Of all the tools used to hawk a movie—contests, celebrity appearances, lunch boxes, fashion shows, paper dolls—the publicity photo has to be one of the simplest and most straightforward. Many are movie stills or candid shots of stars relaxing on the set or cheesecake poses from starlets in minor roles. All are dished up to various media by major studios trying to put butts in the seats. Represented in the list below, however, is a different, more ambitious kind of publicity photo, carefully contrived shots clearly set in a studio, removed from the physical context of the film yet vaguely representative of plot, setting and character. Some are artful, some are playful, and some are very silly indeed. Here are ten of our favorites.
Black Legion (1937)
Erin O’Brien-Moore, Humphrey Bogart, Ann Sheridan
Frank Taylor (Humphrey Bogart) loses a promotion to a foreign-born coworker and becomes susceptible to the xenophobic attitudes and mission of the Black Legion, a Ku Klux Klan-like organization that promotes “100 percent Americanism” through violence and intimidation. The story is based on the real-life Black Legion, a racist, “pro-American” group in Michigan that, in the mid-1930s, found itself involved in the murder of a WPA worker.
The Wizard of Oz (1939)
Jack Haley, Ray Bolger, Judy Garland, Frank Morgan, Bert Lahr
The cast of one of the most beloved children’s films in movie history perches atop its source material, or at least an oversized novelty version of it. In all, author L. Frank Baum wrote 14 Oz books, beginning with The Wonderful Wizard of Oz in 1900 and ending with Glinda of Oz, published in 1920, a year after his death.
The Wild One (1953)
Peggy Maley, Marlon Brando, Yvonne Doughtry
Marlon Brando trades his leather jacket and biker hat for a simple t-shirt and neckerchief combo. If this photo it doesn’t quite capture the tough, defiant tone of the film, it’s at least fun to see Brando crack a smile.
Cover Girl (1944)
Rita Hayworth tramples on musical notes with carefree abandon in this shot for the Columbia Pictures film about a chorus girl turned cover girl who becomes a Broadway star. The tale was warmed over rags-to-riches enlivened by costar Gene Kelly’s choreography and Jerome Kern’s tunes, which included Best Song Oscar nominee “Long Ago (and Far Away).”
A Day at the Races (1937)
The brothers Marx join forces to win a horse race and thereby save the farm in a Sam Wood-directed romp that sees Groucho as Doctor Hugo Hackenbush, a veterinarian who specializes in diseases of wealthy humans. MGM producer Irving Thalberg, who gave the world one of the Marx Brothers’ best films, A Night at the Opera (1935), died two weeks into the shoot.
Sunset Boulevard (1950)
Gloria Swanson strikes a pose as Norma Desmond, faded star of the silent screen, in a series of shots involving the film’s lead actors and a lamppost. In October of 1960, Swanson would assume a similar position for photographer Eliot Elisofon amid the rubble of the partially demolished Roxy Theater in a famous image that graced the pages of Life Magazine. That photo, along with a New York Times article about a reunion of Ziegfeld Follies showgirls, was reportedly the inspiration for the 1971 Stephen Sondheim musical Follies.
Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1931)
The Robert Louis Stevenson tale first went before the cameras in 1920, with director John S. Robertson at the helm and John Barrymore as the titular man and beast. Paramount wanted Barrymore to recreate his performance for their 1931 version, but the actor was under contract to MGM. Fredric March ended up with the meaty role and was directed by Rouben Mamoulian to a Best Actor Oscar. When MGM decided to create their own version of the story ten years later, they bought the rights to the Mamoulian film and proceeded to recall every print known to exist. Victor Fleming directed, Spencer Tracy starred and audiences were lukewarm at best. The picture’s failure prompted March to send Tracy a message of thanks for “the greatest boost to his reputation of his entire career.”
North by Northwest (1959)
Cary Grant, as we know, possessed an abundance of charm and style and was one of the handsomest, most photogenic stars on film. In addition, he was an actor of many talents, adept at both comedy and drama. Yet, in this publicity shot for Hitchock’s cross-country thriller, even he looks ridiculous without a cornfield backdrop and crop duster antagonist.
Gorilla at Large (1954)
Anne Bancroft, George Barrows, Charlotte Austin
For a schlocky little horror film, Gorilla at Large had an impressive cast, which included Anne Bancroft, Lee J. Cobb, Raymond Burr, Cameron Mitchell and Lee Marvin. The story is pure claptrap about a carnival attraction named Goliath, the “world’s largest gorilla,” who may or may not be responsible for a man’s death. Inhabiting the furry skin of Goliath was actor George Barrows, who made it his specialty to play such hulking primates on film and on television. For bad movie fans, his biggest achievement was likely his role as Ro-Man, an alien creature in Robot Monster (1953) who resembles a gorilla wearing a diving helmet. It is widely considered to be one of the most idiotic space monsters ever devised.
The Birds (1963)
A series of photos were taken with both director Alfred Hitchcock and star Tippi Hedren posing with one of the menacing winged critters of the title. A tongue-in-cheek quality defines the images, with one shot featuring a crow holding a lit match in its beak as Hedren leans in to light her cigarette.