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…

The Wayward Press

Robert Benchley is remembered today as an American humorist, and his funny side was on display in his New Yorker theater reviews and other contributions. It was his background as a journalist, however, that shown through in his column “The Wayward Press.”

Oct. 10, 1931 cover by Theodore Haupt.

Benchley’s more serious side as a reporter (though still sprinkled with wit) demonstrated his ability to expose the conspiratorial nature of the 1930s press — which seemed to be in bed with moneyed interests — and decry its insatiable appetite for sensationalism. His October 10 column took aim at the coverage of the death of banking heir Benjamin Collings, who was murdered on Long Island Sound while aboard his yacht, Penguin. The investigation went on for weeks with scant developments, but that didn’t stop the newspapers from trying to squeeze every ounce of blood from this turnip.

The New York Daily News milked the incident for all its worth, the heading of this first article featuring photos of the slain Benjamin Collings (far left), his widow (and briefly a suspect) Lillian Collings, as well as an image of their five-year-old daughter, Barbara. According to Lillian, all three were sleeping aboard the family yacht Penguin when two men paddled a canoe up to their boat. When Ben went on deck to confront the pair, these “pirates” (as she called them) seized control of the boat, and threw Ben overboard. According to Lillian, the men forced her into the canoe, then cut the Penguin’s anchor and set it adrift with little Barbara still on board. While the girl was quickly rescued by another yachtsman, the “pirates” deposited Lillian in a moored motorboat on Oyster Bay before disappearing into the night. The Suffolk County DA found Lillian’s account unbelievable, and newspapers subsequently described her story as bizarre and illogical. The Daily News headline below indicates Lillian’s family wanted her interrogation to end…

…lacking any other details, the Daily News nevertheless kept the story alive with features such as this one below that described Five Stages in Life of Mrs. Benjamin Collings, Widowed by Yacht Murder

…and in case readers still wanted more, the paper rehashed the whole thing in photos in its Sept. 12 edition…

A few days after the yacht incident the body of Ben Collings washed up on the North Shore, his hands bound and his skull bashed in. The Suffolk County DA then began hauling in pairs of suspects who somewhat matched Lillian’s description — a 50-year-old man with gray hair and a skinny teenager — but none were quite right. The crime has never been solved.

Benchley concluded his column with some quotations which he “did not believe”…

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And Now For Something Ironic…

In his “Notes and Comment,” E.B. White teased New York Stock Exchange President Richard Whitney for blaming the market crash on “human vanity and selfishness,” when it was indeed those qualities that drove the markets in the first place. Before the decade was out Whitney would succumb to the very vices he named, and would serve three years and four months at Sing Sing for embezzlement.

HE DID TIME, THEN HE DID SOME MORE TIME…Richard Whitney made the cover of the Feb. 26, 1934 issue of Time magazine for his work as president of the New York Stock Exchange. At left, Whitney in 1937. He was sentenced to five to ten years for embezzlement, but was released early from Sing Sing for good behavior. He went on to a simpler life, managing a dairy farm and then a textile company before his death in 1974 at age 86. (Wikipedia/Time)

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The What Goes Up Department

E.B. White also commented on the latest edition of the Goodyear Blimp, christened Columbia, which he spotted hanging around the Empire State Building. Note E.B. White’s last line

Columbia was flying around the Empire State Building because Goodyear was running a sightseeing service in which passengers paid $3 for a 15-minute flight around Manhattan. The blimp also performed publicity stunts such as delivering newspapers to a man standing on the Empire State’s mooring mast — that particular stunt was supposedly a test to see if airships could anchor on the mast for passenger loading and unloading (and as we know, they couldn’t and wouldn’t).

Just four months after White watched Columbia hover over Manhattan, the airship would indeed bust into a thousand pieces, meeting its demise near the Queens airport (today’s LaGuardia). Caught in unexpected high winds, Columbia dipped into the ground, tearing off its landing gear and bending its propellers. The ground crew tried to secure the blimp but an updraft ripped the airship from their hands and sent it sailing over Flushing Bay.

As Columbia once again drifted back over land, the 23-year pilot Prescott Dixon ordered his chief mechanic, John Blair, to pull a rip cord that would release most of the air from the blimp. As Blair reached from the cabin for the cord the blimp shifted, and Blair fell to his death. Columbia then knocked two men off a warehouse roof (injuring them), then struck a factory and some power lines before crashing along the tracks of the Long Island Railroad. Dixon survived after being extricated from the crumpled gondola.

