“I’d like everyone reading this book to come away proclaiming movie ads a great lost art,” declares John McElwee. It’s unlikely his wish will come true, but that’s no detriment to “The Art of Selling Movies,” a panorama of newspaper advertising from the early teens to the end of the 1960s. McElwee’s lively and informed commentary runs through more than 400 examples of the strident black-and-white collages that have crammed the entertainment pages of America’s far-flung press.

( Paladin)

McElwee has a consuming fascination with the process that brings Hollywood’s astronomically costly products to hometown audiences. The importance of his broad collection is that these ads came not just from the great urban centers, but also spoke for neighborhood cinemas in obscure townships across the States. These neighborhoods were often far away, in every respect, from the studios and executive offices of classic-era Hollywood.

The distributors thought they had it all wrapped up: The official “press-book” for each film supplied a selection of reviews (enthusiastic) that could be passed on to local newspaper editors to save them the trouble of commissioning their own review. The press-book also provided a selection of illustrated advertisements in every shape and size.

But these conveniences did not necessarily suit the needs of theaters in, say, Fort Smith, Ark., faced with unrelenting competition from rivals across the street. They had to fight back with much more than a film or even two. They added comedy shorts and cartoons, star appearances, vaudeville shows, giveaways and marketing tie-ins with local businesses — all of which they highlighted in advertisements. In Beloit, Wis., Harold Lloyd’s “Hot Water” (1924) was a good sell for the Humphrey Gas Water Heater, while every purchaser of a pair of shoes from Hunt’s in Fort Smith got a ticket to see Betty Grable in “College Swing” (1938). Someone walked (or rode) off with a “live pony” given away at the Saturday matinee of a 1932 Tom Mix film in Lockport, N.Y.

The cast of “Belle of
 the Yukon” gallops into Chicago, c. 1944. (Courtesy of GoodKnight Books)

To proclaim such riches in a few square inches of advertising space was a challenge, but for the most part, it was expertly done. These ads kept patrons flocking in through two wars, the Great Depression and the revolutions of sound and color. The biggest threat came in the 1950s from television, inspiring movie ads to proclaim visual excesses that the small screen could not equal: “Cinerama Puts You in the Picture.” The ads for “Kiss Me Kate” (1953) exhorted, “Don’t miss the spanking scene in 3D.”

Of course, sex was the ultimate draw. Some movies — “Futurewoman” (1943) with Denise Darnell, “6 ft 7-1/8 inches of perfect womanhood” — had it firmly built in and ready to illustrate. But someone thought to lure audiences to “All Quiet on the Western Front” (1930) with a drawing of the shapely legs of a chorus girl.

In line with the stern moral rules placed on the films themselves, in 1930 the Motion Picture Association of America drew up a code of practice, revised from time to time, to ensure that “nothing offensive or contrary to good taste” was employed to market movies. The code was voluntary, and advertisers, already conscious of local sensibilities, trod a fine line.

In addition to morality and taste, theatres sometimes had to fend off political controversy. D.W. Griffith’s “The Birth of a Nation” (1915), with its racist rewriting of the Civil War and aftermath, provoked demonstrations and brought to the fore the fledgling Association for the Advancement of Colored People. A theater in Des Moines boasted: “2,000 Horses. Orchestra of 25. No Riots from Showing.”

Charlie Chaplin was something else. By 1952, America’s once best-loved comic had been pushed into exile by J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI as a political and moral undesirable. His films were picketed by the American Legion. But one Chicago theater bravely risked showing “Limelight,” declaring in its advertisement, “We realize that he has been the subject of much controversy. We do not presume to judge his morals or his politics. However, we do recognize genius.”

McElwee ends this unusual social history at the close of the 1960s, not because the ads became less abundant, but because, he writes, at this point they “drift toward inconsequence” by comparison with TV and burgeoning new media. His nostalgia for the palmy days nevertheless remains touching and unshaken: “Theater advertising could be lurid, silly, plain foolish, and sometimes . . . lovely. For a gone era wherein they flourished, ads were a daily menu of mixed flavors, infinite variety, and pleasures enough to occupy seekers for a lifetime.”

David Robinson is a film critic and historian and director emeritus of the Pordenone Silent Film Festival.

The Art of Selling Movies

By John McElwee

Paladin. 304 pp. $39.95