Hooray for Hollywood

MGM piled so many stars and gimmicks into the premiere of The Hollywood Revue of 1929 that even the New Yorker’s jaded film critic John Mosher had to admit he was entertained.

Aug. 24, 1929 cover by Helen Hokinson.

Although today’s audiences would find the film quaint and corny (not to mention its tinny sound and crude editing), it was a big hit in 1929. A plotless revue featuring nearly all of MGM’s stars (Greta Garbo said no — she had a clause in her contract exempting her from such silly things; Lon Chaney, on the other hand, was in failing health), the film followed a variety format similar to such vaudeville productions as the Ziegfeld Follies. The Arthur Freed/Herb Nacio Brown song “Singin’ In the Rain” was introduced in this film, and would inspire the Gene Kelley musical by the same name 23 years later. A rarity for the time, the Hollywood Revue included four skits in an early version of Technicolor, including an all-cast performance of “Singing’ In the Rain.” Mosher observed:

One of the film’s color skits featured John Gilbert and Norma Shearer in a Romeo and Juliet parody filled with Jazz Age slang. It would mark the beginning of the end of Gilbert’s career and, sadly, his life. He was one of the silent era’s most popular leading men, but it was purported that his voice was not suited to the talkies. What really ended Gilbert’s career, however, was studio head Louis B. Mayer, who clashed with the actor both personally and professionally…click any image below to enlarge…

FAREWELL ROMEO…A lobby card promoting The Hollywood Revue of 1929 featured John Gilbert and Norma Shearer in one the film’s color sequences, a parody of Romeo and Juliet filled with Jazz Age slang. At right, a scene from the skit in which the director (played by Lionel Barrymore, far right) tells Shearer and Gilbert to put more pizzazz into the act. (IMDB/YouTube)
STAR-STUDDED…Left to right, early silent film comedian Marie Dressler hammed it up in a royal court skit; co-emcee Jack Benny, with his trademark violin, and Cliff “Ukulele Ike” Edwards, and his trademark uke. (vickielester.com/doctormacro.com/thejumpingfrog.com)
DANCING IS GOOD FOR YOUR HEALTH…Chorus girl Carla Laemmle in the film’s “Tableau of Jewels,” in which she emerged from a seashell to perform a seductive (and weird) dance number while other showgirls posed on a revolving crown — all set to a tune sung offstage by James Burroughs. The niece of Universal Pictures founder Carl Laemmle, Carla Laemmle was one of the longest surviving actors of the silent era. She died in 2014 at age 104. (songbook1.wordpress.com)
GALAXY OF STARS…Clockwise, from top left, lobby card for The Hollywood Revue of 1929; Charles King, Joan Crawford, Conrad Nagel (a co-emcee along with Jack Benny) and Cliff “Ukulele Ike” Edwards show off their dancing skills; lobby card featuring actress Marion Davies; a popular act in vaudeville and on Broadway, the Brox Sisters—Lorayne, Patricia and Bobbe (along with Cliff Edwards) introduced the song “Singin’ in the Rain,” also sung by the entire cast near the finale of the movie. (joancrawfordbest.com/mubi.com)

…MGM deployed a number of stunts to generate publicity at the film’s New York premiere at the Astor Theatre, including a “human billboard” that featured scantily clad chorus girls precariously perched on a huge letters high above the theatre’s entrance. In a rather less dangerous stunt—during the movie’s “Orange Blossom Time” skit—a faint scent of orange blossoms wafted into the theatre. “The Talk of the Town” observed…

WHAT COULD POSSIBLY GO WRONG?…Showgirls arranged along narrow catwalks atop the glowing HOLLYWOOD REVUE sign would pose for hours above crowds of gawkers; top, an advertisement promoting “The Stunt of the Century”; bottom, chorus girls lined up on somewhat safer ground in a skit from the movie titled “Lon Chaney’s Gonna Get You If You Don’t Watch Out.” Chaney himself was near death and did not appear in the film. (oldphotoarchive.com/anndvorak.com)
Another angle shows just how precarious this stunt proved to be for these brave chorus girls, who held their poses for hours on end. (legendaryjoancrawford.com)

