Cinema’s Underworld

In some ways, the raucous party of the Roaring Twenties was sublimated in the movies of the late 1920s and early 1930s — a brief period at the beginning of the sound era before censorship guidelines were enforced. During those “pre-code” times everyone from preachers to publishers decried the sex and violence that washed across the silver screen.

April 25, 1931 cover by Helen Hokinson.

New Yorker film critic John Mosher opened his “Current Cinema” column with some musings about violence and “morals” in underworld films, declaring that until newspapers relegated sensational crime stories to the back pages, the public would be drawn to similar fare at the movies.

I’M GIVING THE PEOPLE WHAT THEY WANT…Edward G. Robinson (left) played a hoodlum hoping to make the big time in 1931’s Little Caesar, a film that defined the gangster genre for decades to come. (IMDB)

Mosher noted that two of the more prominent gangster films currently making the circuit weren’t much to fuss about — City Streets, the “more pretentious” of the two movies, featured rising stars Gary Cooper and Sylvia Sidney. The prizefighting picture Iron Man featured another popular pair of actors, Lew Ayers and Jean Harlow. Mosher observed that no amount of camera tricks could make the slight Ayers look like a husky fighter. As for Harlow, Mosher found it distressing that it was her “platinum blonde” status, rather than her acting, that landed her in the picture.

WHO CARES?…That was the conclusion of critic John Mosher after sitting through the “pretentious” City Streets. At right, publicity photos for lead actors Sylvia Sidney and Gary Cooper. (IMDB)
NO, NOT THAT IRON MAN…Jean Harlow, top, was known for attributes other than her acting, according to critic John Mosher. As for her co-star, Lew Ayers, a few weeks in the gym and some protein shakes might have made for a more plausible prize fighter. (IMDB)

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Fashion of a Different Fashion

A New Yorker contributor since 1925 and denizen of the Algonquin Round Table, Frank Sullivan was a jolly soul known for his gentle wit and spoofs of cliches. His latest target was Lois Long’s fashion column “On and Off the Avenue,” penning a spoof that was indistinguishable from the original save for the change of one word in the title. Long’s actual column appeared in the magazine a few pages later, so no doubt a few readers started reading Sullivan’s spoof before realizing they had been had. I am among them. Some excerpts:

HE TOOK A FASHION TO FASHION…A wit herself, Lois Long no doubt enjoyed Frank Sullivan’s spoof of her fashion column. (Wikipedia/PBS)

Sullivan probably had a little extra time on his hands after the folding of the New York World newspaper, to which he contributed two or three humor columns a week before the grand old paper folded for good in February 1931. And so we have Sullivan again in the April 25 issue, and his “report” on the annual meeting of the International Association of Girls Who Have Danced with the Prince of Wales. Excerpts:

HOOFER…Apparently the Prince of Wales (Edward VIII), shown here in 1924, danced with many a lady before he abdicated the throne and married Wallis Simpson. (Pinterest)

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Getting High in Manhattan

E.B. White enthusiastically embraced many aspects of modern life, from the wonder of air travel to the spectacle of buildings climbing ever higher into the clouds above Manhattan. It seemed whenever someone was needed to report on a flight or check out progress on the latest skyscraper, White was there, eager to climb into cockpits or onto scaffolds to get a better a look at his fair city. In “The Talk of the Town” White recalled his visit to (almost) the very top of the Empire State Building, which was to open on May 1, 1931.

QUITE A SALTSHAKER…As E.B. White noted, the mooring mast atop the Empire State Building might have looked like a mere “saltcellar” from the ground, but in reality was as tall as a 20-story building, so quite a climb. Image at left shows inner stairwell winding to the top; bottom right, stairs to the 103rd floor of the Empire State Building. (Modern Mechanix/Evan Bindelglass-CBSNewYork)

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From Our Advertisers

With summer on the way B. Altman’s touted its new line of wool bathing suits for the kiddies…I frankly can’t imagine wearing wet wool in the summer, at least not voluntarily…

…hey, here’s an idea if you want to keep up with the little brats…eat some candy…according to Schrafft’s, it’s HEALTHY…

…on to our illustrators and cartoonists, another fine moment in smoking thanks to Rea Irvin

Ralph Barton introduced us to his latest “Hero of the Week”…

…and his news summary in graphic form…

Helen Hokinson observed some subway etiquette…

Alan Dunn found a developer looking for some extras…

Bruce Bairnsfather offered a study in contrasts…

C.W. Anderson, and another example of an artist’s struggle…

…and we end with Otto Soglow and his Little King, a strip that would become a nationally syndicated hit…

Next Time: From Bad to Awful…

An Unmarried Woman

When New Yorker cartoonist Peter Arno hooked up with his colleague, nightlife columnist Lois Long, it was like twisting together two sticks of dynamite.

April 18, 1930 cover by Charles Donelan, his only cover for the New Yorker. See more about the artist at the end of this post.

Married in 1927, they were the glamour couple at the New Yorker, and each played an outsized role in giving the early magazine a distinctive, cosmopolitan voice and look. Hard-drinking hell raisers, they both loved the Roaring Twenties nightlife in what seemed like an endless party. But when the party ended, so did their brief, volatile marriage.

HELLRAISERS…Peter Arno and Lois Long were the toast of the New Yorker office and the toast of the town with their office romance, marriage (in 1927), and much-publicized split. The hard-partying couple separated in 1930 and divorced the following year.

As the end of her marriage neared, the 29-year-old Long had become almost circumspect, and in a series of columns under the title “Doldrums,” she took a skeptical look at the world around her, the sad ways of the younger generation, and in this fifth installment, subtitled “Can’t We Be Friends?”, she probed the inequities of a society that encouraged women to be hard-working, super competent and attractive while men still did as they pleased (the question remains today: recall 2018, when Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg asked women to “Lean In”).

LIFE WITH LOIS…Peter Arno drew on his domestic experiences with wife Lois Long for comic inspiration. Clockwise, top left, Arno and Long with baby daughter Patricia, 1928; a wedding day wakeup call from Arno’s 1930 cartoon collection Hullabaloo; Nov. 18, 1929 cover and a Aug. 24, 1929 cartoon suggesting a lack of maternal instinct. By all accounts Long was a doting mother and grandmother.

In Vanity Fair, Ben Schwartz (“The Double Life of Peter Arno,” April 5, 2016) quotes Arno’s and Long’s daughter, Patricia (Pat) Arno, about her parents’ wild relationship: “There were lots of calls to (gossip columnist Walter) Winchell or some other columnist about nightclub fights…with my mother calling and saying, ‘Oh, please don’t print that about us,’ trying to keep their names out of the papers.”

Here’s another excerpt from Long’s “Doldrums,” asking about the state of Modern Men (apologies for the missing fifth line — “novels”)…

Long had not only given up on marriage — and apparently men — for the time being, but she’d also had it with the partying life. She had ended her nightlife column, “Tables for Two,” the previous year, turning her attentions to her popular fashion column, “On and Off the Avenue,” while continuing to contribute unsigned pieces to “The Talk of the Town” and occasional pieces like “Doldrums.”

Arno and Long separated in 1930, and in early 1931 Arno moved to Reno, Nevada, which granted quick divorces to anyone who took up residency for five months. According to a 2016 book written by New Yorker cartoonist Michael Maslin (Peter Arno: The Mad, Mad World of The New Yorker’s Greatest Cartoonist), Arno found more trouble in Reno when newspaper publisher Neely Vanderbilt accused him of having an affair with his wife, Mary, and threatened violence against Arno. Maslin writes that “Nearly lost in the whole Arno/Vanderbilt dust-up was the end of Arno and Long’s marriage. On June 29th, Lois was granted a Reno divorce on the grounds of intolerable cruelty.” I highly recommend Maslin’s book, filled with anecdotes drawn from a fascinating life lived in some of New York’s headiest times.

Vanderbilt would also divorce his wife in 1931. Mary Weir Logan Vanderbilt was the second of his seven wives.

AND THE BAND PLAYED ON…On the same month as his Reno divorce (June 1931), Vanity Fair ran this photo of Arno pretending to conduct bandleader Fred Waring and two of his Pennsylvanians. (CondeNast)

Arno and Long would get joint custody of Patricia, but the child would remain living with her mother. Long had this to say about the future of her “Little Persimmon”…

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A Man’s World?

