Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Watching the 20th Century, 1913 (cont.)

I needed a slight film to watch during lunch today, so I decided to finally sample a Thanhouser film. The
Thanhouser company made over 1,000 of these short, confectionary-light films during these early years of the
film industry. In this one, an evil broker decides to cheat a client out of $20,000 by having a messenger boy
deliver it to her, follows the boy, and switches envelopes with the boy at his first opportunity. Unfortunately for
him, not only does he foolishly step in front of a movie picture company camera during the act, not only does the
camera keep rolling even though they’re standing in front of the actors, not only does the messenger boy have a
family member working for the movie studio, but she also just happens to spot the deed on a few frames while
reviewing hundred of feet of film. Our villain hangs his head in shame at the end; he should be shaking his fists
and screaming “What are the odds??”

White slavery for the sex trade is the unusual topic of this early crime drama. The film certainly tries to tug at our
heartstrings -- showing us the grieving, elderly father of the kidnapped girl...the sister gets fired because of the
“disgrace” of her sister being missing...the newspaper headlines in the movie referring to her as a “little girl” when
the actress appears to be about 25. The younger sister is a pretty weak actress, her best skill being going limp
when her character faints. A lot of time is spent showing the irony of how the slave ringleader is seen by
everyone as a fine, upstanding citizen. You would think this movie would end with everyone’s arrest, but instead
there’s an extended denouement showing the ringleader get cosmic justice as well as civic justice.

Now, this movie couldn’t have been made today because a) wireless technology would have given Mary no clue
to follow to the slavers in the first place, and b) today, the sister could have called the police and they would have
taken her testimony as credible evidence for a raid. Then the movie would have been over in 15 minutes.
Instead, because she’s a woman and this is 1913, Mary and her detective boyfriend have to spend time putting
themselves at risk gathering evidence. Some of the evidence-gathering is interesting historical information -- like
how, in 1913, the cops can’t just listen to a bug planted in his office live; Mary has to sneak out the recording tube
from the hidden dictaphone and bring it to them. And it’s interesting how non-standardized steering wheels were
still in 1913, as the police car clearly has its steering wheel on the right side. Another curiosity, though I can’t tell
if this was actual practice or a dramatic device in the movie -- but the accused are allowed to see the witnesses
against them, in the police station, when they are being taken in.

The movie fails to ever build dramatic tension, though, and there seems to be a lot of padding sometimes. The
most effective scene is the mob scene when the ringleader is released on bail.

(This particular recording of Traffic of Souls has two peculiarities -- someone thought it would be a good idea to
put the name of the movie as a banner across the top, even though it covers up people’s faces, and there is a
short 12-minute film appended to the back of it. I did not watch the backup feature.)

Supposedly Danish director August Blom’s most successful film, this Titanic-inspired story starts with Dr. von
Kammacher stressed out over his sickly wife and his research being rejected, so his servants suggest he go out
more often to sooth his nerves. On one of his nights out, Kammacher meets a “dancer” named Miss Ingigerd.
Ingigerd is supposedly so good a dance that she’s about to go tour America, but if you watch nothing else from
this film, fast forward to the laughably bad dance sequence about 18 minutes into the movie (the antennae she’s
wearing do not help with taking her seriously).

Quickly, Kammacher falls for Ingigerd, despite the fact that she has the grace and poise of a bucket of mop
water. In fact, he’s so obsessed that he boards the same boat bound for America to pursue her. He keeps trying
to woo her on board and can’t understand how her “he’s married” radar is going off around him all the time (I
guess he ditched his wedding ring?).

The first act is slow and plodding. It ends with a curiously short scene with Kammacher dreaming about touring
the ruins of Atlantis. It doesn’t really make sense other than to give the movie its title. If anything made me want
to read the novel this movie was based on, it would be to find out if there was more to this scene in the book, and
some importance to it other than a vague foreshadowing of the disaster about to happen.

The action really picks up in the second act during the ship sinking. I’m still not sure how they did this. Surely they
didn’t have the budget to actually sink an ocean liner. My dad thinks the ship is just a model, but it can’t be too
small a model; special effects were not good enough in 1913 to splice footage so smoothly as I’m seeing. Maybe
it’s a smaller boat made to look like an ocean liner, and then made to look bigger with some trick of perspective.

Though a dramatic second act, the sinking is far from the end of the movie. Kammacher saves Ingigerd from her
room during the sinking (she almost got left behind because she was so seasick). After the survivors are rescued,
Ingigerd’s gratitude turns to lust. Kammacher, who was already weak as a puppy dog around her, can’t resist
how the hedonistic lifestyle in New York makes Ingigerd shockingly let down her hair, bare her arms, and show
her ankles. O wicked Ingigerd!

