Tuesday, 22 November 2016

Five Men in the Circus

A brass band plays off-key, parading lazily through rural towns. Against the open night sky, acrobats dangle perilously without nets. “People will laugh if you fall,” the ringmaster tells them. Two sisters, halfway between ballerinas and clowns, struggle to define their lives.

The film is 1935’s Sakasu Gonin-Gumi, or Five Men in the Circus, and this post is for the At the Circus Blogathon hosted by SerendipitousAnachronisms and Crítica Retro.

I know it’s been a hell of a November so far – incidentally, if you want to marry a Canadian girl for immigration purposes, I’d probably do it for a working Hulu account – and I picked a total downer of a movie for this blogathon. So… maybe read about this movie now and then watch it at a later time? Or read about it at a later time. Blog posts don’t expire or anything. They’re not cream.

Also, before I really get going, I’m going to shamelessly plug Serendipitous Anachronisms and Crítica Retro. Both of them have amazing content, perceptive writing, and truckloads of historical information, so they’re definitely worth visiting repeatedly and subscribing to. Love to them for hosting this event, and love to them in general for being Summer and Lê. (Embarrassingly, I’ve always thought of Crítica Retro as my blog’s “cousin” because of our similar titles.)

Okay! Let’s take a trip to pre-war Japan, and the lyrical melancholy of Mikio Naruse!

It’s often bemoaned by fans of 20th century Japanese cinema that Naruse isn’t better known in the west. Despite the retrospectives and festivals that spotlight his work, he remains largely undiscussed, especially when compared to his contemporaries Yasujirō Ozu and Kenji Mizoguchi.

Part of this has to do with what used to be considered marketable internationally and what didn’t. Men’s films, like Kurosawa’s famous samurai epics and gritty crime dramas, were considered bankable while women’s films and low-key dramas were considered “too Japanese” for export. This second category is, of course, what Naruse specialized in. (Fun fact: Kurosawa apprenticed with Naruse, but a lot of people ignore this because no samurai = no lasting influence.)

Though his films were very popular in Japan during his lifetime, his company man attitude and lack of interest in auteur theory made him a figure of little appeal to contemporary western critics. He was sort of like a Howard Hawks or Douglas Sirk in that respect.

Interestingly, Naruse’s 1935 breakthrough Wife! Be Like a Rose! was the first Japanese talkie to receive an American theatrical release. It didn’t do well at all. Probably because it’s about the unfairness of Geisha culture and the pressure children put on their parents to maintain family reputations, and America was more into screwball comedies at that time. It was the 30’s. People didn’t need to go to the movies to get depressed, they could just stay home and think about their lives.

Five Men in the Circus was the immediate follow-up to Wife! Be Like a Rose! and never got an international release.

It tells the story of a dismally untalented five-man brass band, a group that’s been picking up work here and there advertising for hot springs and local festivals and the like. In between gigs, they steal hotel toiletries and wish they were back in Tokyo. Their next paycheck is supposed to come from playing the fanfare for a rural athletic meet, but when the meet is postponed, they find themselves in a bind.

Word comes to them of a circus set up in a nearby town, and they decide to head over and see if the big top needs some really terrible musicians. (Spoiler: They do not.)

At the circus, we’re introduced to the ringmaster’s two daughters, and it’s here that the Naruse touch is most evident.

Naruse’s films have very few technical signatures, in terms of what we recognize as directorial artistic flourish. He was obsessed with making the camera feel invisible, so there’s none of that Citizen Kane cameraman-in-the-trees style of innovation in his work. There are a few shots at wide, vertiginous angles in order to capture the sensation of looking upwards at acrobats, but even that’s crafted to feel as organic to the audience as possible. His whole technical aim was to create the illusion of one, continuous shot throughout the story. Kind of like a book with no chapters.

Where you can really see his thumbprint – again more like Howard Hawks than anyone else I can think of – is in recurring narrative themes. For Naruse, that meant women. His female characters weren’t accessories to a masculine narrative, nor were they prizes for deeds well done; they were dynamic and human, and more often than not, torn between two conflicting expectations within Japanese society. These characters don’t win, because they can’t win, and this inevitable loss forms the heart of the Mikio Naruse tragedy, but there’s always a flicker of optimism.

For a Naruse character, dignity is the hardest thing to hold on to, but the only thing worth keeping.

It’s a simple but powerful underlying theme, particularly in his later, more self-assured stories like 1959’s When a Woman Ascends the Stairs.

Five Men in the Circus sets itself apart from his usual films by being ensemble led, and by weaving its tragi-comic outlook through a variety of seemingly unresolved subplots. (I’ve mentioned before that I really enjoy unresolved stories; but if they drive you nuts, opt for a later Naruse comedy called Travelling Actors. It’s about two guys in a Kabuki troupe who dress up in a horse costume re-evaluating their lives after learning they’re being replaced with a real horse. It’s unexpectedly poignant and also very, very silly.) Most notable is the violinist who gets his dreams crushed because he won’t listen to circus wisdom about demographics. Rural audiences don’t like European classic music, they like tunes with some pep.

The story is based on a novel that had a lot of then-popular crude humour, especially in regard to periphery female characters. It makes for a vivid contrast between what films were expected to do in 1930’s Japan and what filmmakers like Naruse wanted them to be able to say.

"None of us play this music because we like it," one of the band members sulks as he drinks at an inn.

"None of us are bar hostesses because we like it," his server replies, pouring his next sake with her job-required simpering smile.

So, yeah. Five Men in the Circus might not be the best movie to watch while you’re feeling cruddy, but I hope this post has inspired you to check out the work of Mikio Naruse! And if you already knew him from his films of the 1950’s, or the collection of his silent films released by Criterion, then I hope this has encouraged you to check out some stuff from his middle-period!

And go look at everyone else’s circus posts! They’ll cheer you up!

Thursday, 3 November 2016

Night Beat: A World All His Own

Night Beat is one of the best radio dramas of the 1950’s, an era when most radio was slowly marching into obsolescence thanks to our beloved friend television. (Television, how could you?! Radio gave you some of your best ideas!) Broadcast on NBC, it was sponsored by hipster’s choice Pabst Blue Ribbon Beer, and later the breakfast of champions itself, Wheaties.

Frank Lovejoy played Chicago Star reporter Randy Stone, a strangely endearing character who looked at the world through a pair of metaphorical glasses that seemed to have one rose coloured lens and one jade one.

Stone’s column highlighted “strange stories waiting for him in the darkness.” While that makes it sound like he went out hunting vampires Kolchak-style, he was actually after something else: noir human interest stories. It’s a weird category, but he managed to find somebody who fit the bill every week. Astounding luck that man had.

The show was concerned with the city of Chicago, and how it affected the people who lived there. Of course, it could’ve been any city, and of course the people are the night people. The forgotten people. The people who get themselves into trouble so deep, they’ll take any kind of help, even if it’s a newspaper reporter with a hide as thick as a rhino’s and a heart made of glass.

This episode is from 1950, and it’s called “A World All His Own.”

There are many more good episodes, some even better than this one, and most available on the Internet Archive, so I hope this inspires you to investigate the series. Download some MP3s. Listen on the bus after dark. Particularly noirish tales include "The Girl from Kansas," "The City at Your Fingertips," and "Fear."

