The Unspeakables

For all its embrace of the modern city and its technological wonders, the New Yorker mostly despaired of the changes wrought by the introduction of sound to motion pictures.

June 1, 1929 cover by Rea Irvin.

Granted, early sound technology was primitive, with directors, actors and crew members adapting on the fly to the demands of a new medium that required absolute silence on film sets and cumbersome microphones that severely limited the movements of actors. Screenwriters, accustomed to writing brief intertitles in silent films, now had to write expository dialogue, and actors had to rely less on exaggerated facial expressions and body movements and more on the spoken word. And it helped if you didn’t have a speech impediment or heavy accent.

Writing for “The Reporter at Large” column (titled “The Unspeakables”), Hollywood correspondent Jean-Jacques lamented that the talkies were “here to stay”…

BARNLIKE STAGES were erected on both coasts to produce early silent films. Clockwise, from top left, Fox’s World Paragon Studios in Ft. Lee, NJ, circa 1917; interior of the studio; several films in production, side-by-side, at Edison’s Bronx studio, circa 1915; Fox studios in Los Angeles, 1920s. (moviemice.com/Wikipedia)

Jean-Jacques recalled the professions that would now be lost to the talkies, including the “mood musicians” who played their instruments on silent film sets in order to evoke emotions from the actors…

IN THE MOOD…During the silent era “mood musicians” were hired to play their instruments on film sets in order to evoke emotions from the actors. (Pinterest)
THE SILENCE of SOUND…In the early days of the talkies the entire set had to be silent, and special care had to be taken to ensure loud cameras were housed in soundproof boxes such as those pictured above. Instead of the introduction of sound expanding the capabilities of filmmaking, it was often limited by the bulky gear used to capture that sound. Therefore, many films consisted of “stage” musical numbers that were static shots. (Caption and image at left courtesy Colorado College. Image at right from cinecollage.net)

The writer also noted the challenges that faced “the old scenario writer…hemmed in by a multitude of new rivals…

WE HAVE WAYS OF MAKING YOU TALK…Dorothy Arzner (left) poses with “It Girl” Clara Bow in a publicity shot for The Wild Party, Bow’s first talking picture. Bow is famously quoted as saying (in 1930) “I hate talkies. They’re stiff and limiting. You lose a lot of your cuteness, because there’s no chance for action.” Arzner tried to remedy that problem: she is credited with inventing the boom mike, which allowed for greater movement by the actor. (Paramount Pictures/Wikimedia Commons)

Jean-Jacques recounted the frustrations experienced by one old-time actor dealing with the limitations of bulky sound equipment…

This actor was not alone, A number of major silent film stars including Charlie Chaplin, Louise Brooks, and Clara Bow did not embrace the novelty of sound pictures. Motion Picture Classic magazine (September 1930) quoted Bow as saying, “I hate talkies … they’re stiff and limiting. You lose a lot of your cuteness, because there’s no chance for action, and action is the most important thing to me.” According to the article, a visibly nervous Bow had to do a number of retakes in The Wild Party because her eyes kept wandering up to the microphone overhead.

SILENCE IS GOLDEN…A number of major silent film stars including (from left) Louise Brooks, Charlie Chaplin and Clara Bow did not embrace the novelty of sound pictures. (Wikipedia)

Jean-Jacques signed off his New Yorker piece with the hope that someday pictures and sound would be combined into a worthy new art form…

Perhaps Jean-Jacques had to look no further than Manhattan’s Rialto Theatre to find that first glimmer of hope, for it was there that the Marx Brothers were tearing up the screen in their first talking picture, The Cocoanuts, reviewed in the magazine’s “The Current Cinema” column…

If the New Yorker was looking for snappy dialogue in motion pictures, there was plenty of it in The Cocoanuts, including this snippet between Groucho Marx, playing Mr. Hammer—an unscrupulous manager of a bankrupt Florida hotel—and wealthy hotel guest Mrs. Potter, played by Margaret Dumont…

Hammer: Do you know that property values have increased since 1929 one thousand per cent? Do you know that this is the biggest development since Sophie Tucker? Do you know that Florida is the show spot of America and Cocoanut Manor the black spot of Florida?

Mrs. Potter:  You told me that yesterday.

Hammer: I know but I left out a comma.

Or this gem…

Hammer, to Mrs. PotterJust think – tonight, tonight when the moon is sneaking around the clouds I’ll be sneaking around you. I’ll meet you tonight under the moon. Oh, I can see it now – you and the moon. Wear a neck-tie so I’ll know you.

SHOW ‘EM HOW IT’S DONE…Zeppo, Groucho, Chico and Harpo Marx in their first sound movie, The Cocoanuts, 1929. (vitaphonedreamer.wordpress.com)
BAMBOOZLER… Mrs Potter (Margaret Dumont), inspects Mr Hammer’s (Groucho Marx) Florida property “deals” in The Cocoanuts. (British Film Institute)

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For Sentimental Reasons

Additional evidence that the New Yorker was not always ready to embrace change came from its many articles, particularly in “The Talk of the Town,” that seemed to favor the preservation of buildings that defined the character of certain neighborhoods, including the early 19th century rowhouses that lined Washington Square North…

THEN AND NOW…At left, photo dated 1921 of Washington Square, north side of square looking east from 5th Avenue. Corner house in foreground is No. 12. The far end at right shows Nos. 3, 2, 1. At right, roughly the same block today. (Museum of the City of New York/1homedesigns.com)

At left, photo dated 1936 (by Berenice Abbott) of Washington Square North, nos. 21-25, between Fifth Avenue and MacDougal Street. At right, nos. 19-26 today. (Museum of the City of New York/Wikimedia Commons)

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The Wittier Kaufman

Editor and playwright Beatrice Kaufman worked and played within the orbit of the famed wits of the Algonquin Round Table, but was not a regular member like her husband, playwright and director George S. Kaufman. But Beatrice Kaufman didn’t the need the Algonquin to display her wit. Indeed, according to Michael Galchinsky (writing for the Jewish Women’s Archive), she was regarded as one of the wittiest women in New York in the 1930s and 40s. Here is an example of her work in the June 1 issue of the New Yorker:

THE WITTIEST OF THEM ALL…Editor, writer and playwright Beatrice Kaufman (left, in undated photo). At right, comedian Julius Tannen (left) frolics with Beatrice and her husband, Broadway playwright/producer George S. Kaufman in Atlantic City in the 1920s. (thepurplediaries.com/spartacus-educational.com)

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Rags to Riches

The life of Fred F. French was something out of dime novel; born in dire poverty, he became a self-made real estate tycoon and a schrewd builder of some of Manhattan’s biggest land developments. French was the subject of a profile written by Robert M. Coates, an art critic who would be a longtime contributor to New Yorker. An excerpt, with illustration by Al Frueh:

MONUMENTS TO FRED…Fred French’s New York City buildings included, clockwise from left, the 38-story Fred F. French Building (1927) at 45th Street and 551 Fifth Avenue (designated a National Landmark); Knickerbocker Village (1934) on the Lower East Side; and the East Side’s Tudor City apartment complex (1927-1932). (Pinterest/thelodownny.com/Wikipedia)

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From Our Advertisers

Let’s start with a couple of lovely color ads, which appeared with greater frequency in the magazine…here we have a snatch of the good life, courtesy General Electric…

…and perhaps a less homespun image of the good life, from the makers of Dodge boats…

…and here we have another example of the modern world rushing in, this time in the form of instant coffee crystals…

…and another taste of the modern from Harper’s Bazar magazine, featuring an illustration by French artist and illustrator Charles Martin

…and just for kicks, another example of Martin’s work from an earlier time…

Image from Sports et Divertissements by Charles Martin, 1914. (Wikipedia)

…and here is a back page ad for costume bag maker Whiting & Davis, with an endorsement by Joan Crawford, who was already a pretty big star by 1929. My guess is that Whiting & Davis paid more for the endorsement than they did for the ad…I included a photo of Crawford (at left) from 1929 just to show that she did have a lighter side…

