Friday, April 29, 2016

Friday's Favorite OTR

The Lone Ranger: "Treasure Trove" 8/12/38

Old Ben the prospector finally strikes it rich when he stumbles across the lost Treasure Trove mine. But this also attracts the interest of a band of outlaws.

Click HERE to listen or download.

Thursday, April 28, 2016

My Favorite Planet of the Apes universe

The first of the original Planet of the Apes movie I saw was the last in that cycle, when I watched Battle for the Planet of the Apes in the theater. I was young enough to overlook or simply not recognize its faults and I still remember how much I enjoyed the setting and the action. I liked Roddy McDowell as Caesar and really enjoyed Lew Ayers' cameo as the super-cool Keeper of the Armory. I saw the rest of the films on TV at various times over the next few years ago. I have since been a fan of the original movie cycle and I'm really looking forward to watching the original POTA film on the big screen this July when it plays as part of TCM's classic movie revival series.

I never did see either the Tim Burton remake or either of the films in the current reboot, so I can't pass judgement on them. But I do enjoy other POTA universes. In fact, there's one particular Apes universe that (if I might be permitted a blasphemy) I like a little better than the original film cycle.

This was the Saturday morning cartoon Return to the Planet of the Apes, that aired on NBC in 1975. It only ran 13 episodes, but intelligent writing and a real concern for internal continuity made it a rich and entertaining show.

Return has several important points in its favor. First, the design work overseen by Doug Wildey is excellent and imaginative, doing wonders to make up for the limited animation. In fact, the show was designed to take advantage of the animation technique--many individual shots were still frames that looked like well-designed comic book panels. Details such as the design of Ape City and General Urko's military equipment all added to the visual appeal and the overall verisimilitude of the show.

Wildey was also involved in plotting out the show's overall story arc. Here's a quote from him:

"When I first mapped out the show, I took the astronauts and kept them as separate as I could from the other humans for the first three or four episodes. And then I got them involved with other humans up to a point. So the original idea was that they were astronauts arriving on the planet of the apes, they're fugitives, and mainly they keep hiding to figure out what the [heck] they're going to do. I put the stories together from one to 13 in the sense that at the end of 13, the humans are almost as powerful as the apes. At the beginning, though, they're like mice running around hoping not to get trapped. That's the simplified philosophy behind it. My idea was that they would be animals at the beginning and slowly evolve into a crude civilized bunch of people from the standpoint that they might be more organised."

It's this story arc and the writing in the individual episodes that really make this a great series. Three astronauts (Bill, Jeff and Judy) are trapped in a time vortex and land on Earth in the future. As is typical in pretty much an version of POTA, they don't initially realize that they are on Earth. At first, they are simply trying to survive, with Bill getting captured by the apes, befriending Cornelius and Zira and managing an escape. They team up with Nova and the other primitive humans. Judy is captured by the Underdwellers--psychic mutants based on those from Beneath the Planet of the Apes, but slightly less murderously fanatical. 

The series is grabbing elements from several sources. The ape civilization is keyed off the technologically advanced one from the original novel--though they have no idea about air travel (a plot point in later episodes). Various ape characters (Cornelius, Zira, Zaius, General Urko) are taken from the first two movies. Brent--the main human character from Beneath--shows up re-imagined as an astronaut from 150 years in the future of the original astronauts, but who arrived in the ape-dominated world years before them. I've already mentioned the Underdwellers as based on the mutants from Beneath.  

All these elements were mixed into something that is still POTA, but new in its own way. Then it is anchored onto an overarching story arc that runs through the entire series. Plot elements are never forgotten and pop up in the story at logical moments--a laser drill recovered from the wrecked space ship; a particular mutant monster that makes a return visit in a later episode; a restored World War II airplane that Judy knows how to fly (which includes an episode dealing with the need to acquire more fuel for it).

I particularly like Doctor Zaius in this version of POTA. Actually, we always kind of like him, don't we? In the original films, he can be cruel, self-righteous and dishonest, but Maurice Evans' performance always reminds us that he's desperately trying to keep his own civilization from destruction. In the cartoon, his negative traits are downplayed. He still sees humans as a threat and is terrified at the thought of intelligent humans, but he's portrayed as much more honestly straightforward. 

The voice work has sometimes been criticized as too unemotional. I think this is valid. In fact, Cornelius and Zira occasionally sound like they've been popping quaaludes. But Henry Corden really goes to town as the power-mad General Urko, voicing him in an appropriately over-the-top manner as Urko descends farther into paranoia over the course of the series.

The last episode in a cliffhanger of sorts, with Bill and Cornelius acquiring proof that humans once ruled the Earth and hatching a plan to approach the Ape City rulers with this. Sadly, the show was cancelled, so a second season dealing with this never materialized. All the same, the various other elements of the story arc are wrapped up well enough to give keep a viewer satisfied.

