Wednesday, December 26, 2012

MIRACLE ON 34TH STREET (1947), BABES IN TOYLAND (1961)



PHENOMENALITY: *marvelous*
MYTHICITY: (1) *fair,* (2) *poor*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *comedy*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTION: *sociological*


In deference to the season, I feel I ought to chime in on the classic MIRACLE ON 34TH STREET.  As a perennial favorite, MIRACLE needs no championing. Like the famous 1897 essay on the same theme-- "Yes, Virginia, There is a Santa Claus"-- MIRACLE uses the ideal of Santa Claus to comment upon the tendency of adults to devalue what Jung called "the fantasy principle" in human culture, particularly as it bears on the raising of children.

Unlike dozens of overt fantasy-films that present all the mythology of Santa Claus as objectively real, the script by writer-director George Seaton allows the audience to disbelieve in the "miracle" for the majority of the film's running-time-- and then throws in a final punchline that validates the truth of the prized fantasy. 

I need not reiterate the usual compliments on Edmund Gwenn's note-perfect rendition of Santa Claus, who's all the more believable for being more feisty than most other versions.  John Payne and a gradeschool Natalie Wood turn in fine performances, as do a host of solid support-characters.  Maureen O'Hara is the real surprise here, though.  As Doris, the mother who tries to rear her child  without the delusions of fantasy, O'Hara must represent the "reality principle" in a way that makes her credible and appealing even though she will be proven wrong. In most of her film-roles O'Hara, though a fine example of Classic Hollywood glamour, does not really distinguish herself as being to deliver more than standard characterizations.  Here she impresses one as a fully fleshed-out human being.

Writer-director George Seaton's script is the real star, though.  While the idea came from a prose short-story, Seaton provides a continuous sense of verisimilitude dealing with the mundane details regarding the way harried adults deal with real life pressures.  Two adult methods for dealing with stress in the period-- booze and psychology-- are strongly referenced.  Two minor characters get comically drunk, while the villain of the tale, the heartless Sawyer, entertains himself by preying on the gullible young clerk Alfred by manipulating the naive fellow with psuedo-psychological pronouncements.  In a sense Sawyer is the negative image of Doris, a type of character oriented on trying to "save" others with her understanding of empirical psychology.  Seaton is also extremely strong in terms of providing motivation and just enough backstory to keep the characters' action credible even in the plot's unusual situation.



In contrast, Disney's 1961 BABES IN TOYLAND is not likely to become a perennial anything, despite its incidental Xmas theme. Even a profoundly silly film like SANTA CLAUS CONQUERS THE MARTIANS-- which would be one of the overt Santa-films referenced above-- still sticks closer to the theme of Christmas.

The original source of Disney's tale was a 1903 operetta by Victor Herbet, concocted to compete with the contemporaneous success of a stage-play derived from L. Frank Baum's THE WONDERFUL WIZARD OF OZ.  I've no acquaintance with any version of the operetta but those adapted to the cinema, but I noticed while watching the 1961 film that it had no concept of a unified fantasy-world.  A city inhabited by characters out of Mother Goose poems exists on the periphery of a "forest of no return," which effectively keeps all of the "Goose-ites" from ever knowing about "Toyland" on the forest's other side.  This resembles what little I know of Baum's approach to fantasy, where odd societies appear chock-a-block on top of one another, with little or no attention to their historical evolution.

The first half of Disney's BABES sticks close to the Mother Goose-town, where the only marvelous entity is Mother Goose's talking pet goose.  Otherwise everything sticks close to the standard operetta-schtick of Young Man Protecting His Beloved from an Evil Old Rich Man-- in this case, "Tom Tom the Piper's Son" (Tommy Sands) protecting Mary Mary Quite Contrary (Annette Funicello) from the advances of the evil Barnaby (Ray Bolger)-- though to be sure, this version of Barnaby has no lustful interest in Mary herself; only in an inheritance to which she's entitled.

Barnaby pays two inept henchmen, Gonzorgo and Rodrigo, to get Tom out of the picture, but they bungle the job and Tom returns to his town and reclaims Mary.  However, one of Barnaby's other schemes to undo Mary's fortunes succeeds, forcing Tom and Mary to go looking for their lost sheep in the Forest of No Return.  After a rather tedious encounter with talking trees-- presumably derived from similar figures in the Baum story-- the heroes are conducted to the town of Toyland, ruled by a dotty old mayor, a sort of Santa Claus manqué called "the Toymaker."  The Toymaker's apprentice Grumio concocts various bizarre inventions, one of which blows up all of the toys intended for children (though apparently not those outside Toyland, since none of the main characters know of the Toymaker's raison d'etre).  Tom, Mary and some of their kid-followers offer to pitch in and make new toys, which is about all the Christmas theme this film can support.

The story quickly rushes back to the operetta-format, for Barnaby and his bumbling accomplices have followed Tom and Mary.  Barnaby gets ahold of a shrinking-ray invented by Grumio and uses it to shrink Tom and the Toymaker.  He forces the Toymaker to officiate a marriage between himself and Mary, but Tom foils him by leading a militia of toy soldiers against Barnaby.  Mary finally makes herself useful by turning the shrink-ray on Barnaby, reducing him to Tom's side so that the two males can have a (nonfatal) duel in approved operetta tradition.  Of course Mary could have just stepped on the miniaturized villain, but maybe that would have destroyed whatever alleged suspense one could derive from BABES.

Aside from Victor Herbert's famous song "I Can't Do the Sum," the music is forgettable, and Disney's dance-routines are no better.  The romantic leads are typically simpering and uninteresting, leaving Bolger-- playing a comic villain much like Disney's version of Captain Hook-- as the only player who can get some fun out of his character.  Bolger performs a few adroit dance-routines, though to be sure, none of them are a patch on his classic work for 1939's THE WIZARD OF OZ.

I've not had a chance to compare this version with the better regarded 1934 film, featuring Laurel and Hardy in the roles of the bungling henchmen.  Oddly, the Disney film casts two actors to look much like the earlier actors, but omits one of the more interesting ideas of the earlier film, in which the toy soldiers are life-size, as I presume they were in the stage play.

[NOTE: I later researched the operetta somewhat, and see no indication that the original stageplay had anything comparable to the giant toy soldiers of the 1934 film, much less the shrink-ray of the Disney effort.]

Most of the comedy is unfunny, aside from one of the Toymaker's lines.  When forced to utter the line to Mary, "Do you take this man to be your husband," he follows up her assent with the comment, "I took him to be your grandfather."





WILD THING (1987), EASY WHEELS (1989)



PHENOMENALITY: *uncanny*
MYTHICITY: *fair*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: (1) *adventure,* (2) *comedy*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTIONS: *sociological*


Here we have two modern-day meditations on the idea of the “feral child.”  In all likelihood most fantasy-film concordances would leave out both of them, since they contain no marvelous content.  To be sure, there are a fair number of feral-child films—notably Francoise Truffaut’s THE WILD CHILD—that remain confined to the level of the naturalistic.  But both WILD THING and EASY WHEELS transform the mundane nature of their environments by the intrusion of an uncanny figure.  One qualifies largely in terms of the "outre outfits skills and devices" trope, while the other fits the "weird families and societies" trope.


WILD THING, scripted by the renowned John Sayles, is clearly a tongue-in-cheek meditation on the Tarzan mythos—though not so invested in humor as to become a comedy.  The character of “Wild Thing”—who never receives any other name—begins as the small child of a hippie couple.  The child's parents are killed by a crime boss and his policeman stooge.  The kid sees a tattoo on the hand of the head crook, which will later lead to a vengeful confrontation, just as Tarzan has to wait for maturity until he can take revenge on the great ape that kills his father.  In contrast to the Burroughs book, though, there are never any quasi-Freudian aspects to the conflict. 


