A 100 Percent Talker

Lights of New York would be a forgettable film if not for the fact it was the world’s first 100 percent talking motion picture. Yes, it was a bad film, but…

July 14, 1928 cover by Leonard Dove.

…even the July 14, 1928 New Yorker had the foresight to note that the film was destined to be a “museum piece.” Despite the corny plot and bad acting, the magazine’s critic “O.C.” had to concede that the film offered proof that sound would improve the motion picture experience.

Theatre Card for Lights of New York. (untappedcities.com)
MAKING SOME NOISE…Helene Costello with a cast of nightclub dancers in Lights of New York. (vintage45.wordpress.com)

The Jazz Singer (1927) launched a “talkie revolution” that would culminate nine months later in Lights of New York, and by the end of 1929 Hollywood was almost exclusively making sound films. But studios still released silent films into the 1930s, since not every theatre in the country was wired for sound.

The New Yorker had been slow to embrace sound in motion pictures (see my previous posts). What helped to win them over was the further refinement of the Movietone process, in which the sound track was printed directly onto the film strip (The Jazz Singer used Vitaphone, which essentially synched a record player with a film and provided a sporadic rather than continuous sound track).

In the same issue, the New Yorker also predicted (in “The Talk of the Town”) that sound in movies would challenge actors whose voices weren’t as attractive as their screen images:

IT’S COMPLICATED…It is a common assumption that sound motion pictures killed the careers of many silent stars, however big names like John Gilbert (left) and Clara Bow left the pictures for other reasons. Studio politics ended Gilbert’s career, and he drank himself to death by 1936. Bow—famously known as the “It Girl,”—made a few sound pictures, but retired from acting in 1931 to become a Nevada rancher. (Wikipedia/NY Post)
SILENCED…Some silent actors such as Wallace Beery (left), were sidelined not because of their voices but because of their high salaries. On the other hand Raymond Griffith (right), who made only one sound movie, spoke with a hoarse whisper not suited for the talkies. (Wikipedia / silentfilmstillarchive.com)

The New Yorker also noted that sound pictures would prove to a great “bonanza” to voice teachers:

Transition to sound in the late 1920s would later provide the theme for the 1952 musical Singin’ In The Rain, in which Jean Hagen portrayed silent film star Lina Lamont, whose voice was ill-suited for talking pictures. 

SAY WHAT?…Actress Lina Lamont (Jean Hagen) tries the patience of her director (Chet Brandenburg) while her co-star (Gene Kelly) looks on. The scene demonstrated the challenges of acclimating former silent stars (like Lina Lamont, whose voice sounded like squeaky hinge) to “talking pictures.” (YouTube Movieclips)

The New Yorker also noted that the advent of sound in motion pictures would put an end to many theatres operating on the vaudeville  circuit:

In his regular column, “Of All Things,” Howard Brubaker gave his two cents about the new world of talking movies:

Paving Over Paradise

In the July 14 “Talk of the Town,” the New Yorker offered more bittersweet commentary on the city’s rapidly changing landscape. This time it was a famous stretch of lawns on West 23rd Street—London Terrace— that were being uprooted to make way for a massive new apartment block:

According to Tom Miller (writing for his blog Daytonian in Manhattan), Clement Moore, the writer to whom “A Visit from St. Nicholas” (“The Night Before Christmas”) “had developed the block when he divided up his family estate, ‘Chelsea.’ On the 23rd Street block, in 1845, he commissioned Alexander Jackson Davis to design 36 elegant Greek Revival brownstone townhouses. The row was designed to appear as a single, uniform structure or ‘terrace’ (a design not lost on the New Yorker writer). Unusual for Manhattan, each had deep front yards planted with shrubbery and trees. He called his development ‘London Terrace.'”

A BIT O’ GREEN…London Terrace, circa 1920. (ephemeralnewyork)

By October 1929, writes Miller, “a few weeks before the collapse of the stock market and the onset of the Great Depression, (developer Henry Mandel) had acquired and demolished all the structures on the enormous block of land. All except for Tillie Hart’s house. Tillie leased 429 West 23rd Street and, although her lease had legally expired, she refused to leave. Tillie fired a barrage of bricks and rocks at anyone who approached the sole-surviving house. A court battle ensued while she barricaded herself inside. Finally, just four days before Black Tuesday, sheriffs gained entry and moved all of Tillie Hart’s things onto the street. She held out one more night, sleeping on newspapers in her once-grand bedroom, then gave up. The following day her house was destroyed.”

