Léo Kouper, who passed away last week at the age of 94, was rather unusual among poster artists for having a special association with one filmmaker, his being Charlie Chaplin. From the early 1950s through the early ’70s Kouper created some of the most striking and charming Chaplin poster designs for almost all his feature films.
Born in Paris on August 20, 1926, Kouper was mentored from the age of 19 by the great French poster artist Hervé Morvan (1917-1980) who was nine years his senior. Morvan did his fair share of movie posters, including a stunning double panel Grand Illusion, but is best known for his bold, colorful, child-like illustrations advertising French products like Gitanes, Perrier and Lanvin Chocolate.
Kouper’s illustration work is in a similar faux naïf style to Morvan’s and its simplicity and charm no doubt appealed to Chaplin over the years. His first Chaplin poster, seen above, was made for United Artists for a French re-release of the 1936 Modern Times in 1954, in which the Little Tramp is seen to be morphing with machinery.
In 1959 he illustrated a poster for The Chaplin Revue, a feature film packaged from three of Chaplin’s early shorts: A Dog’s Life (1918), Shoulder Arms (1918), and The Pilgrim (1923)
I’m assuming his poster for a re-release of The Great Dictator (1940) came around the same time because of the similarity of the “Charles Chaplin” (not Charlie) header on both posters.
While made in France for French releases, the designs were so popular that they were re-used in the US.
In November 1966 Kouper received a letter from Chaplin’s secretary (seen below courtesy of Cineteca Bologna’s Chaplin archive) saying that Chaplin had just finished his latest picture and that one Mr. David Golding of Universal Pictures, having seen Kouper’s poster for The Gold Rush, above, wanted to talk to him about doing a poster for the new film A Countess from Hong Kong.
The 1967 poster for Countess, which was to be Chaplin’s final film (he died in 1977), was the only poster Kouper made for the original release of a Chaplin film, all his others being for re-releases. It’s also of course the only Chaplin poster he made that doesn’t feature Chaplin.
When Chaplin’s films were re-released in France, by Parafrance Films in 1972, Kouper was once again called upon to create new designs for almost all of his feature films. He re-drew his earlier Gold Rush design but created entirely new art for Modern Times, The Great Dictator and the Chaplin Revue. as well as illustrating The Kid (1921), City Lights (1931), Monsieur Verdoux (1947) and Limelight (1952) for the first time. The result is perhaps the greatest series of posters by a single artist for one filmmaker/star, each one equally inventive and eye-catching. I especially love his Hans Hillmann-esque use of actual 3-dimensional gears photographed on his illustration for Modern Times and the stylized cop constructed from half-tone dots for The Kid.
Kouper did design many other movie posters over his sixty year career. He designed these two posters for Truffaut—for an early short film and for an exhibition of Truffaut posters—some 34 years apart.
In 1974 he won the Best Poster prize at the Cannes Film Festival—back when they had such awards—for his iconically cheeky design for Emmanuelle.
In later years, no doubt as a result of the success of Emmanuelle, he became associated with a certain ribald, cartoonish, seaside postcard style of French movie poster, and in his last decade became very much associated with the films of Jean-Pierre Mocky, a prolific French filmmaker whose work is little known here. But there were a couple of other standouts in the ’70s that were a marked departure from his Chaplin designs.
But it was for his Chaplin posters that Kouper was best known and best loved. Here he is in recent years holding a portrait of the Little Tramp made entirely from his shoes and hats.
That same portrait appears on a collection of plates and cups.
In 2015, after the Charlie Hebdo massacre in Paris, Kouper added his voice to the #jesuischarlie response with this piece showing Chaplin’s bowler hat as a bullet-riddled target. The drawing was published in a special issue of Libération.