J.P. McEvoy: Jester of the Jazz Age

Today we celebrate the great Jazz Age humorist, J.P. McEvoy, (Joseph Patrick McEvoy, 1897-1958). McEvoy’s reach in pop culture was much longer than most people know about; I’d never consider anyone truly knowledgeable about the era who couldn’t talk about his influence on areas as divergent as flapper culture, comic strips, silent movies, and the persona of W.C. Fields. 

An adopted child, McEvoy was raised in New Burnside, Illinois. When still a teenager he got his first job writing for the South Bend Sporting-Times. Later, while attending Notre Dame, he wrote for the South Bend News. Upon graduating he moved to Chicago where he worked at the Record-Herald, covering sports and writing comic strips, and then at the Tribune. From here got a very high paying job at the P.F. Volland Company, which published books and greeting cards. He began getting his humor stories and columns published in the late ‘teens, eventually in such popular magazines as Saturday Evening Post and Liberty. An early tale of his was turned into the 1917 silent movie comedy The Ham What Was, produced by Essanay Studios, concerning a vaudeville act that resorts to eating their trained pig. In 1919 he published two books based on his syndicated series of comical poems, Slams of Life: With Malice Toward All and Charity Toward None, and The Sweet and Dry, or See America Thirst. The following year, he collaborated with Johnny Gruell, creator of Raggedy Ann, on a whimsical children’s story.

Go here for a fascinating article about McEvoy’s experimental technique, which was very consonant with trends in the early 20th century. No doubt owing something to his time in the greeting card field, he was extremely playful with form, sometimes with elements like punctuation and font, but ultimately he would tell stories through multiple media: letters, telegrams, diary entries, postcards, and other clues that would move stories forward, almost as a kind of collage.

In 1921, McEvoy published a serialized humor feature called The Potters in The Chicago Tribune, about a meek, long suffering middle class man and his domestic trials. This was subsequently published as a novel and then adapted into a hit Broadway show (1923-24) starring Donald Meek. The leap to theatre is of course how McEvoy became involved with W.C. Fields. In 1924, Fields starred in McEvoy’s very Potters-esque revue The Comic Supplement. This is generally considered to be the origin of Fields’ stage and screen persona when he’s not playing the circus mountebank variant he developed in Poppy. The hen-pecked husband with the bratty kids, who has to take his pleasures when he can get them on the sly — that dates to The Comic Supplement. Though the show closed out of town, Fields used some of the sketch material for the Ziegfeld Follies of 1925. McEvoy also wrote two early silent Fields films, It’s the Old Army Game (1926), and the screen adaptation of The Potters (1927). In 1934, they worked together again. It’s a Gift is based on Comic Supplement material, and McEvoy also supplied dialogue for You’re Telling Me and The Old Fashioned Way. But basically, Fields worked variations on Comic Supplement stuff almost to the end. The Bank Dick (1940) is the last real iteration of it. The Potters, incidentally enjoyed additional revivals as well, notably in a series of comedy shorts starring Lucien Littlefield in 1930.

Meanwhile, McEvoy continued to plug along on Broadway. His next show, No Foolin’ (1926), featured a huge cast that included Charles King, Ray Dooley, Moran and Mack, Clare Luce, Peggy Fears, the Connor Sisters, Gladys Glad, Paulette Goddard, and Helen Herendeen. Then came God Loves Us (1926) with J.C. Nugent, and the satirical revue Americana (1926) with Lew Brice, Charles Butterworth, and Betty Compton, with later editions in 1928 and 1932, the latter featuring Albert Carroll, Peggy Cartwright, and George Givot. After Americana came Allez Oop (1927), with Butterworth, Victor Moore, and Bobby Watson.

Next came McEvoy’s longest lasting creation. In 1925 he had been bowled over by the wild, vivacious personality of Louise Brooks, who worked with him and Fields on the Ziegfeld Follies. In 1928, McEvoy created a fictionalized humor series based on her character, published in serialized form in Liberty magazine. Starring a flapper named Dixie Dugan, it became the novels Show Girl (1928) and Show Girl in Hollywood (1929); the movies Show Girl (1928) and Show Girl in Hollywood (1930), both starring Alice White; the Broadway show Show Girl (1929) starring Ruby Keeler, Jimmy Durante, Frank McHugh, Eddie Foy Jr, and Nick Lucas; and the long running comic strip Dixie Dugan (1929-66). A 1943 movie Dixie Dugan starred Lois Andrews. The comic strip outlived McEvoy by eight years.

Also quite heavily informed by the Follies experience was the Ziegfeld-produced film Glorifying the American Girl (1929) from a McEvoy story, with Mary Eaton, Dan Healy, Eddie Cantor, Helen Morgan, and a long list of dozens of contemporary personalities playing themselves. It is a must see!

McEvoy’s final novel Are You Listening (1932) was serialized in Colliers before being turned into a book and then a film starring William Haines, Madge Evans, and Anita Page. Throughout the ’30s he worked at Paramount, contributing to the screenplays of the Burns and Allen vehicles Many Happy Returns (1934), Love in Bloom (1935), and College Holiday (1936, also with Jack Benny), as well as The Big Broadcast of 1936, and many others, in addition to the previously mentioned Fields films. His last Broadway show was Stars in Your Eyes (1939), with Durante, Ethel Merman, Richard Carlson, Mildred Natwick, and Mary Wickes.

Throughout the ’40s and ’50s he was a frequent contributor to Reader’s Digest, and of course he had the Dixie Dugan strip to keep him occupied.

To learn more about the variety arts (like Broadway revues), please see No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, and for more on classic comedy please read Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube.