Sunday Funnies: 2 Dozen Comic Strips That Became Silent Comedy Films

A treat for your Sunday, the traditional day of the week when all the comic strips come out in color and stretch their legs for a bit. In my books No Applause and Chain of Fools, I wrote a little bit about how comic strips were an influence on vaudeville and silent movie comedy. Today, a more lengthy explication of how the three forms informed each other. So much in common — the broad visual looks of the characters, the (often ethnic) dialect humor, slapstick, etc etc etc. The forms appear to have cross-fertilized one another extensively. In today’s post I talk strictly about live action comedy from the silent era. While there were some well-known animated adaptations from this period (Krazy Kat, for example) I feel these are extensively covered in articles and books. But the idea of silent comedy actors playing comic strip characters, much less so. Some of the names here will be well known to you, easily as famous as the characters they play. Others, not so much.

Katzenjammer Kids

The Katzenjammer Kids, launched by Rudolph Dirks in 1897, was a prime example of the same kind of “Dutch” comedy (i.e., German dialect comedy) that had been popular in vaudeville for decades, as most prominently exemplified by the team of Weber and Fields. It concerned the exploits of two naughty boys, Hans und Fritz, and the pranks they played on their mama, der Captain and der Inspector, a truant officer. The climax of every strip was a spanking.

Two very early films were made by the American Mutoscope Company, The Katzenjammer Kids in School (1898) and The Katzenjammer Kids in Love (1900).  Later many different animated versions of the strips were produced over the years. It was also adapted into a stage play in 1903.

After he had been producing the strip for about 15 years, Dirks sought to take a brief vacation, but his bosses at the Hearst organization wouldn’t permit. They assigned The Katzenjammer Kids to a guy named Harold Knerr. Not to be outdone, after his rest Dirks brought an almost identical strip The Captain and the Kids, to the Pulitzer papers. The Captain and the Kids ran until 1979; The Katzenjammer Kids is still running, although the last new strips were produced in 2006. It’s the longest running comic strip.

The Happy Hooligan

Frederick Burr Opper’s Happy Hooligan (launched 1900) was a cheerful but trouble-prone hobo with a can of beans on his head. Tramps were big in vaudeville; one can spot resemblances with the Happy Tramp, Nat M. Wills, for example. The popular strip ran from 1900 to 1932.

J. Stuart Blackton of Vitagraph directed six live action shorts based on The Happy Holigan between 1900 and 1903. The still above is from the first of them, which ran just over  a minute long and is in the collection of the Library of Congress. Watch it here.

In later years there were animated versions of the strip. Cross eyed comedian Ben Turpin played the Happy Hooligan onstage in his early years with the Sam T. Jack burlesque circuit. Turpin often claimed that playing Happy Hooligan was what caused his eyes to permanently cross.

Foxy Grandpa

Foxy Grandpa debuted in 1900 and ran in various versions through the 1930s. It was created by Carl E. Schultze using the pen name “Bunny”. It concerned a feisty trouble-making old rascal who likes to have fun — often with negative results for the kids he drags into his shenanigans.

Vaudeville comedian Joseph Hart performed as Foxy Grandpa on stage and made 10 Biograph films in that character in 1902. Several are available to watch on Youtube.

Mischievous Willie

Frank H. Ladendorf’s Mischievous Willie ran from 1900 to 1904. The strip was derivative and short lived but it did spawn one live-action short: Mischievous Willie’s Rocking Chair Motor (1902).

Nervy Nat

Nervy Nat was created by none other than James Montgomery Flagg, the illustrator who devised the Uncle Sam/ “I Want YOU” recruitment poster. Nervy Nat ran in Judge magazine from 1903 through 1907, and some feel he based the character on W.C. Fields’ vaudeville performances, although while there are some resemblances it seems a bit early for that.

A 1904 comedy short called Nervy Nat Kisses the Bride was produced by Edison, directed by Edwin S. Porter, and starred Arthur Byron and Evelyn Nesbitt. It is available to watch here on Youtube.

Mr. Jack

Jimmy Swinnerton’s Mr. Jack is considered by some to be the first anthropomorphic funny animal human hybrid character in the comics. Mr. Jack was a tiger (the mascot animal of Tammany Hall) and Swinnerton first created him in the late 1890s, although the strip officially ran from 1903 to around 1919, and the character would make cameo appearances in Swinnerton’s much more popular strip Little Jimmy (1904-1958). Mr. Jack was a philandering dude, forever getting in Dutch with wifey, slapped by the women he hit on, and trounced by their husbands and boyfriends. Then his wife would beat him again. But he always stubborn in declaring that his actions were well worth it.

In 1904, the American Mutoscope Company made the live-action short Mr. Jack in the Dressing Room. 

