The Wild Kingdom

A host of nature programs from Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom to Planet Earth owe their origins to a few intrepid filmmakers who 100 years ago gave Americans some of their first glimpses of life in exotic, remote regions of the world.

Feb. 1, 1930 cover by Julian De Miskey.

Among the first to do it were a couple from Kansas, Osa and Martin Johnson, who together explored unknown lands and brought back footage of the wildlife and peoples of the African continent, the South Pacific Islands and British North Borneo. Their first film, Among the Cannibal Isles of the South Seas (1918), was followed by several more, including Across the World with Mr. and Mrs. Johnson, which was released in early 1930.

The New Yorker film critic John Mosher was as eager as any audience to take in the adventures of the Johnsons, or even of someone who was inspired by the Johnsons, in this case a “Miss O’Brien” who had just released a “diverting diary” called Up the Congo. Mosher wrote about it in the Jan. 25 issue:

CONTACT…Image of a family from an unidentified Pygmy tribe posing with a European explorer in a 1921 Collier’s New Encyclopedia entry; a group of Mbuti posing with explorer Osa Johnson in 1930. (Wikipedia)

I can find no record of the film Up the Congo, however the exploits of the Johnsons are well documented thanks to the Martin and Osa Johnson Safari Museum in Chanute, Kansas, which has a treasure trove of photos and other information on the explorers.

The ad in the Feb. 1, 1930 New Yorker promoting Across the World with Mr. and Mrs. Johnson included an interesting “added attraction”…a film about Einstein’s theory of relativity that had caused a Jan. 8 “riot” at the American Museum of Natural History. That particular screening was intended for members of the Amateur Astronomers Association, but word got out and three times the invited number showed up at the museum, breaking down the lobby gates. Hard to imagine a mob today clamoring to view a science film…

Although the Johnsons made their movies under the auspices of the American Museum of Natural History, much of the footage was staged or edited to maximize the thrills (Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom did this in the 1960s and 70s, as did producers of Disney’s nature films from the 50s and 60s. The practice continues to this day on cable television).

The Johnsons also didn’t hesitate to gun down animals in the course of their movie-making…

YEP, THAT’S JUXTAPOSITION…Osa Johnson poses with a Photoplay magazine, a dead rhino, and a tribesman, circa 1930. (columbia.edu)

According to a 2011 review from Wild Film History, “in stark contrast to the conservation-themed wildlife films of today, the Johnsons approached their subjects armed with both camera and rifle, with the production including provoked behaviour, staged confrontations and animals shot to death on film. Relying heavily on cutting in kills from professional marksmen, numerous hunting scenes culminate in a heart-stopping sequence where, with the use of clever editing, the adventurous Mrs Johnson appears to bring down a charging rhinoceros with one well-aimed shot.”

Across the World with Mr. and Mrs. Johnson is presented as if the Johnsons were showing their film to a few friends in their New York City apartment. The film is a “silent with sound,” that is, scenes in the field are silent, but the cocktail party “home movie” opening has sound, including “mood music” Osa provides by turning on the radio as the film begins. For all of their film experience, the acting between Osa and Martin is wooden, as is Martin’s narration. The critic John Mosher, however, enjoyed the ride, writing in his Feb. 1 column:

If you are curious, you can watch some of the film here, including the opening home movie scene with Osa and Martin in cocktail attire…

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My Kinda Town

The New Yorker occasionally enjoyed taking potshots at the Second City, as well as some good-natured jabs at a few of its former residents who were also denizens of the Algonquin Round Table. Here is E.B. White in the Feb. 1 “Notes and Comment”…

WINDY WITS…Chicagoans Charles MacArthur, Ben Hecht and Ring Lardner were well-known to the New Yorker crowd. (Wikipedia)

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Not In This Century

This item from the Feb. 1 “Talk of the Town” is noteworthy for placing its admiration of technical achievement over any concerns for a child’s welfare. Today the couple would be arrested for this…

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The Perils of Aging

Irish-American actress and writer Patricia Collinge (1892-1974) wrote a series of short stories for the New Yorker, including this piece for the Feb. 1 issue written when she was 37 years old. It is a sad story about an older actress (37) who hoped to land the part of a younger woman. Some excerpts…

…the actress in the story is led to believe the part was intended for a woman of 28, and is crushed to learn that the agent was looking for “a young twenty-two”…

OH TO BE YOUNG…At left, Gladys Cooper, Alexandra Carlisle and 20-year-old Patricia Collinge in the Drury Lane production of Everywoman (1912); at right, Collinge in 1941. Unlike the sad actress in her short story, Collinge’s career spanned more than 60 years.

