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article number 329
article date 03-27-2014
copyright 2014 by Author else SaltOfAmerica
We Enjoy Theatre then Movies … and Tabloid’s Present Sensational Murder Trials, 1920’s
by Frederick Lewis Allen, assembled by Agnes Rogers

From the 1947 book, I Remember Distinctly.

EDITORS NOTE: It is difficult to layup this fantastic coffee table book for a web presentation. In our presentation, pictures follow the commentary specific for that picture.

Along with the recklessness and glorified commercialism of the nineteen-twenties went an outburst of another sort—a lively awakening in the arts. Nowhere was this more exciting than in the theatre.

Aided by the enthusiasm of the Provincetown Players and the young Theatre Guild, a gifted group of playwrights, scene designers, and actors gave the production of plays a new coherence and vitality. (Consider the playwrights alone: those who first made their mark then included Eugene O’Neill, Philip Barry, Sidney Howard, George S. Kaufman and Marc Connelly, Robert E. Sherwood, Elmer Rice, and Maxwell Anderson.)

Don’t think, however, that such distinguished artists had things all their own way. The theatre-going public gave its most spontaneous and sustained support to the play whose wedding scene is pictured below—“Abie’s Irish Rose,” an obvious comedy of Irish-Jewish relationships.


Opening on May 25, 1922, and slighted by the critics, “Abie” ran on and on until 1927, for a record run of 2,327 performances—while such meritorious plays as “The Adding Machine,” “Rain,” ‘The Show-Off,” “Beggar on Horseback,” “Desire Under the Elms,” and “What Price Glory?” came and went. This record stood until “Tobacco Road” at last broke it.

In the theatre, as well as in the novel, a favorite topic was the hopeless and tragic decadence of the “lost generation.” This was the theme of Michael Arlen’s “The Green Hat,” in which the rising actress Katharine Cornell played the part of Iris March with such moving intensity that many a bouncing outdoor girl of 1925 became convinced that she too was a lost but gallant sophisticate.


Below are the three stars of the delightfully intimate importation, “Chariot’s Revue,” as they looked when they were pleasing New York audiences in 1924: Beatrice Lillie, Jack Buchanan, and Gertrude Lawrence (whom you will see again, subtly changed).


The stage of the twenties is closer to us today than one might suppose, for it brought out many a talent since made familiar to millions by Hollywood, and its popular tunes are still heard constantly on the radio. Here are Fred and Adele Astaire in “The Band Wagon.” Their greatest Broadway hit was perhaps their appearance as the stars of “Lady Be Good,” in 1924 (music by George Gershwin).


Earl Carroll, who according to Stanley Walker “always had a song in his heart and a keen eye for nakedness,” is here shown watching the work of what, in the caption of the 1925 photograph that we reproduce above, are described as “Boston Beauties to appear in ‘Vanities.’” Let it go at that.


Next, he is greeting Countess Vera Cathcart in 1926, after she had been detained by immigration authorities on charges involving alleged “moral turpitude.”


Carroll gave a party for her at his theatre at which Joyce Hawley, a seventeen-year-old girl, took a bath in a tub said to be full of wine—an event which led to Carroll’s subsequently going to prison for perjury.

Though World War I had been given uncompromising treatment soon after its close in books such as Dos Passos’ “Three Soldiers” and E. E. Cummings’ “The Enormous Room,” it was not presented on the stage with whole-hearted realism until the appearance in September 1924 of “What Price Glory?” by Maxwell Anderson and Laurence Stallings—a play which presented the Rabelaisian talk of Captain Flagg and Sergeant Quirt so boldly that the tender-minded were horrified.

And the presentations of the horrors of warfare that made the deepest impression on a wide public came still later—over ten years after the Armistice. These were the novel, “All Quiet on the Western Front,” published in 1929, and the play pictured below: “Journey’s End,” by an Englishman, R. C. Sherriff. “Journey’s End” reached the New York stage in March 1929, when the Big Bull Market was about to go into its last crescendo.


The cult of fashionable sophistication did not end with the postwar decade; “Private Lives,” by Noel Coward, did not appear in New York until 1931, when the depression was deepening. Here are the author-actor and Gertrude Lawrence in a scene from that play.


