Monday, May 02, 2016

The Year in Movies: 1925

Since most of my 7 Days in May posts have been around the massive silent movie kick I'm on lately, I'm weeding out the extra stuff and am just going to concentrate on sharing the silents. I think that makes a better post than a miscellaneous hodge podge of stuff. And since I've been working my way through the silents chronologically, it makes sense to re-title this The Year in Movies. Here are the movies from 1925 that I've recently checked out (or rewatched).

Seven Chances (1925)



This Buster Keaton feature starts off as a romantic comedy in which Keaton's character needs to get married by a certain time in order to inherit seven million dollars. The jokes in that part are all about his proposing to various women at his country club and getting turned down, hilariously.

Then one of his buddies hits on the idea of putting out an ad that attracts probably about a hundred women. At that point, it becomes a chase movie as they run Keaton through the streets and across the countryside. And it's a brilliant, funny chase, too (way better than the one in Cops), especially when the rock slide starts.

There are some racist gags that I wish weren't in there, but generally it's one of Keaton's stronger movies.

Don Q: Son of Zorro (1925)



Put it on the list of sequels that are better than the original. Fairbanks' Mark of Zorro is amazing and fun, but Don Q goes to another level with a more intricate plot, a great group of characters, and even better actors to play them. I cared a lot about the people in this story, despairing and cheering right alongside them.

I'm glad I don't have to choose between Douglas Fairbanks and Buster Keaton for whose athleticism I admire more. I've said before that Fairbanks may not be as handsome as some of the swashbucklers who followed him, but he rules them all in terms of energy and sheer physical impressiveness. He's the definition of swashbuckler, always full of life and joy - even in the darkest moments - and never willing to walk or climb when a leap will get him there faster.

The Lost World (1925)



I really thought I'd seen this before, but didn't recall it as I was watching and think I would have. It's about half-faithful to the Arthur Conan Doyle story it's adapting with Wallace Beery (whom I know as King Richard from Douglas Fairbanks' Robin Hood) as a great Professor Challenger. He's physically imposing with a perpetual, angry brood on his face most of the time. The other actors are great as well, but the real stars are the makeup and special effects.

Bull Montana is legitimately frightening in his ape-man makeup by Cecil Holland, and legendary effects artist Willis O'Brien (who'd go on to supervise the visual effects for King Kong) worked on the charming stop-motion dinosaurs. The dinosaurs are so great that I'm glad the movie modified the end of the story by having a brontosaurus rampage through London (another foreshadow of King Kong).

The Phantom of the Opera (1925)



Seen this one a million times, but the sets and costumes are still spectacular and it's creepy in all the right places. Chaney is magnificent; equal parts evil and pathetic. Christine is flighty and pretty dumb, but her shenanigans just add to my enjoyment.

The Unholy Three (1925)



It may star Lon Chaney and be directed by Tod Browning, but The Unholy Three is no horror movie. It's a crime story, just with the twist that the trio of criminals in the title met in a sideshow act. Chaney plays Professor Echo, a ventriloquist who teams up with a little person and a strong man to pull elaborate burglaries, using a pet store as a front.

Complicating the situation is Echo's girlfriend, Rosie, an official member of the gang who's spending more time than Echo likes with Hector, the pet store clerk whom Echo's keeping around as a possible fall guy if things go wrong.

There's a lot that has to be overlooked to enjoy the movie. The way ventriloquism and courtrooms work, for instance. But there's a great, emotional core that keeps it interesting and makes it worthwhile. When allegiances shift - and boy do they - it always feels natural and because of who the characters are. Now I'm curious to see the 1930 remake that brought back Chaney and the three-foot Harry Earles with sound.

Go West (1925)



A very sweet story about the relationship between a friendless man and a brown-eyed cow. I love Buster Keaton's usual romantic shenanigans, but Go West is a refreshing change of pace. Though there is a woman, of course, and that story is sweetly told, too.

Wolf Blood (1925)



Wolf Blood (Wolfblood?) has even less to do with werewolves than the infamous She-Wolf of London, because that one at least starts its misdirection early on. Wolfblood spends most of its time creating drama between rival lumber operations and setting up romance between its lead characters. The lycanthrope element is tossed in towards the end as a romantic foil more than anything else.

But at least it has a pretty great character in Edith Ford, a flapper who also owns one of the lumber companies. In fact, if the movie had just been about her trying to decide between her surgeon fiancé and the handsome foreman of her company, I would have liked the movie better. Like She-Wolf, my biggest problem is its trying to squeeze in a supernatural plot and being half-hearted about it.

Tumbleweeds (1925)



A cool silent film covering the same events as the finale of Far and Away, which I have fond memories of and need to watch again.

Tumbleweeds makes a nice companion piece to The Covered Wagon, which also has people in covered wagons looking for a place to settle down. But in Covered Wagon they're opening up the frontier in the 1840s, while Tumbleweeds has them filling it in 50 years later.

