After visiting the American Sign Museum in Cincinnati, I did what I’d been meaning to do for months: I rented the 2014 documentary Sign Painters online from FilmBuff. (It’s also available from Amazon and other sources.) This loving tribute to a neglected 20th century art form includes interviews with some of its leading practitioners, like the late Keith Knecht, whose John Wayne posters I featured in my last web post. It also introduces us to artists who are still playing their trade, including young people who will carry it on for years to come. There is even a class in traditional sign painting technique (or sign graphics) being taught at the Los Angeles Technical Trade College.
But there is another movie that sings the praises of sign painters, and it was made more than eighty years ago. Face in the Sky (Fox, 1933) stars Spencer Tracy and Stuart Erwin as a pair of itinerant artists who paint their images on the sides of barns across the countryside. Tracy is a cocky fellow with the soul of a poet, an opinion that others don’t necessarily share, in this fanciful tale directed by Harry Lachman—himself a former artist and illustrator. Humphrey Pearson’s screenplay was based on a story by Frank Capra’s close friend and sometimes-collaborator Myles Connolly.
Unfortunately, it’s not an easy movie to see, because the sole surviving print, in the 16mm format, was copied from a rapidly deteriorating 35mm original in the 1970s. It exists in the William K. Everson Collection at George Eastman House (just renamed the George Eastman Museum) and was last screened at a Cinefest in Syracuse, New York.
I first saw it when Bill Everson screened it at his Theodore Huff Film Society in the early 1970s. His lifelong friend Alex Gordon had gotten a job as archivist at 20th Century Fox and saved a number of late-silent and early-talkie films that were in fragile, even perilous, condition. (As you may know, a vault fire destroyed many of Fox’s original negatives in the 1930s.) Alex did heroic work—and sent beautiful 16mm prints to Bill in New York with the understanding that Bill could screen them at the Huff Society (itself a secret organization that you had to know about to attend,) but couldn’t announce the titles ahead of time. (—even minutes ahead of time.) Bill added one of these Fox pictures to the existing programs for more than a year. That meant that diehards like me had to attend every weekly show, even if we’d already seen the scheduled pictures, because we didn’t know what the bonus film might turn out to be!
Here’s hoping that someday, someone will digitize Face in the Sky and make it available to curious film buffs—and sign-painting fans.