Monday, October 31, 2011

Cover Cavalcade

Gene Colan's visual style was perfect for Tomb of Dracula. And Blade, in his early appearances, was much cooler than what he eventually morphed into. The whole idea of carrying around a bandoleer of wooden throwing knives to take out vampires is brilliant and made Blade unique among monster hunters.

Friday, October 28, 2011

Friday's Favorite OTR

Favorite Story: "Joan of Arc" 12/6/47

A good script and a strong lead performance give us a sincerely emotional version of Joan's short, tragic life.

Click HERE to listen or download.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

The second best pirate movie EVER!!!!

I know that for my blog, recommending something as recent as 1990 is a rare and notable event. But, just as was the case  with a Charlie Brown animated special not long ago, I find that the extraordinary quality of this particular movie force me to make an exception.  Besides, though this movie was made in the post-CGI age, it didn't use CGI. That's a real ship in a real ocean.

Anyway, the 1990 version of Treasure Island FINALLY came out on DVD last month. And, gee whiz, this might actually be the second-best pirate movie ever made, coming in behind Captain Blood. but beating out all other challengers. It scores a 9.7 on the Karloff/Bogart Coolness chart.

It stars Charlton Heston as Long John Silver and Christian Bale as Jim Hawkins. Bale was in his mid-teens when this was made--a bit older than most film versions of Jim. But that's one of the strengths of this version. We have a Jim Hawkins who is just the right age to believably make the transformation from boy to man.

Heston is pitch perfect as Long John. Other cast members include Oliver Reed as Billy Bones and Christopher Lee as Blind Pew. The movie seemed to be deliberately casting the few living actors who can be mentioned in the same breath as Bogart and Cagney with a clear conscience. (Well, living in 1990. Heston and Reed are no longer with us.) Heck, if they'd figured out a way to fit Leonard Nimoy and Sean Connery into the film, it would have scored a perfect 10.

But the rest of the cast does a bang up job. Clive Owen, as Captain Smollett, is particularly notable for bringing a real sense of strength and personality to the role.

The script is faithful to the classic novel, expertly directed with some beautiful location photography. Even the sound track by the Chieftains is a perfect fit. It's a movie that really has to go on your must-see list.

Treasure Island staring Moses, Batman, Athos and Dracula. How can you go wrong with that?

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

History of the Marvel Universe: January 1968


I’m not sure how long its been since I’ve last read through this particular story arc, but I’d forgotten just how cool it is. The story continues moving along at emergency warp speed, with Reed and Johnnie leading a squad of police in a raid on one of the Mad Thinker’s hideouts.

They fight through killer androids and super-scientific traps until Reed ends it all by simply beating the snot out of the Thinker. The scientist the Thinker had impersonated is rescued (though not before saving Reed’s life just before the climatic fist fight).

In fact, all the good guys—both title characters and extras—come out looking pretty good. One of the many enjoyable things about this particular action sequences is that the cops get in on the action as well, gunning down their share of killer androids.

Reed is battered and bruised, but there’s no rest of the heroic. Ben, still brainwashed, busts in to have it out with his former best friend. Reed lures him back to the Baxter Building and manages to zap him with a “menta-ray.” As the issue ends, Sue finds Reed and Johnnie unconscious, Ben apparently dead and a big android busting in through the wall.

The android was sent by remote control by the Thinker, who used a device hidden in his wrist watch to activate the artificial being.

As wonderful as this issue is, that bit does come across as a contrivance. Come on—you live in a comic book universe; you’re throwing a mad scientist into a jail cell; and you DON’T take every single device he’s carrying—not matter how harmless it might be---away from him? For gosh sakes, you take wrist watches away from guys you’re tossing in the drunk tank!

Oh, well, still a great issue, leading up to an equally action-packed conclusion next issue. Despite a weak plot point or two (how Ben finds Reed is also a bit weak), the combination of great action with strong characterizations make this another high point of the Lee/Kirby era.


