Friday, November 17, 2017

The Night of the Hunter (1955)



Who's In It: Robert Mitchum (The Lusty Men, Angel Face), Shelley Winters (Winchester '73, The Poseidon Adventure), and Lillian Gish (The Birth of a Nation, Intolerance).

What It's About: A serial killer (Mitchum) turns his attention to a widow (Winters) and her two kids, thinking that one of them must know the location of some money hidden by their deceased husband/father.

How It Is: A stylish thriller with the emphasis on "stylish;" often to a fault. The story is great and some of the performances are also great (particularly Mitchum and Gish), but I'm not always sure what Charles Laughton is up to in his one and only directing credit.

Laughton and cinematographer Stanley Cortez create some stunningly gorgeous shots and I love the use of Harry's (Mitchum) singing "Leaning on the Everlasting Arms" to build dread. What I don't like is the way the film rushes through some elements. Some of that's a script problem. Willa (Winters) falls for Harry at a ridiculous, unconvincing speed, for example, but there are multiple points where I'm totally lost about why someone is behaving the way they are. Pearl's (Sally Jane Bruce) reactions to Harry are equally mystifying. 

I also don't like a lot of the editing. There's a cool sequence where people are talking about how Willa needs a man and the dialogue is cleverly intercut with shots of Harry's train in transit, but the cuts themselves are matter-of-fact and artless. Every step of the way The Night of the Hunter is trying cool things and I appreciate that, but only about a third of them are successful.

Rating: 3 out of 5 creepy clergymen.



Thursday, November 16, 2017

Guest Post | G Peyton Wertenbaker, Science Fiction Pioneer

By GW Thomas

Early science fiction writers had it tough. Little or no pay and even if you succeeded, everybody thought you were nuts for writing "that junk." It should not be surprising that many of them were young men trying out a new interest. One of these was Green Peyton Wertenbaker, a sixteen-year-old who submitted his first story to Hugo Gernsback's Science & Invention, a non-fiction magazine that occasionally published "Scientifiction" stories. Wertenbacker's first try was called "The Man From the Atom" and it appeared in April 1923. But Hugo had bigger plans for Scientifiction and G Peyton Wertenbaker.

April 1926 saw the reality of Gernsback's dream of a magazine filled only with science fiction. It was called Amazing Stories and it reprinted Wertenbaker's tale along with Jules Verne, HG Wells, George Allan England, Austin Hall, and Edgar Allan Poe. The entire first issue was made up of reprints. So was the second, with the exception of "The Man from the Atom (Sequel)." As suggested by its odd title, it was the second part of Wertenbaker's tale of the man who could control his size. It was also the first new science fiction story to appear in an all-science-fiction magazine. So why isn't G Peyton Wertenbaker a household name?

Mike Ashley in The History of the Science Fiction Magazines, Part 1 (1974) wrote of Wertenbaker: "He was born in Virginia in 1907, and deserted the science fiction field after but five stories, all competently written and deserving of further reprinting. (Although one must grant the licence of some rickety science)." Like so many writers after him, including RF Starzl, Edwin K Sloat, Charles W Differin, and many others, Wertenbaker would leave SF behind to pursue more lucrative fields. (He would become a professional technical writer, a writer of regional novels, London correspondent for Fortune magazine, serve in the Navy, then work at NASA. He would help Hubertus Strughold write The Green and Red Planet (1953), a scientific appraisal of the possibilities of life on Mars. What more could a SF writer want?

His "but five stories" include:

"The Man from the Atom" (Science & Invention, April 1923 and reprinted in Amazing Stories, April 1926). A young man named Kirby, eager for adventure, volunteers to try out a new device that Professor Martyn has created, one that can expand or shrink someone to infinite size. Kirby experiences growing larger than the planet, then the solar system, then the universe. But afterwards, he pines for Earth when he realizes that while he was expanding, time was moving faster back home than for him. Even returning to normal size, everyone on Earth has long since passed away. The tale ends with a cryptic mention of Kirby's going to live with a cruel, but advanced race that treats him like a primitive caveman. This story was significant, for it built on ideas Ray Cummings had used in "The Girl in the Golden Atom" (All-Story Weekly, March 15, 1919) and Henry Hasse would expand on in "He Who Shrank"(Amazing Stories, August 1936).

