The Shape of Things to Come

Above: Maurice Passworthy (Kenneth Villiers) and Catherine Cabel (Pearl Argyle) prepare for a trip to the moon in Things to Come.

In his 1933 science fiction novel The Shape of Things to Come, H.G. Wells foresaw how an international economic depression could eventually lead to world war.

Sept. 2, 1933 cover by William Steig.

The book also predicted that such a war would feature whole cities destroyed by aerial bombing and the eventual development of weapons of mass destruction. However, New Yorker book critic Clifton Fadiman found Wells’ other predictions to be fanciful, “scientific-romantic” notions, such as a post-war Utopia (headquartered in Basra, Iraq, of all places) ruled by super-talents that would advance scientific learning in a world without nation-states or religion. And naturally everyone would speak English.

YOU MAY SAY I’M A DREAMER…H.G. Wells envisioned a world of war, pestilence and economic collapse that would eventually give way to an English-speaking Utopia free of nation-states and religion. (Wikipedia)

Three years later Wells would adapt his book to the screen in 1936’s Things to Come, produced by Alexander Korda and starring Raymond Massey as a heroic RAF pilot John Cabal and Ralph Richardson as “The Boss,” a man who stands in the way of Cabal’s utopian dreams.

FUTURE TENSE…Clockwise, from top left, H.G. Wells visits with actors Pearl Argyle and Raymond Massey on the set of Things to Come—Swiss designer René Hubert created the futuristic costumes; in the year 1970 RAF pilot John Cabal (Massey) lands his sleek monoplane in Everytown, England, proclaiming a new civilization run by a band of enlightened mechanics and engineers; city of the future as depicted in Things to Come; poster for the film’s release. (IMDB)

An afternote: A 1979 Canadian science fiction film titled The Shape of Things to Come was supposedly based on Wells’ novel but bore little resemblance to the book. The film is a considered a turkey, lovingly mocked by the same audiences that gave Plan 9 from Outer Space a second life.

WE MEAN YOU NO HARM…Actor Jack Palance—wearing what appears to be a jug from a water cooler— headed a cast that included Barry Morse and Carol Lynley in 1979’s The Shape of Things to Come. 

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Fine Dining

Director George Cukor turned a hit Ferber-Kaufman Broadway play into a hit movie by the same title when Dinner at Eight premiered in September 1933. While the film received high marks from leading critics, New Yorker film reviewer John Mosher found it a bit routine, if well-crafted:

BLONDE ON BLONDE…Judith Wood (left) portrayed the character Kitty Packard in the 1932 stage production of Dinner at Eight; Jean Harlow took on the role for the 1933 film version. (IMDB)

Mosher, however, continued to admire the acting chops of veteran Marie Dressler

FUNNY LADIES…Clockwise, from top left: Jean Harlow and Marie Dressler square off in Dinner at Eight; movie poster highlights the “Blonde Bombshell” Harlow along with a star-studded cast; a scene with Harlow, Wallace Beery and Edmund Lowe; to avoid wrinkling her gown between takes, Harlow reviewed her lines in a special stand-up chair. (IMDB/

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Madame Secretary

Secretary of Labor Frances Perkins was the first woman in the U.S. to serve as a cabinet secretary, but she was a lot more that—she was the driving force behind FDR’s New Deal. Here are excerpts from a two-part profile written by Russell Lord, with illustration by Hugo Gellert.

TRIAL BY FIRE…Frances Perkins watched in horror as young women leapt to their deaths in the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire—146 perished on that day Perkins recalled as the moment the New Deal was born her mind. In the wake of the fire Perkins, an established expert on worker health and safety, was named executive secretary of the NYC Committee on Safety. (

Even if some men couldn’t come around to a woman moving through the circles of power, Perkins had many admirers including prominent Tammany Hall leader “Big Tim” Sullivan.

Perkins’ appointment to FDR’s cabinet made the Aug. 14, 1933 cover of TIME magazine. (TIME/

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From Our Advertisers

Even the staid executives at Packard were getting into the modern advertising game, where sometimes the product itself was not even pictured…

…our cartoonists include Robert Day

George Price

…and baring it all, Peter Arno

…on to Sept. 9, and what I believe is Alice Harvey’s first New Yorker cover…

Sept. 9, 1933 cover by Alice Harvey.

…and where “The Talk of the Town” paid a visit to the Half Moon Hotel on Coney Island, a favorite haunt of those magnificent men and women and their flying machines:

SHIFTING SANDS…Opened in 1927 to attract upscale crowds to Coney Island away from the rabble of the Midway, the elegant Half Moon Hotel started strong but teetered on the doorstep of bankruptcy during the Depression; it gained notoriety in 1941 when mob turncoat Abe Reles fell to his death from a sixth floor window while under police protection. The hotel was demolished in 1996. (Pinterest)

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Huey In The News

In his column “Of All Things,” Howard Brubaker offered this brief take on Huey Long’s visit to a Long Island party, where one guest apparently socked the controversial “Kingfish,” giving the former Louisiana governor (and then senator) a shiner.

A CHIP ON HIS SHOULDER?…Controversy followed Huey Long wherever he went. At left is a New York Times account of Long’s alleged black eye incident on Long Island. He would be assassinated two years later at the Louisiana State Capitol; Long circa 1933. (NYT/Wikipedia)

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More From Our Advertisers

As a follow-up from the previous issue’s Packard ad, this two-page spread showed us what those 1200 men were gawking at…check out that 12-cylinder model on the left, which appears to be better than 20 feet long…

…according to this ad, you could thank Camel cigarettes for getting the mail through the gloom of night…

…if you needed a cigarette to steady your nerves, you also needed fresh coffee to avoid being ostracized by your friends…

…summer-stock barn theatres were popular across America in the 1930s…this ad (illustrated by Wallace Morgan) hailed the end of the summer season and the return of “Winter Broadway”…

…on to our cartoons, out in the countryside we also find William Crawford Galbraith, here continuing to ply one of his favorite themes, namely pairing shapely seductresses and showgirls with clueless suitors…

Helen Hokinson gave us one woman who believed “what happens in the Riviera, stays in the Riviera”…

…and we close with Gardner Rea, and a scout troop on a mission…

Next Time: Rumors of War…

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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.

One thought on “The Shape of Things to Come”

  1. The Half Moon Hotel.Went to that lousy CYO camp right next to it in ’66 and ’67.Was briefly the lodging of Abe”Kid Twist” Reles.There was also a wino bar on the Bowery called the Half Moon.Made CBGBs look like a Howard Johnsons in comparison.No,the Bowery in Manhattan,not the one in Coney.


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