On the Antiques Roadshow the other night, one of the "experts" said that America had given the world three things: Hollywood, Jazz, and the art of advertising. It was one of those flippant remarks that can easily be discarded until you think about it. Maybe he was right. All three are essentially American.
Certainly Hollywood, especially in its heyday, brought glamor into the lives of millions of people around the world; dispensing a universal morality that cut through religious and political divisions. Those stars on that huge silver screen inhabited a magical world of romance, and glamor, and sometimes danger and intrigue; though we always knew the good guys would win in the end.
It was this glamorous lifestyle that drew thousands of young starlets and bright-eyed young men to Hollywood, only to find the sordid underbelly described in Kenneth Anger's two volumes, Hollywood Babylon I & II.
People in the movie industry rarely escaped scandal; the dynamic duo Hedda Hopper and Louella Parsons saw to that. However, there is one actress who has never been tainted by a whiff of scandal. Her name is Gene Marshall.
Although she's in retirement now, back in her movie making days she was beautiful, glamorous, and talented, and she is also the subject of a new biography Gene Marshall: Girl Star by Mel Odom, with Michael Sommers, ( Hyperion Hardcover $29.95 )
In fact, Gene Marshall is a real doll. No really, she's a doll, and she's causing a sensation with doll collectors around the world. This could be "Bye Bye Barbie."
The Gene doll is the brainchild of Mel Odom. "When I was a kid, and I would see old movies, I didn't realize they were a different time," said Odom in a recent interview with Windy City Times. "I just thought they were a different place, where people looked like that. I wanted Gene to live in that place, where everybody was dressed beautifully, and even the poor people had Adrian designed gingham dresses. It's a completely unrealistic place but as a child you don't realize that."
Odom began his career as an illustrator and designer back in the mid-'70s when he worked for Blueboy. "I had just moved to New York and the only magazine I was doing work for was Viva, which was a woman's magazine. Then Blueboy started about that time, and they had a really wonderful art director named Alex Sanchez. It was a gay magazine, it had nudes in it, and it was gorgeous, with really interesting illustrations and beautiful photography. At the time I was working for it, it was cutting edge as far as art direction is concerned.
"I did illustrations for features and short stories. I worked for them for several years and they were really wonderful to work for, and a lot of people who went on to become the top illustrators started on that magazine.
"After a while the magazine changed, Alex left and the art direction suffered for it. Then I got work in Playboy, and I was a regular contributor for them. Someone saw my work in Blueboy and loved its eroticism, and that I could make things that were not sexual, erotic. I don't know that I ever did anything overtly sexual for Blue Boy. I never did a drawing of people making love. I remember one of the illustrations I did for them was the head of a greek statue behind a screen, and it was an article on class and what constitutes that undefinable thing. I just felt the notion of moths being attracted to this head behind a screen, was a beautiful abstract way of depicting that."
At Playboy, Odom worked with art director Kerig Pope. "We got along like a house on fire," said Odom. "The first illustration I did for them was a Roald Dahl story, 'My Uncle Oswald.' Playboy was an incredibly exciting magazine to work for, because the printing was so much better, and the money was much better. I also got to go to Playboy parties, and hang out with people like Jessica Hahn. For someone from a small town in North Carolina, it seemed very exciting. Girls walking around in little bunny suits, and toward the end there were guys walking around in bunny suits. They had slacks on, but no shirt ... I don't know that they had ears."
Odom said he was never tempted to become a bunny boy, then adds, "But I was never asked." In 1991, Odom was getting bored with illustrating, and started looking for other ways to express himself creatively. "I have always loved dolls," he said. "Some of my earliest memories have to do with dolls. I just started thinking, 'What could I do that would involve my drawing, but would bring in old movies, which I love, and fashion, which I also love.
"I was painting in oils, but I wanted to do something else which was less two-dimensional. I had done some portraits of Barbie for magazines, Playboy included, and because of those drawings I had a bit of a reputation in the doll world. So I drew a doll, and friends of mine, who had seen this drawing, mentioned to dealers that I was designing a doll. So I started getting calls from dealers. One of them said, 'Are you really going to design a doll?' and I said, 'Oh yes, sure.' At the time I don't think I had actually thought of creating a doll, it was just a drawing for myself.
"I had a strong idea of what the doll should look like. I decided I would make her a movie star from the '40s and '50s, because I love that period in clothes and film. I knew it was a long shot, I'd be going up against Barbie, who was the only fashion doll out there of any scale. No-one had ever succeeded because Mattel was such a huge company. The other dolls that had come out hadn't captured people's imagination the way Barbie had."
Also, at the time, Odom was caring for a friend who was dying, and thought that working on the doll would be a distraction for him. "I had been asked to design male mannequins for a company, and Michael Everett, their head sculptor, needed some extra money, and said he always thought it would interesting to sculpt a doll. So I went ahead and said, 'Would you?' and he said he'd love to do it. His studio turned out to be three blocks from my friend's hospital. So I thought, 'Ok this is a sign from above.' So I would go to the hospital and see my friend, and he was always awful, then I would go from there to the sculptor. It was the only thing that could snap me out of it.
