Monday, March 31, 2014

"I rebelled 'cause I was tired of kissin' butt." A quick look at Rebel Angels

Some time ago I made mention of Hell Lost, a webcomic produced by James Turner, the artist best known for Rex Libris. It transpires that since then, the series has been published through SLG as a digital comic which you can purchase from Comixology; in this comic book format the series has been retitled Rebel Angels.

How to describe Rebel Angels? Imagine a comedy series which uses Milton's Paradise Lost as it's, er, Bible, and attempts a visual style which references many famous paintings of Hell (I think I see a Hieronymus Bosch influence?). Being James Turner, it also features vast, meticulously detailed buildings and some lewd humour. There's a lot more violence and profanity than Rex Libris contained - but what do you expect from Hell?

The plot is essentially one great civil war in Hell, as Balthazar is sent by Satan himself to destroy Baal. The cast of demons constitute a wide assortment of odd-looking critters, including a very hyperactive talking sword.

Now, you can read Hell Lost for free on the web - but why not pony up $1 a piece for the comic book version, Rebel Angels? Show the book some love - it's the best way to ensure it continues.

Sunday, March 30, 2014

The stuff leers are made of: the Maltese Falcon, 1931 version

Watching the 1931 film version of Dashiell Hammett's the Maltese Falcon is an interesting exercise - proving mainly to demonstrate why John Huston's 1941 film is such a fine piece of cinema.

After the success of the 1941 version, Warner Bros. weren't eager to let the 1931 version (or the 1936 attempt, Satan Met a Lady) be confused with it, hence selling it to television under the title "Dangerous Female," an utterly generic moniker. And yet, anyone familiar with the book or '41 version would quickly surmise what they were watching after only a few minutes because the 1931 is very faithful to the novel, much like the 1941.

Two faithful adaptations of a novel; yet, one fell into obscurity and remains there, only really of interest because the novel and '41 version have such devoted fans. Here's my take on the '31, directed by Roy Del Ruth:

After depicting San Francisco's streets, the film opens on the silhouette of a woman kissing Sam Spade; leaving the office, she straightens her stockings. From the start, you can see the difference in sexuality back in the pre-code days - this is a much sexier film than the '41 and in that way, much truer to the original book.

However, the first bit of bad news is Sam Spade himself - played by actor Ricardo Cortez. As I've found in all the 30s films I've seen of him, Cortez is a grinning, snide twerp. Although he has much of the same dialogue in this film as Bogart in '41, he doesn't project any of Bogart's vulnerability - nearly all of his lines are spoken through a grin - or a sneer. Unlike the '41's Spade whom we can see is taking awful risks as he tries to solve his partner's death and keep both the police and the killers off his back, Cortez's Spade is supremely confident and never at a loss - right there, the '41 wins, game over.

Still, let's keep going. After sending his female client away and idly romancing Effie (Una Merkel, easily cuter than '41's Lee Patrick, though Satan Met a Lady's Marie Wilson out-cutes them both and is the best part of that latter film), he enters his office and has his next client ushered in: Ruth Wonderly (Bebe Daniels, in fine form). During his interview, he's interrupted by a phone call from Iva (Thelma Todd), his partner's wife. Four women in as many minutes! Unlike Bogart's later performance, this Spade is unambiguously a womanizer.

At this point, another key difference between the '31 & '41 appears: while the '41 tells everything (except Archer's death) from Spade's perspective, this film takes occasional detours to feature scenes without Spade. Here, Archer (Walter Long) arrives in the office and eavesdrops on Spade's conversation with Iva. So, he knows about Sam & Iva's affair. What does this mean? Well, if you know the story, Jack all - Archer dies in the next scene.

After Archer's death (in this version it happens off-screen), Spade journeys to the murder scene but declines to see the body; he pauses for a moment to hold a conversation with a Chinese man, but as it's conducted in faux-Chinese we aren't privy to the details (this is a huge alteration to the story, in fact, and completely changes Spade's character). Later, the police drop in on Spade; "Come on in, Precious," Spade reacts to their knocking. "Who were you expecting, darling?" Lt. Dundy (Robert Elliott) wonders. "You, sweetheart," Sam mockingly replies. Somehow these jibes are enough to convince the author of this film's wikipedia page of "homosexual themes" and categorizing it as "LGBT-related." Not so much.

From there, the film proceeds as you would expect, up until the introduction of Joel Cairo; Effie introduces him to Spade with: "It's a gorgeous new customer! A knockout!" Like the earlier byplay with Lt. Dundy, it seems to be more that characters mock Spade's constant womanizing rather than the original homosexual content. Going by "Dr. Cairo" here, Otto Matieson can't hold a candle to Peter Lorre; outside of Effie calling him "gorgeous" there's no hint of the homosexual character from the novel or the '41 version - he's a stock villainous character with some better-than-average dialogue, but removing Cairo's effeminate, dandyish behaviour renders it all one-note.

The next point of interest arises after Spade chases Cairo from his apartment; as in the novel, at this point Spade and Wonderly spend the night together; Daniels, whose outfits as Wonderly show here a lot more exposed skin than Mary Astor in '41, also gets to lounge about Spade's apartment barely-dressed. Advantage: pre-code!

Eventually we get to the scenes with Gutman, which are a major highlight in '41 thanks to Sydney Greenstreet; however, Dudley Digges is nowhere near as funny or imposing, capturing none of the conflicted emotions in Greenstreet's portrayal. There's also another scene bereft of Spade as Gutman leaves Spade to converse with Cairo; learning from Cairo that Spade doesn't have the Maltese Falcon but, spelling out exactly where it is (with Captain Jacoby - something the '41 version gets a bit muddled), Gutman drugs Spade's drink so he can take back the advance he paid him. On the one hand, acting out the drugging of Spade from Gutman's perspective isn't good drama; on the other hand, making it clear Cairo & Gutman are working together and the significance of Captain Jacoby are major wins; call it a tie.

There is a just a little too much exposition as the film nears the ends and all loose ends are tied up; Wilmer (Dwight Frye) never has a chance to demonstrate the ineptitude of 41's Elisha Cook Jr (though Spade does call him Gutman's "boyfriend"). They do, however, retain the scene from the book where some of Spade's money goes missing and he demands Wonderly strip for him (another chance for Daniels to lose her clothes); the '41 version keeps everything but the strip search itself intact, instead having Spade quickly deduce Gutman palmed his missing money.

The big problem arrives at the climax as Spade tells Wonderly he's going to turn her in for the murder of Archer. None of the furious indignation found in '41's Bogart performance remains here - Cortez smirks through the entire thing, like he's playing a joke on her. While most of the dialogue is intact, they unfortunately lose much of the great climatic lines as he expresses why he won't "play the sap" for her. Spade turns Wonderly over the police who - unbelievably! - let her stroll out of the building before following her. Uh, shouldn't you put some handcuffs on the accused murderer?

Although the '41 film basically ends here, the '31 adds some problematic additional scenes. First, a newspaper headline establishes the Chinese man Spade questioned identified Wonderly as Archer's killer. This doesn't work at all - why would Spade have bothered playing along with Wonderly when he had a witness to her as the killer and could have turned her over the police before Cairo & Gutman became involved? It casts all of Spade's actions in the film in another light when he knows - not suspects, knows - who Archer's killer is all along.

Problematic scene#2 involves Spade visiting Wonderly in jail and revealing he's working the d.a.'s office; they basically rehash more of the same dialogue from their last scene together, but without any passion. It closes with the revelation Spade has been secretly sending her aid in the prison. Why, he really does care for her! No, this scene isn't needed. The original book and the '41 film present Sam as being conflicted - yet rather dismissive of Wonderly in the climax. Adding a bonus scene to soften up Spade is a waste of effort.

With a different male lead, this could have been pretty good - Hammett's plot and dialogue are mostly intact, after all. It's better than most detective movies circa '31 were, but... well, '41's the Maltese Falcon set the standard by which all detective films are judged; the '31 is a victim of history.

Saturday, March 29, 2014

Jack Benny Without Jack Benny, Part 6 of 6

We have reached the end of the series; on April 11, 1943, Jack Benny returned to the Jack Benny Program after missing five weeks of shows; however, guest host Orson Welles is still on the premises, offering us a fantastic instance of Jack's jealous ego.

Follow along with this link (right click to download from archive.org).

I should note, Jack had used guest hosts before - Herbert Marshall filled in on February 2, 1941 and later Robert Taylor would fill-in on May 16, 1948. There's even an episode where Jack appeared (April 3, 1938), but the show opened with George Jessel hosting - in each of these instances, Jack was deeply resentful when he returned to the studio and found his cast much preferred the guest host over himself. Such is the case again as Jack deals with the four week fill-in Orson Welles delivered.

