Friday, February 12, 2016

Friday's Favorite OTR

Shorty Bell: "Shorty Scoops Photographer" 6/26/48

Shorty manages to "acquire" some pictures of a robbery-in-progress taken by a rookie girl photographer working for a rival newspaper. All's fair in love, war and the news business, but Shorty still feels pretty bad when the girl is fired.

Click HERE to listen or download.

Thursday, February 11, 2016

Femme Fatales in Westerns, Part 1

When we think of Femme Fatales, we probably automatically think of Film Noir or perhaps spy stories. That's where those conniving females seem to congregate in vast numbers.

But the character template is too useful to be confined to one genre. It's not that uncommon to find a beautiful woman in the Old West who is twisting some poor sap around her finger as she plans to double-cross him and run off with a stolen fortune. That's not really too surprising--Westerns are the father of the Hard-Boiled Detective story, with Film Noir being the Hard-Boiled story's Evil Twin.

Duel at Silver Creek, a 1952 Western directed by Don Siegel, gives us one example of this. The story involves an organized gang of claim jumpers. They force small mine owners to sign over their claims. The owners are then murdered, so no one can question the sale later on. But killing the father of Luke Cromwell (better known as the Silver Kid) is not part of a wise long-term plan. The Silver Kid (like the actor playing him--Audie Murphy), knows a thing or two about gun play.

The interesting thing about this movie, though, is that Murphy, despite having top billing, is not the primary protagonist. This honor goes to Stephen McNally, who plays Sheriff Lightning Tyrone, the guy tasked with bringing in the claim jumpers. The Silver Kid ends up working as his deputy, though circumstances later causes Lightning to distrust and fire the Kid. (The movie, by the way, does overdo it a little in giving nearly every character a "Western" nickname.)

That distrust is a result of the machinations of Opal Lacey, a beautiful woman with whom Lightning is falling in love. She seems to return the feelings. Or at least, she seems to do so when she's not busy strangling a wounded outlaw to keep him from talking.

Opal is really the gal of Ron Lacey, a local businessman who is secretly running the outlaw gang. She claims to be Ron's sister, but that's just part of her cover as she manipulates Lightning and tries to subtly foil his efforts to catch the gang. And if Opal finds out that a recent wound prevents Lightning from pulling the trigger after drawing his gun, then the sheriff might be in real trouble.

Duel at Silver Creek is worth watching. The story is economically told and well-directed, with the short but exciting gun battle between the outlaws and a posse at the film's climax really standing out. Both McNally and Murphy give strong performances and Faith Domergue gives real strength to Opal. The other female lead is Susan Cabot, who plays the tomboyish "Dusty" and, at one point, manages to put some buckshot in the buttocks of a fleeing outlaw. Lee Marvin is fun to watch in a small role, while Gerald Mohr takes time off from his busy schedule as a radio actor to do an effective turn as the gang leader.

Eugene Iglesias deserves special mention as Johnny Sombrero, one of the outlaws. Johnny is an arrogant killer--the type of villain you are supposed to immediately dislike. Iglesias pulls off this vibe perfectly. Pretty much from the moment you first see Johnny Sombrero, you hate him. The actor carries himself in just the right way to highlight all of the character's negative traits in both expression and body language. The instant he walks on screen, you find yourself screaming "Shoot him in the face! Shoot him in the face!"

I THINK remember reading somewhere that Don Siegel disliked the script for this movie and treated it as a parody. I haven't been able to track that down anywhere, so it's very possible my memory is simply wrong. If I really did once read this, it might explain the over-reliance the movie has on using stereotypical nicknames for so many characters. But other than that, I don't see any real parody. It is, in many ways, a pretty standard Western, made worthwhile by a good script, good direction and a good cast. It doesn't seem to be making fun of itself at all and it can be enjoyed at face value.

Within the next few weeks, we'll be returning to the Old West one more time to watch the Lone Ranger also tangle with a beautiful Femme Fatale. Those women are everywhere!

