Thirty years before South Pacific would grace the silver screen, an earlier film that also explored the clash of civilizations in Polynesia, White Shadows of the South Seas, wowed audiences with its cinematography and, like South Pacific, a melodramatic love story between an American (Monte Blue) and a beautiful Polynesian girl, Fayaway, played by Mexico-born actress Raquel Torres.
Inspired by a 1919 travel book of the same name (by Frederick O’Brien), what is significant about the film is that it was shot in Tahiti, featured a supporting cast of Tahitian islanders, and was the first MGM picture to be released with a pre-recorded soundtrack, which consisted of a musical score and a few effects. It was also the first film in which the MGM Lion (known then as “Jackie”), roared during the introduction.
Leonard Maltin writes the film “features stunning, Oscar-winning cinematography of the Marquesas Islands welded to a story about the corrupting influence of Western civilization, with Blue as an alcoholic doctor who falls in love with native Torres and clashes with an exploitative (pearl) trader…Portions of the beautiful, documentary-style footage were shot under the supervision of Robert Flaherty, who fought with the studio over its emphasis on a melodramatic plot and left the production.”
The film also caused David O. Selznick, one of the top executives at MGM, to quit the studio over a dispute with fellow MGM exec Hunt Stromberg. According to the 1990 book The Dame in the Kimono by Leonard Left and Jerold Simmons,David (Selznick) thought it an idyllic story, Hunt wanted more sex.
Here’s what the Aug. 11, 1928 New Yorker had to say about the film:
Speaking of Garbo, the New Yorker’s film critic “O.C.” was one of the few moviegoers in the world not bewitched by the Swedish actress. In the same issue this is what he had to say about her latest film, The Mysterious Lady:
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As I’ve noted before, The New Yorker of the 1920s was decidedly mainstream in its treatment of blacks and other minorities as racial “others.” Here is an example (from the Aug. 11 issue) of the casual bigotry that occasionally could be found in “The Talk of the Town,” this penned by none other than James Thurber:
…and a few pages on in the same issue, this filler art by Julian deMiskey:
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And to close out the Aug. 11 issue, Barbara Shermund looked in on the Uppers during a moment of contemplation:
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The Aug. 18, 1928 issue featured an interesting dispatch from the magazine’s Paris correspondent, Janet “Genêt” Flanner.
Flanner gave us a taste of how the French regarded the recent “Battle of the Century” between heavyweight boxers Gene Tunney and Tom Heeney:
Flanner also wrote about an amusement park near the Porte Maillot in Paris called Luna Park:
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From Our Advertisers
Another sports celebrity who didn’t mind relieving Old Gold of some extra cash was Babe Ruth, who was next in line to submit to the blindfold test:
I include this ad for Proctor & Gamble’s Ivory Soap (from a 1928 issue of The Saturday Evening Post) as an explanatory note for the New Yorker cartoon that follows, by Gluyas Williams…
Also in the issue, John Held Jr. contributed one of his famous maps, displayed sideways, full-page (click to enlarge):
And finally, we close with Peter Arno, and two outraged spinsters:
The New Yorker stepped out of its Manhattan offices at 25 West 45th Street and headed north to see what lay beyond 96th Street and Park Avenue, to “a land on to which realtors may not push.”
In the early to mid 20th century, 96th street represented a real dividing line across Park Avenue, separating Manhattan from the “frontier” to the north. Although developers have since breached this line (particularly beginning in the 1980s), back in 1928 it truly marked an end of sorts to Park Avenue—even the paving ran out by 102nd Street. The July 28, 1928 “Talk of the Town” observed:
Beyond 96th a vast pushcart market was discovered to be operating under the elevated railroad tracks, while further on toward the Harlem River there were factories, coal yards, and a shuttered theatre:
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Sport of Lords and Ladies
The New Yorker’s sportswriter John Tunis paid a visit to the 1928 Wimbledon tennis tournament, where he took in a scene that included several celebrities:
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From Our Advertisers
The July 28 issue included yet another Dr. Seuss-illustrated ad for Flit insecticide. No doubt Seuss would later regret such an illustration, as later in life he strongly opposed racism and supported environmental causes. He would publish his first children’s book—And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street—in 1937.