The show is set in Jack's bedroom as he's supposedly still bed-ridden. This means more of Rochester than usual (as he must nursemaid Jack) and no one ever complained about having too much Rochester! Rochester supplies cough medicine made from gin ("You'll find very few pharmacists with the imagination I've got!") and sets up the toaster in the bed to keep Jack's feet warm. Rochester fields a call from his girlfriend and asks Jack if he can have the night off; when Jack refuses, Rochester invites his girl to the house instead!

As Mary arrives, there's this gem:

Jack: "Rochester, what are you doing with my cough medicine?"

Rochester: "I was holding it up to the light and some of it ran down my throat!"

As Jack insists he has to return to his show, Mary begins gushing over Orson's prowess as a performer; Jack begins to slowly smolder in his bed (and not because of the toaster). Jack grouses, "I was sick in bed for five weeks, he didn't even send me a basket of fruit! I finally had to wire him!" Ah, it's good to have Jack back!

Phil arrives next with a gag about his wife (Alice Faye)'s lousy baking. Naturally, Phil is the one most upset at Orson's exit.

Phil: "Gosh, I'm sure gonna miss Wellesy. Without him the show won't have no refinement, no culture, no class!"

Jack: "It won't have no Harris if you don't shut up!"

When Rochester asks if Benny would like to see his doctor Jack retorts, "No, I've been lying in bed all week because I can't find my pants!" The doctor is played by Frank Nelson, so you can guess he won't be entirely helpful (later in the show Nelson's characters were truly antagonistic towards Jack - at this stage, his characters' attitudes might best be described as apathetic). The doctor keeps making references to his other patients being pets, meaning Jack was too cheap to hire a real doctor.

Jack: "Now Doc, would you mind examining me? I've gotta go down to NBC and do a broadcast today."

Frank: "Why? Is Orson Welles sick?"

After the doctor leaves, Jack and Rochester have one of their famous sing-song exchanges:

Jack: "Oh, Rochesterrr...?"

Rochester: "Yes, boss?"

Jack: "Why are you pouring my cough medicine into those cocktail glasses?"

Rochester: "I thought it might liven up the partyyy!"

Jack's boarder Mr. Billingsley (show writer Ed Beloin) drops in to offer some of his standard non sequiturs.

Jack: "We were just talking about you, Mr. Billingsley, your ears must be burning."

Mr. Billingsley: "Well, I'll have to call the fire department, I've got a new hat on!"

Mr. Billingsley winds up hiding under Jack's bed ("in case your husband comes home") and bumps his head, recalling the previous two weeks' gag of Radcliff (co-writer Bill Morrow) bumping his head. Don and Dennis arrive, setting up a fantastic "I worry about things like that" piece:

Jack: "I have a hunch we're gonna have a pretty good show today."

Dennis: "Without Orson Welles?"

Jack: "Yes."

Dennis: "Gosh, the Orson Welles Program without Orson Welles? I worry about things like that!"

Rochester passes around scripts ("everyone gets a script and a glass of cough medicine!"). Miss Harrington (Verna Felton) returns to once again herald the arrival of Orson Welles (this time Mary greets her with "Hello, Slugger."). Miss Harrington begins insulting Jack, much as every other character she portrayed on the show over the decades would. Orson arrives, accompanied by his fanfare and gong.

Orson seems to have more trouble than usual keeping a straight face and all on account of Jack! Orson asks to observe while Jack rehearses the program, to which Jack relents. Upon remarking he doesn't have a chair, Orson is offered Mary, Don, Phil and Dennis' seats, causing Jack to angrily suggest Orson take his bed. Orson thinks comedy is best when unrehearsed and suggests they only rehearse the musical pieces, ordering Dennis to sing his song.

After Dennis' song, Orson insists Jack is in control; Jack asks Dennis to cut half a minute from his song, but Orson objects; Jack relents and suggests Dennis add half a minute, but Orson objects to this as well; Jack tells Dennis to leave it alone, which Orson also objects to, much to Jack's growing anger, at which point he flubs and calls him "Oris," leading to a great ad-lib:

Jack: "It took him ten years to build up the name Orson Welles, I made it Oris in one second!"

Jack follows this up by stepping on one of Orson's lines, to which he apologizes; it's interesting to note how few flubs there were in the previous five weeks, but now that Jack's back - flubs, ahoy! When Don asks to practice his commercial Jack refuses; this causes Orson to intrude again, and he's so enraptured by Grape Nuts that he basically does Don's commercial for him. Unfortunately, during this Jack protests, "But Oswald!" which might have been a deliberate flub; Orson cracks up again and pauses the commercial to say to Jack in an aside, "Now you know I can't louse up the sponsor's name!" By this point, it sounds like most of the cast and audience have lost it and Orson's attempts at getting back on track only lead to more flubs! Glorious, beautiful flubs!

Frank Nelson's doctor returns and accidentally gives Jack a sleeping pill; Orson volunteers to take Jack's place once again!

And so we leave this look back at the five week phenomenon which was "Jack Benny Without Jack Benny." In 1944 Orson Welles made another stab at comedy with his Radio Almanac series, but bereft of Jack's cast and writers, it didn't pan out. Later in 1943, Orson would once again take over another program for a month when he became the featured player on Suspense for four consecutive broadcasts. As he didn't have a program of his own at the time, it was a neat idea for him to usurp two of the most successful shows of the era and both are memorable outings.

I've spent a lot of years listening to old-time radio and the Jack Benny Program is one of the best series; if you ever want some recommendations, drop me a line!

Friday, March 28, 2014

Jack Benny Without Jack Benny, Part 5 of 6

We have reached Orson's final appearance as host of the Jack Benny Program with this, the April 4, 1943 episode.

Unfortunately, archive.org does not have this episode in their Jack Benny archive, but you can follow along using this link to the episode as prepared for a podcast series on Orson Welles at archive.org (right click the link to download).

The episode opens again with Gilroy & Radcliff's diner as the cast enter the premises one at a time; Radcliff hits Phil with a pie, unable to stand hearing Phil's corny jokes; hiding from Phil, Radcliff again ducks under the counter, bumping his head.

Mary phones up Jack in a one-sided telephone conversation which serves to inform the audience Jack will return for the next week's show; it also sets up next week by revealing how jealous Jack is of Orson. Phil is the cast member most disappointed to hear Orson will be leaving, insisting the two are "cultural buddies" and have a "lend/lease agreement on brains."

Verna Felton returns as Miss Harrington; this time Mary returns her greeting with "Hiya, Muscles." As in last week's broadcast, Orson's entrance is marked by fanfare.

Orson: "Well, uh, Mary what do you hear from Jack? Have you talked to him lately?"

Mary: "Yeah, I just had him on the phone. Jack's feeling fine now and says he'll be back on the show next week."

Orson: "Well!"

Dennis: "Looks like you'll have to hit the road, bub!"

Orson: "Dennis! Naturally, now that Jack feels better he should resume his rightful position. As for myself, I shall fold my tent like an Arab and silently steal away."

Phil: "When you put it that way, Orson, I could sob!"

I can't do Phil's tearful delivery justice; hear it for yourself, I think it gets funnier every time Orson repeats his "fold my tent" dialogue, causing Phil to mourn for him each time.

Once again the diner piece ends with Radcliff ducking under the counter, the gang heading to the studio and Orson uttering "last one to the studio's an old tomato!" Well, it's mostly like the previous week.

Following a jazzy number by Phil's band, Orson repeats his "fold my tent" line, again upsetting Phil.

Orson: "Seriously, I'm going to miss all of you, and if I ever get my own program I'd like to have this gang sign up with me."

Don: "You mean you'd like to have us work for you?"

Orson: "Yes. Of course, I don't know if I could meet the salaries that Jack's been paying you."

Mary: "They're really lousy. Why do you wanna meet them?"

Orson asks them to give him their phone numbers; Phil, Don & Dennis comply but Mary asserts if she gives Orson her number, he's liable to call her up for a date. When Orson insists he wouldn't, she retorts, "then you can't have it."

Orson goes into his announcement on the week's sketch: the cast expect something Shakespearean (Phil suggests "the Taming of the Stew"), but Orson has prepared for them "Little Red Riding Hood."

Phil: "Little Red Riding Hood? Ain't that kinda juvenile for you and me, Orson?"

Orson: "Perhaps, Phil, but I think the kiddies who are listening in and observing this playlet especially for them. Now I will play the part of Old Man Hood, an elderly farmer who lives at the edge of a forest. Mary will be my daughter Red and Dennis will be my son Robin, ha! ...Robin Hood. Are you giggling, kiddies?"

Orson continues the gag of making lousy jokes then addressing the kids in the audience throughout the impending skit. Don will play a tree in the woods ("which only God can make"), Phil is cast as the woodsman. Mary takes a second part as Red's mother and likewise, Orson will be a wolf.

Mary: "In that case, here's my phone number, Baby Face."

Orson: "Thanks, Mary."

Dennis: "This play is really crazy. Mary is her mother and her daughter, Orson is her father and the wolf, and Wilson is a tree that giggles. I worry about things like that!"

Dennis' "I worry about things like that!" is a running gag with a lot of life outside of these guest programs.

