A 100 Percent Talker

Lights of New York would be a forgettable film if not for the fact it was the world’s first 100 percent talking motion picture. Yes, it was a bad film, but…

July 14, 1928 cover by Leonard Dove.

…even the July 14, 1928 New Yorker had the foresight to note that the film was destined to be a “museum piece.” Despite the corny plot and bad acting, the magazine’s critic “O.C.” had to concede that the film offered proof that sound would improve the motion picture experience.

Theatre Card for Lights of New York. (untappedcities.com)
MAKING SOME NOISE…Helene Costello with a cast of nightclub dancers in Lights of New York. (vintage45.wordpress.com)

The Jazz Singer (1927) launched a “talkie revolution” that would culminate nine months later in Lights of New York, and by the end of 1929 Hollywood was almost exclusively making sound films. But studios still released silent films into the 1930s, since not every theatre in the country was wired for sound.

The New Yorker had been slow to embrace sound in motion pictures (see my previous posts). What helped to win them over was the further refinement of the Movietone process, in which the sound track was printed directly onto the film strip (The Jazz Singer used Vitaphone, which essentially synched a record player with a film and provided a sporadic rather than continuous sound track).

In the same issue, the New Yorker also predicted (in “The Talk of the Town”) that sound in movies would challenge actors whose voices weren’t as attractive as their screen images:

IT’S COMPLICATED…It is a common assumption that sound motion pictures killed the careers of many silent stars, however big names like John Gilbert (left) and Clara Bow left the pictures for other reasons. Studio politics ended Gilbert’s career, and he drank himself to death by 1936. Bow—famously known as the “It Girl,”—made a few sound pictures, but retired from acting in 1931 to become a Nevada rancher. (Wikipedia/NY Post)
SILENCED…Some silent actors such as Wallace Beery (left), were sidelined not because of their voices but because of their high salaries. On the other hand Raymond Griffith (right), who made only one sound movie, spoke with a hoarse whisper not suited for the talkies. (Wikipedia / silentfilmstillarchive.com)

The New Yorker also noted that sound pictures would prove to a great “bonanza” to voice teachers:

Transition to sound in the late 1920s would later provide the theme for the 1952 musical Singin’ In The Rain, in which Jean Hagen portrayed silent film star Lina Lamont, whose voice was ill-suited for talking pictures. 

SAY WHAT?…Actress Lina Lamont (Jean Hagen) tries the patience of her director (Chet Brandenburg) while her co-star (Gene Kelly) looks on. The scene demonstrated the challenges of acclimating former silent stars (like Lina Lamont, whose voice sounded like squeaky hinge) to “talking pictures.” (YouTube Movieclips)

The New Yorker also noted that the advent of sound in motion pictures would put an end to many theatres operating on the vaudeville  circuit:

In his regular column, “Of All Things,” Howard Brubaker gave his two cents about the new world of talking movies:

Paving Over Paradise

In the July 14 “Talk of the Town,” the New Yorker offered more bittersweet commentary on the city’s rapidly changing landscape. This time it was a famous stretch of lawns on West 23rd Street—London Terrace— that were being uprooted to make way for a massive new apartment block:

According to Tom Miller (writing for his blog Daytonian in Manhattan), Clement Moore, the writer to whom “A Visit from St. Nicholas” (“The Night Before Christmas”) “had developed the block when he divided up his family estate, ‘Chelsea.’ On the 23rd Street block, in 1845, he commissioned Alexander Jackson Davis to design 36 elegant Greek Revival brownstone townhouses. The row was designed to appear as a single, uniform structure or ‘terrace’ (a design not lost on the New Yorker writer). Unusual for Manhattan, each had deep front yards planted with shrubbery and trees. He called his development ‘London Terrace.'”

A BIT O’ GREEN…London Terrace, circa 1920. (ephemeralnewyork)

By October 1929, writes Miller, “a few weeks before the collapse of the stock market and the onset of the Great Depression, (developer Henry Mandel) had acquired and demolished all the structures on the enormous block of land. All except for Tillie Hart’s house. Tillie leased 429 West 23rd Street and, although her lease had legally expired, she refused to leave. Tillie fired a barrage of bricks and rocks at anyone who approached the sole-surviving house. A court battle ensued while she barricaded herself inside. Finally, just four days before Black Tuesday, sheriffs gained entry and moved all of Tillie Hart’s things onto the street. She held out one more night, sleeping on newspapers in her once-grand bedroom, then gave up. The following day her house was destroyed.”

