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Monday, November 09, 2020

Death Valley Days with Comic and Dinosaur Relief


Trail Mix of Good, Less Good, and Great

Quest for relaxation again yields fun and frustration endemic to stuff hardly meant to be looked at once newness wore off. As often the case, I find myself locked into a thing like Riders of Death Valley and wondering who else in the wide world might watch, fifteen chapters to make Gibson Gowlands of us all, not for nothing the place called what it was, though unlike Universal for the serial, I understand Stroheim actually went to hottest DV stove lid to shoot his Greed, but still I’ll stand by the Gowland gag and assume he had it no worse than ones of us sitting through Riders of Death Valley. So why self-punish? Mostly it was status of this as a first-ever Million Dollar Serial (surely none before or to follow), a brag I’d dispute, for how do you get a million back from youth paying but dimes to get in, but hold on, they presumably did it fifteen times. Chapterplays were a good bet once watchers were loyal to them. Did any serial play a same town twice? Showmen who said no to what opposition had previous used would surely say no, no to a lollipop kids had already licked. Point is, I have never watched a serial twice. Has anyone?

Riders of Death Valley
had Charles Bickford as principal heavy, to undoubted chorus saying Charles Bickford is too good to be in serials. Why then? He would be mean to Tarzan and kidnap Boy a year after Riders, then perform priestly good in The Song of Bernadette, and they don’t come more prestigious than that. Charlie took memoir pride in having cussed out Louis Mayer, then being blackballed across the industry (the FU to LB blurted w/o benefit of witnesses), Riders of Death Valley a next worst thing to that, for Bickford as “Wolf Reade” can’t kill off a good guy for hardest trying, him a Coyote in a desert filled with Road Runners. Big galoot assist is Lon Chaney, Jr., who in Wolf’s estimate never does anything right. For all of mines they blast, avalanches they cause, stampedes they rouse, Bickford’s bunch cannot rid themselves of a single Dick Foran (for ease of reference, let’s refer to the entire hero ensemble as “Dick Foran”). No wait --- not fair --- one of them is Buck Jones, the immortal Buck Jones, who is unaccountably billed third, behind Foran, behind even Leo Carrillo, an outrage. I wanted Buck to ramrod this show, let Dick be his singing assist. Life was no more fair in 1941 than now. Riders of Death Valley is had on DVD from VCI. They also announced a Blu-Ray for release soon.

Look at that Lloyd face. Doesn't he have a pleasant face? Harold made real effort to wrassle talkies, came away sadly licked. I got out The Cat’s Paw, was impressed, thought changes he made intelligent ones. Lloyd knew the old gag format was done, at least for then that was 1934. He produced The Cat’s Paw himself, as in his $, then Paramount as distributor rejected it. Imagine them doing that five years before. Unthinkable. Fox instead took over, got $1.2 million in worldwide rentals. Lloyd was still judged viable, if only he could unlock changed times door. Seems to me he had a right idea with The Cat’s Paw, as here was a new Harold, as posters said, a distinct character committed to one-two-three (as in acts) narrative. The Cat’s Paw has Capra feel, populist in a kook way, provided you’re OK with corrupt elements beheaded at a finish, which of course, won’t really happen, even as Harold makes miscreants think it will. A fun and novel resolve, even dragged past humor or shock value, that being the Cat’s rub, 102 minutes where timeout should be twenty or so before.

Still, there is Lloyd more fish out of water than was case before. Notice how talkies tended to see him isolated from a mainstream? Silent Harold was generally square in a middle of middle-class chaos (when he wasn't idly rich), or at least trying toward mainstream placement. The Cat’s Paw is HL the ultimate oddball, speaking our language but not conversant in it. As a son of China missionaries, and raised there, he shows up stateside minus cope skill for US idiom, let alone slang, and there is basis for spritely highs, albeit verbal, but verbal was where Lloyd saw a future, if he had one. Again, no one tried harder than this man to get a talkie grip. The Cat's Paw was a salve, but to fail must have hurt, and yes, Harold ultimately failed, at least to stay relevant. But where’s shame in that? How many of us get to stay “relevant”? And if Lloyd failed, why do I keep watching and enjoying his work, including this one? The Cat’s Paw is among features in the multi-box Harold Lloyd DVD Collection. It is fascinating, mostly funny, and a worthy lead-up to even better The Milky Way.

