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Movie Logos I Love

by Leonard Maltin
November 28, 2012 8:35 PM
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If you’ve seen Skyfall, you’ve witnessed the wrong-headed update of the venerable MGM logo, zooming out from the iris of Leo the Lion’s eye! Apparently no one reminded the powers that be that “just because you can doesn’t mean you should.” That’s why I was happy to receive the Criterion Collection’s set of Gainsborough Pictures DVDs, in one of its no-frills Eclipse editions, not only because I like those 1940s films (The Man in Grey, Madonna of the Seven Moons, The Wicked Lady) but because I love their logo!

It isn’t one of the more famous movie trademarks, but it’s certainly one of the most distinctive, with a gracious woman inside an ornate picture frame smiling and bowing slightly, as if to acknowledge us in the audience. Nowadays moviegoers are inundated with logos for every production company that has a hand in financing a film. This ridiculous trend, which obliges us to sit through three or four logos in a row, was even parodied a couple of years ago on The Family Guy.

As much as I cherish the well-loved trademarks for MGM, Paramount, Universal, and 20th Century Fox, and like other diehard buffs can cite chapter and verse about their variations over the years, I have a special place in my heart for their odd and obscure counterparts like the Mascot Pictures tiger or the marksman’s arrow hitting its target for The Archers, the name of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s production company. Of course, the British film industry’s J. Arthur Rank gave us the unforgettable giant gong.

In recent years Germany’s Studio Babelsberg, which has been home to  many productions from Hollywood as well as Europe, has adopted a streamlined rendering of the robot Maria from Fritz Lang’s Metropolis as its logo. Any company that acknowledges film history as legitimately as this gets my approval.

Then there’s the Pathé rooster, who’s been going strong for more than a hundred years and still turns up in silhouette at the end of the current Pathé “mobile” logo. So far as I know, that rooster has had the longest life of any movie symbol, in part because he originated with the Pathé Frères in France during the late 1800s, was registered in the U.S. in 1902, and adorned a record label (“I sing loud and clear” was the original slogan) as well as newsreels and feature films over the decades. It’s nice to see the company still respects its longtime mascot.

You’ll even find a snazzy color interpretation of the RKO Pictures logo at the head of the current release A Late Quartet with Philip Seymour Hoffman and Christopher Walken. Dedicated enthusiasts know that there was briefly an RKO Pathé trademark when the companies merged in the early 1930s, showing the familiar rooster on top of a spinning globe.

One of my favorite logo stories may be apocryphal, but I cling to it all the same. When Paramount Pictures was about to celebrate its 25th anniversary, an office worker suggested adding a 25th star to the ring of stars that surrounds its famous mountain peak. At first, executives thought it was a great idea, with tremendous promotional possibilities. Then reality sank in: it would mean re-designing every wall plaque and piece of stationery worldwide, at considerable expense. The 24 stars remained.

But Paramount did “go big” when they adopted a special introductory logo to herald its VistaVision process in the 1950s, with special music composed by Van Cleave. It remains one of my all-time favorite movie openings.

Paramount's VistaVision Logo

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    Paramount Logo

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    Paramount Logo

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    Paramount Logo

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  • Mary Mallory | December 3, 2012 5:10 PMReply

    I love old logos too, especially the great silent ones, from Universal's early globe to early Paramount and Essanay, Vitagraph, etc. Love the Selznick International logo with the glimpse of the old Ince studio and the grand music and the J. Arthur Rank and the man striking the gong.

  • Jim Reinecke | December 1, 2012 10:15 AMReply

    And let's not forget the way the Columbia torch lady blossomed over the years, from the rather unattractively-sketched woman (who wasn't even shown in her entirety!) that we've all seen in early Capra films or the first short subjects of the 3 Stooges (all right, that torch really glowed in that original logo) to the more stylish and majestic figure that she eventually became.

  • Dave Kirwan | November 30, 2012 4:42 PMReply

    Oh yeah! Love the old logos! The crystal Universal globe is my favorite also, with the earlier 1930's droning airplane version a whisker-close second place. But I've always loved that Gainsborough lady... especially when incongruously prefacing something like a corny Arthur Askey comedy! Oh, and don't forget the all-too-rare Monogram edition with the little streamlined train!

  • mike schlesinger | November 30, 2012 3:56 PMReply

    Amen. I always love it when a new picture opens with a vintage logo, even if it's that blah Saul Bass "W" that appeared on '70s Warner films (currently used in ARGO). But my #1 will always be the fabulous "crystal" logo that Universal used from 1937-46, with that rousing Jimmy McHugh theme.

  • Terry Bigham | November 29, 2012 12:09 PMReply

    I too love the classic movie logos. In fact I'm surprised you overlooked the Big Ben logo of Alexander Korda's London Films! It's doubly ironic to me because Big Ben was used by Powell for his first production company, Westminster Films. Then Korda stole the logo. The target logo (inspired by the archery scene in the 1940 remake of "Thief of Bagdad", as related by Powell in his autobiography) appeared after he teamed with Emeric Pressburger. Its last appearance was on Powell's 1960 cult shocker "Peeping Tom", after the Anglo-Amalgamated Atlas logo.

  • Brian | December 3, 2012 10:19 PM

    One of the few times I'd disagree with you Leonard -- I like the fact that they have used the original lion footage from the late 1950s and kept the traditional MGM crest surrounding the lion. I suspect this new logo will be even more eyepopping if it is at the beginning of any 3D features produced by the studio as this whole new montage seems to be more visceral than any the studio has ever had.

    Believe me, when it comes to bad versions of the MGM logo, none can top the one they had for MGM Home Video from the mid 80s into the 1990s, and worse when they upgraded it in the early days of dvd in the late 90s. I'm afraid I sat through it seemingly thousands of times....and I still do occasionally to this day.

    One I loved and never gets any appreciation is the logo for United Artists in the 1990s (when it was referred to in small writing as 'An MGM Company') I'd see it in theatres ahead of the James Bond movies of the era and the studio would occasionally rebrand many of their classic UA titles with this new logo sequence, often in black and white, mono sound and 4:3 aspect ratio if the original movie was produced that way. Their current logo is merely the updated 80s version, but I welcome seeing it, usually in arthouse features these days.

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