Not Much to Cheer About

The cover of the Nov. 9, 1929 issue belied the mood of New Yorkers still reeling from the stock market crash. But then again, football games and other entertainments would grow in importance as much-needed distractions from the harsh realities that lay ahead.

Nov. 9, 1929 cover by Theodore G. Haupt. The title image is by James Montgomery Flagg, published in Life, November 15, 1929.

The New Yorker editors and writers were as bewildered as anyone in the aftermath of the crash. “The Talk of the Town” only gave it passing mention:

Robert Benchley, writing under the pseudonym “Guy Fawkes,” also looked at the market crash from the angle of the newspapers in “The Wayward Press” column. Naturally, Benchley tried to find humor in the midst of the disaster, noting that the crash provided some relief from tedious election coverage:

When the Nov. 9 New Yorker went to press, the stock market crash was viewed as a serious setback (in the sixth paragraph Benchley mentioned numerous reports of suicides), but not something that would result in worldwide depression. Indeed, much of the issue was devoted to lighter fare, including a rather lengthy piece in “Talk” about the latest craze among the nation’s youth — the yo-yo:

The Lumar 33, made of tin, was one of the original yo-yos produced by Louis Marx beginning in 1929. Hugely popular, it helped launch the Marx toy company empire. (WorthPoint)

BUT HE’S NO YO-YO…Louis Marx’s version of the yo-yo would help him launch a toy empire and land him on the cover of Time magazine, Dec. 12, 1955. (Time)

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Just Wait Until They Get iPads

The New Yorker showed less enthusiasm for a plan by Fox studios to introduce talking pictures into schools, hospitals and churches. Writing for “Talk,” E.B. White observed:

TECHNOLOGY INVADES THE CLASSROOM…Left to right, a still from a 1930 educational film showing archeologist Earl Morris gluing together pottery shards at a dig near Mesa Verde National Monument; ca. 1932 title card for a science film; detail from a ca. 1930 educational film demonstrating the wonders of liquid nitrogen. (archive.org)

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And Then There Was Light

The introduction of talking pictures in the classroom owed something to Thomas Edison (1847-1931), inventor of the incandescent light bulb and a pioneer in the development of motion pictures, among many other things. The invention of the light bulb was commemorated at a “Golden Jubilee” celebration in Dearborn, Michigan, and “The Talk of the Town” offered these observations on the occasion:

GIVING THEIR TWO CENT’S WORTH…Lights were ablaze in Dearborn, Mich., to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the light bulb’s invention. “Light’s Golden Jubilee” was staged by public relations guru Edward Bernays on behalf of General Electric; below, commemorative postage stamp for the occasion. (prmuseum.org/Wikipedia)

The jubilee was the brainchild of Edward Bernays (1891-1995), often referred to as “the father of public relations.” The author of the 1928 book Propaganda, Bernays worked for dozens of corporations, and is known for his efforts in 1929 to promote cigarette smoking among women (branding them “torches of freedom”). Ironically, a man that helped many women develop a habit that led to their early deaths himself lived to the ripe age of 103.

Albert Einstein sent his best wishes from Berlin via transatlantic radio (see below), and special guests at the Jubilee included Henry Ford and Harvey Firestone, seen here talking with the nearly-deaf Thomas Edison about the development of radio in this short “talkie” filmed at the Jubilee on Oct. 21, 1929:

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Please Release Me

Nunnally Johnson (1897-1977) was a journalist and film critic before breaking into the movies himself in the mid-1930s as a writer, producer and director of such films as The Grapes of Wrath (writer, producer) and The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit (writer, producer, director). As a critic Johnson learned what he didn’t like, including Al Jolson’s The Singing Fool, an early talking film that featured Jolson crooning the tear-jerker hit “Sonny Boy” to child actor Davey Lee, who portrayed his dying son. Nunnally responded with this parody titled “Sonny Boy’s Diary.” Some excerpts:

HOLD THE SCHMALTZ, AL…Nunnally Johnson, left, parodied the sentimental scenes Al Jolson shared with child actor Davey Lee in The Singing Fool. Johnson would go on to become a successful screenwriter, producer and director. (in.bookmyshow.com/virtual-history.com)

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Dream Space

New Yorker art critic Murdock Pemberton hailed the opening of a new museum, the Roerich, on the lower floors of the 27-story art deco Master Apartment Building. The building also housed the Master Institute of United Arts, founded in 1920 by Nicholas and Helena Roerich.

