Thursday, March 31, 2016

A Haunted Castle--OR IS IT?

When we think of hilarious horror-comedies, many classic film fans probably default to Abbott and Costello films such as A & C Meet Frankenstein. But if we jump back a half-decade or so, we discover that Bob Hope actually had a jump on the boys in this department.

Hope developed a sort-of cowardly con artist persona that he played to the hilt in many of his films. So its actually a fun change-of-pace to see him playing a reasonably brave and competent protagonist in 1940's The Ghost Breakers.

Hope plays Larry Lawrence ("My folks had no imagination."), a radio broadcaster who--after some shenanigans in which he thinks he accidentally murdered someone--ends up on a ship sailing to Cuba. Also aboard is Mary Carter, who recently inherited a castle near Havana that's rumored to be haunted. Larry ends up helping Mary, because someone doesn't want Mary to move into her new home and doesn't object to committing murder to stop her. Whether or not there's an actual supernatural element to the proceedings is a part of the mystery.

Mary is played by the mind-numbingly pretty Paulette Goddard. Hope and Goddard had co-starred a year before in The Cat and the Canary, another horror/comedy. The two work well with each other--Goddard is often the straight "man" for Hope, but she's given her fair share of one-liners as well and handles them nicely.

In fact, one of the strengths of The Ghost Breakers is that Goddard isn't just a damsel-in-distress, but also has her share of courage and brains. For instance, she's the one who solves an obscure clue leading to a secret room near the film's climax.

The combination of mystery, scares and comedy are perfectly balanced. There are one-liners and plenty of slapstick moments, but there's also a real mystery with a logical outcome, some honestly creepy moments and a downright scary zombie played by Noble Johnson.

Hope's assistant is played by African-American comedian Willie Best. Like Mantan Moreland & Stepin Fetchet, Best is a figure of some controversy today. Jump over to his IMDB page to read some of the comments. Or rather, don't do that. It's the Internet--you won't find rational discussion there.

Best was a brilliant comedic actor, working in an era where most of his roles played on black stereotypes. But there's no denying that he was hilarious--Hope later called him "the best actor I know." For me, I think actors such as Best, Moreland and Fetchet should be appreciated and enjoyed for their obvious skill at making people laugh. Their ability to make us laugh is such that we sincerely like them and never laugh "at" them, if you see what I mean.
At the same time, I recognize that the type of roles they had were often intended to be safe and non-threatening to the racial status quo of the day. So if someone else cringes at Best's performance and doesn't find anything to laugh about, then I'm not at all critical. It's yet another situation where it's not a matter of being politically correct or incorrect, but simply reacting to the performances on an individual basis and respecting the opinions of others.

I recorded a clip of the movie to share here, but I guess Paramount Pictures is (like Universal) one of the big-meanie studios that tells YouTube to block clips. I'm all for intellectual rights, so (though I think short clips should qualify as Fair Use) I don't question Paramount's right to control their content. It's a silly decision, though, since such clips are essentially free advertising. Oh, well--there's no accounting for lawyers, I guess. At least Warner Brothers is cool about such things.

Here, at least, is the trailer:

Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Toys Running Wild in the Toy Store

Micronauts Annual #2 (1980) is made of pure fun.

The plot is simple. The Micronauts are in their ship, flying over New York City, when Acroyear is struck by a severe headache and compelled to fly down into the city and then into Macy's Department Story. This is because a mad scientist has inserted a special chip into a new line of Micronaut action figures and is using a beam to activate and control them. A side effect of this is causing Acroyear to go bonkers--it later affects some of the other living Micronauts as well. The other Micronauts pursue Acroyear into the store.

This leads to a rough-and-tumble fight between real Micronauts and fake Micronauts, with some time out to deal with the mad scientist as well. (The villain, by the way, turns out to be a half-cyborg scientist they had encountered before.)

I could go into more detail about the plot, but that would be senseless. It's mostly an excuse to let Steve Ditko go to town with showing us tiny warriors battling through a toy department and using what they find (checkers, frisbees, even a teddy bear) to help defeat the evil toys. It is indeed pure fun. In fact, trying to decide which panels to scan to share in this review nearly drove me as mad as the story's villain. There's not a single image that isn't engaging and lively.

