HAL FORREST and Tailspin Tommy
This story of Hal Forrest and Tailspin Tommy has a few twists that link the comic strip to unsuspected venues and to vintage model airplanes - such as, "How do we get from a 1930s comic strip to the USAF Art Collection?" Read on!
Hal Forrest is usually given credit for creating the very first aviation oriented cartoon strip, Tailspin Tommy. The Bell Syndicate jumped on the aviation bandwagon, following Lindbergh's 1927 flight, and hired Hal Forrest, an illustrator and a fledgling cartoonist, and Glenn Chaffin, a newspaper writer and press agent, to put together a comic strip which would have an aviation theme. The earliest date for publication of the first strip (number 1) of the daily comic has been established by correspondent Steve Hathaway as Monday, April 30, 1928; he found that the Oakland Tribune began running the strip on that date.
Forrest has been described as an "indifferent" artist whose style centered more on airplanes than people. The two collaborated on the strip until the end of 1933 at which time Forrest bought out Chaffin's interest in the comic strip. Forrest did both the writing and drawing until 1936/37 when he hired an assistant, Reynold Brown (more about him later), who became a "ghost" artist, doing the actual inking of the strip over Forrest's pencil sketches, but his name never appeared on the strip. It is universally agreed that the strip's illustrations improved with Brown's renderings - particularly drawings of personages. Examples of the early strip, as inked by Forrest, are shown below.
The Tailspin Tommy series started with young Tommy Tomkins, who took a correspondence course in aero engineering and was exposed to real aviation by a mail pilot, Milt Howe, who made an emergency landing near Tommy's Littleville, Colorado neighborhood - Howe got Tommy a job at Three Point Airlines in Texas and the story takes off. Tommy, nicknamed "Tailspin Tommy" early in life, acquires a comic strip pal, "Skeeter" Milligan and a girlfriend, Betty Lou Barnes - they eventually own shares in the airline and all become pilots on the airline staff which leads to countless exploits.
Only a handful of newspapers carried the early Tailspin Tommy strips when it first came out in 1928. The daily strips were sequentially numbered and each strip had a copyright date (year only). The strips began to have publication dates sometime in 1930. As mentioned above, the very first publication was on April 30, 1928. I have been able to acquire a newspaper containing strip number 7 which was published in The Anaconda Standard (Montana) on May 28, 1928. The strip appears on the bottom of the classified ad section of the paper. Strip number 7 is shown below along with a bus advertisement which appeared on the same page.
The following strips show examples of the progression of the cartoon as drawn by Hal Forrest.
"Tailspin Tommy" panel from 1930 cartoon strip.
The color panels below are from the Des Moines Sunday Register of June 22, 1930. The comic strip covers the front page of the "32 Comics in Colors" sections. At this time the strip was written by Glenn Chaffin and drawn by Hal Forrest. Note the nifty floatplane which sort of looks like a Fairchild "71" which was a popular bush airplane of that period. The struts should be in a "V" for a "71" and by the last panels, the airplane was drawn correctly (as shown below). This is strip Number 36 in the series.
The Tailspin Tommy Sunday strips in 1932 featured "Uncle Abner's" dirigible which was bound for the North Pole. Adventures over Alaska involved viscous storms, enemy planes, dense fog and ice, torn fabric and other misadventures. The Sunday color strip number 160, run on November 6, 1932, is shown in its entirety below; just scroll down to go from panel to panel. Nifty airplanes! This is near the beginning of the Alaskan adventure with the dirigible.
The dirigible series continued on in 1932 and 1933 Sunday strips. The 1932 Sunday color strip number 168 is presented below.
I know that you are breathless after reading this exciting Alaskan adventure, but be prepared for more
of Tailspin Tommy's suspenseful Alaskan dirigible series as presented in the 1933 Sunday strip number 182.
The following Sunday strip, number 324, is from the St. Paul Pioneer Press, December 29, 1935.
Many of the Sunday strips also included a Tailspin Tommy Flying Club flight lesson which filled out the page.
The lesson below is on the same page as the strip Number 324 shown above.
Be sure and show up for your next flying lesson!
The Tailspin Tommy Sunday strip was published in France under the name "Jean Bolide." Episode 317 as printed in the French comic newspaper, Robinson, is presented below. This newspaper is dated 29 November 1936. The basic drawing is retained and speech balloons redone in French. The small box in the heading panel is blank; the American strip would carry Hal Forrest's name, so no attribution to the artist was carried in the French version. Also, this strip Number 317 would have been printed in U.S. papers about one year earlier. Note that Betty Lou's name was retained. This strip
was provided by my friend, Georges Grod, of Royan.
The French also gave flying lessons along with the Jean Bolide strip.
The following Sunday strip ran in the June 26, 1938 The Dallas Morning News. Note the offer to provide a set of model plans of the Douglas D.S.T. plane by sending a 3-cent stamp to the newspaper.
A three-cent stamp won't get you a model plan of the Douglas D.S.T. plane as advertised in the strip above but, with a few key clicks, you can obtain a .pdf file of the original Tailspin Tommy Flying Club plan as offered in 1938. A sample is shown below and a complete plan may be printed out by clicking here for a DST plan.
