Sunday, September 15, 2019

Long Pants – Harry Langdon Dreams of Romance

Review by Steve D. Stones

Long Pants, also known as Johnny Newcomer, is a 1927 silent era comedy directed by Frank Capra and starring comic genius Harry Langdon. This is the second and final collaboration between Capra and Langdon. (This is Plan9Crunch's second original Harry Langdon post this month, in recognition of the upcoming Harry Langdon Film Festival later this month in Fremont, Calif.)

In the film, Langdon plays baby faced Harry Shelby, a youngster who dreams of romance by going to the Oak Grove Public Library to check out reading material, such as Desire Under The Elms, to read in the privacy of his house attic. His parents hope that he will get married one day. His mother (Gladys Brockwell) says to his father (Alan Roscoe) “Short pants are keeping him off the street.” Young Shelby eventually grows out of the short pants and his life changes when he starts to wear longer pants.

One day, a beautiful femme fatale named Bebe Blair (Alma Bennett) gets a flat tire in front of Shelby's home. The driver of the car leaves to get help with the flat tire. Shelby sees Blair in the car and immediately falls in love with her. Shelby rides his bike around Blair's car in an attempt to get her attention and impress her. Eventually the two have a long kiss in the car just before the driver returns.

After Blair and the driver leave, Shelby finds a note on the ground that mentions getting married. Shelby assumes it is addressed to him from Blair and starts to dance happily in the street. Little does he know that Blair has no interest in him even though they both kissed. Blair has a boyfriend in the mob.

Although Shelby is to be married to his childhood sweetheart - Priscilla (Priscilla Bonner) and attend a Egg Festival with her, he dreams of being with Blair. On his wedding day to Priscilla, Shelby sees a front page headline in the local newspaper that Blair has been arrested. Apparently Blair is mixed up in a big crime racket.

On that same day of his wedding, Shelby asks his bride-to-be to take a walk with him out into the woods. He takes a gun with him in order to murder Priscilla. Some of the funniest sequences can be seen during this part of the film. He asks Priscilla to close her eyes and count to five hundred as he slowly backs away from her in the forest to pull out the gun and shoot her. The problem is, however, that the gun keeps sliding down his pant leg, and he eventually backs into a barbed wire fence, then steps into a bear trap. Great comic, slap stick sequences during this part of the film.

The wedding is called off as Shelby comes to Blair's aide to help her escape from jail. After the escape, Shelby carries Blair around in a large crate on his back. A basket of light bulbs placed on the crate by a street worker begin to slide off the crate one by one as Shelby and Blair think gun shots are being fired at them. Some more great comedy sequences.

I find some of the more subtle images in the opening sequences to be the most interesting in the film, such as a shot of a swinging wood gate in front of a house, wrinkled long pants blowing in the wind on a clothes line, and the closing of an attic opening as young Shelby retires to the attic to read romance novels. These images help to symbolize Shelby's fate in the film.

Although Long Pants was a box office flop and signaled a downward spiral for the career of Harry Langdon, it is still required viewing for any Langdon fan. Kino Video released a DVD of Long Pants in 2000 with two other Langdon films included on the DVD – The Strong Man and Tramp, Tramp, Tramp with Joan Crawford. Don't miss this release if you're a Langdon fan. Happy viewing.

Sunday, September 8, 2019

Aging Harry Langdon still carries comedy short Piano Mooner

Review by Doug Gibson

Harry Langdon certainly did his best comedy shorts work in the first half of the 1920, silents such as "All Night Long" "Saturday Morning," "Fiddlesticks, "Boobs in the Woods,"and many more. He made some above-average early sound shorts with Hal Roach's studio and with Educational and Paramount studios, often paired with Vernon Dent.

The last decade or so of his life, though, a healthy percentage of Langdon's screen acting credits were with Columbia making two-reel comedy shorts. Into the 1940s, the actor began to show his age. He still acted as the "Little Elf," but the face was puffy, with age lines and a paunch. I have a fondness for some of his late shorts though. He gamely carries on with low budgets, quick schedules and by-the-numbers plot. He brings magic to these films.

That brings us to "Piano Mooner," released by Columbia in December 1942. Although it has the chaos and ultra slapsticky dosage of the Columbia shorts, it's an enjoyable 16-plus minutes, with a surprisingly concise plot. Harry plays Harry, a Little Elf-type piano tuner who really wants to marry his fiance, Mildred, (Gwen Kenyon) but only if he can do it with a proper set of dress tails. In the opening scene, Mildred is explaining this to her menacing, pistol-toting brother (Stanley Blystone) who threatens to use his pistol on Harry if the marriage does not occur by 3 p.m.

