'Art Paul of Playboy: The Man Behind the Bunny': Film Review

Courtesy of Indie Rights
Makes clear that Hefner wasn't the only creative genius behind the magazine's success.
2/28/2020

The magazine's legendary founding art director, who created the iconic bunny logo, is profiled in Jennifer Hou Kwong's documentary.

"I often bought Playboy for the graphic design," says one of the commentators in Jennifer Hou Kwong's documentary about the men's magazine's founding art director, Art Paul. Prior to seeing the film you'd probably assume it was a joke, much like the sheepish explanation commonly offered by Playboy's purchasers that they read it for the articles. But you'll be thoroughly convinced by Art Paul of Playboy: The Man Behind the Bunny, which strongly makes the case for its subject's vital role in the magazine's popularity.

No less an authority than the late Hugh Hefner, who is interviewed in the film (wearing a red smoking jacket, of course), makes the case succinctly. "Art was as responsible for the success of the magazine in those years as much as I was," he states. Hefner's daughter Christie adds, "I think Art had a perfect partner in my father."

Paul was with the magazine from its 1953 beginning. A freelance graphic designer working in Chicago, he was hired at age 29 by Hefner to serve as art director for the new magazine that was intended to be called "Stag Party" (fortunately for everyone concerned, the name was changed just a few weeks before its launch).

As the documentary's title indicates, Paul is best known for his creation of the magazine's iconic bunny logo, which readers have happily searched for on its covers ever since. The logo was simple yet idiosyncratic, and instantly memorable, from the rabbit's cocked ears to its natty, perfectly positioned bow tie.

But that was just the tip of Paul's talents, as the copious examples of his artwork created or overseen for the magazine's covers and articles vividly illustrate. Strongly influenced by the Bauhaus style, particularly the work of László Moholy-Nagy, Paul designed illustrations that were known for their endless experimentalism, dramatic use of empty space and ingenious use of cutouts, collages and other graphic formats that revolutionized the magazine industry.

He commissioned original pieces by some of the most notable artists of the day, including Andy Warhol, Salvador Dali, Larry Rivers, James Rosenquist, Shel Silverstein and LeRoy Nieman, the last going on to be particularly associated with the magazine. Paul also persuaded Hefner to purchase many of the artworks outright as well, with the result that the magazine amassed a formidable art collection that would help sustain it in leaner years.

The film, featuring snappy narration by Chicago journalist Rick Kogan, includes testimony from several of Paul's colleagues, who describe how his freewheeling management style encouraged their creativity. Paul's tenure at the magazine lasted some three decades, after which he went on to do freelance work, much of it pro bono, including designing illustrations for the Chicago International Film Festival.

The elderly Paul, who died in 2018 at age 93, is a dominant presence in the film, as well as his supportive wife Suzanne Seed. Although he suffered from macular degeneration in his later years, he continued to create art, altering his style to compensate for his lack of visual acuity. His warm personality and sense of humor are on ample display in this engaging documentary that makes a strong case for his influence and importance.

Production companies: Moraquest Media, American Dream Pictures
Distributor: Indie Rights
Director: Jennifer Hou Kwong
Screenwriters: Jennifer Hou Kwong, Jamie Ceaser
Producer: Jamie Ceaser
Executive producer: Ellis Goodman
Director of photography: Paul Chen
Editor: Brent Hannigan

73 minutes