Friday, July 20, 2018

Friday's Favorite OTR

X Minus One: "The Last Martian" 8/7/56


A man claims to be the last surviving Martian, whose consciousness has been somehow transferred into the body of an Earthman.

It might be a mistake to simply assume he's delusional.

Click HERE to listen or download.


Thursday, July 19, 2018

Set a Thief to Catch a Thief



David Dodge's novel To Catch a Thief was published in 1952. It was one of the many books that's been on my "I gotta get around to reading this one day" list due to its excellent reputation.

And, now that I've read it, I see why it has that reputation. It is a truly suspenseful story with a strong plot and some very sharp characterizations.

In the late 1930s, John Robie was an American with acrobatic training who ends up stranded in Europe without any money. So he discovers a new use for his training. He becomes a highly successful cat burglar known at Le Chat ("The Cat").

Robie turns out to be really, really good at stealing from the rich and giving to--well, to himself. But as good as he is, no one's luck lasts forever. In 1939, he's caught and sentenced to 20 years in prison. But World War 2 gives him a chance (along with a lot of his prison mates) to get away. He then spends the war fighting for the Resistance. When the war ends, he retires to a country farm and plans to live an honest life from then on. He's technically still wanted, but because of his war-time activity, the few people who know who he is look the other way.

Until someone starts robbing the rich again--using the exact same methods Robie had used over a decade earlier. Naturally, the cops think Robie has gone back to his old ways. His comrades from the Resistance( referred to as masquisards) are in trouble because of this as well--a lot of them returned to less-than-completely-legal lifestyles after the war and now the cops are putting pressure on them in order to catch The Cat.

As much to help his old friends as to help himself, Robie must catch the real thief, using his own experience to predict possible targets for theft, then set a trap.

A lot of the meat of the novel comes from the exploration of Robie's character. He's honest now, but he reformed out of self-interest rather than any real moral epiphany. We still like him and root for him because he does have courage, quick wits and a strong sense of loyalty to his friends. But he's still a thief at heart.

In fact, this comes back to bite him during the novel. His Resistance friends know the real situation and he gets help from them throughout the novel. But he can't bring himself to trust any of the "honest" people he knows--even those he rationally knows would believe him and help him out.

To quote from the book:

All three [referring to the three most important non-criminal characters] had been his friends. All three would still be his friends if they knew the truth, and yet his whole instinct was against telling any of them. The feeling was as strong as his faith in Bellini [a criminal friend]. When he tried to analyze the reason for it, it came to him suddenly that he put his faith in Bellini and Coco and Le Borgne not because they were fellow masquisards but because they were thieves, criminals. Francie and Paul and Oriol were not.

This character interaction adds as much to the suspense as does the book's plot. But when Alfred Hitchcock made the book into a movie in 1955, this part of the story was lost in the translation.


I don't really mean that as a complaint, though, since Hitch was incapable of making a movie that isn't fun to watch. But, still, I would have loved to see that part of the book brought to the film.

Cary Grant is John Robie, with the film in many ways being very faithful to the book. And a lot of the changes that were made were clearly necessary because print and film often have different storytelling needs.

But in the film version, Robie's past is openly acknowledged, with Robie and the other former criminals being on parole because of their wartime activities. So, where Robie is on the run in the book, he has a little more freedom in the movie. The cops still think he's responsible for the new wave of thefts, but they have no hard evidence. When he teams up with an insurance agent to catch the real thief, the cops think this is a blind while he plans more thefts. Heck, even the insurance agent, played by John Williams, doesn't quite know if he can trust Robie. The interactions between Robie and the agent are a large part of what makes the movie fun.


I suppose the change might have been to conform some aspect of the Hays Code and avoid having a protagonist who technically avoids punishment for his old crimes. But a short documentary on the DVD mentions only concerns with sexual innuendo and nothing else. I haven't researched it any further than that though, so the theory I'm about to give is really just a wild guess.

But I think the change might have been in part so that Cary Grant could get to be Cary Grant throughout the film. Robie in the book spends most of his time disguised, with his head partially shaved to make him look like his going bald. He also wears a harness to simulate a pot belly. In the movie, because he's not officially on the run from the cops, Robie doesn't need a disguise.

