Fates Worse Than Death: The Phantom Empire

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Radio Ranch is a busy place: Frankie and Betsy Baxter’s father Tom co-owns the ranch with “Radio’s Singing Cowboy” Gene Autry, whose daily broadcasts have brought visitors from all over. The Baxter kids also run the “Junior Thunder Riders,” a combination fan club and service organization (after some debate, they settle on “To the rescue!” as their motto) inspired by a mysterious group of riders they once witnessed in nearby Thunder Valley. In addition, Frankie is a tinkerer (with an enviable workshop in the barn loft), assembling electrical gadgets using instructions from Popular Science (and occasionally borrowing parts from the ranch’s radio engineer!).
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The action begins with the arrival of Professor Beetson and his crew, secretly in search of a radium deposit Beetson believes to be in the area. At the same time, one of Frankie’s devices, a radio signal “direction finder,” indicates that some scrambled signals he’s been tracking for weeks are coming from straight down, somewhere in the depths of the earth.
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Before the first chapter is over, it is revealed that the mysterious riders, the radium deposit, and the unknown radio signals are all connected to “The Scientific City of Murania” 25,000 feet below the surface, a realm of futuristic marvels ruled by the haughty Queen Tika and whose entrance in Thunder Valley is protected by her royal guard (the “Thunder Riders” the Baxters witnessed, wearing gas mask-like breathing apparatuses while at surface level). It isn’t long before the surface and subterranean worlds collide and the fates of Autry and Tika are entwined!
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As the story develops, Beetson’s greed (for both radium and scientific acclaim) and the Baxters’ curiosity endanger Murania’s secret. Beetson hopes to get Autry out of the way—if Autry misses a broadcast, he’ll lose his radio contract and the ranch—so that he won’t have any interference in his digging (or have to share any of his finds with the property owners and government). Beetson even goes so far as to kill Tom Baxter and frame Autry for the crime! Queen Tika wants both Autry and Beetson gone for similar reasons: too many visitors to Radio Ranch means risking the discovery of Murania, and their serene kingdom must never be desecrated by the presence of surface people!
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Little does Tika know, however, that there is division in her own kingdom: her Chancellor, Argo, schemes to overthrow her with a band of rebels, men he has saved from death in the “Lightning Chamber.” Will she succeed in keeping her throne? Will Frankie and Betsy discover the secret of the underground city? Will Beetson succeed in keeping Gene Autry away from Radio Ranch, or will Autry make it back to broadcast a performance at two o’clock each day?
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Thus begins the epic twelve-chapter Mascot serial The Phantom Empire, Gene Autry’s debut as a leading man (following his attention-getting appearance in In Old Santa Fe) and one of the strangest examples of the form. This is one I had actually seen before: The Phantom Empire was my introduction to the serials several years ago, and revisiting it in light of my recent exploration has not lessened its curiosity factor.

As even this brief summary indicates, there are numerous characters with competing interests to be accommodated by the story, and while some of them fit the profile of stock serial characters—the juveniles, the imperious monarch, the scientist-explorer—both the energy of the performances and the unusual situations in which they find themselves make them stand out as individuals. Even the comic relief, provided by Autry’s sidemen Oscar and Pete (longtime sidekick Lester “Smiley” Burnett and Peter Potter, credited as “William Moore,” respectively), is more idiosyncratic than the typical examples (for one thing, they actually help advance the plot).


Gene Autry is the star, of course, playing the fictionalized version of himself that would carry him through dozens of features and television episodes, bland but likeable, a good guy and friend to all except for heels like Beetson (even Queen Tika eventually comes to see him as an ally). (Incidentally, there is a perception, given his persona, that Autry sings in every chapter, but this is not so: fewer than half the chapters include musical numbers, and in some cases the film cuts to other action, the song continuing in the background.)


Most pulp heroes are intentionally somewhat blank, more active than reflective, the better for audiences to project themselves onto their characters. In this case, however, the audience identification characters are clearly Frankie and Betsy (played by frequent juvenile leads Frankie Darro and Betsy King Ross, whom we saw in Fighting with Kit Carson): their leadership of the Junior Thunder Riders (whom they address as part of Autry’s radio broadcast) and Frankie’s do-it-yourself projects are clear appeals to the kinds of young viewers who might throw themselves into fandom, who in the following generations might become Futurians, or members of the Merry Marvel Marching Society, or Trekkies, or Whovians. Were they around today, the Junior Thunder Riders would undoubtedly be attending Comic-Con.

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Obviously, the most notable element of The Phantom Empire is its mingling of genres, drawing on the “modern” Western (in which contemporary inventions such as radio, automobiles, and airplanes coexist with horses and six-guns) and space opera (albeit of the inner rather than outer variety). Very little of Murania, with its gleaming art deco spires (reminiscent of both Metropolis and the Emerald City of Oz) and fantastic machinery, including robots and disintegration rays, would be out of place the following year in Flash Gordon. Like the royalty of planet Mongo, the citizens of Murania dress with stagey, pseudo-medieval flair and favor both swords and ray guns for defense. With their flowing cloaks and ornate headgear, it’s no wonder Frankie and Betsy took the Queen’s royal guard as their models for the Junior Thunder Riders.

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The genre mash-up (which, even at this late date, is still unusual in film*) gives it a quaint appeal. Much of Murania’s technology was on the cusp of becoming real in 1935, but must have seemed as fantastic as the automobile would have been in the Old West: radium is treated as a source of almost magical power, not only powering the weapons and machines of Murania but even bringing people—including Gene Autry—back from the brink of death in a “radium reviving chamber.” The disintegrating ray that (inevitably) dooms Murania must have seemed fanciful indeed until real-life atomic bombs cast all such science fiction premises in a new light ten years later. Television is a particular object of fascination, treated here as a magic mirror, able to direct its user’s view almost anywhere with godlike omniscience. (Queen Tika’s viewer, which gets much use, even takes the form of a spiraling horizontal disc, like an oracle’s scrying pool.)

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There had been fictional treatments of a hollow earth, or at least of subterranean realms, before, by such authors as Jules Verne and Edgar Rice Burroughs, and underground kingdoms continued to be popular in the science fiction and fantasy pulps. The Muranians are identified as descendants of ancient Mu who went underground one hundred thousand years earlier, fleeing the advancing glaciers of the Ice Age. Separate from the “mad world” above, they cultivated an advanced science based on the abundant radium they found.


Even in the 1930s, such beliefs were the territory of fringe science and occultism: I’m sure no one involved thought they were making a documentary, but the backstory indicates that at least one of the writers had been paying close attention to such ideas. In Chapter One, after Frankie’s direction finder has detected the radio signals from underground, Betsy asks Autry, “Say, do you suppose there’s anything to any of those books that Frankie’s been reading, about a world underground, with people and cities and everything?” Without hesitating, Autry replies, “Well, of course there’s something to them,” like a regular reader of Amazing Stories.


Speaking of that esteemed publication, The Phantom Empire anticipates by several years the so-called “Shaver Mystery” that appeared in its pages. Beginning in 1943, Amazing Stories’ editor Ray Palmer began printing letters and stories from Richard S. Shaver, who claimed he could hear voices from reincarnated spirits from the past and decode markings left in stone by the long-ago inhabitants of Atlantis and Lemuria. An important part of Shaver’s increasingly complex cosmology was the present-day survival of the original Lemurians’ descendants, who, subject to harmful rays from our sun, had degenerated into “detrimental robots” or “deros.” The deros continued to live in vast cave and tunnel systems beneath the earth, and, through their mastery of the ray technology left behind by the ancients, wreaked all manner of havoc on the surface. Eventually, Shaver came to believe that all illness, mental distress, war, and other problems of the individual and society were caused by the machinations of the malevolent deros. As his stories became wilder and his memories of the ancient world became more vivid (with extensive rewriting by Palmer), letters poured in from readers claiming they had encountered the deros too, having unknowingly crossed into their realm via caves or mines, or that they were being persecuted by the deros and their surface allies. **


I am not aware of any claim that The Phantom Empire influenced the form of Shaver’s later revelations, but they both share a paranoid, hallucinatory quality that (in the case of The Phantom Empire) goes beyond the novelty value of merging two such disparate genres. I would venture so far as to say that The Phantom Empire is in many places truly surreal, not just in the colloquial sense of “weird” but in the sense of invoking a dream-like acceptance of seemingly unrelated events, making the strange seem normal and vice versa. Through the alchemy of film, obvious artifice becomes more vividly real than reality.


