by Paul R. Spitzzeri
It was long one of the main “claim to fame” examples for the San Gabriel Valley city of Covina when First National Pictures, in early 1928, filmed scenes in the bucolic burg, nestled in the citrus belt stretching east as far as San Bernardino and Redlands, for “Harold Teen,” a comedy directed by a young Mervyn LeRoy, starring Arthur Lake, Mary Brian and Alice White and based on an immensely popular comic strip by Carl Ed (pronounced “eed”.)
In fact, because of crucial scenes filmed in the city, most notably student-centered ones at Covina High School such as the integral football game, the picture was set in town and this led Ed to include Covina in future references to the strip (not to mention its revival of attention for a musical version of the film, starring Hal LeRoy as the titular character and released by Warner Brothers, which took over First National, in 1934.)
Running four decades from 1919 to Ed’s death in 1959, Harold Teen’s peak of popularity was during the Roaring Twenties when the antics of Harold and his family and friends were so beloved that slang utilized in the strip were deeply absorbed into American popular culture, including “yowsah,” “fan mah brow,” “big hunk of stuff,” “lollypopsie,” “pantywaist,” and “pitch a lil’ woo.”
The “gedunk sundae” served at The Sugar Bowl, the ice cream parlor that was essential to the strip, was so famous that Ed had to create a recipe for it. Beyond the movies, there was a Harold Teen themed radio show in the early 1940s, a late 1920s board game, and a ukulele issued by the Harmony Company about the same time.
The Encyclopaedia Britannica has a very detailed entry on comic strips, identifying late medieval-era German woodcuts and Reformation-era narratives about politics, propaganda and patriotism as progenitors of the modern newspaper strip, along with English artist William Hogarth’s broadsheet pictorial stories and British caricaturists from the 18th century onward.
Caricaturists and illustrators in Europe during the 19th century brought other examples that influenced the modern comic strip, including such prominent examples of Emilie de Tessier (a rare figure in illustrating who went under the name Marie Duval) and her male “loafer” character, Ally Sloper, and German artist Wilhelm Busch and his infant characters Max and Moritz.
There were many other European examples of that century and the dawn of American comic strips is generally dated to 1896 and the introduction by Richard Outcault of his “The Yellow Kid” character, which elicited a bidding war between media moguls Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst and their New York City newspapers, the World and the Journal, respectively. In fact, it was noted that the term “yellow journalism,” which came to signify highly sensational and overly dramatic reporting, came from that conflict over Outcault’s creation.
By 1910, another major contribution to the evolution of comic strips was “Little Nemo in Slumberland,” created by Winsor McCay after he was inspired by themes of discovery and exploration at the World’s Fair in Chicago in 1893, and which ran until the mid-1920s. Considered a revolutionary strip in terms of its fairy-tale style of illustration, Little Nemo even inspired a ride at New Luna Park, formerly Washington Gardens, in Los Angeles, as a previous blog post here has noted.
A crucial development came with the daily strip, rendered in stark black-and-white, by Harry “Bud” Fisher, whose “Mutt and Jeff” came from an earlier incarnation, “Mr. A. Mutt,” that first appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle. By 1915, Fisher’s was the first popular daily comic strip in the United States. “Bringing Up Father” by George McManus became so widely known that it had international reach, while Frank King’s “Gasoline Alley” strived for more realism as well as story continuity and “Krazy Kat” by George Herriman was a simplistic, absurdist and surreal strip that took on intellectual and philosophical overtones.
As for Ed, he was born in Moline, Rock Island County, Illinois, situated on the Mississippi River in the Quad Cities area including towns on the Iowa side of the great watercourse. His parents John and Eva (Blom) came to that area in 1889 from Kronobergs Iän (or, County) in southern Sweden and his father was a plasterer working for the contracting business of a brother. After John died in 1904 of erysipelas (a bacterial skin infection), Eva ran a boarding house.
Young Ed worked odd jobs, including as an office worker, to help support the family, which included two younger sisters, but sought to pursue his passion for drawing and cartooning. He secured a position as a sports reporter for his hometown paper, the Rock Island Argus, in 1910, staying with the paper for seven years, and soon followed by this by drawing cartoons with a character named “Big Ben” and which had a baseball theme for the sports page of the Chicago American. For the World Color syndicate, which operated out of St. Louis, he drew the “Luke McGlook” strip, which also had a baseball theme with McGlook known as the “Bush League Bearcat.”
Ed reportedly stated that he created “Harold Teen,” originally known as “The Love Life of Harold Teen,” after he was hired by a publisher of the Chicago Tribune in 1918, because there were no comic strips for the adolescent/teenage audience. His hunch that there was an untapped market for such an offering was more than correct as Harold Teen became a Jazz Age phenomenon.
Harold was joined in the strip by such characters as his love interest Lillums Lovewell, who could on a dime go from inspiring Harold to romantic flights of fancy to bring him instantaneously to earth with cutting remarks and other responses; his best pal “Shadow” Smart; proprietor of “The Sugar Bowl,” and Pop Jenks, whose gruffness belied a tenderness for Harold. The colorful clothing, including bell-bottom pants, a raincoat inscribed with quips and other interesting content, signed sweat shirts, extra large shoes and others, also stood out.
