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Gods & Monsters: 1950s Universal Poster Art: An Appreciation

Back when I was a kid first discovering my intense love for all manner of celluloid horror and fantasy, one of the best Christmas presents that I received from one of my older brothers was a thin but large-format paperback book simply titled Science-Fiction and Horror Movie Posters in Full Color. Edited by Alan Adler and published by Dover Publication in 1977, the 48-page book contained exactly what its name implied: full-page color reproductions of 46 genre films, ranging from classic fare like King Kong (1933) and Mighty Joe Young (1949) to (then) more modern films such as The Abominable Dr. Phibes (1971) and Silent Running (1972). While I had seen many black and white poster reproductions within the pages of magazines like Famous Monsters of Filmland, and the odd color one in the few books on the subject which I had managed to acquire by that point, this was probably the first time that I was really seduced and stunned by movie poster art, and started to develop a much deeper appreciation of the level of creativity and artwork put into them. Glossy and reproduced in high-quality, the images seemed to leap off the page and come alive, and I subsequently scrambled and saved my pocket money so I could buy a second copy of the book, in order to cut out my favorite posters to decorate the walls in the backyard bungalow that was my bedroom (and quickly becoming my own little monster mini-museum).

Though I loved pretty much all of the posters contained within the pages of Adler’s book, I seemed especially drawn to those which represented the monster movies released by Universal Studios throughout the 1950s, and it was the stunning artwork on these posters, as well as the dramatic fonts and overall design and outlay, that helped build my appreciation of Universal horror from this period. At the time, I had still not had the chance to actually see many of these films (this was the pre-home video days of the late-seventies, when horror hounds had to rely on the mercy of late-night TV programmers, or edited 8mm home movie highlight reels, to feed our appetites), so being entranced and seduced by the poster art gave me a chance to at least partly feel connected to the movie in question.

Universal Studios had an incredibly prolific and fertile period during the 1950s, especially during the middle years of that decade, releasing a string of horror and sci-fi films that have gone on to become undeniable classics, not just of their respective genres but of fifties cinema in general. The Universal logo gave a genre movie a certain level of prestige, and it was the poster art which had a strong hand in luring people out of their homes and into the local cinema to see them (remember, this was still an era when towns had their independent movie houses and the big chains and multi-plexes were yet to establish their unfortunate reign).

Flicking through my copy of Science-Fiction and Horror Movie Posters in Full Color forty years (!) later, I am still absorbed by the Universal posters and their artwork and dynamics. There’s Revenge of the Creature (1955), represented by the US half-sheet (landscape format) Style A poster, which features a stunning painting depicting the sort of exciting action set-piece that the Universal promotions team would utilize quite often. The Creature looms large in the foreground, broken chains dangling from the shackles around his wrists while a beautiful woman, dressed of course in little more than a nightgown with slits in all the right places, lays passed-out in one of the Gill-Man’s powerful arms. In the background, terrified citizens scream and run away down the Main Street of a large town, as overturned cars dot the landscape. The sky behind them is boldly streaked with dark reds, blues and golds, giving the poster an even bigger impact by suggesting an atomic blast has gone off – this was the age of the atom, after all – and its implied terror was often exploited whenever possible. “TERROR IS LOOSE IN THE CITY!” screams a banner across the top of the poster, while below the title is a text box promising “ALL NEW THRILLS! SHOCK! SUSPENSE!”

A second half-sheet for REVENGE OF THE CREATURE (Style B) was also issued and features a similar lay-out but rendered much less effectively. A different painting of citizens screaming and fleeing is used in the background, while the foreground is occupied by a cut-out, colorized movie still of the Creature carrying the film’s female star Lori Nelson in his arm. An insert colorized photo of male star John Agar is also added next to the title, which is written in a much less dynamic font that the other half-sheet, while the sky here is just a pale blue and not the explosive kaleidoscope of the Style A poster (the design of which was also used as the title card for the original set of US lobby cards).