E.B. White wondered in his “Notes and Comment” after encountering a barroom (had to be a speakeasy) with a carpeted floor…

KEEPING IT REAL…Patrons relax at McSorley’s Old Ale House near Cooper Square, circa 1935. (Pinterest)

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Long Before Social Distancing

There were many diversions around the old city, including baseball games and the circus at Madison Square Garden…some clips from the “Goings On” section…

Reginald Marsh marked the arrival of the circus with a drawing that encircled pages 20-21…here is a detail…

and how the whole thing appeared…

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The Twain Never Met

Once a star attraction with the Ziegfeld Follies, comedian Will Rogers was also finding success on radio and in the films. His latest talkie, A Connecticut Yankee, referenced Mark Twain’s 1889 novel, A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, in name only, as noted by reviewer John Mosher. But then again, Rogers himself was not a Yankee, but an Okie.

MARK WHO?…Inspired by a Mark Twain novel, 1931’s A Connecticut Yankee was mostly a Will Rogers vehicle. Top right, Sagramor (Mitchell Harris) confronts the “Connecticut Yankee” Hank Martin (Will Rogers). Below, the queen (Myrna Loy) tries to make nice with Hank. (IMDB)

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From Our Advertisers

If you had the time but not the means to travel to Europe (it was the Depression, after all), you might have considered a trip to “Old Québec,” just 500 miles up the road from New York City, although in those days you likely took the train, or possibly a boat, since routes between cities were still a uneven patchwork of roads…

…and you could look stylish at the station or the boat dock with these handsome Hartmann trunks…

…these spring travelers opted for a car, filled with the aroma of burning tobacco…

…spring was also time for the latest Paris fashions, and Macy’s suggested you could “put one over on Paris” by donning a garment spun from from DuPont’s miracle fiber, Rayon…

…however, those operating the finer dress shops would never consider letting any synthetic hang in their windows, or touch their skin for that matter, and proudly proclaimed the latest shipments from Paris…

…those shopping for Paris fashions might have consulted Majorie Dork to get slim in all the right places…

…on to our illustrations and cartoons, we have two by Ralph Barton, his “Hero of the Week”…

…and his “Graphic Section” take on the week’s news…

Gardner Rea kicks off our cartoons with a look at the machine age…

…Rea’s cartoon referred to the popular vaudeville comedian Joe Cook, who was known for his demonstrations of needlessly complex machines…here he is featured in the September 1931 issue of Modern Mechanics magazine…

…Erlanger’s Theatre advertised Cook’s “Newest, Maddest Musical” in the back pages of the New Yorker

…it’s not often you find Mahatma Gandhi as the subject of a cartoon…this one is by Bruce Bairnsfather

…a unique form of stage fright was illustrated by John Floherty Jr

Jack Markow gave us a little night music…

Leonard Dove and the possibly reluctant apple of someone’s eye…

…I would love to know more about this Rea Irvin cartoon, which seems to be a parody of a cartoon from the British Punch…

John Reehill rendered a portentous moment at the barbershop…

…and finally, today’s cover (bottom left) by Charles Donelan caught my eye because the early New Yorker rarely noted the existence of baseball, except in the events section. Up to this point there had been just two covers featuring baseball: May 8, 1926, by Victor Bobritsky

…and, at right, the Oct. 5, 1929 cover by Theodore Haupt...

…as for Charles Donelan (1889-1973), this would be his only New Yorker cover, but throughout his career he would illustrate for various publications, including the sports section of the Boston Traveler (this is from the March 21, 1921 edition)…

…and a comic strip featured in the Boston Globe called “Russett Appul” (this is from Oct. 11, 1929)…Donelan also performed Russett and other characters on Boston radio stations and stage shows…

Next Time: Cinema’s Underworld…

 

Fear of Flying

The early New Yorker loved two things about modern life — college football and air travel. Tragedy would bring them together on the last day of March 1931.

April 11, 1931 cover by Peter Arno. A brilliant cover, contrasting the skinny, lightly clad runner with one of Arno’s stock characters from the Taft era —  a millionaire with a walrus mustache.

The New Yorker’s sportswriter John Tunis was especially keen on Knute Rockne’s Notre Dame football team, which played an annual rivalry game against Army at Yankee Stadium. Tunis’s colleague, E.B. White, was the flying enthusiast, never missing a chance to hop aboard a plane and marvel at the scene far below. In the Nov. 30, 1929 issue, White was eager to join passengers on a test of the Fokker F-32, and suggested that flying was becoming so routine that one could be blasé about its risks:

WHAT COULD POSSIBLY GO WRONG?…Title card from a silent Paramount newsreel reporting on a November 1929 test flight of the Fokker F-32 at Teterboro, possibly the same flight enjoyed by E.B. White. At right, a celebration of the plane’s arrival in Los Angeles. (YouTube/petersonfield.org)

All of that exuberance came crashing down in a Kansas wheat field on March 31, 1931. It was Rockne’s fame — which the New Yorker and countless other magazines and newspapers helped to spread — that put the coach on a TWA flight to Hollywood, where director Russell Mack was filming The Spirit of Notre Dame. Rockne stopped in Kansas City, where he visited his two oldest sons, before boarding a Fokker F-10 destined for Los Angeles. About an hour after takeoff one of the airplane’s wings broke to pieces, sending Rockne and seven others to their deaths.

(University of Notre Dame) click image to enlarge

The accident rattled E.B. White. In his April 11, 1931 “Notes and Comment,” White pondered the eulogies Rockne received from President Herbert Hoover and others, calling into question the fame a college football coach could attain while achievements of college faculty go unheralded. White also seemed to have lost some of his faith in the progress of aviation, suggesting that the autogiro (a cross between an airplane and a helicopter) might be the safest way to proceed into the future:

Knute Rockne, in undated photo. (University of Notre Dame)

Ironically, it was thanks to Rockne’s fame that the aviation industry began to get serious about safety. A public outcry over the crash led to sweeping changes in everything from design to crash investigation, changes that have made flying one of the safest forms of transportation today.

SAFETY FIRST…The crash that claimed the life of Knute Rockne resulted in a public outcry for greater safety in the air. This article in the July 1931 issue of Modern Mechanics suggested parachutes for passengers and for the plane itself. (modernmechanix.com)

As for the cause of crash, it was determined that the plywood covering one of the Fokker F-10’s wings had separated from the wing’s supporting structure — the wing had been bonded together with a water-based glue that likely deteriorated as the result of rainwater seeping into the wing.

Unfortunately, the investigation into the crash was hampered by souvenir-seekers, who carried away most of the large parts of the plane even before the bodies were removed. So much for honest Midwestern values, at least in this case.

(clickamericana.com)

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Give My Regards

Back in Manhattan, Dorothy Parker was writing a eulogy of her own, bidding farewell to her interim role as theater critic. Parker subbed for Robert Benchley during his extended European vacation, and often noted that it was just her luck  to be stuck with a string of plays that likely comprised one of Broadway’s worst spring line-ups.

In an earlier column Parker had alluded to the fact that Benchley was in Europe, no doubt staying part of the time with their mutual friends, Gerald and Sara Murphy, at their fashionable “Villa America” at Cap d’Antibes on the French Riviera.

SIGHT FOR SORE EYES…Dorothy Parker was glad to have her old friend Robert Benchley back at the theater desk, she having endured a “rotten time” reviewing a long string of bad plays. (dorothy parker.com)

Hopeful to review at least one play of redeeming value before her friend returned, Parker was to be sorely disappointed as evidenced in her final review column. Of the terribly dated Getting Married, a play written by George Barnard Shaw way back in 1908, Parker was more afraid of Getting Bored, especially when Helen Westley (portraying Mrs. George Collins) entered the stage to deliver a 15-minute monologue…

Things got no better with the second play Parker reviewed, Lady Beyond the Moon, a “dull, silly, dirty play” that was frequently interrupted by various sounds from the restless audience — “comments, titters and lip-noises…” The play must have been terrible, because it closed after just fifteen performances.

As for the third play Parker reviewed, the misnamed Right of Happiness, the audience had every excuse “for displayed impatience,” yet conducted itself “like a group of little lambs.” Right of Happiness, observed Parker, “fittingly concluded the horrible little pre-Easter season…” The play closed after just eleven performances.

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Turning Up the Heat

If anyone thought he had a right to happiness it would have been New York Mayor Jimmy Walker, who was preparing to face a grilling from Judge Samuel Seabury. Walker loved the nightlife and left most of his duties to a bunch of Tammany Hall cronies whose activities drew the attention of reformers like Seabury and Gov. Franklin D. Roosevelt. In his “A Reporter at Large” column, Morris Markey observed:

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Walking Tall

Raymond Hood (1881-1934) might have been short in stature, but he stood tall among the architects of some of New York’s most iconic skyscrapers — Rockefeller Plaza, American Radiator, Daily News, McGraw Hill (Sadly, both his career and his life were cut short when he died in 1934 at age 53 from complications related to rheumatoid arthritis). Allene Talmey, a former reporter for the New York World and managing editor of Conde Naste’s original Vanity Fair, gave Hood his due (see brief excerpt) in a New Yorker profile, with a portrait by Cyrus Baldridge:

LANDMARKS…The 1931 McGraw-Hill Building and the 1929-30 Daily News Building. (MCNY/Wikipedia)
And of course, Hood’s 30 Rock. I took this last December before everything shut down.

