A 100 Percent Talker

Lights of New York would be a forgettable film if not for the fact it was the world’s first 100 percent talking motion picture. Yes, it was a bad film, but…

July 14, 1928 cover by Leonard Dove.

…even the July 14, 1928 New Yorker had the foresight to note that the film was destined to be a “museum piece.” Despite the corny plot and bad acting, the magazine’s critic “O.C.” had to concede that the film offered proof that sound would improve the motion picture experience.

Theatre Card for Lights of New York. (untappedcities.com)
MAKING SOME NOISE…Helene Costello with a cast of nightclub dancers in Lights of New York. (vintage45.wordpress.com)

The Jazz Singer (1927) launched a “talkie revolution” that would culminate nine months later in Lights of New York, and by the end of 1929 Hollywood was almost exclusively making sound films. But studios still released silent films into the 1930s, since not every theatre in the country was wired for sound.

The New Yorker had been slow to embrace sound in motion pictures (see my previous posts). What helped to win them over was the further refinement of the Movietone process, in which the sound track was printed directly onto the film strip (The Jazz Singer used Vitaphone, which essentially synched a record player with a film and provided a sporadic rather than continuous sound track).

In the same issue, writer Robert Benchley also predicted (in “The Talk of the Town”) that sound in movies would challenge actors whose voices weren’t as attractive as their screen images:

IT’S COMPLICATED…It is a common assumption that sound motion pictures killed the careers of many silent stars, however big names like John Gilbert (left) and Clara Bow left the pictures for other reasons. Studio politics ended Gilbert’s career, and he drank himself to death by 1936. Bow—famously known as the “It Girl,”—made a few sound pictures, but retired from acting in 1931 to become a Nevada rancher. (Wikipedia/NY Post)
SILENCED…Some silent actors such as Wallace Beery (left), were sidelined not because of their voices but because of their high salaries. On the other hand Raymond Griffith (right), who made only one sound movie, spoke with a hoarse whisper not suited for the talkies. (Wikipedia / silentfilmstillarchive.com)

The New Yorker also noted that sound pictures would prove to a great “bonanza” to voice teachers:

Transition to sound in the late 1920s would later provide the theme for the 1952 musical Singin’ In The Rain, in which Jean Hagen portrayed silent film star Lina Lamont, whose voice was ill-suited for talking pictures. 

SAY WHAT?…Actress Lina Lamont (Jean Hagen) tries the patience of her director (Chet Brandenburg) while her co-star (Gene Kelly) looks on. The scene demonstrated the challenges of acclimating former silent stars (like Lina Lamont, whose voice sounded like squeaky hinge) to “talking pictures.” (YouTube Movieclips)

The New Yorker also noted that the advent of sound in motion pictures would put an end to many theatres operating on the vaudeville  circuit:

In his regular column, “Of All Things,” Howard Brubaker gave his two cents about the new world of talking movies:

Paving Over Paradise

In the July 14 “Talk of the Town,” Howard Helm Cushman and James Thurber offered more bittersweet commentary on the city’s rapidly changing landscape. This time it was a famous stretch of lawns on West 23rd Street—London Terrace— that were being uprooted to make way for a massive new apartment block:

According to Tom Miller (writing for his blog Daytonian in Manhattan), Clement Moore, the writer to whom “A Visit from St. Nicholas” (“The Night Before Christmas”) “had developed the block when he divided up his family estate, ‘Chelsea.’ On the 23rd Street block, in 1845, he commissioned Alexander Jackson Davis to design 36 elegant Greek Revival brownstone townhouses. The row was designed to appear as a single, uniform structure or ‘terrace’ (a design not lost on the New Yorker writer). Unusual for Manhattan, each had deep front yards planted with shrubbery and trees. He called his development ‘London Terrace.'”