Instead of being raised by apes, Wild Thing is raised by streetpeople, chiefly by Leah, an addled bag-woman who teaches him to avoid all authority, which she refers to as “the Company.”  She’s been victimized by electroshock in an asylum, causing her to rave about how the Company tries to make everyone alike.  This theme isn’t pursued in detail.  Leah perishes during Wild Thing’s childhood just as Tarzan’s foster-mother dies, both having lived long enough to make it probable that the feral child can pursue his own Rousseau-esque existence.


Roaming about the rooftops of the city (which take the place of jungle-trees), Wild Thing becomes a legend to the land-bound inhabitants. The superstition even becomes incorporated into the local culture as a “rite of passage.”  When young Rasheem wants to join a gang of his fellow Afro-Americans (taking the place of jungle-tribes in the Tarzan books), the gang initiates the boy by tying him to a lamppost at night, to see if he has the courage to meet the Wild Thing.  Instead, Rasheem meets a lady social worker by the name of Jane (of course), and both of them are pursued by the hoods of a crime-boss named Chopper.  Rasheem gets away but Jane must be saved by the intervention of the legend himself.


Much of the time, Wild Thing (Rob Knepper) follows the model of Tarzan in cavorting around with minimal clothing.  He doesn’t command animals, though a cat follows him around, giving rise to a legend somewhat credenced by both black and white locals: that Wild Thing can change into a cat.  Through various misadventures Wild Thing romances Jane, learns that Chopper is the man responsible for his parents’ deaths, and takes the appropriate revenge.


WILD THING is by no means a high-energy adventure: the hero only has a handful of battles, and neither the villain nor the hero’s fights against his forces are impressive.  The film does have some winsome moments, as when Jane initiates Wild Thing in the mysteries of sex, or in the many scenes in which Sayles embraces the individualistic weirdness of the street-culture.  However, at no point is it any competition for Sayles’ better film on this theme, THE BROTHER FROM ANOTHER PLANET.


EASY WHEELS also has the feel of a romp, though it’s more purely a comic take on the nearly extinct genre of the biker-film.  Many of these films pit destructive, hell-bent-for-leather “bad bikers” against relatively “good” riders of the open road, and EASY WHEELS takes one cue from these.  It also takes a cue from a handful of female-biker films, though most if not all of these stick close to the naturalistic.


EASY’s one touch of the metaphenomenal hinges upon its main (and villainous) character, She-Wolf (Eileen Davidson), for she’s presented as a feral child raised by wolves.  Her background doesn't give She-Wolf any special abilities or cause her to wear unusual attire, but her experience with the wolves somehow convinces her to found her own tribe of lesbian warriors, apparently modeled on the example of the archaic Amazons.  The film spends no time with questions as to how She-Wolf became a functioning human being, or how she gathered together a gang of lesbian bikers.  In contrast to the matriarchal Amazons, who slept with men from other tribes in order to spawn girl babies—while getting rid of the boys along the way—She-Wolf’s group sells the boy babies to black-market adoption agencies and plans to raise the girls to found their new nation under Lesbos.


As noted above, all of this is pursued in very light-hearted fashion. In deference to the growth of “tough girls” in the movies of the 1980s, all of the biker-amazons are as tough as nails, and they pretty much ride roughshod over all of their opponents, including a gang of goodguy male bikers, known as the Bourne Losers, and led by "Bruce" (Paul Le Mat).  She-Wolf’s only vulnerability is that she falls in love with Bruce. In order to scratch this unexpected hetero itch, She-Wolf convinces her lesbo buddies to emulate the ancient Amazons and have a mass orgy with the guys, purely to produce some girl babies of their own.  The lesbians find out about She-Wolf’s “fbrbidden love” and force her to return to baby-stealing, thus setting up the final battle—which the guys only win by dumb luck.


EASY WHEELS is largely enjoyable for its slapstick fight-scenes and the minor wit of its setup.  Despite the mentions of lesbianism this is at best a PG film, most of which could run unedited on any mainstream TV channel.  One of its scripters was Sam Raimi, who would become bettter known as a director and as a producer for a much better-known amazon-adventure, 1995's XENA WARRIOR PRINCESS.



                  

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

LEGEND OF THE FIST (2011), ABRAHAM LINCOLN: VAMPIRE HUNTER (2012)


PHENOMENALITY: (1) *uncanny, (2) *marvelous*
MYTHICITY: *fair*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *adventure*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTION: *sociological*


Here we have two so-called "mashups" between the events of real-world history and the tropes of metapheneomenal fiction.

Of the two, LEGEND OF THE FIST is the less enjoyable film though the realistic concern behind the film has a bit more bite to it.  The events in this case deal with Chinese resistance to Japanese incursions during the Second Sino-Japanese War (roughly 1937-1945).  The hero of the film is a fictional character named Chen Zhen, first played by Bruce Lee in 1972's FIST OF FURY, though this character may have been based a real-life historical model.

Chen Zhen (Donnie Yen) is first seen as one of many Chinese irregulars who see action in Europe, despite the fact that their own Euro-allies treated them less than humanely.  Unlike his fellows Chen is a supremely talented kung-fu practitioner, but after one battle-sequence he shifts his efforts to wartime Shanghai, where he joins a resistance movement devoted to ousting the Japanese.

As one of Chen's contacts runs a bar-- called "Casablanca" in the English translation-- there are some minor intimations that the film may seek to imitate the plot-action of the famous 1942 film, particularly when the film sets up a potential romantic conflict between Chen, the bar-owner, and a beautiful nightclub-singer named Kiki. However, the romantic subplot never develops, as the film follows previous Chen Zhen films-- not only the Lee flick but also Jet Li's 1994 FIST OF LEGEND-- in concentrating on the feats of the hero as he kicks around various Japanese flunkies, working his way up the food chain until he battles their number-one fighter (Kohata Ryu).

There's not much dramatic interest in the one-note salutes to Chinese nationalism, worthwhile only as a motive for Donnie Yen's exceptional fight-choreography.  As a further salute to Bruce Lee, Chen usually fights the Japanese in the costumed identity of "the Masked Warrior," whose outfit is transparently based on the costume of Kato from the 1960s "Green Hornet" teleseries, which role boosted Bruce Lee to stardom in his native China.  This costume is the only metaphenomenal element in the film, in contrast to the earlier Chen Zhen films, which are resolutely isophenomenal.



ABRAHAM LINCOLN VAMPIRE HUNTER makes some scattered attempts to ground its preposterous concept in the real events of Abraham Lincoln's life, but the attempts are generally superficial. Despite Lincoln's role as "the Great Emancipator" he has not always been a four-square representative of liberal causes, so the film attempts to paint the future President as a thoroughgoing abolitionist. As a child he's seen picking up an axe to defend a black child-friend from a dastardly slaver, who also happens to be a vampire who preys on both black and white Americans.

This gesture is necessary because the film doesn't want to delve into the complex politics of the time.  Bad slaveholders-- mostly but not exclusively Southerners-- are melded with the image of inhuman vampires.  A skillful script could manage to get some sociological myth-mileage out of this, but for ABRAHAM it's little more than a shell game, designed to focus the conflict away from the historical conflict and toward the conflict of fantasy-characters.  I don't have any facile Marxist-style objections to this: I believe the characters of archetypal narratives have their own "lives," so to speak.  But if one is going to bring them into contact with subject matter with intense real-world consequences, then one should make some attempt to blend the best aspects of both fantastic and realistic modes.

The script follows a fairly standard adventure-film pattern without much deviation, even to bringing in the historical William Johnson (Lincoln's black valet) as the hero's ethnic buddy.  The film's main virtue are the high-energy battle-scenes between the axe-wielding "rail-splitter" and his vampiric adversaries-- in particular a cartoonish scene during a horse-stampede.  However, the villains prove less than memorable, and it's instructive to hear one of the filmmakers comment on the DVD that the primary villain, a fellow named Adam, was conceived almost as an afterthought.

Friday, December 21, 2012

THE HOUND OF THE BASKERVILLES (1959)



PHENOMENALITY: *uncanny*
MYTHICITY: *fair*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *drama*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTIONS: *sociological*



SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS


Arthur Conan Doyle’s THE HOUND OF THE BASKERVILLES is not only a classic Sherlock Holmes story; it’s also one of the foremost examples of an author adapting the Gothic trope of “the supernatural explained rationally”—aka my trope “phantasmal figuration”—to the genre of the detective story.  I don’t imagine that Doyle was the first mystery-writer to borrow from the Gothic-writer's bag of tricks.  In any case HOUND is one of the best of its kind, and arguably the Hound, despite being a false horror, is nearly as well known as Holmes himself.


This HOUND was Hammer Films’ only venture into the world of the Great Detective.  The film—directed by renowned horror-meister Terence Fisher-- is not as faithful to the novel as the 1939 film from 20th-century Fox, but Fisher’s film manages to sustain its own identity as well as delivering the mythic content of the story.


The kernel of the story that gives rise to the Hound stays essentially the same.  In the novel, an early ancestor of the Baskerville line—Hugo, an evil roisterer—kidnaps a young girl from one of his yeomen, planning to use her for his pleasure.  She escapes and he pursues her with his hounds, uttering an oath to Satan as he does so.  Satan apparently hears and sends a great hound who kills Hugo, while the girl dies of exhaustion. In the movie, the audience sees Hugo overtake the girl in a forest and knife her to death— which even a non-Freudian would probably recognize as a deferred sex act—after which a mysterious hound shows up and finishes off Hugo. Both scenarios take place in religious settings, with the book-version taking place near some pagan standing-stones and the film setting it in a ruined abbey.  The implication I read into both is that nobility feels itself free to sacrifice the lesser orders, but by so doing, they become the prey of Satan.


The Hound strikes again years later, in the era of Sherlock Holmes, when Sir Charles, reigning heir to the Baskerville estate, dies on the moors, apparently of fright after seeing a “gigantic hound.”  Sir Charles’ doctor, knowing that the new heir Henry is due to arrive, fears some repetition of the incident and hires Holmes to preserve Henry’s life.


The film follows most of the peregrinations of Holmes (Peter Cushing) and Watson (Andre Morrell) as they investigate a wealth of mysterious doings around Baskerville Hall.  The only significant deviation from the novel is that early in the film Henry Baskerville is menaced by a tarantula.  While I imagine the filmmakers threw in this development to escalate the sense of visible danger, its inclusion telegraphs to the audience the likelihood that a merely mortal villain is behind the skullduggery.  
Cushing and Morrell make a good though not exceptional Holmes and Watson, but Christopher Lee proves unable to abandon the hauteur that he brings to most of his roles, and fails to make Henry either vulnerable or likeable.

The greatest transformation relates to the villains behind the phantom Hound—which itself proves unimpressive in the climax, since the filmmakers did not manage to give the creature any sort of ghostly appearance.


In the novel, the villains are the yeoman Stapleton and his wife Beryl, who could be easily viewed as recapitulations of the yeoman and his daughter who are victimized by the reprobate Hugo, and who have “come back to life” to victimize Hugo’s descendant. But the novel's Stapleton passes off Beryl as his sister rather than his wife so that she can vamp Henry, though the two conspirators come to a parting of the ways by novel’s end.  In the film, the girl is one Cecille (Marla Landi), who is Stapledon’s daughter who merely pretend that her father is a tyrant in order to deceive the new lord of the manor. Unlike Beryl, Cecille is very vocal about gaining vengeance upon the exploitative aristocracy.  She not only vamps Henry, she also claims that she did the same to the previous lord Sir Charles, in order to lure him to his death.  Cecille also tries to kill Henry durintg the climax, only to be foiled by the actions of Holmes.


It may be that the greater villainy of Cecille was merely a contrivance to boost the appeal of actress Landi.  However, her recriminations against the aristocracy are not dissimilar to other Hammer transformations of classic horror concepts, wherein the aristocracy usually comes off poorly, particularly 1958’s CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN.  Interestingly, in the opening sequence Hugo calls the innocent girl he kills a “witch,” and this HOUND ends with a very witchy villainess taking over from the male villain, and celebrating her evil on the same deconsecrated grounds where the original maybe-Satanic sacrifice took place. 








Wednesday, December 19, 2012

NUTCRACKER (1986)



PHENOMENALITY: *uncanny*
MYTHICITY: *fair*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *drama*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTIONS: *psychological*


As my ability to judge ballet goes no deeper than "I know what I like," I won't make any detailed analysis of this 1986 stage-performance, except to say that I liked it.  For the most part the film is a filmization of a stage-performance of the traditional Tchaikovsky ballet.  There are one or two scenes that look to have been filmed separately and added in.  For example, when heroine Clara awakes from her long dream, the camera shows a vertiginous "fall" that could not possibly have been duplicated on a stage.  I speculate that this and any similar scenes were the work of renowned animation director Henry Selick, who is credited with "visual adaptation" while Carroll Ballard receives the actual directing credit.

As the image above shows, this is an extremely sumptious production, with costumes and sets given input by renowned author Maurice Sendak.   The psychological subtleties of Clara's dream, as she charts a course toward burgeoning maturity in her encounters with giant mice and the titular nutcracker-soldier, follow the standard patterns; evocative for those unfamiliar with them, but not especially noteworthy otherwise. 

My main reason for referencing this film is because it provides an illustrative contrast to what I wrote about the movie HANS CHRISTIAN ANDERSEN:

In my phenomenological system, a film qualifies for the status of “uncanny” if it presents dreams with such fidelity that they have their own reality within the film’s diegesis. HANS CHRISTIAN ANDERSEN does not do this. The challenge-daydream doesn’t maintain any level of fantastic verisimilitude, nor does the ballet. In terms of my system, a bunch of stage-players enacting a play with fantastic content uses my trope “delirious dreams and fallacious fantasies” purely in a naturalistic manner, since in such scenarios the real-life framing-story nullifies the fantastic content.
This film, and any films which present the story of Clara's dream in this manner, qualify for the uncanny version of the trope "delirious dreams and fallacious figments."  Here we see dancers performing on a stage, but they do not break from the diegesis of the story, in contrast to a similar scene in the Danny Kaye film.  Were the dancers maintaining the same unbroken diegesis for a story that was marvelous rather than uncanny-- say, for the "Little Mermaid" story used in the Kaye film-- then that film would still be marvelous, for all that the audience could see that the performers were only costumed dancers.

LEGEND (1985)



PHENOMENALITY: *marvelous*
MYTHICITY: *good*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *adventure*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTION: *metaphysical, psychological*


I haven't seen the original U.S. version of LEGEND since its original release, so I can't compare it with my recent screening of Ridley Scott's director's cut.  My sole comment is that I thoroughly enjoyed the Jerry Goldsmith score, so I imagine that the so-called "techno-pop" score that took its place in the States would come in second-best.

LEGEND comes roughly halfway between two other big-budget 1980s attempts to do cinematic versions of quasi-Tolkien "high fantasy:" 1983's KRULL and 1988's WILLOW.  Compared to both of these, Scott's film, scripted by William Hjortsberg, doesn't confine itself to merely imitating the window dressings of high fantasy, but shoots for a mythic theme not unlike those of Tolkien's oeuvre.  Whereas all three films deal with a hero's attempt to banish evil and preserve the world of life and light, only LEGEND deals with characters whose failings mirrors the vulnerability of the world.

