Thursday, July 31, 2014

Got some stock footage? Then, by golly, we've got a movie!

It's not unusual--in fact, it's probably essential in light of budgets and shooting schedules--for B-movies to make use of stock footage. You're filming a desert adventure and you need a shot of Arab warriors galloping across the desert? There's no need to take time and money to shoot the scene yourself. Check the film library of the studio you're working for. You'll find a scene you can use.

But there are occasions when an entire movie is planned around stock footage, with story construction driven entirely by whichever images were already captured for someone else's movie. One example of this is 1950's Two Lost Worlds, the first starring role for James Arness. It's an awkward and often dull pirate story, with a dinosaur-inhabited lost world clumsily stuck at the end, using footage from One Million BC (1940) to show us the prehistoric monsters. It's a particularly disappointing effort, since one would naturally suppose that combining pirates and dinosaurs would be inherently awesome.

In 1961, Columbia Pictures and director Edward Bernds did a much better job constructing a story around stock footage. They actually started with Jules Verne's 1877 novel Off on a Comet (sometimes titled Career of a Comet), in which a comet strikes the Earth a glancing blow and carries off a chunk of our planet inhabited by 36 people.

The movie takes the basic premise, the name of one character and reduces the number of characters taking the unexpected comet ride to two. It then tosses a more-or-less original story into the mix, driven by the stock footage that was available.

The result is surprisingly entertaining. The movie uses footage mostly from One Million BC, but also from Rodan and Cat-Women of the Moon. It also borrows Morlock costumes from The Time Machine--Morlocks look creepy in black-and-white. But it manages to smoothly integrate all these images into a coherent plot.

The protagonists are French soldier Hector Servadac and Irish soldier-of-fortune Michael Denning. The two are about to try to kill each other in a duel when the comet hits.

They are forced to team up fighting Neanderthals and giant spiders before eventually figuring out what's going on. When a rampaging mammoth forces them to separate, each finds a home with a different Stone Age tribe. Each finds a girlfriend (both of whom are very pretty and surprisingly advanced in the ways of skin care and hair styling). The tribes are enemies, though, so it's up to the two new arrivals to convince them to make peace, which ironically involves a battle against a giant lizard/dinosaur and the "invention" of gunpowder.

The protagonists are played by veteran character actors Cesare Danova and Sean McClory, who play the potentially silly material completely straight and give it all credibility. The story works very well--the various plot twists must have been planned around the stock footage, but this is done intelligently and with an obvious respect for the requirements of good storytelling. Heck, it even carries through a coherent theme through the movie--two men who were planning on killing each other end up working together to bring peace between the two tribes. Valley of the Dragons may have borrowed images from at least four previously told stories, but it tells its own story well.

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Knocking Out an Old Lady and Strangling a Dog

See these two books? Much like Dr. Paul Bearer, these two books helped make me who I am today.

These two paperbacks reprinted a couple of classic Dick Tracy story arcs from the 1940s. It was my first important exposure to classic adventure strips. We'd always had quite a few paperback collection of Peanuts kicking around the house when I was a kid, but these books are what made me vividly aware of just how awesome a newspaper adventure strip could be.  This, combined with Prince Valiant (the one adventure strip the local paper ran on Sundays) are probably a key factor that led me down a path in which I eventually wrote a book about such things.

A few years later, when I was in the Navy and stationed in the Philippines, I ran across a book reprinting the first year or so of Milt Caniff's Terry and the Pirates in the base hospital's small library. That clinched the deal, but it was Dick Tracy that got it all started.

I'm pretty sure I read the one featuring Prune Face first--a story arc that ran from September 1942 to January 1943. It's a cool story, beginning when Tracy, his adopted son Junior and a young girl called Frizzletop (a short-lived supporting character) are driving back to the city after solving a case in the country. They have a minor accident and have to spend a night in a barn. Junior
promptly discovers a dead body.

This in itself is a great scene. I probably didn't know the word "Expressionistic" when I read this, but that's what Chester Gould's art is. His character designs, use of perspective, use of shadows and silhouettes--all emphasize emotions over realism. It's an artistic style that works perfectly for the fast-moving, high-impact stories that Gould was telling.

Well, the dead guy turns out to be a local Highway Patrol chief and various clues eventually point to the chief's scientist son Cal as being involved. Tracy tricks Cal into leading him to the base of Prune Face, a Nazi spy. Cal has been making poison gas for Prune Face.

