Friday, October 17, 2014

Friday's Favorite OTR

Wild Bill Hickock: "The River Boat Killer" 2/13/52

Wild Bill and Jingles protect a steamboat sailing the Colorado River from sabotage and robbery.

Click HERE to listen or download.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

The Legendary Horn of Roland.

Those of us who love classic films often whine about remakes--especially when a film that is already pretty darn near perfect is remade into something awful. In my personal universe, no one is allowed to mention the 1976 version of King Kong within my hearing. As far as I'm concerned it doesn't exist. I won't say that I have the dismembered bodies of people buried under my floorboards because they dared acknowledge its existence while visiting my home. Or at least I'm not admitting it in any legally admissable way. But there definitely was NO remake of King Kong released in 1976. There simply wasn't.

I will tolerate the existence of the bloated 2005 version, because at least the film looked good despite its storytelling and pacing flaws.

But remakes aren't always bad. One of the most perfect films ever made was the 1941 version of The Maltese Falcon. That was actually the third time the book had been adapted into the film. Two previous versions of Dashiell Hammett's novel had been made in 1931 and 1936. So here we have a case in which it took three tries to get it right. The remakes were necessary things.

That's not to say that the earlier films don't have their strengths. In fact, the 1936 version, titled Satan Met a Lady, is a fun film in its own right.

It's an odd little film It takes a brilliant hard-boiled novel and does the following:

1. It changes the names of all the characters. Sam Spade, for instance, is now Ted Shayne. Heck, it changes Casper Gutman (the fat man) into an elderly lady named Madame Barabas--who happens to be a well-known master criminal.

2. It changes the Falcon into the "legendary horn of Roland," which is supposedly filled with priceless gems.

3. Though it keeps the bare bones of the plot and vague parallels to the relationships between the characters, it changes the feel of the movie from hard-boiled to borderline screwball comedy. The various characters are still quirky, but not in a Film Noir-ish way. They're comically quirky.

Superficially, this sound horrible. But, if you don't think  of the movie as The Maltese Falcon, then all this works. Warren William plays Ted Shayne and its the sort of role William shined in. He's likeable, clever and charming--just as he was when he played other detective characters such as Perry Mason, Philo Vance and the Lone Wolf. Watching him fast-talk his way through the film, convincing the various villains one-at-a-time that he's working for them as he collects a fee from each, is a delight.

Bette Davis takes the Femme Fatale role. She hated this movie and was actually suspended by the studio for a time when she initially refused to do it. But she was a trooper and does a fine job in the role. The rest of the cast is great as well, especially Alison Skipworth as Madame Barabas--the only one of the villains who seems truly menacing.

It's interesting that an early version of Hammett's novel dropped its hard-boiled vibe and went for something more light-weight. That's not the only time this happened with the great hard-boiled writers. A few years ago, I wrote about Raymond Chandler's novels being adapted for films featuring established B-movie detectives, several years before more faithful versions of his novels were made that actually involved Philip Marlowe. It seems that after the Hays Code took affect, Hollywood was wary of the hard-boiled genre.

But Hollywood soon got over that and we had Bogart, Richard Powell and Robert Mitchum giving us classic Film Noirs. But before we got there, Satan Met a Lady proved that a more light-hearted romp through double-crosses, greed and murder was a worthwhile journey in of itself.

I've written about Warren William as the Lone Wolf a couple of times in the past. Now that I've written about him as (sort of) Sam Spade, I think I may keep going. Over the next few months, I'll do occasional posts looked at William as Perry Mason, Philo Vance and the arch-enemy of reformed thief Arsene Lupin.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Tarzan, Dinosaurs and Pirates---Oh, My (Part 2)

When we left off last week, the Mad Arab was sailing towards a specific destination in Pellucidar along with several mercenaries and a crew of "Death-Cult" cannibals who worship him as a god. Tarzan had joined with a pirate ship commanded by the Cid and was in pursuit. Another mercenary was wandering around on his own. And Ayesha and her Pellucidarian warrior friend were flying off on a thidpar (a domesticated pterodactyl).

Well, things don't get any less complicated as the story progresses, but the storytelling and art remain top notch, so we're always able to keep track of everyone without any problem. As I mentioned last week, this is one of the elements of the story that really makes it feel like an Edgar Rice Burroughs tale. ERB often had several characters or groups of characters operating independently of each other, shifting the action from one to another at cliffhanger moments.

Beginning with Tarzan #19 (December 1978), Sal Buscema takes over the interior art from his brother John. (Though John continues to provide most of the covers.) In issue #20, Bill Mantlo takes over as writer, though he follows David Kraft's plot for the remainder of the story arc.

A big part of the story here is essentially a chase scene, with Tarzan pursuing the Mad Arab. But within this framework, alliances are shifting swiftly. The ape man has a falling out with the Cid and goes off on his own. The Cid then mistakenly thinks Tarzan has stolen his buried treasure and so pursues him. On the Mad Arab's ship, the mercenaries are divided on whether to obey him to get a cut of whatever power source he's after or double-cross him at the first opportunity.

Double-crossing Abdul Alhazred is no easy thing, though. Aside from his crew of fanatically loyal cannibals, he's also apparently immune to bullets.

Tarzan has a run-in with reptile-men and neanderthals, all of which leads to him hijacking a thidpar despite being tied up. This is seriously awesome.

In the meantime, Ayesha and her warrior friend (it's a sort of running gag that she doesn't learn his name until the end of the story) crash-land their thidpar on Pellucidar's small geostationary moon, where they are promptly captured by Mahars, the telepathic pterodactyls who were the main villains in the first two original novels. 

Ayesha and friend prove themselves to be awesome--especially the princess. She is not only able to resist the Mahar's hypnotism, but fights one by breaking off one of its fangs with a rock and then using this as a weapon to stab it. That is indeed double-seriously awesome.

It turns out the Mahars have built a sonic cannon on the moon, but that it is powered by a giant crystal located inside a city of pyramids in the Land of Awful Shadow--the land kept in perpetual darkness by the moon's shadow. While Ayesha and friend are destroying the cannon, all the other characters end up at the city. This now includes an army from David Innes' empire who are out to crush the Mahars. At first, the Mahars seem to have the upper hand, but a convenient dinosaur stampede abruptly shifts the odds.

It is the crystal that the Mad Arab wants. It's the source of his power and apparent immortality--with it he can conquer both Pellucidar and the surface world. Tarzan has been pursuing his enemy largely for revenge, but when the two finally face off in a one-on-one duel, the fate of the world is at stake.

But how can Tarzan kill someone who is apparently immortal?

From start to finish, this is an exciting and well-constructed adventure yarn. It juggles a lot of characters and conflicting character motivations, but does so with expertise and makes sure we are never lost. I also enjoy the use of Pellucidar's moon and the Land of Awful Shadow as settings--places that Burroughs never got around to exploring in the original novels.

If I were to get nitpicky, I would say that several characters are killed off or dropped from the story a little too abruptly during the last two issues, but that is definitely a nitpick. Over the course of nine issues, writers David Kraft and Bill Mantlo, along with artists John & Sal Buscema, tell an original story that builds on and shows respect for Burroughs' characters and settings.

Monday, October 13, 2014

Cover Cavalcade

I'm not sure it does any good to fire muskets and cannon balls at a whopping big ghost, but I guess if you're desperate enough, you might as well give it a try.

Saturday, October 11, 2014

Golden Voyage of Sinbad Fan Commentary

Two friends and I have recorded a fan commentary for the Ray Harryhausen classic The Golden Voyage of Sinbad. The idea is to play it in tandem with the DVD.

We had a ball doing it--hopefully, if you give it a listen, you'll find it interesting.

Click HERE to download or listen.

Friday, October 10, 2014

Friday's Favorite OTR

Dimension X: "The Last Objective" 6/3/51

Nuclear war has rendered the surface of the Earth uninhabitable and driven the survivors underground.

But that's no reason to stop fighting the war, is it?

Click HERE to listen or download.

Thursday, October 9, 2014

The Thinking Machine

Sherlock Holmes was created in 1888. Agatha Christie began writing mysteries in the 1920s. Hard-boiled detective stories appeared during that same later decade. In very rough terms, these events can be said to be the genesis of detective fiction as a definable and important genre.

But the nearly forty years between Holmes and the 1920s were not completely void of great other great detective characters. One of the most interesting and entertaining is Professor Augustus S.F.X. Van Dusan, Ph.D., LL.D., F.R.S., M.D., M.D.S.

Van Dusan is a small, frail man who is convinced that any problem--any problem at all--can be solved through pure reason. He's gained the nickname "The Thinking Machine" after proving that he could use pure logic to win a chess game against a master, despite never having played the game before.

With the help of a reporter named Hutchinson Hatch, he often uses his intellect to solve crimes.

The Thinking Machine stories were written by Jacques Futrelle during the early 1900s and they are a lot of fun. The most famous of them is "The Problem of Cell 13," first published in 1905. It's unusual in that the "crime" Van Dusan is solving is one he's also perpetrating.

Van Dusan can be a bit egotistical about his genius. Several of his friends become annoyed with him because of this and challenge him to solve an insoluble problem. Van Dusan, with no time to prepare, will be taken to a local prison and locked in a cell on death row. He'll be treated exactly as a regular prisoner would be treated. If he's as smart as he claims to be--if it's true that any problem can be solved by pure reason--then he'll escape in one week.

But how can he escape? He's got nothing but his clothes, a little bit of cash and some tooth powder. Guards check on him several times a day and his meals are brought to him in his cell. It seems impossible.

But it's also impossible that he keeps leaving notes for the guards, despite having no pen with which to write. It's impossible that he is able to make change for his money and even seem to get more money, despite having no interaction with anyone involving money. It's also impossible that a prisoner in a nearby cell is hearing ghostly voices, though this does frighten the prisoner into confessing to a murder.

