Archive for the Comics Category

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.

TUNE IN NEXT WEEK!

1) The Planet of Peril

Posted in Comics, FILM with tags , , , , , , on April 28, 2022 by dcairns

High time I rewatched FLASH GORDON. All of it!

It was my Dad who introduced me to Flash. My Mum had already given me accounts of Dan Dare, Pilot of the Future, whose adventures she read in her big brother Kenny’s Eagle comic. (Kenny is now a widower thanks to Covid and suffers from vascular dementia: who knew the future would be such a tough place?)

My Dad saw the Flash serials on rerelease as a boy in the forties. I remember I was playing in the garden one summer when he came out and suggested there was something starting on TV I might like. I think this is the only time he ever did anything like that. And he proceeded to bring the experience alive by recounting how he and his chums would cheer the heroes and boo the villains, particularly during the role call at the start of each episode. So I intuited that the true purpose of those sequences was not to let us know that Larry “Buster” Crabbe was playing the role of Flash, but to give us a chance to prime our audience participation engines.

The original 1936 serial starts as it means to go on: with stiff acting interspersed with model shots and stock footage. Planet earth is a model, a cloudless globe dangling against a starscape with interplanetary clouds drifting about; as we get closer there are crowd scenes of various panicking nationals — it’s funny how the New Yorkers are swarming about as if in a stock market charge, the Romans thronging as if listening to a pontiff, the Indians are actually praying, the Africans dancing, the Arabs charging on camels, each to his own idiom — and when we set magnification to maximum we get cheap actors in cheap sets.

These actors are for sure a mixed batch but they’re GOOD ENOUGH for these purposes. Swimming star Larry “Buster” Crabbe joked that his acting reached the level of incompetence and stuck there, but like his fellow naiad Esther Williams he’s quite effective and charming in a casual, “just-chatting-with-my-chums” way. At 5.50 he gives maybe the greatest line reading of 1936 (a fine year) when Doctor Zarkov says “I’m sure the planet rushing up on us is inhabited, It is also intensely radioactive. If I can reach it in my rocketship, I may be able to control its power, and divert it from its course towards the earth.”

Larry “Buster” Crabbe practically shrugs: “Well, it’s worth trying.,” he says, mildly. Almost a Joe E. Brown vibe there.

Zarkoff is Dublin-born Frank Shannon, and the idea of a mad scientist called Zarkoff who speaks with an Irish brogue is intensely amusing. Like being constantly tickled from an unknown direction. One imagines a backstory: the Professor has realised he’s never going to get anywhere in the mad scientist business with a name like Padraig Mahoney. He must change it to something more slavic, or face penury.

Dale Arden is Jean Rogers and I’m keen to see if the vibrant good humour she displayed in a few comic feature films is going to be evident here. It seems like a good place for it.

Charles Middleton, not a naturalistic actor by any means, more of a pound store John Carradine, is in his demented element as Ming, Kentucky-born ruler of Mongo. The job seems to require mainly self-confidence and a lack of resemblance to anyone you might hope to encounter irl. Middleton achieves this consistently. The perfect contrast to the throwaway style of Larry “Buster” Crabbe. Middleton-Ming doesn’t throw his lines away, he throws them AT you, with deadly force.

If you’ve seen the 1980 masterpiece, it’s surprising how similar the set-up is. Zarkoff’s assistant has run off (but we never see this) and he needs a co-pilot for his rocketship. Flash Gordon in this version is a polo player, so he naturally has the required skillset (he can make something bigger than himself go in the direction he desires — it’s exactly like steering a spacecraft). Dale Arden is abducted along for the ride. Being a girl, she’s the first to pass out from asphyxiation as they leave the stratosphere. “Sorry,” says Prof Z, “In the excitement I forgot to turn on the oxygen.” He’s a man who somehow fills one with confidence.

Larry “Buster” Crabbe is really good also because he looks more worried than most leading men. Even being tasked with looking through a periscope causes him to tug his collar away from his overdeveloped neck. He looks as worried as you or I might be. And he sheds a tear in one of the sequel installments when a Princess dies. Sam Jones, star of the big remake, was obsessed with playing a hero who might cry, and he does come close in one of the various dungeon scenes.