A couple of extra interesting tidbits:

In 1953, about six months after Night Beat went off the air, Dick Powell – TV noir’s kindly uncle – produced a backdoor pilot for a television adaptation of the series for his Four Star Playhouse. Lovejoy reprised his role, but it didn’t get a series. The episode was called "Search in the Night" and it's okay. Neither the best of Nightbeat nor of Four Star Playhouse. Something just doesn't click in the translation to screen. Maybe it's the lack of timpani drums.

The original pilot for the radio show starred Edmond O’Brien, who sponsors found too cold for the role. Apart from being in one of my favourite weird noirs, 1950’s D.O.A., he also starred alongside his replacement Lovejoy in 1953’s The Hitch-Hiker, in which the District Attorney from Perry Mason tries to kill them. Good times. Good times.

Monday, 24 October 2016

Boris Karloff’s Thriller 01x34: The Prisoner in the Mirror

I mentioned this episode in passing during the Mummy overview, and then I was like: “Hey me, you should recap that thing. Get back on the horse and so forth.”

Also, as I write this, my internet connection is once again down (I’m pretty sure that every single tree that could fall on a service line has fallen on a service line this year, and there was an actual blizzard last week, and I’m just furious about it), so if there are mistakes, I’m very sorry, I live in the woods and a bear stole my Google.

Thriller is a horror anthology series that’s seen something of a revival in recent years, and rightly so. It’s damn good television. Hosted by an elderly Boris Karloff, it was actually Karloff’s second attempt at getting a show like this off the ground. He did half a season of a “true paranormal” series called The Veil in 1958. Because of production troubles, The Veil was never picked up by a network. It’s not bad, but it’s not Thriller. Even the terrible episodes of Thriller are worth watching.

Today’s story is about notorious magician Cagliostro, played by Henry Daniell, a classic guy-who-was-in-everything of the 30’s and 40’s. He’ll be joined by a guy-who-was-in-everything of the 60’s, 70’s, and 80’s, Lloyd Bochner, along with Mrs. Cunningham herself, Marion Ross, and Patricia Michon.

We begin in Paris, 1910, where a lovely young couple in evening clothes are toasting one another with champagne. The girl is a glittering, smiling blonde who makes you think she’s used to getting diamond bracelets as presents, but there’s no use being angry at her for it. Her date is… off somehow. His face is open and young, and he’s got the look of the earnest sidekick in a teen beach comedy, but his manner is slick, hungry, and crackling at the edges with something sinister. He tries to impress her with magic tricks, first producing a silver coin to her great delight, and then wowing her with a small bouquet of live flowers he seemingly plucks from thin air.

Saturday, 22 October 2016

Donald Duck: Trick or Treat and The Gorilla

Trick or Treat is a Halloween classic. Released in 1952 and featuring a very memorable title song by Paul J. Smith (who also composed the Leave it to Beaver theme song), it's the best example of Donald Duck being a complete toolbox for no reason.

Usually, there's some building up of tempers on both sides when Donald faces off with his nephews, and the humour comes from how much everything escalates. In this one, there's no build up. It's go from word one with this duck. No mercy on Halloween.

Whatever, Donald. Next year, just give the children candy.


Donald Duck and the Gorilla was released in 1944, and it's exactly what you'd expect from the title, but maybe a little scarier. Often featured in Halloween-themed Disney compilations, you could probably watch it any time of year. 

I always really enjoy that lollipop gag. Can't help it.

Friday, 21 October 2016

The Halloween Tree (1993)

How many kids, pumpkin-shaped buckets in hand, are going to dress up like a Lego Knight or Rey from Star Wars, knock on the doors of strangers, and expect a handful of candy this October 31st?  And how many kids are going to know why they actually get candy? Why do people carve faces into pumpkins and stick candles inside, why do firecrackers get set off, why is there that scene in Meet Me in St. Louis where the children have a bonfire and throw flour in people’s faces?

What exactly does all of this Halloween stuff mean?

Chances are good that the pint-sized Stay Puft Marshmallow man on your doorstep has no clue what makes these traditions tick. He just knows you’re trying to give him a mini-toothbrush and sugar-free gum, and that makes you a wash out. Dude down the street has full size Snickers, FYI.

Back in 1972, author Ray Bradbury noticed this trend of people not explaining Halloween to their kids, and thought it would be a good idea to write a juvenile novel about the holiday’s origins. His research for The Halloween Tree wasn’t necessarily comprehensive, and it isn’t his strongest prose by a long shot, but it gets the job done. It’s kind of like if Mark Twain and Edgar Allen Poe got fused in a transporter accident, and less what I would call “Classic Bradbury.”

Then, in 1993, an award-winning made-for-TV animated was adapted from Bradbury’s book.

Rod Serling once famously complained that Ray Bradbury stories lost their charm when adapted for television. Bradbury himself took great offense at this notion, but it’s true. Most of his stories sing because of his prose, narration that can’t make it onto the screen without seeming intrusive. Radio adaptations served him well in the 50’s, but there’s never been a film or TV version of one of his books or stories that was better than the original book or story.

Except for The Halloween Tree.

It probably helps that Bradbury wrote the adaptation himself.

He also provides the narration, which is… um… well… it’s always cool to hear an author read their own stuff, and always kind of puzzling when they’re not very good at it.

This narration handily sets the stage of a sleepy Anywhere, USA kind of town, where front doors are left unlocked, the preferred method of travel is hand-me-down bicycles, and people leave pies in windows to cool. Orange leaves fall to gather or breezes that swirl around ankles and rattle loose fence boards, and a mixture of nostalgia and dread fills the evening sky as it darkens in anticipation of Halloween.

A group of young friends prepare themselves and their costumes for a night of unexamined symbolism and free candy.

Tom Skelton, the perspective character of the original story, is the level-headed sort-of-leader of the group. He’s dressing as a skeleton, because puns. His friends are Jenny, dressed as a witch but with very sensible red Keds; Ralph, an Egyptian mummy that we won’t be discussing at length because I’m all mummied out; and Wally, dressed as some kind of monster. Good old Wally is an amalgamation of a bunch of boys from the original story, and for the most part it’s an improvement, but I kind of miss the kid who rolled around in mud for a cheap costume and declared himself a gargoyle.

And then there’s Joe Pipkin. Pip is the reason Tom only gets to be the sort-of-leader, because it’s Pipkin’s adventures that everyone always goes on. It’s Pipkin who has the best ideas of where to find fun or mischief, and it’s Pipkin who holds the group together like glue. He’s – as they used to say – all boy. Frogs in his pockets, grass stains on his knees, freckles on his cheeks, and who-knows-what tangled in his hair. Accordingly, it’s Pipkin who reaches out his hand on All Hallow’s Eve and grabs the biggest chunk of shadow.

When the gang shows up at his door, candy route planned, expecting him to burst onto the front porch in a costume so masterful, they never could’ve dreamed it until they saw it themselves, a bucket of cold water is thrown onto the festivities.

Pip is being loaded onto an ambulance, his house dimmed and undecorated. A note on the door tells his friends to go on and have their fun without him, and a life-or-death appendectomy is hinted at.

But how can there be a Halloween without Pipkin? That’s like a spring without flowers, a summer without lemonade, a Valentine’s Day without rampant speculation about other people’s love lives. It simply won’t do.

The gang decides to follow him to the hospital, and the quickest way to do that is by cutting through the ravine.

Ah, the ravine.

