29 September 2009

Re-Cap, Part 11: Captain America Is Nomad Is Captain America again

Steve Rogers laid aside his role as Captain America in issue #176 of his eponymous title. Now what?

Captain America #177 is the first issue without its title character. Steve Rogers is in it, and Cap appears in an opening dream that Sam Wilson, a.k.a. the Falcon, has (probably put there so someone who flipped open the comic on the newsstands would feel assured that this was indeed a Captain American comic), but otherwise we are now into the “Nomad Saga” and won’t see Rogers get back into the costume until the last page of issue #183. But there are seven issues to fill with a different sort of drama.

The saga breaks down into two “acts.” Issues #177-179 stay mostly with the Falcon, and Steve remains entirely away from costumed crime-fighting, only once rushing into a fray to help save his former partner, using a ski-mask as a disguise. This will only anger the Falcon more, who has a hard time accepting that his old partner would simply walk away from his life’s calling, but at the same time not wanting to feel he must always live in Cap’s shadow.

The Falcon will take on a smaller role in the second act, which deals with the rebirth of the Serpent Squad under Madame Hydra—who now takes on the name of “Viper”—and Steve Rogers donning a new superhero identity, “Nomad.” This puts a new strain on his relationship with Sharon Carter, the only person in Steve’s life who welcomes the end of Captain America, since she thought they could have a quiet life together in retirement. A hint that Sharon will start a new relationship gets tucked into all the other madness . . . we’ll see where this goes once the Nomad tale is done.

Re-Cap, Part 10: Captain America is back . . . just in time to quit

My post at Black Gate today is simply the links to all my Twilight Zone reviews, as preparation for the Big Essay next week for the show’s official birthday. You can go read the post if you feel like it, but I’ve already made that list of links on this blog, back with my review of “A World of His Own.”

But I can’t have an entire post here simply telling you that. So how about I revert to an old topic I haven’t touched in over a year.

Wow, it has been a long span since I’ve visited with Captain America in “Re-Cap.” For a time, I was blazing through his heroics on the DVD-ROM that collected all the issues of his comic book up until his “death” in 2007 (which Marvel in April announced—big surprise—they were going to reverse). However, I eventually burnt out. I reached one of the landmark issues, #176, and after the double-punch of two of Steve Englehart’s greatest stories in the magazine, the “Return of ‘50s Captain America” and “The Secret Empire,” I didn’t feel like diving into the third of Englehart’s great trio of Cap Adventures, “The Nomad Saga.” So I put the Red, White, and Blue Avenger aside for a while.

But, ‘nuff of that. Feeling fresh again, I launched into the arc that runs from #176 to #183 covering one of the most famous eras in Captain America’s history. After the disastrous revelation at the end of the battle against the Secret Empire (which started in earnest in issue #170), Steve Rogers decides he can no longer be Captain America and gives up the shield. He eventually takes on another superhero identity, “Nomad, the Man without a Country.” A second tragedy and the reappearance of his greatest foe (hint: starts with “Red” and ends in “Skull”) make Steve again take up the mantle of Captain America.
The “Secret Empire” storyline—which actually started with a goofy idea that the Viper was mounting an ad campaign to besmirch Cap’s image—was a daring one for its time, since it developed in freakish tandem with the Watergate Scandal. Writer Steve Englehart didn’t see this coming, and in the letter columns he noted that he started to change the storyline as current events unfolded. At the conclusion of #175, Cap confronts the masked leader of the Secret Empire, a man who had attempted a coup to take over the U.S., and discovers it’s none other than . . .

Well, I don’t know. We never see the man’s face before he blows his own head off, but the revelation of his identity is so shocking to Cap that it destroys his faith in the U.S. Most fans assume that the Secret Empire’s leader was none other than Richard Nixon. It’s certainly implied that the man is the U.S. President in his dialogue: “But high political office didn’t satisfy me! My power was still constrained by legalities! I gambled on a coup to gain me the power that I craved . . .” That the hidden mastermind of this plot is the holder of the highest elected office in the land is the only revelation that I think is big enough to make Cap decide he can’t represent the United States of America any more.

And so, in famed issue #176, “Captain America Must Die,” with a classic cover from Jazzy John Romita and interior artwork from Sal Buscema, Steve Rogers stands before the other Avengers and resigns “forever” as Captain America. He thinks over his history, his original pride in carrying his country’s name . . . “But so much has happened since then,” he laments in a famous two-page spread. “I’ve seen America rocked with scandal—seen it amputated by demagogues with sweet, empty words—seen all the things I hated when I saw those newsreels—”

Issue #176 has no action in it: it’s just Cap talking to the Avengers and flashing back over his career. That Cap would surrender the job at this point in his life makes sense; in many ways, everything that has occurred since he was revived by the Avengers from the block of ice has built up to this crisis. It’s not just the Secret Empire fiasco that pushed Rogers to the edge. He still carries the weight of Bucky’s death, has a troubled relationship with Sharon Carter, recently discovered that his old love Peggy Carter is still pining for him, and confronted a psycho version of himself from the ‘50s who represents everything he hoped he would never be. The comic book itself had to deal with the changing tastes of its readers, who started to see Captain America as stuffy and “establishment.” Something had to finally give, and it did in #176. It’s a classic issue of the darkening “Bronze Age” of comics that portrays succinctly the internal struggles of a superhero. It encapsulates all the many conflicts of Steve Roger’s/Captain America’s life since he re-entered the Marvel Universe. It also serves as a great platform for the title’s regular artist, Sal Buscema, to work some montage magic.

