Thursday, January 31, 2013

BETTER THAN THE MOVIE

At some point during my single days, I became a vintage movie poster collector -- that is, the posters were vintage, not me. I quickly got the hang of the lingo (one-sheet, three-sheet, half-sheet, insert, lobby card). Even then, before the market exploded, certain titles and stars were out of my reach financially. Therefore, I started to focus on B-movies from the 40s and 50s, though occasionally I could find some from the 30s. Film noirs, bad girls, juvenile delinquents and exploitation pictures soon started covering my walls like some museum from hell. Friends would drop by, look around and either laugh or run out the door.

Sure, it would've been cool to have, say, an original King Kong one-sheet -- but what was wrong with titles like Rubber Racketeers, Two Dollar Bettor and I Was a Shoplifter? I looked for product from low-rent studios like Monogram and PRC -- they were not only the cheapest but had the gaudiest images and titles -- rarely paying more than $25 for stuff in those pre-ebay days that now go for up to ten times that much. The physical quality of the items can't be described as pristine. Not only are they 70 or so years old, but the lower the movie budget, the cheaper the paper quality. A few are little better than newsprint. That they've survived this long is a miracle.

You've heard of previews that give away the story? This poster does it with six two-word sentences on either side.
I loved it all. Over the course of a few years -- with a big boost from the auction held by the legendary Forrest J. Ackerman, publisher of Famous Monsters of Filmland magazine -- I had a collection to be proud of. 

To hear my wife tell it, she liked that I had a hobby... right up 'til the time we got married. Then suddenly the posters were consigned to closet. Oh, I was allowed a one-sheet (27 x 41) in the dining area, to be changed from time to time, but only with her approval. Briefly, I got to have an insert (14 x 36) up on the wall directly outside the bathroom. At some point, however, the little lady decided she'd had enough. It was only last year she felt pity on me and allowed four framed lobby cards, again in the dining area. I've changed a couple of them from time to time. In fact, just recently, I bought the lobby card featured on one of my previous pieces, How Doooo You Do!!!  (I had to look over at it just now to correctly spell "Doooo.") In the old days, I could've picked it up for five bucks. Now, it was $29.99 -- and cheap at that.

So you can imagine my surprise when, as Christmas was approaching, she happened upon a vintage movie poster store in the Village. This 1946 six-sheet in the window caught her eye -- as well as it should:
Quite the image -- especially at 81 x 81 inches. I tried picturing it over our couch -- it would've taken up pretty much the entire free space of the wall. I pulled it up online to run it by my daughter, whose first question was, "Is Mom OK with this?" She was stunned that the idea was, indeed, hers -- the same woman who greeted my every poster with a drippingly sarcastic, "Oh, that's uplifting." While my daughter has more adventurous tastes than her mother, this was too much even for her: "I couldn't go into the living room if that was there." 

Had we lived in a good-sized house, it would probably work. But in a typical 19th-century New York brownstone, it was a no-go. But it still had value, for it opened the door for me to put up one of my more acceptable one-sheets. Meaning, not Today I Hang (1942), Enemy of Women (1944), or the succinctly-titled Violence (1947).


Maybe it's me, but I can't find anything wrong with displaying this in our living room. Yes, it's me, alright.

So over the weekend, we went through the posters. Spreading them out on the floor brought me back 25 years. It was an emotional experience, matched only by the potentially-lethal dust spores I was inhaling. Taking photos from a little stepladder was our daughter. I admit to being a little concerned exposing her to some of this material. But she's been around me long enough to be totally blase about snapping shots of classics like Man Bait, Secrets of a Sorority Girl and Chained for Life (the latter starring real-life Siamese twins Daisy and Violet Hilton). Soon, we winnowed it down to three possibilities.

The Crimson Canary (1945) was my choice because of the vivid colors, great tagline ("RHYTHM CULTS EXPOSED!" -- what was this about, couples choosing natural birth control?), an unexpected credit ("JOSH WHITE singing his famous 'ONE MEAT BALL'") and, keeping my wife's delicate sensibilities in mind, low body count (only one corpse). As she asked, "Why are there always dead bodies in these things?" With the musicians featured so prominently, I thought it would make the living room look like a 52nd Street jazz joint. But, to my surprise, our daughter immediately zeroed in on another...




Club Havana (1945), one of the few movies from my poster collection that I've actually seen, is Grand Hotel on a 75-cent budget. Our daughter got a kick out of the floating heads and stick-figure nightclub setting at the bottom. The wife liked the colors used in the title and the awning behind it. As for me, it held a special place in my heart because of the talent involved. Tom Neal (star), Edgar G. Ulmer (director) and PRC (studio): the triumvirate responsible for the greatest film noir ever made, Detour. (Before its re-discovery in the in the mid-80s, you probably could have found Detour one-sheets for a double-sawbuck. Now just the lobby cards alone go for $500 each on ebay. Damn johnny-come-latelys!) I would have been happy with either of these... but then the girls' final choice caught me by surprise...
Mexican Police on Parade (1943), one of the dozens in MGM's Traveltalk series. These Technicolor one-reelers were mini-travelogues shot around the world by documentarian James A. Fitzpatrick, whose dry, stilted narration would be parodied years after they stopped being made. I taped several of these off TNT in the '80s and early '90s; they've always gone over well with the family. (They still turn up on TCM from time to time.) They're great time capsules -- the Los Angeles short has priceless footage of Walt Disney clowning around his studio circa 1935, while the people in featured in the Egypt short are so darned peaceful. In fact, every place covered in the Traveltalk shorts seems far more civilized than they do now. As for why the girls glommed onto the Mexican Police on Parade one-sheet, it was a combination of the Traveltalk cachet, the happy colors and, for my wife, it brought back memories of our recent vacation in Costa Rica. (Yes, I know, Mexico and Costa Rica are different countries, but to her it's the same idea.)

Now it's all a matter of getting a nice frame... and convincing her to put up two more over the couch. I'm thinking of starting with the grindhouse epic Blonde Pick-Up (1951), with the memorable tagline, "Introducing PEACHES PAGE, The Most Exciting Body In Hollywood." Excitement's a good thing, after all.

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