Imagine a heat wave — one of the worst in American history. We are back in the torrid summer of 1934, the third weekend in July. The temperature in New York City cracks the 90 degree mark with matching humidity. The Chicago Weather Bureau predicts continued 100 degree temperatures. Four Midwestern cities reach 110 degrees. Emporia, Kansas, hits 118 degrees; Emporia’s thirty-second consecutive day above the century mark.
How can we beat the heat? Home air conditioners came on the market in 1928, but only the wealthy can afford them. We could call the iceman and have him drop a block of ice in the bathtub. No, too cold, and boring. A much better idea is to spend an entertaining evening at various “Cooled by Refrigeration” movie theatres around the country — Sunday evening at the movies.
On this Sunday evening in the Bronx, New York, we can beat the heat by paying 35 cents a ticket to the woman sitting in the free-standing ticket kiosk in front of the Loews Paradise theatre. They’re featuring Warren William in Dr. Monica, with Kay Francis in the title role. As we stroll into the sumptuous lobby, the smell of freshly popped corn attracts another two bits or so into the theatre manager’s coffers. As a theatre usher guides us to our seats with his flashlight, the first thing we notice is not on the screen but on the ceiling. Displayed above our heads is a clear night sky. The ceiling, masterfully painted with twinkling stars on a background of dark blue, looks so realistic that when your attention wanders during a bad movie and you look up, a sudden shock hits you because your eyes tell you that you’re outside, while your brain knows that you’re inside.
Suddenly the lights dim as the stage curtain parts and the news of the day flashes on the screen. In this pre-TV era we get our first news reports from the radio and newspapers: only at the movies can we see the news. The main newsreel companies Pathe, Hearst Metrotone, Paramount News, Universal Newsreel, and Fox-Movietone, send their cameramen around the world to film famous and infamous people and events. This week we see President Roosevelt traveling to Hawaii on the cruiser USS Houston. We watch the reactions of Californians to San Francisco’s general labor strike called by the striking longshoremen’s union. And in sports we marvel as New York Giants ace pitcher and National League starter Carl Hubbell performs the impossible at baseball’s second annual All-Star Game; Hubbell strikes out in succession the American League’s top sluggers: Ruth, Gehrig, Foxx, Simmons, and Cronin.
Next up on the Loews program: Betty Boop’s Lifeguard. Miss Boop and Popeye the Sailor are staples of the Fleischer Cartoon Studios. Brothers Max and Dave Fleischer also draw Ko-Ko the Clown, who always jumps back into the inkwell at the end of his cartoons. This summer we can also see Walt Disney’s Mickey Mouse with supporting players Donald Duck and Goofy in Orphan’s Benefit. Other audience favorites: Merrie Melodies and Terrytoons.
As the cartoon ends let’s make a transcontinental leap of the imagination to San Francisco’s Paramount theatre where the movie poster says : “Cary Grant in — KISS AND MAKE-UP — The Racy Romantic Drama of a Famed Beauty Doctor Whose Treatments Were The Talk Of The Town.” Hot stuff in 1934.
The ad also promises: “2 ACE FIRST-RUN FEATURES.” This means a major studio feature film (an A-picture) and a second feature(B-picture). B-movies are a necessity for theatres because Depression-era audiences demand an extended program. The Paramount’s second feature this evening: Charlie Chan’s Courage, starring Warner Oland as the famous Chinese sleuth. Often these low-budget movies provide an hour of decent entertainment. Minor studios, like Republic and Monogram, survive by making only B-movies. Some famous B-movie series films: Tarzan, Mr. Moto, Blondie, Sherlock Holmes, Dr. Kildare, Michael Shayne, Universal’s horror films, and Republic’s Westerns.
In addition to the Bs we might also see a comedy short. The RKO Golden Gate is playing Laurel and Hardy in Going Bye-Bye. Kings of the comedy shorts since the silent movie days, Laurel and Hardy are about to abandon shorts for feature films. Other famous comedy short stars: Leon Errol, Edgar Kennedy, and the Our Gang kids. Also playing in this summer of ’34 is the first short made for Columbia Studios by the Three Stooges: Woman Haters. This initial Three Stooges two-reeler (they would make 190 shorts for Columbia over the next quarter-of-a-century) is done completely in rhyme. Twenty minutes of hair pulling, head knocking, and face slapping set to rhyming dialogue. Now thats entertainment!
Maybe that last eye poke was too violent; let’s imagine our way to the roasting Midwest, where we can enjoy the indoor atmosphere promised by the “Iced Air” banner hanging from the marquee of Essaness Biograph theatre in Chicago
One of 1934’s best pictures is playing at the Biograph: Manhattan Melodrama, starring Clark Gable, William Powell, and Myrna Loy. The fan magazines are running stories about how director W. S. “Woody” Van Dyke saw a special rapport develop between Powell and Loy during the filming of Manhattan Melodrama, and since Van Dyke’s next movie starred Powell, the director wanted Loy as the female lead. But MGM studio boss Louis B. Mayer said no. Van Dyke dug in and won out, as did movie fans forever after, when Powell and Loy teamed in the surprise hit of 1934 — The Thin Man
In our feature presentation for this evening, Manhattan Melodrama, District Attorney Jim (Powell) convicts his boyhood pal, gangster Blackie (Gable), of murder. Blackie is sentenced to the electric chair and Jim is elected to the Governor’s chair. Blackie, fearing a lifetime in prison, refuses Jim’s offer of clemency. The movie ends with a sorrowful Jim sitting in the warden’s office as the lights dim when the switch is thrown on the electric chair.
The theatre curtain closes across the screen and we walk out into the night. The time is now 10:30 P.M. and at least the temperature outside is below 90 degrees. As we exit through the lobby doors, just in front of us walks a man with two ladies. One lady, wearing a very red dress, steps back from the man and pulls out a handkerchief — a signal. The man senses something is wrong. Crouching and pulling a gun from his pocket, he makes a run for a nearby alley. Shots ring out. Women scream. The man falls dead in the alley. FBI agents waited three hours outside the Biograph theatre for the “Lady in Red” to finger their victim — America’s Public Enemy Number One, John Dillinger.
So ends an entertaining Sunday night at the movies, July 22, 1934.