Mussolini’s Romance Novel

About a decade before he joined the Nazis in spreading the madness of war across the European continent, Italian dictator Benito Mussolini penned a historical novel about a love affair between a Catholic cardinal and his beautiful mistress. Despite the premise, it was not exactly a Harlequin Romance.

Sept. 8, 1928 cover by Julian de Miskey. Sept. 15, 1928 cover by Peter Arno. (click to enlarge)

Although many perceived Mussolini as nothing more than a thug, or even a clown when he styled himself as Il Duce, Mussolini thought himself an intellectual, and as a younger man sometimes worked as a journalist and essayist. That was also when he wrote his one and only novel, The Cardinal’s Mistress (1909), serialized in the socialist newspaper Il Popolo under the original title Claudia Particella, l’Amante del Cardinale: Grande Romanzo dei Tempi del Cardinale Emanuel Madruzzo. When it was translated into English in 1928, the distasteful task of reviewing the book (in the Sept. 15, 1928 issue) fell to Dorothy Parker. She began thusly:

In all fairness, Parker did ask for it. She went on to write “On the memorable day that The Cardinal’s Mistress arrived in the office of this lucky magazine, I was the girl who pled, ‘Please, teacher, may I have it to take home with me? Honest, I don’t want a cent of money for reviewing it. I’ll do it free of charge; I’ll even pay handsomely for the privilege.’ Well, of course, they wouldn’t hear a word of that – or at least I hope to heaven they didn’t – but I got the book. I had all sorts of happy plans about it. I was going to have a lot of fun. I was going to kid what you Americans call the tripe (les tripes) out of it. At last, I thought, had come my big chance to show up this guy Mussolini. A regular Roman holiday, that’s what it was going to be.” But it didn’t quite turn out that way:

Alfred Armstrong, writing for Oddbooks (oddbooks.co.uk) describes The Cardinal’s Mistress as a story about a historical figure, Emanuel Madruzzo, Cardinal of Trent, his mistress Claudia Particella, “and the unhappy course of their love affair.” Armstrong notes that the book was written rather carelessly, with a wandering plot that suggests Mussolini’s only interest in the characters was to place them in a historical setting that provided “an excuse for lengthy anti-clerical rants, and to portray the lust, vengefulness and murderousness of their adversaries.”

Although she could not make heads nor tails out of the book, it did stir Parker’s imagination enough to conjure up an insult for the “old Duce.”

WHERE IS THE LOVE?…Cover of the 1928 translation of The Cardinal’s Mistress, an anti-clerical rant thinly disguised as a love story. At right, Benito Mussolini in 1928. (Amazon/waralbum.ru)

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The Sound Stays in the Picture

Gilbert Seldes joined the chorus of voices at the New Yorker who decried the advent of sound in motion pictures, particularly when sound was used as a gimmick rather than as an enhancement to the production. So when Paramount’s Jesse Lasky and Adolph Zukor put their hands (and their sounds) on Ernst Lubitsch’s masterpiece The Patriot, Seldes decided he’d had enough of this “talkie” nonsense, taking on the producers in a special feature in the Sept. 15 issue titled “The Old Believers:”

New Yorker artist Hugo Gellert paid his own respects to The Patriot with this illustration in the theatre review section of the Sept. 15, 1928 issue.

Following his opening salvo, Seldes told readers why the film was important, how it revived his faith in movies and even in the possibility of intelligence and taste among the masses:

PERNICIOUS INTERFERENCE…Critic Gilbert Seldes took aim at Paramount execs Adolph Zukor, far left, and Jesse Lasky, center, for mucking up Ernst Lubitsch’s The Patriot with unnecessary sound effects. All photos circa 1922. (Wikipedia)

As for the taste and intelligence of producers, that was another matter. Seldes concluded his piece by laying into Zukor and Lasky for their “pernicious interference” with the masterpiece:

Seldes was so disheartened that he wondered if movies, as an imaginative and intelligent art form, would be dead in 10 years.

Seldes was wrong about the death of good movies, but ironically his beloved Patriot would not live on, and would disappear into the land of lost films. There are a few pieces in a UCLA archive, but no negative or set of complete reels are known to exist.