As an example, Autry’s easygoing music, for which he was presumably chosen to headline the production, is often juxtaposed with scenes of mystery or danger, giving it an eerie edge: in Chapter Eight (“Jaws of Jeopardy”) he sings “I’m Getting a Moon’s Eye View of the World” on an airplane while Frankie holds a gun on the unwilling pilot; in Chapter One, his then best-known song “That Silver-Haired Daddy of Mine” is broken up and heard from a distance while Frankie and Betsy use the direction finder in their secret workshop. The moment when they realize the signals are coming from beneath the earth achieves something often reached for but not always grasped in the serials: a sense of wonder, and in that scene The Phantom Empire anticipates the inquisitive child protagonists of Steven Spielberg and other filmmakers of the 1980s.


There is a reflexive quality to much of The Phantom Empire, and the borders between narrative elements are permeable: Autry’s daily broadcasts (at least before he is framed) include full live performances of stagecoach robberies and other dramas, supposedly staged for the live audience at the ranch rather than those listening to the radio show, but in ways that play with audience expectation and blur the boundaries between fantasy and reality. Frankie and Betsy address “Junior Thunder Riders” in the radio audience as a way of speaking directly to the film audience.


The Queen’s royal guard, nicknamed the “Thunder Riders” by Frankie and Betsy, and taken as the basis of their club, are at first referred to only as the “royal guard;” later as the “thunder guard;” and finally as the “Thunder Riders,” the same as the name given to them by the children. The robots of Murania have what appear to be built-in cowboy hats as part of their design (the logical explanation is that someone in the prop department heard the phrase “science fiction Western” and took it to heart, but I’m more interested in effect than intent); ultimately, two of the robots’ metal bodies are inhabited by Oscar and Pete, real cowboys in disguise.

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The constant reuse of key sets above and below ground, made possible in part by Queen Tika’s remote viewing from her control room, gives events a sense of circularity: Flash Gordon moves from one fantastic place to another in sequence, but The Phantom Empire moves up and down as capriciously as the city’s sole elevator, always returning to the same locations.


Queen Tika’s television viewer contributes to this same dream-like scramble of images: several times she views a succession of unconnected scenes from the surface (stock footage of traffic, boxing matches, and car crashes) in order to express her disapproval: “Fools! Surface people are always in a hurry—their world today is a madhouse. We in Murania are indeed fortunate. Death . . . suffering . . . speed . . . accidents. . . .” Almost everything Tika (played by Dorothy Christy) says is delivered in a tone of high dudgeon: “Do I have to witness this insane material because you are unable to find the Garden of Life?” she demands of her assistant, sounding exactly like an annoyed spouse whose husband continues to flip through channels at random.


In one odd scene, Tika takes Autry on a virtual tour of Murania using the viewer, and then contrasts the achievements of her kingdom with a penniless beggar: “Feast your eyes,” she says “He is from your world; we have none of that here.” Changing the view to Frankie and Betsy, she says, “There are friends of yours. They may become beggars.” In 1935, the depths of the Depression, such a concern was far from academic.

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One moment in the final chapter (“The End of Murania”) says a great deal about the production as a whole: the underground city is melting down under the beam of the rebels’ giant disintegrating ray, now out of control. Queen Tika, resigned to die with her kingdom, remains in her control room and throws the switch which will open the hidden door in Thunder Valley, allowing Autry and his surface friends to escape. Hitching up some of the Thunder Riders’ horses, Autry sees the remaining herd and suddenly says, “We can’t leave those horses here to die!” The group takes an extra moment to free all the horses, as if they knew that the young audience they hoped to grab would say, “Hey, Gene! What about those other horses!?” I admit that, seeing the herd of animals stream out of the hidden door, my heart swelled. Yeah, it’s that kind of movie.

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What I Watched: The Phantom Empire (Mascot, 1935)
Where I Watched It: Timeless Media Group’s 3-DVD set, endorsed by Gene Autry Entertainment and “sourced from Gene Autry’s personal film archive.” There are several versions on YouTube.
No. of Chapters: 12
Best Chapter Title: “Prisoners of the Ray” (Chapter Nine)
Best Cliffhanger: The bound or incapacitated victim on a conveyor belt, inexorably moving toward death in the form of a buzz saw or furnace, is one of the iconic images of the serials, but I haven’t seen it all that much in my admittedly limited viewing. Perhaps it was already a cliché by the 1930s heyday of the form, or perhaps I just haven’t watched the right examples yet. However, Chapter Ten of The Phantom Empire (“The Rebellion”) includes just such a cliffhanger: following Argo’s overthrow of Queen Tika, Autry attempts to fight his way out of Murania. During a fight in a foundry full of laboring robots, he is knocked unconscious and sprawled onto a warhead assembly line. At the end, a robot ceaselessly raises and lowers a welding torch—whether its white-hot fire touches a weld point or Autry’s all-too mortal flesh is of no concern to the mindless automaton.
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Annie Wilkes Award for Most Blatant Cheat: After his experience in the “radium reviving chamber” in Chapter Seven (“From Death to Life”), Autry escapes into the underground city and gets into a sword fight with a group of guards. Overpowered by one of them, he falls over the railing of a suspended catwalk; at the beginning of the next chapter, he climbs over instead of being pushed, and grabs onto a rail underneath. As cheats go, it’s a small one, but there’s no question the footage is different.
Silliest Costume: The assistant who operates Tika’s television is essentially a glorified remote control, but he does serve the Queen directly so I can’t blame him for putting on airs. The bat wings on his helmet are a little much, though.
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Sample Dialogue: “So, you are the sprouts from which surface people spring!” –Queen Tika, upon meeting Frankie and Betsy (Chapter Nine, “Prisoners of the Ray”)
What Others Have Said: “Although the stories written about such central ideas are often vastly entertaining, they remain completely fallacious. The Earth is not hollow. The atom is not a miniature solar system. Mars is very different from Earth and could not support Earth life.” –Isaac Asimov, “Social Science Fiction”
What’s Next: I’ll examine another science fiction adventure, Radar Men from the Moon. Will it be as good as The Phantom Empire? Check back in two weeks to find out!

* The Western with science fiction, supernatural, or “weird” elements has a long history in both the comics and prose, but only spotty success in the medium of film. (2011’s Cowboys & Aliens is only the latest attempt to fuse the two genres, but its rejection by audiences is probably due less to its hybrid nature than its relentlessly dour tone; these days, audiences are more willing to embrace sci-fi Western elements under the mantle of “steampunk.”)

** Although mostly a footnote now, the Shaver Mystery was a sensation in the 1940s. It was overtaken by fascination with UFOs, but as late as the 1960s a vocal minority of UFO researchers claimed that flying saucers came from inside the earth rather than outer space.

My Library, Such As It Is

I’m not really the kind of book collector who fusses about rare items or first editions; it’s nice to find those sorts of things, and I can appreciate a beautifully-bound book as a work of art in itself, but I mostly think of collecting books as building a library for reference or enjoyment.  When I was younger, and mostly reading science fiction and other genre material, I would pursue books and authors that connected with one another in some way: the Cthulhu Mythos and the Weird Tales school; or the books listed by Gary Gygax as influences on Dungeons & Dragons; and, later on, steampunk and the nineteenth-century authors who influenced it.  When I became a graduate student and teacher, my library of music books–theory, history, and other kinds of reference–burgeoned. Along the way, I’ve picked up books of art, criticism, and aesthetics that caught my interest.

Space is always an issue, of course, for the private library as much as the public (even if it’s on a smaller scale).  Although my rate of accumulation has slowed a great deal over the last several years–I no longer have the time, space, or funds to simply buy anything of interest that I come across–I still have more books than the shelf space to accommodate them, and choices must be made.  I have tried to prioritize books that I expect to refer to, or which I haven’t read yet but would like to, but one never really knows. That’s part of the point of keeping a library, isn’t it?  (I’ve never been able to keep a strict reading list and stick to it, simply because most of the books I read suggest the next book to me: I don’t know what it will be until I’ve finished the last one.)

In one house I lived in, I had a bookshelf in the living room full of classics, some of which I had read and others I hoped to get to, lumped together by the single commonality of their supposed importance.  In the guest bedroom, however, were the books I really read, the Stephen King and Philip K. Dick, the reprints from the pulp era and the books on UFOs and unexplained mysteries.  The house I’m in now I’ve been in a little more than a year, and while the display of my books is a little less showy and two-faced, it’s still the result of practical compromises, so while much of my library looks like this:

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. . . a lot of it looks like this:

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. . . and even more of it looks like this:

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There are different motivations for collecting, and my motivations have changed over the years.  One of the first impulses is simply to have a collection as a form of mastery: the completist urge, to have a matched set, to have at your fingertips anything you might want to experience or refer to.  This notably affects record collectors in particular, but any kind of collector can fall prey to the need to fill in gaps, to have a satisfyingly whole body of work to dive into or simply stand back and regard.

