After six years of drawing the comic strip Dumb Dora (about a brunette who “wasn’t as dumb as she looked”), Murat Bernard “Chic” Young handed it off to artist Paul Fung once Chic decided to embark on a new venture. That new strip would soon become one of the most popular newspaper comics of all time (and one that is still going strong today, in 2,000 papers in 55 countries): Blondie. It debuted in “the funny papers” on September 8, 1930, chronicling the adventures of flapper Blondie Boopadoop and her impressive array of gentleman callers. Blondie’s steadiest beau was Dagwood Bumstead, the son of a railroad magnate, whose wealthy father disinherited his son once Dagwood announced his intention of making an honest woman out of Miss Boopadoop. The couple tied the knot on February 17, 1933 and the domestic bliss that ensued found the lovebirds transformed into the prototypical American husband-and-wife…with Blondie accepting her role as dutiful housewife (until she started her own catering business in the early 90s) and Dagwood entering the workforce as an office drone (he was employed at a construction company owned by the autocratic J.C. Dithers).
The popularity of the strip would later lead to a mega-successful movie franchise (courtesy of Columbia) starring Penny Singleton (Blondie) and Arthur Lake (Dagwood) as the couple, followed by an appearance by the two actors (in character) on Bob Hope’s Pepsodent radio show in December of 1938. Their radio adventures would continue in the summer of 1939 when they filled in for a vacationing Eddie Cantor, and Blondie inherited his time slot when Cantor elected not to return for Camel cigarettes in the fall. Both the motion picture franchise and the radio series ended in 1950; Singleton went the distance where the films were concerned but her role on the radio Blondie was played at various times by Ann Rutherford, Alice White, and Patricia Van Cleeve (a.k.a. Mrs. Arthur Lake).
Though an attempt to bring Blondie to the small screen suffered a setback with a failed pilot in 1954 (with Hal Le Roy as Dagwood), the series finally achieved what its fellow radio sitcoms had accomplished with a January 4, 1957 premiere over NBC-TV. Actress Pamela Britton had played Blondie in that initial pilot, and the producers decided to stick with her in the role…but they were fortunate to get Arthur Lake to reprise his original movie/radio gig as Dagwood. Lake, an actor who had an extensive career in vaudeville (with his sister Florence—who you may know from the Edgar Kennedy two-reelers reviewed here on the blog), appeared in many a two-reel comedy in both the silent and sound movie eras (he also played another comic strip favorite, Harold Teen, in a 1928 First National feature) but it often seems as if Dagwood was the role he was born to play. (Co-star Singleton once observed Lake was “Dagwood to his toes.”)
The 1957 Blondie series had a relatively short run on TV (it was gone by July after 26 episodes) and for many years it’s been largely unseen outside of some smaller Mom-and-Pop video releases. Its DVD status changed a few weeks ago when on September 25, ClassicFlix released the series in its entirety—newly transferred from original 35mm elements. Blondie boasts the professional sheen of having been produced at the legendary Hal Roach Studios (the “Lot of Fun”), who enjoyed much success in the TV business with such offerings as The Stu Erwin Show (The Trouble with Father), Racket Squad, and My Little Margie. It owes a little bit to Margie—it’s zany 50s TV at its finest—while nicely capturing what old-time radio historian John Dunning dubbed its “triple-play success, comics-to-movies-to-radio.”
Hanley Stafford played Dagwood boss (Julius Caesar) Dithers in the radio version (memorably threatening “Bumstead! I’ll run your little finger through the pencil sharpener!” from time to time) but for the TV version Florenz Ames portrayed J.C.—an actor I always associate as “Old Man Applegate” in the Mickey Mouse Club Hardy Boys serial The Mystery of the Applegate Treasure. I have to be honest; of all the performers to essay Dithers in visual terms (I’m exempting Stafford because he played J.C. primarily on radio, where he did a first-rate job) I think Ames was the best. He looked a lot like the Dithers of the comic strip and seemed to be the only one who’d actually give Dagwood a good ass-kicking if necessary just like the Dithers in the comics. (I bow to no one in my admiration for Jonathan Hale—but he never really seemed to be all that convincing as a dictatorial boss.) In the role of the domineering Cora Dithers, Lela Bliss played J.C.’s wife for two episodes before being replaced by the radio Cora, TDOY fave Elvia Allman. (I’ll concede that Bliss looked more like the comic strip Mrs. D…but once Elvia took over, I didn’t mind so much since no one played wifely battleaxes like Allman.)