The story is delightful. It's told mostly from the point-of-view of the warden, who is driven to distraction by Van Dusan's impossible accomplishments, but is still confident that none of this can possibly give Van Dusan an opportunity to escape. He's right, of course. Writing mystery notes and somehow changing a five for one dollar bills might seem impossible, but it can't possibly get Van Dusan out of the cell.

Can it?

"The Problem of Cell 13" is available online HERE and it is, like other Thinking Machine stories, well worth reading.

Sadly, Jacques Futrelle died when the Titanic went down, bringing the career of the Thinking Machine to a premature end. Futrelle died because he gave up a seat in a lifeboat to make sure his wife survived. The Thinking Machine is a pretty awesome fictional character, but here we have a case of a real-life author who clearly outdoes his mythical hero in awesomeness.

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Tarzan, Dinosaurs and Pirates--Oh, My! (Part 1)

The comic book rights for Tarzan have jumped all over the place across the decades and for a time during the late 1970s, they belonged to Marvel Comics. This resulted in a 29-issue run for the Ape Man in which John Buscema drew the first 19 issues and his brother Sal drew the remaining 10. John continued providing superb cover art throughout the book's run.

For reasons I do not now remember (but were probably at least in part financial despite the low cost of comic books at the time), I did not read this book during its original run. I regret that now, because I recently scored an 9-issue story arc from my local comic shop that is nothing less than epic.

It begins with Tarzan Lord of the Jungle #15 (August 1978).  It involves slave traders, an H.P. Lovecraft character who emigrates into Marvel continuity, a trip to Pellucidar, dinosaurs, pirates, and a kidnapped princess who is capable enough to rise above being a mere Damsel in Distress.

Tarzan learns that there is trouble afoot in the jungle. Brutal slavers are raiding villages, taking the strong with them to work in a mine and killing everyone else. Their prisoners include Ayesha, a princess who vows vengeance when the slavers murder her father.

The slavers are led by Abdul Alhazarared, the Mad Arab, the guy who is referenced in many Lovecraft stories as the author of the Necronomicon. (I love that Lovecraft is not explicitly referenced--the character is essentially an Easter Egg for those who recognize the name.) In the original Lovecraft stories, he was implied to have driven mad from researching and writing about the various horrors that exist in the universe. Here, we learn that he's much more than that. He is definitely nuts, but it's a dangerous kind of nuts. Because the Mad Arab isn't digging in the mine for gold or gems, but searching for something more sinister. That the mine is filled with poison gas which eventually kills
his slaves is a matter of indifference to him.

Tarzan begins tracking the slavers, killing several of them in an ambush. He's also met a band of four white who are planning on finding Abdul's mine and (assuming its treasure is the usual sort) loot it. But Tarzan doesn't immediately learn that these four are up to no good themselves. By the time he tumbles to this, he finds himself involved in a hang-glider dog fight with one of them.

In the meantime, Abdul has found what he was looking for--a magic portal that leads to Pellucidar. The various action sequences have divided up the various factions in odd ways by this time. Three of the four white villains have a tenuous alliance with Abdul and go through the portal with him. Ayesha is also sent through the portal, but is separated from the others. The last white villain, Frazier, goes through on his own, as does Tarzan.

The writer is David Kraft and he does an excellent job in terms of story construction. Taking advantage of the fact that the story will cover eight issues, he takes the time to introduce us to all the various characters and give us snapshots of their personalities and motivations. He does this skillfully, mixing the characterizations with continuous action. The whole thing is very reminiscent of Edgar Rice Burroughs' best novels, which often involved simultaneous action involving several characters, which allowed him to jump from one character to another at cliffhanger moments.

By the third issue (#17--October 1978), everyone is in Pellucidar. Ayesha is rescued from a pack of hyaenodons by a Pellucidarian warrior. But while escaping Abdul's gang aboard a tame pterodactyl, the warrior takes a bullet. Tarzan has a run-in with cannibals who ride large flightless birds, then falls in with pirates led by their experienced chief, the Cid. He teams up with them and cements a friendship with the Cid by saving him from a sea monster, though several of the crew now plot to dispose of the ape man. Abdul and his gang meet the cannibals, but it turns out they are expecting the Mad Arab (in fact, he speaks their language.)

All this takes us through issue #18, the half-way point of the story. It's wonderful stuff--I've already mentioned the strong script. This is all packed up by John Buscema's great art. He brings the same sense of raw power to Tarzan that he was also giving to Conan during the 1970s. The visual storytelling supports and enhances the script and the fights scenes are all expertly choreographed and simply look awesome. These scenes include the hang-glider chase/fight, Tarzan's ambush of slavers, his fight with the cannibals, the Pellucidarian's fight with the hyaenodons, and the ape man's fight with the sea monster. Also, the Mad Arab's character design is fantastic, endowing the villain with a sense of both pure evil and raw power.

Rather than rush through the rest of the story arc, I'll cover the rest of it next week.

Monday, October 6, 2014

Cover Cavalcade

"Steve Zodiac" is one of those names that--if it's yours--pretty much obligates you to become a hero.

This comic is based on one of Gerry Anderson's super-marianation shows. Though not shown on this particular cover, the Fireball XL5 is an undeniably awesome ship.

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