Once again, I realize that an amnesia plot is one of the biggest clichés out there, but this is a fun story nonetheless. Doc Ock, along with Spider Man and a henchman (whose job seems to be shouting out expository dialogue) get away from the cops and arrive at one of Ock’s hideouts.

The Nullifier overheats and the villainous scientist realizes a sample of rare isotope needs to be stolen from an army base to repair it. He sends Spider Man to do the job.

Spidey isn’t sure he really is a crook, but goes along with it until he can get his memory back. He manages to get the isotope, but subconsciously leaves behind a clue that brings the army to the hideout. Doctor Octopus and his men are captured after Spidey refuses to help him any longer. The webslinger slings off, still without his memory.

There’s a few minor plot holes along the way, but nothing that really interferes with the fun. And it’s nifty to see the army unit that raids Ock’s hideout acting effectively and intelligently. Between them and the cops in Fantastic Four, it’s an impressive month for government employees.

The issue also includes a scene with Aunt May and Peter’s friends, all of whom are beginning to get worried about the fact that no one’s seen him in days. Gwen calls her dad, a police captain who has just come out of retirement to help deal with Doctor Octopus. And so we meet Captain George Stacy for the first time—a man who’ll be playing an important role in Spider Man’s life.

THOR #148

Last month’s lightning bolt from Odin takes away the powers of Loki, Balder and Sif, since all three are on Earth without permission. The threat of having to face Thor on equal terms convinces Loki to slink away.

We get a great scene in which Thor and his two Asgardian comrades take refuge in Dr. Blake’s office, eating food delivered from a local deli.

Loki, in the meantime, tries to summon up the Norn Queen, an old ally of his, to get zapped with magic power.

I don’t think the Norn Queen’s been given a proper name yet, but this is Karnilla, the sometimes villain with a crush on Balder. We first met her in a “Tales of Asgard” feature some 39 issues ago. I’m pretty sure this is the first time we’ve seen her since then.

She only hangs out for a couple of panels, though, taking part in a bizarre supervillain origin that somehow manages to be goofy and awesome at the same time.

Follow along closely. Loki summons Karnilla. But before she arrives, a crowbar-wielding crook named the Wrecker breaks into Loki’s hotel room. (By the way, did Loki have some Asgardian gold on him to pay for the room, or does he take the precaution of carrying a credit card with him just in case?)

The Wrecker knocks out Loki and decides to try on the god of mischief’s weird helmet. Karnilla pops in, sees the Wrecker, thinks he’s Loki, zaps him with magic and pops out.

I love it.

Anyway, the Wrecker gets the hang of superpowers pretty quick, zapping Loki “back where ya came from, fink!” He goes on a power-mad rampage, zapping Balder and Sif back to Asgard as well when they put in an appearance.

That leaves Thor alone to fight the super-powered thug. The Thunder God still has his strength, but the Wrecker gradually manages to get the upper hand. Back in Asgard, Balder and Sif are pleading with Odin to interfere, but the All-Father is still in idiot-mode and refuses to intercede.

Gee whiz, I hope Odin isn’t looking down from Asgard, watching me write this. I’ve been pretty hard on him in the last few reviews. It’s been years since I’ve read this particular story arc and I’m writing the review for each issue without reading ahead. If it turns out Odin has had some clever plan all along that I’ve simply forgotten about, I’m likely to get myself exiled to Jutenheim.

So if I suddenly stop posting on this blog, you’ll all know why.

Besides, Odin’s poor decision making skills doesn’t stop this from being an exciting story with some typically awesome Jack Kirby action scenes.

That’s if for now. Next week, we’ll visit the DC Universe again to see just how many detectives you can fit into a single issue of Detective Comics. In two weeks, we’ll get to February 1968, as the Fantastic Four battles a whopping big android; Spider Man battles a whopping big saber tooth tiger; and Thor gets hit with a whopping big crowbar.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Friday, October 21, 2011

Friday's Favorite OTR

Dimension X: "The Green Hills of Earth" 6/10/50

This is an excellent adaptation of Robert Heinlein's tale about a spaceship crewman blinded in a radiation accident. He becomes a traveling minstrel, bumming rides from planet to planet while singing about his home back on Earth.

Click HERE to listen or download.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

A Barbarian and a Midshipman

What do Conan the Barbarian and Royal Navy officer Horatio Hornblower have in common?

Well, the most obvious thing would be that both have commanded ships. Conan’s checkered career includes time on the high seas as a pirate. Most famously was the few years he spent with his first real love—Belit the she-pirate. Even after Belit was killed, Conan returned to the seas several more times before settling down as king of the Hyborian Age’s most powerful nation.

And Hornblower commanded a number of ships during his country’s war with Revolutionary France and later Napoleonic France—the Hotspur, the Atropos, the Lydia, the Sutherland.  Later, as he moved up in the ranks, he commanded squadrons and fleets.

But these two otherwise totally different heroes have another thing in common. Both of them had occasion to capture a slave galley even when the odds were stacked completely against them.

For Conan, it happened when he was King of Aquilonia. During the events of The Hour of the Dragon (the only novel-length Conan adventure written by Robert E. Howard), our hero had lost his throne through treachery and sorcery. Up against a powerful wizard, he found out the only way to obtain victory was to track down a particularly powerful magical artifact.

Well, that kicked off quite a few bloody encounters—a ride through a small country racked by civil war; an encounter with man-eating ghouls; and a few instances of betrayal, torture and murder.

The trail leads him to a port city, where he dragoons help from a man who had been a fence for stolen goods during Conan’s pirate days. This guy double-crosses the barbarian, though, and Conan is knocked out and press-ganged aboard a merchant ship rowed by black slaves.

Well, that’s a mistake. A lot of the slaves had sailed with Conan in the old days. So, after breaking the captain’s arm and wrenching an axe from the weapons rack, Conan leads an impromptu mutiny. Within a few minutes, he’s the new captain.

Hornblower’s encounter with a galley happened in the late 18th Century, not long after Spain had allied itself with France and also declared war against Britain. Hornblower was still a midshipman at the time, serving aboard the frigate Indefatigable. When that ship is becalmed and a Spanish galley arrives to attack some nearby merchant ships, the young hero and a half-dozen seamen lowered a small boat and took off after the much larger enemy vessel.

But what can those few men hope to accomplish? Well, for one thing, they certainly have surprise on their side.  Combine that with the well-aimed throw of a grappling hook and…

You know, I was going to summarize that action sequence, but I don’t think I will. I don’t want to spoil it for anyone who hasn’t read it. Find yourself a copy of Mr. Midshipman Hornblower and read the chapter titled “Hornblower and the Spanish Galleys.” You won’t be sorry.

I’ve always imagined that each year, Superman’s Fortress of Solitude hosts a gathering of all the people who aren’t actually real, but should be. (There would have been talk about having it at Doc Savage’s Fortress, but the Man of Steel’s place has an intergalactic zoo and all those Superman robots to serve refreshments.)

And you’d think that Conan and Hornblower wouldn’t necessarily spend much time talking to each other. The Cimmerian would be busy hitting on Hawkgirl or Candy Matson and Hornblower always felt awkward at social gatherings. But if you think about it for a minute, the two really do have some mutually interesting stories to swap.

Well, they would, if Long John Silver would ever let them get a word in edgewise.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

History of the Marvel Universe: December 1967


Ben is in a killing rage, determined to destroy his best friend and the closest thing to a family he has.

It’s pretty much non-stop action in this one. We discover that the villain responsible for brainwashing the Thing is the Mad Thinker. And while Ben fights the rest of the FF, the Thinker is free to rummage around the Baxter Building and study Reed’s stuff. He stumbles across the entrance to the Negative Zone.

