Monday, July 26, 2010

Smokey Stover (Comic Strip)

Smokey Stover(1935-1973)
By Bill Holman
Official Site

Back when I was growing up, you usually had a selection of newspapers. And that meant a selection of comics.  We grew up on Newsday,* but on Sunday there were choices.  We got the Times, but they had no comics and I much preferred visiting our neighbors who got the Long Island Press (with a strip we had never seen called Peanuts) and, occasionally, the newspaper with the best Sunday comics around:  The Daily News.

The News had Dick Tracy; it had Terry and the Pirates**; and it had Smokey Stover, one of the wildest strips ever written.

The strip was created by Bill Holman.  Holman evidently loved firemen, and, after working on several newspapers as a spot cartoonist, managed to sell the concept of Smokey Stover to the Chicago Tribune Syndicate -- the big league of any cartoonist of the day.

Smokey was a fireman, working for his Chief Cash U. Nutt and living with his wife Cookie and son Earl.***  But that didn't really matter.  This was a gag strip and Holman was never content with one gag.  Or two.  Or five.  There was one central gag but every panel was filled with visual puns and off-the-wall jokes.**** 

The gags were groaners, as were the puns and wordplay, but I loved them.

As was appropriate, the strip was drawn in a very cartoony style.  Smokey wore a fireman's hat with a hinge in it, and drove in a two-wheeled vehicle called the Foo Mobile.  "Foo" was an all-purpose word in the strip, showing up all over the the place.*****  Even more mysterious to me was the phrase "Notary Sojak," which no one really understood, but everyone noticed.§  Another of his phrases was "1506 Nix Nix."§§

Holman continued with the strip until his retirement in 1973, and when he retired, the strip went with him.§§§ 

It has rarely been reprinted, but no one has ever matched its combination of screwy humor, dumb jokes, and puns that made you groan.


*And for a short time, with The Suffolk Sun, an attempt to start a new paper for eastern Long Island, but which had little to recommend it other than the fact that it was the first newspaper to have color comics on weekdays.

**The George Wunder version.  I hated his art simply because all the faces looked the same.  Men, women, and children all had the same face with different hair or maybe some freckles.

***By the  time I saw the strip, Cookie and Earl were rarely seen, and they never bothered mentioning the name of the Chief.

****I'm mostly familiar with the Sunday strips; the dailies probably had fewer.

*****Holman gave various explanations of where he got the term; the most common was that he found it at the bottom of a Chinese statuette.  The word was appropriated for cartoons, and to the military (posibly as "fubar"), and to UFOlogy, where "foo fighter" (used in the strip, too) was used as a name for UFO and eventually a rock band.

§ Holman said it was Gaelic for "Merry Christmas."  Maybe.

§§The explanation of this was consistent, if strange:  it referred to room 1506 in a hotel; the "nix nix" mean "no."  The story was that someone told him to stay clear of the hotel using the phrase.

§§§ Highly unusual for a comic in that time.  Once a creator stopped, the standard practice with a successful strip was to hire a new artist and continue with it.  The only exception back then was Krazy Kat.  Of course, more recently, Bill Waterston was able to quit Calvin and Hobbes and Gary Larsen discontinued The Far Side.  The feeling today is that the public won't accept a strip from a new artist.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Kansas City Confidential

Directed by
Phil Karlson
Screenplay by George Bruce and Harry Essex from a story by Harold Greene and Rowland Brown.
Starring John Payne, Helen Foster, Preston Foster, Neville Brand, Lee Van Cleef, and Jack Elam
IMDB Entry
Download from

I like caper films, where a group of criminals get together to pull off the perfect crime.  Sometimes they succeed, other times the fail, but watching the crime unfold and fall apart can be gripping.  Kansas City Confidential is a strong but obscure member of the genre.*

The film shows a mastermind (Preston Foster) gathering together a group of three henchmen, Pete Harris (Jack Elam), Tony Romano (Lee Van Cleef), and Boyd Kane (Neville Brand).  The three all are scuttling away from the law and are enticed to take part in a million dollar bank robbery in Kansas City.  The mastermind wears a mask, and insists everyone else does, too, so they can't squeal on each other. 

