The Unspeakables

For all its embrace of the modern city and its technological wonders, the New Yorker mostly despaired of the changes wrought by the introduction of sound to motion pictures.

June 1, 1929 cover by Rea Irvin.

Granted, early sound technology was primitive, with directors, actors and crew members adapting on the fly to the demands of a new medium that required absolute silence on film sets and cumbersome microphones that severely limited the movements of actors. Screenwriters, accustomed to writing brief intertitles in silent films, now had to write expository dialogue, and actors had to rely less on exaggerated facial expressions and body movements and more on the spoken word. And it helped if you didn’t have a speech impediment or heavy accent.

Writing for “The Reporter at Large” column (titled “The Unspeakables”), Hollywood correspondent Jean-Jacques lamented that the talkies were “here to stay”…

BARNLIKE STAGES were erected on both coasts to produce early silent films. Clockwise, from top left, Fox’s World Paragon Studios in Ft. Lee, NJ, circa 1917; interior of the studio; several films in production, side-by-side, at Edison’s Bronx studio, circa 1915; Fox studios in Los Angeles, 1920s. (moviemice.com/Wikipedia)

Jean-Jacques recalled the professions that would now be lost to the talkies, including the “mood musicians” who played their instruments on silent film sets in order to evoke emotions from the actors…

IN THE MOOD…During the silent era “mood musicians” were hired to play their instruments on film sets in order to evoke emotions from the actors. (Pinterest)
THE SILENCE of SOUND…In the early days of the talkies the entire set had to be silent, and special care had to be taken to ensure loud cameras were housed in soundproof boxes such as those pictured above. Instead of the introduction of sound expanding the capabilities of filmmaking, it was often limited by the bulky gear used to capture that sound. Therefore, many films consisted of “stage” musical numbers that were static shots. (Caption and image at left courtesy Colorado College. Image at right from cinecollage.net)

The writer also noted the challenges that faced “the old scenario writer…hemmed in by a multitude of new rivals…

WE HAVE WAYS OF MAKING YOU TALK…Dorothy Arzner (left) poses with “It Girl” Clara Bow in a publicity shot for The Wild Party, Bow’s first talking picture. Bow is famously quoted as saying (in 1930) “I hate talkies. They’re stiff and limiting. You lose a lot of your cuteness, because there’s no chance for action.” Arzner tried to remedy that problem: she is credited with inventing the boom mike, which allowed for greater movement by the actor. (Paramount Pictures/Wikimedia Commons)

Jean-Jacques recounted the frustrations experienced by one old-time actor dealing with the limitations of bulky sound equipment…

This actor was not alone, A number of major silent film stars including Charlie Chaplin, Louise Brooks, and Clara Bow did not embrace the novelty of sound pictures. Motion Picture Classic magazine (September 1930) quoted Bow as saying, “I hate talkies … they’re stiff and limiting. You lose a lot of your cuteness, because there’s no chance for action, and action is the most important thing to me.” According to the article, a visibly nervous Bow had to do a number of retakes in The Wild Party because her eyes kept wandering up to the microphone overhead.

SILENCE IS GOLDEN…A number of major silent film stars including (from left) Louise Brooks, Charlie Chaplin and Clara Bow did not embrace the novelty of sound pictures. (Wikipedia)

Jean-Jacques signed off his New Yorker piece with the hope that someday pictures and sound would be combined into a worthy new art form…

Perhaps Jean-Jacques had to look no further than Manhattan’s Rialto Theatre to find that first glimmer of hope, for it was there that the Marx Brothers were tearing up the screen in their first talking picture, The Cocoanuts, reviewed in the magazine’s “The Current Cinema” column…

If the New Yorker was looking for snappy dialogue in motion pictures, there was plenty of it in The Cocoanuts, including this snippet between Groucho Marx, playing Mr. Hammer—an unscrupulous manager of a bankrupt Florida hotel—and wealthy hotel guest Mrs. Potter, played by Margaret Dumont…

Hammer: Do you know that property values have increased since 1929 one thousand per cent? Do you know that this is the biggest development since Sophie Tucker? Do you know that Florida is the show spot of America and Cocoanut Manor the black spot of Florida?

Mrs. Potter:  You told me that yesterday.

Hammer: I know but I left out a comma.

Or this gem…

Hammer, to Mrs. PotterJust think – tonight, tonight when the moon is sneaking around the clouds I’ll be sneaking around you. I’ll meet you tonight under the moon. Oh, I can see it now – you and the moon. Wear a neck-tie so I’ll know you.