…this ad from the makers of Flit insecticide begs the question: was our beloved Dr. Seuss (aka Theodore Geisel) a racist? Well…

…although Geisel was a liberal Democrat and a supporter of the New Deal, during World War II he also supported the internment of Japanese Americans, as is evident from this unfortunate 1942 cartoon…

Dr. Seuss 1942 cartoon with the caption ‘Waiting for the Signal from Home’ (slideshare.net)

…later in life Geisel became a staunch environmentalist and anti-war protestor. In 1961 he wrote The Sneetches, which promoted racial equality. Perhaps Geisel lived to regret those earlier drawings…

…and on to our illustrators and cartoonists, beginning with this sketch by Garrett Price, apparently inspired from a recent trip to France (it was featured along with several other small sketches in the “Profile” section)…

Barbara Shermund had some fun with a double entendre…

…and popped up again with this look at the stock market…

C.W. Anderson found humor in the strange shapes of modernist furniture…

Otto Soglow commented on the glitzy hype of Broadway…

…and cartoonist/humorist Don Herold made his comics debut in the New Yorker with this entry…

…and finally, a bonus image I came across while researching the advent of sound motion pictures. The photo, from the silent era, shows two cameramen shooting a parade, possibly for a newsreel. Note how their only support consists of two wooden planks wedged into an open window…

(moviemice.com)

Next Time: A Bridge Too Far…

From Broadway to Babylon

While the introduction of sound to motion pictures ended the careers of some silent film stars in the late 1920s, Hollywood’s “talkies” offered new opportunities for Broadway stage actors who could now take their vocal talents to the screen and to audiences nationwide.

May 4, 1929 cover by Ilonka Karasz.

And so began the so-called “Broadway Exodus.” Humorist and frequent New Yorker contributor Robert Benchley offered his wry observations on the phenomenon in the May 4, 1929 “A Reporter at Large” column:

AW SHUCKS…Broadway mainstay and a perennial performer with the Ziegfeld Follies, humorist Will Rogers found his element in Hollywood’s new talkies, appearing here with Fifi D’Orsay in 1929’s They Had to See Paris. (Wikipedia)
TALE OF TWO CITIES…Broadway in 1925 (left) and Hollywood Boulevard in 1929. (Daily Mail/USC Digital Library)

Benchley observed that regardless how many Broadway stars moved west, Hollywood Boulevard would never be mistaken for Broadway. However, Benchley himself would catch the bug and head to Tinseltown, appearing in dozens of feature films and shorts including How to Sleep, which would win an Academy Award for “Best Short Subject, Comedy,” in 1935.

NICE WORK IF YOU CAN GET IT…Robert Benchley in the 1935 Oscar-winning short, How to Sleep. (YouTube)

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One Who Stayed on Broadway

James Thurber reported in “The Talk of the Town” that famed boxing champion Jack Johnson was a common sight on the sidewalks of Broadway. Thurber noted that Johnson, the first African American world heavyweight boxing champion (1908–1915), had fallen on less glamorous days, but still appeared fit at age 51.

IN FIGHTING FORM…Jack Johnson visits with writer Joe Butler at the Scranton Times-Tribune offices on Nov. 30, 1929. (Scranton Times-Tribune)

Thurber noted that Johnson was planning to sell stories of his life, and possibly get into vaudeville. The boxer also mused that who could lick either of the heavyweight champs of the 1920s, Gene Tunney and Jack Dempsey

CUPCAKES…The 51-year-old Jack Johnson claimed he could defeat either of the famed heavyweight champions of the 1920s, Gene Tunney (left) or Jack Dempsey. (Reemus Boxing)

…and Thurber shared a strange account regarding the thickness of Johnson’s skull, which apparently bested that of an ox…

FIGHT TO THE LAST…The 67-year-old Jack Johnson prepares for an exhibition boxing match at a war bond show in New York City on May 1945. Along with making public appearances, Johnson also performed on Broadway during his retirement. (Houston Chronicle)

Johnson continued professional boxing until age 60, and thereafter participated in boxing exhibitions in various venues until his death at age 68 in a car crash near Raleigh, NC. It was reported that Johnson was racing angrily from a nearby diner that had refused to serve him when he lost control and hit a light pole.