"The Man From the Atom (Sequel)" (Amazing Stories, May 1926) shows the race that Kirby ends up with. They are an advanced people, but the men are all emotionless scientists and the women, who are considered inferior, are more like our own Earthfolk. Kirby's education into this new civilization falls to a girl named Vinda. It is Vinda's uncle who finds a way for Kirby to get home to Earth -- sort of. He postulates that time is circular and that if Kirby expands to great size in a certain fashion he could return to a world that is the next incarnation of 20th Century Earth. The scientists calculate exactly how this can be done and Kirby is too busy with the expectation of returning home to notice that Vinda has fallen in love with him (even though she is programmed to marry Edvar in a stale, emotionless marriage). Kirby returns home only to realize he too is in love with Vinda and leaves again to find the next incarnation of her and her world. The final product of all this expanding (and time traveling) is pretty annoying since Kirby comes off as being a bit thick. The influence of HG Wells's The Time Machine is obvious, with the Time Traveler returning to Weena's time at the end.

"The Coming of the Ice" (Amazing Stories, June 1926) was written when Wertenbaker was nineteen and was the first new story not based on a reprint. This tale follows Dennell, a man who gains immortality by an operation. The doctor Sir John Granden and Dennell's fiancee Alice die in an auto accident, leaving the immortal to suffer the long years ahead in loneliness. We follow his years as an academic, taking multiple PHDs, but ultimately being left behind as the human race evolves beyond his capabilities. Dennell suffers as a primitive curiosity as the human race grows large brain and weak bodied. When the ice comes, this proves to his advantage, being physically superior to the future humans. It becomes bad, with only a remnant of mankind living at the Equator. The immortal is forced to feed on his fellow men until the last survivors commit suicide together. He is alone and writing a history of mankind that no one will ever read. The story showed a much finer touch to the clunkier "The Man From the Atom."

"The Chamber of Life" (Amazing Stories, October 1929) follows Barret, a filmmaker who wakes up in a lake. While returning home he recalls the night before when he had met a scientist named Melbourne. Piecing together what has happened, Barrett remembers that Melbourne showed him his "Chamber of Life," a virtual reality room that took Barrett to a perfect world where he met Selda and fell in love. The Chamber of Life acts directly on the brain so when Barrett left the chamber he experienced both worlds before ending up in the lake. The story ends with the man sadder, knowing he will never see Selda again, but unwilling to find Melbourne and return to her. Many SF critics credit Ray Bradbury's "The Veldt" as the inspiration for the Star Trek holodeck, but this story predates Bradbury by twenty-one years. It even has the germ of the famous Geordie LaForge/Leah Brahms love story arc. That Bradbury read this story in his youth is likely. Beside the holodeck inspiration, this story, with its fragmented structure, shows Wertenbaker taking a new, maturer command of his writing. It is in my opinion his best work.

"The Ship That Turned Aside" (Amazing Stories, March 1930) (as Green Peyton) is a variation from Wertenbaker's usual formula. In this tale, a ship passes into the fourth dimension and a scientist named Pretloe offers his ideas on what has happened. Captain Weeks discovers an island that the narrator, Pretloe, and Weeks explore. There they find a city that they approach, only to find themselves in Paris. Another doorway from the fourth dimension lies there. Wertenbaker anticipates much of the interest in the Bermuda Triangle with this tale. EF Bleilier thought this tale one of the best to appear in Amazing Stories.

