Girls & Guns: Classic Film Posters Sell Sensation at the Norton

At the tail end of the golden age of movie posters, the Japanese knew, perhaps even better than the Americans, that sex and violence sold movie tickets. That nation’s tawdry poster for 1964’s “Goldfinger” eschews subtlety, if not good old-fashioned double-entendres.

On display as part of the Norton Museum of Art’s crisply educational “Coming Soon: Film Posters From the Dwight M. Cleveland Collection,” the towering vertical image is crested with the nude, outstretched body of a Bond girl lying on her stomach. This, in alone, wouldn’t fly with American mores. But just below it is the icing on the libidinal cake: It’s Sean Connery as 007, pointing his phallic silencer directly at the model. It’s suggestive, it’s crude, it’s brazenly anti-feminist, but it’s accurate to the product it’s advertising—and it surely brought butts to cinema seats.

If there’s an encompassing takeaway from the 200-plus selections compiled from the thousands in Cleveland’s possession, it’s that poster designers knew how to tap into their audience’s reptile brains. Sure, there are examples of innocent fare in this exhibition, including jaunty musicals, wholesome westerns and Disney cartoons. But they’re exceptions to the rule.

These are posters that, by and large, grab audiences by the lapels—and the loins. In a foreign poster for the Howard Hughes production “The Outlaw,” Jane Russell poses cheesecake-style on a hayloft, handling a pistol and busting out of her flimsy excuse for a top. It’s far more of Russell than you actually see in the picture, which might even rate as PG in today’s standards, but this seems beside the point. Prurience sells.

Marilyn Monroe is the most obvious example, and even in the more timid American posters for her frothy ‘50s comedies like “The Seven-Year Itch,” she’s on the perpetual brink of losing her clothing to the whims of the elements, even indoors. But this same sensation was paramount (pun intended) in many a classic poster, whether it’s Rita Hayworth in “Cover Girl” or Betty Grable in “Moon Over Miami” or Jane Fonda in “Barbarella” or Allison Hayes in “Attack of the 50-Foot Woman”—whose poster illustration presents her like a cocktail waitress, a fact that distracts from the carnage she’s wrecking on the puny interstate below (at least in her case, it would have been a challenge to find anythingin her size).

Most explicitly, in “Footlight Parade,” the two leading ladies dance, stark naked, with their tuxedoed partners, inside what appears to be a bubbly bottle of Champagne. In the appropriately titled “Tanned Legs,” a third of the poster’s real estate consist of the titular limbs, dangling anonymously. Needless to say, all the women in these illustrations are impossibly statuesque, with figures that would prompt Barbie to consider a tummy tuck.

Most of these posters emerged from the era of the lurid dime-store paperback, and it’s natural to assume that what worked in one medium would excel in another. But in some of my favorite posters in the exhibition, boldness doesn’t need to equate with sexual frankness: I loved the explosive, comic-book graphics of Russ Meyer’s “Motorpsycho,” and the close-up of a creature’s bloodshot eyes in “Dementia 13.” The poster for “Singin’ in the Rain,” featuring Gene Kelly hovering in a sky flush with colorful umbrellas, is whimsical and imaginative, riffing on the movie’s theme without simply illustrating one of its scenes.

Foreign posters of American movies were the best at this element of surprise and abstraction. In fact, according to Cleveland’s exhibition notes, many of the artists, especially in Poland, had not even seen the movies they were assigned, which provided them a blank slate for creativity. That may be why the Polish poster for “Dirty Dancing” looks more like a primitive horror flick than a ribald drama. That nation’s poster for “Sunset Blvd.” ultimately does a better job of conveying Norma Desmond’s madness than its tame American counterpart: Gloria Swanson appears crazy-haired, wild-eyed and pencil-necked, looking every bit like an unhinged peacock. It’s marvelous.

Poland’s “Midnight Cowboy” poster

One could easily spend hours in “Coming Soon,” admiring the broad and motley variety of poster shapes and sizes artfully collaged throughout the walls of two busy but kempt galleries. Cleveland is as much an expert on film history as the posters that promoted it, and his and curator Matthew Bird’s anecdotes, analysis and trivia are often fascinating. Who knew that in 1939, at the apex of the Great Depression, Claudette Colbert was the highest-paid person in America, earning $300,000 a year? Or that Cleveland acquired 8,000 of his posters from a single, soon-to-be-remodeled house in Michigan, where they were hidden in the walls and used for insulation?

For cineastes, “Coming Soon” is also a primer on movies both well-loved and forgotten; in terms of the exhibition’s attention, masterpieces like “North by Northwest” carry equal weight with forgotten gems like the Poverty Row thriller “Tomorrow at Seven” or the 1942 noir “Gun For Hire,” which—no surprise here—markets itself on the sex and violence of Veronica Lake and a fedora-sporting, handgun-wielding Alan Ladd. I’ll be recording this one next time TCM blesses us with its presence. Won’t we all?

“Coming Soon: Posters From the Dwight M. Cleveland Collection” runs through Oct. 29 at the Norton Museum of Art, 1450 S. Olive Ave., West Palm Beach. Admission costs $15-$18, and is free on Fridays and Saturdays. Call 561/832-5196 or visit norton.org.