Friday, August 28, 2015

Friday's Favorite OTR

Inner Sanctum: "Fearful Voyage" 1/3/49

It's supposed to be bad luck to have a woman aboard a fishing boat. This is apparently true even if the woman is dead--hidden aboard after her fisherman husband murdered her.

Click HERE to listen or download.

Thursday, August 27, 2015

Those Darn Revolvers Just Bug Me!

I don't expect most Westerns to be historically accurate. I know most of them are set in the mythic Wild West that grew out of dime novels, not the real-life Old West.  And I know that, as a consequence, there will be some inaccuracies. I'm not bothered if a character is using a particular rifle in a movie set a few years before that rifle was actually invented. (And, to be honest, I would not always have detailed enough knowledge to recognize something like that.)

But there are limits to this--moments in which the historical inaccuracy jumps the film over that amorphous line where the Suspension of Disbelief ends.

Let's look at the 1953 film The Man from the Alamo. Glenn Ford is a man named John Stroud, who is part of the garrison at the Alamo in 1836. He and four other men learn that some Texas renegades on Santa Anna's payroll are killing and looting near their home town. They draw lots to decide who will go to protect their families. Stroud "wins."

So when Colonel Travis learns that no reinforcements are coming and asks for volunteers to stay, Stroud is the only one who does not step forward. (The story is a little weak here--there was no reason for Stroud NOT to explain why he was leaving, since Travis had effectively given him permission to do so. His failure to explain is why he's branded as a coward for the rest of the film.)

Well, he's too late to help the families and the Alamo falls before he can get back. So now pretty much everyone in Texas thinks he's a traitor. But that's the least of his problems. His primary task is to bring the renegades who killed his family to justice--and save a wagon train full of women and children in the bargain.

It's a really good movie. Like all Westerns directed by Budd Boetticher, it looks great and the action scenes are exciting. The final battle, with Stroud, a one-armed old man and a half-score of women battling the renegades, is fantastic.

The story has a four-act structure. Act 1 is the Alamo; Act 2 is Stroud discovering his family is dead and that everyone in Texas is ready to lynch him for his perceived cowardice; Act 3 involves him pretending to join the renegades; the final Act has him joining and then eventually leading the wagon train. Events lead Stroud from one act to the next in a smooth and logical manner.

Along the way, the theme of duty vs. family is revisited--we can honestly debate whether Stroud was right in leaving the Alamo, or whether another character is right in his decision when faced with a similar dilemma late in the film. Stroud himself claims he was wrong to leave, but someone else jumps to his defense. It's an interesting and sincerely delivered debate on moral responsibilities.

The cast is superb. Ford gives an understated performance as Stroud, showing emotion without allowing the emotions to leak over into melodrama. Victor Jory and Neville Brand are the primary bad guys--and any movie with either of those two playing bad guys immediately jumps up a few notches in quality.

Because it tells such a great story, I'm not at all bothered by most of the historical inaccuracies in the film. The incorrect layout of the Alamo or Travis' age (the actor playing him is 25 years too old) are all beside the point in this case. This is a mythic Wild West version of the Texas War, so it doesn't have to be accurate to history in most ways.

I'm even okay with the fact that everyone is dressed like a cowboy from the 1870s or 1880s. Heck, it's Texas in the Old West. They're supposed to dress like that and the heck with what history says!

But, by golly, the revolvers that everyone carries bug me to no end. The rifles are okay--they are muzzle-loading flintlocks that would have been common in 1836. But the pistols also should have been flintlocks, with perhaps a few percussion cap weapons mixed in. There would not have been any six-shooters. But everyone in this movie who uses a handgun uses a six-shooter.

For me, this is just one step too far over that Suspension of Disbelief line. It bothers me the way it would bother me if a King Arthur movie armed the Knights of the Round Table with tommy guns.

On the other hand, I'm not bothered by most King Arthur stories tossing in castles, plate armor and codes of chivalry that are several centuries too early to have been around in Arthur's time. Because that's what the Days of King Arthur are supposed to look like and the heck with what history says!

So I fully realize I'm being inconsistent in what I do or do not find acceptable. The Man from The Alamo is an excellent Western in every respect except those revolvers--and whether or not the revolvers bother you is a completely subjective thing. They do indeed bug me, but they might not bug you at all.

