Late 1930s Chicago in Home Movies

I just found this home movie that shows Chicago in 1937 and had to share. It starts at a train station (possibly Dearborn Station?) then shows State Street. Roman Navarro was appearing in person at the State Lake Theater? What I wouldn’t give to see that. 🙂 I was especially excited to see the bustling street scene that starts at 1:50 that showcases the marquee of the Chicago Theater and the L rumbling behind it. I have a scene in Homicide for the Holidays that happens in that very spot. After that, it moves on to Michigan Avenue (at the 2:53 mark) and the camera pans down the street to the Art Institute. Charlie and Viv drive this very route in The Darkness Knows!

Here’s some home movie footage of Wrigley Field in 1938 – also mentioned in The Darkness Knows.

Winter scenes from 1937 – those kids are so darn cute.

This is a Pathé Newsreel – so not a home movie, but it’s too fun not to share. It’s the “Windy City” at its literal finest in 1938. This appears to be about the time Homicide for the Holidays is set – December 1938.

What Do the Characters in The Darkness Knows Look Like? (To Me Anyway)

I thought I’d share with you what I pictured when writing The Darkness Knows. I had actual reference images for the major characters (below). You’ll notice they’re all actors/actresses of the late 1930s. I think because writing the book was like writing a 1930s era movie for me. It’s still difficult for me to imagine present day actors playing these parts.

Viv

Vivian is definitely Priscilla Lane for me (except with strawberry blonde hair). She has a sort of wholesome glamour. You may know Priscilla from Arsenic and Old Lace – her biggest hit co-starring opposite Cary Grant.

Charlie (Randolph Scott)

Charlie is a mixture of two actors for me: Randolph Scott (he had a huge career in cowboy movies well into the 1950s. Vivian even tells Charlie he looks like Randolph Scott when they’re dressed up as cowboys for the masquerade.)

Charlie (Douglas Fairbanks Jr)

and Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. – do I need to elaborate on this one?

Graham (Robert Taylor)

Graham is Robert Taylor to me – dark and suavely handsome – almost pretty. That hair! That cleft!

Imogene (Una Merkel)

Imogene is the sassy movie sidekick Una Merkel. She’s cute as a button and smart as a whip.

MrHart (John Barrymore)2

Mr. Hart is John Barrymore. Still handsome in his late 50s, but on the downward slide– a bit like Mr. Hart.

I do not have an actress in mind for Vivian’s mother, Julia Witchell. I really just picture her as an older, more rigid Vivian.

Who did you picture when you read the book? Any present day actors?

Research Rabbit Hole – I Remember Prohibition

prohibition4

How could a mystery series that takes place in 1930s Chicago not at least make one reference (or ten) to that town’s infamous reputation from Prohibition? Prohibition and you-know-who* do come into play in Book #2 of the Viv and Charlie Mystery Series, and as usual, I found myself spending a lot of time trolling the archives of The Chicago Tribune for research.

I ran across a series of retrospective articles that ran in early 1951 written by veteran reporter Jim Doherty**. He was a reporter with The Tribune during Prohibition, and in 1951 was reminiscing about events only about 20 years in the past for him. That’s a veritable gold mine for a historical fiction author (or just a history nerd that enjoys squinting at old newspapers, like myself). I thought I’d share them here, because these articles don’t seem to exist in a collected form (or anywhere else for that matter).

prohibtion2

Booze, Bootleggers, and Bullets (Feb 4, 1951)

The First Dry Law Raids (Feb 11, 1951)

The $100,000 Hi-Jacking (Feb 18, 1951)

The Shooting of Dion O’Banion (Feb 25, 1951)

Texas Guinan Queen of Whoopee (March 4, 1951)

Portrait of a Gangster Ted Newberry (March 11, 1951)

Life for a Pint (March 18, 1951)

“Here’s How!” in the Goats’ Nest! (March 25, 1951)

*Al Capone King of the Hoodlums (April 1, 1951)

