Wednesday, January 16, 2019

Martian Menace

This is my entry in the Made in 1938 Blogathon hosted by Pop Culture Reverie and In the Good Old Days of Classic Hollywood. 

Back in the 30's and 40's, a trip to the movies was like an all-day sucker.  You got more than just one film (and I don't mean an interminable series of coming attractions).  You got a newsreel (this being before television nightly newscasts), a cartoon, maybe even a second feature, but you also sometimes got what were referred to as serials.  Usually these would be a 15 part series that continued weekly, and you had to go back every week to see how the serial hero (or heroine) got out of the last cliffhanger predicament.

Hank Davis in his excellent two part book series Classic Cliffhangers describes the serials as as "classic examples of early low-budget filmmaking."  He even credits the bad ones as "silly and stilted, but always charming and sometimes bizarre."  The serial actually got it's start in the silent film days, mainly with a 1914 series called "The Perils of Pauline", but it really took off in the early 30's.  You could go see many of the action stars of the day in a weekly recounting of an adventure, which almost always ended with the hero in some predicament that left the audience anticipating how he or she would get out of it, thus insuring a return next week.

The serials weren't always well-acted, which explains why a lot of the serial stars never made the transition from serials to major motion picture star status.  (John Wayne being one of the exceptions, who got his start in three serials from the 30's; The Shadow of the Eagle, The Hurricane Express,  and The Three Musketeers.)  Serials are something that I think could improve the movie experience today  I find them enjoyable, and although I tend to watch them all in their entirety in one setting, I think I could enjoy a weekly ongoing adventure if one were done right.

Flash Gordon's Trip to Mars (1938):

Firstly, one of the neatest things about this serial is the opening.  If you are familiar with serials, each episode, after the credits, usually included an encapsulation of what has gone on before.  In some serials this was a voice over and in others it was just a text on screen.  In this serial they added a twist that I hadn't seen in other serials I watched.  A Martian guard appears before a screen and adjusts the screen which segments through four visuals on the screen.  It looks like a comic strip panel from the Flash Gordon comic strip, and to my untrained eye, it looks like they might have even been drawn by the artist, Alex Raymond, who actually drew the comic strip at the time.

Flash Gordon (Buster Crabbe), accompanied by Dale Arden (Jean Rogers) and Dr. Zarkov (Frank Shannon) are returning from having defeated the evil megalomaniacal Ming the Merciless (in the 1936 serial Flash Gordon). But the Earth is in serious danger.

A series of devastating earthquakes and floods and other natural disaster is wreaking havoc on the planet.  Initially it is thought that the planet Mongo, which is still in proximity of the Earth, is the source of the havoc.  Flash, along with Dale and Dr. Zarkov head off to find out what's going on.  Unfortunately they have a stowaway in the persona of Happy Hapgood (Donald Kerr), a reporter who has managed to insinuate himself on to the ship.

 But it soon becomes clear that Mars is the actual culprit, emitting a beam that is sucking all the nitron (which I think may be movie-ese for nitrogen) from the Earth's atmosphere. And while the Queen of Mars,  Azura (Beatrice Roberts), is behind the evil plan, Ming (Charles B. Middleton) is also helping.  Which becomes a surprise to Flash (and anyone who watched the first serial), because at the end of the last adventure it seemed apparent that Ming had perished.  But as anyone can tell you, you can't keep a bad man down.

 The reason behind the nefarious plan to steal the Earth's nitron is Azura needs it to defeat the Clay People, a race on Mars that refuses to bow down to Azura's rule.  Azura is an expert of magic, which allows her to change recalcitrant subjects into Clay People and also to disappear at will.  (You would think if she had that kind of magic she could just eliminate the threat of the Clay People with a wave of her hand, but if she could, there would be no adventure...)  Azura's magic derives from a white sapphire which she is never without.

