By Ed Garea
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Warner Brothers was a studio known in the early ‘30s for literally ripping movies from the headlines. This approach certainly helped their crime dramas with James Cagney and Edward G. Robinson, but even their take on contemporary pop culture with musicals such as 42nd Street and Gold Diggers of 1933 also worked quite nicely. But one can take a good thing too far, as is the case of Harold Teen. Not everything translates, but this one translates quite poorly.
Harold Teen was the name of a popular comic strip created by Carl Ed (pronounced ‘eed’) in 1919. It debuted in the Chicago Tribune as a Sunday strip. It became so popular that a daily strip was added. From then on it became a phenomenon, depicting the Jazz Age and its effect upon youth.
The comic detailed the adventures of Covina High School student Harold Teen; his girlfriend, Lillums Lovewell; his sidekick, Shadow Smart, and Pop Jenks, proprietor of the soda fountain, the Sugar Bowl, where Harold and friends spent most of their free time partaking of what were called “gedunk” sundaes. In the 1928 film it was a soupy concoction of ice cream and hot chocolate syrup that is eaten by “gedunking” a ladyfinger into it. The word became so popular that it became a soldier’s term for a snack shop.
Warner Brothers bought the movie rights and made a silent out of it in 1928 directed by Mervyn LeRoy. Arthur Lake, who later went on to play Dagwood Bumstead in Columbia’s long-running Blondie series, played Harold, and Mary Brian played Lillums.
Come 1934, Warners decides to update the story by making it into a musical. Why they decided to take this step is beyond me, as a straight comedy would have worked fine. Tap dancer Hal Le Roy (no relation to Mervyn) plays Harold, while the stunning Rochelle Hudson is Lillums. The film picks up with Harold right after he has graduated high school and is a columnist for his town’s newspaper. He drives his editor crazy with mistakes and bankrupts himself by spending all his money on a bottle of perfume for Lillums’s birthday, so much so that his car is repossessed.
He and Lillums get into an argument at the prom over Harold’s bad dancing and Lillums decides to walk home. She is picked up on the way home by Snatcher (Douglas Dumbrille) – what a name – who quickly moves in on Harold’s girl and decides he wants to marry Lillums. But he has a daughter in high school, and one who, with Lillums, is starring in the school play. When she gets wind of her father and Lillums, she walks out. Harold, who has been taking a correspondence in dancing, steps into her role and wows not only the crowd, but also wins Lillums back. In the end, it is Harold who marries Lillums.
The music is bad, the dancing is flat, and the movie fell on its face shortly after opening. What was projected as a series of Harold Teen comedies ended with just one and Mr. Le Roy’s career thereafter was limited mainly to musical shorts, or “soundies.” And the moral of the story? If something works (as it did in 1928), don’t change it.