Saturday, February 28, 2009

Microbe Hunters (book)

Microbe Hunters (1926)
by Paul De Kruif

Microbe Hunters probably started more people on careers as doctors than any other. It was a massive bestseller over the years (and is still in print), and everyone who has ever read it remembers it with great pleasure.

De Kruif grew up in Michigan and got his doctorate in microbiology, but, after trying teaching, he became a writer.  His second book was Microbe Hunters, and it made him a household word.

The book is a history of the early development of our knowledge about germs and bacteria.  He chooses a dozen early scientists and tells their story.  They are (using his own chapter headings)*:

De Kruif -- obviously an author:  the pipe proves it As you can see, DeKruf had a way of making all these seem like the epic battles they were.  His prose style was delightfully gushy, and it worked wonderfully in making you feel the difficulties in unraveling these mysteries.  He makes up conversations, adds his own comments, and makes it all an exciting read that you really can't put down. It reads like a novel, and you get a strong idea of how the people involved slowly learned the cause of the diseases they studied.  It's still entertaining reading today.

Some modern critics have complained about this practice, saying that making up conversations and character motivations gets away from the truth.  I disagree. They are confusing accuracy with the truth; the book may not be 100% accurate, but it is 100% truthful.

De Kruif followed this up with the lesser-known Hunger Fighters, which is nearly as good.  He continued to write about science and scientists until the early 60s.

If you like science, mysteries, or just plain good, inspiring stories, this is one of the best.


*My notes are in parentheses.

**In case you wondered why they named that Hospital in Washington DC for him.

Friday, February 27, 2009

Roger Ramjet (TV)

Produced by
Fred Crippen
Written by Gene Moss, Jim Thurman
Voices by Gary Owens, Dave Ketchum, Dick Beals, Gene Moss, Joanie Gerber, Bob Arbogast
Toontracker Page.

Roger Ramjet, he's our man, hero of the nation It's hard to find a 60s kid's TV show that can't be aired in the 21st century (at least, not for children). By the time TV came along, the out-and-out racism of early cartoons was seen for what it was and didn't get into the shows.  But Roger Ramjet probably couldn't be shown as a kid's show today.

Which is a shame.  The cartoon was very similar in tone to greats like Rocky and Bullwinkle and Beany and Cecil

It really wasn't a show. Roger Ramjet was marketed as very short episodes, about six minutes long* -- including about two minutes of opening and closing credit -- designed to be shown on local TV shows.  Your local Colonel Clown Show** would buy the episodes and run them during their show.  Times, obviously, varied from market to market, and often they'd move around within the show. So unless you spent a lot of time watching Colonel Clown or your local equivalent, you had a hard time following Roger.

But when you caught it, the show was a delight.  Roger (voice of Gary Owens) was your standard big, dumb lug superhero, who took a proton pill, which gave him the power of twenty atom bombs for a period of twenty seconds.*** With his American Eagle squadron of Yank, Doodle, Dan, and Dee, (three boys and a girl) he fought threats to our country, taking the pill at the end to save the day.

Like Rocky and Bullwinkle and Beany and Cecil, the show was packed with jokes for adults and references to political and social events. Anything was fair game.   In addition, the cartoon was incredibly fast paced, fitting in all the action and jokes in a small space.  It also had the same cheap animation of Bullwinkle, which makes it even more endearing.

Most memorable, of course was the show's theme song. Evidently, they couldn't afford to pay a composer for the music, so they just used "Yankee Doodle" with new lyrics:

Roger Ramjet, he's our man
Hero of our nation
For his adventures just be sure
And stay tuned to this station.

As for the talent, Gary Owens gained fame a few years afterwards as the announcer for Rowan and Martin's Laugh-In.  But Dave Ketchum -- the voice of the narrator -- has also be very successful (if more low-key).  He starred in Camp Runamuck -- a universally despised sitcom -- but is more memorable as Agent 13 in Get Smart, who always was hiding away in ridiculous places, like a mailbox or in the walls.

About 120 episodes were made, and they remained syndicated wherever TV stations still ran kiddie show.  However, the theme of the show probably led to its dying off. With the War on Drugs, a children's show that has someone taking a pill to get super powers is bound to stir up more controversy than a 40-year-old cartoon is worth. It shows up from time to time, but not where it can be mistaken for a children's show.

