Alluring the moviegoers: Lobby cards for Mexican movies in the U.S.
© Rogelio Agrasánchez, Jr., 2010
Posters and lobby cards from the Golden Age of Mexican films have become priced items among movie fans, art lovers and historians. Collectors in particular are attracted to the amazing graphics of one-sheet posters. It is no wonder that this type of memorabilia commands so much attention, their sheer size and imaginative designs strike us like a flash of lightning. Lobby cards are not as persuasive, yet they always dominate our curiosity. Their rich layout and suggestive phrases make us play a part in the deciphering of a film’s plot. Moreover, the lobby cards’ gorgeous photo insets in black and white grab our attention instantly as if the movie projector was turned on inside our heads. Due to this mixture of color and black and white elements, lobby cards occupy a special place in a movie’s advertising strategy. Film promoters knew of the power of these images and they combined posters and lobby cards in alluring displays at the entrance of theaters.
During the height of Mexican movie entertainment, in the 1940s and 1950s, people flocked to neighborhood theaters to watch their favorite stars perform in dramas, comedies and adventure films. In the United States, more than seven hundred theaters exhibited Spanish-language pictures on a daily basis. Their programs were often complemented by an American movie and a cartoon, and on special occasions by a live show. This was a time of unparalleled activity in the Mexican motion pictures business.
Theater impresarios put great emphasis in advertising the latest movies. Spreading the word was essential and they employed several methods to this end. Besides announcing the movie’s title on the marquee, they put on view colorful paper publicity outside of the theater and also in selected neighborhood spots. Posters and lobby cards could be either rented or bought from film distributors.
There were two main Mexican film distributors in the United States: Azteca Films and Clasa-Mohme, Inc. Together they imported hundreds of movies with their corresponding stock of one-sheet posters. These 27x37-lithographed sheets were the main advertising tools. In addition, distribution companies came up with their own 11x14 lobby cards, which bore original art and had an actual B&W still pasted on them. These photographs depicted a key scene from the film. A printer in Los Angeles, California, supplied lobby cards for both Azteca and Clasa-Mohme distributors. An economic and more durable medium, the lobbies came in sets of eight. Each card featured garishly colored graphics around the photographic inset.
Lobby cards lasted longer than one-sheets because they were printed on heavier stock. Also they were easier to display in theaters, as they would fit in almost any spot. At the beginning of the forties Clasa-Mohme distributors made available paper publicity that was relatively inexpensive. As their catalogue stated: ”Trailers are rented at $1.50 each. One-sheets are sold outright at .10 ¢ each. 11x14 lobby cards are charged at .20 ¢ each, in sets of eight, and a refund of .15 ¢ each is given the exhibitor when they are returned in good shape.“
Most of the lobby sets for movies of the 1930s are very hard to find. Only a few have survived and are now kept in public film archives or private collections. These are some of the older titles: Malditas sean las mujeres, Los de abajo, La madrina del Diablo, El signo de la muerte, and Padre de más de cuatro. At the beginning of the forties, only one or two colors graced the artwork of lobby cards. For example, Cuando los hijos se van and Morenita clara were etched in blue or green color. Gradually, the film exchanges added more colors and the artwork became more sophisticated. In the forties, Clasa-Mohme reissued several box-office hits like Allá en el Rancho Grande (1936) and printed new lobby cards to advertise it. By the mid-1940s, Clasa-Mohme reorganized its inventory and assigned a number to each movie; lobby cards reflected this organization. Flor silvestre and María Candelaria were some of the first lobbies showing a number on the lower left hand corner.
U.S. distributors of Mexican movies manufactured lobby cards until the late 1970s, when the number of theaters showing Spanish-language films began to decline. At the height of movie entertainment in the 1950s, lobby cards were being printed almost every week. It’s hard to imagine the total output in those years. Still, the amount of lobby card sets can be determined by looking at the list of Mexican films released in that forty-year period, which adds up to around 3,500.