When does run-up to the monster engage more than arrival of the monster? For me, when it’s The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms, where every effort goes to making us believe there really is a monster, over and above seeing him in a first reel. Beast calls up moments we’ve all had trying to convince others of truth we know for truth, but they won’t hear, humanity’s shared Paul Christian/Jack Pennick moments. We know a stack of dinosaur drawings has the ringer, and await the high of Paul/Jack spotting it, not unlike a witness reviewing mug shots. 50’s sci-fi really went the added mile of making far-outness make sense, as if paleontologists, or at least high school science teachers, were peering always over their shoulders. I'm optimistic enough to trust conclusions reached by Cecil Kellaway in The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms, and Edmund Gwenn in Them!. Not having dinosaurs has been a loss to man. What little boy does not worship them? My mother took my brother to see The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms at our Allen Theatre in June 1953. She told me in 1964 (following a Channel 9-Charlotte broadcast) that there was a scene where the Beast took a drink of water and emptied a lake. I figured 9 had cut their print, a part of me to this day awaiting rediscovery of the scene, ever knowing that won't happen, because it simply was not there, sort of my 53/64 spider pit equivalent.

Review of Beast’s first-run campaign makes us know what we missed for not being there in 1953. I say that about everything, it seems, but this one is acute. Imagine the novelty --- there had not been a well-built dinosaur on screens since King Kong and its sequel. Hollywood evidently did not know or care how youngsters longed for them. The stunning success of Kong in summer 1952 gave a hint. Some speculate this led to making of The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms, but a few frames grabbed off Beast show theatre marquees circa late 1951, early ’52 at a latest, and it doesn’t look like stock footage. Captures like these have value in themselves, like Across The Wide Missouri in NY first-run, or more vividly, the RKO Palace front where Judy Garland appeared live from October 1951 into February 1952. Note too Detective Story at the Mayfair. Motion Picture Daily had a 3/12/52 piece on producers Jack Dietz and Hal E. Chester wherein they announced Monster From Beneath The Sea as an “immediate production” for their Mutual shingle. This, of course, was before the reissued King Kong went out. Judging by NY footage, it would appear Monster/Beast was already in at least preliminary works. The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms is available on Blu-Ray from Warners.


Blogger James Abbott said...

I'll take that challenge...

I think I've seen the first two Flash Gordon serials about four times each. Just thinking about it makes we want to run it through the DVD again.

I think I've seen Buck Rogers three times.

I think I've seen The Miracle Rider three times.


I'm with you on Harold Lloyd -- in fact, I think he's the greatest of the sainted trinity of Silent Clowns. I think he would've made it in talkies ... but it's not really a transition that any of them made in any significant way. Could it be that we should consider silent screen stardom a form of typecasting, and viewers could never erase their initial mental images?

The Beast is one of my favorite Harryhausen creatures (he, along with Gwangi). It's also a crackerjack picture; I wish most of his movies were as good as The Beast.

The blog, as always, is a delight! Keep it up.

11:03 AM  
Blogger Scott MacGillivray said...

I've seen many serials more than once. The blue ribbon goes to THE SPIDER'S WEB with Warren Hull, which I've seen maybe six times thus far (over 25 years).

Many exhibitors were tired of Harold Lloyd by the mid- to late 1930s. After they booked PROFESSOR BEWARE they were already writing him off. North Carolina: "Harold Lloyd doesn't draw like he used to. There are so many good comedians that Lloyd is slow." Kansas: "This picture was one of the biggest box-office flops that I have ever played." And, most candidly, North Dakota: "Harold Lloyd is washed up. People do not care for Lloyd anymore, it seems. Better rest on your past laurels, Harold."

2:49 PM  
Blogger Kevin K. said...

The Film Forum audience ate up "Cat's Paw" when it was on a double-bill with "Speedy" several years ago. I think Lloyd's problem in talkies was that, even when he was in his 40s, he seemed to be playing somebody at least a decade a younger.

My wife actually wanted to check out the "Terry & the Pirates" serial on TCM over the summer, but ditched it after two chapters. I couldn't blame her.

3:37 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Dan Mercer ponders beasts that drank up lakes:

Gertie the Dinosaur emptied a pond in the animated short used in Winsor McCay's vaudeville act. Is it possible that your mother conflated that moment with the thrills delivered in "The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms"? But where would she have seen it?

I can imagine you in the school yard after the Channel 9 showing: "That was a cut print, you know. It didn't have the scene where the Beast gulps down a lake. I'm going to write to them about that."

5:07 PM  
Blogger DBenson said...

I have a a bunch of serial DVDs packed into Frosted Shredded Wheat cartons, sitting in the living room waiting for the unwary to ask what's in the cereal boxes. There are a few I've gone back to multiple times. Flash Gordon (the first and third) and Buck Rogers, of course. "Captain Marvel", natch. "The Shadow", a James Horne mockery of the great radio hero but somehow irresistible.

