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Frederick Burr Opper’s Happy Hooligan


Frederick Burr Opper’s Happy Hooligan

Viewed in retrospect, post-Depression, however, he acquires a special poignancy. Here was a man who was only ever trying to help, never asking for favors, loved by children, and here was a society intent on beating him down. The line between comedy and tragedy is a fine one, and Hooligan’s lines were pretty fine.

Frederick Burr Opper's Happy Hooligan
Frederick Burr Opper’s Happy Hooligan
Ed. By Jeffrey Lindenblatt, Introduction by Allan Holtz
Forever Nuts, 110 pp.
CLR [rating:4]

The Hapless Hooligan of the Early Funny Papers

The world around us grows dark. The curtain rises on the flickering shape of an infant wailing in a baby carriage. His nurse, oblivious to his distress, is chatting to a walrus-moustached cop in front of a building. Deep in the background, shielded by the building’s wall, another portly policeman is approaching. And just in the frame, and sporting a tin can and a crownless hat on their balding pates, are two rather unusual characters.

The man with the tin can sees the baby. His heart goes out to it. He approaches the carriage. The portly policeman from the background draws nearer to the corner.

“Tut, tut, Youse mustn’t cry,” the tin can man soothes, and as he leans over we see how dreadfully poor he really is, with baggy pants patched at the knees and frayed at the cuffs. “I’ll wheel youse back and forward a little,” he says to the grinning baby. The portly policeman is at the corner and…

Bang! Our hapless character shoves the carriage smack into the cop. “He’s stealing the child!” cries the nurse as yet another pedestrian, with a giant overcoat and a mad-hatter hat, approaches the corner. “You tried to knock me down!” cries the portly policeman, club drawn. “Leggo that club!” cries his fellow officer as our brimless bystander tries to save his friend from a beating.

But there’s no hope for our odd couple. They are collared, their simian faces wreathed in expressions of bewilderment. The nurse reclaims the carriage while the mad hatter begins cheerfully drinking the milk from the baby’s dropped bottle.

And who was tin can hero? A forgotten star of the silent era, a Buster Keaton or Charlie Chaplin lost to time? No, he was Happy Hooligan, the brainchild of Frederick Burr Opper and one of the most popular cartoon characters in the early funny papers. From 1900-1932, this Good Samaritan from Brooklyn bumbled his way through a series of doomed attempts at helping others. Nobody was safe from his ministrations.

If you’re intrigued, you will find him in Happy Hooligan, a compilation of cartoons assembled by the editor Jeffrey Lindenblatt and accompanied by pithy and enlightening articles from Allan Holtz and Cole Johnson. Book-wise, Happy Hooligan is a trifle scattered – the print quality is sometimes poor (the fault of the original publication, no doubt) and the book only covers strips from 1902-1913. But for cartoon-lovers, it is a revelation.

As Cole Johnson points out, Hooligan was not an isolated phenomenon. Along with other characters of the time like Little Jimmy and Lazy Lew, Hooligan was destined to repeat his vaudevillian gag ad infinitum. Every week he would try to rescue a dog or fetch a rich man’s hat, and every week he would end up on the way to prison, trapped in a groundhog day of disaster ’til the very end.

It was simple. It was funny. It sold. And in the era of William Randolph Hearst’s cheap Sunday papers (where Hooligan appeared), you’d better be sure you sold. Opper, who had originally worked as an illustrator for the more sophisticated and political periodicals of Leslie’s and Puck, had to learn fast when he went over to Hearst and, once he had Hooligan down, he played him for laughs for the next 30 years.

His genius, like the genius of Laurel & Hardy or the Three Stooges, lay in his marriage of his wit with his wherewithal. For the wherewithal, he created a simple soul, Hooligan, and surrounded him with a rich stock company. The brimless wonder is Montmorency, Hooligan’s equally innocent brother who has somehow been blessed with a toffee English accent. The mad hatter is Gus, an inspired tubular figure who always sees trouble coming but never lifts a finger to prevent it (usually because he will reap the spoils of the situation).

Then there are the policemen, always large, Hooligan’s Huey, Dewey, and Louie-like nephews who speak in threes – “Don’t hoit” “Uncle” “Happy!” and an anemic set of women, including a love interest named Suzanne. Having established these personalities and a predetermined narrative, Opper was free to exercise his imagination. He takes Hooligan from Puritan Plymouth to Buckingham Palace, from the circus to the Sphinx. His drawings burst with energy, lines shooting out from the hits that Hooligan is taking, scenes packed with characters clothed in clownish costumes, settings saturated with bizarre hues of yellow, red, blue, and green.

There is so much movement going on that one can sometimes miss the subtlety. Hooligan must always play the innocent, of course, but Opper gives us a prod every now and then to remind us of his previous training at Pucks.

While in France, for instance, the cops alter their usual “Stop” or “Get off” to “Forward Cops of France,” with its echoes of Allons Enfant de la Patrie from “La Marseillaise”. On another occasion, Hooligan, Cyrano-like, serenades the Widow Spuds for his brother Gus with a soulful rendition of “Sally in Our Alley.”

Sometimes the subtlety can be as small as a flick of a pen. When Hooligan acquires a new set of clothes, his tin can suddenly becomes silver and shiny. When a camel kicks him into the face of the Sphinx, the Sphinx looks mightily pissed off. And when he spills a stein in Germany (a grave crime, according to Opper), it takes us a moment to realize that judge, jury, and court recorder all have steins in front of them.

Opper even went so far as to break the fourth wall, often using Hooligan’s brothers to commentate on the unfolding scene. Gus, with his divine undiluted selfishness, is a particular favorite of mine in this respect, Though frequently a prognosticator, “now let the clubbing begin,” Gus occasionally lets fly with pure inspiration. Upon viewing the royal armory, he turns to us and deadpans “I’ll bet they were made in Pittsburgh.”

This and other of Opper’s techniques (the deep perspective, the ironic set-up in the first “frame,” the storyboard view of the narrative) have a distinct cinematic flavor, and one can argue that the comics of Mack Sennett’s Keystone Studios owe as much to print as they do the stage traditions of vaudeville, music hall, and Roman comedy.

Similarly, one can see traces of Hooligan’s ancestry in many beloved 20th century conceptions – Elmer Fudd, Tom and Jerry, Wile E. Coyote and Road Runner – who were thrust into a slapstick situation where the ground rules always stayed the same.

Seen in the context of this long tradition, Opper ultimately created a great gag, a caricatured layabout with an appalling taste in orange polka dot undershirts. Viewed in retrospect, post-Depression, however, he acquires a special poignancy.

Here was a man who was only ever trying to help, never asking for favors, loved by children, and here was a society intent on beating him down. The line between comedy and tragedy is a fine one, and Hooligan’s lines were pretty fine.

Yet Opper was nothing if not smart, and knew we could only put up with so much. Rarely, just rarely, the schmuck from Brooklyn gets a break. In isolated strips, when all seemed lost, he does get the girl, the cake, or the dog.

And even his dire enemies, ultimately, can’t resist him. When, in 1906, Hooligan returns from his extended travels, only to smash a trunk on the gangway of the ship, the cops greet him not with a club to the head but a jovial escort to prison. “This seems like old times,” one of them grins and Hooligan, with a yapping dog at his feet, half-smiles back at us.

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Elinor Teele is a freelance writer and photographer living in Massachusetts. In addition to reviews and essays, she writes short stories, novels and plays for children and adults. An adopted New Zealander, she holds a PhD in English Literature from the University of Cambridge, England.

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