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Archive for February, 2010

Third in a series of six previously unpublished profiles.

Accepting an Emmy for Outstanding Writing Achievement in Drama for The Twilight Zone in 1961, Rod Serling thanked the “three writing gremlins who did the bulk of the work: Charles Beaumont, Richard Matheson, and George Clayton Johnson.” Born in a barn outside of Cheyenne, Wyoming, on July 10, 1929, Johnson has enriched the genre on both page and screen.

As an author, Johnson is best known for the classic 1967 novel Logan’s Run, written with William F. Nolan, which spawned an Academy Award-winning film in 1976, a CBS-TV series the following year, a Marvel comic book, and two sequels penned by Nolan. His stories have appeared in 100 Great Fantasy Stories, Author’s Choice #4, Masters of Darkness, and elsewhere.

Twilight Zone Scripts & Stories contains Johnson’s teleplays for “A Penny for Your Thoughts,” “A Game of Pool,” “Nothing in the Dark,” and “Kick the Can,” plus stories adapted by others into episodes like “Execution” and “The Prime Mover.” His collection All of Us Are Dying and Other Stories includes scripts and treatments, some unproduced, as well as nonfiction.

Johnson has also written episodes of Honey West, Kentucky Jones, Kung Fu, The Law and Mr. Jones, Mr. Novak, and Route 66. He had hoped to launch a screenwriting career with Ocean’s Eleven (1960), until the script he wrote with Jack Golden Russell was bought “blind” as a vehicle for Frank Sinatra’s “Rat Pack” and heavily rewritten, earning them only a story credit.

Years later, he told this writer in an interview for Filmfax, “I was breaking into writing television, after having spent about five years digging dry holes in the desert, so to speak, not striking any water, and wondering what had happened to this credit that I could use to pry open the door…It wasn’t too helpful to me as I struggled.” Of far greater value was his relationship with several other writers.

Johnson cites as his “teachers” Beaumont, Matheson, Nolan, Serling, Robert Bloch, Jerry Sohl, Theodore Sturgeon, and Ray Bradbury, who was a mentor to many of them. “If you look at those names, you’re looking at a little literary movement that took place on the West Coast,” he said, and as authors and screenwriters, they revolutionized the field of SF, fantasy and horror.

Serling adapted two of Johnson’s hitherto unpublished stories into first-season Twilight Zone episodes: “The Four of Us Are Dying” (based on “All of Us Are Dying”) and “Execution.” At the urging of his friends and fellow writers, Johnson then insisted to producer Buck Houghton that the sale of a third story, “A Penny for Your Thoughts,” be contingent on adapting it himself.

Recalled Johnson, “I found it rather terrifying. I could see the great additional material that Rod had tacked onto my stories in order to make them filmable, to give them the fullness of a half-hour show. So I looked at that with great trepidation, although it was fairly simple and straightforward.” The episode stars Dick York as a man who can suddenly read people’s minds.

Beaumont’s legendary ability to charm producers landed him more assignments than he could handle himself, so he often farmed them out. “Beaumont had a very strange group of friends, and each one of his friends had his own kind of power, but a number of them, like OCee Ritch or Bill Idelson, contributed material to The Twilight Zone pseudonymously,” Johnson said.

Acting as a kind of front, Beaumont would secure the assignment and split the fee with a friend who provided an original story or first draft, sometimes without credit. In Johnson’s case, this included “Angels of Vengeance,” an episode of Wanted: Dead or Alive, the Western series with Steve McQueen, and “The Prime Mover,” both of which were credited solely to Beaumont.

Johnson and Nolan acted in Roger Corman’s The Intruder (aka The Stranger, I Hate Your Guts, 1961), adapted by Beaumont from his novel. “I loved being an actor, and between Bill and me we set up a couple of very archetypal evil guys,” he recounted. “It all came about because the people we were hiring on the spot [in Missouri] to read for these parts…could not say lines.”

