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Movietone News (The KFS Edition)

I’m hoping that U.S. readers of this space have recovered from the twin effects of turkey-based tryptophan and early-morning Black Friday shopping — and that every American reading these words had a fine and fun Thanksgiving holiday. I still have family visiting for a few days, but while they’re otherwise occupied I wanted to finish our look at some of the classic comic strips that made their way onto the silver screen decades before the wave of comic-books-turned-film-franchises that currently dominate international box offices. Last time we checked out the movie adaptations of “The Big Three” from the Chicago Tribune New York News Syndicate — Terry and the Pirates, Dick Tracy, and Little Orphan Annie — but the other behemoth in strip syndication, King Features, was also always ready to shift its most popular properties to a Hollywood footing. We’ll start this brief overview of King’s cinematic side with arguably their most influential comic strip of all …

Two years after it debuted in newspapers during the start of 1934, Flash Gordon came to movie palaces nationwide in an ambitious thirteen-chapter serial from Universal. As discussed in Volume Two of our Definitive Flash Gordon and Jungle Jim books, this cliffhanger proved so popular it spawned two sequels, was re-edited for release as a theatrical film and, later, as a feature for the syndicated TV market; generations of children grew to adulthood with this serial’s images of the Emperor’s palace, Mongo spaceships, and an always-breathless Dale Arden cemented into their memories. Much the same way the Flash Gordon strip helped bring science fiction to the newspaper masses, the Flash serial introduced SF to thousands of moviegoers.

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Title card for the original Flash Gordon serial. Note the prominent credit for cartoonist Alex Raymond.

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Who could blame King Vultan (John Lipson) if he has trouble diverting his gaze from the comely Jean Rogers? She assayed the role of Flash’s girlfriend, Dale Arden. Like the comic strip Dale, Rogers was a natural brunette, but the serial’s production staff decided audiences would respond better to Dale as a blonde.

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A nifty Flash publicity shot featuring, left-to-right, Priscilla Lawson as a zaftig Princess Aura, Rogers as Dale, and Buster Crabbe as the intrepid Flash Gordon, with Lipson’s Vultan literally looking over his shoulder. Charles Middleton is pitch-perfect as the ruthless, cunning Ming, the merciless ruler of Planet Mongo.

A year later, Universal Pictures brought Flash‘s topper strip, Jungle Jim, to movie audiences as a serial in twelve parts, with Grant Withers playing the part of Jim. More enduring was the late-1948 full-length movie version of the character Columbia distributed, which was a low-budget success, spawning more than a dozen sequels that appeared during a period from the end of the 1940s to the mid-1950s. The actor playing Jim Bradley for Columbia was arguably the most famous Tarzan of them all — multi-Olympic -gold-medalist, swimmer Johnny Weissmuller.

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In his early 40s by the time he left Tarzan’s loincloth behind for Jungle Jim’s safari hat, Weissmuller spent his entire career as a leading man playing either the Lord of the Jungle or the Manhunter of the Malay Peninsula. What other “name” actor can say his fame was built upon only two roles, both of them offshoots of newspaper comic strips?

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From later in the series, a lobby card for 1949’s The Lost Tribe. Note Elena Verdugo among the supporting cast; as discussed in our next Steve Canyon volume, she came close to having a recurring role in the short-lived Canyon TV series as Steve girl friend!

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If the chap in the pith helmet being led by Jim looks familiar, that’s because it’s none other than actor George Reeves in his pre-Superman days!

Since King’s roster of comics included so many humorous features, it’s only natural the biggest gag-strips morphed into cinematic incarnations. Penny Singleton and Arthur Lake’s twenty-eight Blondie films came out from 1938 through the mid-’40s and remained immensely popular as syndicated TV fare well into the 1960s. Less successful in execution to the Blondies, but very good looking in terms of the actors and costuming, are Monogram’s five Jiggs and Maggie pictures, starting with 1946’s Bringing Up Father.  This series starred Joe Yule as the hodcarrier-turned-millionaire Jiggs and Renie Riano as his social-climber wife, Maggie.

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Lobby card for Bringing Up Father. Maggie and Jiggs’s creator, cartoonist George McManus, also appeared in the movie as himself.

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From later in the series, this still is from Jiggs and Maggie in Jackpot Jitters. Like her comic strip counterpart, Riano’s Maggie is never shy about making men toe the line in her presence!

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The Bringing Up Father films received mixed reviews, at best. Their artistic merit can be debated, but certainly the two leads always look as if they might have stepped out of a panel of a McManus comic strip.

This look at comic strips come to life is hardly exhaustive, but it was fun to look back at select offerings with a Library of American Comics flavor. And for my friends who were remarking how extraordinary it is to see comic book properties being featured in 21st Century big-budget blockbusters, this little miniseries of articles might serve as a reminder that comics-to-film is nothing new under the sun … and that, as usual, the comic strips got there before the comic books did!

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