Asphalt Jungle

The zoos of yesteryear were joyless places, that is, if you were one of the animals. Children squealed with fear and delight at the sight of a caged lion, and many an adult had fun tossing peanuts at elephants or teasing enraged gorillas locked behind bars; but if you were a zoo animal in 1931, life was endless hours of boredom, sprinkled with moments of terror and humiliation.

Aug. 15, 1931 cover by Theodore Haupt.

It is instructive to look back 89 years and see how far we’ve come, and how far we still have to go, to see our fellow creatures as more than curiosities and amusements to be captured and gawked at, and to see their environments as something to be preserved, not only for their survival but for ours as well.

LIFE BEHIND BARS…Left, a zookeeper with chimps at the Central Park Zoo, 1936. Right, a rhino paces in a barred enclosure, 1937. (nycgovparks.org)

E.B. White paid a visit to the Central Park Zoo, and found it wanting in a number of respects:

Many zoos back then were more collections of curiosities than places where you could learn about various habitats. So when David Sarnoff, president of RCA, bagged a live opossum in the South, the critter was given a new home in an antelope enclosure, per this item in the Dec. 20, 1931 New York Times:

The Central Park Zoo was established in the 1860s as a “menagerie” behind the Arsenal, and by the turn of the century attracted millions of visitors to its displays of exotic animals.

GETTING AWAY FROM IT ALL…Postcard image of the Menagerie in Central Park, New York, 1905. (Museum of the City of New York—MCNY)
ANIMAL ATTRACTION…Postcard image of folks enjoying caged birds at the Menagerie, 1905. (MCNY)
O GIVE ME A HOME…In the early days of zoos, animals were presented in cages and fenced enclosures with no hint as to what their natural habitat might look like. Clockwise, from top left, “Fatima” the hippo, image from an 1896 stereograph card; a 1911 photo of a trainer and a dog perched on top of a hapless elephant; a bull bison around the turn of the century; a group of people observe animals in cages at the Central Park Menagerie, 1895. (Library of Congress/nycgovparks.org/MCNY)

 *  *  *

He’s Your Future

The New Yorker featured two-part profile of the governor of New York, Franklin D. Roosevelt, who unbeknownst to writer Milton MacKaye would soon become the next president of the United States. Two excerpts (not continuous)…

  *  *  *

From Our Advertisers

Ah yes, the first time I visited the Empire State Building’s observation deck (in the 1970s) a heavy smog enveloped the city (the air is much cleaner today). I like how the promoters spin disappointment into an opportunity — “The mysterious beauty of the city has a million constantly changing aspects”…

…if you were looking for bluer skies, Bermuda could have been an option if you had the means…

…or you could have stayed closer to home at a Long Island beach resort, as Helen Hokinson illustrated, and as we segue into our cartoons…

I. Klein gave us a very unscientific, albeit humorous view of genetics…

Richard Decker redefined the meaning of “volunteers”…

…and William Steig summoned the advice of Dorothy Dix, a forerunner of “Dear Abby” who was the most widely read female journalist of her time…

We move on to the Aug. 22, 1931 issue…

Aug. 22, 1931 cover by Helen Hokinson.

…in which James Thurber wrote about his experience with early television in “The Talk of the Town”…

NO CABLE BILL, YET…Charles Francis Jenkins demonstrates his “Radiovisor” console television in 1929. At right, the inner workings featured a rotating disc punctured with tiny holes, each projecting a line across the glass screen to compose an image. As Thurber noted, the pictures commonly were too dark for viewers to see anything more than silhouettes. (earlytelevision.org)

 *  *  *

The Other Moving Pictures

The movies still had nothing to fear from television in 1931, and Hollywood continued to draw large audiences to “Pre-Code” films that featured doses of sex and violence. Novelist Viña Delmar gained famed in 1928 with her suggestively titled book Bad Girl, so when it was adapted into a film, audiences came running — even if the screen adaptation proved to be a bit tamer than the novel that inspired it. Critic John Mosher observed:

I’M JUST A LITTLE BAD…Sally Eilers played the title character in Bad Girl with co-star James Dunn. The film won two Oscars in 1932 for Best Director (Frank Borzage) and Best Writing, Adaptation (Edwin J. Burke). (IMDB)

 *  *  *

Chic Chapeau

The Empress Eugénie hat was named for 19th century French empress Eugénie de Montijo, who was known as a fashion trendsetter. The hat was revived in 1930 after Greta Garbo was seen wearing a version of one in the popular film Romance. E.B. White was not exaggerating when he noted (in his “Notes and Comment”) that the jaunty hat was seen on “every other head” in the city.
 