Harry put an ad in the paper, he'll tune a piano for a suit of tails. In a funny scene where he waits for a call, Harry sits on a couch and pushes springs back in the seat that keep springing out. A Mrs. Gibson (Betty Blythe) calls and says he can tune the family piano and she'll give him a suit and tails.

At the Gibson home, a wedding is being prepared for the family's daughter. Harry gets to work on the piano, which offers another funny scene of him discovering it's infested with birds. Although scenes in the short are helmed haphazardly by the director (Harry Edwards) Langdon adds to their value by underplaying the role. In the manner he made famous as a silent star, he uses his face to express befuddlement and mild emotion.

At the Gibson home is a marriage-obsessed maid (Fifi D'Orsay) who gets it in her mind that Langdon, who announced that he's getting married, plans to marry her. Employing a lot of physical comedy (which in the Columbia sense means she falls down a lot and generally takes a lot of lumps) she tries very hard to keep Harry from keeping the suit and tails that Mrs. Gibson has given him.

Orsay was a big star in the early days of talkies and obviously her wattage had diminished by late 1942. But she is a unique co-star for Langdon and does a good job in an obviously stereotypical role. (She has the kind of role that generally would have been played to less effect by say, Columbia comedy shorts regular Elsie Ames).

Interludes at the Gibson home include Harry and the bride-to-be at the Gibson place walking down the aisle as a practice role, only to be discovered by Mildred's violent brother, who goes after Harry with pistols blazing. Other comedy interludes involve Harry setting off a sprinkler, and losing his suit and tails (temporarily) to a man from the mission collecting used clothes. Another has Harry learning from a guest at the Gibson house that he's late for his own wedding. Another involves Harry taking back his suit and tails from a scheming Fifi; and finally, Harry and Mildred escaping from a chaotic wedding scene at the Gibson home on a motorcycle with sidecar.

Betty Blythe was a silent movie screen siren around 1920. She and Langdon co-starred in a very entertaining Producers Releasing Corp. 1940 film, "Misbehaving Husbands," They had excellent chemistry as a married couple dealing with the wife's suspicions that Harry was unfaithful. The film, I have read, was a successful B movie. It would have been interesting to see if Harry and Betty could have made a series of domestic comedies for PRC, but it was not to be.

Director Edwards, who among other credits, directed "Tramp, Tramp, Tramp," Langdon's first feature, was at the end of his career. Some say that alcoholism had damaged him professionally. The Three Stooges, and Vera Vague, refused to work with him on Columbia comedy shorts. Perhaps because of their long association, Edwards' best late Columbia work seems to be with Harry Langdon. Harry's signature brand of restrained comedy tempered any haphazard, sloppy directing work by Edwards. Soon after Langdon's death in late 1944, Edwards was let go by Columbia.

It's easy to find a lot of Langdon's Columbia shorts on the Internet. However, until someone produces a DVD of his Columbia shorts, what's available are ragged, choppy, faded prints. Nevertheless, watch Piano Mooner (above) and get past the tattered print and already-old slapstick and watch Harry Langdon elevate a one-week two-reeler by working well with an old movie-making partner, Harry Edwards.

Sunday, September 1, 2019

Bert I. Gordon and grasshoppers! Beginning of the End

Remembering Bert I Gordon's Beginning of the End

Long before Peter Graves appeared in the hit 1960s TV show Mission Impossible, he began his acting career starring in a number of low budget science fiction films of the 1950s. Some of the low budget science fiction films that he appeared in include: Killers From Space, Red Planet Mars, It Conquered The World, and my favorite: Beginning of The End.

I have a fondness for insects, particularly grasshoppers. As a boy, I would hunt them down in the fields near my home and pull off their legs or place them in a milk carton and blow them up with Black Jack firecrackers. Sometimes I even liked to put them on anthills and watch the ants attack them.

As penance for my behavior, I have used them as a subject in many of my paintings. The large grasshoppers in Bert I. Gordon’s Beginning of The End would likely get their revenge on me if they knew how badly I treated them as a child.

The 1950s ushered in a series of science fiction films with the theme of something growing large as a result of atomic radiation. Giant spiders, giant grasshoppers, a giant bird, giant ants, a giant colossal man and even a giant reptile from Japan named Godzilla were all popular forms of entertainment for post-World War II movie-goers. Director Bert I. Gordon was the master of the “giant genre.” In fact, his initials spell BIG, so he was often referred to as “Mr. Big.”

A small town named Ludlow in the suburbs of Chicago has been entirely wiped out without a trace. Pretty photographer and newspaper journalist Audrey Ames, played by Peggie Castle, is there to report on the town's devastation. The local authorities and the military are anxious to keep the story quiet, so they forbid Castle from taking pictures and printing any information about the devastation. Her newspaper editor suggests she investigate the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

There she meets local entomologist Dr. Ed Waynewright, played by Peter Graves, who is conducting atomic experiments on plants. After being fascinated by Graves’ large plants, Castle convinces him and his laboratory assistant to look over the grounds of a recently destroyed warehouse near the Department of Agriculture. While investigating the grounds, they encounter several giant grasshoppers. Graves’ lab assistant is attacked and killed by one of them.

