Update: The Marx Brothers movie poster sold for $40,800.
What you see: A Marx Brothers movie poster for their 1932 film Horse Feathers. It’s a three-sheet poster, which measures 41 inches by 80 inches. Heritage Auctions estimates it at $25,000 to $50,000.
The expert: Grey Smith, director of vintage movie poster auctions at Heritage Auctions.
Who were the Marx Brothers, and where were they in their career in 1932, when Horse Feathers was released? They were really known for their stage work prior to the early 1930s. They were recruited in New York by Paramount to do an adaption of a play they were in called The Cocoanuts. The Marx Brothers weren’t primarily physical comedians–it was all verbal banter, puns, and plays-on-words that attracted the audience. They did this movie and Duck Soup and then MGM picked them up. Most Marx Brothers fans love the Paramount films because they were more loose, less…
Well, they were pre-code–made before the Hays Code. Right. The Paramount films were more loosely concocted stories, all over the place. MGM buttoned them up and gave them a more direct narrative. When they made Horse Feathers, they were at the peak of their popularity in the early part of their career.
The poster touts “The 4 Marx Brothers”. Who’s the other guy off by himself? That’s Zeppo, in the lower right. The fifth Marx Brother, Gummo, never appeared in the films. Zeppo was the straight man to the other three brothers. He didn’t continue to the MGM years.
Do we know who did the portraits on the Marx Brothers movie poster? We do. The man who did them was Sam Berman, an artist working for Paramount. He did a number of images of the Marx Brothers for the poster campaign.
It’s funny how the design layout of the poster plays right into how most people remember them–“Groucho, Harpo, Chico, and… that other guy, what’s his name…” Exactly right. In marketing this movie, they played up the three crazy ones, but they needed to show the other brother. I don’t want to say he’s an afterthought, but there he is.
How rare are vintage Marx Brothers movie posters? Original Marx Brothers material is really pretty scarce. There was quite a demand for many years. I suggest that it was college students who found them in the 1950s and 1960s, who found the fun of those films. They really became popular in those years and the posters were probably sought after and they scooped up whatever they could find.
And that’s how this Marx Brothers movie poster might have survived? College students who ran campus film clubs would ask the distributor to send along any old posters they had kicking around, so they could advertise it? I can only believe that is the case. Local television stations needed product to fill their airwaves and were showing older films constantly. The Marx Brothers were part of that. Their verbal banter, their appearances, and their movements were really fascinating. Young adults discovered them, and it probably led to a run on their films. It’s a guess, but it’s a fair one to make–their posters are desirable.
The appearance of each Marx Brother seems to have been codified by 1932, judging by the Horse Feathers poster. How did the brothers’ recognizability help sell the movie? By this time, their fourth movie with Paramount, their images were pretty iconic. They were really well-known in their screen personas, and they immediately translated to the poster in exaggerated cartoon form. Everyone knew by looking [at this poster that Horse Feathers] was not a serious romantic drama. They could see what it was.
The lot notes describe this Marx Brothers movie poster as “exceptionally rare”. What makes it so? We sold another copy of this one last year for $66,000. The only difference is this copy is in a little bit better condition than the copy that was previously sold, and that other copy was autographed by Groucho. He wrote his name next to his head.
And that’s it? Those are the only two copies of this version of this Marx Brothers movie poster? They’re the only two copies I’m aware of. It’s a coincidence that this one appeared so soon after [the first one sold in March 2020].
Ok, let’s pretend I’m walking to the movie theater to see Horse Feathers. Where would I see this long, skinny Marx Brothers movie poster? Is it in a case outside the theater, or is it displayed inside? Both. It could be outside the theater, in a case, and they put them inside the theater. The most common movie poster is the one-sheet. Three-sheets [which this poster is] and six-sheets are more rare. They’d get used and abused more than a one-sheet. They [the people who ran movie theaters] would take three-sheets and six-sheets and cut out the Marx Brothers’ heads for a display of their own making. This paper was very inexpensive and totally expendable.
What is this Marx Brothers movie poster like in person? What eludes the camera? When people come here to view a poster, they say, “Wow, it’s so much brighter in person,” and it usually is. The photographs are good, but it’s not like seeing it in person. It’s just much more vibrant.
What’s your favorite detail of the poster? The caricatures are wonderful, especially Harpo, whose eyes are wide open.
Sam Berman seems to have given Harpo Marx red hair, though. I wonder why? We don’t know. Bear in mind that none of these films are in color. The studio provided the artists a number of stills from the film, and they used them to create images for the poster.
The Marx Brothers movie poster is described as being in “Very Fine, minus” condition. What does that mean? It’s just saying the poster is very presentable. Very Fine minus means there’s very little, if any, paper loss, and very minor wear to the paper.
As we speak on March 9, 2021, the Marx Brothers movie poster has been bid up to $12,500. Is that meaningful, given how far away in time the auction is? Not really. I don’t think so. I tell people all the time that people don’t get involved in bidding until the week before, and really [get involved] when it comes down to the auction block. I have seen posters come to the block with a $10,000 bid and when it’s all over, they sell for $355,000. That’s not unusual. Now that auctions are so immediate and many have access to bidding in real time, people will wait and keep their cards close to their chest until the auction goes live.
Comedy is ephemeral. Horse Feathers is close to being a century old. The Marx Brothers have been dead for decades. Why do they persist? Why are we still talking about them today? The only way to explain it is to go watch a few of their films. They had a unique and really quick banter. It’s sort of like asking what people find enchanting about Charlie Chaplin–City Lights is one of the best films created. It’s incredible.
Why will this piece stick in your memory? I see a lot of good material come through our auction house. I see posters as tangible pieces of cinema history. This poster is a very, very significant piece of cinema history. Fifty years from now, people will look at the auction catalog and think, “Wow, you could buy that for that price.” I think demand will continue to be significant. Museums and institutions will want them.
Image is courtesy of Heritage Auctions.
Grey Smith has appeared on The Hot Bid many times, talking about a 1929 Russian movie poster for Battleship Potemkin, a lobby card from the 1932 film Freaks, a unique Japanese movie poster for The Seven Samurai and a 1934 poster for the nudist film Children of the Sun.
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