The rocketship wobbles delightfully on its path, and makes the sound of a thousand jet-powered jalopies banging in unison, while sparks shoot out of its rear end as if it were Chris Lynam. That’s an obscure reference, I know, but I’m not out to please everyone.

Despite appearances the rocketship is perfectly capable of reaching an alien world in mere minutes, even navigating “the death zone,” which is just as well, since the set has been built in such a way as to afford us only a view of the three principals’ backs. We pitch up in a kind of papier-mâché terrarium, a fitting introduction to Planet Mongo, a world created by a God on a tight budget.

Flash’s jodhpurs. I just realized, he’s still dressed for polo. Three horses drowned under him, etc. The remake casts him as a footballer, which is fine. More plebeian, more everyman, and more in keeping with Mike Hodges notion of Flash the idiot interventionist, moronic embodiment of US foreign policy. I always think there should have been a sequel where Mongo falls apart without Ming there to run things.

When our heroes are pursued by thunder lizards, the filmmakers have had to cope with the refractory behaviour of real live reptiles, who eat up miles of film in slomo as they rampage around their miniature set without meaning or control, so that sometimes they seem to be fleeing their prey, or just walking headlong into rockfaces. As predators, they seem mainly dangerous due to their (supposed) size — they might myopically tread on our heroes, but they aren’t likely to actually catch them. It may be that the horns that have been glued all over them are a distraction, sending the poor iguanas cross-eyed.

The more expensive and time-consuming special effect would be to actually composite lizards and actors together in a single frame, but we’re not going to do that. The only special effect here is the Kuleshov one.

Oh, but then we do! Dale is ordered to keep an eye out, so she wanders blithely almost into the nearest dragon’s gob. The monsters do battle! One can’t shake the suspicion that they are either making out, or being rammed into each other by props men in protective gloves. Then the pyrotechnics guy blows them up. “Are they dead?” asks Dale. “No doubt about it!” barks Zarkov, suddenly an expert paleontologist.

Cause of the explosion is a rival rocketship, a neat little buzzing bee of a thing. It is a thing of joy to watch the armour-plated pilots disembark through the tiny hatch, the chunky leader’s pugilistic arse-out stance and anti-chaffing walk challenging you to laugh at him, you bastards. His two henchbeings look like the Black Knight from MONTY PYTHON AND THE HOLY GRAIL, but without the detachable limbs. Their equivalents in the remake DO have hands that come off.

“Why destroy earth? Why not conquer it?” Brought before Ming the Merciless, Doctor Mahoney Zarkov doesn’t seem to be as faithful an ambassador as we might wish for. He’s sent off to the laboratory to invent stuff. Then Princess Aura barges in, with a certain Tugboat Annie attitude Ornella Muti could learn from. She and Dale immediately size each other up as hated rivals. Nice that Dale, so far from home, has immediately found a hated rival.

Ming is sizing Dale up too, but in a different way. “Your eyes, your hair, your skin!” He’s taking inventory. Flash has had enough of this salty talk, and immediately sets about battering flunkies with an enormous vase. Then he starts fencing. A useful outlet for his pent-up passions, I suppose, but hardly appropriate behaviour on a diplomatic mission. He’s probably right, though: a six-foot unbreakable urn rammed down on the plumed helmet is the only language these people understand.

Flash is then thrown into the arena, where he must battle the Brute Men of Mongo, three bruisers with swim trunks, tusks, and male-pattern baldness, in a choppy skirmish where his shirt is soon as ragged as the continuity. Aura gazes on in erect-nippled fascination. Dale, pinioned by handmaidens, is less tumescent but still concerned.

“He fights well, the earthman,” observes Ming, naturally falling into alien imperial syntax. In truth, Flash’s signature move, picking up one Brute Man and hurling him at the others, is somewhat overused, but it’s a good trick if you can do it.

Aura is even more impressed, so much so that she intervenes before Flash can be dropped into the dreaded Pit. Unfortunately her intervention takes the form of raygunning down the man in charge of the levers. Falling, he pulls down the lever controlling the trapdoor. Flash (and Aura) fall into the pit.

TO BE CONTINUED!