Will It Play In Peoria?

Cecil B. DeMille was known for his epic films (e.g. The Ten Commandments, 1923 and 1956) and cinematic showmanship, but in 1930 he puzzled his audiences with a very weird pre-Code musical, Madam Satan.

Oct. 11, 1930 cover by Theodore Haupt.

The film centered on a wealthy couple, Angela and Bob Brooks (played by Kay Johnson and Reginald Denny). Bob is unfaithful to his wife (a common pre-Code theme), and she attempts to lure him back by disguising herself as a mysterious devil woman at a masquerade ball held aboard a dirigible. Quite a plot indeed. Here’s what the New Yorker’s John Mosher had to say about it.

PAJAMA GAMES…Lillian Roth, Roland Young, and Kay Johnson in Madam Satan. At right, Reginald Denny falls for the charms of his wife (Kay Johnson), disguised as a devil woman at a masked ball held aboard a giant dirigible. (IMDB/cecilbdemille.com)
AIRHEADS…Via a giant mooring mast, partygoers board a dirigible for the masquerade ball in Madam Satan. Curiously, developers of the Empire State Building (which was under construction) envisioned a similar use for the mast that would top out their tower. In reality, winds that whipped around high towers would have prevented this type of boarding. (twitter.com)
SOMEONE CALL THE FAA…At right, the lavish masquerade ball aboard a giant dirigible in Madam Satan. At right, the dirigible is damaged by lightning in a scene that foreshadowed the Hindenberg disaster of 1937. (cecilbdemille.com/precode.com)
SEEMS PLAUSIBLE…In a silly ending to a silly film, partygoers float on parachutes away from the damaged dirigible. (twitter.com)

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Let Them Eat Cake

Somerset Maugham regarded his comic novel, Cakes and Ale, to be his favorite. The book took aim at snobs as well as at the legacy of one overrated, late-Victorian writer — a character many believe was based on the recently departed Thomas Hardy (Maugham denied the inspiration). The New Yorker had this to say about Cakes and Ale:

THROW HARDY INTO THE DUSTBIN…Somerset Maugham as photographed by Carl Van Vechten in 1934. (Wikipedia)

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He Meant What He Said

Howard Brubaker, in his “Of All Things” column, found humor in the words of a rising figure in German politics, you know who…

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Throw Him a Softball

The famed French artist Henri Matisse paid a visit to New York City, and according to this account in “The Talk of Town,” seemed to be seeking some peace of mind…

AN OPPOSITE VIEW…Henri Matisse struck a thoughtful pose atop a Manhattan apartment at 10 Mitchell Place in 1930. The Queensboro Bridge can be glimpsed in the background. (ephemeralnewyork.wordpress.com)

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Still Barred From the Bar

We are still about three years away from the official repeal of the 18th Amendment, but as we know the partying continued in houses and speakeasies across the great city. E.B. White, in his “Notes and Comment,” wistfully recalled the days when good booze was legal:

White did find some cheer in the pro-wet platforms of the two major parties…

A GIMLET IN EVERY POT…The major political parties in 1932’s U.S. presidential race were represented by incumbent Herbert Hoover (Republican) and Franklin D. Roosevelt (Democratic). Both favored repeal of the 18th Amendment. Pictured at the center, a New Yorker cocktail, the object of E.B. White’s longing. (Wikipedia)

And while we are on the subject, we have this Wallace Morgan illustration of a lively speakeasy with the ironic caption, “The Saloon Must Go!” — referencing an old Anti-Saloon League Slogan.

You didn’t have to go to a speakeasy if you wanted a glass of wine. During Prohibition American winemakers found a lucrative loophole by selling perfectly legal concentrated grape juice (called “wine bricks”) to home brewers and bootleggers alike.

According to an article in the Smithsonian, winemakers marked the wine bricks with warnings that they were “for non-alcoholic consumption only.” However, the package would also bear a note explaining how to dissolve the brick in a gallon of water, and yet another “warning” instructing the buyer not to leave the jug in a cool cupboard for 21 days, lest it turn into wine.

Here’s an ad in the Oct. 11, 1930 New Yorker that not-so-subtly offered a selection of varietals…

Here’s what a wine brick looked like:

A wine brick from San Francisco’s Vino Sano company. The label reads: “Each Brick dissolve in one gallon of water. To prevent fermentation, add 1-10% Benzoate of Soda.” Yeah right. (vinepair.com)

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From Our Advertisers

No doubt Prohibition caused more than a few people to take up smoking. Women adopted the habit in droves during the Roaring Twenties, and by the Depression it seemed everyone was lighting up. Advertisers explored various ways to market cigarettes, and long before the Marlboro Man made the scene, that brand pushed its product through a series of dopey handwriting and essay contests,,,

…the makers of Luckies used a combination of sex and bogus health claims to sell their products…

…cigarettes were not confined to ads by tobacco companies; here they are accessories to fine furs…

…even the New Yorker’s spot illustrations (this by Frank McIntosh) featured smokers…

