Wednesday, 4 January 2017

Ealing Studios' frightfully "arty" film posters won plaudits - but did they sell tickets?

There probably isn't much argument that this colourful, exuberant 1951 poster for The Man in the White Suit (illustrated by A. R. Thompson) would have sold tickets:
But I'm not sure the poster for The Jade Mask (1945) would have had me running to the nearest Odeon - it's clever, but it was, after all, advertising a Charlie Chan movie!:

The Jade Mask was designed and illustrated by S. John Woods, an abstract artist who had designed posters for theatre, opera and ballet productions before joining Ealing in 1943. Reporting directly to studio head Michael Balcon from 1947, he was almost solely responsible for the glory years of Ealing posters. Running an art department near Marble Arch, he commissioned work from a host of noted artists and illustrators, including the children's book illustrator Edward Ardizzone, who produced these two posters:
I admire both of these films - but I'm not sure either of these posters would have convinced me they were my sort of fare. Ealing's distributors agreed - they didn't like either of them. Whatever, Woods (who gave his artists as free a hand as possible to come up with their own interpretation of the film they were supposedly marketing) evidently had the full backing of the studio. The results were often somewhat eccentric, as with John Piper's bookish illustration for Painted Boats (1945):
Ditto Leslie Hurry's poster for Dead of Night (1945), which would have made a splendid hardcover dust jacket:
Given the background of some of the artists, several posters seemed more suitable for marketing Edwardian plays:
Okay, that last one's more movie-like - but the following trio just look like book covers to me:
When I first came across James Boswell's moody posters for Pool of London (1951) and The Blue Lamp (1950), I suspected they might have been produced to market restored prints of the films being shown at Curzon Cinema-style arthouses. But no - they were used for the original release of both films: 
Occasionally, an artist would go over the top, the distributors would put their feet down, and Ealing would have to come up with another design. This atmospheric Charles Murray illustration for The Cruel Sea (1953) proved a little too gnomic:
Colin Walklin was asked to design a poster that might give punters a vague hint as to what the film was actually about :
Thank you! So, as Ealing Studios was a non-subsidised, commercial outfit, releasing some of the finest films the British cinema has ever produced, why did it persist with what, looking back, seems a perverse marketing strategy? I'm currently enjoying British Film Posters: An Illustrated History, a fascinating, impressively well-researched and generously-illustrated BFI book by British film poster historian and collector, Sim Branaghan. In it, he quotes from George Perry's 1981 work, Forever Ealing
Their [the studio's poster artists] work may have lacked the eye-catching hard-sell technique of their Hollywood counterparts, but they advertised not only the film, but something of Ealing's steadfast seriousness of purpose. Ealing was one part of the British film industry which fitted into the prevailing tradition of left-of-centre, middle-class, cultural earnestness that was then apparent in such institutions as Penguin Books, Picture Post, much of the BBC and especially William Haley's brave creation of 1946, the Third Programme, the Manchester Guardian,  as it was still known, London Transport's publicity department, the News Chronicle, and perhaps its largest and least enduring manifestation, the Festival of Britain. 
One of the reasons I'm enjoying Sim Branaghan's book so much is that he evidently shares my more downmarket tastes in poster art. I get the distinct impression that, while he admires the originality of Ealing's approach, he's more at home with the less arty, more shouty, commercial style of poster: I'll post a selection of my favourites in the near future. 

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