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From Our Advertisers

Speaking of big and tall, Al Smith and his gang took out this full page ad to announce the availability of office rentals in the world’s tallest building. Thanks to the Depression, only 23 percent of the available space in the Empire State Building was rented out in its first year. Thankfully, the building was also an instant tourist attraction, with one million people each paying a dollar to ride elevators to the observation decks in 1931, matching what the owners made in rent that year…

…for those who could afford more than a dollar ride up the Empire State’s elevators, the cooling breezes of coastal California beckoned…

…those with even greater means and leisure time could hop on a boat to Europe…note that you could still cruise on the Olympic, the Titanic’s sister ship…also note that the illustration of the posh couple was rendered by Helen Wills (1905-1998), better known at the time as the top women’s tennis player in the world…

HELEN, MEET HELEN…American tennis star Helen Wills in 1932, and a self-portrait from the same year. Wills was the world’s top women’s tennis player for nine of the years between 1927 and 1938. She played tennis into her 80s, and sketched and painted all of her life. (Wikipedia/invaluable.com)

…Guess who’s coming to dinner?…hopefully not William Seabrook, who had just released his latest book on his adventures as an explorer…in Jungle Ways, Seabrook devoted an entire section to cannibalism in the French Sudan and how to cook human flesh; apparently he tried some himself…but then again by most accounts he was a weird dude who dabbled in occultism and possibly believed in zombies…Seabrook’s 1929 book, The Magic Island, is credited with introducing the concept of zombies to popular culture…

…speaking of weird, an ad for Michelsen’s “Bay Rum” body rub…

…when Marlboro cigarettes were introduced in the mid-1920s, they were marketed as “luxury” cigarettes and sold mostly at resorts and hotels. In the late 1920s, however, they were marketed as a “lady’s cigarette,” with ads in the New Yorker featuring handwriting and penmanship contests to promote the brand. This ad from November 1930 featured the “second prize” winner of their amateur copywriting contest…

…it appears marketing tactics changed a bit in 1931…still the dopey contest, but instead of real photos of winners, like the schoolmarmish “Miss Dorothy Shepherd” above, this ad featured a rather tawdry image of a model, more gun moll than schoolmarm…

…on to our cartoonists…Ralph Barton, who was with the New Yorker from Day One, had been increasing his contributions to the magazine after a notable absence from spring 1929 to summer 1930…beset by manic-depression, he would take his own life in May 1931, so what we are seeing are Barton’s last bursts of creativity before his tragic end, reviving old favorites like “The Graphic Section”…

Barbara Shermund entertained with some parlor room chatter…

Leonard Dove looked in on a couple of frisky old duffers…

William Crawford Galbraith, and a crashing bore…

John Held Jr gave us one of his “naughty” engravings…

…and two by our dear Helen Hokinson, stuck in traffic…

…and enjoying cake and ice cream, with a dab of culture…

Next Time: An Unmarried Woman…

Last Stand for Beau James

“Everyone in this life draws bad cards with the good. The great trouble with most of us is that we do not know when to discard quickly,” observed New York Mayor Jimmy Walker.

April 4, 1931 cover by Theodore Haupt.

Signs that the first bad card was being turned were apparent in the April 4, 1931 edition of the New Yorker. In his weekly collection of quips — “Of All Things” — Howard Brubaker suggested that Walker — known for his frequent trips and general lack of attention to governance — had a different sort of homecoming awaiting his return from California…

…Walker was no doubt hobnobbing with the Hollywood crowd back in the Golden State…the mayor loved donning fine attire (thus the nickname “Beau James”) and enjoyed throwing lavish events for famous people…

MIGNIGHT MAYOR was one of the many nicknames New Yorkers bestowed on Mayor Jimmy Walker, known for his love of nightlife, fine clothes, and beautiful people (another nickname was “Beau James”). Although he was married at the time, he conducted a very open affair with actress Betty Compton (left), who later became his wife. At right, in his element, Walker (center) accompanies actress Colleen Moore to the October 1928 premiere of her film, Lilac Time. (IMDB/konreioldnewyork.blogspot.com)

…which made him an easy target for parody, such as this 1932 Vanity Fair cover, where the mayor even welcomes himself to the city…

(Conde Nast)

Ralph Barton revived his “Hero of the Week” feature to welcome the mayor back to the city…Barton alluded to the fact that Walker preferred conducting his office outside of the official confines:

Walker (1881-1946) made a far more interesting personality than an effective mayor. When he took office in 1926 he proved to be a terrible administrator, partying at speakeasies late into night, sleeping till noon, and leaving city matters (except the lavish ceremonies) to Tammany Hall cronies. This didn’t seem to bother voters when the economy boomed in the 1920s, and indeed they re-elected him by an overwhelming margin in 1929.

The 1929 market crash quickly changed things. The Roaring Twenties abruptly ended, and with people losing their jobs (and fortunes), the mayor’s antics didn’t seem so amusing anymore. Reform was in the air, and leading the charge was Gov. Franklin Roosevelt, who was no fan of Walker’s.

IF LOOKS COULD KILL…Gov. Franklin D. Roosevelt meets with Mayor Jimmy Walker in conference at Roosevelt’s home on E. 65th St. in December 1928; at left, campaign banner for Walker on Tammany Hall, 4th Avenue and 17th Street, Oct. 28, 1929. Walker was a product of the Tammany Hall political machine, and much of the mayor’s backroom dealings were conducted there, as well as at various speakeasies and nightclubs. (NYC Municipal Archives/NY Daily News)

Investigations into corruption in Walker’s administration landed Walker before an investigative committee of led by Judge Samuel Seabury in 1931…

IN THE COLD LIGHT OF DAY…Mayor Jimmy Walker takes the stand in the New York County Courthouse on May 25, 1932, to answer questions from Judge Samuel Seabury (left). Thousands of New Yorkers showed up to cheer the mayor when he entered the courthouse, but those cheers soon became jeers as details of the administration’s corruption were made public. (NY Daily News).

…Mayor Walker resigned the following year and fled to Europe, where he married his mistress, Betty Compton (1904-1944) in Cannes, France, on April 19, 1933. We will revisit this tale in later issues…

SEE YA…

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On the Lighter Side

“The Talk of the Town” included this note about the play Peter Pan, which was being staged at the Fourteenth Street Theatre. Much was made of the wizardry that enabled actors to float above the audience.

Eva Le Gallienne (1899-1991), who portrayed the title character, made the theatre home of her stage company in 1926, and renamed it the Civic Repertory Theatre. Le Gallienne played the role of Peter Pan 129 times, and although the flying effects were quite hazardous, she said she “took to flying like the proverbial duck to water.”

NO STAGE FRIGHT HERE…The Fourteenth Street Theatre, originally constructed in 1866, was dubbed the Civic Repertory Theatre when Eva Le Gallienne (center) made it the home of her stage company. Le Gallienne played the role of Peter Pan 129 times on the theatre’s stage, and loved performing the dangerous flying stunts. Images of Le Gallienne from Bruce K. Hanson’s book, Peter Pan on Stage and Screen, 1904-2010. (Wikipedia/Bruce K. Hanson).
DARLINGS…The Darling family as portrayed in the Civic Repertory Theatre’s production of Peter Pan. At bottom, right, “The Wendy House” as it appeared on stage. And a bit of trivia: the young lad who portrayed John Darling (see arrow) was none other than Burgess Meredith, who would go on to a long and successful career on the stage, television (he played the Penguin in the 1960s Batman TV series), and in film, seen top right as Sylvester Stallone’s trainer Mickey in 1976’s Rocky. (Bruce K. Hanson/IMDB)

Eva Le Gallienne lived 92 years, and Burgess Meredith made it to 89. Such was not the fate of the Civic Repertory Theatre, which closed in 1934 due to the Depression. The 1866 building was demolished in 1938. Not a trace remains.

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Fightin’ Words

I have to say it’s really too bad Dorothy Parker didn’t stay on as theatre critic for the New Yorker (she was subbing for her friend, Robert Benchley) because her weekly forays into the middlebrow world of Broadway produced some of her most entertaining writing. For the April 4 issue Parker offered some thoughts about The Silent Witness, which ran from March to June at the Morosco Theatre.