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Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell

Anyone who thinks the recent squabbles over Planned Parenthood are anything new might do a little reading on the life of Margaret Sanger, who opened the first birth control clinic in the U.S. in 1916 (in Brooklyn) and was subsequently arrested for distributing information on contraception. In 1929 she was again arrested for operating a “secret” birth control clinic in the basement of a Manhattan brownstone. On March 22, 1929, the New York Police Department sent an undercover female detective, Anna McNamara, to Sanger’s clinic. Posing as a patient who wished to avoid another pregnancy, McNamara was advised on various forms of contraception. She later returned to the clinic as part of the police raid, during which she seized a number of confidential patient files. At Sanger’s subsequent court hearing, McNamara learned first-hand about the importance of patient confidentiality. From the May 4 “Talk of the Town”…

Recalling her arrest in a 1944 article, “Birth Control: Then and Now,” Sanger wrote that McNamara taunted her during the raid when she was told that she had no right to touch private medical files. Sanger wrote “I shall never forget the color of Mrs. McNamara’s face when she heard this medical testimony recited several days later in Magistrates’ Court at the hearing. She was totally unprepared for this embarrassing revelation of her own organs.” The New Yorker made note of this…

Sanger would continue to work for birth control until her death in 1966. Although her name is still invoked in debates over abortion, Sanger herself was generally opposed to abortion, maintaining that contraception was the only practical way to avoid it.

GAG ORDER…In April 1929 Margaret Sanger planned to speak at Boston’s Ford Hall Forum on Free Speech. Ironically, the topic of birth control was banned in Boston at the time, so Sanger appeared onstage with a gag over her mouth while historian Arthur M. Schlesinger read her remarks on free speech to the assembly. At right, the February 1926 issue of Birth Control Review. Founded by Sanger in 1917, she served as editor until 1928. It ceased publication in 1940. (womensstatus.weebly.com/sangerpapers.wordpress.com)

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Please Sit Still

The “Talk of the Town” also looked on American Impressionist painter Childe Hassam, who demonstrated the challenges of painting en plein air…

LOVELY SCENE…Childe Hassam’s Landscape at Newfields, New Hampshire, oil on canvas, 1909. Hassam in his studio circa 1920. (Wikimedia Commons/Wikipedia)

…and found it difficult to finish a farmhouse sketch when a door was unexpectedly closed on his subject…

THIS ONE HE FINISHED…Childe Hassam’s etching, The Old Dominy House (East Hampton), 1928. This work was probably created during Hassam’s visits to East Hampton described in “The Talk of the Town.”(Smithsonian)

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All That Jazz

As Lois Long’s contributions to her “Tables for Two” column grew ever more infrequent, it was clear that she was wearying of the nightlife scene. Now 28 and a young mother, “Lipstick” was shedding her image as a fun-loving flapper and devoting more time and energy to her fashion column, “On and Off the Avenue.” Nevertheless, she still found the time to visit the Cotton Club and proclaim Duke Ellington’s jazz orchestra as “the greatest of all time”…

…although her other observations of the New York nightclub scene appear to have been hastily dashed off…

THE BEST…Duke Ellington and his orchestra (top), circa 1930. Below, Vincent Lopez conducts his orchestra in 1923. (oldtimeblues.net / www.jazzhound.net © Mark Berresford)

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Electric Wonders

The May 4 issue updated readers on some of the latest gadgets available to modern households in 1929. I particularly like the device that allowed your vacuum to blow “moth poison” into your garments…

NOW THIS DOES NOT SUCK…Garments and other household items could be fumigated against moths using a new reverse vacuum attachment, available at Lewis & Conger. (Cyberspace Vacuum Cleaner Museum / Columbia University)

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From Our Advertisers

One thing you notice about 1920s advertising is the amount of turgid copy they contain…I suppose without distractions such as TV and iPhones people actually took the time to read all of these bloated messages, such as this one from Whitman’s that suggested a box of candy is more than a box of candy…