The latter nineteen-twenties, being years of riotous spending, were the heyday of the expensive night club, where prohibition could be forgotten and the profits of a speculation in Montgomery Ward or Mike Meehan’s Radio common could be tossed away in a night.

Here is one of the most spectacular of night club figures, already canonized by Hollywood: Mary Louise Cecilia (Texas”) Guinan, darling of the butter-and-egg men.


* * *

Speaking of canonization, it was not until motion-picture audiences had been laughing for years at the screen antics of Charlie Chaplin that the intellectuals began referring to him, with bated breath, as (to quote Gilbert Seldes in “The Seven Lively Arts”) “the man who, of all the men of our time, seems most assured of immortality.”

But when, after long preparation, Chaplin produced “The Gold Rush” in 1925—a picture which included a wonderful tilting-floor scene when a house teetered on the edge of a precipice in an Alaskan storm, and a still more hilarious scene in which Charlie nibbled with the air of a gourmet at some cooked shoe-leather—everybody took delight.

Here is Charlie, shivering in that picture.


Below is Harold Lloyd, the comedian with the horn-rimmed glasses, in a scene from “Safety Last,” produced in 1923.


Limited in many ways as were the movies before the advent of sound, they gave ample scope for the skill of actors who, like Chaplin and Lloyd, were essentially pantomimists. No words were needed to supplement such humorous effects as were offered by Buster Keaton , who brought to the movies from his vaudeville beginnings what Gilbert Seldes described as “an enormous, incorruptible gravity.”


And the actors could get along pretty well without words in such huge, expensive, romantic spectacles as “Ben Hur,” produced in 1926, from which we select a chariot-race scene, with Francis X Bushman and Ramon Novarro at the controls.


Greta Garbo and the late John Gilbert at work in “Flesh and the Devil.” The date was 1927.


“Beau Geste,” 1926 (with William Powell, left, and Ronald Colman, center).


A great change was coming to Hollywood—a change which would end many a star’s career, make many another’s, strike Broadway a body blow by drawing some of its ablest actors and dramatists to the Coast, and turn Hollywood into a gold mine for writers too.

Late in 1926, while silent films like “Beau Geste” were attracting great crowds, this sort of announcement was to be found here and there among the theatre advertisements:

“Warner Brothers and Vitaphone Corporation, by arrangement with Western Electric Company and Bell Telephone Laboratories, PRESENT The Greatest Broadway Talent Ever Assembled, personalizing in voice, music, and action, AL JOLSON, ELSIE JANIS, GEORGE JESSEL.”

And you could read among the motion-picture notes: “Mr. Jolson’s appearance will be in blackface . . . singing ‘April Showers,’ ‘Rocka-bye Baby,’ and other melodies.”

This picture was a short; but the next year, 1927, Jolson appeared (as below) in a more ambitious effort, “The Jazz Singer.”


Properly speaking, this was not a talkie but a silent film with sound sequences; it contained only 291 words of spoken dialogue. And even after “The Jazz Singer” the change was slow, for the early talking pictures were crude and cacophanous.

In May 1929 an irate movie-goer was writing to the New York Times, “One has to elongate one’s ears and try to unravel from a concatenation of sounds what it’s all about. . . . Do give us one delightful, quiet theatre until the infant grows up.” But by 1930 the talkies commanded the field.

* * *

A major sport of the high, wide, and handsome years was following murder trials; and the most fascinating murder case of all was the Hall-Mills case. What made it remarkable was the extent to which it captured national attention, thrusting temporarily into the background foreign affairs, national politics, and everything else; and also the fact that it illustrated the power of a sensation-hungry press.

On September 16, 1922, the Reverend Edward Wheeler Hall and Mrs. James Mills, the choir leader in his church, were found shot to death near New Brunswick, New Jersey—their bodies lying side by side under a crab-apple tree on an abandoned farm.

The mystery was not solved and the case died down—until, four long years later, it was re-opened through the influence of a tabloid that claimed to have new evidence—and wanted new circulation.

Mrs. Hall, the clergyman’s widow, was arrested and in November 1926 she and her two brothers and cousin went on trial for murder. As you can gather from the picture of her she was a person of great respectability—which made the sensation all the greater.


Below, she is shown with the other defendants: at the left, the slow-witted Willie Stevens; at the right, Henry Stevens and her cousin, Henry Carpender.


