The Movie Posters of Joseph A. Maturo

maturoopenerBig, bright, and bold, movie posters were the dominant way to promote movies during the Golden Age of Hollywood. As important as TV trailers for films today, movie posters were designed to interpret the film in a single image, capture the star images of the principle leads, and lure movie-lovers to the theaters.

Though 80 percent of films of the period were released in black and white, the majority of posters were produced in vivid color. With color photography not feasible for use in large formats, the publicity departments of major studios relied on illustrators to create dazzling color posters for their new releases. Of the hundreds of illustrators employed by the studios during this period, most remain anonymous. Recently, I was introduced to one of these illustrators when my colleague at Ringling College, Allen Novak, lectured on poster illustrator Joseph A. Maturo for my illustration class. Not only was it exciting to see the original paintings associated with movie posters I had seen in histories and biographies, but the experience expanded my knowledge about promotion and publicity during the Golden Age.

MATURO PAINTED PORTRAITS OF MOVIE STARS LIKE DOLORES DEL RIO IN THE HOPES OF LANDING A COVER FOR A FANZINE, BUT IT NEVER HAPPENED.

MATURO PAINTED PORTRAITS OF STARS LIKE DOLORES DEL RIO, HOPING TO LAND A COVER FOR A FANZINE, BUT IT NEVER HAPPENED.

Born in 1876 in Caserta, Italy, Joseph A. Maturo studied at the Naples Academy of Fine Art before immigrating to America in 1895. Joseph’s career path as an illustrator was anything but direct. As a matter of fact, he had planned to become an opera singer in America, but by 1903 that goal had disappeared, and he accepted a job as a teacher. His first long-term job related to art was as a copier for a catalogue art service called Douhitt Galleries, which offered low-cost made-to-order reproductions. With the development of color lithography in the late 1800s, many small businesses emerged to provide inexpensive art for the masses, including lithographers and publishers. These companies often used illustrators in one capacity or another. For Douhitt, Maturo painted copies of artworks that customers had ordered from the catalogue. Some were based on religious and mythological subjects of the old masters, while others were original scenes by Maturo, usually of bible stories. The canvases were not stretched onto wooden frames like most paintings; instead they were dubbed painted tapestries and intended to be hung from rods. At the time, Joseph used a studio located in the Lincoln Arcade at 1947 Broadway, near where Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts stands today. The building housed a sort-of artists’ colony inhabited by actors, singers, and fine artists.

Later, after a stint as a designer of beaded dresses for flappers during the Jazz Age, Maturo became a magazine illustrator. He interpreted scenes in fictional stories published in such popular magazines as Liberty, Everybody’s, and St. Nicholas. He also illustrated for the cheap pulp weeklies that became popular in the 1920s and 30s, including Love Story, Detective Story, and Blue Book, though apparently he didn’t enjoy the pulps.

MATURO'S ORIGINAL PAINTING FOR THE 'HEIDI' POSTER REVEALS HIS ABILITY TO CAPTURE TEMPLE'S LIKENESS.

MATURO’S ORIGINAL PAINTING FOR THE ‘HEIDI’ POSTER REVEALS HIS ABILITY TO CAPTURE TEMPLE’S LIKENESS.

THE ENTIRE PAINTING FOR THE 'HEIDI' POSTER, WITH SPACE FOR THE TITLES.

THE ENTIRE PAINTING FOR THE ‘HEIDI’ POSTER, WITH SPACE FOR THE TITLES.

In 1934, he was hired by Fox Film Corp.’s New York offices to design and create illustrations for movie posters, a job he retained after Fox merged with Twentieth Century. The job was not his only brush with the movies. From about 1916 to 1919, Joseph’s wife, Mira, who was a nurse, tended to members of Lillian Gish’s family. Originally hired by Lillian to take care of Dorothy, Mira also nursed Lillian either during the Spanish flu epidemic or after the actress became ill during the hazardous winter shoot for Way Down East. Mira was asked to travel with the Gishes but declined because Joseph’s work was based in New York. As partial payment for her services, the Gishes let Joseph and Mira use the apartment in back of their Manhattan home. By the time Joseph was designing posters for Fox, the Maturos had moved to Teaneck, New Jersey.