A similar visual scenario is depicted on the US one-sheet for another Jack Arnold-directed Universal classic from 1955 (and another featured in Adler’s book), Tarantula!. Another beautifully-rendered painting features stars John Agar and Mara Corday in the foreground, holding hands and mouths agape in horror as they flee the giant spider that occupies the majority of the poster’s space, its size given scale by the screaming woman (once again dressed only in a provocative nightie) that is clenched within the spider’s enormous, hungry fangs. The background of the image is once again filled with screaming citizens running for their lives down Main Street, as buildings around them crumble and power lines collapse. Though in the film itself the action takes place mostly in the desert and the tarantula is killed long before it ever gets anywhere near Main Street, the bright orange and burnt umber used to depict the sky is actually quite effective in suggesting the blinding sun and barren heat of the movie’s Arizona setting.

The Style A half-sheet for Revenge of the Creature and the one-sheet poster art for Tarantula! were painted by Reynold Brown (1917 – 1991), an American artist who after working as an aviation technical artist during World War II turned to Hollywood and ended up painting some of the most memorable movie posters of the time, including the original Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954), I Was a Teenage Werewolf (1957), Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1958), Ben-Hur (1959) and The Time Machine (1960). No doubt his most famous and recognized piece of work, however, is his iconic poster for Attack of the 50 ft. Woman (1958), which features a buxom, annoyed Alison Hayes as she straddles a busy freeway bridge, picking-up cars and throwing them back down in anger. It is an image that has not only been seen on countless posters, calendars, book covers and t-shirts, but it has also been appropriated as symbol of feminism and Girl Power.

Two more pieces of Reynold Brown’s art for Universal Studios that were featured in Alan Adler’s book – and which help make up the Science-Fiction portion of its title – were This Island Earth (1955) and The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957). Along with MGM’s Forbidden Planet (1956), This Island Earth was a space adventure that could be viewed as the Star Wars (1977) of the 1950s, and the film’s US one-sheet does its best to hype up its use of Technicolor (most of Universal’s genre films of the decade were in beautifully stark black & white), as well as the fact that the film was “2½ YEARS IN THE MAKING!” The poster itself pops with lots of reds and gold, against a predominantly black background that reflects the film’s outer space setting. Of course, a number of the bulbous-brained Metaluna Mutants that are seen in the film are depicted on the poster (one of them accosting star Faith Domergue), no doubt in order to let the monster lovers know that there was still something in this movie for them.

Jack Arnold’s The Incredible Shrinking Man was less of a pure sci-fi film and more a melding of the sci-fi and horror genres. The concept of a man who starts irreversibly shrinking after sailing through a mysterious mist while out on his boat is something straight out of a vintage sci-fi pulp magazine. The moments when he encounters a household tabby cat and a basement spider, both of whom have become giant menacing monsters to him, are the stuff of pure horror that gave viewers the chills because they were fears they could relate to, and perhaps at some point had nightmares about. So it’s not surprising that Reynold Brown’s art used on the US half-sheet focused on one of these moments. The poster is dominated by the face and claws of a ferocious ginger cat, menacing over the diminutive figure of star Grant Williams, who is ready to defend himself with a sewing needle. The section of wood table separating the two is strewn with scissors, thread and a book of matches, cleverly revealing what the title character will use for survival as he decreases in size. The word “Shrinking” in the title is spelled out in ever-smaller letters, while the tagline “A FASCINATING ADVENTURE INTO THE UNKNOWN!” simply but effectively proclaims its more fantastical elements. Strangely, when the same piece of art was used on the US one-sheet, a piece of wire grilling was placed in front of the cat, which while artistically still terrific, does somewhat lessen the tension and immediate threat of the scene.

