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Friday, March 13, 2020

The Roots of Genndy Tartakovsky's PRIMAL (2019)

Q: How many giant, blood-red, mutant bats does it take to carry an adult T. rex into the cave of a humongous spider-god?

A: Is that an African or a European giant, blood-red, mutant bat?
Actually, the answer is ‘two’.

From this intro you can tell that I’ve finally caught up with PRIMAL, the latest series from Genndy (Samurai Jack) Tartakovsky on the Cartoon Network. The first five episodes of the first season aired last Fall and ended on a cliffhanger (spoiler – I’m betting that the T. rex is still alive).

Spear and Fang

The show’s premise is simple – in a cartoon version of prehistory where only such things are possible, a caveman (‘Spear’) is befriended by a Tyrannosaurus rex (‘Fang’) and together they fight for survival.

The premise is not new or novel. Pop culture is clogged with hominids of some sort or another living in a world where both dinosaurs and prehistoric mammals all coexist.

The most famous is probably the long running and much repeated, THE FLINTSTONES (1960). Like Primal’s Spear, Fred Flintstone has a pet dinosaur, Dino, who I always thought must be some sort of prosauropod. But, The Flintstones, as great as it was, is just a variation on Jackie Gleason’s The Honeymooners (if that means anything to kids these days) and its prehistoric milieu is just a parody of modern society.

Primal’s earliest, best-known antecedent would be the comic strip, ALLEY OOP, featuring the caveman of the same name. Created by V.T. Hamlin back in 1932, Alley Oop lived in the mythical prehistoric land of Moo and got into all kinds of hijinks with his cavemen buddies, his pet dinosaur, Dinnie, and his girlfriend, Ooola (as in Oh la la!). Primal’s Spear even shares Oop’s thick body build, although not Oop’s Popeye-like upper arms and legs.

Next up is Vaughn (Cheech Wizard) Bode’s, THE MAN, featuring the adventures of a melancholic and confused-by-his-prehistoric world caveman. Broadly modeled after Alley Oop, The Man is alone in his world except for his beloved stick (called ‘Stick’) to which he voices his inner thoughts and fears. In his neanderthal brain (not a slur), The Man perceives Stick as being as ‘alive’ as he is and even risks his life to save it when it is in danger.

Primal’s Spear shares a similar relationship to his own ‘Spear’ and goes to great lengths to retrieve it when it is lost.

Vaughn Bode's The Man

The Man’s existence is sad, lonely, scary, and desperate, and it is not at all your traditional comic strip. Spear’s adventures and almost suicidal despondency over the misery that is life in Primal’s first episode could easily be seen as a homage to what may be Bode’s most mature and poignant work. The Man was originally created in 1965 for Syracuse University’s student newspaper (Bode was just a sophomore!), the Daily Orange, and deserves to be better known. The Man can be found in a 1972 reprint by Print Mint or in Schizophrenia, an anthology of Bode’s work published by Fantagraphics in 2001.

Which brings us to Jack (The King) Kirby’s, DEVIL DINOSAUR, which is what PRIMAL is in all but name.

In 1970, Kirby left Marvel Comics after creating or co-creating almost their entire roster of super-heroes. Lured to DC with the promise of editorial control and presumably better pay, Kirby created his much praised, interconnected ‘Fourth World’ series (New Gods, etc.), only to have them abruptly cancelled by unsupportive overseers (I’m looking at you, ghost of Carmine Infantino!). Kirby replaced these books with new (even better IMHO) characters (The Demon, OMAC, Kamandi) before giving up on DC and returning to Marvel in 1976.

Going back to Marvel must have been hard, but Kirby had a family to feed, so he swallowed his pride and returned to The House That Kirby Built. He went on produce some of his best work, including an oversized ‘treasury’ version of 2001: A Space Odyssey that is a thing of beauty to behold. But perhaps his most notable creation (at least to this palaeontologist) is the curiosity that is Devil Dinosaur, his last hurrah for Marvel. Only running for nine issues (but since recently revived), it featured the adventures of the blue ape-man, Moon Boy, and his red T. rex, the aptly named Devil Dinosaur.