…here’s a clip from the film featuring MGM stars “Singin’ in the Rain”…see how many stars you can recognize…

…in the first row the camera pans by George Arthur, Joan Crawford, Marion Davies, Buster Keaton…second row, Bobbe Brox, Cliff Edwards, Patricia Brox, Gus Edwards, Lorayne Brox, Conrad Nagel, Anita Page, Charles King, Marie Dressler…not sure about the last two…

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Technological Adjustments

If you listened to the above clip, then you will understand what James Thurber was getting at when he observed that actors in talking pictures all sound as if they are speaking into cracker boxes. In this hilarious piece (titled “The Roaring Talkies”), he proposed a solution. An excerpt:

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A Happy Diversion

“The Talk of the Town” (via Theodore Pratt) looked in on the hobbyists who raced model boats at Central Park’s Conservatory Lake, a happy tradition that began in the late 19th century and continues to this day:

A DAY AT THE RACES….Model sailboats (left) prepare to face off in 1910 at Conservatory Lake (also called Conservatory Water); at right, model sailors at the same lake around 1920. (Library of Congress)

Pratt also described the old wooden boathouse, which was replaced in 1954 with a somewhat grander structure, Kerbs Boathouse, where model boats are still stored…

STILL SAILING…The copper-roofed Kerbs Boathouse replaced a wooden structure in 1954. Conservatory Lake served as the setting for a model boat race in E.B. White’s Stuart Little. (centralparknyc.org)

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On the Other Hand…

Leaving the cool and quiet of the park brought one quickly back into the dust and clamor of the metropolis. Pratt observed that the summer season lasted two weeks longer in the city than in the country, thanks to the city’s heat island effect— perhaps an unwelcome observation given the usually hot summer of 1929. Not only did the city’s heat extend the season, but it also kept the city enveloped in “an enormous cloud of dust”…

HAZY DAYS OF SUMMER…A dusty haze hangs over Lower Manhattan as the Third Avenue elevated train rumbles by in this circa 1950 photo. (AP)

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Already Feeling Old?

I found this “Talk” item curious for exploring the sentimental attachment some folks had developed for old cars from the 1910s, given those cars were barely 20 years old and cars in general hadn’t been in common use much longer…

…as for another “Talk” item, I doubt modern New Yorker readers would find any humor in this observation:

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On to sillier things, Robert Benchley turned in a casual titled “Boost New York!” Benchley ridiculed a promotional brochure from the New York Merchants Association that touted various statistics in a manner reminiscent of the fictional George Babbitt. Benchley imagined how an Iowa couple might respond to such dazzling numbers:

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A Drinking Life

Occasionally I like to feature infrequent or one-time New Yorker contributors who are nearly lost to history. Frank Ward O’Malley (1875-1932), a reporter for the New York Sun from 1906-19, was known for his humorous stories. In 1928 he published a book titled The Swiss Family O’Malley. In this casual (titled “The Fatty Degeneration of Broadway”) from the Aug. 24 issue, O’Malley described an alcohol intervention of sorts and then his fall off the wagon. Here are the opening and closing paragraphs, along with his photo circa 1910s.

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From Our Advertisers

This week we have an advertisement for the Drake Apartment Hotel, claiming to be the “smartest” in New York. Note how they employed what seems to be the same pointy-nosed, haughty couple that we saw last week (below) who endorsed the Park Lane (I want to believe there is a subtle joke here)…

…just 25 years removed from the Wright Brothers’ flight at Kitty Hawk, advertisers were treating flying as though it were routine…

A better photo of the Ireland Neptune Amphipian (aerofiles.com)

…and this young woman seemed to think flying was nothing more than “playing ring around the rosy with the clouds”…

…I like the reviews included in this bookseller’s ad, especially the first one for the book Ex-Wife by Anonymous (it was written by Ursula Parrott, a writer of romantic fiction)…

…our illustrations include Abe Birnbaum’s contribution to the casuals section (breaking up the copy of one of Josie Turner’s Elsie Dinsmore parodies)…

