‘A NIGHT OF BLAZING SUSPENSE’ was how the posters billed one of my all-time favourite movies, the 1974 archetypal disaster movie, Towering Inferno.
My friend Irascible Ian was writing about this film the other day and commenting on the rivalry between Steve McQueen and Paul Newman which, reputedly, was eventually resolved when Newman’s lines were pared back to a word-count identical to McQueen's lines and which resulted in a piece of diplomatic poster design which gave Steve first-place credit while, at the same time, nudging Paul’s second-place billing a tad higher than Steve's!
Similarly when the film publicists came up with their original poster design for the 1963 mega-dollar blockbuster, Cleopatra, it featured only Elizabeth Taylor (she of the title) and Richard Burton (Mark Anthony) who were then reigning Queen and King of Hollywoodland.
Rex Harrison, however, who had the film's third lead as Julius Caesar insisted on getting in on the picture and so his likeness was rather uncomfortably added in, even though he ended up looking as if he were playing the Roman equivalent of gooseberry.
The first time I was aware of the importance of movie-poster billings was when as a young collector of Disneyana, I purchased an Exhibitor’s Campaign Book for the 1967 film The Jungle Book.
These elaborate publications were intended to help the cinema manager promote the movies on release with press-stories, publicity stunts (‘Run a fancy dress competitions at your local zoo…’) and lots of small-print stuff on posters and press ads. Scouring the latter, I discovered that specific type sizes were rigorously insisted upon (in % terms of the name ‘Walt Disney’ and the film title) and, in relation to the use of the name of the voice talents.
So, for example, George Sanders' name could only be featured as playing Shere Khan if Phil Harris (Baloo), Sebastian Cabot (Bagheera) and Louis Prima (King Louie) - all of whom preceded his name - were also mentioned.
Sometimes movie poster billings have been engineered so as to promote a film where the lead performer was not (yet) a star as with David Lean’s 1962 epic, Lawrence of Arabia where the names that were used to attract the punters were co-stars ALEC GUINNESS, ANTHONY QUINN, JACK HAWKINS, JOSÉ FERRER and (in slightly smaller type) ANTHONY QUAYLE, CLAUDE RAINS and ARTHUR KENNEDY before the words ‘Introducing PETER O’TOOLE as Lawrence and OMAR SHARIF as Ali’.
Similarly Peter Cushing got his own line and Alec Guinness was given an ‘and’ on the posters for Star Wars, being, at the time, the only bankable names on the bill. Additionally, Guinness famously picked up a highly profitable profit-share deal, which he subsequently had the bad taste to be vaguely rude about!
I’ve always intrigued by the use of ‘ands’ or ‘withs’ - sometimes accompanied by a nice little box to show off the name of a star who is turning in a cameo performance either because they have fallen on hard times or because they happen to be sleeping with the director.
It is said, for example, that Sondra Locke got what was arguably a disproportionately high billing (in relation to prominence of her role) on The Outlaw Josey Wales on account of being the current girl friend of the film’s star, Clint Eastwood.
Today, the solution to complex questions of who’s top dog (or bitch) is often bizarrely resolved by lining up names and faces in an eccentric - but perhaps contractually beneficial - order.
So, posters for Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl showed the name ‘Johnny Depp’ over the face of Keira Knightley, ‘Geoffrey Rush’ over Orlando Bloom, Mr B over Mr D and Keira’s name over a mug-shot of Geoffrey Rush who was conveniently holding a skull to make the four faces up to five and give Johnny centre spot! Now that is tortuous!
There are numerous other examples and one suspects that, in the end, the detail probably matters more to those named than to the average cinemagoer.
After all, let’s not forget Spencer Tracy’s reply when asked why he was always billed above Katherine Hepburn in their films, when the etiquette of ‘ladies first’ was surely called for…
“Look,” he replied, “this is a movie, not a lifeboat!”