Garbo Speaks

Imagine your favorite Hollywood actress, maybe someone like Meryl Streep or Judi Dench. You’ve followed their careers and watched most of their movies, but you’ve never heard their voices.

March 22, 1930 cover by Gardner Rea.

That’s what it was like for Greta Garbo fans before March 1930, when she spoke her first onscreen words in the 1930 MGM drama Anna Christie, which was adapted from a 1922 play by Eugene O’Neill. 

SWEDISH SPHINX…Greta Garbo’s mask-like qualities on display in this publicity still for Anna Christie. (IMDB)

The New Yorker’s film critic John Mosher, not always a fan of Garbo’s silent work (although she had plenty of fans), found a “special kind of glamour” in her first talking picture, even tossing out the word “legend” to describe this Swede who avoided publicity like a bad cold…

No doubt a few moviegoers saw the movie just to finally hear that voice, which Mosher described as “a surprise…a deep, low voice, a boy’s voice really, rather flat, rather toneless, yet growing more attractive as the picture advances”…

Director William H. Daniels (seated, left) with unidentified cameraman filming a scene from Anna Christie with actors Greta Garbo and Clarence Brown; at right, the actors contemplate the microphone hovering above them. Note how the camera in the first photo is contained in a soundproof case. (IMDB) click image to enlarge

Publicized with the tag line “Garbo talks!,” Anna Christie premiered in New York City on Feb. 21 and became the highest-grossing film of 1930. Later that year a German language version would be filmed featuring Garbo but with a different director and supporting cast.

SOUND DEBUT…Clockwise, from top left, Greta Garbo and Marie Dressler in Anna Christie; an MGM ad touting the film as one of the best pictures of the year (it would be the year’s highest-grossing, and Garbo would receive an Academy Award nomination); studio portraits of Garbo used in the film’s promotion. (IMDB)

And if you want to hear Garbo deliver those famous first lines — “Give me a whisky, ginger ale on the side. And don’t be stingy, baby” — here it is, in a scene about sixteen minutes into the film…

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Chicken and Cocktails
En route to the South Seas, the French artist Henri Matisse (1869-1954) paid a visit to New York City, and by all accounts had a good time there. His visit was described by Murdock Pemberton in “The Talk of the Town”…

I ♥ NEW YORK…Henri Matisse arriving in New York City on the S. S. Mauretania, December 15, 1930. He described the city as “majestic.” (artistandstudio.tumblr.com)
NICE PLACE, THIS…Henri Matisse sitting on the brick roof terrace of 10 Mitchell Place (formerly Stewart Hall), the Queensboro Bridge glimpsed in the background. The photo was taken in 1930 by his son, Pierre Matisse, who was living in New York. At right, 10 Mitchell Place today. A framed photograph of Matisse sitting on the rooftop hangs on the wall of the building’s lobby. (Henri-matisse.net/Ephemeral New York)
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The Last Page
The death of author D.H. Lawrence (1885-1930) was reported to New Yorker readers by Janet Flanner, the magazine’s Paris correspondent, who briefly detailed the writer’s rather sad decline…

FLEETING DAYS…D. H. Lawrence (right) with fellow writer Aldous Huxley at Bandol, in the South of France, 1929. (Topham Picturepoint)

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What Depression?

Nearly five months into the Great Depression, yet little evidence in the New Yorker of the catastrophe that was unfolding across the land. And true to form, the approach to the topic was made with humor, via E.B. White in “Notes and Comment”…

KNOW ANY GOOD JOKES?…At left, unemployed New York dockworkers; at right, folks enjoying the New York Public Library’s outdoor reading room in Bryant Park, 1930s. (Lewis Hine/National Archives and Records Administration/New York Public Library)

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Cathedrals of Commerce

E.B. White also observed the changing skyline, and how the towering skyscrapers were quickly overshadowing the once prominent steeples of the city’s churches…

REACHING TO THE HEAVENS…Clockwise, from top left, Trinity Church Wall Street and St. Patrick’s have been eclipsed by the towers of Mammon, but St. John’s and Riverside still dominate their surroundings today. (Wikipedia/St. John’s/Riverside)

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The Other House of Worship

Perhaps a certain skyscraper ennui settled in, as architecture critic George S. Chappell was not all that impressed by the “huge” Lincoln Building (which today still seems huge)…

SIZE DOESN’T MATTER…Although the new Lincoln Building proved to be a massive addition to the New York skyline, its style seemed outdated in contrast to its flashy new neighbor, the Chrysler Building — one of its gargoyles, at right, seems poised to devour the Lincoln Building. (nyc-architecture.com)

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From Our Advertisers

We have a bit more evidence of the Depression in the ads, including this one from Abercrombie & Fitch, with two sporting gents opting to go fishing to take their minds off the markets…

…if fishing wasn’t your thing, perhaps you just wanted to escape into the “quiet” of the wide streets in the East Seventies…

…or relax with a smoke, which artist Carl Erickson made look so appealing with his Camel ad illustrations…

…or take the humorous route to a relaxing smoke, with this ad for Murad as illustrated by Rea Irvin

…on to our cartoonists, Garrett Price captured the mood of the times…

…while Alfred Krakusin captured an altogether different mood…

...Leonard Dove examined the path to stardom…

I. Klein pondered modern art…

William Crawford Galbraith found an unlikely victim of religious zeal…

Mary Petty gave us a glimpse of a doctor’s office…

…and Leonard Dove again, this time at ringside…

Next Time: Noblesse Oblige…

 

The Russians Are Coming

Compared to Hollywood, cinema as an art form in the 1920s was more advanced in Europe, where filmmakers took a more mature, nuanced approach to movies; they focused less on money and more on exploring difficult social and historical issues. Trench warfare, genocide and famine have a way of doing that to you.