What I find so interesting about this film is the fact that actual grasshoppers are used in many of the scenes. Unlike so many giant insect films of the 1950s that use fake-looking paper mache or clay modeled insects, such as The Deadly Mantis, Monster From Green Hell or The Black Scorpion,

Beginning of The End manages to use the real thing, even if it is through a rear projection method on a screen. Even the giant ants in Gordon’s own 1977 film, Empire of The Ants appear to be very fake looking and unconvincing, unlike this film. Plus, the film is not dependent on the CGI effects that we see in so many films of today. This makes it much more authentic and interesting to me.

Like so many low-budget science fiction films of the 1950s, the film manages to use many stock footage shots of military men loading shells into cannons and running around with rifles. There are also stock shots of mass numbers of people running in the streets, similar to The Day the Earth Stood Still and Earth vs. The Flying Saucers. One particularly effective shot is of a woman standing in her high-rise Chicago apartment combing her hair after getting out of the shower. As she combs her hair in a white bathrobe, a giant grasshopper appears at her window, She screams loudly as the grasshopper breaks the window and the camera quickly zooms up close to the grasshopper’s head. (Too bad Oprah’s HARPO Studios in Chicago wasn’t around in the 1950s for the giant grasshoppers to pounce on!)

Other effective shots are of Graves and military men combing through a small forest as they encounter a number of grasshoppers. The grasshoppers actually look as though they’re walking between the trees as the men run to avoid them. One of the grasshoppers even manages to chase the army vehicle as it quickly drives out of the forest. These are some of the most effective sequences in the film. For unintentional humor, there is a sequence of Graves trying to capture a giant grasshopper so he can record the sounds it makes into a recorder. Somehow the grasshopper manages to make its way into a cage in Graves’ high-rise building laboratory in Chicago. How it managed to get through the door and into a cage in the lab is anyone’s guess, but it provides some unintentional humor in the film.

Also for laughs is the end sequence when the military general, played by veteran actor Morris Ankrum, uses the grasshopper call to drive them out into the nearby lake like the Pied Piper. An aerial view of the grasshoppers reveals that they are obviously floating in someone’s bathtub or bathroom sink. This is an important ending to the film, but also a very funny one too.
Beginning of The End is a film that taps into the atomic fears that so many viewers had in the post-World War II era of the 1950s. I highly recommend the film to any fan of low-budget science fiction films, especially insect lovers!
-- Steve D. Stones

Saturday, August 24, 2019

Bela Lugosi first gained talkie film notice in Tod Browning's The Thirteenth Chair

By Doug Gibson

Tod Browning's early talkie, "The Thirteenth Chair," 1929, suffers from the common maladies of early sound cinema. It's static, talky, and seems a recreation of a stage play, which it really is, as virtually every moment is "drawing room mystery" with scene after scene of familiar rooms. Also, the camera work is stage-like, with stationary long and medium shots.

Nevertheless, it's a rewarding film experience for those who can endure the first half hour. The second half features a compelling murder mystery and fine performances by two cast members: Margaret Wycherly, as a medium and mother of the chief murder suspect, Helen O'Neill, played by an absolutely gorgeous Leila Hyams; and, a pre-Dracula Bela Lugosi, who lifts the quality of the film several notches with a strong performance as Inspector Delzante, tasked with finding the murderer of a despised "bounder," Spencer Lee. Lugosi takes command of the talky film and shows an energy and grasp of the English language that puts to shame rumors that early in stage and Hollywood he spoke his lines phonetically.

The plot involves Sir Edmund Wales contracting a medium (Wycherly) to find the murderer. Hyams, a secretary, is engaged to be married to Richard Crosby (Conrad Nagel), son of the wealthy Crosbys. During the seance, Wales himself is murdered in the dark. As Lugosi's Inspector Delzante investigates, evidence seems to point to Helen (Hyams). That throws Helen's mother/medium Wycherly into a panic and she feverishly investigates to clear her daughter. Wycherle, whose husband, Bayard Veiller, was the author of the 1916 play the film is based on, shares compelling second-half scenes with Lugosi, even with the static filming, as she pleads for her daughter to the skeptical detective. (See a still of both below.)

The 72-minute film, released Oct. 19, 1929, has a strong twist ending that is both macabre and compelling.