In the meantime, the fight against Ben has left the Baxter Building and spread out into the city proper. It’s a great fight, made unique by the fact that Reed, Johnnie and Sue are trying to stop Ben without hurting him, while HE’S not holding back on deadly force.  The authorities join in and a barrage of fire from jet planes set a condemned building on fire. Ben, temporarily separated from his opponents, manages to slip away. His brainwashing is still in full effect and Ben thinks “I got all the muscle I need—to finish off the FF forever!”

By the way, Reed has deduced that the Thinker is responsible and sends out the cops to search the villain’s old hideouts.

It’s fast-paced but well-constructed storytelling throughout the issue, with both actions and dialogue remaining true to the characters.

I do want to take note of a common cliché used in Marvel comics throughout the 1960s. This fight, like so many others before and after it, just happens to end up taking place atop a condemned building. Unless the action was planned out by the writer and artist to include a threat to innocent bystanders, this was the conceit used again and again to set that problem aside. Reading these books through in order makes it a very noticeable cliché as well.

But, ya know, I’m not really bothered by it. It was a quick and easy way to allow the characters to get to the good stuff—cool fight scenes. Yes, New York City sometimes seems to be made up of 80% to 90% condemned buildings, but this issue is a strong example of why this is a harmless and necessary cliché.

Jack Kirby could have easily choreographed a fight scene in which the heroes had to protect innocent lives, but there was a dramatic necessity to concentrate our attention on just the main characters. So yet another condemned and empty building turns up. The result is a superb action sequence with a lot of strong emotion behind it. That’s more than a fair trade.


Boy, the last couple of months have been bad ones for the mental health of superheroes. Thor had been hypnotized by the Ringmaster, Ben has been brainwashed into a killing machine—and now Spider Man has amnesia and thinks he’s an arch-criminal.

How did that happen? Well, Spidey’s mad because Doc Ock had endangered Aunt May. He’s also worried that May’s insurance won’t cover repairs to the huge gaping hole Ock left in her house.

So Spidey’s zipping about town, beating up henchmen and unsuccessfully trying to get a line on Doctor Octopus. Meanwhile, Ock attacks a military convoy carrying the Nullifier, the secret weapon he tried to steal two issues ago.

He gets the weapon and, determined to do the unexpected, takes it to its original destination at Stark Industries. He uses the ray to shut down the factory (including phones and weapons), thus taking over the place.

I’m not sure this plan makes sense, since he’s not exactly keeping his presence at his chosen hideout a secret. But Ock’s always been a little on the whacky side, so I’ll buy it.

Spider Man guesses his plans and attacks him at Stark’s factory. During the ensuing fight, Ock hits Spidey with the Nullifier ray…

…which apparently nullifies Peter’s memory. With no idea of who he is, he accepts Ock’s explanation that he’s a henchman.

I appreciate that this is a plot twist that was clichéd even in 1967, but it’s a great issue, nonetheless, with little moments for the supporting characters thrown in between action scenes. We get Gwen and Mary Jane snipping at each other over Peter, Harry getting more and more aggravated with Peter’s odd habits and an example of Robbie Robertson being willing to nonchalantly stand up to Jameson.

And the action is cool—both Ock’s assault on the convoy and his fight with Spider Man are strong examples of John Romita’s talents at handling action.

(Side note: How lucky was Stan Lee to have first Kirby and Ditko followed by Romita do do his action scenes? Those three men are arguably the top three strongest comic book fight choreographers in the genre’s history. They are inarguably among the top ten.)

The amnesia arc will run through the next few issues and, clichéd though it might be, it will be handled well.

THOR #147

Odin is the all-powerful ruler of Asgard. He’s also, from time to time, an idiot.

He calls Loki back from Limbo and forgives him again, trusting him not to again act with malice and murderous intent. 

Yes, Odin is an idiot. I really think it might have been better for Stan and Jack to come up with ways for Loki to keep escaping from Limbo and other prisons other than have a supposedly all-wise ruler repeatedly make the same stupid mistake.

