Friday, May 31, 2013

Fred Allen

Today we celebrate the anniversary of the birth of radio wit Fred Allen. I discovered the long gone Mister Allen through my early seventies interest in Jack Benny as the two had a mock "feud" that ran for years. Fred had an acerbic tone that other radio comedians didn't have which made his books and various writings hilarious as well. Unlike Benny, he tended to be topical and topical doesn't age well. Also, except for a stint on WHAT'S MY LINE?, Fred never caught on in television or movies. 

Still, today is day one of the Cincinnati Nostalgia Expo, successor to the Greater Cincinnati Old-Time Radio and Nostalgia Convention. The fact that it's on Fred's birthday has to be a good sign. 

Thursday, May 30, 2013

Peter Cushing at 100--Night Creatures/Captain Clegg

Peter Cushing, who would have turned 100 this week were he still amongst us, was an actor I came to appreciate for his two very different levels of acting. He could be ultra-intense as in his Sherlock Holmes, Frankenstein or Tarkin roles or he could be sweet and pleasant as in his appearances as the only big screen Doctor Who to date. One film in which he is given the chance to play to both extremes is Hammer Film’s NIGHT CREATURES from 1962.

NIGHT CREATURES is the US title of CAPTAIN CLEGG. The picture is based on—or perhaps one should say inspired by—the Dr. Syn novels of Russell Thorndyke that had been previously filmed with the once popular George Arliss as far back as 1937. Not long after Hammer’s version, Walt Disney entered the field as well with a three part television version that would be memorably nostalgic to a generation of Americans—THE SCARECROW OF ROMNEY MARSH. Patrick McGoohan, already a well-known face with DANGER MAN in the UK, was Disney’s star and his version was released theatrically in Europe in an edited down form. It would be released theatrically in the US a decade later.

But it’s CAPTAIN CLEGG...NIGHT CREATURES...that perhaps remains the most faithful in some ways. Hammer had not yet settled into its reputation as mainly a horror studio and, in fact, in spite of its marketing in the US, NIGHT CREATURES owes more to the old-fashioned pirate films the studio had been turning out such as THE PIRATES OF BLOOD RIVER and DEVIL SHIP PIRATES than to CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN or THE MUMMY.

In fact, Peter himself had only recently done one such film, 1961’s FURY AT SMUGGLER’S BAY. By the time of CAPTAIN CLEGG, he was coming off of what many consider one of his best performances of all in the bank robbery thriller CASH ON DEMAND. It had been two years since his last horror film, BRIDES OF DRACULA.

In my opinion, there are a number of things that set NIGHT CREATURES apart from the typical Hammer costume adventure/drama of this period. First and foremost is the fact that it’s a better story. Equally important is that it’s better cast and therefore presents better performances including a particularly nuanced one from Cushing. There isn’t as much blood as one might expect in a Hammer offering and thus the whole thing has a bit of an almost family-friendly boys’ adventure feel to it with just the right number of shocking moments.

And shocking they are. When one catches the first eerie sight of the so-called marsh phantoms, a genuine chill is raised even on a smaller screen. I can only imagine what it was like to see these skeletal horsemen (and their equally skeletal horses!) on the big screen without warning!

Another unique aspect of this picture is that there are NO real villains! The antagonists are the King’s sailors, working as revenue agents. Even Cushing’s character refers to their leader as a famous hero. Are they a tad rowdy and violent? Yes, but probably nowhere near as rowdy and violent as sailors were in real life in those days. Our sympathetic characters are, for the most part, smugglers and ex-pirates and yet we know them to be kind and helpful to the villagers. Even the wrestler-like killer “mulatto” is shown in a sympathetic light. See? No villains. No bad guys in the traditional sense.

What you DO get right out of the gate is atmosphere...and loads of it. Some excellent photography all around is accented greatly by a very Hollywood-like musical score.

In the beginning, we see the Mulatto being tortured and left alone on an island to die with a note of warning from the pirate, Captain Clegg. Cut to some years later, 1792 to be exact, in the coastal village of Dymchurch. We see a frightened man pursued through Romney Marsh by the supposed supernatural marsh phantoms, a local legend. The very next day finds Captain Collier and his men pursuing a lead that smugglers are bringing in French wine without paying the exorbitant taxes. 

