by Paul R. Spitzzeri
As we wrap up this post with more discussion of the 1928 film, Harold Teen, a First National Pictures (later Warner Brothers) release based on the very popular comic strip by Carl Ed (pronounced “eed”) as well as illustrate with a selection of still photos from an album that is in the Museum’s holdings, we take a look at the some of the principal actors from the hit movie.
Arthur Lake (1905-1987) played the titular character and the Kentucky native came from a show-business background, with his father performing in a circus act with a brother and his mother being a stage actor. His parents were also involved in vaudeville with Lake being part of the act as a young child. His mother took Lake to Hollywood when she embarked on a film career and he made his debut at age 12.
In 1924, Lake was signed to Universal Pictures and specialized in adolescent/young adults roles, so his casting as Harold Teen was well-in-line with his career arc. His fame, however, came much later when, in the late 1930s, he was cast as Dagwood Bumstead for a movie based on another enormously popular comic strip, Blondie, and starring Penny Singleton. The film was so successful it spawned almost 30 sequels through 1950 as well as a long-running radio show featuring the actors.
During a Blondie hiatus in the World War II period, Lake was cast in several comedies before returning to work on the series because of moviegoer interest. His career, however, largely ended after the Blondie films ended. In 1937, he married Patricia Van Cleave, who was said to be a niece of the immensely powerful media mogul William Randolph Hearst and his long-time paramour Marion Davies, though it was commonly understood she was their daughter. It was only on her deathbed, several years after Lake’s death, that she allowed public acknowledgment of her actual parentage.
Mary Brian (1906-2002), who was Lillums Lovewell in the film, was a native of Texas, and her father died when she just a month old. In the early 1920s, her mother brought Brian to California and they settled in Long Beach, where the teenager entered a beauty contest. While she did not win, she attracted the attention of a judge, actor Esther Ralston, and was given a screen test for 1924’s Peter Pan, winning the role of Wendy.
Brian soon became known as “The Sweetest Girl in Pictures” and appeared in a spate of films in short order including 1926’s Beau Geste starring Ronald Colman and the 1927 W.C. Fields comedy Running Wild before being caste in Harold Teen. Later in 1928, she appeared in Forgotten Faces with William Powell and Olga Baclanova, who has been featured in a post on this blog.
Among Brian’s early sound work were Varsity, also from 1928 and co-starring Buddy Rogers, and the 1929 Gary Cooper vehicle, The Virginian. While she worked steadily into the 1930s, she did not maintain as high a profile as she did previously and made just a few movies during the Forties, the last being 1947’s Dragnet. She married George Tomasini who became Alfred Hitchcock’s valued editor during the famed director’s classic period of work in the 1950s and into the 1960s.
Alice White (1904-1983) hailed from New Jersey, lost her mother at just age three, and wound up in Hollywood as a teen, graduating from Hollywood High School. She found employment working with scripts for the famed director Josef von Sternberg and then had small roles for legendary comedian Charles Chaplin. She was signed to First National and appeared in several 1927 pictures including The Private Life of Helen of Troy before working on Harold Teen.
She was often compared to Clara Bow, albeit as a blonde, and starred in 1928’s Show Girl and its follow-up the next year, Showgirl in Hollywood. In the early 1930s, however, she was embroiled in a scandal in which it was stated that a British actor, John Warburton, beat her up and she and fiancé, screenwriter Sy Bartlett, arranged for two men to retaliate by robbing and beating Warburton. Those she was not charged, White’s career was badly damaged by the media attention.
While White found some work during the remainder of the Thirties, including 1937’s The Big City, starring Luise Rainer and Spencer Tracy, and Annabel Takes a Tour with Jack Oakie and the titular character played by Lucille Ball, she performed very sporadically in the subsequent decade and made her last appearance in the Joan Crawford-starring Flamingo Road in 1949.
Lucien Littlefield (1895-1960), who played Dad Jenks, proprietor of The Sugar Bowl, the principal hangout for Harold, Lillums, Giggles and the other adolescent characters of the comic strip and movie, was from San Antonio, Texas and, played an elderly character though he was only in his mid-30s. He began his film career in 1913 and, though, still in his teens became well-known for playing much older characters.