The third act has a bizarre subplot about an armless man who performs on tour with Ingigerd. We see a
surprising amount of this guy, and it’s a little disturbing how he performs like he’s in a freak show, playing a
trumpet, or playing cards, with his feet. It’s possible that this character is supposed to remind us that Herr
Douchebag -- I mean Kammacher -- is missing things too, like his dying wife and practically abandoned children.
I also have a strong suspicion that the man’s arms are in his coat.

One nice thing this act deals with that the movie Titanic ignored was what happens to the survivors afterwards.
We see their compulsion to hold reunions, because of their shared trauma, as well as the nervous depression the
survivors suffer. Kammacher suffers more than the others, of course, because he’s a horrible douchebag
drowning in guilt. BUT, the movie gives him a happy ending by having Ms. Burns, a New York artist, fall for him
and “cure” him with the healthy love he’s been missing in his life.

The main reason to stick around through the third act, though, is the gorgeous B roll footage of 1913 New York

Barney Oldfield's Race for a Life

It had bothered me that it looked like I was going to miss all the Keystone Cops shorts in this project because
they were not long enough to count as movies, but at least the fourth in the series was long enough at 13
minutes. It’s claim to fame is being the first time a woman was tied to railroad tracks on film. It’s semi-exciting and
dramatic and surprisingly unfunny, with a goofy, overly violent ending. Ford Sterling steals the show as the
caricature-ish villain.

Thursday, January 4, 2018

Seven Best DC Titles - Mid-1940

This is less about picking seven best titles -- since there were barely more than seven DC titles in mid-1940 -- than it is assembling the best features for the seven best titles. Though DC Comics exited the Golden Age with a stable roster of features, in the early days they tested a lot of different features, some good, some bad. Almost all of the early titles were anthology titles, with 64 pages split up between up to 20 different short features. I would have liked to have seen them expand the better features to 12-13 pages (and they did for the really popular heroes, like Superman and Batman) and cut out all chaff. Here is how I would consolidate the best of their early features into seven titles by the middle of 1940.

Action Comics
DC really didn't need a quarterly Superman series in 1939, as Action Comics really didn't have enough solid features to carry a book without Superman. Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster’s Superman was, of course, extraordinary. Shuster’s deceptively crude artwork was bursting with primal energy. Siegel’s best stories were wish-fulfillment fantasies for social change -- strong indictments of late 1930s society given they were only 13 pages long (and hence necessarily simplistic solutions). The superhero genre arrived with Superman and was a positive, utopian genre.

But, outside of Superman, Action Comics was a weak anthology. Tex Thompson was okay at first, being an explorer who went to really gonzo places. The early Zatara stories were good until power inflation just made them too goofy. Everything else was pretty weak; I would rather have seen three Superman stories per issue than the rest of that filler. So, instead of a quarterly Superman series, I would rather have a lot more Superman in Action Comics, with a line-up as follows:
Tex Thompson

Adventure Comics
Adventure already had a solid line-up by the end of 1939. Sandman was off to a great start. The pulp-style adventurer was the brainchild of Bert Christman and the short-lived comic strip artist’s greatest creation. Sandman was a billionaire industrialist-inventor with a lot of backstory and a craving for danger. He suffered after Christman’s death with more pedestrian stories by Gardner Fox, but a stronger editorial hand could have forced him to craft stories more like Christman’s.

Steve Carson of Federal Men was a Siegel/Shuster feature that started out really strong, with a heavy emphasis on science fictional threats. It grew more mundane over time, but if Federal Men had kept fighting giant robots, or sharing imaginary stories about law enforcement in the far future, it would have stayed a lot more fun.

Anchors Aweigh was a Dan Winslow (Navy hero) clone, with a hint of Tintin tossed in initially, that exceeded the strip it imitated, at least initially. It was a Fred Guardineer feature, which meant strong, stylized (if sometimes stiff) artwork.

Cotton Carver was a fun Don Dixon/Pellucidar (hero in a lost world) clone. Here, Gardner Fox really cut loose with all the inventiveness he was avoiding investing in Sandman, ably assisted by the art talent of Ogden Whitney (they would later do Skyman together for Eastern).

Hourman was Adventure’s second superhero. Another Gardner Fox character, Hourman always seemed too gimmicky; his hour-long superpowers would always run out at plot-convenient times, and he was super-popular with kids in his stories, overcompensating for how unpopular he was in real life. Creepy by today’s standards, Hourman secretly kept in touch with lots of his kid fans by radio. Still, downplay those gimmicks and you’ve got a pretty decent superhero with a good costume and good art by Bernard Bailey.

