Thursday, November 29, 2007
Wednesday, November 28, 2007
Not many people remember Boston Blackie today. That's a pity, because he was a fun character who headlined some really entertaining movies. He was played by actor Chester Morris (that's him on the right) in 14 films during '40s as a man who really enjoyed life and kept his head in dangerous situations.
Like the Lone Wolf, Blackie was a reformed thief who would inevitably end up having to catch a murderer in order to clear himself or help a friend.
Obviously, the format for the Blackie films was, in general, the same as the Lone Wolf films. The Blackie movies, though, are a little better. Though Warren Williams did a good job as the Lone Wolf, Morris is a model of affability as Boston Blackie. He's just plain fun to spend time with.
It's interesting to note that we're never told just how either the Lone Wolf or Boston Blackie can afford their rich life styles without holding down a job. Are they living off the loot from their neferious pasts--despite having otherwise gone straight? I suppose we're not meant to ask.
I'm going to sound like a broken record on one point as I continue to post about the B-movies from this era. The Boston Blackie movies were very well-constructed stories that move along quickly without any extraneous subplots. You didn't have to worry about Blackie having any dark secrets or unresolved angst. He just cracks wise and outsmarts crooks. It's important that his character be likable, but at the same time, he exists primarily to serve the plot. It all makes for a very satisfying movie series.
Monday, November 26, 2007
Saturday, November 24, 2007
Of course, he's best known for the part that gave him fame--Frankenstein's Monster. He played the Monster in three films, Frankenstein (1931), Bride of Frankenstein (1935), and Son of Frankenstein (1939). He was excellent all three times, making us sympathize with the Monster while still bringing across a sense of real menance.
But Karloff was great in all his films. I think his best performance is in a 1946 film titled Bedlam, in which he played the corrupt master of an 18th Century London insane asylum. He's the best part of one of the best movies ever--a story that manages to be spooky and intelligent at the same time. Like all the best horror movies of the 1930s and 1940s, it reminds us that it's possible to tell a scary story without grossing us out.
Karloff was also wonderful on dramatic radio. He guest-starred many times on the horror show The Inner Sanctum, where he was especially good in the episodes titled "Birdsong for a Murderer" and "The Wailing Wall." He was magnificent playing the villianous Uriah Heep in a Theater Guild on the Air adaptation of David Copperfield.
November 23 would also be the birthday of John Dehner. He's one of those character actors who would pop up in a zillion different TV shows and movies during the '50s & '60s, one of those guys you always recognize but can never name, but he really shined on old-time radio.
He was in the radio version of Gunsmoke nearly every week, always playing a different role. He might be anything from a uneducated mountain man to a rich cattle baron, but he would always be believable.
He played the lead in two old-time radio shows. He was Paladin in the radio version of Have Gun, Will Travel (which was a rare case of a show starting on television, then going to radio: it was usually the other way around), but his best show was Frontier Gentleman. In this, he played a reporter from the London Times who traveled the American West in the 1880s, looking for human interest stories. It was a classy, intelligent show with good scripts and good production values.
Karloff and Dehner. Two completely different actors who both contributed much of what is worthwhile to our popular culture. Karloff has been gone for four decades now and Dehner passed on 15 years ago, but the great stories they were a part of are still here for us to enjoy. Happy birthday to them both.
Wednesday, November 21, 2007
So did Perry Mason. I've read a number of Earl Stanley Gardner's original Mason novels, but these had been those published in the '40s and '50s. These all followed the standard Perry Mason formula that we're all familar with--his client is accused of murder, he and Paul Drake investigate, then there's a really fun courtroom scene at the climax in which the real killer is revealed.
But it wasn't always this way. I had always known that Gardner's early Mason novels were written with a more hard-boiled sensibility, but now I've confirmed that first hand. I just read "The Case of the Velvet Claws" (1933), the very first Mason novel.
Here, Mason never gets to court (in fact, he says at one point that his cases rarely get that far). Instead, the book follows a very tough-guy Mason as he deals with a client accused of murder. He beats up a reporter. He carries a gun. He bribes a cop to trace a phone number. He blackmails the head of a blackmail ring. He does do some lawyer stuff, but for the most part, he could have easily been written as another hard-boiled P.I. without drastically changing the plot.
