The Staggering Truth Fearlessly Told: The Red Kimono (1925)
I’ve written before about images of the Devil in popular culture, and will probably do so again. Are they supposed to be scary, funny or a little of both? This (re-release?) ad (or poster, it’s hard to tell) for The Red Kimono features a cheery, rather effeminate-looking Satan casting his spell over a shamed, half-nude young woman. Wouldn’t have the message been more powerful if the Demonic One was a bit more…fearsome? The crude printing process used here probably didn’t allow for a lot of detail, but this particular Satan would be more appropriate for a can of devilled ham or a box of “Red-Hots” candy, as opposed to a serious exploitation film about prostitution. The Red Kimono (sometimes called The Red Kimona, under which title it has been released on DVD) was produced in 1925 by “Mrs. Wallace Reid.” Although the name means nothing to most of us today, at the time it was equivalent to “Mrs. George Clooney,” i.e., the wife (actually, the widow) of a popular star. Wallace Reid married actress Dorothy Davenport in 1913; after his death—the result of medically-contracted drug addiction—in 1923, Mrs. Reid began a very public crusade against drugs, and later expanded this to other social ills, including prostitution.
[Interestingly enough, the poster for Mrs. Reid’s first film, the anti-drug Human Wreckage (1923), also included an image of the Devil.]
The Red Kimono was based on a screen story by Adela Rogers St. Johns, and adapted to the screen by Dorothy Arzner, who would soon become one of the few female directors in Hollywood in this era (although this particular film was directed by Walter Lang; Dorothy Davenport would herself also receive directorial credit on a handful of pictures). The film’s story was based on a notorious true crime from 1915, in which prostitute Gabrielle Darley shot her pimp, the man she blamed for her downfall (in the movie version—in real life, she shot him out of jealousy). Unfortunately for Mrs. Wallace Reid, Gabrielle Darley Melvin (as the movie showed, she later reformed and married an honest man) was still alive and in a litigious mood, eventually (on appeal in 1931) winning an undisclosed amount of money for this appropriation of her life story. [Ironically, it appears she had not actually reformed and may have still been working as a prostitute when she brought the lawsuit, but the sympathetic judges were unaware of this. The film’s depiction of her precipitous slide from maidenhood to the profession of soiled dove was also largely fictional.]
The film industry apparently didn’t learn its lesson, because MGM was sued after making Rasputin and the Empress (1932), and only after that would films routinely contain the disclaimer “All characters appearing in this work are fictitious. Any resemblance to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.” Given that The Red Kimono not only used Darley’s well-known story, but also her full name, it’s hard to imagine this disclaimer would have helped. What were they thinking? “Oh, she’ll never notice this feature film based on a sensational murder case in which she was the defendant? Why bother to change the protagonist’s name?” [While the original publicity for the movie trumpeted Gabrielle Darley’s name, hoping to cash in on the case’s notoriety, note that this particular piece—produced at some later date— does not mention her or the “true story” basis of the plot at all.]
The movie depicts the seduction of innocent Gabrielle (Priscilla Bonner) by a sleazy cad who “turns her out” as a whore to support him, then goes shopping for a wedding ring for another woman! Gabrielle kills the two-timing rotter and is tried for murder, but acquitted. However, she finds it difficult to regain admission to polite society, and is on the cusp of returning to life in a brothel when rescued by the love of a good man. Mrs. Wallace Reid appears at the beginning and end of the film to deliver a moral message, but doesn’t have a dramatic role otherwise.
Mordaunt Hall’s New York Times review wasn’t exactly favourable: “There have been a number of wretched pictures on Broadway during the last year, but none seem to have quite reached the low level of “The Red Kimono,” a production evidently intended to cause weeping, wailing and gnashing of teeth. Possibly it might accomplish its purpose if the theatre doors were locked, but so long as one knows one can get out of the building, it is another matter.”
Despite critical distaste, The Red Kimono was reportedly quite popular, combining exploitation and moralising. It’s difficult to criticise Mrs. Wallace Reid’s motives: a former actress and a widow with two young children, she had a living to make and motion pictures were what she knew best, yet her real-life tragedy seems to have given her an actual social conscience that she utilised in her productions (at least in the beginning—she eventually moved into mainstream subject matter).
Original posters for The Red Kimono are tasteful and boring. “A Daring Subject Delicately Handled”—wait, who wants to see that?! We want sleaze, or at least the promise of sleaze. The poster/advert (it’s hard to tell which) examined here is much better in a marketing sense (although artistically it’s quite a few steps below the lovely stone-litho original). SLAVES OF SATAN is a nice tagline (even if the Satan pictured looks fey and amiable rather than evil and cruel), but the interesting thing about the rest of the text content is that much of it is phrased in form of questions:
“Can they [the aforementioned SLAVES OF SATAN] ever return from the depths?” “Does White Slavery Really Exist?” “Is it an Actual Menace to American Girlhood?” I suppose the answer to all of these is “Yes” (the poster does promise the viewer can “SEE THE ANSWER” to the first question—at least—if they watch the film). If the answer to any of these was “No,” that would be a bummer.
The other taglines are also impressive: “SEE THE STAGGERING TRUTH Fearlessly Told” and “A Mighty Message to Wayward Girls.” The first one is self-explanatory, but the second suggests the film is not aimed at “good girls” (to warn them about the dangers of falling for a slick guy who’ll turn you into a prostitute) but rather wants to encourage “Wayward Girls,” affirming that they can get out of The Life, if they merely (a) murder their pimp, (b) get acquitted by the court, and (c) find a good man to marry. It’s so simple, any whore could do it!
This is somewhat at odds with the standard exploitation “warn your children” pitch, whereby audiences were informed they could forestall family tragedy (drug addiction, pre-marital pregnancy, contracting venereal diseases) by seeing these films and avoiding the pitfalls the unwary protagonists weren’t smart enough to avoid.
The poster for The Red Kimono shown here appears to be a silk-screen print or some other, cheaper means of mass-production of posters, rather than a stone-litho or offset press process. This, as noted earlier, limits the reproduction of detail, usually allows for only or two primary colours, and forces the use of a very simple graphic design. Still, the imagery and text combine here for a fairly effective and entertaining piece of exploitation advertising.