Steve Carson of Federal Men
Anchors Aweigh
Cotton Carver

All-American Comics
AA's first title (All-American was the sister company to National, the two of them together comprising DC Comics) was the weakest title of the bunch. Green Lantern was a brand new superhero, but I never warmed up to the original Green Lantern until his 1990s stories. Besides Green Lantern, it had Mutt & Jeff reprints, which are okay I guess. Scribbly was not yet the superhero parody masterpiece it would soon become. Hop Harrigan was a passably decent aviator hero. The best feature was Red, White, and Blue, a feature about three officers in the Armed Forces who always got to go on the same secret missions, despite representing entirely different branches. Red, White, and Blue was probably good enough that it could have been expanded to Superman-length stories (13 pages), and…I guess I can’t ignore the future popularity of Green Lantern. Other than those two, none of the other features likely could have filled more than 5-6 pages each month, which means All-American might still need to borrow some National characters to round out its page count, like Nadir Master of Magic (a magic-user who barely used magic) and Rusty and His Pals (a loose, comic-heavy Terry and the Pirates clone by Batman’s Bob Kane).

Red, White, and Blue
Mutt & Jeff
Hop Harrigan
Green Lantern
Nadir Master of Magic?
Rusty and His Pals?

Detective Comics
Although I’ve met people who really like the earliest Batman stories, they seem a dreadful mash-up of pulp fiction cliches to me that did not really gel until the character was reinvented to coincide with the debut of Robin. Here is the Batman and Robin that I love best -- laughing, joking, and smiling as they punch bad guys who toss out bad puns before they lose consciousness -- with just a dash of pulpy darkness left, as villains like Joker and Clayface are brutal murderers.

Of course, Batman dominated Detective Comics from the moment he debuted, but Detective had a strong stable of features in addition. Bart Regan, Spy, was a really strong Siegel/Shuster adventure series with a romance twist -- Bart would become the first character in comic books to marry, getting hitched to his partner in spying, Sally (until Siegel and Shuster seem to have abandoned the feature to other creators who completely ruined it). Slam Bradley was another good Siegel/Shuster adventure series, with a Captain Easy clone ratcheted up to 11. Speed Saunders was a capable feature by Fred Guardineer, though not in the same league with his Zatara or Anchors Aweigh. Crimson Avenger is a decent Green Hornet clone which was okay until an attempt was later made to reinvent him as a goofily-dressed superhero.

Batman and Robin
Bart Regan, Spy
Slam Bradley
Speed Saunders
Crimson Avenger

Flash Comics
The title hero, Flash, was pretty good. I like how Flash didn’t fight bad guys so much as he raced around them and found the evidence he needed to get them arrested, or just humiliated them (lots of bad guys got their clothes stripped off at super speed) until they surrendered. His adventures were largely comical and free of a lot of the tropes of the emerging superhero genre -- Flash did not bother protecting his secret identity, and his girlfriend Joan was like a costar in his book instead of just a plot hook generator.

Hawkman had potential -- Sheldon Moldoff definitely made him look cool. His backstory of being a reincarnated Egyptian prince went largely wasted (though I guess it explained his obsession with ancient weaponry). The best stories were the really gonzo ones, like fighting zombies in Wales. The character quickly went downhill when Fox started making him more gimmicky (like having him be able to talk to birds), but with better editorial direction Hawkman could have stayed good.

Sadly, there wasn’t much else in Flash Comics worth recommending. Johnny Thunder had staying power, but I can’t recommend anything that had the awful artwork of Stan Aschmeier. The King was another Fox character. The tuxedoed mysteryman was mildly interesting, mainly because he had a recurring nemesis in The Witch, and I do think more could have been done with him. Other than Flash, Hawkman, and King, I would need to bring back some characters from other titles to buoy up this book. One I would grab is Brad Hardy from early More Fun issues. Brad Hardy was another Don Dixon clone, but while magic was actually super-science in Dixon's strip, Brad fought sorcerers with a sword. Barry O'Neill was a one-trick pony from Adventure Comics who lost his momentum once his yellow peril foe Fang Gow died, but he had passable art and the American in France angle had potential.

Brad Hardy
Barry O’Neill

More Fun Comics
This title was an oddly-titled comic by mid-1940, as it’s too lead features were Dr. Fate and the Spectre. Further, the best feature before them also had a supernatural theme, though DC had inexplicably canceled More Fun’s previous best feature, Dr. Occult two years earlier. Dr Occult was yet another strong Siegel/Shuster feature where our investigator fought "magic" and "supernatural" foes that were grounded in super-science.

Dr. Fate started out as brilliant character, and not all like he was later retconned into. The original Dr. Fate was a supernatural being, created centuries ago. He was powerful enough to tangle with gods or repel alien invasions. The ever-productive Gardner Fox initially gave this series a real Lovecraftian feel to it and I wish it had never lost it.

