The Mouse That Roared

In the spring of 1928, Walt Disney collaborated with cartoonist Ub Iwerks in creating a new cartoon character, Mickey Mouse, and later that year Mickey would be featured in the first-ever post-produced sound cartoon, Steamboat Willie. The film was an immediate hit, bringing almost instant fame to Disney.

Dec. 19, 1931…A classic cover by Peter Arno.

Just three years after the birth of Mickey, Disney had already carved a place for himself in American culture, drawing the attention of millions of Mickey fans —  and one critic for the New Yorker — Gilbert Seldes, who penned a “Profile” of the “Mickey-Mouse Maker” (illustration by Hugo Gellert). Note in the second of these two excerpts how Disney was already connecting his product to patriotism and clean living through his Mickey Mouse Clubs:

CASH COW…ER…MOUSE…Left, Walt Disney poses with his famous creation in 1935; top right, the Disney family in 1915: Parents Elias and Flora Disney in back row, right; Walt is seated with sister Ruth in front; photo of Disney proves the merchandising value of his little mouse from the very start.
A THING OF NIGHTMARES…Before the television show there was a theater-based Mickey Mouse Club. Pictured above is an early meeting of the Club at a theater in Ocean Park, California. Although the Club had 1 million members in the U.S. by 1932, Disney pulled the plug on the clubs in 1935. They were revived through several television series in 1955-59, 1977-79, and 1989-1994 (that last class featured a number of future stars including Ryan Gosling, Britney Spears, Christina Aguilera, and Justin Timberlake. (www.vintag.es)

In his conclusion, Seldes marveled at Disney’s productivity — a new picture made every two weeks — and his seemingly endless creativity. Little could Seldes imagine that one day the man and his mouse would become a multinational mass media and entertainment conglomerate.

I’M YOUR VEHICLE, BABY…Mickey gives Minnie a ride in his cab in 1931’s Traffic Troubles.

You can watch 1931’s Traffic Troubles here:

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Big Man on Canvas

It seems the earth almost shook when Mexican artist Diego Rivera arrived in New York for only the second one-man show at the Museum of Modern Art. His work habits, his comings and goings, and his enormous size (modest by today’s standards) were reported in the New Yorker, including this entry in “The Talk of the Town”…

COME TO MOMA…Cover of the Museum of Modern Art’s catalog for the Diego Rivera exhibition.
MAN AT WORK…Left, Diego Rivera at work on The Uprising, at the Museum of Modern Art, in 1931. Rivera painted five frescoes on portable supports of steel-braced cement in conjunction with his MoMA exhibition. Among the works featured was The Rivals (right), which sold for $9.76 million in 2018, overtaking an auction record for Latin American art previously set by his wife, Frida Kahlo. Her Two Nudes in the Forest sold for $8 million in 2016. (MoMA/Pinterest)

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Winds of War

It’s the end of 1931, but one can already detect the rumblings of the future to come, namely world war. The former Allied and Axis powers of the First World War were all busy developing new weapons, particularly of the airborne variety that all believed would provide a decisive edge if (or rather when) the next war commenced. Japan was already making moves on China, and in just four years the Germans would reoccupy the Saarland and Italy would invade Ethiopia. E.B. White, in his “Notes and Comment,” found the current state of affairs more than a bit troubling…

PUSHING THE ENVELOPE…Wars and rumors of wars drove rapid advances in aviation in the 28 years following the Wright Brothers’ first flight. The Curtiss Aeroplane and Motor Company developed the A-8 (above) in 1930-31 to serve as a ground-attack aircraft. (ww2aircraft.net)

…and hints of the world to come could also be found in Howard Brubaker’s “Of All Things” column, where he made this observation:

Brubaker was likely referring to Franklin D. Roosevelt’s cautious approach to announcing his candidacy for president. The outcome, of course, proved quite different for the German people.

