Super Tramp

The late film critic Roger Ebert once observed that “if only one of Charles Chaplin’s films could be preserved, City Lights would come the closest to representing all the different notes of his genius.”

Feb. 21, 1931 cover by Rea Irvin, marking the New Yorker’s sixth anniversary.

The New Yorker’s film critic in 1931, John Mosher, would have agreed. Before he previewed the picture, however, Mosher feared (along with others) that the great actor and director had seen his best days…

…instead, the film proved a hit with both audiences and critics, and today is regarded as one of the greatest films ever made. It was no doubt a relief to Ebert when the film was selected by the Library of Congress for preservation in the National Film Registry.

HE DOES IT ALL…United Artists issued several different types of posters to promote the film, including these two. (IMDB)
A TENDER FELLOW…The Tramp (Charlie Chaplin) encounters a blind flower girl (Virginia Cherrill) on a street corner and is instantly smitten; later that evening the Tramp saves a drunken millionaire (Harry Myers) from suicide. (IMDB)

The film has its tender moments, but being a Chaplin production it also had plenty of slapstick, including this famous scene in which the Tramp and his millionaire friend go out on the town and dig into plates of spaghetti…and in the Tramp’s case, some confetti…

Mosher (and many other critics since) believe the opening scene of the film — in which a statue is unveiled to reveal a sleeping Tramp — was Chaplin’s attack on sound movies:

CAUGHT NAPPING…The Tramp is unveiled along with a statue in the opening scene of City Lights. (IMDB)

Although the film had a full musical score and sound effects, there was no spoken dialogue. Rather, Chaplin poked fun of the tinny-sounding talkies of the day by putting not words, but the sounds of a kazoo, into the mouths of speechifying politicians gathered at the statue’s unveiling…

For all its humor, City Lights was a serious work by a serious actor and director who sought something close to perfection. The scene in which the Tramp encounters a blind flower girl on a street corner required three hundred and forty-two takes with actress Virginia Cherrill, who was a newcomer to film.

Writing in the New Yorker, critic Richard Brody (“Chaplin’s Three Hundred and Forty-Two Takes,” Nov. 19, 2013) noted that “Chaplin didn’t have a mental template that he wanted Cherrill to match; he approaches the scene not quite knowing what he wanted.” Brody observed that the perfection Chaplin sought was one of results, and not of conformity to a preconceived schema. “He sought what provoked, in him, the perfect emotion, the perfect aesthetic response — but he wouldn’t know it until he saw it. He started to shoot in the confidence that the thing — whatever it was — would happen.” Chaplin’s technique can be seen in this clip from the Criterion Collection’s 2013 DVD release of the film. Note that this footage was shot by the New Yorker’s Ralph Barton, a close friend of Chaplin’s:

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Chaplin, Part Two

The Chaplin buzz was not confined to the movie section of the magazine, which featured more insights on the star in “The Talk of the Town.”

GENIUS LOVES COMPANY…Photo of Albert Einstein and Charlie Chaplin at the Los Angeles premiere of City Lights. Einstein said Chaplin was the only person in Hollywood he wanted to meet. (Wikipedia)

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Funny In a Different Way

Like City Lights, Tod Browning’s Dracula is today considered a classic film. Indeed, Bela Lugosi’s timeless portrayal of the old bloodsucker set a standard for vampire flicks and horror films in general. The New Yorker’s John Mosher, however, would have none of it, dismissing the film in a single paragraph.

PAIN INTHE NECK…Count Dracula (Bela Lugosi) goes for a nibble on the fragile Mina (Helen Chandler) in 1931’s Dracula. (IMDB)

Mosher was also dismissive of Fritz Lang’s By Rocket to the Moon, originally released in German as Frau Im Mond (Woman in the Moon). The 1929 production is considered one of the first “serious” science fiction movies, anticipating a number of technologies that would actually be used in space travel decades later.

