Through a Glass Darkly

Anticipated in science fiction in the early 20th century, television was one of those signifiers of a better life in the future, and the popular press drove home that message with its breathless reporting on the latest advancements. E.B. White, on the other hand, found the latest experiment in television to be less than thrilling, maintaining prescience of mind to see things as they were, and what they might become.

Oct. 31, 1931 cover by Helen Hokinson.

In “The Talk of the Town” White wrote about the unusual demonstration of television to an audience in the B.S. Moss playhouse. They were treated to a broadcast from the Guild Theatre, just one block away.

…now to the popular press, the demonstration — contrary to White’s account — was a wonder to behold:

Modern Mechanics magazine, January 1932.

The actual product, however, had a long way to go…

CAN YOU SEE ME NOW?…Top row, left to right, British adventurer Carveth Wells and actresses Theresa Helburn and Margaret Barker did their best to entertain audiences a block away via a television broadcast, but the results were more like the images on the bottom row, especially the one at right. (art-books.com/brynmawr.edu/onetuberadio.com)

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Comeback Kid

Not well known today, but in the early 20th century Maude Adams (1872-1953) was a household name; her touring productions beginning around the turn of the century made her the most popular actress in America, and she sealed that deal in 1905 when she played Peter Pan on Broadway to great acclaim. Her success continued until 1918, when the Spanish flu pandemic nearly claimed her life. After recovering from the illness she retired from acting and turned her attention to making improvements in electric lighting, creating an industry standard for both stage and film. When she returned to acting in 1931, it was big news, and “The Talk of the Town” was there to tell us about it. Excerpts:

STAGING A COMEBACK…Maude Adams, left, circa 1897. At right, Adams portrayed Portia in her 1931 production of The Merchant of Venice, with Otis Skinner, who portrayed Shylock. (Pinterest/Bookmice)

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Rags to Rags

The New Yorker departed from its usual profiles of the rich, powerful and/or famous and focused instead on a “Bowery Bum” named John McGoorty. Also unusual was the profile’s author, Russel Crouse, better known then and now and as an American playwright and librettist. Appropriately, Reginald Marsh lent his “Ashcan School” style to the illustration. Here are some excerpts:

NOT MUCH TO SMILE ABOUT…Berenice Abbott photograph of a Bowery restaurant in 1935, when the street was lined with flophouses. (Wikipedia)

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From Our Advertisers

We begin with some lovely color ads…the makers of the gasoline additive Ethyl (active ingredient, lead) continued their series of nature-themed ads…

…while Budweiser, perhaps anticipating the end of Prohibition, reminded readers of the refreshing flavor of its beer, even if it was non-alcoholic…

…R.J. Reynolds reminded women smokers that their Camel cigarettes left no after-taste…

…while Lorillard went a step further and claimed its Old Gold brand made a smoker downright kissable…

…the makers of Pepperell Peeress sheets and pillowcases offered this “Talk of the Town” parody to promote their wares…

…illustrator Frank McIntosh, known for his Art Deco travel drawings, (and who contributed just four drawings to the New Yorker), gave us this stylish illustration for Guillaume Lenthéric’s famed parfums

New Yorker cartoonist/illustrator H.O. Hofman contributed this drawing on behalf of the Artists and Writers Guild, offering their designer bridge cards…

…and speaking of bridge, we have Alan Dunn opening our cartoons…

…and in a less refined setting, we have this from Raymond Thayer, another contributor of just four drawings to the New Yorker…

…and this entry from Carl Rose reminds us of where we are in history, namely the Depression…

James Thurber continued his exploration of the mysterious encounters between the sexes…

…and we end with Alice Harvey, and one unlikely play date…

Next Time: A Stage of Woes…

Some Comic Relief

From the Upper East Side and the vaudeville stage to the shining lights of Hollywood went the Marx Brothers in 1931, starring in their first movie written especially for screen rather than adapted from one of their stage shows.

Oct. 17, 1931 cover by Adolph K. Kronengold.

Monkey Business also their first film to be shot outside of New York. The brothers’ first two pictures — The Cocoanuts (1929) and Animal Crackers (1930) — were filmed at Paramount’s Astoria Studios in Queens. Film critic John Mosher found their latest movie to be a “particular prize” among the somewhat ordinary fare being cranked out of Hollywood. It featured the four as stowaways on an ocean liner bound for America, and that’s all you really need to know, because like most of their films it cut quickly to the chase…

Monkey Business was the first film to label the troupe the “Four Marx Brothers” (a billing that would continue through their Paramount years). A fifth brother, Gummo, left the team early and went on to launch a successful raincoat business.

NEVER A DULL MOMENT…The Marx Brothers were up to their usual antics in their first Hollywood-made film, Monkey Business. At top, Groucho performs an egg trick on a society couple; at bottom, he does a bit of hoofing with comedian Thelma Todd. (IMDB)

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Monkey’s Uncles

There was a New Yorker connection to Monkey BusinessS. J. Perelman‚ a frequent contributor of humorous shorts to the magazine, was one of the screenwriters for the film. And it just so happens that one of Perelman’s shorts was in the Oct. 17 issue, and it was a doozy…