An opening sequence makes this theme overt, as a shadowy figure in a hell-like domain plots to bring an end to the prevalence of light in the mortal world.  Once darkness covers the world, then Darkness (also the name of the head demon) and his goblins will enjoy unchallenged rulership.

In that world of sun and life, Princess Lily (Mia Sara)-- whose court is never seen, doubtless due to budget restrictions-- goes out into the forest to meet her friend and possible romantic interest Jack (Tom Cruise).  Jack is a "child of the forest" who knows the language of animals, and Lily has charmed him into teaching her the language of animals-- the first signal of the film's emphasis on the feminine ability to ensorcel men without magic. 

Jack, who generally tries to protect the secrets of the forest, seeks to impress the princess by taking her to a secluded grove, to watch the sportings of a male and female unicorn.  Jack knows that they are sacred animals, whose vitality is tied to that of the world.  Lily rashly tries to touch them, but though they stampede at her approach, Lily manages to charm the male with her singing in time-approved virgin-charming-unicorn fashion.

However, Darkness' goblins are watching.  Does Lily's breaking of the taboo give them an opening in some metaphysical manner?  Possibly, for once Lily and Jack have left the goblins manage to ambush the male unicorn, kill it and cut off its horn for use in their plans. 

Jack upbraids Lily for having profaned a mystery.  She changes the subject, flirtatiously offering to marry whatever man can retrieve her ring, just as she throws it into a nearby lake.  Jack springs to retrieve the ring, but fails to locate the bauble (a possible reference to the loss of the One Ring in Tolkien).  He almost loses his life, for when the unicorn's horn is severed, a wave of snow and ice sweeps over the forest, freezing the lake's surface.  Lily comes to believe that her taboo-violation caused the dimunition of life, and seeks to correct her error.  Jack is separated from her but gains other allies devoted to defeating the dark scheme of Darkness: a Puck-like elf, a fairy named Oona, and two dwarfs.  Their only advantage is that because the female unicorn still lives, the world's light has not yet entirely died.  The goblins naturally seek to sacrifice the remaining unicorn, but their scheme is complicated when Darkness himself falls in love with Lily.


The dominant motif of LEGEND is that of the separation of male and female principles, beginning with the killing of the male unicorn (though at the very end of the film he seems to have been reborn, for two unicorns are seen in a "farewell" scene).  After the mystical creature's death, Jack and Lily are apart for most of the narrative, in marked contrast to one of Scott's cited influences: Jean Cocteau's 1946 BEAUTY AND THE BEAST.  Despite the fact that Jack does not satisfy Lily's marriage-task, they have forged a soul-deep loyalty to one another-- a loyalty which is tested when both of them are wooed by supernatural beings.  Lily, spirited to the domain of the goblins, is subjected to Darkness' attempts to seduce her with jewels and an erotic dance.  His magic transforms her into a demonic version of herself (originally, she would have become a cat-like creature as a nod to the Cocteau film), but it's never definitively stated that she's entirely suborned by Darkness' will, and in the end she does manage to betray the demon and save the female unicorn.

Jack, for his part, has another female charmer after him.  The fairy Oona--who originally appears as a dancing light-- transforms herself into a winsome fairy-woman and tries to persuade Jack to love her, even transforming herself into the image of Lily.  Jack manages to resist Oona and also reveals to her fellow creatures a secret she tells him to keep, so that Jack betrays Oona as Lily sort-of betrays Jack.  To be sure, Jack only reveals the secret to save the lives of himself and his allies.

In a commentary on the Old English poem BEOWULF, J.R.R. Tolkien observed that the poem blended elements of the earlier Celtic-pagan culture with those of the newly minted Christian culture.  By chance or by design, Ridley Scott and William Hjortsberg succed in evoking a similar blend of mythic elements.  Characters occasionally reference "God" or "angels," while Darkness is without question based on the image of the Christian Satan, and even follows the Satanic pattern of tempting mortals.  However, it's also a world sustained from start to finish by the magic of the unicorns.  The faerie-creatures have their own morality and not entirely friendly to humans.  When their leader Honeythorn Gump first meets Jack, the elf challenges the human to a riddle-contest, where Jack's life will be forfeit for a wrong answer.   Finally, though Darkness is defeated by a blast of light that disssolves him, he yells as he perishes that he is still a part of all of them. This is  a sentiment more befitting the ideals of modern paganism than of Christianity, which insists that Satan can be definitively defeated and expelled.  Further, the demon's references to "innocence" don't have the usual Christian resonance.  In Christianity innocence is meant to be preserved at all costs, being conflated with all the ideals of the Good.  But in paganism "innocence" is a state that must come to an end due to mortals' ability to make errors-- in effect, to break the taboos of their sacred beliefs, which in a roundabout and un-Christian way, confirms the sacrality of those beliefs.




I will mention one change wrought by the director's cut: Wikipedia testifies that the original release showed hero Jack and heroine Princess Lily riding away together in connubial bliss.  In Scott's preferred version, Jack and Lily pledge love to one another but remain apart because they are from two different worlds.  In a commentary Scott says that this is because if Jack married Lily-- which the plot has repeatedly suggested-- Jack would "die," being that he is a forest child.  This seems an odd choice given that, as noted above, almost everything in the film has emphasized images of what the Greeks called *hieros gamos,* sacred marriage.  Thus I find myself wondering why Scott did not want such a marriage between his lead characters, going against the conclusion where Jack does locate Lily's ring-- and again, in contrast with the conclusion of the Cocteau film.  My speculation is that Scott wanted to imagine his fantasy-world living on beyond the limits of its formal beginning and end, and that the only way to "freeze" it was to keep Jack and Lily in a perpetual trysting-state, where they would continue to meet but not marry.


Monday, December 17, 2012

THE SPECKLED BAND (1931)



PHENOMENALITY: *uncanny*
MYTHICITY: *fair*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *drama*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTIONS: *psychological*

SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS

Conan Doyle's "The Adventure of the Speckled Band" rates with me as one of the best Sherlock Holmes tales, with spooky atmosphere, a hiss-worthy villain, and a method of murder so peculiar that it falls into my category for "bizarre crimes" in the uncanny mode.

The villain of the piece is the fulsomely named "Doctor Grimesby Roylott," though the name is altered to "Rylot" in this 1931 film, apparently the first sound-movie adaptation of the Doyle story.  Roylott is the consummate evil stepfather.  The story tells us that he came from an old but dissolute aristocratic family, but managed to get ahead somewhat by serving as a medical man in India, which exotic locale helps him come up with the aforementioned murder-method.  Back in England, Roylott makes a good marriage-- especially good for him in that his wife passes away shortly (apparently not by foul means) and leaves Roylott an inheritance contingent on the condition that he continue to care for his wife's two grown daughters by a previous marriage.  When one of the daughters threatens to marry and leave Roylott's care, she indirectly imperils Roylott's fiscal security.

To give the game away, Roylott murders the first stepdaughter by unleashing one of his Indian beasts-- a poisonous swamp adder-- through a ventilator leading into her room.  The crime goes undetected, but a year later the second stepdaughter also announces an engagement.  However, her stepfather so terrifies her that she fears on some intuitional level a repeat of her sister's fate. Thus she appeals to Sherlock Holmes to solve the mystery, which the detective does, in such a way that the "biter" gets very literally bitten.