"I felt that even if it didn't go any further than Michael Everett's studio, I'd rather pay him than a psychiatrist. In the meantime, when anyone said, 'What are you working on?' I'd say, 'I'm thinking about designing a doll.' Everybody loved the idea that she would be a movie star from the '40s and '50s. I made Gene four inches taller than Barbie so it wouldn't be playing the same game. She has eyelashes, she's a different period, and she has a different attitude. And she's more of a woman."
Wary of Barbie's contribution to image problems and anorexia in women, Odom took steps to counteract that in the planning stages. "I had girlfriends of mine come to the sculptor's studio while we were sculpting the body, and I said, 'I want you to look at this and if you see something that bugs you let me know while we're doing it, so I can consider it and try to change it. I know that Gene has this tiny waist, but that's because when you do a fashion doll, that's the point in the body that gets the most fabric, all the seams, the pantie hose, go there, so when she's dressed I think she's proportioned like a real woman. That was the goal."
The next step was to find a company to make the doll. "There was one company who wanted to make her, but they were complete crooks. So I met with a company called Ashton Drake in '94 and we started working on Gene. She debuted at Toy Fair in '95. We had three dolls, nine costumes and one little display. Most people were shaking their heads when they saw it, but Gene became very hot on the Internet, on the doll chat lines. To this day I still do not have a computer but I kept hearing, 'Gene is huge on the internet.'
"The first ad they did completely bombed, nobody responded to it and they sold very few of the dolls, so I started to do what my friends laughingly called 'The Joan Crawford Thing.' I would go to anyplace anybody asked me and stand there and sell the dolls. When a store advertised Gene dolls in a doll magazine, I would call the store and thank them. I didn't realize at the time that nobody had ever done that. That made a huge difference, and people told me years later that the reason they got behind Gene was that I called and thanked them. Honest and truly, there was no calculation in that whatsoever, I really was just so grateful that I had to let them know."
Suddenly the media were all over Gene, she appeared on magazine covers, in The New York Times and she became a worldwide phenomenon, with conventions in the States and in Paris. "When Gene came out, people were so fed up with Barbie," continued Odom. "Mattel had made some stupid blunders in their dealing with dealers and their collectors. Barbie had been the monopoly in the fashion world for decades and there's no such thing as a healthy monopoly. You get complacent. I think Mattel are doing wonderful things with Barbie now, but they got very sloppy early in the '90s. In fact, I just bought a Barbie in Las Vegas last week. It's called 'Fashion Editor Barbie,' big glasses and red hair."
Whereas Barbie is everything—the President, a skater, an astronaut—Gene is a character with a herstory. "We made Gene a linear story line," explained Odom. "She debuts in 1941 and retires in 1962, and all her costumes and biography pieces are within that storyline."
In '98, Odom was approached by Hyperion Books and asked to write a biography of Gene. Odom called his friend, the theater critic, Michael Sommers. "We used to have long late-night conversations about Gene Marshall's career, things like, 'Did she ever do any technicolor musicals?' and I'd say, 'Oh of course, don't you remember such and such ... ' and we would just go off on it. After ten minutes people would tell us to shut up."
The latest addition to Odom's world of dolls is Madra Lord, Gene Marshall's arch-rival. In the book Gene Marshall: Girl Star the beginnings of their rivalry are chronicled. "At the beginning of the story, Madra Lord is already a star at Monolithic Studios," explained Odom. "It's at her premiere that Gene is discovered. Gene gets a lot of press and Madra hates her for it. It's Madra's big night and there's a little usherette in the lobby getting photographed instead of her. Madra is the diva and she is not at all happy about being upstaged on her big night by this 17 year old. But Madra is smart enough to know that she needs to be photographed with Gene, so she does that 'Oh darling, let's pose together' thing. Then Madra goes into the bathroom and throws a bottle of Evening in Paris against a mirror. Without knowing it, Gene makes her first enemy that night."
Gene Marshall's career ends in 1962 because in Odom's mind—and also in the minds of a lot of gay men—that's when style ended. The days of Hollywood's great actresses, like Joan Crawford, Rita Hayworth and Bette Davis, had gone. "I did not want an early-to-mid 40s Gene Marshall dealing with the whole mod thing," said Odom. "Obviously we could make Gene still look great in those clothes, but I saw her career ending about the time of Audrey Hepburn and Jackie Kennedy. She'd be 39, she would want an equally fabulous private life after her career, and I thought that would be a great age for her to withdraw from the public eye."
For a man who creates fantasies, Odom is down-to-earth about what Gene means to him personally. "A whole generation of illustrators is lost," he said. "Those men are gone, it's like that's the first act of your life and you try to figure it all out with the second act. I miss those men, and I feel extremely privileged to be left, to still be here and actually doing something as exciting as this. When I was little, I would play with dolls, and when I got old enough to know that it was socially unacceptable, it didn't stop me, it just made me hide them. Now I'm making my living from dolls, so it's come full circle. I've gone from doing something that embarrassed me, to going on live TV and talking about it. It's coming back to my youngest sense of self."
See Gene at www.sharethedream.com or drop into FAO Schwartz or Gigi's Dolls at 6029 N. Northwest Hwy.