Monday, July 28, 2014

EARTH VS. THE FLYING SAUCERS

Back when I was in high school in the early 1970s, KTBC-Channel 7, a local television station, bought a package of Columbia Studios films to show in prime time on Wednesday nights. Films in this package included BELL, BOOK, AND CANDLE (1958) and THE REVENGE OF FRANKENSTEIN (1958) (which was produced by Great Britain's Hammer Studios but theatrically released in the U.S. by Columbia). I watched both of these films for the first time when they were broadcast and enjoyed them both but I can only recall watching one other film from this package. And it's a doozy.

I don't know if I finished my homework first and then watched the movie, or, if I did my homework during the commercials or, if I just said "oh, to hell with my homework, EARTH VS. THE FLYING SAUCERS is on TV tonight and I'm watching it!" I suspect it might have been that last option. Regardless, I watched the film on the portable black-and-white television set I had in my bedroom at the time and I loved every minute of it.

EARTH VS. THE FLYING SAUCERS (1956) was rushed into production to cash in on the then current flying saucer craze. Fred F. Sears directed the screenplay (by Curt Siodmak, George Worthing Yates and Bernard Gordon) that was "suggested" by the book FLYING SAUCERS FROM OUTER SPACE by Major Donald Keyhoe. But all of that really doesn't matter. What matters is that the special effects are by Ray Harryhausen.

In EARTH VS. THE FLYING SAUCERS (and how's that for a matter-of-fact film title?), Harryhausen turned his stop-motion animation wizardry to the task of animating inanimate objects (in this case, flying saucers), rather that the creatures he had previously brought to life in THE BEAST FROM 20,000 FATHOMS (1953) and IT CAME FROM BENEATH THE SEA (1955). In addition to the flying saucers, Harryhausen animated several Washington D.C. landmarks (the Washington Monument, the Supreme Court building and the U.S. Capitol) as they're destroyed by the rampaging saucers. By the way, I saw some of the original models of the flying saucers and the Washington buildings when I visited the legendary Ackermansion museum home of the late, great Forrest J. Ackerman in 1994.

In the film, Hugh (THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL) Marlowe and the lovely Joan Taylor, play a newly married couple. Marlowe's a scientist and Taylor's dad, the venerable Morris Ankrum, is a U.S. army general. Shades of General Thunderbolt Ross, Bruce Banner and Betsy Ross from Marvel's INCREDIBLE HULK comic book series which debuted several years later. But here, it's not Marlowe who turns into a monster but Ankrum, who becomes a zombie at the hands of the aliens.

EARTH VS. THE FLYING SAUCERS features an attack by the saucers early in the film, then a long, talky dead period in which the people of earth are given way too much time to construct a counter-weapon against the aliens (some scenes in this stretch of the movie echo similar sequences in THE WAR OF THE WORLDS (1953)). Marlowe comes up with an effective weapon to use against the aliens in the last reel which features the saucers' attack on Washington D.C. in what passes for "destruction porn" circa the mid-50s.

I recently purchased the blu ray edition of the film which features the original version of EARTH in pristine black and white. That's the version I watched the other day. There's also a digitally colorized version of the film. I watched a few minutes of it, just to see what the color looked like. I must confess, it's remarkably well done, far better than those godawful colorized films of the 1990s. And Ray Harryhausen himself approved of this colorized edition. If it's good enough for him, it's good enough for me. You can watch either version on this disc (along with a bunch of other special features) but the purist in me prefers the original b&w version.

EARTH VS. THE FLYING SAUCERS isn't a great film and it's certainly not Harryhausen's finest work. That was yet to come. But it's a sturdy example of 1950s science fiction cinema and I got a kick out of watching it again the other day.

 And I didn't even have to ditch my homework to do so.

Sunday, July 27, 2014

THE NEW PRICE GUIDE IS HERE! THE NEW PRICE GUIDE IS HERE!

I can't help but feel a little like Navin R. Johnson on the mid-summer day each year when the new Overstreet Comic Book Price Guide arrives in my mailbox. The OPG used to be released every spring but in recent years the release date has moved to coincide with the San Diego Comic Con.

I got my brand new copy yesterday, thanks to a pre-order by my lovely wife, Judy. A great Batman cover homage to The Saturday Evening Post magazine of days gone-by, tons of informative articles and page after page of useful reference material for the next twelve months. Thanks honey!

Friday, July 25, 2014

THE SHAKIEST GUN IN THE WEST

It's funny what you remember about certain films. Take THE SHAKIEST GUN IN THE WEST (1968) for instance.

In 1965 both my father and his mother (my paternal grandmother) passed away. This left my Grampa Campbell alone in Austin. He was originally from Euclid, Ohio and while he and my grandmother had lived in Austin for many years and had many good friends through their church, he was nonetheless a recent widower and a man who had lost his second son (my father's adopted brother was killed in WWII). My father's sister, Mary Lou, and her family lived in far off Rainelle, West Virginia. Shortly after the deaths of my father and grandmother, Grampa Campbell sold his house and moved in with my us. He didn't stay very long (he eventually moved to West Virginia to live with Aunt Lou and Uncle Dan) and I don't remember a lot of specific things about his stay except for this one thing that has stayed with me forever.