The Tailspin Tommy comic also became a subject for four Monogram feature movies and two, twelve-part serials along with a radio series, Big Little books, several pulp magazines and comic books.
The movie serials were the first serials taken from an adventure comic strip; the first Universal series, Tailspin Tommy, starred Maurice Murphy and Noah Beery Jr. and Clarke Williams played Tommy in the sequel, Tailspin Tommy in the Great Air Mystery, the following year.
The serials played in movie theaters, usually in a once-a-week sequence so youngsters would save their nickels for the Saturday matinee; fans of the serials were always treated to a cliff hanger at each ending, making it imperative that the follow on not be missed.
Several examples of Tailspin Tommy movie posters are shown below.
The comic strip appeared in as many as 250 newspapers and was carried on color Sunday comic pages. Most of this pen and ink "action" took place during the 1930s and the strip died out in 1942 with a minor reappearance of a comic book in 1946. A thorough discussion of the Tailspin Tommy movies and story line of the daily strip may be accessed by Clicking Here and Here.
By the 1940s there was increasing competition from other aviation oriented comics and Tailspin Tommy had to compete in the adolescent trenches with Smilin' Jack, Barney Baxter and other strips - eventually strips such as Milton Caniff's wartime Male Call, Terry and the Pirates and the 1947 Steve Canyon eclipsed all others for quality of illustration and story lines - Steve Canyon survived until 1988 - 41 years!
Being first is always a precarious honor and eventually becomes a challenge as it engenders competition. Tailspin Tommy occupies an important spot in aviation history and is worthy of collection - thousands of young men labored over their model airplanes and enjoyed the aerial adventures of comic characters as the youth of America became "air minded" and were unknowingly prepared for the major conflict of World War 2. The Army Air Corps in 1942 owed a lot to the model airplane kit makers and the promoters of youth-related aviation publications - the benefits of this aviation preparation were many.
In researching this article I found that another early aviation daily comic strip, Skyroads, was first published in May 1929 making it the third aeronautical comic strip (the second was Tim Tyler's Luck by Lyman Young - August 1928) -
of personal interest is the fact that I met the writer of this strip, Lester J. Maitland, some years ago in Oakland. Maitland was a distinguished aviator having been the first (with crew) to fly to Hawaii in 1927 in a Fokker and served in many capacities with the Army Air Corps setting other important records.
Maitland's name fell off the strip in 1933. Lester Maitland died at the age of 91 in 1990. The artist of the strip was Lt. Dick Calkins -
for awhile he was assisted by Zack Mosley who went on to create the highly successful strip, Smilin' Jack. Calkin's first assistant was Russell Keaton who eventually became the signer of the strip.
"Skyroads," drawn by Zack Mosley.
"Tim Tyler's Luck" from 1932 and 1933.
Correspondent Jay Maeder has pointed out that another daily strip, Flying to Fame, by Ernest Henderson, is more likely the one that should be considered as the second aviation strip, although both it, and the Tim Tyler strip, didn't begin with an aviation theme in the first few strips (aside from the title), as did Sky Roads. The Flying to Fame strip was first run on June 18, 1928, one month following Tailspin, and the very first panel is shown below - note that aviation is mentioned in this kick-off panel. Airplanes appeared in the story line within a few weeks - the first instance, July 10, 1928, is also presented below.
Strip from September 18, 1928.
The Big Little books were a phenomenon of the 1930s; measuring a small 3 5/8" x 4 1/2", the color illustrated, card cover books were a thick 425 pages or so! The story line was carried on the left hand page and the facing right hand page was an illustration following standard comic strip panel technique. Subjects were far ranging, from Jack Swift and His Rocket Ship to Little Women. Two examples of Tailspin Tommy books are shown below. The first, Tailspin Tommy Hunting for Pirate Gold, is a Big Little Book published by Whitman in 1935. The second, Tailspin Tommy and the Lost Transport, is from 1939/1940 and carries the name of the Better Little Book although still published by Whitman.
Page 25 of "Pirate Gold" - over Santiago de Cuba. A rousing adventure complete with amphibions, perils, and women.
"Pirate Gold's" Betty Lou. Betty Lou was the name of Hal Forrest's daughter.
Back cover of "Pirate Gold."
Page 411 of "Lost Transport."
TAILSPIN TOMMY and the ISLAND IN THE SKY The "Island in the Sky" is a 1936 Whitman Publishing Co. big little book; in this exciting adventure, Tommy and Skeeter are flying across the Pacific when they encounter a dirigible in distress during a storm. The carrier, USS Saratoga, comes to the rescue of Tommy as they run low on fuel. Directed back to the carrier by a navy pilot, Tommy lands on the carrier. Taking off the next day, they run across a high plateau, an "island in the sky." Landing, they run through a gamut of adventures involving the wild and fearsome Aztecs that inhabit the land, along with a beautiful and white "Sun Goddess" who befriends them. They eventually escape with the aid of Pancho Pistola and his cabin job. Wow! And that takes 425 pages to unfold, half of the pages being cartoon panels.