I actually had an idea for a plot element that I think would have added a lot of emotion to the series. Throughout the 13 episodes, various characters are in danger, but there are never any actual fatalities. This was because it was a children's show. Explosives and artillery are occasionally used, but I don't think a single round of small arms fire is capped off at any time. 

I appreciate standards in entertainment aimed at children. I think that as a culture, we sometimes don't
pay enough attention to this. But I simply disagree with some of the decisions made regarding violence on Saturday mornings during the 1970s. Violence is an essential part of storytelling and a level of violence in a children's story (including deadly violence) is appropriate. A discussion of where the line should be drawn would be a fascinating one to have, though in the end this is a decision that parents should make for their own children.

But I think Return to the Planet of the Apes. as good as it was, would have been even more effective if it had allowed a few deaths. For instance, there's an episode in which the astronauts lead the primitive humans on a dangerous journey to find a safe haven where the apes can't get to them. Losing a few of the humans to the various threats along the way would have been an effective way of  adding tension and opened discussions as to whether what they were doing was worth the cost. 

Also, lets say the astronauts got hold of a few rifles. Would they have been justified in using them in self-defense? What would this have done to their friendship (and very helpful alliance) with Cornelius and Zira--who are portrayed as peaceful and compassionate throughout the series? Would the two chimpanzees have been torn between continuing to protect the humans from genocide with loyalty to their own people? But none of that could be dealt with unless Bill or Jeff puts a bullet in a gorilla soldier. 

It is a show marketed towards children, so the discussion about how much violence should be in it is worthwhile. Though I think a few fatalities would have helped the show, someone else might legitimately think it was perfect just the way it was.

Anyway, the series is available on Hulu, so if you are in the U.S., you can watch it there and decide for yourself. It's also on YouTube, as least at the moment I'm writing this--though I'm unsure of the copyright situation, so I don't know if the video I'm embedding below will remain active.


Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Shogun Warriors, Part 1

It's almost impossible to imagine a time when giant robots capable of transforming into various vehicles were NOT a part of our pop culture. I'm not sure if the Shogun Warrior  line were the first toys to go this route, but the Marvel comic book adaptation arrived a good half-decade before the Transformers or the Go-Bots popped up in cartoons and comics.

Until recently, I hadn't read Shogun Warriors. I was in the Philippines when it first came out and (though the Stars-and-Stripes book store in Subic Bay was well-stocked with comics) I don't remember seeing it.  But I was able to recently score all 20 issues for less than 20 bucks on Ebay; I knew I'd like Herb Trimpe's art work; I generally like Doug Moench's writing; and Marvel did have a great record with later books based on toys in which they gave us strong characters and strong stories.

So I've decided that, as I read these for the first time, I'll review them in 5-issue chunks. I'll also include a review of Fantastic Four #226, in which some closure is given to the characters after Marvel lost the license. I'm not going to post these reviews four weeks in a row, by the way. I'll space them about a month apart. I appreciate my small readership and--well, actually, I have no idea what sort of comic book reviews you all enjoy the most. So I'll keep up the variety.

The first issue starts out with a bang, with the giant robot Raydeen--piloted by a trio of humans--defends an unnamed Japanese city against a cyborg monster. In Japan, they call this "Tuesday." After a few pages of fun action, we get an extended flashback to set up the situation and characters in more detail.

One problem Doug Moench had was that there is a ton of exposition needed to give us background on the Shogun Warrior pilots, set up the overall plot, and give us details about the weapons and capabilities of the robots. Because of this, the early books are very dialogue-heavy and there's some minor pacing problems. But the plot is a fun one and the robots are simply magnificent. Shogun Warriors runs on pure Rule of Cool and works beautifully on that level.

The series is a part of the mainstream Marvel Universe, though this isn't a factor early on. We learn that a secret organization of people descended from aliens--the "Followers of the Light"--have been guarding Earth against a chaotic evil organization currently led by a villain named Maur-Kon. The bad guys seem to be dedicated to destruction and death simply because they're evil. Just to get my last minor criticism out of the way--it would be nice if the bad guys had a more complex motivation. But perhaps that's built upon in later issues.

The villains were defeated millennia ago, but now a volcanic eruption has woken them and they are using a combination of science and magic to unleash new monsters on the world. The Followers of the Light teleport three humans to their secret base--people selected in advance to pilot the robotic Shogun Warriors and fight the monsters. This is a major surprise for the humans--who didn't know they'd been selected for anything. But they soon accept the situation with remarkable aplomb.

The first monster is defeated--or at least its outer bionic shell is. The Earth elemental on the inside escapes. That gives the good guys time to get better training and fire up two more robots.