Which, of course, it wasn't. That's part of the fun.


*Including about two minutes of opening and closing credits.  I always wished they'd cut out some of the credits to get more story in.

**An actual show out of New Britain, CT.  Sources say he was originally "Happy the Clown," but I remember it as "Captain Clown."  In any case, he became the Colonel, a change that seemed so arbitrary to my ten-year-old mind that I surmised someone had told him he couldn't use the original name.  Turns out, I was right.  In any case, I don't think they ran Roger.

*** It's amazing what phrases stick in your mind.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Zotz (candy)

image It's a candy!  It's a practical joke!  It's both -- It's Zotz.

I don't think Zotz were ever all that popular; they were more of a novelty than serious candy.  But there was (and still is) no candy like them.

Zotz were basically fruit-flavored hard candy: good, but not out of the ordinary -- until you got to the center.

I first discovered them in college.  One of the other guys in the dorm had me try one.  It was early on in the joke, so they didn't think to give me one vital instruction: bite down on it.  I didn't react the way they hoped, but they later realized the issue.

You see, the center of the Zotz was baking soda.*  This doesn't sound like a particularly good ingredient for candy, but, as your high school science teacher showed you, when you mix baking soda with an acid (in this case, probably citric acid), everything fizzes.**

Which is what Zotz did.  One bite, and your mouth filled with fizziness. It was a lot of fun, even if you were in on the joke.  And I got to enjoy them a lot.

The candy seemed to have originated in Italy.  The name may have come from a book (and movie) about a professor who finds an ancient coin which gives him special powers: if he points at someone, they feel pain; if he says "zotz," they move in slow motion; and if he points and says "zotz!", they die.  It was a comedy.

In any case, Zotz still can be purchased online.  Just search for "Zotz candy" and you'll find it.  It's worth a try, just for fun.


* Perhaps it was baking powder, only I remember seeing "sodium bicarbonate" on the ingredients label.  Zotz called it "fizz powder," but no one was fooled.

** Usually.  If there was a crack in the candy, the powder leaked out and you got a sensation that some sort of liquid center was in the middle.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill

Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill (2005)
Directed by
Judy Irving
Featuring Mark Bittner
IMDB Entry

In 2005, audiences were treated to an amazing documentary about a group of birds in a hostile environment and how they lived, survived, and thrived.  It was ultimately, a movie about love.  And it wasn't March of the Penguins.

The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill documents an unnatural phenomenon.  On Telegraph Hill in San Francisco, there is a large flock of wild parrots. How they got there is a mystery. Some believe they escaped from pet shops; others that their owners let them loose when they tired of them; others that they came aboard a ship fromthe tropics.  The answer may be a combination of the three.

Judy Irving decided to make a film about the flock of parrots, and about Mark Bittner, the man who took it upon himself to look after the birds.

Mark Bittner Bittner is a hippie type who, from his apartment, not only fed the birds, but looked after them, giving them names and providing care when they're sick. He fought for them when a builder wanted to take down a tree they nested in. He is a man who dedicated his life to the birds, even writing a book about the parrots.

But two things really set this movie apart. The first ties into his naming the birds. Each of the birds has a personality; they become characters. Most notable is Connor, who is a different species than the rest of the flock, but who hangs with them like an unwanted younger brother, perhaps in hope as finding a mate. He is absolutely unforgettable.

The second thing is the ending. You don't get many twist endings in documentaries, but as you watch the final scene, you discover something else that is the perfect plot twist and which lets you out of the theater with a great feeling.

The film started out in the film festival route before gaining wide release in 2005.  Bittner is still caring for the parrots, who have now become something of a tourist attraction in San Francisco. And the film deserves to be ranked with the best documentaries ever made.

You can have your penguins.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Henry Kuttner & C. L. Moore (authors)

Kuttner: Kutter and Moore (1915-1958)/ Moore: (1911-1987)

Modern science fiction started out as a short story medium. Sure there were novels, but many were just "fix-ups" of multiple stories (like Asimov's Foundation) or expansions of published stories. And back in the early days, you could make a living writing short stories for science fiction magazines, with an occasional fix-up or novel.