It’s a staple of Bradbury stories that bring natural and unnatural darkness into nameless Midwestern towns. Sometimes, older brothers go to get ice cream and cut through the ravine at night, then take an awful long time coming back; sometimes stubborn spinsters walk through it alone after country visits, knowing that a serial killer is about. The ravine is a deep, shadowy crack in the earth that a Bradbury character can slip through at any moment.

It’s down in the ravine that the children see a gossamer, eerie vision of Pipkin. Blue and white and airy. He urges them on, racing further into the trees and darkness.

Tom, at first, thinks it’s all one grand prank. Pipkin was never sick at all, and this is all part of some Halloween scheme. The others aren’t so sure.

They follow Pip’s ghost to an old, Victorian-style house decked out with a ruby-eyed weather vane that watches them climb a set of wooden steps that sound like organ keys. And there they meet an old man with skin so sunken and weathered, you can see the shape of his skull. He calls himself Carapace Clavicle Moundshroud, and he’s voiced by Leonard Nimoy.

Mr. Moundshroud is the guardian of the titular Halloween Tree. A massive, leafless, blackened skeleton of a tree, decked out with thousands of jack-o-lanterns, each with a difference face and expression. The tree is what Pip’s ghost is after – more specifically, his pumpkin off of the tree.

The ghost steals the Pip pumpkin, the Pip soul, and disappears into “the undiscovered country” of Halloweens of yore.

Moundshroud turns out to be the ghosts of Christmas Past, Present and Future all rolled into one. Except he has no interest in any times but the past. There’s no examination of modern Halloweens or glimpses of the future, just a trip down the ages chasing Pip and his pumpkin.

Why Moundshroud brings the children along, whether he wants his pumpkin returned, or to claim Pip’s soul, indeed whether he’s friend or foe, is all left up for grabs. Halloween is a mysterious holiday, and its ambassador equally so.

Ancient Egypt is visited, where Mummy Ralph learns all about what his costume represents. Then Witch Jenny gets a very tame, child appropriate view of the heyday of witches and witch hysteria, and constantly pronounces the word “broom” as “brum” to my great annoyance. Monster Wally has the best sequence of the movie and the book, when Pip leads them to the half-built cathedral of Notre Dame, and Wally brings the building to life with his daring jumps and bounds, every landing calling up stones beneath his feet, and summoning the gargoyles. Lastly, Tom’s costume leads us to Mexico and the Day of the Dead, where a sugar skull and a dark bargain hold the key to Pip’s fate.

Like most histories made for kids, The Halloween Tree leaves out some of the rough stuff and glosses over the details, but it’s also a great way to get little ones more interested in why holidays are holidays. But, unlike something like Voyage of the Mimi where it’s so educational it stops being entertaining, The Halloween Tree manages to be gripping and suspenseful in a way that’s not too overwhelming for the animal crackers set.

Because of its made-for-TV status and being released during the heart of the Disney Renaissance, it wasn’t a big hit, but it’s had a very loyal following despite sporadic availability.  The animation isn’t as smooth as a lot of its contemporaries, and the character models apart from Moundshroud are all fairly bland, but that has more to do with budget than anything else.

The Halloween Tree is a well-told, interesting holiday special, and I highly recommend it for kids who love history or trick-or-treating, and for grown-ups who like Halloween as much as I do.

Monday, 17 October 2016

Mummy Movie Mayhem!

To keep a long story short, due to several factors my television recap plans are currently being rejigged. I’ll be looking at some more spooky October-themed movies than originally planned, maybe a couple bonus episodes of OTR, or vintage Donald Duck. I’ll do my best to make it work and try to keep a good balance.

But enough about scheduling hiccups! Let’s talk about something fun, like mummies!

Perhaps you’ve heard the announcement that Tom Cruise will be joining the Universal Horror revival sparked by Dracula Untold? If not, here’s a press release.

Regardless of your feelings about Tom Cruise, how disappointed you were in Dracula Untold, or your general skepticism about anyone ever capturing the glory days of Universal Monsters or early Hammer Horror again, it’s probably going to be a solid showcase for Sofia Boutella as the Mummy Queen, and she was pretty delightful in Star Trek Beyond. Silver linings, I guess.

So, to get everyone warmed up and ready for the next ill-advised excavation…

The Mummy (1932)

In the 1930’s, Boris Karloff’s career was hotter than a Scotch bonnet pepper on the surface of the sun. Eager to cast him in follow-up to The Old Dark House, Universal hired magazine writer/flapper gal Nina Wilcox Putnam and paired her with screenwriting pro Richard Schayer to come up with a story. They produced a nine-page treatment about the infamous court magician Cagliostro, with absolutely no elements of Egypt or mummies. In order to live through the centuries, Putnam’s version of Cagliostro injected himself with nitrate, and from what I gather the whole story sounds awesome and weird and more appropriate for a 1980’s audience than a 1930’s one.

(As a quick aside, Orson Welles played a horror-movie version of Cagliostro in 1949’s Black Magic, with Raymond Burr in a weird framing story about Alexandre Dumas fighting with his son. A version of Cagliostro also appeared in an episode of Boris Karloff’s 60’s TV show Thriller, “The Prisoner in the Mirror.” The historical Cagliostro is much less exciting than either depiction.)

Universal didn’t like a lot of the monster angles in the Cagliostro treatment, so they brought in John L. Balderson – who at that time was best known for his adaptation of Frankenstein, but would later go on to earn Academy Award noms for Gaslight and The Lives of a Bengal Lancer – to change things up. Back when he’d been working as a journalist, Balderson had covered the discovery of King Tut’s tomb, and the curse that seemed to befall those who opened it. The real-life story of ominous warnings on tablets and the possible reawakening of dormant, ancient evil was widely known. Balderson decided to use it as his jumping off point, scrapping the Italian magician angle altogether.

When everything was ironed out, the film became the tale of Imhotep, a man buried alive over 3000 years ago for daring to challenge the gods of death. When his mummy is discovered by gentleman archaeologists, he’s brought back to life by the reading aloud of the Scroll of Thoth by the youngest and least superstitious of the group. After regaining his strength, he reappears as a contemporary Egyptian using the name Ardath Bey, and begins leaving mysterious clues to new archaeologists about where certain tombs might be found.

Imhotep is easily my favourite of the Karloff creature roles. Back before Christopher Lee politely seized the crown, Karloff was the most versatile of the horror legends. Imhotep showcases that range as the Mummy gradually regains his strength and human form. You have everything from the mute shambling body language that Karloff invented and is still used as monster shorthand today, to his romantic side in the ancient Egypt sequence, and his remarkable gift for intensity in the stillest moments.

Zita Johann plays the object of Imhotep’s obsession, Helen Grovsner, a woman who bears a striking resemblance to his tragically deceased ancient lover Ankh-es-en-Amon (spellings on that one vary, but the character was named after King Tut’s wife). Johann was a fascinating actress of the period, often referred to as “The White Flame of the American Theater,” which was apparently some kind of compliment? Jazz Age lingo is weird. Anyway, she greatly disliked the process of making movies, and Mummy director Karl Freund didn’t do anything to help things along. He was a gigantic jerk to all of his actors, Johann especially.

Despite the difficult work circumstances, her performance is one of the most nuanced and interesting of all Universal horror leading ladies. Interestingly, she was heavily involved in the spiritualism movement of the time, and believed in reincarnation and a person’s ability to “carry” different souls. In the scenes where her large, glittering dark eyes seem to look thousands of years into the past, it’s easy to believe that’s what she’s doing.

The success of The Mummy was slow to spawn sequels, something unusual for Universal at the time, but it was rebooted a decade later, bringing us to…

The Mummy’s Hand (1940)

Spiderman films aren’t the only things to get started and restarted over and over again. The Mummy franchise has always been in a similar boat. Cast off all notions of the Mummy Imhotep being an elegant, tragic and obsessive figure. Those traits belong to Dracula. Mummies are prototypes for zombies now.

Imhotep is gone. The new Mummy is called Kharis and is played by Tom Tyler, who doesn’t have a hell of a lot to do since all the flashback scenes to Ancient Egypt are lifted directly from 1932’s The Mummy and have an uncredited Boris Karloff in them, and for some reason most of the story is about not trusting magicians.

(It’s weird, because the 1932 Mummy has no evil magicians in it, despite being rooted in the Cagliostro treatment, yet The Mummy’s Hand is loaded with modern day evil magicians. Not even corrupt ancient magicians. Evil 1940’s magicians. I don’t know why.)

But let’s back up a little and explain how we got here.

In the early 1930’s, Universal’s horror films were finely crafted works of art helmed by the likes of James Whale. Pioneers. Experimenters. Meticulous artists. And, jerkiness aside, Karl Freund’s direction in the original film is stunning. The use of atmosphere and the composition of shadow is hypnotic, particularly in the sequence when the mummy first awakes, and a later scene when Ardath Bey brings Helen to a fountain pond to hypnotize her.  

Then Whale’s Bride of Frankenstein managed to be a critical and cinematic hit, and the sequel train left the station. Everyone got a sequel. It didn’t matter if all your characters were dead at the end, it would just be about those character’s sons or something. No big deal.

Gradually, Universal’s interests and artistic levels slid into B-movie territory. Then everybody met Abbott and Costello, and while that is itself an awesomely fun movie, it also signals a change in the public perception of horror films. They weren’t art anymore, they were now schlock.

In 1940, The Mummy got a reboot. Not even a sequel, just a terrible rehashing of its plot, updated to be able to create a more profitable franchise. (What’s kind of funny about this is Nina Wilcox Putnam’s original Cagliostro idea was way better suited to having a series. In it, instead of having one reincarnated love, the monster would’ve been hunting the women of modern cities out of a spiteful need for revenge against the lover who had once spurned him.)

The Mummy’s Hand is bad.

It strips away all subtlety and ices the cake by foisting a “funny” sidekick upon us.

Crucially, though, it’s the actual starting point of Universal’s Mummy Movie Cycle. Also, fun fact: Tom Tyler only appeared as Kharis is this one film. Ever after, Lon Chaney Jr. was the mummy, except when Kharis met Abbott and Costello. That was Eddie Parker in a whole bunch of bandages.

So, after The Mummy’s Hand we got The Mummy’s Tomb, The Mummy’s Ghost (I like that title best because it’s so ridiculously unclear about what the monster is, like wouldn’t it just be the Ghost of Kharis?), and The Mummy’s Curse. None of them winners until Hammer got the rights to The Mummy’s Hand and…

The Mummy (1959)

You would think that the second best Mummy movie of all time would’ve been a remake of the 1932 version and not of the craptacular 1940 film, but no. Due to rights issues, when Hammer finally added the Mummy to its own stable of monsters, it was with the express understanding that they would be remaking The Mummy’s Hand, and any sequels thereafter would be unrelated to the Universal Mummy franchise. That last part suited Hammer just fine, they weren’t big on sequential franchises. Films were linked more by monster type and theme than anything else.

Despite the inelegant pedigree, not only is 1959’s The Mummy a serious contender for the best Mummy movie, it’s a serious contender for the best Hammer Horror. (If you ask me, the best Hammer Horror is The Gorgon, but that’s 90% because of the fake moustaches and the part where… something ridiculous happens. It’s a huge spoiler. My point is that “best” is a subjective label.)

Christopher Lee plays Kharis, revived when archaeologists read from the Scroll of Life, a made-up artifact that acts as the opposite of the Book of the Dead. The cleverest and most likeable of the archaeologists, and the one that happens to be married to Kharis’s dead princess, is played by Peter Cushing. He calls everyone idiots for being murdered, and unnecessarily leaps over a desk while wearing a smoking jacket, proving yet again why you should always open-hand slap people who leave him off their lists of horror icons. 

1959's Mummy a fantastically moody film, full of shimmering golden treasures and plush Victorian furnishings. Plot-wise, it’s thin, but the photography and performances elevate it enormously. The only downside is the swamp at the end. I like my mummies to age rapidly and turn into dust. It’s a personal preference.

If you haven’t seen this one, most reliable movie channels play it at this time of year, so make it your business to check it out. It works especially well on those rainy autumn afternoons where the sky is a muddled grey turning into early twilight, and you happen to have a cozy blanket and some pumpkin spice popcorn.

Hammer being Hammer, there were a few sequels. The Curse of The Mummy’s Tomb, The Mummy’s Shroud, and lastly Blood From the Mummy’s Tomb, which is the most quintessentially Hammer-sounding of the titles. We never got to “Seven Golden Mummies” or “Kiss of the Mummy Swingers” which is sad. People give up on their mummy franchises too soon.

They do run away with the trophy for quality-of-sequels, all jokes aside. The Mummy’s Shroud is a winner, and none of the series are as bad as the Brendan Fraser one in China. Yeesh.

Speaking of the Brendan Fraser series…

The Mummy (1999)

You know what doesn’t suck as much as people say? The 1999 version of The Mummy. (It’s barely eligible for discussion, but 1999 does count as 20th Century, and that’s what’s in my tagline.)

Ostensibly, it stars Brendan “George of the Jungle” Fraser as an American adventurer in 1920’s Cairo, where he meets a very likeable librarian with cinema’s worst eyebrows. Rachel Weisz plays Evelyn Carnahan, whose name is a combination of the names of the people involved in the discovery of King Tut’s tomb. She takes command of the storyline in a way so far unseen since the 1932 version of the story, and becomes the heart of the film and the driving force of the plotline.

There are plenty of fun nods to the Karloff Mummy, many of them more referential than practical, and the flashback sequences borrow heavily from the Hammer films. Ultimately, though, it feels more like adventure than horror. There are elements that echo Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, as well as several Humphrey Bogart films, but that’s not necessarily to its detriment. It knows what it is, and it expands on the idea and embraces it.

Like its predecessors, it spawned a series of sequels. One of them has pygmy mummies, which is the kind of thing you wonder about when you’re drunk but don’t ever expect to actually see in a real film, and another one has a magic pond that turns people into dragons.

Maybe stick with the first one?

Thursday, 6 October 2016

Quiet, Please E60: The Thing on the Fourble Board

Horror and sci-fi were probably the two genres best served by the golden age of radio.

Other types of plays were successful, but TV and movies could do them better. A romance is more poignant when you see the kiss. But horror, sci-fi, fantasy, things that ask for a collaboration between your imagination and the story itself, those were the types of stories radio really excelled at. It helped that there wasn't much of a need to worry about the special effects budget.

One of my absolute favourite horror series (in any medium) is Wyllis Cooper's Quiet, Please. It's subtle and weird and very much in the tone of The Twilight Zone, which is another of my absolute faves.

