Beautiful Pre-Code Movie Posters Unconvered in a Pennsylvania Attic


As you may have noticed, we love old movie posters. There’s something refreshing about the warmth and artistry of vintage film art, particularly when compared to the focus-grouped, Photoshopped, floating-heads nightmares that pass for movie posters today, and that’s why this item from MUBI about “the Berwick discovery” caught our eye. (Yes, it already has a cool-sounding nickname, and it deserves one.)

Here’s the story: 30 or so vintage posters from the “Pre-Code” era (that strangely lenient period of early talking pictures released before the active enforcement of the Motion Picture Code, which stringently censored implications of sexuality, violence, and abject morality) were discovered last fall in an attic in Berwick, Pennsylvania. The posters had been displayed in a local theatre; they had been glued on top of each other as new posters (and films) arrived at the venue, and then the whole stack was — get this—stuffed into the walls of the attic as insulation. And there they remained, until the contents of the house were sold in an estate sale.

According to MUBI, “They had survived in such good condition for a number of reasons. First of all, a movie theater in the early 1930s would have used a water-soluble wallpaper paste to put up the posters, so it was possible, even eight decades later, to steam them apart with no damage to the paper. And Smith [Grey Smith, Director of Heritage Vintage Movie Poster Auctions] thinks that the cool climate of Pennsylvania may have helped, as well as the temperature in the attic itself. According to Smith, the colors on the posters are ‘astoundingly bright.'”

The posters are being auctioned off individually by Heritage Vintage Movie Poster Auctions, and the online bidding starts today. Let’s take a look at a few of the choice items — and feel free to head over and place a bid, if you’ve got a few thousand bucks to burn.

The 1931 Bela Lugosi-fronted Dracula is probably the best-known movie among the Berwick items; it is also one of the rarest posters in the bunch. The combination of those factos has made it the big ticket item thus far; the current bid is a whopping $80,000. It’ll go up; according to the listing, “In March 2009, Heritage sold another copy of this style, from the collection of Nicolas Cage, which realized more than $310,000. At the time, it was noted that the copy offered was one of only three known. The discovery of the poster in this auction brings that grand total to four known to exist in the entire world.”

Many of the posters in the Berwick bunch are both “A” and “B” designs — the key ad art, and a secondary one as well, the pair often displayed side-by-side. This “B” poster for the James Cagney gangster classic had been unseen for decades, and is one of the most impressive items of the Berwick discovery. The bidding on this one is currently at $16,000.

This is the more familiar “A” design for the Cagney picture, but intact original posters are nearly as rare as the “B” design; according to the listing, “In more than eight decades, it is the only copy ever to surface, despite the diligent efforts of collectors across the globe searching for paper on this landmark film.” And it’s yours for (as of this writing) only $12,500.

This “B” poster for the another classic gangster movie features co-stars Douglas Fairbanks Jr. and Glenda Farrell rather than star Edward G. Robinson. “Until now, collectors of vintage gangster material had to be satisfied with the occasional lobby or one of less than a handful of window cards for this film. Larger paper was always elusive to the point of being non-existent,” according to the listing; this is one of only two known copies. The bidding on this one is sitting at ten grand.

This Western from RKO won Best Picture at the fourth Academy Awards ceremony in 1931; it was also nominated for Best Actor, Best Actress, and Best Director. To the listing: “It should come as no surprise, then, that original release paper from this popular film has always been in demand by collectors. Sadly, little, if any, has been available until this momentous discovery. In more than a decade of vintage poster auctions, this is the very first time that Heritage has offered this incredible one sheet.” Current bid: $6K.

Howard Hughes produced this, the first film version of Hecht and MacArthur’s great play, which was later remade (with a sex change for star reporter Hildy Johnson) as one of our favorite movies, His Girl Friday. “This very rare, highly desirable, and inarguably attention-grabbing one sheet is rich in color and fine detail and includes striking portraits of the main cast members.”

This poster, for a lesser-known early John Ford effort at Fox, is extremely rare: “Offered by Heritage for the very first time, we are unaware of another copy of this poster.” As of this writing, it’s available at the bargain price of 300 clams.

We haven’t seen this 1931 melodrama, which co-star King Kong’s best girl Fay Wray, but it’s fun to look at each of the faces on the left and imagine which of the lawyer’s secrets they know.

Lew Ayres is best remembered today for his leading role in All Quiet on the Western Front. He co-starred with Genevieve Tobin in this newspaper melodrama, and we love the smoky elegance of this poster (and, of course, the slammer after the title). “Both Tobin and Ayres look wonderful in this smoldering stone litho one sheet, offered for the first time in a Heritage auction.”

Barbara Stanwyck is one of our favorite Pre-Code heroines (if you haven’t seen Baby Face, take care of that), so we’d love to get our hands on this one; “In addition to its inherent beauty, it is also notable as one of only two copies known to exist in the entire world.”

We haven’t cut off the borders on this one; according to the auction listing, “the stunning stone litho one sheet offered here, which features portraits of Cooper and Sidney, is rendered in a full-bleed style that Paramount experimented with in the very early 1930s.”

This very rare item is for the first, far sleazier version of the Dashiell Hammett novel; the Bogart film from 1941 was actually the third film adaptation of the book. According to Heritage “Almost no paper has survived from this film. In years past, Heritage has offered a lobby card, a title card – which sold for $8,365 and $9,560, respectively – and a few stills, but little else has ever surfaced, making this a title eagerly sought by hungry collectors. This is the only copy of this highly desirable one sheet known to exist in the world.” Right now, this one’ll set you back $5,500.

Billie Dove was a Ziegfeld girl who became a popular silent movie star; she also had a three-year romance with Howard Hughes that ended with a broken engagement. She was one of the many stars who fell out of favor when the talkies came in; this 1931 Warner Brothers films was her unsuccessful attempt at a comeback picture.

We’ll wind this gallery down with a few more of the A/B designs featured in the auction, with both posters side by side for comparison.