THE FINAL POSTER

THE FINAL POSTER

Like most illustration, the goal of poster design is to interpret the subject so that it is immediately understood by the viewer. For movie posters, the subject includes what the movie is about and who is in it. During the Golden Age, when the industry was driven by the star system, these two elements were often one and the same. Viewers who saw a movie poster for a film starring Shirley Temple need only recognize Temple to have expectations of what the movie would be like. Thus, getting the likeness and essence of the stars in an illustration was essential to the poster. It is a measure of Maturo’s talent that he designed the posters for the Shirley Temple vehicles, beginning with Curly Top. He perfectly captured Temple’s round, dimpled features and sparkling star image. Before Joseph, Fox had gone through several illustrators for the Temple posters, but they had not been pleased with the results.

Maturo’s illustrations were oil paintings translated into lithographs. The photo-lithographic process lost some of the detail of the oil paintings, flattening the images a bit. Colors also tended to be brighter in the posters than in the original paintings.

A THREE-SHEET FOR 'CURLY TOP'

A THREE-SHEET FOR ‘CURLY TOP’

Generally, Joseph painted more than one illustration for each film, because promotional material came in different sizes and formats. Poster sizes ranged in size from the standard one-sheet, which is 41 inches by 27 inches, to billboard size, which is 108 inches by 246 inches. Sizes were based on multiples of the 41 x 24 one sheet: A three-sheet is the size of three standard posters, while the billboard size is also called a 24-sheet. The 24-sheets were mounted by outside companies that specialized in handling billboards, including hand lettering the titles. There were also specialty sizes, such as subways (54 x 41), door panels (60 x 20), and inserts (36 x 14). Many of these sizes are still standard today. However, during the Golden Age, a theater owner had many other options.  Lobby cards (11 x 14) were issued in sets of eight, with one of the cards reserved for titles. For important releases, jumbo lobby cards on high-quality card stock (14 x 17) were available, but this size was discontinued at the beginning of WWII. A theater owner or manager might opt for window cards (22 x 14) to pass along to local store owners who would put them in their windows, or midget window cards (14 x 8) for a store’s showcases.

NOTE SCENES FROM THE FILM RENDERED BEHIND THE MAIN STARS..

NOTE SCENES FROM THE FILM RENDERED BEHIND THE MAIN STARS.

Press kits were sent to theater owners and managers, which featured publicity articles about the films, ready-made ads for newspapers, suggestions for local publicity stunts, and photos of the different sized posters available for that title. Theater owners rented the posters from the distribution exchanges. During the Depression, a one-sheet rented for about 15 cents, and a billboard for about $2.50. At the end of the film’s run, owners and managers were supposed to return the posters to the exchange, or, if the theater were located in a small town or rural area, they were asked to send the posters by bus to the next town, along with the film. Posters were repeatedly put up, taken down, and generally handled as the film traveled from venue to venue, so few made it through the initial run of a film intact. Those that did survive extensive use, poor storage, and accidents became creased, tattered, and torn. If it weren’t for theater employees who occasionally held back posters for favorite films or beloved stars, few posters would exist today. Today, posters of the classic films of the Golden Age make for pricey collectables.

THREE-SHEET FOR THE PRISONER OF SHARK ISLAND

THREE-SHEET FOR ‘THE PRISONER OF SHARK ISLAND’

Like other movie-poster artists, Maturo was given some direction from Twentieth Century Fox’s publicity department. He received film stills from the movie to base his illustrations on, plus direction on which stars’ heads were to be posed together and what color to use for their hair. Studios were particular about which stars should be presented in full face, three-quarter view, or profile. There were also guidelines regarding head size. The large heads necessary for billboards were difficult, because it is hard to maintain a realistic expression when heads are larger than life size.

Titles and names were also dictated by the studio, because some stars had top billing over others. All lettering was added to the painting by the studio art department before the paint was sent to the lithographers. Lettering was painted in gouache directly onto the painting, or on acetate laid over the painting, or on colored cardboard pasted onto the painting.

