The Future Was a Silly Place

One of the most expensive movies of 1930 was a sci-fi musical comedy titled Just Imagine, a silly mash-up of great sets, terrible acting, and a vision of the future fifty years hence that was way off the mark.

Nov. 29, 1930 cover by Victor Bobritsky.

Not that the film ever set out to be an accurate prediction of the future. Nevertheless, it is instructive (or, at the least, amusing) to look back on “yesterday’s tomorrows” to understand the American mind in the first year of the Great Depression.

COME FLY WITH ME…Clandestine lovers LN-18 (Maureen O’Sullivan) and J-21 (John Garrick) share a romantic moment high above the streets of 1980 New York City. (scifist.net)

Just Imagine borrowed some of its look from Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927), a dystopian vision of the future that reflected the contentious years of Germany’s Weimar Republic. Just Imagine similarly reflected its time and place — the early years of the Depression — Hollywood responding not with gloom and doom but rather with uplifting fare — comedies, musicals, and escapist fantasies (Flash Gordon came along in 1936). The producers of Just Imagine rolled all of it into one film, and the New Yorker’s John Mosher tried to make sense of the mess:

EYE IN THE SKY…In Just Imagine, technology is advanced enough to have a traffic cop floating in the sky, but he still must rely on his arms and mechanical signals to keep the skyways in order. (YouTube clip)

The floating traffic cop is just one example of the film’s attention to set design. The New York skyline, featured in the opening scene, was constructed in a giant hangar at enormous cost…

(Reddit)

In one of the films weirder twists, vaudeville comedian El Brendel is brought back to life with an electric beam…

SMOKED HAM…Vaudeville comedian El Brendel is zapped back to life to provide the world of 1980 with comic relief. Some of the electrical equipment assembled by set designer Kenneth Strickfaden would be seen again in 1931’s Frankenstein. (scifist.net)

…and Brendel (below, center), proceeds to get drunk on booze pills and spew a series of really bad jokes throughout the duration of the film…

SHOULD HAVE LEFT HIM DEAD…Frank Albertson, El Brendel and John Garrick in Just Imagine. (scifist.net)
MARS ATTACKS…The film also took audiences to the surface of Mars via a phallus-shaped spaceship that would later be used in Flash Gordon serials. Clockwise, top left, the spaceship blasts off surrounded by a crowd of men in fedoras; aboard the spaceship; landing site on Mars; J-21 (John Garrick) encounters the Martian Queen (Joyzelle Joyner). (YouTube/scifist.net)

The movie flopped at the box office, but producers were able to recoup some of the costs by farming out clips of the futuristic sets, and some of the props, to other sci-fi films of the 1930s including the Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers serials.

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Toys For Tots

By mid-November the New Yorker’s “On and Off the Avenue” column had lengthened to include ideas for Christmas shoppers. The Nov. 29 issue offered these ideas for children’s toys from Macy’s…

XMAS IS COMING…Patsy Ann dolls in smart berets, and dollhouses in various styles (a 1930 Triang Tudor dollhouse at right) could be had at Macy’s Herald Square flagship store. (Pinterest)

GRRRR…First introduced in 1922, the revival of “Radio Rex” proved popular to the kiddies in 1930. It was the “high tech” toy of its day, the first to respond to voice commands. Rex the dog would spring out of his doghouse at the sound of the word “Rex,” thanks to a sound-sensitive electromagnet. (ctinventor.wordpress.com)

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A Century-old-Problem

Traffic woes have been around almost as long as there have been cars. In an excerpt from “A Reporter at Large,” Morris Markey explained the challenges facing the city’s police department:

IF YOU BUILD IT, THEY WILL COME…Traffic clogs Fifth Avenue near 42nd Street in 1930. (Pinterest)

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Speaking of cars, this ad in the New Yorker announced the opening of the annual Automobile Salon at the Commodore Hotel…

…and the magazine was on hand to describe its various wonders. Some excerpts:

POETRY IN MOTION…Top, the Walter Dorwin Teague-designed Marmon 16-cylinder wowed crowds at the Salon, even if few could afford it. The Great Depression limited the production of the luxury Marmon, and less than 400 were produced. The company abandoned the car business altogether in 1933. Below, the sporty Ford Model L Roadster, designed by Raymond Dietrich. (supercars.net/Sotheby’s)

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Maestro Politician 

The New Yorker profiled pianist, composer and statesman Ignacy Jan Paderewski (1860-1941). Paderewski served as Poland’s prime minister in 1919, negotiated on behalf of his country at the Treaty of Versailles, and had a 60-year career as a virtuoso pianist. A brief excerpt:

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Not For the Moneychangers

Architecture critic George S. Chappell checked in on the progress of three prominent Manhattan cathedrals in his “Sky Line” column:

LANDMARKS ALL…From left, Riverside Church, the still yet-to-be completed St. John the Divine, and St. Bartholomew’s. (MCNY/masonrymagazine.com/dtjoyce.com)

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The theater review section included this illustration of a new play, Roar China, that opened Oct. 27, 1930 at the Beck Theatre.