And thus, Steve Rogers surrendered the mantle of Captain America. For good.

And when I write “for good,” I mean “for a few issues,” of course. Just like Rogers getting killed recently. That lasted a bit longer, but we all knew he was coming back. And I think that everybody in 1974 assumed that Steve Rogers would once again take up the shield—but Steve Englehart would run through an interesting story to get him back to it.

Last episode: Power Records Presents . . .

Next episode: Captain America Is Nomad Is Captain America Again

22 September 2009

National Novel Writing Month 2009 is in sight

First of all, I need to get a bit of promotion (not for me, but for something I love) out of the way. The dark comedy Observe and Report, starring Seth Rogen and written and directed by Jody Hill, came out today on DVD. I had pre-ordered my copy a few ago, and it was delivered to my doorstep fresh this morning. If you’ve read my review of the film from it’s opening weekend, you’ll know I think this is one of the funniest films of this decade—although it’s not a movie for people who prefer their comedies light and cheerful. For those who love the off-beat, the weird, and the frequently grotesque in their comedies, the film now awaits you for rental or purchase, and I can’t recommend it highly enough. I immediately slapped my disc of the movie in the DVD player and ended up watching it all the way through. Brilliant, even with the initial shock value of the first viewing gone. So far this year, its only serious competition for my favorite movie of 2009 are Up and District 9.

Second, we are only six weeks away from the start of National Novel Writing Month 2009. (Popularly abrreviated as “NaNoWriMo.”) Last year was my first participation in this global writing event, where people across the world join together to boost each other to produce at least 50,000 words of a first draft of a novel during the month of November. I wrote about my reasons for joining last year, even though I already had written four novels previously. It was a thrilling experience, and the best time I’ve ever had writing a book. The novel I produced out of it, Orphans of Fenris, is one of my personal favorite works I’ve produced—although it still needs more revisions and fine-tuning. I needed the insane world of “brothers and sisters in writing alongside each other in writing combat” to help me produce a new book after a period of disappointment, and since last year’s NaNoWriMo I have had the single most productive writing year of my life. So I’m psyched, stoked, and ready to do the craziness again. I’ve got my new novel idea—at the moment titled Virginia Dare and the Old Gods—which is my first attempt at going for a more humorous and light-toned science-fiction work. I’m developing an outline and sketches for it… getting just enough set down to get me going, but not too much that the story gets rigidly frozen before I type the first word.

I encourage all my readers who have an interest in writing to sign up at NaNoWriMo’s website and give it a try. The accompanying book by NaNoWriMo founder Chris Baty, No Plot? No Problem!, is recommending reading to prep yourself. Even if you don’t want to professionally publish a book, to actually write and complete the first draft of a novel is one of the most invigorating activities you can do. It’s like getting to the top of Everest or K2 or winning a triathlon. And you’ll have plenty of company in the task, probably many in your hometown willing to meet-up for “write-ins.”

If you do sign up, look me up under my screen name and make me a Writing Buddy. I’d love to have more friends along for the crazy ride.

As with last year, I’ll keep people posted on my progress on this blog during NaNoWriMo ‘09.

21 September 2009

Face-to-Face with the Chimaera of Arezzo

The time has come to interact with a piece of artwork. The Chimaera of Arezzo, a legendary Etruscan bronze sculpture from the fifth century BCE is currently on display at the Getty Villa Museum in Pacific Palisades, CA. This weekend I took a trip to observe it face-to-lion muzzle. And I’ve written about the experience over at Black Gate.

20 September 2009

Book review: Airborn

Kenneth Oppel (Eos, 2004)

I’m a fan of the “steampunk” sub-genre of science-fantasy that imagines the world through the lens of Victorian hi-tech. Imagine if Jules Verne’s scientific speculative devices “as-is” eventually dominated the world, and you have a good starting point for examining the steampunk genre. Unfortunately, the moment the sub-genre got an official name, it started getting a bit too “hip,” and some novels and stories to come out of it since then have tried to act so hip they can’t even see over their own pelvises.

That’s why I’m thankful that Canadian author Kenneth Oppel’s novel Airborn has a beautiful simplicity to it, a sense of wonder and gentleness that overcomes my usual objections to recent steampunk works. It also has the joy of the Young Adult novel(although that genre has undergone an annoying barrage of “ironic hipness” as well; as someone who mostly writes in this field, I’m very aware of these trends) and plenty of suspense and action. The novel really feels “airy” as it skips along.