Stop Staring at My Forehead! (Startling Stories, September 1941)
Startling Stories was “A Thrilling Publication” published by Standard Magazines from 1939 until 1955. A science fiction pulp magazine, Startling later featured some fantasy stories, as the “witch” cover discussed here illustrates. But in the early years, most of the magazine’s covers focused on space opera-style scenes, with stalwart heroes, sexy heroines, and threatening monsters. Although Earle Bergey is the cover artist most associated with Startling, this particular cover is by his friend Rudolph Belarski.
Belarski (1900-1983) was not a science-fiction specialist, working in a wide variety of genres during the pulp era (and on paperbacks and men’s adventure magazines afterwards). If anything, he’s perhaps best-known for his crime, war, and adventure illustrations. Belarski’s artwork for Startling Stories September 1941 was re-used for the cover of several paperbacks reprinting pulp stories by author-artist John Coleman Burroughs, his brother Hulbert Burroughs (sons of “Tarzan” creator Edgar Rice Burroughs), and Jane Ralston Burroughs (J.C. Burroughs’ wife)—“The Lightning Men and Other Stories” (2005) and “The Bottom of the World and Other Stories” (2009).
Not the greatest or even the campiest of science-fiction pulp covers—and in fact this is one of the less exciting and action-packed Startling Stories covers, which otherwise tended towards flamboyant, cheesecake-infused scenes of human-alien combat— I nonetheless chose to discuss this one for three reasons: (a) the bizarre aliens; (b) the “Flash Gordon” serial homage; and (c) the evocation (perhaps unintentional) of the various, famous historical works of art depicting “Christopher Columbus landing in the New World.”
The aliens on the cover of Startling Stories 9/41 are green-skinned, humanoid lizard-men (who carry simple daggers and are thus understandably awed by the ray-guns wielded by the new arrivals), but the prehensile, phallic, third-eye stalk growing from their foreheads is their most notable physical attribute. Snails (in reality) have eye-stalks, as do various bug-eyed monsters (only in fiction, hopefully), but these usually represent their (two) main eyes, and the inclusion of an “extra” eye-stalk makes these particular aliens stand out. [I mean, I’m assuming these are intended to be eye-stalks and not forehead-penises. Although the artwork is ambiguous…]
The concept of a “third eye” is usually metaphorical rather than literal, referring to a person’s special insight or higher consciousness. Theosophists believed human beings did at one point have a literal third eye, but it eventually atrophied and became more of a mental thing, albeit in some way related to the pineal gland in the brain. A character’s enlarged pineal gland erupts from his forehead in From Beyond (1986), which results in a close visual approximation of these creatures in the Startling Stories painting. Although not specifically an eye-stalk, the protagonist of Dr. Alien (1989) sports a fleshy appendage from the top of his head, which serves to attract and arouse females in his immediate vicinity, and there are other pop culture examples as well.
Having a protuberant third eye on one’s forehead might have some advantages—again, assuming this is an organ of vision, it presumably could be used like a periscope, to see around corners, or to look behind you—but I’d imagine it’d also be somewhat inconvenient at times. Is it retractable? If not, is it always “erect?” Otherwise, it might droop down onto your face, rather like an elephant’s trunk. It would also seem to be very vulnerable to attack: an assailant could grab it or slice it off with a sword (in From Beyond, the pineal-stalk is bitten off, ouch). Wearing a hat might also be difficult. And good luck finding a pair of eyeglasses (maybe you could buy a pair of glasses and a monocle).
Of course, if this isn’t an actual eye-stalk, then…well, let’s not go there. Except to say I can’t think of any particular advantage to possessing a forehead-penis, and the list of potential disadvantages is pretty obvious.
The second fascinating aspect of Belarski’s cover for Startling Stories is the unbilled appearance of Dale Arden and Ming the Merciless from the 1936 Flash Gordon film serial (as opposed to Alex Raymond’s original comic strip). Do a simple Google Image search on “Jean Rogers” and “Flash Gordon” and you’ll find numerous photos of the actress in her iconic costume, faithfully reproduced by the artist on this pulp magazine cover. The costume and facial features of Ming the Merciless (Charles Middleton in the serials) are also clearly recognisable. Unlike this painting, however, Ming in the comics didn’t have green skin, nor did he in the movie, as far as one can tell—the film was shot in black-and-white but Middleton’s skin is not darkened by makeup; if anything, he looks Asian (the covers of some recent DVD cases depict him with green skin, but that’s pure revisionism).
Interestingly enough, the other two male humans on the cover don’t especially resemble Flash Gordon. True, the guy in the yellow jumpsuit looks heroic & stalwart while his companion has a dumb-sidekick face, but the costumes aren’t Flash Gordon-y (or Flashy, heh)—especially given the dorky helmets, which don’t appear to serve any outer space-related function, having no face-plates or other protective or breathing apparatus—and the main hero may or may not have Flash’s iconic blonde hair. It almost feels as if Belarski deliberately stayed away from making these men look like Flash Gordon characters, perhaps fearing that would push homage too far.
The “story” of the cover isn’t too clear: are Dale Arden and Ming inhabitants of the Planet of the Eye-Stalked Lizard Men, or did they arrive on the rocket (in the background, although it more closely resembles a submarine) with not-Flash and his pal? Are the Lizard Men surrendering? Are they bowing to Emperor Ming? What’s Dale looking at? Is Ming going to conk one of our heroes on the helmet with his branding iron (sorry, his sceptre)?
This provides a convenient segue into this cover’s thematic connection to the aforementioned art of Columbus landing in the New World. A large number of historical paintings, engravings, drawings, etc. depict this event and most of them have common elements: Columbus, his men, a cross and/or a flag borne by Columbus or an aide, his ship, and “natives.” Many of these images also show various characters kneeling; I thought I remembered indigenous people kneeling before the new arrival, but based on the images which pop up in an online search (hey, I already promoted Google once), it looks like most such artwork shows Columbus’s own men doing the kneeling (thanking God they finally reached land, most likely), while the native peoples stand and gawk.
