By Kevin Brownlow
When the cinema burgeoned into the most popular art form the world had ever seen, it coincided with a remarkable development in advertising and poster design. By the 1920s, before the cinema learned to talk, film posters and lobby cards had established a powerful and often vivid style of presentation. But the films they were designed to promote have suffered a different fate.
The silent era has been characterised, by those who never knew it, as a period of crude experiment. Bad prints, glimpsed on television, have deterred people; they imagine that the films of the 1920s must have been good for only one thing - laughs. Well, the comedies were unsurpassed, but the dramatic pictures were often works of art as well. Years ago, David Gill and I made a television series Hollywood which revealed the richness of the period. Thames TV gave us no less than thirteen episodes to prove our point, and out of it came the Thames Silents - restored prints of silent features shown in big theatres with live orchestra, just as they had been in the 1920s. When Thames lost their franchise to be replaced by Carlton (imagine them doing something like that!), Channel Four picked up the torch for live shows - they had transmitted our restorations from the very first. Channel Four Silents continue the tradition, and for people born too late for silents - that means everyone under the age of 70 - Live Cinema, as we call it, is a new form of entertainment. The combination of matchless images with superb music is pure cinema. At last, telvision is giving something back to the art from which it has taken so much.
If film technique had been brought to a remarkable degree of sophistication by the 1920s, so had advertising, and it is hardly surprising that film posters are becoming more and more sought after. In many cases posters, stills and lobby cards are all that remain of important silent films, for studios ruthlessly dumped their old titles when sound rendered them obsolete.
Some of the most outstanding films may not have been lost, but they survive in atrocious prints. One such is the most famous early film of all, D.W Griffith's The Birth Of A Nation, 1915, (lot 4). It was bitterly controversial when it first appeared because of its depiction of the blacks after the Civil War, and its glorification of the Ku Klux Klan. See it in most versions and you wonder what the fuss was about - you literally cannot distinguish the blacks form the whites. David Gill and I were able to track down the last surviving tinted print, and combining it with its original score (adapted by Jack Lanchbery), presented it on Channel Four in our series Channel Four Silents with an introduction to defuse its still potent message. Audiences could see that for most of its length, The Birth Of A Nation was a beautiful, profoundly anti-war film - its stunning climax, for all its fascism, essential viewing for everyone concerned with the power of cinema, (the video is obtainable from Connoisseur Video).
D.W. Griffith followed The Birth Of A Nation with the even more monumental Intolerance, 1916. Appropriately enough, it was about man's inhumanity to man. It courageously combined four stories. In 1919, he took them apart and presented the Modern Story under its original title, The Mother And The Law, (lot 9). A polemic against capital punishment, it was not a great success. The Greatest Thing In Life, 1918, (lot 6), is the one lost feature of Griffith's that archives would most like to find. It was a war film, and featured a moment when a white officer kisses a dying black soldier on the battlefield.
The most celebrated lost film of all is probably London After Midnight, 1927, (lot 35), starring Lon Chaney - the stills look so imaginatively macabre, one assumes the film to show Chaney at his most frightening. In Laugh Clown Laugh, 1929, (lot 45), Chaney portrayed an old circus performer, hopelessly in love with Loretta Young (in her first major role). If Chaney was versatile - and sometimes audiences failed to recognise him until well into the film, William S. Hart played the same tough, noble character in virtually every film. He had a prolific career until an argument with United Artists brought it to a close in 1925.
United Artists had been formed by Mary Pickford, Charlie Chaplin, Douglas Fairbanks and D.W. Griffith in 1919 with high ideals - they soon found how hard it was not just to make films to a high standard, but to make enough of them. Among their early productions was Fred Niblo's splendid Three Musketeers, 1921, (lot 23), with Fairbanks, but towards the end of the silent era, they were producing lavish but empty pictures like The Dove, 1928, (lot 41), with Norma Talmadge and D.W. Griffith's Lady Of The Pavements, 1929, (lot 54). If many of the films lost money, they could always expect to be baled out by Charlie Chaplin - the trouble was, he made films so rarely. The Circus, 1928, (lot 38), was only his third for United Artists - but it was as funny as Laugh Clown Laugh, 1928, (lot 45), was tragic, and while critics considered it lesser Chaplin, it made a fortune at the box office.
