Sharing The History of The 1928 Film “Harold Teen” With the Covina Valley Historical Society

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

It was a great pleasure to be back again speaking to the Covina Valley Historical Society at its quarterly meeting this event and sharing the history of the 1928 film, Harold Teen, part of which was shot in the town giving it a level of national recognition of which the city was proud for many years. There was a previous two-part post based on a remarkable album with 80 professionally taken 8″x10″ photographs from the making of the movie, including quite a few from Covina and environs, but this one gives some more information about the production and shares a few more of those amazing images.

The immense popularity of the cartoon launched by Carl Ed (pronounced “eed” as in Swedish, which he was) in 1919 in the wake of the First World War and on the cusp of the Roaring Twenties, where escapism, the rise of popular culture and burgeoning teenage market not yet tapped in cartoons or in movies as it later would be, led First National Pictures to make a deal with the cartoonist for a film version.

Hollywood Citizen, 22 February 1927.

The 15 February 1927 edition of the Los Angeles Times reported that

The purchase of world screen rights for all times to the newspaper comic strip entitled “Harold Teen” has just been announced . . .

The development of a story around the “Harold Teen” adventures is now in process and production will be started in the near future.

It is of general interest to note that “Harold Teen” is said to have the widest circulation, continuously, of any similar strip in the history of American newspapers. It has been followed eagerly by millions of Americans for more than six years, not only in its daily appearance, but also as a full-page comic running in a large number of the leading newspapers of the nation.

A little over a month later, the Hollywood Citizen commented that Jack Kirkland, who went on write several plays as well as screenplays, was hired to write the scenario, noting that he’d worked for some time with the New York Daily News and its make-up desk, s he was paraphrased as saying “it seems like meeting an old friend to be again concerned with the young man’s adventures.” He was also to be assisted by Dwight W. Cummins, another scenario writer, but they were soon replaced.

The new writer was Thomas J. Geraghty, who was a reporter in New York for that city’s Herald and Tribune newspapers, when he got into the film industry as a publicist. After working on one-reel comedies, he was hired by film legend Douglas Fairbanks, Sr. before working for Famous Players-Lasky, operating studios in New York and London. From 1922, he wrote scenarios steadily and his sons, Gerry and Maurice, were also screenwriters, while his daughter Carmelita was an actor in the Twenties and early Thirties.

Perhaps because of the change in scenarists and other adjustments, producer Robert Kane, who also worked for years for Paramount Pictures, including in Paris, where he made versions of American sound films in other languages before dubbing was established. He produced or assisted in the production of several film in the United States in the 1940s, including the famous Tyrone Power vehicle and remake of the Rudolph Valentino classic, Blood and Sand.

Los Angeles Times, 31 December 1927.

By the end of 1927, however, major hires were announced, with the Times of 10 December noting that “youth isn’t always a handicap, after all” because First National hired Mervyn LeRoy, who’d just turned 27 years old, to direct Harold Teen and it was added, “Mervyn is young and therefore in sympathy with youth.” The article did observe that age was not the only factor as LeRoy’s work on Flying Romeos, released at the end of February 1928 was well-regarded by the studio.

Also mentioned in the article was supervising producer Allan Dwan, who, like LeRoy, had a very long and productive career in the film industry. A native of Toronto, Dwan got into the film industry at its infancy and worked for about a half-century for many studios. He was a favorite of such silent legends as Fairbanks, Mary Pickford and Gloria Swanson, including Fairbanks’ Robin Hood (1922) and several pictures with Swanson as the lead. Later, Dwan, who lived to be 96 years old, directed Shirley Temple in a couple of her very popular movies, John Wayne in the 1949 hit Sands of Iwo Jima and a slew of Westerns in the Fifties before making his last picture in 1961.

The same day’s Citizen contained an article by Elena Binckley, later a well-known local interior designer, who wrote that, with LeRoy’s hiring, “it is also unofficially known that Arthur Lake has been definitely cast for the title role” of Harold Teen. At least three other leading candidates were in the running, but she observed that Lake, loaned by Universal, “is that clever juvenile whose progress in the picture field during the past few years is just nobody’s business.” Binckley concluded that production was set to begin at any time.

