Monday, June 29, 2015

Friday, June 26, 2015

Friday's Favorite OTR

X Minus One: "Double Dare" 12/19/57

Two of Earth's best engineers are sent to an alien planet as part of a contest to prove which planet is more advanced. But they might have to be better than the best if they want to ever get home again.

Click HERE to listen or download.

Thursday, June 25, 2015

The Sea Hawk--the sound film

The 1940 version of The Sea Hawk really was supposed to be a remake of the silent film and also based closely on the original novel. It really was. But somewhere in the rewriting process, the story was altered into something original.

It's still set in the Elizabethan Era and the main character is an expert pirate--ur, I mean privateer. But other than that, it really has no connection with Sabatini's novel. But the original intent and the fact that Sabatini's name was heavily used in the promotional materials means I'm including it in my mini-series covering the novel and its film adaptations.

Also, that gives me an excuse to watch it again, which is never a bad thing. The Sea Hawk is a magnificent swashbuckler.

Errol Flynn is Captain Thorpe, one of Queen Elizabeth's Sea Hawks (actually called Sea Dogs in real life)--the privateers who essentially did black ops missions, robbing the Spanish to contribute to the English treasury, thus allowing Queen Bess to build a navy large enough to defend against the Armada.

The movie starts off with a bang, with Thorpe's ship Albatross capturing a Spanish galley, looting it and freeing the Englishmen who were slaves at the galley's oars. This is where Thorpe gets a chance to meet Maria, the half-English niece of the new Spanish ambassador to England.

Soon after, Thorpe comes up with a plan to rob the Spanish gold caravans crossing Panama. But the Spanish find out about it (I like the Sherlockian investigation the Spanish ambassador pulls off to figure out Thorpe's plans), leading to the capture of Thorpe and his men.

Thorpe now has to engineer and escape from a galley AND get back to England in time to warn the Queen about an impending invasion. But a mole for the Spanish in the English court could make that task difficult.

It's great stuff, filmed in lush black-and-white, with Erich Korngold's score arguably surpassing even his work on The Adventures of Robin Hood.

In fact, it's more worthwhile comparing the film to Robin Hood than to Sabatini's novel. Both films were directed by Michael Curtiz (though Curtiz replaced someone else on Robin Hood) and both star Flynn as the swashbuckling hero, Alan Hale as his number 2 man, and Claude Rains as the villain. Una O'Connor again plays the maid of Flynn's love interest and again falls for one of Flynn's men.

Heck, Maria (nicely played by the nice-to-gaze-upon Brenda Marshall) follows a similar character arc to Olivia DeHavilland's Maid Marian. She is contemptuous of Thorpe at first, but is soon won over. Just as part of this process with Maid Marian was seeing some of the victims of Norman oppression in Robin Hood, Maria's change-of-heart begins when she sees some of the weak, emaciated galley slaves freed after Thorpe captures the ship on which she was passenger.

The Robin Hood vibe was obviously deliberate--Warner Brothers would have wanted to capitalize on the success of that earlier film. But The Sea Hawk still has a personality of its own. Thorpe, for instance, is a more stern and military-like leader than was Robin, while parallels to the then-current war in Europe are here that were absent from the pre-war Robin Hood. This last bit, though, was done well, making the parallels a natural part of the story.

Claude Rains, by the way, plays the Spanish ambassador with the same sort of calm villainy he gave Prince John in Robin Hood. This time, he's backed up by Henry Daniell as the Spanish mole in England. That actually leads to one departure from the Robin Hood template. In that film, Prince John is backed up by two co-villains--Sir Guy and the Sheriff--who each have distinctive personalities. But here, both villains have the same calm-but-evil vibe. One might consider this a fault, but both Rains and Daniell are so good at being calm-but-evil, the lack of variety in the villiany does not hurt the story at all.

There's a lot of atmosphere in The Sea Hawk. When it should be exciting and fast-paced, it is. When it needs to be tense and even a little creepy (see the scene I'm embedding below), it manages to do that equally well. The tone of the story shifts with the various plot twists, but with a smoothness that makes the movie as a whole work so well in terms of basic storytelling and plot construction.

Finally, you can't talk about The Sea Hawk without mentioning Flora Robeson as Queen Elizabeth. She exudes strength, intelligence and determination--you completely accept her as a capable leader who inspires absolute loyalty in her subjects.

So that's it--over the past couple of weeks, we have looked at a brilliantly written adventure novel followed by a magnificent and faithful silent film adaptation, followed by a sound film that morphed into something different but still gave us one of the best swashbucklers ever produced.

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Dinosaurs at Large.

Because dinosaurs are the coolest things ever--and because there was a time when comic book writers & editors knew this--then tossing in a dinosaur-themed story just for the heck of it was considered a good thing.

