Ajax loader
Dynamite Packed Thrillers, Joys of the Flesh, and Other Added Attractions: Reginald Marsh and the Golden Age of Movies
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Gangsters, G-Men, Prostitutes, and Punishment Knowing Marsh’s interest in the overlap between news and entertainment, it comes as no surprise that the artist should be equally intrigued by the dramatic death of the infamous John Dillinger. Through the early thirties young Dillinger and his gang electrified the country with their improbably successful string of bank robberies in small towns across the Midwest. By 1934, after adding murder and prison break to his growing rap sheet, Dillinger was named public enemy number one by the Bureau of Investigation (later known as the FBI), inadvertently securing his everlasting celebrity status in the eyes of the American people. At the time Americans maintained an anti-capitalist sentiment that translated into widespread approval of dashing, renegade gangsters like Baby Face Nelson, Al Capone, and John Dillinger. Policemen were often thought to be as corrupt as their criminal counterparts and gangsters quickly took their place as anti-hero pop icons. [xxx] Picking up on this craze, Hollywood production companies released a flood of movies with plot lines pulled directly from newspaper recaps of the latest gangster crime sprees. [xxxi] The fact that such films did not sit well with the Hays Office and were often subject to intense censor scrutiny in no way diminished their popularity. It was therefore unimaginably ironic that on July 22, 1934 famed outlaw John Dillinger was shot down by government officers outside Chicago’s Biograph Theater after attending the evening showing of the gangster movie Manhattan Melodrama. No Hollywood scriptwriter could have imagined a more fitting or cinematic end to the story of such a notorious criminal yet Hays forbade the industry from filming Dillinger’s tale, claiming that such a movie would be “detrimental to the best public interest.” [xxxii] Nonetheless Hays did not have the power to ban Dillinger’s story from being told through other artistic media; between 1938 and 1940, Marsh created three works that portray the events of that fateful day. Two of these works—one inscribed with the date 1939 and one published in the March 11, 1940 issue of LIFE magazine—are nearly identical, providing almost cinematic portrayals of the gangster’s dramatic final moments (photo of LIFE work, MCNY 90.36.2.62.2E). [xxxiii] In the bottom right of these works Marsh has depicted the infamous Anna Sage, a Romanian-born madam, and to her right, prostitute Polly Hamilton, both of whom harbored Dillinger in the months leading up to his death. In the weeks following the shoot out, the press not only uncovered the identities of these two women but also discovered that Sage had conspired with the government to bring Dillinger in, hoping to receive immunity and the $25,000 bounty in exchange for her cooperation. Sage arranged with the government officers, commonly known as G-men, to accompany Dillinger to a showing at the Biograph Theater and to wear a bright orange dress in order to stand out in the crowd. [xxxiv] Both of these portrayals draw the viewer’s focus to Hamilton and Sage—the former of whom the press would mistakenly refer to as the “Lady in Red”—as they run from the hail of bullets fired by the swarm of G-men into a crumpling Dillinger on the left. In 1938 when Marsh first approached this subject, completing the tempera painting Food Store (Death of Dillinger), he obscured some of the specific historical references that eventually made the 1939 and 1940 versions so uncharacteristically narrative. [xxxv] The cropped neon Biograph Theater sign, the lowered point of view, and the compression of the space within the 1938 painting all heighten the tension of the moment and confuse the order and meaning of the events. Still, the shallow stage-like setting joins the fleeing women, Dillinger, and the G-men in perilously close proximity and included just enough cues to the actual event—Sage’s dress, the theater marquee advertising Manhattan Melodrama, the gun in Dillinger’s hand—to make clear that these people are no longer mere movie patrons but have transformed into actors of their own cinematic gangster drama. .................................................................. [xxx] Al Capone, for example, was frequently asked to play himself in films and attend various high-society functions as the guest of honor. Shindler, Hollywood in Crisis, 120. [xxxi] Many theaters owners tried to discourage this criminal hero worship by distributing information during gangster films that reminded viewers just how evil these men were. Audiences, however, remained enthralled. As Robert Sklar has incisively explained, “Gangster movies were not Depression success stories [ . . . ] they were films of social pathos. If a disordered society led an individual to lawlessness, his strength could not compare with the deviousness and force available to a lawless society.” Sklar, “Hub of the System,” 181. For more information about the public response to gangsters and the subsequent establishment of the gangster film genre, see also Shindler, Hollywood in Crisis, 117–19. [xxxii] Will H. Hays quoted in Doherty, Pre-Code Hollywood, 137. Audiences would have to wait until 1945 to see Dillinger’s story played out on the silver screen. Since that time, however, eight feature-length and made-for-television movies have centered on the subject. [xxxiii] Although Marsh completed numerous preparatory sketches that focused on the same scene or subject, it was exceedingly rare for him to repeat compositions in finished work. In fact, these portrayals of Dillinger’s death comprise the only exceptions to this rule of which the author is aware. With that said, very little has been written about these works and their dating is therefore somewhat tenuous. Because the writer from LIFE claimed that Marsh created The Death of Dillinger specifically for the article, I have tentatively dated the version their reproduce to 1940. For more information, see “The Death of Dillinger: A Painting for LIFE by Reginald Marsh,” LIFE 8, no. 11 (March 11, 1940): 70–71. It is interesting to note that the 1939 version, which closely resembles the version published in LIFE, was actually owned by LIFE’s founder and publisher Henry Luce. [xxxiv] Witnesses, misreading the orange dress under the brilliant lights of the theater marquee, later claimed Sage was wearing red. Sage, dubbed the “Lady in Red,” soon became an integral part of the Dillinger legend. For more on Dillinger’s exploits and the fateful events that led to his dramatic death, see Dary Matera, John Dillinger: The Life and Death of America’s First Celebrity Criminal (New York: Carroll & Graf Publishers, 2004). [xxxv] Some of this narrative quality, at least for the 1940 version, may be explained by its use as a LIFE illustration.