"Elaine's Tomb" (Amazing Stories Quarterly, Winter 1931) tells of a college professor, Alan Frazer, who is madly in love with one of his students, Elaine. He goes to Egypt with a fellow teacher, Weber, who is trying to decode an ancient secret that predated the Egyptian civilization. While there, Frazer dies of a tropical fever, but before he dies he gives Weber permission to preserve his body as the ancients did. He wakes to find himself in the far future where the sun is old and red. He is revived by the future humans who turn out to be lazy, disinterested folk, who have all their needs met by robots. Frazer discovers there is a famous building in the north called "Elaine's Tomb" and he must go there. Ice has claimed the northern and southern points of the globe, but Frazer flies from Cairo in a flying machine. He stops at Mexico City and the Tower of Science. There, a scientist named Kivro, helps him to locate the tomb, which lies in what was once Chicago. North America is covered in glacial ice and inhabited by diminutive savages. Frazer finds the tomb resting in a village of these primitives. He uses a ray device to break into the tomb and revives Elaine. When they leave, the villagers appear and tell Frazer that Elaine is their queen. In the struggle to escape, the flying ship is damaged by the ray device and the couple are stranded in the cold. They decide to walk even though they know they will freeze to death. Exhausted, David covers Elaine before passing out. He wakes to find they have been rescued by Kivro. The tale ends with the couple contemplating their life in this strange world. This last romance shows that Wertenbaker had grown to be an SF writer of some ability.

Wertenbaker's favorite device is the younger man who tries out a scientific discovery made by an older man, always an avante garde scientist, working outside the accepted norms of science. Sometimes he is a kooky inventor like Professor Martyn; sometimes a respectable surgeon like Sir John Granden. The device is always the same though: the older man makes a discovery, but the younger man is game to try it out, usually with terrible consequences. If he had continued to write, it would have been interesting to see how he would leave this formula behind. How much of it was his own - and how much simply done to please Gernsback's requirement for scientist heroes and weird gadgets - we will never know. Wertenbaker's increasing ability to handle the human story within his narratives suggests better things to come.

GW Thomas has appeared in over 400 different books, magazines and ezines including The Writer, Writer's Digest, Black October Magazine and Contact. His website is gwthomas.org. He is editor of Dark Worlds magazine.

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Nerd Lunch World!



I got to be on the latest episode of Nerd Lunch to talk about two of my favorite things: theme parks and Thundarr! In order to create a Nerd Lunch theme parks, the fellas and I assigned each other individual lands to develop. So CT created Star Trek Land, Jeeg made Rock 'n' Wrestling Land, Pax invented Oz Land, and I designed Thundarr Land. It is super nerdy and super cool and you should listen to it.





Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Southern Charm | Appalachia, the TVA, and Biscuits



In this month's Southern Charm, Jody and I talk about the challenges facing Appalachia and the pros and cons of the Tennessee Valley Authority before comparing biscuit recipes and topping preferences.

Witness to Murder (1954)



Who's In It: Barbara Stanwyck (Double Indemnity, The Big Valley), George Sanders (The Saint Strikes Back, Rebecca), and Gary Merrill (All About Eve, Mysterious Island).

What It's About: An interior decorator (Stanwyck) sees a murder take place through her apartment window and her obsession with catching the killer (Sanders) threatens her sanity and her new relationship with the investigating police detective (Merrill).

How It Is: Barbara Stanwyck is usually strong and I'm always a big fan of George Sanders, so I had high hopes for this variation on the Rear Window theme. Not that it's borrowing directly from Rear Window since it was released a few months before Hitchcock's film, but it was one of those Tombstone/Wyatt Earp or Armageddon/Deep Impact scenarios where similar films happened to come out uncomfortably close to each other. At any rate, I had every reason for high expectations for this grittier version of the concept.

Unfortunately, all the main characters do dumb and/or unbelievable things in order to keep the story moving. Merrill's Larry Mathews is a horrible detective, from his sloppy investigation of the alleged crime scene to his revealing the witness' identity to the suspect and on to his dating the witness. Merrill is an affable actor, but his pleasantness only makes Mathews appear that much more befuddled and ineffectual.

