Spencer Tracy and Other ‘Sign Painters’

Sign Painters-DVD-358After 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.


Sign Painters-300

Courtesy of

 My hat’s off to Faythe Levine and Sam Macon, who spent years creating this labor of love, as well as Josh Luke and Bob Behounek, who provided their lettering, and Dave Kiehl of Harvest Moon Design, who was responsible for the inventive title animation and end credits.

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.

Marian Nixon-Spencer Tracy

Marian Nixon and Spencer Tracy in a still from ‘Face in the Sky’ (1933)

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!

Spencer Tracy-Stuart Erwin-Face
One night we laid eyes on the disarmingFace in the Sky, which Bill later showed in his Friday night series at the New School for Social Research. The 35mm source material was splicy and missing bits of footage, but it was still exciting to see such a whimsical and offbeat film, in any condition. To cite Bill’s  program notes, “From its zany mock documentary forward to its curious genre change—beginning as a rural romantic melodrama, winding up as big city musical and fantasy—Face in the Sky is at least unpredictable. It’s also uneven, perhaps one of the problems of giving a new director fragile Myles Connolly material, a dialogue coach and a heavyweight cameraman (Lee Garmes) to help him over the rough spots…. Sometimes the film is brisk and flowing, at other times relaxed and equally flowing, yet in between there are episodes where the momentum is lost and the film seems to be going nowhere. It’s an oddity all right, but a charming and often surprising one, so we can readily forgive its rough edges. It’s the 11th of Spencer Tracy’s 19 films for Fox between 1930 and 1935, after having tried him out as a second string Cagney, Fox here seems to be experimenting with him in a Will Rogers vein.”

Here’s hoping that someday, someone will digitize Face in the Sky and make it available to curious film buffs—and sign-painting fans.

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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June 2024