If I asked you to consider the word LOGO, what would you come up with? Very likely you would start rifling the image files in your mind. Depending on your age, the ones at the top of the pile might be very different: the blue IBM or red and white Coca-Cola logos; perhaps the Apple logo or the lightning bolt typeface identifying the Harry Potter series (typography is as much a part of logo design as pictorial elements). Logos, at least the successful ones, all have in common an ability to instantly connect viewers with an idea or collection of impressions inspired by the sign (the logo). Like all modern businesses film studios have spent years nurturing, protecting, and very carefully tweaking their logos because in a market economy consumer identification is essential to the success of a business plan whether you’re selling popcorn or splitting the atom.
The logo for Big Blue, IBM, created by legendary designer Paul Rand who also created corporate logos for ABC, UPS and Westinghouse. The original name of the company, International Business Machines has been superseded by the all-encompasing image of the blue and white striped logo. As with the IBM logo, the lightning bolt font signifying the Harry Potter franchise demonstrates the importance of typography in logo design. In fact, logo designers take typography so seriously that when international home furnishing giant Ikea changed the typeface on their 2010 catalogue from slick, clean, Futura to a screen font created by Microsoft (Verdana), bloggers and design sites were merciless in their contempt for what they saw as a huge step backwards for the Ikea brand.Coming relatively recently to the corporate world, the Apple Corp. logo made up for lost time, quickly becoming one of the most recognizable images in the world.
The use of symbols and signs has been a major preoccupation for thinkers at least since Plato who maintained a distinction between things and signs (in modern linguistics this distinction is often referred to as between signifieds and signifiers—an object like a tree and the word tree that we use to talk about that object). In 397 AD the great Christian philosopher Augustine, the Bishop of Hippo (located in present day
Saint Augustine, whose wide ranging philosophical meditations brought him to consider the importance of signs and symbols. He may very likely have been considering the wealth of connections both conscious and unconscious that come into play with the image of the Christian cross. Other religions have their own powerful visual metaphors. The Buddhist Wheel of Dharma symbolizes the turning of the universe.
In the case of tree the word calls up much more than just a picture of an object growing in the woods. It carries with it a wealth of symbolic attachments, memories, personal and cultural references: the Tree of Life, the chestnut tree in Longfellow’s poem, Shel Silverstein’s story of the giving tree, that tree in the backyard under which you played as a child or climbed as high as you could and which allowed you to see the earth spread out like a blanket far below. Trees are mentioned in the Bible, they are planted to commemorate momentous events, used to build ships which provided for the economic welfare of nations for thousands of years, they appear in quotes from Whitman, Thoreau, and, of course, Wordsworth. Abraham Lincoln compared a tree to one’s character and Joyce Kilmer famously observed that “Poems are made by fools like me, but only God can make a tree”. All of these images, concepts, and palimpsests of memory come into play with the appearance of the sign: tree. This is the type of reaction early film moguls wished to engender with the signs that represented their products.
The Tree of Life, The Giving Tree, Yggdrasil, the Norse mythological tree surrounding the earth, and American Redwood trees all demonstrate the power of an object like a tree when invested with metaphorical signification.
Even the most casual filmgoer will immediately recognize the MGM lion, Columbia Pictures’ Lady Liberty, the Warner Brothers WB shield and the spinning globe that opens films produced by Universal. These brands, and those of RKO,
MGM's lion, Columbia's Lady Liberty and Paramount's star-studded mountain top. Classic Hollywood studio logos.
Very likely the earliest identification markings were used to denote ownership--pottery markings or cattle brands for instance. The Greek historian Herodotus writing around 440 BC describes cylinder seals used by Babylonians for purposes of authentication and identification in business or personal transactions and cylinder seals have been found in digs at ancient Mesopotamian sites dating back some three thousand years. Homer describes the use of color and design as branding elements used by military groups and individuals during the Trojan War. The surly but fearsome Achaean leader Achilles sailed to
Cylinder seals were in use some three thousand years ago to authenticate the identity of the owner of the seal. Ancient Greek pottery art illustrates early imagery of the great warrior of Homer's Illiad, Achilles. A more recent impression of Achilles, Brad Pitt from Troy.