IT’S YUGE…Farrar & Watmough designed this massive, Tuscan-inspired apartment block, completed during 1930-31. The developer Henry Mandel, sometimes referred to as the Donald Trump of his day, kept the site’s original name, London Terrace. (ephemeralnewyork)

Miller writes, “to describe the new London Terrace was to use superlatives. Consuming the entire city block, it was the largest apartment building in the world with 1,665 apartments. It boasted the largest swimming pool in the city – 75 feet by 35 feet, with mosaic walls and viewing balconies. Twenty-one stories above the street a “marine deck” was designed to mimic that of a luxury ocean liner. It had a fully-equipped gymnasium, a recreation club, a rooftop children’s play yard with professional supervisors, and a large dining room. The doormen were dressed as London bobbies.”

STILL THERE…London Terrace today. (Brick Underground)

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In other diversions, I. Klein looked askew at the latest headlines, namely the big fight between Gene Tunney and Tom Heeney, one of the 20th century’s many “battles of the century”…

…while Helen Hokinson, on the other hand, offered some sketches of seafaring life…

…and looked in on the challenges of buying a hat…

…and then there was this two-page cartoon by Al Frueh, and its disturbing depiction of African “savages” (rendered in blackface?!)…click to enlarge

And to close, a cartoon by Leonard Dove…

…that referenced ads such as this one from the June 2, 1928 issue of the New Yorker… (click image to enlarge).

…and a comedy of manners, courtesy Peter Arno…

Next Time: Beyond 96th Street…

Summer Breeze

In the days before air conditioning, summertime city dwellers escaped the heat by fleeing to the countryside or the coast, or, if they lacked the time or the means, by taking their dining and dancing to one of Gotham’s breezy rooftop nightclubs.

June 30, 1928 cover by Helen Hokinson.

In her column “Tables for Two,” nightlife correspondent Lois Long welcomed the addition of rooftop dining atop the St. Regis Hotel, which featured decor by the famed theatrical set designer and architect Joseph Urban:

The St. Regis Hotel in New York City. (StreetEasy)

Illustrations by Alice Harvey (in the July 7, 1928 issue) depicted diners and dancers on the St. Regis rooftop…

“DISDAINFUL ROOSTERS” looked down upon diners from Joseph Urban’s roof garden murals at the St. Regis. At right, Urban in 1920. Urban was right at home at the St. Regis, and even died there in 1933 after suffering a heart attack in his apartment. (artcontrarian.blogspot.com / Columbia University, Butler Rare Book and Manuscript Library)
CONTINENTAL INSPIRATION…Joseph Urban’s 1928 design for the Roof Garden at the Hotel Gibson in Cincinnati, Ohio, was inspired by 19th century European pleasure gardens. (Cooper Hewitt)

Long also fondly recalled a “comic waiter” who entertained patrons of another popular rooftop destination, The Cascades atop the Strand:

CASCADES…A 1920s postcard image of the Strand’s rooftop dining room, known as “The Cascades.” The room once featured a comical waiter who entertained diners with various gags and pratfalls. (thejumpingfrog.com)

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The June 30 issue featured a Profile of cosmetics entrepreneur Helena Rubinstein, who began her cosmetics empire with a dozen jars of face cream. Writer Jo Sterling described a businesswoman of limitless energy whose habits could be described as restless and haphazard but also revealed a woman of great generosity. Sterling noted that this woman of great wealth and a renowned collector of fine art and other rare objects preferred riding the bus to owning an automobile.

IT STARTED WITH A DOZEN JARS OF FACE CREAM…Polish American businesswoman, art collector, and philanthropist Helena Rubenstein in the 1920s. (Getty)

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Portents of War (to be continued…)

In the Roaring Twenties most believed the Great War was indeed the “War to End All Wars,” so when militarism was clearly on the rise in Shōwa Japan few took it seriously, including New Yorker cartoonist Al Fruh:

On the lighter side, Peter Arno offered up his take on a cinematic love scene:

Next Time: A Familiar Ring…

The Russians Are Coming

Compared to Hollywood, cinema as an art form in the 1920s was more advanced in Europe, where filmmakers took a more mature, nuanced approach to movies; they focused less on money and more on exploring difficult social and historical issues. Trench warfare, genocide and famine have a way of doing that to you.

June 9, 1928 cover by Ilonka Karasz.

The contrast between the European avant-garde and Hollywood’s Tinseltown was not lost on the New Yorker’s film critics, who consistently lambasted American cinema while applauding nearly everything coming out of Europe, and especially the films produced by German and Russian directors. The critic “O.C.” used the Russians latest American release, The End of St. Petersburg, to drive home the point. He also chided those who dismissed the film as propaganda, a stance much in line with leftist intellectuals of the day who found inspiration in the Russian Revolution (and sometimes they looked the other way when things didn’t go so well in the Soviet experiment—1928 marked the beginning of the Soviet Union’s first Five-Year Plan. By 1934 it was estimated that almost 15 million people died from forced collectivization and famine).

The End of St. Petersburg was blatant propaganda, to be sure, but to this day it has been widely praised for its cinematic innovations. The story itself was fairly straightforward: A peasant goes to St. Petersburg looking for work, gets arrested for his involvement in a labor union and is subsequently sent to fight in the trenches of World War I. His experiences in the war solidify his commitment to revolution and the overthrow of the capitalist overlords. The New Yorker review:

OPPRESSORS & OPPRESSED…The shareholders of a steel mill (top) demand longer hours from workers who already suffer from hellish conditions at the factory in The End of St. Petersburg. (Stills from the film, available on YouTube)

The New Yorker reviewer suggested that a story used primarily to influence an audience—propaganda—was not necessarily a bad thing:

The horrors of trench warfare were graphically depicted in The End of St. Petersburg. (stills from film)

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Back in the New World, most of the talk in cinematic circles revolved around the excitement of “talking pictures.”

FORERUNNER…The Vitaphone system was the most successful of early attempts at sound movies. It synchronized a large recorded disc (seen at lower right) with the film. The Jazz Singer, often heralded as the movie that marked the commercial ascendance of sound films, used Vitaphone technology. (Audio Engineering Society)
BETTER YET…Sound movies took off with the invention of a soundtrack that could be printed directly onto the film. Filmmakers either used Variable Area (left) or Variable Density (center) mono optical soundtracks located between the film’s picture frame and sprocket holes. The tracks could be read by a newly developed photocell (a light source also known as Aeo-light) that could be modulated by audio signals and was used to expose the soundtrack in sound cameras such as the one at right. (Images 1 & 2, Audio Engineering Society/ Image 3, Wikipedia)

It seems that Fox Movietone newsreels really got things going with sound and whetted the audience appetites for more:

TELLING US A THING OR TWO…Irish playwright and critic George Bernard Shaw’s first visit to America, recorded for posterity in this 1928 Fox Movietone Newsreel. (still from film)

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Then There Was The Other Playwright…

Mae West, to be exact. My guess is her approach to the craft was a bit different than G.B. Shaw’s, and we can gather as much from these excerpts from the June 9 “Talk of the Town.” The piece discusses West’s rise to fame as the creator and star of the scandalous play Sex, and her unorthodox approach to rehearsals.

DEMURE SHE’S NOT…Mae West in 1928’s Diamond Lil. (doctormacro.com)

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Although many today would identify D.H. Lawrence as one of great English novelists of the 20th century, eighty years ago the New Yorker book critic Dorothy Parker described him as “very near to being first rate.”

ALMOST FIRST RATE? D.H. Lawrence with wife Frieda Weekley in Chapala, Mexico in 1923. (tanvirdhaka.blogspot.com)

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Blind Justice

The makers of Old Gold cigarettes claimed to have scientific proof on their side with a series of ads in the New Yorker featuring endorsements by the rich and famous. This ad ran in the June 9 issue:

In the same issue was this cartoon by Al Frueh that took a poke at Old Gold’s marketing strategy…

…and Peter Arno offered this unique take on human vanity…

Talking pictures continued to be a theme in the June 16, 1928, issue of the New Yorker.

In his “Of All Things Column,” Howard Brubaker suggested that sound movies would spell the end of careers for some silent stars:

Although some actors struggled with the transition to sound, the reasons why some major stars faded with the advent of “talkies” are far more nuanced. In many cases, some stars packed it in because their careers had already peaked during the silent era, and both studios and audiences were looking for some fresh faces.

HAS BEENS?…It is a common assumption that sound motion pictures killed the careers of many silent stars, including big names like John Gilbert (left) and Clara Bow. The reality is far more nuanced. (Wikipedia/NY Post)

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Niven Busch, Jr. continued to explore the illicit bar scene in his recurring feature “Speakeasy Nights.” I include this excerpt because it described a rather clever facade devised by the owner of the “J.P. Speakeasy.”

WORK/LIFE BALANCE…What might appear to be a typical business office might conceal an even more lucrative business in the back rooms. (Musée McCord/americanhistoryusa.com)
Busch observed an interesting protocol for admittance into the speakeasy, including a typewritten message devised to throw off any would-be Prohibition officers:

From Our Advertisers…

This ad leaves a bad taste in your mouth no matter how you look at. Nothing like coating your mouth with Milk of Magnesia before lighting up that first fag of the day…

…and here we have another ad for Flit insecticide, courtesy of Theodore “Dr. Seuss” Geisel.

And finally, a look at a Roaring Twenties wedding reception, courtesy cartoonist Garrett Price:

Next Time: Down to Coney Island…

Man About Town

When Jimmy Walker was elected mayor of New York City in 1926, the city finally had a leader that matched the mood of the times. A dapper lover of music and nightlife, he openly took a Ziegfield dancer as his mistress, often fled the city for European vacations, and was known to begin meetings with the pop of a Champagne cork.

May 19, 1928 cover by Ilonka Karasz.

No doubt many New Yorker readers liked the Jazz Age spirit of their mayor, and who really cared about his “accomplishments” as long as the city continued to boom and its smart set continued to prosper? The magazine’s “Talk of the Town” concluded as much:

LIGHTS, CAMERA, ACTION!…Mayor Walker accompanies actress Colleen Moore to the October 1928 premiere of her latest film, Lilac Time. (konreioldnewyork.blogspot.com)
QUEEN FOR A DAY…Mayor Walker (in top hat) welcomes Queen Marie of Romania on the steps of City Hall in October 1926. Huge and enthusiastic crowds braved the rain to welcome the queen to the city. (Acme Newspapers)
GOOD SPORT…Mayor Jimmy Walker presides over the first shot in the city’s annual marble tournament on June 3, 1928. (New York Times)

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Remembrance of Things Past

Although the New Yorker embraced the spirit imbued in the city’s rapidly changing skyline, there was always a tinge of regret when landmarks fell to wrecking balls and the city erased its past faster than one could comprehend. And so the magazine was a strong and early supporter of the establishment of the Museum of the City of New York, founded in 1923 and housed in Gracie Mansion (now the mayor’s official residence) until a permanent, neo-Georgian-style museum was finally erected in 1929-30 on Fifth Avenue between 103rd and 104th streets.

KEEPING TIME…Museum of the City of New York (abigailkirsch.com)

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No Beer Left to Cry In

As the Museum of the City of New York scrambled to preserve a past that was quickly being erased across Manhattan, another venerable institution prepared to close its doors for good—Allaire’s Scheffel Hall—which in its heyday was a favorite watering hole of artists, musicians, and writers including Stephen Crane. Allaire’s, located in a Gramercy Park neighborhood known as Kleindeutschland, or “Little Germany,” was the latest victim of Prohibition; it was, after all, hard to run a beer hall without the beer.

Amazingly, the building still stands, now home to a pilates and yoga studio.

SIGN OF THE TIMES…Now a yoga and pilates studio…Scheffel Hall at 190 Third Avenue in the Gramercy Park as it appeared in 2009. It was designated a New York City landmark in 1997. (Steve Minor)

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The “Talk of the Town” had its usual bits and pieces of happenings in the city, including this mild jab at the rather staid New York Times:

KEEPING IT DECENT…The actress Betty Starbuck, circa 1930. (Getty)

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Silent film star Buster Keaton’s latest picture, Steamboat Bill, Jr., won the approval of New Yorker film critic O.C., and Keaton’s co-star Marion Byron received extra props for her “gusto”…

HANGING IN THERE…Marion Byron and Buster Keaton in 1928’s Steamboat Bill Jr. (Virtual History)

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Truth in Advertising

Outside of politics this is one of the most cynical uses of the word “truth” I’ve ever seen. Since the woman isn’t smoking herself, I’m guessing she is reading a letter from someone (son, daughter, boyfriend) who has learned the truth about Camels and has decided to share it in a letter. How sweet.

In 1928 color images such as the Camel ad above brightened an increasing number of New Yorker ads. Color was artfully used in a number of spots, including the left panel of this two-page ad for a new cosmetic compact…

The issue also featured this comic sketch by Rea Irvin of New Yorker critic and commentator (and hypochondriac) Alexander Woollcott…

…and keeping on the literary side, this comic by Isidore Klein…

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The May 26, 1928 issue the “Talk of the Town” turned its attention to sound in motion pictures, or rather, turned its ears away from the “movie tone” sound effects becoming common in the waning days of the Silent Era.

May 26, 1928 cover by Helen Hokinson.

Everyday sounds, in particular, proved jarring to the ears of those who were accustomed to the relative quiet of silent movies:

“Talk” also looked in on the writer Thornton Wilder, who was planning to summer in Europe with his friend, the literary-minded boxer Gene Tunney.

REFLECTING GLORY…Thornton Wilder returning to the U.S. on the S.S. Britannic, 1935. (thorntonwilder.com)

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More Truth in Advertising

The manufacturers of Old Gold cigarettes were also in pursuit of the truth in this ad featured in the May 26 issue, backing up the claim with a “blindfold test” on none other than the daughter of J. P. Morgan…

Deception in advertising wasn’t limited to cigarettes, however. The makers of Lysol had their own nefarious scheme that shamed women into using their product as a form of birth control (referred to in the ad below with the euphemism “feminine hygiene”). Not only was it ineffective as a contraceptive, it was also corrosive to one’s privates.

The ad is also appalling for casting the responsibility for birth control entirely on the woman. But then again, where are we today?

On to other questionable health pursuits, this ad in the May 26 issue touted the “radio-active waters” of Glen Springs, a hotel and sanatorium located above Seneca Lake in New York. Searching for oil on the site in late 19th century, the owners struck not black gold but rather a black, briny water that they claimed had greater curative powers than those found in Germany’s famed Nauheim Springs.

Why they called the waters “radio-active” escapes me. There were a lot of quack medical cures floating around in the 1920s—some of them quite dangerous—so I’m guessing that the proprietors of Glen Springs were adding radium to the water in some of their treatments, or maybe just claiming that radium was present in the water. Although Marie Curie (a pioneering researcher on radioactivity) and others protested against radiation therapies, a number of corporations and physicians marketed radioactive substances as miracle cure-alls, including radium enema treatments and radium-containing water tonics.

The Glen Springs Hotel at Watkins Glen, NY. It remained a noted landmark of the area until it was demolished in 1996. (nyfalls.com)

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And finally, our cartoons for the May 26 issue, in which Barbara Shermund and Peter Arno explore the ups and downs of courtship…

Next Time: Toward the Air…

 

After Hours

Broadway shows were a popular nightlife diversion for New York’s upper middle-class, but plays and musicals were only part of an evening’s entertainment. The city’s “after theatre” clubs beckoned those who enjoyed an evening of dance with the Astaires or a light comedy with Lunt and Fontanne, but believed the night was still young.

May 5, 1928 cover by Leonard Dove.

And who better to chronicle the late night revelry than Lois Long, who through her “Tables For Two” column (signed “Lipstick”) was a leading voice of after hours Manhattan and a nightly presence in its various clubs and speakeasies. Longtime New Yorker writer Brendan Gill (Here at the New Yorker) observed that Long, who joined the New Yorker in 1925, “had plunged at once, joyously, into a New York that seemed always at play — a city of speakeasies, night clubs, tea dances, football weekends, and steamers sailing at midnight.”

In May 1928 Long had been married for about nine months to colleague and cartoonist Peter Arno, who was also a regular fixture of the nightclub scene. But in Long’s column for May 5, 1928, one can detect a bit of weariness setting in, the 27-year-old sensing the next generation didn’t know how to have a good time.

And it didn’t help that the younger people were dancing to “canned music,” what with the spread of broadcast radio and improvements in phonograph records…

LIPSTICK WAS A FAN of the Paul Specht Orchestra, seen here in 1928. (YouTube)
BUT NOT A FAN of those darn kids who preferred records to live music, and didn’t know how to party at the clubs. (Pinterest)

For those on the wilder side, Lois Long recommended a number of after-hours entertainments, including Texas Guinan’s latest all-night club, Salon Royal, and its snake-charming hootch dancer.

WHOOPEE was the order of the day at Texas Guinan’s Salon Royal on West 58th Street, now refurbished as the 6 Columbus Hotel. Guinan was well known to New Yorker writers and editors and was a frequent guest of the numerous parties hosted by Harold Ross and Jane Grant in their Hell’s Kitchen brownstone. (texasguinan.blogspot)
A FAVORITE HAUNT…A bartender at the 21 Club speakeasy in New York, as photographed by Margaret Bourke-White circa 1930. The 21 was Lois Long’s favorite watering hole. (Getty)

Because so many New Yorker readers were both theatre and after-theatre-goers, the magazine included some of the after-dinner destinations in its “Goings On About Town” section. Excerpts follow.

Rubberneckers

The May 5 “Talk of the Town” commented on the challenges film crews faced when they shot on location in the city, in this case the production of Harold Lloyd’s latest comedy, Speedy:

LOCATION, LOCATION, LOCATION…Silent film star Harold Lloyd (leaning on car at right) and his crew draw a crowd under Queensboro Bridge during the filming of Speedy. (silentlocations.wordpress.com)
BABE IN THE CITY…Harold Lloyd takes baseball legend Babe Ruth for a wild spin in 1928’s Speedy. (YouTube)

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Before Mommie Dearest

The actress Joan Crawford is best known today as the subject of the 1981 biopic, Mommie Dearest, which portrayed Crawford as an insecure, abusive parent to her adopted daughter Christina (the film was based on a 1978 memoir and exposé of the same name written by Christina Crawford).

But in the 1920s and 30s the former dancer and chorus girl was better known for her sex appeal, attractive to men for her looks and to women for the roles in which she portrayed hard-working women who find both romance and success.

PRETTY PICTURE…Ramon Novarro and Joan Crawford in Across to Singapore, 1928. (Silent Hollywood)

The New Yorker took notice of Crawford in its review of Across to Singapore, the critic O.C. noting that Crawford “gets prettier in every picture”…

Another film released later in 1928, Our Dancing Daughters, would make Crawford a star and a symbol of the liberated, 1920s flapper. Even the writer F. Scott Fitzgerald would observe that “Joan Crawford is doubtless the best example of the flapper, the girl you see in smart night clubs, gowned to the apex of sophistication, toying iced glasses with a remote, faintly bitter expression, dancing deliciously, laughing a great deal, with wide, hurt eyes. Young things with a talent for living.”

Another actress with a talent for living was 34-year-old Mae West, who was appearing on Broadway in Diamond Lil. Already a 21-year veteran of the stage (she began performing in vaudeville in 1907 at age 14), West was known for writing and performing in risqué plays beginning in 1926, when she appeared in Sex, which was panned by conservative critics but enjoyed hot ticket sales.

Subsequent plays aroused controversy and kept her name in the newspapers, but her play Diamond Lil would become the Broadway hit that would cement her image as a sex symbol, one she would maintain until her death at age 87 in 1980. In the May 5 issue artist Miguel Covarrubias offered his vision of the Queen of the Bowery:

THEATRE CARD for the Broadway production of Diamond Lil at the Royale Theatre. (maewest.blogspot.com)
STILL AT IT 50 YEARS LATER…The 86-year-old Mae West in her last film, 1978’s Sextette. In a 1979 review, New York Times film critic Vincent Canby called the film “a disorienting freak show in which Mae West, now 87 years old, does a frail imitation of the personality that wasn’t all that interesting 45 years ago. The movie, which opens today at the Victoria and other theaters, is a poetic, terrifying reminder of how a virtually disembodied ego can survive total physical decay and loss of common sense. (filmcomment.com)

From Our Advertisers

It’s interesting to see how 1920s advertisers made even the most mundane gadgets appear to be vital to one’s survival. The ad for the “Sesamee” auto switch lock is a case in point, appealing to upscale female readers of the New Yorker with this odd scenario in which the gadget enables the driver to avoid the awkward and potentially hazardous situation depicted below, although it hard to see what the actual threat might be from a dandy in a tie and waistcoat. Perhaps death from boredom.

Our cartoon is courtesy of Mary Petty,  who would become a renowned illustrator for the New Yorker, best remembered for a series of covers featuring her gentle satirization of the upper class Peabody family.

Next Time: Dog’s Best Friend…

 

Back to Broadway

From the 1920s to the 1950s the husband-wife acting team of Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne were the most celebrated couple on the Broadway stage, and even today many rank them as the greatest acting team in the history of American theatre.

April 28, 1928 cover by Julian de Miskey.

Lunt (1892-1977) and Fontanne (1887-1983) were so inseparable as a team that it was virtually impossible to write about just one of them, as Timothy Vane discovered when he contributed this profile of Lunt to the April 28, 1928 issue of the New Yorker:

INSEPARABLE…The Lunts in the 1920s, as photographed by Nickolas Muray. In 1999 the U.S. Postal Service paid tribute to them with a first- class stamp. (Conde Nast/USPS)

Vane described the couple’s tireless comings and goings, in which even a vacation abroad entailed preparations for future performances:

OLD FRIENDS…Noel Coward (left) Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne in Coward’s 1932 play Design For Living. A close friend of Lunt and Fontanne, Coward enjoys a relaxing moment (right) at the couple’s “Ten Chimneys” estate in Lunt’s home state of Wisconsin. (Getty/tenchimneys.org)
IT REALLY HAS TEN CHIMNEYS…At left, the main house at Lunt and Fontanne’s “Ten Chimneys.” At right, the estate’s ‘Falu-Red’ Cottage. The estate was named a National Historic Landmark in 2003. (tenchimneys.org)

Although it was long rumored that Lunt and Fontanne had a lavender marriage, the couple were truly inseparable during their 55-year union.

According to the Ten Chimneys Foundation, by the mid 1920s Lunt and Fontanne were the two most popular, critically acclaimed, and highest-paid stage actors in the country. Lunt and Fontanne also believed that creating great theatre with broad impact was far more important than money, so at the height of their careers they took enormous pay cuts to sign on with The Theatre Guild—a new company dedicated to performing avant-garde work by writers such as Ibsen and Shaw. Because they took such large cuts in salary, they were able to stipulate in their contracts that they only act together, rather than in separate plays. From 1928 until they retired in 1960, the Lunts never appeared on stage separately.

And Then There Were Hearst & Davies

Another famed duo of the 1920s, Marion Davies (1897-1961) and William Randolph Hearst (1863-1951), were perhaps a less successful partnership, and particularly so for Davies, who traded a promising career as a comedic actress for a romantic (and scandalous) relationship with the famed newspaper tycoon.

Davies was emerging as a talented film comedian when Hearst took over her career—financing her films, promoting her through his media empire, and, most critically, pressuring studios to cast her in historical dramas which were not her forté. This is why she is remembered today as Hearst’s mistress and the hostess of lavish events for the Hollywood elite at San Simeon, and not for her acting chops, which were considerable when she was given the chance. When Hearst did allow her to show her comedic side in The Patsy,  even the New Yorker’s irascible critic “O.C.” took notice and offered rare praise:

SHOWING HER FUN SIDE…Left, publicity photo of Marion Davies, late 1920s. At right, Patricia Harrington (Marion Davies) vies for the attentions of her mother, Ma Harrington (Marie Dressler) and sister Grace Harrington (Jane Winton) in King Vidor’s 1928 hit comedy The Patsy. The film was co-produced by William Randolph Hearst along with Davies and Vidor.(cinemaartscentre.org)

A 2012 review of The Patsy by the Cinema Arts Center (Long Island, NY), noted that “Davies radiates comic charm, highlighted by her dead-on impersonations of the three cinema divas, in this audience pleaser…Gloriously fun and frothy, The Patsy was the biggest hit of Davies’ career.”