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From Our Advertisers

Preparations for war drove the development of the aircraft industry, which quickly adapted its designs during peacetime for civilian purposes. This ad from United Airlines touted the advantages of plane over train travel for corporate executives. Within 30 years the airlines would indeed supplant railroads as the preferred means for business travel…

…Prohibition would remain in force until the end of 1933, so brewers like Anheuser-Busch continued finding ways to link their non-alcoholic products to the ghosts of drinking past…

…on to our cartoons, James Thurber rendered this apt portrait of our civilization…

Barbara Shermund gave us an actress with a reputation to protect…

…and Garrett Price presented an unlikely harmonica player…

…on to our next issue, where we find more Diego Rivera

Dec. 26, 1931 cover by Madeline S. Pereny. Artist’s note: Pereny (1893–1970) was born in Kecskemet, Hungary. A baroness, she studied at Vienna Art Academy before emigrating to the U.S. in the early 1930’s. In addition to creating cover art and illustrations for The New Yorker, she was also a cartoonist for the Disney Studios.

…and we begin with this entry from “The Talk of the Town,” attributed to James Thurber

WHERE’S DIEGO?…in December 1931 he could be found working on his frescoes on the sixth floor of the Heckscher Building — the Museum of Modern Art’s first home. In the foreground is the Cornelius Vanderbilt mansion, demolished in 1926. (Library of Congress)
GET THE POINT?…Thurber referred to Diego Rivera’s Indian Warrior, one of five frescoes Rivera created during his Museum of Modern Art exhibition.

Thurber refers to “a lady” who accompanied Rivera, most likely Frida Kahlo, who was emerging as an artist in her own right around this time.

PORTRAIT OF A LADY…Wedding photograph of Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera, 1929. (Throckmorton Fine Art)

More on Diego could be found in the art review section, where critic Murdock Pemberton offered a cautionary message to the rabble who might not abide some of the artist’s controversial themes:

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Head Cracker

In the 1920s and 30s Johnny Broderick was known as New York’s toughest cop, known for personally assaulting gangsters (and suspects) and for once facing down armed gunmen during a prison break at the Tombs. His valor won him many fans (and some detractors), making him a local celebrity and a subject of gossip columns. Reporter Joel Sayre offered his assessment of Broderick in a “Profile” for the Dec. 26 issue (illustration by Abe Birnbaum). Excerpts:

WISE GUY, EH?…Johnny Broderick (see arrow) escorts an unfortunate perp in 1927. (Public Domain)

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Something to Cheer About

On the lighter side, Hollywood took a shot at Noel Coward’s 1930 comedy of manners, Private Lives. The original play featured Gertrude Lawrence and Laurence Olivier, while the Hollywood version Norma Shearer and Robert Montgomery.  For once, critic John Mosher actually liked this screen adaptation:

GIVE ME THAT LOVIN’ FEELING…Norma Shearer and Robert Montgomery in the film adaptation of Noel Coward’s Private Lives. (TCM)

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From Our Advertisers

Just one ad from the Dec. 26 issue to close out the year, and what better way to say “Merry Christmas” than with a fresh cigarette…

…on to our cartoonists, William Crawford Galbraith offered a look backstage in this two-page illustration across the bottom of “The Talk of the Town”…

Richard Decker showed us the importance of making oneself clear, especially when aloft in a dirigible…

Robert Day found humor in a barren landscape…

Garrett Price offered us a cheesy predicament…

Helen Hokinson found a man about to make an important point…

…and we end 1931 with this classic from James Thurber

Next Time: Hell Divers…

Mosher’s Monster

James Whale’s 1931 Frankenstein remains one of the most iconic horror films of all time, not only setting a standard for monster movies to come, but creating one of popular culture’s most enduring characters.

Dec. 12, 1931 cover by Theodore Haupt.

