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Miyazaki’s Steampunk Battleships

A fleet of steampunk battleships seen in Howl's Moving Castle

I recently had the great pleasure of seeing Japanese filmmaker Hayao Miyazaki’s 2004 animated feature Howl’s Moving Castle, based on the 1986 young adult fantasy novel by British writer Dianna Wynne Jones. I have long adored the aesthetic shared by the majority of Miyazaki’s Studio Ghibli features, a kind of lush, lyrical, impressionistic steampunk look (the first of his movies I saw was Spirited Away, still one of my favorite films of the 2000s). Howl’s Moving Castle features some of the same types of fantastical airships I had seen in Castle in the Sky and Kiki’s Delivery Service, but what really caught my eye and made me say “Hey! WOW!” were the battleships.

Miyazaki's rendition of one of his film's battleships

Battleships do not play a major role in Howl’s Moving Castle. However, in Miyazaki’s animated version, the country that protagonists Howl and Sophie live in becomes pulled into a regional war, and several scenes show fleets of battleships setting out for battle or limping back to harbor in severely damaged condition. (Many more of the war scenes involve giant multi-engine bombers and oddball flying machines, since one of the wizard Howl’s guises is that of a giant black bird, and he tries several times to disrupt the air war before his country’s cities are bombed.)

When the battleships appeared, what made me sit up and take notice was the fact that they seemed to be based on French pre-dreadnought battleships of the 1880s and 1890s, the most baroque and distinctive period of French shipbuilding. They also looked to owe a debt to the illustrations of French artist and writer Albert Robida (1848-1926), who, in his prime, competed with Jules Verne for popularity and notoriety as the leading French futurist. Not only Miyazaki’s battleships, but also his airships and even the design of Howl’s Moving Castle itself seemed to pay homage to the distinctive illustrations and fancies of Robida, who is nowadays almost entirely forgotten.

French battleship Charles Martel, commissioned in 1896, epitomized the "French look" for battleships

I confess to being both a science fiction/fantasy geek AND a naval geek. My favorite decades of naval history begin in the 1860s with the introduction of ironclads and extend out to the eve of World War One. The ships constructed between 1860 and 1910 stand as some of the most bizarre (and interesting) ever made, because they were designed and built during years of extremely rapid technological change, change which occurred so quickly that a ship designed, say, in 1880 was considered thoroughly obsolete by the time it was commissioned in 1888. Metallurgy was advancing rapidly in those years, with iron armor (usually backed by teak wood) being replaced by compound armor (steel layered over iron layered over wood), which was in turn replaced by nickel-steel armor (sometimes referred to as Harvey armor), which in turn was made obsolete by Krupp face-hardened steel armor. At the same time armor was rapidly improving, so were the size, range, and accuracy of cannons, not to mention the introduction of new anti-warship weapons, such as submarines, self-propelled torpedoes, and fast torpedo boats.

French battleship Massena, commissioned in 1898, showing typical French tumblehome, massive masts, and plethora of long-barreled cannons

The French Navy built the first practical seagoing ironclad, La Glorie, in 1860, forcing their British rivals to launch an even more powerful ironclad, HMS Warrior, later that same year. Early French and British ironclads looked not too much different from the wooden-walled battleships and frigates which had preceded them, having their guns arrayed on the broadsides and mounting vast assortments of sails to back up their steam engines. However, in the 1870s, with the introduction of turrets and barbettes to carry heavy guns and the gradual abandonment of sail, French and British ironclad designs sharply diverged.

The British came to favor turret ships of low freeboard, epitomized by HMS Devastation and HMS Thunderer, the first seagoing ironclads to forego sails altogether. Although they built their oddball battleships, as well (HMS Inflexible and the unlucky HMS Victoria among the weirder), by about 1890 British battleships had come to follow a well-balanced, standard model of moderate freeboard combined with a main armament of four twelve or thirteen inch guns, in one hooded barbette forward and one aft, with secondary guns mounted in sponsons on the broadside.

French battleship Jaureguiberry, commissioned in 1897

The French Navy, which viewed the Royal Navy as its primary potential adversary throughout the nineteenth century, went in a different direction with their battleships. In retrospect, it seems as though most French battleships were designed more with threatening, imposing looks in mind than maximum fighting efficiency (Italian naval architects of the period also tended to build visually impressive battleships with tremendous guns, imposing warships which were not very effective or economical; maybe this was a Mediterranean thing?). French designers favored what came to be known as “fierce face.” Most of their battleships combined high freeboard with exaggerated tumblehome (meaning that the ships were much wider at the waterline than at the main deck, with sides that sloped inward and allowed for turrets or barbettes mounted on the broadsides which could fire fore, aft, or to the side). They studded their ships with turrets or barbettes seemingly mounted anywhere they could fit. The cannons were mounted near the fronts of small diameter turrets or barbettes so that the lengths of their barrels would appear dramatically and menacingly elongated. Additionally, French naval designers saddled their ships with massive superstructures and masts of extreme thickness, festooned with large, top-heavy fighting tops mounting small, anti-torpedo boat guns.

French battleship Hoche, commissioned in 1890, known as "the Floating Hotel"

This made for battleships which were enormously impressive to look at. I’m sure many non-expert observers, when viewing French and British battleships side by side (say, at a port visit or a Royal Naval Review), must have assumed the French ships would quickly clear the seas of their British counterparts in a fight. The British and French battle fleets never came to blows during the ironclad or pre-dreadnought eras (the only occasion on which French and British battleships would exchange fire occurred much later, during the tragic British attack on the French fleet at Mers-el-Kebir in French Algeria in 1940, after the capitulation of France to Germany, when the British felt they had to prevent the French fleet from being taken over by the Germans). So the issue of which rival battlefleet would prevail in a fight was never conclusively settled. The French fleet was not without its advantages; for several stretches during the late nineteenth century, its armor and cannons were technically superior to those of the British.

French battleship Bouvet, commissioned in 1898, sunk by a Turkish mine in 1915

However, battleships built by British yards did fight battleships either built by French yards or modeled on French designs at the Battle of Tsushima in 1905. The Russian Baltic Fleet, whose battleships had either been built by French yards or copied from French originals, was annihilated by the Japanese fleet, whose battleships had all been built in British yards and modeled on contemporaneous British designs. Also, on March 18, 1915, when the British and French fleets were allied in their efforts to force the Dardanelles Straits, two British pre-dreadnoughts, HMS Irresistible and HMS Ocean, and one French pre-dreadnought, the Bouvet, were sunk by Turkish mines. The two British battleships remained afloat for several hours, enough time for their crews to be evacuated onto other ships. The Bouvet, however, handicapped by her enormous top-weight and lacking the stability of her British contemporaries, turned turtle in less than three minutes, trapping and drowning 600 of her crew.

Albert Robida's famous rendition of the floating fortresses of the future, circa 1887

Aside from the inspiration provided by actual French battleships of the late nineteenth century, which Miyazaki has acknowledged, he must also have received significant visual inspiration from Albert Robida. Robida was both a writer and an artist, a sort of proto-graphic novelist of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. He was enormously popular between 1880 and World War One, best known for a trio of futuristic illustrated novels, Le Vingtieme Siecle (1883), La Guerre au Vingtieme Siecle (1887), and Le Vingtieme Siecle—La Vie Electrique (1890). Between 1908 and 1910, he provided 520 illustrations, many of them featuring fantastical flying machines and enormous tank-like mobile land fortresses, for the children’s serialized adventure novel La Guerre Infernale, whose installments appeared every Saturday. It described a world war, fought primarily in the air, between Germany and Britain in Europe and the United States and Japan in the Pacific. His illustrations, which influenced dozens of subsequent science fiction and fantasy artists, must be understood as foundational to the steampunk aesthetic.

Albert Robida's airships, some of the 520 illustrations he created for the weekly serial "La Guerre Infernale," circa 1908

One of Albert Robida's land battleships, looking not too dissimilar from Miyazaki's design for Howl's Moving Castle


Many of the appealingly quirky airships which populate the Miyazaki films look very much like Robida’s drawings. Miyazaki’s design of Howl’s Moving Castle looks a lot like a cross between one of Robida’s mobile land fortresses and a French pre-dreadnought such as the Charles Martel. And then there are Miyazaki’s wonderful battleships. In his 1887 novel about the future of warfare, Rodiba included illustrations of ludicrously top-heavy battleships, virtual floating fortresses (which, if built, would neither have floated nor remained upright). Strange as these fanciful warships may seem to modern eyes (and as wonderfully bizarre as the Miyazaki steampunk battleships look), they were simply exaggerations of battleships which were actually built by the French Navy, warships which were among the most visually distinctive ever to sail the seas.

Director Hayao Miyazaki with an image of Howl's Moving Castle

Geezers and Ghosts

Ghost Story
Universal Pictures, 1981
Directed by John Irvin
Screenplay by Lawrence D. Cohen, based on the novel by Peter Straub
Starring Fred Astaire, Melvyn Douglas, Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., John Houseman, Craig Wasson, Alice Krige, and Patricia Neal
Music by Philippe Sarde

I’ve been curious to see the 1981 horror film Ghost Story for a long time. I’ve always enjoyed watching films featuring major Hollywood stars of the Studio Age in their advanced years (personal favorites of the “geezer genre” include Burt Lancaster in Atlantic City and Melvin Douglas in Being There, with an appreciative nod to Edward G. Robinson in Soylent Green). Ghost Story is replete with major Hollywood stars in their dotage; it was the final film for Fred Astaire, Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., and Melvyn Douglas, and it also features Patricia Neal, who was the most amazingly unearthly aspect of When the Earth Stood Still. This past week, Dara and I changed our TV programming providers from Verizon Satellite to Comcast; when I discovered that Ghost Story was one of the “free movies” included with our package, I insisted that we watch it.

Ghost Story was released a year later than Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining, also an adaptation of a popular horror novel by a bestselling American horror author (Stephen King, rather than Peter Straub), and also involving spectral doings, deaths from decades past, and insanity played out against a wintertime backdrop. The Kubrick version of The Shining, whatever its debatable merits as an adaptation of King’s novel, still retains the capacity to spook and unsettle me, even after repeated viewings. Ghost Story, on the other hand, provided me with no chills at all. Which is not to say the film was not enjoyable; simply that it wasn’t scary.

