MUTT & JEFF
All Photographs and Copy are Coryright MEL BIRNKRANT
Some of the imagery is Copyright The Walt Disney Company
THE MEL BIRNKRANT COLLECTION
A Guided Tour of
At every toy show and flea market I attended, as well as at my house, Mutt and Jeff seemed to be always hanging around. There is something universally compelling about them, these predecessors to Stan and Ollie, Bud and Lou, Dean and Jerry, Bert and Ernie, and all of those, who, through the years, joined the parade of buddies, that was begun, and led, by Mutt and Jeff. Mutt and Jeff were created by Bud Fisher, in 1907. And they brought him fame and fortune. How famous did he become? He was the first big celebrity among Comic artists, and he even got his own cigar, a cigar named after him. Now that is BIG!
Mutt and Jeff became the first successful daily strip, and set a trend that has continued to this day. Numerous artists lent their talent to drawing the strip, including I just learned, according to Wikipedia, my friend Maurice Sendak, when he was still in high school. The strip continued until 1982. A cartoonist named, Al Smith drew it for nearly 50 years, under the name Bud Fisher, until Bud Fishers death in 1954.
Collecting Mutt and Jeff, with the exception of the tin windup toy, was easy, in the beginning. Not many wanted them, apart from me. That’s the kind of thing that I like best. A lot of assorted Mutts and Jeffs fit nicely into this small showcase, but they get bigger, and turn up, all over the place.
In the very back of the showcase, is a box from Mutt and Jeff Cigars. In front of that, are two Swiss jointed dolls by Bucherer. And in the center, is an unrelated item, a tower of nine King Features Characters, inscribed “A Polar Lark,” celebrating the expedition to the North Pole in 1926. Jiggs and Maggie, Barney Google and Sparkplug, Fritz, Krazy Kat, Abbie the Agent, Polly’s Pop and Annie Rooney are there, as well.
On either side, are composition figures of Mutt and Jeff with noses that wiggle on springs. Fanning out from there, are a delightful and rare pair of colored china vases with Mutt and Jeff’s names emblazoned on them. Then, there are identical sets of Candy containers on both sides.
On the left, are the classic standard plaster statues of Mutt and Jeff, a pair of glazed salt and pepper shakers in the shape of the early non-nodding Nodders, and a curious pair of figures with their mouths open, designed to emit smoke, when lit cigarette butts are places in their ... derrieres. On the right are a very early pair of bisques, bordering on fine china, and a pair of Mutt and Jeff, cast in pink celluloid. And, in the two back corners, are a pair of wooden dancing figures.
Mutt and Jeff always came in sets, but here is Mutt on his own, as he was when the strip first began, on this label for “Mutt brand Oranges”. Look closer! Jeff is there as well. Can you detect him? As the label says: He's "not much for looks, but Ripe, Sweet and Juicy!" This is so subtly surreal!
In the hallway is a poster that was always something of a mystery: it speaks of a Mutt and Jeff cartoon in color with full orchestra. I often wondered when that could have been, and how it was done? Now, thanks to the internet, some answers are at hand. A Google search dates the movie at 1925, and reveals that it was reissued in 1930, using a process called, “Kromocolor”, with a sound effects and music track.
One of my very favorite Mutt and Jeff items is this “Joke Set,” Mutt and Jeff’s Jokes.” It is full of generic tricks and novelties, as well as elements with Mutt and Jeff content, made especially for the set. The cover is delightful and colorful. It was a Miracle to find this set complete! The instruction sheet is here, as well as every gag that it explains. How delicious! It is like a box of fancy chocolates, with every piece in place. What are the chances of a miracle like this ever turning up again?
Another item that I like so much that I keep it on my desk, is this. Mutt and Jeff are just hanging out. There appears to be a bottle of Champaign, chilling, at Mutt’s feet. The feet of his chair, I mean; his actual feet are on the table. And, I say “appears to be,” because the bottle disappears and becomes an abstract shape, I assume for easy mold release, when seen from all but one certain angle. This curious object is, most likely, made out of pot metal, with a patina intended to emulate bronze. It is actually a cigarette lighter. Although, primitive by today’s standards, it was cutting edge technology, at the time that it was made.
Here they are on this 1912 sheet music, the actors who portrayed Mutt and Jeff on Broadway. The makeup is quite incredible!
This large imposing pair of statues is interesting. Here are the comic characters, Mutt and Jeff, as they would look if they were human. It has always been my “intuitive” belief that these do not portray Mutt and Jeff, as they were known on the printed page, but, rather, they might be portraits of the live actors, who recreated them on the stage.
Here is a curious pair of dolls. I have come across these many times. For some reason, Mutt’s fez is always sewn in place and Jeff’s, which is a separate piece, is always missing. This is the only set I have ever seen, complete.
... this interesting Optical Toy. It was a giveaway at the Gem Theater in Clinton, N.C. “Where the Pictures are Always Good”. I hope they were better than this. The images are barely discernible, but the figures are, clearly, Mutt and Jeff. I have seen these gimmicks, time and again. They usually work better than this.
We have seen the dolls, below, already, in the back of a showcase, along with Foxy Grandpa. I believe they are quite extraordinary, and deserve a proper portrait on the page with Mutt and Jeff. These are obviously very early. Mutt and Jeff were created 100 years ago. I could believe these dolls, too, are nearly that old. The fabric, which is on the brink of disintegrating, is true to the characters. Their mustaches are actually animal fur. Mutt’s has lost its hair. These dolls are very complicated, and no expense has been spared to render the characters, as faithfully as possible. They are shown here, actual size.
The last collectible I bought from my friend “Ted Hake’s Americana” was a spectacular pair of statues of Mutt and Jeff, so big, so imposing that I never found a place to put them. They still sit on the floor, where Ted and his friends, who delivered them, in person, set them down. I’ve grown accustomed to seeing them there, almost, as if, they belong there. Actually they deserve a pedestal and a spotlight. That might not ever happen in my lifetime.
Here is an old photograph from the July 1912 issue of Playthings Magazine. It shows the same figures, minus the painted patina, which may or may not be original, on display in a store window. When I first began collecting, I often visited the New York Library Annex to gaze at back issues of Playthings and Toy and Hobby Magazine. The highlights were always photos of store windows. Even on the printed page they are windows back in time, and one can drink them in, and get lost in them, like a kid (in a time machine) with Christmas, a few days away.
This Mutt and Jeff Harmonica is, indeed, a minor item. Nonetheless, it is amazing that anybody saved it. This was made in Germany in 1923. Harmonicas were once a popular format for applying a licensed character’s name. Only the most famous Comic Characters got their names on cigars, harmonicas, and razor blades. This example has very nice engraving on the case, which shows up dramatically when the light is right. I am tempted to open another showcase and fish out another item by Bud Fisher...