Sequence to Motion: The First Comic Book Movie and the Comic That Inspired It

Happy Hooligan by Frederick Opper (click for bigger)

We’re getting closer to the beginning of the big summer blockbuster season and once again, comic book adaptations are making up a very visible percentage of the big cinematic spectacles. But before Green Lantern, Thor and Captain America, before Iron Man, Batman, Spider-Man and Superman all had their own superhero movies, there was Happy Hooligan.

Over 100 years ago, newspaper comics were still refining the language of comics but at the same time they were becoming a hugely popular form of entertainment. It was basically TV for the masses before there was television (or even radio, for that matter) in America’s living rooms. In 1899, one of newspaper’s biggest moguls, William Randolph Hearst, hired a respected illustrator of humor magazines to add to his growing roster of newspaper cartoonists at the New York Journal. Hearst quickly found that comics significantly increased readership and was a powerful communication tool, and he was a fan himself. He paid better rates to steal creators from his competition, and would fight for less successful creators he believed in. Hearst’s respected illustrator was named Frederick Burr Opper and one of his big creations was Happy Hooligan, which debuted March 11, 1900.

The comic strip was about a disheveled tramp with the worst luck. Happy would frequently try to do good, only to fall (usually literally) to some accident conveniently witnessed by a passing cop who thought Happy was causing the trouble. Most comics ended with Happy being dragged off by one or more cops to serve some excessive amount of jail time. Someone in the legal system must have taken pity on Happy because the following Sunday he would be getting into trouble all over again.

Above is an example from August 24, 1902, preserved and represented by Barnacle Press, which has a veritable treasure trove of old newspaper comics. The physical comedy is played out seemingly second-by-second in each panel. The main fun is in following each step of the small disaster as it unravels, and how each chess piece moves around the space and interacts with the others. In this instance, the chess pieces are Happy, the woman, her horse, Happy’s brother Gloomy Gus (essentially serving as our point of view), the police officer that runs onto the scene, and the tree. The tree’s broken branches and Happy’s pocket knife also serve as secondary chess pieces. Even the bush in the background seems to respond to the action in each panel. And Happy’s ever-present tin can hat adds to the whole. It might look like it vanishes but it’s still on his head at the end, flattened from the action in panels 6, 7 and 8.) You can re-read the strip following just one of the chess pieces. Speech balloons helped direct attention to certain chess pieces at specific moments. The “camera” holds at one angle throughout, similar to vaudeville theater at the time (Gloomy Gus even breaks the fourth wall and talks to the readers/audience at one point). But this also enhances the effect of following the action. We’re a witness to this unbelievable accident as though we were walking by. It also makes it easier to track the action, allowing each panel to serve as a before and/or after comparison of the panels around it. It seems primitive at first (the panels are numbered to make sure readers understood the reading sequence), but it’s really quite a wonderful bit of choreography, and was probably really eye catching to readers of the time. It still holds a lot of delight. I love the horse’s faces! And there’s something really bewitching about Gloomy Gus’s spotted hankerchief, which seems to know more than it’s letting on.

The comic must have hit a chord with people fairly quickly, because within the year the silent film producer/director J. Stuart Blackton (who also created the first American animated film) began making live action short films based on Happy Hooligan. Blackton himself played Happy, complete with torn clothes and a tin-can as a hat. Six shorts were made between 1900 and 1903. Sadly, nearly all of the shorts have either been misplaced or dissolved from the passage of time. Fortunately, The Library of Congress has been able to retrieve and digitally save about 1 minute of one of the last shorts in 1903. This scene was shot on June 15, 1903, at the New York studio of the American Mutoscope and Biograph Company, the production and distribution company for the shorts.

Cute bit, definitely a classic. But from the start, you can see that movies already had a challenge in adapting comics that would dog them for a century. The visual effects just can’t recreate the madcap slapstick and physical choreography of the comic strip. And this was a good 35+ years before superheroes introduced superpowers and flashy costumes into the mix. Movie-making technology has come a long way since then but it’s still a challenge to get the visuals right. Just last week, the reveal of Wonder Woman’s costume for the new TV series caused much outrage and ridicule online. We’ll see how this summer’s movies tackle it.

Meanwhile, Happy Hooligan went on to influence Charlie Chaplin’s tramp and other lovable homeless characters with bad luck. Happy had three brothers, one of which was named Gloomy Gus (seen in the comic above), a term that’s still sometimes used today to describe an excessively depressed person. Happy also had three nephews that looked nearly identical and spoke in unison, likely influences for Donald Duck’s nephews Huey, Dewy and Louie. The strip has also been cited as the comic to establish the consistent use of speech balloons as the regular comics form of depicting dialogue. Before that, comics typically had dialogue below the panel as a caption. While the comic might take work for some readers to adjust to its aging style of storytelling, it will always hold a significant place in history.

More info about Happy Hooligan and Frederick Opper: Toonopedia, Wikipedia, Comiclopedia

To read more Happy Hooligan comics, visit the previously linked Barnacle Press, and NBM Publishing for their published compilation.

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