Instead of turning cartwheels, Parker took aim at actress Kay Strozzi, “who had the temerity to wear as truly horrible a gown as ever I have seen on the American stage. … Had she not luckily been strangled by a member of the cast while disporting this garment, I should have fought my way to the stage and done her in, myself.”

She ended the review with another plea to Benchley, who was traveling abroad:

WHAT ABOUT THIS OUTFIT, DOROTHY?…I don’t have a photo of the “horrible” gown worn by Kay Strozzi (left) in The Silent Witness, so you’ll have to settle for this image of Ms. Strozzi from the 1931 film Captain Applejack. At right, and dressed to kill, Dorothy Parker posed for Edward Steichen in this 1931 portrait. (IMDB/Pinterest)

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Tipsy Tots

Tired of Prohibition, and its farcical enforcement, Wolcott Gibbs had some fun with the official Wickersham Report’s conclusions regarding the success of the 18th Amendment:

Wolcott Gibbs (wsj.com)

On a loftier note, we have this ode to the new Empire State Building from Price Day, Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter and noted editor of the Baltimore Sun:

The profile, written by Gilbert Seldes, featured artist Gaston Lachaise…I include a brief excerpt for personal reasons, because I first encountered this artist in the Sheldon Memorial Art Gallery’s sculpture garden in Lincoln, Nebraska (my hometown), many years ago, via his “Floating Figure”…

WEIGHTLESS…”Floating Figure” by Gaston Lachaise was cast in bronze at the end of 1934 after a retrospective held in January 1935 at the Museum of Modern Art, New York. This is one of seven casts, at the Sheldon Memorial Art Gallery. (Lincoln Arts Council)

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From Our Advertisers

Pierce Arrow would struggle to promote its luxury cars in the Great Depression (and they would go under by the mid-1930s) but their advertising still harked back to the carmaker’s early days of refined travel…

…the folks at Ethyl would make that car run smoother, thanks to the lead they added to gasoline (and to the air folks were breathing)…

…tired of driving? Then hop a freighter and fire up a Chesterfield…

…or go for a more cushy ride on the French Line…

…we turn to our cartoons, and Ralph Barton’s revival of his old “Graphic Section”…

Helen Hokinson showed us the nuances of the DMV…

Leonard Dove showed us a pet on the wild side…

Otto Soglow zigzagged across the pages with his Little King…

…and Gardner Rea revealed the wonders of world travel…

Next Time: Fear of Flying…

Front Page News

It’s hard to beat Chicago as a source for hardboiled storytelling, and two of its best newspaper reporters, Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur, would draw on their rough and tumble newsroom experiences to create one of Broadway’s most-beloved plays.

March 28, 1931 cover by Ruth Cairns.

Although they were Chicago boys, the New Yorker crowd viewed Hecht and MacArthur as adopted (or perhaps naturalized) Manhattanites. So when John Mosher wrote his glowing review of the film adaption of The Front Page, he was writing about the work of a pair well known to the Algonquin Round Table set.

WE ❤ NY…Chicagoans Ben Hecht, left, and Charles MacArthur were familiar faces with the Algonquin Round Table crowd. (Chicago Tribune/Amazon)
NEWSIES…Editor Walter Burns (Adolphe Menjou) sizes up his reporter Hildy Johnson (Pat O’Brien) and Hildy’s fiance Peggy Grant (Mary Brian) in The Front Page. (IMDB)

MacArthur (1895-1956) was especially close to the Algonquin group, having shared an apartment with Robert Benchley and a bed with Dorothy Parker in the early 1920s. In 1928 MacArthur would marry one of Broadway’s most beloved stars, Helen Hayes.

For his part, Hecht (1893-1964) contributed short fiction pieces to the New Yorker during its lean first years, 1925-1928. After the success of The Front Page, Hecht would go on to become one of Hollywood’s greatest screenwriters.

Here’s Mosher’s review:

Playwright and essayist James Harvey observes that The Front Page was “Hecht and MacArthur’s Chicago…(and) that counts most deeply in the imagination of Hollywood. And their play, the first of the great newspaper comedies, did more to define the tone and style, the look and the sound of Hollywood comedy than any other work of its time.”

DESK JOB…Hildy Johnson (Pat O’Brien) and Molly Malloy (Mae Clarke) hide escaped murderer Earl Williams (George E. Stone) in a rolltop desk in 1931’s The Front Page. (Everett)
TRIUMPHANT TRIUMVIRATE… Following up on the success of his famously over-budget war film Hell’s Angels (1930), Howard Hughes (left) had another hit on his hands as co-producer of The Front Page; at the Fourth Academy Awards the film was nominated for Best Picture, Lewis Milestone (center) for Best Director, and Adolphe Menjou (right) for Best Actor. (Wikipedia/IMDB)

A footnote: Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur were close throughout their careers, and remain so even in death: they are buried near each other on a hilltop in Oak Hills Cemetery, Nyack, NY.

 *  *  *

From Our Advertisers

In the late 1920s and early 1930s several illustrators drew inspiration from the style Carl “Eric” Erickson made famous with his elegant series of ads for Camel cigarettes…I’m not sure if this ad (part of a series promoting “The New Chevrolet Six”) is by Erickson or an imitator, but it seems the artists were likely inspired by the actress Greta Garbo and her signature beret…

…and for comparison, an Erickson Camel ad from the March 21, 1931 issue…

…and our inspiration, Greta Garbo circa 1930…

…those Chevy buyers might have considered investing in Velmo mohair upholstery to boost the resale value of their auto…

…among other technological wonders of the age — furniture crafted from aluminum, soon to become ubiquitous in workplaces across the country…

…and then there was the electric refrigerator, still new to a lot of households in 1931 as icemen began to hang up their tongs and head for the sunset…

…if you were a modern man or woman of means, you could ditch the auto altogether and get yourself a Pitcairn autogiro…

…in the 1920s and 30s the autogiro was considered by many to be the transportation of the future, a flying machine as easy to operate as driving a car…

HEY DAD, CAN I HAVE THE KEYS TO THE AUTOGIRO?…Above, a Pitcairn PCA-2. In the 1920s and 30s, many future-forward designers imagined the autogiro as the flying car of tomorrow. (Wikipedia)

…for those who preferred to be passenger rather than pilot, they could relax in the comfort of an airplane cabin and enjoy some…hmmm…beef broth! From what I understand, passenger flight was not this cosy in 1931…this was long before pressurized cabins, when you had to mostly fly in the weather, and not above it, and you probably had to fight to keep from upchucking that Torex all over the lovely flight attendant…

…while we are on the subject of flight, we turn to our cartoons, beginning with Garrett Price

…meanwhile, William Steig explored the trials of young love…

…a rare two-pager from Ralph Barton

Leonard Dove adopted an alias for a cartoon that seems inspired by a recent trip to Persia…

Otto Soglow illustrated one man’s dilemma at a bus stop…

Gardner Rea found offense in an unlikely setting…

Barbara Shermund defined pathetic in this sugar daddy’s boast…

…while on the other end of the spectrum, I. Klein illustrated the burdens of life as a Milquetoast…

…and we sign off with Mary Petty, and one woman’s terms of endearment…

Next Time: Last Stand for Beau James…

Killer Queen

The story of Fred Nixon-Nirdlinger isn’t exactly dinner table conversation these days, but in the spring of 1931 his death at the hands of his beauty queen wife had much of America abuzz.

March 21, 1930 cover by Helen Hokinson.

Charlotte Nash, Miss St. Louis of 1923, would have passed into obscurity like so many other beauty contestants if she hadn’t married a wealthy theater owner 30 years her senior, and then divorced and remarried him, and then shot him in the head on the French Riviera.