Now Grant was an excellent actor and it might have been fun to watch him made up to be an overweight businessman. But in addition to his acting, Grant also existed to make the ladies in the audience go Ga-Ga over his looks. Also, in the '50s, movie stars were still an important box office draw. Finally, the lack of a disguise allowed his relationship with Francie (Grace Kelly) to be more openly flirtatious than it was in the book. So there's no way Grant was going to be kept unrecognizable behind tons of make-up for most of the movie.

This also simplified the plot to the extent that he was no longer working hand-in-hand with several masquisards while laying traps for the thief. In the movie, Robie's old comrades had all gone straight and, rather than actively helping out, were angry with him for apparently bringing the police back into their lives. Movie-Robie is more of a loner, though the insurance guy and eventually Francie do get to help him out in the end.



So does this make the movie a lesser effort than the book? Not really.  Between Hitchcock's visual artistry and the location filming in France, the movie looks absolutely magnificent. The cast is superb and the story is an excellent one. Hitch's ability to bring humor into a story without diluting the suspense is also on full display.


It's a general rule that a movie adaptation is rarely as good as the book on which it is based. The novel To Catch a Thief has an emotional depth to it that I do wish has been in the movie. But taken on its own, the movie is more fun than a barrel of cat burglars.


Wednesday, July 18, 2018

...And Not a Drop to Drink


A few weeks ago, we took a look at the first of the two stories featured in The Rat Patrol #3 (May 1967).  That was an entertaining and well-plotted story, so I thought it would be fun to review the other tale as well.



The Rat Patrol is a normally a mobile unit, using their two jeeps to mount surprise hit-and-run raids on the Germans, then get out of Dodge as quickly as possible. But in "...And Not a Drop to Drink," (writer unknown; Jose Delbo is the artist) has them ordered to form a static defense at an oasis. They are expected to hold the oasis so that the water is available when a major Allied attack is launched in two days.

When given the mission, Troy had bragged that his four men were as good as an army, but they are going to have to hold the oasis against a lot of German soldiers who are supported by a tank. So, when the Germans approach, the first task is to get rid of that tank.



An anti-tank mine is buried nearby, then Troy and Hitch use their jeep to lure the tank onto the mine.

That still leaves the Germans. It's here that we might expect an all-out battle scene. And, since Jose Delbo has been giving us some pretty nifty-looking action scenes throughout the issue, an all-out battle scene would have been a welcome addition to the story.



But the writer goes in a different, equally interesting direction, possibly lifted from the 1943 Bogart movie Sahara. The Gerrmans are mad with thirst. Desperate for water, they toss their guns away and charge into the oasis, where they are easily taken prisoner.


Troy has a brief tussle with the German general to capture him and that pretty much wraps up their mission. There's an interesting bit of dialogue at the end, though. Tully muses about how "This sure ain't much of a war," remarking about how its easy to fight a relatively faceless enemy, but seeing the Germans up close has uncomfortably reminded him of their humanity.  It's a nice moment and is effectively presented.

So that wraps up our visit with the Rat Patrol. Next week, we get a reminder that when you take one cool thing (say--Tarzan) and mix it with another cool thing (say--pirates), you pretty much always get a exceptionally cool story.

Monday, July 16, 2018

Cover Cavalcade


From 1927. The '20s--when observed through a nostalgia filter--was a pretty cool decade. But since they didn't have this in real life, they obviously weren't cool enough.

Saturday, July 14, 2018

Friday, July 13, 2018

Friday's Favorite OTR

Dragnet: The Big Sorrow  12/27/51



This is the episode broadcast after Barton Yarborough, who had played Friday's partner Ben Romero, died suddenly. The character died with the actor--in the episode, Friday must deal with his partner's unexpected death from a heart attack while tracking down a pair of dangerous crooks.

Click HERE to listen or download.

Thursday, July 12, 2018

Lady Lawyers and Suave Gangsters



I don't know why Glenda Farrell isn't better remembered today. Of course, those of us with the good taste and natural brilliance to be fans of B-movie detectives know her quite well as newspaper reporter Torchy Blane, who teams up with her homicide detective boyfriend to solve crimes.

But Farrell brought her charm and quick wit to other films as well. In 1936, for instance, she co-starred with Margaret Lindsey in The Law in Her Hands. The two had just become lawyers, opening an office together and hoping to build a successful practice.



Margaret Lindsey is Mary Wentworth, who at first insists they run their practice ethically, even turning down a huge retainer to work for local gangster Frank Gordon. Glenda plays Dot Davis, Mary's best friend and partner, who is at first annoyed at losing the large fee, but goes along with it when Mary explains who Gordon is.