Rich Buckler drew the first seven pages, with Ditko taking over for the rest of the issue. I think Ditko's style fits the half-goofy, half-serious Micornauts stories perfectly and his old skill at choreographing entertaining fight scenes is still evident. So when I say that the plot serves primarily as an excuse to set up the battle, I'm not being critical. The world would be a poorer place without a record of this particular bit of comic book mayhem.

The story is fun on another level as well--tacitly acknowledging that the characters are based on toys and making gentle fun of merchandising.

The writer was Bill Mantlo, a storyteller whose own sense of fun shows through in pretty much everything he wrote. He simply knew how to entertain his readers. Here, he combines humor (without ever going too far into slapstick) with non-stop action to give us 30 boisterous and enjoyable pages of great fantasy.

Next week, we'll watch the Fantastic Four fix history after the timeline is mucked up by...   their mailman?

Monday, March 28, 2016

Cover Cavalcade

I'll bet money this doesn't end well for the guy threatening Tonto.

Saturday, March 26, 2016


I just made this video for the Ringling College of Art Library's YouTube channel.

Friday, March 25, 2016

Friday's Favorite OTR

Suspense: "The Face is Familiar" 1/18/54

Jack Benny plays a man so nondescript, that everyone has trouble recognizing him or remembering his name. So he seems to be the perfect unwitting patsy for some crooks to use in a bank robbery scheme.

Click HERE to listen or download.

Thursday, March 24, 2016

Dead End for Jo Gar

Read/Watch 'em In Order #66

"The Blind Chinese" (published in the April 1931 issue of Black Mask) brings us to the halfway point in the Rainbow Diamonds saga.

In the first two stories, the trail after the stolen diamonds has brought Spanish-Filipino detective Jo Gar from Manila to Honolulu--following partial clues taken from the fragmented last words of dying criminals.

As I mentioned last time, Jo Gar heard dying men mumble cryptic last words with surprising frequency. This entry in the series, though, seems to bring him to a dead end. He knows he has to find a blind Chinese in Honolulu, but the city has a large Chinese population, undoubtedly with its percentage of blind people.

The bad guys inadvertently help Jo out by trying to kill him. Jo evades death and captures the chauffeur who had been paid to drive him into a trap. This puts the chauffeur in a very uncomfortable position. If he takes Jo to the blind Chinese, he'll be killed. If he refuses to help Jo--he'll be killed. (Or so Jo allows him to think.)

This leads to a great bit of hard-boiled dialogue. When the driver tries to justify his actions by saying he's a poor man, Jo Gar replies "Then you have less to live for. Let us start."

Anyway, the story ends with several dead crooks--not ONE of which manages to utter any cryptic last words. That may be a first in Jo Gar's eventful career.

I know I sound like I'm making fun of the story, but it's really a superb piece of hard-boiled fiction, building suspense that leads us to a violent but satisfying conclusion. Jo Gar seems to have run out of leads at this point, but he's still got three upcoming stories in the series, so I'm sure he'll be back on the trail of the diamonds before long.

Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Riverboats, Goats and Criminals

By 1946, the Our Gang shorts were no longer being produced by MGM, but Dell Comics was still publishing an Our Gang comic book. That meant writer/artist Walt Kelly had more freedom in the stories he told--able to freely introduce his own characters, use whichever members of the gang he wanted in any particular story, and tell action-adventure tales in addition to giving us slapstick comedy.

A prime example of this is a saga that ran from Our Gang #26 (September 1946) through #29 (December 1946). In earlier issues, the gang had met vaudeville performer Professor Gravy and helped capture a crook named Barrel. Now, Professor Gravy has bought a riverboat and plans to use it as an old-fashioned showboat, cruising along the river along with a number of different acts and putting on shows.