The robbery goes off like clockwork, but an innocent delivery driver, Joe Rolfe (John Payne), gets arrested for it.  He's quickly released, but the notoriety loses him his job and he realizes the only way to clear his name is to go after the crooks.  So he goes off to Mexico to try to track them down.

The film is definitely dark, with a lot of tough talk, and Rolfe singleminded in his revenge (even if he does get sidetracked by a young law student, Helen Foster (Colleen Gray).  But it's more than just talk.  Rolfe can dish it out and, when necessary, take it. 

The film does feature three of the 50s greatest heavies. Jack Elam**, with his Frankenstein face, plays Pete as twitchy and violent and clearly a coward.  Lee Van Cleef's Tony is a ladies' man who can turn dangerous in an instant, while Brand's Boyd is a more plodding form of danger.  They all make the most of their roles.***

John Payne shows Lee van Cleef he means businessJohn Payne is interesting as Joe.  I remember him best as the idealistic lawyer in Miracle on 34th Street who makes Santa Claus real.  I've seen him in that role dozens of times and it's quite a change to see him as a desperate character who isn't afraid to beat up others to get what he wants. Payne, like Dick Powell before him, managed to make the switch from light comic actor to tough guy, and did it more convincingly.

The film did not impress critics upon its release, as they found it too brutal.**** Still, Payne and Karlson collaborated on other, similar films afterwards (some sources say they also worked on the screenplay).  It also seems to be a big influence on Quentin Tarantino's Reservoir Dogs.

In any case, the film slipped into public domain and can be downloaded from  It's still an entertaining and dark look at the underbelly of crime.


*Many categorize it as a film noir, but that term has been devalued. I prefer the original concept as a dark tragedy in which a good man is tempted into crime, often by a two-timing woman.  Double Indemnity is a classic example.  The ending of Kansas City Confidential, plus the fact that Joe is not enticed into crime, puts it outside the category.

**Elam had two careers, starting out as a menacing heavy in the 1950s.  In the 60s, he grew a beard, which softened his angular face and which made him into a lovable comic sidekick in such films as Support Your Local Sheriff.

***Although, as the script has it, they're particularly inept whenever they want to do something other than just threaten.  Rolfe gets the drop on them nearly every time.

****Though it hardly seems that way today.  What that says about modern society I leave as an exercise for the reader.  It was also interesting to read the New York Times review, which condemned what it thought was a "crime does pay" ending -- Joe commits no crime and is rewarded by the insurance company for finding the real robbers.

Thursday, July 8, 2010


Directed by
Eugène Lourié
Screenplay by Robert L. Richards and Daniel James
Screen Story by Eugène Lourié and Daniel James*
Starring Bill Travers, William Sylvester, Vincent Winter
IMDB Entry

The 1950s was the heyday of the giant monster movie. You had things like Them!, Tarantula, The Giant Mantis, The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, Dinosarus,** and, of course, the Japanese monster films starting with Godzilla. Even the Danish got into the act with Reptilicus.  The British also rode the trend with The Giant Behemoth and, their best monster film, Gorgo. 

It follows the usual template. A volcano eruption off the coast of Ireland leads to mysterious doings, all eventually shown to be the work of a 65-foot-tall prehistoric beast that has awakened.  Joe Ryan (Bill Travers) manage to capture the monster and take it back to London where he sells it to a circus.  Dubbed "Gorgo" after the Gorgons of myth, the creature is put on display.  But Gorgo is only a baby, and his 200-foot-tall mother soon comes to rescue her child, laying waste to London in the process.

What makes this all stand out is the ending (if you don't want a spoiler, stop reading now). 

Unique among monster movies, in this case the monster wins.  Mama finds Gorgo and takes him back to the sea, leaving London in shambles and the characters to wonder about the wisdom of playing with things you don't understand.

The special effects were high class for the time.  They used the techniques pioneered in Japan -- monster suits and miniatures -- but with fine attention to detail.  Gorgo was smaller than most movie monsters and thus required a different scale, and slow motion was used to enhance the effect.