*How Capone Ruled Chicago (April 8, 1951)

*Curtains for Capone! (April 15, 1951)

Big Bill Thompson (April 29, 1951)

End of an Era: The Last Days of Big Bill (May 6, 1951)

**About the Author – From the very first article in the series (Feb 4, 1951)
James Doherty became a newspaper reporter in 1919, shortly after he left the army. Following an apprenticeship of six weeks as a reporter for the City News bureau, he joined the staff of The Tribune. He was soon in the midst of a fabulous reportorial career, which he will describe in this series of articles. Before entering the army, “Jim” Doherty had been deputy clerk of the Juvenile court and deputy clerk of the Criminal court and he had been an aldermanic candidate. His father was a police lieutenant and acting captain. Jim has five brothers, all newspapermen. Jim Doherty has specialized on reporting crime and politics for The Tribune. He helped to form the Crime Prevention bureau, a cooperative unit of several law enforcement group. He is a bachelor.
(He died in 1961.)

Radio Guide Inspiration (Thanks, Henry Grimm)

radioguides1938

I scored a whole lot of 1938 Radio Guide magazines off of ebay about six years ago – all from the collection of one man, Henry Grimm (or so I assume, since his name is written in pencil on the front cover of most of them and yes, that’s Lucille Ball on the cover of the one in the middle). I’ve spent hours pouring over them, and I thought I’d share a little of the real stories that inspired characters and incidents in my first book, The Darkness Knows.

First of all, there’s a gossip section in every edition centered around Chicago radio called The Radio Tattler. You may recognize this as the gossip section Vivian’s excited about being mentioned in at the beginning of the book. (There were also gossip sections devoted to New York and Los Angeles).

radiotattler

befunky-collage1

The character of Little Sammy Evans was inspired by this feature story in the March 19, 1938 edition.

smallamountofman

smallamountofman2

Also, Vivian mentions when talking to Charlie that there are women that specialize in crying like babies for radio programs. That came from this blurb.

criers

And here’s the actual listing for Thursday, October 27, 1938. The Darkness Knows would have been listed in the 8:00 time slot – if it had been real, that is. (I love that Henry Grimm put a check mark next to the programs that he planned to listen to – Rudy Vallee’s Variety Hour at 7:00, Maxwell House Coffee’s Good News of 1939 at 8:00, and the Kraft Music Hall Starring Bing Crosby at 9:00. He must have gone to bed after that. ;))

radiolistings102738

 

Research Rabbit Hole – Ghosting

This post isn’t about the spectral beings that go bump in the night.* No, this post came about because I wondered how easy it was to get a driver’s license in 1939 Illinois. It’s been surprisingly difficult to find that answer, but I did find this example of a standard driver’s license (Ohio 1938/39).

driverslicense1938ohio

Basically, you got a piece of paper with your name, age, address, and general physical description on it. No picture. Nothing to prove your identity. A driver’s license in the 1930s was just that – a document proving you were permitted to operate a motor vehicle in a specific state and nothing more. Now, of course, a driver’s license is used as a piece of government issued official ID. Not so in the 1930s. Not so until much later in fact. (Texas didn’t even have photos on their licenses until the mid 1970s!) Then, of course, I got to wondering about official IDs and just how easy it would have been to pretend to be someone else at the end of the 1930s. The answer: Pretty darn easy.**

 
It was incredibly easy prior to 1935, as a matter of fact. Social Security Numbers were introduced as part of FDR’s New Deal in that year. Before that the US government had no real way to track anyone. Think about that… You could have lived a perfectly normal life with no birth certificate, no driver’s license, no passport, no documents of any kind attesting that you were who you said you were. Weird to think about, isn’t it? Even after SSNs came into effect it wasn’t that hard to become someone else. Until 1986 (?!) a person was not required to have a SSN until they received their first paycheck (usually at the earliest around the age of 14). So it was relatively easy even into the 1980s to find a person that had died before adulthood, assume their identity, and be issued a SSN under their name. Crazy.
Government agencies also didn’t communicate much with each other before the computer/internet age. The SS office didn’t automatically share records with the passport office, for example. So if you wanted to dump your real identity and try a new one on for size in 1939 (i.e. Ghosting) all you’d need to do, according to what I’ve dug us so far, was:

  1. Find a deceased person of your gender who would be about your age had they lived.
  2. Make sure they died before being issued a SSN.
  3. Make sure there weren’t any close living relatives of that person that would know you aren’t Uncle Joe or Cousin Sally.
  4. Acquire the birth certificate of that dead person.
  5. Use that birth certificate to acquire other means of ID as necessary.
  6. Live it up with your new identity.

Of course, this is much more difficult today, though still possible. I’m sure you can find ample advice on the interwebs about it if you’re curious.

___

* I also don’t mean “ghosting” in the 21st century social media sense.

**Realistically though, most people wouldn’t have wanted to. Most people are fairly happy with their lives and have loved ones they want to continue to have contact with on a regular basis. And whether they realized it or not, most people have dozens, perhaps hundreds, of people that know exactly who they are on sight. So, unless you were willing to move to the other side of the world, cut off all contact with anyone that knew you in your “previous life”, and/or get drastically change your looks it was probably a no go – even in the late 1930s. Unless you were desperate or on the run from the law…

 

 

Halloween Costumes – 1938 Style

The action in THE DARKNESS KNOWS takes place October 27 – 31, 1938. That’s prime Halloween time; so of course, I had to include a masquerade scene. It was a lot of fun to write, but it took some thought to find costumes for the characters that wouldn’t be anachronistic to the time.

Charlie and Vivian’s last minute cowboy attire was borrowed from the “costume closet” at WCHI and more specifically from the Country Cavalcade (a fictional country music program based on WLS’s popular Barn Dance). I got the idea from this photo of Jack Benny and a bunch of lovelies from a Radio Stars magazine article.

cowboy-costumes2

Vivian’s friend Imogene is dressed as Maid Marion from the 1938 movie version of Robin Hood (played by Olivia de Havilland).

maid-marian-costume

Imogene’s boyfriend George and Graham (much to George’s chagrin) are both dressed as Robin Hood himself (as played by Errol Flynn).

robin-hood

Head of the radio station, Mr. Hart, is dressed as another famous Errol Flynn role – the pirate, Captain Blood.

captain-blood

Speaking of movies, Frances Barrow is dressed as Snow White (the Disney film was a smash hit in 1937-38). (Frances would have also make a fabulous Scarlett O’Hara, but alas, the movie version of that didn’t come out until the end of 1939.)

snow-white

Station Engineer, Morty Nickerson, is dressed as Prince Charming from Snow White.

prince-charming-costume

Announcer, Bill Purdy, is The Lone Ranger – a radio hit since 1933 and appearing in movie serials starting in 1938.

lone-ranger

Fellow actor, Dave Chapman, is Superman. Superman debuted in Action Comics #1 in June 1938, so he was a brand new at the time of the masquerade. Weird to think that there was a time Superman didn’t exist, isn’t it?

superman

Another actor, Little Sammy Evans, is a court jester. (The photo below is from the 1955 Danny Kaye movie, but imagine the same sort of costume.)

jester_danny-kaye

 

Other various and sundry characters you’ll find at the WCHI Halloween Masquerade of 1938 are Little Orphan Annie, Cleopatra, Queen Victoria, Henry VIII, and The Red Baron.

How would the characters in “The Darkness Knows” have sounded?

hepburn-chicken

 

You may have seen movies from the 30s and 40s and thought that everyone of that time spoke at a rapid clip and either like a gangster (“Why I aughtta…”) or a high society matron caught somewhere between New York and London. Their way of speaking sounds impossibly old fashioned, and that’s because it is. It’s also not an organic American accent and never was.