Horror is an interest of mine, so I did a little thinking regarding why Ghost Story, despite the considerable acting talents involved, failed to register at all on the Scare-O-Meter (unlike earlier films involving hauntings, such as The Haunting and The Legend of Hell House, based on novels by Shirley Jackson and Richard Matheson, respectively). The film’s failing to rouse any sense of fright or even unease in me wasn’t due to the performances (with one exception — in the 1920s flashback scene, when each of the members of the Chowder Club is piss-faced drunk, they all giggle like little girls, indistinguishable from one another, which is extremely weird, but not in the way director John Irvin intended, I’m sure). Fred Astaire has never been a favorite of mine as a dramatic actor (as opposed to a dancing and singing romantic comedy star), although he isn’t bad in Ghost Story, and Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. is given regrettably little to do in his final film role (he gets killed off early). Craig Wasson plays a dual role, two brothers, one of whom is the film’s earliest (and most graphically slain) casualty. A face many viewers of a certain age will remember from extensive TV roles in the 1970s (including recurring roles as good-natured schlubs in The Bob Newhart Show and M*A*S*H), he is perfectly adequate for his role here, which doesn’t ask too much from him (probably the most grueling aspect of his performance is the lingering embarrassment he must’ve suffered over having his groin exposed in a bizarrely gratuitous flash of full-frontal nudity as he tumbles forty stories to his death after a supernatural shock sends him crashing through the window of his luxury apartment in Manhattan; I muttered to Dara, “Well, there’s your R rating right there”).

Two of the film’s performances are very good, however. Melvyn Douglas, far more so than any of his three venerable male co-stars, conveys very poignantly the helpless terror and shame of becoming physically debilitated by advanced age, and because he portrays that helplessness so well, the build-up to his death scene is much more gripping than the lead-ins to the deaths of any of the other male characters.

By far the best thing about the film (and maybe the only reason to watch it, unless you are a diehard fan of Astaire, Fairbanks, Douglas, or Houseman) is the performance of Alice Krige as Eva Galli / Alma Mobley. She is stunningly gorgeous in this film, both in the 1920s flashback scenes and in the modern day scenes, but she is no porcelain doll. She is able to combine an outer beauty with an inner ravenousness, an impetuous, unpredictable erotic hunger she shows both as a mortal and as a ghost. This inner intensity, which she whips out like a rapier from a hidden scabbard, grants Ghost Story its only flashes of creepiness, which are unfortunately batted aside by the combined, countervailing efforts of the director, the screenwriter, and the score’s composer. Interestingly, Krige would receive near universal critical acclaim for her only other genre portrayal, in the otherwise mundane Star Trek: First Contact. Her Borg Queen is every bit as unpredictable, sexually dangerous, and alluringly lethal as her Alma Mobley. She should have done more roles of this type; she can do everything that Tilda Swinton can do, but isn’t nearly as well known or active.

So given these promising elements (including a perfectly serviceable story and set-up), why isn’t the film creepier? One choice the director, John Irvin (mostly known for war and action films, as well as period dramas made for British television), made which unfortunately hasn’t held up well was to go for shock rather than suspense. He relied almost entirely for his horror on the work of his makeup artists and special effects prosthetics craftsmen. Their work may have served quite well to shock back in 1981, but, like much of the horror makeup and prosthetics work of the period, it hasn’t aged well, having been technologically overtaken, first by improved makeup and prosthetics, and later by CGI effects. Also, his decision to go for shock rather than the slow build of suspense meant that he pretty much abandoned any stab at ambiguity early on. We viewers know quite clearly that the Eva of the 1920s and the Alma of the present are one and the same person, and that this specter is haunting the male characters of the film. The film’s creepiness would have been heightened if, at least for part of the film, the Eva-Alma connection had been uncertain. I haven’t read the Peter Straub novel, so I can’t say how Straub handled this in the source material. Similarly, I don’t know whether several face-plantingly-stupid acts on the parts of the main characters have their basis in the novel or were introduced by screenwriter Lawrence D. Cohen. Yes, it is stupid for Astaire’s, Houseman’s, and Wasson’s characters to go by themselves to the abandoned house once rented by Alma (particularly since Astaire and Wasson have already had run-ins with Alma’s psychotic mortal assistants in that same ruined house). But characters do stupid things in horror films; I can accept that, sort of. What I found unacceptable is that these three characters (at least one of whom, Houseman’s lawyer character, is supposed to be smarter than the average bear) take that risk for no discernable reason at all; they never say a word about what they hope to accomplish by going to the haunted house, aside from maybe running into the ghost that has already killed three of their friends and relatives. They just go, because the movie is entering its final reel and so must move on to some sort of a climax.

One of the biggest detriments to any build of a creepy atmosphere is the film’s score, which seems almost to have been written for another movie entirely. It would have been appropriate, perhaps, for a straightforward period drama, maybe one of the shows John Irvin directed for British television. But a film that needed a spare, subtle score instead was saddled with a richly orchestral, string-heavy score straight out of one of Bing Crosby’s Father O’Malley movies. I’m tempted to think French composer Philippe Sarde phoned this one in. After all, he was incredibly busy in 1981, writing the scores for five other films aside from Ghost Story: Tales of Ordinary Madness (based on the short fiction of Charles Bukowski), Beau-pere (a Gallic riff on Nabokov’s Lolita, very well done), Coup de Torchon (based on Jim Thompson’s hard-boiled thriller Pop. 1280), the romantic drama Hotel des Ameriques, and the caveman potboiler Quest for Fire (based on a 1911 Belgian novel). A very eclectic set of motion pictures. I think he got his scores mixed up and sent over the sheet music for Hotel des Ameriques to Ghost Story producer Burt Weissbourd. Oh, well; accidents happen.

A Cozy, Humane Apocalypse: On the Beach

On the Beach
By Nevil Shute
Original edition: Heinemann, 1957
Most recent edition: Vintage International, 2010
Original film adaptation: United Artists, 1959; produced and directed by Stanley Kramer; screenplay by John Paxton; starring Gregory Peck, Ava Gardner, Fred Astaire, and Anthony Perkins

How can a novel about the man-induced extinction of all higher life forms on Earth be a ringing affirmation of the decency of humankind?

This may seem a very difficult – indeed, a peculiar – trick to pull off. But Nevil Shute’s 1957 bestselling novel about the aftermath of an atomic war manages to do it, and in resounding fashion.

The novel’s plot is straightforward; no clever plot twists will claim the reader’s attention, and the inevitable end of all animal life on the planet higher than that of the insects is not averted in the final pages by some Act of God or Act of Science. Shute, writing in the mid-1950s, set his novel only a decade hence, in 1964. By that time, he postulated, even small, poor, formerly insignificant nations would have atomic weapons. Bulgaria drops the first atomic bomb of the one-month-long World War Three, which occurs entirely in the Northern Hemisphere. Egypt uses Russian-made bombers to launch an atomic attack on an American city, which the Americans mistake for a Soviet attack. The Americans retaliate. In quick order, the USSR and China are launching cobalt bombs at each other, seeking to extinguish one another’s populations in North-Central Asia. The resulting radioactive dust clouds wipe out all human and most animal life in the Northern Hemisphere. Atmospheric exchanges gradually draw the radioactive clouds into the Southern Hemisphere. About two and a half years after the one-month war, the only remaining survivors of humanity live in the southernmost parts of Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, and South America. The survivors in Oceania will last the longest. When the novel begins, the residents of Melbourne, Australia are aware that the cloud is scheduled to reach them in less than nine months.

The novel primarily focuses on five characters: Dwight Towers, captain of the American nuclear submarine USS Scorpion, which he has placed under the command of the Royal Australian Navy; Moira Davidson, a young Australian woman who becomes Dwight’s companion; Peter Holmes, an Australian naval officer assigned to the Scorpion as a liaison officer, and his wife Mary, who reside with their infant daughter in a suburb outside Melbourne; and John Osborne, Moira’s cousin, an Australian scientist who joins the crew of the Scorpion on the submarine’s reconnaissance mission to the west coast of the continental United States, Alaska, and Hawaii. As skillfully as each of these major characters is delineated, one of the novel’s primary pleasures is Shute’s brief portrayals of minor characters and how they cope with the coming end of the world. This panoply of character sketches adds greatly to the novel’s rich texture and gives weight to Shute’s ultimately optimistic vision of his fellow men.

In Shute’s novel, contrary to depictions of societal chaos in the preponderance of post-atomic war and apocalyptic fiction and film, civilization does not break down in the face of the coming extinction of humanity. Life continues on mostly as it did pre-war in Melbourne and its surrounding suburbs and farms, the main difference being a lack of petrol, which has necessitated the replacement of most automobiles with bicycles or horse-drawn carts (although the local availability of coal means that the electric trains and trolleys have continued to run). The other major difference, unremarked upon by any characters in the book but obvious to the readers, is an increased kindness and thoughtfulness, expressed in words and acts shared between friends, family members, merchants and customers, and strangers. Virtually all of the characters, major and minor, determine for themselves to carry on as best they can to the end, remaining as true as possible to their best selves and to whatever they view as their most central duties and responsibilities. It is this quiet heroism, heroism in a minor key – not simply stoicism in the face of impending death but a nearly universal decision to try to brighten the remaining lives around them and to face the end with shared decency – that gives a novel which would otherwise be unrelentingly grim and dispiriting a powerful, memorable surge of uplift. Through his skillful use of understatement, Shute provides uplift without schmaltz (a feat the film version only rarely manages). One has the sense that even those characters who do not expect themselves to be judged by God in an afterlife expect to be judged by themselves in their final moments, and they attempt to live their last months accordingly.

I came to love and respect each of the characters in a way I have rarely loved and respected fictional characters. Most of the characters manage to get through their days in reasonably good psychological shape through heavy reliance on denial. They tell themselves the radioactive cloud will fail to reach Melbourne, or that the “Jorgensen Effect” will cleanse the atmosphere of most radioactivity before too much air is recirculated between the Northern Hemisphere and Southern Australia, or that death will be merely a prelude to a return home to beloved family. But Shute shows us that his people are very self-aware of their use of denial, and they very gently and compassionately support one another in that therapeutic deployment of fantasy. Moira, who has never married nor ever been meaningfully in love, falls deeply in love with Dwight. Dwight, however, left a wife, Sharon, and two young children behind in Connecticut. His sense of honor and his still very much alive feelings of love for and commitment to his family do not allow him to consummate a romance with Moira, despite the very strong attraction he feels toward her, and his growing gratitude for her kindnesses and nobility of spirit.