Tracy rarely gets to make a quiet arrest. Soon, he and another cop are trapped in the building furnace room, while Prune Face releases poison gas to kill Cal as punishment for being an idiot and leading the cops there.Prune Face escapes, though another of his confederates is captured.

I'm afraid that I no longer remember if the story's next plot twist bothered me as a kid, because it's a perfect example of just how unashamedly Gould used coincidence to move the story along. When reading the strip in daily installments, this was probably not as noticeable as it is in a collection like this, but it's one heck of a coincidence all the same. Prune Face, needing a new hideout, rents a room from Tracy's future mother-in-law Mrs. Trueheart. Gould used such coincidences a lot--probably as a result of his tendency to write his stories without plotting them out in advance.

But even as an adult, I'm okay with this. Gould's fast-paced action and great artwork is strong enough to allow the reader to just accept the coincidence and move along with the story. Like much like the novels of Edgar Rice Burroughs, Dick Tracy was just so darn good that the coincidences seemed to be a perfectly natural part of the story.

Prune Face begins plotting more sabotage, but Mrs. Trueheart soon suspects her tenant is up to no good. With the help of Junior, she secretly snaps a picture of him (because he's so hard to describe?) and manages to switch the bomb he's making with a box of rocks.

What happens next is an example of just how unrepentantly evil Gould's villains are. In Dick Tracy, good and evil are defined in stark terms, with a clear difference between them. And when someone chooses to do evil, there's no limit to the depths he can sink.

Prune Face demonstrates this by slamming a rock into Mrs. Trueheart's skull. He then pursues Junior, but ends up in an alley with a broken leg. He sees a cute little Scottie dog wearing a sweater--something he can use to cove his distinctive face. So he grabs the dog and strangles it.

And Prune Face might not even reach the top ten as far as acts of evil committed by Gould villains are concerned. But the casualness with which he nearly kills an old lady and strangles a dog are striking. Gould understood human nature--he understood that if we let ourselves start doing wrong, we can sink faster and farther than we ever imagined we could.

Prune Face forces a doctor to set his leg and contacts another Nazi agent for help. They find a new hideout and keep the doctor as a hostage, but the doc cleverly leaves a clue to his location. Soon, the cops are surrounding the place. Prune Face kills his confederate for a perceived double-cross; the doctor is released;
and Tracy has his cops break all the windows to the home and let the snow in, planning on freezing Prune Face out. But Prune Face would rather die than surrender--as long as he can take Tracy with him.

I was fascinated by this story when I read it as a young teen. It had a different vibe to it than the comic books I'd been reading for years and taught me a bit about our cultural history. At a time when I was attending a sad excuse for a public school and simply reading in the back of the class rather than paying any attention at all to my teachers, it was books like this that gave me a real education.

Friday, July 25, 2014

Friday's Favorite OTR

Suspense: "Murder in Black and White" 4/14/49

A man plans a murder in meticulous detail, planning for every possible variation on what might happen afterwards. But the one thing he could not plan for was everyone telling him his victim was still alive and healthy.

Click HERE to listen or download.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Cossacks vs. Pirates vs. Turks

I was in Turkey recently with a group from my church, helping out with a Vacation Bible School for the children of workers from various countries who were meeting for a conference. So I figured reading something set in Turkey would be appropriate.

I did read Mark Twain's Innocents Abroad just before the trip over there, since it does include a hilarious account of his visit to Constantinople. But while in Turkey, I re-visited Robert E Howard's "The Road of the Eagles."

This particular story was unpublished in Howard's life time and first saw the light of day (sort of) in 1955, when L. Sprague de Camp re-wrote it into a Conan story. But the original version, set on and near the Black Sea in the year 1595, is the better story.

It involves a band of Cossacks who are pursuing a crew of Algerian corsairs. The corsairs, led by the brutal Osman Pasha, had raided the Cossacks' village and killed their leader. The background to all this--specifically how an Algerian pirate ended in the Black Sea--is unveiled to us later in the story and helps give the tale a unique flavor. 

As the story opens, the Cossacks and the corsairs have whittled each other down quite a bit. In fact, each party is their own badly damaged and rapidly sinking ship after a ship-to-ship duel ends without a clear-cut victor. Both ships limb towards shore.

With all the Cossack officers dead, a warrior named Ivan Sablianka takes over. Ivan is another factor in giving the story flavor--he's a tremendous warrior, but he's not a really effective leader. But he's all the Cossacks have while they still attempt to take Osman Pasha's head.

