Wide Angle

First- Class Act

Sunday, July 20, 2008

A mocha-skinned, marcelled beauty is bent over backward, pushing away from a tan lover with lacquered waves. Maybe she is fighting him off. Or maybe she is giving a second thought to this seduction. Whatever, the embrace is definitely heated, and one you usually don't find on a postage stamp.

Yet this week, courtesy of the U.S. Postal Service, the poster from "The Sport of the Gods," a black silent film released in 1921, has become a first-class stamp. Movie posters have always been collectibles, but the advertisements from the early days of black cinema are rare, and so is much of the knowledge about these movies.

Postal officials were attracted to vintage black cinema images for their artistic qualities as well as their history. "The posters themselves are powerful, beautiful and striking," says David Failor, manager of stamp services for the Postal Service. "They tell a really great story about the industry that was out there that a lot of people don't know."

The five stamps are based on posters done before 1950, which eliminates the young visage of Sidney Poitier and the groundbreaking swagger of Richard Roundtree in "Shaft." Says Failor, "It was not so much the time frame, but we wanted five examples of really good artwork."

The earliest poster is of "Sport," the story of a woman who moves to that naughty New York after her husband goes to prison for a crime he didn't commit. The stars were Edward R. Abrams and Elizabeth Boyer. The silent movie was based on a novel by poet Paul Laurence Dunbar and was made by the Reol Motion Picture Corp., a white-owned company.

"Sport" was only one of hundreds of films made about black subjects in the early years of cinema. The films were entertainment but also had a purpose. "Between 1912 and 1929, these movies were made exclusively by independents, some black and some white. They offered sharply different portrayals of blacks than you would find in Hollywood films of the time. They were lawyers, cowboys. If there were African American characters in the Hollywood films, they were secondary and servile," says Gerald R. Butters Jr., dean of general education at Aurora University in Illinois, who has written on film history.

Often, a film company managed to make just one movie. But some outfits, such as the Lincoln Motion Picture Co., survived long enough to make a series of films. The earliest movies were driven around from theater to theater, showing in an informal network of black movie houses. Sometimes the black films were shown at midnight in white theaters. Copies of some films of the era, such as the 1927 silent "Scar of Shame," still exist, including a number by Oscar Micheaux, the most prominent of the black filmmakers. Film festivals have shown his 1925 silent "Body and Soul," which introduced Paul Robeson.

The 19-minute "Black and Tan" marked the movie debut of composer and bandleader Duke Ellington. In this 1929 short, he played a poor musician whose piano was about to be repossessed. Actress Fredi Washington, the Halle Berry of her day, also starred. The poster is a silhouette of a bandleader against a sunny yellow background, with black-and-white caricatures of his orchestra trailing up and down the side.

In the 1945 "Caldonia," another famed musician plays himself. Louis Jordan appears in the 18-minute short as a man who goes to New York and loses his Hollywood contract and his girl, Caldonia. Against a background of yellows and oranges, the poster shows a top-hatted Jordan dancing, dressed zoot-style in purple long coat and red-striped pants. "Here comes Mr. Louis Jordan," shouts the type, "King of the Bobby Sox Brigade."

Another familiar face is that of Josephine Baker, who beams from the center of the poster from her 1935 film "Princess Tam-Tam." The American-born performer is not dancing in the kind of scanty costume that riveted the Paris of the 1920s but is dressed in an elegant gown and seated, though she looks ready to pounce. The poster is from the Danish release of the film, which follows a French novelist who brings Baker from Tunisia to Paris, introduces her as a princess to make his wife jealous and to provide a story for his book.

The last stamp is the work of the famed Al Hirschfeld for "Hallelujah," a 1929 film made by MGM with an all-black cast and directed by King Vidor. Nina Mae McKinney, another talented beauty who was known as "the Black Garbo," was a co-star. The film itself has been debated for years for including both the reality of rural life and stereotypes. The poster shows a stylized flapper raising her yellow-gloved arms.

The posters were obtained from art collections and galleries, but four of the artists are unknown. Carl Herrman, an independent art director, then created the design with the film strip motif for the 20-stamp sheets.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company