On Ham Fisher and “Joe Palooka”

Some remembrance today for Ham Fisher (Hammond Edward Fisher, 1900-1955) and his celebrated creation, Joe Palooka. This cartoonist brings up a wonderful chain of associations: there’s Ham Fisher, who drew Joe Palooka, and Bud Fisher, apparently no relation, who drew Mutt and Jeff. So we have Ham and Bud, just like the silent comedy team Ham and Bud (Lloyd Hamilton and Bud Duncan), who remind me a good deal of Mutt and Jeff! It’s an existential circle that’s no doubt quite meaningless, but I love little clusters of resonance like this. It feels like life and history are being devised by a whimsical author.

The neologism “palooka” seems to have its origins in the early 1920s, meaning a knucklehead or loser, or with more specificity, a mug in the fighting game. The phrase appears to predate Fisher’s famous comic strip, but gained wide currency once Fisher’s strip was syndicated at the end of the decade. The characters included Joe (a heavyweight champ, blonde, wholesome, goodhearted and dumb, and probably Swedish or Polish), his manager Knobby, his girlfriend Ann Howe (a cheese heiress), and Smokey, his African American valet. Humphrey Pennyworth, Joe’s sparring partner was added a bit later and was so popular he git his own spinoffs. Many, including Fisher, believed Li’l Abner was a ripoff of Joe Palooka. Al Capp had been Fisher’s apprentice, leaving him in 1934 to devote himself to his own work. The feud, which often sank to petty and stupid depths, lasted for over 20 years.

For many years Joe Palooka was one of the most popular comic strips in the country — in the top five. It’s success led to expansion outside of the newspaper funny pages:

A radio series was tried from April to August 1932. Harry von Zell was the show’s announcer and the part of Joe was played by Teddy Bergman a.k.a. Alan Reed, best known for voicing Fred Flintstone. Frank Readick, who did the famous intros for The Shadow, was one of the guys who played Knobby. Episodes are available to listen to here. 

Then in 1934 came the feature film Palooka, directed by Benjamin Stoloff, with Stuart Erwin as the titular boxer, Jimmy Durante as Knobby, and Marjorie Rambeau as his mother. Note how Durante, in a supporting part, gets all the billing! It was even renamed The Great Schnozzle for its UK release. The cast also has Lupe Velez, Mary Carlisle, Robert Armstrong, Thelma Todd, Tom Dugan, Louise Beavers, Fred Toones, William Cagney (James Cagney’s younger brother), and Gus Arnheim as himself, with his Orchestra. The movie contains many songs, including Durante’s famous “Inka Dinka Doo”.

Nine Vitaphone Joe Palooka shorts were released from 1936 through 1937 with Robert Norton as Joe, and Shemp Howard as Knobby. Norton seems only to have done a couple of movies other than the Palooka series.

There was a popular Joe Palooka comic book from 1938 through 1955. It was especially popular during the World War II years, when Joe joined the fight against the Axis powers.

Probably best known to posterity is the series of 11 Joe Palooka B movies released by Monogram Pictures between 1946 and 1951. These starred 2nd generation Australian golfer Joe Kirkwood, Jr. as Joe, Leon Errol as Knobby, Eddie Gribbon, and Richard Lane, who later became a wrestling announcer.

Kirkwood returned for a try at a TV series Joe Palooka a.k.a The Joe Palooka Story in 1954; Slapsie Maxie Rosenbloom was in the cast for that one season show.

Earlier, we mentioned Ham Fisher’s feud with Al Capp. Both men were sort mean and vindictive. Rather than cooling off over time, it heated up. Li’l Abner became much more popular than Joe Palooka, which began to seem old fashioned. In 1950 Capp wrote an article in which he claimed that his villain characters were often based on a guy he once worked for, and it was clear that he meant Fisher. In 1954, Fisher attempted to sabotage Capp’s application for a broadcasting license by anonymously sending pornographic Li’l Abner cartoons to the FCC. As a result, Fisher was expelled from the National Cartoonists Society for “conduct unbecoming a cartoonist”. Fisher had been one of the founders of that organization.

This was a bit of a K.O. Humiliated by this professional indignity, and plagued by ill health, Fisher took his own life with an overdose of pills in 1955. Joe Palooka, drawn by others, outlasted him by nearly three decades, finally stepping out of the ring in 1984.

For more on classic comedy film please read Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube.