Taking Credit: Film title sequences, 1955-1965 / 2 Introduction

Essays by Emily King
2 346 words12 min read


While those engaged in film studies have for the most part ignored title sequences, historians of graphic design tend to treat them purely as graphics which through cinema technology have taken on a temporal dimension. Film has been the subject of widely respected academic study for more than thirty years. Over that period much has been written on the history of the cinema, but the most complex debates concerning the medium have taken place at a highly abstracted, and generally ahistorical, theoretical level. Most still address the auteur, a concept first developed in the late 1950s, either by rejecting the idea of authorship in favour of structuralist approaches, or by attempting to redefine the ‘auteur’ as a construct reconcilable with more recent theoretical stances.[2] Writers on set or costume design in film usually attempt no more than chronological surveys. Few have taken a historically analytical approach to film design or tried to establish links between issues raised by the study of design in film with the other debates active among film theoreticians and historians or design historians. A vast amount of work could be done within this gap and by making a detailed study of film title sequences in the decade between 1955 to 1965, rather than filling a single isolated academic hole, I hope to establish a sensible methodology for this kind of enquiry.

From the mid 1950s until the late 1960s there was a vogue among mainstream movie-makers for opening films with title sequences that were related in style to fashionable static graphic design. The credit sequences that were part of this fashion were quite distinct from traditional Hollywood movie titles. A vernacular graphic language had been developed in the major studios at the outset of the twentieth century. This had been used, with slight alterations to accommodate sound, colour and other technological developments, to title mainstream North American films until the mid 1950s. In their heyday the Hollywood studios would have had title-makers on the payroll. The first titlers hired by the film industry almost certainly were trained sign-writers because from the start film credits were set out in templates derived from nineteenth century hand-lettered signs. These formats were so dominant that they were adhered to even in memos between members of a movie’s production team regarding credit (fig.1).

This is not to say that the titling of Hollywood films was uniform. Within the Hollywood-vernacular there was variation, though little subtlety. While Westerns were titled with the kind of typeface that would have been used on ‘Wanted’ posters for hardened bandits in Hollywood’s version of the Wild West, the opening credits for romances were often written in letters that appear to be fashioned in pink ribbon and those for slapstick humour in ‘paint-stroke’ typefaces that suggest hastiness and incompetent workmanship (fig.2). But, while these Hollywood-vernacular typefaces were appropriate and communicative, no thought was given to the on-screen relationship of word and image. The two might well have been designed entirely independent of one another. The words of the credits generally appeared, drop-shadow, against a background of a single static image or a short sequence shot from an immobile camera pointed at an attractive background, such as a rippling sheet of silk or a rural landscape. Of course there were some notable exceptions to the rule, such as the titles of Sunset Boulevard (1950) which appear to be painted onto a road in the wake of a speeding car, but rather than relating to contemporary graphic styles, this unusual title sequence makes a witty filmic joke.

Just as Hollywood developed its own style of film-titling, it also developed a native poster format. While in Europe modern graphic styles had always been used on film advertisements, until the 1950s American film posters nearly always took the same format of the film’s title above ‘realistic’ portraits of its major stars or a depiction of its climactic scene. An article on ‘Exemplary Film Publicity’ in Graphis of 1964 described the traditional film poster as ‘lurid and loud’ and dismissed the indigenous Hollywood graphic language by claiming that ‘film publicity deliberately chooses a cheap graphic idiom in order to attract the masses.’

Between them the major studios created the vernacular visual vocabulary for the Hollywood film in the first half of the twentieth century and unlike parts of the French and German film industries they never whole-heartedly embraced international modernism.

Modern design played an integral part in the structure of a number of European films in the 1920s and 30s. In The Cabinet of Dr Caligari (1919), a German horror movie intended for a mainstream audience, modern design was an important element of the film’s innovative theme, and in L’Inhumaine (1924), a French film also intended to appeal to a wide audience, experimental modern sets were intended to complement ground-breaking photographic techniques. Although by the mid 1920s major Hollywood studios were hiring full time designers to create the ‘look’ of the modern, to American film-makers it was never more than a fashionable decorative style. As such it was heavily laden with narrative meaning, for example the Hollywood-modern sets for What A Widow (1930) carried clear messages about the high class and progressive character of Gloria Swanson’s lead character. Modern art and design continued to be used in this way by the Hollywood studios into the 1950s. While in High Society (1950) we are meant to assume that the Bing Crosby character is a modern-minded man because of a small Picasso on his wall, Hitchcock set most of his film North by Northwest (1955) in streamlined trains and Wrightian buildings to imply the extreme sophistication of his fictional international spy network.


In exploring the introduction of modern graphic design into mainstream English language films from the mid 1950s, it is important to discover whether it is simply a new element that was absorbed into Hollywood’s visual language or if it reflected some fundamental change in the relationship between mainstream film and modern design. Although Hitchcock both wrapped his films in modern graphic packages and set them in Hollywood-modern interiors, the relationship between the two is not straightforward. While the sets conform to conventions of Californian film-making, the title sequences were something quite new.