Orson: "What are you going to sing tonight?"

Dennis: "A song."

Orson: "A song, that's fine. And what's the name?"

Dennis: "Dennis Day."

Orson: "The name of the song!"

Before Dennis can sing, Rochester phones, but this time his call is preceded with Orson's fanfare! This cracks Orson up for a moment; Rochester is prepared to leave Orson's employ "after four weeks of sheer bliss." In describing his contract with Jack Benny to Orson, Rochester says a lawyer looked at it and declared, "Mr. Lincoln wouldn't like this." Rochester signs off by stealing Orson's "fold my tent" routine, to Orson's chagrin. Following Dennis' song:

Orson: "You have a marvelous voice, there's no getting away from it."

Dennis: "Well, if it's so marvelous, why do you want to get away from it?"

Orson: "I don't want to get away from it, I paid you a compliment, you little brat!"

Dennis: "Oh!"

Orson: "And now, ladies and gentlemen... on second thought, Dennis, here's your phone number back."

The sketch begins, even as Phil points out they never cast the part of the grandmother; Orson promises the grandmother will be a surprise (any long-time fan who recalls the instances where Jack promises a "surprise" bit of casting already knows who grandmother will be). Orson starts the sketch proper with Jack's familiar: "Curtain! Music!"

Orson adopts a scratchy "rube" voice for the role of Red's father - quite a thing to hear a Shakespearean performer attempt! Grandmother calls up and her voice is immediately recognizable as long-time guest star Andy Devine (last heard 3 weeks prior)!

As Red heads over to grandmother's house there's a great sound effects gag as Mary notes the "howling wind" (with accompanying effect) and "falling snow" (to the sound of a jackhammer). Orson re-enters the story declaring, "It's me, kiddies, I'm a wolf now." Don inserts a Grape Nuts commercial as Mary describes the contents of her basket.

At grandmother's house, the wolf threatens to eat her:

Orson: "Hold still! It'll be over in a minute!"

Andy: "Should I take my boots off?"

Orson's attempt to imitate Andy Devine is pretty lousy, but hey, any excuse to have Orson talk in a funny voice. Phil arrives to kill the wolf, but the swallowed Andy protests at being chopped up and thus the skit ends - like so many of Jack's skits - without an ending. I've heard the Jack Benny Program compared to the Muppet Show and in a sense they were kindred programs - both headed by flustered men unable to properly corral the entertainers into the reputable players he wanted.

Orson delivers a farewell at the end of the show, bringing his tenure to an end; Mary whispers in "Good night, Doll" at the last second.

Tomorrow: Jack Benny returned to his show for the April 11, 1943 broadcast but Orson Welles had yet to exit!

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Jack Benny Without Jack Benny, Part 4 of 6

We're now at the March 28, 1943 episode of the Jack Benny Program, featuring Orson Welles' third turn at hosting the show, and you can hear he was comfortable by this time.

Follow along by downloading the episode here (right click to get from archive.org).

The episode opens in a diner as the cast meet each other one at a time; the diner staff (Gilroy & Radcliff) are played by the show's own writers, Bill Morrow & Ed Beloin, who each made occasional appearances on the show as extras (including Beloin as Jack's boarder Mr. Bllingsley), occasionally even appearing as Jack's writers!

Vera Felton puts in another appearance as Welles' secretary "Miss Harrington." I really love Mary's response to Miss Harrington's low-voiced greeting: "Hello, Butch." Welles enters the diner accompanied by fanfare and a gong, befitting the pompous caricature of himself he plays on the show. Mary comes on to Orson for the first time, calling him "Baby Face," surely an apt moniker for his Gerber babyesque face in the early 40s. Orson does a repeat of last week's speed reading gag as he reads the evening's script with a single flip through the pages. Disliking the script, Orson orders it burned and intends to write his own material, but Gilroy & Radcliff suggest providing a script of their own making.

There's a running gag about diner employee Radcliff hiding under a counter so Orson won't have to look at him while he's eating; every time Radcliff speaks up, Orson orders him back under the counter, whereupon Radcliff bumps his head. The second time, Radcliff seems to miss his cue and there's dead air for a moment until his next line. The audience cracks up, prompting a quick ad-lib:

Orson: "You waited for that long enough!"

Radcliff: "It hurt!"

Orson: "Sight gag, ladies and gentlemen."

Orson orders everyone to the radio studio with "last one there's a rotten egg," a recurring Jack Benny line. In the studio, there's this gem:

Orson: "By the way, Mary, I've been meaning to ask you: how's Jack coming along, is he over his cold?"

Dennis: "If he was over his cold, you wouldn't be here, brother!"

There's a cute bit between Dennis, Phil & Orson which makes Mary laugh:

Dennis: "Say, Mr. Harris, who invented the telephone?"

Phil: "Well, Alexander Grame invented the Bell, the rest I don't know nothin' about."

Orson: "Mr. Harris, the telephone in its entirety was invented by Alexander Graham Bell. Which I can pronounce."

Gilroy & Radcliff appear with their script, which turns out to be a murder mystery sketch ("Death at Midnight, or the" *gunshot/scream* "Murder Case!"), written in the same style as virtually every other murder mystery script on the Jack Benny Program, the difference being Orson Welles assumes the role of the lead police detective (normally it would be Police Captain O'Benny). Welles assigns Dennis and Phil parts as his sergeants, whereupon Dennis immediately begins protesting his innocence; Welles reminds him he's not playing the killer: "Don't be so sure! It's always the guy you least suspect!" Mary, as usual, plays the widow of the murdered man; in these roles its usually heavily hinted Mary is the killer, yet somehow Jack and the others would overlook all the incriminating evidence against her. Don is cast as the butler, his usual part in these skits.

Rochester makes his pre-skit appearance (as usual), phoning up Orson to complain about how Welles' Chinese cook chopped up a pork chop to use in chop suey.

Orson: "The way you talk you'd think those chops were radium!"

Rochester: "I can get radium tomorrow! Let's see you get some pork chops!"

A wartime rationing gag, that. The Chinese cook ("Chong") talks to Orson, resulting in some of the usual "made-up dialect" jokes which occasionally appeared on the show in those days (ie, kinda racist). After Dennis' song, the skit finally begins.

These "murder mystery" skits usually follow this pattern: Captain O'Benny and his sergeants are in the police station and tell some police/crime gags; Mary phones them to declare her husband has just been murdered - and hints she's the one who killed him; Benny declares he'll solve the crime "or my name ain't--"; they travel by squad car, resulting in jokes over the police radio; arriving at Mary's home they begin their investigation but almost never come up with the culprit (despite Mary's frequent insinuations) and the skits usually collapse around that point, often causing Jack to claim they'll revisit it later (which they almost never did).

In this version, Inspector Welles receives a call from a woman claiming she's about to be murdered - gunfire ensues; "one of those gin rummy arguments," Welles declares. After a bit involving Dennis finding phony dollar bills (Washington is wearing Lincoln's beard), Mary calls up to report her husband's death:

Mary: "I went to the library just now and he was slumped over the radio with the Fred Allen Program going full blast!"

Orson: "Was your husband dead?"

Mary: "He must have been, he didn't turn it off!"

The first Fred Allen joke in three weeks! Even with Jack gone, the "feud" must continue! En route to the murder scene we get a gag about Hedy LaMarr being locked in her closet (which Orson revisits near the end of the episode), then arrive at the house where the butler (being Don) inserts a quick Grape Nuts commercial.

Orson: "Now I think I'll grill Mrs. Crumbdike, I have a hunch she killed her husband. You know that saying, cherchez la femme, don't you?"

Phil: "No, I don't."

Orson: "Well, you ought to learn it, it's all the rage now!"

As Orson begins interrogating Mary, he quickly falls back into the same hammy scene-stealing performing as on the previous week's show, refusing to let Mary utter more than "well..." Dennis arrives with the solution to the crime but unfortunately ate the note it was written on (having come from the diner, it was covered with mayonnaise).

As the show concludes, Mary slips another "good night, Doll" for Jack to hear. Don closes with, "this program was written by Radcliff Morrow and Gilroy Beloin with mayonnaise by Orson Welles!"

Orson made his fourth and final outing as host on the April 4, 1943 episode, which I'll visit tomorrow!

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Jack Benny Without Jack Benny, Part 3 of 6

Continuing my look at the five consecutive episodes of Jack Benny without Jack Benny, we find the March 21, 1943 broadcast, Orson Welles' second week as host! Jack's wife Mary Livingstone returns to this show as of this date, having missed two weeks because of Jack's illness; the return of Mary means the entire cast (save Jack himself) has finally been reassembled!

You can hear this episode for yourself here (right click to download from archive.org).

As promised on the previous week, Orson invites the cast of Jack's show (Phil, Mary, Dennis & Don) to come visit him on the set of his new movie. As they arrive, Phil repeats his drawled "Orrrson Welles" bit, while Mary echoes one of Jack's repeated lines about Dennis: "It's no use waiting, I've got to have to have a talk with that kid." However, this time Dennis answers with "any time, any place, sister!"

Frank Nelson repeats the role of "Mr. Toodlequirtle," Welles' secretary (even though Orson supposedly fired him last week). Rochester has now become Orson's valet, allowing him to puncture Orson's ego just as he normally had with Jack. Perhaps my favourite bit during Orson's stay on this program is this exchange with Miss Harrington (Verna Felton):

Miss Harrington: "Here's the next scene we're shooting for your approval."

Orson: "Good, I'll glance over it." *sound effect of a book being flipped through* "Oh, no, no, no. This will never do, only an idiot could compose such drivel."

Miss Harrington: "But Mr. Welles, you wrote this yourself!"

Orson: "Then there's no use waiting, I'll have to have a talk with me. Miss Harrington, take down these changes:"

Miss Harrington: "Yes, Mr. Welles."

Orson: "Instead of a ranch house in Arizona, it shall be a penthouse in New York City; instead of guitars playing softly in the background, I want a thunderstorm with lightning;"

Miss Harrington: "How many bolts?"

Orson: "At least a dozen. And finally, instead of the girl slapping my face when I kiss her, she shall thrust a dagger deep into my bosom and I shall die."

Miss Harrington: "Die! But Mr. Welles, it's only the second reel! Who will handle the rest of the picture?"

Orson: "My ghost. I shall work in whitewash."

Orson arrives on set accompanied by fanfare, playing up his status as the show's number one ham actor. Phil soon irritates Orson by calling him "Orsy."

"Dennis, I have spent years inflating the balloon that is Welles; please do not puncture it."

The above is funnier in hindsight, knowing how soon Welles' frame would expand to Don Wilson-like proportions. "Sometimes I wish I weren't perfect so people would differ with me" is another great pompous Welles line. Welles soon attempts to outdo Don Wilson's commercial for Grape Nuts with "Grape Nuts Flakes, I Love You, an Orson Welles Production!"

Welles again attempts to tamper with the show, this time insisting next week Dennis should sing opera: "the quartet from Rigoletto," with Welles himself providing three of the voices! Welles moves on to speak of his picture: "I've called my story very simply, the March of Destiny; it deals with everything that ever happened." However, hearing his leading lady and male lead have eloped together, Orson asks Mary to be the leading lady.

Orson: "And Phil, you'll be my brother."

Phil: "Your brother! Are we twins?"

Orson: "Heaven forbid."

Orson proceeds to guide Phil and Mary through a scene in which he's supposed to discover his sweetheart in the arms of his brother; Orson claims Mary and Phil will be carrying the scene, but it's Orson who hams it up (beautifully).

Orson: "Mildred! What are you doing here? Answer me, I say! What are you doing in my brother's apartment?"

Mary: "Well..."

Orson: "No explanations are necessary! I have eyes, I'm not blind to what's been going on. I've been madly in love with you, Mildred I should have brought things to a climax long ago, and now, Clarence, what have you got to say?"

Phil: "Well..."

Orson: "Alibis! Alibis, nothing but alibis! To think that the two of you have been together every afternoon for months. Why are you looking at me like that, Mildred? Have you something to tell me? Come, speak up!"

Mary: "Well..."

Orson: "Never mind, I know what you're going to say! You're going to say it's me that you love and that Clarence is just a passing fancy. You're so strangely quiet, why don't you speak up? Is it because your guilt is so obvious?"

Phil: "Well, I..."

Mary: "Wait a minute, that's my line!"

Phil: "Oh, pardon me."

Once Orson finally leaves, allowing Phil and Mary to act a love scene, Orson declares "No, no, no, let's cut that, after my exit the scene is definitely over."

Mary closes the show with a quick, "good night, Doll." Until reading the biographies about Jack, I didn't realize Jack and Mary's pet name for each other was "Doll;" once you know, you start catching it everywhere, especially when one of the two is absent (Jack would often do this for Mary). More of Orson Welles as host of the Jack Benny Program tomorrow as I visit the March 28, 1943 broadcast!

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Jack Benny Without Jack Benny, Part 2 of 6

Continuing my look at Jack Benny's 1943 five-week absence from his own series: on March 14, 1943, the Jack Benny Program returned to Hollywood from its tour of New York; unfortunately, the show returned without its star, Jack Benny, who had become ill; further, his wife & fellow performer Mary Livingstone stepped away from the show to be with him. Fortunately, waiting for them in Hollywood was Phil Harris, who had been away in the Merchant Marines for three months. Even better news: the show had found an excellent temporary host in (of all people!) Orson Welles.

Listen along here (right click to download from archive.org).

Phil is barely back on the air before once again indulging in his (intentionally) bad jokes and howling "ain't that a lulu?" Some Jack Benny fans claim the show was at its best during the years when the cast consisted of Jack, Mary, Don, Phil, Rochester & Dennis; personally, I'm easy to please as long as Phil is present (especially if it's pre-Lucky Strikes) - Phil was never funnier than when he performed on the Jack Benny Program and the show lost an awful lot of pizzazz when he exited in the early 50s; as he often said, "let's face it, Jackson - you need me." Forget about Burns and Allen hijacking the previous week - simply having Phil back on the show makes this sound like an authentic episode of the Jack Benny Program.

As Dennis arrives, Phil launches into what becomes a recurring joke during Orson Welles' tenure with the program:

Phil: "Hey kid, have I got news for you! Guess who's taking Jack's place on the program tonight?"

Dennis: "Who?"

Phil: "Orson Welles, that's who! Orrrson Welles!"

You have to hear Phil's drawling enunciation for the full effect. Orson's arrival on the show is preceded by his supposed "private secretary" Miss Harrington, played by Vera Felton, a frequent supporting player on the Benny program (she often played Dennis' mother), then his "out in the open secretary" Toodlequirkle, played by Frank Nelson. The gag here of Orson's arrival being heralded by his personal staff is actually revisiting a joke from Orson's one and only prior appearance on the Jack Benny Program from March 17, 1940, wherein Orson gave Jack lessons on how to be a serious dramatic performer (and to promote Jack's appearance on Orson's show the following week).

I'm not sure how Orson became the substitute for Jack Benny - how anyone even conceived of it as a good idea - but wow, what a choice! Orson's other radio performances don't make much hay out of his comedic possibilities, but he fits the Benny Program method to the T. Jack was constantly made to appear vain, stingy and resentful of others' success, supposedly the least-talented man on his own program. Yet for all that, Jack remained lovable to audiences because they could see through the charade and realize it was all performance; this is why I think George Burns couldn't quite fit the Jack Benny mold when he tried - Gracie Allen was innately more lovable than he.

From practically the start of his career, Orson Welles went through bouts of being either attractive or annoying to the public; eventually in the post-war climate he'd be run out of town as an annoyance, but 1943 found him reasonably well-established in Hollywood; he'd recently appeared in the film Journey Into Fear and seemed to be living down the box office poison which had (unfortunately) been Citizen Kane and the Magnificent Ambersons. For the Benny Program, Orson was granted the opportunity to satirize his public persona as a young genius and renaissance man. Most cleverly, he slid into Jack Benny's place on the program without actually being Benny. Unlike Jack, his character commanded the respect of the cast; unlike Jack, he would be depicted as having serious talent and a wealth of knowledge (things Jack often pretended to possess); yet, Orson was depicted as being so proud of his abilities he would fall into hamming it up, much as Jack would - the cast were more reluctant to call Orson out (they never hesitated with Jack), but it was made clear to the audience that Orson wasn't quite as impressive as he made himself sound.

It's fun to note that while Phil would usually insult Jack, during these episodes Phil craves Orson's approval; Orson, on the other hand, shares Jack's distaste for Phil. It's a neat spin on the Jack-Phil dynamic and works very nicely.

Orson: "That was Yankee Doodle Dandy played by Phil Harris and his orchestra, and Phil, I must say that's a splendid arrangement and brilliantly executed."

Phil: "Orson, you thrill me."

Orson: "I'm glad. However, if you don't mind a suggestion, a little more andante and pianissimo in the penultimate passage would have enhanced the orchestral overtones. Is that clear?"

Phil: "No, but them big words send me like a slug of bourbon!"

After a visit from Mel Blanc, Orson begins demanding changes to the show - instructing Phil to multiply his orchestra "tenfold," including "a gross of piccolos."

Don: "But Orson, who's going to pay for all this?"

Orson: "Jack Benny, of course."

Don: "Jack Benny?"

Orson: "Yes, and he'll be glad to do it."

Dennis: "You can't be thinking of the Jack Benny we know!"

Orson: "There'll be no trouble, I spoke to Jack on the long-distance phone yesterday; he told me money was no object."

Phil: "Lemme ask ya somethin' Orson, who paid for that call?"

Orson: "Come to think of it, I did. Uh, take a note, Miss Harrington: the piccolos are out."

