A Look Back at Jefferson Machamer's "Gags & Gals"
Comics historian Ron Goulart looks at Jefferson Machamer's Gags & Gals Sunday feature.
Jefferson Machamer was one of the several cartoonists who rose to fame during the Roaring Twenties by glorifying the American girl. Although never as well known or as widely seen as Russell Patterson or John Held Jr., he was a successful competitor of theirs in the frequent depiction of flappers, coeds and showgirls. Like them, Machamer did magazine cartoons and illustrations, advertising drawings and newspaper strips. And like Patterson and Held, his work went out of fashion several years before he was ready to retire.
His style was a mix of a loose, scratchy version of the basic Patterson style, plus a touch of the even looser and scratchier approach of the British cartoonist and illustrator Gilbert Wilkinson with some embellishments of his own. By the late 1930s, as these strips amply demonstrate, Machamer’s women lost their boyish flapper look and filled out considerably. By the 1940s they were in the pinup class.
In the manner of many of his contemporaries, Machamer had come out of the midwest to conquer Manhattan. Born in Oklahoma in 1900 as Thomas Jefferson Machamer, he joined the art staff of the Kansas City Star after graduating from college. The urbane, gifted and ill-fated Ralph Barton had also worked on the Star before journeying to the East. Machamer moved to New York around the beginning of the 1920s, working initially for the Tribune. By the middle of the decade he was working for Judge. The venerable humor magazine had perked up in recent years under the editorship of Norman Anthony, the man who would invent the enormously popular Ballyhoo in the 1930s. Anthony’s Judge targeted a younger audience, especially collegians and would-be collegians. New York night life, speakeasies, Broadway and an assortment of contemporary fads and foibles—including bootleggers, bridge and radio—became subjects of cartoons and pieces and sometimes of entire issues. Other contributors in the 1920s included S.J. Perelman, Gardner Rea, R.B. Fuller, Milt Gross and Dr. Seuss.
Machamer contributed dozens of handsome full-color covers, almost all of them including at least one Machamer Girl. Inside, in black and white, he drew cartoons, column logos and a weekly page offering a roundup of gags from the Broadway stage titled “Laughs from the Shows.” Under the name Judge Jr., Anthony wrote a weekly column called “High Hat,” which concentrated on such favorite topics of Flaming Youth as speakeasies, football, polo, supper clubs, rolled stockings, etc. Machamer became the illustrator of this enterprise and eventually a character in it as Anthony’s companion on many a nocturnal excursion: “I was insulted at Tex Guinan’s t’other morning. See Mac’s drawing.” According to Richard Marschall, Machamer took over the writing of “High Hat” when Anthony was hired away by Life at the decade’s end.
Despite his pub crawling and the Judge work load, Machamer found time to do a comic strip for King Features in the late 1920s. William Randolph Hearst, who had a habit of acquiring popular and fashionable artists, also signed on Patterson and Held in the late 1920s. In April 1928, Machamer began producing a flapper comic strip. Briefly titled Patty the Playful, it soon became Petting Patty. Patty was a pretty, long-legged member of the Manhattan smart set, described in syndicate publicity as “dazzling...captivating...irresistible,” and her natural habitats included night clubs, cocktail parties, country houses, private beaches and country club golf courses.
Never a top humorist, Machamer depended on glib remarks rather than structured gags. He frequently dabbled in continuity, once having Patty arrested as a masked burglar and another time chronicling her kidnapping by a gang that locked her in a mysterious mansion known as Black House. In addition to a string of handsome suitors, Patty also came equipped with the requisite foolish boyfriend. In this case he was Tubby Van Sillywill, who addressed her by such nicknames as “Pattypooh.” The strip collapsed at about the same time as the stock market in 1929.
In the early 1930s, Machamer returned to the Hearst fold. The Gags and Gals page, samples of which we present here, started in the New York Mirror. The gags used Machamer’s favorite subjects: leggy, pretty girls, predatory males and old boys in tuxedos. Machamer himself—depicted as a short, rotund, mustachioed loser (nowhere near as dapper as he’d been in “High Hat”)—starred in the strip that ran across the bottom of the page. Machamer was one of those artists whose work is pretty much always fun to look at, but he usually settled for gags that fell short of being hilarious.
Sometime in the middle 1930s, Machamer migrated to southern California. And sometime after that he married movie actress Pauline Moore. Attractive and talented, Moore never quite became a star. She was in such A-budget films as Young Mr. Lincoln, Heidi and Three Blind Mice. But she eventually moved into the 20th Century Fox B-unit. Today, she is best remembered for her performances in two 1939 Charlie Chan movies: Charlie Chan in Reno and Charlie Chan at Treasure Island. In the latter, she gives an effective performance as the psychic Eve Cairo, who assists magician Cesar Romero. She moved to Republic in the 1940s, working in a serial and in some Roy Rogers westerns.
During a 1994 interview in Films in Review, Moore mentioned that her husband was never that enthusiastic about her career and discouraged her acting. Machamer’s attitude may partly account for the only mildly funny, and often sour, strip he did in 1940 for the small Frank J. Markey Syndicate. Hollywood Husband was about a rather ineffectual fellow—looking like a more realistic caricature of Machamer—who was married to a glamorous movie star named Elsie Saffle. Elsie looked nothing like Pauline Moore and, like all of Machamer’s women of the 1940s, was built along pinup lines. The strip, daily and Sunday, lasted less than three months.
Despite this setback, Machamer’s career continued to more or less thrive well into the 1940s. He was hitting such slick magazines as Collier’s with gag cartoons and drawing ads for Wheaties and other national products. He wrote a book on cartooning called Laugh and Draw with Jefferson Machamer. But gradually his work went out of fashion and his last cartoons ran in such low-paying markets as Martin Goodman’s Humorama. He was residing in Santa Monica, still married to Pauline Moore, at the time of his death in 1960.