But, the interesting aspect of this book is not this hair raising story - or the beautiful sun goddess. Of prime interest is the use of a real-life Navy pilot's name in the story - and the fact that the pilot actually flew from the carrier Saratoga at the time with Fighter Squadron 1. Additionally, little did Hal Forrest realize in 1936, that Lieutenant Cameron Briggs would become a Rear Admiral and the skipper of the Boxer during the Korean War before he retired in 1955.
Shown below are two excerpts from the book which mention Cameron Briggs:
Page 24. Five minutes later, Flight Commander Ralph Wood faced his four best pursuit pilots on the Saratoga's storm-swept deck. Raising his voice sharply against the roar of warming motors, he barked swift orders.
"Briggs, you will fly East by North; Farnsworth, takeoff dead East; Berger, East by South; and Ward, Souteast."
Page 36-38. The Saratoga's fast little pursuit plane circled rapidly over the wrecked airship, long enough for its pilot to radio back the position - long enough, too, for the desperate passengers to realize that help was on the way. Then, with a farewell swoop, it headed back into the gray curtains of rain. "Lieutenant Cameron Briggs calling the two-seater plane!" came his message in Skeeter's earphones. "Follow me back to the Saratoga."
Lieutenant Commander Cameron Briggs, Aviation Officer and Commanding Officer of Cruiser Scouting Squadron Eight (VCS-8), second from left, on board the USS Philadelphia, (CL-41), in November 1940. CL-41 shown below.
Anchored in the Hudson River, off New York City, 1939. U.S. Naval Historical Center Photograph.
If you would like to know more about Admiral Cameron Briggs, click here.
Admiral Briggs' granddaughter, Tina May, has provided information written by her father concerning Admiral Briggs' experiences.
He believes that Cameron Briggs met Hal Forrest while Cameron was flying for the Navy's High Hats at an airshow in Michigan, around 1928-29 - the High Hats
were famous for flying tied together. Cameron also did a scene in Hell Divers which featured Wallace Beery and involved the Saratoga.
The Stephen Slesinger Inc. company published thirty Tailspin Tommy Adventures in 8-page booklet form as a promotion for Big Thrill Chewing Gum; the example shown below
is from a 1934 enclosure with gum from the Goudey Gum Co.
Adventures appeared in other booklet forms as shown below.
The world of comics has artists, representatives, syndicators, publishers etc. The Stephen Slesinger, Inc. company represented Tailspin Tommy and was the largest U.S. representative for newspaper syndicated comics; Bell Syndicate was represented by Slesinger. The Big Little books were published by Whitman but carry a copyright by Stephen Slesinger, Inc. Slesinger came up with many and varied promotional methods for the comic characters in addition to publishing. One interesting and quite rare Slesinger product was the "Telecomic Film" which featured synoptic versions of popular comics. A small projector illuminated a paper strip "film" that featured synoptic versions of popular comics; the projector quickly switched between the two simple images to produce the effect of motion (it appears that two lens were used). The user moved the film strip with a hand crank to activate the action. Correspondent Mike Leggett has provided photos of the projector that he used in the 1950s. The projector uses a standard 15-watt bulb; the back portion hinges upwards to load the film strip. The unit is made of sheet metal. Photos of the Telecomic Film Projector and the Tailspin Tommy telecomic strip are presented below, courtesy of Mike Leggett.
CollectAir has a framed example of two Tailspin Tommy original strips from 1939; strips #3418 and 3419, used on April 18 and 19, 1939. These two strips are exceptionally interesting as they both have a majority of panels featuring airplanes. Examples of panels from these two strips are presented below.
Panels #1 and #3 from "The Vulture!," strip #3418.
Panels #1, #2 and #5 from "The Light in the Fog," strip #3419.
The framed set of 1939 Tailspin Tommy strips is priced at $1000.00.
Several panels, shown below, of strip #3466, run June 13, 1939, are good examples of the detailed ink work done by Brown.
To view a number of strips from 1935, click here.
Hal Forrest's comic strip attracted the attention of Aero Digest columnist, Cy Caldwell in the February, 1932 issue. Caldwell wrote a rather "folksy" column in each issue entitled "PERSONAIRLITIES" about aviation people and he liberally sprinkled his own homespun philosophy throughout his musings. The following is Cy's 1932 comments on Hal Forrest.
Hal Forrest in 1932 - "Aero Digest."
The distinguished looking pilot with the trick moustache - an item so insignificant that it may not reproduce in the cut (see above) - is none othe than Hal Forrest, creator of the aviation strip, "Tailspin Tommy," a newspaper feature in high favor with the youth of the land. While I am not a constant follower of Tommy - preferring to watch the equally amusing antics of our prominent people as reported in the daily papers - I understand that the younger lads take to the creation as eagerly as I, in my distant youth, used to follow the doings of Happy Hooligan and the Katzenjammers.