Flash and company land on Mars, but not without consequence.  The rocketship they used to get there is destroyed, so there is apparently no going back.  But Flash is unperturbed, as is usual for a hero.  His only goal is to save the Earth, and nothing is going to stop him from completing his mission.  That is unless Ming and Azura can prevent him from doing so.

Over the course of the 15 episode serial, Flash and friends continually find themselves gaining the upper hand, only to find the advantage disappear with alarming regularity.  Of course, as was necessary with the cliffhanger theme, each episode ends with Flash apparently finally defeated, only to have some twist of fate (or deus ex machina) appear to save him from his imminent demise.

Some things that appeal to me are:  One, the Clay People, although initially distrusting of Flash, eventually become his ally when they realize that he really intends to try to help them.  (The Clay People are, for some reason, not able to do much against Azura on their own because part of their curse is they cannot leave the cave in which they dwell.)  Montague Shaw as the king of the Clay People and his tribe eventually do come around to Flash's way of thinking, however.  And Prince Barin (Richard Alexander, who looks like he could have been a professional wrestler), who had allied with Flash on Mongo in the previous serial appears on the scene to help Flash in his quest.

Eventually it becomes evident that Ming is working at cross-purposes.  He is supposed to be helping Azura in her quest to defeat the Clay people, but what Ming really wants is to take over Azura's throne.  (you didn't really expect a guy like Ming to be a supportive ally, did you?) 

The fight scenes are the only down-side to this serial.  They look entirely fake, and some look like those fake moves they pull in the WWF.  Which makes Alexander all the more possible as a pro-wrestler in a previous life. Even the special effects look positively new age by comparison.

 Of course, I don't need to tell you that Flash and company are victorious in the end.  And I probably don't have to tell you that Ming is once again vanquished, apparently for good.  (But since he is once again the villain in the third serial, Flash Gordon Conquers the Universe, that should come as no surprise either.)

Flash Gordon not only became an icon in the 30's serials and in comic strips, he became, briefly, a hero on the radio, and when television was in its infancy, a television star.  He was also the star of a series of novels back in the 70's.  A feature film in 1980 reintroduced Flash Gordon to a new generation.  And recently the SYFY channel tried its hand ant producing a new TV series.  It certainly appears that Flash is still an attractive commodity, even if he doesn't quite become the franchise that a Superman or a Batman might have become.  But he does have some appeal.  Primarily, at least for me, that he relies on his athletics and wits, rather than his extraterrestrial strength or his cache of rich man's toys.  And as long there is an evil megalomaniac from Mongo around, he won't be without a foe to pit them against.

Well, folks, time to fire up the retro rockets on the Plymouth (I wish).  Drive home safely.


Saturday, January 5, 2019

Versatile Blogger Award

Virginie @ The Wonderful World of Cinema nominated me for the Versatile Blogger Award.  The only thing I like better than talking about movies is talking about myself :-D.  So I want to thank her for this opportunity.

So the rules for the award are thus:

1. Thank the person who nominated you.
2. Provide a link to their blog.
3. List 7 things about yourself.
4. Nominate 15(!!) other blogs.  (And I am taking the easy route on that and just nominating everyone who reads this...)

So,  the 7 things I came up with about myself:

1.  I got involved in reviewing movies because when I was in my 20's I threw the Dallas Times Herald paper in my town.  On Friday, after throwing the Friday edition, I would make a habit of reading Joe Bob Briggs' (John Bloom's pseudonym) column which covered the drive-in movies.  At that time, drive-ins were still ubiquitous, and most of the drive-in movie fare was low-budget horror, sci-fi and slasher stuff.  Briggs was fired from DTH for making some off-color remarks, but he has still continued his career, and in 2000 I came across two collections of his reviews; Joe Bob Goes to the Drive-In and Joe Bob Goes Back to the Drive-In.  (Both of these books are out of print and Amazon has sellers selling them for $100+ a pop so, no, you CAN"T borrow them...)

