The Russians Are Coming

Compared to Hollywood, cinema as an art form in the 1920s was more advanced in Europe, where filmmakers took a more mature, nuanced approach to movies; they focused less on money and more on exploring difficult social and historical issues. Trench warfare, genocide and famine have a way of doing that to you.

June 9, 1928 cover by Ilonka Karasz.

The contrast between the European avant-garde and Hollywood’s Tinseltown was not lost on the New Yorker’s film critics, who consistently lambasted American cinema while applauding nearly everything coming out of Europe, and especially the films produced by German and Russian directors. The critic “O.C.” used the Russians latest American release, The End of St. Petersburg, to drive home the point. He also chided those who dismissed the film as propaganda, a stance much in line with leftist intellectuals of the day who found inspiration in the Russian Revolution (and sometimes they looked the other way when things didn’t go so well in the Soviet experiment—1928 marked the beginning of the Soviet Union’s first Five-Year Plan. By 1934 it was estimated that almost 15 million people died from forced collectivization and famine).

The End of St. Petersburg was blatant propaganda, to be sure, but to this day it has been widely praised for its cinematic innovations. The story itself was fairly straightforward: A peasant goes to St. Petersburg looking for work, gets arrested for his involvement in a labor union and is subsequently sent to fight in the trenches of World War I. His experiences in the war solidify his commitment to revolution and the overthrow of the capitalist overlords. The New Yorker review:

OPPRESSORS & OPPRESSED…The shareholders of a steel mill (top) demand longer hours from workers who already suffer from hellish conditions at the factory in The End of St. Petersburg. (Stills from the film, available on YouTube)

The New Yorker reviewer suggested that a story used primarily to influence an audience—propaganda—was not necessarily a bad thing:

The horrors of trench warfare were graphically depicted in The End of St. Petersburg. (stills from film)

 *  *  *

Back in the New World, most of the talk in cinematic circles revolved around the excitement of “talking pictures.”

FORERUNNER…The Vitaphone system was the most successful of early attempts at sound movies. It synchronized a large recorded disc (seen at lower right) with the film. The Jazz Singer, often heralded as the movie that marked the commercial ascendance of sound films, used Vitaphone technology. (Audio Engineering Society)
BETTER YET…Sound movies took off with the invention of a soundtrack that could be printed directly onto the film. Filmmakers either used Variable Area (left) or Variable Density (center) mono optical soundtracks located between the film’s picture frame and sprocket holes. The tracks could be read by a newly developed photocell (a light source also known as Aeo-light) that could be modulated by audio signals and was used to expose the soundtrack in sound cameras such as the one at right. (Images 1 & 2, Audio Engineering Society/ Image 3, Wikipedia)

It seems that Fox Movietone newsreels really got things going with sound and whetted the audience appetites for more:

TELLING US A THING OR TWO…Irish playwright and critic George Bernard Shaw’s first visit to America, recorded for posterity in this 1928 Fox Movietone Newsreel. (still from film)

*  *  *

Then There Was The Other Playwright…

Mae West, to be exact. My guess is her approach to the craft was a bit different than G.B. Shaw’s, and we can gather as much from these excerpts from the June 9 “Talk of the Town.” The piece discusses West’s rise to fame as the creator and star of the scandalous play Sex, and her unorthodox approach to rehearsals.

DEMURE SHE’S NOT…Mae West in 1928’s Diamond Lil. (doctormacro.com)

 *  *  *

Although many today would identify D.H. Lawrence as one of great English novelists of the 20th century, eighty years ago the New Yorker book critic Dorothy Parker described him as “very near to being first rate.”

ALMOST FIRST RATE? D.H. Lawrence with wife Frieda Weekley in Chapala, Mexico in 1923. (tanvirdhaka.blogspot.com)

 *  *  *

Blind Justice

The makers of Old Gold cigarettes claimed to have scientific proof on their side with a series of ads in the New Yorker featuring endorsements by the rich and famous. This ad ran in the June 9 issue:

In the same issue was this cartoon by Al Frueh that took a poke at Old Gold’s marketing strategy…

…and Peter Arno offered this unique take on human vanity…

Talking pictures continued to be a theme in the June 16, 1928, issue of the New Yorker.

In his “Of All Things Column,” Howard Brubaker suggested that sound movies would spell the end of careers for some silent stars:

Although some actors struggled with the transition to sound, the reasons why some major stars faded with the advent of “talkies” are far more nuanced. In many cases, some stars packed it in because their careers had already peaked during the silent era, and both studios and audiences were looking for some fresh faces.

HAS BEENS?…It is a common assumption that sound motion pictures killed the careers of many silent stars, including big names like John Gilbert (left) and Clara Bow. The reality is far more nuanced. (Wikipedia/NY Post)

 *  *  *

Niven Busch, Jr. continued to explore the illicit bar scene in his recurring feature “Speakeasy Nights.” I include this excerpt because it described a rather clever facade devised by the owner of the “J.P. Speakeasy.”

WORK/LIFE BALANCE…What might appear to be a typical business office might conceal an even more lucrative business in the back rooms. (Musée McCord/americanhistoryusa.com)
Busch observed an interesting protocol for admittance into the speakeasy, including a typewritten message devised to throw off any would-be Prohibition officers:

From Our Advertisers…

This ad leaves a bad taste in your mouth no matter how you look at. Nothing like coating your mouth with Milk of Magnesia before lighting up that first fag of the day…

…and here we have another ad for Flit insecticide, courtesy of Theodore “Dr. Seuss” Geisel.

And finally, a look at a Roaring Twenties wedding reception, courtesy cartoonist Garrett Price:

Next Time: Down to Coney Island…

Published by

David O

I read and write about history from the perspective that history is not some artifact from the past but a living, breathing condition we inhabit every moment of our lives, or as William Faulkner once observed, "The past is never dead. It's not even past." I read original source materials, such as every issue of The New Yorker, not only as a way to understand a time from a particular perspective, but to also use the source as an aggregator of various historic events. I welcome comments, criticisms, corrections and insights as I stumble along through the century.

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