Two of the gang, Froggy and Red, are able to come along. This is a clear sign of the freedom Kelly had--because the comic existed on its own merits and didn't have to showcase the movie shorts, Kelly wasn't obligated to use characters based on the Our Gang actors. He could add or subtract from the cast based on what it best for a particular story. Here he takes Froggy (a character who had appeared in the shorts) and Red (a character I'm pretty sure is original to the comics--though I'm not complete certain of that), leaving the rest of the gang behind for a few issues because they didn't fit into the story he wanted to tell. Of course, each issue included stories by other artists, so any particular character was rarely gone from an entire issue.

Kelly was brilliant at pure comedy, but he was a skilled storyteller no matter what. The first part of the Riverboat Saga involves Barrel, the crook who wants revenge on Professor Gravy, getting a job on in the engine room under a false name. Some other crooks show up as well. But the kids, their pet goat Julip and a few of the adults manage to get the best of them.

The next issue is pure slapstick--Julip swallows a mechanical parrot, which provides him with the illusion that he can talk. A lady wrestler named Guinevere sneaks aboard to look for work on the show and gets mixed up in a scheme to shoot Julip out of a cannon. It is sincerely funny stuff, but also moves the story arc as a whole along, since Guinevere will play a key role in the final two issues.

Because more crooks are stalking the showboat--the unnamed river its sailing on seems to have an
awfully high crime rate. Professor Gravy agrees to transport a valuable race horse. Crooks sneak aboard to rustle the poor beast.

I love Kelly's art here. Most of the action takes place at night and Kelly uses light and shadow brilliantly to generate suspense. Reading this story almost makes you sad Kelly eventually dedicated his career to the comic strip Pogo. That strip was one of the finest to ever grace a newspaper page, but Kelly shows us here he could have been equally superb at giving us adventure stories.

The crooks after the horse accidentally kidnap Froggy and Red, who were in a horse costume at the time.

The crooks talk about doing away with the kids, but reinforcements arrive in time to foil this. It's here we really see how much the Our Gang comics have drifted from the original shorts--while in the movie theaters, it was rare to see a bad guy in an Our Gang short catch fire and run screaming in fear and pain.

The last part of the riverboat saga involves one of the horse thieves escaping. Professor Gravy, Guinevere, Red and Froggy pursue, but Red is captured after the crook rejoins one of his companions.

Red escapes, though the crooks think they've killed him. This gives Red a chance to freak out the bad guys by quickly improvising a haunting.

That's another creepy panel up there, isn't it? By golly, Pogo, look what you took away from us!

Anyway, Gravy, Guinevere and Froggy arrive and--after a brief but sharp gun fight in which the Professor is wounded--the bad guys are captured. The saga ends at this point because Red and Froggy have to return home to attend school. Though after multiple fights for their lives, kidnappings, escapes and gun battles, one wonders what else there is they really need to learn.

Next week, we'll join characters based on toys as they rampage through a toy store.

Friday, March 18, 2016

Friday's Favorite OTR

Suspense: "The Dead Sleep Lightly" 3/30/43

A man is apparently being haunted by the ghost of his long-dead lover. This story--written by John Dickson Carr--is not one of Carr's most difficult-to-solve mysteries, but the strong cast and spooky atmosphere still make it entertaining.

Click HERE to listen or download.

Thursday, March 17, 2016

She's a Housewife. He's a Songwriter. Together, They Fight Crime!

We don't expect Film Noir and Hard-Boiled stories to reflect real-life in the way crimes are committed or investigated. The Hard-Boiled universe is not the real world. It plays by its own rules and, by golly, you'd better not try to tell it to do otherwise!

But a good Hard-Boiled or Noir story will immerse you and make you believe its true. That's one of the things that makes Black Angel (1946) so good. It takes a silly idea, treats that idea seriously, builds a coherent story around it, then makes us believe it.

Mavis Marlowe (Constance Downing) is a blackmailing, ruthless Femme Fatale. Generally, this is a character type that sticks around for the entire film. But she actually gets herself strangled to death pretty early on.

The cops soon tag Kirk Bennett for the crime and find more than enough evidence to get a conviction. Kirk is soon languishing on Death Row.

But his wife Catherine firmly believes he's innocent. Desperately, she tracks down Marty Blair, an alcoholic songwriter who was once married to Mavis and had good reason for wanting her dead. But Blair has an air-tight alibi.

