Ed Wheelan | Minute Movies
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Most of these tales can be read by visiting the amazing MSU Library Comic Art Collection. It is part of Special Collections in the Library at Michigan State University, in East Lansing, Michigan, USA. See this article and another article.
These best stories of the comic books are preceded by their issue number.
The Demon Dummy (1940). A ventriloquist treats his dummy like a real person; meanwhile, a villain tries to frame him. Definitive, and zany, look at the old horror chestnut about a ventriloquist and his dummy.
You Can't Get Away With It (1940). A judge is threatened by a mobster he is bringing to trial. This plot has been widely used on TV and the movies since 1941. Apparently, Wheelan felt that it was already a cliché in the 1940's.
Like the later "The Hazards of Hazel: The Terrible Trio" (1941), this tale has much to say about class conflict. Here the upper class judge has to learn to appreciate a gutsy lower class woman.
Wheelan had a large collection of "stars", around twenty characters. These "actors" appeared in new roles in each new story. For example, Wheelan's perennial leading man is the jut jawed Dick Dare. Dick Dare "plays" the male leading role in most of Wheelan's Minute Movies tales. In "Foul Play", Dare plays star baseball pitcher Paul Manley; in "A Fine Day for Murder" he plays noble eye doctor Dr. Case; and so on, in most of the other tales. In a real life movie studio, such as Twentieth-Century Fox, actor Tyrone Power played the leads in many of the studio's movies. In Wheelan's imaginary studio, Dick Dare takes on all these roles. Dick Dare looks physically the same in all these parts, but he is usually dressed completely differently each story, and with his hair cut in a novel style. In fact, he often has a lot of costume changes within each tale, just like a real leading man. Wheelan usually goes to town with all these costumes. They mix real glamour, with a parody of traditional movie star costumes. If Dick Dare's character travels on a yacht, as Dick did in "Super Crime", you can be sure he will be in an elegant white mess jacket and black tie during evening hours. He looks great in such nautical gear; but he also looks a bit like an over-the-top spoof of a movie star who is always dressed up to the nines. This is similar to the tone of Minute Movies as a whole: half straight storytelling, half tongue-in-cheek spoof of Hollywood.
I confess that I look forward to the appearances of Wheelan's stars, just like I do towards favorite real life performers. This is an odd but real psychological phenomenon. Why, one wonders, should I look forward towards seeing Dick Dare and Hazel Dearie in their latest roles? After all, aren't they just pen and ink? But the fact is, I do. It must be a tribute to the power of the whole star system. In any case, I always look forward to seeing what strange new role Wheelan will have them play. Their entrance is often one of the high points of the story; Wheelan always reveals their new role and physical appearance on their entrance. They often do not show up at once; he often delays their entry into the story, building up suspense about what role they will play.
The delay of the entrance of the hero has other effects. Often, we side the dark side of the story first, a bad situation. It is not clear how good can come out of this, or how a hero can fit in. We wonder about this, as readers. Then the hero's role is revealed. It shows how good can work against the serious problems in the story. There are formal elements of ingenuity here - like the solution of a mystery story. This story architecture also has content significance. It shows how good can find a way to work against evil and problems.
Wheelan ran a reader poll in the magazine, asking readers whether they wanted the full Minute Movies, or just plain stories by him, without his studio of "stars". The results appeared in Flash Comics #20 (August 1941): 98% of readers purportedly voted for Minute Movies. I was relieved when I saw these results; had I been around in 1941, I would have voted for Minute Movies, too. After all, Wheelan could do any type of story he wished within the Minute Movies format, and they have the added layer of zaniness of showing his stars in action.
A Fine Day for Murder (1941). An inventor is attacked in his lab. This story seems quite original, much more so than many of the deliberately cliched Minute Movies.
This tale is in the tradition of scientific detective stories, such as those of Arthur B. Reeve. Such tales were popular around 1910. It is odd to see Wheelan creating such as story in 1941, and doing a nice job of it, too. Wheelan is perhaps recalling some old prose stories or movies of the period - after all, Minute Movies spoofs old movie traditions. However, novelists like Helen Reilly, Philip Wylie, Theodora Du Bois and Helen McCloy were also creating scientific detective stories around 1941, so Wheelan is perhaps echoing contemporary trends.
This tale deals in passing with the evils of drink. Wheelan gives a fairly realistic look, albeit with a comic touch, at the problems alcoholism causes. There is often some such realistic issue under the surface of Wheelan's comic plots.
Eyes of the Skull (1941). Spies in the war between Agraria and Agressa try get their hands on a formula for poison gas. Classic anti-war tale. This story has an enormously complex plot. The tale is rich in invention throughout. The complexity also helps give the tale intellectual depth. Like "A Fine Day for Murder" (1941), some of this story takes place in a scientific lab working on inventions.
Wheelan gets almost his whole cast into this one. It is a measure of the complexity of the story. It also suggests the story's importance in his world: he wanted to get the whole studio assembled and participating in this major message story.
The feel of this tale is that of World War I. The two opposing countries are depicted as equally guilty. Both seem equally responsible for the war, and both use similar immoral tactics to conduct it. Such condemnations of both sides were widespread after the first World War. The look at the soldiers in the trenches, and the spy operations, also remind one of the first World War. By contrast, the key plot about poison gas seems painfully up-to-date. We are still struggling nightmarishly with such issues today.
Wheelan uses symmetry in constructing this plot. Almost everything that happens in one country, also happens in the other. The two have similar casts of characters, too. This suggests the moral equivalency between the two countries.