LOOK WHAT YOU STARTED…Greta Garbo sported an Empress Eugénie hat in the 1930 film Romance, setting off a fashion craze that persisted through much of the decade. At right, Kemp Starrett referenced the trend in this Aug. 8, 1931 cartoon in the New Yorker. (Pinterest)

 *  *  *

From Our Advertisers

Speaking of trends, these “roughies” were all the rage among the young folks, in the dorms and on the beach…

…one trend I wasn’t aware still persisted in 1931 was a top hat and tails for an evening out among the smart set…

…according to this ad, if you were a “smart” and fashionable New Yorker, then you needed an “Inebriates” themed cocktail set…

…examples of the glassware for sale on Worthpoint…

Dr. Seuss was still busy selling pesticide with this four-panel ad…

…on to the cartoons, we start with James Thurber

…and Rea Irvin continued to experiment with various motifs, this time an Egyptian-themed cartoon referencing the “wine bricks” sold by enterprising vineyards during Prohibition…

Peter Arno found a big surprise during a mansion tour…

…and we end with Otto Soglow

…and Richard Decker…both cartoons reminded me of Al Jaffee’s Snappy Answers to Stupid Questions

…I grew up reading Mad magazine, and always looked forward to Jaffee’s fold-ins…he just retired from Mad at the young age of 99, so we conclude with one of his Snappy Answers panels from Mad #98, Oct. 1965…

Next Time: Unnatural History…

 

Through the Looking Glass

The next time you complain about a boring Zoom meeting, think about Morris Markey’s visit to New York’s Bell Laboratories in the spring of 1931, when he marveled at what was, perhaps, the “apotheosis” of American industry: a two-way video telephone.

May 9, 1931 cover by Helen Hokinson.

Mass-market television in the U.S. was still two decades away, but what Markey saw demonstrated in 1931 was a glimpse of the future, seeing and conversing with another man three miles away via a long wire that transmitted images from a fantastic array of spinning discs and neon tubes:

TECHNOLOGY’S MATERNITY WARD…The original Bell Labs building at 463 West Street in New York. It was the birthplace of talking movies, television, radar and the vacuum tube. (att.com)
DEFINITELY NOT HI-DEF…At left, this is most likely where Morris Markey sat for the demonstration of early video phone technology. At right (click image to enlarge), a July 1930 article in Popular Science Monthly described how the transmitting apparatus worked. (earlytelevision.org/books.google.com)
BUT WILL IT SELL?…Herbert Hoover, then secretary of commerce, became the world’s first television personality in 1927 when his voice and face (inset) were transmitted to an audience at Bell Laboratories in New York City. At the time, AT&T, Bell’s parent company, was doubtful about television’s moneymaking potential. (edn.com)
SPINNING WHEELS…Whirling metal discs, pictured at left, perforated with tiny holes, cast a series of horizontal beams of light across a viewer’s face (right), which were then transmitted to a receiver. (earlytelevision.org)

Despite its gee-whiz factor, many, including the folks at Bell Labs, seemed doubtful that the technology would come into wider use or be profitable any time soon, if ever. Markey noted that his little demonstration required many millions of dollars in research and development, but he was prophetic in suggesting that such technology might come to be dreaded if it ever came into common use.

*  *  *

Uplifting Sight

That a bra and girdle maker should become the topmost tenant at the new Empire State Building was not lost on E.B. White, who commented thusly…

…and while viewers wouldn’t actually see a giant bra atop the skyscraper, many were nevertheless interested in getting a closer look at some of the building’s details, as reported in “The Talk of the Town”…

OVER THE MOON?…The moon gained some keen competition from telescope viewers when the Empire State Building climbed its way into the sky. (Pinterest/tech-notes.tv)

 *  *  *

Channelling Marlene

Film critic John Mosher wasn’t over the moon when it came to the acting of Tallulah Bankhead in Tarnished Lady, however he surmised it was likely the director’s fault for trying to exploit Bankhead’s passing resemblance to Marlene Dietrich. Mosher noted that lighting and staging flattering to the German actress just didn’t work with the belle from Alabama.

MIRROR, MIRROR…Tallulah Bankhead (left) might have pondered who was the fairest in the land, but the New Yorker’s John Mosher found her to be no match for German actress Marlene Dietrich (right, in 1931’s Dishonored) when it came to screen presence. (IMDB)

Despite Mosher’s blah review, Paramount touted Bankhead’s successful portrayal of a “tarnished lady” in this ad from the same issue:

Mosher, however, found redemption in another film making the rounds, Warner Brothers’ Svengali starring John Barrymore:

YOU ARE GETTING VERRRY SLEEPY…in 1931’s Svengali, 17-year-old Marian Marsh played the artist’s model Trilby, who is transformed into a great opera star by the sinister hypnotist, Svengali, played by John Barrymore. Also pictured is Bramwell Fletcher, who portrayed Trilby’s love interest, Billee. (Wikipedia)

 *  *  *

From Our Advertisers

After a long absence Peter Arno’s Whoops Sisters returned to the pages of the New Yorker, not as a cartoon panel but as shills for the Cunard Line…

…whether traveling by boat or train, you might have considered bringing along “Salvo,” an early version of a popular game that today we call “Battleship”…

…Salvo and other Battleship-type games were originally played on pieces of paper like this…

…and here’s an ad for ice cube trays that exploited the popularity of the “Ripley’s Believe It or Not” syndicated newspaper feature…

…on to our cartoonists, Ralph Barton rendered Albert Einstein as his latest “Hero”…

…and interpreted the latest headlines in his “Graphic Section”…

…among the delicate set, we got a bit risqué with Gardner Rea

…and nearly apoplectic with Gluyas Williams

Otto Soglow’s Little King, on the other hand, reigned with a steady hand…

…and we end with I. Klein, and a little bauble for the Missus…

Next Time: The Short Life of Two-Gun Crowley…