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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Making of a Magazine

Before we jump into the autumn issues of 1925, I want to briefly look back at The New Yorker’s first summer, when the magazine limped along week to week but managed to survive thanks to a fortuitous meeting between Harold Ross and Raoul Fleischmann during a bridge game.

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Harold Ross and Jane Grant in 1926 (University of Oregon Libraries)

According to Thomas Kunkel’s book, Genius in DisguiseFleischmann was the wealthy scion of a New York yeast and baking family, and a frequent guest of the Algonquin Round Table. He hated the baking business, so when Ross pitched the idea of investing in his new magazine, Fleischmann obliged with $25,000. Ross and his wife, Jane Grant, together put up the other $25,000 (which included some IOU’s), but after the magazine was launched and struggled during its first months, Fleischmann was further obliged to pour in many hundreds of thousands of dollars to keep the magazine afloat (and in spite teasing from his friends that he might as well dump the money in the river).

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Raoul Herbert Fleischmann with a woman identified as “Bride Mrs. Louis D. Munds” in a United Air Lines photo from Nov 30, 1939. (Oakland Museum of California)

The magazine was actually killed as early as May 8, when Fleischmann called Ross and other magazine directors together after Ross lost a large amount of money in a poker game (money he’d plan to invest in the magazine).

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Cover for July 11, 1925, by Bertrand Zadig. Funds were so scarce that the cover was printed in black and white.

Fortunately, the following day was fellow Round Tabler Franklin P. Adams’ wedding, and in the convivial atmosphere Ross and Fleishmann agreed to give the magazine another go.

As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, the magazine struggled mightily through the summer, with thin issues featuring in-house promotional ads that claimed the most prime advertising spots (including inside front and back covers).

However, the house ads were clever and fun to read, as Kunkel explains:

To help camouflage the dearth of advertising, Ross asked (New Yorker humor writer) Corey Ford to come up with some promotional, or “house” ads. Ford’s response was the “Making of the Magazine” series, which not only represented some of the cleverest writing in the 1925 New Yorker but went a long way toward establishing the magazine’s droll, self-deprecating tone… Each article was accompanied by a Johann Bull illustration featuring the ubiquitous (Eustace) Tilley, who was based on the Rea Irvin dandy (who was featured on the magazine’s first cover). Ford had simply made up the moniker (“’Tilley’ was the name of a maiden aunt,” he explained, “and I chose ‘Eustace’ because it sounded euphonious”), and soon it came to be identified with Irvin’s monocled figure. Tilley began turning up by name in Talk items and Ross listed him in the telephone directory.

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The creator of the name “Eustace Tilley,” humorist Corey Ford was an avid outdoorsman who would go on to write a monthly column for Field & Stream in the 1950s and 60s. (Image from 1952 True magazine)

More than 20 of these house ads were featured through the end of 1925. What follows are the first ads in the series from issues dated August 8, 15, 22, 29.

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