A Star is Born

Clark Gable made such an impression as a charming rogue in 1931’s A Free Soul that it transformed him almost overnight from a bit actor to into one of Hollywood’s biggest stars of the 1930s.

June 13, 1931 cover by Helen Hokinson.

When the film was released it was Norma Shearer who was the biggest name, supported by Lionel Barrymore and Leslie Howard. As this was “Pre-Code” Hollywood, MGM played up the film’s risqué themes of gangsters, drunks and infidelity. After all, according to this ad, Norma was “born in an age of FREEDOM!”

Although critic John Mosher — already weary of the gangster film genre — found the film pretentious, the public voted it one of the best films of 1931, and Barrymore took home an Oscar for his performance as a successful but conflicted (and alcoholic) attorney…

TRUST ME, HE WON’T BITE…Defense lawyer Stephen Ashe (Lionel Barrymore) introduces Ace Wilfong (Clark Gable), a bootlegger he successfully defends from a murder charge. Unfortunately, Ashe’s daughter Jan (Norma Shearer), who was betrothed to another (the squeaky-clean Dwight Winthrop, played by Leslie Howard), ends up falling for his shady client. (IMDB)
DECISIONS, DECISIONS…Jan Ashe (Norma Shearer) must decide between bad boy and goody two-shoes in 1931’s A Free Soul. Clark Gable and Leslie Howard would again play rivals for a woman’s affections eight years later in 1939’s Gone With The Wind. (IMDB)

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Speaking of Gangsters

A real one was profiled in the New Yorker by novelist and screenwriter Joel Sayre — Jack “Legs” Diamond — a thug who seemed to have nine lives but would be dead before the year was out (spoiler: he would not die from natural causes). An excerpt:

IN TROUBLE AGAIN?…Jack Diamond, aka “Legs Diamond” being escorted to the courthouse in Troy, New York in July 1931. (Everett)

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Some Real Guts

“The Talk of the Town” (via E.B. White) looked in on the work of famed aerial photographer Albert Stevens, who back in the day employed the common practice of chucking “flashlight bombs” out of airplanes to illuminate subjects below, including buildings along Riverside Drive that had their windows blown out during one of his aerial photo sessions…

Captains Albert Stevens (left, with the devil-may-care smile) and St. Clair Streett prepare for a high-altitude airplane flight in 1935. At right, Stevens readies his camera for an aerial photo session. (National Air and Space Museum).

Below is something similar to what Stevens dropped from the plane to get the effect he needed during nighttime shots…

Nighttime aerial photography owes its origins to pioneers like George Goddard, who stunned residents of Rochester, NY, in 1925 when he ignited an 80-pound flash bomb to illuminate the city (image at left). It is considered the first aerial night photograph. At right, Manhattan at night, 1931.

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Poetic Pugilist

Throughout his career and into his retirement, heavyweight boxing champion Gene Tunney took great pains to distinguish himself from the other brutes who practiced his violent trade, and was known for his love of the higher and gentler arts. In his “Notes and Comment” E. B. White further explored this phenomenon upon the boxer’s return to the States:

I’M NO PALOOKA…Gene Tunney chewing the fat with playwright George Bernard Shaw during a holiday in Brioni, 1929. (NYT)

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Not So Brief

I include this entire page to feature both Garrett Price’s cartoon (Judge Benjamin Barr Lindsey, a leader in abolishing child labor, supported the idea of unmarried couples living together, hence the caption), and Wolcott Gibbs’ thoughts on applying for an advertising position…

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And speaking of advertising, we have this summer-themed ad from Macy’s (yes, they had inflatables back then, too)…

…for reference, here’s a 1930s photo of actress Una Merkel astride an inflatable  horse like the one featured in the ad…

…R.J. Reynolds continued to market their Camel cigarettes to women, but the ads moved away from illustrations of Continental leisure and instead emphasized the freshness of the product, thanks to the cellophane-wrapped “Humidor pack”…

…while cigarette smoking continued to increase in America, the sale of alcohol remained illegal — it didn’t stop people from drinking, and if you got a bad batch of bootleg, or just had too much, there were remedies available…

…perhaps a fortunate few were able to just sleep it off on a lovely bed fitted with Wamsutta sheets…

…on to our cartoons, Rea Irvin continued to explore his alter ego, “Du Maurier Irvin”…

Alan Dunn showed us why some “can’t make it there” in New York, New York…

Otto Soglow revealed that his Little King preferred beer to bubbly…

William Steig found an unlikely customer for a photo button…

Barbara Shermund explored politics between the sheets…

…and Peter Arno gave us his Major with a major itch to scratch…

Next Time: Frozen at 30 Rock…

 

Rooftop Romance

In the days before air conditioning, New Yorkers took to the higher rooftops in the city to escape the summer heat and reconnect with familiar entertainers.

