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Rocketing to Earth

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on July 5, 2022 by dcairns

Mike Hodges tells me that Larry “Buster” Crabbe was quick to condemn his 1980 FLASH GORDON. “He couldn’t quite bring himself to say this great American hero might be GAY! Hey Ho!”

If not gay, then certainly camp.

Join Larry “Buster” Crabbe and his chums for the final episode of the 1936 series!

We open, more or less, with the ceiling falling in on our heroes after they descend through a convenient trapdoor to escape aerial bombardment. The whole “Trapped in the Turret” thing is rather a misnomer as they never go upstairs. “Trapped in the Basement” would be closer to the truth, but they’re never trapped either: immediately downstairs from the “turret-which-is-played-by-a-cave” next to the “Lake of Rocks” which is just a desert, they find a corridor leading to the dungeon which allows them to rescue Prince Barin who is being escorted there. They belatedly realise that it wasn’t Barin who had been bombarding them.

Oh, and King Vultan has been injured. He’s covered in plaster and looks quite woebegone. Covering someone in plaster will have this effect, but it turns out if they’re wearing big rigid fake wings the effect is enhanced.

Fiona, having skipped most of the episodes, is amused all over by Princess Aura’s way of aiming her knockers at people. “She said, bustily.”

There is toing and froing. Or “to-ing and fro-ing” I guess since the previous iteration looks like it should rhyme with “boing.” It having been established that anyone can just barge into Ming’s throne room whenever they feel like it, our heroes do so. They also encamp in Ming’s laboratory and Zarkov electrifies the door to keep intruders out. Ming is so ineffectual, in other words, his abductees can make themselves more secure IN HIS HOUSE than he can himself. Zarkov, previously dejected by his wrecked invisibility machine, is briefly triumphant about his electric wood, until Ming outsmarts him by shutting the power off. Outsmarted by a tinpot dictator who uses common sense: there’s something to be dejected about.

Speaking of tin pots, here come the Lion Men in their “gyro-ships,” pronounced by Charles “Baldy” Ming Ming with a hard G and Frank “Knobbly Knees” Shannon with a soft one. This time, I feel Zarkov has the right idea, despite Ming being the native speaker.

“It must be hell in there,” says Fiona, gazing upon the wobbly, twirly, smoky and buzzing craft. Thun, standing at the controls as if operating a Moviola, somehow seems to have a view that isn’t constantly panning 360, which would admittedly be irritating.

At 9: there’s another of those delightful moments when a line of dialogue is yelled in by an off-camera director or AD: “It’s Thun, and his Lion Men!” Truly hilarious. The first two words have been loosely synched to “Larry “Buster” Crabbe’s lip movements, the rest play over a wide shot of rampaging cat-dudes. The voice is inept and very camp. It’s exactly the way I imagine the voice of the AD on Mankiewicz’s JULIUS CAESAR when he famously shouted “Now here comes Julius!”

There is a huge, uncoordinated fight, resembling the slapstick donnybrook at the end of HELP! Just a bunch of random shoving and falling over. In this fashion is Ming finally vanquished.

Defeated, Ming runs — RUNS! — “Max Von Sydow was far too dignified to go flapping about like that,” argues Fiona — to the only other standing set or location of any use, the tunnel leading to the recently exploded fire dragon. The smirking High Priest, who puts me in mind of comedian Joe Melia, watches him go, and, in a literal puff of smoke, Ming just vanishes.

This seems pretty weak, but I can’t recall being disappointed by it as a kid. One can even argue that the abstraction of it — transparently a means to preserve the possibility of Ming returning, Fu Manchu-style (“Mongo shall hear of me again”) — has a certain grandeur. Middleton plays it as if it’s Shakespeare, helped by the fact that there’s no dialogue to remind you that it’s not Shakespeare.

I’m then reminded that Von Sydow does a similar fade-out in the Mike Hodges version, and that as a kid I DID feel a pang of disappointment — there’s a huge build-up to Flash flying towards Ming’s palace, setting up the expectation that he’s going to do something pretty dramatic when he gets there. But no — he just crashes into it. This, of course, is perfect — Sam “Not Buster” Jones’ dim-witted Flash isn’t going to save the day in any other way than by direct collision. And it ends with “THE END?”