But first, the reason I am writing about this lurid episode: here’s E.B. White in the March 21, 1931 “Notes and Comment”…

Forty-seven-year-old Fred Nixon-Nirdlinger, wealthy owner of a Philadelphia theater chain, was serving as a judge at the 1923 Miss America competition in Atlantic City when the 17-year-old “Miss St. Louis,” Charlotte Nash, caught his eye and his fancy. By February 1924 they were married…

AIN’T I CUTE?…Seventeen-year-old Charlotte Nash strikes a pose at the 1923 Miss America pageant in Atlantic City; belated 1924 marriage announcement in the Philadelphia Inquirer; announcement in the New York Daily News. (New York Daily News/Philadelphia Inquirer)

…Fred was furious that Charlotte did not win the title in Atlantic City. He vowed to make her a movie star and sent her off to finishing school to work on her manners and elocution…

CRADLE TO GRAVE…Fred Nixon-Nirdlinger sent his young bride to finishing school for “a touch of polishing here and there.” Little did he know that one day she would finish him too…permanently. (findagrave.com/Pittsburgh Press)

…Unfortunately, Fred forgot to tell his young bride that he already had a wife —news that came to light on a trans-Atlantic voyage to Paris, where Fred and Charlotte had planned to honeymoon. Already pregnant with his child, Charlotte nevertheless divorced Fred, but remarried him some months later after the baby was born (and after considerable wooing and groveling by the theater magnate). Fred rejoined Charlotte in France, but the second honeymoon didn’t last long either. On the evening of March 11, 1931, the intensely jealous Fred accused his young wife of trafficking with “gigilos.” After Charlotte denied the charge, Fred seized her by the neck and threatened to choke her to death.

Crime Historian Laura James takes it from there:

“At some point Fred went into the kitchen for more whisky. Charlotte used the opportunity to flee to the bedroom, where she slipped a loaded pistol under her pillow. Fred’s last words to her were, “I will kill you rather than let you have an Italian lover.” Charlotte beat him to it, and as she lay on the bed she retrieved her pistol and fired. The first bullet entered just under Fred Nixon-Nirdlinger’s left eye and lodged at the base of his skull. A second bullet hit him in the chest. Two other shots went wild. Fred crumpled in a pool of blood.”

Charlotte was soon in a French jail, now a bigger star than she had ever been, or ever would be…

FINALLY GETTING SOME NOTICES…Left, detail of a March 18, 1931 New York Times account of the slaying; right, a more lurid take on the story by the July 18, 1931 edition of the Hamilton (Ohio) Evening Journal. Below, another colorful account from the San Francisco Examiner. (newspaper.com/New York Times)

During the subsequent trial, Charlotte’s defense attorneys argued that the shooting was a clear case of self-defense, and the jury agreed, acquitting the former beauty queen in just nine minutes. When she returned to the United States with her two young children, it appeared she would be entitled to a big chunk of Fred’s fortune…

…but in the end the will left her nearly penniless, so she earned what she could by telling her sensational story to the media, including this multi-installment feature she penned for the St. Louis Star and Times:

IT’S A LONG STORY…The 14th and 16th installments of Charlotte Nash’s story of her brush with fame and infamy in the St. Louis Star and Times. (newspaper.com)

Laura James notes that Charlotte might have been better off remaining in France: “The verdict was largely attributed (by the American newspapers at least) to French attitudes toward beautiful women and marriage in general (the jury included eight bachelors). But she returned to St. Louis; learned that her husband’s will left her nearly penniless; and tried to find acting jobs in Hollywood only to be snubbed Lizzie Borden-style, as Hollywood would have none of her. In the end she would declare, ‘Sometimes I’m sorry that I was ever considered beautiful. It brought me more trouble than joy.”‘

But the story doesn’t end there. Charlotte Nash Nixon-Nirdlinger (1905-2009) dropped out of public view, but would live on into the 21st century, dying at age 103 or 104 in her hometown of St. Louis, Missouri, where she rests today.

RIP CHARLOTTE. (findagrave.com)

 *  *  *

Turkey Trot

Dorothy Parker began to detect a pattern as she continued subbing for her friend Robert Benchley’s theater review column. All of the plays she had reviewed to date were found to be uniformly terrible; she found comfort, however, in fellow critics who also viewed Broadway’s spring lineup as a flock of “little turkeys”…

BIRDS OF A FEATHER…Dorothy Parker found Broadway’s spring lineup to be uniformly terrible, and audiences mostly agreed. Clockwise, from top left, The Admirable Crichton ran for two months and 56 performances at the New Amsterdam Theatre; Grey Shadow closed after 39 performances at the New Yorker Theatre; Napi, directed and lead-acted by the diminutive Ernest Truex (pictured) lasted just 21 shows at the Longacre; The House Beautiful bested them all by staying open for 108 performances at the Apollo. A curious side note: Mary Philips, pictured on the Apollo cover, was Humphrey Bogart’s second wife. The marriage lasted ten years — 1928 to 1938. (Playbill)

Of the plays Parker reviewed, she called The Admirable Crichton “piteously dated;” of Grey Shadow, she wrote that it would be as indelicate for her to discuss the play as it would be to “go into details of my appendectomy;” Parker deemed Napi “as grubby and unpleasant a little comedy as you could want to stay away from;” and she did not find The House Beautiful all that beautiful…”The House Beautiful is, for me, the play lousy.”

Parker ended the column with her usual plea to Benchley:

 *  *  *

Moses Parts the Swamp

In his “Notes and Comment,” E.B. White noted the destruction of trees and swampland in Van Cortlandt Park. In 1931 Robert Moses was president of the Long Island Park Commission but held political sway over so much more. What White was witnessing were preparations for the construction of the Henry Hudson Parkway and Mosholu Parkway that would split Van Cortlandt into six separate pieces. White was right about the disappearing birds: the last remaining freshwater marsh in the state, Tibbetts Brook, was dredged to accommodate construction.

HE PAVED PARADISE…Governor Franklin D. Roosevelt of New York attends a Jones Beach luncheon on July 26, 1931, as a guest of Robert Moses (far left), who was president of the Long Island Park Commission. (AP Photo)
A PARK DIVIDED…The Mosholu Parkway cuts a wide swath through Van Cortlandt Park, 1936. (Museum of the City of New York)

 *  *  *

Those Daring Young Men

Ever since Charles Lindbergh made his historic transatlantic flight in 1927, Americans were captivated by the derring-do of pilots who competed for various “firsts.” In the case of Clyde Pangborn and Hugh Herndon Jr., the goal was to to fly around the world and break the record of 20 days and 4 hours set by Germany’s Graf Zeppelin in 1929. In his “Reporter at Large” column, Morris Markey noted the many weeks of preparation by the two pilots…

A BIT OF FUN…July 1931 newspaper illustration of Clyde Pangborn, left, and Hugh Herndon Jr., with a map of the route they followed on their attempt to set a new round-the-world flight record. (AP)

Markey noted that the two pilots claimed they were setting out on their dangerous mission “for the fun of it”…

While Pangborn and Herndon were still making flight plans at their Hotel Roosevelt headquarters, Wiley Post and Harold Gatty took to the air and claimed the record of 8 days and 15 hours. Pangborn and Herndon decided to make a go of it anyway, leaving New York on July 28, 1931, in their red Bellanca named the Miss Veedol, but poor weather in Siberia caused them to abandon their quest.

There was, however, a $25,000 prize being offered by the Tokyo newspaper Asahi Shimbun to the first pilots to cross the Pacific non-stop, so Pangborn and Herndon regrouped and successfully flew the Miss Veedol across the Pacific Ocean — in 41 hours and 13 minutes. It wasn’t exactly a smooth flight; three hours after takeoff the device used to jettison the landing gear failed, prompting Pangborn to climb out onto the wing barefoot at 14,000 feet to remove the landing gear props. After several other near-mishaps — including nearly smashing into a mountain — the duo completed their historic flight with a controlled crash landing near Wenatchee, Washington.

NO WHEELS, NO PROBLEM…More than 41 hours after departing Japan, Clyde Pangborn and Hugh Herndon Jr. performed a controlled crash landing near Wenatchee, Washington, completing the first-ever nonstop flight across the Pacific Ocean. (Wired.com)
STILL IN ONE PIECE…Hugh Herndon Jr., left, and Clyde Pangborn after crash-landing at Wenatchee, Wash., following their 1931 flight across the Pacific from Misawa, Japan. (Spirit of Wenatchee).

