Jenni Olson. The Queer Movie Poster Book. Chronicle Books, 2004. 132 pages; $19.95.
Plugged as we are now, so thoroughly, into the cyber sphere of the Internet, it seems we have come to rely upon its websites to broker our every kind of social exchange, from commercial purchases to political affiliations to personal relationships. Is there anything at all we do not check out in advance, do not first approach on the Internet? Any kind of social experience that is not entirely framed or defined by its representation in HTML or MPEG? Yes. Movies.
Sure, check the show times on some site or another, and you will probably be offered the opportunity to view a movie's trailer and read a review of it. But tucked away somewhere amidst the trailer and the review is likely to be an anchoring thumbnail of the movie's poster, that always ingeniously designed graphic blast that calls out to your attention as you pass by on the street or excites you with anticipation as you crawl forward in the ticket line.
That poster (along with its variations for newspaper ads, press books, and the eventual cover of a DVD case) is still perhaps the richest, the most telling marketing interface between a movie and the entire world that it would have as its audience. Encoded within it are all the social realities governing the reception of the movie's themes, story lines, and stars. And perhaps for no movie genre is this coding more intriguing than for gay or gay-inflected cinema-a coding caught up fully, as The Queer Movie Poster Book shows, in the century long dynamics of a covert and marginalized lifestyle transforming itself into an open, assertive, and undeniable cultural force.
Dating back to 1915, the earliest poster duplicated in this collection is a portrait of a cross-dressed Wallace Beery as the star of Sweedie's Hero. Beery smiles winsomely out at us from the absurdity of his lady's homely bodice and straw feathered hat, his precariously settled woman's wig, and his conspicuously applied beauty marks at cheek and chin.
As Olson notes, many comedians of the era took up drag for comic effect, and Beery's poster clearly represents this vein, but there is also a seriously aesthetic poster inspired by the art of Aubrey Beardsley and depicting the more truly gay sensibility for a 1923 production of Oscar Wilde's Salome written and directed by a real lesbian and performed by an all gay cast. Even here, however, sexual orientation is subordinated to the more socially acceptable element of sensibility; nothing is sexually overt.
In 1931, on the other hand, a German poster for Maedchen in Uniform, an explicitly lesbian love story between a schoolgirl and her teacher, unapologetically depicts the head of the younger lover nestled longingly at the neck of the older. Today, we would rightly consider the relationship a fully criminal one, and, of course, the poster never appeared in the film's American venue, which substituted a more modest playbill featuring the stark frontal gaze of the schoolgirl with just a touch of butch about her closely cropped and combed hair. …