The man who achieved radio fame as The Great Gildersleeve, Harold Peary, portrayed Dagwood’s neighbor and friendly nemesis Herb Woodley—a role that he had also tackled briefly on the radio version. Peary’s participation on the TV Blondie is one of the main reasons why I enjoy the show, as Hal interprets Herb as a man all-too-eager to exploit Dagwood at every turn in order to reap whatever financial rewards—complete with that famous Gildersleeve “dirty laugh.” After one episode (“Sudden Wealth”) with Mary Lawrence as Mrs. Woodley, Hollis Irving replaced her as Herb’s long-suffering wife Harriet. (I know—Mrs. W goes by “Tootsie” in the comics; I think they changed her name to ”Harriet” for the TV show because there was a character by that name on the radio series, played by Mary Jane Croft.) I’ve seen Irving in other venues (Bewitched, All in the Family) and I’m quite a fan of her dizzy demeanor and chirpy Jean Arthur-like voice.
There are a lot of old-time radio veterans who turn up in Blondie installments. Jack Benny nemesis Frank Nelson—who was actually the thespian who played Herb throughout most of the radio run—plays an antique dealer in “Get That Gun,” and there are also turns from Herb Vigran (“Puppy Love”), Doris Singleton (“Howdy Neighbor”), Alan Reed (“The Tramp”), and Charlie Cantor (“The Spy”). Other familiar faces include William “Mr. Pomfritt” Schallert (as a nightclub pianist in ”The Party”), Barbara Nichols (“The Glamour Girl”), Fritz Feld (”Oil for the Lamps of Blondie”…and yes, he does the mouth pop), Alan Mowbray (“Follow That Man”), and Don Beddoe (“Husbands Once Removed”), who appeared in a few of the Blondie films as “Marvin.” Rounding the cast of regulars are Stuffy Singer as Blondie & Dagwood’s son Alexander (formerly “Baby Dumpling”) and Ann Barnes as daughter Cookie; character veteran Lucien Littlefield also appears in several shows as unfortunate mailman Mr. Beasley, since the TV series resurrects the running gag from the comics/films as Dagwood shoots out of the house each morning late for work, sending the contents of Beasley’s mailbag into the wind (and Beasley flat on his ass).
So how does Blondie hold up? Well, owing to its comic strip origins a lot of its humor and situations are understandably cartoonish, yet Blondie also retains the manic quality of its radio counterpart, where the Bumstead clan was, as Dunning notes, “as typical as the Aldrich family.” I was genuinely surprised, however, that the series can be a lot of fun at times. “Hard Luck Idol” puts the titular statue in the Bumstead family’s possession…and brings a constant streak of hilarious misfortune to anyone who comes into contact with it. “Blondie’s Double” takes one of the oldest of sitcom tropes—one of the characters has a lookalike—and goes to town with it; Britton gets to sing a couple of tunes (she was in the Broadway cast of Brigadoon) and there’s a hilarious dream sequence where Dagwood tries to wrest Blondie (as a French café singer) from the clutches of piano player Casey Adams (a.k.a. Max Showalter). (Mr. Dithers and Herb are a pair of singing waiters in Dagwood’s dream, adorned with Gay Nineties moustaches that made me giggle.)
By the time Blondie was headed toward cancellation, however, the inspiration for episodes was starting to run dry; I think “Cupid’s Question Column” is probably the weakest of the series, and “The Party” the most bizarre (the family celebrates Alexander’s “sweet sixteen” birthday with a strange vaudeville show featuring acts that Major Bowes himself would have said “Nuh-uh”). Veteran director Hal Yates, who helmed many a My Little Margie, directed a few Blondies while the bulk of the content was handled by Paul Landres (the auteur behind Go, Johnny, Go! ) and the writing talent at times included John Fenton Murray, Jay Sommers, and associate producer John L. Greene (he wrote quite a few Blondie scripts). There was a second attempt at a live-action Blondie series that premiered in the fall of 1968 (with Patricia Harty as Blondie, Will “Sugarfoot” Hutchins as Dagwood, and Jim and Henny Backus as Mr. and Mrs. Dithers) but it was even less successful.
If you’re a classic television fan like me I think you’ll get a good deal of pleasure from Blondie; it’s not “prestige television” by any measure of the yardstick but then again, it never aspires to be anything beyond boob tube junk food—you watch an enjoyable half-hour, and then resume the agonizing, painful existence that is your life. The creative minds behind the series introduce the occasional running gag that will make you smile (in “Blondie Redecorates,” the Bumsteads acquire a broken grandfather clock that produces a chuckle or two in subsequent installments) and when my Facebook chum Greg Hilbrich (who maintains the file cabinet at The Columbia Shorts Department) volunteered the info that he prefers the TV show to the movies I was a little skeptical…but I’m starting to believe he’s right. (Particularly when venues like The Greatest Cable Channel Known to Mankind™ run the King Features versions of the films…with that annoying earwig of a theme song.) Blonnnnnnnnnnnnnnndie!