When they first meet, Moira is almost continuously drunk, having no notion what to do with herself in the few months remaining to her. Yet her relationship with Dwight quickly matures her. Despite her overwhelming desire for him, she refuses to degrade him and herself by pushing herself upon him before his grief has expended itself (which, given the few months left to them, it never will). He keeps himself from emotionally falling to pieces by pretending that his family are still alive and waiting for him back in Connecticut. Moira mends Dwight’s shirts and sweater for him, telling him she wouldn’t want to send him back to Sharon looking shabby, and she helps him find a fishing rod and a rare pogo stick as gifts for his son and daughter, gifts that he stores in his tiny quarters aboard the Scorpion. To his credit, Dwight recognizes the emotional strain his decision to remain faithful to his dead wife is placing upon Moira. Each time they make plans to do things together, he asks her if she will be all right with things, meaning a failure to consummate their romance. Near the end, when they take a weekend trip into the mountains for the first days of the trout fishing season, they book two separate cabins. Yet neither allows the awkwardness of their situation to diminish their enjoyment of the beautiful scenery, the challenges of catching fish, and the camaraderie they experience with the numerous other guests at the cabins. Once the cloud of radiation has settled thickly onto the Melbourne area, and only hours of life remain for most, Moira asks Dwight if she may accompany him and his crew aboard the Scorpion while they take the submarine into international waters to scuttle her and end their own lives. Dwight, in a decision that may come across as cruel, opts to remain true to the regulations of the U.S. Navy and refuses her request; he is also concerned about being fair to his men, whom he had not allowed to bring their own girlfriends along. Moira does not hold this against him, recognizing that he is remaining true to his code, and that if he were to abandon that code, even at the very end, he would no longer be the same man she had fallen in love with. She finds a place on a bluff overlooking the passage to the open sea where she can watch the Scorpion pass by.

Moira is not the only major character to show extraordinary kindness under conditions of duress. Throughout the book, Peter indulges his wife Mary’s desire to improve their garden, despite the fact that neither of them will get to see their newly planted bulbs bloom or the newly planted trees mature. One of Peter’s last acts, after he has already begun suffering the symptoms of radiation sickness, is to drive into downtown Melbourne and find the garden swing she has wanted so badly, so that she might be able to look at it through the window of their apartment while confined to bed in her final hours. The argument between Peter and Mary which takes place before he ships out on the Scorpion‘s two-month-long reconnaissance, sparked by Peter’s gentle insistence that Mary know how to properly administer poison to their infant daughter should he fail to return and be unavailable to do it when the deadly cloud arrives, is made much more stunning in its impact because it is virtually the only violent emotional outburst in the entire book. (Mary’s character was ill-served by the 1959 Stanley Kramer film version. Under the dictates of John Paxton’s screenplay, newcomer Donna Anderson played Mary as a neurotic, unstable, immature woman, who does not achieve the grace exhibited by the novel’s Mary until the film’s closing scenes.) Even John, the major character with the fewest emotional ties and the most detached personality, tenderly takes care of his elderly mother in her final, ailing hours.

Adherence to duty, responsibility, and personal code of conduct is exhibited nearly across the board. Shute makes reference to weekend crowds in Melbourne who become riotously drunk and to street sweepers who abandon their jobs in the last weeks, allowing the streets of Melbourne to become filthy and putrid, but the writer does not dwell on these persons who let their community and their fellows down. Instead, he focuses on the trolley driver who insists he will drive his trolley until he is no longer able to, particularly after having already done so for thirty-four years; and on the dairy farmer who promises Peter to make home deliveries of milk to Mary and the baby while Peter is on the other side of the world. There is an amusing, and at the same time very touching, debate in the government over whether or not trout fishing season should be opened a month early. Should the government stick to its traditional calendar, the season would not open until several weeks after the radioactive cloud is expected to arrive. However, if they opt to allow early fishing, the stock of fish could be damaged. They eventually decide to allow the earlier date, with misgivings, but justify their decision as being “just for this one year only.” When Dwight realizes the time has come to scuttle the Scorpion, he issues a formal request to the First Naval Member to withdraw the submarine from Australian command and return her to the U.S. Navy (of which she is the last surviving operational vessel). The elaborate courtesies and formalities the two of them exchange as the senior surviving members of their naval establishments, which have enjoyed a long history of cooperation and fellowship, form a perfect capstone to Shute’s portrayals of the two men. I found this scene to be intensely moving.

Much of this focus on duty, compassion, and the forgoing of satisfaction of immediate desires in favor of remaining true to strongly held personal codes went by the wayside in Stanley Kramer’s film adaptation, apparently to the dismay of Nevil Shute. Kramer tailored the story both to what he assumed to be American audiences’ expectations of a romantic drama and to his own desire to forge an unambiguously antiwar message. The character of John Osborne (renamed Julian Osborne in the script) is changed from an Australian scientist to a stranded British nuclear scientist, who had formerly worked on the British atomic bomb program, this so that Fred Astaire could wallow in drunken guilt over his role in abetting the nuclear holocaust. Kramer and screenwriter John Paxton also opted to spice things up a bit by giving Julian and Moira a failed romantic past (in the novel, they are distant cousins, affectionate with one another but never having shared a romance). The biggest change from the novel is that Dwight and Moira, after a bit of hesitation on Dwight’s part, consummate their romance. According to film lore, Kramer was apprehensive that audiences would not buy Gregory Peck’s ability to resist Ava Gardner’s charms throughout the whole movie, and ticket buyers might leave the show feeling disappointed if Peck and Gardner were not shown to get it on. Peck, reportedly, sided with Shute but was overruled by Kramer. I could have done with the Gregory Peck of his earlier film, Roman Holiday, when he portrayed an American reporter in Rome who becomes entangled with a slumming European princess but who manages to remain a gentleman throughout, recognizing that her duties of state would not allow for a romance with an American commoner. Peck was an absolute natural to play the duty- and memory-bound Dwight Towers; that the film’s producer/director insisted that the cores of both Peck’s and Gardner’s characters be carved out and discarded was a shame.

This is not to say that the 1959 film is without its merits. Its black and white cinematography is crisp, effective, and consistently well framed; the film is a pleasure to watch. Kramer made the decision to move the scene of the Scorpion‘s crew’s discovery of the source of mysterious Morse code transmissions from a naval installation in Seattle, as portrayed in the novel, to an oil refinery in San Diego, a wise choice. The long shots of a sole sailor in a radiation protection suit running down the streets of the massive, abandoned oil refinery are silently eloquent of the strange, quiet death of civilization. Most of the supporting and minor characters are marvelously cast (avoiding the pitfalls, for example, of Fred Astaire’s and Anthony Perkin’s weak English and Australian accents and the absence of any attempt on Ava Gardner’s part to vocalize an Australian accent at all). Several of my favorite scenes involve Paddy Moran’s Stevens, the wine steward of a private club where Julian, Peter, and Dwight go to dine. Stevens is constantly having to right the portraits on the club’s walls of various British royals and military heroes, which go askew any time the doors are pulled shut. Near the film’s end, when he is the last person alive in the club, Stevens takes the opportunity, which he has obviously pined for through decades of service, to have his turn at the billiards table. Filmed without any background music, it is a shattering moment, much more emotionally affecting than the final scene Kramer chose to hit his audiences over the head with, a shot of an abandoned Salvation Army rally with a banner that reads, “There is Still Time… Brother!”

Two minor characters appear in the film who were not present in the novel: Admiral Bridie of the Royal Australian Navy, played by John Tate, and the admiral’s secretary, Lieutenant Osgood, played by Lola Brooks. I have read nothing that states this was the case, but I suspect Kramer included these two as a sort of apology and amends to Nevil Shute for bowdlerizing the characters of Dwight and Moira. Whenever the two appear together, there are hints of attraction between the admiral and his young, pretty female secretary. Once they have both begun to come down with symptoms of radiation poisoning, after Dwight has pulled the Scorpion from Australian command and there is nothing left to be done in the headquarters of the Royal Australian Navy, Admiral Bridie asks Lieutenant Osgood if she would like to be relieved of her duties and return home. She opts to stay at her post, saying there is no one waiting for her at her home, no husband or boyfriend or family. The admiral asks her if she would care to share a glass of wine with an old man. She says, “No, but I would like to have a glass of wine with you.” The few words and the lingering look that pass between them as they each sip from their glasses of wine speak volumes about the intensity of their mutual attraction and the forbearance each has shown and will show to the end. Neither will step over the line of proper conduct between a senior officer and his subordinate, but they absolutely smolder together. Watching the intensity of their quiet, understated interaction, this viewer was struck by an intimation of what could have been the relationship between Gregory Peck’s Dwight and Ava Gardner’s Moira, a truer reflection of Nevil Shute’s devastatingly poignant novel.

I have not seen the 2000 television version, made for Australian TV. From the description, it seems Shute’s conceit that civilization in the Melbourne area survives, mostly intact, up until the deaths of its inhabitants was done away with. Civilization ends brutally, just as it does in the Mad Max films. Perhaps this choice by the filmmakers, who obviously did not consider Shute’s vision of the end to be plausible, is an indication of how far our faith in the durability of our Western social order has fallen in the half-century since Shute wrote his book.

More Handmade Monsters!

Here to save the planet... it's Mothra!

My youngest son, Judah, continues to request handmade monster toys, so I continue to make them. My first efforts were Gorgo and Tarantula (seen here in this earlier post). Gorgo was a simple paper puppet, two layers of construction paper glued together over a straw. Tarantula, however, was a more elaborate project, involving two plastic token cups from Chuck E. Cheese’s, a ball of black yarn, and several dozen black pipe cleaners. I made sure to over-build that sucker, reinforcing his legs six ways to Sunday (or eight ways to Sunday, given the number of legs).

Now I just need those two tiny Japanese twin gals...

Next up, per Judah’s instructions, was Mothra. Making a Mothra isn’t too hard; making a Mothra that won’t get destroyed after one or two sessions of play is a taller order. Mothra’s body is a cardboard toilet paper roll, coated in yellow construction paper, with pipe cleaner legs inserted through holes. Her wings are two layers of construction paper, reinforced on top with “veins” of variously colored pipe cleaners (which also give the wings some stiffness). Her head is construction paper with fuzzy ball eyes and antennae made of Bendaroos (wax-coated string). So far, she has avoided mortal damage, and she has been in Judah’s hands for over a month. So I guess I must’ve built her right.

Ghidorah vs. Godzilla!

Having seen the “Ghidorah Trilogy” (Ghidorah, the Three Headed Monster; Monster Zero; and Destroy All Monsters), of course Judah would want a Ghidorah for his collection (and professionally made Ghidorah toys aren’t too common, at least not here in the States). I’d originally intended to make a simple two-dimensional Ghidorah puppet, along the lines of what I’d done with Gorgo, but then I got a bit more ambitious. I couldn’t figure out a workable way for me to make him fully three-dimensional, but by making his heads, wings, torso, and legs separately and then slotting them together, I was able to make him at least partially three-dimensional, plus able to stand on his own (a definite plus in a household inhabited by a kitten who loves to chew paper).