…or how about this lengthy appeal from Kodak, which used guilt to convince you to get some film of grandma while she was still “at her best…”

…the makers of Spud promised a “new freedom” and a “16% cooler smoke” to the users of its menthol-laced cigarettes. Spuds were the first menthol cigarettes, developed in 1924 by Ohioan Lloyd “Spud” Hughes, who sold them out of his car until the brand was acquired in 1926 by The Axton-Fisher Tobacco Company. By 1932 Spud was the fifth-most popular brand in the U.S., and had no competitors in the menthol market until Brown & Williamson launched their Kool brand in 1933. The Spud brand died out by 1963 (along with, presumably, many of its customers)…

…leveraging the popularity in the 1920s of knights and fairies, as well as the Anglo- and Francophila of New Yorker readers, “Mrs. Marie D. Kling” hoped to entice city dwellers up to the burbs in Scarsdale…

…our cartoons are courtesy of Barbara Shermund, who looked in on a couple of debs performing their daily exercises…

…while down in the parlor, Rea Irvin captured the horrors inflicted by an author’s tedious reading…

…and finally, Peter Arno probed the depths of sanctimony…

Next Time: Waldorf’s Salad Days…

Modern English Usage

The fourth anniversary issue of the New Yorker gave every indication that the magazine had arrived as a cultural force.

Fourth anniversary cover, Feb. 23, 1929, by Rea Irvin.

Rich in content, the issue’s offering’s ranged from the famed humorous short “You Were Perfectly Fine” by Dorothy Parker, a profile of famed maestro Arturo Toscanini, and various accounts on the romance between Charles Lindbergh and Anne Morrow. The issue also featured this “organization chart” drawn by Julian de Miskey:

The little door marked “Tony’s” in the bottom right-hand corner referred to a celebrated speakeasy operated by Tony Soma. It was a second home to many New Yorker staffers, and was patronized by hard-drinking actors and writers including Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, Dorothy Parker and Robert Benchley, and also a young actor named Humphrey Bogart.

Another notable item in the Feb. 23 issue was this contribution by James Thurber in which he lampooned H.W. Fowler’s Modern English Usage, a handbook that New Yorker Editor-in-Chief Harold Ross considered to be the last word in matters of punctuation and grammar. Thurber would write a dozen entries in this series, including the following (click to enlarge):

The New Yorker could never get enough of Charles Lindbergh, even though his personality was every bit as wooden as that of the former President Calvin Coolidge. The Feb. 23 “Talk of the Town” speculated on “Charlie’s” affections for Anne Morrow, and the woe that would befall anyone who challenged the famed flyboy for those affections:

COME FLY WITH ME…Anne Morrow Lindbergh and Charles Lindbergh shortly after their marriage in May 1929. (Bio.com)
SON-IN-LAW…Charles and Anne visiting Anne’s parents, Elisabeth and Dwight Morrow, in 1931. Charles met Anne during a visit to Mexico when Dwight was served as ambassador to that country. (kaiology.wordpress.com)

A second item in the Feb. 23 “Talk” section took a closer look at Charles’ courtship habits, or lack thereof…

Even Howard Brubaker got in a word regarding the Lindbergh-Morrow courtship in his column, “Of All Things”…

As we know, Brubaker had it wrong. Rather than pining away at home, Anne would become one of the 20th century’s most beloved writers, a leading feminist voice, and an accomplished aviator in her own right.

