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*** This review may contain spoilers ***
The comic strip 'Happy Hooligan' was written and drawn by Frederick
Burr Opper (without assistants) for an impressively long time: 1900 to
1932. It was the first extremely popular American comic strip, the
first major comic strip syndicated by King Features, and the first
comic strip to spawn a significant amount of tie-in merchandising
(including movies). Although Opper was not the first comic-strip artist
to use speech balloons, 'Happy Hooligan' was the earliest strip to
formalise this device.
The strip's main character was a tramp, nominally of Irish descent, who improbably wore an empty tin can balanced on top of his head. Happy Hooligan bore a strong resemblance -- more in behaviour than in physical appearance -- to Alley Sloper, a character in comic magazines published in late Victorian England. One of my most prized possessions is an original full-colour Sunday page from a 1908 California newspaper, depicting Happy Hooligan and his siblings in England, getting carted off in barrels by Cockney constables.
This crude short movie from 1900 -- released only a few months after Hooligan's debut -- was the first of dozens of live-action movies and cartoons depicting the comic-strip character. The slapstick situation in this short film is generic: it fits the behaviour of Hooligan as depicted in Opper's comic strip, but it could just as easily fit the antics of any baggy-pants comedian from that period. Are the events we witness here a dramatisation of an actual Hooligan strip from 1900? Or have these film-makers successfully invented an original story for Opper's creation? As I've seen only a few dozen Hooligan strips, and only three from 1900, I can't say for certain.
SPOILERS NOW. The plot, you say? There's not much of it. An organ-grinder, presumably Italian, is plying his trade outside a housewife's window. She sticks her head out, and berates him to move on. He remains. The housewife retreats into her house. Happy Hooligan enters from stage left (this movie was filmed on what's blatantly a stage set) and persuades the organ-grinder to ambulate. From stage right enters a constable, and plants himself squarely where the organ-grinder had been. Here now, what's all this, then? The housewife emerges again, with a pail of water intended for the organ-grinder ... but she dumps it on the cop instead. Gardy-loo! Happy Hooligan laughs merrily.
Unless some British film studio made a movie in the 1890s featuring Alley Sloper, this epic from 1900 is the very first movie starring a comic-strip character ... in live action, no less. I was very intrigued to discover that the actor(?) impersonating Happy Hooligan in this film is none other than J Stuart Blackton. A former newspaper cartoonist, Blackton became a film-maker early on, and achieved several historic precedents as a film director and producer. He is not generally remembered as a film actor, so his appearance in front of the camera here -- in elaborate costume, including a slap-headed wig with a tin can on top -- is noteworthy.
Less favourably, this film is also notable because the cameraman keeps reframing the action, nudging the camera a few inches to the left or the right. This is especially annoying because it's arbitrary: when the actors enter, exit, or cross the stage, the camera remains stationary ... but it pans to one side or the other for no good reason while the actors are standing still. This is clearly a tech error from the days when movie-makers were still inventing the rules of film grammar. But I've never seen this error in a J Stuart Blackton film that was actually shot by Blackton himself. Maybe if Blackton had swapped places with his cameraman, putting the camera jockey into costume as Happy Hooligan while Blackton manned the camera, this might have been a better movie.
This film's significance is entirely historical, as there's nothing in the action that you haven't seen in a dozen other slapstick shorts. My rating: 5 out of 10.
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