Although Mexico produced many action films in the forties, it turned out only one serial, Calaveras del terror (1943). This successful twelve-chapter B&W movie starred Pedro Armendáriz and the faquir Harry, who was killed while performing a dangerous stunt. The lobby cards are extremely rare, as every theater used them over and over until they became scarce. Another serial that attained great popularity was El enmascarado de plata (1952), featuring the first masked wrestler hero of Mexican cinema. It also consisted of twelve chapters and the lobbies came in sets of 24, two cards for each chapter. The inset scenes are great fun as they depict the hero battling several villains; the ultramodern experimental lab in one of the scenes is unbelievable.
The U.S. distributors of Mexican films made fantastic lobby cards for horror and sci-fi movies. Some of the most sought-after titles are La momia azteca, La maldición de la momia azteca, and La momia azteca vs. el robot humano, all made in 1957. The graphics in them are very attractive and the insets are clear, crisp photos of amazing scenes. Worth mentioning is La sombra vengadora (1954), which was also released as a serial; its lobby cards contain twelve different scenes from the film. As you would expect, they have all the ingredients of suspense: a dashing masked hero, a beautiful girl that is in peril and a very frightening crazy doctor.
The variety of images and colors in the Azteca and Clasa-Mohme lobby cards is amazing. Originality seems to be the rule for every movie title. Whether it is a melodrama, a comedy or an action film, each design has a special charm. All the stars are represented in ingenious ways: Pedro Infante as Pepe el Toro, Ninón Sevilla’s seductiveness in Sensualidad, Luis Aguilar’s good looks in A.T.M., and Rosita Quintana’s beautiful legs in Susana. Another reason why lobby cards are so unique is that they contain photographic material created by talented photographers. The lobbies advertising Deseada, for example, include wonderful B&W shots by renowned photographer Manuel Álvarez Bravo. This movie was shot entirely on location at the famous Mayan ruins of Chichen Itzá. Another excellent artist was Luis Márquez, who took the still photos for La malquerida, Río Escondido, Las Islas Marías, and many more. His style has a nationalist resonance; his favorite subjects include Indians and the rural landscape.
Production of lobby cards went through three distinctive phases over the years. At the beginning, the graphics were simple and only a few colors graced the artwork. Catch phrases barely came into view and the distributors merely recommended the film as: ”Superproducción mexicana de gran espectáculo.“ By contrast, in the classic period hand-drawn graphics gradually gave way to photographic collages depicting the main stars in the movie. A variety of colors emphasized the title while catchy phrases were added to lure our attention. For instance, a lobby card for La malquerida made it clear: ”He loved the one he should have never chosen, and only death saved him from an infernal life.“ Another lobby for No desearás la mujer de tu hijo suggested: ”He paid dearly the sin of yearning for his son’s wife.“
After the mid-1960s, the graphics in the Azteca and Clasa-Mohme lobby cards changed considerably. The use of catchy phrases is kept at a minimum and there are fewer photographic collages. There seems to be a return to hand-drawn artwork. In some cases, like in comedies, the sketches are very imaginative and a lot of fun. The vibrant colors in the background of figures stand out more due to the use of whiter paper. Titles like Los murciélagos, Domingo salvaje and Los años verdes, for instance, are quite attractive. On the other hand, the dramatic impact of photo insets begins to drop at this time. The stills pasted on most of the cards cannot compete with those of the classic period. The carefully arranged shots of photographers Alvarez Bravo, Márquez and others, are absent. Yet the prevalence of these black and white, glossy stills is something we should appreciate even in this post-classic period.
In conclusion, posters and lobby cards were once the favorite devices for the promotion of films. The leading U.S. distributors of Mexican movies, Azteca Films and Clasa-Mohme, imported one-sheet posters from Mexico to advertise their product. Besides, these companies produced their own lobby cards, which they sold or rented to theaters. Although these publicity cards were generally done without any artistic pretension, their original designs and formal characteristics make them into valuable pieces of memorabilia. The appreciation of posters and lobby cards has just begun. Today, there is a greater desire to preserve the history movies and the artifacts that helped draw people to theaters.
March 17, 2010
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