And the world is a richer place for this. The 1970s series DC Special usually featured reprints. But issue #27 (April-May 1977) was an original story written by Bob Rozakis and drawn by Rich Buckler. It was an opportunity to showcase Captain Comet--a character who had appeared in Strange Adventures during the 1950s. Having recently been re-introduced to DC's continuity (turned out he had been exploring space for 20 years), I assume that the editors were looking for opportunities to show him off to contemporary comic book readers.

The story also effectively inserts another relatively obscure character into the mix--Tommy Tomorrow, a space explorer whose adventures had been chronicled in Real Facts ComicsAction Comics and World's Finest Comics from the late 1940s until the early 1960s. That's was a pretty respectable run, though he was always a back-up feature and never achieved the recognition that superheroes garnered.

It is fun to see both these guys in action again, but the dinosaurs steal the show. (As dinosaurs are wont to do.)

Two important plot threads are intertwined as the story jumps back and forth from 1977 to 100,000,000 BC (where Tommy Tomorrow and his space ship & crew are stranded after some time travel shenanigans). It's very well-constructed--the shifts from one time & location to another are smooth and we never have any trouble understanding what's going on.

Tommy was zapped back into the past by a comet that emits temporal radiation. A fragment of the comet lands on prehistoric Earth, where it mutates a T-rex into an intelligent being and declares the fragment to be his god. Tommy and his men must battle both this guy ("Tyrano Rex") and the various dinosaurs he controls to snatch up the fragment and zip through the time window it was creating, bringing them to 1977.

Simultaneously (well, sort of), dinosaurs are pouring through time windows created by the comet fragment and invading various cities. In the JLA satellite, Captain Comet is visiting and hanging out with Hawkman. But when the dinoaurs pop up and the JLA responds, Hawkman leaves Comet on monitor duty and goes off to fight dinosaurs himself. I wonder if JLA regulations allow that.

It works out okay, though. Comet sees a hero he doesn't recognize fighting dinosaurs in Sheboygan. (For no particular reason at all, I love that the location is Sheboygan rather than one of DC's fictional locations.) He heads down to help.

But remember that Comet has been in deep space for years. The "hero" is actually the villain Chronos, who caused this whole mess. He had tried to snatch the comet from the future to make use of its time travel capabilities, but had accidentally sent it (and Tommy Tomorrow) back to the Age of Dinosaurs.

Comet's powers include telepathy, so he immediately realizes Chronos is a bad guy. But before he can deal with that, he has to take care of those pesky dinosaurs. He does so fairly quickly, in one instance employing what is now my favorite anti-dinosaur tactic: Use the tail of one stegasaurus as a club to knock out a second stegosaurus.

Tommy's ship pops out of the time window. In the ensuing scuffle, the comet fragment Tommy
brought back with him is destroyed; Tyrano Rex (who stowed away on Tommy's ship) reverts into a regular T-Rex and is dispatched; and Chronos is captured.

So pretty much a normal day in the DC Universe.

Tommy and his crew, by the way, are given a lift back to the future by Superman, tying up that plot thread neatly.

The main purpose of the story is obviously to showcase Captain Comet for current readers. And that's okay, because the story Rozakis created is full of fun.

And full of dinosaurs, which is pretty much the same thing.

Monday, June 22, 2015

Friday, June 19, 2015

Friday's Favorite OTR

Philo Vance: "The Listless Murder Case" 3/1/49

A man who was running a crooked charity racket is murdered and his list of donors is missing. Vance investigates through his usual methods of deductive reasoning and... making out with a female suspect?

Click HERE to listen or download.

Thursday, June 18, 2015

The Sea Hawk--the Silent Film

Rafael Sabatini's novels always depended on his ability to construct smoothly ornate sentences and cool dialogue. So, though silent film is an art form that is perfect for many types of film, it would superficially seem that Sabatini's novels would lose something vital in the translation to the screen. This would be especially true of a novel such as The Sea Hawk. As I wrote last week, it's a novel that depends largely on perfectly constructed conversations between the characters to generate excitement and suspense.

But a silent film depends on title cards, so dialogue has to be pared down to the essentials. So what happens when you produce a faithful version of The Sea Hawk in terms of story and character arcs, but have to leave out a lot of the awesome wordplay? Can it still be a great movie?

Astonishingly, the answer is "yes." Directer Frank Lloyd and screenwriter J.G. Hawks do a magnificent job turning the novel into a film. They are, of course, helped along by Milton Sills' effective portrayal of the film's protagonist. (Walter Anthony, who wrote the inter-titles, also deserves credit.) Sills is great in the title role; remember that acting in the silents meant walking a fine line between being expressive enough to make up for the lack of spoken dialogue AND being subtle enough to be believable. Sills strikes that balance nicely, helping ground the film in a world in which we can believe.