It’s Sunday and everyone is at church so that’s where they head. But first we see the Vicar, the Reverend Dr. Blyss, a charming but forceful man, leading the hymns and the service. Suddenly a signal travels amongst some of those present and various of them up and leave. Although the King’s men find nothing we see soon enough that there IS smuggling going on after all and that the smugglers are simply cleverer than expected.

Much of the rest of the picture is a cat and mouse game between the Vicar and his men and the Captain and his sailors. Things take a turn for the worse when the mute mulatto, long-since rescued from his island by the Captain’s men, recognizes the Vicar for his former self, Captain Clegg the pirate! His attempts to kill the man who had his tongue cut out lead eventually to one of our sympathetic characters unexpectedly betraying his friends and ultimately, Dr. Blyss’s secret is revealed to one and all.

Unlike the Disney version and the books, the only scarecrow here is used as a lookout, with the marsh phantom costumes being genuinely off-putting hooded, glow-in-the-dark skeleton costumes. We only see them a couple of times but that works. Once in the beginning as an initial shock and then again toward the end in a longer scene where all is revealed.

Peter Cushing gives a nuanced performance that highlights both extremes of his acting as noted above. Note the side by side comparison where Clegg sees his antagonist arrive but seconds later it is Blyss who exits from behind the curtain, almost Jekyll and Hyde-like, to greet him. Throughout the film, even though we aren’t explicitly told at first, it’s clear that Blyss is Clegg and watching Peter’s face as an exercise in subtle acting is quite enjoyable as we can read his feelings throughout if not his actual thoughts.

Michael Ripper, Hammer’s “good luck charm” who appeared in more films for the company than either Cushing or Christopher Lee, is given a more substantial role here than normal and makes the most of it. As Blyss’s right-hand man, he is clever, sneaky and sarcastic, always with a little smile very nearly creeping onto his face as if he takes great delight in getting away with things the King wouldn’t like.

Although he has little to do for the first half of the movie, Oliver Reed, just coming off his triumphant CURSE OF THE WEREWOLF (still the best werewolf film in my opinion!) turns out to be playing a bigger part than the viewer initially suspects. Reed is so amazingly charismatic on the screen, so young and handsome. It makes one sad to think of the abuse he would cause himself in time before a much too early death.

Reed’s leading lady, a girl with a secret even she doesn’t know at first, is played by the lovely Yvonne Romain who had also appeared in CURSE OF THE WEREWOLF although she had no scenes with Reed. Romain was, at the time, the real-life wife of singer/songwriter Anthony Newley’s frequent lyricist, Leslie Bricusse.

Patrick Allen and David Lodge are excellent as the Captain and his Bosun, with Martin Benson as the innkeeper, all familiar faces in British films and television. The thankless role of the bald, monstrous, nameless mulatto went to Milton Reid who actually WAS a wrestler as well as an actor.  He appeared throughout a long and varied career in films ranging from the high end—DR. NO and RETURN OF THE PINK PANTHER—to the low end—non-sex scenes in some hardcore loops. According to IMDB, he went to Bollywood and died there in the late eighties.

Oddly enough, one other standout performance comes from the great Irish stage actor Jack MacGowran in a brief but showy role as a man allegedly frightened by the phantoms. The actor’s final film would be THE EXORCIST a decade later. He died shortly after shooting his scenes for that picture.

Starting with THE EVIL OF FRANKENSTEIN in 1964, in which Peter Cushing returned to the role of the insane doctor for the third time and the first since 1958’s REVENGE OF FRANKENSTEIN, 10 out of his next 11 released films were horror or science-fiction. The rest of his career would largely follow suit and magazines such as FAMOUS MONSTERS OF FILMLAND, which canonized him “Saint Peter,” raised him to the pantheon of genre stars alongside Karloff, Lugosi, Chaney, Price and Lee. His appearance in the original STAR WARS took great advantage of Cushing’s reputation as able to portray a type of pure evil and undoubtedly introduced the actor to millions of new fans as well as assuring him a major spot in the history of twentieth century films.

Throughout his career, Cushing would make quite a few films with Christopher Lee both for Hammer and elsewhere and the two names have long since become entwined to film lovers. But make no mistake—Peter Cushing was a brilliant screen actor who on his own created dozens of unique characterizations highlighting even lesser films. CAPTAIN CLEGG/NIGHT CREATURES may not be one of Cushing’s best-known films but it really is a great vehicle for his acting talents as well as a splendidly filmed and enjoyable adventure story.