Dream of the Rarebit Fiend

Winsor McCay ‘s well-remembered Dream of the Rarebit Fiend ran from 1904 through 1911. The strip had no recurring characters, just a recurring theme — each week someone would have bad dreams after eating Welsh rarebit.

In 1906 Edwin S. Porter turned the strip as a springboard for a single, yet still famous film short. 

Little Nemo in Slumberland

Winsor McCay ‘s groundbreaking Little Nemo strip debuted in 1905.  It was similar to Rarebit Fiend in that it concerned fanciful bad dreams, only this time they all happened to one boy, Little Nemo. It appears in various papers in different incarnations over two decades.

In 1911 and 1912 McCay made his own innovative films of both the Rarebit Fiend and Little Nemo concepts, mixing live action and animation, and appeared live with them on the vaudeville circuits.

The Outbursts of Everett True

A.D. Condo and J. W. Raper created The Outbursts of Everett True from 1905 through 1927. It was all about an ill-tempered fuddy duddy in a bowler hat who would fly off the handle and attack people! Robert Bolder played the character in a series of live-action comedy shorts in 1916.

Percy and Ferdie a.k.a. The Hallroom Boys

H.A. MacGill’s The Hallroom Boys, starring the humorous exploits of Percy and Ferdie, launched in 1906, was almost immediately adopted into sketches for the vaudeville stage and was first made into a film by the Selig Polyscope Company in 1910 featuring Fred Walton. But it was the series that ran from 1919 to 1923 that is best remembered, featuring an ever-changing roster of Percys and Ferdies, including Neely Edwards, Edward Flanagan, Jimmie Adams, Sid Smith, Harry McCoy, Hugh Fay and others.

Mutt and Jeff

Bud Fisher’s hugely popular Mutt and Jeff ran from 1907 through 1983. It seems to have been pivotal — I think of it borrowing heavily from the two man comedy acts of vaudeville. In turn, I think the strip (and the films and other products it spawned) also influenced later film comedy teams. The visual impact of the strip was really powerful: Mutt was tall and thin; Jeff very tiny. This may be inspired by Weber and Fields. The characters hung out at the racetrack, where they invariably found nothing but trouble. Mutt had a wife and a life to screw up; Jeff was a dimwit from an insane asylum.

In 1911 Al Christie began turning out weekly one reel Mutt and Jeff shorts for David Horsley’s Centaur studios in Bayonne. We have now turned a corner in the evolution of the form, not just of comic strip adaptations, but of silent comedies. Up ’til now, the films ranged from one to five minutes and were very stage bound. Now they begin to get more ambitious and more like what we would recognize as movies. In this early success, Sam D. Drane (later known for playing Abe Lincoln in Selig’s 1916 The Crisis) played Mutt; Gus Alexander played Jeff for most of the series, although in the last two that were made he was replaced by Bud Duncan. This is particularly significant, as the later Ham and Bud series would owe much to Mutt and Jeff. The diminutive Duncan would star in more than one comic strip inspired comedy series over the years as you will see below.

Starting in 1912 there were also Mutt and Jeff stage productions, and popular songs written about them. It was quite the phenomenon.

Toonerville Folks

Fontaine Fox’s Toonerville Folks a.k.a. The Toonerville Trolley That Meets All the Trains ran from 1908 through 1955. It reminds me of Essanay’s Snakeville series of silent comedies insomuch as it was about an ensemble of characters inhabiting a place, in this case a suburban commuter community. Still, one very famous character would emerge onscreen, eventually eclipsing the original premise. Though there had been an earlier series of 17 Toonerville films which ran from 1920 through 1922the series that really took off was this:

A second series focusing on the Toonerville town bully character Mickey McGuire ran from 1927 through 1936, bridging the silent and talking eras. The kid who played Mickey McGuire, Joe Yule Jr. took the character’s name as his professional handle for a time, before finally tweaking it one last time — to Mickey Rooney. The Mickey McGuire series owed more than a little, I think to Our Gang, which launched just a few years earlier and ran concurrently.

Uncle Mun

Fred Nankivel’s Uncle Mun ran only from 1910 through 1913. Still and all, the character inspired two movies in 1912. They were:

Uncle Mun and the Minister; and A Thrilling Rescue by Uncle Mun. The interesting thing about these films is that the part of Uncle Mun was played by Nankivel himself! He was supported by stalwart professionals whose name you may recognize, people like Arthur Housman, and Edna Flugrath and Shirley Mason, who were the two sisters of Viola Dana.

