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Spencer Tracy and Other ‘Sign Painters’

Spencer Tracy and Other 'Sign Painters'

After visiting the American Sign Museum in Cincinnati, I did
what I’d been meaning to do for months: I rented the 2014 documentary Sign Painters online from FilmBuff.
(It’s also available from Amazon and other sources.) This loving tribute to a
neglected 20th century art form includes interviews with some of its leading
practitioners, like the late Keith Knecht, whose John Wayne posters I featured
in my last web post. It also introduces us to artists who are still playing
their trade, including young people who will carry it on for years to come.
There is even a class in traditional sign painting technique (or sign graphics)
being taught at the Los Angeles Technical Trade College.

         My hat’s off
to Faythe Levine and Sam Macon, who spent years creating this labor of love, as
well as Josh Luke and Bob Behounek, who provided their lettering, and Dave
Kiehl of Harvest Moon Design, who was responsible for the inventive title
animation and end credits.

         But there is
another movie that sings the praises of sign painters, and it was made more
than eighty years ago. Face in the Sky
(Fox, 1933) stars Spencer Tracy and Stuart Erwin as a pair of itinerant artists
who paint their images on the sides of barns across the countryside. Tracy is a
cocky fellow with the soul of a poet, an opinion that others don’t necessarily
share, in this fanciful tale directed by Harry Lachman—himself a former artist
and illustrator. Humphrey Pearson’s screenplay was based on a story by Frank
Capra’s close friend and sometimes-collaborator Myles Connolly.

         Unfortunately,
it’s not an easy movie to see, because the sole surviving print, in the 16mm
format, was copied from a rapidly deteriorating 35mm original in the 1970s. It
exists in the William K. Everson Collection at George Eastman House (just
renamed the George Eastman Museum) and was last screened at a Cinefest in
Syracuse, New York.

         I first saw it
when Bill Everson screened it at his Theodore Huff Film Society in the early 1970s. His lifelong friend Alex Gordon had gotten a job as archivist at 20th Century Fox and saved a number of late-silent and early-talkie films that were in fragile, even perilous, condition. (As you may know, a vault fire destroyed many of Fox’s original negatives in the 1930s.) Alex did heroic work—and sent beautiful 16mm prints to Bill in New York with the understanding that Bill could screen them at the Huff Society (itself a secret organization that you had to know about to attend,) but couldn’t announce the titles ahead of time. (—even minutes ahead of time.) Bill added one of these Fox pictures to the existing
programs for more than a year. That meant that diehards like me had to attend
every weekly show, even if we’d already seen the scheduled pictures, because we
didn’t know what the bonus film might turn out to be!

         One night we
laid eyes on the disarming Face in the
Sky
, which Bill later showed in his Friday night series at the New School
for Social Research. The 35mm source material was splicy and missing bits of footage,
but it was still exciting to see such a whimsical and offbeat film, in any
condition. To cite Bill’s  program notes,
“From its zany mock documentary forward to its curious genre change—beginning
as a rural romantic melodrama, winding up as big city musical and fantasy—Face in the Sky is at least
unpredictable. It’s also uneven, perhaps one of the problems of giving a new
director fragile Myles Connolly material, a dialogue coach and a heavyweight
cameraman (Lee Garmes) to help him over the rough spots…. Sometimes the film
is brisk and flowing, at other times relaxed and equally flowing, yet in
between there are episodes where the momentum is lost and the film seems to be
going nowhere. It’s an oddity all right, but a charming and often surprising one,
so we can readily forgive its rough edges. It’s the 11th of Spencer Tracy’s 19
films for Fox between 1930 and 1935, after having tried him out as a second
string Cagney, Fox here seems to be experimenting with him in a Will Rogers
vein.”

         Here’s hoping
that someday, someone will digitize Face
in the Sky
and make it available to curious film buffs—and sign-painting
fans.

 

 

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