Not unrelated is what we might call the scholarly impulse: as I’ve been discovering over the last ten months, since I started writing this blog, you can only write off the top of your head for so long before you need to pull in an apposite quote or factoid for support.  In my case, I’m blessed with a decent memory, good enough to recall something I read years or decades ago that bears on my present topic, but cursed in that it isn’t a photographic memory, and if I want to get a quote right I have to remember where I read it and dig up a copy to refresh my memory and ensure accuracy.  The internet and the public and university libraries have all helped, of course, and I’m not too proud to admit that more than once I’ve borrowed a book from the library that I already owned because it was faster to do that than hunt down my own copy.

Lately, I’ve been digging into those boxes more frequently in search of specific books that I know I’ve got, if I can just remember which box I packed it in.  Doing so makes me feel less like a librarian and more like a hoarder, but it’s vindicating when I find what I was looking for, especially when it’s something I remember not by name but by the picture on the cover, or by a general sense of “I’ll know it when I find it.”

Henry Petroski’s absorbing book The Book on the Bookshelf (which, ironically enough, I don’t have at my fingertips right now) goes into both the history and methodology of organizing books and discusses the problems I’ve alluded to here. In addition to such well-known systems as the Dewey Decimal and alphabetization by author’s last name, Petroski points out that there are many other ways of ordering libraries, some of which sound far-fetched but aren’t that crazy, at least for private collections. While we don’t organize public library books by size or color, for example, my own searches indicate those are just as useful for finding half-remembered books as titles or authors (books that are packed in boxes are often packed together based on size and shape rather than complementary subject matter!).

All of this comes to mind after another round of shifting and unpacking boxes to find a few supplementary books for my ongoing series on motion picture serials, but I went through something similar last fall when writing a series on anthologies of different kinds (both are listed on my Series page, for those wanting to catch up).  I’ll probably never have everything I own all out in the open, at least not until such time as I’m able to move into a house with shelves on every wall.  It doesn’t help that I’m not a specialist, limiting my work to a core collection of volumes on a single subject.  For now, at least, I’ll make due with a rotating collection, following my fickle muse.

Fates Worse Than Death Double Feature: The Perils of Pauline (1914 and 1933)

This week I explored two female-led serials that share a title (and not much else).  The Perils of Pauline wasn’t the first motion picture serial, but in 1914 it caught the public’s attention, making a star of its lead, Pearl White, and laying the groundwork for later serials’ success.  Indeed, The Perils of Pauline was such a sensation that its name became synonymous with the serial of a certain type, inspiring both imitators (The Exploits of Elaine, The Hazards of Helen) and remakes (other than the 1933 version, two features borrowed the title: a 1947 biopic starring Betty Hutton as Pearl White, and a campy 1967 remake starring Pat Boone in the vein of The Great Race). The ambiguous status of its leading lady as both heroine and victim would also be a source of contention, still familiar in today’s debates over “strong female characters.”

Part I: 1914

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The wealthy Mr. Marvin trusts his secretary Koerner with the safety of his ward, Pauline, but he doesn’t know about Koerner’s shady past, or his escape from prison.  When one of Koerner’s old associates, Hicks, approaches him and demands money, Koerner begs him off.  Marvin is ill and won’t live much longer: once he is gone, it will be a simple matter to get rid of Pauline and claim her inheritance.  Koerner’s scheme is made easier by Pauline’s independent nature: although Marvin’s son Harry presses her to marry, she wants to experience her share of adventure and excitement before she settles down.  It’s a simple matter for Koerner to suggest she take a ride in a hot-air balloon or motorboat in the hopes that Pauline will meet with an unfortunate “accident.” (And if those don’t work, there’s always the more direct approach of simply having her abducted and drowned or burned alive.)

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Thus are set in motion The Perils of Pauline, from which Harry is sometimes on hand to rescue her, and from which she sometimes escapes on her own (and which in a few cases she avoids entirely unknowingly, as when she is delayed and doesn’t get on board a sabotaged airplane, which then crashes).  Through all of her adventures, Koerner never reveals his sinister intentions (except to the audience) and Pauline continues to trust him. Harry, for his part, is only concerned that Pauline’s taste for risky adventure will get her killed, and tries to discourage her out of general worry (and sometimes he is caught up in the same danger).  Even when Pauline is kidnapped and directly assaulted multiple times, they don’t connect the dots—it’s just a dangerous world. (Incidentally, none of the perils include the oft-parodied scenes of a damsel tied to a railroad track or menaced by a spinning buzz saw: those images came from other films.)

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The silent serial The Perils of Pauline originally had twenty chapters, filmed in America by the French company Pathé Frères and distributed in America by the Eclectic Film Company.  However, the only surviving version is from a French print edited into nine chapters, released in 1916.  (In addition to the loss of scenes, this version changed the name of the villain from Owen to Koerner to sound German; since that’s the version I was able to watch I’ve stuck with calling him Koerner.)  The shorter version is more than enough to get a sense of both the style and the story: the serial is entirely episodic, with each adventure introducing a different location and supporting cast, and there are no cliffhangers, each conflict being resolved before the end of the chapter.  Other than the first and last chapters, they could be watched in any order, and missing some doesn’t damage the story in a meaningful way, neither of which could be said about later serials.

The staging and editing of The Perils of Pauline is often crude, and the English title cards are famously full of mistakes in spelling and grammar (a result of both the hurry with which the film was made and director Louis Gasnier’s poor grasp of English).  Although there are humorous touches, the story is told in broad strokes: in “Goddess of the Far West,” Pauline travels to Montana and is promptly kidnapped by ruffians employed by Hicks; upon escaping from an underground burrow, she is witnessed by a local Indian who takes her for a goddess springing out of the earth.  To prove herself she must race the “stone of death,” an enormous boulder, down the side of a mountain.  “The Deadly Turn” involves an attempt to wreck Pauline’s car in an automobile race; “The Shattered Plane” refers to the airplane previously mentioned.  By the time we see the title of Chapter Eight, “The Serpent in the Flowers,” we can be certain it isn’t a metaphor.

Hicks parleys with a group of Western ruffians

Hicks parleys with a group of Western ruffians

Despite its flaws, however, the serial is saved by its star, Pearl White.  White’s early life is shrouded in misinformation, much of it spread by White herself, but she had already appeared in films before agreeing to star in The Perils of Pauline, and had earned enough to tour Europe in 1913.  On screen, she is active and emotes strongly, desirable qualities in a silent film actress.  She is also sturdy and athletic, a far cry from the fainting violets one thinks of as the heroines of melodrama.

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In contrast to later decades, when a cadre of professional stuntmen doubled actors for almost any strenuous scene, silent actors generally did their own stunts, and White’s reputation partially rested on the very real dangers she put herself in. Kalton C. Lahue, in his Continued Next Week: A History of the Moving Picture Serial, relates several hair-raising incidents: the “runaway” balloon actually did come loose, coming down in a lot full of people, who promptly mobbed the star and nearly suffocated her in the gas that was escaping from the balloon.  In another (apparently lost) chapter set in Chinatown, White was surprised by a group of Chinese actors who, seeking to make a good impression, beat her up with very real jujitsu.  She was long troubled by an injury to her back sustained when she was accidentally dropped down the stairs while filming Pauline, and she retired in 1922 after a stuntman was killed filling in for her (in full view of a crowd, an awkward situation considering her producers still claimed she did all her own stunts as she had when she was younger).

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Although later generations have primarily thought of her as the archetypal “damsel in distress,” contemporary audiences saw in Pauline an independent woman putting off marriage to explore her own interests, a cinematic counterpart to the idealized women drawn by Charles Dana Gibson.  Even though much was made of Pearl White’s physical bravery, her beauty and femininity were still a selling point, and it should be noted that the wide range of settings of the Perils called for an equally large number of costumes for the leading lady to appear in: tennis outfits, boating, riding and driving costumes, and more, including the “Indian” costume she wore as the “Goddess of the Far West.” Like the Gibson Girls, Pauline was both capable and fashionable, a figure onto which many fantasies could be projected.

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Although it is mostly not (intentionally) humorous, it’s probably fair to compare The Perils of Pauline to the action-packed silent comedies of the day rather than the lengthy dramas that are rightly considered the pinnacle of the silent era.  Like the comedies, serial episodes were only two or three reels in length, and the injuries Pearl White sustained in making them are comparable to the gauntlet of abuse that Buster Keaton and (later) the Three Stooges put themselves through.  Just like modern action movies, the serials delight with the swiftness of their plotting and their dazzling effects rather than their keen insight into human nature, and they’re most engaging when going a little haywire.  Scenes like Harry buying a car on the spot so that he can ram it into the front door of a burning house, or Pauline trapped on a ship the navy is using for target practice, make for cracking entertainment, even if they are as unlikely as the comic exploits of Keaton and Harold Lloyd.