SHOW ‘EM HOW IT’S DONE…Zeppo, Groucho, Chico and Harpo Marx in their first sound movie, The Cocoanuts, 1929. (vitaphonedreamer.wordpress.com)
BAMBOOZLER… Mrs Potter (Margaret Dumont), inspects Mr Hammer’s (Groucho Marx) Florida property “deals” in The Cocoanuts. (British Film Institute)

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For Sentimental Reasons

Additional evidence that the New Yorker was not always ready to embrace change came from its many articles, particularly in “The Talk of the Town,” that seemed to favor the preservation of buildings that defined the character of certain neighborhoods, including the early 19th century rowhouses that lined Washington Square North…

THEN AND NOW…At left, photo dated 1921 of Washington Square, north side of square looking east from 5th Avenue. Corner house in foreground is No. 12. The far end at right shows Nos. 3, 2, 1. At right, roughly the same block today. (Museum of the City of New York/1homedesigns.com)

At left, photo dated 1936 (by Berenice Abbott) of Washington Square North, nos. 21-25, between Fifth Avenue and MacDougal Street. At right, nos. 19-26 today. (Museum of the City of New York/Wikimedia Commons)

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The Wittier Kaufman

Editor and playwright Beatrice Kaufman worked and played within the orbit of the famed wits of the Algonquin Round Table, but was not a regular member like her husband, playwright and director George S. Kaufman. But Beatrice Kaufman didn’t the need the Algonquin to display her wit. Indeed, according to Michael Galchinsky (writing for the Jewish Women’s Archive), she was regarded as one of the wittiest women in New York in the 1930s and 40s. Here is an example of her work in the June 1 issue of the New Yorker:

THE WITTIEST OF THEM ALL…Editor, writer and playwright Beatrice Kaufman (left, in undated photo). At right, comedian Julius Tannen (left) frolics with Beatrice and her husband, Broadway playwright/producer George S. Kaufman in Atlantic City in the 1920s. (thepurplediaries.com/spartacus-educational.com)

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Rags to Riches

The life of Fred F. French was something out of dime novel; born in dire poverty, he became a self-made real estate tycoon and a schrewd builder of some of Manhattan’s biggest land developments. French was the subject of a profile written by Robert M. Coates, an art critic who would be a longtime contributor to New Yorker. An excerpt, with illustration by Al Frueh:

MONUMENTS TO FRED…Fred French’s New York City buildings included, clockwise from left, the 38-story Fred F. French Building (1927) at 45th Street and 551 Fifth Avenue (designated a National Landmark); Knickerbocker Village (1934) on the Lower East Side; and the East Side’s Tudor City apartment complex (1927-1932). (Pinterest/thelodownny.com/Wikipedia)

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From Our Advertisers

Let’s start with a couple of lovely color ads, which appeared with greater frequency in the magazine…here we have a snatch of the good life, courtesy General Electric…

…and perhaps a less homespun image of the good life, from the makers of Dodge boats…

…and here we have another example of the modern world rushing in, this time in the form of instant coffee crystals…

…and another taste of the modern from Harper’s Bazar magazine, featuring an illustration by French artist and illustrator Charles Martin

…and just for kicks, another example of Martin’s work from an earlier time…

Image from Sports et Divertissements by Charles Martin, 1914. (Wikipedia)

…and here is a back page ad for costume bag maker Whiting & Davis, with an endorsement by Joan Crawford, who was already a pretty big star by 1929. My guess is that Whiting & Davis paid more for the endorsement than they did for the ad…I included a photo of Crawford (at left) from 1929 just to show that she did have a lighter side…

…this ad from the makers of Flit insecticide begs the question: was our beloved Dr. Seuss (aka Theodore Geisel) a racist? Well…

…although Geisel was a liberal Democrat and a supporter of the New Deal, during World War II he also supported the internment of Japanese Americans, as is evident from this unfortunate 1942 cartoon…

Dr. Seuss 1942 cartoon with the caption ‘Waiting for the Signal from Home’ (slideshare.net)

…later in life Geisel became a staunch environmentalist and anti-war protestor. In 1961 he wrote The Sneetches, which promoted racial equality. Perhaps Geisel lived to regret those earlier drawings…

…and on to our illustrators and cartoonists, beginning with this sketch by Garrett Price, apparently inspired from a recent trip to France (it was featured along with several other small sketches in the “Profile” section)…

Barbara Shermund had some fun with a double entendre…

…and popped up again with this look at the stock market…

C.W. Anderson found humor in the strange shapes of modernist furniture…

Otto Soglow commented on the glitzy hype of Broadway…

…and cartoonist/humorist Don Herold made his comics debut in the New Yorker with this entry…

…and finally, a bonus image I came across while researching the advent of sound motion pictures. The photo, from the silent era, shows two cameramen shooting a parade, possibly for a newsreel. Note how their only support consists of two wooden planks wedged into an open window…

(moviemice.com)

Next Time: A Bridge Too Far…

What Santa Brought in 1928

As we sweep up the tinsel and wrappings from another holiday season, let’s take a look back at 1928 and see what the New York “smart set” wished for under the Christmas tree.

