British poster artist Tom Chantrell (1916-2001) was responsible for some of the most striking cinema artwork of the 20th century. One thing is for sure, he was certainly the most prolific. Tom (known as ‘Chan’ to his close friends) told me once that he considered himself to be the “busiest commercial artist in Britain”, and he was probably right. During his long and distinguished career he painted some 800 cinema posters.
Born in Ardwick, Manchester, Tom briefly attended the city’s famous Art College, but subsequently went into advertising. He moved to London, aged just 17 in 1933, and produced his first cinema poster five years later for The Amazing Doctor Clitterhouse, an American crime caper starring Humphrey Bogart. Tom joked that the film’s title made it sound almost pornographic; perhaps subconsciously it paved the way for his later ‘X’-rated output. For over 50 years Tom was the distributors’ artist of choice. He painted posters for titles as diverse as Cleopatra, Carry On Cowboy, Dracula Has Risen from the Grave and Zulu Dawn, but in the 1970s he was best-known as the creator of sex film advertising.
Tom had an uncanny knack of making even the cheapest-sounding sex film look astonishing. He told me that people often commented that his posters provided more entertainment than the actual movies! Titles like Sex at 7,000 feet, Confessions of a Sixth Form Girl, Sex Odyssey, Girls Come First and Linda Lovelace for President all benefitted from beautiful Chantrell artwork. Although his incredible poster for 1977’s Star Wars was the one printed (and re-printed) in the largest quantities, it was actually another he designed the same year which had greatest longevity at UK cinemas. The quad poster for Come Play with Me (in all its variations) was displayed at the Moulin cinema in Soho for nearly four years, and was duly unrolled for regular engagements at hundreds of provincial cinemas until 1989.
Tom Chantrell’s original colourful design shows Mary and her smiling co-star Suzy Mandel flanking the film’s title in a gigantic speech-bubble. The portrait of Mary – dressed as a naughty nurse with her left leg raised up – was easily the defining image of her entire career, and was undoubtedly the most reproduced during her lifetime. Sadly, Mary did not actually pose for the artist; Tom copied a black & white photograph taken on the set of the film. Along the bottom of the poster you can see blonde Pat Astley (her nipples safely covered in bath foam); Mary massaging a terrified-looking Alfie Bass; pretty Indian actress Marta Gillot reclining; and another image of a kneeling Mary, this time curiously-portrayed as a brunette. The Come Play with Me poster has become synonymous with British cinema of the 1970s, and is one of Tom’s greatest-ever pieces, but the artist was no fan of the actual film. He told me a couple of years before he died: “I saw Come Play with Me once. I never want to see it again!”
All words strictly © Simon Sheridan 2014-2015