It seems that Grampa had a lady friend of sorts. I don't recall the woman's name but I believe she lived in the Rebbeca Baines Johnson Retirement Center on Town Lake in downtown Austin. One afternoon, Grampa rode the bus downtown, picked up his "date" and then the two of them rode the bus over to either the Paramount or State Theater to see a matinee movie. The movie was THE SHAKIEST GUN IN THE WEST, starring Don Knotts. I remember him telling me about it when he got home that evening. He said it was silly (he was right) but I suspect he had a good time at the picture show. Funny thing, I never got around to seeing SHAKIEST GUN on first release, even though I was a big fan of Don Knotts.

I've seen the film a couple of times now in the years since and every time I watch it, I can't help but think about my grandfather seeing this picture with his "lady friend". That memory always makes me smile and it makes me like the film that much more.

SHAKIEST GUN is one of five films that Knotts made at Universal Studios after his departure from THE ANDY GRIFFITH SHOW. The films were THE GHOST AND MR. CHICKEN (1966), THE RELUCTANT ASTRONAUT (1967), THE SHAKIEST GUN IN THE WEST (1968), THE LOVE GOD? (1969) and HOW TO FRAME A FIGG (1971). I have the first four films on DVD in a Don Knotts collection box set and Judy and I have watched them all at least once.

We watched SHAKIEST GUN again the other evening with our house guest Holly. Knotts plays a dentist from Philadelphia out to make his way in the wild west. He runs across the oh-so-lovely Barbara Rhoades, a ex-outlaw who is now working for the U.S. government to discover who is selling rifles to the native Americans. There are plenty of sight gags and slapstick humor along with some pretty good one-liners. The supporting cast is peppered with veteran television and movie bit players like Dub Taylor, Hope Summers, Jackie Coogan, William Christopher, Pat Morita and Carl Ballantine. The film cost a million dollars to produce and was shot in less than a month on the back lot of Universal Studios and some California locations.

It's not a great film by any stretch of the imagination. But I have always liked watching Knotts do his stuff. He's one of my favorite comic actors and he was very good at what he did. Silly? Yes, my grampa and I both agree on this but it's a fun little movie that holds a special place in my heart.


Monday, July 21, 2014

THE BRASS CUPCAKE

I know I've read THE BRASS CUPCAKE before. It's John D. MacDonald's first novel, originally published in 1950 and recently reissued by Random House in a handsome trade paperback edition. I'm sure I read it sometime back in the 1980s when I read for the first time almost everything MacDonald ever wrote. But I until I re-read it the other day, I couldn't have told you for the life of me what the book was about.

THE BRASS CUPCAKE is a hard-boiled crime novel that would have made a perfect early '50s film noir. The action takes place in Florence City, Florida, a town steeped in corruption. Our hero is one Cliff Bartells, an ex-cop who got booted off of the force for being too straight and narrow (he refused to take a bribe). Cliff works as an insurance investigator and he's got a doozy of a case on his hands.

An old woman is the victim of a jewel robbery gone bad. The women ends up dead and a small fortune in jewels are missing. Cliff's company (who carries the policy on the jewels), wants to pay off the thieves and buy back the jewels for a fraction of their real value. Then there's the dead woman's niece, the luscious Melody Chance, the sole beneficiary of the dead woman's estate, who stands to inherit a great deal of money. Melody has a would-be suitor, Furness Trumbull, who's named in a codicil to the will, who could also benefit, should he and Melody become husband and wife.

Melody wants nothing to do with Furness but sparks fly between her and Cliff (naturally). Meanwhile, Cliff has to deal with the mob boss who runs the town, the husband and wife servants of the dead woman, several crooked and vicious cops and his old partner on the force (the only honest cop in Florence City). Cliff comes up with a daring plan to retrieve the jewels and expose the corruption at police headquarters and city hall . I won't give the details of how things play out except to say that Cliff's plan involves the 1950s science fiction tropes of radioactivity and a Geiger counter.

THE BRASS CUPCAKE isn't the best novel that John D. MacDonald ever wrote but it's an extremely entertaining read that moves at a fast pace. There's plenty of action, some tastefully recounted sex scenes, a believable plot, a good sense of place, and colorfully drawn supporting players (good and bad). I can see Charles McGraw as Cliff in the movie version with maybe Gloria Grahame as Melody. Recommended for fans of MacDonald and hard-boiled, mid-century crime novels.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

THE PERFECT PAT

Judy and I and our out-of-town guest Holly watched THE SHAKIEST GUN IN THE WEST the other night. It's a 1968 Don Knotts comedy in which the always nervous Knotts co-stars with the ever so lovely Barbara Rhoades. While watching the film, it struck me that this actress might have been the perfect Pat Savage.

