Hell’s Angels

Among the films in 1930 that marked a new era in motion pictures was Howard Hughes’s epic war film Hell’s Angels. 

August 23 cover by Gardner Rea.

Originally shot as a silent, Hughes (1905-1976) retooled the film, and over a period of three years (1927-30) poured much of his own money into making what many consider to be Hollywood’s first sound action movie. The film also introduced audiences to 19-year-old Jean Harlow (1911-1937), handpicked by Hughes to replace Norwegian actress Greta Nissen in the lead role (Nissen’s accent posed a problem for the talkies). The film would make Harlow an instant star, propelling her to worldwide fame as the “Platinum Blonde” sex symbol of the 1930s.

Beset by delays due to Hughes’s incessant tinkering, the movie was famously expensive. For example, a total 137 pilots were used in just one flying scene at the end of the film. In addition to monetary costs, the filming also claimed the lives of three pilots and a mechanic, and Hughes himself would fracture his skull during a stunt flying attempt.

PRE-CODE…Before Will Hays imposed his moral code on Hollywood, films in the early thirties were frank with sexual references, as the image at left attests. When Howard Hughes switched the filming of Hell’s Angels to sound, he replaced Norwegian actress Greta Nissen with 19-year-old Jean Harlow (seen with co-star Ben Lyon). Harlow’s first major film appearance would make her an overnight star; at right, Frank Clarke and Roy Wilson flying an S.E.5A (front) and a Fokker D.VII (back, note camera) in the filming of Hell’s Angels. (Wikipedia)

The New Yorker’s John Mosher found the action scenes enticing, but the acting left something to be desired…

COSTLY VENTURE …This Sikorsky S-29A (left), repainted to represent a German Gotha bomber, would crash into the California hills during filming (right), killing mechanic Phil Jones, who failed to bail out along with the pilot. (Northrop Grumman)
GEE WHIZ…The media often reported on the progress of the film, such as in this May 1930 article in Modern Mechanics that detailed a $1 million sequence in which a fighter dives his plane into the top of a Zeppelin, causing it to explode and crash to earth. (Modern Mechanix)

We skip ahead briefly to the Aug. 30 issue, in which “The Talk of Town” featured a mini profile of Howard Hughes and his film. Note how Hughes’s extravagance is described through his frequent use of long-distance telephone calls:

A STAR IS BORN…19-year-old Jean Harlow and Ben Lyon in Hell’s Angels (1930); at right, Harlow and Howard Hughes at the premiere of the film. (IMDB/Pinterest)

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A Whale of a Movie

Critic John Mosher also took in a film adaptation of Herman Melville’s Moby Dick, a very loose adaptation that excluded the novel’s central character, Ishmael, and invented a love story for the maniacal Capt. Ahab…

HAVE A LITTLE FAITH…From left, Noble Johnson as Queequeg, John Barrymore as Ahab, and Walter Long as Stubbs in 1930’s Moby Dick. At right, top, the whale puts the hurt on a boat; bottom, John Bennett as Faith, a contrived love interest for the old salt. (IMDB)

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Daily Dazzle

“The Talk of the Town” gushed over the lobby of the new Daily News Building, likening it to the glitz of a Broadway revue:

A HOME FOR CLARK KENT…The Daily News Building served as the model for the headquarters of the fictional Daily Planet, the building where Superman worked as mild-mannered Clark Kent; at right, an image from 1941 of the lobby, dominated by the  world’s largest indoor globe.
A LOBBY FOR LEARNING…The lobby includes an array of clocks, top left, that give the time in various global destinations. (aatlasobscura.com)

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A Busboy’s Dream

Charles Pierre Casalasco left his life as a busboy in Corsica and studied haute cuisine in Paris before arriving at the shores of Manhattan in the early 1900s. He became a renowned headwaiter who by 1929 garnered enough financial backing from New York’s most powerful families to construct the exclusive Hotel Pierre. Writing under her pseudonym, “Penthouse,” New Yorker columnist Marcia Davenport described the building’s apartments to eager readers:

FUN WHILE IT LASTED…The 41-story, 714-room Hotel Pierre officially opened in October 1930 to great fanfare. The party would be short-lived, as the deepening Depression would force the hotel into bankruptcy just two years later. At right, photo of the Rotunda, before a 2017 remodeling. (New York Public Library)

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So Much For Title IX

Then as now, women athletes were held to a separate set of standards, not only judged for their athletic abilities, but also for their “sex appeal,” as John Tunis suggests more than a few times in his profile of English tennis champion Betty Nuthall (1911-1983). Excerpts:

HOW’S THAT BACKHAND?…Betty Nuthall greets American tennis star Bill Tilden in September 1930; on the cover of Time after winning the 1930 U.S. Open. (Digital Commonwealth/Time)

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Free Expression

Robert Myron Coates (1897 – 1973) was a writer of experimental, expressionistic novels who later became a longtime art critic for the New Yorker (he is credited with coining the term “abstract expressionism” in 1946). In the Aug. 23 issue he contributed the first installment of “Dada City,” here describing street life in Harlem. Excerpts:

STREET LIFE…Scenes around Harlem’s 125th Street, clockwise from top left: the Apollo Theatre marquee punctuates a busy street scene in 1935; NW corner of 125th and Broadway, 1930; Regal Shoes storefront, 1940s, photo by Weegee; 125th and St. Nicholas Avenue in 1934. (Skyscraper City/Museum of the City of New York)
AMERICAN ORIGINAL…Robert M. Coates’s The Eater of Darkness (1926) has been called the first surrealist novel in English. (Goodreads)

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From Our Advertisers

New Yorkers who were still enduring the brutal summer of 1930 could find relief, if they could afford it, on a New York Airways flight…

…or if you had the means, you could take your yacht out to sea, like this chap in a coat and tie who calmly steers with one hand while offering a box of chocolates to his guests with the other…

…our sailor wasn’t the only one dressed to nines…here are two ads offering suggestions to young folks returning to college or prep school…

…for comparison, this is how a group of college students at Columbia University dress today…

(Columbia University)

Dr. Seuss continued to crank out drawings on behalf of Flit insecticide…

…and on to cartoons, yet another rerun (the sixth) of this Peter Arno drawing with a new caption (Dorothy Dix was a popular advice columnist)…

…and another look at country life courtesy Rea Irvin (originally printed sideways on a full page)…

…and another country scene, this time among the toffs, thanks to Garrett Price

…back in the city, some parlor room chatter as depicted by Barbara Shermund

…downtown, I. Klein looked at the economic challenges of peep shows…

…and we close with this reflection on city life, by Reginald Marsh

Next Time: Marble Halls…

Hot Jazz in Stone and Steel

With the Chrysler Building nearing completion and the Empire State Building beginning to rise from the old Waldorf-Astoria site, the New York City skyline was taking on the iconic form most of us now associate with the city.

April 12, 1930 cover by Theodore Haupt.

Dubbed “hot jazz in stone and steel” by modernist architect Le Corbusier, the Chrysler Building’s gleaming spire beckoned the New Yorker’s E.B. White and real estate journalist David G. Bareuther (New York Sun) to its summit for a closer look…

BARE BONES…The spire in place atop the Chrysler building, the dome awaiting its metal skin. (skyscraper.org)
WHAT LIES BENEATH…The stainless steel spire still gleams atop the Chrysler Building; beneath the spire, a maze of scaffolding — navigated by E.B. White and David G. Bareuther for their “Talk of the Town” piece, supports the upper portions of the building’s dome. (yahoo.com/nygeschichte.blogspot.com)
THE HIGH LIFE…The Chrysler Building’s exclusive Cloud Club was located on the 66th, 67th, and 68th floors. At one time it was the highest lunch club in the world. It closed in 1979. (decopix.com)

If you want to get a sense of what E.B. White and David Bareuther experienced during their climb through the Chrysler’s dome, take a look at this video featuring American radio personality “Opie” (Gregg Hughes) and Hidden Cities author Moses Gates…

The article also noted that an “observation balcony” would be available for visitors to the 71st floor (actually an enclosed room inside the dome), but I’m sure the expectations for revenue fell quite short, given the competition it would soon receive from the much larger, higher, open air observation deck of the Empire State Building…

REACHING FOR THE STARS…When the Chrysler Building officially opened in 1931, visitors could go up to the 71st-floor observatory (in the dome) and view the city through its triangular windows. The observatory closed in 1945. (nygeschichte.blogspot.com)

…a bit of a digression, but I couldn’t help but notice the observatory’s resemblance to this set from the 1920 silent film The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari

(silent-volume.blogspot.com)

…and here is a terrific graphic from Popular Science (August 1930) demonstrating how the spire, which was assembled inside the dome, was raised into its final position…

…and finally, some great archival footage documenting the achievement…

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Tragic Theater

We continue our forays into the built environment of 1930 New York by looking at what was lost, including two beloved Broadway theaters. “The Talk of the Town” lamented the decline of the Garrick…

FINAL CURTAIN…Built in 1890 and originally named Harrigan’s Theatre, The Garrick closed as a playhouse in 1929. After a short run of burlesque, the building was demolished in 1932.