Reginald Marsh illustrated the late summer beach scene at Coney Island…

…and for kicks this nice little filler by Constantin Alajalov

…thanks to the skills of the New Yorker’s first layout artist, Popsy Whitaker, we have this whimsical pairing of Otto Soglow and Dorothy Parker

Mary Petty contributed a cartoon that looks contemporary…

Peter Arno paid a visit to the doctor’s office…

…and commented on his life as a new father…the woman holding the baby was doubtless inspired by his wife, New Yorker columnist Lois Long

…for reference, Peter Arno and Lois Long are pictured here with baby daughter Patricia Arno in 1928…Lois clearly had a better grasp on the situation than Arno had imagined…

Arno and Long with their baby daughter, Patricia, in 1928. (Vanity Fair)

Alice Harvey eavesdropped on a conversation between teenagers…

…and like Peter Arno, Leonard Dove had two cartoons in this issue…here an editor finds the former Prohibition enforcer no longer newsworthy…

…and over on the East Side, rumors of gentrification…

Next Time: A Carnival in the Air…

 

Happy 1929!

I’ve been writing this blog for nearly three years, and during that stretch have managed to cover more than 200 issues of the New Yorker, or about the first four years of the magazine.

Dec. 22, 1928 and Dec. 29, 1928 covers by Rea Irvin.

The amount of young talent on display in those early issues is truly astounding, from writers such as E.B. White, Dorothy Parker and James Thurber (writer and cartoonist) to illustrators and cartoonists including Peter Arno, Rea Irvin, Helen Hokinson, Miguel Covarrubias and Ilonka Karasz, to name just a few. Among the contributing artists was Abe Birnbaum, who illustrated more than 150 covers for the New Yorker from the 1940s to 1970s. One of his earliest contributions to the magazine was this illustration for the “Profile” section in the Dec. 22 issue:

Canadian artist Shelley Davies writes in her blog that Birnbaum “charmingly captured some of life’s quieter moments with a deft eye.” In addition to the New Yorker, Birnbaum illustrated numerous covers for Stage and Arts In America, and won a Caldecott Award in 1954 for his children’s book, Green Eyes.

ON THE QUIETER SIDE…Abe Birnbaum (pictured here circa 1960) created more than 150 covers for the New Yorker from the 1940s to the 1970s. At right, a cover from March 17, 1962. (google.com.br)

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A couple of select advertisements from the Dec. 22 reveal what retailers knew, or thought they knew, about the magazine’s readership. Franklin & Simon, seeking perhaps to broaden their market for furs, suggested that even a stylish French woman might prefer a fur fashioned as a modest “sports wrap”…

…as for the guys, Saks appealed to the anglophilia that apparently was rife among New York’s smart set. Check out the ridiculous hat gracing the noggin of this young dandy…

Well-heeled readers who could afford to flee the New York winter were targeted by these various enticements in the Dec. 22 issue (this is a collage of select ads found in the back pages of the issue):

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Hello Down There

Writing about New Yorker humor derived from class distinctions, Ben Yagoda (About Town: The New Yorker and the World It Made, p. 63) noted a series of cartoons by Otto Soglow that began with this one in the Dec. 22, 1928 issue and continued through thirty installments that ran to early 1930, when the workers, Joe and Bill, finally emerged from the manhole:

This running gag, according to Yagoda, “came from the conceit that the laborers spoke with the same assumptions and in the same catchphrases as those with ‘higher’ places in society.”

Also from the Dec. 22 issue, this terrific cartoon by Leonard Dove that showed a bookish man who had accidentally entered the wrong type of book-making establishment:

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The Girl Who Wouldn’t Grow Up

Maude Adams was a major Broadway star in the early years of the 20th century. Appearing in more than 25 productions from 1888 to 1916, she was most famous for her portrayal of Peter Pan in the Broadway production of Peter Pan; or, The Boy Who Wouldn’t Grow Up. She performed that role first in 1905-06 and again in 1912 and 1915. The highest-paid performer of her day, at her peak she earned more than $1 million a year, a staggering sum more than a century ago. James Thurber, writing in the Dec. 29 “Talk of the Town,” reported that after a decade-long absence from the stage, Adams was planning a comeback as a director:

