Thursday, September 10, 2015

 

Obscurity of the Day: Vanilla and the Villains






If you like your comedy dramatic, and your drama comedic, look no farther than Vanilla and the Villains to give you healthy doses of old-fashioned melodrama with tongue firmly in cheek. Although you could say of the strip, which debuted on September 10 1928, that it was an unabashed rip-off of Hairbreadth Harry, that wouldn't be totally fair. Y'see, the strip, though credited only to artist Darrell McClure, was (I am assured  by multiple sources) written by none other than the great Harry Hershfield.

Why does that pardon the strip's obvious copycatting? Well, because Harry Hershfield had been writing this style of satiric melodrama since 1910's Desperate Desmond. While Hairbreadth Harry  pre-dates even that, Hershfield's strip was a daily, and the story continuities were much more involved than Kahle's strip, which was more episodic in nature on its weekly Sunday appearances. I see Vanilla as Hershfield's return to the style of Desperate Desmond, not as an attempt to trade off the popularity of Hairbreadth Harry, which by 1928 was not all that great.

Vanilla and the Villains stars the delectably waifish and scantily clad Southern belle Vanilla, who is constantly being kidnapped by no-goodniks like Lambert Leer and The Master Mind. Villains who are mesmerized by the beauteous Vanilla are again and again foiled by her fearless and steadfast boyfriend, Stonewall. The stories are completely and utterly wacky pastiches of nail-biting Victorian thrillers, and the writing sparkles like a jewel. Hershfield was obviously having great fun writing this material, and the excitement infected cartoonist Darrell McClure, who on occasion signed himself 'Desperate Darrell McClure' as homage to Hershfield's early strip.

Vanilla and the Villains was distributed by King Features, which didn't seem to put much effort into the marketing, as it certainly ran in very few papers. Why they even put this strip on the roster is a mystery, as Hershfield and McClure had just tried another very much like it, Hard-Hearted Hickey, that had been cancelled after less than six months. Vanilla and the Villains did better, at least in terms of longevity. Though often believed to have ended in 1929, I can trace it to at least March 1 1930. That date has it ending in mid-story, so perhaps there is even more of the strip out there waiting to be found. The strip was advertised in Editor & Publisher's 1930 syndicate directory, which would seem to indicate that it lasted well into the summer of even fall of that year. Can anyone help to find the end of the run to this forgotten classic?

PS: Speaking of further research being needed, in doing some research on this strip, I came across a mention in Ron Goulart's The Funnies of Gerald Greenback by Ray McGill, which he cites as being another of these humorous melodramas of the 1920s. Has anyone any evidence of this strip's existence? I certainly have never seen it nor heard of it outside this single reference.

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