My youthful experience of serials was television-based. A San Francisco station had a Sunday afternoon show called "Pow!", where a drily funny host would introduce jazz acts and the like before wrapping up with a serial episode. He showed "Flash Gordon" with post-episode footnotes, such as suggesting the actor playing Vulcan was cast for his willingness to slap a live bear. Other serials included the infamous "Lost City" and I think a Dick Tracy. After "Pow!" went away, I might trip over a chapter here or there, and try to find it again the following week, but by and large serials were just tantalizing stills in books.

One summer another local station had "Adventure Theater", a package of Republic chapter plays spliced into features. They appeared to vanish after that one season.

Columbia put out a silent 8mm version of "Batman", boiling it down to six 150' reels. Got them out of the public library once for a primitive binge watch.

With the advent of VHS it was possible to not only see whole serials (I always missed chapters on TV), but eventually own them for a rational price. I was an adult by this time, but my home video collecting focused on items I coveted as a kid or teen (and rarely found on the multiplying cable channels). I had maybe half a dozen, including "Haunted Harbor" and "Nyoka and the Tiger Men". Then came DVD and the deluge.

Right now I'm slowly working through "Jungle Jim". The impulse is to view a chapter just before a good old B, as intended. Serials rarely lend themselves to binge watching, nor do they fit well with anything in color.

1:53 AM  
Blogger Mike Cline said...

Repeat viewings of serials is a regular with me. I confess I am a Republic snob with the chapter plays. Suppose it's because, as a kid, that's about I could see (courtesy Bob Gordon at WSJS-TV).


During covid have watched both BATMANs and both SUPERMANs, and as the plots unfolded thought of how much better they would all have been if the Lydeckers had been involved.

7:55 AM  
Blogger MikeD said...

You guys that like serials should check out the Iversons Ranch blog. He got a bunch of now and then shots based on serial locations, some of which are still there.

I made it through to the end of Terry and the Pirates on TCM. Boy, was it tough sledding. I don't think I've ever seen so many hand grenades thrown on screen with such little damage. Besides grenades, Terry's main pugilistic move was to kick the bad guys in the shins. Head bad guy Fang meets his demise just as you would expect if you watched the first chapter.
Currently TCM is running Wild West Days with Johnny Mack Brown. It's okay but heavy on stock footage of Indians attacking wagon trains.

9:16 AM  
Blogger DBenson said...

An open question: Did kids react when serials (or movies, for that matter) stray too far from source radio shows and comics? As an adult who savors reprints and CDs, I found some adaptations painful.

"Terry and the Pirates" was maddening. It traded the strip's exotic Chinese backdrop for a generic jungle, and rendered the sexy villainess Dragon Queen as a bland tribal princess. Maybe they thought giant fake ears on Connie was enough fidelity to Caniff.

As "The Shadow" Victor Jory seems to have lost the ability to cloud men's minds, but he makes up for it by nailing the look and surviving buildings collapsing on top of him. Lots of James Horne's goofy gangsters. I'm a Shadow fan and I know this is wildly unfaithful to the radio show and the pulp stories, but heck, it's fun.

"The Green Hornet" is respectable and entertaining. Stock footage includes a shipwreck from "Dante's Inferno". In the first they dubbed the Hornet's radio voice over the scenes of him masked; in the second they just went ahead and cast the radio star as Brit Reid. Interesting how Keye Luke, energized and hyper in the Chan movies, is so subdued as Kato (even though he's credited with all the Hornet's technology and Black Beauty, he's still the humble servant).

"Mandrake the Magician" took away his signature mustache, and it's minus two stars right there. I don't remember any hypnotic powers. They do have him doing presumably real but unimpressive magic tricks (which inexplicably wow onscreen audiences) and reduced mighty Lothar to a houseboy of vague ethnicity (The strip's Lothar was still a black strongman in a tiny costume. Maybe the studio thought that was a bit much in 1939. Eventually the strip gave him real clothes and more of an action hero persona).

"The Phantom" was actually a pretty close adaptation, opening with the death of an old Phantom so his son would take over the legend. An unusual touch is that you feel sorry for the villain's henchmen now and again. They actually worry about each other.

The first and last Flash Gordon serials were very respectable efforts. The first went for the overheated madness of the strip's early years. The last embraced the operetta uniforms of the later years (but toned down the displays of flesh). The middle one was just kind of there.

There was always a subtle corniness to Buck Rogers. Where Flash was lush style and mythic themes, Buck was unapologetic sci-fi for kids. Futuristic gadgetry was highlighted, because it was nifty. Kid sidekick Buddy actually took over the Sunday page for years. This quality was duplicated -- intentionally or not -- in the serial. Instead of planetary emperors it offered gangsters who took over the world and ungainly mind-control devices.