Osman, in the meantime, has fallen in with a 16th-Century femme fatale named Ayesha, which in turn leads him into a plot to team up with some Turkish warriors and rescue a prince from a remote castle. The prince, named Orkhan, is the brother of the current Sultan of the Ottoman Empire. The idea is to use Osman's corsairs as the core of a rebellion intending to put Orkhan on the throne.

To do this, Osman Pasha has to not just rescue the prince, but avoid getting beheaded by Ivan. The Cossack might not be the best qualified leader, but he's determined and very, very hard to stop.

After the plot takes a few twists and turns, the story ends with an exciting battle described in Howard's usual vivid and fast-moving prose. Ivan and Osman finally meet face-to-face in a duel. Here, both their respective skill with swords AND their backgrounds come into play. Because Ivan isn't a native Cossack and Osman isn't a native Algerian--this will have an interesting effect on the story's conclusion.

Howard was a fan of Harold Lamb's fiction, which often involved Cossacks. I suspect that "The Road of the Eagles" is at least in part a product of Howard's admiration of Lamb. But Howard's own visceral voice dominates the tale. "The Road of the Eagles" showcases Howard's strengths as a storyteller, giving us a strong plot, interesting characters and great action set pieces.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Being Bluffed by the Blind

Buck Jones had a successful career during the silent film days as a movie cowboy, bringing a level of verisimilitude to his roles from his pre-movie days riding as a cowboy in Oklahoma and working in a Wild West show.

Jones' baritone voice allowed him to make the jump to sound films. He wasn't as big a star anymore, but he could be depended on to provide a strong and likable hero. In the early 1930s, he teamed with Tim McCoy and Raymond Hatton for Monogram's Rough Riders movies. Sadly, Jones died in a fire in 1942.

But he was remembered. In the 1950s, Buck was the title character an issue of Dell's Four Color comic book, which led to his headlining his own series for seven issues. Even after that series was cancelled, he still had a few more Four Color appearances.

I'm not sure why Buck had a resurgence in popularity a decade after his death. Certainly there was no shortage of still-living Western heroes, some of whom (Hopalong, Roy Rogers, the Lone Ranger) were enormously popular. It might be the hunger for cowboy heroes was so deep that you could never have enough of them. Maybe Buck's films had been re-released into the Saturday matinees or were being shown on television.

Whatever the reason, Dell did a fine job with the comic book version of Buck. We're going to take a look at Buck Jones #5 (January-March 1952), which includes a particularly fun story.

"The 13th Notch" begins when Buck sees a lone rider about to be bushwhacked. He acts to save the man, though the gunman escapes. Buck soon learns the rider is the elderly and nearly blind Gus Hawkins, who is riding to the town of Gunsmoke to buy half-interest in a ranch.

But complications soon arise. The ranch is plagued by rustlers, leaving the current owner (pretty Tess Danbury) in danger of going broke. Also, the local newspaper owner is telling everyone that Gus Hawkins is a fast-draw killer known as the Shadow, which is the reason several people are out to get him. According to legend, the Shadow has 12 notches on his gun and wants to earn a 13th before retiring.

Buck finds himself in the middle of all this. He has to track down the rustlers, find proof to convict the man behind the gang, and keep poor, nearly blind Gus from getting killed.

This last part isn't easy when Gus decides he'll have some fun by going along with this Shadow
nonsense. This leads to a wonderful scene in which he bluffs a couple of guys out to gun him, despite being elderly, near-blind and unarmed.

Buck eventually comes up with a plan to trick the bad guys into turning against one another and give their boss away, but this goes awry and now its Buck who needs rescuing. But can Gus be depended on in this desperate situation?

The story flows along swiftly and logically, with Gus and Tess Danbury both turning out to be fun characters. And the ending, which centers around the identity of the real Shadow, provides an unexpected and truly entertaining twist.

The world is a better place because Dell Comics and its successor Gold Key Comics existed. And stories such as this one are a prime example of why. Good writing by Philip Evans and effective art by Pete Alvarado combine to spin a vastly  satisfying yarn of the Old West.

With storytellers like Evans and Alvarado around producing great tales like this on a regular basis, it's no wonder there was a never-ending need for more Cowboy heroes.

Buck Jones #5 can be read online HERE.