The New York Times film critic Mordaunt Hall called the film “far and away the most effective thing of its kind,” and the public agreed, making it a box office success. The New Yorker’s John Mosher, on the other hand, was among the crowd with a more literary bent, preferring Mary Shelley’s 1818 novel by the same name to the film adaptation. He dismissed Whale’s Frankenstein with this brief review:

THIS WON’T HURT A BIT…Dr. Waldman (Edward Van Sloan) prepares to destroy Henry Frankenstein’s monster (Boris Karloff), but he is stopped short of his goal when the monster awakens and strangles him to death. (IMDB)
SOME ASSEMBLY REQUIRED…Henry Frankenstein (Colin Clive) meets up with his creation in 1931’s Frankenstein. (IMDB)
I WISH HENRY WOULD FIND A NEW HOBBY…Henry Frankenstein’s fiancée Elizabeth Lavenza (Mae Clarke) is confronted by the monster (Boris Karloff) in 1931’s Frankenstein. (IMDB)
ALL IN A DAY’S WORK…Boris Karloff takes a break between scenes. (mashable.com)

One thing Mosher did like about the film was the makeup applied to Karloff, and it would be a look that endures today throughout popular culture. Less than two years after the 1931 film’s release, Walt Disney featured the monster in 1933’s Mickey’s Gala Premier, and since then in countless cartoons, dozens of films, and a television series. From what I can gather, comic portrayals of the monster are far more common than ones involving horror themes…

THE BAT PACK…Clockwise, from top left, 1933’s Mickey’s Gala Premier featured Frankenstein’s monster with pals Dracula and the Werewolf; Daffy Duck conducts an interview in 1988’s The Night of the Living Duck; the monster makes an expected appearance in the first season of Scooby-Doo (A Gaggle of Galloping Ghosts 1969); and the monster has appeared as a regular in four Hotel Transylvania films. (Wikipedia/Pinterest)
A FAMILIAR FACE…Frankenstein’s monster has also appeared in dozens of films, a TV sitcom, and even on a box of cereal. Clockwise, from top left, Fred Gwynne as Herman Munster in NBC TV’s The Munsters (1964-66); Boris Karloff’s original monster makes an appearance on a FrankenBerry cereal box (1987); Peter Boyle as the monster with a different look (but retaining those electrodes) in Mel Brooks’ Young Frankenstein (1974); and Abbott & Costello team up with the monster (Glenn Strange) in 1948’s Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein. (Wikipedia/Pinterest/filmforum.org)

It seems I’ve gone down a rabbit hole with this subject, but here’s one more for the holidays: the late Phil Hartman portrayed Frankenstein’s monster in several SNL sketches during the 1988-89 season…

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No Fantasy Island, This

New York’s Blackwell’s Island is probably best known for the asylum where reporter Nellie Bly went undercover in 1887 to expose its horrid conditions. The asylum closed in 1894, but a penitentiary established there in 1832 remained in operation for more than a century. When journalist Robert Littell (1896-1963) visited the island in 1931 for “A Reporter at Large” column, he found it was still occupied by workhouses and a penitentiary — a place where the city still sent it “undesirables.” Littell, a former associate editor of the New Republic and a drama critic for various New York newspapers, described the island’s gray, grim appearance and the “ugly old buildings, model 1858” that contained its sorry residents. An excerpt:

BY ANY OTHER NAME…Called “Minnehanonck” by the Lenape Tribe and “Varkens Eylandt” (Hog Island) by New Netherlanders, this East River island was dubbed Blackwell’s Island during colonial times, and that was the dreaded name referred to by reformers who decried the horrifying conditions of its “Lunatic Asylum,” workhouses and penitentiary in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Renamed Welfare Island in 1922, its prison can be seen in a 1931 photo (top) and in an interior shot from the 1920s. In 1973 the island was renamed Roosevelt Island in honor of Franklin D. Roosevelt and redeveloped with housing for more than 20,000 residents. (AP)

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Outshining the Sordid

Architecture critic Lewis Mumford also mentioned Welfare Island in the Dec. 12 issue, but only as a reference point to view the new Cornell Medical Centre, which he found “indisputedly exhilarating.” Note the final lines of this excerpt, and how Mumford took a not-so-subtle swipe at New York architecture firms.

