Friday, March 27, 2020

Friday's Favorite OTR

Sherlock Holmes: "The Laughing Lemur of High Tower Heath" 10/26/47

In this spooky and atmospheric story, it appears that centuries-dead witch is threatening the life of a child. Holmes is asked to investigate and find a more rational explanation.

Click HERE to listen or download.

Thursday, March 26, 2020

Last Stand in a Light House

Naked City, the TV series that spun off from the 1948 film, was a show that could only exist in black-and-white, with men wearing fedoras and police detectives wielding .38 Specials. Running from 1958 through 1963 (with a one-year gap between the 1st and 2nd seasons), it was a noirish police procedural that followed NYC detectives as they worked methodically to solve cases.

The original movie was reasonably realistic. The TV show followed procudural logic and were well-written, while amped up the violence considerably The cops were more often than not forced to gun down the bad guys at the climax, but the stories and outcomes fit quite nicely with the NYC location photography and the grim nature of the crimes being committed.

The first season's "The Bird Guard" (November 25, 1958) begins with the brutal execution of a mob boss in a barbershop--which seems to be a pretty traditional location for killing mob bosses. A couple of hitmen riddle him with submachine gun bullets.

One of the strengths of this episode is the little touches used to individualize the bad guys. One of these hitmen, for instance, wears horn-rimmed glasses and is later in the story referred to as a "college boy" by one of his partners. Other mobsters also have attributes that help them stand out as individuals. This doesn't affect the plot in any way, but it adds a little verisimilitude to the story.

The mob boss was killed by an up-and-coming rival and an informant lets the cops know that the dead guy has a girlfriend. She was given a packet full of evidence against the rival. This was supposed to be a way of protecting her life, but I'm not sure how that was supposed to work. Predictably, it made her the rival's next target.

Detective Halloran (James Franciscus) tracks the girl down to a lighthouse where her father works. He goes there alone, which proves to be unwise, because a trio of hitmen led by the rival have been trailing him. Two of the hitmen still wield submachine guns.

That last bit is a little contrived--there's no reason for the new mob boss to personally accompany his men on the hit. But what follows is a lot of fun--a tension-filled last stand at the lighthouse. Halloran has his revolver and six shots. The bad guys have automatic weapons and lots of ammo. And, in the rush to set up some sort of defense, Halloran simply doesn't think to use the lighthouse's radio-telephone until he's cut off from it. (An incident that is saved from being another contrivance or a plot hole simply by having Halloran admit he screwed up.)

The Last Stand sequence is very well-done, full of real suspense as Halloran is gradually forced to use up his revolver ammo and then switch to a shotgun that only has one shell in it. His ammo situation is made even more desperate by one particular hitman--a perpetually angry killer who just won't die no matter how many times he's shot. 

In the end, Halloran has to pull a bold bluff on the bad guys to pull out a win. 

During the first season, The Naked City featured tightly-written and well-told Noir stories photographed directly on the mean streets of New York. "The Bird Guard" is one of the highlights of that season and is well-worth watching. Even though you have to suffer through commercials, it is free to watch on IMDB TV.

Wednesday, March 25, 2020

Thor vs. the Greek Army

cover art by Keith Pollard
As we've seen before, Roy Thomas' love for Golden Age superheroes would cause him to drop those heroes into a story at the drop of a hat should he have the slightest opportunity to do so.

He was also quite a fan of ancient mythology, so when presented with an opportunity to incorporate that bit of his personal fandom into a story, he would not hesitate to do so. And, since he was a good writer, the end result would often be a fun story.

We see this in the Thomas-penned tale in Thor Annual #8 (1979), a tale set in Thor's younger days, which happen to coincide with the Trojan War. Thus, the story is in many ways a retelling of the Iliad, with Thor given a guest-starring role.

John Buscema did the breakdowns for this issue, with Tony DeZuniga stepping in to do the finished art and the inking. I love the work of both men and the finished product here is beautiful, but there is a part of me that suspects that it would have looked even more awesome if Buscema had done the finished art himself.

The story opens with Thor and Loki fighting a skirmish with some frost giants, in an area that Thor recognizes as an area that once contained a rift that led to Olympus. The battle with the giants reopens that rift, which Loki quickly decides to investigate. Thor goes after him, but the tunnel branches off in different directions and the two gods are separated. A mist in the tunnel also gives them both temporary amnesia.

But amnesia doesn't keep Thor from being able to kick butt. Or in this specific case, kick giant boar butt. He saves Aeneas, an ally of King Priam of Troy, from a wounded beast.