Monday, July 21, 2014

Friday, July 18, 2014

Friday's Favorite OTR

Gunsmoke: "Alarm at Pleasant Valley" 9/10/55

Dillon and Chester are returning to Dodge when they come across a burnt-out ranch and a pair of corpses. They soon learn that a band of marauding Kiowas is on the loose.

Click HERE to listen or download.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Eternal Lover or Eternal Savage?

I read once that the proliferation of e-readers led to a resurgence of women reading romance novels--it meant they could read one without someone seeing Fabio on the cover and snickering at them.

Well, though another genre was involved, this sort of logic applies to me as well. Because in 1914 and 1915, Edgar Rice Burroughs serialized an adventure tale in All-Story Weekly that was originally titled The Eternal Lover.

It's a great story--stuffed with a number of exciting set-pieces. But I'm not sure I would be willing to be seen in public reading something with the title The Eternal Lover screaming out at anyone who might walk by. Never mind that it might have an awesome J.Allen St. John cover of a caveman fighting a whopping big saber-tooth tiger. That title would just be embarrassing.

When Ace reprinted the book in 1963, they renamed it The Eternal Savage and gave it a Roy Krenkel cover featuring a
caveman once again battling to the death against a saber tooth tiger.
I would have been perfectly happy reading that, but I did end up reading an electronic edition.

(By the way, I have no problem reading books on a Kindle--the e-ink screen is no different than looking at a paper page. But I do lament that ebooks probably make it that much more likely that we will never return to the mind-numbingly cool paperback covers that used to be so common.)

So how can a book be called either The Eternal Lover or the Eternal Savage? Because the Lover and the Savage are the same guy.

That's really not that unusual for an ERB novel--his heroes spent an inordinate amount of time rescuing their lady loves from a succession of deadly dangers and a lot of those heroes can be pretty savage when the situation requires it of them. But Savage (yes, I'm going with the manly title, by golly) has an unusual structure that gives it a unique feel.

Nu is a cave man living 100,000 years ago. He goes out hunting a saber-tooth tiger to lay its head at the feet of the beautiful Nat-ul, to prove his love to her. This makes sense, since taking her out to a nice restaurant isn't a viable option.

An earthquake traps him in a cave and puts him in suspended animation. He wakes up in modern times, where he soon meets Victoria Custer--the apparent reincarnation of Nat-ul. Victoria is visiting the Greystoke estate in Africa, so we get a Tarzan cameo.

There's some shenanigans involving Victoria being kidnapped by Arab slave traders. Nu rescues her, but then another earthquake somehow sends Nu back to his own time, where he dismisses his time-travel adventure as a dream.

Oddly, Nat-ul, though miles away, had the same dream. But before the two can re-unite, she gets kidnapped by a rejected suitor. This leads to a whole series of adventures, with Nat-ul and Nu stumbling into one adventure after another as they try to find one another.

At the end, the book switches back to Victoria, with Nu's original visit and his prehistoric adventures being part of a dream she had. Before leaving Africa, though, she finds skeletons that indicate Nu and Nat-ul did really exist.

This last part may sound contrived, but Burroughs structures the plot well and generates the right emotions to make it satisfying. And the action set pieces are superb. Burroughs was always a master of pacing and he
tosses Nu and Nat-ul from one danger to another in just the right doses to keep up a high level of excitement.

I especially like a roller-coaster sequence in which Nat-ul is snatched up by a pterodactyl, flown to an island, dropped into a nest with three hungry baby pterodactyls, escapes from this, gets chased by a half-dozen hairy "man apes," gets captured by one of them, escapes when they start fighting over her, then gets captured by a villain who had been chasing her when the pterodactyl first caught her. It's fun stuff.

Because of the presence of pterodactyls and vaguely described sea monsters (which I pictured as plesiosaurs while reading the story) co-existing with cavemen, I think of this story taking place in the same universe as the movie One Million Years BC or the novella "The Lost Warship," though taking place a few hundred thousands years after the events of those stories.

By the way, we know this story because Edgar Rice Burroughs was a guest at the Greystoke estate at the same time as Victoria and listens when she recounts her dream of the past. Remember, Burroughs wasn't actually a writer of fiction. He was simply fortunate enough to know people (John Carter, David Innes, Jason Gridley, etc) who could recount their wild adventures to him.

So ERB is actually an historian. Which is a good thing. If he wrote fiction, then that would mean Tarzan isn't real, Mars and Venus would be lifeless, and there would be no lost continents populated with dinosaurs stuck away in remote corners of the world. And who would possibly want to live in a world that mundane?