The art deco landmark Master Building on Riverside Drive (left, in 1929) originally housed the Roerich Museum in its lower floors. Today the Roerich is located in this brownstone at 319 West 107th. (Wikipedia)

FOOTNOTES FROM A FULL LIFE…Two of Nicholas Roerich’s paintings from the 1920s: at top, Remember, 1924; below, Drops of Life, 1924. (roerich.org)

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A Tenor for the Times

The crooner Rudy Vallée (1901-1986) became an overnight sensation after his Oct. 24, 1929 debut on national radio. Already a popular New York bandleader (and sometime local radio personality), his appearance on NBC’s Fleischmann’s Yeast Radio Hour made him a national sensation, especially among young women. According to Ian Whitcomb in his book, The Coming of the Crooners, Vallée’s thin, wavering tenor was not well-suited to the stage (especially in pre-microphone days when booming voices prevailed) but it worked magic on the radio, soft voices ideal for this more intimate medium (Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra and other popular crooners would soon follow). The New Yorker’s “On The Air” column (signed “A.S.”) had this to say about Vallée’s return:

BALM FOR WEARY SOULS…Rudy Vallée’s soothing voice and easy-going manner were just what the nation needed days after the stock market crash. According to Anthony Rudel of Old Time Radio, “At 8 pm on the night of October 24th, 1929, just after the ubiquitous Graham McNamee introduced him, Vallée became a national radio star.” It was the debut of NBC’s Fleischmann’s Yeast Radio Hour, which soon came to be known as the Rudy Vallée Show. (Fleischmann was also a major benefactor of the New Yorker). Photo at left, Vallée with McNamee; at right, child actor Dorothy Gray and Vallée in the comedy talkie, The Vagabond Lover (1929). (otrcat.com/IMDB)

A giant among conductors of the 20th century, Arturo Toscanini (1867-1957) was already well-known to live audiences in New York, having conducted at both the Metropolitan Opera and the New York Philharmonic. Unlike Vallée, the Italian conductor’s radio broadcast was limited to the range of the New York radio station WOR. Toscanini would make his national radio debut in the States in 1937, with the NBC Symphony Orchestra.

THE MAESTRO…Arturo Toscanini, renowned for his intensity and perfectionism, was said to have perfect pitch. After leaving fascist Italy in 1936, he became a household name across the US thanks to the NBC Symphony Orchestra’s presence both on national radio (beginning in 1937) and television (1948-1952). (The Economist)

The New Yorker also noted the successful transmission of three transatlantic broadcasts, including remarks spoken by Albert Einstein from Berlin to the Electric Light Golden Jubilee in Dearborn, Michigan:

RELATIVELY SPEAKING…Albert Einstein prepares to congratulate Thomas Edison via transatlantic radio on the 50th anniversary of the incandescent light bulb, Oct. 21, 1929. (UT College of Liberal Arts)

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From Our Advertisers

Now that we are post-market crash, we will be seeing the effects of that crash on New Yorker advertisers. Here are three advertisers from the Nov. 9 issue not long for the world: from left, the high-fashion salon Stewart & Company would file for bankruptcy and go out of business by the spring of 1930; Pierce-Arrow, maker of rolling status symbols for the wealthy, ceased car production in 1933; Hanan & Son, a leader in the mass production of shoes, would go bankrupt and fold by 1935.