The 1931 film seems to follow the basic text faithfully, but the only surviving version has been severely cut, possibly having lost anywhere from 10 to 20 minutes.  One of the worst cuts appears during a scene where the irascible Doctor Roylott confronts Holmes at the detective's office.  In the prose story, this provides Holmes fans with one of the best hero-villain faceoffs, as the huge-shouldered Roylott illustrates his malice to Holmes by grabbing a fireplace poker and bending it double.  Roylott then leaves before Holmes makes his riposte, calmly taking the poker in hand and bending it back to normal with his own strength.  In the 1931 film, Roylott confronts Holmes, they exchange words, and then a mysterious cut shows Roylott leaving quickly.  Was the poker-scene filmed in some manner?  The world may never know. 

This film was the first and only time in which respected actor Raymond Massey played Holmes for the cinema. Massey makes a decent but rather cold and imperious Holmes, while a bald actor named Athole Stewart plays a fairly "straight" John Watson (though Holmes still picks on him somewhat).

Lyn Harding, who would play Professor Moriarty in two future Holmes films, chews the scenery as the perpetually angry "Rylot," but his characterization does contribute the film's one original mythic moment.  The heritage of Freud makes it impossible to think of an evil stepfather preying on his daughters-by-marriage without sexual motivations, particularly when both women are about to marry when Roylott makes attempts on their lives.  However, the Doyle story constantly emphasizes that Roylott's only motive for violence is money.  To be sure, Holmes discovers that his client has received a modicum of violent treatment from Roylott, for the detective descries bruise-marks on the woman's wrist-- but this in itself still does not connote sexual motivations for the villain.  However, the film-- directed by one Jack Randolph, whose other credits seem to be a group of utterly forgotten Brit-flicks-- adds a scene at the manor, in which Rylot tries to force the stepdaughter to sleep in the same room where her sister died.  The sight of the huge older man trying to force the sweet young thing into a bedroom can't help but communicate sexual overtones, and I suspect that one of the filmmakers added the scene to spice up the proceedings a bit.


THE SECRET OF NIMH (1982)



PHENOMENALITY: *marvelous*
MYTHICITY: *poor*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *drama*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTION: *psychological, sociological*



Though famed animation director Don Bluth got his start working on classic Disney cartoon-features, most of his independent works seemed to attempt to outdo Disney in the sentimentality department. Bluth was not alone in this reaction to the Disney corpus. In the book SEVEN MINTES author Norman Klein asserts that during Disney’s heyday in the 1940s many animated shorts of the period emulated what their creators assumed to be the appeal of Disney cartoons: lots of ootsy-cutesy critters. Those cartoon-makers often missed the darker, harder aspects of the Disney oeuvre, and I regard Don Bluth followed in their footsteps with works like AMERICAN TAIL and ALL DOGS GO TO HEAVEN.

That said, Bluth’s first animated feature, THE SECRET OF NIMH, suffers the least from oversentimentality. This may be because NIMH adapts a 1971 children’s fantasy, MRS. FRISBY AND THE RATS OF NIMH. I have not read the book, but apparently the NIMH-film is reasonably close to the original. Both chronicle the efforts of an intelligent mouse-mamma—whose name is changed to “Mrs. Brisby” in the cartoon-- to save her brood from extinction. The widow Brisby, whose husband Jonathan died under mysterious circumstances, attempts to raise her four children in a makeshift home made from an abandoned cinderblock.

Unfortunately for her, her home is in a farmer’s plowing-field. I’m not clear on the reason why this circumstance hasn’t been a problem for her family in earlier years, but at the time of the film, Mrs. Brisby can’t pick up and leave her domicile without endangering the life of her youngest child, who’s sick with pneumonia. Her only option is to get help in moving her whole house out of the path of the farmer’s tractor.

She gets some help from her family doctor (also a mouse) and a comic-relief helper, a crow named Jeremy. But the only ones who can mount the resources necessary to bodily move her house are the mysterious Rats of Nimh.

A backstory eventually reveals that these rats, as well as several mice in the vicinity—including the late Jonathan, though not his wife—had their intelligence boosted in government experiments. One probably shouldn’t inquire too closely as to why both the experiment-subjects and “wild” creatures like Mrs. Brisby all share the same intellect and the same propensity to wear clothes. The important distinction of the Rats of Nimh is that they have the capacity for technological advancement, which means that they can mount the resources necessary to move the house with the sick child still inside. On the down side, Mrs. Brisby learns that there’s a schism in the Rats’ society, between those who want to keep stealing some of the resources from human culture, and those who want to make their society independent of humans.

The moral debate isn’t framed with any particular depth: the “naysayers” are represented by a scurrilous evildoer named Jenner, while the “independence party” is represented by a wise old rat named Nicodemus and a handsome figure of a rat named Justin. Romance between the mouse-widow and the swashbuckling rat is suggested. This may seem remarkable because Mrs. Brisby is one of the few female protagonists of an animated film who is neither a cute little child nor a hot babe.

There are some clever slapstick scenes with Jeremy, and one strong scare-scene worthy of Disney’s best, when Mrs. Brisby must seek counsel from the spooky-looking Great Owl, despite her awareness that owls eat mice. But the storyline, emphasizing the Rats’ mastery of science, is somewhat confused by the intrusion of a magical talisman of no precise origins. The talisman’s only function in the plot seems to be to give Mrs. Brisby some supernatural help at the climax, a plot-device that seems drawn more from Steven Spielberg than from Disney. But weak ending aside, at least some of the characters in NIMH aren’t constantly deluging the audience in cute-osity.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

SHERLOCK HOLMES IN NEW YORK (1976), THE RETURN OF SHERLOCK HOLMES (1987), WITHOUT A CLUE (1988)



PHENOMENALITY: (1) *uncanny* (2) *marvelous* (3) *naturalistic*
MYTHICITY: (1) *fair,* (2) *fair*, (3) *poor*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: (1) *adventure, (2) *drama,* (3) *comedy*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTIONS: *psychological, sociological*


For a character conceived to fit a very specific time, place, and genre, Sherlock Holmes has proven remarkably agile in leaping into new variations on all three.  However, in respect to his phenomenality Arthur Conan Doyle’s creation was quite variable, which may have made it easier for the reader to think of Holmes in altered circumstances.  Though the majority of the Doyle stories possess a naturalistic phenomenality, one tale, “The Adventure of the Creeping Man,” takes the plunge into the marvelous subject matter of SF, while a fair number of stories, particularly the famed “Hound of the Baskervilles,” follow the tropes of the uncanny.

The telemovie SHERLOCK HOLMES IN NEW YORK follows the uncanny pattern, though only in a marginal respect.  Though NEW YORK is fairly versed in the Sherlockian mythos, it does not attempt to follow the prose tales’ story of the master detective’s encounters with Professor Moriarty.   At the start of the film, Holmes, having decimated Moriarty’s organization, confronts his nemesis (John Huston) in the crimelord’s house.  Moriarty demonstrates to the detective that the house is tricked-out with a small assortment of death-devices—a throwing-knife trap, a falling chandelier—but then he promises that he has worse plans for Holmes than simply killing him.  The villain flees London, and when Holmes is called abroad to consult on a robbery case in New York, the hero finds that Moriarty has preceded him there.

Moriarty’s revenge would be unthinkable in the world of Conan Doyle, wherein Sherlock Holmes seems to remain a celibate bachelor all his life.  NEW YORK’s script imagines that Holmes’ admiring relationship with the opera-star adventuress Irene Adler went a good ways beyond mere admiration.  As a result of a tryst between Holmes and Adler, she conceived a son, now about five years old, without Holmes’ knowledge.  Holmes is forced to back off the case lest his kidnapped son be killed.  Naturally Holmes finds a way to regain his natural offspring, after which Holmes and Irene Adler part without seriously considering a permanent reunion.  The Holmes-Moriarty battle concludes back in London, where Holmes must run the gamut of the death-dealing Moriarty house before coming to grips with the fiendish professor.  There’s enough emphasis on the action-sequences that I feel justified in labeling this one “adventure” rather than “drama.”