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Captive of the Vulture

A few months ago, I reviewed one of the stories from Korak, Son of Tarzan #3 (May 1964), but not the cover story. The cover, though--painted by Morris Gollub--is nothing short of awesome, so I feel obligated to review the story it advertises.

Not that this is a problem. The story, illustrated by Russ Manning, is a fun one and is a prime example of why Manning is considered one of the best Tarzan family artists.

It all begins when Korak and his ape sidekick Pahkut rescue a man from a leopard. The man, named Jeremy Carter, is a pilot who landed his float plane nearby to consider a rather unique problem. He had flown over an extinct volcano and had seen a village inside. He also saw a woman frantically waving to him for help. She's apparently a captive.

But there's no way to land the plane inside the volcano. So Korak volunteers to make a rescue attempt.

Accompanied by Pahkut, the junior Jungle Lord scales the steep cliffs of the volcano and enters the village. He finds the girl and they attempt to escape through the aptly named Cavern of Death.

Here, they find Jeremy has been captured and is about to be sacrificed to Goka, the giant vulture worshiped by the villagers. This leads to a great action sequence in which Korak (with a little help from Pahkut) slays Goka. They continue with their escape, finding and freeing the girl's missionary father along the way.

It's a fairly straightforward adventure story with a simple plot, but Manning lifts it above the average simply by making it look so cool. In fact, the page in which Korak attacks the vulture, which includes a wonderful half-page panel, could be used as the cover image for a Russ Manning biography. It's a perfect example of how well Manning understood visual storytelling.

If I'd been old enough to buy comics in 1964, I would probably have bought it simply because of Gollub's cover. But if for any reason that hadn't sold me, thumbing through it and seeing the Korak/Goka battle would have definitely clinched the deal. Who wouldn't fork over a dime and two pennies to see that?

Monday, July 14, 2014

Cover Cavalcade

I love the use of light in this one--most everything in shadows with the exploding plane providing a dramatic lighting source.

Friday, July 11, 2014

Friday's Favorite OTR

Dragnet: "The Big Trio" 7/3/52

Friday and Smith investigate a trio of traffic accidents during the busy July 4 weekend. This episode is a great example of how effectively Jack Webb's matter-of-fact storytelling style could generate real emotion--and how this style could let the show sometimes get preachy while still being sincere and effective.

Click HERE to listen or download.

Thursday, July 10, 2014

So THAT'S what you do at School Board Meetings!

The church I attend includes a small private school (K5 through 8th grade) and I'm on the school board. We meet once a month to make budget and hiring decisions. The school is one of the best ever--with a superb group of teachers who have agreed to essentially work for peanuts to help provide kids with an affordable quality education. (By the way, if any billionaire happens to read this blog, don't hesitate to donate a huge amount of money to the school.)

Well, I've just watched a Perry Mason episode titled "The Case of the Lurid Letter." (December 2, 1962) In this episode, Perry is on a fishing vacation in a small town, where he ends up befriending a local high school
teacher. The teacher has been accused of inappropriate behavior with her students and the school board wants to fire her.

Perry agrees to help her out, maneuvering the situation to force the school board to give the teacher a public hearing.

Well, Perry may the only attorney in the world to give Rumpole of the Bailey a run for the title of "Best Lawyer Ever," but there's a good reason you should think twice about hiring him. If he's around, someone is going to get murdered. In this case, its a former coach from the high school who might have been selling liquor to a gang of teenaged thugs who are involved in the scandal.

Departing from the show's usual format, Perry's client actually isn't a serious suspect in the crime. But in order to prove that she is innocent of scandalous behavior, he also needs to solve the murder. He does so not in court, but at the school board meeting.

It's a strong episode. Most of the regular cast is absent, but Perry does bring Paul Drake out to the town to help investigate. This leads to several wonderful scenes in which the high school bully--who thinks he's a tough guy because he picks on those weaker than himself--gets repeatedly humiliated by Paul. It's a just & satisfying comeuppance for the bully and it's nice to get a reminder that Paul actually is a tough guy when he needs to be.

From the gazillion or so books, movies and television episodes I'm familiar with, I'm perfectly aware that no matter where you are, someone could get murdered at the drop of the hat. And, by golly, when the police are baffled by the crime, I'm ready to step up to the plate and use brilliant deductive reasoning to catch the real killer.