ORIGINAL PAINTING FOR 'PRISONER OF SHARK ISLAND'

ORIGINAL PAINTING FOR ‘PRISONER OF SHARK ISLAND’

Maturo’s first assignment for Fox was to design a poster for Ginger, a vehicle for nine-year-old Jane Withers. He created his last posters in 1938, the year that he died. In the four years that he was employed by Twentieth Century Fox, Joseph created posters for over 90 films. Among his most creative efforts were those that recreated complex scenes from the film as part of the overall composition. The poster for Café Metropole, which takes place in Paris, includes vignettes of the Eiffel Tower and Parisian night life under the main image of the three stars, Loretta Young, Tyrone Power, and Adolphe Menjou. My favorite paintings were those done for John Ford’s The Prisoner of Shark Island, starring Warner Baxter as Dr. Samuel Mudd, the doctor who was imprisoned for setting John Wilkes Booth’s leg. Baxter’s expression as he looks upward to a heaven that seemed to have forsaken him is heart-wrenching, while the detailed depiction of his life as a prisoner explains the pain on his face.

Other films that Maturo created posters for included In Old Kentucky and Steamboat ‘Round the Bend starring Will Rogers, Charlie Chan’s Secret, the remake of Seventh Heaven starring Jimmie Stewart, and Thin Ice, a vehicle for Sonja Henie. I was charmed to learn that Joseph was as much a movie fan as those he lured into the theaters with his posters. He and Mira went to see all the movies that he created paintings for, and they were particularly fond of Shirley Temple. If you look carefully at the paintings for Temple’s films, it shows!

* Special thanks to Allen Novak for not only visiting my classroom but also for sharing his research and images for this post.

38 Responses The Movie Posters of Joseph A. Maturo
Posted By Heidi : March 25, 2013 12:58 pm

Great post. I must say I am partial to the “Heidi” painting. I think that Grandfather looks like what I would expect Moses to look like. What an extraordinary life he lead. Designing beaded dressers for flappers is awesome! What a jump from painting to that!

Posted By Heidi : March 25, 2013 12:58 pm

Great post. I must say I am partial to the “Heidi” painting. I think that Grandfather looks like what I would expect Moses to look like. What an extraordinary life he lead. Designing beaded dressers for flappers is awesome! What a jump from painting to that!

Posted By mufonpr : March 25, 2013 2:02 pm

Fascinating look into this artist. I’ve always been interested in film posters and this was a neat look back at the process.

Posted By mufonpr : March 25, 2013 2:02 pm

Fascinating look into this artist. I’ve always been interested in film posters and this was a neat look back at the process.

Posted By Debbie A-H : March 25, 2013 2:06 pm

Really interesting article, Dr. Doll. I, too, love the Heidi poster. Mauro really knew how to capture the faces and their expressions. Really talented man. Thank you another interesting article.

Posted By Debbie A-H : March 25, 2013 2:06 pm

Really interesting article, Dr. Doll. I, too, love the Heidi poster. Mauro really knew how to capture the faces and their expressions. Really talented man. Thank you another interesting article.

Posted By tdefores : March 25, 2013 2:08 pm

The Prisoner of Shark Island poster is superb. Makes me want to see the movie, so it did its job.

Posted By tdefores : March 25, 2013 2:08 pm

The Prisoner of Shark Island poster is superb. Makes me want to see the movie, so it did its job.

Posted By tdefores : March 25, 2013 2:12 pm

The Prisoner of Shark Island poster is superb. It made me just put the movie on my Netflix list, so its still doing its job.

Posted By tdefores : March 25, 2013 2:12 pm

The Prisoner of Shark Island poster is superb. It made me just put the movie on my Netflix list, so its still doing its job.

Posted By Susan Doll : March 25, 2013 2:42 pm

Heidi: I saw photos of a couple of the dresses. They were so cool. I am partial to flappers anyway, but the dresses were definitely the cat’s meow!

Posted By Susan Doll : March 25, 2013 2:42 pm

Heidi: I saw photos of a couple of the dresses. They were so cool. I am partial to flappers anyway, but the dresses were definitely the cat’s meow!

