Sunday, January 10, 2010

MUTT AND JEFF

Not a high school musical or juvenile operetta, this songbook from MUTT AND JEFF (1919) was one of those rare finds that speaks to a culture long past and long lost.

Only people "of a certain age" will remember Mutt and Jeff, two cartoon characters from the early part of the 20th century who managed to hang on, in various forms, until about 1960 or so. In its first iteration, in 1907 by Bud Fisher, it was arguably the very first newspaper comic strip to feature recurring characters on a daily basis. From Wikipedia:

Under its initial title, A. Mutt debuted on November 15, 1907 on the sports pages of the San Francisco Chronicle. The featured character had previously appeared in sports cartoons by Fisher, but was unnamed. Fisher had approached his editor, John P. Young about doing a regular strip as early as 1905, but was turned down. According to Fisher, Young told him, "It would take up too much room, and readers are used to reading down the page, and not horizontally."

This strip focused on a single main character, until the other half of the duo appeared on on March 27, 1908. It appeared only in the Chronicle, so Fisher did not have the extended lead time that syndicated strips require. Episodes were drawn the day before publication, and frequently referred to local events that were currently making headlines, or to specific horse races being run that day. A 1908 sequence about Mutt's trial featured a parade of thinly-disguised caricatures of specific San Francisco political figures, many of whom were being prosecuted for graft.

On June 7, 1908, the strip moved off the sports pages and into the SF Examiner where it became a national hit, subsequently making Fisher the first big celebrity of the comics industry. Fisher had taken the precaution of copyrighting the strip in his own name, facilitating the move to King Features and making it impossible for the Chronicle to continue the strip using another artist.

A dispute between Fisher and King Features arose in 1913, and Fisher moved his strip on September 15, 1915, to Wheeler Syndicate (later Bell Syndicate), who gave Fisher 60% of the gross revenue, an enormous income in those times. Hearst responded by launching a lawsuit which ultimately failed. By 1916, Fisher was earning in excess of $150,000 a year. By the 1920s, merchandising and growing circulation had increased his income to an estimated $250,000.

In 1918, Mutt and Jeff became a Sunday strip, and as success continued, Fisher became increasingly dependent on assistants to produce the work. Fisher hired Billy Liverpool and Ed Mack, artists Hearst had at one point groomed to take over the strip, who would do most of the artwork. Other assistants on the strip included Ken Kling, George Herriman, and Maurice Sendak while still in high school.

Augustus Mutt is a tall, dimwitted racetrack character - a fanatic horse-race gambler who is motivated by greed. Mutt has a wife, known only as Mrs. Mutt (Mutt always referred to her as "M'love") and a son named Cicero. Mutt first encountered the half-pint Jeff, an inmate of an insane asylum who shares his passion for horseracing, in 1908. They appeared in more and more strips together until the strip abandoned the horse-race theme, and concentrated on Mutt's other outlandish, get-rich-quick schemes. Jeff usually served as a (sometimes unwilling) partner. Jeff was short, bald as a billiard ball, and wore mutton chop sideburns. He has no last name, stating his name is "just Jeff — first and last and always it's Jeff." He has a twin brother named Julius. They look so much alike that Jeff, who can't afford to have a portrait painted, sits for Julius, who is too busy to pose. Rarely does Jeff change from his habitual outfit of top hat and suit with wing collar. Friends of Mutt and Jeff have included Gus Geevem, Joe Spivis and the English Sir Sidney. Characteristic lines and catch phrases that appeared often during the run of the strip included "Nix, Mutt, nix!", "For the love of Mike!" and "Oowah!"

In addition to the comic strip, MUTT AND JEFF also appeared, from 1911 on, as a series of over 300 silent animated cartoons, making it the second-longest running series for theatrical release (The longest is KRAZY KAT. The more obvious contender POPEYE only had 120 meant for theatres; the rest of its run was designed specifically for television.). In 1910, a film company in New Jersey also produced live-action single-reel versions at the then-phenomenal rate of one per week.

With this kind of wild success, it shouldnt be surprising that the national fad should show up on the stage as well, produced by Gus Hill, who was primarily known for his "Big City Minstrel Shows". The musical, about which next to nothing is known, was a touring show, with a libretto by Frank Tannehill, Jr, and Bud Fisher and appears to have put the boys into a revue-like mosh that was more about pretty girls and "songs of the South" than anything else. According to the Internet Broadway Datatbase, it never played New York.

The sixteen-page songbook features seven numbers (vocal line only, no accompaniment) and almost a dozen pages of ads for such things as "fun-making jokes and tricks" (like explosive matches and imitation bed bugs), books on how to write love letters, and "200 stage jokes", an omnibus of vaudeville jokes with a cover image that looks remarkably like MAD's Alfred E. Newman. There's also a page of "rib rocking riddles", most of which are bad puns (The two largest ladies in the US? Miss Ouri and Mrs. Sippi.) and some of which are now culturally obscure ("Why are Addison's works like a looking-glass? Because in them we see the Spectator."). The songs themselves are typical Tin Pan Alley fare and just about as memorable... with one notable exception: this is the show that gave us "I'm Forever Blowing Bubbles".