“A Game of Pool” portrayed a match between young shark Jesse Cardiff (Jack Klugman) and deceased legend Fats Brown (Jonathan Winters), who is called back from the hereafter to play the challenger for the title of the world’s greatest player. Johnson was displeased when Houghton and Serling reversed his ending, in which Jesse loses—but vows defiantly to improve.

“Rod thought the idea of a limbo, where there sits the legend waiting to be summoned forth, and to which the newcomer will be doomed to replace him while he goes off to go fishing…was cute, and I thought that was dismal,” he said. During a writer’s strike, CBS remade the script without his approval for a 1980s Twilight Zone revival, ironically restoring his ending.

Johnson is especially proud of “Nothing in the Dark,” which, like “Kick the Can,” was directed by future filmmaker Lamont Johnson (no relation). In an early role, Robert Redford plays a wounded policeman given refuge by terrified tenement dweller Gladys Cooper, who finally realizes that this beneficent figure is the chameleonic “Mr. Death” she has so long feared.

“It isn’t an impossible dream to write some piece that is really perfection, does its own thing so well, is such a clean statement of itself—its intention, purpose, direction, message, all the things that are in it—that it’s a whole world all in itself, and in that world is totally complete…I must say in all modesty, I…achieved it myself with ‘Nothing in the Dark,’” he said.

“Kick the Can,” about retirement-home residents rejuvenated by the titular game, was remade as Steven Spielberg’s episode of Twilight Zone—The Movie (1983). Matheson’s script, rewritten by “Josh Rogan” (Melissa Mathison), used a new ending devised by Johnson himself, in which the children finally elect to return to their “old, nice bodies, but with fresh, young minds.”

Bradbury collaborated with Johnson on Icarus Montgolfier Wright (1962), an Oscar-nominated short film about the history of flight. “It was a way of adapting his five-page short story into seventeen pages of lyrical prose in which I would try to visualize paintings merging and melting into each other, so as to use superimposure and the moving camera on works of art.”

Johnson adapted the teleplay “Tick of Time” from his story “The Grandfather Clock,” but a staffing change ended his Twilight Zone run. “The new producer [William Froug] didn’t like it that much and wanted to change it around and brought in another writer, Richard DeRoy, who rewrote and retitled [it as “Ninety Years Without Slumbering”]. When I looked at it I was horrified,” he said.

Contributing to another seminal series, Johnson wrote “The Man Trap,” the first episode of the original Star Trek to be broadcast. “That title was tacked on it by [series creator] Gene Roddenberry. Originally it was called ‘Damsel With a Dulcimer,’…who in some mystic way could cast a spell upon you and make you see her the way you wanted to see her,” as he recalled.

Star Trek producer Herbert Solow “later on hired [The Green Hand, a corporation formed by contributors Johnson, Matheson, Sohl, and Sturgeon] over at MGM studios to try to develop a pilot or two. We never managed to get one developed to anyone’s satisfaction, that is to say we could never sell anything to the network, although we turned out various interesting notions…”

Logan’s Run depicted a dystopic, overpopulated future in which deadly Sandmen hunt those who “run” from society’s mandatory death age of twenty-one. Although disappointed that their own screenplay was not used when the novel was eventually filmed by Michael Anderson, authors Nolan and Johnson had the satisfaction of seeing it turn into a multimedia phenomenon.

“We plotted all of this in advance, prophesied it all,” Johnson said. “We saw just exactly how it could be marketed as a movie, a comic book, and this and that. We had it all planned out, talked enthusiastically to everybody about it, and kept getting delays. It took some nine years to get Logan’s Run to the screen.” (As of this writing, a remake has been announced.)

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Bradley’s Hundred #11-20

Continuing the explication of my hundred favorite films, listed on the B100 page accessible above.