I’ve read numerous accounts of how the big finish of STAR WARS — boring pageantry with stirring march music — is derived from TRIUMPH OF THE WILL, but it’s clearly derived from right here, where it’s done quicker and cheaper. Pomp and reduced circumstances. FG being Lucas’ stated inspiration, and in fact the film he would have made had Dino De Laurentiis granted him the rights.

What’s left of the ’36 outing is diminuendo with the emphasis on DIM. Flash, Zarkov and Dale depart leaving Aura enthroned, to govern Mongo with the scheming and vacillation wisdom she has demonstrated in the previous twelve episodes, but the smirking High Priest plants a bar-bell bomb in the rocketship. Then, for no reason, he confesses this, still smirking, which allows Barin and co to alert the earth-chums. They open the door and chuck the bomb out. No biggie.

Fiona is convinced that actor Theodore “Smirky” Lorch is spoofing the whole thing with his scare-quotes “performance” but he was a former silent movie actor (Chingachgook in the Clarence Brown-Maurice Tourneur LAST OF THE MOHICANS) whose talking career was all bit-parts and serials, mostly in fact bit-parts IN serials, so I see no reason to assume he’s driven by anything other than delusions of competence.

Then there’s an unsuccessful attempt to inject drama into the flight back to terra firma and stock footage. Finally, in their native skies at last, Flash and Dale stare wonderingly into each others’ eyes (they could hardly stare into their own) in a doomed search for meaning or intelligent life, while Zarkov smiles creepily upon them, a father substitute in unsettling shorts.

THE END?

The Tunnel of Terror

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on May 3, 2022 by dcairns

FLASH GORDON Chapter 2.

The superdramatic credits music segues into a ludicrous plangent saxophone as the recap title cards fade in — we’re not at the STAR WARS scrolling infodump phase yet.

Then we get the rehash of last episode’s cliffhanger, a good economical way to eat up some footage while orienting the latecomer.

Flash and Aura have accidentally been trapdoored and are falling towards almost certain mild peril, but the designers of Ming’s infernal devices have foreseen such snafus and installed a safety net, which interrupts their stylishly-shot plunge towards the inevitable enlarged iguanas. Oh for the days when death-traps came with safety features! In the modern world of airbags and such, ordinary transport has become crammed with lifesaving add-ons, but what of the lethal weapon or IED? Surely nailbombs could be fitted with nullifying magnets, imploding their shrapnel safely if a mistake has been made in the planting or detonation? Landmines should be fitted with bathroom scales so they only de-leg responsible adults. &c.

They’re way ahead on Mongo.

As a kid I wasn’t bothered by the implausibility of the net that catches F & A, either its existence or the speed with which it can be deployed (also a function of the sheer excessive Wonderland depth of the pit — but then, I guess you wouldn’t want to keep enlarged iguanas IMMEDIATELY under your palace linoleum). I just thought it was insanely cool and dramatic, which it is, plausibility aside.

(Perhaps every film should have an imaginary twin into which plausibility can be put aside: all movies need this. In Ken Loach’s solidly “realist” CARLA’S SONG, the bus-driver hero [and yes: more of these, please] is following the eponymous heroine through wartorn Nicaragua, but he’s told the village she’s now in is totally inaccessible — you can’t get there from here. But neither he nor anyone else asks or explains the obvious question — how in Fuck or Nicaragua did SHE get there?)

“They’re in the net, make prisoners of them both!” orders Ming, redundantly. Isn’t anyone in a net a defacto prisoner anyways? But if you’re an emperor you can say things like that with no pedantic critic to quibble.

Aura meanwhile explains that the enlarged iguanas should be properly known as the Dragons of Death — a bit of alliteration hinting at the chapter’s intended title until somebody realised there were more tunnels than dragons onscreen.

Aura, being an insider, knows all about The Secret Door, so she and Flash can attempt to elude their captors. Now we have some running about in caves/corridors, always good filler material in any serial, from here to Doctor Who. The corridors are artfully intertwined to avoid a spacetime continuum blow-out which would result if Flash met Buck Rogers going in the opposite direction.