In other words, he's nothing like the man he would one day become. In the 1930s, Gardner created dozens of characters for the pulp magazines. He was always a good writer and his early stuff is still fun to read. With Perry Mason, he struck literary gold. But this happened only after he evolved the character from just another hard-boiled guy into the more sedate but still brilliant lawyer he eventually became.
As for the radio show--that was, believe it or not, more of a soap opera than a mystery show. It was only when Perry Mason came to television that he was properly treated. And don't think it isn't painful for an old-time radio buff such as myself to have to admit that television actually did a better job than radio. But, in this one isolated case, it's true.
Sunday, November 18, 2007
While walking along Main Street, stopping at the public library, the comic book shop and an unplanned visit to the ice cream shop for a vanilla milk shake, I listened to an episode of "Academy Award," a show that used to do half-hour dramatizations of movies. This particular episode did "Foreign Correspondent," with Joseph Cotton playing the role that Joel McCrea handled in the original Hitchcock film. With only 30 minutes to work with, it was very much a "short story" version, with a very different ending to the story. But taken for what it was (a quicker and different version of the same basic plot) it was very well-done.
I also listened to an episode of "Gunsmoke." On radio, Marshall Matt Dillon was superbly played by with William Conrad and the scripts were literate, intelligent Westerns. This particular episode involved a beautiful girl working at the Long Branch saloon. It turns out that she enjoyed subtly egging men on until two or more of them were fighting over her.
Anyways, in the relatively short time I spent downtown, I also figuratively traveled to Holland and England (and back in time nearly 7 decades) while battling an Axis spy ring. I then jumped back another 7 decades and back across the Atlantic to Dodge City, where I stood with Matt Dillon has he dealt with yet another life-and-death situation.
By golly, you can't do that with television and movies--at least not without bumping into things while you walk.
Friday, November 16, 2007
Science fiction was well-represented as well, especially by Dimension X and later by X Minus One.
Dimension X ran from 1950 to 1951, adapting stories from Astounding Science Fiction magazine. In 1956, the same producers and writers revived the show as X Minus One, still doing adaptations of stories by some of the best science fiction authors active at that time. One of the things that made these shows so good was that they never wrote down to their audience. If the show dealt with a difficult concept, it still expected the listeners to be bright enough to follow along. Also, they adapted the stories very faithfully, usually making only those changes necessary to make it work dramatically on radio. They did a lot of Ray Bradbury stories, but also did Asimov, Heinlein, Jack Vance and others.
Thursday, November 15, 2007
Bogie’s character is “Gloves” Donahue, who concentrates on his own business regardless of what else might be going on in the world. The war might be raging in Europe and the Pacific, but Gloves makes it clear that he’s not interested in anything military—that’s “Washington’s racket.” Gloves is more concerned about the odds on that day’s Yankees game.
New York gangsters vs. Nazi spies. Now that’s cool.
It’s a fun, fast-moving story, adroitly balancing action, suspense and humor. There’s several nifty and well-choreographed fist fights, a secret headquarters, a beautiful girl with uncertain loyalties and a never-ending supply of one-liners.
This movie is overflowing with talented character actors. William Demarest, Phil Silvers and Jackie Gleason are members of Gloves’ gang and provide a lot of the humor. Barton MacLane, who pretty much made a career in the ‘30s and ‘40s getting shot or beaten up by Bogie in many different movies, is the leader of a rival gambling ring. Conrad Veidt and Peter Lorre are excellent and very threatening as the Nazi villains. (It’s interesting to note that both these men fled Germany in real life to escape the Nazis.)
As with many movies made during the war, the patriotism is laid on thick. But good acting and a good story keeps it from being unpleasantly corny and even reminds us of some of the basic truths of healthy and thoughtful patriotism—there are some things worth fighting for.
I’m not going to argue the movie is philosophically important, though. Watching it now, two generations after it was made, we mostly just enjoy the sheer sense of fun All Through the Night so expertly generates from beginning to end.