I know it has become the custom among the literati to sniff disdainfully at such things as comic strips, on the grounds that they depreciate the mentality of their perusers, but after all weren't most of us raised on such mental fare? Oh, I know that we're not mental giants, but is it reasonable to blame that on the comic strips? Was there any mentality worth mentioning, even before we became comic strip addicts? I doubt it. Speaking for myself, if my youthful lmind had not been stirred by the comics, it would have remained unmoved, for I read nothing else. Perhaps this accounts for my deplorable condition to-day, but I think not. Born to be one of the illiterati, I have simply carried out my destiny, in spite of the comics.
Although I no longer derive much entertainment from this form of art, I belive that comic strips have a definitely useful part in developing the minds of children - to say nothing of the adults! They are simply a modern development of the Mother Goose rhymes, with pictures. From time immemorial - whatever that was - children have cried, "Tell us a story." And we have told them stories - which possibly accounts for the numbers of them who have become Republicans. Men like Hal Forrest tell them a better story, and illustrate it with appropriate drawings, a very clever thing to do - and get paid for it. I know many who have done drawings and never been paid for them. Nobody wanted them. I even know people who have weritten stories - and failed to sell them. So when anyone not only can tell a story, but also illustrate it, and - what is more startling - get paid for doing it, I take off my hat to him.
Hal Forrest started life July 22, 1895, in Philadelphia, the biggest small town in the world. Pained, hurt, and grieved at the lack of animation in that sad burg, Hal tried to enliven the scene by drawing pictures on the walls of his room. Even as a child he showed signs of becoming an artist. His parents were in despair - they wanted him to become a plumber or a truckman - anything respectable. It was not to be. When he was sixteen, in the year 1911, his first comic strip appeared in the Philadelphia Telegraph. Whether or not that strip, "Percy the Boy Scout," hastened the demise of the Telegraph, Hal doesn't say. But I suspect it did. At seventeen he became - probably as a punishment for that comic strip - the youngest scoutmaster in the country, and headed the thirteenth troop established in America.
From 1911 to 1915 he attended the Art Institute of Chicago - this was before the only thing they drew in Chicago was beer. He was also a member of the staff of the Chicago Tribune and of Troop A, First Illinois Cavalry. In 1914 he tried to enlist in the Royal Flying Corps, but was rejected because of Athlete's Foot. By the time the foot got less athletic, he figured the Germans had piled up too much of a handicap of experience against him, so Hal went to North Dakota to develop his muscles and his bank roll in the harvest fields. Having worked for a very brief period in the harvest fields myself, I can declare that the only thing he developed was his muscle and probably a hankering for milder pursuits.
During 1915 to '17 Hal was a member of Headquarters Troop, Third New Jersey Infantry. He collaborated with Lee Pape, author of "Little Benn's Notebook," on a Sunday page of colored comics in the Philadelphia Record. The day war was declared, for no good reason, he enlisted and was assigned to the Aviation Section of the Signal Corps, San Antonio, Texas, and in time became Sergeant-Major of 144th Pursuit Squadron, Kelly Field. Just what he pursued, he does not state. I suppose he simply pursued his way through the war as peacefully as possible. Any ambition he might have cherished to engage in a death grapple with the late enemy was nipped in the bud, for George Creel got hold of him to do Liberty Loan Posters and War Cartoons for the Bureau of Public Information, and - if I am not greatly mistaken - the Bureau of Public Misinformation. When I think of the yarns we used to swallow whole - such as the German Corpse Factory and the crucified Sergeant! So far as crucifying a Sergeant went, most of the troops would have been in favor of it, anyhow. That goes for the troops on both sides.
Hal Forrest organized and commanded the First Preparatory Officer's Training Corps at Kelly Field in 1918, then was transferred as instructor to Fifth R.O.T.C., Camp MacArthur, Waco, Texas, where he was mustered out in December, 1918. During the following year he barnstormed with "Daredevil" Ed Larette and "Chubby" Watson, wing-walkers, through Louisiana, Texas and Arkansas. At Shreveport, La., in 1919, he says that he fell out of the rear cockpit of an old Standard while taking photos of an American Legion baseball game, but that he landed back in the cockpit, due to the quick maneuvering of Pilot Toncray. If this story is true - and you have my permission to believe it or not, there is no compulsion in the matter - if it's true, then Toncray ranks as the world's quickest thinking and moving pilot. However, my own interpretation of the incident is that Hal merely got caught in some of the numerous wires with which the Standard was infested, or festooned, and that the Standard itself threw him back where he belonged. I have long been of the opinion that these old ships, taking us greenies aloft, looked after us, flew us around, and landed us again at their convenience. I know that in 1916 I went up in a Maurice Farman Shorthorn, and never flew it a foot, yet it brought me down again. I merely sat in it, with terror and concern stamped on my features, while it took me up and brought me down again safely. This particular plane actually served as my instructor, correcting my numerous errors, on the odd occasions when I attempted to move the controls at all. Usually, however, I merely sat in it, and went up and down as it willed. I still think this is as good a system as any.
