In the new edition of Film Comment, out this week, I write about British airbrush artist Philip Castle and his iconic poster for Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange. The other man behind that poster, aside from Kubrick himself, was producer, director and writer Mike Kaplan who, at the time, was Kubrick’s marketing guru.
Kaplan, who has been collecting movie posters, as well as art directing them, for 35 years, is a tireless proselytizer for the art form and his latest project is a labor of love and a pure delight. Gotta Dance! The Art of the Dance Movie Poster, a book he wrote and curated, was born out of a touring exhibition of his own personal collection that he has been exhibiting around the country for the past few years. Its latest stop is the TCM Classic Film Festival in Los Angeles starting next week.
The book contains a gorgeous selection of some 100 dance movie posters that, unusually for genre-centric books of this type, highlights the best designs rather than just the best-loved films (though many of those are there too). Eloquently written and beautifully laid out, it captures in page after page what L.A. Times dance critic Debra Levine in her introduction to the book describes as “hoofers and high-flyers…locked in perpetual motion, in ecstatic freeze-frames.” The book is a riot of color and high-kicking action, but in addition to being a history of Hollywood dance movies it is also a love letter to graphic design. Levine also writes, “Beyond the main objective—to allure and advertise by imprint of image—for this dance writer, added pleasure comes from the posters’ rarefied use of text. I love how words interact with graphic elements. The wild parade of fonts! The romantic foreign-language titles!” It comes as no surprise that the best of these posters are not the Hollywood originals but the international variants from France, Italy, Sweden, Denmark and elsewhere.
I’ve chosen a handful of my favorites from the book, each accompanied by a small excerpt from Kaplan’s text.
“The sharp, spunky granddaddy of all backstage musicals... [Busby Berkeley’s] choreography takes center stage in this stunning Belgian poster, showcasing his dancers atop and within the three-dimensional title treatment. An art deco knockout.”
“Exquisite in every detail, the Swedish poster for Bolero reflects the heat generated by George Raft and Carole Lombard in their dance to Ravel’s ‘Bolero’ performed in the film atop a circular stage with blinding lights and dramatic shadows. The posters in every country depict the dancing couple but none approach artist Moje Aslund’s perfect creation of art deco sensuality and elegance.”
“The frivolous story of a dancing master captured by pirates in Boston harbor couldn’t compel audiences, though the color design by Robert Edmund Jones was tantalizing... Though Dancing Pirate wasn’t a moneymaker, it was responsible for a burst of colorful, inspired posters everywhere it played. This German poster of ‘The First Technicolor Musical’ by Swedish artist Moje Aslund shows star dancers Charles Collins and Steffi Duna surrounded by a dazzling rainbow.”
“In Germany, the movie operetta was an audience favorite from the 30s through much of the 40s... Willy Forst was a master of the genre... the operettas he created were touching, romantic and opulent and reached their peak with his Operette in 1940, becoming one of the most financially successful films in the occupied countries… The imaginative French poster by Derouet Baudoin captures the world of this ‘charming confection’ per The New York Times, as a glamorous couple waltz below a pink pastel chorus line.”
“By the time The Great American Broadcast was released in Italy after World War 2, the Nicholas Brothers had appeared in 10 films and audiences knew that…they would be treated to spectacular acrobatic tap dancing worth the price of admission. This was astutely recognized in Italy where the great dance team are the sole performers on this duo-folio poster… This is the only movie poster to feature them.”
“The perfect example of how inspired artwork elevates a film… Yvonne DeCarlo was a determined minor starlet when she was given the lead role in what is now considered a major camp classic…. DeCarlo’s beauty and dancing made it and her a hit. Aberg’s swirling red shapes reflect the heat Yvonne DeCarlo casts in a sophisticated design that is as impressive today as it was nearly 60 years ago.”
“The film is one of the most beautiful ever made, with a swirling dynamic that never ceases… This original-release British poster reflects that dynamic: Moira Shearer, in pure white, is in perpetual flight in her red shoes, while impresario Anton Walbrook, intimidating in green, watches in full control.”
“Artist René Péron captures [star Esther Williams] in one of her classic underwater ballet positions, poised against a sea-themed setting, in the French design for Million Dollar Mermaid, considered the finest Esther Williams poster.”
“A rainy grey-black background, reflecting the setting of Gene Kelly’s iconic dance sequence contrasts and highlights the colorful, joyous trio of Gene Kelly, Donald O’Connor and Debbie Reynolds…depicted here in their most imposing rendering.”
“Marge and Gower Champion were the 1950s most celebrated dance team… Gaston’s Danish poster…exemplifies how creatively color and black and white can be combined. The Champions are the focus, in the spotlight, in black and white, with their energy and the urban setting captured via a wash of yellow through red. Instead of the messy photographic collage in the American poster, smaller dancers are drawn in black and white.”
Gotta Dance! is available from Lagoon Press. The TCM Classic Film Festival runs from March 26 to 29 in Los Angeles and Mike Kaplan will be doing a book signing on Saturday, March 28, from 5 - 6pm, in the lobby of the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel. The poster exhibit will be in Club TCM, off the Roosevelt lobby, and is only accessible to festival pass holders, but the book signing is open to the public.
Many thanks to Mike Kaplan.