Laura Wilkens

Thoughts - A Design and Film Related Blog

The blog portion of focuses on graphic design, film, and travel.

Opening Title Design - The 1950s

The 1950's saw a new technological development boom in popularity and effect the film industry more than any other previous decade (you can check out posts on opening title design from the 1920s, 1930s and 1940s). That new technology was the television. TV massively hurt Hollywood as people began to prefer staying home for entertainment instead of making the trek to a theatre. Film execs and producers had to find innovative ways to get people out and watching movies again by clearly distinguishing the big screen from the small screen. One of the solutions was adding more flourish and excitement to film's opening titles to get the audience truly excited for what they were about to see. As opening title design grew, more well-known artists and designers jumped aboard film projects to add their touch, the most prominent being the incomparable graphic designer, Saul Bass.

Saul Bass revolutionized the way people looked at opening titles. Previously, despite the added visual interest to credits, theaters often wouldn't even pull back the curtains in front of the film screen until the actual movie started. Because of this, Bass pasted a note on the film canisters for "Man with a Golden Arm" instructing the theatre to pull the curtains BEFORE the titles began. 

“For the average audience, the credits tell them there’s only three minutes left to eat popcorn. I take this ‘dead’ period and try to do more than simply get rid of names that filmgoers aren’t interested in. I aim to set up the audience for what’s coming; make them expectant.”
-Saul Bass

Notable Saul Bass Works
The Man with the Golden Arm (1955)
Saul Bass' graphic design background is on the main stage in the opening sequence for The Man with the Golden Arm. The simplicity of the white blocks separating and coming back together perfectly to the overlaid jazz beat is a beautifully abstract way of interpreting the film. This paper-cutout look that is almost Matisse-like became one of Bass' signatures.

Vertigo (1958)
The opening credits for Vertigo truly are a work of art. It begins with close-ups of an unknown woman, then after zooming in on her eye, the screen goes red and a rotating spiral appears in her pupil only to get larger and morph into other spinning patterns. The plot has so many twists and turns it's hard to keep up, and the main character actually suffers from vertigo. Therefore, the constantly changing spiral and music that seems to spin endlessly pairs perfectly with the film and throws the audience off balance from the start. 

Anatomy of a Murder (1959)
The titles in Anatomy also highlight Bass's cut-out look. With simple forms that make up the severed limbs of a body (in a very non-gruesome way), the body parts become even more sliced and diced as the credits continue.

Other Non-Saul Bass Works
The Thing from Another World (1951)
As the concept of space travel and exploration became more plausible in the 1950s, the "golden age of science fiction film" emerged as a result. B-rated sci-fi films were being released left and right (Attack of the Crab Women, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Earth Vs the Flying Saucer) while more notable examples emerged as well (War of the Worlds, The Day the Earth Stood Still). The Thing has a very abrupt, very powerful opening sequence that begins with boiterous music sounding almost patriotic which then falls into a more sinister tune as the title of the film seems to literally be blown out of the black screen. Afterwards, as the rest of the credits roll, we are presented with the desolate Alaskan research station where the movie takes place.

Singing in the Rain (1952)
Singing in the Rain has the perfect opening of teasing the title song before the start of the movie. Not only does this bring some excitement to the opening credits, but it provides lyrics that will then be clearly recognizable to the audience later in the film. The hand-lettered typography introducing the three main actors really is beautiful as it's both legible and fits within each umbrella perfectly.

House of Wax (1953)
Though definitely not one of the greatest cinematic achievements of the 1950s, the original version of House of Wax starring Vincent Price has one of the coolest original fonts for it's titles. The large, over-the-top credits literally look like they are melting on screen as their bright orange color sharply contrasts the shadowed blue street scene behind them (beautiful framed by the streetlight). The dripping texture of the letters takes me right back to Jared Padelecki's death in the remake as his wax-covered face literally oozes off his skull (seen here). Thankfully, there's no Paris Hilton in this version.

Shane (1953)
Shane, often cited as one of the greatest westerns of all time, utilizes both a elaborative backdrop and artistic typography for its opening sequence. We see beautiful open landscapes of the west, with billowing clouds and mountains towering in the distance, while the text on the first few frames is complexly built out of leaves!

Desk Set (1957)
Yes friends, there was a film relating to the struggles of office life before Mike Judge captured the flair, red staplers and cases of the Mondays in Office Space (1999). Desk Set (a romantic comedy) takes place in the research department of a broadcasting network as librarians face being replaced by super computers. Much like one of the greatest Mad Man episodes of the series (Monolith, 2015) not only was space travel a big deal from the 1950s-1970s, but so was people's fear of technology overtaking their day-to-day lives. The opening titles are a perfect juxtaposition of the incoming computer's technology as the camera shows a stark office and zooms in on a basic typewriter that types out all of the production credits.

12 Angry Men (1957)
12 Angry Men was one of the earliest adopters of titles that we see most often today in both film and television: jumping right into the action of the story and not beginning the opening credits at all until a few minutes in (in this case, roughly 3 minutes in). By the time the credits have rolled, we understand we're in a courthouse and the jury (made up of those 12 men) is convening while a teenage boy is the defendant. Placing the titles at this point in the film not only forces people to watch them, but allows them to conclude while the characters are in the jury room, the same room where 96% of the film will take place.