Chic Young and the “Blondie” Bonanza

Today being the birthday of the great Murat Bernard “Chic” Young (1901-73), and having had frequent occasion to make reference to his greatest creation, Blondie, it seems incumbent upon us to mark the day. Further, Young created Blondie in 1930 at his home drawing studio in Great Neck, not a mile from where I pen these very words.

Young had drawn several comic strips starring female characters over the preceding decade: The Affairs of Jane (1921), Beautiful Bab (1922) and Dumb Dora (1924). The first two sank like a stone, but the latter one lasted several years. Initially, Blondie was sort of a “strong, independent flapper” strip like his earlier ones; it was a popular trend  at the time. But then stuff happened. Blondie met and married Dagwood Bumstead; they had children; set up house; acquired a dog. Dagwood is a much funnier character than Blondie, with his lazy naps on the sofa, penchant for mile-high sandwiches, and run-ins with his boss and the mailman. The strip played (and plays) a lot like a sitcom. It was highly influential. Readership skyrocketed. And this resulted in expansion into other media, also groundbreaking (at least at first).

Movies

The success of the strip led to a series of popular B movies, 28 of them, from 1938 through 1950. Penny Singleton was the title character; Arthur Lake portrayed Dagwood.  I am a particular fan of the original film series, especially Lake’s interpretation of the role, which is somewhat different from the character in the strip. Lake plays Dagwood as somewhat dumb and simpering, with a highpitched voice and a penchant for screaming “Blondie!” in a manner not unlike Lou Costello calling for Abbott. The films were released by Columbia Studios, the last studio to turn out comedy shorts, most notably those of The Three Stooges. While the Blondie movies are features, they are very much in Columbia’s assembly line spirit, and very similar in execution to TV sitcoms.

The films were: Blondie (1938), Blondie Meets the Boss (1939), Blondie Takes a Vacation (1939), Blondie Brings Up Baby (1939), Blondie on a Budget (1940), Blondie Has Servant Trouble (1940), Blondie Plays Cupid (1940), Blondie Goes Latin (1941), Blondie in Society (1941), Blondie Goes to College (1942), Blondie’s Blessed Event (1942), Blondie for Victory (1942), It’s a Great Life (1943), Footlight Glamour (1943), Leave It to Blondie (1945), Life with Blondie (1945), Blondie’s Lucky Day (1946), Blondie Knows Best (1946), Blondie’s Big Moment (1947), Blondie’s Holiday (1947), Blondie in the Dough (1947), Blondie’s Anniversary (1947), Blondie’s Reward (1948), Blondie’s Secret (1948), Blondie’s Big Deal (1949), Blondie Hits the Jackpot (1949), Blondie’s Hero (1950), and Beware of Blondie (1950).

At the same time, this was happening:

Radio

A popular radio series was launched on CBS in 1939 with the same cast. In 1944, the show moved to NBC. Around the same time, Singleton left the show, and was replaced by Patricia Van Cleeve, Lake’s real-life wife. The show ended at the same time as the film series, in 1950.

Television

A TV sitcom was tried in 1957, with Lake reprising his role as Dagwood, and Pamela Britton playing Blondie (Singleton was nearly 50 years old at this stage, much older than her character. So was Lake older than his, but you know how that goes.) The show only lasted one season of 26 episodes, about six months. While its theme of the domestic foibles of a nuclear family would seem be in tune with 1950s sensibilities, by now there were countless shows of this type on the airwaves, making Blondie seem old hat.

Television (Again)

Another sitcom was tried 1968-69 starring Will Hutchins and Patricia Harty. Jim Backus played Mr. Dithers and his real-life wife Henny played Cora! Arguably, the two kids on the show are better remembered than the people who played Dagwood and Blondie. Peter Robbins, who played Alexander, was the first kid to voice Charlie Brown in animated specials. Pamelyn Ferdin (Cookie) voiced Lucy in Peanuts specials and was also one of the most recognizable child actors of the ’60s and early ’70s. “Updated” for changing times, the show only only lasted 13 weeks.

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After Young died in 1973, control of the strip passed to his son Dean, who continues to turn it out to this day.