Airborn embraces a love of the airship that I share, so it was easy for Mr. Oppel to draw me into his alternative world of lighter-than-air vessels sailing across the Pacificus. Prior to reading Airborn, there were two works of fiction about worlds of airships that stood out for me, both of which predated the recognition of the steampunk sub-genre: Michael Moorcock’s “A Nomad of the Time Streams” trilogy—The Warlord of the Air (1971), The Land Leviathan (1974), and The Steel Tsar (1981)—and H. G. Wells’s The War in the Air (1908). Wells’s work wasn’t alternative history when it was written, but an imagining of the future as viewed from his own time. Wells saw the approach of an enormous world war that would devastate Europe (he got that right), the importance of aerial combat and bombardment (another correct call) by lighter-than-air vessels (okay, that didn’t end up true, but it’s what makes the book interesting). It’s a grim work; Wells sees too clearly how mechanized warfare will create mass-slaughter on a level nobody could yet perceive.

17 September 2009

Movie review: Captain Kronos: Vampire Hunter

I’ve gotten a lot of great responses from people at Black Gate regarding my review of The Golden Voyage of Sinbad. It seems that most people love that movie as much as I do—no surprise, considering the readership at ol’ BG. One commentator wanted to know my opinion of Captain Kronos: Vampire Hunter, a Hammer movie from the same year that was directed by Sinbad’s screenwriter, Brian Clemens, and also featured the breathtaking beauty of actress Caroline Munro.

It turns out I already have a review of that movie from a few years ago. However, I’ve foolishly forgot to link to it from this blog (the review predates it), so now I’m offering it up to you.

Click here for my visit to see Captain Kronos: Vampire Hunter.

And by the way, I designed that logo above myself.

16 September 2009

Book review: A Young Man’s Heart

A Young Man’s Heart (1930)
By Cornell Woolrich

I reviewed one of Cornell Woolrich’s late-period novels, 1950’s Fright, so I believe that I should provide balance by presenting a review of one of his early-period novels, A Young Man’s Heart. It’s available through print-on-demand—which is a netherworld between “print” and “out of print,” but at least means you can get it—from Ramble House, which also services the cult need for Harry Stephen Keeler’s insane webwork novels. I wish they hadn’t typeset the novel in Verdana, however; they must have anticipated that most people would want to read the download instead. Verdana is just an ugly font. See?

Woolrich’s first six novels are frustratingly obscure: Cover Charge (1926), Children of the Ritz (1927), Times Square (1929), A Young Man’s Heart (1930), The Time of Her Life (1931), and Manhattan Love Song (1932). (Woolrich claimed to have written a novel after Manhattan Love Song, titled I Love You, Paris, but then threw it away. As usual with anything Woolrich wrote about himself, we have no reason to believe that it’s true.) Four of these novels have not seen print in over seventy-five years. Manhattan Love Song has had a mini-Renaissance, reprinted in 1980 in a hardcover edition from Gregg Press and in paperback a few years ago from Pegasus Books. It’s one of the author’s best novels, and shows his turn toward crime themes. None of the other books are genre works; Woolrich was trying to make himself into the next F. Scott Fitzgerald at the time and had no idea he would turn into the literary equivalent of Alfred Hitchcock. The irony here is that this “mainstream literature” is almost unknown and unknowable (want a copy of Cover Charge? A hundred and twenty-five bucks, minimum) while his mystery and suspense work is legendary, although shifting in and out of print.

14 September 2009

The Greatest Harryhausen: The Golden Voyage of Sinbad

The Golden Voyage of Sinbad (1974)
Directed by Gordon Hessler. Starring John Philip Law, Tom Baker, Caroline Munro, Douglas Wilmer, Martin Shaw, Kurt Christian, Grégoire Aslan, Takis Emmanuel.

“Every voyage has its own flavor.”

Cross-posted to Black Gate.

Recently on this blog, I wrote about one of the more ignored of Ray Harryhausen’s films, The 3 Worlds of Gulliver. This inspired me to review two other films of his that don’t get enough attention—the underwhelming H. G. Wells adaptation The First Men in the Moon (1964), and the wonderful but financially unsuccessful The Valley of Gwangi (1969)—on my own blog. Now I think I owe the legendary effects animator and fantasy film producer some time with one of his most popular films.

The Golden Voyage of Sinbad is not only one of Harryhausen’s most financially successful movies, but is also, in my Harryhausen-loving fan-obsessed opinion, the greatest piece the special effects maven ever worked on. I think that it’s not only Harryhausen’s best movie, but also one of the finest heroic fantasy films ever made.

12 September 2009

Movie review: Brannigan

Brannigan (1975)
Directed by Douglas Hickox. Starring John Wayne, Richard Attenborough, Judy Geeson, Mel Ferrer, John Vernon, Daniel Pilon, Ralph Meeker

It necessarily follows that if I review McQ, I must also review Brannigan, the other John Wayne cop film made at the end of his career. If McQ wants to give the Duke his Dirty Harry, then Brannigan wants to give him another Clint Eastwood–Don Siegel film, Coogan’s Bluff. Interestingly enough, Wayne was only one film away from working with Don Siegel, on what would prove the Duke’s last movie, and one of his best, The Shootist.

It’s almost impossible to look up information on Brannigan on the ‘net without immediately finding a comparison to Coogan’s Bluff—look at me, I’m no exception. The concepts are immensely similar: a fish-out-of-water tale of a cop sent to extradite a prisoner in a world where he doesn’t fit, and therefore makes plenty of trouble for the locals with with a hard-n-quick manner of gettin’ it done. However, in Coogan’s Bluff, Eastwood plays a small-town, “Western” law-enforcer sent to the big city of New York. (Prompting one of the greatest tag-lines ever: “Clint Eastwood is giving New York City twenty-four hours… to get out of town!”) In Brannigan, Wayne is already a big city cop, a Chicago Police Lieutenant. He gets sent to another big city, but a very different one from the Windy City… London. This should be fun. “The Duke is giving London twenty-four hours… to take high tea!”

And Brannigan does end up as a lot fun. It would feel worthwhile if only for its mid-‘70s photography of London, but it has much more enjoyment to offer. It is lighter on its feet than McQ, aware that it won’t change John Wayne’s career and willing to have a good time with his image. Wayne gets a lorry-load of teriffic lines, and the script seems more aware of how to make use of the grand old man of action than the often stodgy McQ.

Fortunately, the movie doesn’t push the “John Wayne in London” angle too hard for the comedy, just enough for it work. It’s great hearing the Londoners pronounce Brannigan’s rank as “LEF-tenant,” and the Chicago cop’s opposite number in Scotland Yard berates him for wearing a gun all the time, but the movie never lets this stoop to the level of parody. The Duke does makes a crack about England’s free health care while pummeling an informant, but it got a laugh from me so I’ll let it slide. If anything, the problem with Brannigan is that it often spends too much time away from Wayne.

Lt. Brannigan is off to extradite general no-gooder Larkin (John Vernon) from England. Brannigan has a serious interest in Larkin, because an earlier arrest attempt ended in Larkin gunning down a rookie, and Brannigan feels he should have protected the lad. This is a bit of info that Brannigan drops into a conversation with perky English sidekick Jennifer (Judy Geeson), and the movie doesn’t need to press it hard. We know Wayne’s got a hankerin’ for laying down some justice, what more do we need?

But the trip to London won’t be a quickie vacation for Brannigan. Larkin’s slick lawyer Mel Fields (Mel Ferrer) is trying to arrange to get his client out of the U.K. before the Chicago cop can get his mitts on him. Fields has also hired an assassin, Gorman (Daniel Pilon) to get rid of the interfering U.S. cop. Brannigan has to work with Commander Sir Charles Swann (Richard Attenborough) on the job, but the job abruptly turns complicated when somebody kidnaps Larkin while he’s getting a massage. Amazingly, it isn’t an erotic massage, which shows that we really must be in London.

There’s a car chase, following United States law requiring a car chase in any cop film from the decade. Although it’s a short one, it is exciting, filled with low-angle photography of the fast-moving asphalt. The chase starts with a great Brit vs. Yank joke (the Duke gets into the passenger seat, expecting to tell the driver to “follow that car!” but of course he’s gotten into the driver’s seat without thinking) and concludes with the Ford Capri jumping the gap in the opening Tower Bridge. (Yes, I’m not a completely ignorant Yank, I do know the difference between the Tower Bridge and London Bridge.)

The film’s highlight is a barroom brawl that pays homage to the classic saloon fist-fight of the Western film, but happens to occur in a London pub. The scene plays mostly for laughs, and Attenborough gets in as many punches as Wayne does. It’s a good encapsulation of the whole film, which takes itself at just the right level of silliness while still delivering on the tough-guy action you expect from Wayne, even an aging Wayne. (It’s a bit obvious that the camera angle is hiding that Wayne’s fist is a full meter away from connecting with his victims’ jaws.)

Wayne is having a good time, and Attenborough is having the right kind of fun across from him. But it’s Pilon who steals the show as the groovy assassin who wears his sunglasses at night. It takes Gorman a long time—almost forty-five minutes—to get around to making his first killing attempt on Brannigan. In a Bond movie of the same decade, the assassin would try to ice Bond two minutes after the villain hired him. Gorman spends his time trying to strangle a hooker before he gets to the actual job of rigging the Duke’s toilet to explode, thus providing the detective a great view out the side of his hotel room. When Gorman gets around to making attempts face-to-face, he at least uses a Mauser, one of the coolest looking guns in history.