Still, Belarski’s Startling Stories cover contains almost all of the elements of the traditional “Columbus landing” motif: “natives,” people kneeling, ship, crucifix/flag substitute (Ming’s sceptre), multiple outsiders arriving in a new land. Coincidence? I think not. Well, I don’t know if the artist deliberately said “I’m going to recreate the landing of Columbus in the New World as a science-fiction pulp magazine cover,” but I have to think Belarski at least subconsciously based his painting on the Columbus images, as the similarities are…startling (as in Startling Stories, hey-o!).
The Mystery Half-Wit Has the Girls All Agog! (comic book ad, 1940s) Tired of your own face? Want to behave in an uninhibited manner without risking censure (or arrest)? Feel like accosting women at parties “all in fun?” Yes, purchase one or more of these Amazing Life-Like RUBBER MASKS and your secret life is safe with us!
This advertisement appeared in the back of a comic book (title and issue forgotten, sorry) in the late 1940s or early 1950s, but I remember seeing similar ads for years afterwards. The Don Post Studios sold latex “monster masks” via mail-order for decades—these were the Cadillacs of the mask world, but cheaper versions were also available during the heyday of monster magazines (the Sixties and Seventies).
Of course, these later monster-character masks were chiefly aimed at horror movie fans and the advert here comes from an earlier era, so the selection is tamer (and doesn’t include any designs that would need to be licensed, such as the Universal versions of the Frankenstein Monster, the Wolfman, the Creature from the Black Lagoon, etc.): we can choose from The Monkey, Satan, Old Man, Old Lady, SANTA CLAUS, Clown, and…IDIOT (I’m not sure why some mask names are in all-caps and others are not). Ah yes, the IDIOT. But before we take a closer look at our leering, lecherous, dim-witted friend, what about the other masks in the ad? “All masks guaranteed perfect,” by the way.
The Monkey: not just a monkey, but The Monkey. Frankly, it doesn’t much resemble a monkey to me, with its pink, hairless skin and buzz-cut hair. The ad makes a “Monkey-Shines” pun which suggests The Monkey is their star attraction, then discards the silly simian for the much more interesting IDIOT. Gorilla masks later became popular in the “horror” era, but those masks often had “real” hair attached (“real” meaning “not rubber”) to heighten the verisimilitude. So, sadly, I’d have to say The Monkey is not my first choice for Rubber Mask hilarity.
Satan: now that’s more like it. Although I’d have preferred a bit more red in the skin tone (it’s possible that the actual masks were painted more elaborately, and the comic book ad had a limited colour palette to work with), this is a traditional devil figure. Bald, horns, pointy moustache and goatee, arched eye-brows, evil leer. One thumbs-up for Satan!
Old Man and Old Lady: why not Old Gentleman and Old Lady or Old Man and Old Woman? I detect a double-standard in Rubber-for-Molds’ naming convention. However, I will admit that “Old Lady” is more dignified than later masks, which were often dubbed “Old Witch” and “Old Hag.” On the other hand, Old Lady looks pretty butch here, I’d have had a difficult time identifying her as female based on the art. Old Man is balding, so his gender is clear, but in my opinion, Old Lady resembles actor Lyle Waggoner…
SANTA CLAUS: who doesn’t know what Santa Claus looks like?! We’re not going to waste any valuable space in our ad on an image of him! Rest assured, however, that this is a Special mask, because it costs $4.95 as opposed to the $2.95 we’re asking for the others.
Clown: this has to be the most horrifying image of a clown I’ve seen today. No hair. Pink skin. Blank eyes. Pink nose. Painted-on grin. *shudders*
IDIOT (or, as he’s referred to by his friends and victims, “Halfwit in all his goofiness”) : yes, the pièce-de-résistance, the triumph of the rubber-mask-makers’ art. From our perspective in 2013, the resemblance to (the not-yet-existing) Mad magazine’s “Alfred E. Neuman” (and, perhaps, to former president George W. Bush) is uncanny (except for the blonde, bowl-cut hair). The story of Mad’s mascot is well-known: the “grinning idiot” image dates back to the 19th-century and by the second or third decade of the 20th century it was being used for advertisements, gag postcards, and other pop culture elements, so this is yet another pre-Mad example of the character.
“People howl with laughter when you put on this life-like mask.” Sure they do. That woman in the cartoon doesn’t seem to be howling with laughter. She looks freaking terrified. And the woman behind her seems to be shrieking in horror. Nothing says “having a good time at a party” like “being molested by a cross-eyed Halfwit,” I always say. The other male guests snidely agree: “These skimpy domino-style masks don’t completely hide our real faces, and thus we can’t grope the female party-goers with impunity, darn it! I sure wish I had thought of wearing an identity-concealing over-the-head rubber mask!” (that “pulls over the head like a diver’s helmet”) ”Girls All Agog,” indeed.
“The mouth moves with your lips…you breathe…smoke..talk…even eat thru it.” Fortunately, “Sanitary laws prohibit return of worn masks.” Because as Canadian writer André Berthiaume pointed out (probably in another context, but who knows?) “We all wear masks, and the time comes when we cannot remove them without removing some of our own skin.”
Send No Money! What a deal, I can afford that! Oh, wait, if I choose that option, I have to pay for the mask and C.O.D. charges to the postman? Never mind, I’ll send cash instead and let Rubber-For-Molds, Inc. pay the postage charges. Sadly, “George [unreadable]” from “427 6th St, Niagara Falls NY” apparently didn’t finish filling out the coupon, so we’ll never know which mask he would have chosen.
“No man, for any considerable period, can wear one face to himself and another to the multitude, without finally getting bewildered as to which may be the true.” You’re absolutely right, Nathaniel Hawthorne. If I purchase the “guaranteed perfect” Mystery Half-Wit rubber mask and wear it to “every dress-up occasion,” savouring the freedom from social constraints that it bestows upon me…will I eventually…become the Mystery Half-Wit?
