Wednesday, December 07, 2022
The Happy Hooligan Shell Game
Today we think of Happy Hooligan as an iconic comic character of newspaper comics' platinum age. But was it viewed with the same veneration at the time? I wonder if it was perhaps not. Unlike the Katzenjammer Kids, which the funnies reading public seemed to accept as a permanent and unchanging fixture, Fred Opper's Happy Hooligan seemed to go to some lengths to make his presence unobtrusive, like a crazy aunt who stubbornly refuses to keep herself under wraps in the attic.
What the heck am I talking about? Our story begins in 1916, when the Happy Hooligan Sunday went on hiatus from January 16 to June 11 1916. In the interim, Opper redoubled his efforts on weekday strips, and introduced a new Sunday page, called The Swift Work of Count DeGink.
Evidently the new Sunday page failed to impress funnies readers, or at least the Hearst editors, as it got the thumbs down after a three month run. Happy Hooligan was brought back, now under the title Happy Hooligan's Honeymoon. In this iteration of the strip, Happy finally weds the fair Suzanne, and they take a rowdy round the world trip. Two years would pass before Opper once again looked for greener pastures.
On June 16 1918, with Happy Hooligan right in the middle of a storyline in which he is trying to catch a steamer to go find his brother Montmorency, readers opened their Sunday section to find he's taken a powder, replaced with a new Opper strip, The Dubb Family. Here Opper gave the Sunday page treatment to a favorite subject of his, the disparity between the downtrodden proletariat (Mr. Dubb) and the avaricious, entitled bourgeoisie (Mr. Dough). Happy Hooligan, it seemed, was no more.
But wait! Just over three months later, on October 6 1918, the title was changed back to Happy Hooligan, and now Mr. Dough and Mr. Dubb were added to the tin-hatted one's already extensive list of supporting players. The story seems to pick right up as if it had continued off-stage while we were busy reading The Dubb Family.
But Opper was still restless. Two months later, on December 8 1918, the title of the strip was changed to Mister Dubb*, and Happy Hooligan was once again banished, losing out to the weekly sparrings of Dough and Dubb. The title Mister Dubb would last almost two and a half years, until April 24 1921, but after almost a year in comic strip purgatory Happy Hooligan returned to become a co-star in the strip. His re-entry was on November 9 1919.
Then, on May 1 1921, the strip was retitled Down on the Farm, and the focus shifted to Si, Mirandy and their troublesome mule, Maud. Once again Happy Hooligan disappeared, as did Dough and Dubb. But it wan't long before Opper tired of the oft-repeated old gags associated with Maud the kicking mule, and by the end of June Alphonse and Gaston had shown up, and then Happy Hooligan came to the farm with Mr. Dubb in tow. The gang was back, just in a new setting. This latest title lasted over two years, until July 29 1923.
Then, after four and a half years reduced to a secondary character in his own strip, Happy Hooligan was once again granted title billing. And readers might have thought it was for good now, because the status quo remained for over two years. But on August 9 1925, Opper caved in once again to the siren call of his class war strip, and the strip was renamed Mr. Dough and Mr. Dubb. Once again Happy Hooligan was evicted from his own strip, only to be returned as a second banana in December 1925.
Finally on January 16 1927 Opper waved the white flag and caved in to Happy Hooligan, the star actor who would not be denied, and renamed the strip for the last time, back to it's original title. From then until the strip finally ended on August 14 1932, Happy Hooligan remained in his rightful spot, top billing.
I do wonder, though, why Opper went through these gyrations. If he was concerned that Happy Hooligan was no longer a reader favorite by 1916, his many experiments should have shown him the truth without going at it for over a decade. In fact, in my research I have found that newspapers that carried the strip often seemed to take these title changes away from Happy Hooligan as their cue to drop the strip. It must have been blatantly obvious by seeing his client list dwindle that Happy Hooligan was the rightful star and proper title character of the strip.
On the other hand, if Opper's meanderings were a result of creative boredom, which seems more likely, how impressive that the Hearst organization allowed him such latitude. They undoubtedly knew that these name changes did nothing positive for the strip's circulation, and yet they went along with it for the creator's sake. If that's the truth, how very impressive.
* Actually titled The Dubb Family the first week back.
My take on this was that Opper was pretty much given carte blanche with whatever he wanted to do. He was a superstar of comicsdom, and Hearst was happy to give him all the freedom he wanted, so he could bring his old characters back or leave them dormant for however long he liked. Most all of his old characters did come back. A few didn't, like "Howson Lott", but the successful stars of 1902 could dependably be hangers-on in 1927.
I would have thought Dough & Dubb would have been short-lived, but they jumped from daily editorial gags to slapstick Sunday stars. In the final years,the top strip regurgitated other old timers like Maude, which often had the rest of the Opper characters guesting as well. The Antedulluvians took the top strip sometimes, but I don't recall Happy, et al, showing up there, but why not?
A similar situation occured with Swinnerton, right into the 1930's, you might see Sam, Violet or Mr. Batch in on a Little Jimmy story.