Campus Cuties, by Louis Marx and Company

Fabrizio del Wrongo writes:

During the years immediately following the Second World War, Louis Marx and Company was the largest toy producer in the world. The outfit was mainly known for its molded plastic figures, many of them sold in boxed playsets through the Sears catalog. If you were a male child in the ’50s, chances are you had a few of these sets. They generally featured some cardboard architectural elements, some bits of mock scenery, and scads of plastic figures in a variety of poses. The sets were generally based on famous historical events or settings, like the battles of Little Big Horn and The Alamo. They were cheap, but they contained entire worlds. Stuck inside on a rainy afternoon, crouched low on the living room floor, an imaginative kid could really get lost in one.

As the ’60s rolled around, playsets became less popular. This was the era of Hasbro’s G.I. Joe and Mattel’s Barbie — products that put the emphasis on the figure rather than the setting. Here were toys you could pose, dress up, imagine yourself into; their vitality wasn’t contingent on their context. I suppose there’s a comment to be made here about the rise of ’60s-style individualism and entitlement, but I’m not going to embarrass myself by making it. I’ll just throw the idea out there and leave it at that.

TV was a factor as well. Hasbro and Mattel spent millions on television advertising; Marx spent hundreds. You can imagine the upshot of that decision. In order to stay aware of Marx product a kid had to be regularly flipping through his mom’s Sears catalog. How stodgy.

Anyway, Marx continued to make toys throughout the ’60s, but the company never recaptured the mantle of industry Big Kahuna. Hasbro and Mattel reigned supreme until “Star Wars” and the advent of modern movie merchandizing. Interestingly, Kenner, the producer of “Star Wars” toys, rolled back the clock by reemphasizing the playset. The company shrunk the size of the figures but retained articulation. As this allowed for a variety of accessories to be sold along with the figures, it was a major coup, and it set the stage for almost every action figure line released in the ’80s.

I’m a bit off track here. The point of this post is to limelight my collection of Campus Cuties figures, released by Marx in 1964. The line was part of Marx’s attempt to emphasize figures over playsets, and it was one of the company’s few efforts to consciously appeal to girls. There were sixteen figures in all, released in two waves, with the last eight being the most difficult to find.

Each figure has a title molded into its base which evokes a particular activity or mood. Fittingly, many of them seem drawn from popular culture, movies and fashion in particular. For cheap-o plastic products, the detailing is pretty sharp. Shopping, Anyone? has what looks like a little pocket watch dangling from her waist, and Dinner for Two features a striking Orientalish design on her adorable mod dress.

Despite the product moniker, none of these gals seem particularly studious. I take the emphasis on college to be part of Marx’s attempt to make these toys seem sophisticated and sort of grown up, like Barbie. Remember, this was the era right before Women’s Lib and bra burning, when the college girl was something of a new and shiny ideal, and girls like the spring vacationers depicted in “Where the Boys Are” seemed like exemplars of a new American woman — one who was educated, sporty, and stylish. (In fact, just looking at these figures makes me think of actresses like Paula Prentiss, Dolores Hart, and Yvette Mimieux. Sigh. There are worse things to be thinking about on a late summer afternoon.)

For what it’s worth, I’m a big fan of this micro-era, even though (or perhaps because?) it often gets crapped on by cultural historian types, who tend to regard it as all so much dross — as milquetoasty nonsense thankfully swept away by the shaggy fervor of the later ’60s. To me, the period has a real sweetness to it, as well as a delicious sexual tension — you can sense the coming tidal wave roiling just below the surface, but it hasn’t yet destroyed the scrubbed wholesomeness or that milk-fed American bloom. I think of those years and I think of California, go-go dancers, and pastel-garbed stewardesses; capri pants, James Bond, and “Playboy”; muscle cars, surf movies, and drive-ins. Campus Cuties fit right into that group of cultural associations — and that’s largely why I enjoy them so much.

