montgomery and Audrey Totter in Lady in the Lake (1947), John Saxon and Sandra Dee in Portrait in Black (1960), and mononymous ice-skating star Belita and Barry Sullivan in Suspense (1946).

Why, I oughtta...
A looming Claudia McNeil gives vent (somewhat unconvincingly) to her maternal frustration while a distracted Sidney Poitier strikes the universal "I've got a pain in my tum tum" pose for A Raisin in the Sun (1961).

Standing in the Shadows
Fretful Doris Day and her phone-accommodating flip hairdo are unaware of the threat lurking in the backlit doorway in this intense publicity shot for Midnight Lace (1960). Meanwhile, Patty Duke ponders how far the mighty and self-centered have fallen while supervised by a shirtless symbol of her degradation in this artfully posed promotional still for Valley of the Dolls (1967) that ultimately made it into the U.S. one-sheet poster art.

This publicity still for the overheated "sweat & sweet-tea" domestic melodrama Hot Spell (1958) is pretty much on the nose in capturing what this movie is all about. It's a safe bet that whatever is suggested to you by this image of an anguished Anthony Quinn and solicitous Shirley Booth...is exactly what you're going to get.

"We're all in our private traps."
The stagy theatricality of these two frames-within-a-frame compositions may inspire giggles, but they also offer a healthy dose of mystery and plenty of visual appeal. Skeevy-looking John Ireland will have you wondering whether he's breaking in or out in I Saw What You Did (1965). And the ambiguous expression on the face of poodle-cut cutie Peggy Ann Garner could be that of either the spider or the fly in this sticky web image for Black Widow (1954).
There's Something About an Empty Chair
The better to conceal its surprises, advance publicity stills for Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho (1960) were intriguingly vague exercises in misdirection. The stars were posed in groupings and compositions designed to give the right, wrong impression. Here, decades before Clint Eastwood's GOP senility stunt, an empty chair holds dominant visual sway while a correspondingly wooden John Gavin protectively embraces apprehensive co-stars Vera Miles and Janet Leigh.

In a welcome change of pace, comedy pair Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis are the ones quivering and quaking as they seek shelter behind lovely Lizabeth Scott in Scared Stiff (1953)

Ain't We Got Fun 
Publicity stills for musicals and comedies are all about communicating movement, excitement, and lightheartedness. Thus, gag poses, broad mugging, and beaming stars engaged in wacky shenanigans are the order of the day. Here, jazz-handed Gene Kelley and Debbie Reynolds do-wacka-do & vo-do-de-o-do to a fare-thee-well for  Singin' in the Rain (1952). Next to them are "teenagers" Ann-Margret and Bobby Rydell getting high for Bye Bye Birdie (1963). 

An outtake from a publicity photo shoot for Rosemary's Baby (1968) that wins major points for that Woolworth's baby buggy and Mia Farrow's really-not-all-that-into-it emoting.

No, not here
Something about this picture of Wendell Corey and Joan Crawford for Harriet Craig (1950) feels a little off (her head position and body placement look all wonky). Otherwise, it's a classic, standard publicity pose signifying romantic melodrama.
Academy Award-winning actor Jose Ferrer made his directing debut with The Shrike (1955), a noirish domestic melodrama that keeps tripping over its casual misogyny. As star and director, Ferrer's fondness for gifting himself numerous closeups in the film is mirrored in this striking pose that finds a partially obscured, non-smiling June Allyson clinging, raptor-like to her hunk with the hangdog expression. For all the drama of this image, it's the band-aid on Allyson's hand that draws my attention.   

Hip Huggers
The time-honored "leg cling" pose of fantasy art and pulp paperbacks tends to look even more absurd when rendered in the flesh. And flesh is just one of several points of variance between these publicity stills. On the left, middle-aged alpha Gary Cooper looks ready to take on the world for evening-gowned clinging vine Patricia Neal in The Fountainhead (1949). On the right, clothing-challenged married couple Claire Wilbur and Gerald Grant (standing) agree that three's company, provided kneeling neighbor Calvin Culver is ready to make room for daddy in Radley Metzger's Score (1973).