June 6, 1931 cover by Theodore Haupt. The title image is a detail from a Sept. 5, 1970 cover by Arthur Getz.

Among those reconnecting was Lois Long, who had abandoned her nightlife column “Tables for Two” the previous year but revived it in the June 6, 1931 issue, perhaps in reaction to the “boundless trouble” that had marched into her “quiet life,” namely her bitter divorce that month from cartoonist Peter Arno. Soon to be single again, Long dusted off her “Table” for another night out.

PRE-AC…As far back as the Gilded Age of the 19th century New Yorkers escaped the summer heat by seeking entertainment on one of the city’s rooftop gardens. Pictured is the Paradise roof garden atop Hammerstein’s Victoria Theatre, 1901. (MCNY)

THE BUCK STARTS HERE…It wasn’t a rooftop, but the Central Park Casino was a cool retreat from city streets, especially for Mayor Jimmy Walker, who conducted much of city business there (much of it shady). After reform-minded Mayor Fiorello La Guardia replaced Walker in 1934, he had the place torn down. (New York City Parks Photo Archive)
I COULD HAVE DANCED ALL NIGHT…Mayor Jimmy Walker and his mistress, showgirl Betty Compton, were often the last to leave the Casino in the wee hours of the morning, dancing in the black-glass ballroom (above) to the Leo Reisman Orchestra. (drivingfordeco.com)

Higher up in the city, Long also paid a visit to the elegant rooftop of the St. Regis, designed by the famed architect and theatrical designer Joseph Urban

DAZZLING…The St. Regis rooftop, designed by Joseph Urban.
ANOTHER VIEW of the St. Regis rooftop as illustrated in the July 7, 1928 issue of the New Yorker by Alice Harvey. 

Long also visited the roof of the 42-story Hotel Pierre. The New York Sun described the top two floors as “decorated to resemble the interior of a zeppelin cabin.”

THE COOLEST…Top of the Hotel Pierre. A popular summer ballroom in the years before air-conditioning, the Pierre advertised itself as having “the highest and coolest hotel roof in Manhattan.” (NYT)

If you were in the mood for a little crooning, Rudy Vallee and his Connecticut Yankees were taking in the breeze atop the Hotel Pennsylvania, per this ad in the back pages of the June 6 New Yorker

Advertisers must have been paying attention to Long’s column, because the back pages of the following issue (June 13) had plenty of ads touting various rooftops…

Long also sampled the offerings of less savory venues, such as the Club Argonaut, which was apparently frequented by mobsters…

NOT AMUSED…Lois Long didn’t care for the antics of Gene Malin (center, and inset) who performed in front of a tough-looking crowd at the Club Argonaut. A popular drag artist who helped ignite the “Pansy Craze” in the 1920s and 30s, Malin was one of the first openly gay performers in Prohibition-era speakeasy culture. His career ended abruptly at age 25 in a car accident. (Pinterest)

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Sexy Soviet Tractors

One place you could find an early form of air conditioning was at the movies (critic John Mosher referred to these theatres as “iced), and no doubt many lowered their cinematic standards just to get a few hours respite from the heat. For some unknown reason the Central Theatre thought it could entice audiences not with air-conditioning, but with a Soviet propaganda film titled The Five-Year Plan.

STAY CALM AND CARRY ON…Soviet poster for The Five Year Plan (1930), and a 1930 image of the Volograd (Stalingrad) tractor factory. You wonder how many of those blokes got wiped out by Stalin’s purges, or by the Battle of Stalingrad in 1942-43. (Wikipedia)

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Laughing at Death

A couple of posts ago I wrote about a very public gun battle that brought diminutive killer Frances Crowley to justice (“The Short Life of Two-Gun Crowley”). In the June 6 installment of “A Reporter at Large,” Morris Markey recounted the courtroom scene where the 18-year-old Crowley winked at girls and nonchalantly chewed his gum as judge and jury determined his fate.

OH WELL…Frances Crowley’s 16-year-old girlfriend, Helen Walsh, left, was positively bored during the trial that would send her beau to Sing Sing’s electric chair. Crowley himself (shown above at the trial) seemed to be amused by the proceedings, and enjoyed the attention. (NY Daily News)

Markey also noted the unseemly behavior of Crowley’s 16-year-old girlfriend, Helen Walsh, who seemed bored by the whole thing. “She was not a creature of your world or of mine,” wrote Markey, who noted at one point that she put her hands to her face “to conceal a faint smile that sprang from some incalculable amusement within her.” Markey offered this sample of Walsh’s questioning.

