It didn’t take long for Hollywood to begin romanticizing its past and feeling nostalgic about its humble beginnings. As early as 1938, Photoplay magazine began publishing retrospectives and looking back on the days of silent film as remnants of a long-forgotten past…even though the first talkie had only debuted 11 years earlier! Although most silent film stars who couldn’t find success after the adoption of sound film faded into obscurity, some had the good fortune to be rediscovered and were brought back into the limelight thanks to print ads and commercials.
When he lost creative control of his films, Buster Keaton wound up ‘starring’ in a series of B movies and short films, often with plots recalling and reworking his earlier, better films. The public had seemingly forgotten about him and his work, until negatives of his films were discovered, restored and given public screenings. This led to them receiving the praise they were due, and prompted a series of live appearances, TV appearances and commercials for big name brands for Keaton. Although he was well into his 60s at the time, Keaton donned his signature porkpie hat and brought his deadpan antics to ads for brands like Ford, Alka-Seltzer and Milky Way.
Of course, Keaton wasn’t the only film star to have his world-famous likeness used for advertising. Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy became so recognizable all over the world, that businesses large and small alike used their likenesses during their lives and after their deaths for products like long-distance phone services and bananas. In this commercial for FYFFES bananas, a caricature of Laurel can be found on the far left and a caricature of Hardy can be found on the far right.
The pair is so recognizable that brands like Scotch Brite need only use their silhouettes in print advertisements.
The man who was, at one time, the biggest star in the world, Charlie Chaplin, has also found his way into advertising history. Although Chaplin himself didn’t have the need or desire to star in any commercials, his likeness was often used, especially after his death, to create bizarre and surreal ads…like this one from IBM.
These are just a handful of ads and commercials that have featured the likes of legendary silent film stars and characters. What’s your favorite ad or commercial that has featured the stars of old Hollywood? Share them with us! And if you’ve missed an installment in our silent film series, be sure to catch up here.
Want to dive deeper into the world of silent film? Keep up with my posts over on Curtains or on Chicago Nitrate.