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?