They're soon ready to go another round with the Earth elemental--who rather rudely counters this by dividing into three beings--Earth, Fire and Water.

By now, we've hit the third issue. Herb Trimpe's monster designs and fight choreography keep the
story rolling despite there still being too much dialogue. The current monsters are defeated. The head villain--Maur-Kon--has decided that the success of the robots means that his group should abandon magic completely and turn to pure science. One of his minions, Magar, disapproves of this--so soon there are back-stabbing shenanigans going on among the bad guys. Maur-Kon orders a robot called Mecha-Monster built, which allows Trimpe to treat us to a really nifty splash page.

Magar--the guy who disapproves of turn to pure science-- tries to destroy the robot, but only succeeds in creating a magic-science hybrid creature that goes on an uncontrolled rampage. This leads to yet another great fight, with one of the Shogun Warriors--Combatra--getting to show off its ability to split into five separate vehicles.

As the monster is sent running, Genji (the Japanese test pilot who pilots Combatra) decides to back track it to its source. She locates the villains' base, but unwisely decides to press ahead on her own, flying into a tunnel in the vehicle formed from Combatra's head.

Magar, who was about to lose his spot on Maur-Kon's Christmas Card list because he tried to destroy the Mecha-Monster, redeems himself by damaging Genji's vehicle. So the fifth issue ends with a rather intense cliffhanger--Genji is a prisoner and her Shogun Warrior robot is captured.

As I said, the series really does run on Rule of Cool, keying off Herb Trimpe's ability to give us kinetic, lively robots based on the original toys and creating some visually outstanding designs for the monsters. The criticisms I cite above are all valid, but none of them are serious enough to distract from the overall fun of the series.

We'll cover the next five issues in three or four weeks. Meanwhile, for next week: He's a pig--his partner's a cat. Together, they solve crimes.

Monday, April 25, 2016

Cover Cavalcade

Early issues of DC's Star Spangled War Stories featured covers highlighting stories about the then-current Korean War. By 1953, the focus had shifted to primarily World War II. But every once in awhile, we'd get a pretty nifty cover portraying earlier wars.

Friday, April 22, 2016

Friday's Favorite OTR

Sherlock Holmes: "New Years Eve off the Scilly Islands" 12/28/1947

Holmes and Watson ring in the New Year with a desperate search to find a bomb hidden aboard an ocean liner.

Click HERE to listen or download.

Thursday, April 21, 2016

Red Dawn

Read/Watch 'em In Order #66

I think Raoul Whitfield's Jo Gar stories rank among the best stories in the hard-boiled genre. I think the 6-part "Rainbow Diamonds" story arc is the best of the Jo Gar series. That being said, "Red Dawn" (published in the May 1931 issue of Black Mask) is arguably one of the weakest in the overall series.

Perhaps it's because its in the middle of the "Rainbow Diamonds" arc, when many serials hit a bit of a lag. But whatever the reason, it is flawed in that it depends on several over-used cliches to move the story along.

I'm not against cliches. When used cleverly and sparingly, they are an effective shorthand to provide both exposition and movement in the plot. But in "Red Dawn," I'm afraid they seem a little too obviously a contrivance.

When the last story ended, Jo Gar was in Hawaii, having recovered one of the ten missing diamonds but having run out of living suspects. Good fortune comes in painful packages, though. One of the original crooks kidnaps Gar, convinced that he has all ten diamonds.

That part I'm okay with--the villain is presented with a reasonable motive for thinking Gar has been lying about having the diamonds. He kidnaps Gar to beat the location of the diamonds out of him.

But its here that Whitfield falls into cliche. First, the bad guy spouts off important information to Gar for no good reason at all--primarily that he has a female accomplice. Gar had no idea she existed before this and there was no reason to tell him. Second, the bad guy comes up with a nasty but overly complex method of killing Gar after he's done with the island detective.

Whitfield, though, still saves the story. There is a high level of tension built into the plot and Gar's cleverness in manipulating the villain with lies and then coming up with a brutal but effective way of beating the assassination attempt makes for great reading. Whitfield is just that good--he might stumble a little this time in plot construction, but he makes up for it with honestly-manufactured suspense and hard-core characterizations.

So the story ends with another dead bad guy, but with nine diamonds still missing. He knows a little more than he did before, though. He knows there's a double-crossin' dame out there somewhere. Find her and he finds the diamonds.

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Let's Have a Baby--IN A WAR ZONE!

I'll get the part that bugs me out of the way first. It's something that bugged me even when I first read this issue as a kid.

The plot (from Our Army at War #249--Sept. 1974) involves Rock and Easy Company traveling to a farm on a hilltop to defend it against an impending enemy attack. Along the way, they find a man pulling his very, very pregnant wife along in a wagon. They're heading to the same farm. It's their farm and they want to have their baby there.