…as did cartoons, such as this one by Barbara Shermund in the Oct. 4 issue…

…and we have one more ad, this one from Chrysler, which acknowledged the new world of the Great Depression, but only through use of careful euphemisms (the New Yorker editorial side practiced much of the same)…

…on to our cartoons, beginning with an exploration of city vs. country life, by Alice Harvey

…a depiction of what commuter flying was actually like in 1930, thanks to Leonard Dove

…a glimpse at modern parenting, with Helen Hokinson

…humor in a gentleman’s drawing room, courtesy Peter Arno

…and 89 years later, a hilarious update on the subject by Edward Steed in the Sept. 9, 2019 issue…

…and finally, the joys of urban life brought to us by Alan Dunn

Next Time: Ghosts of Gotham…

Unfit to Print

The journalist and screenwriter Ben Hecht wrote the “Reporter at Large” column for the early New Yorker, and for the April 30, 1927 issue took aim at the shoddy coverage of the Ruth Snyder murder trial at the Long Island City Courthouse.

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April 30, 1927 cover by Carl Rose.

Hecht was appalled by the media’s use of celebrity “experts” to cover the trial, which only served to sensationalize and trivialize the proceedings:

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Ben Hecht (Alamy)

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The Ruth Snyder trial dominated headlines in 1927. A housewife from Queens, Snyder began an affair in 1925 with Henry Judd Gray, a married corset salesman. After she persuaded her husband, Albert Snyder, to purchase life insurance, she enlisted Gray’s help to murder her husband. On March 20, 1927 the couple garrotted Albert Snyder (after bludgeoning him with a sash weight) and then staged the murder scene to look like a burglary.

The trial was covered by such figures as former Ziegfeld Follies showgirl Peggy Hopkins Joyce, the radio evangelist Aimee Semple McPherson, movie director D. W. Griffith, author Damon Runyon, popular philosopher Will Durant, and James M. Cain, a crime reporter who went on to write Double Indemnity, which was later made into a major Hollywood movie. Hecht (who would go on to co-write a hugely successful play about newspaper reporters, The Front Page) would have none of this celebrity circus. Some excerpts:

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Ruth Snyder would not be acquitted (or live to write reviews), but instead would go to Sing Sing’s electric chair on Jan. 12, 1928. The 32-year-old Snyder would go to the chair first, followed shortly thereafter by her former lover and accomplice, 35-year-old Henry Judd Gray. The pair had sealed each other’s fate: During the trial, Snyder and Gray had turned on each other, contending the other was responsible for killing Albert Snyder.

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BUSTED…Ruth Snyder in custody and behind bars at the Queens County Jail. (Criminal Encyclopedia/NY Daily News)
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END OF THE LINE…Mugshots of Ruth Snyder and Henry Judd Gray taken at Sing Sing Prison following their conviction. (Lloyd Sealy Library, CUNY)
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NATIONAL SENSATION…The cover of Jan. 13, 1928, issue of the New York Daily News. Although photographs of the execution were not allowed, photographer Tom Howard took this now-famous photo of Snyder at the moment of her execution with the aid of a miniature camera strapped to his ankle. (newseum.org)

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On to a lighter topic…The Sherry-Netherland Hotel has graced the corner of Fifth Avenue and East 59th Street since 1927, and when it was built it was the tallest apartment-hotel in New York City.

The building was nearing completion when around 8 pm on April 12, 1927, fire broke out on wood plank scaffolding surrounding the top floors. Firefighters responded only to find they lacked water pressure to fight the blaze.

According to the New York Times (“The Night a Hotel Turned Into a Torch,” Nov. 15, 2012), the fire was watched by hundreds of thousands, and “the windows of the Plaza Hotel across the street were ‘black with people’; every front room was engaged, either by news organizations or for spontaneous parties to watch the fire.”

Planks tumbled to the street for hours, and The Times said one “sailed in a crazy parabola” and crashed against the Savoy-Plaza, also nearly finished; occasionally minor collapses of the scaffolding turned the picturesque top into a “lofty Roman candle.” The crowds on the street could feel the heat on their faces, and the roar and crackle of the fire could be heard for blocks around. The fire burned itself out around midnight.

Oddly, the New Yorker had little to say about the fire, mentioning it only in passing in this “Talk of the Town” item:

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HOT TIME IN THE CITY…In 1927 the Sherry-Netherland caught on fire, creating what The New York Times called “the best show of the season.” The newspaper ran this photo (left), retouching it for contrast (NYT). At right, the hotel as it appears today (Wikipedia)

An interesting side note…at the time of the Sherry-Netherland’s construction, the nearby Vanderbilt mansion was being demolished. Carved limestone panels from the mansion’s porte-cochere as well as ornamental frieze roundels were salvaged and installed in the Sherry-Netherland’s lobby.

Hollywood movies continued to disappoint New Yorker critics, including Cecil B. DeMille’s silent epic The King of Kings.

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screen-shot-2016-09-06-at-12-59-22-pmFinally, a couple of advertisements from the April 30 issue. It was spring, and time to hit the links…

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…and New Yorker cartoonist Peter Arno plugged his new book featuring the Whoops Sisters:

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Next time: Those Restless Natives…

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