But its hard for two brand-new female lawyers to build up a pool of paying clients and Mary eventually decides to represent Gordon's mob minions in court. This puts her at odds with her boyfriend, an assistant D.A. who wants to nail Gordon.

Mary's pretty good at getting her clients off, employing clever tactics to do so. But when some local restaurants won't go in on Gordon's protection racket, he has their milk poisoned. The resultant deaths give Mary an attack of conscience and she refuses to continue to work for Gordon.

Circumstances soon put Mary in a difficult spot. To save the life of the assistant D.A., she might be forced to defend Gordon anyways. But perhaps she can once again use some clever tactics, albeit tactics that are likely to get her disbarred, to save her boyfriend's life and send Gordon to the chair.



It's a fun movie that could have been too heavy in melodrama. Also, the plot flows along a little too loosely--it lacks the strong story construction that the best B-movies have. But Glenda's fast-talking and witty performance as Dot lightens up the mood and gives The Law in Her Hands just the right tone.

Character actor Eddie Acuff (another actor who should be better remember) also helps the mood as a process server who becomes a sort-of sidekick to the firm of Wentworth and Davis. He claims to be the best process server in New York, but his main skill seems to be his ability to take a punch when the people he's served get angry with him. With each successive appearance in the film, he's a little more beat-up than he was the last time.


Lyle Talbot as Gordon also deserves a mention in almost underplaying the part of the villain. He does not seem overtly evil at first and that leaves us room to accept that Mary can work for him (at least initially) without making her seem stupid or naive.

The courtroom tactics used in the film are, I suspect, somewhat less than realistic, but in a movie like this, that doesn't matter at all. The Law in Her Hands is a prime example of something I've been preaching in this blog for years. There were legitimate issues with the Studio System in terms of treating people fairly. But its strengths in giving studios the people they needed to produce quality films is undeniably. In this case, First National Productions (then owned by Warner Brothers) could dip into the pool of actors under contract to them and pick just the right actors to make this particular film work. Without Farrell, Acuff and Talbot, the same script would have been a melodramatic and poorly constructed mess. But with them in the film, it gives us 57 minutes of light-hearted entertainment.


Wednesday, July 11, 2018

The Shadow Meets the Avenger

cover art by Michael Kaluta 
I really, really wish that, back in the heyday of the pulps, Street and Smith had made a point of having their various pulp heroes crossover with each other from time to time. Heck, as I've written before, the supporting characters alone could have had some awesome team-ups.

Fortunately, later comic books and novels (such as those currently being written by Will Murray) fill in this gap. One of the first examples of this, though, might be DC's The Shadow #11 (June-July 1975), the penultimate issue of that sadly short-lived classic series.

This was written by Michael Uslan, with some excellent, atmospheric art by E.R. Cruz and it was my personal introduction to the character of the Avenger. By that point in my life, I had listened to at least a few Shadow radio shows (having whined at my mother until she bought me an LP featuring two episodes that I had seen at a local store) and I had read some of the Pyramid/Jove paperbacks reprinting the original Shadow pulps. So I had a handle on both these versions of the Shadow.

But, though Avenger paperbacks reprinting his excellent pulp adventures were also in print at the time, I had not yet read any of them. I don't remember if I had any idea who Richard Benson was when I bought this issue, but the Mike Kaluta cover alone would have sold me on giving it a try.



The story itself initially pits the Shadow and his agents against Justice, Incorporated.. Someone is planning on launching an invasion of the U.S. using an underground army and stolen military weapons. The weapon thefts are also being used to generate suspicion between different countries, which in turn threatens the start of a world war. Which, by the way, is a good way to make an invasion by an underground army plausible--they can strike while the U.S. is forced to deploy its military abroad.

Both the Shadow and the Avenger are investigating. But the Shadow's headquarters is then attacked by armed men. The attackers are defeated and one of them is captured. This turns out to be Smitty--one of the Avenger's men. And he helpfully confesses that the Avenger ordered the attack.


The Avenger, meanwhile, is having troubles of his own, when Margo Lane tries to assassinate him. Upon her capture, she helpfully acknowledges that the hit was ordered by the Shadow.


It's obvious to the reader that both agents have been brainwashed or hypnotized. Considering the ease with which they give away their respective bosses, one can argue that both the Shadow and the Avenger should have suspected shenanigans of this sort. But neither had met the other yet and rumors of the Shadow's often violent war against the underworld would have left him open to suspicion by an outsider looking in.