Long time readers of this blog will recall the series of posts I ran last year in which I played casting director for an imaginary, 1960s  Doc Savage movie. At one point, such a production was actually under consideration with Chuck (THE RIFLEMAN) Connors set to play the Man of Bronze. That tidbit of information led me to offer various casting choices for Doc's supporting cast of characters Monk, Ham, Renny, Long Tom, Johnny and Doc's cousin, Patricia Savage. I listed several actresses that might have made a good Pat but when I saw Barbara Rhoades in SHAKIEST GUN, I thought, "wow, that's Pat!"

Miss Rhoades stood five foot, ten inches tall, which certainly gave her the height to play against Chuck Connors. She had the requisite reddish/bronze colored hair and she was certainly easy on the eyes. I think she would have been great in a movie that can only exist in our collective imaginations.

What do you think fellow Doc aficionados?

Friday, July 18, 2014

THE 7TH VOYAGE OF SINBAD

I recently bought the bluray edition of THE 7TH VOYAGE OF SINBAD (1958), the first film with stop motion animation by Ray Harryhausen to be filmed in color. It's second only to JASON AND THE ARGONAUTS (1963) as my favorite Harryhausen film. I haven't gotten around to watching the bluray yet but when I do, I'll post an in depth review here.

But buying the bluray of 7TH VOYAGE sent me digging through my long boxes in search of a buried treasure. I have a copy of the comic book version of 7TH VOYAGE OF SINBAD (pictured above). I dug it out and read it this afternoon. It was published in 1958 by Dell Comics and it's number 944 in their long running Four Color series. The comic, as did almost all of the movie and TV comic book adaptations
of the day, features a color photo from the film. It's not a bad picture but it raises the first of several questions I have about this comic book.

First, why choose such a generic shot from the film instead of a still that featured the cyclops, the roc, the dragon or the sword fighting skeleton? I don't know how well this issue sold but I can't help but believe that sales would have been higher with a full color photo of Sinbad and that skeleton on the cover. That would have really grabbed some young eyeballs! Not mine, unfortunately, as I was only two-years-old at the time.

The inside front cover features five black-and-white stills from the film, but again, not one of the photos features any of Harryhausen's creations. You look at those stills and you get the impression that 7TH VOYAGE OF SINBAD is just a generic adventure film set in an exotic land in days gone by.

The adaptation itself is beautiful to look at thanks to the superlative artwork of John Buscema who is one of my all time favorite comic book artists. Buscema does a masterful job of illustrating the adventure but it's not exactly a complete and accurate version of the film. I understand that changes have to be made, primarily due to page counts and the comic does hit the high points of the film fairly faithfully. There is a giant cyclops, although Buscema gives him regular legs rather than the goat-like limbs of Harryhausen's creature. There's a fire-breathing dragon but it doesn't look quite like the monster in the film. There's a giant roc but again, it's not quite the same.

Most egregious of all, there's no sword-fighting skeleton! One of the most spectacular cinematic set-pieces ever filmed doesn't make the transition from screen to comic book page. That's a real shame. I can't help but wonder what the reasons were behind these changes. I'd love to know and if any reader of this blog has some insight into this matter, please share that information with us. I'd also like to hear from any readers out there who had the experience of seeing the film on first run and buying and reading this comic. What did you think? What about folks who bought and read the comic but never saw the film? Let us know.

The most important thing about this comic book is that it's one of the few (if not the only) tie-in product made for the film. To the best of my knowledge, there was no paperback novelization of the film and there were certainly no toys or action figures produced as that merchandising trend was still years in the future. If you saw 7TH VOYAGE as a kid and wanted to have something to remember the film by until it was re-released or shown on television, this comic book was the only thing available.

It might not be a letter perfect adaptation of the film but it's a John Buscema drawn comic book of a Ray Harryhausen movie.

And that's pretty damn good.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

LET THAT BE YOUR LAST COMPASS

I recently watched LET THAT BE YOUR LAST BATTLEFIELD,  a third season episode of the original STAR TREK series.

 The show was circling the drain by this point in its' run. In this episode, you've got two magnificent hams chewing up every available inch of the scenery. Shatner, as in almost every other third season episode, seems virtually out of control. He's not so much playing the part of Captain Kirk as he's doing William Shatner's catalog of acting tics and gestures.

And guest star Frank Gorshin gives as good as he gets. His part as the half black-skinned, half white-skinned Commissioner Bele is part Gorshin, part The Riddler with a little bit of Kirk Douglas thrown in. I guess the director of the episode was so desperate to get usable footage in the can that he just said, "cut, print, that's fine, let's go to the next shot" after each over-the-top line reading from Shatner and Gorshin.

Of course, the biggest  problem here lies in the script, which strains mightily to be relevant in this "torn-from-the-headlines" tale of racial relations set in the 23rd century. But the worst moment in the entire episode comes when Kirk refers to a planet as being "in the southern quadrant of the galaxy."

Um, no, Captain, I don't think so. I never attended Starfleet Academy. I never beat the Kobyashi Maru (by cheating). I've never been in command of a Federation starship.

 But I'm pretty damn sure that there's no north, south, east or west in outer space.