Hit of the Century

NINETY YEARS AGO, when former Chicago reporters Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur sat down to write The Front Page, they might have sensed they had a Broadway hit in the making, but probably had no idea their play would still grace a Broadway stage well into the 21st century.

August 25, 1928 cover by Leonard Dove.

The Front Page made a big splash on the Great White Way when it premiered on August 14, 1928 at Times Square Theatre. Featuring a story about tabloid newspaper reporters on the police beat, the play’s wisecracking, rapid-fire dialogue (which would become a staple of Hollywood’s screwball comedies), was a big hit with audiences, and with E.B. White, who reviewed the play in the Aug. 25, 1928 New Yorker:

DREAM TEAM…The Front Page was written by former Chicago reporters Ben Hecht (left) and Charles MacArthur (center) and produced by Jed Harris (at right, in a 1928 photo used on the cover of Time magazine). Hecht, an occasional New Yorker contributor, would go on to a successful career as a screenwriter, director, producer and playwright. Like Hecht, screenwriter/playwright MacArthur was friends with members of the Algonquin Round Table. He was married to actress Helen Hayes, with whom he adopted a son, James MacArthur (“Danno” on TV’s Hawaii 5-0). Harris was responsible for some of Broadway’s most successful productions in the ’20s and ’30s including Uncle Vanya, Our Town and The Crucible. (IMDB, Kentucky Digital Library, Time)
TROUBLE IN WINDY CITY…Set entirely in a dingy press room of Chicago’s Criminal Courts Building, The Front Page featured reporters who passed the time playing poker and exchanging wisecracks—until a convicted killer escapes jail and makes things lively. Worried about his chances for re-election, the crooked Mayor, played by George Barbier, far left, confronts three reporters — Murphy (Willard Robertson), Endicott (Allen Jenkins), and McCue (William Foran). In the background is Claude Cooper, as the crooked Sheriff Hartman. (Theatre Magazine, August 1928) 

White was so taken by the play, in fact, that he found it to be nearly perfect, like a scientific instrument of exacting precision. And considering how many times the play has been adapted to stage and screen (most recently on Broadway in 2016), he was probably right. It still plays pretty well after all these years:

WISE GUYS…Promotional photographs of Osgood Perkins as Walter Burns (left) and Lee Tracy as Hildy Johnson in the 1928 Broadway production of The Front Page. (Theatre Magazine, August 1928) 
ENTER, STAGE RIGHT…Escaped prisoner Earl Williams (George Leach) surprises reporter Hildy Johnson (Lee Tracy) in The Front Page. (Theatre Magazine, August 1928) 

The play was restaged four more times on Broadway — 1946, 1969, 1986 and 2016 — the 2016 production starred Nathan Lane as Walter Burns, John Slattery as Hildy Johnson and John Goodman as Sheriff Hartman. Film adaptions included The Front Page in 1931 and His Girl Friday (directed by Howard Hawks) in 1940 — the latter added a twist to the play by changing the Hildy character to a woman, played by Rosalind Russell as the ex-wife of Walter Burns (Cary Grant). The play returned to the big screen in 1974 as The Front Page, directed by Billy Wilder and starring Jack Lemmon as Hildy and Walter Matthau as Walter Burns.

Still Some Fight Left in Him

Although boxer Gene Tunney had retired from the ring, he was still making headlines fighting off a different foe: the paparazzi.

Tunney’s engagement to Connecticut socialite and Carnegie heiress Polly Lauder was front-page news across the country, and photographers were eager to capture a photo of the couple, who up until the announcement had enjoyed a mostly secret romance. The New Yorker’s “Talk of the Town” described the couple’s attempts to elude a persistent press:

MAYBE IT’S QUIETER OVER HERE…21-year-old Polly Lauder Tunney and 31-year-old Gene Tunney after marrying in Rome on Oct. 3, 1928. The marriage would last 50 years. (NY Times)

In September 1928 the couple took separate trips to Rome and married in a small ceremony on Oct. 3. Unfortunately, they attracted the attentions of Rome’s original paparazzi: According to the New York Times “the scene after the wedding looked mighty like a riot as clothes were torn and cameras smashed in a melee of photographers jostling to capture images of the couple.”