MAKE ‘EM LAUGH…Writer and cartoonist Will B. Johnstone (left) wrote the screenplay for Monkey Business with S. J. Perelman, right, in a 1935 portrait by Ralph Steiner. (Meg Farrell/Yale University)
A promotional cartoon for Monkey Business by Will B. Johnstone. He also created the cartoon character of The Tax Payer wearing only a barrel held up by suspenders. It was a regular feature in the New York World-Telegram. (Meg Farrell via travsd.wordpress.com)
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Office Chatter
E.B. White called out a couple of his New Yorker colleagues in “Notes and Comment” as he mused about “lady poets” and their disillusionment with the menfolk. The “Selma Robinson” he mentions was a young writer who had just published her first collection of poems titled City Child

…White then moved on the subject of matrimony and advice columns, zeroing in on Dorothy Dix, the most widely read woman journalist of her time with an estimated 60 million readers turning daily to her syndicated column…

LIGHTEN UP ON THE LOVEBIRDS, DOROTHY, E.B. White seemed to suggest in his “Notes and Comment” item about syndicated advice columnist Dorothy Dix. (NYT)

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So Much for Prognosticators

The New Yorker ran an amusing two-page spread that contained the quotes of prominent writers, politicians, businessmen and economists — month by month since the October 1929 market crash — who predicted a swift end to the Depression and better times just around the corner. An except below (note the reprise of Otto Soglow’s manhole cartoon).

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It Pays to be Funny

Richard Lockridge (1898–1982) was a reporter for the New York Sun when he began submitting comic sketches to the New Yorker such the one excerpted below. Later sketches would include the characters Mr. and Mrs. North. In the late 1930s Lockridge would collaborate with his wife, Frances Louise Davis, on a detective novel, combining her plot with his Mr. and Mrs. North characters to launch a series of 26 novels that would be adapted for stage, film, radio and television.

PARTNERS IN CRIME…Richard and Frances Lockridge examine one of their mystery novels in this undated book jacket photo. At right, the cover of their second “North” book, with cover illustration by Helen Hokinson (note the similarities of the Mr. and Mrs. North characters to Richard and Frances).

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Land Barge

The “Motors” column featured the latest luxury offering from Germany, the massive 12-cylinder Maybach Zeppelin, which would set you back a cool $12,800 in 1931 (roughly $200,000 in today’s currency). Named for the company’s production of Zeppelin engines in the World War I era, the car weighed 6,600 pounds (3,000 kg).

THE 12-CYLINDER Maybach Zeppelin was not known for its economy.

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From Our Advertisers

The new Chevrolet Six was no Maybach, but the folks at GM nevertheless tried to suggest it was a car for the posh set…

…when Kleenex was first introduced to American consumers in 1924 it was marketed as a tissue for removing cold cream, and wasn’t sold as a disposable handkerchief until the 1930s…

…and contrary to the wisdom of the ages, the makers of Old Gold cigarettes tried to convince us that their cigarettes would not leave smokers with bad breath or yellowed teeth…

…Winnie-the-Pooh, or here referred to as “Winnie, The Pooh,” was only five years old when this ad was created for Macy’s, and even before Disney got his hands on him the bear was being turned into various consumer products including baby bowls, handkerchiefs and lamps…

…the color ads in the early New Yorker were quite striking, such as this full-pager for Martex towels…

…or this one for Arrow shirts, featuring a determined coach making an important point to his leatherheads before the big game…

…on to our cartoons, we have Otto Soglow’s Little King engaging in some sport of his own…

Alan Dunn showed us a meter reader who probably needed to come up for some fresh air…

William Crawford Galbraith gave us a sugar daddy without a clue…

E. McNerney showed us another pair that begged the question “what comes next?”…

…this Mary Petty cartoon recalls Carl Rose’s famous “I say its spinach” cartoon — and Mamma has every right to say “the hell with it” in this case…

…in this William Stieg entry, a father teaches his young charge the art of rubbernecking…

…and Don Herold gave us a peek at what the little dears really talk about while their parents exchange the latest gossip…

…on to the Oct. 24, 1931 issue…

Oct. 24, 1931 cover by Rose Silver.

…where we find the latest edition of Frank Sullivan’s satirical newspaper, The Blotz, which occupied a two-page spread (excerpt below)…

…and featured this masthead of sorts (with James Thurber art)…

…and another Thurber contribution as The Blotz’s political cartoonist…

…more colorful ads to enjoy, including this nighthawk view of an apartment house…

…and this ad for Lucky Strike cigarettes, featuring 20-year-old Platinum Blonde star Jean Harlow (what is she leaning on?) who probably shouldn’t have smoked because her health was always a bit fragile — she would be dead in less than six years…

…ands then we have our latest high society shill for cold cream, Marchioness of Milford Haven, aka Nadejda Mikhailovna Mountbatten, aka Countess Nadejda de Torby, aka Princess George of Battenberg…she was probably best known for her part in the 1934 Gloria Vanderbilt custody trial, when a a former maid of Vanderbilt’s mother, Gloria Morgan, testified that the Marchioness had a lesbian relationship with Morgan…

Helen Hokinson continued loaning one of her “girls” to Frigidaire to extol the wonders of their seemingly indestructible refrigerators…

…our Oct. 24 cartoons feature Garrett Price, who brought us the exciting world of the traveling salesman…

A. S. Foster served up an Italian stereotype…

I. Klein, on the other hand, turned a stereotype on its head…

…and we end with Rea Irvin, who gave us what I believe was a first in the New Yorker — a cartoon character breaking the fourth wall…

…by the way, M.F.H. stands for Master of Fox Hounds…I had to look it up.

Next Time: Through a Glass Darkly…