Mutt & Jeff

We close out November 1927 by looking at a hugely popular comic strip–Mutt & Jeff–that made cartoonist Harry Conway (Bud) Fisher both famous and wealthy.

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Nov. 19 and Nov. 26, 1927 covers by Rea Irvin.

The editors of the Nov. 26, 1927 issue of the New Yorker thought Fisher interesting enough to feature in a lengthy “Profile,” written by Kelly Coombs. A brief excerpt:

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According to John Adcock’s terrific Yesterday’s Papers blog, by 1916 Bud Fisher was the highest paid cartoonist on earth. The New Yorker suggested his annual income was $300,000 (roughly equivalent to more than $4 million today). In addition to the strips, created by Fisher and a team of ghost illustrators/writers, Mutt & Jeff were featured in vaudeville engagements, theatrical shows, animated cartoons, comic books and toys.

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DIE LAUGHING…Mutt & Jeff themed toys included this joke kit from Mysto Manufacturing. I don’t quite get the joke featured on the cover, depicting Jeff’s casually twisted approach to murdering poor Mutt. (melbirnkrant.com)
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IT’S A LIVING…Harry Conway (Bud) Fisher, drawing a likeness of the character “Jeff” at a Chicago Daily News event in 1915. (Chicago History Museum)

Fisher began his career as a sports cartoonist for the San Francisco Chronicle and started his strip about “two mismatched tinhorns” in 1907. It went into syndication the following year. Mutt and Jeff, originally titled A. Mutt, is regarded as the first American newspaper cartoon published as a strip of panels, making it the first “comic strip.”

There was obviously a time when American readers thought Mutt & Jeff hilarious, but I don’t quite get its appeal. In this strip from 1926, Jeff gets a pie in the face. The giant question mark was frequently employed by Fisher, as were the dotted eye lines and explanatory arrows like the one in the last panel. No, Jeff didn’t get his brains blown out by Mutt. It is only a pie! Hah Hah!

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Click on image to enlarge

Another visual cliché from comics of yore was the angry wife wielding a rolling pin. Apparently Jeff refers to Mutt’s wife as an “Old Buzzard” and assumes she is already in bed (sorry about the poor quality of the reproduction). Jeff subsequently gets whacked with the rolling pin, and Mutt takes it on the bean with a flatiron. That is quite a feat, throwing a grown man through a window while simultaneously hitting him on the head with a flatiron…

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Click on image to enlarge (Both strips courtesy University of Michigan)

The duo were also featured in more than 300 animated “half-reelers” produced between 1913 and 1926, including Mutt and Jeff: On Strike from 1920. The short film (which can be viewed here) even includes rare footage of Bud Fisher himself, since the story–sort of a film within a film–involves the penniless Mutt and Jeff going on strike after they see a movie featuring Fisher’s lavish home.

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STRIKEBREAKER…Still images from the silent half-reeler, Mutt and Jeff: On Strike. Fisher is shown at home discussing terms over the phone with his striking characters. They lose. (www.filmpreservation.org)

Coombs concluded the New Yorker “Profile” with these observations concerning Fisher’s personal habits:

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Fisher employed a number of assistants on the strip, including  George Herriman (Krazy Kat) and a high-school boy named Maurice Sendak (Where the Wild Things Are). When Fisher appeared to lose interest in the strip in the 1930s, assistant Al Smith took over and drew the strip for nearly fifty years (but Smith didn’t sign his own name on the strip until after Fisher’s death in 1954).

In Yesterday’s Papers, Adcock notes that Fisher “was the unlikeliest person you could think of to draw Mutt and Jeff…along with most of his contemporary cartoonist-journalists pals, (he) enjoyed fights, chorus girls, gambling, and saloons. Fisher liked to shoot up hotel rooms with his pistols, one of which was a gift from Pancho Villa, indoors when he was drunk.”

Heads in the Clouds

Thanks to the race to fly across the Atlantic, toy models of Charles Lindbergh’s Spirit of St. Louis and other planes were in high demand for the Christmas season, according to this item in the Nov. 26, 1927, “Talk of the Town:”

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BUILT TO LAST…A Metalcraft model kit (box, upper image, contents below) from the late 1920s. It was all metal in the days before plastic model kits. (eBay)

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At a Loss For Words

Jumping back to the Nov. 19, 1927 issue, we go from the low art of Bud Fisher to the high art of John Marin featured in “The Art Galleries” section of the New Yorker. Art critic Murdock Pemberton wrote:

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SAVAGE WORK…John Marin, White Horses – Sea Movement off Deer Isle, Maine, 1926. (Whitney Museum of American Art)

But perhaps “high art” is not an accurate description of Marin’s paintings, since Marin himself wasn’t into “highfalutin words” to describe his work…

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HAUNTING BEAUTY…John Marin, Echo Lake Franconia Range White Mountain Country, 1927 (National Gallery of Art, Washington DC.)