Blade Runner: As is often the case, I prefer the original version, with the narration and quasi-happy ending that bothered so many, to the subsequent director’s cut (of which I believe there are now at least two), but no matter how you slice it, this is still one of the most amazing films ever made. The titular operative (Harrison Ford) is brought reluctantly out of retirement to track down a group of deadly androids with a built-in lifespan, played by Rutger Hauer (never better as Roy Batty), Brion James, and the up-and-coming Daryl Hannah and Joanna Cassidy. Questions of identity permeate his encounters with these Replicants, their creator (Joseph Turkel), and his niece (Sean Young). Loosely based on the novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick, whose work was later adapted—with varying degrees of success—into Total Recall, Screamers, Impostor, Minority Report, Paycheck, A Scanner Darkly, and Next. The real star is Ridley Scott’s evocation of overpopulated 21st-century Los Angeles; the top-notch supporting cast includes Edward James Olmos, M. Emmet Walsh, and William Sanderson. “It’s not an easy thing to meet your maker.”

The Bridge on the River Kwai: No offense to Lawrence of Arabia, but I think this is David Lean’s greatest film. It swept the major Oscars (obviously excepting Best Actress) and deserved all of them. William Holden and Oscar-winner Alec Guinness are at their stellar best as, respectively, an American who leads a demolition team back to the Japanese POW camp from which he’s just escaped, and the British colonel who wages a war of wills with the commandant (Oscar nominee Sessue Hayakawa) and ends up taking too much pride in the bridge his men are building. Originally omitted from the credits in favor of Pierre Boulle (author of Planet of the Apes), who wrote the novel, blacklisted screenwriters Michael Wilson and Carl Foreman received posthumous Oscars in 1984. The ending is somewhat different from Boulle’s but, not surprisingly, more cinematic. With Jack Hawkins, James Donald, André Morell, and a superb Malcolm Arnold score.

A Bridge Too Far: I’m one of the few people who really liked this adaptation of Cornelius (The Longest Day) Ryan’s bestseller. A financial failure, it dramatizes the equally ill-fated Operation Market-Garden, in which paratroops attempted to seize three bridges in occupied Holland that would have enabled the Allies to cross the Rhine into Germany; the title tells it all. The wonderful score is by John Addison, and I don’t see how you can dislike a film with Dirk Bogarde, Michael Caine, Sean Connery, Edward Fox, Gene Hackman, Anthony Hopkins, Hardy Kruger, Laurence Olivier, Robert Redford, Maximilian Schell, and Liv Ullmann. Well, okay, admittedly we have to put up with James Caan, Elliott Gould, and Ryan O’Neal (three of my least favorites), too, but still.

Carnival of Souls (1962): I was one of the first to spread the gospel about this no-budget stunner starring Candace Hilligoss (who also appeared, but whose head did NOT end up on a platter, as a friend dutifully corrected me, in Del Tenney’s Curse of the Living Corpse). Shot in Kansas, it features Hilligoss as a young woman who emerges from the river after the car in which she was a passenger plunges from a bridge, and begins to experience strange visions and other odd occurrences. Moving to a new town to take a job as a church organist, she is drawn to a dilapidated carnival fairground nearby. A unique and truly creepy film that scared the hell out of me when I was a nipper. The director, Herk Harvey (who previously made industrial films), plays “The Man.”

Casablanca: An outstanding score and cast, plus one of the most quotable scripts and unforgettable collections of minor characters ever, place this in the top echelon of the cinema. Humphrey Bogart runs Rick’s Café Americain in the titular city during the early hours of World War II, sticking his neck out for nobody (demonstrated by the fate of Ugarte, played by Peter Lorre in one of his briefest but most memorable roles) and nursing a heart broken by a love affair in soon-to-be-occupied Paris. Suddenly, up pops the breaker herself, in the heart-melting form of Ingrid Bergman, who turns out to have been married all along to the presumed-dead Resistance leader Paul Henreid. The problems of three little people add up to much more than a hill of beans in Bogart’s best-known film, featuring Claude Rains as the corrupt (but not TOO corrupt) Inspector Renault, Dooley Wilson as piano-playing Sam (who performs the unforgettable “As Time Goes By”), Conrad Veidt as nasty Nazi Major Strasser, and Sydney Greenstreet as Rick’s competing nightclub owner, Signor Ferrari.