While at Kelly Field Hal had conceived the idea of an aviation comic strip, and drew cartoons for the camp newspaper, the Kelly Field Eagle; also he was art editor of the "Set-up," a camp newspaper at Waco, Texas. While a member of the 479th Pursuit Squadron, U.S, Air Corps Reserve, Clover Field, Santa Monica, Forrest organized his own syndicate and peddled "Artie the Ace," the first aviation comic strip. From this he developed the present feature, "Tailspin Tommy," which appears in over 200 newspapers in the United States in Sunday page and strip form. It also appears in Canada, Alaska, Porto Rico, Panama Canal Zone and Sweden. In this strip Forrest strives to be authentic, as to plane and motor details, and in the story he avoids using anything that could not be possible in aviation. In short, the strip is educative, and should be welcome in the sacred offices of the N.A.A., where it is badly needed.
In 1929 this aerial cartoonist made a four months' air tour of the United States, Canada, and Mexico, using twenty-two differrent air transport lines, and several military ships. He gave lectures from the stage, in classrooms, and over the radio on the advantages of commercial aviation. I suppose he carefully refrained from mentioning any of the disadvantages - most of us do! He holds a Department of Commerce Private License now, and flies his plane every day except Friday - because his wife is superstitious of Friday, despite the fact that Sunday, Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thurdsay, and Saturday have also held their unlucky moments for airmen. However, she and his five-year-old daughter, "Bunny" Betty Lou fly with father on all other days of the week, so he doesn't mind the Friday layover.
And those, briefly, are the pertinent biographical facts about the creator of "Tailspin Tommy." He should be a very happy man. Through the use of his art and his creative imagination he is enabled to bring pleasure to hundreds of thousands of children. And what a wonderful privilege that is! You know, folks, we're all after something as we plug along through life - money or success, or fame in some endeavor, or perhaps just the satisfaction of an ordinary job well done. And at first the effort seems worth while, but later it doesn't seem quite so worthy - and finally we reach a stage where we wonder why we troubled ourselves so much, when all we have to show for our struggle is a little money in the bank, or a house or two, or childen who don't bother much about us any more, or friends who've about forgotten us. We all, if we live long enough, arrive at that dreary stage. Then happy is the man who can look back along the road he has travelled and say, "Well, I haven't collected much baggage - but memories - and I don't seem to have got any place that amounts to anything, as I see it now. But anyhow, I'm mighty glad to recall that as I trudged along I was able to brighten things up a bit for the other travellers - made the time pass more pleasantly for all concerned." And that's what Hal Forrest does - brightens things up for the little travellers on the road. And that's a mighty fine thing to be able to do, if you ask me.
The scene panels below are samples from the many daily strips run in the Venice Vanguard newspaper. This 1934 strip was drawn by Hal Forrest, prior to the arrival of the strip's "ghost artist," Reynold Brown in 1936/37. Notice, by comparison, how the airplanes of the 1939 strip above, drawn by Reynold Brown, are much more elegantly drawn, with fine inked lines, than the airplanes shown in the 1934 panels below. Even so, the Hal Forrest drawn strips were, and are, of superb quality.
The story line is roughly as follows: Adventure Pictures is shooting a World War I aviation film, "Midnight Patrol," at Three Points. Bruce Wilkins, acting as a double on aerial shots for the film's hero, acted by Gilbert Montague, is a womanizer and a sometimes drunk, who annoys most of the women on the set including the actress, Mlle. L'Vrille, and Tailspin Tommy's love, Betty Lou, the leading lady. Wilkins eventually gets the boot following a bout with the star "Monty" Montague and "Monty" lands in a hospital with injuries received in the fist fight but word is out that it is only an appendix problem. Tommy Tomkins gets thrown in as an actor to take "Monty's" place and as a stunt pilot. Skeeter crashes during a scene with a SPAD and Wilkins re-enters the picture as "Monty" forgives "the unfortunate affair." Mysterious attacks happen as the airfield is thrown into the dark and real bullets are thrown during an aerial battle as Wilk gets shot at by his "friend" Douglas. All this "action" in April through June of 1934 in episodes strips 1805 to 1882.
Strip Number 1831.
The strip featured many interesting airplanes over the years. Two examples from the 1940 daily strip are presented below. The first, entitled Tommy has a plan to fight Berrando," has the rare Grumman Skyrocket in the first panel. Also shown from 1940 is the Atlantic "Clipper" flying boat.
The following panels are from the original drawings for the June 5, 1940 daily strip number 285 entitled "Ominous Meeting." These panels may be seen at CollectAir.
Tailspin Tommy Comic No. 1 from 1940.
Several early Tailspin Tommy publication covers are presented below.