Notes: Wycherle was a member of the original 1916 stage cast. The movie was filmed at least five times, in 1919, 1929, 1937and for TV in 1953 and 1954. The 1937 version is the one that is easily available via YouTube. Browning's version was also filmed silent, but that production is considered lost. The "Thirteenth Chair" is set in Calcutta with a typical English colonialist cast of characters. The play is free via Amazon Kindle. Lugosi and Wycherle both died within scant months of each other in 1956.

Tuesday, August 13, 2019

Celeste and the White Dragon, an interview with author D. Michael Martindale

I recently had the pleasure of reading the fantasy novel, "Celeste & the White Dragon," (Worldsmith Stories, 2019) from author D. Michael Martindale. He's a talented who is the author of the novel, Brother Brigham, which I reviewed on a blog (here). "Celeste & the White Dragon" is the novel in a series that will encompass several volumes. It involves a search for a young princess, sought after for the powerful, magical energies she possesses. She's being protected as well as she can by those who love her, and want to protect her from others willing to kill her to appropriate her powers.

Village witches, powerful sorceresses, warriors with magical skills from other lands, wizards, kings, soldiers, magical, divine pilgrims, humans who fated to turn into beasts ..., all are determined to either preserve or possess the ancient magic that lives within the princess. Various motives, including love and power, motivate them.

I found Martindale's writing exciting and compelling. He created a world of nations, customs and peoples that blends magic with the gods of the lands. It's an exciting read, carefully constructed with sequences and twists to sustain a series. I'm looking forward to the second book of the series.

--- Doug Gibson


After reading "Celeste and the White Dragon," I asked Martindale if I could interview him about the series. He was kind enough to consent. You can also purchase "Celeste and the White Dragon" from Amazon, paperback, here, and via Kindle, here. In the interview we discuss characters and events that readers will discover in the novel. 


Plan9CrunchI'm fascinated by the evil of Gwendolyn, her cruelty mixed with her regret and silent prayers at time for those she hunts. Do you find analogies, historical or literary, for her character. Did any inspire your creation of her?

Martindale: In the first version from over a decade ago, she was closer to a stock villain. I gave her an understandable motive, but still made her basically evil.

  • Since then I've literarily matured and find such villains boring. The high school bully who simply exists without motive, the sinister  government shadow organization that always seems to end up being behind  terrible things that happen, like in the Dustin Hoffman film "Outbreak"  (usually represented by Morgan Freeman who gets a twinge of conscience  in the end), or even most recently the Sci-Fi Channel adaptation of Ursula K.  LeGuin's "A Wizard of Earthsea" called "Earthsea" that I'm in the middle  of watching right now, where the bad guy is a military ruler that just wants to conquer the islands of Earthsea for no particular reason. "Karate Kid" is another example of stock villains who are there just to  drive the plot.

You might call these anti-inspirations that informed me of what I did NOT want Gwendolyn to be. I find stories where everyone is trying to do  good as they perceive it, but coming into conflict with each other, to be vastly more fascinating than the typical stock heroes and villains. (My apologies to Tolkien.)

The first time I remember seeing an antagonist like that was in the coming-of-age film "Lucas" where the villain was a school bully, except that he was a nuanced bully who in the end came to admire and applaud  Lucas for his courage.

The greatest inspiration for Gwendolyn was recognizing that I had created such a stock villain and I wanted her to be more complex than that. In her eyes, she was the hero of her story. And that's just plain good characterization.

Plan9CrunchThe energy supply of Kasimir's magic, jewels embedded in the body,was very interesting. Did you find similar instances in research, or is this a plot development you have blazed?

MartindaleIt wouldn't surprise me if someone else had come up with the idea that I'm not aware of, since it seems there's nothing new under the sun, but I came up with that one all on my own. Having gems or blood involved somehow with magic is nothing new. But the mechanism of attaching them to one's skin so blood will leak out when removed so the blood can activate the magic is entirely my concoction. I wanted something different about my wizards so they'd stand out and not seem cliche, and that's what I dreamed up. Basing them on Arabian wizards more than European ones was also a part of that.

Plan9Crunch: Are there parallels between the massive, long searches for Celeste, which opposing sides search for her, in other literature, or history?

MartindaleOther than "Sleeping Beauty"? Compared to George R.R. Martin's series that he based significantly on British history, I didn't do a lot of historical analogies in "Celeste." I did borrow heavily from European culture and geography simply to make a rich and complex world easier to fashion instead of creating one whole cloth.

The story, not so much. It's a story I came up with on my own, no doubt  influenced consciously and subconsciously by all sorts of influences in my life. I mixed together multiple legends and myths and created my own unique mythology from them that I hope appears seamlessly integrated, and will continue to do so in future volumes.

Plan9Crunch: What fantasy authors or filmmakers inspired you? I know you are more impressed by the film versions of "Game of Thrones" than the books.

MartindaleTolkien, obviously. It's nearly impossible to write fantasy without being derivative of Tolkien to some extent, since he practically invented the modern fantasy genre.