Already at this early date advertisers were responding to tightening belts — this appeal from the Cuban Tourism Commission offered “an opportunity to forget business” while traveling on the cheap…

…other ads were the usual fare, this one from Lux Toilet soap featured its latest young celebrity, Dorothy McNulty (1908-2003), who changed her name to Penny Singleton in 1937 before starring in more than two-dozen Blondie-themed comedies (based on the Chic Young comic strip) with co-star Arthur Lake (who portrayed Dagwood Bumstead). She dyed her naturally brunette hair (as seen in the ad) blonde for the first Blondie movie in 1938, and continued to do so for the rest of her long life. A career that truly spanned several generations, she also provided the voice for Jane Jetson in The Jetsons in its original airing in the early 1960s and in later revivals through 1990…

THE MANY FACES OF PENNY SINGLETON…At left, before she was the film star Penny Singleton, Dorothy McNulty was a popular star on Broadway, as this ad from the Nov. 9 New Yorker attests. At top, Singleton with Blondie co-star Arthur Lake in the first installment of that popular 27-film series, 1938; a still from The Jetsons 1962-63, for which Singleton provided the voice of Jane Jetson. (IMDB/Hanna-Barbera)

…on to other ads, the one on the left is another sad example of how manufacturers of spirits tried to market non-alcoholic versions of their libations to Prohibition-starved Americans (“especially distilled for the American market”)…at right, an ad from Knox hatters, with a somber rendering of a young woman (maybe she’s headed to the party in the other ad) wearing a fashion that would be popular in the early Thirties…the old flapper hat, along with the Jazz Age, was dead as a doornail…

…oh well, at least you could stay healthy by smoking lots of cigarettes…

…we’ve seen ads illustrated by other New Yorker cartoonists including Peter Arno, Rea Irvin, and Julian De Miskey; Helen Hokinson got in on the action with this ad touting G. Washington instant coffee…the first instant coffee to be produced on a mass scale, G. Washington was so well known it was referred to as a “cup of George.” The brand was discontinued in 1961…

…on to our comics, an awkward moment courtesy Peter Arno

W.P. Trent illustrated a backstage exchange regarding the ado over a popular dance troupe, the Albertina Rasch Girls…

…for reference…

MGM publicity photo from 1929 of the Albertina Rasch Girls, who traveled to Hollywood to appear in the Technicolor finale of the film Hollywood Revue of 1929. (dimitritiomkin.com)

…and John Reynolds explored the clash of the Old World and the New…

…and before I go, a correction from my last post, in which I incorrectly attributed this poem in the Nov. 2 issue to British humorist P.G. Wodehouse:

An alert reader kindly pointed out that “Ode to Peter Stuyvesant” isn’t by Wodehouse, but by another person with the initials PGW — Philip G. Wylie.

Screenwriter and satirist Philip G. Wylie in an undated photo. (Wikipedia)

I always enjoy hearing from readers of this blog, and especially appreciate comments that help me keep this account historically accurate, as well as fun and informative.

Next Time: Back to Business…

 

The Last Summer

Winding down the last summer of the 1920s — an unusually hot one — one detects subtle changes in the New Yorker’s mood; weary from the decade-long party known as the Roaring Twenties, a bit more mature, and more confident in its voice thanks to the regular writings of James Thurber, E.B. White and Lois Long and copious cartoons and illustrations by such notables as Peter Arno and Helen Hokinson that gave the magazine a distinctively modern feel as it headed into the 1930s.

Aug. 10, 1929 cover by Theodore Haupt; Aug. 17 cover by Peter Arno.

The exuberance associated with the rapidly changing skyline was still there, however, as the Aug. 17 “Talk of the Town” speculated on the race for the world’s tallest building. The article not only anticipated an architect’s sleight of hand, but also a Zeppelin docking station that in the end would top the world’s tallest building:

As it turned out, William Van Alen did not have to compete against himself, the commission for One Wall Street instead going to Ralph Walker, who would design a beautiful art deco landmark that, at 50 stories, would not vie for the title of the world’s tallest building. Unbeknownst to the New Yorker, and perhaps Van Alen, the challenger would instead be 40 Wall Street, which would hold the crown as world’s tallest for about a month. Thanks to some sleight of hand (see caption below) the Chrysler building would quickly surpass 40 Wall Street and hold the title for just eleven months, bested in the end by the Empire State Building (which would sport a “Zeppelin superstructure”).