Unhand me, you brute
Burl Ives tries to reason  with Tony Perkins in Desire Under the Elms (1958)

If ever there was a woman who could get a guy to simultaneously lose his pith helmet and throw his chukka boots in the air, it's leggy Paula Prentiss. In this top favorite publicity still, six foot five Jim Hutton willingly succumbs to Prentiss' five foot ten charms to promote Where the Boys Are (1960).

Two Triangles Make a Parallelogram 
Well, the conflict in The Heiress (1949) isn't really a romantic triangle so much as a case of 19th century cockblocking, but you get the idea. However, what the oozing-with-acrimony photo of Harry Belafonte, Dorothy Dandridge, and Joe Adams for Carmen Jones (1954) has in common with the icy arrangement of Montgomery Clift, Olivia de Havilland, and Ralph Richardson below, is that each publicity still attempts to create dramatic tension by not having any two people in the frame looking in the same direction. 

Jim Hutton and Jane Fonda again, this time appearing in what might be looked upon as the perfect,  quintessential movie publicity still. It does everything a marketing movie still is supposed to do. From the costuming, poses, props, and actors' expressions, you don't have to know anything about Tennessee Williams' Period of Adjustment (1962) to look at this photo and instantly know everything. One image says it all. 

I leave you with this terrific shot from a publicity photo shoot with Jessica Walter and Clint Eastwood that ultimately led to the creation of the poster art for Play Misty for Me (1971). A photo whose comic artificiality stands as a great reminder of all the illusion, fantasy, and magic that's sold to us by the movies. No wonder they call Hollywood The Dream Factory.

D. Kucharski submitted this odd Daddy Dearest-style publicity still of Spencer Tracy looking a little too into spanking Elizabeth Taylor for the Vincente Minnelli comedy Father of the Bride (1950). 
Blogger Poseidon submitted this Grand Hotel-style publicity still for The Poseidon Adventure (1972). A leg-centric, all-star cast grouping that serves up 3 variations on the "dramatic clinch" pose. As with all the photos on this blog, you can click on them to enlarge. That way you can get a better look at Carol Lynley (ironically, the film's most hysterical character) failing to get into the spirit of things by joining her castmates in looking fearful. Then there's Eric Shea forgetting that his life is supposed to be in peril and presenting his best "grade school picture day" smile. And at the top, like the star on a Christmas tree, we have Gene Hackman's unfortunate male bouffant.
B. Zwinge submitted this walking-on-air image of what I initially thought to be hyper-tan mannequin George Hamilton and a little girl. It is indeed Hamilton, but said little girl is 24-year-old Sandra Dee. This Stride-Rite shoe ad of a publicity still is for the unwatchable 1967 sex "comedy"  Doctor, You've Got to be Kidding! 
L. Puck submitted this pic of Barbara Stanwyck snarling and literally dressed to kill (or at the very least disfigure) for the western The Furies (1950). 

Copyright © Ken Anderson   2009 - 2021

Friday, September 17, 2021


Never Turn Your Back on a Patient

Of the seven films that make up Amicus Productions' complete catalog of horror anthologies—films released between the years 1965 and 1976—Asylum is my hands-down, all-time favorite. An opinion formed in my early teens based on then having only seen the five entries released in the 1970s: The House That Dripped Blood (1971), Tales from the Crypt (1972), Asylum (1972), Vault of Horror (1973), and From Beyond the Grave (1975). Now, many decades later and thanks to streaming services, it's an opinion reinforced and reaffirmed after finally getting to see those heretofore elusive first two titles in the Amicus anthology canon: Dr. Terror's House of Horrors (1965) and Torture Garden (1967). 
Asylum, the 5th film in the series, is a creepy, clever chiller featuring four tantalizingly taut tales of terror written by veteran horror-meister Robert Bloch (Psycho, Strait-Jacket) from his own short stories first published in volumes of Weird Tales Magazine (one dating back as far as 1936).

