Chaplin of the Jungle

In the 1920s and 30s the concept of the documentary film was still in its infancy, and beginning with the silent Nanook of the North (1922), the idea that a documentary and a drama were separate things was unknown to filmmakers.

Feb. 28, 1930 cover by Theodore Haupt.

What was known, however, was the box office appeal of films that explored unknown and exotic lands, like Ernest B. Schoedsack’s 1927 blockbuster Chang, which featured a mix of staged events as well as the actual slaughter of wild animals. Audiences (and most critics) seemed little troubled that these films were a mix of fact and fiction. It was a movie, after all, and movies followed a story arc, and they had drama, and sometimes comedy. And so when Schoedsack (1893-1979) introduced audiences to an orangutan named Rango, publicists described the simian star as the “Charlie Chaplin of the Jungle.” The New Yorker’s John Mosher found the performances of the various apes “astonishingly adept”…

MONKEY BUSINESS…Clockwise, from top left, the Iowa-born Ernest B. Schoedsack cut his filmmaking teeth as a producer/director of quasi-documentaries, beginning with 1925’s Grass, which followed a caravan from Angora to Persia; a young Sumatran boy, Bin, bonds with the orangutan Rango; promotional theater card for the film. (filmaffinity.com)
NOT SO CUDDLY…Two years after Rango, Ernest B. Schoedsack would co-produce and co-direct 1933’s King Kong, with Merian C. Cooper. (Britannica)

If interpretations of tropical life weren’t accurate in 1931, it wasn’t completely due to filmmakers taking dramatic license. Attitudes toward “exotic” lands and people commonly ranged from naively paternalistic to downright racist. In a letter to the New Yorker, Patrick T.L. Putnam (1904-1953) is decidedly of the former, portraying Congo pygmies as clever, amusing children who hoodwink unsuspecting “explorers”…

To Putnam’s credit, he showed a genuine interest (and respect) in the lives of tribal peoples, and particularly the Mbuti of the Congo’s Ituri Forest. He remained in the Congo for the rest of his life. This thumbnail is the only photo I could find of Putnam:

(geni.com)

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Big Bill Turns Pro

In first decades of the 20th century it was still widely believed that athletic competition should be for its own sake rather than as a means for making money, so many top stars competed as amateurs. Professional golf wasn’t established until 1916, and professional leagues in basketball and football first formed in the 1920s. Amateur status was especially prized in tennis — before the “Open Era” began in 1968, only amateurs were allowed to compete in Grand Slam tournaments.

Sports promoter C. C. Pyle established the first professional tennis tour in 1926 with American and French stars playing exhibition matches in front of paying audiences. According to the New Yorker’s John Tunis, many in the crowd were finely dressed, with men in top hats and women turned out in the latest high fashion.

America’s top draw was “Big Bill” Tilden, the world’s number one player from 1920 to 1925 and the first American to win Wimbledon. It caused quite a stir when Tilden went pro on Dec. 31, 1930. He barnstormed across the country,  playing one-night stands with a small group of professionals including the top Czech player Karel Koželuh. “The Talk of the Town” had this to say about the fledging game of professional tennis:

BARNSTORMERS…Bill Tilden (left) and Karel Koželuh toured America and Europe with a handful of other players in a series of exhibition matches in the fledgling professional tennis circuit. (Britannica/cyranos.ch)

In his sports column, John Tunis offered this description of the competitors:

NOW AND THEN…At left, you can still spot a few neckties at Wimbledon as the audience watches Roger Federer and Andy Roddick enter Centre Court in 2009; at right, Wimbledon crowd in 1925. (BBC/Vintage Every Day)

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Triple Tripe

Dorothy Parker continued to sub in the theater column for her friend Robert Benchley, who was traveling abroad. She found little to like on the Great White Way, including three forgettable plays she reviewed in the Feb. 28 issue:

Apparently audiences agreed with Parker’s assessment. The Gang’s All Here closed after just 23 performances, The Great Barrington, after just 16. And Heat Wave was not so hot, closing after a mere 15 performances.

NOT SO GREAT…Program for 1931’s The Great Barrington. It lasted 16 performances. (IBDB)

Parker once again closed the column with a plea to her dear friend:

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To Swash No More

In his “Notes and Comment,” E.B. White lamented the end of Douglas Fairbanks as the swashbuckler of the silents, and rejected the talkie version of the actor in Reaching for the Moon, a film in which Fairbanks portrayed Larry Day, a Wall Street millionaire who later loses his fortune in the 1929 stock market crash.

KEEP YOUR SHIRT ON, DOUG…From left, Douglas Fairbanks in the silent era’s The Thief of Bagdad (1924); Fairbanks on an ocean cruise with Bebe Daniels in Reaching for the Moon. The 47-year-old Fairbanks was still fit enough to pose shirtless, but E.B. White wasn’t having any of it. Despite his fit appearance, Fairbanks would die of a heart attack at the end of the decade. (IMDB)

The film today is perhaps best known for its sumptuous Art Deco sets…

…and for one of Bing Crosby’s earliest film appearances. Reaching for the Moon was originally intended to be a musical featuring numbers by Irving Berlin, however Berlin found director Edmund Goulding difficult to work with, so only one of the original five songs recorded for the film was used, “When the Folks High Up Do the Mean Low Down,” sung by Crosby. It was filmed late at night after he had completed his gig at the Cocoanut Grove.

SINGING WITH BA-BA-BEBE…A young Bing Crosby sings “When the Folks High Up Do the Mean Low Down” with Bebe Daniels in Reaching for the Moon. (IMDB)

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Modern Living

E.B. White also commented on the modern world’s reliance on electric appliances, a habit a mere decade in the making since the gadgets he lists below did not exist before the 1920s:

ELECTRIC SURGE…Prior to the 1920s none of these electric appliances existed. By 1931 many homes were dependent upon them — although many country houses would have to wait for the Rural Electrification Administration (1935) and other New Deal programs get electrical service. (Pinterest)

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From Our Advertisers

I’ve written before about Lux Toilet Soap’s celebrity-studded ad campaigns, but this two-page ad in the Feb. 28 issue caught my eye because it featured one of my favorite actresses, Jessie Royce Landis

…who appeared in two of my favorite films, both by Alfred Hitchcock: To Catch a Thief (1955) and North by Northwest (1959).

MATERNAL ROLES…Jessie Royce Landis usually played older than she was in real life. Clockwise, from top left, detail of Lux ad; Landis circa 1930; opposite Cary Grant in 1955’s To Catch a Thief; and again with Grant in 1959’s North by Northwest. In the latter film she played Grant’s mother, but in reality she was only seven years older than Grant. (IMDB)

…much of the Douglas Fairbanks/Bebe Daniels film Reaching for the Moon was set on a luxury ocean liner…if the stock market didn’t get you down, you could also afford to travel in style with the Empress of Britain

…or on one of the fine ships of the French Line fleet…

…the Imperial was one of the luxury cars that could get you to the docks…

…among the stranger ads to appear in the New Yorker was this one by the maker of clay plumbing fixtures…

…on to our cartoonists, Ralph Barton returned with this illustration for the theater section…

Rea Irvin brought us another of his two-page series cartoons…

Gardner Rea commented on the state of the art world…

Peter Arno peered in on an unfortunate infant…

Helen Hokinson gave us this exchange along a city street…

Garrett Price illustrated a tall order for a blues musician…

Kindl found clashing styles in the shoe department…

…and James Thurber returned with a prelude to his battle of the sexes…

Next Time: The End of the World…

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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