Stanwyck's Cheryl Draper starts off okay. Thanks to Mathews' incompetence, she at first questions what she saw and then decides to investigate on her own just to make sure she's not seeing things. But as she uncovers more and as the police continue to dismiss her, she gets weirdly panicky, which of course makes everyone dismiss her even more. I always hate scenes in any movie where a character thrashes around and screams about how sane they are. By the end of the movie, she's completely unstable, but I never believed any of the steps to her getting that way.

As for Sanders' Albert Richter, his motive for the murder Draper witnessed is ridiculous. There's some nonsense about his philosophy of violence (he's even written a manifesto about it that the police are happy to ignore) and the woman he killed was simply a poor girlfriend who was in the way of his aspirations of marrying a wealthy woman. What it comes down to is that he found it easier to murder her than break up with her.

Witness to Murder should have been a great showdown between Stanwyck and Sanders, but the script is so awkward about putting them into combat that I was never able to get into it.

Rating: 2 out of 5 dogged designers.



Monday, November 13, 2017

Hellbent for Letterbox | Bandolero! (1968)



Pax and I discuss Bandolero! starring Jimmy Stewart, Dean Martin, Raquel Welch, and George Kennedy. And in "Whatchoo Been Westernin'": Witchblade: Day of the Outlaws and the National Geographic Channel's Billy the Kid: New Evidence.







Friday, November 10, 2017

Guest Post | The Jungle Cover Triangle

By GW Thomas

Looking at copies of Jumbo Tales I was first struck by how lush these covers were (and who could refuse buying them?), but secondly how each followed a formula of construction I like to call the Triangle. There is some variation, but the most popular examples feature three main focal points set in a triangle. These included the star hero or heroine, a threat (an animal or villain attacking), and a victim to be saved. The artist could vary which was largest in the picture but all three had to appear within that triangle. This got me looking back. When did this start? Did all jungle-themed comics have this cover formula?

I started with the oldest comics, the Tarzan newspaper strip that began in 1929 (the Ape Man actually came late to comic books in 1947). Typically, especially during the film cover era, these were not "triangular" but usually a double image, Tarzan striking a pose with a weapon or object in his hand. The publicity stills of Lex Barker or Gordon Scott were easily produced and promoted the film's main asset, the actor. The later covers were paintings and required more animals and fantastic villains to be featured in them.

But when Real Adventures Publishing entered the scene in 1938 with their general audience comic, Jumbo Comics, they didn't know that within their second year every cover would be a jungle cover, as their character Sheena, Queen of the Jungle rose to prominence in their stable of characters. By #18 (August 1940), the superhero covers were gone and the jungle would be featured on every issue until #159 in May 1952. That's 141 issues over 12 years! But that's just Jumbo Comics. Their sister magazine Jungle Comics, featuring Kaanga, would run 163 issues from January 1946 to Summer 1954. And then there was Kaanga, 20 issues on his own from Spring 1949-Summer 1954, with every cover a jungle triangle.

The triangle had become the norm. Whether it was Rulah, Zoot Comics, Zegra, Jungle Lil, Jo-Jo, White Princess of the Jungle, or Yarmak in Australia, they all used the same formula. The one exception was Sheena, Queen of the Jungle, a solo comic that for 18 issues ran from Winter 1942 to Winter 1952-3. The Sheena covers sometimes returned to the Tarzan-style double image, with Sheena holding a weapon. Her star had risen high enough she could stand with the Ape Man.

One variation of the triangle is what I call the Square. This works the same as the Triangle, but the artist sneaks in a fourth figure, usually a second animal, such as two hyenas rather than one, or a mount upon which the hero/heroine rides, such as an elephant or zebra. The Square came along in later years as the cover artists must have been quite bored by the typical cover of Sheena throwing herself from a tree limb to intervene with an evil hunter or tribesman.

