“They’re Wooin’ and Doin’ the Things Boys and Girls Like to Do . . . .” This is the message of many of the posters made for Hollywood musicals currently being exhibited at the National Film Center in Tokyo. Liza Minnelli, Mitzi Gaynor and Gwen Verdon, among others, titillate with unfeasibly thin waists, long legs, accentuated breasts and catch lines like “I’ll see you in my dreams” and “Les Girls (Rhymes With ‘Playgirls’).” This is surprising for a genre that is more usually considered light family entertainment, but it goes to show that the musical can be quite a flexible format.
This is reflected in some posters being relatively restrained, such as the one for “Gigi” (1959), which features the hand-painted title with a partial portrait of the eponymous heroine, or the statuesque black silhouette of Audrey Hepburn for that of “Funny Face” (1957). The vast majority, though, offer a cornucopia of colorful graphics whose main purpose was to be eye-catching and sensational.
They are supremely good at it, too, but that is not the only reason to enjoy this exhibition. Now faded and creased, the posters on show allude to how things have changed in terms of cinematic fantasy and graphic design, of course, but also in language and social norms.
The varying degrees of salaciousness and romanticism reveal, depending on your point of view, the postwar liberation of women or the continuing evolution of how female sexuality is exploited in different ways. The 1953 poster for “Kiss me Kate” has Howard Keel maniacally spanking Kathryn Grayson as she looks out at the viewer in mild surprise, whereas in 1958, whatever Lola wanted, Lola got, in “Damn Yankees.” The poster for the 1967 film “Camelot,” a hippie homage to Klimt’s “The Kiss,” on the other hand, has Vanessa Redgrave swooning in the arms of Richard Harris.
If the exuberance of the images does not captivate you, then some of the texts may provide unintentional amusement. Above pictures of Jane Russell and Marilyn Monroe in a 1953 poster, is the question written in Japanese, “Anata wa dochira ga osuki desuka?” (Which do you like?). Spoiler alert: Gentlemen prefer blondes, apparently. The 1959 movie “Say One for Me” promises to “ring all the bells in your heart!” and the 1955 “Ain’t Misbehavin’ ” is a “Hilarious New Look at Life!!”
The posters also tell us that some things haven’t changed. “It’s richer! Deeper! Clearer! It brings you four times more photographic detail. . . . More than your eyes have ever seen!” is not copy advertising the latest 4K digital technology, but text from a 1956 poster for “Carousel,” which was filmed in Cinemascope 55. In other words, Hollywood continues to try to make fantasy ever more visually convincing. In the words of 1955 poster, “Wow! What Fun!”
“Film History in Posters Part 2: Musical Films” at the National Film Center runs till March 29; 11 a.m.-6:30 p.m. ¥210. Closed Sun. and Mon. www.momat.go.jp/english/nfc/index.html#Gallery It then moves to the National Museum of Modern Art, Kyoto.