Director Frederick Stephani, whose only canvas chair gig this was (but he wrote a bunch of stuff, contributing to this script and to the same studio’s DRACULA) now gets adventurous, essaying some Deutsch tilts, perhaps preparing us for the leftover FRANKENSTEIN sets which are waiting in the wings. He always tilts to the top left, rather than alternating, which I guess saves him having to commit himself to an ordering of shots (you generally want to go left-right-left to get that nice Eisensteinian crisscross effect in the cut).

Squeezed against a rockface with Aura, Flash crassly wonders about Dale’s fate (Sam J. Jones in the remake had similar difficulties compartmentalising his romantic interests). Larry “Buster” Crabbe speaks out the side of his mouth when stage-whispering (guards are searching a nearby Dutch angle) but, with adorable incompetence, it’s the WRONG side of his mouth. But hey, it favours the camera.

Bronson Caves, Bronson Canyon — no doubt the desolate, lizard-infested surface of Mongo was filmed a stone’s throw away. Anyway, FG had the biggest budget of any serial to date, so it’s not ALL stock shots and models and leftover sets. It’s an impressive location, even if, like Griffith Observatory in part 1, it’s more local than exotic.

Meanwhile, in Ming’s laboratory or “workshop”, Zarkov is put to work. I presume this is an old palace set from some Ruritanian operettafilm, with Kenneth Strickfaden electrics shipped in. An exciting combo.

Zarkov’s new status as Ming’s bitch is signalled by his costume change to a black onesie with thick medieval bdsm belt. None of us enjoys looking at Frank Shannon’s legs, though, so thank God for the medium shot. Zarkov seems for now quite ready to fall in line with his new master’s bidding, seduced by the opulent mad science facilities.

Dale, meanwhile, is rejecting her own costume change and refusing to settle into what is obviously a harem or seraglio. At last Jean Rogers gets to do some camp ham, jutting her little jaw as she asserts her stubborn earthwoman will. Because there’s a round mirror on the set, we leave the scene via a bubbling set of circular wipes. George Lucas was paying attention: when C-3PO is lifted to his feet, the wipe rises from bottom to top like an elevator. Of course Lucas’ other big influence, Kurosawa, had an early weakness for wipes too…

Aura leads Flash out of the caves to a discreetly parked rocketship, and Maestro Stephani throws in a Wagonwheel Joe / Sid Furie spy angle, shooting through an obscure stack of foreground rubble, perhaps foreshadowing some hidden assailant? Foreshadowing is usually an alien word in the movie serial, which thrives on the one-damn-thing-after-another sequential menace paradigm, where pausing to set something up is verboten. But the alternative explanation — that this is merely a stylistic flourish — is also rendered unlikely by the demands of short schedules and economy in all things. (Economy is actually a pretty good aesthetic.)

As in the comics and the 1980 movie, Aura is a near-unique point of moral ambiguity (but actually, there’s Vultan to come…) She saves Flash out of lust, and is determined to keep him from Dale. But she is a potential covert to the side of good. Her nymphomania does not condemn her, which is good, I suppose.

In movie serial logic, the fact that Flash and Dale are instantly in love is just taken as normal, though they spoof it in the remake. Whereas Aura’s hot pants are a character aberration. “You will never see Dale Arden again,” she monologues.

Flash finds a change of outfit in the rocketship’s closet. So now all three of our leads have been offered Mongoese fashions, with only Dale holding out. Obviously she’ll have to go with the tide eventually. Meanwhile, it will be a relief to get Larry “Buster” Crabbe out of those polo duds.

Dale’s refusal to become Ming’s bride and wear his togs results in the High Priest telling on her. “As High Priest, you know what to do,” intones MTM. “You mean… the dehumanizer?” quails the cleric, wondering how being ordained has led him to this end.

Ming specifies that the hypnotic spell should only last long enough for the marriage ceremony to be perfromed. Anything after that is legal, I guess. We’re only in episode 2 and we’re at the climax of the Hodges movie. Things move pretty fast around here.