Both the action and the detective-work are better than average, though nothing especially memorable.  Roger Moore does decently with the ratiocinative work, though at many points he still seems to be playing a more gung-ho hero along the line of the TV “Saint.”  Charlotte Rampling makes an attractive Irene Adler, though she displays none of the cleverness of the original, and John Huston makes a good, vengeance-obsessed criminal genius.  The character of John Watson is horribly underwritten, giving Patrick MacNee nearly nothing to do.



Just as NEW YORK becomes uncanny through just a few marginal elements, THE RETURN OF SHERLOCK HOLMES is marvelous by nature of just one device: a cryogenic device that allows Sherlock Holmes (Michael Pennington) to circumvent death in his Victorian era.  He awakens in the 1980s thanks to the ministrations of private detective Jane Watson (Margaret Colin), the great-great granddaughter of Sherlock Holmes’ sidekick.  The script devotes no great attention as to how Holmes acquired/invented a cryogenic device in his era.  Once the setup is done, the remainder of the story stays within a naturalistic sphere, as Watson involves Holmes in one of her cases.

The nature of the crime proves of negligible interest; the script’s emphasis is on the “odd-couple” pairing of the crime-solvers.  What makes the mythicity of RETURN higher than average is that there’s a little more here than the standard “fish-out-of-water” schtick, though the telefilm incorporates many of these.  The setup for Holmes’ frozen time-travel is odd, for though he relates that he successfully killed Professor Moriarty in the Victorian era, just like in Doyle's story of Moriarty's demise, the detective is infected with a fatal disease by Moriarty’s twin brother.  Since neither Moriarty nor any descendant thereof appears in the film, clearly the writer could have just had the original Moriarty infect Holmes.  Why bother with the “twin brother” explanation?  Possibly because the villain’s rationalized resurrection provides a mirror to that of the hero?

The relationship of Holmes and the new Watson is also psychologically intriguing.  In the original Watson, Holmes had something of a “little brother,” constantly following him around and marveling at his elder’s perspicacity.  But upon being brought back to life in another era, this Holmes becomes as a little child, and Watson becomes something of a harried mother, trying to guide him through the complexities of the twentieth century.

That the script is aware of this irony is testified by the fact that it doesn’t propose any romantic interest between Watson and her precocious charge.  Instead, during the case Watson receives some attention from a handsome young FBI agent.  Holmes’ reaction is at first jealous in a childish manner.  Later he makes an attempt to set them up, as if in childish curiosity about what goes on between men and women.

The film’s most amusing scene carries a certain irony.  During an investigation Watson tells Holmes not to enter a certain storefront, because it’s an adult bookstore.  Holmes loftily replies, “Well, I’m an adult,” and goes in—only to emerge moments later with a stunned expression on his face.  The irony of the scene is that in the real Victorian world (if not Doyle’s version of it) pornography flourished. Of course a time-traveler from Holmes’ era might have been repulsed by the sheer explicitness of modern porn, but not by pornography itself.  The tenor of the scene suggests rather than Holmes hails from a more “innocent” time—which was not entirely the case.



WITHOUT A CLUE, the naturalistic Holmes-tale in this trio, reinvents the canon as a species of baggy-pants metafiction.  Doyle experts will know that the author was himself a practicing physician, before Sherlock Holmes’ stories boosted him into prominence as an author, and that in later years Doyle—also an amateur detective on occasion—complained that his association with Holmes harmed his career.

On that peg CLUE’s script hangs the notion that Doctor John Watson (Ben Kingsley) invented the character of Sherlock Holmes as a cover for his own detecting activities, which he thought might imperil his standing as a physician.  He also wrote stories about Holmes so persuasively that all of London came to believe in the detective’s existence.  To maintain the illusion of Holmes’ reality, Watson was obliged to hire an out-of-work actor (Michael Caine) to pretend to be Holmes and take the credit for Watson’s accomplishments—which happen to include foiling the schemes of crime-czar Moriarty (Paul Freeman).

Watson mightily resents the alter-ego he’s created, especially since the reality of the august “Holmes” is a low-class fellow who chases skirts and racks up gambling debts.  For his part, the actor hates being forced to mind his P’s and Q’s all the time.  Thus Watson’s fiction births yet another “odd couple” of crimefighters, constantly quarreling yet being forced to fight crime thanks to the expectations of the audience.

CLUE has some funny bits, and it shows more than passing awareness of the canon.  For instance, it includes John Clay, the villain of “The Adventure of the Red-Headed League,” cast here as a minion of Moriarty.  However, CLUE’s script offers only a shallow take on the relationship of “Watson-figured-as-Doyle” and “Holmes-figured-as-fictional-construct.” The nature of Moriarty’s big scheme—which Watson and Doyle succeed in solving together, to show how well they end up influencing each other—proves eminently forgettable, and little is done with the fact that Moriarty alone realizes that Holmes is a fraud and that Watson is the villain’s real foe. The flick is a pleasant enough comedy, but as far as real psychological insight, the movie doesn’t have a CLUE.         

SLEEPING BEAUTY (1959)



PHENOMENALITY: *marvelous*
MYTHICITY: *good*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *drama*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTION: *psychological, metaphysical*


It could be argued that SLEEPING BEAUTY is the first “Disney prince” film, since so much of the action revolves around the male lead.  Certainly my best childhood memories of the film—possibly in an early re-release, as I would’ve been age four for the first release—are of the bravura closing act of the film, with particular emphasis on Prince Philip’s escape from the castle of Maleficent.  As a child I was particularly fascinated by the magical transformations in the escape-scene, wherein the Three Good Fairies change arrows into flowers, or protect Philip from boiling oil with a rainbow.  This was perhaps my first exposure to an “otherworldly fantasy” in the form of a full-length film, though I imagine I’d seen short cartoons on similar subject matter.

Two earlier “princess films,” SNOW WHITE and CINDERELLA, followed a pattern common to many European folktales, in which a girl of high standing is reduced to domestic drudgery, only to recover her former status by marrying up. What this trope meant in the folktales has received a good deal of speculation, but in this essay I can only deal with what it may’ve meant in the Disney films.  For SNOW WHITE and CINDERELLA, it’s essential that the central female characters should accept their domestic duties with grace and good cheer.  This in turn earns them the regard of woodland creatures and of supernatural benefactors, both of which are oriented on helping the “princess-brought-low” to escaping the life of drudgery through marriage.

SLEEPING BEAUTY is not the same sort of animal.  Though the Disney film works in a sequence about Princess Aurora being raised in lowly circumstances—though to be sure, she never knows any other state of affairs—the main trope of the original folktale is that of “the princess enchanted.”  In the standard “Sleeping Beauty” narrative, the princess’ enchantment causes her and her kingdom to sleep for hundreds of years, until she’s awakened from her sleep by the kiss of a prince. 
 
 Though waking the princess with the kiss of a total stranger passed muster in 1938’s SNOW WHITE, for whatever reason the script of 1959’s SLEEPING BEAUTY chose a diametrically opposed approach.  Precisely because Aurora is raised in humble circumstances—a “fortunate fall” if there ever was one—she has the chance to “meet cute” with Philip, so that they can fall in love prior to discovering that they have already been engaged to one another by their parents.  This comic plot means that both Aurora and her kingdom don’t descend into sleep for more than a day or so, so that Aurora can be rescued, not by the mere stereotype of a marriageable prince, but by a true love aroused with no thought of one’s improvement in social standing.

Still, though many viewers might not mind the excision of domestic drudgery from Aurora’s program, it must be admitted that without these or something similar, Princess Aurora seems to have it a little too easy.  Without the necessity to show “grace under pressure,” she seems to exist for two purposes, to be beautiful and to be married.