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What I Watched: The Perils of Pauline (Pathé, 1914)

Where I Watched It: It’s on YouTube, starting here.

No. of Chapters: 9

Best Chapter Title: The title of the final chapter, “The Floating Coffin,” deserves this honor, as it was so good it was borrowed as a chapter title by several later serials.

Best Peril: As I said, the chapters don’t end on cliffhangers, but the title is well earned by the many dangers Pauline faces.  In addition to the race against the “stone of death” in Chapter Two, Chapter Seven (“The Tragic Plunge”) sees Pauline trapped underwater aboard a sabotaged submarine, from which she escapes by being ejected through the torpedo tube and swimming to the surface to get help.

Sample Title Card: “The great chief commands that the white girl shall be subjected to the ordeal which should reveal her immoral [sic] strength.”

What Others Have Said: “All in all, it was much a case of the right actress in the right role at the right time.  It is quite probable that even an actress of greater stature than Miss White could not have carried it off any better.”  –Lahue, Continued Next Week

Part II: 1933

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When I saw that Universal had made their own (sound) version of The Perils of Pauline, I naively thought that the producers might have kept the bare bones of the 1914 story, even as they embellished and rearranged the plot to bring it up to date.  After all, the story of a corrupt guardian trying to claim his ward’s inheritance is a sturdy hook, ripe for adding the types of formulaic side characters the serials of the 1930s were known for.  I didn’t expect extreme fidelity, of course: considering the changes that established characters went through in adaptation, or the fact that producers could brazenly claim something like Robinson Crusoe of Clipper Island was based on Defoe’s novel, I knew that many liberties would be taken.

The 1914 serial had a lot of material to work with, though.  In fact, several chapters of the original version could form the basis of their own serials: many Western serials were based on premises no less flimsy than “The Goddess of the Far West.”  The episode I mentioned above with the sabotaged submarine had even more potential, as it introduced a spy ring and a female counter to Pauline in the person of Mlle. Yagow, whom Koerner immediately recognized as a kindred soul and potential partner in crime.  In that episode, Harry and Pauline effectively guest starred in somebody else’s spy thriller, a story that could have easily been stretched to a dozen chapters.

But no: Universal’s 1933 production has nothing in common with the 1914 classic except the name of the heroine (and only the first name, at that), although it does give Charles W. Goddard, who wrote the scenario of the original, a story credit.  That disappointment aside, the 1933 Pauline is quite entertaining in its own right, a globe-trotting pulp adventure that is an obvious source for the Indiana Jones films and a showcase for the kind of production that Universal did well.

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The action begins in China, where Westerners are fleeing the oncoming Revolution.  Professor Hargrave (or sometimes Hargraves: the credits, titling, and even the spoken dialogue are inconsistent on this point) is close to finding a sacred ivory disk whose secret has been entrusted to him by the Chinese monk Confu (a character never shown, but frequently referred to); even at the urging of his daughter Pauline (Evalyn Knapp) and his cowardly secretary Dodge, Hargrave refuses to leave the country until he has recovered the disk.  Also searching for the disk is the “Eurasian” Dr. Bashan (John Davidson) and his scarred henchman Fang.  The disk contains a secret formula for an invisible poison gas that destroyed an earlier civilization; Hargrave wants to give the secret of the gas to humanity (by way of the U. S. government, of course) to put an end to war, whereas Bashan wants to use it for himself to gain power.

PoP34Pauline1

When Pauline follows Hargrave and Dodge to the Temple of Tsai Tsin, where the disk is hidden, she is rescued from Bashan and his men by Robert Warde (Robert Allen, AKA Craig Reynolds), an American engineer whose work on a Chinese railroad is about to be put to an end by the Revolution.  Warde quickly grasps the situation and joins Hargrave’s team.  The disk turns out to be only half a disk, and stored with it are instructions for finding the other half.  From this start, The Perils of Pauline turns into an international scavenger hunt as Hargrave and Bashan follow the clues to piece together the disk and attempt to out-maneuver each other.  From China they travel to Borneo, Singapore, India, and New York, facing obstacles ranging from wild animals and booby-trapped temples to assassins and gangsters.

PoP34SacredDisk

True to its title and inspiration, this version of The Perils of Pauline puts the professor’s daughter in danger in every cliffhanger, sometimes alone and sometimes with Warde or as part of the group, but the story is driven by the search for the sacred disk, not her own sense of adventure.  Like the 1914 version, the 1933 version finds opportunities for its star to appear in a variety of costumes both rugged and glamorous (although to be fair, the male stars go through a number of wardrobe changes as well: like Indiana Jones or James Bond, Warde is the kind of rugged he-man who takes care of business whether in khakis and pith helmet or a tuxedo). In addition, Evalyn Knapp is competing for screen time with many more characters than Pearl White had to deal with: in the context of the serials, she is the star, but that doesn’t mean she is always the center of attention.

PoP34PaulineWarde1

As Dr. Bashan, John Davidson (a frequent serial “heavy”) gives a magnetic performance. Bashan is a smooth operator, whose strategy is often to let Hargrave uncover the next clue, and then take it from him. In one sequence, Bashan and Fang end up on the same flight from India to New York as Hargrave and his party, an uneventful trip that is described in dialogue as having taken five days!  Did they say anything to each other in all that time, or even cross paths on the way to the lavatory?  Such details are as lost to time as the empires of the past.

PoP34HargravePlane

Although Bashan and his assorted flunkies are described as “political renegades,” are they anti-colonial nationalists? Communists? Who knows? Contrary to the popular image, Bashan and other serial villains aren’t given to long-winded explanations of their political gripes; there are no trade disputes or committee hearings.  They’re bad guys, and that’s all we really need to know.  There is a close resemblance between Bashan’s rivalry with Hargrave and the later feud between René Belloq and Indiana Jones in Raiders of the Lost Ark: they truly are two sides of the same coin, working for different goals by similar methods.

Davidson delivers many of his lines with a satisfied purr; when he is angry he doesn’t raise his voice, he deepens it.  It was while watching Chapter Seven (“Trapped by the Enemy”), set at a Singapore hotel, that I realized who Bashan, disguised in a turban, reminded me of:

PoP34BashanTurban1

Jafar

As a Universal production, The Perils of Pauline is relatively lavish, relying on the studio’s extensive collection of sets, props, and stock footage to support the world-spanning narrative, but there are times the seams show.  The Chinese and Indian temples are full of Egyptian statues (excused by reference to the global civilization wiped out by the poison gas—this is a rare example where relying on a fantastic conceit like Atlantis would make the story more plausible).  Every location is represented by stock footage that sometimes goes beyond scene-setting and smacks of padding.  The jungles of Borneo are full of wild animals, but suspiciously few of them ever appear on screen at the same time as the characters.  The same shot of a dead leopard appears twice in the same chapter, representing two different attacking animals.  Finally, background music is only present in a handful of chapters, but its absence is made up for by a constant racket of city and jungle noise, a challenge to my perception that older movies were quieter than those made today.

PoP34LeopardDead

Still, this is a fun, action-packed serial that would be of interest to anyone looking to go back farther than Indiana Jones.  Even better, it is continually surprising and inventive, right down to the last scene in which Bashan and Fang discover what the invisible gas really does—I won’t spoil it, but I’ll admit that for such a predictable outcome, it managed to surprise me.

What I Watched: The Perils of Pauline (Universal, 1933)

Where I Watched It: I watched an Alpha Home Entertainment DVD; it doesn’t appear to be on YouTube, except for this clip of Pauline and her father from Chapter One.

No. of Chapters: 12

Best Chapter Title: “Confu’s Sacred Secret” (Chapter Twelve)

Best Cliffhanger: At the end of Chapter Nine (“The Mummy Walks”), Hargrave’s party has tracked the last fragment of the disk to a museum in New York, and find it hidden in an antique vase.  A curse is inscribed on the outside, leading Hargrave to believe it may be packed with an explosive (!).  Of course Pauline, running from Bashan’s henchmen, drops it down the stairs, where it explodes, appearing to knock her out.  (Like many of the cliffhangers, the resolution is anticlimactic—Pauline stands up and brushes herself off—but doesn’t rely on a cheat, exactly.)

PoP34Pauline7

Sample Dialogue:

Sullivan, a friend of Warde’s: “How’d the fight turn out?” after a run in with natives in the jungle of Borneo

Warde: “Great—the whole village burned down!” (Chapter Six, “Pursued by Savages”)

Warde and his pilot friend Sullivan share a laugh after dropping hand grenades on the natives (and Bashan).

Warde and his pilot friend Sullivan share a laugh after dropping hand grenades on the natives (and Bashan).