Just like the world of Primal, Moon Boy and Devil Dinosaur lived in chaotic mixture of prehistoric beasts and danger, and featured adventures that only Jack Kirby could have conceived. Fans were never surprised when marauding aliens turn up or when Devil Dinosaur time traveled forward to the modern world.

Tartakovsky's Primal embraces all things Jack Kirby, only differing in its beautifully muted colour design and lack of dialogue (bravo for that stylistic choice – that must have been a tough sell to the network executives). As the series progresses, Spear and Fang battle progressively weirder protagonists until we finally fully arrive in Jack Kirby’s universe by episode 4. The giant mutant bats from this episode bear an uncannily resemblance to giant bats from his Kamandi, The Last Boy on Earth #9 (1973). The giant spider from the same episode was seen in Devil Dinosaur #2 (1978). And finally, Primal’s cliffhanger episode delivers the Clobberin’ Time punch of the giant wearing the Triceratops skull mask (above) from DD #3 (1978) battling one of Kirby’s first creations for Marvel, The Incredible Hulk.

Yes, you read that right – THE INCREDIBLE HULK.

To beat the giant ape-thing wearing the Triceratops skull and save his T. rex buddy, Spear drinks a potion that turns him into a giant (giant!), raging, out-of-control green blue hulk. At this point the series has admitted that anything goes! I fully support Tartakovsky engaging his inner Kirby as the series moves forward. I will be disappointed if I don’t soon see robotic Recorders from another galaxy, Spear’s spear turning out to be a magic hammer when slammed on the ground, and a time machine that takes Spear and Fang to downtown Manhattan! At a minimum.

Note the famous log from King Kong (1933)

Is Primal Worth My Time: A big five stars for entertainment value and I refuse to poke holes in its premise by wearing my palaeontologist field cap. I can even believe the events that lead to Spear and Fang teaming up. But I will point out that only a ‘plot device’ could have Spear building his soon-to-be-eaten family’s hut in the middle of a plain full of carnivorous dinosaurs and not up on a safe cliff somewhere. Or, maybe, you know, being a caveman, why not put them in a nice defendable cave

Not every episode is over top adventure. The David Krentz storyboarded episode (#3) with Spear and Fang battling a winter storm and a herd of mammoths is touching and exciting at the same time. And kudos to the brilliant design and colour palate of the series, and the fine music and sound design that is all the more noticeable for the lack of dialogue (although there IS a lot of grunting, screaming and roaring).

Availability: Wherever you can watch the Cartoon Network.

Ray Bradbury on The Man: "The Man by Vaughn Bode is very sad and very touching and full of the loneliness that must have been beast/man's long before we knew more of love and what it could do to save us from the uncaring universe, and, often, ourselves." 

Contender for the greatest single frame in animation history

Tuesday, March 10, 2020

Joe Dante's Top 50 Worst Horror and SF Films

Read his 1972 article from Famous Monsters of Filmland over at the AS FB page

Tuesday, March 3, 2020

Curse of The Abominable Snowmobile

A classic from the brain and pen of Larry Todd (Brain Fantasy #2, Last Gasp).

Sunday, March 1, 2020

James Cagney is the Picture Snatcher (1933)

Although it’s not considered an essential Pre-Code Film, Picture Snatcher (1933) may be the quintessential Pre-Code Film.  The presence of James Cagney, whose popularity continues to transcend generations, and its snappy script certainly makes it a great introduction to the world of Pre-Code movies for the novice.

Pick a category that the Code objected to and Picture Snatcher has it. Watch Cagney navigate through, or participate in:  gangster shot outs, executions, police abusing their power, women in lingerie, sexually aggressive women, violence against women, children shot at, the seduction of underage girls – and the list goes on!

Picture Snatcher has a demise that seems ripe for a Netflix or HBO series. Head-of-his-mob Danny Kean (Cagney) gets out of Sing-Sing after taking a 3 year rap for one of his gang. But, rather than return to a life of crime he decides to go straight and get into the newspaper business. He kisses off his old pals and takes his share of the loot (with interest; apparently his gang was nice enough to invest his money while Danny was out of circulation).  Although he’s going straight, the slippery Danny’s not above using his ill-gotten gains to set himself up – after all, he’s earned it!

