Monday, June 30, 2008

Bob Kanigher's Gallery of War

The World War II-themed comics published by DC during the 1950s through the 1980s usually featured regular characters in their cover stories. There was Sgt. Rock, the Losers, The Haunted Tank, The Unknown Soldier and several others.

But these comics most often had a back-up story--a 6- or 8-page war story (usually, but not always, involving World War II) that featured one-shot characters.

One of the back-up features was written by DC's main war story scribe--Bob Kanigher. Titled Gallery of War, it featured some of Kanigher's most powerful short stories.

For instance, Our Army at War #252 (December 1972) included a story titled "Young Wolves." Set late in the war amidst the rubble of Berlin, it involved a squad of 12-year-old soldiers. These were Hitler Youth recruited by the desperate German army to help defend the city against the invading Russian army. Fanatically loyal to their leader and convinced that they were going to be heroes, they march off to war without any idea at all what they are in for.

The story is filled with poignant moments, such as when the young protagonist realizes his friends have actually been killed. The story's tragic ending, which I will not spoil here, is an effective and powerful anti-war statement. Like many entries in the Gallery at War series, this story is one of Kanigher's best efforts.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

No post today--well, other than a post telling you there's no post.

My free time is currently taken up with proofing and indexing the final manuscript for Radio by the Book. I'm afraid that means I didn't have a chance to properly research and prepare the post I wanted to add today. So no post today.

I'll still do a Friday's Favorite OTR tomorrow and I'll get back on schedule again on Monday.

Monday, June 23, 2008

My new book

My next book, Radio by the Book: Adaptations of Literature and Fiction on the Airwaves, is now expected to be published within a month.

Provided, of course, I get the final proof-reading and indexing done promptly. Barring the end of civilization, nuclear war or a zombie holocaust, I should be able to keep things on schedule.

Please see the links along the right side of my blog for more information.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Happy Birthday, Bud Collyer

Yesterday would have been Clayton "Bud" Collyer's 100th birthday.
Collyer was the first actor to give voice to Superman. He played the Man of Steel on radio through most of the 1940s, using a pleasant tenor voice for Clark Kent, then shifting to a base for Superman. His spot-on characterization was one of the strengths of a classic old-time radio show.

He also gave voice to Superman in the classic Fleischer studio cartoon made in the 1940s. (He returned in the 1960s to play Superman in the not-so-classic Filmation cartoons.)

For your viewing pleasure, here's one of the best of the Fleischer cartoons:

The Mechanical Monsters

Monday, June 16, 2008

Poverty Row Theater

Back in the 1930s & 1940s, studios like Monogram and Republic Pictures were the “Poverty Row” of the movie business. They were strictly low-budget operations, churning out inexpensive films at a rapid pace—movies that often ran only an hour or so and could be conveniently packaged as half of a double feature.

A lot of the Poverty Row films are still a lot of fun to watch today. Without well-known stars or elaborate sets, these films depended on telling a story as quickly and as entertainingly as possible. Often, this resulted in fast-moving but well-constructed plots with likable characters.

I recently Netflixed a disc titled “The Poverty Row Collection,” which contains three Monogram efforts from the 1940s. So far, I’ve watched only one of the three, but it’s a great example of a skillfully made B-movie.

Kitty O’Day, Detective (1944) stars Jean Parker as a switchboard operator whose boss is murdered. When circumstances place her boyfriend under suspicion, she (along with her reluctant beau) begins her own investigation.

The film is played mainly for laughs—in fact, it drops into pure slapstick a few times. Kitty O’Day has a very forceful (and talkative) personality, endlessly annoying the police detectives as she drags her boyfriend along on tasks that often involve breaking and entering someone else’s hotel room or office. Jean Parker has enough comedic flair to make the material work, while Tim Ryan is very good as the long-suffering detective who constantly stumbles across her as he also works on the case.

The mystery itself is pretty basic, but the clues and the identity of the real killer all make reasonable sense at the end. It’s not a classic, but it wasn’t trying to be. The movie, in fact, makes no pretension about being any smarter than it is. It simply tries (and succeeds) in giving us 59 minutes worth of humor wrapped around a pretty good mystery. That’s certainly good enough for me.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

A nifty classic movie poster

I don't know which artist created this poster, but whoever it was certainly had solid composition and design skills. I don't think it's possible to look at the poster and then not want to see the movie.