Casino Royale (1967): It all started when producer Charles K. Feldman snapped up the rights to Ian Fleming’s first James Bond novel (which, for trivia buffs, was originally dramatized for television on Climax!, with Barry Nelson horrifically miscast as an American [!] James Bond and Peter Lorre as the villain, LeChiffre). The rights to the rest were then bought by the team that has since produced the official series, which by the time this was made encompassed five films. Realizing he could not compete with Sean Connery (and who could?), Feldman decided to make this a spoof, though ironically more of the novel remains amid the gags than in some of the later “adaptations.” And what a spoof it is (albeit widely despised), combining the work of five directors, including John Huston (who plays M) and Val Guest; comic geniuses Peter Sellers (as baccarat expert Evelyn Tremble), Woody Allen (as Bond’s hapless and traitorous nephew, Jimmy), and Ronnie Corbet of Two Ronnies fame; distinguished actors such as David Niven (as Bond), Deborah Kerr, William Holden, and Charles Boyer; the formidable Orson Welles as LeChiffre; a host of references to the earlier Bond films, including a golden girl, a villain named Dr. Noah, and the stunning Ursula Andress; cameos by everyone from George Raft to Peter O’Toole and Jean Paul Belmondo; and a score that includes Burt Bacharach and Hal David’s Oscar-nominated “The Look of Love” and the title song (a Word-Man fave), played by Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass.

Citizen Kane: Often called the greatest movie ever made; pretty damn good either way, and shows Orson Welles at his best. Given carte blanche after his many successes on stage and radio, Welles directed, co-wrote (with Herman J. Mankiewicz), and stars as Charles Foster Kane, a self-centered newspaper magnate based on William Randolph Hearst, whose efforts to sabotage the film helped prevent it from being a success at the time. Although some of the cinematic techniques used here had been pioneered by others, Welles’s mastery of the form is undeniably brilliant, and the film remains as a bittersweet reminder of what he was capable of, given the money and the opportunities.

Colossus: The Forbin Project: This was criminally mishandled by Universal, which didn’t know what to do with a film about a computer taking over the world in the wake of 2001: A Space Odyssey, although the brilliant novel by D.F. Jones predated Kubrick’s movie. Eric Braeden had appeared on The Rat Patrol as Hans Gudegast, but was forced to change his name to something a little less obviously German in order to secure the lead role of Dr. Charles Forbin, the inventor of Colossus. The idea is to take the decision to launch The Bomb out of the hands of fallible humans, and give it to a supercomputer that will make judgments coldly and rationally, based on facts rather than emotions. But no sooner is it switched on than Colossus detects a Soviet counterpart called Guardian, and together, with their metaphoric finger on the nuclear trigger, they assume control of the world. I’ve prayed for years that someone will film the remainder of Jones’s trilogy, The Fall of Colossus and Colossus and the Crab. Both Braeden and director Joseph Sargent are still alive, but screenwriter James Bridges is gone, and since this was a financial flop, I’m not holding my breath.

“Crocodile” Dundee: At once an adventure, a comedy, and a romance, this film makes effective use of Australian star Paul Hogan’s considerable charm. Hogan co-wrote the film and four years later married his bewitching co-star, Linda Kozlowski…a native, I might add, of my Mom’s hometown of Fairfield, Connecticut, to whom he remains wed even now. She’s Sue Charlton, a Newsday reporter who goes Down Under for a story on Outback phenom Mick Dundee, and when she brings him back to New York, he finds himself as much a fish out of water as Sue was on his turf. With a wonderful score by Peter Best and a supporting role for go-to Aborigine David Gulpilil of Walkabout fame. The surprisingly good “Crocodile” Dundee II reverses the formula: Mick and Sue run afoul of Colombian drug lords in New York, and return to Australia for a showdown on Mick’s terms; I anticipate finally seeing “Crocodile” Dundee in Los Angeles with some trepidation.

The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951): One of the three seminal SF films to open the 1950s (the others being Destination Moon and The Thing), and one of several superb genre films directed by Val Lewton alumnus Robert Wise, this features a true sense of the 1950s’ Cold War paranoia. Michael Rennie has the best role of his career as Klaatu, who lands on the Mall in Washington, D.C., in his flying saucer, accompanied by a towering, death-beam-wielding cyclopean robot, Gort. Before he can deliver his vital message, Klaatu is gunned down by a trigger-happy solider; after recovering from his wounds, he escapes from Walter Reed military hospital and poses as a human to learn more about our nutty race. His encounters with widow Patricia Neal and her young son prove fateful as the truth of Klaatu’s mission and abilities becomes clearer. “Klaatu barada nikto.”

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I have been taken to task for not mentioning Bucky Barnes in my recent discussion of Captain America (see “The Sentinel of Liberty”), which was never meant to be a comprehensive analysis of Cap’s career in the first place.  Upon reflection, I’ve realized that I feel no guilt whatsoever for that omission.  In the Silver and Bronze Age comics that constitute my frame of reference, sidekicks were frowned upon at Marvel, with Rick Jones being a conspicuous but hardly representative exception.  First, he was not allied to one specific superhero but gravitated among the Hulk, Captain America, the Avengers, Captain Marvel and Rom.  Second, he usually neither wore a costume nor actually mixed it up in battle with said heroes, but rather was essentially a tagalong supporting character.  Finally, in the case of Captain Marvel, Rick became much more than a mere sidekick when his use of the Nega-Bands enabled him to spell Mar-Vell in the Negative Zone, making him a veritable alter-ego.

Teen sidekicks were more of a D.C. (think Robin the Boy Wonder) and Golden Age phenomenon, and indeed, Cap’s wartime adventures in The Invaders featured not only Bucky but also Toro, the original Human Torch’s incendiary companion.  In the contemporary stories, Bucky was seen only in flashbacks, usually in connection with Cap’s long-standing angst over his death, for which he blamed himself.  Reason enough, thought Cap and many others—myself included—to refrain from putting other youngsters in the same kind of jeopardy.  And quite honestly, I never thought they brought a lot to the table.  So, no apologies for not bringing up Bucky.  Why would I?

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The Other Titan, Part I

Those of you who have heard or read me going on at great length about The GREAT Richard Matheson may be surprised to know that for many years, he was but one of my “Twin Titans,” two authors whom I not only greatly admired and tirelessly championed as criminally underappreciated, but also was blessed enough to befriend.  The other was Elleston Trevor (1920-1995), famed for his nineteen novels featuring the British spy known only as Quiller, which were written over thirty years under the nom de plume (one of many, as it turned out) of Adam Hall.

I was devastated when Elleston died of cancer, a piece of news that his mother-in-law, of all people, had the unenviable task of reporting to me.  I vividly remember standing in the kitchen of the condo where we lived in Danbury at the time, breaking down in tears and near-hysterics when I got the call.  Since then, I have kept in sporadic contact with Elleston’s widow, Chaille (pronounced, and alternately spelled, Shelley), who recently sent me a marvelous manuscript that has catapulted me back to the days of our friendship.  Borrowing its title from the 1970 World War I novel that he considered his greatest achievement, it is called Bury Him Among Kings: Intimate Glimpses into the Life and Work of Elleston Trevor.  May this essay, a somewhat impressionistic response to Chaille’s manuscript (bolstered by consulting my fat correspondence file), and the Quiller page added above serve as my own tribute to Elleston.