After traveling in Europe they returned to the U.S. and made their home in North Stamford, Connecticut, where they restored an 18th century farmhouse and raised Hereford cattle and sheep. They would be married 50 years until Tunney’s death at age 81 in 1978. Polly continued to live at her home in Stamford until her death in 2008 at age 100.

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Dorothy Recuperates

Dorothy Parker’s “Constant Reader” signature at the end of the book review section was absent during part of the summer of 1928 as she was recuperating from an appendectomy. Fortunately her rapier wit remained intact when she returned in the Aug. 25 issue…

Dorothy Parker in 1928 (natedsanders.com)

…where she found the strength to skewer The Lion Tamer, the latest novel by romance writer E.M. Hull:

I’D RATHER BE IN SURGERY…E.M. Hull’s The Lion Tamer. Dodd, Mead and Co. 1928. (yesterdaysgallery.com)

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Long Before Starbucks

If you were a New Yorker in the 1920s, this cartoon by Rea Irvin would make perfect sense, because nearly everyone knew that Alice Foote MacDougall was the queen of New York’s coffee scene, a one-woman Starbucks of her day.

According to Jan Whitaker, writing for the blog Restaurant-ing Through History, MacDougall kept a carefully crafted persona. In numerous magazine stories crafted by her publicity agent, “she was widely known as the poor widow with three children who built a coffee wholesaling and restaurant empire on $38.”

MacDougall was actually from a distinguished New York City family, and her coffee wholesaling career began in 1909 after her husband’s death. Whitaker writes: “In the 1920s she was said to be the only woman expert in coffee grading and blending in the U.S. She opened her first eating place, The Little Coffee Shop, in Grand Central Station in New York in December 1919. Waffles were the specialty in her homey café which was decorated with a plate rail and shelves holding decorative china. (Evidently tips were good, because MacDougall had the nerve to charge her waitresses $10 a day to work there.) By 1927 she had signed a $1 million lease for her fifth coffee house, Sevillia, at West Fifty-seventh Street. Her places became known for their Italian-Spanish scene setting. The reason, she said, was that it provided a way to disguise long, narrow spaces.”

BEANS TO RICHES…Alice Foote MacDougall, ca. 1910. At right, Sevillia, at West Fifty-seventh Street, in the late 1920s. (restaurant-ingthroughhistory.com)
TIN GOLD…Canisters of Alice Foote MacDougall’s famed coffee, ca. 1927. (ruby lane.com)

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The Friendly Skies

E.B. White made another appearance in the Aug. 25 issue, this time with a poem describing his recent flight from London to Paris aboard an Imperial Airways trimotor biplane. If White seems to rhapsodize a bit here (especially to jaded fliers of the 21st century), it is understandable, considering that White’s flight to France was only 25 years removed from the Wright Brothers at Kitty Hawk. It was still something miraculous:

TOP, the Imperial Airways “Calcutta” trimotor flying boat on the Mediterranean, 1928. Below, the “Calcutta” moored on the River Thames in 1928. (Claude Boullevraye de Passillé / AP)

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Missing the Boys of Summer

The New Yorker continued to ignore the sport of baseball in its pages, even though it enthusiastically covered almost everything else: college football, hockey, tennis, golf, lacrosse, polo, rowing and yacht racing. Strange because the New York Yankees had one of the winningest lineups in baseball (Murderer’s Row, with sluggers Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig), had won the 1927 World Series, and were poised to win it again in 1928. Unless I missed something, the first mention of baseball in the 1928 New Yorker was this bit in Howard Brubaker’s Aug. 25 “Of All Things” column:

The Yankees would sweep the favored St. Louis Cardinals in the ’28 World Series.

From Our Advertisers

This creepy advertisement from the Aug. 25 issue comes courtesy of the Clark Lighting Company. The tagline, “Clark Always Works,” has a double meaning, the ad copy suggesting that a woman is so simple (described here as a “little minx”) that she will be captivated by the very flick of a lighter:

Our cartoon is by Peter Arno, who was making light of a diet fad from the late 19th and early 20th century (hence the woman’s age and dress) made famous by Horace Fletcher, who was known as the “Great Masticator” for his diet that involved chewing each mouthful of food a minimum of 100 times. The cartoon’s caption reads: “Now masticate, Ermyne!”

Next Time: Dorothy Parker Goes to the Pictures…