Movie Poster of the Week: The Posters of Robert Tanenbaum

The movie poster work of a prolific realist American illustrator of the 70s and 80s.
Adrian Curry

Above: Pipe Dreams (1976).

While searching for something to post on Movie Poster of the Day on Christmas Eve, I took a look at the poster for Bob Clark’s A Christmas Story, which I hadn’t paid much attention to before. On closer inspection I recognized it as a pretty perfect pastiche of Norman Rockwell, with its meticulous depiction of a domestic scene in medias res, and down to its details like its circular frame within a frame, its white background, and the parallel black lines mimicking the Saturday Evening Post masthead. 

The association with, or subversion of, America’s favorite purveyor of whimsical Americana makes perfect sense in light of the poster’s tagline about the "Original, Traditional, One-Hundred-Percent, Red-Blooded, Two-Fisted, All-American Christmas” and the artist, Robert Tanenbaum, even took his parody a step further by signing his illustration in the style of Rockwell’s trademark stenciled signature.

Once I discovered that Tanenbaum had also illustrated another piece of classic Yuletide Americana in the Rockwell style—namely the cover of the Carpenters’ Christmas Portrait in 1978—I decided to look more deeply into his work.

Born in 1936 and still a working painter and portraitist in his late 80s, Robert Tanenbaum seems to have been in high demand as a movie poster illustrator from the early 1970s through to the late 1980s. He is one of the rare American illustrators whose movie poster work is consistently signed, whether because he was already a name before he started making posters, or whether the conventions of authorship had changed by the 70s, I don’t know.

Even though he changed his signature for his Rockwell pastiche, his other work never veers all that far from the Rockwell model. He was, and still is, an accomplished realist who renders actors with satisfying exactitude, and his sense of composition is always dynamic and pleasing. While not a great stylist—his work is sometimes indistinguishable from other similar realist poster artists of the era like Robert McGinnis and John Solie, or even a pre-Star Wars Drew Struzan—he is nevertheless a superb technician. The Terrorists, below, was one of his more dramatically stylized posters.

The poster for the 1976 Gladys Knight vehicle Pipe Dreams, at the top of the page, was one of the first of Tanenbaum’s posters that really caught my eye, not least because I had no idea that there had ever been such a thing as a Gladys Knight vehicle. Beyond its kitsch value it is actually a beautiful piece of work, lovingly composed and richly colorful. 

To search through Tanenbaum’s oeuvre is to discover a world of dimly-remembered comedies and thrillers from the 70s and 80s. A Christmas Story is probably his most iconic image, with his posters for Cujo and The Color of Money equally memorable. But although he made posters for auteurs like Sam Peckinpah, Mel Brooks and Jonathan Demme over the course of his career, who now remembers films like Rafferty and the Gold Dust Twins, Permission to Kill and Somebody Killed Her Husband? Or even Pipe Dreams? What is notable now is how much care and work was lavished on the posters for these now forgotten films.

Below, in chronological order, is a selection of some of my favorites of Tanenbaum’s posters, with details from each one.

Above: Detroit 9000 (1973).

Above: Working Girls (1974).

Above: Dirty Mary Crazy Larry (1974).

Above: A Boy and His Dog (1975).

Above: The Terrorists (1975).

Above: The Human Factor (1975).

Above: Permission to Kill (1975).

Above: Rafferty and the Gold Dust Twins (1975).

Above: The Sellout (1976).

Above: Cross of Iron (1977).

Above: The Greatest (1977).

Above: Somebody Killed Her Husband (1978).

Above: My Bodyguard (1980).

Above: Cujo (1983).

Above: The Color of Money (1986).

Above: Outrageous Fortune (1987).

Tanenbaum’s current website completely plays down his movie poster work in favor of his portraits of sports stars, Native Americans (he was recently made a blood brother of the Cherokee Nation) and titans of industry. (His bio notes that “a partial list of his corporate portraits include the previous three CEO’s of United Parcel Service (UPS), two for Texaco Oil, nine for Southern California Edison.”) There are only a couple of his original movie poster paintings on the site, like his painting for The Color of Money which shows that Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio was repainted for the final poster.

Poster images courtesy of Heritage Auctions.

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