Belinda, Rudolph and Harry. Artist: C.W. Kahles.

HAIRBREADTH HARRY

Original Medium: Newspaper comics
Syndicated by: The Philadelphia Press
First Appeared: 1906
Creator: C.W. Kahles
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Beautiful but helpless heroine … Gloating, mustachioed, tuxedo-clad villain … Stalwart, resourceful hero … All played for laughs … That could describe any number of …

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… cartoon series, from Dudley Do-Right to Mighty Mouse. But the first to use that motif was the one starring Hairbreadth Harry, created by cartoonist Charles William Kahles.

Harry was introduced on October 21, 1906, in a Philadelphia Press Sunday page titled Our Hero's Hairbreath Escapes. The following January the spelling of the word "hairbreadth" was corrected, and the title became Hairbreadth Harry, the Boy Hero. At first, Harry (whose full name was Harold Hollingsworth, by the way) was, as suggested by the title, a mere lad. But he anticipated Gasoline Alley's Skeezix by growing up. Unlike Skeezix, however, Harry stopped aging soon as he'd become big enough to function as an adult.

Harry got his incentive to grow on September 21, 1907, with the introduction of Belinda Blinks, beautiful boilermaker, an adult rescue object (who thoughtfully put off aging while he caught up). Belinda completed the cast, as Relentless Rudolph Ruddigore Rassendale, relentless rogue (whose name was a reference to the works of Anthony Hope and Gilbert & Sullivan), had been on the scene since March 3. Together, the three went through endlessly funny and inventive spoofs of the old music hall melodramas of the 18th and 19th centuries, complete with mortgages, sawmills and railroad tracks.

Harry's very early Sunday pages contained complete adventures, unrelated to one another. (For example, in the first page, Harry was treed by a bear and escaped by grabbing hold of a low-flying airship.) Within a couple of months, however, Kahles (also the creator of Clarence the Cop) was writing more complex stories and continuing them from week to week. Once he'd started doing that, it wasn't long before he discovered the value of the cliffhanger in raising suspense — anticipating by several years the serials produced by the fledgling movie industry. Hairbreadth Harry wasn't quite the first newspaper comic with continued stories (several others, including Frederick Burr Opper's Alphonse & Gaston and Winsor McCay's Little Nemo in Slumberland, had pioneered in that area), but went farther than any before it in using the week-long pause between pages as an integral part of the storytelling process. It became one of the most popular comics of its time, syndicated nationally by The Press, and spawned several imitators — one of which, Desperate Desmond, by Harry Hershfield (Abie the Agent), became a minor classic in its own right.

Harry, Belinda and Rudolph continued their dysfunctional triangle for years. In 1915 The Philadelphia Press got out of the syndicating business, and the series was forced to an abrupt conclusion. Harry married Belinda on June 27 of that year, then Kahles (who had created and dropped a couple dozen features before it, and maintained a career in magazine cartooning as well) moved on. But seven months later, Harry was back, now distributed by McClure Syndicate (King Aroo, Superman). Kahles de-married his protagonists, claiming their wedding had been a mere rumor spread by a lazy cartoonist, and everything went on as before. Harry switched distributors again in 1923, this time going to The Ledger Syndicate (Connie, Somebody's Stenog), which added Harry's first daily version as well as continuing the Sunday.

It was shortly afterward that Harry broke into movies, with a brief series of two-reelers lasting until just about the end of the silent era, from the producer Wiess Brothers Happiness Comedies. Earl McCarthy usually (tho not always) played Harry, with John Richardson as Rudolph. (But these were Harry's only appearances in movies — there was not, despite reports in a major filmography, a feature in 1920 starring Billy West, a Chaplin look-alike who wasn't physically right for the role.) Harry's other media penetration includes reprints in early issues of Famous Funnies, the first modern-style comic book (in fact, Rudolph was the second-largest figure on the cover of the first issue). Finally, he starred in a single big little book from Whitman Publishing, in the late 1930s.

Kahles died in 1931, and the strip was taken over by F.O. Alexander. He continued the farcical adventures for some time, but later, on syndicate orders, made it a bit more serious. Harry and Belinda got married again, and even had a son. When Alexander left the strip, in 1939, it became more serious yet. But the characters, based as they were on entertainment styles that had long gone out of fashion, were ill suited to such treatment, and the strip folded in 1940. Ledger made an attempt to revive it, in name at least, in 1967, but that stumbled on for only a few years.

Today, the name "Hairbreadth Harry" is still vaguely remembered by the public — as are those of Caspar Milquetoast, Hawkshaw the Detective, Gloomy Gus and quite a few other old-time cartoon characters. But when those names turn up in a modern context, they usually refer to broad types, not specific individuals. The strips those characters appeared in, historically important as they may be and popular as they may once have been, are generally forgotten.

— DDM

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Text ©2001-07 Donald D. Markstein. Art: Hairbreadth Harry is in the public domain. This image has been modified. Modified version © Donald D. Markstein.