RETRO ROCKET…Fritz Lang’s Woman in the Moon would predict a number of technologies used decades later in actual space flight, including multi-stage rockets. Lang also anticipated the future in the much-acclaimed Metropolis (1927).

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Bored on Broadway

Robert Benchley was visiting friends abroad, so Dorothy Parker did what any pal would do and subbed for his theater column. As it turned out, it was not a happy task, even if she did receive complementary tickets to one of the hottest shows on Broadway:

Having dispatched Katharine Cornell’s Barretts of Wimpole Street, Parker took aim at America’s Sweetheart, based on a book by Herbert Fields with music and lyrics by Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart. Parker ended the savaging with a plea to her dear friend and colleague to return home soon:

THEY LAUGHED, THEY CRIED…Katharine Cornell (left) portrayed Elizabeth Barrett in Barretts of Wimpole Street. Dorothy Parker thought Cornell was a first-rate actress, but didn’t think much of her play. As for Inez Courtney (right) in America’s Sweetheart, Parker believed she did what she could, whatever that meant. (Pinterest)

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Lest We Forget

The New Yorker turned six with this issue, and in the life of any magazine, that is something to be celebrated, and especially in hindsight as our beloved publication closes in on its centenary in 2025.

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From Our Advertisers

We’ve seen in past ads how Prohibition-era vintners marketed grape juice bricks that could be dissolved in water and fermented in the home. In this ad they took it a step further, sending expert cellarers direct to customers’ homes to help them create their own, perfectly legal, wine cellar…

…those with wine cellars might have preferred to live in a “highly restricted” community in Jackson Heights…

…and furnish their homes with the latest in modern furniture design…

…and here we have an early example of the “macho” smoker, anticipating the arrival of his buddy, the Marlboro Man…

…on to our cartoonists, another theater section entry by one of Charlie Chaplin’s closest friends, Ralph Barton

…and cartoons by Peter Arno, who channelled Dracula via his Sugar Daddy…

Garrett Price, and the burdens of the rich…

Denys Wortman examined the follies of youth…

…and we end with dear Helen Hokinson, and the miracle of birth…

Next Time: The Triumph of Big Bill…

And the Winner Is…

We lead off with a couple of winners from the Feb. 7, 1931 issue, beginning with a cover by Rea Irvin that takes measure of a lighter moment at the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show.

Feb. 7, 1931 cover by Rea Irvin.

The 1930 Best of Show winner Pendley Calling of Blarney also took the top honor in 1931, giving the wire fox terrier back-to-back Westminster wins. Overall, terriers have dominated Westminster — wire fox terriers have won Best of Show 15 times, with Scottish terriers a distant second, with eight wins.

TOP DOG…Pendley Calling of Blarney won back-to-back crowns in 1930-31 at Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show at Madison Square Garden. The dog’s owner, John Grenville Bates, mercifully retired the pooch after the ’31 win. (Westminster Kennel Club)
STANDARD? ARE YOU KIDDING ME?…Standard poodle Siba won Best in Show at the 144th annual Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show on Feb. 11, 2020, at Madison Square Garden. (Reuters)

The other winner was Cimarron, the first film to receive more than six Academy Award nominations, winning three including Best Picture (then called Best Production). It was the first Western to win Best Picture, and it would be nearly 60 years until another Western, Dances with Wolves, would take the top honor.

HE LOST HIS SHIRT, TOO…

Despite some “sagging moments,” John Mosher mostly lavished praise on the film, which was showing at the Globe Theatre:

THAT’S NO WELCOME WAGON…Clockwise, from top left, Yancey and Sabra Cravat (Richard Dix and Irene Dunn) join the 1889 Oklahoma Land Rush with their son, Cim (Junior Johnston); a less-than-friendly greeting at a boomer town; wagons line up for the big land grab; a young prostitute, Dixie Lee (Estelle Taylor), outwits Yancey for a piece of prime property. (IMDB)
OH DEAR, THERE’S THAT LOOK AGAIN…Yancey (Richard Dix) takes it upon himself to establish order in the boomer town of Osage. On the bed are Yancey’s son, Cim (Junior Johnston) and wife Sabra (Irene Dunn). (IMDB)

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Handy Painter

It is hard to imagine the struggles of one-handed painter José Clemente Orozco (1883-1949), who despite his handicap was able to complete huge murals in true fresco style (paint applied quickly on fresh, wet plaster), including five socially-themed frescoes at the Joseph Urban-designed New School. The murals included controversial depictions of Lenin and Stalin, but it wasn’t until the 1950s — during the McCarthy era — that school officials felt compelled to cover the images with a curtain. More protests followed, this time from faculty and students, and the curtains fell along with Joe McCarthy. “The Talk of the Town” looked in on the artist at work:

HE LOOKS FAMILIAR…José Clemente Orozco’s “The Struggle in The Occident”, 1930-1931, one of five frescoes at the New School. (Pinterest)

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Prescience of Mind

News reporter and author Elmer Davis submitted this humorous piece to the New Yorker doubtless thinking how preposterous, and therefore humorous, the following notion would be (a brief excerpt):

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Funny Cigarettes

In the early years of broadcast radio (and later TV) tobacco companies rightly saw a huge gold mine in radio show sponsorships. So when CBS radio executives accepted a sponsorship from Lorillard (the makers of Old Gold), they realized they had a challenge on their hands. “Talk” explained:

COUGH ME A MELODY…The makers of Old Gold cigarettes had CBS in their clutches in this September 1933 ad featuring bandleader Fred Waring and singer Babsie. (period paper.com)

…The above “Talk of the Town” item referred to the famous Murad ads illustrated by the New Yorker’s own Rea Irvin

…while other advertisers were scaling back a bit due to the Depression, lovely full-color ads continued to flow from tobacco companies (and oil companies)…

…Pierce-Arrow was also known for its sumptuous ads, but they wouldn’t save the luxury car maker from going under by the mid-1930s…

…Some less expensive black and white ads, such as this hand-lettered ad from Stein & Blaine, could be quite charming…

…speaking of charm, this ad from Arthur Murray could have used a little of it…note the stern visage of the woman, described as “typical of Arthur Murray’s staff of expert teachers”…

…on to our Feb. 7 cartoons, we have one of Peter Arno’s stock characters, the Sugar Daddy, in an awkward moment at a costume party…

…Arno’s party looked a lot more lively than this affair, illustrated by William Crawford Galbraith...

…and Carl Rose gave us this pair, who seem to having the best time of all…

Mary Petty eavesdropped on a guileless young woman…

…and Gardner Rea paid a visit to the Met…

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On to our Feb. 14 issue, and Gardner Rea once more…

Feb. 14, 1931 cover by Gardner Rea.

The Feb. 14 issue featured a profile of actress Katharine Cornell (1893-1974), written by cultural critic Gilbert Seldes. The caricature of Cornell is by Al Frueh. Excerpts:

Promotional photograph of Katharine Cornell as Elizabeth Barrett in the original 1931 Broadway production of The Barretts of Wimpole Street. It was her most famous role(Theatre Magazine, March 1931)

Cornell is considered one of the greatest actors of American theater, known for her eloquence and romantic stage presence. Seldes concluded:

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Strange Bedfellows

In his column “Of All Things,” Howard Brubaker referred to an exchange between American capitalists and Soviet Russians that resulted in the rapid industrialization of the Soviet Union. That actual story behind this effort is pretty amazing.

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Sneak Peek

Film critic John Mosher was so excited about Charlie Chaplin’s latest film that he offered this teaser to readers…

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From Our Advertisers

We have this ad from the developers of the Empire State Building, which was being readied for a May 1931 opening…

…the Empire State Building was erected on the site of the old Waldorf-Astoria Hotel. The new Waldorf-Astoria, also completed in 1931, was located more than 15 blocks away from its original site. Both the Empire State Building and the Waldorf Astoria would become Art Deco landmarks, and both shared the distinction of holding world records: the Empire State was the world’s tallest building (a record it would keep until 1970), and the Waldorf would claim the title of the world’s tallest hotel (until 1963)…

…on to our cartoonists, we have Ralph Barton contributing one of his last illustrations to the theater review section…

Richard Decker references a recent change in New York telephone numbers with this prison scene…

…Decker was referring to this bit of news, here interpreted by E.B. White in his Feb. 14 “Notes and Comment.”

