Hal Douglas, probably the most famous trailer voice-over artist of all time (along with the late Don LaFontaine), died last Friday at the age of 89, after an epic career pulling us into theaters with short, punchy taglines intoned in his wonderfully rich voice. Although the “In A World…”-style trailer is not nearly as prevalent as it once was, Douglas’ amazing career set the tone for movie promotion, especially in the 1990s. Let’s remember some of his finest work.
Lethal Weapon (1987)
I’m in love with this thing just from those awesome graphics of Gibson and Glover. That could be the whole trailer, no clips, and I’d be set. Douglas is all over this thing, giving us the same pitch screenwriter Shane Black gave Warner Bros. “If these guys can just stand each other…the bad guys don’t stand a chance.” Brief. Effective. Action-packed. Quip-centric. It’s a perfect start.
This is an interesting one—as opposed to so many others, Douglas doesn’t come in until the last minute, because the trailer has spent the first two laying the plot groundwork, perhaps because middle America was still just beginning to understand AIDS. “A story about our lives, our fears, and our humanity,” Douglas muses. TriStar was trying as hard as possible to make the story sound universal, and indeed that was Philadelphia’s ultimate legacy—making a powerful, mainstream, middle-of-the-road film about what was still unfairly regarded by many as a fringe issue.
Forrest Gump (1994)
Coming off his Oscar win for Philadelphia, Tom Hanks knew what had sealed it for him. “I want Hal Douglas reading the trailer copy for my next picture!” I imagine him demanding in the Paramount offices. Of course, Hanks himself narrates much of this trailer. Much like Philadelphia, this trailer pretty much takes you through the whole damn movie. Again, Douglas comes in right at the very end, and even he seems surprised that Gary Sinise is getting an announced credit. “The world will never seem the same once you’ve seen it through the eyes…of Forrest Gump” is a good tagline, but Douglas turns it into a knockout punch.
This one really needed Douglas’ help—there’s a lot of necessary plot setup to do here. But even he couldn’t work miracles. This thing is such an obvious stinker, even in trailer form. A soaring score, Douglas’ dulcet tones, and emphasis on the epic sets and landscapes are not enough to distract from just how stupid everything feels.
Marvin’s Room (1996)
“Sometimes, the people you know the least…are the ones you need the most.” A million estranged families reunited after watching the trailer for this epic cancer weepie. If Hal Douglas had not weighed in here, no one would have seen this movie, because it was called Marvin’s Room. Hint to studios: that’s not how you title a movie.
This trailer is something else. It begins by asking the audience, in the form of a title card, “What Would You Do?” after showing us a car chase and devastating explosion in the Holland Tunnel. That’s an easy question to answer: how about “not go anywhere near the Holland Tunnel”? Well, Hal Douglas disagrees. “Universal Pictures dares you to take on the tunnel,” he growls. Let Sylvester Stallone do it! P.S.: why doesn’t he say the movie’s title? Damn, I want to hear him say “Daylight.” More than anything.
Con Air (1997)
One of many, many Jerry Bruckheimer trailers that Douglas worked on. Man, Hal’s pretty happy for Cameron Poe at the beginning of this thing! He’s taking the first plane home to his wife and daughter! I’m sure it’ll all go well. Douglas has to do everything here: set the plot up, explain the twist, and then dive into some hardcore taglining. “Check your weapons. Take your seat. And say your prayers.” Later he tells us to buckle up. Will do, Hal.
Men In Black (1997)
I’m including this because it’s just worth noting what a horrible mess this trailer is. A hodge-podge of big moments from this amazing movie, with Douglas trying to keep everything straight and explain the slightly complicated setup. After the simple, clean, amazing Independence Day trailer (which has no voice-over), this was a bad follow-up.
Meet the Parents (2000)
This is where you start to realize why studios drifted away from Hal Douglas and his ilk. “Pam is the one Greg wants to marry. But before he can pop the question, he’ll have to meet…the parents,” he begins. Knowing nothing about this film, or even its title, and without changing a frame, that is totally clear from this trailer. What is Douglas’s role? He’s the seal of legitimacy. How else would we know this was a big studio comedy? We just weren’t ready for trailers without heavy voice-overs yet.
This, of course, is the wonderful coda to Hal Douglas’ career. It’s not like it was the end—he kept on keepin’ on after this (one good example of his prowess in his later years is the trailer for The Holiday). But this was a remarkably clever look behind the curtain at just what it was Douglas brought to the table in the voice-over booth, with the slightly bittersweet air that the fine art of trailer voice-overs, and the clichés that came with it, was beginning to die out. “Get out of the booth,” the exasperated producer says. “No. I like it in here,” Douglas replies. This trailer is approximately one million times better remembered than the Jerry Seinfeld documentary it advertises.