 *  *  *

From Our Advertisers

Herndon and Pangborn made plans for their round-the-world flight while staying at the Roosevelt Hotel in Midtown…I’ve stayed there myself and enjoyed its nubby charms…as for the underground passageway to the Grand Central, it’s still there, but no longer open to the public…

…the makers of Kleenex originally marketed their tissues for makeup removal…by the 1930s, however, they saw a much bigger opportunity…

…if the Roosevelt Hotel wasn’t posh enough for you, the new Waldorf-Astoria might have been your cup of tea…

…and if you could stay at the Waldorf, you might be able to afford a Packard, which in the 1930s was a near-rival to Rolls Royce…

…I toss this one in from Goodyear because it is probably the only time an image of the Taj Mahal was used to sell tires…

…we have another lovely Carl “Eric” Erickson illustration for Camel…

…and at first glance I thought this was another two-page ad for Chesterfield cigarettes, but it appears the candy manufacturers also wanted to tie their products to exciting lifestyles…in this case, you were urged to eat candy for some quick energy…here it is implied that Schrafft’s candy will give you the energy you need for sailboating and…er…other activities…

…for comparison, Chesterfield ad from 1930…

…on to our cartoons…Otto Soglow continued the adventures of the Little King…

Perry Barlow showed us that war is hell…

…some ringside niceties courtesy E. McNerney

Mary Petty reminded us that posh folks weren’t exactly known for their intellect…

Alan Dunn examined the challenges of buying an older house…

Helen Hokinson gave us a politically precocious young lad…

…and two glimpses into high society by Barbara Shermund

…including their scintillating conversations about such things as ice makers…

Next Time: Front Page News…

 

Age of Wonders

Despite the deepening economic depression, work continued apace on a number of large building projects that were transforming the Manhattan skyline, including the Empire State Building, which was being readied for its May grand opening.

March 14, 1931 cover by Rea Irvin.

Developers also looked to the future, including the Rockefeller family, who commissioned a massive project in Midtown — 14 buildings on 22 acres — that would be one of the greatest building projects in the Depression era…

SAY ‘CHEESE’…A group of dour-looking developers unveil an early model for Rockefeller Center, March, 1931. (drivingfordeco.com)

…so great that even E.B. White found the proposed Rockefeller Center difficult to fathom:

DECO DREAM…Conceptual rendering of the Rockefeller Center complex by architectural illustrator John C. Wenrich. (beyondarchitecturalillustration.blogspot.com)

 *  *  *

Star Power

The Depression years also offered lesser diversions, and there’s nothing like celebrity culture to distract one’s mind from daily woes. For our amusement, E.B. White offered up the recent nuptials of Olympic swimmer (and future Tarzan movie star) Johnny Weissmuller and Ziegfeld singer/showgirl Bobbe Arnst…

MONKEY’S UNCLE…Newlyweds Johnny Weissmuller and Bobbe Arnst pose for photographers in 1931. The marriage would last two years. In 1932 Weissmuller would appear in his first “Tarzan” movie, Tarzan the Ape Man, and after divorcing Arnst would marry four more times. (Pinterest)

…of course there’s no better place to find celebrities than Hollywood, where Marlene Dietrich was collecting good reviews for her latest film, Dishonored. The New Yorker’s John Mosher was absolutely gah gah over the German actress…

COME HITHER IF YOU DARE…Marlene Dietrich portrayed Agent X-27 in Josef Von Sternberg’s 1931 spy film Dishonored. (IMDB)

…if you preferred the stage to the screen, you could check out a show on Broadway, but if you were Dorothy Parker (subbing as theater critic for her pal Robert Benchley), you’d have trouble finding anything worth watching. Her latest review was something of a double-whammy: not only was the play a stinker, but it was written by one of Parker’s least-favorite authors, A. A. Milne

…AND MY MONEY BACK, TOO…

 *  *  *

Cinéma Vérité

However, Dorothy Parker could have found consolation in the fact that someone, somewhere, had it a lot worse. For example, the eight defendants in a Soviet show trial, filmed for the edification of the masses and as a warning to opponents of the Bolshevik Revolution. In this warm-up for the Great Terror to come, five of the eight were condemned to death after making what were obviously forced confessions. John Mosher had this to say about the real-life horror film:

PRELUDE TO MADNESS…Scenes from the Treason Trial of the Industrial Party of Moscow. Above, filming the proceedings; below, one of the accused scientists confessing his “crimes” against the state. (moderntimes.review/YouTube)

 *  *  *

End of the World, Part II

In my last post we saw how E. B. White mourned the end of the New York World newspaper in a lengthy “Notes and Comment” entry. By contrast, White’s colleague Morris Markey wasn’t shedding any tears for a newspaper he believed had seen its better days. Markey shared his observations in his March 14 “Reporter at Large” column…

AFRAID OF THE DENTIST? Murder suspect Arthur Warren Waite, a dentist from Grand Rapids, Michigan, appeared at Criminal Courts in New York City on May 22, 1916, to face double murder charges (he poisoned his in-laws). He was sent to the electric chair at Sing Sing on May 24, 1917. According to Morris Markey, the World’s coverage of the story was the newspaper’s swan song.(Criminal Encyclopedia)

…Markey described the newspaper’s final day with veteran rewrite man Martin Green quietly typing his last story amid the tears and wisecracks of reporters suddenly out of work…

LONG GONE…Veteran rewrite man Martin Green (inset) filed his last story for the New York World on Feb. 27, 1931. Above, the New York World building was located on Manhattan’s “Newspaper Row” near City Hall. Commissioned by the newspaper’s owner, Joseph Pulitzer, the 20-story building was the world’s tallest office building when in was completed in 1890. It was demolished in 1955 to make way for an expanded car ramp entrance to the Brooklyn Bridge. (New York Times/Library of Congress)

…the end of the World was also on the mind of Gardner Rea, who contributed this cartoon to the March 21 issue: 

 *  *  *

The State of Modern Man

Lois Long continued her “Doldrums” series by looking at the condition of bachelor life in the city, and like everything else among the younger generation she found it wanting. Lois was a ripe old 29 when she wrote this, but given how radically life had changed since the Roaring Twenties, a wide gulf now separated those days from the more somber Thirties. Note how Long, who embodied flapper life in her defunct “Tables for Two” column, described herself as a “modest, retiring type” who knew nothing about men. Around this time Long was preparing to divorce husband (and New Yorker cartoonist) Peter Arno after a brief, tempestuous marriage…

 *  *  *

From Our Advertisers

In those depressed days the makers of Buick automobiles decided to look to a brighter future, imaging how the boys of the present would be drivers of Buicks in the future…this kid probably ended up driving a tank or a Jeep rather than a Buick when 1942 rolled around…

Adele Morel also wanted you to think about the future, and how to hold off those inevitable wrinkles…note the message near the bottom: “Do you realize that a youthful appearance means happiness?”…

…I included this ad for River House because of its sumptuous detail…it rather resembles a 17th century European silk tapestry, and the people depicted look like they could be from that time as well…

…speaking of another age, we have this Murad ad by Rea Irvin, illustrating office behavior that was quite common in the 20th century…

…on a related note, in the cartoons E. McNerney illustrated a “Me Too” moment…

…when Otto Soglow published his first Little King strip in the June 7, 1930 issue, it caught the eye of Harold Ross (New Yorker founding editor), who asked Soglow to produce more. After building up an inventory over nearly 10 months, Ross finally published a second Little King strip, which you see below. The strip would become a hit, and would launch Soglow into cartoon stardom…

William Dwyer offered a dim view of a man’s stages of life in the first of two cartoons he contributed to the New Yorker

James Thurber shared tears with some sad sacks…

…in a few years Leonard Dove’s housewife would see her fears realized as another world war would loom on the horizon…

…and we end with Garrett Price, and an appreciation for fine art…

Next Time: Killer Queen…

 

 

 

 

The End of the World

In today’s world of endless media options, it is hard to fathom the influence newspapers had over daily life in the 19th and early 20th centuries. There was one news source that many New Yorkers simply could not live without: The New York World.

March 7, 1931 cover by Helen Hokinson.

So when the World ceased publication after a 70-year run, many of its readers struggled to come to terms with the loss. Despite the World’s working class appeal and sensationalistic reporting, E.B. White nevertheless counted himself among its mourners, offering a lengthy eulogy in his “Notes and Comment” column…

THE COLOR OF MONEY…Under the leadership of Joseph Pulitzer, who bought the World in 1883, the newspaper began an aggressive era of circulation building, and in 1896 enticed readers with pages printed by one of the world’s first four-color printing presses. The World was the first newspaper to launch a Sunday color supplement, which featured “The Yellow Kid” cartoon Hogan’s Alley (above, right). (5dguide.com)

A pioneer of yellow journalism, the World also featured sensational stories and headlines to capture the attention of readers…

…however, the World was also home to a number of prominent journalists, including the famed Elizabeth Cochran Seaman (aka Nellie Bly) and many writers from the social orbit of the Algonquin Round Table who were also early contributors to the fledgling New Yorker.

In his “Notes” essay, White suggests that he found something authentic in the World’s sensational style, and praised it for going after stories that more staid publications, like the New York Times, tended to ignore or downplay. The World’s staff of writers came from the rough and tumble, muckraking world of journalism, the same world in which the New Yorker’s founding editor, Harold Ross, first cut his teeth.