James Thurber returned with his second-ever stand-alone cartoon for the New Yorker

Garrett Price mined a theme that would become common in New Yorker cartoons: the tycoon vs. meek employee…

Nancy Fay gave us a glimpse of the seamier side of family life…

R. Van Buren goes even darker with this entry…

…and we end on a high note, with Alan Dunn

Next Time: Super Tramp…

Happy 1929!

I’ve been writing this blog for nearly three years, and during that stretch have managed to cover more than 200 issues of the New Yorker, or about the first four years of the magazine.

Dec. 22, 1928 and Dec. 29, 1928 covers by Rea Irvin.

The amount of young talent on display in those early issues is truly astounding, from writers such as E.B. White, Dorothy Parker and James Thurber (writer and cartoonist) to illustrators and cartoonists including Peter Arno, Rea Irvin, Helen Hokinson, Miguel Covarrubias and Ilonka Karasz, to name just a few. Among the contributing artists was Abe Birnbaum, who illustrated more than 150 covers for the New Yorker from the 1940s to 1970s. One of his earliest contributions to the magazine was this illustration for the “Profile” section in the Dec. 22 issue:

Canadian artist Shelley Davies writes in her blog that Birnbaum “charmingly captured some of life’s quieter moments with a deft eye.” In addition to the New Yorker, Birnbaum illustrated numerous covers for Stage and Arts In America, and won a Caldecott Award in 1954 for his children’s book, Green Eyes.

ON THE QUIETER SIDE…Abe Birnbaum (pictured here circa 1960) created more than 150 covers for the New Yorker from the 1940s to the 1970s. At right, a cover from March 17, 1962. (google.com.br)

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A couple of select advertisements from the Dec. 22 reveal what retailers knew, or thought they knew, about the magazine’s readership. Franklin & Simon, seeking perhaps to broaden their market for furs, suggested that even a stylish French woman might prefer a fur fashioned as a modest “sports wrap”…

…as for the guys, Saks appealed to the anglophilia that apparently was rife among New York’s smart set. Check out the ridiculous hat gracing the noggin of this young dandy…

Well-heeled readers who could afford to flee the New York winter were targeted by these various enticements in the Dec. 22 issue (this is a collage of select ads found in the back pages of the issue):

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Hello Down There

Writing about New Yorker humor derived from class distinctions, Ben Yagoda (About Town: The New Yorker and the World It Made, p. 63) noted a series of cartoons by Otto Soglow that began with this one in the Dec. 22, 1928 issue and continued through thirty installments that ran to early 1930, when the workers, Joe and Bill, finally emerged from the manhole:

This running gag, according to Yagoda, “came from the conceit that the laborers spoke with the same assumptions and in the same catchphrases as those with ‘higher’ places in society.”

Also from the Dec. 22 issue, this terrific cartoon by Leonard Dove that showed a bookish man who had accidentally entered the wrong type of book-making establishment:

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The Girl Who Wouldn’t Grow Up

Maude Adams was a major Broadway star in the early years of the 20th century. Appearing in more than 25 productions from 1888 to 1916, she was most famous for her portrayal of Peter Pan in the Broadway production of Peter Pan; or, The Boy Who Wouldn’t Grow Up. She performed that role first in 1905-06 and again in 1912 and 1915. The highest-paid performer of her day, at her peak she earned more than $1 million a year, a staggering sum more than a century ago. James Thurber, writing in the Dec. 29 “Talk of the Town,” reported that after a decade-long absence from the stage, Adams was planning a comeback as a director:

STAR POWER…At left, American actress Maude Adams, circa 1900. At right, Adams as Peter Pan, her most famous stage role. Adams was the first American to portray Peter Pan on the stage. She played the role 1,500 times between 1905-1915. She retired from the stage in 1918 after a severe bout with the flu. She died at age 80 in 1953. (Wikipedia/Oakland Tribune)

Thurber also noted that Adams was working with General Electric in the development of color photography. According to the Trivia Library, it has been suggested that her motivation might have been a wish to appear in a color film version of Peter Pan. She eventually returned to acting in the 1930s, with occasional appearances in regional productions of Shakespeare plays.