A quarter-century later, I can’t recall exactly why I picked up my first Quiller book (which was actually the eleventh), published simply as Quiller in the U.S. and as Northlight—the code-name of that particular mission—in England.  I’m 90% sure I spotted it in a rack of paperbacks at a convenience store and simply grabbed it on impulse.  It was 1985, the year I graduated from college, and I was most likely looking for adventure (the same spirit in which I attended a showing of Day of the Dead in Times Square that summer, which was an adventure of another kind).  I was dimly aware that there had been a movie years earlier called The Quiller Memorandum, which I probably hadn’t yet seen, and since I loved spy stories, I guess I figured that if this guy was still at it, he must know what he was doing.  Did he ever.

There’s an element of irony and chance here that I find fascinating.  That was, I believe, the first of the series to be published as a paperback original, at least in the U.S., and also marked a departure in the style of their titles.  The Quiller name had hitherto been used only on the film and the U.S. edition of the first novel, The Berlin Memorandum.  The succeeding books had titles with the same construction (e.g., The Ninth Directive, The Striker Portfolio), and I recall thinking, in my ignorance, that he had stolen the style from Robert Ludlum (e.g., The Scarlatti Inheritance, The Osterman Weekend), until I learned that Quiller predated Ludlum’s work.  It had been four years since The Peking Target, the longest gap in the series, and I’ve speculated that the new title was an attempt to “rebrand” the books, since each subsequent one started with the word “Quiller.”

The point (you knew there was one, right?) is that if the book had been published as a hardcover instead, it wouldn’t have been sitting on that mass-market rack and I never would have seen or bought it, and you wouldn’t be reading this post today.  Adding to the irony is the fact that in publishing circles, at least in those days, paperback originals had something of a stigma attached to them, as books that weren’t “good enough” to be hardcovers.  But more on that later.  Then came Quiller’s Run and Quiller KGB, and I was absolutely hooked by this spy whose adventures were consistently more entertaining than John le Carre’s, more plausible than Ian Fleming’s, and more comprehensible than Len Deighton’s (although I dearly love all of those in their own right).  In the meantime, I ransacked my local library for the earlier books, devoured them all, and settled on The Tango Briefing as my favorite, which it remains to this day.

To be continued.

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Shameless Nepotism 2/23/10

If you’re in or near Ithaca, New York, over the next four days, treat yourself to a performance of Neil Simon’s Broadway hit Biloxi Blues—memorably filmed by Mike Nichols with Matthew Broderick and Christopher Walken—at Cornell University’s Schwartz Center for the Performing Arts.  (For details, see http://theatrefilmdance.cornell.edu/news/detail.cfm?customel_dataPageID_18256=62864)  Yes, that’s my daughter playing Rowena; my wife and I will be there with the Bradley Matriarch, cheering her on at Saturday evening’s performance.  Alexandra is currently battling projected budget cuts to the Department of Theatre, Film & Dance, so by showing up you support not only the greater BOF family but also the performing arts at Cornell.  I know at least one of those is a worthy cause!

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The Sentinel of Liberty

Among Saturday’s other cinematic blather, we also touched on the well-deserved hoopla surrounding Captain America’s 70th birthday, and the proposed film to be directed by Joe Johnston.  Since Johnston’s The Wolfman (not to be confused with The Wolf Man, of which it is a remake) is getting kicked around the block in certain circles, I’m not sure if the latter is cause for celebration or not, but I did like one of his efforts, Hidalgo, very much.  And I find it extremely encouraging that the film has been announced as The First Avenger: Captain America.

Here’s the thing:  I’ve been a Cap fan for decades, but I always liked the character—who, let’s face it, represents America at its best—better than his actual book.  (Standard disclaimer:  I bought and read Marvel Comics religiously up through the mid-1980s, but my frame of reference ends there, so I can’t comment on anything done since.)  I became a regular reader of Captain America just before Jack Kirby’s return in #193, while simultaneously catching up on his earliest Silver Age adventures, reprinted from Tales of Suspense alongside Iron Man’s in Marvel Double Feature.