All this said, it might not be correct to consider BEAUTY as either a “princess” or a “prince” film.  The true conflict is, for the first time in a Disney film, between two feminine forces—quite in contrast to the original folktales, where both good and bad fairies exist solely to establish the circumstances under which the princess is first cursed, and then allowed to survive the curse under certain conditions.  At times the whole thing is brought about by some functionary simply forgetting to invite the “bad fairy,” which brings about the whole conflict.

BEAUTY, in contrast, polarizes the forces of good and evil more decisively.  It’s no accident that malicious Maleficient isn’t invited; good fairy Meriwether makes this explicit.  Indeed, Maleficent is so deliciously in love with being evil that one imagines she might’ve cursed Aurora even if she had been invited.  The king-fathers of both Aurora and Philip are utterly impotent in this conflict, and neither child has a mother with any function in the story—doubtless because Maleficent and the Three Good Fairies subsume the roles of “bad mother” and “good mothers” respectively.  From the first, the battle-lines are drawn between the three fairy-sisters—who are chubby and somewhat competitive with another, but eminently forces of life—and cadaverous Maleficient, who rules a gloomy death-realm and has but one totem-animal, an unnamed raven, who provides her with affection.  Further, it could be said that the script takes the essence of the folktale’s concern—that of an enchantment that stands outside time—and reverses it.  Maleficent mocks Philip with the threat of keeping Philip imprisoned until he’s a bent old man, so that he cannot possibly be united with his ever-youthful beloved.  The fairies intervene to foil the time-binding enchantment and thereby to restore the proper alliance of young lovers.

Given this relatively cosmic scope— suggested in part by Maleficent’s claim to harness “the powers of hell”-- one might argue that even though Prince Philip slays the matriarchal dragon in the end, he’s just as much a pawn as Aurora in the fairies’ chess-game.  At the very least it seems evident that the fairies can’t conquer the Dragon of Death without Philip, and he needs their help just as much to counter Maleficent’s forces.  It’s an unusual take on the heroic tale, where mothers, even magical ones, usually do not participate much.  One can find a smattering of hero-tales in which male hero and female heroine team up to defeat evil—say, Buck Rogers and Wilma Deering, whose alliance dates back to 1929.  But how often can one see Buck Rogers defeat evil thanks to an alliance with Wilma’s mother?

In a DVD commentary on BEAUTY, it’s said that SLEEPING BEAUTY was the end of an era for Disney, due to the rising costs of making such sumptious, highly stylized fantasies.  Certainly none of Disney’s 1960s animated features are quite as ambitious as BEAUTY, and I’d say that even the best works of the Michael Eisner years—LITTLE MERMAID being among the main contenders—there’s not quite the same focus on otherworldly enchantment.

I've labeled the mythos of SLEEPING BEAUTY as being akin more to "drama" than "adventure" given that the heavy emphasis on romance, while I label it "combative" due to the invocation of a "good vs. evil" battle at the climax.

 

CINDERELLA (1950)




PHENOMENALITY: *marvelous*
MYTHICITY: *fair*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *drama*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTION: *psychological, sociological*


CINDERELLA’s never been one of my favorites.  It may be the United States’ best feature-length cinematic adaptation of the French folktale, but for me it feels too much like a repeat of tropes made familiar from Disney’s 1938 SNOW WHITE.

I can see the reasons why the Disney scripters chose to ring in a seemingly endless number of adorable little animals, predominantly mice.  The storyline isolates Cinderella from anyone but her cruel stepmother and nasty stepsisters, which would have been a lot of tragedy to endure without some comic relief.  I might have even liked the mice if I’d found them funny, but their efforts on behalf of “Cinderelly” have always seemed like nothing but Disney recycling routines from their cartoon shorts—not least during their “Tom-and-Jerry” battles with the stepmother’s evil cat Lucifer.

The strongest mythicity of CINDERELLA can be found in its revisiting of the theme of 1938’s SNOW WHITE: the heroine, by accepting her duty to perform meaningless drudgery, displays a “grace under pressure” that indicates her fitness to become a princess. Cinderella also becomes a surrogate mother to the mice and birds attracted to her kindness, though I can’t help remarking that in real-world households the mice, not the cat, would be the enemies of good housekeeping.

This Cinderella—who is given that name by her widowed father, rather than as a comment on her being dirty with fireplace-cinders-- is a little more fully realized than Disney’s Snow White.  She doesn’t defy her stepmother directly, but she does have a minor moment of temper, threatening to use a broom to thrash the cat for continuing to chase mice. At the climax, when she’s confined to a closet by the evil stepmother, Cinderella even takes a degree of action in telling the birds to bring the hound Bruno to chase off Lucifer.  This order ends up being a little more deadly than she might anticipate, since Bruno’s advent causes the cat to fall to his probable death in one of the film’s gutsier moments.

Were there no fairy godmother in the film—and Drew Barrymore’s EVER AFTER shows how the same story could be told without the element of magic—the only fantasy-elements would be those of the anthropomorphic animals.  This lesser emphasis upon magic—at least in comparison with SNOW WHITE— seems to evolve from the original tale more than any decision by Disney.  Indeed, in his essay “On Fairy-Stories” J.R.R. Tolkien commented on a want of “faerie” in fairytales of French ancestry.  That’s certainly true of “Cinderella,” where the stepmother-villain is an entirely ordinary domestic tyrant and the fabled “glass slipper” may have been a mistranslation of a more mundane “fur slipper.”  Curiously, for the sake of a last minute peril, the slipper brought by the prince’s emissary shatters, just like it was already real glass (making one wonder how the girl ever danced in them).  But Cinderella has happily kept the other slipper, thus proving her identity—which seems like an odd rewriting of the original tale.

On the plus side, it does keep consistent its theme of believing in dreams despite all evidence to the contrary; significantly, when the fairy godmother shows up, she tells Cinderella—in a blue funk from having her dress torn up—that the godmother couldn’t have shown up if Cinderella had really lost all faith.  It would have been interesting had the script expanded on this point a little.  At worst, such expansion might have taken away one of the mice-scenes.    

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

KING OF THE ROCKET MEN (1949), RADAR MEN FROM THE MOON (1952), ZOMBIES OF THE STRATOSPHERE (1952)



PHENOMENALITY: *marvelous*
MYTHICITY: *poor*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *adventure*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTION: *sociological*


One of the most memorable creations to evolve during the serial chapterplay’s declining years was Republic Studio’s “Rocketman.”  He may be the most recognizable original creation of the sound-era serials, thanks to his metal helmet, personal rocket-pack, and the now-archaic dial with which he controls his flight—all adding up to the very personification of 1930s “Buck Rogers” SF.  Yet, because his adventures take place in modern times, he suggests the increasing awareness of 1950s audiences that scientific miracles no longer required the distance of centuries to evolve.  Such gimmicks could become the path of the future for law enforcement, as opposed to the eccentric productions of “death rays” arising from assorted mad scientists like the one in THE VANISHING SHADOW.

Clearly in the minds of the Republic writers, the costume, not the character, was the star.  In these three serials, the rocket-suit is parceled off to three separate heroes, none of whom are related to one another.  Jeff King, inventor of the suit in KING OF THE ROCKET MEN, disappears and “Commando Cody” dons the rocket-pack in RADAR MEN FROM THE MOON.  Allegedly ZOMBIES OF THE STRATOSPHERE was planned as a direct sequel with Commando Cody again as the hero, but for whatever reason the hero became one “Larry Martin.”  The Commando did get the most exposure of them all, though, as he later appeared in his own 1950s teleseries.  All three serials saw old hand Fred C. Bannen in the director’s chair.  Though his direction was never outstanding, the “Rocketman” serials show Bannen at the top of his game, as he and his collaborators devised ingenious ways to work a flying man into the usual gunplay and car chases.