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Summer Frost

Novelist and poet Raymond Holden penned a profile of famed poet Robert Frost, who among things apparently enjoyed apples and a bit of gossip. A brief excerpt:

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Dead Ball

E. B. White lamented in his “Notes and Comment” the changes to the official golf ball, which was to be made slower in a time when Depression-weary businessmen could use a little lift:

GET ‘EM WHILE THEY LAST…This 1930 golf ball, signed by golf legend Bobby Jones, can be yours for $15,000 on eBay.

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From Our Advertisers

Gender-bending trends in clothing continued from the 1920s with flowing trousers for women (unthinkable a decade earlier)…

…and beach pajamas for men and women alike…

…Buick dialed up a patrician vibe with this ad that suggested a posh boy might be transported in one by the family’s driver…

…and this might be one of the first ads that linked cigarette smoking to the myth of the Western cowboy…

…on to our cartoons, we begin out in the country with Perry Barlow

…and Kemp Starrett, with this charming bucolic scene…

…back in the drawing room, we have this canine encounter from Leonard Dove

Helen Hokinson explored the violent side of bridge…

Barbara Shermund went into the garden to sample the trials of the rich…

Carl Rose pondered the art of grammar in crowded places…

Chon Day gave us yet another take on the familiar boss vs secretary trope…

…and Gardner Rea gets the last laugh with this hapless prodigal son…

Next Time: A Star is Born…

 

The Short Life of Two-Gun Crowley

Harold Ross founded the New Yorker as a sophisticated humor magazine, so when events in the city or the world took a serious turn, the writers and editors did their best to maintain its waggish tone.

May 16, 1931 cover by Theodore Haupt.

After two cold-blooded killers engaged police in a heated gun battle from a West 91st Street rooming house, the May 16, 1931 “Talk of the Town” had this to say about the incident:

At right, a 1933 portrait of Portrait Of Edward Mulrooney, Police Commissioner of New York City, by Edward Steichen. (Conde Nast)

The New Yorker wasn’t alone in finding entertainment value in the gun battle. Safety standards were quite different in the 1930s, so as police exchanged heavy gunfire with 18-year-old Francis “Two Gun” Crowley, a crowd of 15,000 bystanders surrounded the scene, some just yards away from the action as the photo below attests:

THEY NEEDED SOCIAL DISTANCING HERE…On May 7, 1931, Francis “Two Gun” Crowley exchanged gunfire with police for nearly two hours from the fifth floor of a rooming house on West 91st Street. A force of 300 police fired an estimated 700 rounds at Crowley’s apartment while a crowd of 15,000 spectators surrounded the scene. Not sure why the police stood in a huddled mass beneath the window of the shooter. Strength in numbers, perhaps. (ephemeralnewyork.wordpress.com)

Another mention of the incident was in John Mosher’s film review column. He noted that the newsreel footage of the shoot-out was the best thing on the screen that week, and especially the moment when Crowley’s 16-year-old girlfriend Helen Walsh emerged from the building in the clutches of the police:

DON’T GET TOO COMFORTABLE…18-year-old Francis “Two Gun” Crowley (left) surrendered to police after suffering four gunshot wounds in the West 91st Street shootout, but would recover in time to be executed two months after his 19th birthday. At right, images from the newsreel show Crowley accomplice Fats Durringer being led away from the scene, along with Crowley’s girlfriend (bottom right), 16-year-old Helen Walsh. (Everett/YouTube)

By the end of the month Crowley was tried and convicted of the murder of a police officer, and his partner Fats Durringer was found guilty of brutally killing a dance hall hostess. Justice moved swiftly in those days, especially when the murder of a police officer was involved: On June 1, 1931 — just three weeks after the shoot-out with police — Crowley and Durringer were sentenced to death. Only six months would pass before Durringer took a seat in Sing Sing’s electric chair. Crowley would follow his accomplice a few weeks later. As for Helen Walsh, she was released after testifying against Crowley and Durringer.