ID:
90.36.2.62.2E
Reginald Marsh (1898-1954)
[Painting by Reginald Marsh.]
ca. 1939
acetate negative
Museum of the City of New York. Gift of Felicia Meyer Marsh, 1990.
Dynamite Packed Thrillers, Joys of the Flesh, and Other Added Attractions: Reginald Marsh and the Golden Age of Movies
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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 90.36.2.31.5C). 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 90.36.1.381). 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.

ID:
90.36.2.30.3B
Reginald Marsh (1898-1954)
[Man hanging sign outside movie theater.]
ca. 1938
acetate negative
Museum of the City of New York. Gift of Felicia Meyer Marsh, 1990.
ADDITIONAL IMAGES
Dynamite Packed Thrillers, Joys of the Flesh, and Other Added Attractions: Reginald Marsh and the Golden Age of Movies
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This allusion to Scarlett O’Hara from Gone with the Wind, one of the most famous femmes fatales in all of movie history, provides a fascinating comparison to the coquettish usherette in the foreground. In the movie O’Hara is manipulative, cunning, lithe, and ultimately irresistible; in real life the working woman is brazenly flirtatious, wanton, sad, and slightly grotesque. With her face covered in garish makeup, the usherette locks eyes with the viewer and proudly displays her fulsome, overly plump, figure. It is easy to see that this woman thinks of herself as an undeniable temptress, and therefore a kindred spirit to O’Hara. Marsh’s means of depicting the two women only emphasizes the complicated parallels between them. The artist easily could have chosen to juxtapose the usherette next to a cut out or poster of O’Hara but instead he decided to show the two at a distinct distance from one another, forgoing his usually shallow depth of field for a deep one-point perspectival line between the screen and the lobby area where the usherette is standing. [xliv] By taking this approach, Marsh may be emphasizing how far short the usherette has fallen in emulating the seductive starlet. Or, alternatively, he may be suggesting that, when taken out of the glowing spotlight of Hollywood’s glamorization, women like Scarlett O’Hara are actually quite similar to this pitiable working woman. Still, no matter Marsh’s exact intention, it is clear that the artist has rendered this come-hither female usher in such a way as to allude to her personal complexity. She is compelling not because of her appearance but because of her humanity; with just one pose Marsh is able to project her failings, insecurities, and desires and make her, not O’Hara, the star of the scene. Where Marsh uses physical distance to articulate the nuanced differences between the movie star and the movie usher in Usherette, in Paramount Picture (1934) he instead uses the uncomfortably close proximity of two women to make these distinctions clear (Cleveland Museum of Art, 2006.137). Standing outside the entrance to Manhattan’s famed 3,664-seat Paramount Theatre, a career woman in a dull purple outfit holds a handbag full of papers. [xlv] Beside her a wealthy lady, demurely dressed in all white, waits with her husband while others line up in the background to buy their tickets. To the left towers a larger-than-life poster advertising Cecil de Mille’s latest period spectacular for Paramount Pictures: Cleopatra (1934). [xlvi] In the billboard Marc Anthony (actor Henry Wilcoxon) gazes intently at Cleopatra (actor Claudette Colbert) as she lounges on an ornate velvet divan and looks out at the viewer knowingly. [xlvii] Referencing the overwhelming popularity of the film and its star, Marsh frames the theater entranceway with two additional signs: a partially obscured panel that that reads “Claud” for Claudette Colbert, and a vertical banner that refers to Cleopatra as “A Paramount Picture,” cleverly referencing both the film’s quality and its production company. De Mille was known for his blockbuster “bedroom and bathroom” movies—characterized by their focus on fatally attractive women who were scantily-clad in nearly every scene—and his version of Cleopatra lived up to that reputation, depicting the Egyptian Queen as the “Siren of the Nile,” history’s ultimate seductress. [xlvii] Marsh’s painting communicates the spellbinding sultriness of Colbert as Cleopatra by rendering her image on a colossal scale. Looming over the women on the sidewalk, the giant Cleopatra appears almost predatorily sexual, liable to overtake any unwitting passerby—man or woman—at any moment. Yet this is all she remains. In keeping with De Mille’s interpretation, Marsh shows Cleopatra to be a sexpot and nothing more—not the steadfast ruler or doomed lover ancient records tell us she also was. In comparison, the woman on the sidewalk, much like the usherette in the 1939 watercolor, is fascinating in her humane complexity. Her expression, clearly pained, garners both the viewer’s interest and sympathy. Is she simply exhausted from a long day at work? Or is she unemployed, like so many at the time, and fearful for her future? Situated in the scene’s shallow foreground in front of the large backdrop of the movie billboard, the woman becomes an actress on a stage, with a pathos that transforms her into a silent film heroine. Colbert may have captured national attention for her performance as Cleopatra, but this working woman has stolen the show. .................................................................. [xliv] This is the only instance in the movie theater pictures when Marsh shows any significant perspectival depth, let alone the inside of a theater. With this in mind, it should be noted that the points of parity between Usherette and Edward Hopper’s painting New York Movie from the same year are unmistakable. Although there is no way of knowing whether Marsh was inspired by Hopper’s painting it would explain the uncharacteristic depiction of a theater interior. [xlv] Sklar, “Hub of the System,” 199. [xlvi] Marsh’s interest in this odd contrast between the women depicted in billboards and the women standing on the street is also evidenced in two of his photographs from around 1938 (MCNY 90.36.1.358; 90.36.1.362). [xlvii] Marsh seems to have created the billboard from a publicity film still, exactly transcribing its every detail down to the jewelry Colbert wears and the appliqué on the divan. Marsh likely opted to work from the photograph, instead of the more widely distributed posters, because it was the only record of the film that featured Colbert gazing out directly at the viewer. [xlviii] Several of the posters for the movie used the phrase “Siren of the Nile” as the subtitle for the movie. Doss, “Reginald Marsh and ‘Paramount Picture,’” 2.

