Wednesday, November 29, 2017
Obscurity of the Day: Hitz and Mrs.
Starting at the end of 1923, Milt Gross embarked on a long and almost unbroken run of very successful comic strip titles -- Banana Oil, Nize Baby, Count Screwloose of Tooloose, Dave's Delicatessen, That's My Pop, and others. One of his last brushes with obscurity was with the series Hitz and Mrs., which ran from April 9 to December 29 1923. It was produced for Pulitzer, where he would stay until he jumped ship to Hearst in 1930.
While Hitz and Mrs. did not set the syndication world on fire, Gross was definitely beginning to hit on all his comedic cylinders. Fowler Hitz and his better half are prototypical Gross shlemiels, even if Gross was not yet letting his Yiddish hang out in public view. The raucous gags and sometimes bizarre humor are prototypical Gross.
On October 27, Gross added an extra panel cartoon to each installment, titled Applesauce. The term was contemporary slang that was an expression of incredulity and disbelief. In other words, if the used flivver salesman told you that a car was only driven by a little old lady to church on Sundays, your response would be "Applesauce!". This panel cartoon went on for a month, until Gross had an even better idea. Instead of the existing slang term, he'd invent his own equivalent. On the strip of November 26 and thereafter, the panel was renamed Banana Oil, and an idiom was born. Here's the first strip to use Gross' newly minted bit of slang:
On the final week of Hitz and Mrs., Mr. Hitz keeps getting handed a piece of paper that says "Banana Oil" on it. This was Gross' equivalent to a pink slip for the Hitz duo, and the next week he dumped the Hitz family and renamed the strip to Banana Oil.
I do wonder why Mr. Gross happened to pick this term. Oddly enough, banana oil is actually a real thing. It is the common name for the chemical compound isoamyl acetate. This somewhat nasty chemical, which can be produced from banana plants, is used in low concentrations to flavor foods. In higher concentrations it is used as a solvent, in making brass coatings, and for stiffening aircraft surfaces. In newspapers of the day, you can find advertisements offering it for sale, and occasional news articles in which it is blamed for making people very ill from the fumes.