Sunday, March 1, 2015

The Monolith Monsters

image(1957)
Directed by
John Sherwood
Written by Norman Jolly and Robert M. Fresco (screenplay); Jack Arnold and Fresco (story)
Starring Grant Williams, Lola Albright, Les Tremayne, Trevor Bardette, Phil Harvey, Linda Scheley
IMDB Entry

I always liked 50s monster movies, and even today the best hold up pretty well.  Oh, the science is often silly, but once granted the premise, it sticks it with logical solutions and results.  The monster are very similar though:  usually some sort of giant creature that runs amok.  Certainly the most imaginative threat in these shows up in The Monolith Monsters.*

It starts with a meteorite crashing into the desert near a small California town.  Geologist Ben Gilbert (Phil Harvey) finds one of hundreds of black rocks and takes it back for study.  When water falls onto one of the rocks, it starts to bubble.

The next day, Dave Miller (Grant Williams) returns from a business trip to find Ben, his body turned into rock.  Meanwhile, the schoolteacher Cathy Barrett (Lola Albright) takes her class on a field trip, where her kids find more of the rocks, and Ginny Simpson (Linda Scheley) take it home. Cathy recognizes the rock in the lab as the same one that Ginny took with her, and they rush to her house, only to find it destroyed and Ginny slowly turning to stone.

The black rock turns out to be a crystal that grows when exposed to water.  After a rainstorm, the monoliths begin to move:  they grow to immense height, then topple over, breaking into thousands of  pieces that grow when exposed to water, and repeating the cycle.  And they cannot be stopped.

The movie isn't perfect.  The biggest flaw is that to increase suspense the characters are slow on the uptake:  trying to find what causes the monoliths to move, they take forever to realize its water. 

The Monoliths attack!But the monoliths are the stars of the film.  They are a different type of threat:  mindless, moving only the way gravity takes them, and totally dangerous.  The shots of them growing and crashing, destroying anything in their path are impressive.

The story was credited to 50s movie great Jack Arnold, who I've discussed before.  You can see similarities to other of his films, most notably the desert locale and the attempt to make the pseudoscience believable.

The film didn't make much of a splash when it came out, released as part of a double feature and disappearing.  It's fallen into public domain and can be found in the Internet Archive.

Despite the fact that a sequel would be natural, the monolith monsters never showed up again.**  It's still one of the top examples of the subgenre.

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*I had always loved the premise, but didn’t get a chance to see it until recently.

**Other than a cameo appearance in 2001: A Space Odyssey

Sunday, February 22, 2015

Wolf

Wolf(1994)
Directed by
Mike Nichols
Written by Jim Harrison, Wesley Strick
Starring Jack Nicholson, Michelle Pfeiffer, James Spader,
Christopher Plummer, Kate Nelligan
IMDB Entry

Of the classic movie monsters, the werewolf is probably the worst served. The problem is the setup:  the man/animal dichotomy is great, but it only happens in a full moon, unlike, say Cat PeopleWolf succeeds nicely because it moves away from the literal man/wolf but also uses it as a metaphor.

Will Randall (Jack Nicholson) is an editor of a publishing house* who is bitten by a wolf after hitting it in his car.  But that’s the least of his worries.  The business has been bought out by Raymond Alden (Christopher Plummer), who ruthlessly starts making changes to make it more profitable,** including demoting Will and replacing him with Stewart Swinton (James Spader).  Angry, Will is further enraged when he picks up Stewart’s scent on his wife’s (Kate Nelligan) clothing, knowing she is having an affair with him.  He goes to confront Stewart, and ends up biting him.  Will becomes more and more wolflike, being helped out by Adler’s daughter,  Laura (Michelle Pfeiffer).

But the change also helps out Will, who starts being more cutthroat and aggressive, winning his job back and getting Stewart fired.***  But being a wolf also has its drawbacks, especially when there’s another one around.

This is the type of role in which Nicholson excels:  over-the-top but not entirely crazy, and he plays it well.  He had been wanting to make a movie of the script for years, since Jim Harrison was a friend of his. Nicholson’s background in horror also serves him well.

Spader, of course, makes a creepy bad guy, and Pfeiffer was good as usual.

The movie got mixed reviews, mostly because it’s a mixed movie.  It tries to be arty, which turned off the horror movie crowd, and a horror film, which didn’t appeal to the arty crowd.  It also plays with the tropes of the werewolves in unexpected way. 

Despite its flaws, the movie overall is something to check out.

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*Since Columbia didn’t own a publishing business at the time, the went to science fiction/fantasy publisher Tor Books to supply the books needed to dress the set.  Sharp-eyed viewers can spot several volumes of Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series, as well as other SF/fantasy authors.

**Since I have some knowledge of the publishing business, I can say that this is harder to believe than believing in werewolves.  Book publishing even in 1994 was not that lucrative.

***Leading to this memorable scene:

Sunday, February 15, 2015

Cabin in the Sky

(1943)
Cabin in the skyDirected by
Vincente Minnelli
Written by Joseph Schrank, based on the musical by Lynn Root, music by Vernon Duke
Starring Ethel Waters, Eddie “Rochester” Anderson, Lena Horne, Kenneth Spencer, Rex Ingram, Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington.
IMDB Entry.

Cabin in the Sky was a daring movie when it was released in 1943:  a film in 1943 with an all-Black cast.  While it wasn’t the first time this happened,* but the studios ran the risk that theaters in the South would not show it, and, though the movie may have some things that seem stereotyped today, it was a major step forward in its time – and an entertaining movie to boot.

It’s the story of Little Joe (Eddie “Rochester” Anderson) and inveterate gambler who is married to the long-suffering Petunia (Ethel Waters).  Joe is shot over his gambling debts but, when he gets to heaven, the General (Kenneth Spencer) gives him another chance:  six months to straighten up his act.**  However, Lucifer, Jr. (Rex Ingram) has other plans, and sends Georgia Brown (Lena Horne) to tempt him.

The film employed just about every Black actor in Hollywood.  Though the characters were comic, they were not caricatures, and the casual racism of the time was toned down.  The script overall is witty with an studied attempt to avoid condescension and all of the human characters are portrayed a real human beings. 

Eddie “Rochester” Anderson was probably the most successful black actor of his era, primarily because of his role on the Jack Benny Show.***  He is good as Joe, and manages to be tempted without being a buffoon.

Ethel Waters gets one of her best roles here.  Her Petunia is a wonderfully sympathetic character and, of course, a great singer. 

And Lena Horne was terrific.  This was her first important acting role**** and she lights up the screen.  Her Georgia is playful, sexy, and the perfect seductress, something that probably bothered a lot of the white supremacists of the time.

This was director Vincente Minnelli’s first film.  Minnelli (Liza’s dad) made a specialty of musicals, and in this case he wanted to be respectful of the people involved.  Much of the original Vernon Duke score was removed in favor of songs by The Wizard of Oz’s Arlen and Harburg. 

The movie manages to retain its entertainment value, and is one of the few films of the era with African-Americans can be seen without wanting to cringe for them.

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*The Green Pastures – not a musical, with some of the same themes (its screenwriter helped with the screenplay)  – came out in 1936 (with some of the same cast) and it’s always risky to call any movie a “first.”

**This was a common fantasy theme of the time:  people being killed but getting a second chance.  It probably had a lot to do with the fact that so many Americans were dying in the war.

***One thing about the character is that Rochester often got the better of Benny and spent much of the time ridiculing Benny’s ego.  In a time when that sort of behavior could get you lynched, it was an important milestone.

****She had appeared as a singer in two earlier films.  Ethel Waters took a dislike to her, feeling her character was not behaving like a lady.  Waters also was miffed when publicity for the movie featured Horne very prominently, even though Waters was billed above her.

Sunday, February 8, 2015

Wild Thing (music, comedy)

(1967)
by “Senator Bobby”/”Senator Everett McKinley” (Bill Minkin)
Wikipedia Entry

In the 60s, music still had a novelty side.  You could have a hit with a song that was purely humorous, and even if it wasn’t a song (more on that later).  And “Senator Bobby” had one with his version of “Wild Thing.”

First, a little background.  The song “Wild Thing” was a number one hit by the UK group the Troggs in 1966.  It has a catchy but heavy guitar riff behind it with a growling vocals filled with sex and menace. 

And, in 1967, Senator Minority Leader Everett McKinley Dirksen had a surprise hit single (#16) with “Gallant Men,” a spoken word recording praising the military, a hawk’s ideal in the Vietnam era.*  That album including it won Dirksen a Grammy Award for best spoken word album.

That’s where comedian Bill Minkin came in.  He had the brilliant idea of using Dirksen’s dramatic voice to use the “let’s get sexy” lyrics of “Wild Thing,” with the nom de comedy of Senator Everett McKinley.

Of course, records needed to have two sides, so Minkin did the same thing with a more liberal senator:  Robert F. Kennedy.  Internal evidence indicates that this was supposed to be the B-Side of the record, but it was released as the A-side.  Recorded as by “Senator Bobby and the Hardly-Worthit Players,” the song reach #20.**

The Dirksen parody was not neglected, though.

(Sounds a little like Elvis, doesn’t he?)

Both songs are a bit dated, if only because of the references to political figures of the time, and the Kennedy family. 

I would also guess that the assassination of RFK put a damper on it being played, though by then the song was old news, so it didn’t affect Minkin the way Vaught Meader was affected by JFK’s death.  Minkin became friends with Martin Scorsese, with bit parts in Taxi Driver and The King of Comedy.  He also hosted The King Biscuit Flower Hour for 20 years.

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*It made Dirksen the oldest person to have a top 40 hit until he was surpassed by Moms Mabley two and a half years later

**Though the Senator Bobby version was released as the A-side of the single, it’s clear that it was meant to be the B-side, which included the parody of Dirksen.

Monday, February 2, 2015

Canada Lee (actor)

Canada Lee(1907-1952)
Wikipedia Page
Boxing record
IMDB Entry
Internet Broadway Database Entry

Canada Lee led a remarkable life. In his heyday, he was second only the Paul Robson* as the best Black actor on Broadway.  But the blacklist and health problems cut Lee’s career short, and his insistence on only accepting roles where he was treated with dignity made it difficult for him to get movie roels.

Lee was born Leonard Lionel Cornelius Canegata in New York City.  He knew he wanted to make a lot of himself, and ran away at 14 to be a jockey.  While there were many Black jockeys in the 19th century, they were being squeezed out of the business by the time Lee got involved.  Still, by dint of hard work, he managed to get some mounts and win a handful of races in the New York circuit before he grew too big to get mounts.

That’s when Lee took up boxing.  He had a talent for that, too, and one day a ring announcer, cold reading the name “Canagata, Lee” from a card, billed him ad Canada Lee.  Lee used that name from then on.

Boxing in the early 30s was just as segregated as the rest of society.  After Jack Johnson won the heavyweight crown, white promoters shied away from matching Black boxers with white ones.**  Lee faced the same issues, having success against other Black opponents, but finding it hard to get matches against white ones. Still, he was able to make enough money in the ring to live a prosperous lifestyle – though he never learned how to manage money, and was also very generous with it.

But the boxing came to an end when in 1929 an opponent’s blow led to Lee going blind in one eye.  He kept the injury secret in order to keep fighting, but eventually he had to give up the ring. 

Lee had played the violin as a child with some proficiency, so decided that was his next career.  With the help of columnist Ed Sullivan, he opened a night club, but never was able to make any money at it.

By 1934, Lee was broke.  He realized that he would have to give up his dreams and take a job as a laborer.  He reluctantly headed to the employment office at the Harlem YMCA and stumbled upon his true calling.

A theater group was auditioning .  Lee, to postpone the inevitable, sat in just to watch  Someone asked him to come up and read for a part.  Surprised, Lee got up on stage and got the role.

Lee took to the stage easily.  After one performance, he noticed a young man in the back of the theater being threatened by a couple of men.  He came down and chased them away, to the lasting gratitude of the other, a young man from Kansas named Orson Welles.  Welles later cast Lee as Banquo in his groundbreaking all-Black version of the Scottish Play, which instilled in Lee a love for Shakespeare and classical theater.

Slowly Lee worked his way up, and he finally achieved Broadway stardom as Bigger Thomas in the stage adaptation of Native Son in 1941.*** The play reflected Lee’s penchant for social justice and better treatment for Blacks.  And he also did a lot of radio, his voice making him an ideal announcer and even a DJ.

Lee wanted to do a movie, but he was picky:  he had no interest in playing the sort of menial roles that Blacks were stereotyped in.  Finally, in 1944, he found a role he felt was a good one:  Joe in Alfred Hitchcock’s Lifeboat.  He had to fight to avoid stereotyping even then (the script was changed after he signed on), and racism on the set, but it’s probably his most visible role today.  Even that was an issue: some publicity photos had Lee cropped out.

Lee in LifeboatHe returned to Broadway and continued his success, playing Caliban in The Tempest, and Daniel de Bosola in The Duchess of Malfi.  The latter was a milestone:  the first time a Black actor played a role that had previously only been cast for whites.  Even so, he had to wear special makeup to give him Caucasian skin tones.

Around this time, Lee started getting into trouble.  Always an activist, he often found himself at events where the Communist Party was involved.  The postwar Red Scare was coming into to play, and with it, the blacklist, and Lee was friendly with too many so-called “subversives” to miss notice.  His name appeared on a list of suspected Communists, and from then on, he had trouble finding work.****

Lee traveled to Europe and South Africa to appear in a film version of Cry the Beloved Country.  He continued to speak out against racism, and was particularly outspoken about what he saw under Apartheid.*****  

His health was failing.  He had high blood pressure, probably exacerbated by his worries over the Blacklist.  He recovered a bit in Europe, but returned to the US to promote the film.  There he found he couldn’t get work, and he was not allowed to leave the country.  Desperate and nearly broke, he died in 1952.******

Lee led a fascinating life, and I’m sure there is ample material for a movie about him.  There is a biography, Becoming Something:  The Story of Canada Lee by Mona Z. Smith.  I definitely recommend it to see a pioneer of Broadway who has been lost to time.

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*Their careers had certain parallels:  both started out as athletes (Robeson was an all-American football player and considered among the best of his era), both went into acting, both had a strong social conscience, and both had their careers cut short by the Blacklist.

**Harry Wills was the #1 challenger for the heavyweight crown in the 20s, but was never given a title shot.  Jack Dempsey seemed willing, but the bout never came off.

***Also directed by Welles.

****His former friend Ed Sullivan was particularly vehement, ignoring a letter from Lee asking for help clearing his name and constantly reporting rumors of his subversion.

*****Lee himself was treated well, but he saw plenty of examples about how South African Blacks were treated, which was worse than anything Lee had seen in the US.

******He is occasionally cited as being killed by the Blacklist.  While it certainly exacerbated his problem, the high blood pressure did seem to run in his family.

Sunday, January 25, 2015

Wagner and Sons Tea (food)

(1847-2000?)

imageBack in the 60s, if you wanted tea, your had only one choice:  orange pekoe,* and in most cases, that meant Lipton.**  Chinese restaurants had their own blends, but they were never sold unbrewed.  Celestial seasonings could be found in hippie stores, but nowhere else. It was Wagner and Sons Tea that showed me there was more to life than flo-thru tea bags.

Wagner’s was loose tea, and sold in a distinctive square tin.  Most were 3/4 oz., with a tin about 2 in. high.**  The tins were colorful, with each tea having a different color, with its name emblazoned on the front.

imageAnd the types of tea were things you never saw in supermarkets.  Orange pekoe, of course (orange tin), but Keemun (black), Jasmine (yellow), English breakfast (red), Formosa Oolong (light green), Imperial gunpowder (medium green), Irish (kelly green), Earl Gray (purple) Rare Mandarin (lavender), Pan fired green (blue), and Ch’a Ching Chinese restaurant (white).

The flavors let you experience a world of tea – and fairly cheaply.  The variety was appealing and soon you would get tea infusers to try out all the flavors.

The company was founded in 1847.  The teas were usually sold in gift stores and specialty food stores.  I knew of one not far from us where I’d go every few weeks to pick out old favorites and try things that sounded interesting.

Then, at some point, Wagner teas vanished. The company, around for almost a century and a half, sold out to a company named “Rose Spice” in 1996.  The company seems to have vanished, and with it, Wagner: the trademark lapsed in 2000.

At this point, all that is left are the tins, which are collectors items.  I can see why:  it must be fun to try to collect all the colors.  But the tea inside probably introduced many Americans to the idea that there was a world of tea to explore.

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*Which is not named for a growing region or drying method or variety:  it’s part of a grading system for black tea with leaves of a certain size and the tea can come from anywhere.

**Red Rose, Tetley, and other teas were available, but if you ordered tea in a restaurant, Lipton was what you got.

**There were also full-size tins of 4.5 oz.

Sunday, January 18, 2015

The Day the Earth Caught Fire

image(1961)
Directed by
Val Guest
Written by Wolf Mankowitz, Val Guest
Starring Janet Monro, Leo McKern, Edward Judd, Arthur Christiansen
IMDB Entry

The British always did downbeat science fiction well, and The Day the Earth Caught Fire is a minor classic in the genre.

It starts out with an abandoned London, where reporter Peter Stenning (Edward Judd) staggers sweaty in the heat.  He goes to his office, so hot the typewriter platen* is melting.  He then starts to dictate the story.

It’s three months earlier.  The newspaper is humming and Bill McGuire (Leo McKern**) is covering for Peter’s absence due to his personal problems.  But things are going wrong.  There are sunspot and seismic activity that seem to be connected with a nuclear test a few days before. And that’s just the beginning:  a solar eclipse happens ten days early and a massive heat wave envelops Britain. And more and more weather anomalies occur.  Eventually the news gets out:  The explosions have changed the tilt of the Earth – for a start.

The movie is reminiscent of films of the 30s:  rapid and witty dialog (especially from McKern).  Another nice touch is that the newspaper scenes were shot at an actual newspaper, and the editor of the real Express newspaper (Arthur Christiansen) plays the editor in the film.

The results of the changes are well thought out, and the movie does not have a conventional happy ending, leaving the result ambiguous.

Director/Writer Val Guest got his start in science fiction by writing and directing the movie version of  the seminal British SF TV show The Quatermass Experiment.

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*For those of you who have never seen a typewriter, the platen was the cylinder, usually made of rubber, where the keys strike the paper.

**Yes, Rumpole.  It’s odd seeing him so young.  He is one actor who is always a pleasure to watch, and I remember him as the villain in the Beatles’s Help and as Number 2 in The Prisoner.

Saturday, January 10, 2015

The Book of Life

The Book of LIfe(2014)
Directed by
Jorge R.  Gutierrez
Written by Jorge R. Gutierrez, Douglas Lansdale
Voices by Diego Luna, Zoe Saldana, Channing Tatum, Ron Perlman, Kate del Castillo, Christina Applegate, Ice Cube
IMDB Entry

This is the golden age of film animation.  Studios have found that animated films are relatively cheap to make, and can make a hatful of money. Of course, the assumption is that animation is for children, and films are usually aimed at that audience, with some hints to keep their parents amused.  But sometimes a film comes along that aims at a slightly older audience, and last year, this brought the delight that is The Book of Life.

The film leans heavily on Mexican mythology. A museum tour guide takes a group of unruly children to see the Mexican town of San Angel, whose story is in the book of life.

It starts out with a wager.  La Muerte (voice of Kate del Castill0), who rules the Land of the Remembered (basically, heaven) joins in a bet with Xibalba (Ron Perlman), ruler of the Land of the Forgotten (the opposite).  In the town, there are three children:  Manolo, Joaquin, and Maria. The bet is as to who will marry Maria when they grow up.  La Muerte picks Manolo; Xibalba, picks Joaquin and, of course, cheats by giving him a medal that will make him invulnerable.

Joachim, Manolo, & MariaYears later, Manolo (Diego Luna) becomes a musician, against the wishes of his father, who wants him to join in the family tradition and become a bullfighter.  Joaquin (Channing Tatum), aided by his magic medal, has become a war hero.  When Maria (Zoe Saldana) returns from several years in Spain, they both woo her, and when it looks like Manolo is going to win, Xibalba kills him.  But that’s only the beginning…

The plot is filled with nice twists and surprises and never goes exactly where you expect it to.  The visual style of the film is striking.  Director Jorge R. Gutierrez uses bright colors and Mexican motifs through out.  One subtle conceit is that many of the characters are made to look like wooden dolls, like the dolls in the museum.  The design is awash with color and the characters are like nothing else in film.*  Guillermo del Toro produced the film and you can see how he would have liked the style.

The movie did OK, but was not a massive success.**  Certainly it wasn’t something that aimed directly at kids (though certainly kids could enjoy it), and, unfortunately, adults are reluctant to go to animated films alone. At this writing, I don’t know if it’ll be an Oscar contender (but, in any case, it won’t win), but you’d be hard pressed to find a better movie this year – animated or not.

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*I had caught a few ads for it, then forgot it. When I saw the title in a theater (second run), I didn’t place it, but one look at the movie poster and I knew exactly what it was.

**Possibly the title hurt; for most Americans, it doesn’t evoke anything.

Sunday, January 4, 2015

Captain Marvel (comics)

image(1939-1954)
Created by
Bill Parker and C. C. Beck
Written by Otto Binder
Wikipedia Page

His name and catchphrase are an important part of comic book history, but the original Captain Marvel has been overlooked by even those who love comics.  The Big Red Cheese was something that was far different from the other comics of the time, and something that has been completely lost today.

Everyone knows his origin story:  Billy Batson, a lame newspaper boy, is taken into a mysterious cave by a wizard and taught a magic word:  Shazam.  This changes him into the superhero, who then goes to fight crime and evil villains.  Saying “Shazam” again would turn him back to Billy.  He first appeared in Fawcett’s Whiz Comics* in 1939.

But the Captain was different from any other superhero of the time (or since).  It was more cartoony, and the captain really acted like a 12-year-old boy.

imageMost of the stories were written by Otto Binder.  Binder had been a veteran of science fiction pulps** and he worked to create a mythology that was both fun and entertaining.  As time went on, he added an entire mythology of characters, becoming the Marvel Family.  These included:

  • Mary Marvel -- Billy’s sister, who turned out to have the same magic word.
  • Captain Marvel, Jr. – Freddy Freeman, whose magic words were “Captain Marvel”*** and who wore a blue uniform.
  • Uncle Marvel – Dudley H. Dudley, a chubby old man who discovered Mary Marvel’s secret.  He claimed to be her uncle, and helped them fight crime, mostly as comic relief.  When he tried to use superpowers, it turned out his shazambago was acting up and nothing worked.  The rest saw through the fraud, but humored him.
  • Hoppy the Marvel Bunny – the funny animal version of the family, who showed up in Fawcett’s animal comics.
  • Tawky Tawny – a tiger (and natty dresser) who had been given a potion that gave him the power of speech.

imageOf course, you can’t be a superhero without an arch enemy, and the Captain’s was world’s maddest mad scientist, Dr. Thaddeus Bodog Sivana, a bald evil genius out to rule the world.****  Sivana was sometimes assisted by his son and daughter, Sivana, Jr. and Georgia; there were two other children, Beautia and Magnificus who worked on the side of good.

Other villains included Captain Nazi, Black Adam, and Ibac (the evil version of the Marvel superpowers).  A favorite of mine was Mister Mind, and evil worm from another planet.

The stories were usually more cartoony than the more serious superhero strips.  Beck’s art was deceptively simple, with bright colors and large swaths of color.  It worked well:  in the 1940s, Captain Marvel was the most popular comic book out there, and was the first to be made into a movie serial.

But all was not well.  In 1941, National Periodicals sued Fawcett, claiming that Captain Marvel infringed on Superman.  The court ruled in 1948 that it did not infringe, but National (later DC) appealed and the court found in 1952 that some elements of the stories did infringe.  And sent it back to make a final determination.

By this time, though, Superhero comics – and comics in general – were losing popularity.  Captain Marvel was selling at only half its peak, and, in 1953, Fawcett settled out of court and let the character die.  The agreement forbid Fawcett from publishing comics, so they licensed it to DC.  Unfortunately, in the meantime, Marvel Comics had created their own Captain Marvel character.  DC had to name the revived version “Shazam,” though the character was referred to in the book as Captain Marvel, and they were able to reprint many of the old Beck and Binder stories.  Eventually, the character moved away from the original concept.

Of course, comics and their characters constantly evolve, so one wouldn’t expect the Captain to remain as he was.  But the original version is one of the greats of the comic book world.

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*Founded by Bill Fawcett.  Fawcett made a name for himself for a magazine that everyone who has ever seen The Music Man has heard of:  Captain Billy’s Whiz Bang.  “Whiz Comics” refers to that.

**Originally co-written with his brother Earl, and billed as Eando Binder.  Their “I, Robot” (no connection to Asimov) was considered a landmark in the field.

***Making him incapable of saying his superhero name, or that of the Captain without changing.  “Shazam” wasn’t used because the publisher felt he should be promoting the Big Red Cheese.

****He appeared before Lex Luthor, and Luthor wasn’t bald in the beginning.

Sunday, December 28, 2014

The Last King of Scotland

image(2006)
Directed by
Kevin Macdonald
Written by Peter Morgan, Jeremy Brock, from a novel by Giles Foden
Starring Forest Whitaker, James McAvoy, Kerry Washington, Gillian Anderson
IMDB Entry

Bad guys in film are all very similar:  people who are evil for evil’s sake, and who will spend the movie being consistently evil from start to finish. But evil isn’t always consistent, and that’s what makes it dangerous.  And one one of the best examples of this is The Last King of Scotland.

Dr. Nicholas Garrigan (James MacAvoy) is young and idealistic and instead of setting out his shingle, decides to see the world, ending up in Uganda. While there, General Idi Amin (Forest Whitaker) seized power and, after a minor car accident, Garrigan treats his injury.  Amin is impressed by Garrigan, especially by the fact he is from Scotland, a country that Amin has a particular admiration for. 

Garrigan becomes his physician and political confidant, believing that Amin repression is just a way to bring a lasting peace.  In the meantime, Garrigan starts helping Kay (Kerry Washington), one of Amin’s wives, helping to treat their son.  The two start an affair, as Amin becomes more and more repressive and dictatorial, and Garrigan discovers he is riding a tiger.

Forest Whitaker won a well-deserved Oscar for his role.  Amin is truly charming when he wants to be, and utterly ruthless and sadistic when he wants that.  He is capable of anything at any point, a truly frightening figures.

McAvoy is great as the na├»ve and idealistic doctor, who finds out how wrong he has been.  Kerry Washington is also good as Kay, who knows she is playing with a blowtorch but still needs the comfort that Garrigan can offer.

Whitaker’s Oscar was the high point of the film and did little to bring it to further consciousness.  And I suspect the subject makes it sound like a dull historical drama.  But his Amin is well worthy of the honor, and the movie is a fascinating look at the madness of power.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Important Note

Before I started here on Blogspot, Great But Forgotten was on my own personal web pages (where they are now).  But now is the time to move them from there to here.  There are about 70 of them, and in the next few weeks, I’ll be updating and uploading them here.

Sorry for the flood of posts, but I do need to get them up here.

Sunday, November 30, 2014

The Idolmaker

image(1980)
Directed by
Taylor Hackford
Written by Edward Di Lorenzo
Starring Ray Sharkey, Peter Gallagher, Paul Land, Tovah Feldshuh
IMDB Entry

The Idolmaker is a story about obsession in the music business.

Vincent Vacari (Ray Sharkey) is a songwriter in the late 50s.  He had a great deal of talent, but this is at a time when talent was less important that having a good image.  Vicari’s looks weren’t good enough to cut it, so he went to find someone who could.

He found Tomaso DeLorusso (Paul Land), a saxophone player who had the right look.  Vacari played Pygmalion, turning DeLorusso to “Tommy Dee” and making him into a rock star.  But Tommy had a mind of his own, and Vacari goes to prove he could do it again, by finding Caesare (Peter Gallagher), a busboy, and controlling his every move.  Of course, Caesare also has issues.

This is Sharkey’s film; he dominates the screen as the talented but obsessed Vacari.  It was a strong performance and won him a Golden Globe.  And while Sharkey worked regularly, he rarely had starring roles.

This was the feature film debut of director Taylor Hackford, who did And Officer and and Gentleman two years later.  It was also the first feature for Peter Gallagher.

Sunday, November 23, 2014

William S. Hart (actor)

William S. Hart(1864-1946)
Wikipedia Entry

One of the earliest narrative films genres was the Western, and William S. Hart was one of its biggest early stars by doing something that was unusual in Hollywood Westerns not only in his time, by many years afterwards:  by insisting on making as realistic story as possible.

Hart was born in 1864 and began acting in his 20s, joining various companies and traveling around the US and finally becoming a moderate success on Broadway.*  But Hart was always fascinated by the West.  He knew Wyatt Earp and Bat Masterson, and somehow managed to acquire Billy the Kid’s guns.  He performed in a couple of stage westerns on Broadway, but moved West in 1914, where he quickly became a star, first in short subject, and then in features.

Hart was a stickler for realism; he wasn’t a white knight on a horse, but rather a real man, who would wear old clothes and deal with historical events.  And it caught on:  by 1915 he was Hollywood’s biggest star.  Audiences appreciated his gritty look at the west, with the strong moral sense and relatively sophisticated stories.  He looked the part of a hard-nosed man scrambling to make it in a difficult place.

But by the 1920s, he was falling out of favor.  Audiences began to prefer the cleancut good guy of Tom Mix and others to Hart’s more down-to-Earth version.  After the disappointing box office for Tumbleweeds in 1925, Hart retired from film.

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*Including a substantial part in a stage version of Ben-Hur.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Sirens

image(1993)
Written and Directed by
John Duigan
Starring Hugh Grant, Tara Fitzgerald, Sam Neill, Elle Macpherson, Portia de Rossi, Kate Fischer, Pamela Rabe
IMDB Entry

Sexual themes have been common in movies since the beginning, but sensuous ones far less so.  Sirens is one example of the latter, and one of the best.

It’s set in Australia between the World Wars, where a young minister Anthony Campion (Hugh Grant) and his wife Estalla (Tara Fitzgerald) travel to the estage of the artist Norman Lindsay (Sam Neill), an acclaimed artist, known for his flouting of authority.  Campion has been sent to determine if a work the church has commissioned is going to be appropriate.

Lindsay* has them stay, where they meet his wife Rose (Pamela Rabe) and his two models Sheela (Elle Macpherson) and Giddy (Portia de Rossi, in her first film role), and their maid Pru (Kate Fisher). The group is something like a stereotypical hippie commune, especially in the talk of sexuality and a lot of casual nudity.

Campion and his wife are shocked, but also intrigued.  Estella slowly becomes enmeshed in the group’s sensuality and has it open new possibilities to her.

The movie is best known now for the nudity, of course.  Elle Macpherson was a supermodel, appearing on the Sports Illustrated swimsuit cover three times at the time the movie was produced.**  Screencaps quickly appeared all over the fledgling Internet. 

But the movie is far more erotic than the photos.  The name of the film is a clue:  the women at the estate draw Estella into a whole new world that she has never know.

The movie was one reason for Hugh Grant’s stardom, being released about the same time as Four Wedding and a Funeral.  He plays what has been his usual act of charming awkwardness, but it still seems fresh and unmannered.  Tara Fitzgerald has always been a favorite of mine in films like Brassed Off, Hear My Song, and The Englishmanand is wonderful as she slowly succumbs to the sirens’ charms.

Director John Duigan has been successful in Australia, but few of his films made a big splash in the US.  Sirens is a treat for those who love to revel in the feelings of sensuality.

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*Based upon a real artist by the name, though the story is made up.  A  movie based on Lindsay’s autobiographical novel, Age of Consent, was made into a film in 1969.

**And twice more afterwards.

Sunday, November 9, 2014

The Last Detail

image(1973)
Directed by
Hal Ashby
Screenplay by Robert Towne, from a novel by Darryl Ponicsan
Starring Jack Nicholson, Randy Quaid, Otis Young, Carol Kane
IMDB Entry

In the early 70s, after years of small roles in some very forgettable pictures, Jack Nicholson broke through to stardom with his turn in Easy Rider.  He soon was cast in Five Easy Pieces* and Carnal Knowledge.  Nicholson like doing odd, small films, and one of his most acclaimed role of the era was in The Last Detail.

Nicholson plays Billy “Badass” Budduski, a petty officer in the navy.  He and Richard “Mule” Mulhall (Otis Young) are assigned to take 18-year-old Larry Meadows (Randy Quaid) from Virginia to the brig in Portsmouth, NH. Meadows had been court martialed and convicted of stealing $40 from a collection box.  It might have been a minor offense, only the box was from the favorite charity of the commander’s wife and the book was thrown at him:  eight years.

The movie is the story of their trip.  They have a few days and Budduski decides to give Meadows the time of his life:  drinking in Washington, seeing his mother in Philadelphia, skating in Rockefeller Center.  Few things work out well, though, even when they take Meadows to a hooker (Carol Kane**), there are problems:  fights and disappointments, but Meadows keeps charming Budduski to keep helping him do his best.

The role helped cement Nicholson’s persona.  Budduski is profane, hard nosed, and utterly fascinating.  Quaid is excellent as the innocent Meadows.***

The movie gained Nicholson his third Oscar nomination, and Quaid got a best supporting nomination.  Robert Towne’s screenplay was also nominated, but none won.  It was a critical success, but not a box office smash, partly due to the fact there was just so much profanity in it.

Director Hal Ashby had made two successful but not smash movies before this**** and he later went on to win an Oscar for Coming Home.  and Robert Towne had a successful career, teaming up with Nicholson again for Chinatown.  And Gilda Radner had a bit part, a few years before SNL premiered.

Overall, a fine movie that was at the start of the careers of several big name talents.

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*A film of limited success.  Most moviegoers know one particular scene that cemented Nicholson’s reputation, but have no idea of anything else in the film.

**Very memorable in a small role.

***It’s sad that his life has become a train wreck.

**8*Harold and Maude gained promenance over the years, but was only a moderate success at first.

Monday, November 3, 2014

L’il Abner (comic)

Abner and familyBy Al Capp
(1934-1977)
L’il Abner website.

Though L’il Abner is still remembered, its been dropping in critical and public acclaim over the years.  If you listed the greatest comic strips of all time in 1960 it would be among the titles, but now it gets overlooked.  Partly, that’s just a numbers game:  something has to drop out so you can include Calvin and Hobbes or other great modern strips.  But partly it’s because the comic strip is slowly being forgotten.

L’il Abner was the creation of Al Capp.  Capp (born Caplin) grew up in Bridgeport, CT* and drifted into cartooning, soon getting jobs freelancing in New York.  His break came when he started working for Ham Fisher, the creator of Joe Palooka.  At one point, Capp created the character of Big Leviticus, a hillbilly fighter who Joe would eventually face.  Using similar characters and ideas, Capp created L’il Abner and set out on his own.**

L’il Abner was set in Dogpatch, a hillbilly village with few modern amenities.  Abner Yokum was a dumb ox type – big, strong, handsome and not very bright.  Daisy Mae was his love interest – only slightly smarter, but gorgeous.  She was deeply in love with Abner, wanting to marry him, and Abner avoided it in every way possible (until 1952, when they married).  There were dozens of vivid characters in Dogpatch, including people like Marryin’ Sam, Evil-Eye Fleagle, Moonbeam McSwine, Earthquake McGoon, Stupefyin’ Jones,Hairless Joe, Lonesome Polecat, Senator Jack S. Phogbound, and General Bullmoose, to name just a few. 

Fearless FosdickHe also was known for his strip-within-a-strip Fearless Fosdick, a broad parody of Dick Tracy that was Abner’s favorite comic book.

L’il Abner’s longest lasting contribution to popular culture was Sadie Hawkins Day.  This was a holiday invented by Capp where the single women would chase after the single men; if they caught them, they would be married.  While it never appeared in that particular form outside the strip, Sadie Hawkins Day dances became popular, a time when the women could ask the men to dance.  Of course, that’s no longer necessary, but the dances lasted far longer than the the last appearance in Dogpatch.

Capp also created the shmoo, a creature who reproduced like tribbles and which could be used for food, clothing, and anything its owner wanted.

The strip was massively popular, the hillbilly characters catching on immediately.  By 1940, a movie was made, though it was not a success.***  It did try to be faithful to the look of the strip, with the actors made up, and sometimes wearing masks, to make sure they looked right.

A Broadway musical followed in 1956, to much greater success, running for 693 performances.  That, in turn, was made into a movie in 1959.

But L’il Abner lost its luster in the 1960s.  Partly it was due to politics.  Capp’s politics became conservative and it showed up in his comics.  The problem was it just wasn’t funny, consisting of humorless snide representations of hippies and the youth culture at the time.  Another issue was that Capp – who had a tendency to beat jokes to death even in the best of times – let that get the better of him.  He would take a slightly amusing idea and repeat it six days in a row so the reader would want to shout, “I get the point.” 

Also, even in the best days, Capp could be a sloppy plotter of stories.  L’il Abner was a pioneer of continuity in a pure humor strip, with long form stories that ran for months.****  But he clearly did not always plot things out from the beginning.  One classic story (“Hammus Alabamus”) hinged on a deus ex machina that isn’t mentioned until the final few strips.  In another, Lester Gooch (Fearless Fosdick’s creator) is shown to be an arrogant egotist in one strip, and a timid little man (he’s even shorter) the very next day.  Capp’s storytelling abilities deserted him in the end, possibly because of his declining health.  He ended the strip in 1977.

Though the last decades of the strip were weak imitations of the original, for the first 30 or so years of its run, L’il Abner was one of the classics of American comic strips.

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*The same place where the great Walt Kelly grew up.

**He hated working for Fisher and let his feelings be known in an article for The Atlantic called “I Remember Monster,” where he portrayed Fisher (without mentioning his name) as being cruel and exploitative of his assistants.  Fisher, who resented the fact that L’il Abner was far more successful that Joe Palooka, fought back.  He added pornographic images to the backgrounds of some L’il Abner strips and tried to not only get him fired, but to also get a judge to rule that Abner was porn.  It was a bizarre incident – all Capp’s lawyers had to do was show the originals – but Fisher didn’t give up, trying the same trick when Capp was trying to buy a TV station.  Fisher was expelled from the National Cartoonists Society and died in obscurity soon after.  Capp, though, remembered how Fisher had treated him and treated his assistants well, and, though they didn’t get a byline, Capp would praise them by name in interviews.

***Buster Keaton had a role as Lonesome Polecat.

****The Mickey Mouse comic by Floyd Gottfredson did it a few years early, but Gottfredson turned it into an adventure strip with some humor as opposed to a funny strip with continuity.

Saturday, October 25, 2014

Mystery, Alaska

image(1999)
Directed by
Jay Roach
Written by David E. Kelley, Sean O’Byrne
Starring Russell Crowe, Burt Reynolds, Hank Azaria, Mary McCormack, Colm Meany, Lolita Davidovich, Maury Chaykin
IMDB Entry

In the 1990s, David E. Kelley was riding high.  He produced (and wrote) several successful TV shows, including Emmy winner Picket Fences, Ally McBeal, and The Practice. In his spare time, he wrote screenplays for films, using his penchant for quirky characters and situations.  Mystery, Alaska was one of his best.

The name refers to a small town filled (like most of Kelley’s work) with eccentric characters.  Town life revolves around the “Saturday Game,” played on a frozen pond.  John Biebe (Russell Crowe) is the town sheriff, reaching the age when he’s having trouble keeping up with the youngsters.  Among the small stories of characters, there is some big news:  a reporter from Sports Illustrated hears about the game and writes up an article about it.  Suddenly, Mystery is on the map, and the townspeople are all affected by it.   And things get more frenzied when the New York Rangers show up in town to play an exhibition.

The sporting element is a small part of the film.  Most of it involves the characters, their loves, and their dreams.  Burt Reynolds is good as the town judge who has problems with the the hockey craziness, while Colm Meany* is the mayor who sees this as a way to promote the town.

One thing I really like about the film is the ending, which is a logical anti-cliche that has a strong emotional kick.

The movie did not do well.  The fact that it was subverting the tropes of a sports film probably didn’t help; it’s safe to saw there are few sports films like this.  But I found it an excellent entertainment.

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*Who never seems to make a bad movie.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

The King of Hearts

king of hearts(1966)
Directed by
Philippe de Broca
Written by Daniel Boulangier, from a idea by Maurice Bessy
Starring Alan Bates, Genevieve Bujold, Pierre Brasseur
IMDB Entry

It was a movie that flopped when it first came out.  Years later, movie houses and fans discovered it and it became a major success, with weekly showings in front of enthusiastic audiences.  No, not Rocky Horror (which came years later).  It’s Le roi de couerThe King of Hearts.

In the late days of World War I, the Germans are retreating from an occupied town, but leave an unpleasant surprise:  enough bombs to destroy it all and the bridge nearby.  The allies are warned and mistakenly send Charles Plumpick (Alan Bates) to find the bomb and defuse it. 

Word of the bomb has gotten around, and the townspeople have deserted it.  Plumpick is spotted by the last German patrol and accidentally releases the inmates, who go into the town and take over the roles of the people.

imageThese are the type of joyously insane people that you see in old movies; everyone is having the time of their lives being what that imagined themselves to be. But Plumpick needs to enlist them in finding the bomb, something they do not care about and don’t feel the need to understand. Plumpick is named “The King of Hearts” and is treated like royalty, falling in love with the beautiful Coquelicot (Genevieve Bujold)

As you might have guessed, this is an antiwar film; the soldiers and the fighting is portrayed as being far more dangerous and insane than the inmates of the asylum.  The concept is hardly original, but the inmates are so utterly charming from start to finish, especially compared to the stupidity of the leaders, that it’s hard not to fall in love with the film.

De Broca was an up-and-coming director of the time.  “That Man from Rio,” two years earlier, was considered one of the best spy spoofs of the era, but that didn’t transfer.  After flopping in France, it eventually made it to the US.  Someone figured that the antiwar message was just the thing for the era, and a small theater in Cambridge, MA, started running it regularly.  It ran there for five years, and gained cult status.  It is still one of the better antiwar films made.

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Rosel George Brown (author)

(1926-1967)

Rosel George BrownRight now, there is some debate in the science fiction field about the role of women in current science fiction. It’s indisputable that SF has had more male writers than females over the years, but even from the very beginning, women did try their hand at the genre.*  Many are overlooked today, and one that needs to be rediscovered is Rosel George Brown.

Brown was born in New Orleans and lived there most of her life, after getting an MA in Greek from the University of Minnesota. Biographical information is scarce; I believe her birth name was Rosel George, since her husband’s last name was Brown.

Her first sale was “From an Unseen Censor,” which appeared in Galaxy in September 1958.  Most of her short stories appeared there and in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction. She was praised both by critics and readers of the time.

I imagefirst encountered her with her anthology A Handful of Time, which included most of her best short stories.  It was a book I kept rereading for years, but I seem to have lost my copy in the interim. 

Brown switched over to novels with Sybil Sue Blue, about a female detective of the future.  Sybil was strong and competent, a single mother who has to juggle both her work life and dealing with her teen daughter. 

She collaborated on the novel Earthblood with Keith Laumer.

In this time frame, of course, a lot of the sexist assumptions of the 50s and earlier fit among the more feminist concepts. You can’t blame Brown for that, though. Feminism started gaining mainstream attention in the mid-60s, but Brown’s last story short story came out in 1964, with Earthblood out two years later.    She was diagnosed with lymphoma and died in 1967 at age 41.

That left her to be just a minor footnote in the history of SF.  However, if she hadn’t died so young, she may have been recognized as one of the major names of the genre.

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*John W. Campbell published a story by Amelia Reynolds Long in the third issue of Astounding SF in 1937, and Long had been publishing regularly since 1928.

Saturday, October 4, 2014

T.H.E. Cat (TV)

(1966-67)
Created by
Harry Julian Fink
Starring Robert Loggia
IMDB Entry
Tribute Page

imageHe was reformed cat burglar and circus aerialist, and worked as a private detective and bodyguard, who used karate and his acrobatic skills.  His name was Cat.  Thomas Hewitt Edward Cat.

