Sunday, April 28, 2013

The Thief of Bagdad

Thief of Baghdad(1940)
Directed by
Ludwig Berger, Michael Powell, Tim Whelan, and (uncredited) Alexander Korda, Zoltan Korda, and William Cameron Menzies
Screenplay by  Miles Malleson from a scenario by Lajos Biro
Starring Sabu, Conrad Veidt, John Justin, June Duprez, Rex Ingram
IMDB Entry

Hollywood was the place of dreams and fantasy, yet, up until relatively recently, fantasy films were rare, and usually with a mundane setting.  The idea of a completely realized fantasy world is a very recent one, probably due to the Just Imagine! effect.*  So it took UK producer Alexander Korda to make the greatest high fantasy until Lord of the Rings with The Thief of Baghdad.

It was a remake of a silent film by that name, but done in Technicolor and advanced effects for the time.  And it’s an Arabian Nights fantasy, using that setting to frame a magical tale.

The evil Grand Vizier Jaffar (Conrad Veidt) conspires to throw the king Ahmad (John Justin) into a dungeon and usurp his throne.  With the aid of the young thief Abu (Sabu), he escapes and leaves the city, only to fall in love with a princess (June Duprez).  But the Vizier also has designs on the princess and uses his magic ability to get his way.  All seems lost, until Abu discovers a magic lamp with a giant genie (Rex Ingram) who agrees to grant him three wishes.

GenieThe movie is filled with imaginative fantasy ideas, and the film was a major technical advance, the first to be done in a modern bluescreen process.  The characters were also memorable.  Sabu, who had come to notice in the film Elephant Boy three years before, is clever and a cheerleader for the King’s efforts to win the princess; it’s a charming role.  Conrad Veidt was a larger than life villain, even worse than the one in his most famous role of Major Strasser from Casablanca.

The production was troubled.  Producer Korda kept firing directors, and, since it was filmed during the Blitz, the Luftwaffe was dropping bombs around it.  It was finally moved to Hollywood to be completed, and many of Sabu’s scenes had to be reshot due to the delay (he was only 16 when the film was being made).

But the film was worth the effort, being both a critical and financial success.  It became the blueprint for Arabian Nights films for years to come.**

Alas, Sabu*** wasn’t quite as successful, suffering the fate of many non-western actors who went to Hollywood in the 40s.  He could only be cast in ethnic parts.  The Jungle Book was the obvious next step for him, and succeeded, but there are only a limited amount of roles for a teenager from India back then.  He became a US citizen and served as a turret gunner in World War II, earning a Distinguished Flying Cross.  But once he returned, good parts were hard to come by, and he died of a heart attack at age 39.

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*Just Imagine! was a science fiction musical comedy released in 1930 that was a notorious flop. The movie was terrible, and Hollywood decided not to do that sort of thing again.

**Note that the Vizier has the same name in Disney’s Aladdin, and the monkey in that film is Abu, both nods to the 40s version.

***Real name, Sabu Dastagir.

Sunday, April 21, 2013

MilkShake (candy)

imageThe Hollywood Candy Company was a minor but successful national candy chain for much of the 20th century.  Named after their home base in Hollywood, MN, they successfully introduced the first fluffy nougat bar, MilkShake.  It was so successful that the Mars Candy Company put out their own version:  Milky Way.*

I first discovered MilkShake in the late 50s.  By this time, Milky Way was one of the most  popular candy bars in the US, and MilkShake looked like a cheap knockoff.  I didn’t like it as much:  it didn’t have as good a flavor or texture.  But in the summer, MilkShake was more than just a candy bar:  it was a frozen treat.

Just about every place that sold ice cream novelties also sold frozen MilkShakes.  This was not like today, when a novelty is created from ice cream that tastes vaguely like its namesake.  No, they would put a bunch of MilkShake bars in the freezer and sell them (for a premium) as a treat in hot weather.

A frozen MilkShake came out of the freezer too hard to bite into.  But, with a little work and patience and, of course, thawing, it would slowly begin to warm up just enough to be eaten.  The combination of the chill and the candy rush made it a treat.

Around the mid-60s, the treat vanished.  Maybe the MilkShake was taken off the market,** but I remember asking for one and they had no idea what I was talking about.  Milky Way was a poor substitute, mostly because it was denser.  And while that made it better eaten straight, it meant it was ever harder to bite into.  The practice of freezing candy bars faded away.

Hollywood Candy remained around, but the company was bought by a series of different candy companies starting in 1967, about the time MilkShake vanished.  Their two most successful brands – Zero and Payday -- are still around and now owned by Hershey.

The MilkShake was not a great candy until frozen.  Then, they were at the top of my list.

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*Candy recipes are not patented, so if you can figure out how your competitor made theirs, you can easily make a knockoff.

**The history of trademark foods, especially forgotten brands, is not easy to piece together.  No one really keeps track or pays much attention.

Sunday, April 14, 2013

Out of the Silent Planet (book)

image(1938)
By C. S. Lewis
Wikipedia Entry

C. S. Lewis today is known for his epic fantasy Chronicles of Narnia, but before he started with the series, he tried his hand at science fiction, with spectacular success.  Out of the Silent Planet is one of the forgotten classics of the genre.

The first book in his “Space Trilogy,” the story features Elwin Ransom, a philologist who while on a walking tour of the UK, falls in with a mad scientist and is taken to the planet Malacandra – known to humans as Mars.  Thinking he’s to be sacrificed to the scary-looking humanoids, the Sorns, he runs off and falls in with a different race of Malacandrans, the Hrossa.  The Hrossa bring to mind otters and slowly integrate Ransom into their tribe.  But he eventually had to face meeting Oyarsa, the ruler of the world.

The portion with the hrossa is the book’s biggest strength.  There is no universal translator, so the book is one of the few that concentrates on the progress Ransom makes in learning the language, which Lewis did a conscientious job of constructing.  There are three races on Malacandra, the Hrossa, the humanoid Seroni (Sorns), and the Pfifltriggi (I seem to recall they are froglike).  It’s very unusual even today to populate a planet with more than one alien, and Lewis was also one of the first to show a well-thought-out alien society. I also love the fact that he keeps the Pfifltriggi offstage – because there’s no reason to show much of them.*

Lewis does use the novel to introduce Christian theology, of course, but it never cloys.  On the surface, it’s a great SF adventure novel, just like the Narnia books are great fantasy adventures.

Lewis followed his friend J. R. R. Tolkien by making this the basis for a trilogy.  The sequel, Perelandra, was set on Venus as a water world.  The plot, however, is a retelling of Eve being tempted in the Garden of Eden.  Even Lewis thought the plot was secondary to his description of the world and the book is a drop down from the first.  The final book in the trilogy, That Hideous Strength, I found unreadable. 

In any case, the weaknesses of the other two books is one reason why Out of the Silent Planet** is not as well known as it should be.  The books are still available, but they are footnotes compared to the success of Narnia, and very few people alive today are introduced to him through his space trilogy.

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*At the end, Ransom talks about being able to describe life among them, but that since he never went there in the course of his adventures.

**The title refers to Earth, known on Malacandra as Thulcandra, which means “The Silent Planet.”

Saturday, April 6, 2013

Harry Warren & Al Dubin (music)

(1893-1981)
Wikipedia Entry for Harry Warren
Wikipedia Entry for Al Dubin

Harry Warren Tribute Page

Dubin and Warren at workIn 1980, 42nd Street hit Broadway, using the same songs and story as the 1930s movie.  It was a major hit* and ran on Broadway for years, and is still popular with touring shows and local musical theater.  Yet, unusually for any Broadway show, there was never any mention in the advertising and posters of the songwriter involved.

That’s typical of Harry Warren.  Only those who pay attention to musical theater and especially movie musicals of the 30s, know their names.  Yet Warren’s list of songs is filled with tunes everyone knows.  “That’s Amore.”  “I Only Have Eyes for You” “42nd Street.”    “Chattanooga Choo Choo.”  “You Must Have Been a Beautiful Baby.”  “We’re In the Money.”  “Lullaby of  Broadway.” “Jeepers Creepers.” For some reason, Warren always took the back seat.

Warren was born Salvatore Antonio Guaragna in 1893 in Brooklyn, NY, though his father changed their family name to Warren when he was a boy.  He dropped out of school at 16 to play in a band and by 1915 he was working as a staff pianist at Vitagraph pictures.  By 1918, he was writing his own music and had his first hit in 1922 with “Rose of the Rio Grande.”

With a handful of popular hits under his belt, he moved to Hollywood with the advent of sound, and started working for Warner Brothers in 1932, where he was teamed with Al Dubin. 

Dubin was born in Switzerland and moved to the US when he was two.  After a tumultuous academic career where he was kicked out of a couple of schools for his hard drinking and partying ways, he became a staff writer for Whitmark Music Publishing.   He had his first hit with “Twas Only an Irishman’s Dream” in 1916, and started to slowly build a career.  By the late 1920s, he had a string of hits, including “Tiptoe Through the Tulips.” 

Warren and Dubin started hitting it big writing the songs for Busby Berkeley musicals.**  These films is probably the second most common way people discover him.

The most common?  Well, since they were staff writers for Warner Brothers, their songs could be used in other productions without additional payment, which meant that Warner Brothers’ cartoon unit – Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies – could use them all they wanted.  Many of the 30s cartoons used Warren/Dubin songs, either straight (“Shuffle Off to Buffalo”) or with parody lyrics.***

Dubin died in 1945, a victim of his own excesses.  He was a serious drinker and partier, using drugs and weighing over 300 pounds.  The high living caught up with him.

Warren continued to write hits with lyricists like Johnny Mercer, Leo Robin, Ira Gershwin, Alan Freed, and Alan Freed.  As TV shows came into existence, he even wrote a few theme songs, most notably “Legend of Wyatt Earp.”

Warren won three Oscars**** and was nominated for eight more.  He had 21 #1 hits from 1931-1045, and many more on the hit parade.  His songs are part of the Great American Songbook, and I would put him up with with the greatest songwriters of his era.

Yet somehow, he always seemed to be overshadowed by others, and forgotten by the general public (though not by musicians).  It may be that he never had a big Broadway show until 42nd Street, so when his hit parade days were over, he faded from memory.  In any case, he’s slowly gaining back recognition and he and Dubin are in the Songwriter’s Hall of Fame

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*With the added pathos of having its director die the same day it opened.

**As is typical for Warren, the best CD release of those songs mention Berkeley but not him.

***I can’t recall the cartoon, but it had a song based upon Warren’t “The Latin Quarter” with the lyrics “What is Your Order?”

****For “Lullaby of Broadway” with Dubin, “You’ll Never Know” and “On the Atchison, Topeka and the Santa Fe.”