Nov. 24, 1928 cover by Julian de Miskey.

We’ll start with the outlandish, namely this advertisement from Kurzman furriers on Fifth Avenue, which offered just two rare chinchilla coats for sale, one for $45K and the other for a mere $20K. That would be roughly equivalent to $630K and $280K in 2017 dollars. Oh Santa baby…

If you didn’t get the chinchilla, you could have asked for a Glycine Swiss watch, a gift “whose smartness reflects your taste”… and is “the supreme adornment of the patrician wrist.”

The New Yorker was filled with such ads that appealed to class pretensions, but thankfully the editorial side of the magazine mostly tweaked those pretensions, including this Nov. 24 cartoon by John Elmore:

In the following issue (Dec. 1), Elmore also contributed this unsigned cartoon (thanks to Michael Maslin’s invaluable Ink Spill blog for the identification):

Back to the ads for Nov. 24, Kolster Radio continued its series featuring illustrations by New Yorker cartoonist Peter Arno, this one borrowing from his familiar themes featuring gold-diggers and sugar daddies…

…and 56-year-old stage and silent film actress Fannie Ward offered proof that lighting up a Lucky could keep you slim and youthful. Whether or not she actually smoked the things, Ward was indeed best known for her seemingly ageless appearance.

Our comics from Nov. 24 issue are courtesy of Arno…

…and Helen Hokinson

We continue our Christmas wish list with the Dec. 1, 1928 issue…

Dec. 1, 1928 cover by Rea Irvin.

Regarding gifts for her, how about some fine French perfume, “originally created for the exclusive use of one of the present Nobility of France” (apparently a person descended from the line that managed to keep their heads attached to their necks)…

…and for him, the ubiquitous Christmas necktie, with a choice of patterns that would still serve him well in 2018…

Your “smoking friends” would doubtless have appreciated a rum-infused rumidor, available in a variety of finishes and sizes…

…or you could choose from the sundries offered up by Abercrombie & Fitch (bookends appeared to be a popular item)…

…and finally, for that special, anal-retentive someone on your list, “Fabrikoid” covers would keep his or her periodicals neat and tidy (note the New Yorker is conspicuously missing here).

Note: Fabrikoid “was one of DuPont’s first non-explosives products. Produced by coating fabric with nitrocellulose (yep, basically the same flammable stuff silent films were printed on) and marketed as artificial leather, Fabrikoid was widely used in upholstery, luggage and bookbindings during the early 20th century. In the 1920s, Fabrikoid became the preferred material for automobile convertible tops and seat covers” (text from www2.dupont.com).

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Despite the holidays, there was still news to be reported. The Nov. 24 issue profiled violinist Fritz Kreisler, while the Dec. 1 edition featured a profile of Harpo Marx, written by his fellow Algonquin Round Tabler Alexander Woollcott. Two brief excerpts:

In this next excerpt, it is interesting to note that Woollcott couldn’t see ahead to the huge success in film that awaited Harpo Marx and his brothers. Just eight months after Woollcott’s profile, the Marx Brothers would premiere their first film, The Cocoanuts, and continue to draw on material from their vaudeville and Broadway days to produce a string a comedy hits throughout the 1930s and 40s.

In other news from the Dec. 1 issue, Frank Sullivan grumbled about the recent election of President Herbert Hoover and the state of politics in general, echoing the general sentiment of his New Yorker colleagues in dismissing the national elections as little more than silly sideshow. Two excerpts:

The New Yorker was less pessimistic when it came to the changing skyline, and was almost giddy at times about the latest technology seemingly transforming the city overnight. This time it was the gilded New York Life Insurance tower, and its impressive pneumatic tube system:

THINGS ARE LOOKING UP…Cass Gilbert’s newly completed New York Life Insurance Building in 1928. (Smithsonian)
YOU TUBERS…Women sporting fashionable bobs working the pneumatic tubes at the new home of the New York Life Insurance Company at 51 Madison Avenue, 1928. (Corbis)

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And to close, some more holiday offerings, this time for the kiddies, from Macy’s Department Store, as reported by writer Bertram Bloch:

WHAT THE?…Macy’s kicked off the Christmas season with their famed Thanksgiving Parade in 1924. In this image, from 1928, New Yorkers enjoyed an array of creepy balloon animals. (howstuffworks.com)
NOT PC, DUDE…The Macy’s Christmas window display in 1928 featured the Tony Sarg marionettes in a tableau based on The Adventures of Christopher Columbus. (Pinterest)
SUPER SOAKER…With this 1928 sit ‘n ride toy, junior could hose down the living room thanks to its large water tank and hand crank-operated water tower. (collector.com)

Next Time: Out of the Mouth of Babes…

The Prohibition Portia

Despite Prohibition, booze flowed freely in 1928 New York thanks to bootleggers and lax enforcement by everyone from cops to judges. One major exception was Mabel Walker Willebrandt, a U.S. Assistant Attorney General from 1921 to 1929 who among other things handled cases concerning violations of the Volstead Act.