The Spectre was the only superhero there was more powerful than Dr. Fate. It was strongly implied that the Spectre was an angel and used divine power to really mess with bad guys. Occasionally he faced supernatural foes worthy of him, but most of the time it was just crooks. Siegel’s only collaboration with Bernard Bailey, the Spectre looked nice and was a pretty cool concept, but needed some limitation better than later being grafted onto a silly cop character named Percival.

Sandy Kean of Radio Squad was the weakest of the Siegel/Shuster features I would include, but it was still a strong, street-level cop adventure strip. Lastly, like Dr. Occult, I would have liked to see Bob Merritt last longer than he did. The aviator hero’s strip was also canceled in 1938, but like Barry O'Neill, the Leo E. O'Mealia artwork was some of the strongest DC published up to that point.

Dr. Fate
Dr. Occult
Sandy Kean of Radio Squad
Bob Merritt

All-Star Comics
The best for last? All-Star would, of course, soon become home to the Justice Society of America -- the very first team of superheroes and the first team of fictional heroes in all of literature since Charlemange’s paladins. But, before that, All-Star could be a “best of” title featuring my favorite five of all the features named above (and, when it was time for the JSA to take over the title in issue #3, this concept could easily be ported over World’s Finest Comics). So, without further ado…

Dr. Fate
Bart Regan (sorry, superhero fans -- not a clean sweep!)

Wednesday, December 6, 2017

Making a Marvel Cinematic Universe -- in the 1980s (part 3)

With Fantastic Four 3 still in production, 1989's line-up would debut two new properties -- a Thor movie and a Spider-Man movie.

For the Thor film, it was decided to highlight the Shakespearean nature of the character (not actually present in the earliest stories, but a significant feature later on) by hiring a Shakespearean actor.

Kenneth Branagh was directing and starring in Henry V, but Universal was certain that Kenneth was perfect for the role of Thor and convinced him they could accommodate his Henry V schedule by filming in England (instead of on location in Norway), and using Don Blake instead of Thor as much as possible in the film. Kenneth also insisted that, in future films, his friend and frequent collaborator Brian Blessed would get to play Odin. Kenneth could not bulk up for the film, so some modifications were made to Thor's costume, such as giving it armored sleeves (and a long blonde wig, of course).

Previous adaptions had been able to stick pretty close to the original source material, only combining two issues at a time and fleshing them out with more detail, character nuance, and interaction. This time, they were making a 117 minute movie which they had promised Kenneth would only feature Thor in 60 minutes of -- and they only had one issue to work with because Thor's second appearance (stopping a new civil war in Spain being instigated by Russians) was garbage.

The solution was to bring in Nurse Jane Foster early (she was not featured in Thor's original origin story). To lend gravitas to the story, Don Blake was not on vacation in Norway, but was returning to his ancestors' homeland to die. His nurse had come, then, not on vacation, but to be his caregiver in his final weeks. When what seems to be a meteor strike causes horrific damage in Norway, Don and Jane pitch in to help the injured (this is borrowed from the set-up of Thor's second appearance). Of course, the strike is actually the ship of the Stone Men landing. This time, instead of being an isolated invasion, these are the shock troops of the Skrulls (tying all the Marvel movies together so far).

Since the "will they/won't they" relationship between Don and Jane has to carry more of the movie, Meg Ryan was cast as Jane Foster (she was still an unknown, as When Harry Met Sally came out a few months later) based on the strength of her audition. Don Blake was cast as Tim Robbins, who had just made it to the big time last year with Bull Durham. Tim famously lost a lot of weight for the part so he would look sickly and weak, worrying the physicians who were on hand for the filming.
Lastly, though animatronics for the previous movies had been handled by smaller companies, it was decided with Thor that Jim Henson Studios had to be brought on board to provide the animatronics from now on. To stretch out the film, the Stone Men were given characters and conflicting agendas, which meant the audience had to be able to be able to empathize with them -- something Jim Henson had pioneered with nonliving characters.

The soundtrack was largely orchestral, featuring tracks from Wagner's operas, one of the biggest laughs in the movie is when Peter, Paul, and Mary break into "If I Had a Hammer."

Though critics hailed this as the most cerebral superhero movie to date, the studio was concerned that combination of romance, fantasy, and science fiction was a lot for audiences to process. However, Thor raked in $100 million, the best for a Marvel movie so far. This would have been cause for celebration normally, but 1989 was a big year for movies and $100 million did not even break into the top 10. Further, the smash hit Batman made Universal concerned that they might be on the wrong track with fun, heartwarming superhero films, when Warner Brothers won big by going dark...