ALL-STAR LINE-UP…Many of the World’s famed writers inhabited the orbit of the New Yorker and the Algonquin Round Table, including, from left, music critic Deems Taylor, journalist and social critic Heywood Broun, “The Conning Tower” columnist Franklin P. Adams, and humorist Frank Sullivan. (deemstaylor.com/britannica.com/Wikipedia)

 *  *  *

Swedish Sphinx?

Thirty years after her death, Greta Garbo remains an iconic figure in popular culture, due to her expressive eyes and sensuality, but perhaps even more so due to her elusive air. In her profile of the star for the New Yorker, titled “American Pro Tem,” Virgilia Peterson Ross refused to buy into the mysterious aura that was partly manufactured by Garbo’s handlers at MGM. The other part, however, was genuine Garbo, who detested parties, serious talk, and other formalities.

THE FACE…Like her contemporary Marlene Dietrich, Greta Garbo preferred an androgynous look. From left, Garbo wearing the flat-heeled oxfords she favored; publicity photo from 1932; wearing one of her trademark berets in the late 1930s. (garboforever.com)

Ross touched on Garbo’s love life — she never married in her 84 years, but she was close to her mentor, Finnish director Mauritz Stiller, who died in 1928, having been eclipsed by his protégé. Garbo’s co-star in the silents, John Gilbert — known as a great lover on the screen — wanted to marry Garbo, but she balked at his frequent proposals. The two lived together intermittently in 1926 and 1927, Gilbert helping Garbo not only with her acting also teaching her how to behave like a star and barter with studio bosses. Garbo later admitted that she was in love with Gilbert, but preferred to remain single because she “always wanted to be the boss.” Drink and despair would send Gilbert to an early grave in 1936. In her profile piece, Ross concluded that Garbo was “not a mystery to be solved,” but rather “a limpid child.”

THE MEN IN HER LIFE…Greta Garbo contemplates a new-fangled microphone with film director Clarence Brown on the set of Garbo’s first talkie, Anna Christie. Brown would direct Garbo in seven different films; Garbo with sometime lover John Gilbert in Flesh and the Devil (1926). They would appear in four films together; Garbo with Finnish director and early mentor Mauritz Stiller, in 1926. (Wikipedia/IMDB/garboforever.com)

 *  *  *

Suffering Artist

Dorothy Parker continued to sub as theater critic for her friend, Robert Benchley, who was traveling abroad. It was not a task to her liking — during her temporary stint she had yet to see a play that didn’t insult her taste or her intelligence. Her review for the March 7 issue would prove no different.

BROADWAY BLAHS…Dorothy Parker had yet to find a play to her liking in her stint as theater critic for the New Yorker. To her credit, she had to sit through a couple of stinkers: A Woman Denied lasted about a month — 37 performances — and Paging Danger closed its curtains for good after just four performances. (Playbill/BBC)

 *  *  *

The Misanthrope

To call Wyndham Lewis a character is an understatement. The English writer, social critic and painter (he founded the cubist-inspired Vorticist movement) managed to offend just about everybody before his death in 1957. He was described by the London Review as “fiercely unsentimental,” and that is how I would describe this opening paragraph from his short story “Dark Party”…

CLASSIC POSE…A 1929 portrait of Wyndham Lewis by photographer George Charles Beresford. (Wikipedia)

 *  *  *

From Our Advertisers

A couple of ads appealing to women readers of the New Yorker, including this elegant bon voyage scene advertising travel clothes…

…and something you never see anymore, the “boneless” girdle…replaced today by Spanx and the like…

…Before we roll into our cartoons, some cinema-inspired art by Al Frueh

Alan Dunn went out to dinner…

Garrett Price went on safari…

E. McNerney channelled his inner Arno for this backstage scene…

…and the real Peter Arno gave us this passing scene which recalled his old Whoops Sisters gags…

Next Time: Age of Wonders…

 

 

 

Chaplin of the Jungle

In the 1920s and 30s the concept of the documentary film was still in its infancy, and beginning with the silent Nanook of the North (1922), the idea that a documentary and a drama were separate things was unknown to filmmakers.

Feb. 28, 1930 cover by Theodore Haupt.

What was known, however, was the box office appeal of films that explored unknown and exotic lands, like Ernest B. Schoedsack’s 1927 blockbuster Chang, which featured a mix of staged events as well as the actual slaughter of wild animals. Audiences (and most critics) seemed little troubled that these films were a mix of fact and fiction. It was a movie, after all, and movies followed a story arc, and they had drama, and sometimes comedy. And so when Schoedsack (1893-1979) introduced audiences to an orangutan named Rango, publicists described the simian star as the “Charlie Chaplin of the Jungle.” The New Yorker’s John Mosher found the performances of the various apes “astonishingly adept”…

MONKEY BUSINESS…Clockwise, from top left, the Iowa-born Ernest B. Schoedsack cut his filmmaking teeth as a producer/director of quasi-documentaries, beginning with 1925’s Grass, which followed a caravan from Angora to Persia; a young Sumatran boy, Bin, bonds with the orangutan Rango; promotional theater card for the film. (filmaffinity.com)
NOT SO CUDDLY…Two years after Rango, Ernest B. Schoedsack would co-produce and co-direct 1933’s King Kong, with Merian C. Cooper. (Britannica)

If interpretations of tropical life weren’t accurate in 1931, it wasn’t completely due to filmmakers taking dramatic license. Attitudes toward “exotic” lands and people commonly ranged from naively paternalistic to downright racist. In a letter to the New Yorker, Patrick T.L. Putnam (1904-1953) is decidedly of the former, portraying Congo pygmies as clever, amusing children who hoodwink unsuspecting “explorers”…

To Putnam’s credit, he showed a genuine interest (and respect) in the lives of tribal peoples, and particularly the Mbuti of the Congo’s Ituri Forest. He remained in the Congo for the rest of his life. This thumbnail is the only photo I could find of Putnam:

(geni.com)

 *  *  *

Big Bill Turns Pro

In first decades of the 20th century it was still widely believed that athletic competition should be for its own sake rather than as a means for making money, so many top stars competed as amateurs. Professional golf wasn’t established until 1916, and professional leagues in basketball and football first formed in the 1920s. Amateur status was especially prized in tennis — before the “Open Era” began in 1968, only amateurs were allowed to compete in Grand Slam tournaments.

Sports promoter C. C. Pyle established the first professional tennis tour in 1926 with American and French stars playing exhibition matches in front of paying audiences. According to the New Yorker’s John Tunis, many in the crowd were finely dressed, with men in top hats and women turned out in the latest high fashion.

America’s top draw was “Big Bill” Tilden, the world’s number one player from 1920 to 1925 and the first American to win Wimbledon. It caused quite a stir when Tilden went pro on Dec. 31, 1930. He barnstormed across the country,  playing one-night stands with a small group of professionals including the top Czech player Karel Koželuh. “The Talk of the Town” had this to say about the fledging game of professional tennis:

BARNSTORMERS…Bill Tilden (left) and Karel Koželuh toured America and Europe with a handful of other players in a series of exhibition matches in the fledgling professional tennis circuit. (Britannica/cyranos.ch)

In his sports column, John Tunis offered this description of the competitors:

NOW AND THEN…At left, you can still spot a few neckties at Wimbledon as the audience watches Roger Federer and Andy Roddick enter Centre Court in 2009; at right, Wimbledon crowd in 1925. (BBC/Vintage Every Day)

 *  *  *

Triple Tripe

Dorothy Parker continued to sub in the theater column for her friend Robert Benchley, who was traveling abroad. She found little to like on the Great White Way, including three forgettable plays she reviewed in the Feb. 28 issue:

Apparently audiences agreed with Parker’s assessment. The Gang’s All Here closed after just 23 performances, The Great Barrington, after just 16. And Heat Wave was not so hot, closing after a mere 15 performances.

NOT SO GREAT…Program for 1931’s The Great Barrington. It lasted 16 performances. (IBDB)

Parker once again closed the column with a plea to her dear friend:

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To Swash No More

In his “Notes and Comment,” E.B. White lamented the end of Douglas Fairbanks as the swashbuckler of the silents, and rejected the talkie version of the actor in Reaching for the Moon, a film in which Fairbanks portrayed Larry Day, a Wall Street millionaire who later loses his fortune in the 1929 stock market crash.