The show has an unusual format in that the host, identified in the credits as "The Man Who Spoke to You" and voiced by Orson Welles collaborator Ernest Chappell, just tells you the story. It's a framing device with sound effects and other characters appearing as needed, but it's very bare-bones.

Stripping down the production helps to control the narrative perspective, and that control allowed for more effective twist endings and scares, as I hope you'll notice in this episode.

It's called "The Thing on the Fourble Board" and I'm not going to tell you anything else about it except that it frequently makes it onto Top Five Scariest Radio Episodes Ever lists, and those lists ain't for the faint of heart.

Hope you weren't planning to sleep any time soon!

Monday, 3 October 2016

Love At First Bite (1979)

October is here! This is the only time of year you can talk non-stop about werewolves and candy corn and Ray Bradbury and nobody looks at you sideways, and I intend to take full advantage of it!

We’re starting with an underrated gem in which George Hamilton plays Disco Dracula and Susan Saint James is his pot smoking lady love.

The 70’s were a culturally awesome time for horror, much in the way the 80’s would nail the fantasy genre. In 1972, American International Pictures made a movie about an African prince who visits Transylvania, gets turned into a vampire and sealed in a coffin until awakening in modern day Los Angeles. In 1974, the late, great, forever in our hearts Gene Wilder teamed up with Mel Brooks to astound one and all (including their investors) when they made a hit comedy out of a Christmastime release of a black and white spoof of Universal’s Son of Frankenstein. Sitting happily between Blacula and Young Frankenstein is 1979’s Love at First Bite.

I wouldn’t go so far to say it’s as good as either film, but it is good.

The story begins when the Romanian government commanders Dracula’s castle as a gymnastics training center for Nadia Comaneci. He has two days to pack up his coffin and his cobwebs and get out before they put in the balance beams.

It’s not the worst thing that could’ve happened to this version of Dracula. A sort of dusty gothic ennui has taken him over, and he’s been bored. Not to mention terribly lonely. One of his few enjoyments comes from American magazines that feature his latest obsession: fashion model Cindy Sondheim.

Dracula is convinced that Cindy is the reincarnation of his great love, and had been Mina Harker in a previous life. In order to turn her fully into a vampire so she can share his monstrous eternity with him, he has to bite her on the neck three separate times. Getting kicked out of the castle spurs him into action. He – along with his semi-immortal, bug eating sidekick Renfield (played delightfully to the hilt by Arte Johnson) – are going to hit up New York high society and find Cindy.

A lot of the comedy thereafter is about an out-of-touch European relic trying to blend into the nightlife. But even more of it is about how the expectations of movie audiences changed between 1931 and 1979, in the same way Young Frankenstein had explored genre shifts, but a little less elegantly. A running gag revolves around whether or not Dracula has seen Roots, and there are constant sly winks that hint the Hollywood version of 70’s New York is authentic as the Hollywood versions of 1930’s London or Transylvania in any time period.

There are terrific cameos from The Jeffersons; Sherman Hemsley turns up as a corrupt preacher whose funeral service is interrupted, and Isobel Sanford is an unsympathetic New York judge. Dick Shawn plays a haggard police detective who doesn’t particularly want to believe in vampires, but has to face facts, and Susan Tolsky gives a great, brief performance as Cindy’s agent. There’s more than a little Sue Mengers in it.

George Hamilton is a charming, clever Dracula, weighing the scales just right to evoke everyone’s memories of Bela Lugosi, but taking into account the necessary angles to make him seem both human enough to carry the story and inhuman enough to be funny.

If you’re of the camp that gets extremely annoyed by Susan Saint James, I’d still suggest giving this one a try. I know several people who can’t stand her, and a direct quote from one of them was: “I didn’t want to punch Susan Saint James in the face in that Dracula thing you lent me.” If you usually like her, you might enjoy seeing her with a very different look, as she sports fluffy blonde supermodel hair and ultra-glam nightwear throughout.

The absolute highlight of Love at First Bite, for me at least, is Richard Benjamin as Dr. Jeffrey Rosenberg. Jeffrey comes from the Van Helsing family, but changed his name for professional purposes. He’s a psychiatrist to the rich and famous, and very happily strings Cindy along in a commitment-free affair – until Dracula appears and he almost instinctively transforms into an obsessive vampire hunter. Except he can't quite remember how it's supposed to work. Vampires are the silver bullet ones, right?

It’s worth adding, though, that a serious familiarity with Universal’s 1931 Dracula helps the humour a lot. So if you’ve never seen the movie that started the sexy vampire craze to begin with, start there. (Interesting tidbit: makeup artist William Tuttle worked on both the 1931 Dracula and Love At First Bite!) Otherwise, consider adding this one to your lighthearted Halloween roster.

Monday, 12 September 2016

Cry For the Strangers (1982)

Is it ghosts or madness?

It’s one of the core questions of paranormal plotlines. In Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw, in Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House, and in John Saul’s Cry For the Strangers. Is it ghosts or madness? And which one is scarier?

This post is for Realweegiemidget’s Darlin’ DallasersBlogathon, an event dedicated to checking out the non-Dallas work of Dallas regulars. I picked Patrick Duffy, who starred as Bobby Ewing – the initial main character of the lauded primetime soap, and originator of the “it was just a dream” shower reveal. Also, he sometimes hangs around with this crab:

In 1982, Duffy starred in a TV movie adaptation of Cry for the Strangers.

He played psychologist Brad Randall, a man tired of the Frasier Crane Seattle psych scene and in the mood to shake things up in his life. He and his wife, Elaine, decide to move down the Olympic peninsula to a creepy little town called Clark’s Harbor. Having lived my entire life in the PNW, I can tell you straight up that Clark’s Harbor is a weird place, and not just because of the looming threat of the supernatural.

It’s described in the original novel thusly:
“And it did look like a picture-postcard New England town. The buildings that clustered along the waterfront were all of a type: neat clapboards, brightly painted, with manicured gardens flowering gaily in the spring air.”
The film faithfully represents this, making Clark’s Harbor look and feel like Cabot Cove’s prettier, more bedevilled cousin. It’s bizarre. I have no idea why you’d go to all the trouble of setting something in Washington just so you could make it look like New England. Why wouldn’t you just set it in New England?

Anyway, the town is peopled with the usual New Englanders, including a reticent sheriff played by Brian Keith, fishwives and fishermen in northeast garb, gossipy café waitresses, and a whole bunch of multi-generational locals who give Brad and Elaine a frosty reception.

But that’s the town’s way. Newcomers aren’t welcome.

Newcomers aren’t safe.

Not when the storms are coming.

Clark’s Harbor, turns out, is beset by Gothic weather that would make the Brontë sisters go: “Hey, cool it with the atmospheric symbolism.” Lightning forks across moody purple skies, clouds roll in over swaying fishing boats, and storms break… and break… and break… against the strangely abandoned Victorian mansion that Brad has decided he has to live in. It’s on a hill called Devil’s Elbow. Across the bay from Devil’s Kneecap, I’m guessing. Just up the coastline from That Bruise the Devil Can’t Remember How He Got.

Everyone loves a massive coincidence, and in this story, the coincidence is the Palmer family. Their son, Robby, was diagnosed in Seattle as being severely autistic (this was in the early, early days of modern autism research, and it was kind of a hot topic in literature for a while. It was only three years after autism was officially separated from schizophrenia in medical literature, and horror writers in particular latched onto it).

