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The Greatest Stories Ever Told, or So Say the Posters

Return with us now to the era of spectaculars, when an ad wasn't complete without an exclamation.

May 14, 2000|SUSAN KING | Susan King is a Times staff writer

"Turbulent, Thrill-Shot Spectacle . . . Big Enough for Two Pictures," screams the headline from the poster for the 1935 Cecil B. DeMille epic "The Crusades."

"MGM's Mighty Romantic Adventure! Lovers Trapped in Animal Stampede!" shouts the main tag line for the 1950 classic African adventure "King Solomon's Mines."

"I am Temujin . . . Barbarian . . . I fight! I love! I conquer . . . like a Barbarian!" declares the poster of 1956's "The Conqueror," which depicts John Wayne, as Genghis Khan, holding a scantily clad Susan Hayward in one hand and a sword in the other.

These are just a few of the delicious examples of the lavish posters from the golden age of Hollywood presented in the new book "Mighty Movies--Movie Poster Art From Hollywood's Greatest Adventure Epics and Spectaculars" (Lawrence Bassoff Collection, $35). Written and collected by Bassoff, "Mighty Movies" examines the heyday of these classic Hollywood extravaganzas through 200 authentic movie posters, lobby cards and memorabilia.

A special appendix features a movie poster retrospective of the campy sword-and-sandal costume spectacles like "Hercules" starring the late Steve Reeves, which were produced in Europe from 1957-65.

The posters and lobby cards in the book run the gamut from such DeMille sex-and-sin religious epics as 1932's "The Sign of the Cross" to the 1963 World War II adventure "The Great Escape."

Unlike today's posters, which use glossy coated-paper stock, these beautiful works of art were printed on porous, uncoated paper. Printing processes included duotone, which was a two-ink process (usually black and one color) favored by Warner Bros., and stone lithography, a now-defunct poster process in which the image was "burned" into a stone plate, giving the ink a less saturated, more textured application during printing.

So what really constitutes a "mighty movie"?

"It has less to do with the subject than, obviously, the scale of the production," Bassoff says. "The production's being 'supersized' is kind of a buzzword that I use. In the late '50s, you started to see musicals like 'South Pacific' really blown out for the big screen, along with westerns like 'The Magnificent Seven' and 'How the West Was Won.' "

A lot of these movies, he adds, were road-show attractions, which he describes as "those reserved-seat deals where you would buy seats with your grandmother six months in advance and go to 'Spartacus' and 'El Cid' at some big movie picture palace."

The first epic dates back to the 1912 Italian spectacular "Quo Vadis." "Prior to that, most movies were an hour at the most," Bassoff says. "Since they were spending all of their money to re-create Rome, they said let's make a longer movie and charge more money. So the feature film was born."

The king of these epics was DeMille, who began his love affair with religious spectacles with 1923's "The Ten Commandments." Interestingly, his last film as a director was his 1956 remake of "Commandments."

The posters from DeMille's religious epics like "Sign of the Cross," 1934's "Cleopatra" and "The Crusades" are kitschy, florid and play up the sex, sin and violence of these blockbusters.

"DeMille was particularly adept at selling sex and spirituality," Bassoff says. "If you watch movies [like] 'The Sign of the Cross,' he's got all of these fairly taboo themes in there for the times--bisexuality and quasi-nudity."

And, Bassoff adds, laughing, "he was so modest," pointing out the ad line for his 1950 epic "Samson and Delilah" declared it "a masterpiece" even before it was released.

Most of these posters were cranked out by studios' commercial artists. "Norman Rockwell did maybe five or six movie posters like 'Song of Bernadette' and 'The Razor's Edge,' " says Bassoff. "I have had some contact with an artist who did 'Ben-Hur,' whose name is Joe Smith. He's still alive, and he's just done a series of illustrations for George Lucas for the last 'Star Wars' ['Phantom Menace'] movie."

Bassoff has a soft spot in his heart for the posters from the European epics like "Hercules" ("Mighty Saga of the World's Mightiest Man!") and "Hercules Unchained" ("Fabulous Feats of Human Power the Screen Has Never Shown Before! Spectacles of Massive Might Beyond Any Ever Known Before!").

"I remember I saw the 'Hercules' poster on a wall in 1959 and I went berserk," Bassoff says. "I saw 'Hercules Unchained' a year later, and that image of Steve Reeves pushing those great gates apart--which of course he never does in the movie--is burned into my memory."

Many of these "one-sheets"--which, at 11 by 14 inches, are the most popular American movie poster size--and lobby cards are extremely rare. "Any original scrap from 'The Sign of the Cross' goes for quite a lot of money," he says. (A one-sheet sells for $800.) "The 'Crusades' one-sheet is hard to get. In a sense, these are artifacts from that era. These printing processes no longer exist. They couldn't buy the paper these days. It is a lost art form that underlies the 'advancement' of the 20th century."

As to why the movie epic is making a comeback with popular new films such as "Gladiator" and the upcoming Revolutionary War saga "The Patriot," Bassoff has a theory. "I think people really want to be entertained now more than ever. . . . People are so broad-based in their acceptance of what they want to see at the movies."

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"Mighty Movies" can be ordered by calling (800) 247-6553 or at http://www.bookmasters.com.

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