ID:
90.36.1.381
Reginald Marsh (1898-1954)
[Cutout advertising Louise Stewart in the Gaiety Follies.]
ca. 1938
gelatin silver print
Museum of the City of New York. Gift of Felicia Meyer Marsh, 1990.
ADDITIONAL IMAGES
Dynamite Packed Thrillers, Joys of the Flesh, and Other Added Attractions: Reginald Marsh and the Golden Age of Movies
Page 13

It is amazing to think that Marsh, such a serious and diligent person, built his entire career around representations of leisure. Much has been written about the artist’s vital, exuberant, and often insightful portrayals of burlesque theaters and carnival sideshows but little study has been given to the important role of movies in both his life and his work. His appointment books show that he would work day and night for weeks on end, sketching new ideas even while he was at the beach. It is therefore significant that movie-going was often the only form of relaxation he allowed himself. At the height of his career, from 1934 to 1946, Marsh made numerous works that centered on this beloved pastime. These range from simple watercolor sketches to highly finished paintings and yet each one manages to capture the excitement and popularity of the film industry during the golden age of Hollywood. Weaving his detailed observations about the experience of seeing a movie in New York City—the particular architectural features of its theaters, the type of signs being used and the way they were installed, the specific films being screened, the way the patrons dressed and acted—Marsh was able to capture the vitality and variety of America’s brightest business in its biggest city. And for Marsh the movie theaters in his paintings were not simply representations of popular culture and sensationalist media, but also convenient forums in which he could reference World War II, gangster crime sprees, the Depression, and other serious issues. In this way, Marsh’s cinema-related works convey the “physical fabric of our lives” in a much more complex, deep and thoughtful manner than anyone has previously understood. [xlix] It is obvious that the “added attractions” of Marsh’s movie theaters are far more fascinating than anyone imagined. .................................................................. [xlix] Edward Laning quoted in Cohen, Reginald Marsh’s New York, 12.

ID:
93.1.1.4188
Mutual Film Co., 1600 Broadway.
1918
gelatin silver print
width: 11 in
height: 14 in
Byron Company Collection, Museum of the City of New York, Gift of Percy Byron, 1942.
ADDITIONAL IMAGES