Anyway, Loki immediately heads for Earth and bails Thor out of prison. (The Circus of Crime has escaped, while Thor—back in his right mind—surrendered to the cops.) Once out in the streets, Loki starts beating the snot out of his de-powered brother.

There’s a point in the fight, by the way, where Thor voices a concern for innocent bystanders. Where’s a handy condemned building when you really need one?

Anyway, Sif and Balder defy Odin to come to Earth and help Thor. I’m assuming they didn’t just tell Odin that Loki was misbehaving because… well, because Odin’s an idiot.

He’s an all-powerful idiot, though. Mad at all four Asgardians currently hanging out on Earth, he sends down a bolt of lightning. I’m assuming it’s meant to spell out in the skies over New York something in the nature of “Odin’s an idiot,” but we’ll have to wait until next issue to find that out.

Actually, I’m being unfair to this issue. I do have trouble with Odin’s attitude towards Loki and think it comes across too much as a convenient plot contrivance, but both plot and characterizations are otherwise strong. I like that Thor cooperates with the police and goes to jail simply out of respect for the law. I like the portrayal of Sif and Balder’s loyalty to Thor. Not surprisingly, I love Kirby’s visuals. Taken as a whole, the issue is representative of the strong storytelling we usually find in the pages of Thor.

But, gosh darn it, Odin IS AN IDIOT!!!!

That’s it for 1967. We’ll open 1968 with the FF fighting both a friend and a powerful android, Spider Man teaming up with Doctor Octopus and Thor adding an important member to his rogue’s gallery.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Friday, October 14, 2011

Friday's Favorite OTR

Escape: "Danger at Matacombe" 3/24/50

Frank Lovejoy stars as an out-of-work drifter hired to impersonate a publicity-shy author. But when the author is arrested, he's suddenly the prime suspect. Good, solid Film Noir-style storytelling done with the skill typical of this excellent series.

Click HERE to listen or download.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Mystery, Madness and the Invisible Man


As is only proper with any B-movie worth its salt, The Invisible Man Returns (1940) jumps feet first into the story without wasting any time at all.

Sir Geoffrey Radcliffe is about to hang for the murder of his brother. But Geoffrey’s gal and his best friend are both convinced he’s innocent. And Geoffrey is very fortunate in his best friend---Frank Griffith--is the younger brother of the original invisible man and has recreated the formula to make one invisible.

So, one smuggled hypodermic needle later, Geoffrey escapes. Now all he has to do is find the real killer.

But there’s a couple of factors working against him. First, Robert hasn’t had time to find an antidote yet. And, as we all remember from the first film, the invisibility formula eventually turns you COMPLETELY BUG NUTS!!!

This gives the movie several layers of suspense. Who’s the real killer? Will Geoffrey be restored to visibility? Will he go whacko and become a villain himself?

Can he dodge the cops? Remember, the police in the Universal Horror reality have experience in chasing an invisible man. And the Inspector in charge of the investigation soon proves to be a smart and capable man.

All this adds up to 81 minutes of fun. First, the script (co-written by Curt Siodmak—Universal’s go-to guy for good monster stories) is a solid one. The only weakness is that it’s pretty obvious who the real killer very early on. But otherwise, the plot unfolds quickly and logically.

Second, the cast is great. Vincent Price (in his first horror role) does a typically fantastic job as Geoffrey Radcliffe. He starts out as a desperate man who’s frightened of what he might do when the madness begins to overtake him. From there, he smoothly segues into a near-madman raving about how he could rule the world.  Whether he can hold on to his sanity until he can clear his name is a real question.