Another view of the wintry grudge match

I printed out a nice, cartoony drawing of Ghidorah from the deviantart.com site and cut out portions to use for the fronts of Ghidorah’s heads and legs, the most difficult parts to draw, then drew the wings and torso freehand. I did my best to draw the reverse sides of his legs and feet and of his heads and necks on another sheet of construction paper, plus reverse sides of his wings and torso. I then traced the parts onto a sheet of corrugated cardboard, which would give all the parts the necessary stiffness. I cut everything out, glued the construction paper “skins” over the cardboard “skeleton,” and then, after it had all dried, cut slots into the various parts and slotted and glued them together, sort of like how you would put together a cardboard model of an airplane. My finished product didn’t come out exactly proportional (the torso and wings are too big for the heads and legs), but he turned out exactly the right scale to battle Judah’s plastic Godzilla, which is more important. And from certain angles, he is rather impressive, if I do say so myself. Besides, Ghidorah was always sort of a lumpy, ungainly monster, anyway, at least in the original 1960s Toho films.

The best thing about Yongary, Monster From the Deep--the hero's 1964 Corvair convertible

This past week was a bad one, health-wise, for my family. One by one, we all came down with bouts of stomach flu. Judah and Asher caught it nearly simultaneously, and while they were on the mend, I stayed home with them to give Dara a bit of a break. The three of us watched Yongary, Monster From the Deep (1967). This was one giant monster picture I had somehow not managed to see as a kid. Yongary is essentially a South Korean Godzilla, with the monster-loving little kid from Gamera, the Invincible tossed in for good measure. The model cities weren’t bad, at least on par with those seen in the early Gamera movies, but the monster costume was a step down from those featured in the Gamera creature-fests, about as silly looking as the average kaiju in an episode of Ultraman.

The worst thing about Yongary, Monster From the Deep--the heroine's absurdly obnoxious little brother, Icho

What made the film stand out in my eyes were two things — the hero drove a splendid 1964 Chevy Corvair convertible, and Icho, the six or seven-year-old kid whom the filmmakers unwisely (and sadistically) foisted on us for much of the film, was simply the most detestable and obnoxious child character I have ever witnessed in any monster movie, ever. Worse than any of the kids in the Gamera movies (even that horrid, virtually unwatchable little Caucasian girl who wore a Scottish tam in War of the Planets). Worse than the kid in Godzilla’s Revenge. Worse, quite possibly, than any of the kids in The Lemon Drop Kids Meet a Brooklyn Gorilla (although I’ll admit I haven’t seen that one, so I can’t say for certain). One gizmo that plays a role in the movie’s plot is an itching ray (yes, an itching ray) developed by the hero (for God knows what reason; he’s already invented it when the film begins, before Yongary ever appears). The first time we meet Icho, he is hiding in the bushes, having stolen his new brother-in-law’s invention, and he zaps his sister and her new husband with the itching ray as they drive past (in that splendid Corvair convertible), forcing them to pull over and jump out of their clothes while they are on their way to their honeymoon. Icho gets even more obnoxious as the film rolls on. At one point, the hero scientist and the military have found a way to render Yongary unconscious, after he has knocked down most of those parts of Seoul that weren’t already knocked down during the Korean War. What does cute little Icho do? He steals the itching ray again, runs to the giant monster’s side, and wakes him up. Just as a goof, you know. Yongary then proceeds to knock down those parts of Seoul he missed the first time around. At that point, I was rooting for the big lizard to squash the kid already. Doesn’t happen. Evil triumphs; Yongary dies.

View from my back deck, January 21, 2012

But enough about itch-inducing child actors. We got a bit of wet snow last night, enough to lightly coat our back yard and replenish our stream. Knowing I’d be posting about giant monster movies, I began wondering whether any of them had taken place in the wintertime, during a heavy snowfall. Dozens of them took place in the desert, in the American Southwest, near where the atomic tests were carried out. All of the Japanese kaiju movies that I can recall took place in the summertime, with the exception of the early parts of Gigantis the Fire Monster / Godzilla Raids Again, the second Godzilla movie, in which Godzilla (or a second Godzilla-like creature, the original having been thoroughly disintegrated by the oxygen destroyer at the close of Godzilla, King of the Monsters) and Anguilus are discovered fighting each other on a northerly, ice-covered island, before they both invade Japan. The Deadly Mantis begins in Antarctica, where the titular giant bug makes his first attack on humanity, but when he gets up to the cities of North America, it is summertime. Much of Ray Harryhausen’s Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger, which features numerous giant creatures, takes place in a mysterious region of the Arctic, but that’s more a fantasy-adventure film than a traditional “giant monsters attack” movie. I haven’t seen The Beast From Twenty Thousand Fathoms in a long time, and I seem to recall that its climax takes place in Coney Island during a storm. Was it a snowstorm? If anyone has a good memory for this kind of thing, help me out here. I just think it would be neat to see New York City or Washington, DC or Tokyo (or even Seoul) get attacked by a gigantic lizard during a beautiful snowstorm.

(Ah, memory just kicked in; Peter Jackson’s New York City scenes in his recent remake of King Kong took place in the wintertime, one of the nicer touches in that film. Digital effects make much possible that perhaps weren’t so practicable during the era of miniature models.)

Voices from the Planet of the Apes

Roddy McDowall, the man with the voice of vulnerability

This past weekend, I re-watched The Legend of Hell House, the 1973 horror film based on Richard Matheson’s novel, Hell House (Matheson wrote the script for the film). I hadn’t seen it in a number of years. Roddy McDowall is featured as Ben Fischer, a physical medium who, as a teenager, was the only survivor of a previous scientific expedition to the titular haunted house. He barely escaped with his life fifteen years earlier and is only convinced to join the present expedition by a promised $100,000 payment from a dying millionaire who wants to obtain proof of life after death. Ben is determined to keep his head low through the week he is instructed to spend inside the Belasco House, cutting himself off psychically from the house’s poltergeists; but he is forced into a more active role by the deaths of two of his compatriots and ultimately emerges triumphant over the malign spirit of Emeric Belasco, the perverted, evil former owner of the house.

What really struck me about McDowall’s performance was the compelling power and finesse of his voice. McDowall was gifted with an extraordinary vocal instrument. During much of his career, he, along with Montgomery Clift, exemplified the vulnerable, sensitive, often wounded male – Clift with his face, and McDowall with his voice. In The Legend of Hell House, McDowall was called upon to present an extraordinary range of emotions, from meek, fearful passivity to scornful, mocking sarcasm; from desperate cowardice to determined self-sacrifice; and from near-helpless terror to a vengeful, furious, nearly megalomaniacal triumph. And at least seventy percent of his performance came through his voice. He would have been a superb radio drama actor during the Golden Age of Radio.

Cornelius, father of Caesar

Roddy McDowall’s best-remembered roles were as Cornelius and Caesar in four of the original five Planet of the Apes films. He is as closely identified with POTA: The Original Series as William Shatner is with Star Trek: The Original Series (McDowall and Shatner made opposite migrations with their best-known properties: Shatner from the small screen to the big screen, and McDowall from the big screen to the small screen, but very briefly). McDowall would have appeared in all five films had not a job directing a film in Scotland kept him away from the production of Beneath the Planet of the Apes. Apart from the John Chambers simian makeup (ground-breaking for its day) and their convoluted, time-bending plots, the films are probably best remembered for the sound of Roddy McDowall’s voice: as Cornelius begging his wife Zira to be more sensible, and as Caesar pointing out the hypocrisies and injustices of human treatment of apes or leading battles against human oppressors.

Yet Roddy McDowall’s is far from the only memorable voice talent employed by the makers of the original Planet of the Apes films. The series is replete with them. The casting directors pursued the very wise strategy of selecting actors with strong, unique, memorable voices, realizing that the John Chambers makeup and the bulky costumes would cloak most of the actors’ subtle facial expressions and body language. Also, although Chambers made great efforts to physically differentiate his various chimpanzee, gorilla, and orangutan major characters, ensuring that each character had a very distinctive voice would help audiences keep the characters straight, so they would not confuse Cornelius with Milo or Dr. Zaius with Dr. Honorious. No casting director was listed in the credits for the original Planet of the Apes, but the Internet Movie Database credits Joe Scully with unit casting and Carl Joy with atmosphere casting (I presume the latter means casting the extras, of which there were many in each of the films). I suspect that producer Arthur P. Jacobs had a major hand in making casting decisions (his wife, Natalie Trundy, appears in four of the films, as the mutant Albina in Beneath, as Dr. Stevie Branton in Escape, and as chimpanzee Lisa in Conquest and Battle).

To whomever the credit goes, casting certainly proved to be a major strength of the original series. Many lines of dialogue from the films have entered the shared cultural lexicon (to be endlessly parodied on shows like The Simpsons). I’m sure you remember these:

“Get your stinking paws off me, you damned, dirty ape!”

“Beware the beast Man, for he is the Devil’s pawn…”

“You maniacs! You blew it up! Ah, damn you! God damn you all to hell!

“The only good human… is a dead human!”

“He bleeds! The Lawgiver bleeds!”

“I reveal my Inmost Self unto my God.”

“So, cast out your vengeance. Tonight, we have seen the birth of the Planet of the Apes!”

“Then God in his wrath sent the world a savior, miraculously born of two apes who descended on Earth from Earth’s own future. And man was afraid, for both parent apes possessed the power of speech.”

“Ape has killed ape! Ape has killed ape!”

Maurice Evans/Dr. Zaius

If you’ve seen the films, and if those lines are at all familiar, I’m sure you remember them in the distinct voices of the actors who spoke them: Charlton Heston (as George Taylor), Roddy McDowall (as Cornelius and Caesar), James Gregory (as General Ursus), Don Pedro Colley (as the mutant Ongaro), and John Huston (as the Lawgiver). None of their voices could be confused with any other voices in the films. Each voice lingers in the memory like a familiar pop tune.
Originally, the part of Dr. Zaius in the first film was to have been filled by Edward G. Robinson, who actually did a screen test in an early version of the ape makeup. He ultimately backed out due to concerns about the amount of time he would need to spend in the make-up chair. His role was eventually filled by an actor with an equally distinctive voice, Maurice Evans. Still, it’s amusing to think of Dr. Zaius being voiced by the inimitable Edward G. Robinson, he of Little Caesar and Scarlett Street fame:

“I’m Little Zaius, see?”

“Mother of mercy… is this the end of Zaius?”

Lou Wagner/Lucius

Lou Wagner is no household name, but he also has a voice more than capable of slicing through layers of heavy makeup. Fans of Star Trek: the Next Generation and Star Trek: Deep Space Nine will immediately recognize his voice as belonging to DaiMon Solok and Krax, respectively. In the first Apes film, he played Lucius, a chimpanzee, Zira’s nerdy, socially conscious student nephew. His high-pitched, reedy voice fit the character perfectly and made him a suitable comedic foil for the dignified, austere Charlton Heston.