I'd never seen a William S Hart movie before and I can see now why he was a big Western star. He's got a kind face, but a tough attitude. I doubt I'll track down his other movies, but I liked him in this.

Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ (1925)



Like with the two Ten Commandments movies, I've always wanted to see the original Ben-Hur. Now that I have, I'm pretty sure I like it better than the Charlton Heston version. It's been a long time since I've seen Heston's, but I'm not a huge fan of him anyway and Ramon Novarro is extremely handsome and appealing as the title character.

I can see why William Wyler's remaking it was a good idea with new technology (and am curious to see how Timur Bekmambetov will do it again this year), but Fred Niblo totally got it right the first time. It wraps up too neatly and conveniently for me, but it's got all the spectacle and it's well-acted.

Saturday, April 30, 2016

See It. Hear It. Feel It. Podcast It.

Hellbent for Letterbox: High Noon 



This was a busy week of podcasting. On Monday, a new episode of Hellbent for Letterbox came out in which Pax and I talk about the Gary Cooper classic, High Noon. But though it may be a classic, we had some big issues with it.



Then we followed that up later in the week with a supplemental episode (we call 'em "Hitching Posts") about a couple of movies that were inspired by High Noon. Sean Connery's Outland is a scifi film with a Western feel that pays homage to High Noon, and then there's the TV movie sequel, High Noon, Part II: The Return of Will Kane starring Lee Majors, Pernell Roberts, and David Carradine. Guess which one we liked more.



Mystery Movie Night: Purple Rain, Under the Cherry Moon, and Graffiti Bridge



The death of Prince put the Mystery Movie Night crew in the mood to watch his movies and talk about them, so we did. Sadly, Erik wasn't able to join us for this one, but he was there in spirit and we had a great discussion about our respect for Prince and the merits and flaws of his films.



Starmageddon, Episode 30 



And finally, the latest episode of Starmageddon rolled out in which we talk about the Rogue One trailer, the trailer for Adam Nimoy's For the Love of Spock documentary, and rumors about the setting and format of the new Star Trek TV series. Are we excited? Uneasy? Only one way to find out.

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Scott Rand in the World of Time [Guest Post]

By GW Thomas

Comics in the late 1930s and early 1940s were a mixed bag. Having spectacular names, promising great entertainment inside, they were generally collections of stock types from the newspaper comic strips, movies, and radio. Each title had to have its Mandrake knock-off, a jungle lord or lady, a Western hero, a naval hero, etc. Amongst these types was the space hero, usually dressed in a one-piece with a fin on the hood. Sporting a ray gun, he rescued space maidens and thwarted the all-too Asian-looking Martians.

Most of the early science fiction comics are just plain bad. Minor versions of Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers, they are sadly dated today. It's easy to see why SF historians have written them off as largely irrelevant. Still, they are a weak reflection of what science fiction was in the early pulp years. One comic that I find fascinating in this regard is "Scott Rand and the World of Time" by Otto Binder (writing under the Eando Binder pseudonym) with artwork by his older brother, Jack. The three segments that comprise this masterpiece of silliness appeared in Top-Notch Comics #1-3 (December1939-February 1940).

What makes this particular comic interesting is the timing. Jack Binder had previously written and drawn (as Max Plastid) the "Zarnak" comic for Thrilling Wonder Stories in 1936. After that stint, he drew comics for the Harry A Chesler shop, which "Scott Rand" was produced for. This group of creators wrote and drew comics, then sold them to packagers such as MJL who produced Top-Notch Comics. In many ways, Scott Rand's adventures were a continuation of Zarnak's, featuring similar ships and costumes in color.

Also at the same time, Otto Binder was creating science fiction history at Amazing Stories with his tales of Adam Link, the robot ("I, Robot" had appeared in January of 1939). Goofy by today's post-Asimovian standards, these stories were an important watershed for robot characters. So why was Otto Binder writing script for Harry Chesler? In 1939, there were only three solid and reliable SF magazines: Amazing Stories, Astounding Science Fiction, and Thrilling Wonder Stories. More pulps were on the way, but it was almost impossible to write SF full-time. Otto had to have more markets, and instead of writing Westerns he turned to the pulp's little brother, comics. He would leave Chesler in 1941 to become the top writer of Captain Marvel at Fawcett and later work for DC on the Superman line. Jack Binder left Chesler as well in 1940 to work for Fawcett, Lev Gleason, and Timely, where he worked on the original Daredevil. He would create his own comic shop in 1942 until his retirement.