Following a good piece about Dennis' salary which ends with him being assigned Orson's laundry, Andy Devine arrives; Andy had been a recurring performer on the Benny Program during the late 30s but still made irregular appearances on the show at this date - surely his appearance in this episode was prompted by Jack's illness, to further prop up the Jack Benny Program as Jack's show, even if he wasn't there.

Andy tells a joke to Orson about him dating Rita Hayworth; however, later in 1943 Orson himself wound up marrying Rita (I'm not sure if they were dating at the time of this show, but it wouldn't surprise me). Orson's next attempt at ruling over the show causes him to suggest Don Wilson be the program's singer instead of Dennis Day; when Don refuses, Orson considers himself as the show's singer, but realizing this might "look egotistical," he allows Dennis to sing (but wants Don to begin singing lessons).

After Dennis' song, there's a good bit where Orson demands his picture be plastered on boxes of Grape Nuts, the sponsor's product. This actually revisits a joke Jack began the previous fall when he inherited Grape Nuts from Kate Smith and spent a few weeks complaining to the sponsor about Smith's picture being on the box instead of him; of course, Orson's suggestions are far more pretentious than Jack's ("I shall be dressed in tights with a spear in my hand.").

"Next, instead of 12 ounces of tiny, individual Grape Nuts flakes, I think each box should contain one huge 12 ounce flake."

Don asks to see Orson filming one of his movies and Orson responds by inviting the cast to his set (as shall be heard in the next broadcast). While Orson had many projects in the works, I'm not sure what he might have really been working on at the time - appearing in Jane Eyre, perhaps? Finally, Rochester phones up Orson; Rochester frequently would appear late in the program at this time (unless the cast had a skit, in which case he would phone Jack prior to the sketch). This week, Rochester claims to be with Jack in Chicago, although he'll soon "return" to Hollywood and spend some time working for Orson. After the call, Orson relents on the idea of taking Jack's place on the Grape Nuts box - instead he'll "permit" Jack to appear on the box: "he can carry the spear for me."

Orson closes with his "your obedient servant, Orson Welles" sign-off, immediately before sending a get-well wish to Jack.

In all, Phil, Don, Dennis & Rochester being joined by familiar supporting actors (Frank Nelson, Vera Felton, Mel Blanc, Andy Devine) and Orson filling in Jack's spot on the show renders this broadcast true to spirit of the Jack Benny Program, despite Jack's utter absence. Orson would continue to host for three more weeks until Jack's return; tomorrow: the March 21, 1943 episode, featuring the return of Mary Livingstone!

Monday, March 24, 2014

Jack Benny Without Jack Benny, Part 1 of 6

Although I'm a former freelancer from the world of comics and the vast majority of my posts on this blog relate to the subject of comics, it's interesting to me that my single largest readership has come from the Amazing Race; also interesting is how much attention my old-time radio posts accrue, especially over time. As I've given up on the Amazing Race, instead I'll take a look at old-time radio for the next six blog posts.

You wouldn't think there could be much to say about old-time radio comedy - especially broken down into six installments about six consecutive broadcasts of the same show. Yet, here I am to talk to you about my favourite radio comedy series: the Jack Benny Program!

Performing live comedy in the 30s & 40s often meant real life intruded on the material - the sudden unavailability of cast members, muffed dialogue on the air, ad-libs and so forth. From March 7-April 4, 1943, Jack Benny missed five consecutive episodes of his own program due to illness. Due to various other unfortunate bits of timing, this should have been a crippling moment for the series - the program was appearing in New York rather than Hollywood, meaning many of the show's supporting players were absent; bandleader Phil Harris left the series the previous June to join the Merchant Marines, removing another pivotal performer from the show; further, Jack's wife Mary Livingstone remained with him during this first week of illness. And yet, ultimately, this led to an extremely memorable run of shows - Jack Benny Without Jack Benny, to coin a phrase.

You can download a copy of this episode from archive.org here (right click the link).

We begin with the March 7, 1943 show, in which Jack's very close friends George Burns and Gracie Allen head the program as they finish their U.S.O. broadcasting tour from New York. Being close friends of Jack & Mary's who had appeared on the program in the past and being similarly available in New York, Burns and Allen might seem on paper to be perfect fill-ins for Jack and Mary. But were they?

Burns and Allen actually struggled in radio for some time before finding their footing. Although by 1943 they had found a winning formula (situation comedy), it wasn't the same formula used on the Jack Benny Program (and I'm of the opinion when Benny's show later became a sitcom, it was inferior to the earlier run - not bad, merely inferior). Burns and Allen actually had a run at an M.C.-led comedy stage show very similar to Jack's - George essentially took put-downs from the other cast members (as Jack did), the bandleader was seemingly more popular than him, there were quarrels with the commercial spokesman - very much like the format of the Jack Benny Program. And it didn't work; I mean, the material wasn't particularly funny, but Burns later stated it was the wrong material for he and Gracie - the jokes were "too young" for them while the more relaxed situation comedy scenario suited them well. It's worth noting Burns had a limitation placed on him which Jack didn't have - Jack could verbally spar with his wife (Mary) without necessarily losing his audience, but George found whenever he tried to spar with Gracie, audiences considered him "cruel"; again, the gentler format of situation comedy allowed them to flourish, albeit by making George much less important to their show - usually Gracie drove the plots and took the laughs. It's interesting that while George and Gracie "outgrew" their original combative format and thereafter performed as a happy husband and wife, Jack & Mary kept up the farce of being unmarried all the way to the end.

With Jack, Mary and Phil absent, the Jack Benny Program retained only half of their regular players:

  1. Don Wilson, the rotund and erudite commercial announcer
  2. Dennis Day, the young-ish and naive tenor
  3. Eddie "Rochester" Anderson, Jack's put-upon valet

Although Jack's show became a hit through advertising Jell-o, the previous fall their sponsor (General Foods) switched Jack to promoting the cereals Grape Nuts & Grape Nuts Flakes due to sugar rationing; it seemed harder for them to come up with jokes about Grape Nuts than it had been with Jell-o, but at least at this point the commercials were still quite funny (Jack's later sponsor Lucky Strikes would do its best to replace charming ads with frustrating and obnoxious ones). Interestingly, George & Gracie had previously been on the radio for Grape Nuts (their sponsor in '43 was Swan Soap); also of note, they had left NBC for CBS in 1941, hence why Don Wilson has to refer to them appearing on "another network" when he promotes them in this episode.

It must be said up front, this episode of the Jack Benny Program is really a bonus episode of the George Burns and Gracie Allen Show. George and Gracie brought with them their own product pitchman (Bill Goodwin), bandleader (Paul Whiteman) and "Herman the Duck" (Clarence Nash, using his Donald Duck voice), plus Gracie's best friend Tootsie Sagwell (Elvia Allman). The presence of Don, Dennis & Rochester is like a weird anomaly in the midst of a fairly-typical Burns and Allen plot.

The plot of the episode is somewhat-meta (as Benny's show often was) as Don Wilson sets out to bring George & Gracie on Jack's show, but Gracie has developed pretenses of being an "artist" and refuses. Even with Jack gone, jokes about his stinginess continue, the first being:

Don: "Naturally he knows that your time is valuable and he doesn't expect you to do it for nothing."

George: "Oh, now Don..."

Don: "He wants me to tell you that while he's lying bed, he'll knit you a muffler."

George: "Ah, good old Jack."

Don: "Now all you have to do is buy the knitting needles and four balls of yarn."

George: "Isn't four balls of yarn a lot of yarn for a muffler?"

Don: "Oh, Jack wants one too!"

George takes a moment to reflect on the material Jack uses, noting "hm!" "yipe!" and "I do not Mary, and shut up!" always seem to get laughs; of course, George doesn't even attempt to deliver these lines as Jack would have.

Soon after, Gracie seems to breeze past what could have been a decent joke - responding to Don about how much George would like to appear on Jack's program, Gracie answers: "I don't know why - George doesn't know a soul in St. Joe." If Jack had been present, there would surely have been one of his recurring "St. Joe! They love me there!" lines, but Gracie says it so quickly the audience doesn't have time to react.

Instead of the usual format integrating the arrival of the show's performers on the scene one at a time to banter with Jack, we have only the opening vignette with Don, George and Gracie - Paul Whiteman then, from out of nowhere, introduces Dennis' song (Whiteman does likewise with his own numbers - just as he did on Burns & Allen). However, Bill Goodwin gets a good introduction, mocking Don Wilson (calling him "fat boy") when he thinks he'll get to be the announcer on Jack's program. Don overhears this and they have a good back and forth with Bill managing to sneak in some veiled references to Swan Soap while Don does his Grape Nuts commercial.

Next up, Gracie goes into a routine with her "son," Herman the Duck, when Rochester appears and is instantly smitten with Herman, whom he identifies as "poultry" (probably a joke about black people enjoying fried chicken).

Gracie: "That's my little son, Herman."

Rochester: "Uh, son?"

Gracie: "Well, yes, don't you think he looks like his daddy?"

