Blondie

Blondie

A rather unassuming start for the Blondie Cinematic Universe. A major part of the plot involves Dagwood Bumstead and another guy tinkering with a vacuum cleaner. Somehow this spawned 27 sequels.

The movie mostly consists of proto-sitcom* domestic hijinks: Job-like figure Dagwood Bumstead is besieged by a never-ending barrage of awkward circumstances, misunderstandings, and poor financial decisions, landing him in hot water with his boss, JC Dithers, and wife Blondie. True to the source material, there’s also a lot of cutesy shit with their dog Daisy and son Baby Dumpling. Very dull, although one bit I liked is that for Dagwood and his co-workers, carrying a packed lunch from home, thereby saving $3 a week during THE GREAT DEPRESSION, is considered shameful, a nice period detail about the petty pride of the middle class.

*Ironically, Blondie was never successful as a sitcom. There were two attempts, both of which were cancelled after one season.

If nothing else, the highlight of the film is the lead performance. I had never before in my life contemplated what a Real Life Dagwood Bumstead would be like and didn’t know what to expect, but Arthur Lake absolutely kills it. His performance as a high-strung, put-upon beta male reminds me of Crispin Glover as George McFly and totally alters how I view the comics character. His counterpart Peggy Singleton does what she can with the material, which mostly relegates her to the role of nagging housewife.

It’s interesting to see how comics and movies intersect during this period. Blondie creator Chic Young’s name is fairly prominent on a lot of the posters, which seems unthinkable by today’s standards. There’s Charles Schulz’s registered trademark signature on The Peanuts Movie, and I suppose technically Stan Lee’s name might be on Marvel posters if you if you squint and look at the producer credits, but those are the exceptions.

There’s a surprising bit of cross-media continuity with the comic strip: Dagwood and Blondie wed in the funny pages in 1933, and now in 1938 they’re celebrating their fifth anniversary. However, there is no mention of Dagwood’s past as a wealthy heir to the Bumstead railroad fortune, which he forsook in order to marry Blondie over his parents’ objections (conveniently giving the comic a chance to pivot from its origins as a “pretty girl strip” to a more relatable domestic setting). Perhaps future installments will dig deeper into Blondie lore, but I doubt it. Although, come to think of it… Dagwood mentions that he’s never driven a car before, which I assumed was just an aspect of the setting, but could be a coy reference to his upbringing where he was undoubtedly chauffeured everywhere…

At some point, Dagwood’s former romantic rival Chester casually shows up and it seemed to me like the audience was expected to already be familiar with him from the comic, but as far as I can tell he’s an invention for the screen.

The screenwriters set out to incorporate a lot of the recurring gags from the strip, and sure enough there’s a scene where Dagwood eats a sandwich in bed that honestly reads as indulgent fanservice, slop for all the hardcore Dagheads in the audience. I was curious about this and did a little research: Chic Young’s son claims sandwiches were introduced to the strip in 1936, so I looked through newspaper archives for 1936-1937 (I assume this movie was written early 1938) and it seems there’s only a handful of instances where Dagwood makes a weird, relatively normal-sized sandwich (here’s an example). Enough to be a recurring gag, but not yet established as a major component of the strip the way it is now. Is it possible the movie helped elevate it into the defining aspect of the Blondie franchise?

Also of note: the Bumsteads sleep in separate twin beds, which is a departure from the strip (Young “steadfastly refuses to be bullied into getting them twin beds… [h]e is very stubborn about this.”) but perhaps a concession to film censors.