The Film Behind The Poster - Lolita (1962)
In this series of blog posts, we select a poster from our Catalogue of Original Vintage Movie Posters and take a closer look at the film that it promoted.
In this, the fourth of the series, we look at 1962's "Lolita”, directed by Stanley Kubrick and based on the 1955 novel by the Russian / American author, Vladimir Nabokov.
Nabokov was born in 1899 to a wealthy family in the (then) capital of Russia, St. Petersburg. Their family tree can be traced back to Nabok, a fourteenth Century prince who had served the Tsars.
Vladimir’s route to the United States was an eventful one. His family fled Russia during the 1917 revolutions, settling in Britain (where Vladimir studied at Cambridge), Berlin and then France before fleeing the advance of the German army, and travelling to New York on board the SS Champlain.
He became a naturalised U.S. citizen in 1945.
Lolita - The Novel
“Lolita” tells the story of Humbert Humbert, a middle aged professor of literature and his infatuation with Delores Haze, a teenage girl he nicknames ‘Lolita’.
Nabokov had taken five years to write the book and along the way had considered destroying it. Finishing it in the December of 1953, it took him two years to find a publisher (eventually in France) and a further three years before the book was published in his native United States. Once released there, it sold 100,000 copies in its first three weeks.
Despite the novel’s uncomfortable subject matter, it is not necessarily a work of erotic fiction. Commentators have noted the irony and surrealism within the text and the thinly veiled observations it makes of society at that time.
Published with some controversy (it was initially banned in the U.K.), it is now considered one the greatest novels of the 20th Century. A 2003 BBC poll placed it within the top 200 ‘best loved’ novels of all time.
Lolita - The Film
The film rights to the novel were purchased by James B. Harris, Stanley Kubrick’s partner in the Harris-Kubrick Pictures Corporation. A lengthy screen play was written by Nabokov, of which Harris apparently remarked “You couldn’t make it. You couldn’t lift it.”
The final screen play had been extensively reworked by Harris and Kubrick. Despite this, Nabokov was given sole credit and would later win the film’s only Oscar for best adapted screenplay.
The marketing for the film asked “How did they ever make a movie of Lolita?”
The answer is, very, very cautiously. The approach they took to the film is well represented by the movie trailer. This introduces a highly comic tone, moving to farce and slapstick at some points. All eroticism is stripped from “Lolita” the film. It is very much a dark comedy.
Harris and Kubrick were careful to cast a more mature actress in the role of Delores. Whilst it may be accused of painting an unrealistic picture of a very serious topic (and one of which I suspect we are more acutely aware in the 2010s), within the film, Delores is the stronger out of her and Humbert. It is ultimately she who chooses her path in life, and, in doing so, defines his.
The film also strengthens the role of Clare Quilty, played with great comic effect by Peter Sellers. In fact, Kubrick’s decision to play with the narrative order of the story makes Quilty both the opening and closing of the film. Seller’s portrayal of a previously more sinister character brings to mind his later creations of Clousseau and Fu Manchu. It is his, and Shelley Winter’s superb ‘over the top’ portrayal of Delores’ mother, Charlotte, that weaves a comic web around Humbert and Lolita.
Despite containing sections ‘road tripping across the U.S.’, the film was actually shot in the U.K., at Elstree Studios. Back projected scenery was used to create the illusion of car journeys through America. Hilfield Castle, a short drive from where I write this at Art of the Movies H.Q. was used as Quilty’s home.
Cinematically, it is a stunning film, showcasing the directorial and photographic skills for which Kubrick would become so famous.
Costing $2M to produce, the film returned close to $10M. In addition to Nabokov’s Oscar, the director and all four main actors and actresses were nominated for Golden Globes, with Sue Lyon winning for ‘Most Promising Newcomer – Female’. It is perhaps her ‘tight rope’ portrayal of a female character at the cross-over between a young and beautiful girl and a mature and sassy woman that ensures the film succeeds.
In later life, Kubrick apparently commented that had he known how much eroticism he would have to leave out of the film, he would never have made it. I find that hard to believe. The most sensual moments of the film run under the opening credits. Humbert paints Delores’ toe-nails, setting an almost uncomfortable, potentially, but not quite, erotic tone. This is quickly followed by the introduction of the comic and farcical Quilty. Those two counterpoints set, the film never needs to return to the erotic. I believe it would have been far poorer for doing so.
Turning, as we usually do in these posts, to the movie poster. It is a blaze of colour against the black and white of the movie.
The carefully positioned green ‘splat’ next to the tagline forewarns of the film’s comic tone.
Whereas the novel has been criticised for portraying the situation solely from Humbert’s point of view, with Lolita as a memory or dream-fragment, the movie poster places Delores front and centre.
The photo was by Kubrick’s friend, Bert Stern. Stern, who also famously photographed Marilyn Monroe, captures the ‘tight rope’ position of Delores / Lolita perfectly with his shot of Sue Lyon’s eyes peering over heart-shaped glasses as she sucks on a lollipop.
Our particular copy of the poster was originally folded, as issued, but has been professionally linen-backed and restored. It displays superbly and would look stunning framed, and where it should be, on a wall.
Born of controversy, a difficult and thought provoking subject matter and cinematic genius, Harris and Kubrick’s “Lolita” will always hold an iconic position in movie history.
That’s it for this entry. We are now off for a game of “Roman Ping Pong”. I’ll probably keep score the way Quilty does!
If you enjoyed this post, you can read all of the other entries in the “Film Behind The Poster” series here.
Adam and the Art of the Movies team.