T.H.E. Cat* starred Robert Loggia as the main character in a role that was influenced by the hard boiled detective genre. He worked out of a bar Casa del Gato in San Francisco and went up against gangsters and the usual lowlifes.

The show was infused with style, with jazz music** and a film noir mood. Cat was laconic, content to use his skills to gain the upper hand instead of his mouth.  Bad guys were mean and bigger than life, and women, well, they all fell in love with him.  He played it much like Humphrey Bogart, though Bogart certainly was not one for acrobatics or climbing up walls.  Loggia was excellent in the role and was indeed what made the show worth watching.  He had a cool confidence that was hard not to admire.

The show only ran for one season, but did stick in the mind. 

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*The letters were always pronounced individually.

**Written by a pre-Mission: Impossible Lalo Schriffrin

Sunday, September 28, 2014

Alice’s Restaurant

image1969
Directed by
Arthur Penn
Written by Arthur Penn and Venable Herndon, from the song by Arlo Guthrie.
Starring Arlo Guthrie, Pat Quinn, James Broderick, William Obanhein
IMDB Entry.

In 1969, Arthur Penn was riding high, having had a critical and popular smash with Bonnie and Clyde.  It became a counterculture phenomenon, and that may be why he chose for his next feature film the anti-establishment protest song, “Alice’s Restaurant.” 

The song, if you don’t know it, is about Arlo Guthrie’s arrest for littering, which kept him out of the army during the Vietnam era.  The original version is over 18 minutes long* and is a dryly humorous song with an antiwar message.  It was a standard on college campuses in the 60s.

The movie follows Arlo Guthrie (Arlo Guthrie) as he meanders from from Montana (where his long hair and hippie looks don’t sit well) to his friends Alice (Pat Quinn) and Ray Brock (James Broderick) for Thanksgiving.  Guthrie decides to do them a favor and take their garbage to the dump.  When he finds out it’s closed, he dumps it with another pile of garbage.  The next day, Officer Obie (William Obanhein) arrests him and charges him with littering.

The movie expands on the song by showing more about the relationship of Ray and Alice, and also Arlo with his girlfriends.  It meanders along, buoyed by Arlo’s laid back and sly performance as himself.  

But the find of the film is the actor playing the part of Office Obie.  William Obanhein is uncannily like the real Officer Obie – because he is the real Officer Obie.**  He had spent his life as a cop in Stockbridge and when he heard they were going to make the movie, insisted on playing himself, saying, "If anyone is going to make a fool out of me, it might as well be me!"  After the movie came out, he was critically praised, but he ignored Hollywood and went back to Stockbridge.***

The movie is a mixture of moments than a plot-driven film, incidents rather than story.  But it’s an entertaining artifact of the hippie years.

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*About the same length as the gap in the Nixon Watergate tapes.  Hmmmmn.

**The judge who sentenced Guthrie to a $50 fine also plays himself.  Alice and Ray Brock appear as extras.

***I find that admirable. 

Saturday, September 20, 2014

The Woman in White (book)

(1859)
By Wilkie Collins
Wikipedia Entry
Full book at Gutenberg.org

Edgar Allen Poe invented the mystery story with “The Murders of the Rue Morgue” in 1841, and the genre caught rapidly. But it was mostly a short story genre.  It was English author Wilkie Collins who started to create mystery novels, and The Woman in White is often cited as the earliest in the genre.  But the fact it was a pioneer doesn’t take away from the fact that it is still an extremely good book in its own right.

Wilkie CollinsCollins was born in 1826, son of landscape painter William Collins and grew up planning to be a lawyer.  In 1851, he met Charles Dickens. They became close friends and Collins started to write articles and short works. In 1852, his first novel, Basil, was published, and he started making a living at it.  In 1859, he wrote his fifth novel, The Woman in White.

The story centers on William Hartwright,* a drawing master who meets a woman dressed all in white, who is extremely upset and has some disreputable men trying to capture her.  He helps in her escape, but not after she asks him, “Do you know any baronets?” a question that piques his interest, especially when he learns she is an escapee from a mental asylum.  He is then hired to teach drawing at Limmeridge House to two young women: Laura Fairlie (who looks remarkably like the woman in white) and her half sister, Marian Halcombe.

Walter falls for Laura, but she is pledged to marry a baronet:  Sir Perceval Glyde.  There are many disturbing things about Glyde, including the fact that he clearly is marrying Laura for her money, but Laura’s hypochondriac uncle Frederick insists that the marriage must go through.  Due to Marian’s investigation, Laura slowly learns that Glyde – and his ebullient but dangerous friend Count Fosco – is up to no good.

Despite the fact the book is over 105 years old, it turns out to be surprisingly modern in many ways, and the plot never goes where you think it might go.  It revolves on a secret known by the Woman in White, and it turns out that the secret is not what anyone expects.

It’s told in an unusual style:  chunks of the book are told in the first person by different protagonists.  While most of the chapters are told by William Hartwright, others are told by Marian, Count Fosco, Laura’s uncle,  and one of Gylde’s servants, among others. 

The book is filled with wonderful characters.  Walter is a serviceable and resourceful hero, but the three most interesting characters are on the periphery. 

Laura’s uncle Frederick is a selfish and lazy hypochondriac who whines about the slightest change to his routine and it put out by the smallest request.  His section of the testimony is a delight of whining and complaints of how much work it is to remember.

There’s also Marian.  Laura is a pretty bland heroine, but Marian is clever, resourceful, insightful, and every bit a modern female protagonist. She advises Laura and protects her, and is willing to put herself at risk to ferret out Sir Percival’s plans.  If the book were written today, she would be the one that Walter falls in love with.

But the real find is Count Fosco.  He’s charming, but also dangerous, with a personality that dominates every scene he’s in, whether it’s doting on his pet mice and birds, scheming against Laura, or threatening murder.  His ego is a joy to behold, and his honest admiration for Marian – even though she is a threat to his plans – makes him one of the most interesting villains in literature.

The book was a popular success when it came out, even though the critics of the time thought it too melodramatic,** but the book has remained popular even today. 

Collins continued to write.  His book The Moonstone is another landmark in mystery fiction, establishing many important genre tropes and it what he’s best known for today. But he seems to have thought The Woman in White was his best work.  It’s still an wonderful read after all these years.

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*With a last name like that, you know he’s going be be a hero.

**Not an unfair claim; the means of resolution of the mystery is pure pulp years before pulp fiction was a thing. 

Saturday, September 13, 2014

Dinosaurus!

image(1960)
Directed by
Irvin S. Yeaworth, Jr.
Written by Jack H. Harris, Dan E. Weisburd, Jean Yeaworth
Starring Ward Ramsey, Paul Lukather, Kristina Hanson, Alan Roberts. Gregg Martell, Alan Roberts
IMDB Entry
I don’t particular like scary movies.  To me, they are like a practical joker tripping you as you walk by – my main emotion is annoyance, not fright.  There is only one movie that actually scared me when I saw it, and that was Dinosaurus!  It probably was because I was eight at the time, because watching it today makes it only seem silly. 
But fun.
In the movie a group of Americans are working on a Caribbean island, when they stumble across a find:  two dinosaurs and a cave man (Gregg Martell),* all exceptionally well preserved.  During a storm, they are struck by lightning and, as Dr. Henry** Frankenstein proved, lightning brings the dead back to life.  So a giant brontosaurus*** is roaming the island, along with – of course – a tyrannosaurus rex.****
Meanwhile the cave man becomes friends with a boy of the island, Julio (Alan Roberts) and suffers from the culture shock of 20th century civilization.
imageThe cave man scenes are played for broad comedy and are generally effective, while the dinosaur attacks, which may seem frightening when you’re eight, don’t really hold up.  Still, the special effects were well done for the day.
Director Yeaworth had already made his mark on the monster movie genre a couple of years earlier with The Blob.  None of the cast had particularly memorable careers, though a few worked semi-regularly as TV guest stars.
But for several months afterwards, I would look outside to see if a T. Rex was coming.
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*Yes, I know that’s an anachronism, but for sticklers for scientific accuracy, this is the least of their worries.
**His name in the James Whale/Boris Karloff classic. Smile with tongue out
***That’s what they called it in 1960, and I’m sticking to it. Smile with tongue outSmile with tongue out
****Has there ever been a dinosaur movie without a T. Rex?