COMPENSATING FOR SOMETHING?…40 Wall Street (left) vied with the Chrysler Building for the title of the world’s tallest building. The 927-foot 40 Wall Street would claim the title in late April 1930. One month later, the Chrysler building would sprout a needle-like spire (secretly constructed inside the building) bringing its total height to 1,046 feet. The builders of 40 Wall Street cried foul and claimed that their building contained the world’s highest usable floor, whereas the Chrysler’s spire was strictly ornamental and inaccessible. Less than a year later the point was made moot when the Empire State Building soared above them both. (Wikipedia/The Skyscraper Museum)
ERECTILE DYSFUNCTION…Clockwise, from top left, progression of designs for the Chrysler Building; the building’s architect, William Van Alen; drawing from Popular Science Monthly (Aug. 1930) revealed the inner workings of the spire’s clandestine construction; Zeppelin docking station for the Empire State Building as imagined in a composite (faked) photograph. At 1,250 feet, the wind-whipped mooring mast proved not only impractical, but downright dangerous. In September 1931 a dirigible briefly lashed itself to the mast in 40 mph winds, and two weeks later the Goodyear Blimp Columbia managed to deliver a stack of Evening Journals to a man stationed on the tower. Contrary to the faked photograph, no passengers ever transferred from the tower to a Zeppelin. (Skyscraper City/Wikipedia/NY Times)

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What, Me Worry?

The famously flamboyant New York City Mayor Jimmy Walker lived the easy life during his initial years as Hizzonner, riding a booming economy, partying with the rich and famous (while flaunting Prohibition laws), carousing with his mistress (Ziegfield dancer Betty Compton) and sleeping until noon. When reform-minded Fiorello La Guardia challenged Walker’s reelection bid in 1929, Walker left the dirty work to his Tammany Hall cronies and continued to charm the public, and the New Yorker. The Aug. 17 “Talk of the Town” observed:

IT’S EASY BEING ME…Mayor Jimmy Walker accompanied actress Colleen Moore to the October 1928 premiere of her latest film, Lilac Time. (konreioldnewyork.blogspot.com)
I HAVE MY EYE ON YOU…Reform-minded Fiorello La Guardia (right) detested Jimmy Walker and his Tammany cronies, but that wasn’t enough to get him elected in 1929. The Great Depression would soon turn the tables. (Wikipedia)

Howard Brubaker, in his Aug. 17 “Of All Things” column, suggested that La Guardia had a zero chance of getting elected. Just three years later, Walker would resign amid scandal and flee to Europe. La Guardia, on the other hand, would be elected to the first of his three terms as mayor in 1933, riding the wave of the New Deal.

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Peek-A-Boo

Politics might have been business as usual, but in the world of fashion the vampish hat styles associated with flappers were giving way to a new rolled-brim look that seemed to suggest an aviator’s helmet. In her Aug. 17 fashion column “On and Off the Avenue,” Lois Long reported:

FACING THE FUTURE…Vampish hats of 1928, pictured at top, gave way to the rolled-brim or flare look of 1929. (Images gleaned from magazine/catalog images posted on Pinterest)

Long seemed to welcome the idea that women should once again bare their foreheads…

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Twain Wreck

Jumping back to the Aug. 10 issue, “The Talk of the Town” reported on the possible remodeling or demolition of a house once occupied by Samuel Clemens, aka Mark Twain. The house in question was a lavish old mansion built by Henry Brevoort, Jr. in 1834, at the northwest corner of Fifth Avenue and 9th Street. Twain lived in the house from 1905 to 1908, and it was there that Twain’s biographer Albert Paine conducted interviews with the author and wrote the four-volume Mark Twain, a Biography; The Personal and Literary Life of Samuel Langhorne Clemens. When millionaires abandoned their Fifth Avenue mansions in the 1920s and high-rise apartments took their place, there was pressure to either convert an old mansion like the Breevoort house at 21 Fifth Avenue to apartments or demolish it altogether.