Another was Jack Vance from his book "The Dying Earth," a fantasy with a magic system that I loosely borrowed some elements from for mine. "Dungeons and Dragons" was an important influence, with its explanation that the power of spells comes from the breath the spellcaster speaks them with and the words on magical scrolls. It's where I came up with the idea of breath spells vs. spells cast with materials that are burned and crushed.

Which means I guess I can count Albert Einstein as an influence too, since the power to cast magic comes from converting matter to energy, except the equation E=MC2 probably isn't quantitatively accurate in Celeste's universe, because that produces a crapload more energy than the witches of Cueldea produce with their magic.

"Game of Thrones" actually had very little impact on the story, since I dreamed up the story before I ever heard of it or George R.R. Martin. It's impact was entirely to force me to overhaul the first version of "Celeste" and come up with something better that wouldn't be laughed at when compared to "Game of Thrones."

Plan9CrunchThe relationship between Edward and Celeste is --- without context -- conventionally appalling. Do you think readers can deal with it as an essential plot point without being squeamish? (Don't give away anything, just try to speak generally, if possible).

Martindale: It's the same issue I dealt with when writing my first published novel  "Brother Brigham." That was directed at a Mormon audience, so it took less to cause squeamishness. I wrote nothing in that book that I thought was questionable. It's not like I celebrated the squeamish parts or endorsed them. They just happened, as such things do in the human experience.

Even more so for "Celeste." I always know when I include edgier content that it will scandalize certain readers. But I NEVER include gratuitous content. It's always a part of the story, and I refuse to shy away from any aspect of the human condition because it might cause squeamishness. That would be dishonest storytelling. Coming from a Mormon background, I'm keenly aware of the pressure to write "appropriately," and I categorically reject that mentality as dishonest. Scandalous and terrible things happen in real life, and I won't ignore them in my stories.

When someone asks, "Why did you have to include that in your story?" my response is, "Why should I leave it out?"

For those who become squeamish, I can only say, I'm sorry you felt that way, but I'm not sorry I wrote it. I've already had such reactions from a reader or two of "Celeste" over certain content, but I can't change it for their sake because that would diminish the story and be unfair to the characters. It's what they would do in that situation, and I'm not going to cheat on that character just to appease a reader who's uncomfortable.

I'm hardly the only edgy writer out there. Much worse things have been written. After all, "Lolita" is considered a classic.

But what I hope my readers will recognize is that, while a particular scene may be uncomfortable to them, in the context, the characters are doing nothing wrong according to their culture and their knowledge at the time. The issue is not whether the unsettling things happened, but what the attitude of the story is to them, and my book certainly never condones questionable behavior. There are always repercussions.

Some readers won't be able to deal with it, but many will. After watching HBO's "Game of Thrones," I've been encouraged by the fact that all sorts of terrible and squeamish things happen there, yet it's a massively popular series. With my book, they don't even have to see the television images of the scenes. It's just words in a book.

Plan9CrunchAs you note in the afterward, this was a long writing process. What advice do you give to writers of the genre who know their first drafts are not good enough?

Martindale: I could write a book on this subject. The very first thing is to recognize that writing is an art and a craft, as much as painting or dance or acting. It's a rare individual who can just pick up a pen and write something great, like Mozart apparently could do. Learn your craft! Pay your dues! That means read, read, read in the genre you want to write, and write, write, write, knowing your first million words will be crap.

The second thing is to recognize that your first draft will ALWAYS not be good enough.

Your first draft is purely to vomit the work onto the page. You must gag the editor in your head, because that first draft is when your creativity runs free. Once completed, you never show it to anyone. You reread it first, so you can fix the huge gaffes and incomprehensible sentences and ridiculous spelling and grammatical errors that you're horrified to find crept into it and are thankful no one else ever saw. The first draft anyone in the world sees is really my second draft.

Then comes the work. You send it off to a couple of first readers, people sophisticated enough to not just be impressed that you managed to write anything, who will give you honest and constructive feedback. Then you rewrite.

Then repeat that cycle. And repeat. And repeat. Repeat until you're so sick of reading it yourself, you can't bear the thought of reading it again. Then you repeat the cycle again. But there's a blessing in disguise in that. If after you're sick of it, you still find yourself drawn into the story and affected by it, you know you've got something good going on.

One day you stop repeating and start the publication process. When that step arrives is purely a judgment call. Whenever I reread, I still find typos and bad sentences and plot holes. You just have to decide one day that each new cycle is giving diminishing returns and it's time to let it go, warts and all.

But never expect your work to be great without several drafts. It's part of the job. And if someone thinks that's too much work, maybe they should consider doing something besides writing.

