Archive for the Comics Category

A thought

Posted in Comics, FILM with tags , , , , , on November 23, 2022 by dcairns

Anthony Mackie said it, then Quentin Tarantino parrotted it on his podcast.

Audiences now go to see superheroes, not movie stars. OK. It’s a somewhat unfalsifiable statement — we can say that’s approximately or mostly true, not absolutely true. There’s a lot of truth IN it.

One definition of a star is “someone who will open a film.” The film might go on to flop but at least people will turn up on opening weekend to see if they like it. The Mackie-Tarantino hypothesis is that people will now turn up to see Captain America, but not necessarily to see Chris Evans if they don’t like the sound of his latest vehicle.

It’s possible that audiences could be repelled even from Captain America if the colourful piece of I.P. were placed in a novel and unattractive new context, such as CAPTAIN AMERICA GOES TO THE LAVATORY, but it’s not something that’s going to happen so we needn’t concern ourselves with it. The character is permanently fused to a certain kind of entertainment and so the punter knows exactly the kind of thing s/he is going to get.

The thought that struck me is that the studios responsible for the Marvel and DC “cinematic universes” have, in a sense, recaptured the power they had before Olivia DeHavilland made her bid for freedom. Back when there WERE stars, in the 1940s, the movie studios more or less owned them. There were a few independents, like Cary Grant, but in order to become stars, most aspirants signed longterm contracts with the studios and had to do as they were told. Refusing a project meant going on suspension, which meant your contract was extended by the amount of time the refused film would have taken to shoot. So, essentially, a star had to take the jobs offered or else potentially stay under contract forever. And when your contract was up for renewal, maybe the studio had the right to renew it built into their original contract, and unless your career was looking VERY secure, you might be reluctant to strike out in search of sound stage pastures new.

So, in effect, the studios used to own their stars.

Now they own, or have a deal for the use of, their I.P.

You can make Captain America do whatever you want. And you can recast him at will, as we have seen with the Hulk-shaped revolving door at Universal/Disney. Having Michael Keaton or Christian Bayle as Batman is equivalent to having Dick Sprang or Carmine Infantino drawing him in the comics: the fans appreciate each incarnation and can tell the difference, but it’s all Batman, which is the main thing.

We have cycled back to the kind of slave-owning the majors used to enjoy, only now, just as the sets may be digital constructs rather than physical objects, the stars aren’t flesh-and-blood at all, but inventions, name + costume + backstory + powers.

One could, of course, get into a debate about whether the old stars were strictly speaking people at all — they were IMAGES, certainly, based on or around people. They had names, often assumed; they admittedly changed costumes more than Superman, who has only two main ones; they had their own backstories, often quite as fictional as Peter Parker’s; they had powers, but we called those “star quality.”

Hitchcock said he envied Walt Disney, who, if he were dissatisfied with his leading man, could physically tear him to pieces. One has to imagine that Jack Warner, that old vaudevillian crook, would see something to envy in the modern studio’s ability to hold the copyright of its stars, a whole indentured firmament of them.

(Kudos to Mackie for actually daring to say something interesting: I hold the admittedly cranky view that the press should never interview anyone who has a film coming out, since people in that position are contractually forbidden to say anything honest.)

Marx for Trying

Posted in Comics, FILM, literature, Painting, Radio with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on July 20, 2022 by dcairns

I was thinking of getting rid of my copy of Moving Pictures by Budd Schulberg — “Will I ever read this?” — when I opened it at random — a fair test — and discovered that Schulberg had attempted to co-write a Marx Bros movie at Paramount in the thirties, where he was the boss’s son.

BUGHOUSE FABLES was the intended title, which I somewhat approve of, since it has the required animal reference. But is it a common phrase or saying like “monkey business,” “horse feathers,” “animal crackers,” and “duck soup”? (Two of these are by now UNcommon phrases or sayings but I’m prepared to believe that in pre-code days they were familiar to the American public.)

BUT I’m wrong — here’s proof, from 1922, that Schulberg’s title WAS extant.