2.  Speaking of books on movies, those aren't the only two I have.  My collection of movie books takes up three shelves on my bookcase.  A few of which I have reviewed here.  My most extensive collection is the FAQ series published by Hal Leonard Books, of which I have 12 or so.  You should check out what's available as they are eminently readable.  Especially well written are Armageddon Films FAQ and Film Noir FAQ.

3.  I am one of John Wayne's biggest fans.  I can say that because I have every (available) movie that John Wayne was ever in.  He may not have been the consummate actor of his day, but I really enjoy the way he comes off on the screen.

4. If you've read this blog, you already know, but my favorite movies are action and sci-fi.  But I also watch just about any movie that is recommended, if the plot intrigues me, even plain old domestic dramas.  Like my attitude towards new foods, I'll try anything once.

5. Humor is my milieu.  Some people might call it sarcasm.  Fine with me.  But I have such an extensive knowledge of movie quotes that I can respond to external stimuli with a comment that I think is funny. Not everyone gets the quote, however.  But if they do, it makes the effort that much better.  Example:  In the shipping department of my place of work I ran across a box that had "Pier 1 Imports" stenciled on it.  I said "Pier 1 Imports!  Man, this place has everything!"  One person in hearing got the reference to the movie "The Blues Brothers".

6.  Outside of movies, my other passion is festivals.  Locally we have a menudo festival every year.  (Menudo is a Mexican dish made with tripe).  I also try to get to the Poteet Strawberry Festival held every year in Poteet, Texas (about 90 miles away).  And just down the road, New Braunfels, a German conclave, has Oktoberfest.  Anything that features food is sure to attract my attention.  I love to eat.

7.  The last thing is, never challenge me to a Trivial Pursuit game.  My mind is cluttered with a bunch of useless trivia, but it comes in handy.  I remember one time playing team Trivial Pursuit.  Our team was up and the other team drew the card.  "Oh, you guys will never get this." they said.  The other two members of my team expressed the same negative opinion, but I said, "No, we'll get it."  They asked the question "Who has won the most Oscars for costume design?"  Without a beat I said "Edith Head".  The rest of them just about fell out of their chairs.

Want to play?  Just post to your blog, but let me know so I can read your 7.


Thursday, January 3, 2019

Is This Day Never Gonna End?

This is my entry in the Year After Year Blogathon hosted by Movie Movie Blog Blog

"Well, what if there is no tomorrow?  There wasn't one today!" -Phil Connors

What if tomorrow never came?  How would you cope with it? What if you woke up this morning, and you were reliving the same events, over and over and over and over again?

Sorry, you can't pick the best day of your life and just relive those events for eternity (otherwise I'd opt for Nov. 15, 1985 and just endlessly go to the Cowboys-Bears game that was played that day, and laugh uproariously as the Cowboys get shellacked by the Bears 44-0.  But even that would get boring after a year or two.)

No, it's just a random day in your life.  And to top it off, you are stuck in a town you don't particularly like.  And the people in the town are celebrating a holiday that you just can't stand.  What if you had to live on that day for the rest of eternity.  Not just the rest of your life, because you aren't going to grow older.  If you woke up the day before your 40th birthday this morning, tomorrow it would still be the day before your 40th birthday and on and on forever.

This is the concept that Danny Rubin came up with one day while trying to come up with a script idea that could get his foot in the door in Hollywood.  He first had the day established as just a day in late January, but then hit on the idea of establishing the event that transformed Phil Connors' life as February 2, Groundhog Day.  This idea had some appeal because if it actually did get filmed it would have it's own annual tradition already set in, much like Miracle on 34th Street or A Christmas Carol have become an annual tradition on another holiday

Several changes occurred from the first draft of the script to the final finished film.  First, in the original draft, we would have seen the beginning of the movie as Phil is already trapped in the endless time loop in the middle of the time loop with no indication of why he has been subjected to the time loop.  After studios balked at this idea (although director Harold Ramis liked the concept), Rubin added a scene where Phil broke up with his current girlfriend who cursed him with a spell.  But Rubin was never really satisfied with this.