The Hazards of Hazel: The Terrible Trio (1941). Famed lady-detective Hazel Knutt tries to help a banker whose daughter is kidnapped. Vigorous detective story, part straight, part spoof. The kidnapping plot is similar to Dashiell Hammett's prose mystery short story, "The Gatewood Caper" (1923). Most of Wheelan's Minute Movies are supposed to be his versions of tired old chestnuts, so this is appropriate.
"The Hazards of Hazel" seems to be an ongoing series within Minute Movies. Hazel is always played by Hazel Dearie, Wheelan's perennial heroine. The title is a parody of such silent serials as The Exploits of Elaine, The Perils of Pauline, and above all The Hazards of Helen. However, this is not an adventure story; it is a genuine detective thriller.
Here, the heroine is pursued romantically by both an upper class heir, and a working man from the police. Such political underpinnings of class or race often appear in Wheelan's plots.
Foul Play (1941). Gamblers try to keep a college's star pitcher from making it to the big ball game.
The best part of this episode is not the main story, but the brief look at the end at Hazel Dearie's personal life. This is a definitive spoof of fan magazine spreads. It is part of a series labeled "Film Flashes" giving a personal look at the lives of Wheelan's stars.
Wheelan's stories are not quite parodies, in the strict sense. They have a dual purpose. They are intended to be good, absorbing stories in their own right, and also to occasionally poke fun at the conventions of cliché movie making. This balance is a little tipped to one side or another, depending on the tale. "Foul Play" is an absurd reworking of the old chestnut about gamblers kidnapping athletes; it is a bit weighted towards being a spoof. While "A Fine Day for Murder" is a bit more of a pure story.
The Army Life of Riley (1942). Riley is a private who comically messes things up. Simple but fun little tale. It is unusual in Wheelan's work in that in features Dick Dare in a less than wholly sympathetic role: he plays a martinet Army Captain who's a stickler for discipline. Dare is in a spiffy uniform, with a huge cap. Even here, there are signs that Dick is enjoying himself. Dick will soon reappear as a private, not an officer, in "Masquerade Mystery" (1942).
The hit film comedy Buck Privates (Arthur Lubin, January 1941) shows raw recruits Abbott and Costello messing up Army drill, in still funny scenes. It might have helped inspire "The Army Life of Riley".
There are some good names for the characters. The names will be a better feature of the otherwise minor "Intrigue" (Flash Comics #35, November 1942).
Dick Dare rather resembles the silent film star, Conrad Nagel. The resemblance is particularly close in films in which Nagel appears without a mustache, such as Tod Browning's London After Midnight (1927). Both are macho built men with determined personalities, pretty boy faces, and a general air of being born to be leading men.
Masquerade Mystery (1942). Romance and mystery come to a head during a masquerade party. Nice little story, mixing tongue in cheek mystery with a sense of fun. Once again, class issues are key here, as penniless draftee Dick Dare romances wealthy heiress Hazel Dearie. They love each other, but her family would surely object. The fact that Dick is in uniform makes it especially important that they accept him: he is as good as anyone else, and doing the same service as everyone else. The appeal to democratic values here is strong.
Dick manages to go through a whole series of transformations here, in his appearance at least: his inner character and status as a working man doesn't change. Wheelan protagonists frequently undergo such costume changes. It helps Wheelan tell his story, and visually dramatizes the progress of his characters through a series of situations. There is also something comic about it: Wheelan is burlesquing the frequent costume changes of characters in the movies, exaggerating them to the nth degree. Wheelan is also suggesting something the adaptability and resiliency of his heroes. It is heartening to them adjust to a profusion of situations.
This is a Wheelan tale which incorporates movie technology in its plot, like "Eyes of the Skull" (1941). Wheelan, like directors George Cukor and Fritz Lang was clearly fascinated by film technology. Such scenes have a recursive quality. Wheelan's stories are supposed to be movies themselves, so these scenes involve films within films.
Intrigue (1942). In old France, the hero struggles against a villainous Duke. This spoofs costume dramas in general, and variations on Scaramouche (1921) by Rafael Sabatini and The Count of Monte Cristo (1844-1846) by Alexandre Dumas in particular.
The resemblance to Scaramouche is perhaps not too close. The similarities mainly consist of a non-aristocrat hero pitted against an evil nobleman. The gap between hero and villain is extended in Wheelen by making the hero be a poor soldier. Class is once again an issue in a Wheelan tale - just as it is in Sabatini's novel.
"Intrigue" depicts income inequality (p2), making this tale seem surprisingly modern. Comic books did often show their heroes leading financially modest lifestyles. Lois Lane might be a famous reporter - but she shares a simple apartment with her sister Lucy. Clark Kent (the secret identity of Superman) has a modest apartment as well. Comic books often seemed to have a realistic attitude towards money, and a realization that their middle class heroes simply didn't have much of it.
Other contemporary issues appear in this tale:
Both hero and heroine are linked to animals. The heroine kindly feeds the local pigeons. And the splash shows the hero in his prison cell, complete with non-menacing looking rats.
Dick Dare looks great in his scarlet-and-gold uniform. Wheelan's 1942 tales, published after the USA had entered World War II, frequently show Dick Dare as a soldier. See also "The Army Life of Riley" and "Masquerade Mystery". However, "The Army Life of Riley" must have been written before Pearl Harbor.
The depiction of the French town (p1) has a seemingly impossible view: what we see under the arc of an arch is different from the view over it. This is part Escher-like impossibility, part zany spoof. It is an imaginative effect.
The map (p4) shows the ability of the comics medium to incorporate multi-media.