The Lobby Card was a form of advertising that revolutionized the look of graphics. Lobby Cards were sent out by the publicity departments of the Hollywood studios in sets of eight to twenty images reflecting the content of a newly released movie. Their purpose: to lure the movie-going public into theatres across the country.
The earliest known Lobby Cards, dating back to 1908, were part of a weighty bundle of advertising material provided by the early film companies to theatre owners with their two-reelers. These cards - sepia or duo-tinted, 8x10” in size - were mounted on easels beside the box office window or inside the lobby. They were little more than murky reproductions of stills, the result of a brown and white rotogravure process that lacked any clear-cut whites and browns. Unlike the stills, the images were selected to give a sense of the story line of the movie and to supply the credits. The rotogravure process used in printing the Lobby Cards made them more durable than the fragile photographic stock on which movie stills were printed. Even then, some of the cards would have faint coloring applied by hand or by stencil; these give little indication of the splendors to come only a few years later.
As movie-making and movie-selling became more sophisticated (even before sound), Lobby Cards became more lavish, imaginative and dimensional, using kinetic designs that surrounded images; often these border designs were more interesting than the photographs they decorated. A typical set of early cards promoted ROMANCE! DRAMA! TERROR! LAUGHTER! TEARS! (‘Hurry, hurry, hurry - see lovely Mary Pickford in the arms of her boyfriend, Jock! See her cry! See her tortured by the Huns!’)
The cards grew to 11X14” (this became the standard size) and were offered in sets of no less than eight exciting scenes for the average film, and as many as sixteen for the new super productions.
As printing techniques evolved, so did the flair and imagination with which these cards were designed. Film historian David Chierichetti has described the process thus: “In the early 1920s Paramount developed a new and distinctive style for its cards. Printing on very white stock and using an offset image with dense blacks and sharply detailed halftones, Paramount’s publicity department cut out the figures … and surrounded them with completely non-realistic highly stylized drawn sets rendered in the most brilliant possible colors.”
During this time the selection of the images, the imaginative artwork bordering the images, the creatively hand-tinted subjects and the brilliant colors, combined to create a piece of artwork that conveyed the mood of the film more eloquently than the images selected for use. While it might seem ironic that these Lobby Cards were produced in blazing colors for what were after all, with a few rare exceptions, black and white films, the point of the posters and Lobby Cards was to convey the excitement of the product they were selling.
The Lobby Card in blazing colors (many, like Fairbanks’ magnificent Thief of Baghdad, employing gold and silver tints in their lettering, created the illusion of Persian miniatures), became an exciting amalgamation of poster art and photograph, with the borders following the same fanciful artwork that was used for the even more elaborate and stylish one-sheet posters. What made this possible was the emergence of the photogelatin or heliotype process. David Chierichetti writes: “…it used a metal plate covered with photosensitized gelatin that was exposed to light through a regular photograph negative. The gelatin hardened in varying degrees according to the amount of light received, the darkest parts of the image turned hardest. Photogelatin printing was best suited to the smaller cards because it was almost as fine-textured as a photograph, lacking the grains or dots of lithography. The cards were meant to be viewed closely and usually contained much more written material than the posters.
While the title (or main) card in each set was often identical to the 22x28” one sheet, and in some cases was one and the same, the men employed to select for the lobbies the eight or so images out of the hundreds of stills taken, as well as doing the specially composed art, were creating ever more fanciful artwork and evocative montage effects. These could be used in combination on one card with several shots of the star, or various scenes from the film.
Executive or star approval was required at each stage of the lettering and design. The memo from the main office to the boys in publicity usually requested only that the selected stills run in succession with the plot, but the actual choice of images was left to whatever underling was available; this accounts for some bizarre selections which sometimes excluded images of the featured player - or played up supporting actors in the film. Of course the great stars, Swanson, Chaplin, Pickford, Crawford, Fairbanks and the legendary bee-stung lipped Mae Murray, who were actively employed in the production of their own films, made sure that they saw all the material about them before the finished artwork was sent out to the poster company where the color separations were made. Their co-stars had no such luck.
Throughout the years studios employed famous American artists to design their advertising; the forties saw such popular American artists and illustrators as Norman Rockwell (Magnificent Ambersons, Song of Bernadette, The Razor’s Edge), Dan Sayre Groesbeck (Northwest Mounted Police, The Buccaneer), masters of the pin-up like Vargas (Moon Over Miami, The Flame of New Orleans, Ziegfeld Follies), George Petty (The Petty Girl) and others, employed on occasions to design the posters that would subsequently be adapted for Lobby Cards. Thus, Vargas’ drawing of a languorously indolent peek-a-booish blonde Dietrich for The Flame of New Orleans (1941), decorated the borders of the Lobbies. The seventies and eighties have seen a resurgence in the use of famous artists to design movie posters: Frank Frazetta (The Gauntlet, Conan, The Barbarian), Richard Amsel (Chinatown, The Sting, Raiders of the Lost Ark), Peter Max (The Yellow Submarine, Joanna) and their designs have also found their way to Lobby Cards.
Reprinted from Foyer Pleasure: The Golden Age of Cinema Lobby Cards. John Kobal and V. A. Wilson. London: Aurum Press, 1982.
Via the Leonard Schrader Collection.