Who's behind those eyes?

Who modeled the Chicago International Film Festival's eye-catching logo? Was it Charlie Chaplin? Liza Minelli? The backstory’s complicated.

October 9, 2013

Editor's note: This presentation and its accompanying interview were published in 2013. The Chicago International Film Festival is set to celebrate its 50th anniversary in October 2014. 

The Chicago International Film Festival (CIFF) is fast approaching the mid-century mark.

This year is the 49th outing of the longest running competitive film festival in North America.

So what accounts for its longevity? The commitment to showcasing work by new directors? A Midwestern audience starved for non-Hollywood movies?

Or could it be that alluring logo?

That’s what caught the eye of John Laffler, who founded Off Color Brewing, one of the many craft beer ventures upping Chicago’s reputations for great suds.

Laffler’s never even been to CIFF. But he was well aware of the festival’s presence when he asked Curious City:

Whose ubiquitous eyes are those on the Chicago International Film Festival posters? Is she single?

Now I’ll be honest. This wasn’t the most challenging Curious City assignment. All it took was a peek at the CIFF website to answer Laffler’s question.

But never mind — there’s always more to a good story!

So I brought Laffler together with Michael Kutza, who founded CIFF (and still runs it). He created the logo in 1967.

Laffler said a bit more about those “ubiquitous” eyes.

“They’re so catching, so seductive and nuanced,” he said. “I think it’s an amazing logo and I just never knew who it was.”

Well, in this interview Kutza explains that it took a while to come up with the logo. In 1965 he had a simpler concept: an image of a globe and a reel of film side by side.

The next year he turned to photographer Victor Skrebneski to “sexy” things up. That’s where the image of this sixties “it girl”, all shaggy bangs and mysterious shades, comes from.

But it was an "it girl" from a much earlier generation who inspired the final design: Colleen Moore.

“She was in the '20s the most successful comedian in silent film,” said Kutza. “She was part of the D. W. Griffith and Charlie Chaplin and Mary Pickford era of film.”

Moore, famous for personifying the flapper, saw her career flounder in the transition to sound.

After retiring she married Homer Hargrave and made Chicago a home for over 30 years.

Kutza says he met Moore through legendary Chicago Sun-Times gossip columnist Irv “Kup” Kupcinet.

After Moore’s husband died in 1964, Kup thought she needed someone to pull her out of her “widow role” and predicted she and Kutza would be a good team. And he was right.

“She helped me with the first film festival and introduced me to some amazing people who were her buddies in the old days,” recalled Kutza. “Lillian Gish came through. Myrna Loy, Joan Crawford, they’re all hanging out with this lady Colleen Moore, at the Pump Room.”

Kutza says it was the iconic look of the silent era that inspired the final logo.

Theda Bara, Mae Murray, they all had the same look!” said Kutza. “But you put them together, and take the eyes, the hair and ‘the this.’ You come up with the symbol.”

Kutza says the logo doesn’t refer to a real person; instead, it distills the general power of film.

Still, Moore lent her very real star power to jump starting CIFF.

“From the very first film festival here in Chicago, we had Betty Davis and King Vidor, you name it,” Kutza recalled. “We didn’t have an audience but we had movie stars.”

The audience did grow. But save for minor tweaks, the logo has remained the same.

Sadly, not many of Colleen Moore’s films have survived, though here’s a snippet from her most famous role Flaming Youth.

She does leave another legacy in Chicago: Her fantastical, fabulous “Fairy Castle,” a dollhouse she had built over seven years. It now resides in the Museum of Science and Industry: Take a tour here.

The 49th Chicago International Film Festival runs October 10-24.

is the Arts and Culture reporter at WBEZ. You can follow her on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram