December
31st 2007
Dolls are fascinating and creepy, always

Posted under: book reviews, Dolls

In the course of doing some research on childhood in the early eighteenth-century (more on that later), Historiann came across a fascinatingly creepy photograph of a doll that is apparently the oldest rag doll preserved in any American museum. (See the amazing web site developed by Memorial Hall Museum in Deerfield, Massachusetts.) She became more mysteriously creepy when I learned that her name was Bangwell Putt, and that she was kept by her blind owner over the course of her lifetime that spanned the 1760s through the 1840s:

Bangwell Putt, ca. 1770, at Memorial Hall, Deerfield, Massachusetts (memorialhall.mass.edu)

Bangwell Putt, ca. 1770, at Memorial Hall, Deerfield, Massachusetts (memorialhall.mass.edu)

captain-scarlet.jpg Captain Scarlet, the indestructible foe of the Mysterons

Bangwell Putt made me think about the Lonely Doll books by the enigmatic oddball Dare Wright, and Gerry Anderson’s Captain Scarlet TV series, which were some of the most interesting artifacts of my own childhood. Both creations were based on the photography of dolls as actors in stories.

edith-lonely-doll.jpg Edith, the Lonely Doll edith-and-little-bear.jpg Edith and Little Bear

Captain Scarlet and Edith, the so-called Lonely Doll, have very little in common, aside from being dolls. Captain Scarlet, who “fate has made indestructible,” is the star officer of Spectrum, an international high-tech defense force that works to save Earth from the evil designs of the Mysterons. (Actually, Spectrum seems for the most part to work for a quasi-United Nations organization.) The stories are pretty transparent Cold War fantasies inspired by James Bond movies–Captain Scarlet looks like Billy Zane (when he still had hair), and his voice is a really bad Cary Grant impersonation. All of the “actors” in Captain Scarlet are Ken- and Barbie-scale dolls (or perhaps marionettes), and the animation is crude compared to the digital perfection studios can offer today. But in a way, their obvious doll-like qualities–their stiffness of movement, their precisely tailored tiny clothes–is what makes the show utterly fascinating. It’s like being a fly on the wall to your own games of childhood make-believe, only with unbelieveably realistic and extremely cool sets, equipment, and accessories–my Barbie FriendShip (ca. 1973)-a-go-go. (Check out this unbelieveable fan site, complete with back stories for all of the characters, Spectrum Headquarters.)

In contrast to Captain Scarlet’s dangerous world of secret agents and faith in technology, Edith and her friends Mr. Bear and Little Bear offer domestic tales in a lower-tech setting in black-and-white still photography. In The Lonely Doll, the first book in the Lonely Doll series, Edith is a felt doll with an extensive wardrobe, and she lives alone in midtown Manhattan in her own apartment with a terrace. The bears just show up on Edith’s terrace one day, and Mr. Bear becomes a surrogate father while Little Bear serves as a surrogate little brother. When left alone one day, Edith and Little Bear discover a secret dressing room full of grown-up women’s clothes that Edith was apparently unaware of although it’s her apartment they all live in. They play dress-up and experiment with lipstick, and when they get caught Mr. Bear administers a thorough spanking (although no one ever explains why Mr. Bear might be keeping a mysterious closet full of women’s clothing and shoes). Once again, it’s not the story that’s so interesting, but rather Dare Wright’s moving and evocative photography of her own childhood doll with the two teddy bears, posed in imaginatively designed sets in Wright’s own midtown apartment. The fact that Edith and Wright shared the same hairstyle in the 1950s and 1960s and had very similar wardrobes is another somewhat disturbing detail–Jean Nathan’s The Secret Life of the Lonely Doll documents all of the ways in which Dare Wright’s creation was very much a projection of herself and her own unresolved family conflicts and childish fantasies.

Perhaps dolls (and our memories of dolls) allow us all to work out family conflicts and childish fantasies. All I know is that when my mother got down my suitcase full of old barbies about five years ago, my sister-in-law and I were magnetically drawn to them. We both reached in and started dressing them up, posing them, and making them “walk” and “talk” again after twenty-some years of neglect.

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