Chaplin of the Jungle

In the 1920s and 30s the concept of the documentary film was still in its infancy, and beginning with the silent Nanook of the North (1922), the idea that a documentary and a drama were separate things was unknown to filmmakers.

Feb. 28, 1930 cover by Theodore Haupt.

What was known, however, was the box office appeal of films that explored unknown and exotic lands, like Ernest B. Schoedsack’s 1927 blockbuster Chang, which featured a mix of staged events as well as the actual slaughter of wild animals. Audiences (and most critics) seemed little troubled that these films were a mix of fact and fiction. It was a movie, after all, and movies followed a story arc, and they had drama, and sometimes comedy. And so when Schoedsack (1893-1979) introduced audiences to an orangutan named Rango, publicists described the simian star as the “Charlie Chaplin of the Jungle.” The New Yorker’s John Mosher found the performances of the various apes “astonishingly adept”…

MONKEY BUSINESS…Clockwise, from top left, the Iowa-born Ernest B. Schoedsack cut his filmmaking teeth as a producer/director of quasi-documentaries, beginning with 1925’s Grass, which followed a caravan from Angora to Persia; a young Sumatran boy, Bin, bonds with the orangutan Rango; promotional theater card for the film. (filmaffinity.com)
NOT SO CUDDLY…Two years after Rango, Ernest B. Schoedsack would co-produce and co-direct 1933’s King Kong, with Merian C. Cooper. (Britannica)

If interpretations of tropical life weren’t accurate in 1931, it wasn’t completely due to filmmakers taking dramatic license. Attitudes toward “exotic” lands and people commonly ranged from naively paternalistic to downright racist. In a letter to the New Yorker, Patrick T.L. Putnam (1904-1953) is decidedly of the former, portraying Congo pygmies as clever, amusing children who hoodwink unsuspecting “explorers”…

To Putnam’s credit, he showed a genuine interest (and respect) in the lives of tribal peoples, and particularly the Mbuti of the Congo’s Ituri Forest. He remained in the Congo for the rest of his life. This thumbnail is the only photo I could find of Putnam:

(geni.com)

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Big Bill Turns Pro

In first decades of the 20th century it was still widely believed that athletic competition should be for its own sake rather than as a means for making money, so many top stars competed as amateurs. Professional golf wasn’t established until 1916, and professional leagues in basketball and football first formed in the 1920s. Amateur status was especially prized in tennis — before the “Open Era” began in 1968, only amateurs were allowed to compete in Grand Slam tournaments.

Sports promoter C. C. Pyle established the first professional tennis tour in 1926 with American and French stars playing exhibition matches in front of paying audiences. According to the New Yorker’s John Tunis, many in the crowd were finely dressed, with men in top hats and women turned out in the latest high fashion.

America’s top draw was “Big Bill” Tilden, the world’s number one player from 1920 to 1925 and the first American to win Wimbledon. It caused quite a stir when Tilden went pro on Dec. 31, 1930. He barnstormed across the country,  playing one-night stands with a small group of professionals including the top Czech player Karel Koželuh. “The Talk of the Town” had this to say about the fledging game of professional tennis:

BARNSTORMERS…Bill Tilden (left) and Karel Koželuh toured America and Europe with a handful of other players in a series of exhibition matches in the fledgling professional tennis circuit. (Britannica/cyranos.ch)

In his sports column, John Tunis offered this description of the competitors:

NOW AND THEN…At left, you can still spot a few neckties at Wimbledon as the audience watches Roger Federer and Andy Roddick enter Centre Court in 2009; at right, Wimbledon crowd in 1925. (BBC/Vintage Every Day)

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Triple Tripe

Dorothy Parker continued to sub in the theater column for her friend Robert Benchley, who was traveling abroad. She found little to like on the Great White Way, including three forgettable plays she reviewed in the Feb. 28 issue:

Apparently audiences agreed with Parker’s assessment. The Gang’s All Here closed after just 23 performances, The Great Barrington, after just 16. And Heat Wave was not so hot, closing after a mere 15 performances.

NOT SO GREAT…Program for 1931’s The Great Barrington. It lasted 16 performances. (IBDB)

Parker once again closed the column with a plea to her dear friend:

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To Swash No More

In his “Notes and Comment,” E.B. White lamented the end of Douglas Fairbanks as the swashbuckler of the silents, and rejected the talkie version of the actor in Reaching for the Moon, a film in which Fairbanks portrayed Larry Day, a Wall Street millionaire who later loses his fortune in the 1929 stock market crash.