Directed by Roy Ward Baker (who guided Marilyn Monroe through one of her earliest dramatic roles in Don't Bother to Knock - 1952) and evocatively lensed by British New Wave cinematographer Denys Coop (A Kind of Loving, Billy Liar), Asylum remains an engagingly written, intriguingly well-cast, ceaselessly entertaining example of the portmanteau horror film at the peak of its form. These modestly-budgeted films, made on the quick and slated for quick playoffs at Drive-Ins and on horror show double-bills, vary, as they must, in quality (Asylum took all of 24 days to film, and was the second of two Amicus anthologies rapidly released in the same year). But for my money, of the entire Amicus septet, there isn’t a clunker in the bunch.     
You Have Nothing To Lose But Your Mind
Britain’s Amicus Productions (which, until very recently, I always confused with UK's then-reigning studio of gothic horror, Hammer Films) majored in the omnibus, multi-story horror film. These stories-within-a-story journeys into the macabre followed a standard format, presenting four or five unconnected tales of the weird and unexpected…some darkly comic, but always incorporating violence, the occult, or the supernatural… within a unifying framework that itself offered some kind of final revelation or surprise payoff.

The root of my attraction to these Amicus anthologies can be directly traced to my older sister. Her healthy taste for the macabre gave her a love of the cartoons of Charles Addams, which led to my being introduced to the works of Edward Gorey and the word “ennui” via her copy of The Gashlycrumb Tinies, and fostered a pretty impressive horror comic book collection. With titles like The Witching Hour and Weird Mystery Tales, these magazines often scared the daylights out of me (a story about a little girl whose parents refuse to believe there’s a “thing” hiding in her close, had me sleeping with covers over my head for years), but that didn’t stop me from making a pest of myself asking to be the first in line to borrow it whenever she brought a new issue into the house.
It may sound weird that I enjoyed scaring myself like I did, but I think adults sometimes forget how boring childhood and adolescence can be. The regimentation of school, homework, chores, and the constancy of babysitting (sittee to sitter in a flash of an eye) fuels a hunger for “safe” sensation. Whether in the form of playground requests to be pushed higher or spun faster, laugh-screaming at home from startled by siblings jumping out at you from dark rooms, or watching one of the many horror anthology programs running on TV at the time (The Twilight Zone, One Step Beyond, Journey to the Unknown, etc.)…the objective is surprise and excitement. Being scared is just one mode of getting there. And as any kid can tell you, being intermittently frightened can be the most fun a kid can have without getting into trouble.
Many horror films today, finding revulsion far easier to elicit than genuine fear, wind up leaving no impression on me at all with their impotent gore and lazy jump cuts. By contrast, the Amicus anthologies were supremely adept at creating spooky horror without being disturbing or gross. No matter how grisly things got, dastardly deeds were more often suggested than depicted. Sure, most of the scares were tame even by ‘70s standards, but these movies stayed in my mind for a lifetime because the filmmakers understood the elemental entertainment value of a really good scare.
In the ‘70s, when antiheroes and unsettlingly tragic endings in movies were virtually compulsory, the Amicus anthologies, which operated on the moral code of fables and fairy tales, appealed to my youthful sense of fair play. In narratives that pivoted on revenge or comeuppance arriving in the form of an unforeseen twist…ironic or karmic…at fadeout, evil was always punished. Fate would take its cue from Gilbert and Sullivan and mete out gruesome punishments to fit the various crimes. While the movies were playing, the unimaginable and horrific had a field day. But by the closing credits, the world of order had been safely righted again. 

The Dunsmoor Asylum for the Incurably Insane

Perhaps because as a teenager I found real life to be plenty terrifying as it is, thank you, I never really went in for the gothic horror of vampires, werewolves, or Frankenstein’s monsters. I could relate to the fantasy, but the worlds these films took place in were at such a remove, I was never engaged enough to be scared. 

