Monday, March 30, 2015

Getting Everyone into The Frame

Publishers prefer to feature a photograph on the cover of a film book.  It isn't an unreasonable idea.  After all, film history is mostly about images.  Dramatic tableaus and photogenic faces leave a strong impression on film fans.  An actor's friendly smile can be an attractive welcome to prospective readers. 

But I wanted something different for my book Eighteen Comedians of Silent Film.  I wanted to have an illustration on the cover.  At first, I had something like this group portrait in mind. 

This is the work of the incomparable Drew Friedman.  But this illustration features seven comedians.  My book, as the title indicates, celebrated a diverse group of eighteen comedians.  It would be a tall order to squeeze another eleven comedians into the limited frame of a book cover.  A book cover offers much less space than a wall mural or a magazine centerfold, both of which have been known to support large group portraits.  A pioneer of the Hollywood caricature was Miguel Covarrubias, who made this famous group portrait for a Vanity Fair spread. 

John Decker created this mural for the Wilshire Bowl Restaurant in 1941.   

How about a mob of Jerry Lewis?  Sam Norkin painted this mural for Brown's Hotel & Country Club in Loch Sheldrake, New York.

Bob Harman's Hollywood Panorama, which was five-feet wide and nine-feet tall, featured more than a thousand caricatures of classic film stars.  That's more than a thousand character designs!  Harman created this ambitious work in a span of ten years.  This is just one of many panels from the panorama. 

Sorry, I needed something far less ambitious than this.  A man's reach does sometimes exceed his grasp.  Besides, it was ludicrous to dream of a Drew Friedman cover on a stick figure budget.  But, then, maybe stick figure representations of the comedians was not a bad idea.  I worked with an illustrator named Henly Sukandra to develop this cover.

I have always enjoyed caricatures of celebrities.  During my childhood, celebrity caricatures were everywhere.  They could be found in comic books.   

Mad magazine delighted readers with caricatures from the amazingly talented Jack Davis and Mort Drucker.  Davis would have had no problem crowding eighteen comedians onto a book cover.  No better proof can be provided than the poster art that Davis provided for It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, which is the illustrator's single most popular work. 

His covers for TV Guide never failed to boost the magazine's circulation.  I, myself, made a point to save every TV Guide issue adorned with a Davis cover.

Illustrations do more than excite interest in a film or book.  Illustrations excite the imagination.   Seeing a Davis poster outside of a theater could draw me into the fantasy of a film before I had even seen the first frame.

Here is a celebrity gathering created by Drucker.

I am not the only film book author who prefers to use an illustration instead of a photo.  Take, for instance, the writers who recently put together this book about the Thin Man film series.

They could have easily used the photo on which the illustration was based.

Or they could have used this welcoming portrait.

But they chose an original illustration.  I have to say that it got my attention and I did, as it turned out, purchase the book.

It fascinates me that the art of caricature can be accomplished in so many different ways.  Let us examine the many ways that illustrators have drawn Laurel and Hardy.

Al Hirschfeld

Robert Grossman

Achille Superbi
Sebastian Krüger

I would like to take this opportunity to acknowledge other caricaturists that I admire.

Jack Benny by Bruce Stark

Frank Sinatra by Edward Sorel 

Sid Caesar and Imogene Coca by John Johns

James Montgomery Flagg, 1935

Now, let me talk about caricatures that I don't like.  This level of distortion and exaggeration is unappealing to me. 

Today, this type of caricature has become commonplace due to Photoshop, which allows users to grossly manipulate photos of actors. 

Using Photoshop to enlarge an actor's ears, inflate their nose or stretch out their chin may make the image surreal and silly, but it does nothing to convey the personality of the subject.  That takes the very specialized skill of a free-hand caricaturist.  Compare a portrait of Carol Burnett created by John Johns to a similar portrait created by a Photoshop artist.

I could never get the idea of a group caricature out of my head.  I got the idea to promote my upcoming book, I Won't Grow Up!, with illustrations of famous comedians dressed as children.  I hired an illustrator to create three separate character illustrations and a fourth illustration that combined the characters into a single image.  The finished montage features a rattle-shaking Seth Rogen strapped into a high chair, a mischievous Jerry Lewis yanking on a cat's tail, and a genial Lou Costello riding through the frame on a tricycle.  But this trio looks thin compared to the teeming group portraits of the past.  I can't stop imagining a slew of comedians dressed in kiddie attire tearing apart a day care center.  I hope that, when my budget allows, I can work with an illustrator to make this image happen.

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