SHORT LIFE FOR SHORT KILLER…The diminutive Francis “Two Gun”Crowley, top, left, developed a habit of carrying more than one gun at all times, hence the nickname. At right, Crowley with officials at Sing Sing, where both he and partner Fats Durringer would meet their end in the electric chair. Below left, Crowley’s 16-year-old girlfriend Helen Walsh. Crowley was barely 19 years old when he was executed on Jan. 21, 1932. Among his last words, he asked the warden for a rag to wipe off the electric chair before he took his seat. “I want to wipe off the chair after that rat sat in it,” Crowley said, referring to Durringer, who had been executed weeks earlier, on Dec. 10, 1931. His request was denied. (www.swordandscale.com)

One final mention of the incident came from Ralph Barton, who named Police Commissioner Ed Mulrooney his “Hero of the Week”…

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Sub Sandwich

In his “Reporter at Large” column, Morris Markey paid a visit to the Brooklyn Navy Yard where Sir Hubert Wilkins and his crew were busy preparing a narrow, cramped submarine dubbed Nautilus for a trip beneath the ice of the North Pole. Markey marveled at all of the complicated devices crammed into the vessel, but at the same time wondered why anyone would stake their life on “such flimsy things”…

TIGHT QUARTERS…The Nautilus was a refurbished O-class submarine built in 1916 for the U.S. Navy. Somehow a crew of 20 crammed into the thing. (amphilsoc.org)
The Nautilus was fitted with ice drills that would allow access to the surface of North Pole ice, as well as provide air to the crew and the vessel’s diesel engines. All this equipment was untested and unproven, since at the time submarines were not able to snorkel and had never broken through ice to reach fresh air. Click to enlarge. (Modern Mechanix)

Markey wasn’t alone in thinking such an expedition was preposterous, and from the very beginning it was beset by problems. On the very first day of preparations, March 23, 1931, a crew member fell overboard and drowned. The next day, Lady Suzanne Bennett Wilkins (Sir Hubert’s wife) christened the submarine with a bottle of ice water rather than Champagne, which was unavailable due to Prohibition.

More on this in another post, but suffice to say Sir Hubert did not succeed in this endeavor, and perhaps should have listened to the advice of the Icelandic American explorer Vilhjalmur Stefansson:

DRY DOCK…Christened with a bottle of ice water rather than Champagne thanks to Prohibition, the Nautilus expedition, led by Sir Hubert Wilkins (inset), had to overcome many obstacles to reach the North Pole, including untested equipment such as a conning tower (right) designed to drill through ice to allow crew members to reach the surface of polar ice. (amphilsoc.org)

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Bright Star on Broadway

In spring 1931 Dorothy Parker subbed as theatre critic for her friend, Robert Benchley, and was greeted with a remarkably mediocre (or worse) line-up of shows. When Benchley returned to his post, things didn’t get much better until Rhapsody in Black came along with its inspiring star, Ethel Waters.

WELCOME RELIEF…Robert Benchley wrote that singer Ethel Waters had a “chastening effect” on even “the meanest of songs.” (Playbill/Carter Magazine)

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Six – Love

Eighty years ago sportswriter John Tunis declared that the Davis Cup international tennis competition would likely come to an end due to expense and the erosion of amateur play. Well, we know the Davis Cup is still around, and one wonders if Tunis was getting a whiff of sour grapes, since the French had won the cup five years straight, and would win again in 1932.

JEU, SET ET MATCH!…Dubbed Les Quatre Mousquetaires (“The Four Musketeers”), the French team of Jacques Brugnon and Henri Cochet (top), Jean Borotra (bottom left), and René Lacoste (bottom right) led France to six straight Davis Cup wins, 1927–1932. (Wikipedia)

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Old Gloria

To be fair, Gloria Swanson was only 32 years old in 1931, but she was so deeply associated with the silent era that by the 1930s she seemed positively ancient (a status that she would brilliantly use to her advantage in 1950’s Sunset Boulevard).   Mosher offered this “meh” review of her latest work — only her second completely-sound film — Indiscreet.

WHERE’S THE DOOR?…Ben Lyon seems perplexed by Gloria Swanson’s attentions in this theatre lobby card promoting Indiscreet. At right, Swanson delivers her trademark laser stare. (IMDB)

And we move on to our advertisers, with this ad from Publix Theatres (owned by Paramount) promoting Indiscreet

…Southern Pacific used a theme (illustrated by Don Harold) to promote travel on their trains that wouldn’t fly today…

…I include this ad for the design, which seemed to have a little of everything…

…the makers of Camel cigarettes, however, reverted to a somewhat more homespun image, abandoning the stylish, euro-set illustrations of Carl “Eric” Erickson

…on to our cartoonists, we have this caricature of Max Steuer by Al Frueh, rendered for a two-part profile…Steuer is perhaps best known for his successful defense of the factory owners after the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire, hmmmm…

Ralph Barton again, with his “Graphic Section”…

Garrett Price weighed the durability of modern decor…

Barbara Shermund looked at gardening challenges in the ‘burbs…

Perry Barlow gave us a glimpse of something perhaps inspired by a trip to Europe…

Richard Decker conjured a boat salesman with a loaded question…

…and we end with the great James Thurber, and a cartoon that might not pass muster today…

Next Time: Flying the Friendly Skies…