On September 8, 1930, in the midst of the Great Depression, the world was introduced to Blondie Boopadoop, a dizzy blonde flapper created by Murat Bernard ‘Chic’ Young. Blondie debuted in newspapers across the country on that day. She was Chic Young’s fourth strip featuring a young woman, but this was the one to catch fire and eventually become iconic in the world of comics and media at large. It is hard to believe that the blonde hero of blissful domesticity turns 90 and that her stories remain tops with audiences the world over.
Blondie’s early days featured the star popular in dating circles. Her courtships made for several storylines. Blondie’s main squeeze, however, was bumbling playboy Dagwood Bumstead, son of millionaire industrialist, J. Bolling Bumstead. Dagwood introduced Blondie to his ill-natured father in the very first strip announcing their plans to marry. The elder Bumstead was aghast that his son would be interested in a woman of Blondie’s lowly social status.
For the next couple of years, the Blondie comics centered on the couple’s struggles to get the Bumsteads to agree to the pairing. Blondie does everything imaginable to no avail. In the meantime, she also entertains several other admirers – although Dagwood was never far away. With readership dwindling, Chic Young and the comic’s distributer, King Features Syndicate, decided Blondie and Dagwood should finally get married and in February 1933 they did much to the chagrin of the Bumsteads who disowned their son and heir. Mr. and Mrs. Bumstead only grudgingly acknowledged the union because Dagwood went on a hunger strike that lasted over 28 days spotlighted by daily coverage and countdowns that helped circulation. Every day people tuned in to see how Dagwood was doing on the hunger strike. After all, one of his favorite pasttimes has always been eating. One of my favorite Blondie scenes is of Dagwood emerging from his bed after the hunger strike to reveal loads of dishes under the covers.
It was after the marriage of the disinherited blissfully happy Dagwood and the carefree vivacious Blondie took place that audiences truly warmed to their humorous domestic escapades. Blondie and Dagwood became a happy family whose troubles reflected those of the readers’ in many ways. The couple started their married life penniless, as were most during the Depression, which lent itself to many enjoyable scenes. First Dagwood’s need to find work made great stories and eventually so did his relationship with his boss Mister Dithers. However, the charms of Blondie the strip relied on the couple’s home life and its place in the pantheon of all things domestic comedy, which was a revolutionary one at that as Chic Young insisted that the young Bumsteads share a double bed, not the twin beds audiences saw on all other domestic stories in media. (loc.gov) In fact, the Bumsteads did not share a bed in their movie incarnations.
As the strip continued its run, Blondie and Dagwood changed as did their family. Blondie, who started as an airhead of sorts, became the Bumstead voice of reason and Dagwood became the flake to whom all things happen. Part of Dagwood’s charm is he remains a child of sorts, an innocent whose zany antics we cannot get enough of and all because he can’t seem to get things quite right. Except his sandwich, which is a masterpiece every single time.
On April 15, 1934, the couple welcomed their first child, Baby Dumpling (later Alexander) who received almost as much media attention as baby Ricardo on “I Love Lucy” two decades later. Except without the power of television.
In 1941, Blondie and Dagwood welcomed a daughter, Cookie, whose name was chosen by hundreds of thousands of submissions in a contest run by Chic Young. Blondie’s popularity soared when the Bumsteads became a family in earnest in their home in Joplin, Missouri, including Daisy (family dog and Dagwood’s best friend) and the pups. At the height of its popularity, Blondie rivaled Peanuts. No doubt, this creation by Chic Young is one of the all-time greats in the pantheon of comic strips. I would say a masterpiece people have enjoyed for its love conquers all stories and wonderful drawings. It has been one of my favorites for years.
Aside from daily strips and Sunday editions, the Bumsteads have enjoyed comic book popularity as well with seven versions spanning from 1947 to 1976.
As you probably know Blondie’s popularity jumped to screens and the airwaves as well. As far as the movies go, the story is that as the strip’s popularity grew, Columbia Pictures’ boss Harry Cohn decided that the characters had potential for a B-picture or two so he signed a deal with Chic Young. The result was a 28-picture, 12-year run between 1938 and 1950. All twenty-eight movies star Penny Singleton as Blondie and Arthur Lake as Dagwood. The first and best is Frank Strayer’s Blondie. Strayer directed more than a dozen of the Blondie pictures.
Some of the signature gags from the strip made it into the movies such as Dagwood running into the mailman every morning as he is late for work causing the mail to fly all over the place. That happened early in all of the movies welcoming devoted fans to the hijinks of their favorite family. Following Dagwood’s signature,” Blondieeeeee.” Dagwood’s legendary sandwich also made its way into every single one of the movies and into Webster’s New World Dictionary.
The first movie in the series sees the Bumsteads about to celebrate their fifth anniversary, but money troubles ensue. They have money troubles often in their history. In fact, the Bumstead budget, as Blondie mentions in one of the movies, is the pulse of the family. Dagwood asks for a raise from Mr. Dithers (Jonathan Hale), owner of the J. C. Dithers Construction Company, with whom Dagwood is always at odds just like in the strip. Blondie, on the other hand, orders new furniture (from an uncredited Charles Lane) since they just finished paying off other furniture. Her logic is impeccable, a logic inherited by an almost-too-cute Baby Dumpling (Larry Simms). Dagwood loses his job after getting into a jam at work, but makes up for it by wooing a wealthy businessman (Gene Lockhart) into investing with the Dithers Company.
