The Godfather (1972) A Still Trailer for a Kinetic Epic (1 of 2 posts)

$135 Million at the box office in 1972; three Oscars; 11 nominations; and consistently ranked in the top ten of critics picks for the best films of all times. Everyone remembers the Godfather. But who remembers the theatrical trailer that introduced audiences to the film that established Francis Ford Coppola’s as an A-list director and an acclaimed cinematic auteur? The 60’s and the 70’s were a time of great creative ferment and experimentation in audio-visual movie marketing, as well as a time when the science of market research was first applied to the studio films that obtained wide release domestically and internationally. This 3:37 theatrical trailer, however, is extraordinary by any measure, both for its formal choices and for its personal, emotional, lyrical, idiosyncratic –and, I think—undeniably faithful representation of the film it heralds.

Let’s take a look. This is a longish feature film trailer produced to play in theaters some months ahead of the release of the film. Nearly four minutes, it features something like 7 different movements, each one introduced by distinct (if not entirely different) music cues. What is, perhaps, most striking about the trailer on first viewing as well as repeated consumption, is its use of still photography, rather than live action, to tell the epic story of an Italian-American organized crime family. There is only one live-action segment, occurring near the end of the trailer and lasting no more than 15 seconds. That lyrical, sun-dappled, interlude of a boy and his grandfather ends in freeze frame on the exhausted old man in his garden) succeeded by the image of a brutalist bronze head of Brando’s character rotating into front view.

Still photography is a bold marketing decision for such a sprawling, big budget, highly anticipated, visually dynamic and narratively complicated film like the Godfather. Forty years later, it’s seems impossible to say whether a more traditional trailer would have sold more tickets during the opening weekend. Such “likely” viewers would probably have bought tickets weeks later, based on the overwhelmingly enthusiastic word of mouth.

I have not been able to determine what the trailer making community thought of it when it premiered. (I do know that it was included in a “greatest hits” compilation put together by the Hollywood Reporter, presenters of the Key Art Awards for excellence in a/v and print movie marketing.) I have it, however, on good authority that the trailer direction was given by Coppola, who resisted efforts of Paramount to use live action footage (apart from the brief, 15 second penultimate act). Believing, as was not then uncommon, that the best way to appeal to an audience’s curiosity was not to satisfy it explicitly, Coppola asked editor Jeff Kanew (whose Utopia Films was one of the first and finest trailer houses) to cut a trailer from stills. It is testimony to Kanew’s skill that he was able to cut such an emotionally stirring, representative and dramatic trailer from photographs.

Some of the credit resides with the music cues, taken presumably from the score, featuring instrumentation of accordions, strings, piano, drums, and horns. To this evocative, Sicilian folk music, the stills succeed one another in quick dissolve and hard cut, the timing corresponding to the rhythm, visual drama and emotion visible in the image.

Despite the use of stills, most “shots” feature movement into the image, or away from the image, typically inflected horizontally (whether right or left) or diagonally. In the opening act or segment, a Wedding at Don Corleone’s house, a melancholy waltz, brightened by the oom pah pah of the organ grinder, conveys the music of the Sicily and lyricism of Italy. We see faces and happy celebrants at a wedding. We see Brando and his guests in joyful circumstance, but from time to time the burden of the music resolves into a minor key and the sound of alarums is heard in the bowing of the strings and the blare of the horn.

The music is a waltz and the editing rhythm captures a waltzes 3 beat rhythm, with an emphasis on the first note. The images dance and they breath, expanding and contracting, drawing our eye from one to the next, a succession of images of beauty, aggression, emotion, and terror. Portraits of murder victims conclude and punctuate at least 3 of the acts.

The score re-arranged and re-orchestrated provides the music for 6 of 7 acts. The third act, by my count, takes us to Vegas, where a big-band/rat-pack/lounge act overture interposes. We know it’s Vegas from the Marquees and the shots, but also from the music and the outfits. This interlude is anomalous, relative to the rest of the images and music, but suggests an episode away from New York or Sicily, where the other acts are set. Vegas—the desert redoubt of gambling and organized crime, figures as yet another American landscape colonized by the family, but one whose sensibility, lighting and sensibility are as far from Sicily as you can imagine.

(To read more, check out The Godfather (1972) Post 2 of 2)

About Frederick Greene

Entertainment Copywriter & Visiting Assistant Professor, UCLA Dept. of Theater, Film & Television. I teach a graduate seminar in new movie marketing, which focuses on the history, contemporary practice and likely future of a/v advertising for motion picture entertainment.
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