Rampacked! The Sadist poster (1963) Although Arch Hall Jr.’s film career is more often cited for its campy, bad-movie value (Eegah!, Wild Guitar) than for its inherent quality, The Sadist is generally considered his best, most “legitimate” picture. Perhaps not coincidentally, the poster for The Sadist is also the most distinctive and well-designed Arch Hall Jr.-movie poster (although to be honest, none of the posters for his films is really poor). The excellent graphic design is slightly offset by the odd text, which is not only nonsensical at times but is also confused in terms of grammar and punctuation.
Still, the poster as a whole is quite effective. The yellow-tinted photographic (I think, although it’s been re-touched) inset of Hall’s crazy eyes is deliberately too large for the silhouette behind it. If it had been sized to fit the head, the impact wouldn’t have been quite so strong (and if the silhouette had been larger, the whole balance of the poster would’ve been off). The black silhouette and the purple background are a nice match, both dark but different enough to distinguish one from the other. The mix of photos (eyes, Hall Jr.’s figure) and art (the silhouette, the blonde victim) is interesting: not to over-think it (but hey, isn’t that what deconstruction is?), but making the Sadist himself more real (by using photographs) adds an extra dimension of threat, more than mere artwork of the character would have done.
The illustration of the terrified blonde is, for a change, not just “artistic license” or hyperbole, since The Sadist does include scenes in which one of the titular character’s victims (schoolteacher Doris, played by Arch Hall Jr.’s cousin, Helen Hovey, in her only film appearance) falls on the ground, has her clothing ripped, and looks terrified. The “fallen female victim” motif is ubiquitous in pop culture, featuring prominently on pulp magazine covers, movie posters, comic book covers, paperback books, and so on, over many many years. It’s nice to see that the artist matched up the gazes of fallen-Doris and psycho-Sadist: he stares evilly and lustily at her, and she looks back fearfully and suspiciously.
This is essentially a two-colour poster (purple and yellow), with the yellow reserved for the major points of impact—the eyes, the title-word SADIST—as well as the tag-line at the bottom (probably in yellow to balance the composition, with yellow elements at the top, in the middle and at the bottom).
The text of the poster doesn’t reach the same heights of effectiveness as the graphic elements, but it has its own charms (and flaws). “A human volcano of unpredictable terror!” isn’t a bad tag-line (and is also used in the theatrical trailer for the movie, available on YouTube), but whoever printed the poster added an inexplicable period: A HUMAN. VOLCANO OF UNPREDICTABLE TERROR! Usually, poster text could use extra punctuation to break up run-on sentences, but in this case someone got a bit over-zealous (or maybe that “period” is just a printing flaw, since it doesn’t seem to appear on every version of this poster that can be seen online—I actually own an original copy of this one-sheet, but don’t have time to track it down and check to see if the dot is on it, sorry).
The next line has attracted a bit of attention: “Never before a motion picture RAMPACKED with…suspense…terror…sudden shock, as THE SADIST.” First, this isn’t really a sentence. It should have been something along the lines of “Never before has there been a motion picture so RAMPACKED…[etc.]”
Also: RAMPACKED? This appears to be a neologism combining “jam-packed,” “rampage,” “crammed,” and/or “rammed.” Aside from the fact that “rampacked” sounds like the title of a gay porn movie, one wonders why a real word like “packed” wasn’t good enough. Ad agency writer: “It’s crammed with suspense…hmm…not strong enough. It’s packed with suspense? No…it’s jam-packed with suspense…not quite right…Wait! I’ve got it: it’s rampacked with suspense!” His colleague: “Rampacked?” Ad agency writer: “What? It’s a perfectly cromulent word.”
The rest of the poster copy is fairly routine, although “A Fairway International IMPACT Picture!” (to distinguish it from “A Fairway International ROUTINE Picture!” I would guess) is clever enough. The tag-line at the bottom of the poster is filled with buzzwords relating to the film’s title: a guy called The Sadist is of course filled with fiendish passion, and has to “torment, torture, kill.”
As an aside, the title of The Sadist is one of a number of ‘60s movies whose mentally-disturbed/sexual deviance-word titles seem to have been inspired by the success of Psycho (1960): The Psychopath (1966), Teenage Psycho Meets Bloody Mary (1964), Anatomy of a Psycho (1961), Confessions of a Psycho-Cat (1968), Psycho a Go-Go (1964), Satan’s Sadists (1969), The Torture Chamber of Dr. Sadism (1967), Psychedelic Sexualis (1966), etc.
The one-sheet poster for The Sadist is a surprisingly nice piece from a graphic-design standpoint. The layout, images, and colour work well together to convey a sense of danger, mental instability, and tension. The text is satisfactory, neither ludicrously overblown nor understated. So one might say this poster is RAMPACKED with effectiveness!
but some serious family-health issues have taken me away from the Internetz (at least, serious Internetzing) for the past month. Hope to return soon with more deconstruction of pop culture art!
Corrupted by Pop Culture: Baby Tiger Plays and Loses (1953) “Baby Tiger joue…et perd” was published in 1953 by Editions Le Trotteur, part of their short-lived “Roman de choc” (Shock Novels) series. Attributed to “John Ellis,” this was reportedly translated into French by author Gabriel Guignard, best-known as the author of several science-fiction novels of the era (“Pyramidopolis,” “Le rayon orange”). I’ve been unable to determine the original publication history of the Ellis novel (if indeed it exists), and suspect Guignard may be the actual author of the work.
The story, as described (in French) here , apparently deals with a petulant movie star named “Baby Tiger,” who runs afoul of organised crime.
In a previous post, I discussed the covers of several other Euro-crime paperbacks from this era, and “Baby Tiger” shares some of the same design elements. Rather than a realistic scene (ostensibly from the novel itself), the cover is presented as a sort of pin-up character study of (one assumes) the book’s protagonist.
