Critical Issues in American Art: A Book of Readings

By Mary Ann Calo | Go to book overview

19
Images of American Women in the 1930s

Reginald Marsh and Paramount Picture

ERIKA L. Doss

In Reginald Marsh Paramount Picture, the larger- than-life-size poster image of Cleopatra serves as the backdrop for a rather ordinary, somewhat world- weary female who stands outside the theater. Such representations of the cinema provide a glimpse of the manner in which popular entertainment contributed to the formation, and transmission, of American social attitudes. Erika Doss examines this phenomenon as it is brought to bear on the construction of female identity during the Depression. Weaving together film history, employment statistics, and attitudes toward women in the workplace, Doss exposes the destructive influence of the many complex messages sent to women who frequented the movies.

The historical figure of Cleopatra epitomizes a stock character of this so-called golden age of the American cinema: the attractive, scheming seductress whose abuse of power resulted in her tragic downfall. At a time when competition for employment was fierce, the growing visibility of women in the workplace was cause for concern. Unlike the fantasy world of film heroines, however, ordinary working women did not lead glamorous lives that ended in blissful romantic unions, so long as their amibition was held in check. As Doss concludes, women audiences found little evidence of the reality of their own lives in these films, which served rather as cautionary tales for the enlightenment of ambitious women.

The subject matter of popular entertainment- bowling alleys and burlesque, movie theaters and radio shows, amusement parks and nightclubs--has long been a topic to which American artists have turned. From George Caleb Bingham's 19th-century Raftsmen Playing Cards to George Bellows 1924 paean to boxing, Dempsey and Firpo, American painting is noteworthy for its delineation of the pleasurable pastimes and pursuits of Americans at play. Perhaps no American artist during the 20th century was more preoccupied with what Americans did with their leisure time than Reginald Marsh ( 1898-1954), who sketched and painted the social activities of his New York neighbors throughout his career. Spying on the urban populace with binoculars from the ninth floor of his 14th Street studio, or wandering around the Bowery, Coney Island, or Broadway, Marsh watched how people shopped, flirted, waited in line, or amused themselves in a variety of pas

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