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Never Fly Without Your Wingman

Last week, we spent some time with comic book hero Buz Sawyer, who flew two- or three-man bombers for the Navy during World War II. Terry Lee (title character of Milt Caniff's brilliant strip Terry and the Pirates), in the meantime, was training to fly single-seat P-40s for the Army.

But that doesn't mean Terry would ever fly into combat alone. Or if he did--he'd get himself a stern talking-to afterwards.

Terry seems determined to get himself in trouble during a story arc that stretched over the winter months of 1943/44. First, when a transport plane full of important Chinese officials lands at his base, he's a little too free with blurting out this news in a public setting.

When the plane takes off, it's ambushed and shot down by the Japanese. On board at the time aren't just the officials, but the comic strip's current Eye Candy--USO performer Grett Murmer.

By the way, it's a little unfair to call Grett (or Milt Caniff's other female characters) Eye Candy. Not completely unfair, mind you. Like many other comic strip artists of the time, Caniff knew it was the father of the house that bought the newspapers, so he made sure that at least one pretty girl was present in nearly every story arc. But his female characters all had strong, individual personalities as well.

Back to the story--the enemy knew about the plane, but it's not Terry who is responsible for the security breach. A visiting Free French pilot named Captain Midi isn't really Captain Midi. In fact, he's not even a HE.

Midi is really a female criminal named Sanjak (whom Terry had encountered in an adventure from the late 1930s). She's currently working for the Japanese, but it takes awhile before Terry eventually picks up on a clue that gives Sanjak away.

In the meantime, a radio message is received from the downed plane. Terry's C.O.--Flip Corkin--quickly puts together a rescue mission. What follows is a brilliantly executed action sequence, with Terry and several other soldiers parachuting down to the plane to help hold off approaching Japanese troops until another transport plane can land and pick everyone up.

The rescue mission is a success, but a bombing mission flies into another trap and circumstantial evidence points to Grett Murmer as the Japanese spy. When Terry finds firm evidence pointing to Midi/Sanjak, the spy steals a plan and makes a break for it. On his own initiative, Terry flies another plane in pursuit. In another great action scene, Sanjak is nearly shot down by the Japanese, but manages to land on one of their air strips. Caniff often allowed his villains to escape so that he would have the option of bringing them back again--though I'm pretty sure never got around to using Sanjak again before he left the strip at the end of 1946.

All this means Terry is alone and surrounded by enemy planes. Only the timely arrival of Flip Corkin and a squadron of P-40s save Terry's sorry butt.

Terry learns himself a lesson about flying into combat without your wingman. And Colonel Corkin, just to make sure Terry has really learned, gives him a rather lecture on the subject.

Milt Caniff has been called the Rembrandt of the Comic Strip and, gee whiz, he earned that title. His figure work and compositional skills are impeccable; his storytelling skill and his synergy of writing and art was breathtakingly good; and his characters are so real it's sometimes surprising when you remember that they are fictional. This story arc is a well-constructed and exciting tale that showcases all these strengths. 

I'm writing this particular post in December and saw the new Star Wars movie last night. This will influence my choice of comic books to examine next week--we'll visit the original Marvel Star Wars series and return to Tatoonie with Luke Skywalker.

Monday, February 8, 2016

Friday, February 5, 2016

Friday's Favorite OTR

Abbott and Costello: "Making a Movie with the Andrew Sisters" 4/26/45

The boy are being sued by the Andrew Sisters, so agree to appear in a movie with them as part of a settlement.

Click HERE to listen or download.

Thursday, February 4, 2016

Death Rides the Ceiling.

We've visited with master spy and ace pilot G-8 before. Robert J. Hogan, who wrote all 110 G-8 novels, could always be depended upon to give us bizarre but internally consistent plots peppered with great action set pieces. Frederick Blakeslee provided wonderful covers, with this one (November 1936) being particularly action-packed.

