Movie Poster Mysteries…Solved!

I bought my first movie still when I was 12 years old at a used bookstore in Hackensack, New Jersey. It was a nice shot of Buster Keaton that cost 25 cents, which was exactly what I could afford. Then I saw a classified ad in The 8mm Collector offering pressbooks. I didn’t know what they were, so I asked the man who placed the ad and he patiently answered me. (This was all accomplished by snail mail in those primitive days before the Internet.) That got me interested in those oversized, advertising-packed journals for theater owners. I only started acquiring posters and lobby cards as an afterthought. My main source was a fantastic outfit in Canton, Oklahoma called Movie Poster Service run by two brothers who’d been servicing regional movie theaters for years. Stills cost 25 cents and one-sheet posters were $1.75 each. I bought odd and obscure items that happened to interest me. If I’d stocked up on mainstream posters I’d be wealthy today; I was more interested in stills. Oh, well…

I was lucky enough to find and marry a woman who not only shared my love of movies but fell in love with posters. Alice encouraged me to buy and sometimes trade for images we liked, and although prices had risen considerably by this time they were still affordable. This was before the coming of high-end auctions.

In the Sweet Pie and Pie

Any diehard Three Stooges fan could tell you this posed shot features Mary Ainslee, Dorothy Appleby and Ethelreda Leopold from the 1941 comedy short ‘In the Sweet Pie and Pie,’ but you’d need to decipher the Columbia Pictures code in the lower left-hand corner to figure it out any other way.

No one knew much about the origins of posters or stills, how they were commissioned and identified, who designed or drew them, etc. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has made great strides in this area in recent years and savvy dealers have provided useful information, but there are still many gaps in our collective knowledge.

Enter Ed and Susan Poole, longtime collectors who decided to conduct serious research and share their findings with the world through their website, LAMP (Learn About Movie Posters) and an ongoing series of invaluable research books. Their first effort, Collecting Movie Posters, was published in 1997 byMcFarland and has been followed by eighteen reference books includingLearn About International Movie Posters, Movie Trailer Identification Codes,and The Silent Studio Directory.

Columbia Movie Still Code

The person who wrote the Columbia still codes had a heavy hand and these scribblings have ruined many a beautiful shot. Thank goodness for cropping!

If you’ve ever examined vintage movie stills, you’ll recognize the number and letter coding in the lower corner. These are often the only clue as to the title of a film. If you want a decoder, you needn’t contact Little Orphan Annie: LAMP has done the work for you. Their research encompasses over 50,000 codes!  Click HERE. They have done the same for codes on movie posters and other theater accessories. Access to these databases require a fee, as they should, but LAMP also provides thousands of images for free on their site.

The Pooles are also proud of Louisiana’s role in movie history and have published books (beginning with Hollywood on the Bayou) and mounted exhibitions and lectures on the subject, which is near and dear to them. Although Louisiana is now the #1 state in the union for film and television production, there doesn’t seem to be commensurate interest in education and preservation of the state’s historical involvement with the entertainment world. Ed and Susan are determined to change that by launching a research foundation. If anyone can pull that off, they are surely the ones.

Ed and Susan Poole

Ed and Susan Poole in their natural habitat

Meanwhile, if you want to know anything about movie memorabilia, or see what various dealers, auction houses, and restoration experts are up to, sign up for LAMP’s free monthly e-mail blast.

Ed and Susan have been collecting for forty years and have just celebrated the 20th anniversary of LAMP…but they show no signs of slowing down. Their next big project is a directory of movie poster artists, an especially ambitious undertaking. I can hardly wait for the finished product.

Leonard Maltin is one of the world’s most respected film critics and historians. He is best known for his widely-used reference work Leonard Maltin’s Movie Guide and its companion volume Leonard Maltin’s Classic Movie Guide, now in its third edition, as well as his thirty-year run on television’s Entertainment Tonight. He teaches at the USC School of Cinematic Arts and appears regularly on Reelz Channel and Turner Classic Movies. His books include The 151 Best Movies You’ve Never Seen, Of Mice and Magic: A History of American Animated Cartoons, The Great Movie Comedians, The Disney Films, The Art of the Cinematographer, Movie Comedy Teams, The Great American Broadcast, and Leonard Maltin’s Movie Encyclopedia. He served two terms as President of the Los Angeles Film Critics Association, is a voting member of the National Film Registry, and was appointed by the Librarian of Congress to sit on the Board of Directors of the National Film Preservation Foundation. He hosted and co-produced the popular Walt Disney Treasures DVD series and has appeared on innumerable television programs and documentaries. He has been the recipient of awards from the American Society of Cinematographers, the Telluride Film Festival, Anthology Film Archives, and San Diego’s Comic-Con International. Perhaps the pinnacle of his career was his appearance in a now-classic episode of South Park. (Or was it Carmela consulting his Movie Guide on an episode of The Sopranos?) He holds court at Follow him on Twitter and Facebook; you can also listen to him on his weekly podcast: Maltin on Movies. — [Artwork by Drew Friedman]

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July 2024