"Secret Agent X-9" was made into two serials. The 30s version was fun spy stuff. The 40s version was dull, too straight for what should have been an exotic wartime tale of a "neutral" island of international outlaws. Over the years the strip itself seems to have evolved from straight detective stuff by Dashiell Hammett and Alex Raymond to police procedural to espionage tales.

"Jack Armstrong" drops radio teen Jack and his friends into a standard scientist-in-the-jungle plot, but casts clearly adult actors. They're dressed like teens (which reads as adult casual to modern viewers) and the dialogue, while never actually saying so, implies they're younger than the rest of the cast. But they play it as grownups, so it just doesn't feel right.

4:26 PM  
Blogger Dave K said...

Wow! I am impressed by all the serial diehards here in the comments section. Mark me down as the guy happy to view an isolated chapter or two, enjoy them then move on. Did love the marathon multi-night screenings of stuff like the Flash Gordons back in the day, but can not get up for binge experience today. But more power to all you other cliff-hanger-hanger-on-ers.

I like all the Lloyd talkies with the exception of WELCOME DANGER. Have always said his biggest downfall was the coming of sound made it tough for him to stay as darn likeable as he was in the silent days. Though playing a liar, a poser or thoughtless playboy, Harold still won instant audience sympathy before dialogue. Once we actually had to hear him tell those lies, pretend to be something he wasn't, or just act so clueless we start to loose patience. But CAT'S-PAW is not bad... Una Merkel was one of his most charming leading ladies.

The producers really lucked out on THE BEAST FROM 20,000 FATHOMS; not just Harryhausen but all team members preformed well beyond reasonable expectations for such a modestly budgeted project. And having a great art director, Eugène Lourié, step in to helm the thing may have been their second smartest hire. The picture looks terrific, as polished as a big studio production. Paul Hubschmid, Paula Raymond & Cecil Kellaway brought almost as much credibility to the proceedings as Ray's marvelous effects!

4:52 PM  
Blogger Reg Hartt said...

When I started my program at Toronto's Rochdale College in 1968 I ran five Republic serials weekly. What I had not realized was that these things recycled their special effects footage. Five different serials all using the same stock footage in one night put the kibosh on that.

I have seen several serials more than once mainly because I ran them publicly.

3:10 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Dan Mercer remembers THE CAT'S PAW from a Cinecon:

I slipped into a screening room at a Cinecon many years ago to watch a bit of “The Cat’s Paw.” I had seen it before on television and liked it, though I didn’t think that it was all that special by any means. Certainly, it didn’t compare to the silent Lloyds I fell in love with when a local public television station carried the somewhat disparaged Time-LIFE series. The audience that afternoon, however, quickly got into the film, chortling as one comedy sequence followed another. I stayed to the end, enjoying the experience immensely. I’ve seen it several times since then, my favorite of the Lloyd talkies.

Compared to the go-getting character of his silent films, I’ve found the Harold Lloyd of his sound films has a rather bland personality, with his flat and uninflected voice and diffident manner. In “The Cat’s Paw,” however, that is to his advantage. Ezekiel Cobb, the missionary’s son reared in China, is such a strange, otherworldly character, that that sense of reserve only lends itself to the mystery of who he is. Also, he’s not a fool, simply someone unversed in the rough-housing ways of America of the time. The story, as it plays out, nicely contrasts Cobb, who is almost a walking, talking aphorism with the shenanigans of the politicians and their goons, who are always on the lookout for the main chance.

The cast is marvelous, with Nat Pendleton, George Barbier, Alan Dinehart, Warren Hymer, and J. Farrell MacDonald in expert comedy support. And, if I had to come to America to find a wife, I could hardly do better than the delightful Una Merkel, who is as sweet and sexy as she is fun.

It speaks of the period in which the film was made, however, that the readiest solution to graft and crime seems to be to take the law into your own hands and kill all the politicians and gangsters. Unlike “Beast of the City,” "Gun Smoke," or “Gabriel Over the White House,” though, Ezekiel Cobb’s solution is more imaginative but no less effective.

5:17 PM  
Blogger Scott MacGillivray said...

Mr. Benson makes the excellent point that in the serial version of THE SHADOW, Lamont Cranston does not cloud men's minds, and thus everybody can see him. This is because Columbia's serial producer and writers realized that you couldn't have the usual serial fistfights and chases if nobody could see the hero! So they modeled The Shadow on their serial success The Spider. The Spider wears a black hat and cloak; so does The Shadow. The Spider poses as another character to infiltrate gangland; so does The Shadow. The Spider does his work aided by a brave girlfriend and an intrepid chauffeur; so does the Shadow. My favorite part of the SHADOW serial is Victor Jory's sinister laugh, a signature of the radio series -- Jory absolutely nails it.

Incidentally, Columbia was still offering THE SHADOW to theaters into the 2000s.

7:57 AM  

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