IT’S YUGE…Farrar & Watmough designed this massive, Tuscan-inspired apartment block, completed during 1930-31. The developer Henry Mandel, sometimes referred to as the Donald Trump of his day, kept the site’s original name, London Terrace. (ephemeralnewyork)

Miller writes, “to describe the new London Terrace was to use superlatives. Consuming the entire city block, it was the largest apartment building in the world with 1,665 apartments. It boasted the largest swimming pool in the city – 75 feet by 35 feet, with mosaic walls and viewing balconies. Twenty-one stories above the street a “marine deck” was designed to mimic that of a luxury ocean liner. It had a fully-equipped gymnasium, a recreation club, a rooftop children’s play yard with professional supervisors, and a large dining room. The doormen were dressed as London bobbies.”

STILL THERE…London Terrace today. (Brick Underground)

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In other diversions, I. Klein looked askew at the latest headlines, namely the big fight between Gene Tunney and Tom Heeney, one of the 20th century’s many “battles of the century”…

…while Helen Hokinson, on the other hand, offered some sketches of seafaring life…

…and looked in on the challenges of buying a hat…

…and then there was this two-page cartoon by Al Frueh, and its disturbing depiction of African “savages” (rendered in blackface?!)…click to enlarge

And to close, a cartoon by Leonard Dove…

…that referenced ads such as this one from the June 2, 1928 issue of the New Yorker… (click image to enlarge).

…and a comedy of manners, courtesy Peter Arno…

Next Time: Beyond 96th Street…

The Russians Are Coming

Compared to Hollywood, cinema as an art form in the 1920s was more advanced in Europe, where filmmakers took a more mature, nuanced approach to movies; they focused less on money and more on exploring difficult social and historical issues. Trench warfare, genocide and famine have a way of doing that to you.

June 9, 1928 cover by Ilonka Karasz.

The contrast between the European avant-garde and Hollywood’s Tinseltown was not lost on the New Yorker’s film critics, who consistently lambasted American cinema while applauding nearly everything coming out of Europe, and especially the films produced by German and Russian directors. The critic “O.C.” used the Russians latest American release, The End of St. Petersburg, to drive home the point. He also chided those who dismissed the film as propaganda, a stance much in line with leftist intellectuals of the day who found inspiration in the Russian Revolution (and sometimes they looked the other way when things didn’t go so well in the Soviet experiment—1928 marked the beginning of the Soviet Union’s first Five-Year Plan. By 1934 it was estimated that almost 15 million people died from forced collectivization and famine).

The End of St. Petersburg was blatant propaganda, to be sure, but to this day it has been widely praised for its cinematic innovations. The story itself was fairly straightforward: A peasant goes to St. Petersburg looking for work, gets arrested for his involvement in a labor union and is subsequently sent to fight in the trenches of World War I. His experiences in the war solidify his commitment to revolution and the overthrow of the capitalist overlords. The New Yorker review:

OPPRESSORS & OPPRESSED…The shareholders of a steel mill (top) demand longer hours from workers who already suffer from hellish conditions at the factory in The End of St. Petersburg. (Stills from the film, available on YouTube)

The New Yorker reviewer suggested that a story used primarily to influence an audience—propaganda—was not necessarily a bad thing:

The horrors of trench warfare were graphically depicted in The End of St. Petersburg. (stills from film)

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Back in the New World, most of the talk in cinematic circles revolved around the excitement of “talking pictures.”

FORERUNNER…The Vitaphone system was the most successful of early attempts at sound movies. It synchronized a large recorded disc (seen at lower right) with the film. The Jazz Singer, often heralded as the movie that marked the commercial ascendance of sound films, used Vitaphone technology. (Audio Engineering Society)
BETTER YET…Sound movies took off with the invention of a soundtrack that could be printed directly onto the film. Filmmakers either used Variable Area (left) or Variable Density (center) mono optical soundtracks located between the film’s picture frame and sprocket holes. The tracks could be read by a newly developed photocell (a light source also known as Aeo-light) that could be modulated by audio signals and was used to expose the soundtrack in sound cameras such as the one at right. (Images 1 & 2, Audio Engineering Society/ Image 3, Wikipedia)

It seems that Fox Movietone newsreels really got things going with sound and whetted the audience appetites for more:

TELLING US A THING OR TWO…Irish playwright and critic George Bernard Shaw’s first visit to America, recorded for posterity in this 1928 Fox Movietone Newsreel. (still from film)

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Then There Was The Other Playwright…

Mae West, to be exact. My guess is her approach to the craft was a bit different than G.B. Shaw’s, and we can gather as much from these excerpts from the June 9 “Talk of the Town.” The piece discusses West’s rise to fame as the creator and star of the scandalous play Sex, and her unorthodox approach to rehearsals.

DEMURE SHE’S NOT…Mae West in 1928’s Diamond Lil. (doctormacro.com)

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Although many today would identify D.H. Lawrence as one of great English novelists of the 20th century, eighty years ago the New Yorker book critic Dorothy Parker described him as “very near to being first rate.”

ALMOST FIRST RATE? D.H. Lawrence with wife Frieda Weekley in Chapala, Mexico in 1923. (tanvirdhaka.blogspot.com)

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Blind Justice

The makers of Old Gold cigarettes claimed to have scientific proof on their side with a series of ads in the New Yorker featuring endorsements by the rich and famous. This ad ran in the June 9 issue:

In the same issue was this cartoon by Al Frueh that took a poke at Old Gold’s marketing strategy…

…and Peter Arno offered this unique take on human vanity…

Talking pictures continued to be a theme in the June 16, 1928, issue of the New Yorker.

In his “Of All Things Column,” Howard Brubaker suggested that sound movies would spell the end of careers for some silent stars:

Although some actors struggled with the transition to sound, the reasons why some major stars faded with the advent of “talkies” are far more nuanced. In many cases, some stars packed it in because their careers had already peaked during the silent era, and both studios and audiences were looking for some fresh faces.

HAS BEENS?…It is a common assumption that sound motion pictures killed the careers of many silent stars, including big names like John Gilbert (left) and Clara Bow. The reality is far more nuanced. (Wikipedia/NY Post)

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Niven Busch, Jr. continued to explore the illicit bar scene in his recurring feature “Speakeasy Nights.” I include this excerpt because it described a rather clever facade devised by the owner of the “J.P. Speakeasy.”

WORK/LIFE BALANCE…What might appear to be a typical business office might conceal an even more lucrative business in the back rooms. (Musée McCord/americanhistoryusa.com)
Busch observed an interesting protocol for admittance into the speakeasy, including a typewritten message devised to throw off any would-be Prohibition officers:

From Our Advertisers…

This ad leaves a bad taste in your mouth no matter how you look at. Nothing like coating your mouth with Milk of Magnesia before lighting up that first fag of the day…

…and here we have another ad for Flit insecticide, courtesy of Theodore “Dr. Seuss” Geisel.

And finally, a look at a Roaring Twenties wedding reception, courtesy cartoonist Garrett Price:

Next Time: Down to Coney Island…

Man About Town

When Jimmy Walker was elected mayor of New York City in 1926, the city finally had a leader that matched the mood of the times. A dapper lover of music and nightlife, he openly took a Ziegfield dancer as his mistress, often fled the city for European vacations, and was known to begin meetings with the pop of a Champagne cork.

May 19, 1928 cover by Ilonka Karasz.

No doubt many New Yorker readers liked the Jazz Age spirit of their mayor, and who really cared about his “accomplishments” as long as the city continued to boom and its smart set continued to prosper? The magazine’s “Talk of the Town” concluded as much:

LIGHTS, CAMERA, ACTION!…Mayor Walker accompanies actress Colleen Moore to the October 1928 premiere of her latest film, Lilac Time. (konreioldnewyork.blogspot.com)
QUEEN FOR A DAY…Mayor Walker (in top hat) welcomes Queen Marie of Romania on the steps of City Hall in October 1926. Huge and enthusiastic crowds braved the rain to welcome the queen to the city. (Acme Newspapers)
GOOD SPORT…Mayor Jimmy Walker presides over the first shot in the city’s annual marble tournament on June 3, 1928. (New York Times)

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Remembrance of Things Past

Although the New Yorker embraced the spirit imbued in the city’s rapidly changing skyline, there was always a tinge of regret when landmarks fell to wrecking balls and the city erased its past faster than one could comprehend. And so the magazine was a strong and early supporter of the establishment of the Museum of the City of New York, founded in 1923 and housed in Gracie Mansion (now the mayor’s official residence) until a permanent, neo-Georgian-style museum was finally erected in 1929-30 on Fifth Avenue between 103rd and 104th streets.