Mumford wasn’t alone in his praise. According to a 1933 Architectural Forum article, hospital director Dr. G. Canby Robinson made this observation about the lobby: “the average person should walk through it without noticing it, but the cultured person should be arrested by its beauty.”

HIGH MASS…The hospital in 1954. (Sam Falk/The New York Times)
ABOVE AVERAGE…The main entrance in 1933. (Avery Architectural Library)

NO SHOW…Fr. Charles O’Donnell (left) refused to share the stage at a Knute Rockne Memorial with retired boxer Gene Tunney. (findagrave.com/Wikipedia)

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Silver Bells

A precursor to the New Yorker’s annual holiday poem, “Greetings Friends!” was this entry in the Dec. 12, 1931 issue, written by short-story writer and novelist James Reid Parker

New Yorker cartoonist Michael Maslin has noted an interesting relationship Parker had with cartoonist Helen Hokinson. You can read about it at his lively Ink Spill site.

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From Our Advertisers

We kick off our ads with another entry from Condossis cigarettes…these will continue to the end of the year and beyond, but I won’t run them all…

…I liked this Rex Cole ad because it placed its very architectural refrigerator in the midst of the city…

…as the company did in the physical realm…this Rex Cole showroom was in Queens…

…with the holidays in full swing, we see ads for the kiddies…

…and for the grown-ups, again exchanging Champagne bottles filled with scarves and socks rather than bubbly, thanks to Prohibition (which still had two years to go)…

…maybe a game could distract you from your forced sobriety, such as table-top bowling…note the drawing of J.P. Morgan, which looked very similar to Peter Arno’s Major…

…here’s an advertising ploy no longer used today (at least not overtly)…

…and on to our cartoons, beginning with Gardner Rea

…this odd little political cartoon was contributed by Otto Soglow, who vaguely anticipated trouble ahead in the international sphere…

…I remember seeing this familiar trope in old movies and 60s sitcoms…John Reehill gave us his rendition here…

…and we close with William Steig, and an after-hours close encounter…

Next Time: The Mouse That Roared…

 

Yankee Doodles

In 1931 Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney (image above) opened a new art museum in Greenwich Village that would be unlike any other in Manhattan, one that would focus exclusively on American art and artists.

Nov. 28, 1931 cover by Harry Brown.

Ninety years ago American painters and sculptors were mostly considered second-rate by critics who had cut their teeth on the Old World’s “Great Masters.” An exception was the New Yorker’s first art critic, Murdock Pemberton, who accused such institutions as the Metropolitan Museum of discouraging American art. It is a bit surprising, however, that Pemberton initially gave a cool reception to the opening of the Whitney Museum of American Art, perceiving that its founders were putting the cart before the horse:

AMERICAN ORIGINAL…The original Whitney Museum of American Art was located at 8 – 12 West Eighth Street in Greenwich Village. Above, images from a 1937 museum catalog, and (bottom right) a view of the building’s West Eighth Street facade, circa 1940-50. (Whitney Museum/Life magazine)
SHE WORE THE PANTS…Robert Henri’s 1916 portrait of Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney, sculptor and founder of the Whitney Museum. Gertrude’s husband, Harry Payne Whitney, would not allow his wife to hang the portrait in their Fifth Avenue town house because he didn’t want visitors to see his wife “in pants.” Instead, the portrait hung in Gertrude’s West 8th Street studio, which became the first Whitney Museum in 1931. (whitney.org)

Despite Pemberton’s initial concerns, the Whitney became a beloved New York institution, moving in 1954 from the West Eighth location to a larger space on West 54th, and then to its iconic Marcel Breuer-designed building at Madison and 75th, which opened in 1966. The museum would move again in 2015 to its current location at 99 Gansevoort Street in a building designed by Renzo Piano.

IMPERMANENT COLLECTION…The Whitney would move three times after its 1931 opening, first to West 54th in 1954, then to its iconic Marcel Breuer-designed home at Madison and 75th (opened in 1966), and finally to its current location at 99 Gansevoort Street. (museuminforme.blogspot.com)

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Party Pooper

William Faulkner attracted much attention among literary circles during his extended visit to New York in 1931, however (as reported in “The Talk of the Town”) the author was able to dodge most of it by staying put in his Tudor City apartment.