WHY YOU NAUGHTY OLD CZAR…Florence Vidor as Countess Ostermann and Emil Jannings as Czar Paul I in The Patriot. Nominated for five Oscars, the film would win in the “Best Writing” category at the 1930 Academy Awards.(mubi.com)

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Before He Was Kooky and Ooky

The child actor Jackie Coogan was the focus of a lengthy “Talk of the Town” piece that looked in on the life and habits of the young film star, best known for his role in Charlie Chaplin’s 1921 film classic The Kid.

Coogan was one of the first child stars in film history, earning an estimated $3 to $4 million (roughly more than $50 million in today’s dollars). “Talk” found the 13-year-old star in his dressing room, reading a theatrical newspaper:

The New Yorker couldn’t resist mentioning that the magazine itself proved to be an inspiration to the boy and his father:

As one of the first child stars Coogan also broke some tough ground for other child actors to follow. In early 1935 Jackie’s father, John Henry Coogan, Jr., was killed in a car accident. John Henry conservatively managed Jackie’s assets, but after his death John Henry’s widow, Lillian and her new husband Arthur Bernstein (who was the family lawyer), squandered most of Jackie’s fortune on fur coats, diamonds and expensive cars. Jackie Coogan sued them in 1938, but after legal expenses was only able to recover a mere $126,000 of his earnings. One good outcome was California’s enactment in 1939 of the first known legal protection for the earnings of child performers. The California Child Actor’s Bill, sometimes called the “Coogan Act,” required employers of child actors to set aside 15% of their earnings in a trust.

Jackie Coogan would go on to perform in mostly supporting roles and would marry four times, most famously to actress Betty Grable from 1937 to 1939. He gained renewed fame in the 1960s by portraying Uncle Fester in the Addams Family TV series.

VARIETY ACT…Clockwise, from left: Publicity photo from Charlie Chaplin’s 1921 movie The Kid, featuring 6-year-old Jackie Coogan; Jackie on a 1928 visit to Berlin with his mother Lillian and father John Henry Coogan, Jr.; Jackie as Uncle Fester in TV’s The Addams Family, 1966. (Wikiwand/Wikimedia)

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From Our Advertisers

A mixed bag from the Sept. 15 issue, including this strip of ads near the back of the magazine that indicate not all New Yorker readers were as well-heeled as those who were targeted by the splashier, full-page ads in the magazine’s front section…

…and yet another endorsement for Old Gold cigarettes, this time from the Duchess of Sutherland, who joined fellow blue bloods in the blindfold test:

Nothing like profiting from the misery of others. In this ad, James McCreery & Company offered up rugs from “old Turkish families” who were “forced to sell their rare rugs and jewels in order to exist.” They weren’t cheap: the rug pictured was offered for $3,250, more than $45,000 in today’s buying power.

The “famous stage beauty” and early silent film star Billie Burke (who was married to Florenz Ziegfeld of “Follies” fame) shilled for Cutex nail polish…

…and 11 years later would portray Glinda the Good Witch of the North in the movie musical The Wizard of Oz.

Billie Burke as Glinda the Good Witch (cinemagumbo)

Now for the our comics, Peter Arno from the Sept. 8 issue…

And in the Sept 15 issue, W.P. Trent looks in on a homey café that moonlights as a speakeasy…

…and back to Peter Arno, who looks in on toffs slumming at Coney Island…

Next Time: This Thing Called Baseball…

 

Dorothy Parker Goes to the Movies

Dorothy Parker turned her jaded eye to the latest big thing — talking pictures — and in the Sept. 1, 1928 issue she joined her New Yorker colleagues in a collective yawn at the technology that was dramatically transforming cinema.

Sept. 1, 1928 cover by Helen Hokinson.

In a feature titled “Out of the Silence,” Parker mused about the changes facing former silent stars…

…and seemed unconvinced that the talking pictures, at least to date, were any real improvement over the silents, including a performance by her Algonquin Round Table pal and New Yorker colleague Robert Benchley, who seemed but a talking simulacrum:

HIS SCREEN VERSION…Robert Benchley delivers his comedy sketch The Treasurer’s Report in a short 1928 Movietone film. Benchley portrayed a nervous assistant treasurer struggling to present an organization’s yearly report. (YouTube screen shot)

Parker attended a matinee at a jam-packed Warner Theatre, where folks paid a dollar apiece for standing room only to witness a series of shorts and a feature-length film, all presented with sound:


One of the shorts featured a performance by female impersonator George Francis Peduzzi, known professionally as Karyl Norman, “The Creole Fashion Plate,” followed by a performance from violinist Albert Spaulding:

WHAT A DRAG…Dorothy Parker was underwhelmed by Karyl Norman’s performance in a Vitaphone short. He is pictured here in a 1924 publicity photo, dressed as “The Creole Fashion Plate.” (queermusicheritage.com)

What Parker was subjecting herself to was the Vitaphone Varieties, described by North Carolina Museum of Art film curator Laura Boyes as “the last gasps of vaudeville.”

Boyes writes that many vaudevillians stepped off the stage to immortalize their acts on film in the early days of the talkies. They were produced in Brooklyn between 1927 and 1929 using the Vitaphone method (large recorded discs synchronized with the film) “at a time when the major studios hoped that the talkies were just a passing fad.” She notes that “talkies would eventually put this style of theater completely out of business, and Vitaphone shorts literally became the place where Vaudeville went to die. Many of the people in these short films were obscure at the time, and they are doubly obscure now.”

As for the main feature, The Terror, the only terror Parker felt was the fear of being bored to death:

SOUND AND FURY, SIGNIFYING NOTHING…Dorothy Parker found The Terror to be unexciting, its sound effects a “racket.” But for the record, it was the first all-talking horror film. (IMDB)

Parker concluded that “talking pictures are marvels of invention,” but “a bad show is a bad show, synchronize it how you will.”

Coming of Age in Samoa

Social critic and humorist Baird Leonard took the honors as book reviewer for the Sept. 1 issue, offering a brief, humorous endorsement of Margaret Mead’s landmark Coming of Age in Samoa, in which the famed anthropologist explored the link between culture and psychosexual development among the island’s adolescents. Leonard found much to like about the book, and particularly Mead’s observations on the separation of youth from adult activities in Samoan culture (it would enhance his bridge-playing enjoyment):

GOING NATIVE…Margaret Mead sitting between two Samoan girls, ca. 1926. (Library of Congress).

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Writer Cameron Rogers profiled American sculptor Paul Manship, who was an important contributor to Art Deco style, and is perhaps best known for his iconic Prometheus sculpture at Rockefeller Center in New York. Rogers made these closing observations about Manship, noting that the artist’s success netted him about $60,000 a year — close to $850,000 today (These days, someone like showman/artist Jeff Koons, who makes giant shiny balloon animal sculptures, among other things, has a net worth of at least $100 million).

PROMETHEUS, gilded cast bronze by Paul Manship, 1934, at Rockefeller Center. (Encyclopedia Britannica)

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From Our Advertisers

I find it interesting when one magazine advertises in another, especially when an older magazine like the Outlook (founded in 1893) advertises in an upstart like the New Yorker. But then again, the publishers of the Outlook were looking to breathe new life into their stodgy journal, and what better way than to announce that their “conservative girl” was now a modern, grown-up woman with a new Jazz Age look and an attitude to match. And it was no coincidence that they hired the New Yorker’s Rea Irvin to illustrate their point.

OUTLOOK magazine was first published as The Christian Union in 1870, changing its name to Outlook in 1893 when it shifted its focus from religious subjects to social and political issues. The magazine folded in 1935. (Pinterest)

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Our cartoon is by Peter Arno, who continued to explore the lighter moments of New York night life…

Next Time: Mussolini’s Romance Novel…

 

Hit of the Century

NINETY YEARS AGO, when former Chicago reporters Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur sat down to write The Front Page, they might have sensed they had a Broadway hit in the making, but probably had no idea their play would still grace a Broadway stage well into the 21st century.

August 25, 1928 cover by Leonard Dove.