LOOKING GOOD AFTER A CENTURY…At left, Berenice Abbott took this photograph of No. 21 Fifth Avenue in 1935. At right, in a close-up shot from the same period, the 1924 plaque from the Greenwich Village Historical Society is visible on the side of the house. (Museum of the City of New York/Greenwich Village Historical Society)
A NOW FOR SOMETHING COMPLETELY DIFFERENT…A proposed 1929 remodeling (left) moved the front door of the old Brevoort mansion to the center and lowered it to street level. At right, today the 1955 Brevoort apartment house occupies the site. (daytoninmanhattan.blogspot.com)

The Greenwich Village Historical Society did what it could to save the house, and in 1924 affixed a bronze plaque to a side wall noting that both Twain and Washington Irving were once occupants. When the house was slated for demolition in 1954, the Society appealed to New Yorkers to raise the $70,000 needed to move the building, but only a fraction of that amount was secured. No. 21 was demolished in 1954 along with the rest of the houses on that block.

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Charles Edward Chambers was an American illustrator probably best known for his Chesterfield ads, although he also illustrated stories for a number of popular magazines from the early 1900s until his death in 1941. The Aug. 10 “Talk of the Town” looked in on his work with model Virginia Maurice:

QUICK…THROW THAT MAN A CIGARETTE!…Examples of Charles Edward Chambers’ Chesterfield ads from 1929 featuring model Virginia Maurice. Note that Maurice is wearing the latest “rolled brim” hat style in the upper image. (Pinterest)
HIS NONSMOKING SECTION…A 1919 Harper’s cover illustration by Charles Edward Chambers. (Wikipedia)

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Mama’s Boy

Lou Gehrig rivaled Babe Ruth as a top Murderer’s Row slugger for the 1929 Yankees, yet he couldn’t be more opposite in his lifestyle. A teetotaler and nonsmoker, Gehrig was completely devoted to mom (pictured below in 1927). Niven Busch Jr. submitted this profile of Gehrig for the Aug. 10 issue. Excerpts:

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After appearing as Al Jolson’s dying son in The Singing Fool (1928), the child actor Davey Lee returned to the screen for yet another Jolson weeper, 1929’s Say It With Songs. Once again portraying Jolson’s son—this time crippled and rendered dumb after being hit by a truck—he miraculously recovers at the end of the film. The New Yorker wasn’t having any of this sentimental treacle, especially served up for a second time…

LET’S PRAY FOR A BIG BOX OFFICE…Davey Lee and Al Jolson in Say It With Songs. (IMDB)

…and the magazine hoped for something a bit less somber from Jolson in the future, suggesting that he “give the tragic muse the air”…

In the same issue of the New Yorker, this advertisement touted Jolson’s recording of “Little Pal” from Say It With Songs (note the blackface image of Jolson—his unfortunate trademark back in the day)…

…happily, there were other movies that offered less schmaltzy diversions, including Norma Shearer’s comedy-drama The Last of Mrs. Cheyney, in which Shearer portrayed the jewel thief Fay Cheyney…

OH BASIL YOU ANIMAL…Theatre card for The Last of Mrs. Cheyney. (IMDB)

…often cast as a heavy in silent films, it was the “talkies” that made William Powell a star, his pleasant voice more suited to a hero or leading man than a villain. In The Greene Murder Case, Powell portrayed amateur detective Philo Vance, a role that he played in another 1929 release, The Canary Murder Case (originally filmed as a silent in 1928), both based on mystery novels by S.S. Van Dine. Powell would portray Philo Vance in three more films from 1930 to 1933 until he took on the role of another amateur detective, Nick Charles, in 1934’s The Thin Man (a role he would reprise five times from 1936 to 1947)…

WHODUNNIT? YOUDUNNIT!…William Powell as detective Philo Vance, Florence Eldridge as Sibella Greene, and Jean Arthur as Ada Greene in 1929’s The Greene Murder Case. (IMDB)
KEEPING IT QUIET…William Powell as Philo Vance and Louise Brooks as “the Canary,” a scheming nightclub singer, in The Canary Murder Case. Brooks was a huge star in the silent era and the iconic flapper. According to IMDB, the film was shot as a silent in 1928, but producers decided to rework it as a more profitable “talkie.” When Brooks refused to return from Germany (where she was filming Pandora’s Box) to dub the movie, Paramount spread the word that Brooks’ voice was not suited to sound film, although later productions made by Brooks proved this to be wrong. Actress Margaret Livingston ultimately supplied Brooks’ voice for Canary. 