True to the Flash Gordon formula (which had been around since 1934; earlier if you consider that it stole its inspiration from 1929's Buck Rogers), the team of adventurers in "Scott Rand" has an older, bald, cerebral leader in Dr. Meade. Meade's inventions, such as the time-car, allow our heroes to be heroic. Contrasted to Meade is Scott Rand; young, wavy-haired, blonde, and muscular. Partnered with Thor, a Viking from the year 200 AD, the team has plenty of brawn. Finally, the last member is Princess Elda, who is beautiful and exotic and completely useless, needing to be rescued frequently and acting as cheerleader to Scott or lab assistant to Meade.

The first installment takes Dr. Meade and Scott into the past. They go back to 200 AD and see Vikings attack Rome. The Romans hold their own, killing all but Thor, whom Scott saves. After this, they go to Egypt and save Princess Elda from being sacrificed to the god Ishtar. Dr. Meade, in an unusual show of force, guns the Egyptians down with a machine gun! Putting the time-car in neutral (a phase between time-worlds), Meade teaches the two newcomers how to speak English. It takes a long time but no time at all.

Now the sharp-eyed will notice some stunning errors here. The Vikings as a phenomenon belong to the 10th Century, not the 2nd. Binder has mistaken Goths for Vikings. The "god" Ishtar is actually a Babylonian goddess and was not worshipped by the Egyptians. Otto may have known better, but is writing so fast he doesn't really care. What are a bunch of little kids going to say about it? It only gets better from there. The time-car goes back 10 million years to the time of the dinosaurs! The frisky dinos (one brontosaur looks like it is trying to get intimate with the time-car) are repelled using hand grenades.

In the second part of the story, the crew return to 1940. Thor has a hard time of adjusting, attacking a taxi with his hammer, so Dr. Meade does the only logical thing. He takes them into the future because it is safer. (It's hard to argue with logic like that, but hey, this guy invented time travel.) They land in 2000 AD, in a futuristic New York that is under attack. On a large radio set, they hear that Martians are attacking in a battle fleet. (Here is one of those SF anachronisms that make you smile. Binder can conceive time travel, but not the Internet, or even television for that matter. He's not alone.) Scott and Thor join the military, while Meade goes to work in military intelligence. Elda... well... Elda looks pretty. Scott and Thor are so good at flying fighter ships that the Martians target them, but Scott uses a land gun and takes out the Martian leaders. The time travelers are heroes. (At no time does Dr. Meade suggest they take the time-car into the past and warn the Earth of the impending invasion. Good thing he is a genius.)

The final portion of the tale begins with Dr. Meade and Elda's being captured by Kruzzo the Ice King of Mars. Scott (whose hair is now brown for some reason), Thor, and the unnamed leader of Earth go in pursuit, taking out Kruzzo's pirate fleet near the equator of Mars. Here they learn that not all the Martians are bad, only those working for Kruzzo. The heroes fly to Mars's south pole to infiltrate Kruzzo's base. They sneak in, find the captives, then fight the Martian pirates. Dr. Meade throws a rock into the air apparatus and blows up the baddies while the good guys escape. This last portion seems weaker than the previous two, and no one cried to see the series end here.

So why is "Scott Rand in the World of Time" so bad? Did it not have one of SF's hottest writers at the time? A man who would create Mary Marvel and Supergirl, writing over 50,000 pages of comics in his career? Yes, but "Scott Rand" was early in Binder's career, and written at lightning speed. The comic shops of 1940 pumped out pages at a terrific pace, with little concern for legacy. This was grunt work for low pay. Ideas were stolen, snatched from whatever was hot at the time; whatever was tried and true (though different enough you wouldn't get sued). Even later masters like Will Eisner and Jack Kirby tore through page after page, trying to keep the wolf from the door. The opportunity for greater creativity and care would have to wait until the comics industry abandoned the shop model and replaced it with the bullpens of companies like DC and Marvel. Otto and Jack Binder would make those contributions with Captain Marvel and Superman in the years to come.

GW Thomas has appeared in over 400 different books, magazines and ezines including The Writer, Writer's Digest, Black October Magazine and Contact. His website is gwthomas.org. He is editor of Dark Worlds magazine.

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

British History in Film | The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938) and Robin Hood (1973)

The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938)



A wonderful spectacle that includes most of my favorite Robin Hood stories in a single film. And what Errol Flynn lacks in Douglas Fairbanks' sheer acrobatic ability, he makes up in swordsmanship and charm. It's tough for me to pick a favorite between the two of them.

Meanwhile, Claude Rains is a memorable Prince John and Basil Rathbone is always a delicious foil for Flynn. I'm not a huge fan of Olivia de Havilland as Marian - not when I have Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio to compare her to - but she's fine and I have no complaints either.

Robin Hood (1973)



Made during a time when Disney was creating animated features on the cheap, but it's no less charming for that. It's not the best Robin Hood, but it will always be my Robin Hood.