The Front Page made a big splash on the Great White Way when it premiered on August 14, 1928 at Times Square Theatre. Featuring a story about tabloid newspaper reporters on the police beat, the play’s wisecracking, rapid-fire dialogue (which would become a staple of Hollywood’s screwball comedies), was a big hit with audiences, and with E.B. White, who reviewed the play in the Aug. 25, 1928 New Yorker:

DREAM TEAM…The Front Page was written by former Chicago reporters Ben Hecht (left) and Charles MacArthur (center) and produced by Jed Harris (at right, in a 1928 photo used on the cover of Time magazine). Hecht, an occasional New Yorker contributor, would go on to a successful career as a screenwriter, director, producer and playwright. Like Hecht, screenwriter/playwright MacArthur was friends with members of the Algonquin Round Table. He was married to actress Helen Hayes, with whom he adopted a son, James MacArthur (“Danno” on TV’s Hawaii 5-0). Harris was responsible for some of Broadway’s most successful productions in the ’20s and ’30s including Uncle Vanya, Our Town and The Crucible. (IMDB, Kentucky Digital Library, Time)
TROUBLE IN WINDY CITY…Set entirely in a dingy press room of Chicago’s Criminal Courts Building, The Front Page featured reporters who passed the time playing poker and exchanging wisecracks—until a convicted killer escapes jail and makes things lively. Worried about his chances for re-election, the crooked Mayor, played by George Barbier, far left, confronts three reporters — Murphy (Willard Robertson), Endicott (Allen Jenkins), and McCue (William Foran). In the background is Claude Cooper, as the crooked Sheriff Hartman. (Theatre Magazine, August 1928) 

White was so taken by the play, in fact, that he found it to be nearly perfect, like a scientific instrument of exacting precision. And considering how many times the play has been adapted to stage and screen (most recently on Broadway in 2016), he was probably right. It still plays pretty well after all these years:

WISE GUYS…Promotional photographs of Osgood Perkins as Walter Burns (left) and Lee Tracy as Hildy Johnson in the 1928 Broadway production of The Front Page. (Theatre Magazine, August 1928) 
ENTER, STAGE RIGHT…Escaped prisoner Earl Williams (George Leach) surprises reporter Hildy Johnson (Lee Tracy) in The Front Page. (Theatre Magazine, August 1928) 

The play was restaged four more times on Broadway — 1946, 1969, 1986 and 2016 — the 2016 production starred Nathan Lane as Walter Burns, John Slattery as Hildy Johnson and John Goodman as Sheriff Hartman. Film adaptions included The Front Page in 1931 and His Girl Friday (directed by Howard Hawks) in 1940 — the latter added a twist to the play by changing the Hildy character to a woman, played by Rosalind Russell as the ex-wife of Walter Burns (Cary Grant). The play returned to the big screen in 1974 as The Front Page, directed by Billy Wilder and starring Jack Lemmon as Hildy and Walter Matthau as Walter Burns.

Still Some Fight Left in Him

Although boxer Gene Tunney had retired from the ring, he was still making headlines fighting off a different foe: the paparazzi.

Tunney’s engagement to Connecticut socialite and Carnegie heiress Polly Lauder was front-page news across the country, and photographers were eager to capture a photo of the couple, who up until the announcement had enjoyed a mostly secret romance. The New Yorker’s “Talk of the Town” described the couple’s attempts to elude a persistent press:

MAYBE IT’S QUIETER OVER HERE…21-year-old Polly Lauder Tunney and 31-year-old Gene Tunney after marrying in Rome on Oct. 3, 1928. The marriage would last 50 years. (NY Times)

In September 1928 the couple took separate trips to Rome and married in a small ceremony on Oct. 3. Unfortunately, they attracted the attentions of Rome’s original paparazzi: According to the New York Times “the scene after the wedding looked mighty like a riot as clothes were torn and cameras smashed in a melee of photographers jostling to capture images of the couple.”

After traveling in Europe they returned to the U.S. and made their home in North Stamford, Connecticut, where they restored an 18th century farmhouse and raised Hereford cattle and sheep. They would be married 50 years until Tunney’s death at age 81 in 1978. Polly continued to live at her home in Stamford until her death in 2008 at age 100.

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Dorothy Recuperates

Dorothy Parker’s “Constant Reader” signature at the end of the book review section was absent during part of the summer of 1928 as she was recuperating from an appendectomy. Fortunately her rapier wit remained intact when she returned in the Aug. 25 issue…

Dorothy Parker in 1928 (natedsanders.com)

…where she found the strength to skewer The Lion Tamer, the latest novel by romance writer E.M. Hull:

I’D RATHER BE IN SURGERY…E.M. Hull’s The Lion Tamer. Dodd, Mead and Co. 1928. (yesterdaysgallery.com)

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Long Before Starbucks

If you were a New Yorker in the 1920s, this cartoon by Rea Irvin would make perfect sense, because nearly everyone knew that Alice Foote MacDougall was the queen of New York’s coffee scene, a one-woman Starbucks of her day.

According to Jan Whitaker, writing for the blog Restaurant-ing Through History, MacDougall kept a carefully crafted persona. In numerous magazine stories crafted by her publicity agent, “she was widely known as the poor widow with three children who built a coffee wholesaling and restaurant empire on $38.”

MacDougall was actually from a distinguished New York City family, and her coffee wholesaling career began in 1909 after her husband’s death. Whitaker writes: “In the 1920s she was said to be the only woman expert in coffee grading and blending in the U.S. She opened her first eating place, The Little Coffee Shop, in Grand Central Station in New York in December 1919. Waffles were the specialty in her homey café which was decorated with a plate rail and shelves holding decorative china. (Evidently tips were good, because MacDougall had the nerve to charge her waitresses $10 a day to work there.) By 1927 she had signed a $1 million lease for her fifth coffee house, Sevillia, at West Fifty-seventh Street. Her places became known for their Italian-Spanish scene setting. The reason, she said, was that it provided a way to disguise long, narrow spaces.”

BEANS TO RICHES…Alice Foote MacDougall, ca. 1910. At right, Sevillia, at West Fifty-seventh Street, in the late 1920s. (restaurant-ingthroughhistory.com)
TIN GOLD…Canisters of Alice Foote MacDougall’s famed coffee, ca. 1927. (ruby lane.com)

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The Friendly Skies

E.B. White made another appearance in the Aug. 25 issue, this time with a poem describing his recent flight from London to Paris aboard an Imperial Airways trimotor biplane. If White seems to rhapsodize a bit here (especially to jaded fliers of the 21st century), it is understandable, considering that White’s flight to France was only 25 years removed from the Wright Brothers at Kitty Hawk. It was still something miraculous:

TOP, the Imperial Airways “Calcutta” trimotor flying boat on the Mediterranean, 1928. Below, the “Calcutta” moored on the River Thames in 1928. (Claude Boullevraye de Passillé / AP)

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Missing the Boys of Summer

The New Yorker continued to ignore the sport of baseball in its pages, even though it enthusiastically covered almost everything else: college football, hockey, tennis, golf, lacrosse, polo, rowing and yacht racing. Strange because the New York Yankees had one of the winningest lineups in baseball (Murderer’s Row, with sluggers Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig), had won the 1927 World Series, and were poised to win it again in 1928. Unless I missed something, the first mention of baseball in the 1928 New Yorker was this bit in Howard Brubaker’s Aug. 25 “Of All Things” column:

The Yankees would sweep the favored St. Louis Cardinals in the ’28 World Series.

From Our Advertisers

This creepy advertisement from the Aug. 25 issue comes courtesy of the Clark Lighting Company. The tagline, “Clark Always Works,” has a double meaning, the ad copy suggesting that a woman is so simple (described here as a “little minx”) that she will be captivated by the very flick of a lighter:

Our cartoon is by Peter Arno, who was making light of a diet fad from the late 19th and early 20th century (hence the woman’s age and dress) made famous by Horace Fletcher, who was known as the “Great Masticator” for his diet that involved chewing each mouthful of food a minimum of 100 times. The cartoon’s caption reads: “Now masticate, Ermyne!”

Next Time: Dorothy Parker Goes to the Movies…

White Shadows of the South Seas

Thirty years before South Pacific would grace the silver screen, an earlier film that also explored the clash of civilizations in Polynesia, White Shadows of the South Seas, wowed audiences with its cinematography and, like South Pacific, a melodramatic love story between an American (Monte Blue) and a beautiful Polynesian girl, Fayaway, played by Mexico-born actress Raquel Torres.

August 11, 1928 cover by Peter Arno.

Inspired by a 1919 travel book of the same name (by Frederick O’Brien), what is significant about the film is that it was shot in Tahiti, featured a supporting cast of Tahitian islanders, and was the first MGM picture to be released with a pre-recorded soundtrack, which consisted of a musical score and a few effects. It was also the first film in which the MGM Lion (known then as “Jackie”), roared during the introduction.

TROUBLE IN PARADISE…Raquel Torres and Monte Blue in White Shadows in the South Seas. (Pinterest)

Leonard Maltin writes the film “features stunning, Oscar-winning cinematography of the Marquesas Islands welded to a story about the corrupting influence of Western civilization, with Blue as an alcoholic doctor who falls in love with native Torres and clashes with an exploitative (pearl) trader…Portions of the beautiful, documentary-style footage were shot under the supervision of Robert Flaherty, who fought with the studio over its emphasis on a melodramatic plot and left the production.”

The film also caused David O. Selznick, one of the top executives at MGM, to quit the studio over a dispute with fellow MGM exec Hunt Stromberg. According to the 1990 book The Dame in the Kimono by Leonard Left and Jerold Simmons, David (Selznick) thought it an idyllic story, Hunt wanted more sex.

Here’s what the Aug. 11, 1928 New Yorker had to say about the film:

GOING NATIVE…Raquel Torres as Fayaway in White Shadows in the South Seas. (torontofilmsociety.org)
HE ROARS AT LAST…A cameraman and a sound technician record Jackie’s roar for MGM’s famous logo in 1928. The footage was first used on MGM’s first talking picture, White Shadows in the South Seas, as seen at right. (Getty / MGM)
WHILE WE ARE ON THE SUBJECT…Five different lions have been used for the MGM logo. Pictured above is Lion #1, named “Slats,” seated next to a less than enthusiastic Greta Garbo in this publicity photo from 1925. Slats was never heard, his career limited to the silent era. Slats was followed by Jackie, the first lion to roar on film (through the use of a gramophone synched to the movie). Jackie was followed by Tanner, George, and finally, Leo. (Getty)

Speaking of Garbo, the New Yorker’s film critic “O.C.” was one of the few moviegoers in the world not bewitched by the Swedish actress. In the same issue this is what he had to say about her latest film, The Mysterious Lady:

CHANNELING HER INNER WALLOP…Greta Garbo in The Mysterious Lady, 1928. (Pinterest, uncredited)

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Revisiting Race

As I’ve noted before, The New Yorker of the 1920s was decidedly mainstream in its treatment of blacks and other minorities as racial “others.” Here is an example (from the Aug. 11 issue) of the casual bigotry that occasionally could be found in “The Talk of the Town”…

…and a few pages on in the same issue, this filler art by Julian deMiskey:

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And to close out the Aug. 11 issue, Barbara Shermund looked in on the Uppers during a moment of contemplation:

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The Aug. 18, 1928 issue featured an interesting dispatch from the magazine’s Paris correspondent, Janet “Genêt” Flanner.

August 18, 1928 cover by Ilonka Karasz.

Flanner gave us a taste of how the French regarded the recent “Battle of the Century” between heavyweight boxers Gene Tunney and Tom Heeney:

Flanner also wrote about an amusement park near the Porte Maillot in Paris called Luna Park:

WITH A FRENCH ACCENT…Entrance to Luna Park near the Porte Maillot, circa 1922. (Wikipedia)

Postcard image of the Luna Park’s river ride, circa 1910. (paris-unplugged.fr )
Postcard image of Luna’s Roulette Wheel ride, recalling similar ride at Coney Island’s Pavilion of Fun. (paris-unplugged.fr )
Photographer snaps a photo of visitors to Porte Maillot in 1935. Although the banner on plane reads “Souvenir de Luna Park,” the park itself closed in 1931. (parisenimages.fr )

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From Our Advertisers

Another sports celebrity who didn’t mind relieving Old Gold of some extra cash was Babe Ruth, who was next in line to submit to the blindfold test:

I include this ad for Proctor & Gamble’s Ivory Soap (from a 1928 issue of The Saturday Evening Post) as an explanatory note for the New Yorker cartoon that follows, by Gluyas Williams…

Also in the issue, John Held Jr. contributed one of his famous maps, displayed sideways, full-page (click to enlarge):

And finally, we close with Peter Arno, and two outraged spinsters:

Next Time: Hit of the Century…

 

 

 

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)

*  *  *

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)

 *  *  *

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)

 *  *  *

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…