Bringing Up Father a.k.a. Jiggs and Maggie (or Maggie and Jiggs)

George McManus’s popular strip ran from 1913 until 2000. This strip was richly influenced by the then-decades-old tradition of the comical stage Irishman of vaudeville and the legitimate stage. Jiggs was a former hod carrier who won the lottery. It’s kind of like the last season of Roseanne! The low-class Jiggs, despite his new silk top hat and tails,  is always sneaking off to the saloon and getting into trouble, embarrassing his more lace curtain class jumping wife Maggie. Gus Hill produced stage versions of the strip on Broadway as early as 1914.

Famously, shortly before the act broke up, Hearst contacted the Three Keatons to see if they would be willing to star in a screen version. Joe Keaton balked, thinking the movies were beneath them, little dreaming that his son Buster would become one of the cinema’s great masters in just a few short years. Interestingly, because they were a knockabout act, and because of their costumes, a lot of people thought the Keatons were Irish; the surname, however, is Anglo. At any rate, a handful of Maggie and Jiggs shorts were produced in 1920 featuring Johnny Ray, Margaret Cullington and Laura La Plante as the daughter Nora. etc  films. But there was more to come:

In 1928, MGM released a feature, starring no less than Marie Dressler and Polly Moran (with J. Farrell McDonald as Jiggs).

Keeping Up with the Joneses

This popular strip ran a quarter century, from 1913 through 1938. It was created by one “Pop” Momand. It is indeed the origin of the popular catchphrase, and appropriately, it is not about the Joneses themselves (that’s another comedy series), but their neighbors and rivals, the McGinnises. From 1927 through 1938 the Stern Brothers produced s silent comedy version starring Harry Long and Stella Adams.

Charlie Chaplin’s Comedy Capers

This rare reversal of the process we have been describing demonstrates the cross-fertilization that was going on. Charlie Chaplin was unprecedentedly huge at the box office in 1914, and merchandise such as Charlie Chaplin dolls were marketed to the public. The comic strip Charlie Chaplin’s Comedy Capers was a natural outgrowth of that process. It ran during the peak years 1915-1917. It’s a shame it stopped after this, for in ensuing years, Chaplin became artistically ambitious in his films; it might have been nice for the public to have this outlet for straight-up comedy. One other interesting aspect of the strip; the Little Tramp talks. He not only talks, but is quite verbose. So is his character onscreen, of course; we just never hear him. I think Chaplin exaggerated the degree to which the Little Tramp was dependent on mime. I can picture hearing his voice in movies easily. The strip was initially drawn by Stuart Carothers, and later taken over by E.C. Segar, best known for Thimble Theatre/ Popeye. Is Chaplin an influence on Popeye? I can think of one element that may be….Eric Campbell certainly seems like a possible partial inspiration for Bluto!

The Gumps

Sidney Smith’s popular strip ran from 1915 through 1929. It was all about the bald, chinless, boastful Andy Gump, and his wife Minerva who was always shooting him down. The set-up reminds me a bit of Fibber McGee and Molly.  It was an early example of a continuity strip, i.e. the story continued week to week instead of climaxing with a gag every time.

Almost as popular as the strip were the over four dozen comedy films Universal produced between 1923 and 1928: starring Joe Murphy as Andy Gump, with Fay Tincher as Min. Many of these were directed by Norman Taurog, who later worked extensively with Larry Semon, Lloyd Hamilton and Jerry Lewis. 

Buster Brown

Richard F. Outcault’s Buster Brown ran in different versions from 1902 through 1921. I did a lengthy post about the whole history of this character here (I played him in the first grade — it was my first theatrical role!). Outcault had earlier given the world Hogan’s Alley and the Yellow Kid (see below)

The Buster Brown character took on a life of its own. So much so that, though the strip had ended four years earlier, from 1925 through 1929 Universal released a series of two-reel silent movie shorts starring him (portrayed by Arthur Trimble). One of the dogs who played Tige went on to play Pete the Pup in the Our Gang shorts. This kind of brings things full circle, as the character was said to have been originally partially inspired by the young stage star Buster Keaton back at the turn of the century (including, of course, the name).

Ella Cinders

Ella Cinders, a modern riff on Cinderella, was created by Bill Conselman and Charles Plumb from 1925 through 1961.

The strip was popular enough that a feature film version came out in 1926. I blogged about that movie, which starred Colleen Moore here.

The Newlyweds/Snookums and Let George Do It 

These were additional strips created by George McManus of Bringing Up Father. The Newlyweds had actually debuted in 1904; the character of Baby Snookums had been added in 1907. (Surely Fanny Brice had been inspired by this character!) Let George Do It premiered in 1910.

From 1926 through 1929 producers named the Stern Brothers brought both strips to the silent screen. There were 37 of The Newylweds and 40 of Let George Do It.

