Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Rube Goldberg's April Fool's Day Comics

Of all the great American newspaper comic strip cartoonists, Rube Goldberg perhaps most embraced the spirit of the repressed mischievous prankster. It's no surprise that, while Goldberg regularly commemorated national holidays such as Christmas and July 4 (also his birthday) in his daily newspaper comic strip, he seemed to invest extra effort into his strips that ran on April 1, or April Fool's Day -- the day of the prankster.

Goldberg's April 1 strips offered a variety of tongue-in-cheek set ups, including fake cartoons, spurious announcements, and puzzles that, when assembled, formed the words "April Fool." One gets the sense that, while other artists drew strips such as The Katzenjammer Kids about merry jokesters, Rube Goldberg himself was one of those kids!

Being a sensitive person who seemed to like people, Goldberg rarely -- if ever -- stooped to playing practical jokes on others. He might lacerate you with slashes of his comic wit, but he probably wouldn't put salt in the sugar bowl. Instead, he sublimated his impulse to prank into his work, and his April Fool's Day comics often ripped away the facade and laid bare the desire to trick. This can be seen in his April 1st strip of 1914 that makes fun of the common tricks of the day:

April 1, 1914

Early in his career, Goldberg had been the victim of a cruel practical joke. In 1905, as a newcomer to the staff at the San Francisco Bulletin, the 22-year old cartoonist had been ostracized and hazed by the jaded newspapermen whose ranks he was attempting to join. Rube was assigned the job of attending an evening football game and drawing a cartoon about it for the next day's edition. He carefully prepared his desk top, laid out with his drawing tools and paper so that when he returned  to his office in the early hours of the morning after a long day he could get right to work and do his best. When he returned however, he found his materials inside his desk, which was nailed shut. Something snapped in Rube Goldberg that night. With his jaw set and eyes burning in anger, he nailed shut the desks of everybody in the office. When his co-workers discovered what he had done the next morning, they laughed and suddenly, the young man was one of them.

In his 1920 April Fool's joke, Goldberg made a satirical play on one of his favorite themes, technological progress. He drew a large black spot and told his readers, represented in the strip by a motley crew of slack-jawed boobs, to glue it into the center of a record and stare at it until they could see the "actual face of the person whose voice you hear." His characters, Mike and Ike, in the adjacent panel break through the panel border and comment on the main strip while pointing to the date inscribed below their feet. The strip is a masterful tour de force.

April 1, 1920 - courtesy of Jennifer George, Rube Goldberg Inc. and The Bancroft Library

In 1918, Goldberg devoted most of his daily strips to small continuities with his characters Mike and Ike, so its no surprise that they are featured in his April 1 episode. In a set-up worthy of Samuel Beckett, the identical twins are running frantically towards a meeting with the man that draws them. They hope, in a rather deep way, to learn the secrets of their existence, including how to tell themselves apart -- who is Mike and who is Ike? Of course, as it seems to be in real life, the whole thing turns out to be a cosmic gag, but not before we've had a chance to be entertained by a surprisingly clever and artful comic strip.

April 1, 1918 - (from the collection of Paul Tumey)
Perhaps the most literally odd example of an admittedly odd series of comics, Goldberg's April 1, 1919 strip subverted the form by using photographs instead of cartoons. While this parody of beauty may seem a little harsh and uncaring by today's standards, this type of humor was very common in America at this time.

April 1, 1919 - courtesy of Jonathan Barli and Rosebud Archives
Goldberg's 1921 April Fool's comic was a gentler joke. He repeated this gag again, ten years later, in 1931. Both strips are reproduced in the recent deluxe book THE ART OF RUBE GOLDBERG selected by Jennifer George (Abrams ComicArts, 2013).

April 1, 1921 - courtesy Jonathan Barli and Rosebud Archives
While Rube Goldberg often created special comic strips for April 1st (has any other cartoonist so regularly made this day his own?), "An Accident," his April 1, 1915 comic strip, might stand as the best of the lot. The strip, which was printed large at 16 inches across (as was typical for his dailies of the 1910s), is a Cubist deconstruction of the comic strip, with a dozen or so mis-matched parts from a week's worth of strips jumbled together in a bewildering arrangement With his delightful and typical dry-as-dust wit, Rube writes a fake explanation that the strips were dropped and "broken." Despite the bizarre visual chaos of his conceit, the tropes and memes of everyday humor comics can be gleaned from the bits and pieces, making the cartoon an imaginative1915 meta commentary on comics themselves.