Cagney and Ralph Bellamy

Cagney convinces Al McLean (Ralph Bellamy), the alcoholic editor of the scummiest newspaper in town to set him up taking the scandalous photos that no one else can get. He’s then off and running (no one can move or talk faster than Cagney), but never fast enough to shake off the women that are drawn to him like honey.

Cagney and Alice White

Within minutes of turning in his first big photo, the Women’s Page reporter, Allison (the saucy Alice White - “I’m too much woman for any one man”) has dragged him into the back of the Women’s bathroom. He doesn’t object until he later finds out that she’s McLean’s main squeeze. Allison forces herself on Danny again only to suffer worse than Mae Clarke did in Public Enemy (1931). Danny later sweeps a former moll off her feet (“I’m going to put on some silk so good that you can see right through it”) and throws her onto a bed – only to leave her angry and frustrated when he instead walks out on her (he’s only using her for information).

Cagney, Patricia Ellis and Robert Emmett O’Connor

The real girl for Danny is sweet Pat Nolan (Patricia Ellis), described as ‘jailbait’ by Allison (Ellis could not have been more than 16 years old when the movie was shot). Unfortunately, her father Casey, played by Robert Emmett O’Connor - who was born to play Irish cops - is the officer who sent Danny up the river. When Casey first sees Danny, he chases him into the street in full uniform firing at him with his police revolver. Danny shrugs this off, but today Casey would be arrested for attempted murder (at least in some jurisdictions).

Lights out in Sing-Sing

Cagney eventually gets his big break by surreptitiously taking a photo of a female convict being electrocuted. This will give him the raise he needs to marry Pat, but it also means demotion and public humiliation for her father, Casey, whose good word let Danny join the other journalist observers at the execution. Just as in his old criminal days, Danny only ever thinks of himself. Self evaluation only comes when he hits rock bottom after losing his job and his girl. Can Danny redeem himself in the final act and win back Pat?

Let’s just say that, other than a few bullet-ridden bodies, almost everyone ends up happy. Except for Allison who ends up walking the streets. Tough break kid. Didn’t you know that even in a Pre-Code film the sexually aggressive woman has to end up either married or in jail? Unfortunately, Alice White’s life mirrored that of her character in Picture Snatcher. She had a moderately successful career in silent films, often being compared to Clara Bow, but her work in the talkies was derailed by a 1933 sex scandal involving her boyfriend, Jack Warburton, and producer, Sy Barrett.

Is Picture Snatcher Worth My Time?: Yes. Directed by Lloyd Bacon, it’s an entertaining romp that careens from serious melodrama to farce. Cagney almost seems to be spoofing himself here, performing and delivering lines at such a breakneck speed that you except the film’s 77 minute running time to be half of that. Ralph Bellamy is a great foil for Cagney, and your heart has to break a little for feisty Alice White who just wants what she wants, but is not destined to get it.

Availability: Picture Snatcher is available as part of the Warner Gangsters Collection, Vol. 3.

Yes, Alice White, you are in a Pre-Code Film!

Wednesday, February 19, 2020

Barbara Shelley is the Cat Girl (1957)

To Carcass Me Is To Tempt Death!

Cat Girl (1957) is a B&W pastiche of every ‘Old Dark House’ story ever filmed and Val Lewton’s, The Cat People (1942), with the poster’s tag line referring directly back to that film. Directed by Alfred Shaughnessy, it has a suitably dark and spooky atmosphere, but it is most notable for the sharp performance by Barbara Shelley who realistically expresses both the fear and carnal bloodlust that results when her family curse consumes her.

Barbara Shelley, John Lee, Patricia Webster, and Jack May

Leonora Johnson (Barbara Shelley) returns to her family’s ancestral home at the request of her uncle Edmund Brant (noted Shakespearean actor, Ernest Milton) to discuss her future inheritance, not knowing that it is actually the 700 year-old Brant curse. In tow, Leonora has brought along her calculating husband, Richard (Jack May) and their friends, perpetually drunk Allen (John Lee) and his wife, Cathy (Patricia Webster), who is in an on-going affair with Richard.