Rochester: "Don't believe I ever met the bird!"

Rochester's incredulous attitude toward Herman being Gracie's "son" while simultaneously sizing up "the fat little rascal" for dinner is pretty good. After the next musical number, Dennis joins the story properly and does his usual schtick of being a terrible suck-up (laughing at George when he's not being funny) and completely scatterbrained (much like Gracie). Dennis and Gracie's shared naivete makes for some funny material as he (barely) tries to convince her to appear on Jack's show:

Dennis: "I don't blame you, Miss Allen! Mr. Benny says some terrible things about your brother Fred!"

Gracie: "Oh, no, Fred's not my brother, Dennis! And please, don't call me 'Miss Allen.' I've been Mrs. Burns since one day years ago when a tall, handsome, charming man came along and pronounced George and me man and wife."

Rather than convincing Gracie to appear on the show, Dennis is soon swayed to Gracie's side, impressed at meeting an "intellectual."

Gracie: "Dennis, you're the first person I've met who's my intellectual equal."

Dennis: "I guess there aren't many of us."

Just as Gracie believes she should be a concert pianist, she convinces Dennis could be a poet. Dennis' poetry recital is about as lousy as Gracie's playing, while Gracie's friend Tootsie arrives and, believing she could be a singer, is likewise swayed by Gracie into thinking she's talented. Ultimately, the three of them crash George's attempt to run the program and simultaneously offer terrible reciting, terrible singing and terrible piano playing. A defeated George apologizes: "Honestly, Jack, I did the best I could."

This program is really a mere oddity in the broadcast history of the Jack Benny Program, but I'm covering it for the sake of building up to tomorrow's post, where I'll examine the 2nd of 5 consecutive episodes Jack missed. Tomorrow, the March 14th episode: the show returns to Hollywood, Phil Harris returns and they find a guest host who is - shockingly - a great replacement for Jack. Orson Welles. That's right, Orrrson Welles.

Sunday, March 23, 2014

"Cat needs help, badly!" Beasts of Burden: Hunters & Gatherers#1

It's always pleasant to revisit the comedic/horror series Beasts of Burden by Evan Dorkin & Jill Thompson, even though the tales are spread quite far apart. Recently, the one-shot Hunters & Gatherers came out through Dark Horse, allowing us a reminder of what an interesting world Dorkin & Thompson have constructed. If you're not in the know, this series relates the somewhat humourous but frequently horrific adventures of the dogs (and cats!) of Burden Hill who have been charged with the task of defending the Earth from supernatural menaces.

Hunters and Gatherers doesn't really advance the ongoing terrors of Burden Hill - or really, tell a self-contained story. It opens with an action sequence as the cat & dog defenders of Burden Hill fight an invisible monster, then follows the cast as they tell their neighbour pets how the threat was beaten. There's some suggestion of dangers to come (the rats from the Beasts of Burden mini-series return), but it all feels like the opening chapter of a new story, not a done-in-one (the previous one-shot, Neighborhood Watch collected a number of short stories which did stand on their own).

The cast of characters don't seem to have progressed too much since we last saw them, but for those of us who simply wish to see the characters again, there's much to love:

Rex remains the team's resident coward, yet always supports the group;

Dymphna is a consistently sketchy, somewhat untrustworthy soul;

Orphan still takes risks and watches out for his pal Rex;

Ace remains determined and courageous;

Pugsley still utters outrageous dialogue.

The biggest developments seem to be the addition of the Getaway Kid to the team's ranks; with another cat providing a supporting role (namely Muggsy), this brings the number of regularly-appearing cats up to four - more of a dog-cat balance than before.

Also, the dog Whitey (who has frequently been the least-useful and least-defined of the characters) seems to be developing a characteristic when he ponders the weird creature they just slew; perhaps Whitey's being a goofball, or perhaps the supernatural horrors he's seen have begun to unhinge his mind. Anyway, it's interesting to note.

If you followed Beasts of Burden's previous tales, you'll obviously want this new addition to the canon.

Saturday, March 22, 2014

Unearthed: Superman Salutes the Bicentennial

I was not alive in 1976; I am also not a citizen of the USA. From what I gather, the Bicentennial celebrated in the States was a year-long 4th of July party, spawning musical extravaganzas, celebratory documentaries, and, of course, Bob Hope's Star-Spangled Spectacular Special. All of this no doubt healed the wounds of a nation so recently released from the shackles of the Vietnam War, free to remind themselves of the time when they were the plucky rebels battling the forces of imperialism.

Obviously, the comic books had to become involved; Jack Kirby returned his signature creation Captain America in time for the Bicentennial, crafting an immense arc usually known as the "Madbomb" story, wherein Cap battled the Royalist Forces of America, descendants of the Loyalists who considered themselves the only "true" Americans. Further, Kirby launched the tabloid-sized and all-out gonzo Captain America's Bicentennial Battles, in which Cap journeys through time and space, living and reliving moments of US history.

Not to be outdone, DC Comics also published a tabloid-sized Bicentennial comic featuring a great patriotic hero - in fact, a patriotic hero who was beloved all the world over (Captain America still being rather obscure in '76). Thus, let's turn back the pages of time to 1976 and Superman Salutes the Bicentennial (Limited Collectors' Edition C-47).

The cover promises us "6 tales of heroic history celebrating the Spirit of '76! Plus: gallery of Presidential portraits" and "Bicentennial newspaper." Let me tell you, this book delivers everything the cover promises - but not as you might expect.

I hope you enjoy that grand cover of Superman with the eagle on his arm because you won't get much more than that - rather than having Superman engage in a giant-sized story, Superman is merely the host to a batch of reprints; he appears on the first two pages (art by Curt Swan) to introduce the book's real star: Tomahawk!

Tomahawk (and his sidekick Dan Hunter) appeared all over DC Comics from 1947-1972. Although Tomahawk appears to be an American frontiersman of the Davy Crockett or Jim Bowie type (both being men who came the century after him), he actually held his adventures during the days of the Revolutionary War. My father bequeathed his collection of Tomahawk comic books to me when I was teenager and although they came from later in the series run (by which time Tomahawk had become the leader of an entire team of sidekicks called the Rangers, becoming a veritable 18th century Blackhawk), I found them to be harmless fun. Come to think of it, those comic books were likely my first exposure to the Revolutionary War - it's not as though I ever had to learn about it in school. The final ten issues of Tomahawk actually featured his son, Hawk, in an attempt to capture an older, hipper audience; despite some fantastic Joe Kubert covers, it didn't pan out. Tomahawk struck troubled waters at the same time as many other comic books which lay outside the super hero genre; it only seemed to convince publishers to place more emphasis on super heroes.

Anyway, the "6 tales of heroic history celebrating the Spirit of '76!" are 6 reprints from 1950s Tomahawk stories which were particularly close to the events of the Revolutionary War; George Washington himself features in many of them. One story involves an early submarine, the Turtle, straight out of the history books!

There's also an interesting 13-page sequence telling the battle of Valley Forge through the art of Fred Ray (artist of the Tomahawk stories reprinted here); it was originally published in 1951 and didn't originate from DC (Ray evidently self-published it), but DC wanted something related to '76 so... there it is! There's also a celebratory biography of Fred Ray, which is a nice touch (plus, it takes up another page).

The "Bicentennial newspaper" turns out to be a two-page "Bicentennial Planet" text feature, which is kind of cute. However, the "gallery of Presidential portraits" is actually the back cover of this book. Not exactly a cheat, but not the spirit of the cover blurb (or '76?).

If you slapped down your $1 in 1976 expecting Superman to have fantastic adventures celebrating US history, you'd be quite disappointed; however, as a Tomahawk fan I'm quite pleased. In fact, this appears to be the single least expensive entry in the Limited Collectors' Edition series, probably because Tomahawk fans aren't especially numerous.

Friday, March 21, 2014

"I'm going to tell you everything because I want you to know the full depth of your defeat." The Black Coat: the Blackest Dye review

I came early to the independent series Black Coat, joining it in 2006 for the mini-series A Call to Arms. The titular masked hero is based out of New York in 1776 and wages war with the British, aided by a network of operatives called the Knights of Liberty. The concept brings to mind Dr. Syn, the Scarlet Pimpernel, Zorro, even the Shadow. It's a great premise.

...On paper. I like the concept behind Black Coat, it's a fine premise for an adventure hero series - yet I've always been disappointed with the book. I'm not sure why I've followed it for so long - Francesco Francavilla's artwork on the initial series helped, yet I wound up following the subsequent Or Give Me Death without him. The series has a very erratic publishing schedule - although the stories are intertwined so that they would be best served by monthly publication, a year or more might elapse between Black Coat series.

The most recent series is actually a graphic novel: the Blackest Dye by Ben Lichius (writer) and Dean Kotz (artist). It saw funding through Kickstarter, where I happened to be one of the supporters. I guess I wanted to show my support for independent comics, even if I don't find the product especially memorable.