Henry Kuttner and C. L. Moore came out of that milieu.  He was one of the top writers of his time, and  helped stake out the horror genre after H. P. Lovecraft died.  She was a pioneer for women writers in the genre.

Even the thing that usually gets an author noticed -- making a movie of his work -- didn't help.  Despite the fact that at least five of their stories were made into movies or TV episodes, it didn't help, partly because Hollywood never did them justice.

Kuttner grew up in Los Angeles, and started writing pulp science fiction and horror in the late 1930s. He became a major fan of H. P. Lovecraft and corresponded with Lovecraft as he wrote his own horror stories. It was through this correspondence that he met C. L. Moore.

Catherine Lucille Moore had started writing horror and weird tales a few years before Kuttner.  Her "Northwest Smith" adventures were a big hit, after she had decided to use just initial in her byline so people wouldn't think she was female.* It worked pretty well, since Kuttner first thought she was male. He evidently was quickly disabused of that notion, since they married in 1940.

The two were collaborators. The not only edited each other's stories, but they also wrote them together -- one writing a section and leaving it on the typewriter for the other to add to.  Often they were never sure which person was responsible for what.

So it's hard to put a finger on Kuttner and Moore after their marriage, since a story bylined "Kuttner" would have some Moore in it and vice versa. In addition, they wrote under various pen names, most notably Lewis Padgett and Lawrence O'Donnell.  But the general belief was that Kuttner's stories were more "pulpy" whereas Moore was more "literary."

Kuttner wrote several novels, but none of any particular note. He was best known for his short works, and his most successful series was his Gallagher stories, about an inventor who came up with all sorts of strange devices -- but only when he was blind drunk. In the morning, he couldn't remember what they were for. I don't think these hold up all that well, even if you were willing to accept the un-PC-ness of the concept.

Moore wrote the Northwest Smith** series and another featuring Jiriel of Jory, one of the earliest sword and sorcery series with a female protagonist.

But their best stories -- collaborations to one degree or another -- were classics.  Some of these are:

  • The Twonky.  This story scared the hell out of me, and rereading it today, it has a chilling subtext. A man gets what looks like a TV, but which is an artifact from the future with some sinister features. It was made into a movie, which evidently didn't do it justice.
  • Vintage Season where a man discovers that the people showing up in his hotel are time travelers with sinister intentions.
  • Mimsy Were the Borogoves. Similar in theme to "The Twonky," it's also about artifacts from the future and their effect on children. The title is from Jaberwocky, of course, and there's a tie-in with Lewis Carroll, but the ending is also pretty damn scary. This also was made into a movie -- The Last Mimzy-- which took the concept and turned it into a feel good fantasy.  Pleasant enough, but the change is a desecration.
  • Nothing but Gingerbread Left.  A story about a secret weapon against the Nazis. It's similar in concept as the Monty Python "Most Dangerous Joke in the World" skit.  Python probably didn't know of the story, and they're funnier, but it's interesting to see something similar.
  • The Iron Standard.  Astronauts land on a planet and discover that gold and precious gems are worthless, but iron -- which they don't have -- is prized.  Clever way it turns economics on its head.
  • Housing Problem. A family of "fairy folk" move into a house, and pay their rent in good luck. But the homeowner gets too curious . . .
  • What You Need.  A "mysterious shop" story with a nice twist, good enough to be made into an episode of The Twlight Zone.
  • Absolom.  More horror, about a scary child.

It's hard to say which story goes to which author.  Most critics agree that "Vintage Season" was primarily Moore and I get the impression that the humorous works were primarily Kuttner. But if they can't keep it straight, how can anyone?

Kuttner died in 1958 of a heart attack.  Moore pretty much gave up writing short fiction after his death, teaching creative writing courses and also writing for TV.

Now, both authors are pretty much forgotten, and the science fiction short story is in bad shape.  But they were important pioneers in the field and helped shape science fiction, fantasy, and horror into what it is today.


*Who, after all, were too delicate and frail to write good pulp fiction, of course.  ;)

**Moore once said the name came from seeing "N.W. Smith" listed as a name.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Beany and Cecil (TV)

Beanyboy and Cecil (1949-1955, 1959-1967)
Created by Bob Clampett

One of the most charming things about 1950s TV was its children's programming. Maybe it was the innocence of the time,* but it produced kid's shows that favored humor over violence and puns over putdowns.  Bad guys were never truly bad and good guys were always truly good.