Aeneas had sneaked out of Troy, currently besieged by the Greeks, to go hunting, so Thor accompanies him back to the city. Thor, in the meantime, gradually regains his memory.

What follows is essentially Cliff Notes version of the Iliad, with a flashback bringing us up to speed on the Helen of Troy thing, followed by highlights of some of the important action, such as Aphrodite saving her wounded son Aeneas and Diomedes (wth a power boost from Athena) wounding two of the Greek gods.

Thor, since he's befriended Aeneas, jumps on on the Trojan side when the young man is wounded.

 But Zeus objects to an upstart god from another pantheon interfering in the war. He and Thor end up in an epic fight that lasts for days, while the events of the Iliad play out back on Earth.

Thor is outmatched by Zeus, but the Thunder God refuses to quit. He's afraid that his defeat will lead to a destructive war between Asgard and Olympus.

Zeus, though, has an ancient non-aggression pack with Odin, so Thor has no reason to be concerned. Consequently, he and Zeus eventually shake hands, call it a draw and agree that the gods from both pantheons simply need to leave both the Trojans and the Greeks alone. (Actually, Asgard and Olympus did eventually get into a tiff, as was recounted three years earlier in Thor Annual #5.)

cover art by Jack Kirby

But, in a twist that is somehow both predictable and cool, Thor finds Loki and discovers the trickster god had given the Greeks the idea for the Trojan Horse.

Earlier, I called this story a Cliff Notes version of the Iliad and that might have sounded like a put-down. It wasn't. This retelling of a classic myth is well-written, well-illustrated and entertaining. I think that tossing a superhero into an ancient myth can be seen as a tribute to those myths, without which the superheroes they inspired would likely never have existed at all.

Next week, we'll take a look at another story from my favorite comic book of all time: Dell's Indian Chief.

Friday, March 20, 2020

Friday's Favorite OTR

Sam Spade: "The Prodigal Panda Caper" 12/29/50

The episodes with Steven Dunne always lack something, because the role of the radio version of Sam so thoroughly belonged to Howard Keel. But this episode is a lot of fun nonetheless, involving a rash of stolen stuffed panda bears.

Click HERE to listen or download.

Thursday, March 19, 2020

Keeping Your Cool Even When Turned into an Animal: The Pusadian Tales, Part 6

Read/Watch 'em In Order #108

There was a 16-year gap after "Ka the Appalling" was published in 1958 before L. Sprague de Camp returned to his Pusadian tales, with a new story becoming part of the 1974 anthology Flashing Swords #2, edited by Lin Carter.

Interestingly, about the same amount of time had passed for Gezun of Lorsk between "Ka the Appalling" and "The Rug and the Bull." In the meantime, he has sort-of settled down to being a family man. He ended up marrying Ro, the lady he ran off with at the end of  the previous story, and they now have three kids.

But "settled down" doesn't really describe Gezun's married life, as they are still often on the run from one nemesis or another after another of Gezun's schemes to make money don't quite work out.

As this new story opens, Gezun arrives in the city of Torrutseish, which had been the location of the adventure he had experienced in "The Hungry Hercynian (1953)". Returning is a bit risky, as he had left that city hurriedly after having made an enemy out of a magician named Bokarri. But Gezun figures that after so many years, there's no real risk. He had recently gained possession of a flying carpet and the knowledge of how to make more, so he plans to get in touch with the head of the magician's guild and open up a flying carpet factory.

But the head of the guild is Bokarri, who holds grudges for a very long time. But the flying carpet scheme is potentially lucrative and so avarice trumps vengence. He and Gezun form a partnership.

"The Rug and the Bull" is full of the same sort of clever plotting and dry humor that graces all the Pusadian stories. When Gezun test-rides his carpet for the king (who is a tad overweight), the overloaded carpet barely gets off the ground and lands awkwardly. But the king recognizes the potential value and is willing to give Gezun another tryout in a month.

But during that time, the various transportation guilds (porters, coachmen, boatmen, etc) grow worried about flying carpets hurting their own businesses. And, when offered enough money by these guilds, Bokarri pretty much jumps at a chance to betray Gezun. Consequently, Gezun finds his soul transported into the body of a bull about to take its turn in the bullfighting ring.

But Gezun handles this situation with remarkable aplomb and a bull with human intelligence can accomplish equally remarkable things during a bullfight. That includes turning a profit even though his flying carpet scheme now seems to be a lost cause.

As far as I know, "The Rug and the Bull" has never been reprinted anywhere, so reading it will require getting hold of a copy of Flashing Swords #2. This is worth doing, though, as all four stories in it are excellent fantasy tales.