You’ll never guess who Robby’s Seattle therapist was.

Dr. Brad Randall.

The Palmers, wanting a quiet and more easily structured life away from the city, moved down to Clark’s Harbor the year before. Since then, Robby’s made a miraculous transformation. He now behaves like any other boy his age, as though he’d never been anything different.

Brad right away finds this impossibly suspicious, but he can’t ignore that it seems to be happening.

Like any reasonable mental health expert, Brad begins to wonder if Robby’s recovery might be related to the high number of storms. It’s not totally out of left field, on the first night the Palmers rolled into town, they camped on the beach during a terrible storm – because if there’s one thing parents of autistic children know is a good idea it’s moving houses without a plan and sleeping in an unfamiliar setting during a thunderstorm. The Palmers are on the ball. Weirdly, though, that first night is when Robby started to change for the better.

In a casual session with Brad, Robby explains that he finds the storms soothing, but they put him in a kind of trance, and afterwards he doesn’t remember anything he did during the night before. (Storms only happen at night, you see.) At least once he’s snuck out with his younger sister Missy, and during a recent storm they lost track of the family dog…

The whole thing would just be a small peculiarity if it wasn’t for the murders. Every storm, a stranger dies. Someone from out of town, or not originally from Clark’s Harbor, turns up extremely dead in the morning. It’s pretty gruesome stuff, too. They’re usually found buried up to their necks in pits on the beach, then slowly drowned as the tide comes in. This is why the locals don’t like getting too close to newcomers, and also why Brad, Elaine, and the Palmers are all in more danger than they know.

There might be ghosts. Maybe. It's probably a serial killer, or the spirits that killed the last couple to live in Devil's Elbow, it's all very vague.

Which brings us to the biggest trouble with Cry for the Strangers. In its efforts to leave things eerily unexplained, keeping the madness door and the ghost door open at the same time for as long as possible, it doesn’t explain much. Or anything, really. Events just happen. Tension builds, but never suspense. The plotting is muddled and unsatisfying. The ending literally has Elaine asking about the many plot holes while Brad stares into the distance and tells us we’ll never know the answers.

It’s worth checking out only if you’re extremely bored, or if you find Patrick Duffy with a cheesy academic-type beard hilarious, which I do. (It looks very Amityville Horror, but like the low-fat yogurt version. Brad is the diet soda of horror protagonists. I love him.)

What’s totally worth checking out, regardless of your boredom levels, are the other posts in this blogathon! Yay! The master list posts on Sept. 22 on Realweegiemidget’s blog, so be sure to stop by. And if you’re in the mood for more Dallas tie-ins while you wait, you can check out Larry Hagman in these I Dream of Jeannie recaps.

Saturday, 3 September 2016

Bonanza 01x09: Mr. Henry Comstock

You know what we haven’t seen enough of on this show? Trespassers. Trespassers and inaccurately represented historical figures. Luckily, this episode will remedy that, and also provide me with even more opportunities to drone on about the history of silver mining in Nevada. Because that’s the part you really come to read about.

Also, for a fun change, we get to watch an episode that's frequently criticized by fans of Bonanza for being boring and terrible. Let’s find out why!

It’s an easy, soft-weathered day along the Ponderosa side of Lake Tahoe. The sun is shining, the birds are fluttering, we’re looking at an actual location shot next to a real lake instead of a painting, and everything is pleasant. The Cartwrights ride up to the scenic vista, in good spirits but tired. Adam lets us know that it’s hot work moving cattle into the high country, and Hoss lets us know he’s super mega thirsty.

They all hop down to the shore and start drinking the nice, clean water. Little Joe almost falls in, but Ben pulls him up in time.

“Careful, Little Joe!” Ben chuckles, “That’s the closest you’ve come to taking a bath in months!”

First of all, that is disgusting. Second of all, if that’s the case then Ben should push Joe in there and not let him come out until he’s clean. Send one of the others home for soap and spare clothes.

Monday, 29 August 2016

100 Years of Nails

This is the last week you can enter the "I Love Lucy Anniversary Giveaway" and win a $75 gift certificate of Lucy goodies. Make a dent in your Christmas shopping or get yourself a swag bag! Enter here!

Just for fun, below is a video from Allure magazine chronicling the manicure styles that have been popular for the last century: 

What decade do you like best? I tend to wear something that looks like the 70's French manicure and it usually accidentally gets sanded off during work, but if I could get it to last more than two seconds, I think I'd like to try the silver-tipped red.

Monday, 22 August 2016

The Worst Idea in Radio: Fred Astaire Goes On The Air

Think fast! If you were producing a weekly radio show and wanted a big name star to headline it, what kinds of performers would be the worst possible choices? Mimes? Puppeteers? Dancers?

The year was 1936, and The Packard Hour, a sponsored variety program recently transplanted from New York to L.A, wanted to add some stardust. A little extra razzle dazzle. In those days, big name movie stars were signing on to radio shows to bolster their off-camera images and to help cross-promote both industries. People with vaudeville experience, like Bob Hope, often yielded the best results, because they came with built-in routines and a kind of showbiz professionalism that straight up Hollywood types often lacked.

For some reason – maybe it was madness – the people at Packard decided the best fit for their show would be Fred Astaire.

Fred Astaire.

On radio.

Where no one could see him.

So, okay, maybe you’re thinking that Fred had a lot of non-dancing charms. After all, he scored a couple of hit records, he could be very funny in his scenes with Ginger, he had range.

But the good people at Packard were not interested in his range.

In 1936, you could finish dinner, hurry with the dishes, turn on the big family radio set and all gather around to listen to Fred Astaire dance.

Naturally, that wasn’t the only thing that happened for the entire hour. Nobody does an hour of live dancing, even if you can see them, it’s exhausting. The rest of the show was filled in with songs from Fred’s movies, new songs arranged by bandleader Johnny Green (who would later go on to win an Academy Award for his work on Easter Parade), numbers with singers Trudy Wood and Francia White, some skits with the week’s guest star, and comedy routines by Charlie Butterworth.

If it helps you wrap your head around the whole idea, Fred’s dances were always tap numbers. He would perform on a four by four wooden floor rigged with microphones, and he would tap away in the studio. The sound and speed of those taps were meant to express to the people at home the wonder of his skill.

It... doesn’t work.

There’s kind of a slapping quality to the sound, like somebody spanking a coconut. It’s not as crisp as the footsteps on weekly radio dramas, and even though it actually is tap dancing, it doesn’t sound like tap dancing. It’s very strange.

Jess Oppenheimer, who would later go on to produce I Love Lucy, got his first staff writing gig on The Packard Hour. In his autobiography, he writes:

“Astaire was an utter perfectionist, sometimes spending as many as twelve hours at a time with the orchestra rehearsing dance routines that no one would ever see.”

The show’s director suggested to Fred that he take it easy and let a drummer tap out the sound-effects with his sticks, but no. That was unethical. People would be tuning in to hear Fred Astaire dance, so Fred Astaire was going to dance for them.

But despite Fred’s weird dedication to this ludicrous idea, there was other trouble brewing.

Charlie Butterworth had started his career as a Broadway regular. He was the upper class best friend in drawing room comedies, always drawling out quips like his most famous “Why don’t you slip out of those wet clothes and into a dry martini?” This was at a time when the hero in these types of stories was the stalwart young man trying to get his life together, while his sidekick was inclined to keep the party going. You can kind of see why they thought he’d be a good accompaniment to Fred.