But this never happens to me. I live in a state of perpetual disappointment because of this.

And now I learn that at our school board meetings, we're not supposed to be making important decisions about the future of children. We're supposed to be solving murders. But we never do. Heck, no one at my church ever even gets murdered. No one ever gets murdered no matter where I go.

I couldn't be more disappointed with my life. I simply couldn't.

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

How to Get Rid of a Giant Octopus

The above cover image is Four Color #159 (August 1947) and it's a little bit on the scary side, isn't it?

That's because the story it's highlighting ("Donald Duck and the Ghost of the Grotto") has some very scary elements to it. But it also has both the humor and the sense of pure adventure that Carl Barks infused into the best of his stories, with the scary parts highlighting and adding to the adventure.

In fact, if you were teaching story construction to aspiring comic book writers/artists, I believe "Ghost of the Grotto" would need to be on your required reading list. It is a perfect story.

In the recent Fantagraphics volume that reprints this story, Barksian scholar Rich Kreiner tells us the story was inspired by a National Geographic article about finding and raising the wreck of a 17th Century English warship. From there, Barks mapped out a story involving not only a wrecked ship, but also a mysterious man in ancient armor; a centuries long mystery involving kidnapped children; a giant octopus and a maze of caverns running under a nigh-inaccessible reef.

It begins with Donald Duck and the nephews attempting to make a go out of collecting kelp in the waters around the West Indies. With the kelp beds going dry, Donald comes up with the idea of beaching his boat on Skull-Eye Reef, collecting the mounds of kelp that have built up inside the reef, then allow the high tide to carry the boat free.

But this soon uncovers an old shipwreck that was hidden under the kelp. An attempt to explore the wreck is cut short by the ill-tempered octopus that lives inside.

But a more serious problem arises when Dewey disappears--apparently the latest of a centuries-long series of kidnappings that happen once every fifty
years. Attempts to find Dewey in the caverns under the reef lead to a series of encounters with the mysterious man in armor.

All this sounds pretty grim, doesn't it? But it's not grim--despite the very real sense of danger that Barks builds up during the story. Because his detailed and eye-catching art is combined with often slapstick humor, keeping the tale from becoming unpleasantly disturbing. Even when lives are in danger, the humor continues to flow freely, complimenting the sense of adventure without ever contradicting it. From start to finish, "Ghost in the Grotto" flows along smoothly, both thematically and in terms of sound story construction, generating real suspense along with truly funny moments. The panels in which Donald and the nephews use spicy meat to get rid of the octopus is perhaps one of the most satisfying laugh-out-loud moments in the history of comics.

To quote Rich Kreiner: "The script is a closely choreographed ballet of aim and opposition, timed to the cycle of tides."

In the end, Dewey is rescued and the mystery is solved. And we--the readers--jump back to the first page to read it one more time--because it's just that good a story.

Monday, July 7, 2014

Friday, July 4, 2014

Friday's Favorite OTR

Dimension X: "A Logic Named Joe" 7/1/50

Science fiction authors often make reasonable assumptions about future technologies, but even the best of them is only occasionally close to how things turn out. Most of the best writers didn't guess at things like personal computers, calculators or microchips.

But this episode of Dimension X, based on a short story by Murray Leinster, comes eerily close to predicting personal computers and the Internet (though many of the details are different). Of course, in the story, this happens by the far future year of 1974. And hopefully, the real-life Internet will never develop the ability to think independently and helpfully answer questions about planning the perfect murder.

Click HERE to listen or download.

Thursday, July 3, 2014

Miss Withers at her sharp-tongued best.

Read/Watch 'em in Order #47

In his excellent book Mystery Movie Series of the 1930s, Ron Backer calls Murder on a Honeymoon "the most entertaining of the Hildegarde Withers movies."  And, by golly, he's right.

First of all, no one played Miss Withers with sharp-tongued perfection quite like Edna May Oliver. And, since this is the last film in which Oliver plays the role (her contract with RKO was up and she signed with MGM), the best one has to be one of the first three. Here, she is definitely at her best, snapping out one witty line after another as she looks into yet another murder.

Miss Withers is on vacation--but the work of amateur detectives is never done, since they tend to stumble over corpses with odd frequency. (Have you ever heard the fan theory that Jessica Fletcher from the Murder She Wrote TV series is actually a mad serial killer who has framed hundreds of people for her crimes? Explains a lot, doesn't it?)