A reprint of some dailies from the third year of Tailspin is available from www.mycomicshop.com. The editor, Ron Goulart, has an informative introduction featured in the reprint. Partially, it reads, "The feature, which ran daily, and eventually on Sundays, became very popular by the early 1930s. 'We had about 250 daily papers and 200 Sunday papers when I sold out my interest to Forrest in 1933,' Chaffin recalled. After they parted, Forrest carried on Tailspin Tommy solo. He was not much of a scriptwriter. His
major ability was in drawing airplanes. His style was a mite old fashioned, much given to elaborate and intricate inking, and he never drew people as well as he did planes. This volume, a Chaffin-Forrest collaboration, appeared in book form in 1932, as one of a series of newspaper strip reprint books issued by the longtime kids book publisher, Cupples & Leon. These dailies ran initially in 1930 and 1931, during the strips third year. Today's readers will perhaps find it difficult to realize that, in much more innocent America of over fifty years ago, something as simple as getting the mail delivered could be the stuff of exciting adventure." This
introduction was written in 1988. I recommend this very inexpensive reprint, Tailspin Tommy and the Air Mail Bandits, to Tailspin buffs.
I hope you've enjoyed this excursion into a comic strip from the 1930s. Hal Forrest did many other illustrations during his career; I have an interesting children's book, Allan and Brenda on a Clipper, printed in 1942, which has handsome black and white illustrations featuring the Boeing 314. This delightful children's book , describing Clipper travel, was written by Joyce Newbill Martin, a Pasadena socialite. The dust jacket describes her as ". . .a Portland, Oregonian by birth, a Chicagoan by education, a Philadelphian by marriage and - now and forever more - a Pasadena, Californian by choice." This is an exceptionally good children's book and it features twenty-one illustrations by Forrest, two of which are presented below.
The book has a local connection for me as it was published by Wallace Hebberd in Santa Barbara.
Also, a Hal Forrest (same fellow?) did some acting in TV movies and serials in the 1950s, receiving screen credits for several productions. I would like to hear from anyone who has something to add to the Tailspin Tommy saga and I would enjoy any additional art from either the printed strips (specially the Sunday color) or original illustrations by Hal Forrest and Reynold Brown.
A Tailspin Tommy model airplane contest in Los Angeles. The gentleman holding the model is reported to be Hal Forrest. The scene is undated but none of the solid models on the judging table are newer than the mid-1930s although Forrest appears to older than the early 40s (he was born in 1895). The models represent a cross section of the solid model kits being offered in the model airplane magazines in the 1935-36 period. Note the movie poster on the wall which touts a movie which is certainly older than the 1939 film presented below, so perhaps the scene is mid-30s or perhaps a a post-WWII event touting the return of Tailspin Tommy. Our CollectAir "fashion archaeologist," Shera Lynn Fischer, notes that the blue jeans, waistline, hair styles, shirts without ties, and curtain on a traverse rod indicates an early 1950 scene. This photo, and a collection of wood solid models from the late 1930s, is in the collection of R.G. Hocutt's father - R.G. has kindly allowed me to use this interesting picture of a Tailspin Tommy event.
A vintage Bell YFM-1 Airacuda solid wood model decorated in the scheme of the first prototype 36-351 which first took to the air in September 1937. The YFM-1 was test flown by Wright Field USAAC officer Benjamin Kelsey who was the only pilot to fly the prototype Lockheed P-38, the XP-38, in 1939. The Airacuda was the subject of many solid model kits in the late 1930s and into the 1940s. A StromBecKer example is shown on the StromBecKer history page on this site. This model is from the late 30s and this photo is from the collection of R.G. Hocutt's father.
I have a video tape of one of the movie serials. The movie, Danger Flight, is one of the four Tailspin feature films. This movie, which is available on DVD, involves stick and tissue model airplanes - very appropriate for this website. A synopsis of the movie is presented below:
Danger Flight (1939) - This adventure film about building model aircraft was inspired by the comic strip Tailspin Tommy with actors John Trent, Marjorie Reynolds, Milburne Stone and Jason Robards. THE PLOT : Feel the exhilaration of watching one of Hollywood's first ever comic strip heroes onscreen. John Trent plays the legendary Tailspin Tommy in this classic thriller, where he tries helping out a juvenile delinquent.
Trent as Tommy tries to help some juvenile delinquents by getting them interested in model airplane building. He encounters a special kid, Whitey, whom he literally takes under his wings. He introduces him to the joys of building balsa wood and tissue model airplanes. When Tommy crash-lands in a storm, the boy helps rescue him by using the miniature plane as a signal to the search parties. The publicity that arises from the rescue causes the formerly delinquent Baker to reevaluate his outlook on life and reforms him from a rough speaking youngster to a caring and talented friend.
The kid's adult brother, who is up to no good, tricks Whitey into helping him in the plots to rob a payroll flight. Whitey works out a way that kids can give distress signals by having model planes do miniature skywriting, which he also shows Tailspin. Faking a fatal accident Whitey's brother convinces the former to get Tailspin to land using his smoke signal.
Capturing Tailspin Tommy and getting their hands on the payroll "dough", the villains take Whitey and Tailspin to their hideout, with no intentions of keeping them alive. Tailspin and Whitey conspire a plan to save their lives and it is time for another model airplane to save the day.