June 9, 1928 cover by Ilonka Karasz.

The contrast between the European avant-garde and Hollywood’s Tinseltown was not lost on the New Yorker’s film critics, who consistently lambasted American cinema while applauding nearly everything coming out of Europe, and especially the films produced by German and Russian directors. The critic “O.C.” used the Russians latest American release, The End of St. Petersburg, to drive home the point. He also chided those who dismissed the film as propaganda, a stance much in line with leftist intellectuals of the day who found inspiration in the Russian Revolution (and sometimes they looked the other way when things didn’t go so well in the Soviet experiment—1928 marked the beginning of the Soviet Union’s first Five-Year Plan. By 1934 it was estimated that almost 15 million people died from forced collectivization and famine).

The End of St. Petersburg was blatant propaganda, to be sure, but to this day it has been widely praised for its cinematic innovations. The story itself was fairly straightforward: A peasant goes to St. Petersburg looking for work, gets arrested for his involvement in a labor union and is subsequently sent to fight in the trenches of World War I. His experiences in the war solidify his commitment to revolution and the overthrow of the capitalist overlords. The New Yorker review:

OPPRESSORS & OPPRESSED…The shareholders of a steel mill (top) demand longer hours from workers who already suffer from hellish conditions at the factory in The End of St. Petersburg. (Stills from the film, available on YouTube)

The New Yorker reviewer suggested that a story used primarily to influence an audience—propaganda—was not necessarily a bad thing:

The horrors of trench warfare were graphically depicted in The End of St. Petersburg. (stills from film)

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Back in the New World, most of the talk in cinematic circles revolved around the excitement of “talking pictures.”

FORERUNNER…The Vitaphone system was the most successful of early attempts at sound movies. It synchronized a large recorded disc (seen at lower right) with the film. The Jazz Singer, often heralded as the movie that marked the commercial ascendance of sound films, used Vitaphone technology. (Audio Engineering Society)
BETTER YET…Sound movies took off with the invention of a soundtrack that could be printed directly onto the film. Filmmakers either used Variable Area (left) or Variable Density (center) mono optical soundtracks located between the film’s picture frame and sprocket holes. The tracks could be read by a newly developed photocell (a light source also known as Aeo-light) that could be modulated by audio signals and was used to expose the soundtrack in sound cameras such as the one at right. (Images 1 & 2, Audio Engineering Society/ Image 3, Wikipedia)

It seems that Fox Movietone newsreels really got things going with sound and whetted the audience appetites for more:

TELLING US A THING OR TWO…Irish playwright and critic George Bernard Shaw’s first visit to America, recorded for posterity in this 1928 Fox Movietone Newsreel. (still from film)

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Then There Was The Other Playwright…

Mae West, to be exact. My guess is her approach to the craft was a bit different than G.B. Shaw’s, and we can gather as much from these excerpts from the June 9 “Talk of the Town.” The piece discusses West’s rise to fame as the creator and star of the scandalous play Sex, and her unorthodox approach to rehearsals.

DEMURE SHE’S NOT…Mae West in 1928’s Diamond Lil. (doctormacro.com)

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Although many today would identify D.H. Lawrence as one of great English novelists of the 20th century, eighty years ago the New Yorker book critic Dorothy Parker described him as “very near to being first rate.”

ALMOST FIRST RATE? D.H. Lawrence with wife Frieda Weekley in Chapala, Mexico in 1923. (tanvirdhaka.blogspot.com)

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Blind Justice

The makers of Old Gold cigarettes claimed to have scientific proof on their side with a series of ads in the New Yorker featuring endorsements by the rich and famous. This ad ran in the June 9 issue:

In the same issue was this cartoon by Al Frueh that took a poke at Old Gold’s marketing strategy…

…and Peter Arno offered this unique take on human vanity…

Talking pictures continued to be a theme in the June 16, 1928, issue of the New Yorker.

In his “Of All Things Column,” Howard Brubaker suggested that sound movies would spell the end of careers for some silent stars:

Although some actors struggled with the transition to sound, the reasons why some major stars faded with the advent of “talkies” are far more nuanced. In many cases, some stars packed it in because their careers had already peaked during the silent era, and both studios and audiences were looking for some fresh faces.

HAS BEENS?…It is a common assumption that sound motion pictures killed the careers of many silent stars, including big names like John Gilbert (left) and Clara Bow. The reality is far more nuanced. (Wikipedia/NY Post)

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Niven Busch, Jr. continued to explore the illicit bar scene in his recurring feature “Speakeasy Nights.” I include this excerpt because it described a rather clever facade devised by the owner of the “J.P. Speakeasy.”

WORK/LIFE BALANCE…What might appear to be a typical business office might conceal an even more lucrative business in the back rooms. (Musée McCord/americanhistoryusa.com)
Busch observed an interesting protocol for admittance into the speakeasy, including a typewritten message devised to throw off any would-be Prohibition officers:

From Our Advertisers…

This ad leaves a bad taste in your mouth no matter how you look at. Nothing like coating your mouth with Milk of Magnesia before lighting up that first fag of the day…

…and here we have another ad for Flit insecticide, courtesy of Theodore “Dr. Seuss” Geisel.

And finally, a look at a Roaring Twenties wedding reception, courtesy cartoonist Garrett Price:

Next Time: Down to Coney Island…