It was supposed to be about the Marxes running an asylum. I’m unsure about this. The results could easily be tasteless, even for the 1930s, and Schulberg says that part of the impetus was to hit back at the censors who had been objecting to MONKEY BUSINESS. Also, surrounding the Bros with lunatics could easily diminish their powers. The possibilities for spot gags would be endless, but we can hardly have Groucho, Chico and Harpo seeming less crazy than everyone else. Presumably we would have a “lunatics taking over the asylum” scenario and there are strong possibilities for annoying headshrinkers (cue Sig Rumann) and wealthy patrons (Margaret Dumont). But I think the Marxes need a sane, generically-consistent story world to interact with, and be the craziest element of. When Groucho is placed in charge of a sanatorium in A DAY AT THE RACES, the most eccentric person he meets apart from his own brothers is rich hypochondriac Dumont.

Schulberg himself sounds pretty uncertain about whether his efforts to write funny were in fact hitting the mark or Marx (atsa some joke, huh boss?)

The same problem is multiplied by a thousand in Salvador Dali’s Marx scenario, GIRAFFES ON HORSEBACK SALAD. Two animals for the price of one. But not a common phrase or saying, except perhaps in the Dali household. It’s understandable that Dali, a Spaniard, may have misunderstood “horse feathers” and “animal crackers” as pieces of surreal word salad, which they sort of are, but they were also pre-existing expressions which the domestic audience understood.

But the title is merely a clue to the full-blown insanity of Dali’s vision. And while that may sound mouth-watering, most commentators have concluded that surrounding the Marx Bros with an UN CHIEN ANDALOU world already chaotic and surreal would render them redundant, with nothing left to disrupt.

This image derives from a graphic novel adaptation, and you can listen to a subsequently-produced audio version here, for money.

Much, much later, Billy Wilder contemplated A NIGHT AT THE UNITED NATIONS. The title here places the project in the later MGM tradition though I doubt Wilder would have filled the movie with songs. The concept of positioning the Brothers in the context of international politics does smack promisingly of DUCK SOUP though. It would be untrue to say that the gags would write themselves — but I believe Wilder could write them. I’d love to see Chico working as a simultaneous translator. And then Harpo taking over.

Wilder never made a film built around an actual movie clown — his comedies are built around thespians with comedic chops. He uses Marilyn Monroe a little bit like a clown, and Jimmy Cagney as an icon whose famous moments he can built jokes around, but mostly his characters are not totally dependent on casting choices. He did try to work with Peter Sellers, twice, but Sellers had neither persona nor, he claimed, personality.

Wilder did also want to make a film with Laurel & Hardy — he got as far as planning an opening showing them sleeping rough in the last two Os of the HOLLYWOOD sign. So clownwork was something he had an interest in. But I suspect the collaborations would have been fraught. Stan liked to be in charge, and Groucho eventually kicked Wilder out of his house after receiving one too many lectures on the right wine to serve with dinner. (This is all from Maurice Zolotow’s semi-reliable Wilder bio.) It would have been like Preston Sturges and Harold Lloyd trying to collaborate, and finding their mutual respect could not overcome their need to be true to their individual comic muses.

Captured by Shark Men

Posted in Comics, FILM with tags , , , , , , , on May 11, 2022 by dcairns

And we all know what that feels like, right?

Episode three of FLASH GORDON resolves the rubber dragon-lobster problem rather briskly, with Thun rushing up and raygunning down the offending beast. But not before we’ve been allowed to enjoy the sight of a miniature Flash, rigid of limb and seemingly hydrocephalic, being waved triumphantly around in one giant pincer. Intercut medium shots of Larry “Buster” Crabbe gritting his teeth et voila! A classic science fiction fight scene to rival anything in the MCU.

