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Books Cinema

The Midas touch

Now that we can read on Kindle and some people fear that paper-and-ink books will become extinct, one’s first impulse might be to say hurrah for this mighty production.

23 April 2011

12:00 AM

23 April 2011

12:00 AM

Bill Gold: Poster Works introduction by Christopher Frayling, edited by Tony Nourmand, foreword by Clint Eastwood

Reel Art Press, pp.447, 400

Now that we can read on Kindle and some people fear that paper-and-ink books will become extinct, one’s first impulse might be to say hurrah for this mighty production.

Now that we can read on Kindle and some people fear that paper-and-ink books will become extinct, one’s first impulse might be to say hurrah for this mighty production. But then doubts creep in: isn’t it a bit OTT? It is by far the largest book I have ever reviewed, or indeed handled. A monster of a book, a juggernaut, a Leviathan.

And it has a whopping price to match: 400 smackers. I had the sneaking thought: do the publishers, Reel Art Press, really (or reely) expect to sell the limited edition of 1,500 for a total of £600,000? Or has the subject of the book, the poster artist Bill Gold, subsidised it as an act of mingled eccentricity and egocentricity? I imagine he could well afford to do so, as he has designed posters for many blockbuster Hollywood movies. Cue 1,000 puns on his surname: for once I’ll abstain.

From Gold’s foreword, you might get the impression that he takes himself a little over-seriously:

Who would have known that the first film I would work on would be Yankee Doodle Dandy, then the iconic Casablanca? That launched my remarkable career…

We English are schooled not to give ourselves such pats on the back. But I have learned that it’s OK, if not mandatory, to do so in America. So, all right, Mr Gold, we’ll agree your career was remarkable.


And he has a redeeming sense of humour at his own expense. In 1994, at a ceremony in the Directors’ Guild, he was honoured with a Hollywood Reporter Lifetime Achievement Award. He began his acceptance speech by saying that since most of the successful movies these days seemed to be about dinosaurs and Jews — it was the era of Jurassic Park and Schindler’s List — he felt his moment had definitely come. Gold reached 90 on 3 January this year. He designed film posters from the early 1940s until 2003. When I first riffled through this book, I found, amid the many luxurious illustrations, one of the famous poster for A Clockwork Orange by the English artist Philip Castle, that brilliant master of the air-brush. I was mystified as to what Gold’s role was in that. The answer to that conundrum comes at the end of Christopher Frayling’s introduction:

The initial idea for this book came about when Bill and [his wife] Susan … were having lunch at an Italian restaurant in Bridgeport, and saw a French poster for Camelot on the wall. When they explained to the proprietor that it was Bill who had designed the original poster, the proprietor replied, ‘No, he couldn’t have, Bob Peak designed it.’ Bob Peak was the illustrator. The designer of the poster was in fact Bill Gold, even though the artwork was signed by Peak. This convinced Bob and Susan that the record ought to be set straight.

Gold was born in Brooklyn in 1921. His father was in insurance. As a child he showed an early aptitude for art, making accurate copies of Norman Rockwell’s magazine covers. He went to lots of films in Brooklyn, finding the trailers ‘as much fun as the main features’. He studied art at the Pratt Institute near the old Brooklyn navy yard (motto: ‘Be true to your work and your work will be true to you’). He took his portfolio along to Warner Brothers’ advertising department in New York City. The art director there, Joe Tisman, set him a test: to go away and make designs for three feature films. They are reproduced in the book, and you can see why Tisman hired him.

In 1942 Gold was drafted into the armed forces. After eight weeks of basic training —‘I hated it, so I kept on showing them my artwork’ — he was transferred to the Air Force Photography Unit, and later made films about aircraft maintenance. Discharged in 1946, he rejoined Warner’s and in 1948 succeeded Joe Tisman. He continued as art director until 1959, when Warner Bros shut down its in-house advertising department in New York. Gold moved to Los Angeles and set up Bill Gold Advertising — though he was still doing much work for Warner’s. The book displays the highlights of his career from 1942 until his final campaign in 2003, over 60 years on.

Sir Christopher Frayling, who contributes the introduction, is a cultural Jack of all trades. When, early in his career, he had a post at Exeter University he discovered that Napoleon had written a novel; that led to Frayling’s book Napoleon Wrote Fiction. Do you want to know about vampires, spaghetti westerns, science and the cinema, the finding of King Tut’s tomb, or the influence of that find on art deco? If so, Frayling is your man. He is a television personality, a media-savvy swashbuckler. When his book Strange Landscapes: a Journey through the Middle Ages was published in 1995, an eminent medievalist, reviewing it, drily observed: ‘Medieval historians have been like peasants, quietly tilling their land, when along comes Christopher Frayling — a galloping horseman riding right over them.’

There is no doubt he was the right choice to introduce Gold’s work. He is a cinéaste, steeped in movie lore; and he understands how art and commerce interact in Hollywood. He sees the designers of many movie posters as heirs to the carnival tradition of fairground hucksters who promised more than they could deliver.

But what Gold does is distil to the minimum of graphic elements — ‘not shouting, but coaxing’. Frayling notes how Gold had to work out, with each poster, whether to highlight the story or the stars. Frayling also neatly summarises what was happening in Hollywood in each decade. In the 1960s giant corporations were taking over studios and one third of Hollywood films were shot outside America. In the 1970s psychedelic art, derived from art nouveau, serpentined its way into the posters. The 1980s are the ‘Eastwood decade’: Gold designed 15 of Eastwood’s films in the Eighties, and 13 more in the Nineties and Noughties, with Mystic River (2003) as his last campaign for the star.

Excellent as Frayling’s introduction is, the real value of the book is in the transcribed tape recordings of Gold made by Frayling and others. You pick up some trade secrets: for example, that the ‘C’ of James Cagney on the poster for Yankee Doodle Dandy is exactly the same, in design, as that for Casablanca. Again, the brilliant poster for Elia Kazan’s 1961 film Splendor in the Grass does not show Warren Beatty and Natalie Wood in a clinch: Gold found a still of an anonymous couple in a photographic magazine, ‘a fantastic piece of art’. The book reproduces several of Gold’s designs which were rejected by the studios: ‘I used to get aggravated by this lack of taste — but what can you do?’

Among his triumphs were the poster for The Sting (1973), a pastiche of one of J. C. Leyendecker’s covers for the Saturday Evening Post, and the psychedelic poster for Camelot (1967) with artwork by Bob Peak. Gold did not supply the banner lines for his posters, but he acknowledges how effective some of them were, particularly Dick Lederer’s for Bonnie and Clyde (1967) — ‘They’re young . . . they’re in love . . . and they kill people’.

Some of the directors he never met; they worked by remote control. Others he stayed with, among them Stanley Kubrick, whom he describes as ‘obsessively annoying’, adding: ‘He could drive you nuts.’ Once, Gold was out on his motorcycle. Kubrick, seething with impatience, rang Gold’s wife: ‘You’re saying Bill’s on his motorcycle and he doesn’t have a phone on him?’

By contrast, Gold’s relationship with Clint Eastwood has clearly been one of harmony and close friendship, and the posters capture what Frayling nicely calls ‘Cli
ntessence’. (His other good pun comes when he asks Gold, ‘Are you a designosaur?’ Answer: no, he has always moved with the times.) The lion’s share of Bill’s career has been working with and for Eastwood, who contributes a foreword to this book (‘Some of Bill’s posters are as classic as the movies themselves.’). No one writing Eastwood’s biography in future could afford to ignore this book — though lifting it down from a library shelf could be a problem for anyone who isn’t a bodybuilder.

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