Vintage Movie Posters Through the Eras: Collecting Hollywood History

Originally designed as a bridge between the audience and the cinematic experience, movie posters have transcended their original utilitarian role to become highly collectible works of art in their own right.

The ability to distil the adventure, star presence, and drama of a film into an engaging visual reference has ensured the art of movie poster design has endured through the years from Hollywood’s golden age to today’s modern blockbusters. Reflecting the development of cinema, changes in technology, and art and film tastes, the evolution of movie posters has paralleled cinema for 100 years and more.

What once adorned teenagers’ walls are now prized acquisitions in personal collections, and even exhibits in museums and galleries. Movie posters have evolved alongside cinema, which has propelled what was once anonymous artwork into a culturally rich and significant art form.

Art Nouveau Influenced Movie Poster Design (Late 19th to Early 20th Century)

From the late 19th to early 20th century, Paris was the centre of the artistic world. Artists flocked to the French capital, where Vincent Van Gogh, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, and many more settled in the bohemian oasis of Montmartre. Sandwiched between the horrors of the Napoleonic Wars and World War I, this was an optimistic period of cultural change known as La Belle Epoque or Beautiful Epoch, and this transition was reflected in the emerging art that depicted a new urban world, Art Nouveau.

And this new art kickstarted the heyday of the poster. Pierre Bonnard and Edouard Vuillard enthralled audiences with their new style, but it was Toulouse-Lautrec’s first poster, Moulin Rouge that created an instant sensation in 1891. It would be Alphonse Mucha’s new style of art that captivated though. Influenced by the Pre-Raphaelites and the Arts and Crafts movement, Mucha’s style would become the major international decorative art movement up until WWI. ACzech in Paris, his painting of the diva Sarah Bernhardt would become his masterpiece of Art Nouveau poster design. Flowery and ornate, the poster is a visual feast and he repeated the feat for Job cigarette rolling papers in 1896. The model’s extravagant and luxuriant hair intertwining with the cigarette smoke is instantly captivating.

Mucha produced posters for a variety of products, ranging from cigarettes to soap, which all shared an idealized and beguiling female figure as the central feature; a theme which would greatly influence movie poster design in the years that followed.

Golden Age of Hollywood (1930s to 1950s)

The years between the years in the US were a time of exciting innovation in cinema. Not only was sound introduced, but advances in technology, production, and animation, transformed the audience experience, and this excitement was transferred to movie posters. Gone with the Wind brought huge numbers through cinema doors and remains the highest grossing film, adjusted for inflation, in the history of cinema. And the poster has remained just as popular, as the passion, danger and adventure of the film is conveyed by the captivating Vivien Leigh in a romantic clinch with Clark Gable, painted in a realistic and expressive style. It’s the perfect visualisation of a romantic epic.

Many movie poster designers remained uncredited during this period, and this is the case with King Kong, despite the film being a commercial success. The motif of an attractive female figure remains in the poster, but she plays second fiddle to the star of the show that showcased the advance of cinematic technology and the use of the stop motion animation. The poster’s popularity has endured, as in 1999, Cecil B DeMille’s granddaughter paid $244,500 for an original copy.

One artist who would become known for his movie posters was Alberto Vargas, who designed a movie poster named one of the greatest ever made. Provocative, confrontational, and with a near-naked female figure dominating the poster, his design for the 1933 film The Sin of Nora Moran has endured longer than memory of the film. Similarly, Bill Gold was a movie poster designer of great repute, and one his earliest designs for Casablanca remains his most-prized work. Gold became head of poster design for Warner Bros. in 1947 and continued to produce posters utilising the same approach for The Big Sleep (1946), A Streetcar Named Desire (1951), and Dial M for Murder (1954).

Vintage Movie Posters - Anatomy of a Murder (1959).

Anatomy of a Murder (1959). Sold for $1,100 via Propstore Los Angeles (December 2023)

Saul Bass and the Modern Era (1950s to 1970s)

The years following WWII brought a new outlook for many touched by the horrors of the conflict. Movie posters were also in transition. Gone were depictions of key scenes or characters and in their place were flat planes of bold simplified color and symbolic designs to communicate a powerful visual interpretation of the film.

Saul Bass was at the forefront of this approach. His iconic Vertigo (1958) poster exemplified the modern era with his stylized image of figures swirling in a spiral vortex against a bright orange background, which captured the anxiety and disorientation of the film.

Vintage Movie Posters - The Shining (1980).