Silliest Character: I must give a little more attention to Willie Dodge (Sonny Ray), whose appearance and mannerisms bring to mind Stan Laurel, and who is the main source of comic relief throughout the serial.  Cowardly to the extreme, Dodge is constantly put upon, by life and the other characters.  A running joke has him in the middle of the jungle or other perilous situation offering his resignation to Hargrave, who solemnly replies, “Very well.  Would you like to leave now?”

In a modern story, Dodge might be redeemed at the end by finding his courage for a single heroic act, or at least accidentally saving the day à la Jar Jar Binks, but this isn’t that kind of story and Dodge isn’t that kind of character.  He’s consistently out of his depth, but I’ll admit I laughed at his antics several times, for example:

During a brawl on the deck of a storm-tossed ship, Dodge stands with the luggage, unsure whether to put it down or not:

PoP34Dodge1

In the museum at night, Dodge falls into a trough of plaster and is mistaken for a mummy, scaring off the bad guys:

PoP34Dodge3

When Bashan and his men break into a mansion and kidnap Pauline, Dodge runs out the front door wildly firing a pair of pistols in every direction:

PoP34Dodge4

After the Millennium Falcon engages a group of TIE fighters, Dodge is tangled in a bunch of wiring and shrieks, “I’m melting!”

C3PO

. . . Well, it’s possible I’m thinking of someone else with that last one.

What’s Next: In two weeks, I revisit The Phantom Empire, the serial that made Gene Autry a star.

Strange Games: Comic Books Confront the Apocalypse

Recently, DC Comics published a trade paperback collection under the unwieldy title Showcase Presents: The Great Disaster Featuring the Atomic Knights. I don’t intend this essay to be a review, but I will say up front that if mid-century visions of nuclear war are your bag, there’s no reason not to pick this up.  If you’ve read any volumes of Showcase (or Marvel’s similar Essential series) before, you know what to expect: more than 500 pages of black-and-white reprints (of stories from the 1960s through the 1980s in this case) on cheap paper at a low price.  They don’t call ‘em “phone books” for nothing.

GreatDisaster.cover

I was eager to get this volume (it had been previously announced several years ago and then delayed) for a few reasons.  First, I was a big fan of post-apocalyptic fiction when I was younger, and comic books were no different from other media in exploring that theme.  Second, although I had read some of the stories included, many were unfamiliar to me, and this would be a good way to fill in some gaps.  Finally, the focus on a central event (and one which had been interpreted many different ways by writers over the course of decades) makes this volume a little different from the typical Showcase that either follows a single character or collects completely unconnected stories (like the anthology title House of Mystery).  Some effort was made to arrange contradictory material into a single chronology, and that kind of editorial undertaking is always of interest to me.

Does it succeed?  Eh, sort of.  On one hand, the title tells you a lot about what’s in the volume: several cycles of stories centered on the destruction of civilization as we know it.  The Atomic Knights, in a series of stories by writer John Broome and artist Murphy Anderson that began in 1960, travel the wastes of post-World War III America, surviving with the help of their suits of medieval armor (discovered in a museum and possessed of miraculous radiation-shielding properties).  The only other continuous series represented in this volume is Hercules Unbound, but there are a number of stand-alone stories (many under the umbrella title “The Day After Doomsday”) as well.

On the other hand, the Great Disaster doesn’t have the instant name recognition of a superhero, nor was it the title of an ongoing book (the Atomic Knights, for example, were found in the pages of Strange Adventures; I wouldn’t be surprised if they were added to the title of this book so that at least some character would be named on the front cover).  In fact, the Great Disaster isn’t even synonymous with World War III in DC continuity, but you have to dig pretty deeply into the book to figure that out.  The Great Disaster is (or was, pre-Crisis) a conveniently vague apocalypse in the background of Jack Kirby’s Kamandi, involving weapons of mass destruction as well as natural disasters, taking place at some point after WWIII.

(Not included in this volume)

(Not included in this volume)

The most distinctive legacy of the Great Disaster in the world “A.D.: After Disaster” was the release of a mind-altering chemical (“cortexin”) that caused ordinary animals to become intelligent, as well as gaining upright posture and opposable thumbs.  In the wake of the Great Disaster, most humans had become mute and animalistic.  Essentially, Kamandi’s world is one of reversed roles like Planet of the Apes, but with anthropomorphic dogs, tigers, and rats in addition to gorillas and other species (not to mention numerous mutant monsters and space aliens that defy categorization), all mixed up together in the ruins of a futuristic civilization.  The last point varied pretty widely: sometimes it seemed like the Great Disaster hit America in the 1970s, but it never stopped Kirby and his successors from throwing in robots, spaceships, and other high-tech devices left behind by the “ancients” if a story called for it.  (Eventually, Kamandi’s world was linked to “The World That’s Coming,” the setting of OMAC, a short-lived—and even weirder, but definitely futuristic—science fiction series Kirby had also created.)

Aside from Planet of the Apes, the world of Kamandi bears a close resemblance to the campaign setting of Gamma World, a role-playing game from TSR, the makers of Dungeons & Dragons.  In transposing the adventuring-party model to a post-apocalyptic science fantasy setting, the game designers gave players the option of playing as a “pure strain” human, (humanoid) mutant, or mutated animal.  From one angle, the title character of Kamandi (“the last boy on Earth”) and his companions, the superhuman Ben Boxer and dog-man Dr. Canus, could be player characters in a Gamma World game, and their travels from one wonder to another, piecing together the fragmented history of their world and facing down monsters and villains, are not unlike an ongoing RPG campaign.

GammaWorld

Alas, Kamandi does not appear in Showcase Presents: The Great Disaster. The material reprinted from Kamandi #43-46 is a backup story focused on Urgall, a gorilla whose liberal ideas (extending respect not only to non-gorillas but to humans, and even female gorillas!) put him at odds with his tribe. (Another “tale of the Great Disaster” that appeared in Weird War Tales #51-52, featuring warring English and Scottish dog-men, is not included, which is too bad, as it is superior to the story of Urgall.)  I’ve gone into detail about Kamandi because I’m a fan, and having collected (I believe) all the pre-Crisis appearances of Kamandi and OMAC, it’s hard for me to not bring that context to the present book.  As of this writing, the only collected reprints of Kamandi are more lavish and expensive than the Showcase series, but the title is worth seeking out and is really more essential than anything in this book (but if you’re reading this, you already knew that, right?).

When I first read the Atomic Knights stories (about fifteen years ago), they struck me as more than a little silly: in addition to the conceit of medieval armor protecting against radiation, the stories were burdened with outdated gender roles (the “littlest knight,” Marene Herald, mostly stays out of the way, awaiting the day that team leader Gardner Grayle will propose to her) and too many convenient “scientific” solutions to problems.  Although the war is said to have occurred in October, 1986, the Atomic Knights’ roots in the early 1960s remain obvious.

Reading them again, however, I’m more sympathetic to the earnest tone: the Knights are at the vanguard of rebuilding democracy, and the stories often end on a didactic note, preaching the need for cooperation, compassion, and emphasizing reason and the rule of law.  Many of the menaces they face will be familiar to readers of post-apocalyptic fiction: problems of supplying food and energy when nothing will grow; human populations regressed to caveman-like savagery; would-be dictators such as the fascist “organizer” Kadey and the self-proclaimed King of New Orleans; and non-human threats either produced by radiation (a Triffid-like strain of mobile, intelligent plants) or opportunistically filling the void left by the collapse of humanity (a race of underground mole people who plan to permanently darken the sky so that they can take over the surface world; scavenging space aliens searching for precious metals).  That the Atomic Knights continue striving and are able to keep their humanity as they do so is, in its own way, optimistic.

strange_adventures#144

In fact, the suits of armor the Atomic Knights wear aren’t an anomalous detail: sometimes the comparison to knights of old is made explicit.  In the first story in Showcase Presents: The Great Disaster, “The Year 700 After the Bomb,” the post-war society resembles feudal Europe, right down to the Robin Hood-style costumes, royal titles, and pseudo-Old English dialect.  One could attribute these details to lazy writing, but it also reflects a view of history with definite evolutionary stages: just as civilization climbs upward over generations, it can also slide downward, and in such stories the image of a new “Dark Ages” is made literal.  (This can probably be laid at the doorstep of H. G. Wells, whose view was long enough to envision a day when humanity, too, is extinct, and whose film Things to Come, directed by William Cameron Menzies, portrayed a post-war English village ruled by a petty medieval warlord.)