The process of signification gained ground all through the middle ages. If you were going to war at any time from the 10th century on and you were wearing armor, you would want your very own logo in the form of a banner, insignia or coat of arms so that in the heat of combat you didn’t catch a battle axe in the head from one of your own men. The development of heraldry with its symbolic representations of flora, fauna, mythical creatures, graphic elements, and color codes came into its own at this time. And not just for its usefulness on the field of battle.
During the middle ages coats of arms, banners and insignias were essential for telling the good guys from the bad guys. The image on the left shows English soldiers rounding up French prisoners (identifiable by the fleur-de-lis designs) at the Battle of Agincourt. Flaunting the fleur-de-lis did nothing for the French. Henry V, the English leader at Agincourt, killed his prisoners. On the far right a symbol from an earlier army, the Roman Legion. The Eagle, a common symbol for the grandeur of Rome, sits atop a banner displaying the initials SPQR, Senatus Populusque Romanus, the motto of the Roman Republic, the Senate and People of Rome.
The strategy of businesses identifying themselves with some kind of recognizable sign was also a product of the middle ages. The family of the Marquis de Goulaine, working out of the vineyards of the Chateau de Goulaine has operated a wine producing business since the year 1000. It is the second oldest continuously operating business in the world. Its coat of arms (shown below) has identified its products for over a thousand years. (The oldest, in case you’re wondering, is a hotel and spa company in
Since the year 1000 AD the Chateau de Goulaine (center) has operated a wine making business which makes their coat of arms (left) the oldest visual business reference. According to the Guinness Book of Records the oldest brand (and logo) still in effect is Lyle's Golden Syrup, made in the UK.
Coats of arms are rife with signification. Here are three examples using symbols to communicate to anyone who can read them important information about those who have chosen these images to reflect either their family or their organization. On the left is the heraldic coat of arms of the Anglican diocese of Trinidad. It employs three primary symbols of Christianity: the Cross, the Greek letters Alpha and Omega, symbolizing God as being the beginning and the end, and the Shield of the Trinity explaining the relation of Father, Son and Holy Spirit. The center coat of arms represents the family name Casey (my name) and uses eagles to symbolize strength and courage (you bet!). The chevron design which mimics a roof indicates protection and the color, white or silver, represents peace and sincerity. The motto--not shown in this illustration--comes from the Aenied: Per Varios Casus, by various fortunes. My translation of it in the Aenied is "through various calamities". I think I'll take the former translation. On the right, a coat of arms with crows indicates watchfulness or providence. As one might expect, all coats of arms say something nice about the bearer. I could find none that indicated the owner to be a slimy, untrustworthy weasel.
But we have our own sets of symbolic imagery and references that generate contemporary visual metaphors. Most of these are culturally determined so using them in other settings can be perilous. To most Americans familiar with pop culture a single glittering glove says “Michael Jackson” and carries with it all the ideas, memories and assessments that each of us can conjure up about his stellar career as a performer and the creepy eccentricities of his personal life. All manifest in a simple image. It’s a symbol that conveys much more information than “glittering glove” although to a villager in
The famous glove and all that it implies.
The advertising world is full of stories about the problem of translating imagery or signs from one culture or group to another. When Coca-Cola decided to enter the Chinese marketplace in 1928 the company discovered that the phonetic translation of the name turned out to say something like “Bite the wax tadpole” in Mandarin. Coca-Cola executives, realizing that things don’t go better with tadpoles--even wax ones--wisely selected a different set of pictographs which meant roughly “Tastes good and gives pleasure”. You may be thinking now about the egregious-sounding story of General Motors trying to sell a car named Nova in South America (the problem ostensibly being that “no va” translates as “no go”—a problem if you’re selling something that must go). I declined this story because it’s largely apocryphal and trotted out all too often anyway. I myself have always been curious as to the reason for choosing Super 8 as a name for a motel chain. Obviously no one around that table made a connection with the word suppurate. Nonetheless, the import behind all stories of this kind is the power of imagery and logos and identification when employed to sell a product. And that brings us, finally, to the development and production of images selected to represent the major
Coca-Cola's entry into the Chinese market in 1928 almost equated their product with a tadpole--a wax one to boot. Attention to naming is as important as a good logo. Super 8 motels might have wanted to choose a different number had they realized its homophonic connection to suppurate.
