I am often surprised by the direct power of many covers designed by Würth. The drawing for the ‘Pals, just Pals‘ fox-trot is deceivingly simple. With a few elements, sober colouring and small gestures the image relays the mild mood of an intimate and relaxed conversation between two long-time friends. Or do you imagine the two naval officers being more than friends?
‘Pals, just Pals‘ is the theme song of the silent film Submarine directed by Frank Capra in 1928. It tells the story of the friendship between two sailors in the US Navy. The nautical best friends accidentally pursue the same woman, and through this triangular love situation their friendship comes to an end.
The film comes to the heart of the matter when both ex-friends get involved —one as a victim the other as the saviour— in a submarine disaster. The denouement of this tragic experience is that their old friendship will renew, and for the better!
The film is inspired on the catastrophe of the U.S. submarine S-51 in 1925. There even exists a dedicated webpage about this accident at sea. The one and a half hours Capra film is on YouTube (type ‘submarino‘ for your search) but a short extract of the movie will do in order to appreciate its male flavour.
For the rest of this post, I will entertain you with other masculine friendships.
Now these two last gentlemen have a very Gilbert and George attitude. The perfect reason for us to look at a short documentary on their Living Sculpture performances.
The song ‘Underneath The Arches‘ is at 1:30. How very moving it is to hear and see them singing this 1932 Flanagan and Allen ‘Great Depression’ tune.
‘Ah! Le joli jeu!’ illustrated by Clérice is one of several sheet music about the diabolo. Curiously, apart from one, all are dated 1907. We learned that in that year Gustave Phillipart started the diabolo craze. He was a Belgian civil engineer who lived in Paris. During seven years he had researched how to perfect the old toy. After building about 150 prototypes he finally patented the toy in 1906 giving the diabolo its present-day look. Through an astute marketing campaign the game came into vogue in Paris, shortly to appear all over France the next year.
To draw attention to the diabolo Philippart and a few friends played diabolo in the Bois de Boulogne every morning. They attracted a cloud of elegant walkers. These onlookers, fascinated with the flying spindle, rushed to a shop to buy one. Word got round and soon the diabolo mania was born. Journalists wrote long articles about the new graceful game. Maybe the new divertissement became quickly popular because it attracted both men and women, young and old alike.
In a French professional magazine, Publicité Moderne, Philippart explains that he also used the many theatres in the capital to promote his diabolo. One such theatre even presented a diabolo ballet. Composers and song writers, always on the lookout for a novelty, followed suit in contributing to its success.
The first diabolo song already appeared in 1906 and probably had to be published fast to keep pace with the booming fad. A little British music-hall ditty, By the Side of the Zuyder Zee, was hastily adapted in France as Le Vrai Diabolo. The trifling French text of the song promotes the game with the obligatory harmless sauciness.
Il est un petit jeu ravissant,
Qui partout fait fureur à présent…
C’est un p’tit jeu bien rigolo
Si la jeun’ fill’ le jett’ sur l’dos
C’est qu’elle rêve en lançant bien haut
Qu’elle pourra plus tard avec son p’tit mari
Jouer le diable au lit!
The gist of the verses above is that diabolo is an enjoyable little game that is all the rage, and that if a girl misses her throw of the spinning top, it is because she’s already dreaming of diabolical bed games with her husband-to-be.
Gustave Dreyfus, the conductor of the Parisian dance hall Bal Bullier, composed ‘Le Diabolo’ a new dance with accessories: two sticks connected by a ribbon, thus providing an elegant instrument to diabolically! entangle one’s dance partner as seen on this postcard.
Diabolo tournaments and parties were organised everywhere in France. Parks and beaches offered the best venue.
During the carnival of 1908 the diabolo could not be missed in the parades
Unfortunately Philippart also got bad publicity. A baby in a pram was killed on the Champs Elysées when a top fell on its head. Philippart argued that the spindle had no shock absorber and thus clearly was a counterfeit. Anyway, as a result of the dreadful accident playing of the game was from then on regulated by police ordinance.
To launch his product in England Philippart had contacted the publisher and sportsman C. B. Fry. This famous cricketer created a new sport around the diabolo skills. It could be played like tennis but without a net: it was replaced by a rectangular court. The diabolo is slung from the service court and the player receiving the diabolo allows it to bounce once, then catches it on the cord and returns it… if possible. This playful tennis version did not catch on though.
In 1910, miss Renée Furie introduced a new circus act in Paris: the human diabolo. It was a variation on the human cannonball. The daredevil crept into the giant diabolo which was then catapulted into a net. Quel frisson! After which the charming lady elegantly climbed out of the contraption. Ouf!
The diabolo craze never lasted that long and only revived moderately during the fifties. Nowadays its popularity has sadly dwindled to that of a traffic light entertainment.
A short from 1907, Diabolo Nightmare, attributed to Walter R. Booth, pictures the bizarre story of a maniac office worker addicted to the game. Crazy…
We see three couples dancing a foxtrot. From the academic gown and black cap we can assume that they are students. Possibly the building in the back is their Alma Mater. But the French illustrator Würth failed to draw the essence of the American song. Fortunately the original cover reveals what ‘Doin’ the Raccoon‘ is about, namely dancing gaily in a thick raccoon coat.
The flashy full-length fur coat was the trend in the 1920s and 30s. Especially American college boys —and even some young women— adopted this fashion in the Roaring Twenties.
College men, knowledge men, Do a dance called raccoon; It’s the craze, nowadays, And it will get you soon. Buy a coat and try it, I’ll bet you’ll be a riot, It’s a wow, learn to do it right now!
The raccoon fur coat craze became identified with affluent students at the Ivy League colleges and universities:
Oh, they wear ’em down at Princeton, And they share ’em up at Yale, They eat in them at Harvard, But they sleep in them in jail!
The coats were particularly popular among the playful students on campus: fun seekers or male jazz enthusiasts who got nicknamed collegiates or Joe College. These cheery types would drive dilapidated old cars, wear a straw hat or fedora and carry a hip flask of illicit booze. They made it very clear that you didn’t need to go to class to become collegiate: slip into your huge fur coat and dance the raccoon!
The raccoon coat became a fashion symbol of the Jazz Age. It was popularised by celebrities: football players, actors, singers, …
… and even by avant-garde artists like Marcel Duchamp.
While the raccoon coat originally appealed to a white clientele, the modern and rich black American man and woman followed suit. James VanDerZee, recording Harlem’s growing middle class, took this beautiful photo of a couple dressed in similar raccoon coats in their luxurious sleek Cadillac. They embody sophistication and wealth during the Harlem Renaissance.
I had never heard of raccoon coats before. I only remember Walt Disney’s romanticised version of Davy Crockett wearing a coonskin cap in the series from the 1950’s.
But well, that wasn’t the real Davy Crockett. Neither was this stereotype of Davy Crockett on the cover of a 19th-century sheet music. In fact it is the actor Frank Mayo with moustaches and a dead animal sitting on his head. From 1872 until his death in 1896, he frequently played the role of Davy Crockett, the 19th-century American folk hero, frontiersman and politician.