This Chaplin poster, with its graphic simplicity, its bold approach to typography (two very striking typefaces each bleeding to the edges of the poster) and its brash use of color, has a distinctively contemporary look, as if it was a fan poster screenprinted in a basement in Bushwick to be sold on Etsy. It doesn’t look like the hand-painted posters we recognize from the 1930s at all. But in fact it is a 1936 poster, made to accompany the original release of Charlie Chaplin’s film.
The poster is a product of Leader Press, an Oklahoma City printer that came up with a solution to a distribution problem in the early years of sound cinema. In the early 30s, after films had played the major cities, prints were bused to the hinterlands and posters were supposed to be included along with the film print. The prints wouldn’t arrive until a few days before the film opened and the posters would often arrive torn and weather-beaten, if the theatre manager remembered to include them at all.
Leader Press stepped in and offered their own versions of the studios’ posters which could be shipped a couple of weeks in advance of the play date—giving more time for promotion—and which cost a fraction of the price of the studio one sheets (this was before National Screen Service became the governing body for movie poster distribution in the 1940s, prohibiting other companies from printing their own posters). In a deal with the studios, Leader Press was allowed to design and print their own posters as long as they didn’t contain any studio logos or credits. In fact, their posters contained very little in the way of information at all: sticking mostly to the film’s title and the stars’ names. No tagline, no pull-quotes, no names of directors or producers. Graphically they are equally as simple: most of Leader Press’s designs are nothing more than the actors’ faces on a flat plane of color. (There are some exceptions to the rule, like the Way Down East poster below.) This was the result of expediency: the posters were screen printed with a limited palette of three to eight colors, whereas studio posters at the time would have printed by stone lithography allowing for a much more painterly palette. To cut costs further, Leader would also re-use the same illustrations to promote more than one film, simply switching up the color palette and typography for a new release.
I found this ad for Leader Press in the Exhibitors Herald World of 1930 offering smaller promotional flyers, or heralds:
And in Motion Picture Herald magazine for 1932 I found Leader Press listed among a number of other poster printers (who may have been providing a similar service) in their Equipment Index for theater owners:
I have found no record of Leader Press’s existence prior to 1930 and it seems that they closed their doors in 1937. As crude as they sometimes are, the Leader Press posters have their own distinct graphic charm and are now much treasured by collectors. Below are some of my favorites of their designs.
Poster images courtesy of Heritage Auctions
. Information sourced from Heritage and from Learn About Movie Posters
. Many thanks to Bruce Goldstein and Dave Kehr who sent me down the rabbit hole that led to Leader Press.