Staying true to the comic strip, Blondie (1938) features several of the same characters throughout the series played by the same actors. Aside from Penny Singleton and Arthur Lake, Larry Simms plays Baby Dumpling in all of the movies. He was so popular in the role that he was credited as “Baby Dumpling” in Frank Capra’s Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939) where he plays the Hopper Boy. Marjorie Ann Mutchie (as Marjorie Kent) makes her debut as Cookie Bumstead in Frank Strayer’s It’s a Great Life (1943), the thirteenth movie in the series and one of the few without “Blondie” in the title. More on that later.
Rounding out the regulars that make up the Bumstead family is Daisy, the cocker Spaniel/Poodle/Terrier mix whose real name was Spooks and plays the Bumstead’s trusted pooch with flair. Spooks appeared in a good number of movies in character parts, but is best remembered as Daisy. The prolific Willie Best appears as a porter in the first movie and does what he can with the stereotypical part he is given. Best plays varied roles throughout the series and remains mostly uncredited. Fay Helm appears in several Blondie movies as Mrs. Fuddle, neighbor to the Bumsteads and Blondie’s best friend. Danny Mummert plays her son Alvin, Baby Dumpling’s nemesis.
The Blondie movies are typical B-fare. They are fun, perfect for Saturday mornings, but substance is hard to come by. There are a few hearty laughs like the one in Blondie with the talking scale in the hotel men’s bathroom. It advertises your favorite radio voice will talk to you and when it does, it tells Dagwood he’s a loser.
Probably the best part of the series, however, are the actors that appear throughout. If you are a fan of the great character players you’ll get to see the likes of Donald Meek, John Qualen, Edgar Kennedy, William Frawley, and Mary Wickes to name a few. Many future major Columbia stars also make appearances. I was quite surprised to see Rita Hayworth, for instance, play prominently in Blondie on a Budget (1940). She is an old friend of Dagwood’s who plays right into Blondie’s jealous hands. When Blondie was not trying to finagle the family budget in order to buy something, she spent her time worrying that Dagwood would leave her for another woman.
The Blondie movie series ended with Edward Bernds’ Beware of Blondie (1950) where we see Dagwood in charge of the Dithers Construction Company while the boss is on vacation. You can just imagine how well that goes. Adele Jergens plays Miss Clifton, a con woman who takes advantage of Dagwood’s innocence to get to Dithers’ money. Of course, all turns out fine in the end with one important resolution to the series to close out a continuous loop. The mailman (Dick Wessel) decides to end Dagwood running into him finally by delivering the Bumstead mail on his own time at night. No more dirty uniforms. No more bruises. No more scattered mail. Unfortunately, the day he decides to do his first night delivery is tax day and guess who runs out of the house to mail his taxes at the last minute.
By the time Beware of Blondie was made the stories were stretched thin. The familiar Bumstead elements held the movies together as the family survived all sorts of domestic misadventures. According to AFI, Columbia had lost interest in the series after the first fourteen installments. They released two movies without Blondie’s name in the title and stopped producing the series in 1943. However, audiences wanted more and production resumed for another fourteen movies making this series the longest in terms of pictures to date. When the Blondie pictures ceased altogether in 1950, Columbia intended to replace it with another comic strip series, but that fell way short at the box office forcing the studio to reissue all 28 Blondie pictures.
America’s love affair with Blondie, Dagwood and the gang was not limited to movies, as we well know. The comic strip continued to strong readership and between 1939 and 1950, Blondie was also heard on radio. Arthur Lake played Dagwood in this version as well with Penny Singleton replaced by Alice White, Patricia Van Cleve and Ann Rutherford at various times. Blondie originally aired on CBS with Camel Cigarettes as its sponsor and later moved to NBC and Super Suds. Lake and Singleton made an appearance as Blondie and Dagwood on The Bob Hope Show following the 1938 release of the first movie, which led to their own show as a summer replacement for The Eddie Cantor Show. They originally aired on Monday evenings at 7:30 and just as the strip helped Depression-era audiences forget their troubles, the radio show helped them through World War II. Enjoy the following episodes of Blondie out of the funnies and into your homes…
- From October 1939, “Dagwood Buys a New Suit”
- From April 1940, “The Gypsy Queen”
- From March 1944, “Abbott and Costello with Blondie and Dagwood”
- From July 1944, “Plumbin Problems”
- From May 1945, “Socialite Blondie”
- From July 1947, “Three Week’s Vacation”
Unlike radio and the movies, attempts to bring Blondie to television proved unsuccessful. Its power were in the mediums already discussed, but it’s at least worth a mention that those in charge thought enough of the characters and their stories to give them several attempts at TV productions. The first such attempt, Blondie, premiered on January 4, 1957 on NBC and ran for one season. Pamela Britton starred as Blondie with Arthur Lake reprising his famous role once again. Stuffy Singer, Florenz Ames, Ann Barnes, and Harold Peary were also in the cast. In 1968, CBS gave Blondie a turn with The New Blondie, which also ran for one season. Patricia Harty and Will Hutchins star as Blondie and Dagwood in this version with real-life married couple Jim and Henny Backus as Mr. and Mrs. Dithers with Pamelyn Ferdin and Peter Robbins playing the Bumstead kids. As you can tell from the short run of both series, neither managed to capture the charm of the Bumsteads the other versions of their stories did.
Chicago native Chic Young drew Blondie seven days a week from 1930 until his death in 1973 producing more than 15,000 strips. His legacy, continued by his son Dean Young, is one of warmth and humor and home. No matter the decades that have passed, people still visit with the Bumsteads – 90 years after meeting them. We owe them a huge debt of gratitude for the laughter during difficult times.