(Sills, by the way, died in 1930, so never got a chance to show what he might have done in the sound era.)

The dialogue is indeed boiled down the the essentials, but the story is kept remarkably intact. Sir Oliver still covers for his brother Lionel when Lionel kills Peter Godolphin. Lionel still double-crosses his brother and sells him into slavery. Oliver still ends up becoming a Barbary pirate chief. Character interactions and motivations are all made clear to us.

Even the plots and counterplots involving Oliver, Asad-ed-Din and Fenzileh are also still there, though one disappointment for anyone familiar with the novel is Fenzileh's reduced presence in the film. She is awesomely villainous in prose, so its too bad she only gets a minute or two of screen time.

But the story as a whole is unharmed by the transition to a new medium--still exciting; still suspenseful. The Sea Hawk is a true epic of a swashbuckler.

Wallace Beery is the sea captain who is hired to kidnap Sir Oliver and who is later forced by circumstances to work for him. Beery was an enormously entertaining actor and he's obviously having fun in his role--perhaps making his character even more memorable than he was in the book.

Enid Bennett (who played Maid Marian in Fairbanks' Robin Hood two years before) is also very good as Rosamund Godolphin. And, by golly, she is pretty enough to make us believe that at least three different male characters want her. What is it about the 1920s that produced such a unique form of classy female prettiness that seems to have since faded away forever?

The film looks great. I'm all for modern CGI in films like the Avengers, which couldn't exist without CGI. But watching real ships crewed by hundreds of real actors and extras will always have its own unique appeal. In fact, the ship combat scenes were so good that some of the footage was used again in 1935's Captain Blood.

16 years after this film was made, with the silents long gone, Warner Brothers would remake The Sea Hawk with Errol Flynn in the starring role. Well, they would sort of remake it. It would have the same title and still be a swashbuckler set during the Elizabethan era. But otherwise, it would be an original story. All the same, we'll take a look at it next week.

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Gotta Get to Jupiter? Take a Cab!

There are times when the 21st Century is very disappointing. I can live with the lack of personal jet-packs. I can deal with having no robot butler. I don't like waiting at the bus stop when its raining, but I won't bemoan the absence of weather control satellites.

But, by golly, we don't have any SPACE CABS! We can't jump into the back of a space cab, snap out "Mars, driver. And step on it!" and then get to the Red Planet after paying a quite-reasonable fare. We really can't do this. It's intolerable.

It's all Otto Binder's fault. It was he who created Space Cabbie in Mystery in Space #21 (August 1954). Because who else except Otto Binder could come up with such a goofy concept and make us wish it was real.

Space Cabbie returned in Mystery in Space #24, now written by France Herron, for what would be a 24 issue run--the only series character in what was otherwise an anthology book.

I have no idea what sort of profit margin a space cabbie has, but it can't be much. The story from MIS #24, titled "The Hitchhiker of Space," begins with the Cabbie on Earth. His cab has been stolen, but was recovered on Jupiter. All he has to do is get to Jupiter and show some I.D. Then he can get his cab back.

But he doesn't have a cent to his name. He tries stowing away on a rocket to Mars, getting him one step closer to Jupiter, but he's discovered and forced to work for his fare by doing the tedious job of meteor repair.

Upon reaching Mars, the Cabbie is shanghaied aboard a ship heading for Venus, which is exactly in the wrong direction from where he needs to go. Fortunately, he and some other prisoners manage to get free and overpower the crew.

They're picked up by a police cruiser, but that's heading for Venus as well. Rather than keep going the wrong way, the Cabbie waits on a small asteroid and tries to thumb a ride going in the right direction.

Gee whiz, space pilots in the 22nd Century are a bunch of big meanies. Some time passes before the Cabbie finally gets a ride. It's here his luck seems to change--the ship that picks him up is indeed heading for Jupiter.

He has finally made it. He's reached Jupiter and now all he has to do is show the cops his identification and he can get his cab back. The ordeal is over...

...if only he hadn't forgotten his wallet back on Earth.

I love this story. I love the concept of Space Cabbie. I want there to be Space Cabbies. Why are there no Space Cabbies? Why? Why? Why?

Friday, June 12, 2015

Friday's Favorite OTR

You Are There: "The Execution of Mary, Queen of Scots" 4/3/49

You Are There is a show that worked superbly on radio--the later TV show was never able to completely capture the idea of a modern news crew covering historical events as they unfolded. The Theater of the Mind, with its inherently unlimited special effects budget, maintained the illusion perfectly.

Click HERE to listen or download.

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