Mosher’s Monster

James Whale’s 1931 Frankenstein remains one of the most iconic horror films of all time, not only setting a standard for monster movies to come, but creating one of popular culture’s most enduring characters.

Dec. 12, 1931 cover by Theodore Haupt.

The New York Times film critic Mordaunt Hall called the film “far and away the most effective thing of its kind,” and the public agreed, making it a box office success. The New Yorker’s John Mosher, on the other hand, was among the crowd with a more literary bent, preferring Mary Shelley’s 1818 novel by the same name to the film adaptation. He dismissed Whale’s Frankenstein with this brief review:

THIS WON’T HURT A BIT…Dr. Waldman (Edward Van Sloan) prepares to destroy Henry Frankenstein’s monster (Boris Karloff), but he is stopped short of his goal when the monster awakens and strangles him to death. (IMDB)
SOME ASSEMBLY REQUIRED…Henry Frankenstein (Colin Clive) meets up with his creation in 1931’s Frankenstein. (IMDB)
I WISH HENRY WOULD FIND A NEW HOBBY…Henry Frankenstein’s fiancée Elizabeth Lavenza (Mae Clarke) is confronted by the monster (Boris Karloff) in 1931’s Frankenstein. (IMDB)
ALL IN A DAY’S WORK…Boris Karloff takes a break between scenes. (mashable.com)

One thing Mosher did like about the film was the makeup applied to Karloff, and it would be a look that endures today throughout popular culture. Less than two years after the 1931 film’s release, Walt Disney featured the monster in 1933’s Mickey’s Gala Premier, and since then in countless cartoons, dozens of films, and a television series. From what I can gather, comic portrayals of the monster are far more common than ones involving horror themes…

THE BAT PACK…Clockwise, from top left, 1933’s Mickey’s Gala Premier featured Frankenstein’s monster with pals Dracula and the Werewolf; Daffy Duck conducts an interview in 1988’s The Night of the Living Duck; the monster makes an expected appearance in the first season of Scooby-Doo (A Gaggle of Galloping Ghosts 1969); and the monster has appeared as a regular in four Hotel Transylvania films. (Wikipedia/Pinterest)
A FAMILIAR FACE…Frankenstein’s monster has also appeared in dozens of films, a TV sitcom, and even on a box of cereal. Clockwise, from top left, Fred Gwynne as Herman Munster in NBC TV’s The Munsters (1964-66); Boris Karloff’s original monster makes an appearance on a FrankenBerry cereal box (1987); Peter Boyle as the monster with a different look (but retaining those electrodes) in Mel Brooks’ Young Frankenstein (1974); and Abbott & Costello team up with the monster (Glenn Strange) in 1948’s Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein. (Wikipedia/Pinterest/filmforum.org)

It seems I’ve gone down a rabbit hole with this subject, but here’s one more for the holidays: the late Phil Hartman portrayed Frankenstein’s monster in several SNL sketches during the 1988-89 season…

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No Fantasy Island, This

New York’s Blackwell’s Island is probably best known for the asylum where reporter Nellie Bly went undercover in 1887 to expose its horrid conditions. The asylum closed in 1894, but a penitentiary established there in 1832 remained in operation for more than a century. When journalist Robert Littell (1896-1963) visited the island in 1931 for “A Reporter at Large” column, he found it was still occupied by workhouses and a penitentiary — a place where the city still sent it “undesirables.” Littell, a former associate editor of the New Republic and a drama critic for various New York newspapers, described the island’s gray, grim appearance and the “ugly old buildings, model 1858” that contained its sorry residents. An excerpt:

BY ANY OTHER NAME…Called “Minnehanonck” by the Lenape Tribe and “Varkens Eylandt” (Hog Island) by New Netherlanders, this East River island was dubbed Blackwell’s Island during colonial times, and that was the dreaded name referred to by reformers who decried the horrifying conditions of its “Lunatic Asylum,” workhouses and penitentiary in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Renamed Welfare Island in 1922, its prison can be seen in a 1931 photo (top) and in an interior shot from the 1920s. In 1973 the island was renamed Roosevelt Island in honor of Franklin D. Roosevelt and redeveloped with housing for more than 20,000 residents. (AP)

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Outshining the Sordid

Architecture critic Lewis Mumford also mentioned Welfare Island in the Dec. 12 issue, but only as a reference point to view the new Cornell Medical Centre, which he found “indisputedly exhilarating.” Note the final lines of this excerpt, and how Mumford took a not-so-subtle swipe at New York architecture firms.

Mumford wasn’t alone in his praise. According to a 1933 Architectural Forum article, hospital director Dr. G. Canby Robinson made this observation about the lobby: “the average person should walk through it without noticing it, but the cultured person should be arrested by its beauty.”

HIGH MASS…The hospital in 1954. (Sam Falk/The New York Times)
ABOVE AVERAGE…The main entrance in 1933. (Avery Architectural Library)

NO SHOW…Fr. Charles O’Donnell (left) refused to share the stage at a Knute Rockne Memorial with retired boxer Gene Tunney. (findagrave.com/Wikipedia)

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Silver Bells

A precursor to the New Yorker’s annual holiday poem, “Greetings Friends!” was this entry in the Dec. 12, 1931 issue, written by short-story writer and novelist James Reid Parker

New Yorker cartoonist Michael Maslin has noted an interesting relationship Parker had with cartoonist Helen Hokinson. You can read about it at his lively Ink Spill site.

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From Our Advertisers

We kick off our ads with another entry from Condossis cigarettes…these will continue to the end of the year and beyond, but I won’t run them all…

…I liked this Rex Cole ad because it placed its very architectural refrigerator in the midst of the city…

…as the company did in the physical realm…this Rex Cole showroom was in Queens…

…with the holidays in full swing, we see ads for the kiddies…

…and for the grown-ups, again exchanging Champagne bottles filled with scarves and socks rather than bubbly, thanks to Prohibition (which still had two years to go)…

…maybe a game could distract you from your forced sobriety, such as table-top bowling…note the drawing of J.P. Morgan, which looked very similar to Peter Arno’s Major…

…here’s an advertising ploy no longer used today (at least not overtly)…

…and on to our cartoons, beginning with Gardner Rea

…this odd little political cartoon was contributed by Otto Soglow, who vaguely anticipated trouble ahead in the international sphere…

…I remember seeing this familiar trope in old movies and 60s sitcoms…John Reehill gave us his rendition here…

…and we close with William Steig, and an after-hours close encounter…

Next Time: The Mouse That Roared…

 

Big Fish, Little Fish

Battery Park’s Castle Clinton was a fort, a popular entertainment complex, and an immigration depot before the architectural firm of McKim, Mead, and White transformed it into the New York Aquarium in 1896.

Sept. 26, 1931 cover by Rea Irvin.

The Aquarium’s beginnings were modest, but under the direction of zoologist Charles Haskins Townsend it became one of lower Manhattan’s biggest attractions. “The Talk of the Town” looked in on its latest acquisitions, including the first display of live piranha (here spelled paranha) in America:

When the Aquarium opened it was marvel of late 19th century technology; its enormous glass tanks and pools — holding more than 300,000 gallons of water — were controlled by an elaborate behind-the-scenes operation that ensured each species had the right kind of water conditions and food to survive, at least for awhile; the Aquarium in its early days, like the Central Park Zoo we visited recently, displayed its creatures as curiosities in decidedly unnatural surroundings…

DE-NATURED…In the New York Aquarium’s early days, fish and other aquatic animals were displayed in glass tanks that lined the out walls as well as in concrete ponds below the expansive trussed ceiling. If this rendering is accurate, then these creatures, especially the whales, had miserable, short lives. (thebattery.org)

…and this is a promotion for the Aquarium you would not see today…

…and here are a few images from the early years…more than 100 years old but still not easy to look at…

DRY-DOCKED…these are images used on postcards to promote the Aquarium — the black and white ones are from 1909, the color image circa 1925-30. Clockwise, from top left, Aquarium worker poking at a manatee with a stick (yeah fella, they’re not happy, and probably dying); a crocodile gets some dinner; image common from yesteryear of a child (or groups of children) sitting on a hapless turtle or tortoise; seals in a pool that contained water but nothing else remotely similar to their natural environment. (nyheritage.org)

…it’s easy for us to pass judgment on the unfortunate actions of our forebears, but to his credit Charles Haskins Townsend, director of the Aquarium from 1902 to 1937, advocated for bans on whaling and constantly worked to improve conditions at the Aquarium…

POPULAR DESTINATION…Whether folks were visiting the Aquarium or jumping on a riverboat or ferry, Battery Park was a place to go in the early 20th century. Top and bottom right, exterior and interior views of the Aquarium. Bottom left, the care and feeding took place behind the outer walls. (wcsarchivesblog.org)

…and Aquarium staff tried their best to keep fish alive during relocation, even using train cars specially designed for the purpose…

(Popular Mechanics 1931)

…once at the Aquarium, teams were ready to put the animals into their proper places…

LONELY NO MORE…Paddlewings, the lonely penguin apparently famous enough to be mentioned in the “Talk” piece, is pictured at right in this 1931 article. (Modern Mechanics, August 1931) click to enlarge.

The end came for the Battery Park aquarium when NYC Parks Commissioner Robert Moses proposed construction of the Brooklyn–Battery Tunnel under Castle Clinton. Moses also thought the aquarium was an eyesore, and had it demolished in 1941…

(thebattery.org)

…preservationists managed to stop the demolition before the walls of Castle Clinton were razed. It is now a national monument…

Castle Clinton, circa 1970s. (Flickr)

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Flying High

Attitudes toward drunken driving — or drunken flying — were very different 89 years ago. Case in point was this “Epitaph” written by Morris Markey marking the passing of Carter Leigh, who carried the air mail while flying under the influence (Reginald Marsh contributed the portrait) …

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Exit, Stage Left

The glitzy showgirl revues continued on Broadway with George White’s Scandals, which featured such headliners as singers Ethel Merman and Rudy Vallée, and hoofer Ray Bolger. Reviewer Robert Benchley wrote that the show gave him “the feeling of having a good time,” but the same could not be said for Mae West’s The Constant Sinner; Benchley thought the glare of West’s stardom upstaged the play itself:

SIMULACRUM OF A GOOD TIME…Robert Benchley questioned his own enjoyment of George White’s Scandals of 1931; from top, left, program from the show; singers Rudy Vallée and Ethel Merman were popular stars, as were hoofer Ray Bolger (who in 1939 would portray the Scarecrow in The Wizard of Oz) and actress Luella Gear (photo from the 1934 play Life Begins at 8:40); chorus girls in costume during a Scandals performance. (Playbill/Heritage Auctions/gershwin.com/Pinterest)
A STAR IS WORN…Benchley thought Mae West upstaged herself in The Constant Sinner. At right, West in a publicity photo with co-star Walter Petrie. (Playbill/Heritage Auctions)

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Play Ball

Sports columnist and occasional New Yorker contributor Ring Lardner enjoyed poking fun at revered institutions including Morris Markey’s “A Reporter at Large” column. Lardner rambled through several subjects but mostly reminisced about great baseball players of the past. Two brief excerpts: 

BEDTIME STORIES…the great American sports writer and satirist Ring Lardner, circa 1930. (Chicago Tribune)

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From Our Advertisers

We have yet another somewhat misleading ad from the makers of Lux Toilet Soap featuring an older actress who looked deceptively young for her age…

…the Russian-American actress Alla Nazimova (1879 – 1945) was actually 52 years old when this ad appeared, but the photo featured at left was taken in early 1923, when she was 43, so in a sense the ad was somewhat truthful…

Photo of Alla Nazimova taken by Nickolas Muray on Feb. 1, 1923 for Vanity Fair magazine. (Conde Nast)

…Park Avenue would never be the same with the opening of the grand Art Deco Waldorf Astoria, at 47 stories and 625 feet, it was the world’s tallest hotel from 1931 until 1963…

…nor would the skyline at Central Park West be the same with the addition of Irwin Chanin’s modern “Majestic” and “Century” apartments that featured GE refrigerators sold by Rex Cole, who himself was keen on architecture and design…

…and who hired Raymond Hood to create distinctive refrigerator showrooms in Manhattan, Brookyn and Queens…

Rex Cole Showroom in Flushing, Queens, crowned with a replica of the GE refrigerator’s disintictive “Monitor Top.” With their spare, open plan, the modern showrooms were ahead of their time. (Museum of the City of New York, Photo by Samuel H. Gottscho, 1931)

…on to our cartoonists, we have Chon Day at ringside…

Kemp Starrett eavesdropped on some science-minded shoppers…

Garrett Price gave us a maid’s refreshing perspective on a game of chess…

Helen Hokinson found some serious talk among the younger posh set…

…and we end with another from Garrett Price, and the challenges of renting a room near Times Square…

Next Time: The Coming War…