I should mention the one Universal movie featured in Adler’s book that I have still not seen after all these years. Filmed in Eastmancolor and shot on location on the Amazon River, Curcu, Beast of the Amazon (1956) was by all reports more of a jungle adventure movie than a monster flick, where the titular creature turns out to be just a man in a monster suit trying to drive people away from a plantation (a ploy later used in just about every episode of Scooby Doo). Because it didn’t really succeed as either a monster or an adventure film, Curcu, Beast of the Amazon sill remains fairly hard to see, and has been issued on DVD only by some grey-market “public domain” companies, and usually in pretty low quality. While the film itself may be forgettable, the one-sheet US poster art by Brown definitely is not. The lush tropical greens that fill much of the image really makes the jungle theme come alive, and the native tribes fighting with spears while their village burns behind them gives an effective sense of conflict and drama. The centerpiece of the poster, however, is the menacing eye and sharp claw of Curucu, who looks like he is poised behind the thick of the jungle, eyeing his prey and ready to strike!

Looking back through the book today, there are a couple of personal Universal favorites from that era that are missing from its pages. Of course, you can understand them needing to limit the Creature trilogy to just one entry, but the omissions of The Deadly Mantis (1957) and Monster on the Campus (1958) were disappointing. The Deadly Mantis bore the classic tagline of “THIS WAS THE DAY THAT ENGULFED THE WORLD IN TERROR!”, while Reynold Brown gave the Monster on the Campus one-sheet the feel of a movie that was more in line with AIP classics like I Was a Teenage Werewolf than a traditional Universal horror film (Monster on the Campus did come later in the fifties monster cycle, so maybe Universal were just trying to keep up with the teenage times).

Of course, as is the standard with most films, there were all sorts of poster variations made for all of the movies discussed here. Foreign posters often used completely different art and designs, sometimes improving on the US concept, many times not, and occasionally giving a unique interpretation of the film it is advertising. The German poster for Revenge of the Creature, for example, starkly depicts just a giant clawed Gill-Man hand about to reach down and seemingly scoop-up dozens of fleeing citizens, while the Italian poster for the same film utilizes a gorgeous piece of oil art featuring the Creature menacing a boat that is travelling down the Amazon River. The art used on the Italian poster for The Incredible Shrinking Man is equally stunning, though it interestingly gives the impression that the shrinking depicted in the film is the result of a science experiment rather than a freak accident.

In Australia, a lot of these were advertised with thin daybill posters that measured 13 x 30 inches. Unfortunately the artwork and printing quality used on Australian daybills from this period were generally pretty poor. Not long after I was given Alan Adler’s book, I did eagerly buy a few vintage daybills for Universal films like The Deadly Mantis, The Creature Walks Among Us (1956) and Monster on the Campus, which I found amongst the treasures of Space Age Books in Melbourne. But even though I was thrilled to own these pieces of genuine movie memorabilia, I was still always well aware at how much the local posters lacked when compared to the beautiful quality and rich depth of those featured in Adler’s book.

Today of course, just about every movie poster ever created is available in hi-res with just a click of the Google search engine. This is a wonderful thing, of course, but for me it still doesn’t replace the thrill of seeing them beautifully reproduced in a book, where you can smell the glossy paper and run your fingers across the image, being drawn into the terrifying but irresistible worlds of giant spiders, prehistoric monsters and creatures from the deep, created and depicted so beautifully and seductively by artists like Reynold Brown sixty years ago.

Copies of Science-Fiction and Horror Movie Posters in Full Color by Alan Adler turn up for sale on sites like eBay and Amazon, if you can find a nice copy cheap enough it is a more than worthy addition to any genre fan’s reference/art library. For more information on Reynold Brown, a copy of the US magazine Illustration Volume 2, Number 7 (July 2003) is highly recommended. It contains a nice fifteen-page cover feature on Brown and his work not just on film posters but pulp magazines and paperbacks also.

About John Harrison

John Harrison is a freelance writer and film historian based in Melbourne, Australia. His previous books include Blood on the Windscreen (an examination of the gory driver education films of the 1950s – 70s) and Hip Pocket Sleaze: The Lurid World of Vintage Adult Paperbacks. Apart from contributing regularly for publications like Weng’s Chop and Monster!, Harrison is currently working on two books, Wildcat! The Films of Marjoe Gortner and Rollin’ with the Punches, the filmography of Hollywood stuntwoman and actress Marneen Fields (whom he married in Las Vegas in 2016).

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