An unusual marketing approach was to ask young persons to contribute slang and lingo that was new and fresh, as well as gags to have painted on Harold’s beloved flivver, the “Leapin’ Lena.” For the latter, for example, the Times of the last day of 1927 noted the LeRoy made an appeal because, he and Kane stated, “the cleverest wisecracks . . . come from high school boys who own cars of the well-known vintage,” with about ten of the best to be used to ornament the jalopy. For the lingo and wisecracks, juvenile readers were asked to send them in care of the director at the First National studio (now Warner Brothers) in Burbank.

Times, 4 March 1928.

Just after mid-January, more important casting was finalized including the loan of Mary Brian by Paramount, while William Bakewell as Percival, one of Harold’s pals; Jack Duffy as Grandpop Teen; and Lucien Littlefield as Dad Jenks, proprietor of The Sugar Cup, the ice cream and soda shop where much of the action took place in the cartoon.

This latter was dubbed “the strangest soft drink parlor in California” and the Pasadena Post, writing about it after the picture’s local release in early June 1928, added, “although completely equipped to cater to rushing business, strict care was taken to keep the public away,” even as it “is one of the most novel sets ever built for photographic purposes.” Covina even had a replica opened there after the 1934 sound version of the film was released.

Filming was completed by the end of February and the Times of 4 March 1928 had a full-page rotogravure feature with five photos, including two that are in the album, promoting the picture with the heading of “Rah! Rah! Here’s Harold Teen!” Captions asked what readers thought of Brian as Lillums, the object of Harold’s desires; reported that Lake “is said to give an excellent characterization”; and noted that Duffy was truly Grandpa Tees “in the flesh.”

Ed was reported to have heartily approved of the results, with the Times of 30 March observing that the cartoonist “terms Arthur Lake the typical American collegiate” and it was added,

When the illustrator sold the motion picture rights of his famous pen character to First National Pictures it was with the request that the company secure Lake for Harold’s celluloid prototype if possible, but at that time the services of the young actor were not obtainable so production of the picture was postponed for several weeks [until he could be loaned by Universal.]

For Ed, the wait was well worth the effort to secure the actor, as, having seen the picture, he “has wired congratulatory messages to Arthur, Alice White, who plays ‘Giggles’ in the film, and Mervyn LeRoy, the director.”

William Bakewell as Percival, Times, 10 June 1928.

After a limited release in eastern cities and a three-night preview in Covina, the Citizen of 18 May recorded that “reports from the cinema magazines and trade journals which have previewed” the film “indicate if will be a universal success.” Moreover, Lake “is credited with the major share of the picture’s human and popular appeal.”

Separately, the paper noted that there as a Chicago preview and First National officials wired back to Hollywood about the reception of “the universal comedy appeal of the human screen play.” Beyond this, it was rumored that LeRoy was trying to get Lake to agree to make a sequel, to be called Harold Teen in New York, while Ed was proposing a Harold Teen in Hollywood movie. While Lake was praised by the prominent Photoplay magazine for his work and the film as one of the top releases of the month, Ed was negotiating a novelization of his strip.

The female actor here might have been Hedda Hopper, playing Mrs. Hazzit, and who went on to b a very powerful Hollywood gossip columnist.

The 9 June edition of the Los Angeles Record in its “Preview On” column printed a lengthy positive review by Jimmy Starr of Harold Teen, which began with the statement that “Harold Teen may be a comic strip, but just the same he is a live boy.” While normal movie production processes involved some change to a published character, “one merely had to grab an average American boy and watch his antics, his trials and his tribulations.”

LeRoy was praised for “the sincere understanding of youth, flaming or otherwise,” a reference to Colleen Moore’s 1923 film, Flaming Youth, while he and Lake were lauded for “achieving their goal—and please do not forget that their task was not an easy one.” What was deemed missing was more of the adult presence “so that the genuine humor and little tragedies of the home would be in evidence.”

Los Angeles Record, 9 June 1928.

As Harold adjusted from farm to city life and negotiated the high school world, including Lillums’ push to be a football hero, invent the Gedunk Sundae at The Sugar Cup, and come up with a movie concept instead of the typical school play, Brian and White were also praised for their performances, though it was asserted that much of the latter’s best work was left on the cutting room floor. Actually, all the cast named by Starr were deemed to have done admirable work, while LeRoy was again singled out:

To Director LeRoy we offer congratulations for delivering a clean, wholesome comedy of American youth, and for telling the story with a steady hand forgetting the trashy hokum of today.

As the centennial of the filming of portions of Harold Teen in Covina approaches, hopefully there’ll be some commemoration of the movie, which was remade by Warner Brothers, which acquired First National, in 1934, and its place in the history of that city.

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