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article number 353
article date 06-19-2014
copyright 2014 by Author else SaltOfAmerica
American Leisure and Entertainment Comes of Age, Late 1930s
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.

At the beginning of the nineteen-thirties skiing was the sport of only a few people—but its popularity leaped until by 1937 snow trains or snow busses operated out of New York, Chicago, Pittsburgh, Portland, San Francisco, and other cities on favorable week-ends.

At some of the popular centers, ski-tows were built to eliminate the uphill anguish of a downhill sport.


In the picture below, busses are meeting a New Haven Railroad train to take urban devotees to a spot where the law of gravity can put on a really convincing demonstration.


Chicago, which had hit a depression year for its World’s Fair of 1893, managed to repeat the feat in 1933. Its “Century of Progress” show was noted for bold modern architecture, rickshaw boys, and the rise to fame of Helen Gould Beck, otherwise Sally Rand, who did a very much appreciated fan dance wearing openwork sandals, a feather and nothing—well, almost nothing—else.


Sally Rand used to disapprove of organized nudist camps; according to Stanley Walker she said that all the nudists she had ever seen “had scratches all over their rear ends where they had been sitting down on thorns.”

Nevertheless this page seems the appropriate place for Whitney Darrow’s ‘New Yorker’ cartoon of June 24, 1933, celebrating a cult that during the early nineteen-thirties attracted a few very earnest disciples and a great deal of merciless public ribaldry.


Among the publicized oddments of the time was goldfish swallowing. It began at Harvard in 1935, when Lothrop Withington, Jr., a freshman, gulped one down on a bet.


Three days later, at Franklin and Marshall College, a young man ate three. According to our possibly incomplete researches, the record was set in 1938 by Albert E. Hays of M.I.T., who put away 42 goldfish in succession.

By 1938 bingo was considered by many people the most popular money game in the country. The churches generally smiled upon it, but it was also organized commercially. In the picture below, automobile workers are playing it at a carnival at Dearborn, Michigan.


Few sporting heroes of the nineteen-thirties rivaled Dempsey, Ruth, and Jones in popular acclaim, but some rode high. After Tunney’s retirement in 1928, boxing fell into comparative doldrums, and even Max Baer, whom we show knocking out Primo Camera in the 11th round on June 14, 1934, failed to capture the public as the men of the previous decade had.


On September 24, 1935, Baer was knocked out in the fourth round by young Joe Louis, whom you see standing over his fallen opponent, and things began to look up.


In 1937 Louis eliminated James J. Braddock, the heavyweight titleholder, and for the rest of the decade, and longer, we had a champion of undeniably major stature.

In baseball there was, among others, Joe DiMaggio, pictured here with some admirers as he was recovering from an injury in 1939, the first year in which he led the American League in batting. (He did it again in 1940.)


In track there was Jesse Owens, the Negro sprinter who won at the 1936 Olympics in Germany, to the embarrassment of Nazis who proclaimed the supremacy of Nordic blonds; but the man who did most to give a new popularity to indoor track events was Glenn Cunningham (shown below), greatest of the American milers who drove the record down close to four minutes.


With gambling more widely legalized, horse racing became hugely popular as the decade wore on. No single horse could rival Man o’ War, but we might as we name here the three biggest money-winners of the years between the Panic and Pearl Harbor: Gallant Fox (1930), Top Flight (1931), Whirlaway (1941).


* * *

Alexander Woollcott, the critic, raconteur, and eccentric who appears below, came into his own in the nineteen-thirties as “The Town Crier” on the radio. He discoursed so takingly about books and his friends, that his own book, ‘While Rome Burns,’ became a best seller of 1934.


More important to American literature was the work of James T. Farrell, the Chicago novelist whose ‘Studs Lonigan’ books were among the solidest and honestest novels of the whole Depression decade. The jacket that we reproduce is of the trilogy; the three books came out in 1932, 1934, and 1935.


The fiction hit of hits during the decade was Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With the Wind, which first appeared in 1936. Its success was so colossal as to dwarf that of Anthony Adverse. This huge 1037-page novel sold a million copies in its first six months and 3½ million (in English) by the end of 1945, by which time it had been issued in 19 foreign countries and serialized in 5 others!

The question who would play Scarlett O’Hara and Rhett Butler in the movies agitated Hollywood—and the reading public—for years. We show the book cover with the author, Margaret Mitchell of Atlanta, Georgia.


Another book which launched its author into popularity was ‘The Late George Apley,’ the satire on Bostonian ways which appeared early in 1937 and the following year won the Pulitzer Prize for John P. Marquand.


In that year 1937 while GWTW (as people abbreviated it) still led all comers in fiction, the non-fiction best seller was “How to Win Friends and Influence People,” by Dale Carnegie, a successful manual of the immemorial American art of self-salesmanship.


* * *

To people who considered themselves knowing and up-to-date in the nineteen-twenties, there was no more ridiculous character than Queen Victoria, the very embodiment of objectionable conventionalism.

It was perhaps a sign of change in the climate that Helen Hayes made the most popular success of her very distinguished career as the star of “Victoria Regina,” by Laurence Housman, produced late in 1935.