Where did the Jungle Triangle come from? Was Jumbo Comics #15 (the first full Sheena cover in May 1940) the first to use it? Not at all. I got to thinking about the very first Tarzan illustration of them all, Clinton Pettee's cover for Tarzan of the Apes (All-Story, October 1912). There was the triangle! Tarzan straddling a lion, about to plunge his knife into its side, while on the ground, John Clayton lies, the intended victim.

And of course, the jungle pulps later became jungle comics, as companies like Real Adventures phased out or doubled up their pulps - like Jungle Stories - with comics. These too had covers and what do you know... the Triangle! Clinton Pettee started it, the pulps and comics continued it, and even Frank Frazetta, the master painter, used it in 1952 for his Thun'da comics, which he abandoned when the strip dropped the caveman and dinosaurs angle. Frazetta returned to it in the 1960s when he came to paint his Tarzan covers like Tarzan and the Jewels of Opar. The fierce lion attacking Jane is about to get a surprise as Tarzan comes to the rescue.

Later jungle comics such as Shanna the She-Devil and Ka-Zar did not use this formula as often (what would be so old-fashioned by the 1970s), but rather the typical Marvel-style cover. DC's Tarzan and Korak under Joe Kubert harkened back more to the old days, but Kubert adds a sizzle to the old formula that makes it his own. The most modern jungle girl covers by Dave Stevens or Frank Cho look more like publicity stills to a Sheena movie or pin-up art. The triangle lives on but only in subtle ways.

GW Thomas has appeared in over 400 different books, magazines and ezines including The Writer, Writer's Digest, Black October Magazine and Contact. His website is gwthomas.org. He is editor of Dark Worlds magazine.

Thursday, November 09, 2017

Angel Face (1953)



Who's In It: Robert Mitchum (Holiday Affair, His Kind of Woman), Jean Simmons (the original Blue Lagoon, The Big Country), and Jim Backus (Ma and Pa Kettle Go to Town, His Kind of Woman).

What It's About: A man (Mitchum) is drawn into the world of a poor little rich girl (Simmons) who at best craves drama and at worst may be trying to murder her step-mother.

How It Is: I'm a big fan of Jean Simmons, so it was tough to watch her play such a miserable character. She does it well though and I was sucked into the story of her relationship with Mitchum's Frank.

Frank is a complicated character himself. He's dating a woman named Mary (Mona Freeman), but insists that he's a romantic "free agent" and Mary acknowledges this, even if she doesn't fully accept it. So he's not a great guy, but he's also not exactly doing anything wrong when he starts to spend more and more time with Simmons' Diane. And I like that he's smart enough to recognize Diane's behavior as troubling.

His problem is that he trusts his detachment to protect him from whatever Diane's planning. He always leaves himself an exit from her, thinking that he can walk away at any time, but he underestimates her intelligence and determination. In it's own, noirish way, Angel Face has a strong feminist message for womanizing men.

There's a part late in the movie where Frank's true flaw is clearly revealed. Like I said, he's not a great guy, but he's not an awful person, either, and there's a lot that I admire in him. He's smart, and even if he's determined not to commit to anyone, then at least he's up front about it. But while he insists on being free to hang out (and make out) with Diane, it becomes more and more evident that he wants to keep Mary on the hook as well. And he resents it when she starts showing interest in their mutual friend Bill (Kenneth Tobey).

At one point, after Frank has been damaged by Diane and he's looking for comfort from Mary, he laments to her that he ever met Diane. Mary's response to him is great when she reminds him that Bill was also there when Frank and Diane met. Bill had the same opportunity as Frank to get pulled into Diane's web, but he resisted. Which means that Diane's not the problem in Frank and Mary's relationship; Frank is. It's a powerful revelation, powerfully stated.

(Footnote: I mentioned Backus in the cast, so I should follow up and say that he's not a big part of the movie. He has a minor, but important role as a lawyer, but it's Jim Backus, so it was worth mentioning.)

Rating: 3 out of 5 bummed out bluebloods



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