Also from the July 28 issue, a detail from a two-page illustration of baseball fans at the Polo Grounds by Constantin Alajalov, which appeared in “The Talk of the Town” section:
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From Our Advertisers, Part II:
Jumping back an issue, to July 21, 1928, we find tennis great (and sometime film actor) Big Bill Tilden hawking the toasted pleasures of Lucky Strike cigarettes on the magazine’s back cover:
As I’ve noted before, many New Yorker ads appealed to the Anglophilic pretensions of its striving readershship. This one below from Saks is a particularly egregious example…
…other social strivers could look to the example of these society matrons who picked up some spare cash shilling for Old Gold cigarettes…
I close with a couple of cartoons from the July 21 issue by Barbara Shermund and Peter Arno:
The New Yorker kicked off the summer season with a trip down to Coney Island. Writing for “The Talk of the Town,” editor Harold Ross took in the various sights and amusements at the famed Steeplechase and Luna parks.
Attractions at Steeplechase Park included everything from racing wooden horses to a “human billiard table.” Less jolly diversions included air jets that blew up women’s skirts and clowns who administered electric shocks to unsuspecting visitors (one more reason to fear them). And there was at least one racist game of skill…
Over at Luna Park there were more air holes to blow up women’s skirts and assorted freak shows. More wholesome entertainments included the famed Cyclone rollercoaster, which celebrated its 90th year of operation in 2017.
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Writing for the June 23 “Talk of the Town,” Murdock Pemberton anticipated the construction of a new theatre to be developed by famed Austrian director/producer Max Reinhardt and designed by Austrian-American architect, illustrator and scenic designer Joseph Urban:
Unfortunately the market crash of 1929 put an end to the project, which would have looked like this had it been constructed:
Urban designed innovative sets for clients ranging from the Metropolitan Opera to the Ziegfeld Follies (he also designed a theatre for Ziegfeld in 1927, see below). Although he is noted as one of the originators of American Art Deco, most of his architectural work in the United States has been demolished.
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The New Yorker continued to struggle with the emergence of “talking pictures.” The critic “O.C.” found that the sound dialogue in The Lion and the Mouse did little to improve the picture:
The critic seemed to believe that sound pictures would take some time to catch on. Little did he know that Warner Brothers would announce later that summer (August 1928) that all of its films for the 1928-29 fiscal year would have sound. United Artists would make the same announcement in November 1928. In February 1929 Twentieth-Century Fox would make its final silent movie, and Columbia would release its last silent movie on April 1, 1929.
The New Yorker still found happiness at the movies through the likes of actress Colleen Moore, who made a sweet little film called Happiness Ahead.
Colleen Moore was one of the most famous stars of the silent era who popularized the bobbed haircut and flapper style. Personally, I’ve always considered Moore to be a more wholesome version of the flapper, in contrast to the more worldly Louise Brooks, another flapper icon of the Twenties.
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From Our Advertisers
Continuing our series on celebrity endorsements of Old Gold cigarettes, none other than the Little Tramp stepped up to take the blindfold test (along with a pile of cash, no doubt):
And if Old Gold is not to your taste, then why not enjoy the “toasted” pleasures of Lucky Strike? Actress Betty Compson found them indispensable when preparing for a big scene:
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And now for something that caught my eye in the June 23 issue…a bit of filler art that broke up some copy on page 34:
This particular illustration was also featured in one of the New Yorker’s earliest issues—March 21, 1925—in a two-part comic panel (below). I am puzzled why the New Yorker, flush with artistic talent by 1928, reused this illustration. Perhaps the layout editors figured since the readership was so small in March 1925, no one would notice.
And we leave with yet another look at some Jazz Age shenanigans, courtesy cartoonist Peter Arno:
New Yorker writers in the 1920s by and large displayed a resistance to enthusiasm when they looked around at the changing the world, but when it came to advancements in aviation, they tended to drop the casual pose and get all dreamy-eyed.
Such was the case with even a clear-headed writer like Morris Markey, who in his “A Reporter at Large” column looked at our progress in aviation. Public interest in air travel grew dramatically after Charles Lindbergh’s 1927 Atlantic crossing, as did the expansion of air mail and passenger service and the growth of private plane ownership. As Markey noted in this opening paragraph, for all the advances in American aviation, the Europeans were well ahead in establishing regular passenger service, as it has become “commonplace”:
To get some sense of European (and specifically German) aviation superiority, look no further than the Dornier Do-X, a massive seaplane developed by the Germans in the mid-1920s that began regular passenger service in July 1929. While America’s biggest planes could carry 12 to 18 passengers, the spacious and luxurious Dornier Do-X could comfortably seat 70 to 100 passengers and included a dining salon, smoking lounge and wet bar. A few months after its first flight the Do-X broke a world record by carrying 169 passengers—astonishing when one considers only 25 years had passed since the Wright Brothers at Kitty Hawk.
Markey noted in his article the growing interest in commuter flights among business executives. What seemed like a high demand to Markey was an average of three commuter flights a day.
Markey also lamented New York’s lag in building up passenger service, especially when air travel was growing leaps and bounds in the Midwest and West, and especially in rival Chicago:
Markey also noted the modest number of planes in private hands, but expected private ownership to increase dramatically in the coming months:
Although Markey lamented the slow growth of New York aviation, he was nevertheless dazzled by the “ships” taking to the skies at Curtiss Field.
Jumping ahead a couple of years, New Yorker cartoonist Peter Arno offered this view of passenger flight, the passengers in this case a bunch of silly toffs (April 12, 1930).
And back to the June 2, 1928 issue, we find this ad for Rolls Royce that offered a vision of a future airliner—in the year 1948. Since the artist had no clue what the future would hold, he conjured up this contraption that looked like a streamlined ark attached to a huge zeppelin.
And just for kicks (and contrast), this ad for Lincoln was all about tradition, except for the nice typographical flourish on the letter “L” —a definite nod to Bauhaus style.
And if you thought novelty in our gadgets is a fairly recent thing, check out these portable Kodak cameras that were available in five colors. From automobiles to typewriters, manufacturers in the 1920s were discovering that color distinguished their products and even drove demand (click image to enlarge).
Advertisers could also create demand by appealing to readers’ cravings for status. The following ad for a Lord and Burnham greenhouse is an especially egregious example of the use of status shaming to sell a product. Note how the foursome in the illustration, presumably all greenhouse owners, look at the man without a greenhouse as though he’s a child molester or worse.
Before Green Eggs and Ham
In 1928 ads for Flit insecticide began to appear in the New Yorker, illustrated by none other than Theodore “Dr. Seuss” Geisel. This is the first Flit ad to appear in the magazine, in the June 2, 1928 issue:
In the 1920s people didn’t seem too concerned about the toxicity of the products they used (for example, we’ve seen Lysol used as a feminine douche). Although the Flit ads aimed to be humorous, it still seems odd to imply that one might gargle with the insecticide. As we shall see, subsequent Flit ads will show the product being sprayed indiscriminately over food, children, pets etc.
Taking a Shot at the Babe
The cartoonist I. Klein had some fun with the hyperbole often attached to the athletic feats of the Sultan of Swat:
And finally, Peter Arno looked at murder among the upper classes:
The “Profile” for the May 12, 1928 issue was unusual in that its subject was not a titan of industry, or a prominent politician, or noted artist, musician or literary figure, but rather a dog—an extraordinary animal named Egon who would be lost to history were it not for Alexander Woollcott writing about this particular German Shepherd and his exploits on the French Riviera.
I should be clear that the dog featured at the top of this entry is not Egon, but a famous contemporary named Rin Tin Tin. It is said Egon could have enjoyed similar fame on the silver screen (Hollywood was looking for an animal to replace the aging canine superstar), but Egon’s owner, Benjamin Finney, had no interest in the limelight. So I couldn’t find any images of Egon save for this drawing that accompanied Woollcott’s essay:
Writing for the Huffington Post, Anne Margaret Daniel calls Egon Finney the “Jazz Age celebrity no one has noticed since his lifetime, but who is surely as interesting as many of his human contemporaries — and far more interesting than many of them.”