Miss Withers is on a seaplane, taking a short flight to Catalina Island, when one of the other passengers keels over dead. The local police think its a natural death, but Miss Withers has reason to suspect otherwise. She cables Inspector Piper for more information, learning that the dead man was set to testify against mobsters. Piper immediately flies out to Catalina to help with the case and watch out for his friend.

This brings James Gleason as Piper into the story. Interestingly, Piper was not a major character in the novel this film was based on (The Puzzle of the Pepper Tree), but the screenwriters--including humorist Robert Benchley--were wise enough to know that the interplay between Oliver and Gleason were 93.7% of the fun
inherent in the series.

From there, the mystery flows along swiftly. The body of the murder victim is stolen from the morgue, so a full autopsy to show the cause of death can't be performed. The other passengers on the plane all seemed to have opportunity to poison the victim, but there's no way to conclusively pin the crime on any of them. (By the way, two of the passengers are newlyweds--hence the film's title.) One of the mobsters against whom the victim would have testified is in Catalina, but arrived after the murder was committed.

Miss Withers and Piper investigate while trading verbal barbs, eventually finding the body and a few other clues. Then there's another murder. Then Miss Withers is held at gunpoint by the mobster. Then there's a third murder. But by now, Miss Withers knows who the killer is--and she has an idea on how to prove it.

This movie is fun. The mystery element is solid--Ron Backer points out that it is structured as a step-by-step police procedural seeded with a number of red herrings. And the Oliver/Gleason combination as the two leads continues to be pure gold. They really are at their best this time around.

Sadly, Oliver does move on to MGM, leaving Miss Withers behind. Though the other three films in the series are quite good, I won't be covering them as part of the In Order series, because things will never be quite the same without Edna May. (I may write about them on an individual basis some time in the future.)

So we'll have to jump to another movie series for the "watch 'em" part of the In Order series. As of the date I'm writing this (about 5 weeks before it posts), I haven't made up my mind which films to do next. I'll be in Turkey on a mission trip for part of that time, so it's possible I still won't have decided when this post goes public. I'm open to suggestions.

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

How to Cross a Minefield in Two Easy Lessons

Sgt. Rock and Easy Company won a lot more fights than they lost, but things didn't always go their way. In Our Army At War #263 (December 1973), Rock and his men manage to blow up a German fortification atop a hill, but then a Panzer gets the drop on them and they are captured. They're taken to a temporary P.O.W. camp run by a brutal S.S. officer.

Well, it's hard to keep Easy Company down. In the space of a few pages, Rock manages to launch a surprise revolt against the guards, winning freedom for his men and the other prisoners. The issue ends with the escapees splitting up as they try to make it back to their own lines.

It's a perfectly good story, though perhaps a little too condensed to be fully satisfying--though Russ Heath's
art work is magnificent as usual. It might have worked better as a two-parter.

Or, rather, a three-parter. Because OAAW #264 (January 1974) is a continuation of this story, following Rock and his five men, armed with a few captured weapons, as they attempt to return to their lines. This is
the more satisfying of the two issues--the action flows along a lot better and there's an emotional bite to it. At one point, Rock and his men see some of the other escapees in the distance, cornered by a Tiger Tank.

The men want to rush to the rescue, but Rock points out that they haven't any anti-tank weapons (ignoring--for the sake of this story--the gazillion or so times they've blown up tanks with small arms in past issues) and that one of them is wounded. The better plan is to get back home and send better armed help to save the other escapees.

But then they have a run-in of their own with a German tank. They manage to get away, but they've lost too much time. The other escapees are dead.

It's a very effective story that brutally reminds us the good guys don't always win in a war.

But separate from the quality or theme of the story is an interesting bit of trivia. Here are three pages from the sequence in which Rock and his men escape from the enemy tank. Trapped between the tank and a minefield, they toss rocks into the minefield to blow a path through.

Now here is a scene from the move Anzio, a mediocre film (despite a great cast) made in 1968. Here we find Robert Mitchum and a squad of American soldiers trapped between a German tank and a minefield. They blow their way through the minefield by throwing rocks into it.

{Sorry--the clip is gone. Universal Studios is particularly strict about its copyrights.}

So did writer Robert Kanigher or Russ Heath see the movie and borrow the action scene for the comic? I have no idea, but it seems possible. If so, I'm okay with it. Heath took a fair-to-middlin' action scene from a so-so war movie and made it look awesome.
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