And there was a fascination with puppets.  Nowadays, Howdy Doody is still remembered, but there was also Kukla, Fran, and Ollie, and puppeteers and ventriloquists like Shari Lewis and Paul Winchell were all very popular.*

Beany and Cecil were one of the first, starting broadcasting in 1949, and also one of the most long lived, simply because they switched to cartoon form when puppets became passe.

The characters were -- as the theme song kept singing -- created by Bob Clampett. Watching it as a kid, I had no idea who Clampett was, and wondered why it mattered.  But later, I learned why.  Clampett, along with Chuck Jones and Friz Freleng, was one of the "big three" cartoon directors at Warner Brothers.  Clampett was responsible for such classics as Porky in Wackyland, A Corny Concerto, Horton Hatches the Egg, Coal Black and de Sebben Dwarfs***, The Bashful Buzzard, and The Great Piggy Bank Robbery.  Clampett left Warners (or was fired; accounts vary) in 1946 and when TV came along, he jumped right in.

The original show with puppets was Time for Beany, and was a smash at the time.  The basic cast was set:

  • Beany, a smart kid who wore a helicopter beany hat.
  • Cecil the Seasick Sea Ser-Pent (as it was introduced).
  • Captain Horatio Huffenpuff of the Leakin' Lena, Beany's uncle.
  • Dishonest John, the villain (of course), dressed in black and with a long black mustache.  His catchphrase was a villain's "Nyah-ah-ah" laugh.

Beany and the Captain went on adventures, usually running into some scheme by Dishonest John.  Cecil -- your typical big, dumb lug -- would get fooled, of course, but, in the end, he'd save the day, crying out "I'm coming Beanyboy!" as he swam to the rescue.

The show was surprisingly sophisticated. There were topical and political references in among the bad puns.  Like many good children's entertainment, the writers were writing for themselves, not kids, and the humor shows it.


In many ways, the show was much like another great -- but not forgotten -- cartoon of this vintage:  Rocky and Bullwinkle.You can even see some similarities in characterizations (Beany = Rocky, Cecil = Bullwinkle, Dishonest John = Boris Badenov).  Rocky and Bullwinkle is overall better, but it owes a lot to the original.

The show also was notable by the use of the voice talents of Daws Butler and Stan Freberg.

By 1955, puppets had lost their appeal, and Time for Beany ended.  But Clampett was able to use his cartoon background to move on to the next thing in kid's shows.  In 1959, he created a half hour version of Time for Beany called simply Beany and Cecil (with different voice actors).

This is the version I remember, as part of Mattel's Funday Funnies. Clampett was hindered by bad animation, but the show kept the same sharp humor that would surprise you (like Cecil calling a bird a "Robin Redvest," and turning to the camera to say, "I'm too young to say 'redchest.'")****  I also remember Cecil singing "Ragmop" whenever he was in a good mood.

The show ran throughout the 60s, rerunning the same few episodes. It has been tremendously influential in almost the same way Rocky and Bullwinkle was; word has it that Albert Einstein was a big fan of the original puppet version. But, eventually, humorous cartoons vanished from broadcast, and Beany and Cecil vanished.

It hasn't gotten the attention of other cartoons, but was one of the bright spots of kid's TV.


*It helped that they were cheap.  Actors could play two roles at once, and you can create any set you want with just sets could be created with

**A cliche, I know, at a time when people were seriously worried about Nuclear War.

*** Not easy to find, because of how it portrays Black characters.

**** And, obviously, the censors wouldn't let him say "Robin Redbreast," either.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

The Iron Dream (book)

 By Norman Spinrad

The Iron Dream I'm a big fan of metafiction -- fiction about fiction.  I'm also like a good alternate history novel. The Iron Dream is one of my favorites in that genre because it's a novel written in an alternate world.

When you pick up the book, the title page does indeed say The Iron Dream.  Then you turn the page and discover it's a completely different novel: The Hugo Award winning Lord of the Swastika, written by Adolph Hitler.

The biography in the front tells the tale:  after dabbling in radical politics, Hitler emigrated to the United States, got employment as an illustrator of science fiction books, and eventually started writing novels.  The Lord of the Swastika is considered his masterpiece.

