What you see: Original gouache and pencil artwork by Anselmo Ballester for a mid-1930s Italian movie poster for Sylvia Scarlett, a 1935 film starring Katharine Hepburn and Cary Grant. Bonhams estimates it at $4,000 to $6,000.
Who was Anselmo Ballester? He was an Italian artist, based in Rome, who spent almost five decades creating movie poster art for Italian and American studios. “He was one of a handful of artists U.S. studios turned to to create the Italian versions of their movie posters. You had to redesign the entire poster for overseas audiences, and they were designed in the country of exhibition,” says Dr. Catherine Williamson, director of books and manuscripts and entertainment memorabilia for Bonhams. His posters featuring actress Rita Hayworth are absolute standouts. Ballester died in 1974 at the age of 77.
How rare is it for the original artwork for a vintage movie poster–any vintage movie poster–to survive and come to auction? “It is rare-ish,” she says, explaining that Bonhams has held an annual movie poster sale for three or four years, and there have been two to five pieces of original movie poster art in each. “Often, they’re drafts–not final versions of the work,” she says. “I haven’t seen a lot of his artwork come onto the market.”
Sylvia Scarlett was considered a flop in the United States, and some suspected that it had to do with Hepburn’s character, who spends most of the film cross-dressing to pass herself off as a boy. Was Ballester aware of the film’s box office troubles when he got the commission for the Italian movie poster? “The artists didn’t have a lot of information about the movies. Often, it’s clear they didn’t watch the movie or read the script before making the poster,” she says. “The studio probably knew Sylvia Scarlett was not successful, and that might have to do with the decision to foreground Katharine Hepburn in men’s garb [and let a more feminine image, rendered in red, dominate the composition.] Hepburn with long, curly hair is not an accurate depiction of what she looked like in that film.”
Sylvia Scarlett featured the first on-screen pairing of Cary Grant and Katharine Hepburn, but Ballester’s poster design focuses on Hepburn alone. Why? “He understood that moviegoers wanted to see stars,” she says. “His posters are very star-forward. He placed the most beautiful Hollywood stars front and center, and they look even more beautiful [on his posters] than they are on screen. That was his signature.”
But… he left out Cary Grant. Cary Grant! “Honestly, his posters are all about beautiful women,” Williamson says. “Sometimes, male stars make it onto his posters, but they don’t get the same treatment. If he can put women on the poster, he certainly does.”
Ballester rendered the gouache and pencil in two colors. Is that unusual, or did he normally limit his palette? “It depends. Maybe it tells us it’s a preliminary piece,” she says. “The fully executed ones are not monochromatic or bichromatic. They show the full range of colors.”
Did the studio go ahead with Ballester’s poster design for Sylvia Scarlett for the Italian market? “I think what we have is not what was used,” she says, noting that the final version gives the title as Le Grand Aventura de Sylvia and the art doesn’t seem to look like his work.
I understand it’s common for the original artwork for a movie poster, which is unique, to sell for less than the actual movie poster, which had a press run in the hundreds or the thousands. Why? “Poster collectors collect posters. People who collect art are perhaps less interested in poster art,” Williamson says, adding, “There’s not a lot of original movie poster art, and there’s not really people who just collect original movie poster art. There’s not enough to support it as a collecting discipline. It’s too hard. There’d be no fun in it.”
When do collectors prefer foreign market movie posters over the American versions? “In general, the poster from [the film’s] country of origin are more valuable,” she says. “The exception is when the artwork is so superior, collectors decide they would rather have a gorgeous version of the Italian poster with Rita Hayworth than the American version of the same film.”
How to bid: The Sylvia Scarlett original poster art is lot 91 in TCM Presents… Vintage Movie Posters Featuring the Ira Resnick Collection, taking place November 20, 2017 at Bonhams New York.
Text is copyright Sheila Gibson Stoodley. Image is courtesy of Bonhams.