But this leads to a housewife/songwriter team-up. Pooling what they know, they determine that a brooch missing from the crime scene would finger the real killer and they soon find good reason to believe a local nightclub owner (Peter Lorre in a typically perfect performance) is the real killer. Fortunately, Catherine can sing, so she and Marty get a gig together at the club, surreptitiously looking for the brooch whenever they have the chance.

Dan Duryea--always worth watching in a Noir film--is Marty. Catherine is played by June Vincent, a very-easy-on-the-eyes blonde who starred in a number of low-budget films in the 1940s before moving on to an active and respectable career as a character actor on about a zillion TV shows.  In Black Angel, they play very well off each other, establishing an effective rapport. That they are amateur detectives isn't ignored (and in fact, comes into play at one point in the story), but they are each written as smart enough to make us believe they can manage an investigation on their own.

The story is based on a novel by Cornell Woolrich. I haven't read that particular novel, but Woolrich is an excellent and occasionally brilliant mystery writer, so the source material is undoubtedly strong. The screenplay certainly is--the plot progresses in a logical manner. The cops (with Broderick Crawford giving a strong personality to the head Homicide detective despite limited screen time) are honest, smart and capable. Catherine's husband is on Death Row because he really looks guilty. Catherine and Marty are smart as well. All this is key--no one character is portrayed as smart by dumbing down other characters. But the amateur status of the Catherine/Marty team does come into play when it looks as if they have found their proof--only for the plot to take several unexpected and suspenseful twists. The identity of the killer is left in doubt right until the end.

Black Angel is a wonderful little Film Noir--smart, suspenseful and full of great character actors in the supporting roles.

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

Who Shot Mlle. Marie?

Cover Art by Jim Aparo

 Mademoiselle Marie was created by Bob Kanigher and Jerry Grandenetti in 1959--another wonderful addition to DC's ever-growing stable of World War II characters. Marie had been a farm girl, but after joining the Resistance, she pretty much became an anti-Nazi Death Machine. Simply put, she was too cool for words and it is literally impossible to avoid falling in love with her.

Unlike Marvel, DC's war-time characters did not have much presence in stories set in contemporary times. An older Sgt. Rock popped up a few times in The Brave and the Bold, but the continuity status of those were debatable even at the time. (Many people lumped those tales into Earth B--a universe created to contain stories from B&B and World's Finest that didn't quite fit into DC's primary universe.)

So it's an inherently fun idea when, in Detective Comics #501 (April 1981), we get to find out what Marie's been doing since the war.

Sadly, she's apparently been spending that time dead, having been shot by an unknown traitor near the end of the war.

This all comes out in the open when both Alfred Pennyworth and Lucian Fox receive telegrams and--without a word from either of them to Bruce Wayne--travel to France.

It turns out both men served with the French Resistance during the war--Alfred as a British agent and Lucian as an OSS liaison. Both men had known Mlle. Marie. And now Alfred at least is suspected of having murdered her.

Well, Bruce Wayne is nothing if not nosy. He follows, saves them from an assassination attempt and catches a couple of the would-be killers. But the gunmen are both former Resistance, as is most of the men who later kidnap Alfred and Lucian. There's a young lady leading the kidnappers--someone that Alfred actually knocks out Batman to protect.

Cover art by Jim Aparo

This is Marie's daughter Julia. As the story continues into Detective #502, we find out that Marie was pregnant when she was shot. She lived long enough to give birth, occasionally whispering Alfred's name in her delirium. Then she vanishes and a body later found in the river is assumed to be her.

Julia assumes her mom was whispering the name of the man who shot her--so now she and her friends plan on holding an unofficial execution. Batman convinces them to wait 12 hours so that he can find the real traitor.

It's here that I think the story suffers a little. Though the tale is overall a strong one, I think it would have benefited from being a three-parter rather than a two-parter. Bruce/Batman's investigation is covered in a brief montage. When he finds the real traitor, he has a solid reason for suspecting him--but actual proof depends on the guy having kept the very same gun with which he shot Marie 35 years earlier. That's a bit of a stretch. Adding an issue to the story would have given writer Gerry Conway room to flesh out the mystery and give it a stronger conclusion.