Winnie Winkle

Winnie Winkle was conceived by Joseph Medill Patterson but produced for its first 40 years by Martin Branner. It ran from 1920 through 1996. About a working girl who supports her family, the series ran so long she changed her styles many times. She started out as a flapper! But that obviously altered as fashioned changed in later years.

Winnie Winkle came to the screen in a series of ten live action shorts (1926–1928). Winnie was played by Ethlyn Gibson, Billy West’s wife. West directed the films.

Mike and Ike (They Look Alike)

Rube Goldberg, who later became synonymous with the kooky contraptions he dreamt up, had this earlier comic strip. He introduced it in 1907, but it didn’t live long. He later kept the characters (moronic identical twins) alive with appearances in other strips, such as Boob McNutt. A series of 24 live-action movie shorts was produced from 1927–1929 starring Charles King (a different one from the Broadway performer)and Charles Dorety.

Hogan’s Alley/ The Yellow Kid

Richard F. Outcault’s Hogan’s Alley (1895-98) was one of the very first comic strips, set in the titular 19th century urban slum. It’s star was the Yellow Kid, a bald, jug-eared, goofy mouthed kid in a yellow nightshirt. The character’s actual name was Mickey Dugan, though no one ever remembers that. The character was the source of the nickname for the Hearst and Pulitzer inflammatory tabloid news style: “yellow journalism” (both papers had run the comic strip). For a time the character appeared in a strip called McFadden’s Row of Flats. 

Gus Hill staged vaudeville plays based on the comic strip. 

 McFadden’s Flats was made into a silent film in 1927 starring Charlie Murray and Chester Conklin.

The 1925 silent film Hogan’s Alley starring boxer Monte Blue is not related to the comic strip, although no doubt producers profited from the confusion.

Tillie the Toiler

Russ Westover’s Tillie The Toiler, whose female hero was a flapper character who worked as a steno girl and part-time model, was carried by King Features from 1921 through 1959.

In 1927 Marion Davies starred in a film version for Cosmopolitan Pictures.

Barney Google and Snuffy Smith 

Billy de Beck’s long-running Barney Google and Snuffy Smith was an enormous hit, launched in 1919 and still going! Although with a major difference. Barney Google, the original star of the strip, was phased out in the 1950s, eclipsed by the hillbilly character Snuffy Smith. Yet Barney Google himself was so popular in the 1920s that there was a hit song about him. Like Mutt and Jeff he was a racetrack character, with his horse Spark Plug.

Barney Hellum starred as Barney Google in a series of silent comedy shorts in 1928 and 1929. (Many years later, Bud Duncan would play Snuffy Smith in low budget talkies). And there would be numerous animated versions over the years.

Harold Teen

Carl Ed’s Harold Teen ran from 1919 through 1959. Just like it sounds, it was a strip about a Jazz Age teenager, a kind of precursor to Archie, Funky Winkerbean and Zits. 

In 1928 Allan Dwan directed a feature film version of Harold Teen. It starred Arthur Lake as the title character, almost like foreshadowing for his later long-standing identification with the part of Dagwood Bumstead. Mary Brian, who appeared in many W.C. Fields comedies, was his co-star.

 Smitty

Walter Berndt’s comic strip Smitty ran from 1922 through 1973. It was about a young office boy, his little brother and his dog Scraps (the same name as the dog in Chaplin’s A Dog’s Life).

A series of 10 live-action shorts based on the strip was produced from 1928 through 1929). The films featured Jackie Combs and Donald Haines. 

Toots and Casper

Jimmy Murphy’s Toots and Casper ran from 1918 through 1956.  They were a young married couple with a baby named Buttercup, with the gag being that Toots was beautiful and fun loving, and Casper kind of a dopey, dumpy prematurely aging schlub. (Just like their names indicate). And they wound up having all sorts of adventures in serialized form.

Twelve live-action shorts were produced (1928–1929), starring Thelma Hill and the ubiquitous cartoon actor Bud Duncan.

We have now reached the sound era, which I have treated in this other post. Now, I must cut this one loose while it’s still technically morning!

Meantime, for some good sources on what I’ve just written about, please see: This article on Silent San Francisco; as well as The Strippers Guide

To learn more about vaudeville, please see No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, and for more on silent film comedy, please read Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube

2 comments

  1. Terrific column, Trav! By the way, have you ever seen the 1940 movie of “”Lil Abner”? The makeup makes the actors look so much like Al Capp’s characters that it’s creepy, and I think, a little scary!

    Like

    • Thanks! and yes I LOVE that movie! I swore I did a blogpost about it but I couldnt find it this morning. I think I referred to it someplace, maybe my book “Chain of Fools”. It is so damn weird! will definitely write about it here for sure

      Like

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