Dominic Frontiere, who did the score for the Clint Eastwood Stateside-Italian Western Hang ‘Em High, provides a robust score with ‘70s groove that sounds close to the music that Jerry Fielding was writing for Michael Winner’s movies of the same period. This is especially appropriate considering Winner’s version of The Big Sleep was set in England with a U.S. hero.

Damn, only two more Wayne films left after this one. At least they were both Westerns, and the last one was The Shootist.

Duke: “Well, I’m gonna miss this old town.”

Town misses you, Duke.

10 September 2009

I want a Cover Charge!

Speaking of rare Cornell Woolrich novels, I’m currently seeking to get hold of a copy of his very first novel, the Jazz Age Youth book Cover Charge. It was first published—actually, only published—in 1926. I’ve found it as inexpensive as $95 dollars at one used-book site (previously, I had only seen it for $600 dollars, so this is a bargain), but with my current financial limbo and justified caution, I can’t excuse spending even that. Earlier this year—snap!—I’d grab that $95 book in seconds. It’s the first book from my favorite author, and I’ve never had the chance to read it. I can’t let this go on—but will I soon reach a point where I can spring for a copy, and find one that I can afford within reason?

I don’t mind if my copy doesn’t have a dust jacket—I want the contents, not the quality of the binding. If I were wealthy, I’d try to get a solid copy with the dust jacket. Right now, I’ll settle for whatever condition sellers have available. The book only had one printing, so options are limited.

I don’t care if I don’t like the novel itself. It’s Woolrich’s first freakin’ book, and I WANT IT.

Update: Damn it all—I save money for things like this, it’s hugely important to me. So I bought the book for $95 dollars. Good, that weight is off my chest. I’ll have to forgo a few other pleasures during the next month to make up for it (Riesling), but such is the life of a Woolrich nut.

Update II: I had a feeling this would happen. The order was canceled. Not only did the amount seem too good to be true, but the seller on ABEBooks had a pretty middling rating from other customers, which means frequent order cancellation. Oh well, at least I no longer feel like too impulsive a buyer. But someday, Cover Charge . . . someday. . . . (Any print-on-demand people want to take care of this?)

Cornell Woolrich’s Last Gasp of Quality: Fright

Fright (1950)
By Cornell Woolrich writing as George Hopley

It’s 1950 and you happen to be suspense author Cornell Woolrich. First of all, sucks to be you. Yes, you’ve just gone through fifteen years of writing success and are a major figure in the mystery scene, on your way to fame as the greatest suspense writer in U.S. history. But you probably haven’t enjoyed a penny of what you’ve made or a moment of your fame because you are the poster child for Depressed Authors Who Never Leave Their Apartments. Also, you’ve just entered the third phase of your career . . . the slow phase, and the time that people will later refer to with dismissive waves: “Oh, his later stuff wasn’t very good.”

Woolrich’s biographer Francis M. Nevins describes the sudden shift in the author’s productivity at the end of his main period, 1935–1948, and the reasons behind it:
Not even Woolrich himself knew it at the time, but his burst of white-heat creativity had come to an end with the completion of the noir novels published in 1948. [Rendezvous in Black and I Married a Dead Man.] . . . Sometime during 1948, somewhere in Mexico, [Woolrich’s father] Genaro Hopley-Woolrich died. To whatever extent his son’s career was a plea for Genaro’s attention and respect and love, its raison d’être was gone now. . . . With his father dead, his mother almost seventy-five years old and in worsening health, and the virtual guarantee of steady money from paperback reprints and movies and radio and (to greater extent each year) television, why should he keep writing novels and stories which deep in his mind he considered garbage? (Cornell Woolrich: First You Dream, Then You Die, 365-366)

07 September 2009

Book Review: Incredible Adventures

Incredible Adventures (1914)
By Algernon Blackwood

Cross posted to Black Gate.

Of all the practitioners of the classic “weird tale,” which flourished in the early twentieth century before morphing into the more easily discerned genres of fantasy and horror, none entrances me more than Algernon Blackwood. Looking at the stable of the foundational authors of horror—luminaries like Poe, James, le Fanu, Machen, Lovecraft—it is Blackwood who has the strongest effect on me. Of all his lofty company, he is the one who seems to achieve the most numinous “weird” of all.

Blackwood is often referred to as a “ghost story” writer; indeed, one current in-print volume is titled The Best Ghost Stories of Algernon Blackwood. But true ghosts rarely appear in his fiction. Blackwood liked to dance around the edge of easy classification, and as his work advanced through the 1900s and into the teens, it got even harder to pinpoint. Blackwood’s interest in spiritualism, his love of nature, and his pantheism started to overtake his more standard forays in supernatural terror. His writing turned more toward transcendentalism and away from plot. The most important precursor to this development is his 1911 novel The Centaur, which critic S. T. Joshi describes as Blackwood’s “spiritual autobiography.”