One of the actresses parodied in The Patsy by Davies, Pola Negri, did not fare so well in O.C.’s crosshairs in her “stilted” Three Sinners.

PSSST…LIGHTEN UP, WILL YA?…Warner Baxter and Pola Negri in Three Sinners (1928). (Paramount)

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Another Bad Girl

Not well known today, but after 1928 Viña Delmar (1903-1990) was practically a household name thanks to her breakthrough novel, Bad Girl, which she published at the tender age of 23. A cautionary tale about premarital sex and married life among the proles, the book was banned in Boston but was also the April 1928 selection by the Literary Guild. It was one the year’s best sellers.

On the heels of Bad Girl, in 1929 Delmar published two more books with risqué titles, Kept Woman and Loose Ladies. She would write a total of 23 novels between 1928 and 1976, and with her husband, Eugene, would write or adapt 18 plays that were produced as films. Among those was the screenplay to the acclaimed screwball comedy, The Awful Truth, for which she was nominated for a 1937 Academy Award.

BAD GIRL, GOOD SALES…Clockwise, from upper left: a screenshot of Delmar from the trailer for 1934’s Sadie McKee, a film starring Joan Crawford based on Delmar’s 1933 short story “Pretty Sadie McKee”; an ad for Bad Girl in the April 28, 1928 New Yorker; original jacket cover for Bad Girl; a 1930 advertisement for the film Dance Hall, based on a 1929 Delmar short story. (Wikipedia/New Yorker/Amazon/immortalephemera.com)

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And finally, our cartoon from April 28, 1928, courtesy Peter Arno:

Next Time: After Hours…

The Last Dance?

Before there was Fred and Ginger, there was Fred and Adele, and during the 1920s and early 30s Fred and Adele Astaire were brother-sister dancing royalty and the toast of Broadway.

April 21, 1928 cover by Ilonka Karasz.


Fred and Adele Astaire were born a year apart in Omaha (she the eldest, born in 1898). Their mother wanted the siblings to learn professional dance at an early age, so in 1903 she moved with the children to New York City, leaving their Austrian-born father in Nebraska to work at the Storz brewery. By 1905 the brother-sister act were already popular on the vaudeville circuit, making their way to the Broadway stage by 1917.

EARLY BLOOMERS…Left, Fred and Adele Astaire in a photo taken around 1906, three years after they left Omaha and began their vaudeville career. At right, Fred and Adele in 1911. (Pinterest/NY Times)

Fred became friends with composer George Gershwin the previous year, and in December 1924 the Astaires headlined George and Ira Gershwin’s first full-length New York musical, Lady, Be Good!, in which Fred and Adele played a brother-and-sister dance team down on their luck. In real life, however, their star soared above Jazz Age New York. So when rumor had it that the duo was on the verge of a break-up, “The Talk of the Town” weighed in:

NO, THE OTHER ASTAIRE…At left, Adele and Fred Astaire in the 1920s. At the time the gamine Adele was considered the undisputed star of the duo. At right, the pair in a 1931 ad for Chesterfield cigarettes that also promoted The Band Wagon, their last Broadway revue together. (NY Times/atticpaper.com)

Today you would be hard pressed to find anyone young or old who hasn’t heard of Fred Astaire, his legend so firmly attached to our cultural memory. But at the time it was Adele’s fun-loving ways and mischievous charm that captured the hearts of reviewers and fans alike. Brother Fred, on the other hand, was more interested in devising the duo’s clever routines.

The April 21, 1928 New Yorker was correct in noting that Adele had plans to marry and leave the country, but happily the magazine was wrong on the timing; Adele and Fred would perform together nearly four more years, capping their 27-year partnership with the successful run of The Band Wagon on Broadway.

In 1932 Adele would marry Lord Charles Cavendish and move to Ireland, not England. Home would be Lismore Castle in County Waterford. The end of the partnership with Adele was traumatic for Fred, who was indeed interested in producing and race horses, but that was not his immediate future as the New Yorker suggested. Instead, his movie career would take off like a rocket in 1933 in a string of hits with Ginger Rodgers including The Gay Divorcee (1934), Top Hat (1935) and Swing Time (1936).

Fred Astaire briefly turned his focus to horse-racing when he announced his early retirement in 1946, but he would soon return to the screen with Easter Parade in 1948 and enjoy another string of hits in the 1950s. Though separated by an ocean, the brother and sister remained close through the years.

