December 1963 | Volume 15, Issue 1
HELEN (Steps on balcony. It crumbles beneath her.): My God, it is falling! Help! Help! (She goes down with balcony, but catches on cliff. At same moment War field enters above, followed by Major and Norwood.)
WARFIELD (Rushes to edge.): Helen, hold! I’ll save you! Ah, the flag! (Swings down on flag.) Hold! I am coming!
HELEN: I cannot. My hands are slipping. Good-bye. God bless you.
WARFIELD: Hold! I will reach you! (Grasps her. Major and Norwood begin to raise them by the flag. Curtain.)
The thrilling moment depicted on the opposite page, and explained (more or less) by the dialogue above, was not the climax of The War of Wealth , a highly successful melodrama going the rounds of the American theatre in 1896. It was, indeed, only the end of the first of five acts which rose to a veritable crescendo of hairbreadth escapes before the final curtain. From the point of view of the theatre-poster artist, however, this scene had everything needed to lure paying customers to the box office: a luscious but swooning heroine Poised on the Brink; a dashing hero whose grasp is perfectly equal to his reach (and note the daring position of the right hand!); and Old Glory doing double duty as a stimulus to patriotic fervor and as a deus ex machina by which the splendid couple may just possibly be saved for further perils, not to mention each other’s arms.
From Baltimore to Butte and back, and including New York, N. Y., the big multicolor playbills were splashing additions to the local scenery whenever a new show was in town. Lovely ingenues defied dastards from every fence and abandoned building; from every telegraph pole and saloon window imminent catastrophe loomed in apparitions of suspended horror. Customers crowded into the theatres to get their chills and sobs in two and a half hours, three dimensions, and eighteen scenes; and usually-although poster artists’ imaginations were admittedly a bit overwroughtthey were not disappointed. They found little dramatic subtlety, to be sure, but plenty of spectacular sound and fury, including at least three or four howling storms, exploding steamboats, or runaway (on a treadmill) horses. As for emotional content, it was dished out in such copiously unequivocal doses that nobody had to think twice (or even once) to get the message. The heroine was pure (although sometimes seducible through misguided motives); the hero was both pure and strong; the villain was villainous; and in the end virtue always got its just reward while vice was dreadfully punished. Jt was a theatre of the not quite absurd-the progenitor of radio and television dramas by the thousand. On the next ten pages we show a sampling, from the collection of the Library of Congress, of the color posters that enlivened the American theatrical scene around the turn of the century.