The rest of the cast is also strong. Remember, this was an era when character actors in supporting roles were always given that minute or two of extra screen time they needed to really shine.  Cecil Kellaway, as Scotland Yard Inspector Sampson, oozes a sense of intelligence and professionalism. It’s Sampson who quickly figures out how Geoffrey escapes. When he goes to Griffith’s lab to question the scientist, he’s smoking a cigar and casually walking about the room blowing puffs of smoke. He knows, you see, that an invisible man would show up as a silhouette in the smoke.

Alan Napier, who a quarter century later would be Bruce Wayne’s butler Alfred on the 1960s Batman TV show, oozes slime as a ruthless, dirty thug. The scene in which Geoffrey uses his invisibility to psych out Napier’s character to get information is both funny and effective in terms of advancing the plot. Even a minor bit of business Napier uses adds to his performance—a tendency for his character to wiggle his pinky in his ear every few minutes humanizes him and makes him seem a little more sleezy.

Third, John P. Fulton’s special effects are astonishing, especially when you remember that this was decades before CGI. (In fact, Fulton got an Oscar nomination for his work here.)  There’s a sequence in which Geoffrey is apparently trapped in a house by the cops. It’s raining out, so when he tries to duck out a back door, he shows up like a bubble. The cops then begin spraying the house with smoke, once again causing Geoffrey’s outline to become visible. Each of these shots looks perfect. 

So, with our journey through the original Invisible Man movies now at the halfway point, we find ourselves with another winner. The Invisible Man Returns may not be the classic that the original is, but it’s an entertaining movie—well-crafted on every level. It’s well worth… um… seeing.

By the way, in the previous entry, I had actually forgotten about 1950's Abbott and Costello Meet the Invisible Man, which is indeed a part of this series' continuity, so we'll be covering that as well as Invisible Agent and The Invisible Man's Revenge

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

History of the Marvel Universe: November 1967


I suppose you could say that this issue is slow-paced in comparison with most FF stories, but it doesn’t feel that way. Reed has invited a top chemist to the Baxter Building to help in his quest to find a cure for Ben. While they are waiting, we get several fairly quiet but emotionally resonate moments that remind us the Fantastic Four is a family; that Reed will never give up in his attempts to help his best friend—whether its to find a cure or simply start some playful antics with his wife to cheer Ben up; and that Ben, despite his complaining, ultimately recognizes that Reed really IS his best friend.

That makes the cliffhanger at the end of this issue all the more emotional. An as-yet-unidentified villain kidnaps the chemist and takes his place, using some experimental equipment not to cure Ben, but to turn him into an enraged killing machine that wants to now destroy those he loves.

The plot here doesn’t involve the sort of cosmic level stuff that is usually a part of the best FF stories. There’s no Earth-shattering threats, time or interdimensional travel, or alien super-beings. But it doesn’t matter. The story’s human moments carry it along nicely and the ending really does carry a lot of impact.


Doctor Octopus rents a room from Aunt May. Stan Lee has some fun with this. May has heard news reports about Ock being wanted by the cops, but when he assures her that’s just a misunderstanding arising from his attempts to stop that awful Spider Man from committing a robbery, she believes the well-spoken scientist.

In the meantime, Peter meets Robbie Robertson for the first time and also has some roommate problems. Actually, the roommate problems were first hinted at last issue—Peter’s secrecy and tendency to disappear without explanation are starting to get on Harry’s nerves.

That’s not the least of Petey’s problems, though, when he discovers whom his aunt’s new boarder is. He can’t just attack Doc Ock without endangering May, so he instead tries to lure the villain outside.

This all results in a fight against a bunch of Ock’s henchmen, then a fight against Ock himself. This, in turn, results in Aunt May fainting from shock. Ock gets away, Peter calls a doctor (who prescribes complete rest for May), and the story continues on into the next issue.

John Romita handles the action scenes with consummate skill, especially the free-for-all between Spidey and the henchmen. But November 1967 seems to be Stan Lee’s month for providing honest human moments, despite the overall situation being a little contrived. Between the Fantastic Four and Spider Man, he’s continuing to provide some of his best characterizations ever.

