As a young kid who wanted to be a cartoonist back in the 40’s, I can’t tell you what a thrill it was when a cartoonist would show up in a movie I was watching. It happened only a few times but I’ll always remember the impact it had on me. Like everyone else, I liked the cowboys and the G-men but to see a cartoonist sitting at a big slanted drawing board at work on one those big comic strip panels, pushed all else aside.
My first favorite comic strip was Bringing Up Father featuring Jiggs and Maggie. The clean, ultra thin pen lines describing those wonderful exaggerated poses caused me to pick up a pen and try to emulate them. The cartoonist George McManus also did the most wonderful backgrounds and interiors with loving detail. So, imagine my excitement when, while watching a Jiggs and Maggie movie, the cartoonist himself made an appearance following Jiggs and making little notes in his sketchbook. He appeared again later peering in the window of Jiggs and Maggie’s home. Well, the movie got a whole lot more interesting at that point. McManus was following them around and sketching them! I found out later that he liked to appear in the movies made about his characters and I saw him a few times more. In another one of the movies, Maggie
was trying to ascend the ladder of society, as usual, but was being hindered by the fact that all her friends made her a figure of ridicule by pointing out that she closely resembled that awful nag Maggie in the comic strip. So, in the movie, she goes to visit McManus and demands that he stops drawing her in the strip. He promises to do so but, doesn’t –so she is forced to bring him to court. The movie was called “Jiggs and Maggie in Court.”
When you went to the movies in those days (25 cents), you were treated to a short feature, a newsreel and then the full length feature. The Red Ryder movies were some of those shorts. I got a jolt while watching one of them one day when suddenly the cartoonist Fred Harman himself appeared and was seen sketching Red and Little Beaver. There he was in a cowboy hat capturing his hero in action. It was great watching him actually drawing the pictures.
In 1950, there was a movie called The Petty Girl with Robert Cummings playing the famous pin-up girl artist George Petty. I used to see his illustrations in Esquire magazine and here was a Hollywoodized version of his life. Not a very good or accurate telling of his life I’m sure but, again, I got a kick out of seeing an illustrator at work.
In 1955, just as I was starting art school there was the great Martin and Lewis movie Artists and Models which again depicted a cartoonist at work.
In 1965, along came the movie How To Murder Your Wife with Jack Lemmon playing a well to do cartoonist living in a New York townhouse with a garage for his car. He had a man-servant played by Terry Thomas. In this movie you see the cartoonist at a large slanted board in his high-ceilinged studio penning his strip “Bash Brannigan” in large panels. He never asked his character to do anything he couldn’t do so he would costume-up and enact all the action by hopping around on roofs and chasing imaginary villains while his man-servant followed with a shot-gun camera recording it all to be later used as reference pictures for his realistically drawn strip. I loved the whole atmosphere of his studio and equipment and slept through the love scenes with Virna Lisi.
In 1997, the movie Chasing Amy depicted the world of the independent comic book artists of the times. Ben Affleck played the artist-writer of his comic book with Jason Lee playing his inker and colorist. At the beginning of the movie, there is a confrontation with a fan at a Comic Con wherein Lee is ridiculed for being just a “tracer.” Now, we all know the inkers of comic books are a highly respected, necessary and valuable breed all to themselves and earn special credit on the covers, so I found it a little implausible that a comic fan would be so insulting to an inker of a famous comic book, but aside from that, I enjoyed seeing them at work in their studio. Lee appears to be inking with a Sharpie, the pen of choice of the modern generation of comic artists. Their drawing boards are back to back so they are facing each other as they work. I thought that was a good touch because I happened to know the cartoonists Stan Drake (The Heart of Juliet Jones) and Leonard Starr (On Stage) who worked that way in their shared studio in a cloud of cigarette smoke that was unreal. Later on, when they both became the cartoonists of Blondie (Stan) and Little Orphan Annie (Starr), they continued facing each other –and continued smoking up a storm.
After I had been an illustrator and cartoonist for many years, the Westport illustrator, John McDermott saw his book “Brooks Wilson Ltd” made into the movie Loving in 1970. It starred George Segal as a Westport illustrator and Eva Marie Saint as his wife. This was probably the most realistically portrayed movie about the life of an illustrator that I ever saw. They didn’t even shy away from showing the artist using a belopticon, the machine that projected photographs onto the illustrator’s paper or canvas for tracing. Pretty much all the illustrators, except a few like von Schmidt and Fawcett, used this device and usually hid them away from visitors to their studios (Norman Rockwell was one of few illustrators that admitted to using one). And, here in “Loving” we see Segal using one to trace a photograph of himself and his wife posed for an illustration.
Westport was taken over by the movie company for a while during shooting of that movie. When we went down to the train station, we would see cameras ready to record Segal waiting for the train and cameras poised to capture the oncoming train. Bernie Fuchs‘ studio was used as the illustrators studio and if you went down to our only art store, you’d find that the movie company had purchased every portfolio in the place.
But, of course, there was a teensie-weensie little, itty-bitty flaw in the otherwise flawless movie and I caught it. At one point, Segal is crossing the street in New York with his portfolio in hand and there is a bit of a wind. The wind catches the portfolio and lifts it up revealing that it was weightless… light as a feather… nothing in it as he supposedly was on his way to his agent with a big job.