Frames from the movie are shown below in general order of appearance. Tailspin Tommy Tomkins and Betty Lou Barnes lead off, followed by local airport Air Scouts with their gaggle of various rubber powered models, all appropriate designs for this 1939 production. An old time model shop with a nifty display board showing a solid model of a B-17 - StromBecKer? A flight shot of a cabin rubber design. A new kit is opened and it contains a model motor box - this is an Ohlsson box from 1939, but unlike today's "product placement" in movies, the Ohlsson brand name has been blacked out! But in the next frame you can't miss a sparkling new Ohlsson 23. A gas model was constructed but the engine is not the "23" but a mystery engine that I can't identify (see last frame) - it appears that it might be a front intake (not common in 1939) and looks a little like a Madewell 49 but that engine wasn't around in 1939! Numerous fine blackened fins with an aluminum finned head. I believe that the gas model is an original design as it doesn't fit any configuration exactly that I know of from that era. A number of real airplanes were used including this lovely Ryan (NC 14912). Several Stinsons were featured including many shots of a Stinson Tri-Motor Model A.
This has to be one of the all-time great model airplane feature movies (ok, it is a "B" grade). Can you come up with a better one? This feature has models from the beginning to the end, both rubber and gas powered. Not to mention payroll robbers, airplane crashes, kidnapping, and even a kiss.
Example of Ohlsson 23 in original box - same as movie.
TAILSPIN TOMMY - TEST PILOT The handsome actor, John Trent, who appeared in the movie series featuring Tailspin Tommy, was an active TWA pilot before becoming an actor - and he became a well known test pilot for Douglas Aircraft following his movie career. John Trent's real name was La Verne Browne. He grew up in Orange County and became a pilot while in college and did some barnstorming through Virginia before becoming a co-pilot for TWA doing DC-2 flights between Burbank and Kansas City. Producer B.P. Schulberg is reported to have "discovered" Browne during a rather rough flight out of Burbank which was diverted to Amarillo - this epiphany happening over a cup of coffee. A subsequent screen test landed Browne a major part in a Schulberg film, A Doctor's Diary, by Paramount. Time magazine praised John Trent as , "a self-assured young man of likely starring caliber."
Trent then played in four Tailspin Tommy movies, convincingly as a pilot since he was one. TWA used his movie star status to promote TWA as the photo below shows. The release on the back of the photo states: "From T.W.A. News Bureau. Pilot-Actor Coaches Air Hostesses on 'Makeup.' Film Star John Trent, formerly Captain LaVerne Browne of T.W.A., shows Air Hostess Eva McIntyre, center, and Dorothy Newton the proper shading of makeup to blend with the luxurious interiors of the Skysleeper and Skyclub planes. John Trent now flys T.W.A. frequently as a passenger although he still holds his captain rank as a dollar a month employee."
Trent worked with Marjorie Reynolds and Milburne Stone, who played "Skeeter" - Stone in later years played "Doc" in the TV series Gunsmoke. Following his series of Tailspin films, Browne applied for a job in the flight-test division of Douglas and he became a routine test pilot for the SBD Dauntless. By 1943 he became a project test pilot with his first assignment the unsuccessful XSB2D, then moved on to test the XTB2D with counter-rotating propellers driven by the monster P&W 4360. He made the first flight on the new Wright R-3350 powered XBT2D-1 in March 1945 which became the workhorse AD-1. Browne became the flight manager (chief pilot) of the Douglas El Segundo flight-test division until he retired in the early 1960s. Quite a career for Tailspin Tommy!
A Douglas co-worker of Browne informs us that La Verne Browne's callsign at Douglas was "Tailspin" and that he was referred to as "Brown with an 'e'."
The Fall 2009 issue of AAHS Journal, Volume 54, Number 3, has a delightful article about "LaVerne 'Brownie' Browne" written by one of the El Segundo test pilots that worked for "Brownie" - H. "Dix" Dixon. Has a photo of the test
pilot group taken in 1955. Anyone viewing this particluar website should be a member of the American Aviation Historical Society. Log on to www.aahs-online.org for information on joining.
Perhaps the Tailspin Tommy series spawned the title of "Tailspin" for the one-off 1944 comic which featured the WW2 superhero "Firebird." This
comic's cover was created by artist L.B. Cole and is shown below as a delightful WW2 action scene.
One other early comic strip deserves mentioning. Although not an aviation strip at first, Scorchy Smith, featured many aviation situations as it developed. Scorchy Smith was first published in March 1930; drawn by cartoonist John Terry, the adventure strip occasionally featured airplanes which carried the hero to the locale of his misadventure. Not a particularly well drawn strip; nevertheless, Scorchy Smith became AP's most popular and lucrative daily strip. John Terry's health failed and it was necessary to find a replacement cartoonist to take over the popular strip in December 1933. Artist Noel Sickles took over Scorchy, at first signing Terry's name. By April 2, 1934, Sickles began signing the strip with his name - but he had maintained Terry's basic style. Sickles soon began developing his own style which has been described as the chiaroscuro effect, using blacks and lights for the key elements. Sickles drew the strip until December 4, 1936. Note in the panels from the strip of January 3, 1934, shown below, that John Terry's name still appears, although drawn by Sickles.