Woollcott would agree with that statement, given the opening paragraphs of his piece on Egon:
When Egon and Finney lived in Antibes in 1927 and 1928, Egon would give diving exhibitions off the rocks below the Hotel du Cap. According to Daniel, the dog also “availed himself of his owner’s surfboard, and water skis — possibly the first pair ever on the Riviera.” Egon was aided in his efforts by none other than the writer F. Scott Fitzgerald, who lived on the Riviera from 1925 to 1930.
According to Daniel, Finney recalled that Egon’s physical design “made it difficult for him to get started (on the surfboard), but his friend Scott Fitzgerald was expert at giving him a hand… Firmly balanced, tail streaming in the wind, he was a noble sight — and he knew it.”
Because the dog outshone his owner, Woollcott headlined his profile, “The Owner of Ben Finney.” Egon died in 1934, and those very words are carved on his headstone, located in America’s first pet cemetery in Hartsdale, New York.
Someone He Could Finally Relate To…
Charles Lindbergh was famously shy and crowd averse, so when the famed aviator met with the serious-minded boxing champ Gene Tunney, he found something of a kindred spirit. Writing for the New Yorker’s “Talk of the Town,” Peter Vischer was there for all of the action:
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From Our Advertisers…
Beginning in 1924 the Southern Pacific’s Golden State Limited trains added modern and luxurious 3-compartment, 2-drawing room observation cars to their Pullman fleet. This advertisement in the May 12, 1928 New Yorker enticed affluent readers to take the 2,762 mile, 70-hour journey from Chicago to Los Angeles:
As the fashion advertisements turned to summer, the May 12 issue featured no less than three separate ads for straw boaters…
Today’s ubiquitous polo shirt was an entirely new look for the summer of 1928. The shirt was designed by France’s seven-time Grand Slam tennis champion René Lacoste, who understandably found traditional “tennis whites” (starched, long-sleeved white button-up shirts with neckties) both cumbersome and uncomfortable. Lacoste first wore the polo at the 1926 U.S. Open, and in 1927 he placed the famous crocodile emblem on the left breast of his shirts. It didn’t take long for many imitators to hit the market. This ad from Wallach Brothers offered one version for $6, although I can’t imagine wool was the best material for this shirt (Lacoste used cotton in his).
No doubt B. Altman had June brides in mind for this advertisement featuring a deco bride of impossible proportions:
And our cartoon is once again from Peter Arno, who explored the not so subtle racism of the upper classes:
From the 1920s to the 1950s the husband-wife acting team of Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne were the most celebrated couple on the Broadway stage, and even today many rank them as the greatest acting team in the history of American theatre.
Lunt (1892-1977) and Fontanne (1887-1983) were so inseparable as a team that it was virtually impossible to write about just one of them, as Timothy Vane discovered when he contributed this profile of Lunt to the April 28, 1928 issue of the New Yorker:
Vane described the couple’s tireless comings and goings, in which even a vacation abroad entailed preparations for future performances:
Although it was long rumored that Lunt and Fontanne had a lavender marriage, the couple were truly inseparable during their 55-year union.
According to the Ten Chimneys Foundation, by the mid 1920s Lunt and Fontanne were the two most popular, critically acclaimed, and highest-paid stage actors in the country. Lunt and Fontanne also believed that creating great theatre with broad impact was far more important than money, so at the height of their careers they took enormous pay cuts to sign on with The Theatre Guild—a new company dedicated to performing avant-garde work by writers such as Ibsen and Shaw. Because they took such large cuts in salary, they were able to stipulate in their contracts that they only act together, rather than in separate plays. From 1928 until they retired in 1960, the Lunts never appeared on stage separately.
And Then There Were Hearst & Davies
Another famed duo of the 1920s, Marion Davies (1897-1961) and William Randolph Hearst (1863-1951), were perhaps a less successful partnership, and particularly so for Davies, who traded a promising career as a comedic actress for a romantic (and scandalous) relationship with the famed newspaper tycoon.