The baggy-trousered reptile laid smouldering on the cavern floor, Flash and Thun descend a precipitous stone stairway inherited from FRANKENSTEIN — in the steps of Dwight Frye. Then Flash strangles a bloke in a Norman helmet with a dinner gong, freeing them to reach the cluster of MUMMY props to save Dale from almost certain matrimony. The stone god — definitely the idol from Freund’s monsterpiece, makes a familiar gesture, and then tips forward at the celebrants, propelled by Flash, your visiting district iconoclast. Dale, only lightly dehumanized, is swept off her feet by her hero, leaving Ming jilted and emasculated, a spare prick at his own wedding. Curses!

Dialogue indicates that the tumbling deity is “the great god Tao,” but he looks totally different to the version seen last time, in footage from JUST IMAGINE. I guess that was the great god Tao of stock footage, and this is the great god Tao of secondhand props.

Flash and Thun now continue on down the same staircase they already descended, I think, though this is not embarrassingly obvious or anything, it’s just that I know the set. How far down are we going? “FIRST FLOOR DUNGEON: Assorted simple tortures”? I note that the stair has been cleaned and dried since Colin Clive was its proprietor.

Flash and Dale are halted at a big steel bulkhead and a henchman spies at them through a telescope as Dale’s dehumanization wears off. Flash takes too long to notice, though, and before a clinch can be arranged they’re dropped through ANOTHER trap door, this time into water. Boy, if Aura could see this, would she be jealous. “I’m the one he should be plummeting through trapdoors with!” Imagine Flash’s stuttered excuses: “I dropped twenty feet with her but that’s as far as it went!”

Now Flash is set upon by Shark Men. Well, it must have seemed a good idea to give Larry “Buster” Crabbe, Olympic swimmer, some splashing about to do. But aquatic punch-ups are rarely fun to watch, and this babbling donnybrook is no exception. That’s why THUNDERBALL will never be my favourite Bond — the one time undercranking would have helped them, they forgot it was available.

Our heroes are soon abducted into a Shark Man submarine, the tiniest-looking model yet. The big bricks in its dock don’t help.

Now, in the finest tradition of Ruggiero Deodato, we get some genuine animal bloodshed — shark versus octopus. Ugh. At one point the picture goes out of focus and the image rolls vertically, which is a relief.

Flash and Dale barely have time to get dry — but they do get dry, perhaps for censorship reasons — before they’re presented to the grand old King Kala of the Shark Men, played by the grand old Duke York Jr. Within seconds of meeting, Flash and the King/Duke engaged in a wrestling match. Pretty strange royal protocol they have on Mongo. But it soon escalates into a knife fight, which is more in line with the life of our own dear Queen.

Editing can do strange things to performance, and Jean Rogers’ reaction shots make you wonder if she’s fully de-dehumanized. Not her fault.

Flash beats Kala who’s so impressed he orders that his captors spend the night “in their separate quarters” (Production Code dictates or something more sinister?) and be released in the morning. “Don’t worry, Dale. Everything’s all right,” Flash assures her, but with so little time to the cliffhanger, can this be true? Also, Dale’s separate quarters consist of a divan in the corner of the throne room, surrounded by shower curtains. Those aren’t proper quarters. They’re barely eighths.

Flash’s separate quarters, on the other hand, are a metal vault, into which he is bundled by Kala’s hench-shark-men. Their costumes deserve mention: swim trunks and HUGE silvery cummerbunds, boots and skull-caps. At least Kala gets to wear a kind of lurex sarong with a cartoon squid on it. Dignity, always dignity.

Flash’s quarters are, in fact, less air-bnb than airlock, and are soon flooding. Worse, since Dale’s bedroom is PART OF THE THRONEROOM, she’s able to sneak out and eavesdrop as Kala has a quick Zoom call with Ming, showing them to be in cahoots, or nextdoor to cahoots. Ming’s image appears, amusingly, in a porthole. Because Shark Men would naturally have portholes for monitors.

Cliffhanger! Flash’s metaphorical cliff is a room filling with water, in which he is not hanging but drowning. Soon, an “octo-sac” is unleashed, to further inconvenience him. Deduct at least one rating star.