Plan9Crunch: I can't wait for the prequel. Will we learn more about the Blood King and the lands he has conquered? 

MartindaleI have six more books planned. Two trilogies, and a seventh book that ties them together.

The first trilogy is "Celeste," its prequel, and its sequel. I already have titles for them (subject to change): "Seven Sisters" and "Rogue Sorceress."

"Seven Sisters" tells the origin stories of the primary characters in  Cueldea. "Rogue Sorceress" tells the story of what happens up until the conflict with the Blood King will begin.

The other trilogy is about the Blood King and his sorceress wife, who they are and where they came from. That one will have a definite historical counterpart.

The final book will be the climax for the whole series.

Plan9Crunch Anything else? Please add. Thanks D. Michael. You are a great story-teller.

Martindale: Thanks. I've worked hard to try to become so.

In the overhaul that resulted in the current version, I created two significant characters that weren't there before. Both of them were spur-of-the-moment creations.

The first was Faisal, Kasimir's brother. When I added new chapters to tell the backstory of Kasimir, who in the first version never appeared until he was on his quest, in that moment--in the first sentence--I invented his brother, who then became his companion throughout the book.

The other character was Ilsa, who appeared briefly and namelessly in one scene in the first version, then disappeared completely. When I reached that scene in the overhaul, I decided new developments required that I 
reverse what happened to her, and that motivated me to make her a part of the story from that time forward.

Both additions added tremendously to the story. Faisal was Kasimir's sidekick that he could share his thoughts with, even have disagreements with, from time to time. Together they made it possible to put their culture on display to a greater degree than I had before.

Telling certain chapters from Ilsa's point of view completely energized those chapters, as exposition that was fairly mundane became more interesting through her inexperienced eyes, like watching a child discover the wonders of the world. Then to have her become a deciding factor in certain critical moments in the plot added so much.

Part of the serendipitous rewards of rewriting and being willing to consider alternatives one hadn't thought of before. Such moments can transform your story.

Thanks very much, D. Michael, for sharing your insights with Plan9Crunch.

Wednesday, July 31, 2019

'Carl Denham's Giant Monsters' a superb account of genre 'history'

A couple of years ago, author and scholar Frank Dello Stritto penned the "history" of the ill-fated "wolfman." It was titled "A Werewolf Remembers: The Testament of Lawrence Stewart Talbot." It weaved Talbot's life through half a century of history, connecting him through several scores of films and film characters. It was a unique, scholarly page-turner capable of seducing readers through the darkest hours of the night.

Dello Stritto has written a new, also fascinating and engrossing book along the same structure, taking an iconic character of film and weaving his life throughout the history of his times and the genre films that populated his "life." "Carl Denham's Giant Monsters" (Cult Movies Press, 2019), shares with readers the full "life" that Denham enjoyed and endured, long before his adventures with King Kong and Son of Kong left him an elusive target of bounty hunters and vengeful friends and family of Kong's victims. (Note: I helped edit this book pre-publication).

The book is set in Indonesia, early 1970s, where author Dello Stritto and his wife Linda, live. Frank works there.  On a visit to one of the smaller islands, Kotok, the couple encounter a white, elderly man who lives in a home with faithful servants. It turns out to be the reclusive Carl Denham, whiling away his life, now bereft of visits from former colleagues save one, and eager to relate the adventures of his life to appreciative listeners.

Every couple of weeks or so, Frank and Linda, or Frank by himself, spend hours listening to Denham relate the many adventures of his long life. The book combines, history, film, and a cascade of cinema and historical figures. They all orbit at some time around the man Carl Denham and it's a lot of fun to read the adventures of Denham and his film genre contemporaries.

As he relates to Frank and Linda, Denham was part of Teddy Roosevelt's expeditions to South America. Later he's among the explorers who finally conquer the plateau of the Lost World and later take "Gertie" for an ill-fated trip to London. For a while, Denham becomes a journalist, and covers the Scopes trial. Another adventure: he even gets close enough to Tarzan to witness his decibel-shattering yell.

King Kong is described in vivid detail, from the casting of Ann Darrow, the voyage, Skull Island, the return to New York City and the deadly chaos and tragedy. It sets Denham on a lifetime of exile, trying to stay the adventurer, but now also the hunted, always on the watch to keep his freedom.

So many films provide background and interaction with characters. Just a few are Island of Lost Souls, Son of Kong, Mighty Joe Young, Africa Screams, Return of the Ape Man, Godzilla, Creature From the Black Lagoon. ... Either Denham is involved in the actual explorations or the characters run into him across the world, or visit him on his small island.

Dello Stritto is a well-known scholar/fan of Bela Lugosi and readers will appreciate the respect he provides some of Lugosi's poverty-row outings. Examples include scientists Lorenz Dexter of Return of the Ape Man, and Alexi Zabor, of Bela Lugosi Meets a Brooklyn Gorilla.