You know--come to think of it---Arthurian knights wielding submachine guns. That actually sounds kinda cool, doesn't it?

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Be Nice to Ants!

The cover for Strange Adventures #30 (March 1953) was drawn by Murphy Anderson. I wish I knew the history behind it. The issue itself has an 8-page Captain Comet story, a 6-page non-series story, and a 4-page story highlighted by the cover. So editor Julius Schwartz decided that the shortest story in the book should be used to sell it. Or perhaps Anderson drew the cover image, then Anderson and writer Gardner Fox had to come up with a story that fit it.

Whatever the exact circumstances, it is an epic cover. It's a robot riding a giant ant while chasing two frightened humans. Who wouldn't buy this comic book? In fact, when I give talks to elementary school kids about the history of comics, I show this cover to highlight the science fiction stories of the 1950s AND do an exercise in which the kids have to call out story ideas that would match the cover. That part is always great fun.

The actual story involves Bill and Ann Hanley, who are making good money running an ant circus, in which the trained insects do various tricks for the audience.

But remember that this story is only four pages long, so weird stuff (weirder than huge crowds paying money to see an ant circus) happens pretty quick. Bill and Ann are walking in the woods when they see a rocket ship land. Giant ants being ridden by robots charge out and captures them.

The robots explain what's going on. They work for the ants, who are intelligent. How they build robots without themselves having opposable thumbs is not discussed.

The ants need a couple of humans. Why? Well, if humans can have an ant circus, there's no reason why ants shouldn't get to have a human circus.

So the moral of the story is... um... be nice to ants so that they don't enslave us? Bring a bazooka while walking in the woods? Or maybe... um....

Oh, heck. The story is an excuse to have a cover featuring a robot riding a giant ant. It doesn't need a reason beyond that. It is significant justification in of itself.

Monday, August 24, 2015

Cover Cavalcade

So Jimmy gets a chance to film a monster movie and his idea is to lure two REAL monsters together and get them to fight. Gee whiz, Jimmy, that's a great plan! What could possibly go wrong?

Friday, August 21, 2015

Friday's Favorite OTR

Suspense: "John Bareby and Son" 2/22/45

John Bareby is determined not to allow his mentally handicapped son to be put in an institution, even after a court orders this be done. So he and the boy go on the run. There's a great twist ending to this one.

Click HERE to listen or download.

Thursday, August 20, 2015

Interplanetary Circus Freak Show

Read/Watch 'em in Order #57

You know, I think you can argue that Edmond Hamilton had too many good ideas and didn't always spread them out as much as he should have.

I would hold "Captain Future and the Seven Space Stones" (Winter 1941) up as evidence of this. The 5th Captain Future adventure is crammed to overflowing with wonderfully imaginative ideas, but there simply isn't time within this relatively short novel to properly develop all those ideas.

The plot here is different in one important way from the previous four Captain Future adventures. Previously, the identity of the main villain was unknown, with there being a number of suspects to choose from. This time, we know who the bad guy is right from the start--Doctor Ul Quorn, a Martian/Venusian/Human hybrid who once went to prison for performing horrible experiments.

Now he's free and trying to acquire the Seven Space Stones, relics of an ancient Martian scientist and the key to a mysterious super-weapon.

The mystery here is two-fold: What can Ul Quorn do with the Space Stones if he acquires them all and why does he seem to already have a grudge against Curt Newton (aka Captain Future) and the Futuremen?

This premise leads into a competing treasure hunt, with Ul Quorn and Captain Future each trying to get the Space Stones before the other does. It's a race that takes them from Earth to Venus to Mars to an outlaw asteroid called the Pleasure Planet.

Within this story, Hamilton really does cram in one cool idea after another. For instance:

1. Ul Quorn is traveling with an interplanetary circus, using his scientific skill to put on a magic act. His minions (aside from a mind-numbingly beautiful Martian femme fatale) are genetically-engineered members of the circus freak show whose skills come in handy when its time to steal a Space Stone. For instance, one guy has enlarged cup-like ears that give him super-hearing, while another has a chameleon ability to change his skin color and blend in with the surroundings.

2. Captain Future at one point encounters a space hermit who despises technology and lives on a remote asteroid.

3. Another asteroid, the Pleasure Planet, is outside planetary police jurisdiction because the crook who owns it slapped some huge rockets on it and stopped its orbit, thereby using a legal technicality to become a world outside the law.

