New York lobby card exhibit to spotlight silent-era women filmmakers

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“Experimental Marriage: Women in Early Hollywood” draws on a unique collection of posters and ephemera assembled by the Chicago-based collector Dwight M. Cleveland, who has spent nearly half a century accumulating what is believed to be the largest privately held film poster archive in history. [Image provided]

NEW YORK,  New York – A major exhibition of lobby cards from the silent film era highlighting the untold stories of women’s contributions to the early film industry will go on view at New York’s Poster House next month.

“Experimental Marriage: Women in Early Hollywood” draws on a unique collection of posters and ephemera assembled by the Chicago-based collector Dwight M. Cleveland, who has spent nearly half a century accumulating what is believed to be the largest privately held film poster archive in history.

The exhibition marks the first time that these lobby cards, a recent addition to Cleveland’s collection, have been exhibited in a museum setting, according to a news release.

On view from April 7 through Oct. 9, “Experimental Marriage” will provide a rare glimpse into the understudied histories of female filmmakers who worked in Hollywood during the silent era, offering a powerful corrective to the misperception that early American cinema was an exclusively male industry.

These stories are illuminated through the medium of lobby cards — a form of graphic advertising that dates back to the earliest years of theatrical film exhibition, when studios began to advertise in movie theater lobbies as a means of promoting their latest releases. Often painstakingly handcrafted during a period before color printing became commonplace, these cards became a miniature art form in their own right, reflecting and advancing the graphic design aesthetics of what was then an emerging field of commercial advertising.

At a time when Hollywood star culture was still in its infancy, these lobby cards also offered studios the opportunity to spotlight the artists and craftspeople who worked behind the camera — which included women at all levels of production, from costuming, set design, and editing, to screenwriting, producing, and directing.

The lobby cards featured in “Experimental Marriage” were acquired by Cleveland, a real estate developer and historic preservationist who has long been at the forefront of film poster collecting and advocacy. After deaccessioning his archive of more than 40,000 film posters in 2016, Cleveland now retains his personal holdings of more than 4,000 posters, lobby cards and other ephemera, including many objects that are unique or were produced in extremely limited editions.

Portions of Cleveland’s collection have been donated to the Library of Congress, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences and other international institutions like the Bill Douglas Cinema Museum at the University of Exeter in the United Kingdom, according to the news release.

In recent years, Cleveland has re-calibrated his collection to highlight female filmmakers as well as other film artists and craftspeople from underrepresented minorities. This sub-collection numbers 12,000 silent film posters, lobby cards and stills: 40 of these works will go on view for the first time in the Poster House exhibition.

Selected works from Cleveland’s collection of historic movie posters went on view in 2019, in an exhibition at the Norton Museum of Art in West Palm Beach, Florida.

That year also saw the publication of “Cinema on Paper: The Graphic Genius of Movie Posters,” a major monograph highlighting the collection, which was distributed by Assouline Publishing — the first time that the distinguished publisher had ever released a book solely focused on film posters. Turner Classic Movies’ Ben Mankiewicz and the noted graphic arts scholar Steven Heller both wrote introductions to the book.

These milestones reflect Cleveland’s decades of advocacy to encourage the study and exhibition of film posters as a popular art form in their own right — one that reflects the historical and artistic developments of the past 120 years, and the often overlooked individuals and communities who contributed to them.

Cleveland has stated that his ultimate goal is to partner with a benefactor or institution that will help promote and share his narrative that movie posters are important cultural artifacts, and that will make his personal collection available to film scholars, cultural historians and the general public, according to the news release.

“When I first became aware of this remarkable collection of lobby cards, I knew it was an opportunity to reshape my own collecting practice by illuminating the essential contributions of women to early Hollywood — a seldom-told story that feels ever more relevant as today’s entertainment industry strives to finally live up to its ideals of gender equity and inclusivity,” said Cleveland in a statement. “I’m proud to share these stories with the world through this exhibition with Poster House, and I look forward to more opportunities to make this collection accessible to the public.”

The 40 lobby cards selected for “Experimental Marriage” date back to the early 1910s and extend through the conclusion of the silent era in the late 1920s. Because of the fragility of their production materials, each of these lobby cards is believed to be the sole extant copy from its respective printing.

The cards in the exhibition spotlight female film artists such as Alice Guy Blaché, Lois Weber, Marian Ainslee, Zoë Akins, Dorothy Arzner, Margaret Booth, Adele Buffington, Lenore J. Coffee, Beulah Marie Dix, Lady Duff Gordon, Edith Head, Anita Loos, Jeanie Macpherson, Frances Marion, Bess Meredyth, Zelda Sears, Blanche Sewell, Adele Rogers St. John, Jo Swerling, Dolly Tree, Eve Unsell, Sophie Wachner, Gwen Wakeling and Dorothy Yost, as well as many other little-known women who contributed at every level of the early film industry.

“What we have in this remarkable collection is not just proof of how many women worked behind the camera, we have the very artifacts of their artistry,” said Jane Gaines, a film professor at Columbia University, supervisor of the Women Film Pioneer Project and author of “Pink-Slipped: What Happened to Women in the Silent Film Industries?,” in a statement.

In conjunction with the exhibition, Poster House will mount a series of interpretive and educational programs related to the history of women in silent-era Hollywood. For more information, visit posterhouse.org.

-BAM

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