The very first sound trailer had a host and ever since, the hosted trailer has been a reliable and distinctive formula in movie marketing. As a rhetorical technique, the hosted trailer combines personal authority with celebrity as its key appeals, since the host is usually a star, celebrity or well-known director or producer.
Besides providing information, a host also plays the part of “audience surrogate,” modeling how to respond to and consume the film for those yet to buy their tickets. Hosted trailers clearly derive from the tradition and style of the Vaudeville impresario and the Circus’ Ring-master, who come before their audiences, offering something for everyone and every taste.
Countering the received wisdom that the filmmaker is the last person who should be allowed to produce the marketing for his or her film, a number of the most memorable (and probably effective) trailers of all time are by filmmakers. Hitchcock appeared in trailers for many of his greatest films. Orson Welle’s hosted Citizen Kane. Cecil B. DeMille was infamous for his 10 minute epic trailer for his epic feature, The Ten Commandments.
Below, I’ve assembled a collection of hosted trailers that every coming attractions buff ought to know. You’ll notice that the “contemporary” era is a bit light. I know they’re still being made, but I couldn’t think of any I’d seen recently. I welcome your nominations. I suspect we could grow this list to 100 without too much difficulty.
THE JAZZ SINGER (1927)
Quite possibly the dullest, most awkward hosted trailer ever. But then, it’s the first, and had no reference. The Host, actor John Miljan (a veteran of 201 films, but not, interestingly, The Jazz Singer), seems confused about his duties, which are: a) to promote and publicize the Jazz Singer; and b) to introduce and demonstrate Vitaphone technology.
CITIZEN KANE (1941)
Mr. Welles is your off screen host, whose resonant voice is immediately recognizable. You never see Orson, but you meet his splendid cast and learn about the film from clips and dialogue. His urbane, self-conscious modesty about the film and how we—the audience—might respond is touching and disarming.
DARK PASSAGE (1947)
In the Dark Passage (1946) trailer for this Bogey and Bacall classic that came after the Big Sleep and before Key Largo, a uniformed cinema usher performs the roll of host and qualified expert. “Take it from a guy who sees ‘em all,” urges your sincere and handsome host, “this is the best yet.”
ALL ABOUT EVE (1951)
The distributors of All About Eve commissioned hosted trailers featuring filmed and scripted “interviews” between Davis and Baxter and journalists from distinguished American publications. Here, Davis speaks to a reporter from Newsweek, describing the qualities that characterize Eve. This hosted segment, is followed by a traditional trailer presentation.
Here Baxter sympathetically describes to a journalist from Woman’s Home Companion the qualities that make her character so worthy of the audience’s curiosity.
THE TEN COMMANDMENTS (1956)
I don’t think I’ve ever been able to watch the entire 10 minutes of this trailer. Cecil takes himself very seriously and assumes the audience does as well. That’s, I think, why this “scholarly” and educational trailer for a biblical sword and sandal epic, starring everyone’s favorite, Charlton Heston, is such an unintentional gas.
One of the most famous trailers of the “transitional” period, Hitchcock’s stroll through the Bates Motel parking lot is a virtuoso demonstration of how to use humor to sell terror. This man is a professional working on a closed set. Do not try this at home.
13 GHOSTS (1960)
Child actor Charlie Herbert hosts this 1:00 TV trailer for 13 Ghosts, a film he can recommend, because he’s in it.
Schlock-shock director William Castle is fondly remembered by B movie enthusiasts for his campy films and his inventive, shameless trailers. In this trailer, Castle displays his best showmanship skills as your host.
THE PINK PANTHER (1963)
In The Panther Trailer, an animated Panther is our on-screen host, but since he doesn’t talk, he is joined by an off-screen host, who asks him a lot of leading questions about actors, story and subject matter. The Panther’s sighs, chuckles, gestures and grimaces confirm his off-screen interlocutors very flattering surmises about the “coming attraction.” They explicitly model how the imagined audience is supposed to consume the film: that is, very closely and with great sympathy and enjoyment.
REAL LIFE (1979)
Not as funny as Albert thinks it is, and the trailer tells you almost nothing about the film “Real Life,” except that it is likely to be as randomly and snarkily self-conscious as the trailer.
Robin Williams is that rare talent who can make a great trailer out of little more than himself and the most simple of sets. You get the sense that whatever the copywriter wrote, Williams ignored it and did what he does best.
movietrailers101 by Fred Greene is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.