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A Lukewarm Welcome to 1929

The Dec. 29 New Yorker opened with these lamentations for the last issue of 1928. At least it appears that one could obtain a decent bottle of French champagne to toast the New Year:

JAM SESSION…1929 photo of traffic on Fifth Avenue. (theoldmotor.com)

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The Passing of a Poet

The Dec. 29 issue featured something unprecedented in the New Yorker up to that point: the reprinting of an entire piece previously featured in the magazine. In this case, it was in tribute to the sudden passing of poet and author Elinor Wylie:

PORTRAITS…Elinor Wylie posed for her friend Carl Van Vechten in this 1922 portrait (left). The photo at right, probably taken around 1926, was clearly the inspiration for the illustration by Peter Arno that accompanied “Portrait.” (Yale University/humorinamerica.wordpress.com)

It is no wonder that the New Yorker had such affection for Wylie, for she was as colorful a personality as could be found in 1920s literary circles. A Columbia University Press bio notes that “she was famous during her life almost as much for her ethereal beauty and personality as for her melodious, sensuous poetry.” Born to a socially prominent family and trained for a life in society, she instead became notorious for her multiple marriages and love affairs. She also suffered from extremely high blood pressure that gave her unbearable migraines.

Wylie died on Dec. 16, 1928, while going over a typescript of her poetry collection, Angels and Earthly Creatures, with her estranged third husband, William Rose Benét. According to Karen Stein (in the Dictionary of Literary Biography), Wylie, while picking up a volume of John Donne’s poems, asked Benét for a glass of water. When he returned with it, she reportedly walked toward him and murmured, “Is that all it is?,” and fell to the floor, dead of a stroke. She was 43.

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Age of Innocence

The Dec. 29 theatre review section featured this illustration by Al Frueh of Katharine Cornell in the Empire Theatre’s production of The Age of Innocence:

And below, a studio portrait of Cornell from the same play:

HOW SHE REALLY LOOKED…Katharine Cornell as ‘Countess Ellen Olenska’ in this Vandamm Studio portrait dated November 27, 1928. (Billy Rose Theatre Collection, The New York Public Library)

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Before Baby Snooks

Although it was still a few years before singer and actress Fanny Brice would make her radio debut as the bratty toddler named “Snooks,” she was already well-known to New York audiences for her work in the Ziegfeld Follies (beginning in 1910). In its Dec. 29 issue the New Yorker favorably reviewed Brice’s first motion picture, My Man, which included musical scenes with Vitaphone sound:

MY MAN…Fanny Brice, Guinn Williams, and Edna Murphy on the set of the partially silent film My Man, 1928. Her first movie appearance, Brice played Fanny Brand, a poor girl who becomes a star. The film is now considered lost, since only an incomplete version survives. (brice.nl)
THROUGH THE YEARS…At left, singer and actress Fanny Brice from the time she was a Ziegfeld Follies girl, circa 1915. At right, Brice in the role of Baby Snooks, 1940. (Vintage Everyday/Wikipedia)

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Let’s Get Physical

Even 90 years ago some folks (or at least some New Yorkers) resolved to get healthy and hit the gym in the New Year. In this ad, McGovern’s Gymnasium announced it was ready for them:

Babe Ruth trains at Artie McGovern’s Gym in NYC for the upcoming baseball season, February 9, 1928. (twitter.com/BSmile)

And to close out 1928, a cartoon from John Reehill

Next Time: Out With the Old…