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! 

Copyright © Ken Anderson   2009 - 2021


  1. Dear Ken: Hi!

    This is a really fun post! You've picked so many great examples of evocative and/or ridiculous photos that it's hard to think of any others I can add. Nevertheless, here are a few you didn't mention:

    In a photo promoting the 1958 sex comedy "The Tunnel of Love," director Gene Kelly and actors Doris Day and Elisabeth Fraser appear to be trying out a vaudeville dance step:


    The image--complete with Kelly's world-eating grin and Day's comically coy expression--is much more fun than anything in the movie itself, which I consider one of Doris' worst.

    MGM, originators of the all-star movie (with "Grand Hotel" in 1932 and "Dinner at Eight" in 1933) often did photos whose purpose was to show off their glittery casts. One of my favorites is for the 1956 musical "The Opposite Sex," a movie only I seem to like:


    Having each of the stars holding a phone adds a wonderful, campy touch but also is highly appropriate for a film that revolves around the harmful effects of back-biting gossip.

    Finally, here is a bizarre one, from the 1950 comedy "Father of the Bride":


    This crazy, off-the-wall image is completely off-tone for a warm and witty film.

    Incidentally, your mention of actress Nancy Olson gives me a chance to mention my "six degrees of separation" connection to her. Olson's father was a well-known obstetrician in Milwaukee, and he was the doctor who delivered my mother!

    1. Hi Dave!
      I'm so pleased you enjoyed this post enough to be inspired to contribute (via links) a few of your own. I think my fascination with the marketing/publicity side of movies (collecting poster art, lobby cards, soundtrack LPs, pinback buttons) ran concurrently with my discovery of movies themselves. Thus I’ve always gotten a big kick out of the artful and oddball photos crafted to promote them.

      I love your submissions, which offer a balanced assortment of the misleading (the cute one for Father of the Bride), and the appropriate (the one for The Opposite Sex is really great. I wish I could say I liked the film as much as I like the photo).
      I’ve never seen “Tunnel of Love” but that’s a charming behind-the-scenes camping for the camera show of its stars and director.

      And what a FABULOUS six-degrees-of-separation tale re: your mom and Nancy Olsen!! I love that kind of "what are the odds?" stuff.

      It’s the kind of connection story one of those sensationalist confidence movie magazines from the ‘50s would have used in an article headlined: “Man reveals: ‘Nancy Olsen’s father saw my mom naked!’”

      Another reason I'm so glad you shared these links with us is because I'd contemplated ending this post with an entreaty to readers to share their own favorites, but talked myself out of it. Thanks to you I'll be adding a "Readers' submissions" coda that I'll update (provided the photo is a public domain image).
      So thanks, Dave, for checking out this post and being the first contributor to this hopefully growing library of the amazing and absurd in movie publicity stills.

  2. Great post -- I love looking at old publicity stills. I am convinced Peggy Ann Garner's career was largely destroyed by extremely unflattering hairdo's like the one she sported in "Black Widow."

    1. Thanks, Peter
      I've always loved old publicity stills, too. In many instances, they are more entertaining than the films they're promoting.
      And I don't think you're far off with your Peggy Ann Garner theory...if a terrible hairdo can make a career (Farrah Fawcett, Jennifer Aniston) I'm certain it can kill one as well.
      Thanks for reading and commenting, Peter.

    2. And ne plus ultra, Veronica Lake!

    3. Of course...how could I forget the poster girl of hair today, career-gone-tomorrow coiffure makeovers!

  3. Oh my God, I love, love, LOVE this post! So jealous that I never thought to do it myself. LOL The photos are terrific along with the commentary. This is such a lost art, even if many of them seem absurd now. I really enjoyed the one of Miss Patty on the floor with a handsome devil behind her (don't think she ever scored anyone that good looking in the actual movie! LOL) And what a gas about June's band-aid! Bizarre....! I've never seen "Score" and when I finally do, I know it will be awful, but I really NEED to see it. Love that photo, too! Thanks much.

    1. Hello Poseidon
      Thank you for the kind words. And your response is precisely the sort I hoped readers would have after looking at all these silly and ingenious images. There's something irresistibly strange about publicity photos like these, and indeed, I too think they represent a lost art.

      An offshoot was certainly the practice visible in old issues of TV Guide from the 70s. Sitcoms would advertise episodes with cutout images of cast members in terribly artificial poses (lots of pointing fingers, shrugged shoulders, mugging, and wide-eyed opened-mouth shock reactions). I always wondered what those shoots were liked...id they have directors? Who came up with those hokey poses, etc. Same here. These publicity stills just inspire a lot of questions.
      I think you might enjoy the movie SCORE, it's like a raunchy episode of Love American Style, with lots of male nudity. And if you get the director's cut, it veers just shy of porno.
      You always dig up so many rare images on your blog, so if one day you do decide to tackle the movie publicity still, please shoot us a heads up!