I was as excited as anyone else when King Kirby returned to the fold from D.C., yet in retrospect, I think the decision to elevate him to writer-artist status—presumably a condition for his return—was a mistake.  Kirby’s visual prowess was undimmed, but I didn’t really care for his writing in Captain America, The Black Panther, or The Eternals, although I did buy all three books faithfully, albeit not Kirby’s short-lived 2001.  It’s perhaps just as well, then, that Kirby’s “triumphant” return didn’t last all that long.

Similarly, as I look over the preceding Captain America covers on the invaluable Cover Browser website (http://www.coverbrowser.com/), I don’t see any individual ones, let alone sustained runs, that stand out in my memory.  But I still find I’m excited by looking at these issues, many of which I later acquired.  They feature fun villains (e.g., the Stranger, Mr. Hyde, the Scorpion, the Serpent Squad, the Yellow Claw and, of course, Cap’s arch-enemy, the Red Skull) and have nice cover art, although at some point the interiors fell to Frank Robbins, probably one of my two least-favorite pencillers, along with Carmine Infantino.

The point is that as much as I liked Cap, I always preferred seeing him as a member, and often the leader, of the Avengers, rather than in his solo title (and even that he shared for years with the Falcon).  This is partly just my bias in favor of team books, which I’ve consistently preferred.  In fact, setting aside brief bursts of glory like Steranko’s Nick Fury and Starlin’s Captain Marvel and Warlock, and several underdogs that I championed to no avail (e.g., Super-Villain Team-Up), The Avengers was my favorite book over the long haul.  Through the many changes of roster down the years, Cap was a pretty consistent member, and always seemed to me like the heart and soul of the group.

I’m not sure why they’re referring to Cap as “The First Avenger” when he wasn’t a member of the original team:  Thor, Iron Man, the Hulk, Ant-Man, and the Wasp.  He didn’t get discovered, defrosted, and recruited until #4, although that’s pretty early.  Maybe they mean “First” chronologically, since as a Golden Age WW II superhero (whose exploits I enjoyed, for far too short a time, in another beloved team book, The Invaders, once again initially penciled by the dreaded Mr. Robbins), he certainly predated the founding members.  Since Cap’s alter ego, Steve Rogers, was one of the few Marvel superheroes who had actually fought in uniform—a distinction I believe he shared with Ben (The Thing) Grimm and Reed (Mr. Fantastic) Richards of the Fantastic Four—that military background helped make him eminently suitable to lead the Avengers.

Perhaps his finest hour came during the era of “Cap’s Kooky Quartet,” beginning in #16, when every remaining founding member (the Hulk was already long gone) left for various reasons, although all later returned at one time or another.  It was left to Cap to hammer out a viable team with three new, and comparatively weak, members, Hawkeye and the mutant siblings Quicksilver and the Scarlet Witch, all of whom had ironically been villains before.  Bereft of the raw power of Iron Man and Thor, they had to make do as much with their wits and Cap’s leadership skills as anything else, which led to some great storytelling, to which artist Don Heck (Shellhead’s co-creator, let us remember) was eminently well suited.

There’s talk of Johnston’s Hidalgo star, Viggo Mortensen, playing Cap.  He was terrific as Aragorn in The Lord of the Rings, so God knows I’m not knockin’ the guy (and we’re both part Danish, so rock on), but despite his being born in Manhattan, it’s a little hard for me to envision him as the quintessentially all-American Sentinel of Liberty.  I’d love to be wrong, though, and to see both him and the film be a resounding success.  Time will tell.

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February of the Penguins

As obliquely alluded to in “My Green Heaven,” I recently enjoyed one of the periodic gatherings of primarily ex-Penguin pals that we call Movie Nights, although since Tom and I kicked off around 2:00 this time—on Matheson’s birthday, yet—“Movie Day” would be more apt.  Chris joined us at 7:00, which with an unusually high number of scheduling conflicts put us at only half-strength vs. our full merry band of six, but we made a maximum effort in the viewing department.  Here are some random observations, not at all to be confused with full-fledged reviews, partly because some of these films are on the B100 list anyway, and partly because with all of the chit-chat and ingestion going on, any film we’re “watching” is lucky to get partial attention at any given moment.