Anyway, Alfred is cleared and--to the surprise of absolutely no one--turns out to be Julia's father. It's established that he didn't know about Julie until a couple of years after the war, which provides adequate justification for why the single most responsible person in the DC universe would apparently abandon his daughter. By then, she's been essentially adopted by another family, so Alfred decides to send cash, but never tell Julia about himself. It's debatable whether this still makes sense now that Julia is in her 30s and knows she has a biological dad out there somewhere, but the emotions generated here are sincere.

Also, whether Marie died back in 1945 is called into question. Sadly, I don't think the pre-Crisis DC stories ever got around to resolving this.

Don Newton's interior art is fantastic and the tale effectively keys off Batman's ability as a skilled detective. Making it a three-parter to flesh out the mystery and give the whodunit part a stronger conclusion would have helped a lot, but the art and the strong characterizations given to Alfred and Julia tip these issues into the awesome column.

Next week, we'll join a couple of members of Our Gang for a riverboat journey.

Monday, March 14, 2016

Cover Cavalcade

Whenever I stumbled across an Ace Double Novel in a used book store, it was pretty much guaranteed that I would buy it.

Friday, March 11, 2016

Friday's Favorite OTR

The Man Called X: "Submarine in the Bay of Bengal" 11/25/50

A submarine flying a U.S. flag is destroying and looting ships in the Bay of Bengal, leaving no survivors behind. Stopping it means sailing with a potential target and identifying the inside men aboard before its too late.

Click HERE to listen or download.

Thursday, March 10, 2016

Hands in the Dark

The story from the May 1932 issue of The Shadow Magazine is one of my favorites, though I admit that this opinion is driven in part by nostalgia. The image above is the cover I saw on the paperback rack at Winn Dixie when I was a kid. That cover, painted by the great Jim Steranko, forced me to impulse-buy the book with paper-route money. It served as my introduction to what is arguably pulp fiction's greatest character. Thank you, Mr. Steranko. I owe you one.

So this book, much like paperback reprints of Dick Tracy strips, Dr. Paul Bearer, and Sgt. Rock, is a large part of what made me who I am today. Why the world isn't more openly grateful for this is beyond me.

There's a small irony about that cover. It's actually the wrong cover for that book. The first print run of Shadow reprints published by Pyramid in the early 1970s had an error in which the covers for Hands in the Dark and The Crime Cult were swapped. I bought The Crime Cult soon after and happened to get a later printing with covers fixed. I wondered at the time why they had reused the same cover. Ironically, the proper cover for Hands in the Dark is, if anything, more awesome than the one that inspired me to buy the book.

I've re-read it several times as an adult and it's not just nostalgia that drives my enjoyment of the story. The title comes from an incident in the very first chapter, where a guy alone in a study finds a paper upon which are drawn strange symbols. A pair of hands reach out of the shadows, strangle the guy and takes the paper.

Those symbols are the driving force of the story. Theodore Galvin has recently died and left behind a stash of ill-gotten wealth. But no one--not even his criminal confederates--know where that wealth is hidden. The symbols are a code.

Galvin's nephew Bob, who knows nothing of his late uncle's criminal activities, is kidnapped and replaced with a substitute, something that is possible because Bob has lived in South Africa and no one in New York knows him as an adult. Even so, maintaining that ruse while trying to figure out where the loot is hidden requires at least one more murder to be committed.

The bad guys think the symbols might be a substitution code for a name. This isn't correct, but it does lead them to men with additional information that eventually allows them to find out the real meaning. It also leads to a couple of more murders.

But while all this is going on, the Shadow has taken an interest in the case, drawn to it by the initial unsolved strangulation murder. He keeps popping up at key moments, preventing a couple of murders, avoiding a death trap, rescuing the real Bob Galvin and so one. The villains think they finally get one step ahead of the Shadow just has they find the hidden loot, but pretty much no one ever gets one step ahead of the Shadow and stays there. This leads to a sort-of double climax--a wild shoot-out in a dark room, then another shoot-out in a train car.

