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…

Queen of the Night Clubs

In the Roaring Twenties, Mary Louise Cecilia—aka Texas Guinan—was the undisputed queen of New York’s boozy, bawdy nightclub and speakeasy scene.

March 23, 1929 cover by Gardner Rea.

During the 1920s Guinan operated one of New York’s most famed speakeasies, The El Fey Club, which attracted the likes of Mayor Jimmy Walker, actors George Raft and Peggy Hopkins Joyce, writers including Ring Larder and Damon Runyon, and gossip columnists Walter Winchell, Mark Hellinger, and Ed Sullivan (yep, the same Ed who later hosted TV’s most famous variety show).

It was still months before the big stock market crash, but in the pages of the New Yorker you could already sense a change in its voice; it was maturing, to be sure, but it also seemed to be growing weary of the party. The magazine’s nightlife correspondent, Lois Long, contributed sporadically to her once-lively “Tables for Two” column (she was now a mother, and would abandon the column altogether in 1930). As for the queen of nightlife, Texas Guinan, New Yorkers were ready for something different.

BEATING THE RAP…In June 1928 Texas Guinan and other New York speakeasy operators were arrested and indicted by a federal grand jury. Guinan beat the rap, and was acquitted in April 1929. (ephemeralness york)

In a review of her latest movie, Queen of the Night Clubs, the New Yorker found that Guinan lacked her famed charm and vitality, and that the camera was “not kind to her looks.”

THE FINAL CURTAIN…Clockwise from top left: Texas Guinan in a nightclub scene from Queen of the Night Clubs; trading lines in the film with John Davidson; a 1929 portrait of Guinan by Cecil Beaton; and a scene from the film with co-star Lila Lee (far right). The film is considered lost. (boweryboyshistory.com/texasguinan.blogspot.com)

The film in many ways marked the end of Texas Guinan, not so much because it was a bad film but because she had simply run her course and was going out of style. The market crash later that year was the final straw. She took her show on the road, made an unsuccessful attempt at a European tour, then returned to the States. She made one final film, Broadway Thru A Keyhole, which was based on a story by Guinan acolyte Walter Winchell. Guinan died on Nov. 5, 1933, three days after the film’s release; her death was due to ulcerative colitis brought on by a case of amoebic dysentery contracted during a visit to Chicago. She was 49. One month later, Prohibition would be repealed.

A final note: Queen of the Night Clubs would be Texas Guinan’s final starring role (the film is considered lost), but before she became a night club fixture she was a popular star in dozens of shorts and two-reelers—with mostly Western themes— from 1917 to 1921.

HAPPIER TRAILS…Texas Guinan featured in a movie poster and publicity photo for The Two-Gun Woman, 1918. (Columbia University)

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A Film of Biblical Proportions

The New Yorker’s May 23 film review also sized up the latest epic to come out of Hollywood—Noah’s Ark—a picture with parallel storylines known mostly for its innovations in special effects.

The film premiered in late 1928 as a silent and was re-released in 1929 as a “part-talkie.” It told the story of Noah and the Great Flood, connected to another story featuring cabaret singers, soldiers and espionage during the First World War. Here is the New Yorker’s take on the film:

IDENTITY CRISES…Various promotional posters touted different aspects of the partial-sound film, Noah’s Ark. The one at left promoted the film’s biblical story, while the one at right played up Dolores Costello’s sex appeal. (IMDB)

The New Yorker concluded that the film was worth seeing for the Noah story’s special effects, despite its attachment to a “dreary and banal” war picture.

DUAL ROLES…Dolores Costello (seated, at left) played both a cabaret dancer, Marie, and Noah’s handmaiden Miriam, in Noah’s Ark. Note in the first photo the actress at far left, with her leg propped up on the chair—that’s Myrna Loy, who would become one of Hollywood’s biggest stars in the 30s and 40s. As for Costello, known as “The Goddess of the Silent Screen,” her greatest success was in the silent era. Click image to enlarge. (1stdibs.com, IMDB)
BIG SHOW…Portions of Noah’s Ark were filmed at the famed Iverson Movie Ranch in Chatsworth, California, including the opening shot that featured a massive ark (top, left) beached on the boulders of the movie ranch’s Garden of the Gods. Other scenes from the film included (moving clockwise, from top right) Paul McAllister as Noah, issuing a warning to the heathen as Noah’s son Japheth (George O’Brien) and servant girl Miriam (Dolores Costello) cower at right; the heathen masses desperately clamoring to board the ark as they are engulfed by the flood (600,000 gallons of water was used in the scene—three of the extras actually drowned during the filming); Japheth carries the rescued Miriam into the ark. Click image to enlarge. (IMDB, Wikipedia, dukewayne.com, medium.com)

Notable about these silent epics is the lack of precaution they took with both the actors and the extras. A huge amount of water—600,000 gallons—was used to film the the climactic flood scene. Three extras drowned and many others suffered broken bones and other serious injuries. One extra had to have his leg amputated. As for the stars, Dolores Costello caught a severe case of pneumonia during the filming.