Claude Akins/Aldo

Claude Akins also has a voice with which most TV viewers of a certain age will be very familiar. He played Sheriff Lobo in the 1970s TV series B. J. and the Bear and trucker Sonny Pruitt in Movin’ On from the same decade. Prior to his TV work, he was a supporting actor in many prominent films of the latter portion of Hollywood’s Golden Age, including From Here to Eternity (1953), The Caine Mutiny (1954), and The Killers (1964). During the early days of television, he was a frequent guest star in popular westerns, including Wagon Train, Laramie, The Rifleman, and Gunsmoke. Horror fans will likely remember his wonderfully funny portrayal of Kolchak’s editor boss in The Night Stalker (1972). Akins played the gorilla Aldo in the final original Apes film, Battle for the Planet of the Apes (1973). Supposedly he was chosen for the role because, apart from the facial prostheses, he didn’t require the body portion of the ape costume – he already looked like an ape. I’m certain the real reason he was selected, though, was for his voice, perfect for Aldo, capable of expressing brutishness and a childlike naiveté simultaneously.

John Huston

One of Akins’ costars in Battle was veteran director/actor John Huston, possessed of one of the most distinctive and memorable voices of the American stage or screen. Huston’s career is awe-inspiring in its scope, longevity, and enduring aesthetic quality. Not many other filmmakers can list on their resumes having directed such classics as The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, The African Queen, and Fat City, as well as turning in unforgettable performances in films such as Chinatown. He was perfectly cast as the wise, gentle, saintly Lawgiver, his gravelly voice lending its gravitas to ape scripture mumbo-jumbo that probably would’ve sounded silly coming out of most other actors’ mouths.

James Gregory/General Ursus

In casting about for other memorable American or British voices which could have been lent to an ape, I thought of Orson Welles. Turns out I wasn’t the first to do so. According to the documentary Behind the Planet of the Apes, Welles was offered the role of gorilla General Ursus in Beneath the Planet of the Apes, but he turned it down. Perhaps by that time in his career, he had grown (sideways) beyond the capability of mounting a horse. Or maybe, like Edward G. Robinson, he didn’t relish the thought of being cooped up in a make-up chair for three or four hours a day. However, the casting director didn’t miss a beat in finding a replacement. At this point in time, I cannot imagine anyone but James Gregory mouthing the line, “The only good human… is a dead human!” Gregory was capable of embodying arrogant swagger with his voice, and he certainly did so as General Ursus. Another wonderful aspect of his performance is that he was so obviously having a grand old time going ape; his enthusiasm is infectious. Genre fans will recognize Gregory from two episodes of the original The Twilight Zone, The Manchurian Candidate, and an episode of the original Star Trek, “Dagger of the Mind.” TV comedy fans will remember him from his many seasons as Inspector Luger on Barney Miller.

Another well-known TV comedy/science fiction actor, Jonathan Smith, best known as the sniveling, always scheming Dr. Smith of Lost in Space, was offered a role in the first Apes film; John Chambers had tested out an early version of his ape make-up in an episode of that series. But Smith, having seen up close what was involved in the application of the make-up, took a pass. A shame… with that superior sneer of his, he would have made a wonderful orangutan.

Kim Hunter/Zira

One prominent actress from the series, although possessed of a wonderful, highly emotive voice, was cast, I believe, for her unique ability to act right through her chimpanzee make-up, to project her facial expressions, particularly those of her eyes, right through all the layers of latex and spirit gum. This was Kim Hunter, who portrayed Zira in the first three films. Here’s a prescription for a fun evening: rent/download A Streetcar Named Desire and Escape From the Planet of the Apes and watch them back to back. I guarantee that, while watching the latter, you’ll exclaim while watching Zira, “Good lord, it’s Stella Kowalski!” and while watching Stella in the former movie, you’ll blurt out, “My God, it’s Zira!” Kim Hunter’s electric persona leaps off the screen in both films, make-up be damned (in Escape). I’ve got a feeling they could have dressed her up as the Elephant (Wo)Man and viewers would still think to themselves, “Good lord, it’s Stella Kowalski!” That’s how strong her screen personality was.

I honestly don’t remember much about the vocal talents on display in the Tim Burton remake (although I suppose I would have to give Helena Bonham Carter kudos in that regard). For me, all the energy that film might have possessed was swallowed up by the black hole of Mark Wahlberg’s sleepwalking performance as the film’s astronaut protagonist. I don’t know whether he made a conscious decision to portray the anti-Charlton Heston, dialing his own charisma down to zero, or whether he just decided to collect his paycheck, but he sank that film as surely as a Japanese Long Lance torpedo sank the USS Indianapolis.

I haven’t yet seen the 2011 reboot of the series, Rise of the Planet of the Apes (apparently a very loose remake of Conquest of the Planet of the Apes). It marks a departure from tradition in that all of the apes are computer generated. It received much better reviews than its Burton-helmed predecessor, and its producers would like it to be the start of a new series of Apes films. If I may give them one bit of unsolicited advice? Listen to the original five films with the picture turned off, concentrating on just the voices; and choose your ape vocal actors with care. For the voices will make or break your films, lingering in audiences’ minds long after the visual novelty of the CGI gorillas, chimpanzees, and orangutans has faded.

Training the Next Generation of SF Geeks: an Intergenerational Case Study

My gateway to the heroes of comics' Golden Age, courtesy of my stepdad and Jules Feiffer

Any culture that fails to train its young in its traditions is doomed to extinction. The culture of science fiction geekdom is no exception. Many SF geeks have come into their geekhood entirely on their own, sometimes in clear opposition to their parents’ preferences (most of the Futurians, for example, needed to get away from their families in order to come into their full geekhood). Yet many others (myself included) have benefitted from the support and encouragement of a geek (or partial geek, or proto-geek) parent. SF geek culture has now been with us long enough that grandparents can share it with their grandchildren (especially if it is Flash Gordon serials or Astounding Science Fiction pulps or EC horror comics that are the artifacts being passed on).

My stepdad was my initial mentor in geekdom, although I’m sure he didn’t think about in those terms (my training in geekhood began in the late 1960s, but the term “geek” did not begin taking on anything approaching a positive connotation until fairly recently, sometime during Bill Clinton’s term in office). He is a movie lover and for many years was an amateur movie maker (in the old days of Super-8 equipment; he never made the transition to digital media). During his twenties, he had nursed an ambition to go to Hollywood to work for Warner Brothers as an animator. He ended up a salesman instead, a very successful one, first of shoes and later of folding cardboard boxes. He and my mother both enjoyed science fiction and horror movies, so my earliest movie-going experiences were outings to the drive-in to see pictures including Destroy All Monsters (1968), The Return of Count Yorga (1971), Escape From the Planet of the Apes (1971), and Godzilla vs. the Smog Monster (1971). (Come to think of it, we saw an awful lot of movies at the drive-in in 1971.) He was a huge fan of old-time film actors, so the bookshelf in our living room was stocked with oversized volumes on the history of movies serials, classic films of Hollywood’s Golden Age (including the Universal monster movie cycle), and silent film comedy stars such as Charlie Chaplin and W. C. Fields. He also amassed a pretty big collection of Super-8 film shorts to show on his collapsible movie screen, including shorts by Chaplin, the Our Gang kids, and Laurel and Hardy, as well as compilations of coming attractions from Japanese kaiju giant monster films and 1950s Hollywood giant insect movies.

The book on his shelf that probably had the biggest impact on me, though, was Jules Feiffer’s The Great Comic Book Heroes (1965). I still have numerous passages virtually memorized (most especially Feiffer’s remembered glee as a young man when he read that psychologist Fredric Wertham had written in Seduction of the Innocent that Batman and Robin, in their civilian identities as Bruce Wayne and his ward Dick Grayson, could be said to be experiencing “a wish dream of two homosexuals living together;” Feiffer always hated Robin, so anyone who muddied Robin’s rep was okay by him). I passed hundreds of hours on my living room sofa with that book open on my lap. Feiffer presented a very personal memoir of what each of the classic characters of the Golden Age of Comic Books had meant to him during his childhood and teen years. His book generously provided me with origin stories or very early adventures of such figures as Superman, Batman, the Flash, the Green Lantern, Wonder Woman, Hawkman, the Spectre, Plastic Man, Captain Marvel, Captain America, the Sub-Mariner, the Human Torch, and the Spirit, in nearly all cases (with the exceptions of Superman and Batman) my very first exposure to the characters. My stepdad, noting my enthusiasm, followed up by taking me to my very first comic book and nostalgia convention, held in the Coconut Grove library, where I got to see a couple of chapters from Monogram’s The Adventures of Captain Marvel serial and page through a mimeographed reproduction of the famous Human Torch-Sub-Mariner epic battle from Marvel Mystery Comics.

The fact that my stepdad loved old monster movies and old comic book heroes made me want to love them, too; not that I needed too much encouragement in that direction, since I had discovered my love of dinosaurs, prehistoric life, and Greek and Norse mythology all on my own. One thing led to another. Novelizations of the Planet of the Apes films and TV shows proved to be my “entry drugs” to original science fiction novels and story collections by H. G. Wells, Ray Bradbury, Isaac Asimov, and Robert Silverberg. A fondness for atomic apocalypse movies led to my picking up books on worldwide catastrophe by J. G. Ballard and John Christopher. The movie versions of The Shrinking Man and I Am Legend made me hunt down the original books by Richard Matheson. The same kid at summer camp who let me look at his dog-earred Iron Man comics also lent me a truly magical novel, The Circus of Dr. Lao by Charles G. Finney.

And thus was my career as a science fiction geek well and truly launched by the time I turned eight. That year I wrote my first short story, “Tyrann!”, a tale about a lonely little boy, his scientist father, the mechanical Tyrannosaurus the father builds as a companion for his son, and the gangsters who have evil plans for the scientist and his robot creation. The boys at school loved it, and I got the idea that writing stories and entertaining my peers was kind of fun.

One thing my stepdad didn’t do was pass on any relics of his own proto-geek childhood. Hardly anybody from his generation saved their comic books and pulp magazines (unless they were extremely obsessed with them). This, of course, is what makes those artifacts of the 1930s and 1940s so valuable – scarcity. Oh, the daydreams I had, though, as a child – “If only Dad had saved his Captain America comics!” I resolved at a very young age that I would save everything: all my comics, all my issues of Famous Monsters of Filmland, all my copies of Eerie and Creepy, and all of my science fiction paperbacks. No future son (or daughter) of mine would ever have to pine for the childhood stuff I had thrown away. I also considered the potential monetary value of the collectibles I would be passing on, figuring I would be doing my future children a great fiduciary favor.