Posted By Heidi : March 26, 2013 12:01 pm

I was going to get married in a flapper type dress, unfortunately I have way to many curves to make one work!

Posted By Heidi : March 26, 2013 12:01 pm

I was going to get married in a flapper type dress, unfortunately I have way to many curves to make one work!

Posted By Naïve Spectator : March 26, 2013 1:39 pm

What a wonderful, informative post! I hope that you and/or Mr. Novak publish more work on these unsung movie poster artists!

Posted By Naïve Spectator : March 26, 2013 1:39 pm

What a wonderful, informative post! I hope that you and/or Mr. Novak publish more work on these unsung movie poster artists!

Posted By Kimberly Lindbergs : March 26, 2013 2:24 pm

Fascinating stuff, Susan. I’m always interested to learn more about the creative people (poster artists, photographers, etc.) who helped create the “image” of old Hollywood that so many of us carry around in our hearts.

Posted By Kimberly Lindbergs : March 26, 2013 2:24 pm

Fascinating stuff, Susan. I’m always interested to learn more about the creative people (poster artists, photographers, etc.) who helped create the “image” of old Hollywood that so many of us carry around in our hearts.

Posted By jennifromrollamo : March 26, 2013 8:39 pm

Chiming in with my two cents as I also found this a fascinating article. I was wondering who did the lettering and you answered my question in your article. I wouldn’t mind a part 2 article on other artists who painted the movie posters from the golden age.

Posted By jennifromrollamo : March 26, 2013 8:39 pm

Chiming in with my two cents as I also found this a fascinating article. I was wondering who did the lettering and you answered my question in your article. I wouldn’t mind a part 2 article on other artists who painted the movie posters from the golden age.

Posted By Susan Doll : March 26, 2013 9:01 pm

Jenni:

The studios did not allow the poster artists to sign anything, which is why I think that so little is known about these artists or the process of making movie posters. They have been lost to history.

But, if I ever get a chance to get into any of the studios’ archived papers, I might be able to uncover other illustrators.

Posted By Susan Doll : March 26, 2013 9:01 pm

Jenni:

The studios did not allow the poster artists to sign anything, which is why I think that so little is known about these artists or the process of making movie posters. They have been lost to history.

But, if I ever get a chance to get into any of the studios’ archived papers, I might be able to uncover other illustrators.

Posted By swac44 : March 27, 2013 9:28 am

Every time I see a gorgeous vintage movie poster, in a book or on a wall (or priced way out of my range in an auction or at a collectors’ show), I always wonder about the process of making it and what happened to the original artwork. Sad to think that much of it has probably been destroyed by now, I’m sure different studios had different policies on what to keep and what to dispose of (and like cans of film, the stuff piles up quickly over time). Thanks for the wonderful peek at these posters’ origins!

Posted By swac44 : March 27, 2013 9:28 am

Every time I see a gorgeous vintage movie poster, in a book or on a wall (or priced way out of my range in an auction or at a collectors’ show), I always wonder about the process of making it and what happened to the original artwork. Sad to think that much of it has probably been destroyed by now, I’m sure different studios had different policies on what to keep and what to dispose of (and like cans of film, the stuff piles up quickly over time). Thanks for the wonderful peek at these posters’ origins!

Posted By swac44 : March 28, 2013 7:53 pm

For a look at a much different movie poster artist, I recommend The Man Who Drew Bug-Eyed Monsters, ’50s poster painter Reynold Brown.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GuvpcyCjRMk

Posted By swac44 : March 28, 2013 7:53 pm

For a look at a much different movie poster artist, I recommend The Man Who Drew Bug-Eyed Monsters, ’50s poster painter Reynold Brown.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GuvpcyCjRMk

Posted By Susan Doll : March 28, 2013 9:13 pm

Swac44: I talked about Brown in class yesterday!

Posted By Susan Doll : March 28, 2013 9:13 pm

Swac44: I talked about Brown in class yesterday!

