April 13th, 2012 at 8:09 am

They Call Him MISTER George

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In the too much time on my hands department:

The R.C. Harvey essay on Ernie Bushmiller’s Nancy and its legion of insane devoted followers, currently available on the Comics Journal site, is informative and entertaining, as we’ve come to expect of Harvey. We’ve also come to expect Harvey to be downright meticulous in his recitation of facts, and that’s why his stated uncertainty about a bit of trivia in the current essay practically jumped off the screen at me.

In his description of the panel above, Harvey names each of the long-gone Hollywood stars caricatured by Bushmiller; but when he comes to the monocled dandy to the left of Stan Laurel, the best he can do is “Erich von Stroheim (?)” – an uncharacteristic lapse in certainty and precision.

It isn’t von Stroheim. In the first place, other than the monocle – which he didn’t always wear, though it would always be a handy shorthand for characterizing him – it doesn’t look like him.

And even without knowing the date Bushmiller drew that panel, we can narrow down the period in which it was done with about five minutes’ work, which pretty well eliminates the “man we loved to hate” from consideration.

Mae West, who’s speaking to Groucho at the far right, didn’t become a movie star until 1933. (Her only previous film work was a supporting bit the year before.) Will Rogers, holding a rope and speaking to Fritzi, died in 1935. During the window between February ’33 (when West’s She Done Him Wrong was released) and August ’35 (when Rogers’ plane crashed in Alaska), Erich von Stroheim’s career was on a major downslide, and no one considered him a big name anymore, certainly not as big as Crawford, Barrymore, West or any of the other celebrities in the panel.

The exception, of course, is cross-eyed Ben Turpin, the silent comedian who seems to have been thrown in as more of an icon than an actual celebrity. Or maybe Bushmiller was simply a long-time fan of Turpin’s dumbed-down comedy, which shouldn’t surprise any of us.

So, yes, it’s possible that von Stroheim could have been tossed in as another Hollywood icon. But he wasn’t.

The man in Bushmiller’s panel is clearly George Arliss, the plummy British thespian who won the Best Actor Oscar (for Disraeli) in 1929, and who was still considered quite the class act during the time the panel was drawn, certainly a big enough star to welcome Fritzi to Hollywood. You know, this guy:

And that’s enough time spent on clearing up that speck of minutia. But when it comes to Ernie Bushmiller, no pile of stones should go unturned to set the record straight.

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