The script is tightly written and accomplishes an impressive amount of clear, strong storytelling in just 18 pages. I admit I'm tempted to whine a little about how a two- or three- part story arc might have been better, giving us more details about the initial investigations into the case by the two groups. But what we have is done so well that a complaint about something that wasn't written would be unfair. It's a fun what-might-have-been thought, though. I wonder if this might have happened if the book wasn't heading towards cancellation.


Both sets of good guys end up at a remote lighthouse being used as a rendezvous by the real villain. They fight briefly, but then the Shadow recognizes the Avenger as crime-fighter Richard Benson and realizes they've all been duped. The real villain then turns up and we discover that this is the Shadow's arch enemy Shiwan Khan, who is once again trying for world domination.

The Shadow's agents and Justice Incorporated abruptly find themselves on the same side, locked in a desperate struggle against Shiwan Khan's forces. I only recently re-acquired this issue as an adult, but I always vividly remembered the panel showing Richard Benson taking out a bad guy atop the lighthouse by making an epic knife throw.



Khan's men are defeated, so the Shadow and the Avenger go their separate ways--though not without some residual mutual suspicions. It's a neat way of ending the story--setting it up so that future encounters between the two heroes can either be adversarial or be a reluctant alliance.


So that was my introduction to the Avenger. It was also nearly the end of DC's The Shadow. Gee whiz, all you comic book readers of the 1970s, why weren't you buying The Shadow? I was. But the rest of you fell down on the job, didn't you? An excellent comic book adaptation of the Shadow properly set in the 1930s and it only ran 12 issues. I'm annoyed with the lot of you.

Next week, we'll visit again with the Rat Patrol.

Monday, July 9, 2018

Friday, July 6, 2018

Friday's Favorite OTR

Lone Ranger: "Steamboat on the River" 5/27/42


A steamboat is carrying explosives to be used in railroad construction. Those opposed to the railroad plan to blow up the boat. The Ranger and Tonto are tasked by the government to stop this.

Click HERE to listen or download.


Thursday, July 5, 2018

Combat General


A year or two ago, I wrote about a couple of World War II-set short stories I read as a kid and had finally tracked down as an adult. The author of these stories is William Chamberlain, a retired brigadier general who really knew his stuff.

I've since learned that Chamberlain was quite a prolific writer of fiction, both before and after his retirement from the military. In fact, I've just acquired a Western he wrote in the 1950s that I expect to eventually be reviewing on this blog.

But today, we'll stick to his World War II stories. Chamberlain's protagonists were nearly always officers, with his tales stressing the qualities that make a good combat leader. In 1963, he wrote a novel titled Combat General that continued on with the same themes.

Miles Boone is a "Pentagon general"--an officer who has been parked at a desk in Washington for the first three years of the U.S. involvement in the war. He's a highly trained officer and well-qualified on paper to command an armored unit, but he's too valuable on the home front to spare for a combat command.

Well, in December of 1944, he finally gets his chance. He's given command of an armored brigade stationed near the Argonne Forest in Belgium. It's a quiet sector, though. The higher-ups in the Allied Command consider it a good place to give the unit a rest after its seen hard combat.

Of course, if you are reading a World War II novel, you probably know the history of the war well enough to know that hundreds of German tanks and thousands of troops are soon going to be rolling out of the Forest to begin the Battle of the Bulge.

Even before this happens, Boone has looked at the maps and guessed that trouble might be coming. To get ready for that trouble, he has to lock horns with a commanding officer who doesn't like or trust him, a staff in his own unit who don't like him or trust him and an executive officer who doesn't like him or trust him.

Boone, though, could care less if anyone likes him. If they are subordinate to him, then they will, by golly, obey him. When the fighting starts and Boone's brigade is tasked with defending a key village against overwhelming odds, his men begin to realize that following his orders might be the only thing that gets them through the battle alive.

The novel is good from start to finish (though a rushed falling-in-love sequence with an expatriate American woman could have been easily dropped). There is one particular scene that stands out when Boone's second-in-command takes a dangerous chance, risking half the available tanks to surprise and destroy a regiment of German Tiger Tanks.

Ha! That'll show Boone! That'll show him what a real soldier can do!