There is a poignancy in the tales Denham relates. He regrets the lust for publicity and money that drove him to take Kong to civilization, and the creature's death. Forty years later, he still assails himself.. He's had a hard life. He spends time in a  Japanese prisoner of war camp on the island for years. He had love, and lost it, with the young lady, Hilda Peterson, whom he took to Skull Island to meet Kong's son.

This book is an essential for genre fans. But more casual fans will enjoy it too, as well as history buffs. Dello Stritto pens a confident, detailed tale. The friendship between the couple and Denham is believable, the passages where they interact on the island well described. The author knows his subjects, films and history.

At the end of the tale, Denham, along with one of his few remaining contemporaries, embarks on a final adventure. I'll leave it to the reader to discover the identity of his companion.

Thursday, July 25, 2019

Avengers, Rocky Jones among new cult TV offerings


This is part two of a three part series on cult television shows. Here at Plan 9 Crunch, we acknowledge the importance of television as part of the “cult-dom” culture that we are passionate in writing about and documenting on this blog site. Part One is here.

Here are five more “cultish” TV titles:

The Avengers – Mandrake – episode 18, season three – aired January 25th, 1964
John Steed (Patrick Macnee) attends the funeral of a former prominent colleague at a small Cornish cemetery. He becomes suspicious of the man's cause of death and wonders why the man is being buried in a town cemetery that he has no association or ties to. Steed's investigations take him to Mandrake Investments, led by a doctor and his associates.

Mandrake Investments is a “for-hire” assassination agency who poisons victims then buries them in the Cornish town near a churchyard with an old mine where the soil does not detect poison and has high levels of arsenic. Most of the victims are rich, prominent men who lived outside of the Cornish community.

Considered a fan favorite of early Avengers episodes, Mandrake is an intelligent and fun episode. The chemistry between actress Honor Blackman and actor Patrick Macnee always works well in all of the early Avengers episodes. Blackman later left the TV show to star as Pussy Galore in the James Bond film – Goldfinger (1964). Patrick Macnee would also star in a later James Bond film – A View To A Kill (1985) with Roger Moore.

Timeslip – The Wrong End of Time – episode one, season one – aired September 28th, 1970.
A young woman walks through a time barrier in the field of the old abandoned Ministry of Defense at St. Oswald that has been empty since the end of World War II. A town drunk witnesses the girl being transported through the time barrier and reports the incident to a few of his drinking buddies at a local hotel pub. Commander Traynor (Denis Quilley) overhears the conversation in the pub and becomes intrigued by the report.

Two teenagers – Liz Skinner (Cheryl Burfield) and Simon Randall (Spencer Banks) also find the time barrier and walk through it. Liz and Simon encounter a group of German marines in the field after stepping through the barrier. Luckily, they are not captured by the marines.
A guard finds Liz and Simon and takes them to Commander Traynor's office at the Ministry of Defense. Traynor is much younger and is serving in the British Navy. Liz and Simon tell Traynor that they overheard men out in the field speaking in German. Traynor does not believe them.

While left alone in Traynor's office, a young man speaks to Liz and introduces himself as Frank Skinner – who is Liz's father in the future. We discover that Liz and Simon have been transported to 1940 during World War II.

The entire series of Timeslip addressed such topics as cloning, anti-aging drugs, global warming and government conspiracies – making it way ahead of its time. A&E Television released all four seasons of the Timeslip television series as a boxed DVD set in 2005. The box set is a great treasure to have for any fan of British science-fiction television.

Rocky Jones – Space Ranger – Beyond The Curtain of Space – season one – chapter 1 (of 3 chapters) – aired February 23rd, 1954.
Rocky Jones (Richard Crane) and Winkie (Scotty Beckett) return to the Office of Space Affairs to report to Secretary Drake (Charles Meredith) and to start a long deserved vacation. While being issued their vacation papers by Drake, Rocky and Winkie learn in a televised message that Professor Newton (Maurice Cass) and young Bobbie have been brainwashed and captured on the planet of Ophiuchus.

Rocky cancels his vacation plans and rushes to Ophiuchus in his rocket ship – the X-V-2 with Winkie and sexy assistant and language expert – Vena (Sally Mansfield) to rescue Newton and Bobbie. Rocky objects to Vena coming along on the trip because she is a girl, and later tells her to “go home and knit a sweater” in a sequence that would be considered politically incorrect by today's standards.

Vena gets trapped in a compartment of the rocket ship and faints from lack of oxygen. Rocky and Winkie rescue her, but Rocky becomes more skeptical of Vena being along for the trip because of her sex. He orders her to return home to earth.

