Shortly after the dawn of what is now referred to as “Hollywood’s Golden Age” in the late 1920s, large motion picture studios like MGM, Paramount, and Fox – as a part of their marketing efforts – produced elaborate “exhibitors books.” These books were sent to theater owners all over the country in an effort to promote films from a studio’s list of upcoming and in-production films. The books are beautifully made and feature imaginative, colorful art from well-known illustrators.
The Margaret Herrick Library’s periodical collection maintains a large number of these books from the heyday of Fox, Paramount, and Columbia studios, and has just added a selection of them to the Margaret Herrick Library Digital Collections. These books make for fascinating browsing for film historians and laypeople alike as they offer a glimpse of the inner workings of the studio system.
One of the hallmarks of that system was a roster of stars. Before the advent of the “star system” in the 1950s (which is still in place today), actors and actresses had strict binding contracts with one particular studio and would appear in a number of that studio’s films. For example, Columbia in the Thirties had Jimmy Stewart, Jean Arthur, and Rita Hayworth, while Paramount boasted Cary Grant and Marlene Dietrich.
The exhibitors books highlight an interesting contradiction at work; while the film stars were subject to binding contracts which only allowed them to work for their own studio, illustrators (some, but not all) were free to move between studios, picking up work wherever it was available. The studios chose well-known illustrators for their exhibitors books, such as Alvan Cordell “Hap” Hadley and Ralph Iligan, who enjoyed greater privileges than artists who worked in the studio’s art department. For example, they were allowed to sign their work and often worked in other industries besides film.
Fred Kulz, who created much of the ghoulish artwork for Universal’s famous monster movies (including Frankenstein and The Mummy), was Universal’s in-house artist in the 1930s. He must have had special standing at Universal as most of his work bears his signature. An advertisement for Universal’s Frankenstein also provides evidence of a different version of the film than was eventually produced. In fact, this is often the case with exhibitors books and is a large part of why they’re so interesting. Kulz’s ad names Bela Lugosi as the monster – a role eventually played by Boris Karloff.