Boone is less than impressed, though. In fact, he responds to this apparent victory by dressing down the exec, because the German losses weren't enough to change the overall odds against the Americans and it was only dumb luck that saved a big chunk of their own armor from being lost. It's a key character moment, defining Boone as a man who knows what he's doing and expects those he commands to act show good sense. Senseless heroics mean nothing if the battle is lost because of them.

Combat General was written for what we would today call the Young Adult audience. So no one swears and the descriptions of violence are not graphic. But the battle scenes are exciting, the examination of the qualities of leadership is insightful and the cost of war is effectively explored. It's well worth reading by adults as well as its target audience.


Wednesday, July 4, 2018

Pirate vs.... Duck?


The Disney Comic Book Universe is a weird place--a reality in which characters from different points in history and geography simultaneously exist in the same time and place.

For instance, there's a story where Uncle Scrooge visits Snow White and the drawfs simply by taking a walk in the woods. Never mind that these characters shouldn't exist on the same continent or in the same century. Chip and Dale teamed up with Dumbo--which itself is reasonable--but then had an encounter with the giant from Mickey and the Beanstalk. Jiminy Cricket once thumbed a ride from Pluto while trying to find Pinnocchio.

I'm not complaining about this weirdness. In fact, I think its wonderful. Many fictional universes need a firm continuity for their stories to be properly told. But the Disney Universe is a silly, loose-knit and amorphous place, allowing for continuity to step aside so that we can have really cool team-ups.

Which brings us to Donald Duck #119 (May 1968) and the story "Voyage to Azatlan." (Written by Vic Lockman and drawn by Tony Strobl.) Donald is at the library--trying to come up with a way of impressing his nephews--when he encounters his sea-faring cousin Moby Duck.


Moby is researching the Aztecs, which seems like an odd thing for a salty whale-hunter to be doing. But Moby is on the trail of a treasure--he's found out that the Aztecs used to live on an  island called Azatlan before moving to Mexico. He thinks there still might be gold cached on the island.

So its off to Azatlan, with Donald tagging along. To find the old Aztec settlement, they have to reach the island's central lake. Moby comes up with the idea of using his harpoon gun to fire dynamite-equipped lines ahead of his ship, blasting out a waterway that he can then sail through to the lake.




I'm not entirely sure why they didn't just walk across the island, but then, I'm not a salty, sea-faring duck with years of experience at this sort of thing, so what do I know?

Anyway, they get to the lake and soon find the gold. They also find some Aztecs whose ancesters moved back to the island to excape the Spanish.



I really enjoy the fact that both Moby and Donald immediately realize that they can't simply take the gold. It doesn't belong to them and neither are thieves. If this had been a Scrooge story, he would have gotten angry and/or struggled with his conscious for a moment before doing (as he always does) the right thing by refusing to steal. But our protagonists here aren't Scrooge and, though disappointed, their casual acceptance of the situation feels true to their characters.

Moby jumps to Plan B and offers trade goods to the Aztecs. It turns out that the locals really, really like the taste of hardtack, so a food-for-gold deal is quickly struck.



But when the ducks return to the sea, they find Captain Hook waiting for him.

I realize I was just saying that the Disney Universe has room to ignore logic in order to bring characters together, but... well, I can't help it. I've got to come up with a "logical" explanation for this even if no such explanation is needed.

According to Peter Pan (the orginal novel), Hook was a cousin of Blackbeard. So he once sailed under the black flag in the real world (which in this case is populated by anthropomorphic animals as well as humans). Then he somehow finds his way to Neverland. If we assume that adults don't age in Neverland (just as children never grow up), then he could have lived there battling Peter for centuries. In the Disney version of the story, we don't actually see him eaten by the crocodile (as he is in the novel), so we can presume he escaped and then eventually found his way back into the real world in time to encounter Moby and Donald.

There you go. It all makes sense now. Right?




Anyway, never tie a sea-faring duck to his own harpoon gun. Especially when that harpoon gun is STILL loaded with dynamite.  It's not just a harpoon gun--it's a Chekov's gun!



There's one more plot twist to go, though. When Donald gets home, he discovers that the "gold" was actually goat butter. So Donald isn't wealthy. But that's okay. Hardtack dipped in melted butter tastes great and Donald has finally impresses his nephews.

"Voyage to Aztalan" is fun to read and fun to look at. I often praise comics on this blog for having strong plots AND cohesive continuities, but there are time when a silly plot and a silly continuity does the job just as well.

Next week, we'll look at a comic book in which DC Comics gave us an absolutely epic pulp hero team-up.

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