Edna Ferber

Incredible 1920s Documentary Discovered

A new video surfaced recently that’s just sensational to watch for anyone that adores the 1920s and the Algonquin Round Table era. It is called New York in the Twenties, and first aired on American TV in 1961.

Marc Connelly
Marc Connelly was an original member of the Algonquin Round Table.
This has to be one of the best videos of the era. The amount of home movies found in the piece is amazing. Among the 1920s celebrities included in it are Heywood Broun, Enrico Caruso, Charlie Chaplin, John Held, Jr., Gertrude Lawrence, H. L. Mencken, Edna St. Vincent Millay, H.G. Wells, Rebecca West, Alexander Woollcott, and scores more. Helen Morgan, who starred in the original Showboat in 1927, sings “Bill (He’s Just My Bill)” from the show. Fannie Brice, on a rooftop surrounded by chorus girls, belts out a hearty version of Fats Waller’s “I’ve Got a Feeling I’m Falling.” But the real highlight for me is seeing George Gershwin rehearsing a tap-dancing chorus through “Strike Up The Band.” Incredibly, that rehearsal footage is 84 years old, and it looks like it took place last night.

Narrated by Walter Cronkite for CBS, there are three men interviewed (I guess they couldn’t find any women to speak to—Edna Ferber and Dorothy Parker were still kicking). Marc Connelly, the Pulitzer Prize winning playwright and core member of the Vicious Circle is melancholy throughout. Publisher Alfred A. Knopf looks as if he’s never seen a camera before, and talks a bit about Sinclair Lewis and the impact Main Street had on publishing. But the star of the show is Stanley Walker, irascible raconteur and the longtime city editor of the New York Herald-Tribune.

Connelly ticks off a list of the core members of the Algonquin Round Table, a group that started meeting in June 1919, when Woollcott returned from the war. “His only exercise was rancor,” Connelly quips. He saved his biggest praise for Harold Ross, who, with his wife, Jane Grant, started The New Yorker in 1925. “He had a brain that was magnificent,” Connelly said. The playwright waxed nostalgic about many, saying, “My New York had people who came from everywhere bound toward the realization of their talents than a geographic destination.”

Fannie Brice
Stanley Walker was an editor and writer who chronicled the speakeasy era.
However, it is Stanley Walker who steals the documentary. His books, which are absolutely fascinating and provide a window into the Twenties, are The Night Club Era (1933), City Editor (1934), and Mrs. Astor’s Horse (1935). In his Texas drawl, Walker offers up the best reminisces of all. Walker famously left New York and returned home to a ranch, where it looks like the camera crew found him. For some reason, the first thing he talks about is commuting, comparing the early 1960s to the 1920s. “You didn’t have to ride with those bores that, I understand, infest the trains, especially the Westchester and Connecticut trains today.”

Walker’s books and articles focused heavily on crime and speakeasy culture, and he had some choice comments to make:

“There were all sorts of gangster goings-on. We killed quite as many people in New York in those days, I believe, as Chicago did, although Chicago had a much wilder reputation. That was largely, I think, because Chicago is more spread out, and you could take people for a ride. It was more exciting. More romantic. In New York you had to kill people under much more cramped circumstances, and it didn’t seem as interesting somehow.”

Only a small part of the documentary is about speakeasies and Prohibition, with Walker, who wrote volumes on the topic, deadpanning, “A lot of very good people were poisoning themselves on bathtub gin… it’s a wonder anyone is alive from that period today.” One of the best clips stars Texas Guinan in a performance at her speakeasy. Cronkite intones one of her most famous lines, “You may be all the world to your mother, but you’re just a cover charge to me.”

There is a charming section on Greenwich Village and Washington Square Park, with footage of poets Elinor Wylie and Edna St. Vincent Millay, and authors Sherwood Anderson, Willa Cather, and Theodore Dreiser.

Connelly closes the documentary by talking about the Crash of 1929 and finding himself in the 1930s. “We felt possibly a very dear friend had died, and of course, that friend was the Twenties.”

My friends Stuart Silverstein and Julie Blattberg tipped me off to this gem. I enjoyed reading what Carolyn Kellogg wrote in the Los Angeles Times about the video. Thanks to 20 C History Project for unearthing this amazing video. I pray we can get more discoveries such as this.

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