We Americans

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.

April 7, 1928 cover by Rea Irvin.

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:

CHEESE MELT…Lobby card for We Americans (1928). (flickr.com)

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.

BABBITT BABBLE…Sinclair Lewis circa 1925. At right, dust jacket from The Man Who Knew Coolidge. (Getty/yesterdaysgallery.com)

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:

LET THE GOOD TIMES ROLL…Top and center: Ampico player-piano rolls from the late 1920s. Bottom, a 1928 Irvington Player Piano. (Ebay/YouTube)

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Our Advertisers

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…”

And finally, our cartoon, courtesy Peter Arno…

Next Time: Will Wonders Never Cease?

 

World of Tomorrow

The much-anticipated German expressionist film, Metropolis, opened at Manhattan’s Rialto Theatre. Although considered today to be a classic of the silent era, the March 12, 1927 New Yorker found the film to be overlong and preachy despite its fantastic setting and complex special effects.

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March 12, 1927 cover by Carl Rose.

Set in a futuristic dystopia in which the wealthy ruling classes lived high above the toiling masses, the film followed the attempts of a wealthy son of the city’s ruler and a poor working woman named Mary to overcome the city’s gaping class divisions.

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The city of tomorrow as portrayed in the opening scenes of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis. The New Yorker encouraged readers to see the film mostly for the special effects, but lamented its “Teutonic heaviness” and uninspired acting. (archhistdaily)

An excerpt from the New Yorker review:

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The working masses toil in the dank world beneath the city in Metropolis. (myfilmviews.com)
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Brigette Helm’s duo portrayal of the noble Mary and her robotic double (here being created through cinematic magic) in Metropolis was praised by the New Yorker, which otherwise found the film’s acting subpar. (cinemagraphe.com)

Considered one of the most expensive movies of all time, Metropolis cost $5 million to film in 1925 (roughly about $70 million today).

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The famous 1920s evangelist Aimee Semple McPherson had been holding a series of revival meetings in New York, which were often (and derisively) noted by the New Yorker editors. In the previous issue “Talk of the Town” observed:

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And in the March 12 issue they offered this parting note in “Of All Things”….

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Aimee Semple McPherson (Corbis)

A pioneer in the use of modern media, McPherson was in New York on a “vindication tour,” taking advantage of the publicity from her alleged kidnapping  a year earlier that led to investigations that she had staged her disappearance to bolster her flagging ministry.

In other diversions, bicycle racing had come to Madison Square Garden, as noted in “Talk of the Town” with an illustration by Reginald Marsh:

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click to enlarge

Advertisements in this issue included this announcement for the opening of the Park Central Hotel, still a grand landmark on 7th Avenue…

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…and this ad from Nestle touting the latest method for achieving success in the latest hair style…

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Next Time: Nothing Like the Roxy…

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Reading the New Yorker Magazine

About a year ago I had this notion that I would read every issue of The New Yorker. I am a bit obsessive-compulsive, a condition I have successfully reined in with the deliberate exception of two pursuits—gardening/landscaping and reading history. This is about the latter.

Issue No. 1, Feb. 21, 1925, cover by Rea Irvin.

My New Yorker binge began after I finished reading Antony Beevor’s The Second World War. It got me thinking about the 30 years of madness that reigned in Europe in the first half of the 20th century, and why a continent with such riches in art, architecture, music, philosophy and literature would descend into a period of self-destruction that would lead to the annihilation of 60 million people and the obliteration of entire towns, cities and cultures.

It was in this time frame that an American veteran of the First World War, Harold Ross, would start a magazine that would be known for “gaiety, wit, and satire.” For purposes of this blog, it is through this particular lens—the New Yorker magazine—that I write about 20th century history and chart the course of a publication that, although based safely on the other side of the Atlantic, will begin to find its serious side as the world once again descends into madness.

For background I’ve read some good first-person accounts of the period, including William Shirer’s series on the 20th century (and particularly his writings on Nazi Germany); and Patrick Leigh Fermor’s unfinished trilogy describing his walk across Europe (roughly following the Danube) in the early 1930s that offers a fascinating, ground-level view of a world that would soon vanish.

By reading back issues of the New Yorker I hope to gain some new insights or perspectives on history. A deep reading of the articles and advertisements can have the effect of transporting one back in time, at least in terms of a mindset, although you cannot escape feeling omniscient in your foreknowledge of coming events, such as this advertisement in the May 8, 1937 issue:

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Advertisement in May, 8, 1937 issue page 75.
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The Hindenburg disaster, May 6, 1937 (Wikipedia)

When I come across a cheeky account in The New Yorker’s “Of All Things” section about a couple of buffoons named Hitler and Mussolini, I know the terrible truth that awaits my fellow readers. But it’s not all doom and gloom, for along the way you also get to witness the advent of broadcast radio and sound in motion pictures, the evolution of the automobile, the birth of passenger airline service and the transformation of a city that bulldozes the 19th century and replaces it with soaring towers.

So pretend you are a young, social climbing cosmopolitan in mid-1920s New York, and this little magazine comes along written just for you—not stuffy like the old Town & Country or serious in the Atlantic vein—it is for you, a witty young Jazz Age striver living in the greatest city on earth.

(To read another account of my New Yorker project, see my article posted at Not Even Past).