Harold Lloyd was much more prolific, and his comedies were handled by Paramount. Speedy, 1928, (lot 37), was a masterpiece - it is the story of a horse-bus operator fighting municipal gangsters and features a spectacular race through the crowded streets of New York. (Intriguingly, a recent film about a runaway bus was called Speed.)
Harry Langdon is generally regarded as the fourth great silent comedian, and Long Pants, 1927, (lot 36) is still occasionally revived. But he never achieved the popularity of Lloyd, Keaton or Chaplin. Both Keaton and Lloyd made eleven comedy features to Chaplin's four in the 1920s, yet overall, Chaplin made more money than either of them. The Kid, 1921, (lots 1, 18 and 19), was Chaplin's brilliant comedy inspired by his childhood in London, and co-starring Jackie Coogan. The film survives and Carl Davis has been touring it recenly with a live orchestra playing Chaplin's score. Chaplin films used to be advertised very simply - a cinema merely had to put out a cutout figure of Chaplin with the legend He's Here! for the place to be packed. So many of these life-size figures were stolen however - often by troops departing for the front - that more conventional advertising was resorted to. A popular comedian, appearing in two-reelers, did not demand much in the way of description. Chaplin's fellow comic from the Karno days, Stan Laurel, made many short comedies before he teamed up with Oliver Hardy, and you could round up the kids simply by putting his face on show. (lot?)
Mary Pickford was also guaranteed to fill a theatre - at one time she was even more popular than Chaplin - The Hoodlum, 1919, (lot 7), known over here as The Ragamuffin, was a marvellous example of her art. Directed by Sidney Franklin (he later made The Good Earth), she played a wealthy girl suffocated by luxury, who sneaks off to the slums and discovers a new life. Sidney Franklin was hired to direct Norma Talmadge, after his success with Pickford, and he made the biggest box office smash she had had so far Smilin' Through, 1922, (lot 100). This story of spiritualism was so successful that Franklin remade it as a talkie with Norma Shearer.
With Sunset Boulevard, 1950, (lot 226), reincarnated as a musical, the name of Gloria Swanson is famous once again. Sadie Thompson, 1928, (lots 39 and 44), was her own production, directed by Raoul Walsh who also played her Marine lover. The Hays Office had forbidden anyone to make a film of Somerset Maugham's story, but Swanson did it anyway - playing a prostitute in the South Seas who brings about the downfall of a puritanical preacher. (He was originally a church minister, but Hays wasn't having that !).
The silent era ended seventy years ago, so it is hardly surprising that many of its outstanding stars have been forgotten. Who remembers Thomas Meighan, who starred in a film about the real estate boom in Florida - The New Klondike, 1920s, (lot 14), Who remembers Betty Blythe, who starred in The Queen Of Sheba, 1921, (lot 21) in Hollywood, and She, 1925, (lots 1 and 27), a British film made in Germany by producer G.B. Samuelson ? Few will recall the enchanting Colleen Moore, star of the aviation epic Lilac Time, 1928, (lots 40 and 147), known over here as Love Never Dies, to avoid confusion with the musical play. The only aviation epic anyone recalls is Hell's Angels, 1930, (lots 62 and 63), even though producer-director Howard Hughes was inspired by William Wellman's masterpiece Wings, 1927, (lots 33 and 34), which starred Charles Buddy Rogers, Richard Arlen and Clara Bow, and which was selected as the 1993 Channel Four silent.
A few years earlier, we revived King Vidor's 1925 masterpiece The Big Parade, (lot 29), with John Gilbert - M.G.M.'s most successful film of the 1920s. With Live Cinema, the spirit of these remarkable films lives on. This year, at the Royal Festival Hall on November 22nd, you can experience the magic of the silent era yourself - we are presenting Lon Chaney in The Phantom Of The Opera, 1925 (lot 30). And if you can't afford the title card in this auction, we'd be happy to sell you our poster.
The Stanley Caidin Collection
Stanley Caidin (1925-1990) was an accomplished Hollywood lawyer who graduated from Harvard Law School and formed his own law firm in 1951 specialising in business and entertainment law. His interest in the cinema was evident from childhood when he used to sneak into the Samuel Goldwyn Mayer lot, but little did he know at the time that some of his favourite stars, such as Marlene Dietrich, were to become his clients.