    2. Ken, your mentioning TV Guide got me to thinking of all those old posed cast photos that were made to promote new shows (or new seasons of existing shows) and about 7 years ago I did do a post on those! Some of them are perilously close to the sort of thing found in these movie stills. Not to hijack (after all, I make nothing whatsoever from any clicks anyway!) but in case you or anyone else wants to see them, this is the link:


      May create a flood of memories of television days gone by.

      And to follow up, I couldn't help myself... I DID watch "Score" yesterday (at work, if you can believe it. Eeek!) and I wasn't disappointed in the least. I thought it was sort of strangely wonderful. But this is coming from someone who actually WANTS some sort of plot line, however flimsy, in an adult movie. But beyond any of that, it's just the incredibly beautiful photography that made it special, too. High-def video doesn't always do *everyone* favors... LOLOL Thank you so much!

    3. Hi Jon
      That's a really fun post of TV cast photos. So many shows I'd forgotten and such a parade of astounding fashion and hair.
      And congrats on seeing SCORE so soon! It being based on a stage play gives it more plot and humor than you might expect going in. Glad to hear you liked the film. And indeed, the cinematography is pretty first rate. Thanks for the follow-up and for the link. I loved seeing those cast pics!

  4. Excelsior, Ken!

    There’s actually a long forgotten coffee-table book called ‘Still’ Life, edited by none other than one Diane Keaton, around the time she was directing bizarre, quirky documentaries like Heaven, 1987. Keaton dove into some Hollywood vault or other and selected a bunch of stills, most of them designed in a ravishing Technicolor three-strip process, and assembled them to demonstrate the Barbie-doll hyper-reality and artificiality of the Post-WWII American dream. Some of them look almost as bizarre as Diane Arbus photos, and I think Keaton, in her introduction, described her working method as trying to recreate the look and feel of Museum of Natural History dioramas. Only with humans, instead of centipedes and gophers. Check it out if you haven’t. I paid less than a dollar for it in a bookstore bargain rack about thirty years ago, but I have no idea what it might go for now.

    1. Thanks very much, Rick.
      How perfect your bringing up that Diane Keaton book!. I'd forgotten the title, but I do remember getting a copy from the library several years back and finding the whole project fascinating. Principally for the concept behind it that you cite.
      I think movie stills (being marketing tools and mini ads) when viewed out of context, have the same strange, hyper-real quality that pop artists like Warhol and Lichtenstein explored in the ‘60s. I’m glad you have a copy of it. I don’t think many people know about it.

      I think she relates in the book (or perhaps it's an anecdote she tells in her autobiography) that Gregory Peck was less than pleased by her using an image of him in her book and sent her a not about it. Seems he was sensitive about her choice of a particularly wooden-looking photo of him from The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit, his (mistaken) perception being that she was commenting on the career-long criticism he has received for being a stiff actor.

  5. It seems apparent to me that Ms. Farrow was asked to portray Edvard Munch's The Scream, and did a pretty good job of it. What's freaky about the Desire Under the Elms shot is that is doesn't look as though Perkins was taller than Ives, but he was. Maybe Burl's got on lifts?

    1. Munch's "The Scream" is a hilariously ideal visual reference for the Farrow photo. I can envision a wellspring of cine-web think pieces devoted to whether it's a result of deliberate intent or serendipitous coincidence. Either way, your making the association freezes it in my mind.
      As per the "Desire" photo, Perkins was definitely taller than Ives (depending on the source, by either a one or two inch difference) so either it's a trick of the eye given by Perkins' bendy posture, or I'm sure Ives was given lifts to lend him an appropriately Big Daddy stature.

  6. I would've thought by the time of the Poseidon Adventure, posed thematic stills were a thing of the past, but you forget how far into the 70s Old Hollywood was still flappin' around on the beach before it finally died.

    I'm in a FB film noir group and every day there are at last a a couple of stills listed as "[actress] in [title]" that portray an outfit/set/situation that doesn't appear in the movie. Few are as removed as that one of Nancy Olsen, but I guess the studios figured if you send some leg art to every paper in the country, some will print it and maybe move a few more butts into seats.

    1. Yeah, I think in the '70s it was the old-school, studio-system folk filmmakers like Irwin Allen and Ross Hunter who were the last to get a clue as to time passing on and the decline in old-fashioned modes of film promotion.
      It exists even today to some degree (they need photos for those god-awful, heavily-digitized monstrosities that past for contemporary movie posters) but nothing compared to the lunacy of poses and concepts of the old days.
      And you're right about the principle behind those publicity photo shoots: If the image was eye-catching enough to be used by a newspaper or magazine, it mattered not a whit whether the image logically applied to the film being advertised. It only mattered if the film's title was mentioned.