Thursday, February 28, 2008

Dinosaur Movies: Part 5

Dinosaurus (1960) presents us with yet another instance of dinosaurs being awakened from suspended animation, this time by a freak bolt of lightning. It's amazing how often that sort of thing happens.

This time, the setting is a small Caribbean island. The dinosaurs are a brontosaurus and a tyrannosaurus. There's a also a caveman who wakes up along with them, who encounters some hilarious culture shock when he tries to deal with things like mirrors and flush toilets.

The stop motion isn't anywhere near Ray Harryhausen-quality, but it still has the charm that seems to be an inherent part of the art form. The best scene is at the climax, in which the T-Rex does battle with a large contruction crane at the edge of a cliff.

But the human characters are also handled well. Most notably, the little kid who befriends the caveman and the bronto is likeable. All too often, "cute" kids in movies come across as annoying, but little Julio does okay for himself.

Also, the villain is appropriately vile and the hero acts intelligently. But it's the dinosaurs that make or break such movies. And any movie where you get to see a dinosaur fight some construction equipment is always worth your time.

Monday, February 25, 2008

Tarzan on the radio

Tarzan of the Apes came to radio three times during that medium’s Golden Age. He appeared first in 1932 as a daily serial, broadcast three times a week in 15-minute episodes.

He returned to radio again in 1934 & 1936, for two separate 39-part stories.

The ape man’s last venture into radio was in the early 1950’s with a weekly half-hour show.

All three incarnations told entertaining stories, but my personal favorites are the 1934/36 serials. Both stories, Tarzan and the Diamonds of Ashur and Tarzan and the Fires of Tohr, are great adventures.

The story for the Diamonds of Ashur, which Burroughs reused for his 1938 novel Tarzan and the Forbidden City, finds Tarzan and his friend Paul d’Arnot escorting an expedition looking for a missing explorer. The explorer is said to have found the lost city of Ashur, which is reputed to be the location of the priceless Father of Diamonds. A rival expedition, interested only in the diamond, is also looking for Ashur.

This made for a large cast of supporting characters, something that radio drama usually shied away from to avoid confusing the audience. But both this serial and its 1936 follow-up, Tarzan and the Fires of Tohr, use a neat trick that allows us to keep track of everyone. The various characters represented a polyglot of nationalities and each had a strong accent. The individual French, German, Swedish, Chinese, and Irish accents identified each character for us, so we never lose track of who is who.

Multiple characters allow the serials to frequently use the technique of frequently shifting from one character’s point-of-view to another to generate suspense. The occasional deaths of a few of the supporting characters, including sympathetic ones, also help in this regard.

Tarzan, by the way, is played by Carlton KeDell, who does a fine job of giving us a sense that Tarzan is highly intelligent, with a strong, fearless personality.

Both serials are extremely well-plotted and represent Tarzan’s finest hour on radio. Burroughs’s input into the productions kept Tarzan faithful to his print counterpart and presented us with interesting and internally consistent lost cities. The only weak point is an unavoidable one for a radio series: the ruling casts of both Ashur and Tohr all just happen to speak English. But justifications (albeit slim ones) for this are provided in the stories, so this is easy to forgive.

A third-person narrator is used to describe much of the action, including Tarzan’s hand-to-hand fights with everything from lions to crocodiles to a dinosaur. The overall plots grow quite complex, with the action sequences interwoven with political intrigue, human sacrifice, treachery and characters with hidden motives. These stories are carried coherently through thirty-nine episodes each and come to satisfying conclusions. They are models of precise storytelling and remain a joy to hear today.

Monday, February 18, 2008

Dinosaur Movies: Part 4

There's a great story behind The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms (1953). Ray Harryhausen was doing the special effects. When science fiction writer Ray Bradbury (a friend of Harryhausen) was visiting the set one day, someone asked him if he could take a look at the script and rewrite it.

Bradbury mentioned that the script seemed to be a lot like a story he'd written for the "Saturday Evening Post" a few years earlier. The next day, he recieved a telegram from Warner Brothers, asking to buy the rights to the story. Apparently, sometime during production, the crew had lost track of where they'd gotten the original story idea from.

The finished movie really doesn't resemble Bradbury's story that closely. The original story is about a dinosaur--probably the last of his kind-- who mistakes a light house fog horn for a mating call.

The movie does include an atmospheric scene in which the dinosaur smashes a lighthouse, but mostly it follows the standard monster movie conceits of the 1950s. The dinosaur is frozen in the artic ice. A nuclear explosion thaws it out. It eventually makes its way to New York City, where it goes on a rampage before the puny humans figure out how to kill it.