The staging of Roar China included this reconstruction of the bow of the H.M.S. Europa on the Beck Theatre stage…

(messynessychic.com)

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From Our Advertisers

The holiday season was in the air, and retailers were taking various approaches to entice Depression-era shoppers to consider their wares. The ads have a more conservative bent, when compared to late 1920s, and in the case of Wanamaker’s and B. Altman’s, an appeal to simpler times…

…Macy’s, on the other hand, looked to sell rather expensive lighters “to arouse the youthful enthusiasm among veteran smokers”…

…despite the Depression, New Yorker subscriptions continued to steadily increase — the magazine had nearly 45,000 subscribers in 1930, and by the end of the decade the number would approach 100,000 — below, a house ad designed to entice new subscribers…

…our cartoons include this holiday spot illustration by Barbara Shermund

…and another by Shermund of her parlor room crowd…

Otto Soglow amused us with a couple of tots…

Gardner Rea imagined a confrontation between a Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade balloon and Italy’s Fascist dictator Benito Mussolini

…the balloon Rea illustrated was “The Captain” from the popular Katzenjammer Kids comic strip. Along with his “family,” the Captain appeared in the parade in 1929 and 1930 (and possibly 1931). They were the first licensed character balloons in the parade’s history…

macysthanksgiving.fandom.com

…back to cartoons, book shopping with William Crawford Galbraith

…and some holiday cheer from A.S. Foster

Next Time: Ziegfeld’s Folly…

 

 

 

Prophecies of 1929

E.B. White gazed 50 years into the future in the Sept. 21, 1929 issue, predicting that New York City would be much the same if not a little worse by the time the calendar turned to 1979.

Sept. 21, 1929 cover by Theodore G. Haupt.

White dismissed the popular notion that the future would be one of push-button happiness and gleaming white cities. And as it turned out, he was mostly right on the mark with his predictions:

LOVE IS IN THE AIR…Autogyros (as illustrated on a 1930 cover of Modern Mechanics) were often seen as the future of transportation in the 1920s and 30s; Maureen O’Sullivan (as “LN-18”) and John Garrick (“J-21”) glide above 1980 Manhattan in 1930’s  Just Imagine. (modernmechanix.com/pre-code.com)

Instead of the antiseptic fantasy world predicted in such movies as 1930’s Just Imagine (a futuristic musical set in 1980), White correctly foresaw a city that, despite technological advances, would still be a gritty rat race. And if you lived in New York City in 1979 (I was but a visitor then, as now), you would have found a city that indeed was quite dirty and crime-ridden (check out the 1979 movie The Warriors to get a sense of how Hollywood perceived the city at that time). As White observed, “Prophets always leave out the eternal mud”…

JUST A LOT OF HOT AIR…In addition to autogyros, futurists in the 1920s and 30s also saw dirigibles as integral to future transportation. At top left is an illustration of a solar-powered aerial landing field atop a dirigible on the cover of Modern Mechanix magazine, October, 1934; top right, Manhattan in 1980 as depicted in the the 1930 film Just Imagine; bottom right, workers dismantling the Third Avenue Elevated line in 1955; bottom left, Times Square in 1979. (airships.net/IMDB/gothamist.com/viewoftheblue.com)

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Cradle of Civilization

Dorothy Parker took aim at ugly Americans abroad in a casual titled “The Cradle of Civilization.” In these excerpts, Parker commented on the pretensions of young New Yorkers in France, including their ridiculous costumes…

…their bad French, and their even worse manners…

WELL, THEY GOT AWAY WITH IT…Actors Leslie Howard and Ingrid Bergman don the look of French fishermen during the filming of Intermezzo: A Love Story, in 1938. Howard and Bergman were supposed to look like a couple visiting the French Riviera, but in reality it was all filmed near Hollywood. The film was Bergman’s Hollywood debut. (Pinterest)

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A Penny Saved

Back stateside, Wolcott Gibbs looked in on the dying art of the penny-arcade peepshow, and expressed his disappointment with the quality of that product in general…

