Veteran studio artist Jack Kerness dies

Served as art director on Rita Hayworth's 'Gilda' poster

Jack Kerness, an advertising art director and graphic arts expert during a career that spanned 70 years and five Hollywood studios, died Jan. 9 of natural causes at the Canyon Oaks Nursing and Rehabilitation Center in Canoga Park, Calif. He was 98.

Kerness spent 37 years at Columbia Pictures, where his work included serving as art director on the movie poster for "Gilda" (1946). The poster featured a full-length color Kodachrome by famed portrait photographer Bob Coburn of star Rita Hayworth with a curl of cigarette smoke; it was hailed by Premiere magazine as one of the 25 greatest movie posters of all time.

Kerness entered the motion picture industry in 1934 as assistant art director in the New York office of Gaumont British Pictures. His first assignment was as art director on the one-sheet for the U.S. release of Alfred Hitchcock's "The 39 Steps."

Two years later, he moved to Grand National Pictures, a new company that hoped to emulate the success of United Artists as a distributor of independently produced films. When the company closed in 1939, he joined Columbia.

During his nearly four decades at that studio, Kerness worked with many of the 20th century's foremost commercial artists and illustrators including James Montgomery Flagg, Bradford Crandall, Alberto Vargas and George Petty.

As the studio's art director in the 1940s, Kerness often had to wrestle with actors who would block a certain likeness of theirs from being used on a movie poster (stars often had this right written into their contracts).

"If a poster didn't have a perfect likeness, it was just no good, regardless of the fame of the illustrator who created it," Kerness recalled in the 1988 book "Reel Art: Great Posters From the Golden Age of the Silver Screen."

"After they brought in their work, for sizable fees in the thousands of dollars, I would sometimes have to hire this nice little man, Henry Ginsberg, for $150, who could match them stroke for stroke, to make Jean Arthur, Gary Cooper or Cary Grant really look like themselves."

When audiences began to prefer photographic depictions of their favorite stars, and with improvements in technology, Kerness was able to take advantage of Coburn's work. Kerness also worked closely with filmmakers on the look of the posters; he said the most difficult to convince when it came to advertising design was Stanley Kubrick.

Kerness joined Universal Pictures in 1976 as graphic arts director and moved to MGM in 1980 in a similar capacity, remaining there until 1987. He finished his career with Intervisual Books, where he worked on its line of three-dimensional "pop-up" books and magazine inserts, and with the Scott Mednick Advertising Agency.

After retiring in the mid-1990s, Kerness became an active volunteer with the Motion Picture & Television Fund and lent his expertise to the Golden Boot Awards, which honors Western stars and stuntmen.

Kerness was a member of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences and served on its foreign-language awards committee.

Survivors include his longtime companion, Gloria Singer; two grandchildren, Gale Shwake (and husband Joe Shwake) and David Kerness; three great grandchildren, Emily, Jordan and Daniel Shwake; and his daughter-in-law, Diane Kerness.

Burial will take place Wednesday January 13 at New Montefiore Cemetery in Farmingdale, N.Y. A memorial service in Los Angeles will be held later. Donations may be made to the Motion Picture & Television Fund in Woodland Hills.
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