SORRY CHARLIE…As one for the most beloved writers of the 20th century, Anne Morrow Lindbergh would go on to match and even eclipse her husband’s fame. (PBS)

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Little Yehudi

Yehudi Menuhin is known to classical music lovers as one of the greatest violinists of the 20th century. But as this “Talk” item suggests, he was once a little boy, more or less…

STILL IN SHORT PANTS…A young Yehudi Menuhin poses with conductor Bruno Walter in Berlin, 1931. Just two years after this photo was taken, Walter would flee Nazi Germany and eventually settle in the U.S. (Wikipedia)

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More Fun With Lois

Although Lois Long devoted most of her ink to her weekly fashion column, “On and Off the Avenue,” she continued to write her nightlife column, “Tables for Two,” though somewhat sporadically. Which makes sense because around this time Long was also either pregnant (she was married to New Yorker cartoonist Peter Arno) or was now the mother of a daughter, Patricia. The reason I’m not sure is that I have birth dates from both 1928 and 1929 for Patricia, depending on sources. At any rate, Long was taking in the nightlife in a big way, moving from club to club and assessing the quality of their various acts:

At the Lido, Beatrice Lillie sang “for the edification of devoted admirers”…

AT THE LIDO you could see British actress, singer and comedic performer Beatrice Lillie light up the stage. (vintag.es)

…Long also commented on the arrival of French entertainer Maurice Chevalier, who promised to inject some life into the Paul Whitman Orchestra performing at the Ziegfeld Midnight Frolic

Flyer announcing Maurice Chevalier’s upcoming performance at the Ziegfeld Midnight Frolic.
THANK HEAVEN…Maurice Chevalier in a 1929 publicity photo. He is mostly known today for his appearance in the 1958 film Gigi and his rendition of “Thank Heaven for Little Girls.” (thefamouspeople.com)

As for the rest of the New York nightlife, Long hoped that in the end it was all for fun, and that there was no “deep meaning” behind the frivolity:

SHALLOW WATERS…Eddie Jackson, Jimmy Durante, Lou Clayton performing their act in the motion picture Roadhouse Nights, 1930. (digitalcollections.nypl.org)

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Something In the Air

The “On The Air” column noted that NBC had made a brave attempt at rebroadcasting the music of the London Symphony Orchestra from Queen’s Hall and had “succeeded in coaxing a section of Rachmaninoff’s E Minor Symphony across the Atlantic.” It was also reported that the General Electric Company of Schenectady, in its ongoing research into television, had successful sent an image of famed film director D.W. Griffith across the country to California. In a separate item. “The Talk of the Town” also reported on the achievement…

…and advances continued in motion pictures, the “talkies” quickly overtaking the silents and even resorting to such tricks as lip-syncing:

SORRY DEAR, YOU’VE BEEN DUBBED…Betty Compson with Richard Barthelmess in Weary River. While Barthelmess’s character sings and plays the piano throughout the film, Barthelmess himself did not sing or play the piano. Frank Churchill played the piano and Johnny Murray sang into a microphone far away from Barthelmess while he lip-synced and played a piano which had strings deadened with felt. (TCM)

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For the anniversary issue, and for old time’s sake, the New Yorker tossed in this little filler joke from its first issue, a joke that was repeated ad nauseam in subsequent issues:

This riddle, told backwards, appeared to be a mistake, but it was most likely an attack on two-liners found in humor magazines of the day like Judge and Punch.

From Our Advertisers

Advertising was booming for the New Yorker in 1929, the magazine recording nearly $2 million in ad sales that year (compared to just $36,000 in their first year, 1925). Now on to the ads…

In a recent post we followed the mostly wealthy New York snowbirds down to Palm Beach, Florida, which during the 1920s grew from a quiet village to a resort for the rich and famous. For those who couldn’t make it, they could install “Vita Glass” and bring Palm Beach to Park Avenue…

…and as spring approached, one could catch a bit of nature’s breezes atop 730 Park Avenue…

…or live like a demi-god above the toiling masses at Fifth Avenue’s Lefcourt National…

…back on terra firma, we find W.C. Fields the latest endorser of Old Golds…

…this has to be the most audacious attempt to add sex appeal to canned ham…

And finally, our illustrators…Garrett Price contributed some fine drawings of Nice and Monte Carlo…

Barbara Shermund looked in on young toffs making idle chat…

…and Rea Irvin, finding everyone perplexed over Einstein’s unified field theory…

Next Time: The Capones at Home…

 

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…

 

 

White Shadows of the South Seas

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

August 11, 1928 cover by Peter Arno.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Revisiting Race

As I’ve noted before, The New Yorker of the 1920s was decidedly mainstream in its treatment of blacks and other minorities as racial “others.” Here is an example (from the Aug. 11 issue) of the casual bigotry that occasionally could be found in “The Talk of the Town,” this penned by none other than James Thurber:

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

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

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

August 18, 1928 cover by Ilonka Karasz.

