Trip Henley... or Captain Smith?

By | Wednesday, April 06, 2022 Leave a Comment
In the mid-1930s, Richard Lockridge started writing some detective-style vignettes for the New York Sun, featuring a husband and wife team who were amateur detectives solving crimes and aiding local residents and the police. They were popular enough that Lockridge expanded them to short stories for The New Yorker. After these were collected into a book, Lockridge continued on to write full-length novels. This series, collectively known under the "Mr. and Mrs. North" title, continued to grow in popularity, eventually spawning a stage play, an MGM movie, a radio serial, and ultimately a television show.

The TV show began in 1952 and featured Richard Denning and Barbara Britton in the title roles. Although sitting here in the 21st century, it can look exceptionally chauvinistic and misogynistic, I get the impression that making Mrs. North a more-or-less equal partner with her husband would have been seen as somewhat progressive. (When I say "more-or-less" I should probably emphasize the "less" portion though.)

In any event, the December 5, 1952 episode of the show was called "Comic-Strip Tease" and featured a local, immigrant grocer, Mrs. Helsir, who's being shaken down by a gang of young boys. (Well, they're supposed to be young boys; the leader looks like he's in his late 30s at least.) Mr. and Mrs. North enlist the help of Walter McCoy, who happens to have stopped by for dinner when they learn of the plight. You see, McCoy is in a unique position as he's the cartoonist behind the wildly popular comic strip Trip Henley, Detective which seems to be something of a Dick Tracy style strip. McCoy was complaining about having trouble coming up with ideas, and it's Mrs. North who suggests he write in Mrs. Helsir's dilemma in order to show people what the gang is up to without having to involve the police.

Which doesn't really make sense as a strategy. I mean, aren't cops going to read this too? And why would anyone assume the strip is suddenly based on a true story and not just another fictional one as before? Why not talk to reporters and get the story on the front page instead of buried in with the comics? And what good does telling other people about it do if you don't involve the police? And on top of all that, Mr. North eventually calls the police anyway.

Now we only see the one installment of the Trip Henley in the show, which makes sense; it would've had to have been produced especially for this episode and the amount of effort for that is not insubstantial. Except it wasn't produced for this episode at all.

Ron Harris has done some cartooning for television much like this, only his work appeared decades later. Perhaps most notably, he did the artwork for a cartoonist murderer story in Remington Steele in the 1980s. The production team dropped his strip into a 'standard' prop newspaper they had, and he was able to secure a copy for himself. It actually had four pages of comics (although page four was just a duplicate of page two) and if you check out the bottom of page one, you find...
The "Captain Smith" strip here is literally the exact same one that was titled "Trip Henley, Detective" decades earlier. And it's now attributed to "K. Lentz" instead of "Walter McCoy." Additionally, the strip originally shown above "Trip Henley" in 1952 is now moved to page two, but is again the exact same art three decades later. The production company who made the prop, the Howard Anderson Company, has been in business since 1927 and when Harris worked with them, their newspaper prop art was so old, no one could remember how/when/where it was first created. Given the various styles of art shown in Harris' copy and the way his art was dropped in, I suspect it's just been a decades-long work in progress. They would have whatever artist was handy do a single strip, and they'd drop it into a generic newspaper layout, offset print however many they needed for that production, and move on to their next project. At some point, they wound up with enough strips to do an entire comics section and just kept using the older strip art to fill out the section, dropping in fake names and titles as needed for a given TV show.

Was "Trip Henley, Detective" created for Mr. and Mrs. North? Maybe? The story in the strip does seem to tie pretty directly into the episode. But it'd certainly make for an interesting research project for someone more familiar with old television to go back and trace it -- and all the other 'standard' TV comic strips in these props -- to their respective origins!

Take a look at the episode yourself and see what you think...

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