The funnest aspect of watching Rocky Jones – Space Ranger is to see all the interesting special effects, props and costumes of early television. It's unfortunate that Rocky Jones – Space Ranger had to be canceled because of the special effects budget going overboard in each episode. The early days of television often encountered these types of problems.

Actor Richard Crane went on to star in a number of other cult classics, such as – The Alligator People (1959) with Lon Chaney, The Devil's Partner (1961) and two serials – Mysterious Island (1951) and Commando Cody: Sky Marshal of The Universe (1953).

Lights Out – The Passage Beyond – season three – episode 44 – aired June 25th, 1951
Lights Out is early television at its most minimal, bare bones. The show had a nearly zero budget and it shows.

A brightly lit, close up pale face with staring eyes opens each episode with a deep, monotone voice and creepy organ music playing in the background. His head appears to be floating against a dark environment. Creepy stuff, indeed.

Rod (Ralph Clanton) and Milly Taylor (Stella Andrew) return home to their mansion one evening with a guest named Trix (Monica Lang) after attending a party. The ghost of a family ancestor named Lady Anne haunts the mansion. Lady Anne murdered her possessive husband many years before in the mansion.

Rod complains to the butler that the home is too dark inside. The butler was not expecting the trio back for several hours. Rod sits down by the fireplace with Trix as his wife Milly leaves the room. Rod expresses his boredom to Trix of his marriage to Milly. He begins to kiss at her neck and it becomes obvious that the two are having an affair behind Milly's back.

Milly eventually confronts Trix about the affair and tells her that Rod can never stop loving her. The two discuss the affair for a while as Rod walks through a dark passage in the mansion and is confronted by the ghost of Lady Anne holding a knife.

The Passage Beyond is one of the more creepy and atmospheric episodes of Lights Out, despite its shortcomings and minimal budget. Many scenes remind me of German-Expressionist films from the silent era with deep contrasts of light and shadow. The mansion is filled with extremely dark and deep shadows that consume many of the interior environments of the episode. Lights Out aired from 1949 – 1952, and was based on a popular radio program from the 1930s.

Rocky & Bullwinkle – Jet Fuel Formula (part one of forty) – season one – aired November, 19th, 1959
As a child in the early 1980s, I liked to get up early every morning in the summer to watch an hour of the Rocky & Bullwinkle cartoons from the late 1950s and early 1960s. I was fascinated with the simple drawing and animation style of the show. I also loved Cap-N-Crunch cereal, and did not see the connection between Rocky & Bullwinkle and Cap-N-Crunch until many years later. I would save empty Cap-N-Crunch cereal boxes and pile them up in my bedroom closet. My family and friends thought I was strange for doing this, but this ritual later influenced my adult artistic career.

Looking through a giant telescope at Slick Observatory, Dr. Milton meets with “eggheads” and “double domes” (i.e. scientists) to proclaim that there can be no life on the moon. Another scientist spots Rocky and Bullwinkle on the moon through the same telescope. Rocky and Bullwinkle fly back to earth in a rocket ship.

Greeted in Washington by military dignitaries after their rocket ship landing, Rocky and Bullwinkle inform the dignitaries that they are not from the moon, but from Frost Bite Falls, Minnesota.

Days earlier, Bullwinkle was baking a mooseberry fudge layer cake and the cake blasted to the moon in the oven as the cake was baking. The second layer of the cake was placed inside a rocket ship built by Rocky and Bullwinkle to travel to the moon. The military dignitaries demand the recipe/formula for the cake, but Rocky is unable to remember every ingredient.

Meanwhile, Russian spies – Boris and Natasha, are also desperate to get the cake formula from Bullwinkle. Two green moon men – Gidney and Cloyd, arrive from the moon to try and prevent Bullwinkle from recreating the cake formula for fear of tourists coming to the moon.

These early episodes of Rocky & Bullwinkle are a delight to watch. It's interesting to see the evolution of how both characters are drawn. Bullwinkle talks from the front of his face, in these early episodes, instead of from the side of his face, as we see in later episodes. His feet look more like claw shapes, instead of the rounded shapes seen in later depictions of Bullwinkle.

Creative geniuses Jay Ward and Bill Scott were the two brains behind the clever wit and charm of Rocky & Bullwinkle. Jay Ward was often referred to as the “P.T. Barnum” of TV cartoons, and Bill Scott was often referred to as his “Bailey.” Ward was also responsible for the creation of the Cap-N-Crunch and Quisp and Quake breakfast cereal characters.

For further information about the Rocky & Bullwinkle TV show and the life and careers of Jay Ward and Bill Scott, refer to the book – The Moose That Roared: The Story of Jay Ward, Bill Scott, a Flying Squirrel, and a Talking Moose, by Keith Scott (St. Martin's Press – 2000). This is a wonderful book that is well researched and I highly recommend it. Happy viewing!