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

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

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

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

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From Our Advertisers

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

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

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

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

Next Time: Hit of the Century…

 

 

 

Beyond 96th Street

The New Yorker stepped out of its Manhattan offices at 25 West 45th Street and headed north to see what lay beyond 96th Street and Park Avenue, to “a land on to which realtors may not push.”

July 21, 1928 cover by Julian de Miskey; July 28, 1928 cover by Helen E. Hokinson.

In the early to mid 20th century, 96th street represented a real dividing line across Park Avenue, separating Manhattan from the “frontier” to the north. Although developers have since breached this line (particularly beginning in the 1980s), back in 1928 it truly marked an end of sorts to Park Avenue—even the paving ran out by 102nd Street. The July 28, 1928 “Talk of the Town” observed:

FRONTIER NO MORE…Aerial view of Park Avenue from 96th Street (the X at bottom left) all the way past 132nd Street, where Park Avenue joins Harlem River Drive. The ‘X’ at the upper right hand corner marks the former location of Gus Hill’s Minstrels (mentioned in the article) at 129th and Park Avenue. (Google Maps) Click on image to enlarge

Beyond 96th a vast pushcart market was discovered to be operating under the elevated railroad tracks, while further on toward the Harlem River there were factories, coal yards, and a shuttered theatre:

NEAR THE END OF THE LINE…The Gus Hill’s Minstrels building at the corner at East 129th and Park Avenue, facing the elevated train tracks. There was an auto garage at the lower floor. The “Minstrels” were long gone by the time the photo was taken, in 1935, by renowned photographer Berenice Abbott. (Museum of the City of New York)
ONLY A GHOST…The former site of Gus Hill’s Minstrels, at the corner at East 129th and Park Avenue, now occupied by a filling station. (Google Maps)
SOARING…The Park Avenue elevated railroad tracks in Harlem east of 96th Street created vast covered spaces frequented by pushcart vendors. (nyc-architecture)
UP THE RIVER…A houseboat colony near a coal yard at 208th Street by the Harlem River, 1933. (myinwood.net)

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Sport of Lords and Ladies

The New Yorker’s sportswriter John Tunis paid a visit to the 1928 Wimbledon tennis tournament, where he took in a scene that included several celebrities:

FACES IN THE CROWD at the 1928 Wimbledon included clockwise, from top left, the tournament’s singles champions Helen Wills Moody and René LaCoste; and spectators such as actress Tallulah Bankhead and Lady Diana Duff Cooper. (Wills Moody image from 1928 courtesy National Portrait Gallery, London; circa 1930 Bankhead image, Alchetron; Lady Diana image dated 1931, (UK National Portrait Gallery); and LaCoste photo taken after he won the men’s singles title at the 1928 Wimbledon, bltimes.com)

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From Our Advertisers

The July 28 issue included yet another Dr. Seuss-illustrated ad for Flit insecticide. No doubt Seuss would later regret such an illustration, as later in life he strongly opposed racism and supported environmental causes. He would publish his first children’s book—And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street—in 1937.

Also from the July 28 issue, a detail from a two-page illustration of baseball fans at the Polo Grounds by Constantin Alajalov, which appeared in “The Talk of the Town” section:

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From Our Advertisers, Part II:

Jumping back an issue, to July 21, 1928, we find tennis great (and sometime film actor) Big Bill Tilden hawking the toasted pleasures of Lucky Strike cigarettes on the magazine’s back cover:

As I’ve noted before, many New Yorker ads appealed to the Anglophilic pretensions of its striving readershship. This one below from Saks is a particularly egregious example…

…other social strivers could look to the example of these society matrons who picked up some spare cash shilling for Old Gold cigarettes…

I close with a couple of cartoons from the July 21 issue by Barbara Shermund and Peter Arno:

Next Time: (Another) Fight of the Century…

Will Wonders Never Cease?