A BIT O’ GREEN…London Terrace, circa 1920. (ephemeralnewyork)

By October 1929, writes Miller, “a few weeks before the collapse of the stock market and the onset of the Great Depression, (developer Henry Mandel) had acquired and demolished all the structures on the enormous block of land. All except for Tillie Hart’s house. Tillie leased 429 West 23rd Street and, although her lease had legally expired, she refused to leave. Tillie fired a barrage of bricks and rocks at anyone who approached the sole-surviving house. A court battle ensued while she barricaded herself inside. Finally, just four days before Black Tuesday, sheriffs gained entry and moved all of Tillie Hart’s things onto the street. She held out one more night, sleeping on newspapers in her once-grand bedroom, then gave up. The following day her house was destroyed.”

IT’S YUGE…Farrar & Watmough designed this massive, Tuscan-inspired apartment block, completed during 1930-31. The developer Henry Mandel, sometimes referred to as the Donald Trump of his day, kept the site’s original name, London Terrace. (ephemeralnewyork)

Miller writes, “to describe the new London Terrace was to use superlatives. Consuming the entire city block, it was the largest apartment building in the world with 1,665 apartments. It boasted the largest swimming pool in the city – 75 feet by 35 feet, with mosaic walls and viewing balconies. Twenty-one stories above the street a “marine deck” was designed to mimic that of a luxury ocean liner. It had a fully-equipped gymnasium, a recreation club, a rooftop children’s play yard with professional supervisors, and a large dining room. The doormen were dressed as London bobbies.”

STILL THERE…London Terrace today. (Brick Underground)

 *  *  *

In other diversions, I. Klein looked askew at the latest headlines, namely the big fight between Gene Tunney and Tom Heeney, one of the 20th century’s many “battles of the century”…

…while Helen Hokinson, on the other hand, offered some sketches of seafaring life…

…and looked in on the challenges of buying a hat…

…and then there was this two-page cartoon by Al Frueh, and its disturbing depiction of African “savages” (rendered in blackface?!)…click to enlarge

And to close, a cartoon by Leonard Dove…

…that referenced ads such as this one from the June 2, 1928 issue of the New Yorker… (click image to enlarge).

…and a comedy of manners, courtesy Peter Arno…

Next Time: Beyond 96th Street…

The Last Impressionist

The death of artist Claude Monet prompted the editors of the New Yorker’s “Talk of the Town” to speculate on the true origins of the “Impressionist” movement of the late 19th century.

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December 18, 1926 cover by Ottar Gaul. Once again, the theme of the doddering sugar daddy out on the town with his young mistress.

Note how the “Talk” editors lightly regarded the artist’s late period, during which he painted his famous “Water Lilies” series:

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The editors also used the occasion to clear up the confusion (in the lay mind) between Édouard Manet and Claude Monet, identifying them not only as two distinct persons but also crediting the former with the founding of the Impressionism technique while giving Claude his due for actually giving it a name:

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Water Lilies, a late period painting by Claude Monet, circa 1915-26. (Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art)
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Monet, right, in his garden at Giverny, 1922. (New York Times)

Another much younger notable of the age, Ernest Hemingway, was the talk of literary society on both sides of the Atlantic with the publication of his latest novel, The Sun Also Rises. According to the New Yorker’s Paris correspondent Janet “Genêt” Flanner, the novel was creating a buzz in Montparnasse over the origins of the book’s colorful characters:

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Keeping in mind that the Christmas shopping season was still in full swing, Frigidaire thought it the perfect time for New Yorker readers to buy a newfangled electric refrigerator:

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And we ring out the year with the final issue of 1926:

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December 25, 1926 cover by Rea Irvin.

It was a tough year for New Yorker film critic “OC”, who summed up his  disappointment with the movies by offering a Top Ten list that included only two films:

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The 1925 German film Variety (released in the U.S. in 1926) was one of only two films worth watching in 1926, according to the New Yorker’s film critic. (Wikipedia)

And to close, this cartoon by Helen Hokinson, which in the original magazine filled all of page 14 and therefore had to be printed sideways:

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Next Time: 1927-A Year to Remember…

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Logrolling on West 44th

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August 29, 1925 cover by Garrett Price.

In a previous post I briefly looked at the Algonquin Round Table–writers, critics, artists, some of them New Yorker contributors–who had been exchanging witticisms over lunch at the Algonquin Hotel since 1919.