Monday, April 25, 2016

7 Days in May | Corky Romano, Covered Wagon, and a cat in a robot suit

Corky Romano (2001)



It's usually cited as a horrible movie (6% on Rotten Tomatoes), but I think it's hilarious and sweet. It's also plenty dumb, but Chris Kattan is totally endearing whether he's belting out "Take On Me" or dressed as a Girl Scout.

Sherlock, Jr. (1924)



Innovative and clever, thanks to the famous sequence where Buster Keaton's projectionist character dreams himself onto a movie screen. Not one of the funniest Keaton movies, but still charming and wonderful. And while Keaton's Sherlock Jr character is only a dream, I would love a whole series of movies about that guy. He's part Philo Vance, part James Bond, and part Colombo.

The Covered Wagon (1924)



An impressive production with a huge cast and a lot of location shooting. It tells the story of a couple of wagon trains going from the Missouri River to Oregon. The two groups set off together, but differing opinions between their leaders (and some romantic drama between one leader and the daughter of the other) eventually split them up.

J Warren Kerrigan is pretty generic as the young hero who leads one of the trains. And Lois Wilson is just as bland as his love interest. But there are a couple of character actors who keep the movie interesting. Alan Hale (who'd go on to co-star in Errol Flynn movies and was also father of the actor who played Gilligan's Skipper) is appropriately loathsome as the other fellow who wants to marry Wilson's character.

But even better is Ernest Torrence, whom I knew as the heavy in movies like The Hunchback of Notre Dame and Steamboat Bill, Jr. This time, he's playing Kerrigan's friend and guide and it's great fun to see his imposing size and menacing looks used for good. His interactions with Hale are the best parts of the film.

The Navigator (1924)



Possibly my favorite Buster Keaton film. I'm a big fan of nautical stories anyway, but this is also one of Keaton's funniest. The bit with the painting hanging outside his window still never fails to crack me up, but there are several gags like that in it.

Peter Pan (1924)



This isn't just a staging of the play, but it has a real theatrical feel to it. The sets are grand and impressive, but the action takes place only in those certain locations. It's like watching really great children's theater with some lovely visual effects sprinkled in - especially around Tinker Bell. And Ernest Torrence shows up again, this time as Captain Hook. Easily my favorite Peter Pan movie.

reMIND: Volume 1 by Jason Brubaker



It's tough to judge the first of a multi-part story, but I'm eager to read Volume 2 of the series of graphic novels. Brubaker's got a lovely visual style and has created a beautifully mad world to tell his story in. It's got lizard-men, talking cats, robot-suits... lizard-men whose brains have been transplanted into cats wearing robot-suits. And we're introduced to the craziness in a cool, X-Filesy way through a skeptical woman whose deceased father made their village infamous by claiming to see something weird.

Friday, April 22, 2016

One podcast will change two worlds



In the latest episode of Mystery Movie Night, my son David takes the reins to fly us through Harrison Ford and Tommy Lee Jones in The Fugitive, Hiccup and Toothless in How to Train Your Dragon, and Rocket and Groot in Guardians of the Galaxy. But no, the secret connection isn't that they're buddy movies. Take a listen and see if you can guess what it is before David reveals it at the end.

Thursday, April 21, 2016

British History in Film | Ivanhoe (1952) and Robin Hood (1922)

Ivanhoe (1952)



Last time, we left off with Henry II still king and fighting with his wife about who would take his place. She wanted Richard; he wanted John. If you know nothing else about the history of medieval Britain, you know that Richard won that argument. And you know it because of stories like Ivanhoe and Robin Hood.

I debated which to watch first, but settled on Ivanhoe just to get it out of the way. I love Walter Scott's novel, but the movie doesn't do it justice and weakens the Robin Hood character (which it just calls Locksley). And Robert Taylor's performance as the title character is super stiff. I think he's going for noble, but jeez he's wooden and it's surprising that Elizabeth Taylor and Joan Fontaine both go for him. The women are equally great though. Taylor easily makes me root for her, but Fontaine gives her character plenty of complicated emotions, too. I like them both.

George Sanders is doing what George Sanders does as the villain, but I always like that and De Bois-Guilbert is a tragic variety of his typical cad. The jousting scene and the attack on the castle are both a lot of fun, too. Ivanhoe isn't not one of my favorite medieval swashbucklers, but it still has plenty to recommend it.

Robin Hood (1922)



Now for the good stuff. Douglas Fairbanks' silent version of Robin Hood is an origin story, so Robin Hood as we know him doesn't appear until halfway through the movie. That might sound similar to complaints about the Ridley Scott version, but thanks to Fairbanks' impressive charm and some great humor, even the Hoodless half is a lot of fun.

Once the movie enters familiar territory, it gets even better with lavish sets and Fairbanks proving why he's the king of the swashbucklers. Silent or not, this version sets a high bar for other Robin Hood films. Next week, we'll look at a couple of more and see if they clear it.

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