4. The effects of the super-weapon and the final fight this leads to are cool and awesome and absolutely epic--but I can't tell you about it in detail without spoiling the surprise for anyone who hasn't read it.

5. Since the Futuremen have no evidence against Ul Quorn at first, they go undercover at the circus in various disguises. Grag the robot's disguise and the personality he assumes is hilarious.

6. Ezra Gurney, the aging Space Marshall who is one of Curt's regular allies, has a legitimately touching encounter with an aging space pirate he had tried to catch years before.

7. There's a cult of Martians who are determined to bring back the scientific glories of their planet that were lost 2000 centuries ago.

8.  Did I mention that there's a mind-numbingly beautiful Martian femme fatale?

All this makes "Captain Future and the Seven Space Stones" the most fun of the first five books in the series. But, ironically, it also borders on being unsatisfying. The above ideas simply aren't fleshed out as much has they might have been.

For instance, several of Ul Quorn's "freaks" assist him, but several others are simply introduced, described well enough to wet our interest, then left unused. The coolest of them is probably the Moon Wolf, a six-legged wolf from Io who had a human brain transplanted into it, giving it intelligence and the power of speech. You simply do not introduce us to a six-legged talking wolf from Io and then not do anything with him! I was expecting a fight between the Futuremen and the freaks, but we never get to see this.

The Hermit, the femme fatale, Ezra's former space pirate nemesis, the Martian cultists--all these are interesting characters. All are underused.

Other plot points come and go too quickly. At one point, Captain Future and Planetary Police agent Joan Randall are undercover in the gambling dens on Pleasure Planet. The normally straight-laced Joan is posing as a spoiled rich girl, which is a fun idea. But we get only one line of dialogue from her while playing this role, then the story moves on to other things.

There are two more important items to bring up. Ul Quorn is taken alive at the end--I think he's the first major villain in any of the stories to be taken alive. This is because his back-story and his scientific genius are setting him up to become Captain Future's re-occurring arch-enemy. I have no complaints about this. The hybrid mad scientist is a great villain.

Also, Otho the Android gets a pet. This is a "meteor mimic"--a small animal that can shape-change--which Otho names Oog. Remember that Grag the robot had a metal-eating "moon pup" named Eek. Remember also that Grag and Otho are always arguing--mirroring Ham and Monk from the Doc Savage novels. Giving both a pet further mirrors Ham and Monk, who had an ape and a pig respectively that they employed to annoy each other. That Hamilton (perhaps under editorial order) was deliberately lifting this dynamic from Lester Dent's Doc Savage tales  becomes even more apparent when Oog is tossed into the mix. I'm a bit conflicted about this. As much as I love Hamilton's work as a writer, I would have preferred to see the Futuremen develop their own unique personalities. On the other hand, Oog and Eek are pretty cool.

But "The Seven Space Stones" is still a great story. Reading this one leaves you very aware of just how well-qualified Edmond Hamilton was to eventually switch to writing comic books and produce so many great Legion of Superheroes and Superman tales. That same sense of pure fun and internally consistent logic is there. Heck, Captain Future and his men would have fit into DC's Silver Age universe perfectly.

There are 15 more Captain Future novels and 5 short stories, so there's a good chance we'll talk about him again in the future. But that's it for Captain Future as a part of the "In Order" series. We still have two Perry Mason movies to go and we'll also get back to Jongor of Lost Land for his last two stories. After that--well, as of this writing (about two months before it posts) I haven't decided yet.

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Ape Man on Ice

This epic cover (painted by George Wilson) actually fibs to us a little bit. In Gold Key's Tarzan of the Apes #149 (April 1965), the Jungle Lord does find an ice cavern full of frozen ancient warriors, but he doesn't actually fight any of them.

All the same, the story we do get is pretty darn good. Written by Gaylord Du Bois and drawn by
Jesse Marsh, "The Secret of the Frozen Caverns" starts with a rather brutal bang. Two poachers in an airplane are shooting animals from the air, including an ape named Mogok, leaving his mate to grieve his death.

Tarzan stows away on top of the plane when it lands to harvest tusks off a dead elephant. When the plane is forced down by bad weather, it lands near a lost civilization--because Tarzan is incapable of travelling anywhere without stumbling across lost civilizations.