The background consists of solid blocks of colour, which frame the main illustration, that of a frightened young woman wearing a stylish taffeta dress that exposes her shoulders, back, and legs. I particularly like the fact that the art shows the straps that hold up the dress (tied around her neck), rather than simply assuming the garment is held up by magic. The artist (referred to in various sources as either “Nik” or “Mik,” not that I can decipher the signature in the lower-righthand corner of the art at all) has effectively given her an expression which appears to be a combination of fear and disgust. To his credit, the face of the young woman on the cover is not conventionally pinup-pretty: she has character, and reminds me of some of the definitely-attractive but certainly…distinctive film noir actresses of the era, such as Lizbeth Scott, Audrey Totter and Gloria Grahame (Hollywood didn’t have a monopoly on such fascinating faces, French actresses of the era who fall into this category include Arletty, Simone Signoret, Michèle Morgan, and so on).
Another interesting thing about this cover is the assortment of objects with which Nik/Mik has surrounded Baby Tiger:
- a bottle of whisky (surprisingly, it looks full; on the other hand, no drinking glass is evident so perhaps she hasn’t got started on it yet)
- “Glow!” magazine (that seems to feature Baby Tiger herself on the cover)
- a playing card (the ace of spades, to be precise—a bad omen?)
- a photo of a man (which appears to be the kind of photo one clips from a magazine, rather than an actual photo a friend might give you)
- a phonograph record
So all we’re missing is a syringe (= drug use), a dead cop, and a pistol to approximate the famous “Thou Shalt Not” artwork illustrating forbidden topics (according to the Hays Office) in Hollywood films of the 1930s and 1940s.
As I’ve mentioned a few times, some Euro (and UK) pop literature of the post-WWII era liked to pass itself off as “American” in origin, and “Baby Tiger joue…et perd” does this with its title (neither “Baby” nor “Tiger” is French) and the authorship attribution to “John Ellis” (certainly Anglo, if not as blatantly Yank as “Spike Morelli” or “Mike Splane”). Whether or not the novel was originally written in English and published in the USA is irrelevant, the important thing is that it was sold at least partly on its alleged American-ness. The objects scattered around Baby Tiger on the cover aren’t strictly American, of course, but they tend to suggest modernity, post-war consumerism, celebrity culture, hedonism, sophistication, and glamour.
Speak Spanish, Chat Up Showgirls! (1946 comic book ad) This comes from the inside back cover of The Fighting Yank comics #16, dated May 1946. It shared the page with an advert for “Learn to Fight! Wrestle! Jiu-Jitsu!” books, but I thought I’d limit myself to a brief discussion of the “Speak Spanish” part only.
Spanish is “The Language of Romance and Opportunity,” and if the scantily-clad showgirl at right is any clue, we know what sort of “opportunity” they’re talking about (wink, wink). Let’s not quibble about the showgirl’s Carmen Miranda-esque headgear (since Miranda was Brazilian and spoke Portuguese, not Spanish), because there were plenty of dancers in other Latin countries (and in the USA for that matter) who wore similar outfits. It’s the sentiment that counts: Romance and Opportunity (i.e., Sex and Money) can be yours if you speak Spanish. [Note: I’m still waiting.]
The ad copy makes a strong pitch for learning foreign languages in order to triumph in the “postwar” world. The period at the end of World War II saw a considerable amount of optimism about (more or less) universal peace and international cooperation, which meant business opportunities for all (but especially Americans). Millions of people had, due to the global conflict, been introduced to foreign travel and culture, and—before those pesky things such as the Iron Curtain, the partition of India and China, the Korean War, etc., made the postwar world difficult—it looked like clear skies and fair winds all the way. “Plan your postwar campaign now,” reads the text. In other words, prepare yourself to take advantage of opportunities in places like Latin America (Spain isn’t mentioned, because screw Franco, that’s why).
Spanish is highlighted but the fine folks at the Pickwick Co. also offer the chance to study French, German, Polish, and Italian, and “easily master all 5 languages without any trouble.” “Just 10 minutes a day [for how long? 20 years?] and you’ll master the most difficult tongues.”
French is “A language used everywhere.” Okay, “everywhere” is sort of vague, but French-speaking countries include Canada (parts of it, anyway), French Guiana, quite a few African countries, and French Indochina (Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia), not to mention France itself. Might be useful.
German is “A post war language.” Um, I guess that means “now that we’ve defeated the Nazis and are occupying Germany, it might be a good idea to learn German so we can give the people orders and communicate with your fraulein girlfriend.” Now if Hitler had won, a lot more people would have been speaking German, but that’s neither here nor there.
Italian is “Fluently used every where.” Doubtful, but not quite as doubtful as…
Polish is “Universally spoken now.” *record scratch, double-take* What?! That seems a little hyperbolic to me. I’m pretty sure that, aside from various Polish enclaves in the USA, most Polish speakers (now and then) live in a relatively narrow geographical region of central Europe (it’s called Poland…well, and various neighbouring countries, to a lesser extent). I’m not questioning the value of learning to speak Polish, per se, but if only five language courses are offered, I’m not sure I’d put Polish on the short list. Maybe Russian or Chinese or Arabic? Or Portuguese (then you could chat up Carmen Miranda). The fact that the five languages offered are all Euro-centric is not surprising (and to learn Russian or Chinese or Arabic you also have to learn a new alphabet, which has always seemed daunting to me).
Still, you have to give the Pickwick Co. credit for selling in a comic book something which—in theory at least—is useful rather than frivolous. I’m not sure exactly how much material you’d get for $.50 per book: although at the time this ad was produced, paperback books were priced at $.25, so I’d imagine these language “courses” were fairly substantial volumes. And there’s a money-back guarantee!
One final point of interest: this advertisement appeared, as mentioned earlier, in The Fighting Yank comic book, a superhero title (although the Yank himself mostly fought run of the mill criminals) from the Nedor line. Most of the ads in the Nedor comics of this era were aimed at adults (“I Will Show You How to Start a Radio Service Business,” “Do You Want Longer Hair,” “Ladies’ and Men’s Rings,” and so forth), or were at least relevant to “all ages” (Baby Ruth candy bars, for instance). This suggests that comic books were aimed at (and appealed to) a much broader demographic than one might casually assume. In fact, the same ad appeared in the “funny-animal” title Happy Comics #13 (also May 1946), which may be because (a) Nedor sold blocks of ads in all of their publications, rather than targeting them by title, and/or (b) that Happy Comics, despite its assumed younger audience (for features such as “Little Billy Bear” and “Scamper Squirrel”), also had readers who might have an interest in learning Spanish (or, possibly, Polish). As Fats Waller would say, one never knows, do one?