KEEP YOUR SHIRT ON, DOUG…From left, Douglas Fairbanks in the silent era’s The Thief of Bagdad (1924); Fairbanks on an ocean cruise with Bebe Daniels in Reaching for the Moon. The 47-year-old Fairbanks was still fit enough to pose shirtless, but E.B. White wasn’t having any of it. Despite his fit appearance, Fairbanks would die of a heart attack at the end of the decade. (IMDB)

The film today is perhaps best known for its sumptuous Art Deco sets…

…and for one of Bing Crosby’s earliest film appearances. Reaching for the Moon was originally intended to be a musical featuring numbers by Irving Berlin, however Berlin found director Edmund Goulding difficult to work with, so only one of the original five songs recorded for the film was used, “When the Folks High Up Do the Mean Low Down,” sung by Crosby. It was filmed late at night after he had completed his gig at the Cocoanut Grove.

SINGING WITH BA-BA-BEBE…A young Bing Crosby sings “When the Folks High Up Do the Mean Low Down” with Bebe Daniels in Reaching for the Moon. (IMDB)

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Modern Living

E.B. White also commented on the modern world’s reliance on electric appliances, a habit a mere decade in the making since the gadgets he lists below did not exist before the 1920s:

ELECTRIC SURGE…Prior to the 1920s none of these electric appliances existed. By 1931 many homes were dependent upon them — although many country houses would have to wait for the Rural Electrification Administration (1935) and other New Deal programs get electrical service. (Pinterest)

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From Our Advertisers

I’ve written before about Lux Toilet Soap’s celebrity-studded ad campaigns, but this two-page ad in the Feb. 28 issue caught my eye because it featured one of my favorite actresses, Jessie Royce Landis

…who appeared in two of my favorite films, both by Alfred Hitchcock: To Catch a Thief (1955) and North by Northwest (1959).

MATERNAL ROLES…Jessie Royce Landis usually played older than she was in real life. Clockwise, from top left, detail of Lux ad; Landis circa 1930; opposite Cary Grant in 1955’s To Catch a Thief; and again with Grant in 1959’s North by Northwest. In the latter film she played Grant’s mother, but in reality she was only seven years older than Grant. (IMDB)

…much of the Douglas Fairbanks/Bebe Daniels film Reaching for the Moon was set on a luxury ocean liner…if the stock market didn’t get you down, you could also afford to travel in style with the Empress of Britain

…or on one of the fine ships of the French Line fleet…

…the Imperial was one of the luxury cars that could get you to the docks…

…among the stranger ads to appear in the New Yorker was this one by the maker of clay plumbing fixtures…

…on to our cartoonists, Ralph Barton returned with this illustration for the theater section…

Rea Irvin brought us another of his two-page series cartoons…

Gardner Rea commented on the state of the art world…

Peter Arno peered in on an unfortunate infant…

Helen Hokinson gave us this exchange along a city street…

Garrett Price illustrated a tall order for a blues musician…

Kindl found clashing styles in the shoe department…

…and James Thurber returned with a prelude to his battle of the sexes…

Next Time: The End of the World…

Why We Go To Cabarets

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Nov. 28, 1925 cover art by H.O. Hofman.

If you are looking for a watershed moment in the history of The New Yorker, this is one of them. The issue of Nov. 28, 1925, featured an article written by 22-year-old Ellin Mackay titled “Why We Go To Cabarets: A Post-Debutante Explains.”

Mackay was the daughter of a Catholic multi-millionaire, Clarence McKay, who was threatening to disinherit his daughter because of her romance with Jewish songwriter Irving Berlin. Mackay’s essay explained why modern women were abandoning the forced social matchmaking of débutante balls in favor of the more egalitarian (and fun-loving) night club scene:

At last, tired of fruitless struggles to remember half familiar faces, tired of vainly try to avoid unwelcome dances, tired of crowds, we go to a cabaret. We go to cabarets because of the very fastidiousness that Our Elders find so admirable a quality. We have privacy in a cabaret…What does it matter if an unsavory Irish politician is carrying on a dull and noisy flirtation with the little blonde at the table behind us? We don’t have to listen; we are with people whose conversation we find amusing. What does it matter if the flapper and her fattish boy friend are wriggling beside us as we dance? We like our partner and the flapper likes hers, and we don’t bother each other.

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MAKING MUSIC TOGETHER…Irving Berlin and Ellen Mackay Berlin return from their Atlantic City honeymoon. They were married on Jan. 4, 1926, in New York Municipal Court, a union that lasted 62 years. (NY DAILY NEWS)

Mackay’s piece provided a huge boost to The New Yorker’s circulation, which had dipped below a death-rattle low of 3,000 in August 1925 before it rebounded a bit with new and more aggressive advertising and marketing strategies.

The “Debutante” article was featured on the front page of the New York Times, and was also covered on the front pages of other New York newspapers and even in papers across the country. By the end of the year circulation of The New Yorker neared 30,000.

TIME magazine later observed that with the Mackay piece, The New Yorker “suddenly found that it had succeeded in storming the penthouses of High Society.  Its success opened the eyes of Editor Ross to the importance of the Manhattan socialite, to the fact that Broadway gossip sounds dull on Park Avenue.”