The back cover blurb declares: "this new graphic novel picks up after the events of "Or Give Me Death" but is a great place for new readers to jump in as well." To which I say: horse hockey! I read Or Give Me Death and even I'm baffled by this book.

The high-flying swashbuckling adventure the concept promises is constantly undermined by the heavy scenes of characters talking to each other; so little of visual interest happens, instead letting exposition or melodrama envelope the publication. And for all the exposition - page after page at a time, including the villain bragging about his plot to the hero. Yet for all of this, one of the villains from the previous mini-series returns without any explanation of who or what he is; another supporting character, Nadia, holds an important role in this story but is never given a proper reintroduction - I confess I've completely forgotten who she was, but considering how her story plays out in the Blackest Dye, I doubt rereading Or Give Me Death would be fulfilling. How can such a small cast be so complicated to introduce?

Little as I know of Revolutionary War-era USA, something about this series seems unconvincing - and not only because it involves the Black Coat battling supernatural creatures. At one point he wields a wooden stake against a vampire and he - living more than 100 years before Dracula will be written - remarks, "Looks like I'll have to put a stake in this vampire the old fashioned way!" He's pretty self-aware to be deconstructing tropes in an era before they've become cliche!

No, you must be reading lines from an old script.

The Black Coat's Knights of Liberty tend to fall into a single heap of talking heads, but team leader Ursula Morgan stands out. Sadly, her role is limited here to exposition and a subplot where she's jealous of the Black Coat spending time with Nadia. Still, it's a pretty progressive role for a woman... by the standards of 1776.

More of comic books and the spirit of '76 tomorrow!

Thursday, March 20, 2014

"Wow! What feet! And what lungs!" Phantom Lady review

In a time not-so-long ago, comic book collectors pursued certain notorious "good girl" artists of the past, artists whose work included a level of sexuality not found in contemporary works. Perhaps the most highly-sought was Matt Baker and his most insidious work was Phantom Lady. However, much has changed since the 1940s; while the amount of attention Baker placed on women's curves stood out in his own time, such material is lost in the din today; women with bare, curvaceous legs and ample cleavage can be found in most super hero comics and there's plenty of truly sexually explicit material for those who want it. Your typical Dynamite Entertainment variant cover probably has more "sex" than any given Baker comic book.

Regardless, 1994 saw the publication of Phantom Lady by Verotik (sometimes dubbed "Phantom Lady: Crime Never Pays!" because of the phrase printed on the tiny badge seen on the cover), a collection of Baker's stories featuring a new cover by Adam Hughes (based on one of Baker's best known covers). Verotik, as the name suggests, published pornographic comics; Baker was definitely mild by their standards! Even this Hughes cover is a little more daring than the Baker original, considering the nipple poking through the Phantom Lady's top.

The reprint values in this tome are not terrific; they're about as good as what you'd expect from a 1990s scanner. We're truly spoiled by today's reconstructed/proofed/recoloured comic book reprints. Rather than focus on the complete contents of this book, I'd like to examine only the first story: "A Shroud for the Bride!" (Phantom Lady#14) because it shows some interesting storytelling defects worth pointing out.

We open on one Porky Mead, an aging, tubby man who somehow has been romancing three women at once (he's loaded). However, upon spying one Rosie Muldoon flipping flapjacks in a diner he's instantly smitten with her and invites her to the evening's masquerade ball. In a quick scene change, we learn Sandra Knight and her boyfriend Don Borden are planning to attend as well. Mead brings Rosie to a costumer to take her measurements, then Rosie returns to the diner. The costumer stirs up trouble by phoning each of Porky's three girlfriends to let them know about the new woman in their sugar daddy's life. That night, Rosie receives a Cleopatra costume and wears it out to the ball; a second costume arrives in the mail, but Rosie ignores it.

At the party, Sandra is in attendance as the Phantom Lady, even though in this costume she wears no mask, causing one to wonder how a senator's daughter could possibly escape notice (perhaps that's why she wears a flimsy costume? to keep eyes off her face?). In what turns out to be a significant line, we hear Rosie had been expected to appear in a Little Bo-Peep outfit - therefore, it was the second costume which arrived in the mail.

Suddenly, Rosie falls over dead. Perhaps Baker intended the line which passes through the background (above) to represent a bullet line and it might have been clearer in the original art. Anyway, Rosie has been shot. I'm stating this up front because the story doesn't explain what Rosie died of until the second-last page. The Phantom Lady steals one of Rosie's shoes and it's at this point I grew confused on the first read-through. The Phantom Lady is convinced this shoe will identify the killer - why, had the shoe been poisoned? It took me some time to realize the Cleopatra outfit belonged to one of Porky's other three girlfriends so the killer is the one who fits the shoe. The Phantom Lady will spend the rest of the story talking about how the shoe will fit her killer but never does she remind us of the single line of dialogue she overheard about Rosie's other costume!

Even now that I understand Phantom Lady's conclusions, it's specious reasoning, no? Why must the killer be the one who had been fit for the Cleopatra outfit? What if Porky had a fifth mistress who was put-out? What if Porky's butler did it? And even if this were the solution, surely the next logical step would be to contact the costumer and ask her which of the girlfriends had been fit for the Cleopatra attire? Instead, it's sleuthing time - the Phantom Lady way!

Seeing her boyfriend at the party, the Phantom Lady slinks off and returns as Sandra Knight, highlighting just how terrible her costumed identity is at disguising her. The next day Sandra arranges to have tea with the three girlfriends, but instead of Sandra they're met by the Phantom Lady! Even these women don't seem able to put the pieces together, despite presumably knowing what Sandra looks like. The Phantom Lady demands they each try to put on the shoe so she can identify the killer; when they refuse, a catfight breaks out. Meow! Hiss. However, the maid (Sandra's own maid?) calls the police and the Phantom Lady is arrested. She soon escapes from the police by turning her blackout gun on them (they didn't frisk her) and leaping out a window.

Now she must take the law into her own hands by breaking into the three women's rooms at night and testing the shoe on their feet. Clearly, this is a plot which plays to Baker's strengths, meaning copious visuals of women in their evening wear. After finding the first two women don't match, the Phantom Lady heads to the third girlfriend's home, sure to find the murderer there.

The Phantom Lady climbs in through the woman's window but doesn't find her quarry in bed: "I didn't plan on this!" she exclaims; instead, the woman ambushes the costumed hero and socks her in the jaw, knocking her unconscious. She uses spilled perfume and a match to start a fire. Great idea! When her own home is destroyed and Sandra Knight's remains are identified, no one will ever link this woman to the murder of Rosie Muldoon!

However, a frightened cat knocks over a goldfish bowl and the water revives the Phantom Lady; in fact, the killer hasn't even had time to escape the room because the Phantom Lady locked it from the outside before coming in which... wow, that raises questions. Like, why climb in through a window on what (we'll soon see) is the 4th floor when you've already been in the hallway in front of the killer's unlocked door? And where did she acquire the keys to lock the door? How do you lock someone's apartment door so they can't open from the inside? And why, with all this careful planning, was she unprepared to find the killer lying in wait when she entered through the window?

Anyway, they fight in a manner which best permits Baker to depict thrusting curves until at last the Phantom Lady forces the killer to give up her handgun, then they leap from the burning building into a fireman's net. The Phantom Lady explains to the police how the shoe and gun will identify the killer and the police accept all of this without explanation. Even though her own boyfriend is among the police, the Phantom Lady escapes being recognized as Sandra Knight. Also, Porky Mead delivers some flowers to her. Some time later, Sandra lounges in a bubble bath while she cajoles Don over the phone, demanding he talk more about her and less about the Phantom Lady.

It's never easy to cover exposition and the pioneer comic book makers of the 40s were still learning that problem; here, though, the exposition is never given. The reason the shoe will identify the killer... what the killer died of... not elaborated on. However, they did think to explain why the killer hadn't run away by the time Phantom Lady woke up, but, as covered above, the explanation only complicates the story. It's a simple enough tale, but Baker's mind was *ahem* elsewhere.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

New book in June

It's certainly been a long time since I posted in the "my comics" category:

WAR OF KINGS TPB (NEW PRINTING)

Written by DAN ABNETT & ANDY LANNING Penciled by PAUL PELLETIER & BONG DAZO Cover by BRANDON PETERSON

The Inhumans have taken flight to outer space! Their destiny as rulers written in the ancient fates, Black Bolt and the royal family have taken command of the Kree Empire! Meanwhile, Vulcan, power-mad brother of the X-Men’s Cyclops and Havok, has become the newest emperor of the Shi’ar, the most advanced military civilization in the galaxy! What happens when these mighty powers turn their rage upon one another? And what happens to those caught in the crossfire? When two mighty powers wage war, who will rule? Featuring the Guardians of the Galaxy, Darkhawk, the Starjammers and more cosmic favorites, the War of Kings is a battle that may rip the universe asunder! Collecting SECRET INVASION: WAR OF KINGS, WAR OF KINGS #1-6, WAR OF KINGS: WHO WILL RULE, ROAD TO WAR OF KINGS and MARVEL SPOTLIGHT: WAR OF KINGS. 256 PGS./Rated T+ …$24.99 ISBN: 978-0-7851-9066-0

I assume "Road to War of Kings" refers to my book, War of Kings Saga, which was previously published in the Road to War of Kings trade paperback. Actually, "Saga" isn't nearly as good a title as "Road to." Featuring Dorothy Lamour in a hopeless intergalactic conflict! Anyway, it's nice to see the Guardians of the Galaxy movie has finally placed this material back in-print.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Review: Weird Tales, July 1953

Welcome to my review of the third (and final) issue of Weird Tales I recently added to my collection (first review here, second review here). Let's check out the July, 1953 issue, shall we?