The story that goes with it is equally action-packed, even though it starts with both the hero and the villain on vacation. German mad scientist Herr Doctor Krueger is recovering from the near-fatal injuries inflicted upon him by G-8 pretty much every time the two butt heads. When he learns that
G-8 is taking a few days off on the Riviera, the doctor decides to combine recuperation with a little spying and arranges to be smuggled into the Riviera himself.

I'm not sure this is the world's most brilliant plan, but the book allows the Germans to be extremely clever opponents to the Allies throughout most of the novel, so I'm feeling forgiving about this. Anyway, the end results of these shenanigans is that both G-8 and Krueger learn that some sort of powerful magnetic force is being used in the German town of Neurthrum--something that can literally pull planes out of the air. Krueger orders a strafing attack on G-8's hotel, but the spy survives and soon manages to capture the German.

So far, the novel is off to a swift and entertaining start. But it gets better. G-8, disguising himself as an old woman, enters Neurthrum and gets a job scrubbing floors in the town hall, which seems to be the epicenter of the magnetism. He soon makes progress in spying (and in cleaning--he's all over that place with his mop and bucket). He pretty much figures out that the head janitor is behind the magnetism.

There is a plot thread left dangling here. Does the janitor intend to use his invention to help the Germans or does he have his own agenda? He does use his device to help G-8 escape a firing squad later on and there's a scene that implies he's later tortured by Krueger to give up that device. Is he pro-Ally? Neutral? Just plain nuts, as most scientists in G-8's universe seem to be? This is never resolved.

It's actually an indication of how much fun this novel is that a significant plot thread left blowing in the wind doesn't spoil the story at all.

German agents in Paris pull off a complex but really very clever plan to rescue Krueger from his prison cell. This puts G-8 at risk, because Krueger knows the spy has gone to Neurthrum. This results in an edge-of-your-seat escape sequence, in which G-8 (still in his old woman disguise) has to fight past a guard, steal a car, survive being strafed by a Fokker, crash his car, steal another car and then steal a plane to get away--taking a bullet to his shoulder for his troubles and then nearly getting shot down by his own men. This is Hogan at his best, presenting the entire sequence in clear, breathless prose.

Another great sequence comes later when one of the Battle Aces, Bull Martin, flies a solo mission to
try to blow up Neuthrum's town hall, only to be caught in the magnetic force.

As the novel approaches its climax, we learn that Krueger already had a plan in the works to lure thousands of Allied troops into a trap. Now the super-magnets are used to support this effort. Mounted in the wings of Fokkers, they deflect any bullets fired at the planes. Invincible fighter planes give the Germans complete air superiority.

G-8 has to improvise plans to take out these Fokkers and save the American army. But another twist comes when he finds he's been fed false information by Krueger, causing his initial plan to fail miserably. Now he literally has just minutes to improvise yet another plan before countless Allied soldiers are slaughtered.

This is great stuff. G-8's escape and Bull's doomed mission are the highlights, but the entire story moves with lightning speed and is enormously fun from start to finish. Another satisfying element to the story is G-8's cover story when he's posing as an old woman--"she" explains that all four of her sons have died in combat and now she just wants to serve the Fatherland in any way she can. G-8 literally makes several German soldiers fall all over themselves to get "her" a job at the town hall.

I also really do appreciate that the bad guys are smart--as demonstrated both by their plan to spring Krueger from the slammer and Krueger's later successful effort to feed G-8 bad information.

This is one of my favorite G-8 stories, containing all the elements that make G-8 one of the great pulp heroes.

Wednesday, February 3, 2016

Two Men versus One Submarine

A few years ago, I wrote a post comparing Buz Sawyer and Terry Lee--two comic strip characters who both flew combat aircraft during World War II. That comparison was a general one that didn't examine any specific story arcs in detail. It's taken me awhile to get back to them, but I think we'll spend this week flying with Buz on one of his more intense missions, then drop in on Terry next week.

Buz Sawyer was written and drawn by Roy Crane, who had left his classic Wash Tubbs and Captain Easy strip in 1943 for financial and ownership reasons.