Judah "Iron Man" Fox, celebrating his fifth birthday

Unfortunately, I proved to have an odd talent for buying comics which would never go up in value and for passing up those comics which would someday be worth real money. I distinctly recall seeing all the early issues of The All-New, All-Different X-Men on the carousel wire racks at my local convenience stores (Little General and 7-11) and turning up my nose at them, because the characters on the covers looked “too weird” (why I felt that way about the New X-Men I cannot currently fathom; after all, I eagerly purchased other comics with stranger heroes, such as Jack Kirby’s The Demon and Marv Wolfman’s The Tomb of Dracula, but I remember having a powerful aversion to the costumes worn by the New X-Men in their early adventures). Instead, I bought reprint comics like Marvel Triple Action, Marvel’s Greatest Comics, Monsters on the Prowl, and Creatures on the Loose; the adventures of short-run, failed characters like It! the Living Colossus, the Living Mummy, Man-Thing, Brother Voodoo, the Defenders (a bit more successful than the others on this list), the Invaders, the Golem, and Werewolf by Night; and a fairly full set of The Invincible Iron Man during the character’s worst run ever (excepting, perhaps, the much later Teen Tony issues), from about issue 35 to issue 90 or so. So I ended up with an accumulation of essentially worthless comics, boxes and boxes of them, from the 1970s to the 1990s. Worthless, that is, except for the reading pleasure they might provide a young person.

Over the past eight years, I’ve been blessed with three sons. How should I divide my childhood collection among the three of them, I’ve often wondered? Have them draw lots? Let them sort out the materials among themselves, according to their preferences, with me serving as referee? As things have turned out, this will not be an issue, surprisingly; two of the three appear to have very little interest in my old stuff.

Levi, my oldest, is a voracious reader, but he generally avoids comic books. He showed a mild interest in Silver Age Superman stories for a time, but that didn’t last. After I took him and his brothers to see Captain America: the First Avenger, we went to the comic book store next to the theater, and I offered to buy him any Captain America or Avengers comic he wanted. He wouldn’t bite; instead, he insisted I buy him the latest Wimpy Kid chapter book. The only comics or graphic novels he seems to be interested in are the Bone books. He is very interested in science, but blasé about dinosaurs. He shows very little interest in my collection of old horror movie videos. However, he is fascinated by astronomy and outer space, and most of the chapter books he likes to read (such as the Magic Treehouse and the Captain Underpants books) are essentially fantasy. So I have hopes that I’ll be able to steer him toward science fiction. Within the next year (he is currently in second grade) I plan to introduce him to the Heinlein juveniles, the Rick Riordan books, and eventually Ender’s Game. We’ll see how he takes to those. He is very opinionated and particular regarding what books he chooses to read, so I know I will only be able to suggest (and gently suggest, at that). The potential for an SF geek resides within him (“The Force is strong in this one…”). We shall see.

Asher, my middle child, on the other hand, appears to have little or no geek potential. His interests are decidedly mainstream American boy – he likes sports, race cars, and monster trucks. He enjoys superhero and science fiction movies and TV shows, but he mainly appreciates them for their action. He likes watching things explode and seeing giant robots beat on each other. He thought the last twenty minutes of X-Men: First Class were “awesome,” and he simply loved Real Steel. His favorite toys are his large collection of Hot Wheels cars. He is a pretty strong reader, but he won’t go out of his way to pick up a book. He gets bored when I try to read him Silver Age Superman stories (which Levi enjoys to an extent). His preferred books to look at are illustrated editions of The Guinness Book of World Records and any books on monster trucks.

So, I was at two strikes and one ball to go, so far as passing along my old comics and monster magazines to one of my offspring. Perhaps Judah, my youngest, sensed an opportunity, an unclaimed niche, a chance to beat out his brothers at snuggling up close to Daddy. Or maybe it’s all in the genes (could there be a specific geek chromosome)? In any case, with my final opportunity to reproduce myself as a young geek, I finally struck geek gold in Judah. Several years back, I bought a whole collection of plush Godzilla figures for Levi and Asher as Hanukkah gifts; on eBay, I found Godzilla, Minya, Rodan, Anguillis, Gigan, young Godzilla, Hedorah, King Kong, and Destroyah. These were gorgeous toys. Had they been available when I was a young boy, I would have wet my pants with excitement. But neither Levi nor Asher took to them. They sat on the edge of the boys’ bed for years, unplayed with, gathering dust and cat hair.

Judah with "The Deadly Mantis"

Then Judah decided he liked Godzilla movies. In fact, he loved Godzilla movies. Better still was to watch a Godzilla movie with toys that matched the monsters on screen. He expanded his palate to include a fondness for Gamera movies, too (and I happened to have a few Gamera toys lying around). He will watch any monster movie with his daddy, and he has a particular liking for giant insect movies. Like me, he can watch Tarantula over and over again. When I took him and his brothers to Dinosaur Land in White Post, Virginia, one of the statues there was of a ten-foot-tall praying mantis. I took a picture of the boys standing beneath its claws, and I posted the picture on my website, next to a photo from the 1957 monster movie The Deadly Mantis. Judah took a look at that photo and declared he simply had to have a Deadly Mantis toy. After looking far and wide, I managed to find a really nice praying mantis figurine at Le Jouet Toys down in New Orleans, and I bought it as a birthday gift for Judah. One event marking his fifth birthday celebration was a family viewing of The Deadly Mantis (a clean DVD print obtained from Netflix). Judah sat in bed between me and his brothers with his brand-new mantis toy in his fist, watching Craig Stevens, William Hopper, and Alix Talton deal with their bug problem. He is very disappointed that there has never been a Tarantula vs. the Deadly Mantis movie, or, even better, a Tarantula vs. Godzilla film. He has asked multiple times for me to buy him a Deadly Mantis costume to wear, and I’ve endeavored to explain that no one is likely to make a costume based on a giant bug movie from 1957 that hardly anyone remembers.

It’s not just monsters. He loves dinosaurs and superheroes, too. His favorite dinosaur (for the past few weeks, anyway) is Ankylosaurus, an armored dinosaur from the Cretaceous Period. When I told him that Anguillus from the Godzilla movies is an Ankylosaurus, he went and got his plastic figurine of the monster and asked why Anguillus doesn’t have a knob of bone at the end of his tail like a real Ankylosaurus would. The only reply I could come up with was “artistic license.” So he went and found a small, hollow rubber ball that he was able to insert on the end of Anguillus’ tail. Thus far, he doesn’t seem to have a favorite superhero. Between his dad’s old toys and action figures he has gotten as gifts or collected from McDonald’s or Burger King, he has amassed a pretty impressive set of Justice Society, Justice League, X-Men, and Avengers figures. His affection and loyalty shifts between characters and figures, depending on his mood and which toy happens to catch his eye. One day his favorite will be Banshee from the X-Men, and the next day it might be Captain America or Iron Man, and the day after that either Batman or the Golden Age Flash will have captured his fancy.

Scene from "The Deadly Mantis 2: Mantis in Manassas"

He’s still too young to pass along to him my old comics and issues of Famous Monsters of Filmland (I shudder to think what shape he would leave them in after tearing through them). I’ll probably wait until he turns eight. But that kid has a tremendous bequest coming his way. I can hardly wait to see his face on the day I pull out box after box after box of my old stuff from the basement.

For the time being, I’m as delighted as any proud Little League parent to have him sitting next to me and watching Ghidrah the Three Headed Monster or Tarantula, a rapt look of enjoyment on his face. I glance down at him, squirming with excitement while nestled in the nook of my arm, and think to myself with a glow of satisfaction, “That’s my boy!”

Reevaluating Tim Burton’s Ed Wood

I first saw Tim Burton’s 1994 biopic Ed Wood, starring Johnny Depp and Martin Landau, when it was originally released in theaters. I was someone whom marketing professionals would have identified as an ideal member of the core audience for the movie – someone familiar with Ed Wood’s films; a fan of 1950s monster movies; an appreciative viewer of Johnny Depp’s and Martin Landau’s earlier performances; and an admirer of Bela Lugosi’s oeuvre. As a teenager, I had read my copy of sibling co-authors Michael and Harry Medved’s The Golden Turkey Awards literally to shreds, referring back to it so often and lending it to so many friends that the book’s spine disintegrated and the pages fell out. That book “celebrated” the dubious cinematic accomplishments of director Edward D. Wood, Jr. and, based upon the tabulation of 3,000 ballots submitted by readers of Michael Medved’s earlier book, The Fifty Worst Films of All Time, named Wood’s 1959 magnum opus Plan 9 From Outer Space as the worst film ever made. After reading the book, I made sure to attend any revival screening of Plan 9 that screened within a hundred miles of my home, guffawing whenever a cardboard tombstone got knocked over or a scene abruptly shifted from day to night and back to day again. When I purchased a VCR, one of my first VHS tapes was a copy of Plan 9.

So I was delighted when I learned Tim Burton, whose 1993 animated movie The Nightmare Before Christmas I had loved, would be directing a movie about the career of Edward D. Wood, Jr. I went to see Ed Wood with high expectations. Although Martin Landau’s performance as Bela Lugosi left me agog (and critics agreed – Landau won an Academy Award, a Golden Globe award, and a Film Critics award for his performance), I found myself curiously dissatisfied with the movie as a whole. It wasn’t because of the principal performances – I’ve already mentioned being knocked out by Landau’s inhabitation of Bela Lugosi, and Johnny Depp portrayed Ed Wood as likable, sympathetic, even admirable, not mocking the real-life director in the slightest. The supporting performances were all of a high standard, with the least of them being no less than watchable and entertaining; Bill Murray as Bunny Breckinridge, Jeffrey Jones as the Amazing Criswell, and George “The Animal” Steele as Tor Johnson were, I thought, particularly good. It wasn’t due to any shortcomings in cinematography or set design; in typical Tim Burton fashion, these were first rate, and the subject matter of Ed Wood fit the director’s visual style to a T. It wasn’t due to bad or unbelievable dialogue; the repartee amongst the characters was engaging, entertaining, and often very funny.

Yet the problem, when I was able to puzzle it out after leaving the theater and talking it over with my then-wife, did have to do with the script. American audiences have been trained to expect meaningful change to occur in the lives of the protagonists of the films they watch or the novels they read. Johnny Depp’s Ed Wood begins the movie as a young man somewhat frustrated by his current circumstances (working as a low-paid functionary at a Hollywood studio), but powerfully optimistic about his talents and his chances to write, produce, and direct memorable motion pictures. Throughout the film, he continually runs into roadblocks which temporarily discourage him or stymie him, but he always manages to find a way to press on towards his objective. He ends the film as a slightly older man who is still somewhat frustrated by his current circumstances (having written, directed, and produced several movies which have enraged audiences and inspired derision from critics, in addition to making very little money for Wood), but who retains his optimism about his talents and his chances to produce works of cinematic art that will last as long as those created by his idol, Orson Welles (who shows up in a wonderful cameo appearance near the film’s end). In all the essentials, he hasn’t changed. His character hasn’t changed or grown appreciably. He has gained many new friends over the course of the film, but his problem, if he can be said to have one, was never a deficit of likeability; at no point in the film is he either friendless or without a serious girlfriend. So the film, at least on that initial viewing, seemed to have a static quality, for all of its immense likeability.

