No matter the exact source of inspiration, the similarities between the theater in Marsh’s Twenty Cent Movie and the real-life theater documented in Feininger’s photographs prove that Marsh took far greater care to incorporate the details of actual New York City cinemas into his work than previously believed. In fact, several of the signs in Twenty Cent Movie advertise real movies, though not necessarily ones that would have, in reality, been on view at the time. In the top left of the painting a green and pink sign promotes the 1933 musical comedy Moonlight and Pretzels—listing its stars Leo Carrillo, Mary Brian, and Roger Pryor—and the 1929 romantic drama Dangerous Curves. At the top right another sign advertises the 1934 movie We Live Again, an adaptation of Leo Tolstoy’s 1899 novel Resurrection, starring Fredric Marsh and Anna Sten. [xv] Underneath these angled boards are alternating rows of film stills—which Marsh paints in such painstaking detail that the viewer can make out the individual figures depicted in each small image—and generic text-based signs. Each of these contain phrases more scandalous and attention-grabbing than the last: “A Drama of Clamorous Glittering Romance,” “Human Emotions Stripped Bare,” “A Drama of the Under World and its Penalties,” “A Mighty Drama of a Man and Woman Who Rose from the Joy of the Flesh to a Love that Endured to the End of Time,” “Drama Written in [ . . . ] Blood,” and “Deathless Love Endured,” among others.
It would be convenient to pass these racy taglines off as simply another iteration—alongside his portrayals of dance halls, sideshows, and burlesque theaters—of Marsh’s interest in the unseemly sides of the city, but their presence in Twenty Cent Movie masks a much greater complexity. By 1910 movie critics were unhappy with what they called the “posteritis” afflicting New York City movie theaters. As one writer decried, theater facades were being overrun with “garish, poster-plastered, cheap-looking, tawdry get-up[s].” [xvi] Like most advertisements, cinema signs tried to draw the attention of the public however they could, often resorting to highlighting the basest aspects of films such as sex or violence. Through the late 1910s several cities—including Cleveland, Chicago, Boston, and Springfield, Missouri—even went so far as to censor the content of movie posters and theater signage. [xvii] Nearly twenty years later regulators had grown less concerned about the advertisements for movies and more worried about the content of the films themselves. The Motion Picture Production Code, commonly known as the Hays Code after chief censor Will H. Hays, was passed in 1930 as a way to “curb [the] crime, brutality, sex, vulgarity, obscenity, and profanity” that had seeped into the film industry with the ‘talkies’ and replace it with “clean and artistic” entertainment. [xviii] Although the onslaught of the Depression made censors wary of enforcing the new regulations, pressure from Catholic interest groups finally facilitated a strict adherence to the code by 1934. [xix] Thus, Marsh’s Twenty Cent Movie speaks to the new era of cinema under the Hays Code; each of the specific movies referenced in the painting, particularly the high-spirited Moonlight and Pretzels, adhered to the strictures set forth by Hays. But the posters, no longer a chief concern of censors, reflect the underlying interest of theater owners and production companies to bring in customers by whatever means they could manage. It is also important to note that posters promoting specific films had to be rented from production companies; with New York City’s high rate of movie turnover and Hollywood’s release of over 650 films a year, theater owners simply could not absorb the costs of posters for every film. [xx] Instead, as seen in Twenty Cent Movie, many had to resort to hanging their own generic signage that could easily reference any number of movies in a particular genre.
[xv] Since we know these films accorded with Marsh’s aforementioned taste in movies, the artist may have included them in the work because he had seen and admired them; each also had reasonably successful box office returns and response from the public. And while these two signs are the only confirmed references to actual films in the painting, Erica Doss has suggested that the large poster hanging above the box office depicts Sten in her role as Katusha Maslova in We Live Again. Following this logic one can note similarities between her co-star Fredric March and the man depicted in the hanging poster to the left, and some parity between C. Aubrey Smith, who played Prince Kortchagin in the film, and the man in the rightmost poster. These likenesses, however, remain conjectural in the absence of further evidence. See Erica L. Doss, “Images of American Women in the 1930s: Reginald Marsh and ‘Paramount Picture,’” Woman’s Art Journal 4, no. 2 (Autumn 1983–Winter 1984): 2.
[xvi] F. H. Richardson, “Posteritis,” Movie Picture World (June 11, 1910): 987. Cited in Gary D. Rhodes, “The Origin and Development of the American Moving Picture Poster,” Film History 19, no. 3 (2007): 237.
[xvii] For more information about poster content and regulation, see Rhodes, “American Moving Picture Poster,” 239–41.
[xviii] Steven C. Earley, An Introduction to American Movies (New York: New American Library, 1978), 55.
[xix] Shindler, Hollywood in Crisis, 103.
[xx] “Films Show Profit on 1934 Business,” New York Times, March 10, 1935; Rhodes, “American Moving Picture Poster,” 230–31.