But, even before we arrive at the house, there are signs the Leonora may not be completely stable. Stopping at a pub, she is almost catatonic with the fear of seeing her uncle again. When she meets up with an old flame, hang dog psychiatrist, Brian Marlowe (Robert Ayres), it’s clear that’s she’s still carrying an overly obsessive torch for him. And, once at the house, she orders the elderly and infirmed servant, Anna (Lilly Kann), to carry their bags up to their rooms and fetch them coffee. Leonora! Anna she needs a cane to get around! Don’t be such a jerk! Well, we can chalk that up to nerves, I guess….

Ernest Milton and Barbara Shelley

Later that night, the sleeping-in-the-nude Leonora (the camera lingers lovingly on her bare back and shoulders) is woken up and summoned to her uncle’s sanctum sanctorum to learn the family secret; that the head of the family has been cursed with werewolfism, albeit of an odd sort where their spirit takes over a leopard that carries out proxy killings at its master’s command. When Leonora’s spirit possesses the cat, she undergoes a subtle, but effective transformation –her eyebrows become pointed and she acquires a more glamorous make-up designed to make her eyes look more cat-like. But, the best effect is how Shelley can convey a feral blood-thirst by simply contorting her face and hands.

Initially appalled by her uncle’s claims, Leonora shows an instant affinity for the leopard. Taking up the ancient curse allows Leonora to shed her prim, uptight skin and give in to her raging hatred for her controlling uncle and unfaithful husband, and her lust for Brian. Uncle and husband are soon found clawed to pieces by some large beast, and when the police bring in Brian The Shrink to deal with Leonora’s seemingly irrational claim that she killed them both, we know that she will stop at nothing to reclaim her old lover. His pretty blonde wife, the canary-like, Dorothy (Kay Kallard), had better not perch too close to Leonora!

Barbara Shelley as Cat Girl!
Like the best Femme Fatale’s, Leonora is a provocative, empowered protagonist who is both hero and villain in her own narrative. Hammer Films would exploit this motif in many of their future horror films while never failing to showcase an array of Technicolor bosoms. Leonora’s ‘curse’ can been seen as a liberation from her repressed 1950’s lifestyle as she finally gives herself permission to take control of her life and eliminate all of the obstacles standing in her way. “I am Woman. Hear my leopard roar!” Unfortunately, she takes the ‘eliminate’ part literally!

Robert Ayres and Barbara Shelley look for a cigarette

Brian tries to cleanse Leonora of her crazy belief by burning her uncle’s old books (was I the only one to wince at the thought of 700 year-old manuscripts being so callously destroyed?). This leads to a heated physical confrontation between the two of them, followed by a chest-heaving, mussed up hair, post-coitus-like reconciliation in front of a burning fireplace that was apparently too subtle for the British censors, but not the astute viewer.

After Brian commits Leonora to a sanitarium the film shifts into high(er) gear. The first night sees Leonora’s hands seemingly turn into maybe real claws (a nice touch!) and for a split second, a fuzzy, possible transformation into a were-cat, after which she proceeds (off camera) to tear up the room. Although he finally admits that Leonora is mentally disturbed, Brian still has her discharged (!) and proceeds to make his wife (!!) spend time with Leonora to in an attempt to help ‘normalize her’ (!!!). Hands up anyone who thinks this is a bad idea and that we should check where Brian got his medical degree?

Barbara Shelley and Kay Kallard

The climax of Cat Girl is a mostly effective variation on the famous bus stop scene from The Cat People. Threateningly dressed in a full-length black raincoat, our Polythene Pam-like Leonora plays cat and mouse with Dorothy through the dark alleys of the dockyards while the police search for an escaped leopard. Will Leonora channel her leopard avatar one more time? Will Brian arrive in time to save his wife? Cat Girl is worth watching to learn how the Brant family curse finally plays out.