A swarm of star reporters, including such unwonted journalists as Billy Sunday, the revivalist, and James Mills (left), the husband of the murdered woman, sent out five million words from Somerville, New Jersey, during the first eleven days of the Hall-Mills trial; and the whole country became familiar with DeRussey’s Lane, and with Willie Stevens’s innocently earnest aspect as he stood up to his cross-examination, and with the peculiar testimony—given from a hospital bed in the courtroom—of Jane Gibson, the “pig woman,” who had been out on the fatal night with Jennie, her mule (right).


Even Charlotte Mills, the young daughter of the murdered choir-singer, was pressed into service as a reporter. At last the defendants were acquitted—but not until they had gone through a horrible ordeal in the production of bigger and better headlines. And the mystery remained unsolved.


With its appetite for scandalous crime well whetted, the public leaped with avidity upon the details of the Gray-Snyder case, which went to trial in the spring of 1927. There was little mystery or subtlety to this sordid murder:

Albert Snyder, an art editor in a Long Island suburb, had been killed with a sash-weight by his wife, Ruth Snyder, and her lover, a corset salesman named Henry Judd Gray. Here, Mrs. Snyder is listening to the reading of Gray’s confession.


Below is Gray himself, with his mother, during the trial.


But this affair, too, commanded mighty headlines.

Another horror took place somewhat earlier in Chicago, when Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb, two brilliant youths, both postgraduate students at the University of Chicago and both members of rich and prominent Chicago families, were tried for the peculiarly cold-blooded and revolting murder of a child named Bobby Franks. The young men, eloquently defended by the gnarled old trial lawyer, Clarence Darrow, were given life sentences. (The picture below shows young Loeb at the time of the trial.)


American journalism and press-agentry set some low-water marks during the year or so, in 1926 and 1927, which witnessed the Joyce Hawley bathtub incident, the extravagant funeral of Rudolph Valentino, the disproportionately publicized welcome of Queen Marie, the Hall-Mills trial, the charges growing out of the mysterious disappearance of the evangelist Aimee Semple McPherson, and the Gray-Snyder case; but few went lower than the feat of one New York tabloid in getting a sneak photograph (not shown here) of Mrs. Ruth Gray’s electrocution at Sing.

There was one trial in the mid-twenties which involved neither murder nor sex and yet riveted the attention of the country.

Tennessee had passed a state law forbidding the teaching of the doctrine of evolution; and a young high-school biology teacher in Dayton, Tennessee, named John Thomas Scopes, let himself be tried for defying it. Clarence Darrow, who had defended Leopold and Loeb, was chief lawyer for the defense; and old William Jennings Bryan, the famous former Secretary of State, led the prosecution.

Scopes was found guilty (and later freed on a technicality) after as strange a trial, in the blazing heat of July 1925, as ever took place in America—with Bryan insisting that the world was literally created in the year 4004 B.C. and that Eve was literally made out of Adam’s rib.

Here is Bryan with some of his Dayton admirers.


Next, young school teacher John Thomas Scopes.


Below, a playful sign hung out by a local merchant, J. R. Darwin.


* * *

Lawless gangs were no novelty to America, but prohibition and public cynicism lifted them to unprecedented power, wealth, and violence in the late nineteen-twenties. Here is the face of Al Capone, who seized Chicago’s illicit liquor trade and became the super-boss of organized crime in that city.


Here he is at the races, laughing with two women, during the federal proceedings in 1931 which were to send him at last to Alcatraz.


Below, you may see what happened to the O’Banion gang when it warred with the Capone forces in 1929: the “St. Valentine’s Day Massacre,” in which seven men were machine-gunned to death in a Chicago garage.


One criminal case of those days set itself apart from all others by arousing fierce political loyalties all over the world. In April 1920, a paymaster in South Braintree, Massachusetts, was shot by hold-up men; and two Italian-American radicals, Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti, were arrested and soon convicted of the crime.

But many people thought they had been railroaded; the case was re-investigated and debated everywhere; the demeanor of Vanzetti in particular was admirable and his statements most impressive; and even after the two men were at last electrocuted on August 22, 1927, millions believed them to have been innocent. You see them here (Vanzetti with the mustache).


Below are some Sacco-Vanzetti sympathizers who have been arrested by Boston police.

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