(Also, after his death, his likeness would become the inspiration for cereal mascot Cap'n Crunch, which is so weird I had to mention it somewhere.)

By the 1930’s, Butterworth had carved out a modest film career and was doing well in radio with his same bumbling rich guy act. He had a few problems, alcohol being chief among them, but writers liked working with him, even if directors didn’t. The Packard Hour figured he was worth the risk.

As it turned out, Charlie Butterworth and Fred Astaire hated each other.

Nobody knew this, least of all Charlie and Fred, until they started work on the first episode.

The most commonly cited reason for the tension was because Fred didn’t like ad-libbing once the script was nailed down, and Charlie’s whole shtick was ad-libbing. It was a clash of temperaments and approaches.

It got so bad, Fred Astaire didn’t even show up for the first broadcast. Ginger Rogers and Jack Benny had to fill in for him at the last minute.

By all accounts, after that first episode, Fred behaved himself perfectly – as long as he wasn’t in the same room as Charlie Butterworth. Their scenes together were always as brief as could be managed without the audience getting wise to the rift, or suspicious about why the show’s two biggest acts never spoke to one another.

After fulfilling his thirty-six episode contract, Fred Astaire and The Packard Hour went on summer hiatus never to return. Fred, of course, continued making movies where people could see his feet while they moved. A wise decision.

He and Charlie Butterworth, surprisingly, worked together again on 1940’s Second Chorus. It’s pretty far from being Fred Astaire’s best film.

As for radio, you might be inclined to think that Fred would’ve avoided it after this whole mess, but nope. As time went on, folks in radio decided that versatility was indeed one of his selling points, so he often appeared as a guest on other people’s shows.

In conclusion, they tried to make a Fred Astaire dancing show where you couldn’t see him dance, and you should remember that the next time you make a mistake and want to crawl into a hole and die. Because at least you're not the guy who came up with that one.

Saturday, 20 August 2016

Dungeons and Dragons 01x04: Valley of the Unicorns

Time once again to hear from regular guest contributor Daisy and the D&D gang! Like always, if you'd like to do your own guest recap of something, you can contact me at jvonhalsing@gmail.com for guidelines.

Episode four is called “Valley of the Unicorns.” It’s written by Paul Dini again, this time with Karl Geurs, whom IMDb tells me worked on Winnie the Pooh’s Most Grand Adventure and The Jungle Book 2. So I guess we can expect a lot of Uni for this one.

Oh joy.

We open to the scene of a spooky forest, where the trees literally have faces and a fully grown unicorn is drinking from a pond. Lightning cracks, and suddenly a pack of wargs descend upon the unicorn! As the enemies face off, we jarringly cut to Uni, freaking out and jumping into Bobby’s lap. Bobby asks her what’s wrong. Eric, who’s busy shaking rocks out of his boots, says that it’s probably nothing, because Uni freaks out at the slightest provocation. Which is true. But then Uni suddenly bolts.

The kids give chase, Eric awkwardly trying to yank his boot back on.

Eric: “We can’t go anywhere until I get rid of the rocks in my shoes!”

Diana: “Keep ‘em. Maybe the rocks in your head need company, Eric!”

This is going to be one of those episodes where everyone is a gigantic dick to Eric, isn’t it?

Thursday, 18 August 2016

The Tale is in the Telling

It all starts with a crime.

A shoemaker named Pierre Picaud, living in France in 1807, was happily engaged to a beautiful, wealthy young woman. But the marriage was not to be.

Three men who Picaud considered his friends plotted against him and had him falsely accused of spying for England. Arrested and found guilty, Picaud was sentenced to Fenestrelle Fort, where he was assigned as servant to a rich Italian cleric. The cleric, over the years, grew to view Picaud as something of a son, and when he died he bequeathed him his fortune.

Upon his release from prison, Picaud decided to seek his revenge.

The first of his accusers was found dead with a knife in his throat. The words “Number One” were engraved on the handle.

The second accuser was found poisoned not long after.

The third was different. He had married Picaud’s fiancé, and so something more elaborate had to be planned. Loupian, as the third man was called, was father to a son and daughter. Picaud lured the son into a life of crime and arranged for the daughter to become a prostitute. It was all very elaborate, and everything went according to plan.

Until a fourth man entered the picture.

Unbeknownst to Picaud, his three friends had asked for the aid of a fourth in framing him. The fourth had declined, but had known of the plot, and so was worried his life was in danger. He deduced Picaud’s identity, and fatally stabbed him.

The police report was found, some years later, by a Parisian true crime archivist by the name of Jacques Peuchet. Peuchet published it in a collection of other intriguing murder tales in 1839.

Always on the lookout for inspiration, popular author Alexandre Dumas picked up a copy of Peuchet’s crime stories. Though Peuchet had a good idea of which stories would be interesting, he had an archivist’s skill for narrating (it’s cool, Peuchet, so do I). But Dumas saw the potential in the Picaud story.

He and his writing partner Auguste Maquet set about building a novel around the revenge tale. They changed numerous elements, drawing on an earlier novel they’d done called Georges, about a vengeance obsessed young man lashing out at the bigotry he’d suffered at the hands of his racist community.

For good measure, the Italian cleric was exchanged for actual historical figure Abbé Faria, and an enormous secret treasure was added, as well as some really good stuff about tunnelling out of an island fortress.

In 1844, the first instalment of The Count of Monte Cristo appeared and took France by storm. It was, and remains, a terrifically good story.

My BFF Richard Chamberlain as the Count in 1975

And it was popular! It was an international sensation the likes of which had never been seen before! Normally, a serialized novel would be published gradually in its originating language, then collected, then translated. But with Monte Cristo, each installment was translated right away, and published in magazines around the world. Everyone waited with bated breath to see what would happen to Edmond Dantés in his obsessive quest for revenge.

Time to move forward thirty years and across the Atlantic to the battlefields of the Civil War.

By this time, Monte Cristo was well rooted in the literary consciousness, but it was far from the mind of Major General Lew Wallace after the Battle of Shiloh. The number of Union casualties reported climbed higher and higher, and it was becoming apparent that the Confederates had won the meticulously planned battle. When Lincoln demanded an explanation from generals Grant and Halleck, Halleck blamed Wallace and his unit for the loss.

Wallace felt betrayed and slandered. He wrote to Grant several times asking for a formal enquiry, and tried to encourage William Tecumseh Sherman to help clear his name. Sherman urged patience.

The Shiloh controversy branded Wallace an ill-equipped leader who had failed his country and his fellow soldiers.

After the war, Wallace decided to try his hand at writing fiction. His first novel was about Cortez’s conquest of Mexico. Wallace, like many other officers of his generation, had fought in the Mexican-American War, and it was a subject that fascinated him. That first novel was called The Fair Hand, and it wasn’t much of a success, but the writing of it had so pleased Wallace that he decided to tackle a more ambitious project.

He would combine his own bitterness about the Shiloh affair with the plot and structure of one of his favourite books, The Count of Monte Cristo; and since he had enjoyed the researching of his first novel, he would choose another historical setting. This time, it would be Ancient Rome during the life of Jesus. He was an agnostic and totally uninformed about the place and time he chose, but he diligently studied all resources available at the Library of Congress, and imbued the Roman military with his experiences in the Union Army.