KING follows a by-then familiar pattern: a mystery villain, one Doctor Vulcan, is killing off the world’s scientists.  Jeff King, who happens to be one of those scientists, elects to use his newly invented rocket-suit to chase down Vulcan and his thugs.  The serial is a good basic romp, but only comes alive when Rocketman’s doing his specialty stunts.

Tristam Coffin, a familiar serial-face usually seen playing heavies, does a competent job as Jeff King, but doesn’t have much heroic charisma.  Mae Clarke, best known in genre-circles as the female lead in 1932’s FRANKENSTEIN, was somewhat older than the general run of serial-heroines, and her role—that of yet another female reporter—is largely thankless.  Still, Clarke delivers her flat serial-dialogue with aplomb, and during one fight-scene with a male thug, actually bounces a punch off his jaw before he decks her—a rare self-assertion for a female support-character in the rowdy serial-world.  The villain is merely seen in shadow to conceal his identity until the last chapters, and so doesn’t take on any iconic stature, as one sees with the villains of MANDRAKE THE MAGICIAN and THE WHISPERINGSHADOW.  He does, however, have an interesting line of dialogue in the climactic chapter, when he chooses to explain his name to the hero; something about “Vulcan” being a symbol of his desire to “forge” his own destiny.  It’s a rare serial-villain who stoops to admit that his chosen cognomen is a little on the weird side.

A new writer is credited on the next two serials: Ronald Davidson, who had previously scripted FLYING DISC MAN OF MARS.  Instead of his battling a mundane mad scientist, Commando Cody (George Wallace) is placed in a more cosmic conflict, albeit one that reads like a rewrite of WWII scenarios, no doubt still potent seven years after the close of the war.  Acts of sabotage alert Commando Cody to the presence of a truly alien presence on American shores.  The saboteurs have recourse to atomic technology that Earth has not yet mastered, so  Cody, fearing that this means America will find itself on the wrong end of an arms race, takes a quick hop to the Moon and meets with alien leader Retik (Roy Barcroft).  Retik is pleased to reveal his entire plan to Cody: after his agents soften up Earth’s defenses (which seem covalent with those of the United States), the Moonmen will invade Earth with a fleet of ships armed with atomic technology.  Retik’s motive is a familiar one: since the Moon has lost so much of its air that its natives can barely traverse the surface without suits, the denizens plan to dispossess the Earthlings of their planet—a science-fictional rewriting of that old excuse, Liebenstraum.  Naturally, Cody survives his commando raid and returns to Earth, taking an atomic weapon with him in order to even up the arms race—though Earth’s possession of the weapon never adds up to much in the way of plot-developments.

Instead, the plot follows a path more like that of 1937’s DICK TRACY.  Cody figures out that the invasion will be delayed or foiled if he and his allies can keep the saboteurs from fully weakening their target’s defenses.  At the same time, the alien assigned to Earth, a fellow named Krog, finds himself short of funds and starts sending out his hired Earth-thugs to bring in more money, usually on such ill-considered schemes as kidnapping Commando Cody to hold him for ransom (!)  Once again, the bulk of the serial deals in mundane action-stunts, but the scripter and FX-team put together a better variety of rocket-suit stunts than KING boasted.

George Wallace plays Cody with even less charisma than did Tristam Coffin in KING.  Aline Towne puts forth a spirited girl-helper type, but modern audiences will perhaps groan when she’s only allowed to go on the trip to the moon because she’s a good cook.  Barcroft is as always a fine larger-than-life villain, but he stays out of the action except in the early and late chapters.  Clayton Moore compensates quite a bit as Krog’s number-one henchman Graden, as Moore’s resonant voice alone makes his scenes pleasurable.

Though the title of the next serial-- ZOMBIES OF THE STRATOSPHERE—doesn’t make much sense, it may have come about from scripter Davidson’s penchant for odd word-associations.  There are of course no zombies in any of the Rocketman serials, but in RADAR Cody, just returned from the Moon, tells his allies: “Retik plans to invade the Earth with the zombie from the moon.”  Retik’s aides on the Moon—all two of them—do have a sunken-eyed zombie-look to them, as does Krog.  One may assume that Cody used the term “zombie” as a general comment on the appearance of the Moonmen—though I have no idea why Cody would use the singular form.  As for “stratosphere,” the word is tossed out in one of RADAR’s chapter-titles, so one assumes that Davidson needed a catchy title for the next serial and jammed the two together.

The final Rocketman serial provides no more explanation for the use of “zombie” than did the previous entry, and apart from the title the word’s only used three times by my count.  This time the villains are Martians, wearing roughly the kind of bodysuits seen in RADAR but lacking the hollow-eyed look.  The aliens’ leader Marex (Lane Bradford) thinks on an even bigger scale than Retik.  Because Mars can’t sustain life any more, Marex—more adventurous than the rather retiring Retik—lands on Earth with just one Martian helper, Narab (Leonard Nimoy).  Marex recruits a crew of thugs and one renegade American scientist named Harding, a traitor who’s already in contact wth America’s foreign enemies.  The grand plan: detonate a hydrogen bomb on Earth that will hurl Earth out of orbit, so that Mars can take its place.

“It may sound ridiculous, but it’s theoretically possible,” claims hero Larry Martin (Judd Holdrin) in the final chapter’s wrap-up scene.  I tend to doubt that anyone in 1952 would have believed that, beyond just playing along with the cosmic imagery for the sake of a slam-bang story.  Still, at least ZOMBIES doesn’t suggest an impending large-scale alien invasion and then wimp out, as did RADAR.  Because Davidson’s script never implies a level of alien activity above that of lowly saboteurs, the serial doesn’t promise more than its budget can deliver.

That said, ZOMBIES feels less expansive than RADAR with its frequent use of outdoor location shots.  Granted, RADAR could never convince anyone that its characters had walked on the moon.  But in ZOMBIES the greater concentration on indoor sets removes a lot of the Rocketman’s raison d’etre.  Rocketman just doesn’t “rocket” as much this time.  The villains have less personality than in either of the previous entries, though Nimoy’s scenes are rendered more interesting purely by virtue of the actor’s later SF-icon status.

The stunts are decent but not overly memorable, with the exception of two cliffhangers. In one scene, the hero’s gal-pal Sue (Aline Towne) gets dragged into the briny deep by an anchor.  Ironically, she doesn’t make a sound, though this would have been a perfectly justified occasion for a scream.  The other cliffhanger pits Larry the Rocket Guy against the Martians’ slow-moving tin-can robot—a robot-suit recycled from Republic’s MYSTERIOUS DOCTOR SATAN.  Firesign Theater’s serial-parody J-MEN FOREVER best described the robot as an “enraged water heater.”  Still, the sight of Rocketman clashing with the robot displays a good superhero vibe, though the scene gets a little wonky when the robot tries to kill Larry Martin with a mundane axe.

Despite the limitations on “rocket-action,” Judd Holdrin comes off as having the greatest heroic charisma of the three Rocketmen.  No one asks Aline Towne to cook this time.  She helps out a bit more, firing a pistol at the attacking robot (to no effect, of course) and helping the guy-heroes short out the mechanical man’s circuits.  In a late chapter Bannen and Davidson bring the robot back into the fight under the control of the good guys.  Unfortunately—or perhaps fortunately for patrons of “so bad it’s good” flicks—in the robot’s last big scene, it simply scares a bad guy into jumping off a cliff by wielding a handheld sparkler at the thug.

My rating of the three thus boils down to:

KING= most interesting villain

RADAR= most exciting stunts and sets

ZOMBIES= most charismatic hero