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In the previous week’s issue (Nov. 12) Marmon 8 was advertised as an ideal car for women. Not to be outdone, the folks at Buick shot back with this colorful ad in the Nov. 19 issue of the New Yorker:

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The Nov. 19 issue also featured this strange advertisement from the famed Wanamaker department store. Strange mainly because of the illustration, which features a fashionable woman departing a fanciful aircraft studded with mullioned windows(!) and a staircase that stretches to improbable depths…oh, and in case the reader might miss the snob appeal associated with French furs, the words Paris, Parisian or French are featured ten times…

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And finally, the ubiquitous New Yorker cartoon featuring the humorous mismatch of rich old duffer and ditzy young mistress, courtesy of Julian de Miskey…

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Next Time: More Funny Business…

dec-3

 

 

Fighting For Respect

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Oct. 17, 1925 cover by Max Ree.

The New Yorker catered to both Anglo- and Francophile readers in its early issues, especially in advertisements, although such pretensions were also satirized in its pages. The fledgling magazine, however, took great pains to show that it was something new, modern and very American.

A case in point is the treatment of artist George Bellows, whose untimely death from appendicitis earlier that year, at the age of 43, was followed by a memorial exhibition of his work at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

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George Bellows. (Wikipedia)

Bellows was from Columbus, Ohio, and was a pupil of fellow Midwesterner Robert Henri (Nebraska) at the New York School of Art. There Bellows became closely associated with Henri’s Ashcan School, a group of artists who advocated painting contemporary American society in all its grittiness.

In Bellows The New Yorker saw a fresh voice that gave form to the roiling life of a great city (Joseph Mitchell would later do the same with words for the magazine). The magazine also used the memorial exhibit as an opportunity to chide the Metropolitan Museum and its old-fashioned, Euro-centric tastes in art.

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One of Bellow’s last and perhaps most famous paintings from 1924 depicted the famous 1923 Dempsey-Firpo fight at the Polo Grounds (Wikipedia)

In the previous week’s issue (Oct. 10), “The Talk of the Town” noted that the upcoming memorial exhibition was “not quite the usual thing” for the Met (that is, to accord such recognition to an American artist). The “lanky Midwesterner” Bellows offered something unique:

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The same column noted that Bellows possessed something of a wit:

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In the Oct. 17 issue, art critic Murdock Pemberton offered these pointed observations of the opening of the memorial exhibition:

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Murdock Pemberton (New York Observer)

Murdock Pemberton himself is something of an interesting story. He co-hosted the luncheon that started the Algonquin Round Table, and was art critic at The New Yorker for more than seven years. The dismissal of this gifted and influential writer was probably one of Harold Ross’s biggest screw-ups as editor. You can read more about Pemberton in this Jan. 24, 2012, New Yorker article by Andrea Scott, who wrote that Pemberton “may be the most interesting person you’ve never heard of.”

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Sumner, by Johan Bull

The Oct. 17 issue also included an interview with John Saxton Sumner, who headed the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice, a state censorship body empowered to recommend obscenity cases to prosecutors.

Sumner was quoted as saying it “may be impossible to legislate morals into humanity. But we can legislate decent conduct into humanity.” He also offered these insights:

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As I mentioned in my last post, thanks to an ailing Babe Ruth and the slumping Yankees, college football took center stage in “Sports of the Week,” especially with “rivalry” games that drew crowds (and revenue) to Yankee Stadium. John R. Tunis continued his coverage of the sport with an account of a game between the North and the South (Penn State and Georgia Tech) in Yankee Stadium. Georgia Tech prevailed 16-7.

“Profiles” examined the life of Doctor Abraham Arden Brill, an Austrian-born psychiatrist who was the first psychoanalyst to practice in the United States and the first translator of Freud into English. It was no surprise that Brill found America ripe for this new type of therapy.

In “Tables for Two,” Lois Long pondered the popularity of “the Charleston” at smart night clubs:

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C’MON…Teens dancing the Charleston in the 1920s. (flavorwire.com)

And to close, another political ad that seems out of place in The New Yorker:

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There’s something chilling about the ad. Perhaps it’s because the unsmiling faces of Tammany Hall suggest more a rogue’s gallery than a political line-up. As we know, Walker will get elected and go down in scandal in 1932, with McKee then serving as acting mayor for remainder of Walker’s term–just three months.

Next Time: A French Twist.

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