THOR #146

Thor, still without any powers except his super strength, is hypnotized by the Ringmaster into helping steal a giant golden bull—an artifact kept in a local museum.

What follows is a fun sequence in which the Circus of Crime uses their various skills Mission: Impossible style to distract the museum guards and break into the place, so Thor can carry out the bull. But Thor breaks free of the hypnotism just as the Circus is making a getaway. The issue ends with Thor and Princess Python (currently trapped under the golden bull) surrounded by the cops.

I thoroughly enjoyed the Mission: Impossible museum theft sequence. As I mentioned last time, I’m becoming more willing to forgive the lack of cosmic-level threats in recent issues simply because the current plot is a lot of fun.

That’s it for November. In December 1967, Ben Grimm tries to kill his friends; Spider Man’s ongoing battle with Doctor Octopus takes an unusual turn; and Thor goes to the hoosegow.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Cover Cavalcade

Anthology books were often worth the cover price based on the cover alone.

Friday, October 7, 2011

Friday's Favorite OTR

The Falcon: “Natural Seven” 2/28/52

Here’s a well-plotted hard-boiled procedural with a pretty good twist at the end.

It starts with a game of craps in a gambling joint. An eager but foolish player asks for permission to bet way over the limit, then fails to make the point. He can’t pay off his bet, which is a situation that generally ticks off gambling joint owners.

From here, the story moves along very quickly, but always logically and clearly. This episode, in fact, is a good example of just how clear and concise radio was as a storytelling medium, providing the scripts, acting and production values are high. We are carried along as the guy in debt tries to rob his boss for the money he needs, later gets beaten up by the gambler’s thug when this doesn’t net him any cash, then becomes a prime suspect when the gambler is murdered. The gambler’s kinda trampy wife and her lover are tossed into the mix as well and it’s soon left up to the Falcon to sort it all out.

Earlier in its run, the Falcon had had a sort of suave British flavor to it. But by the 1950s, it had become more hard-boiled, expertly telling fast-moving crime and spy stories without ever leaving an attentive listener behind.

Click HERE to listen or download

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Boris, Bob and Bill Take a Road Trip

I only occasionally write about television on this blog, since I'm perpetually annoyed that television is responsible for bringing the Golden Age of Radio to an end. I'm equally annoyed with the existence of reality television and any game show that allows contestants to scream when they win something.

But during the now over 60 years that TV has been an important part of our culture, there have been (by my count) a total of 27 television series that were worthwhile in terms of good storytelling and cool characters, each of them scoring over a 7.0 or higher on the Bogart/Karloff Coolness scale. There's actually another 18 series that score between a 6.0 and a 7.0 and thus also deserve an occasional mention.

That makes for a pretty small percentage considering the hundreds of television series that have come and gone since the late 1940s, so perhaps that means we should value the good stuff all the more. And in the four years or so I've kept this blog, I have written about the original Star Trek, Combat, The Untouchables, Bat Masterson, Outer Limits, The Twilight Zone and even The Time Tunnel (though the overall quality of that latter show can be legitimately argued.)

So this week I'll add one more TV series to that list: I Spy, starring Robert Culp and Bill Cosby as spies who posed as a professional tennis player and his trainer.  It really was a great show, with solid scripts, great location work, a lot of humor and excellent rapport between Culp and Cosby.

The show as a whole has a Bogart/Karloff Coolness rating of 8.7, but the one particular episode I want to talk about gets a nearly-unobtainable 9.9. This, in large part, is because it guest-starred one of the two actors that the Bogart/Karloff scale is actually named after.

Boris Karloff, one of the finest actors ever and by all accounts a true gentleman in real life, made everything he appeared in that much more classy. (Heck, he even gave bad movies and TV shows a degree of class.) In the I Spy episode "Mainly on the Plain," he plays an eccentric Spanish professor who has developed a method of building an effective anti-missile system. But he is disdainful of politics, refusing to give his secret to either the West or the East.