KEEPING TIME…Museum of the City of New York (abigailkirsch.com)

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No Beer Left to Cry In

As the Museum of the City of New York scrambled to preserve a past that was quickly being erased across Manhattan, another venerable institution prepared to close its doors for good—Allaire’s Scheffel Hall—which in its heyday was a favorite watering hole of artists, musicians, and writers including Stephen Crane. Allaire’s, located in a Gramercy Park neighborhood known as Kleindeutschland, or “Little Germany,” was the latest victim of Prohibition; it was, after all, hard to run a beer hall without the beer.

Amazingly, the building still stands, now home to a pilates and yoga studio.

SIGN OF THE TIMES…Now a yoga and pilates studio…Scheffel Hall at 190 Third Avenue in the Gramercy Park as it appeared in 2009. It was designated a New York City landmark in 1997. (Steve Minor)

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The “Talk of the Town” had its usual bits and pieces of happenings in the city, including this mild jab at the rather staid New York Times:

KEEPING IT DECENT…The actress Betty Starbuck, circa 1930. (Getty)

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Silent film star Buster Keaton’s latest picture, Steamboat Bill, Jr., won the approval of New Yorker film critic O.C., and Keaton’s co-star Marion Byron received extra props for her “gusto”…

HANGING IN THERE…Marion Byron and Buster Keaton in 1928’s Steamboat Bill Jr. (Virtual History)

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Truth in Advertising

Outside of politics this is one of the most cynical uses of the word “truth” I’ve ever seen. Since the woman isn’t smoking herself, I’m guessing she is reading a letter from someone (son, daughter, boyfriend) who has learned the truth about Camels and has decided to share it in a letter. How sweet.

In 1928 color images such as the Camel ad above brightened an increasing number of New Yorker ads. Color was artfully used in a number of spots, including the left panel of this two-page ad for a new cosmetic compact…

The issue also featured this comic sketch by Rea Irvin of New Yorker critic and commentator (and hypochondriac) Alexander Woollcott…

…and keeping on the literary side, this comic by Isidore Klein…

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The May 26, 1928 issue the “Talk of the Town” turned its attention to sound in motion pictures, or rather, turned its ears away from the “movie tone” sound effects becoming common in the waning days of the Silent Era.

May 26, 1928 cover by Helen Hokinson.

Everyday sounds, in particular, proved jarring to the ears of those who were accustomed to the relative quiet of silent movies:

“Talk” also looked in on the writer Thornton Wilder, who was planning to summer in Europe with his friend, the literary-minded boxer Gene Tunney.

REFLECTING GLORY…Thornton Wilder returning to the U.S. on the S.S. Britannic, 1935. (thorntonwilder.com)

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More Truth in Advertising

The manufacturers of Old Gold cigarettes were also in pursuit of the truth in this ad featured in the May 26 issue, backing up the claim with a “blindfold test” on none other than the daughter of J. P. Morgan…

Deception in advertising wasn’t limited to cigarettes, however. The makers of Lysol had their own nefarious scheme that shamed women into using their product as a form of birth control (referred to in the ad below with the euphemism “feminine hygiene”). Not only was it ineffective as a contraceptive, it was also corrosive to one’s privates.

The ad is also appalling for casting the responsibility for birth control entirely on the woman. But then again, where are we today?

On to other questionable health pursuits, this ad in the May 26 issue touted the “radio-active waters” of Glen Springs, a hotel and sanatorium located above Seneca Lake in New York. Searching for oil on the site in late 19th century, the owners struck not black gold but rather a black, briny water that they claimed had greater curative powers than those found in Germany’s famed Nauheim Springs.

Why they called the waters “radio-active” escapes me. There were a lot of quack medical cures floating around in the 1920s—some of them quite dangerous—so I’m guessing that the proprietors of Glen Springs were adding radium to the water in some of their treatments, or maybe just claiming that radium was present in the water. Although Marie Curie (a pioneering researcher on radioactivity) and others protested against radiation therapies, a number of corporations and physicians marketed radioactive substances as miracle cure-alls, including radium enema treatments and radium-containing water tonics.

The Glen Springs Hotel at Watkins Glen, NY. It remained a noted landmark of the area until it was demolished in 1996. (nyfalls.com)

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And finally, our cartoons for the May 26 issue, in which Barbara Shermund and Peter Arno explore the ups and downs of courtship…

Next Time: Toward the Air…