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Popeye & Thimble Theater

Popeye(1980)
Directed by
Robert Altman
Written by Jules Feiffer, based on characters crated by E.C. Segar
Starring Robin Williams, Shelley Duvall, Ray Walston, Paul Dooley, Paul L. Smith, Richard Libertini
IMDB Entry

In memory of Robin Williams.

When you make a comic book movie, people expect it to match their expectations and that it sticks to an authentic vision of the character.  The problem with Popeye, which was savaged by critics when it first came out, was that it didn’t match expectations, and that it was an extremely authentic and accurate portrayal of the character.  It’s jut that people didn’t know the original character.

A little history.  Popeye was originally introduced in a long-running comic strip. Thimble Theatre, which showed the comic adventures of Olive Oyl, her brother Castor Oyl, and her boyfriend Ham Gravy.  In 1929, Olive and Ham were looking for someone who knew how to captain a boat.  Coming up to a likely looking guy in a sailor’s hat and with immense forearms, they asked if he was a sailor.  The reply was “What do you think I yam? A cowboy?” 

Thimble TheatreSoon the non-cowboy took over the strip and it was renamed.  Ham Gravy and Castor vanished, to be replaced by Bluto and a cast of memorable characters like J. Wellington Wimpy, George W. Geezil,* Swee’Pea, Alice the Goon, Eugene the Jeep, and many others.

In 1932, King Features started producing cartoons starring Popeye, directed by the Fleischer Brothers.**  It quickly became a formula, as Popeye would end up getting in danger, then eating a can of spinach which gave him the strength to defeat his foes.  In 1941, the Fleischers were fired and other people took on the cartoons, which were further simplified in format.

Meanwhile, the strip had gone its own way, with complex stories that lasted many weeks.***  Popeye only rarely used his spinach ex machina.  The stories were wonderful, but Seger died in 1938 of leukemia and the strip went into other hands, making the change to a daily joke strip and dropping many of the characters.

By 1980, when it was decided to make a live action version, the original Thimble Theatre starring Popeye had been forgotten, and the early Fleischer cartoons were not as well known at the later Paramount/King Features/Associated Artists versions.

Popeye was put on screen after Paramount lost out on the bidding war for Annie.  Producer Robert Evans wanted a comic book musical, and picked Popeye, since Paramount held the rights.  He hired Jules Feiffer to write the script.

If you don’t know the name, Feiffer is one of the greats in the comic strip field.  His strip, Feiffer, still seems to be running**** and he wrote successful plays, animated cartoons, and histories of the genre.  A Feiffer decided to go back to the original Seger version.

Meanwhile, Robert Altman was brought in to direct.  It’s an odd choice; Altman was best known for ensemble comedy/drama with overlapping dialog and sexual situation.  He also had a long history of critical successes but financial flops; he still managed to get work regularly though, partly because he had once directed M*A*S*H to immense success and producers thought he might do it again.

Altman built an entire cartoon village on Malta***** for his film, and, indeed, Sweet Haven is one of the characters.  In the movie, Popeye (Robin Williams) come to town and ends up falling for Olive Oyl (Shelly Duvall) while helping the town get out from under the thumb of the pirate Bluto (Paul L. Smith). He also meets his Pappy (Ray Walston) and gets between both Wimpy (Paul Dooley) and Geezil (Richard Libertini).

The characters were the perfect visual representation of Segar’s.  Some of this was makeup, of course, but everyone agreed that Shelley Duvall was born to play Olive.  Few critics noticed that Richard Libertini was the perfect representation of Geezil, however; most critics and fans had no idea who he was.

Williams did fell overwhelmed by the part, but I think he acquitted himself well.  Once use of his talent was having him ad lib while muttering under his breath; that was how Popeye spoke in the Fleischer cartoons.  However, the makeup and other prosthetics made it a strenuous role.

Since the movie was referencing things few remembered, it confused audiences.  Some said it wasn’t faithful to the cartoons, a clear case of missing the point.  It still made some money however, even if it wasn’t a blockbuster.  It’s considered a flop, but if you know its background, you’ll look at it quite differently.

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*Arch enemies.  Wimpy would mooch from Geezil and always left him frustrated.  Wimpy’s one catchphrase, “I will gladly pay you Tuesday for a hamburger today” made it into the movies, but his other one “Come to my house for a duck dinner.  You bring the duck” did not.

**The original Fleischer versions can be identified by the credits appearing on a ship’s hatch as the doors open and shut.

***A hallmark of most newspaper strips of the time.

****In The Village Voice for many years.

*****It’s still there as a tourist attraction.

Sunday, August 10, 2014

Metamorpho (comics)

image(1965 – 68)
Created by
Bob Haney (writer) and Ramona Fradon (artist)
Wikipedia Page

Comic book heroes come and go, and it’s hard to keep track of which of the older ones are still around, but one of the most interesting heroes of the early 60s was Metamorpho, since it didn’t follow the usual tropes.

Metamorpho was created by Bob Haney.  DC at the time was trying to create offbeat and “different” superheroes, and Metamorpho certainly fit.

Rex Mason was an adventurer hired by unscrupulous millionaire Simon Stagg to retrieve the “Orb of Ra” – a one-of-a-kind Egyptian artifact hidden in a pyramid.  On the way to Egypt, Rex fell for Stagg’s daughter, Sapphire, giving Stagg a reason to dislike him.  When trying to steal the orb, Rex is knocked out by Simon’s henchman Java* and exposed to the Orb.

As everyone knows, being exposed to magical devices causes great changes and Rex turned into a strange looking man with a chest that was half orange and half purple, with a ghostly white head and legs of mismatched colors.  He also developed the ability to change into any element.

Unlike most heroes, Rex hated the transformation and wanted to return to being human.  He also wanted to leave Simon Stagg’s employ, but Stagg discovered that Rex’s only weakness was the Orb, and used that to control him.  So Rex took on the name Metamorpho and reluctantly became a superhero.

The series premiered in The Brave and the Bold** in January 1965. It must have been a big hit, since he was given his own comic within a year.  The comic had a high degree of parody in the way it portrayed the villains Metamorpho faced, but Rex’s plight was handled seriously:  he hated being a superhero and looked for ways to become human again, even turning down a membership in the Justice League because he expected to change back.

The comic ran for 17 issues.  A female version, Element Girl, joined him for a few episodes*** and Metamorpho joined the Outsiders over the years. 

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*Supposedly named because he was a “Java man,” a caveman skeleton of the time.  I don’t remember if Java’s origin was ever described.

**Usually new characters were premiered in DC’s Showcase comics; The Brave and the Bold featured Batman team-ups.

***Her most memorable appearance was years later in Sandman #20.