05 September 2009

Twilight Zone: A World of His Own

This has been a bit delayed, but I’m finally closing out my First Season Twilight Zone tab with with a review of its last episode. It’s also the first time Rod Serling appeared on-screen within a story, sparking a tradition over the next four seasons.
Episode #36: A World of His Own
Directed by Ralph Nelson. Written by Richard Matheson. Starring Keenan Wynn, Phyllis Kirk, Mary La Roche.

“The home of Mr. Gregory West, one of America’s most noted playwrights. The office of Mr. Gregory West. Mr. Gregory West: shy, quiet, and at the moment, very happy. Mary: warm, affectionate. . . . And the final ingredient: Mrs. Gregory West.”

The Twilight Zone has an uneven history with purely humorous outings. Some of the classic episodes include a lot of humor (such as “Time Enough at Last”), but when the show went for comedy-through-and-through, it often came across as forced and uncomfortable. The only two episodes of the first season that are flops are comedic ones: “Mr. Bevis” and “The Mighty Casey.” To be fair, “The Mighty Casey” had problems aside from its script; most of the episode had to be re-shot (from Rod Serling’s own pocket) to replace the original star Paul Douglas with Jack Warden. Douglas was practically dying on screen during the shoot, and literally died a few days after filming completed. His footage was unusably grim because of this, requiring the hasty re-shoot. The results are simply uneven; Jack Warden, making his second appearance in the first season (he starred in “The Lonely”) makes the best of it, though.

Rod Serling wrote both those episodes, and perhaps it straight-up sitcom laughs simply weren’t something the great man could write well. But when Richard Matheson sat down to write a comedy episode to end the season, it ended up pretty damn good. And he has a laugh at Serling’s expense as well.

It seems obvious that “A World of His Own” was meant as a “bottle show,” a low budget episode that uses a small cast and only a few sets to save money (usually allocated to some potentially more expensive episodes). “Bottle show” is usually applied to series with running casts and locations, and means that the episode reamins on the pre-standing sets and doesn’t employ guest-stars. The Twilight Zone can’t have a “bottle show” in the normal sense because it’s an anthology program, although I did notice the same foyer set materialize in four different episodes, and a recurring staircase, so there was some degree of set re-cycling. But “A World of His Own” is a very inexpensive show, and was probably done because at the very end of the season the money was getting tight. The “Mighty Casey” re-shoot disaster didn’t help, I’m sure. The whole of this episode stays in one room, the study of famous playwright Gregory West (Matheson tipping his hat at Serling, I imagine), and features only three characters.

Mr. West has discovered the dream of any author: he’s developed such skill with crafting his characters that they come to life for him. But these ones literally come to life, as he described them into a voice-recorder. Matheson used the dictation technique so viewers could hear what Mr. West is describing; if this were a short story, more likely Mr. West would stick to using a typewriter to generate his real-world creations. He can keep his manifested characters around by saving the length of tape where he describes them, but if he destroys the tape, the character vanishes as well.

“A World of His Own” is definitely a masculinist fantasy. Gregory West has a vision of himself as a successful writer that means he deserves fawning female company, subservient and sweet, and has created “Mary” (Mary La Roche) to fill that job. But then his wife Victoria (Phyillis Kirk), a far more energetic and insistent woman, learns of Mary’s existence… and the conditions that created her. Most of the episode centers on the confrontation between Mr. and Mrs. West, and a revelation about how very extensively Gregory West had controlled his world, beyond what even Victoria imagines.

Matheson’s script is very funny, and I wonder how much of it is digs at writers he actually knew, such as Serling, and their fantasy images of what a world-renowned writer’s life must be. And what writer doesn’t imagine that his or her characters gain a life of their own, somehow slipping beyond control? However, none of this episode would work were it not for the perfect delivery from Keenan Wynn and the support from sharp-tongued and often hilarious Phyllis Kirk. The writing and performances make it easy to forget that Mr. West demonstrates very little of his amazing powers because the budget won’t let him. He summons an elephant to block the foyer at one time which looks like a process shot projected behind actress Phyllis Kirk.

The episode is most famous for it conclusion, where Rod Serling abruptly appears inside Gregory West’s study to do his wrap-up in person instead of a voiceover. Serling had, until this time in the show, only appeared on-screen during the teasers to introduction next week’s show, and this was the first time he showed up inside an episode. He doesn’t last long in Gregory West’s world, however; West pulls out the tape used to create Rod Serling and tosses it in the fire. “Well that’s the way it goes,” Serling says, and poof! Show host is gone. Matheson must have loved writing this. However, this planted the seed for the later seasons, when Serling would make full-bodied materialization to do his introductions and sometimes his prologues.

This concludes the first season of the The Twilight Zone, as well as my overview of some of its noteworthy episodes. October 2nd marks the actual fiftieth anniversay of the show—the premiere of the first episode, “Where is Everybody?”—so watch for a large Season One retrospective at Black Gate that week, probably on the Tuesday before.

