Sunday, June 24, 2018

Pogo (comic strip)

Written and drawn by
Walt Kelly
Wikipedia Page

imageThere are many contenders for the best newspaper comic strip of all time. Krazy Kat was amazingly good, but most people didn’t get it. Peanuts was great, and massively popular. Calvin and Hobbes was great in all respects. There are also cases to me made for Doonesbury, Barnaby, Mickey Mouse, Little Nemo in Slumberland, and Dick Tracy.You can add others to the list, but any list worth its salt has to include Pogo.

Pogo was created by Walt Kelly. Kelly had started out as an animator for Disney, working on Pinocchio, Fantasia, and Dumbo, among other things. But he left after the animator’s strike to work for Dell Comics, where he did the first versions of the strip. Pogo was originally a minor character, but he eventually became the center of the comic.

In 1948, he was hired as an editorial cartoonist for the short-lived New York Star, where he convinced them to run Pogo as a regular strip. The Star folded in January of 1949, but Kelly managed to find a syndicate to take over the strip.  It debuted in May.

Pogo was a funny animal strip, dealing with the foibles of the denizens of Okefenokee Swamp.* The title character is a possum, gentle and kindly, who observes and often is the victim of the madness around him. His best friend in Albert the Alligator, who’s loud, bombastic, and egotistical, but a good friend to Pogo. There’s also Howland Owl, the master of misunderstanding and creating hairbrained schemes, and his friend, Churchy LaFamme, poet, who’s close friends of Owl and falls gullibly to aid him in his schemes.**  There’s also Porky Pine, Pogo’s friend, the confirmed cynic who never smiles, and Miz Mademoiselle Hepzibah, a skunk who is Porky’s love interest.

A list of characters would go on for pages and pages. Kelly created them constantly, and somehow managed to juggle them all; even given its long run, it still has many more named and identifiable ongoing characters than just about any strip.  They could disappear for weeks and years at a time and still be instantly recognizable.

The strip also wasn’t afraid to get involved in politics, and was probably the first non-editorial newspaper comic that had a specific political slant. Most famous was its use of the character of Simple J. Malarkey, an obvious character of Joseph McCarthy, created at the height of McCarthyism. Kelly also created the Cowbirds, who represented American communists, a pig that looked like Nikita Khrushchev, and many others. Any newspaper comic that comments on politics owes a debt to Pogo,

Probably Pogo's most famous panel

But the political satire was only a small part of comic strip.Most of it involved Owl’s hairbrained schemes, misunderstandings and delightful madness.  There was some amazing wordplay, all done in a special “swampspeak” dialect that was probably the most successful way of portraying one ever written. Kelly also loved to write poems for his characters (usually Churchy), most notably his contribution to Christmas:


In addition to being a fine writer, Kelly was a great comic artist. The characters were simple, but full of life, and the backgrounds were incredibly detailed. Kelly often used rough lines to separate panels instead or straight ones.

He was also an innovator in lettering. P.T. Bridgeport, a circus barker, spoke in lettering like a circus poster. Deacon Mushrat spoke in a gothic font. Sarcophagus MacArbre, a buzzard who was an undertaker, has square, black-bordered speech balloon with his words in script.

Pogo’s influence on comics is immense. Anyone who did a political comic owes a debt, of course, but it’s clear that some of the great talents in the field were fans. Alan Moore wrote an episode of Swamp Thing called “Pog,” where the characters were aliens who clearly looked like Pogo and Albert. In Jeff Smith’s Bone, Smiley Bone is clearly based on Albert. 

Oddly, the comic never broke into other media. There was a half-hour animated show, directed by the great Chuck Jones, but despite the talent involved, it wasn’t very good.***  Merchandising wasn’t all the big, either, though Dell did produce a Pogo comic book.

The strip ended with Kelly’s death in 1972. An effort was made to keep it going by his widow Selby, but no one could replace him, and the smaller size of the panels made it difficult for anyone to fit it the wordplay and meticulous art that Kelly excelled in.  The strip ended in 1975.

It was revived briefly in 1989. The new version couldn’t hope to compete with the original, but it evolved into a decent strip once you stopped comparing it. Alas, it only lasted until 1993.

*A real place in Georgia, though probably without talking animals.

**He’s always superstitious:  He showed up on the 13th of each month to saying “Friday the thirteenth is on a Tuesday (or whatever) this month!”

***Jones and Kelly did some of the character voices, too, with June Foray as Pogo

Sunday, June 17, 2018

Beat the Devil

Beat the DevilDirected by
John Huston
Written by Claud Cockburn, Truman Capote and John Huston, based on a book by Cockburn
Starring Humphrey Bogart, Jennifer Jones, Gina Lollobrigida, Robert Morley, Peter Lorre, Marco Tulli, Bernard Lee, Edward Underdown, Ivor Bernard
IMDB Entry

Deadpan comedy is difficult and it’s easy for the audience to miss the point.  When you see Humphrey Bogart and Peter Lorre is a synopsis with hints of The Maltese Falcon and Casablanca, you might think of a thriller, but instead you have Beat the Devil.

The movie showed Billy Dannreuther (Humphrey Bogart), a down-on-his-luck American and his wife Maria (Gina Lollobrigida), who are mixed up with four ne’er-do-wells: Peterson (Robert Moreley), “O’Hara” (Peter Lorre), Ravello (Marco Tulli), and Major Ross (Ivor Barnard). Billy befriends Gwendolen Chelm (Jennifer Jones) who is traveling with her husband Harry (Edward Underdown). The group is waiting in Italy for their ship to finally set sail so they can travel to British East Africa as part of a scheme to buy land rich in uranium.

The plottersThe plot doesn’t matter as much as the characters. They are all vivid personalities, with Billy – played like a less romantic version of Rick from Casablanca – (almost) always on top of the situation.  Peterson is the brains of the organization, while “O’Hara” (who is obviously using an alias) is scheming. Major Ross is a psychopath.

The other characters also stand out. Gwendolen is an inveterate liar, her husband a silly-ass Englishman.

The movie is carried by the dialog. This was originally a straight filming of Claud Cockburn’s novel, but during shooting, director Huston hired Truman Capote to punch up the dialog. Writing a day or two ahead of filming each scene, Capote added wit and more character quirks than you could shake a stick at.

The movie failed at the box office, and Bogart hated it, probably because he lost a lot of money on it. But it’s an odd bit of film history that’s fun to watch.

Sunday, June 10, 2018

GE College Bowl (TV)

(1959-1970 (Original TV Run))
Created by
Don Reid
Hosts Alan Ludden (1959-1962), Robert Earle (1962-1970
IMDB Entry

College Bowl setGame shows can be pretty dumb. I usually prefer the “hard quiz” variety where people are asked difficult questions and have to come up with the answer.* And one of the hardest of the hard quizzes was the GE College Bowl.

The show originated in radio, where two teams of college students answered questions. When it moved to TV in 1959, the format was set.  In the first round, there would be a “toss-up” question.  If you got that question right, you would be asked a multipart bonus question on the subject that was the basis of the toss-up. You got ten points for the toss-up and different points for the bonus questions. The teams could collaborate on the bonus question. If you were wrong on the toss-up, the other team got a chance to answer. If you buzzed in before the host finished the question, that was fine if you got it right, but a five point penalty if you got it wrong.

After two halves, the team with the most points was declared the winner and the school would get money for scholarships.** If you win five weeks in a row, you were declared an undefeated champion and got extra scholarship money.

The interest in the show was the due to the quality of the questions. They were all fairly difficult and the audience had to see the teams come up with the answers.

Alan Ludden was the original host, but left to become host of Password.***  He was replaced by Robert Earle, who remained with it, staying after a switch from CBS to NBC in 1963 until it went off the air in 1970. It was a Sunday afternoon fixture until sports squeezed it out.

When I was a kid, I was able to be part of the studio audience.****  I don’t recall much of the show except the end. Earle was giving a wrap-up to the camera, but, just out of camera range, he kept clenching and unclenching his hands. It was enlightening to see someone who had done this many times before could still be nervous.

After it left the air, it was revived in various form, on radio with Jeopardy’s Art Fleming and in syndication.Eventually, though costs put an end to one of the most challenging of all game shows.

*Or come up with a question, as the most successful of the genre, Jeopardy, does.

**$1500, which sounds pretty chintzy when you look at college tuitions today

***He’s probably best known these days as the husband of Betty White.

****My father sold GE appliances, so he had an in.

Sunday, June 3, 2018

The Oklahoma Kid

Directed by
Lloyd Bacon
Written by Warren Duff and Robert Bucker and Edward E. Paramore from an original story by Edward E. Paramore and Wally Klein
Starring James Cagney, Humphrey Bogart, Rosemary Lane, Donald Crisp
IMDB Entry

In the days of the studio systems, actors had very little say in what they did. Until they became major stars – and often after --- they were treated like interchangeable parts, given roles at the behest of studio executives, who decided how to typecast them. Sometimes, thought, the executives came up with something completely incongruous, and one example of this is The Oklahoma Kid.

The movie is set in 1889, at the start of the Oklahoma land rush. Whit McCord (Humphrey Bogart) has just robbed a stage filled with newly minted money, but is confronted by Jim Kincade, the Oklahoma Kid (James Cagney). Kincade goes into town, flush with cash and immediately sets his eye on Jane Hardwick (Rosemary Lane), who is there with her father, Judge Hardwick (Donald Crisp). McCord is suspicious of the new man in town with the new money, but has bigger plans:  he sneaks into the territory early and stakes a claim, which he uses to get concessions, including running the town.  Of course, he and Kinkade end up clashing.

The most obvious thing about the movie is that Bogart and Cagney are not really believable as cowboys.  The movie could easily have been set in a city. But it must have been in their contracts.

Cagney is his usual self as Kincade – brash, charming, funny – and Bogart’s McCord* is the type of gangster role he usually played against Cagney. Both give star turns in a slightly silly setting for them.

What I remember most from the film is a line spoken to Cagney. Kincade doesn’t want to take place in the land rush (which is, after all, taking land that had been promised to native Americans) and a man is mystified by it, and speaks the immortal lines. “You mean to say you got no feeling for the country? No pride in seeing a civilization carved out of the wilderness?   What kind of American are you?”  Cagney then talks about how wrong it is to take the land like that. All a surprising sentiment given the time.

The movie, like most studio films, did well and has been forgotten.  But it’s worth seeking out to see two of the most urbanized actors of the 30s were made to play out west.

*Dressed in black, of course.