Ever wonder why a trailer is called that, when it actually comes before the featured movie? Silent one reelers were frequently serialized, so the first trailers actually “trailed” a movie, asking in text, Will Miss Emily be crushed beneath the speeding train? then urging, Don’t miss next week’s episode! It didn’t take too long for theater operators to figure out that it’s better to run promotional materials before the movie — when the audience is, literally, captive — which is why I sit obediently, even to this day, eating half my popcorn before the feature actually hits the screen.
What else are trailers but short films? They’re hors d’oeuvres. If we couldn’t dine out on a classic, we could snack on brief glimpses of it: A spooked horse and a rickety wagon against the backdrop of burning Atlanta, Scarlett and the white portico of Tara. The trailer was a satisfying glimpse of the epics our endangered movie palace had been built to contain.
National Screen Service — around since 1920 — had a lock on posters and trailer production and distribution for most of the twentieth century. I remember fondly the checks I wrote to NSS; I say “fondly,” because these amounts were small enough I could actually pay them more or less on time. For the most part, these checks were for movies we actually showed — and posters for those movies. (If you’re a poster freak, you know all about NSS and its distinctive poster numbering system which, these days, helps collectors identify valuable items).
Back to trailers. Matthew Schimkowitz observes that, “Every NSS trailer followed a similar recipe: 1.) typography and text (expressions that take cues from the silent era: “You’ve Never Seen Anything Like It!” and “Sensational! Marvelous! A Romance for the Ages!”), 2.) narration to clear up some of the murky complexities of plot, 3.) music to showcase the intrigue, danger, romance, and timeless good feelings of the film, and 4.) montage—quick clips and sharp one-liners to help draw the characters.” In my childhood, we were, like lab animals, conditioned to receive information (about coming attractions) in the aforementioned order. The trailers got you juiced for the next big fantasy.
The formula has been gone for some time — more on how that happened in a minute — but good trailers are still getting us ready. Sometimes they’re actually better than the movie they promote. The worst trailers, in my opinion, tell too much and make you not want to bother, or actually warn you away (message: Don’t pay money to see this movie!).
Warnings have been around for a while. Alfred Hitchcock didn’t exactly discourage viewers from coming to Psycho, but he did threaten the audience with penalties for showing up late. His brilliant trailer also set the tone for seeing the movie, walking the viewer through the Bates Motel, with a nasty taste of the shower scene. The poster features a Victorian house that references an Edward Hopper painting, “House by the Railroad;” (more on that some time soon).
That trailer, and, later, Kubrick’s promotional short film for Dr. Strangelove have two things in common: 1.) They’re both hand-crafted by the director, and 2.) Being homemade, they’re trendsetting. It was 1964, and predictable was out. The Strangelove trailer (link above) is a sixties time capsule.
Our GWTW trailer came from the old (formulaic) tradition; perhaps that’s why we were drawn to it. By the time we were tearing tickets at the door to our mostly-vacant movie palace, the young directors, Spielberg, Lucas, and the crew, had followed Hitchcock’s and Kubrick’s lead, cutting their own trailers, and NSS had been reduced to the role of a delivery service.
One man, Don LaFontaine, had just begun his long career as a voice-over artist, the famous “voice of God” for trailers, best remembered as the “In a world...” man. Some 5,000 film trailers actually bore his stamp. (a delightful movie entitled In a World, a comedy based on the LaFontaine character, is well worth checking out.
But here’s to 1939 (think GWTW, The Wizard of Oz, Ninotchka, Stagecoach, The Hunchback of Notre Dame...); it was the golden year of movies, when stylized Deco letters swung in from the right and popped over scenes of a promised film: THE LAUGHS ARE MONSTROUS! MIGHTIEST ADVENTURE OF ALL TIME! SPECTACULAR! , MILLIONS HAVE BEEN THRILLED! in high-contrast black and white. Even though GWTW was one of Hollywood’s first full-length feature films shot entirely in color, its trailer stuck — but for the use of color — with the classic formula: typography, narration, music, montage.
The original GWTW trailer is hard to find, buried beneath latter-day versions. The one I visited currently boasts 409,305 hits, while a more modern adaptation stands this morning at 1, 342,336. I’ve added one to each of these numbers. Remarkable! You don’t have to rent a movie palace to visit Tara after all.
All my blog posts are really trailers, of a sort, for a book you’ll eventually read. This particular post bears some striking resemblances to an earlier one, like the myriad re-do’s of the original GWTW trailer, from 1939. There’s more research in this post, of which I’m proud.
Life, after all, is about revision!
Stay tuned in the coming weeks for a post that features the Edward Hopper painting mentioned here (“House by the Railroad”). He was a fan of theaters, as well as a man with a cinematic eye...more on that later.