It was when the Atomic Knights encountered warriors from the legendary island of Atlantis, time-warped into the future by their own scientific catastrophe, that I was able to put my finger on the story-telling mode. Replace “radiation” with “magic,” and a story in which armored knights battle Romanesque soldiers from an ancient island could be part of any fantasy novel from the last hundred years.  Specifically, the discovery of “Atlantides” (as the islanders are called in this story) fits neatly into the “lost world” genre: as practiced by H. Rider Haggard, A. Merritt, and Edgar Rice Burroughs, among others, there was always the possibility of a remote valley, cave, or island that history and evolution had passed by, leaving a population of dinosaurs, ancient Romans, or other living relics to be discovered.  The lost world genre was mostly finished off by World War II, as the empty, unknown spaces on the map were filled in; wiping the slate clean with a global catastrophe allowed writers to open those spaces up again, and fill them with mystery and adventure.  In these stories, the lost world was our own.

Perhaps that is one reason they continue to be popular: although seemingly pessimistic, this strain of post-apocalyptic fantasy, showing places and objects of the present through the eyes of later generations, provides for a kind of reenchantment of the everyday.  We gain perspective when we imagine a bustling city full of skyscrapers as empty and crumbling; more importantly, we can appreciate how marvelous our technology is when we picture later generations trying to make sense of it.  In the Gamma World game, there was a mechanism for player characters to puzzle out the use and meaning of “artifacts,” meant to prevent players from using out-of-game knowledge to identify, say, a rifle as a weapon rather than an emblem of office.  Similar misinterpretations are a staple of the genre: picture the subterranean mutants of Beneath the Planet of the Apes worshipping a nuclear missile as a god, or a young shaman trying to divine omens with a vinyl record in Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome. Likely inspired by real-life cargo cults, the projection of superstitious beliefs onto modern goods allows writers to remix old and new cultural symbols, comment on our relationship to technology, and—that standby of science fiction—map contemporary political concerns onto fantastical stories.

AtomicKnights

It should go without saying that the stories of Kamandi and the Atomic Knights don’t have anything to do with the likely horrors of a real nuclear war (or whatever the Great Disaster was supposed to be), and the longer their stories continued, the more fantastical and obviously escapist they became.  In the final story included in Showcase Presents: The Great Disaster, no less a DC eminence than Superman himself encounters the Atomic Knights, only to discover that their entire history is the dream of Gardner Grayle, placed in a sensory deprivation tank as part of a military experiment.  Grayle’s unconscious mind has taken over the computers running the simulation and threatens to launch an actual nuclear strike in order to make real the fantasies in which Grayle has played the hero for years.

The premise, and the lesson that Grayle imparts after awakening at the last minute (“The task before mankind isn’t to survive an atomic war! It’s to work in this world we’re living in to make certain such a war can never begin!”), owe much to WarGames and the similar lesson the supercomputer WOPR (“Joshua”) learns in that film (“A strange game: the only winning move is not to play”). “It was all a dream!” is obviously the king of lame cop-outs and, in cases like this, the last refuge of a writer whose story has gotten away from him.  I think it actually works, though: in 1983 the “survivable” nuclear war was an increasingly untenable premise, and the quaint early stories of the Atomic Knights had become hopelessly snarled with the continuity of Hercules and the world of the Great Disaster in the pages of Hercules Unbound.  (I haven’t commented on that series, but suffice to say that even the titular demigod couldn’t bear the burden of reconciling the combined histories of the Atomic Knights, Kamandi, and OMAC and telling his own story in an intelligible manner.)

I think it’s a little much to criticize escapism, however, when the target audience has so little power to change the situation from which they are escaping.  It’s one thing to indict military planners running simulations with potential real world consequences, another to criticize something as obviously fanciful as the Atomic Knights or Gamma World.  Speaking as a cold war baby who was ten years old in 1983 and absolutely terrified of nuclear war, the only other alternative was denial: I could hardly watch the news without having a panic attack, and I had no desire to subject myself to The Day After when it aired (I’m glad I didn’t know anything about the even grimmer Testament and Threads at the time).

Nuclear war was also frequently on Superman’s mind in the 1980s: most fans today remember Superman IV and the Man of Steel’s quest to rid Earth of nuclear weapons, but in the comics Superman often stood aside as an observer, willing to admonish mankind but not make the hard decisions for us.  Visions of humanity’s capacity for self-destruction haunt him: a Superman who does nothing to prevent a holocaust is not super in any way, but were he to take the choice out of our hands he would become a god rather than a man.  This version of Superman as advocate and guardian challenges the view of comic book readers as naïve simpletons waiting to be rescued.

(Also not included in this book)

(Also not included in this volume)

As I said initially, I eventually became an avid consumer of comics, games, books and movies that explored life after the bomb.  If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em, right? I don’t recall thinking it was realistic to expect survival in the event of a war, much less high adventure, but it was a comforting daydream. Certainly there was plenty to choose from, and I know there were a lot of guys in my generation who shared the same fantasy.  (One of the most believable details of last year’s The World’s End was that arrested adolescent Gary King would end up as a wandering gunslinger in the wasteland, loving every minute of it: for me it was a striking moment of recognition.)  Just about everything you need to know about this phase of 1980s masculinity can be found in the video for Tom Petty’s song “You Got Lucky.” It’s all there: guns, guitars, cowboy-chic dusters, and a sweet arcade in the middle of the desert.  (Petty obviously liked the milieu enough to make an appearance as himself in the 1997 film adaptation of David Brin’s post-apocalyptic novel The Postman.)

TomPetty

The focus in popular culture changed after the passing of the Cold War; although the apocalypse has never been far from our entertainment, the end of the world can come from almost any direction nowadays: terrorism, climate change, pandemic, just to name the more realistic possibilities.  Free-floating dread has replaced the pointed terror of “Mutually Assured Destruction;” chaos is more feared than ideology, and it’s reflected in the zombie hordes and rampaging kaiju of current film.  Still, the stories I grew up with haven’t been forgotten: perhaps it’s driven by ‘80s nostalgia, but remakes or reboots of Planet of the Apes, Mad Max, and even WarGames have either been made or are in production.  Gamma World has been through seven editions, the last in 2010, although I haven’t played in years.  The intoxicating cocktail of sword-and-sorcery among the ruins of modern civilization is still with us in such programs as Adventure Time.  Earth A. D. is still a place that many of us like to visit, even if we wouldn’t want to live there.

AdventureTime

Nut Buster with Loud Report: Fireworks Roundup

AKA "Giant Squirrel vs. Ewok"

AKA “Giant Chipmunk vs. Ewok”

Going to the park or downtown to watch the big professional fireworks show is always an enjoyable spectacle; no patriotic or sporting event is complete without them.  When synchronized with music they can be even more dramatic.

However, I’ve always enjoyed the hands-on aspect of the fireworks you can buy and shoot off yourself.  The sulfurous smell, the shredded paper, and even the burnt fingers bring back memories of family gatherings and idle summer days.  Where I grew up, in Kansas, fireworks were legal for about a week around July 4, although a window has now opened for New Year’s Eve as well; I was both awestruck and jealous when I visited my cousins in Tennessee as a kid and learned that they could buy and shoot off fireworks all year round.

I also enjoyed the packaging and was intrigued by the Chinese script and traditional designs, a vintage commercial style that inspired Salvador Dali to paint his Board of Demented Associations (Fireworks) in the early 1930s.

board-of-demented-associations-fireworks

Fireworks with traditional packaging can still be found, but in recent years I’ve noticed a more trend-driven approach to packaging, with the larger fireworks especially trying to stand out in a crowded marketplace with photoshopped labels that look like movie posters or glossy magazine ads, and names that reflect their Chinese manufacturers’ idea of American pop culture. (They’re even rated, with the “Wizard’s Wrath,” for example, rated “A for Action.”)  Considering how difficult it can be to distinguish between numerous models that all promise to “emit showers of sparks with loud report,” they need any advantage they can get.

Sometimes the result is zany dada poetry, like fireworks named “One Dumb Cousin” and “Massive American.” Others are obvious appeals to things that are current, like the laptop-shaped “iPyro;” a few years ago there were numerous fireworks with “cyber” in their name, but other than the “iPyro” all I saw this year was “Twitter Glitter.”

iPyro

There are also the unauthorized “Captain Americas” (an obvious choice) and illustrations that look sort of like Darth Vader or other characters.  There was a Britney Spears firework for a while but I haven’t seen it recently.

To all my American readers: have a happy and safe Independence Day!

Fates Worse Than Death: Fighting with Kit Carson

KitCarsonTitle

Famed scout Kit Carson is tasked with accompanying a shipment of government gold across hostile Indian territory.  Although it would be safer to wait and travel with the wagon train that will be arriving soon, Carson’s superiors insist that the gold shipment is urgent and that he hire some unfamiliar locals to ride with him.  Unbeknownst to him, the riders are part of a gang secretly run by fur trader Cyrus Kraft, who plans to steal the gold and use it to cement his control of the Southwest.  Sure enough, the party is attacked by Indians, and Carson is accused of betraying the riders by Reynolds, one of Kraft’s gang.  Carson is locked up to await trial for treason.

