One of the oddest cultural responses to the Great Depression of the 1930s was American pop culture’s fixation with monarchy, especially as a setting for comedy and satire. The non-comedic pulp-ish adventure into pre-modern civilization was everywhere, of course. From Tarzan and Jungle Jim, to The Phantom, Prince Valiant and even Terry and the Pirates, Wash Tubbs and Captain Easy and Flash Gordon, the connection is obvious. In a ways absent from mainstream American culture in the 1900-1930 span, Americans were fixated on pre-modern, anti-modern, prehistoric and fable-like alternative worlds.
Attributing these motifs to understandable “escapism” for beleaguered Depression audiences is the usual mistake. But as the great culture historian Warren Sussman recommended long ago, calling popular art “escapist” misses the point, because the real question is not what a culture escapes from so much as what it chooses to escape to. For instance, the hyper-masculine male adventure hero of the 1930s was not an arbitrary phenomenon. It was an imaginative attempt to solve for some of the underlying cultural anxieties about masculinity in modern times generally but in the 1930s specifically. It answered the perceived softness of modern civilization. It was important to the cultural mission of the adventure genre often to pit our two-fisted, resourceful, agile, and sexually irresistible hero against pre-modern forces of nature and social violence as well as show his mastery of them. Maintaining a role for male power, prowess, attractiveness in an age of modern comfort, indulgence and consumption had been an American trope at least since the late 19th Century. But in the 1930s this anxiety was made concrete and urgent by widespread joblessness. The ineffectiveness of men and the special resilience of women was a theme we can see played out in some of the bestsellers of the decade, from The Good Earth to Gone With the Wind to Grapes of Wrath. The popular arts had at least one response to that anxiety – the hyper-masculine adventure hero whose fantastic competence and mastery would evolve by decade’s end into pure juvenilized fantasy, the superhero.
But the monarchical frolic in comedy is barely noticed let alone discussed among popular culture historians. But consider how many comedies of the Depression used vaguely eastern European or primitive tribal fiefdoms at some time or another. The very first Mickey Mouse adventure Lost on the Desert Island finds him at the wrong end of a cannibal tribe feast. Alley Oop is set in the prehistoric Kingdom of Groo in which Alley is at persistent odds with his hapless and insecure king. The Marx Brothers’ Duck Soup is set in a Freedonia which harkens back to the pre-WWI era of countless Eastern European and Slavic states forever at war. Otto Soglov’s The Little King was a sensation for The New Yorker that even helped set the minimalist cartoon stylings of the still-young magazine. There were high profile film versions of Snow White and the Seven Dwarves and The Brave Little Tailor, The Prince and the Pauper and a light-hearted Robin Hood. And even the Fleischer’s feature cartoon of Gulliver’s Travels focused on senseless warring between two kingdoms. The Fleischers also used the motif with Betty Boop, in their versions of Cinderella and Snow White. E.C. Segar sent Popeye and his Thimble Theatre to feudal realms at least twice, in an early 30s to help King Blozo of Nazilia (“NAZI-lia?”) and the heroic sailor’s own failed turn as a benevolent “dictipator” of “Spinachovia.”
In most cases, these screwball kingdoms were occasions for featherlight political satire. Leaders usually were broadly caricatured as ineffectual, foolish, petty, protective of a power they neither earned or deserved. Almost off-handedly, these cartoons channeled American frustrations with political power but in a way that was safely removed from the hard and cold political realities of 30s America where the stakes were high and vitriol often extreme. Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal was redefining the role of government in everyday lives and welfare. And while he was popular enough to be elected four times, FDR was not without heated critics. Demagogues from the right (Father Charles Coughlin) and the left (Huey Long) veered dangerously close to fascistic alternatives. A general disrespect for institutional authority can be seen in the romanticization of the gangster in film (Scarface, Public Enemy) and an embrace of extra-legal solutions even among hard-boiled police heroes like Dick Tracy and Red Barry.
And whether on a journey to a fairy tale past or an adventure to an international present, cartoon monarchies were always fundamentally silly. Perhaps it provided an imaginative space where politics was diminished, authority neutralized by its own self-absorption, pettiness, well, cartoonish-ness.
The joys and cultural salve of the screwball monarchy trope were fairly simple. But in an expert satirist’s hands occasionally the premise could render richer and varied fruit. A standout among the fantasy royal farces of the 1930s is one of the longest story runs in the Popeye/Thimble Theatre saga, Popeye’s ill-fated career as “dictipator” of the new land he founded, Spinachovia. It was here we see him take the motif into genuine social critique, of the cowardice and stupidity of the crowd, the manipulation of the masses, the corruption and weakness of leaders, the warping of politics by money. All that and Segar’s unique blend of zany absurdism and jaded view of human nature. We’ll do a deep dive into the ethnography of Spinachovia soon.
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