The following is a guest post by Brian Taves, senior cataloging specialist in the Library’s Motion Picture, Broadcasting and Recorded Sound Division.
A new gift to the Library’s Motion Picture, Broadcasting and Recorded Sound Division reminds us that movies are more than just the image on the screen and the sounds that accompany them. They are also the visit to the theater, and the advertising heralding the movie and the photos of scenes and stars.
Many of these are just as common today as they were early in the 20th century; movie posters outside of theaters remain a way to lure possible patrons into a show. Also enduring are movie stills, showing scenes from the movie or its stars, or sometimes shots of the production, most typically used in press notices accompanying reviews. Other types of advertising art have nearly vanished, however, and among the most artistic of these were lobby cards.
Lobby cards were unique for combining the graphics created to accompany a movie with still images. The advertising art was usually presented stylistically around the borders, highlighting an inset photo. While stills themselves usually measured 8×10 and were primarily in black-and-white through the 1970s, lobby cards were most often in color, measured 11×14 inches and typically issued in sets of eight.
This standard form allowed many variables. Usually the inset scenes showed a highlight of the movie. Sometimes, however, they emphasized portraits of stars, especially when posed to highlight the on-screen love interest. The graphics created to promote the movie could be manipulated in many different ways, and sometimes each of the cards would have unique stylization in addition to the separate scene or star image.
The fact that lobby cards were in color, at a time when most of the movies (and stills from them) were in black-and-white, established the lobby card as a distinct medium for promotion. With both the drawn poster and the photograph blended into a single work, lobby cards often achieved a unique potential. The fact that, like the stills, lobby cards were small enough to be held gave lobby cards a more intimate relationship as relics of the movie.
From 1910 through the 1980s, lobby cards were distributed to theaters along with posters, stills and advertising. Usually theater owners were instructed to return them to movie distributors, for use in subsequent screenings, or to destroy them. Thus, most lobby cards, like posters, did not long survive their original printing.
Lobby cards did have one advantage, however. Because of their size, they were printed on card stock rather than flimsy paper. Perhaps this, and their very colorful nature, allowed some to survive and to become a form of movie collectible.
In the 1950s, the Motion Picture, Broadcasting and Recorded Sound Division began to collect lobby cards and posters and to augment its collection of stills and pressbooks (the manuals given to theater owners upon booking a film with information on promotion) through an arrangement with National Screen Service. As supplier of such advertising to many studios, National Screen Service’s warehouse had become packed with items likely never to be used again for movies that had been sold to television. For three decades, until National Screen Service’s demise, the Library gained a treasure trove, documenting presentations about movies to theatergoers.
Many donations have also helped to expand the division’s lobby-card holdings. Recently, noted collector Dwight Cleveland, who had previously given an extraordinary collection of glass slides used to promote upcoming movies from about 1910 to the 1950s, has given the Library several hundred lobby cards from 1910 through the 1930s. Spanning many genres and stars, the collection serves to vividly illustrate the variety and artistic potential of lobby cards as a means of promotion.