My maternal grandparents were almost the exact age of Viv and Charlie. They were born and raised in rural Ohio instead of Chicago, but I can tell you that they spoke nothing like any of the characters in old movies. They sounded… well, like normal Midwestern people. They didn’t speak hyper fast or with strange accents halfway between American and British English. What you hear in those old movies is something called the Transatlantic or Mid-Atlantic accent – because it’s halfway between British and Eastern Seaboard American English – i.e. completely made up.

This short video from How Stuff Works explains it perfectly.

This was a learned accent and was mainly taught in boarding schools on the east coast through WWII. Boarding schools exactly like the one Vivian’s mother attended. In fact, Vivian mimics her mother’s affected mid-Atlantic speech to Charlie in the beginning of the The Darkness Knows. She mimics it because it sounds so silly and posh to Vivian’s Midwestern ears even in 1938. If you don’t think this accent was something strange and exotic to the average person even then, check out this Merrie Melodies cartoon from 1938. The chicken playing Juliet, clasping her hands together and saying “Raaally I do”, is a parody of Hollywood actresses of the time – Katharine Hepburn, in particular.*

Vivian, on the other hand, has not gone to boarding schools on the East Coast. Her accent is the flat Midwestern of wealthy Northside Chicago. She doesn’t pronounce potato as “po-tah-toe” and pronounces double t’s as d’s – “cludder” not “cluh-tuh”, for example.

The Transatlantic accent was highly used in movies, theater, and radio productions of the day though. Why? Likely just because it sounded so posh and high society, and because it was hard to place. It gave a sense of worldliness to a production. This all died out after WWII. The accent stopped being taught in boarding schools and stopped being used in theatrical productions – unless, of course, it’s a production mimicking 1930s and 40s theatrical speech.

So the answer is Julia Witchell sounded a lot like Katherine Hepburn (or the Juliet chicken in that cartoon), but her daughter, Vivian, sounded just like a girl from Chicago – rather like me I suppose. Charlie, sadly, doesn’t sound like Edward G. Robinson or Jimmy Cagney. He grew up in a more working class part of the city, so he’s probably a little rougher on the grammar and diction than Vivian, but their accents and way of speaking would be similar to each other and to the people of Chicago today. (And nothing like the characters they would have watched in the movies).

*Cary Grant’s much parodied accent is probably the paragon of Transatlantic examples. It’s a result of his trying to Americanize his natural lower-class British accent. He wound up with a peculiar mix of both accents quite specific to him, as you can hear.

Sometimes It’s Hard to be a Woman*

I love the era my books are set in – the fashions, the music, the movies, etc. I love it, but I also think that, though the 1930s are a lovely place to visit, I most definitely wouldn’t want to live there. I’ve been doing research on Book #3 in the Viv and Charlie Mystery Series, and I found all of the following ads in ONE magazine from June 1939. It was tough to be a woman then (and especially a woman of any color/creed other than generic WASP). Basically, a woman’s sole goal then boiled down to get a man and keep him happy. And keeping him happy was, apparently, the hard part.

If you don’t have a husband it’s probably because you stink.

Colgate

Maybe you’re lucky enough to have snagged a man… But then why has your husband giving you the bums rush lately? And why are the neighborhood ladies snickering behind their hands when you walk by? Well, it’s because you stink and you’re dirty, of course.

Lux

Lifebuoy

Mum1

Lysol_OneNeglect

(If you’re having trouble decoding that Lysol ad, here’s what women were expected to do with Lysol back then.  Yes, that’s the very same Lysol you spray on your toilet today as a disinfectant.)

Or perhaps your husband is unhappy and is about to leave you because not only are you dirty and you stink, but you are underweight and moody (probably from all that laundry you’ve been doing).

Ironized Yeast

Women are still told through ads that we aren’t good enough, of course. But I’d like to think it’s done today in a subtler and less man-centric way. Or maybe I’m just kidding myself…

*Apologies to Tammy Wynette. And you reader, because now you have that song stuck in your head.