Will It Play In Peoria?

Cecil B. DeMille was known for his epic films (e.g. The Ten Commandments, 1923 and 1956) and cinematic showmanship, but in 1930 he puzzled his audiences with a very weird pre-Code musical, Madam Satan.

Oct. 11, 1930 cover by Theodore Haupt.

The film centered on a wealthy couple, Angela and Bob Brooks (played by Kay Johnson and Reginald Denny). Bob is unfaithful to his wife (a common pre-Code theme), and she attempts to lure him back by disguising herself as a mysterious devil woman at a masquerade ball held aboard a dirigible. Quite a plot indeed. Here’s what the New Yorker’s John Mosher had to say about it.

PAJAMA GAMES…Lillian Roth, Roland Young, and Kay Johnson in Madam Satan. At right, Reginald Denny falls for the charms of his wife (Kay Johnson), disguised as a devil woman at a masked ball held aboard a giant dirigible. (IMDB/cecilbdemille.com)
AIRHEADS…Via a giant mooring mast, partygoers board a dirigible for the masquerade ball in Madam Satan. Curiously, developers of the Empire State Building (which was under construction) envisioned a similar use for the mast that would top out their tower. In reality, winds that whipped around high towers would have prevented this type of boarding. (twitter.com)
SOMEONE CALL THE FAA…At right, the lavish masquerade ball aboard a giant dirigible in Madam Satan. At right, the dirigible is damaged by lightning in a scene that foreshadowed the Hindenberg disaster of 1937. (cecilbdemille.com/precode.com)
SEEMS PLAUSIBLE…In a silly ending to a silly film, partygoers float on parachutes away from the damaged dirigible. (twitter.com)

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Let Them Eat Cake

Somerset Maugham regarded his comic novel, Cakes and Ale, to be his favorite. The book took aim at snobs as well as at the legacy of one overrated, late-Victorian writer — a character many believe was based on the recently departed Thomas Hardy (Maugham denied the inspiration). The New Yorker had this to say about Cakes and Ale:

THROW HARDY INTO THE DUSTBIN…Somerset Maugham as photographed by Carl Van Vechten in 1934. (Wikipedia)

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He Meant What He Said

Howard Brubaker, in his “Of All Things” column, found humor in the words of a rising figure in German politics, you know who…

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Throw Him a Softball

The famed French artist Henri Matisse paid a visit to New York City, and according to this account in “The Talk of Town,” seemed to be seeking some peace of mind…

AN OPPOSITE VIEW…Henri Matisse struck a thoughtful pose atop a Manhattan apartment at 10 Mitchell Place in 1930. The Queensboro Bridge can be glimpsed in the background. (ephemeralnewyork.wordpress.com)

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Still Barred From the Bar

We are still about three years away from the official repeal of the 18th Amendment, but as we know the partying continued in houses and speakeasies across the great city. E.B. White, in his “Notes and Comment,” wistfully recalled the days when good booze was legal:

White did find some cheer in the pro-wet platforms of the two major parties…

A GIMLET IN EVERY POT…The major political parties in 1932’s U.S. presidential race were represented by incumbent Herbert Hoover (Republican) and Franklin D. Roosevelt (Democratic). Both favored repeal of the 18th Amendment. Pictured at the center, a New Yorker cocktail, the object of E.B. White’s longing. (Wikipedia)

And while we are on the subject, we have this Wallace Morgan illustration of a lively speakeasy with the ironic caption, “The Saloon Must Go!” — referencing an old Anti-Saloon League Slogan.

You didn’t have to go to a speakeasy if you wanted a glass of wine. During Prohibition American winemakers found a lucrative loophole by selling perfectly legal concentrated grape juice (called “wine bricks”) to home brewers and bootleggers alike.

According to an article in the Smithsonian, winemakers marked the wine bricks with warnings that they were “for non-alcoholic consumption only.” However, the package would also bear a note explaining how to dissolve the brick in a gallon of water, and yet another “warning” instructing the buyer not to leave the jug in a cool cupboard for 21 days, lest it turn into wine.

Here’s an ad in the Oct. 11, 1930 New Yorker that not-so-subtly offered a selection of varietals…

Here’s what a wine brick looked like:

A wine brick from San Francisco’s Vino Sano company. The label reads: “Each Brick dissolve in one gallon of water. To prevent fermentation, add 1-10% Benzoate of Soda.” Yeah right. (vinepair.com)

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From Our Advertisers

No doubt Prohibition caused more than a few people to take up smoking. Women adopted the habit in droves during the Roaring Twenties, and by the Depression it seemed everyone was lighting up. Advertisers explored various ways to market cigarettes, and long before the Marlboro Man made the scene, that brand pushed its product through a series of dopey handwriting and essay contests,,,

…the makers of Luckies used a combination of sex and bogus health claims to sell their products…

…cigarettes were not confined to ads by tobacco companies; here they are accessories to fine furs…

…even the New Yorker’s spot illustrations (this by Frank McIntosh) featured smokers…

…as did cartoons, such as this one by Barbara Shermund in the Oct. 4 issue…

…and we have one more ad, this one from Chrysler, which acknowledged the new world of the Great Depression, but only through use of careful euphemisms (the New Yorker editorial side practiced much of the same)…

…on to our cartoons, beginning with an exploration of city vs. country life, by Alice Harvey

…a depiction of what commuter flying was actually like in 1930, thanks to Leonard Dove

…a glimpse at modern parenting, with Helen Hokinson

…humor in a gentleman’s drawing room, courtesy Peter Arno

…and 89 years later, a hilarious update on the subject by Edward Steed in the Sept. 9, 2019 issue…

…and finally, the joys of urban life brought to us by Alan Dunn

Next Time: Ghosts of Gotham…

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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