After spotting it on my list, Tom realized he had a laserdisc of The Adventures of Robin Hood, and pulled that out for starters.  He questioned whether the costumes—especially those on what I believe he called “the cleanest peasants in the world”—were historically accurate, but I countered that they sure looked good in Technicolor, which is probably all that mattered.  And yes, we Movie Night Musketeers (aka the Movie Knights) are big proponents of laserdiscs, which for you young’uns is basically what DVDs used to be before there were DVDs.  Not much to add to my B100 listing, except that in addition to Warner Brothers, Rains, and Curtiz, it has one more thing in common with Casablanca, i.e., one of the most impressive collections of memorable minor characters around.

I can’t recall what inspired me to suggest The Green Slime, but I think my previous post demonstrates that it was ideal for our purposes.  ’Nuff said.

We’ve had a lot of internal debate over whether The Wild Bunch or Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid represents Sam Peckinpah’s best work.  Since only one of them made it onto the B100, you can guess where I stand, but Tom dragged out his laserdisc of Pat and, while we were watching it, offered a plausible theory as to why.  After Billy (Kris Kristofferson) did something disreputable, I said it seemed strange for the guy I always took to be the film’s nominal hero, but he pointed out that you’re not really rooting for either Pat (James Coburn) or Billy.  Admittedly, the members of the Bunch are thieves and murderers, but by the end their particular code of honor definitely leaves us at least partly in their corner.

Chris had asked us to save Once Upon a Time in America until he arrived.  It struck me as funny that Leone, who might by some standards be considered Italian, would make a movie about the Jewish rather than the Italian mob, but perhaps he didn’t want to be seen as ripping off The Godfather, especially since he borrowed the time-jumping structure from The Godfather Part II.  Again, no need to pre-empt my B100 listing, yet we remain aghast that the studio’s initial U.S. release was not only shorn of something like an hour and a half, but also re-edited into chronological order, thus destroying all of the skillful transitions and ironic juxtapositions on which Leone obviously worked so hard.  Duh!

Chris was kind enough to bring the Richard Donner cut of Superman II, about which we’d heard so much.  Frankly, without having seen the Richard Lester version for some time, we really didn’t detect much difference between them.  Although I’m a Marvel rather than a D.C. man, I stand by my opinion that Donner’s original Superman remains one of the best comic-book movies ever, marred only by excessive jokiness and Christopher Reeve’s overly nerdy interpretation of Clark Kent.  But as Superman, I think he incarnated a superhero better than almost anyone.

After Chris left, and our planned program was exhausted—a state we were approaching as well—we went into channel-surfing mode and stumbled on a showing of Dario Argento’s The Mother of Tears that had just started.  In my book, it matters less whether that film is any good (especially since I’m not a big Argento fan) than it does that after almost thirty years, he finally finished the “Three Mothers” trilogy he began with Suspiria and Inferno.  Since we were well into the wee hours at that point, I missed more than a few nuances, but suffered through the usual sadistic excesses.  One character has her jaw popped by some sort Saw-style screw gizmo; another undergoes the obligatory Italian eye-gouging with a tool that seemed to have been created especially for that purpose; and another has a huge spear shoved between her legs.  These are all women, of course, and once again, Argento throws in some nude shots of his daughter and leading lady, Asia.  So, yeah, tell me again what a well-adjusted, normal guy he must be in real life.

Last, and quite possibly least despite stiff competition, after Tom turned in I chanced upon Jaws III just as it was beginning.  Although TGRM shared script credit on this film, it does not appear on the B100, and you can read all about why in Richard Matheson on Screen.  Suffice to say for the moment that Richard’s script was rewritten by Carl Gottlieb, who worked on both of the previous Jaws films (the first of which is, not coincidentally, the only good credit on his resume), and that it was a good choice on which to doze off.

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