In the lobby

Lobby card for The Covered Wagon (1923), part of the Western Silent Films Lobby Card Collection

For decades lobby cards were an integral part of the cinema-going experience. While posters appeared outside the cinema to lure you in, the cinema lobby or foyer would house sets of cards – effectively mini-posters – usually arranged in grid form, promoting films on show and films to come. Lobby cards played an important part in making the very process of going to the cinema something special. Though they had been replaced by plain black-and-white stills by the time I started going to the cinema, you still scanned the forthcoming attractions with delighy, like being in a sweetshop or a toyshop, each image extraordinarily filled with promise as you lived out the drama it depcited in your mind’s eye. You saw an entire film bound up in a single, evocative image. Expectation has always been the engine which has kept the cinema going.

Lobby cards appeared in the 1910s, produced first in sets of four, later usually appearing in sets of eight, and acquiring colour by 1917 (even if the films were black-andwhite they were neverhtless promoted in colour). The standard size was 8″x11″, and they would be shown on free-standing boards or easels, or else framed on the lobby walls. They have become a favourite subject for collectors, and they record not only the emotional import of films but frequently document films that do not survive in any other form. They ceased to be produced for American exhibition at some point in the 1980s (around the time that multiplexes became the norm), but still get made for film exhibition in other territories.

All of which is premable to the bringing to your attention of the Western Silent Films Lobby Cards Collection, part of the digital library of Yale University’s Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library. The collection comprises 86 lobby cards and 19 printed fliers used to promote sixty-eight silent Westerns produced between 1910 and 1930. Each image is available as as thumbnail, then x4 and x8 size, plus a zoomable file if you have the right softare for viewing .sid files. The descriptive data is meticulous if dry, telling you all about the card but nothing much about the film that it promotes. Nevertheless, the site a delight to browse. The films featured include The Mollycoddle, The Covered Wagon, The Bronc Stomper, The Pony Express and The Thundering Herd, with stars such as Tom Mix, Hoot Gibson, William Farnum and Fred Thomson.

The collection is part of the Yale Collection of Western Americana at the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, and to discover more about the broadcder contexts in which the silent Western sits, do try out other image sets from the Western Americana collection, such the Detroit Photographic Company’s Views of North America, ca. 1897-1924, Ruckus! American Entertainments at the Turn of the Twentieth Century or Mammoth Plate Photographs of the North American West.

My thanks to Brad Scott for bringing the collection to my attention.

3 responses

  1. This is wonderful stuff. There are several nice examples with Fred Thomson, ordained minister, WWI army chaplain, husband of writer Frances Marion, and cowboy star who died of tetanus at 38 after stepping on a rusty nail. Few of his movies survive.

  2. I love that one-line summary of Fred Thomson’s life, Joe. A model example of how you can indicate the richness of a life in just two dozen words.

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