The poachers, by the way, die off-screen a little later in the story--because the main focus of the story will shift to something else. But there is an interesting scene concerning them first. After the plane lands again, Tarzan announces his plans to turn the poachers over to their government. The two men laugh at him--it turns out they are relatives of important government officials and free to whatever they want--legal or illegal.

The scene seems to be an acknowledgement of the often open corruption that has plagued real-life Africa pretty much forever. But then the two are hauled out of the main plot and there's no follow-up. It might be that Gaylord Du Bois wanted to counterpoint the corruption of the outside world with the utopia Tarzan has discovered.

Because the Xung people have discovered a life-prolonging serum using the venom of giant wasps (Their king, Kwai, walks around with one of the wasps perpetually sitting on his head.) They've also achieved mastery of many languages, send their people to the outside world for advanced education, and defend their land against invaders by using the wasps to sting enemies unconscious. They then place invaders in suspended animation in their ice caverns, letting a few out every so often to see if they can find satisfaction working among the Xung.

Since this book was published in 1965, it really is remarkable that the advanced and peaceful Xung are black Africans and not some long-lost white race. But a few of them do seem to be lacking in common sense. Kwai ordered the poachers' plane to be moved out of sight. While Kwai is showing Tarzan the ice cavern full of frozen soldiers, some of his people decide to move the plane by tossing it off a cliff. The gas tank explodes and seals up the cavern.

Kwai suggests they use wasp venom to go into suspended animation, otherwise they will soon freeze to death. But Tarzan notices a hole in the cavern roof high above. They've already thawed out an ape whom Tarzan wants to fix up with the she-ape who lost her mate at the beginning of the story. Together, the two men and the ape manage to climb up and out the hole.

The climbing sequence is the highlight of the story, as is the characterization of the ape. Though intelligent enough to have a primitive language, Burroughs' apes were a bit on the dense side. Tarzan has to wrestle the ape into submission to get him to help. Later, the ape misunderstands an order and throws a badly-needed rope off a cliff. The scene feels just right for Edgar Rice Burroughs' version of African apes.

I don't know if Tarzan ever returned to Xung in later stories. I suspect not--and a character search in the Grand Comics Database seems to confirm this. "The Secret of the Frozen Caverns" is a good story, but Xung is  little too peaceful and idyllic. This makes it a lot less interesting that lost civilizations where wars are fought or palace intrigues are carried out. Peace and tranquility are worthy goals in real life, but they don't belong in an adventure story.

Monday, August 17, 2015

Friday, August 14, 2015

Friday's Favorite OTR

NBC University Theater: "Goodbye, Mr. Chips" 7/9/49

Hebert Marshall is excellent in this faithful and heartfelt adaptation of James Hilton's novel.

Click HERE to listen or download.

Thursday, August 13, 2015

President Garfield, Robin Hood and John Wayne.

John Wayne did tons of B-Westerns and serials during the 1930s, before finally hitting the big time with Stagecoach in 1939. One of regular gigs was playing Stony Brooke--one of the 3 Mesquitteers. Wayne played Stony in 8 of the 51 films in this popular series.

One of these films 1939's The Night Riders and it is one of my favorites. The villains this time out are a forger and a crooked gambler (who is also a former actor). The two team-up to respectively forge a document and assume the identity of a Spanish noble. This allows them to claim ownership of millions of acres. They then begin to tax the pants off the homesteaders and ranchers already living on that land.

This leads to the Three Mesquitteers losing their ranch. This in turn leads them to assume masked identities, becoming "Los Capaqueroes," masked vigilantes who rob from the villains' tax collectors and return the money to the homesteaders.

I really enjoy the story, especially the Zorro and Robin Hood influences that are so effectively used. There's also a number of fun twists and turns in the plot, such as when the boys take a job with the bad guys and are tasked to catch themselves.

Another plot twist involves a cameo by President James Garfield--not a president you see portrayed very often in films. (Without researching it at all, I'm going to guess that Lincoln followed by FDR are the most commonly seen Chief Execs we see in the movies.) Garfield's assassination, by the way, proves to be an important plot point.

It's also just plain fun to see John Wayne in what it essentially a superhero costume. Tom Tyler (who himself would be playing superheroes such as Captain Marvel and the Phantom) is an evil henchman, while future Frankenstein's monster Glenn Strange has a small role at the beginning.

The Night Riders is in the public domain, so here it is in its entirety:

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