There is one more Pusadian story out there, but it's only appearance seems to have been in a mazazine titled Weirdbook and I've been unable to locate back issues that fall within my budget, so our visit to de Camp's mythical Bronze Age civilization will probably end here. I have hopes that all the Pusadian tales will one day be anthologized together and re-printed, but who knows when that may happen. At the moment, I haven't decided what to cover next in the In Order series.

Wednesday, March 18, 2020

Spider Man Doesn't Quite Fight Dracula

cover art by John Romita
Some aspects of Giant Size Spider Man #1 (1974) seem hastily or carelessly written, so I wonder if writer Len Wein and artist Ross Andru were told "Spider Man vs. Dracula, guys. Right now!" and given a tight deadline to come up with something.

On the other hand, Andru's art looks typically cool (I always like his work on Spider Man) and the story has its strong points as well.

It actually starts with a weak point, though, as several pages are wasted when Spidey has an inconclusive encounter with a jewel thief who apparently has ice powers. Since he'll soon be borrowing a rocket plane from Johnny Storm, this opening scene exists merely to set up a Human Torch/Iceman team-up in that month's issue of Marvel Team-Up, also written by Wein. I'm a fan of Wein's work, but that's a sneaky little cross-promotion that takes pages away from the story we are supposed to be reading.

The story finally gets started when Peter finds out Aunt May is deathly ill yet again. Only a vaccine being brought over on a cruise ship by a doctor named A.J. Maxfield can save her.  (We'll ignore the fact that vaccines are meant to prevent disease, not cure them. It's a slip that any writer might make.) Maxfield is terrified of flying, which explains the cruise ship travel.

So Peter heads to the Baxter Building to borrow a rocket plane and fetch Maxfield and the vaccine to NYC in time to save May, taking a panel to tell Johnny about the jewel thief before he leaves.

It turns out other people are looking for the good doctor as well. A Maggai crime boss wants to snatch Maxfield and ransom back the vaccine for a pardon for past crimes. He's brought along a small army of thugs disguised as members of the ship's band.

The other person looking for Maxfield is Dracula, Lord of the Vampires. Here we hit another couple of weak spots in the story. Dracula's motivation for killing Maxfield is some vague "That vaccine might interfere with my plans for world conquest" line of reasoning that is spoken and dismissed in one panel. I get the impression that Wein couldn't come up with a truly logical reason to get Dracula on the ship and just tossed in a line of dialogue to get that whole issue out of the way.

Peter resumes his civilian clothes when he gets on the boat. He and Drac then encounter each other for the first and only time in the story. For some reason, Peter's Spidey Sense is on the fritz, as he walks past one of the most dangerous beings in the world without a qualm.

I seem to keep dumping on this story, but--though I do think my criticisms are legitimate--I do enjoy it in the end. Of course, the story upends our expectations by never having Spidey and Dracula directly fight each other. A reader could see this as another weakness. On the other hand, both characters headline their own comics, so a fight between them would have to have been inconclusive. So perhaps the direction in which Wein took the story is the best one.

 Anyway, Dracula soon encounters and easily disposes of some of the Maggai thugs. He also drains a young lady of much of her blood, which causes the captain to summon Maxfield to the ship's clinic to help treat her. A nice twist here is that a man and a woman both arrive, with Peter (and later both Dracula and the Maggai) automatically assuming the man is Maxfield. We don't find out until the last few pages that the good doctor is a lady.

When the Maggai thugs kidnap the wrong guy, Spider Man starts luring them out onto the deck by blocking hatchways with webbing. Thus, they know who is after them and, in a truly funny moment, the thugs mistake a random guy in a Spidey costume as the real thing.

But the real Spidey is close by and begins taking out the thugs. I really do enjoy the sense of motion and action Ross Andru put into fight scenes.

Nearby, Dracula takes out a remaining thug by shattering his mind with hypnosis, which is kind of cool. He then disposes of the Maggai crime boss and tosses the man he assumes to be Maxfield overboard. Convinced he's completed his mission, he changes into a bat and flies off.

Spidey, by this time, had ended up crawling over the outer hull of the ship, looking for "Maxfield" and doubting that he'll just "drop from the clouds." In yet another sincerely funny moment, they guy drops down on top of Spidey.
With all the villains captured, dead or gone, Spidey soon finds out who the real doctor is. Maxfield is willing to overcome her fear of flying to save a life, so she accepts an offer of a rocket plane trip to New York. Aunt May is saved.