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From Our Advertisers

We look at some advertisements from the August 17 issue, including this one from Past Blue Ribbon. Note that nowhere in the ad is the word “beer” used, this being a “near-beer” with less than 1% alcohol content by volume. In addition to making cheese (a Velveeta-like product), Pabst hoped to keep its company alive by selling this “brew” during the unusually hot summer of 1929…

…and with that blazing sun advertisers also promoted a number of face creams and powders to those “enjoying the sunny outdoor life,” including this two-page spread from Richard Hudnut and Poudre Le Débutclick to enlarge

…the outdoor life could also be enjoyed in a convertible Packard 640, a car that was a cut above a Lincoln or Cadillac, and was considered by some to be America’s answer to the Rolls Royce…

A 1929 Packard 640 Convertible. This particular model can be had today for about $130,000. (Hemmings Motor News)

…I found this ad in the back pages interesting for its crude design yet overt appeal to snobbishness with this haughty pair…

…and here is what the Park Lane looked like when it opened in 1924…

Circa 1924 advertisement from the Sargent lock and hardware company touting its fixtures in the new Park Lane hotel apartments. At right, circa 1924 image from The American Architect depicting the Park Lane’s dining room. The building is long gone, razed some time in the 1960s to make way for an office tower. (Pinterest)

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This week’s featured illustration is by Constantin Alajalov, who depicted a summer scene from the Southampton Beach Club…click to enlarge…

…our cartoonists from the Aug. 10 issue include Helen Hokinson, who looked at the challenges of Americans abroad…

I. Klein observed the changing mores of movie houses (a couple of “damns” were apparently uttered in the talking pictures of 1929)…

…and Leonard Dove offered up a double entendre of sorts…

…cartoons for the Aug. 17 issue included a peek behind the scenes at a motivational speaker courtesy Peter Arno

Kindl had some fun with the juxtaposition of a matron and a flapper hat…

…and for reference, the cloche hat called a “Scalawag” was featured in this ad by Knox in the March 30, 1929 New Yorker

Garrett Price portrayed the antics of an ungrateful trust fund brat, who probably did not have that million dollars after the market crash…

…and this fellow, depicted by Mary Petty, who doubtless would be less nonchalant come Oct. 28, or what we know as “Black Monday”…

Next Time: Hooray for Hollywood…

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Tastemakers

Modernism in interior design gained a wider audience in the 1920s thanks in part to a series of major exhibitions sponsored by some of New York City’s leading department stores.

Sept. 29, 1928 cover by Rea Irvin.

Although the New Yorker continued to feature advertisements for traditional styles of furniture, such as this one from the Sept. 22, 1928 issue…

…it was clear that the appetites of the city’s younger “smart set” were being whetted by retailers such as Macy’s, who in May 1927 hosted an “Exposition of Art in Trade” that included 100 exhibitors of modern European and American silver, pottery, books, textiles and furniture. The following spring Macy’s hosted the “International Exposition of Art in Industry,” where more than 250,000 visitors saw the work of more than 300 exhibitors from six countries. (This blog’s opening photo features a 1928 sideboard by Kem Weber, one of the exhibitors at Macy’s 1928 show. Photo courtesy Cooper Hewitt Collection).