Director Lourie knew his stuff:  he had previously helmed The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms and The Giant Behemoth***.  Alas, the market for giant monster movies dried up and he didn't direct again, though he remained in films as an art director.

The movie has been obscured by other films of the genre.  It even showed up on an episode of Mystery Science Theater 3000, which really isn't fair**** -- it's still a good example of the genre. 


*The IMDB is wrong on this.  The credits clearly show Lourie credited for the story with James (who used the name "Daniel Hyatt"; Richards was billed as screenwriter).

**Which scared the hell out of me as a kid -- it was probably the scariest movie I'd seen (of course, I was eight), though I doubt it would have that effect now.

***One of the more redundant film titles.  Could there ever be a tiny behemoth?

****I think they knew they were showing a film that was much better than their usual fare, since they had Leonard Maltin show up to say he personally liked the film.

Sunday, July 4, 2010

Raymond Griffith

IMDB Entry

On September 3, 1949, James Agee wrote a critical piece for Life Magazine which was one of their most popular articles ever, and probably the single most influential piece of film criticism every written.  Titled "Comedy's Greatest Era," it was a love note to silent comedy, and the the four giants of that time:  Chaplin, Keaton, Harold Lloyd, and Harry Langdon.  This was written at a time when few had access to older films -- no video or TV, of course, and silent films were only shown in college film series and not to the general public.  It introduced a new generation to these talents.

Raymond GriffithBut there was one omission.  In 1975, Walter Kerr pointed it out,  championing the cause of one who may have deserved to be up there*: Raymond Griffith.

Griffith was born in a theatrical family and appeared on stage at the age of 15 months.  By eight he was starring.  He worked in a circus, joined the navy at 15, and in 1916, started acting in films.**  Mack Sennett thought he was more valuable as a writer, so he started doing that until he could find a studio willing to put in in front of the camera.

Griffith's persona was of the upper class:  top hat, white tie, and tails.*** It's an interesting choice; the other big names did not have this sort of persona:  Chaplin was generally poor; Keaton and Langdon, lower middle; and Lloyd, fully middle class.  But he managed to make it work (even in incongruous situations) and became one of the biggest comedy stars of his day.

His best film is usually considered Hands Up!, where he plays a confederate spy during the civil war.****  It has been over 30 years since I've seen it, so I'm fuzzy on the details, but I do remember a very funny film, with good gags and a fine performance.  I would love to see it again.

Griffith's career was doomed when sound came in.  There are legends of movie stars whose voices weren't adequate for sound, but most are exaggerations and only a handful really were hurt by that in particular.***** 

But Griffith knew that once the movies began to talk, his career was over.  He was unable to speak above a whisper.  He told the story of how he gave a terribly loud scream on stage as a boy and lost his voice at that instant, but others have said it was caused by diphtheria.  In any case, his career onscreen came to an abrupt halt.  He appeared in only one film (a dying soldier in All Quiet on the Western Front, a role that required that the actor speak in a whisper) and switched to writing and producing.

Why did Agee leave him off the list?  Well, certainly the fact that he had been off the screen for twenty years was a factor.  Chaplin was still making films (albeit slowly) and Lloyd had appeared in The Sin of Harold Diddlebock a couple of years before.  By coincidence, Keaton had a small role in In the Good Old Summertime just before Agee wrote the article, and Langdon actually made quite a few films in the sound era, though mostly as short subjects.  But Griffith had nothing to remind Agee.  He may have thought of him and discarded him, or he may had forgotten.

The result is sad. Not only is Griffith forgotten, but his films have been lost. There was no reason to save them and no Walter Kerr to point out he was better than the run-of-the-mill film comedian.  Right now, it's next to impossible to evaluate how good or bad he was other than with Hands Up! and one or two others.

We may never know how great he really was, but it is clear that he is worthy of consideration.

*Perhaps even replacing Langdon, who seems now to be dependent on Frank Capra and Harry Edwards to put in a good performance.

**At least, according to Griffith, who is not a trustworthy source.

***No word on if he polished up his nails.

****There are some interesting similarities to Keaton's The General.

***** John Gilbert used to be listed as an example, but most film historians now agree that the problem was less his voice than the florid dialog he was required to utter.