As to which is my favorite individual Cutie . . . well, I’m not sure I can decide! I’m quite fond of Lazy Afternoon. Her boldly outstretched leg and angled canoe paddle give her  real space-commanding presence, and her demeanor is calm yet enigmatic, like that of a Greek kouros. And then there’s Lodge Party. She’s the most wistful gal of the bunch, yet she’s untouched by ennui. In a later era she’d be the girl who sat alone at lunch, possibly listening to Belle & Sebastian. Twist Party is pretty appealing too; I love her thong sandals and the hint of slip that’s peaking out from beneath her dress. And I mustn’t forget the aptly named Nitey Nite, who seems to have stepped right out of the pages of “Playboy” — a vivid reminder that though these toys were aimed at little girls, they were designed by grown men.

Which one is your favorite?

Related:

About Fabrizio del Wrongo

Recovering liberal arts major. Unrepentant movie nut. Aspiring boozehound.
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16 Responses to Campus Cuties, by Louis Marx and Company

  1. Blowhard, Esq. says:

    My favorite? Tie between Nighty Nite and Twist Party.

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  2. Pingback: Campus Cuties, by Louis Marx and Company | Uncouth Reflections | Rare Toys

  3. epiminondas says:

    Those poses seem to have come right out of Sears, too.

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  4. deklane says:

    I’m of the Marx playset for Christmas era myself. One thing about them was that the figures weren’t painted. They might be molded in a plastic of the right color for specific circumstances (in the Civil War set, you had obvious blue and gray figures, the Army sets had green soldiers, etc.), but no attempt was made to paint them. I can imagine thrifty old Louis Marx popping an artery just at the thought of what that would cost. Mass-produced toys of the era that did have painted figures (like operating Lionel Train accessories with a switchman or other railroad worker) were very still crude, with maybe a splotch of flesh-colored paint approximately in the general location of the face. In the modern era, however, figures of that size are coming from China that are incredibly well-painted with half a dozen different colors precisely applied, even with tiny faces detailed down to eyeballs. I even saw a premium-priced reissue of the old Marx Flintstones playset (using the old ’60s tooling) not too long ago that had detailed painting of at least the main characters, certainly something the original playset didn’t. Toy economics seems to be very different these days… either the technology is better with precision spraying and masking, or Chinese factories can hire hundreds of girls for 50c an hour to paint the things…

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  5. Shopping, Anyone and Nighty Nite have loads of erotic appeal … but a lot of the other ones do too. A great era in girls. I wonder if it’ll ever come back into fashion. Are you the fan of “Man’s Favorite Sport” that I am? Part of me grew up hoping that every girl would turn out to be like Paula Prentiss.

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  6. Fabrizio del Wrongo says:

    Oh, man — I love Paula Prentiss. I remember watching “Where the Boys Are” as a kid and being captivated by her. Big gawky game-for-anything sort of girl, but stylish and put-together too. I need to re-see “Man’s Favorite Sport.” I recall liking it — and I like late Hawks in general — but it’s been a long while.

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  7. slumber_j says:

    “To me, the period has a real sweetness to it, as well as a delicious sexual tension — you can sense the coming tidal wave roiling just below the surface, but it hasn’t yet destroyed the scrubbed wholesomeness or that milk-fed American bloom.” C.F. Moonrise Kingdom.

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  8. Toddy Cat says:

    I’m in love with “Saturday Afternoon”.

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    • Fabrizio del Wrongo says:

      She’s pretty special. I should have gotten a shot of the front. She’s wearing a little belly shirt that’s open to show her cleavage.

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  9. Toddy Cat says:

    Like you, I love this era. It was one of those rare periods where a society seems to have gotten things just about right, as regards culture. Not too puritanical, not too promiscuous, just about the right balance between elitism and populism, respect for social mores while pushing the envelope a bit.. A real balancing act, of course, it was probably inevitable that it would tip over in one direction or another. But it was fun while it lasted. It’s hard to believe that there were only four years between this era and 1968’s Gotterdammerung…

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  10. Snuggles says:

    I just found some of these in the basement. Was going to give to my grandchild but decided to hold onto them. Not sure if anyone will read this since the post is old.

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    • Fabrizio del Wrongo says:

      They’re fun relics of an earlier era. They look nice on a shelf, provided your home decor can withstand the casualness.

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  11. ArtGRRRL says:

    Hello. I am an artist who uses the first series of Campus Cuties in some of my work. Until recently, I did not know that a second set existed. These are absolutely fantastic! Would it be possible to get high resolution images of the second set? Let’s chat about it. Thank you.

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