…and the Casino…

You can read more about the Casino at one of my favorite blogs, Daytonian in Manhattan.

HEYDAY…Clockwise, from top left, circa 1910 postcard image of The Casino Theatre at Broadway & 39th; an audience on the Casino’s roof garden glimpses the performance below; interior of the Casino; the British musical comedy Floradora would become one of Broadway’s greatest hits — the New York production opened in 1900 and ran for 552 performances. (Museum of the City of New York )

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From Jazz to Gothic

We return our gaze to the skies with three more new buildings reviewed by architecture critic George S. Chappell in his “Sky Line” column. He began with the Manhattan Towers Hotel, which thanks to the Depression would soon fall on hard times, going into foreclosure by October of 1931 and becoming a favorite gangster hideout (read more about the hotel at Daytonian in Manhattan)…

GOD AND MAMMON…Clockwise, from top left, the Manhattan Congregational Church in 1927. The church was torn down in 1928 and replaced by the Manhattan Towers Hotel at Broadway and 76th; the completed hotel, designed to wrap around the three-story Jones Speedometer Building, seen in the lower right of the photo; the first five floors of the building were dedicated to church use; after falling into disrepair, in 1980-83 the 626-room hotel was converted into 113 cooperative apartments. Note that the Speedometer Building still stands, sadly shorn of its ornamentation. (New York Public Library/Daytonian in Manhattan)

…Chappell also found much to admire in the new Fuller and Squibb buildings…

FULLER HOUSE…Clockwise, from top left, the 1929 Fuller Building was the third home of the George A. Fuller Company (its second home was the 1903 Flatiron Building); detailed views of the building’s tiled pinnacle and unique glass display windows that distinguish the building’s first six stories; an advertisement from the March 2, 1929 New Yorker that touted these gallery spaces for “superior merchandise”; detail of a coffered panel on an elevator door. (deskgram.net/nyc-architecture.com)
Clockwise, from top left, entrance to the Squibb Building, now known as 745 Fifth Avenue; the cool white marble of the building’s base so admired by critic George Chappell; today, the building at dusk, the slender profile of 432 Park Avenue rising in the background. (pinterest.com/OzBibliophile/paramount-group.com/landmarkbranding.com)

…From the Chrysler Building to the Fuller and Squibb, these new buildings, their architects, and the city’s ever-changing skyline were famously celebrated at the January 1931 Beaux Arts Ball…

HEADS IN THE CLOUDS…the Chrysler Building’s architect, William Van Alen (center), flanked by, from left to right, Stewart Walker (The Fuller Building), Leonard Schultze (The Waldorf-Astoria), Ely Jacques Kahn (The Squibb Building), Ralph Walker (1 Wall Street), D.E. Ward (The Metropolitan Tower), and Joseph H. Freelander (Museum of the City of New York). The New York Times referred to the group as “a tableau vivant of the New York Skyline.” (Van Alen Institute)

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Quiet on the Set

The early days of sound movies created numerous challenges for directors who not only had to adjust the action to accommodate cumbersome microphones, but also to keep out unwanted noises or bad enunciation. “The Talk of the Town” explained…

CLOSETED…In the early days of the talkies, cameras had to be soundproofed in cabinets so their noisy motors would not be picked up by primitive sound equipment. (coloradocollege.edu/Library of Congress)

Peter Arno illustrated the predicament of filming in nature in this cartoon from the April 5, 1930 issue…

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One of Ours

In the story of the New Yorker, Alexander Woollcott and Marc Connelly were there at the beginning as founding members of the Algonquin Round Table and advisory editors to the first issues of the magazine. Basking in the success of his latest play, The Green Pastures (for which he would receive a 1930 Pulitzer Prize for Drama), he was the subject of a April 12, 1930 profile, titled “Two-Eyed Connelly,” which was written by Woollcott. Some excerpts, and a caricature by Al Frueh

FAMILIAR WITH THE SUBJECT…Alexander Woollcott, left, explored the life of his old friend Marc Connelly in the April 12 profile. (goodreads.com/Fine Art America)