KitCarson1

Elsewhere, Kraft parleys with Cheyenne chief Dark Eagle in his trading post office.  Kraft encourages Dark Eagle to make war against the settlers filling the territory, the better for Kraft to control it, but the Cheyenne have no quarrel with their white brothers and Dark Eagle refuses.  (A memorable part of Kraft’s shtick is the knife which he toys with while in conversation; if Kraft hears something he doesn’t like, he drops the knife, seemingly by accident, a signal for his hidden confederate to kill whomever Kraft is talking with.) For his obstinance, the Cheyenne chief is murdered and his body is left in the path of the wagon train so that his tribe will blame the settlers.  Dark Eagle’s son, Nakomas, at first takes the bait, but Carson suspects foul play and convinces the young chief to join forces so they can uncover the truth.

knife

In the mean time, the gold is missing: Carson’s friend Matt Fargo, who also rode with him, suspected that something was up when the Indians attacked, and hid the gold before it could be stolen.  Fargo’s little daughter Joan disguises herself as a boy and stows away on the westbound wagon train to find her father.  Carson escapes from jail to find Fargo and the gold, and clear his name; when the wagon train is attacked by the enraged Cheyenne, Carson and “Johnny” Fargo end up on a runaway wagon, careening toward a stand of trees.

The 1933 serial Fighting with Kit Carson is the first serial I have watched based on a historical figure: Christopher “Kit” Carson (1809-1868) really was a famous tracker and scout, blazing trails across the Southwest, negotiating with (and ultimately warring against) the Indians.  The subject of hagiographic dime novels even during his own lifetime, Carson has fallen out of public favor in recent decades as the history of the Indian Wars is no longer taught in such a one-sided fashion and the bloody conquest of Native peoples no longer seems so glamorous.

DimeNovel

Needless to say, Fighting with Kit Carson is in the dime novel tradition, crafting a typical pulp narrative around a few familiar names and character traits.  However, while the Carson of the serial is unambiguously good (and Kraft equally evil, even stooping so low as to shoot his own men to gain Matt Fargo’s trust), the conflict is not the simple “cowboys vs. Indians” one might expect from a 1930s Western.  Part of Carson’s legend is that he was a friend to the Indians (they refer to him as “White Chief” in the serial), equally trusted by the Cheyenne, settlers, and the Army.  The Cheyenne are presented as honorable, if volatile: Dark Eagle refuses to be manipulated into war by Kraft, and his son Nakomas, while quick to judgment, is an equal and ally of Carson. Of course, the surest way to introduce conflict is to call Carson’s trustworthiness into question, something that happens over and over again as Kraft works to undermine him in private while claiming to support him in public.  (The “Mystery Riders,” a band of masked and cloaked vigilantes under the control of Kraft, are another clearly cinematic element, complete with their own song that they sing as they ride, and which doubles as the theme song for the serial.)

Kraft4

Fighting with Kit Carson stars Johnny Mack Brown, a college football star who got his start at MGM, as the title character.  Brown would go on to specialize in Westerns, having first played Billy the Kid opposite Wallace Beery in 1930.  Beery’s brother Noah plays Kraft, exactly the sort of sneering, scenery-chewing “heavy” that the serials were famous for, in a performance reminiscent of Edward G. Robinson.  (With his imposing size and mixture of bonhomie and sudden violence, Kraft would be a great role for John Goodman today.)  Noah’s son, Noah, Jr., plays Nakomas in braids and bronze makeup (a common practice then).  Rounding out the main cast (and second billed, above Beery Sr. and Jr.), Joan Fargo is played by Betsy King Ross, a rodeo performer and child star whom Jim Harmon and Donald F. Glut in The Great Movie Serials describe as Mascot’s answer to Shirley Temple.

JoanFargo.title

Fighting with Kit Carson is much less linear in its storytelling than the serials I’ve watched so far: leaving aside some of the backtracking in resolving its cliffhangers, the serial cuts back and forth in time, revealing new information about settled events, and the use of flashbacks is more extensive than the simple recapping used in the typical “economy chapter.”  (There are also some interesting graphic effects, like the use of double exposure to show the passage of time when Carson is tracking, and a dotted line representing the secret passageway between Kraft’s office and the barn that is the secret meeting place of his gang.)  The end result, while introducing variety, is frequently disjointed and hard to follow.

There are exciting stunts aplenty, however, and as in all serials there is a premium on action.  Many of the fight scenes are edited to within an inch of their lives: according to Harmon and Glut, the standards of the time required that

Bullets could not be shown striking a man’s body; the gun and the human target had to be separated by cuts from one camera angle to another.  The same rule held true for a man being struck with a club; the swing of the gun butt or blackjack had to be shown from one angle, the victim falling from another.

Perhaps it is because the Western setting puts more emphasis on gunplay than on the fistfights of Batman, but this was very noticeable in Fighting with Kit Carson, and to the blackjacks and gun butts I would add tomahawks, which were also evidently subject to this rule.

The wagon and horse chases fare better: famed stuntman Yakima Canutt, while not credited, is recognizable for his hand in a scene where Carson leaps from horse to horse on an out-of-control wagon team and is then dragged underneath the wagon, a stunt Canutt pulled off in dozens of Westerns (and which was an inspiration for the similar scene in Raiders of the Lost Ark in which Indiana Jones is dragged underneath a speeding truck).

Fighting with Kit Carson is a bit of a mixed bag, less streamlined than the serials Mascot’s successor studio Republic would be making in just a few years, but with some memorable performances (in addition to the cast already mentioned, Edmund Breese as Matt Fargo is quite good) and some literally explosive action sequences (of which more momentarily).

Carson.Nakomas

What I Watched: Fighting with Kit Carson (1933, Mascot)

Where I Saw It: It is on YouTube, starting here.  (This accounts for the lower quality screenshots—sorry about that.)

No. of Chapters: 12

Best Chapter Title: “The Secret of Iron Mountain” (Chapter Six)

Best Cliffhanger: For the first two thirds, the cliffhangers are pretty underwhelming: in my notes I’ve included “Carson and Nakomas fall down cliff,” “Carson shot?” (he fell down when the shot was fired to fake out his attacker, something that happens several times in this serial), “Carson and Nakomas fall down cliff again,” and “Joan Fargo falls off horse.”  Things heat up considerably in the last few chapters, however, starting with the end of Chapter Eight (“Red Phantoms”), in which Carson appears to be shot just before his wagon plunges into a canyon.  I say “appears,” as of course added footage in the next chapter shows that he not only wasn’t shot but actually jumped from the wagon before its fall.  Even Carson’s enemies are suspicious, saying uncharacteristically sensible things like “How do you know he didn’t jump?” and “Funny we haven’t found any trace of Carson’s body.” This overturns a longstanding convention of the serials, in which henchmen are constantly assuring the villain that the hero is dead, only for him to keep coming back, over and over again.

The filmmakers were obviously saving their budget for Chapter Nine (“The Invisible Enemy”), because suddenly all hell breaks loose, with Carson DROPPING A BOULDER on the Mystery Riders and leading them on a merry chase up and down the cliffside through misdirection (at one point, Carson throws a cocked rifle off the cliff, counting on it to land on a rock and fire, which of course it does).  The wagon was full of black powder (“Hey, be careful with that powder!”) which the Mystery Riders plan to use to blow up the settlers who are riding into the canyon.  Carson rushes to get the powder keg out of the way, but IT EXPLODES AS SOON AS HE PICKS IT UP! HOLY DEATH AND DISMEMBERMENT, BATMAN!

At the beginning of Chapter Ten (“Midnight Magic”), we back up, and this time Carson picks up the powder keg and hurls it at a group of Mystery Riders, where it blows them up (I should point out that the keg was lit with a line of powder on the ground, not a fuse, so in order for it to explode after being picked up it’s necessary for Carson to throw the keg into a conveniently-placed campfire).  I could only imagine the confusion and cries of “CHEAT!” that must have greeted this development in the movie theater in 1933.

I was boggled: how could this have happened? I went back and watched both the cliffhanger and the resolution closely, again and again, as if it were the Zapruder film.  Ultimately, I decided there were only two explanations: either Kit Carson had the ability to warp time and space (“midnight magic,” indeed!), or those cockadoodie dirty-bird screenwriters counted on everyone in the audience to get amnesia.  There is no question that both “Best Cliffhanger” and the Annie Wilkes Award for Most Blatant Cheat goes to Kit Carson, Master of Time and Space, getting blown up at the end of “The Invisible Enemy.”  After this, Kraft’s comeuppance in Chapter Twelve, as explosive as it is in its own right, could only be anticlimactic.

