Hollywood isn’t just an incubator of celebrity culture. It’s also home to some of the most durable brand logos in American capitalism. The celluloid trade calls them title screens, and odds are that most every adult consumer can name them by sight: Warner Brothers’ “WB” shield, Cinderella’s Castle of Disney Pictures fame and, of course, MGM’s lion.
This coterie of famous frames also includes the one with more mystique than the others—Paramount Pictures. That star-encircled, snow-capped mountain peak has marked the opening of movies well before movies even had sound.
And while the mountain in question has been modified and stylized to suit the era, it’s remained remarkably constant for the last 105 years—and as well it should, in the view of Paramount archivist Andrea Kalas. The mountain and stars are “a very useful and powerful combination of elements,” she said, adding that “a mountain has real permanence and backs up [the idea of] quality and integrity. And the stars are fantastic symbols of Hollywood.”
Let’s start with the mountain. William Wadsworth Hodkinson was a Utah theater owner who developed a system by which a distributor financed the making of a film through a cash advance to the producer in exchange for exclusive distribution rights. His model would revolutionize the industry. In 1912, Hodkinson met producer Adolph Zukor of the Famous Players Film Company and, two years later, engineered the merger of the firms. Hodkinson didn’t care for the Famous Players name, so he settled on a new one: Paramount. Needing a logo, Hodkinson sat down at his desk and drew a mountain on the blotter paper, adding a halo of stars for effect.
That’s the accepted story: a quick doodle drawn by a quick-thinking man. For some reason, however, fans and diviners have been hell-bent on ascribing hidden meanings to the logo ever since.
It’s generally agreed that the mountain is a rendering of Ben Lomond, a snowy peak near Ogden, Utah, where Hodkinson operated his first theaters. Even so, some maintain the summit is Mount Artesonraju in the Blanca range of the Peruvian Andes or the Italian side of Monte Viso in the Alps. According to Kalas, there are still others who hold that the mountain signifies “an elaborate part of a Satanic cult.” Well, of course.
As for the stars, many believe that their number (22 or 24, depending) signified the number of actors in the Paramount stable. “But this doesn’t hold up,” Kalas counters, “as Hodkinson ran a distribution company and was not signing talent to contracts.”
Whatever the stars mean, their presence adds panache and recognizability to the logo, according to Chris Lowery, CEO of Chase Design Group. “This recognizable anchor is what has allowed them to fluidly change the mountain to match any movie opener from a style perspective,” he said.
And indeed, the Paramount logo has fluidly changed over the years. Clouds have come and gone. The sun has risen and set. Paramount’s owners have added their own names along the bottom: Gulf + Western between 1968 and 1985, then Viacom from 1994 to the present. For Paramount’s 75th anniversary in 1987, artist Dario Campanile painted a mountain so majestic, it looked plucked from the Renaissance. It’s anyone’s guess to what degree movie audiences have noted these subtle shifts, but it also doesn’t much matter. In the land of logos, Paramount’s mountain remains, suitably, paramount.