This article is part of the PETER CUSHING CENTENNIAL BLOGATHON. You can go here to find details and links to many more articles celebrating Peter Cushing on what would have been the occasion of his 100th birthday this week!


Saturday, May 25, 2013

Published in Batman-1989...And I Never Even Knew It!

So last night I decided to go to sleep fairly early as everyone else here had already faded for the evening. The problem was that the Cincinnati Reds had fireworks after last night's game and they rattled the house for about half an hour even though they were coming from 19 blocks and a bridge away! While I was lying there, though, trying to ignore them, I realized I had neglected to put the laundry that I would need today in the dryer so I got up and went down into the basement to do so. When I came back up, I decided I'd read a few comics until the booms stopped. Randomly I grabbed a BATMAN comic--issue 444 to be exact. Before reading it, I flipped through it and my eyes landed on the letters page only to find...ME! The problem is that I don't remember writing this. At all! Not. One. Bit. It would have been published in late 1989 when I was 30 years old. In my mind, the last letters I wrote to comic books were in 1973! Still, it "reads" like my writing, touches on themes I have written on since and uses the word "fascinating," a word I know I use too much even now! I used to know another Steven Thompson here in town but he didn't read comics. I'm pretty sure this IS me! I just never realized it had been published and thus put it out of my mind that I had even written it! Weird.

Friday, May 24, 2013

R.I.P. Betty England

Just a personal moment if I may. My oldest cousin, Betty England, died this week. The funeral is tomorrow. Since my parents had me very late in life and my Dad's sister had kids very early, Betty, although age 83, was in the same generation as myself. One of my best memories of her was a time in the early seventies when she called my Mother and asked what I'd like for Christmas that year. My Mom told her I'd really been wanting the then-new Who album, WHO'S NEXT. So Betty bought it for me in spite of the fact that she professed to being offended by its cover!

Rest in Peace, Betty.

Thursday, May 23, 2013

The Doors-Light My Fire

In concert, the just deceased Ray Manzarek  would often soar to great heights of long improv jamming on his organ solo on the Doors' "Light My Fire." This, though, is from their controversial ED SULLIVAN appearance where he cuts it short but makes it wonderful. Ed didn't like it because Morrison refused to change the words as requested but this has long been one of my favorites from all the great music group appearances on Ed's show.

Bob Kane on PM Magazine-1989

A brief look at the controversial Bob Kane from when the first Michael Keaton BATMAN movie came out.

The Crazy Ones

Not being a current TV watcher, I had not heard about this upcoming series, THE CRAZY ONES,  until today. Looks pretty good as long as what makes Sarah special doesn't conflict with what makes Robin special. We'll see. Hoping Hulu or someone picks it up so i can try it.

Disney on Parade-1971

Here's a 1971 TV special celebrating highlights from Disney's live-action traveling show, DISNEY OIN PARADE. One of my most popular posts was an early one about my parents and I seeing the show live at the Cincinnati Gardens. I do NOT, however, remember this TV celebration.

Karel Zeman

Here's a brief little foreign language documentary on the unique cinematic stylings of Czech filmmaker Karel Zeman. Zeman's short films and features made from the late forties on combined live action, illustrated backgrounds, animation and other special effects in ways similar to those Terry Gilliam would adopt on MONTY PYTHON"S FLYING CIRCUS. A genius!

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Warren's Dracula

I never did own a copy of this although I did have a full set of the UK editions of the Spanish mag this  was culled from. Some absolutely lovely illustrations from Esteban Maroto and more but the "stories" were, for the most part, negligible. Oh, and for the record, Dracula never appears.

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Sunday, May 19, 2013

Peter Cushing Blogathon

I discovered Peter Cushing around 1969 and have been a big fan for more than four decades now. Although long gone now, to celebrate the 100th anniversary of his birth, there will be a Blogathon coming up beginning on May 25th. Click the Cushing image on the sidebar for more info.

Saturday, May 18, 2013

How To Make a Monster Comic-1958

This--and apparently a few other variations--was available for local theaters to use as giveaways to promote the low-budget 1958 American-International horror movie, HOW TO MAKE A MONSTER--sort of  a follow-up to I WAS A TEENAGE WEREWOLF and I WAS A TEENAGE FRANKENSTEIN. Anyone know who did the artwork?