Eventually we got the finished script that we can see today.  One notably trivia piece is that both Tom Hanks and Michael Keaton were  approached to play the role of Phil Connors.  Hanks didn't think he could pull off the asshole Phil convincingly enough because he thought his audience would expect him to be nice, and Keaton just didn't understand the concept.  (He has later admitted he regretted the decision).

By the way:  The movie was actually filmed in Illinois.  It turns out that the real Punxutawney didn't have the right feel for those involved in producing the movie and so the town of Woodstock, Illinois substitutes  for the legendary town.

So how long does Phil live in this endless loop?  Estimates have ranged from 10-10,000 years.  In order for Phil to go from being confused to desperate to complacent in his predicament, and in order for him to eventually become a consummate artist and musician (which he does by the end of the movie), a good estimate is somewhere around 34 years, according to a website I looked at.  

Groundhog Day (1993):

The movie establishes what a jerk Phil Connors (Bill Murray). a weatherman on a Pittsburgh TV station, is early on.  He is rude and sarcastic to just about everyone, including his news broadcast co-host, his cameraman Larry (Chris Elliot) and his new producer, Rita (Andie MacDowell).  Phil is scheduled to go on a remote to Punxutawney to cover the groundhog celebration and his distaste for it is evident.

Connors is set up in a bed and breakfast house because he refuses to stay in the local hotel and wakes up to the fading sound of the Sonny & Cher song "I Got You, Babe", and a pair of D.J.s telling him to put on his booties because "Its COLD out there!"  He goes down to the groundhog celebration, running into several recurring characters in the process, including the overly enthusiastic Ned Ryerson (Stephen Tobolowsky), with whom Phil had gone to high school.

At the groundhog shindig, Connors continues his disgruntled demeanor, causing both Rita and Larry to confer that he is a "prima donna".  They leave Punxutawney to return to Pittsburgh, but the blizzard that Phil had confidently claimed would bypass Pittsburgh hits, forcing them to return to Punxutawney.  Connors reclaims his room at the B&B and goes off to sleep.

Upon awakening, the first indication that something is amiss is that the radio wakes him with the same fade out from "I Got You, Babe" and the same D.J.s telling him "It's COLD out there!"  Unfortunately for Phil this is the beginning of a nightmare, because he seems to be stuck in repeating the same day he had just lived through yesterday.

And it's not over yet.  Because the next day he wakes up again to the same radio and meeting the same people.  Phil doesn't really know how to react to this, but eventually he begins to try to explain to Rita what seems to be happening to him.   Of course, she thinks he's nuts or at least just overworked because neither she nor anyone else for that matter is aware of the time loop.

Eventually Phil starts to be Phil and use the inconvenience to his own advantage.  At one point he takes advantage of a lapse of attention to steal a bag of money from an armored truck.  He finds an attractive woman and learns a few details about her so that during the next cycle he can seduce her.  But even this becomes boring after a while.  He then goes through a period where he just wants to end it all.  But even suicide is not an option, because the next morning he still finds himself waking up to those same fading strains of "I Got You, Babe".

Over and over again Phil tries to find ways to improve upon his lot.  His driving passion becomes one to get Rita in bed, and he spends several episodes gradually learning things about her in order to get her to fall in love with him.  But Phil is still learning how to be a decent human being and his lessons don't seem to be cracking through that thick skull.

Phil finally starts to get the idea that he can use the situation to improve himself and learns how to play the piano and become an expert at ice sculpture, among other things.  And finally, he learns to be a decent human being.  But will it be enough to get him out of the time loop?

The movie has some great comedic moments, but it works better as a sort of bizarre romantic comedy.  Phil's efforts to get into Rita's panties transform from just crude sexual desire to an honest effort to get her to love him for whom he is (or for whom he has become through the endless time loop).

Well folks, its time to fire up the old Plymouth again (Say, haven't I said that before...?)  Drive safely, folks.  (That, too...? Hmmm.)