Wednesday, November 14, 2007
In 1947, artist/writer Carl Barks created Uncle Scrooge McDuck in story called "Christmas on Bear Mountain." The wealthy but incredibly stingy Uncle Scrooge served as the plot device to set up an adventure for Donald Duck along with Huey, Dewey and Louie. But Scrooge struck a chord with readers. Barks took the character and ran with it, creating some of the most imaginative and entertaining comic stories from the late Forties and throughout the Fifties.
It took a few tries to refine Scrooge's character. An early story, "The Magic Glass," told us that Scrooge's wealth comes from owning a magic hourglass. Though this is a wonderful story (involving an adventure in the Sahara Desert to retrieve the hourglass after it is stolen), Barks soon set this idea aside. Scrooge, it eventually developed, had earned every single penny now sitting in his impregnable Money Bin through hard work. He'd been "tougher than the toughies and smarter than the smarties." And though now getting on in years, he was still tough and smart.
In story after story, he protected his wealth from thieves such as the Beagle Boys or took Donald and the nephews on wild adventures in search of hdden treasures.
"Back to the Klondike" (Four Color Comics #456, 1953) is one of the best Scrooge stories, highlighting all the important aspects of Scrooge's personality withn the context of yet another entertaining adventure.
As the story opens, Scrooge is having serious memory problems, even forgetting who Donald is. A doctor prescribes memory pills, which work so well that Scrooge remembers a cache of gold he'd buried in the Klondike years ago when he first struck it rich as a prospector. So Scrooge, Donald and the nephews are off to the Klondike to recover the gold. Over the course of the story, we meet Glittering Goldie, a former saloon owner with whom Scrooge developed a love/hate relationship during the gold-rush days. There's a series of gags based on Scrooge's refusal to take his memory pills (hey, they cost a whole ten cents each---they're too valuable to swallow) and a set of mini-adventures involving a grizzly bear and a swarm of mosquitoes.
We get a flashback to Scrooge's days as a young prospector (and a nifty sequence in which we get to see him whip a dozen or so guys in a barfight). We get examples of Scrooge's greed and penny-pinching, but also an ending that shows he has a heart of gold hidden under his tough exterior. What's really good about this story (and about the bulk of Barks' work on Scrooge and Donald Duck) is the bizarre thematic balance struck by these stories. On the one hand, these are "funny animal" stories, with talking ducks and dogs involving one sight gag after another.
On the other hand, Barks' art was, well, realistic and the sense of real adventure he maintained was always palpable. The stories are both funny and exciting. The characterizations are both comedic and (on occassion) genuinely emotional. "Back to the Klondike," recently reprinted in a trade paperback and so easily available, is one of the best examples of this. In an industry that has given us the work of so many talented artists and writers, Carl Barks holds a comfortable spot amongst the best of the best. He, like Scrooge, was tougher than the toughies and smarter than the smarties.
SIDENOTE: The trade paperback "The Life and Times of Uncle Scrooge," by Dan Rosa, is a series of 12 issues dealing with key moments in Scrooge's life, from when he earned his first dime as a shoe shine boy in Scotland to his first adventure side-by-side with Donald and the boys. Rosa took hints dropped by Barks in various orginal Scrooge stories to fill out the old skinflint's biography. Rosa is a worthy successor to Barks, with the same talent for balancing humor and adventure. This is one of the best trades ever and should be considered required reading.
The title says it all, though. It's an exploration of how new technologies (and changes in society that came from technological advances--such as an increase in literacy) created new ways for stories to be told. I concentrate on media that have since been largely supplanted by television and other even later tech advances: old-time radio, adventure comic strips and pulp magazines.
It's not a heavily academic work, though. I wrote it in a conversational and often (hopefully) humorous style. People seem to have enjoyed reading it.
If your interested in seeing what my book looks like (and seeing a few excerpts from the nifty, keen reviews the book garnered), here's a link to the publisher's web site:
It's a tad on the expensive side, but a lot of libraries around the country have it. If your library doesn't have it, request that they do. It's the cheapest way to get your hands on it. Of course, if you want to buy it and line my pockets with another dollar or two, feel free to do so.