Totally Groesbeck

The artist whose vision unchained DeMille

My friend Tony still bitches about the time I made him go with me to the Orange County Museum of Art (OCMA) to see "that goddamned Circuit City exhibit." It's true: it was a bunch of coiled cables and TV sets piled atop one another, each screen showing a different body part to make some kind of metaphorical media Frankenstein's monster, and no, it wasn't very "good."

OCMA's mission is to be contemporary and cutting edge, and you really have to admire that in a county where the artsiest towns brim with galleries showing children frolicking at the seashore. But a lot of what they end up showing is just another pile of loosely coiled cable.

So it's nice to see—just once in a while, mind you—a show at OCMA that's unabashedly old fashioned and sentimental and pretty and delicate and girly and stuff. That the show "Destined for Hollywood: The Art of Dan Sayre Groesbeck" was organized not by OCMA but by the much more staid (and girly) Santa Barbara Museum of Art should surprise no one. Old fashioned and pretty aren't OCMA's forte (except when they're triumphantly showcasing the Plein Air landscapes they pirated from the Laguna Art Museum). But Santa Barbara? Oh, it can pretty and girly it up with the best of them—that is, with the likes of Laguna Beach. Both are great places to live, so every canvas by law becomes drenched with a saccharine-colored light.

Groesbeck was born in 1879; by 1900, he'd founded an LA ad firm, and by 1904, he was a successful illustrator. He blasted through LA, San Francisco, Chicago, New York, Manchuria and Russia (where he was enlisted in the Canadian army trying to contain the Bolsheviks). He painted grand murals at the Santa Barbara County Courthouse. He made up lots of stuff about things he had seen and done in the war and about his art career, confounding researchers and biographers. And then he pretty much invented storyboarding for the Hollywood film industry; his sketches and watercolors formed the Biblical visions of the auteuriest of them all, Cecil B. DeMille. In fact, DeMille wouldn't have even been able to make Samson & Delilah were it not for Groesbeck's slutty portrait of the ravishing Hedy Lamarr as Delilah convincing Paramount (which was totally over DeMille's break-the-bank epics) that the flick would be a marketable love story. Groesbeck also helped out with a little picture called Gone With the Wind.

At OCMA, Groesbeck's lovely, soft watercolors are contained in two smallish side galleries. The scenes are beautiful and dark in tone, as befits the inside of Paramount's back lots. There is not a single ray of saccharine-colored sun nor a rolling golden hill.

Instead, there's a lot of swashbuckling, from pictures probably remembered only by the codgeriest of geezers—and whatever Norma Desmond type is still roaming her Hollywood manse. A few are recognizable: The Ten Commandments, The Good Earth, The Sign of the Cross. But I don't know anyone who has actually seen them.

Most gratifying in the exhibit are the scene studies that have corresponding stills beside them. Hollywood was rarely able to realize the grandeur of Groesbeck's vision, and one coupling is particularly funny: Groesbeck's mythical Samson battling the lion—in blue pencil. Samson's muscles are superhuman; the lion is tossed, yowling into the air (see photo at left). The still from the completed flick shows a nerdy Victor Mature butched up in arm bracelets and bending over a drugged and sleepy feline. The lion is as out of it as pink-maned televangelist Jan Crouch—and a whole lot less dangerous.

But there are others in which Groesbeck managed to limit himself to earthbound subjects, and the films were accordingly able to achieve his visions. Portraits of Gary Cooper for Unconquered, of Jean Arthur lovely and fresh in a sweeping yet prim pink gown for The Plainsman, of a giant squid under the sea for Reap the Wild Wind, these all were made flesh—except the giant squid, which was probably made of India rubber, cardboard and cordage or something.

Groesbeck's paintings are relegated to the side at the OCMA, and that's as it should be. They're a delicious snack, and they're beautiful to look at, but we don't need to make sepia-toned nostalgia the main event. OCMA's mission is to the new. Bring out the cables and the stupid TVs.

"Destined for Hollywood: The Art of Dan Sayre Groesbeck" at the Orange County Museum of Art, 850 San Clemente Dr., Newport Beach, (949) 759-1122; www.ocma.net. Open Tues.-Sun., 11 a.m.-5 p.m. Through Oct. 6. $4-$5; kids under 16, free; free on Tues.
 
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