Sometimes a wonderful thing happens once a film is in the can. The marketing department takes over and creates printed materials that, if you’re lucky, accurately reflect the style and content of the picture you’re about to see. And if you’re really lucky, the posters and one sheets of a particular movie transcend mere communication and stand on their own as works of art. Here are twenty-five movie posters from the silent era where message and mode combine to make something extraordinary.
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In one stunning scene, Scarlett O’Hara leaves a makeshift hospital to cross an expanse littered with dozens, hundreds, then seemingly thousands of injured soldiers as a Confederate flag, tattered but still waving, comes into view. That bravura crane shot got us to thinking: What joins this Gone With the Wind tableau as the most powerful visuals to grace the silver screen? Our list of favorites begins during the silent era, when visuals were all we had, and continues through to the simple image of a lovelorn teenager holding a boombox over his head.
Here are ten early examples.
A rocket lodges in the right eye of the man on the moon in A Trip to the Moon (1902).
Georges Méliès 14-minute rumination on space travel and what six astronomers might find on the moon became one of the earliest science fiction films ever made.
A bandit looks into the camera and fires his gun in The Great Train Robbery (1903).
Director Edwin S. Porter broke new ground with this 12-minute western film, which features linear narration, a moving camera and location shooting. The scene of the robber shooting his weapon frightened audience members and was intended to be placed, at the theater owner's discretion, either before or after the main action of the movie. Most saved the famous shot for last.
Colonel Ben Cameron (Henry Walthall) plants a confederate flag in the barrel of a cannon in
The Birth of a Nation (1915).
Director D. W. Griffith’s groundbreaking—and brazenly racist—Civil War epic achieved a unique authenticity in terms of costumes: with the war just 50 years in the rearview mirror, many actual Confederate Army uniforms were still available for the actors to wear.
Anna (Lillian Gish) lies unconscious on an ice floe heading for a waterfall in Way Down East (1920).
The frigid climax of D. W. Griffith’s spurned-woman drama involved location shooting in White River Junction, Vermont, with Lillian Gish floating down a very real river on a very real ice floe in late winter. Conditions were so harsh that the Gish experienced lasting impairment of her right hand from its exposure to the icy water.
The Boy (Harold Lloyd) hangs from a clock on the side of a high-rise building in Safety Last! (1923).
A complicated series of misunderstandings leads to Lloyd’s character taking the famous climb up the side of a building as a marketing stunt for a department store. A fake wall was constructed on a rooftop to give the illusion of great height, though Lloyd was still at risk of great injury or death if he fell. Added to the challenge was a missing thumb and forefinger on Lloyd’s right hand, the result of an exploding prop bomb during a photo shoot four years earlier. A prosthetic glove concealed his digital deficiencies.
An out-of-control baby carriage careens down steps during a civilian massacre in Battleship Potemkin (1925).
One of the most famous montages in movies was a fictional addition to true story of a Russian naval mutiny and its aftermath. The added section, known as the Odessa Steps Sequence, was included by director Sergei Eisenstein presumably to underscore his disdain for the Imperial regime. With a pioneering use of editing techniques, Eisenstein made the brutal killing of townspeople by soldiers and Cossacks an emotionally powerful seven minutes that remains closely examined and endlessly discussed to this day.
Christine Daae (Mary Philbin) unmasks The Phantom (Lon Chaney) in The Phantom of the Opera (1925).
Cinematographer Charles Van Enger asserted that Mary Philbin did not know what Lon Chaney looked like under his mask, making genuine her shocked reaction at the unmasking. Chaney did his own makeup for the role, including gluing his ears back, using fish skin to upturn his nose, building up his cheeks with cotton and clouding his eyes with egg membrane.
A woman’s eye is sliced by a straight razor in Un Chien Andalou (1929).
Luis Buñuel 21-minute surrealist film was born from the director and his friend Salvador Dali telling each other of their recent dreams: a cloud slicing the moon in half “like a razor blade slicing through an eye” from Buñuel's subconscious and a hand crawling with ants from Dali's. With that, Un Chien Andalou was set in motion. The film’s most memorable scene was achieved in three cuts: a woman sitting calmly while a man approaches her eye with a razor, a cutaway to a cloud covering the moon and a close-up of the woman’s eye (in actuality, the eye of a dead calf) being sliced open.
The land rush in Cimarron (1931).
Budding landowners descend upon the Oklahoma territory, which the U.S. government has just opened up for settlement, in an epic scene that involved 28 cameramen, 5,000 extras, a vast array of horse-drawn vehicles and a sprawling ranch outside of Los Angeles. The sequence took a week to film.
Hans Beckert (Peter Lorre) discovered he is a marked man in M (1931).
A beggar chalks the letter “M” on his hand and purposefully bumps into Beckert, a child killer on the loose, in an effort to identify and keep track of his movements while the community closes in on him. The film was originally called Mörder unter uns (Murderer Among Us), but, after filming the pursuit sequence, director Fritz Lang thought the shorter title to be more interesting.
Here are some of our favorites—terrific one sheets that reflect vital elements of the movies they advertise, yet stand alone as works of art.