The first picture shows Helen Hayes as the young Queen with her adored Albert (played by Vincent Price) . . .


. . . the next shows her—in most ingenious make-up—as the aged Widow of Windsor.


The play ran in New York for 517 performances, and then went on tour; and there was little sign that audiences regarded the Queen as deplorable.

What appears at first glance to be a scene in a happy-go-lucky madhouse, is a scene in the family life of the amiable gentleman about whom revolved “You Can’t Take It With You,” a comedy by George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart which opened in December 1936 and delighted theatre-goers for a long time thereafter.


Below are some Ziegfeld Follies girls of the mid-thirties, who make an interesting comparison with the Atlantic City bathing beauties pictured in an earlier chapter; does it not seem that the feminine figure, while franker about its curves, has become somehow elongated?


* * *
We move on to the movies, and remind you of the charm of Myrna Loy as she appeared in “The Thin Man,” in 1934, with William Powell.


The next picture is of Johnny Weissmuller—the man who proved that there could be a future in the movies for a man whose 51-second record for swimming 100 yards was to stand from 1927 to World War II—with Maureen O’Sullivan in “Tarzan’s Mate,” in 1934.


We wouldn’t venture to say which of the Marx Brothers’ films was the funniest, but anyhow “Duck Soup,” produced in 1933, was a wonderful cheer-bringer, showing as it did the adventures of one Mr. Firefly who found himself prime minister of a Ruritanian country, and reaching a climax in the battle scene at the left, in which the brothers appeared in a variety of uniforms.


The only really noted resident of the United States during the nineteen-thirties who was less than a year old at the time of the Panic was Shirley Temple shown with Lionel Barrymore and Bill Robinson in “The Little Colonel,” produced in 1935.


Below is the tourist-camp scene from one of the most engaging films of the decade, “It Happened One Night,” with Claudette Colbert and Clark Gable.


It is said that the fact that Gable, undressing in the camp and disclosing that he wore no undershirt, had such a catastrophic effect on masculine underwear sales that knitwear manufacturers and garment workers’ unions protested. Produced in 1934, the picture won four “Oscars”—for the best actor, actress, production (Columbia), and direction (Capra).

The movies were growing up—and broadening their range. Here we show Victor McLaglen in “The Informer,” a film of 1935 which well deserved the praise bestowed upon it.


But there were many other fine ones to come, including for example “The Life of Emile Zola” (1937), John Ford’s version of “The Grapes of Wrath’s (1940), ‘Rebecca” (1940), and of course the Walt Disney fantasies which widely extended the motion-picture field: the enchanting “Snow White” (January 1938), “Pinocchio” (1940), and the more venturesome “Fantasia” (1941).

For sheer pleasure for the audience, one of the best films was “Mr. Deeds Goes to Town” (1936). We show Gary Cooper as Longfellow Deeds, on the rear platform of the train which was to take him away from Mandrake Falls to the city, where he was to find life confusing and sometimes pixillated.


The choice for the part of Scarlett O’Hara in “Gone With the Wind” was the English actress Vivien Leigh, whom we show in her delightful crinoline. Clark Gable took the part of Rhett Butler.


Below, Miss Leigh is grouped with Leslie Howard (as Ashley) and Olivia de Havilland (as Melanie) in a scene from the film, which proved to be majestically long, rich in color, and the whopping success of the year 1939.


* * *

Radio had immensely broadened its range too, learning during the nineteen-thirties how to produce well-knit variety programs, how to present the best orchestral and opera performances, and how to rival the newspapers in the up-to-the-minute handling of news.

And it learned too how to make quiz programs something more than a melange of elementary knowledge, misinformation, and contrived gags; at least two quiz programs made real use of real brains.

“Information Please,” which first went on the air May 17, 1938, and quickly rose to popularity with a large if literate public, is pictured in operation below, with (from left to right), John Kieran (who had a bad eye when the photograph was taken), Deems Taylor and Mayor F. H. LaGuardia of New York as the two guests, and Franklin P. Adams.


Here is Clifton Fadiman, to whose exceptional skill the success of the program was largely due.


Below are The Quiz Kids,” with Joe Kelley as schoolmaster and Jack Lucal, Joan Bishop, Gerard Darrow, Cynthia Cline, and Richard Williams as scholars.


As variety programs improved in technique, they became the consistent favorites of a vast radio public.

People might tune in by the millions to a presidential fireside chat or a king’s farewell speech or a big fight or a World Series; housewives washed the dishes to the heart-throbs of soap operas, and families enjoyed character comedies of an evening; symphony concerts and grand operas at least won more auditors than had ever before listened to good music anywhere.

But the variety shows drew the surest audiences. On these pages we show some of their preferences.

First on this page is Major Edward Bowes, whose amateur hour was a great success of the mid-thirties.


Here is Kate Smith, a singer widely beloved.


And now we show master of original wit, Fred Allen.


Next we have the perennial leader in Crossley ratings, Jack Benny, warming up for a program while Van Johnson awaits his turn.


. . . Edgar Bergen with Charlie McCarthy. (Their climb to public favor in 1937 was sensational; prior to that year Bergen had been virtually unknown.)


