Making monsters for the man

Although Reynold Brown created some of the genre’s most iconic movie posters, as a new book on the artist reveals, for him it was just like any other job.

Before viral ad campaigns and other gimmicks, a movie poster was the studio’s essential marketing tool. Littered throughout a newspaper’s entertainment section, the ones for genre films called out with hyperbolic taglines, always claiming to be the most shocking, awe-inspiring epics ever brought to the local picture show. The artwork echoed the pandemonium: cities on the brink of destruction; savage, forgotten tribes; the carnage wrought by monsters and gargantuan reptiles on the loose. Some of the most memorable is the were the work of Reynolds Brown, (1917-1991), one of the most prolific poster artists of the ’50s and ‘60s, and the subject of the insightful and richly illustrated Reynold Brown: A Life in Pictures (The Illustrated Press), by Daniel Zimmer and David J. Hormung.

The 224-page hardcover features scores of Brown’s illustrations and details of his life. A native Californian, he moved to New York in the mid-‘40s, where he began his career in newspaper comics and aviation illustration. By the late ‘40s, he had made a name for himself by designing pulp novel covers for Signet and Pocket and drawing covers for Popular Science. In 1951, he returned to California and was quickly scouted by the film industry for his ability to meticulously capture the likeness of his subjects — a talent particularly useful for depicting monsters, aliens and madmen as larger than life.

“There is a spirit of fun and vitality in those posters that is lacking from the other posters he was most proud of [the westerns, etc.], which to me seems somewhat drab and pedestrian by comparison,” says Zimmer, who as a boy discovered Brown via a poster art book.

Although Brown’s brushstrokes would grace more than 300 films ads for various studios, including posters for westerns, musicals and adventure epics, his supremacy in the field of sci-fi and horror is undisputed. His iconic work defined an entire generation of genre cinema, gracing posters for Creature From the Black Lagoon (and its two sequels), Attack of the 50 Foot Woman, Tarantula, This Island Earth, The Deadly Mantis, House on Haunted Hill, The Time Machine, The House of Usher, The Raven, Curucu, Beast of the Amazon and The Masque of the Red Death.

“There’s something about the Creature from the Black Lagoon that touches some deep primal nerve in me,” says Zimmer of his favourite Brown work. “That monster is one of the all-time greatest designs for a creature ever, and his renderings of it are just beautiful.”

Although Reynolds Brown originals now sell for between $4000 and $30000, according to Zimmer, the artist was paid poorly by the studios. He received an average $300 per ad; by contrast, Universal had once offered Norman Rockwell $10 000.

“Reynold preferred to do epic scenes of the Wild West, painting horses and cowboys and Indians, or the highly detailed portraits that he was so good at,” reveals Zimmer. “Everything else was just a job, produced to earn a paycheque.”

He adds that the father of eight nearly destroyed his work at one point. “Later in life he almost burned of his monster-related artwork in a fire in the backyard! Most of those images were the first posters the family sold, so I think hey all wanted to disassociate themselves from that work.”

Despite how Brown felt about his genre output, A Life in Pictures makes it clear that he poured his soul into it. As Zimmer puts it, “You don’t have Reynold Browns growing on trees, you know?

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