HOME ALONE…William Faulkner spent most of his time in New York holed up in his Tudor City apartment, where he worked on the manuscript for Light in August. (LA Times/Wikipedia)

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This or That

While we are on the subject of literary giants, here is a poem submitted by E.B. White to the Nov. 28 issue that explored some universal half-truths:

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From Our Advertisers

As the market for cigarettes continued to increase, so did the number of new brands launched to take advantage of all those eager young puffers. The makers of Condossis Cigarettes hoped to create some buzz for their new product through a series of ads written by Mark O’Dea and illustrated by the New Yorker’s Gardner Rea. Apparently the makers of Condossis believed that a posh backstory would lend a certain élan to their smokes. This seems all for naught — I haven’t found a record of the brand beyond 1938…

…a few of those posh smokers might have considered heading to Monte Carlo for the holidays, where they could also legally drink and gamble and forget about the jobless masses back home…

…but you needn’t go to Monte Carlo to signal your taste for the finer things, at least that is what B. Altman claimed with their lower-priced French knock-offs (although $95 was still a lot of dough in 1931)…

…Bonwit Teller also boasted of its low-priced evening wraps, so affordable that one could consider having a different wrap to complement every gown in one’s wardrobe ($135 in 1931 is roughly equivalent to $2,300 today)…

…the makers of Lenthéric perfumes offered the potential for shame and embarrassment if one didn’t choose their product for that special holiday gift…

…but perhaps the happiest shopper of all could shell out a mere $2.50 for the latest editions of the New Yorker Album (the 4th) or the New Yorker Scrapbook (drawings of a delighted couple courtesy Peter Arno)

…on to our cartoons, we begin with Mary Petty and a tête-à-tête over tea…

…and Petty again with one woman’s attempt at noblesse oblige…

Barbara Shermund looked in on the very idle rich…

William Steig spotted a bald-watcher…

E. McNerney revealed a secret among siblings…

…and William Crawford Galbraith gave us a backstage glimpse of a Broadway revue…

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On to the Dec. 5 issue…

Dec. 5, 1931 cover by Rea Irvin.

…which featured a profile of renowned violinist and composer Efrem Zimbalist (1889-1985). The son of a Russian conductor, Zimbalist was married to the famous American soprano Alma Gluck

…and the entertainment gene continued on through the family line, as Zimbalist and Gluck’s son, Efrem Zimbalist Jr., would become a star in Hollywood, as would their granddaughter, Stephanie Zimbalist.

ALL IN THE FAMILY…Famed violinist Efrem Zimbalist and American soprano Alma Gluck (top, left) would pass on their entertainment genes to son Efrem Zimbalist Jr. (known for his starring roles in 77 Sunset Strip and The F.B.I.) and granddaughter Stephanie Zimbalist, who portrayed sleuth Laura Holt in the NBC series Remington Steele. Top right, a “Profile” caricature of Zimbalist by Al Frueh. (Wikipedia/Pinterest)

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From Our Advertisers

Much to the delight of the New Yorker advertising department, the makers of Condossis Cigarettes were back with their second installment of the adventures of the “Condossis Family”…

…on the other hand, the well-established Chesterfield brand didn’t have to try quite as hard — offering an attractive woman and some supporting copy that subtly suggested that a woman could credit her fine demeanor to a mere cigarette…

…on to our comics, we have this two-page entry by Rea Irvin

…a bit of offensive driving, Helen Hokinson-style…

Carl Rose gave us an unlikely candidate for a chaste role…

Alan Dunn’s entry played to the stereotypes of his day…

Frank McIntosh plied the Sugar Daddy waters to come up with this gem…

Garrett Price gave us a gift designed to light a man’s fire…

Barbara Shermund lit a flame of a different sort between a dowager and her latest escort…

…and we end with James Thurber, and one of my all-time favorites…

Next Time: Mosher’s Monster