The concept is breathtaking. When you read it, you realize that the book parallels the rise of the Nazis, only as the sort of wish fulfillment fantasy. In it, Ferec Jaggar becomes the leader of a movement to rid the country of Helder from mutant traitors and evil mind controllers so that the pure humans can regain their birthright.

The book is poorly written -- deliberately so, since Hitler learned English late in life -- and shows how Jaggar ultimately triumphs. If you know German history of the period, it's fun to see the parallels, and also the bizarre way that Nazism is translated into the science fiction (and Sword and Sorcery) genre).

The kicker is the "Afterward to the Second Edition," where Professor Homer Whipple of NYU discusses the book and its influence.  It's partly there so that even the dimmest of people will catch on to what Spinrad is trying to do, but it also shows a vision of a world without Nazism -- which has its own set of problems.  The book also disturbingly shows how close this sort of heroic adventure comes to the tenants of the Nazis.

Norman Spinrad has always been one of the bad boys of science fiction, writing about subjects that other writers won't touch and in The Iron Dream he certainly does that in spades.  The book did get critical raves when it came out* and even ended up winning the Prix Tour-Apollo Award for best SF novel in France, but has faded from the list of great SF novels.  It has been reprinted fairly consistently, but I suspect a lot of people might look at it and not understand what's going on.

Once you get used to the purple prose, it's a lot of fun to read, and it makes some very good philosophical points to ponder.


*Not counting the hilarious fake raves from Michael Moorcock ("...bound to earn Hitler the credit he so richly deserves"), Philip Jose Farmer , Harlan Ellison ("The stunned reader can only gasp in wonder"), and Harry Harrison on the back cover.

Saturday, February 7, 2009

The Englishman Who Went Up a Hill but Came Down a Mountain

Directed by
Christopher Monger
Written by Ivor Monger and Christopher Monger
Starring Hugh Grant, Tara Fitzgerald, Colm Meany, Ian McNeice
IMDB Entry

I have a weakness for quirky British comedies that show a group of oddball characters dealing with a situation, often featuring Irish settings. The Englishman . . . * fits right in, though it’s set in Wales.

The story is set in 1917 in the fictional town of Ffynnon Garw**, just across the border from England, and renowned for being the site of “The First Mountain in Wales.” A team of surveyors George Gerard (Ian McNiece) and Reginald Anson (Hugh Grant) show up to survey the mountain, and discover a horrifying fact: the mountain’s actual altitude was only 984 feet, 16 feet too short to be considered a mountain. It is officially a hill, so the village’s claim to fame is suddenly destroyed. Worse, without a mountain, they might as well be English.

Tara Fitzgerald and Hugh GrantIn response, the villagers, led by Morgan the Goat (Colm Meany) contrive to keep the surveyors in town until things can be set right. And, of course, a romance develops between Anson and Betty from Cardiff (Tara Fitzgerald) that complicates matters for everyone.

You can probably guess what happens from the title alone, but the story isn’t about plot twists. It’s about the community. For instance, as the narrator says in the beginning, “there is an extraordinary shortage of last names in Wales. Almost everyone seems to be a Williams, a Jones, or an Evans. To avoid widespread confusion, Welsh people often add an occupation to a name. For example, there was Williams the Petroleum, and Williams the Death. There was Jones the Bottle, and Jones the Prize Cabbage... which described his hobby and his personality. Evans the Bacon, and Evans the End of the World.” There’s also plenty of small humor in the characters’ reactions and skewed perception of the world.

The film came out fairly early in Hugh Grant’s career, his next major role after Four Weddings and a Funeral. He was still playing the charming yet bumbling and shy character that was his trademark, and is just right here.

I’ve mentioned elsewhere I’m a big fan of Tara Fitzgerald, an actress who combines beauty and a keen eye for a good role. And Colm Meany really needs to be considered alongside of Patrick Stewart when thinking of the best actor to come to prominence in Star Trek.

The film did so-so in the box office, probably saved from failure by Hugh Grant’s name. Writer/Director Monger went six years before directing another film (made in Greece) and has been doing a little TV, but has no long list of credits. I’d add him to my list of directors who I wish were given another chance.


*How the film is billed if you’re too lazy to write out the entire title.

**As others have noted, Wales is so poor that they cannot afford many vowels in their place names.