MGM’s roaring lion came to life as the brainchild not of Sam Goldwyn, Louis B. Mayer, or Marcus Loew, owner of Metro pictures, but of one of the most interesting of early
Howard Dietz, multi-talented creator of the MGM logo talks with Marlene Dietrich in 1949 while serving as host for a weekly MGM radio program. Louis B. Mayer. An early version of the famous roaring lion trade mark.
The lion is the mascot and symbol of
MGM's motto, Ars Gratia Artis, was probably the only thing Sam Goldwyn (center) and Louis B. Mayer had in common with writer, bon vivant and master of the epigram, Oscar Wilde (left). Wilde, never one to lose an opportunity for epigrammatic wittiness, said on his deathbed "Either this wallpaper goes, or I do". The single biggest reason for MGM's reputation for highly polished, quality films was head of production Irving Thalberg seen here with his wife, Norma Shearer, and his boss, Louis B. Mayer. Thalberg was the inspiration for the main character in Scott Fitzgerald's novel The Last Tycoon.
Known in the business as Re-take Valley, the Metro backlot, especially after the arrival of wunderkind head of production Irving Thalberg (lured away from Universal by Mayer in 1924), became the workshop of perfectionists. No detail was deemed inessential or unimportant and MGM turned out the most beautifully crafted films during the thirties and forties; films often with “important” (but never controversial) themes: Captains Courageous, Mutiny on the Bounty,
MGM produced films with extremely high production values demonstrated very nicely in such entries as Grand Hotel with John Barrymore and Greta Garbo, Mutiny on the Bounty, starring a mustache-less Clark Gable and Charles Laughton, and Captains Courageous with Spencer Tracy (winning the first of back-to-back Best Actor Oscars) and Freddie Bartholomew.
MGM went after the best talent and that included its front office. Howard Dietz, although he made a substantial name for himself as an executive at Metro, would have been famous had he never met Louis B. Mayer. His collaboration with songwriter Arthur Schwartz produced some of the greatest and best known American song standards: You and the Night and the Music, I Guess I’ll Have to Change My Plans, Dancing in the Dark and that evergreen paean to Showbiz, That’s Entertainment. Dietz, a prolific workaholic, who saved practically every scrap of paper he ever wrote on or signed, donated his collection to the New York Public Library. It is the largest such collection in the building. He tried to stay in New York cranking out song lyrics by day and working on MGM projects by night but, as Wilfred Sheed in his chatty and much too fun book about American songwriting, The House That George Built, recounts, “For some time now Howard Dietz had doubled as publicity director for MGM…as a sort of hobby supporting a hobby; but the stakes had never been so high before, and the dabbling days were done. By 1936, it was no longer enough to mail in one’s work. Louis B. Mayer had to see you working.” One final note about this amazing talent: while at
Stills from The Bandwagon, one of the greatest Hollywood musicals, put together from a string of songs written by Howard Dietz and Arthur Schwartz. Fred Astaire and Cyd Charisse dance in Central Park. Astaire in the Shine on My Shoes number. A poster for The Bandwagon.
The MGM lion began as a simple title card with a lion superimposed in a circle with some scrollwork and a theatrical mask surrounded by garland beneath. There were a number of lions through the years, Slats, Jackie, Tanner, and Leo to name a few (some more ferocious than others) but the general production piece was the same: a simple in-camera effect that superimposed the matte card over the growling lion. MGM had some fun by replacing the lion with, among others, three growling Marx Brothers after the brothers came to MGM from
MGM, like almost all Hollywood studios, tried to update their logo in the late sixties. Few of these "improved" versions lasted very long. With mergers and buyouts ravaging the old studio system new owners found comfort, and audience identification with the vintage logo designs, albeit with a nod to progress (note the mgm.com at the bottom of the title card).
