Starstruck: Gene Marshall, Screen Dream

Smack Dab In The Middle: Design Trends Of The Mid-20th Century

January 19, 2017

Gene Marshall. Remember her?
Sure you do. Gene was the toast of Tinseltown. The sweetheart of the silver screen. A goddess of Hollywood’s Golden Age.
Not ringing any bells? Well, how about her movies? Who could forget “Red Venus,” “Bird of Paradise,” and “Sparkling Seduction.”
Hmmm, you murmur. I know my classic movies, but I haven’t heard of any of those. Or of Gene Marshall, either. What gives?
As they say in the projection booth, “let’s rewind.”
Gene Marshall, Hollywood legend, exists in a world all her own. Literally. Actually, it’s Mel Odom’s world, since he’s the creative genius who came up with the “Gene” concept. Gene was the first of the limited-edition high-fashion “living dolls” intended for the adult collector, which sprang up during the 1990s. Each Gene doll came with a “certificate of authenticity,” noting its number in the original issue run. After the doll was “retired,” that Gene edition was available only on the secondary market.
Odom was an acclaimed illustrator, whose dreamlike, doll-faced works had graced publications such as “Time.” He developed the idea of Gene after viewing a collection of French couture clothing from World War II displayed on miniature wire mannequins. These very specific renditions of mid-20th century glamour sparked his imagination. What if there were a doll based on that era, small enough to be collectible, yet large enough to effectively display high fashion? His illustrative talents came up with a facial design that was an amalgam of such great screen beauties of the 1940s and ’50s as Lana Turner, Rita Hayworth, Hedy Lamarr, and (as you’ve probably already guessed) Gene Tierney.
Working with sculptor Michael Evert, Odom was able to make his Gene dreams a reality. Moving from a single-dimension illustration to a three-dimensional model required some adjustments. How tall should Gene be? The eventual decision was 15.5 inches, so as to best display the outfits and make the dolls easier to dress. As for Gene’s tiny waistline, it was more than just movie-star vanity. Since doll costumes often connect at the waist, gathered fabric, coupled with a more generous waistline, would give Gene oddly unbalanced proportions. And, while most adult dolls boast toothy grins, Gene’s expression is enigmatic. Collectors could read into Gene’s expression whatever struck their fancy.
But what was the hook? Well, a bit of backstory never hurts, so a movie-star alternate reality was created. It was specific in its use of detail (Gene’s “discovery,” her movie credits, and her co-stars), yet vast enough to encompass a wide range of costume possibilities (her fanciful and historical movie outfits, her “at home” attire, and also her evening gowns).
Ashton-Drake Galleries, known for its collectible porcelain dolls, signed on for the production of Mel Odom’s vision in vinyl. In 1995, Gene Marshall made her official dolldom debut. The ads trumpeted, “In a place called Hollywood, in an era called the Golden Age, a beautiful, small-town girl finds stardom.” Or, in movie shorthand, “A Star Is Born.”
Eventually, additional celebrities from the world of Gene were introduced. Among them - rock-jawed leading man Trent Osborn and vintage vixen Madra Lord. Adding to the weirdness of the pseudo-pop culture storyline was the 2007 addition of a doll based on real-life ’40s film star Marsha Hunt, described as a “friend of Gene.”
Affordable and lovely on their initial release, Gene dolls retain those assets on today’s secondary market. Hundreds appear daily on eBay, and most are available for less than $100.
Gene dolls offer up a fantasy of old Hollywood at its most fan-magazine-iest, all wrapped up in one mightily attractive package of dollmaking expertise. Gene Marshall may never have actually strutted her starry stuff across a real-life Hollywood soundstage, but it’s fun to think that she might have. From the beginning, Mel Odom invited fans to “share the dream.” Today, many Gene collectors continue to do just that.
Photo Associates: Hank Kuhlmann and Judy Johnson.
Gene Marshall dolls courtesy of Patricia Johnson.

Donald-Brian Johnson is the co-author of numerous books on design and collectibles, including “Postwar Pop,” a collection of his columns, and an upcoming second volume. Please address inquiries to


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