The Shining (1980). Sold for $250 via Propstore Los Angeles (December 2023)

Bass produced many more distinctive and often imitated posters, but his final design that was printed was for The Shining (1980). The unsettling, angry-looking, Pointillist doll-like face (which isn’t in the film) leans on his trademark style of a symbolic image on a bold and colourful background. Such was Bass’s influence that his distinctive style has been imitated over the years, as shown by the poster for Spike Lee’s film Clockers, which bore a striking resemblance to Bass’s work for Anatomy of a Murder, while his influence is also evident in the poster for Burn After Reading and the cover for The White Stripes’ single The Hardest Button to Button.

Vintage Movie Posters - Star Wars: A New Hope (1977).

Star Wars: A New Hope (1977). Sold for $1,100 via Propstore Los Angeles (December 2023).

Drew Struzan and the Blockbuster Era (1970s to 2000s)

If the modern era of movie poster design displayed restraint, then the era of the blockbuster that followed was bombastic, extravagant, and excessive – and the posters of the 1970s and 80s reflected this with vibrant color, bold typography, and vivid hand-drawn illustrations.

It was a golden era for movie posters. The designs transported film fans to the heart of epic stories with painted images that captured the essence of the movie. At the heart of this was Star Wars, and more specifically the imaginative painting of Drew Struzan. While George Lucas and his Lucasfilm production company helped shape cinema in this period, Struzan created cinema goers first impression of films with his charismatic deigns.

Vintage Movie Posters - Back to the Future (1985).

Back to the Future (1985). Sold for $1,000 via Propstore Los Angeles (December 2023)

Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, Struzan produced posters for some of the decade’s most memorable films, including Blade Runner (1982), The Thing (1982), Back to the Future (1985), Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom(1984), and The Goonies (1985). Each poster has become a coveted collectible thanks to its striking imagery, which set a benchmark for creative poster design. Struzan’s ‘circus’ design for Star Wars (1977) remains one his most loved creations, but it came about by accident. “They found out there wasn’t enough room for the typography and the billing block they had left in the design,” he explained. “What can we do to make more space on a poster that’s already been printed? Let’s pretend it’s posted, then they can put the type below the actual poster. We painted Obi-Wan down the side and stuff across the bottom to make it wider and deeper.”

Contemporary Poster Design (2000s to Present)

As cinema began to change in the new century with the advance of digital effects and the gradual move towards home streaming, so too did movie posters. Film posters weren’t necessarily the first impression of a film for movie goers anymore, but the medium has adapted to its new environment.

The new Millennium brought advances in the typography and photography of movie posters, while towards the end of the decade, the influence of Minimalism can be seen in posters for The Dark Knight. The emergence of Marvel films as a powerhouse of cinema also saw poster design evolve. Borrowing from comic book architecture, the posters for Iron Man and Avengers encapsulated the narrative of the superhero film in one frame.

No longer necessarily utilitarian, movie poster design has been given fresh impetus by artists like Olly Moss and Tyler Stout. The bold, colorful, and vivid interpretations of film posters led to Moss being commissioned by Marvel to create a poster for the cast of Thor. Created as stand-alone pieces of art, Moss has produced posters for a number of films, but his series based on the original Star Wars trilogy that use colored silhouettes of C-3PO, Boba Fett, and Darth Vader have not only proved popular with collectors, but ensured poster design still has creativity at its heart.

The Collector’s Guide to Vintage Movie Posters

Identifying your favorite films is easy. Identifying valuable and collectible prints isn’t always as straightforward, but there are a number of things you can look out for. Firstly, steer clear of glossy reproductions and retain patience when searching for additions to your collection. If you’re not sure what you’re looking for, then an auction catalogues can help you find your bearings. It’s also worth checking if the poster has a National Screen Service number printed on it for a stamp of authenticity.

To preserve your movie poster, keep it out of direct sunlight and clear of moisture, while framing it helps to protect from damage and UV-protective glass can prevent fading. Acid-free backing and matting also helps preserve the poster’s condition. But, while these tips have a useful practicality, deciding where to hang this precious germ could be a considerably harder task.

Still looking for more information? Then click here and discover our guide to buying vintage movie posters.


Sources: Listal.com – 25 Best Movie Posters Ever | PremiumBeat.com – Golden Age of Hollywood | Heritage-Posters.com – King Kong Film Poster | TheGuardian.com – Poster service: Gone with the Wind | Sitepoint.com – Design Contest: What’s the Secret to 1980s Movie Posters | PosterCollector.co.uk – History of Movie Posters | RarePrintsandPosters.com – Tyler Stout | VanityFair.com – Every Marvel Cinematic Universe Movie Poster Explained | NewYorkTimes.com – King King Poster is Sold for $244,500