TRENDSETTERS…R. H. Macy & Co. hosted the International Exposition of Art in Industry in the spring of 1928. At right, an interior scene at the exposition, with a chair designed by Walter Von Nessen. (socalarchhistory.blogspot.com/wright20.com)

Macy’s inspired other exhibitions by such retailers as Wanamaker’s, Abraham & Straus, Frederick Loeser, Lord & Taylor, and B. Altman & Co., which advertised its “20th Century Taste in the New Expression of the Arts in Home Furnishings” in the Sept. 29, 1928 issue of the New Yorker:

Writer Bertram Bloch reviewed the exhibit in the Oct. 6 issue. Although he suggested that he had some “hard, cruel things” to say about the show, overall he believed it something not to be missed. Excerpts:

THE SMART LOOK…B. Altman & Company showcased designs including, clockwise, from upper left, a dining room by Charles B. Falls; a conversation room by Steele Savage; a bedroom by Charles B. Falls; and a salon section by Dominique. (Art Institute of Chicago)
FADED GLORY…Clockwise, from upper left, The B. Altman flagship store at 34th Street and 5th Avenue and a closer view of the front entrance in 1915; closed in 1989, the flagship store is now used by the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, among other tenants. The mahogany-paneled Fifth Avenue foyer survives intact, however the exterior looks a bit hosed-down, with the Ionic capitals removed from the columns as well as the lintels that banded the windows and the cornice on top. (Museum of the City of New York/daytoninmanhattan)

While on the topic of modern furniture, Ilonka Karasz, who painted a total of 186 New Yorker covers from 1924 to 1973, showcased her own furniture designs (along with other artists from the American Designers’ Gallery), at an exhibition the following month.

NEW YORKER COVER ARTIST Ilonka Karasz designed this dining room for the American Designers Gallery Exhibition in October 1928.  (Art Institute of Chicago)

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The Singing Fool

The New Yorker generally detested the introduction of sound in motion pictures, but for some reason didn’t mind it so much when Al Jolson opened his mouth. This time he followed up his blackface performance in The Jazz Singer with another blackface routine in The Singing Fool. E.B. White wrote about the film’s big opening in “The Talk of the Town”…

…and in the magazine’s film review section, yet more praise for Jolson, whose singing apparently compensated for the mediocre dialogue:

SERVED WITH A SIDE OF HAM…One of a series of promo slides for The Singing Fool, featuring Al Jolson, child actor Davey Lee, and the saccharine lyrics for Sonny Boy, said to be the first pop record to sell more than million copies. (nitrateville.com)
THAT WAS ENTERTAINMENT…Theatre lobby card for 1928’s The Singing Fool. (IMDB)

The Sept. 29 issue illustrates the dichotomy in how the New Yorker depicted African Americans in the 1920s. Blacks in the magazine’s cartoons and illustrations were often portrayed as minstrel characters, picaninnies or mammies. However, a serious artist like Paul Robeson received a much different treatment. Indeed, the magazine shamed the racism of a fictional character in Dorothy Parker’s short story “Arrangement in Black and White” (Oct. 8, 1927), in which a wealthy, white woman condescends to a black singer who might well have been modeled after Robeson. The journalist and author Mildred Gilman profiled Robeson in the very same issue that praised Jolson’s tired blackface routine. An excerpt, accompanied by a Hugo Gellert illustration:

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Next Time Wear a Disguise

The newlywed Gene Tunney (also newly retired from boxing) was spending some time in Europe, probably hoping to get a break from the adoring crowds back in the States. Upon entering a French café with his friend, the author Thornton Wilder, he soon discovered that adoring crowds awaited him on the other side of the pond, as related by the New Yorker’s Paris correspondent Janet “Genêt” Flanner:

ENJOYING SOME DOWN TIME…The boxer Gene Tunney, left, and the writer George Bernard Shaw on a 1929 vacation to Brioni. (Associated Press)

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From Our Advertisers

Although by 1928 Americans (and particularly New Yorkers) were flouting Prohibition laws, alcoholic beverages still could not be legally produced or marketed (except for “religious” or “medicinal” purposes). Advertisers, however, found clever ways to market non-alcoholic beverages like ginger ale with the allure of liquor or fine wine. But then again, few were actually drinking straight ginger ale…

And if you formerly grew grapes for winemaking, what’s preventing you from selling unpasteurized grape juice that remains free from fermentation “as long as the factory seal remains unbroken”…? Also, note the not-so-subtle cocktail shaker at the top left of the photo:

And for our cartoons, Barbara Shermund explored the modern ways of love…

…while Peter Arno continued probing the comic imbalance of rich old men and their young mistresses…

Next Time: A Bird’s Eye View…

 

 

Age of the Talkies

The Oct. 15, 1927 issue featured the premiere of the film The Jazz Singer. Although the New Yorker found the story a bit dull, it also recognized that the film’s use of sound marked a significant turning point in the short history of cinema.