STAR POWER…At left, American actress Maude Adams, circa 1900. At right, Adams as Peter Pan, her most famous stage role. Adams was the first American to portray Peter Pan on the stage. She played the role 1,500 times between 1905-1915. She retired from the stage in 1918 after a severe bout with the flu. She died at age 80 in 1953. (Wikipedia/Oakland Tribune)

Thurber also noted that Adams was working with General Electric in the development of color photography. According to the Trivia Library, it has been suggested that her motivation might have been a wish to appear in a color film version of Peter Pan. She eventually returned to acting in the 1930s, with occasional appearances in regional productions of Shakespeare plays.

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A Lukewarm Welcome to 1929

The Dec. 29 New Yorker opened with these lamentations for the last issue of 1928. At least it appears that one could obtain a decent bottle of French champagne to toast the New Year:

JAM SESSION…1929 photo of traffic on Fifth Avenue. (theoldmotor.com)

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The Passing of a Poet

The Dec. 29 issue featured something unprecedented in the New Yorker up to that point: the reprinting of an entire piece previously featured in the magazine. In this case, it was in tribute to the sudden passing of poet and author Elinor Wylie:

PORTRAITS…Elinor Wylie posed for her friend Carl Van Vechten in this 1922 portrait (left). The photo at right, probably taken around 1926, was clearly the inspiration for the illustration by Peter Arno that accompanied “Portrait.” (Yale University/humorinamerica.wordpress.com)

It is no wonder that the New Yorker had such affection for Wylie, for she was as colorful a personality as could be found in 1920s literary circles. A Columbia University Press bio notes that “she was famous during her life almost as much for her ethereal beauty and personality as for her melodious, sensuous poetry.” Born to a socially prominent family and trained for a life in society, she instead became notorious for her multiple marriages and love affairs. She also suffered from extremely high blood pressure that gave her unbearable migraines.

Wylie died on Dec. 16, 1928, while going over a typescript of her poetry collection, Angels and Earthly Creatures, with her estranged third husband, William Rose Benét. According to Karen Stein (in the Dictionary of Literary Biography), Wylie, while picking up a volume of John Donne’s poems, asked Benét for a glass of water. When he returned with it, she reportedly walked toward him and murmured, “Is that all it is?,” and fell to the floor, dead of a stroke. She was 43.

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Age of Innocence

The Dec. 29 theatre review section featured this illustration by Al Frueh of Katharine Cornell in the Empire Theatre’s production of The Age of Innocence:

And below, a studio portrait of Cornell from the same play:

HOW SHE REALLY LOOKED…Katharine Cornell as ‘Countess Ellen Olenska’ in this Vandamm Studio portrait dated November 27, 1928. (Billy Rose Theatre Collection, The New York Public Library)

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Before Baby Snooks

Although it was still a few years before singer and actress Fanny Brice would make her radio debut as the bratty toddler named “Snooks,” she was already well-known to New York audiences for her work in the Ziegfeld Follies (beginning in 1910). In its Dec. 29 issue the New Yorker favorably reviewed Brice’s first motion picture, My Man, which included musical scenes with Vitaphone sound:

MY MAN…Fanny Brice, Guinn Williams, and Edna Murphy on the set of the partially silent film My Man, 1928. Her first movie appearance, Brice played Fanny Brand, a poor girl who becomes a star. The film is now considered lost, since only an incomplete version survives. (brice.nl)
THROUGH THE YEARS…At left, singer and actress Fanny Brice from the time she was a Ziegfeld Follies girl, circa 1915. At right, Brice in the role of Baby Snooks, 1940. (Vintage Everyday/Wikipedia)

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Let’s Get Physical

Even 90 years ago some folks (or at least some New Yorkers) resolved to get healthy and hit the gym in the New Year. In this ad, McGovern’s Gymnasium announced it was ready for them:

Babe Ruth trains at Artie McGovern’s Gym in NYC for the upcoming baseball season, February 9, 1928. (twitter.com/BSmile)

And to close out 1928, a cartoon from John Reehill

Next Time: Out With the Old…