If you wish to go over my other Twilight Zone Season One reviews here from earlier in this retrospective, they are:

#1 “Where Is Everybody?
#5 “Walking Distance”
#8 “Time Enough at Last”
#11 “And When the Sky Was Opened”
#13 “The Four of Us Are Dying”
#16 “The Hitch-Hiker”
#18 “The Last Flight”
#22 “The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street” (my favorite of the season)
#24 “Long Live Walter Jameson”
#27 “The Big Tall Wish”
#28 “Nightmare as a Child”
#30 “A Stop at Willoughby”
#34 “The After Hours”

Looking back over it, I think that “What You Need,” “The Execution,” and “The Sixteen Millimeter Shrine” also deserve full reviews. Maybe between now and October 2nd, although I make no promises.

04 September 2009

Movie review: McQ

McQ (1974)
Directed by John Sturges. Starring John Wayne, Eddie Albert, Diana Muldaur, Clu Gulager, Colleen Dewhurst, David Huddleston, Al Lettieri.

On the day when Scotland was handing out clan names, one clan arrived late to the table. The officer in charge told them that they had run out of names, and only had a single letter left. The clan leader sighed, and accepted the name “McQ.” The clan did not know that one day a lad of theirs would make good in the Seattle Police Department. Or that John Wayne would play him.

It seems easy to imagine that McQ was meant to be a fresh start, a “game changer” for an aging star who saw himself getting replaced in the tough-guy universe. John Wayne had gotten passed over for the part of Dirty Harry because of his age, and McQ looked like his way to get in on the field of the gritty contemporary crime dramas that had flooded into theaters in the wake of Bullit and The French Connection and the Eastwood explosion. But looking back from 2009, McQ is obviously an experiment, a chance for Wayne to enjoy himself, and not an attempt to create a new trend for him. He was too old for a complete action hero revision, having turned sixty-eight when filming started. He had already achieved the most any actor in a single lifetime could have wanted; the Oscar for True Grit in 1969 was really a Lifetime Achievement Award—if ever he deserved an Oscar for an individual performance, it would be for Red River or The Searchers, two of my favorite movies of all time. And he would not survive the decade. The Duke wasn’t out to grab a new audience—if he were, he would have taken the offered role in Blazing Saddles. He just wanted to do some work, try something fun in modern-dress, get to punch people while wearing a suit and tie instead of a cowboy shirt or combat fatigues.

And so, McQ.

03 September 2009

Book Review: Bulldog Drummond

Bulldog Drummond (1920)
By Herman Cyril McNeile writing as Sapper

The cheap paper story magazines, the genuine “pulps,” were a North American publishing phenomenon. That doesn’t mean their style of action and adventure never got across the pond. Starting in 1920, Herman Cyril McNeile, veteran of the Great War and member of the Royal Engineers, inaugurated a series of novels that took the British detective figure and molded him into an action hero for Brits who wanted patriotic thrills in the unsure post-war climate. So was born Bulldog Drummond, whom McNeille wrote about under the pseudonym “Sapper,” a name for a private in the Royal Engineers.

Hugh “Bulldog” Drummond borrowed from the detectives before him as well as from the virile adventure style of the American pulpers. He would also have a huge effect on the heroes who followed, as David Stuart Davies explains in his introduction to the new Wordsworth omnibus volume Bulldog Drummond:
…[he] was the prototype of all the sleuthing adventurers who ambushed the bookshelves in the first half of the twentieth century. He inspired numerous crime solvers from Sidney Horley’s Tiger Standish to Leslie Charteris’ The Saint to Dick Barton and beyond, and indeed he could well have been the father of James Bond.
* * *
Drummond was neither as cerebral as Sherlock Holmes nor as self-contained, cunning and aristocratic as Lord Peter Whimsey (although like Whimsey he did have a trusty and useful manservant), but he had a bluff, good-hearted nature, great energy and above all staunch patriotism and tremendous courage.
And he could beat up evildoers viciously if he needed to—such as the acid-bath treatment that appears in the first book. It was just what the British reading public, especially exhausted soldiers back from the trenches, wanted to read. McNeile delivered the same thrills to the demobilized that Mickey Spillane would later give to U.S. soldiers returning from the Big One with his Mike Hammer novels.

01 September 2009

How will Hiram Lodge kill Archie Andrews?

Let’s see, what’s happening in the comics world . . .

Well, I’m already bored with the whole “Disney-Buys-Marvel” news, mostly because I don’t think much will change. Disney won’t touch the comics books because, after all, that’s not where the money is. They’ve let Pixar do their stuff, I can’t imagine they’ll demand that the Punisher start acting a bit nicer and maybe pick up work as a crossing guard instead of shredding mobsters. Although Sledge Hammer once worked as a crossing guard, and it was pretty amusing.