MY SIS IS A LADY…A reunion of Astaires in Ireland, 1939. Fred Astaire and his wife, Phyllis Livingston Potter, with Lord and Lady Charles Cavendish photographed on the day brother Fred and wife arrived at Lismore Castle from America to stay with sister Adele and her husband at their home in County Waterford. (Pinterest)
SOARING CAREER…Ginger Rodgers swings with Fred Astaire in 1938’s Carefree. (Flickr)
TOGETHER AFTER ALL THESE YEARS…Left, Fred and Adele honored by the American Theater Hall of Fame in 1972 (celebrity promotor Earl Blackwell is in the center). Right, Fred and Adele at Chatsworth House in Derbyshire, England, circa 1980. Chatsworth had been in the Cavendish family since the 17th century, so Adele, as Lady Cavendish, was a frequent visitor. In a recent article in The Cheshire Magazine (April 11, 2017) Duchess Mary recalled the family’s first meeting with Adele in 1932: “All gathered, like stone pillars, in the library… the heavy doors opened and there stood this tiny girl, beautifully dressed. We waited for her to approach us, but instead of walking, she suddenly began turning cartwheels. Everyone loved it.”(ATHF/thecheshiremagazine.co.uk)

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Not So Happy Feet

Frequent New Yorker contributor Morris Markey wrote several articles under the heading, “New York Interiors” (my last post featured his look at radio broadcasting). In the April 21 issue Markey took a look at the sad world of the “taxi dancers” in the ironically named “Happiness Hall.” This was the second time the New Yorker delved into the taxi-dancing world—Maxwell Bodenheim visited a Broadway dance hall in the June 12, 1926 edition of the magazine.

In both cases, the writers described a pathetic ritual for dancers and patrons alike, and both underscored a cruel illusion we still have today that the Roaring Twenties was an age of prosperity and good times for all. Excerpts:

NO FREDS OR GINGERS HERE…Taxi-dancers awaiting customers at a Broadway dance hall in the early 1930s. The image was scanned from an article in Weekly Illustrated (Oct. 6, 1934) that described new regulations banning the vocation.

Later in the article, Markey described a dance with a red-haired girl who showed him the ropes…

…and described the less than elegant environment of “Happiness Hall”…

NO FUN IN THE MOVIES EITHER…Footsore taxi-dancers including Barbara Stanwyck, third from left, in 1931’s Ten Cents a Dance. (imdb)

Markey concluded his visit by attempting to talk, rather than dance, with a graceful, yet hardboiled dancer:

In the 1920s Americans in general were poorer than they are today (money-wise) and lacked the safety nets that we have come to depend on in modern life. In 1929 economists considered $2,500 the income necessary to support a family. In that year, more than 60 percent of the nation’s families earned less than $2,000 a year—an income necessary for basic necessities—and more than 40 percent earned less than $1,500 annually.

For single women, such as the taxi dancers, the situation was just as bad or worse. Retail workers in U.S. faced long hours, poor working conditions and low pay, especially before the passage of the Fair Labor Standards Act in 1938. A clerk selling those beautiful clothes at Bloomingdale’s couldn’t afford those clothes herself, let alone make a living wage from the job. As Markey’s article made clear, taxi dancing was nothing but additional toil, 10 cents a pop.

From Our Advertisers…

We’ve seen cigarette advertisements featuring celebrity endorsements, but how about this one for Marlboro that suggested Christopher Columbus would have preferred their smokes…

…and then there were the ads for Fleischmann Yeast featured in nearly every issue of the early New Yorker magazine. According to Thomas Kunkel’s book, Genius in Disguise, Raoul Fleischmann was the wealthy scion of a New York yeast and baking family and a frequent guest of the Algonquin Round Table. He hated the baking business, so when founding editor Harold Ross pitched the idea of investing in his new magazine, Fleischmann obliged with $25,000. Ross and his wife, Jane Grant, together put up the other $25,000 (which included some IOU’s), but after the magazine was launched and struggled during its first months, Fleischmann was further obliged to pour in many hundreds of thousands of dollars to keep the magazine afloat (and in spite teasing from his friends that he might as well dump the money in the river).

The magazine was actually killed as early as May 8, when Fleischmann called Ross and other magazine directors together after Ross lost a large amount of money in a poker game (money he’d plan to invest in the magazine). Fortunately, the following day was fellow Round Tabler Franklin P. Adams’ wedding, and in the convivial atmosphere Ross and Fleischmann agreed to give the magazine another go. If Fleischmann was going to pour money into the magazine, he might as well get a little “free” advertising for his product. Hence the ads in the New Yorker promoting the generous consumption of fresh yeast cakes as a laxative and health tonic…

…and with that background information, this cartoon in the April 21 issue by Peter Arno makes a lot more sense

And finally, Leonard Dove takes a look at life in a growing metropolis…

Next Time: Back to Broadway…