Posted by Richard Harland Smith on May 4, 2012
My favorite moment in Charlie Kaufman’s ADAPTATION (2002) was when Nicolas Cage’s annoying alter ego, a dim-witted rival screenwriter, asks him “What’s your genre? Mine’s Thriller.” It tickled me to think of the world so divided, with each of us living, breathing, eating, and sleeping just one genre apiece. (Mine’s Horror.) Humanity is so diverse and fascinating that it’s fun to break it up into more easily digestible chunks, like Republican vs. Democrat, Birther vs. Hoper, Protestant vs. Catholic, Pro-Life vs. Pro-Choice, breath mint vs. candy mint. I’ve got another one for you, although there are more than two sides to this equation: what’s your logo? I mean, your Hollywood studio logo? I have a feeling that people of a certain age have a preferred studio logo, one that distances itself from the pack. Mine’s RKO… but let’s not get ahead of ourselves.
To keep the discussion reasonable, I’m going to limit its parameters to the major Hollywood studios, the Big Five (Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, Warner Brothers, 20th Century Fox, Paramount Pictures, RKO Radio Pictures) plus Universal and Columbia. For years, decades even, my favorite studio logo was 20th Century Fox (top). The attraction was (and remains, though my ardor has cooled somewhat) attached to my fascination with rooftops in movies (THE MURDERS IN THE RUE MORGUE, THEY MADE ME A FUGITIVE, VERTIGO, WEST SIDE STORY, MARY POPPINS, DRACULA HAS RISEN FROM THE GRAVE, THE STUNT MAN); rooftops always seem to represent another world, one that sits close at hand to the one we live in every day but apart somehow, as if the rules don’t quite apply but the risks are ten times greater. In THE CANNONBALL RUN (1981), cars raced around the top of the Art Deco structure while snow fell on it at the beginning of EDWARD SCISSORHANDS (1990). I love the Top o’the World, Ma! braggadocio of the Fox logo (though, of course, that line comes from a Warner Brothers picture), its splendor, its majesty. And yet, if you’re talking purple mountains’ majesty…
… I guess we’re talking about the Paramount logo. And yet I’ve never warmed to this iconic image, the oldest existing Hollywood studio logo. It literally lives me cold, in a figurative sense. Mind you, films produced by this wonderful studio have made great use of the image (no one seems able to agree what mountain peak it was patterned on by William Wadsworth Hodkinson, who sketched a rough draft on a napkin during a meeting with Paramount co-founder Adolph Zukor), among them Steven Spielberg’s RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK (1981), which match-cut the peak to the film’s first scene, via dissolve. But still… feh. These things are highly subjective. I’m tempted to say the logo is just too impersonal for me, pulling back from the rooftop of the Fox logo to an indeterminate space in the air… and yet… and yet…
… I love the Universal logo, where the POV is in space! Go figure! It’s not just my love for the Universal horror movies of the 1930s and 40s that prompts my fondness for this studio logo, it’s the simplicity of it. And the colors! But whether rendered in black-and-white or color the Universal logo remains in my top three, right up there with 20th Century Fox. But it isn’t quite the top, no, not by a long shot.
For novelty, it’s hard to top the MGM logo but I’ve never been all that fond of Leo the Lion. Louis B. Mayer stole much of what we recognize as the Metro logo, from its apex predator mascot to the Latin phrase “Ars Gratis Artis” (“Art for art’s sake.”), from Samuel Goldwyn, whose studio he acquired in the merger that led to the formation of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. Who can explain why some things thrill you and others do not? (Rhetorical question.) Choice variations on the MGM opening logo include Roman Polanski’s THE FEARLESS VAMPIRE KILLERS (1967), in which Leo morphs into a green-faced, bald-headed, and demonstrably fanged bloodsucker, and STRANGE BREW (1983), where Canadian hosers Rick Moranis and Dave Thomas try to get Leo to roar by cranking his tail like a hurdygurdy (“Ooh jeez, he’s gettin’ mad, eh?”).
The Warners’ shield has curb appeal and kind of a hood ornament masculinity but once you’ve seen it there’s nowhere else to go, there’s no there there. It’s a perfectly utilitarian logo, and appropriate I guess for all those gangster movies the studio cranked out during the Great Depression and the hardboiled crime films that followed (such as WHITE HEAT, referenced above). For one of the Harry Potter movies, a flock of owls flew out from behind the shield. So… there’s that.
Being a former New Yorker, I’ve always loved the Lady Liberty-like Columbia logo but they keep changing the model. The figure represents Columbia, a personalization of these United States, and early on she wore a crown. In 1936, the logo underwent a make-over and the model reminds me a bit of Fay Wray (who was, however, contracted to RKO) though I have read it was patterned after actress Evelyn Venable, wife of cinematographer Hal Mohr. Given a digital rehaul in 1992, Columbia was modeled after a Louisiana housewife, who always seemed, I don’t know, a little too suburban for my taste. Occasional Columbia releases have had fun with the logo, frightening her off her pedestal with THE MOUSE THAT ROARED (1965) and arming her with six-shooters in CAT BALLOU (1965).
And here we are, with my reigning favorite Hollywood studio logo, from RKO Radio Pictures. I think it’s the association with KING KONG (1933) that seals the deal, though all those great Val Lewton horror films of the 1940s (CAT PEOPLE, CURSE OF THE CAT PEOPLE, I WALKED WITH A ZOMBIE, THE SEVENTH VICTIM) don’t hurt its cause. I saw KING KONG for the first time in 1980, shortly before I graduated from high school, and while in college I ordered a T-shirt bearing the RKO logo from the back pages of American Film magazine. I felt proud to wear the iconic radio tower but not so proud that I didn’t wind up giving the shirt to a girl, who wore it until it was in tatters, and who promised she would keep it always in a preservation glass case. I guess my love for the RKO logo (which didn’t change much over the years) is the combination of sophistication (the animation of the radiating radio signals) and simplicity.
The RKO logo was treated to a loving homage in THE ROCKY HORROR PICTURE SHOW (1975), even though it was a 20th Century Fox release.
So there you have it. My logo is RKO. What’s yours?
Further reading: Everything You Wanted to Know About American Film Company Logos but Were Afraid to Ask by Rick Mitchell.
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