KEEP YOUR SHIRT ON, DOUG…From left, Douglas Fairbanks in the silent era’s The Thief of Bagdad (1924); Fairbanks on an ocean cruise with Bebe Daniels in Reaching for the Moon. The 47-year-old Fairbanks was still fit enough to pose shirtless, but E.B. White wasn’t having any of it. Despite his fit appearance, Fairbanks would die of a heart attack at the end of the decade. (IMDB)

The film today is perhaps best known for its sumptuous Art Deco sets…

…and for one of Bing Crosby’s earliest film appearances. Reaching for the Moon was originally intended to be a musical featuring numbers by Irving Berlin, however Berlin found director Edmund Goulding difficult to work with, so only one of the original five songs recorded for the film was used, “When the Folks High Up Do the Mean Low Down,” sung by Crosby. It was filmed late at night after he had completed his gig at the Cocoanut Grove.

SINGING WITH BA-BA-BEBE…A young Bing Crosby sings “When the Folks High Up Do the Mean Low Down” with Bebe Daniels in Reaching for the Moon. (IMDB)

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Modern Living

E.B. White also commented on the modern world’s reliance on electric appliances, a habit a mere decade in the making since the gadgets he lists below did not exist before the 1920s:

ELECTRIC SURGE…Prior to the 1920s none of these electric appliances existed. By 1931 many homes were dependent upon them — although many country houses would have to wait for the Rural Electrification Administration (1935) and other New Deal programs get electrical service. (Pinterest)

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From Our Advertisers

I’ve written before about Lux Toilet Soap’s celebrity-studded ad campaigns, but this two-page ad in the Feb. 28 issue caught my eye because it featured one of my favorite actresses, Jessie Royce Landis

…who appeared in two of my favorite films, both by Alfred Hitchcock: To Catch a Thief (1955) and North by Northwest (1959).

MATERNAL ROLES…Jessie Royce Landis usually played older than she was in real life. Clockwise, from top left, detail of Lux ad; Landis circa 1930; opposite Cary Grant in 1955’s To Catch a Thief; and again with Grant in 1959’s North by Northwest. In the latter film she played Grant’s mother, but in reality she was only seven years older than Grant. (IMDB)

…much of the Douglas Fairbanks/Bebe Daniels film Reaching for the Moon was set on a luxury ocean liner…if the stock market didn’t get you down, you could also afford to travel in style with the Empress of Britain

…or on one of the fine ships of the French Line fleet…

…the Imperial was one of the luxury cars that could get you to the docks…

…among the stranger ads to appear in the New Yorker was this one by the maker of clay plumbing fixtures…

…on to our cartoonists, Ralph Barton returned with this illustration for the theater section…

Rea Irvin brought us another of his two-page series cartoons…

Gardner Rea commented on the state of the art world…

Peter Arno peered in on an unfortunate infant…

Helen Hokinson gave us this exchange along a city street…

Garrett Price illustrated a tall order for a blues musician…

Kindl found clashing styles in the shoe department…

…and James Thurber returned with a prelude to his battle of the sexes…

Next Time: The End of the World…

Super Tramp

The late film critic Roger Ebert once observed that “if only one of Charles Chaplin’s films could be preserved, City Lights would come the closest to representing all the different notes of his genius.”

Feb. 21, 1931 cover by Rea Irvin, marking the New Yorker’s sixth anniversary.

The New Yorker’s film critic in 1931, John Mosher, would have agreed. Before he previewed the picture, however, Mosher feared (along with others) that the great actor and director had seen his best days…

…instead, the film proved a hit with both audiences and critics, and today is regarded as one of the greatest films ever made. It was no doubt a relief to Ebert when the film was selected by the Library of Congress for preservation in the National Film Registry.

HE DOES IT ALL…United Artists issued several different types of posters to promote the film, including these two. (IMDB)
A TENDER FELLOW…The Tramp (Charlie Chaplin) encounters a blind flower girl (Virginia Cherrill) on a street corner and is instantly smitten; later that evening the Tramp saves a drunken millionaire (Harry Myers) from suicide. (IMDB)

The film has its tender moments, but being a Chaplin production it also had plenty of slapstick, including this famous scene in which the Tramp and his millionaire friend go out on the town and dig into plates of spaghetti…and in the Tramp’s case, some confetti…

Mosher (and many other critics since) believe the opening scene of the film — in which a statue is unveiled to reveal a sleeping Tramp — was Chaplin’s attack on sound movies:

CAUGHT NAPPING…The Tramp is unveiled along with a statue in the opening scene of City Lights. (IMDB)

Although the film had a full musical score and sound effects, there was no spoken dialogue. Rather, Chaplin poked fun of the tinny-sounding talkies of the day by putting not words, but the sounds of a kazoo, into the mouths of speechifying politicians gathered at the statue’s unveiling…

For all its humor, City Lights was a serious work by a serious actor and director who sought something close to perfection. The scene in which the Tramp encounters a blind flower girl on a street corner required three hundred and forty-two takes with actress Virginia Cherrill, who was a newcomer to film.

Writing in the New Yorker, critic Richard Brody (“Chaplin’s Three Hundred and Forty-Two Takes,” Nov. 19, 2013) noted that “Chaplin didn’t have a mental template that he wanted Cherrill to match; he approaches the scene not quite knowing what he wanted.” Brody observed that the perfection Chaplin sought was one of results, and not of conformity to a preconceived schema. “He sought what provoked, in him, the perfect emotion, the perfect aesthetic response — but he wouldn’t know it until he saw it. He started to shoot in the confidence that the thing — whatever it was — would happen.” Chaplin’s technique can be seen in this clip from the Criterion Collection’s 2013 DVD release of the film. Note that this footage was shot by the New Yorker’s Ralph Barton, a close friend of Chaplin’s:

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Chaplin, Part Two

The Chaplin buzz was not confined to the movie section of the magazine, which featured more insights on the star in “The Talk of the Town.”

GENIUS LOVES COMPANY…Photo of Albert Einstein and Charlie Chaplin at the Los Angeles premiere of City Lights. Einstein said Chaplin was the only person in Hollywood he wanted to meet. (Wikipedia)

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Funny In a Different Way

Like City Lights, Tod Browning’s Dracula is today considered a classic film. Indeed, Bela Lugosi’s timeless portrayal of the old bloodsucker set a standard for vampire flicks and horror films in general. The New Yorker’s John Mosher, however, would have none of it, dismissing the film in a single paragraph.

PAIN INTHE NECK…Count Dracula (Bela Lugosi) goes for a nibble on the fragile Mina (Helen Chandler) in 1931’s Dracula. (IMDB)

Mosher was also dismissive of Fritz Lang’s By Rocket to the Moon, originally released in German as Frau Im Mond (Woman in the Moon). The 1929 production is considered one of the first “serious” science fiction movies, anticipating a number of technologies that would actually be used in space travel decades later.

RETRO ROCKET…Fritz Lang’s Woman in the Moon would predict a number of technologies used decades later in actual space flight, including multi-stage rockets. Lang also anticipated the future in the much-acclaimed Metropolis (1927).

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Bored on Broadway

Robert Benchley was visiting friends abroad, so Dorothy Parker did what any pal would do and subbed for his theater column. As it turned out, it was not a happy task, even if she did receive complementary tickets to one of the hottest shows on Broadway:

Having dispatched Katharine Cornell’s Barretts of Wimpole Street, Parker took aim at America’s Sweetheart, based on a book by Herbert Fields with music and lyrics by Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart. Parker ended the savaging with a plea to her dear friend and colleague to return home soon:

THEY LAUGHED, THEY CRIED…Katharine Cornell (left) portrayed Elizabeth Barrett in Barretts of Wimpole Street. Dorothy Parker thought Cornell was a first-rate actress, but didn’t think much of her play. As for Inez Courtney (right) in America’s Sweetheart, Parker believed she did what she could, whatever that meant. (Pinterest)

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Lest We Forget

The New Yorker turned six with this issue, and in the life of any magazine, that is something to be celebrated, and especially in hindsight as our beloved publication closes in on its centenary in 2025.

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From Our Advertisers

We’ve seen in past ads how Prohibition-era vintners marketed grape juice bricks that could be dissolved in water and fermented in the home. In this ad they took it a step further, sending expert cellarers direct to customers’ homes to help them create their own, perfectly legal, wine cellar…

…those with wine cellars might have preferred to live in a “highly restricted” community in Jackson Heights…

…and furnish their homes with the latest in modern furniture design…

…and here we have an early example of the “macho” smoker, anticipating the arrival of his buddy, the Marlboro Man…

…on to our cartoonists, another theater section entry by one of Charlie Chaplin’s closest friends, Ralph Barton

…and cartoons by Peter Arno, who channelled Dracula via his Sugar Daddy…

Garrett Price, and the burdens of the rich…

Denys Wortman examined the follies of youth…

…and we end with dear Helen Hokinson, and the miracle of birth…

Next Time: Chaplin of the Jungle…