At LACMA, one man's obsession with 'The Art of the Movie Poster'

At LACMA, one man's obsession with 'The Art of the Movie Poster'
Detail of the poster for the 1935 film "Bordertown" starring Bette Davis, part of "The Art of the Movie Poster: Highlights From the Mike Kaplan Collection” at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. (Mike Kaplan Collection)

One of Mike Kaplan’s missions in life is to see movie posters accepted as a legitimate art form.

Although museums have shown interest in exhibiting posters from the 1920s to ’50s golden age of cinema, curators have told the film producer (“The Whales of August”) that he was fighting an uphill battle.

“It’s like how photography was 40 years ago, before that was accepted as something that’s worthy of being considered art,” said Kaplan, who has some 3,000 posters in his collection. “Comic book art has been accepted on a wider level than movie posters.”

That’s changing as more major auctions sell posters and as film critics such as the Los Angeles Times’ Kenneth Turan write about their importance. Now Kaplan’s rare, often one-of-a-kind posters are having their first major museum show.

The Los Angeles County Museum of Art is presenting “The Art of the Movie Poster: Highlights From the Mike Kaplan Collection” at the entrance to the Ahmanson Building.

"A Night at the Opera" movie poster
The poster for the 1935 film "A Night at the Opera," part of "The Art of the Movie Poster" at LACMA. Mike Kaplan Collection
"Orphans of the Storm" movie poster
A poster from the 1921 film "Orphans of the Storm," part of "The Art of the Movie Poster"at LACMA. Mike Kaplan Collection
"Bordertown" movie poster
The full poster artwork for "Bordertown." Mike Kaplan Collection

The LACMA installation is divided into parts.

On exhibit through April 29 are pieces including the only known posters for D.W. Griffith’s 1921 “Orphans of the Storm,” John Ford’s 1939 “Stagecoach” and Archie Mayo’s 1935 “Bordertown.”

A second exhibition featuring more international posters opens May 12 and concludes July 1.

One of the most stunning designs currently on view is the French poster for “Casablanca,” which Kaplan believes is the best one for the 1942 movie.

“It’s because the artist, Pierre Pigeot, created an image that’s built around Ingrid Bergman,” Kaplan said. “She is kind of the catalyst of the movie. So, the poster has a very big profile image of her … with the scene from Rick’s Café showing Humphrey Bogart sitting with Sydney Greenstreet over a chessboard, which to me is symbolic of all the different moves being made during ‘Casablanca.’”

"Casablanca" movie poster
The French poster for "Casablanca." Mike Kaplan Collection
"Red-Headed Woman" movie poster
One of collector Mike Kaplan's favorites is the poster for the 1932 film "Red Headed Woman." Mike Kaplan Collection
"The Dawn Patrol" movie poster
The poster for the 1938 film "The Dawn Patrol." Mike Kaplan Collection

Kaplan described the poster from the 1932 Jean Harlow comedy “Red-Headed Woman” as a knockout because “it’s different shades of red with her flesh tones. Then there’s just a slight curvature where she’s suggesting her shoulder, which her face is leaning against. It’s just a curving line, but the line just suggests sensuality and her entire body, practically. It’s a stunning piece.”

So is the poster of the 1938 Errol Flynn classic “The Dawn Patrol.” The design, he said, makes you feel as though you’re in a cockpit of a plane during a World War I dogfight.

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