Tuesday, August 14, 2018

Helicopter hair

"See you in the funny papers": the legend of Tillie the Toiler

It took me a while to figure out just what was going on here. They're paper dolls from old newspapers, obviously, but they look a little different. I know who Tillie the Toiler is (who doesn't?) - a famous newspaper comic-strip office girl who basically gets chased around her desk a lot. This strip was so popular that it ran from the 1920s flapper era all the way into the late '50s. There was even a movie made  from it, starring Marion Davies (more about her later). 

One of the most popular offshoots of Tillie's exploits was the Fashion Parade. Tillie had more glamorous clothes  than any working girl I've ever heard of. But that's because they were designed by her fans! The newspapers that carried Tillie had an ongoing contest in which readers could submit their dress designs to Tillie's creator, Russ Westover, and someone in the art department would try to make them look like something (not to say that SOME of the kids didn't have talent). It was a nice idea, it promoted reader participation, and made everyone  feel as if they were somehow part of Tillie's magical, exciting, well-clothed life.

It interests me that, along with their names, the page always included complete addresses for the guest designers. Genealogists have used newspapers for years to sift out information about ancestors, and to discover a published document that has not only the name but the address of a long-lost relative (not to mention, if you were lucky, a date) would be a tremendous find. Who knows how many people Tillie helped to find a lost link in an ancestral chain. If a fictitious character can be of this much help to people long after she's gone, then what is wrong with all the rest of us?

(Don't be surprised when this gif/slideshow starts to go REALLY fast!)

About Marion Davies. A very talented B-movie actress mainly known for being the mistress of newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst, the titan who was the subject of Orson Welles' biting satire Citizen Kane. Davies and Hearst rolled around in diamond-encrusted splendor, but there was a peculiarity in one of the opulent rooms: a statue of the virgin Mary set in a prominent place. Hardly appropriate for a couple so flagrantly living in sin.

This prompted some wag - some say Dorothy Parker, but it's not quite good enough for that - to write:

Upon my honor
I saw a Madonna
Standing in a niche
Over the door
Of the glamorous whore
Of a prominent son of a bitch.

BIG DISCOVERY! It's Sunday afternoon, I just had a recipe not turn out and I am kind of pissed off because I'll have to throw it all out.  But I was happy to uncover a mystery about Tillie. I dug a little deeper into the movie, and discovered it wasn't Marion Davies who played her at all. It was someone named Kay Harris. Wait a minute! There couldn't be two Tillies. One was obscure enough. 

I had to figure this out. It couldn't be a very early TV show, could it? The kind I love, love, love, the kind from 1948 which seems to be the first year a cathode ray quivered in the air in the living rooms of America?  But no. She wasn't on TV at all, but in a movie from 1941, a B-movie obviously, the kind Turner Classics loves to show in the middle of the night (usually in an endless series no one knows or cares about). A bit more checking revealed that the first version with Marion Davies was a silent made in 1927. Though YouTube usually has fragments of almost everything, it didn't have Tillie the Toiler, not in either incarnation.

In fact, it looks like she hardly existed at all. Now all we have are these beautiful paper dolls from the funny papers, and a strange fragment of genealogy with mysteries unlocked, but only partially solved. 

POSTSCRIPT. Do I detect the odor of frying Spam? Not any more! For a while at least, I will have to restrict my comments.