The statuesque Barbara Shelley started her career as a model before moving into films in Italy in 1953 under her real name of Barbara Kowin. By 1957 she was appearing in English language films in Britain as Barbara Shelly where she had a long career dividing her time between TV and movies. Cat Girl was her first English language movie and she can claim ‘Scream Queen’ status for having starred in a number of genre films including Blood of the Vampire (1958), Village of the Damned (1960), The Shadow of the Cat (1961), The Gorgon (1964), and Dracula – Prince of Darkness (1967), as well as appearing in many episodes of The Avengers, Danger Man, The Saint, and The Man from U.N.C.L.E during the 1960’s.

Her best role arguably came as Barbara Judd in the film version of Quatermass and The Pit (aka 5 Million Years to Earth, 1967). As the assistant to Dr. Michael Roney (James Donald), she channels the hallucinatory vision of the Martian ‘wild Hunt’ (above) after the discovery of the ancient spaceship in Hobbs End, London. This one scene shows just how good her acting chops were and how underutilized she was in most of her film appearances.

Is Cat Girl Worth My Time? Yes. It’s an underrated, minor British classic well worth watching for Shelley’s almost hypnotic performance. The rest of the workman-like cast moves through their clich├ęd roles with a minimum of fuss, although prone to overacting. Barbara Shelley is the whole show here, but she’ll hold your attention for the entire film. It’s the sign of a well told story that it never lags and you never notice its 69 minute running time.

Availability: It does not appear to be currently available on DVD, but OOP copies are available on  the secondary market. It’s ripe for a full BluRay restoration.

Tuesday, February 11, 2020

Tailspin Tommy – Gets the Monogram Treatment in Sky Patrol and Danger Flight (1939)

Mankind has always been fascinated by the possibility of flight. When the Wright Bros got off the ground in 1903, even though it was only for a few seconds, they ignited an air race that eventually put a man on the moon.

The early days of flight saw multiple individuals and companies competing with novel, sometimes outlandish plane designs that captured the public’s imagination. When Charles Lindbergh crossed the Atlantic in 1927, America’s fascination with all things aviation caught fire. Tailspin Tommy was the first of the newspaper comic strips launched to cash in on the crazy and was soon followed by Skyroads, Scorchy Smith, Smilin’ Jack and  my personal favourite, Flying’ Jenny. During the war, strips like Terry and The Pirates and Capt. Easy that had not started out as aviation strips soon joined Johnny Hazard in putting their heroes into the cockpit.

The Tailspin Tommy newspaper strip is all but forgotten in the 21st century, but was immensely popular in its day. Written by Glenn Chaffin and illustrated by Hal Forest, it ran from 1928 to 1942. Notably, the legendary movie poster artist, Reynold Brown inked the strip from 1936 to 1942. Tailspin made his move onto film with two 12-part serials in 1934 and 1935.

 Artwork by Reynold Brown

John Trent took over the roll for four low-budget Tailspin adventures for Monogram that were all released in 1939. He was a seemingly good choice for the character, having gone into acting after a career in commercial aviation. However, despite having the physical cut of a leading man (he co-starred with Ann Dvorak in the comedy, She’s No Lady, 1937), his acting skills were modest at best, and he eventually returned to aviation as a test pilot.

Jason Robards, Milburn Stone, John Trent, and Marjorie Reynolds

Trent was backed up in the series by three actors who went on to much more substantial careers. Milburn Stone played Tailspin’s goofy pal, Skeeter Milligan, and Jason Robards was his boss/partner, Paul Smith, at Three Points Airline. The underutilized Marjorie Reynolds got second-billing as his girlfriend, Betty Lou Barnes, but she usually was only given a few lines per movie worrying about her hero, Tommy.