By examining the visual and cultural context of title sequences which break from the Hollywood tradition in their use of up-to-date graphic styles I hope to clarify the shifting relationship between design and mainstream film in the period between 1955 and 1965. I have approached this task through detailed case studies of five mainstream English language films of different genres chosen from throughout the period. These are: The Man With The Golden Arm (1955); Vertigo (1958); Spartacus (1960); From Russia With Love (1963); and What’s New Pussycat? (1965). Each of these films, to a greater or lesser extent, attracted popular and critical attention at the time of their release and each has a title sequence which relates closely to static graphic styles of their period. While the first four speak the modern graphic language derived by American designers from the early twentieth century European modernists, the last has a retro-Art Nouveau sequence. This inconsistency reflects shifting fashions in graphic styles over the decade. An independent graphic designer was responsible for the design of the title sequences of each of these five case study films. Rather than being on the payroll of the production companies making the films, they were simply brought in on contract to design the opening sequence. In each of the case studies the designer of the opening credits is acknowledged within his own sequence. Because Saul Bass remained the only graphic designer to be producing important work in mainstream film throughout the 1950s, the first three case studies of the thesis concentrate upon his work. The last two examine the work of other designers whose credit designs were part of the phase pioneered by Bass.

These last two case study films demonstrate increasingly close links between the mainstream British and North American film industries. The Bond film, although made in Britain and produced by a British company, was funded by American dollars and represented largely American interests. What’s New Pussycat? was made by an American company, but filmed in Europe with an English director. The changing structure of the mainstream English language film industry in the early 1960s makes it appropriate to view these European-made films as the heirs of the Hollywood film-making tradition.

The two decades after the second world war saw dramatic upheavals in the North American film industry. Box office takings by mainstream American films reached an all time high in the years immediately after the war. But in 1948, the same year that major studios were making record profits, they were involved in a legal battle, the outcome of which would significantly weaken the hold of ‘the big five’ on the international movie industry. At the close of the Paramount Case in May 1948 the United States Department of Justice insisted on ‘the complete divorcement of the affiliated circuits from their production and distribution branches’. Major studios were forced to let go of their theatre circuits in which their films had been automatically guaranteed exhibition. Cinemas began to rent from distributors on a movie by movie basis, judging each picture on its own merits. This led to a fall in the number of films produced by the Hollywood studios. But while releases in North America by the major studios fell from 234 in 1945 to 215 in 1955 and plummeted to 167 by 1966, releases by independents increased, particularly by those companies importing films from abroad where they worked in cheaper studios with relatively low-wage technicians. In 1945 143 films made by independents were shown in the United States, in 1955 independents released 177 movies and in 1965 releases by independents outnumbered those by the major studios by 118. The stranglehold of the major studios over the mainstream English language film-industry had been almost completely broken.


But despite increased opportunities for independents, overall the late 1950s and 1960s were years of crises for the North American film industry. Movie audiences dwindled. In 1945 the film industry took 23.6% of the dollars spent in the United States on recreation while in 1955 it took only 7.3%, So while on average corporate profits in the United States flourished, box office receipts were falling and all film-makers experienced hard times. Potential film-goers were increasingly choosing to stay at home and watch television. Asked in 1959 what were the most encouraging and discouraging developments in film of recent years, the director Elia Kazan answered ‘the triumph of television’ to both. ‘We have to be good or big to survive - at least we have to try.’

While the Movies Are Better Than Ever campaign run by a major studio in the late 1950s tried to convince Americans that films were ‘good’, it was on ‘big’ that the ‘big five’ chose to concentrate. Writing on ‘Blockbustering’ in 1963, Penelope Houston defined a blockbuster as ‘a film running not less than a hundred and fifty minutes, shot in colour, or in some big screen process, or both, shown initially on a "hard ticket" or "roadshow" basis.’ The term first came into currency in the mid 1950s and by the early 1960s blockbusters were being produced systematically. Houston argued that the saturation of the market with high budget, intensively advertised movies was self-defeating. Because these films targetted those who went to the cinema on a once-a-year basis it seemed unwise to release several each month. Cleopatra took $25 million in rentals in North America in 1963, making it the eleventh most successful film at the box office that year, yet, having cost $38 million to produce, it cannot be regarded as a commercial success. But despite the risks involved in blockbustering studios film-makers continued to adopt the strategy through the 1960s.

Graphically adventurous film title sequences flourished against the background of a generally ailing film industry, coinciding with the realisation by film-makers that they must develop strategies to attract increasingly reluctant audiences into movie theatres. As well as blockbustering, increased attention to advertising and attempts to shape a product which was sufficiently differentiated from television to tempt people into theatres, but would still appeal to a primarily television watching audience, were parts of the campaign to win back audiences. Through my case studies, I address the relationship between changes in attitude towards design by some film-makers and the protean structures within which films were being produced in the period.

Trying to place film title sequences within a wide context, I have drawn on a variety of material for evidence. Films have been my most important primary resource, but I have also systematically looked at movie publicity material and graphic design journals. Existing texts on cinema have been useful in establishing the cultural status of mainstream film and I have explored notions of intended or unconscious cinematic meaning through literature on named directors or films. To discover how the title sequences of the case study films were read at the time of their release, I have looked at contemporary reactions both in reviews and critical essays.

Establishing the place of the title sequence in practical terms relative to production of the body film had to be partly guess-work, though all speculation has been based on reliable sources. A detailed archive on the production of Spartacus made it clear how Bass’s sequence fitted in to the production of that film and interviews with designers have given me a fairly accurate impression of the schedules in which other sequences were produced. Interviews with graphic designers, animators, set designers and film-makers proved an invaluable source of otherwise completely unrecorded information and helped me root abstract ideas in practical thought. To bridge the histories of graphic design and film, I have been required to make unfamiliar connections between disparate sources of information. By bringing the subjects together, I hope to throw light on both.