So Kelly Robinson (Culp) and Alexander Scott (Cosby) are assigned to befriend him and convince him to share his secret with the right side. They discover that Don Ernesto Silverando (Karloff makes no attempt to affect a Spanish accent, but it doesn't matter at all) is a fan of the novel Don Quixote. He is, in fact, obsessed with Don Quixote, considering Cervantes' would-be knight as an ideal of bravery and chivalry.

Poor Don Ernesto is kind of missing the point of the novel, which Cervantes meant to be a pretty vicious parody of such romantic views of medieval feudalism. But, be that as it may, he soon drags Kelly and Scotty on a cross-country drive to Madrid. Because his car is filled with multiple editions of Don Quixote, the two spies have to follow him in a separate vehicle. Just like Sancho Panza followed along behind Don Quixote.

Before long, Don Ernesto is forcing them to act out scenes from the book, attacking a windmill (which results in Kelly getting a butt-full of buckshot from an enraged mill worker) and leading them in an attack on an "army" of sheep. But when Don Ernesto "rescues" a paddy wagon full of crooks from the local cops, the good guys really start to get worried. Not that the Communist assassin on their trail didn't already have them worried.

What's really cool about Karloff's performance is that neither he nor the script plays Don Ernesto purely for laughs. As the episode progresses, it becomes apparent that the valuable secret the don holds is really weighing him down--that his escapes into Quixote-inspired fantasy are his way of dealing with the potentially destructive knowledge only he has. People might die because of something he created and that's a reality he just doesn't want to face.

Karloff brings a palpable sense of pathos to the role, giving the otherwise almost purely comedic episode a real heart. He takes a character that might have been nothing more than a clown and endows him with sincere humanity.

And, when the trio is captured by the assassin and some henchmen, it's the brave actions of Don Ernesto that turns the tide against the villains.

Read even a little bit about Boris Karloff and you discover that he was a gentleman and a generous man with a heart for children in need. I think that these real-life traits were an important part of his success as an actor. I think the reason he brought such class into the parts he played in movies, radio and television was that he was overflowing with class in reality. I think that's why he was the best actor ever.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

A Deluge of Stretchy Guys

DC Comics Presents #93:

"That's the way the Heroes Bounce" with Superman and the "Elastic Four."

Who are the Elastic Four, you ask? All the stretchy guys in the DC Universe: Plastic Man (Eel O’Brien), Elongated Man (Ralph Dibny), Elastic Lad (Jimmy Olsen) and Malleable Man.

Unless you've read this issue, you're now wondering who the heck Malleable Man is. He's actually the bad guy. Now stay with me--this gets a little weird.

Malleable Man was in the same gang as Eel O'Brien when Eel has the bullet wound/chemical spill accident that gives him stretching powers. He deduces that Eel is Plastic Man and that he must have gotten his powers in that accident. So he recreates the accident (yes, he shoots himself in the shoulder and then spills toxic chemicals over himself). Comic book science being what it is, this works, giving him stretchy powers also.

Then he uses a mind-control potion to gradually gain control over the other three stretchy guys. His motive? Well, Jimmy Olsen knows where the Fortress of Solitude is; Plastic Man can take the form of a hot-air balloon to fly them all there; and all four of them can use their stretchy powers to get in through the giant key-hole. Then Malleable Man can rob the Fortress of its treasures. I'm not sure why he needs Ralph along as well, but there you go.

It's an undeniably brilliant plan. 

Well, okay, actually it's a silly plan. But this is a deliberately silly story. If you go with the silliness and just enjoy the images of stretchy guys chasing each other and fighting each other and "accidentally" getting in Superman's way a couple of times, then you'll have fun. The frame of Ralph stretching out his fingers and wrapping them around a gang of gunmen alone makes the story worthwhile. This is a nice break from heart-breaking angst and world-threatening supervillains and overly serious comics that have often forgotten how to just have fun from time to time.

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