Like so many things connected to The New Yorker, Alexander Woollcott was at the center of the famed table’s origin story. According to Wikipedia, the group that would become the Round Table began meeting as the result of a practical joke carried out by theatrical press agent John Peter Toohey, who was annoyed at Woollcott (a New York Times drama critic) for refusing to plug one of his clients (Eugene O’Neill) in his column. Toohey organized a luncheon supposedly to welcome Woollcott back from World War I, where he had been a correspondent for Stars and Stripes (and where Woollcott first met Harold Ross and Jane Grant). Instead Toohey used the occasion to poke fun at Woollcott on a number of fronts, including his long-winded war stories. Woollcott’s enjoyment of the joke and the success of the event prompted Toohey to suggest that the group meet every day at the Algonquin for lunch.

An illustrated feature by Ralph Barton in the August 29, 1925 issue (titled “The Enquiring Reporter”) thumbs its nose at critics of the Round Table who accused its members of “logrolling” (exchanging favorable plugs of one another’s works). Barton’s feature spoofs the man-on-the-street interviews that were popular in the 1920s. The persons chosen “at random” are none other than members of the Algonquin Round Table who take turns denying that any logrolling takes place at the famed gathering:

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In fact, there was quite a bit of logrolling taking place in this “Vicious Circle.” As Thomas Kunkel writes in Genius in Disguise, in addition to New Yorker contributors, the Algonquin Round Table variously included representatives of the New York Times, the New York Tribune, Vanity Fair, Harpers Bazaar and Life.

“The wits cross-pollinated feverishly. Shrugging off charges of logrolling, they quoted one another in their columns, reviewed one another’s shows, publicized one another’s books. To be fair many of the glowing notices were deserved—and in any case not all the notices were glowing.”

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The four writers featured in Barton’s fictitious “man on the street” feature. Clockwise, from top left: Alexander Woollcott, Heywood Broun, George Jean Nathan, and Franklin P. Adams. (reocities.com, Wikipedia, artsfuse.com, electronpencil.com)

Kunkel also observes, “By far the most powerful transmitter of Round Table wit was (Franklin) Adams (known to most as F.P.A.), whose column in the Tribune (and later the World), “The Conning Tower,” was scoured by tens of thousands of New Yorkers for its dollops of quippery and clever verse. Young writers conspired to break into the column, and the appearance of even a four-line snippet was regarded as a triumph…the Round Table supplied F.P.A. with a freshet of material, and he wasn’t bashful about using it. A particularly good line from Parker or Kaufman or Benchley might turn up in “The Conning Tower” within hours of its utterance.”

In other happenings, “The Talk of the Town” noted that the last meal served at Delmonico’s–which was fated for the wrecking ball–was less a cause for mourning and more one of scorn for the bad taste of the site’s owners:

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Delmonico Building
The New Yorker bids a bitter farewell to Delmonico’s.

Screenshot 2015-06-15 15.17.50Among other items, O.H.P. Garrett penned a “Profile” about flamboyant mayoral candidate Jimmie Walker that seemed to anticipate the raucous career that would follow after his election.

Garrett observed that “his life is constructed of minutes and seconds. He can be clocked with a stop watch,” and that Walker’s main concerns seemed to be Sunday baseball, boxing and the repeal of movie censorship.

Lois Long seemed a bit bored with the week’s diversions in her column, “When Nights Are Bold,” but did welcome the reappearance of Texas Guinan after yet another club was threatened with padlocks by the Prohibition Authority:

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She just wants to have fun…Texas Guinan was well known to New Yorker writers and editors and was a frequent guest of the numerous parties hosted by Harold Ross and Jane Grant in the Hell’s Kitchen brownstone they shared with Alexander Woollcott and Hawley Truax. (texasguinan.blogspot)

On the advertising front, the back inside cover and back cover were graced with paid advertising. As with most ads in The New Yorker, the target audience had some money to spend on travel:

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And we end with these weekend scenes from the magazine’s center spread, drawn by Helen Hokinson:

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Next time, tennis anyone?

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