CHRISTENED WITH A BOTTLE OF LIQUID AIR, the Goodyear Blimp Columbia was readied for its inaugural flight over Akron, Ohio, in July 1931.
A SHORT LIFE…Just seven months after its inaugural flight, Columbia crashed near Flushing Bay on Feb. 12, 1932. (kathrynsreport.com)

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When Bridges Were Crowd-Pleasers

“The Talk of the Town” announced the imminent opening of the Jeffreys Hook Bridge, to be known thence as the George Washington Bridge:

GET OUT YOUR TOP HAT…New Yorkers turned out in droves to mark the official opening of the George Washington Bridge on Oct. 24, 1931. Gov. Morgan F. Larson of New Jersey, left, and Gov. Franklin D. Roosevelt of New York, right, did the ribbon honors at the dedication. (New Haven Register/AP)

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They Couldn’t Say ‘Hooters’ Either

In these coarser times it is hard to believe that 89 years ago the word “bosom” was a “no-no” on the nation’s airwaves, per this “Talk” item…

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An Actor’s Actor

Theater critic Robert Benchley wasn’t the only one who noticed the talents of newcomer Charles Laughton in his New York stage debut — Hollywood would immediately come calling for the 32-year-old English actor:

WE’LL KEEP HIM…Cicely Oates as Annie Marble and Charles Laughton as William Marble in the 1931 play Payment Deferred. (Museum of the City of New York)

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Kinda Long For Being Short

Humorist Frank Sullivan claimed to be following the trend for shorter short stories by turning in this piece with an editor’s note longer than the story itself:

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Lurid Lit

Our dear Dorothy Parker is back with another of her entertaining book columns, and in this installment we have her taking on the world of literary and not-so-literary sex romps. Excerpts:

DIRTY LITTLE BOOKS?…The three books featured in Dorothy Parker’s column included, from left, Young and Healthy by Donald Henderson Clarke (issued here under a different title in a pulp 1948 Novel Library edition); Theodore Wilde’s Moonblind, which featured a hermaphrodite character and homosexual encounters; and although attributed to Anonymous, Lady Chatterley’s Husbands was actually written by Anthony Gudaitis, aka Anton Gud, who often wrote anonymously for erotica publisher Samuel Roth. Although it was publicized as a sequel to D.H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover, Gud’s book actually had less sex than the Lawrence original. After all, in the sequel Lady Chatterley gets tired of horny old Mellors. (Goodreads/Amazon)

…and before we leave Dorothy, please note her last line in the review, where she quotes Carl Rose’s famed 1928 cartoon (with caption by E.B. White)…

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From Our Advertisers

Just a couple quick ones (I will have more in the next installment)…Lord & Taylor showed young New Yorkers how to look smart for the fall (Lord & Taylor, the oldest department store in the United States (founded 1826), recently closed all 38 of its stores due to the pandemic, and it was announced in August that Lord & Taylor would be liquidated. Apparently its name will continue as an online-only business…

…and Helen Hokinson offered this illustration of one of her “girls” shilling for Frigidaire refrigerators…

…and two more from Helen in the Oct. 10 cartoons…

…exploring men’s attitudes toward the opposite sex…

Garrett Price visited a seemingly unappetizing banquet…

Kemp Starrett gave us a man looking at life on the bright side…

William Steig explored home decor…

Barbara Shermund found some bedtime gossip…

…and recalling our earlier “Talk” item regarding bosoms, here’s Peter Arno

Next Time: Monkey Business…

 

 

An American Classic

Immigration over the centuries transformed New York City into a cosmopolitan metropolis, with many of those migrants drawn from America’s hinterlands. What they found in the city was not only economic opportunity, but also a place to grow artistically and intellectually.

Aug. 8, 1931 cover by Theodore Haupt.

Such was the case of Willa Cather, who while living in New York City would draw on her Nebraska childhood to write a succession of novels about prairie life and its people (including My Antonia and O Pioneers!) that would culminate in a 1923 Pulitzer Prize.

Louise Bogan, in 1931 a new poetry editor for the New Yorker (and a poet herself), wrote a profile of Cather for the Aug. 8 issue. An excerpt:

TWO FACES…Hugo Gellert rendering of Willa Cather for the profile; undated photo at right gives you some idea of the look Cather aimed at the affected behavior of others. (New York Times)
FORMATIVE YEARS…Clockwise, from top left, Willa Cather as a student at the University of Nebraska in the early 1890s; classmates at Nebraska included author and activist Dorothy Canfield Fisher and Alvin Johnson, later a co-founder of New York’s New School. Both Cather and Fisher took fencing lessons from John J. Pershing, who taught military science at Nebraska; Cather’s childhood home in Red Cloud, Neb., and the prairie that inspired much of her writing. (news.unl.edu/Wikipedia/new school.edu/literaryamerica.net)
CITY LIFE…Clockwise, from top: S. S. McClure, Willa Cather, Ida Tarbell, and Will Irvin visit in Washington Square Park, 1924; Cather in the meadow of High Mowing farm near Jaffrey, N.H., where she wrote part of My Antonia; on the cover of Time, Aug. 3, 1931; one of Cather’s New York residences at 82 Washington Place. (Indiana University/Southwick Collection, University of Nebraska/time.com/jschumacher.typepad.com)

