Friday, July 3, 2015

Book Review: “Living Large: Wilna Hervey and Nan Mason” 


The visually surreal world of silent film comedy enthusiastically welcomed irregularly proportioned actors.  The people who cast these films kept a sharp lookout for actors who were very tall, or very short, or very fat, or very thin.  The big girls in the casting pool were especially useful.  For proof of this, look no further than the extensive filmographies of outsized funny ladies like Babe London and Blanche Payson.

Babe London

This world got even more surreal and more exaggerated when filmmakers produced adaptations of comic strips, which were meant to provide a larger-than-life representation of the real world. 

Universal Pictures adapted Sidney Smith's "The Gumps" comic strip into a film series in 1923.

Fontaine Fox's “Toonerville Trolley” comic strip provided a distorted funhouse mirror version of the small suburban town of Pelham, which was located 19 miles outside of Manhattan in Westchester County.  The comic strip, which was syndicated in hundreds of newspapers across the country, produced extensive merchandise, including wind-up toys and a board game.


In 1920, the Betzwood film studio (formerly Lubin) set out to adapt the comic strip into a series of live-action shorts.  The comic strip had a large cast of characters, including The Terrible Tempered Mr. Bang, Mickey (Himself) McGuire, Taeny Thompkins (the World's Smallest Football Player), Cynthia Snoop, Aunt Eppie Hogg (The Fattest Woman in Three Counties) and Little Woo-Woo Wortle, but the series was specifically designed to focus on two characters.

John Weber, blogger and comics enthusiast, wrote, “By far, the most prominent of Toonerville's denizens was The Skipper, possibly the most hair-raising driver in all toondom.  What he drove, The Toonerville Trolley. . ., was perhaps toondom's most hair-raising conveyance. . .”   The trolley had to be fierce to travel the treacherously steep path up and down Mount Misery.

Hired to play the grizzled motorman of the valiant old trolley was a veteran vaudeville comic named Dan Mason.

The second character to play a prominent role in the series was the Powerful Katrinka.  Joseph P. Eckhardt, the author of Living Large, identified the character as follows: “Katrinka. . . was a hefty and innocent creature who seemed oblivious to the extent of her own physical strength.”

Wilna Hervey was certainly a big girl.  She was as tall as Payson and as heavy as London.  When she showed up at her agent’s office to meet Fox, the clever cartoonist who had created the eccentric population of Toonerville had no doubt that Wilna would be perfect for the role of Katrinka.

The series went into production accompanied by a fair amount of excitement and fanfare.  In their determination to attract an audience to the new series, the film company invested a considerable sum of money to stage a train wreck, the details of which were widely distributed to newspapers.  Vehicular mayhem remained a prominent element of the series.  In the films, as in the comic strips, the Skipper drove in a frenzy to get his rickety trolley to the train station in time to pick up arriving commuters.

Hervey was still fairly new to acting, but Mason became her mentor.  As it turned out, the actress got the biggest laughs in the series.  Sight gags were designed to emphasize her character's superhuman strength.  She could toss a telephone pole, twist metal pipes with her bare hands, and rip trolley tracks out of the ground.  Hervey brought her own childish innocence, boundless enthusiasm and captivating charm to the role.

When the Betzwood studio abruptly closed, the series continued under a new name at a new studio.  Toonerville became Plum Center.  Skipper became Pop Tuttle.  Katrinka became Tillie.  The old trolley became an old bus.  Tillie was made the depot agent, which gave Wilna a larger role in the films.  Tillie was always acting as Pop's savior whenever the bus operator got into trouble.  Take, for instance, Pop Tuttle's Polecat Plot.  Pop is preparing for a race against a rival bus owner, Nosey Nichols, when Nosey loosens a nut on a wheel of Pop's bus.  When the wheel falls off, Tillie keeps Pop in the race by using a wheelbarrow to support the broken wheel.  Let’s look, too, at Pop Tuttle, Detekative.  After earning a degree from a correspondence detective school, Pop is confident that he can track down a thief responsible for a crime epidemic in the community. But the thief proves to be more than Pop can handle and, in the end, Pop must rely on Tillie breaking him free of his own handcuffs and using her brute force to overpower and capture the criminal.

While working on the series, Wilna developed a close relationship with Mason's daughter Nan.  After the series ended, Wilna moved with Nan to a vibrant art community in Woodstock.  The couple established a farm called Treasure Farm, where they worked hard to develop themselves as artists.  Their winning charm, charitable activities and outgoing personalities made them local celebrities.  The women became best known for the flamboyant parties they arranged to raise money for local causes.  People loved being around the couple because the love and enthusiasm that they conveyed was contagious.

It could not be said that life was always simple and easy for Wilna and Nan.  An ebullient approach to life does not always have the best outcome.  Their lives were, as one book critic aptly described it, haphazard.  But, besides being resourceful, they had friends and family who were always willing to help them through rough patches. 

Their story is inspirational because, as Eckhardt has said, these were two people who "followed their bliss."  They led full and happy lives.  The couple devoted themselves to art, travel, the occasional enterprise and, most of all, each other.  The book is mainly a story of love and friendship between two unconventional women.

The passion and devotion that Eckhardt feels toward his subjects is evident from the first page of Living Large to the last.  The author provides a tender and vivid portrait of Wilna and Nan.  The beautifully designed book enriches this portrait with many illustrations that showcase the women's paintings and photographs. 

The comedy fans that frequent this site will probably be interested to know that Wilna got into a tussle on screen with the Three Stooges.  Wilna was more than a match for the Stooges, who soon found themselves being lifted and tossed through the air by the Amazonian young woman.  The rowdy encounter occurred in Pain in the Pullman (1936).  The team’s rough style of comedy was not to the actress' liking.

 Click here to order.

Additional notes

Other film adaptions of the “Toonerville Trolley” comic strip were produced.  McGuire, the town bully, was a favorite of the comic strip’s fans.  Weber wrote, “Mickey was the terror of the town, a bully who fought the local boys, teachers and truant officers.  He could show up most anywhere, but never seemed to have a home to go to.”  Beginning in 1927, the character was featured in a popular long-running series starring Mickey Rooney.

The Van Beuren animation studio was clearly influenced by the Betzwood films when they turned out "Toonerville Trolley" cartoons in the late 1930s.


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