So there are a lot of little things wrong with this story--the wasted pages plugging a completely different book; the overuse of a sick Aunt May to drive a Spider Man plot; the vagueness of Dracula's motivation for killing the doctor; the absense of Spider Sense warning while walking past a vampire. But I actually like the subversion of not having the two main characters actually meet even while working at odds to one another; the humorous moments work; Andru's art is fun; and the way the action is structured (with Spidey forced to pretty much keep running around the ship searching for or rescuing fake "Maxfield") keeps the pacing swift.

Next week, we'll stay in the Marvel Universe but travel back in time to take part in the Trojan War.

Monday, March 16, 2020

Cover Cavalcade

Dennis appears to be more helpful than menacing in this uncredited cover from 1969.

Friday, March 13, 2020

Friday's Favorite OTR

Burns and Allen: "Gracie Appears in Traffic Court" 6/1/43

George is in big trouble with the law when Gracie doesn't tell him about a parking ticket she got months ago. Fortunately, Gracie has a brilliant plan for getting George off that can't possibly go wrong.

Click HERE to listen or download.

Thursday, March 12, 2020

Ike had Great Taste in Westerns

I've always known that Dwight Eisenhower read Westerns to relax. So, being who I am, when something made me think about that recently, I emailed the Eisenhower library to see if there was a list of the books he read during World War II.

Sadly, a complete list does not exist, but I did find out this: On the day Germany surrendered, Ike read the book Cartridge Carnival, by William Colt MacDonald, to relax. It's quite likely he was reading the Armed Services Edition pictured above.

It was, at the time, a new book, published in 1945. So, whether Ike's copy was an Armed Services Edition, kudos to the guys running that program for selecting and publishing a quality Western for the troops so quickly.

Because Cartridge Carnival is really, really good. It's set in the town of Carnival, where the town's weekly, four-page newspaper--the Banner--has been editorializing against Rafe Harper, the current mayor. And there's good reason for this. Harper runs a crooked gambling house, is involved in cattle rustling, and (we eventually find out) is not above blackmailing people into helping him.

So when the Banner's publisher is killed, suspicion would normally fall on Harper or one of his hired thugs. But the publisher was killed inside a locked building and is holding a gun with one cartridge fired. The death is ruled a suicide.

A wandering cowboy named Stormy Knight thinks it might be murder. Stormy ends up befriending Kate Sanford, the publisher's daughter, and going partners with her on the newspaper. So Stormy has to learn the newspaper business fast while simultaneously investigating the supposed suicide and, incidentally, stay alive long enough to get the next issue out.

Stormy is a great character. At first it seems as if he did just wander into Carnival by chance, but we soon get hints that he might be more than he appears. He's quick with a gun and deadly in a fight, but he also has a strong sense of justice, a growing love for Kate and a dry sense of humor that makes us like him all the more. He and Harper begin clashing almost right away, but Stormy won't back down. With the help of Kate and a shotgun-wielding typesetter named Quad Wrangel, he begins to chip away at Harper's corrupt administration.

The action scenes are great--especially the climatic brutal gun fight-- and the murder mystery element adds a nice Sherlockian touch to the story.  MacDonald also sneaks in information about running a small newspaper in the Old West that I found fascinating, but the prose never slows down during these moments. Getting the paper out is  important part of Stormy's campaign against Harper, so these short "how to publish a paper" tutorials are a natural part of the overall story.

Of course, I still want to read more Westerns recommended by Ike. This article includes a list of some of his favorite authors and some of the specific books he read during key moments of his presidentry. It's a pity no comprehensive list from his years as Supreme Allied Commander exist, but I'll still happily dive into the novels from his presidential years.

Wednesday, March 11, 2020

Aliens, Body Swapping and Horrible Hallucinations

In 1961, just before Atlas Comics became Marvel Comics and jumped back into the superhero business, yet another of its many science fiction anthologies hit the newsstands. Amazing Adventures #1 (June 1961) featured three stories, the first of which was written by Larry Lieber and drawn by Jack Kirby.

During this time, the Earth was getting invaded a lot by many different aliens. It seems that every other Wednesday was Alien Invasion Day. You could almost set your watch by it.

"Torr" tells the story of one of those invasions, though it starts out as if its a murder mystery, with a man named Paul Ramsey on trial for murdering his friend John Carter.

I don't know, by the way, if using the name "John Carter" was a shout-out to Edgar Rice Burroughs. It would be fun if it is, though, so let's go with that.

Anyway, Paul and John were atronomers who observe a space ship landing on earth. The guy flying that ship is a monsterous alien named Torr, who communicates via telapathy and amkes no bones about his plans to conquer Earth and enslave humanity.

