Monday, March 10, 2014

Jerry Gebr's Saturday Evening Post-esqe titles in "The Sting" (1973): Judge a Movie by its Title

One of my favorite all-time films is the classic Paul Newman & Robert Redford movie The Sting (1973). The film has a lot of things going for it: namely the incredible cast headed by Newman and Redford, but also featuring the impressive talents of Eileen Brennan and Robert Shaw. There is a classically great cinematic feel to the whole film. Set in the 1930s, it has an excellent period feel that is nostalgic without over-glamorizing. And its smart, which is obviously the film's best element. It is an extremely clever story, headed by two smart actors, and the whole thing just works. It's one of those films (like the Indiana Jones movies) that I will just watch again and again without losing any enjoyment.
I mentioned that I always notice that The Sting has a great cinematic feel, which is kind of a vague comment. I guess what I mean is that The Sting is obviously paying homage to the classic films (which would have actually played during the period when the film is set). Not only does it have the elements of any great classic film from the Golden Age: smart dialogue, great cast, complete entertainment: it deliberately borrows from some features of the Golden Age. Including (you guessed it) the titles.

It's interesting that The Sting should use this device as well because, if you've read any of my title sequence posts before, the title sequences before the 1950s were generally fairly utilitarian. By the mid-30s, they started featuring some illustration behind their title, but it wouldn't be until the great artists of the 50s, including Wayne Fitzgerald and most importantly Saul Bass, who really perfected the art. So the filmmakers of The Sting did what movies do best: it adapted an old idea to make it new and original. They maintained the emphasis on the stars (as was the case in the great Studio days) and mixed it with more artistic titled. And they turned to the great Jerry Gebr to do it.

I've done a few posts on Jerry Gebr and his illustrious career in film and television before- so if you've never heard of him- read up on him. He was responsible for some of the most notable pieces of art that appeared on Universal television programs and movies in the later-20th century. One of his most notable film contributions are the titles for The Sting. I say titles, not opening titles, because they appear throughout the film to note the different sections of the film. I feel that the use of titles throughout the film is a clear throw-back to the dialogue titles of the silent films of the '20s. And this idea is supported by the repeated use of Joplin's The Entertainer throughout the film. So, while the film takes place in a very nostalgic '30s, it has almost a more vintage feel to it. This contributes to the feeling that the film is pure entertainment.
Relying on this vintage feel of classic Americana, Gebr must have been inspired by the iconic cover illustrations of Saturday Evening Post. Norman Rockwell has made the Post's covers synonymous with feelings of nostalgic Americana (which is not really a fair criticism of his work, but this is not the place for that), but Rockwell was not the only great artist to grace the covers. The illustrations are beautiful, clean, and always scream '20s graphic design to me because... well... they're prime examples of great '20s graphic design. Gebr borrows this feel for the film's titles. Not only do the illustrations have a similar look, not only does the film suggest a similar feeling, but the mix of words and illustrations on the title cards contribute to this mixed dialogue card/ magazine cover feel.
I've said it every single time I've talked about title sequences: a truly great title sequence, an artistic title sequence needs to contribute to the overall feel of the film. It needs to prep the audience for the film to come. And Gebr's titles not only prep, but they support, the feel of the film throughout the film. The Sting is pure, good-old-fashioned entertainment with a distinctly vintage Americana feel. And that feeling of classic-America is felt throughout the film and throughout the titles.

It should be noted that these stills are in no particular order. I'm sorry. While I've seen The Sting, I haven't memorized the order of the titles yet. If you really need to know- it gives you the perfect excuse to watch the film again!

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