Mr. Moto's Gamble was the odd-man-out entry in the Mr. Moto series. Originally meant to be a Charlie Chan movie (Charlie Chan at the Ringside), it was quickly re-written for the Mr. Moto character when the actor playing Chan died. Hence, it's more of a straight murder mystery than the other Moto films--with less overt gun- or knife-play and without any elements of international espionage.

It's still a lot of fun, though. It represents our last chance to see Keye Luke as Chan's enthusiastic Number One son, the other supporting characters are interesting, Peter Lorre is typically excellent as Moto, and the overall plot is a good one.

Today's post, though, is mostly just to show off an excellent example of the art of movie poster design. I'm not sure that modern poster design--though often quite good--has the same amount of personality to it as those from the 1930s & 1940s do. The poster for Mr. Moto's Gamble, aside from accomplishing its given task of making you want to see the movie, is just plain fun to look at.

Monday, June 9, 2008

Everybody loves Kung Fu Fighting

The Bruce Lee-inspired Martial Arts craze of the 1970s spilled over into comics as well as other aspects of pop culture. A lot of the characters created to feed this genre were good ones and Shang-Chi, Master of Kung Fu, was one of the best.

Shang-Chi combined the martial arts with a comic book-pulp fiction atmsophere by making him the son of Fu Manchu, the master criminal created by Sax Rohmer in a series of early 20th Century adventure novels. Shang had turned against his father and regularly foiled Fu’s schemes of world domination. Well-choreographed martial arts battles were combined with killer robots, death rays, genetically mutated monsters and full-scale battles between cadres of heavily armed troops. It all worked to create a unique ambiance--with a different feel to it than other martial arts-inspired works of popular fiction.

Of course, it wasn’t long before Shang-Chi crossed paths with other denizens of the Marvel Universe. In Giant-Size Spider Man #2, from about 1974, he met Spider Man.

This fast-paced story, written by comic book great Len Wein, begins with Fu Manchu tricking each hero into believing the other was planning on sabotaging a power station. This led to a really nifty running battle between the two throughout the otherwise deserted station. They soon figure out they’ve been tricked, of course, and team up to stop Fu from erecting a mind control devise atop the Empire State Building.

To a large degree, this story is very predictable. It follows the traditional comic book plot device of having two heroes fight each other before teaming up, followed by the equally traditional stopping-the-villain-in-the-nick-of-time bit. But the story works fine anyways. Traditional plot devices, in the hands of a good writer, can be a strength rather than a weakness and Len Wein tells the story well, endowing it with its fair share of excitement and suspense. He also understood both Shang-Chi’s and Spider Man’s personalities, keeping the pair nicely in character throughout the book.

All this is helped by Ross Andru’s art. Andru was one of the regularSpider Man artists during that time and he always did a bang-up job. This book in particular shows how well he could illustrate a fight scene, moving the action along in an exciting and logical manner. The scene in which Shang and Spidey both take a dive off the top of the Empire State Building in order to beat Fu Manchu to the bottom is particularly well staged.

No one can claim that this particular comic was earth-shaking or genre-changing in its influence. But it does a very good job of doing what a superhero comics is supposed to do. It gave us a fun adventure story, well-told both in terms of writing and art.

Thursday, June 5, 2008

The Land That Time Forgot

There were many brilliant storytellers whose work was published in the pulp magazines during the first half of the 20th Century---Dashiel Hammett, Robert E. Howard, Ray Bradbury, Walter Gibson, Lester Dent and many more. One of the most successful, both commercially and in terms of telling enthralling stories, was Edgar Rice Burroughs.

Burroughs is, of course, best known for creating Tarzan. He also gave us tales about Mars, Venus and the underground world of Pellucidar. In his stories, courageous heroes commonly rescue beautiful women from certain death, battle evil men and an assortment of wild animals, alien monsters and prehistoric creatures.

If I had to name a favorite Burroughs story, though, it would be The Land That Time Forgot trilogy, first published in three successive issues of Blue Book magazine in 1918.