In The New Yorker’s 90th anniversary issue (Feb. 23, 2015), Ian Frazier wrote about the “débutante to the rescue in the Harold Ross era…”

Sometime during the magazine’s early months, Alice Duer Miller gave him (Ross) Ellin Mackay’s “Cabarets” essay. Jane Grant recalled that Ross kept it at the bottom of the pile of manuscripts he brought home, procrastinating because he liked Ellin and expected he would have to reject it, as he often did with others. Grant urged him to run the piece. “It will make wonderful publicity,” she said. Alexander Woollcott, the Times drama critic, with whom the Rosses shared a house…also championed Ellin’s piece. Woollcott knew her through Berlin, whose worshipful biography he had written.

Frazier writes, “In 1,076 words, the “Cabarets” essay had hit precisely the sophisticated young night-club-going, speakeasy-patronizing, up-and-coming, unimpressed-by-their-elders readership Ross was aiming for. The grateful editor gave Ellin Mackay a lifetime subscription to the magazine.” You can read Frazier’s entire article about Mackay and Berlin here.

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Mackay and Berlin pose for Cecil Beaton in the June 1930 Vanity Fair. (LIVEJOURNAL/Conde Nast)

Mackay, who would publish several novels, would marry Berlin on Jan. 4, 1926. The marriage would last until her death in 1988 at age 85. Berlin would die the following year at age 101.

Here is Mackay’s full article:

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Even as one grand house after another fell to the wrecking ball along “Millionaires Row,” it was hard to believe that the Vanderbilt Mansion between 57th & 58th Streets would also succumb to the commercial interests transforming Fifth Avenue seemingly overnight.

“The Talk of the Town” noted that the doomed mansion, once the largest private home in New York City, was being descended upon by all manner of curiosity seekers:

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According to writer Adrian Dannatt, the 130-room, full-scale Renaissance-style château was “originally built to accommodate an entire regal court, a small army, huntsmen and ladies in-waiting, but it was given over instead to a family of eight.”

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A photo of the 58th Street side of the house, taken shortly before the house was sold for $7.1 million, demolished and replaced by the Bergdorf Goodman store. (newyorksocialdiary.com)

This grand pile was designed by George B. Post in 1882, with interior design by John LaFarge and Augustus Saint-Gaudens among others. Post, along with Richard Morris Hunt, substantially expanded the house in 1893. Demolished in 1926, Bergdorf Goodman Department Store now occupies the site.

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Opened in 1928, the Bergdorf Goodman store occupies the Vanderbilt site today. (Wikipedia)

According to Benjamin Waldman, writing for untappedcities.com, a few remnants from the mansion weren’t reduced to dust, including a pair of monumental gates relocated to Central Park and two of six bas-relief sculptures by Karl Bitter that were relocated to the lobby of the Sherry-Netherland Hotel. Apparently the other four disappeared without a trace.

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REMNANT…Caryatid-flanked fireplace designed by Augustus Saint-Gaudens, topped with a LaFarge mosaic, at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. (Metropolitan Museum)

A fireplace designed by Augustus Saint-Gaudens, topped with a John LaFarge mosaic, was donated to the Metropolitan Museum of Art and is displayed in the courtyard of the museum’s American Wing.

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EPIC…In 1923 Cecil. B. DeMille built the largest set in movie history near Guadalupe, California, for his silent epic, The Ten Commandments. (Santa Barbara Historical Museum)

“Profiles” looked at the life and work of movie director Cecil B. De Mille. R. E. Sherwood wrote that De Mille was the “archetype of the motion picture director—a composite photograph of all the Olympian gods who have descended from Mount Hollywood to dominate the earth.”

Harry Este Dounce (“Touchstone”) reviewed John Dos Passos’ new novel, Manhattan Transfer, and noted that Dos Passos’ version of Manhattan was “not the hypothetical typical New Yorker reader’s, but as far as this department knows, it is very much like the real, complete thing—which is to say, like a hell of chaotic futility.”

In “Sports of the Week,” football continued to dominate the column, with a report on Harvard and Yale battling to a 0-0 tie.

With this issue, “Motion Pictures” was moved from the “Critique” section and given its own page under the Johan Bull-illustrated heading “The Current Cinema.” Theodore Shane wrote that he found Laurence Stalling’s The Big Parade “utterly satisfying,” but he was less impressed with the much-hyped Stella Dallas, which he viewed as a contrived weeper designed to draw lovers of such fare to the box office.

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BOO HOO…Belle Bennett and Lois Moran in Stella Dallas, 1925 (Yam Mag)

Near the back of the magazine the editors printed an exhaustive list of prices on the bootleg liquor market. The prices are quite astonishing, given that $50 in 1925 would be the equivalent of roughly $675 today, based on inflation. Of course that number could vary depending on all sorts of other economic and historic factors, but nevertheless fascinating reading if you are into that sort of thing:

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At the conclusion of “The Talk of the Town,” the editors offered this qualifying note regarding their liquor market list:

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Next Time: Courtin’ and Sparkin’…

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