If MGM’s lion was the most recognizable logo, the oldest is
The Man Who Invented Hollywood, W.W. Hodkinson. Well, if he didn't actually invent Hollywood, he did invent the Paramount logo.
Working with Jesse Lasky and Adolph Zukor he created the Paramount Pictures Corporation in 1914 and at a meeting with Zukor, sketched out a version of the star-ringed mountain. There has been no end of speculation as to which mountain, if any, Hodkinson was thinking of when he took pencil to blotter paper. Some have maintained it was a mountain (Ben Lomond) in
The Paramount brain trust, once they had gotten rid of Hodkinson. Adolf Zukor (left) and Jesse Lasky. Three of Paramount's biggest stars during the forties were Bob Hope, Dorothy Lamour and Bing Crosby. The three appeared in a series of movies known as the Road Pictures (the Road to Zanzibar, Rio, Utopia, Bali, etc.). In the Road to Utopia, Hope, seeing a mountain in the distance suddenly sees stars ring the peak. Recognizing the Paramount logo he turns to the camera and says "My bread and butter!" Paramount is also mentioned in a number of the songs sung by Bing and Bob. In the Road to Morocco they sing "For any villains we may meet we haven't any fear, Paramount will protect us cause we've signed for five more years."
Aaron and Hirsz Wonskolaser (or maybe it was Wonsal—another puzzle!) stood outside a Nickelodeon theater in 1903 watching customers parade by and drop their nickels in a plate. They went in and watched three pictures, came outside, shook hands and decided to go into the moving picture business. Later that year they bought a projector and established a theater in
The Brothers Warner: Harry, Jack, Sam and Albert. The WB shield.
Unlike MGM’s lion or
There has never been much fancy about the logo but the shield and the initials have undergone many small adjustments and variations over the decades. The shield itself represents strength, protection and unlike the regal lion and the majestic mountain, establishes itself as representative of a more aggressive, unbending, muscular style of filmmaking. And that, in fact, is what Warner’s became known for. Despite the wartime romance masterpieces like Casablanca, the three-hankie tearjerkers like Now Voyager, and swashbucklers like Captain Blood, Warner’s made its name on gritty, socially conscious pictures like I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang and Grand-Guignol gangster epics like Little Caesar and Public Enemy (two of the great endings in movie history: Edward G. Robinson, as the mad-dog Caesar Enrico Bandello, dying of gunshot wounds, moans “Mother of Mercy? Is this the end of Rico?” and Jimmy Cagney, wrapped like a bug-eyed mummy in hospital bandages falling, dead, through the front door of his mother’s house as she sings, happily unaware of her son’s unconventional homecoming). That shield meant serious business was ahead. But as the company expanded its brand the WB shield also became associated with Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck as well, with musicals, and, in today’s market with syndicated television shows. Here at WBKO we show Ellen, People’s Court, Judge Joe, Sex in the City, Bonnie Hunt, Smallville, Gossip Girl and more—all Warner shows. That’s a lot for any logo to handle.
Warner Bros. Pictures made their name with gritty, hard-edged social dramas like I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang, starring Paul Muni. It was based on a true story about the horrific prison conditions in America at the time. The other side of the coin: gangster epics like Public Enemy starring a feral Jimmy Cagney as the up and coming killer, Tom Powers.
As the Warner entertainment empire expanded, the WB shield also became associated with much different fare: television hits like Ellen, Gossip Girls, and a certain kwazy wabbit.
But it does show how what a logo represents can change in both subtle and dramatic ways over the years. We’ll consider that next time when we complete our look at the major studio logos and consider also how the time of their origins have impacted both the film industry and our vision of a movie-made world. Stay tuned.