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Coming Around

In previous issues art critic Murdock Pemberton expressed skepticism about the new Museum of Modern of Art, founded by wealthy society women in November 1929. Pemberton held egalitarian views about art, and wondered if the old money set could create a venue for true modern artists. His review of “Painting in Paris,” MoMA’s third exhibition, seemed to allay his concerns…


PAINTING IN PARIS was the title of the Museum of Modern Art’s third exhibition featuring works by Georges Braque, Georges Rouault, Pablo Picasso, Joan Miró, Marc Chagall, Robert Delauney, Fernand Leger, Henri Matisse and Andre Derain among others. Image above is from the original exhibition at MOMA’s first home in the Heckscher Building at 730 Fifth Avenue. (MOMA)
Images above in color, from left, Pablo Picasso’s Green Still Life Avignon (1914) and Seated Woman (1927); Georges Braque’s Still life (1927). (MOMA/WikiArt)
Pemeberton expressed enthusiasm for the show’s new works that contained few traces of the familiar…

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The King’s Speech

King George V was not known for his public speaking, but when he addressed the third meeting of the London Naval Conference it was a big deal, even to American listeners who for the first time heard his voice over broadcast radio, still a very new medium in 1930…

ON THE AIR…The voice of King George V (pictured here in 1923) was broadcast across the Atlantic for the opening of the London Naval Conference at St. James’s Palace in 1930. The third in a series of five meetings, the conference was formed with the purpose of placing limits on the naval capacity of the world’s largest naval powers. (Wikipedia/Churchill Archives Centre)

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Good Clean Fun?

In his theater review column, Robert Benchley lamented the state of burlesque shows at the National Winter Garden, where “leviathans of an earlier day” were being displaced by “agile wisps” in third-rate Broadway productions…

ON THE SHOULDERS OF GIANTS…from left, Viola Clifton, a fuller-figured 1890s burlesque dancer; center and right, Margaret Bourke-White photos from Minsky’s National Winter Garden, 1936. Theater critic Robert Benchley wrote that he missed the “leviathans” of an earlier age, who were replaced by girls who were nothing but “agile wisps.”(mashable.com/theguardian.com)

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From Our Advertisers

Just a couple of ads from the Feb. 1 issue, including this entry from the Shelton Looms offering advice on how one should appear among the Havana social set…

…and this ad from Harper’s Bazaar, also appealing to the smart set…

…our cartoons include this two-page illustration by Rea Irvin

Alan Dunn’s look into the challenges of running a power plant…

…at the opera with Perry Barlow

Gardner Rea and some bedroom hinjinks…

…man vs. mouse, by Peter Arno

…and this by Leonard Dove, seemingly anticipating the work of Charles Addams

Next Time: We Smiled As We Danced…

 

Good Vibrations

A decidedly new sound reverberated in the ears of New Yorkers who attended a Feb. 1928 performance of the New York Philharmonic that featured guest artist Leon Theremin, a Russian inventor who played music by moving his hands through the air, or more accurately, a magnetic field.

February 4, 1928 cover by Gardner Rea.

Theremin’s eponymous instrument had neither keys nor strings, but rather two metal antennas attached to an electronic oscillator. Music was produced by moving one’s hands between the antennas, which sensed the relative position of the players hands—one antenna controlled for pitch while the other adjusted the instrument’s volume. The sound produced is best described as “otherworldly.” James Thurber, writing for the New Yorker’s “Talk of the Town” (in a piece titled “Music Makers”), found Theremin’s performance intriguing, but of even greater interest was the great Russian pianist and composer Sergei Rachmaninoff—who was in attendance—and his reaction to the strange instrument:

HMMMM…At left, Sergei Rachmaninoff in 1921, as photographed by Kubey Rembrandt. At right, Leon Theremin plays his eponymous instrument at a demonstration concert in Paris on December 8, 1927. (Wikimedia)

The New Yorker’s voyeuristic account of Rachmaninoff continued, with the great man now becoming more engaged in the performance…

The Theremin would grow in popularity, however more as a novelty than a serious instrument:

ON THE AIR…Alexandra Stepanoff playing the Theremin on NBC Radio in 1930. A Russian immigrant to the U.S., the former concert singer was Theremin’s first student in the United States. (Wikimedia)
VIRTUOSO…The Russian-born Clara (Reisenberg) Rockmore holds a unique place in music history as the virtuoso performer of the Theremin. Leon Theremin built a custom version of his instrument for Clara, which added greater range and sensitivity. Clara would sometimes perform concerts with her sister, accomplished pianist Nadia Reisenberg. Photo circa 1930. (YouTube)

Theremin would be granted a U.S. patent for the instrument in 1928, which was marketed and distributed in the U.S. by RCA during the 1930’s in either DIY kit form or as a finished instrument:

(120years.net)

Interest in the instrument as a novelty continued into the 40’s and 50’s in the DIY market…

(120years.net)

Robert Moog, pioneer of modern electronic music and inventor of the Moog synthesizer, made and sold a transistorized version of the Theremin in the 1950s.

The Theremin would become best known to mass culture through its use in producing “eerie” sound effects in 1940s and 50s films, including Bernard Herrmann’s use of the instrument for the soundtrack to the 1951 sci-fi thriller, The Day The Earth Stood Still. And nearly everyone on the planet has heard the Theremin-inspired sound of the Beach Boy’s song Good Vibrations, created by an electro-Theremin that was developed in the late 1950s to mimic the sound of the original Theremin.

As for Leon Theremin himself, he would also gain notoriety as the inventor of The Thing, a listening device most famously used by the Soviets to bug the U.S. Embassy in Moscow. The device was hidden behind a wood carving of the U.S. Great Seal, which in 1945 was presented by Soviet schoolchildren to the U.S. ambassador, who subsequently hung it in his office.

GOTCHA…American Ambassador to the UN Henry Cabot Lodge displays The Thing before the UN Security Council in 1960. At right, the device which was hidden behind the seal. The Americans discovered the bug in 1952, but didn’t reveal its existence until 1960 in the wake of the U-2 spy plane incident. The Soviet Union had convened the meeting of the United Nations Security Council to accuse the Americans of spying with the U2; in response Cabot displayed The Thing as proof spying between the two countries was a mutual endeavor. (crytomuseum.com/Wikimedia)

The reasons why Theremin developed The Thing for the KGB are a mystery. When he suddenly disappeared from New York in 1938 it was rumored that he had been kidnapped and possibly executed by the KGB. What we do know is that Soviet spooks put him to work in a secret laboratory in the Gulag camp system, where he developed The Thing.

In 1991, filmmaker Steven Martin brought Leon Theremin back to New York to film a documentary about his life. Theremin gave one last performance in 1993, and died that year at age 97.

Wild Kingdom

The New Yorker’s review of the hit film Simba showed a very different approach to the natural world 89 years ago, when the wilds of Africa were exploited purely for adventure and thrills rather than for any real understanding of natural systems and the animals and humans that inhabited them. Martin and Osa Johnson were celebrated for their filmed exploits in the wilds, including Simba; they touted their movie—shot in Kenya—as being made under the auspices of the American Museum of Natural History, although much of the film was staged or edited in ways to maximize the thrills.

The New Yorker found the film to be “darn good fun”…

Despite its flaws, the film does offer us a glimpse of Africa when wildlife hadn’t been hunted to near extinction, although the Johnsons didn’t hesitate to gun down animals left and right in the course of their movie-making.

According to a 2011 review from Wild Film History, “in stark contrast to the conservation-themed wildlife films of today, the Johnsons approached their subjects armed with both camera and rifle, with the production including provoked behaviour, staged confrontations and animals shot to death on film. Relying heavily on cutting in kills from professional marksmen, numerous hunting scenes culminate in a heart-stopping sequence where, with the use of clever editing, the adventurous Mrs Johnson appears to bring down a charging rhinoceros with one well-aimed shot.

FUN-LOVING NATURE…Osa Johnson saddles up a hapless zebra. (Daily Mail)

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From the Advertising Department

There were three automobile ads in the Feb. 4 issue, all from long-gone companies—Pierce-Arrow, Hudson-Essex, and Nash, which featured this endorsement by the brother-sister dancing duo Fred and Adele Astaire:

This ad for Dynamique showcased the art deco stylings of its furniture line…

And finally, a Peter Arno cartoon of an upper class faux pas

Next Time: Literary Rotarians…