April 1, 1915 - from the collection of Paul Tumey

All in all, the Rube Goldberg April Fool's Day comic strips represent a delightful and clever assortment of comics by a screwballistic master.

That is All,
Screwpaul Ball

Saturday, January 18, 2014

Tracks of My Tiers: A Jimmy Swinnerton 1909 Video and Runaway Pie Wagon Comix


Here's a little video I made from a scan of a great James ("Jimmy") Swinnerton half page Sunday comic, originally published May 19, 1909.

I made this video using PowerPoint, which I do for a living. I was able to use the slide transitions in PowerPoint to emulate the experience of reading the strip's three tiers, left to right. As an experiment, I chose a Dock Boggs song for musical accompaniment. Since the characters in this strip engorge themselves on pilfered sweets, the obvious choice was the Boggs tune, "Sugar Baby" (although the true subject of that song has little to do with the innocent fun in Swinnerton's world). I thought the rural quality of the music might fit with the country scene in the strip.

I am excited to discover how well the structure of the song fits with the strip's architecture. It's as if there was some sort of invisible relationship between songs and half-page to page-long comic strips as they were shaped in the first half of the twentieth century.

And, here's the strip:
Little Jimmy by James Swinnerton - May 19, 1909
(from the collection of Paul Tumey)
The runaway pie wagon was an idea Swinnerton returned to, at least once (probably more) a couple of years later:

Friday, December 20, 2013

Hear Rube Goldberg Sing! (1917)

Presenting the earliest known recording, by far, of Rube Goldberg's voice. In 1917, Rube Goldberg sang on a record. The song, which he also wrote, was "Father Was Right." I'm pleased to present this rare recording to you, with some background information.

At the time he made this novelty record, Rube Goldberg was 35 and one of the the most respected and beloved cartoonists in America. His fame and widespread popular acceptance allowed him to expand his talent and humor beyond the printed page. In 1910, he started a five-year career as a stage performer on the east coast Vaudeville circuit.  He appeared as himself, and drew cartoons to amuse audiences. In 1914, he produced, wrote, and starred (again, as himself) in a Vitagraph film, "He Danced Himself to Death."

Rube also had a musical side. In 1912, he published "I'm the Guy," a popular song that was based on his hit comic strip of the same name. In the years that followed, Rube would write and publish many songs. Some of these were recorded by name artists, such as Rosemary Clooney (who recorded "Willie the Whistling Giraffe" in 1951, a song co-written by Rube Goldberg and C.F. Patterson -- the wife of Rube's friend and fellow cartoonist Russell Patterson ).
January 4, 1918 -- This advertisement featured Rube's record

The only known instance of Rube himself creating a commercial recording of one of his songs is the 1917 Pathé record, "Father Was Right." The actual sheet music was published in 1916, and featured original Rube Goldberg cartoons:

Front cover of sheet music by Rube Goldberg (courtesy Robert Beerbohm)

Back cover of sheet music by Rube Goldberg (courtesy Robert Beerbohm)
The song was based on Rube's cartoon series, "Father Was Right," which he rotated through his daily cartoon space in newspapers with several other series and one-shot comic strips. Rube had a special relationship with his father, Max. His mother died when Rube was very young, and his father, a banker and later the sheriff of San Francisco, raised Rube and his siblings on his own. Rube stayed close to his Dad all his life, visiting often and calling upon him to negotiate his business deals and syndicate contracts.

(April 3, 1918, from the collection of Paul Tumey)
The strip followed the same basic formula each time. In panel one, a father provides his son with sound practical advice. The son ignores it, gets into comical trouble, and in the last panel he comes to realize that "father was right!"

The irony of the strip is that Rube's father wanted his cartoon-crazy son to become a mining engineer, and put him through the University of California for that purpose. Max felt that an engineer was a secure and good living. Upon Rube's graduation, Max pulled some strings and git him a job working the City of San Francisco, designing their sewer system (imagine that!). After six months, Rube could no longer contain himself and squirted out of his well-paying job into a career as a newspaper cartoonist at a substantially reduced salary -- in effect ignoring his father's career advice. Of course, you know the rest of the story -- Rube became a huge success. In fact, when he recorded "Father Was Right" in 1918, he had a millionaire's salary, in today's money.