Tailspin Tommy in Sky Patrol (1939) predates the US entry into WW II, but has Tommy ‘drafted’ by the military into organizing a sky patrol to hunt for smugglers (read Nazi collaborators) on the west coast. Tommy is training the new recruits, but is having trouble with medical student, Carter Meade, who – surprise! - does not want to have to kill anyone. Unfortunately, he’s also the son of the commanding officer who sees his son’s aversion to killing as an ‘irrational phobia’ to be overcome. Tommy covers for Carter’s ‘weakness’ and gets him into the Sky Patrol, only to have him become the seemingly first causality of the team. However, it all turns out well when Carter is found alive, captured by the smugglers who are running guns in international waters. Carter saves Tommy by killing one of the bad guys, thus proving that he is really a man and not a peace-loving commie, or worse. Carter is played by a mid-career Jackie Coogan who does as much as he can with his brief, sketched-out part. Fans of his role as Uncle Fester in the 1960’s Addams Family TV show will only recognize the svelte Coogan here by his voice.

Jackie Coogan

The film has above average production values and script for a Monogram film, and even the ‘toy-boats-in-a-bathtub’ special effects are used sparingly and are not too distracting. Just don’t look too closely at the many holes in the story.

Tailspin Tommy in Danger Flight (1939) was the last in the series. It has a crackling good first half where Tommy becomes lost in a raging storm while trying to deliver medicine to a dam construction site that has suffered multiple injuries in an avalanche. Cutting between Tommy flying blind in the storm to Betty Lou and Skeeter desperately trying to help him from their radio room, the tension ramps up as Tommy’s fuel runs down with no place to land. Probably inspired by the flying sequences from the same year’s Only Angels Have Wings, with a healthy dollop of Clark Gable’s doomed flight to oblivion in Night Flight (1933), the first half of Danger Flight is as good as you’re going to get from any respectable B picture, and way above the norm for a Monogram film. However, the second half of the film pancakes back to earth as Tommy battles gangsters trying to steal the construction company’s payroll in what seems like a completely different film.

John Trent as Tailspin Tommy

I honestly only watched as many Tailspin adventures as I did just to enjoy the presence of Marjorie Reynolds, a pretty, button-nosed blonde with energy to spare. I suspect that Monogram used her as much as they did to help provide a much needed jolt to many of their otherwise lackluster productions. Playing the reporter Roberta Logan, she was the second best thing in the three of the six Boris Karloff-headlined Mr. Wong films (1939 – 1940) that she co-starred in. She also starred in a number of respectable poverty row crime/noir films before graduating to higher profile pictures at better studios in the early 1940’s (e.g., Ministry of Fear (1944) with Ray Milland). Although she never became a major star, she did help Bing Crosby introduce the classic song, White Christmas, in Holiday Inn (1942).

Ray Millard and Marjorie Reynolds in Ministry of Fear (1944)

What about the rest of the Three Points Airline personal?

Milburn Stone had a long career in show business going back to vaudeville in the 1920s. His film career consisted of mostly minor parts or bigger parts in minor films. Universal Shock Theater fans will recognize him from starring in Captive Wild Women and Jungle Girl (both 1943) and the Inner Sanctum film, The Frozen Ghost (1945) starring Long Chaney, Jr. Later in his career, Stone struck gold playing Doc in the long running Gunsmoke TV show. Appearing in 604 episodes, Doc became one of the most beloved characters in television history. Stone won an Emmy for the role in 1968.

 Milburn Stone in Gunsmoke
Jason Robards went on to be one the greatest stage and film actors of his era. After a decorated Navy career in WWI, his film career started slowly where he marked time in films like the Tailspin Tommy series until his talent was recognized. Amongst his many awards, he won a Tony, an Emmy, and two Academy Awards for Best Supporting Actor (All The Presidents Men, 1976 and Julia, 1977).

 Jason Robards in Once Upon A Time in The West (1969)

Is Tailspin Tommy Worth My Time? Yes, if you’re a fan of the Monogram oeuvre or pulp serials. John Trent in Sky Patrol is about as flat as an actor can be and still be alive, but he is more animated in Danger Flight. The first half of that film is very engaging and would be a great introduction to the series. And, it’s fun to watch future stars, Reynolds, Robards and Stone early in their careers.

Availability: I watched these on YouTube as OK quality prints. The breaks in the films just add to the sensation of being at a Saturday afternoon matinee. Sky Patrol gets a B and Danger Flight a B+, bearing in mind the quality of films we’re dealing with. Both films benefit from their brisk 60 minute running times.

Bonus! More Reynold Brown poster art.