Friday, May 17, 2013

The Bogie Man

Written and drawn by some folks whose work I like from 2000AD, this 1990s series always seemed like something I should like more than I do. That said, I just now found out there was a 1992 TV movie in the UK based on its initial story arc and starring Robbie (Hagrid!) Coltrane and late night talk show host Craig Ferguson!

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

John G. Fantucchio

THE COMICS REPORTER points out that artist John G. Fantucchio turns 75 today. That got me reminiscing about "Fandom's Fantucchio," probably my favorite fan artist when I was first getting into comics fandom back in the seventies. He had already been around for a while by that point and, in fact, his fanzine work was thinning out by the time I showed up. I managed to score quite a few older 'zines as time went on and saw just how omnipresent he had been in fandom! Happy birthday, John, wherever you are! Your consistently inventive work is STILL much appreciated, sir!

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Blast From the Past-Robin Williams

Back when I was still a young blogger, I was invited to become part of a hive-mind pop culture blog called BUBBLEGUMFINK. It seems the Fink himself felt he wasn't able to devote his all to blogging and thus deleted his blog entirely. Then he brought it back to start over. This time he recruited about a half dozen off us including myself and my still FB friend Bruce Grossman and turned us loose to keep his blog going. We didn't exactly have free reign as he actually deleted one of my posts but for the most part he left us alone as long as we stayed on-topic. Well...that is until the day he once again deleted the entire blog, this time including the dozen or so posts I had made along with everyone else's! No warning and not a word from the Fink himself since. Through the magic of internet archiving, though, I today have salvaged a few of my BUBBLEGUMFINK posts including this relatively minor one from January pf 2006.


Robin Williams and Mork from Ork

Lenny Bruce paved the way for Richard Pryor and Pryor paved the way for Robin Williams. It's a good thing, too, because Robin hit the ground running in the late seventies with TV's MORK & MINDY and hasn't really slowed down much since.

MORK & MINDY was spun off of a HAPPY DAYS episode in which Richie meets space alien Mork. Robin Williams had thought that his big chance would be on the remake of George Schlatter's sixties favorite, LAUGH-IN but that series stayed pretty much under the radar during its brief run. Luckily, that freed Robin up to be cast as Mork from Ork. It was a silly show by anyone's definition, similar to the latter ALF (and with Robin just about as hairy as ALF!). Pam Dawber was cute but somewhat inconsequential. That said, it quickly became one of the most watched shows on TV and a national phenomonon. From the beginning, the audience was tuning in to see the rampant lunacy of Williams. How could we ever have imagined then that he was holding back for network TV?

Quickly becoming an exploitable favorite, there were magazines and books put out for a quick buck including those seen here. THE MORK & MINDY SCRAPBOOK was just that: light, fluffy stuff about the show with a few good pics but largely filler like vaguely Ork-related games and puzzles. THE ROBIN WILLIAMS SCRAPBOOK by Mary Ellen Moore is actually a more or less serious biography, looking at his troubled life as well as his career and offering a look (without any real quotes as it was still aimed at a younger market) at the whirlwind of no holds barred comedy that Robin Williams became on stage.

The later ROBIN WILLIAMS SCRAPBOOK (What the heck is it with Williams and scrapbooks??) by Stephen Spignesi came out in 1997, long after Robin had left Mork behind and established himself as a serious actor as well as arguably the funniest man alive. Still, in spite of GOOD MORNING, VIETNAM, MRS. DOUBTFIRE and THE BIRDCAGE, much of the early part of the book deals with Mork. Like Farrah, Robin Williams was a seventies icon. Unlike Farrah, he re-created himself over and over and over again without ever losing the underlying wackiness we loved in him when we first met him at Richie Cunningham's house all those years ago.

For Christmas of 2004, my wife got a Robin Williams Live DVD and she was so excited she insisted on watching it even though our eight year old son was still in the room. Afterward, she turned to him and explained that, "Mr. Williams used some inappropriate words in that show." "You mean like F__K?" he asked casually. "Well, uh...yeah. Exactly." she said. "He sure used 'em a HELL of a lot didn't he?" was my son's reply. I like to think Robin would appreciate that remark.