Wash Tubbs had been a joyously entertaining adventure strip with no real pretense at realism. With Buz Sawyer, Crane was more down-to-earth, toning down the cartoony aspects of his art and giving us relatively realistic war stories that dealt with themes of patriotism, courage and responsibilty.

Early on, Buz flew Dauntless dive bombers off a carrier in the Pacific, with his best buddy Roscoe Sweeny serving as his radioman/gunner. But by 1945, Buz had spent some time back in the States training in Avenger torpedo bombers. This presented Crane with a challenge in terms of how he handled his characters. He'd created a fun and believable dynamic with Buz and Roscoe, but the Avenger needed three crewmen. Crane had to add a new character into the mix. This is "Kissable" Jones, an eager young rookie who was quickly used for some comic relief moments.

A six-week story arc starting in late June 1945 had Buz and his crew flying anti-submarine patrols. They find and bomb a sub, but take an anti-aircraft hit. Buz is forced to belly flop in the Pacific. He and Roscoe get into the plane's life raft, but Jones is missing. Did he drown? Did he bail out on his own?

Determined to find his missing crewman, Buz takes a dangerous chance in showing lights and shouting. This backfires on him, though. He and Roscoe are spotted by a Japanese sub and taken prisoner.

So that's how Crane dealt with his new character--by shoving him off onto the side lines as quickly as possible so that Buz and Roscoe could share the lime light. It would turn out that Jones did bail out on his own and was rescued by an American ship. The war ended soon after that and Buz returns to civilian life (becoming a trouble-shooter for an oil company), so Crane never had to worry about establishing a new three-way character dynamic on a regular basis.

That's not a criticism, by the way. Crane knew his characters and if shoving poor "Kissy" Jones out of the picture was the best way to tell good stories, then we can trust Crane to know this.

Anyway, the sub commander wants to know where the American fleet is. Despite threats of torture and a casual comment that Roscoe will simply be killed, Buz won't talk. The sub, though, runs across the fleet on its own. The commander orders everyone to battle stations, leaving Buz and Roscoe alone with a single guard. This is not a good idea.

Buz and Roscoe are quickly free, with a rifle, a bayonet and a knife to share between them. But what can they do against the sub's crew? They're outnumbered and outgunned.

But Crane has set up the situation to give Buz a plausible opportunity for checking this one off in the Win column. Remember that the sub is at battle stations, with the crew scattered in different compartments behind water-tight doors. Crane gives us a cutaway panel to make sure we understand the situation--if the two Americans can simply capture the control room, they can hold it against the crew and maybe figure out how to bring the sub to the surface.

The fight that follows is short, sharp and beautifully choreographed. Buz and Roscoe take out the crew in the control room quickly and brutally. While Roscoe plays with the various wheels and eventually stumbles across the ballast control, Buz uses the rifle to plug any of the enemy unwise enough to try to enter the room.

The sub comes to the surface and promptly gets rammed by an American destroyer. Buz and Roscoe get out into the water and are soon rescued.

It's a fun, expertly told story that is typical of Crane's genuis. Roy Crane pretty much invented the adventure comic strip with Wash Tubbs, influencing a lot of other artists ranging from Gil Kane to Charles Shultz. Between his two strips, Crane spent a half-century spinning absolutely wonderful yarns.

But Crane wasn't the only brilliant comic strip artist to recount the adventures of a combat pilot during the war. Next week, we'll see what Terry Lee is doing over in the Chinese-Burma-India Theater of Operations.

Monday, February 1, 2016

Cover Cavalcade

Wonderful cover by Morris Gollub. Composition, figure work and lighting all mesh perfectly.

Saturday, January 30, 2016

Friday, January 29, 2016

Friday's Favorite OTR

Quiet Please: "I Always Marry Juliet" 4/5/48

A pompous Shakespearean actor known for playing Romeo marries three different "Juliets," all of whom have a tendency to die when they become inconvenient.

Click HERE to listen or download.

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