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The Party is Really Over

Lois Long’s column “Tables for Two,” which in the 1920s was a must-read for those interested in Jazz Age night life, appeared intermittently in its last year, and its April 12 installment was not even written by Long, but by a writer who signed the column “F.D.” — I assume this is Fairfax Downey, who tried his best to capture Long’s style…

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From Our Advertisers

Warner Brothers opened their pocketbooks to publicize John Barrymore’s latest film, The Man From Blankey’s, which the studio described as a “Modern High Hat Comedy”…

WHEN ALCOHOLISM WAS FUNNY…Loretta Young, John Barrymore and Angella Mawby in The Man from Blankley’s. (IMDB)

…Thanks to William Randolph Hearst and his King Features Syndicate, Robert Ripley, the P.T. Barnum of the funny pages, soared to fame in the 1930s with his “Believe It or Not” panel…here he begins his 14-year run on the radio…

HELLO SUCKERS…Robert Ripley in 1930 with a drawing of “the Horned Man of South Africa.” (RIPLEY ENTERTAINMENT INC.)

…and here’s an ad for another questionable but very American diversion — Fred Harvey’s “Indian Detours”…

WE’RE NOT IN KANSAS ANYMORE…The Fred Harvey Company was renowned for its chain of eating houses hosted by the famed “Harvey Girls” along the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe Railroad between 1876 and 1968. To encourage train travel (and Harvey business) in the Southwest, the Harvey company developed “Indian Detours.” The photo at left is of an “Indian Building” in Albuquerque, which featured displays of art and “live exhibits” that included Native Americans from many tribes around New Mexico. (santafeselection.com)
EASY RIDER…1929 Cadillac Harvey Indian Detour Car outside La Fonda, Santa Fe. (Palace of the Governors photo archive)

…if you preferred to travel abroad, Texaco wanted you to know that you could still gas up with their product, even in distant Singapore…

…we begin our cartoons with the spare stylings of Gardner Rea

…and Otto Soglow

…we find one of Helen Hokinson’s ladies on her way to fitness…

William Crawford Galbraith showed us an enterprising young man…

Art Young illustrated the challenges of the lecture circuit…

…and one of my all-time favorite Peter Arno cartoons…

Next Time: The Circus Comes to Town…

 

Talking Pictures

It was 1926 and another marvel of science–talking pictures–was unveiled to audiences at Broadway’s Warners’ Theatre. It was here that the Warner Brothers launched their ‘Vitaphone’ talkies including The Jazz Singer, which would premiere the following year.

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Aug. 14, 1926 cover by Ilonka Karasz.

The Vitaphone soundtrack was not printed on the film itself, but rather recorded separately on phonograph record, the sound synchronized by physically coupling the record turntable to the film projection motor.

VitaphoneDemo
A Vitaphone projection setup at a 1926 demonstration. Engineer E. B. Craft is holding a soundtrack disc. The turntable, on a massive tripod base, is at lower center. (University of San Diego History Department)

Don Juan was the first feature-length film to use the Vitaphone system, which was not a continuous soundtrack but rather a sprinkling of sound shorts (the musical score, performed by the New York Philharmonic, and various sound effects) throughout the film. No spoken dialogue was recorded.

First-nighters_posing_for_the_camera_outside_the_Warners'_Theater_before_the_premiere_of_%22Don_Juan%22_with_John_Barrymore,_-_NARA_-_535750
First-nighters pose outside Warners’ Theatre before the premiere of Don Juan, August 6, 1926 (US National Archives)

Produced at a cost of $789,963 (the largest budget of any Warner film up to that point), the film was critically acclaimed and a box-office success. However, and predictably, The New Yorker was not so impressed with Vitaphone…

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…or the acting of John Barrymore…

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I have to agree with the critic, identified only as O.C., after viewing this TCM clip of the film on YouTube. Lacking a voice, silent actors had to exaggerate emotions onscreen, but Barrymore here is every bit the ham. This screen grab from the clip says it all:

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The object of his gaze, Adriana della Varnese (played here by a young Mary Astor), reacts rather dramatically to his advances…can’t say I blame her…(however, the 44-year-old Barrymore and the 20-year-old Astor were having an affair at the time…)

annex-astor-mary-don-juan_nrfpt_02

A couple of interesting ads in the Aug. 14, 1926 issue, including this one featuring a couple of sneaky gents who’ve found a solution to life in dry America…Screen Shot 2016-02-03 at 1.11.20 PM

…and this not-too-subtle message from a swanky shop on Fifth Avenue:

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Next Time: Time for a Facelift…

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