As usually, writer Walter Gibson gives us great action scenes and a plot with some nice twists and turns. Of particular note is a sub-plot involving a police detective who is also investigating the case--leading to a particularly well-done twist near the end of the tale.

As an adult, I do think there are a couple of very minor quibbles with the plot--things that are noticeable only because Gibson was normally so good at plot construction. But even these quibbles are so minor that they aren't worth going over in detail.

Let's go back to talking about covers. The original pulp cover was unusual in that the cover actually included the first few paragraphs of the story. This allowed the cover to highlight the symbols that drive so much of the plot and also grab the readers with an atmospheric scene  that includes the line of dialogue "A dead man's message!" That would have been as effective technique for inspiring an impulse buy as Sterenko's cover was forty years later.

Wednesday, March 9, 2016

The Pirates of Early TV

The Buccaneers was produced in Britain in 1956 and aired its 39 episodes on CBS over on this side of the pond. It starred Robert Shaw as Captain Dan Tempest, a reformed pirate who now helps protect British colonies in the Caribbean from the Spanish and from pirates such as Blackbeard.

Well, it starred Shaw starting with the third episode. The first two episodes starred Alec Clunes as Woodes Rogers, a real-life pirate hunter. The show was highly fictional, but the first episode followed historical events in a general way, with Rogers arriving on the pirate-infested island of New Providence and defeating the buccaneers pretty by giving them all a Royal Pardon.

In the TV version, the pirates on the island included Blackbeard, who refused the pardon. That leads to duels, murder attempts and other shenanigans until Blackbeard runs for it. The second episode dealt with a raid on the island by Charles Vane, another real-life pirate.

So far, there's no Robert Shaw to be seen. According to the show's Wikipedia entry, there's a possibility that Shaw wasn't available for filming the first two episodes, so Woodes Rogers was stuck in as an alternate hero. Shaw, as Dan Tempest, arrives on the island in episode #3 and is convinced by Rogers to go straight. After that, the character of Rogers is sent off to fight the Spanish and Tempest becomes the hero of the show.

It was a fun series, doing a good job of re-creating the twilight of the Golden Age of Piracy despite the low budget, while the actors all seemed to be enjoying themselves. A minor criticism of the show might be that the sword fights had a painfully choreographed look to them, but they are still performed enthusiastically.

Now to finally get to the point of this post. Four Color #800 (May 1957) was an adaptation of the 1st and 3rd episodes. With art work tentatively credited to Tom Gill and a script by Leo Dorfman, the comic is a faithful and cleanly told version of those episodes.

Rogers arrives on the island and finds an ally in Ben Hornigold (another real-life pirate turned pirate-hunter). There's a clash with Blackbeard, which leads to a duel with  Hornigold. Blackbeard tries to back-shoot Horrnigold. Rogers saves Hornigold and Blackbeard flees the island.

Both this half of the story and the next half essentially make up two inter-related but separate short stories, giving the book as a whole a bit of a schizophrenic feel. Because when Dan Tempest arrives, he abruptly becomes the new protagonist, with Rogers essentially disappearing from the tale after talking Dan into accepting the pardon. That's not really the fault of the writer and artist, though. Watching those early episodes has the same awkward feel to it when Tempest takes over as hero. It all works out in the end, because Shaw was great as Tempest and the show was well-written in general. The comic, because it was a one-shot, never has a chance to work past that awkward transition. It might have been better to start the adaptation with Tempest's first appearance, then go from there.

All the same, the comic is a story worth reading. After Tempest takes the pardon, he makes his first ever honest trading voyage, taking goods to Charlston and proving to be a skilled haggler.

On the way back to New Providence, Dan has a run-in with Blackbeard (who would be a reoccurring villain during the TV series). Dan, though, is as good--or perhaps better--in combat as he is in selling trade goods.

Tom Gill (assuming he was the artist) gives us a really nifty action scene here. The TV show might have had to work within a small budget, but comic books have an inherently unlimited special effects budget.

Nest week, we'll accompany Batman to France and learn what Alfred did during World War II.

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