John takes a potshot at Torr with a shotgun, which does no immediate harm to the alien, but makes him realize that there might be more weapons on Earth capable of hurting him. After forcing the two humans into a cave and blocking off the entrance, he then proceeds to switch bodies with John Carter. Once this is done, he is in complete control of Carter's body, but Carter can't quite manage to control Torr's body, which Torr-inside-John can control with thought waves.

The idea here is that Torr can now look over Earth and start his conquest without anyone knowing he's there. He forces Paul to drive him into the city, giving Paul a wristwatch-like device that can't come off. If Paul tells anyone about Torr, the device will send a signal to Torr's people, telling them where Earth is.

Torr also helpfully explains how he'll conquer Earth on his own--by releasing a hypnotic vapor that will cause everyone to hallucinate horrible, nightmarish events until they surrender.

Though Torr keeps hiting the stereotype of the Evil Villain who explains his plans for no reason, the plan itself is a pretty scary and dramatically effective threat, while the device Paul wears that keeps him from telling anyone about Torr is a unique plot twist.

Anyway, Paul realizes the only thing that can stop Torr is to kill him, even though it means killing his friend's body. And that's how Paul ends up on trial for murder while refusing to explain why he did it.

Up to now, clever ploting and typically wonderful Jack Kirby art have moved the story along nicely--especially Jack's images of a world engulfed in nightmare hallucinations. I'm not sure I care for the final plot twist, though, in which John Carter comes back to life because Paul had actually shot Torr.

I don't think this quite makes sense even in context of this story. It is John's body that still has bullet holes in it, regardless of whose life force was inhabiting it at the moment he was shot. Also, the story might have arguably been more effective if it ended with John being executed for the murder, performing what was essentially an act of self-sacrifice to save humanity.

This is arguable, though, and the story is overall a very good one.

Next week, Spider Man meets Dracula... almost.

Monday, March 9, 2020

Friday, March 6, 2020

Friday's Favorite OTR

Suspense: "My Own Murderer" 5/24/45

Herbert Marshall plays a less-than-honest lawyer who hides a client (played by Norman Lloyd) who has just committed a murder. The two men loathe each other, but the fact that they can also blackmail each other should generate mutual trust. Neither of them can afford to betray the other. There's nothing wrong with that line of reasoning, is there?

Click HERE to listen or download.

Thursday, March 5, 2020

Live Action Disney Movies Don't Get Enough Credit

It's true. Live-action Disney films from the 1950s through the 1970s don't get enough credit. Everyone remembers their animated films--and they should. The Disney animated canon is stuffed with classics. And a few live-action films, most notably Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, are well-remembered. But there's a lot of films that have fallen through the cracks and aren't well-remembered by more than a few brilliant bloggers and other smarter-than-average people.

Candleshoe (1977) is, for instance, an incredibly fun movie. Staring a 15-year-old Jodie Foster, it's about a kid who makes her living as a thief until she's found by British con artist Harry Bundage (Leo McKern). The kid, named Casey, is the right age and happens to have the right scar on her shoulder to pass as the long-lost granddaugther of Lady Gwendolyn St. Edmond (Helen Hayes). Lady Gwendolyn lives at the estate of Candleshoe, where a pirate ancestor has supposedly buried a treasure and left behind the first of a series of cryptic clues that would lead people to that treasure.

So the idea is for Casey to pass herself off as the granddaughter while searching for the treasure. Then she and Harry run for it with the pirate gold.

Casey's subsequent story arc is predictable, but good acting, good script and some beautiful location photography means it all comes together in a funny story that also hits some effective emotional beats

Aside from Lady Gwendolyn, Candleshoe is inhabited by Priory the butler  (David Niven) and four orphans Lady Gwendolyn took in and came to think of as family.

At first, Casey and the other kids dislike each other and Casey isn't planing on being around long anyways. But she soon discovers Lady Gwendolyn is out of money, but that Priory and the kids are keeping this a secret from her while they do what they can to scrape together enough money to pay the taxes and keep the estate from going up for auction. Priory, in fact, is using disguises to keep Lady Gwen from finding out the rest of the staff has long since been let go. (Though we later learn that Lady Gwen might be a little more on the ball than her makeshift family suspects.)

Casey's growth into a true member of the family is indeed predictable, but it extremely well-done, shown through sometimes subtle moments such as when we see her washing dishes after earlier having refused to help with chores. Eventually, after Harry steals the money that had been saved to pay the taxes, she tells the family everything and they get together to solve the remaining clues, find the treasure and save the estate. This will include chasing a train across the countryside to find a particular clue and later engaging in some hilarious slapstick combat against Harry and a gang of hired thugs.

So Candleshoe is enjoyable, funny and emotionally engaging--a live-action gem that should be better remembered than it is.

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