Sample Dialogue: “If I can only live long enough to tell the gang about this!” –a Mystery Rider named Rawlins, after being shot in the back by Kraft, his own boss (Chapter Four, “The Silent Doom”)

What Others Have Said: “The old breed of cowboy star was a lot tougher and gutsier than today’s star is.  Course, most of the old ones was real cowboys and circus stars at one time too, and this all helped them as film stars.  But today’s cowboy star never has the chance or the rugged real-life experiences on the range the old stars had, so they naturally are softer when it comes to the he-man action stuff.” –Noah Beery, Jr., interview with Lee O. Miller in The Great Cowboy Stars of Movies & Television

What’s Next: Join me in two weeks as I acquaint myself with one of the most famous names in the serials. Can you guess?

Art Isn’t Easy: Five Examples

Most artists like to talk about their creative work: they give interviews, write program notes, or even try to share their knowledge through teaching or writing how-to books.  It’s a different matter, however, to get across one’s ideas about the urge to make art, or the creative process itself, within an actual artwork.  To some degree, every work of art has something to say about the way it was conceived and constructed, but it’s not always obvious without knowing the artist’s work intimately and/or spending time decoding the work.  At the other extreme, not every look at an artist’s life (including many autobiographies) has anything meaningful to say about where artists get their ideas or the inner resources that they draw on to face artistic challenges.

Within the somewhat rarefied field of “artwork that says something about the creative process,” I have a few favorites that have been important to me.  Some I’ve mentioned previously in this blog; most are centered around an artist actively creating, either as biography or autobiography, yet all have qualities of fiction, even if based on a real person.  Indeed, no one’s life is a perfect vehicle for a statement about art: there are too many accidents and interruptions to line up neatly with any particular theory.  Yet, on the other hand there are often real-life coincidences and symmetries that would be too far-fetched if part of a completely fictional life.  In the spaces between mundane fact and pure fable, the writer or artist is able to express their own viewpoint.

(As an aside, I wonder if this is why there have been so few satisfactory depictions of the Beatles as characters?  There was hardly a single day of their professional career that went undocumented, and their every utterance has been recorded and examined closely.  Is there any room for them to be reconceived in a fictional context without doing violence to the record?)

Fidelity to the facts isn’t a primary concern for Amadeus, the dramatization of composer Antonio Salieri’s supposed plot to eliminate his hated rival, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.  As much as I love Milos Forman’s 1984 film, it is in some ways too successful: like the best period films, it wraps its characters in the physical trappings of their time, drawing us in and convincing us, through dramatic means, that it must have happened just this way.  For the last thirty years, musicologists have diligently corrected the many misconceptions spawned by the film (which is not always a bad thing, if it leads to fruitful discussion and understanding the difference between art and history).

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Peter Shaffer’s 1979 play, the basis of the film, is much more clearly using historical figures as an allegory for the contest of mediocrity and genius.  As for Salieri’s role in Mozart’s death (a myth that may have had its roots in Salieri’s dementia in his later years, and which before Shaffer was dramatized by Pushkin and others), it might as well be Cain and Abel, or Jacob and Esau: it is the mythic resonance, the archetypal conflict, that interests Shaffer, not documentary accuracy.

I’m not sure what, if anything, I’ve actually learned about creating art from Amadeus, but it does speak to the reality that talent is spread unevenly in the world, and that wanting to create isn’t enough.  Salieri’s desire to be a good composer, and a good man, to speak for God, isn’t enough, isn’t even relevant.  “Was Mozart good?” he asks.  “Goodness is nothing in the furnace of art.”  (Again, we don’t know if the real Salieri said anything of the kind, or how he even felt about Mozart; but haven’t we all felt like the fictional Salieri at one time or another?)  On the other hand, one could take from Amadeus the lesson that even for the world’s Mozarts success isn’t guaranteed, that there will always be challenges even for the most gifted among us.

Sunday in the Park with George, the 1984 musical by Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine, is one of its composer’s most direct statements about the creative process, to the point that Sondheim borrowed the title of the song “Finishing the Hat” for his collected lyrics.  The phrase has become a kind of shorthand for the endless labor and attention to detail necessary to create something out of nothing (“where there never was a hat”).  In the context of the musical, it also stands in for the real life painter George Seurat puts on hold in order to complete his masterpiece, A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte.  All his subjects, and especially his model and muse, Dot, have lives and stories of their own, but to him they are largely formal elements, puzzle pieces to be fit into his great composition.

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It’s not hard to see why Sondheim identified with his fictionalized Seurat: the precision and formal clarity Seurat brought to his pointillistic canvases is a good match for Sondheim’s hyper-articulate wordplay, and the fragments of speech that Sondheim pieces into a mosaic of conversation, Robert Altman-style, is a fitting counterpart to Seurat’s modular approach to form.  Sondheim’s formidable talent for meter and rhyme elegantly sets up the Act I finale in which George marshals his subjects into the final form of his painting.  (If anyone ever tries to produce Tetris: the Musical, I can think of no other composer for the job.)

Sacrifices of a different kind are entailed in Stephen King’s 1987 novel Misery.  King has never been shy about sharing his view of writing—how many of his novels are about writers, and how many of his stories feature writers’ creations and alter egos taking on lives of their own?—but Misery is probably his ultimate (fictional) statement about the work itself (I assume: I’m far from a King completist).  As his stand-in Paul Sheldon struggles to complete a novel for his captor, Annie Wilkes, King speaks directly about both the urge to escape into stories and many of the mechanical aspects of constructing and maintaining a narrative.  I was struck by the observation that “there was always a deadline,” even for books written on spec: “If a book remained roadblocked long enough, it began to decay, to fall apart; all the little tricks and illusions started to show.”  There is a time and a place for every creative work, and some can stay on the shelf longer than others; for some the phrase “strike while the iron is hot” is imperative.  One hears about novels and operas written over the course of years, even decades, but that’s never been King’s style.

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Director Edward D. Wood, Jr. has been called the “worst director of all time,” and his movies are memorably batty in conception and clumsy in execution.  I don’t think he deserves that title (there are many worse films than his, and at least Wood’s work is entertainingly bad), but it’s unlikely that Tim Burton’s 1994 biopic Ed Wood would have had the same combination of humor and pathos if it were about someone more accomplished.  The film takes plenty of liberties with the real Wood’s life, mostly concentrating on the making of Glen or Glenda? and Plan 9 From Outer Space.  While Wood is the kind of outsider Burton has identified with throughout his career, it was Wood’s relationship to fading star Bela Lugosi that really attracted him to the material, reminding him of his own friendship with Vincent Price; I think it’s fair to read the movie as being more about Burton than Wood.  The movie has an optimistic tone despite the ineptitude of its title character; it’s possible that Johnny Depp’s performance is how the real-life Wood saw himself, perpetually chipper and energetic in the face of constant failure.  In any case, the goodness or badness of Plan 9 is beside the point: Ed Wood promises a look at the making of “the worst movie ever made,” but it’s really about the joys and frustrations of creating something, which is why it’s so relatable to anyone who’s tried.

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Ed Wood also shows that no matter how much you enjoy creating, it’s impossible to predict how the finished product will turn out or how it will be received.  If Wood’s work suffered from a lack of critical discernment, it’s even worse when self-criticism stops you before you’ve begun.  That’s a central theme of Lynda Barry’s “Two Questions,” a short comic strip story that appeared in McSweeney’s and has been reprinted in a few places since then.  “’Is this good?’  ‘Does this suck?’  I’m not sure when these two questions became the only two questions I had about my work, or when making pictures and stories turned into something I called ‘my work’—I just knew I’d stopped enjoying it and instead began to dread it,” begins Barry’s story.  The process by which she learns (and relearns, over and over again) to let go of those preconceptions, “to be able to stand not knowing long enough to let something alive take shape,” is one that I recognize, as I recognize the paralysis of engaging in judgment too soon.  As Barry says in a note accompanying “Two Questions” in The Best American Comics 2006,  “trying to write something good before I write anything at all is like refusing to give birth unless you know for sure it is going to be a very good baby.”

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It’s probably telling that most of the works I’ve mentioned were published or released during my teenage or twenty-something years, the age at which I was most engaged with honing my own craft and wrestling with what it means to be an artist.  Which aspects of these stories affect me the most depends very much on the day and my own state of mind: sometimes I feel chained to the desk like Paul Sheldon (though not literally, thank God), praying for the tiniest bit of inspiration like Salieri or dreading the oppressing self-judgment of Lynda Barry’s two questions; other days I feel my creative juices flowing as freely as Mozart must have (my excitement tempered by the knowledge that Ed Wood probably felt the same way).  At still other times I’m preoccupied with business matters, also touched on by these works.  Perhaps that’s why I continue to return to them for inspiration and perspective: there’s an understanding born of experience in each one of them.

Do you have a favorite work of art that conveys the creative experience?  Share it in the comments!