With the strip being such a massive success, it was hardly a surprise that a motion picture was made by First National, formed in 1917 as the First National Exhibitors’ Circuit, Inc., by Thomas Tally, who was well-known for his Los Angeles theaters and who merged more than two-dozen chains in response to the powerful control exerted by Paramount Pictures. Among the early signings for the firm, which initially limited operations to distribution, were mega-stars Mary Pickford and Charles Chaplin, who garnered the first million dollar deals in film history.
While Adolph Zukor, the head of Paramount, tried to effect a hostile takeover of his rival, it failed, and First National, by the mid-Twenties, turned to production. In 1925, a conflict burst forth between Paramount, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer and First National, labeled a film trust, and associations of producers and theater owners who wanted to stop the trio of studios from exerting too much power in the production, distribution and showing of films.
In 1926, First National purchased 62 acres in Burbank, along the banks of the Los Angeles River, and most of “Harold Teen” was shot there, including an elaborate set for The Sugar Bowl. With a successful roster of films released in fairly short order, the studio was eyed by Warner Brothers, which moved rapidly into the upper echelon of the fiercely competitive Hollywood studio world with such massively successful pictures as the Al Jolson-starring The Jazz Singer (1927), which was the first movie to employ synchronized speech along with sound effects and music.
William Fox had a large share of First National stock and Warner Brothers acquired double that amount, leaving a minority for public ownership, in September 1928, months after the release of “Harold Teen.” In late 1929, Fox sold its shares to Warner, which controlled First National’s theaters, while the latter was able to tap into Warner’s Vitaphone sound equipment and process.
The Burbank site officially became known as the Warner Brothers studio and the First National name was used for about half of the Warner releases in these early years. In 1936, First National officially ceased operations, but films through the late Fifties were officially released under the moniker of “Warner Brothers-First National.”
Director Mervyn LeRoy (1900-1987) was a native of San Francisco born to Jewish parents of long residency in that city. His parents separated when he was five years old and, the following year, the devastating earthquake and fire destroyed his father’s store with LeRoy citing the tragedy as very important to his future work. The youngster sold newspapers and secured work on the stage in vaudeville as a “singing newsboy” and then had a musical partnership, but, in 1919, he approached his much-older cousin Jesse Lasky of Famous Players-Lasky and his first studio job was folding costumes.
During the first several years of the Roaring Twenties, in addition to occasional acting roles as a juvenile (he was of small stature), LeRoy worked his way up in the production side, including as a lab technician and assistant camera operator (including for the brothers Cecil and William DeMille, the former being a major influence), while then securing work writing comedic gags and other elements for films starring the famed actor Colleen Moore. In 1927, he was signed by First National to direct with “Harold Teen” being an early project, albeit one with a fairly low budget.
The box-office success of “Harold Teen” followed by a picture with Moore called “Oh, Kay!” propelled LeRoy into a busy directorial career that flourished in the 1930s with some three dozen pictures for Warner, including such gritty dramas as Little Caesar (1930) with Edward G. Robinson and 1932’s I Am A Fugitive From a Chain Gang with Paul Muni as well as work on the very popular The Gold Diggers of 1933.
After a period producing and directing for Warner, LeRoy left briefly for MGM and was hired as a production executive, including for The Wizard of Oz (1939), but he requested a release so he could go back to directing. During the Forties he worked extensively with Greer Garson, made patriotic wartime propaganda films, as well as diverse roster of pictures, following this in the Fifties with the Biblical epic Quo Vadis, a raft of musicals and comedies, and a return to Warner, where he made Mister Roberts (1955) after initial director John Ford bowed out because of illness.
Returning to producing as well as directing, LeRoy worked steadily through the mid-1960s, including such films as The Bad Seed, No Time for Sergeants, The FBI Story, and Gypsy. His last credit as a director was in 1965, but, three years later, he largely helmed the John Wayne pro-Vietnam vehicle, The Green Berets, though did not seek credit as Wayne was considered a co-director. He lived almost two more decades, including receiving the Irving G. Thalberg Memorial Award for his lifetime of work in 1976.
The highlighted artifact for this two-part post, which we will complete tomorrow, is an album of stills from the shooting of “Harold Teen” including some on location in Covina. It is not known who compiled it and there are almost no inscriptions, save for occasional ones identifying stars Lake, Brian and White (more on them in part two.) Some of the location shots are at the high school as well as on streets in town.
There are about 80 photos in the album, so the accompanying illustrations for the post will exclusively be of these great visual documents, though there were plenty of interesting newspaper references to the film, as well, including reports in the Covina Argus about the local shooting work, and others concerning the initial release of the picture in late April 1928, followed by a wider release, including in greater Los Angeles, in July.
Enjoy the photos and check back tomorrow for the second part of the post!