. . . Bing Crosby, whose high repute as singer, radio performer, and movie actor made him a figure unique in the entertainment world.


* * *

With the partial eclipse, after 1929, of the dynasties of inherited wealth and big-business wealth, now beset with taxes and regulations, what had once been called Society became less venerated outside its own ranks; whereas what was nicknamed Café Society—one part wealth, one part fashion, two parts celebrity, two parts night-club press-agentry and gossip-column exploitation—was the envy of millions.

Here are some glimpses of it at the Stork Club in New York City.

First, Douglas Fairbanks, Sr., with Lady Ashley, in 1937 . . .


. . . Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., with the lovely dancer Vera Zorina . . .


. . . and below, the columnist, Walter Winchell, and the Club’s proprietor, Sherman Billingsley.


We move on to the “No. 1 Glamour Girl” of 1938 in New York, Brenda Frazier, as she looked just after her wedding in 1941, with the bridegroom, John S. Kelley.


* * *

Irving Berlin, a leading composer of popular music throughout the twenties and thirties, appears above with Mrs. Berlin, the former Ellin Mackay, on shipboard just after their much publicized marriage in 1926 . . .


. . . and when he received a Hollywood “Oscar” eighteen years later.


Below is Eddie Condon, who in the late twenties—when Berlin’s name had long been famous—used to play his guitar in basement “jam sessions” in Chicago with Bix Beiderbecke, Teschemacher, MacPartland, Goodman, and Krupa—of whose type of music he later became an influential advocate.


All through the twenties there were a few people who preferred the original jazz, which had started in New Orleans and been developed in Chicago, to the far more popular music which was jazz to ninety-nine Americans out of a hundred—the sort of music of which Paul Whiteman was the high priest.

But in the middle and late thirties there was a revolution in taste, with countless jitterbugs as its undisciplined mass army and a few scholars of jazz as its general staff. These scholars reverenced the work of such musicians as “Count” Basie, who is shown at the piano, with the singing Mills Brothers gathered about.


The highest praise of the students of jazz was bestowed upon Edward Kennedy (“Duke”) Ellington, composer, arranger, and band-leader, who in the later speakeasy days had had his orchestra at the Cotton Club in Harlem. Here is Ellington at a concert at Colgate University.


The growing number of jazz devotees took special delight in the work of Louis Armstrong, the trumpeter.


Armstrong had begun his career where jazz was born, in New Orleans, had played on river boats, had been a member of King Oliver’s band in Chicago, and later led a band of his own. Such men as he, insisted the new school of critics, played jazz-; what most people had called jazz for years was nothing but popular ragtime.

While the jazz experts rated most highly such men as Ellington and Basie, the general public were more likely to prefer the music of the Dorseys, who combined the “hot” with much of the “sweet.”

In the next picture, it is Tommy Dorsey who has the cigarette in his mouth. The two brothers, Tommy and Jimmy, had a joint orchestra in 1934-35; subsequently each had his own band.


Whatever might be the relative musical merits of Gershwin, Berlin, Jerome Kern, and Cole Porter on the one hand, and the jazz that originated in the honky-tonks of New Orleans on the other hand, the growing company of radio-listeners and record-buyers always enjoyed the work of instrumentalists who gave what they played an engaging style of their own.

During the latter nineteen-thirties the average American, if called to the stage in a quiz program, was less likely to be able to name the president of the Senate than to spot the piano style of Eddy Duchin.


Harry James, trumpeter, left Benny Goodman in 1939 to form his own band; and that same year he took on a young and unknown vocalist who created no appreciable stir until much later.

Here are James with his trumpet and the obscure youngster, Frank Sinatra, at the microphone.


The one man more responsible than any other for the formation of the vast army of juvenile swing-fanciers, for the rising popularity of such band leaders as Artie Shaw, Gene Krupa, Harry James, Tommy Dorsey, and Glenn Miller, and for the spread of the cult of jazz-record collecting, was Benny Goodman, the clarinetist.

For when he formed his own band he was able to combine the discipline and volume of a big group with something of the effect of spontaneity which characterized the best small bands.

Here is Goodman with his clarinet . . .


. . . next is a glimpse of a part of the stampede of excitement which took place when Goodman played at the Paramount Theatre in New York in January 1938, and hordes of young devotees of swing danced in the aisles and even on the stage. Goodman is at the left; the “GK” on the drum stands for Gene Krupa, then with Goodman.


Was it pure chance that ‘The Big Apple,” a modified square dance which was developed by students at the University of North Carolina and became very popular in 1937 and 1938, and the new vogue of square-dancing which accompanied it, represented a less feverish spirit than the Charleston of the previous decade?

There was plenty of fever among the jitterbugs and “alligators” of the swing craze; but for organized social dancing there was a return to a tradition that cared less than before about being “advanced” or “sophisticated.”

By and large, the young people of the nineteen-thirties could take their sex or leave it, without the argument and self-consciousness of the years before 1930. The picture, showing a young couple dancing “The Big Apple,” was taken at the Glen Island Casino, New Rochelle, New York, in 1938.

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