DON’T JUDGE A PEEP BY ITS COVER…A patron checks out “Hot Tango” at a penny peepshow parlor of the 1920s. (Pinterest)

Gibbs seemed particularly miffed by a film with the misleading title “For Men Only”…

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Uncle Jed

Jed Harris (1900-1979) was a wunderkind of Broadway, producing and directing 31 shows between 1925 and 1956. Before he turned 28 he produced a record four consecutive Broadway hits over the course of 18 months (including the 1928 smash hit The Front Page), and so it was time for some rest. “The Talk of the Town” reported…

Although it was rumored Harris would retire at age 30, he would instead return in the spring of 1930 with a production of Anton Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya, and continue producing on Broadway through the 1950s.

WUNDERKIND…A 1928 portrait of Jed Harris that was featured on the Sept. 3, 1928 cover of Time magazine. (Wikipedia)

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Dueling Cassandras

About a month before the big stock market crash we find this curious little item in Howard Brubaker’s “Of All Things” column…

…Considered the first “celebrity economist,” Irving Fisher stated in September 1929 that the stock market had reached “a permanently high plateau,” while around the same time (Sept. 5, 1929) rival economist Roger Babson warned in a speech that “sooner or later a crash is coming, and it may be terrific.” Note: “Ben Bolts” refers to a character in a popular 1842 poem that became an oft-parodied popular song. Each stanza begins with a variation of “Oh don’t you remember…”

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Parental Advisory

Fifty-five years before Tipper Gore and the Parents Music Resource Center pushed the music industry to place warning labels on records containing explicit lyrics, there was much ado about “lascivious lyrics” uttered on “race records” — the term referred to 78-rpm records marketed to African Americans from the 1920s and 1940s. The Sept. 21 “Popular Records” column looked at the controversy surrounding Ethel Waters’ “Second Handed Man,” and didn’t find any…

MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING…Ethel Waters (circa 1930) and her recording of “Second Handed Man.” (discogs.com/YouTube)

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New Kids on the Block

Architecture critic George S. Chappell (aka “T-Square”) concluded his Sept. 21 column with praise for the designs of the yet-to-be-built Daily News and Chrysler buildings, but expressed dismay at the recently completed Lincoln Building…

BAD COMPANY…New Yorker architecture critic George S. Chappell was excited about the designs for the Daily News Building (left) and Chrysler Building (center), but the Lincoln Building left him wanting. No doubt its gothic topper seemed dated in contrast to the sleek lines of the other buildings. (nyc-architecture.com)

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Movie critic John Mosher took in a couple of new films including Paramount’s  1929 pre-Code drama Jealousy…

FINAL CURTAIN…Jeanne Eagels and Fredric March in a publicity photo for Jealousy. Eagels died of a drug overdose on Oct. 3, 1929, just days after Mosher’s review appeared in the New Yorker. (IMDB)

…and Mosher also reviewed the musical drama The Great Gabbo, which was derived from a story by occasional New Yorker contributor Ben Hecht

WHO ARE YOU CALLING A DUMMY?…Erich von Stroheim has issues with his co-star in The Great Gabbo. (MoMA)

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From Our Advertisers

What appeared to be an unassuming ad from General Motors was actually a plan for world domination, at least in the area of ground transportation. GM gobbled up a number of car companies in the 1920s (see the ad’s fine print) as well as shares in power plants and home appliances. It would overtake Ford in sales in the late 1920s, and thanks to propaganda efforts including those illustrated in the ad below, it would lead a streetcar removal conspiracy that would destroy intercity train transport systems across the U.S. (and convert them to GM buses, naturally)…

Here we have yet another “distinguished handwriting contest” ad from the makers of Marlboro, this time exploiting the efforts of Corinne B. Riley of Sumter, S.C….

…Riley would win more than a handwriting contest, however. She would be elected as a Democrat to Congress in 1962 to fill a vacancy left by her husband, Congressman John Jacob Riley.

Corrine B. Riley in 1962. (Wikipedia)

On to our illustrators and comics, we begin with this two-page drawing by Reginald Marsh that appeared along the the bottom of “Talk of the Town” (click to enlarge)

Gardner Rea lent his spare style to this peek into Wall Street…

Peter Arno appeared to be experimenting with yet another style of drawing…

…that is in some ways looked similar to Alan Dunn’s

…the British cartoonist Bruce Bairnsfather provided this sumptuous drawing of an exchange at a card shop…

…and I. Klein gave a vertiginous perspective to home buying…

Next Time: Frigidity in Men…