What appealed to me about the Amicus anthologies was that they were set in the present day, featured a kind of vibrant color photography I usually associated with musicals, and tended to reference gothic horror traditions through a contemporary, ofttimes wry, prism (“The Cloak” episode of The House That Dripped Blood). The narratives were marvels of storytelling economy, the best of them incorporating my favorite “modern gothic” trope: the collision of the worlds of intellect and the supernatural/occult (a la Rosemary’s Baby). I’m peculiarly intrigued by stories wherein pragmatic "There’s a logical explanation for that!” types are forced to confront the possibility that there may be things that exist beyond the borders of science and reason. 
Asylum's wraparound story has a reasoned, methodical doctor armed with unwavering certainty that the damaged psyche is a frontier that can be tamed, coming face-to-face with a situation not covered in psychiatric journals. My kind of movie.
Robert Powell as Dr. Martin
In a nice subversion of the gothic tradition, Asylum opens not on a dark and stormy night with a horse-drawn carriage arriving at the gates of a dilapidated castle, but in the daylight with a sleek, red sports car speeding through a rainstorm to the gates of a contemporary mental facility that looks more like a menacing Victorian manor. Before the opening credits are over Asylum has visually established its central conflict: Modern medical science, in the form of nattily-dressed, university-educated, compassionately humorless Dr. Martin (Robert Powell) vs the insensible ancient sciences long-familiar to horror movies—aka the paranormal and That-Which-Cannot-Be-Explained.
Patrick Magee as Dr. Lionel Rutherford
Applying for a position at the remote asylum, Dr. Martin is challenged to an unorthodox test by the current chief of staff Dr. Rutherford (Patrick Magee): identify which of the institution's patients is the former head of the institution, Dr. B. Starr. Two days prior, Dr. Starr suffered a violent mental breakdown and now exists in a hysterical fugue…identity absorbed into a new personality, name, and personal history. If Dr. Martin can ascertain which patient, male or female, was once Dunsmoor’s head psychopathologist, the job is his.
Geoffrey Bayldon as Max Reynolds
This intriguing trial sets up three of the film's vignettes as unreliably-narrated flashback tales told by the possible Dr. Starr candidates detailing how they came to be committed. The fourth story is interwoven with the film's wraparound narrative and unfolds in the present time.

The use of music is one way a horror film can tip its hand that it’s not taking itself all that seriously (the use of a harpsichord in Hammer’s Die, Die, My Darling, for example). Asylum’s use of two stentorious orchestral pieces by 19th-century classical composer Modest Mussorgsky (“A Night on Bald Mountain” and “Pictures at an Exhibition”) work effectively in lending the film an appropriately ominous tone of chaotic dread wholly in keeping with the broad-strokes weirdness of the collected stories.

Will the real Dr. B. Starr please stand up?
The Four Bs: Bonnie, Barbara, Bruno, and Byron
Thanks to the internet (again), I finally had the opportunity to read the original Robert Bloch short stories that inspired these episodes. Bloch's adaptations for the screen are nicely updated while remaining faithful to the tone and themes. 

FROZEN FEAR    (Weird Tales - May 1946)   
Barbara Parkins as Bonnie

Richard Todd as Walter

Sylvia Syms as Ruth
Lots of people would do anything to be with the beautiful, and here, psychopathically self-enchanted, Barbara Parkins (my first time seeing her since Valley of the Dolls when I was eleven), but older, foppish, and very-married Richard Todd resorts to murdering voodoo-affiliated wife Sylvia Syms, chopping her to pieces, then storing the butcher-wrapped parts in a deep freeze in the basement. As grotesque as this scenario sounds, the whole “Till Murder Do Us Part” trope of spouses killing spouses was so overworked on TV by this time (every 3rd episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents it seemed) that this sequence had the most familiar feel to it. 
But the supernatural twist of those frozen body parts reanimating to exact murderous revenge tips this delightfully demented horror escapade into mini-classic territory. Silent for nearly half of its running time, it's a virtuoso display of how tension and suspense can be created by wholly visual means. And something about those primitive special effects warms my chilly heart.

THE WEIRD TAILOR     (Weird Tales - July 1950)
Barry Morse as Bruno

Peter Cushing as Mr. Smith
Impoverished tailor Morse is commissioned to make a suit out of a mysterious fabric by sad-eyed gentleman Cushing. The conditions of its manufacture are so peculiar and exacting one knows no good can come of it…and it doesn’t. An eerie atmosphere and fine acting propel this sequence which we learn from the DVD commentary was the segment Bloch was least happy with, owing to the extensive rewriting by producer Milton Subotsky that changed the tailor (a pretty reprehensible man in Bloch’s original story) into a sympathetic victim. A suspenseful mood piece that was not particularly scary to me even as a kid, it was my introduction to Peter Cushing. Was there ever such a class act? The expressiveness of his eyes is heartbreaking. The acting in this vignette is very strong, helping to gloss over my feeling that if anyone should have been driven insane by the events of the story, it's the tailor's wife, Anna (Ann Firbank). 

