Usherettes, Buxom Beauties, and Celluloid Aphrodisiacs
In all three of the Death of Dillinger works, however, it is clear that Marsh has marked the fleeing Sage and Hamilton, and not Dillinger, as the dramatic stars of the scene. This emphasis on the two femmes fatales of the story accords with Marsh’s continued reliance on female protagonists for his works. Marsh himself claimed that women were “always a stimulus to paint,” and scholars have long discussed the exact implications of his undying fascination with the buxom, beautiful women he depicted. [xxxvi] While many would cite the artist’s portrayals of burlesque theaters, shop windows, and Coney Island beaches as the best examples of this, several of his movie-related works provide equally strong visual evidence of his appreciative study of the fairer sex. Where the burlesque halls offered vixens, the stores featured trendsetters, and the beaches drew natural beauties, the cinema provided a way for Marsh to showcase all three types of women at once. Huge billboards depicting chic and sultry Hollywood starlets could be hung above theater entrances while real-life, curvaceous women could be seen on the sidewalk nearby. [xxxvii]
Such is the case with Marsh’s 1946 Chinese ink drawing Barbara Stanwyck (Movie Marquee). Stanwyck was a famed “celluloid aphrodisiac” whose alluring beauty is made plain in the cut-out sign hanging over the theater doors. [xxxviii] The actress is shown in low-cut, fitted dress with her long legs stretching out across the facade of the cinema. Next to her the partial word “tion” tells us that the sign likely advertised Stanwyck’s 1946 film My Reputation, in which she played a woman caught between societal expectations and a new, passionate love. Below this billboard stand three full-figured young women—their long hair curled in the same style as Stanwyck above—chatting idly while two older gentleman stand behind.
Noting how frequently Marsh offsets curvaceous real-life women against slim starlets in his movie theater works, many scholars have drawn parallels to societal standards of beauty and the way women model their appearance on celebrity icons. [xxxix] While women in the 1930s and 1940s, just as today, did strive to emulate the style of silver screen stars like Mae West, Jean Harlow, and others, this superficial parity actually masks an underlying complexity. As noted in several of Marsh’s other movie theater works, the spatial depth in Barbara Stanwyck (Movie Marquee) is reduced to the point of compression, throwing the patrons on the sidewalk into high relief in front of the planar billboard-covered facade. In this way Stanwyck is seen not as a Hollywood starlet, but as a reproduction, a backdrop in front of which the figures, as true stars of the scene, draw the viewer’s attention.
Marsh completes this recasting—depicting the movie star as mere facsimile while drafting the regular women in leading roles—by making the real-life figures in his scenes compellingly complex. The woman at in the foreground of Marsh’s 1939 watercolor Usherette provides an apt example (photo of work, MCNY 184.108.40.206.5C). This blonde, red-lipped usherette is shown in a management-issued jumpsuit and cape, the latter of which she splays open flirtatiously. [xl] To the left of the woman, an open curtain reveals the theater is in the midst of a showing; the viewer can see a man walking down the aisle past rows of occupied seats towards the glowing movie screen. Marsh has taken great care to illustrate the movie been shown, clearly portraying characters from the 1939 epic Gone with the Wind. [xli] To the left one can make out Scarlett O’Hara (actor Vivien Leigh) in the ruffled party frock she wears to the Wilkes’ barbecue at the start of the film; kissing her hand is Rhett Butler (actor Clark Gable), discernible by his dark hair and thick mustache. [xlii] Interestingly, this particular interaction between Scarlett and Rhett does not actually transpire in the movie. Despite serving in the army, Rhett is never shown in Confederate uniform, particularly not at the start of the film when Scarlett is still dressed in her pre-war finery. Instead it is clear that Marsh has presented a summation of the film’s storyline in order to make the reference more easily recognizable, a skill he perfected while reviewing films, in illustration form, for the The New Yorker in the mid to late 1920s. [xliii]
[xxxv] Marsh quoted in Cohen, Reginald Marsh’s New York, 27.
[xxxvii] Marjorie Rosen, Popcorn Venus: Women, Movies, and the American Dream (New York: Avon, 1972), 154.
[xxxviii] Such cut out signs proved to be a clever way to break up the visual monotony of standard rectangular posters while simultaneously emphasizing the sensual curves of the actress’s body. For example, a photograph by Reginald Marsh from around 1938 shows a similarly sexy cut-out sign of “glamour girl” Louise Stewart (MCNY 220.127.116.111). Stanwyck made a long career of out playing the bombshell role. As one exhibitor wrote of her part in a 1931 film: “She was a bad, bad girl but oh, how GOOD at the box office.” Theater manager quoted in Shindler, Hollywood in Crisis, 100.
[xxix] For examples of study which adopt a more feminist reading of Marsh’s work, see Doss, “Reginald Marsh and ‘Paramount Picture’” and Ellen Wiley Todd, The “New Woman” Revised: Painting and Gender Politics on Fourteenth Street (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993).
[xl] Capes were apparently common parts of theater uniforms; the woman working the box office in Twenty Cent Movie also appears to be wearing one.
[xli] The film was released in New York City in mid-December 1939, after its premier in Atlanta. It later went on to earn over 200 million dollars in ticket sales and remained the most profitable film ever made until 1970; Shindler, Hollywood in Crisis, 215. It is strange that Marsh rendered the film in black and white—the rest of the scene is painted in color—since Gone with the Wind is understood to be one of the most successful early examples of Technicolor. The reasoning may be as simple as Marsh wanting a stronger contrast between the screen and its surroundings but we cannot know for certain.
[xlii] Though difficult to make out, the figure show behind the two lovers resembles the actor Thomas Mitchell, who played Scarlett’s father in the film. Shown with his hand to his head, his face bears a worried expression that is similar to the mental confusion and trauma his character suffered in the wake of the war.
[xliii] For examples of the films Marsh reviewed, most of which were released between 1925 and 1927, see Scrapbooks [#6], circa 1927–1930 in Reginald Marsh Papers, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, accessed May 1, 2012, http://www.aaa.si.edu/collections/container/viewer/Scrapbook-6-Photographs-and-Clippings--2767010.