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October 15, 1927 cover by Theodore G. Haupt.

The Jazz Singer was not the first film to employ sound, but as the New Yorker review pointed out, it was the first to effectively use synchronized sound (the industry standard Vitaphone technique) in a way that improved the motion picture.

The film featured only two minutes worth of sound dialogue, so most of the spoken lines were still presented on intertitle cards commonly used in silent films. But it was Al Jolson’s recorded voice, belting out popular tunes including “Toot, Toot, Tootsie,” that really wowed audiences. At the end of the film Jolson himself appeared on stage before an audience “clapping and bellowing with joy”…

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IT SINGS! IT TALKS!!!…Al Jolson as Jack Robin and Eugenie Besserer as his mother, Sara Rabinowitz, in The Jazz Singer. One attendee at the premiere recalled that when Jolson and Besserer began their dialogue scene, “the audience became hysterical.” (wired.com)

It is interesting that as early as 1927, and even with the relatively crude sound of Vitaphone, the New Yorker was already predicting the advent of a new kind of star (and the decline of the stage actor)…

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BLACK TIE EVENT…A Vitaphone projection setup at a 1926 demonstration. Western Electric engineer E. B. Craft, left, is holding a soundtrack disc, which was essentially a phonograph record. The turntable, on a thick tripod base, is at lower center. (Wikipedia)

As for the movie itself, well, there was Jolson, beloved by many. Perhaps it’s the sound quality, or the 89 years of changing tastes, but I cannot for life of me understand what audiences (or the New Yorker) saw that was so appealing about Al Jolson as a performer.

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THAT WAS THEN…Al Jolson as Jack Robin in The Jazz Singer. Although performing in blackface is considered racist today, Jolson’s use of blackface was integral to the film in that it was tied to Jack’s own Jewish heritage and his struggle for identity. Of course that doesn’t make it any less offensive today. (theredlist)

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Absent-minded Ambassador

The New Yorker’s “Talk of the Town” offered some curious observations about the new ambassador to Mexico, Dwight Morrow.

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SON-IN-LAW…Aviator Charles Lindbergh would marry Dwight Morrow’s daughter, Anne, in 1929. in this photo from 1931 are, from left, Charles Lindbergh, Anne Morrow Lindbergh, Elisabeth Morrow, and Dwight Morrow. (kaiology.wordpress.com)

Morrow has been widely hailed as a brilliant ambassador with a keen intellect. The New Yorker, however, offered some additional perspective on the man:

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Flight of Fancy

In the wake of Charles Lindbergh’s famous flight, the New Yorker (and the rest of the country) continued its fascination with air travel, which at this point was confined to military and commercial pilots, stunt flyers and the well-to-do.

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The Fokker F.VII pictured above is likely the same plane or very similar to the one owned by Texas oilman William Denning. The interior depicted below is also similar to what is described in the New Yorker article. (aviation-history.com)

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RIP Isadora Duncan

The New Yorker’s Paris correspondent, Janet Flanner, wrote of the funeral of famed modern dancer Isadora Duncan in her column, “Letter from Paris.” Duncan was killed in a freak accident on the night of Sept. 14, 1927 when her silk scarf, draped around her neck, became entangled around the open-spoked wheels of the car in which she was riding, breaking her neck.

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Isadora Duncan (ati.com)

Other items of note from the Oct. 15 issue, E.B. White contributed this ditty…

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…and Corey Ford, who gave the fictional Eustace Tilley his persona, wrote of Tilley’s feat crossing Broadway in a parody of adventure stories popular at the time. An excerpt:

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And finally, Peter Arno explored childhood angst among the smart set:

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Next Time: Electric Wonders…

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