Now a dude in cassock and silver slippers reports that “the gyro-ships of the Lion Men” are on the attack. He’s just seen it on a Zoom call. The Lion Men and their spinning top spacecraft are sadly absent from the later movie. I’m not sure if there’s any logical thread that says Lion Men should have giddy-making dreidelcraft. Also, I don’t know how practical these things are — maybe the centrifugal force is supposed to create gravity in space (which apparently wouldn’t work), but the things are only ever seen in Mongo’s atmosphere. A waste of energy, but then, that’s kind of the whole modus operandi here.

Seeing these invaders, Flash immediately takes off to start a dogfight or lionfight with them. Strange behaviour since (a) he’s a polo player, not a trained space pilot, and this isn’t even a earth-built rocketship and (b) he has no dog/lion in this race/fight. He has no reason to suppose these spinning tops are hostile, or that he should care if they are.

At the wheel of one ship is Thun, the lion man, disappointingly bereft of Bert Lahr makeup. But he does have the upsetting shorts that are de rigeur spacewear for Mongoites.

The ensuing battle royale does not strike me as inferior to anything in STAR WARS, and presumably cost about $1.98. Models on wires, miniature pyrotechnics, it’s all the same thing. The sound effects are of the firecracker variety, has anyone ever transposed Ben Burtt sound effects onto this sequence? I know he did a track for WINGS, and that worked fine.

I love how a felled gyroship plummets point-first, with a little candleflame atop it. A flambé spaceship. Whistling sound effect. Then Flash, great berk that he is, crashes his rocket into Thun’s, and they fall together, interpenetrated. “Try a Little Tenderness” does not play on the soundtrack, I don’t think it was written yet.

They smash into the ground diorama at lethal velocity, then EXPLODE, but it’s MUCH too early for a cliffhanger, so the occupants must simply shake off their certain death and stagger from the debris, dazed but grateful to benign providence. And still determined to kill one another. We’re probably only yards from where Capt. Kirk wrestled the Gorn. In days long gorn. Of futures past.

Like most of Flash’s enemies, Tun will end up a staunch ally. Flash has that effect. As with Jimmy Stewart, “People just seem to like him.” Clay people, hawkmen, lion men… Mike Hodges saw his film as a satire on American interventionism, but in this more innocent yarn, the fantasy of foreign entanglement is served without irony.

Thun knows a secret passage that leads to the Palace. Of course he does. It’s not nearly as ridiculous as the secret passage that saves Barbarella from the sacrificial birdbox. I mean, safety features in death traps is all very well, but having a fire exit in your infernal aviary is just silly.

Meanwhile, Dale is about to be dehumidified or whatever.

Thun’s secret passage turns out to be a huge medieval gate, heavily guarded, by some thug in Greco-Roman hand-me-downs. Flash strangles him into showing the way, and anyway, the door isn’t locked.

Dale’s hypnotic device is a strobing neon bendy straw which makes her sit up straight, wide-eyed, when it’s not even in the vicinity. Powerful stuff.

Ming wants to know if the god Tao (sp?) favours this marriage, so the High Priest cues stock footage of the Martian dance number from JUST IMAGINE, which Kenneth Anger also enjoyed. As a kid, I somehow knew that this shot didn’t belong here, that it was too big and lavish for its surroundings, and I despaired of ever learning where it originated. Happy days.

I STILL don’t know where all the stock music comes from, but there’s some Liszt, isn’t there, and some Franz Waxman?

The big anamatronic god is too impressive a guy to waste, so the serial obliges us to look at him for some time, waiting like Ming for some SIGN of approval or otherwise, which the archive material is not really equipped to give. They try piping in different bits of library music to keep it fresh.

Flash immediately locates Zarkov, which is not as silly as the different characters landing on the planet-sized Death Star in THE FORCE AWAKENS and at once bumping into one another. Flash learns that the worlds will not, after all, collide. “That’s fine!” he exclaims.

He then strangles the captive guard (again) into showing him the dance number. If movie serials have taught me one dangerous factoid, it’s that strangling always works, in any situation. This has ruled me out of a lot of teaching jobs. Fortunately art school is still OK with this.

Ming’s marriage will be conducted in “a secret chamber” but the low ranking guard knows exactly where it is and doesn’t even have to be restrangled into leading the way. But he won’t go in, because there’s a “huge beast” guarding the entrance. Good luck strangling a kaiju, Flash.