Veterans of the Civil War would find much familiar; unlike Monte Cristo, there was no need to understand the social impact of French politics in the Napoleonic era. All you had to know was the basic story of Jesus, and in 19th century America, most people did.

Wallace called his second novel Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ. It was first published in 1880.

Author Lew Wallace
In the story of Judah Ben-Hur, three wrongful accusers became one man in the Roman tribune Messala. When the betrayed Ben-Hur finds himself working the oars aboard the slave ship, with every push forward he swears his revenge. Just as Edmond Dantés, he finds someone to educate him and help him make his fortune. Then he reappears in glitzy high society to begin his much, much simpler plan of running over his nemesis with a chariot. Judah Ben-Hur doesn’t like to waste time on panache.

Like Monte Cristo before it, it was a runaway smash hit. It was the first novel to be blessed by a Pope. It didn’t get a sandwich named after it, but it did have its own brand of flour. (Tie-in marketing wasn’t really cohesive back then.)

Ben-Hur changed everything for Wallace, even getting him a position as US ambassador to Turkey. Unfortunately, he could never quite escape was the black eye of Shiloh. It wasn’t until after Wallace’s death that Ulysses S. Grant officially explained that the loss had not been Wallace’s fault.

By 1907, the story of Ben-Hur was tightly woven into American popular culture. It was so ubiquitous that Canadian silent film director Sydney Olcott decided to make a quick and cheap fifteen minute silent film depicting the famous chariot race. Neither he nor the producing studio had obtained the rights to do so, and the book was still under copyright, at this time to Wallace’s widow.

In the early days of film, copyright infringement was par for the course. Nobody in Hollywood cared, and the copyright holders felt that there was little they could do about it.

Until Wallace’s widow and the publishers of Ben-Hur, Harper & Brothers, sued the pants off of Kalem Studios and The Motion Picture Patents Company, dragged them all the way to the Supreme Court and in 1911 had the law changed forever. From then on, if anybody wanted to make a film of any previously published work still under copyright, they had to obtain the production rights first.

And that brings us to our next batch of three men. These three weren’t planning on framing anybody for treason, or scapegoating their way out of a Civil War failure, they were trying to make a movie. It was 1925, their names were Louis B. Mayer, Samuel Goldwyn and Irving Thalberg. They needed a good idea, a framework for their next major project.

Ben-Hur hadn’t been on anybody’s to-do list since the massive lawsuit, but as long as they could get the film rights, why not?

It was a little more expensive than they were hoping. After the copyright debacle in 1907, if you wanted to see a dramatization of Ben-Hur, you had to hit up a long-running play produced by Abraham Erlanger. The play had run, enormously successfully, for twenty-five years. The curtain had barely dropped on the final tour when the Goldwyn Company came a-knocking. Erlanger would not budge on his price for the production rights.

Expensive as it was, the three producers shilled out. There was this vision of the chariot race being shot to look like a painting by Alexander von Wagner, and nobody could shake it. It was a brilliant idea.

Wagner's painting. Click to embiggen.

1925’s Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ was shot on location in Rome, at further expense. Everything was replaced at least once, including the director and the stars. The finished film was helmed by Fred Niblo, and featured Ramon Novarro as Judah Ben-Hur. The scenes featuring Jesus were shot in two-tone Technicolor, and the chariot race remains a spectacular feat of filming. The film clocks in at a comparatively lean two and a half hours, most of it concerning the race.

For a fun Easter egg, you can look at the gallery of stars watching in Roman garb as the chariots thunder by. There’s Louis B. Mayer himself, a very young Joan Crawford, the Gish sisters, the Barrymore brothers, Marion Davies, John Gilbert, Harold Lloyd, Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks, all chilling at the circus maximus.

The production was expensive and nobody made back what they put into it, but the film itself was a critical darling and scored big time with audiences. The publicity was excellent, and helped establish the new MGM studios.

Thirty years of relentless innovation and cut-throat deals later, MGM was no longer the new kid on the block. But things weren’t going so well financially. Television had begun to cut considerably into the profits of every studio, and MGM was among those struggling to keep afloat. Discussions of a remake of Ben-Hur had started in 1952, but it wasn’t until Cecil B. DeMille’s The Ten Commandments raked in major cash for Paramount that the discussion became serious.

In 1957, MGM studio head Joseph Vogel announced that a new, glorious adaptation of Ben-Hur would begin shooting in 1958 and reach theaters in 1959.

One problem: nobody wanted to play Judah Ben-Hur.

The original choice, back in 1952, had been Marlon Brando. By 1957, that seemed like a terrible idea, so MGM approached the ever-golden Burt Lancaster. Lancaster shot down the offer right away. He thought the script was boring, and the way it used Jesus as a side character was kind of offensively weird (I love you so much, Burt Lancaster). Paul Newman declined because his first major film had been 1954’s The Silver Chalice about Ancient Greece, and he hated the beefcake ethos of epic films so much he’d vowed never to do another. “I don’t have the legs to wear a tunic,” he quipped. Rock Hudson, Leslie Neilson, and Geoffrey Horne also all said no.

Messala was easier to cast, since Messala is pretty much the best role. Director William Wyler had gotten his first choice, Charlton Heston. With nobody playing Judah Ben-Hur, though, there wouldn’t be a movie, so Wyler asked Heston if he’d be willing to switch roles.

About two seconds after this happened, Kirk Douglas offered to play Ben-Hur if they were really stuck and willing to pay him a ton of money. Heston was cheaper and had already agreed, so it was all settled.

The production is best described as “lavish” and “costly” – like every epic ever, it was too expensive and took too long to film.

But it did make its 1959 release date.

With a four hour runtime, of particular note is the chariot racing sequence. Again. It was an almost shot-for-shot copy of the 1925 version, with some extended tension and an extra stunt or two.

At the Oscars, Ben-Hur won an unheard of eleven Academy Awards; a record that would not be broken until 1997’s Titanic.

In 2001, the chariot race was once more diligently recreated, this time for the Boonta Eve Classic podracing sequence in Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace.

And tomorrow, you’ll get a chance to see another adaptation of Ben-Hur or another adaptation of The Count of Monte Cristo, depending on how you want to look at it. This time it stars Jack Huston of The Huston Dynasty, who was originally cast as Messala but had to switch roles when they couldn’t find anyone to play Judah Ben-Hur.

Director Timur Bekmambetov is especially pleased with (surprise!) the chariot race. He hasn’t copied the 1925 version, he’s decided to take a cue from how Nascar is filmed on mobile devices by audience members. So, like a YouTube video from Ancient Rome.

No matter how you feel about this latest version, no matter whether it sucks or does just fine, no matter how nauseated those chariot sequences make you, it’s a good thing that they’re trying something new with an old favourite.

Everything from the Parisian archivist to the Wallace novel to the 1959 version of Ben-Hur happened because somebody was “out of ideas.” And from one accounting of a true story, there have grown abundant retooling and retellings of a fictional story, which has doubtless indirectly influenced and melded with others on the road to creating new stories.

There’s often a sense, when a new remake or reboot comes out, that you shouldn’t mess with the classics. But that’s malarkey. Every idea needs to come from somewhere. So what if the beloved film version of Ben-Hur comes from Monte Cristo which comes from an essay on Picaud, which comes from real life? It’s probably a safe bet that Picaud got the idea for his revenge scheme somewhere else, too.

Maybe even from fiction.