Littlefield and appeared in such well-known silents as The Sheik (1921), starring Rudolph Valentino; 1925’s Charley’s Aunt and The Cat and the Canary (1927), which was probably his best-known role. In the 1930s, he was in a few Laurel and Hardy films, including appearing as a veterinarian in the classic Sons of the Desert (1933), while he also appeared in the Bette Davis drama, The Little Foxes (1941) and did some television work in the Fifties.
Jack Duffy (1882-1939), portraying Harold’s “Grandpop,” also made his mark as a character actor by playing much older men and was well-known for his skill with make-up. In fact, after appearing in some 80 films, including appearances with the Al Christie comedy studio and with the master comedian, Buster Keaton, he became one of the best known make-up artists in Hollywood.
Another actor in a minor role was Hedda Hopper (1885-1966) played the minor role of “Mrs. Hazzit”, and, while she was a Broadway chorus performer and stage performer before debuting in films in 1916 and appeared in 120 movies over more than two decades, she achieved fame and power (in rivalry with Louella Parsons) for some thirty years as a preeminent gossip columnist and informer during the Red Scare of the early Fifties.
With respect to filming on location in Covina, that city’s Argus newspaper, in its 24 February 1928 edition, reported
Deathless fame for the Covina union high school football team was assured last Saturday on the home grounds when First National Pictures corporation spent the entire day filming a football picture, featuring Harold Teen, hero of newspaper comic strips, the juvenile lead character in a motion picture that has the local high school student body and athletes as supporting cast.
The paper went on to note that shooting took place at First National’s studio, now that of Warner Brothers, in Burbank and in the San Gabriel Valley burg, best known until 1928 for its highly productive citrus orchards, for several weeks.
The high school was, naturally, a central focus of the location work given that Harold, Lillums, Giggles and others were of that age and the film’s plot, described by some reviewers as something on the unsubstantial side when it came to storylines, concerned Harold moving to the city from the country and becoming a very popular figure at school, including joining campus clubs, directing a stage play and, of course, being a gridiron hero.
The Argus continued that Harold’s status as football savior was a reluctant one and added that the players for Covina High (that name being used for the film) and the fictional Jackson Heights squads were all Covina athletes. Among those playing for the home team was William (Bill) Temple, who turned out to be a distant cousin of the Temples of the Workman Homestead near Puente, his father, Hamilton, having migrated from the ancestral hometown of Reading, Massachusetts to Covina at the beginning of the 20th century.
With hundreds of Covina High students sitting in the stands as rooting sections, “giving color and life to the plays with their swaying pom poms” while the school band was “aiding the spirit of the game,” this crucial scene was established to be very life-like. In fact, the school’s football coach, Wallace “Chief” Newman, whose nickname came from the fact that he was an enrolled Luiseño Indian was a football and baseball player at the University of Southern California and went to a long coaching career at Whittier College, where one of his players was future president Richard Nixon, got caught up in the excitement.
The Argus added that Coach Newman, who left for Whittier after the subsequent season,
who, although realizing from the start that it was a fake game, got quite a little excited before the end, and began to shoot his men in and out of the game with all his usual pep and winning spirit.
The article concluded with the note that the film was to be released nationally in the summer, but a preview would be screened in Covina at a date to be announced later “when all the participants and school officials will be special guests.”
In fact, Harold Teen opened at the end of April in select theaters around the country, so that it debuted in Appleton, Wisconsin, Altoona, Pennsylvania, and Richmond, Virginia on the 27th, with ads and articles including special cartoons by Ed, a “Harold Teen” puzzle, photos of Lake, White and Brian, and more promotion.
Reviews varied with the Sheboygan [Wisconsin] Press, opining, in its edition of the 23rd, that the film “is a rollicking and hilarious farce of high school activities in a small town with a great cast of funsters” and reflected well on the strip’s hero, described as “a drug store cowboy with Oxford bags [those widely flared trousers of the day] and a weakness for Shebas [young women].”
The Appleton Crescent of the 27th, applauded the picture’s “freshness and youthfulness” and noted that Harold “fill us with a longing once more” for the joys of teen life and offered that “there are few who do not wish they could live their youth over again and ‘Harold Teen’ comes nearer to that than anything yet devised.” Screenwriter Thomas Geraghty was lauded for bringing out the strip’s qualities “to an extent that rocks the house with mirth” while Lake “gives the outstanding performance of his career” and White was simply deemed to be “great.”