Here’s a clip to give you an idea of what the extras had to deal with:

Some trivia: John Wayne was an extra in the film, and also worked in the prop department. The director of Noah’s Ark, Michael Curtiz, would go on to direct some of the most well-known films of the 20th century, including The Adventures of Robin Hood with Errol Flynn, Angels with Dirty Faces with James Cagney and Humphrey Bogart, Casablanca with Bogart and Ingrid BergmanMildred Pierce with Joan Crawford, and White Christmas with Bing Crosby and Rosemary Clooney. He would also direct an Elvis Presley movie, King Creole, and in his final film would reunite with John Wayne in 1961’s The Comancheros.

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While Americans were enjoying epic filmmaking, Russian audiences were being served up the latest in propaganda, although this was propaganda presented with stunning film innovations and avant-garde sequences. In this item from the March 23 “Talk of the Town” the film is referred to as Through Russia With A Camera, but today it is known as Man with a Movie Camera. This experimental silent film from 1929 supposedly documented ordinary life in Soviet Union (with no signs of the famine that claimed 5 million Soviet citizens in the early 1920s). Directed by Dziga Vertov, the documentary’s famed cinematography was by Mikhail Kaufman. “Talk” observed:

AVANT GARDE…Poster for Man with a Movie Camera rendered in the Constructivist style. At right, cinematographer Mikhail Kaufman risks his life for a unique camera angle. (Wikipedia)
Clockwise, from top left: Cinematographer Mikhail Kaufman prepares to set up for a Black Sea beach sequence near Odessa; images of ordinary life include a woman at a hairdresser and a young woman fastening her bra; the eye through the camera lens, the film’s final image. (ascmag.com)

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From Our Advertisers

A sampling of advertisements from the pages of the March 23 issue include this nearly two-page spread for Pond’s cold cream…no doubt Pond’s was thrilled with this endorsement by “Mrs. Cornelius Vanderbilt Jr,” otherwise known as Mary Weir of Davenport, Iowa. Mary was wife No. 2 of Cornelius Vanderbilt’s seven wives. Mary and Cornelius were married in 1928 and divorced in 1931…

…and then we have this advertisement from Knox hatters, illustrated by the New Yorker’s own Rea Irvin

…this advertisement for the new Lincoln Building played up the building’s dominating form on Madison Avenue…

…a dominance that continues to this day. I know it’s not cool to gaze up at buildings in Manhattan, but if you’re ever in the neighborhood you must look upward at least once and gaze at the canyon that splits the Lincoln Building’s massive facade…

Lincoln Building, circa 1950. (Museum of the City of New York)

…this Remington typewriter was the closest thing to a desktop computer in 1929…I own one of these and I must attest that it isn’t exactly noiseless…

…this next ad caught my eye because it encouraged people to commit negligent homicide by throwing their product out of a high-rise window…it is also interesting because today Crosley is still a big name in radios and record players, although today’s Crosley is similar in name only. The original Crosley Corporation was a major player in early radio broadcasting, and in addition to manufacturing radios Crosley would go on to build refrigerators, a line of inexpensive subcompact cars and trucks (from 1939 to ’52) cars, and even small airplanes (1929-’36). Crosley ceased as a brand name in 1956, but the name was revived in 1984 by Modern Marketing Concepts. Today Crosley is a leading manufacturer of vintage-styled turntables, radios and other electronics…

…speaking of encouraging ridiculous behavior, some clever marketer at Ronson lighters found a great way not only to sell lighters, but also to encourage customers to waste lots of lighter fluid…

…and then we have this, one of the unlikeliest advertisements ever to appear in the New Yorker—at first I thought it was one of E.B. White’s fake newspapers, but it was actually a two-page spread promoting Davey Tree Surgeons of all things…

…just for fun I am tossing in this illustration by Constantin Aladjalov that appeared along the bottom of a two-page spread…

…and finally, our cartoon from Otto Soglow, in which our subject is either referring to a popular board game from 1929, or a particular sequence in a domino game…

Next Time: While You Were Away…

 

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…