This breathless tale introduces us to the lost continent of Caspak, located in remote waters near Antartica. The hero of the first book, Bowen Tyler, stumbles across it accidentally while commanding a German U-boat that he and some British sailors had captured. Low on fuel, Tyler takes the sub through a subterranean passage to enter Caspak, which is surrounded by steep cliffs and otherwise inaccessible.

Once in Caspak, Tyler and his mixed crew of British and Germans (and, of course, a beautiful woman with whom Tyler falls in love) are forced to work together as they run up against a plethora of dinosaurs and other hungry prehistoric creatures, as well as tribes of ill-tempered cavemen.

The action races on non-stop as additional characters are introduced. A friend of Tyler's--Tom Billings--attempts to fly over the cliffs into Caspak via airplane, but crashes after a dogfight with a pterydactyl. In the meantime, Bradley (one of the British sailors who entered Caspak with Tyler) is seperated from the rest of the group and captured by the Wieroo, a race of winged men who live in a city built from skulls.

It's all great fun, with battles, kidnappings and escapes coming one after another. Burroughs does an excellent job of gradually introducing the bizarre biological rules that govern Caspak's life forms, building up a self-consistent world that easily allows us to suspend disbelief. The Land That Time Forgot is pure escapism, representing the work of a master storyteller at the top of his game.

Monday, June 2, 2008


In real life, Basil Rathbone was an expert fencer. So were two of his fellow actors—Errol Flynn and Tyrone Power. I remember once reading somewhere that Rathbone was, in real life, the best fencer of the three.

Ironic if true, because whenever Rathbone faced off against Flynn or Power in a movie, he was playing the villain and was obligated to lose. But he could take comfort in the knowledge that he had participated in three of the best choreographed, most entertaining sword fights in movie history.

The first time was 1935, in one of the best swashbucklers ever filmed: Captain Blood. Errol Flynn plays the title role of Peter Blood, a physician-turned-slave-turned-pirate. Rathbone is a secondary villain of sorts—the ruthless French pirate Lavasseur, with who Blood makes an unwise alliance.

The alliance comes to an end when the two buccaneers rather understandably duel each other over possession of Olivia de Havilland. The fight, taking place on the beach of a deserted island, is one of the highlights of this excellent film.

Flynn and Rathbone crossed swords three years later in The Adventures of Robin Hood. Flynn, of course, is perfect as Robin. (Along with Peter Blood, it was one of the two roles he was born to play.) Rathbone, this time, is the primary villain—Sir Guy of Gisborne.

This energetic and beautifully photographed version of the Robin Hood legend ends with a battle for control of a castle (and, incidentally, of England). Robin and Sir Guy end up separated from the battle, going at it with broadswords up and down the stairs leading to the dungeon (where the endlessly put-upon Olivia de Havilland was being held prisoner). The fighting style, employing modern fencing techniques, may have been anarchistic, but the fairy-tale ambiance of the film did not require realism and—as in Captain Blood—the duel is one of the most memorable scenes in a movie already stuffed full of classic moments.

My favorite Rathbone sword fight comes in The Mark of Zorro, made in 1940. Tyrone Power, playing the titular hero, is his opponent this time around. Rathbone is the cruel Captain Pasquele, who works for the despotic governor.

Interestingly, Power is in the role of Zorro’s wimpy “secret identity,” Don Diego, when the fight takes place. The moments leading up to the sword duel are fantastic, with Power and Rathbone trading perfectly written dialogue before going at it. (Such as Rathbone spitting out “Quiet, you popinjay! I’ve no reason for letting you live, either!” Power’s reply was in a voice tinged with quiet boredom: “What a pleasant coincidence. I feel exactly the same way about you.”) The fight, set in the governor’s office, makes use of both the skills of the actors and the geography of the set to give us a flawless and exhilarating action sequence.

So there you have it. Poor Basil Rathbone gets killed as a Frenchman, then as an Englishman, then as a Spaniard. He might have been able to take either Flynn or Power in real life, but the requirements of storytelling sent a blade through his villainous heart whenever the cameras were rolling.
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