Since that initial viewing back in 1994, I’ve watched the film three more times, two times in just the past six months. Each time I have found myself enjoying the movie more and more. Which poses the obvious question: why? It is much more common, it seems, to have a wonderful memory of a film and to then go back to it fifteen years later and be disappointed; what had once seemed magical now comes across as trite or obvious. To gain greater pleasure from a film after initially suffering no small measure of disappointment is an anomaly, an anomaly which requires a change in perspective.

Starting with my third viewing, I began to realize the film would more accurately have been titled The World of Ed Wood, for at its heart, it is an ensemble picture. Ed Wood the character doesn’t change, because Ed Wood the character is actually Ed Wood the environment, or Ed Wood the setting. The film’s true protagonists, the people who experience change and growth, are Ed Wood’s circle of friends. Ed Wood brings them together as an extended family of oddballs, has-beens, and never-beens, and his invincible optimism and undying faith in his own creative powers — and by extension, their creative powers, for he has invited them to join his charmed (if tarnished) circle — allows them to experience their own brands of achievement or rebirth. Loretta King, an ingenue from the hinterlands, gets to experience life as a film actress (albeit an actress in a Grade Z science fiction movie). Tor Johnson achieves a rise from the tawdry life of a professional wrestler to the somewhat more dignified role of a popular and recognizable film actor, someone who can dress his wife and kids in their fanciest clothes to take to a Hollywood premiere. The Amazing Criswell gets to expand his fan base and socialize with the demimonde element he enjoys and appreciates. Bunny Breckinridge, Ed’s gay friend, gets to become a kind of hero to the local gay community by getting many of them parts as extras in Glen or Glenda. Kathy O’Hara finds the love of her life in Ed, marrying him and staying with him through the rest of his life. Paul Marco, Conrad Brooks, and Tom Mason (Kathy’s chiropractor) get to escape being nobodies by becoming (slight) somebodies in Ed’s films. Vampira gets to continue her film and media work after being fired by the television station that had employed her as a horror hostess. Even Dolores Fuller, Ed’s girlfriend through the first half of the film, who ultimately gets fed up with the tawdry milieu in which Ed chooses to immerse himself, goes on to bigger and better things; we learn in the film’s postscript that after breaking off her relationship with Ed, she wrote a series of hit songs for Elvis Presley.

But the central relationship of the film is the relationship between Ed Wood and Bela Lugosi. Here the film’s writers, Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski, do their finest job of showing the redemptive and ennobling effect Ed Wood’s friendship could have on the people he brought close to himself. When Ed first accidentally meets Bela, one of his screen idols, Bela is at the nadir of his career, a heroin addict who hasn’t been able to land a film role in over three years. Ed quickly entangles him in a series of marginal film projects, beginning with using him as an omniscient narrator in Glen or Glenda (surely Bela Lugosi’s strangest role ever), then as a misunderstood mad scientist in Bride of the Monster, and finally (and mostly posthumously) as an old man dying of grief following the death of his wife, in the unforgettable Plan 9 From Outer Space. Between the making of these movies, the film shows Ed seeing Bela through crisis after crisis, culminating in Bela’s stay in a drug and alcohol rehabilitation facility (interestingly, their on-screen relationship drew partial inspiration from the real-life relationship between young, amateur filmmaker Tim Burton and faded Hollywood horror star Vincent Price). Through his friendship with Ed, Bela regains his self-respect and a sense of hope. By the last days of his life, he has recovered much of his old energy and is enjoying himself and his work again, looking forward to greater things over the horizon. Ed’s friendship and unwavering faith in him have transformed him, to the point where he dies a happy man, rather than an embittered failure.

Tim Burton’s film’s true protagonist is Bela Lugosi, not Ed Wood. The transformation of Bela Lugosi from a self-pitying, drug-besotted wreck to a self-respecting, self-actualizing artist, enabled by the friendship and support provided by Ed Wood, is what primarily lends a glow to the lives of all the other supporting characters in the film. Examined in this light, I think it is fair to consider Tim Burton’s Ed Wood a minor masterpiece, a film worthy of repeated viewings.

Happy Halloween!

As you might well imagine, here at Fantastical Andrew Fox.com, Halloween is one of our favorite holidays. As a little Halloween treat, allow me to suggest a list of my Top Thirteen Creature Feature Oldies (spooky movies more than thirty years old), all guaranteed to add to your Halloween enjoyment. Some are classic, some are quirky, some are so-bad-they’re-good. So surf to your Netflix queue or dash over to Blockbuster Video (if there’s still one of those by your house) and download or rent one of these oldies-but-goodies:

1) Nosferatu, a Symphony of Horror (1922): The granddaddy of all vampire movies, and still one of the best. You won’t find a creepier, more repulsive vampire than Max Shreck as Count Orlok, who portrays the vampire as half-man, half-rat.

2) The Black Cat (1934): Probably the best film Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi ever made together. Fabulous Expressionist sets and an intriguing back-story of World War One horror and betrayal add to the star power in this tale of devil worship and sadism.

3) The Bride of Frankenstein (1935): The best of the early Universal Studios horror films, director James Whale’s masterpiece of whimsical terror, and certainly Boris Karloff’s finest acting as the Monster. Plus, you get Elsa Lanchester in two roles!

4) House of Frankenstein (1944): I included this one for its major fun value. All of the Universal Studios monsters are here (save the Mummy, who was too wrapped up, I suppose, and the Creature, only because he hadn’t been invented yet) — Frankenstein’s monster, Dracula, the wolf man, the mad doctor, and the mad doctor’s demented assistant. You can’t beat the cast: Karloff, Lon Chaney Jr., John Carradine, J. Carrol Naish, George Zucco, and Lionel Atwill. This would be spoofed twenty-three years later by the puppet animation film Mad Monster Party (1967).

5) Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954): This rates both for the outstanding, iconic design of the starring amphibian and for the fabulous underwater photography, shot on location at the Florida Panhandle’s Wakulla Springs. Watch Ricou Browning as the Creature swimming furtively beneath Julie Adams, contemplating her with curiosity and perhaps desire, and you’ll be watching a monster you’ll never forget.

6) Them! (1954): This gi-ants movie is the direct ancestor of both Aliens and every “swarm-of-creatures-is-out-to-get-me-or-eat-me” movie released since the mid-fifties. Great scenes in the sewer tunnels beneath Los Angeles.

7) Invisible Invaders (1959): This one is mainly on the list for its historical value and high camp and fun quotient. The inspiration for George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead and thus virtually every zombie movie made in the last forty years. John Carradine is great as the leader of the aliens. The scenes of the aliens inhabiting the bodies of the dead and creeping across the desert are still pretty effective. And for a truly goofy special effect, you’d have to revisit Plan Nine from Outer Space to see something as ridiculous as the invaders’ invisible feet, shuffling slowly through the sand, leaving beach shovel-like trails behind.

8 ) The Haunting (1963): This adaptation of Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House is the real deal, a truly spooky haunted house movie. Much, much more effective and frightening than the 1999 remake, which over-relied on CGI effects that weren’t nearly as hair-raising as the subtle, off-screen suggestions of supernatural menace so well used in the original.

9) Attack of the Mushroom People (aka: Matango, Fungus of Terror) (1963): Yes, it is mainly here for its two alternate titles, either of which place it high on the list of campy horror films. However, this Japanese flick does have its moments of genuinely unsettling atmosphere and mounting unease, as the castaways, trapped on a weird island, begin running out of food and must resort to consuming the local fungi… definitely not approved by the Food and Drug Administration (nor its Japanese equivalent). This one creeped me out when I was a kid; I was always susceptible to the effects of the “heroes-into-monsters” trope (also featured in the climax of The Return of Count Yorga and in most zombie movies).

10) Let’s Scare Jessica to Death (1971): Low-budget psychological horror film about a woman recently released from a mental institution who seeks rest and rehabilitation on a bucolic farm, only to be faced by the dreadful fact that either she is sliding back into madness again, or that one or more of her house guests is a vampire. Lots of visual and thematic references here to the then-recent Manson Family murders. This one really weirded me out when I saw it on late-night TV as a kid.

11) Blacula (1972): Far more than your run-of-the-mill Blaxploitation pic, as I’ve written elsewhere. William Marshall’s performance is first rate, and this movie really started the whole trope of vampire-as-tragic-romantic-hero in American popular culture. Plus, it serves as a virtual museum piece of early 1970s urban styles.

12) Horror Express (1972): Who can pass up a Victorian era horror movie set entirely on a train, starring Christopher Lee, Peter Cushing, and Telly Savalas? Plus, the missing link monster is not your run-of-the-mill ghoul; watch what it does to poor Telly. Uuuch.

13) The Legend of Hell House (1973): I’ve always been a big Roddy McDowall fan, as well as a great admirer of Richard Matheson’s stories, novels, teleplays, and film scripts. An interesting book end to The Haunting, and another on the short list of truly spooky haunted house films.

Sergeant Rock and Captain America salute you on Halloween!

Friday Fun Links: What’s Up With All the Toys Movies?

The conventional wisdom about Hollywood? Producers want to avoid RISK. They want to make movies that have a built-in audience, that partake of an already established and beloved brand. Making a movie that, in actuality, is hardly more than a glorified product placement seems to be more of a sure thing than pulling out a ouija board to ask the ghosts of Hollywood Past what will kill on that all-important opening weekend at the multiplexes. Still, a tsunami of major studio productions based on toys? Isn’t it bad enough we’re occasionally subjected to movies starring Paulie Shore? Don’t you wish the power brokers of Hollywood would get a frickin’ CLUE? Can’t they realize they don’t have to use a Magic 8 Ball to tell them most of these pictures are going to be absolute stinkers, toxic waste polluting our Red Box dispensers and flat-screen TVs? Movies I’m going to have to beg my kids not to drag me to, not even at the discount theater?

Who started this trend of basing TV shows and movies on toys, anyway? The father of this whole mishegas was Bernard Loomis, toy developer and marketer whose long career included notable stints at all the biggies, including Mattel, Kenner, and Hasbro, each of which he helped elevate to new heights of sales and success. The fruit of his somewhat-evil genius which has had arguably the biggest impact on our culture? In 1968, while developing the Hot Wheels line of die-cast toy cars for Mattel, he pitched the notion of an animated TV series to be based on the toys. Before then, toys had been based upon TV shows, but TV shows had never been based upon toys. Hot Wheels premiered on September 6, 1969 on ABC. The series wasn’t destined for a long life, running for only sixteen episodes before ABC got into hot water with the Federal Communications Commission, which decided the show did not constitute entertainment, but rather a weekly thirty-minute commercial for Mattel’s toys. However, the series did provide a paycheck early in the career of noted actor Albert Brooks, who provided the voices of characters Kip Chogi and Mickey Barnes.

