From the annals of every history nerd’s fantasies, a home renovation revealed a treasure trove of vintage movie posters under a linoleum floor (and the original hardwood to boot). Builder Robert Basta purchased the southern Pennsylvania home cheap at auction because it needed a lot of work. He planned to renovate it for resale, something he’s done many times before. While he was away on business, his son Dylan wanted to earn a little extra money while he was home from college, so Robert had him take on a bear of a job — tearing up the lino in a small upstairs room. Robert had seen a newspaper from 1946 peeking out through the broken flooring; he told Dylan to keep it in case it was interesting.
The newspaper preserved, Dylan and his brother Bob went on to find a poster of Tarzan the Ape Man, the 1932 movie starring five-time Olympic gold medalist swimmer Johnny Weissmuller as Tarzan and Maureen O’Sullivan as Jane. They texted a photo of the poster to Robert. By the time he got back home and the linoleum was all gone, Bob and Dylan had found 16 more movie posters, all in excellent condition. There were other newspapers under the lino too. It seems a previous owner of the house, possibly artist MSW Brungart who is known to have worked for the local movie theater, used paper he had lying around to protect the floorboards before covering them with linoleum.
At first they didn’t realize what a treasure they had found. None of the posters were for films they recognized, so they figured they were of small value. A little Googling soon illuminated them to the fact that they had stumbled on a stash that included some of the rarest posters highly desirable to collectors.
They’re all one sheets from the pre-Code era, a woefully brief period between 1929 and 1934 when studios largely ignored the censorship rules of the Motion Picture Production Code because the Great Depression had hit them like a freight train and sex, nudity and violence sold then just like they sell now. The party came to an abrupt end when the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America began enforcing the code with the iron fist of committed fanatic and equally committed hypocrite Joseph Breen. One of his henchmen Val Lewton explained Breen’s do-as-I-say-not-as-I-do philosophy to producer David O. Selznick:
“Mr. Breen goes to the bathroom every morning. He does not deny that he does so or that there is such a place as the bathroom, but he feels that neither his actions nor the bathroom are fit subjects for screen entertainment. This is the essence of the Hays’ office attitude towards prostitution, at least as Joe told it to me in somewhat cruder language.”
Breen, in concert with Catholic Legion of Decency (the Production Code was co-written by Jesuit priest Father Daniel Lord), threatened the studios with nation-wide protests, draconian local censorship and the possibility of federal censorship and they had the muscle to make real trouble. The studios caved and for the next 20 years the sex and violence was hidden in oblique dialogue, those weird face-mashing close-mouthed kisses and implied off-screen.
I really, really love pre-Code movies, but I wouldn’t have seen any of them were it not for Turner Classic Movies. Unlike other classic movies, the pre-Codes never aired on TV until TCM revived interest in them in the 1990s. This is why the Basta family didn’t recognize any of the films on the posters.
The Bastas contacted Heritage Auctions for an expert valuation and that’s when they discovered they had been standing on more than $200,000 worth of movie posters. This weekend, the 17 under the floor posters went under the hammer at Heritage Auctions’ Vintage Movie Posters sale.
It was the first poster they found, Tarzan the Ape Man (MGM, 1932) that was the rarest, most desirable piece. The movie was Johnny Weissmuller’s first appearance on film in the role that would make him famous. In fact, other than a non-speaking, uncredited, seconds-long practically naked cameo in the 1929 Ziegfield musical Glorifying the American Girl, this was Weissmuller’s first part in any movie. He would go on to shoot another 11 Tarzan movies, five of them with Maureen O’Sullivan. This one-of-a-kind Style D one sheet is the only one that pictures him and O’Sullivan in a scene from the film. It sold yesterday for $83,650.
The second biggest seller is my favorite poster from one of my favorite movies. It’s one of only three known surviving Style C one sheets of Red Headed Woman (MGM, 1932), starring Jean Harlow at her gleefully naughty best. This is one of the greatest of all pre-Code movies, certainly the most unrepentant. The bad girl wins in the end and she wins big. Jean Harlow, a literal scarlet woman, glowers alluringly from this vivid poster like a demon from the flames of Hell. It is a perfect encapsulation of the character and just freaking gorgeous. It sold for $77,675.
The poster for another terribly juicy pre-Code movie, Doctor X (First National, 1932), sold for $23,900. This was Fay Wray’s first horror movie. There’s a creepy doctor, an amputee with a penchant for cannibalism, murder and some quality mad science. It’s also a very early example of a two-color Technicolor movie. The poster is even more vivid than the movie.
Three other posters from the under the floor collection are the only known surviving posters of their movies:
- Congorilla (Fox, 1932), a documentary filmed in the Congo which is the first to have authentic sound recorded in Africa, sold for $2,390.
- Any Old Port (MGM, 1932), a classic Laurel and Hardy short produced by Hal Roach, sold for $8,962.50
- Sporting Blood (MGM, 1931), Clark Gable’s first starring role in a picture, sold for $2,987.50.
Heritage Auctions didn’t note which of the lots came from under the linoleum, so I wasn’t able to make a complete list. Based on news stories, the following pieces were also part of the collection: The Golden West (Fox, 1932) sold for $6,572.50; The Rider of Death Valley (Universal, 1932) sold for $4,302; The Long, Long Trail (Universal, 1929) sold for $2,987.50; Blondie of the Follies (MGM, 1932) sold for $1,792.50; The Dance of Life (Paramount, 1929) sold for $1,254.75. Tess of the Storm Country (Fox, 1932) sold for $776.75. Some of the articles about this story claim this movie was Academy Award nominated, but I believe that’s a misreading of Heritage Auction’s lot information which refers to the first Janet Gaynor-Charles Farrell outing, the 1927 silent picture 7th Heaven as receiving three Oscar nominations. I searched the Academy Awards Database and there are no nominations for Tess.
Counting only the dozen posters that I could confirm were part of the subflooring collection, sales topped $217,000. Robert Basta was still in shock before the first hammer fell.
“You always dream of coming across something valuable hidden in a closet or under the floorboards but it had never happened – until now.”
“I’m a simple man – I own my house but I don’t have a pension and at some point soon I’ll want to retire. The money from this sale will be life-changing.
“It will make things so much easier for me and my family – it’s a real blessing.”