"L'Affaire Verenekin" by David Eynon is a quick tale wherein a Russian officer narrates how he attempted to spare a young man from his firing squad, with disastrous results. It's a one-point story and it hits that point square on the head.

"The House in the Valley" by August Derleth. I'm not a fan of H.P. Lovecraft but I have even less tolerance for his imitators. This tale is nothing more than a Lovecraft homage, written by someone who didn't quite understand Lovecraft's style (yes, I know Derleth wrote a lot of Lovecraftian material - perhaps it read better elsewhere). The story is full of references to Lovecraft's universe but can't really tell a story on its own merits (it's something of a sequel to "the Shadow Over Innsmouth"). It involves a man purchasing an old manor and having weird dreams which gradually lead him to realize his house has seen terrible deeds done on behalf of the Old Ones. Derleth recycles concepts and dialogue from Lovecraft's stories, but fails to get across the dread and existential terror of Lovecraft's own works.

"Slaughter House" by Richard Matheson; as if to say, "here's how it's doene" we have a haunted house story by Matheson which is far superior in delivering a growing sense of danger and paranoia; the one weakness is the epilogue, where the back story of the ghost is revealed - the back story could have probably been used more effectively earlier in the story.

"The Source of It" by Glen Malin; told in a diary format much like Nikolai Gogol's Diary of a Madman, the narrator claims to have the power to see the "shadows" which control people's thoughts and tries to find "the source of it," the being who has enslaved everyone's will. Again, a well-done story of paranoia - it can be done.

"The Missing Room" by Lyn Venable; strangely, this is a science fiction tale about an alien trying to lure people into his spaceship by disguising it as a house for rent. He might possibly be the most incompetent alien invader in the history of fiction.

"On the Elevator" by Joseph Payne Brennan; a figure seems to appear from nowhere to ride an elevator and soon a dead man is found in the elevator car; it's a brief story and doesn't have much space to establish itself.

"Dread Summons" by Paul Ernst; first printed in Weird Tales in 1937, this concerns a vindictive man buying up his dead rival's house so he can destroy it, but during his inspection of the premises he idly mocks the dead man over the home's switchboard - and this seems to rouse his rival from the grave. Pretty good, I can see why it was dug out for another go.

"The Sea-Witch" by Nictzin Dyalhis; an anthropologist meets a young lady from the sea who is descended from an infamous Norse sea witch and believes he's the reincarnation of her ancestor's lover. It's an odd story of romance and vengeance, much lighter fantasy than the sort of dark material usually found in Weird Tales.

The poem "House of Life" by Dorothy Quick also appeared.

Derleth aside, this issue had a consistency the others didn't; none of the stories are as good as the Bloch tales I covered in the last two entries, but they aren't as forgettable as the other entries. Let's call this a win.

Monday, March 17, 2014

"...As though I've been waiting all my life for this moment!" What is... the Face#1 review

Yesterday I brought up Ron Frantz's short-lived A.C.E. comics; many of his books utilized Charlton talents who had been run out of work by the publisher's collapse; the series What is... the Face arrived in 1986 at a point in Steve Ditko's career where he had just burned his bridges with Eclipse and (temporarily) run out of assignments at Marvel, so it must have been welcome work; it also re-teamed Ditko with Joe Gill, another Charlton talent.

I don't know much more about the Face than what's available online about him - he's a 1940s costumed hero who wore a scary mask - that's it. Ron Frantz went to the bother of acquiring the copyright of the character for this series, yet, curiously, he turned up in Dynamite's Project Superpowers books on the apparent assumption he lay in the public domain; Frantz also picked up the copyright to Skyman, which hasn't prevented Dark Horse from likewise usurping the character. Perhaps Frantz accidentally let the rights expire, but something doesn't smell right...

The painted cover by Rick Courtney isn't quite appropriate for the series - the bloody violence of a man being shot in an alley will not be replicated by Ditko within. I also feel like putting Ditko on the cover would have turned a few more heads.

We begin "the Ransomed City" (plotted & edited by Frantz, scripted by Gill, penciled by Ditko, inked by Frank McLaughlin) with a half-splash of the Face firing his gun at criminals, but this is a flash-forward - the Face won't really enter the tale until page 11.

Instead, we open on Tony Trent, a crusading television journalist determined to use his exposes to break up the criminal underworld headed by Louis "the Duke" Arno. Arno is infuriated, but rather than see Trent killed, he decides to find out who Trent's sources are and kill them instead to keep others from coming forward; he's the proactive gangster! We meet Trent's supporting cast, consisting of Janet Baxter (a district attorney? or police official? who wants Trent's help and seems smitten with him), Lt. Grogan (who wants Trent to give up his sources to the police) and station owner Mr. Cooper (who wants Trent to stop his stories before an inevitable libel suit).

While Trent is working in his office with the safe containing his secret papers exposed, someone turns off the lights, knocks Trent unconscious and steals the evidence Trent had been planning to use against Arno. Trent suspects maintenance worker Larson or Cooper's flunky Karsen could be behind the theft (in fact, it's Larson). Trent goes on the air to accuse Arno without proof, but cameraman Dempsey uses a trick camera to shoot Trent in the chest; Larson "helps" Dempsey escape in the aftermath by shoving him out a window.

Trent survives the gunshot because he thought to wear a bulletproof vest; realizing there's no evidence linking Arno to the attempt on his life, Trent decides to follow in his grandfather's footsteps and move outside the law. Returning to his home, Trent opens a chest containing his grandfather's colt .45 and mask; he becomes the new Face! He kept the .45 in working condition, thinking one day he might have to resort to vigilantism to fight crime.

Arno's home is protected with electronic alarms and guard dogs, so the Face lowers a rope to Arno's roof from an adjacent building; he breaks in just as Arno has killed Larson to prevent Larson from revealing what he knows. The Face battles Arno's henchmen and you might now be wondering why an investigative journalist could possibly manage to descend upon rooftops, leap through windows and battle an entire gang single-handed; a throw-away line establishes Trent studied martial arts (for someone who didn't reveal his connection to the Face until the 11th page, he'd certainly been prepared for this!).

Sounds of gunfire in Arno's home draw in the police, but Arno tries to claim the Face is an intruder and the one who murdered Larson. The Face realizes he's in a bad spot and drops a smoke bomb (apparently he also packed smoke bombs) then leaps out a window, dodging police gunfire. Later, Trent visits the police station and learns Grogan has an APB to capture the Face; moving on from this, Trent asks out Janet on a date.

The second feature includes an illustration of the Face as host with the header "the Face presents a tale of the macabre!" This second feature was originally created for Pyramid's Treasury of Terror paperback: it's Lord Dunsany's "Two Bottles of Relish," adapted by Mart Bailey. The adaptation tries to follow the events of the story as original published but gets terribly fumbled up; the Dunsany story is a fantastically gruesome piece, but the adapter doesn't seem to know how to get across Dunsany's subtlety; I was only able to understand the story as presented because I had read the original, it doesn't work as is.

There's also a reprint of a 1940 Face adventure by Gardner F. Fox & Mart Bailey - it has very poor reproduction values, it was probably copied from the original comic, unlike the carefully-restored Daredevil story from yesterday's post. Weirdly, this adventure of the Face was ripped-off in 1941's Mystic Comics#5 to introduce the super hero Moon Man; same plot, many of the same layouts and dialogue - how embarrassing... for the Face, I mean, being mentioned in the same paragraph as Moon Man. Just to fill space, there's a one-page gag strip starring 'Skool' Yardley.

The back-up features are definitely a mixed bag, but the Face is an all right feature - kind of typical Ditko. McLaughlin's inks are at times quite heavy, adding textures Ditko would have definitely omitted had he been inking himself. Gill's script keeps the tale from becoming too typically Ditkoesque (speaking as one who found Ditko's contemporaneous Static tiresome), but the plot takes just a little too long to turn Trent into the Face and does so without "playing fair" - his sudden shopping bag full of needed skills and weapons are a little too convenient. Still, the Face is an appealingly simple hero, bearing only a gun and a Halloween mask in his war against crime.

I've got a high tolerance for black & white Steve Ditko art; taken as a whole, I dug it.