Posted By Doug : March 29, 2013 2:30 am

This past year I found an old magazine which had a cigarette ad
‘starring’ Dolores Del Rio on the back cover. She stated that the cigarettes she smoked helped keep her lungs clear, and tasted great! It was a painting of Del Rio rather than a photograph, which makes sense as Photoshop wasn’t around in 1936.
I don’t have the magazine anymore-I left it at the hospital physical therapy department and someone scooped it up.
A few years ago I put old Nat Geographics from the 1930′s/40′s in the outpatient waiting room. The joke being that the magazines were older than the doctors. They are still there.

Posted By Doug : March 29, 2013 2:30 am

This past year I found an old magazine which had a cigarette ad
‘starring’ Dolores Del Rio on the back cover. She stated that the cigarettes she smoked helped keep her lungs clear, and tasted great! It was a painting of Del Rio rather than a photograph, which makes sense as Photoshop wasn’t around in 1936.
I don’t have the magazine anymore-I left it at the hospital physical therapy department and someone scooped it up.
A few years ago I put old Nat Geographics from the 1930′s/40′s in the outpatient waiting room. The joke being that the magazines were older than the doctors. They are still there.

Posted By robbushblog : March 30, 2013 4:16 pm

I wonder why they didn’t just take black and white still frames from the films and just color-tint them. It seems like it would have been faster and more cost effective than hiring people to paint posters. I’m sure it took several days at least to paint them. Not that I’m complaining, of course.

Production marketing people of today could surely learn a thing or two from these classic poster designers. Today’s movie posters are, for the most part, boring, uninspired, artless crap. I am glad that there was a time when the talents of people like Joseph A. Maturo, Reynold Brown and Drew Struzan were used to tantalize our eyes.

Posted By robbushblog : March 30, 2013 4:16 pm

I wonder why they didn’t just take black and white still frames from the films and just color-tint them. It seems like it would have been faster and more cost effective than hiring people to paint posters. I’m sure it took several days at least to paint them. Not that I’m complaining, of course.

Production marketing people of today could surely learn a thing or two from these classic poster designers. Today’s movie posters are, for the most part, boring, uninspired, artless crap. I am glad that there was a time when the talents of people like Joseph A. Maturo, Reynold Brown and Drew Struzan were used to tantalize our eyes.

Posted By Susan Doll : March 30, 2013 11:22 pm

Rob: They did do that with lobby cards and window cards. I am betting that blowing up stills to poster size would not have looked good.

Posted By Susan Doll : March 30, 2013 11:22 pm

Rob: They did do that with lobby cards and window cards. I am betting that blowing up stills to poster size would not have looked good.

Posted By Doug : March 31, 2013 2:53 am

swac44-thanks for adding that video; the second part seemed to ignore Mr Brown, which was strange.
When I saw the title, the first name that popped into my head was Basil Wolverton, who did indeed create many BEMs, along with some of the strangest looking characters this side of Mad Magazine.
Another illustrator 180 degrees away from BEMs, but who has charmed me for years with her art is Rebecca MacCann.
She created “The Cheerful Cherub” and I’ve always thought that her life story would make a great movie. She died before my dad was born in 1930, but she shared much cheer with the world.

Posted By Doug : March 31, 2013 2:53 am

swac44-thanks for adding that video; the second part seemed to ignore Mr Brown, which was strange.
When I saw the title, the first name that popped into my head was Basil Wolverton, who did indeed create many BEMs, along with some of the strangest looking characters this side of Mad Magazine.
Another illustrator 180 degrees away from BEMs, but who has charmed me for years with her art is Rebecca MacCann.
She created “The Cheerful Cherub” and I’ve always thought that her life story would make a great movie. She died before my dad was born in 1930, but she shared much cheer with the world.

Posted By Bruce Hershenson : April 17, 2013 6:23 am

Great article! Do you have a list of movies that Mr. Mauro did posters for (either full or partial)? I would love to add his name to his posters when I auction them, but it is hard to do that without a list, because they were unsigned, and I hate to guess at which ones he did. Thanks!

Posted By Bruce Hershenson : April 17, 2013 6:23 am

Great article! Do you have a list of movies that Mr. Mauro did posters for (either full or partial)? I would love to add his name to his posters when I auction them, but it is hard to do that without a list, because they were unsigned, and I hate to guess at which ones he did. Thanks!

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