Now I get that a farmer can feel a deep connection to his land. That's fine and proper and a feeling we non-farmers should respect. I get that he wants his child to be born on his farm. That's also fine and proper and something we should respect.

But his farm is currently in the middle of AN ACTIVE WAR ZONE! And all through the story, Rock asks them if they want to head for safety. Both the man and his wife consistently refuse. Rock then simply brings them along--and is even forced to detail his best sharpshooter to help deliver the baby at a key moment in the ensuing battle.

Gee whiz, Rock. I get that you want to help the couple. And, to be fair, one of the themes in the story is that the hard-core soldiers of Easy still pause to help and protect the innocent. But the set-up is awkward. The husband isn't just being loyal to his heritage. He's being an idiot who is risking the lives of his wife and baby. Rock should have called him on this and FORCED him to turn back.

But everyone simply accepts the guy's decision--even when they run into first a minefield and then an ambush on the way to the farm.

The rest of the story, though, is excellent. Russ Heath does his usual brilliant job of portraying the action, especially the battle for the farm, which unfolds a little more realistically (at least at first) than is usual in a DC war book.

The final few panels of that battle, in which Easy Company counter-attacks and drives off the Germans, is stark, brutal and memorable.

In the end, Easy holds the farm and the farmer has a daughter. Rock declares the kid to be the "luck of Easy." But the kid shouldn't have been there at all. You don't bring your wife and unborn child into a war zone. That's simply NEVER a good idea.

I do like this issue and I recommend it highly if you ever run across a copy. And, once again, I get that there's a theme of veteran soldiers still having empathy for the innocent. But I will always be a little unhappy with that farmer. Gee whiz.

Below, I'm including the page-by-page video review of the back-up story in this issue--something a few friends and I made about a year ago. We talk a little about this story at the beginning of the video.

Next week, we'll begin a multi-part look at Marvel's Shogun Warriors. Over the next few months, I plan to do sporadic posts covering all 20 issues, probably in 5-issue chunks. If those particular reviews don't interest you--don't worry.  I'll be interspersing them with other comic book reviews.

Monday, April 18, 2016

Friday, April 15, 2016

Friday's Favorite OTR

Cavalcade of America: "Away All Boarding Parties" 11/18/52

The true story of the capture of a German U-boat during the Battle of the Atlantic.

Click HERE to listen or download.

Thursday, April 14, 2016

Femme Fatales in Westerns, Part 2

1958's The Lone Ranger and the Lost City of Gold is the last time Clayton Moore and Jay Silverheels appeared as the Ranger and Tonto in a television episode or film. And they went out on a high note--the movie is one of my favorite Lone Ranger stories, with a strong story populated with interesting supporting characters.

One of those characters is Frances Henderson (Noreen Nash), a widow who is also a prominent citizen in the local community. On top of that, she's a ruthless Femme Fatale willing to leave a trail of bodies behind her to get what she wants.

What she wants are five medallions which, when put together, form a map giving the location of the titular Lost City. The medallions belong to five different Indians, so she vamps Ross Brady (Douglas Kennedy) into leading a gang of masked bandits to acquire them. The gang also pulls off a few other robberies to hide their real motive.

But it's hard to hide anything from the Lone Ranger. It's even hard for a cold-blooded Femme Fatale to vamp him, regardless of how pleasant she may be to gaze upon. As this clip shows, the Ranger will simply play mind games with her.

Also, there's an Indian doctor pretending to be white to fit in with the town folk,an Indian girl who loves the doctor but is disgusted by what she sees as his moral cowardice in passing as white, and  a brutal sheriff who hates anyone with red skin. These subplots all tie nicely together for the finale, in which a wounded Tonto must protect the doctor, the girl and a baby while dodging the masked bandits in a deserted Indian village.

This climatic gun battle, by the way, is excellent, giving Tonto an extended Crowning Moment of
Awesome before he finally collapses from his wound. But the Ranger is there to take over. Oh, and IMPORTANT SAFETY TIP: If the Ranger's horse Silver has befriended a baby, do NOT in any way at all threaten that baby. It won't end well for you. It just won't.

Aside from a great story wrapped in clever mystery and highlighted by strong action scenes, the movie is also notable in how it portrays racism as the brutal and hurtful thing it is. For a movie from the 1950s that would have been marketed to children as well as adults, this it truly impressive.

As of my writing this, I'm not sure if I'm going to consciously do a Part 3 to the Femme Fatales in Westerns theme. But these nasty if beautiful women show up in Westerns nearly as often as they do in Film Noirs, so we'll probably touch on the subject again in the future regardless of how I title the post.

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