Bernard Loomis had already departed from Mattel by the time the company rubbed the FCC the wrong way, next landing at Kenner. While deciding that Steven Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind wasn’t going to cut the mustard as a source of toy spinoffs, he coined the neologism “toyetic,” which means the extent to which a movie or TV show can generate profitable toys.  Close Encounters simply wasn’t toyetic enough.  After licensing the rights to produce toys based on The Six Million Dollar Man and The Man From Atlantis, somewhat more toyetic properties, Loomis scored his biggest triumph ever by nailing down the rights to make toys based on characters and concepts from a little picture called Star Wars. So he found ways to profit from properties going in either direction, either film-to-toys or toys-to-film. Later, while he was with General Mills, he scored a possibly unique trifecta, partnering with American Greetings to simultaneously launch the Strawberry Shortcake property as a toy, a cartoon, and a greeting card character.

So what hath Bernard Loomis wrought, even from beyond the grave (he departed this globe on June 2, 2006)?

A movie based on the board game Monopoly. Might possibly be interesting, but only if they get Oliver Stone to direct.

A Rock ‘Em Sock ‘Em Robots movie? Didn’t whatever thunder this concept might possess already get stolen by Real Steel, based on the Richard Matheson short story and fondly remembered Twilight Zone episode?

Movies about Legos and Erector Sets? Somehow, I just don’t see the pieces coming together for either of these projects.

A Candy Land movie? Sounds pretty candy-assed to me…

A movie about Stretch Armstrong? Are you freaking kidding? Even as an eleven year-old, I thought the toy was totally lame when it came out in 1976. Don’t the producers realize two recent Fantastic Four movies, starring the eminently stretchable Mr. Fantastic, didn’t exactly set the world on fire (despite also starring the Human Torch)?

So you tell me a movie based on just one famous toy isn’t good enough for you? How about a movie starring all of Hasbro’s heavy hitters, including Play-doh, Cabbage Patch Kids, My Little Pony, Army Ants, and Lite Brite? Oy…

Hasbro shouldn’t have all the fun, of course. Wham-O has signed its own film development deal. So we may have future celluloid classics centered around Frisbee, Hula Hoops, Super Ball, Slip ‘N Slide, or Hacky Sack to look forward to.

Who will save us from this titanic deluge of toy-based movies? Which Hollywood luminary will take a stand and decry meaningless spectacle, over-reliance on special effects, and picking consumers’ pockets with mandatory 3-D surcharges?

It is rapidly becoming impossible to lampoon this invasive kudzu of toys-to-film, although satirists continue trying. However, I fear they only give encouragement (and ideas) to producers sitting around mahogany conference tables in Southern California. Dan Hopper, you’re six for ten thus far (and I hope you’re damned happy with yourself). Peter Martin, you’re only batting two out of seven, or .286, but there’s plenty of time yet for you to catch up to Dan.

I have a suggestion to make, Hollywood. Why limit your creative magic (and $200 million budgets) to just toys? Why not widen the playing field to other categories of household products, all having a plethora of well-established brands, some even more beloved than Candy Land or Play-Doh? Think of the possibilities… I’ve taken the liberty of listing just a few properties which I think are potentially filmetic (to riff a bit on Bernard Loomis’s neologism):

Brides of Clearasil–(genre: teen exploitation/horror) Updated take on Carrie. Acne-scarred girls at a Beverly Hills high school are tormented by members of the popular clique. They find revenge when one of their members, a budding Wiccan priestess, conjures a vengeful spirit from the netherworld which can make the faces of their rivals vanish, leaving behind blind, noseless, and mouthless cheerleaders (coincidentally, the spirit also does an amazing job of clearing up blackheads and blemishes). Could potentially be released on a double-bill with Preparation H: the Shrinkage (tag line: “So you got a problem with some assholes…?”)

The Man from V.I.A.G.R.A.–(genre: weekly television drama) An emissary from a mysterious organization visits the homes of various one-time teen heart-throbs, pop stars, and leading men, now all washed up, elderly, broke, or drug-addicted, and restores to them their sense of purpose and sexual vitality.

Pepto Bismol: the Pink Revenger–(genre: “edgy” comedy) Socially relevant take on Revenge of the Nerds. A retired superhero becomes the faculty advisor for the members of a new gay fraternity at Texas A&M University. When the brothers begin suffering the harassing and dangerous “pranks” unleashed by various rival, homophobic Greek organizations, their mild-mannered advisor re-dons his costume and secret identity, dedicating himself to “coating” the malefactors in layers of pink venom and “soothing and protecting” his adorable and heroic (if somewhat quirky and maladroit) charges.

Mr. Clean Cleans Up–(genre: urban vigilante/suspense) New take on the Dirty Harry series. Mr. Clean, rogue inspector for the Los Angeles Department of Public Health, declares war on all those coddled scum who dare leave their countertops infested with germ-spreading grime. He saves his “special Extra Power cleansings” for those perps who use the urinal at a restaurant, don’t wash their hands, and then take an after dinner mint from the mint bowl by the cash register.

Aunt Jemima’s Magical Journey–(genre: family/animated) The heartwarming story of Aunt Jemima, corporate spokeswoman who started her career during the dark days of Jim Crow and segregation but who rose above the stickiness of her undignified past to become a modern, empowered African American icon. Aunt Jemima travels back in time to the days of her youth to visit fellow corporate mascots Uncle Ben, Rastus the Cream of Wheat Chef, and Little Black Sambo of Sambo’s Restaurants, gently convincing them to show pride in their ethnic heritage and behave as proper role models for the young. An educational, uplifting story for viewers of all ages.

Producers, feel free to make liberal use of any of the ideas listed above. Just be sure to give me a screen credit and a percentage of the gross; offering me a slot as associate producer would be nice, but don’t consider it mandatory. We’ll have your people talk with my people. And remember, all of my books are currently available for option…

The Worst Family Film of the Year?

Yes, 2011 is just a little more than half over, but I have probably seen the worst family film of the year. This reeking hairball was so abysmal, I challenge any other studio to release something as bad in the next five and a half months.

I’ve gotten into the habit of taking my kids and Dara to the Family Drive-In in Stephens City, Virginia. We’ve been five times now. It’s a bit of a schlep — about an eighty-minute drive from our house — but it’s a great Saturday evening outing. The vibe at the drive-in is pure late 1960s, early 1970s. Every time I drive through the gate, I half expect the lot to be filled with Chevy Caprices and Chevelles and Ford Galaxies and Dodge Coronets, rather than the Honda Pilots and Toyota Siennas and Chevy Traverses that are actually parked there, their open hatches facing the screens. Every time we’ve ever gone, the place has been teeming with families. The parents are all very considerate of one another and the racing clumps of kids. You get a double feature for $7.50 (adults) or $3.50 (kids under 12), which is a great honking deal. Plus, you get Ye Olde Playground of Death, a well-preserved example of early 1970s hard steel playground architecture straight out of my elementary school’s recess yard. Forget the softly curved plastics and rubber bumpers that are de rigor today; this playground is pretty no-nonsense about its ability to put out a kid’s eye if the kid gets too adventurous. Soft, yielding ground cover of wood chips or rubber pellets made from recycled tires? HAH! How about dirt? And not dirt meant to cushion a fall, but dirt that resulted from decades of little sneakers wearing away the grass. There are monkey bars that look like an Andy Warhol-inspired prison or the bones of a courthouse from wartime Dresden. There’s a tall, steep slide that is welded to a set of swings on one side and a chin-up bar on the other, the confluence inviting all sorts of acrobatic mischief. There are horsey swings with grasping steel hinges and chains that foretell the amputation of little fingers. Needless to say, my kids love the place.

Anyway, last night’s double feature was Cars 2 and The Zookeeper. I knew there was no way I would get through the summer without taking the boys to see Cars 2. It was mandatory. That film was non-objectionable and occasionally entertaining. The second feature, however, was a whole different animal. This was Kevin James’s follow-on to that cinema classic, Mall Cop. I hadn’t read any reviews, so I went in blind; the boys had seen previews on their favorite TV station, Cartoon Network, and they were fairly jazzed to see it. I’m not a snob when it comes to children’s movies. I’m generally content to sit there and absorb whatever I can, so long as the boys are enjoying themselves. Rio was fine by me. Diary of A Wimpy Kid was worth my expenditure of ninety minutes. Rango was unexpectedly delightful, a film I wouldn’t mind watching another couple of times. But The Zookeeper. . . I simply find it hard to imagine who in Hollywood would ever have green-lighted this misbegotten cross between Eddie Murphy’s Dr. Doolittle and The Water Boy. Even given the lame premise, that a hapless, lovelorn zookeeper is given romantic advice by the talking animals inhabiting his workplace, the script writers and actors did amazingly little to bring out what comedic potential the premise may have had. How can scenes of a fat man variously peeing on a tree, making an aggressive bullfrog face to intimidate a romantic rival, and splitting his pants fail to elicit laughter from six year-old and seven year-old boys? Is that physically possible? Asher, my six year-old, may have snickered just a little bit; he swears he did, although I didn’t hear him (and I was listening). But for Levi, my seven year-old, not to laugh at all? Levi is the type of kid who laughs so loud in a movie that half the audience turns around to stare. Yet all he wanted to do was go home and go to sleep.

I discovered later, looking at a round-up of reviews (15% “fresh” on Rotten Tomatoes) that the producers, in a forlorn attempt to make the film relevant and entertaining for audience members older than four, had hired an eclectic cast of former A-list stars to do voice acting for the animals. The lion and lioness were voiced, respectively, by Sylvester Stallone and Cher. Had I not read this, I would have had no idea. I was so appalled by the dialogue coming from those CGI-animated feline lips that I had no mental energy left to ponder whom the voices might belong to or where I recognized them from.

Most tellingly, this was the first time in my entire forty-three year history of moviegoing that I ever felt embarrassed for a subject of product placement. The unlucky victim in this case was TGI Friday’s Restaurants. There is a scene involving Kevin James and a talking gorilla set in a TGI Friday’s that made me cringe. I actually felt sorry for the corporate executives and all the stockholders, it was such a humiliation for them. And I don’t even like the restaurant.

The only member of my family who might possibly have enjoyed the film, Judah, my four year-old, fell asleep about ten minutes in.

Don’t ask me how the movie ended. I overruled Asher’s objections and we left after about an hour. I have an appointment to get two wisdom teeth sawed out my head this Thursday. I view that coming appointment with more positive anticipation than I would seeing the last half hour of The Zookeeper.

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