The early New Yorker was known for its fashionably blasé tone, but its writers were often giddy when it came to reporting on technological advances.

April 14, 1928 cover by Sue Williams.

Such was the case with transatlantic telephone service, which before 1927 was the stuff of fantasy. By 1928, the New Yorker marveled at this service by suggesting in “Talk of the Town” that the invention had become matter-of-fact:

The New Yorker correctly prophesied that the telephone’s primary use would be for mundane communications—not much different from how we use smartphones today for selfies, texting and chitchat.

WHAT HO! New York Mayor Jimmy Walker visits with London’s Lord Mayor in a 1927 transatlantic telephone call. The calls were made possible through radio transmission from station to station across the ocean. (NY TIMES)

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Even the first “unofficial” transatlantic conversation, between two unknown American and British engineers, was a fairly routine conversation about the weather and distances between various cities. At one point, however, the American makes this prophetic remark: “Distance doesn’t mean anything anymore. We are on the verge of a very high- speed world….people will use up their lives in a much shorter time, they won’t have to live so long.”

In the same issue, writer Morris Markey gushed about his tour of a radio broadcast facility…

ON  THE AIR WITH MR NEW YORK…A photo of WNYC’s transmitter room on the 25th floor of New York City’s Municipal Building. At left is the founder of the station, Grover A. Whalen, on the phone prior to the station’s opening night ceremonies on July 8, 1924. Whalen described himself as “Mr. New York,” often serving as the city’s official and unofficial greeter of politicians, royalty and celebrities. He served as police commissioner in the 1920s, and later as president of the 1939 World’s Fair. (WNYC)
IN REAL TIME…A live radio play being broadcast at NBC studios in New York. (Wikiwand)

Awed by this technical marvel, Markey described how the station could broadcast its show across the country…

More Evidence Lindy Was Made of Wood

The New Yorker’s reporting on Charles Lindbergh continued with this item in “Talk of the Town” that described a young woman’s dream to fly with the famous pilot. And fly was all she did…

SIT DOWN AND SHUT UP…Charles Lindbergh at home in his cockpit, circa late 1920s. (fbi.gov)

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From the World of Advertising…

Lux Soap continued its string of advertisements in the New Yorker featuring Broadway stars of the day. Among them was actress Mary Ellis…

Mary Ellis was an American star of stage, radio, television, film and opera, best known for her roles in musical theatre. She appeared at the Metropolitan Opera beginning in 1918, later appearing opposite famed tenor Enrico Caruso. On Broadway she was known for creating the title role in Rose-Marie.

Born in 1897, she died in 2003 at the age of 105. She had the distinction of being the last surviving star to perform in a Puccini opera (while Puccini was alive) and the last star to perform opposite Caruso.

SEASONED PERFORMER…1934 E.R. Richie photograph of actress Mary Ellis. (eBay)

Lux soap wasn’t the only company exploiting celebrities for sales. Cigarette companies also sought endorsements from prominent women to exploit the new and rapidly growing market of female smokers. This ad below from the April 14 issue featured Gloria Morgan Vanderbilt, a Swiss-born American socialite best known as the mother of fashion designer Gloria Vanderbilt and grandmother of CNN journalist Anderson Cooper:

SHE ALSO SHILLED FOR COLD CREAM…Edward Steichen photograph of Gloria Morgan Vanderbilt for a Pond’s Cold Cream testimonial campaign, 1925. (library.duke.edu)

In a famous custody battle in 1934, Vanderbilt lost custody of her daughter to her sister-in-law Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney and the court also removed Vanderbilt as administrator of her daughter’s trust fund, her only means of support. From the 1940s until her death at age 60 in 1965 she lived with her identical twin sister, Thelma, also known as the Viscountess Furness.

In another portrait of the upper classes, Barbara Shermund takes a peek into the drawing room of a less than cerebral hostess…

Next Time: The Last Dance…