The "Father Was Right" comic strip saw heavy rotation in 1917 and 1918. Rube also created a companion strip, "Mother Was Right." This one ran much less often. "Mother Was Right" was always drawn in silhouettes -- the only strip in which Rube Goldberg used this visual approach. Perhaps it was Rube's way of acknowledging his mother, Hannah, who had tragically passed away at age forty-four when he only nine years old. 

The 1917 Pathé recording of Rube singing is priceless. We are indebted to "MusicBoxBoy," the collector who made this available at YouTube. Unfortunately, Rube was recorded poorly, and the production standards for making the Pathé discs were considerably less than perfect. However, with some concentration, it's not too hard to make out the words Rube is singing-talking. 

It's worth the effort to listen closely through the hiss and pops, because Rube delivers a richly comic performance. He's not a trained singer, and the song lacks aesthetic beauty -- but as comedy, it's golden. Rube adds a layer of humor beyond the funniness of the lyrics by starting out with a great, big, rude, mock throat clearing. Between verses, he repeats the throat clearing, at one point muttering an aside: "I'm suffering as much as you." Then, the act of saying this has thrown his timing off and he stops in mid-word, and says dryly, "wrong again" and waits until the music comes around the right place before he starts in on the last verse.

We can also spot Rube recycling some of his material as he uses a verse from this song in his October 11, 1926 daily strip, shown below. Luke, of "Luke and His Uke" usurps a piano performance of a Beethoven composition, as he sings: "His wife's relations came to eat/In droves of tens and eights/And so he said, "I guess I married/The whole United States." A person in the audience exclaims, 'Wot a talent!" Rube may have been poking fun at himself with this in-joke, since his one commercial performance as a singer, while quite funny, probably never made Caruso break out in a sweat.

Cartoon Follies of 1926 by Rube Goldberg (October 11, 1926)

All in all, this is a wonderful find, and I'm pleased to bring it to you. Herewith, without "father" ado,  is Rube Goldberg's 1917 recording of his song, "Father Was Right," with the lyrics transcribed below. 

Written and Sung by Rube Goldberg (Pathé Records, 1917)

[Clears throat]
When I told my Dad 
That I made up my mind to wed
"Pick out a girl," he said
"Whose relatives are dead."
Little did I know the wisdom of my dear old Dad
I didn't wed an orphan,
But I wish to the Lord I had!
Father was right
Father was right
My wife has cousins by the dozen
(line garbled)
They all get here at supper time 
And bring their appetites
They wear out all our spoons and plates
They come in droves of tens and eights
I married the whole United States --
Father was right!

(Throat clearing - aside: "It's getting worse")
One day I told my Dad I'd like to own a motorcar
He puffed on his cigar
And said, "You won't go far"
I bought a car to show him that I knew a thing or two
I said goodbye and turned the crank 
And that's the last I knew...
Father was right
Father was right
Now my flivver* has my liver
Twisted out of sight
And when I hear an auto horn
I want to start a fight
My back is stiffer than a board
The springs have cut me like a sword
Does anyone want to buy a Ford?
Father was right!

(Throat clearing. Aside: "I'm suffering as much as you")
One day I -- (realizes he is out of synch with music - Aside: "Wrong again")
Father said move to the country where the zephyr blows
For quiet and repose
Where they have no picture shows
Now I know that father wasn't talking through his hat
There's a moving picture theater right beneath our little flat!
Father was right
Father was right
Now my family's at the movies morning noon and night
My wife's so used to darkness, I'm afraid to make a light
Her only friends are on the screen
Instead of good old Pork and Beans
She seized me movie magazine (?)
(clears throat) Ahem! Father was right

*Early 20th century slang for a car that delivers a rough ride

(Throat clearing) In -- ahem -- other news, the new book THE ART OF RUBE GOLDBERG (which has my editing and writing in it) has been getting gangbusters press and flying off the shelves. It's appeared on numerous top 10 lists. This little-known little rag called The New York Times did a wonderful piece on the book, which includes a very clever and fun video they made especially for the online article. It's great to see Rube in the public eye again!

That is All,
Screwball Paul