Bogan concluded the profile with this note about Lèon Bakst, who was commissioned in 1923 to paint a portrait of Cather while she visiting Paris (image courtesy Omaha Public Library):

My dear late friend Susan Rosowski, who was a preeminent Cather scholar, wrote that Cather was “the first to give immigrants heroic stature in serious American literature.” In these times when immigration is so hotly debated, it is worth revisiting My Antonia and O Pioneers! to recall what once made America truly great.

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One Arm Restaurant

If you wanted to get lunch fast and cheap in 1931 you might have stopped at one of John Thompson’s New York restaurants. According to Tom Miller (daytoninmanhattan.blogspot.com), there were no waiters in Thompson’s restaurants. “Customers purchased foods like cold corned beef, cold boiled ham, smoked boiled tongue or hot frankfurters at a counter. They then took their trays to ‘one arm’ chairs lined up along the wall. There were no tables; instead customers ate at what was similar to turn-of-the-century school desks.” E.B. White stopped in for a visit:

YOU CAN’T MISS IT…John Thompson’s name is emblazoned no less than four times on the front of his restaurant at No. 33 Park Row. No-frills interior featured “one-arm” chairs and a self-service coffee urn. (Museum of the City of New York /daytoninmanhattan.blogspot.com)

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Cinematic Eyeful

The Pre-Code comedy-drama Transatlantic was light on plot but heavy on deep-focus cinematography (by James Wong Howe) that wowed New Yorker critic John Mosher in 1931…and still wows critics today.

High Seas Hijinks…The pre-code comedy-drama Transatlantic wowed critic John Mosher not so much for its storyline as for its style and cinematography. Clockwise, from left, Edmund Lowe has his hands full with Lois Moran, Greta Nissen and Myrna Loy. (IMDB)
NIFTY NOIR…John Mosher loved the avant-garde, noir-ish stylings of Transatlantic. This film by director William K. Howard and cinematographer James Wong Howe is still admired today. A MoMA cinema site notes that the film’s style anticipates Citizen Kane by ten years. (pre-code.com)

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From Our Advertisers

We begin with another socialite endorsing Pond’s Cold Cream — Mrs. Potter d’Orsay Palmer nee Maria Eugenia Martinez de Hoz. She was wife No. 2 of Potter d’Orsay Palmer, son of the wealthy family of Chicago Palmer House fame…they would divorce in 1937, and the playboy Potter would marry two more times before dying of a cerebral hemorrhage in 1939 (the result of a drunken brawl). Maria Eugenia would remarry and return to her homeland of Argentina to raise a family…

…it seems Maria Eugenia didn’t limit herself to endorsing cold cream, as this next ad attests (from the May, 1934 Delineator magazine)…

…Maria Eugenia endorsed Camels because they were marketed to women back then, as were Marlboro cigarettes, the makers of which continued their silly handwriting and jingle-writing contests to promote the brand (note the examples “Miss Eileen Fitzgerald” offered of what defined a modern lifestyle)…

…the makers of Chesterfield cigarettes, on the other hand, originally marketed their product to men, but they made sure women were included in the copy beneath the image — “yes, there’s a big woman vote” …

…you may recall the subtle ways Liggett & Myers began to lure women smokers back in 1928 with this ad campaign…

…you see a lot of tobacco ads because cigarette manufacturers were one of the few industries still turning a profit during the first years of the Depression…men and women were smoking like crazy, maybe to calm their nerves over the performance of their refrigerators…

…one could always calm the nerves by taking a spin in a new Plymouth, bargain-priced at just $535…

…and we have another Arno-esque ad by Herbert Roese, touting the wonders of “New York’s Most Interesting Newspaper”…

…on to our cartoonists, we begin with this wonderful spot drawing by Barbara Shermund

…and an illustration by Reginald Marsh of a Coney Island crowd that graced facing pages in “The Talk of the Town”…

…here’s one of four drawings Walter Schmidt contributed to the New Yorker between 1931 and 1933…

Perry Barlow illustrated the joys of dining out with the kiddies…

…back to Barbara Shermund, who eavesdropped on her debs…

Kemp Starrett gave us a proud moment at the county fair…

I. Klein offered up a new twist on the term “family planning”…

John Held Jr assessed the aesthetic value of chunky mission-style furniture…

…and Peter Arno reappeared in the cartoons with this full-page illustration of some desperate climbers…

Next Time: Asphalt Jungle…