Caught in an atomic explosion? Laugh it off! (The Atomic Kid, 1954) Radioactivity was discovered in the 1890s (Marie Curie coined the term), and although its adverse effects were obvious, for quite some time it was also believed to be beneficial (as opposed to harmless-but-useful, or destructive-but-useful). The Invisible Ray (1936) features both aspects, applied to a fictional “Radium X”—this element not only heals, but also converts Boris Karloff into a man whose mere touch can kill (and who eventually bursts into flame and dies himself).
Of course, prior to 1945, “radiation” in popular culture generally meant some variant of radium, x-rays, and so forth, with the concept of “atomic radiation” only gaining widespread traction after the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. A sudden surge of “atomic” references—by no means all negative, despite the destructive power of the bombs—can be seen in pop culture beginning in late 1945 and continuing for a number of years afterwards (there were three different comic book series published with “Atomic” in the title in 1946 alone). This initial fascination with atomic radiation dissipated somewhat, but never totally vanished: most of the radiation-created characters familiar to us today—such as the giant monsters in Fifties cinema, as well as Spiderman, the Hulk, and so forth—come from a decade or more after the end of WWII, rather than the immediate post-war period.
In 1954, in addition to the first screen appearance of Godzilla (a prehistoric creature revived by radiation), there were several innocuous comedies dealing with the effects of radiation. One of these was the Dean Martin-Jerry Lewis vehicle Living It Up, a remake of 1937’s Nothing Sacred. The original film starred Carol Lombard as a young woman mistakenly diagnosed with radium poisoning she’d contracted by working in a watch factory (an actual occurrence, unfortunately—radium paint was used for “glow in the dark” numerals and the employees responsible for painting the watch faces were adversely affected). The Fifties’ remake substitutes Jerry Lewis as a goofy guy who blunders into the Los Alamos atomic testing grounds and drives off in a car marked “Radioactive.” So naturally, everyone thinks he’s got radiation poisoning, too. But of course he hasn’t. So his hair doesn’t fall out, he doesn’t vomit blood, and he doesn’t die. That’s good, because those kinds of things would be really out of place in a comedy.
The Atomic Kid, on the other hand, deals with a guy who actually is exposed to nuclear radiation in an explosion, and comes out of it with tattered clothes, a blackened face like a cartoon character, and some magical powers (well, they’re not scientific powers, that’s for sure). Two uranium prospectors blunder into a government testing ground, and one of them—Blix (Mickey Rooney)— is caught in a mock-up house (populated by mannequins, although counter-intuitively the pantry is stocked with real food, setting up a joke—Rooney is shown eating a sandwich as the bomb goes off, and later emerges from the rubble, still clutching the now-toasted snack) when an atomic bomb is detonated nearby.
Blix’s “neutrons” are scrambled (which leads to two poster tag-lines, “Mickey’s flipping his neutrons!” and “Mickey, control your neutrons!”): he talks in speeded-up fashion, glows in the dark, and has strange effects on inanimate objects (slot machines pay off in his presence, for example). I suppose it could be worse, he could’ve had all his skin blasted off and then grown into an insane giant (The Amazing Colossal Man) or metamorphosed into a bestial killer (The Beast of Yucca Flats) or at the very least become a super-powerful, perpetually angry, green humanoid monster (“The Incredible Hulk”).
It’s easy today to gawp incredulously at The Atomic Kid, which was released less than 10 years after the bombings of Nagasaki and Hiroshima, yet uses a nuclear explosion as a comic device and demonstrates one can not only live through such a blast, but survive relatively unscathed.
There were some pop culture examples of tragic, non-atomic events having similar positive results—getting struck by lightning was a particularly frequent choice by writers—but it’s difficult to think of a more horrific event in real life than an atomic explosion that has been utilised in films for comedic effect. In bad taste? Well, that’s debatable. I suppose the filmmakers could argue that The Atomic Kid deals with a bomb test, and it’s not as if Rooney’s character survived a bombing that killed thousands of other people [*cough The Wolverine cough*] and he alone emerged with “funny” super-powers. Still…given the general impression that exists today of the Cold War and atomic panic of the early Fifties, the premise of The Atomic Kid feels odd. The protagonist could have been exposed to radiation in some other way, rather than an actual atom bomb blast, with similar “wacky” results, but then of course we wouldn’t have the big laugh-getting moment of blackened Mickey emerging from the rubble holding a sandwich.
A number of posters were created for The Atomic Kid. The one we’ve chosen to examine is the “title card” in the lobby card set, essentially a mini-poster in horizontal format. It repeats a couple of pieces of key art from the larger posters—Mickey flying through the air in an atomic explosion (complete with mushroom cloud, airborne debris, and a wrecked house), and his shocked pal Robert Strauss staring at a Geiger counter—as well as the main tag-line “An Explosion of Laughs!” (One poster spells it “Laffs,” and the Australian poster replaces this phrase with “It’s a Laugh Explosion!”)
Where the title-card differs from the one-sheet, insert, and half-sheet is in the inclusion of full-length, pin-up style art of “Elaine Davis (Mrs. Mickey Rooney).” The other posters use a closeup of Rooney and Davis kissing, framed by a device that (in the movie) measures Blix’s atomic excitement, or something. That reference is accurate but is a little obscure (you wouldn’t get it unless you’d already seen the film, which sort of defeats the purpose of a movie poster). The artwork on the title-card cleverly links Mickey’s physiological and emotional reaction to his curvaceous nurse with an increased level of personal radioactivity, as evidenced by the surprised look on Robert Strauss’s face and his comment “Mickey’s Radio Active [sic].” All of the posters show Rooney’s hair standing on end as well, a sure-fire laugh-getter.
