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Violets and Vandamm


Part of the job of performance documentation was creation of images for the promotional articles, that ran in magazines such as Theatre. The featured play article featured 6 – 8 photographs of stage action laid out like a fashion magazine images cropped into rectangles and ovals connected by 1 sentence plot summaries. The article gives you a taste of the story line while promoting performers. The Vandamm Studio was especially good at preserving moments that convey emotional impact – viewers know that something important just happened.

This blog's key image shows Helen Menken as Irene de Montel in The Captive (1926), in the Arthur Hornblow, Jr. adaptation of Edouard Bourdet's play. Returning from her honeymoon, she receives a package from a female friend. Opening it, she sees a corsage of violets. Her reaction hints to the audience that the friend was [Spoiler Alert!] her lover. Enough of the audience understood the reference that the play was caught in politically motivated controversy and court hearings, along with Mae West's play Sex and W. F. Dugan's The Virgin Man.

Helen Menken as Irene de Montcel., Digital ID 497466, New York Public LibraryPhotograph by Vandamm StudioThe actress' reaction to the gift referred to earlier dialogue about wearing violets on a particularly happy rendezvous with the woman. For the magazine readers, the dialogue exists only in the performers' pose, face or handling of the prop as captured in the photograph. The Vandamms were known for preparing for their shoots by reading scripts and viewing rehearsals before plotting out their time with the actors and stage crew. They also knew the reaction styles of Broadway actors, especially those who regularly performed with the Theatre Guild, like Menken. The importance of dramatic context can be seen when this image is compared to one of Menken wearing the violets on the same jacket, but with a neutral expression. A series of such photographs (digital library numbers 497450-54) of Menken were aimed at fashion periodicals, such as Vogue or the fashion industry periodical Modes & Manners.

Violets as a gift between women is associated with a Sappho poem on lovers wearing garlands of violets. Wearing violets on one's lapel specifically may have become a recognition prop for lesbians in the 1930s because of the play, according to Kaier Curtin's letter to The Advocate in response to an article "Signs and Shibboleths" (Issue 338). The writer cites the ensembles of women attending performances of Lillian Hellman's The Children's Room (1934), which concerned accusations of lesbianism.

This Post Filed Under: Barbara Cohen-Stratyner (Author) Vandamm (Channel) Billy Rose Theatre Division New York Public Library for the Performing Arts, Dorothy and Lewis B. Cullman Center Related Blog Topics Photography Theatre


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