Oct. 20, 1928 cover by Constantin Alajálov.

Although Willebrandt herself enjoyed the occasional drink (she was personally opposed to prohibition), she was nevertheless serious about enforcing the law, and rather than chasing small-time bootleggers or padlocking speakeasies, she targeted the big-time operators.

How Willebrandt fits into this blog entry can be found in Lois Long’s “Table for Two” column in the Oct. 20, 1928 issue of the New Yorker, in which Long described the current state of affairs of Manhattan’s nightlife, including the departure of boozy torch singer Helen Morgan from the speakeasy scene for Flo Ziegfeld’s late-night Broadway revue, the Ziegfeld Midnight Frolic:

WELL-KNOWN TO THE POLICE…Helen Morgan started singing in Chicago speakeasies in the early 1920s, where she defined the look of the torch singer, including the draped-over-the-piano pose, which was her signature. (amanandamouse.blogspot.com)

Morgan, who at the time was also starring in Broadway’s Show Boat, had been arrested the previous December for violation of liquor laws at her own popular nightclub, Chez Morgan. She would not return to performing in nightclubs until after the repeal of Prohibition.

Long also looked in on the popular Harlem nightclubs, where the dance music was “throbbier than ever.”

HOPPING IN HARLEM…Lois Long wrote that you couldn’t get near the popular Small’s (left) on a Saturday night, while Connie’s Inn (right) offered a new show that was “as torrid as ever.” (harlemworldmag.com, New York Public Library)

There was a sober undercurrent to all of this merry-making, namely Willebrandt’s determined efforts to go after the big bootlegging operations that were fueling all of this mirth. Long wrote:

PROHIBITION PORTIA…At left, Mabel Walker Willebrandt being sworn in as U.S. Assistant Attorney General in 1921. At right, Willebrandt on the cover of Time magazine, August 26, 1929. (legallegacy.wordpress.com)

Willebrandt decried the political interference and the incompetence (or corruption) of public officials who undermined the enforcement of the Volstead Act, and even fired a number of prosecutors. As her office also oversaw the enforcement of tax laws, she developed the strategy for prosecuting major crime bosses for income tax evasion. It was an approach that would finally put the famed Chicago gangster Al Capone behind bars in 1931.

Lois Long’s mention of Willebrandt was doubtless due to the 1928 presidential campaign, during which Willebrandt openly campaigned for the “dry” candidate, Republican Herbert Hoover, over the “wet” Al Smith, who referred to Willebrandt as “The Prohibition Portia.” Smith was referencing Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice, in which the play’s heroine, Portia, outwits the merchant Shylock in a court case by referring to the exact language of the law.

Jim Dandy

New York Mayor Jimmy Walker was well-known for his taste in clothes (as well as for the nightlife), so E.B. White (writing in “The Talk of the Town”) decided to pay a visit to the mayor’s personal tailor to see how the “royal garments” were created. Excerpts:

CLOTHES HORSE…New York Mayor Jimmy Walker was a well-known dandy and a familiar face at Manhattan nightclubs. Rarely seen at City Hall, Walker used the lavish Casino nightclub in Central Park as his unofficial headquarters. (uptowndandy.blogspot.com)

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In one of my recent entries (The Tastemakers, posted Nov. 28) I noted how Prohibition had driven some advertisers to absurd lengths, including manufacturers of non-alcoholic beverages who appealed to the refined tastes (and snobbishness) usually associated with fine wines (see Clicquot Club ad below). Gag writer Arthur H. Folwell had some fun with such pretensions:

Speaking of refinement, when was the last time you saw someone dressed like this at a hockey game?

Before they graced the silver screen, the Marx Brothers were one of Broadway’s biggest draws, including their 1928 hit “Animal Crackers,” advertised in the back pages of the Oct. 20 New Yorker.

Our cartoons are courtesy Peter Arno, who looked in on a Hollywood movie set…

…and Gardner Rea, who rendered a scenario for an upper class emergency…

Next Time: Lighter Than Air…