The artwork on the posters for this film is a combination of realism and caricature, with a dash of pure cartoonishness tossed in. Rooney and Strauss are caricatured—the upper-left image of Rooney is what I call “puppet style,” with an overly-large head on a small body, but even the other two images of Rooney and Strauss are slightly exaggerated. The artwork of Elaine Davis is realistic; the dog next to Rooney at top, as well as the exploded house and flying pieces of furniture are cartoony.
The Atomic Kid was a “Mickey Rooney Production” released through Republic Pictures. After his long stint as small-town boy “Andy Hardy” (and Andy Hardy-clones) at MGM, Rooney moved into adult roles in the late 1940s and early 1950s. Most of these films were low-budget efforts, often independently produced even if released through major studios, and a number featured Rooney in dramatic parts. Since The Atomic Kid was his own production, Rooney presumably chose the story (by his friend Blake Edwards, an actor-turned-writer who’d written two previous Rooney vehicles and later became famous for the “Peter Gunn” TV series and the “Pink Panther” films, among other things), approved the script, hired the director (TV veteran Leslie Martinson, making his feature-film directorial debut), and (presumably) cast his then-wife as his co-star.
Model Elaine Davis (aka Elaine Devry) was married to Rooney from 1952 to 1959 (his fourth marriage, her second). Her billing on the poster as “Elaine Davis (Mrs. Mickey Rooney)” is an interesting bit of marketing. I’m not sure exactly what purpose this was intended to serve: it’s sort of useless to capitalise on Rooney’s name if she’s in a movie with Rooney himself (as opposed to billing her this way to ride Rooney’s coattails in a film in which he didn’t appear). Perhaps Rooney was just (a) bragging about how attractive his then-wife was (he’d previously been married to actresses Ava Gardner and Martha Vickers, who weren’t too bad themselves), and/or (b) staking his claim (“don’t get any ideas, fellows, she’s my wife!”). The billing is also quite awkward. Since “Elaine Davis” wasn’t her real name anyway (well, Elaine was her real middle name), wouldn’t “Elaine Rooney” have conveyed the same message in a less obtrusive manner?
[Perhaps the most egregious use of “Mrs.-billing” was that of “Mrs. Wallace Reid,” the widow of a famous silent film star. Wallace Reid died in 1923 after suffering from medically-induced morphine addiction for several years. Afterwards, his wife, actress Dorothy Davenport—now billed as “Mrs. Wallace Reid”—produced, directed, wrote, and occasionally acted in a number of films over the next decade. In the mid-1930s, she began to take credit as “Dorothy Reid,” apparently desiring more personal recognition—or perhaps her late husband’s memory had faded in the public’s mind. To be fair, Mrs. Reid’s first—and perhaps most justified—use of her husband’s name was on an anti-drug film, Human Wreckage (1923), in which she played both a fictional role and herself (in a documentary epilogue).]
The other interesting but more conventional billing on the poster references beagle-faced actor Robert Strauss’s break-out role in the previous year’s hit comedy Stalag 17 (another comedy film with an odd premise—humour in a prisoner of war camp). Presumably it wasn’t felt necessary to trumpet the previous films of the other billed actors Bill Goodwin, Whit Bissell, Fay Roope, or Hal March.
Even if one feels the concept of The Atomic Kid was in questionable taste, the posters for this film do a good job of conveying the basic idea of the movie: Mickey Rooney, caught in an atomic explosion, wacky results, attractive female co-star, shady sidekick, “an explosion of laughs!” Potentially.
Saving Prime Minister Churchill: Weird Comics 20 (January 1942) Winston Churchill had already been a prominent political figure for much of the 20th century, but when named Prime Minister of Great Britain in May 1940 (replacing Neville Chamberlain), Churchill also very quickly became the face (and voice) of wartime England around the world, in both Allied and Axis propaganda and popular culture.
Prime Minister Churchill began appearing in American comic books in early 1941: although the United States was not yet in the war, public opinion heavily preferred the British over the Germans, and comic books were filled with particularly blatant anti-Nazi content (although in some early instances the Nazis were not specifically identified, by 1941 there was open, antagonistic use of the terms “Hitler” and “Nazis,” as well as hostile depictions of the swastika).
The April 1941 issue (note: comics were usually cover-dated several months after the comic was actually on sale, so this would have been available early in 1941) of “True Comics” number 1 (a non-fiction comic published by Parents Magazine) put Winston Churchill on the cover, labeled him “World Hero No. 1,” and spent 17 of the issue’s 68 pages telling the Prime Minister’s life story in comic book format.
Churchill would also appear on the cover of the non-fiction comic book "Real Heroes" number 1 (May 1942) another Parents Magazine publication, where he was portrayed with President Franklin D. Roosevelt and China’s Generalissimo Chiang Kai-Shek, leaders of the united front against the fascist Axis.
Winston Churchill can be seen as a character in fictional pop culture of the era as well. Some comic book stories utilised Churchill for cameo appearances only, while in others he was a significant part of a fictional narrative. [This was not limited to U.S. media—a thinly-disguised Prime Minister was the target of a German plot in the 1943 British feature film Warn That Man!] At least three wartime American comic books placed Churchill on their covers, each time showing him stuck in perilous situations from which he has to be rescued by “American” superheroes.
I put quotes around “American” because the first “Saving Prime Minster Churchill” cover was on "Sub-Mariner Comics" number 3, dated Fall 1941. Churchill (whom the colourist has given a canary-yellow suit—that’s alright, several naval officers are also wearing bright yellow uniforms), wearing his signature homburg hat and smoking a cigar, is preparing to launch a warship—flying the British flag but obviously constructed in a U.S. shipyard—and is in danger of assassination at the hands of some green-robed villains. Stepping in to prevent this is Namor, the Sub-Mariner, not technically an “American” but rather the half-human prince of a subterranean world (later identified as Atlantis).
This comic probably refers (in an oblique manner) to the Lend-Lease program (signed into law in March 1941) and its predecessor, the “Destroyers for Bases” agreement: both programs involved the United States sending warships (and, in the case of Lend-Lease, other supplies and weapons) to Great Britain, although the USA wasn’t yet in the war. And, as we shall see, it sets the tone for several later comic book covers: an American superhero (representing the USA) saves Churchill (representing the UK) from fascist villains (representing…fascist villains).