Davies was emerging as a talented film comedian when Hearst took over her career—financing her films, promoting her through his media empire, and, most critically, pressuring studios to cast her in historical dramas which were not her forté. This is why she is remembered today as Hearst’s mistress and the hostess of lavish events for the Hollywood elite at San Simeon, and not for her acting chops, which were considerable when she was given the chance. When Hearst did allow her to show her comedic side in The Patsy, even the New Yorker’s irascible critic “O.C.” took notice and offered rare praise:
A 2012 review of The Patsy by the Cinema Arts Center (Long Island, NY), noted that “Davies radiates comic charm, highlighted by her dead-on impersonations of the three cinema divas, in this audience pleaser…Gloriously fun and frothy, The Patsy was the biggest hit of Davies’ career.”
One of the actresses parodied in The Patsy by Davies, Pola Negri, did not fare so well in O.C.’s crosshairs in her “stilted” Three Sinners.
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Another Bad Girl
Not well known today, but after 1928 Viña Delmar (1903-1990) was practically a household name thanks to her breakthrough novel, Bad Girl, which she published at the tender age of 23. A cautionary tale about premarital sex and married life among the proles, the book was banned in Boston but was also the April 1928 selection by the Literary Guild. It was one the year’s best sellers.
On the heels of Bad Girl, in 1929 Delmar published two more books with risqué titles, Kept Woman and Loose Ladies. She would write a total of 23 novels between 1928 and 1976, and with her husband, Eugene, would write or adapt 18 plays that were produced as films. Among those was the screenplay to the acclaimed screwball comedy, The Awful Truth, for which she was nominated for a 1937 Academy Award.
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And finally, our cartoon from April 28, 1928, courtesy Peter Arno:
One of the challenges in researching old New Yorker magazines is the frequent use of pseudonyms or simple initials at the end of columns and reviews. With enough digging I can usually determine the nom behind the plume.
Such is not the case with the New Yorker’s film critic of the late 1920s, who signed reviews “O.C.” It would be good to know a little about this person, since he or she held strong opinions about the condition of American cinema. I will continue to dig.
O.C.’s review in the April 7, 1928 issue concerned the release of We Americans, a film based on a Broadway play of the same name. Directed by Edward Sloman, it focused on the trials and tribulations of three first-generation American families: The Jewish Levines, the German Schmidts and the Italian Albertinis. The film followed each family through trial, tribulation and sacrifice as they left behind the Old World and joined the great “Melting Pot.”
In one of the storylines, the Levines lose a son, Phil, to the wartime trenches of France. In losing his life, Phil saves the life of the socially prominent Hugh Bradleigh, who in the end falls in love with Phil’s sister, Beth. In the film’s sentimental ending, the Levines and the Bradleighs meet one another for the first time at wedding of Hugh and Beth.
O.C. would have none of it:
Yes, this picture got under the reviewer’s skin. Now for the coup de grace:
Over in the book review section, Dorothy Parker was also experiencing heartburn over the latest work of that all-American man of letters, Sinclair Lewis.
Now that Parker had our attention regarding her misgivings of the future Nobel Laureate, she abandoned the polite prose and went in for the kill:
Wooden as the plaque itself
The New Yorker’s Lindbergh watch continued, this time at a ceremony during which the Woodrow Wilson Foundation presented its medal and $25,000 prize to Charles Lindbergh for his “contributions to international friendship” (in retrospect an ironic award, since Lindbergh would later become the spokesman for isolationism during the fascist terrors of the 1930s). The ceremony was a dull affair, but thanks to the magic of media it no doubt looked like a jolly time…
Better than iTunes
An invention from the late 1890s, piano rolls proved to be a popular diversion in the 1920s, so popular in fact that they warranted a regular review in the New Yorker, along with records and sheet music:
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One of the more curious series of advertisements to appear in the early New Yorker were these from the Chicago Tribune. Shameless in their boosterism, these ran during the editorship of Col. Robert R. McCormick, who was strongly associated with old right-wing politics and isolationist movements. The Tribune’s motto at this time was “The American Paper for Americans.”
Another ad that caught my eye was this one for Johnnie Walker cigarettes…I guess you’d better listen when a giant hand reaches down from the heavens and taps you on the shoulder. I love the resigned look on the face of his companion: “Oh dear, it’s that dreadful hand again…”