Following the Scorchy strip, Sickles became a premier illustrator for magazines, books, advertising, movies etc.; during WW2, Sickles illustrated for the War Department. He devoted his art to western scenes in his later life. Noel Sickles died in 1982.
A magnificent book covering Scorchy Smith and Noel Sickles life and art was published in July 2008; this book is recommended for all fans of aviation comics - dust jacket shown below.
The dust jacket of this book reads: "NOEL SICKLES drew comic strips for three brief years, yet his groundbreaking work on the 1930s adventure series SCORCHY SMITH is a milestone in the history of newspaper comics. The series is presented complete in this volume. During the three years that Noel Sickles wrote and illustrated the 1930s adventure comic strip Scorchy Smith, he revolutionized the field when he moved away from the heavy black outlines predominant in the comic strips of the day. He adopted storytelling techniques from the motion pictures, while relying on brushwork to create a looser, more impressionistic representation of people, action, and scenery. This chiaroscuro approach had never before been seen in the comic pages.
"Impressed with the results Sickles was achieving on Scorchy, his friend and studiomate Milton Caniff adopted a similar style that became his signature on Terry and the Pirates, Male Call, and Steve Canyon.
"Scorchy Smith is the wellspring of comics' chiaroscuro movement, and "Bud" Sickles's artistic growth is a trailblazing monument to the possibilities inherent in the graphic story medium."
Two examples of Sickles's later work, below, are from the book.
The following airplane scenes from Scorchy Smith are from April 7 and June 2, 1934 and July 10, 1936.
Forrest's "ghost" artist, Reynold Brown (1917-1991), went on from Tailspin Tommy to a very distinguished and varied career as an illustrator and artist. In high school, Brown was an admirer of famous illustrators such as Leyendecker, Cornwell, Rockwell and N.C. Wyeth; coincidentally, Norman Rockwell's sister was a teacher at Brown's school. His art education was achieved at the Alhambra High School and, needing a job, he began work on Forrest's strip. Later, Brown met Rockwell who advised him to leave the cartoon business if he wanted to learn to be an illustrator. He worked at North American in WW2 as a technical illustrator and then did phantom drawings and illustrations for many popular magazines including Flying. (see sample P-38 below). He created illustrations for other magazines and books such as the Earl Stanley Gardner Perry Mason series while living in New York.
A two-page foldout cutaway from the April, 1945 issue of "Flying." This cutaway is part of a photo article on a test flight of a new production P-38J; excellent in-cockpit photos.
A Reynold Brown cutaway of a B-24J appeared in the October, 1945 issue. Douglas' R.G. Smith (a founder of the American Society of Aviation Artists) also had similar cutaways published during 1945 in this magazine.
Cutaway used in recent "Air Classics" without attribution.
A Reynold Brown cutaway of the Republic P-47.
Departing the East Coast, and after a short 1951 stint at N.A.A., Brown elected to do free lance work and took a teaching position at the Art Center College of Design where he taught figure and head drawing for 26 years. Reynold Brown is best known for his work with movie posters, having worked on over 250 campaigns for most of the big studios, beginning in 1951. Other illustrations during his movie career included record jackets. In the early 1970s, Brown concentrated on fine art and became an accomplished artist in the field of western art. Of interest to viewers of this aviation website, Reynold Brown painted nine paintings for The United States Air Force Art Collection - subject matter centered on operations in the Japan and Okinawa area between 1961 and 1963. One example would be Catalog Number 1963.048, Home for Dinner - F-105s from Kadena Air Base, Okinawa SOS. He was a long time member of the Los Angeles Society of Illustrators. He suffered a major stroke in 1976 and, unable to fully recover, continued to paint but in a less representational style He moved to Nebraska in 1983 and created local landscape scenes until his death in 1991.
A marvelous book, Reynold Brown - A Life in Pictures, by Daniel Zimmer and David J. Hornung, was published in 2009. This book presents a thorough and richly illustrated overview of Brown's art work throughout his lengthy career, starting with Tailspin Tommy, and progressing through his airplane cut-aways, movie posters, portraits, teaching and western art. The text sensitively outlines the creativity demonstrated by Reynold Brown, working from his small home office and balancing his home life with the pressures of the movie world. A recommended book.
Note the similarity between Noel Sickles' career and that of Reynold Brown's. The photos below show some of the typical pages.
The San Dimas Festival of Western Arts organization presented their Seventh Annual Exhibition of American Indian and Cowboy Artists
at San Dimas, California in 1983. Reynold Brown was chosen by the organization as "Artist of the West" for the 1983 show - which happens to be the same year that he moved to Nebraska.
The text below is copied from the AICA brochure of 1983.
The poster below is from the late 1950s and was painted by Reynold Brown.
The poster shown below is a Reynold Brown painting; you can view a large selection of Brown's work by clicking here.
A March 2009 issue of the Wall Street Journal carried the "DVD Focus" bit shown below; Brown's 50 foot woman
just won't go away! Sadly, the 50-foot star, Allison Hayes, recently passed away.
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