The Richmond Times-Dispatch of the 24th was less enthused about the movie, writing that “the most the can be said” for Lake “is that he looks quite a bit like his cartoon prototype” and this applied to Brian, as well. Otherwise, this rather lukewarm assessment concluded that “the comedy is obviously produced with considerable economy,” with respect to the outlays of its budget by First National, “but contains quite a few laughs.”
Referring to some news reports that claimed that Harold Teen was one the top half-dozen films released during April, the Richmond News-Leader panned the picture and sniffed that “if this screen feature is among even the first ten thousand best pictures of the month Czar Hays should call a conference to see what is wrong in the films” and ended with the dismissive comment that the movie was an exercise in “under-graduate witlessness.” The reference to “Czar Hays” had to do with Will H. Hays, who was the head of the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America and later the namesake of the code that sought to tamp down salacious and objectionable content in the industry.
Harold Teen was given an exclusive three-day showing at the Covina Theatre, a 499-seat venue designed by local resident Tignal Franklin Cox which opened in 1921 in a building at the northeast corner of Citrus Avenue and Badillo Street. The theater survived until 2005 when, during a renovation, it was determined that the building’s condition demanded demolition and a very attractive modern theater, seating 144, built on the site and opened in two years later.
The 27 April edition of the Argus reported that the film “is a rah-rah college [?] picture, and movie magazines have given it the best preview notices of any of this sort of picture yet made.” The May issue of Photoplay, a leading fan magazine, did offer the view that “even with this flimsy story structure they have built an hour of laughter and entertainment,” adding “if you want to see how movies are made don’t miss this picture” because “you’ll never get more laughs than you do from this home-made melodrama.” Lake was praised, as was LeRoy, “who megaphoned these kids so that there isn’t a dull moment” and readers were advised, “see it by all means.”
In its 18 May recap of the three-day showing, the Argus began by citing Covina football captain, Gaius Shaver, a quarterback who led the squad to state titles in 1925 and 1926. Shaver went on to play for the USC’s storied “Thundering Herd” teams from 1928-1931, with the All-American scoring two touchdowns in the win against Notre Dame that gave the Men of Troy the national championship. Shaver also played in a demonstration game during the 1932 Olympics in Los Angeles and was a USC assistant football coach during the first half of the 1940s.
The paper alluded to the fact that Shaver “tackled the fleet film star in the football scene and stripped the rollicking Harold of his pants.” It went on to observe that the showings were in front of capacity crowds at the theater, including “matinees that registered nearly every schoolboy of the Covina valley.” Notably, the Argus decided that Harold Teen “is not a picture of surpassing merit,” but would do well at the box office “as it caters to high school student bodies, and has a theme that gives it plenty of pep throughout.”
After repeating that much of the film was shot in town, the paper noted that “the story is thinly supported by a number of more or less possible episodes, including the blowing up of the ‘Covina dam,'” along with the climactic gridiron contest and Harold’s improbably heroics. It avowed that Lake was somewhat like the famed comedian Harold Lloyd with his performance “based on an immense amount of physical activity, with the muscular effort all kept below the collar bone.” The review ended with more on the involvement of Covina High students in the filming, which was recorded as “Covina’s debut on the silver screen.”
Harold Teen returned to the region for wider release in early July, showing at the Florence Theatre in Pasadena and Grauman’s Egyptian in Hollywood. By fall, Covina references were found in high school parties in Kansas, the name was regularly utilized in Harold Teen strips, and, in May 1929, the Argus reported that there was a Harold Teen-themed party in the garage of the Harris family, with the structure turned into an airline hangar where dances were flights for the baker’s dozen of guests, some of whom “flew solo.”
A musical remake of the film was released in 1934, while Ed’s strip continued to be published until his death in 1959, though it’s popularity diminished after the Thirties and it was carried in about 90 papers, whereas, at its peak, it was in over 300. While the strip and movies are forgotten now, Covina, for decades, frequently pointed with pride to its being the location of filming for much of the picture.
With the centennial coming up in five years, who knows what celebration or commemoration might be possible?