Sixty years of selling movies in the newspapers

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John McElwhee's "The Art of Selling Movies": Detail of the book jacket.

The Art of Selling Movies

By John McElwee

Paladin. 304 pp. $39.95


Reviewed by David Robinson


'I'd like everyone reading this book to come away proclaiming movie ads a great lost art," declares John McElwee. It's unlikely his wish will come true, but that's no detriment to The Art of Selling Movies, a panorama of newspaper advertising from the early teens to the end of the 1960s. McElwee's lively and informed commentary runs through more than 400 examples of the strident black-and-white collages that have crammed the entertainment pages of America's far-flung press.

These ads came not just from the great urban centers, but also from neighborhood cinemas in obscure townships across the States. These neighborhoods were often far away, in every respect, from the studios and executive offices of classic-era Hollywood. The distributors thought they had it all wrapped up: The official "press book" for each film supplied a selection of reviews (enthusiastic) that could be passed on to local newspaper editors to save them the trouble of commissioning their own reviews. The press book also provided a selection of illustrated advertisements in every shape and size.

In Beloit, Wis., Harold Lloyd's Hot Water (1924) was a good sell for the Humphrey Gas Water Heater, and every purchaser of a pair of shoes from Hunt's in Fort Smith got a ticket to see Betty Grable in College Swing (1938). Someone walked (or rode) off with a "live pony" given away at the Saturday matinee of a 1932 Tom Mix film in Lockport, N.Y.

To proclaim such riches in a few square inches of advertising space was a challenge, but for the most part, it was expertly done. These ads kept patrons flocking in through two wars, the Great Depression, and the revolutions of sound and color.

Of course, sex was the ultimate draw. Some movies had it firmly built in and ready to illustrate. But someone thought to lure audiences to All Quiet on the Western Front (1930) with a drawing of the shapely legs of a chorus girl.

McElwee ends this unusual social history at the close of the 1960s, not because the ads became less abundant, but because, he writes, at this point they "drift toward inconsequence" by comparison with TV and burgeoning new media. His nostalgia for the palmy days nevertheless remains touching and unshaken: "Theater advertising could be lurid, silly, plain foolish, and sometimes ... lovely. For a gone era wherein they flourished, ads were a daily menu of mixed flavors, infinite variety, and pleasures enough to occupy seekers for a lifetime."

Robinson is a film critic and historian and director emeritus of the Pordenone Silent Film Festival. This review originally appeared in the Washington Post.