LUCY COMES TO STAY   (Weird Tales - January 1950)
Charlotte Rampling as Barbara

Britt Ekland as Lucy
My weakness for “Le femmes au CinĂ©ma” is well-documented, so it’s likely to come as a surprise to absolutely no one that this is my favorite of Asylum’s four vignettes. Not just because of the rarity of having two women protagonists, but because of the particular women in question. We’re not talking Stefanie Powers and Donna Mills in a TV Movie-of-the-Week, folks…this is full-tilt, ‘60s iconic, international sex symbol/movie star talent & glamour courtesy of Charlotte Rampling AND Britt Ekland!! In the same movie! Together on the same screen! Seriously, only the pairing of Paul Newman & Robert Redford rivals these two in gorgeousness. This being my first time seeing either actress in a film, this segment fairly put me in a swoon back in 1972, but the story’s a kick as well.

Rampling returns home after a stint in a mental institution only to discover her mischievous friend Ekland is there to stir the pot of suspicion that Rampling’s superficially solicitous brother is actually angling to send her back to the institution for good so he can inherit the family home. When this Lucy says “I have a plan” I can assure you can bet it’s nothing like Lucy Ricardo ever thought up. The performances in this sequence are all first-rate, and the story (which took me totally by surprise) checks all the boxes of what I gravitate to in female-centric melodramas: 3 Women (1977), Mortal Thoughts  (1991), Single White Female (1992), and Images (1974).

MANNIKINS OF HORROR   (Weird Tales - December 1939)
Herbert Lom as Dr. Byron
Asylum’s final tale, about a demented (or is he?) former surgeon who constructs dolls in his own likeness that he insists he can bring to life with his mind, integrates with the film’s wraparound narrative of Dr. Martin making his final guess as to the identity of the real Dr. Starr. This sequence creeped me out because the nightmare fantasy of malevolent toys coming to life was one I harbored when I was very young and had one of those marching robots that ran on batteries. The film winds up with a nice twist that I’d actually forgotten when I rewatched this recently, so it’s nice to report that it’s effective as ever.
For reasons having as much to do with nostalgia as with the film's craftsmanship and irresistibly entertaining execution, Asylum for me still stands (and likely ever after remain) as one of the best if not THE best of the Amicus horror anthologies. It scarcely makes a false tiny step.

The film most widely credited with popularizing the anthology horror film is 1945's Dead of Night from Britain's Ealing Studios.
Dead of Night (1945)
Five horror stories helmed by four different directors, this classic omnibus film is best remembered for the segment starring Michael Redgrave as a ventriloquist who comes to believe his dummy, Hugo, is villainously alive.

Dr. Terror's House of Horrors (1965)
Amicus Productions' first anthology film was Dr. Terror's House of Horrors directed by Freddie Francis. Starring Peter Cushing, Christopher Lee, Max Adrian, and a young Donald Sutherland.

Tales from the Hood (1995)
The sharpest and perhaps my personal favorite of the contemporary horror anthologies is this inspired, Afrocentric update of the genre which effectively blends horror, comedy, and cutting social critique. Directed by Rusty Cundieff, Tales from the Hood's four stories are a supernatural/occult take on the very real horrors of police brutality, white supremacy, child abuse, and gang violence. The framing device used is an eccentric funeral parlor director played with sinister glee by Clarence Williams III.

Bloch Party
In 1961 Robert Bloch wrote a more faithful adaptation of his 1950 short story "The Weird Tailor" for an episode of the horror anthology TV series Thriller hosted by Boris Karloff. Henry Jones starred as the tailor. Episode available for viewing HERE.

click on image to enlarge
One of the things I miss in this post-Blockbuster Video world is the I-can-smell-the-desperation artwork VHS/DVD covers resorted to in order to catch the consumer eye on overcrowded shelves in overlit outlets. With no time for nuance, the cover art relied on overstatement, exaggeration, and misdirection. House of Crazies (center) was the artlessly blunt title selected when Asylum was rereleased to theaters in 1979. Not only does the poster artwork contain a major spoiler, but it would seem Barbara Parkins didn't give permission to have her likeness reproduced, 'cause who in the hell is that woman at the top?
The German DVD release (right) went all gonzo and decided to be as misleading as fuck. First, by giving Asylum the nonsensical title: The House on the Strand. Then contributing random artwork that looks like a grown-up Patty MacCormack holding a scythe. Worse still, the top figure on the right is that insane Santa Claus from Tales from the Crypt.

Copyright © Ken Anderson  2009 - 2021