The same week that Tinker Bell bought Wolverine, another comic bombshell went off, although not one that the average comic book fan will think much about. That’s because it occurred in the world of Archie Comics, once known as MLJ Comics. Nonetheless, this event has caused plenty of pop-culture shockwaves. I don’t read Archie Comics because, well, I’m a male in his 30s. But I do have interest in them because they’re a major segment of comic book history and play a key part of the popular culture landscape. Not many children read comics anymore, but the ones who do tend to read the Archie mags. I remember during some of my teaching days that I had to confiscate a few Archie Digests (which often contained reprints from the 1940s) from my students, usually fourth and fifth grade girls. So Archie still has power, even though he isn’t appearing in Summer popcorn flicks.

And the big news is that after sixty-seven years in high school and bouncing between sweet Betty Cooper and debutante Veronica Lodge, Archie is finally going to propose . . . to Veronica! The issue, Archie #600, came out today, although the proposal was already forecast. This issue is one of a six-part arc written by Michael Uslan, who also got the Batman film series made. Odd double-legacy.

Which makes me immediately think, “No way, Archie is not going to marry Veronica. He’s not going to marry anybody. We have six issues to find some way to screw it up.” I can’t imagine that Archie Comics, which have hardly budged in story or artistic style since the 1940s (the kids stopped wearing sweater vests, but Jughead still has that weird jester-beanie thing, which has an interesting story), will now threaten the high school chastity life by having Archie Andrews get married—and apparently get freaky with the new Mrs. Andrews once he does. Because, even in starched-shirt Riverdale, that’s what happens on wedding nights.

Nope, I can’t see how the comics can survive going through with this, not with a reading audience that demands consistency and doesn’t care if things never change because they only read the comics for about three years before moving on. Eventually, they have kids of their own who will read the comics and they will notice that Riverdale still hasn’t altered in the slightest, Reggie’s still a vain jerk, they still can’t figure out Jughead’s hat, and they feel good about it.

However . . . I’m glad that when Archie actually went down on one knee, it was for Veronica. The Betty/Veronica comparison is a classic question for the male of the species, and his choice of one or the other is supposed to reveal some deep desire for a particular type of relationship. Or something. You want the sweet (blonde) girl next door, or the rich and devious (brunette)? For some reason, hair color is deeply tied into this question. Okay, it’s not a deep question, but you need an icebreaker at some parties, and politics are a no-no.

I prefer Veronica. Why? I don’t read the comic intensely enough to really know much about the Betty/Veronica personality difference aside from the superficial things we all know as participants of North America culture. I prefer Veronica because I just like her look. So blame the artists and the “house style.” Also, Archie picking her is a bit of shock for people, who thought that the “home-style goodness” of the Archie Comics line would have him go for the sweet, “good” girl. The people behind the comics knew what they were doing when they picked the controversial candidate. It seems that the majority of fans on the forums preferred that he go for Betty, and an online vote favored the blonde beauty by eighty percent. If Archie Comics wanted to get attention, they pulled they right stunt. They could’ve bought Marvel, but it was cheaper just to have Archie give Veronica a ring.

But, the marriage won’t happen. If anything, Hiram Lodge, Veronica’s rich father who can’t stand Archie, will arrange for an “unfortunate accident” to make sure that Archie never takes his daughter to the altar. I thought maybe ninjas would do the trick, but T. L. Bugg suggested “Cybernetic Reggie.” Now that might get some older readers to buy the issues. The Punisher once had a crossover with the world of Archie (really!); what if Hiram Lodge convinces Frank Castle that Archie is really a notorious meth dealer?

I’ve thought about this for too long already. Oh, did you hear that Disney bought Marvel? Spidey proposed to Aurora, and now he’s going to have to beat up a nasty-looking black and purple dragon.

Update: The whole Archie-proposes-to-Veronica ballyhoo was just a dream sequence. Nobody learned from Dallas, did they?

Let’s Rope Some Dinos in The Valley of Gwangi

The Valley of Gwangi (1969)
Directed by Jim O’Connolly. Starring James Franciscus, Gila Golan, Richard Carlson, Laurence Nasmith, Freda Jackson, Gustavo Rojo, Curtis Arden.

I’ve loved the stop-motion movies of Ray Harryhausen from a tender age, but not until the last few weeks have I started to write reviews of them for public consumption. The first two I reviewed, The Three Worlds of Gulliver (for Black Gate) and The First Men in the Moon, both have much to recommend them, but they still end up disappointing because they don’t fully deliver on the stop-motion wonders that makes Ray Harryhausen’s work so recognizable and transporting.

But lack of stop-motion marvels isn’t a problem with The Valley of Gwangi, my topic for today. The problem with it is that it failed at the box office and ended up in obscurity until Warner Bros. finally unleashed it on home video in the 1990s. I can still remember reading those first reviews of the video release and wondering, “Where has this movie hidden all my life?”

The Hittites Are Back and Beautiful

Archie Andrews is going to marry Veronica Lodge, inspiring me to write about the Ancient Hittite Empire.

There’s a connection there, and once I figure it out, I shall possess the secret of the universe, and I shall share it with you.

But until then, you’ll have to settle for my essay today at Black Gate about the Hittites.