Even though his interest in collecting movie posters did not start until the 1970s he managed to acquire one of the largest single owner collections of rare museum quality posters in a period of twelve years. Some of his favourites were displayed at his home in Hollywood, including lots 2, 4, 7, 19, 24, 25, 62, 80, 98, 104, 114, 119, 142, 144, 145, 151, 162, 163 and 186.
Unlike most collections which concentrate on a particular star, artist or genre, the Caidin Collection is unique in that it contains posters concerning all genres of film from many different countries. It provides a comprehensive insight into filmaking history through its vast array of posters spanning seven decades from 1900-1976.
From the silent era many legends of the screen are represented such as Rudolph Valentino, Harold Lloyd, Mary Pickford and Charlie Chaplin as well as landmark films such as D.W. Griffith's cinematic masterpiece The Birth Of A Nation, 1915, (lot 4), which provokes controversy to this day. It enjoys the uneasy honour of being both a technically innovative film as well as one of the most explicitly racist films ever made. The U.S. poster in this collection is in near mint condition and one of only three known copies in existence.
Many regard this as the 'Golden Decade' of Hollywood. In Modern Times (lots 113 and 114), Charlie Chaplin made a definitive comic statement about the plight of Man in our century. It is a perfect example of the inventiveness for which he is best remembered. James Whale's Frankenstein, 1931, (lots 130-132), endures as a horror classic, a reflection of society's long standing fascination with the macabre and a trend-setter for films to come. The French poster for Frankenstein in this collection (lot 130) was purchased from Robert Florey's estate. Universal Studios had given it to him as proof that, unlike on the U.S. posters, he had been credited abroad for his written contributions. This is the only known copy in existence.
Walt Disney's Snow White And The Seven Dwarfs, 1937, (lots 80 and 81) was the first full-length animation film; it took four years and $1.5 million to make, and remains one of the most enjoyable and successful films of all time. Gone With The Wind, 1939, (lots 151-156) is still the most highly attended film to date. It played continuously at cinemas for over a year and led the way to the Hollywood epic as we know it today.
Titles such as Double Indemnity, 1944, (Lot 195), and The Postman Always Rings Twice, 1946, (lots 200 and 201), are key films in the genre which has come to be known as 'Film Noir'. Casablanca, 1942, (lot 186), is regarded by many as the best Hollywood film of all time, winner of six Academy Awards including Best Film and Best Director. The extremely rare poster in this collection is one of the only U.S. posters that depicts all the principal cast. The Thief Of Bagdad, 1940, (lot 211), and The Red Shoes, 1948, (lot 213), are two of the most creative and timeless films produced in England.
This decade is best remembered for Rock 'N' Roll, and icons such as Elvis Presley and Marilyn Monroe. Jailhouse Rock, 1957, (lot 220), depicts Presley at the height of his popularity. The image of Monroe with her billowing skirt on the U.S. poster for The Seven Year Itch, 1955, (lot 218), has become the most famous image of the star. War Of The Worlds, 1953, (lot 238), and Forbidden Planet, 1956, (lot 240), are icons of the 1950s science-fiction genre.
These are just a few examples from this collection, a collection which provides a unique opportunity for collectors to acquire these important historical pieces.
From Hollywood To London
The Caidin Family and Trustees chose Peter Langs to act as their agent and to select the best possible location and company for the auction of their collection. Originally, the family worked with Mr Langs while he headed the Intellectual Property Development of First Interstate Bank.
Mr Langs, through his company IPMA (Intellectual Property Management Associates), advised the family and trustess to select Christie's South Kensington. Firstly because Christie's South Kensington led the field in movie poster auctions in Europe and secondly as it is located in London, a true international crossroads. It was felt that Great Britain, the cities of Europe and the rest of the world would be truly interested in having the chance to acquire part of a collection that was housed in Hollywood and never seen outside the United States.
Through Mr Langs' work with the staff of Christie's South Kensington and Tony Nourmand, Christie's London based consultant for movie posters, the Caidin family hope to share with collectors everywhere the magic of movie posters.
IMPA on behalf of
The Caidin Family and Trustees