In terms of plot and characters, there's nothing original here. (It may, though, be the first movie that uses a nuclear blast to revive/mutate a monster. Godzilla wouldn't put in his first appearance for another three years.)

In terms of special effects, it's still fun to watch. Ray Harryhausen is a true artist, able to give life and personality to the creatures he brought to the screen. The Rhedasaurus (a fictional species created for the movie) is fun to watch in every scene in which it appears. Its death scene at the movie's climax is particularly good.

The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms isn't the best dinosaur movie ever made. It's not the best Harryhausen film by far either. But it's a fun way to spend 80 minutes.

Really cool comic book cover

Gil Kane was a wonderful artist. This cover--from the early 1970s--is just plain great. I love the composition and the sense of danger and action it generates.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Dinosaur Movies: Part 3

When King Kong proved to be a huge hit for RKO Studios, the executives in charge quite naturally wanted a sequel as soon as possible. This was rushed through production and arrived in theaters before the end of 1933.

The character of Carl Denhem, running from countless lawsuits brought against him after Kong's rampage through the Big Apple, runs off to the South Pacific. Not surprisingly, circumstances soon bring him back to Skull Island.

Once there, he meets Kong Jr., a small (well, about 12 feet tall) albino version of his dad. He's not as grumpy as his dad, either. When a guilt-ridden Denham helps save little Kong from a pit of quicksand, the ape returns the favor by saving Denham and his friends from several different monsters.


Son of Kong doesn't have any thing close to the dramatic power of King Kong, but it's a fun film all the same. It's a little too slow in getting started and its increased emphasis on humor sometimes falls flat. Also, the ending is somewhat contrived, invovling the most conveniently timed earthquake ever. But little Kong's fights against a small sauropod and a cave bear are both imaginatively choreographed. Special effects wizard Willis O'Brien wasn't happy with the movie, but the quality of his work is still enormously high.

Making a sequel to a great film is always a dangerous proposition--the filmmakers have so much to live up to. If we compare Son of Kong with the King Kong in terms of overall quality, then the later film doesn't stand up at all.

But if we look at it for what it is--a good B-movie with some nifty stop-motion fight scenes--then it holds up perfectly well. It has the same sense of pure, simple fun infused through it as did the B-movie detective films of the same decade.

Tuesday, February 5, 2008

Comics, Radio and the Prelude to War, Part 3

Like Warner Brothers, Timely Comics (the company that would eventually become Marvel Comics), made no concessions to isolationists at all. As far as they were concerned, the Nazis had to be fought and stopped--the sooner the better.

Captain America is the most overt example of this, as he and his teenage sidekick Bucky battled Nazi spies right from the get-go. (Cap's first issue was cover-dated March 1941, months before we entered the war.)

But other Timely characters did their share for freedom as well. The Sub-Mariner joined the fray when a fleet of German U-Boats attacked the undersea kingdom of Atlantis in Sub-Mariner #1. Namor, who until then had been an anti-hero, takes charge of the defense when his Emperor is apparently killed in the initial blitzkreig.

What follows is a well-told war story that covers the tactics Namor and his people use against the invaders. Small submersibles fight a desperate underwater dog fight with the U-Boats. When the German craft are driven to the surface, cannon mounted atop icebergs and inside artifical whales open fire on them. It's all very well crafted. Writer/artist Bill Everett presents the action effectively and comes up with some nifty designs for the both the German super U-Boats and the Atlantian craft. We understand the tactical situation perfectly as the battle progresses.

It's also interesting that Everett presents the Atlantians as having suffered huge casualties, including innocent civilians. He's giving us a fantasy version of warfare, of course, but he's not letting us forget the real-life cost of battle.

In the climax, a single U-Boat tries to escape. Namor pursues it alone. He fights hand-to-hand with some Germans in diving suits, damages the U-Boat severely and then finishes it off by pushing down below its crush depth. It was primarily a well-told science fiction/war story. But it was also one of many strong comments from a number of comic book artists and writers that there is indeed evil in the world and that evil must be confronted.

Other pre-war Timely comics also hammered at this theme. Namor even called a truce with his arch-enemy--the Human Torch--so that the two of them could team up to stop a German/Japanese invasion of Alaska (with the enemy using a tunnel to sneak their troops past the border.)

These issues aren't always as clear-cut as they were in 1941--today, people of good conscience argue both for and against our presence in Iraq. But the Timely World War II stories (with a little help from Superman, Milt Caniff, and Harry Warner) remind us that sometimes we have no choice but to fight for our freedom. As George Orwell once said: "We are free because rough men stand ready in the night to do violence on our behalf."
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