"USA Comics" number 5 (cover-dated Summer 1942), also features a Churchill-in-peril cover. The British prime minister is not wearing his homburg nor smoking a cigar this time. Instead, he’s dressed in a uniform with an officer’s cap: Churchill was photographed wearing various uniforms during WWII, and this particular cover seems to have been inspired by his honorary “Air Commodore” rank. Unfortunately, the British leader has apparently fallen into the hands of the Axis powers (Hitler, Mussolini, and a generic Japanese military type) and is being compelled at knifepoint to sign peace treaties. Fortunately for the Allies, the rather spindly-legged “Victory Boys” (seriously, they look more like supernatural imps than juvenile costumed heroes) crash the “Axis World Order Meeting” and rescue Sir Winston.
It’s easy to read this cover as an allegory as well, depicting the youthful and vigorous United States (in the persons of the 4 Victory Boys) coming to the aid of Great Britain (represented by Churchill) and preventing the British from signing unilateral peace treaties with the Axis. At the time this comic was created, the United States was officially an ally of Great Britain, but the global war situation was not bright, so while the idea of a separate peace was probably never considered by Winston Churchill, it was not inconceivable that the United Kingdom might face the same fate that had befallen France, the Netherlands, Poland, Belgium, and so on.
The final “Saving Prime Minister Churchill” cover examined here is from “Weird Comics” number 20, dated January 1942 (and thus would have been on sale before Pearl Harbor and America’s entry into the war). Possibly drawn by Louis Cazeneuve (an Argentine artist who’d emigrated to the USA in 1939), the cover depicts superhero “The Eagle” and his juvenile sidekick “Buddy.” One might be tempted to compare them to Captain America and Bucky—although the Eagle character actually pre-dated Captain America in comics, he didn’t adopt the patriotic flag-motif costume shown on this cover until the summer of 1941, some months after Captain America had made his successful debut. The Eagle’s secret identity also changed occupations, from civilian scientist “Bill Powers” to “Captain Grant [sometimes Bill] Powers,” a member of the U.S. Army (in the July 1941 issue of “Weird Comics” he tells Buddy he’s a reserve officer who’s been called to active duty). Was it just a coincidence that Captain America’s secret identity, Steve Rogers, was also in the Army? Sure it was…a coincidence…yeah, that’s the ticket…
Although the caption on the cover reads “Before the dictator and his cohorts could make away with Vernoff [,] the Eagle was upon them,” the kidnap victim is obviously intended to represent Winston Churchill. Homburg hat? Yes. Cigar? Yes. Facial features recognisable as the Prime Minister? Yes. [Moreso than either “Sub-Mariner” 3 or “USA Comics” 5, in fact. You can even see the disgruntled expression on his face, as if he’s thinking “I definitely need to get better bodyguards.”] The image of Big Ben in the background further situates this scene as taking place in London. Oh, and the headline on the newspaper visible at the bottom of the page (beneath the white and yellow text boxes) reads “—e Minister Kidnap—” which seems like a pretty good approximation of “Prime Minister Kidnaped,” doesn’t it?
[Since “Weird Comics” number 20 is one of the few issues of this title to not be available online (yet), I don’t know exactly what the interior story entails, if there is a “Vernoff” and if he looks like Churchill, or what.]
One of the other facets of this cover that has always amused me was the idea that Adolf Hitler (referred to in the caption as “the dictator,” which was pre-Pearl Harbor code for the Nazi leader) would personally travel to London in the middle of the war to abduct the British prime minister! And Hitler doesn’t even bother with a disguise, he’s wearing one of the (non-existent, blame the colourist) crimson Nazi uniforms that were all the rage in 1941 (sarcasm)! Way to not draw attention to yourself, Hitler.
His shaven-headed, possibly monocle-wearing, brutish henchman (delegated to rowing the boat, because Der Fuehrer wouldn’t lower himself to doing manual labour) is also sporting red duds. Say what you will about “the dictator” and his “cohorts,” they aren’t shy or timid. Their plan? Go up the Thames in a rowboat, snatch Winston Churchill from Number 10 Downing Street, then drift back down the Thames to (presumably) a waiting U-boat, and…Bob’s your uncle! We’ve got Churchill! England’s out of the war!
[Some other comic covers of the war era also showed a hands-on Hitler infiltrating enemy country. For example, on the cover of "Speed Comics" number 16, a helmeted Hitler has penetrated the basement of the White House with a horde of green gremlins, and Hitler pilots a drill-machine that breaks through the “New York Tunnel” on the cover of "USA Comics" number 2.]
But Adolf’s daring plan is foiled at the last moment by superheroes The Eagle and Buddy, “the daredevil boy.” Once again, the United States symbolically comes to the aid of Great Britain in its fight against Nazi Germany, as personified respectively by The Eagle and Buddy (definitely not Captain America and Bucky, why would you think that?), Winston “Don’t Call Me Vernoff” Churchill, and Adolf “The Dictator” Hitler.
It’s interesting to note that wartime popular culture—of all kinds, including propaganda posters, movies, and comic books—contained far more images of Axis leaders than Allied leaders. This may be attributed at least in part to the negative slant of much “fictional” or “dramatic” propaganda, attacking the enemy rather than conveying positive messages. It’s more exciting and/or humorous to show Hitler, Mussolini, and Hirohito (or Tojo) getting their comeuppance than it is to have FDR, Churchill, or Chiang Kai-Shek urge one to observe gas rationing rules or to buy bonds. Furthermore, particularly in the case of President Roosevelt, pop culture was apparently reluctant to employ the nation’s dignified leader in a fictional narrative, perhaps for fear of being accused of vulgarly exploiting the office or the man.
Winston Churchill, almost by default, thus became a favourite of propagandists. He was a dynamic, eccentric, determined, likeable public figure, and the leader of a country that many Americans admired and felt a certain kinship with. Consequently, his image cropped up frequently in pop culture. And if comic books like “Weird Comics” number 20 showed him in need of American assistance, well…the Yanks are coming, Winston!