10,000 Classic Movie Posters Getting Digitized & Put Online by the Harry Ransom Center at UT-Austin: Free to Browse & Download

Who hasn’t pinned one of Saul Bass’s ele­gant film posters on their wall—with either thumb­tacks above the dorm­room bed or in frame and glass in grown-up envi­rons? Or maybe it’s 70s kitsch you prefer—the art of the grind­house and sen­sa­tion­al­ist dri­ve-in exploita­tion film? Or 20s silent avant-garde, the cool noir of the 30s and 40s, 50s B‑grade sci-fi, 60s psy­che­delia and French new wave, or 80s pop­corn flicks…? What­ev­er kind of cin­e­ma grabs your atten­tion prob­a­bly first grabbed your atten­tion through the design of the movie poster, a genre that gets its due in nov­el­ty shops and spe­cial­ist exhi­bi­tions, but often goes unher­ald­ed in pop­u­lar con­cep­tions of art.

Despite its util­i­tar­i­an and unabashed­ly com­mer­cial func­tion, the movie poster can just as well be a work of art as any oth­er form. Fail­ing that, movie posters are at least always essen­tial archival arti­facts, snap­shots of the weird col­lec­tive uncon­scious of mass cul­ture: from Saul and Elaine Bass’s min­i­mal­ist poster for West Side Sto­ry (1961), “with its bright orange-red back­ground over the title with a sil­hou­ette of a fire escape with dancers” to more com­plex tableaux, like the bald­ly neo-impe­ri­al­ist Africa Texas Style! (1967), “which fea­tures a real­is­tic image of the pro­tag­o­nist on a horse, las­so­ing a zebra in front of a stam­pede of wilde­beest, ele­phants, and giraffes.”

These two descrip­tions only hint at the range of posters archived at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Texas Har­ry Ran­som Cen­ter—upwards of 10,000 in all, “from when the film indus­try was just begin­ning to com­pete with vaude­ville acts in the 1920s to the rise of the mod­ern megaplex and dri­ve-in the­aters in the 1970s.” So writes Erin Willard in the Ran­som Center’s announce­ment of the dig­i­ti­za­tion of its mas­sive col­lec­tion, expect­ed to reach com­ple­tion in 2019. So far, around 4,000 posters have been pho­tographed and are becom­ing avail­able online, down­load­able in “Large,” “Extra Large,” and “High-Qual­i­ty” res­o­lu­tions.

The bulk of the col­lec­tion comes from the Inter­state The­ater Circuit—a chain that, at one time, “con­sist­ed of almost every movie the­ater in Texas”—and encom­pass­es not only posters but film stills, lob­by cards, and press books from “the 1940s through the 1970s with a par­tic­u­lar strength in the films of the 1950s and 60s, includ­ing musi­cals, epics, west­erns, sword and san­dal, hor­ror, and counter cul­ture films.” Oth­er indi­vid­ual col­lec­tors have made siz­able dona­tions of their posters to the cen­ter, and the result is a tour of the many spec­ta­cles avail­able to the mid-cen­tu­ry Amer­i­can mind: lurid, vio­lent excess­es, maudlin mor­al­iz­ing, bizarre erot­ic fan­tasies, dime-store ado­les­cent adven­tures.…

Some of the films are well-known exam­ples from the peri­od; most of them are not, and there­in lies the thrill of brows­ing this online repos­i­to­ry, dis­cov­er­ing obscure odd­i­ties like the 1956 film Bare­foot Bat­tal­ion, in which “teen-age wolf packs become heroes in a nation’s fight for free­dom!” The num­ber of quirks and kinks on dis­play offer us a pruri­ent view of a decade too often flat­ly char­ac­ter­ized by its pen­chant for grey flan­nel suits. The Mad Men era was a peri­od of insti­tu­tion­al repres­sion and ram­pant sex­u­al harass­ment, not unlike our own time. It was also a lab­o­ra­to­ry for a libidi­nous anar­chy that threat­ened to unleash the pent-up ener­gy and cul­tur­al anx­i­ety of mil­lions of frus­trat­ed teenagers onto the world at large, as would hap­pen in the decades to come.

What we see in the mar­ket­ing of films like Five Brand­ed Women (1960) will vary wide­ly depend­ing on our ori­en­ta­tions and polit­i­cal sen­si­bil­i­ties. Is this cheap exploita­tion or an empow­er­ing pre­cur­sor to Mad Max: Fury Road? Maybe both. For cul­tur­al the­o­rists and film his­to­ri­ans, these pulpy adver­tise­ments offer win­dows into the psy­ches of their audi­ences and the film­mak­ers and pro­duc­tion com­pa­nies who gave them what they sup­pos­ed­ly want­ed. For the ordi­nary film buff, the Ran­som Cen­ter col­lec­tion offers eye can­dy of all sorts, and if you hap­pen to own a high-qual­i­ty print­er, the chance to hang posters on your wall that you prob­a­bly won’t see any­where else. Enter the online col­lec­tion here.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

40,000 Film Posters in a Won­der­ful­ly Eclec­tic Archive: Ital­ian Tarkovsky Posters, Japan­ese Orson Welles, Czech Woody Allen & Much More

The Film Posters of the Russ­ian Avant-Garde

A Look Inside Mar­tin Scorsese’s Vin­tage Movie Poster Col­lec­tion

40 Years of Saul Bass’ Ground­break­ing Title Sequences in One Com­pi­la­tion

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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