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Posters 'Too Good' For Films

Updated: Feb 4, 2022

McKnight Kauffer Musings

So read a headline in London’s Evening Standard newspaper in November 1926.

“Mr E. McKnight Kauffer, the artist whose work is known to the public at large through the art gallery of the Underground, has had two posters rejected by a film firm”.

The poster designs in question were submitted to Woolf & Freedman, the company tasked with distributing films made by Gainsborough Pictures, to advertise the silent film The Lodger: A Story of the London Fog

Made in 1926 The Lodger was only the third film directed by a young Alfred Hitchcock. In 1962, during an interview with French film director François Truffaut, Hitchcock remarked “…you might say The Lodger was my first film”. When released in 1927 the film became a commercial and critical success and set Hitchcock on an upward spiral. A November 1927 Evening Standard article claimed that he had recently signed a new contract with British International Pictures which would pay him £17,000 a year, “the highest ever paid in this country to any [film] director, English or foreign”. The film critic went on to say “...he [Hitchcock] lives films”.

One aspect of the film that critics commented upon was the innovative use of an animated introductory title sequence and inter-film title cards, “art titles”. These were designed by McKnight Kauffer, his first and only foray into film work. With Kauffer so interested in film, especially experimental European cinema, the fact that no film-related work came his way over the next 28 years of his working life was surely a disappointment. He did however become a member of the newly formed (1925) Film Society, designing logotype, and later serving on the council. At its outset the society attracted artistic and literary members – among them Roger Fry, Augustus John, H.G. Wells, George Bernard Shaw, and Julian Huxley

The Film Society logo

Evening Standard
31 August 1926

For the text of the main titles on The Lodger Kauffer turned to a typeface that had only recently (1923) been designed in Germany. Neuland, an all capital typeface, designed as a modern form of blackletter by the noted German type designer Rudolf Koch, suited Kauffer as it has the appearance of being freely drawn. Each title card was hand-lettered by Kauffer using the Neuland typeface as its basis.

Above is the main title card. The angular shape framing the shadowy figure of the man is simply animated by gradually closing.

An example of Neuland typeface (below) – compare with Kauffer’s hand-drawn lettering

Here, Kauffer gives himself the credit ‘Title Designs’. It was 22 year-old Ivor Montagu’s idea to include titles throughout the film. Art Director C. Wilfred Arnold too was very young. He went on to art direct scores of British films. Alma Reville, the assistant director, became Hitchcock’s wife.

Some of the title cards were illustrated (above).

Others were text-based (below)

It is well-known that throughout his career Hitchcock liked the idea of giving himself short cameo roles in his films. The Lodger was the first time he appeared in one of his own films. He is seen from the back talking on a telephone in a newspaper office as news comes in about the killing of a young blonde woman – the seventh victim of a serial killer who calls himself The Avenger. Hitchcock had hair then!


Kauffer was encouraged to submit a design for a poster to advertise the film. He submitted two designs suggesting a fee of £50 would be appropriate. The film’s distribution company, Woolf & Freedman, appeared to be shocked by the modernity of the poster designs stating in a rejection letter (Evening Standard 23/11/1926) : “They [the posters] are sort of Futurist and quite attractive, but for one thing we did not want the public to think the film was one of these expressionist pictures like Dr Caligari.” McKnight Kauffer must have felt insulted at some of the remarks included in the letter. The film critic of the Evening Standard, Walter Mycroft, was almost certainly known by Kauffer - it is most probable that Mycroft got to know of his dissatisfaction and wrote the article cited above.

The rejection letter continued to annoy Kauffer by adding that W&F considered £50 was far more than they would normally pay for a film poster, proudly proclaiming that the company only needed to pay £10 for the poster design they were going to use. It concluded: “the quality of your work is a little too good for what we are requiring just at present.”

I don’t know how many newspapers picked up the story (The Times of London mentioned the story at a later date) but I have one example from a regional paper, the Liverpool Post & Mercury which, in a short enigmatic caption, cites the same phrase – the posters were rejected “on the ground that they are too good”

Liverpool Mercury & Post
16 December 1926

The photograph gives no clues as to the appearance of The Lodger poster designs. Instead Kauffer is shown "working" on his already printed Underground poster advertising Socrates at the British Museum

The same Evening Standard article proudly announced that the production of Kauffer’s poster designs was “not entirely in vain”. The manager of the Marble Arch Pavilion was going to show The Lodger at his cinema for an exclusive run and offered to display the rejected posters “so that the public may judge for themselves”.

Newspaper advertisement
17 January 1927

What was so shocking about the poster designs?

One of the designs is currently on exhibition in New York at the magnificent McKnight Kauffer exhibition at the Cooper-Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum in New York. This is the version that Kauffer donated to the Museum of Modern Art in New York once the 1937 retrospective exhibition of his posters had closed.

I do not know the whereabouts of the other rejected work. I presume it is this one I show below. The design ties in very closely with his title card designs

I have seen a German and a French poster for the film. If any film buff can point towards the poster that W&F actually commissioned, it would round off my story!


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