Sitting in his big conch, Ming gets the gratifying news that the god Tao has sanctioned his nuptials, something we don’t get to see despite having stared at the big guy for close to a reel. What did he do, give a thumbs-up, an OK sign, or just a giant animatronic wink?

Dale meanwhile gets a lovely makeover, and she only had to be dehumanized to make her accept it. There may be a Hollywood/western civilisation metaphor at work here.

The secret marriage chamber looks to me like a Charles D. Hall FRANKENSTEIN set, with new bric-a-brac ported in, including an Egyptian god doubtless left over from THE MUMMY. But it might all be from that one.

CLIFFHANGER — the huge beast shows up, a lovely rubber lizard costume with MASSIVE pincers. He can barely walk, whoever he is. Ray “Crash” Corrigan will later play an “orangopoid” so wouldn’t they just enlist him for additional lumbering here? We may never know, but anyhow —

TUNE IN NEXT WEEK

Vermithrax Laudative

Posted in FILM, Mythology with tags , , , , , , , , , , on December 28, 2020 by dcairns

DRAGONSLAYER is pretty good, should appeal to the Game of Thrones/LORD OF THE RINGS people. It’s better than bloody WILLOW or LADYHAWK. It’s interesting to me for the influences it displays, too.

Setting aside the very satisfying priest-frying, which stems from George Pal’s THE WAR OF THE WORLDS, there’s the death of a major character early on, falling out of close-up, then completing his tumble via stand-in) with a match cut that takes us into slomo — clearly a nifty SEVEN SAMURAI swipe. Matthew Robbins, like George Lucas, has learned his Kurosawa lessons well.

But let’s look at the main plot, which forms part of a strange, twisted trichobezoar of influences. Young Galen, the sorcerer’s apprentice, takes his slain master’s place, fraudulently presenting himself as the old man’s equal. He seems to score a success against the besieging dragon, but screws up and makes everything much worse. Then it’s up to him to make things right again. (Since he’s a white male and the hero, he repeatedly gets another chance, and another…)

An incredibly influential film, though you might not think it, is THE THREE AMIGOS, and not just for the title’s role in the Donald Trump impeachment trial. The movie is a comedy spin on THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN, which is itself a remake of Kurosawa’s THE SEVEN SAMURAI (this gets more complicated). 3 AMIGOS has three movie stars being mistaken for real heroes by the people of a beseiged Mexican village, and hired to fight off bandits. They screw up, because they’re Hollywood phonies, as Chevy Chase might say, and then they have to put things right…

The guy in the right has been in more Polanski films than anyone

Is it possible that the earlier DRAGONSLAYER (not a hit) influenced THE THREE AMIGOS, perhaps by way of the shared Kurosawa influence? What about GALAXY QUEST, which is EXACTLY the same plot as THE THREE AMIGOS? What about A BUG’S LIFE, which is the same again? MYSTERY MEN is kind of similar too.

Fiona points out that DRAGONSLAYER has very strong female characters, by the way: the virgin who’s been disguised as a boy for her own protection is another SEVEN SAMURAI trope; the spunky princess meets a fate that probably cost the movie the STAR WARS crowd; and the dragon itself lives in a cave entered by a vaginal slit in the cliff face, and has a nest of eggs. Vermithrax Pejorative is a lady dragon. And a really good design! Not just her look, but her way of moving — she crawls like a bat.

A shame the climax is all matte lines, and nobody really being where they’re supposed to be. Thinking about it afterwards, I realized the deeper problem — apart from the sequence just not being exciting — is that it’s all about the execution of a perfect plan, in which the dragon is doomed and the hero once again doesn’t get to be heroic. Most of the time in this movie, its refusal to do the normal pseudo-mythic thing (real myths are much weirder than the Joseph Campbell/George Lucas versions) is thrilling, whereas here it’s flat.

But the political cynicism of the coda is pretty bracing.

DRAGONSLAYER stars Renfield; Simone; Supreme Being; Luro; Lord Halifax; Rory Poke; Diddler; Sarah Churchill; and Emperor Palpatine.